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once upon a time

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She is a tiny thing, Rhaenys Targaryen, even tinier in death. Tiny, but holding so much blood, most of which has been spilled, brutally and awfully. It leaves her pale, not in the way Targaryens are pale but with the pallor of a life drained away, cut through strand by strand with a coward’s blade. You wash her tenderly, patting her dry with the softest length of linen you can find. The stitches that hold her small body together need not be tidy or pretty - Silent Sisters are not expected to be expert seamstresses - but you make them both, sewing neat, even rows that spangle over her chest and stomach like starbursts, a hideous sort of beauty that gives you no sense of pride.

She is not the first child you have dressed for burial. She will not be the last. She may not even be the bloodiest, the most brutally felled, though you offer up a prayer to the Seven for none to meet a gristlier fate than she, a prayer so fervent that you cannot keep your lips from mouthing the words that you speak in your mind, though no sound escapes you.

Sometimes you think it for the best that you are silent. Sometimes you think if not for the silence, you would scream and scream and never stop.

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The first time he climbs up the broken tower, it takes his breath away. Bran's always climbed – Old Nan says he crawled up table legs and bedposts before he ever managed to simply stand on two unsteady feet – but this is farther than he's ever tried, bigger than he's thought to manage. He's never gone higher than the portico above the training yard before, edging along the outer side of the balustrade as Arya gleefully eggs him on and Sansa frets that he'll fall. Now he's high enough that he could barely hear Sansa's pleas for him to come down even if she were on the ground below. She's not; Bran knows well enough that witnesses are not something he wants for this particular feat of either daring or stupidity. When a stone crumbles beneath his booted toe and he has to cling to a thorny trunk of clinging bramble for balance, it definitely seems to fall on the side of stupidity. The thorns sting in his palm, leaving tiny spots of pain that will most likely bleed. But he can see so much of Winterfell from here: the rolling fields, the far-off roofs of Wintertown, even the thatch of the crofter's huts down by the river. The wind sounds different up here, it feels different, grasping and pulling at his hair and his clothes, whispering sharp and sweet in his ear like a living thing. Bran looks down, down to the hard ground that seems so much farther away than it should, ground that could make him broken just like the tower is, and his heart pounds so hard that he thinks he feels it bruise against the stones he's hugging himself to like mists on the ground after a cold night. His pulse sounds in his ears, drowning out the wind, and he laughs out loud and climbs just a bit further. He thinks that if he leaps away from the tower now, just pushed off into the empty air and spread his arms, he might be able to fly.

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All men are the same here. It matters not the richness of their garb or the pleasance of their manners, nor the honor of their House, nor if they have a House at all. Her mules have carried men so rich they could buy the whole world, and those men clutched just as fierce at the saddle, with knuckles just as white as the men who had nothing, not even a name. And fancy breeches are soiled the same as plain when the wind kicks up and threatens to pluck them all from the rocky path and pitch them into the air like scattering leaves in the fall. The mules never scare, they never falter or slip or slow. She treats them as if they’re her babes, and they very well might be, for all that men hold little interest for her. Going on the men she’s known, Mya will take the mules. They’re humbler by half than the steeds of most who make the ascent to the Eyrie, but those horses will never see the heights that her mules see near every day. Humble they may be, but purpose makes them noble, and necessity makes them precious. King or peasant, rich or poor; no man can climb Mya’s mountain alone.

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She dreams of killing him. Jeyne wouldn’t dare think of such a thing during waking hours – she tries not to think at all when she’s awake – but in her dreams she kills Ramsay a hundred times over. She drowns him, strikes him, smothers him with her pillow. She pushes him into blazing hearthfires and poisons his meals and sets his own dogs upon him to rend him into pieces as he does her every moment of every day. Even when he’s nowhere near, he is still a needle under her fingernail, the chill taste of fear beneath her tongue. Jeyne had thought she’d run out of fear, but Ramsay has shown her she was wrong.

She has heard how his dogs got their names. It’s one of the first things he told her. There are even two with her name – Grey Jeyne and Red Jeyne – which Ramsay had told her with particular relish. She’d wanted to ask him what her own color would be, but she knew such defiant impulses did not carry enough satisfaction to make them worth the pain. She’d learned well as a whore.

It’s strange how she could miss such a life now that she’s finally back here in Winterfell, as she’s dreamed of being since the day Lord Baelish had taken her away from Sansa and the Starks and thrown her to the true wolves. She would go back in a second now. It had been easier to know she was not safe in a place that was not once her home. She’s thought of running, but it would probably be Grey Jeyne and Red Jeyne who’d catch her. Life passes up so few chances for painful irony, after all.

“I cannot help you,” Theon whispers to her, and though she knew what answer she would hear even before she asked, it’s painful all the same.

In her fantasies, she is faster than any dog, she can run like the spotted desert cats Septa Mordane spoke of in lessons with Sansa, beasts rumored to be faster than the wind. If she could run, she would never stop, she would run to the Neck, to Dorne, to Essos and Valyria and beyond. She would run so fast that she could skim atop the water and no man or beast could ever, ever catch her.

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The ogre injured.
Sandor Clegane

He comes to them on a sunny day, a day so pleasant and bright that it could make a man's heart lighter just from having seen it. He is not sunny, though, nor pleasant nor bright. He is silent and dour, with an air of past menace hanging around him like a cloud of soured perfume. It does not bother any of them; he is just who this place is meant to save.

He likes the meanest and dullest of tasks – lugging and hauling and digging, pushing barrows full of dung and dirt. Anything someone might not wish to do is precisely what he wants, and no one would fight him for the privilege. The brothers understand penance. They understand the absolution only self-inflicted punishment can provide. And they have much use for the tasks that only a man so strong and brutish can perform, making it a satisfyingly neat arrangement.

His confessions he keeps to himself, like a miser with his gold or a liar with his truths. But that does not bother any of them either; they’ve learned to hear things other than words. They are a silent order, and he keeps their silence perfectly, never even grunting in his labors, no matter how hot the sun or how heavy the load. Just as well. Everything else about him screams, making his silenced voice a relief. But in time, the screams lessen, his body becoming calmer and quieter even as the sun burns it to a ruddy tone that nearly matches the color of his scars, making them almost disappear if one looks at him only in passing.

He stops still sometimes, cocks his head to the sound of birdsong in the trees. He stops and listens, as if he is hearing confession of his own. And then he continues about his work, and if he spoke it might be the words of a man at peace.

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The bridge to the other world.
Balon Greyjoy

The morning of the day Balon Greyjoy is to die dawns like any other. Perhaps it would be poetic if the sky burned red, warning of storms to come, of violence and death. But it is blue and mild, with only the wispiest of clouds to mar its stretch across the ocean. He makes water as on any other day, breaks his fast with the same food as always – salt pork and porridge, swallowed without any thought for taste. It is a day unremarkable in all respects, save one, and perhaps even that is not so remarkable. More remarkable, perhaps, that a man of the Iron Islands should live a long life, a life in which he sees most of his children dead while he still lives. But then, war has a way of rolling the dice.

He has walked this bridge a thousand times if he’s walked it once. A thousand times at least, and not once has he feared it. Others may cringe and shake, clutching at ropes with bloodless fingers, but Balon walks it with his hands at his sides, no matter how the wind howls nor how the sea churns beneath him. He will not be betrayed by these elements that are home to him, never.

Or at least that’s what he thinks.

It could be that the board beneath his foot buckles. It could be that a gust of wind blows up with sudden urgency. It could be only that he stumbles, lurching against the rope rails with an unaccustomed lack of grace for one who’s spent so many years on pitching ships that it is harder for him to walk on solid ground than it is to traverse this narrow hanging bridge. Was that a voice? Does someone laugh? Or is it Balon himself, laughing in disbelief as his feet disobey him, sliding on the suddenly tilted plank that Balon has trod so many times. Such things are hard to tell when a man realizes he’s dying.

He fights the realization, same as he fights the water that closes over his head, the undercurrent that pulls him down and away, away from Pyke, away from safety, away from the known. He has fallen in water many times. Always he has survived. But it is as if he wears boots made of stone; no matter how he tries to kick, his body will not obey, his legs floating lifeless already, as if surrendering to the inevitable. Oh, what more fierce betrayal than that of one’s own body!

There is no nobility in death; Balon knows that now. He’d crowned himself a King, but he looses his bowels now like any other man, pisses himself, though none would know in the wet of the ocean. But still there’s a queer sense of shame in it, in his inability to do anything but drown and known that he will not rise, that there is no Drowned God to revive him now. A shame in being a man like any other, not king nor warrior nor reaver nor fool. Only a man with no iron price left to pay.

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It takes her too long to die.

At first her voice echoes on the stone, her voice insistent in its terror, in its belief in rescue. Melara has always been a hopeful girl, a girl who believes in wishes and dreams and the possibilities of life. In that first moment, her beliefs do not waver; someone will come. Someone will hear. Cersei will get help. That is why she disappeared so quickly at the top of the well, this Melara believes steadfastly. She was so set on finding help that she could not even spare a comforting word for her closest of friends, frightened and broken at the bottom of a well.

Then Melara begins to wonder.

It could have been only that Cersei stumbled. The sudden heavy weight against her side as they walked was something Melara hadn’t thought about before, stricken and pained as she was, scrambled by the sudden violence of her fall and the disbelief that followed. But it had been there; something short of a shove but more than a touch. Now that Melara remembers, the only cry of surprise had been her own, the only screams and calls and sobs had come from her own mouth. The well was narrow enough that she could not fall freely, her soft body battered and broken against the walls by the time she landed with a splash, the murky water closing over her head until she kicked her way up and sputtered, scrabbling at the too-smooth walls for purchase. Cersei’s face had made a crescent at the top of the well, a narrow wedge of daylight around her head, making her nothing more than a silhouette until she disappeared. Surely her face held horror and concern, Melara thinks. Surely she’d cried out to Melara in words that Melara couldn’t hear, dazed and frightened as she was with her ears plugged with water. Cersei, her dearest Cersei, the girl who was nearly a sister to Melara. Oh, she must have been stricken, Melara thinks. Cersei couldn’t possibly have pushed her, she thinks. She thinks and she calls out and she wonders, kicking with all her might, her now-bloodied fingers slipping on the walls and leaving dark tracks side by side, looking black in the dim light that reaches her here at the bottom where no one hears her wails and cries. Melara kicks, oh she tries so very hard, but the water floods her mouth and her nose, it comes back time and again no matter how she coughs and gasps and tips her head back, kicking so hard with feet that have not yet danced with Jaime Lannister at their wedding.

When the water closes over her head for the last time, she no longer wonders. She knows. It is its own sort of death.

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These are Joanna’s favorite days.

It seems a betrayal of what it means to be a mother. Joanna can’t help but dwell on it sometimes, on those rare days when Cersei is small and damp and fevered in her sickbed, victim to the routine snarls and sniffles of childhood. A mother’s heart should not sing at the brow that warms under her palm. A mother should not secretly long for the moments when her daughter is ill and might cling to her or lie close to her side in quiet, childish need.

From infancy, Cersei has afforded Joanna so few opportunities to mother. She’s always been a willful child, and so tightly cleaved to Jaime that all others are secondary. Only in illness does she succumb to need, allowing Joanna to cosset and care for her, her usual energy softened into stillness. Normally Cersei vibrates with intensity, even when sitting still; she fixes Joanna with that razor-sharp regard she turns on everything within her sight. Joanna would never confess it to another, but she finds that regard unnerving when it’s turned upon her. There’s something so assessing in it. Something expectant and keen. It is far too adult for Cersei’s young face.

Joanna had worshipped her own mother. She’d lived for the bright moments when her mother’s attention turned to her, the two of them sharing secret moments that were only theirs, Joanna’s father and brother having no part. When the twins had been born, Joanna had dreamed of such moments with her daughter. She cannot say that she is disappointed with her daughter – there is too much fire in Cersei to ever be truly disappointed, as Joanna knows that her daughter will not allow herself to be stifled in life as so many other women must – but it makes moments such as these, when Cersei murmurs in her sleep and turns her face to Joanna’s hip as she sits on Cersei’s bed at her side, all the more valuable.

Strange, the contrasts life can hold.

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Twigs. That's what her fingers resemble. Lysa holds her hands before her, examining them dispassionately and ignoring the tremor that takes them all the more fiercely the more still she tries to hold them. They're crooked and angled like branches at the fingers she'd once broken in a fall while trying to follow Catelyn and Petyr on some outing or another, too thin to charitably be called slender except for where they thicken into knots at her knuckles where flowers might have bloomed once, or where something might have fruited, were she truly a winter-bare tree rather than merely looking like one.

Lysa will fruit no more, she thinks. Not now that they've taken her babe from her, her and Petyr's babe. She'll not fruit, and so she will not eat or drink, not a bite or speck or drop. She’s no longer a girl, no longer a person. Now she is only twigs covered by parchment, her blood a blue lacework under the brittle skin.

“Lysa,” Catelyn calls from outside the door. “I’ve brought supper for you. Won’t you eat?” Lysa doesn’t answer. Cat will go away sooner or later, and most likely sooner. Good. Lysa wants nothing to do with her. She wants nothing to do with any of them. There is no trust left for her in the house of her father.

“Lysa, you’re wasting away!” her sister says with more force, her voice sounding close to the door. Yes, Lysa wants to say. So much of me is gone. There had been so much blood. She’d seen the blood and she’d realized what her father had given her, what he’d taken from her through the trickery and lies that he’d called a tonic, offered to her in a steaming stoneware mug to settle her stomach, offered with a fatherly smile and a reassuring hand on her hair as she drank it down, grateful for him, trusting him, frightened of the new life growing within her but glad of it too. And now she is diminished. Let her body melt away into nothing, let her hair grow brittle and drift down to the floor like hay. All they can give her is deceit arranged prettily on plates to eat with a knife and fork, a goblet full of mistrust that would stain her lips as red as her own blood had stained her thighs. Let the beds of her nails turn white and then blue, ice on the tips of her branches, ice to kill fruit and flower, to freeze all life that might take hold.

“Lysa,” Cat says one more time, softer now, more plaintive. She doesn’t know. She still trusts their father. She doesn’t know the ways he can rip something out by the roots.

The House of your betrothed is wrong, Lysa would tell her sister if she still had voice to speak. Winter has already come.

Instead she only watches her hands as if they were another person’s, as if they weren’t attached to her at all, and listens to her sister’s footsteps fade away, down the hall and down the stair and down into a place where it’s still summer, where food still has taste and children still trust their fathers, where life is something waiting to happen and not waiting to die.

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He knows what they’re calling him. Some whisper it in the streets. Some murmur it in taverns and inns. And some say it out loud, laughter in their voices as they pretend they weren’t below him until only a moment ago. Those men are the loudest. They’d not be welcome in the fine houses of Braavos either, but it is enough for them to see Viserys’s own welcome rescinded, those men who sense their power increasing from the simple relative decrease of his own. Their voices crackle with barely contained scorn when they call him the Beggar King, the onetime-Prince brought low with the rest of them, forced to sell everything to keep a mean existence for himself and his sister.

The name isn’t what he’d choose for himself. It seems to make little difference now; nothing else is what he’d choose for himself either, so what’s one more thing?

He’d held on to his mother’s crown the longest. It was the last remnant of a life so far distant that it seems almost a dream now. Viserys can still remember his mother’s smile, the reassuring weight of her hand on his hair. He remembers when he’d been the one to comfort her, how his father had often left her sad and broken in a way Viserys hadn’t understood until long after both their deaths. He’s grown hardened to such sympathies now. A man can only care so long before the world stomps it out of him.

Daenerys is their mother in miniature. Once she would have been his wife. Now she is only one more thing that he seeks to sell. It twists something inside him, making his love for her curdle and sour. Each time he threatens her, each pinch and wrench and growl is more of his father taking hold. Viserys wonders if he’ll become mad like him. But then, it doesn’t feel like madness. It feels like purpose. It is all he has left.

That, and his sister.

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The child who was your daughter is gone.

Once she’d looked to you for everything. She’d not played a game or worn a gown or eaten a meal without your say so, and not once did she seem to chafe, not once did she balk or bristle. It was that Stark boy who wrought this change in her, that detestable Northern King who ravaged your house and its men, who invaded your home and your daughter’s heart. She has grown so willful, your once docile girl, your Jeyne, the key to your plan. You underestimated the power of first love.

There had been little love in your own marriage. It had been not a romance but a contract, an alliance of power and finance like any other marriage among the noble Houses. He is a decent enough man, Gawen, but soft, not equipped to deal with the bettering of your fortunes. He never pinked your cheeks the way the boy King did Jeyne’s, he never made your voice drip with cloying honey sweetness when you spoke of him. His death would not threaten to undo all your careful plans.

“I wished him to fall in love with you, not the other way around,” you want to hiss at your defiant daughter, your daughter who fights you now with the same fervor she once gave to quiet obedience. Her obedience is to a dead man now, and your words would fall on her with as little effect as your blows. Instead you settle for giving her a vicious pinch in the meat of her arm – what little meat there is now that Jeyne does naught else but pine and weep and lament her lost love. She cannot see the game you play, a game deadlier than any she ever shared with her siblings. She does not see that it is for her as much as it is for you. The power of one House means little to a girl who’d fancied herself in love. Jeyne thinks only of lost tomorrows. She cannot see the tomorrows that have opened up for her now, thanks to you. Were you so ungrateful to your own mother? Did you vex her so, fighting everything she planned for you, every sacrifice she made? Would you have been so blind to sense? Perhaps you would have been.

Perhaps we all have the daughter we deserve.

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The Wall seems larger from this side. It’s a trick of the eye, Ygritte thinks. The ground here is more brown than white, more dirt and dying vegetation than rock and ice. The Wall stands out stark against it, rising impossibly far to the sky, farther than she thinks she ever could have climbed. Her body jolts with remembered terror, and she ducks her head low, looking at the dull ground beneath her steadily moving feet. How did I ever make it up? she wonders. A pointless question, one with an already known answer.

Jon’s name has been in her head for days, refusing to be hidden or destroyed, always bobbing to the surface on a fresh current of pain and anger. She’d told him. She’d made it clear what she would do if he left her. Left her, she thinks with disgust, the words more painful than any wound. Ygritte has never before been someone who could be left and she hates it, she wants to cut that part of her out like a disease. She can still feel the bowstring at her fingertips, can hear the twang and whistle as her arrow flew true, striking Jon Snow not in the heart, as part of her wished, but rather in his thigh, where the rest of her had aimed.

They march on the Wall now, all of them, and she knows he’ll be there. She knows that this time they’ll be enemies, as they once were. Perhaps as they always were. But no, some traitorous part of Ygritte reminds herself, he loved me. He kissed and touched and tasted me, and him a crow and a maid and little more than a boy. It was not her enemy who kneeled before her and touched his tongue to her where she wept for him, wet with desire and vulnerable in a way she cringes to think of now. The things she said to him! How she’d nearly begged him to stay with her there in that cave, how she would have promised him everything and given up all. She had begged and promised and given and still he left and it is not a slight that Ygritte will forget. Her arrows will not miss. It is only a question of where she will aim.

Part of her believes she’ll show him no mercy. Part of her knows she already has.

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The armor fits surprisingly well.

Garlan had never thought himself particularly similar to Renly. To be sure, they shared a like build – the entire reason Garlan wears Renly’s armor now – but Renly had always seemed to carry himself with such assurance, such ease. There was no fat little boy in Renly’s past. No chance of him being called Renly the Rotund or something equally cruel. Garlan supposes it’s just as well; Robert Baratheon was perhaps not as kind an older brother as Willas. He might have given Renly such a terrible nickname himself, rather than preventing it as Willas had done for Garlan. Truth be told, sometimes Garlan still feels like that little boy, Garlan the Gross-cum-Gallant. He feels it even more so compared to a brother as famed and decorated as Loras, a brother who inhabits his skin as easily as Renly ever did.

What Loras cannot inhabit is Renly’s armor. He is too small, his figure far less imposing than needs be to fill the space that Renly left behind. It seems to physically pain him to see Garlan in it. Before this, Garlan had never quite grasped the depth of Loras’s feeling for his dead king. Garlan thinks of his wife, his dear Leonette, safely ensconced at Highgarden. To be without her would make life unthinkable. It would surely leave Garlan a broken man.

It’s still a surprise that Loras has become a man as well. To Garlan he is perennially the little tagalong, chasing after him and Willas, desperate to be included, eager to make a name for himself apart from his brothers. And now he’s done just that, bringing fame to their House and their family, the sort of fame for which Garlan has neither the desire nor the patience. Garlan’s seen so little of him since he went to live at Storm’s End, first becoming Renly’s squire and then his…well, his lover, Garlan supposes, though the word still seems strange to apply to two men, despite the fact that Garlan has known who and what Loras is for long enough to give it little thought beyond wanting his brother to be as happy as anyone in such a situation could be. An urge seizes Garlan to gather Loras in an embrace. The gesture would be futile; even if that sort of thing were a habit between them, the heavy battle armor would make it uncomfortable if not downright impossible. Physical affection has always been Margaery’s purview. Their sweet sister would know the words Loras needs. She could lay a hand on his cheek the way Garlan never has, his relationship with Loras forged through sparring and talk rather than touch. Margaery’s hand would be gentle, her sad smile would be understanding; they had shared Renly, in a sense, as they’ve shared nearly everything since they were small. Garlan’s never shared even half as much with them. Some days he feels he shares nothing more with them than their name.

“Do I pass muster?” he asks. He hears the request in his voice, his plea for permission. His apology that he can wear the armor when Loras cannot, that they must share this one thing Loras would want only for himself. It must be so strange for him to see Renly’s armor on the body of another, as if he’s alive again but not quite. Loras’s lip trembles, his chin pleats into anguished folds, but he swallows down his pain with a gulp, his mouth working as if he is sucking the marrow from a bone.

“You move differently,” he says, his voice clipped, and he turns away to busy himself with some imaginary task, his shoulders seeming to crumple as if pulled down from within. “But I suppose it will do.”

They walk shoulder to shoulder out to the assembled men, striding with a purpose Garlan thinks neither of them truly feels. He wants to tell Loras to return home, to leave off this fight for vengeance. For all that Loras is a knight greater than nearly any in all of Westeros, to Garlan right now, he’s only his brother. Only a little boy, trotting to keep up, wanting to fit in armor that’s too big.

Watching the crowds part before him, seeing the looks on their faces as the King they know to be dead seems to walk through their midst, Garlan thinks perhaps the armor is too big for him as well.

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She dwells on which one is worst.

Not because she wants to. Not because it makes any difference. Only because it is a horrible scab that she can’t keep from picking at, an itch that can never be scratched. When her knees tremble with exhaustion and the wooden yoke of the stockade feels as if it’s choking the breath out of her, when thirst and hunger and fear threaten to drive her mad, the dwelling is what keeps her sane. Or at least some version of sane.

Sometimes she thinks the first one was the most awful, the most destructive. It could have been a year ago or yesterday for how little she is able to mark the passage of time. She does not remember who it was, not his name or his face. Faces are not something she sees often, at least not when they’re raping her. They are only hands and hips and cock and pain. Some days she catalogs the differences – this one moves fast, that one slow, one strikes her with open hands and another uses his fists – but some days she lets them roll into a blur. They are all the same man anyway, no matter how many bodies they inhabit.

The particular cruelty is that she would have lain with them anyway. She thinks perhaps it’s worse to have something brutally stolen that she would have given freely. She dwells on which is worst, but it’s only to distract herself from a truth too painful to bear.

The worst one is always the next one.

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Sarella has been spoiled.

It’s something she’s heard a thousand times if she’s heard it once. “Oh no, I did not mean you,” some have told her, thinking her too unlike her sisters to be spoken of in the same breath. But what is said of one Sand Snake is said of all, and Sarella lets none forget that twice.

In Dorne it had seemed borne of disapproval and envy. Oberyn had indulged his daughters, prizing their wit and encouraging their defiance, teaching them to thumb their noses at the old men hissing judgment and close their ears to the jealousy of women who sought to tear down what they could not have themselves. “Ruined,” the men would spit. “Coddled,” the women would sniff. Sarella and her sisters only laughed, even sweet-tempered Tyene whose weapons were charmed words rather than spears and scowls.

It is only here in Oldtown that she thinks perhaps those people were right.

Her new name fits her easily enough. She’s never thought herself overly like a boy, but none of them seem to blink at her here, none find anything amiss with Alleras, son of Dorne. It seems little different than being a Sand Snake at first. At least until she hears the way they speak of women, thinking themselves in the company of only men, thinking their Citadel sacred and unbreached. They don’t know they speak of her.

What lives must their women lead? she wonders. Or more truly, what lives they’re not permitted to lead. It would chafe like an ill-fitting collar, like these novice’s robes Sarella wears each day, cut from rough cloth in identical patterns, with little thought for the unique person who must inhabit them. It’s a world away from life as Oberyn’s daughter, and Sarella finds herself missing her father with the keenest sort of ache, missing her sisters and her cousins and her home that seems so far away from here, over hill and mountain and desert sand.

These maesters may see Alleras. Sarella will let them. Soon enough they’ll know just who she is. She was not so spoiled that she never learned how to bide her time. They should only hope their women haven't learned the same.

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She’d been learning to read.

She couldn’t read now, even if she wanted to. There are no books in her cell, no scrolls or parchments, not even a single scrap of even the dullest letters. Alayaya would welcome even one of the dull account ledgers her mother has made her study of late, saying she should know where their coin and their comfort come from. Before, they’d made her wish she’d never told her mother of her lessons with Marei. Now she’d pour over one as if it were the most gripping tale ever written.

It’s a two-sided blade, being presumed Tyrion Lannister’s mistress. It’s what allowed her the luxury of reading lessons in the first place. Now it’s robbed her of the chance to read, or indeed do anything else.

She thinks it would have been an easy thing to betray him. Perhaps Queen Cersei would have taken some convincing, but Alayaya thinks she could have managed it. Why she didn’t, she couldn’t say. Anger, perhaps. Defiance. She’d certainly made them work for it when they took her. Or maybe it was just pride, something she’s always had only a little less than too much of. She touches the thin, twisting scab that’s beginning to itch on her lower lip, running an idle fingertip up one side of it and down the other. There had been something satisfying in how her blood had decorated Lannister’s forehead where she’d kissed him. To the Queen it had probably seemed to be a mark of loyalty. A testimony to her role as Tyrion’s mistress, his illicit love.

Alayaya prefers to think of it as a marker on a debt. It’s a debt she won’t let go unpaid. That’s something she’s had all the time in the world to think on in this cell with no books or scrolls or words.

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It’s as if there are two of him. More than two, sometimes. When he shouts out in the canyons and the passes, there could nearly be a dozen of him, calling and shouting and turning him into something more than himself.

He knows that there’s only one of him, no matter how many voices he hears. Sansa has explained to him what happens, how his voice hits the mountains around them, bouncing and bouncing and bouncing until it comes back to him, like he calls to himself and then answers. He knows the fact of it, but that does nothing to diminish the magic. The inside of his head sounds that way when he shakes, but it’s better out in the open than trapped in his skull.

He likes it best when it’s cold enough for his breath to billow out in a cloud before him. He so often feels like he’s barely there; it’s nice to see proof that he is.

He knows it makes Sansa nervous. “Sweetrobin!” she calls ahead to him as he twists behind Mya on the back of her mule, opening his mouth in a round circle to let his breath become almost solid in the air. “Mind that you don’t fall.”

“Mya says her mules never fall,” he calls back, but the wind whips his words away – one more way he’s barely there – so she doesn’t seem to hear. He thinks to tell her again at the next pass, a narrow passageway of hard stone, but he can’t resist calling to himself instead and hearing himself answer, reminding him that he’s real and won’t break apart no matter how hard he shakes. “Hello!” he says to himself, and the world answers, again and again and again, hello, hello, hello.

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The sun seems brighter here, closer.

He knows it isn’t. Barristan is not an especially learned man – though one could count his decades of training as schooling of a sort – but he knows that the sun is equally far away from him, no matter how far from home he ventures. But there’s knowing and there’s feeling, and he’s built his life on the latter far more than the former.

He’s not sure he’ll ever get used to how hot it is in Essos. King’s Landing had been warm and swampy but here it’s searing, the heat unbearable before the sun is even halfway across the sky. It makes the early morning his favorite time of day, before the ghostly mists burn off and the sun is still just a pale disk in a paler sky. Few others are up at this hour; never his Queen, who has taken to late nights and later mornings, but some of the Unsullied, and a few Dothraki women who take advantage of the lesser heat to do their washing on the wide, flat rocks at the river’s edge. But Barristan always rises first. Each morning, he greets the sun alone, and thinks of how many hours will pass before the sun touches the places and the people that once were his home.

There are days that he feels so far from home that the sun might never touch it. But then he reminds himself of what he knows; there is no place all so far. No matter how it seems.

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Simple. It’s a word she hears often, a word that nice people – the sort who smile instead of sneer at her – whisper about her. Not everyone is nice. Some don’t bother to whisper.

It seems a nice thing to Lollys, simple, though she knows it isn’t meant nicely about her. So many good things are simple; her favorite persimmon jam, just fruit and sugar and sticky fingers; the way her pillow feels on a cool night; how kindly her husband smiles at her when he sees her off to bed every evening. So many bad things aren’t simple like that at all. The bad things are dark and angry, with many hands and many faces. They come with pain and confusion and a sense of having done wrong, though she’d never wanted to do anything at all.

Out there, it’s the only thing anyone says about or to her. It’s all she is now, the way simple is all she was before. They look at her with pity, their eyes going to her belly time and again, for reasons Lollys still doesn’t understand. She doesn’t like it. At home, all the hounds look at her with joy, sniffing around her feet for errant bits of food. At home, everyone ignores her thickening waist and lets her have an extra dessert from time to time. At home, there is no darkness, not like the world out there that’s the opposite of simple. Here she can think only about what she chooses. Better to stay home where everything is as simple as she is.

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Her life has long been one of answers. How does one stitch a row, how should fingers play a tune, how must a lady behave? Neatly, swiftly, properly. Why must I?, because it is right, why can I not?, because it is wrong. For all the years she’s been a Septa, Mordane has always had as many answers as there are questions and then one more. The only way to keep control of children is to keep one step ahead of them, after all. Especially girls.

The girls are one step ahead of her now. Maybe more. She prays it’s more, as there is only one question now: where are the Stark sisters?

They ask the question in words, with fists, then with a blade so thin and sharp that it feels like the needles she taught the girls to ply, Sansa’s flashing swift and bright in the afternoon sun while Arya’s dangled uselessly as she craned her neck, hoping to see out the window and into the yard where the boys played at war. She’d driven Mordane to despair back then. Now she’d give anything to be back on one of those afternoons, coaxing, demanding, bullying Arya into being a proper lady. It’s a small comfort now to imagine that Arya’s mulish grit might have helped her flee far from here. It is Sansa she fears for most. Sansa for whom she was once so full of answers and who must have more questions than ever.

She has no answers now, no matter how they try to carve them from her. The answers are hers alone. She’ll take them to her grave, and gladly so.