Shireen was glad to finally see the last of the guests go. It had been a long day of wrapping up the last of the visits with the Stormland vassals. She needed their help if this was all going to work, but she couldn’t help but feel relief when they had finally smiled their last fake smile, and curtseyed their way out, a few of them nearly falling over in the process. Podrick was right. The wine was a good idea.
“Wine makes people more agreeable, in general.” He had said. “More likely to consider things they wouldn’t have otherwise, for instance.”
Ser Balor had been the exception, although he had rarely been in his seat longer than ten minutes to enjoy it. His cup had been perennially empty, and the results had made him anything but agreeable. Yet this too seemed to have unintended rewards: his wife, the Lady Kaylana, apologized profusely to her on the way out.
“We’ll certainly support you with these houses of learning, Lady Shireen. What a charitable soul you have, and I certainly can’t let you do this alone. I have lots of strong hands on the estate who can help with the building process. I will be in touch with more details.”
She smiled at how simple a thing could often be the key to a success or a failure. Growing up, wine was absolutely forbidden, so Shireen had never even thought to include it. There were so many little things like that just didn’t come naturally to her, given her isolated upbringing. Having someone like Podrick around, who wouldn’t judge her for not knowing these well-known rules of social etiquette, was proving to be her saving grace. She certainly did not take it for granted. Without him, the process would be much further along. She was trying to think of a way of how to thank him for it, without it coming off as cloying or unauthentic. Afterall, he probably didn’t even realize that he was doing her a service.
She walked out of the dining hall and out into the grand foyer, expecting to see him there escorting guests out. He was not. This puzzled her. Now that she thought of it, she hadn’t seen much of him at all today. Storm’s End had its own garrison, so there wasn’t much need for him to take up guard. She thought that maybe he might be training, or talking with one of the hopeful squires who had shown up the week prior when they made their arrival. Perhaps he had chosen one to squire for him when they went back on the road. It’d be a good opportunity for one of them to get some valuable experience.
She went to the barracks but he wasn’t there either. The captain of the guard also said that there had been no sign of Podrick for a while. How very strange. He never goes off like this on his own. Maybe all the sitting around got to him. Podrick always liked to stay busy, so perhaps he was in the yard training. Immediately, though, she discarded that idea as silly. It was pitch black. Little good training would do in that environment.
Almost as if drawn there by an invisible force, she found herself in the library. It had been ages since she had time to linger here, looking at the stacks of books in front of her and taking in their presence. She dragged her fingers across the spines, relishing the varying textures of their bound volumes against her fingers. These were not just books. These were friends. Family members. Mentors. Teachers. Though she had spent much of her time alone when she was growing up, she had not been lonely. Well, not as lonely as she could have been. The words encased in these covers had kept her company all those years. They had enriched her life in ways she could not even fully understand, and would continue to do so for years to come.
Suddenly, she stopped in her tracks as a thought jumped out at her. Her eyes widened with the thrill of discovery, and she smiled broadly. “Of course.” She dragged over one of the ladders that was connected to the middle shelf of the floor-to-ceiling bookcase, and scurried up to one of the higher shelves. It took only a moment to find the well-worn, blue-gray back of the thickly bound book before she carefully nudged it out of its resting place and cradled it in her arms on the way back down.
* * *
Podrick was so giddy on his way back from the market that he had to restrain himself from breaking into a gallop. It was already dark, and it would be dangerous for the horse to go any faster. It wasn’t far, but still, the poor thing could step into a hole, or worse, trip over a rock and break its leg. He was just so eager to get back. He hoped that Shireen had not gone off to her chambers yet. She liked to turn in early, something that he just couldn’t fathom. He loved night the most. It was quiet, calm, and the night sky was usually littered with stars. There were few things more beautiful than a sky overcrowded with the light of twinkling stars.
His trip had been an exercise in covert action and well-timed sleuthing. He only had a few hours to spare before he would be needed again. He decided to ask the captain of the garrison for his help, who seemed puzzled at first but ended up going along with the plan.
“I don’t understand it myself – why anyone would go to all that trouble for a book – but sure, what else am I going to do? Watch high and mighty folks get drunk while I stay sober?”
In return for his help, Podrick promised him a sack of fresh Dornish citrus from the market. “It isn’t a decanter of Dornish wine, but I’m not that well off, I’m afraid.”
The captain insisted he didn’t have to go to that length, but by the time the stars had become bright in the sky Podrick had dropped off the horse at the stables and was on his way to deliver the oranges next.
“She came by earlier,” the captain said, admiring the fresh fruit in his hand. “Asking for you.”
“What did you tell her?”
“That I hadn’t seen you.”
“I see I made a wise purchase, then.”
The captain breathed in the scent of the orange slowly, closing his eyes and letting the rind press into his mustache. “That you did, my friend. That you did.”
“Where is she now?”
“Not sure. It’s late though. You’d better hurry if you want to deliver your present in time. Or wait until tomorrow.”
No. It can’t wait. I have to see the look on her face now. I’ve been imagining it all day.
He didn’t have to wait long. When he walked inside past the foyer and towards the great room, he saw one lone person sitting in one of the lounge chairs, back facing him. Her small shoulders looked weighed down by the crown of hair that had been braided tightly around her head for the special occasion, but he knew that she was only reading, her eyes cast down and fixated on the page. He had never known anyone to read so much, nor love books as much as she did. He wished he had time to read at his pace, and she had offered to help him before, but it was just too embarrassing for him. He figured, if he couldn’t read with her, his gift to her was the next best thing.
She was so absorbed in the book she did not hear him coming into the room. He crept around the chair as quietly as he could. The fire was roaring in the hearth – yellow and orange flame cast delicate light on the stony side of her face, making it look much softer than it was. She had taken off the sheer fabric shawl that she normally used to wrap around her neck to hide the trickle of greyscale that crept down there from the left side of her face. She did it, she said, for the benefit of others. She could not always keep her face covered, but at least she could cover up the part of her neck that still had the greyscale scarring. He didn’t know about anyone else, but the sight of her greyscale scarring did not bother him. He rarely even noticed it now.
“Shireen?” he said in the quietest voice he could. She still jumped. But the shock on her face turned immediately into a warm smile when she saw him.
“Podrick!” She set the book down on the arm of the chair, pages down, and got up to greet him. “There you are! I was beginning to wonder if you had been courted away by one of the eligible young women at the party today.”
He narrowed his eyes a bit at that, but he said nothing because she was only teasing him. She had teased him about girls before, and he had always fallen for it, ending up with nothing but a red face and a caught tongue. He would not be fooled again.
“I have something for you,” he said. “That’s where I have been: at the market.”
The shock in her face returned, and she clasped her hands together, bringing them up to her mouth. “No! You’re joking.”
“No I’m not. Why are you smiling like that?” There was a twinkle in her eye and a grin nearly as wide as her face. She was normally so serious; seeing all these smiles would normally be a good thing but he was suspicious. “Come on, what is it?”
“I just think it’s funny that we both got each other something, and it’s not even our namedays.”
This floored him. “Come on, then. Stop toying with me. You didn't get me something.”
She laughed: a quick burst of energy and joy in the large room. It echoed once off the walls and the sound of it made him feel suddenly light. His chest tightened in response, but only just, and he ignored it, instead focusing on figuring out whether or not she was serious.
“I most definitely did, Ser Podrick Payne. You were so clever, you see, with this whole dinner party. You told me all the things to do that I wouldn’t have thought to do, because I’m so clueless with that sort of thing. The wine especially did the trick. I have so many people saying they’ll help with the project. It wouldn’t have been a success without your help so I wanted to say thanks the only way I really know how.”
She went back to the chair and picked up the worn book. One of the sections looked like it was ready to fall off from the binding at any moment.
“It’s my old copy of The Dragon and the Turtle. I thought, well maybe, when we’re out on the road, there will be lots of downtime and boring parts. I thought maybe during breaks or when you’re not busy I could read you the story. I know I’ve talked about it before, and how it was one of my favorite books, but I think it’s time you got to listen to the real thing.”
Podrick was completely at a loss for words. He stared at her in amazement and wonder, and the thoughtfulness of this offer touched him so deeply, he had to stop dwelling on it to avoid becoming teary eyed. She wanted to read to him. It took a few seconds more to process, during which Shireen’s delight became replaced with worry.
“I mean, if you want to,” she quickly said. “It’s not like I don’t think you can’t read it on your own or anything, oh I hope you didn’t think I meant that, it’s just that I would just love to share the story with you this way and see your reactions to it and—”
“No Shireen,” he said, putting his hand on her arm. “It’s not that.” His voice was soft and low and full of warmth. “I’m just surprised and touched because well…” he pulled out his other arm from behind his back. “It’s also what I got you.”
She looked down and saw it – a hard-leather bound copy of The Dragon and the Turtle embossed with silver. It looked brand new and very costly for a book. She took it gingerly in her hands. As she did, her fingertips touched his, and he kept his hands there for a moment before relinquishing the book to her. She caressed it like it was a newborn child, cracking it open for the first time and taking a deep breath, savoring the smell of ink and parchment.
“The local merchant had it on hand. Said he got it shipped over from Essos. I guess some people in Yi Ti are starting to reprint it. I just know how much you love that old copy, and I don’t think this will ever replace that one, but I just figure if you’re going to read it again, you should get a new--“
She stopped him with a hug. The book was in one hand and pressed against the back of his neck as she pulled him close. She buried her head into his shoulder and squeezed tightly. After a moment, he brought his arms up to her shoulders and pressed gently to return the embrace.
“Thank you,” she whispered, the hint of a crack in her voice.
He swallowed before he could reply. “You’re welcome.” He spoke it into the crown of her hair, then rested his chin on the top of her head. When she finally pulled away, there was moisture in her eyes. He cleared his throat and immediately looked away. It was all too much; more than he ever expected. The hug had nearly pushed him over the brink, and the aftermath of that was already starting to have an effect on him.
“So uh I-uh….I mean, we-uh…we’ll do the reading. Of the book, I mean. We’ll read it?”
“Yes,” she said, her voice still wrought with emotion. “We will. I promise you that.”
“Good.” There was an awkward silence, then he turned away. “Well it’s far too late for you now you must be tired. I’ll see you later, Shireen. Enjoy.”
He turned around. “Yeah?”
“There’s no moon out tonight. I bet the night sky is bursting with stars.”
His chest tightened again, but this time, he relished the feeling. His smile was gentle and knowing. “It is. Do you want to see? Come on, I’ll show you which ones are my favorite.”