The stories didn’t do Casterly Rock justice. Sansa quietly observed the enormous fortress from atop her horse, feeling awed and impressed against her will. Her home was also large and imposing but the Starks didn’t have the gold needed to build something like the castle in front of her.
She smiled a secret self-deprecating little smile only to herself. The gold. That was the reason why she was here, wasn’t it? In the dead of the night, Sansa often wondered what had happened to the person she had been before. The naïve girl, the sweet summer child, had been gone for so long it was hard to remember her.
Nodding at Jory, they slowly continued in their journey. Seeing the castle meant that they were almost there after all the trouble they had dealt with to get there.
The winter had been long. They sorely needed money for rebuilding what ice and snow had destroyed and Lord Lannister had proved to be the only ally they had left in the world. It only made sense, of course, that the two disgraced great houses would need to find common ground if they wanted to survive in a world where everyone else was against them. It was pragmatic if nothing else – what other choice did they have?
Five years of biting cold and struggles, Sansa mused as she adjusted her cloak and hood to keep her hair and face covered. The harshest winter anyone had ever remembered had been preceded by horrible times when friendships had been broken, promises forgotten and blood spilled. The North remembered – that had become her personal motto, and Sansa would honor it one day. The Starks didn’t forgive and forget.
They had been spotted and when Sansa’s party of riders finally reached the castle, its lord himself was waiting to greet them. She took the opportunity to examine him, wondering how the man behind the clipped, precise missives looked like.
He was tall, broad-shouldered and slender and didn’t wear any furs despite the chill still present in the air. His hair and short beard were very light – the famed Lannister golden hues were slowly being replaced by silvery strands. Lord Lannister’s face was impassive, yet all Sansa could see were harsh angles of a man who was unused to smiling or laughter, more prone to glaring than anything else. He was a predator not unlike herself and Sansa was gratified.
Jory jumped off his horse and helped her down. Sansa kept one eye on Lord Lannister as she slipped off her hood and made her way toward him. The expression remained emotionless but his eyes widened briefly before they narrowed.
Dropping a curtsy, Sansa said, “Lord Lannister, it is an honor to finally meet you. I’m Sansa Stark.”
“I was under the impression that I was to meet your lord father, the Lord of Winterfell.” Lord Lannister bowed stiffly over her hand and glared down at her. Sansa was impressed – not many men managed to do that seeing that she had grown to be uncommonly tall for a woman. Then again, he seemed to be taller than an average man.
“My father has been ill for quite some time; I’ve been acting in his stead for the last two years so you are meeting the ruling Lady of Winterfell.” She held his gaze calmly. He was probably going over every fact he knew about the Starks. She could almost hear him saying in his indifferent, pragmatic voice; the eldest a hostage, one brother crippled, the other too young, the run-away sister.
“I wish him a speedy recovery,” he said after a moment of thinking. “Welcome to Casterly Rock, my lady. Follow me.”
Sansa gave him one of her small smiles, unsurprised by the lack of manners when he didn’t offer her his arm. He didn’t need to make a good impression and she had known that about him. Lord Lannister wasn’t easily moved – and bowing to the expectations of society was something he wouldn’t like to do – even though he was able to react quickly to changes. His letters had proved as much. He was a man one would like to keep on their good side – if the one wasn’t a king, of course, who had the rest of the realm behind his back.
But she would not think about that man.
“Are you tired after the journey?” he asked in a disinterested tone and glanced at her. In other words, he was asking if she was able to proceed to business talk now.
“Not particularly – it will wait until after dinner.”
“Very well.” He steered them up the main staircase and then through one of the large corridors.
Neither of them felt obliged to fill the silence with small talk and both preferred to discuss important matters in private. Sansa had shed her courtesies long years ago when her people had been starving and empty words had been the last thing on her mind. With her father so ill – heart-broken, her mind whispered – and Bran and Rickon still so young, it had fallen onto her shoulders to become the acting ruler of the North. She had needed to find ways how to survive winter and trade goods with the South where no one had wanted to trade with the Starks – the traitors to the Crown, as the gossip went.
Lord Lannister brought her to his study and gestured to her to sit while he moved behind his enormous desk. The desk, however, was surprisingly empty. There were only several stacks of parchments and after a moment, she realized that one of them were letters written in her hand. It looked like he had been going through their correspondence. She sat, taken aback, and glanced around the room.
The opulence of Casterly Rock was for her pragmatic northern mind hard to understand. Red dominated the study, the furniture was expensive and inlaid with gold. The fire was happily roaring and Sansa focused on it for a moment. The firewood was of the North, she knew. One of the articles they had traded.
“I have to say I’m surprised,” he said as he observed her observing the room. “How old are you, Lady Sansa?”
“I’ll be twenty this year,” she answered calmly. “May I ask what the reason for your surprise is?”
“Your wisdom for someone so young, for one. Your ability to rule, next. Your presence, finally. I expressed the wish to speak with your lord father regarding the northern request in person for a specific reason.”
Sansa mulled over his words for a moment. Was it because she was a woman? In the North, no one had really questioned when Sansa had started to show interest in the matters of the keep – it was a lady’s duty to run the castle for the lord, after all. When she later started to be interested in the matters of the whole region, it seemed natural to defer to her. With Robb away, she was the oldest Stark child and it had eased her father’s burdens greatly. When Lord Stark had taken ill, she had been at least partly prepared to act in his stead. There were females who were the heads of their houses and nobody questioned it. Why should some southern lord? He didn’t seem like he cared one way or another – he cared only about usefulness of the person he dealt with, not gender.
“My father hasn’t dealt personally with the matters of the North for some time, my lord. I’ll make sure he knows about your conditions but he is not the one who will decide if whatever deal between the West and the North is accepted. I am.”
They stared at each other and Lord Tywin gave a quick nod. “Very well, I can see there is some steel in you, I won’t beat about the bush, then.”
“It would be much appreciated.”
“What you ask is no small amount of money,” he started. “I’d need certain assurances from the North. I’d want an alliance to put it plain and simple.”
Sansa blinked and tilted her head to the side, watching Lord Tywin closely. It wasn’t the words he had spoken that surprised her, it was the tone. She had expected much more than a simple trade agreement. It was a lot of gold. She had expected an offer of an alliance – they had been in league against the rest of the Seven Kingdoms for the better part of four years unofficially. Giving their pact some sort of legitimacy seemed logical. Where was the catch, then?
“State your conditions, then, my lord.”
“I require an heir.” Lord Tywin pursed his lips tightly together and stared at her. Silence descended between them as he waited for the full meaning to register. Sansa watched the shadows dance across his face and idly wondered if his heart was truly made of gold – there wasn’t even the slightest trace of emotion in the man’s face. Yet she knew that to be impossible.
Lord Tywin Lannister must feel something – anger, resentment, pain. His once great house had been reduced greatly. She was looking at the Last Lion of Lannister as he had been renamed. His great line was facing extinction. Unlike the Starks who were willing to save their family name even through the female line – for there always had to be a Stark in Winterfell –, the Lions of the Rock had passed the title and the lands in an unbroken line from father to the eldest son for the entirety of the existence of their house. Now, Lord Tywin didn’t have an heir and for the first time in the living memory, the titles would need to go to a cadet branch. Probably his nephew would inherit – in the eyes of Lord Tywin, a lesser Lannister would stake a claim on the Rock and its riches.
Personal failure in his eyes, Sansa would wager. It must be eating him alive. There must be something behind the cool mask.
Where did the situation leave them, however? She almost chuckled and wondered how her lord father would have reacted. Not well, she would wager. Sansa loved her father but she wasn’t blind to his faults and Lord Stark was drenched in honor and morals from head to toes to look at a situation without his principles getting in the way. Not the best approach to survive in the cruel world they lived in.
When she had thought about any proposals directed at her, this conversation was the furthest from what she had imagined. It was hardly romantic but she didn’t require romance anymore. There were other things she needed in a man and Sansa was gratified to realize that unlike the majority of women in Westeros, she would have a say in accepting or rejecting this offer of marriage.
“So does Winterfell.”
“You have three brothers, Lady Sansa, and your father is younger than me. I wouldn’t be afraid of the Starks dying out just quite yet. My line, however, is facing a bitter end.”
“Allow me to rephrase it, then – the North requires someone to rule it. I cannot leave and marry you until my father regains his health or one of my brothers is adequately prepared to oversee the needs of the North.”
“Then we find ourselves in quite a situation.” He rose and moved to tower over her. “I believe I’ve stated my conditions plainly, Lady Sansa. I require an heir and I couldn’t care less about how you are going to solve your problem. And I’m warning you, if you think about offering me the daughter of a lesser house, think again. I’m not giving money to some random northern nobles, I’m giving money only to the family of my future wife who will bear me strong, capable sons. A sword or illness can cut down any man and let’s face the truth, I am not a youngster anymore so the chance that my wife will have to teach our children about the responsibility of ruling is higher than it would be should she marry someone younger. Seeing you with my own eyes, and knowing that you are the one I have been corresponding with all these moons… I’m afraid no one else will cut it. I will have you for my wife and the mother of my sons or the North will not have even a speck of my gold.”
She leaned back in the chair to better see his face – there was no visible change but his eyes were gazing at her with great passion. So he did feel something. Was it rage? She understood anger well – it had been simmering just under her skin for five years. In a strange sort of way, Sansa supposed she should be flattered by his words – even if she was exasperated by his stubbornness and bluntness.
“You are not making this easy, my lord.”
“Consider it a taste of what our married life will be like, then.” His eyes strayed to Sansa’s lips as if he was considering also a taste of something. Then he put his hands on the armrests of her chair and leaned closer, watching for her reaction.
Sansa met his gaze, unafraid. She licked her lips and raised her chin. Their mouths were only a breath apart and from this distance, she could smell traces of rosemary on the skin of his neck and noticed that his eyes had tiny flecks of gold in them; emeralds and gold – how fitting for the wealthiest man in the Seven Kingdoms.
“I haven’t agreed to your terms,” she murmured.
Lord Tywin leaned the tiniest bit closer and then straightened abruptly. “I’ll give you time to consider carefully who shall replace you in your duties. With the winter ending, your father’s health might even improve or your younger brother can try his hand at ruling when mistakes aren’t punished so severely.”
“I will need the time to consider whether or not I shall agree to marry you,” Sansa said with an edge to her voice and rose from the chair, expecting him to retreat and allow her some space. He did not. Yet again their faces were too close for comfort and they shared the same breath. For a moment, she wondered what it would feel like – his lips against hers. “My father wouldn’t have bartered any of his children for gold, Lord Lannister. If he was the one talking to you, the conversation would be at an end.”
“You’re not your father. You understand that I’m not offering merely gold.” The implication in his voice was clear. He was trying to intimidate her, threatening to break off their feeble cooperation.
Sansa acknowledged this with a nod, ignoring the threat and reading between the lines of his previous words. It wasn’t only about the gold, he was asking her to provide the next ruler of the West – and as he had pointed out himself, he was essentially asking her to rule his homeland in the case of his untimely death. Also, not so long ago, a marriage to the Lord of Casterly Rock would have been considered quite an achievement. The Lannisters were ancient and wealthy house and being connected to them meant something. However, not so long ago, a marriage to the daughter of Winterfell would have been considered an equally impressive achievement seeing that the Starks were also an old house with control over an enormous part of the continent. Times had changed, though.
“The North and the West don’t have any other option but to ally, my lord,” she said with a small smile, enjoying the fact that this unapproachable man was intently listening to what she was saying. There was something thrilling about his undivided attention. “My father says that the lone wolf dies but the pack…”
“Survives,” he finished with a glint in his eyes she couldn’t interpret. “Nomadic lions without a pride also tend to have short, difficult lives.”
They looked at each other for a moment and Sansa had to look away first. She still had her family. She could hug her younger brothers and father whenever she wished it, they were safe and protected in Winterfell. Robb and Jon were both out of her reach but alive and she could see them again one day. Arya… Well, even there was still hope that she was alive somewhere. If anyone could survive on their own, it was her stubborn little sister.
Lord Tywin, though? He was the lone lion with bleak future ahead of him, caged and unable to act. Just like the Starks. Tamed, toothless beasts; how easily the Lion and the Wolf had surrendered, she scoffed and immediately felt ashamed and angry at herself for even thinking so uncharitably about her family and Lord Lannister. The King held her brother and Lord Tywin’s bastard grandchildren. What else was there to do but to tuck tail if they didn’t want them dead? The Last Lion, her mind whispered treacherously, was alone while Sansa still had most of her pack. She tended to forget that – but Lord Tywin would hardly appreciate Sansa’s pity. She would give him none.
“What we were discussing, my lord, was a matter of personal nature. Let’s not pretend it would have affected already existing trade deals or made new arrangements impossible.”
“It would cement our alliance, tie the North and West together.” He bowed his head slightly, bringing their faces even closer than before. He lingered and lingered and lingered before he moved back only slightly, gauging her reactions, looking for weaknesses he could attack. “I’m quite impressed, my lady.”
“By what? That I’m not easily intimidated or led by the nose?” She scoffed and shook her head, aware that she needed to distance herself from Lord Lannister. He was absolutely unmoved by their proximity but Sansa had never stood this close to a man who wasn’t her father or one of her brothers. She found his study suddenly overheated, the rosemary smell distracting, and felt like she was about to be devoured by the lion. She didn’t appreciate the feeling at all. “If you wish to cement our alliance by marriage – to me – it will be my personal decision. You’ll need to convince me.”
“I do not chase women.” Lord Lannister forced out through gritted teeth and turned on his heel, stomping to the other end of his study to stare into the flames. She had unnerved him, possibly insulted him by her implications.
Sansa heaved a quiet sigh of relief and touched her face, feeling the hotness in her cheeks. She was a woman grown and her body had been uncomfortably aware of the fact that Lord Lannister was a man – a man like none other.
“That’s good to know. I wouldn’t appreciate being chased like an animal.”
He glanced over his shoulder at her, his eyes ever assessing, and Sansa wondered how long could his interest last. His inspection of her was unnerving – what did he see? Could he sense her iron will, her ruthless streak which had developed after burying too many of her people because of the hunger and cold? Her determination to survive and thrill despite the odds?
“Perhaps I was wrong in my initial belief that you are a pragmatic, sensible woman, Lady Sansa,” he said finally. “If you cannot see the advantages our union will bring, you are either blind or foolish.”
Sansa’s sharp intake of breath betrayed her outrage. That insult stung. For a moment, she held his gaze before he returned to staring into the flames. He was leaning against the fireplace, one hand resting on the top of it. She watched as he closed it into a fist.
“Perhaps I merely don’t consider marriage a business transaction.”
“No?” he scoffed. “Peasants barter cows, nobles their children. Tell me, do you dream of a handsome young knight who will court you? Whisper sweet nothings into your ear, bring you flowers, recite poetry?”
“I stopped dreaming the day my mother died.” Sansa’s voice was cold and she stared at Lord Tywin’s back, willing him to face her. He did, jaw clenched and eyes narrowed. “Do I want mutual affection and respect to be part of my marriage? Of course. Do I require it? Not the affection, no, but the respect? Certainly.”
Lord Tywin blinked and his jaw relaxed as he regarded her. Sansa wanted to say how she wished to see the king dead for what he did to them, how she wanted the rest of the Seven Kingdoms to regret turning their backs on the North when they had so desperately needed help.…but that was treason and she would not speak those words out loud unless she could trust Lord Tywin completely. Rebuilding, that was why Sansa was in the West, asking for money from him. She needed to focus on rebuilding the North after the disaster of the last winter. Perhaps later, when things would change as they were bound to do, she could enter the game and plot her revenge.
“Do I want to listen to poetry or sweet nothings? Do I want flowers? No, no, and no. I want my family safe, my people cared for and heads of our enemies on spikes,” she told him, swallowing when the last bit escaped. Seeing the sudden upturn of his lips, Sansa gave him a challenging look. “The North remembers. The husband I will take must be able to understand that. Are you that man, Lord Lannister?”
He strode back to her and Sansa was surprised to see him smile. It was frightening to behold because there wasn’t anything positive in that smile. In his eyes, a green fire burned. He reached for Sansa’s hand and brought it to his lips, planting a brief kiss over her knuckles.
“A Lannister always pays his debts,” he said and his delight made his voice seem almost warm, the deep cadence sending shivers down Sansa’s spine. “If my wife wanted the heads of our enemies, I’d provide them on a golden platter.”
“Careful, Lord Lannister, coming from you, that sounded almost romantic,” she chided and her reward was a short bark of laughter. His grip tightened momentarily.
“Did my second proposal meet your approval, Lady Stark?” Lord Tywin asked, using his hold on her hand to tug her closer to him.
Sansa resisted for a moment, looking up at him. She observed the lines that had been carved into his face by the harsh reality of his life. He knew pain and loss more than anyone else she had met, and he thirsted for revenge just as much as Sansa did. They were equals in the terms of their standing, and both were determined to see their goals carried through but intelligent enough to bide their time. He would be a tremendous ally.
Lord Lannister was also a handsome man as her heart reminded her when it skipped several beats at his proximity. She wouldn’t find affection in the match, she knew that. But there would be mutual respect and there was the undeniable pull she felt towards him which seemed to be reciprocated.
“It did,” she said and didn’t feel ashamed by the breathless quality of her voice. What kind of lover he would make?
“Good.” As if to seal the deal, Lord Lannister leaned down and kissed her. He was a competent kisser, his lips were warm and smooth and his tongue demanded a complete surrender as he plundered her mouth. He tasted of sweet promises with a bitter tang of blood those promises would bring. She smiled into the kiss and returned it with fervor, closing her eyes just as his arms brought her flush against his body.
Oh, her mind turned pleasantly blank, reduced only to enjoying the sensations overwhelming her.
He lifted her easily from the ground so he didn’t have to bow his head as he focused his attention on her collarbone. Sansa gripped his shoulders to steady herself and explored his exposed neck with her lips, tasting rosemary oil on her tongue. She would forever associate its smell with this moment and this man. Her soon-to-be husband. What an unexpected, enjoyable development…
Quite suddenly, one of his hands traveled south while his other arm stayed around her back, holding her securely against him. Sansa nipped his skin sharply when she felt him grip her backside. Not in his bloody study where anyone could wander in!
“Ah, careful, little wolf, careful,” Lord Tywin growled and set her down, looking at her with a smirk, hands settling on her waist. “Or I might return the favor.”
“Let’s not get carried away too much, my lord,” she replied tartly and straightened the high collar of his jacket, smoothing one hand down his shoulder while the other caressed the bite on his neck. She gave him a smile in apology – she had almost broken the skin.
“Your teeth are quite sharp,” he said and sounded pleased. Sansa knew that she certainly was by the unexpected revelation that their passions seemed to match, too. His hands traveled up and down her sides, exploring. “We are to be wed, my lady. A taste of what is to come was in order.”
“Was the demonstration to your satisfaction, Lord Lannister?”
“It was.” He nodded, let out a slow breath through his nose and the last bits of his hidden fire disappeared back behind his stone mask. He deliberated for a moment and then he offered her his arm. “Accompany me to the great hall for dinner.”
“As you wish, my lord.” Sansa looped her arm through his and they made their way out of the study. A quick glance at Lord Tywin’s face revealed that a small, almost invisible smile still resided in one corner of his mouth. She felt unreasonably self-satisfied by her achievement – no one had ever seen Lord Lannister smile if the rumors were to be believed. Perhaps she would find even a certain degree of affection in their union in time, she mused as she caught his eye and smiled up at him. Sansa was nothing if not strong-minded and she had just decided to make the most of her marriage – on all fronts.