"You asked for me, Your Grace?" Prince Rhaegar Targaryen craned his neck to look up at his father, whose wild eyes seemed to scatter and twitch every which way.
At the foot of the Iron Throne stood four Kingsguards, gleaming in white armor, and the king's beloved pyromancer, dressed in green rags that would be befit a peasant.
Aerys sneered down at his son, the billowing arms of his red robe impaled with the tips of a dozen blades. "I did. Lord Whent has written that the tournament is prepared for, and will be held two months from today."
Rhaegar inclined his head, knowing another, secret raven was likely at his window at that very moment. His separate correspondence with Lord Whent had been private knowledge that only himself, Ser Arthur Dayne, and Ser Oswell Whent, Lord Whent's brother, were privy to. "Very good."
Aerys eyed his son. "Heed my warning, boy, if you do not choose a bride by the end of this godsforsaken tournament, I will remove you from succession and sit Viserys here myself!" By the end his voice was shrill, his curling nails caught in the spiked throne their ancestor built for great rulers to come. Rhaegar wondered what Aegon the Conquerer would think of the brittle, decrepit monster that the realm now called "king."
"I understand, Father." There wouldn't need to be such drastic measures though. He'd find a bride at Harrenhal, and once he had an heir, he would remove his father as king.
It was the only way to avoid the Seven Kingdoms burning green to the ground. The king's fetish for wildfire had, at first, been scattered, pinpointed only to livestock and the trunks of rotting trees. As each day passed, the king's excitement for burning focused on the criminals that littered the dungeons, and after that, peasants that had committed only petty crimes. Rhaegar had nearly vomited the first time he saw a beggar child burn for stealing bread.
"Go now," Aerys barked. "Be out of my sight!"
Rhaegar bowed, striding from the room with his closest friend and confidant, Arthur Dayne, falling behind him like a shadow. Only when they were both inside the prince's private chambers did they speak.
"He's getting worse," Rhaegar murmured. He felt tired down to his bones, a weary ache that echoed through him. "Before long the entire realm will know of his madness."
Arthur grimaced, meeting the eyes of his worried friend. "What will you do?"
Rhaegar sighed, opening his window to allow in the raven that waited there. "First, I will find a wife." He unrolled the parchment that had been attached to the bird's leg; Arthur came forward to feed it corn from the small bowl at the desk.
Rhaegar quickly read the message. "Lord Whent writes that he has invited all seven of the Great Houses, as well as the important vassals." Something akin to relief bloomed in his chest. He'd been planning this for nearly a year, writing back and forth with the Lord of Harrenhal about gathering the nobility to discuss the overthrowing of his father's rule.
To the king and anyone dedicated to his reign, the tournament just appeared to be a grand way to boast the Whent wealth, a way for the crown prince to choose a suitable bride. To Rhaegar and his loyalists, it was the first step in becoming king and establishing his line.
"Two moons," Arthur muttered, staring out into the darkening sky. His Kingsguard vows forbade him to think ill of the king and to obey mindlessly, but as Rhaegar's closest friend, he was in full support of the prince overthrowing his father.
A few dark souls still remained obedient to the crown, however, and it was becoming more and more difficult for Rhaegar and his supportive Kingsguards to hide their true allegiances.
Two months, the prince thought to himself, two months til Harrenhal and the road to my reign will begin.
"Are we going?" Benjen jumped on his toes, excitement radiating from his every pore.
Lord Rickard Stark glanced down to the invitation, reading the middle paragraph again. "The royal family will be in attendance," he said aloud.
If anything, Benjen's excitement mounted. "The Kingsguard will be there then. And the prince. Please, Father, let us go!"
Rickard sighed. "There must always be a Stark in Winterfell."
His son's demeanor deflated, eyes watering instantly. The boy was fourteen, a year younger than his only sister and nearly a man grown, but he had the heart of a child. "So I must stay here while everyone else goes South?"
Rickard allowed himself a small smile. "If Brandon agrees to keep you out of trouble while at the tourney, I will stay behind in Winterfell in your place." He rather preferred it anyway; it gave him time to solidify allies.
Catelyn Tully was already promised to Brandon, his eldest and heir, and Lord Robert Baratheon would either decline or agree to the betrothal once he met Lyanna. Rickard could trust his three sons to ensure that if his daughter and Lord Robert met at Harrenhal, nothing unseemly would happen. Even in Winterfell, rumors of Baratheon bastards flew rampant.
Benjen wrapped his father in a hug and ran from the room, taking his piercing energy with him. Alone, Rickard thought of the future of Westeros, and how it sagged beneath the king's rapidly declining mental stability. He and a few other lords of the Great Houses were in agreement that should it come to it, they would ready their banners and storm King's Landing.
If only the damned king would die and his son could take the throne. The Dragon Prince was revered across the lands, knighted and well read, a perfect specimen for rule. It seemed madness lengthened a man's life though, and Rickard wasn't sure if the realm would still be standing if they waited for King Aerys to pass away.
His mind drifted to his daughter, Lyanna - a wild child-woman of the North, growing infinitely more beautiful by the day. She had the Stark look: dark hair, silver-grey eyes, and a narrow face with high cheekbones. He'd rejected half a hundred marriage proposals for her, waiting for the right one that could further their strength and make Lyanna happy.
From Ned's stories of his fellow ward, Lord Robert was a joyful man of rugged build with the black hair and blue eyes characteristic of Baratheon blood. Ned had no doubt that his friend would love Lyanna upon meeting her, and then the Starks would be aligned with three Great Houses: the Tullys and Baratheons by marriage, and the Arryns by fostering. Should it ever come to war with the crown, the Starks would be ready.
Rickard pored over the letter once more, the words of his House pounding in his head. Winter was truly coming.