She delivers her last lines with a sense of melancholy that is not her own, and walks off-stage. Hands grab her; she thrashes.
There is a sharp pinprick of pain at the small of her back, and she feels lassitude begin to creep over her muscles. Her thrashing slows. A hood of scratchy sackcloth is lowered over her head forcefully, cutting off her light and the last of the command she has over her limbs.
Her will to fight, to burn, it transforms into something more akin to idle curiosity: the hood feels like sackcloth, but it is devoid of any of the bad smells that mark this part of Braavos. Instead, a dimly forgotten whiff of cinnamon, of lavender, plays about her nostrils.
Despite her best efforts, Arya Stark dissolves into sleep.
Arya comes to wakefulness in a familiar stone cell. The confusion that marks a normal awakening for her is missing; she knows exactly how, and why, she is here. She scrambles to a sitting position, and realizes the poison has not yet left her veins, for her legs and arms feel inordinately heavy and the persistent pin pricks in her feet--like the bits of a thousand little ants--tell of a slowly returning circulation.
Jaqen H’ghar is sitting cross-legged in front of the closed door.
She blinks at him and scoots backwards till her back is resting against the cold stone wall farthest from her captor. Jaqen H’ghar is dead. She wonders who this is. The Kindly Man? The Handsome Man?
She takes in the three little, unassuming cups sitting in a straight line in front of him, and something tells her it is the Kindly Man. Her executioner, then.
Unbidden, tears form at the corner of her eyes, and she is not sure whether they come from frustration, or fear, or from the sorrow of disappointing the faceless men, and in that moment Arya realizes that despite all of her deceit, despite the secrets she kept close to her breast, despite her defiance, a very large part of her had truly wanted to please him.
“Who are you?” asks that familiar, oft-recalled voice.
“I am Arya Stark.”
“Only a life can pay for a death, Arya Stark.”
The panic is rising in her, like a storm, and she finds herself on her knees before the man that wears Jaqen H’ghar’s face.
“Please, please, I’ll drink it, I’ll drink everything,” she hiccups, she doesn’t know what she is saying and after so long holding herself to the discipline of the faceless men, she finds the words tumbling out of her one after the other with a gracelessness that would have dismayed her just yesterday. “I have people to kill. Please, I’m begging you, kill these people for me, take my life, I’ll pay, I’ll drink anything you want me to, I’ll willingly give you my life, but you have to kill these people for me.”
The faceless man waits, impassive, as she finally runs out of breath.
“You have been at the temple of the Many-Faced God for two years, Arya Stark. Why did you simply not ask this before?”
Is that a trace of exasperation that she detects in his voice? Arya takes a deep breath, brushes aside the distraction, and searches for the true answer to his question. Why didn’t she ask the Faceless Men their price for ridding the world of the names on her list? Because she knew what it was they would ask in return? Because she didn’t want to die? No, that wasn’t right--she wouldn’t mind dying if the filth died with her. So why didn’t she just ask?
An answer comes to her and she rocks back on her heels, lifts her eyes to meet the unblinking storm-grey ones that have been watching her all this while. “Because Eddard Stark taught me that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”
The faceless man smiles, and it is not Jaqen H’ghar’s half-mischievous, teasing smirk but something altogether too kind. “A lie. Arya Stark wants to kill these men herself because she wants to wear the mantle of justice? Tell me, Arya Stark, is Death just?”
Arya inhales. Exhales. “No. Death is not right. Death is not just.”
“What is Death?”
Death is mercy. Her shoulders sag and she lowers her head, two parts ashamed, one part defiant. “I was Mercedene because you wanted to teach me, but I learned it already and I don’t want it. I won’t give it!” She shouts out the last, and when she is done there is nothing but a ringing silence in the room.
“What does want have to do with it?” Had it been Jaqen H’ghar that spoke those words, they would have driven Arya to screaming. But though it is Jaqen H’ghar’s lips that speak them, the words belong to the Kindly Man and so they stop far shy of mockery. “Only a life can pay for a death.”
Arya’s lips thin, her hands curl into fists she holds at her side.
“How many lives will my death buy?” she demands.
The faceless man is silent. There is something wrong with her question. Arya closes her eyes for a moment, tries to think, to rephrase it.
She opens her eyes. “How many deaths will my life buy?”
The faceless man gives her a single, approving nod. “The Many-Faced God seems to be unusually fond of Arya Stark. Arya Stark’s life will buy many deaths, if she offers them to the God, one by one.”
The words release something in her, and the tears threaten to fall. “Do you promise?” Her voice is small; it belongs to the child she had been four years ago.
“The gift will be given,” says the faceless man. “This the God’s servant swears to you.”
“Meryn Trant,” she says. The speaking of the secret is too much for her for a moment and she struggles to master herself. Not that it matters--she is going to die either way, but she is a Stark of Winterfell, and a Stark will not die without dignity.
The faceless man pushes a cup towards her. She keeps her gaze trained on his eyes, those familiar eyes she dreams about sometimes, and lifts the cup to her lips. The liquid is sweet, and fiery, honeyed cinnamon overlaid on something astringent and bitter. She drains the cup, and says, “Ilyn Payne.”
Her head swims, and the faceless man pushes another cup towards her. She lifts it to her mouth and drains it.
She finds herself on her side, her cheek pressed against the stone floor. Her gaze refuses to focus anywhere further than a few finger-lengths away. How did I never see how irregular this floor is? She had always thought it to be smooth, but there are a thousand little craters pockmarking the cold surface.
The third cup is pushed into her field-of-view. “The last name, Arya Stark.”
“Cersei Lannister,” she whispers.
Suddenly, faster than she can follow, the cup is pulled away. Arya finds the will to raise her head, and sees the faceless man looking down at her with something akin to fear in his face. “That one’s death has been written in a long time ago at the hands of another. Choose a different name, Arya Stark.”
She rises further, something like triumph tingling along her veins, though she knows it is just another manifestation of the Many-Faced God’s poison.
“Unsay that name, Arya Stark.”
She lunges for the cup and it seems that she surprises the faceless man because her hand closes around it and she has downed the last dose of poison before he can react properly.
“Cersei Lannister.” The words are soft, whispered, but clear for all the weakness in the breath that utters them. “The name a girl says will not be unsaid. Not today.” A smile flutters at the edge of her too-blue lips.
The world grows furry, and somewhere outside her cell, somewhere far away, a wolf is howling its desolation into the darkness.