“Yes, a Stark.” Lady Amanda echoes, brows furrowed and barely holding back a scowl.
“A Stark son, Grandmother?” Ronan keeps glancing at the raven’s latest scroll in his hands as if by sheer will he could change the words on it.
“The Lannisters wish to humiliate us! Both of us!” She scowls this time, scowls and throws her hands up in frustration before pacing by the window. “They mock us with their godsforsaken peace treaty terms but if we are to avoid them sacking both Highgarden and Winterfell then we must bow to their whims.”
Ronan frowns, running his thumb across the red ink.
Ser Ronan Tyrell is to marry Simon of House Stark
“I am proud of what I have built. What Elijah and I have built: a House not of blood relation but one of wit and grace.” Amanda closes her eyes, pausing in a patch of sunlight streaming through the window. “You are my grandsons in all but blood, and too much blood has been spilled already for me to consider spilling more. I am a prideful woman but I am not prideful enough to let my people be felled to uphold it. You will marry the Stark boy, Ronan. You have no say in this matter.”
Ten winters ago, Simon spent a cycle in Dorne to learn their scholarly ways. He remembers the stifling heat, heavy and oppressive, soaking his clothing to his skin. He remembers the sparkling waters of the sea, and the many water fountains at Sunspear. He remembers Carl Martell and Princes Leo and Markus. He remembers Markus’ wild nest of tight tight curls, he remembers his blue and green eyes, he remembers his constellation dusted skin like burnished copper. He remembers Markus’ smile, handsome and dashing, with a demeanour like the Knights of Old in the tales Simon read over and over and over. Such memories had kept him warm during the winters that passed.
He leaves for Highgarden now, for a foreign land which maesters have told him is a little like Dorne only fairer and more lush instead of dunes of sand and the sprawling sapphire sea. Highgarden is a land of grain and greenery, of hills and blooms. Highgarden houses the Tyrells, a peculiar yet prideful House known for producing Knights. A House helmed by Lady Amanda, Queen of Thorns, known for her striking beauty and barbed words. The Tyrells bear no relation to each other, family by title only, which Lady Amanda boasts is far superior than lineage through breeding. She has chosen her family, from her ‘son’ Elijah, to her ‘granddaughter’ Chloe, to her ‘grandsons’ actual brothers Connor and Ronan- whom Simon is to marry. As part of the peace treaty to secure the cooperation of all Seven Kingdoms, he has been betrothed to Ser Ronan Tyrell.
It is a farce, a mockery of marriage for their union will produce no sons- no Tyrell sons, no Stark sons. No children at all. It is to break both their lineages, though Simon supposes Lady Amanda can simply add another grandson if she so pleases. Simon has no such luxury- with his twin brother disgraced and sent to the Wall, and sister Emma till far too young but fated to be taken under the mantle of her betrothed’s House, he is the only Stark left to produce an heir. House Stark’s name will end with him.
“ Simon ?!” North snatches the scroll from Markus’ hands. “They’re making Simon marry a Tyrell boy? The Iron Knight is going to marry our Simon?!”
“It’s part of the terms for the Peace Treaty.” Josh says sagely. “Lady Amanda Tyrell and Lord John Stark have agreed on behalf of their sons.”
“Some icy prick is going to marry our soft idiot, Josh, you really need to be more upset about this.” North kicks his boot, teeth bared in a snarl. “I’ve heard no one’s even seen the Knight crack a smile, he’s so cold blooded he doesn’t feel happiness.”
“That can’t be true, North.” Markus chuckles softly, plucking the scroll from her fingers. “He’s human like the rest of us, and I’ve met his brother. Surely they can’t be so different?”
“Still.” North grumbles, sitting on the edge of his desk. “Dragging Simon down from Winterfell to marry some poncy flower Knight is humiliating.”
“Both Houses have put their people before their pride.” Josh points out, smile patient. “It’s very admirable both Houses are choosing to unify rather than challenge for the throne and pay the blood price.”
“We’re invited to the wedding.” Markus pats her knee. “And I have accepted. We leave for Highgarden in two days time.”
The closer he grows to Highgarden, the farther Winterfell becomes. With each layer of warm clothing he sheds, the more exposed he feels. The air changes, feels heavier and hotter instead of thin and sharp. He feels alone, so alone.
Highgarden is magnificent, truly, and Simon marvels at his surroundings. Everything is green and lush and plentiful, and such colours he hasn’t seen for a decade. It’s enough, just, to quell the nausea in his belly and the anxiety pressing heavily on his chest. By the time he reaches the castle grounds he’s down to a simple blouse and tunic, even forgoing breeches for some light hosiery. He hasn’t been this undressed since Dorne.
The Tyrells are strikingly beautiful, and so varied in their beauty too. Lady Amanda, Queen of Thorns, is dark skinned and stern with her black hair intricately braided and piled on her head. Lord Elijah is tall and lean with dark hair half shaved, and icy blue eyes smudged with shadow beneath. Lady Chloe is soft and fair, golden crowned and eyes like the summer sky. The brother Knights Connor and Ronan are tall and handsome; Connor has a mop of delightful brown curls and puppy-brown eyes; Ronan is the Iron Knight, pale and sharp with stormy grey eyes, and dark hair combed back from his face.
“Highgarden welcomes you, Simon of House Stark.” Lady Amanda greets him, and Simon bows deeply in response. “Let’s get you settled into your new home.”
Ronan cannot even fathom how Simon must feel- the only son of Winterfell left and he’s to marry a Tyrell Knight not a Lady of a major House to carry on his name. He must feel so alone, so friendless in a foreign land. His betrothed keeps his eyes downcast, cheeks pinked ever so slightly in a way that makes Ronan’s heart skip a beat. He cannot dare to dream that Simon will come to love him, no he must do his utmost best to ease this great burden from his shoulders. That’s what he is- a burden, and he feels pity, such pity, that Simon Stark is to marry him.
“These are your private quarters,” Ronan explains as he sweeps an arm to show him around. “We share this small common space for breaking fast and evening supper together, and I’ve had books brought up to make a private library. I know you schooled in Dorne, so I thought you might like to read in private.”
Simon is quiet, brows drown in contemplation. “Are we not to share a bed?”
Ronan feels his own cheeks heat. “I would not dare decide what is best for you, betrothed of mine. You have your own bedroom, and I have mine, and if you want- if we are to-”
“That’s very kind of you.” Simon interjects quietly, smile polite though it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Thank you Ser.”
“I have a gift.” Ronan blurts, striding ahead and showing Simon to his bedroom. There is a basket on the bed piled with soft blankets. And in the basket are a puppy and a kitten fast asleep.
“Oh!” Simon gasps, hands flying to his mouth. “ Oh !”
“I know you will be lonely, having no one from Winterfell here.” Ronan explains with a smile. “But I thought to ease such a burden by gifting you some friends.”
“Oh, Ser…” Simon sits by the basket, reaching down to gently touch their soft soft fur reverently. The baby creatures stir at his touch, opening their eyes and making curious sounds and straining for more of his touch. “Oh they’re ever so darling.”
“It is tradition in Highgarden for people to keep cats inside for mousing, ensuring mice do not disturb our graineries, and dogs in the yard for loyal guards.” Ronan feels his chest puff slightly in pride at the sight of Simon’s sweet smile. “These two come from a proud lineage of mousers and door keeps.”
Simon laughs, and the sound startles them both. Ronan feels his cheeks ache as he smiles, and Simon shyly smiles in return.
“Thank you, Ser Ronan. I will love them both.”
And me, Ronan thinks distantly. Please love me too.
“Are you not used to such clothing?” Simon squeaks in surprise, dropping the blouse he’d been holding and turning to discover Lady Chloe in his chambers. She’s stunning up close, he discovers, with her golden tumble of hair crowned with blossoms. Chloe stands beside him and holds up the sapling green muslin blouse, cuff embroidered with blue Tyrell roses.
“Not for some time, Lady Chloe.” Simon answers with a small smile. “Though I was schooled in Dorne and I daresay the people there wore even less.” She tips her head back and laughs prettily.
“I love Dorne, though don’t tell grandmother that.” Chloe giggles, rifling through the drawers. She pulls out a vivid emerald green suede tunic embroidered with climbing blue roses all up the side, and a pair of fawn hosiery. “Grandmother has somewhat of a friendly, fond rivalry with Carl. Wear this to dinner, you look good in rich greens.”
“Your family are very generous, gifting me all these clothes.” Simon ducks his head, rubbing his thumb over the delicate embroidery. “Mother had some made for me to bring here but us Starks aren’t as colourful as you Tyrells, my lady. And our clothing is made for far cooler climes.”
Chloe eagerly hefts open the trunk placed at the end of his bed, shooing away his new curious kitten and puppy from diving in. She pulls out a few pieces in the austere greys and charcoals of House Stark, and gasps in delight when she discovers the inks and sapphires of the Tullys.
“These are your wedding garments? Oh Simon they’re lovely. Look at these fishscales! And oh there are wolves here!” She sighs dreamily. “Our tailors have worked day and night on the wedding cloak, I promise it’s ever so beautiful.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s beautiful or not, Simon thinks distantly though he makes sure to smile. I am being married off to a man, there is no greater disgrace.
There is a banquet to celebrate his arrival in Highgarden, and he is seated beside his groom to be. Ronan cuts a handsome figure in deep blues and golds, and Simon takes a moment to admire him. He has not been cruel, not yet. Simon hopes this isn’t an act, a carefully calculated act to lower his defences. He hopes he can be happy here, hopes he can learn to love blossoms and mouser cats and small door keep dogs. He aches for his felled Direwolf who paid the blood price for something she hadn’t done. He aches for the life he once controlled.
“Are you alright, Simon?” Ronan murmurs softly, hand just shy of touching his. “You seem lost in thought.”
“It is a lot to take in, Ser.” It’s a half lie. “The grandeur of it all, I mean.”
“This is grandmother’s version of a ‘small intimate dinner’. Our wedding will be far grander in comparison.”
“Do you ever tire of it?” Simon asks, gaze distant. “The smell of roses?”
“Yes.” He confesses. “Sometimes when I sleep I feel like I’m being buried alive and will suffocate to death. They put it in everything- rose oil. It’s in the clothes, it’s in the linens, it’s in the bathwater. I am a Tyrell, I probably bleed rose oil.”
Simon laughs, causing the rest of the family to perk up in interest. He quickly ducks his head, cheeks aflame. “I’m sure if you were to cut me I wouldn’t bleed at all. There’s nothing but snow inside of me.”
“I’d never hurt you.” Ronan vows, closing his hand over his. “Never, my dear.”
Ronan accidentally catches his grandmother’s eye when he glances across the table. She nods in approval, but he takes no pride in it.
“You’re right about the bathwater.” Simon stands in his bedroom door, hair damp and skin pinked from heat. The smell of roses rolls off his body, heady and cloying. Ronan approaches him, stopping a polite distance though he wants nothing more than to be pressed to him skin to skin.
“I warned you.” He keeps his tone light and playful, and Simon laughs. He’s dressed in nothing but a long muslin sleep shift, the fabric light and airy and tantalisingly translucent.
“You did, good Ser.” His voice lowers, softer as he peeks up at Ronan through his pale lashes. “I came to bid you good night.”
“Good night, Simon.”
“Good night, Ser.” A pause, and Simon dares to lean closer and gently brush his fingers to his cheek. He whispers his name and it sounds like a prayer. “Until the morrow, Ronan.”
Simon supposes they are a good match- he is as close to a good wife in all but body parts. Their father had always invested more pride in Daniel than in him, had always trained Daniel to be head of House Stark before something in Daniel snapped and he almost killed their little sister in his demands to be free of the burden of leadership. Simon spent his days raising little Emma, and picked up domesticities from being around the serving staff. He can cook, he can mend leather, he can take up hems, he is clever with his numbers and well versed in the written word. He can even embroider. Perhaps with time he will learn how to embroider blue Tyrell roses, and adorn his husband’s shirt cuffs and collars with them. Perhaps he can wrap a wolf around his husband’s cuff and wreathe its head with a crown of thorns. If he proves he is useful, perhaps his husband will love him.
Lady Chloe seems to find his company amusing, and he finds her at his side often.
“After you’re married, you and Ronan should come visit Elijah at Hightower.” She picks at blouse sleeve curiously, tugging at the embroidered Weirwood leaves. “I live there most of the time, but I’ve come here a little early to help prepare for the wedding. Elijah will make the journey down soon, and we can leave together!”
“What is Hightower like, my lady?” Simon asks as they meander lazily through the courtyard.
“Oh it’s stunning. The views are breathtaking.” Chloe smiles, closing her eyes to picture it in her mind. “Elijah and I tinker away there. If you’re lucky I’ll be able to convince him down to actually share meals. If it weren’t for me I’d wager he’d forget to eat entirely!” They share a laugh and Simon appreciates her friendly, cheery demeanour. She knows how to press a little, but not too much, to encourage him out of his quarters.
“Oh! Ronan!” Chloe bounces a little as she waves her brother over. “Come show your fiance the gardens. I promised grandmother I’d help her with something.” She ushers Simon to his side before nimbly darting away.
“What a scheming little devil.” Ronan says dryly, and Simon laughs.
“She means well.” He smiles fondly in her direction, watching as Chloe slips back into the castle.
“I won’t show you the rose gardens, I don’t care much for them.” Ronan shakes his head. “Someone will show you that soon enough. But there’s somewhere else I’d like to take you, will that be alright?” He offers his hand and Simon doesn’t hesitate to take it.
They take two horses out for a short ride further down the castle grounds until they reach some sort of secluded cottage on the edge of a forest.
“I think a groundskeeper used to live here.” Ronan explains, helping Simon off his horse. “But they left long ago. Connor and I found this place already vacated when we were boys. It’s our little hideout.”
Simon thinks morbidly if Ronan wished to slit his throat, he could do so and none would be the wiser. They’d simply think the Stark fled, trying to avoid the marriage. But the Lannisters would demand the terms be fulfilled and the only Stark left would be his sister, still unflowered and far too young to leave the side of their mother.
When Ronan opens the door, Simon expects a derelict, dusty interior. What they step into instead is a simple yet lovely home. A curious meow calls by his feet, and Simon looks down to see a fluffy tortie cat sniffing his boots.
“This is Minnie, the mouser for these grounds.” Ronan’s lips twitch up into a grin briefly and Simon bends down to coo at her. “This place is yours now too, Simon. If ever you feel like everything is too much, take solace in this small slice of privacy. It is yours whenever you so desire.”
He’s kind , Simon realises. He’s kind and thoughtful and is nothing like the icy iron they nickname him.
“Thank you, Ronan.” Simon smiles in gratitude, and Minnie seems to meow her approval.
It’s a soft, mild day when the Dorne contingency arrive. Prince Markus rides boldly at the front of the party, flanked by his lady warriors North, Echo and Ripple. It’s been ten winters and Simon swears Markus has only grown ever more handsome. He finds himself on the opposite side now, greeting the arrivals rather than arriving to be greeted. He stands beside his betrothed, dressed in the Tyrell colours though a Stark sigil is pinned to his tunic. The small silver wolf brings him comfort, gives him a piece of home in this faraway land.
“Prince Markus, welcome to Highgarden.” Lady Amanda greets as Markus swings off his horse and nimbly jumps down. His bow is graceful and fluid, brilliant copper riding cape sweeping forward.
“Thank you for housing us for the wedding, Lady Amanda.” He smiles and oh, it’s as dazzling as Simon remembers.
“How fares your nefarious father, Markus?”
“Oh he’s still causing mischief I assure you my Lady.” Markus grins, before gesturing behind him. “My warriors three, North, Echo and Ripple ride ever at my side. My brother Leo has also made the journey, as has Sunspear’s great scholar Joshua to document the wedding.”
“You are under the protection of House Tyrell, welcome.” Lady Amanda nods. “Come, you shall be settled in to your quarters.”
Simon’s heart skips when Markus meets his gaze and offers him a smile.
“Hello Simon, you’re looking well.” His hands are warm as they clasp his in greeting.
“Th-thank you Markus. As are you.”
“It’s good to see you. I was hoping you’d visit Dorne some time. We’ve missed you.”
“I’ve been...busy.” Simon answers lamely, shoulders drooping. ‘Busy’ with his family breaking apart and his other half being sent to the wall and his father’s great disappointed looks.
“Markus would shrivel up in Winterfell, that’s why he never dared to visit you.” North elbows his side playfully, leaning to kiss his cheek. “He’s too soft, too pretty.”
“Hey!” Markus protests, making Simon laugh.
“It really is good to see you, Simon.” Josh smiles in that gentle patient way of his and Simon cannot help but smile in return. He slows his pace a little, falling behind just so he can match Leo’s step.
“Hi.” He greets softly, and Leo gives him a lopsided grin, puffing a few curls out of his face.
“Hey Simon.” He embraces him tightly, and Simon rests his cheek on Leo’s shoulder. Oh how he’d missed him. “So uh. You’re getting hitched to a Knight, that’s pretty fancy.”
But I want to marry a Prince, Simon nearly screams . I want to marry the Dornish Prince Markus. I want to be Simon of House Martell. I want to live in Sunspear.
“Listen, a Knight absolutely is a step up from a Prince.” Leo teases when they part, patting his shoulder. “Princes- we just have the title. Knights? They earn their Knighthood. And the best place to live is here in Highgarden; good natural defences, plentiful grain and beasts, gentler climate.”
“Leo, I appreciate you trying to comfort me about my betrothal.” Simon offers a pained smile. “I’ll be alright, truly.”
“I know you’re biased but my brother is the absolute worst.” Leo rolls his eyes. “Ser Ronan the Iron Knight? Absolutely a step up.”
“Leo that’s horrible!” Simon laughs helplessly. “Don’t say such things!”
“I said what I said.” Leo declares haughtily.
They spend the afternoon roaming the castle gardens, and Simon allows himself to pretend this is nothing but a schooling trip for them all to explore Highgarden and learn their ways. Markus makes him laugh often, and North loops her arm through his, and Josh strides his purposeful stride and Simon feels like they’re ten and five winters again and certainly not staring down war. He carefully memorises every moment and bottles them up in his heart, saving them to carry him through all the sorrow to come.
Simon asks to pray in the godswood the eve before his wedding. Connor tells him their godswood differs from others, and he isn’t sure how until he sees not one but three weirwood trees entwined so intricately they seem like a thick tower. The Three Sisters, they are called, but Simon only aches so deeply for home, for a life he lost of brother and sister and him to make three. Connor gives him a respectful distance, stepping back out of sight to allow him privacy to pray. The tears slip his cheeks the moment his knees hit the ground and he bows his head. Simon prays for mercy, for courage, for strength. He prays for his brother’s safety. For his sister’s patience. For his father and mother’s acceptance. When he finishes praying he dries his eyes as best he can before rejoining Connor so he can be led back inside.
“My brother is not good with people.” Connor begins as they walk. “Well, no, it’s more that he has trouble being social. He is good with people but only once they are willing to interact with him in earnest. The Iron Knight is an awful name.” He sighs heavily and Simon frowns, looking at him.
“It’s the result of hearsay spreading,” Connor explains as he leads Simon through the winding paths. “My brother seems cold and cruel but he isn’t. He’s a ruthless warrior on the battlefield but he’s nothing like that off it. I know you have been displaced, forced here but a step higher than a prisoner. But my brother is kind and good and soft and gentle to those he loves. You do not have to love him in return, no one can ask you or force you to do that. But please let him take care of you. He won’t shame you, he won’t hurt you. I know this much.”
They stand outside his door and Simon thinks he too would defend his brother this much. But Daniel held his sword to their sister’s throat and in the end love was only enough to save him from execution, and have him banished instead, breaking their family forever.
“I will try, Connor. Thank you.”
They marry in the castle sept with its enormous stained glass windows of the Seven. The marriage cloak is embroidered with handcut linen roses, each petal edged with gold thread and covering the entire garment from the neck to the enormous trailing hem. It glistens with a thousand tiny glass beads that twinkle in the light. Ronan recites the vows and gently eases the cloak around his shoulders and the weight of it catches Simon by surprise. It’s heavy, as heavy as the scent of rose oil mixing with the incense smoke. It feels like Simon is dying slowly, like he’s being smothered to death but he will not cry, no. He will not disgrace his family further by weeping here, and will not scandalise his new family with such dramatic behaviour. He is a Stark, he can be brave. He must be brave.
Ronan very softly presses their mouths together and Simon closes his eyes, thinking suddenly of Connor’s words the night before, kind and good and soft and gentle to those he loves . Simon tilts his head slightly and leans in, catching Ronan’s lips to prolong their kiss before he can pull away. His hands find his and Ronan gently rubs his thumb over his knuckles. When they part, his new groom is blushing and Simon realises he is infinitely endeared by the sight.
Alright , he thinks, I will try to love him too.
There is no maidenhead to claim, so after he helps Simon out of his wedding garments, he politely bids him good night. They have feasted and danced and he knows Simon must be tired.
“Are we not to share a bed?” It’s the same question asked but a week ago, and still the question makes heat pool in his cheeks.
“Usually the purpose of a wedding night is to claim a Lady’s maidenhead and sire a child.” He mumbles, his cheeks feeling even hotter. “This is not the case for us. I wish you pleasant dreams, husband.”
“Hm.” Simon hums thoughtfully, pulling the door shut behind him and simply crawling into Ronan’s bed. “I should still like to spend the night with you.”
“I-if you wish to.”
“I do.” Simon chuckles softly, burrowing beneath the quilts. After a moment’s pause, Ronan climbs in after him and blows out the candles, leaving the moon to stream light softly through the window. He dares not move, and their breathing is the only sound until it’s broken by a soft little trill.
“Ford?” Ronan blinks, sitting up. Another little trill, followed by a few little chirps. “Ford, are you under the bed again?” He leans over the side and reaches under the bed, fumbling for a moment before gently pulling a fluffy cat out from beneath. Simon sits up, smile bright as Ronan places the cat in his arms. “This is Ford, he’s a blind cat I rescued as a kitten and hand-reared.”
“Hello Ford.” Simon nuzzles the soft dark fur, eliciting another happy trill.
“I’m not sure Ford really figured out how to make proper cat sounds, but I love him all the same.” Ronan scritches behind one ear, the feline purring loudly in response. Simon giggles softly, slowly sliding back down and placing Ford atop the quilts.
“I will do everything I can to make this life bearable for you.” Ronan vows, and the moonlight blanches Simon’s cornsilk yellow hair into white gold. He’s beautiful and soft and everything Ronan doesn’t deserve. “I know this is not the life you want, but I will try and make something good out of it.”
Simon says nothing, just gazes at his face in quiet contemplation. After a moment he leans in and kisses him, and Ronan swears his heart is beating loud enough for the entire castle to hear.
“Then we will be good together, husband of mine.”