It was another boiling day in King’s Landing, two weeks after her arrival, and Arya Stark was dying of boredom. Or she felt that way, sitting by the windowsill, forehead pressed against the slightly cooler glass, staring out at the busy courtyard below; dark strands of hair falling out of her braid. After a few moments, her foot started tapping and her knee began bouncing, and it wasn’t long before she had to get up and pace, short little legs striding aimlessly. Not long after that, she walked down the halls, fingers caressing the stones protruding from the walls of the castle. Next, she played a game of dragon fire, pretending certain tiles along the floor were made of molten flame, and she hopped about, careful not to fall in. She made it for near an hour before her stupid long skirt tripped her.
None of it worked, she was well and truly miserable. Her mother had promised she would grow to enjoy the capital, with its exotic smells and delicacies, the many types of people and crafts. But deep down, she knew no place could ever compare to her home, Winterfell. She’d explored all the corridors and halls she was allowed in, and exhausted each one. She supposed it was impressive; The Red Keep was massive, and ornate. The tapestries, the Iron Throne, the paintings, and sculptures were all magnificent. Only they didn’t impress her much, all locked away behind stonewalls, so most never got to see it.
It didn’t take her long to explore the parts she wasn’t meant to see either; she never was good at following the rules. Her favorite discovery was the cavern filled with dragon skulls. Instead of destroying the precious relics or keeping them prominently displayed, they were stored deep in a hidden room, skulls stacked near on top of each other. Beautiful, but fierce. What she wouldn’t give to see a real dragon, or even just a Targaryan. But they were all extinct now, Robert Baratheon so filled with rage had had them all killed; ensuring no retaliations or uprising. She was actually rather surprised he kept these magnificent artifacts; so disdainful was he of the dragon clan. They had ruled for thousands of years, but one mad king, and the entire dynasty had to be reset. The Stags were in power now, and as their most loyal ally, that meant her father was stuck protecting his best friend, his King, and his legacy. Sansa was meant to bind the two houses by marrying Joffrey; but why was Arya trapped here in this steaming prison?
Oh right, to tame the wild wolf girl her mother insisted needed discipline and refinement. Ridiculous. Dipping a pigeon in ink wouldn’t make it a raven, so too dressing Arya in silks, painting her face, and parading her around the capital wouldn’t turn her into her sister. But no manner of argument made any difference. And here she was.
Worse still than being trapped, was her loneliness. She missed the rest of her family of course. Bran still hadn’t woken. Mother too, mostly. Robb, Rickon, and even Theon. But Jon… No, don’t think about him. He was her best brother, but he’d left her for The Wall just days before her trip down South. She loved her home, but how could it be the same without her bastard brother, the one who understood her best? So, in that way, she was just as well off here as there. And it was no secret that Arya and her mother didn’t get along overly well; the headstrong girl had always been closer to her father, who was leaving as well. He was a great lord, The Hand of The King, skilled with a sword, and the most honorable man in The Seven Kingdoms. But she’d seen the look on his face when he was officially named The Hand, a replacement for the late Jon Arryn; it was one of bitter acceptance. He wasn’t pleased by the move, by his new responsibilities either. And yet he grinned and bore it, as she was expected to do the same.
So Sansa would flirt and play pretend with the Lannisters, her father would serve blindly, and she would wither away into nothing. Why couldn’t she go to The Wall with Jon? Right, because she was a girl. A Lady even.
Sansa was ecstatic, she thought only of being Queen; pretty dresses, jewels, a perfect blonde prince, and loads of golden little babies. Arya didn’t care for the pompous prince, he was far too entitled, and his smiles left a nasty taste in her mouth. She supposed it didn’t really matter what she thought of him, because thank the Gods; she didn’t have to marry him. Being the ugly sister had its perks; the prince never even noticed her next to perfect Sansa. Thank The Gods. She knew she would have to marry eventually, but at least her presence here would put that off for another year or so. At 15, marriage was the worst thing she could imagine. For Sansa, her greatest dream.
She might have even been excited for this adventure, for the chance to explore, but for the fact that Arya wasn’t allowed to leave The Red Keep. So after exhausting most of the castle, sneaking past guards and hiding in corridors, she was more desolate than ever. She longed to go out and see the city, all the wonders her mother had advertised; but she was forbidden. Stuck in the castle, with only her sister for company. Her sister who avoided her, and whom she couldn’t talk to anyway. The other Baratheons were nice enough, Tommen and Myrcella, but too young and skittish; a bit simple too she thought secretly. She wanted only to go outside, to explore properly. Too dangerous, they said. Not proper, they always added. Infuriating and ridiculous.
That night, they had dinner just the three of them in The Tower of The Hand, she was looking forward to having an actual conversation with her father. While he was always around, he was also always busy. She wanted to broach the subject of her freedom; she needed his permission to go out. But her hopes were crushed; he was looking over some papers in between spoonfuls of peas. He nodded every once in a while to Sansa’s drabbling, but of course he didn’t hear a word she said. Arya wasn’t paying attention to her insipid sister either, staring at the detailed map on the back wall, wondering at the maze of streets that made up the capital, streets she may never see, unusual markers peppered throughout.
“And he’s promised to buy me some new dresses, ones specially made for me. He says I’d look lovely in green, so there’ll be jewels to match. Won’t that be…” She didn’t even pause for air.
Uh… Some of her blabbering actually got through. What she wouldn’t give to choke her beautiful air-headed sister with a great handful of peas. She could even imagine the green mush bubbling out the sides of her lips.
“That’s nice, dear.” Her father replies absent-mindedly. Sansa is unperturbed, and continues on. Arya quietly gets up from the table and silently comes to stand behind her father, so engrossed in the documents before him he doesn’t notice her hovering at first.
Numbers. Columns and columns of numbers. Pages and pages of it.
“What’s this?” She asks. Her father jumps a bit in his chair at the intrusion, finally aware of Arya’s presence behind him.
“Just some figures.” He says. She rolls her eyes, and pulls a chair over right beside him and continues to peruse the numbers.
“Figures of what?” She asks again, taking a paper in her hand to inspect it more closely. He rubs his eyes, obviously fatigued.
“The expenses of the past year. Estimates from the upcoming tourney.” He sounds so exhausted. On another paper, he’s done some basic calculations, trying to make the numbers fit. She notices a mistake at the bottom, one total off by a decimal place.
Sansa recognizes how preoccupied they are, gives a huff, and stalks off, red hair swishing in her haste. Arya smiles to herself. Well, she knew how to get rid of her sister now.
She fixes the mistake and slides the paper back to her father. He notices the correction, and sighs loudly. “Thank you.” He says politely, but she can tell he’s even more concerned now.
“I just… this tourney is ridiculous. But The King insists, so of course I must obey. I love him, but he’s horrible with money. I’ll need to beg Littlefinger for the coin. Vile little man. And his stupid little beard. What’s more, the most recent grain shipment from The Neck has maggots in it. We need more recruits for The Wall, there have been skirmishes throughout The Fingers, and…”
He rattles off all the urgent problems requiring his attention, growing more and more worn-out. She notices lines around his eyes she’d never seen before, a thinness to his skin, the grey strands in his hair. He must have had these markers of age for a while, but she’d never noticed them before. The capital was making him old.
“And it’s all down to you?” She asks, sympathetically.
“Who else?” He asks rhetorically.
“I’m hardly useless, Father.” She answers, a bit annoyed. He notices, and cracks a smile.
“Of course not, Love. You’ve keen eyes.”
“More than that. Let me help.” She insists, seeing a chance to go outside, what’s more, a possible solution to her boredom.
“That’s very sweet, Love.” And he kisses the top of her head. “But this is all too much for you, far too dull. I’m sure you must have better things to do and…”
“No I don’t!” She answers too quickly. “I have nothing to do. Nothing. I’m dying here. I can’t even go out. I’m not Sansa, happy enough to sew and giggle. I can’t breathe in this place. Let me help; give me leave to go out. Give me something to do for fucksakes!”
He looks at her closely then, clad in Jon’s breeches, as it’s only the three of them. She thinks he will scold her for her language or for daring to slight Sansa, but then his eyes shift and she can see a change there.
“Alright?” She’s confounded at his acquiescence.
“How could I say no to that? My sweet wild daughter, The very North incarnate.” He replies affectionately.
“So…” She prompts.
He doesn’t answer. He simply pushes the papers back to her, one eyebrow raised in challenge. Do you really want this? The answer is yes. She was ready to peel her own skin off earlier. She takes the other papers from his hands, and studies them intently. Her father ruffles her hair with affection, but she’s too engrossed to pay attention. “Night.” He says, and leaves her to it, a warm smile gracing his face.
He let her do more and more. Well, she just took it upon herself, and if he noticed, he didn’t object. But he never outright asked for her help, and she had the feeling he was keeping some bits back.
Her father forgot to consider that she was curious by nature, and so his evasion only made her more intent to know.
Sansa couldn’t care less, too wrapped up in the obnoxious Baratheon heir, Prince Joffrey to even notice what was going on. Their father was working himself ragged, or rather- The King was overworking him. There was always something that needed doing; and it was always down to Lord Eddard Stark. Arya was determined to do whatever she could, and thankfully escape the tedium of The Red Keep.
The King was next to useless, when he did bother to attend council meetings he was drunk off his ass, and he was just as likely to grant a petitioner’s request as to ignore them completely depending on his mood that day. He noticed her well enough, always, outright staring at meals. She felt disappointed in the Stag King, but couldn’t let it show. She was very aware that the truce between Baratheon and Stark, North and South, was what kept The Seven Kingdoms running smoothly. There were too many old grudges and feuds, marriage treaties and bids for more power for things to be too peaceful among the houses. The North and South had to remain allies, to respect each other, and have each other’s backs. At least that’s the way her father explained it to her. And so, she somehow managed to play the polite lady when in court, though it pained her.
The Queen was unpleasant. Joffrey of course was a terrible little shit, and she hated the idea of Sansa marrying him almost as much of the idea of him ruling once the fat king died. He would be a horrible ruler, worse than the lush, and she wished there was a better choice. Tommen was next, but he was still too young and weak. They were meant to safeguard the royal family, but she wasn’t impressed with the future of The Realm from what she’d seen.
In contrast, the small council was sharp. Varys knew everything, and he seemed to genuinely respect her father. He even went out of his way to speak to her in riddles, giving her snippets here and there in response to her curiosity. Lord Baelish provided the coin, an important job to be sure, but it gave him entirely too much sway. Lord Tyrion, despite being a Lannister, was quite witty and could always be counted on to roll his eyes at particularly stupid comments at meals. She was always glad to see Tyrion, and they often shared conspiratorial winks across the table. Lord Renly couldn’t be bothered to take anything seriously, but he was good-natured and nicer to look at. She’d never met the King’s other brother, as he was in Dragonstone taking care of some business. Arya thought secretly he might just be avoiding the capital, and she was quite jealous of that.
However, she was now given more reign to go where she pleased commensurate to her new role as unofficial, unacknowledged ‘Second’ to The Hand, and time did seem to pass more quickly; she even felt she had a reason to get up in the mornings.
First, she took control of all the figures and sums. It was Littlefinger’s job, but her father had insisted on double-checking the numbers. She added up smaller columns to help speed his work along. It was riddled with mistakes; math was not her father’s strong suit, but she persevered.
Next, it was looking over petitions and announcements, making sure there were no misspellings or poor word choices. Then making sure they were posted prominently around the city. The news was fascinating; she heard about territorial skirmishes in the slums, the sewer back-up down Flea Bottom, who owed the crown money, which imported goods were particularly in-demand that season, and much more.
When she finished these, she poured over the various tomes and records scattered around her father’s desk. Even she found it dull, mind- numbing; genealogical records not her favorite use of time. But she noticed there were carefully scribbled notes penned in the margins; a thin script that she knew wasn’t her own Lord Father’s.
The Baratheon lineage.
It didn’t make much sense; the symbols weren’t in the Common Tongue. When she looked closer at the most recent addition to The Baratheon family tree, she noticed there were more characters inked in beside Joffrey, Tommen, and Myrcella. More branches to the family tree? Symbols inked beside each. She counted over a dozen. What did those mean? She’d seen them before. But where?
She showed her father later, and he just kept staring at the pages, mouth hanging open, as if waiting for the writing to change.
“Arya, you can’t mention this to anyone else. Do you understand me?” His eyes are frantic, pleading.
“Of course not. But what is this? I’ve seen these markings before, but I can’t place them.”
“It’s High Valyrian.” He says.
“Well what does it mean?” She asks frustrated.
“I don’t know. I don’t speak High Valyrian. But the symbols. I’ve seen them. Look.”
He leads her back to the dining area, to the elegantly painted map stretching across the entire wall she’d stared at many times before. Street names and landmarks were painted in intricate lettering, just as she remembered. And then she saw it. The ciphers scattered throughout the city. Sixteen in all. The same as in the book.
“This is a clue Father. Someone’s trying to show us something. We need to look into it.” She says excitedly. More inspired than she had been in months.
“Jon Arryn. I recognize his handwriting. He died under very mysterious circumstances. We can’t know what this will lead us to.”
“I know that, I…”
“This page. The Baratheon line. What if this had to do with his death? We don’t even know who else is aware of this. Dear Gods.” He pinches the bridge of his prominent nose, clearly distraught. “I won’t have you putting yourself in danger, Arya. I won’t.”
“So what? We’re just going to ignore it? What if this is important? To mark bastards in the official records, it’s rare isn’t it?”
“Unheard of. Illegal.” He corrects.
“So… What are we waiting for?”
“No, I told you. This is too suspicious, and too dangerous.” His brows are creased in deep worry.
“What if disregarding Lord Arryn’s clues is the real danger? Is that what you want for Westeros? Is that what you’d want Robb to do?” He sighs, irritated.
“I’m not disregarding anything. I’ll look into it, I will. Lord Arryn was my friend, more than that. I’ll do right by him, whatever that means. And fulfill his post. But I don’t want you involved.”
“No buts Arya, that’s final.” She walks up closer to the map, fingering its surface.
“Father, there are so many marks, and you don’t even know who you’re looking for or who to ask. What if you miss something?”
“You need me Father. I’ve keen eyes, you said so yourself. I’m the one who found the book in the first place. Me. I didn’t have to show you at all, I could have gone out on my own, formed my own conclusions.” He groans.
“Yes, I realize that. And I’m very glad you didn’t. However…”
“And didn’t I do a good job with the recruits for Yoren? And the announcements?” She adds.
“Yes.” He grumbles.
“And I can do this too.” She insists.
“It’ll take me twice as long without you, won’t it?” He sighs.
“Yes. If you let me help, which I intend to do any way.” She smiles, sure she’s already won.
“I suppose.” He agrees reluctantly.
“Mhm.” She says, already scribbling out the addresses on a slip of paper so they can more effectively canvas the city tomorrow.
They decided to begin with the farthest distance to the closest. They dressed simply, though of good enough quality to mark them out as merchants, comfortable but not rich, dark and not showy. She was thankful for her plain looks then- rounder cheeks, dull hair, and slimmer figure; less attention. And yet, the stares of men lingered on her frame; she didn’t quite know how to feel about it or quite what to think. Without his sigil, her father looked like he could be any man; and still he demanded respect with his presence alone. At the first tavern, her father ordered two ales for show, to help them blend in better. They stayed for a few hours, watching, waiting, and observing.
They weren’t sure what to look for, but they took turns making guesses about the patrons and servers; imagining their life stories. The old man with a beard down to his belly who spilled stew on his lap, and the red haired git who made so many annoying jokes he got elbowed in the face to raucous laughter, were particularly amusing. But the pretty little serving girl, no more than twelve, black curls dancing as she cleaned, was the answer. She responded to some questions with a nice tip; and they found she had no clue who her father was, and her mother helped prepare the meal; not very good stew in Arya’s opinion, though she didn’t say so. Lord Stark welcomed the girl and her mother to The Red Keep if ever there was a need, though the woman was mightily confused at the offer; and The Starks took their leave. One of Robert’s to be sure, but young, and a girl; no idea of her parentage.
The second tavern was even rougher than the first. She wished she had her pants and tunic; she didn’t much appreciate the leers she received. Some even made disgusting comments, and she felt her stomach churn. Her father kept her close, and sat them so their backs were to a wall, a clear sign of caution and discomfort. He orders another ale, but nothing for her, saying she’s had enough. She is tipsy, but steals a sip from his cup anyway.
A busty serving girl, well woman, with large pockmarks on her face and cleavage pours more into her father’s cup before he can protest, and continues on. She nearly trips on a young boy running under the tables, between legs, and in and out of doors. He almost knocks into their table, and Lord Stark reaches out to grab the boy from the back of his shirt. The child, five or six years old, whines at being lifted so, so he’s put down but his shirt is not released from her father’s grip. The boy looks down, clearly frightened, and tries to wriggle free from the Lord’s grasp. They ask him questions, but he doesn’t answer, still looking down. Arya gently lifts his chin up, and they see the same bright blue eyes beneath his mop of black hair. The boy wriggles again, and this time they let him go. They both leave, having found more or less what they expected, no actual answers of course.
“So many bastards. Does The King know about each?”
“I don’t know. Jon Arryn didn’t really make it too easy to find. But he kept track of each of them, checked in on them, secretly; he must have had his reasons.”
“The King doesn’t seem to care, he hasn’t claimed any of them; I know they shouldn’t be in that book.”
“Jon thought they did. Perhaps The King doesn’t know. I’m willing to bet The Queen doesn’t. In any case, I intend to finish what Jon started, but if you’re bored already...”
“Are you kidding?” She smirks. He smiles back.
“Good. Now it’s getting late. Let's head back.” She stops in her tracks at that, falling behind her father’s longer gait.
“What, but we've barely scratched the surface. There are so many more marks left to see.” She points out.
“It'll take as long as it takes, no use rushing it. I'll keep looking tomorrow.” He tries to sound casual, but fails.
“You mean we will.” She pouts.
“I’m not taking my daughter to any more of these types of establishments. There are other ways you can help, believe me.” He says, pointing at the next location. Looking more closely, she divines his meaning.
“You mean a whore house don’t you?” She asks, and he flinches at that. He nods however. “So?”
“Arya!” He’s scandalized at her attitude. She rolls her eyes.
“I do know about these things Father. Theon practically lived at the brothel in Winter Town. I’ve heard quite a bit about a certain prostitute named Ros…”
“Enough.” He shouts. And she argues no further. She doesn’t want to ruin their adventure, and besides; she’ll grill him about his findings upon his return to the castle.
“Fine, fine. I’ll see you back in The Keep.” She gives in.
“That’s my girl.” He kisses the top of her head in fondness. “I promise to tell you of anything interesting I find.” Yes, he will.
“That's my girl.”
But she has no intention of going back to adding up numbers on a sheet. Her father meant to check out more locations, working his way down the list. Well so would she, only she'd start from the bottom up.