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The Truth Belongs to No One

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ARYA

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.

“No.”

“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.

Chapter Text

NO-ONE

A wolf is howling, somewhere far away. A man pauses in his task, his brows furrowed. The pail of water he holds is forgotten as he looks out, across the crenellations of the West Tower marked with black birdshit.

“Be safe, lovely girl,” the man whispers into the darkness. “Be safe. The God has plans for you yet.”

 



 

ARYA

An insistent throbbing in her shoulder draws her from unconsciousness. No dreams, not even wolf-dreams, but she has managed to curl up into a twisted ball on her pallet, trapped her arm under her at an awkward angle.

She uncurls with a groan, sits up. She is rolling her shoulders to relieve the cramp when the events of the past day catch up to her.

Why am I alive?

Waves of panic crest, then recede, leaving behind a bitter taste in her mouth. The taste of failure.

The God did not take her. For all of the Kindly Man’s promises, the God did not want her.

A sudden flash of heat; she is angry, so angry her fingers are tingling with it. It adds to, builds upon, the same banked fury that makes her recite a litany of names like a prayer before sleep. But something has tempered rage, something that is folding it upon itself, layer upon layer; iron folded into steel.

I don’t care if the God doesn’t want me; I’m going to make Him take me.

She stands, brushes off her sleep-crumpled acolyte’s robe. She is fully prepared to hammer on the door till they let her out, and is surprised to find that she is not locked in.

Mid-morning at the House of Black and White is not an entirely quiet time. Priests and servants are walking around, attending to their duties. Once, she catches a glimpse of a Faceless Man she recognizes.

None bar her path. She is looking neither left nor right as she crosses the sanctum, and she misses the gazes--some fearful, some considering, one or two amused, that follow her as she heaves open the heavy doors of the temple.

Needle is where she left it, wedged under a loose rock in the courtyard. She pries out the stone, tucks the sword under her arm, and looks up to find the Handsome Man standing a few meters away.

“What?” she demands.

The faceless man just shakes his head, defensively almost, and lets her pass.

Her return to the temple is marked by more looks, a fascinated sort of interest that disturbs the tranquil air. One or two priests are called upon to restore the solemnity of the sanctum as she kneels beside the pool.

She knows the God supposedly wears many faces, that any of the statues looking down upon her will do, but for her, Him of the Many Faces exists in the clearest manifestation of His will--the pool of gift-giving.

She kneels.

She wonders if the God didn’t take her because the god didn’t want Arya Stark, but she doesn’t know how to give up being Arya Stark. Her thoughts are chasing each other in circles; logic matters less than anger.

Time passes, and brings with it an old woman dressed in faded widow’s weeds. The widow sighs, dips a cup into the pool, and drinks.

Arya Stark kneels, glaring into the pool, angry and accusatory. A cloth-wrapped sword is clutched in her arms.

Some time later, an acolyte comes and takes the old woman’s body away.

When night falls outside and more and more of the candles around the sanctum gutter and go out and are not replaced, she finds in herself enough weariness to give voice to a small part of her would normally, ruthlessly, quash.

Help me understand, please. Help me become no-one. Help me give you Arya Stark.

She spends the first night begging for help.


 

The candles are lit again; the Kindly Man brings out a plate of food and leaves it on the floor beside her.

I will give you three things if you give me vengeance.

None come to the pool that day.

I will give you Needle. Needle for Meryn Trant.

I will give you my face--I'll cut it out myself and give it to you if you give me Ilyn Payne.

Nymeria--she’s the biggest, most lethal, best direwolf the world has ever seen. I will give you a direwolf if you give me Cersei Lannister.

She spends the second night trying to bargain with the God.


 

The Waif comes, with a man cradling a howling baby. The man weeps as he helps the baby swallow a cupful of poisoned water, then goes away, leaving a small still corpse behind. The Waif takes away the plate of uneaten food and leaves behind a bowl of something that smells like fish stew.

I am so tired.

“Meryn Trant,” she whispers.

“Ilyn Payne.”

“Cersei Lannister.”

Her eyes, unfocused, gritty with lack of sleep, focus on something shimmering in the depths of the pool. No, not shimmering. Burning.

A boy is burning with desire, a girl is burning with frustration, a boy is on his knees, his face buried between a girl’s legs, and he is telling her how much he loves her.

A city is burning, and a man’s hands are wrapped around a woman’s swan-pale neck as he chokes the life out of her.

A king is screaming, and a woman is screaming, and the Valonqar has shown his face.

Arya closes her eyes.

A priest with his hood drawn up tight around his face comes to her, picks up the bowl. Fast as lightning, her hand darts out, closes around the Priest’s wrist. “Tell him the last name is unsaid.”

Vengeance will not be visited upon Cersei Lannister by a Stark’s hands. She does not think a Stark could be this cruel, no matter what.

Hands, clenched around the cloth-wrapped bundle, hands relax. The bundle opens, slowly, slowly the cloth unravels, but it is still half-tangled in the blade as it slips into the pool. The oilcloth bobs for a moment, then the weight of the sword drags it down into the dark depths.


 

The third night, Arya Stark begins talking to the God in earnest. She tells him all her stories, one by one.
“I hate dresses…”
.
.
.
“Fat Robert thought I looked like aunt Lyanna…”
.
.
.
“Jon and Theon…”
.
.
.
“Stupid Sansa lied.
.
.
.
“He didn’t let me look. Father knew I was there.”
.
.
.
The priest comes again and kneels beside her for a time. Nobody brings out any food. The priest leaves.


 

The still waters stir. A few bubbles rise to the surface. Then something else rises to the surface. Compelled, almost unconscious, Arya leans forward, out over the pool, and grabs the cloth. A slender piece of metal is all tangled up in it. Needle’s dangling tip cuts a small wake into the liquid surface as she draws it out by the hilt.

On the fourth day, a god talks back to Arya Stark.

Chapter Text

ARYA

She dreams. She is at Harrenhal again, but there is something different about the keep. Banners are flapping in the wind--each banner shows a three-headed dragon rampant on a field of red. She hears the scream of an injured horse and turns around just in time to see a knight unhorsed. It seems Selmy will not be taking the purse after all.

She shifts surreptitiously on the bench; the laces of her dress are digging into the rapidly purpling bruise at her side. She hides her grin behind a demurely raised hand.

The Prince holds the crown and he’s riding for her. Panic suddenly rises, choking her throat. Does he know?

A wreath of blue roses is dropped into her lap from the tip of a lance, and the blacksmith boy she is supposed to marry is glaring daggers at the young Prince. Before she has a chance to refuse the blue-rose crown and start politics or accept it and start a war, someone snags the crown from her lap and tosses it into the air. The crown sails up and away, higher and higher, and suddenly a dragon, its black-and-white scales glimmering in the afternoon sun, swoops in from above and eats the damn thing.

She whirls, and finds a cupbearer standing beside her, three unassuming, empty cups sitting on his tray. She recognizes this man.

She leans over and whispers, “Who is your target?”

Jaqen H’ghar grins. “A man is not in the habit of killing and telling.”

She grins back at him. “I have missed you." It is him and not another of the order wearing his face. "I have missed you so much.”

“A man has plans for a girl. You must come with me.”

The direwolf sitting at her feet whuffs.

“Nymeria is always with me,” she says. “Or I suppose I am with her.”

Jaqen H’ghar looks down at the pony-sized predator. He has a very strange look in his eyes. “A girl would give a man a direwolf?”

She nods.

He quirks an eyebrow, but then his amused expression returns, and he holds out his hand. She stands, but her leg tangles in her skirt.

“M’Lady!” exclaims the blacksmith-boy.

“Go ring your own bell, Gendry,” she spits, and detangles herself from the mess of fabric.

She steps away from the bench, and a thought strikes her. She gives Jaqen H’ghar a mischievous grin. “I will come with you, but I have a condition.”

“What does a lovely girl desire?”

“A girl has no desires,” the words are rote, “but I want a kiss.”

She has surprised him. He actually looks a little disturbed. “Lovely girl, this man does not think anyone has ever asked him for a kiss before. Wouldn’t you rather have a gift?”

She snorts indelicately. “The last person who gave me a gift was a Targaryen Prince. Are you a Targaryen Prince?” Blue roses are erupting out of the ground all around them, their stems made of needle-thin steel.

“Hardly.” There is a trace of disdain in his voice, as if being a prince is beneath his dignity.

“Just so,” she says.

There is a commotion behind them, and out of the corner of her eye she sees the dragon bearing down on the handsome Targaryen.

“Good riddance,” she mutters.

The air is filled with the sound of screaming, the thunder of hooves, the clash of swords against shield, but it is as if the two of them stand in some bubble, suspended out of time.

“My kiss, Jaqen H’ghar.”

“As my lovely girl commands.” A smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. He bends down, closer and closer, his face is mere inches from hers, and she can feel the warmth of his gaze on her skin.

She closes her eyes, and feels a pressure, a breath, ghost over her upturned face. She parts her lips under the pressure of his, and he pulls away. As kisses go, it is as chaste as any her brothers have given her on her name-days.

She sighs.

“Is a girl disappointed?” he asks softly.

She opens her eyes and sees something on his face...as if he has suddenly realized he is lost. She has been taught to press her advantage when her opponent is off-balance; she lowers her gaze, then looks up at him through her dark lashes, mock-coquettish. “It may have been my first kiss, but I have seen kissing before. I want a proper one!”

“Lovely girl,” he pleads, “this is not the time for the types of kisses you want--the types of kisses you make a man want to give you.”

She smirks, and casts one last look over her shoulder. There are more dragons in the sky now, three, twenty, a hundred. They are laying waste to the tourney field; the ground itself is burning. The glitter in her eyes reflects the flame. “I will collect eventually, Jaqen H’ghar.”

“A man wonders if he has bitten off more than he can chew,” he mutters under his breath. Louder, “It will be very dark, where a man takes the lovely girl,” he warns. “She must hold on.”

She places her right hand in Jaqen’s outstretched palm. His hand is warm, almost too-warm, as if a fire burns under the surface of his skin. Her fingers close around his.

“A girl has a strong grip,” he says, surprised again.

“This girl is not in the habit of letting go,” she replies.

He smirks. “Just so.”

And he is right. There is nothing but darkness where he takes her.



 

NO ONE

“Pate! Pate!”

Rosey is shaking his shoulder.

He passes from dream-drunk stupor to alert wakefulness between one breath and the next.

“What time is it?”

“Before the cock crows, darling. You were talking in your sleep...did you have a nightmare?”

He grows preternaturally still. His kind never talk in their sleep--those with such a predilection have it trained out of them early on. “What did I say?” his voice is deceptively soft. His fingers are reaching, reaching ever so slowly for the blade he keeps wedged between the bed-frame and the wall.

“I don’t know.” Rosey is unconcerned. “I don’t even know what language it was. You really are dedicating yourself to your studies, if you’re even dreaming in another tongue.” Happiness wars with irritation in her tone--he has been spending more and more nights away from her bed lately.

“I have been studying High Valyrian,” he informs her in a lofty tone. Pate’s tone, Pate’s pride.

“Well, whatever it was, it gave you a nightmare. See, you’re crying!”

He blinks. His fingers ghost over his face, find trails of moisture.

He remembers wisps of a dream, cloudy images witnessed through a pane of frosted glass. He remembers watching a tournament. Blue roses.

Darkness.

He has done something.

No.

The God has done something. Something that has shattered the symmetry of the world into little pieces.

The God has worn a man’s face while doing it.

Chapter Text

ARYA

She does not quite understand what it means for Arya Stark to be dead, for she feels well, she feels alive. She has heard the Kindly Man’s footsteps coming towards her, and she is awake and stretching when he reaches her side. She stands and receives a piece of bread and cheese which she proceeds to wolf down hungrily.

They leave the pool together and walk down, down and down, the steps leading to the Hall of Faces. The days that have passed before feel like a dream to her.

“Did...did that really happen?”

The Kindly Man, walking beside her, doesn’t answer. That she has Needle banging into her thigh with every step downwards is answer enough. She knows there was more, she remembers something, something equal parts thrilling and terrifying; joyous and disappointing.

“What did I do?” she says aloud.

“You offered up names to the God,” replies the Kindly Man, though the question had been half-rhetorical.

“So what happens next?” She is mercurial, this girl, and now she is almost bouncing down the steps beside him.

“You become a faceless one.”

“I thought I was already allowed to use the faces!”

The Kindly Man smiles. “The death-masks, yes, with a little blood magic, and we suffer the nightmares for it. But the faces each of us was born with...the God takes them. Then, should he choose it, he grants them to all of us, along with the memories of who we were before we became no-one.”

Death is mercy. Him of Many Faces takes suffering, divides it up into little pieces and scatters it to the wind.

Her secret litany of names, the spreading of her memories through the House of Black and White, it would have panicked Arya Stark. It would have shattered her, along with the mask of strength and indifference and hate and rage she had fashioned for herself. But she has offered up Arya Stark to the God, and if the Kindly Man is to be believed, she will have the use of many, many more masks, masks that belong to people that have suffered far more than her; she will have a portion of their fortitude. The thought sobers her. Jaqen H’ghar. She would know. A slow fire, born of curiosity and anticipation, begins to smolder deep in the pit of her stomach, but the question she asks is very indirect.

“So I could wear your face?”

The Kindly man smiles again. “We shall see.”


 

It turns out that she cannot.

It takes a prayer and a gesture, but more than that, it takes the ability to hold onto the memories that come with the face, and the Kindly Man’s memories--of a language so far removed from anything she has learned, of a father, a master that in his perversion has not even a shred of the things that once moved within Eddard Stark’s breast--are too alien for her to hold on to for long, and the Kindly Man’s face slips off her own even as the memories escape through her fingers like smoke.

“It comes with time,” says the Kindly Man. “Experience. You are too young.”

She looks at her own face...Arya Horseface...in the mirror, and cannot wait any longer.

“Jaqen H’ghar,” she whispers, the name entwined about a prayer, and sees her visage waver, her hair lighten and become strange. The memories pool, insistent, somewhere in the space between thoughts, and she must close her eyes.

She sees...a dark place. The stink of sickness and mold, the miasma of urine and shit permanently plastered into floors. She is walking towards a man lying in a corner. The man is praying. The man is begging. The man receives the gift by her hand.

Eventually, she opens her eyes and looks into mischievous, sly blue eyes framed by red and white hair.

It seems Jaqen H’ghar’s face is one she can hold on to.

“Interesting,” says the Kindly Man. She glances up at him, and his brow is furrowed. “You are very young.”

She shrugs, a smirk tugging up one side of Jaqen H’ghar’s mouth in the mirror. “Valar Dohaeris.”

Chapter Text

ARYA

Despite everything, there is a thread of anxiety still wound around her spine as the Kindly Man leads her back to the upper corridors of the House of Black and White.

A group of faceless men--masters, all--are sitting in a loose circle, talking idly amongst themselves as if they are just passing the time till something happens. She recognizes some of the waiting faces.

She stands before the loose circle, and holds out her hand, the sword glimmering in the dim candlelight.

“This is Needle,” she says.

She sorts through all the stories she has told the god, and picks and chooses the ones that feel important.

They let her speak.

“I have a wolf. A direwolf. Her name is Nymeria. I dream about her...I dream her…”

“I didn’t pass my test. Not really. There was a cat in the alley…”

She speaks for a long time.

When she is done, “Who are you?,” asks her teacher, and his voice is kind.

“I am Arya Stark,” she says, and the words she utters are true, and yet...not enough. “And,” she hesitates, “Arya Stark belongs to the Many-Faced God.”

Some of the masters exchange looks with each other. The Kindly Man does not break eye-contact with her, but loosely cups his hands before him and lifts them to his face. To her it looks like a prayer, and then his face is covered for a moment and when he drops his hands the face he wears is that of a young girl on the cusp of a bitter womanhood: grey eyes that blaze out of a gaunt, heart-shaped face. A ragged mess of cropped, dark hair.

The Waif mimics the Kindly Man’s gesture, and a moment later there is another Arya in the room. And then she is surrounded by faceless ones wearing Arya Stark’s face. Each mask displays something distinctly different from the blank, emotionless mien she has learned to adopt. But hatred and anger and defiance--there is no trace of these things.

She realizes the faceless men are weeping the tears Arya Stark could not weep for herself.

After some time, a soft whisper begins somewhere to her left; a susurration that slowly moves from one side of the room to another.

“Merryn Trant.” Valar Morghulis.

“Ilyn Payne.” Valar Dohaeris.

“Merryn Trant.”
.
.
.
The girl is silent and each Arya Stark around her takes up her secret prayer as if it is a holy thing.



 

NO ONE

A man wakes in his over-warm, stuffy cell within the Citadel. Pate is a valued servant, a man with his fingers in many pies. Pate’s favoured status leads to his cell sharing a wall with the Maesters’ kitchens and though the cell is stiflingly hot in the bread-baking hours, warmth will be scarce when winter comes. The men at the Citadel are smart men, and there has been a definite air of approval about some of them as Pate finally gains the second link of his Maester’s chain and calls in petty favours to move into the room next to the kitchens.

The man turns his thoughts to the reason for his waking: the god’s fingers resting in the hollow of his throat, tapping, tapping in rhythm with the man’s slow and even pulse.

There is a new Faceless One in the world.

There had been no candidate on the cusp of facelessness when he left Braavos but a handful of years ago. It takes many years for a candidate to surrender his identity, to surrender himself to the god. Not since a man’s own coming to the Many-Faced-One--and a man’s dedication is exceptional for many reasons--has a candidate been made faceless is so little a time. The man remembers a formless dream, the sense of something shattering, someone dying though he knows not who. What has the God done?

A memory rises unbidden--unbidden save for the tap-tapping of the God’s finger on a man’s pulse. A lovely face twisted with hate and with need, dark eyes that were bottomless pools of bewildered rage.

Arya Stark.

Jaqen H’Gar died a very long time ago, and in dying, Jaqen H’Gar became a blank slate for the God to write upon. The Many-Faced-One’s will is made manifest in the subtle movements of a man’s thoughts, in the stirring of a man’s passions. A man notices a person’s horse is exceptionally fine, and the God says to a man, “Look carefully, that is the horse you will ride out of this keep,” and so it happens. A man feels hate stirring in his breast when he looks upon a woman’s face, and the God says to a man, “Listen carefully to that one’s name,” and not a ten-day later, the missive from the House of Black and White is sitting in his hand, and the name on the paper is matched to the face that has prompted hatred in one that has no hate of his own. So when a man’s thoughts, words, deeds are wretched out of his own grasp and put to serving the needs of a little girl, a man sits up and takes notice. The girl awakens in him a storm of emotions that a man thought died with Jaqen H’Gar--protectiveness, care, warmth. Amusement. A seed of something more, as if it is a memory of an event that has not yet happened. Arya Stark breeds discord in him, and confusion, and being confused is certainly not one of the Many-Faced One’s attributes.

When it comes to Arya Stark, a man cannot tell where a man’s own emotions end and the God’s begin.

A man has served the One for far too long not to know that that too is the Many-Faced-One’s will.

Sitting in Pate’s overwarm cell, a man should wipe away Pate’s face and pray to receive the memories of his new brother--or sister. But the same uncertainty, the irresistible pulling he has learned to call Arya Stark churns beneath his breast, and for only the second time in his life, he denies the God.

Not today.

The God seems to be amused.

A scant ten-day later, a white raven brings a missive to the man, and he cannot help but swear profusely at the names written on the paper; a smile he is unable to suppress tugs at his lips.

Meryn Trant.

Ilyn Payne.

Chapter Text

NO ONE

The Red Keep is eerily quiet.  The clammy air sends tendrils of fog to creep along the outer walls even as a weak sun rises in the east. A small hooded figure slips into a knot of servants making their way through the postern gate. The figure carries a basket and two wineskins slung over the shoulder. The basket is discarded in the first empty corridor the figure crosses.

This part of the keep smells moldy, the hour is early and the goldcloaks that have drawn last-watch duties are dreaming of their beds. The tower is not the bustling, bureaucratic hub it used to be--the clerks congregate upon the other side of the keep now.

“Hey, girl! Is that wine?” All the men perk up at their fellow-guard’s question.

The figure trembles, gives a silent nod.

“Ah, give it here then!”

The figure shakes its head. “Called for by m’Lord,” the figure whispers.

“Not both of them! Come on little girl, leave us one !”

The figure darts forward, places one of the wineskins on the table, then whirls around and runs up the stairs, bare feet making not even a whisper upon the cold stone floors.



 

 

MERYN TRANT

“Drunkenness!” The Hand’s shouts had certainly roused the Keep, at least temporarily.

One skin,” mutters the Commander of the Guard, his head bowed in shame--or the pretense of shame. He resents being ordered, ordered to the Tower of the Hand at this hour. He resents the gold he had to part with because the brothel-keeper demanded his due, and no matter that the Commander had barely started. He resents the impotent man in front of him.

The Hand glowers. “A single skin of wine does not leave four full-grown men half-insensible, Ser Meryn! Almost half a watch. There. Was. Nobody. Guarding. Me. You understand?”

“I understand, my Lord. I swear to you, this will not happen again.”

Meryn Trant burns with shame, for he knows everyone can hear the shouting, and servants are gossiping even as Trant feels the rough side of the Hand’s tongue.

The audience ends.

Ser Meryn’s face is mottled with rage and frustration. He strides across a small, covered stone terrace, his thoughts focused on what he is going to do to the numbskulls under his command. A shadow flickers at the corner of his eye, and the next thing Meryn Trant knows is pain.

He can’t see clearly; he is on his knees. A hooded figure is standing above him, holding a slim sword--a bare needle of metal; its tip is embedded in Meryn Trant’s liver. His lungs are burning, his fingers are burning, he can’t get enough breath to speak. The pain laps against his throat in waves.

Poisoned!

The pain turns to agony. The figure standing over him raises a hand and pulls back its hood. Even in his death throes, Meryn Trant finds a reserve of fear unknown to him till this moment: there is a ghost standing in front of him.

“For Syrio Forel,” hisses Lyanna Stark. “For the First Sword of Braavos. Valar Morghulis.”



 

 

NO ONE

It seems the Citadel’s kitchens are experiencing a shortage of meat, for this is the third time in a week that cabbage has been served. The man surveys his bowlful of boiled mush, then seems to settle on tearing a piece off his loaf of bread instead.

“Pate!”

“Tarly,” replies Pate. “There was a raven for you from up north--I sent a boy with the message.”

“Yes, I know,” says Samwell Tarly as he drops his own bowl and trencher of bread onto the table and seats himself across from Pate. “I was expecting the raven a week ago! I went looking for you, too...where were you?”

Pate looks down. “I had to spend some time with a wineskin.”

Concern marks Samwell’s face. “Is everything alright?”

Pate sighs. “I had a fight with Rosey. She’s going to get married to a pork merchant, of all things.”

Samwell’s lips are pressed together tightly; he shakes his head sympathetically. “I’m sorry to hear that, Pate, I know you liked her.”

“All this time doing whatever I could to get a link…” he fingers the chain around his neck. “A pork merchant. Can you believe it? The man's just as disgusting as his pigs--she'll probably sicken and die before they've been married a year.”

“I'm sure she's making a mistake," says Tarly.

Pate shrugs. In the silence, Samwell pauses to chew. Pate’s thoughts appear to be somewhere far away, his gaze unfocused. The small smile that slowly blooms on his face in response to his thoughts, whatever they are, is soft.

“Why are you smiling?” asks Samwell.

Pate turns to look at his fellow Maester-in-training. “I’m smiling?”

“Yeah,” says Sam. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you’d fallen in love with someone new!”

Pate tears off another mouthful of bread, considers Sam’s words. “I think I have,” he says finally. “At least, the idea of someone new.” Suddenly, he changes tack. “You’ve been in the North, you know the nobles up there…”

Samwell waves his hand in disagreement.

“Now, Tarly, false modesty is very unbecoming. You served on the Wall with Eddard Stark’s natural-born son!”

Samwell nods, cautious.

“How old does a northern girl have to be before she takes a man to her bed?”

Samwell Tarly’s brows furrow with confusion. “ I don’t know!” It is his turn to become thoughtful. “Lady Sansa was twelve when she was promised to Prince Joffery, she’d have been what, fourteen, if they’d had a wedding? But my sisters,” and now his voice grows strident. “If it was in my power, they wouldn’t wed before they were thirty !”

Pate has asked about bedding, not wedding; Samwell Tarly’s preconceptions are showing. Still, it’s more information on the topic than Pate has ever had before. “So thirty would be a good age for a girl to contemplate such matters,” Pate murmurs, almost to himself.

Nineteen year old Samwell Tarly tilts his head to one side. “Well...sixteen might be all right. I suppose.”

“But thirty is better.”

“For my sisters, at least. But why are you asking all this?”

His words are met with a smile--a sly smile, quite different from Pate’s habitually obsequious expression. “A man must inform his fantasies... if a man is going to have them, they might as well be optimized.”

Samwell Tarly flushes. “Who optimizes their girl fantasies?

Pate shrugs.

Samwell loses some of his embarrassment to ask, “You’re thinking you want a northern lass?”

“Well,” says Pate. “I have this whole story. Would you like to hear it?”

Fascinated despite himself, Samwell nods.

“So...say there is a noble house with a daughter. The principles of the house are murdered, an usurper has taken control of the family seat…”

“Classic,” says Samwell. “She is the sole survivor, of course, and all her thoughts are turned to vengeance.”

“Precisely,” says Pate. “But she needs help.”

“Help that only you ,” Samwell stabs towards his companion with a spoon,” can provide. For some reason.”

Pate nods.

“And then what?” asks Sam. “She marries you out of gratitude and you become a great lord?”

Pate purses his lips. “No. The lady has grown strange in her years away from the station of her birth. After she claims her vengeance, she finds herself too restless, too wild to be bound to the strictures of nobility. And so one day she slips away into the darkness, taking nothing with her except her sword, her loyal hound, and her...friend.”

Something strange is happening to Tarly, and Pate realizes his companion’s pudge is shaking as he tries to suppress his giggles.

“That,” gasps Sam, “is much better than Rosey and her pork merchant.”

“I suppose,” says Pate, a strange light in his eyes.

Sam suddenly sobers. “And that’s why you were asking about the North--the war has decimated the houses up there, lords have been murdered...but Pate, I don’t think there’s too many great ladies missing, per se.”

Pate looks up. “I thought your Lord Commander’s sisters were .”

Sam chokes. “You want to marry Jon’s sisters?”

Pate’s mouth twitches. “Only one of them, for preference.”

Sam shakes his head. “Only one fits your story--Lady Arya has married the Bolton’s bastard, whats-his-name, Randy, Ressly? Something like that. But Lady Sansa is still missing.”

“Ramsay,” says Pate. “Ramsay Snow.”

Sam acknowledges the correction with a wave of his hand. “Jon wouldn’t approve of you marrying Lady Sansa, no offence. But I guess if you found her and got her safely to the wall, and she really, really liked you...I guess it might happen. But from what Jon says, she’s a real little lady, you know, not the type to slip off into the night with a sword…”

“Well,” says Pate, his tone quite reasonable. “It is my fantasy, so I don’t see why Arya Stark has to be married in it. Maybe Arya Stark fled across the Narrow Sea to Braavos, and is even now training to become a deadly assassin in order to avenge her family; the Boltons married an imposter to cement their hold on the North.”

Sam’s eyebrows rise. “And in your fantasy, Arya Stark will return to Westeros soon. She’ll have to pass by Oldtown...for some reason...on her way North.”

Pate’s face is blank. “I like your thinking, my friend. Yes, she must pass near Oldtown. And then she will meet a man on the road.”

“And what exactly is this man doing on the road?”

“Well,” Pate thinks for a while. “Perhaps a man has a friend--a friend that must go North and become the Maester of the Night’s Watch. But the man’s friend finds that he is...bound to the Citadel.”

Sam’s eyes narrow. “Why would the friend be bound ?”

Pate’s mouth twitches. “A girl? A book? Dragons ?” He knows the book that Tarly has been deciphering for the past two months.

Sam flushes again. “Dragons. Right. Go on.”

“The man’s friend is a dutiful person, he knows the Night’s Watch needs a Maester, so he begs his friend to take his place on the Wall. The friend agrees…meets a lone girl on the road.”

“The girl is, of course, the lady-turned-assassin Arya Stark. Who agrees to travel with a Maester because…?”

“There’s safety in numbers,” says Pate calmly. “And she can tell he is not a threat to her .”

Sam snorts. “Only her virtue.”

Pate tilts his head to the side, considering the statement. “Not until she is thirty.”

Sam's pudge shakes and shakes, and Pate finally joins in the laughter.

The two leave the table together and Pate does not spare a single glance for his untouched, now-congealed cabbage stew.

Samwell Tarly’s bowl has been licked clean.

Chapter Text

ARYA

One morning, the Kindly Man greets her during a meal with an instruction to report for “Advanced Training”. She tries very hard to contain her joy; the Kindly Man disapproves of the haste with which she shovels her porridge in her mouth.

She walks into the training room with an armload of weapons--staff, broadsword, her ever present companion Needle, two dirks.

The room is occupied. A man she does not know, it could be anyone, but she knows somehow that she has never met him before. He is sitting on a small stool, his fingers steepled before him, eyes half-closed.

“Put them down,” he says, startling her. “You will not have a needing of them.”

That accent, that inflection... Syrio . But Syrio is dead, and she refuses to cry. She clears her throat instead. “I came for advanced training.”

“Yes, a girl did. But those are not the weapons I will have the teaching of.”

She has learned better than to ask questions. She keeps her face impassive as she carefully places the weapons in a corner. Then she walks to the center of the room, clasps her hands together and waits. Patiently. At least, as patiently as she can.

“What makes a fine warrior the finest , Arya Stark?”

His words invoke the ghost of the First Sword of Braavos. “The seeing,” she says confidently. “The true seeing.”

“Just so,” he says, and gestures for her to sit upon the ground. He waits for her to grow still again before he speaks.

“It is a mistake they are making, the ones of Lorath, to teach you. There are fundamental...lacunae...in your understanding, and their way will not address these.”

“What lacunae?” She asks, stung. “The Kindly Man was a very good teacher! I am no one !”

“Kindly Man, is it? This naming habit of yours...” He shakes his head. “Still, there are being ways to serve Him of the Many Faces. The ways of the Lorathi require an abnegation of the self, an emptying, so that Death may find a home.”

She nods through her flash of panic. “I am empty!”

“Little girl,” he says, “the Lorathi way is not for you.” She looks up, finds him considering her. “From today, I will be your teacher, and for me you will go down to the city, and you will do some things.”

The panic grows, they’re sending me away? But...she knows better; the strange breath that breathes in time with her pulse on some nights, that breath returns and fills her with a reassurance whose source she does not wish to probe too deeply. “I don’t understand,” she whispers.

The faceless man nods. “The followers of the Lorathi way speak in riddles and cryptic utterances. They are forever reflecting on the self to understand it. In understanding, they are annihilating it.” Is that a note of disapproval she detects in him?

You’re not un-cryptic yourself, new teacher. “You do not follow this way,” she says aloud.

“No, I do not, and neither will you.”

“So what way will I follow?”

A smile finally blooms on his face. “You, Arya Stark, will be trained in the Braavosi Way.”


 

Apparently the Braavosi Way involves carrying buckets. Buckets of water, buckets of fish-guts, buckets of whatever-the-hell it is the Temple needs carrying to and from the market.

“You’re slow , girl,” says her Braavosi master as she pants up the steep pathway to the midden, two large buckets destined for the compost pile balanced over her shoulder. “Your intellect will not unravel death. You want too many things. You have no focus.”

“Focused enough to kill ,” she mutters under her breath. He hears her anyway, and chuckles.

“When you are too exhausted to fight yourself, too exhausted to hold on to your emotions, you will be too exhausted to fight Death. Then you will learn.”

But of course, she thinks to herself, once I’m dead of old age, having spent my life as an unpaid bucket-carrier to the House of Black and White, the answers to all mysteries will be revealed!


 

A ten-day passes, then another, filled with errands punctuated by bouts of bucket-carrying. One night she collapses onto the stone bed in her cell, too tired to change the rushes, too tired to recite any names or bid the God good-night as she has taken to doing in the months since the pool. Her muscles ache, her feet ache, her hands are blistered.

“Kill me now,” she mutters, her own voice startling her in the silence.

Oh.

She lies motionless, quiet as a mouse, as if the realization is a fragile one and movement will scare it away.

Eventually, she chuckles to herself. Buckets of fish-guts.

Valar Morghulis. She had been stating it as a sentence, a threat, a promise to the names on her list--all of them would die. At Arya Stark’s hand. In the absence of that threat, Valar Morghulis...it became something different. All suffering will end, eventually. All thoughts will be still, and aching muscles and torn ligaments will no longer matter.

Valar Morghulis.

She dashes away her tears angrily, trying to hold on to the sense of purpose, the sense of vengeance that has gotten her so far. But it withers and floats away, as if even the most fragile of understandings is more powerful than the passionate hatred. Justice, right , honor--what did any of the mean? A person can slow or hasten the journey, but Death waits at the end of it always. Arya Stark will have her revenge on her enemies, and they will have their revenge on her; in the end, everyone is food for the worms.

She is not the hand of justice. She is not vengeance. She is not the ghost of Harrenhal. The God is everything, and everywhere, and she is just one more wayfarer with the power to help or hinder another one’s journey.

Valar Morghulis.

In the wake of the thoughts, there comes another, more urgent. So why does the God want me?


 

She wears Jaqen H’ghar’s face. She’s doing that more and more now, at least in the public corridors. She’s seen others doing the same, and she wonders why that particular face. Vanity, perhaps? It is one of the most handsome of the faces she’s seen around. But the face is also one of the more reassuring visages, and perhaps the others wear it because those that come seeking the gift beside the pool benefit from such reassurance. Perhaps the Lorathi faceless see the wearing of his face as some sort of symbol of self-negation.

She sees in it a pleasant anonymity, a belonging-yet-not. She feels comfortable in his skin, and that is all to it. Perhaps that is all to it for some of the others as well.

She seeks out her Braavosi teacher; he is showing two men the right way to hold a staff. The younger of the two is spindly, clearly just back from the sickbed--or on his way to it. The other, a scarred, ebony-skinned man of middle years, grips his staff with such passionate intensity it interferes with the the weapon’s freedom of movement. Neither wear the black-and-white. Not acolytes, then.

“Valar Morghulis,” she says by way of greeting.

“Valar Dohaeris,” return three voices, two synchronized, one a heartbeat too late.

Hold that stance,” orders the faceless man in Low Valyrian. “Now,” he turns to her. “What is it that you are wanting?”

“I have a question,” she says.

The faceless man gestures for her to continue.

She is not sure if the two newcomers to the temple understand High Valyrian, but clearly they do speak the Low. So her question is couched in Westerosi. “Why does Death want a girl? A man? Why does He need any of us? Valar Morghulis, right?”

Her Braavosi teacher’s eyes crinkle, and a smile--a smug smile--blooms on his face.

“What’s so funny?” she demands.

The smile is broader now. “The Lorathi have been trying to get you to understand, to ask, for what, two years now?” He chuckles. “With all their testing and blindings, and ‘I am no one’...Pah!” He gestures. “All you needed was some healthy exercise, like that all young people need! And now you come to a Braavosi , asking the right questions, while you wear his face! This is magnificent!

“They taught me a lot!” she says, quick to take offense.

“They taught you a lot,” he agrees, “but not the things they were trying to teach you! And now you learn.” There is a great deal of self-congratulation in his voice.

“I didn’t come to you so you could lord it over my old teachers,” she grumbles.

“Three things,” he says with a wide grin. “Wits, weapons, and winning. It is the Braavosi way!”

She cannot help it, his humor is infectious. She grins, and remembers all the times she said she was “no one” and didn’t lie well enough to avoid the back of a hand. Focus. I have a question that needs answering . She tries again. “ He has no use for the whole  guild-and-gold aspect of it. So why?

Instead of an answer, the Braavosi tosses her the staff. “Show them how it is done,” he says, and walks out of the training room.

“That’s not an answer!” she shouts at his back. “You said no riddles!”

“Valar Dohaeris!” he calls back over his shoulder. “I need a drink.”

With a sigh, she turns back to the students. The two valiantly hold their staves horizontal at shoulder height, their arms extended out from their bodies. The spindly one’s muscles are trembling.

“This is bull shit,” says the scarred man. His voice is a deep, deep baritone. “I have been fighting for years, I do not need to be trained.”

“So show me,” says Arya, and picks up one of the clean sweat-rags from its basket. She ties a blindfold over her eyes. “Both of you. Together.”

Within a hundred heartbeats, the spindly one has sagged against a wall, gasping for breath.

A staff clatters away. The large one is on his backside on the ground in front of her.

She takes off her blindfold and sees an expression of terror on the man’s face.

She relaxes her stance, plants her staff butt-first in the ground. “Don’t be afraid,” she says, gently. “I hastened your fall--but you would have fallen no matter what. Better at my hand, who bears you no ill will, than someone else who just wants to hurt you.”

She blinks.

Ah.

Yet again, the fragile understanding is accompanied by sorrow; a sorrow born of the necessity to bid farewell to a familiar desire. My enemies will not die by my hand. And yet on the heels of that thought comes another, a thought that calms her regret.

The God is taking care of them for me.

Chapter Text

The gift is cold sleep in a cup, swift and painless. A man does not need to wear the face of Arya Stark this time, but he does anyway. The dead man sent many to the God, but his name was spoken. Ilyn Payne is given peace, but he is not its primary recipient--the God’s peace is for a little girl lost these past few years, a little girl who burned for this death. And so it is done.

A man slips away into the shadowed corridors of the barracks at King’s Landing. It holds Lannister men now, for the most part. Two of them, sent back from the riverlands to nurse their injuries, play cards on a dimly-lit table, against a third--the king’s old groundskeeper, who has never bestirred himself to travel farther than than Royal Preserves.

The man is walking past them, avoiding their line-of-sight, when the thread of a conversation reaches his ears.

“...wolf’s head…”

He slows, then changes direction and positions himself in a dark alcove. He listens. There is talk of a wedding, and a young man--a boy, really--murdered, his corpse paraded through the streets.

The man closes his eyes and takes deep breaths to still his shaking hands. The memory is vivid, lit by torchlight and agony: his lovely girl witnessed this thing these men speak of, this thing these men boast of to an old servant who is over-awed by treachery.

The man listens, hidden in his alcove, and the bewildered panic--not his own, but no less keenly felt--drains out of him. His rage-- his rage--is a calculated thing, and it rises as inexorably as the tides of the drowned god.

The man learns many new names.

Frey and Lannister, Lannister and Frey...he picks and chooses from the names. Walder Frey . It will make a good third for the girl’s choosing.

The man moves, a whisper of steel sliding between one boast and the next, and the three slump over the table even as gouts of blood spurt make the playing cards unplayable.

The man contemplates the corpses. Some men offer bouquets of flowers and honeyed words to lovely girls... some gods give home and hearth and children. But she wouldn’t have asked Him of the Many Faces for a kiss if it was home and hearth and children she wanted.

And a certain coin used for passage across the Narrow Sea puts to rest any question of non-poisonous flowers.

So.

The man grabs each of the Lannister heads by the hair and quickly saws through the bone and tissue connecting them to their bodies. He leaves a drip-trail of blood behind him, the heads dangling at his side, till he reaches a storeroom. There, he unfolds a crimson Lannister cloak--an officer’s cloak--and wraps up the heads, tying off the bundle with a rather decorative bow.

A bouquet of dead Lannisters it shall be.

 


 

 

The inn he stays at has a back door and asks no questions, not of a blood-covered Pentoshi sailor at this time of night. The room contains a mirror and a basin--an almost unheard-of luxury in Flea Bottom, but the objects are more useful to a man than coin.

He is scrubbing the now-dried blood from his fingernails when he catches his own gaze in the mirror. Blood droplets spot his face, and the smile he wears...the man’s head droops, and he must needs breathe again.

What have I done?

His gaze is compelled to the corner of the room where the rough plank floor is already being discolored by the bloody cloak that sits on it.

The man staggers to the center of the room and kneels. Prayer is not a thing that is done by the Lorathi in a manner recognized by any of the world’s other religions. For the Lorathi, prayer is...a state of mind.

The man breathes. In. Out. With each breath, he draws his awareness into himself, curls it up tighter and tighter.

In. Out.

Life swarms all around him, inside him. His body is alive with a thousand pinpricks of life, and the God’s miracle is carried out a thousand times with each breath as life is extinguished.

Jaqen H’ghar is as still as death.

In. Out.

Jaqen H’ghar is dead.

In. Out.

Jaqen H’ghar is death.

Meaning is a trick of perception. Words can be repeated till the lose their meaning. Faces can be made to do the same. Without opening his eyes, he slips into the face of a brother in the House, then into hers, then into the face of another, then into hers.

He breathes.

Eventually there comes a time that he can shift into her face without the clawing want , without the thoughts that circle each other like wolves chase their tails. A man has no desires. A man has no wants. A man is no one.

And then he looks inwards.

Why does a man pause before sleep, and fantasize that a lovely girl wishes him a good night on the other side of the world? Why did a man fall to a state where he took trophies , like a madman, before he realized there was a problem?

Most of the emotions that came to a man after his death are sourced in the God’s will. The direwolf-dreams he has been experiencing the past year come from the God. But the God is not one to sit in a garden and pick petals off a daisy, chanting “she loves me, she loves me not.” Blaming the God for Jaqen H’ghar’s newfound notions is an error Jaqen H’ghar has systematically made over the past few months.

So where does the God end and Jaqen H’ghar begin?

He casts his mind back to their first meeting. She was a puzzle, then--responsive to courtesy of all things, a girl in a boy’s garb, savage and wild and yet cultured to the marrow of her bones. She was a lovely puzzle, and he had been sitting in a cage for weeks. As an amusement he offered her his true name. Identity for identity, it was a fair trade. This one is called Jaqen H’ghar.

He had observed her manner of speaking, the sword, the way she paid more attention to some words in conversations. She was a highborn girl on the run, his lovely boy.

Arya Stark.

The name had come to him in the night. And that was when the God took notice of her. Curiosity and amusement had turned to something more intense...a watching. An obsession, even then?

The God told him to test her; what would a noble girl do if she saw a man burning to death? Act nobly, of course.

But there was so much courage in her. If Jaqen H’ghar had a heart it would have broken at the perfection of her courage.

Then, later, he saw her eroded, suppressed, a wolf compressed to the size of a mouse. And a man felt anger. Not the God’s anger. Jaqen H’ghar’s . But the God’s anger kept lockstep with the man’s for all that a man hid his own by playing a silly game.

The force of the realization is such that he finds himself shaking: the God chose Arya Stark the moment she gave a man his own name.

So where does the god end and Jaqen H’ghar begin?

The God is not interested in the things that happen between men and women. So why Jaqen H’ghar’s sudden surge of such interest in the girl, a child ? She is six-and-ten now, but his memories of her end with the girl-child dying beside a pool.

The memories of her .

A man looks at himself in her memories.

Heart-wrenching awe, and faith, and blind, blind trust.

A man does not deserve the pedestal his lovely girl has put him on. Would she have forgotten the names on her list if she did not hold Jaqen H’ghar in such high esteem? If Jaqen H’ghar had not taught her Valar Morghulis ? Would she even how have hearth and home and children? A man does not have a heart but it is breaking nonetheless.

He stills himself. Breathes.

In. Out.

No. The God has claimed her now. Valar Morghulis --she would have come to Him one way or another. It was not her response he has to untangle, a man reminds himself, but Jaqen H’ghar’s.

Response.

Kindred to kindred, question to answer. The girl-child had no understanding of what she wanted at their last meeting, and how could she? But an errant thought, a momentary almost-subconscious comparison between Jaqen H’ghar and someone else, and Jaqen H’ghar snagged on the thorns of her need for vengeance. Jaqen H’ghar became a seed.

A man did not start obsessing about a lovely girl till he received her memories. But once he received them, that seed of thought was informed by the experiences of an adult that knows how things lie between men and women; it was the closest approximation he had to her proto-thought. And now this tiny spark, this seed flares into a conflagration.

Others have brought infatuation, and love and loss to the House of Black and White before; a man has experienced all of this through his brothers and sisters. And yet no passion, however intense, has ever drawn him in and flayed his reason from him. No desire has ever been amplified and focused back upon its author.

How can you amplify a thing if you are not in resonance with it?

No. Jaqen H’ghar has never wanted anyone that way since Jaqen H’ghar died. The girl is compelling, more compelling than anyone he had ever met before. But no matter how beautiful or lethal or brilliant the woman she is to become, it is her memories that have unbalanced him.

Yes, that is it. His equilibrium has simply been disturbed; it is fairly trivial to restore it. All he has to do is to stop focusing on her. The man shifts in place as a twang of dissonance plucks at his spine: self-deceit.

A bubble of amusement rises in the wake of the twinge. One who is no one has no reason to be amused. The God mocks him.

The man grinds his teeth. If my Lord wishes to fuck her and marry her and have little Many-Faced-Stark babies with her, a man prays his God will leave a man out of it.

Jaqen H’ghar refuses to release his death-trance. He opens his eyes, looks around the room lit by guttering candlelight, and sighs deeply.

A man thinks he needs to arrange for the disposal of some “Lannister Bouquets”.

Chapter Text

She finds that the pace of her learning has accelerated with access to the memories of the other faceless. Her body doesn’t have the muscle memory to replicate their feats, but she has access to the theory. She cannot remember the finer details of what it takes to rig a sail or time the luxury-goods market in Qarth, but she has access to the theory.

She cannot know what it feels to be in love, but she knows the mechanics of how one makes love to men, to women, to eunuchs.

The combat-and-espionage portion of her theoretical knowledge is applied to practical lessons with her Braavosi Master.

Today he has her balancing a tall, thin reed on her nose. It looks ridiculous, but Arya knows the worth of such exercises. She is not allowed to use another’s face, or she would have picked that of a man she’s seen taking off faces in the Hall a few times--he has a very broad nose.

She’s getting better, hasn’t let the thing fall in almost a quarter-watch, when her master starts throwing distractions at her. First, it’s a couple of throwing knives, then a wisp of sweat-cloth, and finally, words.

“The greatest of our order, they are following the Lorathi way,” he says, not looking at her.

The reed does not fall.

Her teacher is speaking thoughtfully, as if to himself .”The first faceless one, and the second. They are both born of Lorath.”

They are both born of Lorath. That “are” almost makes the reed wobble, but that is just her teacher’s way of speaking.

“So I can see why they would choose you--you have potential to match theirs.”

The reed falls.

“But I am training in the Braavosi way,” she offers, hesitant.

“And so it is unlikely you will become the greatest of our order,” he observes.

Surprisingly, she feels no regret. The God is happy with her the way she is. Whether it was that strange hallucination a few moons ago or something else, He has given her a wolf dream. Or rather, He has shared it with her somehow. Nymeria had been sick, but now she is well, and eats to restore her strength.

She smiles. “Valar dohaeris.”

“Had you not been born Arya Stark, perhaps you would have become no one. But it is hard indeed to abnegate Arya Stark.”

There is a minute change in his tone. She looks up and her stomach lurches; he wears her face. It is disconcerting, supremely disconcerting, like the air has turned to water and she is swimming for breath. She gulps, and falls into the familiarity of Jaqen H’ghar.

A frown mars the Braavosi’s features. “You should be adding more faces to your repertoire.”

She smiles and suddenly she is a man from Braavos with hollow cheeks and tightly braided hair. The Arya Stark in front of her dissolves, as if into a mirror, a mirror of the new face she wears.

“Better!” says her teacher. “ Much more handsome!”

She growls at him.

“Up!” he commands, and tosses her a wickedly curved blade from the rack. “Today you will be learning the use of a Dothraki scimitar.”

She has not forgiven him for the Much more handsome ! “I’ll trade you three,” she challenges.

He raises an eyebrow.

“Three vulgar words in Dothraki for three strikes,” and she is moving before the sentence is out of her mouth. She is fast, faster than she has ever been before, but she cannot surprise him--he blocks her strike. It is a close thing, though.

The Braavosi smiles tightly. “I am to be giving you one for free-- vikeesi !” He moves to counter-attack.

She grunts with the force of turning his assault. “What does it mean?”

“It is like your Westerosi word ‘ bitch’.

That earns him forgiveness as she laughs and laughs and gets a painful bruise on her arm in return, delivered with the flat side of his scimitar.

 


 

 

She lies on her stone bed that night, her muscles feeling like water, and the encroachment of soft vagueness in her mind heralds slumber. She drowsily turns to the vague silhouette of the man in her imagination she has termed “The God”, ready to bid Him good night. But the figure solidifies somehow, becomes a three-dimensional shadow. Features form on the shadow-face. Familiar features.

The figure steps closer, a mere handbreadth away from her bed.

Suspended in the indeterminable space between waking and sleeping, Arya Stark opens her mouth and mumbles, “Stay, Jaqen.”

Shadow-Jaqen bends down, his mouth hovering over her ear and she knows he’s about to whisper something utterly stupid to her, something like “A man has duties, lovely girl”. And so she turns her head towards him abruptly and mashes her lips against his.

That jolts her into full wakefulness;, she’s clamped a hand over her mouth before her eyes are fully open.

She is alone in the room.

What the fuck was that?

Fatigue hallucination ”, her reason replies. Such things happen sometimes to men that push themselves too far. Her uncle Benjen had said that, and he would have known, having constant patrol of the lands north of the Wall.

“Stupid, stupid Braavosi way,” she mutters. If she hadn’t been so tired, she wouldn’t have kissed Jaqen H’ghar, even as a hallucination. Arya is not Sansa after all; Arya does not want to kiss any man.

What about Gendry? asks an annoying voice in the back of her mind.

I never wanted to kiss Gendry. I just wanted him to ignore that stupid tavern whore!

A memory flutters through her consciousness... blue roses and needles ...Gendry had been there... go ring your own bell, Gendry.

A dream.

She tries in vain to pull together the strands of scattered imagery, but fails, which frustrates her because she knows there had been something wonderful at the end of it. Either way, comparing Gendry to Jaqen is like...like comparing one of the vale sheepdogs to a direwolf !

She backs away from that uncomfortable thought: Jaqen is not to be associated with any word that means “pet”. He’s much older than her, and her superior in the House of Black and White, and why would he want to kiss a girl who can’t even wield a broadsword for a single day without hallucinating?

“Pah!” she utters, in conscious imitation of her Braavosi teacher. She hopes she doesn’t dream of anything stupid again.


 

 

She needs a new dress, something that speaks of wealth, before she goes to the spice market. She has grown in the past year, vertically and in...other areas. It is difficult for her to pass herself off as a message-runner, not without taking a face, and the errand is far too minor to justify blood-magic induced nightmares.

She’s surveying the selection available in one of the House’s store-rooms when she hears the sound of a giggle, followed by something falling to the floor.

Curiosity aroused, she pads on bare feet towards the origin of the sounds. Deeper in the store-room, the clothing is not nearly as fragile as the things in the front. Here, dresses and shirts and bolts of cloth lie in tall piles, higher than her head in some places, while off-cuts of worn cloth spill out of haphazardly stacked baskets. She rounds a corner, and freezes.

An acolyte--the spindly one--kneels with his back to Arya. He is shirtless, and his face is buried between the bare thighs of one of the priestesses-in-training. The woman has her head thrown back, her chest heaving in time with some internal rhythm.

It takes but a moment for Arya to realize what is going on as sudden heat suffuses her face. The heat spreads through her body, embarrassment mingling with fascination. She knows what he is doing to her, but she has never actually seen it in person outside of a brothel. And in a brothel the woman is paid to make the sounds the priestess is making now of her own volition.

I should not be watching this.

Somehow, she does not want to force herself to stop. The heat pools in her lower belly, and becomes something else.

Arya recognizes the feeling--she has worn enough of her brothers’ and sisters’ memories to know what it is, but it still discomfits her. A daughter of Eddard Stark is not supposed to feel this way.

Why not?

Memory answers the question for her. Nan says a woman who feels lust is no better than she needs to be. Meaning whores and women that “give their favor” to someone before marriage.

She almost snorts. I am a professional murderer. I am a Handmaiden of Death . The ephemeral quality of “virtue”, so lauded by all of Westeros, has no relevance to who Arya Stark is now.

Something unfurls in her, as if it had been compressed too long. She bows her head and retreats, as silently as she had arrived.

A girl has many things to think about .

 


 

 

She imagines that a conversation about sex with the Kindly Man will be as awkward as a conversation about sex with Jon. So instead she volunteers for face-dusting duty alongside the Waif.

The Hall of Faces, redolent as it is with the coppery scent of blood-magic, still gathers dust. Once every month or so, a handful of faceless-- never acolytes--use tall ladders and dampened cloth and dusters made of rags to restore the Hall to its pristine condition.

“What is the House protocol on sex?” asks Arya abruptly, then slides to the far side of the pillar to continue her dusting so she doesn’t have to see the look on the Waif’s face as the older woman contemplates the question.

Arya realizes she needn't have bothered--the Waif’s tone is utterly normal, matter-of-fact, as she answers.

“People sharing a single goal and a single god often end up sharing a single bed. Why do you ask?”

“Um. I saw an acolyte…” she trails off, still too Westerosi to detail, out loud, what she saw.

“Ah, with the priestess?”

Arya comes around the pillar, her surprised look answered with lowered brows.

“They were caught in the temple-side stairwell last week. You see them again, you tell them to cut it out. Acolytes are strictly forbidden.”

Arya nods.

“Um.”

The Waif looks up at her, and Arya senses some sort of understanding dawn on the woman, for her mostly-blank expression softens a smidgen.

“You should lose your virginity.”

“What?” Arya squeaks, all her newfound wisdom and urge to “grow beyond the strictures of Westeros” dissolving into pure mortification.

The Waif gestures to Arya and they walk a ways from the pillars, finding a short step to sit on near the center of the cavernous space.

The Waif sighs. “The others,” she says, “will not necessarily think to talk to you of this. Most come to the temple in full adulthood, and their lessons focus more on control than understanding. Apart from myself, I know of no woman that has come to us before she has had children--and lost them.”

Arya nods, for the last faceless sister’s face she had borrowed had echoed with the keen of a devastating, hollow sorrow that Arya couldn’t hold on to for long.

“I came as a child,” continues the Waif. “This thing…” she gestures vaguely in the direction of her mid-section, “it can keep a woman hostage to it if it is not understood.”

“We can control our lust just like men can,” says Arya, immediately on the offensive.

The Waif shakes her head. “It is not lust I am meaning. It is womb, and child, and virginity. I cannot conceive. You can. It is leverage--supposing you are captured, and your captor threatens to rip out your womb?”

Arya’s eyes go round as she clutches at her midsection.

“More than the pain, the idea of losing a core of your motherhood can be used to control you. Like a man can be controlled by threatening to cut off his cock.”

“So I must become like you,” states Arya.

“The risks are too high--my barrenness was a gradual thing, chronic exposure to poisons, a drop at a time. To do it all at once, after your body has already developed…” The woman shakes her head. “No, what you must do is understand this thing, and be prepared to let it go if the situation ever arises.”

Arya nods dubiously. Oh, she sees the wisdom in what the Waif is saying, but she is not sure how to go about “letting it go”.

“Then,” says the Waif, “child.”

“Moon tea,” answers Arya promptly.

The Waif’s lips twist in a smile that is half grimace. “I do not speak of preventing an unwanted child, Arya Stark. I speak of the wanting of a child.”

“Me? A mother?” Arya snorts.

The Waif tilts her head to a side. “Have you ever demanded a kiss from someone?”

The words trigger a cascade of memory.

The God kissed me. And he wore Jaqen H’ghar’s face to do it.

That certainly explains the source of her “hallucination”. She is a bit relieved--somehow it feels less embarrassing to have wanted to kiss Him of the Many Faces than to have wanted to kiss Jaqen.

The Waif mistakes the source of Arya’s blush. “So. First it is a kiss, then it is a bedding, and then it is a child.”

“I’m not sure that is possible,” says Arya, her blush turning to amusement, amusement that confuses the Waif for a moment.

Then the Waif’s expression clears. “Ah, you have the liking of other women. That is safer.”

Arya blinks. “Um.” Better not try to explain this one, “other women” sounds more sane than “the God of Death’.

“The last--virginity--it is something peculiar to some cultures, cultures that value a woman only for what can go in, or come out of, between a woman’s legs.”

Both women’s lips curl: a look of mirrored disdain.

“It is so in Westeros,” observes Arya.

“And you are of the nobility,” says the Waif. “Which means your upbringing has been even more hypocritical than that of the common folk.”

Arya cannot help but agree.

“No,” says the Waif. “You think you understand, but you do not. These ideas, these protocols , they get into you, layer upon layer, from the time of earliest childhood. ‘A woman’s honor is her virginity; she should guard it with her life’. It burrows deep.”

Arya thinks of Nan’s admonitions. “But it’s all so pointless .”

“Yes, but it is ingrained in you. We live a dangerous life. You may be raped; there will most definitely be violence done to you. And because of your preconceptions, the taking of your virginity may damage you more than the beatings.”

Arya exhales. A part of her cannot deny that she feels a definite twinge when thinking about losing her “virtue”. To lose it to a rapist...she shudders, and then thinks again of how she terms it a “losing” of a thing. The Waif is right.

But the Waif is not finished yet. “Do you know how many women have come seeking the gift after just such a violation?” The Waif’s voice rises in volume. “Do you know how many nightmares I have shared, born from just such a fear?” She relents. “I tell you of these things from experience that even the sisters in our order may not share if they have never taken these particular faces.”

Arya looks up, taking in the thousands upon thousands of masks watching her with hollowed-out gazes.

“The last thing I can deal with immediately,” she says finally, and turns back to the Waif. “How do I do it?” Arya is thinking of implements--the hilt of a rapier, perhaps?

The Waif shrugs. “I asked a brother.”

“Oh.”

“Or,” says the Waif, “there is a custom amongst the well-born of Braavos. A sensible one.” The Waif grins.

Arya, in relief at the conversation taking a turn for the lighter, grins back at her. “Tell me!”

“Many Braavosi do not believe a girl should go to her marriage bed afraid, expected to learn about pleasure and pleasing at the same time as she learns how to live her life beside a man. And the Braavosi men, it should be said, do not on the whole glorify things like ‘breaking in a virgin’.”

Arya has not considered how such subtle differences in culture can change everything .

“So when a girl reaches a certain age, it may be arranged--sometimes it is the mother doing the arranging--for a girl to visit a select brothel. The girl is given a gold coin, and led to a room of men, chosen especially for their skill and gentleness. The girl may look around, make her pick, then kiss the gold coin and give it to the man of her choice. Sometime later, a meeting is arranged, and the girl learns of the arts of the bedroom for the first time, without panic or undue pain, or the burden of expectation.”

Arya smiles with wry amusement, imagining Catelyn Stark arranging something like that for Sansa. It really would have changed everything.

“That sounds like a very sensible custom.” She quite likes the ritualistic aspect of it as well: the coin, the mystery.

The Waif grins. “Some of the whores hold on to the coin, spending them upon a wedding gift for the girl. Sentimental, but they’re paid very well, they can afford to lose a coin or two.”

Arya doesn’t have any money.

“Um,” she says. “How does a faceless one get spending money?”

“We don’t,” says the Waif gently. “What you have need of, the God provides.”

At Arya’s downcast look, the Waif adds, “If this is a thing you want to be doing, you can ask the Lorathi you call the ‘Kindly Man’--I ask him often for coin for herbs and potions. Tell him I said it is needful for you to visit a good brothel.”

Arya feels even more downcast than before, if such a thing is possible.

 


 

 

She stands in a courtyard, broadsword in hand, her gaze fixed on the sky. A lone white raven is flapping against the cloudless blue expanse, circling, as if it has forgotten its destination.

The raven does not need to land to deliver its message.

Winter has come.

In between thoughts of worry that her training is not going fast enough, and worry for what is left of her family (Sansa most of all for some reason), Arya worries about her virginity. In the absence of readily available coin--she will not steal, not for this thing, and she will certainly not ask for coin for whores from the Kindly Man--asking a brother is her only option. And none of the faceless men at the House of Black and White are...right.

Jaqen H’ghar has not returned from Westeros.

“Arrgh!” Arya swings her blade over her head in a furious circle. Do not think. Do!

She has taken to practicing with larger and larger weapons, with weights strapped to her wrists. The bucket-carrying has done remarkable things to her arms, but she still has trouble wielding the largest of the blades for more than a quarter-watch at a time. The ability is essential, if she ever masquerades as someone who uses such a weapon. The God’s favor, or the blood-magic of the masks, gives her the illusion of another’s face but the strength must be all her own.

Winter has come. Her thoughts cut lazy circles through her head, like vultures. She has been thinking far too much about Jaqen H’ghar lately, constructing more and more elaborate palaces in her head.

What is he to me?

She flows from one cut to the next, transitioning into an advance that would catch an opponent’s blade on her guard, twist it out of the opponent’s hand.

A mentor?

She drops to a knee, blade raised in an overhead block.

A recruiter?

She mimes a shallow slash to a throat of a much taller man.

A girl could make a friend.

That thought she attempts to exorcise for the better part of the afternoon, but like a stubborn family ghost, it refuses to budge. Finally she sinks to the ground, sweat stinging in her eyes.

“A friend,” she murmurs. Possibly, she can live with that. Then she practices her swordwork till she is stumbling around the courtyard and it has become too dark too see.


 

 

Three months after the white ravens, the harbour is all abuzz with the news that a fishing boat has encountered a flotilla of ice-sheets, drifting down in the currents from the north. She fills her bucket with choice tubers, and overhears a familiar accent--a Westerosi sailor who believes the Knights of the Vale are marching on Winterfell and not the riverlands to bolster the Lannister forces.

She seeks out the Kindly Man.

He is watering a small patch of herbs unfamiliar to Arya on the southeast slope beyond the House’s main gardens. His back is turned to her, and she is being Jaqen again, but “Valar morghulis, Arya Stark,” he says before he faces her.

“Valar dohaeris, master,” she says respectfully, though her eyes are narrowed and suspicious. How does he always know it’s me?

The Kindly Man’s mouth twitches. “Partly because the man whose face you wear is in Westeros. But mostly because a faceless one always knows his brothers--or his sister, as the case may be.”

Under the Braavosi training, she has become very quick at sifting through information and focusing on the morsel she must seize.

“What is Jaqen H’ghar doing in Westeros?” she asks.  Her friend may be “Jaqen” in her thoughts, but he is “Jaqen H’ghar” out loud because a girl must preserve some dignity.

The Kindly Man turns back to his plants. She notices the water he pours on their roots is black, black like the water from the pool. “The man is working his way up to fulfilling a contract.”

“Whose contract?” The House of Black and White has learned that Arya Stark is as relentless in stalking the information she needs as her house’s direwolf is when it comes to prey.

The Kindly Man sighs. “A contract made centuries ago, when dragons were many. A man that has died, but has to be killed again. Without destroying the world, if it can be helped.”

Arya blinks. After all that she has seen and done, Nan’s childhood stories, of wights and the Others and the Night King who had once been a Stark are no so far-fetched. And hearing the Kindly Man’s words, there is a feeling in her gut that those stories are about to become terrifyingly real. Terrifying , that is, if one is not a faceless assassin in service to the God of Death.

Winter is here .

Her spine straightens. “Arya Stark’s brother is on the Wall,” she offers. “Her half-brother.”

The Kindly Man does not turn around. “Our brother expected to venture north of the Wall....”

That’s why Jaqen tolerated the cage, like the worst of criminals, she thinks. They don’t assign patrols beyond the Wall to normal recruits, just the really bad ones. Or Starks.

“Just so,” says the Kindly Man, and he gives her a sly smile over his shoulder. “Does a girl worry for the safety of her brother?”

She looks at him, then away, schooling her face to nonchalance. She shrugs.

“So,” says the Kindly Man, putting his watering-can carefully on the ground before he faces her once again. “Show me what the Braavosi has taught you. Make a good showing of it, and you will be allowed to wear a face and seek for more--better--news on the harbor.” A faraway look comes over the Kindly Man’s visage. “Or I may allow you to send a raven to the one whose face you wear.” He looks closely at her, considering. “Though I am not sure he will thank me for it.”

No more hiding, no more secretive forays to the harbor for dribbles of rumor. If there is any news at all of Jon or Bran or Rickon or Sansa, Arya will come to hear of it. She struggles to show no emotion, but she is close to throwing her arms around the Kindly Man.

She may also be permitted to write to Jaqen. In her many thought-games of “what if”, letters have often been exchanged, full of longing disguised as jokes, promises disguised as philosophy...

“Girl,” says the Kindly Man, his tone harbouring a warning, “your thoughts dance all over you.”

She looks up at him guiltily, then firms her thoughts and relaxes the muscles on her face.

Right. I am a faceless man. I am going to write to Jaqen H’ghar, who is simply a senior member of my order. She suppresses her twitchiness, even as a torrent of thought cascades through her. How senior is he? He doesn’t look too old; maybe a couple of years older than Jon? It is hard to tell by looks alone…

She considers the Kindly Man and his wrinkles. Does a body age if it is given to the God?

It is time for another indirect question. “How old are you, master?”

“Hmm?” The Kindly Man smiles at her. “I was old when doom came to Valyria.”

She exhales slowly, soundlessly, her eyes round. “You were the first of the faceless men?”

Her old teacher looks into her eyes with pity and in that moment she knows, she knows the thing she has been avoiding thinking about for a while--why Jaqen had been allowed to recruit a girl-child when any novice must be twenty before they can join, why the Lorathi brothers wear Jaqen’s face so often, why there is no House of Black and White in her Jaqen-memories, no training with the corpses, no pool of gift-giving as there are in the memories of every other face she’s been able to hold on to.

“You were the first!” she insists.

He shakes his head kindly--how else? “The second.”

“Graddakh,” she mutters under her breath.

The Kindly Man gives her an approving look. “Dothraki, eh? Good, then you will show me your mastery of the whip.”

Another blush threatens to make itself known; she’s heard enough whores discussing their clients’ peccadilloes not to have some of that kind of thing leak into her thought-games--but she breathes, and the moment passes, and then a girl is nothing but a focused, trained warrior ready to meet another’s attack.

Chapter Text

NO ONE

A man, having honed his patience for almost five hundred years, must dig deep for the fortitude required to open yet another dusty tome full of nothing but lists of names.

The answer is here, and he cannot find it. Three years in this place, another four before that searching fruitlessly in the great keeps of Westeros.

The last known Targaryen of that all-important generation died an old man on the Wall.

For a doubly and trebly prophesied hero, the target is too well-hidden.

Not for the first time, he wonders if the sorcerers have set the faceless men on a wild goose chase, leaving them free to foment some secret mischief. All sorcerers foment secret mischief, even his own brother in the House of Black and White, but an archmaester sends ravens to Asshai while red priests walk around openly in Westeros, sacrificing people to the Red God…

The man sighs. A man had been bold, and young, when he assured the sorcerers “The Prince that was Promised” was sufficient a name to carry out the task.

And so here he sits, the oldest of the God’s servants, looking through yet another list of “begats”.

A tremor in the bench under him tells him the scholar who has thumped himself down at the other end of the table is Samwell Tarly.

The man looks up at his “friend” as Samwell slides over.

“Pate,” he whispers, “how did you know ?”

“Know what?”

“That the ‘Arya’ the Boltons married wasn’t Arya at all!”

The man quirks an eyebrow. “You have news?” His voice is low, matching Tarly’s for conspiratorial tone.

“Jon has been declared a King.”

“Another King in the North,” muses the man. “And Arya is not found, still?”

Tarly shakes his head. “It was Sansa the Boltons married; rumor says she fed her husband to his own hunting dogs.”

Now that is interesting. The Sansa he knows through a girl’s memories does not fit into this story. “Another imposter?”

“No, the letter is in Jon’s own hand.” Samwell smacks the flat of his hand against the table in an uncharacteristic show of frustration. “I should be with him!”

“You’ve got your links. Why don’t you go?” asks the man. “The girl and child would benefit from returning to a land that holds more familiarity for them.”

“Pate,” says Sam, his voice suddenly deadly serious, and the man is reminded that this large scholar before him has been north of the Wall, killed things north of the Wall. “How did you know about Gilly?”

Pate sighs. “My friend, do you know what kind of person you have to become in order to be allowed to stay at the Citadel year after year without earning a single link in your chain?”

“Not a nice person,” says Samwell.

Pate gives the other man a look . “Knowing secrets, keeping secrets, somehow makes me a bad person?”

Tarly has the grace to look ashamed for his hypocrisy. “You didn’t tell anyone about her,” he says finally.

“I wouldn’t , ” says Pate. “Did you tell anyone about Rosey?”

“I didn’t have to. Everyone knew you wanted Rosey for years ,” says Samwell.

Pate wanted Rosey for years, and so a man had to take up with her the moment she showed an interest, or tongues would wag. The things a man does for Death...

“Still, I wouldn’t have told,” states Sam.

“Because we are friends.” And friends don’t murder their friends and take their face. Well, only for necessity, not for convenience. It is just Not Done, and a man knows this even though it has been some time since he has made a new friend (and the lovely girl, in his dreams that he cannot reason away, no matter how often he tries, the girl is a thousand things to him, and ‘friend’ is uncertain).

“Soooo,” wheedles Tarly, his earlier hostility evaporating like early-morning fog under the noonday sun, “Arya is still missing...she could be out there somewhere, just waiting to be found!”

Pate raises an eyebrow.

“Sure, why not? I’m your friend, I want to see you happy! I’ll put in a good word for you with her brother.” He states this as if it is settled, a job well done.

“Yes, thank you, that’s exactly what I need,” says the man dryly, returning to the papers in front of him. “A real, flesh-and-blood king angry at me because I kissed his sister in a dream.”

Samwell sidles closer. “How many times did you kiss her, eh?” The man finds an elbow being poked repeatedly into his side. “Eh?”

Friends don’t murder their friends by throwing them off a tower. It is Not Done, and the ravens will not appreciate it.

“A few,” he mutters.

There you go,” and Sam is his fully exuberant, encouraging self again. “It could become a reality!”

Friends do not contemplate shoving a quill into their friend’s eye-socket, thinks the man. It is Not Done, and a man will lose his library privileges.

Pate rolls his eyes.

There is blessed silence for a few minutes, then Sam leans over again. “What are you working on?”

The man sighs. “My copper and electrum.” Any amount of strange inquiries or semi-treasonous insinuations are ignored, encouraged even (the Citadel has given him a budget to hire informants, which is saving the House of Black and White a substantial amount of coin) the moment he utters the phrase “for my dissertation on the topic of...”

For the work that hopefully culminates in finding a target for a five-hundred-year old contract of assassination (though, of course, the Citadel is not aware of this fact), Pate has secured assurances that he will receive two links: the copper of history and electrum for astrology, because he’s been the first one to cast the horoscopes of the dead scions of certain minor houses nobody has ever bothered with.

He already holds the black iron, iron and lead. The copper and electrum make five, so one more and he will have a collar. His neck is not as thick as Tarly’s.

“What topic did you finally settle on?” asks Sam.

Pate throws down his pen. “Another stillborn one, it looks like,” he mutters. “Normative methods by which a prophecy may be disproved: The Prince that was Promised and the statistical outliers in the survival rate of the line of Jaehaerys the Second.”

Tarly whistles. “For or against?”

“Haven’t decided yet.” Pate smiles, grim. “And a chart consisting of one lone survivor does not lend itself to statistical analysis. I also need a bleeding star and a resurrection somewhere in there, or it doesn’t fit.”

Tarly shifts , his body radiating nervous energy.

The man’s eyes narrow. “You know something.”

“Um…” Tarly trails off, looking conflicted and guilty. “Um. The Red God...there may have been...someone said there have been resurrections.” The last words tumble out in a rush, tripping over themselves in their haste.

The man is amused. Tarly’s appeasement of the no-room-for-magic faction at the Citadel must be more than just for show if he gets squirrelly about mentioning even rumors of miracles.

“I know about those,” says Pate, “Beric Dondarrion, the Brotherhood Without Banners.” He waves his hand, dismissing them. “Dondarrion is not a Targaryen.” Neither is Catlyn Stark.

Tarly relaxes, as if up to now he was expecting Pate to skewer him for his unpopular views. “He could be,” he says. “I mean, think about it. Even Eddard Stark strayed, and he wasn’t forced to marry his sister! So chin up, chin up, your thesis could be quite viable. There’s got to be quite a bit of dragon blood lying about the countryside, proliferating without anyone being the wiser. You just have to find them!”

The man tilts his head to a side. A new avenue of inquiry suggests itself. “Thank you, Samwell Tarly,” he says. “You have been very helpful.”

 


 

 

ANOTHER ONE

 

The faceless one has been travelling for four years. The end of the mission had seemed no closer last year than it had at the start.

But then, and on a ship halfway to the Jade Sea, Him of the Many Faces had given an answer.

A dark smudge on the horizon announces the nearness of Asshai. It will be over soon. Overhead, three white ravens take off from their perch on the mainmast; they have flown a long way, and quickly. Some Maester in the Citadel on Westeros, extending courtesies to sorcerers...the world has grown strange this past summer.

Winter has come.

The ravens must have found other ships as hospitable as this one if they are as healthy as they appear; the ship’s master fed them last dusk. Unfortunately, the message they carry is bound for Asshai, and he knows of no animal that does not sicken and die in the shadow city.

Except for humans.

The faceless one wears a new face with a reverence befitting an answered prayer, and practices how to move like a young girl. He must, as always, disguise the telltale limp that doesn’t go away regardless of whose body he wears. Sometimes, rarely, when his foot throbs with pain late into the night and there is no surcease in either wine or herb, he hates his teacher. But those times are few and far between; the old man loves a man as a son, and has this one’s regard in turn.

The man is now a girl and though the giving of the gift is now possible , it will still be hard.

Asshai has always been warded against a very specific use of blood-magic: the trademark of the God’s servants. After all, even sorcerers and shadow-binders must die. But there is nothing a sorcerer can do about a faceless one’s wearing of a brother’s mien, for that uses neither blood nor magic but is instead created out of a God’s favor.

But the one the gift must be given to is himself a faceless one who has traded in the secrets of the House of Black and White to become someone in Asshai under-the-shadow.

The betrayer has been sundered from the God’s grace; he no longer has the ability to sense the brothers and sisters of his former order. The target must rely on his memory of the faces he has seen at the House of Black and White. And then if a new faceless one is drawn into the fold...well.

Arya Stark’s lips curve upwards into a grim smile.

Chapter Text

ARYA

She has allowed herself snippets of his memories--his life in Lorath as a very young child, his pleasure in learning the sword and the staff. She has mostly steered clear of the pain, and there is one place she has never dared look, though glimpses always intrude when she least expects them.

The truth can only be avoided for so long.

Using a degree of reverence and ritual she has not used since her first few days as a faceless one, she wears his face.

She experiences Jaqen H’ghar’s last memories.


 

 

JAQEN H’GHAR

His grandfather tries to mold him into a proper Valyrian. The young man dyes half his hair red, the color of his Lorathi mother’s hair when she first met his father.

The young man does not measure up, it is said. He is quiet, like a woman, and his face is too sly. He does not respond to provocation, he swallows insults and does not defend his honor. If he is attacked, he always wins the fight but only because he is vicious and cunning. He talks like a Lorathi , like his stupid half-breed mother. Clearly, the beatings have not helped.

Worst of all, he treats slaves as his equals.

He must be made into a man.

Jaqen H'ghar is dragged to a slave woman’s quarters and the door is locked behind him.

The woman knows more than he does, she says, “please my Lord, we must do this thing. They will check, and then I will be beaten.”

He sits on the bed beside her. “This is rape,” he says.

“You are not raping me,” she replies. “They are raping the both of us.”

Their coupling is quiet, and soft, and it is over soon. The woman finds herself weeping, for he is the one who is calm. He touches her with tenderness, and tells her everything will be all right in the end.

They drag her out of her room and give her to the soldiers. His grandfather makes him watch.

It takes him some time, but he sneaks down to the whore-pits. The walls are covered with scrawled messages, written in blood, in excrement. Many of them are curses (and prayers disguised as curses) directed at gods the young man has never even heard of.

He finds her, but she is already dead. Open sores cover her skin, and she kneels in a corner, begging the Red God for something. The slave, just like the young man, knows there is no cure once the sores open, there is nothing but agony and a long, lingering end.

The young man strides forward and slices open her throat, ear to ear.

He hears the measured tread of soldiers. They are looking for him. He steps into one of the many shadows in this place--light is not often wasted in any of the slave pits, especially not the whore-pits where soldiers believe it is better not to see what they are fucking.

The woman’s are not the only pleas he can hear. The walls, the floor, the smell --prayers for death reverberate, over and over around him, turning this cesspool into a sacred temple.

The young man stands in the shadows, and a dark and terrible purpose rises in him.

His grandfather’s guards, his lapdogs, they are everywhere; he will not leave here as himself. He has no fear of dying, but there is work that must be done. He is no sorcerer, no user of blood-magic. But the darkness in him is compulsive, instructive.

He turns over the woman he has killed, and swiftly slices the skin of her face off her head. He makes a shallow slice in his own cheek, lets the blood mark a line down his face, then places her skin over his.

Blood mingles with blood.

Darkness rises.


 

ARYA

She cannot describe, even to herself, where Jaqen H’ghar goes after that. She has no words for it, but when he gets there the hand of the God is on her shoulders; the God is standing right behind her, if she turns around she will see him.

She dares not look.

Three candles burn in her room, and she can see the flame of each, but nothing else.

“He hurt so much when he killed her,” she says aloud. “But he didn’t say anything !”

“Should a man have wept, shouted, wailed?” whispers a voice in her ear. “Apologized?”

“There was no rage in him! He had the power--I can see it! Why didn’t he see it?” she is sobbing now. “He should have burnt down the whole place to bedrock . You gave him everything.

Arms encircle her, hold her close. “And he gave me everything as well. His fury, his sorrow, his fear.”

She is shuddering with sobs. She leans back and the strong arms draw her close. The room is pitch black, and she is leaning against an open flame, an inferno that does not burn her. Slowly, she calms, and the sobs become silent tears.

“I gave you nothing,” she says.

“Three things,” replies the voice. “Needle. The face of Arya Stark. A direwolf. It is a handsome dowry.”

“And what is that in comparison to the man that gave you everything that he was? Three things are not enough.”

She feels the God’s amusement. “You wish to compete with Jaqen H’ghar?”

“Don’t mock me,” she snarls.

“It is not to be dared, Beloved.”

The endearment penetrates her fog of misery. Dowry. Beloved. “I don’t need to compete with him?”

The answering chuckle both frustrates and reassures her, full as it is of things on the edge of understanding. And then the darkness retreats and she can see again. Jaqen H’ghar’s face has slipped from her, she knows not when; his memories are no longer vivid whip-weals upon her soul, but scars that promise to fade, albeit slowly.

She rises off her knees, dips a corner of her robe in the glass of drinking-water beside her bed, and wipes away all evidence of her deplorable loss of control.

“I will do better,” she promises.

The candles burn down to stubs, then gutter out, one by one.


 

Her Braavosi teacher comes to her in the Hall of Faces as she is in the process of adding another face to the wall.

He speaks without preamble. “You are doubling and redoubling your service to the House: you wash corpses, you work with the Waif, you carry buckets from the market. What is the thinking in your head?”

Arya shrugs. “I am making up for my stubbornness, for wasting the time that I had when I was an acolyte.”

The Braavosi snorts. “It is being a phase. It will pass. Come. There is a meeting, and you are to attend.”

Obediently, she gives the death-mask one last tiny adjustment, then backs away and follows her teacher to the middle-level of the Temple’s catacombs.

She really is required to attend the meeting, she realizes--all the faceless currently resident in the temple are present.

They are to discuss the finances of the House, not as a temple but as a Guild of Braavos. Within the first half-watch of the discussion, she realizes she understands nothing, and she turns a pleading look on her teacher.

The Braavosi leans over. “The brother you should be wearing is called Varro Massag. Before he came to us he was a mathematician for the Iron Bank.”

Grateful for the advice, she cups her hands over her face; Varro Massag is not a name she has worn before, and his memories are commonplace regarding most experiences but utterly incomprehensible when it comes to the details relevant to his meeting.

There are many things a girl must learn.


 

She sleeps but four hours each night. She wakes, goes down to the well to fill the water buckets and hunt for news to bring to the Kindly Man.

She spends a quarter of each day practicing her weapon-work; another quarter she spends under the Waif’s eye, experimenting with poisons.

What is left of the day she spends in absorbing the knowledge she has gleaned through memory, trying to make sense of it, asking questions when she cannot.

She only wears Jaqen’s face when she feels the tendrils of despair and of worry start to work their way up into her mind again, and she absolutely needs to borrow from his serenity.

After a few days, the Kindly Man seeks her out.

“How is a girl’s command of Low Valyrian?”

“Passable. A girl has practiced.”

He gives her a nod, noting, no doubt, the improved accent.

“A girl will go and find a Braavosi mask in the Hall of Faces,” he says. “Something commonplace to wear, something that fits in. There is a meeting of the Guilds and the Sealord’s court. A girl will accompany a man as a representative of the House of Black and White.”

Her eyes widen.

“A girl is not ready!”

“If a girl has never lifted a sword but she has the memory of what a sword is, does that make a girl ready to fight?”

Ashamed, Arya looks down. “No.”

They wear the robes of Black and White, hoods drawn low over their faces. They walk openly down the stone path from the House, stand at the bow of a small gondola as it wends its way through the canals to the shining dome of the Sealord’s palace, beautiful and commanding and yet somehow dwarfed by the megalithic structure beside it: the Iron Bank.

There is a very large room--an amphitheater, almost--set aside for city meetings, but they do not stop in this room. Instead, they pass through a heavy oaken doorway behind the throne of the Sealord of Braavos, and into a smaller chamber.

The chamber is dominated by a round table of polished stone. Stone chairs are arranged around in groups of two. A large cameo is inset into the cresting rail of each: theirs is a familiar half black, half white symbol.

The room fills, and Arya memorizes each face. These are the men that run this city, and a great deal of the world beyond. The Iron Bank. The Sealord and his First Sword... Syrio, old teacher, you should see where I am now ...The Guild of Mercers, The First Admiral…

There are pleasantries; there always are. Goblets of wine are placed before each delegate--no one is stupid enough to drink from them.

The head of the Guild of Mercers has brought his own flask, filled with some eye-wateringly strong spirit.The old man waves his hand in the air. “For my health, you know.” Nobody has asked. His voice is quavery, but Arya recognizes that his little eyes positively glitter with cunning.

“My Lords, Guild Masters, Guild Representatives,” begins the Sealord of Braavos, Tormo Fregar, who has been elected to the throne after the death of the last Sealord. “The Queen of Meereen is moving on Westeros. Time is short--we must decide whether we back her or not, and we must decide now.”

Predictably, the Bank speaks first. “We are owed a great deal of gold by the crown of Westeros. She is marching with the youngest son of the House of Lannister. If the Dragon Queen’s invasion succeeds, she will give Casterly Rock to the dwarf. The Mad Queen will no longer have access to Lannister gold. The capability to repay us will then exist. We must make sure the inclination to pay us also exists.”

“And how does the Bank propose to incline her to us?” asks the First Sword. “She has no need of money--all the confiscated wealth of the Masters of Slaver’s Bay is hers to command.”

“She has spent most of it,” says the younger representative of the Guild of Mercers, a trifle smugly. “All the things one needs in outfitting armies. Much of that she buys from the Pentoshi due to some old loyalties she has, but the Pentoshi buy from us. So she has the goods, and the weapons and the men and the boats--”

“Ships,” corrects the Lord Admiral.

“Just so. She has them. But her liquidity margin is...small.”

The Guild of Artificers is headed by an iron-haired woman with bronzed skin, her accent more Myr than Braavos. “She will not need gold until she actually reaches Westeros, maybe not until she marches on King’s Landing and a siege is inevitable.”

The Bank’s representative smiles. “We have an idea--”

“Forgive the interruption,” says the First Sword, “but we must first confirm our assumption, that Braavos is allied with Daenerys Targaryen.”

The Sealord nods. “I call for a vote.”

“Seconded,” says the old mercer.

“Who supports a Targaryen bid for the throne of Westeros?” asks the Sealord.

Hands go up, one by one, and the First Sword takes a tally. “Bank, yea, Artificers, yea...Admiralty, yea.” He looks around. “And the House of Black and White abstains, as always.”

Everyone nods; unanimity is always appreciated, and it would be more disturbing if the House had actually voted, overturning centuries of tradition.

And, just like that, the world changes.

“So,” continues the Bank representative, “we have an idea.” He reaches under his chair, and puts a small wooden chest on the table. Using a key held on a chain around his throat, he unlocks the chest and throws upon the lid.

The box is filled with gold sovereigns--each coin is about the size of a small egg in diameter.

I could lose my virginity a hundred times over with that, thinks Arya, and is immediately abashed at the turn of her thought. She is glad the hood covers most of her (his Braavosi) face.

The banker picks up a handful of coins, and passes them around the table. When a coin reaches Arya, she sees that it is stamped with the face of a beautiful young woman. On the reverse, a three-headed dragon curls up upon itself.

“A goodwill chest, to begin with,” he says. “A hundred thousand coins should do, stressing that while we are begging her to consider assuming the debts of the Westerosi Crown, she is not obliged to do so, and that she has our support.”

“She cannot be bought with gold,” sneers the Artificer.

“And so we come to the second part,” says the Bank representative that has been silent for all this time. “We start buying up all coins in circulation in Westeros, replacing them with the Targaryen strike.” He throws a pouch on the table, and coins of all denominations, gold and copper and silver, spill out. Each is marked with the head of Daenerys Targaryen. “Read what they say.”

Daenerys I, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lady Regnant of the Seven Kingdoms.

“If she sails now, this moment, it will still take her armada two months to reach Westeros,” he says. “We can replace a third of the coins in circulation in Westeros in half that time.”

The Sealord leans back in his chair, absently stroking his chin. “Ask a man in Westeros who his ruler is, and he will reach for a coin in his pocket. He recognizes his ruler because the head of the ruler looks like the head on the coins. Replace the Baratheon-Lannister heads, and in the minds of the common folk and the merchants, Daenerys Stormborn will be the ruler of Westeros long before she fights a single skirmish. She will be the Queen in every pocket and every merchant’s strongbox, and what can the Mad Queen do, try to confiscate money ?”

The Kindly Man speaks. “ Mad Queen,” he says softly, and everyone listens. “She might.”

The First Sword snorts. “Then Daenerys Targaryen has won the war without ever fighting a battle--and we have won it for her.”

The Artificer finally nods. “It is a great gift. It is doubtful if she refuses.”

“And since we are simply exchanging coins and not devaluing them, all we lose is the initial chest of a hundred thousand and the striking costs.”

The First Sword clears his throat. “It is still outside our budget at this time.”

The negotiations begin in earnest.

After a watch, it is settled that Daenerys Targaryen will receive ten thousand gold sovereigns, ten thousand silver, and ten thousand copper, paid for by the treasury of the City of Braavos. The Iron Bank will swallow the loss from the strike-cost of the coins, and yet half of that shall be deducted from their annual tithe to the City at the end of the year.

Everyone seems satisfied, even Arya, despite the fact that she has had to hand back her sample coin. For she finds that she can follow the discussion with far greater ease now than she would have a week ago.

“Speaking of tithes,” says the Sealord, “I have a request for the House of Black and White.”

Everyone stills, as if ice-cold water has been poured over their heads.

The Kindly Man gestures for the Sealord to continue.

“The First Sword of Braavos before ours,” says the Sealord, “one Syrio Forel.”

Arya stiffens.

“I was a boy when he was at the court. He was always kind to me. He taught others the water dancing after he retired--I was his first student. He was butchered, unarmed , by a Lannister thug named Meryn Trant.”

The petrified looks on the faces around the table evaporate, replaced by understanding, and by righteous indignation on a few. Other students of Syrio’s? A part of Arya longs to compare notes.

Tormo Fregar continues. “The Sealord’s purse will pay your operating costs, but since Syrio Forel was a son of Braavos, the First Sword of Braavos, I request that the price for Meryn Trant's naming you give as your tithe this year.”

At that moment, Arya decides that politics is as much an art of war as swordplay is. Just as there exist many possible avenues to skewering a man with steel, there may also be many ways to orchestrate that skewering.

She also decides that she likes this Tormo Fregar.

There are a few nods of agreement. The Bank’s representatives look more neutral than anything else, and Arya thinks that Meryn Trant must have embezzled quite a bit of gold from King’s Landing and stored it...in safe hands.

The Kindly Man finally speaks. “A man is afraid this cannot be done, Sealord, council.”

A hubbub of voices.

The Kindly Man raises his hand, and all noise stops.

“Meryn Trant has already been named; Meryn Trant has been given the gift.”

There is shocked silence.

“Who bought his death?” asks the Sealord, and his voice is choked with emotion.

The Kindly Man actually glances at her . Is he asking my permission?   He nods at her, yes .

She clears her throat. “A Stark,” she says, and her voice echoes in the chamber.

“The King in the North?” asks the First Sword.

Robb is dead, how could he have Meryn Trant killed?

She shakes her head. “His youngest sister. Arya Stark. She was Syrio Forel’s last student.”

The Sealord’s eyebrows rise. “You are in contact with this girl? Can you reach her?”

“Perhaps,” answers the Kindly Man, before Arya can speak.

Tormo Fregar rises half from his seat, his face lit by some inner passion. “Then tell her the Sealord of Braavos will marry her! Right here, right now!”

The First Sword rolls his eyes. But some of the younger men around the table look rather impressed by his declaration.

Romantics. Bah!

“We are messengers of Death, Sealord, not of marriage proposals,” admonishes the Kindly Man.

The Sealord sits down, abashed. “Of course.”

“Though,” says the old Mercer, leaning forward, the quaver in his voice entirely gone, “If the House of Black and White supports the Starks...we can out-maneuver Cersei Lannister faster than anyone thinks is possible.”

“Cripple her,” murmurs the Bank representative. “Humiliate her.”

Arya leans over the Kindly Man, whispers in a language that has been dead for three hundred years. I am liking this meeting.

The Kindly Man gives her a look .

“Can a marriage be brokered?” asks the Mercer. “Three ways--this Arya Stark with our Sealord. The King in the North with the Queen who will land in the South. A sharp, short war with the Mad Queen, the middle harassed from both sides, then peace. Profitable peace. And Braavos at the heart of it, with the King’s sister made a Braavosi.”

Arya wants to giggle. If only they knew!

She leans over to the Kindly Man. “Robb is dead,” she says. “It must be Bran, in the North. He cannot father children, not after his fall. Daenerys will want an heir to continue the Targaryen line.”

The Kindly Man nods, then turns to the council.

“How is the health of the King in the North?”

At that , both Bank representatives sneer a little--not too much, just a twitch of the lips and then it’s gone. “The Starks are your customers, surely you must know,” say the older one, tone deceptively mild.

Arya wants to punch his perfect white teeth into his stomach.

“No games,” warns the Sealord. “If we play games with each other at this juncture, we lose everything. Honoured representative of the House, the King in the North is young, and a gifted warrior; he was Commander of the Night’s Watch before his duty called him to Winterfell.”

A slight hitch of breath; that is all Arya allows herself before she clamps down on all outward signs of her emotional response.

Later. There will be time enough for this later.

For now she must concentrate on salvaging the situation--the change in her breath has been noticed, and it must be ameliorated, not just for the sake of politics, but for the esteem that she has surely lost in the eyes of the Kindly Man.

“We find ourselves surprised,” she says. Display humility, admit a mistake, and the House’s political rivals look petty if they act on it. “Arya Stark was confident that a bastard of the house could not be acknowledged while trueborn children yet live. Brandon Stark must be the next Lord of Winterfell.”

“Brandon Stark is dead.”

Arya shakes her head “ no” and realizes she’s made yet another mistake.

“You have already admitted that your confidence in your source was misplaced,” sneers the Bank representative.

Petty, petty fool.

“The House of Black and White does not play politics--we can be mistaken in matters of succession and populist opinion,” her tone is mild, agreeable. “But when it comes to keeping tally of those that are dead… ,” she looks up, meets the eyes of the bankers, the mercers, the Sealord, others.

She smiles.

She notes who recoils, who cannot hold her gaze, who is appreciative of this subtle reminder of the source of the House’s power.

“Brandon Stark lives.” Her voice cannot but echo her confidence in the fact. “This does not come from the mouth of Arya Stark.”

The subtext in that last is meant for the sole understanding of the Kindly Man. Arya Stark is speaking, but the knowledge does not come from her hopeful imagination. She makes mistakes, she shows too much emotion, she is still too tangled up in being Arya Stark. She does not lie well.

And yet. And yet, the God speaks to her.

There is silence as the men and women around the table digest her words.

Slowly, conversation re-establishes itself as the First Sword moves to the next item on the meeting’s agenda.

Arya allows herself to drift a bit.

Jon is well. Jon is back in Winterfell, where he belongs. There is a King in the North, and he is a son of Eddard Stark.

Everything that her brother deserved, everything that her brother was denied, it shall be denied no longer. She mourns Robb, bitterly, regrets that he had to die for Jon to receive his due, and yet triumph tempers her regret.

The Starks will rise again.


 

KINDLY MAN

The girl walks beside him in the herb-garden.

“A girl is thoughtful,” he says.

“There are things that I will do,” she replies, her voice quiet but firm. “I will see Jon again. I will pray in the godswood.”

The man sighs. It is true that she can say this openly now, there will be no more tests of loyalty; the God has taken her. Still.

“A girl has far too much of Arya Stark in her.”

She looks at him with her dark eyes, and gives nothing away.

He tempers his earlier statement. “But a girl has learned, far more than this one thought she would.”

“A girl has a hundred teachers,” she says. “She has extracted some truth from her brothers’ experiences. Would the Kindly Man like to hear what she thinks of his disapproval of Arya Stark?”

“A girl may continue.” His tone is neutral.

“The Lorathi make of themselves an empty vessel for the God to inhabit,” she says.

He nods.

“The Braavosi, too, seek emptiness on their own terms and what core of them remains after they can be emptied no further, they make of it an offering upon the altar of Death.”

“There are many ways to serve Him,” the man agrees. He may disapprove, but she is not wrong.

There is a quiet, mysterious smile on her face. In that moment the man knows she can play any role that she cares to, man or woman or eunuch, plumb the depths of human experience should she wish it.

His earlier thoughts may have been far too harsh--but she is not done.

“Some do not empty themselves at all.” Her voice grows stronger. “These few wed themselves, everything they are, to the God. These few, I think the God treats as delicately as a bridegroom treats his best-beloved.”

The Kindly Man has heard similar words before; a gnawing fear blooms in his chest, like a wound. Not fear of her. Fear for her.

“Three others, who may have served as you do,” he says and is heedless now that his voice is ragged with emotion. “Two died, in unimaginable agony. A waste .” He is not beyond anger, not for this.

“Valar morghulis.”

He snorts. “The God didn’t will their deaths, girl. He mourned the receiving of them as much as we mourned their departure.”

She looks appalled. “What power can challenge the will of the Many-Faced God?”

He gives her a pained smile. “If we knew…”

They walk along the path in silence for some time.

“A girl will join them if she continues like this,” he says near the clove bushes. “Leave Arya Stark in the past, child. Become no-one before it is too late.”

“Ask a fish to breathe fire; it will have more luck meeting your demand.”

He turns his whole body to face her, forcing her to stop, to confront him face to face. “The last of the three-- this man’s student.” He stabs his finger into his own chest. “I beat him.” The pronouns have changed, the words are laden with bitter self-hatred. “Not to learn fighting or to learn how to lie; he used to lie well. I beat him like a drunk father beats his son, to make him give up the name he clung to, till I smashed his bones and his blood coated the flagstones, and then I held his broken body to me and wept myself into insensibility. Then he recovered, and I did it again. And again, and again.”

“And did that succeed in making him no-one?” she demands.

The old man exhales. “He has no name. And he is still alive.”

She looks down and away. “A girl tried to be empty,” she says in a small voice. “Her teacher knows that.”

He places a hand on her head, then sighs. “A man knows, and he is far too weary to beat her. Or castigate her if grows too attached to the lover she wishes to take from within the order.”

The girl’s gaze snaps up, guilt and embarrassment and defiance warring with each other until a controlled blankness gains ascendancy.

“Did your student take a lover?” she asks, and the man thinks her real question is “ is that why you beat him? ”.

He gives her a small half-chuckle. “No. He wanted Jaqen H’ghar for a time, though.” The man gives the girl a sly smile. “The girl knows she wears her expressions too openly.”

She knows, for she looks at him and bursts into laughter. “He really attracts the strange ones, doesn’t he?” she asks, self-depreciating.

The old man shakes his head. “It’s that face .”

The mood has lightened; the sun shines a little bit brighter. The girl straightens her shoulders.

“A girl did not seek out her old teacher to discuss Jaqen H’ghar’s admirers,” she says. “The Bank has a better spy network than we do. We need to improve ours.”

So that is how she wishes to spin her desire to return to Westeros. This should be interesting.

“People, information, they are all bought with gold,” he says, utterly neutral. “And the Iron Bank has had hundreds of years to build its network of informants. We cannot compete, Arya Stark--locals will cooperate with coin-counters but never death-dealers. Do you think we should plant our own people as locals on Westeros? We are not nearly enough...”

He expects her to say, “a single one with sufficient influence could do the work of many” but her eyes say this is not what she means.

“I agree with you that we cannot improve our own network to the standard that is required. That would be inefficient. The Iron Bank already has a network.”

“We do not kill employees of an allied guild, or take their faces, unless a name is spoken.”

She smirks. “It is not killing that I propose. A very long-term assignment for a brother, though a sister would be better.”

The man raises an eyebrow.

“The world of great houses and marital alliances is not for me now, if ever it was. But ‘Arya Stark’ was born to these things--her name, her face, they can be of use to us.”

“And so…”

“And so an Arya Stark can return to the world. She can be the wife to the Sealord of Braavos. Why try to control a network if you can simply have them report to you? The Bank does not share everything with the Sealord, but almost everything. We, the faceless ones, have always been in the shadow, outsiders. We will not abandon the shadows, but we will use Arya Stark’s face to the fullest that it can be used, and this time we will be on the inside.”

The man is reminded that he has played guild politics for centuries, and made one ruthless decision after another. But he was born a slave, and what he knows of buying and selling people is confined to the utility of the person’s body or skills to the Master; human property has no power.

This girl has been exposed to cutthroat politics since she was in the cradle; she comes from a world where parents--who are not just freemen but lords and kings --buy and sell children precisely because one day the children will be the most powerful in the land.

Who sells their child if they have the power to not do so?

“This role you propose, it goes far beyond a disguise worn for gift-giving,” he says.

“A disguise wrapped in a truth,” she replies. “Give the Sealord exactly as much of the truth as he can take: ‘Arya Stark became a faceless man in return for vengeance for Syrio Forel. We give you Arya Stark, but her facelessness must remain hidden’. Can you imagine what that will do to a man’s ego, to know that he is the only one in the world with a House-sanctioned marriage to a faceless assassin, an assassin who is also the sister to a King? The Sealord is pragmatic and cynical but even he is not immune to the power of becoming a hero in the sort of story legends are made of. Tormo Fregar will lap it up.”

A man would say the girl thinks in a manner that is too grandiose, but as she says, she is sister to a King. What is ‘too grandiose’ for one like that?

“Audacious,” he says out loud, tapping a finger against his lips, “he will suspect.”

From her sharp hand motion, the girl disagrees. “He knows about the taking of faces from the dead. He will have a sorcerer check for blood magic, he will probe and pry at ‘Arya Stark’s’ memories and knowledge, of Winterfell and King’s Landing, he will have it corroborated. But he knows nothing of the God’s favor, the taking of the faces of other faceless men.”

The old man nods, it is a risk, but not an entirely unreasonable one. “He already wants this marriage,” he muses. “The House of Black and White has always abstained from taking sides, for this maintains the balance in the city. If we tip the balance in the Sealord’s favor, he will be complicit in keeping the secret, even if he does suspect something. Nobody but him must know of his wife’s facelessness. And so in public Tormo Fregar will side with the Bank and the council, and show no partiality to us.”

“In private…,” she smiles. “He will serve the God, whether he knows it or not. And if he suspects, just on principle, the pragmatist in him will say, ‘what does it matter that I do not get the girl who was born Arya Stark?’ For all intents and purposes, our brother or sister who marries Tormo Fregar will be Arya Stark.”

“A girl has thought this through.”

“A girl serves the interests of all her Houses,” and there is that smirk again. “The Starks will benefit, the first of the Westerosi nobility to successfully ally themselves to Braavos by marriage--the Targaryens tried many times, you know. Braavos will benefit--the Sealord will have the ability to call upon the wisdom of a hundred assassins, without leaving his marriage bed, though he may never call upon their knives-- that will have to be stipulated, no gift-giving unless our price is met. And the House of Black and White will be the one pulling the strings in the end.”

“And which one of our brothers--or sisters--should become Arya Stark? Why should a girl not assume this role herself?”

“It must be a follower of the Lorathi way. One of yours. One who will never develop into a loving wife in truth, or ever forget her true loyalties.”

The old man smiles in approval. The girl has understood the importance of being no one.

“Preferably someone,” she continues, “who would relish the role, exult in a lifetime of dealing with spies and lies.”

The Braavosi influence is clear as well.

“Also, someone who can endear themselves on their own merits to the populace and the council, for it is doubtful if the union can-- should-- produce a child; the Stark features always breed true.”

In the end she is still, always, Arya Stark.

“As for me taking the role,” she says, and smiles the smile new lovers wear when they think of their beloved, “The God will not permit it.”

How is a man supposed to argue with that ?

“I will think on it.”

They walk. He thinks. Not long. It is a good plan; the opportunity has presented itself, and in one stroke the House of Black and White can stand to gain more influence than it has had since the founding of the Iron Bank.

“It will be done,” he says. “But we must be very careful--The King in the North must agree to marriage with the Mother of Dragons, otherwise the Sealord aligning himself so firmly with Jon Snow will put Braavos in the path of dragonfire.”

And then, and only then, does the old man see the trap this girl has laid for him. She warned him, right at the start of this conversation! He chuckles; she has earned his respect. “We will need a trusted representative to take the missive across the Narrow Sea...someone that has the pull required to convince Jon Snow.”

Arya Stark smiles. “A girl’s teacher follows the direction of her thoughts.”

But the girl should learn it is not quite so easy to out-maneuver her teacher. “Another Lorathi, I think, to wear Arya Stark’s face in Winterfell.”

“Do we have another warg in the brotherhood I do not know about?” she asks mildly. “Even if Jon is fooled, Jon’s direwolf will not be.”

The man sighs, and admits defeat. “Do as you will, Arya Stark.” Also, since the opportunity has presented itself, “Once you are in Westeros, you can also help the one whose face you wear--his quarry is proving more elusive than expected.”

He watches her carefully. She controls herself--she would look impassive to others. But not to him, not wearing a face he has known since before the Doom.

Determination ghosts across her features, and joy. Gratitude. But there is no smugness, or triumph at getting her way.

The Kindly Man purses his lips, and nods. girl has grown.

Chapter Text

ARYA

She travels light--a pack that is mostly full of coin and faces, a few clothes to go with the faces, a bandolier with vials of poison hidden under her dress, various daggers strapped to her legs.

Needle has been entrusted to the Kindly Man, to give to the Sealord’s Arya Stark when the time comes. Instead, she carries a relatively heavy cavalry saber; her reach is still not long, and a rapier is no good against mailed knights unless one can reach their soft, unprotected bits, and a girl can, of course, but why allow mischance more opportunity than it deserves?

Her hair has been allowed to grow long--a story that involves a brother returning from Yi Ti, with gifts of long, tapered wooden hairpins, hollow-tipped and filled with poison.

The girl also carries a small leather bag, and it is in her arms at all times.


 

The bag was entrusted to her but a moment before she walked out of the great black and white doors of the House.

“What is this?” she had asked, staring down at the bag’s contents: a silver oval, the size of a baby’s head. She knew what it was. And yet…

“Dragon egg,” the Kindly Man had confirmed. “We acquired one very recently…the price for killing a king.”

I hope it was for Joffrey. “And you’re just going to give it away?”

“It is good symbolism.”

As betrothal gifts went, she couldn’t have agreed more. And she told herself: stop arguing! This is for Jon!

“And,” said the Kindly Man, “it will be deducted against our end-of-year tithe.”

She rolls her eyes. A dragon egg , and the City of Braavos was going to balance it alongside silver coins and chickens and pig-iron in their ledgers.

And if Jon was getting this , then…

“What is Daenerys getting?” she had asked.

“The Bank is taking care of it--a direwolf pup was located in a menagerie in Leng.”

Arya scratched at her head. “A menagerie? Not a direwolf then.”

“Not purebred, no,” the Kindly Man had replied. “Far more wolf than ‘dire’. But then,” and he had pointed to the egg, “that’s never going to hatch into a dragon either.”

She had wondered how the principals of the alliance would react once they realized what Braavos had given away to the other on their behalf.


 

Her last-minute meeting with the Kindly Man is not her only strange encounter before she departs.

A brother who has never spoken to her before accompanies her all the way to the dock without speaking. His skin is the chalky-dark she is learning to associate with Asshai.

“I have had a dream,” he whispers, just as she is about to board. His is voice high and soft. “My name is Ambraysis Alayain.”

Almost hypnotized by the cadence of his voice, she repeats after him. “Ambraysis Alayain.”

“Do not wear my face until you have need of it.”

What need will I have for the memories of a full-blown sorcerer in Westeros? For that is what he means, she thinks. This brother of hers--she does not know him but she does trust him, and yet the whole interaction makes her very, very uneasy.


 

The ship is small, and there is not much room onboard to escape from her concerns. Neither is there much room to practice her swordwork. But she does practice throwing knives, careful not to show her skill too fully or too often. A “lucky throw” and a sailor’s irresponsible bet wins her a large blue hat, decorated with the plumes of some exotic bird from Southros.

She wears it on deck for the rest of the journey.

 


 

JAQEN H’GHAR

The riverboat ties up at the dock, its passengers waiting to disembark. The man stands a fair distance to the right of the gangplank, Pate’s Maester-chain looped loosely around Pate’s soft neck, the hood of his robe drawn over Pate’s head.

The man scans the faces on the boat, but not all are visible--many face the dock head-on, and can only be seen in partial profile. But of all the figures on the deck of the boat, there is one that calls to him, the sixth-sense that comes with serving Him of the Many Faces telling him this is a brother, though he will not know which of his brothers it is until he sees the eyes. Truthfully, the ridiculous plumed hat has given him pause.

The passengers begin to disembark, and the figure in the hat steps onto the gangplank. Then, like a lodestone snapping north, a man’s brother looks up and to his left.

Their gazes lock.

The face is older. It has lost all the softness of childhood, hair long now, not the boy-short of his imagination, held in place by long pins. An expression of pure joy lights up those eyes, and it is an expression the man has never seen in them before, not in life nor in his dreams.

They have sent a man Arya Stark.

She has recognized him, despite the face he wears.

And then she is darting through the crowd, hat falling to the ground somewhere and he almost loses her for a moment. His heart is thumping so loudly, he is surprised the people next to him do not hear it. There is a break in the crowd and there she is, running towards him, and he lifts his arms.

She crashes into his embrace with the force of a small battering ram; he doesn’t even shift.

“Jaqen, Jaqen, Jaqen,” she is chanting.

His arms have tightened around her, on some level he knows he is crushing the breath from her. Slowly, he relaxes his hold, kisses the top of her head.

Arya ,” he exhales, and her name is a prayer in his mouth.

She looks up at him. She is taller now, and the top of her head reaches his chin.

“A man was afraid he would never see his lovely girl again,” he whispers.

“A girl missed her friend, Jaqen H’ghar.”

Their faces inch closer. Some seed of caution in him makes him lean forward, so that it is his forehead that rests on hears. Such a touch can still be salvaged; lips to lips cannot.

He shifts his hand till he is cupping her cheek. The silence is punctuated by breathing; their breaths mingle in the space between them, and her breath is sweet even after the long voyage, anise and something else, something that calls upon a man to surrender, though he knows not to what .

Her fingers rise to mirror his touch upon her cheek, and he feels the warmth of her hand grazing over the stubble he has cultivated on Pate’s face.

“Jaqen,” she whispers. “People are watching.”

“A man is always aware.” His low voice is laced with amusement.

Neither of them move.

People are staring, but all they see is a young couple parted for too long--some of the onlookers wear fond expressions, others are wistful and envious by turns. Of course, they do not see what a man sees: two assassins that are also friends simply greeting each other.

Yes, because that’s how a man greets Arya’s “Kindly Man” after missions, yes? Forehead-to-forehead, body pressed against his, almost kissing on a public dock.

The business of Oldtown flows around them, leaving them in an island of stillness.

Eventually: “Is a lovely girl hungry?” he whispers.

His words break the spell. Her hand drops to his waist, her face pulls back a bit, and he must needs do the same.

“A girl is thirsty ,” she says, “for news, and a good Westerosi ale if any can be found in this library town.”

The man smirks. “A girl does not know scholars very well if she thinks they do not appreciate a good ale.” He considers his words. “Perhaps some of them appreciate it a bit too much.”

She chuckles, and they shift position, bodies falling into rhythm without prompting.

Their arms encircle each other’s waists as they slowly make their way towards the center of town and the ale-houses dotting the boulevards leading to the Citadel.


 

They speak of the reason she has crossed the Narrow Sea, the entirety of her machinations laid bare in coded words and innocuous phrases.

“So that is the second time there will be rumors that the girl is found, and married,” says the man thoughtfully.

And he is both impressed and a little disturbed by the thoroughness with which she has tied up the interests of a city, and the customarily impartial House of Black and White into a scheme that, in the end, gives her what she wants--to come to Westeros and be reunited with her family.

Is that all a girl wants?

He does not ask; there are a thousand things they have yet to speak of, and this thing that resonates between them, it is the least pressing of their concerns. Still, she looks at him and as with every time she has done that this evening, the hairs rise on the back of his neck; his senses are inflamed, and he must, he must look away.

“Second time?” she asks.

“Some rumors I heard,” he explains, Pate’s Westerosi speech-patterns firmly in place, “First a rumor that a Bolton bastard had gotten his hands on her, then he’d killed her...but just rumors. They’d actually found her sister.”

“Is the sister well?” she asks.

“Yes. Now.” He waves his hand, later , when she is about to ask him to explain the ‘now’. “Their oldest brother is with her.”

“Those two never got along, before,” she says, and now it is her turn to be thoughtful.

Again, their gazes encounter each other’s and this time he cannot look away. The serving woman comes, drops a trencher of bread, takes up their empty tankards.

Their eyes are locked on the other.

She clears her throat, and the laden silence between them lessens. He sighs, whether from relief or regret he cannot tell; that will be a question to pose to himself during his meditations later. The death-trance is long shattered, of course, its shards left behind somewhere on a public dock. Along with the hat; the man thanks the God for small mercies.

“Pate,” she hesitates. “We...you and I--”

“No,” he interrupts. He knows the path she will wend with her words. “We are not going to talk about it.” Already, in the first moments of their meeting they discarded all protocol, called each other by names no one should know.

“Why?”

“I need to think.”

She snorts, an unladylike action that is somehow very her . “Lorathi think too much,” she says. “My Braavosi teacher--”

“Your what?”

She looks at him. “I have been training in the Braavosi way. I thought you knew.”

“I was not informed,” he says. “A Braavosi? Is my Lorathi brother unwell?”

“What? No, he’s fine!”

“So why does he not teach you? Why drag a bravo into it?”

There is a look of disbelief on her face. “You’re angry?”

“Of course not,” he says, evenly. “You can become a somewhat proficient fighter under Braavosi supervision, but what you need is control. The Braavosi are always out of control. You should not have given up my Lorathi brother’s tutelage.”

“Control? Your Lorathi brother beat his last student almost to death.”

How did a girl learn that? But it is another thing the man refuses to discuss at this moment; two names he does wish to mourn for all over again, two names that must be mentioned if the story is to be told to a lovely girl.

“The Lorathi way will give you mastery over your emotions,” he says instead.

She must see something untoward in him, because she quirks an eyebrow. “And how is that going for you?”

He smiles in reply, a sarcastic, humorless pulling of the lips.

There is silence between them again, but it is not the peaceful one from before.

“I want news ,” she says eventually, and he knows she wants to talk of things they cannot in this tavern, no matter how loud the background noise is. Words like “Braavos” and “Lorathi” do not attract undue attention, those places are too far away. “Stark” and “The King in the North”, these are Westerosi concerns.

“And news you shall have,” he promises. “After you have slept.”

“I will sleep with you?” she asks.

He knows she means whether it is his chambers she will be sharing, but that phrasing...is she doing it deliberately?

“I arranged for your lodging at a good inn.” He lies, of course--no such lodging has been arranged because he did not know they would send a man his lovely girl. He would have found rooms for her, otherwise.

Maybe .

In either case, sneaking a temporary guest in and out of the citadel’s living quarters--especially sneaking in a woman--is common practice with Maesters. “Had to call in a few favors, the good inns near the Citadel are almost always very full.”

She tilts her head to a side. “A girl is very sorry your calling in of favors will be wasted.”

Her usage of Lorath-idiom seems to ignore his brain, making a direct conduit from his ears to his groin. She knows what she is doing. That strange, tenuous bond they had forged when she was a child-- a girl could use a friend-- it has changed into something else entirely. Dreams and half-baked fantasies are one thing, the reality of the awareness humming between them is something else entirely.

He reaches out very deliberately, his fingers caressing the air above her arm. Once, not touching. They both watch, fascinated, as the fine, dark hairs on her arm rise in the wake of his not-touch.

“This is not a good idea,” he warns.

She shrugs.

So. He is destined to lose every argument he ever has with Arya Stark, it seems.

He puts on a long-suffering expression, decorates it with a little sigh. “And here I brought you a gift.”

She ignores his mock pathos, sitting up with an excited glitter in her eyes. “A gift! What is it? Tell me!”

“A name,” he says and smiles, the first genuine smile since they entered the ale-house. The God has not forgotten a girl wanted Cersei Lannister dead, that a girl unsaid Cersei Lannister’s name simply because the God had other plans for the Mad Queen. The God owes the girl a name. “A third name for you to offer up.”

She sobers immediately, her face suddenly impassive enough to satisfy him, and yet Jaqen H’ghar cannot entirely negate the unease that crawls up his spine. Has every emotion a man has seen from her thus far been a lie ? If so, a man should be proud. Instead, he is just...suddenly a bit more sympathetic to new acolytes at the House of Black and White.

In the next breath, he dismisses his errant thoughts and leans forward. His face hovers beside hers, his breath ghosting over the shell of her ear. “ Walder Frey .” When he pulls back, he sees her pupils are mere pinpricks of black, floating against a storm-tossed sea.

The memories of torchlight and agony and the desecrated body of a young king dance between them. A girl had known “Frey” and a girl had known “Lannister”, but a house is not enough. A girl needed a name .

She smiles at him. “Thank you.” And this time he is proud of how even her voice is.

“Go on,” he says, “say it!” And lifts his tankard to his lips.

She closes her eyes. “Beloved,” she murmurs, and he almost chokes on his ale before he realizes she is addressing Him of the Many Faces.

This girl is a puzzle, she has not stopped being a puzzle. Jaqen himself has called the God by many names--Death, Lord of Endless Night, Mercy, Silence, Black One, Shadow….But Beloved ?

Be glad she didn’t settle on “Sweetie Pie”.

Again the man almost chokes. That thought belongs far more to Him than it does to Jaqen H’ghar.

She finishes her quiet prayer, and silent lips form a name: Walder Frey. She opens her eyes.

“What?” she asks, defensive.

“Nothing,” he says, “but you could just have said the name to me as before and the gift would be given, what is the need for prayer ?”

“I pray a lot, ever since the pool,” she says quietly, then her gaze drops as she drags her fingertip through a puddle of ale on the table, drawing shapes. “I guess it’s more ‘talking’ than ‘praying.”

“That is neither a Lorathi habit, nor a Braavosi one,” he observes, then thinks. “Perhaps Asshai-under-the-shadow.” The thought brings a pang of disquiet.

She shrugs again. That seems to be her answer to everything that disquiets him--shrugging.

“So,” she says. “I’m curious as to how this works...does the God just tell our brother or sister that Walder Frey is a target? A dream?”

Jaqen blinks. “Too much prayer has rotted your lovely brain,” he says. “We send a raven .”

“Oh.”

She looks surprised, as if a raven is somehow less likely than Death popping into a dream and handing someone a chit with a name on it. The man tries to quell it, but there is still satisfaction to be found in her surprise. Girl: two. Man: one. He is catching up.

“You and I will have to do it,” he continues. “There are none closer.”

You killed the others.” Half-question, half-realization.

“The names were spoken. The gift was given. That is all. Do not gaze at me as if I am a hero from a story,” he warns.

She truly looks hurt at the sternness in a man’s tone.

“Lovely girl,” he lowers his voice, switches languages, “a man didn’t mean to--”

“A girl knows,” she says, her voice as low as his, the language yet another one. “She understands the Lorathi way, even if she does not follow it.”

He looks down, humbled by her understanding. “Just so, lovely girl.”

When she looks up, she has leaned back in her chair and is considering him with mischief in her eyes. “But I am not a girl anymore, so I would request you not use that endearment with me again.”

“I will endeavor to abide by your request, but you must know you remind me of a lovely girl I once knew. Not as lovely as you, of course…” her eyes glitter as he pauses to take a sip of his ale, never letting go of her gaze, “as she was very young when I first knew her, but a lovely girl nonetheless. Lovely, lovely girl.”

Her eyes have narrowed. She leans forward, and under the table her knee brushes against the inside of his thigh. “A man will pay for that.”

The girl has come into her own. And it is terrifying.

Jaqen H’ghar smiles, showing her his canines. 

Chapter Text

JAQEN H’GHAR

Night has followed on the heels of dusk and the dark sky overhead is pierced by a multitude of stars; the stars are never this sharp in summer. The man walks beside the girl, along the almost-deserted boulevard that leads to the Citadel.

He knows something is coming; the girl is too quiet. They pass a statue of some cowled and chained archmaester, indistinguishable from every other living archmaester the man has ever seen, and the girl finally speaks.

Her voice trembles, just a little bit. “Will you sleep with me?”

He panics.

“You are a very good friend to me,” he says, even as his mind is screaming at him to stop.

The quiet, soft “oh” she utters makes him feel like his lungs are being constricted.

Take it back!

Instead, he digs himself deeper. “A sister...” this lie he finds he cannot abide, and amends it: “...in the order.”

He carefully keeps his gaze trained on the path in front of him. This is not how he has pictured this particular conversation...it should be a slow, growing thing between them, an unspoken understanding that opens a door to a new world. This is like being kicked off a cliff into a new world.

“Did…,” she pauses. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees her gather her dignity about her like a cloak, and when she speaks again there is trace of neither hurt nor entreaty in her voice. “We are friends.”

“Do you not feel that, between us? The games of shadows and faces that we play, they forge the closest bonds of friendship two people can ever have.”

Friendship? Now a man profanes two types of relationships.

“Is that what that is?” she asks.

“For me,” he says, “a friend is one you share your darkest thoughts with, someone you stand back-to-back with against an army. Is that not what we do?”

“We do,” she agrees. “But...I wanted more.” Her mouth twists. “You warned me, in the alehouse.”

A man did? He thinks back to their interactions, and realizes that everything could be interpreted as a man gently steering his friend away from an inappropriate attachment, and he almost groans. Those warnings, if warnings they were, were meant for a man , beautiful girl. If she discovers the truth, she will never forgive him. His lovely girl is implacable that way.

“I was aware,” he says, trying not to grit his teeth. “But this confusion always comes with youth.”

Hypocrite.

“So I can tell you that I wanted you, for months, I wanted the idea of you, and it does not ruin our friendship?”

He stops breathing for a moment; he knows it is cruelty not to say something in response to the courage of her confession, but he selfishly runs her words through his mind again. I wanted you, for months .

When the seething, molten flow of desire her words evoke has been papered over by a thin veneer of control, he shakes his head. “A friendship like ours cannot be ruined, especially not by the truth.”

Her shoulders relax; the serenity in her deepens to something more than just a desperate mask. A girl is...relieved? He realizes that while everything he speaks is a lie, it may not be wrong. Perhaps a girl kicked both of them off a cliff before she was ready as well.

He does not know if the God is listening to him, but he thinks to try this prayer business of the girl’s, cannot formulate a proper beseeching, and temporises. A man serves. Let a man serve her interests, not his own desire.

She has wanted him for months, she says; her needs are a mirror to his. And he has built entire universes in his mind populated by false variants of himself and her. This requires a period of calibration and correction. The lovely girl must know him for who he truly is, not the man from her childhood she has put on an undeserved pedestal.

She shrugs again. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she says, rueful. “But I said it and you said no and so it is done.”

He turns to her and chuckles. “Would it surprise you to know that I have no idea what I am doing either?”

She laughs, and there is disbelief in that laughter. “Yes, yes it would.”

“Then you should prepare yourself to be surprised.”

The silence between them settles into something simpler, despite the lie he holds to himself, despite the painful longing in him as he walks beside her as a friend.

It is a sweet agony, and he allows himself to feel it; by the time he has reached the Citadel it has become something like the remembered agony of a limb lost in a battle--a ghost pain, a phantom, something that can be lived with.

Companionably, they settle her packs into his rather sparse wardrobe; there is a small argument as he offers her the bed and she insists on taking the bedroll in the parlor. A compromise is reached: he will set up the bedroll and she will sleep in it, and he can keep his bed but all the pillows are hers.

His attention smoothly divides itself in three and focuses on separate tasks as he sets up the bedding. The first part is reserved for a conversation with her.

“...the curve gives me a longer swinging arc for the same length of blade,” she is saying, defending the saber she carries now.

“Still no use against full armor,” he counters. “And it shortens your already short reach.”

“I am not going to attack a fully armed knight head on,” she says, quite reasonably.

“I think,” he teases, “You really just prefer slicing things off instead of chopping at them.”

She snorts again.

The second part of his attention circles the conversation they have put off till the morrow. He will have to give her the truth of all that has happened to her family in the interim, what he knows, what he guesses. He hopes her response, once she is calm again--for agitation is inevitable--is something on the order of  “ We must work through this together, and see where the pieces fit.”

They switch rooms, but he cannot help hear her small movements out in the parlor--her drawing back the light blanket, pummeling her (his) pillow into submission, sliding in between the sheets.

The third part of his attention has been focused on another universe, one where he has responded to her proposition with the enthusiastic affirmation it deserves, and he thinks: I could have been undressing her right now.

He stops when his imagination takes him too far, to the untying of the laces at her throat, to the tracing of a collarbone with his tongue.

In this, at least, the Lorathi training is good for something--his imagination comes to heel like a well-trained dog, and turns instead upon the paths that can be traced to confirm his suspicions of a Targaryen other than Daenerys taking on a mantle of power.

And yet, fully capable of holding two opposing viewpoints in his head simultaneously, Jaqen H’ghar curses his Lorathi training, that it stopped his imagination where it did.


 

He realizes the God has taken pity on him; the next morning his pangs of longing have abated. It feels as if a fever has broken and he lies cold and sweat-soaked, but in control of his own faculties again. Oh, the want is still there, but it can be put aside.

He allows himself a sigh. Relief or regret, he has still not decided.

She sleeps still, and he chooses not to disturb her as he leaves to retrieve the records he was promised. Knowing the librarian, a man will have to cool his heels for a watch before the bureaucrat finally bothers to see to the request a man submitted, on all the correct forms, in triplicate , almost a week ago.


 

A man has worn “Pate” for so long that he is startled to come face-to-face with the features of Jaqen H’ghar when he returns to his rooms. The man is amused and saddened at the same time: she will have seen Valyria. His lovely girl holds too many horrors of her own, she should not have to hold his, too.

The girl has frozen mid-throw, a guilty expression on her face. His features slide off hers, and Arya Stark is revealed underneath. The man looks beyond her to discover that the girl has made a target of his supper table by tipping it on its side. He considers the grouping of marks, the shape and depth of the gashes.

“Accuracy and precision,” he says, “and yet you flick your wrist--all of them go in too steep.”

“I stuck ninety-four out of a hundred,” she says indignantly.

“One day, it will be the ninety-fifth that counts. ”

She takes the criticism with pursed lips, then gives him a tight nod.

Bereft of his table, the man spreads the papers in his hand on the bed, and sits Pate’s pale and soft body down at the foot of it.

There is silence for a long time, punctuated by the steady thud-thud-thud of knives being driven through soft wood, then longer pauses as she goes to the table to retrieve her blades.

Some time later, she misses a throw. He looks up. “One hundred and thirty,” he says. “Well done.”

She turns around and he is not prepared for the incandescence on her face. A moment later it is gone, wiped away by the typical blankness of a Faceless one.

Jaqen H’ghar finds himself wanting to say anything, do anything, to have that look directed at him again.

A girl’s bladework is impeccable. A man is convinced a girl can give the gift to the entire council of Qarth with only a ribbon and a dinner fork. A man thinks a girl’s eyes hold in them all the moods of the sea.

He struggles, and finds his voice again. “You have been cooped up in these rooms all morning. Is there anything you would like to see in Oldtown?”

She flings herself diagonally across his bed, scattering his papers. “I don’t know. Is there anything I can do? Can I be useful, somehow?”

Is she avoiding the conversation that must come? She was eager for news yesterday, and yet she has not asked. A man cannot allow this to continue, and yet a man cannot force the issue...he settles on a segue.

“I will arrange for a library pass for you,” he says. “Pick a suitably old face, if you have it.” He knows she has brought death-masks, he can smell the magic on them from where he sits.

“I have an appropriate face.” She flips on her stomach, goes up on her elbows. “What do you need searched?” She utters the last word as if it is something sour.

A girl does not like her books. He looks at her for a moment.

“I need a timeline of Rhaegar Targaryen's interactions with Lyanna Stark.”

She is confused.

“Specifically, where each of them was in relation to each other seven to nine months before the Battle of the Trident.”

Her eyes are clear, thoughtful, her lips form a silent count. “Between eight and nine months, then,” she says after a long pause. “Babies that are born too early....my father hired a midwife on his way north; the midwife says he was a very healthy one from the start. Pissed my mother off no end apparently, since Robb was prone to catching chills.”

He puts down the missive he is transcribing and leans back against the footboard. “A girl is quick to believe her father lied.”

She snorts; it is a pathetic little sound. “Eddard Stark always chose his family over his reputation. Over his life. He held to the truth till they threatened Sansa, and then he lied and lost his head. Between besmirching his honor and saving his sister’s son from Robert Baratheon, it would have been no choice at all. Tywin Lannister would have…” she trails off.

“Baby Aegon,” she says, and now she’s excited, flipping over again then positioning herself in a sitting position, legs crossed. “Jaqen, maybe my aunt wasn’t raped by Rhaegar after all! What if--and Robb and Theon and Jon heard enough times why my father hated Tywin Lannister, and Gregor Clegane and the rest--what if my father saved baby Aegon?”

The man exhales. “I considered it,” he says. “Eddard Stark was that kind of man.” He pauses to note her glow of quiet pride. “But Jon Snow is a Stark. Every eyewitness account that I’ve seen describes him as I would describe you, if you were a man.” One end of his mouth quirks up, and his eyes are focused somewhere in the distance. “Midnight hair. A face that an onlooker would describe as almost too beautiful if the onlooker didn’t mind eating a fist. Bottomless, dark eyes--

Pate ,” she interrupts, a strange, savage look on her face. “You will not succeed in making me jealous of my brother .”

He comes back to himself with a sudden awareness of what he was just about to say. Lips like the perfect arch of a bow… He has been tracing her features as he sees them in the secret heart of him; somewhere along the way, all descriptions of the northern king have fled his mind.

“You have nothing to be jealous of,” he says mildy. “You are a very pretty child in your own right.” A hint of patronization from him, a flare of annoyance in her eyes, quickly suppressed. A man is getting very good at pretending to play this “good-friend-and-mentor” role. “And, if I am right, he is not your brother.”

She shrugs. “My cousin, then. You and I both know blood means nothing when it comes to brotherhood. Theon is no blood-relation to me, and yet he is my brother.”

The man looks down, “Um. Theon Greyjoy is not...an ideal example,” he mutters into the papers strewn everywhere.

“What do you mean?”

He sighs, looks into those implacable eyes, and tells her.

The return to the Iron Islands. The capture of Winterfell.

Ramsay Bolton.

“No more half-truths,” she says. Her voice is as cold, as remote as his has become in the telling of the story. “No more threads of information I must unravel .” She is a wall of ice, his Stark princess.

“Ask,” he says. “A man will tell a girl everything he knows.”

Their postures mirror each other, cross-legged, backs stiff, him against the footboard, her against the head. He knows what she will ask for--not the minutiae, not the journeys. She wants the thing that hurts the most.

“I know Bran is alive. Where is he?”

“Missing. Perhaps north of the Wall.”

“Rickon.”

“Killed.” Valar morghulis.

He sees her lips move: Valar morghulis.

“How?” she asks.

“Ramsay Bolton.”

“Sansa?”

“Raped.”

She finally bends, and closes her eyes. “Joffrey?” Her voice is still without inflection, without any modulation whatsoever.

“Ramsay Bolton.”

She opens her eyes and he knows, he knows that look.

“What will you trade for that name?” he asks, masochistically, perversely, wanting to know what her vengeance still means to her. He prays it means less than her love for the order.

“The God is breathing in my ear, Jaqen.” Her voice holds a warning: do not test me.

He backs down immediately--the God is not speaking to him, even in His usual riddles of emotion, which means He is on her side.

“Sansa Stark fed Ramsay Bolton to his own hunting dogs.”

There is quiet, for a time after. But she is so...so very still, she could move at any moment and he must stay deceptively lazy, so as not to startle her in one direction or the other.

“You asked me if I wanted to go somewhere in Oldtown,” she said. “I want to go to a brothel. One that serves women.”

“A man does not follow a girl’s thoughts.”

Her mouth twists. “My sister was a gentle, pretty soul, Jaqen. Do you want to see what I can become if I meet a Ramsay Bolton?”

Fear, terror , jealousy, anger--these, at least, he knows how to negate in the moment. Protectiveness, concern--these things he allows himself to feel. Longing--this thing he has no idea what to do with, so he ignores it entirely.

“So you want to go to a brothel?” This desire of hers is not born of a need for experience, a wanting to give pleasure and receive pleasure in return. This request of hers is a dark thing, and he must understand it.

“The Waif has told me what to do.”

“And what is that?”

“Lose my virginity. Then, I may be raped, violence may be done to me, but this thing, this false thing that has been made precious to me by my upbringing, it is gone already and that is one less thing I have to deal with. And all the stupid things Sansa put in my head, I didn’t understand them them but I do now, and all these things--to love, to cherish, to give yourself to someone important--these things I want will be shredded to pieces the moment I lie with a whore. You know what they say,” she smirks, and it is a cruel thing, this smirk, turned inwards, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Jaqen breathes. In. Out.

“No.”

“I have the money--I earned it, I carried a message from the House to the Sealord, pretending to be an errand boy and he gave me a gold Targaryen for it.”

“No. A girl does not have to do this thing to be safe.”

But there is such a rage in her, and it must be quenched before she hurts herself. Or him. Or the God, for who knows what Him of the Many Faces is thinking right now.

“Why does it matter so much?” she demands. “It means nothing so why is it so damn meaningful to you?”

The man unfolds from his seated position, and his heart twists in him to see her flinch away from him. He knows it is not because of him, it is not him and yet it hurts.

These things I want will be shredded to pieces the moment I lie with a whore.

“A man will not let a girl hurt herself to no purpose.”

She unfolds as well, a there is something--a trick of the light, the shadows gathering behind her as dusk lengthens but the man fears for her, fears for her so keenly for a moment that he wants to slit her throat to keep her safe.

“Oh, Jaqen,” she says, her mouth twisting, “You, of all people, should know I never do anything for just one purpose. This thing ,” and she gestures sharply to her womanhood as if she is cutting it open, cutting it out of her, and it is all he can do not to seize her hand in his and erase the movement, “it enslaves us.”

He doesn’t know what to do.

He knows self-loathing, he knows guilt, and guilt by association, but this thing that she feels, this strange, twisted-up thing...who is this woman, and what has she done with his rational, vengeful, lovely girl?

Gambling holds no attraction for him; he feels like a farmer betting his entire farm on the chance that the farmer’s son will return home after the war.

“How disappointing,” he says, imbuing his words with just enough trace of scorn for her to look at him as he wipes away Pate’s face and becomes, for the first time that he has seen her since she was a child, Jaqen H’ghar .

He almost stops, takes her in his arms, when he sees the tears forming at the corners of his eyes. Almost. “When they cut off her father’s head in front of her, the Arya Stark I know made a list of the people she thought responsible. Really, she should have seen Eddard Stark for what he was--a stupid man, who caused his own beheading. He should have drowned himself in the river before he got to King’s Landing, it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble.”

She backs up a step.

He follows, grabs her wrists, twists her arms away from herself.

She struggles.

Look at me ,” he hisses. “Who. Was. Responsible. For. The. Death. Of. Eddard. Stark?”

“Joffrey,” she whispers, avoiding his eyes. “Cersei Lannister. Ilyn Payne.”

“Just so.”

He releases her. He has left bruises on her wrists, he knows, and he takes one of her hands in both of his, gently, so gently this time, and runs his fingers over the marks that will show in the morning.

“Who was responsible for the rape of Sansa Stark?”

“Ramsay Bolton.”

“Who is to blame if a woman is violated?”

She looks down. “The violator.”

“So why does my rational, focused assassin Arya want to hurt herself preemptively as punishment for a rape that may never happen? By implication, why does Arya Stark want to hurt all women, everywhere, for what others do to them?”

“Because women are weak.

“Physical strength is not a good measure of a person. But even if it is...being weak is a good reason for someone to hurt them, yes?”

She blinks at him.

He takes her other hand in his. “Not being able to lift a sword means someone deserves being cut down by one? Tell me, Arya Stark, who do you think is right? The man standing before you--one Jaqen H’ghar--or the Hound?”

It’s like he has punched her in the gut. All the breath leaves her, and she droops. Her forehead falls forward to rest on his shoulder. The dangerous rage is gone, he thinks. But this thing, it is not done yet.

He feels like he has fought a battle, and the outcome is not yet known, and all around him the jagged corpses of preconceptions litter the ground; any one of them could simply be pretending to  be dead, ready to leap up and stab him. Stab her.

“Jaqen, I am weak. I told you some secrets yesterday, but you truly have no idea of the types of things that go through my mind sometimes, the things I want the--”

He forces himself to chuckle, to cut her off, to suppress his pointed curiosity about the types of things she wants.

All tangled up, my sweet, lovely girl. She has the memories of her faceless brothers, but not the experience to interpret them in their right context. It is one of the reasons they have never before made one so young Faceless--to absorb so many identities, one needs to first know who one is, even if that is “no one”. For a child with a half-formed identity….

But that is a fallacy; age is no defense. He knows brothers in the prime of their adulthood that have drunk cup after cup after cup of water from the pool, weeping when it does not kill them, once they experience all of Valyria through Jaqen H’ghar, through Arya’s Kindly Man, through the others.

This is nothing , the man thinks to himself. It could be much worse.

And Arya Stark is an extraordinary creature. She may bend, like her Needle, but she will not break.

“A man was six-and-ten once, he understands wanting. But rape is an act of violence; sex, a wanting to take, a wanting to be taken , that has nothing to do with rape.”

I never do anything for just one reason , she had said.

In a moment of sudden clarity--not a vision, but an extrapolation --the man sees where last night could have led. Love twisted into self-hate, desire used as a tool to inflict pain on everyone. He quietly, humbly, thanks the God for a man’s panic, because if they had become lovers yesterday it would eventually have destroyed the both of them.

She says nothing.

He sighs, lets go of her wrist. “Does a girl cut out her stomach because she feels hungry? Does a girl slice her throat because she thirsts?”

He knows why the God moved to claim her before she had achieved control--she was well on her way to becoming a soulless killer, a psychopath that reveled in murder before He took her in hand. But the Braavosi training afterwards was a grave mistake--she has learned how to conceal, not process; she chooses action over understanding.

“No riddles,” she says, and he can see the struggle in her. “No half-truths. No threads. Give me your truth, Jaqen, because the Waif gave me hers and I can feel it, in here .” She stabs her mid-section, then, as if it hurts, she draws her arms around herself.

“Desire is a thing of the body, like eating and drinking. Trying to cut it out of you will result in failure, and more time spent battling yourself than battling your enemies. Listen to your body, do what is needful so it does not distract you too much, then move on and focus on your work. Clear enough?”

Her eyes are glittering. Angry, again ? What did I say now?

“How many times have you been with women?” she asks.

“Sixteen.”

She goggles at him, the anger evaporates. “That’s what, one sexual encounter every thirty years, give or take? That’s how often it should be done to not make it distract me too much?”

His lips twitch. “It is not an even distribution, it comes in clusters. And you asked about women .”

Her eyes are round; her cheeks flush, and it is not anger this time.

“So what are we talking about, in total...a hundred? A thousand?”

He shrugs. “Something like once every twenty-four years or so. Twenty, sweet girl, twenty.”

And there is that uncanny, unspoken synchronizing of their bodies again, because they move to the bed, sit side by side, legs dangling.

“And how many of those were because you wanted to and not for the duty?”

He doesn’t have to think on it, but he pretends he does. “None,” he says.

“The great Jaqen H’ghar,” she says, half-bitter, half-longing. “How do I become like you?”

The man knows he’s going to lose her if he says “become no one”. And it’s not true, not really. He’s been manipulating quite a bit this conversation, and now that they are on safer ground, he feels that he should try honesty.

“I am not immune,” he breathes. “She is not included in the count. I never made love to her, never even kissed her--in dreams, many times, but never in reality. She brought me to my knees.” I am on my knees now, lovely girl, but let’s not frighten you off. He wonders if she will notice the shift in his speech, Lorathi and yet with the wrong pronouns.

She does; her sudden flare of jealousy he can feel even from where he sits. She’s going to maim him  if she ever finds out. He waits for her counter strike.

“The God was my first kiss, you know,” she says.

Jaqen H’ghar holds himself very, very still.

“Not the first time he kissed me,” she corrects herself, “I don’t count that one, it was like a kiss from my brother.” Her mouth wrinkles in annoyance, then transitions to a half-smile. “The kisses that came later…”

The God has been kissing the lovely girl. And a God has worn a man’s face while doing it.

Doubt worms its way into his heart. Is it any surprise that she was attracted to Jaqen H’ghar? Maybe this thing is not meant to be after all. And yet, the God wears his face in her dreams. Some of a man’s dreams, it seems, are also born of the God’s habit of playing kissy-face with Arya Stark.  It could almost be taken as a priming --of both a man and a girl--and the implications are...complex.

To be contemplated later, when his brave, lovely girl is not breaking down.

“Well,” he says, drawing humor around both of them like armor that will protect them from the world, from each other, from themselves. “I would still advise against the brothel. Having sex once or twice is not a distraction for a man, but from what I understand, women become voracious sex demons the moment they willingly take a cock inside of them.”

She turns to him, incredulous, and seeing the look on his face, bursts out laughing. There is more than a tinge of hysteria in the laugher, and she laughs and laughs and buries her face in his chest and then she is crying.

He lets her cry it out; one more shock is left. If this does not break her, nothing will.

“A man only knows so much, my lovely girl,” he says. “A girl should ask her mother these things.”

“A girl’s mother is dead,” she mumbles into his chest, her voice muffled and congested from the weeping.

“And why is that a problem?”

She pushes him away, almost violently. “Jaqen?”

“A girl knows Beric Dondarrion.”

She nods, eyes fearful.

“He gave up his resurrection for another. For a lady of a great house, killed by treachery, her corpse pulled from a river.”

“Where?”

“The Riverlands.”

She is on her feet and halfway to the door before he grabs her, wraps his arms around her waist from behind, leans down to her ear as she struggles.

“We will go together . Soon. But not now.”

She struggles harder, and she is stronger than he thinks, because she struggles out of his grasp and the choice is to hurt her or let her go, and so of course he lets her go.

“Walder Frey,” he calls, praying for the thing he prayed against earlier, that her need for vengeance would be stronger than love. “There is a gift we have to give, you and I. A girl has her duties .”

Their last parting hovers between them.

Stay, Jaqen , she had said.

She stays.

“You need to give me something to do,” she says through clenched teeth, still facing the door.

He thinks quickly. There are only so many challenges in this place that will keep his lovely, ravenous girl occupied long enough for him to finish his search. A distraction with teeth...

“Would a girl like to learn about one of the greatest conspiracies of our age?”

Her shoulder-blades have relaxed. “Is a library involved?”

He grins, and he knows she can hear the amusement in his voice. “A gambling den, actually, knee-deep in spies, thieves and dangerous murderers.”


 

ANOTHER ONE

The one under her mask of Arya Stark has hunted her quarry for a very long time, through Essos, through Yi Ti, and finally, she has cornered him in Asshai. The river is lit with green phosphorescence, and shadow looms over it.

The boat pulls into the dock, and she sees a flutter of white--almost translucent--flutter in the sky and fall into the ash-choked river.

Winter has come . And now Asshai knows it.

She is led off the boat in chains, along with two others, one a pale girl from somewhere in Westeros, another a bronze warrior woman from some principality in the Jade Sea. The girl’s lips curl to see the silver palanquins, held aloft by more manacled slaves, undulating their way to the many auction stages.

In Asshai, sorcerers hear everything. Sorcerers know everything. She is not even a moment on the auction block before a red-sleeved hand gestures out of a curtained palanquin: the bid stands a thousand gold sovereigns. It is too high a price for the other bidders this early in the day; virgins from Westeros are common enough.

Her leg irons have been removed to allow her to walk beside the palanquin. There are two sitting inside, and she catches snippets of conversation.

“King’s blood.”

“How do we tell?”

“Girl!” a face-- that face--leans out of the palanquin. “Who are you?”

The sorceress that has actually bid on the girl looks on, interested.

She summons up all the sullen defiance of Arya Stark’s childhood, and says nothing. There is a trace of satisfaction in the sorcerer-woman’s face. Suddenly, she throws a pinch of some glittering green dust in the girl’s face, and she must choke and splutter.

“Who are you?” asks the woman, and her voice is both cooly sibilant, like a caress of a snake.

The one who is no one thanks her master; every beating that eventually made this one give up the name she was born with, in this moment each one of those hurts have become justified. The sorcerer-woman’s spell drags a name out of her, and because she is no one there is only one name the spell can snag.

“I am Arya Stark.”

“And how can you prove you are Arya Stark?”

“I had a direwolf once. Her name was Nymeria. Sometimes I can see through her eyes; sometimes I dream of her.”

The sorceress leans back amidst her cushions. “A warg. Dragons and wargs. Magic is returning to those lands. My, my. And we have King’s Blood, through her brother and her lineage. Warg’s blood. Virgin’s blood. My dear ,” she addresses the betrayer, “can I convince you to wait a little longer? Using this one for your task is like swatting a fly with a siege engine.”

“You made a bargain,” says the betrayer. “And I am not convinced this is a Stark.”

“My spell is not a lie,” the woman says, coldly. “And there are no animals in the city that we can test her warg abilities, are there? She has the look. She has the speech. She knows what no random child from Westeros can know--that a warg must be awakened by the howl of a direwolf.”

“There is some taint of magic on her,” says the betrayer. “I don’t like it.”

“So you will wait a little longer, then.” The sorceress smiles.

The betrayer’s eyes narrow at his companions. “No,” he says roughly. “Let it be done now.”

The sorceress sighs. “Very well. But we must negotiate the price--the gold price--again.”

“I don’t know why you had to bid so high so fast, but I’ll pay it.”

The sorceress shakes her head. “Not just the cost of buying her. I want the opportunity cost of her blood--the cost of every spell I could have cast with it, and will not, because I must cast yours.”

The betrayer grimaces. “What do you want?”

“The sorcerer Mak’kiesh. Kill him for me.”

The betrayer smiles, relieved at not having to part with more gold. “Done.”


 

There are two stone slabs, side by side, ringed by green-tinged candles. The betrayer is strapped down to one, the girl to the other.

The sorceress stands above them.

“This will hurt,” she says to him. “But I will cut into your chest, draw away your ribs one by one, and then...it will be done.

They are going to cut off a girl’s breasts, drain her of her blood, and use it to reshape and resculpt the betrayer’s body into something entirely different--a different sex, a different race, a different everything . They think this will actually fool the God, fool the Faceless brotherhood.

The girl laughs, and they take it for hysteria.

After the betrayer’s changing, they will scoop out a girl’s brains and lungs and burn them on a braiser, along with her womb and her eyes. All organs must remain intact until they are burned. The girl thinks that if a sorcerer somehow loses their power, they can still become a very successful butcher.

The brains and eyes and womb they will burn to erase every memory of the betrayer’s existence from the world.

Slowly, accompanied by his screams, the betrayer is gutted from neck to across the cock. It’s nowhere near enough to kill him; his breathing is shallow, and the girl can almost feel him invoking the pain-dulling disciplines of the faceless.

The sorceress cuts a girl’s arm, collects blood into a shallow bowl, then tips it into the betrayer’s ribcage.

The sorceress frowns. “It’s not work--”

The girl has risen, and threaded the long ceremonial fire-lighter through the base of the sorcerer’s skull and out the bridge of her nose. The sorcerer is dead before she hits the slab and her head rebounds off the stone.

The betrayer is struggling. “Untie me, girl, I will let you live,” he gasps. The blood is pooling in his chest cavity.

She shakes her head, slowly.

“You are not Arya Stark,” he struggles for breath. “Who...who are you?”

The girl reaches across and wipes away Arya Stark’s face, for just a moment.

“I am no one.”

Arya Stark’s face returns to the fore, and she drives the sorcerer’s blade through the betrayer’s heart.

She closes his eyes, leaves two coins of the House of Black and White over his lids.

Something--perhaps an almost forgotten whisper of a memory, of a God’s fingers tapping against her pulse (not felt for decades by the one who wears Arya Stark’s face)--reminds her of what had once bound her to the dead man on the table.

“Valar morghulis,” she whispers over him. It is a benediction, this time. “Valar morghulis, brother.”


 

ARYA

She has becoming very good at compartmentalizing. All the chaos inside of her is tied up into a knot and hidden under the needs of the moment. There is some glimmer of uneasy understanding that she would not have listened, she would not have obeyed , had it been any other to ask it of her, to wait, to allow herself to be distracted and not go and see her mother .

My mother is alive.

But Jaqen H’ghar has asked her to wait, and she cannot tell where in her mind where the God ends and Jaqen H’ghar begins.

After a quick change of faces--she plays a young bravo, half-Dornish, half-Braavosi--Jaqen leads her to an age-grimed building at the end of a twisted alleyway.

A man answers the door, and there is a quick exchange of coded phrases, and then they are led inside.

The interior of the building confounds all her assumptions--it is a very large, open space, with red plush carpet and gilded columns, and the rafters of the faraway roof obscured by soot-darkened bunting. Glass lanterns decorate each pillar and hang from chains overhead; the room is better-lit than any she has seen since King’s Landing.

Men--old men, for the most part--sit in groups around the various tables around the floor. They are playing games--card games, dice games, something played with counters and small statuettes of naked women.

Upper-floor balconies jut out over the floor on each side, and some few lounge there, observing the games below. With another exchange of coded phrases, Jaqen leads her to just such a balcony, on a second floor.

“Not all watchers are watching from balconies,” she says, observing that there are a lot more players interested in the games other than their own, despite the rather hefty sums they have themselves wagered.

Jaqen gives a half-smile. “The one on the edge there, who folded despite holding all four queens? He’s watching Maester Simon Greywater for Maester Augustus Greywater.”

“And who watches Maester Augustus?” she asks.

“The whore Maester Simon paid to seduce Augustus,” says Jaqen.

By the time he’s done identifying each of the watchers for her, Arya finds that her estimation of Maester’s ethics has dropped by several orders of magnitude, and her estimation of their cunning has risen.

And the Jaqen gets to the players themselves.

That one,” he murmurs, indicating an old man wearing a too-tight doublet, “embezzles coins from the funds allocated to his students’ stipends, and spends them here.”

To her surprise, there are actually Maesters--two of them--that are here for Maester-work. Mathematicians both, they are compiling statistics on weighted dice. Nobody welcomes those two to their table, but the gambling house seems keen to see that their path is unimpeded.

“Well, you’ve shown me the spies,” she says finally, “and the thieves. But which ones are the dangerous murderers?”

He gives her a look .

Realization dawns, and she giggles. “Right.”

There is a newcomer to the floor. A man of middling height and drawn brows, he wears his simple grey robe with a sense of authority as yet unseen by Arya amongst the gamblers below.

The man looks up, scanning the balconies, and Pate raises a hand in greeting. A few minutes later, the man has made his way up to their little alcove, and Pate positions himself so that the newcomer is not seen from the floor, or indeed, any other balcony.

“You said you have news?” asks the man. A Maester, certainly.

Pate tilts his head to the side, speaks in broken Low Valyrian, from which Arya takes her (his) cues to who she should be.

“This is Dondo Valeesi,” Pate says, “he has brought us information for which we will pay well. Dondo, meet one of the respected men I told you about.”

“Dondo” gives a little bow, says “a pleasure to meet you” in flawless, Braavos-accented Low Valyrian.

The man nods, then replies in a Low Valyrian far better than Pate’s pathetic attempt. “Perhaps the young bravo would like to try our gaming tables?”

“No,” says Pate, then switches to Westerosi. “The boy does not speak our tongue at all, he’ll be fleeced if I send him down there. Do you really want our funds to end up lining Maester Simon’s students?”

The dour-faced man grunts. “So what is this valuable news.”

Arya swaggers over to the railing, for a bravo of her age would fast be bored with two men babbling in a tongue she cannot understand. She pretends to be drawn to a dice game between six men--one that is also common on the docks and wharves of Braavos.

“The Dragon Queen marches,” says Pate.

“If that was the news you had to impart, I would have preferred to stay in bed; if it was my company you wanted, I would suggest you seek others of your kind, maybe in the pigsty below.”

She hears the clink of coins, and out of the corner of her eye she catches a glitter of silver arcing through the air.

Pate has tossed the Maester a coin.

“The Iron Bank has shown its hand,” says Pate quietly.

Arya marvels. In this moment, if she hadn’t known any better--even knowing better--she still doubts for a moment that Pate is Jaqen, that is not an ally of this dour-faced Maester.

She hears a sigh, a creak as the man settles his bulk into a chair.

“All for nothing,” he says. “Generations of weakening dragons, manipulating bloody Targaryens, all for nothing.”

Weakening dragons! Jaqen had said “the greatest conspiracy of our age”. The Maesters were behind the decline of dragons in Westeros? She had always been told it was because the Targaryens had chained and confined their beasts. Manipulating Targaryens...into chaining their dragons?

But the man continues. “All because Robert bankrupted the Crown with tourneys, and we could not pay the Faceless Men’s price, so we had to hire a sorrowful man to kill her and he failed.”

Arya feels a momentary spark of Guild pride. Well, you get what you pay for.

“Sorrowful men,” says Pate and his tone is dismissive.

Hah, so Pate has not entirely eaten my Jaqen . She turns around, as if bored of the floor below as well, and takes up a lackadaisical pose, leaning on the rail with an elbow. She wants to look for clues of this thing, that it is Jaqen playing Pate and not Jaqen being Pate, and to her disappointment, she finds none, not even that sardonic half-twitch that Jaqen’s mouth makes sometimes.

“The blood of the dragon will come to Westeros, and dragons with it,” says the old Maester heavily. He shakes his head. “And there are too many dragon tales, too many magic tales circulating in the Citadel. Even that friend of yours--Tarly. Dragonglass. Pah!

Pate had a friend. Does Jaqen? Irrational, but she realizes jealousy is, sometimes.

“All boys are enamoured of dragons,” says Pate. “He has grown out of it.”

Jaqen’s friend. This she knows, in her bones. Curiosity replaces jealousy. Who is this Tarly person?

The Maester’s mouth curls unpleasantly. “You should have killed him like I told you to.”

You cannot meet the price for that, old man, she thinks. The House would have beggared you and my God would have emptied you, for asking for the death of a person a Faceless Man calls ‘friend’.

“I judged it was not necessary,” Pate says.

You judged?”

“I judged.” Pate holds his ground.

The Maester raises an eyebrow. “My my, how the pig-boy has grown.”

Arya wants to punch the old man. Instead, she turns back to the floor.

“Cersei Lannister is mad,” says Pate softly. “She cannot stand against the Mother of Dragons. So who will?”

“The King in the North, is that what you suggest? That we throw our support behind him?”

“I suggest nothing. Only that it is a possibility, and if it is, he needs a Maester by his side. One of ours.

“And Samwell Tarly is one of ours.” The Maester’s tone is acidic.

“I am sure of it,” says Pate and though she cannot see him, she imagines he smirks. “He has a child, as you know--I have arranged for...documents, of suitable parentage, to be drawn up. The child was conceived before Tarly took the black. A secret marriage ceremony--the girl is common-born, it angered Lord Tarly, et cetera. Little Samwell will inherit Horn Hill if my affidavit attesting to the fraud--twice-witnessed and sealed--never comes to light. Never fear, Archmaester, Samwell Tarly is ours.”

What is Jaqen playing at? What kind of man have they sent to Jon?

The arch maester huffs. “You should have killed him and taken his place.”

Arya cannot help but agree. Jon would be safe if Jaqen was around.

“I have no love of the Starks,” says Pate, and his voice is hard and cold, “and these Northern women are as frigid as their landscape.”

Despite all her training, for a moment she has a mad urge to turn around and slap the composure off Pate’s face. He’s good. He’s so good. But dear God, I’m going to make him pay for that little jape.

She pretends to observe the floor, imbuing some excitement into her shoulder muscles as a particularly large windfall comes to a young, floppy-haired gambler. Not a Maester. The boy has made some enemies tonight.

“You put your own needs before the Citadel’s.” The coldness in the Maester’s voice matches Pate’s.

“If I do,” says Pate, “I am not the only one. And I have more than one reason for tarrying in Oldtown for a while yet. The blood of the dragon crops up in the strangest places. Tell me, who is Jon Snow’s mother?”

He’s doing this! A Faceless man must use the truth as a lie, believe a lie as a truth, and calculate the most effective way to gain the information he needs. Jaqen is doing this now because it is the fastest way for him to finish the work he is doing here. He’s doing it for me, so he can get his answer and I can see my mother in the shortest time possible.

A question that has not truly bothered her until now re-surfaces. Why does he want to confirm that Jon is a Targaryen? What contract is he fulfilling? Who is his target? Jon’s long-lost mother?

The thought makes her sad.

“Ned Stark fucked some whore on the march south, it is said,” says the Maester. “Why?”

“The rumors I heard say Ned Stark saved Elia Martell’s youngest son.”

“Impossible. We follow these things, you know--Jon Snow is a Stark by birth, and we know this as surely as we knew of Cersei Lannister’s incestuous habits the day Joffrey was born.”

Father was right.

“And what of the rumor,” Pate’s tone has grown softer, somehow commanding more attention than before, “that Ned Stark besmirched his honor to save his sister’s son?”

“We have heard no such rumor!”

“But it is possible?”

She strains without appearing to do so, deliberately inhaling and exhaling to stop herself from holding her breath.

“Hah. No. A Stark would never breed with a Targaryen.”

You wait and watch.

“How have you eliminated it? Rape produces children too.”

Sansa, my poor, beautiful, annoying sister, I pray you do not carry a child. No. Jaqen would have told me.

“I charted the boy’s horoscope,” explodes the Maester. “The moment he came to my attention. I assure you, the stars say the boy was conceived in love--lust, if you will--and his star would be ascendant in the North.”

A horoscope? Who is this man, Archmaester of Astrology? Beloved, these scholars are useless .

“Well,” says the Maester, “if that’s all you have, I’m leaving.” He remembers his courtesy at the last minute and says, “Good to have met you, Dondo.”

Even though the words are in Westerosi, she whirls around at the sound of her own ‘name’.

“Next time you are in Oldtown, bring your news directly to me, so we can avoid all this cloak-and-dagger nonsense.”

She smiles blankly.

“Kill this boy when you are done buggering him,” the Maester commands, again in Westerosi.

Arya’s blank smile does not shift. He is looking for a reaction to show she understands the language after all. Amateur , she thinks. She was passing tests like this for the Kindly Man before she’d turned twelve.

The old man turns to Pate. “And come up with a way of countering this move of the Iron Bank’s.”

Pate is ready. “A rumor, perhaps, that the coins are hollow and filled with just enough lead to make them true-weight; fear does strange things to merchants--they will cut them open to confirm it, and lo, the Dragon Queen loses her face.”

Arya is almost indignant. Pate’s plan will work. The coins were such a good idea! To be countered by a mere rumor ...

The old man’s eyes glitter. “You are useful to us...but try not to be too useful, eh?”

And then he is gone, down the stairs to the floor. Arya follows his path all the way outside.

Pate moved too fast; now this Archmaester knows he is a threat. Like a ‘Jaqen H’ghar’ had died for her, Pate would have to die too.

“Why does he think you’re buggering me?” she asks.

“The Maester likes to show that no secret is safe around him. So from time to time I give him something he can dig up--nothing too big, but something that feeds his sense of superiority. And he was curious as to what reason I could have for keeping you here during our meeting. For protecting you.”

I get that , her look says. “But how did he arrive at ‘buggering’?”

“Two glances,” says Pate. “Each time you turned away. Casual. But...targeted.”

She refuses to blush.

“His name is Archmaester Vaellyn--Vinegar Vaellyn, to his students and enemies, of which he has many.”

She raises an eyebrow at Pate. Are you giving me a name?

He nods in confirmation.

She starts for the stairs. “Meet you back in your rooms.”

He waves her on.

Chapter Text

ARYA

She returns to the Pate’s rooms wearing yet another face. It is cold outside, and the sudden warmth when she crosses the threshold into his chambers takes her aback. She closes the door behind her, and sees stacks of parchment and books sitting on the floor of the parlor.

Pate has uprighted his table, the now utterly destroyed surface covered with a cloth.

“Valar morghulis,” she says softly.

He finally looks up at her, notices the lack of blood anywhere on her person.

“Valar dohaeris,” he responds, just as softly. “Come, help me with this.”

Books. Great.

She slides into a chair next  to his. “You took these from Vinegar’s quarters?”

He nods.

“Won’t they be missed?”

And there is Jaqen H’ghar’s sardonic smile. “The Citadel is most bureaucratic. That means slow, lovely girl.”

She wants him to stop calling her that. She prays he never does--it is likely the only endearment she will ever get from him. Despite everything that she has learned earlier, despite baby Rickon and Sansa and...she halts that train of thought.

One pain does not neutralize another.

So.

She hurts, that he does not think of her the way a man would think of a woman. But she will never show it to him, not ever again.

She bends her head obediently to the task of searching for mentions of ‘Targaryen’ or ‘dragon’.

A watch passes, and she finds herself drawn into a book despite herself. It is called “The True Nature of Gods”, written by a Jonathan Pryce.

“Have you read this?” she asks absently.

A pause. “No,” he answers.

“It’s very interesting.”

She hears Pate sigh. “Does it say anything about Targaryens?”

“No,” she snaps. “It says humans make the gods, not the other way around.”

“Theology…”

She finally looks up. “You are the foremost servant of the Many-Faced God and you are not interested in theology?”

“A girl is an assassin, and yet she is not interested in our next target,” he says evenly.

Her curiosity is a side-thread; at the moment she is fixated on what the book says.

“Listen to this,” she says, and she quotes: “The Seven-Pointed Star says the Seven need their worshippers as much as the worshipper needs the Seven. Why does a god need worshippers? Why does a god need true believers ? The gods we name are gods of primal, untamable forces--the weather and the sea, procreation and death. These forces have no names of their own, no consciousness, no way to speak. Our worship teaches them how to be conscious, even as they embody the most pure essence of the primal qualities that make us human--compassion, mercy, justice. We teach these abstract forces to speak, so that they may share with us a portion of their holiness.”

Pate snorts. “Very pretty.”

“He makes some very good points,” she says.

“This, coming from a girl who addresses the Many-Faced God as ‘Beloved’ and plays kissy-face with Him all night?”

“Not all night,” she murmurs. “Sometimes we talk.”

Arya is quite comfortable with holding two opposing viewpoints simultaneously in her mind. She flips a few pages, continues quoting. “A god must be awakened. In the normal course of things, this humble author calculates, based on a quadratic model of increase in a god’s worshippers, that such an awakening would take more than five thousand years. But that assumes a minimal contribution of ‘personhood’ from each worshipper to the god. If, however, a god can be awakened in a single event--a catastrophically powerful personality merging itself with a primal, abstract force--”

“That explains some things,” says Pate. He has been listening, she realizes. “Your ‘humble author’, this Jonathan Pryce, later became the High Sparrow of the faith of the Seven.”

“The one that tortured Cersei?” she asks.

“The same.”

“No wonder I like him,” she muses, and turns flips to the end of the book. “...and so if we must look for evidence that the gods exist in this age, while human civilization is still so young, we must not turn to vile magic and sorcery, but instead look for the gods’ living avatars--the ones that awakened their god, became their god, and in so doing, became the living extensions of godhood in our world. And, if we do not find them, we must make them.”

Pate radiates disapproval. “Hubris. The trial of the Queen and her brother, the trial of Cersei Lannister...the Sparrow wanted to create a god of justice, a god of the common people. Well, he created something--the Mad Queen.”

Arya thinks on this. ‘Pate’ is not wrong, and yet...she feels there is some kernel of truth in the author’s words.

A girl has some thinking to do. Perhaps the God will come to me tonight, I can just ask Him what he thinks.

Pate has returned to his parchment, and does not seem to be paying attention anymore, so it surprises her when he speaks. “Maesters--even ex-Maesters like your High Sparrow--are generally full of shit, which I’m sure you found out.”

“Vaellyn soiled himself, like they all do,” she agrees.

“He gave me a link for charting the astrological charts of dead people nobody cares about, and didn’t notice that I made up a few new stars in the sky to speed things along, despite all his love for the ‘celestial heavens’. No, lovely girl, do not believe anything you read in these books. There is no living avatar of the Many-Faced One walking around.”

She looks at him, really looks at him, and sees a deep, dark pool of distress beneath the Pate persona.

“Hmm,” is all she says.


 


 

JAQEN H’GHAR

They must leave soon. He should have expected the girl to defy his expectations yet again, so why is he so surprised when she picks up a book and actually reads it? And now she has a stupid philosophy rattling around in her head, and in the absence of anything more sensible it will take hold.

He gets up, rifles through his wardrobe for a moment, and returns with a slender volume of poetry. “This is better theology--the Blind God, from Lorath. Poetry, and short, and so should keep your interest.”

She looks at him with narrowed eyes, and he is not above manipulating her through her interest in a man.

“A man grew up listening to these,” he says. “You may remember them from his memories, perhaps--perhaps not.”

Immediately, she reaches for the volume.

There is a loud thumping on his door.

“Hide,” he says to the girl, but she simply loosens her hair and drapes herself provocatively on the chair.

“I’ve heard it’s quite traditional for Maesters to have a woman in their quarters,” she murmurs.

He glares at her in mock-annoyance. “It is even more traditional for an assassin to hide under a bed. Go!”

She goes.

He opens the door,

A Maester--one of Vaellyn’s pets--stands outside.

“What’s going on?” asks Pate, tone just bewildered enough.

“Archmaester Vaellyn has been murdered!” says the man.

Pate raises an eyebrow. “Can’t say I’m surprised, given the way he speaks to people. Spoke . Where?”

“Don’t worry, you’re not under suspicion,” says the Maester. “You were seen here at the time the murder was committed. He was killed on the other side of the city.”

“Of course I’m not under suspicion,” snarls Pate. “ I didn’t do it! But I am the last to be informed, I assume.”

The man spreads his hands, not denying but placating. “At least you were informed. The other Maesters will be told tomorrow morning. And now I ,” he shakes his head, “need to get to bed.”

“Good,” says Pate, and then he moves, faster than the Maester can register the movement.

In a moment the man is unconscious.

The girl comes out as soon as the door is closed. She helps him lay out the man on the floor,

Jaqen H’ghar carefully peels away Pate’s death-mask, makes two long cuts over the unconscious man’s face, and places the mask over him. There is a trick to this, giving a face to another. It’s dangerous, and doesn’t always work.

The girl watches, very, very carefully. She may be able to do it herself, though he knows her ‘Kindly Man’ cannot. The God is very partial to her. Playing kissy-face.

The mask takes hold. Pate’s features come alive, and the Maester on the floor thrashes in the grip of some nightmare. Swiftly, the man slices open the Maester’s throat. Then, too, the girl helps him transfer Pate’s Maester-chain to the corpse’s, helps pose the corpse in a manner that indicates ‘Pate’ was surprised by a killer the moment ‘Pate’ opened the door.

The return to the table.

“Jaqen,” she says. He is wearing his own face, so it is quite appropriate. Still, he thrills to hear the sound of his name in her mouth, spoken without distress, and he must ensure his answering smile is not too enthusiastic.

“Yes, lovely girl?”

“Who is our target?”

He turns to face her. Truth, only the truth, because anything else is a disservice to another who serves the God.

“Four hundred and fifty years ago, a man was approached by a sorcerer from Asshai-under-the-shadow. A man was offered a contract for the life of the Prince that was Promised.” He says the title, the prophesied title, in High Valyrian.

“And who is that?”

“The hero in a prophecy,” he says. “A prince who will come to save the world from darkness, born under a bleeding star, et cetera. The time for the coming of the Prince is nigh, it seems, and yet I cannot find them.”

“You believe it is a Targaryen.”

He nods. “It must be.”

“You think we’re contracted to kill Jon !”

He considers her. “A man is not convinced the King in the North is a good candidate for this. But what if he were?”

She shakes her head. “We are not. Jon is not the Prince that was Promised.”

“Did the God tell you that?” he asks, and it seems he has absorbed some of Vinegar Vaellyn’s acid bite.

“Jon will be safer with you at his side than without,” she says, and there is a ringing in her words; the light from the lanterns in the room wavers.

The man feels like cursing.

Thank you, Him of the Many Faces, for not telling a man months ago that a man does not need to kill the beloved brother of the girl a man has fallen in love with. You knew a man was trying to avoid having to give the gift to Jon Snow, but had You told a man the truth earlier, a man would not have had a chance to learn, in detail , the lineages of every single bastard the Targaryens have ever produced. A man would have missed all the delightful interactions he has had with librarians!

“Jaqen, are you yelling at the God?” she asks.

“And why would a man do that, sweet girl?” he asks. “A man has only wasted a single year after all, and what is a year to one of the God’s servants?”

Her mouth twitches.

“Well,” she says, “Um. Are we sure we want to kill someone who is supposed to save the world?”

“Not our place to judge,” he says. “A name was given.”

“And what was the price we asked for such a thing?”

He is quiet for a while. “An end to slavery was negotiated,” he says finally. “Enforced by all the sorcery that Asshai can muster. First the shadow-city itself, then Qarth, then, one by one, every citadel that can be reached by priests of the Red God.”

You negotiated this deal,” she says.

“A man did.”

She is looking at him with that look again, and he wants to reprimand her. A man is not a hero in some tale, lovely girl.

“Well,” and there is that quixotic, mercurial change of mood again--she sounds positively enthusiastic. “It sounds like a good bargain--a prophesied royal with a stick the size of my forearm up his ass, for a million souls crying out in despair.”

“A Targaryen with a stick up their ass,” he corrects.

“High Valyrian is gender-neutral,” she muses. “It could be Daenerys.”

“We have a brother working on that possibility. Breaker of Chains , she is called. A man wanted to be absolutely sure she was the one--it does the House’s reputation no good if we eliminate the wrong target.”

“Of course,” she says dryly. “We do not judge.” Then she sits up.  “But we’re going to marry her to Jon!”

He looks at her.

“Well,” she mutters, “it’s not like he loves her. He doesn’t even know her.”

“Would it have mattered if he did?” he asks.

She presses her lips together. “Inasmuch as it would cut me to the bone to kill her.”

The man looks down at the table-top. “When a girl is cut, this man bleeds,” he whispers.

He dares not look up. So many lies, that he does not have the capacity to keep this, the most fundamental of truths, within himself.

He hears her push back the chair, stand up. “I’m going to sleep,” she says. He makes to rise as well, but she waves him down. “No, finish what you need to do. I’ll take the bed.”

She goes into the bedroom, and closes the door behind her.


 

He finishes putting away the papers, burning the ones that need to be burnt. Then he packs, only the things that are necessary to them, and not to be found in Pate’s quarters anyway--weapons, travel clothing, bedrolls.

He needs some things from his wardrobe. He opens the door to the bedroom quietly. The girl is fast asleep, her heartbeat slow and steady.

He lights a taper, and cannot help but glance at the bed.

His lovely girl sprawls, limbs askew, somehow managing to occupy far greater volume than her body contains. She has thrown off the blanket.

The man moves soundlessly to her side, reaches to draw the discarded covering over her legs.

She stirs, and he freezes.

Her heartbeat, so slow and steady, is rising, though she is still fast asleep. Her eyes flicker, under closed lids.

Dreaming.

And then her hand is moving over the cloth of her shirt, and she gives a tiny moan that goes through him like lightning, and then, then she clutches at her right breast and her back arches. Her lips part, moist.

Jaqen.”

The sound of her own voice wakes her. Her eyes flutter open, and she sees him hovering over her, and he cannot tell what she sees in his face for her eyes grow panicked.

She is poised on the edge of flight, except that he has backed his lovely girl into a corner and she has nowhere to run.

He pulls back, leaves the path to the door clear.

She sits up, follows his movement.

His face is utterly, completely impassive as he takes another step back.

A man could just walk forward as easily as back, pin her arms above her head and make her say his name like that . Again and again and again…

Something of this must have shown in him; in the candlelight it is hardly possible for her pupils to dilate further but her eyes darken. She loses most, most of the panic. But there is still a great deal of mortification there.

Without taking his eyes off her, he reaches into the open wardrobe, and half-bends to rummage around in her travelling pack. Her gaze follows him, confused, and she doesn’t know what he is doing.

The man, on the other hand, knows exactly what he is doing, but he is not sure if this is the time for the doing of it.

He pulls out her pouch of coin, fishes inside it for a moment, and draws forth one of the Targaryen sovereigns.

He holds it up for her inspection between thumb and forefinger; candlelight dances over its gold surface.

She is losing some of her confusion; trepidation is replacing it.

He crosses over to the other side of the room and she shrinks back from him, moves back till her back is resting against the wall.

He stands beside the bed, and holds out the coin in front of him. He is fully clothed and yet the coin is still held a little too close to his achingly hard member.

“Kiss it,” he commands in a whisper.

She moves as if hypnotized, slowly, never breaking eye contact. She leans forward and briefly touches her lips to the gold. He can feel warm air brushing against his palm; her breath trembles.

He looks down and memorizes the image: liquid black eyes, pooling with unshed tears, looking up at him. The collar of her shirt has come undone, it gapes as she kneels, and he can see the upper curve of her breasts.

Then it is over. She rocks back on her heels.

The man closes his fingers around the coin, tucks it into one of the hidden pockets sewn into his shirt.

“And now a girl will not be visiting any brothels, yes? Because her coin has already been claimed.”

“You are trying to save a girl from herself,” she whispers.

“A man is trying to save some Westerosi whore from a messy death at Jaqen H’ghar’s hand. For no fault of the whore’s, you understand.” His voice is even, and deathly serious.

She is the first to break eye contact.

“Go to sleep,” he says roughly. “We are leaving early tomorrow morning.”

She obeys; her head hits the pillow, and there is enough candlelight to show him the joyous smile that breaks out over her face. His own response is far more controlled: he permits himself only the smallest of grins before returning to his packing.

Chapter Text

Jaqen H’ghar

They leave Oldtown before dawn, when only bakers and street-sweepers are going about their business. He has four horses stabled at an inn, and he wears his Alchemist brother’s face, for that is how the horses have been bought, and stabled, these past few years. The girl wears the face of a middle-aged Westerosi merchant, a mask the man is not familiar with himself.

He sells the two geldings, keeps the mares.

Given her naming habit, the girl promptly calls her horse “Steel” for the color of its mane or some such nonsense. The man’s steed he calls “a horse”, as always.

They ride through the slowly awakening streets towards the Rose Gate, which is no gate at all, but the official start of the Roseroad. The silence stretches until the gate, and then she asks him a question.

“Would it be acceptable for me to remove the mask?”

He craves her face.

“Why?” he asks.

“This man has particularly nasty nightmares,” she says. “I’d like to avoid them if possible.”

So why did she put it on in the first place? And then answers himself the next moment. A man fished the first Westerosi face he found out of the bag and handed it to her--a girl will obey without hesitation, nightmares or no.

The thought saddens him, and then annoys him. She should learn to question--a girl is just as much a faceless one as a man is, that a man is more experienced or that a man claimed her coin does not change the fact that our kind has no concept of “leader” or “follower”.

“Wear a brother’s face,” he says.

“That was the plan,” she replies.

He is not aware of anyone watching; he gives her a nod. She peels off the mask, and she is a Braavosi underneath.

The face reminds him that the faceless do not have leaders or followers, but they do have “mentors” and “students”, and she once obeyed the Braavosi as her mentor as she obeys Jaqen H’ghar now. The Braavosi are always out of control; his training is the reason she is so impulsive. And then he feels contrite--it is an uncharitable thought, and untrue; Arya Stark has always been impulsive.

This oscillation of emotion is not a common habit of his. It frustrates him.

They pass beyond the confines of the city, and the number of people they see increases. Travellers, to and from the market: mostly farmers with carts full of produce. All the food the farmers haul to the Oldtown market is of an inferior quality, blackened or stunted; it will be a hard winter if already the crops are so blighted with frost.

The horses clop along, and he meditates upon the nature of physical desire. Desire makes time speed up--every moment is fraught with awareness, and yet passes too swiftly.

“You’re quiet,” she says, a few miles out.

“I am thinking.”

“Regretting something?” she asks archly.

He turns to her, and for a moment his own face, his Jaqen H’ghar face flickers over the Alchemist’s. “Regret is easy enough to solve,” he says. “The coin might be returned, and it would be done. Has a man given you a coin back?”

“No.”

“Then a girl should apply her logic.”

She sighs. The Alchemist returns.

Dark clouds gather over the horizon, darkening his already black mood. The horse under him seems to dislike his pensiveness as much as he does, because it shifts and pulls at its reins from time to time.

The girl keeps giving him sidelong glances.

“Would you like to listen to a joke?” she ventures.

“As you wish.”

“Do you know what the tragedy of Pentos is?”

“No.”

“Pentos could have had the Braavosi economy, Dothraki territory, and Lorathi cuisine. Instead, they took Braavosi territory, the Lorathi economy, and Dothraki cuisine.”

He waits, but she doesn’t say anything else.

“You don’t think it’s funny?” she asks, a bit indignant.

“I didn’t realize you were finished.”

“That’s what He said,” she mutters. “But don’t you get it? Everyone gets insulted a little bit which is always funny, but it’s all true--and Pentos doesn’t have anything of their own worth having, and they’re territory-stealing, horse-piss drinking bankrupts !”

He considers the explanation. “You have spent far too much time in Braavos if your thinking is so partisan.”

“Well,” she says, “Arya Stark is going to be the Lady of Braavos, it’s only right she take her city’s side.”

Fierce, irrational possessiveness consumes the man for a moment, and it irritates him further that he can be moved to such pettiness (after all it is not his Arya Stark the Sealord is going to net).

“Please, Zural, do not try to cheer me up any more.”

She shrugs.

They stop to water the horses at midday. He notices she uses innocuous motions--adjusting a saddlebag, calming a horse--to venture closer and closer to him. He doesn’t look at her; his entire skin feels alive, and the hairs on his arms rise, straining, straining towards her as he cannot allow himself to.

Almost, he is not prepared for her when she moves; she moves too fast. Her hand is on his skin, inside his shirt and his eyes are about to close, half-involuntary, until he realizes exactly what it is she is reaching for.

He clamps his hand over her fingers, trapping the back of her hand against his heart.

“What are you doing?” he asks.

“Taking back my coin, since it causes you so much distress.”

My coin now,” he says, his tone level. “A girl does not touch a man’s coin, yes?”

She tugs at her hand and he holds it tight. Her eyes glitter.

“Promise,” he prompts.

“Promise,” she spits out.

He lets go of her hand.

“Stupid Jaqen H’ghar,” she mutters as she stomps away.


 

The next day, it seems it is her turn to be irritated, even as his spirits have risen with the sun.

“Would you like to listen to some poetry?” he asks, drawing up his horse next to hers.

She doesn’t look at him. “Blind God poetry?”

“No,” he says, and reaches for his saddlebag. Now she does look as he pulls out a small leatherbound volume, about the size of his palm.

She sighs.

“Yes?” he asks.

“It’s not very assassin-like, reading poetry ,” she says.

His lips twitch. “Who are the best assassins in the world?”

“The Faceless Men,” she answers automatically.

“And who is the oldest of the Faceless Men?”

“Jaqen H’ghar.” She glares at him.

“Given that is the case,” he says, “and given that Jaqen H’ghar reads poetry, I think it would be considered a very traditional activity for assassins. Venerable , even.”

His teasing has won a small smile out of her. “But by that token you could take up tapestry weaving and call it a ‘traditional assassin activity’, Jaqen.”

Jaqen.

The memory of the way she spoke his name two nights ago, in her sleep, unconscious and yearning...today he allows himself to savor the headiness of his desire.

Eventually, he asks, “A girl doesn’t want to hear the verse?”

“Did a girl tell you not to do it?”

“No,” he replies.

“Then a man should use his logic.”

He grins, then thumbs through the volume. He needs to choose the right one for her, something that will resonate. Poetry, it either infects a person, or it passes them by, and often the difference between the two hinges upon just such a choice as he is about to make.

“Ah,” he says, when he finds the page he is looking for. “A traditional one.”

He begins: “I met a traveler from an antique land…”

She has lost her contemptuous air by the end of it.

“...The lone and level sands stretch far away.” He lets the last line fade away into the mid-morning air, then asks, gently, “what does a girl think?”

“Valar morghulis,” she whispers, then her tone becomes grudging. “The poem is appropriate. For us.” And then she is plaintive. “Can we visit, one day? I want to see this desert.”

He nods, thoughtfully. Deserts are warm, and without rain, and he has grown tired of the cold sleet and cold damp of Westeros.

“Do you compose?” she asks.

“Alas,” he says, “I was not born under the rhymer’s star.” Which is no answer at all, and she knows this, for she looks at him with challenging tilt of her chin.

“It doesn’t seem so hard.”

He smirks. “Why don’t you try, then.”

She thinks. Then, she says:

“Roses are red, 
violets are blue, 
when the Mad Queen’s dead, 
the Bank gets its due.”

He almost chokes, but she’s not done.

“Or,” she says, “how about this:

There once was a girl from Winterfell,
And a man from Lorath as well
They carry sharp blades
And poisons in spades
For they will send Walder Frey to hell.”

He wants to groan, but then she will throw something at him. Possibly a dagger. He restricts himself to a sardonic, “well done”.

They ride for a while, and the girl amuses herself with searching for rhymes for “Lannister”: bannister, canister, magister. Eventually, she grows bored.

“Do you have another?”

Something in him exults, secretly, that he knows her enough that he made the right choice of verse. “In this book?” He looks down at the page before him. “Not one I’d read today,” he says. “But...I can give you a very inappropriate one.”

She looks excited. “A dirty one? Is it bad?”

“Very, very bad,” he purrs. “My Lorathi brother will very much disapprove of my reading it to you--it’s the type of thing that gets passed around by the older members of the order. Strictly not for acolytes.”

She’s almost bouncing in the saddle now. “I’m not an acolyte! Read it!”

He chuckles, and exchanges the small book for an even smaller one, bound in red felt. He tastes the memory of the words he is about to speak, and as it rises through him it evokes a melancholy warmth in the wake of its passage.

His voice is quiet, resonant:

“And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.”

Her eyes are wide, fixated on him, as if she cannot believe what she has just heard. “That is bad Jaqen,” she whispers. “ Really bad.”

“Did you like it?”

“No,” she says immediately. A girl lies . “It tastes good, but…”

“It is too disrespectful?” Yes, let us not deny the girl’s Beloved His due, shall we? The man is amused.

She looks at him with narrowed eyes. “Are you mocking me?”

He tries to look innocent, then relents. “Maybe a little bit.”

She huffs, a short exhalation. “Well, anyways, it’s not what I pictured when you promised me ‘inappropriate’.”

“Ahhh,” he says. “What you want is a love poem.”

She grins. “I want to hear ‘The ballad of the farmer’s daughter’ from Jaqen H’ghar’s mouth.”

“I am sorry, lovely girl, but I do not know any farmer’s daughters. If such amuses you, a book of bawdy sailor’s verse can be acquired when we return to Braavos.”

“I’ll take whatever you’ve got, then.”

He knows what is the next one he wants to read to her. He does not know if he should. Undecided, he puts the red book back, pulls out another, this time a simple, unmarked book with a midnight black cover.

“How many do you have ?” she asks.

“I have not travelled quite so well-prepared for a long time.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Having books of poetry counts as well-prepared?”

“Call it revenge then,” he says. “They are copies, and poorly-scribed ones at that, but the librarian is going to...require the tending of a mind-healer when he discovers they are missing. Eventually.”

“You stole them,” and she sounds almost disapproving, as if it is not a perfectly proportionate revenge.

Hah. Had the girl been in a man’s place, we’d be carrying the librarian’s head in the saddlebag and not just his books.

They ride for a bit.

He flips to the correct page; it is dog-eared, for he has found himself landing on it often since Arya Stark became faceless. He re-reads the poem silently, and again he doubts whether he should.

“Read it, Jaqen,” she pleads.

He hesitates, clears his throat. He looks at the road between his horse’s ears. He begins, and he does not need to read from the page.

“I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.”

He can feel her stillness, the preternatural alertness that imbues her posture. He swallows, and his voice is low, right on the edge of hearing, when he continues.

“I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.”

She sighs, and he finally, finally looks at her, through the corner of his eye. She bends forward to rest her head on the horn of her saddle. Her dark hair falls around her face and hides it from his gaze.

He clears his throat. “A man can read the rest on some other day, perhaps.”


 

ARYA

The days grow colder, the nights colder still. Every time they stop, it’s harder and harder to find a spot that isn’t damp, to find branches that take flame without a watch’s worth of coaxing. She knows enough now to know that this winter is not a natural thing, and that the days grow colder in the rest of the world but the choking ice only ever covers Westeros.

“Ah, summer child, what are you and I doing here?”

His question is rhetorical; the snow encrusting his cloak is not.

Jaqen is as much, if not more, of a summer child as she is. His memories are all of sunlit streets in Lorath, and the persistent heat of volcanic Valyria. And even when winter comes, she knows it never snows in either of those places.

In Westeros, winter has just begun.

“Say the word,” she jokes. “We can turn back, take a ship to Braavos and then go looking for that desert you told me about.”

They exchange a sardonic, rueful look over the pathetic little fire, and it is not just her imagination--he is warmer, and she has coaxed a smile out of him. Quickly, she sets up a tripod made of slender branches, and suspends a tin cup of water from it, right over top of the flame.

Then, she begins preparing a huddle.

“A good idea, lovely girl,” he says.

She throws him a quick smile over her shoulder. He hasn’t called her that since the snow started. She has not quite determined the pattern in his speaking. Mostly, he speaks with the Dornish accent, choosing words that belong to the face he wears. But from time to time he breaks the persona, and speaks like Jaqen H’ghar.

“A huddle,” she says, and the word is bittersweet, for she has good memories of making such forts in Winterfell, against an imaginary winter, with Bran and Rickon and sometimes even Sansa. The packs, arrayed in a semi-circle, to bank the wind, the blanketed horses at the back, the open side facing the fire but not too close. Blankets, insulating them from the damp ground that leaches away all warmth.

Then she reaches into the pack, starts pulling out clothes--a second pair of britches for both of them, all their shirts, the rest of the clean socks.

She is not sure it is not her imagination this time, but Jaqen looks mildly sad . “No change of clothes for a while.”

Another shared look: commiseration.

“Two more weeks,” she sighs. “When we get to an inn, we will have a hot bath, get everything washed.” They have cut north across the center of Westeros instead of taking the Roseroad all the way to King’s Landing.

The water is boiling. She quickly throws a pinch of cinnamon and dried ginger in it, and hands it to him.

In unspoken accord, they lay down only a single bedroll. Her hands are shaking as darkness falls and they slip under the blankets together. They are fully clothed; he has unfolded the second bedroll and draped it over them.

“Lovely girl,” he says gently, and there are many things in his voice but all she hears is pity and so she puts her hand over his mouth to stop him from saying anything that will hurt even more. As long as anything remains unsaid, she can pretend it will happen, eventually, that there are reasons it doesn’t happen now.

“It’s freezing,” she says, lamely. Surely he can feel her shaking. She takes her hand away.

“Far too cold,” he replies, and then she becomes suddenly unsure, because now she thinks there may be regret in him. Surely not. He had plenty of chances, two weeks worth of chances…

He makes her turn to her side to face the fire and he is right behind her, her head tucked under his chin, his arm draped over her, and she thinks she has never felt so warm before. She curves, molds herself to him, finds herself fitting into all the hollows in his shape. She tucks his double-socked feet between her own.

She is on the edge of sleep, the howling wind more of a lullaby than an annoyance to her, when he speaks, drowsy, his words muffled against her hair.

“I can feel my toes again.” He sounds surprised.

She giggles.


 

It has become their habit to sleep in a huddle each night. It is good training, for one is always on watch while the other sleeps, but their little cocoon of warmth is so comfortable, it is difficult to stay alert. To aid her, she uses the many Lorathi mind-games she is learning from him, the things she did not want to learn in Braavos because she thought they needed her to be no one.

She is also torn--she knows she would prefer there to be not so many layers of clothes between them. But it’s so damn cold , she’s grateful for the layers that trap body-heat.

The fire has burnt down by the time dawn breaks, grey and dismal.

Her shoulder is being shaken.

“No, Jaqen, it’s cold,” she pleads.

“It’s going to get colder, beautiful girl. Come.”

She groans, and then they both help each other sit up. When he’s on his feet, he tosses her one of the sticks the fire didn’t quite manage to take.

“This stiffness is no good,” he says. She knows it’s not, and they are losing their effectiveness as fighters; poor consolation, that any other fighters they encounter will be in the same shape.

He attacks her without warning.

Within a quarter-watch, they are both limber. Energy flows into her, despite the dismal day, and they exchange the sticks for live steel.

They spar for a half watch, no longer, for night falls quickly in winter and they must be on their way. She kisses the blade of her saber. “Oh, I missed you, I missed you so much!” She catches him glaring at her... no, he’s glaring at my sword. “Dammit, Jaqen, I don’t need a longer reach!”

“A man said nothing, sweet girl.”

She sheathes the sword and mounts Steel.

Jaqen is right, the saber does shorten her reach, but when she can get inside the arc of his swing, he “dies” every time. Yes, she doesn’t get inside his arc more than one time out of, say, ten (if she is being overly optimistic) but then there is no other fighter like him in the world.

They stop mid-day, and he’s rotating his shoulder. “I think I pulled something,” he says incredulously.

She cannot stand the look on his face; she laughs and laughs and laughs and cannot stop for a good while. By nightfall, she’s grown a bit more compassionate. They make their huddle again, eating a supper of boiled oats, with little bits of bacon and salt.

He rotates his shoulder, going so far as it shift in place; Jaqen never shifts when he sits.

“Here,” she says, “let me look at that. Take off your shirt. Shirts.”

“Put them on, take them off, a man wishes a girl would make up her mind.”

She just glares at him.

He puts on a long-suffering expression and turns around as he pulls the wad of shirts up.

She doesn’t pause too long to gawk at his back. She’s not sure, it can’t have been more than a few heartbeats. She thinks. After all, she’s worn his body and his face many, many times (though she has always been Westerosi enough to change back to her own when undressing). Faded white scars crisscross his shoulders, almost invisible; the muscles under the skin are lean, hard, well-defined.

She inhales. Exhales. Then she turns around and rummages in the packs till she finds the block of cooking-fat. She cuts off a piece, and holds it in her hands to thaw while she fishes for a particular vial in her bandolier.

She takes up a seat behind him, and unstoppers the vial. The smell of lavender and garlic suddenly fills their huddle.

“Garlic? Are you planning on basting me?” he asks. “I assure you, I am not yet a liability, nor are our rations depleted.”

“There’s a topical paralytic in here,” she informs him. “And lots of other things. The Waif is a genius.” She kneads a few drops of the oil into the cooking fat. The fat mixes well with the oil, and it pools in the palm of her left hand. “Lie down,” she says.

She ignores his grumbling as he complies, rubbing her hands together to further warm the oil. Then she puts her hands on his shoulder. She has to bite her lip; she is touching him and it feels good, his skin feels good. She notices she is holding her breath, and forces herself to exhale.

The oil won’t stay potent for long, exposed to air. She rubs the mixture into his shoulder with strong, broad motions, then uses her fingers to knead and circle nerve-clusters, smooth out muscle fibers.

Through it all, he is absolutely silent.

She knows the oil has done its work when her fingers start feeling numb. “Not so funny when it works, is it?” she asks smugly.

“It works well,” his voice is low, muffled against the bedroll.

Well ?” she asks, “it works like magic . I was running the roofs one time, slipped and fell, caught on at the last minute.” Between speaking and soothing, she falls into a rhythm. “But I’d torn my shoulders out of the sockets. The dislocation was easy enough to deal with, I just ran myself into a wall a few times, shoulders popped right back in. But then the next day...I am not proud of the way I screamed when the Waif came to check on me, to see why I hadn’t left my room....I couldn’t even sit up! Everything from my waist upwards was completely and utterly fucked . But a few days of this stuff, I was back running the roofs again.”

He is a bit too still.

“What’s wrong, Jaqen?” she asks, and she realizes he has fallen asleep. She pulls his shirts back down, and pulls at his arm, gently. He rolls over onto his back, more than half asleep.

Faceless ones are trained to sleep in a way so as to never let anyone within arm's reach without snapping to full alertness. On this journey she has learned that his ‘circle of awareness’, as he calls it, extents to beyond their campsite, and under his guidance she is extending hers--listening to the rustle of leaves (for there are no trees on Braavos), the shifting of earth, the sigh of the wind, and constantly, subconsciously, looking for patterns in them.

She’s getting better, but she’s not yet as good as he is. So the fact that he sleeps deep enough now to let her roll him over without him waking...it is a remarkable thing, this trust he shows in her.

She looks at his face--the face of a brother she does not know--and is seized by the urge to try something she has been thinking about since she saw him give Pate’s face to an unconscious Maester.

She tucks the blanket around him, smoothing the pillow half under his head, to get him used to her movements, the small breaths of air her hands stir around his face. She knows this is going to earn her a scolding, perhaps even anger. But she has to try.

She gently, oh so gently passes her hand over his face, and inverts the prayer for assuming a brother’s face.

Like ice under the noonday sun, the Alchemist melts away.

And then she is a battleground between two of her most persistent internal voices.

Do it! Do it!

He’s going to kill you.

No, he has your coin. He reads you poetry.

That doesn’t mean he wants you to kiss him! If he did, he’d have done it already!

It might be your only chance.

She stares at his lips, and finds she cannot bridge that final distance between them. Not when he cannot say no. Not if he doesn’t want it too.

Her gaze travels upwards, and she realizes his eyes are open, and he is watching her. Did I wear my thoughts on my face again?

She waits for the reprimand for removing his mask. It does not come. So she, too, says nothing, just puts the vial away and crawls into the blankets beside him, curling up into a little ball.

He shifts, then drapes his arm over her, draws her in close, holds her so tightly that it is on the verge of being uncomfortable.

They sleep.

 


 

The month of travel has changed the both of them. On one level, they are no longer “a man” and “a girl” travelling together, not Jaqen H’ghar and Arya Stark travelling together (though he has not returned to the Alchemist’s face and she has abandoned her Braavosi teacher’s visage somewhere along the way; she does not remember when it happened).

They are Faceless, and they react so fluidly to each other, it is as if they are a single entity and there is no indication of which of them orders a thing and which of them sees it done--when they move, when they set up camp, when the decide to stop to water the horses, they need neither words to communicate nor gestures to coordinate their movement.

On the other hand, they are very, very aware of each other; they are under each other’s skin.

He teases her, and mocks her, but he has learned the jagged edges of her patience and he stops just short of infuriating her. Sometimes she feels an agitation, like fireflies sparking along her fingertips--when their gazes cross and he holds hers too long, or when he reads certain poems to her--and she starts getting angry, and seeing her in that state he places his left hand over his heart, over the pocket in which she knows her coin still rests, and then she calms.

She grumbles at him, she picks fights with him about anything--the state of the traderoutes on the Shivering Sea, Myrrish versus Westerosi apples, philosophy. But she has learned the things that rouse that deep distress in his eyes, and she always treads around them, softly.

She has learned that poor sleep makes him irritable the next day. (Which explains their first day on the road; she had slept because he ordered her to, but he had remained awake all night, packing and stealing poetry.) So when she finds they have travelled too deep into the night looking for a good campsite, or that wild animals and brigands have kept him alert all night, she takes up Horse’s reins (she still thinks it is a very silly name for a mare) alongside Steel’s, and leads his steed while he drowses in the saddle.

There are three things they do not speak of.

They do not speak of the coin, and when her glances ask about it a bit too often, he always looks away.

He does not let their arguments about philosophy wander into the realm of theology , and so she refuses to discuss what Him of the Many Faces says to her (though she hasn’t had a single one of those dreams since she came to Westeros).

They do not speak of the contract, the one that must be completed once Walder Frey is sent to the Stranger’s Hell. Despite the confidence she has in the God’s word--Jon will be safer with Jaqen in Winterfell--they are travelling North, and it was Jaqen who selected Jon as a candidate for the Prince that was Promised.

They do speak of her training, and his. She’s getting inside his reach almost three times out of ten; to her surprise he admits he is shit with a bow, and he is, at first (not by a normal fighter’s standards, of course, but shit by Jaqen H’ghar standards), and now he’s hitting rabbits at two hundred paces, and the quality of their dinners has improved.

She skins, he roasts, she spices (after living in Braavos, neither of them likes the taste of unseasoned meat though of course a faceless one bends to necessity). He carves.


 

The snow on the ground is crisp, and for once there is no sleet .

“A girl has been very quiet for two days,” he says to her. Something has shifted in him--he uses the speech-patterns of Jaqen H’ghar all the time with her now.

“I’ve been thinking,” she says. “A lot.”

“About what?”

“Of how to be like you . I think it may work better for me than being Braavosi or Lorathi.”

His brows furrow, amused. “But, sweet, lovely girl, a man is no one; he follows the Lorathi way.”

“No you don’t,” she says. He raises an eyebrow, and she takes a deep breath before launching into her analysis.

“You follow all these things the poems speak of, but you somehow...somehow you become no one and then back to being yourself.”

“It is a response to you,” he says. There is nothing but simple honesty in his words. “Even when a man wears another’s face, when he thinks of you in a certain way, his thoughts leak--Jaqen H’ghar leaks--into the face a man wears.”

She is moved by some compulsion; she comes and sits closer to him. This raw honesty from him...it makes her brave. She reaches up and brushes a red lock of hair away from his face. “Your hair,” she says. “Red, white. The red is deliberate choice,” she briefly touches the other side of his head. “This is unchosen. You balance between them. You make yourself who you are, but you will not erase the one you were born as.”

His eyes are closed, she realizes. Suddenly, uncharacteristically shy, she withdraws her hand.

“Even your name,” she says, looking into the heart of their campfire. “Jaqen H’ghar. Your mother named you Jaqen, and to you she had hung the stars in the sky--how could you give up Jaqen ? You love Jaqen, because she loved him. But H’ghar...that one you hate. But you will not repudiate it. And so again you balance between love and hate, and find yourself somehow.”

She takes another deep breath. “Wherever I look for you in my thoughts, I find you at the point where there exists a perfect balance of extremes.”

“A girl has studied Jaqen H’ghar very carefully,” he says, his voice low and unreadable.

“It’s been a long journey.”

He wears no expression, but somehow she knows he is perturbed.

“Some truths are veiled from the self, sometimes,” he says in the tone she has come to term “cryptic Lorathi”. “Tell me,” he glances at her, “has a girl studied herself?”

“Some,” she replies honestly. “I was trying to find the differences between me and you so I could become you.” A memory makes her chuckle. “For a time I tried to compete with you, if you can believe it.”

“Oh, a man believes it,” he mutters.

She doesn’t rise to the bait. “I saw what you gave Him of the Many Faces in Valyria, and what I gave wasn’t enough.” She picks up a short wooden stick, pokes it around the char at the base of their fire.

“You gave three things,” he says. “Three powerful things. And a man thinks you got a good bargain in return.”

“Not a bargain,” she corrects absently, now cutting shallow, parallel lines into the ground. “It was a dowry.”

She sighs, and stands up; the fire needs more fuel. But, suddenly, his hand closes around her right wrist. Her head whips around to look at him, and his face is completely blank.

“Sit,” he says. “There are things you must know.”

She is suddenly frightened by his intensity.

“Sit,” he says again, and he is more gentle this time though not any less implacable.

She sits.

“A man has recruited three others before you,” he says. He stretches out and pulls small pouch from his pack. Inside, there are a number of small cylinders--papers, rolled up into little tubes; Messages --they are stacked tightly together, in some order known only to him. He picks one of them, and hands it to her. “It came by raven a few weeks before you set sail from Braavos.”

She unrolls the tube. In the runescript of the Jade Sea, which she can read but not pronounce, it says, “A fourth.”

He waits for her to hand the message back to him. “A man knew this, the day he received your face from the God, long before his Lorathi brother realized it.”

“They died,” she says. “The Kindly Man told me. That they died, and it was not the will of the Many-Faced God. I...” she looks inwards, “I know I have their memories, somewhere, but I can’t…” she trails off. She needs to know their names, for the very first evocation of their faces.

“A man sent word, that you were to be watched, guarded at all times.” He sees the look on her face, and forestalls furious words she is about to explode with. “No. A girl must listen now.”

She deflates.

“They were like you,” he says.

“Like us?” she asks in a small voice.

At that he looks up, and there is a brief twitch of his lips. But his eyes are so, so haunted.

He puts a hand over his pocket-- their secret pocket. “No, not like us. But like you .”

He sighs, and his face flickers, and he is someone else--a man with ebony-dark skin, shaved bald, black tattoos curling around his eyes. Jaqen is the most handsome man she has ever seen, but she cannot deny that this man is beautiful; a Myrrish artist’s sculpture made in black marble.

Then, he is Jaqen again. “Each of them brought something to the Faceless--we were slaves and freemen, servants of Him of the Many Faces. When this one gave himself to the God, we became brothers .

“You loved him.”

“As if we had grown up together in the same house, as if we had been birthed from the same womb. The instant, effortless accord between us... that part is a little bit like us, you and I. The second...”

His face flickers again; he is a pale haired, fragile-looking woman with eyes of green jade.

Arya wonders if this was the woman that had brought Jaqen to his knees, the one he never made love to but dreamed about all the time. She cannot find it in herself to be jealous; he hurts far too much.

“She sought and found a man, somehow. A commoner who rose very high, very fast--the last concubine of the old emperor of Yi-Ti, . The new emperor murdered her son. The killing of an Emperor is not an insignificant thing; she gave herself to the God as payment.” He smiles, and it is heartbreaking. “She was a tigress ...the first woman in the order. Before her, each of us brought to the brotherhood what skills and abilities we had had in our past lives. After her, we trained. A man’s Lorathi brother, for all his dislike of naming things, he called her ‘little mother’.”

“I am nothing like that,” she whispers. “I am selfish and individual, I don’t even help to train the acolytes unless I am ordered to. I don’t even like people.” And nobody likes me . She won’t say that...her self-pity has no place here.

Another thought strikes. “You said you recruited three. The Kindly Man…”

“A man’s brother saw this thing happening to the third, and took him in hand. A man was not entirely certain it worked...but our brother lives, though his name does not. This one,” and Jaqen hesitates, and looks at her. “There could have been something, maybe. ”

Like us , she thinks. “And the Kindly Man beat it out of him.” Jealousy has no place here either; poor payment, for Jaqen’s painful honesty. “I wish he hadn’t,” she says, and finds she is sincere. If someone tried to take Jaqen, take the God from me, and it worked ? She shudders.

It seems that is a surprise to him too, and some of his sadness...lessens. Did he think I would rage and wail and demand something that would taint his memories? Who does he think I am ?

“But,” he says, and his voice is thoughtful, “A man is quite certain none of them called the God ‘Beloved’, and traded kisses with Him in their dreams. This is a new thing.” He looks at her. “A man is not sure what the House of Black and White will become, now that you have come to us.”

An opening . She strikes, her tone deadpan. “Orgies, Jaqen, orgies all the time.”

His startled laugh breaks the stillness of the clearing; the horses nicker in response. She calms  them with a thought. There is more here, more she must hear from him.

“What happened to them?”

“The two...they held onto themselves fiercely, and held on to the God, and they were...transcendent, you understand.” He breathes. Slowly, deliberately. “There is a place the Faceless Men do not go any longer. Because the two who were like you--they were lured to that place,” he says. “One on a contract, one with a storm that seemed, upon investigation later, to have been made of some fell magic. They died, and they died for a long time.”

She has learned when she can push him, and when she must be patient. She did not know this before they started on this journey; she is grateful she knows it now.

She waits.

“In Asshai, their names were taken from them,” he says finally, his voice completely flat, as if he is reciting a fact from a book. “And when they were emptied of themselves the God was ripped from them, one scream at a time…”

The God was ripped from them.

For the first time since Harrenhal, she is terrified.

His arm comes up around her, and he strokes her hair. “Bride of Death,” he says, and his voice is infinitely gentle. “Let it go. Let Him go, if you must. The God will agree with me if it means losing you like He lost the others. Ask Him, and see what He says.”

“Probably the same thing you do,” she mutters, gathering up all the shards of courage she has to her breast. “And I’ll tell Him to go fuck Himself too.”

He sighs and pulls away. He knows, and she knows, that she will never let go. “We get all of our brothers’ memories from before the God takes them, when we get our brothers’ faces.”

She nods. Everything a faceless one was, before he was faceless, the order will know. Selfishly, once she understood what determined the trailing edge of her brothers’ memories, she had been pleased that she developed her fascination with Jaqen, with the God (in that way) after she gave Arya Stark to Him, for her death beside the pool is the last of her that will be shared with the order.

He is looking at his hands, clenched in his lap. He relaxes them, consciously, deliberately. “When one of dies, the rest comes to us.”

This, she has not known.

“Our brothers are always with us,” he puts his hand in the center of his chest. “Here.” His mouth twists, with bitterness, with fury . “The memories of the ones Asshai took from us have giant gaping holes in them, ragged pieces of them that have been torn out.” He pauses, and his breathing is erratic and she concerned, frightened now for him.

He turns to her. “ I do not remember their names!” She reaches out a hand, rests it on his cheek; Jaqen H’ghar can be many, many things, but he is not allowed to be lost . He does not lean into her touch. “One day, I will know what did that to them…,” he stops, and she realizes she had been mistaken--she had never seen the true face of his anger before. She is not its target, and yet she cannot stand against it.

There is silence. She dares not look at him. She has taken her hand back.

“They died in Asshai,” she says eventually. “So I will simply never go to Asshai.”

“The second one, she said the same thing. She was still drawn there.”

“She was alone?” she asks, turning to him.

He nods.

“I have you ,” she says with false confidence plastered over her face. “Have the Kindly Man assign this other one--this no one who could have been like us--assign him a partner.”

He looks at her as if she is a wondrous thing. “He hunts his target in Yi Ti, the last we heard. But we will send a raven, suggesting this thing. It should be done.”

Why wasn’t it done before ? Nobody in the order is stupid , why was it not done before?

He reaches for her hand, grips it in his. “But you are here with me, and you will be kept far from Asshai.”

She has is following an earlier trail of thought that she cannot let go of. “Perhaps,” she says, and the words are dragged from her despite herself, because she is ashamed of her selfishness, because she wants to show that she, too, can give more of herself, “he can join us in Westeros and you can keep an eye on the both of us.”

Jaqen’s eyebrow rises. “A girl plans her first orgy.” He leers at her, but his heart isn’t in it.

Her heart isn’t in it either. The God was ripped from them. “If Asshai took them from us, why are we trying to follow through with a contract that comes from Asshai ?”

He smiles in approval at her question, a very “Kindly Man” type of habit. “Because the one who brought us this request--he joined us when the negotiations were completed. There was no duplicity in his memories--he was given the task by his old teacher, a man he trusted, named Hallor’han. This name did not appear in what fragments of memory we received of our lost brothers.” He shakes his head. “Every city has factions, every faction has an enemy.”

“Your objectivity terrifies me,” she says. “I cannot be like you.”

And now the smile he turns on her is a sweet thing, with only a hint of sorrow clinging to it. “A girl is a wolf; a wolf does not wish to be something it is not.”

She does not have the fortitude to extract the lesson from his cryptic statement, not today. So she ignores it. The one who brought us this request--he joined us…

“Ambraysis Alayain,” she breathes. “I met him, Jaqen, right before I left Braavos. Something is going on, something strange. I do not think we should complete the contract until we know what this strangeness is in its entirety.”

“A man is in full agreement--as is our brother who watches Daenerys. And in the meantime…no faceless one must go to Asshai.”

She shivers, and searches for some topic of conversation that does not terrify her, or cause him distress. “Our brother who watches Daenerys--how will he get past her guards?” There are two Unsullied amongst the faceless, and she has wandered through their memories as an exercise, working out strategies, determining the weaknesses of these legendary warriors. Even Jaqen will have trouble getting past more than a dozen or so, she thinks.

So it must be trickery that gains a faceless one access to Daenerys Targaryen. And Arya adores tales of trickery.

Jaqen smirks. “I believe our brother occupies the Unsullied commander’s bed.”

She chortles. “Nice!”

Jaqen gives her a look . “We have exchanged ravens. It may be that the Unsullied commander occupies our brother’s heart.”

She winces.

And then they must rise and see to the campfire before it dies out entirely.

Chapter Text

NO ONE

The faceless one wears Arya Stark’s face, and sickens for something. It would be worrisome, if she allowed herself the luxury of worry, for Death’s favor works to keep most illness at bay--no Faceless has ever been infected when working with the corpses of lepers or even those with stone-skin.

Two weeks have passed, and she haunts the harbor daily, hiding in alleyways and eating only when she must, and then too, only food and drink that is consumed by sailors not of Asshai, trapped in the shadow city just like her; she is careful.

There is no source of infection here, and yet she sickens. Her limbs are weak, raging fevers rise with the river-tide and do not leave for days.

Her ship does not come.

She wakes up coughing one day, almost too weak to move beyond the heap of trash she hides behind, not unless duty calls.

Ash chokes the sky.

Without warning, she is seized by rough arms and the smell of something bitter, something astringent, fills her nostrils. She is weak, but she is faceless . She lashes out with the sorcerer’s blade she keeps with her, she kills two of her assailants. The third grabs her by the hair and mutters soft words over her and then all her will to fight leaches out.


 

She is an automaton; her will is not her own. She obeys commands. But, somewhere deep inside, a coiled darkness sits, waiting. A faceless one is not so easily controlled.

The darkness waits for its time. The sorcerer--for that is what the man is, black-robed and stinking of a charnel pit--chants another spell over her. The darkness shrinks in upon itself, but it holds.


 

She wakes on her knees, somewhere hot and dark and dank. With great effort, she raises her head to see herself on a stone ledge above a great pit, filled with molten fire. Large ovals...dragon eggs...a thousand, a hundred thousand, they sit in the fire and steam rises off them in wisps. The suffocating heat wraps around her throat.

Something seizes her by the hair, lifts up her head and she sees further…

A throne rises from the center of the room, a throne made of corpses arranged upright, tier after tier, faces looking outwards, limbs entwined at unnatural angles to form a densely packed structure of flesh. A grotesquely obese man, naked, his shame hidden in the folds of his fat, sits upon the throne.

She realizes there is no throne--the pillar of corpses is underlain by the man’s flesh, engorged beyond all human proportion, and the corpses are not corpses at all. They live and they are fusing with each other and the man. Their mouths open and close, soundless wails that twist the very air around them.

They are being consumed.

Her head, her hair, is in the grasp of a thin woman, wearing the garb of a priestess of the Red God. The woman peers into Arya Stark’s face.

“Lo, our spells bring us another ,” she says in accented common-tongue. She smiles, a kind, gentle smile. “Another god-touched faceless one. We are blessed.”

Her other hand rises and grabs Arya Stark’s chin, long nails digging into her flesh.

“Give her back her tongue,” she commands someone, someone out of the faceless one’s field-of-view.

There is a loosening , somehow, in her jaw.

The woman drags Arya Stark’s face back to the monstrosity pulsing in the center of the cavern.

“Behold,” she says. “R’hllor. The Red God. Soon, he will awaken .”

“Not my god,” states the one who is no one. “It is but an ugly man.” She shrugs; it is a simple gesture, yet it saps almost all of her strength, to fight against the sorcerer’s hold to do it. But it must be done. “Valar morghulis.”

“Brave,” says the woman, sounding satisfied. “But so were the other two.”

Despite herself, the faceless one’s eyes widen as her gaze seeks, seeks and...finds. Two faces, planted upright into the center of this thing that is R’hllor. Their lower bodies are gone, fused into the great pillar of flesh; their arms dangle uselessly in front of them, twitching from time to time.

She knows those faces.

“Each of them gave us, in the space of a few moments, what would have taken us a thousand years of prayer and fire-sacrifices to achieve. And you will give us more.”

The faceless one’s gaze is fixated on her sister’s, and she realizes their arms, hands, are not simply twitching. They move with purpose, supplicating, warning .

“Run ,” say the hands.

Something of them is still left, and it is being eaten alive.

“Do you know what a prophecy is?” asks the woman.

No one does not reply; tears are streaking down her face, and she has no control over them.

“A prophecy is not a foretelling ,” continues the woman, unasked. “A prophecy is a self-fulfilling spell, laid layer upon layer upon the consciousness of people. The greatest of our number created such a spell, once. Soon, it will come to pass.”

The wonderment in the woman’s voice makes the faceless one look at her; the woman is staring at her ‘god’, gaze rapt.

She turns to the one who wears Arya Stark’s face, and now the red priestess’s look is a considering one. “I wonder if you will tell me who awakened as Death, in Valyria.”

The faceless one gives no indication that she has heard. Inside, she gently, gently wraps that name she knows, and Arya Stark knows and every other faceless one knows, she wraps it in that kernel of darkness and hides it, tucks it away into the farthest reaches of her consciousness so that not even a glimmer of that name touches her surface thoughts.

The woman smiles, as if she knows exactly what the faceless one does. “It is but idle curiosity, my dear,” she says gently. “Ten thousand years for awakening R’hllor, and yet Death woke in...moments, it felt like.” The woman peers closely at Arya Stark’s face, and it seems she finds nothing to satisfy her, because her mien turns less kind. “Idle curiosity, as I said. It matters not. Death will serve R’hllor, in the end.”

The faceless one hears footsteps, but she cannot turn her head. A second, red-robed figure--a man, this time, walks into her field-of-view.

“The Faceless Men work in our interest,” he says. “We do not say this to boast, you understand--we say this to break you. You may think to struggle, to escape--hope can be a great thing for one that is being tortured--but when you realize that your god is trapped...in the end, that is what broke your brothers .” The man sneers. “So this time will start with that.”

The one who is Arya Stark rolls her eyes.

The woman’s face distorts into a cruel sneer. “Would you like to know what we have in store for your god?”

“Our founder created a saviour, in his prophecy, his spell, and called him Azor Ahai,” says the man. “A great hero of light, to stand against darkness eternal. The champion of the God of Light. We molded this savior as times changed, and empires rose and fell. We added to the names of Azor Ahai--we made him into the Prince that was Promised.”

“Five kings have been sacrificed to his coming,” says the woman with a sweet smile.

“For the price of a single promise,” says the man, “to end slavery--and a promise costs us nothing at all--your god’s living avatar is going to plunge a dagger into the breast of the savior of humankind; a saviour that can no longer die but must rise and rise again.”

“At that moment,” says the woman, “it will not matter who your god is, or what he represents. The moment your god kills Azor Ahai, Death will be cast in the role of the Great Other of our prophesy; your god will be reborn-- as the adversary of R’hllor. And the attributes of the Great Other...death will be no surcease. Death will no longer a mercy, a quiet laying down of one’s cares. Death will become unclean, feared, unwanted because death will eat away at a man’s soul and make him less than what he was, worms nibbling on a corpse, but the corpse will still move, will still live, a dreadful, fearful unlife.”

The woman’s face is glowing with some inner vision. “By his own hand, we will remake your god into the image of our enemy.”

The strength of the faceless one’s reaction is beyond her control, and beyond the control of the sorcerer who is controlling her.

She vomits.

The man steps closer to the one who is Arya Stark. “It is light that creates darkness; if the Great Other exists, causality demands that R’hllor awaken. The spell will resolve , thousands of years before it should.”

The woman has turned her gaze to the roof of the cavern, and her face is beatific. “And it shall come to pass that all the world cries out out for a cleansing fire.”

“And then,” says the man, “the world will burn .”

Down in the pit of fire below the ledge, a dragon egg rocks.


 


 

ARTHUR

They don death-masks a day’s ride away from the Crossroads. The place hosts too many travellers to risk a brother’s face being exposed to someone who may encounter it somewhere else (on some other Faceless). Yet the place is too small to risk that a face will not be remembered, as is inevitable in a large city like Oldtown or King’s Landing.

Jaqen is a swordsman from the North, and goes by the name of Jorgen. Arya is a mace-wielder called Arthur, born and bred in the Vale of Arryn.

The two ride into the inn’s stableyard, and are greeted by three young men-- very young men--with crossbow-sights trained on the two Faceless. Jorgen gives the crossbows an amused, friendly smile and raises his hands in the air, so Arthur must follow suit.

“State your business!” squeaks the young man in the center, his voice at that awkward stage of puberty where every word uttered is a risk.

“Warm food, a bath, a bed for the night,” says Jorgen. “We have coin.”

“Bed”, not “beds”. Arya Stark leaks into Arthur for one giddy moment, and then she is gone.

The crossbows are lowered. It is the accent, Arthur decides--the northern accent. It demands some form of trust, even after the War of the Five Kings.

“Stable’s to the left, dinner’s served from the common pot,” says one of the other children, one whose voice has settled into something inoffensive. “Bath is ten silver each. We’ll see your coin now.”

“Ten silver!” explodes Arthur. “For hot water and soap ?”

“Winter has come,” says the child. “Fuel is expensive.”

Jorgen looks at Arthur, eyebrow raised. Arthur shakes his head, holds out his hands in indecision, so it is Jorgen that decides for them. He pulls out a handful of silver sovereigns, some Baratheons, some Targaryen. “Ten each, but we want our laundry done. Half before, half after we’ve had our supper.”

Privately, Arthur thinks that the two of them may, perhaps, be a bit too fastidious in their habits. Hot baths, spiced meat, freshly washed shirts--these are not things a faceless one should care about.

“Valar morghulis,” murmurs Jorgen as they lead their horses to the stables. “Live when you can.”

“The money...” says Arthur. “The House provides only for needs , I was told.”

Jorgen snorts. “And what I need is a bath.”

Well, if he says this then it must be all right. All traces of guilt are subsumed in the thought of being warm, being clean again.

“This way, my lords,” says the boy, for he has morphed into a happy child with the pocketing of their gold.

“No lords here,” says Arthur. “We are sellswords.”

The boy gives them an incredulous look, and Arthur thinks, ruefully, that if he worked at an inn, and two mounted warriors showed up and paid twenty silver for a bath and clean shirts, she’d believe them to be lords as well. There is also the small matter of attitude...it is what led to Arya’s conviction that Jaqen, for all his Lorathi ways, was not “no one”.

There is an...an assurance in him; not arrogance, but a knowing . She recognized it in herself first, and it goes bone deep. She knows hers comes from being a Stark of Winterfell. And Jaqen H’ghar--who truly does believe that all men are equal--Jaqen H’ghar has purged every teaching and tenet of Valyria from himself and in this defiance forged a confidence that is impossible to erase.

Luckily for the both of them, their assurance carries over to each persona they wear; the confidence in the self sells their confidence in the cover. As servants, they are uppity, as soldiers they swagger, as farmers they have grit, as scholars they are pedants.

As sellswords, apparently they are arrogant (and flush with coin). But those that take them for nobles pretending to be sellswords will be smug that they have penetrated the “disguise”. Nobody will even begin to think that they could be Faceless Men, much less that they are the daughter of Eddard Stark and a man who could have been a dragonlord, but instead became something...more.


 

The room they are given is clean, with fresh rushes on the floor and a good-sized bed. She resolutely does not look at the bed. A large wooden bathtub is dragged into the room and set before the fire, then slowly filled, bucket-by-bucket with hot water. All the serving staff are a bit on the young side, and clumsy sometimes, though very diligent about mopping up any spilled water on their way out.

Eventually she is sits in the tub, up to her neck in warm bliss, the fireplace roaring behind her. She had expected a moment of awkwardness, in the discussion of who bathes first, who undresses first, but that strange road-accord still holds; no communication is required. She will bathe first, he will scout; the decision is made and there is no way to tell how it was arrived at.

No room for teasing either, she muses. But she is not sure how one goes about teasing when one is stark naked (though never defenceless, of course) and most of one’s weapons are out of reach, so it’s a good thing it didn’t happen.

Finally, a quarter-watch later the water has cooled and she rises, briskly towelling off. They have a few pieces of clothing left that are still clean--a thin shirt, no good for travel; a tunic with fine embroidery in case “wealthy merchant” was called for somewhere; two loose flowing pants in the Dornish style.

The first thing she wears is Arthur’s face. Then Arthur hauls open the door and calls for the bathwater to be changed.

Jorgen returns as Arthur is gathering his travel-soiled clothing into a bundle.

“There is a smith working here,” says Jorgen, and begins tugging off his own footwear.

“Our weapons are fine,” says Arthur. “I checked the horses’ shoes, too.”

“You know this smith,” says Jorgen, and his voice is flat. Absolutely flat.

Arthur looks up, and he understands. Gendry. There are some very small slivers of emotion--happiness, excitement, anger, fear--but those belong to Arya Stark, and he is Arthur, so he shrugs, and then immediately turns his back as Jorgen begins to undress.

He does not look around when the last shirt is tossed to the ground, simply gathers it up with his own dirty laundry, and heads to the kitchens to have someone take care of it.

His errand completed, a red-faced laundry woman having taken their garments with an air of false obsequity, Arthur cannot help but sneak a peek at the smithy.

Gendry has grown; his muscles are grotesquely large, and he sports a little beard , like Renly Baratheon. The look of him wipes clean most of the excitement Arya feels at seeing her old friend again--he looks now as he looked in her dream, when she died beside the pool. He looks like a thinner, younger version of the man that ordered the murder of Sansa’s Lady (who would have dared touch Sansa had her direwolf lived?), the man who drew noble, honorable Eddard Stark into a world that ate the northman alive.

This was the fate she had been trapped in, the fearful symmetry of some story Arya has still not detangled. The story of Lyanna Stark, who chose between Robert Baratheon and a Targaryen Prince, and escaped the tangle only in death. Arya, who would have chosen between the son of Robert Baratheon and a Targaryen--Daenerys, a woman, and Jon, her brother are her only candidates. Death is merciful--Arya, too, has escaped that tangle by dying.

All that is left in her heart for the smith so assiduously ignoring her as she surveys his show-pieces, all that is left is a child’s fond memory.

Arthur turns his attention from the smith to his work--the crossbow quarrels, a sword, dozens of woodsmen’s axes--the work is good. The smith’s master in King’s Landing could work Valyrian steel...Arthur wonders if it is a skill the smith can learn.

Deep inside, Arya begins to plot.


 

Dinner is served in the common room, all the guests and most of the servants and workers gathering under one roof. A chunk of farmer’s bread--neither fragrant nor soft, but still wholesome, comes with their bowls of stew.

To Arthur’s consternation, Jorgen takes his bowl and bread, then heads to the table where the smith is talking with two of the boys--one of them, the one with the squeaky voice, is the crossbow-wielders’ leader from before. Again, Arthur must follow.

“Mind if we sit here?” asks Jorgen.

The smith waves at them absently--it is a reasonable request, all the tables are occupied--and continues explaining the steps for annealing iron to the boys.

“What is the purpose to this?” Arthur asks Jorgen, in north-laced common. The question is innocuous enough, the smith glances at them, then looks away.

Jorgen does not respond, simply dips his bread in the stew, and takes a bite.

Arthur spoons up his stew as well, all the while watching the smith out of the corner of his eye.

What are you trying to show me, Jaqen? Am I supposed to kill him? He was hunted by the Lannisters...has the Mad Queen unbent enough to actually hire a Faceless Man?

“Are you giving me a name?”

Jorgen looks up, startled. “The girl knows him. It is Not Done.”

Arthur sighs, leans back on the bench. “ Do we have work, Jorgen?”

“No.”

“Then why have we come this way?” He means Gendry’s table, of course, not the Inn--they are headed to the Twins, and from this point on, snow and rushing rivers will make cross-country treks inadvisable. They must follow the road north, and the road begins at the Crossroads.

Jorgen puts his bread aside, picks up a spoon. “The girl was friends with him; I thought you might want a few words.” His voice gives nothing away.

Friends? Friendship was an easy thing, when we were children--companions and playmates thrown together. A butcher’s boy, a blacksmith’s apprentice, a pie-maker. I have changed, Jaqen, I am not the girl whose memories you have. My criteria for friendship are no longer a matter of proximity of age or happenstance--my friends are killers , each and every one of them.

The subject of their conversation is digging into his stew with all the grace of a rampaging bull, and is completely oblivious to their scrutiny, let alone any subtext. The sound-level in the common room has risen to a dull roar as conversations and friendly grousing breaks out all around them.

Arthur lowers his voice; the one his words are meant for can read lips, after all. “She is happy her childhood companion is safe and has found a place of his own and nobody wants to kill him. But an exchange of words is not necessary.”

Jorgen opens his mouth to speak, and Arthur sets down his bowl with a heavy thunk .

“This discussion is over, Jorgen.”

Jorgen sighs. “As you wish.”

They sit in strained silence as the noise of the crowd ebbs and crests around them; the meal is over quickly.

As one, they rise, and go to check on the horses--the additional silvers handed over to the innkeep should have bought Steel and Horse oats, but the honesty of teen-aged stableboys is always a chancy thing to rely upon.

The stablehands are honest, it seems, and far too curious for their own good--they linger, even when their work is done, hoping to catch the “lords” at something.

Arthur and Jorgen spend some time currying the horses and checking all the bits of tack; the silence is less strained. There are six other horses stabled at the inn, but none that look like destriers, and no tack that shows the colors of any house. Brigands and outlaws may be staying at the inn, but no professional soldiers. Still, they have both marked multiple routes of egress from the inn--the stable itself holds four, three of which allow them to take their horses.

Jorgen waits for the stable hands to finally leave before he speaks.

“He is a very handsome man.”

Arthur snorts. “If a woman wants to bed the ghost of a young Robert Baratheon, sure.”

“There is a symmetry to it,” he says softly. “Would a boy have wanted to bed the ghost of a young Lyanna Stark?”

“Death breaks all symmetry,” says Arthur, and lets Jorgen see his small, secret smile. It always makes Jaqen uneasy, that smile, and so Arya uses it but rarely.

“A girl had affection for the boy, once.”

And, suddenly, Arthur sees the shape of this thing, this thing that prompts Jaqen to throw Arya at the smith: jealousy, and some strange self-effacing masochism...and underneath it all, a test .

Arya Stark rises to the fore, and though the face she wears is Arthur’s her eyes burn with an ice-cold rage. She turns on him, and sees that “Jorgen”, too, has fled. She steps around Steel’s head, and advances on the Lorathi.

“Who was the first man a girl had affection for, childish and confused and unknowing as it was?” Her voice is a vicious whisper.

He takes a step back. “Jaqen H’ghar.” His tone is even, not yet afraid.

He dares to test me.

She advances. “Who holds a girl’s coin?” Her voice is louder now, though no less controlled, no less furious.

He ignores their looks, his gaze focused on her face. He is beginning to grow uneasy, and he steps back a pace again. “Jaqen H’ghar.” His voice is softer, placating.

I will not be placated.

“Who is the man a girl has dreamed of, night after night after night ?” She is shouting now, and he has nowhere to retreat to.

“Jaqen H’ghar,” he whispers.

She steps right up to him, and wearing Arthur’s body she stands eye-to-eye with him. That deep, dark distress is rising in him; perhaps he anticipates her next question: Who is the man who led a girl into darkness as she died beside a pool?

From the pinnacle of her fury, she sees his trepidation. And she takes pity on him.

“So of all the things that remain unsaid between a girl and Jaqen H’ghar,” she says, “Jaqen H’ghar chooses to talk about a village blacksmith ?”

Then she leaves him, standing against the stable wall, and stalks to their room.

He comes up as night is falling, and starts laying out a bedroll before the fire.

“Unarmed combat, winner gets the bed?” She asks sweetly. She doesn’t wait for a response, she lunges at him, and the body she wears has a long reach. She grapples with him, and with what he perhaps takes to be recklessness, puts him in an elementary hold too quickly. In a fight, it is a mistake--breaking that hold is easy and transfers all advantage to the one that is currently held.

She has learned to be calculated in her anger: it is impossible for him to break the hold without hurting her. He slumps, signalling defeat, but she is too canny for such tactics. She sweeps his leg out from under him instead, and dumps him on the bed.

She drops beside him, and grabs a pillow to curl up around.

“Go to sleep,” she says.

He places a hand, gently, on her shoulder.  “Forgiv--”

She sits up, yanks his pillow out from under him and takes it to the bedroll, along with her own.


 

In the morning, the storm inside her has passed, leaving in its wake a focused, sharp-edged serenity. It has helped, that the God has spent a portion of the night apologizing to her by giving her a wolf-dream, where she bounds through an endless forest and tastes blood as she rips out a Lannister bannerman’s throat.

They have planned to leave mid-morning, to assure the smallest chance of them encountering people on the road. Other travellers will have made a very early start, and farmers and merchants will be at their work.

Impassive, faceless, Jorgen and Arthur lead their horses out of the stable. They must pass the smithy on their way out. Arthur pauses in front of the dark doorway--the cherry-red glow of hot metal is the only thing that is visible inside.

The sound of ringing iron stops.

Gendry emerges, his eyes squinting against the light of day. “Can I help you?”

“That knife,” says Arthur, pointing to one of the blades on display on the windowsill--the poor man’s display case.

Wordlessly, the smith hands up the blade. Arthur tosses it a couple of times, likes the balance. It is not built for Arya Stark’s hand--the weight is too far towards the tip, and she likes to throw knives while holding the blade. But someone else prefers a handle-throw.

“How much?” Arthur asks.

“Thirty silver.”

“Twenty, and a sharpening stone.”

They settle on twenty-eight, but with a sharpening stone and a sheath; coins are exchanged.

Arya looks out through Arthur’s eyes, and assesses the smith with all the objectivity she can muster. There is no more anger in her towards him, nor affection. No regret. Nothing.

“Are you the Gendry from King’s Landing whose master could work Valyrian steel?” asks Arthur.

The smith looks up. “Do I know you?” He is wary, tense, his hand clenching surreptitiously  around the handle of his smith’s hammer.

“No, blacksmith. But I believe you had a friend once--Arya Stark.”

The smith’s eyes widen. “I knew there was something about you two--you kept looking at me! I thought you were sent to...how did...do you have news of her?”

“She is doing well. She spoke of you, described you, said you had been friends when you were children. We will convey her regards, on her behalf, as she would have wanted us to if she knew you were here.”

The smith relaxes a bit. “You are heading north?”

“Winterfell.”

“She is well?” he asks.

“Aye, she is.”

The smith sets his hammer down on the stoop, and shuffles from foot to foot. Arya’s horse dances under her, impatient to be on the road.

“Um,” says the smith, “I know she is a great lady and all...but...is she betrothed?”

Jorgen is absolutely nonchalant; Arya can feel the fury radiating off Jaqen, and the God is snarling in her ear.

It makes Arya feel all warm inside. Her joints loosen under the warmth, and Arthur relaxes down into the saddle, finds his seat.

“Yes,” says Arthur. “To the Sealord of Braavos, should the negotiations go well.”

The smith deflates a bit.

Arthur cannot let the opportunity pass. “There are complications, of course,” he says with a sidelong glance at ‘Jorgen’. “She has also found religion, and there are rumors that she is in love with yet another foreigner--a Lorathi priest.”

The blacksmith looks up, confused.

“Priests from Lorath are not celibate,” explains Arthur.

A flicker of something passes over the Blacksmith’s face. Fear. Unease. Guilt ? “A priest of the Red God?” he asks.

“The Red-and-White God,” says Arthur with a shrug, as if he doesn’t understand it either. “It is a Lorathi thing.”

That is finally too much for Arthur’s companion. “Lady Arya is far too young for religion and priests,” says the swordsman, glaring at Arthur.

Arthur shrugs. “I just tell it like it is--you can argue with Lady Arya herself, if you like, I’d like to see how far that takes you.”

The blacksmith realizes there are undertones to the conversation, but cannot figure them out for the life of him.

“Lady Arya is far too persistent for her own good,” growls Jorgen.

A smile finally makes its way to the smith’s face. “That is how I remember her,” he says ruefully.

“Well, she sends her regards,” says Arthur, and shakes out his reins. “Farewell, Blacksmith.”

The ride out of the inn’s gates; she can feel the smith’s gaze on her back all the way to the bend in the road, until the inn finally slips from view.

With a sigh, Arya takes off the death-mask. Jaqen follows suit.

“Here,” she says, giving him the knife she has just bought. “It’s weighted well for you.”

Jaqen takes the knife with a quirked eyebrow. “A man does not know what he did to deserve a present.”

“It is an apology,” she says. “For a girl’s deplorable loss of temper yesterday.”

They ride in silence for a half-mile.

“The temper was unexpected,” he says finally. “But not entirely...undeserved. And, since a man is being honest, not...unwelcome.”

“If a man wants to be yelled at, he really should just ask for it instead of involving innocent bystanders.”

Jaqen gives a short, sharp bark of laughter. “A man will keep this in mind, lovely girl.”

She turns, looks into his eyes. There are many things still very much unsaid between the two of them, but, bit by bit... How much more can we tease out into the open in the week we have left to the Twins? The thought sobers her. Walder Frey...his death is a pressing urge, but there is a place they must go after.

Jaqen is pensive; he looks inwards, and she knows he, too, is examining memories of Catelyn Stark.

Together , she thinks. And it is a strange sort of comfort, this knowing that he stands at her side, always, and the worst thing that can happen to her while he is with her is death, and death, well, death is no evil thing at all.

Chapter Text

ARYA

They camp on a small wooded dell overlooking the Twins. A small underground feeder-stream of the Green Fork bubbles out of the ground for a few lengths beside their campsite. They light no fire, instead sitting beside each other with blankets around their shoulders, looking at small river barges intermittently floating up and down the larger river half a league away.

“A plan would be good,” murmurs Jaqen.

She draws her blanket closer around herself. “I have a plan already,” she says. “We catch him, immobilize him, then make him watch as we slit the throat of every last Frey in front of him--we’ll collect the blood in a basin, and then we’ll drown him in it.”

Jaqen leans back against his pack, legs outstretched before him. “That’s not a plan, vengeful girl.”

She considers it. “What if we kill his sons, bake them into a pie, and feed it to him before we slit his throat?”

He gives her a look . “No, that is not a plan either.”

She sighs. “What would you suggest?”

He leans forward, picks up a stick and starts drawing lines into a patch of undisturbed snow in front of them. “This is the Twins,” he says. Despite herself, she draws forward. “Here is the river. And here is the Lannister army, marching back to King’s Landing.” He pauses. “Shuffling will perhaps be a better word. They are slow.”

“Geography is the mother of strategy,” she murmurs, looking at the crudely drawn map. “The road will be guarded; so will the gates.”

“Just so,” he says, and his tone finally approves of the direction of her thoughts. “ Here ,” he draws a small rectangle on the western side of the keep. “Riverboats dock right up against the walls. We will need a boat, some vegetables, perhaps, and they will wave us straight through to the market.”

The blanket falls off her shoulder as she reaches forward. “Deliver the goods to the lord’s kitchen, take a servant’s face…”

That ,” he says, “is the beginnings of a plan.”

“It’s too easy,” she mutters.

“A thing does not have to be complicated and macabre to be a plan, lovely girl,” he says. “Most of the time, ‘complicated’ and ‘macabre’ are simply other words for ‘inefficient’ and ‘one-dimensional’.”

He is right, she realizes. Focusing on the moment of the kill, focusing on what it will feel like to slide a blade through Walder Frey’s flesh and muscle and sinew...it limits her. And as she sees the edges of that limitation, she starts freeing herself from it, beginning with her imaginings of the look on Walder Frey’s face (she knows he is an old man, garrulous and lecherous, but that is all) when Arya Stark slits his throat.

As her thoughts are freed of their compulsive, circular path, an image forms in her mind’s eye--not of the map in front of her, but another map, built of networks of alliances, threads connecting lands, and their lords.

Lannister and Frey, Frey and Lannister. She looks up and Jaqen is watching her, expressionless. If I see it now , he’s seen it a while ago.

“How many plans do you have for this?” she asks him; a roundabout question. Is he helping me, or training me, or testing me.

“One or two, lovely girl,” he says softly. “One or two, and bits and pieces.”

Helping and training and testing.

“I think I have a...comprehensive plan,” she ventures.

“A girl moved from Frey-pies to a political strategy rather quickly.”

“I’m starting to like the Lorathi way,” she says, moved to honesty as she basks in his approval. “It frees me from...myself.” She is not sure she can maintain this clarity, not when it comes time for the kill, but for now...

She notices that he has become thoughtful, inwards-looking. “The Lorathi way is as much a trap as any other,” he murmurs. “It, too, has its constraints.”

She sighs. Not fair, Jaqen, to undermine my trust in a path just, just when I begin to walk it. The thought is...not entirely correct. I undermined his trust in it first, when I knew nothing of it at all; I was not fair, either. She draws closer to him. Not touching, just...close. The stars shine overhead through a rare break in the clouds.


 

WALDER FREY

“Speak up, boy,” he grouses at the messenger, then breaks into muttering. “Where is the girl with the wine, these people don’t know how to serve their lord, the wine wasn’t late when Jamie Fucking Lannister was here, was it?”

“Sir, the two Lannister soldiers are still waiting, they are demanding to see you.”

“Pah!” he says, and waves a hand dismissively. “Soldiers don’t get to meet with the Lord of the Riverlands. Send my son. The steward. Lothar? Where is my useless son? Ah, there you are. Go see to these fucking Lannisters. Take Black Walder along, can’t intimidate a Lannister with that twisted leg, can you? Go, go, deal with it! Where is my wine?”

The wine comes, the sycophants all around him, the “court” all drinking his wine.

Some time later, his son and grandson return. Lothar limps closer, and he is looking at his father. Walder Frey has lived a long time, outlived all of his enemies--he knows when a man has murder in his eyes.

He laughs. “Come to kill your father have you, Lothar? I made you steward and you made a deal with the Lannisters!”

The hall has fallen silent; Walder Frey’s court looks at the tableau before it with a growing unease.

“Hah,” says Walder. “I’m afraid of you, boy, or your Lannister ally. Jamie Fucking Lannister. Hah. Walder, hold him!”

His grandson, his dutiful grandson, grabs Lothar, and the weaker man cannot escape.

“I wonder how he suddenly grew a spine?” Walder Frey murmurs. Then, louder, “Out, all of you, out!” He waves at his court and they scurry, like beetles, to get out of the room. “And round up all the Lannisters and throw them out of the Twins! Tell them to get out! Get out!”

Then, and only then, Walder Frey gets out of his chair. He walks, stooped but wiry, still very much alive, thank you, to the wall and grabs a pike. “Want a lordship, do you? I’ll show you what a Lannister plot against me deserves.” He turns back to the hall. “Out!” he shouts, and the last of the useless twats in the hall flee, and then he is alone with Lothar and Black Walder.

He is baffled when Black Walder lets his uncle go, and Lothar straightens.

“That worked better than I expected,” says Lothar with satisfaction.

Understanding dawns. “You’re both in this together! Guar--”

His shout is muffled. Black Walder has moved to his side, faster than his eyes can follow--how did his grandson learn to move like that?--and Walder Frey doubles over, gasping for breath with a punch to the solar plexus.

In a few moments, the Lord of the Riverlands is gagged and bound, on his knees on the floor before the high table.

And then, Lothar reaches up and somehow... removes a mask, of flesh and hair, and so does Black Walder.

These are not mine! One of them--the one who was wearing Black Walder’s face--is a girl , a pretty girl, with dark hair. The other is a strange man, with white and red hair and a foreigner’s features. Faceless Men. He knows the tales.

He realizes he has lost control of his bladder.

Not Lannisters. Faceless men. Where is my son? All the people that fled the hall--I will die here and they will all see a Lannister plot behind it. Who paid the Faceless Men for me? Everything, everything, all for nothing. Edmure Tully will take everything . My son! My sons, have they killed my sons?

The man with red and white hair speaks. “My brother died here,” he says, and he is looking around the hall, and it confuses Walder Frey. “My mother...well, I suppose she died here as well.”

Mother and brother...but this man is not a Stark! He is a foreigner!

The girl speaks. “Does Arya Stark wish to do this thing herself?”

Arya Stark? And he realizes the girl has the Stark look about her; not like the young wolf in this hall, but an older look, of the north and people dead a generation ago.

The man with red and white hair looks at Walder Frey.

“Killing him by my own hand,” whispers the man. “I imagine it.” Unholy joy lights up the man’s features, it twists at Walder Frey’s bowels; if there was anything urine left in him it would join the rest, puddled in cold wetness around his knees. “This feeling, I cannot expunge it, it feels too good.”

The girl has pulled out a knife, a sharp blade, light breaking into splinters along its edge.

“A gift should be given,” says the man with red and white hair. “You understand mercy. You should give it.”

The girl walks forward, and there is a burning sensation across his neck for a moment. She slit my throat! He still can’t believe it.

He starts believing it when he cannot breathe, the wet copper smell spreads with the coldness, down his chest. She slit my throat!

“Valar morghulis,” the girl whispers.


 

ARYA

She holds herself in the blank detachment of a Lorathi; it comes to her now, though not easily, but as always, wearing Jaqen’s face amplifies whatever seed of serenity she has in herself.

Jaqen has worn her face for the killing of Walder Frey--has he worn it for the others as well, Meryn Trant, Ilyn Payne? The grim pleasure she feels at that thought she cannot suppress. In wearing her face he has made the deaths a proper vengeance--vengeance by proxy, but a Stark vengeance nonetheless.

No one will dare to go into the dining hall for at least half a watch. They mount Lannister horses, wearing Lannister faces, and ride openly out of the front gate in the vanguard of “their” detachment. Arya’s saddlebags bulge strangely, but the Freys are too busy sneering at the Lannisters and the Lannisters are too busy being angry for anyone to notice.

The saddlebags contain a gift for her mother: Lothar, Black Walder, and Walder Frey; three heads wrapped tightly in a banner ripped from the walls of the dining hall.

As dusk approaches, the ranking officer of their little Lannister company assigns third-watch (the worst one, when it comes to a soldier getting some rest) to the two who have been lagging behind the train.

The two wait for their watch, and then slip away on foot into the pitch-black night.

Dawn finds them at their campsite next to the stream, the horses still tethered where they left them. She kneels at the edge of the water and begins scrubbing her hands. There is no blood; this is a symbolic gesture.

“It is done, then,” says Jaqen gently, and he comes to kneel beside her.

She doesn’t look at him. “I don’t feel any different.” When he doesn’t say anything, she expands. “Arya Stark is finally, truly, dead, and I don’t feel any different.”

“The Ironborn have a saying,” he says thoughtfully. “What is dead may never die.”

She snorts. Cryptic Lorathi. “Thank you,” she says. “For not letting me do it.”

She is surprised when he reaches for her; he holds her chin and draws her face towards him, and she imagines he leaves a trace of Walder Frey’s blood on her skin. But his hands are clean, and his face inches closer to hers and her heart is hammering under her ribcage. She closes her eyes, and feels the gentlest pressure of his lips on hers.

The chasteness of the kiss reminds her of her first kiss from Him of the Many Faces, and that makes her irrationally irritated. She turns away, and continues scrubbing roughly at her skin.

“Lovely girl,” he says, his face so close to hers. “Why are you suddenly angry with a man?”

She looks at him incredulously.

“A man hopes a girl does not doubt what a man feels. That a girl does not mistake restraint for...a lack of affection.”

What am I supposed to think, Jaqen? But her shoulders relax, a bit.

“So a girl did doubt,” he says, amused and a little sad. He sits down beside her, and she just knows he’s going to try levity.

“A man will offer a girl a deal,” he says.

“Another one?” she mutters into the the water.

“Well, if a girl doesn’t want to hear…”

It earns him a glare, which he deflects with a chuckle. “When our work here is done,” he says, “a man will take a girl back to the House of Black and White, and they can...open negotiations.”

“That’s it ?” The words explode out of her. “One measly kiss and a promise to open negotiations ?”

Jaqen throws his head back and laughs. “A girl must learn patience,” he says, finally.

“Aarrgh!” The strangled sound is the only communication she can muster in the moment. Not all of us are immortal assassin-avatars of the God of Death, Jaqen. “Not all of us have the time to learn patience!” she says instead. “Some of us could die any day! Valar fucking morghulis , Jaqen!”

He puts his own hands in the water and draws hers out; her hands are freezing, the water is freezing, and she has not realized it until his skin burns against hers.

“But not today,” he says softly.

She turns to him, and reaches out, her fingers trailing against his jaw. “I want a proper kiss.”

Unbidden, his hand rises to her face in turn, and they are forehead-to-forehead again, and she remembers they stood like this once before on the docks of Oldtown a lifetime ago.

Their breaths mingle between them, his breathing synchronized with hers, and she can feel his pulse beneath her fingers.

“A girl plays with something she doesn’t understand,” he whispers.

“How can I, if you don’t show me?” she asks and her voice is equally low.

He twists , and pushes her down to the ground. And then she is on her back, and he is on top of her, and his mouth descends on hers in a savage, raw kiss. She bites at his lips, arches into him, her hands are fisted in his hair. His tongue strokes the outline of her lower lip, she parts her mouth, and then his tongue is in her, sliding against her own.

Her entire body is alight, a giddy, trembling warmth pooling in her lower belly. She doesn’t know what to do, she can only open her mouth more, and drown.

His hand is gripping her hip and her back is arching.

Jaqen ”, she moans.

He pulls back, but not far. He is still on top of her, his weight pressing her into the ground, and she can feel him, hard, against her thigh.

Now does a girl understand?” he asks. “She is playing with fire.”

Both their breathing is ragged.

“No, she doesn’t understand yet,” she breathes. “You need to show her some more.”

He groans, and buries his face in her neck.

“I will take you,” he whispers savagely, and she has never known that a simple shift of pronoun can contain so much ragged need, can turn her thoughts to water. “I will do to you each and every depraved thing that I have wanted to do to you for so long.” He grinds into her. “I will slake every desire I have in your body.”

Arya’s eyes are glazed over, she knows she is looking at him stupidly, but she cannot collect her thoughts… she just feels .

His lifts himself into his elbows, and she is no longer pressed to him and she almost sobs from the lack.

“But not yet.”

“Why?” she is begging.

He doesn’t answer. Slowly, slowly, they both sit up. He shifts, off her, and instantly she finds herself missing the warmth of him. But he does not go far--he is still right next to her, half-sitting.

“Because, for some reason, a man wants to start the doing of this thing in a clean bed, with blankets against the cold and a fire in the hearth. Not like this.” He gestures to the sodden ground.

Horror is swiftly banking the fire of need in her. “Are you a romantic ?” she blurts out, disbelieving.

He says nothing, waiting for her, watching her face.

“All the teasing, all the poetry…” she trails off. “That was courting .” The horror has not lessened, but she is not done yet. “ I was being courted .” Now there is wonder, then a thrill. “ You were courting me.

“Words must suffice, lovely girl, when there are no flowers around.” He purses his lips. “Or Lannisters,” he mutters.

How can she reconcile this suddenly wistful, gentle Jaqen with the man who told her he was going to do depraved things to her just a moment ago?

“So,” he says, “all those thing Sansa put into your head--this courting thing--is it so very bad?”

She digs in herself for the most true answer she can give him. “It is horrible . Please tell me you haven’t wanted me like that, like this for a whole month!”

He looks at her with some amusement, for a smile plays around his lips. “Years,” he says quietly.

She throws herself back down to the ground. “ Arrgh !”

“It is not just a romantic’s ideas, lovely girl,” he says. “Something tells a man this is not the time. That a storm gathers on the horizon, and we will lose everything if we do this now.” All trace of levity has been wiped from his voice. “Is this from the God?” he asks her.

Why are you asking me , are you really that obtuse ? Since you feel this way, Jaqen, of course it’s from the God.

She wants to scream again, restrains herself. The Lorathi way has its own constraints. Death marches to no man--or woman’s--timetable. And, truthfully, after the things he groaned into her ear, she is ready to forgive him almost anything at all.

“If you feel this, then it is not the time,” she says, though it galls her to do so.

“If you agree,” he says, “it must be so.”

“Will you answer something for me?” she asks, turning to her side to look up at him again.

“Anything,” he says, and his face is utterly open to her, unshuttered, perhaps for the first time. She thrills at the power of it.

“That woman, that one you dreamed about, the one who brought you to your knees...who was it? Was it a sister in the order?”

He looks incredulous. “After everything you have just learned, this is your question?” Then he sees the uncertainty in her, because he leans closer to her, over her. “It is a faceless one, lovely girl,” he says. “Though a man does not think of her as his sister in any way. She is impetuous and beautiful and lethal, and wise , and she has haunted his dreams for years.”

He, too, lies back down, facing her. Side by side--she does not know who moves first, but their legs are entwined.

“You bring me to my knees, my love,” he says.

Her eyes close; his words rouse a craving in her for something she did not know she wanted to hear. She feels a pressure at her waist--he is draping his arm over her, he draws closer to her.

“Say it again,” she commands.

“You bring me to my knees,” he says.

She opens her eyes. He’s laughing at me! She punches him in the arm.

“Not nice, my love ,” he says.

And then she moves, and he is on his back and she is straddling him, careful not to touch any part of him lower than his waist; she is playing with fire, and she can break his will if she tries...but she is a servant of the Many-Faced God, and His intuition should not be so easily discarded.

She pins his arms at his side, gently, ever so gently--a featherlight touch from her fingers is enough to confine him.

She leans down, touches her lips to his; a light pressure, nothing more.

She realizes she needn’t have feared, anything, ever; she knows his lips, she knows licking the corner of his mouth makes him grin, she knows stroking his tongue with her own makes him groan, she knows sucking on his lower lip makes him aggressive.

She has been kissing him properly since she was fifteen.

“Was the courting very horrible?” he asks, and there is a plaintiveness to him she has not seen before.

“It was horrible exactly in the way that this is horrible,” she murmurs, and takes his lower lip between hers, sucks, bites down gently, and restrains, restrains him on the ground with the lightest of touches.

“Then say it.” It is his turn to demand.

She shakes her head, no .

His eyes glitter. “Say it, lovely girl.”

That was a warning, she thinks. She bites her lower lip, and considers him. She looks him in the eye and thinks of all the things she wants to do to him; she can tell by the dilation of his pupils that he knows what she imagines.

She waits.

It is only when she has taken him to the edge of his patience that she speaks:

“I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.”

His eyes have closed, his head is on the ground, unarmored throat arcing towards her. She has released his hands, and they are clamped around her hips. Her voice is low, unstudied when she continues.

“I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.”

She watches the curve of his throat, the muscles, taut on each side.

Eventually, after some time, he relaxes, releases his hold on her and only then does he realize how strong his grip had been.

“When did a girl get into a man’s saddlebags?” His customary, sardonic teasing has returned to him. But his hands draw circles at her sides, gentle, soothing, apologizing.

“I need less sleep than you,” she says. She will wear bruises on her hips tomorrow, in the shape of his fingers. The idea fills her with dark satisfaction.

“Ah, youth,” he says.

She has no response to that, so she kisses him again.


 

JAQEN

She lies beside him, his cloak beneath them, her head on his chest. Her breathing is gentle, she sleeps and he must wake her in a little bit so they can find the blankets and rebuild a huddle.

But he has thoughts cascading through him, and they do not stop .

He knows what it feels like to lie beside her on a bed made of stone, and taste the pulse at her throat. A dream extended, extruded into the world.

 

“Beloved, let me go,” she says, and it does not sound like she means it.

“My bride is trapped,” he says playfully, “between a rock and a hard place, as it were.”

“Your bride has training, and must be allowed to wake up,” she says, pressing into him. “She will get bad looks from the others if she is late.”

“A kiss then, and I will consider letting you be on time.”

 

At the Citadel in oldtown, a year before she came to him, he had sent his ravens north, and east and west, seeking news of Brandon Stark. He had collected rumors, bit by bit pieced together a picture, traced a travel route over a map of the land before the wall.

 

“Is Bran alive?”
It is one of the first questions she has asked him, once they start speaking again after the pool.

Yes,” he replies, for though he only knows the names of people once they come to him in death, there are some names he watches for, and “Stark” has not been heard by him since the Red Wedding.

“Where is he?”

“I will find out.”

 

Jaqen H’ghar feels like he cannot breathe.

Breathe .

In.

Out.

 

He will not think about this thing. Not now.

 

Her kiss was a catalyst, a triggering of a deluge no dam could stand against. Each kiss he remembers is a cascade. She knelt, beside her bed, and would not look at him as she experienced Valyria; all he could do was hold her shoulders.

His eyes are watering. He raises a hand, and it comes away red with blood.

 

Breathe .

In.

Out.

 

He must retreat to the first discipline of the mind he has learned--closing windows against arrogance, against ego, against being, until such a time as those things can be understood, and annihilated.

A man is just a man; all men are equal. A man is not a god. A man is just a man. All men are equal, no better, no worse, than their fellow man. A man cannot be a god; such thoughts are born of arrogance. Such thoughts set a man apart, set a man above his fellow man; such thoughts are not allowed to take root.

 

How long must I stay here?” It is the first time she has asked him that question, though he has known it is coming for some time.

“Only as long as you want,” he replies.

“What will I do in Westeros?”

“You will see your family again. You will pray in the godswood.”

“How?” she asks. “I want to be faceless. I want to serve .”

He chuckles, places a kiss on her temple. “Bend your pretty, brilliant mind to the task, beloved, you will find a way to get everything you want.”

“Even you?”

The cat is a cunning one , he thinks, “Mmm,” he says, noncommittally. She is far too young, and Death cannot extrapolate past the third name he still owes her.

 

Jaqen H’ghar shudders, and continues closing windows in his mind.

 


 

ARYA

She comes to full alertness when the sky is darkening again, when he shifts under her, and they throw together a half-hearted huddle. She has first watch, and then a few hours before dawn, it is his turn.

Wolves howl all around them through the night.

In the morning, Arya wakes to find the fire already lit and Jaqen already up, and a giant grey-and-white direwolf sitting beside him.

“Nymeria!”

In her rush, her feet tangle in her blanket, and she almost falls, but she makes it to the wolf’s side and throws her arms around her.

Suddenly, everything shifts , and she is looking out through the eyes of the direwolf.

 

Her people--her girl and her master, both glow with a darkness that picks them out in stark relief against the white snow. There is a smell of man, of girl, blood on the both of them.

The girl will bleed.

There are rabbits, and the acrid stink of an army nearby, and the ground smells the cold wet smell of mold.

 

She pulls herself back. Jaqen is watching her.

“So that was warging,” he says.

“What did it look like?” she is very curious. “It felt...brief.”

“A dozen or so heartbeats,” he agrees. “Your eyes went white, rolled back in your head. Your face became very still.” He snorts. “It explains why a man’s Lorathi brother did not see it, when Cat-of-the-Canals warged into a cat for his test--it looks like you are blind, and he had already blinded you.”

“Oh,” she says. “Um. Why does Nymeria think you are her master, not me?” Arya knows the answer, of course, but she wants to push him, gently.

But he just grins, unconcerned for the implications. “Someone had to take care of the wolf dreams while you were learning to be faceless. You offered her to the God; He delegated the responsibility.”

“Delegated?” Horse-shit . “I see.”

Then Nymeria turns her beautiful head, and Arya clutches her wolf tighter, burying her head into Nymeria’s fur. “I’m sorry I had to send you away,” she whispers, “but they would have killed you, like they killed Lady. I am sorry I had to throw rocks at you, I didn’t want to, I didn’t know how to make you understand. I didn’t want to hurt you.”

Nymeria whuffs, then blows air into Arya’s face.

“She has a whole pack of her own now,” says Jaqen. “They hunt Freys, Freys and Lannisters.”

“We shall see how the pack likes the forest around Winterfell,” says Arya.

By his silence, she knows Jaqen is giving this due consideration. “It will have to be handled carefully. Food is getting scarce as winter comes, and they are used to eating man.” He hesitates. “And, love, she is not tame, she will never be tame, or live inside human dwellings all the time.”

Arya leans back from her (his) direwolf, and nods sadly. “Essos may not be the best place for her.” She takes a deep breath. “When we go back to Braavos, I would like to share the wolf dreams with you, know that she is well.”

He raises an eyebrow. “A girl will leave her direwolf behind again?”

There is some test there. And with Jaqen’s tests...Jaqen’s tests she always passes with raw honesty and nothing else.

Your direwolf , she thinks. “I will do what you think is best.”

He looks at her in wonder. “And when did a girl become tame?”

She smiles, showing him her teeth. “It’s just a matter of clarifying pack hierarchy, love. Nymeria is yours. But who do you belong to?”

His eyes are troubled, as if he doesn’t want to give her an answer she doesn’t want to hear; he thinks she wants to hear that Jaqen H’ghar belongs to her.

“Jaqen H’ghar serves the Many-Faced God,” he says, finally.

She smiles, reassuring. Arya’s tests, too, are passed with the truth.

“And who does the God belong to?”

He grows dark. “This is a dangerous line of questioning, lovely girl, a dangerous thing when mortals think the gods serve them.”

“I said nothing about serving ; I serve. There is no hubris in me, not for this. Never for this. Look at me.

He looks.

“Who does the God belong to?” The question is soft, measured. It is a game they have played before, Arya and Him of the Many Faces, the sort of games lovers play: I am yours and you are mine. Mine. Mine. Mine. Yours, always, yours and yours alone.

The answer is dragged out of him, and it is not by his own will. “The God belongs to Arya Stark,” he breathes.

“Just so,” she says. And then she notices something in his eyes.

Before she knows it, she is kneeling before him, her fingertips brushing over his face, something almost like panic bubbling in her. “Love, why are your eyes bleeding ?” she whispers.

He gently moves her hands away from his face, shrugs. “Just a burst blood vessel,” he says. “It happens, sometimes, especially in this kind of weather. Just a blood vessel, love.”

It’s not, is it Jaqen? She feels wretched; she has pushed him too far. A man can deny the truth, and he is simply deluded but the nature of reality does not change. If her God denies the truth...does the world shift, to match His distorted vision of it?

She notices a change in his hair...black hair, coming in at the roots, hidden still on the red side, but clear against the white. There is a brief moment of regret in her, for the red and white she loves so much. Then, pragmatic as ever, she lets it go. If she knows him when he wears faces, and loves him still, what does the color of hair matter?

The God is rising, slowly, ever so slowly, and He is bringing the darkness with Him. Only now, for the first time, she wonders what physical cost He will pay for it.

She bends forward, her arms around his neck, places her lips upon his pulse. It beats in time with her heartbeat. “Have mercy, beloved,” she whispers. He tenses under her. “Be gentle with yourself.”

Nymeria echoes her sentiment, it seems, for the horse-sized direwolf comes up against Jaqen’s back and slobbers all over his neck.

The bleeding in his eyes has stopped by the time they finish breaking their fast.

She on the other hand, has just started bleeding, but forewarned by Nymeria’s heightened sense of smell, she does not soil her clothes this time--the onset of her last cycle, in the middle of the voyage across the Narrow Sea--had forced her to throw her smallclothes overboard.

She wishes her moon-blood came at regular intervals, but the blood-magic in the masks makes it entirely unpredictable; not using masks is not an option.

She is paranoid that she will bleed through the rags she has stuffed in her smallclothes, and requests the loan of an oilcloth from Jaqen’s pack. He wordlessly hands over the oilcloth, and he looks at her, and he understands.

When she is ready he attacks her, and she blocks, and their morning spar, though delayed by Nymeria’s arrival, is in full swing.

As she focuses on her footwork, she has a chance for an errant thought: Huh .

Yet another preconception she did not know she had--built of secrecy, and shame and the hushed whispers of Old Nan, the admonitions before they left for King’s Landing, about how such things must be handled and even their father shouldn’t know--another preconception of how men are, and how a woman must be, it shatters under the barrage of blows from Jaqen’s sword, blows she must match in skill and ferocity, or die.


 

Nymeria’s gold eyes gleam as she lies beside the spent fire, and Arya briefly tries to warg into the direwolf, but it doesn’t happen. She is getting frustrated.

“Have you tried words, love?” Jaqen asks. “She understands more than you think.”

She glares at him, then turns to the direwolf. “We are going somewhere you shouldn’t come,” she says. She is used to the taste of man . “Hunt, play with your back, we’ll be back this way in a bit.”

Nymeria just sits there.

Arya throws a pleading glance at Jaqen. He comes forward, gestures towards the west. “Soon, beautiful lady,” he says. “We return.”

Nymeria whuffs, and rises on her haunches. Then she raises her head, and yips . The sound echoes in the trees around them, and she is answered by more barks and yips.

There must be twenty wolves here!

Then the direwolf gets up, and with a final backwards glance at the two of them, walks into the forest.

“Why does she get beautiful lady , and I’m lovely girl ?” asks Arya, disgruntled and not because of the love-name--Nymeria is beautiful, though not a lady any more than Arya is a girl.

Jaqen chuckles. “Because she can kill a man with one bite.”

I can kill you too,” she persists.

“Yes,” he says, and he trails a finger down the nape of her neck. She shivers.

“But I won’t,” she says.

“You will. Many times.”

At her confused look, he leans down to whisper in her ear. “A little death. And you won’t bite.”

To both of their surprise, Arya Stark blushes .

Chapter Text

ARYA

No words are exchanged when they break camp, and she holds Steel’s reins while he mounts but then she raises her arms to him and he lifts her into his saddle. His arms are wrapped around her, and she leans back against his chest.

They head back towards the Crossroads for a bit, then turn east on a small track heading into the rocky hills. From time to time, she twists and cranes her neck upwards, and he bends forward, and they kiss.

“If the Kindly Man could see us now,” she says with a contented sigh after another such kiss. “I’m going to get beaten.” She considers it. “He may not dare, with you.”

Jaqen snorts. “We do not have leaders or followers, but our Lorathi brother was once a man’s student. There will be no beatings.” He thinks for a moment. “Nevertheless, it is best not to tempt him. We will start small, when we return to the House of Black and White.”

“Holding hands, from time to time?” Her tone is plaintive. More waiting?

She can feel him grinning. “One of us will move into the other’s cell, and we will confine our…” he traces the outer shell of her ear with his tongue, “ activities to our bed.”

She arches backwards, wrapping her arms around his neck. “That is small?”

“Mmm. A man has had much time to think on it. That is small.”

She grins in turn.

A bit after midday, they stop. He points off to the side. And then they must regretfully return her to her own steed, for they are going off the road and the footing under the snow is uncertain.

“How did you know this was here?” The trail is almost invisible, though she can see the signs of it being actively obscured

“I asked some questions. While a girl was admiring a smith.”

“A smith’s knives,” she corrects.

Their pace has slowed, the horses more nervous than usual. “What made you speak to him at the end?” he asks. When she glances at him, he smiles. “No jealousy, just curiosity.”

“I have been thinking of what you told me about Samwell Tarly,” she says. They have had much time to talk on the journey--he knows all about her training after the pool, the mummery continued with Izembaro, the few contracts she was given. She knows about the White Walkers, and dragonglass. She knows the importance of Valyrian Steel. “We have no smith, in the House, but our brother--the one who was a slave to Bandar Khess, he has seen the making of it. We have the magesteel from Myr, we have access to dragons with this alliance. So all we need is a capable smith.”

“You would include Gendry in this plotting?”

“Do you think I’m mad?” she asks. “No, love, I would see him innocuously settled in King’s landing again once Daenerys takes it. Or perhaps Winterfell will be better, where we can control the output more easily--swords for the Night’s Watch, daggers, probably, for the House of Black and White.”

They pick their way around a particularly well-placed boulder blocking the trail.

“He seems happy where he is, smithing for the Brotherhood without Banners, bending knee to no lord.”

She shrugs. “He has feelings for Arya Stark still,” she says. “It can be used, in the phrasing perhaps, ‘Lady Arya begs you to consider starting a smithy for Valyrian Steel in Winterfell’ or some such, and then he will not mind serving the Starks. And, of course, with Arya Stark married to Braavos, shipments of Myrrish magesteel can become a regular part of the trade route. He will retire a very rich man.”

Jaqen is considering it.

“A man has affections for Arya Stark as well,” he says finally, and that is not what she expected him to say. He does not look at her. “It is a compulsion, and a man cannot blame the smith-boy for it--it is cruel, to be manipulated so by a compulsion.”

“Have I ever manipulated you?” she asks. She has; it is in their blood, their training, this twisting of intention and action.

“You breathe,” he says dryly.

She looks at him from the corner of her eye. “As do you.”

He looks away. “A man may have been guilty of a bit more...deliberate machinations, from time to time.”

She snorts. “I allow you to, you know--you always feel a little guilty afterwards and then I can have my way, later.”

“My lovely, brilliant, cunning, beautiful girl,” he murmurs, “think on it. A girl obeys a man, in her own way, a girl is practical and rational when she is not vengeful, so why does he need to manipulate ?”

The silence imposed by the fording of a small, half-frozen stream is a thoughtful one.

Because you like getting under my skin, because it is a substitute, this give and take, for games we have yet to play...because it feels good , because you breathe, because you love me and you are a little twisted, and so am I.

She bites her lip, and says nothing, and then they must both turn their attention to the broken trail.

She muses for a while. “Gendry…,” says, “this affection or whatever it is that gives others a hold over him--this is his choice. All men are equal--this one teaching of the Lorathi way I never fought. So if this thing I feel for you , sexual and familial and religious love all in one, if I can recognize that even this thing was a deliberate choice for me, then a simple one-sided affection from Gendry, that he clings to even when ‘Arya Stark’ is to be married--that is his choice, and if he wants his freedom all he has to do is say ‘no’.”

“Maybe it is not that way with men,” says Jaqen. “A man does not remember choosing you--you just were .”

“Horse-shit,” she says. “‘ You stole three deaths from the Red God. We have to give them back. Speak three names… ’ There’s no such rule.”

He has the grace to look embarrassed. “That was the Many-Faced One’s choosing…” He tries to escape.

She pins him with a look .

“But you were a child ,” he murmurs.

“You were not choosing me to fuck ,” she says reasonably. “That must have come later…” She considers it. “After the pool?”

He nods.

“And for that ,” she says thoughtfully, “I think I chose you first.”

He inhales, and the gaze he turns on her is...something else. A waking dream , she thinks and is suddenly afraid.

I chose the mirror of my soul,” he says.

She looks away. “That’s...too much hubris, beloved,” she whispers, “even for me. Say, instead, that you were choosing your...travelling companion, on the long road.”

He chuckles. “All right, dearest travelling companion , manipulate the men who fall in love with you as much as you like. As long as only one of them is able to manipulate you in turn, he is well satisfied.”

There is activity just up ahead. Rustling, quiet murmurs that stop, suddenly, as the two approach, and then there is the ringing of swords being drawn from scabbards. The two faceless also draw blades, and their draw is silent--for they, like all other servants of Him of the Many Faces, wrap silk on the inside of their scabbards, and around the mouths.


 

JAQEN H’GHAR

They have dismounted, to meet the Brotherhood on equal terms, foot to foot. He holds his blade ready, but lowered. She stands at his side in a similar non-threatening stance.

A small band of the Brotherhood Without Banners has them surrounded, and more are coming from further up the trail.

“We have come to see Lady Stark,” he says. “I have brought her daughter Arya back to her.”

That starts a wave of muttering and exchanges of glances. The leader of the band, a swarthy man with the look of the Iron Islands about him, clear his throat. “How do we know that is Arya Stark? Sellswords show up all the time, with some village girl and a demand for silver.”

“You know it because no silver is demanded. And,” and he looks over their heads, to a man just now coming around a bend up ahead, “because she is recognized.”

The man is large, with dark hair and a face half-ruined by fire.

The men of the brotherhood exchange yet more glances, then back away a fair distance, talking amongst themselves. They leave a large space for the newcomer.

“Hound!” Arya starts forward, and Jaqen raises an arm, warning her back. There is conflict here, in her voice (happiness and trepidation, anger and...regret) and conflict in the man’s face.

The man walks forward, peers at her; recognition is slow, but when it comes, he reaches forward and grabs her hand, drags her forward. “It’s the Wolf Bitch!”

Jaqen stands aside. The girl is fully capable of cutting this Hound to ribbons, should he actually be a threat.

“You left me to die!” snarls the Hound.

“But you’re alive,” she says, her voice calm.

Calmness may be a mistake; this man is brimming with turmoil.

“I begged you for mercy.”

There is anger in his words. Not killing rage, it is hurting rage , Jaqen reminds himself. Still, he keeps his hands clasped behind his back to prevent any...impulsive motions on the part of Jaqen H’ghar.

“I should kill you,” says the scarred man, eyeing her saber with undisguised loathing.

There is fear in this man, Jaqen realizes. Of women that wield swords.

“Perhaps you should,” she replies.

In the next moment the man has turned aside. “Pah!” he says. “Fucking cunts, all of you.” He rounds on Jaqen. “And who the fuck are you?”

“A man is called Jaqen H’ghar,” he says.

You’re the Jaqen H’ghar she kept talking about,” says the Hound, his surprise overmatching his anger for the moment. “‘ Jaqen can kill you before you move, Jaqen eats Hounds for breakfast… ’”.

The man so named raises an eyebrow at his lovely girl. She is a bit embarrassed, though she has done nothing wrong --he had told her “Jaqen H’ghar is dead”, and she had no way to know he had given her his true name.

The Hound sighs. “Come along, then, you’ll be wanting to see her Ladyship.”

The two faceless exchange looks: Arya is excited, and trying to hide it; Jaqen advises caution, for many reasons.

Jaqen takes the reins, leads the horses as the girl walks ahead with the Hound. The rest of the band travels a few lengths ahead, some already out of sight as the path twists around a strand of birch trees, their branches laden with snow.

“And where’ve you been all this time?” the gruff man asks the girl.

“I took a ship to Braavos,” she replies.

“To the great Jaqen H’ghar. He taught you how to use that fancy sword you’re carrying? I remember you said he had to leave...how’d you convince him to teach you, suck his cock?” the hound throws a look over his shoulder. “You like little girls, H’ghar?”

“Once they grow up,” replies Jaqen, evenly.

She says nothing.

“Hah,” says the hound. “A wolf-bitch like you, who’d put their cock anywhere near your mouth and risk getting it bitten off?”

More silence.

He is goading her, this hound, looking for an excuse to start an actual fight. Jaqen can see rage simmering in the other man, and he knows the Hound will lash out soon.

“By now I bet your sister’s learned to suck cock, in King’s Landing.”

Jaqen reaches forward, grabs the girl’s wrist, but her other hand also holds a blade. She throws it at the Hound, hits him with the handle in his face. Not aiming to do real damage. “You fucking dog ,” she says, “don’t you ever--

“My name is Sandor ,” the man snarls even as he draws his sword--he is faster than his size suggests--and lunges.

She side-steps to the left.

Jaqen drops the girl’s wrist, takes a single step forward, to the right, and he is under the man’s guard. The assassin uses his left hand to twist the fighter’s sword out of his grasp, and as the Hound tries to abort his lunge, Jaqen takes a second step, his left leg stepping down on the heel of the man’s unbalanced foot.

It is over within four heartbeats. Sandor Clegane is on the ground, Jaqen’s sword-point at his throat. The girl has not moved further, nor drawn her sword.

The Brotherhood men have just started to look back, take notice of them again.

“That was uncalled for,” says Jaqen, mildly.

“She left me for dead,” Sandor snarls. “I begged her to kill me, and she left me to rot.”

“She will apologize,” says Jaqen evenly.

Out of the corner of his eye, he can see the rebellion in the set of her shoulders.

Jaqen turns back to the man on the ground and transfers the sword to his right hand, so now he is holding both blades. Then he offers the man his left. The gesture is ignored, and Sandor climbs to his feet on his own.

“You saved her life,” says Jaqen. “A few times.”

She is startled at his tone, at what it portends. A life must be balanced. “Jaqen?”

She needs to understand this thing--in the isolation of their calling and its purpose, if there is such a thing as a standard a faceless man is held to, it is their own, and absolute, not defined in relative terms by the behaviour of those around them.

“A balancing,” he says, quietly, in Lorathi, “also for the girl’s lack of mercy, which is as much a man’s fault as hers, for she did not know how to give the gift, and a man could have stayed with her as she asked and taught it to her earlier.”

His love is devoted to her calling, she has died for it, but she still sees herself as part of the world of the living, and her acts of balancing are not a judgement, they are retaliatory--the Hound hit her over a raw wound in her side, and so she must hit him back.

Her eyes are wide, staring at him, and slowly, slowly, she understands. She bows her head. “A girl is ashamed,” she whispers, also in Lorathi, and his heart clenches in his chest.

She pushes back her shoulders; her jaw is set. It is the same look she had on her face, the day she saw Valyria, and she promised Him of the Many Faces “ I will do better .”

In this moment Jaqen H’ghar is very tempted to bash the other side of Sandor Clegane’s face in.

He hands Sandor back his sword, which the man takes with a look of slight disbelief. Then Jaqen bows. “This man owes you a debt, for the girl’s life which is everything to him.”

“I want her to fucking beg me to forgive her,” says Sandor Clegane.

She takes a deep breath, and steps forward. “I am sorry I did not give you mercy when you asked for it…” Her tone is low, even.

The Hound sneers.

“I beg your forgiveness, Sandor Clegane” she says, and Jaqen can see the anger rising, though it is controlled, “for not killing you when I had the chance.”

To Jaqen’s ear, the words ring of truth, and he wonders if Sandor Clegane has just lost a friend he did not know he had. He glances at the Hound’s face, and is surprised to find that Sandor actually looks a bit amused.

A more complicated man, this, than it appears on the surface.

A moment or two, and then Sandor Clegane shakes his head. “She’s a handful.” His gravelly tone has softened, a bit, backed away from the hard, irrevocable edge of bitter fury.

“Just so,” says Jaqen.

“Well, she’s your handful now.” Sandor has actually unbent enough to pat Jaqen H’ghar on the shoulder. “Good luck,” he says, and walks ahead to his band, probably to explain some of what has transpired here.

“I am sorry,” she says, looking at Sandor’s retreating back. “Not just for...for starting this. He has a foul mouth, he doesn’t mean much by it; I shouldn’t have hit him.”

Jaqen brushes the back of his hand against hers. “A man can be a hypocrite sometimes, love--he’d have done it if you hadn’t.”

And there , there’s the spark in her eyes as she turns to him. “You put him on the ground,” she says. “Have you any idea how many times I fantasized about just that when I was travelling with him?” She sighs. “A girl can be a hypocrite sometimes too...the Hound is not...Sandor is more complicated than he comes off.”

Jaqen’s mouth twitches, a little. “So, my handful, shall we continue on with these good folk to the camp of the Brotherhood without Banners?”

“Your handful of what , Jaqen?” she asks sweetly.

It’s the first time she has used his name since they...grew honest with one another, beside the stream. Now she utters his name as a challenge, a sharper word in her mouth than “love”; it inflames him, makes him reckless.

His steps smoothly around her, turns his back to the group. She is facing him, hidden from view of the Brotherhood’s men. His hands rise, and he cups both her breasts through her shirt; his thumbs graze over her nipples.  “My handful of tits,” he whispers in her ear. And then he lets go.

He watches the stunned look on her face, memorizes yet another expression of Arya Stark. She had not expected her provocation to actually provoke him, not to crudity.

When she speaks, he can tell there is neither artifice nor control left in her.

Please , Jaqen.”

“Soon,” he says and his voice is a dark promise.

They both have to school their faces into faceless blankness after that.


 

As the Brotherhood leads them closer to the camp, even as the two faceless lead their horses, Sandor Clegane comes up to walk beside them.

“Lady Stark,” he begins. “She is called Lady Stoneheart now.”

“I have heard that,” says Jaqen. “She’s been killing Freys and Lannisters and Boltons mercilessly in these parts.”

Sandor pauses. “That’s not...it’s not only that.” he says.

“What do you mean?” asks Arya.

“She is not...who she used to be,” says Sandor.

Arya looks at Jaqen. He shakes his head; he doesn’t know what that means, either.

“You’ll see,” says Sandor, grim.

“She’s my mother ,” Arya whispers. “How different can she be?”

And Jaqen feels something, an unease, something that tells him the answer is not going to be to anyone’s liking.

They are taken to the mouth of a large cave. Word has been sent ahead with swift-footed runners--a figure in a tattered dress stands at the mouth of the cave, surrounded by Brotherhood men.

The figure is a corpse. Her hair is thin, and matted, and white , her flesh is blue-gray, there are long, scarred, unhealing furrows in her cheeks. Her throat--slit ear to ear--gapes open.

The figure raises its head, and he sees Lady Stoneheart’s gaze lock onto Arya.

The two women look at each other across the distance for a breath, and then Arya is running, pelting pell-mell towards her mother.

Eyes wide, the one who used to be Catelyn Stark backs up, backs up until she is stopped by a stone wall behind her, and then she curls up into herself, crouching on the ground, and she covers her face.

Arya has reached her. “Mother,” Arya whispers, her hand reaching out. “Look at me, mother. Everything is all right. Mother, look at me.”

Slowly, slowly, the creature that was once Catelyn Stark--is still Catelyn Stark, for all that Lady Stoneheart is a more appropriate moniker now, she draws her hands away from her face and looks up at the girl bent over her.

Sounds, air, whistle out of the ruin of her throat.

“You remember me, Mother?” asks Arya.

Lady Stoneheart clasps a hand over her wound. “Arya,” she croaks. “Arya.”

Arya smiles, and kneels gracefully in the packed dirt of the cave mouth. Her hands reach out, gently brushing Lady Stoneheart’s hair. “I’m here now, mother,” she says. “And I brought you some presents.”

Jaqen exhales. The memories threaten to rise, and emotion along with them, but all he allows himself to feel is pride, in his love’s composure, in his love’s capacity for mercy.

“Most people are scared,” says the Hound, and there are a lot of things in his voice--surprise, disgust, awe . “She looks like a corpse.”

“The girl is not afraid of corpses,” murmurs Jaqen.

“You’re not either,” surmises Sandor.

Jaqen does not reply. He sees a woman come out of the cave, some command from Lady Stoneheart he cannot interpret, and then the corpse-mother rises.

“Lady Stone--Lady Stark needs to rest now,” says the woman.

Arya nods and steps back, and watches as her mother is led into the cave. Then she turns around and walks to him, slowly.

He opens his arms to her, and she collapses into him, sobbing, sobbing as he has never heard her sob before, as if the world was breaking, as if nothing will ever be right again.


 

ARYA

Jaqen says nothing; she knows he understands that no endearment, so soothing sound will do. And yet even in the midst of her weeping, she knows there is something...a kernel of darkness...within her. It waits.

So she lets the sorrow take her, until the pressure of it lessens and subsides to something that cannot break her. Then, one by one, she offers everything to the darkness: pain, sorrow, regret. Despair. She gives everything to the darkness until she is hollow inside.

“If I had known,” he whispers, when it is done, “I would have prepared you, my love, I did not know. What rumors I found said she had grown vengeful, and unforgiving...I did not know.”

She raises her head from his chest. She wipes her face. “Beloved,” she says to him in High Valyrian, though Sandor has taken himself off a ways in an uncharacteristic show of perceptiveness. “Can you give her back to me?”

She sees the sudden flare of panic, the something that stops him from knowing who he is; the veins in his eyes turn suddenly dark, filling with blood.

There are more needs in the world than mine , she thinks. “Jaqen,” she says, and her tone is calm. “Can the God give her back to me?”

The blood in his eyes recedes a little, and he speaks. From the regret that enshrouds his first words, she knows He cannot. “It is not Death’s doing, this half-life she has,” he says. “ She is all here--the darkness holds nothing back. But the brain decays, the body decays, and it cannot hold to all the functions of life. All the things that are the domain of the mind--talking, remembering, moving--these will not return.” He looks at her, and his voice is gentle. “All the things of the soul--love, that transcends the mind, vengeance, that seeks beyond the grave--these things she will not lose.”

Arya sighs and looks down. Jaqen may have believed he was bringing her here to be reunited with her mother; Him of the Many Faces brought Arya Stark here for a different purpose.  “I will go see to her,” she says.

“Your courage shames me.”

She shakes her head. This tangle is not of His making, what has courage to do with anything? The one who is responsible is dead and from all accounts Beric Dondarrion acted out of a good heart.

Arya has already mourned her mother once; she has had practice in it.

“Valar morghulis,” she says, and starts walking towards the cave.

“Valar dohaeris,” he whispers after her, and the heartbreak in his voice--the heartbreak she no longer feels because she has entrusted it to Him, it is enough for her to turn.

He raises his hand, places it over his heart--their pocket--and she takes the image and stores it up in her. It is life, out of death, a bulwark against what she has been called here to do.

“Valar dohaeris,” she whispers in turn, and walks forward again, and then the cave swallows her whole.

Chapter Text

ARYA

She remembers this hollow hill, the cavernous space, the confusing tunnels branching off it. She unpacks the banner-wrapped heads from her saddlebags, then follows the smell of mold, down a small rock-hewn tunnel.

The men of the Brotherhood Without Banners watch her, uneasy. They will not interfere, not in a daughter’s duty. They may even be grateful--Lady Stoneheart’s uncanniness is a thousand times worse than Beric Dondarrion’s, and Lady Stoneheart has bent the Brotherhood to a Stark vengeance, a Tully vengeance, neither of which sit too well with those that bend knee to no lord.

There is a small cave, curtained off from the tunnel, and her mother’s trail stops there. Arya pushes aside the tattered curtain, and steps inside.

There is a table, strewn with parchments and maps, and the stub of a single candle burns in a dish. Boxes and trunks line one wall; there is no bed. Her mother does not sleep.

Lady Stoneheart stands in the center of the room, facing away from the curtain.

“I brought you presents, mother,” says Arya.

Lady Stoneheart turns, and Arya slowly unwraps the heads. They are a bit worse-for-wear, but still recognizable.

Slowly, bit by bit, Lady Stoneheart relents, and sits down on the stone floor. Arya sets the heads down beside the curtained entryway, then walks further into the room. She sinks to the ground beside her mother and rests her head against Catelyn’s shoulder. This time her mother does not shrink away from her.

Arya has been taught how to give solace. To the dying, and to the dead, and her mother is both.

“Do you like them?” she asks.

Catelyn covers the wound in the throat. “It is done,” she wheezes.

Arya panics. “Not yet,” she pleads. “Please, not yet.”

The candle gutters, then dies out, the smell of cheap tallow and smoke a momentary distraction from the smells of death in this room, blood from the heads, and rot, and water-weeds.

But it is as if the darkness has freed them both from something. Catelyn wheezes a question at Arya, and to Arya, who has learned to decipher a hundred tongues and manners of speech, detangling her mother’s halting, breathy words, is no feat at all.

“My dancing master bought me time to run,” she begins.

She does not speak of Him of the Many Faces; only of Jaqen. But when she gets to the weaving of the plot, of marrying a substitute to the Sealord of Braavos, of her journey across the Narrow Sea, she realizes she has tangled herself up in all the threads of her story, and her mother has stopped asking questions.

“And he brought me here, to you,” she finishes.

Then it is Arya’s turn to ask questions.

“Cersei Lannister,” replies Catelyn, at the last. “Tyrion Lannister. Jaime Lannister. Roose Bolton. Petyr Baelish.”

That last name is most unexpected. “Why him?” she asks.

“He betrayed your father,” says Catelyn.

“And he sold Sansa to the Boltons,” says Arya thoughtfully. “It fits.”

“Sansa?” Catelyn Stark is agitated. Arya takes her mother’s hand in hers, and speaks.

When she gets to Rickon, to the battle of Winterfell, she hears some sounds from her mother she cannot identify. She pauses, and realizes Catelyn Stark is trying to cry. When she tells her of Sansa’s feeding of the dogs, Lady Stoneheart laughs, a wet sucking sound.

There is quiet for some time after that. They sit in silence, and Arya tries to put off the last truth she must speak; it is a prolonging of bittersweet agony, this silence, and Arya lets herself feel it, a little. But the smell of water-weeds has grown, and is choking out the last of the air in the room, and finally Arya submits.

“Father never betrayed you,” she says. Catelyn Stark turns, in the darkness, and Arya knows her mother is staring sightlessly at Arya. “He did something unspeakably honorable.” Arya’s mouth twists at the irony.

“Arya…”

“Jon is not my half-brother. He is my cousin. His mother died giving birth to Rhaegar Targaryen’s son.”

There is a shifting, the dry sound of fabric sliding on stone. Arya reaches out in the darkness, blind, groping for her mother, and finds Catelyn sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest, head bowed.

Arya waits. A half-watch, perhaps less. Then, she speaks. “Mother?”

Catelyn Stark does not reply. She rises, and fumbles in the dark, and Arya hears the sound of a flint, sees sparks falling on the table, and then candlelight--almost too bright after the consuming blackness of the cave--candlelight fills the room.

Her mother walks to a large trunk set against the wall. Even in death, Catelyn has not lost the grace that made the Lady of Winterfell so impossible a role-model for boyish Arya. She throws open the trunk--her mother is so much stronger than she appears, Arya realizes--and pulls out a roll of cloth. Arya stands, and together they unroll the cloth. The parchment inside is creased, damaged by damp and mildew, but still readable.

“Jon Stark,” says Arya. She looks up at her mother. “You let Robb do this?”

Catelyn smiles, and the wound in her throat stretches to accommodate the motion. She covers it with a hand. “...could never deny Robb anything.”

His marriage, that led to his death, it hovers in the air between them.

Solace, to the dying and the dead.

“You were not to blame. Tywin Lannister laid more plans than just a Frey alliance.” And then Arya lies. “Even if Robb had done everything right...I have seen the records of my order--Tywin Lannister paid the Faceless Men gold, and a dragon egg, for the life of a King.”

Renly, or Balon Greyjoy, Arya thinks. “It was before I joined the order, or the contract would never have been accepted.” A lie. The Kindly Man would simply not tell me. Agitation, at a betrayal that never happened but could have, stirs in her, and then is calmed by the very next thought: Him of the Many Faces would not have allowed it. Her faith in Him, at least, is absolute.

“We returned the gold,” she continues, “when you were killed. But the dragon egg was forfeit; I carry it with me, as a gift to the King in the North.”

A truth and four lies, lies that could have been true; Catelyn Stark accepts them, and her smile grows thin.

“I am tired,” she wheezes.

Not yet, please, not yet.

Arya closes her eyes. “Bran lives,” she says. “Sansa. Jon.” She deliberately does not include herself in the list; Arya Stark is dead. “Will you write to them?”

Catelyn nods, reaches for parchment, for quill and ink. She struggles with the implements, spills the ink over the parchment. Her fingers curl around the quill, and snap it in half.

Gently, Arya closes her hands around her mother’s. “I’ll write it for you,” she whispers. “Tell me what to say.”

Catelyn surrenders to Arya’s touch. And when new parchment is brought and the ink wiped and the quill sharpened, she speaks. Arya puts the tip to paper, and she imagines the long, looping strokes of her mother’s hand, and she begins to write.

To my sweet, sweet baby boy...

My beautiful, strong one…

Catelyn begins Jon’s letter with Son of my heart , and then, then Arya has to stop for a moment and still her shaking hand. They cannot tell Jon he is a Targaryen; this letter will come from his father’s wife, and it will be a bitter, bitter thing for him, for her to beg his forgiveness from beyond the grave.

Arya does not look at her mother when it is done; Jon’s letter...Arya finds she wants her mother’s posthumous approval more than she wants to be dead. She reaches for a fresh bit of parchment. “And will you give me mine?” she asks.

Catelyn’s hands, gaunt, with swollen knuckles and blue-mottled skin, they reach for the parchment and the quill. With a determination that belongs in equal part to Lady Stoneheart and to Catelyn Stark, she curls her fist around the quill.

The inked tip breaks through the surface, digs into the table, and Catelyn keeps moving it, tearing long strokes into the parchment. Arya realizes her mother thinks she is writing; she cannot see that there are no words, no patterns, just long jagged furrows that match the furrows in Lady Stoneheart’s cheeks.

When she is done, Catelyn carefully folds the tattered parchment into uneven quarters, and hands it triumphantly to Arya. Arya folds it yet smaller, and tucks it into the hidden pocket over her heart; Jaqen’s holds a coin, hers holds torn paper, and she does not know what any of it means, or if it should mean anything at all.

Solace, to the dying and the dead.

Lady Stoneheart smiles again, the gaping, vicious smile that goes with her wet laugh. Her hand reaches across the table, cups Arya’s cheek. “My sweet, beautiful vengeance ,” she hisses. “Petyr Baelish. Roose Bolton.” Catelyn has forgotten that Arya told her, just a watch ago, that Roose Bolton is dead. “Jaime Lannister. Tyrion Lannister,” she wheezes. “Cersei Lannister. ”

Solace, to the dying and the dead.

“It will be done,” Arya lies.

“Your betrothed,” Catelyn asks. “Sealord of Braavos? Jaqen. He came with you...why did he come to Westeros?” The complexity of Arya’s plot is too much for Lady Stoneheart.

“He loves me,” she replies, simply.

“Is he an honorable man?”

He is absolute. It is not what Catelyn wants to hear. “Honor is meaningless to him,” says Arya instead.

Catelyn smiles again. “Good. He will not get himself killed, like Eddard.”

Arya bows her head. “You must be tired, mother. Do you want to rest?”

Lady Stoneheart breathes through the gap in her throat. “I have forgotten how to sleep,” she says, sadly.

Arya reaches for her packs, her bandolier. “I have a tonic that will help.” The vial she is looking for is filled with a viscous green liquid, honey-sweet and smelling of anise; she unstoppers it. Lady Stoneheart accepts the vial, and drinks it down. Most of it dribbles out of her throat, onto the front of her dress, but it hardly matters.

“Come lie down, mother,” says Arya. “I will brush your hair while you sleep.”

Arya sits on the floor in the corner, her mother’s head in her lap. She strokes the thin, white hair.

“I have forgotten how to sleep,” says Lady Stoneheart. Her words are more slurred than they were a little while ago.

“Close your eyes,” whispers Arya.

Lady Stoneheart closes her eyes.

“Imagine we are in Winterfell,” says Arya slowly. “And there is no snow on the ground.” She closes her eyes too, and sees the land as it was in her childhood. “Summer has broken out of his halter, and Bran chases him round and round the trees, trying to get it back on. You and I and Sansa, we sit in the godswood together, and you are tired, so you rest your head on my lap as I brush your hair.”

Arya has to pause, wipe her face. She does not know where the tears are coming from. The breath rattles in and out of her mother’s throat.

“Sansa is married…” Arya thinks. “She is married to Willas Tyrell, the heir to Highgarden.” Arya’s voice grows softer still. “Rickon...Jon and Robb and Theon are teaching Rickon how to hold off three assailants at once; they’re getting most of it wrong. Father…”

Arya wipes at her eyes again. Her mother’s breathing has gotten quieter, slower. Arya keeps stroking her hair.

“Father sits a little ways away. His hair is almost all grey now, but his sword is at his side, and he is telling a story to Robb’s son. Your grandson, he has the Tully hair, but Stark eyes…”

Arya weeps, for all that had been, for all that could have been, and all the while her mother slips further and further away.

“The air smells of springtime rain, and you sleep under the heart tree while all around you the godswood flowers, for winter has come and gone in the blink of an eye...”

By the time it is done, there are no more tears left in her.


 

HIM OF THE MANY FACES

He listens to the whispers beside a pool, across the Narrow Sea. He listens to the whispers beside roads, beside battlefields, beside beds. And when there are no whispers, he listens, and the silence, too, is heard.

He hears everything through the thin curtain. For reasons unknown, Sandor Clegane keeps the vigil beside him.

There are torches burning in wall-sconces, but the light is dim. Small changes, to Jaqen H’ghar’s body, they will go unnoticed by most. Death is kinder than fire, than ice, than abstract things like justice and motherhood--the human body already knows how to die.

There is a rushing of wings. Catelyn Stark. He makes a brushing motion with his hands; the bonds that bind her to her body, stronger than steel to force one such as her back into that rotted, cold prison, the bonds fall away like cobwebs.

Arya’s mother brushes past him, through him, into the darkness.

“Beloved,” he calls.

She comes out, and the curtain drops behind her. Her eyes are swollen, but dry, and she looks at him leaning against the stone wall of the corridor.

She exhales. “You are here .”

“My bride has need of me.”

He is aware of the sharp look from Sandor Clegane, the man’s mouth forming the question “ married?” in disbelief, but he ignores it.

She does not reach for Him of the Many Faces as she might have reached for Jaqen. She stands before him tall, unbowed, a soldier before her commander, and though he aches for her touch he, too, keeps the distance between them--the respect her duty deserves.

“I can’t hold her ever again,” she says, her tone even, matter-of-fact.

“The darkness will hold her,” he says, and the torchlight falters for the space of a breath. “In a place without tribulation, and a time where all her pain is made holy.”

Her eyes are dark mirrors, they reflect the flickering torchlight. “Let it go, beloved,” she says. “I will not carry two bodies north.”

He exhales, and then it is as if he drowses, bit by bit. He dreams a dream: he is Jaqen H’ghar.


 

JAQEN H’GHAR

There is pain, at the corner of his eyes; ice sears his veins for a moment. And then it recedes. Arya stands before him, and the smell of death--mold and rot--it clings to her as she moves towards him.

“Love,” he says, and he realizes she can see the change in him.

“Do not do that again,” she commands. “There is nothing I cannot bear, except that.”

He bows.

She walks a few steps towards the main cavern, raises her voice. “I need water, and some cloths, to prepare my mother’s body.”

Someone in the Brotherhood must have heard her, because he hears footsteps, scurrying to comply.

A few of the Brotherhood come into the corridor, gather around them. “I must take my mother home,” she says to them. “There is a place prepared for her, beside my father.”

He has heard Lady Stoneheart answer Arya’s questions--Catelyn Stark sent her husband’s bones north, with Silent Sisters to keep him company along the way.

“We can give you a cart,” says one Brotherhood man, hesitantly.

“What do we do now?” asks another.

“You were the hands of Catelyn Stark’s vengeance,” she says, and her mouth twists. “The King in the North will make a place for you in Winterfell. There will be work--Sansa is raising another army, I think. But if you do not wish to bend knee...do what you will, and with the gratitude of the Starks and Tullys.”

The men of the Brotherhood go off to talk amongst themselves.

“The little bird is in Winterfell,” murmurs Sandor.

Jaqen looks at him, and he can read every expression on the man’s ruined face. “Another of Eddard Stark’s daughters you protected,” he says.

Sandor huffs. “Protected? Maybe. Not nearly enough.”

Jaqen smiles sadly. “It is never enough.”

Arya has watched this interaction.

“You should come north with us.”

Sandor frowns. “I don’t fight in anyone’s army, not anymore. Why the hell would I go north?”

Arya gives him a smile that is a mirror of Jaqen’s own. “To drive the cart.”

Sandor Clegane throws his head back and laughs and laughs. They wait for him to sober.

“All right, she-wolf,” he says. “I will drive the cart.”

Chapter Text

CERSEI LANNISTER

The Queen of the Seven Kingdoms sits at her council table, alone save for her Hand, and runs her fingers through the pile of coins in front of her.

Her brother enters, with two members of the Queensguard.

“The servant girl’s been found,” says Jaime. “She’s not the one, Cersei; she doesn’t even know why she was arrested!”

Cersei does not look up.

Qyburn clears his throat. “She is the one who started rumors of suicide.”

Jaime shakes his head and sits down at the table. He stretches his legs out in front of him, leans his head back against the chair. “She keeps begging for forgiveness and she doesn’t know why.

“Asking for forgiveness is a habit with the Sorrowful Men of Quarth,” says Qyburn. “He would not have jumped , not when the command to burn the Sept came at his hand. He’d had enough of the machinations of his Queen, of the Sparrows...the King came into his own, under his mother’s tutelage,” the Hand of the Queen shakes his head in sorrow, “and they pushed him off a ledge for it.”

Jaime keeps staring at the ceiling. “I should have been here,” he whispers.

Cersei finally raises her head, exchanges a look with her Hand. Cersei wants an end to her brother’s self-recrimination, and quickly; Qyburn’s gaze counsels her that it will be better-received from the Queen’s mouth.

“The Mountain was guarding him,” says Cersei. “You couldn’t have done better.”

“What use is the Mountain guarding the outside of a chamber when an assassin is already inside?”

Cersei’s jaw clenches. Her brother holds onto things for far too long when progress, when survival lies in moving swiftly to secure the future.

“Qyburn, tell the Mountain he may begin by flogging this girl--this Sorrowful Man. In the courtyard below,” she nods towards the large windows on the eastern wall of the council chamber, “so we may watch.”

Jaime raises his head, and she can see him about to form the words “ There should be a trial.” But “trial” is a...sensitive word, here and now, and Jaime thinks to manage her sensibilities while all the time she manages his.

Jaime subsides. “Fuck everyone who is not us,” he mutters.

Qyburn bows, and walks to the door, opens it briefly to pass on the Queen’s instructions to the men standing guard outside. Then he returns.

The gold coins--each stamped with the Targaryen seal--tinkle through Cersei’s fingers as she returns her attention to the table. “Do you think Daenerys hatched this plan?” she asks Qyburn, continuing the conversation Jaime’s arrival interrupted.

“The girl has made some canny decisions in the past,” says Qyburn.

“It took me years,” says Cersei, “under Robert, being ground to pieces before I became what I am. Do you think she is better than me?”

“No, my Queen,” says Qyburn, and then he rises, walks to the eastern windows, peers out. Cersei can hear thin wails, the sound of irons being dragged on flagstones. “She has good advisors.”

Cersei takes a sip of wine. “Yes, she does.” She turns to Jaime. “Do you want Casterly Rock?”

Jaime snorts, a bitter half-sound. “No. Never did. You?”

Cersei’s mouth twists, despite herself. “Oh yes. But what is a fortress to an entire kingdom?” She, too, stands, and walks to the window.

The girl’s clothes have been torn off...before she was brought to the courtyard, if the blood on her thighs is anything to go by. She is bent over a block, and the Mountain raises his whip.

“Qyburn, send a raven to the representative of the Iron Bank,” she says.

“Yes, my Queen.”

“Tell them I will give them the Lannister gold mines against the debts of the Crown.”

Jaime speaks up. “The mines are worked out!”

“They don’t know that,” murmurs Qyburn.

Twenty. Twenty-one. Cersei is counting the whip-strikes. Eventually, girl stops screaming. Her skin is in tatters, blood flecks the entire courtyard.

“And they can also have the choosing of the next Lord of Casterly Rock,” she says, “once they bring me the dwarf’s head.”

“Yes, my Queen.” Qyburn gives a half bow.

“They must use a Faceless Man. The Sorrowful Men are just...not good enough.”

Cersei opens the window, leans out over the courtyard below. “Keep going, Ser Gregor,” she calls.

Obediently, the knight raises his whip to comply.


 

 

JAQEN H’GHAR

They left the Brotherhood Without Banners in silence, and silence holds them in its grasp still. A few murmurs, when setting camp, the howl of the wind and of the wolves travelling beside them through the forest, the grind of axle and wheel as Sandor Clegane guides the poorly-built cart up a hill--it seems these are the only sounds that can be mustered.

She has not ridden with him, nor does she touch him in the light of day. At night, when they huddle under the blankets, and Sandor Clegane snores under the cart, she draws his arms around her and he holds her to his breast, her head tucked under his chin. They clutch at each other, each awake by turns, and do not speak.

Death rises in him, uncalled, though so far he has managed to hide it from her--his lies have been honed over lifetimes lived by other men, and his bride is perceptive, but not in the midst of her grief.

He can feel the ice in his veins, and the taste of blood now always hovers at the back of his mouth. The duality of who--what--he is, it must be understood; once it is understood, it will be annihilated. There is some residual sadness in him, for this. She will grieve for Jaqen H’ghar. But the other option--to understand the god, and annihilate Him...she will lose Jaqen H’ghar then, too, for His favor will be withdrawn from the world. It will be the end of the Faceless Men. The end of mercy.

Pure selfishness makes him hesitate. He wants to speak with her once more, to touch her, claim her. Once. Before death rises for the last time.

He waits.

Surprisingly, it is Sandor who breaks first. He has been watching them set up camp, go through the motions of melting snow for water, erecting a barricade against the wind, all without words.

“How long you two been married?” he asks.

Jaqen kneels beside the pot, waiting for the snow to melt. Their fires are small, but still it takes longer than it should. “Two years,” he says.

“Two years five moons,” she interjects sharply from the other side of their small camp, and her voice carries a hint of annoyance. It is the opening he has been looking for, the first sign of anything beyond blankness in her this past seven-day.

He rises, and moves swiftly to her side.

Sandor snorts behind him. “Yeah, you’re married to her all right, you poor son-of-a-bitch.”

She is drawing the horse-blankets over Steel; the nose-bags and grain have already been distributed between the two mares.

He reaches for her, and she turns, and it is an almost compulsive thing, this movement, that draws them closer, forehead-to-forehead, though her hand stays at her side.

“Two years, five moons, six days, six hours,” he says, softly. “Shall I count you the heartbeats, love?” He uses the Braavosi cant--a language of comfort, for her. Lorathi is too laden with intent, Westerosi too raw for the both of them.

And then, then her arms rise and close around his neck. “Thank you,” she says. “For bringing me to her, for coming with me, for....I keep thinking...” Her words tumble over themselves, as if the dam that held them back has broken.

Jaqen H’ghar silently takes back every single inimical thought he has ever had towards Sandor Clegane, for asking a question with the power to banish silence.

“...she wouldn’t have died if we were not here,” his bride says. “Someone would cut her down, and she would rise, with yet another horrific wound in her, and--”

“But we came,” he says. “The gift was given.”

She shudders in his arms. “She gave me new names.”

He raises his face, presses his lips upon her forehead. “Had she aught to pay you with, for these names?” he asks over her head.

“Not even her own life,” she replies, sadly.

“Then we cannot accept the contract. A payment must be given.”

She relaxes into him with a sigh. “She called me her vengeance.

The words are a statement, not an urge; Jaqen H’ghar and Arya Stark do not need to exchange words to know that the time for vengeance is done.

They walk back to the fire, sit side by side, and though there is quiet around them, it is not silent .

That night they pull the blankets over them, and she does not hold him quite as tightly as she has been since the Hollow Hill. Slowly, he runs his hand down her side, then reaches her hip. He slips his hand under her shirt, and lays his palm, flat, over her the bare skin of her stomach. She draws closer, nestles herself into him, and he knows she can feel his hardness pressing into her.

He draws lazy circles on her stomach; she relaxes, and sleeps.

The next day, he mounts, and she holds her arms up to him and he pulls her up into his saddle with him.

Sandor Clegane snorts again. “Assassins, my ass,” he mutters.

They both ignore the commentary.

He kisses the back of her neck as they move out, the cart creaking along behind them. It is not entirely safe, this double-riding, for the wars have left many bandits in their wake, but they have just moved beyond the Neck; they are in the North, and a direwolf’s pack hunts beside them, unseen but not unheard.


 

 

NO ONE

The one who wears Arya Stark’s face is chained to the ground, the chains driven through the rock with crude iron stakes. She is in another cavern whose mouth overlooks the dragon pit, surrounded by red-robed sorcerers--more sorcerers than she has ever seen in one place. She is grateful for their presence, for they block her view of the thing growing in the center of the dragon pit.

A slave is made to stand before her, and his throat is cut, slowly, and the wound held over a basin. The basin fills, then overflows, and the blood dripping down its side has strange patterns in it, patterns on the edge of understanding that is no understanding at all. When he is emptied of blood, the slave staggers away, to where, she knows not.

He is still alive.

Death has no dominion in Asshai.

The basin has been filled at the order of the woman sorcerer the others call Ember. They all bear half-names such as this, “ember” and “blaze”, “kindle” and “flicker”--no sorcerer wants another knowing their true name.

But a true name is not required by the Faceless.

“I can see you thinking, pretty one,” says the woman.

“Fuck you,” says no one.

The woman walks forward, runs a hand through Arya Stark’s hair, as she has done many times.

“You truly have no name,” she says in wonder. “You have forgotten it.” She tugs at Arya Stark’s hair. “I wonder if your god has forgotten it. Will he rise out of you, do you think, when you scream?”

The one who is no one snorts. “I have no god in me. Perhaps I was god-touched, once, but no longer.”

“It is not a bond so easy to forget,” says the woman.

“The god has been repudiated.”

Really ?” The woman seems to be fascinated. “However did you manage that ?”

No-one shrugs.

“But has your god has repudiated you ?” Her gaze is considering. “Unlikely,” she muses. “Death is a hard thing to undo for anyone other than R’hllor.” Suddenly, the woman takes away her hand, and the loss of pressure comes as a relief to the one who wears Arya Stark’s face. “He will come for you. And when death comes...he will give you your name again, and we will take you into R’hllor.”

The sorcerers have started chanting, a dolorous sound that grows, bit by bit, with every refrain.

“Jaqen is not that easily manipulated,” says no-one, and then she realizes what she has said, and cannot take back. Her eyes widen in horror.

Jaqen ?” asks the woman. “How very...pedestrian.” The sorcerer looks over her shoulder at one of her brethren; the chant changes, becomes more focused; Death’s name is woven into it, now.

No...no, no, no.

“Spells move within men,” says the woman, her gaze somewhere far away. “Men think they are thinking their own thoughts, but it is the spell, guiding them, trapping them in a maze of their own making. If he cannot be manipulated, someone else will manipulate him for us.”

“Faceless Men are not stupid,” spits the one who is no-one.

I cannot stop talking!

The woman chuckles. “ You were not stupid, certainly--you knew where the others of your order had died. And yet...yet you came here. Did you forget, conveniently ? Did your order just not think of it, to set a guard on you, to warn you not to tread here? Did your god lose track of your travels?”

The woman smiles, and it is a knowing, wise smile.

“A spell of Asshai is a subtle thing, assassin,” she says, “and no man--avatar or otherwise--is immune.”


 

ARYA

“Speak to me of theology, my love,” says Jaqen. Again, as the night before, his hand slips under her shirt, rests against her bare skin. A warmth radiates outwards from his touch, and she leans back, rests her head against his chest.

His heartbeat is too slow; it stutters. Terror seizes her, and a sudden, virulent hatred of the Lorathi way makes her clench her fists. You want to understand, love, and understanding , to you, means death.

“Why do you tremble?” he asks.

“You breathe,” she says.

Arya Stark does not surrender . I will make him understand, my way, and then he will not die.

“Where does the God end, and Jaqen H’ghar begin?” she asks.

He chuckles quietly. “Do you know how many times I have asked this of myself?”

She has asked that question herself, before, and found an answer she can give him now.

“Death has no end,” she breathes. “The God is in you, Jaqen.” The words reverberate somewhere behind her eyes. “You are dying. Every moment and every breath. So am I. So is everything else--the earth, the sun, the stars themselves. So am I--the God is in me too.” Her mouth twists at the last, challenging and insinuating, holy and profane in equal measure.

His fingers dip lower, they stroke along the waistband of her britches. “Not yet,” he murmurs, and there is an entirely different kind of silence between them for a moment. It seems he is not above claiming godhood when it serves his teasing.

“So where does Jaqen H’ghar begin?” he asks, eventually.

In Valyria.

She twists to look up into his eyes. No blood. “Have you noticed the shift in your speaking?”

His lips twist: a helpless smile. “It is all a response to you. Nothing to do with the God…the ‘I’ and ‘you’...love seems to impose this curious sense of self; it feels like self-defense, almost, against a dissolution into you.”

“You are under my skin,” she agrees, turning back to the road, squirming closer to him. She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, quotes: “...so close that your hand on my chest is my hand.”

“So close that your eyes close as I fall asleep,” he finishes for her, a low murmur that thrums up her spine.

Then, reluctantly, they must stop to water their horses, and feed Sandor, whose grumblings have been growing steadily louder over a half-watch. They unpack the hardtack from their saddlebags and portion it out, eating while standing up as the horses slurp from buckets of half-melted snow.

“Had your fun?” Sandor sneers at them.

She narrows her eyes at him.

“There is a lot that needs to be discussed between us,” says Jaqen, and his voice says he is not offended.

Sandor snorts. “There is only one reason a man puts his woman up on his horse in front of him, and it is not for talking.

She takes a deep breath, opens her mouth, and then catches Jaqen’s gaze. His eyes glitter, and she cannot help but respond: her cutting tirade becomes a giggle, and then something louder, but the sound rings across the clearing and it startles her, the sound of her own laughter, and she bites it off.

But then he chuckles, and it is the best sound she has heard in days. “I knew I was doing something wrong,” he murmurs.

Softly, blending her voice into the timbre of his humor, she allows herself to laugh again.  “ Fondling , not talking,” she says, when the air grows still once more, “thank you, Sandor, I will remind my Jaqen of what is proper the next time we find ourselves on a horse together.”

Sandor gives both of them a disgusted look, and stalks off to make water behind a tree.

Jaqen comes closer, and his fingers trail up and down her arm, raising goosebumps on her skin. She burns, under his touch. “Tonight,” he says quietly. “Once Sandor is snoring, so as to spare ourselves the commentary...or criticism. If you agree.”

She closes her eyes, leans forward, rests her head against his chest. This thing, this wanting, she realizes she did not lose it, in the Hollow Hill, as she had feared...it merely went to sleep. Jaqen’s words, his voice, his touch…

I am awake . And if he wants to do this thing, then he is not prepared to die just yet.

“I thought you did not want it like this,” she whispers. “On the cold ground.”

“I was a fool,” he says.

The self-censure in his voice makes her draw back, look up at him.

“It is a silly thing, this playing of games, when death rides in the both of us.” He pauses, though his hand continues its maddening stroking. His voice becomes quieter. “A man has kept his lovely girl waiting far too long as it is.”

His shift to Lorathi idiom has circumvented her brain. She can feel the wetness between her  legs. “When you speak like that...,” she murmurs against his chest.

“Mmm. Remind a man never to take a girl to Lorath, he might lose her to someone who uses the speech more consistently than him.”

Take a girl to Lorath… “Am I ever going to get a contract like other faceless do?” she asks, and it is but half a jest. Go somewhere, by myself, carry out a gift-giving in its entirety? The last one, in Oldtown, it felt like a continuation of her training in Braavos.

He knows what she asks, for his arms tighten around her. “You are come but newly to me,” he says. “The urge to keep you by my side is too strong.” And his voice changes to jest. “Ask me again in a hundred years--short trips to the market by yourself, these may be permitted by then.”

“Poor Jaqen,” she says, mournful. “You are entirely trapped, aren't you?”

He laughs ruefully, his breath tickling her ear.

“I will serve the Many-Faced God,” she decides, “taking what contracts I want. You can tag along beside me, and sharpen my blades or some such.”

“I am very good at sharpening blades,” he agrees. And then Sandor returns, and it is too soon for she is not done with this conversation, and she will not ride Horse with him because then Sandor will think Jaqen is groping her (she needs him to touch her, but not...not with the Hound knowing, and commenting ).

Then they have to mount up, and continue northwards.


 

It is a land of barrows here, of graves and men’s bones laid to rest so long ago that even the North has forgotten their names. Gentle, snow-covered hills rise on either side of the road, and it is hard to tell which of them covers the dead, and which are simply soil.

He draws his horse up beside hers.

“If all men are equal,” he asks, “how can a man exist ?” He has fallen back on the old speech patterns, and she cannot determine if it is to tease her, or because he’s desperately trying to deny himself, lose himself in the safe anonymity of “a man”.

Oh my Lorathi love, you are so fucked in the head.

“There are two problems,” she says. “And they both stem from the Lorathi way, which is designed to annihilate a thing once it is understood--pride, fear, anger. But what if the thing that must be understood is a god?”

“That is a problem,” he agrees.

She remembers the words of the Kindly Man, when he had tried to make her understand. “The Lorathi way, it is a way, a road,” she says, “not the journey or the destination, and all roads lead to the truth, eventually.”

“A man never gave you those words,” he says, “and yet you parrot them back at him?”

Startled, she looks up. Our Lorathi brother had once been a man’s student.

Oh .

Arya realizes she is so very painfully out of her depth…what can she teach Him? “ Why do you need me , love?”

“Because it is all your fault,” he says, with a smile to take away the sting. “Almost half a millennium, not a twitch, and then you give a man his own name, and then you show up beside the pool, begging for kisses. And after that, two years with a new equilibrium, and one kiss beside a stream undoes it all.”

“You killed me first,” she mutters. “And I didn’t beg .”

“Oh, I fully acknowledge my part in the tangle,” he says, conveniently ignoring the discrepancy in their interpretations of “beg”. “But a...new balancing is called for.”

It seems the both of them are aware of the precipice looming before them. I will lose you, and soon, if you are not brought into balance with Yourself. She controls all reactions that will betray her fear--she can , she realizes.

Breathe.

“Why didn’t you just cut my throat?” she asks, and it is a serious question. The God, partitioned away from Jaqen’s waking mind, the God would have taken her under His wing in the darkness. “It would have been easier.”

“I considered it,” he says, and looks sidelong at her. “Does that upset you?”

She snorts. “ I considered it, in the Hollow Hill when I saw you standing dead before me.” She shakes her head, “but it was too late . You would still have to untangle this thing, and with grief laden on top.”

“If not something worse,” he murmurs. She doesn’t want to know what that “something worse” could be.

... like mother, like daughter. She shudders.

“Talking is better,” she says.

“And, in balance,” he says. “The tangle, as we call it--the scale still tips to the side of the kisses.”

They share a momentary look, giddy in its intensity. Life , out of death , she thinks. This...this will hold him to me.

“You would abide the cold ground tonight?” she asks.

He smiles, a slow, lazy smile that makes her shiver. “Are you any less you on the ground?”

His eyes are trained on her, and they are black--no whites, no pupils, no irises, just darkness that goes on and on and on...but unless she is very much mistaken, Jaqen H’ghar does not want to be lost to her any more than she wants to lose Him.

And then the words unfurl within her. “Are you any less you when you are in the trees and the stars and all the people of the world?” she asks in High Valyrian. “Are you any more you when you concentrate yourself into your body so thickly that you crowd out all life?”

“Two problems, you said,” he ventures.

She nods. “One, equality, and two, boundary.”

He raises his eyebrow. “Equality is not a problem. The problem is the worship, the bending of knee, which none should abide.”

She disagrees. “Equality is a problem. Poorly understood, it veils from you Your nature.”

“You understood this thing before I did,” he murmurs. Then, louder, “ That’s why I need you, beloved--your objectivity.”

A lie. She is not objective in the least.

“Tell me,” he says.

She needs time to formulate a reply, to find a way into his order. Quickly , she thinks...she dares not look across to him, but she can smell blood. She must draw him back from the precipice, somehow.

“Beg,” she says.

The darkness in his eyes falters a bit as he blinks at her. I surprised him. In the next moment, he wears his usual smirk. “Please, sweetheart?” he asks.

She makes a face.

“Darling?” he asks.

She makes a gagging sound.

“Honey lips?”

“I. Will. Kill. You.”

“What is dead may never die,” he says, then grins. “Let us try beloved on for size, shall we?” His voice has darkened, it is velvet caressing her bare skin in a lightless room.

“Mmm,” she says. “I like that one.” She decides she is satisfied with the very Jaqen nature of his begging. “Equality can only occur between two similar things,” she says. “A handful of gold sovereigns, each is equal in value to the others--accepted as equal value to the others--though there might be miniscule differences in weight. And yet they are not equal, alone or together, to the intrinsic quality of monetary value.” Thank you, Varro Massag . “Men are coins, beloved, and death is our intrinsic quality, the equality that we carry within us.”

“Coins to monetary value,” he murmurs, looks over to her. “Sweetness to honey.” He smiles, challenging her.

“Crimson, to blood,” she responds, glaring.

“Death, to men?” he says, and this time it is a question.

“Valar morghulis,” she reminds him.

“Valar dohaeris,” he reminds her in turn. “And so we come to the concept of people kneeling.

“Jaqen H’ghar taught me,” she muses, looking directly at him. “He taught me that a swordsman is no better than a servant, that a dragonlord is no better than a slave.”

“Does a girl like learning things from a man?” he asks. His lazy smile leaves no doubt as to his meaning; warmth tinges her cheeks even as she understands another thing about him--Him of the Many Faces seeks to distract Himself as much as her, throw them both off the trail and avoid the tangle for a little bit longer.

What do you say to the god of death?

“Men bow to dragonlords and submit to swordsmen,” she says, as if he has made no interjection at all. “Just as men kneel to gods. This tendency to bend knee, it is not a fallacy imposed upon them by the God. It is an error, a thing of men .”

Jaqen sighs. “Men are very silly.”

She rolls her eyes. “Yes.”

“So what is the problem of boundary?” he asks, and then answers himself. “Where does the God end and Jaqen H’ghar begin…”

She shakes her head “no”. That question is meaningless.

“Where does the God begin?”

Death has no beginning. She shakes her head “no” again.

He closes his eyes, is silent for a while. “Who am I?” he asks, finally.

“You are Jaqen H’ghar,” she replies. There is a passage, in Jonathan Pryce’s book about gods, a passage she has memorized and now twists to suit her purposes. “And Jaqen H’ghar is the name of the Many-Faced God, the consciousness at His core; the Many-Faced God is more than just Jaqen H’ghar, but He is nothing without Jaqen H’ghar.”

He sighs. “I am Jaqen H’ghar.”

She pauses. “A man can live with that?” she asks.

He blinks, and the darkness in his eyes retreats. There is no blood; no expression of pain mars the perfection of his features.

“Valar morghulis,” he murmurs. He thinks. “If at the end Jaqen H’ghar is simply one that...balances. And if Jaqen H’ghar is the One of Many Faces, then he can decide that he neither deserves nor desires worship.”

He can sustain some teasing at this point, she thinks. “That is unfortunate,” she murmurs. “There is this thing I found in the memories of our brother who was a Myrrish courtesan before she was faceless…it was called the ‘worship of--’”

“I know what it is called,” he interrupts, gazing at her with half-lidded eyes. “Perhaps we can negotiate.”

She grins. “ One worshipper, from time to time?” she asks.

One , I will abide.” He smirks at her. “Unless a girl is planning an orgy,” he says.

He seeks to toy with her admittedly possessive nature, and she refuses to give him the satisfaction of her annoyance. “A girl would first like her coin’s worth,” she says, “before she plans anything further.” She shrugs, deliberately nonchalant, looks at him out of the corner of her eye.

And If I am merely possessive, what is he ? Murderously possessive, if she reads him correctly at all.

“When I talked about kissing Him of the Many Faces,” she says, “...did you not feel even a little jealous?”

He looks a bit sheepish. “Not a bit...that should have raised some questions, in retrospect…,” he casts her a look. “A jealous god, in all other situations, if you are wondering.”

“I don’t wonder, beloved,” she says. “I annoy.”

He chuckles. “Arouse, surely.”

Arya Horseface...I do arouse him, but only because he loves me.

At her shrug, his expression turns unbearably fond. “You arouse the dead, my love.” It is a figure of speech, and yet...he is thinking about something. “What did it look like, to you when…”

When you died? “When you assumed your aspect?” she asks.

“Mmm.”

“Your body was dead,” she says. “There was no room in it for anything that was not dead.”

“And yet I live,” he says, thoughtfully. “I must understand this thing.”

“I can explain it to you,” she teases.

“My brilliant, cunning, beautiful love,” he says, “is there anything you cannot explain?”

Your mercy. My mother’s grace. Father’s honor... I can explain vengeance, and what use is that when a lie does well enough? “I cannot explain poetry,” she says. “No, don’t say anything, I saw your face when I was rhyming.”

“There once was a queen of the Lannisters, she broke her head on some bannisters,” he murmurs. “It is missing a certain...something.”

This playful, sarcastic quality of his voice she stores up in her, alongside the image of him with his hand over his heart.

“So,” he says. “Explain--or should I beg this time as well?” His eyes are bottomless pools of darkness again. And yet he lives . Somehow, in the space of a few words, he has taught himself how to redistribute death in a sustainable manner. She thrills at it, triumph snaking its way up her spine.

“It is not done, to make one’s god beg,” she says, and one side of her mouth curls up. “Unless some form of worship is involved.”

“There are many hills here, and valleys tucked in between them, out of sight of the road. Sandor has fallen behind. Say the word, we will ride to a patch of suitably cold ground.” There is no teasing in his voice at all.

She considers it, and it sounds like a very, very good idea. She opens her mouth, and the both of them are equally surprised with “later” comes out of it.

He shakes his head, rueful and admiring at the same time. “When you have a problem between your teeth, love, nothing distracts you from it.”

“Theology,” she reminds him, for they should speak of magic, and dragonlords, and the confluence of blood that first awakened Him.

“I am tired of it.” His turn, to be irritated. Hah! How does it feel, Jaqen? She almost chortles, and catches his glare out of the corner of her eye.

“You don’t want to know what I think?” she asks.

“Did a man say he was tired of it?”

“Yes,” she says meekly.

“Then a girl should use her logic.”

In the next moment he leans over, precarious, reckless, and draws her into a kiss she returns with equal ardor. More, because she realizes “later” is a very stupid word, and Sandor is catching up to them.

“Tonight,” she murmurs against his mouth.

“Tonight,” he breathes. “And I swear to you, we will speak of theology till the world ends, if it so pleases you. After .”

He draws back, reluctantly, when Horse shifts under him. Reluctantly, she lets him go.

“But there is a thing I must...,” he says, and there is such somberness in him that she finds herself growing afraid for him all over again. “There are names I have lost. I would reach for them, in the darkness. Surely they are kept here, somewhere. I would know what happened to them. I will reach--” he murmurs.

“No,” she says. Those names were lost in Asshai. We must not touch anything to do with Asshai until we understand what they do there, to Faceless Men. But she needs to distract him from himself, and this is no bad thing, for him to consciously administer His domain.

She casts around for a task, finds it, and couches it in the most pragmatic terms she can. “They are dead; they have passed beyond suffering. But there is one who may need aid--you said he hunts in Yi Ti. Find his name, beloved, and give it back to him.” And that , for the Kindly Man and his beatings , she thinks smugly. She feels a deep kinship with this brother of hers, whom she has never met and whose face she does not know, who once loved Jaqen (who could not?) and was called friend by Jaqen in turn.

He looks at her as if he sees the thoughts passing through her mind. She snorts. He can read me like a book.

His mouth twitches. “Some books are harder to understand than others, even if you can read them,” he murmurs. “But yes, I should search for our living brother first.”

“We will stop soon for the night,” she says. “This thing should not be done on a horse. You can do it while I set up camp.”

“My lovely, practical bride,” he says, his hand reaching out to touch hers. “What would I do without you?”

“Fall off a horse,” she replies.

Stormclouds boil over the horizon to the west. The sun is setting, but the only indication of it is the gradual loss of light. Nymeria is close, and yet too far, for when the wolves start howling, her howl sounds almost a half-day’s ride to the northwest.


 

 

THE GHOST OF HIGH HEART

The men of the Brotherhood Without Banners have come and sung Jenny’s song to the tiny woods witch. They wish to know their future, now that Lady Stoneheart’s vengeance rules no longer within Hollow Hill.

But the woods witch does not acknowledge them. She sits crouched on a stool, her knees drawn up to her chin, and she croons to herself.

“...a white wind sweeps ash before it and death’s bride dances on his bones. And all the land has done is undone but it will not save her in the end...”


 

 

BRAN

He sits below the heart tree a short raven’s flight from the Wall, and dreams.

He dreams of a great darkness, and in the heart of it is a fire that grows and grows and engulfs the world. The darkness is destroyed, and it should have been a happy thing, but then there are men, a thousand, a hundred thousand, all marching in a line with death-wounds upon their bodies, from sword and axe and fire, and they mourn the darkness.

Arya is there, and their mother and their father and Nymeria, and then Arya picks up a knife made of Valyrian steel and stabs herself in the stomach with it. All around the world, people of power, people that can dream, people that have offered blood sacrifice, they close and bar their doors, and tremble.


 

 

PATCHFACE

The man of the Night’s Watch hands the fat little jester his bread, but he can’t get the man to eat. Yet again, he curses whoever it was in Stannis Baratheon’s army that was supposed to have taken “Patches” with them, and forgot him here at the edge of the world.

“Eat it!” snarls the Crow.

The jester begins to cry, great heaving sobs, with fat blobby tears the size of a man’s fingertip falling from the corner of his eye.

Immediately contrite, the brother of the Night’s Watch crouches beside the table so his head is level with the jester’s. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry Patches, I didn’t mean it!”

“My lord ,” wails Patchface. “My lord, oh my sweet lord, they are going to chain you up, oh lord, they will eat you up.”


 

 

MELISANDRE

Wolves howl in the distance, and Melisandre draws closer to her fire. Failure sits in her mouth like ashes; Jon Snow sent her south, and the farthest she’s gotten is the Barrowlands. Her supplies are running low, and there is not a single village, nor shelter outside the barrows of the dead.

She shivers, and stares into the fire, and for the first time since Castle Black, she sees a vision in it.

A man, with black-in-black eyes, he stands behind a girl... Melisandre knows this girl, she has seen the darkness in her, and R’hllor told her they will meet again. The man...she shudders. She does not know him and yet she fears him.

The sorceress wonders if R’hllor is sending her a vision to show her where she must go next.

The man walks in a cavern full of dragon eggs. There are only three dragons in the world that Melisandre knows of, though there were rumors in Asshai, rumors the highest of R’hllor’s priesthood had not denied at the time of her last visit.

The man is chained to the ground, and split open, and darkness spills out from him.

She does not know how to interpret the vision, but there is a sense of great victory. “Lord of Light,” she whispers. “May thy will be done.”

Chapter Text

SANDOR

Sandor transfers the reins of the cart-horse to his left hand, and leans back with a sigh. How can two people have so much to say to each other that they just keep talking and talking? He’s gotten heartily sick of their “discussions”--they’ll even try to draw him into it, when they speak in the common tongue.

The sly-blade slows his horse. Guess it’s his turn now . He is usually less abrasive, but he smiles too much--usually it’s the wolf-bitch that drops back, tries to get a rise out of Sandor. He wonders what conversation he’s going to get saddled with, this time. Last night around the campfire, it was horseflesh. Not a bad topic, as topics go, but then the she-wolf went and lost her temper when both Sandor and her husband sided against her.

At least it won’t be gods. He shudders. Arya Stark...Arya H’ghar (they haven’t said, he hasn’t asked, not his business), she has gotten religion, in a bad way. She’d only mentioned it the once, but the way of her mentioning... If I was her husband, I’d be holding a mighty grudge against this “Many-Faced God”. Sandor’s “fuck all the gods to hell” had seemed to settle the matter.

Jaqen draws his mare up beside the cart. “We will stop a little early today, if you agree,” he says.

“What the fuck for?” asks Sandor.

The other man’s gaze is unfocused, as if he is contemplating something. “There is a thing I must do,” he says, and then he smiles again. “My bride insists it should not be done on a horse.”

Sandor wants to say something pithy, to put the smiling, sword-wielding Lorathi in his place, but something feels...off.

“Some assassin thing?” he asks.

“Hmm,” says the man, noncommittally.

Despite himself, Sandor wonders what it is. There are many, many tales of the Faceless Men, the things they can do. And here he is, traveling on the road with two of them, and all he’s seen them do so far is talk .

He put me on the ground, and I didn’t even see him move till the last.

Sandor grunts.

The cart creaks along, and Jaqen rides silently beside it. He usually does, leaving Sandor the hard work of starting the conversation.

“How did Sansa Stark get to Winterfell?” he asks finally, a question he’s been meaning to ask for days and never quite found the right time for.

Jaqen replies in his customary quiet voice (he’s never heard this man’s voice raised in anger, not even at the She-Wolf, and she can be fucking infuriating ). “To the best of my understanding, Petyr Baelish helped her escape King’s Landing after Joffrey’s wedding. The Boltons took Winterfell. And then Petyr Baelish married her to Roose Bolton’s bastard.”

Something deep twists in Sandor, something held so tightly within himself that he has almost forgotten the thoughts that go with it, and the twisting of it is makes it hard for him to breathe for a moment. “Married again,” he grunts finally. “Hope she’s happy this time.”

Jaqen lets the silence stretch between them before he speaks. His voice is measured, and he looks straight ahead at the road. “Be careful, Sandor...Sansa Stark is not the same girl you knew in King’s Landing.”

The assassin turns to look at him, and Sandor purses his lips; it must be said that Jaqen H’ghar, too, knows what an obsession with a Stark woman does to a man. This they do not need to speak of, and Sandor would be grateful if it is never mentioned again, and Jaqen nods, and that is the end of it.

But then Jaqen lowers his voice to a very quiet murmur (is the Wolf-Bitch’s hearing really that good?) “Not married anymore; she fed her husband to his hunting hounds.”

The “be careful” makes a lot more sense now, Sandor thinks as he watches the sly son-of-a-bitch spur his horse to go ride beside his Stark.

He’s not exactly sure what this thing means...in all the dark imaginings of his loneliness, he has never become anything--lord or soldier or thief, to steal her away in the night--he has never imagined himself as anything that could fit beside a little bird.

But she is not a little bird anymore.

The thought makes him both sad, and...something else. He wants to see what she has made of herself, he wants to see if she has room enough in her fortress in the north for a man who used to be a dog, a man who can be her shield even though he can never be her lover.

Wonder if my face will still scare her.

For the first time in a long while, Sandor Clegane is not drifting from one place to the next, but travelling , and he has a destination in mind.

He is driven by curiosity .


 

They set up camp in a little valley, sheltered from the wind by the bulk of two great mounds. Somebody else has had this idea before them...Sandor sees shapes below the snow. A cart…

“Bodies under the snow,” says Jaqen. “Someone was ambushed here.”

It’s not a good omen, as far as Sandor is concerned. But the stormclouds are roiling overhead, and there many not be such a sheltered place further on.

The she-wolf purses her lips. “They left a cart...maybe it’s better than ours.”

Hah. She’s learned all right , thinks Sandor with satisfaction. But Jaqen is motioning to him, behind his back. What the fuck? Sandor sidles over to one of the snow-covered shapes, brushes aside the snow. It’s hard to tell, but the grey cloth...Silent Sisters. Silent sisters with a cart--taking a body somewhere, then.

He needs to figure out what Jaqen has in mind. He looks up, and sees the assassin subtly shake his head.

“Farmers,” says Sandor out loud. “Bandits, probably.” It’s hard to tell under the snow, the bodies could have been here for months. Sandor does not like it. And, it seems, neither does Jaqen. “I think we should move, to somewhere we’re not surrounded by corpses,” says Sandor.

The girl shrugs. “We’re all corpses in the end, Sandor.” Then she looks uncertainly at Jaqen. “But maybe we should keep moving.”

It starts to snow. Lightning arcs in the sky overhead.

“Well,” says Sandor sourly, “the decision is made for us, thanks to your nattering. We’re going to have to stay here till the blizzard passes.”

“Stupid winter,” the girl mutters, and they start preparing the camp--they set up right beside the snow-choked entrance of one of the mounds, using the cart as a barricade, leading the horses to the overhang and covering them with the horse-blankets.

The girl starts a small fire--she’s very good with that--and sets a pot to boiling.

Meanwhile, Jaqen has retreated to the little blanket-fort the two build every night--it looks right comfortable, Sandor thinks, had he but anyone to share one with he’d have built one too.

“He’s not eating?” asks Sandor, when the girl divides up the boiled oats in two portions.

She looks over her shoulder. Jaqen sits cross-legged, his back against one of the travelling packs. His eyes are closed, his hands resting on his knees. “Doesn’t look like it.”

What is he doing?”

Her mouth twitches. “Magic.”

Sandor snorts. “Looks like sleeping to me .”

She doesn’t respond.

“What kind of magic?” he asks.

“One of our brothers is...lost,” she says. “He is searching for him.”

Sandor shakes his head. “Still looks like sleeping to me,” he mutters.

It grows darker, but the snow reflects the lighting overhead; an uncanny grey radiance fills the landscape. The wind is picking up; even the wolves that seem to have kept them constant company along the way (my direwolf, the girl had explained, she has a pack now, which doesn’t do anything to reassure Sandor, but what choice does he have?)--even the wolves have stopped howling.

The snow is coming down heavy now, swirling around the mounds, and it brings with it a bitter, bitter cold. Ice crystals are forming on his eyebrows. The heavy snow has doused the fire, and there won’t even be any embers left to start tomorrow’s blaze with.

“I think,” says the girl, her teeth chattering, “I think we need to move further into the barrow.” She rises, brushes the snow off her head, and moves to Jaqen.

Dead bodies outside, dead bodies inside, Sandor doesn’t believe in ghosts, but he wonders if whoever it is that is buried here will mind the intrusion.

“Jaqen,” she says, “Jaqen!”

Her voice is too high. Sandor creaks to his feet, slumps over to her side. The man’s lips are blue, his fingers are blue. Sandor pushes his shoulder, and Jaqen just...falls over. Sandor has seen enough dead bodies…

“He’s dead,” he says, in complete confusion. “How’s he dead ?”

The girl’s lips are pursed, she’s worried but not panicked. “It’s temporary,” she says.

And then Jaqen’s body convulses, it arches off the ground and the dead man opens his mouth and screams . The scream rings through Sandor’s head, it turns his blood to ice far better than the blizzard raging overhead, and the girl is on her knees, shaking her husband, screaming his name.

Sandor slumps to his knees. It’s getting colder and colder.

He comes to himself half-frozen--the girl has a hold of his hair and she is tugging at his head. “Sandor, Sandor! Get up! Get inside.”

“How is he dead?” asks Sandor.

There is a blankness in her face, and it terrifies him. “Get under the overhang,” she says, then turns away. He watches through snow-encrusted lashes as she bends, and half lifts, half drags Jaqen’s body. She’s dug a hole, he realizes, through the snow blocking the barrow’s entry.

Another Hollow Hill , he thinks. His thoughts are slow, sluggish. He’s not really feeling cold anymore.

She drags Jaqen’s body through the hole, returns for her packs. “Sandor! Get inside.”

“Not going in a grave,” he mumbles. “Not in a grave yet.”

She snarls at him. “Then fucking cuddle with the horses, because I’m not driving the fucking cart, and neither is Jaqen.”

“Jaqen is dead.”

“If you die on me, dog , I’m going to burn your body in the biggest fucking pyre you can possibly imagine.”

That gets him going. With a roar that is more of a whimper, he rises to his feet. She has already disappeared into the grave. And now that he is on his feet, he might as well keep moving--he gathers up the blankets and bedrolls, heads on over to the horses, and does what he can to minimize how much of him the wind can bite at.



 

 

THE STRANGER

It is a gathering of the self, this darkness that rises in him and through him.

You are dying. Every moment and every breath. So am I. So is everything else--the earth, the sun, the stars themselves. So am I--the God is in me too.

He would have liked to beg her forgiveness, for the day full of pleasant lies he placated her with. Time , he thinks. He does not control the timing of it; someone, some thing else does. And he knows not what it is, but death is in its thrall.

He saw, what she did, with the twisting of her words.

Not enough.

He would have liked to have given rein to his desire, and hers, once. For that, too, someday the god will have to beg her forgiveness. The snow falls, and they are surrounded by the dead; it is too late.

Death is in her, a thousand times a thousand pinpricks of death, she breathes in death and exhales it out into the world.

He expands, through her breath.

There is death in the bones resting on a cart, in the deep hill that holds the grave of a king, in the grass that has withered and frozen under winter, in the sky through which the winds scream.

It is as if this place has been made for him, a valley perpetually in His shadow. On this land, he is the Stranger, and there must be a pattern to His strangeness: each of the Seven are reflected around him in death’s mirror. The Maiden, who has died for him. The Father and the Mother, dead. The Crone curled in the corpses of his handmaidens strewn around what was once a glade. The Warrior with his flame-ravaged visage, who has defied the Stranger time and again, as is right. The Smith, who forged the First King’s starfall blade, dead in the barrow behind him.

Death expands, through this, the seat of his power. There is no coming back from this.

He crosses the Narrow Sea.

He begins in Volantis. Death, in doorsteps and streetways, death, upon the butcher’s block and deep within the Black Wall.

His brother is not here.

He expands, and goes north, and east. Through the Dothraki sea, where the grasses suffer under a merciless sunrise, to Qarth, jewels giving up their light a flicker at a time, and he sees them only as the dust they will be, in time.

His brother is nowhere to be found.

Death expands into the east.

And he finds that he cannot expand any further.

There is a barrier, and beyond it Death sees nothing.

Asshai. Our brother is in Asshai.

Fear takes him.

He contracts then , and death is drawn out of the world, out of the familiar body sitting in a frozen glade under a blizzard and as death leaves, so does life. He draws out of the woman he loves, out of the grasses and the hills and all the people and things between Westeros and Asshai.

He draws him into himself, until he is an impossibly sharp thing, concentrated to a single point, and he throws himself like a spear at the barrier that dares to bar His passage.

The barrier shudders, but holds. Death shatters.

He screams, in rage and pain and fury, and he gathers himself again. He is a hurricane, and he slams against the spells that hold him back; there are minds behind the spells, and though they may not die, they remember death.

Death washes over the barriers of Asshai, and one mind dies, then another.

A path opens; the barrier cracks.

Death snarls in triumph, and pours into the crack, and he takes all the darkness of the world with him.



 

BRAN

After seeing Arya once in his dreams, Bran sees her every time he closes his eyes. And so he dreams, and dreams again, hoping to find her, to find the lord who walks beside her, and warn Him.

He dreams of a great hound, marked by fire, flames still lick the side of his head. He is dying in the snow in the mouth of a grave, his breathing stops as he sleeps, and yet...yet his eyes flicker in dreaming.

A wolf, twin to his lost Summer, pounces on a half-frozen rabbit under a snowbank, and the rabbit meowls . The direwolf shakes the rabbit in its jaws, then drops it bleeding upon the white snow, and backs away.

“I am so sorry,” says a sorrowful man, and slides his blade into a woman’s ribs. She turns, eyes wide, as she bleeds out over him. He withdraws the blade. Both of them look, confused, when she does not fall.

A ship sinks, men thrash and wail, breathe water, drawn into the depths. But though they do not breathe, they do not die, and the Drowned God hears not their pleas. Sharks circle, biting, and the men have not the voice to scream, but they do not die.

It is too late, Bran thinks, too late!

Death has passed into shadow.



 

NO ONE

A fever rages within the one who is no one, and she slumps, the chains keeping her upright. She stirs, briefly, as the sorcerer grabs Arya Stark’s hair and pulls, forcing her to face the red-rimmed eyes of R’hllor’s servant.

“Do you feel it?” asks the woman. The faceless one does not respond. “No,” the woman murmurs. “You feel nothing--you have repudiated your god.”

One of the sorcerers chanting at the front of cavern staggers, falls to his knees with a strangled gasp. Then he falls over, convulsing on the ground.

“My, my,” says the woman, as she watches slaves drag away the fallen sorcerer’s body. “It is so good to see a god’s devotion to his servant.”  A hundred sorcerers chant; two baby dragons, newly hatched, flit in lazy circles above R'hllor’s grotesque form. “He is throwing himself against the barriers of Asshai,” she says, and smiles.

To the right of the faceless one’s place of confinement, another vast circle of chains has been prepared. Now slaves light torches all around it, and she sees the pattern of it laid out in cold iron, and despairs.

The sorcerers’ chant slows, then dies away. One of them breaks away from the throng. “It is done,” he says to the woman.

And, slowly, slowly, Arya Stark’s face slips away from the one who is no one.

Again the woman seizes his hair, lifts his face to hers. “Mmm,” she says. “R’hllor is going to be very pleased with you , my dear.”

There is a darkness inside the one who is no one, coiled tight, like a serpent under a rock. In his mind’s eye, he closes his fist around it.

He waits.

“The hour grows late,” says the woman, dropping his head. “Open a passage for the god of death--a small one. Time it, shape it--let him think it is his idea.”

He can feel her gaze boring into the top of his head.

“Not that he can escape, of course,” she says. “It is far too late for that. But...appearances matter.”

The faceless man raises his head on his own with some effort; his vision had doubled and redoubled, and he blinks to clear it. Seven sorcerers have stepped forward, and as one they raise their belt knives, and slash their own throats.

“Each of us is bound to the barriers,” says the woman, as she watches the blood spread down the front of the sorcerers’ robes, a dark stain in their already crimson attire. “More!” she calls, and seven more sorcerers step forward, and slit their own throats again. “Self-sacrifice means so little without death,” she says. “It takes many, even for a small crack. More!”

A dagger has fallen just outside his reach, slipped from the blood-slick hands of one of the sorcerers. Fallen, beneath notice.

He waits.

He does not know how many sorcerers bleed themselves dry, are led out of the cavern by slaves, but when it is done only the woman stands before him.

And a shape forms, in the corner of his eye.

The woman inhales, and her voice grows resonant within the chamber. “I feel a darkness coming. He comes .”

The one who is no one looks to his right, eyes wide. The ground is shaking, and darkness is gathering in the center of the second circle of chains.

“He fights, oh, he fights,” the woman moans, her eyes closed. “He fights to escape now. But we let him in, and he cannot leave. Death has no dominion in Asshai.”

The walls shudder.

The shadow solidifies, and Jaqen, naked, kneels on the ground, chains wrapped around his wrists, his legs.

Borrowed from what core of strength he knows not, the one who is no one calls out. “ Leave , Jaqen!”

Jaqen looks up at him, and there is no white to his eyes--they are black, in black, and emotion runs amok in them. Jaqen opens his mouth, to call out.

Don’t give them my name!” mouths the one who is no one, straining in desperation against his bonds.

The woman walks forward, towards the chain circle that holds Him of the Many Faces. Two dragons are perched on her shoulder. She is looking up, and away--the one who is no one realizes she cannot see Jaqen.

“Leave, please, Jaqen, leave ,” he whispers.

Jaqen looks around, and no-one can see his brother assessing the barriers, searching for exits, those well-honed habits of infiltration and escape they both share. The one who is no one knows the exact moment Jaqen lays eyes on the thing that is R’hllor. On the faces fused to R’hllor’s front.

Rage, such rage, as he has never seen in Jaqen’s face before, and some part of him trembles in fear. Another part revels in it. His vision is turning white around the edges.

Jaqen rises to his feet, heaving at the chains that bind him with monstrous strength; there is no strategy to him, just rage and darkness, and he pulls at his chains. They rattle and stretch, and they will not let him go.

“Three hundred years in the making, those chains,” says the woman. “Avatar of Death, you cannot escape them, not when we hold your name.”

There is no room in the breast of one who is no one for guilt, or apology. Instead he reaches, reaches, for the blood-slimed dagger, and dislocates his shoulder, but his fingers close around it. He inches it closer to himself...he cannot raise his hands to his throat, or he would have slit it. But he can reach a wrist. And he has been watching the workings of these men and women, these servants of R’hllor, and he has learned some of the paths they walk.

His vision is speckled with white, with rage, with need.

They try to chain my god but all their words will come to nothing, less then nothing, the salt and the sea will drown all of them and He will rise...

Blindly, he slices at his left wrist.

The woman is focused on the circle that holds Jaqen. The one who is no one pools his blood on the cursed ground, and refuses despair; he feeds the ground his blood, and the darkness coiled around his heart eases, and slips out of his veins.

A serpent forms, made of darkness and torment, its surface so dark that no light reflects off of it. The serpent slithers along the ground, growing, lengthening, still connected to the pool of blood under his wrist. It reaches the first chain, a chain that holds Jaqen’s left arm, and coils around it. It constricts.

The chain burns, white-hot, and snaps.

The woman whirls around, stares at him. An ugly smile twists at her features. “A murderer’s blood,” she says. “Given willingly. How very fitting.” Her voice grows softer as she crosses the floor to him, grabs him by his hair again, a motion that makes mockery of blessings by a septon. “It will not save him,” she says, softly. She steps around him, and her grip grows painful as she yanks his head up, exposing his throat to the torchlight.

“Look at your servant, Lord of Darkness,” says the woman. “We will flay him, and feed him to R’hllor, piece by piece. Or, you can give us his name, and we will let him go.”

The sorcerers’ spells have left no lies in the one who is no one. “She lies,” he screams. He looks into Jaqen’s furious, pain-filled eyes, and begs him to understand. “Forget me,” the one who is no one whispers. “Forget my name. Forget everything. Leave.

There is only so much they can do to me without my name.

“He cannot leave,” says the woman to no-one. “Come, god who is drowning,” she raises her voice to reach the other side of the room, “let us abandon pretense and trivialities. Give us his name, and he is free to go--we will put him on a ship ourselves. Just a name, and it is all over. Even you--whatever is left of you once R’hllor takes this one’s name--we will allow even you passage out of Asshai.”

Jaqen’s jaw clenches, and he pulls at the chains holding him fast.

“A murderer’s blood will not free you, my lord,” says the woman, and smiles.

Beneath them, his wrist still pumps blood onto the ground; the blood pools, and the serpent made of darkness undulates as it rises over yet another tangle of links. A chain snaps, then another.

The woman looks down at the one who is no one. Her brow is furrowed in consternation. “Sanctified?” she says. “A priest’s blood? But you repudiated your god!”

The sorcerers’ spell still wraps around his tongue, a band of silk and ash. “I did not repudiate my brother .”

Another chain snaps.

There is not much blood left in him. But Death has no dominion in Asshai; the one who is no one yet lives.

The woman, frantic, kneels, tries to staunch the wound with the skirts of her robe, to mop up the blood on the ground, but the one who is no one simply cocks his wrist back, and the blood spurts in greater volume.

The last chain snaps, and then Jaqen is upon her, he passes through her, and it is as if all the ages of the world have fallen upon her at once. She withers into decrepitude, and then further, until she curls up into herself and falls, finally, to dust.



 

HIM OF THE MANY FACES

“You should not have come here,” says the one who is no one.

Together, they are undoing the chains that hold the faceless one to the ground. Him of the Many Faces is not much use; the spells lie in tatters with the destruction of their focus, the woman-sorcerer with the gloating habit.

“I did not know you were here,” says Him of the Many Faces. “I would have come sooner.”

His brother shakes his head. “Once, you might not have. You are...changed.”

Death’s lips twist, momentarily. Somewhere...there is a deep well of sorrow in him, a well he cannot plumb, and her face lies at the heart of it. He brushes the sentiment aside.

Once the one who is no one is freed, his wrist properly bandaged with strips torn off the sorcerer-woman’s robe, the two faceless men peer over the edge of the dragon pit.

They contemplate the thing pulsing in the center.

“More sorcerers will come,” says the one who is no one. “Can you do something? Before...”

“I have no power here,” He says. “You must be my hands, brother.”

Valar dohaeris ,” says the one who is no one, and his face is alight with a savage anticipation.

He picks up the dagger he used to cut himself, then another lying in the pile of dust that was once a sorcerer. His hands are shaking, but he is faceless, and Death stands at his back.

Slowly, he climbs his way down to the central cavern along the rocky wall; the sorcerers’ propensity for grandiose carving works against them now, for the icons and monsters picked out in rock around the pit aid the faceless one’s descent.

There is no sorcerer in sight. The one who is no one snorts. “They used them all up, getting you here and binding you. And it availed them not.”

Him of the Many Faces says nothing.

The one who is no one picks his way across the cavern, stepping where he must to avoid the fires. He is sweating now--the fever seems to have been sweated out of him--and the heat clamps around his lungs like a vise. Death follows.

The one who is no one reaches the pulsing form of R’hllor, towering over them as if set to reduce all men and their horrors to insignificance.

He pauses to vomit all over a cluster of dragon eggs.

The dragons overhead are screeching, diving at him, their talons reaching for his eyes. Him of the Many Faces wades into the fray, and the dragons are confused, flapping back and forth between their target and the shadow beside him.

When he has overmastered his gut, the one who is no one finds first a foothold, then a handhold on the pillar of flesh, and begins to climb. His feet search for purchase--they find faces. Almost, it seems, the hands dangling from the corpses fused into R’hllor, it seems the hands are helping him climb, as if they know what he intends.

He reaches the first face, a face he knows so well. He does not know how to kill it, this tumor that she has become, so he simply cuts the face out. She is not screaming--she smiles as he does it. When he is done, the arms lie still, and do not twitch. He tucks her into his tattered shirt, and climbs higher.

“Valar morghulis, brother,” he says as he reaches the second face, and then he cuts him out as well.

“Now, R’hllor,” calls Him of the Many Faces.

The one who is no one looks down. “What do I do?”

Him of the Many Faces purses his lips. “He cannot die…but, we can reduce him.” He circles the bulk of the unawakened Red God, and starts pointing out faces to the one who is no one.

Obediently, no one cuts.

When they are done there is a pile of faces, waist-high upon the ground, and he is covered head to toe in blood, and he thinks there is no more strength left in him. The dragons, it seems, are opportunists--they feed on the open tears in R'hllor’s flesh.

“God-touched ones, all of them,” murmurs Him of the Many Faces, looking at the ruins of those that had been consumed by R’hllor.

The one who is no one looks at Jaqen. “Other gods?”

“There must have been,” says Him of the Many Faces, “sometime in the past few thousand years. And look,” he points to one or two of the faces, strange in their proportions. “Some of them are not human. And R’hllor has servants enough breathing life into the dead around the world, so a god can still touch someone, even when the god sleeps.”

“We need to get out of here now,” says the one who is no one.

Death looks at him sharply. He had expected his brother to offer other means to dissect R’hllor, not suggest an escape. “Since when did you become practical ?” He asks.

The one who is no one snorts. “I was her too long.”

Again, Death brushes aside remembered sorrow. “The faces,” he says, and points to a spot in the ground where the cracks are wider, and magma-like fire burns. The one who is no one gathers the faces he has cut, one by one, and throws them into the crack, all save the two he carries close to his breast. Slowly, slowly, the faces smoke and splutter, and amidst the smell of cooking flesh and crisping skin, the faces burn.

The bulk of R’hllor is no less grotesque for it.

Then the one who is no one looks around. “I don’t see a way out.”

Him of the Many Faces walks to one of the carving-encumbered walls. “We climb.”

“I’m tired, brother.”

Death reaches for him, passes through him. “Just a little bit more."


 

 

They climb. The one who is no one falters, rests, then climbs again. Time flows, and does not stop, but it does not touch them either. He sleeps, for a while, and Death keeps watch over him.

Eventually, they reach the docks.

There are no vessels on the phosphorescent green water save for two ill-used fishing boats, used, it seems, by destitute shadowbinders to eke a meal out of the cursed river.

“They stifled their own trade,” observes Him of the Many Faces.

“Fucking sorcerers,” says the one who is no one, and there is something in his voice...a despair . In short, succinct sentences, the one who is no one explains. Azor Ahai, the Great Other. Prophecy.

“It will be undone,” says Him of the Many Faces, finally. “All of it.”

“I would pray for it, if I could,” whispers the one who is no one.

“We reduced Valyria to ash and smoking ruin,” Death murmurs, his gaze fixed on the horizon. “We cut, and Gogossos bled to nothing. Asshai, too, will fall.”

“You have a plan, Jaqen?”

Jaqen is dead.

“It is fitting, when the manner of giving the gift matches the recipient,” says Him of the Many Faces. “These sorcerers layer plot upon prophecy--Asshai schemes. A schemer is newly come to the House of Black and White.”

If she remains in the House, after Jaqen H’ghar is gone. Renegades are hunted down and killed--there are always a handful, every century. Not her. Let her go to Winterfell, let her travel to what deserts she may wish to see, let her marry the Sealord of Braavos; though she abandon me, she is still my bride. No hand from the House of Death will be raised against her.

“Valar dohaeris,” says the one who is no one. “Well. Fishing boat to the insular isles...fishing is clean, out in the open sea...there is always a pirate ship or two out in those waters as well. We should be able to limp back to Braavos, somehow.”

“I cannot go with you,” says Him of the Many Faces, “I will find another way.”

The one who is no one gives Him of the Many Faces a worried look, but seems reassured by what he sees in His countenance.

Him of the Many Faces walks with him all the way to the edge of the water. “Brother,” he says, as the one who is no one steps into the boat. “I have your name.”

The one who is no one waves it away. “Keep it safe for me,” he says, and then he casts off.



 

MELISANDRE

The fire tells her nothing more, but she still stares into it, willing coherence out of chaos. And then, the hairs at the back of her neck rise; something is watching her.

She looks over her shoulder, and there are two gold eyes gleaming out of the darkness. Wolf-eyes, but too high...too big.

A direwolf. Has Jon sent Ghost to finish me off? No. Jon Snow would execute her by his own hand, or not at all.

“Hello, puppy,” Melisandre calls. “Come into the light. I will not hurt you.” Slowly, she unsheathes her blade, nicks her finger on it. She still has strength here, not nearly as much as on the Wall, or in Asshai, but strength enough to bind the shadows dancing around the small campfire.

The beast leaps towards her, faster than she can summon the shadows, and it sinks its teeth, each one as large as a dagger, into Melisandre’s shoulder. And then the shadows are upon the direwolf, ripping into it with claws of smoke and darkness. Blood splatters upon the snow, black and viscous; the beast will not let go of Melisandre. She hears a sickening crunch of bone, there is blood everywhere, in her mouth, on the beast, and her vision blurs.

Then the beast is off her. She looks down--half her shoulder has been torn off. But the direwolf lies on its side, heaving, as shadows tear into its innards.

“Lord of Light,” Melisandre prays, and there is no response. Age spots her hands; her charm is broken, lying near the jaws of the direwolf. “Lord of Light, your servant begs your aid,” she moans.

There is no answer. Her only consolation, as consciousness drifts away, is that the direwolf dies with her.



 

HIM OF THE MANY FACES

Death reforms in his habitat--kneeling in a circle of chains above the dragon-pit.

The blood and sorcery, the last of His favor, that had gone into his brother’s spell--clumsy and ill-formed, but with a great deal of power behind it--the power has faded.

He is chained; he has always been chained. Whatever part of Him of the Many Faces had been freed, for a time, to help His brother...that part of him has dissolved into the blood-tainted air of Asshai.

There is no way out.

Bit by bit, he can feel death draining away from him; he is weakening steadily, and he does not know why, save that R’hllor slumbers below.

A mistake, thinks Him of the Many Faces, to claim the Red God for ours. R'hllor’s flame burns in the House of Black and White. A mistake. It forges a link, through which the Red God can subsume Death, though it was meant…

It was meant as a mercy, for those that follow R’hllor, and come seeking death.

Him of the Many Faces folds to his knees, and tries to reason his way out of the chains that hold him. But there is no reason to be found--not even R’hllor’s sorcerers planned for this, for Death is no use to them here , not if they told his brother the truth about their intentions. They had wanted some small part of Him present, to be tricked into uttering his brother’s name. This...the entirety of Him, chained in the heart of Asshai, it is of no use to anyone.

And there is no way out.



 

ARYA

Jaqen has plans for me tonight, he is not going to leave me. No, something has just...something unexpected has happened, that is all. Him of the Many Faces will sort it out, and return soon.

It is dark in the barrow, the torchlight doing nothing more than shifting the shadows from around itself to the edges of the chamber, where they gather thickly, waiting.

There should be no fear in me, not for darkness.

And yet, she is afraid, in the very marrow of her bones, and an icy chill wraps around her that has nothing to do with the blizzard outside. She wipes a hand over her face, prays. “Jaqen H’ghar”, she says.

Nothing.

Frantic now, she does it again, keeping in mind the sunlight glinting off the canals in Braavos. “Zural Mobhai.”

Nothing.

The God is not in his body, and neither is life, and she has to do something and she knows not what.

I have to bring Jaqen back to life.

The vision of Catelyn Stark, white-haired and blue-skinned and unable to remember how to weep, it rises to threaten Arya’s white-knuckled hold on herself .

I have to bring him back quickly .

If the Red God’s sorcerers can do it...the parting words of her brother, in Braavos, they have been intruding upon her consciousness for days, and now she knows why.

Her breath comes in ragged gasps. “Ambraysis Alayain!”

Nothing.

No, no, please, help me! Beloved where are you? The panic is threatening to take her reason from her. But there is more to a Faceless Man than a god’s favor; she retreats to the lessons of her childhood, kneels on the cold, cold stone floor, and does not look at the corpse lying next to her.

She kneels for as long as it takes for her breathing to steady, for her heartbeat to become measurable.

Who are you? She asks herself, finally.

I am Arya Stark, she replies . And I am not afraid.

She can almost feel the swish, a line of pain, as the Kindly Man’s switch comes down on her palm: a lie!

But it has helped, some. And there is a darkness coiled in the center of her, a darkness that matches, and overmatches the shadows waiting in the corners of the barrow. The God is in me, too. She draws on the darkness, somehow, she knows not what she does but she pulls it up and into her. There is not much of it. But there is enough--a residue of His favor, the scent of honey in the midst of famine.

Enough for one name.

She cups her hands over her face, and prays. “Ambraysis Alayain.” The darkness consumes itself, makes of itself a face and lays it upon her own.

Memories rise.

There are too many. Too many spells, too much speculation, too much blood. Ash-choked Asshai and the trembling of the ground. A red plague, a screaming plague, sweeping out and over monstrous figures.

Focus .

Again, she retreats to lessons learned in childhood, this time, her brother’s childhood. Blood sacrifice, and the raising of the dead as it was done, in a time before the priests of the Red God outlawed the practice and burnt alive any sorcerers that had the knowing of it.

Two parts, the spell has: the finding of the spirit, and the binding of it. It is a simple spell.

So.

She lets go the face of Ambraysis Alayain--she is not sure she can cast the spell in a man’s body, she has but the theory of it. Then she turns her attention to the corpse of Jaqen H’ghar.

She maneuvers his body upon the long, narrow sarcophagus, somehow; her strength is failing her. Then, slowly, methodically, she undresses him. He is cold, beneath her fingers, a grey statue lit by flickering torchlight. The cloak first, then the boots. She unbuckles the dagger strapped to his chest, the small knives at his thighs, his forearms. She finds one tucked into the back of his waistband, and this one is poisoned, its tip glimmering a wet black. There is a flicker of amusement--she has slept within his arms for more than a month, they have grappled and embraced and she has watched him out of the corner of her eye while he undresses, and yet there is something she does not know about him.

She draws his shirt over his head, then runs her hands over his shoulders, then turns to his britches. She folds his clothes, puts them aside neatly near their packs. The process is mechanical for her. Embarrassment flickers, briefly, as she removes his smallclothes, and she pushes it aside. His manhood lies curled amidst a dusting of fine, white-gold hairs...the God has abandoned this body and it reverts to its Valyrian roots.

Trepidation, too, she casts aside.

She gathers snow from the mouth of the barrow, and makes him colder still as she washes him as best she can. Then, swiftly, she undresses herself, the chill fingers of winter closing around her ribs, her hands and feet. She wipes herself down with the snow-damp cloth, and it comes away from between her legs smeared with her red-brown moon’s blood, the blood that doesn’t seem to stop despite her not having worn a mask for days.

She cannot stop shivering.

She focuses on the pattern of the spell; the components are simple: profane words, profane deeds--the twisting of a prayer, the twisting of the natural act of procreation into something not intended by nature. The finding and the binding . She wills her limbs to movement, rises and mounts the sarcophagus, straddles the corpse of Jaqen H’ghar.

She speaks the words, and as she does she knows they will hold no power for her--they are profane to a people that have passed from memory, taking their gods with them.

She casts back, to their travels on the road, and murmurs the most blasphemous words she knows.

...dead man naked they shall be one, with the man in the wind and the west moon…

Power flows out of her mouth, curls around her breasts, her stomach, her thighs. She follows the path of the power, down and down, and when she reaches his manhood she sees that he is erect, his cockhead blue with death. It is not life , merely an approximation of it, and she has seen the beginnings of it before, in other corpses; it is nothing new to her.

“...though they go mad they shall be sane, though they sink through the sea they shall rise again…”

She lowers herself, positions him at her entrance, and then in a sharp, swift motion, she impales herself onto him.

She tears.

A maiden’s first blood. It mingles with her moon blood, with the slick moisture of desire between her legs that comes, unbidden, because this is Jaqen , and she has wanted Jaqen since the day she died.

Her blood coats Jaqen’s shaft as she rises and lowers herself on it yet again.

“...And death shall have no dominion.”

The world tears.

She rises into the storm, a howling white wind. The spell is a simple spell--it finds her the past of least resistance. She smiles into the wind and she calls her direwolf to her. Nymeria , she remembers dimly, her name is Nymeria .

The direwolf comes, rising into the storm, and her teeth are stained red-brown with blood. She wargs into it, its spirit already half-untethered from the world. She is wolf, and girl, and something more.

The finding, she reminds herself, and then the binding.

The wind and the ice saps the last of the darkness from her. Merciless, murderous; Arya Stark was not tamed , was not tempered by darkness, merely placated by its benevolence. Without the God sitting coiled in her chest….

She seeks death, and she ranges east.

Winter follows in her wake.



 

THE WIND

Death has laid a trail for her, a channel, and she howls along it until she reaches a towering barrier of flickering green fire and red-rimmed ash.

A thousand sorcerers have built this thing, to constrain death, in all His forms. She is not death; she is winter. Ice rains down, drawn from the deep winds at the edge of the heavens, and where it encounters the arrogance of Asshai, the barrier tears.

The wind solidifies; it has a shape, part wolf, part woman, and it walks across the ash-choked city. And where she walks, ice blooms; the surface of the river gurgles, and tries to defy her, and yet it freezes.

There is a place at the end of the city under the smoking mountain, a place of dark stone, with fingers of fire licking at its cracks. The fire scalds the moisture from the wind, dries it to something that belongs in the desert. But the cold ...the cold thrives in dry air.

She finds death on his knees, in a circle of chains, surrounded by red-robed sorcerers. They feel the wind--how can they not?

He raises his head, slowly, as if the action takes unmeasurable effort. Their eyes meet; his, black-in-black, hers the white of a warg that rides winter.

The House of the Faceless Men in Braavos has two doors.

In that moment, she knows.

He lied to me.

He killed Jaqen .

He understood everything and still He killed him for...for what?

He wanted to leave me.

Just for spite , the wind cajoles.

There is no fury in ice, only a sort of pain, sadistic and masochistic by turns; she understands spite very well.

The wind reaches across the sorcerers, and it wraps around the darkness. He falters, against the cold, and then she knows the darkness has been drained, can be drained further. There is no pity in her; he can stand, or he can be consumed.

A vortex of bone-chilling cold swirls around the circle of chains, and where it passes, sorcerers die.

He stands in the eye of the storm, and she walks to him.

“What have you awakened?” he asks.

“Cruelty,” she says, and she knows it to be true--the counter to death is not birth, for birth is merely the harbinger of death. Death is mercy, and there is none of that left in her.

“You made a mistake,” she says.

“Yes,” he murmurs. “Will you forgive me?”

She throws back her head and laughs, and ice rims the walls of the cavern; the crystal chime of her laughter raises a shrieking behind her. The wind whips around, and sees bodies, many of them without faces, fused to a some construct of man and sorcery, growing out of a pit full of eggs. The shrieking comes from small dragons, hovering over the construct.

“It is eating you,” she surmises.

“R’hllor,” he says. “The Lord of Light.”

“It is but an ugly man,” she says, and shrugs. “Valar morghulis.” And then she turns around to face her true prey once more. “I told you,” she says, and smiles. “Jaqen H’ghar is the Many-Faced God. The God is more than Jaqen H’ghar, but he is nothing without Jaqen H’ghar. The brain decays, the body decays--how can the Many-Faced God think if he has no brain to do it with? How can He be merciful if he has no heart?”

Finally, finally he understands, and the darkness in his eyes falters. “Too late,” she says. “The wind is going to take you from Yourself, like you took Jaqen from me.”

The binding , she remembers as she speaks. She can bind death to the wind, and the wind will never die. She will spread winter over lands that have never seen it before, and she will drown them in frozen tears--the Dothraki Sea, the jungles of Leng, and with them all the deserts of the world.

The vision of the snow-covered world, where direwolves range and feed on corpses...it fills her with what she would have called joy, had she still remembered what that felt like.

The last of the sorcerers dies, shards of ice embedded in his eyes. She watches, unmoved. When it is done she smiles at Him of the Many Faces.

“And now it is your turn,” she says. “Can you stand against me?”

The wolf within her unfurls, and Nymeria sinks her teeth into the wind’s thigh. Black blood flows, cold and turgid. The memory of blood is a dim thing for her--spells and the working of them is far beneath her domain. Where the blood touches the chains, they freeze and shatter, and the dragons scream.

He unwinds from his crouch, slowly, painfully, and she can see the fear in him. That, too, brings her joy.

She reaches for his throat.

“It is not done,” he murmurs. “A girl knows a man’s name.”

Her hand stops. The rules of her order wrap themselves around her, and it is she who is bound now. She bares her teeth, and the wind whips around the chamber in a frenzy.

He smiles, a sardonic twitching of the mouth, and it is her turn to be afraid.

“What else have you chained me with?” she snarls.

He walks forward, and his lips descend on hers. That feels good; the wind allows it. And then his lips are beside her ear, and he kisses the pulse at the base of her throat.

“Have mercy, beloved,” he whispers. “Be gentle with yourself.”

The wind slacks.

There is silence, in the air around them. Snow blankets Asshai, and for a moment the city is white, pristine. But only for a moment, for in the wake of the dying of the wind, the ash returns.

She closes her eyes, and bit by bit she slides down till she kneels before Him of the Many Faces, her head bowed.

“No,” he says, his voice appalled. “ Never .”

She ignores him, and focuses on diminishment. The wind dies further, until all there is left of it is a thin white channel that stretches over the clouds, over the ash, to a grave under a hill.

He is holding her shoulders, trying to get her to rise, and she finally complies, she wraps her arms around him, and binds him.



 

JAQEN H’GHAR

His awakening is sudden, a paroxysm of ecstasy, and he spills his seed as his eyes open and he sees her above him, in all her glory, flickering torchlight and shadow wrapping around the curves of her frame.

There is ice in his veins, every joint aches, but warmth spreads from his groin...he cannot help but reach for her outthrust breasts.

He strains upwards, into her.

She winces.

Immediately, he pulls back. Her dark eyes are boring into him; he breaks their gaze, looks down.

There is blood on her thighs, and the muscles of her groin are clenched in pain.

“You tore yourself,” he says, not bothering to mask his annoyance.

She snorts. “Did I ever tell you about the time I sliced my leg open with a Dothraki blade?”

A man does not strangle his wife. It is counterproductive, and he will lose his touching rights.

He sighs. “Was that before or after you pulled your shoulders out of their sockets running over rooftops?”

She blinks at him. “I thought you were asleep when I told that story,” she mutters.

“Mmm,” he says, “merely trying to restrain myself.”

Restrain yourself?” she asks, coy.

He rises upon his elbows; his black hair curls around his shoulders and he has to sweep it out of his eyes. “From strangling you,” he says gently, then sits further, wraps his arms around her, and swings them both into a fully seated position. Holding her to himself, he stands, and she wraps her legs around him instinctively.

He looks around, and finds their clothes sitting in a corner, neatly folded. He heads for them, holds her with one arm as he crouches, and spreads his cloak on the ground with the other.

He kneels to lay her down on the cloak, and slowly, slowly pulls out of her; his shaft is sticky with his seed and her blood and her arousal. Not nearly enough of the last. But he is relieved--most of the blood on her is moon’s blood; she has not actually torn herself, only breached her maidenhead, nor has she received any more hurt than she would have at a somewhat rough deflowering.

He lies down beside her and she nestles into his arms, her head on his chest. His fingers cup her breast, and he should be focused on how her nipple pebbles under his palm, but all he can think is she was not nearly this thin the last time I did this . He shutters his dismay--all magic has its price, and they are both...unaccountably lucky, that the price has not been higher.

“Cold,” she says.

“Hmm,” he replies, then reaches over her and finds her cloak, and draws it over them. There is a chill in the air, though he seems to be immune.

His fingers circle her areola, a blush of dark rose against her winter-pale skin. Her nipples harden further, and his fingers sweep lower, drawing patterns between her breasts, around her navel. She looks up at him when he drifts lower.

“What are you doing?”she murmurs.

He kisses her forehead. “You were not prepared, love.” There is no admonishment in his tone, only a little regret.

“I know this is not what you wanted,” she says, “I’m sorry.”

At that he has to pull away, and look her in the face. “Are you mad ?” He softens a bit at seeing her uncertainty. “You misunderstand me. I wanted you , I want you still,” and he thinks his waxing arousal speaks for itself, pressed against her side, “I want you no matter how you come to me. But I also wanted a thing for you that was untainted by pain.”

“Well, I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says irritated. “I’ve never even seen…” she trails off.

He smirks. “Really? You not peeked at certain of our brothers’ memories?”

He expects her to blush; she does not. “I know that ,” she says, “I meant it was the first time I cast a spell , how was I supposed to concentrate on--”

“No, no,” he interrupts, “clearly a girl has no idea what to do,” he feigns ruefulness, “A man will have to teach her.”

“I know about that!” she snarls at him. “For two years, you would kiss me and then leave…”

Mmm. Yes, I can imagine, my beautiful, lovely girl, all by herself... he reins himself in, and his palm caresses the plane of her stomach, drifts lower till he is hovering over the curls at the juncture of her thighs. She is still, under him, and he lowers his head until his mouth is beside her ear.

“Did I make you touch yourself?” he whispers.

He pulls back to see her reaction. Her pupils have dilated, her mouth is parted with need.

“It was a thing a man had to do, as well, many times,” he murmurs, “after he left his lovely girl’s stone bed.”

At that, she relents, spreads her legs, invites his touch as she twists to give him access to all of her, but there is a glint in her eye he is going to have to pay for, later.

The world is overlaid with shadows and light and she burns and he knows his eyes have darkened.

He smiles, a slow, lazy smile. “Turn, beloved,” he says, and she obeys, twisting away from him, her back cushioned against his chest. “Every night you have lain in my arms like this,” he breathes into her hair.

He draws her yet closer, then reaches and hooks her leg over his his. His hand slides up the inside of her thigh, until he reaches the juncture between her legs. He cups her sex, gently rubbing his palm over her lips.

Slowly, slowly, she relaxes into his touch.

He uses a single finger to trail figure-eights over her slit, avoiding her nub though she squirms impatiently under him. He circles, circles, until her wetness has coated his hand, until it drips down onto his thigh.

“Every night you have lain in my arms,” he murmurs, “every night I have wanted to do this to you.” He slips one finger into her, slowly, and she sucks in a breath.

He works his finger in and out of her, shallow, again and again, until she is mewling with need.

“Why...didn’t...you…” she pants. “I…”

He allows himself to thrust against the curve of her back, in rhythm with the finger he is using to fuck her. “Didn’t...wouldn’t...stop,” he breathes.

“Don’t... ever ,” she groans.

He curls his finger, stroking her from the inside, and all the while his thumb rubs her lips.

She is biting her hand.

“No,” he murmurs. “Let me hear you, love.” My name, beloved, from your lips. Please.

A strangled moan is all she gives him, and even so he trembles with the effort of restraining himself, keeping up the rhythm of his finger, until he starts to feel the walls of her sex flutter around his invasion. Then, then he flicks her clit with his thumb.

She gasps, and convulses. He waits, trails his tongue over her shoulder, twenty heartbeats, maybe less, before she stills.

He flicks her clit again, harder this time.

She moans, and again her sex throbs around his digit. He doesn’t wait for her to come down from her climax--he puts two fingers inside her, stretching her as she should have been stretched before his cock got anywhere near her, and she is thrashing under him, and this time he is relentless as he rubs her clit.

Her breath comes in gasps punctuated by breathy whispers. He presses his cock against the curve of her spine, wanting more, wanting her wet heat wrapped around him again.

Jaqen,” she moans, and it is almost enough to override his restraint. “Jaqen, please, please …” His vision blurs; he bites down on her shoulder.

She screams, arcing away from him, and the strength of her orgasm traps his hand between her legs, his finger still inside her, for a moment. Then she falls back into his arms, limp, and he realizes she hovers on the edge of unconsciousness.

He looks at her, utterly lost, his own arousal forgotten for the moment and then he cannot help grinning madly into her shoulder. Her effortless, uninhibited response to him, the unstudied, unthinking intensity of his own need… Beloved,” he whispers, “you are going to break me.”

She mumbles something in response, then falls into a deep sleep.

Jaqen himself is full of energy; his blood has been replaced with wine. He disengages himself from her, and looks for something...his eyes fall upon a bowl, filled half with water. He adds snow from the mouth of the barrow--the blizzard has blocked the entrance entirely, and they must needs dig their way out.

Gently, he cleans her with a moistened rag, trailing snowmelt over her shoulders, her breasts, between her legs, her thighs. She stirs, smiles, does not wake. He is achingly hard again by the time he is done, and though he cleans himself brusquely, and the water is cold , he wants with such a degree of longing...

He dresses himself, as a defense, before he kneels before her and begins to gently, gently, draw her britches over her legs.

He looks up to see her watching him.

“You left me,” she says, her voice entirely devoid of emotion.

He sighs, rests his head on her knees. “You were right,” He says.

“About what?”

“The Lorathi way is shit.

It earns him not even a chuckle. He looks up, and her eyes are glimmering with unshed tears. “I was going to kill you…”

He smiles sadly. “Not a bad way to go, love,” he says. “But then you would have been all alone, and neither man nor god could bear the thought of that.”

“Liar.”

He shakes his head, wills her to understand. She does, a little, he thinks, when she says, “but we talked .”

“Talking is not understanding,” he says, then looks for a deeper truth he can give her. “After all, what can a faceless one fresh from the training yard teach the great Jaqen H’ghar?” His mouth twists with the bitter sarcasm of the admission. Arrogance, and a blindness to it, these should not have been a part of him, and yet they were.

Her hand reaches for his head, trails through his hair. “Tell me what happened.”

He sighs, and together they finish putting on her clothes as he tells her what his brother has told him--R’hllor, the prophecies, the spells. His entrapment, an error on all their parts, even their enemies’.

“No more lies,” she says at the end of it. “No more half-truths, because it seems we are each other’s only defense.”

“I only ever lied to you about the...the dying,” he says, and cannot quite mask his sheepishness.

She snorts. “I’d prefer it if you would tell me the truth about things like that, and lie about my poetry.”

He smirks. “Never. Bad poetry is your one saving grace--a person must have some flaw.”

That , finally, draws a smile from her, and then she sobers. “Where is our direwolf?” she asks.

“The wind took her,” he says. “She has a wider hunting ground now.”

They are both silent for a while after that as they prepare their packs for the departure. He looks around at the chamber they have found themselves in. The long, narrow stone tomb over which they mated, heaps of dust and metal around its head and foot--death-offerings, offered more than ten thousand years ago.

“This place was prepared,” He murmurs.

She shakes her head. “Even sorcerers can’t reach into the past . It is coincidence, nothing more.”

No more lies, no more half-truths. “There is a thing I will show you, outside, and then, when you are ready I will ask you again what you think of coincidence.”

She looks at him, uneasy. “Jaqen?”

“Outside,” he says. Then he uses the last of the snowmelt to clean her blood off the sarcophagus.

“What are you doing?” she asks. “Leave it.”

It seems she is embarrassed . He raises an eyebrow. “Not wise, to leave something this powerful just...lying around. Practitioners of blood-magic are subtler than you think.” This is hallowed ground now, after you brought death back to life. Beyond stupid, to leave her blood here.

She steps forward, watches the last drops of blood cleaned off the stone. “What did I do ?” she whispers. “I was...cold, I think.”

“A sacrifice like the one you made is very...unlikely to be offered again,” He says. Sacrificed to death , of all things. My bride has no sense of self-preservation.

She bites her lip. “The spell doesn’t require blood sacrifice, I thought…” She shakes her head. “Murderer’s blood?” He has told her of the freeing of his brother. “It amplified the effects, I suppose.”

He looks at her, aghast. She has no idea. He thinks back to his brother’s words, the sudden awakening of Himself...power, blood, self-sacrifice. R’hllor lacks one of the three, though his worshippers try to gain it for him through prophecy and conflict. He looks at her through the eyes of death, seeking, seeking and finding...a few remnants of winter still embedded in her, deep, but nothing more.

The power has drained from her.

She drained it from herself. He wants to laugh, but the moment is too fragile for such. “You could have been a god ,” he says.

“That makes no sense,” she says. “Finding and binding, nothing has anything to do with gods .”

I’m not the only arrogant one, it seems . She has cast a great spell, she is replete with the casting of it, and so she thinks she knows everything.

No lies, no half-truths. “I helped Ambraysis craft the Red Death…” his mouth quirks at the startlement in her gaze. “I am not always merciful.”

Her mouth twists into a smile that reminds him of the wind from last night, and now, in the barrow with death humming through both of them, it arouses him. He steps closer, his hands circle around her neck; he strokes her jugular with his thumb. “Blood is not often combined--there are kinds of blood that are inimical to each other--murderers and maidens, for example, it is near impossible to harness the two in tandem to draw the same cart. And yet...you did.”

She is thoughtful. “Good thing you didn’t earn the coin earlier.”

He chuckles, buries his face in her neck. “My practical one, you haven’t seen the earning of a coin yet.” He can feel her flush under him. “And the virgin blood is powerful, but sorcerers drain maidens all the time...there is much more to you than that.” Priest’s blood, King’s blood, warg’s blood...who knows what else is running through your veins, beloved, and you sacrificed all of it willingly on My altar. In a first coupling with the living avatar of a god . “It made you into a god, and you refused it.”

She shudders. “I’m happy being Arya Stark. I don’t ever want to be anything more.” She sighs. “Truthfully, it fades--I have no idea...hold on to the shapes of my thoughts in the wind, and I cannot hold on to it.”

He strokes her hair, her back. “Let it go, beloved,” He says. “Let it go.”

He remembers.

Cruelty, she would have been, something that twists all the joy of the world into sorrow beyond memory.



 

 

BRAN

Death has returned to the world--people die again, though some few have found succor for their bodies when they should have died, and they live instead. Bran sighs, his exhaustion finally taking him into unconscious dreaming.

He dreams of his sister’s direwolf, grown to a monstrous size, larger than mountains, larger than seas...she spreads.

He dreams of sorcerers in the east, red-robed and vengeful, the few wargs left to the freefolk, the strange magicians of lightning and water that come from beyond Leng...all of them are dying, will be dying--some part of him knows that this vision is still to come, and he sorrows.

A plague that arrives with winter, that films over their eyes with white, and they shiver and shiver and cannot get warm until the blood in their veins suppurates, and corruption leaks from their skin, and the fevers take them, and they die, their sightless eyes open to the sky.

The White Weeping , the whispers say. It came after the Night of Ice.

Nymeria hunts on the wind.

Chapter Text

ARYA

She can hear the horses outside as they dig their way out of the barrow. The snow is soft, easily packable.

They find Sandor slumped in a cocoon of blankets, wedged between Horse and Steel. Jaqen shakes him awake.

Sandor’s eyes widen, he creaks to his feet, his beard rimed with snow. “You died!”

So did you, Sandor, but Death was not here for you, and the wind drove the blizzard east, and you lived.

There is unease in her, deep inside; the wind does not like saving things, even coincidentally.

“It only looked that way,” Jaqen lies. “There are many poisons that mimic death; sometimes use of them is necessary.”

Sandor grunts, still suspicious, and looks beyond Jaqen to see her standing there, arms crossed, foot tapping in impatience. His suspicion calms. “Bah, I should have known you weren’t dead--the she-wolf was far too calm.”

Jaqen’s mouth quirks, and it is a sad smile he throws her way. His eyes flash dark for a moment, and the wind stops nagging her to finish the job the blizzard started.

She regrets that Jaqen feels need to protect her, even from herself. The wind is dying, I don’t need your help. She supposes he is better than other men--he has never constrained her, and they are equals, at least in their trade, but yet...she remembers the gentleness of him as he washed her in the barrow, so gentle it felt like her heart was breaking and she had to pretend to sleep, or she would have wept.

So Jaqen is not other men, but he is not immune to this thing, this need to protect, though he hides it well.

He strides through the snow to her. “Valar morghulis,” he says, and his tone is impassive, the hallmark of the faceless.

Something bad is coming; he will not protect her from it. She thrills. “Valar dohaeris,” she replies in the same mode.

“Wear a brother?” he asks.

She feels disappointment, that he would wish to bolster her with another’s fortitude.

She shakes her head. “I must learn this. And...Sandor will see.” She draws resolve around her like a suit of armor.

Sandor makes his way over, and he looks comical, lifting his feet high to clear the snow. Together, they clear off one of the small, shapeless mounds around their campsite. Under the snow, there is a cart, and on the cart there is a chest.

Bands tighten around her ribs, but she steps forward smoothly, and throws back the lid.

Bones, picked clean by the Silent Sisters. Cushioned on a suit of clothes, a missive sealed with the sign of the Seven.

“Who is it?” she asks. She knows, oh she knows, but she must ask.

“You must ask?” Jaqen says.

“Eddard Stark,” she says, and is proud of how very even her voice his, slightly thoughtful.“His bones never made it to Winterfell.”

Sandor huffs, looks at her with wide eyes. She knows he sees nothing in her face.

She can give the pain to the wind, it would tear it from her and grow stronger. She can give it to the darkness, and it will swaddle her in numbness. Instead, she balls it into a hard sphere under her ribcage. She feels nothing . It may come later--a price must always be paid for composure. But this day will earn no keen from Arya Stark.

She closes the lid, puts her arms around the chest, places a kiss upon the latch. “Sandor, can our cart carry this load, or should we take theirs?”

Sandor is looking at her with pity.

She doesn’t react to that, either.

“We can take it,” he says. “Little wolf…”

“I saw his execution,” she says. “His bones do not hold him.” The darkness holds him, beside my mother. “Valar morghulis,” she says. “All men must die.”

Sandor’s eyes widen further. “Who are you, and where the fuck is Arya Stark?”

She sees Jaqen’s mouth twitch, and her own lips curl in response. “I am no one,” she says. Then she relents. “Sometimes I am Arya Stark.”

Sandor shakes his head. “You people are barking mad, all of you.”

You people. Your people. She turns to Jaqen. “Not coincidence.” She sees again in her mind the network of people, of alliances and plots, and now there is a new hub, with spiderweb thin tendrils of shadow and ash winding around everything.

She turns, would pace if the snow allowed it.

Sandor grunts. “Fucking corpses everywhere,” he says, then shuffles off a fair distance. He’s making water.

He has changed, as well. The Hound wouldn’t have given two fucks about pissing on corpses.

High Valyrian is the language of strategy, to her mind--the Valyrians had so very many words for all shades of war. It is in High Valyrian that she speaks now. “We led ourselves into a trap.”

“It seems that way,” Jaqen replies, cautious.

“We must turn back. Sandor can go ahead with the bodies; messages will have to do for the rest. You and I, we cannot go to Winterfell.”

“I will not kill your brother.” His eyes shift, his irises expand till she looks into the black-in-black orbs of the God.

She breathes in the sight of him, then shakes her head. “Beloved,” she says, as gentle as the wind allows her to be, “the trap is laid for you , not Jon.”

His answering smile mocks her. “You were thinking something earlier...I didn’t grasp all of it, but enough...something about overprotective spouses, if I don’t miss my guess.”

“Is this a new aspect of you, reading thoughts?”

“It is the same as it has always been, lovely girl--reading faces, and extrapolation.”

She narrows her eyes at him. “You extrapolate a little too well,” she murmurs, then raises her voice. “Are you sure this is not arrogance again?”

“Tell me,” He says.

“I will think on it,” she promises.

He gives her a half-bow, his hand over his heart.

She thinks about it for a long time. The three of them maneuver the frozen chest off the Silent Sisters’ cart and onto theirs, gather the last of their items from the campsite.

The horses are ready to move. She mounts Steel, and automatically shutters the wince that accompanies the motion--he’s noticed, no doubt, and damn him to the seven hells if he thinks it’s going to stop or slow what she has in mind for him. Then they are on their way.

The trail they followed here is snowed over. The horses sink into it, fetlock-deep, but yet again the wind has been kind to them--much of the snow that fell last night has been scoured away from the plane, revealing the shape of the main road.

There is an ache between her legs. But it is pleasant, like the ache in muscles that comes a day after hard training; she has learned to relish that kind of pain. And one must consider the source, after all.

Jaqen was in me.

The flash of memory ignites her desire yet again.

This thing of the body, this wanting , it obeys no rules, no decorum. Our minds, our souls, they are all flotsam to it; it is a hurricane.

It has no mercy in it.

The thought pleases her. She closes her eyes and sinks down further in the saddle, feeling the soreness between her legs.

She opens her eyes, and he is watching her, and the darkness in his gaze has nothing to do with the God. She closes her eyes against the intensity in him, savoring it, and then reluctantly turns her attention to the problem at hand.

R’hllor and prophecy. Prophecy and sorcerers. Jon and Targaryens. Where do I fit into it? Because Arya Stark fits into the story somewhere, but so far everything she has done has broken the pattern. Break the pattern. They expect us to go to Winterfell, so we must not. But they expect that as well, they will lay traps along the path south as well, so we must continue north. And then we return to the original problem. Winterfell, or not.

They stand by the side of the main road by the time she has sifted through all the information she has, by the time she has redrawn the map of influence and potential in her mind. The answer, with the limited information she has, must be simple.

“Left, or right?” he asks.

“To Winterfell,” she says.

Sandor sighs. “Eight, nine days, if there’s no more fucking snow.”

“The wind has taken all the snow east,” she says. It is true--the sky is overcast, but the clouds are thin, and the disc of the sun is visible, like a torch flickering through fog.



 

JAQEN

He has never considered that agony could be a pleasant condition and yet somehow, in the glances that they share, in the nights they spend holding each other, in the whispered flirtations, rare but potent, agony has become something he looks forward to. They are suspended, him and his bride, their own desires on one side and all the world in the other.

For days they talk of trivialities, including Sandor when they can.

The cart travels slower now, and they must stop from time to time and haul it over a snowdrift or ice-scoured pothole in the road. It extends the time they must share space with the bodies of her mother and father; but the House is a house of corpses, in the end, and he is the god of all dead things.

He cannot read her. Either she is too far away, or she is as serene inside as she appears on the surface. But he can ask; what is a marriage for, if this thing cannot be asked?

“I cannot extrapolate,” he murmurs to her; she is armed to the teeth, his bride, and only honesty may disarm her. “Lay my mind at ease, beloved, tell me how you are.”

“How many times can I mourn the same thing?” she asks.

“As many times as you wish,” he replies.

Something shifts in her, her face opens to him more. “I do not wish to mourn any more.”

She has kept her vigils. “Then let it go,” he says gently. She can; the Lorathi way is not good for the complications of gods and prophecies, and she has always resisted it, but this much she must have learned from his Lorathi brother--how to watch an emotion in the mind’s eye, watch it pass through her and away from her, until only she remains.

“It is just grief,” she says with a sigh. “No more anger. It feels...it feels complete,” she says. “So if the finding of his bones, if all the coincidences that led us to them, if it is sorcerer-mischief, I’ll thank them for it before they die. My mother and father should come home together.”

He nods, and is satisfied.


 

That night they build their huddle further from the cart, from the campfire, much further from Sandor than is their wont. They are under the blankets, and they reach for each others’ clothes, the frantic undoing of laces accompanied by whispered admonitions to be quiet.

He pushes her britches down to her knees, then pauses. “Love,” he says, in the Braavosi cant, “we can wait, you know.”

She chuckles. “My heart,” she says, and then her words are the raw things the Dothraki use as language, “if we wait for us, for me, to be an uncomplicated creature, for my desire to be something pure and untainted by anything except itself, we will wait a very long time.”

She tugs at his smallclothes, impatient. He allows her to bare him, and he comes to rest on top of her, between her legs, skin to skin, and he cannot deny that desire may be a complicated thing for the both of them, but it is powerful .

Her mouth is calling to him, insistent, and he lowers his lips to hers. She meets him halfway, tongues clashing, and he groans.

Her hand has found its way to his back, and she is running her fingers over his shoulders, leaving lightning in the wake of her fingertips.

He responds by grasping her breast, tweaking her nipple between thumb and forefinger. He is hard, against her, and she squirms. They share a look as she tips her head towards the other side of the camp.

“I believe I promised you a conversation about theology,” he teases, in a softened form of High Valyrian, one spoken by slaves of the great houses, tempered by their awareness of their own mortality and not by the arrogance of the dragonlords, who were arrogant until the very end.

“Mmm,” she says, as she parts her legs, and her hips rise to press her against him. She undulates under him, and he must bury his head in her neck or risk making more sound than they are already making. “This is something I have been trying to think through…” she says in the same speech, then she pauses, draws his face down to her chest, and he engulfs her left tit in his mouth, sucking and nipping by turns. “What is magic?”

He draws away from her, reluctantly. “As I understand--”

“Don’t stop unless you have to correct me,” she says. He grins, and obediently returns to his obsession with her nipples. They are rock hard, and wet from his saliva. He transfers his attention to her right tit, even as his hands stroke down her sides, reach her hips.

“Magic is power , but so is money--buying power, selling power--the power to do something, to create something, to make men think a certain way.”

This is the second time she has used a monetary metaphor. He has a sneaking suspicion… “Have you been studying Varro Massag’s memories?” he asks.

“Mmm.”

She is tugging at his hair, but he is too curious to be diverted; in apology, his hands stroke their way to the inside of her thighs. Then higher. He cannot quite control the change in his breathing, the red fog that rises through him when his fingers encounter her wetness.

“I learned a lot,” she gasps. “His memories of the world...the flow of coin as a river, with numeracy as its deluge...his mind is so very twisty --” and she loses the thread of her conversation.

He chuckles. Like calls to like, it seems. But there is a tinge of sadness about him as well. He doesn’t look at the world like that anymore.

“What is...magic,” she arches under his fingers, “but a gradient--”

“Arrgh!” snarls Sandor from the other side of the campsite. “You two can’t even fuck without having a discussion about it!”

They still, and hear Sandor haul himself out from under the cart, and stalk off a ways, grumbling. “Man can’t sleep, stupid talking all the time, just have the decency to be quiet .”

“I thought he’d never leave,” she murmurs.

“Mmm,” he says, and nuzzles her throat.

“Put cock in cunt, then go to sleep!” Sandor shouts at them over his retreating form.

“Nor does he understand the function of foreplay, it seems,” says Jaqen, amused.

I do not either, at the moment,” she says.

She is getting annoyed. He can’t have that; he wants her incoherent. His fingers grow more insistent, his mouth is reserved for finding the sensitive spots on her collarbone, her neck, until she is squirming under him, artless, and both their breaths come in short gasps. He positions his cock at her slick entrance, pushes against her. She spreads her legs, she rocks forward, but he draws back.

Jaqen ,” she pleads.

“Beg,” he murmurs.

She begs.

Sweet blasphemy, out of her beautiful mouth, and he captures her lips with his own, swallows her moan as he sheaths himself in her in one long motion. It is enough to send her over  the edge--she spasms around him, clenching down on him, and he swallows her moan.

Only then does he start to move, and all restraints fall away from him.

His thrusts are hard, erratic, all his attention focused on the feel of her around his cock, wet and tight and heat, and he pulls out and thrusts back in, only dimly aware that her back is scraping back and forth on the ground. She is clawing at his back, the sweet, sharp burning of her nails inflames him further and he is so deep in her.

It is unstoppable, the rising tide within him. He pulls back, right to the edge, only his cockhead still in her cunt, and then he drives forward, and her sex grips him, again and again, and there is nothing in him except the need to fuck her, not even concern for her pleasure, nothing but the need to bury himself in her until he finds...salvation, it feels like, beckoning him.

Her hips are rising to meet him.

Arya,” he moans, “...close…” so close.

She groans and the walls of her sex shudder.

He spills in her, deep inside, and she is clenching around him, milking every last drop of his seed from him, and his mind is empty, empty of everything except her and the force of his release.

She’s on watch...she’s.. . Any more coherent thought is not possible. He collapses on her, buries his face between her breasts, and allows himself to drown in the scent of her, into oblivion.



 

 

ARYA

Jaqen’s breathing is quiet, his weight half on top, and she can feel his seed seeping out of her. Sandor returns soon, far too soon, sees them lying still; she is feigning sleep. He crawls into his bedroll, and he’s snoring within a quarter-watch.

The snoring wakes Jaqen.

They dress under the blankets, quietly gather up their packs and a sleeping roll, walk a distance from the camp to a small glade surrounded by fir trees.

They undress again, use snow-dampened cloths to clean themselves.

Something else happened, in the barrow , she thinks. He doesn’t feel the cold; I feel it, but nowhere as much as I should.

Her gaze follows the planes of his body, the hard, lean muscles, moonlight and snow picking out his frame in stark relief. His hair is all black now, and it has grown longer; it brushes his shoulder-blades as he moves.

He’s watching her with the same kind of vapid expression she thinks is on her face.

“I hate sticky ,” she says.

He smirks. “There is a certain amount of mess involved, lovely girl.”

“Well, if it is inevitable, maybe we should not do this again for a while,” she says, mock-innocent.

“Yes,” he agrees sagely. “ That will solve the problem.”

They grin stupidly at each other.


 

Clean, she lies against his chest, naked under the blanket. They haven’t rebuilt their huddle, just laid the bedroll onto a patch of flat-packed snow.

He toys idly with her breasts. She likes it, but she wonders what pleasure he gets out of it. She can just ask.

“Do you like doing this?” The question is not precise, but he understands.

“Mmm.” He thinks. “You know that feeling you get, when you run your whetstone over the edge of your sword, and you can hear the blade getting sharper?”

Good ,” she says. “And you just want to keep doing it, and...”

“That,” he says.

She draws closer to him.

“Did you like it?” he asks, and it is not a precise question either, but she understands.

“Far more than what I thought a coin was worth,” she says, quietly.

He entwines his fingers with hers. “Beloved,” he says, and she can feel him grinning. “A coin has not been earned yet.”


 

The world is silent except for the susurration of the wind, blowing dry snow across the ground. She imagines a desert would sound like this, as zephyrs drive grains of sand before them. Far away, she can hear Sandor snoring.

Jaqen is naked, his legs entwined with hers. She bites her lip; she can feel the wanting rise, and this time he is here and not half a dream. Had she been in Braavos, she would have closed her eyes, imagined him so...

It was a thing a man had to do, as well, many times...

There is a memory she has of him, one that she has avoided out of some sense of...courtesy, perhaps. Courtesy is a meaningless word between the two of them now, and there is only the hurricane gathering power, gathering the sea to itself.

In the memory, he stood on a terrace, a flat platform high in the sky, jutting out of the gargantuan facade of the H’ghar stronghold. The air smelled of metal, it shimmered in waves from the heat rising off a river of molten rock far below.

His sword was raised, and he observed the still form of three golems, animated by mages to provide targets for the young lords of Valyria (those that preferred the inanimate, for the greater punishment they could take compared to flesh--Jaqen--or for those that were too impoverished to throw away skilled slaves on an afternoon’s sparring session--the Targaryens, for example). The mages were kept on retainer by the house, for such sessions--Valyria still thought it could claim Jaqen H’ghar, Valyria was still being kind to him--but the mages were at the limit of their skill.

He was the same age as she is, now. And the aggression in him...she can feel it in the man he has become, it thrums under his surface, but in the present it is a lethal, focused, thing. In the memory, he has not yet tamed his aggression; triumph sings through his veins, a vicious battle-rage that does not ebb even when the golems lie still upon the ground. He turns, strides through the stronghold till he is in his chambers; he is impossibly aroused, he takes himself in hand, strokes himself with swift, firm motions…

She turns in his arms, draws circles through the sparse hair of his chest.

He awakens, of course. And he sees something in her, because he reaches, but she grabs his wrist and returns his hand to his side, then places her finger across her mouth, indicating silence.

She rakes her nails down his chest. He makes no sound.

She rises a bit, reaches forward, licks at the base of his throat, along his vein, bites the crook of his neck, very, very gently.

His breathing has changed.

She likes the taste of him, the feel of his skin rubbing against her. She places small kisses all the way down his arm, to the tip of his finger, then his thigh. His cock is rising; she twists, bends, quickly, places a kiss on its tip.

The muscles of his stomach, his thighs, they tense and his manhood is rigid.

She draws away, a cruel smile on her face. She grabs his wrist again, leads his hand downwards till it is resting on his cock.

He raises an eyebrow.

Show me ,” she mouths. “ Show me what I made you do to yourself.”

His eyes are wide, his gaze locked on hers. Slowly, his fist closes around his erection. She watches, heat rising from the base of her spine. She feels that time is moving too slow; he drags his hand upwards along his shaft, then down again.

It feels like the whole world is concentrated in the most infinitesimal movement of his hand, his skin stretching and relaxing with his strokes.

There is no sound from either of them.

A drop of fluid appears at the tip of his cock as he pleasures himself for her. As if hypnotized, she reaches out, gathers the drop upon her index finger. Then, almost absently, she puts her finger in her mouth, tasting him. His strokes become erratic, frantic, he shudders, and his cock spurts: an arc of white falling against her thigh.

He has still not made a sound.

She looks up to meet his eyes. His face is blank, utterly still, and she is aroused beyond reason, and it feels good. She gathers up his seed from her thigh, does not break eye contact, and licks it off her fingers, one by one.

“Your watch,” she whispers.


 

Dawn is just over the horizon when she awakens, his hardness pressing into her.

She does not expect it when he moves; there is no tell at all. His hand covers her mouth and he thrusts into her from behind. She bites, shifts instinctively to give him better access, and he thrusts deeper. She reaches over them, throws the blanket aside, even as she hooks her leg over him. The shifting of blanket-cloth against skin, rhythmic, it is too much sound even for the muffled air of the snowbound landscape around them.

Naked under the pre-dawn winter sky, they move together in the most absolute silence they can manage. Some sounds--the wet sucking sound as he withdraws from her, the quiet sound of flesh meeting flesh as he enters her, these are unavoidable.

She tightens her muscles around him every time he thrusts, thrusts back against him, thrusts steadily through her orgasm, the whisper of his name the only sound that is allowed, and his refrain, murmured into her ear, “ Arya….Arya,”, until he clamps his hand around her breast a little too hard, and she feels his cock twitch inside her.

They subside, sweat cooling swiftly in the cold air, and he draws the blanket over them again.


 

Sandor drives the cart, all his sleeping blankets wound around him. The cart gets stuck again, they heave it over the large warp in the road that has drawn and packed snow around it.

By midday, both Jaqen and Arya throw back their cloaks, loosen the ties at their throats.

Jaqen is in a strange mood, one that she has never before seen in him. They ride in the wake of the cart, and she is in the saddle in front of him--Sandor is far too cocooned and cold to spare much energy looking backwards.

Jaqen’s hands are under her shirt, on her breasts, his fingers and the cold draft from where her shirt ride up...she has been in a state of near-constant arousal for more than a watch. The oscillation, between want and wait is…

...is a metaphor for sex. A metaphor being written and constantly re-written on her flesh.

It rides her, makes her limbs heavy and alive by turns. She thinks she finally, finally understands one of the subtler aspects of the games Jaqen plays with her.

With himself.

Jaqen’s head is buried in the crook of her neck. “I love you,” he murmurs. “I have always loved you, long before I ever laid eyes on you in Oldtown, I would have taken the world apart stone by stone to make you mine, and yet now...now that you are, I want to serve your whims . I want to please you.”

She exhales.

“You want Cersei Lannister?” he asks. “I’ll give you her head, tied with a red ribbon, and fuck all destinies to hell. Who do you want dead? Just give me the names.” He clutches at her breasts, draws her closer to him. “This is madness,” he whispers, “I never understood it, this delirium,” and there is wonder in his voice. “Tell me what you want, beloved,” he pleads.

I want my parents back. I want to go home but I don’t know where home is except that it is where you are. “Teach me how to be uncomplicated,” she says. I want your delirium.

He stills. His hands grow less frantic, more comforting. He breathes, and she knows he breathes in all of her sorrow, and she feels like shit for dispelling his euphoria.

“Uncomplicated, is it?” he asks thoughtfully. Then, he begins to speak:

“She always played a son for pay
Till all her dreaming came undone
And all the world was washed away”

 Slowly, Arya sags against him, each word falling in her ears like a single droplet of water, ringing into solitary place.

“Children lived in cabins, tall timid and fay
There were three, and two, and then just one
Come away, come away, ‘twas all just a mummer’s play.”

His voice is light, rueful.

“She crafted a ship in a sheltered bay
Then scuttled the craft when it was done
And all the world was washed away.

She swelled and grew on summer’s say
Then bled, and walked and two were one
Come away! Come away! ‘tis not a mummer’s play.”

He trades me a sorrow for a proxy, she thinks. A poison to counter poison.

“Two watched each other sail astray
He mimed a woman for she was none
And with all the world, they washed away

And everyone died at the close of day
When wooded waves were made undone
And all the world was washed away.
Come away, come away, ‘twas all but a mummer’s play”

It is melancholy, the silence between breaths, and she leans back against him and lets it wash through her. She watches it, and it does not belong to her, and so she can let it go, and when it is gone she realizes it has washed away the detritus of pain that had stifled her without her knowing.

“Huh,” she says.

She can feel him grinning against her neck.

“Where is that from?” she asks. “I have not found it in your saddlebags before.”

He doesn’t reply, and she twists around. “It’s yours , isn’t it? Tell me.

He gives her a slow smile, indolent and sensual. “First,” he says quietly, “I want your delirium.”

Just the thought is enough to send her into a frenzy of want . It rises in her, like fear, but warm. “Yours,” she says. “Yours, always, yours.”

She realizes her madness is a taking madness, a wanting madness.

“I want another of your poems,” she says. “And another, and another. Cersei can keep her head until her brother takes it off her, I want your poetry until I weep from it.” She pauses. “And I want a Valyrian steel sword,” she says, just for good measure, because she is who she is; because he is who he is, she asks “And a talking parrot, with blue and red plumes.”

He grins against her. “Done, done, done. A man does not control the timing of it--Valyrian steel is rare these days, there should be no talking parrots in Winterfell. But done, and done. What else?”

She is greedy, but not for things. “I want to ride you, for hours .” She stretches against him. “I want to know what you want.”

“You.”

And how his hands under her shirt move with intent, circling her nipples, pinching gently. She squirms, grabs his hand, drags it lower.

“Behave,” he says, his voice dark. He lifts his chin to the cart in front of them. Rebellious, she moves her hips, grinds into him. He shifts back.

“If a girl is very good,” he murmurs, “she will get a reward later, when we get to an inn in Cerwyn.”

“What reward?” she demands.

“The thing I had to teach you how to do?” he asks, mockery threaded through his words.

“You did not have to teach me anything,” she snarls.

“Mmm. That thing I did not have to teach you?” his voice drops an octave, it seems. His tongue traces a spiral behind her ear. “That, but with my mouth.”

Both of their breathing is a little faster, uneven, and it’s his turn to start undoing the ties at the front of her britches.

She presses her hand over his. “Behave,” she says. “A girl will not have her reward compromised due to lack of control from Jaqen H’ghar, of all people.”


 

It is late, the sun long set, when they ride up to the town clinging to the skirts of Castle Cerwyn. Winterfell lies a half-day’s ride north.

The town lies blanketed in snow, the streets drowning in the muddy slush made by horses, and carts, feet.

“What now?” asks Sandor. His voice is weary, and he has been shivering for a while.

“Now, an inn,” says Jaqen.

Sandor clears his throat. “Got no silver for inns. Find us a stable somewhere, if you can, war’s probably got more than half the horses here killed, there’ll be room.”

She exchanges a glance with Jaqen, and they draw off to a side.

“Can I borrow from the House?” she asks in Braavosi cant, and quickly. “I will pay it back, with interest--Jon will redeem my word.”

Jaqen blinks at her. “You have a sack of coin in your pack, why do you need to ask my permission?”

She shakes her head. “That’s for faceless expenses, not ‘ale and whores’ money, as our Braavosi brother calls it. If I report I used it for another’s room and board...”

Jaqen gives her an incredulous look. “You give a reporting of your expenses?”

“You don’t ?” she asks, appalled. “Love, we’re hemorrhaging coin, none of the budget estimates are ever right, how are we supposed to--”

He is laughing at her.

“Jaqen! I’m serious.”

He realizes she is, but he cannot help mock her. “You bought me a present from your blacksmith, with guild coin.”

A blacksmith. A knife ,” she says. “Weapons, poisons, clothes and bribes, these are perfectly legitimate uses.”

His eyes are twinkling. “And ale and whores only when they are part of your cover. Does the brothel’s payment-scheme have to be explained?”

She glares at him.

He raises his hand. “I surrender--you report, and budget, and allocate as you see fit, I’ll keep on...not doing any of it. Fair enough?”

She sighs. “Fair enough.”

They turn back to the cart. “Sandor!” she calls. “Inn, town-center.”

“Fucking wolf-bitch, I got no silver, won’t take your charity .”

“You’re a Stark man now, Clegane,” she says. “Roof and salt and shield,” she reminds him, the words of the ancient obligations of the First Men. “Come on, it’s freezing .”

She chivvies Sandor, and they ride through the twisty winding streets, up to the town square.

Jaqen is thinking. “Why is the guild hemorrhaging money?” he asks.

Because Him of the Many Faces doesn’t give a shit about coin, or how much of it it takes to run one of the most important guilds in Braavos? It’s a complaint she’s heard before, from their brother who manages the books...of course, it’s not a complaint in his mouth, more of a curse, and she has always taken it to be a sort of generic professional hazard, like a sailor cursing the weather…

“Because our brothers don’t understand thrift. And that they shouldn’t buy things for themselves with guild coin.”

Jaqen’s eyes narrow. “So thrift is what got us woolen cloaks instead of fur...and, beloved, I don’t disrespect our brothers back at the House--they take on burdens I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole--but I must disagree with them. All our brothers have given their lives to the order, they have given their deaths to the order. If someone wants to buy something--ale and whores, if it so pleases them--it seems...trivial, and petty, to ask an accounting of it.”

She cocks her head to a side, her thoughts brought to a halt. “I don’t disagree with you,” she says finally. “But...there must be limits.”

Jaqen’s mouth curls. “And who is one brother, to set a limit on another?”

Oh, my beloved Lorathi love, you’ve created an order of anarchists. “The god doesn’t care about the gold price at all, does he?” she asks softly.

He grins. “But now that I know where your ideas of thrift are coming from,” he says, “tomorrow we will get proper clothing for the weather, and clothing appropriate your station--a daughter of the Starks, returning home.”

She opens her mouth to object, asks instead, “where did you think my thrift was coming from?”

A smile curves his lips upwards, a little sheepish. “An extrapolation gone wrong--I did not recognize it as thrift...didn’t find it in your memories, I thought it was a more recent character trait...a rejection of material things, to go along with the stone bed.”

Wishful thinking, that I was further on the Lorathi path than I ever will be...How can you be wrong about such a small thing? Being wrong about the nature of godhood, about prophecies and traps, that was...understandable.

He’s looking at her, his smile wry. That night, her horribly failed confession... Would it surprise you to know that I have no idea what I am doing either?

“Only ever lied to you about the dying,” he murmurs. “Only ever manipulated you with the truth.”

His words pierce her, driving home the thing that she knows , and yet has trouble believing sometimes... he loves me. Truth, for ones whose lives hang upon lies... he loves me. He would have taken the world apart, stone by stone, to make me his.

“Furs,” she says. “And I will wear something befitting my station, as you say.” She smiles at him, unfurled and unfettered; he places a hand over his heart, his gaze unbearably...gentle, lost. “But you forget, my lord,” she says softly, “a daughter’s station is not measured by the house of her birth, but by the extent of her husband’s domain.” And my husband’s domain is without end. “I have left the robes of my order in Braavos, but I have a shirt that is the right shade of grey. It will do.”

His answering smile is...another thing she does not know she craves of his, this joyous thing. She looks down, overcome; their horses have stopped, he reaches across the distance between them, places a curled finger beneath her chin, raises her eyes to his.

“Only in the dreaming,” he says, “only in the dreaming have I heard that word from your lips.”

“Husband mine,” she says sweetly, “we should stop blocking the road.”

He roars with laughter; they continue on.

She has a thought. “We need to agree on the details of our wedding,” she says. “They will ask.” She thinks. “Maybe not Jon--but Sansa definitely.”

He looks at her, raises an eyebrow. “What did you have in mind?” he asks.

“Your will is law,” she says thoughtfully.

A temple marriage is governed by ecclesiastical law in Braavos, and by definition such laws are couched as edicts from whatever god the temple is dedicated to. Him of the Many Faces dictated, at the time of her death, that he would take Arya Stark as his bride.

"As is yours," he says.

A guild marriage is governed by guild law. The guild of Faceless Men have no law, save one, that the word of one of their own is absolute, and irreversible, and inviolable. Arya Stark gave Him her word, in no uncertain terms, the moment she became faceless.

How does one explain that to Sansa , of all people?

She grins. “We can just make up anything . Vows...drinking from a poisoned chalice…” her imagination is carrying her away. “Daggers, thrust into each others’ hearts, binding us beyond life…”

He chuckles, but there is an edge to it.

“Love?” she asks.

“I would prefer not to lie about my own marriage,” he says, “not when there are so many other truths we are planning to offer your family. We say the ritual is a secret of the temple of the Many-Faced God, and leave it at that. If you agree.”

She snorts. “You are a romantic. But I shall agree with you this time.” She cocks her head to a side. “Can I at least allude to poisoned daggers being involved?”

“Allude as much as you like,” he says, and his smile is mischievous. “I’ll corroborate.”


 

As Sandor predicted, the inn’s stables are bare and they can back the cart into a double stall. A handful of coins gets them two rooms, and a cold supper.

Sandor eats, downs two flagons of ale, grunts, and stomps off to his room.

Their retreat is...controlled.

The moment the door closes behind them, they are upon each other. There is no talk of rewards, or waiting, just a frantic tearing at each others’ clothes.

He takes her on the floor, harsh, exactly as harshly as she wants him to, and when she is sated she fights him, but he takes her slowly, torturously, exactly as he wants to.

They lie on the rough wooden planks beside each other, the thundering of their heartbeats, matched, slowing to a more seemly rhythm.

They rise, and look at each other, and the ground, at their clothes strewn everywhere, at the bed that was just an arm's length away.

“This is ridiculous ,” she says, then giggles, and he is grinning.

They spend some time picking out splinters from each others’ backs. She gets to the curve of his buttocks and leans down, bites. His intake of breath, so un controlled, drives her to push against him, turn him onto his back with sheer force and straddle him.

It is an approximation of the position of their first coupling, but this time he is very much alive and the candlelight that plays around their skin is far softer than the flickering torchlight of the barrow.

He cups his hands behind the curve of her buttocks, and draws her forward. She rises, onto her knees, and allows herself to be led until his face is below her. She throws her head back; she cannot bear the look of him, his eyes, black-in-black, as he fastens his mouth on her sex.

His tongue is sweeping maddening circles over her nub, his fingers dipping into her in rhythm with his tongue. The sensation is utterly unlike anything she has ever felt before; she feels like she is unbalanced, poised on some great height. She falls into air, and she is descending, descending, drawn by the inexorable force of his mouth, insistent upon her.

She trembles around his tongue, a long, slow trembling.

He grazes her clit with his teeth, lightly.

She crashes.



 

JAQEN

She lies with her head pillowed on his chest, his arm around her.

“A sovereign for your thoughts,” she murmurs.

That much, lovely girl?”

“Inflation,” she says, “in the wake of the wars.”

He chuckles, then tries to put his scattered impressions into words. “Your...response to me. To everything.” He takes a deep breath. “Our Lorathi brother offered you a choice, when you were but new in the House. I saw this in your memory.”

“To be a courtesan, in a brothel,” she says.

“That,” he says. “Regardless of my personal response to that offer--”

“Jealously?” she asks.

“Fury,” he says, and his voice is flat.

She puts her leg over him, draws closer. “Mmm.”

“Regardless,” Jaqen continues, taking a moment to run his hand up the thigh she has so conveniently presented him with, “he was not wrong. This kind of effortless arousal…” his hand hovers over her breast, and both of them watch her areola pucker. “You have no idea how much thinking, how much deliberation I have put into the times I must lie with someone--a target, an informant, a cover...I lie with you and I forget all skill--”

“This is you forgetting skill?” she asks.

He smiles down at her. “There is not much skill behind it, other than the very basic...I don’t have to arouse myself, I don’t have to think ... very Braavosi, my coupling with you. And yet you respond to me, I ask you to beg and you beg, I beg you to come and you come...love, had you been a courtesan, princes would have laid their kingdoms at your doorstep for but a night in your arms.”

She considers his statement. “There is a common thread, in all the things you say I do…” she is amused. “What is the common thread, beloved mine?”

“A man has not the slightest idea, lovely girl, for if he did we could bottle it and sell it, and the House of Black and White would be richer than the Iron Bank.”

You ,” she says. “You, always you. It is you I have thought of since the first time I ever thought of anything even remotely of desire, and coupling. You killed me, and took me into the darkness.”

He cannot help but bend down, capture her lips. She strokes his tongue with her own, softly, and he groans.

“Jaqen,” she says, when they pull apart, “I am a creature of winter, of cold thought and cold spite.”

His breathing stills.

Princes ?” she asks, the word imbued with disdain. “Do you think anything less than my god could have awakened me?”

He shifts, pulls his arm out from under her, and their positions reverse, as he lies with his head pillowed upon her breast. He breathes her in, the death she breaths out, and says nothing.

They drowse, half-aware, half-asleep.

“So this…,” she says softly after a while, “between us...this is not the way it is for everyone?”

He exhales against her skin.

“I know there is violence and violation,” she says, “but even with people that love each other it is not like this…?”

“I have no idea, beloved,” he says, and smiles. “I’ve never loved anyone before. So to find out, first we would have to find two people that love each other, which, in this land may be a bit of a stretch...and then how would you broach the conversation?”

He raises his head, looks her in the eye, “Hello goodsir, we would like to know, when you sheathe yourself in your wife, does it feel like the world is ending, that every joy a man should ever know is wrapped around your cock?”

She grins. “Every joy a man should ever know?” she asks.

In response, his hands start caressing her skin, heading lower, and she sees the intent--the intent she thinks he has, and spreads her legs for him.

His fingers drift lower, dip momentarily into her wet cunt, and then reach further.

She looks at him, eyes suddenly wide.

All my depraved desires, remember?” he murmurs.

Her eyes flutter, as a wave of naked hunger takes her, and had it been anyone else, he would have marveled at the artful mummery, then, on a second pass, criticized the intensity of the response as too much to be real.

She doesn’t even know she’s doing it .

“If you agree,” he murmurs, and stills the fingers that circle her puckered, virgin entrance.

“Did a girl tell you she disagreed?” she asks.

A man thinks his lovely girl is mistaken about being a creature of ice and spite. “No.”

“Then a man should do what he wants,” she says, and lies back, opening herself wider.

He traces a path between her breasts with his tongue, trying to concentrate on what he is doing. It is difficult; he is almost painfully hard, and the vision of her, lying spread before him, it is something far more lewd than any dream he has ever had of her.

Arya ,” he breathes, and her breath that hitches in response.

He moistens his fingers in her sex, then circles her entrance. She relaxes against his hand; she knows the theory, his beautiful girl.

They watch each other’s faces as he slowly inserts one finger into her; then he slides down, fastens his mouth around her clit, and suckles. He stretches her, working his finger in and out of her rear, trailing saliva and her juices over his hands to lubricate her.

“This feels so strange,” she murmurs.

He raises his head. “Bad, lovely girl?”

She shakes her head. “Just...strange.”

He grins, and, looking into her eyes, he inserts another finger. She bites her lip, and it is not pain she feels.

“Still strange?” he asks, as he uses his other hand to insert two fingers into her cunny.

Involuntarily, her eyes close for a moment. “Good.”

He scissors his fingers against each other until she is panting, and her cunt is overflowing, and her clit is engorged and begging to be touched. Then he moves up, positioning his cock at her rear.

He pushes. Instinctively, she knows what to do--she pushes back. Slowly, his cockhead breaches her sphincter, and he has never felt anything this tight, this depraved around him ever before.

He groans, and pushes further, bit by bit, till he is buried to the hilt in her ass. He fingers her cunt, rubs her clit, until she relaxes against him again. Then he rocks against her, gentle. Gentle is all he can take, the feel of her clit under his fingers...

Fuck me, Jaqen, please,” she begs.

He groans, flips her on her stomach, still in her, and starts pulling out of her, then pushing back in. He angles himself slightly differently, and she gasps, the walls of her cunt trembling around his fingers.

“Jaqen..that...”

He grins into the back of her neck. “From the other side, love.” He pauses. “More?” he asks.

“More,” she moans.

He gives her more; he grabs her hair, draws her head up, fastens his mouth on her throat as he fucks her.

Without warning, she screams, and she clamps down around him like a vice, and that triggers him, and he spills into her.


 

Definitely lost my virginity,” she says, and stretches, like a cat.

What are you thinking about, beloved, hmm? A coin, if I do not miss my guess.

He chuckles.

She turns to look at him, eyes narrowed.

She is starting to understand.

“Is a coin ever going to be earned?” she demands.

He smirks. “Ask me again in a hundred years.”



 

ARYA

They rise before dawn, and are bathed and breaking their fast in the inn’s common-room when Sandor shuffles in. His skin is pallid, his eyes puffy and swollen. He takes a seat right next to the fire, and his arms are wrapped around himself.

“Not a hangover,” Jaqen mutters. “He grumbles all the time...I think we may have gotten a bit too used to it.”

She feels guilty, doubly so because it was her thrift that outfitted them in wool. “I have been...inattentive, the past few days.”

Jaqen rises from the table, heading to Sandor.

She signals the barmaid, asks for a cup of hot water.

On the other side of the room, Jaqen is crouching beside Sandor. Sandor mutters something, hunches further into himself.

Him of the Many Faces stands, pats Sandor on the shoulder. Then, with what seems like a casual, almost-accidental motion, His hand brushes over Sandor’s head.

She is stirring the bitter leaves into the cup of hot water.

“An infection, last night maybe. Lungs,” says Jaqen. It relieves her, that they were not so wrapped up in each other that they became blind to a companion’s illness. “It will pass.” He looks at the tea she’s brewing, and gives her an amused smile. “A tisane is probably not necessary.”

She chortles. “Not for Sandor, love.”

She raises the cup to her lips; his brow is furrowed.

“The chances are small,” she explains. “The death masks...still better not to risk it.”

He understands, and then she catches a brief, brief flicker of something on his face.

Stunned, she puts down the cup. “You want it,” she whispers.

He shakes his head, sits down at the bench across her. “No, of course not.”

“What would we do, Jaqen,” she pleads, “dump it on the Kindly Man in the House of Corpses?”

He smiles. It is a weak thing. “That would earn the both of us a beating, and rightly so. You are far too young, beloved, and it is impractical and untenable.” His smile is stronger now. “Drink the tea, love. ‘No’ can be undone any time between now and eternity. A mistaken ‘yes’...it is hard to undo, without the possibility of unconscionable harm to you before the birth.” Darkness overtakes his eyes. “And after...even I might balk at strangling my own newborn child.”

She looks down and away.

“You don’t want it, love,” he says gently.

You want it,” she mutters.

He shakes his head. “How can it be a true want if I did not know I wanted it till but a few moments ago? It was the momentary--a very momentary--stupidity of a romantic.”

Wanting to hold something you and I made together.

“Disregard it,” he says, voice hard. “Drink the tea.”

Oh my beloved, what did you just do to me?

She upends the cup on the floor. “What happens, happens,” she mutters.

They find themselves leaning forward on the table, forehead to forehead, breaths mingled. She does not know how, but she has gone from panic to euphoria in the space of a few heartbeats; they wear matching grins.

“Madness has taken us,” he whispers.

“We are so stupid,” she agrees. “But the chance is remote.”

“The death masks,” he murmurs, “the chance is remote.”



 

JAQEN

Sandor’s lung infection seems to have cleared up a watch or so after dawn; the man seems to be irritated , that he missed out on a chance to grumble. Him of the Many Faces smirks, and wraps his arms around his bride, sitting in the saddle of his horse in front of him.


 

Winterfell looms in the distance.

“Eddard Stark-H’ghar?” she asks.

If something happens, and if that something is a girl, then Niobe . Eddard , if it’s a boy.

It’s the second half of the names that is a problem.

“The H’ghar name needs to die,” he says.

“Eddard Faceless?” she teases.

He grins. “Eddard Morghul?”

“Snow,” she decides in the end.

He is naught but amused at this. “You’d make a god’s very much legitimate child a bastard?”

“It’s that or Stark-H’ghar,” she says with some asperity. “Or,” she says, mischievous, “uth-Braavos.”

“My child is not a Braavosi ,” he says with mock-disdain. “But Storm sounds better than Snow .”

It would help, if there was not quite so much lying around in the country of her birth.

“Don’t disparage the bastards of my homeland,” she says. “It could be worse, I could be from Dorne.”

He sighs. “Stark, just by itself, it would not work.”

“Too many political ramifications,” she agrees. “And when they become faceless...not good, the parental connection; it sets up an aristocracy, of a sorts.”

He twists, draws her face up to him. “You would have our baby join the order?” he asks. “To be faceless...there is a lot of darkness needed, beloved, to become who we are. To be born to it…” he shakes his head. “That would be no choice at all.”

She looks lost. “You would lose our child to old age?” she asks, and her voice trembles.

His arms tighten around her. “Valar morghulis,” he says.

She looks down. Death is absolute; they are united in principle, if not specifics. “Valar dohaeris,” she whispers.

“But questions of profession aside,” he says, “the order does have experience in dealing with foundlings...fosterage…”

“You’d make my baby an orphan while both of us live?”

He shakes his head. “I am at a loss, love.”

“What does a child need?” she asks, does not wait for an answer. “Food, shelter, security. Love. All of that she will have in the House of Black and White.”

“Yes,” he says, “and corpses as well.”

“Nevertheless,” she says, “it is her father’s house.”

“Mmm.”

We are so stupid. And yet, and yet... We’ll make it work, if something happens. Somehow. He is not above bending rules, especially rules that are no more than custom. A small house, for a few years, by the sea. If she agrees.

“Love, we’re close,” she says.

“Not yet,” he whispers into her hair.

“We are here, love, the sentries will have seen us already.”

He sighs, and leans back, and she shortens Steel’s reins until the horse is right beside them, and then twists onto the mare’s back.

“You’re getting very good at that,” he says.

She grins at him. “Practice makes perfect.”

In unspoken unison, they drop back. They are flanking the cart, the two riders. The wind whips the snow around their horses’ feet, and the gates of Winterfell rise before them.

Chapter Text

ARYA

The ground, even a few hundred paces away from the gate, is violently uneven--the mud underneath the freshly fallen snow is furrowed and cratered, then frozen solid by winter’s chill. She can feel the unease of the soldiers watching from the battlements.

Sparse , she thinks. There are fewer men than there should be.

The familiar shape of Winterfell, a shape derived from one last look over her shoulder, years ago, as her father’s retinue followed Fat Robert’s around the bend in the Moat Caelyn road...the shape of Winterfell is different. The tops of the towers, the keeps, they still trace a staggered majesty against the bleak winter sky, but...as they come closer she realizes the First Keep is lopsided. The soaring Bell Tower bridge is simply...gone.

A fist clenches around her throat, and she must control her breath.

How many times must I mourn the same thing?

The question of how much to reveal to her family, and when, it is...unanswered. Her and Jaqen, they’ve worn circular paths through the fields of their reasonings, but all they can decide upon is responses to scenarios, from heartfelt welcome to violence, and a dozen contingencies for each.

They had included Sandor in the last of the discussions.


 

“A word in you ear, Sandor,” Jaqen had murmured during supper, the night before. “Arya Stark knew Jon Snow in a time when they were both children. He is a king, now, and kingship does...strange things to men.”

Sandor had snorted, “Don’t need to tell me that.”

“We don’t know how Jon will react to my being an assassin,” she had said bluntly. Clegane could be a subtle man if he wished it, she supposed, but Jaqen’s murmured subtleties irritated more than enlightened Sandor. “We don’t know if we can trust my brother; he will not know if he can trust us, either. All we have to go on is that he is my brother.”

Sandor had shook his head. “You trust someone just because they’re your brother, you’re going to get a foot of steel in your gut sooner rather than later.”

Despite the wars, despite Braavos and Walder Frey and Mother...if I can still be Arya after all of that, surely you can still be the Jon I used to know.

“I want your word, Clegane,” she had demanded, steel in her voice.

“And what will you give me for that, wolf bitch?”

“My gratitude,” she had said, serious.

“What’s your gratitude worth now ?” Sandor had said, bitter. “You don’t even know if the king will recognize you, let alone let you spend a night in his hall.”

“I’d take it if I were you,” Jaqen had interjected, amused. “The last time you came here, you were Joffrey’s sworn hand, were you not? Not remembered fondly in the North, Joffrey’s people. An assassin’s gratitude could come in handy, should the North press the issue...”

“Pah!” Sandor had paused, to drain his ale. “If Lady Sansa asks me…”

“I’ll tell her before you have to,” Arya promised, and then it had hit her. “You’re in love with my sister!” She hadn’t known how to feel about that.

Sandor had glared at her, and at Jaqen. But he hadn’t denied it. “Too old for her,” he’d muttered, finally, and then groused some more when Arya couldn’t help but laugh and laugh at that.

“I’ll promise not to tell her,” she’d said, seeing the shape of the thing in Sandor--the silent knight, in love with the queen he served, never saying a word ( stupid romantics). “If you promise not to tell her about us.”

Sandor had grunted, and then reluctantly given his word, as was inevitable.


 

They are within reach of the crossbows trained upon them by her brother’s sentries.

“Ho the gate!” calls Jaqen.

“State your business!” shouts down a sentry.

“News, for the King of the North,” calls Jaqen. “News of Arya Stark.”

Eventually, the gates are opened.

The horses walk through, followed by the cart, she passes under the outer bailey, and the whole world...shifts.

She sways in her saddle, uncomprehending, unseeing, and waves of emotion batter against her defenses, sweep them aside like so much kindling.

Oh...oh...oh I was so wrong, so, so wrong. I have a home. I am home. Home is Winterfell.

There is just enough of a Faceless Man in her (that part of her sits, compressed within her, within the darkness, watching...just in case) to ensure that the hood of her cloak is drawn deep over her face.

Stark banners hang over the walls, their direwolf sigil, her direwolf sigil...how can you miss a symbol so much that you hurt when you see it again?

The stones are ancient; they feel eternal, as if nothing can touch them, as if nothing can take them away from her. Winterfell is permanence.

Tears make trails down her travel-begrimed face, and she feels such joy ...no kill, no vengeance, nothing compares to this, this coming home .

Except Jaqen.

She sobers, and trembles, and guilt twists her insides till she thinks she might vomit from it. I gave my oath; I am a Faceless Man. I am wedded to Him of the Many Faces.

They reach the inner courtyard, dismount. She keeps her face hidden. And with all the guilty furtiveness of an inexperienced, desperate thief, she draws upon the years of training lavished on her in good faith, and pretends that she is no-one.

His hand is at her elbow, and she buries her head in his chest, and then his arm is around her. Nothing feels as good as being held in Jaqen’s arms.

Except Winterfell.

“Help me,” she whispers into his chest. “Jaqen, Jaqen, I’m rooting here…”

His heart stutters under her cheek. “I was a choice for you,” he says. “This is, as well.”

She wants him to tell her that the permanence is an illusion, that Winterfell can fall, it did fall, that even stones crumble to dust in time. She wants Him of the Many Faces to say Valar morghulis in her ear, so that she may respond: Valar dohaeris .

And what does he give her? A choice .

Angry, she pushes him away, and then, then she feels the wind beating against her thoughts. Startled, she looks up. Black clouds blow across the heavens, driven by a ferocious gale, far too high, far too deep in the sky to yet be felt on the ground.

“Steady now,” he murmurs. “The King in the North is being summoned.”

Even as she betrays him in her heart, he holds her to her course.

She breathes, and refuses to see the sorrow in him, and then a fat man in a Maester’s robes is trundling down the steps to meet them.

Arya and Sandor keep their hoods lowered over their face; Jaqen does all the talking. He has a silver tongue, especially when he plays “the Lorathi” to the hilt--in Jaqen H’ghar’s mouth, even the most outrageous demands appear reasonable.

She sees an opportunity, to build a makeshift rope-bridge and claw her way over to his side again. “There is much a girl has yet to learn from her husband,” she murmurs in Lorathi.

He turns around and has the temerity to wink at her.

Maester Samwell himself leads them to a private sitting room, though they have to divest themselves of their weapons--all the ones in plain sight, anyways.

The sitting room...her mother and their ladies used to weave here, she remembers; the loom is dusty, its frame loose and shoved into a corner, the spinning wheels are missing. The Maester keeps up a steady patter of inconsequential, one-sided conversation, and Arya oscillates between wanting to strangle him and thank him for the blanket of normalcy he spreads over them.

Impatient, and terrified, and eager and wanting to run away all at once, the world doesn’t seem quite real, it feels thin , like the colors in a dream, too intense and too watered down by turn.

She concentrates on the room. The panelling on the walls is darker than it should be; candleblack and hearth-soot, yes, but there are far too many signs of smoke in the lower panels, in the stone around the windows.

Winterfell burned.

Soot can be cleaned from the walls, but the portion of the burning that has soaked into the wood and the stone, that portion remains.

The home she knew, the home she longed for at King’s Landing, in Braavos, during the journey North...it is gone, scoured by much more than fire. Even if she had returned to a Winterfell that was pristine, untouched by the ravages of the Ironborn and the Boltons, it could never have been the same. “You cannot cross the same river twice”--a Lorathi saying.

Time is a river.

And yet, the bones of Winterfell stand true, unbowed. Its roots bore deep into the ground, into the center of her world, and the Starks of old slumber not just in the crypts below the Keep but in every breath of air she takes in this place.

Outside the window, the godswood beckons.

What does Jaqen see here , she wonders. Finally she dares to look at him head-on--he is staring out the casement window. As if absently, his hand rises and comes to rest over his heart, over their secret pocket. “The wind,” he murmurs in Braavosi cant, as if to himself, his gaze locked on the godswood, half-glimpsed beyond the old stablewall… “the wind was born here.”

“Has old age finally caught up with the great Jaqen H’ghar,” she mocks, to blindly cover the disquiet his words rouse in her. “Does he forget how the wind was born in a barrow but a week ago?”



 

JAQEN

He did not count on the power of Winterfell.

It says “home” and “safe” and “ mine ”, it tries to claim even Him --to his eyes the godswood rises like a pillar of black fire behind the walls, tendrils of untapped power whispering a name into the air. The name is as familiar to him as his own face; he cannot tell if the name is His, or hers.

He can tip the balance, present her with a false choice that, on the surface, looks far too real. Me, or Winterfell, choose, bride of Death. This weight their union has, to tip all balances in its favor… false choices lead to false decisions.

“The wind,” he murmurs absently, his attention fixed on the godswood. “The wind was born here.”

“Has old age finally caught up with the great Jaqen H’ghar,” she asks. “Does he forget how the wind was born in a barrow but a week ago?”

He is grateful for her attempts at jest; it means the wind still sleeps.

“A girl needs to return to the schoolroom,” he mocks. “A man will come, by and by, and explain ‘wind’ to her--when she is old enough for such explanations.”

He hears strident footsteps, striding towards them across a stone floor. Booted feet, a warrior’s tread. Behind them there is a second set of footsteps, a whispering of velvet against the floor.



 

ARYA

The door is thrown open, and a man strides through. Maester Samwell’s patter trails off. The newcomer is tall, wearing rich black furs, bearded…

Jon.

She notices the sword at his belt, the assurance in his stride. He is a warrior grown, a dangerous warrior, not the half-trained boy she had so looked up to.

He looks over the two hooded figures flanking the cold hearth, Maester Samwell next to the door, and his gaze comes to rest on Jaqen.

“You have news of my sister?” Jon asks. His voice ...it is deeper, more commanding. Raw, like her father’s was when things were at their most chaotic.

I am listening to a ghost.

She reaches, throws back the hood of her robe.

Jon’s gaze snaps to the movement; a trained fighter, trained to register motion out of the corner of his eye.

For a few moments, Jon just stares at her. His mouth twists, sorrow and disbelief and heartbreak written across his features as it they are a book. Her vision blurs, and the next thing she knows he has covered the distance between them in a single stride and she is crushed to his chest.

She realizes she is weeping, and so is he, and it is far too hot, engulfed in his furs, but this is Jon and she will not let him go, and then another pair of arms surround them, and she realizes Sansa is in the room too, and crying into Arya’s hair.

She is gasping. It is hard to breathe, she wants to speak and she does not know what to say, she wants to cry, but she is already crying, and her heart hurts with half-remembered happiness.

But something...something holds her back, holds a part of her in a state detached from the turmoil.

It is the smell: m old, and winterdamp, and rot. It must be his furs, left to molder too long in some box somewhere, but it reminds her far too much of her mother's death-smell.



 

JAQEN

The King wears a familiar weariness around his shoulders--the weariness of one who has had kingship thrust upon him, and has accepted out of necessity, not a desire for power.

Every rumor churning about him in the south is patently false.

We will hold our secrets, until we can determine how flexible his code is. A man who bends only to necessity is a dangerous one, here in the seat of his power.

Tarly is playing at affability, but his eyes don’t miss much. Jaqen dismisses him; the Maester is uncommonly intelligent, and uncommonly good , and he dances at the end of Pate’s puppet-strings still.

Jaqen watches, impassive, as Arya throws back her hood, as Jon Snow crosses the room and falls upon her, as Sansa Stark, in a black fur-trimmed dress as severe as any he has seen on noble widows in the House, enters, sees Arya, recognizes Arya, and hesitates , before she forces herself across the floor to throw her arms around her brother and sister.

Sandor has been forgotten, poor dog.

Tarly is dashing tears from his own eyes by the time the three Starks step back from each other, and breathe.

“I’m so sorry--”

“I’m sorry--”

“Forgive me--”

They look at each other, their apologies spoken at the same instant, and then burst out laughing. Hysteria follows in the wake of joy, and Sansa leans against the wall, one hand on her stomach as she laughs, and Jon and Arya are slapping each other on the back and laughing harder and harder; the laugher peters off, and then one of them catches the look on the others’ face, and the giggles bubble up anew.

Sandor grunts, throws back his hood. Jon sobers, immediately, and it is as if some unspoken message has passed between the siblings, for the girls, too, sober.

“Sandor…” Sansa whispers, her eyes wide.

“Hello, little bird,” says Sandor, his voice more gravelly than usual. He ventures a smile at her, a weak and uncertain thing.

She echoes his smile, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. Sansa Stark’s emotions are all of the surface; her reserve goes deep, down and down. His bride is cutting ice, the ice of storm and wind, spiteful, and bold. Sansa...Sansa is the black ice that forms, invisible and treacherous, over a river’s mouth, that drowns unsuspecting men who cannot see the edges of it.

The boy ...Jaqen cannot call him King in the North, or man, or fighter, not in this moment when he looks so much like an older, male incarnation of his lovely girl... the boy is not ice at all, but coalfire smothered under a snowdrift, blackening, melting the snow in its hunger for air.

The boy looks at the two in the room that are strangers to him, and seems to remember himself. He straightens. “You have brought my sister home to me,” he says, “Both of you...Ser Sandor, and--forgive me,” he makes a half-bow towards Jaqen, “I do not know your name. But both of you, you have the eternal gratitude of the Starks.”

Tears glimmer in the King’s eyes, still. Good , Jaqen thinks. Even without plots, R’hllor, choices to be made, she had to come back here. To receive and give the love that was due.

Him of the Many Faces exchanges a slight smile with his bride. She takes the lead.

“Jaqen, may I introduce my brother, Jon Stark, and Lady Sansa, my elder sister. Jon, Sansa, this is my husband, Jaqen H’ghar.”

Jon chokes on air. The “Jon Stark” has caught him solidly in the solar plexus, he is in no shape to respond to the unexpected left-hook of “my husband”.

My lovely girl times her punches well.

Tarly’s eyes are wide, his mouth a little open.

Sansa’s eyes are narrowed. She has missed neither the “Stark” nor the “husband”, but is fixated instead on that introduction...slowly her tight-lipped disapproval slips into mere exasperation when she looks at Arya. It is Not Done, introducing a King and a Lady to a nobody.

Sansa thinks the order of introduction, it is a mistake.

There are many levels of truth at play here, and Arya treats each of them as absolute and yet somehow manages to dance on their bones. Jaqen allows himself to feel a moment of appreciation for his bride.

Manipulated you only with the truth.

She has caught the gleam in his eye, and it is her turn to wink at him.

Jaqen bows deeply to Jon Stark, to Sansa. “Your Grace,” he says, “My Lady.”

Husband?” Jon’s brain has finally caught up with the conversation.

Lady Sansa's gaze shifts between Jaqen and Arya. “I am not familiar with House H’ghar,” she says, uncertainly.

Jaqen’s lips twitch. “A man claims neither title nor properties, Lady Sansa. He was born a citizen of the Free City of Lorath.”

Jon is also looking between Jaqen and Arya--titles are not this bastard’s concern; the age-difference is far less apparent by now, by appearance there is but a decade or so between the two of them. But it is hard, for a man who has seen his sister as a child to see her as anything but.

The group stands around in uncomfortable silence. Jon eventually remembers himself again.

“Sit, please, all of you,” he says, and then looks helplessly at Sansa. She is the lady of the house, and she unbends, putting on an invisible mantle of graciousness. It is a learned habit; it is the Catelyn Stark in her.

“May we offer you some refreshment? There is bread and ale,” she says, and hesitates, “and a boar roasting for...a feast, tonight, if your hunger will keep till then. Or I can send for some cold meats.”

Sandor, predictably, speaks first. “Some bread and ale would be mighty fine, little bird,” he says.

Sansa gives Sandor another small smile, and this one almost, almost reaches her eyes. She goes to the door, issues some orders to a servant outside.

Sansa and Jon Stark...they are children, the both of them, despite the experiences that scour their souls, children forced to step into their parents’ shoes. His bride...she walks barefoot, clever girl that she is, and goes where she will.

He sits down on one of the chairs Jon Stark has indicated. A faint, acrid whiff of char rises from the chair as he sits, along with a puff of dust. Arya notices the dust, and a flicker of something--horror, dismay--passes over her face before it is gone.

In her memories, Catelyn Stark rules this room. Dust has no place here.

Arya takes a seat near, but not too near Jaqen.

Jon turns to her. “What happened? After father, after...?”

Sansa returns.

Arya takes a deep breath. “I fled to Braavos.”

Braavos?” asks Sansa. “You’ve been in Braavos all this time?”

Arya looks to Jaqen, seeking consensus. They’ve rehearsed many versions of her story. He opens his hands. Your choice, love.



 

ARYA

She oscillates, between wanting to just...just hold Jon and Sansa, and blurt out everything in one long exhalation--her escape, Mother , the letters, the plots, Braavos, Jaqen, everything .

She gulps in large breaths of air; apart from that very first instant, when instinct and the steel-strong ( Valyrian steel strong) bonds of siblinghood drew them together, there has been no moment where Jon and Sansa are not watching , weighing, judging.

They need to be handled , she thinks sadly. They will not trust us if the thing is not presented at the right moment, in the right way.

She turns her attention back to the question that was asked, takes another deep breath.

“I escaped with a wandering crow after Joffrey’s men took Father,” she says. Sansa face is a riot of emotion--shame, grief, guilt. “Yoren.”

Arya looks down, then back up to Jon. “He was going to bring me to you. But Lannisters found us...then I found Jaqen.” She throws him a quick smile. “He told me there would be sanctuary for me, in Braavos, until I was old enough for vengeance.”

She shrugs. “Then he had to leave--he had duties, and I wanted to find Mother. I was heading north, heard rumors of Robb’s army in the Riverlands, and then Sandor found me.” A smile, thrown in Sandor’s direction, “he took me as far as the Twins...we arrived right after the Red Wedding.”

Sandor grunts.

“Then…” She will not take away his face, not now, when he needs to be accepted here. There will be no talk of ransoms. “Sandor was wounded. Left for dead.”

Sansa throws Sandor a sharp glance: concern.

“Then,” says Arya, “then I went to Braavos. Jaqen had given me a token, for safe passage.” She smiles again. “I found sanctuary, as he’d promised.”

Sansa looks at Jaqen, then back again at Arya. “Was your marrying him the price?” she asks, in a small voice.

“What? No!” says Arya. “I married him because he’s him, and he’s mine .”

The words, fiercely possessive, unrehearsed, just...explode out of her. She glances at Jaqen, suddenly anxious for the words not to be misinterpreted. They’ve played this game, “mine, yours” with each other, but never in front of anyone else.

The sky belongs to the birds, salt belongs to the sea ,” he murmurs, sotto voce, in Lorathi. She relaxes. There is no tradition of slavery in the North; the words, though unintentionally spoken, will be interpreted as the sentiment that they are.

I’m losing control. She tries to summon the blankness, and it eludes her.

Too much.

This place; Jon; Sansa; Jaqen beside her; her parents, cold, on the cart outside.

Too much.

Her mind keeps drifting to Jaqen, to their union, because it is the only anchor she has in the moment.

Where the hell is the bread and ale we were promised?

“Has the marriage been consummated?” Sansa’s voice is stronger.

Because her marriage to Tyrion…? Arya gives her sister a confused look. How is that relevant?

“If not, it must be dissolved,” states Sansa.

Arya is stunned. This, she did not expect. And then, then she sees the disdain on her sister’s face, in the slight flare of Sansa’s nostrils, the pulling of her lips to one side as she looks at Jaqen.

Commoner, Sansa’s face says.

Cold fury momentarily wipes away all uncertainty. Arya smiles a sardonic smile, a Jaqen H’ghar smile. “There are many differences between you and me, dear sister,” she says sweetly. “not the least of them is that if I find myself in the company of a worthy man, I fuck him.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Jaqen lower his face into his palm. Sansa is looking at her, stunned, her eyes filling with unshed tears.

Oh no, no, what did I just do?

Jon just looks distressed, and anxious, entirely uncertain whom he should shout at, but entirely certain he wants to shout at someone, anyone. Maester Samwell has backed up a pace.

Sandor, insensitive, blunt Sandor, who has not seen the look on Sansa’s face, he chuckles , because this is the kind of thing he expects from the “Wolf-Bitch”.

Sansa’s rounds on him with a glare. “What, did she bed you too?” she demands.

Sandor raises his hands defensively, before Arya can say anything. She’s not sure what she can say that will fix this. Halfway to panic, she looks at Jaqen.



 

JAQEN

“It has been a very difficult journey,” he says, his voice pitched to cut through whatever futile circles the others’ thoughts are treading.

Tarly is the first to drag his gaze away from watching the Stark women warily. The Maester clears his throat. “I’ll go see what’s keeping the ale, shall I?” he asks no one in particular.

Jon gives Tarly a grateful glance. They are comrades, these two. Bonds like that are useful levers, when playing a long game. Pate’s strings, controlling Samwell...they will have to stay very, very well hidden.

Jon turns back to Jaqen and Arya, and he sees something in his sister’s face, and Jaqen judges that the King in the North still knows her well enough to read the regret, and stubbornness and defiance and guilt all out on display there.

“Jaqen,” says Jon, dipping his head, “I apologize for the discourtesies offered to you under our roof.” The apology is sincere, and Jon casts a reproving glance towards Sansa, though her lips are pressed together tightly.

“No apologies are necessary, your Grace,” says Jaqen. “A man is aware of his bride’s high station, that her marrying one of low birth would be much disapproved of, in Westeros.” She will rage at him, when they are alone, if he plays at servility too much. “It was not considered a mismatch, in Braavos, when we were wed.”

“The guilds have far more power than nobles in Braavos,” snarls Arya. She is almost vibrating with impatience: our parents’ bones are waiting, down below.

Sansa opens her mouth, she will say something like “this is not Braavos” , but Jon speaks over her. “You are Lorathi, you said, Jaqen.” Jaqen nods. “When I thought Arya might come to the wall,” offers Jon, “I thought I might send her to Lorath, that she would be safe there.”

Her brother extends an olive branch. We cannot rush this.

Amusement glitters in Jaqen’s eyes. “So the Starks would have ended up with a brother by marriage from Lorath in any event,” he says. Jon’s brows furrow, and Jaqen’s lips twitch as he answers the unasked question: “The accent, apparently,” he murmurs, giving Arya a sidelong look. In response, she smacks him on the arm, hard. He just grins wider.

Jon almost smiles. Almost. He has a far broader egalitarian streak in him than his red-headed sister. Arya’s safety, her happiness, her choice , these are the things important to Jon Stark.

Jaqen realizes that despite everything, despite the crown he wears, he is starting to like her brother...cousin...Gendry’s counterweight in the tangle...R’hllor’s champion, whatever else this boy is.

Sansa...Sansa is a different story. She is glaring at him.

“What guild are you a part of, sir?” she demands.

Arrgh! ” says Arya. “Let it go, Sansa!”

Why the fixation with our marriage? Tyrion...Ramsay…?

And then Him of the Many Faces extrapolates the shadow standing behind Sansa Stark.

The Whoremaster. Petyr Baelish.

Arya, offered to either Highgarden’s heir, or the Vale’s...they would accept, even acclaim “Lady Arya Stark” as “Princess Arya Stark”.

How many houses have refused a Jon Snow’s envoys? How many have disdained a reply? How many houses could Arya Stark buy them?

Sansa Stark is trying to hold together an entire kingdom, threatened from all sides by implacable enemies, a kingdom with a bastard warrior at its helm, and all she knows is the game she herself was once a pawn in...a game she still thinks she is but a pawn in.

Sansa Stark deserves his pity.

But despite the calm and measured, amicable facade Jaqen H’ghar wears, the Many-Faced God is...irritated (it is not proportional, after all, for a god to be moved to anger by such small things as words).

“Lady Sansa forgives a man,” says Jaqen with all seriousness, “for this marriage cannot be undone.” He pauses to tuck a stray strand of Arya’s hair behind her ear. She is angry as well, his lovely girl, angry and exasperated and impatient.

There are two waiting on the cart below, and the sky darkens.

Arya takes a deep breath. “I bring Mother and Father home to rest.”

Jaqen watches the disbelief, the horror, the sudden breath of sorrow bloom on the faces of her siblings. But how could Arya have softened the blow, if she is not allowed the space to speak as she will instead of interjecting other agendas?

Jon and Sansa race to the window in tandem. There is silence, and nothing to see in the courtyard below but an unmanned cart with two large chests on it, one ornate and gilded, the other a simple wooden affair.

Silent tears are coursing down Sansa’s face; Jon Stark doesn’t seem to be able to weep for sorrow, only joy.

Sansa ,” says Arya, and there is longing and forgiveness and a plea wrapped up in his bride’s speaking of the name. She extends her hand, and Sansa gropes for it blindly. Sansa finds Arya’s fingers; their hands are clasped together, tightly.

“Jaqen and I,” says Arya, “also brought you the heads of Walder Frey. And his son, his grandson. I’d like them mounted on pikes somewhere...visible. The cold should keep them recognizable for a while.”

Jon whirls to look at his youngest sister, and Jaqen knows there will be no answers the King finds in her expression. He looks at Jaqen, questioning.

“Arya Stark has commanded significant resources, in her pursuit of Stark vengeance,” Jaqen replies.

Sansa turns around. “We need…” she breathes, wipes her face, leaving ugly red blotches over her skin. “Funeral. I don’t know...Jon, what...?”

Jon Stark rocks back on his heels, thinking, then he shakes his head. “Sam?”

“Um.” Tarly seems at a loss, then he brightens. “Leave it to me, I’ll sort it out.” Jaqen recognizes the manic gleam of panic in Samwell Tarly’s eyes, from his time as a friend to Pate. Tarly has no idea what to do, but...the panic clears, a bit. “I’ll check the library, just to confirm,” his air of false confidence wavers, a bit. “Um. I think the records survived the leak. I’ll check, see what they did before.”

Tarly turns, leaves the room, his brow furrowed in thought. How long has it been, since Winterfell saw the funeral of a head of House Stark? The Mad King took care of the last two...

But Tarly’s assurances have taken some of the burden from Jon and Sansa.

The ale finally arrives, along with loaves of peasant bread... is the coarseness of the bread, is it austerity, in the King’s house, or necessity?

Sansa abandons the window to drag a chair over, and sit beside Arya. She has still not let go of her sister’s hand, but she serves herself a mug of ale with her free one. Jaqen gently wraps Arya’s hand around a half-filled tankard of ale.

And finally, finally, Jon turns to Sandor. The King’s posture is stiff. “Sansa told me how you saved her, in King’s Landing.”

Sandor’s jaw clenches.

Sansa looks down and away. Another story, here. Yes...why did Sandor Clegane leave King’s Landing when he did?

“What is your part in all of this now , Ser Sandor?” asks Jon, making an all-encompassing motion with his hand. “The last time I saw you, you were Joffrey’s ‘Hound’.”

“Fucking twat-king,” says Sandor, swirling the ale in his tankard. “I serve no one any more. But the She-Wolf needed someone to drive the cart.”

A whole world is contained in that response, and Jon Stark’s eyes focus into the distance. He doesn’t like Clegane, Jaqen realizes. And yet...

“I suppose she did,” Jon says finally.

Silence wraps around them like a shroud, though there is so much that his bride needs to speak of.

“I have letters for you,” says Arya. “I need to tell--”

Jon shakes his head. “It will have to keep, Arya, I’ve tarried too long as it is--I need to ride to Hommen’s Stead, they’ve rumors of wights.”

Hommen’s Stead...a small village, if Jaqen recalls clearly, a watch-and-a-half’s ride north of here.

Jon is staring at Arya, at Jaqen, watching for their response to his use of the world “wight”, and Jon is surprised to find no surprise (nor disbelief) on their faces.

“Hommen’s Stead is very far away from the Wall,” is all Jaqen says.

Arya says nothing at all.

“Surely it can wait another watch,” whispers Sansa. “I would listen to what Arya--”

“I cannot.” Jon cuts her off. “Not yet.” He lowers his head into his hands.

Both Sansa and Arya react on instinct, at the same moment. They’ve laid their hands on Jon’s back, reassuring.

“Go,” says Arya softly. “I’ll be here when you return.”

The King in the North raises his head, smiles wanly at his sisters. “I’ll be back by nightfall.” He rises, nods at Jaqen, and strides out of the room.

Sansa stares helplessly after him, then turns around, a smile plastered on her face. “I’ll have temporary chambers--guest chambers--prepared for you, until yours are readied, Arya, if we’d known you were coming…”

“Travel times are uncertain, these days,” says Jaqen.

Sansa’s lips thin. “Of course. Um... I can--”

Arya saves her sister from further uncertainty. “I would like to pray in the godswood. Then I’d like to mount Walder Frey over the bailey, if that’s all right.”

Sansa spreads her hands, and a real smile, one that touches her eyes, it flickers over her face. “Winterfell is your home . Do as you please. And I’ll watch, as you mount his head.”



 

ARYA

Jaqen...Jaqen...Jaqen... the heart tree is whispering His name. She kneels under it, her hand touching the carved weirwood face.

“I would like to play a game,” she says, eyes still closed.

He is sitting beside her, leaning against the trunk of the tree. “The tree keeps whispering your name,” he says.

She looks up at him, startled. “To me it whispers yours.”

He raises an eyebrow. “How strange.” He cocks his head to a side. “A game, you said?”

She mirrors his posture, holds out her hands towards him. He understands--it is a Lorathi game (the Braavosi disdain this type of training, preferring bluff and mummery to the lie-becomes-truth internal shift of perspective the Lorathi way demands).

“I am Arya Stark,” she says. “I am a Faceless Man.” She hesitates. “I can be a Stark of Winterfell, and a Faceless Man at the same time.”

His hand reaches out, smacks hers, very, very lightly. The judgement does not come from the observer, in this game...the observer simply assesses her conviction, and points out the places where it wavers.

She sighs, tries again.

“I belong to the House of Black and White.”

Smack.

“I belong to Winterfell.”

Smack.

“I belong to Jaqen H’ghar.”

His hand doesn’t move. She looks up at him, and he is amused. That is what you doubted, of all things, beloved?”

She looks up at him, bewildered.

“A man thinks a girl really does belong in a schoolroom,” he says. “She needs to learn her nouns again--place, person, thing--and the differences between each.”

Her hands are trembling as she holds them out.

“I want to stay in Winterfell.”

There is no response from him.

“I want to go back to Braavos.”

Nothing.

“I don’t know what to do.”

Nothing.

She lowers her head into her hand. “Please,” she whispers. “Tell me what to do.”

“Focus,” he says, “on taking each moment as it comes. There will be a time for sorrow, and a time for joy, and a time for all the things in between. There will be a time for decision-making as well, and when that moment comes it will not catch you unaware.”

“Make me choose Braavos,” she says.

“No.”

She mock-glares at him.

“Come, love,” he says, “you’ve promised your sister some macabre decorations for her front gate.”

They rise to their feet with the customary fighter’s grace of a faceless one (none here to see, no need to feign imbalance, nor stiffness). Their arms encircle each other’s waists, and their stride, matched, makes matched imprints in the snow.



 

JAQEN

He watches as Arya spikes Walder Frey’s head, then Lothar’s, then Black Walder’s onto suitably useless pikes. He watches her climb up the steep staircase that leads to the platform above the bailey, plant the heads so their sightless eyes look out over the snowbound landscape outside the gates of Winterfell. Then she climbs back down.

“And so, it is done,” he says softly. Sansa watches, he can sense her, but from a spot beyond their line-of-sight. “Your family does not seem too impressed.”

“Arrgh!” She says, quietly, under her breath.

“Patience, my love,” he murmurs. Irritation is gathering in her--this is not exactly the homecoming she imagined.

“I wanted it to be simple ,” she says.

“When is anything to do with Arya Stark ever simple?” he asks.

“I wanted to just...tell them. But they watch , they judge , and now we have to play stupid word games.”

He lays his hand upon her shoulder, draws her a bit closer to him. “We expected this,” he reminds her. “It is not the best of the scenarios, no, but not the worst, either.”

“And...I liked you from the first moment I heard you speak,” she says in a small voice. “I wanted them to like you like that.”

Levity has become ineffective on her, of late, but he tries nonetheless. He puts a hand over his heart. “Not exactly like that, I hope,” he murmurs.

She presses her lips together; she’s trying not to smile. So even gods can be granted miracles, sometimes.

Her homecoming would have been closer to what she wanted, had he not been here.

She...reads him, and the almost-smile vanishes. “No,” she says. “Without you, nothing would be as I wanted.”

“You misinterpret, beloved,” he says gently. “I will always be with you. But had I stayed, say, in Cerwyn, and you had come to Winterfell alone…”

Would you have considered staying in Winterfell? Sansa would have tried to marry you off, and you’d have fled straight back into my arms, and Braavos. The moment of choice would have come and gone, and you would never even know.

“You would have played the part of a Faceless Man playing Arya Stark,” he continues, “perhaps even without realizing it.” He can’t quite keep his gaze from wandering over her with a touch more lust than the day deserves. “Now...now a girl is Arya Stark.”

“They do not trust us,” she murmurs.

The problem, again, is him . “The lovely girl must realize,” he murmurs, “that the way she see a man, the way she has always seen him from the first, it is not how others see him. There is a reason Sandor nicknamed him ‘sly-blade’. A man does not inspire trust in most people.”

“A girl doesn’t give two fucks ,” she says savagely, then sighs. “I wanted them to like me , too.”

Jon Stark likes her, loves her. But it is Sansa’s approval, Sansa’s admiration she wants, a substitute for her mother’s. He has seen the letter Lady Stoneheart wrote for Arya, the jagged tears in parchment.

Sansa loves her, yes, without question, but she makes Sansa uncomfortable, she would have made Sansa uncomfortable if she had come into her own even without becoming a Faceless Man.

His bride grows coy on him. “Do you like me?”

“A man does not know, lovely girl,” he says. “He will have to see all of her to decide.”

She grins, and the humor reaches her eyes this time; irritation has leached out of her, replaced by the softness they permit themselves with each other.

“See,” she says, “that’s why I need you.”

He takes her in his arms, regardless of all the eyes he can feel trained upon them. “To leer at you?” he asks.

She shakes her head. “To see all of me.”

He longs to kiss her. But this, this will not be permitted in the moment. He must instead rely on words. “My lovely, beautiful, cunning, lethal, dangerous, wise…” he pauses. “Why is a girl giving a man a look ?”

“Just wondering when you will run out of adjectives,” she says.

“Mmm,” he replies. “Never. A man has many languages to call upon.”



 

SANSA

Sansa watches the two in the courtyard below--the stranger, and her sister.

Arya has stuck a pike--bent and twisted, no use to anyone anymore--through the neck-stump of a desiccated, grey head. The head is crowned with wisps of white hair. The hair is a brittle, yellowing white.

Walder Frey.

Arya climbs to the top of the front bailey, and plants the pike, along with two others, into crumbling stone brackets made for just such a purpose. Her motions are followed by the uneasy eyes of the few sentries they must keep positioned along the battlements (though they are needed elsewhere) so as not to show the desperate weakness in the heart of Winterfell.

Walder Frey will help, Sansa thinks. We look stronger, for avenging the Red Wedding in its entirety.

Lithely, like a cat, Arya climbs back down to the courtyard, and bends her head for murmured conversation with her husband.

Sansa sighs, and takes a step back from the covered balcony; cold is seeping into her bones, even through the heavy furs.

This set of rooms, overlooking the gates, yet hidden from direct line-of-sight of those on the ground, Sansa has chosen for her own use. Heralds stayed here, slept here, practiced here, in the days of Winterfell past. Ramsay slaughtered the last of the heralds of Winterfell long before Sansa ever came back.

By some unspoken agreement (for lack of something for him to do ), Sandor followed on her heels as she left the sitting room.

Now Sandor hovers behind her, silent. Watching.

She allows herself a little smile, allows herself to give him one. She notices that his lips tug at his scars when he smiles. She wonders if it hurts.

It’s been a long time since she’s been afraid of the Hound, since he has been “Sandor” in her head. She’s seen the real monsters now, the ones that never believe themselves to be monsters, and no mark of their monstrosity ever shows on their face.

“Are they actually in love?” Sansa asks, her gaze returning to Arya. Why does Arya get a choice, when I didn’t? But Sansa had had a choice, hadn’t she? She’d chosen Joffrey. And chosen him again, over Arya, over Lady , over the truth.

Everything bad that had happened to them...Petyr had told her of a Maester’s theory, about chaos--a butterfly flaps its wings in Leng, and one thing leads to another, and a hurricane breaks upon the Iron Islands. I was such a pretty little butterfly. “Love is a lie, isn’t it, Ser Sandor?”

“Not a Ser,” grunts Sandor.

“My brother will make you one,” she states. And this commoner Arya has married…

She is still smarting, a bit, from Arya’s comment about fucking worthy men...not least because Arya is right, of course--had Sansa bedded Tyrion, she wouldn’t have been married to Ramsay Bolton. Could have given Tywin Lannister an heir. The Lord of Casterly Rock would have done anything for a worthy heir...could have begged him for Robb’s life, for Mother’s life. But then Cersei and Joffrey would have had her baby murdered.

Jon will have to give this Jaqen H’ghar some substantial title, lands, to salvage what reputation we have left on the heels of Robb’s unsuitable choice... It is hard, to arrange a marriage for a Stark (or a Snow) these days. At least a marriage that would benefit them just a little bit; the other kind, where the Starks lose yet again, the other kind is easy enough to come by. Sansa can marry her cousin who inherited the Vale. Sansa can marry Petyr Baelish, who rules the Vale. Both of those things will help Petyr’s ambition, but the North not at all--once he has her, Littlefinger will not need to support Jon with anything other than honeyed words.

Winter is already here. We need more than honey, if we are to survive it.

At least Ellaria Sand replied : no daughter of hers would be forced to face the harsh winter in marriage to Winterfell.

Jon is gentle. Jon is kind. These are not qualities that endear themselves to anyone who plays the Game of Thrones.

“The King will give you lands, if you want them.” There they are, Sandor, stretching all the way to the horizon, fields lying fallow beneath the snow. “A title.”

“No,” Sandor snarls.

Sansa looks over her shoulder, sees something dark in him. “As you wish,” she says.

He shakes his head and comes up beside her, looks out at the activity in the courtyard. The two down below are still talking to each other, as if the cold is of no consequence to them.

“Do you know what they want?” Sansa asks. Everyone wants something (all the better if it is something within your power to grant, or withhold. If not, you must acquire that power) this teaching of Petyr’s, to Alayne, it has served Sansa well in the past few months. For Arya, it’s safe enough to assume her wants include “family”, “Winterfell” (that’s what Sansa wanted, what Jon wanted, after all). But what does this Jaqen H’ghar want? Arya, clearly, but he already has her .

“Have no idea what they’re up to,” Sandor says thoughtfully. “Whatever game they’re playing, they’re playing it close to their chest.”

Sansa tilts her head to a side, considering the couple. “She didn’t even twitch, when she shoved the pike through her trophy.”

Sansa herself had vomited, and someone else --that Wildling of Jon’s, Giantsbane--he’d done the mounting of Ramsay’s head for her. But then, Walder Frey wasn’t quite as...mangled...as Sansa’s lord husband had been.

If Arya can do this and not twitch...maybe she won’t look at me like I am a monster.

Jon gives her that look sometimes, worried and scared in equal measure.

But she also needs to know what Sandor wants. His motives have always been opaque to her, even in hindsight. At first she’d thought he’d wanted her , but clearly that wasn’t the case. To know what he wants, she needs to know who he is.

The Hound was not a decent man. Joffrey lost the Hound the night of the Blackwater. Joffrey lost the Hound because Joffrey was a coward. The Hound wants a banner to rally for.

“Why did you come to Winterfell?” she asks.

He looks at her, and again she cannot read his face--disgust, irritation, anger, these are his customary expressions. Septa Mordane’s admonishments may has well have come true, for Sandor: “Don’t frown, what if your face freezes like that?”

“Either of them could have driven the cart,” she prompts.

“Had nowhere else to go, little bird,” he says, and his voice is gentle, completely at odds with his mien. “Knew the Starks would take in someone that helped bring them home.” He nods to the courtyard below; she’s not sure if he means Arya and Jaqen, or her parents’ bones.

Does he want to be an honorable man, though he claims to disdain the concept? No, he did not disdain the concept--he disdained the hypocrites that claimed the honor of knighthood while violating its principles .

Serving a Stark guarantees a man honor , if not much else .

“Swear then,” she says. He blinks at her, his brows furrowed. Sansa has given Jon Winterfell (it should have been his in the first place), she has given Jon the Dreadfort (she would have to call herself Lady Bolton, to claim it with some sort of legitimacy beyond slaughter). “Swear to me, and no other--not Jon, not Arya, not the Starks--swear to serve me .”

Sandor I will keep to myself.

He looks bewildered. Then, slowly, he kneels before her, bows his head.

It overwhelms her; she closes her eyes. She hums for a moment in accord with Joffrey , of all people (he is a part of her too, like Ramsey). There is power in it, exhilaration, to have this man kneel before you.

“Don’t have a sword, Lady Sansa,” says Sandor, looking at the ground, “give me one, I’ll do the oath proper.”

She reaches out, rests a hand on his head. “My Hound?” she whispers.

He shakes his head under her touch. His hair is coarse, matted. Have to arrange chambers for him...the barracks-commander’s quarters have been gutted...put him next to the Maester’s chambers, in the tutors’ wing...need to find clean clothes in his size, we have armor... “Not a dog anymore, little bird” he whispers. “Not even for you.”

The Hound is dead . And, just like that, Sansa knows . Sandor Clegane wants what every man who believes himself to be a monster wants. Sandor Clegane wants redemption .

“My shield,” she says, her voice firmer. “My sword.”

“Yours,” he says; his breath is white mist, in the air.

“Rise...you do not want ‘Ser Sandor’, nor ‘Lord Clegane’... What name would you have, my shield?”

He looks up at her. Even kneeling, his head is almost level with her chest. There is some unnamable emotion swimming in his eyes. “Pick something.”

Starks are wolves and direwolves, and yet he has named her ‘little bird’, in exchange for a song. What name does an oath buy, for a man who used to be a Lannister dog? Crows, eagles, wyverns, these are all taken up onto shields and pennants, by other houses.

Jaqen H’ghar’s strange accent, the edges of it that she can hear in Arya’s words, it pulls her mind east.

“Rise, then, Phoenix,” she says, her voice soft, rueful, entirely opposite his raw roughness when he had given her her name.

He rises, looks at her with narrowed eyes. “Fenix?” he asks. “Sounds like a dog.”

A giggle, entirely unexpected, escapes her. “It’s a bird , from a legend in the far east.”

“What kind of bird?” he asks, suspiciously.

“Something suitably ugly,” she reassures him.

He chuckles. “‘Ugly bird’, to guard ‘little bird’? Alright.” He looks entirely too satisfied at that. Then he thinks. “Better call me Clegane, just so as no one thinks…”

“Impropriety,” she agrees. He nods, steps back half a pace.

“Ugly bird,” he says, then snorts and shakes his head.

A firebird, Sandor, that rises, reborn, from the ashes of its first life.

“So,” she says, “What can you tell me of my sister?”

He hesitates.

“There’s more to her story than sanctuary in Braavos, isn’t there?” she asks. “And this marriage of hers...” To be fair, Arya said she had much more to tell them, but Jon...Jon can be immovable when he has his mind set on something.

“You gave her your word?” she guesses shrewdly.

Sandor spits over the balcony. “Didn’t mean to.”

“Then I will not have you forsworn quite so early in my service.” The motions of jest come easier to her now. She just has to pretend she’s Petyr, that she’s a mockingbird, mocking those around her just enough that they laugh but do not take offense. “What can you tell me?”

Sandor leans against one of the stone arches that separate the suite from the balcony. “They get up very early in the morning, I’m still abed, they go off a distance. I’ve heard blades clash, once or twice--she can use that sword of hers, if I had to guess, use it well, but I’ve never seen it.” He shakes his head. “One time I followed them, they may have heard me coming, blades were nowhere to be seen. He had his hand down her shirt and she was writhing against him like a dockyard whore.”

Disgust twists at Sansa’s face; she cannot help it.

“Dunno if that was real…,” he hesitates again. “Heard a lot of dockyard whores, camp followers. Can tell when it’s fake, when it’s real. This time...I couldn’t . ‘Bout the only thing I am certain of, though...they do love one another. Each will kill for the other.”

“Can she be trusted?” Sansa murmurs, almost to herself.

“Strange world, little bird,” says Sandor softly. “Stark asking a Clegane whether another Stark can be trusted.”

“The world has gone mad,” she agrees. The world should burn, so it can be reborn as something cleaner. “Can I trust my sister, ugly bird?”

He purses his lips. “Don’t know. I’d trust sly-blade over there if he gives me his word. Your sister...I don’t know. I like her, if that’s any use.”

“She’s changed so much,” says Sansa, and even as she says the words she knows them to be false.

Sandor snorts. “She’s the wolf-bitch she’s always been. Just grown up.”

He is right. Arya has changed, and yet...she is just more Arya. The seeds of the child Sansa knew, her annoying, infuriating, defiant sister, those seeds have simply germinated, thrown up a riot of vegetation; whether the vegetation is useful (like apple trees) or poisonous (like the Tyrells), she cannot tell.

“Pity she grew up as much as she did,” says Sansa, thinking of the woman this Jaqen H’ghar has made of her little sister. “We could have married her to Willas Tyrell, secured Highgarden’s support through her.”

Sandor looks at her, suddenly wary. “You have changed.”

The smile she wears is a cruel one, kind and hard at once--a Ramsay smile. She raises her hand, gently caresses the fire-ravaged side of his face.

He flinches.

“I’ve learned a lot,” she says. How strange , she thinks. I can touch him. Jon, now Sandor. That makes two. If there are two men in the world I can still touch, maybe there’s hope for the world yet.

Her tone changes to brisk as she begins to contemplate the work that must be finished today, despite all interruptions. “Come. I want your opinion on the levies we’ve managed to extract from Jon’s bannermen. We have to send back the ones that are not satisfactory--I will not feed a useless mouth.” She has Jon’s opinion already: Send them all back-- Jon doesn’t have the time to train green youths . But she’s hoping something can be salvaged, especially under Sandor’s tutelage.

She casts one last look over her shoulder. Arya is heading out of the courtyard, towards the receiving hall, hand-in-hand with her husband. And if I can still feel envy...maybe, maybe there’s hope for me as well.

Chapter Text

JON

He leads a half-score troop of borrowed men--not a one of them wears the Stark direwolf upon their breast. He is grateful, deeply grateful, for the bear and the merman and the fist, but even amongst his father’s people, a favour must be repaid in kind at some point.

Night has fallen, and each alternate rider carries a burning torch. It would be wiser to lead the horses, but they’ve ridden this way just a few hours ago, and no fresh snowfall has obscured the road since then.

He looks to the two riders than flank him on either side. House Mormont’s riders, who actually take pride in guarding the bastard king. House Mormont has done more to fight the winter than anyone else, save the Starks. Longclaw, another gift from a Mormont, hangs at Jon’s belt. It has drunk deeply, tonight.

Three wights . In a village that lies fifteen days of hard riding from the wall…

Sigorn rides up to him, the bronze disc of House Thenn gleaming faintly green upon his breast. The wights were men that were once Thenns, the bronze of their armor badly dented, with gaping holes, but still identifiable.

“The witch confirms it,” he says to Jon. “All three of them were brought south by boat.”

The triangulation is easy: access to a sea harbor, access to Eastwatch, a burning hatred of Jon Snow, who has made a wildling people into a House, a House with rights to Karhold. The North is a superstitious land. It won’t take very many more incidents like this, to equate House Thenn, the “wildling” house with undead from north of the Wall, wearing Thenn bronze.

“The Karstarks are trying to play politics using the undead.” Jon shakes his head in disbelief, in despair. How shortsighted are these people?

Yannis, one of the Mormont knights, has been listening. “Something must be done, White Wolf.”

The cold, the weariness, it makes Jon’s bones ache. “They are ferrying wights south of the wall,” he says, and his words have no inflection in them at all. “Something must be done.”

The North must be purged of traitors.

The thought piles more weariness onto his shoulders. He is tired of killing living men. “Can there be peace at all?”

“Alys will know,” says Sigorn.

Jon smiles. In a way, the marriage of Alys Thenn, nee Karstark, it was the very first kinglike thing he had done.

“How is she?” he asks.

Sigorn smiles, the befuddled and proud smile Jon has noticed new fathers often wear. “Well. Alys rides already. The babe suckles all day, babbles all night.”

“Good,” Jon murmurs. “Good.” He would pray, but he doesn’t know who to pray to, R’hllor or the Old Gods, that all his decisions bear such fruit.

Up ahead, flickering lights mark the outlines of Winterfell. His gloom lifts, for a moment. Arya. The relief he felt, in the first hour or so of seeing her, he felt a hundred stone lighter, until all the North’s assorted troubles reminded him of themselves, one by one.

And she has brought a husband with her. A fighting man, from the way he moves, who does not lose his temper, and does not give ground. I can use a man like that. And she has brought them Sandor Clegane, the Hound, one of the most vicious killers the South ever whelped, who for some reason wants to become a Stark man. She has brought Father home to rest. And Catelyn Stark.

And Jon has noticed how Arya moves, too. He thinks of Wylla and Wynafryd Manderly. He chuckles.

“Wolf?” asks Yannis.

“A thought,” says Jon. “Train and arm all the women of the North.”

Yannis snorts. “If there’s any more like the little bear, your Night’s King is going to sorry he ever set his eyes south of the Wall.”

“My wife, she has started carrying a spear,” says Sigorn. “She is learning the Thenn way, as I learn hers.”

A shaft of remembered sorrow pierces Jon’s breast for a moment. Ygritte. Not all wildling women are like her, but many, many of them are fighters.

“If Lady Sansa would take control the Dreadfort...,” murmurs Yannis.

Sansa will not. Jon understands why, and sometimes he thinks he is the only one. “I need her at Winterfell.”

“You need a wife,” says Sigorn, blunt as ever. “Your sister cannot run your household forever.”

Sansa has said so herself. But every strong woman in the North, every woman who can tolerate him and who he can tolerate in return, who he can lean on, he already holds their fealty; a marriage is not needed to bind their houses closer to the Starks.

And what woman would take a man to bed who wears open wounds upon his body, wounds that do not bleed but do not heal either?

“First,” he says, “I need an army. Know you any women that can bring an army as dowry?”

Yannis purses his lips, thinks. “Cersei Lannister?”

Jon is surprised into a burst of laughter, despite himself; every man in earshot is. It is in a storm of laughter that they ride up to the gates, and he notices the addition to three new pikes upon the bailey. His mood lightens further.

Arya doesn’t do anything by halves.

She has brought laughter back into his life, somehow.


 

Sansa comes down the front steps to greet them; she holds a horn of mead--the horn of welcome. Many of the customs of the First Men, customs fallen slowly into disuse when the North bent knee to the Targaryens--Sam and Sansa are working together to revive them, to re-create the identity of the North under its new king.

Jon accepts the horn, still mounted, swallows, and passes it on to Sigorn. As the horn makes its way amongst the riders, they dismount, one by one. The two lone grooms (that are all Winterfall has at the moment), they come to make a train of the horses and lead them away. Horseflesh is more valuable than its weight in gold these days; he would have preferred to unsaddle and curry his own steed, but it is apparently not done, for a King and his riders to do this for themselves.

“Arya?” he asks.

Sansa sighs. “She’s changing, for the banquet. She refused to wear a gown, even one of Mother’s good ones.”

“Are you surprised?”

“Her husband was no help,” says Sansa. “All he kept saying was ‘if she wants to’. If Arya says jump, he’ll be ten feet in the air before he thinks to ask ‘how high’.”

Jon considers this. He’s seen wildling “marriages” beyond the Wall, where both man and woman are fighters. Dresses are not common, at all. It makes sense to him --no man would want his wife to wear something that could tangle in her legs, impede her blade. It wouldn’t be safe. But he’s not going to say this to Sansa--antagonizing his sister is the last thing he wants to do.

Sansa sighs again. “I finally got her into one of my riding dresses.”

Jon nods, then turns to his riders and raises his voice. “Feast, tonight. Arya Stark has returned to Winterfell,” he says. “But I want all of you out at first light, riding the circuit from the mouth of the Weeping Water to the Long Lake. Where there are three wights…”

“There may be more,” mutters Yannis. “Fucking Karstarks.”

Sansa’s eyes are wide, trained on Jon. “Not rumor…” she whispers.

Jon shakes his head, grim. Together, trailed by the riders, they ascend the steps to the Great Hall.

Jon enters the brightly-lit space, and cannot help but marvel at its transformation. They had planned a feast, but for the next sevenday, when all the heads of houses still loyal to the Starks would be gathered here to discuss riding against the Umbers.

Arya coming home is a much better reason to celebrate. For the houses...we’ll figure something out.

Somehow, Sansa and her much-reduced bevy of servants have managed to vanquish the desperation of their straits for tonight. A hundred candles illuminate the Stark banners behind the throne; the direwolf gleams a silver-white. The banners of the other houses are vibrant, somehow making the missing banners (the flayed man, the sunburst) into a thing of pride , not weakness: the traitors are shamed, outnumbered, banished from the light of this hall forevermore. Long trestle tables gleam with fresh polish, arranged in a “U” shape around the throne.

Again, Jon feels the keen bite of sorrow. The last banquet, in this hall...King Robert was here, and Jon was outside, most of the time, but the world was still a better place, with Eddard Stark in it. He looks over to his left, and meets Sansa’s gaze. Her eyes glimmer with unshed tears--she remembers that banquet as well, he thinks.

She was going to be a princess in a story.

They smile at each other, half part sad, half part grateful for the other’s existence.

The hall starts filling, behind them, and Arya bursts through the doors. She is wearing one of Sansa’s old riding dresses, in pale blue, with silver threaded embroidery, the divided skirts swirling around her legs.

“Jon!” she calls. “Was it really wights?”

He nods, then tilts his head to the hall. No use fueling the gossip, there will be enough rumors by morning as it is. Jaqen enters, hands clasped behind his back, a longsword at one hip, a curved scimitar on the other. Two blades? Is he actually competent with both? Arthur Dayne was a two-blade fighter. Belatedly, Jon notices that Arya’s husband is dressed in a clean linen shirt and trews, with no embroidery--a twin to Jon’s own attire, without the furs. Apparently Sansa doesn’t think the men need to dress up.

The House minstrel--and the title is both a kindness (the position pays a pittance every sixmoon) and a joke, for the boy is the houndskeeper's dim-witted, youngest son, with a facility for the pan flute--the minstrel starts up a merry tune.

Jon offers his arm to Arya. She looks confused, then realizes what is going on. She is the guest of honor, tonight. Her eyes widen a bit before her expression settles into one of graciousness (did Sansa teach her that, too?) and she places her hand gently upon his arm.

He watches, out of the corner of his eye, as Sansa hesitates, then steps towards Jaqen, who holds out his arm. He claims to be a commoner, but he is no stranger to courtly graces , Jon thinks, and he grows uneasy. Fighters, he can understand (even if they betray him in the end), but men with courtly graces... What guild is he a member of? An influential one, and he has significant rank in it, if his marriage to a Stark was not looked at askance. If he is telling the truth. Jon also worries for Sansa; he knows she cannot touch a man (even Davos, even Samwell) save himself without feeling nauseous. Any extended physical contact, and she will have to excuse herself to vomit somewhere.

His helplessness threatens to overwhelm him for a moment, when she places her hand on Jaqen’s arm. But then her eyes widen. She looks up at Jon, and smiles reassuringly, and there is no trace of unease about her.

Arya has noticed the direction of his gaze. “Jon?” she asks. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he says, relief making him grin, “but it seems Sansa has softened towards your husband.” Sister’s husband...so family is safe, others are not? Sansa calls it a woman’s weakness, but he’s seen similar reactions before, in fighting men who have come out on the other side of horrific traumas. He, himself, is a little unreasonable about naked daggers near his person.

He gives Arya a wide smile, only half feigned, and starts walking down the center of the room, towards the throne. Sansa and Jaqen follow a step behind.

The two guests of honor are seated to the right of the throne, Sansa to his left, and he is not surprised to see the space left for Sandor Clegane, to her left. Sandor Clegane, Tyrion Lannister, Samwell Tarly, Davos Seaworth, Tormund Giantsbane, Jon Snow...and now perhaps Jaqen H’ghar...Sansa’s list of trustworthy men is a short one, shorter than his own, and Jon can abide by it.

The fare is richer than he expects. The boar is stringy, but there is more than enough sauce to ladle over it, and there are potatoes, roasted in their skin, and greens , and fish. The hall has filled by the time the first course is served (they do not hold to the formalities of the South; people in the hall of a king of the First Men come and eat when they please...most of them please early, and often). Barrels of last year’s spring ale have been breached as well.

The toasting begins.

Halfway through an already-inebriated Hornwood bannerman’s speech, Jon leans over to Sansa. “How are we affording this?” he murmurs. Food is scarce, and getting scarcer--everything has to be brought up from the South, or by ship into White Harbor--prices have escalated, and House Stark has no reserve of coin left, not even enough to hire a team of stonemasons to repair the damage the Boltons did to Winterfell.

“White silk brocade,” she says. “From my wedding gown, and gold thread and seed pearls from Fat Walda’s.” A cold smile twists at her mouth. “Every time someone slices into the boar, it feels like victory.”

Jon exhales. “Thank you,” he says. “The riders will go on their circuits well-fed.” What else can he say?

He leans over to Arya and Jaqen, seeking a happier tale. “Tell me of your wedding feast, in Braavos. A lot of fish, I assume?”

Arya chuckles. “Not a feast, for me. A wedding fast. ” She turns to her husband. “And one must meditate for a very long time beforehand, so one is certain one wants what one is getting into.”

Jon raises an eyebrow. “There would be far fewer weddings,” he says wryly, “if that custom was introduced here. Fasting and meditations for the groom as well?” he asks Jaqen.

Jaqen hesitates, looks at Arya.

Oh oh, thinks Jon. Alehouse or whorehouse or both... it seems some pre-wedding customs are followed in Braavos as much as in Westeros.

Rosey ,” says Arya. Jaqen winces, nods.

He told her? More likely that Arya found out, somehow. Jon doesn’t know whether to feel sympathy for his brother-by-marriage, or annoyance, that he was with another woman while Arya was fasting...It seems they didn’t fall in love until after they were wed. Like Father and Catelyn.

Not that love after marriage guarantees fidelity, even for the greatest of men. His own birth is testament to that.

Arya laughs, pats her husband on the head. “Poor Jaqen,” she says.

“Is this a story I want to understand?” Jon asks.

“A man would be grateful if you didn’t,” Jaqen murmurs. “Suffice to say...had a man been...fully aware, of the timing of things, your sister would not have been disrespected so.”

Arya rolls her eyes. “Romantics,” she mutters. Then she turns to Jon. “What about you? Anyone I should meet?”

Jon looks down at his plate. “Brothers of the Night’s Watch are celibate,” he says. Let her assume he does not yet know a woman’s touch...he has enough open wounds as it is without opening another.

Arya taps her fork on the table. “Do you have the liking of other men?”

“Arya!” he gasps at her, at the same time as Jaqen murmurs “Arya” in a tone of admonishment.

What ?” she exclaims, looking back and forth between her husband and brother. “It is common, in fraternal orders, especially ones that don’t allow women!”

“It is not done, talking about such things, openly, when a Westerosi king is involved,” murmurs Jaqen.

“I don’t like other men!” says Jon in a strangled whisper.

Arya pats him on the arm. “I was pretty sure, but it had to be asked.”

No, it didn’t, Arya!

“Are you betrothed?” she asks.

He looks towards Sansa, hoping for rescue, but Sansa is deep in conversation with the Hound What are they talking about ? All the people they hate in King’s Landing? It would be a more comfortable conversation than this one.

“Are you?” asks Arya again.

He sighs. The weight of the crown--he doesn’t have a real one, they don’t have the money to commission a smith for a crown, not when swords are needed more--a metaphorical crown, that comes with real burdens, it presses upon him again. “No,” he says.

“Good,” Arya responds.

He looks up at her. “Why, have you a Braavosi woman that will fast for me?” He tries to recapture his lighter mood, from before.

But Arya is looking deathly serious. “A Targaryen,” she says.

Jon blinks. “The dragon queen?” Rumors of dragons, of vast armies on the march, they are distantly heard, like thunder over the horizon. He has not paid attention to these things, focused as he is upon an army of undead and Others marching down upon them, a winter that does not end, traitors and Lannisters…

Arya looks at Jaqen, who shakes his head, opens his hand as if to say “as you will”. Arya looks down at her dress, frustrated, as if she would have been able to magic up something useful if she’d been wearing men’s clothing. She looks up at Jon, at Sansa. “Is now a good time to talk?”

Sansa lifts her head from her conversation with Sandor. “Talk about what?” she asks.

“Important things. Stark things.”

“Not here ,” says Sansa.

“Of course not,” replies Arya. “Let’s leave.”

“You’re the guest of honor!

The bickering will escalate. Jon rubs at his brow, then speaks. “No. Not tonight. Tomorrow, we lay Father, your mother, to rest. Then we can talk.”

“Why are you avoiding this?” asks Arya.

He closes his eyes. “Because every time I talk of something of import to anyone, it creates ten new problems that have to be solved.”

“It has been a very long day,” says Jaqen. Gratefully, Jon opens his eyes to see Arya’s husband considering him. “It is important, but it can wait another day.”

Arya subsides. “Sorry,” she mutters.

No, he doesn’t jump at her command. It may be the other way around, with these two.

“Arya, I want to hear,” says Jon gently. “I know it is important.” I just need...time.

She nods. “I promise I’ll solve problems for you,” she says.

He smiles. “You already have,” he says.

The toasting is finally winding down, and Sam rushes into the hall, holding a sheaf of papers. He approaches the high table, plops down into the chair at Jaqen’s right with a groan.

“Figured out the funeral,” he says.

Jon raises his tankard towards Sam, who follows suit, then gulps down half the contents. He’s become a heavier drinker than he was, in his time at the Citadel.

“Where is Gilly?” Jon asks. “I thought she’d be here.”

“Sam has a sore throat,” says Samwell. “She wants to stay with him, in case the fever rises.”

“I’ll have a plate sent down,” says Sansa, and returns to her conversation with Sandor.

Arya looks back and forth between the Maester and Jon. “Who is Gilly?” she asks.

“Um.” Sam pulls at his collar. “Um.”

Jon grins. “Samwell’s lady,” he says.

Arya’s mouth forms an “o”. “And Sam is your son,” she says to the Maester.

“Um.”

Jaqen makes an abortive hand motion towards Arya. Tutoring her on acceptable social conversation again . He can imagine the Lorathi’s voice in his head: “ it is not done, asking about a woman and child, openly, when a Maester is involved .”

The truth, of course, is far stranger. “Not his,” says Jon in an undertone. Sam looks up, startled. “Arya is family ,” says Jon. “So’s Jaqen, now.”

Arya leans back, Jaqen rests an elbow on the table, sips from his tankard...interesting, that. Their posture speaks of nonchalance, exactly the opposite of what most people do when secrets are spoken of in public view (though not public hearing--the hall is far too loud, especially when half the contingent is inebriated wildlings. Soon, someone’s going to start fucking in a corner somewhere. Not very different, “savage” wildlings, from King Robert’s courtly retinue. Ironic, that).

Samwell takes a deep breath. “The babe was Craster's...a nasty man, held Craster's keep north of the Wall. It’s Gilly’s story to tell, but Craster sacrificed his sons to the Others...just... gave them. Kept the daughters.” He looks up. “Had to do something, didn’t I?”

Arya is absorbing this, impassive. Her husband, on the other hand…

“Fascinating, truly,” says Jaqen, and shakes his head. Then he leans over and pats Samwell on the shoulder. “Well done, Maester. Very well-played.” Then he raises his tankard, and confused, Jon and Sam and Arya follow suit. “To equality by infiltration,” he says.

Arya giggles.

Samwell is giving Arya’s husband a very strange look.

Jon shrugs, drinks.



 

 

 ARYA

The feast has gotten rowdier and rowdier as time passes, and the boar has finally been reduced to bone and innards.

“Better?” asks Jaqen, in Braavosi. Not that anyone will hear them, the hall is far too loud. Jon and Sansa are arguing about something--resettlement of wildlings, it sounds like, and Sandor is providing his customary disheartening commentary. On their other side, Samwell Tarly is deep in his third tankard of ale, and utterly focused on the food.

She leans into his shoulder. “ So much better. You like Jon! He likes you!” That makes her very happy. “Sansa’s warming to us, and all it took was me wearing a stupid dress.” She looks down at his hip. He uses a longsword and a short when he uses two, the scimitar looks off , hanging from his belt. “Thank you for bringing my blade for me,” she says. “I’d have felt...naked without it.” No throwing knives, no darts--she has given Sansa her word, after all.

Jaqen grins. “A lovely girl looks very lovely in the dress.”

She glares at him.

“Lovelier, when she stands in nothing but her skin, with daggers strapped to her thighs,” he says quietly.

Better.

“Looks like Sandor’s officially a Stark retainer now,” Jaqen observes.

Arya saws at the slice of boar on her plate. “Good for him,” she says. “He’s a capable man, he just needs to be used right.”

Jaqen puts down his knife. “ Used ?” he murmurs. “Like a piece of silverware? And what happens when he loses his edge, as all things must?”

The hall, the feast, the banners...it makes her forgetful. She gives Jaqen a sidelong glance, contrite. “Sorry,” she mutters. “It’s the dress.” Yes, please, blame the dress. Makes me look like a damn noblewoman, must make me think like one too.

He shakes his head--he’s not buying it. “Wicked child,” he murmurs, “what am I going to do with you?”

“Teach me the error of my ways?” she asks sweetly.

He looks serious. “And how is a man to do that?”

“Put some more of your Lorathi sensibilities into me,” she says.

The facade of seriousness gives way. “You mean, fuck some egalitarianism into your noble-born cunt?” he asks dryly.

She bites her lip; her eyes are wide, greedy. “Yes, please,” she breathes.

One side of his lips draw up into a cruel smile; he drinks from his tankard without taking his eyes off her. “And how is that done here, in the North?” he asks. “Should a man hoist his bride over his shoulder and carry her out, like that red-bearded man did with the serving wench but a moment ago?”

“We’re the guests of honor,” she murmurs. “It would be rude to leave so early.” Yes, what will you do, Jaqen, hmm?

He leans forward, and there is quite a lot of intent in his posture. “Perhaps I will bare your breasts right here.” His eyes are dark--not God-dark, lust- dark.

Maester Samwell leans over. “Are you going to eat that?” he asks, pointing at her almost untouched slice of boar. Arya glares at him for the interruption.

“Please, help yourself,” says Jaqen and passes her plate over to the Maester. Then he turns back to Arya. “Where were we?”

She glares at him, too--he’s back in control of himself now, no inappropriateness will be forthcoming. Vengeful, she turns her expression wide-eyed and trains it on Maester Samwell. “You studied at the Citadel ?” she asks him.

Samwell waves his fork at her. “Can’t be a Maester without going to the Citadel, little lady.”

“What was it like?” she asks.

“Just...wonderful,” he says, an enraptured expression on his face. “The library …”

Jaqen grimaces.

“I’ve heard Oldtown is very big,” she says. “It must have been hard, making friends.”

“I had friends!” says Samwell. “There was this man, we used to be friends, until…” she knows the story--until Pate blackmailed Samwell. “...actually,” and Samwell looks at her, quite serious. “He was pretty hung up on you , as it happens…”

Was he now?” asks Arya. “Tell me more about him.”

“Scary smart. But it took him seven years to earn his links--he thought about girls far too much, I think.”

Jaqen is looking at her reproachfully. She’s going to pay for this anyhow, might as well milk it for all it’s worth.

“Smart, you say?” she asks. “Maybe I made the wrong choice with Jaqen here.”

Samwell gets quiet. “I thought he was a good man,” he says sadly, then brightens. “But this girl, Rosey--she left him for a pig merchant.”

“He was not very good in bed then?” Arya asks.

Samwell thinks about it. “Too much in his head, I think, too embroiled in plots. Hung up on you, as I said. Not you you, of course...he’d never met you. Just the idea of Arya Stark.” Samwell shakes his head. “Strange man, Pate. Murdered, I heard, just a couple of months ago.”

Samwell has turned morose, it appears--he refills his tankard, says nothing more. Jaqen, too, looks...sad.

My fault, the blackmail, probably, I kept asking Him for news of Jon, of the North. It falls to her, then, to fix it. But first she has to distract Jaqen with something, anything.

“So,” she murmurs to him. “How many days...weeks...must you be chastised for, before the pig merchant entered the picture?” she asks.

Jaqen smiles at her--he sees what she tries to do. “The pig merchant’s wife-to-be was encouraged to leave a scholar’s bed the night you entered the darkness.” His voice is quiet. “I was not aware . But your god is a monogamous one--he was quite insistent on getting rid of her immediately.”

She runs a hand over his thigh, under the table. “Not very Lorathi of you,” she says.

He raises an eyebrow. Her hand has found an...interesting...location to rest.

“You know ,” she says. “Our Lorathi brothers have a reputation...being ‘no one’ is very liberating, apparently.”

“A man does not know,” he says, and looks at her with narrowed eyes. “He should spend more time at the House, it seems--this sounds like gossip to him.”

The serving wench has, indeed, disappeared along with the ale, and Arya’s tankard is empty. She reaches for Jaqen’s, brings to to her mouth. Hidden from view by the tankard itself, her tongue flicks out, licks at the rim. He’s watching her, and his eyes are darkening again.

“Standards have fallen, since your times,” she says, putting the tankard down on the table. She notices he picks it up, puts his mouth where her tongue had been; he doesn’t drink, either. She shakes her head mournfully. “The order takes in all kinds of riff-raff these days, ones who gossip and make mischief. Though…,” she thinks. “The older brothers--especially the Braavosi--they gamble , along with the gossiping. I’ve lost four matched daggers and a silk cummerbund this year.”

“And have you ever won anything?”

She grins. “I didn’t get a chance...but there’s a huge pot on right now, about me.”

He leans towards her, now actually engrossed. Just by chance, of course, the motion draws her hand further into his lap. “And what about a lovely girl are our brothers betting on?”

“Who is going to take my virginity.”

“I did not expect something quite so crass from Faceless Men,” he says, and she realizes he’s not quite sure if this is fact, or facetious seduction. Her hand, which is lightly exploring the extent of the bulge under it, that doesn’t help his concentration any, she supposes.

“I started the pot myself,” she replies. Reluctantly, she stills her motion, pulls her hand back into her own lap. It’s out now, better get it over with.

“Arya, love…” he says.

“I don’t play games I don’t already know I’m going to win,” she says. “I lost twice, good things, so they’d feel sorry for me and teach me how to game the system.”

“And betting on your deflowering was really the best way to take advantage of this knowledge?”

“I’d have only one chance, before the rest figured it out.” She shrugs. “ I knew who I was married to.” She smirks at him. “I put a small...large... flutter on the side on having to use a gold coin, just in case you proved recalcitrant for some reason...or if Him of the Many Faces was just a recurring dream, a lingering hallucination from the poison I drank when I died.”

“The dream of Arya Stark…to know, and yet not know that she was real ...” he agrees, rueful. He puts his arm around her shoulder, draws her close to him, rests his forehead on hers.

Greatly daring she reaches forward again, finds him as hard as he had been before she told him. Oh, good. Not angry.

“Never with you,” he murmurs. “So, my cold-blooded, avaricious love, how much money are you going to make off of your bedding?”

“Nothing,” she says. “Placed the bet in the God’s name. Brothers do that, when they’re betting just to prove a point, winnings go straight to the House’s coffers. Pot’s up in the tens of thousands now, I think, and nobody else would have dared bet on ‘Jaqen H’ghar’, even if they suspected...” She grins. “It is not done, evoking your name in association with such crass things...”

“It is just a game to you,” he murmurs, thoughtful. “Arya Stark doesn’t give a shit about gold either, does she?”

“She’s spent the last coin she ever will, on her own behalf,” she says. Honesty prompts her to add, “I do care about the Guild’s finances, though. Where do our Braavosi brothers get the money they’re bidding with, hmm? And our coffers run dry...”

He leans back, considers her very, very carefully. “I’ve had about as much of this banquet as I can take,” he says. “I will excuse us, and take you to bed--”

“To teach me how to be more egalitarian?” she asks.

“No,” he says. “To worship you.”



 

JAQEN

They’ve been assigned a small, somewhat bare chamber for the night, off the main courtyard. It has a small hearth, and someone’s lit it already. The bed is small, and there are only two pillows, but the fabrics are rich, and there is actual eiderdown in the mattress. The sleeping arrangements are altogether more luxurious than they have had in the entirety of the time since they started sleeping together.

He draws the curtains, locks the door behind them. She is standing beside the bed, still dressed in the sweeping blue silk dress. It does change her, the dress, he thinks. She stands with a woman’s grace, not a fighter’s. Her hair is growing out again--it becomes ragged, short, every time she returns to her own face after wearing a brother’s. Her body, too, returns to that of a girl of five-and-ten, to the form she had when she died beside a pool…the last faceless face she wore was his, beside a stream. The month since then has changed much in her, though he cannot tell what changes belong to the body and what to the mind...a month is not enough, after all, to change the body quite so much...

“One day,” he says, “we will take a very, very long sabbatical, and wear no faces but our own, you and I, and we will see what it is like to grow old beside each other.”

She looks at him over her shoulder, eyes dark, unreadable. “What is the joy in growing old, beloved?”

He smiles. “I would see all the seasons of you.”

She turns away. The dress ...the blue of it makes her look remote, aloof.

Untouchable.

He strides forward, pulls a dagger from its sheath strapped to his chest under his shirt, and swiftly slices the sleeves of the dress, the bodice, slices it from her with quick, economical motions.

The fine, soft hairs on her skin rise as the sharp edge of the blade passes over them, touching, caressing; she shifts, giving him access to the front panels of the bodice, under her ribcage, writhes when the blade passes over her nipples--she doesn’t need to hold still to avoid injury, not when it is his hand that holds the blade.

“A girl has behaved very badly,” she murmurs.

He crouches, draws the last of the fabric, now cut to ribbons, away from her legs.

She wears nothing underneath, not even a shift.

His tongue traces a line up the outside of her leg, over her hip, up the side of her ribs. She moves forward, climbs onto the bed, kneels, still facing away from him.

“And what has a girl done?” he asks.

The look she casts him is dark. “Whatever it is she needs to be punished for.” She bends forward, onto all fours, arches her back.

Is she asking…

Thoughts of slow, worshipful lovemaking vanish from the fore of his mind.

His heartbeat is fast, too fast, as he kneels on the floor beside the bed, and his tongue traces the the glistening folds of her sex, tasting her arousal.

She moans, softly.

His tongue sweeps higher; she gasps.

He rises, quickly strips himself of his clothes, his eyes trained on her form. She turns her head, watches him undress.

“Then a girl will pay for taking a man to the edge of his control at the banquet.” The threat in his voice is not feigned. Had Samwell not interrupted...

She smiles, challenging, mocking.

He looks around for their packs... his patience is being tested. “Where…” he spots her pack, finds the box of potions and unguents, finds the bandolier. He tosses both at her, for he has no idea where she keeps what.

“Prepare yourself,” he says roughly.

Her eyes widen, startled, uncertain. Aroused.

He watches as she reaches for a small jar in the box, opens it, and her fingers scoop up an off-white cream. She reaches between her legs, still looking at him.

He watches, impassive. His manhood is almost unbearably hard, jutting out from his body towards her, but he does not move.

She dabs the cream on the lips of her slit, circles her puckered opening. Stops, hesitates.

“Continue,” he says.

She takes up another daub of cream, coats her fingers with it generously this time, reaches behind herself again. She puts the tip of one finger inside her sopping cunt.

The room is far too hot. He can feel the heat building at the root of his cock, streaming out with every breath he exhales.

She is panting with the heat, and her finger pulls out of her cunny and then she pushes it, slick with oil and her own juices, into her anus. She pumps her fingers into herself, shallow, once, twice, then looks at him again questioningly.

“You’re not very good at this,” he says. “Do I have to do everything for you?”

She shakes her head, pushes deeper, stretches herself wider for him.

“Enough,” he says. He steps up to her, but she rises quickly, moves forward on the bed, out of his reach.

His jaw clenches.

He moves.

He is kneeling on the bed behind her, his left hand clamped around a tit, and he is holding her painfully against his chest. The dagger, still in his right hand, presses lightly against her throat.

Not wise,” he whispers.

She rubs herself against his hardness, wanton.

He shifts, and presses forward, impaling her inch by inch on his cock. She sinks against him with a groan, and he pulls out, and pushes back in.

The knife has dropped away from her throat, she’s cooperating now.

“More,” she moans.

He doesn’t change his pace, slow, inexorable.

Please ,” she begs.

He teeters on the edge of giving in. She is his undoing; her mouth is her most dangerous weapon. “My bride will be silent,” he warns, “if she wants anything at all.”

Of course she disobeys. “ Jaqen .”

He stops moving, his left arm holds her harder against himself, not letting her move either. His every sense is filled with her, he drinks in the feel of her around his cock, her tightness, gripping him.

“Forgive...,” she gasps. “Please, love, I won’t speak again .

She throbs with need; the madness of her pleading is far too potent a lure for him. He circles one nipple, then another with the tip of the dagger. “I will allow you to beg.”

Please, please , Jaqen, I need…

He is pounding into her, somewhere in there his left hand has made its way to her cunt, he is fingering her as she pleads, incoherent, for more, her knees spread wide apart, open to him.

More... her cunt is needy, it needs to be filled, but he’s already filling her ass and he will not stop until he is satisfied...the dagger in his right hand, he reverses it in his grip, holds the blade between his fingers.

Slowly, he inserts the hilt into her.

He fucks her with it.

Her head is thrown back against his chest. She is moving back and forth, moving herself onto the knife-hilt, onto him. He drives into her, harder and harder. Drives her higher.

She is thrashing against him.

The pleasure of it...he is a creature of rage and lust and fire. The need.

Heat.

Time passes.

Jaqen ,” she moans.

She has crested, somewhere in between, his seed leaks around the tight seal of her entrance, and still he moves in her, and she moves on him.

Arya ,” he murmurs. The sound of his own voice, the sound of her name, it begins to draw him down from the fugue state his lust has driven him to.

“Jaqen,” she whispers.

There is no aggression left in him, she has taken all of it it, drained him of everything ; tenderness seeps into the hollows left behind. Slowly, bit by bit, they still against each other.

Sanity returns.

Their sweat, mingled, cools upon their bodies, and they look down. He is still gripping the blade of the knife, the hilt is still buried in her womanhood. Slowly, with a wet sucking sound, he draws it out of her, covered in her juices.

He stares at his dagger, disbelieving. “Did...did I just do that?”

“Yes, you did,” she says, and her tone is...smug . She senses something, twists around. “Jaqen, are you blushing ?”

He buries his face in her neck.

He can feel her stifling her laughter.



 

ARYA

She is back in Harrenhal, and she knows she is dreaming.

“Stay, Jaqen,” she says.

“Here?” he asks.

She shakes her head. “I want to go home .”

He cocks his head to a side. “And where is home, lovely girl?”

“Winterfell,” she whispers. “Take me to Winterfell.”

The gaze he turns on her is cold. He has never looked at her like that before, as if he doesn’t love her, as if he doesn’t care. “Very well,” he says. “To Winterfell. And then my debt will be discharged.”

There is no debt between us, Jaqen, if anything I owe you! But he is already striding ahead, and she must run to follow. Her legs are too short! She is a child again, a child of eleven.

He has stolen them a horse, and she rides in front of him.

There is something they should be doing, when they ride like this, she thinks, but she has forgotten what it is.

The whole world is silent, till they tether their horse on a small wooded dell overlooking the Twins. A small underground feeder-stream of the Green Fork bubbles out of the ground for a few lengths beside their stopping point.

“Where is home, lovely girl?” he asks again.

She hesitates. His mouth twists in a cruel smile. “Your brother, he is camped below. I will take you to him, and then my debt will be discharged.”

There is a wedding; she is to be married to a Frey .

The hall is too hot. Her mother dies, her brother dies, and there is so much blood on the floor...no, not blood.

Fire.

Molten stone, and a thousand spherical masses--dragon eggs--they rock in the heat of it. A figure towers over her, a monster made of a the fused flesh of a hundred people, and the thing’s eyes are open.

They are watching her.

Watching her all the time as she kneels, and women come and men come, and they cut strips into her.

She finds herself speaking. “Jaqen,” she says. “Jaqen, Jaqen.” And that is all she can say, but they draw his name from her lips like a thread being drawn from a spindle, and weave it into some strange, chaotic tapestry, strung upon a loom made of dragonbone.

“What is your name?” they keep asking her.

They peel apart the layers of her mind, layer upon layer. There is so much despair in her, she is drowning in it and all the world drowns with her, there is nothing she can count on; the world is a dream and there is nothing certain, except despair.

And the darkness, beckoning her, it promises nothing but she remembers it, and the darkness had been a peaceful thing, a thing beyond despair.

“What is your name?”

“I have no name,” she snarls, and the sound of her own voice propels her to wakefulness.

Her throat is hoarse, and someone is pounding on the door.

Jaqen thrashes beside her, in the grip of a nightmare of his own.

Fear chills the breath in her lungs.

The pounding intensifies, and she quickly draws the sheet around her, unlocks the door. Maester Samwell is standing there.

“Is everything alright?” he demands, though he averts his eyes from her dishevelled state. “I heard screaming.”

Arya shudders--no feigning here. “A nightmare. I’m sorry…” she looks over her shoulder. Jaqen is soaked with sweat, his eyes still move rapidly under his closed lids. She needs to draw him out of it, and soon.

“Sorry, Maester, we’ll just be going back to bed,” she says, then gives him her brightest smile. “Thank you, for checking on us. See you tomorrow! Have a good night!” She closes the door without waiting for a response, and the smile slips from her. She rushes over to Jaqen’s side.

“Beloved,” she murmurs. “Beloved, wake up.” Unwise, to touch him, if he has lost control of his sleeping, he may not have control when he wakes, and there are three knives within easy reach of his side of the bed. “Jaqen.”

He shifts, and slowly he stills. His eyes open. He is gasping for air now.

“Our brother,” he says, when he can speak again. “He has emerged from shadow; he passes through the Jade Gates.”

Him of the Many Faces shared a nightmare, with their brother, and she was dragged along with Him. “They...Jaqen, we need to help him!” How? I don’t know how. “He won’t last, not like this.” His mind...it’s been peeled apart. Unconscious, the back of her hand rises to her mouth in dismay.

“He is no one.” Jaqen is confident of it. “He can control his waking mind, if not his dreaming.”

She swallows her relief. “Can you reach him?” He must not be left alone! This she knows, in her bones--Jaqen, Jaqen is the darkness, he doesn’t see the allure of it, the desperate longing to just...let go.

“Sleep is a prelude to death,” he says. “Dreams border on my domain. But the distance... he reached out, and it was whatever residual sorcery of Asshai that still clung to him--I can taste it still, ash and rot--it powered the bridge.” Jaqen turns, and a bitter smile tugs at his face. “You bound me to this body.” He raises a hand to forestall her horrified response. “It was, is necessary. But I am not sure I can reach that far anymore.”

“The wind,” she says. She knows, and if she knows now then he has known the moment they crossed the gate--she can stand on the battlements of Winterfell, in her place, and she can summon winter to her. “The wind will carry you as far as you need to go.”

His smile becomes tinged with sadness. “I was afraid you would say that--let me try, without, first.”

She nods.

Eventually, they sleep again--dawn is still a ways away. There are no more nightmares for her, but she is still uneasy in her slumber. She sees, half-waking, threads of shadow and ash reaching out, weaving a tapestry into the sky, and the tapestry is woven with Jaqen’s name, and Jon’s and hers, and the names of a thousand, thousand others. Each name is a thread that, bit by bit, defines the monstrous image of R’hllor, splayed against the night sky.



 

JON

He is awake, and yet there are shadows, all around him, and the shadows are alive , they press down upon him and he cannot move.

His wounds are seeping into his bedclothes, and the taste of ash chokes his mouth, fills his nostrils; he cannot breathe .

His eyes are open, he can see the outline of the window, vague threatening shapes of shadow and light falling through the curtains, the pale, reflected snowlight giving shape to his formless fears.

A man’s shape, holding a knife, upraised. The man comes closer, and Jon struggles, tries to will his limbs to move, but he cannot. He is cold , and he aches, and he wants to gasp for breath but he cannot breathe.

The man... Jaqen H’ghar. Arya’s husband.

Why is Arya’s husband…

The man comes closer still, and his eyes burn red, and gold, like fire, and he plunges the knife into Jon, again and again and again, and Jon cannot move .


 

He shudders awake with a gasp.

A nightmare, nothing more.

But he has had no dreams since he was...resurrected. His sleep has been as quiet as death, the only peace he can get in a day.

Is it at an end, the peace?

He wipes sweat from his brow, and he remembers Jaqen H’ghar’s face, and his skin crawls.

Is he not to be trusted? Is his sleeping mind trying to tell him something? Will he betray me? Will Arya betray me?

No, never her.

Jon throws aside his covers, seeks the cooler air of the balcony running around the inside of the Lord’s Courtyard. The sweat chills upon his skin, but it is warmer than the cold that invaded his dreams. He finds Samwell out on the balcony as well, pacing up and down, muttering to himself.

“Can’t sleep?” asks Jon.

“Have to memorize this speech,” says Sam. “I’ve never done a funeral before.”

Jon sighs. “Just read it from the parchment, Sam, I don’t think anyone will care.” I don’t. What use are speeches to the dead? What solace can words give to the living? It is a custom, a ritual, nothing more.

“What’s wrong, your Grace?” asks Sam.

“You too?” Jon mutters.

“Only when you go off in your head like that,” says Sam. “Jolts you right out, all the ‘your Grace’s and ‘your Majesty’s’”.

Sam is his friend. Jon should smile. He tries. “What make you of this Jaqen H’ghar?” asks Jon.

Sam purses his lips, comes over to stand beside Jon. “Something about him…” He shakes his head.

“I should trust him,” says Jon. “I started trusting him, yesterday…” Sansa can touch him. But all that means is that she doesn’t think he’s a threat, to her .

Samwell thinks. “They got a message today, from Braavos...enciphered. Addressed to ‘Arya Stark’ anyways, not him. I went to give it, but Lady Arya was having a nightmare, poor thing, wasn’t really all there, thought I’d give it to them tomorrow. But I can send a raven back to where this one came from, if you like. Lady Sansa said something about a guild...what guild is he a part of?”

Jon shakes his head. “We...have not yet talked fully. The wights…” Arya keeps trying to tell me about...him, I suppose, and he keeps supporting my delay...if it is as important as she says it is, shouldn’t he be pushing as well?

Jon looks at Tarly. “Can you decipher the message?”

Samwell nods. “It may take some time, but...are you sure you want to read her letters?”

“I don’t want to,” he whispers, and he knows he should feel wretched, but all he can feel is weariness. “It is necessary...she will forgive me, later, I will beg her forgiveness on bended knee, if needed. But I need to know.”

“Well, I’m sure it’s nothing too bad, whatever it is that made you twitchy about him. I’m sure it’ll be cleared up soon.”

Jon finally smiles. “Your optimism , Tarly. Don’t lose it--keeps the rest of us sane.”

Inside, Jon shudders; the taste of blood in his mouth, the vivid glee on Jaqen H’ghar’s face as he stabbed Jon, again and again...paranoia creeps up on him, taps him on the shoulder.

What do we know about this man, really, except that he is Arya’s husband?

Chapter Text

NO ONE

At the mouth of the Jade Gates there is a labyrinth-like scattering of small islands. Bays, sheltered from the sudden, violent storms that overtake the sea in this season. The Pirate King rules here--the House has received many offers, for the head of the king-beyond-law, but none of have been accepted because, of course, there is no such man.

The Pirate King is a fiction. The pirates are not.

He doesn’t quite remember the entirety of his journey out of shadow--there was a boat, and then a small ship. Slavers. A lot of blood.

He’s lost his knives, somewhere along the way, but he’s managed to make it to Merrytown, dressed in a tattered shirt and half-pants taken from some sailor...some slave, perhaps.

What structures there are in this place are built of wood, hovel-like, and the smell of salt and rotten fish is everywhere. He walks along the harbor, looking at ships. He avoids the ones that have that particular, peculiar stench that comes from slave-ships--human excrement and misery, it taints the water around slave-ships with a black bile; those trails make slave-ships easy to track.

The problem: no ship from these ports will ever go to Braavos. She cannot sell herself into slavery again, on a ship bound for Slaver’s Bay, because it seems the Dragon Queen has destroyed that particular trade west of Qarth. It’s...blasphemous, for one who has seen Valyria, to wish that she’d waited a month or so. But the reality of the matter is that any slave ship in Merrytown will be heading east, not west (with cargo--without, they may risk raids west).

He is attracting too much attention, emaciated and bloodless though he is, not a threat at first glance. He wears neither slave-collar nor ship’s tags--your captain’s tags are life , here in Merrytown, and any freeman without one is either a whore or a target. Or a customer. He has no gold for the latter.

Not yet.

He has no knives yet, either, and his muscles give out too often to rely on hand-to-hand fighting.

With a mental shrug, the one who is no one ducks behind a ramshackle collection of driftwood the locals call a rum-joint, and wears another face he is comfortable with. He raises his shirt, looks down at himself. Arya Stark’s ribs stick out of her skin--the changing of faces changes appearance, but one who is hungry will not suddenly be full, wounds will not suddenly heal. The self-made wound on his wrist, it is healing nicely--Jaqen saw it, infection is unlikely. Another scar, though, that will carry through any shape he wears. Another identifier.

So.

All he gets with Arya Stark’s face is a battered female body of ten-and-five, ragged, short black hair, dark shadows under the eyes, a look of one on the edge of starvation. Not a whore that will earn anything worth earning in a Free City.

The age, the Westerosi look (not rare, but not common either)...She will do just fine, here.

She finds a drunken sailor, in the rum-joint, but she’s run out before she can make a transaction--whores have to pay to ply their trade, it seems. But, as expected, the sailor follows after her, corners her against a rotten plywood screen that separates one “alley” from the next. She makes the appropriate noises, he lowers his stained britches, and her hand reaches out, grabs, twists . He doubles over, and she can reach around his neck now--it looks like she is embracing him, drawing his head down to her breast.

She snaps his neck.

Two silvers and a nicely serrated knife.

Excellent.


 

She dares not sleep, dares not dream, the tatters the sorcerers have left of her self.. .too many holes in dreams, too many holes to fall through. She had, at first, after using the dead sailor’s silver for the first hot meal she had had in...months, it seems (the sorcerers in Asshai fed her bread, cold slivers of fish, when they remembered to feed her at all).

But sleep had exacted a price...A terrific R’hllor inspired nightmare, one that seemed to stretch and spiral out of her, dragging in everything around it like a maelstrom...her Faceless Brothers had been there in the dream, and then further out, Jaqen, with a direwolf growling at his side, and the one who is no one couldn’t reach them. Then R’hllor cast a net, and the net was a bridge, and it was carved out of dragonbone...


 

 

There is a ship that will leave for Volantis in three days, carrying rare spices and wood from the jungles of Leng. Ostensibly.

In actuality they carry laudanum and varmium.

It is unpredictable, when she will find another ship that goes west, and the crew of this particular vessel is far too paranoid and far too vell-versed in the hidden nooks and crannies of their ship to allow her onboard as a stowaway--she can kill quite a lot of them, but not all, and even if she does there needs to be some sort of crew to sail the vessel.

The payment for passage (the coin of the House of Black and White, she does not have it anymore) in the hold along with the rats, is ten gold sovereigns.

Ten gold sovereigns means a lot of dead sailors, and multiple deaths attract attention, even in Merrytown; already, one too many people have reported sighting a dark-haired girl out on the streets. She must move further away from the water, towards the more structurally sound buildings, she must pay to enter taverns and try to find marks with more gold than good sense, marks that will follow her into secluded rooms and alleyways, to be divested of their lives along with their purses.

It’s not that the one who is no one minds fucking, not at all, especially when it is in service to Him of the Many Faces--when a kill rears at the end of it. She doesn’t mind fucking for survival either, but if it’s not for a contract then even one who is no one is allowed to have standards ; everything here stinks of fish and slaves and seaweed.

She pays the last of her silver, sidles up to a morose Westersi nursing a watered-down tankard of ale.

“You look like you could do with a taste of home,” she says to him.

The man waves his hand. “Not interested.” He is older, with thinning yellow hair, but a fighter’s build. His left arm...it is covered, in much the same way that her own is. Momentarily, she wonders what wound he carries.

“You didn’t even look,” says the one who wears Arya Stark’s face, her tone modulated to get a reaction.

He looks up, irritated, and sees her face. The irritation drains out of him, leaving behind a vague discomfort. And the glimmerings of lust. He likes them just like this--just past their flowering, and vulnerable. And there is guilt, there too. Guilt, and lust...and a sudden flaring of protectiveness. The one who is no one almost smirks. The motivations of all men have a pattern to them, and this man’s fits one of the classics--one who has transgressed, who sees an object he desires and believes all his transgressions will be forgiven, if only he can earn that object for himself...but that is a fallacy, of course, because his sins arose out of the nature of his desires in the first place.

Now let’s hope he’s got some gold on him.

“You don’t need to pay,” she says, quietly, in Westerosi. “I would just...will you speak with me, for a while, before I have to go work again?”

He blinks, gestures to the seat in front of him.

“What is a young girl from Westeros--from the North, if I don’t misread your accent--what are you doing here ?”

A little bit of Arya Stark’s facade of courage… “My father was killed...my mother...I escaped...then I was taken by slavers.”

Guilt blooms anew on his face.

She shrugs. “The boat sank, before they got to Asshai, and I don’t...remember much, but somebody freed the slaves, and then…”

His lips are pressed together tightly...his hand is reaching for his purse. If he just gives her the gold...one less body to hide. It would be better for everyone, all around. But he hesitates, draws his hand back.

She leans forward, allowing her wide-necked shirt to fall open, and his eyes are drawn to the curve of her breast like a lodestone before they snap up to her face again.

“You’re very good,” he says, bitterly.

“I will take your coin,” she says. Arya Stark’s determination: “I’m going to go home .”

“And where is that?” he asks, sardonic.

There is only one place in Westeros I know well enough to call “home”, through Arya Stark’s memories--she doesn’t know much of King’s Landing beyond the Red Keep. “Winterfell,” she says.

His eyes widen, he’s about to ask more questions.

She forestalls him. “Enough about me,” she says. “Tell me why you won’t buy, even though we both know your body wants you to.”

Despair, and rage, and longing cloud his features.

“There is someone,” says one who is no one. “Someone you cannot have.”

He says nothing. Is he going to cry ? The one who is no one almost rolls her eyes.

“You can’t have her, but you can have me,” she says. “You can close your eyes, and pretend I’m her, and it will be your good deed of the day--you can help me get back to what family I have left.”

He blinks, furiously, and the look he turns on her is hard, and hopeful all at once.

Got you.

Another tankard of ale for him, and she is on his lap, his hand is under her shirt, fondling her breasts. His eyes are closed, his face buried in her neck. He is getting hard; she doesn’t moan, doesn’t grind down on him, doesn’t act the whore--that would destroy his fantasy. Instead, she’s reaching for the purse he keeps--not the one at his hip, the one he’s got strapped to the inside of his shirt.

She caresses his throat, reaches for his chest. His other hand comes up, holds hers. She sighs. “What is your name?” she murmurs. Names are a distraction.

“Jorah,” he says. “Jorah Mormont.”

Mormont... the name triggers a memory. Another pattern. A new approach suggests itself: Mormonts bend knee to the Starks of Winterfell. Ours is a small world, it seems.

She imbues panic into her body; her muscles tighten, she pulls back, eyes wide.

He stops groping her, looks up at her, meets her gaze. Unease blooms. “What?”

“Say your name again,” she whispers.

He hesitates. “Why?”

“Say it!” she snarls, and leans further back from him, sliding away from his hardness.

“Jorah Mormont,” he spits out. “Why, what’s yours?”

She closes her eyes, feigns a desperate control over her breath. “Arya Stark,” she says.

She reacts with appropriate surprise when he dumps her on the ground, staggers back as if he’s been scalded.

“Stark,” he whispers. He is shaking with the force of his guilt, his desire--not desire for her (whatever lover he’s substituted her for, in his mind). His desire to be the sort of man he imagines he is. "Arya Stark died," he says, almost to himself.

Enslaved. It doesn't need to be said, he's thinking it.

“Get up,” he says roughly. “Get up!”

She complies.

He is looking down at his left hand. There is cloth wrapped around it, white cloth that has grimed to grey over time. “I need to go to Asshai,” he whispers.

She gives him every ounce of bitterness Arya Stark’s memories contain in them. “Then let’s finish, Jorah Mormont, and you can pay me, and I can go home.”

The look he turns on her is cold, remote, more an act of will than anything else. “I will take you as close to Winterfell as I can,” he says harshly. “And then my debt will be discharged.”



 

SANSA

Everyone is awake before dawn, it seems, though Jon seems even less rested than when he went to bed.

“All able-bodied fighters...,” he is saying as he strides towards the hall table to break his fast, Ser Yannis in tow.

“Jon?” Sansa asks.

“We don’t know how many wights the Karstarks released,” says Jon. “I’m sending everyone we have on circuit, even the sentries…” She does not fight it; decoration is the sentries’ secondary purpose. “...I’d go myself--”

“No,” says Sansa. Our parents.

“No,” agrees Jon. “But everybody else that can be spared.”

“Do you want Sandor?” she asks. She hasn’t found time to find her newest (her only) sword any armor. But it can be done in a hurry.

“Not yet.”

Jon doesn’t trust quickly , she thinks. She approves. In principle. Sandor can be trusted. But just as Jon doesn’t dictate the recipients of her trust, she doesn’t dictate his.

It is surprising, startling, entirely unexpected, how much they rely on each other. The perfect sibling I always wanted. She’d looked for it in Arya, when they were too young to know any better... How much would have been different, if Jon and I had been this close when we were children?

Joffrey. Joffrey would never have happened--she had seen the disdain on the prince’s face, right when they’d first met, for the “Snow” in Jon’s name, and it had made her a bit uncomfortable, but not enough not to try and emulate it, later... Mother didn’t help. If Sansa and Jon had been as close as Arya and Jon…

Regret is a disease.

“Be careful,” says Jon, quietly. “We don’t know Jaqen H’ghar, for all that he is family now.”

“He is safe,” she says.

“Nevertheless.”

She nods.

Jon snags the heel of a loaf of bread, presses a slice of cheese onto it, and strides off again. Ser Yannis looks at the pot of hot porridge with longing, then shakes his head and follows after his king.

Ser Yannis’s departing form almost collides with Arya, who has not learned to walk at a measured pace. At least she’s wearing the dress--one of Septa Mordane’s plain black gowns, but finery is hardly appropriate. Arya is headstrong and tomboyish, but she will not dishonor Catelyn Stark’s memory by attending the funeral in travel-worn britches.

Arya smiles at her. “Thank you for sending up the bath this morning, Sansa.”

Sansa looks away. “Your husband was looking at you, at the banquet,” she murmurs. “He excused the two of you early...”

Sansa bathed a lot, while she was married to Ramsay Bolton. Even when there was no blood, she would end up in the bathtub, regardless of whether the water was freezing cold or not, scrubbing, scrubbing.

Jaqen, Arya’s husband, he is safe, she has to remind herself.

Arya’s hand glances over her shoulder. “Not his fault,” she says. “I made him.”

Why ?” Is that how she trained Jaqen to dance to her tune?

Arya goggles at her in turn. “Um.” She blinks, looks down, then up again. “I hate wearing stupid dresses!” she blurts out. “I needed to get out of it. I cut it up. I’m sorry!”

Oh. An image forms, in Sansa’s mind...Arya, wielding her husband’s scimitar, slashing and stabbing at the poor, inoffensive riding dress: “ Take that , you silken monstrosity! ” Sansa giggles, and the giggle turns into full-blown laughter. “Did you really cut it up?” she asks, when she sobers again.

Arya looks sheepish, nods. She ladles herself a bit of porridge, grabs a chair, comes to sit beside Sansa.

“I’m sorry,” says Arya. “I’ll get you another.”

Sansa shakes her head. “I’d outgrown it anyways, and nobody wants to buy summer silks--” she bites off the rest of her words.

“I have eyes,” says Arya softly. She’s looking around the hall, at the pitiful board laid out for their morning’s repast, a lot of coarse bread, thin slices of cheese, porridge made with more husk than grain. “How bad is it?”

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” says Sansa. “But we have to stretch what we have...food prices will go up, not down.”

Arya nods. “Thrift is good.”

The first shift of servants comes in, they take their morning ration of bread and cheese.

Another tale, to add to the annals of King Jon the Good: Once upon a time, in Winterfell, the servants ate as well as the King.

Alas, for all her trying he will still end up being called “The Bastard King”, for all that he is going to worry himself into an early grave on all our behalves, they will call him Jon the Oathbreaker . His resurrection is not known outside of Castle Black, to anyone other than a few trusted souls.

“It’s worse than it should be,” Sansa murmurs, for Arya’s ears alone. “The Ironborn were slaughtered, they didn’t get a chance to carry anything away. But all we found after we took Winterfell back from Ramsay was half a year’s worth of expense money, in his rooms. Fat Walda’s jewels--cut glass, most of them. Maester Samwell did the tallies--the Stark treasury should be reduced, but not empty. Thousands of dragons, just...gone.”

Arya looks up. “Dreadfort?”

Sansa shakes her head. “We took a hundred men, turned that place upside down, slaughtered all those loyal to the Flayed Man. Found a small chest of Bolton silver. Nothing else.” She smiles grimly. “Maester Samwell had the idea that they’d hidden it, in Winterfell somewhere.” We found more than a dozen secret passages, entire rooms no one had been in for centuries. Empty, all of them, save moldering bits of furniture. “Nothing.”

Arya purses her lips, her gaze focused on the distance. “There is a factor-house, of the Iron Bank, in White Harbor, is there not?”

Sansa looks at her, startled. “I don’t know.”

“There is,” says Arya. “They will not advertise it, but every port that does more than a hundred-thousand dragons a year in trade gets a factor-house.”

Sansa remembers Arya’s words: The guilds in Braavos have more power than the nobles. She also remembers Petyr’s words: Information is power .

Arya knows things.

Is her husband affiliated with the Iron Bank ?

Sansa resolves to kiss the ground Jaqen H’ghar walks on, if he can arrange for a loan that can secure the North before the Long Night falls upon them for good--Davos Seaworth sent letters, in Jon’s name...the bank refused, and not courteously.

Arya spits upon the ground. “Fucking Bankers.”

Sansa’s suddenly soaring hopes falter, stutter to the ground.

“The Manderlys betrothed their daughters to the Freys,” says Arya.

How is that relevant? Still, Sansa responds. “Pretense,” she says. “The Manderlys hate the Freys.”

“But they appeared to be loyal to Lannister allies,” says Arya, eyes narrowed, “so they wouldn’t have impeded a Bolton convoy going through White Harbor on mercantile business. Would they have inspected crates, to see if they carried coins instead of, say, wool?”

Sansa sees the direction of Arya’s insinuation, and is disturbed by it. “You believe the Boltons deposited...our gold is sitting in the hands of the Iron Bank?” she asks.

“I...extrapolate,” says Arya, then sighs. “Pretend it’s been thrown into the sea--have more luck getting it back that way than to pry it from the Bank’s cold fingers...the Iron Bank doesn’t care who owns the gold, only who holds it, and that, in the end, is always the Iron Bank.”

Sansa looks down at the congealing porridge, says nothing. Arya is right--in the sea, or under the snow, or within a bank vault, the Stark gold is gone for good.



 

JAQEN

The sky is clear for the moment, though clouds gather in the north. The midmorning sun falls upon two biers, covered with black Stark banners, laid under the heart tree of their godswood.

It is to be less of a funeral than a laying-at-rest, in the end--the Starks have ever preferred simplicity, it seems. The bones, under the banners, have been arranged in a semblance of coherence by Tarly.

Less than a score of mourners are all that can be rounded up, and they stand under the snow-laden branches. Jaqen can see the black of the Night’s Watch (a wandering crow, trying desperately to round up “volunteers” for the Wall), some lords and ladies of the realm (whose population the wars have decimated). Farmers, who have been left with nothing by the winter. A few old servants. Wildlings. Sandor Clegane, he stands at the front of the crowd, dressed not in black but the simple peasant’s clothing he’s worn throughout their journey.

The chief mourners stand next to the biers upon the ground, flanking the Maester. Sansa Stark. Jon Snow (he doesn’t know he is a Stark, yet...no time has been allowed, for the further somber conversations that are required). Arya Stark, in an ill-fitting black dress that once belonged to a Septa, perhaps, going by its conservative cut. And Arya’s husband, in a pair of Robb Stark’s faded blacks.  

For all her disapproval of him and his avowed common birth, Jaqen notes that Sansa Stark has assigned him a place to stand, and he holds the position rightfully owed to the spouse of a scion of Winterfell.

No one but Arya would have questioned it if Sansa had asked me to stand with the crowd, with Sandor. Jon Stark, perhaps. Probably.

But it didn’t come up. The Starks invariably take the high road, it seems. And then he remembers Robb Stark, and his suspicions regarding Lyanna Stark’s true relationship to Rhaegar Targaryen.

... the high road, unless they fall in love.

He supposes Sansa thinks Arya’s followed the same pattern. Sansa would not be entirely...wrong.

Arya walks the low road, with low company, with murderers and liars, and the god of all dead things who has fallen in love with her .

Tarly raises his voice. “Who will carry Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell?” he calls out over the gathered crowd. “Who will carry Catelyn Tully Stark, wife of Eddard Stark?”

An old, old man, vaguely remembered from Arya’s memories, a retainer of some sort, he steps out. A man with House Mormont’s bear rampant upon his chest, he steps out. Two others follow, from other minor houses. The crow. A young soldier, too young to know much of the world.

They are two short.

Sansa exchanges a wide-eyed glance with Tarly--they did not expect this . There are no men left in the score, save Sandor Clegane and a few wildlings--the North will not allow a Clegane, a name that stands cheek-to-jowl with “Lannister”, to lift their lord upon his shoulders. The Wildlings suffer no lord to ride upon theirs .

It falls to them, then, the children of blood and oath.

Jon Snow steps out of the line of chief mourners, takes his place beside the pallbearers.

Arya Stark starts to move, and Sansa grabs her hand. “Women don’t lift biers,” Sansa whispers urgently.

“What sons do they have left?” Arya snarls. “I am as much as...as Rickon was. I’ve earned it.”

Sansa shakes her head, turns to Jaqen in mute appeal. Had they needed a third ... But death himself cares nothing for propriety; he knows his bride must make this last journey. He holds his hand, palm outwards, towards Arya. As she wills it. Sansa’s jaws clench.

“Please, Arya,” she says and her voice is more panic than anything else. “I need you by my side. Please.”

Arya exchanges a look with him.

“We will discuss,” he says to Sansa, and draws Arya swiftly draw away to a side, behind some snow-covered bushes, hidden from view. Quickly, they strip, exchange faces, exchange clothing.

They return, and “Arya” says, “My husband will carry it.”

“That is appropriate,” says Sansa, giving “Jaqen” the very first grateful look he’s gotten from her.

Jon and Jaqen take up the handles of Eddard Stark’s bier. Uncoordinated but swift, the other pallbearers follow suit, and hoist their loads upon their shoulders.

There is no dirge, no prayers, nothing that marks this as a funeral except the silence weighing down upon the earth.

The sky has darkened.

The procession moves towards the keep, the Maester in the lead. Then Eddard Stark, upon the shoulders of his nephew and his daughter, a crow and a man of Bear-Island. Catelyn Stark, raised high by those that served her when she lived. Then Sansa, and Arya.

The rest of the score follow behind them.

The sky has started to shed, by the time they make it to the archways leading to the crypts below Winterfell. They pause, somewhat shielded from the snow, as Tarly delivers a speech from a now-soaking piece of parchment. The words waver, between the Old Gods and the New, between Eddard Stark as a loyal Hand of the King and his proud descent from the Kings of the North. Between Catelyn Stark’s love of her children, and the children she has lost.

The old man holding up one end of Catelyn Stark’s bier, his frame has started to tremble. Eddard Stark’s bier is rock steady. Jon is steadfast, unwavering...the one who wears Arya Stark’s face allows herself a thought, appropriate to the role she plays: Would that all men left a legacy such as this. She looks at the one who wears Jaqen H’ghar’s face. Would that all men had a daughter to shoulder them to their rest.

Almost everyone, including Sansa, she realizes, cannot focus on Tarly’s meandering speech. But there is a method to Tarly’s madness...had there been no winter, had those that should be here been here...the houses, great and small, Howland Reed and the men of Eddard’s band, Catelyn’s Tully family...had all of those been here, Tarly’s speech would have been a masterfully crafted thing, combining religion, and memory, and politics into a subtle, subtle call to arms: Bend knee to his son. Watch over the daughters she has left.

Had there been no snow, to muffle his words…

Arya feels Sansa’s disquiet, standing beside her, and cannot help but sympathize: Nothing is as it should be; the world is out of joint.

“He loves you,” says Sansa in an undertone, her eyes fixed on the two at Eddard Stark’s head. “He is a commoner, and he speaks strangely, but he carries himself well. Are you happy?”

“I chose the mirror of my soul,” Arya replies.

Sansa looks at her, and her mouth twists. “So you still have a soul.” She looks away. “I’ve misplaced mine. Can’t even weep.”

My bride didn’t either, until the faceless wept for her. Sansa Stark...it costs nothing, to treat her as the sister-by-marriage she is.

“You haven’t misplaced anything,” says Him of the Many Faces, wearing Arya Stark’s. “Bodies change, minds change. So do souls. The change simply happened when you were not looking--the day you look in the mirror and recognize yourself, you will realize your soul has been here all along.”

Sansa’s mouth softens, a bit. “Who told you that?”

She does not reply.

“How old is he?” Sansa asks.

“Almost thirty.” The age he appears to be at the moment, his face freshly assumed as it was the day he died in Valyria.

“That is not too bad,” says Sansa. “Very handsome.”

“He keeps my interest,” says Arya, because some response seems to be expected.

“I’ve stopped trusting handsome men.”

Ah. He was rumored to be pleasing to the eye, Ramsay Bolton. So was Joffrey Baratheon.

Tarly’s speech winds down. The pallbearers move towards the crypts, followed by Sansa and Arya. Only family will go further; the rest of the mourners stand around uneasily for a bit, then disperse slowly.

They walk behind the biers, into torchlit darkness.

Through the winding tunnels of the catacombs, flanked by Stark kings of old, they come at last to two sarcophagi, with names engraved upon them. This place, too, has been prepared for some time.

Arya’s heart thunders in her chest as she catches a glimpse of a torchlit face--a statue, one of the very few down here. Her face, standing guard over a grave, dried flowers at her feet. She knows--and it is not a knowing drawn from Arya Stark’s memories--that there will be another grave, further down, a grave made in the months after Arya Stark’s birth, standing empty.

Waiting.

Her bones belong here, beside her mother and her father, beside the statue that looks like her, beside her brother. He is a thief, Him of the Many Faces. If she allows me to steal her from them.

The biers are lowered to the ground, the heavy stone lids manhandled to a side, opening up rectangle of darkness, cold stone, to receive cold bones.

Jaqen moves, nonchalantly, as if clearing off a spiderweb from inside Eddard Stark’s tomb. Arya sees a flash of something white in his hands, and then the cloths holding the bones are being lifted, one at a time, and lowered into their homes.

The lids are replaced, and the pallbearers bow and respectfully retreat down the corridor, back towards the weak winter light. All except for Jon and Jaqen, and the Maester.

Jaqen and Arya retreat to the shadows far beyond the torchlit path. and silently, silently exchange clothes and faces in the dark.

He reaches out, traces the line of her brow with a finger. He is more than the god the Faceless Men serve; he is the Stranger and the weirwood, and his touch is a benediction.

“Bravely done, Arya Stark,” He says.

She leans into his touch, accepting it as she would not have when she discharged her duty to Catelyn Stark under a hollow hill.  Then she returns to her brother and sister. Jaqen leaves, with Tarly.


 

He finds Sandor, drinking, outside in the courtyard. Wordlessly, Sandor hands over the flask, and Jaqen takes a swig, then hands it back. The flask gets passed around, amongst the waiting pallbearers--there is one more ritual that must be completed.

The three Starks come out, after a while. Sansa is in the lead, and there is a small bag in her hands.

The pallbearers’ due.

Symbolic, for family, actual wages for the others. Sansa hands out meagre handfuls of silver. The crow looks at his with bemusement--the man hasn’t had spending money for a while, Jaqen thinks. The man of House Mormont, the other noble, they are a bit more respectful, the old retainer is simply grateful. Everyone exchanges awkward nods, and then they leave.

Sansa reaches into the bag, and pulls out a silver coin--an old one--and hands it to Jon. Jaqen receives a similar.

He passes it to Arya. “Hold it for me, love,” he says, his eyes crinkling in a smile. “My pocket is full.”

Arya considers the coin in her hand, then she simply gives it to Sandor.

“What’s this for, she-wolf?” asks Sandor. Both Sansa and Jon are looking at Arya.

“Jon and Jaqen carried them the last few paces,” says Arya, her voice grave. “You carried them for miles upon miles.”

Sansa looks at Sandor, and something passes over her face that is almost...regret. She bows her head, hands the bag of coin (pitifully thin, now) to Arya.

Delegation.

Arya hands the whole bag to Sandor. “And so my word is redeemed,” she says.

Sandor looks at the bag, fishes out a single coin for himself, then hands the bag back to Arya. “Lady Sansa’s accepted me into her service--means room, board, a fighter’s share of the spoils. Don’t need more.”

Arya accepts the bag and her own due, pockets her coin, then hands the bag back to Sansa.

And so the circle is complete.

“You said we needed to talk,” says Jon, to Jaqen. His voice is hard, but his eyes are utterly bewildered, and red, either from weeping or sleeplessness.

Jaqen shakes his head. “It can wait.”

“So what do we do now?” asks Jon, turning to Tarly.

Tarly opens his hands: I don’t know. Everyone seems at a loss.

“Now we drink,” says Jaqen H’ghar.


 

As night falls, he ends up on a long chaise in Jon’s sitting room. There is a fire roaring in the hearth, the ground is covered in soft Dornish carpets, and everyone has found a seat he or she is comfortable with.

Jaqen’s head in his bride’s lap as she plays with his hair. She rakes her fingers over his scalp, tugs his hair from time to time. It is...distracting.

“Keep that up,” he murmurs to her in Lorathi, “and a man will see all of a girl much sooner than anticipated.”

She smirks at him, returns to simply combing through his locks with her fingers. “Tempting,” she says, “but a girl is afraid it will scandalize people.”

“And here a man thought we were posed like this to for just that purpose.”

“To...needle,” she corrects. “To invite comment, discussion. But not scandalize. And so I will not kiss you, either, no matter how much I want to right now.”

There is wine, and ale when that is exhausted, and mouth-wrenchingly sweet mead. Tarly gives them a song he claims is bawdy. Arya snorts, quietly.

After a while, Jaqen rises, staggers outside the room. When he returns, Jon looks up.

“You were gone a while,” says the king.

The man has a keen sense of awareness, even when halfway to comatose with wine.

“There is a saying in Braavos,” smirks Jaqen. “You never buy ale, you simply rent it.”

This witticism is greeted by uproarious laughter from Samwell Tarly.

Sandor grunts. “Could have told you that without going to Braavos,” he says.

Jaqen resumes his place upon the chaise, his head once again in Arya’s lap. It is a very comfortable position, he thinks--he will have to negotiate something like this, the next time she takes all the pillows.

Jon keeps giving them troubled glances from time to time. “You met before the Red Wedding, you said?” he asks.

The answer should be a simple “yes”. “The Lannisters took their captives to Harrenhal,” says Jaqen. “Tywin Lannister had penetrated her outermost disguise, knew she was a highborn girl from the North.” He cranes his neck, looks up at her with a smile. “Eleven, and already a killer.” The approval in his tone should invite some question that leads to the House of Black and White.

The invitation is misdelivered.

“So you do like little girls,” says Sandor, voice disgusted. Thank you dear Hound, for your ever-helpful commentary. The man is drunk, but Jon does not like the direction Sandor’s insinuation points in.

Arya steps in. “ Wish he did,” she says, and her tone is sad as she strokes Jaqen’s hair. “Left me at Harrenhal, left me in Braavos, then again for two years after we were wedded,” left me in the barrow , she doesn’t add . “Without even a kiss for remembrance, had something happened…”

Jon relaxes.

Mostly truth, one lie ( kissed my bride a lot , even if it was in the dreaming) …Jaqen looks up at her face, deadly serious. “No more leaving,” he says.

“I will kill you if you do.” It is an endearment, coming from her lips.

If you must be the wind , he thinks, and Winterfell becomes your home, I will wait, beside you, till the very stones of this place turn to dust along with the bones they contain. The Many-Faced God will diminish, here in the North. It is only fair--the wind diminished for Him , after all.

Sandor guffaws. “Can’t kill him , little she wolf.” They both look up, startled...is Sandor a lot more perceptive than they give him credit for? “Little girl like you, big blade, but he got me disarmed before I could move. He’ll flatten you.”

“Tyrion Lannister was like that,” says Sansa, commenting on a moment that has come and gone, while she is wrapped in her thoughts. “He slept on the chaise, all the months that we were married.”

So this little tableau has needled Jon in exactly the wrong way (thank you Sandor) but Sansa has drawn a parallel with her first husband.

“Tyrion Lannister...I  think, I think he was a good man,” concedes Jon.

“Bitch Cersei hated him,” says Sandor and burps. “Makes him a good man in my book.”

No, he slept on the chaise when he had the rights to bed your “little bird”, Sandor, you’d forgive him for stabbing your own mother right now.

Tarly proposes another “bawdy” song, and this his bride cannot bide--she starts humming. When Sansa asks, it turns out that Arya does know all the words to “The Farmer’s Daughter”, and even humorless Jon Stark is reduced to tears of laughter by the end of it.

“Arya, I’m drunk,” says Sansa. Her words are slurred, her eyes far too bright.

“Me too.” Arya giggles.

“Come, I want to gossip with you.”

Sansa’s voice... There is a hitch to it. Arya’s jaw clenches. She sees it too.

“You’ll have to teach me how to do this, this gossiping ,” grumbles Arya, and he moves off her lap to let her go. She weaves to her sister’s side, unsteadily, and the two of them link arms and step out onto the balcony.

The doors close behind them.



 

SANSA

With every caress Arya bestows upon her husband's head, Sansa finds her own envy ebbing, to be replaced by curiosity. The touches are not debasing, like the ones Petyr teaches his whores (tried to teach Sansa); there is warmth between these two, affection, unfeigned. But the touches are calculated nonetheless.

What do they want ?

She leans back in her chair, realizes her head is heavier than normal, though her limbs are lighter, somehow. “Clegane,” she murmurs, “pass the mead.”

Her shield grunts, hands over the bottle. Sansa puts her mouth to the top like she has seen the boyos do (she wipes the neck with her sleeve first, surreptitiously) and takes a swig. Sweet liquid fills her mouth, heavy and thick. It is smooth going down her throat, it burns only once it reaches her stomach, where it rests like a pool in the hot springs below the keep.

The springs are still leaking into the library. Have to find a stonemason, somewhere.

She takes another swig, and listens--Arya is humming a tune.

“What's that song?” she asks.

“An inappropriate one,” says Arya, mischief dancing with the firelight on her face. “Wanna hear?”

Arya’s husband groans, and she smacks him lightly on the arm.

“Hear, hear!” roars Maester Samwell.

Arya needs no further encouragement. She opens her mouth, and starts warbling.

“The farmer’s daughter is down at the docks
Got too many hens, she’s looking for cocks…”

Sansa chokes, and Arya’s husband has his hand over his eyes. Maester Samwell is alternating between goggling at Arya and frowning worriedly at Sansa.

Jon is laughing. By the seven, Jon is laughing.

Arya launches into another verse, and Sandor’s gaze brushes over Sansa--she smiles at him, entirely unoffended in the moment, and then he joins in!

“The farmer’s daughter is skirting a plough

Hands up and down like she’s milking a cow…”

Sandor and Arya’s voices are entirely unsuited to singing together and neither of them can seem to agree on the time signature.

“By the gods, Arya, stop, stop!” begs Jon, wiping his eyes. She doesn’t, of course, and continues through to the end, trailed by an off-key Sandor. The final verse ends with a shout:

“...grinds your pecker to BITS!”

It takes a long time for the groans and laughter to subside. Then Sansa realizes the bottle of mead in her lap is half empty. How much was in there when I started? She shrugs, then hiccoughs.

“Arya, I’m drunk,” Sansa says. Courage is so easy when you are drunk!

“Me too.” Arya giggles.

 With effort, Sansa levers herself to her feet without upending the bottle. She gestures to the balcony doors. “Come, I want to gossip with you!”


 

Sansa closes the balcony door behind Arya. Those inside can see, but not hear, them. The cold wind is merely bracing, given the warmth pooled in her belly.

“Men aren't brave at all,” she says to Arya in a tone of wonder. “They're just drunk all the time!”

Arya laughs and laughs. She’s completely sozzled herself. Sozzled : another word Sansa has never had the courage to use, even in her own head… Sansa’s words are indisposed , inebriated . Drunk , if she is feeling particularly crude.

She reaches out, trails her fingertips over Arya’s hair, untidy, short. “In my head, I imagined you escaping, having daring adventures...always imagined you with boy’s hair. Let me straighten the cut for you tomorrow.”

“I’m growing it out,” Arya says.

“To please your husband?” asks Sansa.

Arya shrugs. “He doesn't care either way, as long as it doesn't get in the way of my bladework.”

Bladework. Sandor had said...Sandor had said...Sansa begins to feel the cold at the end of her fingertips. Eleven, and already a killer. “They found the stable boy you'd stabbed through the heart when you escaped.” She can’t help but smile. “Joffrey turned puce .”

Arya giggles again.  

“Turned purple later,” says Sansa thoughtfully. “When he choked to death.”

“Purple is a very royal color,” says Arya.

Sansa takes a deep breath. “Arya, can I trust you?” She doesn’t like the plaintiveness in her voice; the mead is making her sway, too.

“I am an assassin,” Arya says, suddenly somber.

Sansa gives a very unladylike snort. “Please.” She looks at Arya, and suddenly, she wants to know what Arya really thinks of her. The story of Ramsay’s hounds has made it as far as King’s Landing, Petyr told her, so Arya knows. “Killing a man, or three…,” Sansa whispers, “it doesn’t make you an assassin, it makes you a murderer.”

Arya is looking out over the snow-covered hills that had once been moors, covered in heather and gorse. “Have you ever heard of the Faceless Men?” she asks.

“What, the magical killers from Braavos?” Sansa asks. “Joffrey tried to float a loan, when Robb took down the first Lannister army, tried to hire a Faceless Man to kill him...boasted about it, tried to frighten me...couldn’t raise enough gold.”

An assassin. Braavos. She is suddenly feeling too sober. “Arya? You're not serious.”

“I didn't go there for sanctuary ,” Arya spits out, then sees the disbelief on Sansa’s face, and sighs. Slowly, casually, she sidles over to the corner of the balcony, out of sight of the sitting room’s inhabitants.

“Knew there was a reason,” Arya mutters. She pulls out something from within her borrowed dress’s bodice, much too big for Arya’s frame...too thin, for the weather. Have to find her clothes. Mother’s won’t do, they all smell of smoke ...Arya is holding something. Flesh, and hair.

A mask.

Arya draws it over her head, and...she changes. Now a man stands in the corner of the balcony, middle-aged, with tight cropped-curls of reddish-yellow hair. Sansa’s mouth is gaping. How much did I drink?

“Arya,” she whispers.

“It's me.”

The voice...it’s a man’s, cultured, a bit too thin for his age. The man reaches over his head, and draws his flesh off, somehow, and it’s Arya underneath.

Sansa’s arms are clutching at the balustrade; she is off-balance, and it is not the mead’s fault, for her stomach feels leaden, cold. There is silence, and the howling of the wind, while she digests.

“Braavos,” Sansa says, finally.

“Braavos,” Arya whispers, and there is something in the way Arya utters the city’s name, something...Sansa doesn’t know what it means.

An assassin. A Faceless Man.

“How do you…” Sansa breathes. “How do you even go about joining …”

Arya glances towards the sitting room. “I got a good recommendation.”

Sansa blinks, looks over her shoulder. Jon is speaking to Jaqen H’ghar, and it looks like Jon is angry. Sudden panic rises in Sansa. “Jon...Jon, he’s…” she turns, starts towards the inside, and sees Jaqen H’ghar’s gaze following her.

Arya steps closer, gently draws Sansa back to the end of the balcony. “We are not here to fulfill a contract,” she says softly. “This is exactly what it looks like.” She sounds weary now, not drunk anymore. “Family business. He really is my husband, he came with me because I needed to come to Winterfell.”

To bring Father and Mother home... “You're not here to stay,” accuses Sansa, and she cannot quell the sudden panic. No, please, I can’t lose you, I’ve just found you... “You're going to go back to Braavos?”

Arya is silent for a long time. “I hadn’t decided, until just now,” she says, eventually. “I lived for vengeance for so long…” her voice is thoughtful, as deceptively calm as the snowdrifts beyond the walls. “Nursed my vengeance on the order’s teat, until...” she glances back at the room.

“Until you fell in love?” Bitter disbelief makes Sansa’s voice sound harsh, ugly.

Arya gives her a look , in lieu of a snort, probably, then becomes serious. “Until Jaqen taught me how to make my enemies diminish, from the giants that loomed over my shoulder, that took up all the spaces in my mind, into something small, something petty. I learned how to see them as they are, flesh and blood and bone. Just men. And then...” Arya smiles, and it is a mysterious expression, “then he killed them for me.”

“Walder Frey?”

“Walder Frey,” Arya confirms. “Meryn Trant. Ilyn Payne.”

Sansa feels something--savage joy, a fraction, a shadow of what she felt after Ramsay. “ Meryn Trant ,” she says, and remembers the fist, driven into her solar plexus, the sound of ripping cloth. Illyn Payne . She remembers the threats, the fear, the sickening thud of her father’s head falling to the ground…

She wants to spit, like Sandor did, off the balcony, but she’s not sure she can manage that.

He killed them for Arya , she reminds herself, but Sansa must...she must do something...apologize to Jaqen H’ghar somehow…

“You were right, though,” says Arya. “There was a price, once he let me pay it. Arya Stark, for the three deaths.”

Sansa remembers her own words from yesterday: Was your marrying him the price?

“But you’re in love…” Sansa trails off.   Maybe they’re not, maybe they just wanted me, wanted Jon to believe that she was happy. Her stomach churns; she had been willing to trade Arya to secure the North, but to trade her sister for vengeance alone... but the way they look at each other...

“When I doubt who I am, when I doubt where I belong,” says Arya quietly, “when I doubt the existence of the very ground I walk upon...the one thing I cannot doubt is that he loves me, that I love him.”

Sansa exhales. Relief wars with envy--not of them (dreams of love are not for Sansa anymore) but for the unshakable foundation beneath Arya’s words. To be so certain of something in your life...

“We do not keep count anymore between us, Jaqen and I,” says Arya. “Would have added a fourth name to the list--Ramsay Bolton.”

Sansa starts; that name is not spoken of in Winterfell these days. She has become unused to the sound of it outside her own head.

She forces herself to look over, to meet the judgement in Arya’s eyes.

“But you took care of him first,” says Arya, and there is such pride in her voice, in her smile.

Sansa gulps in air, clenches her teeth against the desire to weep. “I enjoyed it.”

“Of course,” says Arya. “Who wouldn’t?”

“Jon.”

“What does he know,” mutters Arya, but she looks...uncertain. “Sansa...has something happened to him?” Her voice wavers.

Sansa avoids her sister’s gaze.

Sansa ?”

“He is well now,” she says. She looks back at the room, her gaze crosses Jaqen’s. He is staring out at them on the balcony, looking entirely too casual. She turns back to Arya. “I am sorry.”

“For what?”

For...everything. “For the things I said to your husband.” For Joffrey. If I had cared more about you than about being a princess… “For the things I said to you when we were children.”

Arya steps closer to her, and their arms are entwined around each other’s. “You gave me something to rebel against,” says Arya. “Defiance is so much easier than submission, for a Stark.”

“Defiance felt impossible, to me,” murmurs Sansa. “In King’s Landing. I was terrified, and I submitted. To Joffrey, to Cersei, to anyone with any bit of power.”

“You survived,” whispers Arya.

Sansa bows her head.

“You survived,” says Arya again.

Sansa rubs at her eyes. They are too dry, the winter wind makes them drier still. “They hung Father’s head where I had to walk past it, every day. I imagined he was still there, his spirit, watching over me.” She shakes her head. “I had Tyrion, for a while. He saved me from the worst of Joffrey...Sandor saved me too. He asked me to leave with him.”

Sansa cannot read Arya’s questioning glance, so she answers the question she thinks Arya is asking. “After Blackwater,” she says. “He was leaving, he asked me to come with him.”

Arya looks thoughtful. “He’d have taken you to Mother,” she says.

Sansa closes her eyes.

“All roads lead to the Red Wedding,” says Arya, and her voice is steel now. “Remember that, when you regret...I regretted, not getting to the Twins earlier. Regretted it for years. But you would have died, I would have died, and then there would have been no vengeance to be had.”

Sansa straightens; she opens her eyes, and the image of her mother’s face (Ramsay took great pleasure in explaining to her how Catelyn Stark gouged out her own flesh as Robb was killed), the image is replaced by the stark winter landscape. “We avenged.”

“Because we survived.” Arya takes a deep breath.

Sansa feels the weight of some terrible thing pressing down on her sister, something vast. Suddenly afraid, she clutches at Arya. “What are you not telling me?”

Arya shakes her head. “I have to tell Jon too,” she says. “And I can’t bear the telling twice.” They both look at the room behind them. Jon is deep in his cups, and he too is looking out at the balcony, wearing his truly troubled face.

Sansa feels a glimmer of resentment. “He thinks I’m a monster.”

“Jon would never ,” says Arya, and Sansa thinks her sister has not lost her childlike faith in their oldest brother; not unjustified, this faith, Jon is so impossibly perfect (his courage, his sense of responsibility, his heartbreaking humanity) it is hard for Sansa not to resent him, a little.

Sansa puts her mouth to the bottle of mead, tips it back until she has drained it dry. She waits; they wait, in companionable silence. Eventually, the warmth reaches her hands, her neck. “There is something wrong with me,” she says, and she is proud of how utterly normal her voice sounds. She draws her hand back from Arya’s, places it over her lower stomach.

Arya’s head whips around. “Child…”

Sansa shakes her head no . “I can still feel it in me...something he did. It hurts. Below…bleeds, sometimes.”

Arya draws a breath. “Have you had it looked at?”

Sansa is amused at how much effort her sister has to expend to keep her voice steady. Out of sympathy, Sansa offers Arya the bottle, which Arya waves away. “Who would I ask?” she says.

“Maester Samwell…” Arya sounds uncertain; the Maester in question is sitting cross-legged on the floor, far worse off than even Jon. “A midwife?”

“There’s two left in Winterfell,” says Sansa. “One came with the Boltons, for Fat Walda. One...gossips.” All my humiliation, bared for wagging tongues? I will die from it before I let them see it.

“I’m here now,” says Arya. “I’ve had training.”

Sansa relaxes, grateful and...hopeful, at the confidence in Arya’s voice. Until she realizes Arya’s training is that of a Faceless Man.

“An assassin,” Sansa says, “offering healing?” Be a mockingbird; nobody can tell when a mockingbird is afraid. Her smile is sardonic, though she feels it pulling strangely at her face, coming out wider than intended. The mead’s influence.

They both leave it unsaid: what other options are there?

“I’m glad I didn’t get a chance to kill Ramsay Bolton,” says Arya, suddenly, savagely. “I wish I could have watched you killing him.”

Sansa grins, and she knows there’s too much Ramsay in that grin and she doesn’t care. “I’m glad I can’t sell you to the Tyrells.”

They draw closer, shoulders touching, like soldiers bracing each other in battle formation.

“Missed you, stupid Sansa,” whispers Arya.

“Missed you too, horseface.”



 

JAQEN

The girls are not gone a few breaths, before Tarly and Sandor leave to find more bottles--they’ve almost exhausted the mead, too.

Jon launches into the words he’s obviously been considering for some time now.

“You let her carry a blade,” he says. The boy holds his ale well, but he is quite beyond pleasantly sloshed, and teetering into the realm of the unstable. The question is far too pointed, as if Jon wants Jaqen to get defensive about it.

Jaqen smirks. “She got a taste for it, after you gave her Needle.”

Jon deflates. “Suppose,” he mumbles.

“It was a part of the marriage contract,” says Jaqen. “No ‘let’ about it.” She kills, in My name. Weapons are a bit of a requirement, really.

“You let her keep her name,” says Jon.

Again, there is no ‘let’ about it--she has fought the faceless, bitterly, for the right to keep her name. It is hers, to do with what she pleases. And she will not impose “Stark” upon me , why would I impose anything in turn? But this reasoning is too Lorathi for this place. So let us manipulate with a different truth.

“My father, my grandfather…” He holds Jon’s gaze. “I would not taint her, with the name they bequeathed unto me.”

That resonates, for a man that hates his own last name, and yet bears it defiantly, like a shield (Jon is king . Who can stop him from legitimizing himself? It may not be in good taste, but it is certainly in his power).

Jon looks at him, searching, as if he is searching for something but his eyes cannot focus on Jaqen’s face. “You are not motivated by what the Stark name can give you?” he asks, and the tone of his question is harsh. So Jaqen’s words resonated, but instead of putting Jon at ease, they have made him edgy.

Jaqen reaches for an unopened bottle of mead. “The things that come with the Stark name--they are what drew me to her in the first place.” He pulls out the cork with his teeth, spits it out. Jon’s eyes have widened, his surprise at the admission overruling his vague animosity. Now, twist . Jaqen smiles, sardonic. “The fierce loyalty of Eddard Stark,” he says, “the implacable focus of Catelyn Stark. The courage of fools and madmen both. All of these things I have in her. What more would I want?”

“A pretty speech,” Jon says, his lip almost curling with disdain.

Flattery...Jon took my words for flattery, not truth. Him of the Many Faces cannot but read another accurately.. .so why do my words not find their mark?

A suspicion grows in him. Our brother reached out last night, bridged the distance between us in his hour of need. What else crossed that bridge?

Jaqen levers himself up to a sitting position, leans back casually while maintaining line-of-sight to the balcony outside. Sansa and Arya are not gossiping...not unless gossip involves blood-magic, anyways--he can smell it from here.

The smell...if Asshai is involved, Jaqen should smell the ash, the mold-rot. But he does not.

“You’ve lost most of your accent,” says Jon. The boy pays attention to people’s words.

Jaqen grins, briefly. “I’ve lived in Braavos a long time--the Lorathi accent makes an appearance but rarely. Mostly when Arya is around, for some reason.” He takes a sip of the mead, then passes the bottle to Jon.

Though the king takes the bottle, he is not mollified. His mental state is too far shifted from yesterday’s to find resonance with a thing that had made him almost smile the day before.

“Who are you, Jaqen H’ghar?” he asks. The question is worded to be a rhetorical, thoughtful one, but the tone is all wrong.

Jaqen blinks. Is the problem not with his speaking, but with my listening? Am I reading hostility where none exists?

Asshai’s spells should not find much purchase here, not in Jaqen, not in Jon (what the spells want--confrontation to no purpose--it is too far removed from both of their natures).

Jaqen ignores all tonal quality, turns his gaze to the King’s eyes. Him of the Many Faces looks , deep. There is too much suspicion in Jon, too much naked fear , fear of Jaqen , sudden, intense, and egged on by drink.

“Who are you?” Jon asks again.

An assassin, and I made your sister one too-- that is not going to go down well in this state.

“A man who is on your side,” he says instead, then adds, “Arya and Lady Sansa should be here, and we should all be sober when we speak, in detail.”

Jon closes his eyes, as if he is trying to remember something. He tries to remember what he wanted to speak of, before something redirected his attention . “If we ride against the Umbers, and win, I would make Arya Lady of the Last Hearth. Establish a new house, in her name.” And the hard-edged suspicion appears again as Jon opens his eyes. “You would not rule.”

“I mean no offense, your Grace, but I would not rule if you paid me a million gold dragons to do it. And she will not, either.”

Jon sighs. “Then you will have to make her.”

“I do not own her,” Jaqen says. Neither do you. “She is my wife , not my slave. I make her do nothing.” Bedroom games notwithstanding.

And then, then, he hears the arrogance in his own voice, and grows afraid.

Not just Jon...

“She is a Stark of Winterfell,” Jon spits. “What kind of like will she have in Braavos , as a commoner's wife?” Then he passes a hand over his face. “Sorry,” he sighs. “Sorry. Didn’t mean that. Don’t know what’s come over me.” The last is mumbled, half to himself.

Jaqen waves his hand, as if to say, “pay it no mind”.

He cannot sense anything in Jon except for something faint...some darkness, and some resonance, with Arya...they know Jon has the warging gift, it could be that.

Jon’s mouth twists. “But she deserves better.”

Jaqen nods, seriously. He tries to find some glimmer of hope, for this boy who has had to face as much as his bride. “Arya was not wrong, when she said she came to solve problems--I will preempt her thunder, a little, but Cersei Lannister has made many enemies, and the City of Braavos is interested in making an alliance with the King in the North.”

Jon smiles, humorless. “You think Braavos would acknowledge me as king? Nobody else does.”

This is the moment Tarly chooses to return, Sandor and a half-crate of bottles in tow. “So,” says Tarly, “what’d I miss?”

Neither man answers him. Jon clams up, takes another swig of mead, glum. Jaqen lies back down on the chaise, and ignores whatever question the king mumbles at him next. On your side, Jon Stark--we’ll break out of this, somehow.

The balcony door opens again; Arya is unsteady on her feet, she burps. “I think I’ve had enough,” she mumbles. “Can we retire?” she asks Jaqen.

He staggers to his feet. “Let’s go.”

“Your chambers have been cleaned,” says Sansa. “Do you need anything else?”

“An extra pillow,” he slurs. “We have one, she takes it. We have two, she takes two. Let’s see what she does with three.”

Sansa looks directly at him; she teeters on the edge of drunkenness, held back from it by sheer force of will. “Forgive me,” she says.

An apology. That must have been an interesting conversation , he thinks.

“I did not realize,” Sansa continues. “That Arya still has that habit,” she explains, lamely. Not that anyone else in the room will catch any nuance tonight. “I’ll have some more pillows sent up.”

Jaqen’s mouth twists. Mercy and forgiveness are not quite the same thing, after all. “Or you could give us separate chambers, if that makes you more comfortable.”

Arya looks worried. He waits.

Sansa smiles, finally, a weak thing, but there is genuine humor threaded through it. “I thought about it,” she says, honestly. “But Arya would skewer me.”

Arya snorts. “That may be preferable, to Jaqen getting sarcastic at you.”

“Point taken, love,” he murmurs at her, then bows to Sansa. “Sleep well, sister.” No mockery. “There is much that must be discussed on the morrow.”

Sansa smiles at him. Two miracles in as many days?

Then she falls into her chair, lets out a small squeal as the chair tips backwards. Sandor’s hand shoots out, instinctive, righting the chair before it falls over.

The other half of that bottle has hit her, it seems . The Maester is already snoring, Jon is not far behind, his gaze lost in his half-empty goblet. Sandor is the only one left with anything resembling coordination, but that man can drink.

Jaqen and Arya stagger out, supporting each other.

They straighten, once they’re away from the populated corridors. There were many more people, these corridors were bustling, in his (her) memories of this section of the keep.

“How was that?” she asks. Valyrian, high and low, has somehow become their lingua sub rosa. He understands this is the first time she’s had to act drunk.

“Less slurring, more high-pitched laughter,” he says, “unless you’re a man, in which case you should pause halfway and go piss on a wall somewhere.”

She grins. “I’m assuming that’s not why you went outside.”

“The ravenry is not well-populated,” he murmurs. “Even a bird or two will be missed. We will need to discuss the sending of messages with Tarly, openly, or we risk jeopardizing what little trust we’ve built here.”

“I saw it from the balcony...even without hearing what he was saying to you...,” her voice is sad. “I don’t know what happened, between yesterday and today...”

Your husband and your brother have shadows wrapped around their tongues and ash in their eyes. His stomach roils, and not from the drink. He needs to tell her; she will not take it well. She has already seen the wind, the choice open to her in this place, offered to to Him on their faceless brother’s behalf...fear and fury are a powerful combination--if He is threatened, if Jon is threatened, she may not offer . And then I will lose her. And yet, she may be their only defense; prophecies can try to bind her, but they cannot anticipate her, they cannot predict her motion.

How do I say this to her without driving her to impulsive action?

Luckily, Arya’s focus has shifted. “Sansa is dealt with, though,” she says, and grins, a moment of pure happiness.

Did you find the real face of your sister to your liking, then, my love? It seems so--and she liked yours. Well and good.

“I smelled the mask,” he says. “Told you it might come in handy.” She’d given him a look as if he was mad, suggesting she take a death-mask with her to her parents’ funeral.

“I love you,” she sighs.

“Mmm. Remind a man to inform you of his half-baked intuitions more often, if it earns him such declarations,” he says.

“Intuitions,” she murmurs. “Love, I think Jon has a problem with betrayal. Something clings to him. Sansa said something happened to him.”

The words trigger something… “It feels like I know him,” he says. “As if from a dream…” He shakes his head; the thought vanishes, leaving behind a certainty. “Something has happened to him.”

“He smells like mother,” she says, face troubled. “Cold mildew, that grows in winterdamp places.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Your warg senses?” he asks. “I smell nothing. R’hllor?”

“The Prince that was Promised?” she says. “I do not know.”

“There was a red priestess,” says Jaqen, his voice hard, “with Stannis Baratheon’s army. We need to find out what happened to her.”

Arya nods.

They turn, in unison, up a small, curving stone staircase--a shortcut, to the children’s wings. They both know the way through her memory.

The room, when they enter, is entirely...the same, yet different. Candles are lit, the hearth is laid. The furniture is all wrong, but it’s placed in all the right places.

She sighs. “Time is a river.”

He looks around, and does not voice his dark suspicions--that a certain Jayne Poole was kept in this room, for a while, before the Boltons found a real Stark to wed. The children’s rooms are the furthest from the key points of the sacking, in his calculation--fire wouldn’t have reached here, not unless Sansa had the furniture dragged out and burned.

Arya falls into the canopied bed, and he must fall into it beside her. They don’t bother with the fire. There are more than two pillows already, he is glad to find. There is a pattern of daisies, on the canopy overhead.

He snorts. “Very sweet.”

She hits him with a pillow. He grabs it out of her hand, refuses to give it back. “You promised me one,” he says.

She stretches out, then recoils, whipcord, as if her foot has touched a snake. She wrenches back the covers, and finds heated bricks at the foot of the bed.

“This lordship thing has some benefits, I see,” he says, amused.

She glares at the bricks. “This is nice,” she says. “ Too nice,” she adds darkly. “We stay here too long, we’ll be as out of shape as...as Samwell Tarly.” She considers. “Jon’s not bad--he trains, Sansa says.”

“Most northerners I’ve seen are fitter than people in the south,” he agrees. Speaking of Jon. “Be careful...Jon wants to establish a new house in your name. He might try to make you lead an army for him, as...inducement.’” When he’s sober and thinks of it.

Arya’s eyes shine, for a moment. “All hail the Marshall General Commander of the Armies of the North, Arya Stark the Fearless,” she says, then giggles. “Thank you for the warning...temptation, by itself, it is easier to nullify than unexpected temptation.”

He looks over at her. “Is this something you’d want to do? Lead armies?”

She snorts. “You know the evolution of my martial ambitions.”

A knight-errant, when she was five and heard the tales of Duncan and Egg for the first time. A brother of the Night’s Watch, when she was seven and her uncle Benjen came to recruit new crows. “Marshall General Commander of the Armies of the North, Arya Stark the Fearless” the day she learned the story of Robert’s Rebellion at the age of nine.

Jaqen H’ghar, after Harrenhal.

“Killing a man when he knows you’re coming at him…” She makes a face, then shifts, goes on her side, propping up her head with her elbow. “Our way is better.” She grows serious, twists around until she is on her knees on the bed.

Discomfort pulls at him...and then his suspicion is confirmed--she bows her head.

She kneels.

Arya…, ” warns Him of the Many Faces.

She looks at him through her lashes, grins. “ One , you would abide, you said.”

“Hmm.”

Aōhon ,” she says, ‘yours’, in the High Valyrian, “in case it was not clear. Winterfell, and comfortable beds because we must help Jon, he is drowning, and because we are at war with the Red God. Then, a stone bed in Braavos--you will share it with me, though it is narrow--and an eternity of service to the Many-Faced God.”

“Ñuhor,” he says, ‘ mine’ in its darkest form. Beloved, you know as well as I though you seek to deny it as I once did, “Winterfell” against “Braavos” is a false choosing . Still, it cannot help but give him some hope. “Only the acolyte beds are narrow--it discourages sharing. Why did you not move to the faceless wing?”

She looks sheepish. “Didn’t know if you’d know where to find my dreams, if I moved.”

He thinks. “Have I told you I love you?” he asks.

“Not today.”

“I love you.”

She unwinds, stretches out beside him. “Sansa was pouring liquid courage down her throat to speak of it,” she says. “Something’s wrong with her, she doesn’t know what, doesn’t want the midwife…”

He stills. “Ramsay Bolton?”

She doesn’t answer.

He would have been hanged long before he reached adulthood, had he been born to a common father. “The North is no better than anywhere else.”

“Exceptions exist,” she says. “You’re a dragonlord of Valyria. Married to a Stark.”

“If Valyria does not exist, then a dragonlord does not either,” he says firmly. “So give the word, I’ll take my Stark and flee to more democratic shores, tonight, if it so pleases you.”

“You didn’t have to burn down an entire civilization,” she says reasonably, “you could have simply changed your name.” They joke about these things now: You could have changed your name. You could have gelded Joffrey right at the start. “And we can leave whenever you want,” she adds. “After I’ve seen what’s wrong with Sansa. And Jon.”

Reasonable.

He looks at her face for a while. “I think you are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen,” he says.

Her lips part--a soft “o” of surprise; he has disarmed her, if only for a moment. Then she remembers to glare at him--he takes it as an invitation. He rolls on top of her, straddles her, pins her hands down on the bed on either side of her head. She shifts her hips, arches into him. But she does not say his name, nor plead...he can take his time, then, exert some control over himself (A “ Jaqen ” or two from her mouth, and he would have to bend her over the side of the bed and sheathe himself in her cunt, and it would be fucking, whereas he wants to make love to her, and she knows it).

This dress business...he doubts if he can get away with cutting a second borrowed dress to ribbons. Much harder to get at her when she’s not wearing a simple shirt...men’s clothing seems to be designed to facilitate access, women’s to impede it. He undoes the buttons on her bodice with his teeth, uses his mouth to draw aside the cloth. His tongue pauses from time to time, to lick at her skin over her collarbone, her throat, until he exposes her breasts themselves. The candlelight--tallow, but plenty of it--gives her skin an ethereal glow, her rosy nipples dark with arousal.

She twists out of his grasp.

“My one weakness,” he murmurs, the great Jaqen H’ghar, invariably put off-guard by his bride’s tits, because now she’s on top and pinning his hands to the bed.

As recompense, she dangles her breast near his mouth, and he closes his lips around a nipple, sucks, as she moans and grinds down on him.

Piece by piece, they undress each other, passing the lead on the dance back and forth until they both lie naked on top of the covers.

“Beloved,” he says, “I need to tell you something. Will you...postpone your reaction?”

For a moment her muscles tense, and then she nips at the base of his throat, deliberately, carefully playful. “As long as you are in me while you speak…”

His hand meanders, between them, slides between her legs, to her wet, impatient core, a match to his eager hardness. Life , he thinks, out of madness.

This will hold her to me.



 

SANDOR

The little bird seeks her bed shortly after the she-wolf, but her brother the king and his Maester don’t seem to be going anywhere. With a sigh, Sandor levers himself to his feet.

“Leaving already?” slurs the Maester. “We’ve two more bottles left!”

“Too old for drinking all night,” Sandor mutters. He thinks he remembers how to get to the rooms the little bird has assigned to him, on the other side of the courtyard to his left. He snags the empty bottle of mead she has left behind, on the way out. Nobody notices.

He falls through the door of his rooms, locks it behind him. There is a single candle burning on a table, an empty rack for armor and weapons. Another room branches off from this one--a sleeping chamber, with a wide bed and a hearth. The fire in the hearth has burned down to embers, but the room still retains a pleasant warmth.

Sandor loosens his cloak, remembers to take off his boots before falling into the bed. His is still clutching the empty bottle in his hand. He raises it above his head, looks at the candlelight playing about its ceramic shape. Bottles are shaped like women , he thinks.

He brings the neck of the bottle near his mouth, tastes the sweet residue of the mead.

She put her lips on it.

He groans, and fumbles open his britches, takes himself in hand. His strokes are rough, fast, and his release comes soon; he wipes his hand on the bed cover.

Can’t let her know , is his last thought, before he falls asleep. I’m disgusting. She likes clean .



 

JON

Sandor’s been gone but a few minutes, but neither Jon nor Sam have the fortitude to attack the last two bottles. Some dim part of him is already dreading the hangover tomorrow--nothing quite like a mead hangover.

“There’s that passage we found, when we were looking for the gold,” he mumbles, then rises to his feet. “It goes behind Arya’s room. Come on Sam, let’s go find out what he is hiding from me.”

Sam has to bend forward, get on his knees before he manages to stand up. “What’s gotten into you, Jon? This isn’t like you.”

“I am king here, am I not? I need to know why Jaqen H’ghar is going to stab me.”

“He’s not going to stab you!”

“He carries a blade strapped to his chest,” Jon snarls. “Saw the shape of it...he lay down...I know what daggers look like under clothes.” He trails off. “Daggers everywhere,” he whispers. He can taste ash in his mouth, ash and rot. The gleeful cruelty on Jaqen H’ghar’s face, from the nightmare last night...it overrides, overrules the friendly, almost kind look Arya’s husband gave him as he left for the night.

Sam sighs. “This is a bad idea. A bad, bad idea.” But he still follows Jon out the door.

The corridor is too long, but they make it to the end, and down a short flight of stairs without slipping too often. The entrance to the passageway is an alcove that had been bricked up when this wing of Winterfell was repaired, more than two hundred years ago. They’ve put in a solid door, and Sam holds the key.

It takes a few tries, but they get the key in the lock, and turn it. Jon grabs a covered glass lantern from a holder beside the door, and they push through.

The passage was probably a servant’s corridor, leading from the Lord’s wing to the nurseries. It passes behind each of the rooms they’d had, the Stark children. There is wood panelling separating the passage from the rooms, termite-eaten in places during some long-ago spring. The holes can’t be seen from the room-side, but the entire section behind Arya and Bran’s rooms is porous; sound, air, warmth--the rooms leak .

They don’t need to count doors to find Arya’s room...they can hear her.

Sam’s eyes are wide, he’s shaking his head at Jon.

Jon’s jaw clenches.

Arya’s moans again, the sound of flesh meeting flesh...it’s quite obvious what they’re up to. Rage, irrational, rises in him. Get your hands off my sister!

“Not hiding anything, Jon,” Sam whispers furiously, “leave them be.”

The rage ebbs as fast as it had risen. Jon closes his eyes. What the hell am I doing? He feels deeply ashamed, and not a little unsteady. Why am I here?

Aōhon,” Jaqen says, his breathing harsh. “ Aōhon.”

It sounds like a name...a love-name, for Arya?

Jon shakes his head. Not my business, what he calls her in bed! What in the seven hells am I doing here?

Then she says something in a language he cannot understand--he catches something that sounds like his own name, “Jon”... what?

Jaqen replies, and his tone is far, far too serious for a man in the midst of swiving his wife.

Not my business, whatever it is. “Jon” probably means something crude, with my luck.

Jon turns around to leave, almost chokes on the sudden taste of mold at the back of his mouth. He trips on a loose stone underfoot, catches himself on the wall. The lantern falls to the ground, shatters.

The lights go out.

All sound ceases.

Jaqen’s voice is cold, absolutely calm; he says something. Then Arya replies, and she is right up against the wood paneling that leads to the corridor.

I didn’t hear her move! How did she get from the bed to the panel without me hearing her move?

More conversation he doesn't understand. Then there is a creak--someone is climbing back into bed. Only one, or both of them?

“My watch,” says Arya, in the common tongue. She’s further away now...near the leaded-glass doors that lead to the balcony overlooking the courtyard.

They hear Jaqen sigh.

Jon and Sam are frozen in place; he doesn’t know how long they stand there...till his legs cramp, at least, and Sam’s frame is trembling.

There is nothing but silence from Arya’s room.

Slowly, as quietly as they can, Jon and Sam make their way back down the passage.

They close and lock the passage-door behind them, and Jon leans against the wall, breathing heavily. His heart is still thumping, imagining the sheer embarrassment of having been caught spying on his sister and her husband.

I’m a grown man, a fighter. I’ve ranged beyond the Wall, I’ve killed and died ...I’m acting like a prepubescent boy! What the hell was wrong with me? Man’s a fighter, of course he’s not going to go unarmed, can’t carry swords to a funeral, he took a dagger. That’s all. I had a nightmare; he’s had lots of opportunities to stab me, and I’m still here. He tries a chuckle on for size, at the absurdity of his paranoia.

“You were right,” says Samwell, when he gets his breath back. “By the old gods, Jon, you were right.”

Jon whips around, looks at the Maester. “ What ?”

Sam is still drunk, but sobering fast, from the way he stands. “They want to kill you!”

Jon just blinks at him in bewilderment.

Sam’s lower lip is trembling. “Arya...she was talking in High Valyrian! Nobody talks in High Valyrian!”

Jon is utterly, utterly still. “What did she say?” his voice is almost a whisper; he doesn’t want the answer to his question.

“She said…” Sam passes a hand over his eyes. “She said, ‘you are supposed to kill Jon’.”

Jon slides to the ground. Sam joins him, closes his eyes, lays his head back against the wall.

“Nothing good ever comes from someone who speaks High Valyrian,” Sam says. “Maesters can read it, I understand some, but I can’t speak it they way these two were speaking. The way Pate spoke it, fluent...”

“Who is Pate?”

Sam ignores the question. “When you dropped the lantern...he asked about secrets--secret passages, I think. She said...she said she didn’t know any more than he did. She was angry, Jon. He said stone carries sound if there is...an arch, maybe? That you can hear from one side of a...crypt, I think...to another in a house of black and white. Then she snarled ‘I know’ at him, and refused to come back to bed.”

Jon’s thoughts churn, and he tries to make them focus. “What is a house of black and white?”

“I have no idea.”

The King in the North lowers his head into his hands. “I didn’t want to be right,” he whispers bitterly. “No. I refuse it. I refuse , you understand. This is Arya . You said you don’t speak High Valyrian well...maybe you misinterpreted. Maybe they said someone is supposed to kill me--we have so many enemies. I will not allow myself to believe that Arya is one of them.”

“Don’t let yourself be alone with Jaqen H’ghar,” says Sam, then thinks. “Or Arya.” He looks over at Jon. “I’m sorry.” Jon acknowledges the sentiment. “But you have to keep at least two guards,” Sam continues. “ Your people. With you at all times.” Sam means wildlings, Jon knows. The only people that are his , though they bend knee to no lord.

“Yes,” says Jon. “Guards.” He thinks. “Sam, send a raven to Davos, tonight --”

“Still in Cerwyn, isn’t he?”

Jon nods. “Send a raven, and ask him what he knows of a black and white house.”

A part of him just wants to curl up on the floor, and sleep for a week. Instead, he rises to his feet--Sam makes of point of seeing him right to the door of his chambers.

Chapter Text

ARYA

She stands by the window until her legs ache from the strain and her heart aches from the distance between her and Jaqen.

No. It will not be allowed.

Still furious, still terrified, she stalks back to the bed. His breathing is even, soft, and she knows he is awake. She crawls under the covers, crawls over to him, crawls into his arms. They close, tight around her, and he is murmuring her name into her hair. It eases, some of the turmoil, but not enough. She winds herself around him, legs between his, arms around his torso, head on his chest.

Not enough.

She raises a hand to her face, prays to him with his name on her lips.

The darkness rises, and lays his body, his memory, his...his serenity over hers. And now there are two Jaqen H’ghars in the bed, entwined.

“Better?” He murmurs, and He is amused.

He allows His amusement, shifts so his now longer body is molded more comfortably to his...own.

“How can you, how can anyone stand to wear Arya Stark?” he asks. “She is…” a cauldron, a vat, a... sewer of seething emotion. “She has no control at all. What use is her face to the Faceless Men, apart from the politicking?”

The question is sincere; it will not be handled with levity.

Him of the Many Faces sighs, turns so they face each other. They breathe, together. “One wears Arya Stark,” He says finally, his breath a whisper against Jaqen’s lips, “when having control, when being no one--when these things are not enough. When one stands at the edge of a precipice.” Jaqen inhales, closes his eyes. “When one stands at the edge of the precipice,” He says, “one wears Arya Stark, because Arya Stark never permits despair .”

Jaqen lets out his breath, ragged. “Arya Stark is our last line of defense.” His lips descend upon Jaqen’s in a gentle kiss.

Jaqen opens his mouth, but He draws away.

“This is very odd,” murmurs Him of the Many Faces.

Jaqen smirks. “Think of the possibilities…”

“Oh, I am,” He says, and Jaqen can feel himself growing hard. But neither of them is in a mood for play at the moment, despite what his body may be telling them.

“You need to dream?” says Jaqen. Our brother is lost.

“Mmm.”

“Let the wind help you.” Arya Stark is good for something. Arya Stark can help.

He shakes his head. “Let me try, without it. Just...lay in my arms, love--you need to sleep, too.”

“I need less sleep than you.”

“Not in that body you don’t.”

Jaqen sighs, turns, so his back rests against His chest, and He curls around Jaqen, drawing him closer. Jaqen no longer fits into the hollows of His shape, He cannot tuck Jaqen’s head under His chin.

Very odd,” says Jaqen.

“Here…” He draws Jaqen down, a bit, His arm around Jaqen’s chest instead of his stomach, and then Jaqen pulls his head back, till His face is buried in the crook of Jaqen’s neck; a new balance is found.

“Arya Stark had better be stable tomorrow,”Jaqen murmurs, drowsiness rising at the base of his throat, his limbs growing heavier. “Can’t wear you during the day.”

“You can, for as long and as often as you need...I will wear you. It is enlivening, this Arya Stark out-of-control business.”

Enlivening ? Oh, the possibilities…”

Him of the Many Faces snorts, places a small kiss on Jaqen’s shoulder. “Your focus , beloved, is a thing of wonder.”

A shout, outside, far away. He looks up. A creak... the gates of Winterfell ...hooves pounding upon the stone flagstones of the courtyard.

Riders, returning from their circuit? A bit early, if that is the case--unless they found more wights? He looks over and realizes Jaqen is asleep.

It can wait. It can all wait. Him of the Many Faces must look for a brother, again.



 

JON

He has not slept, nor undressed, so when he hears the distant thunder of horse-hooves, he is ready to meet them at the base of “his” tower, in the war-room, along with Samwell Tarly.

Not his riders. Davos Seaworth. The man looks exhausted, there is sweat on his brow, and grime on his face, and his eyes are frantic until they land on Jon.

“You rode all night?” Jon asks.

Show me your wounds ,” Davos commands, and there is something so urgent in his voice, so desperate, Jon cannot help but respond--he draws his shirt above his torso, and exposes the unhealing, black gashes on his skin to the chill air.

Davos sags in relief.

Jon lowers his shirt. “What is...”

“Where are they?” Davos asks.

Samwell nods towards the central part of the keep. “Sleeping, in Arya’s room.”

Davos shakes his head. “That is not Arya.”

Jon closes his eyes, opens them again, and gestures to a seat around the massive table of war. There are maps and papers strewn over its surface, little markers representing troops: his own, his enemies.

Mostly enemies.

He rests his elbows on the surface of the table. “Tell me.”

Davos swallows. Inhales. “The House of Black and White is the name given to the guildhouse of the Faceless Men in Braavos.”

There is a sharp intake of breath from Samwell. Jon, himself, is numb. “The assassins.”

“When you said...they are supposed to kill Jon--they’ve come here to fulfil a contract on your Grace.”

Jon’s jaw clenches. “Why did you ask to see my wounds?”

Davos passes a hand over his face. “It is rumored that a Faceless Man can take on the face of one he has killed. That they have magic, and they can look like anyone, anyone at all.” He looks up at the frozen expression on Jon’s face. “Your Grace...I am sorry.” Davos is a straightforward man. He does not mince his words. “Your sister is dead. Murdered. By whoever it is that is pretending to be her.”



 

HIM OF THE MANY FACES

The landscape of dreams shifts, but it is most often a vast, dark plane and the line that splits the ground from the sky, a bright slash, the faint slit of light under an eyelid just about to open. He walks; there is no one else on this plane, there cannot be, but the shapes of dreams bloom in the air all around him.

Brother, where are you?

A faint resonance, to the east. His faceless brother does not sleep, he...drifts. In and out of wakefulness.

“Brother,” whispers Him of the Many Faces, “where are you?”

Ship.

His voice is diseased, tattered. Too far away, brother, I cannot help you...I cannot help you... He puts aside his frustration. “Ship going where?”

West. Away from Asshai. West.

“What is your next port of call?” Too complex...he will not be able to answer it.

But, from some well of coherence, and Jaqen does not know how , but his brother understands, and answers: Volantis.

The god’s sudden relief is too much...the dream pops, like the surface of a soap-bubble, and the plane is silent again. But it is enough. Volantis.

Him of the Many Faces turns back, draws himself towards more familiar territory...an image blooms, behind His eyes, and the flavor of it he knows as well as he knows his own face.

His bride has been dragged into the dreaming in his wake, it seems. He smiles, and walks into her.

Arya is on her knees, deliciously naked, in the throes of orgasm...and not the first one--he knows that mewling sound...there is a man behind her, working his meat in and out of her. I should spy on my bride’s dreams more often...only ever kissed her before. Lust surrounds him, warm. Mmm. Watching myself fuck her in her dreams... the voyeuristic aspect of it intrigues him.

He walks forward. As he comes closer the face of the man riding Arya resolves, and it is not his own. The taste of betrayal gathers; a caldera, waiting to erupt. Dark hair, but curled, eyes the storm gray of a Stark, a man they both know…

She opens her eyes, meets the gaze of her god. She looks confused, she turns her head, looks at the man fucking her, and she screams.


 

She awakens with a scream, awakens the both of them, she rolls away from the bed, falls to the ground.

He rises as well, slowly, deliberately. He rises to his full height, and she crawls backwards, away from him. “Is that what you want?” he asks, cold, silken, a blade drawn quietly over a throat. “Is he why you came to Winterfell?”

She stops crawling. She straightens, rises to her feet. He expects denial--how can she deny that ?

“Dead men don’t dream ,” she says. “No Faceless Man ever dreams of his own accord.”

No Faceless Man ever dreams ...the words penetrate the rage in him. He hears his own breath, harsh, uncontrolled. The dim light of dawn, she is silhouetted against it, and there is no fear in the lines of her form.

“No nightmares,” she says, bitterly. “No terror, no tears, nothing but peace while I slept, for months, until you came back into my life. And then you sent me wolf dreams. The first one--I thought I was going back on my word to you, to be a Faceless Man, that my commitment to the Many-Faced God was not deep enough…” she laughs, harsh. “I was in the crypt, below the Hall, and it took two Lorathi brothers and a Braavosi, to stop me from slitting my wrists.”

Slowly, slowly, he sinks to his knees. “I...I did not know.”

There is scorn in her voice. “The great Jaqen H’ghar, not knowing a thing? I thought it was a test ,” she spits at him. “Because the kissing dreams started right after.”

Arya …” shadows are gathering, at the edge of his vision. She looks around the room, and he realizes it is not just in his vision...darkness is rising out of the ground, of the stones, and what it touches, it is turning to dust.

She turns to him again. “No Faceless Man dreams, unless the dreams come from you . Our brothers explained it. They taught me how to balance myself, how to ground myself into the world each time you left me.”

The darkness...it has a relenting in it. It recedes; it has eaten away the surface of the stones at the corners of the room, the edges of the massive wooden wardrobe.

“So the thing that you made me do,” she says, “That was not me, Lord of Endless Night. That was you . Your dream. Your fantasy...terror. Nobody can draw someone into the dreaming unless you do it-- you drew Jon into me . So fuck you .”

She turns on her heel, throws open the balcony doors, steps out into the winter air. Naked.

He kneels. He battles with his rage, the taste of it, it sickens him, and he knows, he knows she is right, has always known, understanding a thing annihilates it, there should be no anger in him. And yet it rages. There is no mastery to be had; sick to his stomach his rises, gathers a sheet off the bed, follows her out the door.

She is looking away from him. He drapes the sheet over her shoulders.

She is weeping.

“I have memories,” she says, “but I did not know what it was like to have anyone other than you inside me,” she covers her eyes, every line of her body screaming at Him, “and now I do.” The helplessness, the hurt in her voice...He walks forward, wraps his arms around her. She struggles, claws at him, but this time He does not let go.

The betrayal at the back of his mouth, it shrinks, to nothing , to less than nothing, in the face of her distress. And in their absence, he knows... the feel of her, around me, driving into her from behind, looking up, meeting my own eyes , when it comes to himself, when it comes to her, truth can be denied but it cannot be unknown.

“Beloved,” he says, “beloved, none but me walk in the dreaming.”

She stills, in the circle of his arms.

“And I can draw none into it save those that belong to me,” he says. “Jon is not mine, he is not even asleep, it seems. It was all me. A projection...shaped. I wear many faces.” He bends, breathes in the scent of her hair, the feel of her. “Forgive me. Forgive me.” He does not know what he should say, only what he can. “Only me, in you, only ever me. But I...I am choking on ash, beloved, I have turned against myself, against you , I--”

“Fuck you,” she says, and then she rounds on him, and she is still furious but no longer hurting . “Magic amplifies , it twists , but it cannot create . Even what I did to bring you back...it found what was in me already, and it found Nymeria, and it amplified us. This shit you’re doing--it’s exactly what you did at the inn, throwing me at Gendry .”

His eyes are closed; he sways. “Yes,” he murmurs. Again, “Forgive me.”

“Why. Did. I. Get. A. Stupid. Fucking. God. With. Insecurities .” With each word she pounds her fists into his chest, for emphasis, not punishment.

“Well, your only other option was a very ugly man from Asshai, so there is that.”

She laughs, and then she bites his nipple, hard. “There is that,” she says, her hand pressing gentle circles into his chest, to soothe the hurt. The hurt, the betrayal...it is soothed, it is melted in the heat of her fury.

She opens the sheet, gathers him in it, draws it close around the both of them.

But His anger...it lurks, below the surface of his thoughts, and it is a vast thing. “The Red God sleeps, and he dreams...he found a seed, in me, but it has grown.” Black bile, at the back of his throat. “There are spells,” he says. Protections. A vial full of a mother’s tears, tied around a soldier’s neck. Blood, from a wife who loves without measure, smeared upon a sailor’s brow. “A drop of your blood,” he begs, “upon my brow.”

“No,” she says. “Control yourself .”

A test. He exhales. “That is fair.”

“Was it all worth something at least?” she asks. “Did you find our brother?”

Oh, my practical one. “Volantis. He is on a ship...heading--”

“Our sister from Vaes Dothrak, she will be close. We need to contact her.”

He does not want to dream again.

“Ravens, Jaqen,” she says, impatient, knowing exactly what is going through his head. “ Now.

He would have liked to stand here, begging her forgiveness, for a while longer. But it seems she has already forgiven Him.

“Let’s go wake Samwell Tarly.”



 

ARYA

She is angry enough that she is ready to feed all her emotions to the wind, and then tie Jaqen down to the bed and fuck him while she wears every single fucking face that she knows. And he’s obviously feeling guilty enough that he’d let her.

Stupid fucking Many-Faced God! The words are...an echo, she realizes. Brothers--the theistic ones, the ones that believe, or know --they curse the god all the time. She’s never done it before...apparently she’s not any more devout than the others, she just hadn’t had proper cause so far.

She throws her head back and laughs.

They are clattering down the stone stairwell to the Maester’s quarters, Jaqen two steps behind her.

“Love?” he asks.

She stops, arches backwards, meets his lips for a quick kiss. He looks baffled. She shakes her head, continues descending.

They’re crossing the inner courtyard--it’s the shortest way to reach the other side of the keep, when Jon emerges from the lord’s tower, his new Valyrian Steel sword in hand. There is a sudden urge to vomit; her mind has dismissed the dream, it was stupid fucking Many-Faced God playing fucking stupid games , but her body still reacts with revulsion. In the next moment she has mastered it. I am no one.

“Jon!” she calls. “Is Maester Samwell--”

Jon breaks into a run, his sword is raised above his head...he’s coming for her , and her training has been far too complete not to recognize the commitment to kill when she sees it.

Arya freezes in place, utterly, utterly bewildered. “Jon?” she whispers.

And then Jaqen is in front of her. He did not bring his sword; he deflects Jon’s blade with his dagger. Jon was aiming for my head . The Valyrian steel is deflected, it swings wide, but it shears Jaqen’s dagger in half in the process.

Arya still cannot move. Her thoughts are slow, so slow, remote. Jaqen is going to kill Jon . But with Jaqen unarmed, with Jon wielding Valyrian Steel--and Jon is a far, far better fighter than she has expected him to be, better than anyone she’s seen outside the House of Black and White--it is not entirely certain who will kill whom.

Jaqen asked me to spare him a drop of my blood. Should have bled myself dry, made the both of them bathe in my blood...would have kept them safe.

Why did Jon attack me?

She blinks, and realizes only a single breath has passed; Jon is still recovering from his strike, Jaqen is sliding to the side.

Jon’s reach is too long, and disarming him will be nigh impossible without...Jaqen is moving in an unexpected pattern, weaving, ducking down…she has never seen him do that before. My move , she realizes. The one she uses to slide inside Jaqen’s reach, deliver the killing slash with her own, shorter blade.

Jaqen has another knife. The poisoned one, at his back.

Arya explodes into motion. She knows how this attack will end--she slides around Jaqen’s back, weaves under his elbow--and she intersperses herself between Jaqen’s blade, and Jon.

The world suddenly roars back to life. Harsh breaths surround her. Both fighters have...paused, confused at this interloper to their momentum.

“You will not kill my brother,” she says to Jaqen.

Jaqen...Jaqen smiles . She looks at his hand--his empty hand. No knife. His palm has come to rest on her shoulder. He wasn’t aiming for Jon’s throat.

She looks up.

Jon wears an expression of utter bewilderment, it changes to dismay, but the tip of his sword wavers. “I am not your brother,” he spits.

Jaqen moves, backwards , drags Arya with him, and she allows it up until the moment that Jaqen draws her behind himself, shielding her with his body. She paws at his grip, but it is inflexible.

“I am not your brother,” Jon says, but his bewilderment only grows.

Arya looks over his shoulder. Samwell Tarly, and a man she doesn’t know, an old man, they are racing towards them. Tears of frustration, of hurt have gathered at the corner of her eyes. She holds his eyes, willing him to believe her. “You are ,” she says, and hates the brokenness in her voice.

“Get away from them Jon!” Samwell shouts.

“One thinks the proverbial cat has been let out of the bag,” Jaqen murmurs.

“Aarrgh!” she says. “Jon, I told you we needed to talk!”

The old man pushes Jon to a side, stands half in front of him.

“Assassins,” he rasps, raises his voice. “Assassins! Guards!”

Samwell Tarly takes up position on the other side of the old man. “No guards,” he gasps. “Went...wights.”

“This is ridiculous ,” Arya says. “Jon, put the damn blade away. Jaqen, stop trying to protect me!”

Both men look at her as if she is mad. “He wants to kill you,” Jaqen says.

The old man speaks. “We know what you are,” he growls. “You are not Arya Stark.”

“Arrggh!” A part of Arya thinks that a Faceless Man should be more articulate than her at the moment, but all she wants to do is garrote the old man; she has pinpointed him as the cause of all this. And she is going to strangle Jon as well, just for good measure.

“You can look like anyone, act like anyone!” The tip of Jon’s blade is cutting figure-eights in the air; it has shifted, it is aimed at her throat.

Arya draws a deep breath. I am no one. “Jaqen,” she says, then in Lorathi. “A man will release his bride, to do what she must.” Another test, for Him, to let her go. Hasn’t He been tested enough ?

Jaqen releases her hand.

Arya raises her arms in the air, to show that they are empty. Then she steps forward, around Jaqen, and walks towards Jon. Everyone tenses; no one moves. She keeps walking, she does not stop until the edge of Jon’s Valyrian steel sword rests on her shoulder. She tilts her head away, presents her neck to him, and looks her brother ...brother, regardless of what your blood might say... she looks him in the eyes.

She can feel the darkness gathering behind her, the sheer force of will Jaqen exerts to stay motionless. Her cruelty to him in this moment, it is worthy of the wind. We are even, Jaqen H’ghar. Even now, you and I .

“Slice, Jon,” she says, “if you think I am not Arya.”

“Don’t believe her,” the old man growls.

“I want to believe,” Jon says, and his eyes are welling, though his blade is rock steady. “I want to believe,” he whispers.

She grins. Going to make Jaqen tell the Kindly Man I am always right. No other Arya Stark would have sufficed, in this moment. “Where is Ghost?” she asks. “Look through Ghost’s senses--a direwolf is never wrong about blood.”

Jon’s eyes furrow. “Ghost…?”

She blinks. Oh no. “Are you not warging into him yet? Is it just the dreams still?” Panic is rising. If he doesn’t know…

“How did you…” Jon’s blade drops away.

“Wait, what?” asks Samwell Tarly. “Jon?”

“How did you know?” asks Jon.

“Nymeria,” she says, and cannot quite control the blurring of her vision. “I dreamed, until…”

Jon has broken out in a sweat. The sword goes back in its sheath. And then she is in his arms again, and he is crushing her to him, and she is grips him just as tightly. “I was going to kill you,” he whispers. “I was going to kill you.”

“Yes, you were,” says Jaqen, and his voice is...indecipherable. “So you will step away from my wife now.”

Oh oh. She lets go of Jon, retreats quickly into Jaqen’s arms.

“A man passed, yes?” Jaqen murmurs into her hair, in Lorathi, still looking out over her head.

In response, she reaches for the one knife she’s brought with her, strapped to her upper arm. She draws it out, and Samwell Tarly and the old man tense yet again, but Jon doesn’t. She nicks her finger, draws blood, gropes blindly for Jaqen’s face.

“Better late than never,” he jests, once she anoints him with her blood. He lowers his voice, it is a growl in her ear. “But if you ever do something like that again, I will excavate another chamber from the rock under the crypt, and I will chain you down in it, and you will not see the light of day for a millennium.”

“As long as you are in there with me,” she says. “Now let go, I need to protect him, too.”

“Tears,” he says. “Tears for sons and brothers.”

She nods, wipes at her eyes with her other hand, and walks forward again. She realizes still holds the knife, she puts it on the ground, then reaches up and makes a line across Jon’s forehead with the meagre moisture her eyes have yielded up to her.

Salt, and sorrow.

Jon blinks. “The smell…it’s gone...”

“Ash?” asks Jaqen.

Jon looks wildly over her shoulder at him, sees something in Jaqen’s face, doesn’t ask anything further.

“Now,” says Arya, “we are going to go wake up Sansa--and Sandor, if she wants--and we’re going to have that talk I’ve been wanting to for two fucking days , Jon!”

Jon nods, grim. Regretful.

“Anyone care to explain what is going on?” asks Samwell Tarly.

Now , before you come any closer,” says the old man.

“I don’t know who the fuck you are,” Arya rounds on him, “and I don’t care. How dare you try to turn my brother against me?”

Jon and Samwell exchange a look. “Um,” says Samwell, “I...mistranslated something. Um. We thought you were Faceless Men, assassins, from Braavos.”

Arya deflates. And realizes she is exhausted of this dance, of knowing and unknowing, of handling and managing. “I am a Faceless Man,” she says. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

Both the old man and Samwell Tarly’s mouths gape, and they don’t know whether to step in front of Jon or back away. Jon looks bewildered all over again.

“I joined the order after I fled Westeros,” she says. “I’m back, because there’s a lot more going on than just the fucking Lannisters.”

Jon rubs a hand over his hair, that gesture she knows so, so well… “Nothing is ever simple,” he mumbles.

Sansa chooses that moment to come into the courtyard. She is impeccably dressed, in a severe black dress, her hair braided and coiled upon her head, not a strand out of place. It is a striking contrast to the disheveled, sleepless state of the others in the courtyard.

“What is going on?” Sansa demands. “ Davos ? What are you doing back?”

Davos. Davos Seaworth, then. Damn, he’s loyal to Jon, if what Samwell told Pate is true, I can’t kill him. “Maester Samwell and this old man here, they found out, and they told Jon I was a Faceless Man.”

Davos Seaworth tries to say something, Arya talks over him. “Jon tried to kill me!” And now he’s not going to live it down till the end of time , she thinks with satisfaction.

Sure enough, “Jon!” gasps Sansa. “How could you?”

You knew?” Jon asks.

Samwell Tarly is shaking his head, muttering to himself.

Sansa ignores the question. “Tea is ready,” she says. “We will go to mother’s bower, and we will talk. Now.” She looks over Arya’s head, at Jaqen. “You intervened, didn’t you?” she asks him.

“Naturally,” Jaqen replies.

Good ,” says Sansa. “Arya wouldn’t have defended herself.” Sansa delivers a flat glare to the others in the courtyard, including Arya. Then Sansa turns on her heel and stalks towards the Lady’s wing, the skirts of her dress swirling around her feet.

Everyone follows.


 

Her mother’s favourite color--blue, with orange embroidery--is everywhere in this room. The chairs, arranged just so, even the small bowl of stones from the river that came with her mother when she married into the North. This room, it is how it has always been, and Arya finds herself hiding her face into Jaqen’s shirt while everyone gets settled.

He trembles, under her touch, not enough to show...but too much to control entirely.

Valar morghulis. There should be no fear of death , between the two of them. “The darkness would have held me,” she murmurs.

“And who would have held the darkness?” he asks.

And an image forms in her mind’s eye: a vista of uncountable years, grey, stretching out before Him, punctuated by duty, by mercy, and nothing else.

Alone. He would have faced all of eternity alone.

She chokes on her fear; the fear, it evokes her fight or flight response, and Arya Stark always fights . “Then I will become wind, for you,” she whispers. “The wind never dies.”

“My beautiful, lovely, brave Arya, my mercy, my faith, my lethal Arya, my true,” he is murmuring into her hair in Lorathi, and when he runs out of adjectives in that tongue, he switches to cruder things, suggestions only, but...they heat her blood, distract her from the sudden urge to resonate with the cold, cold rivers of air far overhead, to wrap him in ice, to keep him safe.

She is listening to him, and adding each word out of his mouth to the secret chamber of her heart where she keeps such things. They are on the ground, upon the soft carpet, because all the chairs are made for one person.

They both notice at the same time that Samwell Tarly is looking...constipated. He, too, sits on the floor, as if worried that his bulk will be too much for the spindly-legged Southern-style chairs to handle.

They stop, draw away from each other, she wipes angrily at her eyes.

What ?” she demands of the Maester.

“Um.” Samwell Tarly avoids her gaze. “Low Valyrian...it’s just a little...uncomfortable, listening to that. Is all.”

Maester. They study High Valyrian at the Citadel, some words are common in all the Low dialects.

“If you are uncomfortable , I will switch to Dothraki,” says Jaqen coldly, “and if you understand that, I will speak in Lhazareen, and if that upsets you, then Lengenese. But I will speak.” He draws her to him again, and murmurs darkly sexual things into her ear until Jon takes a seat.

“How many languages do you know ?” asks Jon. His swordbelt is unbuckled, the Valyrian steel sword placed near the door, far out of reach.

“All of them,” says Jaqen, flat.

She caresses his arm, and then, defiant, she actually crawls into his lap and buries her head in his chest. “You talk,” she says, as he cradles her to him. “I’m tired.”

She senses everyone is waiting with bated breath.

“We are Faceless Men,” he says.

Not that we look like it at the moment, cuddling on the ground, but Jon...Jon has assessed some of Jaqen’s skill, and my speed, outside...non-threatening is better, for everyone else.

“Our order accepted a contract, for your life,” Jaqen continues. “We did not know it was targeted at you, specifically, we were not given your true name. But I was supposed to kill you.”

Davos is muttering.

“Obviously,” says Jaqen, and she feels his arms tighten around her, “I am not going to kill you. The contract would never have been accepted, had its true nature been known. We were deceived.”

“You said you were on my side,” says Jon, quietly. “The ash…”

She feels Jaqen nod. “R’hllor. The contract for your life came from Asshai, from R’hllor’s sorcerers. They use their sorceries-- suggestions , dreams--in an attempt to...fabricate a confrontation, open, armed conflict, between you and me.”

“But that doesn’t work,” says Tarly, “If you’re fighting out in the open, not poisoning him in the dark or something, then Jon will win.”

Neither Jon, nor Jaqen say anything; their silence speaks volumes. Davos swears.

Sansa speaks. “The Red Priestess…”

Arya looks up. “The one with Stannis Baratheon’s army? We will kill her. Where is she? Jon, give me her name, and something...um...Jaqen, we can concur on a price, I’ll go kill her right now.”

Jon shakes his head. “I gave her my word...banished her.”

Davos is rubbing at his eyes. “She burned a little girl alive. Burned her. Princess Shireen.”

She can hear the disgust in Jaqen’s voice. “R’hllor demands such sacrifices.” Arya twists around, now she wants to be part of the discussion. Casually, deliberately not looking at Sansa (and Sansa’s sense of propriety), she climbs off Jaqen’s lap and sits to his left; he draws her close, and his arm is a bar of iron around her midsection.

She thinks about it for a moment, then shrugs, and settles against his side.

“Why do these priestesses want me dead?” asks Jon, his eyes dark and troubled.

“Some stupid prophecy,” says Arya. “And their spells-the ash you smelled--their spells are real, even of their god is false.”

“Not false,” says Samwell. “Um. We’ve...they’ve resurrected --” Jon cuts Samwell off with one hand.

“Beric Dondarrion?” asks Jaqen. None of the others say anything.

“Sorcery,” spits Arya. “That’s all it is. It’s been done by others, too.” Me, for starters. “As for gods...there is only one god that is real , and his name is Death !”

And “Jaqen H’ghar” and “The Lion of Night” and “The Weeping Woman” and “please, please do that again with your tongue…”.

“Behave,” he murmurs.

The others look a bit uncomfortable. She ratchets her...religious fervor...down a notch. “Or so we are taught, in the House of Black and White.”

“Resurrections,” says Jaqen. She stills. “There is no easy way to say this, but...Thoros of Myr resurrected Beric Dondarrion, as you all seem to be aware. What you may not be aware of-- I certainly was not--Beric Dondarrion gave his gift of resurrection to another.”

Arya sighs, bows her head.

“To Catelyn Stark.”

Mother...Mother... Arya can still smell the water weeds, and it wars with the smell of this room, with the smells of her mother in her memories. She loses the thread of the discussion, the arguments, the rapt silence as Jaqen elaborates.

There is a pause, and Samwell Tarly is dispatched to their rooms, to bring back Arya’s pack. The letters.

Couldn’t have done this, had I came alone, she thinks.

“Of course you would have,” says Jaqen, and the confidence in his voice--no feigning, not for her--it gives her the courage to sit up straight, assess the room.

Sansa’s face is twisted, frozen, as if she wants to weep but has forgotten how.

Arya makes to go to her sister, but Sansa waves her down, slowly, slowly, regaining control of herself.

“Thank you,” she says to Arya. “I couldn’t have. She was suffering, but I couldn’t have…” she looks at Jaqen, back at Arya, shakes her head. She means the poison , Arya realizes. Jaqen told them, of the end.

“Of course you would have,” she says, echoing Jaqen’s earlier words. Sansa looks at her, and firms, and there is steel in her spine again.

Huh. So that’s how it works--all it takes to remind you of who you are is someone else seeing you for what you are.

Arya looks at Jon. “You’re a Stark, by the way--Jaqen was just about to get to that--but Robb legitimized you, before…”

Jon lowers his head into his hands, and his posture seems to be a mirror of hers, from before.

Tarly arrives, along with their packs. The Maester is far fitter than he appears to be, she realizes--he’s not really breathing too hard.

She places Jon’s letter on his lap, then hands Sansa’s to her. “There’s one for Bran as well, we’ll give it to him as soon as we see him.”

Jon looks up. “Bran…”

“Alive,” says Jaqen. “Beyond the wall--he’s got the same talent you and Arya have, he’s...from what I...extrapolate, he’s been training it.”

A stray thought: There is a heart tree, in the House of Black and White. I dreamed...thought I dreamed, of Bran, in the barrow. Where does he fit into this?

“And what talent is this?” asks Davos. Sansa, too, raises an eyebrow.

“Sansa may have it too,” says Arya, then shrugs. “We’ll have to find out. Jon?” She invites his speaking...she doesn’t know this Seaworth, maybe he is averse to all magic, not just the Red God’s....

“It is an old thing,” says Jon. “Carries in the Stark bloodline--the direwolves...we can sometimes see through the eyes of our direwolves, share their dreams. That’s how I scouted some things, when we were north of the Wall.”

Close enough , thinks Arya. Even if knows more, he doesn’t want to speak of it. It has served its purpose, for now, anything else Bran can handle, it’s not like I know much more.

Samwell Tarly is looking constipated again. Davos is muttering, but Sansa...her hand is over her mouth.

“Lady,” she whispers.

Arya gives her a half-smile. “I lost Nymeria too,” she says. Sort of . “If you have the talent, there are different ways to exercise it…” I can do cats, for example.

“Magic,” says Jon. “All magic. We’ve forgotten it, and now it bears down upon us like an unstoppable gale, we are surrounded by it, and we don’t know how to deal with it.” He looks down at the folded parchment in his lap. “Is there anything in this that...that I need to see, right away?” he asks.

Arya shakes her head. “Just...farewell.”

Jon nods, picks up the paper and tucks it into his shirt. Sansa does the same with hers. Then Jon clears his throat.

“So you came here to...warn me?”

“Protect you,” says Arya. Jon looks at Jaqen for confirmation, and is...somehow reassured by whatever he sees on Jaqen’s face.

“But you are Faceless Men ,” says Davos, looking back and forth between them. “Faceless Men do not…”



 

JAQEN

He grins. “What is a precedent, if it cannot be set?” Too Lorathi for them, still. “Quite apart from...personal reasons,” he says, turning back to Sansa and Jon Stark (she is warm against his side, his personal reason, and she will have a real fight on her hands if she thinks he is going to let her go any time soon), “there is a matter of politics involved.”

His lovely girl has caught his intention. She reaches for her pack again.

What politics?” asks Sansa.

“Braavosi politics,” says Arya. She pulls out a roll of oilcloth tied with a black ribbon. She unfolds it, takes out the parchment it protects, hands it to Jon. “I am the city’s official envoy, to the King in the North,” she says.

Stunned silence greets her words.

“They’re...Braavos…” Jon is looking down at the parchment he holds in bemusement. “They’re acknowledging me?” he asks.

“We didn’t even think to ask the free cities,” murmurs Sansa.

“The free cities thought of you first,” says Arya, detachment slowly draining into her voice.

Davos reaches for the parchment, looks at it in bemusement. “Arya Stark,” he says, his brows furrowed, then looks up to Jaqen. “Why her, why not you?”

“I lack the charm,” says Jaqen, bestowing one of his absolutely devastating smiles upon Davos, and the man recoils from it. “The bloodlines, also, for envoy work.” Jaqen’s tone is dry.

Samwell Tarly asks the obvious question. “But why do they send a Stark as an envoy to a...um...Snow?” he asks. The missive from Braavos says “Snow”, Jon’s legitimity was locked away in Catelyn Stark’s chest all this time. “Surely they must know you’re on our side, right?” His voice becomes uncertain at the last.

Arya shakes her head, and now he can tell her sorrow is mostly feigned. Mostly. “I bear the name of Arya Stark only because it is the name given to me by my mother, and my father, whom I loved very much,” she says.

Her pronouncement is met with hurt irritation by Sansa. There is disbelief in Samwell Tarly’s face...only Jon seems unaffected. He is looking at Arya, considering, weighing.

“Does it mean so little, sister, our House?” Jon asks, softly.

The bones of truth.

“It means everything,” she says quietly. “He means more.”

Him of the Many Faces closes his eyes, for a very, very brief moment. There is a vast pit in him; when this chasm yawned, he does not know... maybe it was always there . R’hllor’s spells, the dreaming, it filled that pit with rage; in the absence of the rage... Who holds the darkness?

She fills the pit with herself.

His breath is controlled, his face is controlled, and he opens his eyes. He observes--The King in the North, Jon Stark, brother and childhood confidante, he has recognized the finality of Arya’s choice.

Jon Stark’s eyes flicker to Jaqen’s, and for the first time there is something in them other than bafflement. Jon Stark has also recognized Jaqen’s response for what it is.

How can you recognize something if you have not seen it before?

This man, he has loved, too, and lost, when a choice was made.

Jaqen’s lips pull in commiseration. Jon’s answering smile is an understanding between them. No more needs to be said.

“Braavos has entered the game of thrones,” says Arya, “drawn into it by two of their most influential guilds. The Iron Bank supports Daenerys Targaryen, with gold, with...scheming. The House of Black and White supports the Starks.”

“Because Arya married you, Jaqen,” says Sansa, thoughtful, “and you are of the House of Black and White.” She sounds a little regretful .

He raises an eyebrow. “You’d prefer I was of the Iron Bank?” he teases.

Sansa smiles, resigned. “We’ll take what we can get.” She is thinking. “They would not have supported us--we have no gold, and I think the Iron Bank wants to make good its losses under Baratheon and Lannister reign?”

Arya nods. “They want the Lannister gold, and Tyrion Lannister is Hand to Daenerys Targaryen.”

“They also loaned a substantial amount to King Stannis,” says Davos, sadly.

Sansa looks troubled.

He can almost see the alliances and marriages and plots and counterplots swirling in her head, the what-ifs . This game that she thinks the world plays...its influence must be reduced upon her, upon Winterfell, Jaqen senses, for Arya’s sake if nothing else.

It is time to...clarify our position, mine, and my bride’s.

“The House of Black and White does not support the Starks because Arya Stark married a Faceless Man,” he says. Arya looks at him, a bit startled, and he gently traces the shape of her fingers in his hand. “The House of Black and White Supports the Starks because Arya Stark is a Faceless Man.”

Sansa’s eyes widen, a bit, and then they narrow as she thinks. Yes, sister of my heart, push, push back against the invisible cage they have put you in.

“And what is the price? No Faceless Man ever does anything without a price.”

“Winterfell has no power to pay anything…” says Sansa.

Arya turns to Jaqen for help in answering that question without exposing the other part of her scheme, the one where Arya Stark marries the Sealord of Braavos. She knows by now that her fledgeling schemes cannot steer the course of the House of Black and White. All schemes can be ignored, all plots can be brought to a screaming halt with a sharp edge, with poison. She knows this, and wonders…

She is endearing, when she is uncertain--though he would not dare say the word to her, “lovely girl” is about as much as he can get away with. Terrifying, when she is focused. Stroking the two sides of her, losing himself between them, between the swell of her breasts, her thighs open…

“Behave,” she murmurs softly, for his ears alone; the others think they take council, in secret matters, probably.

He nods, serious. “There is no price,” he says.

Davos’s brows furrow in suspicion. “ Why ?”

“Because one of our own asked for it to be so,” says Jaqen.

There is silence. They are not blind to the nuances of that statement, not Jon, nor Samwell Tarly. Davos Seaworth least of all.

But she looks bewildered, as if she did not expect such a thing for her .

“It has been done before,” he says gently, “the House’s resources mobilized to support the agenda of one of its members.”

He wills her to remember, and she does: Valyria, for every Faceless Man that came out of its slave pits. Gogossos, for Ambraysis Alayain. Vaes Diaf for their sister who rode out of Vaes Dothrak. The purge of the Iron Bank, for Varro Massag.

And, they have bound themselves to each other, Him of the Many Faces and Arya Stark, so it cannot be that one’s agenda is independent of the other’s. Arya Stark is not here simply to support the house of her birth (nor avenge them; the time for vengeance is done).

The Bride of Death is here to mobilize the allies of the House of Black and White . Because after Valyria, after Gogossos, the khalasar of Diaf, the Iron Bank...there is one more, added to His list.

Asshai, Asshai for them whose name has been forgotten.

War is coming. She struck the opening blow, in a barrow, and the battle for the North, the battle for Jon Stark who is bound still as the champion of R’hllor, this battle is the next one that must be fought.

“What is the form of this support?” Samwell Tarly echoes Davos’s first question. “You will...um. kill people for us?”

Jaqen spreads his hands, as if to say, I have no idea. “Whatever Arya thinks is appropriate.”

“Yes, but Arya can’t just dictate what your guild…” Sansa pauses.

“I have discretion,” Arya says. A subtle word, discretion . It implies the power to negotiate, to bind, but up to a limit.

Everyone keeps looking at Jaqen for confirmation.

His beautiful girl is impassive. She sees it too... This is the constriction of Westeros--a woman, no matter how capable, no matter how powerful, if her husband (though he be a commoner) is around, she is somehow...less. And a woman that cows her husband, through power or nagging or guile, she is respected, but the husband is diminished, and both made a mock of behind their backs.

What an awful culture these people bequeath upon their children.

Jaqen H’ghar and Arya Stark are not of this culture, and they are not wearing any faces, any personas to blend in. It is a very, very strange thing, this. Stranger, by far, than kissing her while she wears my face. To be Faceless --it has another meaning this time. To be naked.

“Her word is law,” he says, and it is the last he intends to say on it.

“What do you need?” asks Arya, in a quiet, serious voice.

There are words on everyone’s lips, words they do not speak: alliances and the Last Hearth and gold , and an army . But Arya is looking at Jon Stark , and he is not their King in name alone...Jon Stark is thinking.

“What do you want ?” asks Arya.

Jon snorts. “A hundred Valyrian Steel swords,” he says.

Arya smiles, feline. “How very interesting…”

Jaqen is reminded of this attribute of his bride’s, she is calculating, not merely opportunistic. Bold, but not unnecessarily reckless. The chances of Jon Stark killing her, when she bared her neck to his blade, perhaps they were smaller than Jaqen’s terror has calculated them to be. He relaxes his hold a little.

Jon has not lost his amusement. “Your guild of assassins has Valyrian steel swords they’d lend us,” he asks, and his voice is dry.

“No,” she says. “But we have the knowing of their making, and I have a smith that might have the skill to make them; the magesteel must come from Myr.”

Babble breaks out--Samwell Tarly is speaking at the same time as Jon, Davos Seaworth is explaining the why of it to Sansa who doesn’t seem to have been told that White Walkers can be killed with Valyrian Steel….

“We need,” Arya shouts, cutting through the tumult, “We need dragonfire, for the forging.”

There is silence.

“The dragon queen,” says Jon. “You want me to marry Daenerys Targaryen, so we can use her dragons in the war against winter.”

Arya raises an eyebrow. “You’ve got a better plan?”

Both Sansa and Davos Seaworth shake their heads at the same time.

“She will not consider it, not a Stark ,” says Sansa, “any more than she would a Baratheon!”

“Even if she did,” says Davos, “she would want the North to bend knee.”

Arya draws another roll of parchment from her pack, tosses it to Sansa this time. She leans back as well. “A proposal,” says Arya, and she suppresses the smugness very well. “Targaryen to Stark, Queen of Meereen to the King in the North. Your ex-husband penned it.”



 

JON

His world has spun about its axis so many times since...last night, the night before, Jon still feels dizzy. This room, the blue and the orange, the women’s chairs...none of it helps him find his equilibrium. In this room, a part of him is a child again, disapproved of, one who is not allowed in here, and who must walk softly even as he passes this door in the hall, in case Catelyn Stark recognizes his tread.

Absently, he touches the paper that nestles between his vest and shirt. What sort of farewell would she have bid me ?

Later.

At the moment, he must focus on Arya. “Solve problems, you said, the night before last,” he says to her. His eyes fill again.

I could have killed her.

He knows exactly why Jaqen drew her into his lap, exactly why Arya’s husband sits in the posture he sits in now, outwardly calm, but every muscle poised to...grab her and flee, to interpose himself between her and everybody else. He knows why Jaqen doesn’t let go of her.

Jaqen must continuously reassure himself that she is real, that she yet lives.

Had he moved but a heartbeat later…

The ash, the choking taste of mold at the back of his tongue, it is gone now, and he can feel Arya’s tears drying on his forehead, tightening his skin; there is a matching smear, of brown, on Jaqen’s that nobody has asked about yet.

Had he been any less of a fighter… Sansa’s words in the courtyard, they rang true-- Arya would not have defended herself.

And then the fear threatens to drown him.

I was going to kill Arya .

He can rage at Samwell, at Davos all he likes for leading him down that path, but it is not their fault. He is responsible for his actions. “I’m sorry,” he says, and he doesn’t care that his voice breaks.

“Should have talked to me before trying to behead me, huh?” says Arya.

“Lovely girl,” says Jaqen, in Westerosi though his inflection, his accent remains firmly of Lorath, “you have had months, of receiving news of your family, knowing they lived. Two days, for Jon and Sansa Stark, knowing that Arya Stark is alive.”

Why is he defending me ?

“You have had many, many weeks,” Jaqen continues, “to become accustomed to the idea of your mother and father as bones. One day, for Jon and Sansa Stark, to lay the bones and the memories to rest. Death requires...acclimatization. And in between the knowing and the mourning, the king rode against those that do not die when they should.”

She bows her head. “I am chastened,” she says.

“No, you’re right,” says Jon. “I should have talked to you, first thing, no matter what.”

Arya smiles, a little sad. “You see me as the little girl I was, when last we met.”

Jon winces. “Um. Not anymore.” Intoxication should induce forgetfulness; in this case it seems to have amplified the moans, Jaqen’s voice...Jon gulps, frantically trying to rid himself of the memories.

Jaqen raises an eyebrow, then his eyes widen very, very slightly. “There are secret passages Arya Stark does not know about.”

Samwell turns as red as the wine they’d drunk the night before.

Arya’s face is completely, utterly blank. “Maester translated the High Valyrian, I assume,” she says, after a pregnant pause, and Jon has no trouble believing she is an assassin, at the moment. “If you heard everything, then why the suspicion?”

“Um. Heard only the last bit,” offers Sam, hesitant.

“Surprised you tried to kill her then, not me,” Jaqen murmurs, addressing no one in particular, his gaze focused somewhere over their heads.

Jon finds he cannot look anywhere in the other man’s direction, he must, perforce, study the scrolled molding along the room’s ceiling.

Sansa and Davos have finished reading the document. “Secret passages?” Sansa asks. “The ones behind our old rooms? What were you all doing there ?”

There is silence. Samwell shifts, and Jon redoubles his fascination with the elegant scrollwork--he wonders if it is a House Tully thing, wooden ceilings and molding, the flowing lines are reminiscent of rivers…

Sansa sighs. “These Targaryen terms, Arya, they are not acceptable.”

Jon looks back down--Arya has lost her murderous look, mostly, he thinks in relief.

Jon still can’t meet Jaqen’s eyes.

“We must negotiate,” agrees Arya.

“How much can we push for?”

“Love,” Arya murmurs, and Jaqen removes his arm from around her. There is nothing to indicate whether the letting go has cost him anything, and yet…

The girls rise, almost as one, and retreat to a small table in the corner of the bower, spreading out the parchment in front of them.

“Davos,” calls Sansa, “a moment, if you please.”

“Right,” says Davos, and joins the girls.

Jaqen is the first to break the silence. “Maester Samwell, while the discussions continue, I must request an urgent loan of two of your ravens--we must send word, back to the guild and...elsewhere.”

Sam nods, vigorously. Then he looks downcast again. “We received a raven, for Lady Arya. We didn’t give it to you.”

The seriousness of this matter...Jon turns to Jaqen. “My fault...I was growing suspicious, I asked Tarly to hold back until we knew more.”

Now it is Jaqen’s turn to look terrifyingly blank. “How long ago?” he asks.

“A day and a night,” says Samwell.

Jaqen relaxes.

Samwell jumps to his feet. “I’ll go get it right away!” He trundles out of the room.

Jon ducks his head, looks up at Jaqen, wincing. “I’m sorry?” he offers. Not for the raven...that, Jon judges, falls under the duties of a king. No, he is very, very sorry he spied on them last night.

What was heard cannot be un heard.

Jaqen considers him. “You are not the sort to listen at keyholes,” he says, then sighs. “And I am not the sort to...well. Let us consider the matter forgotten, Jon Stark, until we see R’hllor, and we can pay him back for every indignity visited upon us. Upon her.”

There is anger, simmering below Jaqen’s surface, Jon realizes. The kind of rage that makes men dangerous... not that he needs rage to be dangerous. But Arya’s husband is not angry at him , not at Jon.

“I almost...I was lost,” says Jon, shaking his head.

Jaqen’s mouth twists. “So was I. So would I have remained, but for the grace of Arya Stark.”

Jon winces again. “I’ll have to apologize to her too.”

Jaqen shakes his head no . “Don’t remind her. She is...vengeful.”

Jon considers this, and shudders. “I’ll have Sam give you the key, for the passages so it doesn’t...happen again. Um. Sorry.”

Jaqen lowers his face into his hands. “Don’t remind me either,” he groans.

“Right,” says Jon with grim determination. Forget it ever happened.



 

SANSA

Glee dances at the pit of her stomach. She wants to grab Arya and twirl the breath out of her, she wants to kiss Jaqen H’ghar.

Dragons.

A dowry.

An alliance that will crush Cersei Lannister, wipe the name Lannister from the surface of the earth.

She maintains her decorum, but just barely.

Then she thinks of Tyrion. Maybe I can marry him again, if he’ll have me, she thinks wistfully. Princess Sansa Stark, given to Casterly Rock, would serve the North just as well as Highgarden. Ask him if he’d like to take the Stark name instead, gods know he has enough reason to hate his family.

Arya joins her husband again on the floor again, almost falling into his lap. Sansa decides they can do what they please, dance naked in the snow if they want--today. Tomorrow, if this lustful display continues, she may have to give Arya a very pointed talk.

Maester Samwell returns to the room, holding a small rolled-up paper--a raven-letter--with a thread tied around it. Sansa’s mood brightens further as Sandor arrives with the Maester, and he surveys the room.

“All settled?” he asks, doesn’t wait for an answer. “All alive. Good.” He drops into a chair, and then swears as it threatens to buckle under him. He joins the others on the floor.

“Got your armory surveyed, little bird,” he says to her. “You’re in much better shape than you thought.”

The day keeps getting better and better. In the spirit of camaraderie, she walks over to Sandor, and delicately lowers herself to the floor next to him. They share a smile--Sandor...he is uncomplicated, what’s inside is what is outside. No need to worry about hidden agendas from his side. And she can touch him. She tries it again, patting his hand, and smiles for the joy of it.

And then she catches the look on Arya’s face. She is glaring at Maester Samwell. “These are our House’s tassels,” she says. “When did this come? And why has it been opened ?”

A raven came for Arya, Jon made the Maester read the message. That Jon would do such a thing...unthinkable, if anyone had asked her a week ago, but... assassins, and wights...he is becoming a King , she thinks, and is surprised that it saddens her.

“A day and a night,” says Jaqen to Arya, and his tone contains something Sansa cannot read. “And interception is...always a possibility.”

Jaqen leans back, and she suddenly realizes something has changed in him in the past few moments. He is... relaxed now, and the lines of his body scream at her of sex, and knives, and silk and danger, that lazy grace that Ramsay had tried so hard to cultivate (from time to time, until he forget himself in his brutality, his perversions, and the beast got out).

Jaqen is safe. Jaqen is safe. He will not hurt Arya. He loves Arya. He will not hurt me, he doesn’t even look at me like that.

“Enciphered, yes,” says the Maester uneasily.

Jaqen’s lips draw up on one side, as Arya slowly unrolls the message. “Did you get far?” he asks Maester Samwell, sounding genuinely curious.

Samwell shakes his head.

“Maester, Maester, Maester,” says Jaqen, leaning forward, a light in his eyes. “The first layer is a simple substitution cipher. Don’t lie to me.”

Oh dear gods. Sansa pulls back a little, quietly, be a mouse ; she partially shields herself behind Sandor’s bulk.

“It talked about the price of shellfish in Braavos,” mutters Samwell.

“Stupid tide,” Arya grumbles, a grimace on her face.

Jaqen draws back from the Maester. “So, how much did you lose?” he asks Arya with a grin.

“Three weeks of buckets,” she replies.

Sansa exhales. Safe. But both Jaqen and Arya’s gaze snaps up at her breath, and they look at her, just for a moment, with an identical, assessing expressions. Then Arya turns back to her message. Jaqen’s gaze lingers on Sansa for a few heartbeats longer, and there is so much sorrow in his eyes....Then he, too, is absorbed in the message.

That cruel grace, it does not return to his posture, and when Maester Samwell moves to leave, Jaqen quietly excuses himself to send some messages back to his guild.

And, suddenly, Sansa is angry at herself. He is an assassin, of course he’s dangerous! And he’s on our side, like Sandor is, and I can touch Sandor and I can touch Jaqen, and it doesn’t matter what they look like or what they move like. This is Winterfell. This is my home. I will not be a mouse here, I will not be a mockingbird. If Jaqen’s posture upsets me, I will...I will look the other way.

So decided, she smiles at Arya. “I will send for wine.” She tries a joke. “Do assassins like wine?”

Arya grins at her, showing her teeth. “Only if it is made with the blood of our enemies,” she says.

Sansa mirrors the grin. “I’ll send for a Bolton bottle...Roose Bolton was saving it, to open if he had a son.”

A part of Sansa feels bad, sometimes, for the baby, the only innocent in all of this. I suppose Fat Walda didn’t get a choice either, in who she married.

The wine arrives at the same time as Jaqen.

“Done,” he says to Arya. “Three days, as the raven flies.” He drops to the ground beside her, glances casually at Sansa, then draws his legs up under him, hunches over, very very slightly.

Reducing himself, his presence, so as not to...intrude, upon another’s space. Not to trigger...something, anything. She knows it, oh she knows this motion, it has been imposed upon her so many, many times. Imposing it on another should make her feel powerful , but it does the opposite, it makes her a conduit, for Joffrey, for Cersei, for everyone who knew her as Alayne, for everyone that came after…

He knows . She doesn’t know if Arya has told him, or if he has guessed, but he knows. Did Jaqen have a sister , she wonders, that he has learned to be...careful? Like Jon is careful?

She swallows her unease, and reaches a hand out towards Jaqen, leaning over, almost unbalanced. He sees her gesture, extends his own hand, palm up. She places her hand in his, grips it tightly for a moment. “Thank you,” she says, then draws back. He has made no move to grip her hand in turn.

“I heard that you sing, Lady Sansa,” he says. “Sandor here couldn’t stop talking about how beautiful your voice was.”

Her eyes, they itch , but the tears do not come. “I used to,” she says. “I used to sing.”

He nods, doesn’t push any further. But he extends his legs again, drapes an arm over Arya’s shoulder.

Satisfied, and feeling inordinately proud of herself ( it was just a touch, I already touched him at the banquet, I shouldn’t feel so proud ), Sansa leans back.

Winter clothes, they need winter clothes , she thinks. She’d had Arya and Jaqen’s and Sandor’s cloaks sent for cleaning, but they are pitifully thin, and travel-worn. Father’s furs, from the last winter...they’ll need a good airing. The Boltons, luckily, hadn’t had the time to go through the storerooms, to ruin or steal anything more than the things lying right at the front.

It must be warm in Braavos, for them to travel with so little. Braavos...it triggers another thought. Arya clearly has power within their guild, power that does not come without a bloodline in Westeros...a guild would be a meritocracy, surely, so why would Arya have so much power?

“Are you the guildmaster, Jaqen?” she asks.

His eyes widen a fraction. “I am rarely in Braavos,” he says, at the same time as Arya snorts.

“Jaqen avoids administrative responsibility the same way I avoid dresses,” she says.

And that is no answer at all, Sansa thinks, but it would be impolite to push.

Davos grunts. “There’s all sorts of rumors about you, mountains of gold bought with blood, magic, changing faces.”

Arya looks sidelong at Sansa, and Sansa understands her, like she has begun to understand Jon’s glances.

Family only.

“There’s always rumors about everything , in King’s Landing,” says Sansa. “I learned not to pay them much heed, to look at reality instead...and, Davos,” her tone is very warm, she can’t touch him but she likes him, “reality tells me you are exhausted. You’ve been yawning on and off for half a watch--you rode all night, didn’t you?”

Davos nods, passes a hand over his balding head. “I was worried,” he mutters. “Not as young as I used to be.”

Jon’s eyes widen. “Davos, I’m sorry. Never should have sent that raven.”

“My duty,” says Davos, stoic and grim as always.

“And mine, to see that you get your rest,” Sansa says. She rises, goes out the door, calls for a servant, then turns back to him. “Your chambers are already ready, the hearth is lit, and they’re going to put some bread and cheese on the sideboard.”

Grateful, Davos creaks to his feet. Another direct man, this, he doesn’t look for hidden agendas in people he trusts. Sandor...she looks at him, sees him watching her.

Family , she mouths.

He nods, rises to his feet, and Davos and him leave together. In the hallway they start a friendly argument--about cavalry, it seems like.

The door closes behind them.

“So tell me the real story,” says Sansa, the first of the many things she wants to know about. Assassins. How does one become an assassin? Are there tests? How many men have you killed, Arya? “You didn’t meet when you were eleven, surely?”

“We did. But it wasn’t like this ,” she touches Jaqen’s thigh, “not till later.”

Are they lying? But Jaqen wouldn’t have hurt Arya; Sansa wants the truth.

“Should come up with some false story,” says Jaqen. “This one needs too much explanation to keep my honor intact, such as it is.” He mimics Sandor’s tone, frighteningly well, “‘ So you do like little girls ’.”

Jon grins. “That almost got you skewered, yesterday.”

“Don’t blame you,” says Jaqen.

“Eleven, fifteen, as long as Arya was not hurt...” says Sansa. Bedded at twelve by Tyrion would have been...so different than Ramsay at fifteen.

Jaqen shakes his head. “There are more ways to be hurt than just the physical. That young, hurt is impossible to avoid.” His fingers brush over Arya’s face. “Would have waited till you were thirty,” he says to her.

Arya narrows her eyes at him. “I’m convinced I’m no longer a virgin only because you were too..unwell...to resist my climbing on top of you.”

Sansa chokes. “Are you serious ?”

At the same time, Jaqen murmurs, “Promised you, had no intention to resist , beloved...”

Arya ignores him turns to Sansa. “Do you know how much fucking poetry he poured into my ears, courting me, after we were married?” She looks genuinely upset. “Aarrgh!”

Sansa doesn’t know how to feel about Arya’s...enthusiasm. Both Jaqen and Jon are looking at Arya with expressions that are half-part amused, half-exasperated.

“Decent men, Jaqen,” says Jon, a rare streak of humor in his voice, “we just want to do right, and we get the aggressive ones.”

“And the brutes get the ones that want poetry,” Jaqen murmurs, not looking at Sansa. “What was her name, Jon?”

Sansa knows some of the story, that she was a wildling, that she died. But she has never heard Jon say the name.

“Ygritte,” Jon says. He passes a hand over his face. “Ygritte, and they--a man at Castle Black--he put an arrow through her in front of me, and there was nothing I could do. She was the enemy . She chose. I chose.” Jon sighs, and leans back. “What do assassins do, Jaqen, with wounds that never heal?”

Jaqen considers him. “There is a thing we say-- Valar morghulis . It means ‘all men must die’. We say that, again and again, until we can pretend the wound is not there. And if you pretend hard enough, well, a lie becomes a truth, doesn’t it?”

“I’m too young for this kind of blasphemy,” says Arya, covering her ears. “I don’t want to hear it.”

“You have the conviction of a new convert,” Jaqen says to her. “Disillusionment, conviction...it comes it cycles. It goes.”

“A convert,” says Jon. “You follow this Braavosi faith then, this god of Death?”

“Him of the Many Faces,” says Arya. “The Stranger, in most of Westeros.”

“And what does your god say there is, after death?” asks Jon.

“Darkness,” replies Jaqen. “Nothing. Peace, but you do not know it is peace, because you know nothing at all. But objectively...it is such.”

Jon closes his eyes. “The septons say there are hells, and heavens. R’hllor says there is a vast field of light, where the righteous reign.”

Jaqen snorts. “Pretty fantasies.”

“Well, your god is the only one that has gotten it right, by my view,” says Jon. He takes a deep breath.

He’s going to show them.

Jon raises his shirt. The slash marks, on his front, on his sides, where they stabbed him, they stand out, clear, black, against his winter-pale skin, he says it doesn't hurt .

Sansa cannot bear to look, she looks away, looks to Jaqen and Arya, to gauge their response.

Arya is horrified, her hand is over her mouth, she is whispering: “ Like Mother. Like Mother.

Jaqen is incandescent with rage.

Sansa finds she is pressed up against the wall of the room, trying to make herself as small as possible.

“They took you from the darkness,” Jaqen hisses. His hand rises, it brushes over Jon’s head. “They dragged you out. R’hllor’s priests.”

“Priestess,” says Jon.

Arya is shaking her head, “Jaqen, no, don’t.”

“A choice,” says Jaqen. “Mercy, such as it is. Do you want to return? Freely offered, regardless of the consequences, regardless of whatever trap they’ve laid for me, for you. Do you want to return to the darkness?”

Jon closes his eyes. “Every day,” he whispers. “Every day.”

A terrible fear gnaws at Sansa. She had brushed against the despair in Jon’s voice, once, when she was under Ramsay, but she...dismissed it. It was the inverse, the polar opposite of the thing that kept her submissive, kept her quiet. The desire, the burning need to survive .

Jon wants to die.

She looks at Arya, begging. Arya meets her gaze, and their shared horror crackles between them. Arya is a survivor, too.

Jon just wants to die. And Jaqen will help him do it.

No, no no.

And then, Jon shakes his head. “Too much work to do.” There is finality in his voice, resignation.

Jaqen pulls his hand back. “Fair enough, King in the North.”

“Sleep was nice,” says Jon. “Nothing--no dreams. Then the nightmares started.”

“You will be protected,” says Jaqen. If he stands his ground, I don’t think a thousand horses could move this man. “No dreams.”

Jon smiles at Arya. “I think I understood that, somehow, earlier, when the ash smell went away. Thank you, for the tears.”

Tears are coursing down Arya’s face again now, and she crawls forward. “Sansa,” she calls. “I need your help.”

Jaqen draws back.

Sansa crawls forward, heedless of her dress, she has knocked over the bottle of wine and it bleeds all over her mother’s carpet, and she doesn’t care . “What do you need?”

“Tears,” says Arya. “Tears for sons and brothers.”

For Jon.

And just like that, Sansa finds that she is weeping.

Together, they smear their tears over Jon’s wounds...Sansa has never touched them before, they are cold to the touch, they smell like mildew. But as the moisture upon their fingers, Arya’s and Sansa’s weeping, as the salt touches the ugly gashes, the flesh knits, smooths itself, and bit by bit the smell that had clung to Jon, the smell that Sansa had always ascribed to the poor quality of the furs she’d had to work with at Castle Black, bit by bit the smell recedes.

At the end of it she has a headache, but Jon’s torso, his back, it sports new scars instead of black-edged holes.

Every wound has closed.

Chapter Text

NO ONE

The one who is no one lies in the hold of a ship, amidst the smell of salt and rotten fish. He drifts. He knows he is sick; the rats skittering over his legs don’t help much, he supposes. He should not be sick, not so far away from Asshai’s influence.

Footsteps, upon the small ladder leading to this part of the hold. The one who is no one sighs. Jorah Mormont is going to bring the day’s rations: a fistful of flakey, dried fish. A cupful of fresh water.

Ration.

This day’s ration of despair: no one should not need help , but an accurate assessment of the self is hard to get away from...his ribs creak every time he breathes, the action sends daggers through his lungs. But that is not a consideration, it is biology, and by all rights he should be dead--blood doesn’t replenish itself without time, or resources provided to the body.

His hair--Arya Stark’s hair--he is losing clumps of it. But vanity has never been a consideration for him.

No, the one who is no one has a problem with his mind . His memory is rotten and full of holes. Ash and shadow wrap around his throat. His reason, his instinct to survive, it functions mostly as it should when he wakes. But he dreams , when he sleeps. Of R’hllor, of the pit.

And all things that should lie at no one’s hand--detachment, accurate observation, these things drown in terror. He drifts, in and out of dreams, even in the waking. Day-dreams, he would have called them had he not been no one.

I am afraid.

He has no control over his mind.

A Lorathi in this state, he should be put out of his misery.

And he knows that, too, is a statement born of his fear.

He cannot help but admit that it is hard to stand.

But there is a duty. The one who is no one carries them under his shirt. Two faces, that must go home. He is no one--he has no home. A visceral memory rises out of the tatters of him: cool stone floors. Clean smells. A hall, full of faces, that smells of blood, clean blood, sweet blood; it smells of death without ash.

No one should have no home.

The footsteps are close. And the one who is no one has a duty.

He sighs and wears Arya Stark’s face. Some of her convictions leech into him: maybe they will know what to do with me in Braavos. The conviction is a temporary condition. It will pass, as all things do.

The one who wears Arya Stark’s face, she smiles, shy and vulnerable, as Jorah Mormont approaches, bowl and cup in hand.



 

 

JAQEN

There is a certain quality of silence that Jaqen H’ghar is familiar with--it comes in the wake of great grace; grace undeserved, unlooked for.

He was awarded such a silence, for a while, after Arya Stark died, and did not let go of his hand, and in front of the darkness that extruded upon the world as a weirwood, they spoke their vows to one another.

Arya and Sansa Stark have brought such a grace into the world in this room. Silence reigns here--born of the divinity inherent in human, mortal compassion, and none of the room’s occupants want to disturb it.

Jon lies on the ground, eyes closed. Sansa is scrubbing wine stains from the carpet--she could have called a servant, but she does not. Arya...she reads and re-reads the message from the House of Black and White as she sits pressed up against Jaqen’s side.

The first layer of the message is a simple substitution cipher. It tells Arya she’s lost her bet, that the price of shellfish has gone down, not up, with the coming of winter.

“Why did you think it would go up?” he asks her. His voice will not disturb the silence--he is a part of it.

“It will go up, soon,” she says with a frown. “The market is glutted now because the shellfish they’re catching spawned in the summer, and it keeps longer because ice is cheaper and cheaper. Wait, until the colder water kills off all the mussels north of the Summer Isles.”

“So why did you lose?” he asks.

“Misjudged the timing.”

He nods.

The second layer of the message, the key embedded in the shellfish, is a transposition peculiar to the House. It tells Arya Stark that negotiations for her marriage to the Sealord of Braavos have reached an advanced stage; Jon Stark, as her guardian, needs to sign the accords that will be sent soon.

Jaqen grins. I want to watch as my bride explains that one.

The third layer of the message is a variant of the book cipher, but the book selected no longer exists outside of their shared, faceless memories (they’ve hunted down each copy, destroyed it). The message is short; each trailing digit of the detailed prices of shellfish corresponds to a place in the book of his memory. The message says AA SCRY, then the page number of an etching--an etching of the fish that dwell in the waters of Asshai.

Ambraysis Alayain scrys that our brother has been fed the fish of Asshai. Poisoned, beyond anyone’s ability to cure him. But shadowbinders have been known to survive the experience, though they are twisted and rebuilt into something inhuman by it.

Thank you, Jon Stark. The healing of his wounds--impossible, if any sorcerer was to be asked--it does not point the way, but it provides hope. Jaqen H’ghar is aware of Himself now, and the wind sits beside him, and between them, much can be accomplished.

The fourth layer of the message, the string of letters insulting Arya’s prediction of shellfish prices, is a theoretically indecipherable convolution designed by Varro Massag; it is meant for Jaqen’s eyes alone, coded upon his personal key (each Faceless Man is given their own to memorise). The keys are re-generated each time a Faceless Man returns to Braavos. The downside to the cipher is the length of time it takes to deconvolute for anyone other than Varro Massag--two watches of calculation, for Jaqen.

The security is necessary; the message says: Your face in temple.

His bride bound Him of the Many Faces to His body; He is inseparable from it for as long as she lives ( she will stand at my side, at the end of all things, when the stars are but a dim memory and the space of a thousand universes yawns between each mote of matter ).

There are positives to the binding--death cannot be chained by sorcery, He cannot be bound ever again. Death cannot dissipate. Jaqen H’ghar cannot die.

There are negatives--He cannot range outwards from himself as He did to find their brother, and His range even in the dreaming is reduced. And, apparently, Jaqen H’ghar’s face has shown up somewhere in the temple, open to the public, in the House of Black and White.

The last is a significant downside, for a Faceless Man.

They’ve sent their answers in the afternoon, in counterpoint ciphers: loss accepted fuck you too; send accords; brother ship volantis; cover it the fuck up.

 


 


 

ARYA

The sun barely peeked over the horizon today, she thinks, as her and Jaqen make their way through the dimly-lit corridors of the inner keep.

Soon the sun will not rise at all.

Jon has been persuaded to seek his bed, exhausted enough that he doesn’t fight Sansa’s increasingly strident suggestion. Sansa herself, her hair fraying under the day’s strain, has made an orderly retreat to the rooms she’s claimed for herself, far away from the family’s living quarters.

Jon is healed. Sansa helped heal him. We can heal our brother.

Arya grins to herself.

Peace lurks in her breast, a sensation that she has never felt before. Something akin to the defocusing of her self that came in the wake of Walder Frey.

This peace, it is not a defocusing, it is a dissolving , she thinks, a mind-analogue to the boneless, loose-jointed lack of ambition that comes after a long day, week, moon of continuous, relentless training.

She has learned to pay attention to changes in her internal state. What does it mean? Is it done? Is Arya Stark done?

If yes, her and Jaqen should ride out before the Long Night falls. The raven from the House of Black and White...a week’s hard ride to White Harbor, a week on a ship and they will be in Braavos before their brother gets there. We must set out the moment they confirm he is in Volantis.

Her childhood’s chamber is lit by the cherry-red embers in the hearth; Jaqen steps out on the balcony, taking a single candle with him. The candle sputters in the breeze.

“The sun,” he says, “it will not rise the day after tomorrow.”

She stops breathing. His voice

He has stopped playing at being Him of the Many Faces, stopped playing at being “Jaqen H’ghar”.

With the realization comes the ability to control her childish, knee-jerk reaction to it--resentment, panic, fear of him, fear of disapproval. He is him now, again, she chides herself, and you haven’t done anything wrong.

It seems the space that he hovered in, trying to understand being Him of the Many Faces, trying to understand being Jaqen H’ghar...it has passed, in its entirety. Even he allows himself ignorance, if the condition is not a persistent one--if it is a transition.

This is the core of being a Faceless Man--a Faceless Man has no core; all identities lie at his fingertips. The ability to play at being anyone at all, even if that anyone is yourself . Arya Stark is not very good at remembering that she plays this game (good at recognizing it, though, she has been from the beginning).

She is still in transition.

She has made progress; ironic, that it should happen when she became Arya Stark with the greatest conviction possible, when she led Him of the Many Faces into the sin of identity alongside her. There is a prayer, of the Lorathi, who excel at blasphemy: in sinning, let us find salvation; in becoming, let us be unbecome. Jaqen taught it to her, and he is the unquestioned master of this game; he can play at being a god .

At this moment he plays the role of “no one”.

We never stop playing.

“Is it time then?” she asks him. Jon has been saved; the prophecy seems to have been undone. She feels sad--wistful-sad, not sorrowful--it had been nice, to have a family again.

“Is Arya Stark done with her duties here?”

He has still not looked at her.

“You think Arya Stark is dutiful ?” The scorn she embeds in the last word is sufficient, she thinks, to convey her disagreement without dismissing his opinion. Rude, to dismiss a Lorathi’s opinion without due consideration.

“Arya Stark knows that a thing can have more than one name, that some of the names are so twisted that the original is no more than a suggestion to them,” he says. “What is vengeance, other than a painful, twisted, self-serving name for ‘duty’?”

She closes the distance between them, stands beside him, the candle to her right. She thinks about his words. “Arya Stark is not dutiful ,” she says finally. “Arya Stark is afraid. Afraid of losing people, of being lost to them.” It is not a request for comfort, it is an observation made in the Lorathi way. “She does what is necessary to keep people. If she loses, she retaliates.”

He nods, and he reaches an arm around her, draws her close to his side. It is unexpected--she is “beloved” to the Many-Faced God, “love” to Jaqen H’ghar, but what is she to no one?

“A mirror can only reflect the scene in front of it,” he says. “Two mirrors are needed, faced to one another, to reflect all the endless permutations of the world between them.”

“What is between us?” she asks.

“Ourselves.”

It is a very Lorathi answer. For the very first time, she finds that Arya Stark is satisfied with a Lorathi answer. “Huh.”

“We will steal you back from the Braavosi yet,” he says.

Even no one is allowed a sense of humor.

“You have an unfair advantage,” she observes.

“Which is?”

“The accent.”

His hand caresses the side of her waist, reaches around to caress the plane of her stomach. He does not linger there long, he untucks her shirt, replaces the cloth in her britches with his hand. His fingers find the opening of her sex. There is a clinical sort of quality to his touch, a cold precise efficiency utterly unlike her experience of him these past few weeks--his fingers, in this moment, they are strangers to her.

She moistens under his ministrations nevertheless.

She has never coupled with no one before, and there is no memory she can call upon for comparison--all their brothers’ memories stop the moment they die, and it is necessary for them to die to shed their names.

“Very odd,” she says.

“I would understand,” he offers.

“Water,” she explains. “In a fountain, in the sea, in the sky.”

His breath has changed; almost imperceptible, but the change heralds arousal, and he has allowed her to see it.

Her awareness is extended to its limits, she feels the wind above them and the dim heat of the embers of the hearth, through the open door. She reads the state of him, in the oscillation of his palm against her wetness, in the rise and fall of his chest--he balances between the clinical detachment of his mind and the yearning response of his body.

He controls both.

As she is not no one, she cannot help but oscillate along with him: a child’s sailboat, helpless to the eddies and currents of him.

It is not lust--none of the things that drive the tingling to her thighs, the warmth at the pit of her stomach (the quality of his gaze, the sardonic twist of his voice), these things are not present in the moment. It is not skill--he does not exercise any of the thousand types of touches that festoon their shared, faceless memories of such things.

It is, simply, intention.

It seems that when he is no one, he wills the world to accommodate him; suddenly she yearns to accommodate his girth with a type of desperation she has never felt before. The reason for the urge is meaningless: to break the unbreakable, to be consumed, to find the core of him I can find it even if no one else can. A posteriori justifications for something that has no reason save that he has willed it to be so.

“One sees why the Lorathi have a reputation.” She allows her own breath its inclination; it imparts a wavering quality to her words.

“Who are you?” he asks.

“I am Arya Stark.”

His palm has flattened, his fingers are no longer in play, only the flat of his palm. He presses circles into the front of her, her nub. It would have been maddening to Arya Stark, she would have writhed and whined and pushed back against his hand.

“Who are you?” he asks again.

“I am Arya Stark.”

His hand comes away, and then he delivers a short, sharp slap to the place he had just been pleasuring.

Arya Stark would have moaned. But to her, it just... is. A wave of pleasure, and she balances at the top of it, simply feeling it as moments turn into eons.

He has resumed the insistent pressure of his palm.

The wave rises, higher, and it carries her along with it, and she watches as if from a great distance as it crests.

Some sensations have the ability to grab one’s mode of thought by the throat and dash it upon the rocks, shattering it. And when the shards of the mode recollect, they have the potential to reform into something new.

She freezes the wave in place.

“Who are you?” he asks.

Arya Stark would have said I am Jaqen H’ghar or something equally false, just to feel the sting of his admonition.

“I am no one,” she says.

He nods, and she can hear the sounds of him undoing his britches, the slide of leather and cloth against his legs.

Then, then a sound she is preternaturally attuned to, like she is to the hiss of a blade being drawn, the drip drip drip of poison titrated by heartbeat into a glass vessel: the sound of his hand wrapped around his member. Silk, sliding over iron.

She lowers her own leggings, then rises onto her toes. Then higher, and she is suspended from the railing, bent over it, all her weight resting on her forearms. He is taller than her; rude, not to accommodate temporary variances in proportion, even as one accommodates such variance in opinion.

His hardness parts the lips of her sex, stretching her as it enters. Her flesh closes around him, clamps on to him by instinct; she allows it. There is no drawing-out, no teasing in his motion. It is what it is: withdrawal and advance by turns, sometimes fast, sometimes slower, deep and shallow with no discernible pattern, as he tests the vagracies of the sensation.

There is no urgency to her either; she is motionless more often than not, circling her hips, from time to time, when she thinks it is something that could be learned from. She feels , and she takes apart the feeling in her head and puts it back together, around the hardness of his cock.

The inner walls of her sex spasm around him, short and sharp, or drawn out shudders, from time to time, when she allows them.

Her sight is focused over the stone ramparts of Winterfell, over the still air, the glow off the snow on the ground. Her ears are attuned to every shift of movement in him; she tastes nothing at the back of her mouth. But she smells herself, his sex, wet and churned, she feels herself surrounding him, and she knows he must feel her heat anew each time he drives in.

She wills him to ejaculate--she wants to see what it would feel like, if she would be able to tell.

He accommodates her.

There is no outward sign of it; only the splash of heat, the increased wetness, a slight pressure, then gone, deep inside her.

Not odd,” he says.

He has never coupled with no one before.

“How not?” she asks, though she agrees.

“Water,” he says. “In the desert.”

She considers this. He had been sufficient unto himself for centuries, sufficient unto himself even after the barrow.

In this moment he moves in her and redefines what he called “sufficiency” before.

“A ship,” she says, “in dry dock.”

“Landlocked,” he agrees.

If no one hungers, he should eat if the environment so permits. If no one thirsts he should drink, if the environment so permits.

She is a permitting clime; no other environment has been permissible to him for the slaking of his thirst. Because if duty is not involved, even no one is allowed standards. Each Faceless Man’s definition of “standard”, however, is different--some use the term as a measure of acceptability (too much hubris, in this definition, for him). Some use it to embrace anything with a pulse and two legs: a standard activity (too much everything, in this definition, for him) .

His standard--he has planted it upon the field that is her; she bears his colors: the black, and the white. Their union cascades in infinite permutations through all the roles they play and it is impossible to tell in which persona it originated, to tell object from reflection.

“I love you,” he says. It is not an endearment. It is an observation, in the Lorathi way.

She reflects. “What is love?” she asks, and knows the question is too inane, she will not, should not be answered. I love you . She dwells in the center of her mind, half of it focused on analyzing the statement, the definitions it assumes, the “I” and the “love” and the “you”, she disintegrates it into its constituent elements and puzzles it back together in unrecognizable shapes. The other half of her mind is diffuse, it experiences the statement without judgement. Truth is found, somewhere between the two, in the place she dwells: she is his mirror.

“I love you,” she agrees. An observation, to match his, though the definitions she assumes, the “I” and “you” are different from his.

“Love” is a noumenon to the both of them.

The muscles of her arms, her shoulders, her muscles are beginning to tremble; even no one cannot exceed the limits imposed by flesh, though they can be ignored.

He leans forward. “We will play a bit longer,” he says, and defies his statement by pulling out of her.

He leaves a viscous trail of seed and arousal in his wake. He seeps from her, and she makes no move to clean herself, to dress. The sudden coldness of the air, it turns wet heat to ice, for her sex gapes in the absence of the thickness of him; her skin finds pleasure in this sensation as well.

He gathers her to himself, takes her weight upon himself, takes the both of them into the room. The embers light their way. He lays her upon the bed, and she draws him down on top of her.

This time when they oscillate together, there is no exploration, no learning.

There is only intention , shared : a hurricane, and they are the eye of it, entirely detached, entirely still, while all around them they rage with savage, carnal need.

The contrast is almost unbearable--her mind experiences, it analyzes, it observes and the contraction of every muscle in her, her arms, her legs, every slide of him against her, inside her, it drowns her in another surge of ecstasy.

Two hurricanes , her mind tells her--she can feel the sharp edges of the contrast in him and it is almost unbearable for him as well; pressure builds, and it has no outlet, no way to release itself from their state of mind. Something must break; even no one cannot exceed the limits of flesh.

Her flesh thinks it is on the verge of death, and it fights .

She unfurls, and he winds her around himself, in ever-tightening spirals, wound around and around each other.

Their eyes meet, and there is a moment of something akin to recognition. The eyes of the hurricane lock, and hold .

We are no one.

One creature, with two bodies, joined, pleasuring itself to the limits of its endurance. This is the purpose of all things , the creature thinks. This is what it has been searching for, the thing before which all other needs pale.

The creature exhales. It shudders, and lies still.

Time passes.

The creature realizes it only exists as long as it can hold its own gaze. One of its bodies, or both, they must blink, eventually. Better it is done now, as a choice, than to have itself ripped out of existence by the failure of flesh.

It closes its eyes.

Desolation.

She turns to her side and sobs from the loneliness of it.

He draws a blanket over her naked flesh. The quality of his touch has changed.

There are two types of equilibrium. Children explore these, all unknowing--a marble, sitting in a hollow valley, it is motionless. A marble, perched in perfect balance upon the crown of a hill--it is also motionless. But the marble on the mountain can accept only an infinitely small perturbation before it loses its state.

The ripples of his transition from playing no one to playing Him of the Many Faces, they are not a small perturbation in her world, not with His hand warm upon her cheek.

Arya Stark is not lonely, her husband is right here. Loneliness is no one’s problem. She opens her eyes, relaxes the muscles of her jaw--she made no sound in the midst of it, but the effort had exceeded the mind’s capacity for control, spilled over to the clenching of her teeth.

That... ” the word is a long exhalation, and if a little bit of reverence leaks into it he will forgive her.

“That.” Wonder, and surprise , and she forgives him for it.

What was that? A waste of a question--it matches the descriptions of a certain state-of-mind the Lorathi are reluctant to talk about.

She pretends to grin. “Always very cagey, our brothers, on how to achieve such a state.”

He tucks a strand of her ragged hair behind her ear; his eyes are open, and the loneliness Arya Stark has relegated to “no one”, it relents. She shifts closer to him, drinking him in.

“Cagey?” he murmurs, sardonic, “but ‘ become no one ’ is a perfectly legitimate answer.”

It is, and yet something doesn’t...fit. “Our Lorathi brothers, the ones who take lovers within the order--they never take other Lorathi.”

His eyes dim, a little. “Not more than once, usually.”

“It won’t happen again?” She panics.

He soothes her with a touch. “It will,” he says gently, then pauses. “Hearsay, you understand--I have had no experience of it. But, I have been told there are some things too much to bear, even for one who is no one.”

She looks at him, eyes wide.

“It...ends, eventually, each time,” he says softly, and she imagines some trace of the desolation lingers in his voice. “And you find yourself lying, naked , in all definitions of the word, besides no one, and neither of you are capable of anything beyond some abstract, intellectual camaraderie. The creature that we were, the one thing that meant everything to one who is no one--it was a lie , a momentary hallucination. So what is left?”

Dismay.

His mouth twists. “That is one way, how renegades are made,” he says.

She wants to protest: but it’s bound me tighter to you... each coin has two sides. If there is anything with power enough to overrule the will of the Many-Faced God, surely, surely it is this .

“It is almost,” he murmurs, “as if some things are better not to experience.” A strange statement, from a Lorathi. “Had you not been so convinced you were Arya Stark, you would have been warned not to lie with me.”

“I would have disregarded the warning.” She rises upon her elbow. “Not one of them found...as we did?” she asks, though she already knows the answer.

“A paradox,” he sighs. “To fall in love with someone, there must be someone for your attention to latch onto. But to be no one, you have already stopped being someone.”

There, but for the grace of coincidence , go we. “Timing,” she mutters, “is everything.” He fell in love with me when I was Arya Stark, and I with him when Him of the Many Faces was...unaware that he was also no one.

She shudders. The loneliness--a potential loneliness, this time, threatens. He turns back to her, draws her leg over him, and she is glad for his warmth.

“I would tell you a thing, and it should not feed your Braavosi ego,” he says, and his tone is serious.

She allows herself the distraction. “It won’t, I promise! Tell me!”

“Memories come in flashes--seen quickly, seen slowly. But have you actually counted the years, for each of our brothers, between their coming to the House of Black and White as an acolyte and their deaths at My hand?”

“No,” she says.

“Almost a decade, for the last one I recruited, and his was the shortest after those that came from Valyria.” He traces the line of her jaw, follows his fingertip with small kisses. “I intervened in your becoming a Faceless Man, and it was not only because I was on the verge of losing you.”

I was so stupid,” she mutters, fighting the urge to hide her face.

“You were incandescent,” he says, and his tone becomes something she cannot quite place. “And you were ready, more ready than even I gave you credit for.” He nuzzles her neck. “A very, very fast learner, my bride,” he murmurs. “The thing we just did--I did not think we could, not for years and years. You just needed to come to Winterfell, so you could let Arya Stark go.”

She grins. “Stop now, before the Braavosi in me gets so fat she cannot mount a horse.”

“Mmm.”

Also, she disagrees with his opinion of her readiness. It was not just the disobedience disallowed to an acolyte, the killings, but other things--pettiness, arrogance...the God’s favor was the only thing that could have drawn her over the divide between the angry mess she had been and facelessness, the mess she is reminded of every single time she wears the face of Arya Stark after wearing his.

“What would have happened to me, had I not begged for your help?” she asks. The choice of words--“begged”, “help”--sufficient, to state her disagreement.

He chuckles. “You would be surprised at the number of votes taken, about what to do with you. I recruited you, I gave you my coin--the House was responsible for your welfare, couldn’t just let you wander off and die somewhere, trying to exact your vengeance.” He sighs. “You know the courtesan matter.”

She twists in his arms. “That was a vote ? I thought I was given a choice !”

His eyes widen. “A vote on whether the choice would be offered, beloved.”

“What else?” she asks. It is not something she has been comfortable exploring, her many faults and how they were perceived by those that are now her brothers--is not comfortable now to think on it, but embarrassment is not a concept that exists between her and Jaqen.

“You used to speak in your sleep,” he says, his gaze filled with remembered worry. “Nightmares.”

“I didn’t .”

He nods. “You don’t remember--your memories don’t contain their substance.”

“What did I say?” she asks in a small voice.

Mother, once,” he replies. “Not ‘Father’--you kept that one locked behind your teeth, along with your list.” He sighs and his arms tighten further around her, and she must look away from his eyes (she still thirsts) and rest her head on his chest. But the rumble of his voice, heard through his ribcage, the steady thrum of his heart, those things, too, are good. “ Jaqen, don’t go ,” he says in a whisper. “Night after night after night.” His voice has no inflection. “There was a vote on your blinding, the ordeal before it--on the how of breaking your attachment to me.”

That was effective,” she says, a mimicry of his customary sarcasm.

“Our brothers, they wouldn’t have reacted well, if they’d known the whole of it before you died--the three names, your giving me mine, my offer to take you with me. That I gave you my true name, showed you my face--never, to the others I recruited--that was discomfiting enough to them.” He pauses. “The god almost drove me back to Braavos, the day the raven came bearing the contents of your pleading. The first time I defied the god, told Him ‘no’.”

Good, because, our brothers would not have taken that well. At all. A girl-child of twelve, bringing down Jaqen H’ghar ? Different, now that she is faceless. The governance of her is given into her own hands; no Faceless Man rules another (unless the one who was born Jaqen H’ghar plays Him of the Many Faces and then things get...complicated). But Arya Stark’s attachments, Jaqen H’ghar’s attachments, they are their own problem.

“Leaving you at Harrenhal,” he continues, “it has fueled some nightmares of my own. Had you been but one day early at the Twins…you would have seen the slaughter, and you would not have been cowed like Edmure Tully.”

I would have fought. Killed, sooner or later...

“What more?” she asks.

“Izembaro,” He says. “In the hopes that perhaps you could learn to pretend to be no one long enough for you to understand it.”

“Not wrong,” she says. “That’s how I got to, bit by bit, being ‘no one’ for some small time. Long enough, at least, to do what we just did.”

“Mmm. Again, soon, please?” he asks.

Water, in the desert.

“Oh dear god, yes . Before dawn.” The last dawn. But her curiosity is not yet satisfied. “What other votes?”

“The decision,” he says, a bit reluctant, “after you killed Raff the Sweetling.”

A vote takes weeks , ravens have to be sent, received… “ How long did I sleep?” She knows now they used mullein root on her, she’s learned the aftertaste of it since then.

“Almost a moon,” He says.

“And what were the options?”

“You know that ‘Targaryen’ Izembaro trained?” He asks.

She does. “The boy who’s pretending to be Aegon?” Not an acolyte anymore, unfortunately--a con-artist does not a good Faceless Man make.

The horn, the Dance of Dragons... There is a very deep mistrust, of Valyrians a-dragonback, within the House of Black and White. When Daenerys Targaryen emerged from the Red Waste and held court in Qarth, it was decided that she would have to be killed, her dragons controlled, her throne...occupied. The last was the chancy part of the scheme, since Izembaro’s Targaryen would never be a Faceless Man. But he could still be placed on the Iron Throne...

“A second lever, a second legitimacy,” says Jaqen. “Another failed acolyte of the House of Black and White, given to the mummer’s dragon in marriage. Your vengeance, delivered to you by our hand, in exchange for your penultimate loyalty when you sit beside the Iron Throne.”

But then Arya Stark bound herself to the Many-Faced God. A month later, Daenerys Targaryen assumed another name: Breaker of Chains.

Women ,” one of the Braavosi had muttered. A bit baffling, coming from one who was a woman herself, but Braavosi can be strange like that, and this one had been quite heavily invested in the Aegon scheme. Last Arya had heard, the boy was still drinking fine wines and being feted in Essos.

Essos...

“We must tarry in Winterfell a while longer,” says Arya Stark. “I need to look at Sansa. It’s chronic, whatever it is--it’s been almost a year since she escaped that piece of dog-shit.” Arya is not confident of her own capability to handle something like this. “I would prefer to take her to Braavos with us,” she adds.

A Maester of Westeros most often restricts his knowledge of a woman’s problems to moon tea and pregnancy, infertility and frigidity, according to Jaqen, and any further delving (which requires practical learning) is considered unnecessarily messy, at the Citadel.

“We need to tarry, for Brandon Stark,” He says. “I have memories of him that are not yours, and I think they come from the weirwood.”

Her mood soars. More time in Winterfell . She is like the glutton that has fed, and her body is satisfied, but she still eats--purely for the greed of it.

Him of the Many Faces grins. “I’ve never had a family before,” he says. “So there is that…” He places a soft kiss upon her forehead--no benediction, this, his tongue teases her skin. “Or a princess,” he murmurs.

“You could have had a queen ,” Arya says. “Kill Aegon once he’d established himself, take his face and his wife.” She will not say that Jaqen could have had her for a tin penny and a heated look, Iron Throne or not--the both of them know this very well (as the both of them know she could have had him at Harrenhal, despite his every objection--he objects so much, too much, because he knows he could have succumbed, had she but understood this thing between them enough to want ).

He snorts.

“How did you vote, on the giving of me to Aegon?”

“My objectivity was not clear to me,” he says. “I abstained.”

It was correct of him, but she wishes he would have made some move, to keep her. “I’m glad it didn’t pass,” she says.

“It passed,” he says. She turns wide eyes to him. He smiles, grim. “The Many-Faced God exercised His veto.”

Oh.

She encircles his neck with her arms, she kisses the vein at his throat. “Now, please,” she whispers, and tries to find that mode of herself, between nothing and--

Something crashes to the floor. A sound, something shattering, that propels them out of bed in an eyeblink. Whatever it is, it has fallen from a great height...from the ceiling ?

She gets to the candle on the sideboard before he does. There are shards of glass on the floor...he lights his candle, and the glass is melting…

They look up in unison.

Ice. Stalactites of ice hang down from the vaulted stone ceiling overhead, some more than a few hand spans in length. Water drips from their tips as they melt. And beyond the stalactites...the entire ceiling is marked with black smears. It