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An Inconvenient King

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Sansa was dressed and ready to start her day, but instead of leaving to break her fast in the Great Hall, she was standing still in her chambers, looking at her surroundings. She had so many responsibilities now that she was the Lady of Winterfell, and she rarely had moments where she could just… breathe.

It was strange to think of these chambers - her father’s chambers - as her own. The objects that had survived the Greyjoys and the Boltons were useful, sturdy, and built for comfort rather than beauty. Even though it wasn’t what it once was, there was still so much about this relatively humble room that reminded her of the man Lord Eddard Stark had been. There was a tapestry that depicted an old heart tree. It always made Sansa think of the way her father had used to sit in the godswood when he wanted to think about something important. A chest full of blankets had wafted her father’s scent to her nose: leather, horses, and oak. On her third night sleeping in the chamber, she had unearthed a tarnished silver box that contained scissors and a shaving knife. Sansa couldn’t recall her father ever having less than a full beard, but she supposed he must have trimmed it. She could still remember the way his beard tickled her neck when he had hugged her...

Today would be a good day, she decided, as she walked toward the door. She was home, she was safe, and she was becoming stronger every day. She felt that not only her body, but her heart, too, was recovering.

Feeding Ramsay to his hounds had not been something she had done lightly, but it had been the first step towards healing her injured spirit. How many times had she survived an encounter with Ramsay by swearing over and over to herself that she would have justice?

She wondered whether her father would have agreed with her idea of justice. Would he have considered it unnecessarily cruel, or would he have understood the depth of Sansa’s suffering and understood that such a brutal death had been more than deserved? Sometimes Sansa felt convinced that her father would have accepted her choice, but at other times her stomach contracted and twisted about within her as she imagined his disappointment. Would he have advocated a quick, clean death despite everything?

Jon understands, Sansa reminded herself. And Jon is very like Father. Perhaps I can hope that Father would understand, too.

When Sansa left her chambers, she found herself wishing she could break her fast with Jon. She had done so since the Battle of Winterfell, but that was no longer possible. Jon was gone. He had left for the Wall with nearly all the men, leaving only enough fighters to garrison the keep. Sansa was alone here.

No, not alone. Never alone. Petyr is here. Petyr is always here.

She wished she could send him away, but … despite all that had happened, Petyr remained her strongest ally. He understands the Game in a way no one else here does. There is much I have to learn. He could teach me. But at what price? She knew he wanted to take Jon’s place in her life, eat meals with her, hear her confidences...

I wish I didn’t need him. That I could just send him away, and give him no more thought. He has stolen too much from me. She thought of Ramsey, and shivered. No, I will not see Littlefinger today.

Sansa had barely taken two steps from her door when a young boy ran up to her. He tried to speak right away, but he was so out of breath that Sansa did not understand him.

“Please catch your breath, I am in no hurry,” she told him, smiling kindly. She knew that the boy had important news, but a few more seconds would not make all the difference in the world, and this way she had time to steel herself in case the news were bad.

The boy bent over double and panted, but eventually he seemed ready to speak.

“Two men have just arrived. They are outside the gates and asking to be admitted. One of them - a southerner - claims to know you. The other is very injured.”

Sansa was careful not to betray her surprise. She kept her face impassive and nodded at the boy. “Thank you.”

Her heart beat quickly as she made her way to the battlements. She needed to see this southern man who claimed to know her. She had to determine whether he was a friend or an enemy, and she must do it with poise. Everyone would be watching her.

Sansa felt her heart constrict and her stomach flutter when she saw the man outside the gates.

Sandor Clegane.

The moment she had relived in her nightmares too many times to count played in her memory like a song, and she could almost feel the way Sandor’s strong arms had lifted her up from the ground after he had fought off her would-be rapers, and the way his shoulder had been digging into her stomach as he carried her back to her Lannister captors.

Her heart hammered in her chest as her mind filled with questions. How would he behave towards her now? Was he a friend or a foe? What was he doing in the north? Why was he here?

“Finally,” he shouted when he saw her. “Will you tell those fuckers to open the gates, little bird? This one needs to warm up before he starts pissing ice.”

Uncouth as ever, Sansa thought, with a mental sniff. She took her time to survey the two supplicants from her walls. She had barely registered the injured man on the sled. Now she saw he was in bad shape. She did not know him, but he was not in Bolton colours, so she was inclined to be merciful. Still, she needed to assert herself. Her people were watching.

“Kindly address me by my proper title, Master Clegane. I am Sansa Stark, the Lady of Winterfell.”

“Will you open the bloody gate, Lady Sansa Stark of Winterfell?”

“Are you still loyal to the Lannisters?” Sansa asked, mostly for the benefit of those around her. The last time she had seen the Hound he had been fleeing King’s Landing in the midst of a terrible battle. The Lannisters would probably kill him on sight for desertion.

“I am loyal to no one but myself,” Sandor said. He spat at the frozen ground and glared up at her.

“What about your companion?” she asked, wondering if Sandor even knew who the injured man was.

“He’s not loyal to the Lannisters any more than you are. He’s Stannis bloody Baratheon. Now will you let us in? It’s fucking cold.”

Sansa drew in a sharp breath. Stannis Baratheon. What does this mean? The implications were staggering.

She nodded at the men around her, and they hurried to open the gates. The boy who had found her was still by her side. “Please go and find Lord Baelish,” she told him. She took a breath. “I need him.”

***

“It’s definitely him,” Petyr said, looking at the injured man - Stannis Baratheon - in disbelief.

There was a pause while Sansa, Petyr, and Sandor all looked at each other and then back down at Stannis.

Sansa broke the silence. “Lady Brienne said she killed him,” she said, shaking her head and furrowing her brow. “How can this be?”

“I told you,” Sandor said in his gruff voice, impatience in every syllable. “The red cunt said the Lord of Light brought him back. She told me she found him near perfectly preserved in the ice and snow. The Lord of Light led her to him and gave her a sign, she said.”

“How did she do it?” Petyr asked, eyes practically glowing.

“Wasn’t he beheaded?” Sansa added, morbidly fascinated despite herself. She could not see any stitches on Stannis’ neck. It appeared as if his head had always been right where it was.

Sandor looked away. “How should I know? I didn’t see it happen, did I?”

Sansa looked at him. There was something he didn’t want to talk about, she knew that.

“Sandor,” she said, putting a hand on his arm. “What can you tell us?”

There was a long pause. “I was coming north,” he said finally. “I saw the smoke all the way from the road. Decided to see what was going on. Thought it might be trouble. I found her in a clearing, standing over him. She said her god had sent me. Told me to take him to the castle. She ... had ringed herself in fires.” His breath was short. “It was like the woman was made of fire herself.” He dropped his gaze and swallowed hard. “I didn’t stay to ask questions.”

Sansa kept her face passive, but her heart ached for Sandor. She knew the story behind his scars; Petyr had told her.

What courage it must have taken for him to go to that smoke, and then to walk into the circle of fire and take Stannis out.

“I’m surprised, Clegane,” Petyr said, his voice smooth. “You had no love for Stannis, as I recall.”

Sandor looked away. “I had my reasons. Besides, someone had to help the fucker.”

“Melisandre was banished from the north, and for a good reason,” Sansa said. “She convinced King Stannis to burn his own daughter. She is a murderer.”

“Shireen?” Sandor’s voice was soft, horrified. “Sounds to me like Stannis is the murderer,” he muttered. “True that I never liked the man much, but I woundn’t’ve thought that of him.” He glared down at the comatose man. “Bloody waste of effort.”

Sansa kept her voice gentle. “He can answer for his deeds when he wakes up, but you did right to save him and bring him to us.”

“If he wakes up,” Littlefinger said, his voice cool.

Sansa felt herself stiffen. Was he suggesting … ?

He met her eyes, and one brow lifted.

Sansa’s mind raced. Stannis Baratheon was the rightful king of Westeros. Cersei had not given King Robert any trueborn heirs, and Sansa had heard tell that many lords were disinclined to support young King Tommen’s claim now that his formidable grandfather was dead. Stannis was Robert’s younger brother. Robert’s only living brother, now. Jon was King in the North, but ... surely the rest of Westeros still needed a king?

Sansa wondered what her father would have done about this. Or rather, what he had done. She had understood so little of the politics of the court before … before it all went wrong. She knew her father had not supported Joffrey’s claim, nor that of his siblings. He always tried to do the right thing and tell the truth. The only lie Sansa had ever heard him utter had been the lie she had wanted him to tell.

It hadn’t been enough to save him from Joffrey.

Had her father supported Stannis’ claim? He must have. And at what cost?

“I think you’ll want him to wake up,” Sandor said, frowning as if he wasn’t exactly pleased with his own words. “He’s a clever cunt. Good to have on your side in a fight.”

Sansa aimed a halfhearted glare at Sandor for his profanity and pushed her painful memories aside. She looked down at the thin bearded man she had heard so much about but never seen. Twice she had stood inside castle walls as Stannis attacked outside, and twice she had wondered what would befall her if he succeeded.

Gods… If only Stannis had triumphed when he had tried to take King’s Landing. How much pain might she have avoided? How much death might have been prevented?

Robb might still be alive.

Mother.

“He will be given the finest care we can provide,” Sansa said, meeting Littlefinger’s eyes steadily. “He deserves no less.”

“Of course, my lady.” He did not look best pleased. Sansa knew what he was thinking.

Every time I'm faced with a decision, I close my eyes and see the same picture. Whenever I consider an action, I ask myself will this action help to make this picture a reality? Pull it out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes. A picture of me on the Iron Throne and you by my side.

Sansa’s stomach tied itself into knots whenever she thought about those words.

It didn’t seem like there was anything Littlefinger could do to get himself on the throne. He wasn’t anywhere in the line of succession, and even with the strength of the Vale at his back, winning the throne through conquest was more likely to put a crown on Sweetrobin’s head than Littlefinger’s. She couldn’t see what he might be planning, and it filled her with unease.

“Well, now that’s settled,” Sandor said, sounding irritated, “is there somewhere in this castle where I could get something to eat?”

Sansa fought the impulse to shoot him a glare. “Follow me,” she said, keeping her voice pleasant, “we can discuss how you’re going to make yourself useful on the way.”

Sandor grunted and scowled, but there was something in his eyes that told Sansa he was not opposed to the idea of being useful.

Littlefinger made himself likely to linger in the chambers where Stannis had been put to bed, and that simply wouldn’t do. Might he simply murder Stannis in his sleep?

“Petyr, won’t you join us? I would enjoy your company as I break my fast.”

It was as if all thoughts of smothering Stannis with a pillow left Petyr’s head. Littlefinger faded away, leaving Petyr’s eyes a little greener, his face a little softer. “As you wish, my lady.”