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Strengths and Weaknesses

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Renly pressed closer to Stannis, holding tight to his hand as they watched the storm rage.

“Mother and Father are out there,” he whispered, and Stannis only nodded, as terrified as he was himself, mouth hanging open and eyes wide. “We have to-“

“There’s nothing we can do,” Robert said sharply from just behind them, one meaty hand on Renly’s shoulder and the other on Stannis’. “Nothing, Renly. Don’t be foolish.”

It didn’t seem foolish to Renly to want to save their parents’ lives, and when he and Stannis stood shoulder to shoulder in the sept and listened to the septon drone on and on, he knew Stannis felt the same.

 


 

Renly watched the raven flap away, not having trusted Maester Pycelle to send it without reading it. His head and Stannis’ both would roll if the Lannisters knew what was written on that scrap of parchment, and Renly couldn’t bear to think of what might befall Cassana and Shireen if this whole mess was uncovered before he was safely away. He was just glad that he had sent Cassie away with Stannis when his brother left the city.

“Thank you, maester,” he said, nodding and departing quickly – no doubt some golden shit or other would soon be told of that bird, but it was away and already out over the water, too far out to be shot down. He only prayed (a foolish thing to do, he supposed, considering he had no time for the gods that surely hated him as much as Stannis hated them) that the weather didn’t turn, that the bird wasn’t torn out of the sky by bad winds.

Another storm to curse House Baratheon, Renly thought, striding down the corridor and only now noticing the blood soaking his shirt through. Fitting, I suppose.

He prayed as well that Ned bloody Stark hadn’t ruined everything by being fool enough to go to the Lannister woman before they had the children in custody. It was too late for any of that, of course – Renly had sent Loras on ahead to warn his household to prepare to leave, and they were near ready by the time he reached his apartments.

“Your bath is cold, I fear, my lord,” Loras said lightly, but his eyes were serious and for that, Renly was relieved – Loras had a tendency to make everything into a jape or a game, and while Renly often found that a welcome relief from Stannis, who took everything too seriously, this was one time in a million that Renly was glad of Loras’ being sensible. “But you’d best wash that mess off before we depart.”

The blood (Robert’s blood) had dried, sticking his shirt to his skin, but Renly pulled it off and barely noticed the sting of it tugging the hair on his chest. He stripped down quickly all the same, suddenly mad to wash away Robert’s blood (and with it, some of the guilt of not staying in the city until Robert died, but he didn’t have time).

“Gods be good!” he exclaimed (he did not squeak) as he stepped into the bath. “I don’t think this water was ever hot!”

Loras snickered and turned away, saying something about having Renly’s squire bring him clothes while Renly scrubbed himself clean as quickly as he could, unwilling to spend any more time than absolutely necessary in the freezing water (Lannister crimson with Robert’s blood, now there was poetry).

“We leave immediately,” he said as he dressed, and his servants scurried about finalising their packing. “My brother should be waiting for us at Storm’s End with my daughter.”

 


 

Someone – one of Varys’ little birds hidden in the walls, mayhaps, a turncloak servant tempted by Lannister gold – betrayed them, though, and they were met at the gates by Meryn Trant and a company of goldcloaks.

Renly motioned Loras to calm when he reached for his sword, frowning slightly.

“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded. “I received urgent word from Storm’s End and must leave immediately-“

“While the King lies dying?” Trant sneered, and Renly grit his teeth to stop from snapping in reply.

“My daughter is very ill,” he said sharply, hating the lie because even to pretend Cassie was ill turned his stomach, but knowing that it was more believable than any other lie – it was a joke at court, how much he spoiled her and doted on her. “I must be with her. There is no comfort I might offer my brother now, so if you would stand aside, ser-“

“Her Grace the Queen has requested that you return to the Keep,” Trant said flatly, drawing his sword. “She gave us leave to use any force necessary.”

So Ned Stark had let Cersei know the whole story, then. Damn him.

Loras’ sword was out before Renly could form another word, his whole guard had their swords drawn, and he did, too, he noticed, although he didn’t remember drawing it.

“Cersei Lannister will not stop me seeing my daughter,” Renly said. “There is no power in this world that can do that.”

 


 

“So this is what treason feels like,” Loras mused when finally they stopped for the night, hiding well off the road. “I had imagined that there would be more guilt involved.”

“There is no guilt involved because we are not committing treason,” Renly said, gritting his teeth as he cut away the leg of his breeches from where one of the goldcloaks had managed to slice open his thigh. “Cersei’s bastard has no right to sit that damned throne, and seeing as how Robert doesn’t have a legitimate child despite his alarming propensity for conception, I’m his rightful heir.”

He hissed then, because it stung like all seven hells when he poured wine over the wound before motioning Ser Martyn Selmy forward. Renly liked having Martyn about – he trusted the man almost as much as Loras and Stannis (well, not quite so much as Stannis, but he didn’t think there’d ever be a man he trusted as much as he did his brother), and Cassie half worshipped her uncle, besides.

Martyn looked very like his sister, like Renly’s late wife, now Renly was watching him closely as a distraction – he had the same straight nose as Marei, the same pouty mouth, the same dark eyes and wildly curling dark brown hair. There wasn’t much of Marei in Cassie’s look aside from that curly hair, but even that was as black as Renly’s own. He had never loved Marei, not as Robert had loved his blessed Lyanna, say, but she had been a good friend and she had given him two things he had never thought to have – Cassie, first and foremost, Cassie would always be first and foremost for Renly, but Marei had also given him the sort of acceptance he had never expected from any but Stannis, and with Stannis it wasn’t so much acceptance as just… Well, he was Stannis.

“All done, Your Grace,” Martyn said, drawing Renly out of his reverie with a start. “You’ll need to take off the breeches so we can bandage it, but it should heal clean now, at least.”

“Thank you, Martyn,” Renly said, smiling as naturally as he could manage. Your Grace, Martyn had called him, and he supposed it was true, but it still felt strange to be addressed as such. This makes Cassie a princess he thought, and smiled truly at how excited such a thing would make her. “Go, eat and rest – we will not linger long, and there is no need for me to take up any more of your time. We ride at dawn.”

“Aye, my lord,” Martyn agreed, bowing low before ducking out of Renly’s tent.

Loras remained, but once Martyn was gone he sank down onto Renly’s camp bed, sprawling out and sighing.

“When you’re King,” he said, “you will be able to do as you please, or near enough.”

Renly laughed at that – Loras could be painfully naïve sometimes – and shook his head as he pulled off his boots.

“I’ll be under closer scrutiny than ever,” he said, standing up to ease his breeches down. “A King belongs to his realm, Loras, to his people – Stannis spent the last fifteen years trying to make Robert remember that, I hardly think he’ll let me forget.”

 


 

Renly had never been quite so relieved to see Storm’s End as he was when it finally came into sight, even though the sprawling camp spread out below the walls made his stomach clench. There were golden banners everywhere, stags billowing proud in the wind, but there were near as many green banners and golden roses.

“I told you my father would come,” Loras said, sounding smug – not that Renly had doubted Mace Tyrell would come, not when there was a chance that Renly might marry Loras’ sister and make her a queen, but he had not truly expected the entirety of the Reach to camp at Storm’s End.

It looked, aside from the stags where once there were dragons, all too like the siege, and Renly pitied his brother for having to stay within the castle while the Tyrells camped outside. The siege had near broken something in Stannis, Renly knew, because it was Stannis who’d been forced to take control when Renly fell ill with the fever that had claimed so many lives – Maester Cressen had been run ragged just coping with Renly’s sickness and Stannis’ fury, Renly half-remembered. Stannis had made hard decisions, and many still criticised him for them, but Renly honestly couldn’t have imagined making any other choices. It was no wonder Stannis was so close to his Onion Knight – they all owed them their lives, after all, but Renly especially, because along with onions and fish and whatever else Davos Seaworth had brought in on his smuggler’s ship, he’d also brought the medicine to combat Renly’s sickness, and Renly knew that Stannis would be as lost without him as he would without Stannis.

The Tyrells and their bannermen had nearly killed them both, had made a mockery of House Baratheon to the best of their abilities with those damned peaches, but Renly hoped Stannis hadn’t said something of the sort to Lord Tyrell. Renly couldn’t truly blame Stannis for his bitterness, of course, because he’d never had a chance to know a Tyrell as anything but an enemy, but he hoped Stannis had enough of a sense of diplomacy to know that years-old grudges would have to be set aside so they might have the strength to topple the Lannisters.

“It’s good to be home,” he said as they rode through the gates, breathing deep. He loved the way the roast-almond scent of lightning lingered after a storm, but for now, there was only the soft, fresh smell of recent rain. He supposed that was something to be thankful for – Stannis had sailed from Dragonstone with Cassie, and Renly had a fear of sea storms that had never faded, not even twenty years and more after his parents’ death. The notion of Stannis and Cassie on the water during a storm…

None of that mattered a bit, though, because when he looked towards the main doors of the keep, Cassie was standing between Stannis and Penrose, holding Stannis’ hand (probably because she’d had to be held in place, because Cassie was half wild, something Stannis felt Renly only had himself to blame for) and waving madly, bouncing up and down even as Stannis bent to say something to her – presumably to tell her to behave, knowing Stannis, and Renly felt a rush of affection for two of the people he loved most in all the world – and waving all the harder, almost throwing herself off balance.

The very moment Renly’s feet touched the ground, she was bounding down the steps towards him, screaming “Papa! Papa!” and smiling so brilliantly that Renly completely forgot about the pain in his leg and swept her up into his arms.

Mercifully, Stannis had followed her down the steps and was there to steady him when his leg buckled, and he couldn’t be certain but he thought that his brother’s lips twitched into the closest Stannis ever came to a smile when Renly threw the arm not holding Cassie around his shoulders and leaned on him for support in climbing the steps.

“Have you been very good for your uncle?” he asked, not letting her down even though she was far too old for him to be carrying her about on his hip, but it was such a relief to have her here, safe, in his arms that he didn’t much mind the knowing look in Penrose’s eyes as they passed him. “You didn’t cause trouble for him or Maester Cressen while you were staying on Dragonstone, did you?”

No, Papa,” she sighed, rolling her eyes and wriggling until he put her down – and he was glad of it, if he was honest, because that allowed Stannis to get an arm properly around his back and take more of his weight. “I was a perfect lady, wasn’t I, Uncle?”

“She was very well behaved,” Stannis admitted, pulling Renly’s arm further around his shoulders and half-carrying him up the stairs. “Even on the ship here, which I did not expect. She enjoys sailing all too much for a lady of her standing-”

Renly grinned when Cassie cut off whatever Stannis had been about to add to that with a shriek as she ran into Martyn’s arms – Renly sometimes wondered if Stannis was ever jealous that Cassie so blatantly preferred her other uncle, for all that she half-lived with Stannis because she and Shireen were joined at the hip, but he didn’t think so. Stannis didn’t do well with affection, not unless it was the rough sort that Renly knew he’d accept, a hand on his shoulder, a silly face pulled behind Robert’s back while he was ranting about Cersei or mourning about Lyanna, and he knew that Stannis found what pleasure Stannis ever found in such things in the way Cassie had always called him Uncle Stannis, even though Robert was always, always Your Grace, even when he insisted she called him Uncle Robert.

“Selyse and Shireen are safe at Dragonstone?” Renly asked quietly once he was sure Cassie was out of earshot. “You know that they are more than welcome here, if you feel-“

“Davos is bringing them,” Stannis said, just as quietly. “We thought it best that we not all travel together, just to be safe. How’d you injure yourself?”

“Cersei set the goldcloaks on us, to keep us in the city – someone turned their cloak, it seems. Lannister gold is worth more than Baratheon, I suppose,” he said mildly. “Joffrey’s down a Kingsguard, though – good old Symond took Meryn Trant through the throat after he caught my leg. Fool thought he could win against thirty mounted knights with just ten armsmen on foot.”

“The maester will look at your leg,” Stannis said firmly, and Renly smiled sheepishly because he knew as well as Stannis that he would have brushed off the concern, even though he could hardly put any weight on his injured leg. “But I have news for you, first.”

“What kind of news? Surely there has not been word of the Starks already?”

“Of a sort,” Stannis said, heaving Renly up the last step onto the landing. “Ned Stark’s been beheaded.”

Renly froze, dizzy with the shock.

“I left his girls in the Lannisters’ clutches,” he said, appalled at himself for not thinking of this outcome. “The elder one is only a year older than Cassie, the younger’s the same age as Shireen-“

“There’s naught to be done now save win your throne,” Stannis broke in. “We do that, we might just be able to keep Ned’s daughters safe where he couldn’t. For now, we can’t concentrate on them. Understood?”

 


 

Renly stared into the fire, so tired but unable to sleep, not even with the comfort of Cassie draped on top of him. His leg was throbbing – Stannis had brought old Cressen with him, and Renly had chosen to entrust himself into the care of the man who’d been as much a father to himself and Stannis as Jon Arryn had to Robert, and Cressen had duly poked and prodded mercilessly at the near-healed wound, proclaimed it septic, and proceeded to slice Renly’s thigh open anew to drain the poison. Cassie had pouted and fumed, but Stannis had stood outside the door of Renly’s chambers until she’d agreed to go with her maid, and even then Renly had been able to hear her complaining all the way down the corridor.

Stannis was sitting in the chair opposite, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. He looked near as tired as Renly felt, dark shadows under his eyes and his shoulders sagging, which was unlike him – but then, Renly knew that no other man, no other person, would ever be granted such a concession from Stannis. It was a strange sort of privilege to see Stannis’ moments of weakness, but it was one Renly had always found himself oddly thankful for. It was the only reason he didn’t strangle his brother during his worst moments of stubborn idiocy – Stannis was a man just like any other, underneath it all, and Renly loved that man, even if he did drive him mad (a feeling, he knew, that was more than mutual).

"You've got your Lord Commander, then," he said, rubbing a hand over his face. Loras, though young, had been agreed upon as Lord Commander of Renly’s new-found Kingsguard, but there were still places to fill. There was time, yet. Just about enough, but time none the less. Renly had to be certain that every man he chose would be as loyal to Cassie and to Stannis as they were to him, after all. "No doubt Mace Tyrell'll want to be your Hand if you marry his daughter."

Renly stroked Cassie's hair and didn't look up.

"He can want all he pleases," he said quietly. "I'm making a Queen of his daughter - she'll be more a sister than a mother to Cassie, I dare say, but her sons will come before my daughter for the throne. Mace Tyrell can content himself with master of coin and be done with it."

"You'll still need a Hand – who? Penrose?"

Renly looked up then, genuinely surprised. Did Stannis honestly need to be asked?

"Well, I rather thought you'd taken the hint," he said, shifting his hold on Cassie so he could lift her to carry her to bed. "Who else would I have as my Hand bar you? Who else could I possibly trust as I trust you?"

Stannis rose quickly and took Cassie – as careful with Renly’s daughter as he was with his own – giving Renly a sceptical look.

“My leg isn’t that bad,” he said. “I’ll have the pin made up for you in the morning. Can’t have my Hand walking around unrecognised.”

“What about the rest of your council?” Stannis said, lifting Cassie higher in his arms. “Master of laws, master of ships?”

“Well,” Renly said, heaving himself to his feet with the help of the crutches Maester Cressen had forced upon him. “I was somewhat hoping you’d have a word with your Ser Davos about master of ships – I can’t see that we’ll find a man who knows the coastline between here and King’s Landing half so well as him who we can trust not to betray us to the Lannisters.”

 


 

Mace Tyrell, as Stannis had predicted, was unimpressed to see another man wearing the Hand’s pin. Renly didn’t care a damn – Stannis truly was one of two men he trusted without reserve in the world, one of four men he trusted to look after Cassie, and he couldn’t very well have Loras Tyrell or Martyn or Arstan Selmy as his Hand. None of them had the temperament, for one, and for another, Renly needed Stannis close to him, as close as possible. Who else was there that would tell him outright when he was being a fool, even when he did not want to hear it? Particularly when he did not want to hear it – that was Stannis’ speciality, after all.

Well, their grandfather would, but Lord Estermont was so old that he had not even journeyed from Greenstone to Storm’s End, his health keeping him all but bed-bound.

But Mace Tyrell seemed to have convinced himself that he would be Hand, Loras Lord Commander and pretty Margaery Queen – Renly would take Margaery to wife, reluctant though he was to have to go through the motions again, to risk inviting someone into his and Cassie’s home who might object to another woman’s child, because it was the surest way of sealing their alliance with the Tyrells. She was five-and-ten, clever and charming by Loras’ report, and cunning and canny by Renly’s own view. He’d met her more than once over the years, visiting Highgarden with Loras or when the Tyrells visited at Storm’s End, and he wondered if a crown would be enough to make up for having to marry a man near twenty years her elder with whom her brother had recently taken to sharing a bed.

It certainly seemed to be in her father’s eyes, at least, and Renly hoped quite desperately that she would not come to hate him as Cersei Lannister had always hated Robert. He loathed when people disliked him, and to think that someone could hate him to that degree was a horrible thought indeed.

“Is it that you think my brother unqualified for the post, Lord Tyrell?” Renly had asked, keeping his voice light and smiling a little. Stannis, sitting to his right, was stony-faced, grinding his teeth enough to draw attention – Renly kicked his ankle under the table to draw him out of it, and Stannis flashed him a look before turning back to Lord Tyrell, who was red-cheeked and struggling to find words. “He has served these past fifteen years on our dear departed brother’s small council, after all, worked closely with myself and the late Hand Lord Arryn in ruling the realm, and besides – he is my twin. Who better to make up for my failings?”

Not even Mace Tyrell had been able to come up with a feasible argument to that, much to Renly’s relief, and his small council was mostly settled – his Kingsguard was still unfinished, and though Stannis disapproved Renly had organised a small tourney to try and get an idea of who were the likely candidates. It didn’t hurt that Cassie (and himself, admittedly) would enjoy a day or two of festivities.

Renly had felt like the most terribly neglectful father since his arrival near three weeks past, because where usually while he was at Storm’s End he and Cassie were nigh inseparable, he had hardly had time for her now – he was just glad that Shireen and Selyse had arrived from Dragonstone, even if they had brought that queer red priestess with them. Renly wasn’t sure what to make of her, because she avoided him completely, but Stannis seemed to despise her, for some reason. Renly had noticed that, despite Stannis’ best efforts to hide it from him – there was little they could hide from one another, though. Stannis had been his shadow and he Stannis’ since the day they were born.

“What did she do?” he asked at last after dinner the night Maester Cressen finally agreed that he no longer needed his crutches. “This priestess of Selyse’s, she must have done something to make you hate her so. Did she insult Shireen? Comment on her scars?”

Few things roused Stannis’ anger as an insult to Shireen did – nothing did, in fact, and now that Renly considered it, it made absolute sense. Or rather, it would have, had Stannis’ mouth not turned down into the deepest frown Renly had seen all day, which was saying something considering most of the day had been spent in council, and Stannis’ frown was never far away when Lord Tyrell was nearby.

“She listens to far too many rumours,” Stannis grumbled, fingers drumming on the arm of his chair. “And repeats them too freely for my taste.”

Ah. There was only one sort of rumour that bothered Stannis this deeply, one that Renly was hoping to quell as he had in marrying Marei when he married Margaery at the end of the week – she had arrived with her mother and grandmother three days before, and while Cassie had taken to Lady Tyrell she seemed as suspicious of Margaery and Lady Olenna as Stannis was.

“Stannis…”

“She called you an abomination,” Stannis grit out, jaw clenching tight. “An abomination, Renly! And then, she attempted to convince me to commit treason and declare a challenge for your crown!”

That Renly had not expected.

“Is she quite mad to think that we would go to war against one another?” he asked, genuinely stunned. “Gods above-“

“She says that every person in the Seven Kingdoms is a heretic,” Stannis scoffed, anger soothed slightly. Renly didn’t doubt that his faith in Stannis, where Robert would have made some scathing comment, had helped a little. “None of us believe in her Red God so we’re all heretics. Nonsense.”

“Not everyone has so poor a view of gods and heavens as you, you know,” Renly said quietly. “Did she repeat her, hmm, her opinion of me to any others, that you know of?”

“No,” Stannis admitted. “Not that I know of.”

“Then I believe her insult was more to you than to me, little brother.”

Stannis glanced up at him, lips pursed, and Renly grinned just a little – calling Stannis little brother always irked him out of whatever temper or mood he was in, because it was only barely true but Renly had always used it to lord over Stannis when they were boys.

“Come on, then,” he said, pushing himself to his feet. “We have another long day tomorrow, and I for one need sleep to put up with Lord Tyrell’s bumming and blowing.”

 


 

The wedding could only be described as lush – typically Tyrell, for all that it was held at Storm’s End, celebrated mostly by Renly and Stannis’ bannermen.

Renly played his part excellently – he was good at this, at court games, a thousand times as good as Stannis, and he enjoyed them, too, but he had seen Maester Cressen pass a letter of some sort to Stannis while he’d been on the other side of the room, dancing with Cassie and Shireen at the same time (holding one of their hands in either of his, and they held hands too, and the three of them spun about and laughed and it didn’t seem like there was a war coming, just for a few moments), and that had been pressing on his mind all night.

Even Stannis’ attempt at hiding his concern – or ire, Renly was a little drunk and that made reading his brother difficult – could not distract from the spectacle that was the bedding, though. Renly was just relieved that Shireen and Cassie had been sent to bed beforehand, and that Stannis had the foresight to sling Margaery over his shoulder to avoid the indignity of her being stripped bare before the whole hall.

Stannis had participated in precisely three bedding ceremonies in his life, Renly knew – his own, Renly’s first, and now Renly’s second. At both of Renly’s weddings, Stannis had carried his new bride to the bedchamber still in her shift and stockings and smallclothes, and Renly was eternally grateful for his brother’s exaggerated modesty, even if it was at just about all other times incredibly irritating.

Margaery had stripped bare, though, by the time he was shoved into the bridal chamber in just his breeches – he’d have to make sure he got those boots back, he liked those ones – having been thoroughly groped by every woman who’d involved herself.

He made sure the bar was lowered on the door before facing his new wife. He missed Marei as he hadn’t in a great many years when he realised Margaery had positioned herself on the bed as if seduction were wanted (or even possible).

He sighed, hoping Loras had had a word with her as he had promised he would, and crossed the room.

 


 

The blood-stained sheet was the talk of the castle the following morning, successfully quashing any of those rumours that Stannis was so worried about, and Renly spent what time was appropriate with Margaery in the morning before retreating to council.

“Are you quite well?” Stannis asked, sounding as much confused as concerned. “You seem restless.”

“I miss Marei,” Renly said honestly, thankful that it was just the two of them, cousin Andrew just down the hall in Kingsguard white (Renly had thought perhaps different colours, seven colours to curry favour with the Faith, but Stannis had quelled that with a frown and, in hindsight, Renly had to admit that the white was a great deal more dignified). “She… Understood better, I think.”

“She was older,” Stannis pointed out. “And she knew you better.”

That was true, Renly supposed – Marei had been warded at Storm’s End when they were children, under Mother’s care, and Renly had chosen her as a wife in a panic simply because she was someone he knew wouldn’t make fun of Stannis and expect him to laugh with her.

Pretend I’m Martyn, if that helps, she’d said on their very peculiar wedding night. I’ll even turn over for you – just remember where to put it, it’s the one towards the front.

He’d never laughed so much in all his life.

Margaery had been less forthright about it – she’d talked around the issue, kept murmuring in a softly lilting tone until Renly couldn’t bear to have a girl half his age and less attempting to comfort him, so he kissed her. He was good at that, at least – Marei had trained him well, simply because they’d both discovered that they liked kissing and she’d decided that if she were to have a husband, at least one of them should find some pleasure in the act (she’d trained him very well, and not just at kissing, actually, and he knew Margaery had been surprised by that. Marei had always insisted it was rude to leave a lady wanting, though, and she’d said it would be a waste to not put Renly’s hands to use. She’d always liked his hands). Besides, he’d gotten back into the swing of kissing this past half year or so, since Loras…

“It could have been worse, I suppose,” he said at last, smiling a little when Stannis’ frown deepened. “Oh, I survived it without wanting to die, which is more than I suppose you expected, isn’t it? Come along, we’ve got another day’s council ahead of us, and tonight I have to try and put a son in my wife again.” He ran a hand over his face, regretting that he hadn’t taken the time to shave earlier. “Gods, I hope it doesn’t take as long as it did with Cassie.”

 


 

Stannis presented the letter he had received during the wedding feast to council that morning – a letter that had been sealed with a direwolf.

“About time,” Renly grumbled, holding out a hand and reading the missive while Stannis explained to the council just what was in question.

Robb Stark, King in the North, was coming to treat with Renly.

“What a presumptuous little-“

“Traitor,” Stannis agreed, crossing his arms and settling back into his seat. “By rights, you could take his head.”

“The letter from Lady Stark says that her son was crowned by assembly,” Renly said thoughtfully. “Hmm. Surely he could be convinced to abdicate, particularly if he was not party to his crowning?”

“He could have manipulated his men into declaring him king,” Ser Davos pointed out, and Renly laughed outright at that.

“You have never met a Stark, ser, so I will excuse that as a jape,” he said, shaking his head. “No, manipulation is not something the Starks have much time for – I suspect Robb Stark was as surprised by this as we are, although I daresay it’s been good for morale within his army. He needs a queen, now, that’ll truly boost them up.”

“He’s winning,” Lord Tarly said, examining the map spread out on the table between them. “The Lannisters-“

“Have been toying with the Riverlands for a long while now,” Stannis said firmly. “He has yet to face Lord Tywin in open battle, so I would not be so hasty to say that he is winning, my lord.”

Renly, despite his better judgement (and Stannis’) couldn’t help but be impressed by the Stark boy. He was only of an age with Margaery, and yet he’d routed Lannister armies more than once and was successfully driving them out of the Riverlands, if reports were to be believed.

“He will bend the knee,” Renly said, cutting across the arguing that had sprung up while he was thinking. “I may have a reputation of being softer than my brothers, but I will not stand for traitors or usurpers – Robb Stark will be made to kneel, and do you know how we shall convince him to do so?”

The men gathered around the table looked at him curiously, and Renly felt like apologising to Stannis, because this would put Shireen and Cassie on offer, too. He hated himself a little for that, but it had to be done. Ned Stark’s daughters, the sisters “King in the North”, were the only inarguable leverage he held over the boy king, and he would use it.

“We promise his sisters’ safety,” he said, “and we promise them marriages.”

 


 

Their faces were near identical, save that Lord Stannis’ cheeks were hollow and his mouth turned down in a frown, his brow furrowed, all where Lord Renly (King Renly, Robb reminded himself) was smiling and wholesome, a smile that belied the serious dark blue eyes both men shared. Renly had a full head of hair where Stannis was balding, but Stannis was taller by an inch or so. They stood precisely the same – far taller than Robb himself, and broad in the shoulders. They looked like the King had, when he came to Winterfell, but lean and hard and strong and fit – here were two men who had refused to allow age to make much mark on them, aside from the lines around their mouths and eyes. Even those were different, of course – Lord Renly’s were from laughing, Lord Stannis’ from frowning. 

A crown of golden antlers atop Lord Renly’s head (King Renly, King) caught the sun as Robb came nearer, because King Renly had turned his head to speak with his brother, saying something that he laughed at and that drew a smile from Lord Stannis. As he neared, Robb thought he heard a mention of someone called Cassie, and then the fat man to King Renly’s left laughed too.
Robb glanced to his right, to his mother, and frowned slightly – but Mother didn’t seem worried, only determined, and that did not change even when he moved to help her dismount.

“Lord Stark,” Renly said, and Robb’s fingers clenched tight – Mother had told him to expect this, of course, but it didn’t mean he had to like it. He’d-

“Get out of the habit of being addressed as a king, boy,” Lord Stannis said, smirking even when King Renly kicked him sharply in the ankle (not that Renly wasn’t grinning, too). “There’s one king in the realm, and he stands before you.”

Renly rolled his eyes, still grinning just a little, and motioned for Robb to follow him.

“Come, Lord Stark,” he said. “We have much to discuss.”

 


 

“You were very rude,” Renly said as he and Stannis led the way up the stairs. “Well done.”

“He was ruder,” Stannis pointed out. “He should have greeted you first-“

“I know,” Renly laughed, nudging his shoulder into Stannis’, “I wasn’t reprimanding you. It will do the boy good to be taken down a peg or two.”

“He is a boy,” Stannis said quietly, hand darting out automatically when Renly’s leg wobbled a little – it was still tender from the wound he’d taken in King’s Landing, and tired by exertions both in the yard and at night, as well as the endless stairs of Storm’s End. “Younger than we were when we held Storm’s End through the siege.”

“When you held Storm’s End, you mean,” Renly said, shaking his head and smiling. “I did little to help from my sickbed, Stannis, and flattery does not suit you, brother.”

Stannis made no reply, but Renly knew him well enough to pick out what on other men would have been a smile. They climbed the rest of the way to Renly’s solar in silence, but Renly smiled all the way because he knew he’d as good as made Stannis laugh.

He saw the surprise in the boy’s eyes when he entered the solar ahead of his mother, but Lady Stark simply cleared her throat and glanced pointedly at the chairs at the end of the table nearest the door.

Renly leaned back in his own chair, eyeing the Stark boy critically – he was taller than his father had been, but not by much, and stocky and strong looking for a lad his age under all that fur and armour. He must be hot as all hell, Renly thought, and poured a cup of wine for himself and one each for Stannis and fat Mace. Loras was standing just behind him and to the left, looking about as lethal as Cassie might with his hair all tumbled by the wind, and Renly didn’t miss the way he straightened up when an absolute giant of a man took up a mirror position behind the Stark boy.

“Welcome to Storm’s End, Lord Stark,” he said, waving an idle hand and smiling. “It is a pleasure to host you.”

 


 

“An independent North,” Stannis scoffed, shaking his head. “As if-“

“No politics at the dinner table, brother,” Renly chided gently, putting tarts on Cassie and Shireen’s plates and winking at the girls. “It’s bad for digestion.”

They’d taken the chance to eat when council broke for the night, and had sent Robb Stark and his mother went to deliberate with his bannermen. Someone – probably Penrose – had found Shireen and Cassie and brought them in, even though the girls should have been abed long before – Renly himself should be abed, nearly, if he intended on finding Margaery yet awake.

Renly was glad of it, though, especially when Cassie climbed into his lap despite being too old for it, and he knew Stannis was, too, because regardless of Stannis’ reputation for being cold, Renly knew his brother loved Shireen.

“Papa,” Cassie said, twisting a curl around her finger and looking up at him through her eyelashes. “Ser Cortnay said that I am old enough to be betrothed now.”

Renly petted her hair back from her face, hiding his panic – the notion of sending Cassie off to anyone else was horrible, he had always dreaded the day he’d have to find a husband for her – and nodded.

“That’s true,” he admitted, thinking of the letter he’d sent to Sunspear and wanting to scowl. He wasn’t certain how it would be received, because no matter that Tywin Lannister had arranged for the butchering of Elia Martell and her children, it was Robert who’d benefitted from it, Robert and his brothers, and Renly didn’t doubt that the Martells would be cool at best towards him until he could assure them that he could defeat the Lannisters. To send Cassie into that sort of an environment… “Would you mind?”

“I shan’t have to marry soon, shall I?”

“Not for many years yet,” Renly promised, “but we have considered a husband for you.”

“Who is it, Papa?” she asked, licking icing off the fingers of her other hand and leaning into his chest. “I hope he is not ugly.”

“I don’t know that he’s not ugly, sweetling, but he is from Dorne – haven’t you always wished to see Dorne?”

“Mama told me that she went there once with Grandfather,” Cassie said excitedly, smiling brightly. “She said that it was very beautiful.”

“Just like you, then,” he teased, tweaking her nose. “We must wait for Prince Doran to write back, but you may be betrothed to Prince Trystane Martell, sweetling – would you mind living in Dorne?”

“Prince Trystane will not be Prince of Dorne, will he?”

“No, sweetling, he will not – he has an older sister and an older brother, both of whom will inherit before him.”

“Then we may come and live at court and be near you always, Papa,” she said, as if it were already decided. “I do not think I shall mind that.”

 


 

"Cassana Baratheon, you come back here this instant!" Renly bellowed, charging along the wall to where Cassie was prancing along the crennels. "Right now, my girl!"

"No!" Cassie shouted back, pausing just long enough to stick her tongue out at him before dancing further away. Renly cried out in horror when she near lost her balance - it was such a long way to fall, she'd never survive it, and he would never survive that. "Mama always let me play up here!"

"Your mama is not here, sweetling," Renly pleaded, panic overwhelming his anger, panic and a pang of guilt for not even having stopped to think how his marrying Margaery just barely a year and a half after Marei's death would affect Cassie. "You are supposed to be spending the morning with my lady wife-"

"She is not my mother!" Cassie called over her shoulder, wavering again and prompting Renly to sprint along the wall, catching her just in time. "She is not, Papa, she's not-"

"I know, sweetling, I know," Renly sighed, holding her as tight as he dared and kissing her hair again and again. "I miss your mama too, dear one, you know that."

He sat down then, folding Cassie into his lap and rocking her gently as she cried. It had shaken everyone in Storm's End, everyone in the Stormlands, when Marei had died - she'd been out hawking with some friends, but there'd been a snake in the grass which caused her horse to shy, and while a fall like that had never done her any lasting harm before, she'd cracked her head on a stone and hadn't even survived back to Storm's End. 

Renly looked up when he heard someone coming, and was unsurprised to see Martyn Selmy standing over them.

"Come along, little princess," he said, holding out his hand to Cassie, "there's someone who wishes to speak with the King."

Cassie nodded and let Renly and Martyn help her to her feet, dusting off her skirts and wiping the back of her hand over her cheek before smiling as best she could to Renly.

"I will see you at dinner, sweetling," he promised, standing himself and leaning down to kiss her brow. "Now run along and ask Maester Cressen if he might tell you and Shireen some of the stories he used tell your uncle and I when we were small, hmm?"

Catelyn Stark stood a little way down the wall from him, eyeing him curiously.

"You love your daughter very much, Your Grace," she said when he reached her, and he smiled ruefully.

"More than anything, Lady Stark," he assured her. She had been much more moderate, more level-headed, than her son or most of his bannermen during their conference the day before, and Renly hoped that that would influence Robb Stark's choice. 

"I love my daughters as well as you love yours," she said, and before he could think better of it Renly's hand was on her shoulder, an empty comfort but all he had to offer her. "I would do anything to see them home."

"Had I known Cersei would lose control of Joffrey so quickly, I would have tried to help them," he promised. "But I did neither, and I can only apologise for such a lapse in judgement."

"You will guarantee my daughters' safety if my son bends the knee to you?"

"As fully as I am able," Renly assured her. "Lord Tyrell in particular will be eager to see the girls safe, I think."

"This son of his you plan on wedding Sansa to - he is a good man?"

"I have never seem him to be anything else, my lady. He has a bad leg, but a good heart. He will be a good husband to your daughter, I know he will." Renly couldn't help but smile. "The ladies of Highgarden are notorious for training their menfolk well, Lady Stark. Your daughter will be safe with them."

Lady Stark nodded once, sharply, and then hesitated. 

"And my younger daughter? Arya? Who do you have in mind for her?"

Renly shrugged.

"She is only of an age with my niece," he said. "There is time yet to find a suitable match for her. Your daughters will be cared for, Lady Stark, as if they were mine and my brother's own. You have my word on that."

 


 

“Oh, surely you’ll toast our victory with me,” Renly teased, rolling his eyes and bumping against Stannis’ shoulder. “We have the armies of all the Seven Kingdoms save Dorne and the Westerlands-“

“And the Vale, and the Iron Islands-“

“-at our disposal,” Renly carried on, ignoring Stannis’ arguments. “We can win this, Stannis, you know that as well as I do!”

“Provided the Stark boy holds to his word and abdicates his crown,” Stannis grumbled. “And even then, we still have to uncover the truth of what’s happening in the Vale, and appease the Martells, and stamp down on the Westerlands and probably the Iron Islands-“

“Stannis-“

“You think Balon Greyjoy won’t take advantage of everyone else being distracted, do you?”

“I think we need not worry tonight-“

“One of us must, seeing as you never seem to-“

Renly put a hand on Stannis’ chest to bring him to a halt, nodding across the way to where Lady Stark was leaning against one of the arches that looked out over the inner garden. Renly knew that Cassie, Shireen and Edric were playing down there, possibly with Stannis’ squire – Renly had taken Edric as his own squire, and hadn’t yet chosen a second boy – and Lady Stark was watching them intently.

“My lady,” he called out in greeting, crossing to stand by her slowly, in case she indicated that she wished to be left alone. “Are you quite well?”

“Your daughters are lovely girls,” she said quietly, smiling thinly as Stannis fell in beside Renly. “The boy, he is your brother’s?”

“Edric, yes,” Renly confirmed, eyeing Stannis carefully – it wasn’t Edric’s fault that he’d been conceived as he was, but at the same time, Renly couldn’t quite blame Stannis for resenting the circumstances – Selyse did, he knew, and that couldn’t make things easy for either of them, much and all as Selyse got on Renly’s nerves. “He is a good boy. Shireen and Cassie are fond of him.”

Fonder than we were of his father went unspoken between himself and Stannis, but then, it hardly needed saying.

“You are lucky to have them so close,” Lady Stark said, looking back to the children. “I…”

Renly hesitated, wondering if he should offer her some comfort, but before he could, she spoke again.

“My son, Bran, fell from a tower while your brother was at Winterfell. He loved to climb, and I always warned him that one day he would fall.” She sighed, sounding so tired. “Your daughter nearly fell this morning, Your Grace, but you were there to catch her. I was not there to catch my Bran.”

“It was beyond your control,” Renly said, glancing to Stannis for help.

Surprisingly, it was forthcoming.

“My daughter is scarred by greyscale,” he said. “There were many at court who went out of their way to avoid her, as though she were still contagious.” He shrugged. “We cannot keep our children safe from all suffering, Lady Stark. The world does not allow it.”

Lady Stark took a long, deep breath, and then sighed.

“I am returning to Winterfell soon,” she said. “I would be honoured to take one of your daughters to ward, my lords.”

 


 

Cassie had thrown a tantrum when she’d been told that Shireen was bound for Winterfell, and Renly had been forced to be firm with her (Stannis always told him he only had himself to blame, because he spoiled her, and he supposed that that was true).

The letter from the Martells arrived just as they were preparing to ride for King’s Landing – delivered in the hand of Oberyn Martell’s bastard daughter, which Stannis almost took for an insult until Penrose reminded them that the girl and her sisters had been raised with Prince Doran’s heir as sisters.

It broke Renly’s heart to see Cassie sailing away from him, but he supposed she would be safer in Sunspear.

“We will get them back,” he said when Stannis came to stand beside him by the fire. “We will oust the Lannisters, and then we will bring our girls home, Stannis. I won’t see them fostered until we’re strangers to them, as Robert was to us.”

Stannis nudged his shoulder against Renly’s.

“We’ve a war to fight first, don’t forget.”

Chapter Text

King’s Landing falls, and while there will be songs sung of the glory of House Baratheon Renly has no care for the details of his (and Stannis’) victory.

They did not lead the charge into the throne room - that was left to younger men, hungry for glory - but now, seeing Cersei Lannister in chains and two bodies too small to be any but Tommen and Myrcella shrouded in black, he wishes that he and Stannis had been first through the dors.

“Who raised arms against the children?” he demands, sickness roiling in his stomach. Sweet Tommen, smiling Myrcella - not his nephew and niece in truth, no, no blood of his, but good children, kind children, who had committed none of their parents’ or brother’s sins. If this is some twisted vengeance on Tywin Lannister for what was done to Elia Martell and her children in the Sack, then Renly will have the heads of every man who partook. “What man put these children to the sword?”

“They were dead when we breached the doors,” Lord Stark says, and he looks near as sick as Renly feels. “When court was at Winterfell, they played with my brothers and sisters… Their mother. She poisoned them rather than let us take them hostage.

Only Stannis’ hand on his elbow keeps Renly from turning and vomiting at the thought of any parent killing their own child.

“She dies first,” he croaks. “She has taken the lives of innocents, I will see her dead.”

 


 

Tyrion Lannister, by some miracle, survived his mad charge out into the thick of the fighting, and because Renly is not fool enough to risk Lord Tywin's last heir (the Kingslayer slayed by a King, one more song to be sung of this dread mess, the Bastard King another, too craven to face judgement so he leapt from the battlements rather than face his once-believed uncles' wrath), the Imp receives better care for his hideous wounds than any other man save Stannis.

"You should have told me you were injured," Renly fumes, standing over Stannis as the maester tends him. "How you managed to hide that half your gut was hanging out-"

"Stop being so dramatic," Stannis grunts, sitting up straighter so he can be wrapped in layer upon layer of sturdy linen bandages.  "It's only a scratch."

"Oh yes," Renly agrees, near overwhelmed by the urge to slap his twin across the back of his thick head. "A scratch that could have killed you! What about Shireen, you fool? Or Selyse, or me? What am I to do if you die? Do you truly think I could rule without you by my side? I'd ruin the realm within half a year!"

"You served ably as master of laws for years," Stannis says firmly, slapping away the maester's fussing hands when he reaches for his shirt. "And Shireen would have Selyse, and she'd have you - more than we had, remember."

 


 

They meet with Lord Stark as soon as Stannis is steady enough to sit up unaided for any length of time.

"We are doing everything in our power to locate the younger of your sisters," Renly says, sliding a cup of wine (Dornish strong, delivered as a gift to recognise and celebrate Cassie's betrothal, and Renly loathed that anyone could expect him to place a couple of cases of wine and sundry other gifts as anything even approaching his sweet girl's worth) across the table. "Lady Sansa, though - how is she after her... captivity?"

Robb Stark is still only a boy of six-and-ten, for all his military success, so Renly is unsurprised by the shocked disgust on the lad's face. When Renly was that age, he could hardly have believed that anyone would harm a girl as sweet as little Sansa Stark unless he was truly evil, but years of living had assured him that men would do just about anything while following orders.

"She will recover," Stark says, mouth twisting in uncertainty. "She will not allow a maester to examine her, though, not unless there is someone else there, and with our lady mother at Winterfell, I know not who might be an appropriate chaperone..."

That sounds ominous, and Renly glances to Stannis, who nods slightly.

"Might my wife suit, my lord?" he offers. "She is closer to your sister's age than any of the other women at court, and she has a gentle nature - they will be goodsisters eventually, besides. Few are quite so well informed on your sister's betrothed as Lady Margaery, I promise you."

"Will your sister submit to an examination by a septa?" Stannis asks, and though his tone is gruff his mouth is turned down in distaste - not, as many would jibe, at the subject, but rather at the thought of Lady Sansa being hurt in such a way. Stannis may be a cold man in some ways, but he has a daughter of his own near to the Stark girl's age. That makes a man consider things differently, Renly knows.

"Mayhaps," Lord Stark concedes. "If she has-"

"Someone with her," Renly agrees. "I will speak with the Queen tonight."

 


 

Margaery sits at her dressing table to comb out her hair after they're done that night, having cleaned herself off with water scented with rosehips. 

"I met Lady Sansa today," she calls back over her shoulder. "She will make a wonderful wife for my brother, I think. She is very sweet."

"I first met her when Robert was bringing her father south to be his Hand," Renly remembers as he shrugs into his nightshirt. "Barristan Selmy was with me, and she worked out who we were by our armour, and then very politely informed me that she couldn't possibly tell the difference between the King's twin brothers, though she knew I was one or the other - I remember Loras telling me he couldn't decide if Stannis should be flattered or I should be insulted."

"You were flattered, I suppose," Margaery says lightly. "I will send an invitation for Lady Sansa to spend the morning with my ladies and I tomorrow, will that suffice for a start, my lord?"

"Aye, it will," he says absently, moving to the window and wondering how close to Sunspear the raven is now, asking for Cassie's return and offering to foster Prince Trystane at court. "I, meanwhile, will spend the day in council, trying to decide how best to rout Tywin Lannister. What a joy."

 


 

It is two moons of planning and council meetings and barely keeping Stannis from strangling Mace Tyrell and sending Robb Stark off to deal with the Ironborn plaguing the western coast of the Riverlands and the North (only after ensuring that Lord Stark took Balon Greyjoy's son's head - what use is a hostage if you will not use them as intended?) before Cassie is finally returned to him.

Renly stays put at Stannis’ side for as long as he can, but he knows it's a lost cause as soon as he catches sight of Cassie’s mane of black curls descending to the dock.

“Oh, to hell with propriety,” he says, grinning to Stannis. “Here, hold my crown - I’m going to greet my daughter properly.”

There will be a feast later, and a formal reception, but nobody seems surprised when Renly sprints the length of the dock to sweep Cassie clean off her feet and spin her around and around and around.

 


 

Later, they will stand together on the walls of the Red Keep, born and living and dying together, and they will watch as the dragons draw closer and closer across the water, screaming their rage.

"The girls and Robbie are safe?"

"At Highgarden. I don't think even the Tyrells would turn children over to their deaths. They are not the Lannisters."

Renly will shift closer to Stannis and, without thinking, will take his little brother's hand.

"We have to-"

"I know," Stannis will say quietly. "We will, for what it's worth."