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To Play it With You

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“Do you not recommend that I find a husband to play the game [of politics] for me?”
“I should find one to play it with you, not for you.”

Princess Victoria and Prince Albert in the film The Young Victoria

 

Crown Princess Shireen Baratheon of Storm’s End had been intimately familiar with the Small Council chamber in the Red Keep ever since her father had taken up residence in King’s Landing. A long rectangular table made of sturdy oak lay in the center of the room, surrounded by hard, straight-backed chairs devoid of any decoration. Tapestries hung on walls that weren’t covered up by bookcases. One of them depicted King Robert Baratheon I vanquishing Rhaegar Targaryen with a war hammer, and another depicted a fearsome stag watching a black dragon fly back to Essos. The room’s lone window afforded a spectacular view of Blackwater Bay and the waves crashing in the Narrow Sea far beyond.

Most lords would see that their daughters spent time in less forbidding chambers, with other highborn women around teaching them womanly arts. But my father is not a lord.

No, Shireen’s father was a king—the uncontested, one true king of Westeros by rights. Her companions were the lords of the Small Council, the knights of the Kingsguard, and the Maesters of the Citadel. Womanly arts were for ladies who weren’t expected to lead a kingdom one day, a kingdom that was still trying to recover from too many wars and too long a winter—and too many White Walkers. Neat stitches on silk were useless when alliances needed to be forged, and building a sharp mind was more important than enhancing physical beauty that would never be there.

“Since all members of this Small Council are present, let us begin today’s meeting,” declared King Stannis in a firm voice. Naturally, there were no objections. Shireen was sitting at her father’s left, as always. Lord Davos sat across from her on father’s right, as befitted the king’s Hand. Shireen glanced down the rest of the table, seeing how the other members of the council were fairing this morning. Lord Commander Rolland Storm of the Kingsguard was alert as ever, as was Grand Maester Ebrose. Ser Wylis Manderly, the Master of Coin, clearly looked like he would rather be breaking his fast for a second time, but sacrifices had to be made for the realm. Lord Estermont was rifling through a dusty tome of laws, and Lord Willas Tyrell, the newly appointed Master of Agriculture, waited attentively for the king to speak. That just left the Master of Whispers, Maester Alleras, who silently watched everyone as always.

Shireen wondered which matters her father would discuss. Years of sitting on the Small Council had made her good at predicting, as well as what the general response would be. While father had never commanded Shireen to sit on the Small Council with him, he made it clear that not doing such a thing would be neglectful of her duty and deprive her of valuable lessons on how to rule. And Shireen did not want to be neglectful of her duty, for nothing would disappoint father more.

“My bannermen inform me that the latest spring harvest is ready to be reaped. They expect this harvest to be the largest since last autumn, and with summer on the horizon the spirits of the smallfolk are high,” stated Lord Tyrell.

“As they should be,” replied father. “I do trust that the smallfolk outside of the Reach are similarly satisfied, and that summer is indeed on the horizon?”

“The smallfolk are never truly satisfied,” said Maester Alleras in a soft voice. Shireen always thought that the young maester, the son of a rich Dornish merchant, was rather odd. But since he was loyal to the Crown and had the personal support of Prince Doran Martell, Shireen didn’t wish to pry. “But having enough food in their bellies always improves things.”

“My colleagues at the Citadel are preparing to send out white ravens to all corners of the realm to herald summer,” added Maester Ebrose.

Talk continued about the harvest and how much lords would expect to gain in taxes. Father was already making plans to store much of the excess for winter, and no one was fool enough to laugh at such a prudent move. Thousands had died the past winter of starvation alone.

“If I may read some recent correspondence to my lords?” asked Davos once the harvest talk had died down. Father nodded at him, and Davos gave Shireen and apologetic look before lifting a large scroll with an elaborate red and black dragon seal.

“Empress Daenerys Targaryen of Dragon’s Bay has sent a personal message to our king with one of her many merchant ships.”

Shireen met Davos’ eyes, wondering what Daenerys Targaryen wanted. Not Westeros, surely, for after losing two of her three dragons and most of her army to the White Walkers at the Wall she had declared that Westeros could offer her nothing but death. She flew back to Essos, building an empire that dwarfed anything west of the Narrow Sea. Rumor had it that despite all of her wealth, she lived in a modest dwelling with a red door and a lemon tree growing just outside it.

“Empress Daenerys is disappointed by the fact that Princess Shireen is not yet wed. With the recent celebration of the princess’ eighteenth nameday and the coming of summer, she demands that Westeros build a stable line of succession. As well, she is happy to recommend suitable noblemen from Meereen, Astapor, Yunkai, Qarth, or any other city within her empire if Westeros fails to produce a man to Princess Shireen’s liking.”

Shireen clasped her hands in her lap so she wouldn’t be tempted to bury her face in them. If Empress Daenerys didn’t have a monstrous, fire-breathing black dragon I’d personally tell her to get her claws out of business that doesn’t concern her. My marriage has been a serious matter of debate ever since I flowered. And men had plotted to use her hand for their advantage even before that, such as her father’s former Hand Lord Alester Florent. He’d been burnt at the stake for his troubles, among other things.

Father narrowed his eyes at Davos’ last words. Shireen didn’t know if that was in response to the matter that Empress Daenerys brought up or the fact that the Targaryen girl had the audacity to demand anything of him. In reality, King Stannis Baratheon had been fending off marriage proposals for his daughter for years. Almost every noble in Westeros who knew how to write and even those who didn’t had offered their sons. Many were refused outright, others were considered, and few were given serious thought to. Still, Empress Daenerys had a valid argument—Shireen was of more than appropriate age and the realm was at its most stable since King Robert sat the Iron Thorne. Excuses that it was unsafe for her to bear children and that the realm had other more pressing priorities were becoming weaker with every passing day.

Even if it’s my duty to marry and marry well, I still hate discussing this with the Small Council, Shireen thought bitterly. Having her future debated over like a new tax law felt demeaning. At least father isn’t going to sell my hand to the highest bidder. I’m the one who will rule Westeros one day, gods willing, and my husband will first have to impress Just King Stannis before he lays a hand on me.

Lord Tyrell was seemingly oblivious to Shireen and her father’s mood, if the way his eyes lit up was anything to go by. “Empress Daenerys makes an excellent point! It has been too long since the Small Council discussed potential candidates for Princess Shireen’s hand. Why, Lord Tarly just sent a raven…”

“I know what Lord Tarly said,” snapped father.

“Of course, Your Grace,” said Lord Tyrell, pausing and carefully choosing his next words. “Lord Tarly still wishes to know if you would consider a match between Princess Shireen and his son Dickon. Dickon is of age with her, has been knighted, and has been raised as the heir to one of the most prosperous castles in the Reach.”

“I already declined Lord Tarly’s gracious offer, with a message by my own hand no less.”

“But he informed me that you gave him no explanation,” insisted Lord Tyrell. Shireen focused her eyes on father, wondering what reason he would give.

“I judged Dickon Tarly during his recent stay at court and found him wanting. Lord Tarly needs no further answer than that,” finished father with a glare. Shireen let out a breath she didn’t know that she was holding.

“Lord Stark is one of the few lords of the realm who hasn’t inquired about the princess’ hand. Perhaps we should inquire about his,” suggested Lord Estermont.

“Lord Stark is all of twelve,” father replied. “Granted, he might barely be physically able to consummate a marriage, but winter may come and pass before he is ready to be a husband. And given recent circumstances, it might be wise to leave the Stark in Winterfell in Winterfell for the time being.”

“I concur with His Grace,” said Ser Wylis. “As much as I favor strengthening the ties between the North and the Crown, Lord Rickon is still a pup who needs to learn what it means to be a direwolf.”

“Lady Sansa Stark has been an able regent for him, and none of my sources have anything negative to say about her,” added Maester Alleras. “Her and the other regent Lord Howland Reed.”

“This discussion is finished,” said father with a tone of finality. “My daughter isn’t marrying anyone on the morrow, and we’ll revisit it when we can have a more productive discussion. I’ll find a way to appease Empress Daenerys. At least she hasn’t tried to meddle in any other of Westeros’ affairs as of late.” He sighed, turning again to Davos. “Any other news, my Lord Hand?”

“We’ve received another raven from the Wall, Your Grace. I believe the Small Council will wish to hear it.” Father waved at Davos, giving him permission to read the message. Shireen was suddenly in a better mood, as she always enjoyed hearing news from the far North. “The resettling of the Gift and the New Gift is going as well as ever, and the Night’s Watch expects an ample spring harvest from those lands,” Davos began, scanning the rest of the message. His mouth twitched. “However, the Night’s Watch has a great need of more farming equipment. While they do have an excess of swords, it would be of no use to, if I may quote Lord Commander Snow, ‘beat the swords into ploughshares if they must be forged again on the morrow when the dead come walking.’ ”

“Insolent boy,” her father muttered under his breath. Shireen suppressed a smile, her face remaining perfectly serious after years of practice. While it was common for her father to damn lords to the seven hells, he had special set of words reserved for the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. “Insolent boy” was one of the nicer ones. “He probably expects the Crown to pay for all those ploughshares, just like it does the mining of dragonglass from Dragonstone. Is that all Lord Snow has to say this time?”

“This time, yes,” replied Davos.

Father dismissed the council, to mutterings of “Yes, Your Grace,” and “Until next morning, Your Grace.” As the men filed out of the room, Davos slid the message from the Wall over to Shireen. She unrolled it and read a piece that Davos had not decided to share:

Princess,

I hope that I find you well. As anything that would concern the king has already been said, I am pleased to report that the glass gardens at Castle Black have finally been completed. It has long been a dream of mine to build such a place, as the glass gardens at Winterfell kept the castle fed through long winters. As well, my father always made sure that blue winter roses grew there, which added a touch of beauty even in the most bleak of times. Perhaps flowers will one day grow at the Wall, but practicality must come first. Ghost has discovered that the glass gardens are an excellent place to nap, and my men know that stealing is a bad idea when there could be a direwolf hidden among the cabbages.

Best Regards,
Jon Snow, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch

This time Shireen was unable to suppress a smile. Before leaving the Wall to join her father in King’s Landing, Shireen had asked Lord Snow to keep her informed about what was happening at the Wall—and not necessarily the things that her father would be interested in knowing. He had been surprised at her request, but he faithfully honored it, slipping in short messages like the one she had just read with the ravens he sent to King’s Landing. In return, Shireen wrote to him of life in the capital and the curious people she met, as well as how happy short trips to Storm’s End made her and her father. Corresponding with Jon is like speaking with a friend. If I wasn’t who I was perhaps I would have more of those.

“Shireen.”

Shireen’s eyes snapped up, meeting her father’s.

“I ask you the same question that I asked Lord Davos. Is that business about ploughshares all that Lord Snow has to say?”

How did you know what I was reading? Shireen was tempted to ask, but father always seemed to know those things. Not that he ever voiced an objection to her correspondence, but giving her a bit of discretion would not go amiss. “No. But that was the only thing relevant to the Small Council meeting. Unless growing flowers in glass gardens is essential to the management of the realm?”

Father raised an eyebrow. “I doubt Lord Snow is doing such an impractical thing.”

“He isn’t, so be assured that he’s being as dutiful to the realm as you are.” Shireen rolled up the parchment and tucked it into one of her sleeves. She nodded to father and made to leave the room, but she stopped at father’s voice.”

“Walk with me, Shireen.”

“As you wish, father.”

Father led her out of the Small Council chamber, and it didn’t take Shireen long to deduce his intended destination. They walked without speaking as always, with Ser Rolland following silently behind them. This time, however, Shireen wished to break the silence.

“Thank you for telling Lord Tyrell that I won’t be marrying Dickon Tarly.”

Father turned toward her, a dismissive look on his face. “Why wouldn’t I? It would be negligent on my part to marry you to someone like the esteemed King Robert, first of his name. My Master of Whispers confirmed the rumors of Ser Dickon already having fathered a bastard, and you saw with your own eyes that he enjoys drinking and can’t control himself while in his cups.”

Getting drunk and fathering bastards were not Dickon Tarly’s worst crimes, at least not in Shireen’s eyes.

“I thank you nevertheless.”

Father didn’t reply.

When they had reached the doors to the throne room, father bade Ser Rolland to wait outside and see that no one disturbed them. The grand room was empty at the moment, the way that Shireen liked it best. No fools and flatterers pranced up and down the red marble floors, no drunken revelers sang bawdy songs at one of the rare feasts father was pressured by his Small Council to host, and no petitioners waited for father to solve all of their ills and bring justice like the Father. But that is father’s lot in life, and one day it will be mine.

Father walked up the steep steps of the Iron Throne, but instead of sitting down himself he motioned for her to do so. Shireen didn’t question him, sitting on the cold, hard seat. Any lesson he had for her would reveal itself in time. Shireen was sure to keep her back straight, all the better not to be impaled by any stray sword. Sharp edges seemed to appear out of nowhere, teaching a ruler to be as careful about how he sat on the Iron Throne as how he ruled from it.

“Have you thought about the day when you will sit here as Queen Shireen Baratheon, First of her Name?”

“Yes,” said Shireen softly, looking straight out ahead of her into the empty room. “No thought has ever terrified me more.”

“Ruling Westeros will be your duty. We should never fear doing our duty.”

“And lessons such as this one are supposed to help me conquer my fears? The same with sitting next to you on the Small Council, analyzing corpses with Grand Maester Ebrose, and riding through the streets of King’s Landing with the Kingsguard?”

“Yes.”

Father seems so confident in his answer. It’s an understatement to say that his life has been far from easy, but sometimes it seems that he was born to rule. He’s the king that Westeros needs, and I doubt that I’ll ever be able to live up to people’s expectations of me, let alone father’s. When Shireen was a little girl growing up on Dragonstone, she rarely saw father and talked to him even less. She was intimidated by him then, but she learned that father was willing to listen to her if she told him the truth about things, no matter how insignificant. And there’s no reason not to tell him the truth now. “Does it really matter what I do as queen, father? Even if I do everything like you, all most people will see is an ugly girl with a crown on her head.”

Father crossed his arms, studying her with a serious expression.

“Cersei Lannister was beautiful, but she was always unfit to wear the crown that her father won for her through treachery and deceit.” He leaned over and gently lifted her chin with his callused fingertips. “You look down to no one, especially from up here. A queen has no reason to submit to anyone. Never forget that.”

~

“You’ve been in a sour mood all day, Shireen. Is it about something discussed at the Small Council?”

“A message from Empress Daenerys brought up their favorite topic, and I fear that I’ll never live up to father’s expectations. That’s all.”

Shireen was walking along the beaches below the Red Keep with Wylla Manderly, collecting shells and skipping pebbles into the sea. Ser Andrew Estermont of the Kingsguard walked far enough behind them to be out of earshot. Ser Wylis had brought his youngest daughter to court to potentially be a companion for the princess, something father had deemed “a self-serving way to curry favor.” But unlike other highborn ladies, Shireen actually liked Wylla. While enough of them were content to embroider away the afternoon, Wylla liked to spend time by the sea and explore ships. She even knew how to swim, having learned in a secluded cove of White Harbor’s harbor with her sister Wynafryd. Mother was horrified by Wylla’s green hair, and Wylla laughed it off as being like one of her mermaid ancestors.

“I already met my grandfather’s expectations when I called the Freys murderers and defended the Starks in the Merman’s Hall during the war. King Stannis helped him get his vengeance, and since then he’s turned a blind eye toward what I do. That’s how I got to come to King’s Landing.”

“If only I could be as outspoken as you,” said Shireen, bending down to pick up a white sand-dollar.

“It’s not in your nature to be.” Wylla took aim with a pebble and got it to skip three times before sinking into the water. “You’re very deliberate in what you say, and you have impeccable control of your temper. I think that’s altogether more terrifying.”

“Just like father,” Shireen muttered.

“When I first met him, all he did was glare at me with a frown on his face. I almost felt sorry for those dreadful White Walkers. How terrible for that frown to be the last thing some of them saw!”

Shireen let out a very not-terrifying giggle at Wylla’s words. It was relaxing, in a way, to be able to laugh about such serious things with another lady her age. She wondered if this was what it was like to have a sister. Wylla skipped over and looped arms with Shireen.

“If you had to stand in front of a septon today and say your marriage vows, which man would you choose to stand next to you?”

Shireen widened her eyes. “I don’t know. The matter is very complicated, for…”

“Don’t think about politics or something else wretched like that. Think about who you personally like, someone who’s always been very kind to you. Do any men come to mind? I quite liked Prince Trystane, though he did lose spectacularly to you at cyvasse.”

“I’m surprised you noticed that with all the lovesick smiles you sent his way.”

“I did not!”

“He’s to be the ruler of Dorne one day,” Shireen replied, “after his older brother and sister died gruesome deaths trying to get real and pretender Targaryens to marry them. I’d rather my future husband rule with me without distractions from great lands of his own.”

“So do any men come to mind?” repeated Wylla.

Kindness…Ser Davos is already happily married, thought Shireen, but she knew that he wasn’t the type of man Wylla was trying to get her to think about. She fingered the recent letter from the Wall in her sleeve. Jon Snow has always been very kind to me, and I believe his kindness to be genuine.

“Perhaps.”

Wylla’s eyes brightened. “Then approach your father and state your position, explaining the advantages and disadvantages of the match just like all those laws you discuss during Small Council meetings. If you do it right, he’ll agree and commend you for finding a logical solution to the problem.”

~

Many days later, after reading through all the letters Jon Snow had ever sent and thinking back to all her time at the Wall, Shireen visited father in his solar after the evening meal. Father was reading a ponderous book with brittle parchment, a goblet of lemon water within reach of his right hand. Occasionally his eyes would stray from the inked words to the southeast-facing window—where Storm’s End lay in the far distance.

Father bid Shireen to enter. She took a seat across from him, neatly folding her hands.

“What brings you here, Shireen?”

Shireen took a deep breath and met father’s deep blue eyes with her own. “I’ve decided upon a suitable prospect for my hand in marriage, and I wish for your permission to pursue him.”

Father closed his book and took a sip of lemon water, steepling his fingers together. “Go on.”

“You said earlier that it would be negligent to marry a man similar to King Robert. I agree, for King Robert was a poor ruler even if he had the charisma and strength to rally men to him on the battlefield. I propose marrying a man like you instead.”

“The Targaryens and Lannisters didn’t blink an eye at incest, but the Baratheons certainly do. If you have your sights set on me I will have to disappoint you.”

Shireen wondered if her father was trying to make a jest. It was always hard to tell. She continued speaking: “The man I have in mind is the second son of a great lord who has been educated by knights and maesters of the Citadel alike. He’s neither expected to inherit power nor sought it, yet he’s handled it well when it was thrust upon him. He knows how to lead armies and make alliances with groups of peoples that are used to killing each other.”

“Is that all?”

That’s more than I can say of most men. “You like and respect him.”

“I like him?” answered father with an incredulous expression.

Yes, father, the whole realm knows that you tolerate few people and like even less of them. But it’s not a weakness to have a few cracks in your stern armor. Truly, the fact that father seemed to genuinely like and respect Jon was one of the key reasons why Shireen thought that a match might succeed between them, as father’s approval meant a lot to her. Jon never tried to ingratiate himself to father with false words and flattery, instead telling him the truth whether he liked it or not. He was instrumental in helping father take the North back from the Boltons, and together he and father had worked together to get the White Walkers to disappear for the time being. If Jon worked well with father then, perhaps he’ll work well with father and me now. “And you always speak highly of him when the opportunity presents itself.”

“Who, then?” The expression on father’s face hadn’t changed.

You haven’t already guessed?

“Jon Snow.”

A long silence followed.

Shireen expected father to eventually frown, or perhaps to frown as he fixed her with a long stare. But Shireen had not expected her father to laugh. Granted, there was no mirth in the laugh, but King Stannis Baratheon laughed until he was out of breath, standing up and walking around the room to calm himself.

“I am not Patchface, father. Surely what I said was not terribly amusing,” said Shireen in a hard voice.

Father walked back to his desk and downed his goblet of lemon water in one gulp. “Lord Snow will never leave that Wall of his. He’s married to his Night’s Watch vows, and he likely says them every day like some men do their prayers.”

Shireen was prepared for that challenge. “His vows don’t apply anymore. He already gave his life to the Night’s Watch, and there’s no law that says he needs to keep faith with an oath once it’s fulfilled.” Shireen had seen Jon get stabbed to death from her tiny window in the King’s Tower, along with the bloody fight that followed. She had never seen men die before, outside of a formal execution that father commanded her to attend. Mother tried to shield her from the window, all while screaming hysterically. But Shireen wouldn’t move, and she was there to see Jon miraculously walk out of his own funeral pyre.

Father started to laugh again, and Shireen was increasingly disturbed by the sound. “I told him myself that he wouldn’t be an oathbreaker if he left the Wall, but my words were wind. He stubbornly refused the lordship of Winterfell no matter how many times I offered it to him, and he also refused my generous offer to be the Lord Commander of my Kingsguard. All because of those damn vows of his.”

Shireen raised her eyebrows. “I’m sure there was more to it than that.”

Now father frowned like Shireen expected him to. “I can’t logically fault Lord Snow for the decisions that he made. His trueborn siblings are now ruling Winterfell, and he had no desire then or now to usurp their rights. The Wall would have fallen with the first onslaught of the White Walkers if it hadn’t been for his leadership, and the entire realm has benefitted. But the fact of the matter is that Lord Snow refused to leave the Wall for things that he desired his whole life. I saw in his eyes that he wanted Winterfell and the Stark name. What can you possibly give him that I can’t?”

So father’s reaction partially has to do with pride. He can’t accept that Jon refused him not once but multiple times, and for reasons that he can’t argue with on top of that.

“I can give him a son,” said Shireen softly.

“Shireen,” her father began. Shireen purposely averted her eyes, and she wished she could block out the pity present in her father’s voice.

“That’s one of the few things a woman can do that a man can’t.”

Father didn’t quite know how to respond to that, and he took time in pouring himself another glass of lemon water.

“Marriage isn’t always blessed with the children that parents hope for.”

Shireen twisted her hands in her skirts. “I know, and that’s why I’m set to be the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, isn’t it? I have no brother to do that duty for me, no brother to marry and continue the Baratheon line.”

Father didn’t seem surprised by the bitterness in her voice. He sighed, studying her much like he had studied her a few days ago on the Iron Throne. “I’m the king in part because both my brothers failed to do their duty. Despite what has happened or what could have happened, I don’t regret that you’re my heir.”

Shireen looked up, but father was now busy shifting stacks of parchment around on his desk.

“We will leave for the Wall when I can collect the farming equipment that Lord Snow requested. The dungeons will need to emptied as well, and I’m sure that the dragonglass mines on Dragonstone will have a new shipment of frozen fire ready to be sent north.”

Shireen blinked. “The Wall?”

“Have you changed your mind about pursuing Jon Snow?”

“But I thought…”

“That I didn’t approve of your choice? On the contrary. I don’t have any objection to most of the points you brought up, and if his pride allows him to take the Stark name my lords should be appeased. But I want you to be prepared for the very real possibility that Lord Snow will refuse you outright.”

“Of course, father,” replied Shireen. If she was different, and if he would’ve allowed it, Shireen would’ve jumped up and hugged father. Instead, she contented herself with a small grin.

“We already have a legitimate pretence to travel to the Wall, but once we arrive at Castle Black I wash my hands of the matter. It’s up to you to woo, bat your eyelashes at, or do whatever maidens do to make men fall under their spell. If you want him to lie in your bed, you’re going to have to be the one to make it first.”

~

Before leaving for the Wall, Shireen discussed the prospect of marrying Jon Snow with the two other people whose opinions mattered the most to her: Mother and Davos. Both would be staying behind in King’s Landing, the latter to sit the Iron Throne doing his duty as the King’s Hand and the former for more personal reasons.

“I’ve had enough of the Wall for a lifetime,” said mother. “The accommodations were dreary, the men uncouth, and there was too much snow and ice.”

“Not everything at the Wall is ice and snow,” reasoned Shireen. “We just had the misfortune of being there during the worst winter in living memory. The Gift and the New Gift are being farmed now, and even north of the Wall spring wildflowers are growing.”

Mother shuddered, likely remembering the cold and horrors that she never wished to discuss—including Melisandre’s end. Mother had since given up worship of R’hllor, devoting much of her waking hours to worshiping the Seven and overseeing the construction of a sept to replace the Great Sept of Baelor. Though father believed in the Seven as much as he did in the songs, he let his wife do as she will. The smallfolk now held their pious queen in high esteem, finding her more generous than Queen Cersei had ever been. As well, Queen Cersei’s decision to destroy the Great Sept had made her memory as loved as that as Mad King Aerys.

Shireen waited for mother to reply, idly flipping through one of the copies of The Seven Pointed Star that mother always had near her.

“You don’t approve of Jon Snow,” Shireen said eventually.

“I don’t.”

“Father does.”

“I know he does,” mother replied. “I’ve already shared my views, and he listened patiently, grinding his teeth the entire time. He disagreed with me, of course, informing me that none of my concerns were serious enough to stop his and your journey to the Wall.”

“What are your concerns?”

“You are the future queen of Westeros. It will reflect badly upon you to have a bastard at your side, let alone one who has returned from the dead and walks at night as a monstrous beast.”

Father had only mentioned Jon’s bastard status in passing, it not being an issue for him. Of course, for a king who made a former criminal his Hand and another bastard the Lord Commander of his Kingsguard, that was not surprising. “If Jon’s at my side he’ll be a Stark of Winterfell with the support of the North.”

“That’s what your father thinks, at any rate. But what about all the malicious whispers that will follow you for the rest of your life? And the lives of your children, if you’re blessed with any? You will have a hard time as queen regardless, and having the undead Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch with you—whatever name he goes by—is only going to compound your problems. His father was beloved in the North, but when Ned Stark came south to be Hand of the King he came to his death because he didn’t know how to deal with the royal court.”

Shireen frowned. “Court is very different now that it’s not controlled by Robert Baratheon and Cersei Lannister. You have to take that into account.”

Mother sniffed. “It’s well known that he took a wildling wife once. How do you know that he doesn’t have a string of mistresses and bastards north of the Wall?”

“Everyone knows that he broke his vows when he spied on the wildlings for the Night’s Watch. As for the rest…” Shireen didn’t know that much about Jon’s personal affairs. He didn’t strike her as the type of man to do such a thing. “If he has as many bastards as King Robert, there have been absolutely no rumors about it. He takes his Night’s Watch vows seriously, too seriously according to father.”

Mother sniffed again. “I have already selected a couple trustworthy ladies of mine to accompany you to the Wall, and your things are presently being packed. Be sure to always wear your cloth-of-gold cloak or your gold crown so everyone will know that you’re the princess of the realm. I will be praying for you.”

“Do I have your blessing as well?”

Mother stilled, her eyes hard.

Shireen could do nothing more but sigh. “You dislike him for the same reasons that you dislike Lord Davos. That’s the heart of it, isn’t it?”

“If I was able to give your father a son, perhaps he never would’ve given a second glance toward Jon Snow.”

That answer took Shireen by surprise, and for a moment she pitied both of her parents and the cold marriage they both had to endure. Mother and father are trying to help me avoid that, in their own ways. Mother things a highborn young man with good court connections is the best thing for me, though that didn’t make her life any happier. “I’m father’s heir, and nothing short of my death is going to change that.”

In comparison, Davos was much warmer than mother. Shireen could already tell by the hug that he gave her and how he patted her head like she was still a little girl.

“Has father told you our real purpose in travelling to the Wall?”

Davos’ mouth twitched. “He hasn’t yelled at Jon Snow in a long while. At least to his face.”

“Did he really say that?” wondered Shireen.

“No, princess, he didn’t,” said Davos, chuckling. “But I’m sure he’ll find a way to work it in to his visit. To answer your question, His Grace did tell me about the sensitive matter of state that you and you alone will discuss with Lord Snow. The rest of the Small Council or anyone else have no need to know just yet.”

Shireen was very glad that father had allowed her that measure of privacy. “What do you think of the ‘matter of state’ that I’m to discuss?”

“I’m but a common man who understands little about how highborn nobles arrange their marriages. I married for love, though I haven’t been as good a husband to Marya as I know I could’ve been.”

Shireen was surprised to hear that. Seeing Davos and Marya together affirmed to Shireen that true love could exist, something that her parents had never found. Or will likely ever find. “But you’re the Hand of the King! Surely she’s not wanting for anything?”

“She’s wanted for me for too many years, and I still wonder if she blames me for the death of our four eldest sons.” Davos closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to focus on the present instead of old wounds that would never heal. “As to what I think of Jon? I don’t know him half as well as your father. He’s a very serious young man, though and I can’t say how much of that comes naturally or was a result of being murdered.”

“Mother is most offended by his surname, even if father legitimizes him as a Stark.”

Davos shook his head. “Snow versus Stark shouldn’t matter to you. What should matter is how he treats you. Has he been kind to you?”

“He always has.”

“How do you know that it’s genuine?”

“I’ve met enough fools and flatterers to be able to tell the difference.” At least I hope I have. “He didn’t have to go out of his way to write to me for all these years.”

“Perhaps he was just being polite, knowing that offending you would be akin to offending the king.”

“He doesn’t care about offending father, at least not when he has good reasoning behind his actions.” Shireen bit her lip. “Perhaps Jon is just being polite. But I’ll never know if I don’t go to the Wall and ask him myself.”

Davos gave an approving nod. “That’s the way to think about it, Shireen. Warn me beforehand if I’m to plan a wedding upon your return to King’s Landing. Our extravagant king would likely wish to forgo such an occasion, but the lords and smallfolk will be pleased. Not to mention that you deserve to have a happy wedding to the man of your choice.”

Chapter Text

Jon Snow closed his eyes and took a sip of mulled wine, letting the warmth of the drink flow through him before tucking into the breakfast recently brought to him by his steward. Breakfast had also included a large aurochs bone for Ghost, who was presently ignoring it to let his master scratch behind his ears. Despite the coming summer, the Wall still wasn’t warm, and Jon wondered if he would ever wake up not feeling cold.

Only death is cold.

A knock on the door to his solar caused Mormont’s raven to squawk and beat its wings. “Corn, corn!

“You always have plenty of corn, and don’t you dare steal any of my bacon!” Jon growled at the bird. “Who’s there?”

“It’s Sam, my lord.”

Jon immediately stood up and strode over to open his door. He couldn’t stop a grin from tugging at his mouth, especially when Sam grinned back. Really, it was Maester Sam now, and Jon didn’t know anyone more deserving of the title. It had been a year since Sam had returned from the Citadel, his long chain complete. Sam had done well for himself, just like Jon had expected he would. When asked if he would’ve liked to have stayed at the Citadel and become a scholar, Sam replied that while such a thing was tempting, he wouldn’t be able to help people unless he could actually apply all the knowledge that he’d so diligently learned. Oldtown had largely been untouched by the wars, save for some raids by the Ironborn. Jon was very glad that his friend hadn’t had to suffer any more horrors than those from Lord Mormont’s last ranging.

“A raven for you, my lord,” said Sam, reaching to his belt and pulling out a small roll of parchment. “I think this one will make you smile.”

“Is it from Winterfell?”

“Further south.”

“Where I’m acquainted with a great many people and like even more of them.”

Sam handed over the message. “Just be glad that you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting my father. Lord Randyll makes King Stannis look jovial.”

Jon did smile as he broke a golden seal with the impression of a stag. He recognized the hand that wrote his name, even though it was nearly identical to her father’s.

Lord Commander Jon Snow,

My father has agreed to honor the Night’s Watch’s request for more farming equipment. Ploughshares, hoes, shovels, scythes, and all of the items that you listed are presently being collected, along with more dragonglass from Dragonstone. As well, the dungeons yielded some men who practiced trades like blacksmithing and carpentry before they turned to crime. They will be of good use for the Wall.

Father and I will personally be travelling north to insure the safe delivery of the cargo. We have some important matters of state to discuss with you, and when there is time I do hope to see these new glass gardens of yours. Hopefully Ghost will not think me a thief if I disturb his naps! Additionally, I would like to see some of the lands in the Gift. It’s hard to get the image of a snow-covered wilderness out of my mind.

A raven will be sent when we are closer to the Wall so you will have sufficient time to prepare for our arrival.

Until then,
Shireen Baratheon, Princess of Storm’s End and Crown Princess of Westeros

“What does our fair princess want of the Wolf of the Wall?” asked Sam.

“Don’t mock her.” Talk of Shireen’s beauty—or lack of it, to be more precise—had reached as far as the Wall, and the rumors also spoke of how Shireen was growing up be as stern and unyielding as the king. Jon didn’t quite believe them, but he wouldn’t put anything past the daughter of Stannis Baratheon.

“That was not my intent,” countered Sam. “I’ve found her to be very kind when her face isn’t as hard as her father’s. If history remembers her as Fair Queen Shireen Baratheon it will be for the same reasons that King Stannis is beginning to be known as ‘The Just.’ ”

Jon made sure that Sam kept his face straight before replying. “To answer your question, the fair princess and Just King Stannis are travelling here to the Wall. Stannis apparently thought my request for farming equipment was sensible, so that will be traveling here as well. I’m mildly surprised that I don’t have to haggle with him this time.” He handed the message over to Sam who read it thoughtfully.

“Do you have any idea what ‘matters of state’ they wish to speak to you about?”

Jon shrugged. “No idea, but it’s not like I couldn’t come up with a lengthy list if I set my mind to it. The realm is still slowly recovering from winter and the White Walkers, and if the Wall hadn’t held strong there’d be no one left in Westeros. The coming summer will change our fortunes for the better, gods willing, but there’s still much work to do. Both at the Wall and in King’s Landing.”

Another squawk turned Jon’s attention to his breakfast, where the raven had not only devoured all the bacon but had finished off the sausages as well.”

“You’re welcome to eat that menace any time,” Jon said to Ghost, who just cocked his head in return.

Giving up breakfast as a lost cause, Jon reached for his black cloak and threw it over his shoulders, then belted Longclaw around his waist. He’d grown tall enough to not have to wear the sword across his back anymore, something that he was dully grateful for—only heroes like Azor Ahai could easily draw a sword from that position. Ghost and Sam followed Jon out of his chambers in the Lord Commander’s Tower, and when he stepped out of the tower into Castle Black’s courtyard more guards joined them. Jon always had guards around him, and not because he was paranoid that he’d get stabbed in the back. Again. Enough brothers of the Night’s Watch believed that Jon was some undead wight or White Walker, and they wanted to protect their own skins. Multiple times a day Jon’s brothers would look into his eyes to make sure that they were grey instead of blue, and depending on his mood there were days where Jon refused to make eye contact with anyone out of spite.

Jon observed archery practice for a time, asking Ulmer about the progress of the new recruits and the making of more dragonglass arrows. He took the winch cage to the top of the Wall, talking to the night guard about his shift and reminding the day guards to keep the ice well-graveled and to make sure that all the defensive equipment was in good working order. Back in the courtyard Jon exchanged his cloak for mail and a helmet, sparring with Leathers for a time and anyone else who wanted a go at him. Naturally, Jon showed as much mercy in a practice fight as Bowen Marsh had in real life. If only I could’ve taken Marsh’s head myself, along with Wick Whittlestick’s and my other assassins. The wildlings had taken care of them, though, denying Jon the same justice he gave to Janos Slynt.

Then it was time to trek up to the maester’s tower to share a warm drink with Sam and inquire about any ravens that had arrived. In the years since Jon had sent the White Walkers and their thralls back to whatever frozen hell that they came from with the help of Stannis Baratheon and Daenerys Targaryen, Jon had gained enough men to station most of the castles along the Wall. Many of the castles were commanded by loyal brothers of the Night’s Watch, some by wildlings, and some by exiled lords who had decided to take the black rather than face King Stannis’ justice. Mace Tyrell was one of those lords. Stannis said the former Lord of Highgarden had a talent for sieges, so Jon decided to set him to rebuilding castles for a change, giving him the task to make Greyguard inhabitable.

“Any petitioners for me today, Sam?”

“Just ones that can’t talk back,” said Sam calmly, pointing to a small pile of parchment sealed with black wax. Jon spied Ser Denys Mallister’s elegant handwriting. Since literate men were still in short supply, the different garrisons often sent men in person. As well, the wildlings and other folk of the Gift and New Gift occasionally had urgent matters to discuss with him.

“I’m sure you’d like a visit from the Lady of Queenscrown,” added Sam innocently.

Jon’s eyes only hardened. “I would not, and the feeling is mutual.”

“What happened between you two? Did you call Val a wilding princess one too many times?”

Ghost started to silently snarl, causing Sam to flit his eyes between the direwolf and Jon. “I won’t ask again, my lord.”

Jon took a breath to calm himself, reaching out to Ghost to calm down too. I can’t lose my temper like that around Sam. He always means well, unlike…others. Before he’d walked out of his own funeral pyre, Jon had truly thought that he’d gone mad, as he was temporarily trapped inside of Ghost. Since then, he’d embraced the wolf part of him like Melisandre had once suggested. Slipping into Ghost’s skin was often a relief from all of the troubling thoughts that constantly plagued him, and the weight of the Wall disappeared when he raced through the forest on the scent of some prey. All the rumors of me walking at night as a monstrous beast are true, and there’s no sense in not using them to my advantage. Once, Jon caught a steward complaining that keeping the fires in the Lord Commander’s chambers was a waste, as dead men didn’t need fires. Ghost promptly chased the poor steward around and around Castle Black’s courtyard until he slipped and soiled his breeches from fear. “Dead men might not need fires, but direwolves definitely do,” Jon had announced to all who were watching, and that scene had a similar effect as the first beheading he had carried out. As an added benefit, the fires in his chambers never went out.

~

I was Cotter Pyke who first informed Jon via raven that King Stannis and Princess Shireen had arrived at the Wall:

Lord Snow,

His Grace King Stannis Baratheon, First of His Name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm has arrived at the Wall, and he was kind enough to remind me of all of his titles. His daughter is with him, and she wears the same severe frown. Thankfully, the mustached queen was left behind. She’s a thoroughly unpleasant woman, and after her I’d hate to know what Queen Cersei Lannister was like.

Multiple ships filled with supplies arrived with the king, along with more recruits for the Night’s Watch and settlers for the Gift and New Gift. I don’t think those settlers realize how bad winter can get here, or else they’d have forgone the offer of free land. Overall I’m astounded by the king’s generosity. Lord Mormont could never squeeze anything from King Robert, who was known for being open-handed. Whatever dark arts you’re using from the land of the dead, keep using them.

I am sending an escort with the king and princess to Castle Black, though with three Kingsguard knights in their party I don’t know who would be fool enough to attack them.

Shireen’s promised raven, which arrived a day after the one from the commander of Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, was much shorter but also much more pleasant:

Lord Commander Jon Snow,

Our journey by sea from King’s Landing to Eastwatch was uneventful. I haven’t seen father so relaxed in a long time, and he looks at home on a ship. Perhaps that’s why he and Lord Davos get along so well. If we make good time, Cotter Pyke expects us to reach Castle Black in four to five days.

Until then,
Shireen Baratheon, Princess of Storm’s End and Crown Princess of Westeros

Jon directed Dolorous Edd, who served as First Steward, to see that the King’s Tower was made fit for habitation immediately. He had no doubt that Stannis and Shireen would be there as fast as Cotter Pyke predicted, as the road connecting all the castles on the Wall was dutifully maintained. At sunset on the fourth day, as Jon was getting to retire to his solar for the evening meal, Ghost suddenly jumped up and tugged at Jon’s cloak. Jon momentarily closed his eyes, hearing the sounds of many horses and carts approaching the castle and smelling a host of unfamiliar smells. In no time Jon was in Castle Black’s courtyard, shouting orders and gathering his officers toward him. While Stannis didn’t care about pageantry and grand welcomes, Jon knew that if the king wasn’t greeted by an orderly and respectful garrison he’d take insult. And be insufferable for longer than usual.

Stannis and Shireen were the first of their party to ride into the courtyard, their cloth-of-gold cloaks fluttering behind them. They were followed by the three Kingsguard knights that Cotter Pyke had warned about, and Jon recognized Ser Rolland Storm, Ser Andrew Estermont, and a Vale knight who he couldn’t remember the name of. After they dismounted, Jon stepped forward and took a knee, signaling for his officers to do the same. Even Ghost sat and respectfully lowered his snout.

“Your Grace, Princess,” began Jon, bowing his head. “As Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, I welcome you to Castle Black. The castle is yours for however long you wish, and we are honored by your visit and your generosity.”

The grinding of teeth was the first sound to reach Jon’s ears. “Rise, Lord Snow. Everyone says that they’re honored when I visit them. But you’re one of the few who might actually be telling the truth.”

Jon stood and straightened his cloak. Stannis was staring straight at him, arms crossed and mouth set in a thin line. He continued his cordial greeting: “And lest you have other ideas, I will remind you that my daughter and I are not here to visit. There are matters important to the future of the realm to discuss.”

“Of course, Your Grace.”

Jon looked at Shireen, who also had her arms crossed. However, there was a small smile on her face, proving that she could be just like her father and also worlds away at the same time. Jon smiled back, but that smile quickly turned into a shout.

“Ghost, no!”

Ghost had decided that he too wanted to greet the rulers of the realm, padding over to Shireen and nudging at her hip. Jon would’ve lunged after his wolf if every eye in the courtyard wasn’t on him. What a way to start this visit, whatever Stannis wants to call it. Thankfully, Ghost didn’t do anything more other than give one of Shireen’s hands a lick.

“It’s quite alright,” replied Shireen, ruffling the white fur on Ghost’s head and scratching behind his ears. “I’d forgotten how friendly he is.”

Just ask the steward who insulted me, or any of the wights who tried to kill me. “He must deem you trustworthy. That isn’t to be taken lightly.”

Stannis narrowed his eyes at Ghost, but he didn’t have anything critical to say.

“My brothers have lodging prepared for your men, Your Grace, and the King’s Tower should be more comfortable than when you stayed in it last. You are welcome to join me in my chambers for the evening meal, but I would understand if you would rather rest from your long journey by both land and sea.”

Stannis and Shireen looked at each other, Stannis nodding at his daughter to speak first.

“I am rather exhausted, Lord Snow, so I will not be joining you tonight. However, I would appreciate it if you would show me the sunrise tomorrow. I hear that it’s a sight to be seen from the top of the Wall, with the ice turning a wide range of colors.”

Jon’s eyebrows rose. It was an unusual request, but not unreasonable. The Wall is one of the wonders of Westeros, and not enough people take the time to marvel at it. “Meet me by the winch cage before dawn, and if there are no clouds I can guarantee you a sight you’ll not soon forget.”

Stannis snorted, and Shireen’s eyes flashed as they turned to look back at her father. In return, Stannis spread his hands as if he was conceding something. Jon wondered at the gesture.

“Unlike my daughter, I will be joining you tonight,” said Stannis. “I would like a brief update on the condition of the Wall, and there is no time like the present.”

“I will await you in my solar.” Jon bowed his head once again.

~

Jon felt as comfortable in his chambers in the Lord Commander’s Tower as he ever had anywhere. He’d had the interior woodwork restored, and Jon liked to think that Lord Mormont would be impressed and commend him for rebuilding what Jon had once destroyed. And Lord Mormont never slept behind doors embedded with sharp dragonglass spikes, either. When Satin announced to him that King Stannis was without, Jon bade Ghost to either curl up on his bed or hunt. While Stannis might not object to Ghost’s presence, Jon knew discussing matters with a massive direwolf at his feet was akin to having naked steel across his lap. He had no need to threaten Stannis, and he trusted the man enough not to draw steel against him.

Ghost decided to hunt.

Stannis entered and removed his cloak, draping it over the back of the chair in front of Jon’s desk. A steward followed him in, arms laden with generous portions of a bean and bacon stew and black bread. A goblet of mulled wine was poured for Jon, a goblet of lemon water for the king. Stannis sniffed approvingly at the lemon water before taking a long drink.

“So the Wall has found some lemons after all.”

“We still have a few left from a shipment from Braavos, and you’d be amazed to learn how long fresh fruit keeps whilst ensconced in the ice.”

If Stannis found that fact interesting, he didn’t show it. “On the morrow one of my clerks will deliver a list of all the goods delivered to the Night’s Watch from King’s Landing. Among those are multiple crates of limes from Dorne.”

“Limes?”

“One of the Dornish lords thought to pay taxes in limes instead of lemons, which I did not find satisfactory. The fruits are not the same thing. Regardless, I did not want the limes to go to waste.”

Jon couldn’t remember if he’d ever tasted a lime. “Nothing ever goes to waste on the Wall. Not even treasonous former lords.”

Stannis’ mouth twitched. “How is Mace Tyrell adapting to life at the Wall, if I may ask?”

“I gave him the same command I offered to Janos Slynt. Wisely, he didn’t refuse. The new commander of Greyguard recently informed me that he will be unable to pay his respects to Your Merciful Grace during your time at the Wall, as the castle restoration still requires his undivided attention.”

Stannis’ mouth twitched again. “I expected nothing less. If the man hadn’t nearly starved me to death and supported a whole string of usurpers, perhaps he’d still be ruling Highgarden. No one can ever say that I wasn’t merciful by allowing him to take the black instead of my taking his head.”

“You were merciful and just,” replied Jon.

“Are you mocking me?” asked Stannis, breaking off a piece of black bread and letting it soak in the stew.

“No, Your Grace,” said Jon. “My father was much the same, and I hope that I can be at least half the man that he was.”

Stannis recognized that as a compliment, but the mention of Lord Eddard Stark still caused him to frown. “You mentioned Braavos,” he stated, changing the topic. “How close is the Night’s Watch to paying off its loan from the Iron Bank? Surely you’re still not importing food from across the Narrow Sea?”

“The Night’s Watch hasn’t purchased goods using the Iron Bank’s gold since winter turned to spring. Still, our debt is not something that we take lightly…” Jon stood up and slid a ledger off a nearby shelf. He pushed his tray of food aside, laying the ledger out on his desk and showing it to Stannis. The original parchment with terms that Jon and the banker Tycho Nestoris had drawn up was there, as well as documentations of payments made from both sides. Stannis studied all of it with great interest.

“Surely you could’ve argued for better terms,” commented Stannis, scratching his beard.

Jon took a sip of mulled wine. “It was a battle to get the Iron Bank to agree to any terms at all. A banker came to the Wall looking for you, and I was simply in the way. However, a little blackmail was of great use, for unless the Iron Bank agreed to give the Night’s Watch a loan, the Night’s Watch wouldn’t have helped them find the rightful king of Westeros.”

“And Ned Stark would’ve found blackmail honorable?”

Honor has its costs, as Lord Eddard learned to his sorrow, Stannis had once said to him. “I do not know if honor had anything to do with my father’s death, beyond him feeling compelled to go to King’s Landing and become Hand of the King.” Jon closed his eyes, wondering how his father would’ve dealt with the Iron Bank had he been the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. He also wanted to snap at Stannis for mentioning father when it clearly wasn’t necessary. “But from my experience, I’ve learned that politics is all about compromise. Blackmail was simply a tool at my disposal to make that happen, and thousands of lives ended up being saved.”

Stannis nodded, closing the ledger and handing it back to Jon. For the rest of the evening and well into the dark of the night, Stannis questioned Jon extensively about the Wall—how it was being managed, its defenses, its supplies, its many garrisons, even its small fleet of ships stationed at Eastwatch. Then there was the Gift and New Gift, settled by wildlings and smallfolk from all corners of Westeros. Jon was able to meet each question with hard facts, giving Stannis the details and truth that he expected. There was no need to hide anything, and Jon had already been very thorough with his correspondence to the Crown over the years. Overall, Stannis seemed rather pleased, though of course he never went so far to say that out loud. Jon had forgotten how much he liked talking with Stannis, and while they would never have the same friendship and familiarity that existed between him and Sam, they were as close to equals as either of them would ever find. Even if Stannis tended to be overly critical and provoke Jon more often than he wished, they held similar views on many matters. Stannis believed in the White Walkers from the start, and he also had faith that I never had and never would turn my cloak.

“Why have you been writing to my daughter?” asked Stannis suddenly just at Jon was stifling a yawn.

“What?” Jon was caught off guard, but upon seeing Stannis’ serious expression he quickly regained his focus. “She asked it of me.”

“She asked it of you? Is that all?”

Jon stared at him. “I apologize if you somehow think I’m leading her on like Florian the Fool. But then again, if you did think that I doubt you’d have let our correspondence continue.”

Stannis didn’t have a quick response at the ready, instead choosing to study Jon with a look that Jon had never seen from him and thus couldn’t place. The more I think about it, he’s been looking at me strangely all evening. I’ve just been too distracted by our conversation to notice. Jon was beginning to feel uncomfortable.

“Your Grace?”

“It has been good for her to correspond with someone close to her age and station,” said Stannis at last. He stood up. “I must return to my chambers, and I do hope that you won’t keep my daughter waiting in the morning.”

~

Shireen was waiting at the winch cage when Jon approached, Ser Rolland a white shadow behind her. Jon had his own white shadow, but apart from Ghost two black brothers also followed him. To make sure I don’t turn into a wight before the sun comes up, most likely. At least Stannis and Shireen aren’t visibly bothered by my death. Stannis had once remarked that Jon staying dead would’ve been a great inconvenience, to which Jon could only respond in kind.

Shireen was wearing her cloth-of-gold cloak over a black dress that was plain save for gold stitching on the bodice. Her black hair was pulled back in a long braid, a style that unfortunately did nothing to hide the dead, cracked, grey skin left behind from her bout with greyscale. Ghost immediately greeted her, and he wagged his long tail as his neck was scratched.

“I trust you slept well, Princess?”

Shireen gave a nod, turning and addressing her Kingsguard knight. “There is no need to accompany me, Ser Rolland. I’ll be perfectly safe with Lord Snow and his direwolf.”

Ser Rolland placed a hand on the sword at his waist. “Would your father approve of that?”

Shireen smiled serenely. “If Lord Snow threatens my virtue, my father will have his head on a spike forthwith.”

Jon burst out laughing, to the startled looks of Shireen and Ser Rolland. “Forgive me, Princess,” Jon began, once he’d gotten control of himself. “I am not laughing at you. It’s simply that your words and manner remind me very much of your father. During one of our first conversations as king and Lord Commander, he threatened to behead me twice, and since then I knew that he was fond of me.”

“Aye, many say that I’m much like father, though that isn’t always a compliment.”

Jon couldn’t tell if Shireen was genuinely offended or simply stating a fact. “As I said before, forgive me if any of my words cause offense. I stayed up quite late into the night speaking to your father, so he’s very much on my mind right now.”

Shireen’s smile stayed put. “My threat still stands, and I’m sure father would have beheaded you if given good reason.”

“I do have an interest in keeping my head. I don’t think I’ll be coming back the next time I die, and…” Jon suddenly stilled, opening and closing his sword hand as a barrage of gruesome memories assaulted him. If there’s a life beyond this I never saw it. As my life’s blood spilled on the snow I just saw chaos from Ghost’s red eyes. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes, not remembering when he had closed them. Ghost was at his side again, and Jon placed a hand on his wolf’s head to steady himself. Don’t think about death, don’t think about the cold.

Shireen was looking curiously at him. “You were escorting me to the top of the Wall, Lord Snow?”

“Of course, Princess,” replied Jon, rather grateful for her question. He held out his arm and led her inside the winch cage, signaling for it to be raised. They said nothing as it slowly climbed higher and higher, the air growing colder and thinner. And more silent. After the few watchers on the Wall hastily bowed to them, Jon walked east until they were truly alone. The stars were beginning to disappear as the sky slowly lightened.

Shireen was fascinated by the view already, taking equal time to study the lands north and south of the Wall. Ghost made sure that she didn’t get too close to the edge.

“It feels very peaceful up here,” she commented.

Jon agreed. “Many times I come up here alone simply for that reason.”

“You even leave your wolf behind?”

“Ghost doesn’t count.” Ghost is a part of me.

“I feel most at peace when I’m on the shore, staring out to the sea. All sounds disappear save for the crash of the waves.”

The sky took on a pinkish hue, and the horizon became brighter with each passing moment.

“Are you happy as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch?”

Happiness was not something Jon had often felt since deciding to join the Night’s Watch. There were fleeting moments of it, to be sure, such as sharing that ice cave with Ygritte and being tackled by Shaggydog when he was reunited with his little brother Rickon and sister Sansa.

“I am content here. My brothers chose me for that honor, and all I can do is do my duty the best I can.”

“Would you have chosen that honor for yourself, knowing now what it entails?”

Sam really did play a cruel jape on me when he made me Lord Commander. But not everything has been bad. As Lord Commander Jon had been able to help thousands of people survive winter and survive monsters that would never rise again, gods willing. But the position was also a great weight, knowing that his decisions had the power for ill as much as good. And it had also gotten him killed. A double edged-sword in every respect. “I can’t answer that, Princess. Would you have chosen to be the heir to the Iron Throne, knowing what it entails?”

Shireen seemed amused by that question. “Rarely do we get to choose our duties. Though I wish that sometimes I could make the great weight of being the heir to the Iron Throne disappear.”

“I don’t know how to do that. I don’t think anyone does.”

Shireen tucked a loose strand of hair behind an ear, looking thoughtful. “Do you know the most important reason why I travelled here to the Wall?”

Jon shook his head, interested. He hadn’t asked Stannis directly last night, knowing that such a thing would be revealed in due time. “I’ve ruled out you paying me a visit for the sake of it, at least.”

“I admire you, Jon Snow. You know how to fight, but most importantly you know how to lead and understand the serious responsibility that comes with command.”

“I….” Jon didn’t understand the direction that Shireen was taking the conversation. “What does that have to do with the ‘important matters of state’ that you mentioned in one of your last letters?”

Shireen tilted her head, coming to stand as close to Jon as propriety allowed. “Everything. Westeros needs more men like you, men who care more for its safely then their own personal power. You’ve also been very kind to me, and even if you haven’t been genuine I still consider you a friend.”

“I still don’t….”

“Jon Snow, son of Eddard Stark and Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch,” said Shireen resolutely, meeting his eyes with her dark blue ones, “I ask for your hand in marriage.”

Whatever silence there was to be found at the top of the Wall had now become deafening.

I ask for your hand in marriage.

Jon’s eyes widened. He opened his mouth and shut it, not being able to think of anything coherent. He was immediately brought back to another conversation on top of the Wall, a conversation when another Baratheon was prepared to give Jon everything he had ever dreamed of. Bend your knee, lay your sword at my feet, and pledge yourself to my service, and you shall rise again as Jon Stark, the Lord of Winterfell. He knew that Shireen would marry someday, and someday soon given her age, but he had never discussed it fearing that an arranged marriage would be a sore topic given how warm her parents’ marriage was. But to suddenly ask him like it was no matter at all? Men have fought and died trying to sit the Iron Throne, or else to sit their children on it.

“My vows…” finally stammered Jon.

“Have already been fulfilled, with hundreds of people as witnesses—including myself.”

“But I’m bastard born, and I have nothing to bring to such a marriage besides…”

“Besides yourself? You have a Valyrian steel sword and a direwolf. And you not being the son of Catelyn Tully is a minor obstacle to overcome, as any son of Eddard Stark has godlike status in the North. Father will legitimize you as a Stark if you marry me, and I doubt that the Northern lords will object to the brother of their lord marrying their future queen.”

“Half my Night’s Watch brothers think I’m going to transform into a White Walker any day,” continued Jon, hoping that Shireen would shrug and admit that she wasn’t serious.

Shireen wasn’t deterred. “I don’t think that, and neither does my father. What anyone else believes hardly matters, as men will complain about their lords until the end of time.”

This is all Stannis’ work. He couldn’t accept that I turned down his offers to become Lord of Winterfell and then the Lord Commander of his Kingsguard, so he offers me the one last thing that’s in his power to give. Jon couldn’t even begin to contemplate what that said about Stannis, but now all the strange things surrounding Stannis and Shireen’s visit to the Wall were beginning to fall into place. The generosity of supplies, the odd looks Stannis had given him all last night, Shireen’s request for a private meeting at sunrise…

“Did St…your father put you up to this?”

“No.” Shireen studied him carefully. “I proposed the idea to him, and he gave me leave to travel to the Wall and pursue you. Do you have an answer for me?”

Jon gawked at her. If I outright refuse her all relations between the Wall and the Crown will go to the seven hells, and after this past winter the Night’s Watch can’t afford that. It was going to take all the cunning that Jon possessed to turn down the Crown Princess while staying friendly with the said Crown Princess and her father the King. Me as the King Consort, that’s absurd. He couldn’t imagine people bowing to him while saying “Your Grace.” The Wall is my place. Jon looked wildly around him, to the lands north and south of the massive block of ice. But I can leave here. No one would stop me since I have, in fact, fulfilled my vows. “This has all come on very suddenly, Princess. May I have some time to consider your offer?”

Shireen’s eyes brightened ever so slightly. “Certainly. I’m hardly going to turn around and travel back to King’s Landing, for the journey is quite a long and exhausting one. Take all the time you need. In the meantime, you promised to show me parts of the Gift? As well, I heard last night that the Wall is soon going to host a harvest festival. I would very much like to attend. Such a thing never occurred on Dragonstone, and King’s Landing is too big a city to make such a celebration feasible.”

Jon knew that he was still gawking at Shireen, both because he was still trying to process the fact that she had asked him to marry her and because she was standing there calmly, not visibly fazed by his reaction at all. Ghost was terribly confused, looking between Shireen and his master, not knowing who he wanted to go to or how to react.

“Of course, Princess. I will speak with you later, as I have many duties to attend to today.” And I need time to collect my thoughts. A very, very long time.

Chapter Text

Shireen saw neither hide nor hair of any direwolf for the rest of the day after she had made her marriage proposal. Father didn’t seem concerned in the slightest, and in fact he seemed invigorated by the cool northern air. He inspected all the buildings of Castle Black, pleased that they had been restored from their previous ramshackle state. Dragonglass was to be found everywhere, from sharp spikes embedded in doors and gates to daggers that every man of the Night’s Watch was required to wear. Father even did the unthinkable and sampled a goblet of mulled wine, though his face soured at the taste of it.

“The Night’s Watch seems to be in good order,” stated father as he and Shireen sat down to their evening meal in the King’s Tower. “Though I haven’t seen enough wildlings to say the same of them. Tormund Giantsbane commands from Oakenshield, and another wildling commands from Queenscrown.”

“I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough,” replied Shireen. “We’ve had no petitions from the Northern lords for help in ridding their lands of looting and pillaging wildlings, at any rate.”

“Lord Snow told me that he’s had to dissuade many of them from calling him ‘King Crow.’ A prudent move on his part, for I won’t stand any more usurpers.” Father buttered a piece of fresh black bread. “Speaking of Lord Snow, shall I send word to Lord Davos to start planning a wedding?”

So he would host a proper wedding for me after all. Shireen also took time in buttering a piece of bread. “No.”

“You failed to woo him with one of the most beautiful sunrises in Westeros at your disposal?”

Throwing my knife down on the table would not be proper. “Father, you made clear that this task is mine and mine alone, and that you wouldn’t interfere with anything I planned to do. Besides, how do you know that I asked him to marry me already?”

“I have not interfered,” said father, a bit indignantly. “What did he say?”

Shireen sighed. Father knew her too well. “He said that he’d consider my proposal.” To say that Jon had been surprised would be an understatement, and Shireen couldn’t decide if his shocked expressions were from being genuinely taken aback. Or horror. Jon had been in a pleasant mood that morning, though Shireen noted that mentioning his death wasn’t a wise move. At first, Jon seemed to brush off death as no matter at all—but he had suddenly stilled and looked like he was going to have a fit, even reaching over his shoulder for a weapon that wasn’t there until Ghost rushed over to his master and calmed him.

“Good.”

“Good?” Shireen raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you want him to accept?”

Father frowned. “If Jon Snow accepted you outright I would be suspicious of his motives and reconsider his character, for he’s never struck me as someone who desires power. He knows command isn’t as glorious as the songs make it out to be, and his own mistakes got him killed. Yet, he’s persevered and has gotten his men to respect him. If Jon Snow refused you outright I would advise that we ride back to Eastwatch and sail back to King’s Landing, but that’s not what he did. But by considering your proposal, that means that he must be tempted by it but still needs to process the implications of leaving the Wall and marrying the Crown Princess.”

Shireen blinked. “You’ve thought a lot about Jon Snow and his character.”

“I think about a lot of people. That’s often preferable to dealing with them in person.”

~

Jon went through the rest of his day in a daze, frequently returning to his conversation with Shireen on top of the Wall. She’s actually serious about marrying me. Even if she claims that her father had nothing to do with it, Stannis has obviously given her his blessing and come up with an official reason to travel to the Wall for her. Jon buried himself in correspondence and had a lengthy discussion with Dolorous Edd about the new supplies brought to the Wall. He then spent what felt like hours in the practice yard, asking Leathers to set as many men against him as he wanted.

Now, Jon was in the maester’s tower, listlessly eating a pork pie while listening to Sam describe the plants he was collecting and drying for new medicines. Ghost was curled up at his feet. Eventually, Sam stopped speaking and looked directly at Jon.

“What did Stannis Baratheon offer you this time?”

Jon set down his knife. “Why would you ask me such a thing?”

Sam sighed, slightly exasperated. “Because the only times I’ve ever seen you this frustrated and…flustered…have been when King Stannis was at the Wall and offered you something.”

Jon immediately frowned. “I should never have told you…”

“That he wanted to make you the Lord of Winterfell?”

“Exactly. And that he wanted me for the Lord Commander of his Kingsguard when I didn’t want to steal Rickon’s birthright.”

“You wanted to accept, both times.”

“Just because I wanted to say yes doesn’t mean that I should’ve,” Jon snapped. “Sometimes you overstep yourself, Maester Sam.”

“You’re the lord I’m sworn to serve, and I wouldn’t be serving you well if I didn’t give you my honest opinion.”

If Sam had been most any other brother of the Night’s Watch, Jon would’ve warned him not to speak in such a way to his Lord Commander. While he was certainly open to hearing opinions contrary to his own, there was a difference between those and arguments for arguments’ sake. He was the Lord Commander and the Wall was his, and he was through with ne’er-do-wells questioning his authority. My assassins are all dead, I have to remember that. And the White Walkers were much worse. The Citadel had made Sam bolder and more confident, and Jon had to accept that men changed over time. I wonder if Sam thinks I’m different than when I said goodbye to him, snowflakes melting in his hair.

Jon grudgingly let Sam continue.

“Stannis Baratheon knows you, likely because you remind him of himself. He knows what you’d be tempted by, but he’d never go to so much trouble and suffer your constant refusals unless he genuinely respected you. So, let me repeat my question: What did he offer you this time?”

He didn’t offer me anything. It’s Princess Shireen who did.” Jon felt a small bit of satisfaction at Sam’s expression. I proved you wrong, but this matter really isn’t funny.

“And?”

Jon looked down at Ghost, stroking his direwolf’s snout and deliberately avoiding Sam’s eyes. “Princess Shireen asked for my hand in marriage.”

The crackling of the logs in the fireplace could be heard loud and clear. Sam took a while to respond. “It seems that history is repeating itself, with yet another stubborn Baratheon falling in love with a beautiful, dark-haired Stark. Let’s hope that Empress Daenerys doesn’t decide to kidnap you.”

Jon turned back to Sam, narrowing his eyes. “I’m not in the mood for jokes, Sam. Is that all they taught you at the Citadel while I was fighting the undead? You forget that I’m a Snow, not a Stark. Besides, I doubt any maiden would look kindly at all of my scars on our wedding night.” He rubbed the thin white line that he knew was on his neck. “I can barely look at the one on my stomach without wanting to vomit, and I doubt those around my eye and across my neck do me any favors, either.”

“Scars don’t have to mean weakness. They prove that you survived.” Sam took a sip of one of his calming herbal brews, the atmosphere in the room changing. “You’re stronger than you once were, Jon.”

“You don’t know that,” replied Jon bitterly. “You weren’t there when I got stabbed by my own men, when I walked out of my own funeral pyre, when I killed the White Walker that shot one of Empress Daenerys’ dragons through the eye. I didn’t feel strong during any of those times, and rarely does a day go by without me asking the gods why I’m still alive.” And feeling so cold.

“But I’m here now,” said Sam, a consoling tone to his voice. “I see a man who’s grown into command like Lord Mormont hoped he would. The Night’s Watch and the wildlings follow your orders.”

“Because they’re sworn to. And because of fear.”

I’m sworn to serve you, but I would never fear my brother.”

Jon didn’t know how to respond to that, so instead Ghost padded over to Sam and put his head in his lap.

After a while, Sam asked: “Do you like Shireen?”

“That’s beside the point. The Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch can’t just go off and marry the future queen of the realm. That would go against everything that our order is founded upon, not to mention it being incredibly selfish of me.”

Sam decided to ignore Jon’s comment. “I like Gilly. I always have, and I always will. Sadly, a maester can’t take a wife, and I respect Gilly too much to ask her to be a mistress.”

“That’s nice to know.”

“Did you refuse her?”

“Shireen? No. I told her that I would consider her offer.”

“Good.”

Jon raised his eyebrows, confused. “Why is that good?”

“You’ve fulfilled your vows, and just like every Lord Commander before you, you’ve given your life to the Night’s Watch. The only person keeping you here at the Wall is yourself, and I wouldn’t want you to make a decision that you’ll regret for the rest of your life.”

Jon continued to look at Sam.

“Take the time to get to know Shireen beyond letters. She said herself that she isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”

“Do you mean that I should court her? It seems like she’s the one courting me!”

“Then let her. You have nothing to lose.”

Jon shrugged, thinking that it couldn’t hurt to take Sam’s advice.

Chapter Text

“May I speak with Princess Shireen?”

Jon was outside the King’s Tower, Ghost and Longclaw by his side. Ser Andrew responded with a grave nod and then disappeared up the tower. Jon waited, wondering if Sam’s idea to participate in a courtship was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever agreed to. I never tried to court Ygritte. She simply told Mance that we were sleeping together. Ygritte’s threat that she’d expose him for a traitor if he didn’t do precisely that went unspoken, but Jon couldn’t exactly pretend that he was unwilling. It was still wrong to love her, though. To love her and to leave her.

“Lord Snow.”

Jon shook his head, letting Ygritte leave his thoughts so he could focus on the woman before him. “Princess,” he said, bowing in return. Shireen was wearing the same black dress and golden cloak as the day before, though her braid was a slightly different style. “Would you…” Jon began as Shireen looked at him expectantly. “Would you like to be shown around Castle Black? It’s changed quite a bit since you last were at the Wall.”

“I would like that very much.” Shireen nodded to Ser Andrew, which must have been the signal for the knight to follow them but stay respectfully out of earshot. She then took Jon’s proffered arm, falling into step with him as he set off at a leisurely pace.

Jon had no real reason to show Shireen show Castle Black in and of itself, but he wanted a long period of time to simply talk to her. Sitting in a solar could accomplish the same purpose, but if the conversation suddenly became awkward or outright stopped, there’d be nothing to do except stare at each other. This way, there would always be a building to point out, a Night’s Watch brother to greet, or the sheer immensity of the Wall to gaze up at. Also, it was a bit daunting to have Shireen here in person after years of writing to her. Jon wasn’t a talkative person by nature, and it took him time before he truly felt comfortable around someone.

“The King’s Tower, where you’re currently staying, is one of the strongest buildings here on the Wall,” began Jon. “It was damaged the least in the recent wars. I can’t say the same for the Lord Commander’s Tower, where I keep my chambers. I saved former Lord Commander Mormont from being murdered by a wight, but in the process I burned down much of the interior woodwork and damaged the stone supports.”

“Were you punished for that?” Shireen replied.

Jon put his hand on Longclaw’s pommel. “My punishment was a Valyrian steel sword, and the pommel was made to look like Ghost. He was also instrumental in killing that wight.”

Shireen grinned, and for the first time Jon noticed that something odd happened to her face when she attempted that. It wasn’t that the grin was false or failed to reach her eyes, no, it was that the parts of her face covered with greyscale scars didn’t move, making the grin look lopsided. It’s not a comely look, but then again neither were Ygritte’s crooked teeth or Arya’s long face and tangled hair. That didn’t stop me from loving them any less.

They walked through the Shieldhall, the practice yard, the armory, and the larders that were hidden deep in the ice. Jon showed Shireen the wormways beneath the ground, saying that they were little used now that the weather was agreeable and blizzards didn’t prevent men from seeing where they were going. The baths were avoided, as such a place was not proper for a lady, let alone the Crown Princess. Jon studied Shireen as he presented the glass gardens to her, the place being one of the proudest things he’d been able to accomplish during his time at the Wall. Through his connections with Braavos and the Iron Bank, Jon had been able to get a master glass maker and his apprentices to travel to the Wall, where they taught their trade to some of the Night’s Watch builders. In time, enough glass was made to recreate the glass gardens that had once graced the grounds of Winterfell.

“What do you think of all the glass? Have you ever seen so much in one place?”

“In the Red Keep there are windows taller than men made of colored glass.”

Jon’s face fell slightly, but Shireen wasn’t finished speaking.

“But the colored glass doesn’t serve any purpose other than decoration. They’re lovely to look at during sunrise or sunset, but they don’t keep men fed throughout the year.” Her eyes flicked to the Wall, perhaps remembering the sunrise from a day ago.

“I’m glad the glass gardens have met with your approval,” said Jon, relieved. “They’re also very warm inside, and I wonder if that’s what it feels like to be in the South during summer.”

“You’re welcome to find that out yourself,” Shireen said innocently

“Yes, well…” Jon knew what Shireen was alluding to with that answer, but he changed topic, steering her to the only part of the castle he hadn’t shown her yet.

“Since you are fond of reading, I thought that I would save the most impressive part of the castle besides the glass gardens for last. Castle Black has the largest library in the North, even bigger than the library at Winterfell when my father was lord there.”

The Wall’s library was located under the maester’s tower, accessed by a twisting set of shallow steps. Sometimes it felt as cold in there as the larders inside the Wall, but the cold preserved the parchment scrolls and leather bindings of the books just as well as it did the food. Bookshelves stretched the length of the good-sized room, and great chests containing loose pages were built into niches along the Walls.

“I don’t spend much time here myself,” confessed Jon, “And if I need to consult a text I have it brought to my solar. Maester Samwell, however, loves this library like some men do their weapons. He returned to the Wall from the Citadel just over a year ago, and he’s made it a project of his to organize it.”

“Are there many rare books here?” asked Shireen.

“There are priceless texts here that are thousands of years old, according to Sam,” said Jon. “He said that the Citadel would pay his weight in gold for a copy of many of them, which I find hard to…”

“Spend enough time at the Citadel, and you’ll meet maesters that would sell Westeros to get their hands on the right piece of information, no matter what form it’s in.” Sam stepped out from one of the niches along the Wall, where a lamp and open book lay on a small desk.

“I didn’t expect to find you here, Sam,” said Jon, startled.

“It’s been a quiet day up in the rookery, so I thought I’d catch up on some reading.”

“You never catch up, do you.”

Sam turned to Shireen. “I hear from Lord Snow that you spend much time in the Red Keep’s library, Princess. I’m sure that you can relate to the magical power of books to draw you in to different worlds.”

Shireen nodded, her eyes lighting up. “I’ve spent much time there, both with maesters tutoring me and by choice.”

Sam will keep Shireen occupied for days in here, talking about books and all the facts he’s learned here. Perhaps bringing her here was a mistake, as I can’t compete with Sam in this field.

As if the gods had answered Jon’s wish for a distraction, Satin came hurrying down the steps. “Lord Snow,” he bowed.

“What is it?” asked Jon, puzzled.

Satin realized who else was in the library, and he nearly tripped over his feet bowing to Shireen. “I am sorry to disturb you, my lord, but your presence is required in the courtyard.” Satin quietly whispered in Jon’s ear about the small wildling party that had just arrived from Queenscrown and the subsequent fight that had broken out between them and some Night’s Watch brothers.

Jon frowned, shaking his head. “I apologize, Princess, but I must leave you for the moment to break up a fight. I’m sure that Maester Samwell will be happy to keep you company in the meantime.” Jon looking expectantly at Sam, hoping that he would take the hint.

“Of course, my lord,” said Sam, “The pleasure is all mine.”

~

Shireen grimaced as she watched Jon and Ghost rush from the library. The morning had been rather pleasant, and she had been pleased to see that Jon had recovered from his shock of the day before. He might simply be being polite, said a voice in the back of Shireen’s head. But if Jon was being polite, then surely he would have no reason to seek me out by himself. Or wish to speak to me directly without going through father.

“Do such fights happen often, Maester Samwell?”

The fat maester shrugged, and he looked at Shireen apologetically. “Overall things here on the Wall are in good order, but whenever people who don’t like each other are forced to get together, fights happen. I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept, living in the royal court.”

Just a bit. “Court is stricter than when my uncle King Robert sat the Iron Throne, or so I’m told. My father has little patience for petty squabbles, and he’s made it clear that if lords and various other petitioners want his undivided attention, they should act like mature adults.”

“I’m sure court is as you say, Princess,” replied Maester Samwell. “Also, you’re welcome to just call me Sam. Samwell was the name my father gave me. My mother was the only one to call me Sam, until I made friends here at the Wall.”

Sam then walked with Shireen up and down the shelves of the library, describing the unique collections it contained. She didn’t have any reason to tell Jon how much smaller this library was compared to the libraries in the Red Keep or the Citadel—even the library at Storm’s End was almost the same size. But she could tell Sam. There would be no reason for him to take offence.

“Do you miss the Citadel library? If I had no other obligations, I would spend days in there.”

Sam looked at her in surprise. “The maesters let you into the library? I’ve never known them to allow a women to browse through it, not even high ranking septas.”

“Being the heir to the Iron Throne does have some advantages,” Shireen mused. Being accompanied by Grand Maester Ebrose helped her case, as well as having father and one of his characteristic frowns beside her. Shireen decided to change topics to a more personal matter. “I met your brother in King’s Landing, Sam. Your father as well.”

A dark look passed across Sam’s face, the first time Shireen had seen him in anything but an agreeable mood. “For what purpose? Is my father wanting a seat on the Small Council?”

“Lord Tarly thought that a match might be made between Dickon and myself.”

Sam’s expression didn’t change. “Such an event has not come to pass, or else the whole realm would be talking about it by now. May I ask why?”

Shireen studied Sam, wondering how much of the truth she wanted to tell him. Father’s reply to Lord Tarly immediately came to mind. “Ser Dickon was found wanting.”

Sam thought about that for a long while, his fingers trailing along the spines of a number of leather-bound books. Eventually he slid a thin volume off a shelf and turned back to her, taking a deep breath. “You’ll be happier marrying into Jon’s family much more than mine. The Starks are good people, and the entire North respects them. The Tarlys might be rich, but my father is a harsh and cruel man. He baldy threatened to kill me if I didn’t give up my claim to Horn Hill and join the Night’s Watch, for I was not the kind of son he wanted. When I first got to the Wall I thought I would die because I couldn’t fight. But then I met Jon. He was my first friend, and he realized that I had other talents such as reading. He spoke up on my behalf, and thus I became a steward and later a maester of the Citadel.”

Now it was Shireen’s turn to look at Sam in surprise. From the little she had seen of Lord Tarly, she knew him to be a hard and serious man, much like father. Father respected Lord Tarly’s military acumen, and he had decided to pardon him after the wars since his crimes had all been following his liege lord. I must tell father to keep Lord Tarly at arm’s length, if he isn’t already doing so. Threatening to kill an innocent child is beyond heartless. Shireen was also surprised to hear what Sam said about Jon. It was obvious that the two were close, but she hadn’t known the reason for it beyond them being brothers of the Night’s Watch.

“Is it true what Jon did for you?” Shireen asked. Sam’s answer was very important to her, more than perhaps he would know.

“On my honor as a maester of the Citadel,” said Sam, his voice dead serious. “He saved my life, and for all our differences I’ll be forever grateful to him.”

“And Jon’s family?” Shireen arched an eyebrow, wondering if Sam had been aware of everything that he had just said. “Who said anything about me marrying into the Starks?”

Sam stilled, his eyes widening. “I shouldn’t have said that, and no doubt Jon will not appreciate my having said that. I had to know why he was so…” Sam paused. “So distracted yesterday, both as a maester looking out for his lord and a friend looking out for a friend. I won’t speak of it again. In the meantime…” Sam held out the thin book he had been holding to Shireen. “This is a collection of folklore from the North—children’s stories, really. But most of them are based in truth, such as winter waking up and marching south.”

“Thank you, Sam,” said Shireen, taking the book from him. And unless I misheard him, he’s rather supportive of my objective here at the Wall. “Perhaps like you I’ll have some time to catch up on my reading.”

~

By the time Jon got out to Castle Black’s courtyard, a jeering crowd had gathered around two small groups. Two men were being restrained, one sporting a bloody nose. Silence quickly fell as Jon approached, Ghost leading the way with his best snarl.

“What’s been going on here?” Jon addressed the crowd, putting his left fist on top of Longclaw’s pommel for good measure. When no one jumped to volunteer an answer, Ghost bared his teeth. Eventually, the restrained brother in black began to speak. His name was Furs, one of the wildling recruits and an excellent ranger.

“That man stole my sister.” Furs spat on the ground. “He’s not worthy of her!”

Jon turned to the wildling from Queenscrown with the bloody nose. “Is that true?”

“Aye, King Crow.”

Ghost bristled, his teeth still bared. “Need I remind you that I am the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch?” Jon’s voice was hard. “There is only one king in this realm, and you are in luck that King Stannis Baratheon is here at the Wall if you wish to debate the matter.” The wildling didn’t respond, his eyes trained toward the ground. “Have you been a cruel husband to Furs’ sister?”

The wildling responded to that. “I swear on the gods, Lord Crow, no! She nearly took out my eye when I tried t’ steal her, but now she willingly dances with me under our furs every night.”

Furs spat on the ground again.

“Does anyone here have anything to say to the contrary?” Jon turned to all the men gathered around him. If I hear a single yes all my sympathy will disappear. I know what it’s like to have a sister married to a monster. Not that Arya had ever married Ramsay Snow, that had been poor Jeyne Poole. But close enough. Arya probably died in King’s Landing the same day as father, but I’d still do anything for her. No one spoke up, much to Jon’s relief. He dropped his hand from his sword pommel.

“A man can own a woman or a man can own a knife,” declared Jon, remembering something Ygritte had once said. He nodded to Furs. “If he’s cruel to your sister, I’m sure that she’ll slit his throat in his sleep. For your well thought-out actions, you have earned duty spreading gravel on top of the Wall for the rest of the day. If your work isn’t satisfactory, you’ll be doing it for the rest of the week. Understood?”

“Yes, Lord Snow.”

“And you…”

“Juha, Lord Crow.”

“If you decide to avenge your bloody nose, I’ll have no choice but to let you cool off in an ice cell.”

Everyone then dispersed, with another of the Queenscrown wildlings quietly telling Jon that they were there to deliver a message from their lady. Though perhaps the message could wait until Juha could get some mead in him and calm down. Jon agreed, glancing back to the King’s Tower. No one glanced back. He shook his head, wondering what possessed him to do such a thing.

“Should we go back to the library, Ghost? Or do you think Shireen has forgotten about us among all the books?”

Ghost only nudged at Jon’s hip.

“I’ll let her and Sam be. I won’t be hard to find.”

Indeed, Shireen and her white knight found him later, practicing drills with Longclaw in the training yard. Whether or not Jon was flying through movements he knew by heart or attacking whatever foe was thrown at him, he felt soothed. He understood now why some men felt alive when they fought, for nothing else really compared to feeling blood pulse through his veins and hearing his breaths break through his chest. But the difference is that I don’t enjoy killing or violence in and of itself. I just like feeling alive. As well, Valyrian steel swords were the swords of heroes. While Jon was only a bastard, he could still try and make himself worthy of all the men who had claimed to see such promise in him. And who aren’t alive to see me today.

“Lord Snow. It appears that all is well.”

Jon stopped moving and lowered his sword, taking off his helmet and nodding to Shireen.

“With the living, at least.” He noticed that Shireen was carrying a book in her arms. She gave it to Ser Andrew before approaching him.

“Will you show me how to properly hold your sword?”

“My sword?” repeated Jon, raising his eyebrows. Shireen didn’t strike him as desiring to be a spearwife, so there must be another reason for her request. For the second time in as many hours he thought of Arya, this time how she always eagerly watched him and Robb spar against each other under the watchful eyes of Ser Rodrick Cassel. I wonder what happened to Needle, if Arya was ever able to defend herself with it.

Shireen smiled her lopsided smile. “I’ve always been curious to know what it feels like to hold a Valyrian steel sword. Father’s Lightbringer is beautiful to look at, but it kills White Walkers as effectively as a butter knife.” She cocked her head, looking at him thoughtfully. “And perhaps my son might wield it one day.”

Jon’s grip on Longclaw only increased, and he wondered if Shireen knew the effect that those words would have on him. Jon had fleetingly dreamt of holding his own son in his arms when Stannis had first offered him Val and Winterfell, but that dream quickly evaporated with his decision to remain at the Wall—both then and after his death. True, Rickon and Sansa would gladly give Jon a place in Winterfell’s household where he could start a family, but he never wanted to be in a position where he might usurp his trueborn siblings’ rights. Winterfell was never meant to be his, no matter how many times the Northern lords told him that he was the very image of Eddard Stark.

Yes, I would like a son of my own. A son who could grow up knowing that his parents are married and love him very much, never having to question his place.

“As you wish, Princess,” said Jon eventually, stepping closer to Shireen. “Now, in addition to being forged of Valyrian steel, Longclaw is a bastard sword. It’s tapered to cut as well as thrust and can be held with either a one or two handed grip…” Jon lifted the sword and positioned his hands and feet in a fighting stance, then demonstrated a couple basic swings. Shireen watched him intently. “Now you try.” Jon handed Longclaw over hilt-first, and Shireen tried her best to imitate him.

“Is this correct?”

Jon looked her up and down, frowning. “Your shoulders are too tense, and you’re holding your arms too high. The position of your left and right hands should be switched, and…” Jon placed his hands on Shireen’s shoulders and straightened them out, knowing that a good instructor taught better by showing rather than telling. He adjusted her arms and hands, going through an underhand swing with her.

“Longclaw isn’t as heavy as I thought it would be,” commented Shireen. She was tall enough that her nose brushed Jon’s chin when she turned her head to look at him.

Jon immediately became aware of the compromising position that he was in. He jumped back as if burned, mentally berating himself for letting his guard down like that. That was probably her purpose all along. It was hard to know that, though, as Shireen’s expression hadn’t changed. She continued to mirror the sword swings he had shown her, her skits swirling around her.

After a time, Shireen surrendered Longclaw back to him. “Thank you for indulging me, Lord Snow. You have a beautiful sword, though perhaps it’s not my weapon of choice.”

Jon nodded, finding his scabbard and sheathing his sword.

“Will you join my father and me for the evening meal tonight?”

I wonder who taught her how to court someone. Shireen was certainly trying her hardest to get his attention, and she wasn’t doing such a bad job at it. It surely wasn’t Stannis, though if she starts paying me compliments that sound like insults I’ll have to reevaluate the situation.

“I’ll be there at the correct hour,” replied Jon. The prospect of dining with Shireen and Stannis was tempting regardless, for it would be less lonely than dining by himself in his chambers or in the mess hall where peace and quiet were not to be found—not to mention the fearful looks directed at him that Jon always pretended not to see.

~

With nothing else to do until the evening meal, Shireen curled up by a window in the King’s Tower with her cloth-of-gold cloak and the book Sam had given her from the library. Reading the stories reminded her of a time long before when father was just the Lord of Dragonstone and Maester Cressen would patiently listen to her read. Dragonstone had many books written for the Targaryens, filled with colorful illuminations of dragons. This particular book had illuminations of giants and ice spiders, of towering ice cliffs and evergreen trees, and of packs of direwolves bigger than horses. Shadowy figures with pale blue eyes lurked between the pages, not much being said of them except that when days were at their darkest winter would wake up and descend upon the land.

Direwolves aren’t as big as horses. At least not anymore. Shireen was glad that Ghost had been friendly with her, and there was a simple pleasure in having an animal nuzzle up to her. I wonder if the rumors are true about Jon walking at night as his direwolf. They’re incredibly close, but I wouldn’t want to cause offence.

The two ladies that mother had sent with Shireen had spent much of their time doing embroidery or else praying in Castle Black’s small sept. The only times Shireen ever talked to them was when they helped her dress and styled her hair. At least mother isn’t here. She would only be miserable, and it’s better that she’s South building her Great Sept.

At sunset, Shireen was sitting with father in their solar when Ser Rolland showed Jon into the room—devoid of his sword, direwolf, and any other weapons. He bowed as he greeted them, but before Jon took a seat he and father stared at each other for quite some time. There was tension in that gaze, Shireen felt. It wasn’t hostile, but it didn’t take a maester to guess the reason for it. Both men were refusing to acknowledge the proverbial aurochs in the room, and though Shireen wasn’t surprised, she did wish that both Jon and father would uncross their arms.

“I learned a great many things about the folklore of the North,” began Shireen, purposely drawing attention to herself. Two sets of eyes watched her as she described creatures like ice dragons that men had yet to see with their own eyes. Really, the start of this meal was no different than many that she spent with her parents, talking about her day while they sat in silence and said not a word to each other. Thus is the fate of an arranged marriage when the man and the woman learn that they have nothing in common with each other except for their child. Father and Jon’s silence didn’t bother Shireen yet, as its root cause was very different.

The First Steward Dolorous Edd delivered their meal himself, commending father for choosing the most pleasant time to travel to the Wall. “However, I apologize that there isn’t much excitement to be found here in summer. Without the While Walkers things are rather dull.”

“Thank you, Edd,” said Jon softly dismissing him and filling his goblet. If Jon was disappointed by the fact that boiled water with lemons was the only drink set on the table, he didn’t show it. Though the water was still steaming, he emptied the goblet with one long swallow. Shireen never would have attempted such a thing. My throat has no need to be burned from the inside out, and I’m not a mummer used to swallowing flaming swords for entertainment. Jon didn’t seem to be adversely affected. In fact, he seemed calmer, warmer. Shireen stirred a spoonful of honey into her lemon water, letting it cool while father sprinkled salt into his.

The rest of the meal consisted of a thick pea soup with bits of salted pork, boiled potatoes with butter, and crusty black bread accompanied by hard white cheese. Shireen noted the lack of spices.

“How is your mother’s work on building a new Great Sept going?” asked Jon when all three of them were a good way through their meals. “I’ve never seen a sept, save for the tiny one here at the Wall and the one that was at Winterfell.”

“You haven’t missed anything,” said father, stirring his soup. “Stick with your godswoods, for at least there no fool is preaching at you. There’s the chance for peace and quiet.”

“I’m simply curious,” replied Jon with a shrug. “It was nice to know that the godswood at Storm’s End was replanted after Lady Melisandre gave it to the flames. Is she ever mentioned at court?”

Shireen immediately looked at father. His eyes grew darker, and his mouth was set in a hard, thin line.

“No out loud. Her…” Shireen searched for the right word. “End was very traumatic for my mother, but she is convinced that it served some greater purpose. I often wonder why Lady Melisandre decided to go beyond the Wall that last time.” During one of the White Walkers’ many assaults on the Wall and before Empress Daenerys had arrived with her three dragons, Melisandre announced her intention to travel beyond the Wall and find the Great Other. The faithful listening to her around her nightfires all exclaimed and wished her good fortune. Many decided to join her. Needless to say, neither her nor her followers ever returned, and father never made any mention of R’hllor or Azor Ahai ever again.

“It was a suicide mission.” Jon sliced himself some cheese. He didn’t appear concerned.

“What makes you think that?” said father, rather carefully.

Jon shrugged again. “Ever since I walked out of my funeral pyre, she began having doubts.”

“What kind of doubts?”

“About when the White Walkers would attack, about the visions she saw in her fires, about Azor Ahai. And her faith. Her faith most of all. I believe that she lost it, and that going beyond the Wall and battling the ‘Great Other,’ as she termed it, was the final test to know if R’hllor was real and had any true power or not.”

Shireen thought that explanation sounded reasonable enough. Father’s expression didn’t change, and he neither nodded nor shook his head at Jon’s words. For some strange reason it seemed that father was hiding something from her. Father never hides things from me, not usually.

“It seems that people do a lot of extraordinary things when they lose their faith,” Shireen stated.

“Yes, yes we do,” came the response, but it was from Jon rather than father, something Shireen did not expect but was not surprised at. Father had told Shireen of the day he had lost his faith when he first took her to Storm’s End and stood on the castle’s highest tower overlooking Shipbreaker Bay. Her grandparents had drowned during a terrible storm in that bay, their ship dashed to pieces as their two eldest sons looked on. I wonder what happened to Jon, apart from his death. When winter came the Starks had already been hit hard.

Nothing else remarkable was said for the rest of the evening. As he was about to leave, Jon mentioned that he was planning on travelling to Queenscrown during the next day or do. A matter of justice had come up that required his intervention, and Shireen and her father were welcome to join him. Father looked to Shireen to give a response, and she said that they would.

“You did promise to show me parts of the Gift after all, Lord Snow. Will you allow me to accompany you back to your tower?”

“If you believe me in need of an escort, then by all means,” replied Jon with a wry twist of his mouth.

Shireen thought she heard father give a strangled laugh, but he was merely clearing his throat after taking a long sip of lemon water. Of course, Shireen knew that she was useless as an escort, as the appearance of Ghost, Ser Rolland, and Longclaw at the entrance to the King’s Tower confirmed. Jon was nice enough to humor her, at any rate.

Halfway between the King’s and Lord Commander’s towers, Shireen stopped and smiled up at Jon. “You’re welcome to call me Shireen, Lord Snow.”

“I am, Princess?”

Shireen could see the long scar around Jon’s right eye and the thin scar across his neck even in the moonlight. She took a breath before speaking again, trying not to let any of her nervousness creep into her voice. “The whole realm calls me that, along with Your Grace, and in the future it will be Queen. I want another person to just call me Shireen.”

“I can do that,” said Jon, slowly. “Shireen.” He placed a hand on Ghost’s head. “In return, I would like another person to call me Jon. Lord Snow is someone I’ve had to become, and he’s not always the most admirable person. He’s done so many things that Jon hasn’t wanted to do, but only because there were no other good choices.”

Princess Shireen hasn’t had to make any hard choices, and that’s something she doesn’t envy Lord Snow or King Stannis for. But father had taken Shireen into his confidences, and now Jon was giving her an invitation to do so as well. I greatly look forward to that.

“Goodnight, then. Jon.”

Chapter Text

Queenscrown was not Jon’s favorite castle under the Wall’s control. It brought back too many troubling memories, memories such as watching an innocent old man having his throat slit for the crime of building a fire. At least I had the courage not to do the dead myself. I blew my cover with Ygritte and the Thenns, but I never would’ve had a better chance to get back to the Wall. And then there had been the direwolf. A direwolf helped me escape the wildlings. He was grey. And he knew me. Grey Wind and Summer had been grey, but with Grey Wind dead that only left Summer. No one knew what had happened to Bran or his wolf, and even Rickon had no idea where Bran went when he had left Winterfell with Osha.

The tall tower in the middle of a large lake gleamed in the sunlight, and from a distance its gold-painted merlons made the tower look like it had a crown. Those who had forgotten history thought that Queenscrown had been named for Empress Daenerys—instead of Queen Alysanne Targaryen—in thanks for subduing the White Walkers and her dragons’ sacrifice, but the last Targaryen had made it clear that no place by the Wall was deserving of being graced with her name. The small village and inn on the shore had been rebuilt and expanded, and the once bedraggled apple orchards were now well-tended.

Jon and his party were met by Val and hers at the entrance to the stone causeway that led out to the tower. Val was a vision in white, and her honey-colored hair shone as bright as the tower top. Though often called “Lady Val” or the “Lady of Queenscrown,” Val was simply the commander of Queenscrown, her authority derived from the Night’s Watch to oversee the people around the tower, protect them, and collect taxes to deliver to Castle Black. Many of the wildlings who had passed through the Wall six years ago had decided to settle here, and Jon felt it prudent to appoint a leader who knew how to manage them—and easily earn their respect.

“Lord Crow,” greeted Val with a nod of her head as Jon dismounted from his horse. The Night’s Watch brothers on either side of him glanced at each other, no doubt noticing that Val had failed to bend the knee or do a simple bow. Jon let it slide.

“Val,” responded Jon, nodding in turn. “I’m sure you remember King Stannis and Princess Shireen?”

Val slowly turned her head, acknowledging Stannis and Shireen’s presence. Her eyes lingered on Shireen’s face, no doubt disapproving of Shireen’s greyscale scars. Though disapproving is an understatement. To Jon’s surprise, Val made a show of bending the knee to them, sweeping her white skirts around her. Jon looked down to Ghost, but instead of being by his side the direwolf seemed to be hiding behind him.

“Mama!” exclaimed a high voice. “The wolf’s afraid of you!”

Val picked up a little girl dressed in white who could be no older than four. She shared Val’s honey-colored hair and pale eyes.

“Never underestimate the wolf, Maarit, nor his crow master,” said Val to the little girl, all the while looking at Jon coldly. Jon didn’t like the look, but it was to be expected, given…

“Messengers informed me that my presence was required to oversee justice,” said Jon stiffly.

“The man in question will be brought to the courtyard outside the inn shortly,” said Val. “I had him kept in the dungeons of the tower as a precaution.”

~

The matter of justice that Jon was called to give a verdict on was theft. One of the wildling settlers had stolen two milk cows from a southern peasant who had relocated to the Wall. When questioned, the wildling claimed that the cows were his, as no effort had been made to steal them back. Shireen wondered why Val hadn’t already made a decision herself, as the guilty party had confessed to his crime.

Jon seemed to be thinking this too, if his hard face was anything to go by. Shireen was brought back to her conversation with him the other night, about how he made a distinction between Jon and Lord Snow. Lord Snow is certainly here right now. Father stood next to her, arms crossed as he watched the proceedings.

“The penalty for theft is for the thief to lose a hand, as states the King’s law,” said Jon, after he had heard the case presented from all sides.

“But we do not answer to the King on the Iron Throne,” countered Val. “The vows that you crows swear in front of heart trees include promises not to take part in affairs of the realm.”

“Excluding itself from the affairs of the realm does not mean that the Night’s Watch doesn’t work with the king or enforce parts of the King’s law. You should know by now, Val, that Tormund struck a deal with me when I let your people through the Wall. So that they might keep their lives I gave them food, land, and protection, and in return I expect allegiance to the Night’s Watch. While I might allow your practice of taking wives, my generosity does not extend to livestock.” Shireen didn’t know how wildlings took wives, but Lord Snow had gotten his point across. No one had dared to contradict him, none save Val. She’s beautiful, she really is. And her daughter is just as comely. Shireen hadn’t missed the cold greeting between Jon and Val, as well as Ghost’s reaction, which made her wonder.

“So what are you going to do?” asked Val, interrupting Shireen’s thoughts. “Give my man a choice between having his hand cut off or taking the Black?”

“Yes,” said Jon. “The Wall is always in need of good men, and men have been sent to the Wall for lesser crimes.”

“Mercy!” cried the thief. “I’ll give the cows back.”

“The stolen property will be given back to its rightful owner regardless of what you do.” Jon didn’t look in the mood for mercy.

The thief tried again. “Princess, I ask for mercy!”

Shireen was startled at being addressed, and suddenly all eyes were on her. She stood up straighter and smoothed her skirts. She thought over the situation, remembering her lessons from Maester Cressen and Maester Ebrose about how queens were often called upon to temper the harshness of their husbands. Women were, supposedly, the kinder and more caring sex.

“Lord Snow,” Shireen addressed Jon, an idea forming in her mind. “How much are a pair of milk cows worth at the Wall?”

Jon looked at her curiously and named a figure in silver stags.

“If the Lord Commander allows it, I would see you serve the Night’s Watch for that many moons in whatever capacity they ask of you,” said Shireen to the thief. “That way, you still pay a penalty for breaking the Night’s Watch’s laws but get to keep your hand and your life after your time is served.”

Jon crossed his arms, still looking at Shireen curiously. He was silent for a long time before he eventually spoke. “Men traditionally serve the Night’s Watch for life, but during the recent war that tradition was broken. A number of men, including those from King Stannis, served temporarily to protect our garrisons from the threats beyond the Wall. Since our Fair Princess has spoken on your behalf, I will accept her judgment.”

The thief went to his knees in front of Shireen, thanking her.

Shireen felt like smiling, but she kept her face hard. “Do not think that you have escaped justice, thief. No one in this realm does, not even the Hand of the King. If you do not know Lord Davos’ story, let me tell it now: Lord Davos was a notorious smuggler, but he also saved my father’s life. For the life father gave him a knighthood and eventually a lordship, but for the smuggling he sliced off Lord Davos’ left fingertips.”

“Disobey the Night’s Watch at the Wall, and your hand will be forfeit,” added Jon, nodding to his Night’s Watch guards to take the thief into their custody for the ride back to the Wall. The small crowd watching them all soon dispersed.

“I am going to inspect Queenscrown’s tower, Lord Snow, if Lady Val will permit me,” declared father.

Val dragged her eyes away from Jon, looking at father a bit less coldly. “I will escort you myself, Your Grace. Maarit, take your mother’s hand.”

Jon and Shireen were left with Ghost and Ser Rolland, the other Kingsguard knights following father.

“I must warn you Shireen,” said Jon, “That allowing men to pay for their crimes by temporarily serving the Night’s Watch isn’t the solution for all breaches of the law. It might work for petty crimes committed by men living at the Wall or on the Gift, but beyond that…”

“Why?” asked Shireen, cutting him off.

“There are some crimes that should not be forgiven so quickly, and some crimes that should be paid for with a life of service. Such as rape.” Jon opened and closed his swordhand. “Or murder.”

Shireen suddenly feared she had done the wrong thing by granting the thief mercy, but Jon seemed to guess her thoughts.

“I do not fault you for what you did. Cultural misunderstanding was at the heart of the matter. The wildlings should know better by now that stealing possessions is not how we show strength south of the Wall, or else Val should know better and not call on me to enforce the laws for her.” Jon shook his head, changing topic. “What do you think of the Gift so far, Shireen?”

I like hearing my name. Or at least I like hearing it from someone other than father or mother.

Jon held out his arm, gesturing to a path that led around the lake. Shireen took it.

“There’s a lot of open space, and it looks like fruit trees other than apple trees would thrive here.”

“A cherry orchard was planted near Queensgate among other things,” said Jon, a bit amused by Shireen’s statement.

They walked in companionable silence for a time, before Shireen asked a question that she had been wondering about ever since she had been reintroduced to Val. And ever since mother asked me, if I’m honest with myself. “Is she yours?”

“Who, Val?” Jon looked puzzled, but then his eyes went wide when he realized who Shireen had been referring to. “Maarit?”

Shireen gave him a slow nod.

Jon stopped and closed his eyes. “No. I promised myself long ago that I’d never father a bastard.” His eyes opened and turned toward Shireen, and when he spoke again he sounded very hurt. “Is that what they say about me in the South? That I have multiple wildling wives and even more bastards?”

No one but mother had ever said such a thing, in an attempt to dissuade her from pursuing Jon. “No. But there is debate on whether the Wolf of the Wall is truly an undead wight or White Walker.”

Jon studied her, as if trying to assess if Shireen was lying or not. After a time he sighed. “I don’t mind being called a wolf, for I am a direwolf. Right, Ghost?”

Ghost bounded over to his master’s side, letting him ruffle the fur on his head before demanding that Shireen scratch behind his ears. Strangely, Jon’s face began to color.

“Val tried to steal me.”

“Steal?”

“It’s best you hear it from me rather than anyone else,” said Jon as an explanation. “When wildling men wish to take a wife, they steal a woman and make her theirs by force. It is not unheard of for wildling women to do the same to men, but it’s not common.”

“That sounds barbaric.”

“As barbaric as a father arranging a marriage for his daughter? The women are expected to fight back, as well and the friends and family around her. If she overpowers her suitor, he wasn’t worthy of her in the first place.”

He does have a point. Women should always have the right to fight back, but not all women are strong. “So Val wasn’t worthy of you?”

Jon’s mouth twisted. “She broke into my tower one night when I was sleeping and put a knife to my throat. It was cleverly done, but she forgot to take Ghost into account—or the fact that I had no plans to run away from Castle Black with her.”

“Why not? You’re free to go anywhere in Westeros, and she’s a beautiful woman.” Unlike me. Shireen waited for Jon’s answer, biting her lip. And she could give you healthy children.

“I may be free, but how would I support myself? Val doesn’t want to leave her people. I don’t know how to farm, and I don’t know a trade, unless you count ruling. I can fight, yes, but being a sellsword is no way to provide for a family, and serving a lord would not be simple given my reputation and who my father was.”

“Lord Stark couldn’t make you the lord of a holdfast somewhere?” That seemed an obvious solution. Jon didn’t think so, however.

“If my father or brother Robb were still the Lord of Winterfell, that’s a path I might have considered. They had the respect of most everyone in the North, and their rule wasn’t questioned. But Rickon is still very young. While he might give me whatever I ask for, I don’t want the Northern lords to see me as the Lord of Winterfell or to convince me to honor Robb’s last wishes and rule as the King in the North.” Jon let out a long sigh. “Can you understand why I didn’t let Val steal me, Shireen?”

What can you possibly give him that I can’t? Shireen recalled father’s words from the Red Keep. Shireen now knew what she could give Jon that neither father nor Val could. I can give him a place besides the Wall where he can use his strengths and not worry about usurping the rights of his siblings.

“I’m beginning to, Jon.” With that, Shireen enjoyed the rest of her walk around the lake before riding back to Castle Black, all the while thinking how she could express all those things to him.

~

Jon was in Castle Black’s armory at dawn, preparing to don mail and some light pieces of armor for his daily sword practice when a dark figure graced the doorway.

“Lord Snow. It must be dull to spar with wildlings and peasants who only just learned how to hold a sword.”

“They’re unpredictable at least, Your Grace,” said Jon, turning around to look at Stannis. It didn’t surprise him that Stannis was awake and dressed at this hour, for just like him the king didn’t seem to sleep for more than a few hours a night. Stannis’ arms were crossed, and his cloth-of-gold cloak was draped around him. “Do you have any suggestions?”

“You look in need of better contest.”

Jon wondered if Stannis was going to suggest his Kingsguard, as he had caught the king training with them many times already at the Wall. But by the way that Stannis was looking at him, Jon guessed that he had another idea entirely. Jon’s mouth slowly spread into a grin.

“I’m flattered that you think you’re a match for me.”

“I’ll be the judge of that, boy. Killing White Walkers is something many men can boast of these days.”

Jon’s grin didn’t disappear as he slid into a mail shirt and fastened gauntlets around his wrists. While he and Stannis had fought together against the White Walkers, it had been as fellow commanders, not warriors fighting side by side on the battlefield. And they had certainly never fought against each other in any capacity, not even a friendly sparring match. I wonder how Stannis would react if I outmaneuvered him and put my sword to his throat. Would he nod in approval? Jon watched Stannis test the weight of some of the dulled longswords in the armory. Or is his pride such that he would consider it treason?

Jon walked out to the training yard with a helmet under his arm. It was empty at this hour, which was fine by him—the Kingsguard knight from the Vale and Ghost didn’t count, nor did Mormont’s raven circling overhead cawing corn and king. The ground was smooth, packed earth, no patches of mud or ice to slip on.

“What do you wish to do, Your Grace?” asked Jon. “Go through drill sets, fight until one of us scores a certain number of hits, or…” Fighting until first blood was another option, but such a thing would be quite painful with practice swords that didn’t have an edge.

“Until one of us surrenders.” Stannis snapped shut the visor on his helmet and lifted his shield, bringing his sword into position.

Jon put his helmet on and followed suit. He and Stannis slowly circled each other, neither wanting to make the first move. I have the advantage. I’m younger and faster. Jon chose to rush at Stannis first, forcing the king to stop whatever deliberations were going on in his mind. He aimed a quick strike at Stannis’ head, but the blow was easily blocked. Jon spun as Stannis aimed at his right shoulder, bringing up his shield just in time. He winced as his shield arm absorbed the hit, not expecting there to be so much force behind it. And Stannis is stronger, his greater height giving him greater reach.

The fight continued in that fashion for some time, with Jon attacking and Stannis defending. Yet somehow Stannis was landing more hits, and Jon didn’t want to think of the new bruises that he’d just added to his constant collection. Stannis didn’t tire when Jon put his sword through a long combination designed to tire an opponent with successive strikes high and low, didn’t give ground when Jon tried to force him back with a well-placed thrust to his side, and overall didn’t seem to have any obvious cracks in his armor. Jon shook his head, trying to keep the sweat on his forehead from dripping into his eyes.

Think. What else is there left for you to do? When all else had failed in his duel against Mance Rayder, Jon had thrown his weapons aside and tackled him, getting in a few good hits before a well-placed knife stopped him. That is a possibility, for I doubt Stannis is expecting that. Jon waited for an opening and angled his sword, locking it with Stannis’ at the crossguard. But just as Jon was prepared to kick Stannis in the shin and hopefully knock him over, he saw Shireen standing next to Ghost, stroking the direwolf’s fur with an amused look on her face.

Jon knew that he had let his concentration lapse, for in the blink of an eye he found himself on his back. Stannis’ shield had collided painfully with his head, causing him to lose his footing. Jon groaned when he felt a sword at his throat.

“I suggest you yield, Lord Snow.”

Jon hadn’t lost his sword in his fall, and he gripped it tighter. Stannis only moved his sword to the point of Jon’s chin.

“You really aren’t in a good position to do anything more.”

Jon let go of his sword, lifting the visor of his helmet and trying to steady his breaths and ignore the throbbing in his head. “I surrender, Your Grace.”

Stannis extended a hand to help him up. Jon took it. “Well fought.”

“Our match was not well fought,” said Stannis. His grip on Jon’s hand intensified, and Jon was beginning to lose feeling in his fingers. “You were too cautious and didn’t attack like I’ve seen you do before. Perhaps you were wary of hitting me, but I expected far more from a young man almost half my age.”

Jon opened his mouth to object, but Stannis didn’t let him get a word in.

“Most importantly, you lost concentration at a crucial time, which allowed me to take advantage of you. I don’t care who your opponent is, but remember to never, ever let your guard down.”

Jon inwardly cringed, and it was a struggle to keep meeting Stannis’ hard eyes with his own. The harshness of the king’s words didn’t bother him, but the disappointment cut deep. You’re a much better fighter than you give yourself credit for, Your Grace, Jon wanted to say in his defense, but Stannis would likely dismiss the compliment as needless flattery. And to think that Shireen is watching all of this, what she must be thinking…

Stannis let go of Jon’s hand and made his way back to the armory to put away his gear. Jon stared at him, frantically trying to think of a way to salvage the situation, for he could not let Stannis walk away like this. Jon didn’t have anything to prove to Stannis, as he was the Lord Commander and the Wall was his, just like Stannis was the king of Westeros by rights. But a part of him still wanted Stannis to nod at him like he did all those years ago at Janos Slynt’s execution, silently saying that Jon was doing the right thing, the just thing. Letting my guard down isn’t a habit of mine, at least not after my own men stabbed me in the back.

“Your Grace!” shouted Jon.

Stannis stopped and turned, not saying anything.

Jon took a deep breath. “Would you agree to a rematch tomorrow morning at the same time?”

Stannis raised an eyebrow, and Jon suspected that he would’ve crossed his arms had they not been holding a sword and shield. “I would, Lord Snow.”

~

All things considered, father was in an excellent mood. Shireen let him escort her back to the King’s Tower after his sparring match with Jon. They had to break their morning fast, after all.

“Was that really necessary?” Shireen pointedly asked father, referring to the harsh words that he’d practically yelled at Jon. Davos was right about father working in a way to yell at Jon during our visit. Perhaps Jon was a bit too cautious, but I can’t blame him. Shireen had felt Ghost tense under her hand upon hearing the words as well, but he didn’t rush to his master until after father had disappeared.

“Of course. I had to determine if he could sufficiently protect you.”

Protect me? That’s what he was concerned the most about? “And what is your verdict?”

“He is adequate.”

“Only adequate?”

Father sighed, frowning. “Jon Snow underestimated me, but if he were armed with his Valyrian steel sword and his direwolf, the fight might very well have had a different ending.”

“Are you going to tell him that?” asked Shireen.

“There’s no need. Now, have you asked Lord Snow to dine with us this evening? I do hope he’ll have the stomach to start extending the same invitation to us.”

~

Jon sparred with Stannis the morning after their first fight. And the morning after that and the morning after that until it became an unspoken agreement between them to always meet each other at the same place and same time. Their subsequent matches weren’t nearly as fraught with tension as their first one, something that Jon was greatly relieved by. He and Stannis spent time going through drills with different weapons, running around different obstacles, and showing each other tricks they had learned. The Kingsguard were often called upon to train with them, and Jon finally got the pleasure of fighting back to back with his king—even if nothing was at stake other than pride. Jon couldn’t remember the last time he had enjoyed training so much. Yes I can. It was when I was back in Winterfell and tried my best to beat Robb bloody every day. I was never successful, but then neither was he. We were equally matched, much to father’s delight and Lady Stark’s irritation.

Shireen also watched him and her father every morning without fail, either with Ghost by her side or a book she had borrowed from the library on her lap. Jon tried to forget that Shireen was there, but he wasn’t always successful. Stannis would always scowl at him if he let his gaze drift toward her or attempt a move that was more for show.

Eventually, Jon was able to give Stannis a well-deserved compliment without him taking offence: “I admire how religiously you train, Your Grace. King Robert let himself go to fat, and I remember being very disappointed the first time I laid eyes on him.”

“I learned quickly growing up that Robert was rarely a good example to follow. His duel with Rhaegar Targaryen might be sung about until time immemorial, but that great warrior was felled by drink, whores, and a scheming wife.”

“The same things are unlikely to happen you,” remarked Jon.

“No.” Stannis’ mouth threatened to smile, but then it reverted back to its usual frown. “I have other vices that will be my downfall, other weaknesses that have nearly destroyed me.”

When Stannis had asked to see Longclaw, Jon had willingly handed his sword over. Stannis looked at the weapon admiringly, testing the sharpness with his thumb. In return, Jon inspected Lightbringer, amazed that the sword still shown as bright as ever. But there was no heat emanating from the sword, and nothing magical happened when he purposely nicked his skin with the blade. When Jon haltingly shared these observations with Stannis, the king just snorted. He never did try and kill any White Walkers with it. He’s known all along that Lightbringer is just common steel.

Along with sparring with Stannis, sharing the evening meal with him and Shireen also became an unspoken agreement. Most often Jon would make the short trek up the winding stairs in the King’s Tower, but occasionally they would join him in his solar. Talk would range from the moods of the Wall to the moods of the Small Council, Jon asking enough questions to gain an idea about what it was truly like to live in King’s Landing. Shireen was naturally more talkative than Stannis, but in the right mood Stannis could be surprisingly loquacious. His eyes always lit up when he talked about Storm’s End, justice being brought to the realm, or sailing with his Hand in Blackwater Bay. I wonder how many people have gotten to see this side of the king and the princess. Lord Davos, for one, but I doubt even the queen has seen her husband and daughter like this. Often, large parts of their meals were eaten in silence, but the silence was never awkward. Sometimes there was simply nothing to say, for not every moment needed to be filled with meaningless chatter.

At Shireen’s request, Ghost was now always present during their meals. He usually curled up by the fireplace, but he also liked curling up by Shireen’s feet or putting his head in her lap. Jon had been rather astonished by how quickly Ghost had taken to Shireen. At first he thought it was because she always indulged the wolf, but Jon knew that wasn’t the whole story from all the time he spent in his wolf’s mind. Ghost trusted Shireen like he did few others, and he was ready to protect her just like he would Sam, Sansa, or Rickon. Jon knew how Ghost wanted him to respond to Shireen’s offer of marriage, but he still had many doubts of his own.

One of those doubts was addressed before the meal one evening, when Jon walked up the stairs in the King’s Tower to find Stannis sitting alone by the fireplace.

“Where’s Shireen, Your Grace?”

Shireen is still in the library.” Stannis didn’t mention Jon dropping Shireen’s title, though he noticed it. “I’m sure she’ll be with us shortly.”

Jon took the glass of boiled water with lemon that Stannis offered. So far, neither man had mentioned Shireen’s proposal to each other. Jon decided to finally change that, saying without any preamble: “I do not desire to sit on any throne.”

“That is well, for your father was not a king.”

“I simply want you to know that.”

Stannis waved Jon’s words away. “Do you think I would be here at the Wall right now if I thought you did? Shireen wants to marry you. I will not tell you to accept or reject her offer, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who never sought it. Both you and I have only taken up the mantle of leadership when it was thrust upon us. Few men—or women, to be fair to my daughter—know what that’s like.”

Jon thought about that for a while. Stannis seemed so sure of himself, so sure of the similarities he saw between them. “May I ask you a personal question, Your Grace?”

“You’ll ask it whether I want you to or not, so get on with it.”

“Did you want to be king?”

“I am the king and have been, ever since my brother died leaving no trueborn heirs. Wants never entered into it.”

“That’s not exactly what I meant…”

“Do you think I should’ve stayed on Dragonstone and let the Lannisters rule the realm? A realm that they only controlled through murder, treachery, incest, and treason?” Stannis shook his head. “The War of the Five Kings would’ve been the War of Four Kings if I had not entered the fray. I did not wish to sit back and do nothing when I had the law, the rights on my side, and eventually I was able to win the throne by saving the kingdom.”

“What if King Robert had never died?” Jon blurted out.

Stannis thought about that question for a long time. “I would’ve liked to live out my days as the Lord of Storm’s End, with my ships, loyal knights, and daughter by my side. I hope that you will be able to see the castle soon, if not to rid yourself of the ridiculous notion that the Wall has the most magnificent sunrise in Westeros.”

So he never has wanted to be king, though he certainly never stops taking about his rights. Jon relaxed ever so slightly. He took a seat in the chair next to Stannis, leaning his head back and thinking that Stannis might be right about the similarities between them after all.

Ultimately, life at Castle Black was much more enjoyable with the king and princess in residence once again. While Jon still had plenty of duties to occupy his time, he looked forward to the time he spent with Shireen and Stannis—both together and individually. They saw him as an equal and never acted like he was an undead monster. Jon was candid with them in ways that he was with few others. Shireen and Stannis aren’t my friends, for a Lord Commander has no friends. But during those occasions when he forgot that he was Lord Snow, when Stannis would frown at him and Shireen would smile her lopsided smile, Jon felt that he was back with his family before winter had come.

Chapter Text

The harvest festival at the Wall took place after the arrival of the Citadel’s white raven heralding summer. Such a festival had been Jon’s idea, following his father’s example of inviting the Stark bannermen to Winterfell after the reaping of the seasonal harvests. Those events helped father accomplish multiple things at once: Taxes were collected in the form of crops, livestock, and other material goods, the Northern lords were given the opportunity to converse and strike deals in a relaxed atmosphere, and the spirits of the highborn and smallfolk alike were raised by indulging in a generous feast. Along with a feast, Jon had planned some simple contests and sent word that any singer would be gladly welcome.

The garrisons from every castle along the Wall had been invited, as were the villages and small settlements throughout the Gift and New Gift. Over many days Jon welcomed people to Castle Black, directing them to Dolorous Edd so their taxes could be collected and goods stored in the appropriate places. Never before had Jon seen so many people in such good moods at the Wall—even when the White Walkers had retreated there hadn’t been many smiles, for death still lingered. And the cold. The cold never went away.

Shireen and Stannis stayed out of the way during all of the arrivals. At first Jon thought it was because they didn’t wish to bring more attention to themselves than necessary, but by the way they were watching him Jon gathered that there was another reason entirely. I’m being judged on how well I can act the gracious host. I don’t naturally enjoy such a thing, but I can’t imagine they do either. No one addressed Jon as “King Crow,” which was progress, and Ghost had yet to find a reason to bare his teeth at anyone.

On the actual day of the festival, Jon woke up to see that Satin had laid out his black velvet tunic and belt with a silver direwolf buckle. Both had been gifts from Rickon and Sansa, but Jon rarely wore them. Life at the Wall was simply too harsh for such finery, and if Jon wanted to impress someone the presence of Ghost and Longclaw was usually enough. And my own face, with all its scars. Jon was tempted to ignore the garments and don his usual black wools and leathers, but today…It won’t hurt to truly look the part of the Lord Commander.
~

“You wish me to wear this?”

“The queen would approve, Your Grace. This harvest festival is the largest social event to ever have been held at the Wall, and the smallfolk and brothers of the Night’s Watch need to be reminded that you are the Crown Princess.”

Shireen sighed and didn’t argue. Somehow a dark blue velvet dress with intricate gold stitching around the collar had been packed with her things, and her mother’s ladies were insisting that she wear it. It really was a beautiful dress, but like all beautiful things it was wasted on her. Though she was tall and had a slim figure, nothing could hide her square jaw or the greyscale scars on the right side of her face and neck. The eyes of strangers always seemed to be drawn to the ugly grey marks, and Shireen had seen too many people look away in horror. Those well acquainted with her had learned to ignore them, but Shireen wanted to do something to make people forget that she had them altogether. Father might, as he told me in the throne room before we left for the Wall. He’s not handsome in the way that Uncle Renly was and Uncle Robert used to be, but looks don’t matter as much for a king compared to strength and intelligence. Shireen wondered what Jon thought of her scars. The young girl inside of her very much wanted him to say that she was pretty, but she didn’t know if she would trust him if he did. He’s not horrified by my appearance, at least. He genuinely enjoys spending time with me and father, and it’s not just politeness that causes him to relax and open up in our company.

Shireen remained lost in her thoughts as her ladies styled her hair and placed a crown on top of her head—a golden circlet designed to look like antlers twined together, accented here and there with bits of dragonglass. Father’s crown looked similar. She remembered that he once had a crown of red-gold to honor R’hllor’s fires, but when Melisandre had disappeared so had the crown.

Shireen stood up when Ser Rolland knocked on her door, preparing to escort her and father to the field south of Castle Black where all of the festivities were to be held. She straightened her skirts and made sure that her crown was firmly in place. I am Crown Princess Shireen Baratheon of Storm’s End, and I look down to no one. Jon and Ghost were waiting at the entrance to the King’s Tower, however, and father politely nodded to her and left with his other two Kingsguard knights. Father didn’t glance back.

Jon looked…well, he was wearing fine black clothes and his dark hair was combed and neatly tied back, but he looked more confident than Shireen had seen him. She knew that he had been planning the harvest festival for quite some time, but today he would also get to see the literal fruits of several years of his labors as Lord Commander. The Wall was a different place than the forbidding ice monstrosity she had first seen as a girl of eleven, and Shireen didn’t fault Jon for any pride that he felt.

“You look very pretty, Shireen,” greeted Jon.

Shireen stilled, struck by the sudden desire to run back into her tower. He’s not supposed to say that. He should be telling me the hard truth, regardless of what I want to hear.

“Shireen?” Jon tilted his head.

“Do you really mean that? Or is Lord Snow just paying compliments because it’s expected of him as the gracious Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch?” Her voice must have come out harsher than intended, for Jon actually took a step back. He stared at her, surprise and confusion written on his face.

Eventually, after looking down at Ghost and back up at her, Jon said: “I like the color of your dress. It brings out your eyes. They’re a nice blue. Deep blue like the sea should look like, not the icy blue of the White Walker’s eyes. I also like the style of your hair. You usually wear it tied up in a braid. But now it’s down and loose, and…” he trailed off, visibly uncomfortable. “I don’t have anything to gain by lying to you.”

He complimented my dress and hair. My dress is pretty, and my mother’s ladies do know many nice hairstyles. Shireen thought about Jon’s last words. He didn’t tell me any lies. Jon also seemed sincere, unlike too many people at court who were well-practiced in rolling flattery off their tongues. Next to his master, Ghost’s red eyes looked sad and his ears were beginning to droop. Should I trust Jon, then? He knows what father thinks of fools and flatterers, and unless he’s trying to anger me…

Shireen looked at Jon again, her eyes meeting his.

She chose to trust him.

~

A large field just south of Castle Black had been prepared for the harvest festival, and soon the tables brought out from the castle would be groaning under the weight of food and drink. A tall summer pole had been erected, colorful strips of fabric and ropes woven with flowers streaming from it, all to be used for a dance later on.

Sam presented the Citadel’s white raven to the assembled crowd of brothers of the Night’s Watch, wildlings, and smallfolk of the Gift and New Gift. It was cheered with much fanfare, and through Ghost Jon thought that he could smell happiness. Summer had that effect on people, and he’d give almost anything to go back to the last summer when all his family was alive and well. The only one not impressed with the white raven was Mormont’s raven, who cawed Show off! as he landed on Jon’s shoulder and dug in his talons. Jon shooed the bird away, hoping that it wouldn’t devour too much of the feast or, gods forbid, try and force the white raven into a pie.

Speaking of family…

Shireen and Stannis stood next to Jon as he thanked everyone for their hard work and for travelling the distance to Castle Black. They said not a word as he spoke, though he could see eyes look to them as often as to him and Ghost. Just King Stannis, Fair Princess Shireen, and the undead Wolf of the Wall. The longer that Shireen and Stannis stayed at the Wall, the more Jon’s original resolve to refuse Shireen’s proposal crumbled. He liked Shireen—more than he did during the years when he wrote letters to her, there was no getting around that.

Though complimenting her about her appearance was apparently a grave mistake. Shireen did look pretty in her blue dress, with her hair down and swept over her right shoulder, only held together by a small golden clasp. The style was clever, as it emphasized the parts of her face not covered by greyscale scars. No doubt Shireen was taking a leaf from her father’s book when she forced him to explain why he had complimented her in the first place, but Jon wished that she hadn’t taken the compliment like a personal attack. If talk of Shireen’s lack of beauty has reached the Wall, I can’t imagine what the gossips in King’s Landing must be saying. While it was true that Shireen wasn’t beautiful like Val, Jon didn’t think of that when he was with her. Sansa is beautiful too, but it’s hard for me to spend time with her and not be reminded of Catelyn Stark and the last words that she said to me.

Soon the contests began. No Southerner would be impressed by them, Jon guessed, but the Wall had neither the means nor the coin to host a proper tournament with jousts and mêlées. There was an archery contest, a spear-throwing competition, and a horse race. Men competed to see how fast they could drink enormous tankards of ale and who could run the fastest—while carrying their wives. Decorative drinking horns and dragonglass knives were given as prizes, along with crowns of wildflowers for the winners to give to the women of their choice. Jon insisted that Shireen help him award the prizes. She tried to gracefully decline, at first.

“It’s your festival. That honor should belong to you.”

“True, but I do not want to deny my people the honor of being congratulated by their princess.”

Jon hoped that Shireen would smile at that comment, but she simply raised her eyebrows. He tried again.

“If I wasn’t the Lord Commander, I’d compete to win a crown for you. But since I am and you already have a crown, it’s a moot point.”

Shireen still didn’t smile, but her face reddened ever so slightly. Jon considered that a victory.

Three-Finger Hobb and his assistants bringing out seemingly endless dishes of food was the signal for the drink to start flowing. Vats of ale, honeyed mead, and spiced wine accompanied an array of roasted game, meat pies, crusty breads, fresh vegetables, and fruits baked long enough for their sweet juices to leak out of them. As the king, Stannis was given the honor of carving the first slice of meat from a gigantic roasted elk. Jon’s mouth began to water at the sight of so much food, and he wondered how much of it was him and how much of it was Ghost. He reached out to Ghost in his mind and made his way over to Hobb. The cook did not seem surprised, and he produced a large haunch of aurochs meat and gave it to Ghost with a large flourish.

“Never in my life did I think I’d be cooking for so many people, m’lord,” said Hobb. “First I cooked for the Night’s Watch, but then the king came to the Wall, then Lady Alys got married, then all the wildlings came, then Empress Daenerys and her dragons…”

“Be thankful that we’ve always had the food for you to cook,” Jon replied. “Did you have any luck in finding those berries that I asked for?”

Jon was handed a small bowl, and he headed straight to where Shireen was eating with her father. “I have a gift for you, Shireen, something only found in the wilds beyond the Wall.”

Shireen took the small bowl filled with orange berries that resembled raspberries.

“What are these?”

“Cloudberries. They grow in marshes north of the Wall and are incredibly sweet, making them a treat worthy of a princess. Not many people who’ve grown up south of the Wall have ever tried them.

Shireen ate one of the cloudberries and then another, much to Jon’s delight. Stannis watched the exchange with interest, and Jon tried his best to ignore him. “Well?”

“I like them very much. Though I hope it wasn’t dangerous to acquire them!”

Jon shook his head. “While I’d never call ranging beyond the Wall safe, White Walkers haven’t been seen in years. My rangers are careful about where they go and how long they stay. Maybe one day the wildlings can return to their original lands, but for now they’re slowly finding a home here.”

Near the large pole with colorful fabric, a handful of musicians and singers were readying their instruments. Shireen ate another cloudberry.

“Do you dance often at the Wall, Lord Snow?”

Only when there is a wedding, Jon had once told Alys Karstark. But he hadn’t danced at Lady Alys’ wedding, and in fact he hadn’t danced since he had been ordered to help Arya with her dancing lessons at Winterfell. “I haven’t had the occasion to.”

“Is now not an appropriate occasion?”

“I doubt that I would meet your standards,” said Jon automatically.

“Nonsense. You dance beautifully with my father most every morning.” Jon knew that he must look as unnerved at that comment as Stannis did, for Shireen added: “Swordplay is a type of dance, after all. It has complicated footwork, spins, twists, leaps…though one wrong move could be deadly.”

“Well then, Princess Shireen,” said Jon, standing up straight before bowing formally. “May I have the pleasure of dancing with you?” At one time, such a gesture from him would’ve been made out of politeness, out of an attempt to humor her. But now…but now he genuinely wanted to impress Shireen. Granted, she must have been impressed with him enough to travel all the way to the Wall and ask to marry him, but Jon wanted to impress her with the way he acted now. Jon imagined that Shireen hadn’t had much cause to be happy in life, and any time he could get her to smile was worth it to him.

~

Shireen took Jon’s hand and let him lead her to the small crowd that was gathering near the musicians. There were couples like her and Jon, but also children, greybeards, and many brothers of the Night’s Watch. It was not hard to guess why, as music had a way of delighting people of all ages and stations.

“What is the pole for?” Shireen asked Jon.

“A dance to celebrate summer, of course. Are there not summer poles down South?”

Shireen shook her head, not knowing what Jon was referring to. Jon walked over to the musicians, saying something to one of them before walking over to the pole and grabbing the colorful strips of cloth and ropes attached to it. He handed them out to various members in the crowd, reserving one for himself and one for Shireen.

“What happens now?” Shireen started to ask, but Jon didn’t hear her question as the musicians started to play, a lute being strummed and a pair of hands clapping.

“Just follow along!” said Jon.

Follow along Shireen did. Everyone holding the cloth and rope moved in a circle around the tall pole, skipping behind and weaving about the other dancers. When an intricate design had been twisted around the pole, everyone joined hands and continued dancing in a circle. One of Shireen’s hands was in Jon’s, of course, the other in a gnarled hand a white-haired woman. She gave Shireen a toothless smile, nodding at her crown before continuing with the dance. Shireen didn’t know the name of the first song the musicians played, but enough people knew it and sung along to one of the many verses:

As I went back to Sunspear City, as the sun began to set,
Who should I spy but the Dornish lady
Catching a moth in a golden net!
First she saw me, then she fled me,
Lifting her skirts above her knee
In all my life I ne’er did see a maid so sweet as that lady!

When the circle broke up and the musicians started to play a lilting, slow song without words, Jon held out his hand again, silently asking to be Shireen’s partner. Overall, Jon wasn’t a bad dancer. He knew basic dancing holds and the appropriate steps, even if his footwork wasn’t as fluid as when he had a sword in hand. He led her around the field without crashing into any of the other dancing pairs, twirling her in time with the music. If Shireen was to be impressed by anything, it was that whenever she looked at Jon’s face his eyes were trained on her and her alone.

~

Arya had always hated dancing, and if it hadn’t been for Jon she’d have tripped over her skirts at every turn. She stepped on his feet often enough, and all Jon could do was ruffle her hair and say that her sewing better be neat or else no one would call her a proper lady.

“If being a proper lady means being like Sansa, than I never want to be one. Mother says I need to care about my dresses and hair to be pretty. But you don’t care, do you Jon?”

“I’ll always love you just as you are, little sister. And you’ll always be pretty to me.”

Shireen danced like a proper lady, but Jon knew that she’d never be considered a traditional one. Traditional ladies weren’t trained to rule kingdoms, and traditional ladies would never last a minute in the company of Stannis Baratheon without trying his patience. And traditional ladies don’t ask undead bastards to marry them. Jon didn’t mind, just like he didn’t mind with Arya. But that brought up questions about how traditional his role would be if Jon followed Shireen to King’s Landing and became her husband.

“What is there for me to do in King’s Landing?” Jon asked Shireen as he twirled her around. “Hang off your arm like a pretty ornament?”

“If a pretty ornament was what I wanted, I wouldn’t have wasted my time coming to the Wall,” said Shireen once she’d caught her breath. She placed her left hand back on his shoulder and her right hand in his left. “You have dreadful scars that mar you face.”

Scars again. Shireen’s tone was nowhere near playful, and Jon wondered what was going through her head as she stared steadily at him. Was she trying to test his reaction to being called hideous, or was she bringing attention to a similarity they shared? I love my scars just as much as you do yours. But surely we can stop focusing on them.

“Yes, my scars might terrify all those soft Southern ladies. But having scars doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re weak. They prove that you can survive,” said Jon, remembering Sam’s comforting advice and hoping that it would mean more to Shireen than it did to him. He also remembered some advice from the dwarf Tyrion Lannister. “Make them part of your armor, for then they can never be used to hurt you.”

Jon fleetingly thought of touching the grey scars on Shireen’s neck, but doing so would break their dance hold, and he didn’t know how she would react to such an intimate gesture…Unexpectedly, Jon felt Shireen’s hand on his shoulder slide to his neck, brushing against the thin scar there.

“I think your scars make you look rather handsome.” Shireen’s hand then moved up, a finger tracing the long scar that stretched down Jon’s right eye and across his nose.

Jon’s breath caught in his throat as warmth flooded through him. “No one has ever said that about me before.”

Shireen smiled her lopsided smile. The tempo of the music picked up, and it wasn’t until the song finished and another began that Jon asked his question again.

“I’m serious, though. What would I do in King’s Landing?”

“You will help father and I rule.”

“Yes, but…” Jon bit his lip. “Ladies of a noble house run the household and hold court to their husband’s visitors and supplicants. They usually don’t perform the duties of an heir or rule themselves.”

“That bothers you?”

“You know it doesn’t, and I hope that I’ve not severely misled you to believe that I want to sit the Iron Throne myself. Do you expect me to take the roles of a princess and later a queen? I’d make a mess of the court, unless I can scream at everyone that ice monsters will murder them if they don’t get along.”

Shireen raised an eyebrow. “I’d like to see you try.”

“No doubt your father would approve of my methods, especially if Ghost got to chase the most offensive people around the castle.”

Shireen looked toward Ghost, who was now gnawing on the aurochs bone he had previously stripped of meat. “We will need a new Master of Laws, for one,” she said seriously. “My great grandfather Lord Estermont has expressed a desire to return to his castle, as King’s Landing has quite exhausted him. You would do well in such a role. If there’s ever another war to fight, you know how to lead men in battle, something I’ve never been trained to do. Lord Davos has been making strides to improve the lives of the poor in King’s Landing, and from how you’ve settled the Gift and New Gift with the dispossessed, you would be of great help to him.”

Jon let Shireen continue speaking, for she was only telling him things he wanted to hear.

“And I will need a trusted advisor, someone who knows Westeros in ways that I do not. You are intimately familiar with the North, just like I am with the South. I believe it would be a beneficial partnership, and there’s no one better suited than you.”

~

Shireen lost count of how many times she danced with Jon that evening. It’s not like she had many proper partners to choose from. She could certainly dance with the Kingsguard knights and the high-ranking Night’s Watch commanders such as Ser Denys Mallister. Or father, not that I’ve ever seen him dance in my life. But no brother of the Night’s Watch or man of the Gift and New Gift would dare approach her, as such a move could be badly misconstrued.

The music that was played and sung was different from what she had heard down south. Not that father had ever employed a singer on Dragonstone or willingly employed one in King’s Landing. There had been a singer at father’s coronation feast, and visiting lords would often bring them to court as part of their entourage. Here, the singers from the wildlings, smallfolk of the Gift, and the Night’s Watch sang songs of unfaithful lovers, the joys of drinking mead, and a knight saving a fair maid from a vicious wolf. Jon hadn’t been fond of the wolf song, but as the knight merely chased the wolf away instead of killing it, he didn’t say anything. And Ghost kept gnawing on his aurochs bone.

~

Jon was thoroughly enjoying himself at the harvest festival. The spirits of everyone only rose as day turned to dusk, no doubt helped along immensely by good food and spirits of a stronger kind. Everywhere Jon looked, people were living life as it should be lived, not cowering in fear of winter, war, or White Walkers. Women young and old laughed with crowns of flowers on their heads, children chased after each other, and even some of the more sullen members of the Night’s Watch relaxed once they got some mead in them.

Jon saw Stannis talking to Tormund. Well, Tormund was talking while Stannis listened with one of his perpetual frowns. For some bizarre reason, Stannis agreed to sample whatever drink was in the skin that Tormund offered him. When the liquid touched his lips he dearly looked like he wanted to spit it out, but as such a thing would be a grave insult, he swallowed it to Tormund’s delight. No to be outdone, the large wilding took an even longer pull from the skin himself.

Val was dancing with Toregg the Tall, Maarit’s father and the man who Val had stolen once Jon had refused her. Jon reckoned that Toregg would always be teased about being stolen, but he didn’t seem to mind in the slightest. He was devoted to Val, and he willingly did everything she asked of him. They understand each other, more than Ygritte and I ever did, and more than Val and I ever could. Jon knew that things never would’ve worked out between him and Val, even if he had thrown caution to the winds and given up everything to have her as his wife. Those were her terms, though she never spelled them out like that.

Jon’s eyes easily found Shireen, standing next to Ghost as he patiently let some young children pet him.

Isn’t that what Shireen’s trying to do, though? Steal you on her terms? But Jon understood Shireen’s world. He understood her duties and he understood her father. The wildlings liked to go on and on about how their lives were free, how no man should tell another man what to do. But Jon hadn’t been free when he’d joined them beyond the Wall, not in the ways that mattered most to him. I’ll have more freedom marrying Shireen, in a way. If I presented terms of my own I doubt she’d refuse if they were reasonable enough.

Jon made his way over to the bench where Sam was drinking a cup of ale and feeding the white raven bits of a meat pie.

“Ask Shireen to dance, Sam. You share the same blood; your mother is a Florent like hers. What have you got to lose?”

“My head, for one, if the king is displeased when I step on his daughter’s feet.”

Jon gave a short laugh, nudging Sam with his shoulder. “Stannis may be harsh, but he’s not that harsh.”

“I’ve learned that it’s best not to underestimate him. Besides, he’s not my future goodfather.”

“Sam,” said Jon with a bit of warning in his voice. Sam didn’t reply, giving Jon a knowing look before going in search of more ale.

~

When the sun had set and Jon had escorted Shireen back to her tower, father looked irritated. Shireen wondered why, as father had seemed rather relaxed all day. No one had bothered him or made any demands of him, and if he felt the feast a waste of food no such sentiment had ever been expressed.

“Has Lord Snow made a decision yet?”

That’s what he’s thinking of. “No, not yet.”

“Tell him to make up his mind sooner rather than later. While I am enjoying this respite from King’s Landing, it will get tedious to watch you two dance around each other for much longer.”

Shireen’s face colored at father’s comment. Discussing courting—or gods forbid, romance—was not something she relished doing with father. It was awkward, to put it mildly. Though doing it with mother would be even more awkward. “Do you think Jon’s being receptive to my advances?”

“He smiles at you,” replied father.

“So?”

“How often have you noticed him smiling at anyone else? The direwolf doesn’t count. You’ve done an admirable job trying to get his attention, and in turn he’d tried his best to get yours.”

Shireen didn’t trust herself to say anything.

“Those cloudberries?” Shireen couldn’t tell if father was trying to laugh or scowl. “I wouldn’t have wasted my time. But you seemed impressed by them nevertheless.”

You always go to great lengths to acquire lemons for your lemon water, mused Shireen, but it wasn’t worth telling father that. He was in a good mood, she was in a good mood, and Shireen had no desire to wreck it. In no time at all Shireen took off her crown and disappeared under the furs on her bed. With any luck she’d dream of dancing with a handsome man who had scars of his own.

~

Jon had fallen asleep exhausted more times than he could count. This night was no exception, but he gladly welcomed this type of exhaustion. The harvest festival had been a success—the Night’s Watch’s stores were stocked, the food and music were pleasant, and no one tried to kill anyone. He felt a bit lightheaded from all the mead and wine that he’d drunk, not to mention all the time he had spent spinning around with Shireen on the open field.

When Jon slept, he dreamed.

Jon dreamt he was back at Winterfell, running through empty hallways shouting the names of his father, Robb, and Arya. No one answered him, but no one ever did. The stones of the castle were crumbling, the ravens were gone from the rookery, and the stables were full of bones. In no time at all he found himself in front of the crypts. When he had made his way down the spiraling dark steps, the old Kings of Winter glared at him, their iron swords and stone direwolves equally menacing.

“I’m not a Stark!” Jon screamed. “I know this isn’t my place!”

The walls started to close in on him, darkness enveloping him. This is when I usually wake up, thought Jon, strangely aware that he was in an old, familiar nightmare. But he didn’t wake up, even when he screamed over and over again. “This isn’t my place, THIS ISN’T MY PLACE!”

Suddenly, a small spark of light appeared in the form of a torch. The torch was held by a little boy who couldn’t be much older than three. The only feature of his that Jon could make out was a shock of dark hair.

“Father?” said the little boy.

“Father?” repeated Jon, his heart hammering. Is the boy supposed to be me? Is this me looking for father?

“What are you doing down here? Come with me to the godswood!”

With that, the boy took off running, his torch bobbing up and down. Jon didn’t know what else to do but follow. When he climbed out of the crypts, he noticed that Winterfell was now a rush of activity. People moved about their daily tasks in colorful clothes with smiles on their faces, no worries at all. He took off at a run so he wouldn’t lose sight of the boy, who did indeed go the godswood as he promised. Unlike the bustling castle, the godswood was empty and peaceful like Jon had always remembered, the heart tree’s garish face looking sadly at the pool in front of it.

But the godswood wasn’t completely empty.

Shireen sat on a log next to the heart tree, Ghost curled up at her feet. The little boy stopped running and climbed into her lap, finally turning back to Jon. Now Jon could see that the boy’s eyes were the same deep blue of the sea.

“The tree has been talking to me, father.”

“It has?” responded Jon in a strangled voice. He looked again at the heart tree, the only tree in the godswood that the boy could possibly be referring to. Jon tried to remain calm and keep himself from shouting as the garish face started to change, change into a face that Jon thought he wouldn’t ever see again. Bran. For the second time in a dream, Jon came face to face with a weirwood wearing his brother’s face.

“Yes!” exclaimed the boy. “The tree is very happy to meet me, and the voice says that I can call him Uncle Bran! And that if I ever want to talk to him all I have to do is call for him at any heart tree.”

Jon stared at the tree for a long time, watching the eyes light up like Bran’s used to when he had successfully climbed one of Winterfell’s many walls. And then the tree began to talk, or rather a soft voice began whispering in Jon’s ear:

“You have a beautiful son, Jon. I’m so glad that you made the right decision.”

Jon looked again at the boy, then at Shireen, making the connection that he hadn’t dared do yet. Both of them were smiling up at him, and never had a sight filled him with so much happiness. He turned around and looked at Winterfell’s highest tower. A tall figure wearing a crown nodded at him before disappearing.

“What decision did I make?” Jon asked Bran, but his brother only smiled.

The godswood then dissolved, turning into Jon’s bedchamber in the Lord Commander’s Tower. This time Jon knew that he was properly awake, for he could feel the cold seeping into his bones. I’m always warm in my dreams. He was swiftly reminded of the warmth that swept through him when Shireen had touched his scars while they were dancing. Surely that wasn’t a dream as well? Jon took a deep breath, making out the hard features of his room with the dying embers of his fire and the slivers of moonlight that sneaked in through the shutters of his windows. Ghost was next to him, as always, and his swordhand received a lick before burying itself in the direwolf’s soft white fur.

“Did you dream my dream too, Ghost?” Jon asked. Ghost didn’t reply, but the gaze of the wolf’s red eyes said that he knew exactly what Jon had seen in the dream.

“Was that really the future?” Again, Ghost didn’t reply, but through his wolf Jon could feel Summer for the first time in years. Summer was somewhere dark but warm, curled up in a place that held no danger. “Bran is alive. I’ve never felt so sure of that until now.”

Jon sat up, pushing his fingers through his hair and tilting his head back. He wanted that dream to be his future, just like he had wanted Winterfell as a boy, just like he wanted to see Arya again and muss her hair and call her “little sister.” There was only one way to get that future, of course, something his mind had wrestled with ever since his sunrise with Shireen on top of the Wall. I can leave the Night’s Watch, but do I have the heart to? I’ve worked so hard to make a life for myself here, and even with my death and the White Walkers, I’ve managed to forge a place. My men respect me, even if it’s only out of fear. I saved the wildlings. The Gift and New Gift are being successfully settled. And summer is here.

Unbidden, Maester Aemon’s words echoed in Jon’s head: A craven can be as brave as any man, when there is nothing for fear. And we all do our duty, when there is no cost to it. How easy it seems then, to walk the path of honor. Yet soon or late in every man’s life comes a day when it is not easy, a day when he must choose. Maester Aemon had remained at the Wall, even when his heart had called him to leave. He had kept his vows and lived with his choices, just like Jon had done when he was tempted to avenge father, tempted to become the Lord of Winterfell, tempted to become the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, tempted to search Westeros for Arya and Bran…I will never stop being tempted, but unlike Maester Aemon my vows no longer bind me. What will happen if I stay here at the Wall like he did?

If Jon stayed at the Wall, he would never have to go to the city where father died. He’d never have to shoulder the burdens of ruling the realm that weighted down Stannis and Shireen. But the little boy wouldn’t exist, as Shireen would marry someone else. Stannis would nod at another young man, never returning to the Wall unless the White Walkers rose again. Shireen would find someone else to smile at, someone else to dance with and confide in. Above all, someone else would join their family, and Jon knew that he’d be jealous of that man for the rest of his life.

This will not be my lot, Jon decided as he looked around his bedchamber. He pulled on his boots and threw on his cloak. Gods willing I will end my days far from here, surrounded by something other than ice and cold.

Ghost followed Jon as he traversed through the wormways, stopping at the baths and diving into the water after he removed his clothes. Jon furiously scrubbed at his skin and hair with a bar of soap, doing the same to Ghost when the wolf also jumped into the water. In no time at all he was back in his chambers, exchanging his worn blacks for the velvet tunic that he’d worn the previous day. He didn’t buckle Longclaw around his waist this time, holding it under his arm instead. Hopefully the Kingsguard would allow him to keep his sword with him, for even though he was going to draw it, it was only to place it at the feet of the king he was going to serve and the woman he was going to marry.

Chapter Text

Shireen woke to a sharp series of knocks on her bedchamber door. Judging by the lack of light coming from the small window in the stone tower, it was not yet dawn.

“Princess.” Shireen recognized Ser Rolland’s voice through the door. “I’m sorry to disturb you at such an hour, but your father the king wishes to speak with you.”

Shireen sat up, now wide awake. She pushed her covers aside, threw a cloak over her nightgown, and crossed the room to open her door. Upon opening it, Ser Rolland looked her up and down.

“I assume that nothing is gravely wrong, Ser?”

“No, Princess,” said the Kingsguard knight with a small shake of his head. “But I think you will want to wear some warmer clothes.”

“Whatever for?”

“Your father is not in his solar, you see. He’s waiting for you at the top of the Wall.”

And so he was, arms crossed and looking intently at the lands stretching north as far as the eye could see. Stannis Baratheon looked every inch the king, from his cloth-of-gold cloak to his golden crown flecked with dragonglass. Shireen was suddenly wary—not because father had asked to speak with her at a strange hour, but because he only wore his crown when he felt that he had to. His lords needed to be impressed from time to time, the smallfolk needed to be reminded that they had a king who cared, and Empress Daenerys needed to know that a single black dragon did not make her the ruler of Westeros by rights. Why is he wearing his crown for me? As well, Shireen wondered why father had chosen the top of the Wall as a meeting place. Such a dramatic location could only mean that he had something very serious to say. I asked Jon for his hand in marriage up here, and I have a feeling that father asked Jon to be the Lord of Winterfell up here as well.

“Father,” greeted Shireen.

Father didn’t acknowledge her until she came to stand next to him.

“Shireen.” He looked east. “Sunrise should be occurring soon. I’ve forgotten what it looks like from the top of the Wall. Regardless, it will never rival the sunrise from Storm’s End.”

Shireen didn’t say anything.

“You must be wondering why I wished to speak with you here at this hour.”

Shireen still didn’t say anything, and but she was wondering why father was wasting his breath in stating the obvious.

“There is something very important that I must tell you,” father continued. “Something that has been troubling me for years, but something that you have a right to know about.”

“I have something important to tell you as well,” replied Shireen. Now’s as good a time as any to tell him why I will never marry Dickon Tarly. If father wanted to make use of a dramatic location, then so could she. And we’re alone up here, with no chance of being overheard.

“It is time for you to know why Lady Melisandre went beyond the Wall one last time.”

Melisandre? Shireen wondered what serious matter still concerned her. The Red Priestess was gone and all but forgotten. Or perhaps father has made the effort to forget her for a reason. “Jon said she went beyond the Wall on a suicide mission because…”

“Lord Snow knows nothing. She went beyond the Wall because I would’ve otherwise executed her for treason.”

Shireen’s eyes widened. “What did she do? I thought that she always helped you in your fight for the Iron Throne, even if some of her methods were a bit…”

“Harsh? Unnatural? Barbaric?” finished father with a twist of his mouth. “Lady Melisandre was one of my advisors because she and her magic were useful and inspired fear in others. I listened to her advice as shrewdly as I did anyone else’s, and I always scoffed at the rumors that she had me under her thrall. However, all rumors have some basis in truth.”

“She enchanted you?” Shireen found that hard to believe.

“She was convinced that I was Azor Ahai reborn and kept telling me that. It was tedious to hear Azor Ahai over and over, but when times were darkest there came a point when I wanted to believe her. Before Daenerys Targaryen arrived at the Wall with her dragons, it truly looked like we would all die and that Westeros would be overrun with White Walkers. We didn’t have enough dragonglass, and only Lord Snow carried Valyrian steel. The sun would only rise for a few hours every day, and it was always so cold. The first Azor Ahai had faced a similar situation during the Long Night according the songs, and he only prevailed because he was willing to sacrifice the one person who he loved the most. Lady Melisandre was adamant that a sacrifice by Azor Ahai reborn, by me, would save Westeros.”

Shireen stilled, now scared about what father would say next.

Father took a breath before continuing, hands still behind his back and gaze again directed north of the Wall. “On Dragonstone, she wanted to sacrifice your cousin Edric to wake a stone dragon who would burn away the darkness. Davos smuggled him away before I could deny or agree to her request. Here on the Wall, standing where you’re standing now, she said that she needed to sacrifice you to do the same.” At that, father turned and kneeled before Shireen, bowing his head. “Though I have no right, I must ask for your forgiveness.”

“Why do you need forgiveness? I was never sacrificed, and you sent Lady Melisandre away for suggesting such a thing.” That’s all there was to it. Shireen focused on that thought. Father would never stand for such a thing, would never put my life in danger to be like a hero in the songs, would never…But why is he kneeling before me wearing his crown?

“I considered her request,” said father in a clear voice. “If the death of one girl, one sacrifice, could save the realm, would that not be the best course? It would be selfish to doom Westeros if there was an easy solution. I would lose my daughter, yes, but it looked like every father was set to lose his daughter if I didn’t act.” Father clenched his hands, his voice now strained. “I considered sacrificing you, and for that I must ask your forgiveness. Even if I don’t deserve it.”

Shireen let the silence on top of the Wall overtake her, not wanting to believe father’s confession. It sounded so unlike him, yet so like him at the same time. She had long known that father was far from perfect, that he had faults just like any other man. But the things she had always taken for granted had been his love of justice, his commitment to the realm, and his—if not love, but protection of her. She never thought that those things might come into conflict with each other, but they had. He never listened to Melisandre in the end, true, but Shireen would be lying to herself if she said that she was not horrified.

“What changed your mind?” said Shireen, eventually. Her voice was quiet.

“You smiled at me. And told me that you loved me.”

“I don’t remember doing that.”

“You were such a sad little girl, but you always showed me affection whether I deserved it or not.”

Shireen had a strong urge to take father’s hands and pull him upright.

“You’re my father. Isn’t that reason enough?”

Father shook his head. “I always wanted to be worthy of your love. Doing as Lady Melisandre wished would’ve been a poor way of showing that.”

“What about the realm?”

“I realized that I didn’t give a damn about a realm without you in it. I had a duty to you as my daughter. Once I was conflicted over choosing Robert over King Aerys back during Robert’s rebellion, but I never regretted my decision. Neither did I regret my decision to choose you over Westeros. I didn’t care if that made me weak or selfish, for if sacrificing my daughter was what was required to prove that I was Azor Ahai, than that’s not who I wanted to be.”

This time Shireen did take father’s hands and pull him upright, covering them with her own and looking straight into his eyes. She was shocked at what she found, for never had she seen father look so anguished, so vulnerable. Now I know why he wore his crown.

“Why wouldn’t I forgive you, father? You thought terrible thoughts, but you never went through with them. And if that was a crime, you have more than atoned for it with how you’ve been preparing me to sit the Iron Throne one day. You’ve shown by example how to lead the realm, how to administer justice, and how to make peace with those I don’t particularly like. I might not have said this before, but I’m proud to have you as my father.”

“You really think all that about me?”

Shireen nodded, tightening her hold on his hands.

“Just King Stannis isn’t as admirable as people think he is. But who you think I am is the man who I want to be.”

With that, father pulled Shireen into a tight hug, placing his chin on top of her head. Shireen let him hold her. How long they stood there like that Shireen would never know, but she did know that she had never felt safer than with father’s strong arms around her.

When father pulled away, his face had reverted back to the stern mask Shireen was so used to seeing. “Now, what did you want to tell me?”

I wanted to tell him something? I would be an understatement to say that father’s confession had distracted Shireen. Very few things seemed important right now than knowing that father had always loved her. She shook her head, gathering her thoughts. “I wanted to tell you why I will never marry Dickon Tarly.”

Father waved her words away, much like he had last time Dickon had been brought up at the Small Council. “That’s already been decided. The boy was found wanting, and he’d already fathered a bastard.”

“I never told you what he boasted about to his friends while in his cups.” Shireen stopped, remembering that unfortunate—or fortuitous, depending on how one looked at it—evening when she had come upon Ser Dickon, his young squire, and other young men drinking in one of the Red Keep’s halls. Based on the redness in their cheeks and the careless way they had been sitting on the benches, they had been drinking for quite some time. Dickon was clearly the center of attention and knew it.

“Ser Dickon thought that he had done enough to earn my hand in marriage. But he didn’t think much of me, only my title. My appearance seemed to offend him the most, and he was worried that any children I bore would be similarly deformed.”

Father frowned at that. “Greyscale isn’t inherited.”

“He was too drunk to remember that, or else he didn’t care.” Shireen closed her eyes. “He said that if any of his children by me was sickly or deformed, he would just banish them to the Wall like his father had done with his older brother Sam. His squire mentioned that you would never allow such a thing, but Dickon only smiled and said that kings don’t live forever.”

Father considered her words, then said with a straight face: “I don’t think I could get Dickon Tarly tried for treason, but I’m sure I can think of something. Perhaps I can arrange for him to get beaten bloody in the next tournament he participates in.”

Shireen laughed despite herself. “I’ve spent much time with Maester Samwell here at the Wall, the same older brother Sam that Dickon was so dismissive over. He’s incredibly smart, but most importantly he’s patient and genuinely wants to help his Night’s Watch brothers. Do you know why he’s so happy here?”

“He’s happy?” muttered father. Shireen didn’t let herself get distracted.

“Because he found a friend who saw his worth and stood up for him when he needed him most. Jon saw that Sam was fat and couldn’t fight, but Jon also saw that Sam was literate and had a way with animals. Sam told me that he was prepared for a quick death at the Wall, right after his father had baldly threatened to kill him for not being the ideal heir. But because of Jon he was appointed a steward and later sent to Oldtown to forge a maester’s chain.”

“It seems what you wanted to tell me isn’t about Dickon Tarly at all,” stated father.

Shireen was prepared to object, but then she realized that father had the right of it. Dickon was inconsequential in and of himself, but without him she wouldn’t have appreciated Jon as much as she did. “Jon will see the worth in any of my children no matter what, just like he’s done with Sam and so many other brothers of the Night’s Watch. I want, need to have a man like that beside me.” She wiped her eyes, hoping that father wouldn’t chide her for being so emotional. She wasn’t usually, and if asked she’d just blame the dramatic location.

“Can we stay at the Wall a bit longer, father? I know you want this matter finished, but I want to give Jon more time to make up his mind.”

“We can stay here as long as you want, Shireen.”

Father firmly placed a hand on her shoulder and kept it there all through the winch cage ride down to the bottom of the Wall. The sun was now rising, and Shireen couldn’t think of a better start to the day…Until she saw Jon walking purposefully toward the King’s Tower, Ghost at his side. He was wearing the same black velvets that he wore at the harvest festival. Instead of wearing Longclaw at his waist, Jon was carrying the Valyrian steel sword under his arm.

“Jon. What are you doing here at this hour?”

Jon whirled around, taken unawares by Shireen and her father walking toward him. He quickly composed himself.

“Your Grace, Princess,” he said with a formal bow. “I request a private audience at your earliest convenience.”

~

Jon took a deep breath, knowing that two pairs of deep blue eyes were looking expectantly at him. He felt surprisingly calm. With one fluid movement, Jon unsheathed Longclaw and placed it at Shireen and Stannis’ feet, both of who were sitting in front of the fire in the king’s solar. He then knelt and folded his hands over his knee. Beside him, Ghost also sat and bowed his head.

“Crown Princess Shireen Baratheon of Storm’s End,” said Jon resolutely, meeting her eyes with his grey ones, “I accept your proposal and willingly give you my hand in marriage.”

Shireen’s face lit up upon hearing Jon’s words. Stannis’ stern expression naturally hadn’t changed. Jon could feel that Ghost was ready to rush over to her, but he placed a hand on his direwolf’s head in warning. He wasn’t quite finished yet.

“However, I have terms that must be met.” This marriage will always be political, no matter how much affection lies between us.

Shireen and Stannis looked at each other. Stannis nodded at his daughter.

“Very well,” replied Shireen. “What are your terms?”

“First, I ask for time to settle my affairs at the Wall. A new Lord Commander needs to be elected, and I need to instruct him about how I’ve managed things. The Wall plays a vital role in the defense of the realm, and I will not see it fall into chaos if I can help it. Also, I ask leave to aid the Night’s Watch if they request it in the future.”

Shireen nodded. “Granted.”

“Secondly, I wish to write and ask my brother and sister for their blessing. Me being legitimized as a Stark means nothing for the Crown without the support of the Starks in Winterfell. You must know this already, for I’ve never taken you or your father for fools.”

Shireen nodded again, though she looked slightly confused. “Do you think Lord Rickon and Lady Sansa would refuse your request?”

I hope they won’t. The last time Jon had visited Winterfell, he had spent a great deal of time practicing swordplay with Rickon, Sansa watching them with a faraway look on her face. “No. But it would not be wise to assume.”

“Very well. When you receive their blessing for the marriage we will travel to Winterfell by land before returning to King’s Landing. The heart of the North is as good a place as any to officially announce the betrothal.”

For the first time Jon felt the great weight that had cloaked him ever since being made Lord Commander lessen. “Finally…I don’t have anything proper to wear for a royal wedding. If I could have some new clothes made for me?”

This time Stannis was the one to respond. “There’s something wrong with the clothes you have on?”

Jon shifted his gaze toward the king. Of course that’s the request of mine that Stannis objects to. But Jon wasn’t fazed, already having prepared a logical argument in his defense. “Black isn’t one of the colors of House Stark, Your Grace. If the realm is to see me as a Stark instead of as a Snow, I should at the very least look like one.”

Stannis snorted. “You look exactly like Eddard Stark did at your age. I had no love for the man as you well know, but anyone who claims that you don’t look like a Stark is a fool.”

Jon thought he’d be over it by now, but he always felt a swell of pride when someone told him that he looked like father.

Stannis wasn’t finished. “I think we can accommodate that request, though if you expect to live in silk and velvets for the rest of your life I will put my foot down. As it so happens, we have something that should satisfy you for the time being.” He looked to Shireen, who stood up and disappeared to her chambers. She came back holding one of the most beautiful cloaks that Jon had ever seen. The wool was as white as freshly fallen snow, and the grey fur that lined it was soft and promised to be very warm.

“I believe that white are grey are still the colors of House Stark?” asked Shireen as she presented it to him.

Jon immediately exchanged his black cloak for the white one, spinning around with a short laugh.

“What would you have done with the white cloak, had I not accepted?”

“It would make a handsome gift for young Lord Stark,” responded Shireen with a matching laugh.

“Lord Snow,” interrupted Stannis, emphasizing the name, “Before you dance around the room like a man who has lost his wits, get back on your knees.”

Jon obeyed, slightly wary as Stannis unhooked Lightbringer from where it hung on the wall of the room. Shireen sat back down and smoothed out her skirts, not worried in the slightest as her father unsheathed his fiery sword and placed the tip on Jon’s shoulder.

“Jon Snow, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and son of Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell,” began Stannis, “Do you swear to serve my daughter for all of your days?”

Jon squared his shoulders, saying clearly: “I do.”

“And do you swear to give her honest counsel, to defend her rights and her realm against all foes in battles great and small, and to protect her people and punish her enemies?”

“I do, Your Grace.”

“Then I bid you rise again as Ser Jon Stark.”

“Your Grace…” this time Jon’s voice faltered. Lightbringer’s tip pressed down onto Jon’s shoulder, and he was glad for once that the fire licking the blade didn’t burn.

“You have an objection?” asked Stannis, irritated yet again. “Need I remind you, my daughter and the future queen of Westeros needs to marry a Stark, not a Snow.”

“It’s not that…” Jon had known that Stannis would legitimize him, but the Ser wasn’t something that he’d seen coming. “I simply did not expect to be granted a knighthood.”

“Among all of your accomplishments, you’ve dueled and killed White Walkers. Other men have been knighted for far less, such as knocking men off horses during a tourney. You’ve earned the knighthood ten times over.”

“Thank you, Your…”

“And furthermore,” said Stannis, cutting Jon off, “Since you’ll no longer be the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, you need an acceptable title. It wouldn’t do for men to call you by your given name unless they have earned that familiarity.”

“Have I earned that familiarity with you?”

Stannis’ stern expression softened for a fleeting moment. “I am letting you marry my daughter, and my grandchildren will have just as much Stark blood running through their veins as Baratheon blood. I daresay that you have.”

Jon left the King’s Tower in a daze, but this time the daze was due not to shock but relief. He went up to the maester’s tower, hoping to find Sam. Sam wasn’t there, but a boiling kettle of some sweet herbal drink over the fire said that he wasn’t far. Jon poured himself a goblet of the boiling drink and downed it in one gulp. A pot of ink, a quill, and some parchment were easily found, and Jon sat down and wrote a message to Rickon and Sansa. When he finished, he laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back in his chair.

The creak of a door announced Sam, and the squawks of Corn! Corn! announced Mormont’s raven. The bird flew over to Jon’s goblet, and when he wasn’t interested in its contents he pecked at the message Jon had just written. It almost looked like he was reading it, but Jon brushed the thought away.

Sam looked mildly surprised to see Jon this early in the morning, and he spent some time looking Jon up and down. “Did you sleep at all last night?”

Long enough to dream. “Why do you ask?” replied Jon.

“You’re wearing the same clothes you had on yesterday.”

“I wear the same clothes every day. Black leathers, black wools, black…”

Sam shook his head. “I’ve never seen you wear black velvet until yesterday, and I assume that black tunic and silver direwolf buckle are gifts from Lord and Lady Stark?”

Jon shrugged.

“I’ve also never seen you smile this much. And I’ve known you for nine years.”

Jon felt whatever smile was on his face stretch even wider. He held out his message. “I have a favor to ask of you, Sam. Make two copies of this and send it with your best birds to Winterfell. Inform me immediately when I receive a reply.”

Sam took the parchment and studied it for a long while. Eventually, his eyes met Jon’s, which only caused Jon to smile more.

“Well, Ser Jon Stark,” said Sam. “Do you have any regrets?”

“None at all.”

“Then I offer my congratulations.”

King! King! squawked Mormont’s raven, deciding to perch on Jon’s shoulder. Jon turned to the bird and glared, which had no effect as the bird had always been utterly without fear.

You are staying at the Wall, for our king will likely strangle you to get some peace.”

Sam sat down next to Jon and poured himself a goblet of the herbal drink. It was still too hot for him, so he blew on it to cool it.

“Speaking of strangling,” said Jon. “How do you think our dear brothers of the Night’s Watch will react to my leaving them? Should I fear for my life?” Jon didn’t really think anyone would try and assassinate him now, but then again he hadn’t seen it coming the first time.

It was Sam’s turn to shrug. “Some will be glad to get rid of an undead wight, wildling, and wolf all at once. Others will grumble. But most will wonder what took you so long. Men generally don’t linger at the Wall after walking out of their own funeral pyres.”

~

“Congratulations, Shireen.”

“Thank you, father.” Shireen had been smiling ever since Jon had gone down on his knee in front of her, and she couldn’t seem to stop.

“You accomplished what I never thought possible.”

“You doubted me?”

Father looked slightly offended. “I’ve never doubted you. I just doubted whether his vows and honor would get in the way. But it seems that Ser Jon saw sense in the end.” He walked over to his desk and rifled through stacks of parchment that had accumulated during their time at the Wall. “With any luck the Night’s Watch will choose their next Lord Commander in a matter of hours rather than days. Then we can be off down the Kingsroad to Winterfell, then off again to King’s Landing for your wedding. Things will soon be back to normal.”

Shireen predicted that things would never be normal again. Not after hearing father’s confession on top of the Wall, not after marrying, not after hopefully being blessed with children. But Shireen just serenely opened a book she had been reading, replying:

“Yes, father.”

~

“I had a frightening dream last night, m’lord,” said Dolorous Edd.

“I’m no lord anymore, Edd,” Jon responded, “Though you are now.”

In an unexpected turn of events, Dolorous Edd had just been elected the 999th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Jon had thought that either Ser Denys Mallister or Cotter Pyke would gain the title, but neither the commander of the Shadow Tower nor the commander of Eastwatch by the Sea could win a majority of the votes. Edd was well liked by most men, had served for five years as First Steward, and was a decent leader and fighter, qualities that made him a good compromise candidate.

Now, Jon was finally ready to leave the Wall. His old responsibilities had been handed over, his few belongings were packed, and ravens had arrived from Winterfell assuring him that his betrothal would not only be blessed by his siblings but celebrated. Now all that was left for him to do was to make his farewells to those he would miss the most.

“That’s the thing, though, Ser Jon,” protested Edd. “I haven’t woken up from my dream. Everyone’s m’lording me now, and I haven’t had a moment’s peace!”

Jon laughed, a genuine laugh filled with mirth. “You’ll just have to get used to it. Sam will help you as much as he can, and if the Wall comes under serious threat Winterfell and the Crown will be sure to help you. That’s why you’re travelling to Winterfell now, so you can meet Lord Rickon and Lady Sansa and guarantee their support.”

Edd made a noncommittal noise. “I’ll have the perfect chance to get mauled by a direwolf. Then the Night’s Watch will have to hold an election all over again.” Edd paused, looking at Jon’s new white and grey cloak. “Still, I’m coming to think that I got off easy compared to you.”

“Why is that?” asked Jon, curious.

“Not only will you have people Your Gracing you for the rest of your life, but you’ll have King Stannis as your goodfather! One glare from him is enough to do me in.”

“I think I can handle that. And I have a direwolf to maul those who start Your Gracing me.” Jon clapped Edd on the shoulder. “I’ll miss you, Edd.”

Edd looked at Jon strangely. Then he shrugged, his normally morose expression changing into something more cheerful. “Make the most of your new life down South. You of all people deserve to be warm for once.”

Tormund Giantsbane agreed with Edd, and he insisted that Jon share one last pull of whatever spirit he kept in a skin hanging from his belt. Jon felt like fire was going down his throat, but instead of coughing he relished the heat.

“Do you think any less of me, leaving the Wall for a life down in the South?”

“Why would I? I’m jealous!” Tormund took a long drink from the skin himself. “You already had one pretty lass steal you and another try. I’ve no idea what they see in you.”

“Perhaps if you were a pretty lass yourself you’d know.”

Tormund laughed and slapped his belly. “And this one had her father’s approval, no doubt, for he never lifted his fiery sword against you.”

Jon’s smile turned into a grimace, remembering his first practice duel with Stannis. “I doubt King Stannis would let Shireen’s favor stop him if he really wanted to do that.”

“I guess once you’re a kneeler, you’re always a kneeler. Best have the wedding soon—before she finds out your cock is frozen solid!”

Jon felt his face heat up, and he wagered that the heady spirits had nothing to do with it.

There was nothing more to say to Sam that hadn’t already been said. Jon tried his best to get Sam to come to Winterfell with Edd, but Sam declined, stating that the Wall was truly his place. As he gave Sam a fierce hug, Jon noticed that Sam didn’t have snowflakes melting in his hair. I’ll take that as a good sign.

After Dolorous Edd, Tormund, and Sam, only the Wall was left. Mounted on his grey gelding as the king’s party left Castle Black, Jon turned his horse around for his final goodbye.

It felt like yesterday and a lifetime ago that Jon had first seen the Wall, riding from Winterfell with Uncle Benjen and Tyrion Lannister. Then, he had been prepared to spend his life on the block of ice, performing heroic deeds and rising to Lord Commander. I accomplished that, but nothing that I did seemed particularly heroic at the time. The songs forget to mention how fearful and doubtful heroes can be, how sometimes cowardice is so much easier. Now, Jon looked at the Wall for what might be the last time—or the last time in a long while, for unless the White Walkers started walking again there was no real reason to return. He wouldn’t miss it, not truly, but he had spent close to ten years of his life there. The Wall had shaped him just as much as growing up the bastard of Winterfell had, and he supposed it was only natural to feel a twinge of melancholy upon leaving it.

Jon knew that he had been staring at the Wall for longer than he had planned when Stannis rode up next to him. He let Jon have one last moment of reflection before speaking.

“The Wall will always be there, you know, and you left the Night’s Watch stronger than you found it. There is nothing to regret about how you spent your first life.”

Jon fiddled with the reins of his horse, continuing to stare straight ahead.

“Now, are you going to go back on your word to spend your second life with my daughter?”

This time Jon did turn his head, not at Stannis but at Shireen. She was riding down the Kingsroad on a white mare with Ghost padding at her side. Her cloth-of-gold cloak shone in the summer sun. When her eyes met his for a fleeting moment, Jon felt himself smile. He didn’t know what the future would bring, but he couldn’t wait to find out.

“No, Your Grace.”

“Then it’s time to ride forward,” said Stannis firmly. “We have a long journey ahead of us, son.”

Jon’s breath caught in his throat upon hearing Stannis’ last word. Jon had been called that by a number of men before—Lord Commander Mormont, Tormund, Benjen Stark, and of course Eddard Stark. From his experience, some men used that word indiscriminately, for affection or to prove their authority. But Stannis was not one to throw around words he did not mean to the letter, being deliberate in everything he did.

For a brief moment Jon closed his eyes, wishing with all his heart that his real father was there next to him, telling him that he was a true Stark and expressing how proud he was of the man Jon had become. But when Jon opened them, Eddard Stark’s voice and soft smile disappeared. Another man was in his place, another man who believed the same things of him.

Perhaps that isn’t such a terrible thing.

Jon had been through hell and back with Stannis, and still the king respected him after witnessing him at his lowest and most vulnerable. He doesn’t think me any less of a man. Sure, Stannis had never exactly said that, but Jon knew that with the king actions often spoke louder than words.

Jon met Stannis’ gaze for a long time, trying to express a small part of the thoughts rushing through his head. But his mouth was dry and seemed clamped shut, and all he could bring himself to do was nod his head gravely. Stannis mirrored his actions, and together they turned their horses around and set off down the Kingsroad.

Chapter Text

Jon knew that Winterfell was near when he heard the howl of a direwolf.

It will be a relief to get off my horse and sleep in a nice bed after eighteen days on the road, thought Jon. Even at Stannis’ brisk pace, the king’s party couldn’t make all the miles between the Wall and Winterfell melt away. Time was of no consequence when Shireen was courting, but now that Jon was Ser Jon Stark the king had no desire to dawdle anywhere.

“That’s Shaggy!” Jon called out to Shireen.

“Is the black direwolf as savage as everyone says?” she replied. “Lord Davos nearly got his throat ripped out when he found your brother on Skagos.”

Through Ghost, Jon could feel Shaggydog’s excitement at welcoming more members of his pack to his home. “You have nothing to fear, at least. Shaggy would never dare hurt someone who has won Ghost’s favor.”

Jon vividly remembered watching King Robert ride through Winterfell’s gates all those years ago. Father, Lady Stark, and his brothers and sisters all stood at attention to welcome the king, while Jon had expressly been ordered to make himself scarce. A window ledge overlooking the castle’s main courtyard had given him the best view of the royal party’s entrance. Arya had waved up at him when her mother wasn’t looking, fidgeting in her dress and groaning when she had to bow to Queen Cersei and her blond-haired children.

Now, however, the situation was reversed, and Jon making himself scarce was no longer an option. All eyes were on Jon, Shireen, and Stannis as they rode through Winterfell’s gates flanked by the three Kingsguard knights. The lord and lady of the castle were bowing to him now, and Jon had to shake his head to make sure it wasn’t all a dream. Rickon was taller than when Jon had last seen him, but at twelve he was still nowhere near a man grown. There’s no rush for that. Sansa looked regal as she stood next to her brother, her auburn hair catching the sun’s light. She was beautiful, there was no denying that. But Jon had to keep telling himself that the woman standing before him was Lady Sansa instead of Lady Catelyn.

Jon dismounted from his horse, but before he could take a step forward something massive collided with him and sent him sprawling backward. There was no time shout his surprise or reach for a weapon, but Jon’s panic receded when a rough tongue began licking his face.

“Shaggy, no!” shouted both Rickon and Sansa at once, but Shaggydog wasn’t in the mood to follow orders. Only when Ghost playfully nipped at one of his brother’s ears did Shaggydog climb off Jon.

“Sorry, Jon.” Rickon held out his hand, and Jon took it. “Sansa was telling me all morning how I had to stand still when the king rode through the gates, bow at the right time, say the right greetings…I thought Shaggy would follow her orders too.”

Jon shook his head. There was no way he could be angry, as he knew how Ghost sometimes acted out the feelings he tried so hard to contain. “It’s all right, little brother.”

Sansa gave Rickon a look, and Rickon’s eyes suddenly went wide with worry. “Do I have to call you Ser Jon now?”

“Only when you make me call you Lord Stark.”

Sansa cleared her throat this time, tilting her head toward Stannis and Shireen.

“Your Graces King Stannis and Princess Shireen,” said Rickon hurriedly. “As Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, I welcome you to my castle. It is yours for as long as you wish. Since I have not yet reached my majority, please defer to my regents Lady Sansa Stark and Lord Howland Reed if I am unable to help you with anything.”

As Stannis and Shireen exchanged formalities with Rickon, Jon looked around Winterfell’s main courtyard. It had taken many long years for the destruction wrought by Theon Greyjoy and the Boltons to be erased, but erased it had. A veritable army of masons had helped restore the castle to its former glory, and it made Jon’s heart glad. If only the rest of the Starks were here to see it.

Banners with a grey direwolf racing across an ice-white field hung from the highest places, but on closer inspection Jon noticed that House Stark’s banners were joined with many others. A black lizard-lion on green, a giant on red, a merman on blue-green, a black horse on bronze, a black bear on green, and a white sunburst on black were those that he immediately saw, and given the crowd there were probably many more hanging around. Jon moved to Shireen and Stannis’ side just as the fattest man he had ever seen approached them.

“Princess,” said Lord Manderly with a nod. Having been too fat to sit a horse for years, he was now too fat to properly bow without injuring himself. He’d suffered that pain to bend the knee to Stannis, though, once his vengeance was satisfied and a trueborn Stark ruled the North once again. “May I be the first of Lord Stark’s bannermen to congratulate you on your upcoming marriage. With a son of Ned Stark’s by your side, the North will never desert you.”

“My thanks, Lord Manderly,” replied Shireen. “Your son serves ably on the Small Council, and I greatly enjoy the company of your granddaughter Wylla.”

Lady Maege Mormont was the next to approach, daughters and granddaughters in tow. After greeting Stannis and reaffirming her House’s loyalty, she addressed Jon. “It is a pleasure to meet you again, Ser Jon Stark. My brother was right to see promise in you, and I couldn’t think of a better man to carry our family’s Valyrian steel sword.”

Greetings continued in such a manner for a time, as every one of House Stark’s bannermen wanted the king, princess, and her betrothed to know of their presence. Jon couldn’t remember when he’d last received so many compliments. There was a difference to how people were acting around Ser Jon Stark compared to how they had acted around Lord Commander Snow. Even though he was used to people seeking out his favor, the current situation still unnerved him. Stannis and Shireen didn’t seem affected at all, nodding at the appropriate places and saying the right pleasantries. Well, Shireen said the pleasantries while Stannis ground his teeth.

When the courtyard began to empty, Jon immediately went to Sansa. He gestured to all the banners and the bannermen retreating to different parts of the castle. “Sansa, what is all of this?”

Sansa looked bemused. “Did you not receive our raven stating that your betrothal would be celebrated?”

“Yes, but…” I imagined a small family affair, with the three Starks and two Baratheons sitting down to a peaceful meal together.

“And wouldn’t the proper way for the Lord of Winterfell to celebrate the betrothal of his brother to the Crown Princess be to host all of his bannermen for a grand feast?”

“Yes, but…”

“You have no cause for objection.” Sansa smiled. “This is nothing compared to what you’ll find in King’s Landing, even with King Stannis’ reputation for austerity.”

Jon opened his mouth again to say something, but Shireen took his arm and looked at him.

“She’s right, you know. There are endless amounts of people vying for your attention in King’s Landing, and even father can’t dismiss all of them.”

Jon saw that Stannis was currently seeing to the horses and directing his Kingsguard.

“Besides,” continued Shireen, “Your father’s bannermen seem to be genuine with their compliments. I heard at least five different people say how great your father Lord Eddard Stark was, and even more mentioned your heroics in getting the White Walkers to retreat. Along with the king’s, of course.” Shireen’s hand moved down his arm to take his. “Now, aren’t you going to show me around your father’s castle?”

Jon felt the warmth of Shireen’s hand in his, and he gave a wild look around the courtyard to see if anyone had followed her touch. The only eyes focused on them were those of Ghost and Shaggydog, looking as pleased as direwolves ever did.

~

Shireen was surprised at how warm Winterfell was, and only when Jon explained that the castle was built on hot springs did things made sense. The First Men found a way to pipe hot water through the stone, chasing away the cold even in the depths of winter. Shireen also found that the people of Winterfell were warm to her too, most of all Lady Sansa. Shireen had never met Jon’s sister before, though she had heard of her and had read her correspondence with the Crown.

Sansa invited Shireen to her solar on her first evening in Winterfell, an invitation that Shireen gladly accepted. Sansa said that she liked working on embroidery before bed, as the stitching relaxed her. And the embroidery really was extraordinary, and Shireen was amazed to learn that Sansa had made many of her dresses herself and told her so.

“You’re very kind, Princess.”

“I’ve never had the patience for embroidery, but I can sit for hours reading.”

“That’s a much better talent for the future queen, regardless. I apologize for asking such a personal question, but is there any chance that a younger brother of yours might take away your title as heir to the throne?”

Shireen didn’t take offence at all, as she had heard the Small Council argue over such a thing many times before. Lord Willas Tyrell had even been so bold as to suggest father put aside mother to marry his sister Margaery, for she was young and fertile! Father’s glare was so piercing that Lord Tyrell took a month’s leave from the city to recover from it. “It would not be wise for my mother to bear any more children, and even if she was young enough…” Shireen could not remember her parents showing any kind of affection toward each other, and if they had fallen in love with anyone else they had hidden it well. “Such a thing will not come to pass. I’m the heir to the Iron Throne whether I wish to be or not.”

Sansa nodded. “Out of all the unmarried men in Westeros, why did you decide to go after my brother?”

Shireen wondered how to respond. “Jon was one of the only ones never to go after me. Surely you’re tired of men asking for your hand simply because of your name?”

“I’ve had enough marriage proposals for a lifetime, and the men I’ve been forced to marry have all been monsters—or been related to monsters.” Sansa sighed. “Now, I want to hear more about my brother. It’s rare that I get to listen to someone who isn’t somewhat scared that he might come after them as a wolf, wight, or White Walker.”

Shireen blushed. “He’s always been very kind to me, both when I was a young girl at the Wall and over the years through our letters. I wanted to see in person whether that kindness was genuine or just born just out of politeness.” Shireen then told Sansa what she had told father and Davos about Jon, and then she talked about her time at the Wall. The Lady of Winterfell listened patiently, not saying a world.

“Do I have your approval?”

“My approval?” said Sansa in surprise.

“Why else would you ask me those questions? Are you worried that I’m forcing Jon into something against his will?”

“No one can force Jon to do anything. If he’s leaving the Wall for you I have no doubt that he cares about you very much, even if he’s not good at showing it. Rickon and I have tried for years to get him to leave the Wall to no avail. He was the first choice to act as Rickon’s regent, but Winterfell was no longer his place, he said. He also said that he was content at the Wall, but I never believed him. I wish you and him much happiness, I really do.”

“Thank you. I hope that we can call each other sisters, Sansa,” said Shireen sincerely.

Sansa smiled, and this was the first time Shireen had seen her truly happy.

“I would like that very much, Shireen. It’s been a long time since I saw my sister Arya, and I know we didn’t part on good terms. We would always fight over the silliest things…”

“She died, didn’t she?”

“She disappeared the same day that the Lannisters arrested father. No one has seen her since, which must mean that she’s dead. She could still live, but the Arya I knew would want to see her family again no matter what. Or at least Jon, for I think Arya loved Jon more than anyone.”

That was news to Shireen. Jon had mentioned Arya once or twice in passing, but he’d never gone into any detail about her. “He’s rarely talked about her.”

“That doesn’t surprise me. I think Jon loved Arya more than anyone as well.” Sansa’s face was sad, and she looked into the fire.

“I’ve always wanted to have siblings,” said Shireen, adding a brightness to her voice that wasn’t entirely false. “Now I’m getting two. I was so lonely growing up, and rarely did I have someone my age to play with. Will you be coming to King’s Landing for my wedding?”

“For the wedding, yes, so the realm can see the power of the Starks. And I also want to be there for my brother. But I can’t bear to be in the city any longer. There are too many bad memories.”

Shireen didn’t ask what those memories were, but she could guess. The Lannisters had never been nice in the best of times, and being their prisoner could not have been easy. As well, being in the city during the Battle of Blackwater Bay was not something Shireen envied. Shireen placed her hand on Sansa’s. “I’m not fond of King’s Landing, either. Perhaps one day you can visit Storm’s End. That’s my favorite castle in Westeros, and all my troubles seem to go away when I stand by the shore.”

Sansa squeezed Shireen’s hand in return. “I’ll take you up on that invitation.”

~

Jon had once dreamed of showing Ygritte Winterfell. With her so impressed by a simple towerhouse on the Gift, she would have to be amazed by the greatest castle in the North. Jon had it all planned out: He’d give Ygritte a flower from the glass gardens, feast her in the Great Hall, introduce her to the stone kings in the crypts, and love her beneath the heart tree. That dream never came to pass of course, as an arrow pierced her before she could properly marvel at crumbling Castle Black. The arrow that killed her wasn’t mine, but it might as well have been.

With Shireen, however…Jon could do those things. As a Stark of Winterfell he had shown her all around the castle, introduced her to the old Kings of Winter, and soon a feast in the Great Hall would be held in her honor. Now, Jon was in the glass gardens, newly rebuilt with the help of the same glass-making apprentices that Jon had hired for the Wall from Braavos. Sansa had seen that bushes and bushes of blue winter roses grew, and she lovingly cared for them. Jon drew a dagger from his belt and cut the stems of a dozen blue roses, then sat on a bench and trimmed their thorns and leaves. He started to twist the stems together, but the crunch of gravel caused him to look up.

“Lord Reed.”

The Lord of Greywater Watch and current co-regent of Winterfell was a short and all together unimposing man, but his green eyes spoke of great wisdom. Men often said that Howland Reed could see through them, to their pasts and futures beyond. Jon had trusted him from the start, his great friendship with father notwithstanding.

“How long have you been standing there?”

Lord Reed just smiled. “Long enough. Your wolf didn’t think I was a threat.”

Jon looked down to Ghost, who immediately jumped up and gave one of Lord Reed’s hands a lick. The fur on his head was ruffled in return.

“What brings you into the glass gardens, Ser Jon? Making a bouquet for your lady?”

Jon shook his head, strangely self-conscious. “No. I’m trying to make a crown. I told Shireen in a letter that blue winter roses had always grown at Winterfell, and I never got the chance to win a flower-crown for her at the Wall’s harvest festival. Do I look a fool?”

“Not at all,” replied Lord Reed, sitting next to Jon on the bench. “Did Ned ever tell you that his sister Lyanna loved blue winter roses?”

“He rarely talked about Aunt Lyanna. And when he did he was always very sad, as if her death was his fault rather than Prince Rhaegar’s.”

“Many people blame themselves for her death, myself included. If I had been properly able to defend myself at a tourney long ago, perhaps Prince Rhaegar would never have noticed Lyanna Stark and given her a crown of blue winter roses.” Lord Reed picked up one of the blue roses, studying it intently before meeting Jon’s eyes. “Fate is a curious thing.”

“Aye,” said Jon. “I doubt father would ever have expected me to rise to Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch so soon, later earning the respect of the king and the attention of the princess.”

“And soon you’ll be ruling in King’s Landing. I think Lyanna would be proud of you. Rickon and Sansa as well.”

Jon thought it odd that Lord Reed was so fixated on his Aunt Lyanna. If he blames himself for her death, does that mean… “Were you in love with her?”

Lord Reed cocked his head. “You could say that. I loved her spirit and her good heart. But a poor crannogman knew better than to set his sights on the daughter of his liege lord. She died too young, but she still lives on.”

“How?”

The blue roses at Jon’s side disappeared one by one as Lord Reed took them and deftly twisted them into a crown, presenting it to him with a flourish. “Her blood runs through the veins of the Starks of Winterfell. And that has always included you, Ser Jon Stark. Wear the name well.”

~

Shireen didn’t visit Winterfell’s godswood until many days had passed. The place meant a great deal to Jon, and she knew that he would show it to her when the time was right. As it was, she, father, and Jon had their hands full with the Stark bannermen. After greetings upon their arrival in the Winterfell courtyard, it felt that every lord, lady, and landed knight in the North wished to have a personal word with the current and soon to be rulers of the realm. Everyone wanted royal favor, of course, no matter how much favor they got from their liege lord. Shireen listened patiently, often feeling out of her depth. But father had fought on the Wall with many of the lords, and Jon had treated with many and more during his time as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Ghost also met all the nobles whether they wished to meet him or not, and the direwolf’s reaction often set the tone for each meeting. Lady Dustin, in particular, barely got in a nod before Ghost’s silent growling caused her to flee.

The gates to the godswood were tall and imposing, as if they were a portal to another world. Shireen bid Ser Rolland to give her and Jon some privacy. He relented, if only because Ghost was with them.

Jon immediately led Shireen to the heart tree, an enormous weirwood with a garish face. Blood-red sap dripped from its eyes and mouth, spilling into the earth below it. There were other weirwoods surrounding the heart tree, of course, but none of them had faces. Jon didn’t say anything as his eyes roved over the trees, dipping to the glassy pools where steam was rising. He approached the heart tree, gesturing for Shireen to follow him.

“My father would come here to pray, especially when he was troubled or had overseen justice.” Jon drew Longclaw and drove it down into the soft earth before the heart tree. He knelt before the sword, his hands clasped around the pommel. “He would often pray like this, his hands on Ice, the Stark Valyrian steel sword.”

“What would he say?” Shireen wondered.

“That was between him and the old gods. There are no set prayers, no holy books like The Seven Pointed Star supposedly written by the Seven. Father taught all of my siblings how to pray before the heart tree, as the Starks had done for thousands of years. I liked coming here with him, for often it was just us.”

Shireen remembered an evening meal where Jon had confessed that he’d lost his faith. “You no longer pray to the old gods, do you.”

Jon stared at the heart tree’s face, as if he were willing it to change. Nothing happened. He sighed, standing up and sheathing his sword.

“No.”

“Why did you stop believing in the old gods?”

“I died. Or at least my body did. And there was nothing waiting for my spirit save for the chaos I saw though Ghost’s eyes.”

Shireen was brought back to that night and the bloody chaos that followed Jon’s stabbing. Chaos really was the only word to describe it all. Though safely in a tower, she watched Black Brothers, wildlings, and father’s men stab and gut each other, a giant howling above it all. Melisandre of all people had been able to calm the mob, clearing a circle around Jon’s body and his wild wolf.

“How often do you think about your death?” Shireen asked tentatively. She tensed when Jon looked away from her for a long time, opening and closing his swordhand. He seemed calm, however, and his breathing was steady.

“Every day,” said Jon, turning to meet her eyes straight on. His own grey ones had a determined look, as if Jon had decided that it was worth whatever pain it caused him to tell Shireen this. “At first the thought of it overwhelmed me, but slowly it’s become easier to deal with. The dreams and the flashbacks don’t happen as often, but sometimes I find myself back in the snow, my assassins coming at me with daggers as I’m helpless to do anything about it.”

“Like the morning I proposed to you.”

Jon gave a slow nod.

“You hide it well.”

“I force myself to be calm, and I force myself to forget about the cold.”

“The cold?”

“Only death is truly cold.”

That’s something I don’t want to feel for a very long time. Shireen stepped close to Jon, placing her hands on his shoulders. She could feel heat radiating from him, but still he shivered.

“What about you? Do you worship any gods?”

“I don’t know what to believe. For all her devotion my mother has heard not a word from any of the Seven, father thinks all gods are made by men, Lord Davos believes in gods because he simply does, and Melisandre…” Shireen paused, thinking of father’s confession on the top of the Wall. “She might have thought she was doing her god’s will, but that will was evil.”

Jon stood perfectly still, even as Shireen traced his collarbone with her thumbs. “I want to have faith, but you and father have logical arguments otherwise.”

“You don’t have to take our word for it. You have a lifetime to figure that out.”

Shireen was now close enough to brush Jon’s chin with her nose. She didn’t dare step back, but she was wary to move any closer.

“Do you feel anything under your greyscale scars? Cold? Warmth?”

Shireen shook her head.

“Even when I do this?” asked Jon, cautiously lifting his left hand and lightly touching the cracked, grey skin on her right cheek. His fingers slid down her cheek and neck, coming to rest at her shoulder.

“I don’t feel anything at all.” No one has ever cared enough to ask me that.

“What about now?”

Jon repeated the gesture, this time on the side of her face unmarked by illness and death. Shireen could now acutely feel the callused points of Jon’s fingertips brush against her skin, and she couldn’t help but lean into the touch. And then…Jon kissed her, a light kiss on her mouth as if to test her resolve. Shireen closed her eyes as Jon risked a little more pressure. She almost laughed at his hesitance, knowing that she was hardly the first girl he’d kissed. But he was the first man she’d kissed and would hopefully ever kiss, the first man she had ever let get close to her both physically and emotionally. I don’t want to hesitate any longer. Shireen twined her fingers around Jon’s neck and pulled him closer, parting her lips and deepening the kiss herself. Eventually, they broke away but didn’t step away.

“I take that as a yes?” asked Jon in a low voice. He reached behind her ear and freed a red weirwood leaf that had fallen there.

Shireen could feel herself blush. The songs always described kisses with flowery language, with lips soft as petals and mouths as sweet as honey. She had always thought those descriptions absurd, and now that she’d finally experienced a kiss of her own she thought the songs even more absurd. Shireen was acutely aware of her heart beating in her chest, as fast as if she’d just been racing along the shore. Though he wore no beard, Jon’s jaw was still rough as it touched hers. More than anything, Shireen was surprised by how the kiss felt on her lips, and she wanted to know if all kisses were the same.

“Yes. Now kiss me again.”

~

Lord Manderly had brought a singer from White Harbor, and the singer began Jon and Shireen’s betrothal feast with a long ballad about how the North remembers. Once upon a time there was a long summer, but then a horde of evil lions felt the need to put their stag masters in place and kill off all the direwolves and their friends. But then winter came and the direwolves and stags were able to rise up again, subduing the lions and the heart of winter itself. A dragon appeared and then disappeared, Westeros not being her place anymore. Jon was surprised by how bloody the song was, and the symbolism wasn’t exactly subtle. But all the lords were pleased and cheered in all the right places, downing ale at the same time.

A crowned stag with a fiery sword,
A white direwolf with long claws of Valyrian steel,
And their loyal friends put all the enemies of the North to heel!

Jon, Shireen, and Stannis sat at the high table along with Rickon and Sansa as wedding gifts were presented. The generosity showed how much the Northmen approved of the match, and Jon had to give Shireen credit for her decision to officially announce the betrothal here where the Crown had its most loyal base of support. Sure, the lords of the Stormlands and the Crownlands were officially sworn to the Baratheons, but they had not proven themselves to be winter friends like the Northmen. The most impressive gifts included a pair of stallions from House Ryswell and a new ship from House Manderly. The ship was still in White Harbor, of course, but a small model had been constructed in the meantime. Stannis studied it with great interest.

Sansa and Rickon officially presented Jon and Shireen with a tapestry depicting direwolves hunting in the Wolfswood, but when more eyes were focused of the feast rather than the high table, Sansa gave Shireen a small blanket.

“I didn’t have as much time to work on it as I wanted to, but I hope you’re pleased regardless.”

The blanket was cut from soft lambswool, and it was embroidered with direwolf pups and fawns playing with each other. Shireen was indeed pleased with it, and only when she and his sister smiled at each other did Jon realize what the blanket was for.

“Sansa, don’t you think you’re getting a bit ahead of yourself?”

“I thought you left the Wall to have a family, brother dear,” responded Sansa mischievously.

I did, but I don’t need to be reminded of it in this fashion. Out of the corner of his eye Jon saw Stannis’ mouth twitch, and that was enough to get Jon to stand and pull Shireen with him to the dance floor.

“Are you not looking forward to our wedding night, Ser Jon?” asked Shireen, her eyes dancing.

“Yes…I…I just would rather not talk about such things with Sansa or your father…who…”

Shireen tilted her head back and laughed, and Jon responded by spinning her around in time with the music. They danced another dance together, focused only on each other. When the singer took a break and asked the crowd to shout out requests, Jon noticed something very odd happen at the high table: Sansa was sitting next to Stannis, which wasn’t odd in and of itself. Stannis was scowling, but then Sansa put her hand on his arm and leaned close to say something in his ear. Stannis fell still, then stood up and offered Sansa his hand. She took it, and the pair made their way Jon and Shireen.

“Jon.” Jon started, for hearing Stannis use his first name and first name alone still took getting used to, especially after years of calling him Lord Snow. Lord Snow is no more, and I can’t say I mourn him.

“Your Grace.”

“May I impose on you to dance with my daughter?”

Beside him, Shireen let out a small gasp of surprise. She was looking at her father in astonishment.

“Of course.” Jon surrendered Shireen, just as Stannis gave a stiff bow to Sansa. He watched them walk away together, their twin golden crowns shining in the dimming light of the Great Hall.

Sansa came to stand next to Jon, and she laced her arm through his and leaned her head on his shoulder.

“Sansa,” began Jon. “How in the name of all the old gods and the new did you convince Stannis to dance with Shireen?”

“I told him it would be a kindness.”

“A kindness?” Stannis had many admirable qualities, but Jon would never count kindness among them.

“He scoffed at that, of course. But then I told him that it had always been a dream of mine to dance with my father in this hall, after he had made me a match with a man who was brave, gentle, and strong.”

Jon was about to say something about Stannis rarely being swayed by sentimentality, but the faraway look on Sansa’s face stopped him. Though she had never died, it had been just as hard for Sansa to find her way ever since father had been unjustly executed. Sansa now had Rickon and she now had Winterfell. And she now has me, I suppose, thought Jon. She was respected and admired throughout the North, but those hard-won victories couldn’t replace the loss of her innocence and the rest of her family.

“I’m sorry, Sansa.”

“I will marry a man who is brave, gentle, and strong,” she responded resolutely. “Just not anytime soon.”

“What does Rickon think about that?”

“He promised me that Shaggy will eat any man who tries and have his way with me without my consent.”

“Ghost will do the same,” vowed Jon. “Now, sweet sister, will you consent to let me dance with you?”

~

“I didn’t know you could dance, father,” said Shireen.

“My parents made sure that Robert and I took lessons before we went to court for the first time. But that was a waste, as I was younger than Lord Rickon at the time and King Aerys wasn’t even there.”

“Surely you’ve danced since then?” Shireen wanted to ask if father had danced with mother at their wedding, but she didn’t because she didn’t want to be disappointed.

“Here and there. But tonight is the first occasion where I’ve ever enjoyed it.” Father’s dance hold was very exact, and he spun her around the same precision as a swordsman going through a drill. It was said that in marriage a woman was brought under the protection of her husband and his family, but Shireen felt that the opposite was also happening. Never before was she so sure of father’s love and devotion to her, now that there were no longer any secrets left between them. Well, I’m not going to tell him that Jon kissed me in the godswood, but that’s a secret of a different kind.

Before the guests became too inebriated, Sansa stood up at the high table and raised her goblet for one last toast. Rickon followed her lead, also raising his goblet. The crowd fell silent. “House Stark wishes to thank all of our loyal bannermen for their presence and presents at this feast tonight. The North and the Crown will soon be forever linked, just like my father and his father before him wished to see.”

“And there are no more damned lions or dragons around to ruin everything!” boasted Lord Manderly.

Shireen’s ears soon filled with jubilant shouts of: “House Stark! The Starks of Winterfell!” And then: “Princess Shireen! King Stannis!” She flicked her eyes over to father, who didn’t even try and keep a smug look from his face. This is what he must have hoped for when he wanted Jon to be his Lord of Winterfell. But he earned the support of the North through his actions first, destroying the Boltons and then saving the realm from all kinds of foes at the Wall while every other usurper played at war in the South. My marriage will only strengthen that support, and I’m proud that I could make all of this happen. Now, if only the rest of Westeros could be as easy to please…

Shireen felt the great weight of her crown lift—literally. Amidst all the cheering, Jon had removed her crown, a grin on his face.

“What was that for?”

“I have a present for you. It’s not as grand as a new ship, but I did tell you once that blue winter roses always grew in Winterfell.”

Jon lifted up his hands, and Shireen saw a crown. But instead of gold and dragonglass, this crown was made from blue winter roses and red weirwood leaves.

“May I?” Jon gestured to place the rose crown on her head. Shireen nodded. As if I’d do anything else! The cheering crowd died down, staring at them, too drunk and satiated by good food to do anything else. I thought Jon did everything he could to avoid public displays. But maybe Jon was drunk on something too, be it ale or wine or dancing or the atmosphere of the room, and Shireen decided to take advantage of it. When the flowers graced her hair, Shireen leaned forward and kissed him to cheers that sounded louder than ever before. Jon’s mouth smiled under hers, and with one fluid movement he lifted her up by the waist and spun her around.

Chapter Text

The Winter Stag’s maiden voyage from White Harbor to King’s Landing was uneventful. The ship gifted to the Crown by Lord Manderly was a magnificent vessel, and Stannis couldn’t stop walking from bow to stern like he was the captain who had designed and built the ship himself. The three Starks and two Baratheons traveled on the ship, while Lord Manderly and a small number of Northern lords who had decided to attend the wedding followed on the Manderly flagship The Vengeful Merman. Jon, however, was having a rough time of it. He had never been on a ship before, and rowboats on Winterfell’s moat hadn’t prepared him for the constant buffering from all the waves. And I’m told that we’ve been blessed with calm seas for this voyage. Not having found his sea legs wouldn’t have been so bad if Jon wasn’t tempted to vomit after every meal.

Stannis did his best to alleviate Jon’s mood. He advised to spend as much time on deck as possible to get fresh air, not to depend on Ghost like an old man did his cane, and to keep busy.

Easy for you to say, Jon was tempted to respond. Stannis is so at home on a ship that he could probably walk on water if he cared to try. Shireen and Sansa had taken to each other quite fast, and neither seemed adversely affected by the voyage. Rickon had already climbed everywhere that he could, and he was forever pestering the sailors to show him how they tied knots, how they strung up the rigging, and how they gauged their position using the stars.

One day, Stannis approached Jon as he stood on the bow, repeating to himself over and over that the ship was sailing smoothly.

“You’re nearly as white as a corpse.”

Jon glared at him. Stannis raised his eyebrows in return. “I appreciate your concern, Your Grace.”

“If you must be sick, do it with the wind instead of against it.” Stannis crossed his arms, staring straight ahead. “Most men only vomit when they near King’s Landing. Nothing can ever truly erase its stench, but I’ve been able to make some improvements.”

“Oh?”

“The sewage system built by the Targaryens had fallen into woeful disrepair. With advice from master builders and a small army of stone-masons, King’s Landing’s sewage canals have been rebuilt, fortified, and extended. The maesters have seen a marked decrease in disease, and the improved sanitation means that there aren’t as many rats in Flea Bottom to put in bowls of brown.”

Jon was surprised by the passion in Stannis’ voice, especially over a topic that didn’t include justice. While Stannis might not be winning the people’s love like kings before him through bread and tournaments, he was certainly earning their respect by restoring order and safety. Much like I tried to do with the Gift and New Gift.

Apparently, Stannis wasn’t finished. “Lord Hightower and Lord Daven Lannister even sent their own master builders to the capitol to study ways to improve the sewers of Oldtown and Lannisport.”

“Are you in need of any glass gardens in King’s Landing?”

Stannis looked at Jon thoughtfully. “Not at the moment, but if you can think of a use for all of the useless stained glass in the Red Keep I would be most impressed.”

The rest of the Kingsguard was waiting for the Winter Stag at the docks, and in no time at all Jon was riding up Aegon’s High Hill to the Red Keep. The castle was red, but a red that had more in common with the first blushes of dawn than fresh blood. What looked like the entire court was standing in the castle’s courtyard to welcome the royal party, but Jon focused on the two people who mattered most: Queen Selyse and Lord Davos Seaworth, Hand of the King.

Unlike the first time they had met, Queen Selyse knew exactly who Jon was. Not that Jon had taken any chances—he was wearing his white and grey cloak, Rickon, Sansa, and a host of direwolf banners were behind him, and Ghost was at his side. None of that stopped her from looking down her nose at him, as if asking what he was doing there. Jon didn’t let himself feel anything, as the queen would not stop him from being part of his new family, just like Lady Catelyn could never really stop Jon from being a Stark. That’s all in the past. I need to stop dwelling on being a Snow when I’ll be Ser Jon Stark for the rest of my days.

“Your Grace,” said Jon, bowing low.

“Ser Jon Stark.” Queen Selyse’s face was as sharp as the antlers on her crown, which she wore more easily than either Stannis or Shireen. “You may rise.”

“May I introduce my siblings, Lord Rickon Stark of Winterfell and Lady Sansa Stark?”

They queen looked at the trueborn Starks with much more approval, and she looked downright pleased after hearing Sansa’s greeting:

“I am glad to hear of your rebuilding of the Great Sept, Your Grace. The false King Joffrey polluted the sanctity of the former sept with monstrous crimes, and of course Queen Cersei committed blasphemy by destroying it for her own ends.”

What crimes did you witness Joffrey perform? Jon wanted to ask Sansa, but now was not the place for such a question. Do I even want to know the answer?

As Queen Selyse delivered curt nods to her husband and daughter, Jon turned his attention to the man with one of the kindest smiles he had ever seen.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you again, Ser Jon. I could think of no man more deserving of Shireen’s hand than you,” said Lord Davos. “You should’ve seen how His Grace reacted to some of the Princess’ other suitors.”

Jon took Davos’ hand in a firm grip. “I can only imagine. I must have gotten off easy when he knocked me flat on my back in Castle Black’s training yard.”

“Really.” Davos flicked his muddy brown eyes over to Stannis, who was currently scowling at something the queen had just told him.

“Davos!” screamed Rickon, and in no time at all his arms were around the Lord Hand in a tight hug. Sansa kept a firm hand on Shaggydog’s neck to make sure he didn’t jump on and knock Davos down. Jon didn’t think that Davos would’ve minded, as he always had a soft spot for Rickon since finding him on Skagos and returning him to his rightful place in the North.

“I’m so happy to see you, lad.”

“Are Stanny and Steff in King’s Landing for the wedding?”

“Devan too.”

“Any of them are welcome to come to Winterfell, though I’ll have to get Sansa and Lord Reed to agree. Oh, and I’m learning how to be a sailor like you!”

Jon watched Rickon and Davos, just like he had watched Rickon with Lord Reed. He was grateful that Rickon had found men willing to act as a father to him for, no reasons other than they were genuinely kind people with no desire for personal advancement. But it still made him sad. Both lords lost sons in the war. Jon supposed that it would be more heartbreaking for a father to lose a son than for a son to lose his father.

~

“Now aren’t you going to show me around your father’s castle?”

Once all the proper introductions and greetings had been made, Shireen showed Jon to his chambers in the Red Keep. They connected to hers by a short hallway and contained windows facing north. Davos had suggested the rooms, and Shireen had agreed to them. Father and mother had rooms that were as far away as possible while still being in the same castle, and Shireen hoped that such a thing would never happen with her and Jon.

“My father has three castles. The Red Keep is far from his favorite,” replied Shireen.

“Then which is? Dragonstone?”

Shireen had made no move to show Jon around Dragonstone when the Winter Stag briefly stopped on the island. The water and food stores needed to be replenished, but that only took a number of hours. In truth, she had always hated the castle. The stone dragons had given her nightmares when she was younger, everything was dark and dreary, and she was worried that the volcano would someday erupt. Father is always in a foul mood whenever Dragonstone is mentioned. Perhaps if King Robert had made him Lord of Storm’s End instead of Lord of Dragonstone much war and suffering would’ve been avoided.

“Dragonstone serves a military purpose, nothing more. It’s Storm’s End where father would rather be, me as well.”

“So I’ve heard,” said Jon, looking around the rooms for what must have been the tenth time. Servants had already put away his few belongings and hung the gifted direwolf tapestry on a wall. Eventually he looked back at Shireen. “The Red Keep is no bigger than Winterfell, but for some reason I feel so small here.”

Shireen found it ironic for Jon to say that, after having lived almost ten years at the Wall. But she thought she grasped his meaning. The Red Keep was grand, both in scale and extravagance, built by and for kings wanting to show off their wealth and power. And that wasn’t counting the throne room, with the Iron Throne looming over everything.

“It will take time to find your place, but you’ve earned it.” Just like father has. Just like I hope to.

Jon reached for her hand and kissed it, his eyes drifting to the Kingsguard knight at the door. “Thank you, Shireen.”

And so Shireen showed Jon around the Red Keep, everywhere from the Small Council chamber to the kitchens to the small godswood. Later, she was angry with herself for not trying to steal more kisses with Jon, as the wedding preparations soon made getting time alone with him much harder. I’m lucky to have had time at the Wall and Winterfell with him, and the ship voyage was rather pleasant. But this is King’s Landing, and both of us will have responsibilities to get used to.

The High Septon had chosen an auspicious date for the wedding, a date that conveniently gave time for the rest of the important lords to travel to King’s Landing if they so desired. Father looked ready to strangle the man, wanting the ceremony to take place as soon as possible. It was only when mother announced with no room for argument that the wedding was to take place in the half-completed Great Sept that father relented. Planning security for the event would be a nightmare, and extra time was needed to account for the construction scaffolding and all the alleyways of the city that would be passed on the journey to and from the Red Keep.

Now, Shireen was in the Red Keep’s sept with her mother, seven days before her wedding. The Seven Pointed Star declared that on each of the seven days leading up to a wedding the pious maiden was supposed to light seven candles to each of the seven gods and say seven prayers. Shireen didn’t think there was any point in such a practice, but mother insisted and Shireen didn’t have the heart to refuse. She had never been very close to mother, especially after father took the Iron Throne and started training her in earnest to be his heir. As well, the fact that mother and father had little in common and did their best to avoid each other didn’t help matters.

Mother was dressed much like a septa, save that she wasn’t wearing white. Her hair was covered, and in fact that only thing not modest about her appearance was her crown. Shireen followed her like a shadow, silently lighting candles. When the room was awash in lights in front of the Seven, mother asked her a pointed question: “Can I trust your word that you’re still a maiden? Or do I need to have a septa examine you?”

“Mother!” said Shireen indignantly.

“The North is full of heathens, where men think nothing of stealing their intended brides and taking them before their wedding nights.”

“That’s a falsehood,” countered Shireen. Though the wildings still steal their wives. She thought of Val. And their husbands. “The Northerners have similar values as us Southerners, even if they pray in godswoods instead of septs.”

But mother’s face was hard and unmoving. “Your future husband is still a heathen, but at least you’ll be married by the High Septon in the presence of the Seven.”

Shireen didn’t bother to say that Jon believed in gods as much as father. Mother wasn’t going to change her opinion, and as long as her religious fervor didn’t harm others like Melisandre’s did, she was best left to her own devices.

“Have you remained pure?” Mother asked again. “Even by your own hand?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

Mother then gestured Shireen to sit with her on a bench before the Maiden.

“It is imperative that you know what to expect on your wedding night, for I was woefully unprepared…” She then launched into a dispassionate tale of her wedding. Shireen inwardly cringed throughout it, actually saying a prayer to the seven gods in thanks that she was not marrying a complete stranger—a stranger with a crass brother incapable of self-control.

“…my first kiss in front of the septon was like kissing marble, and he danced as if made of it too…”

“Father danced with your at your wedding?” Shireen hadn’t expected to hear such a thing, and she hoped her question would cause mother to smile.

“Your father danced with me because King Robert yelled at him that he need to do something to get me…How did he phrase it?” Mother pursed her lips. “Oh yes, we needed to get in the mood to fuck.”

There go my hopes.

“Being carried naked to my room wasn’t nearly as bad as finding King Robert and my cousin Delena already making love in our marriage bed. Your father had a screaming match with his brother, and all the king said in return was that we should join them.”

Shireen wanted mother to stop, but she kept on speaking, oblivious to Shireen’s horrified expressions.

“Another room with a bed was found, and your father insisted that we still do our duty. I agreed. I tried to kiss him again, as he was clearly making no move of his own. It was obvious from the start that he’d never bedded a woman before, and…”

“That’s enough, mother,” said Shireen firmly. “Let’s say another round of seven prayers for good fortune.”

Mother grabbed both of Shireen’s hands with her own and did not let go. “I’m telling you this so you don’t physically get hurt, and you need to know the truth about what a real wedding night is like. I laid on my back quick enough, but it took him time for his cock to get hard and he refused any help that I could offer. I wish that I had oil or something else to properly prepare myself with, for it hurt. Oh yes, it hurt to lose my maidenhead. I kept up a constant prayer for my husband’s seed to be spilled inside me quick enough so I wouldn’t have to feel his touch for the rest of the night.”

Mother’s talk to me when I first flowered was as joyful as a song in comparison to this, thought Shireen, focusing her eyes on a point just above mother’s shoulder. Not for the first time, Shireen wished that mother was like Marya Seaworth. Though both women had iron wills, Marya was kind and saw no reason not to take her sons in her arms when the occasion called for it.

The sept was becoming hot and stuffy, but mother wasn’t even close to being finished. Shireen really, really hoped that father never got the grand idea to give Jon a similar talk.

~

Thankfully, Jon didn’t hear a single word from Stannis about wedding nights. Jon sparred with Stannis when Shireen was in the sept with her mother, continuing what they had started at the Wall. The king trained every day, and not just with a sword. Archery, riding, knife throwing—all of it helped him stay calm and push the burdens of kingship momentarily away.

“Now I know why Robert wanted to go hunting all the time. But I never saw any point in galloping after hapless beasts for sport.”

“Perhaps it made him feel alive,” suggested Jon, thinking of all the times he’d hunted while wearing Ghost’s skin.

Stannis didn’t respond to that, rolling his shoulders. “Remember, Jon, that even though you’ll have the Kingsguard with you at all times, never trust that they’ll be able to defend you.”

“Believe me, Your Grace, I have no desire to get stabbed in the back again.” He adjusted his grip on a short knife, then aimed and threw it at a target. It stuck.

“While I trust the members of my Kingsguard, don’t hesitate to bring me your concerns if you find them not living up to their white cloaks. The same with the members of the Small Council, where you’ll soon have a seat.”

“I don’t think that will be a problem,” responded Jon, going over and pulling the knife from the target. Then he walked back to where Stannis was and threw the knife again.

“What did you think of the men I appointed to the Small Council?”

“They don’t seem any better or worse than those I’ve dealt with at the Wall.”

“Did you notice how they looked at you?”

Jon paused, thinking back to when he had been formally introduced to Lord Willas Tyrell, Ser Wylis Manderly, Maester Alleras, Grand Maester Ebrose, and Lord Estermont. Ghost had noted their smell, deciding that none were worthy of being less a throat. Yet. “Lord Davos was smiling. The rest were all wary of me, probably trying to decide if I’m most like a wolf, wight, or White Walker. Like everyone else.”

Stannis looked bemused. “Lord Tyrell is jealous of you.”

“Jealous?” said Jon in surprise. “Did he have designs on Shireen’s hand?”

“If he did, he had the wisdom never to voice them. Having a Tyrell as a goodson…” Stannis shuddered involuntarily. “If he’s not jealous of you, he’s covetous of your position. You’ll be able to influence matters all over the realm, not just on a desolate piece of ice. And you have the favor of the king, Hand, and Crown Princess.”

Jon thought about that, wondering if Stannis was trying to give him advice or criticize him for not noticing something. Letting my guard down isn’t a habit, Your Grace. You should know that by now. “Are you trying to warn me?”

“Yes and no. Just be aware of how others see you and the reasons why. Your opinion matters to me as much as that of Lord Davos and Shireen,” continued Stannis. “Ruling is hard, as you well know, but doing it alone is even harder. I’ve only learned that through sorrow and frustration. A ruler shouldn’t have to do everything himself, and that’s a fate I do not wish for my daughter.”

Jon remembered all the loneliness he’d experienced as the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Some of it was necessary, of course, as a ruler needed to keep a certain amount of distance between himself and his subjects. Like Stannis, Jon had suffered much sorrow and frustration before he realized the true worth of having men like Sam around. “I agree. Shireen should always have someone with her, and I promise to be there as best I can.”

Stannis looked at Jon, a hint of approval in his eyes. He threw a knife of his own. “I look forward to working with you again.”

“As do I.”

~

At long last, the day of Shireen’s wedding had arrived. The Red Keep as well as King’s Landing was bustling with activity, and Maester Alleras reported that the city’s smallfolk were anticipating the event just as much as the lords. They were eager to get a glimpse of the North’s legendary direwolves, among other things. Shireen was delighted with her new gown, and for once she felt like a princess while wearing it. Even if beautiful clothes were wasted on her, the gown’s colors made it a practical garment to wear in the future when she needed to be seen for who she was. Black velvet made up the skirt and long sleeves, while cloth-of-gold formed the bodice.

“Style my hair down, over my right shoulder,” Shireen instructed her ladies.

“But Princess, the queen told us to copy the statues of the Maiden, who always…”

“I am not the Maiden. I am the Crown Princess.”

“It is not wise for a bride to wear her hair down at her wedding, for it brings to mind…”

“If anyone is to decide which hairstyles are wise, it’s me.” Shireen’s voice was firm, and her command was carried out with no other objections. Jon thought I looked pretty wearing it down at the Wall’s harvest festival, and his opinion is one of the only ones that matters to me. I do not care what images loose hair invokes. If such a thing was truly scandalous more highborn women other than mother would cover their hair.

When her hair was finished being styled, Shireen’s ladies abruptly stopped talking and left the room. Shireen was about to turn and ask what was wrong when she spied a tall figure lurking in the doorway. It was father, of course. He was dressed in finery that Shireen rarely saw, from black velvets trimmed in cloth-of-gold to a jeweled sword belt. He was also wearing his cloth-of-gold cloak and deemed the wedding a proper occasion to wear his crown.

Shireen made to rise.

“There’s no need to stand, Shireen. The tradition of standing when the king walks into the room needn’t apply to you.”

Father put his hands on Shireen’s shoulders, looking at their reflection in the mirror across from her. He frowned. “Incomplete, just like I thought.”

Shireen was just about to ask what he meant when a golden chain was draped around her neck, a golden chain with a sapphire dangling off it.

“There. Now you have something to bring out your eyes.”

Shireen looked at the sapphire with no small amount of wonder. “You didn’t sell off all of Cersei Lannister’s jewels?”

“Of course I did. The Crown needed to pay off its debt to the Iron Bank of Braavos, among others. But I did save some jewels of my mother’s, as neither Robert nor Renly ever cared to do anything with them.”

Father then placed Shireen’s crown on her head, and he finally looked pleased with the image she made.

“Are you ready to escort me to the Great Sept?”

“Yes. I even have a maiden’s cloak for you, the same cloak that I put around your mother on our wedding day. But I won’t be giving you away to any man, not truly, as you’ll still wear the Baratheon name for the rest of your life. And so will your children, if you have them like you so desire.”

Let’s hope that the realm always sees me and my children as Baratheons, not Starks…or something else.

“You won’t be able to protect me forever.”

“No, but if I ever waver I have faith that your husband will not fail you.”

Naturally, father doesn’t think about his death but what he believes to be his greatest mistake. Hopefully a day never comes when I have to be protected from father. Something else about father’s words gave Shireen pause. “I didn’t know you had faith in anything.”

“I have faith in people who do their duty.” Father held open the maiden’s cloak, and Shireen let him tie it around her. He then held out his arm, and Shireen willingly took it and followed his lead.

~

A new set of clothes had been commissioned for Jon, just as Stannis had promised him. Jon dressed alone, first donning grey breeches and a grey silk shirt before putting a long white, velvet tunic on top on them. The tunic naturally had a grey direwolf racing across it, the same direwolf seen on every Stark banner. His belt with the silver direwolf buckle went on next, followed by Longclaw hanging from its own sturdy belt. Jon’s new white and grey cloak completed the ensemble. He took a deep breath, looking to Ghost.

“It’s time for me to take another set of vows, Ghost. If I ever waver or run away from these, you’ll bring me back, just like you did when I was a man of the Night’s Watch?”

Ghost padded over to Jon and nuzzled at his hip. Jon carded his fingers through Ghost’s soft white fur, closing his eyes and letting himself slip into Ghost’s mind. Ghost was calm and felt something that Jon could only describe as joy, which reassured him more than anything.

A knock on the door to his chambers forced Jon back to his own mind. Sansa and Rickon were there, ready to ride with Jon to the half-built Great Sept. Both Starks were wearing fine clothes in white and shades of grey, all of which made their auburn hair and blue eyes stand out. Sansa gave Jon a big smile, her eyes bright like she was seeing a vision from happy times before.

“You look so much like father. Don’t you think, Rickon?”

Rickon looked at Jon then back at Sansa before looking at his boots. “I don’t remember what father looked like at all,” he said in a small voice. “I have a memory of a strong man tossing me in the air when I got Shaggy, but I don’t know if that’s my memory or Shaggy’s.”

Sansa’s face fell, and she looked like she was going to cry.

“I remember mother, though.” Rickon took Sansa’s hand. “She liked to sing to me. Her hair was an even brighter copper than yours.” Rickon looked at Jon with a smile of his own. “Did my mother sing to you, Jon?”

Jon clenched at the fur on Ghost’s neck. If Rickon doesn’t remember what father looked like, he wouldn’t remember how his mother looked at me. Sansa was purposefully looking away from both him and Rickon, which made Jon all the more determined to stop focusing on the past that could never be changed and concentrate instead on the future that held so many possibilities. “No. But she was…” Jon thought back to some of the last words he had said to Robb. They weren’t lies, not truly. “She was very kind.”

After a while, Sansa looked back at Jon. “You’ve forgotten something.”

Jon knew what Sansa was referring to. He hadn’t forgotten it, but…

“The silver is beautiful, and the workmanship that went into these direwolves is remarkable.”

Sansa was holding Jon’s crown of course—a ring of direwolves with red garnets for eyes. Their ears and tails were tipped with black dragonglass. Jon hadn’t expected a crown to be made for him, but it ultimately didn’t surprise him. Fate is a curious thing. Jon let Sansa place the crown on his head, smoothing his hair in the process.

A loud bark from Shaggydog made Sansa jump.

“Rickon, isn’t Shaggy staying somewhere safe so he won’t cause trouble at the wedding?”

Rickon didn’t understand. “King Stannis insisted that Shaggy come to the wedding ceremony and feast.”

“Really?” asked Sansa, not quite believing him.

“He insisted, like I said. Shaggy’s there for protection, and if he eats someone he or she probably had it coming.”

Jon laughed at that, even more for the expression on Sansa’s face. He adjusted his crown, making sure it would stay in place. “Our little brother’s telling the truth, for that’s something the king would say. Ghost is to be with me at the altar for the same reason. As well, Stannis wants the realm to know which family Shireen is marrying into. Traitors being eaten by direwolves is a small price to pay to make a point.”

~

Years later, Shireen would remember very little from her wedding ceremony itself. There were too many people, too many sounds, too many smells. Father fretted incessantly about security, telling mother over and over what a terrible idea it was to have a wedding ceremony in a building that was still little more than a pile of rocks. Mother didn’t spare father a single glance, clutching her seven-pointed star pendant and keeping up a constant stream of prayers.

A crush of people lined an expanse of white marble that was to serve as the entryway to the Great Sept. The statue of Baelor the Blessed was no more, and as of yet nothing has been commissioned to replace it. Mother had proposed a statue of her and father dressed as the Mother and Father, but father’s expression upon hearing that killed the idea on the spot.

The High Septon himself escorted mother into the seven-sided hall of the Great Sept. Tourney stands and benches had been brought in for those lucky enough to witness the ceremony from close up. And for those brave enough to traverse across half the city instead of staying in the Red Keep and waiting for the feast. Shireen knew enough nobles that never left the castle or other rarified heights during their time in the city, whether it be for their own safety or because they looked down upon the rest of it.

Shireen and father stood outside the hall until given the signal. Her arm was fully in his, and for the first time she felt nervous about taking another step forward. This wedding is all my doing, Shireen told herself. Or at least I was in control of the man standing at the altar.

Father noticed Shireen’s mood, and he didn’t think there was anything wrong about her hesitance. “My wedding was miserable. Robert gave me a choice between your mother and one of Mace Tyrell’s sisters, all for the sake of a precious alliance with the Reach. Naturally, I chose the woman whose family hadn’t tried to starve me to death.”

“Surely you don’t think my wedding will be miserable, father?” asked Shireen. She never wanted to hear another word about her parents’ wedding, and thinking about it suddenly made her ill.

“It shouldn’t. You identified the man most worthy of your hand and planned ways to make the match acceptable both personally and politically. Brandon the Builder couldn’t have planned the building of any one of his castles any better. Cracks might appear in the future, but you have a solid foundation.”

Shireen gripped father’s arm tighter. He turned toward her and lifted her chin with his calloused fingertips. Shireen knew what father was going to say, but she took his words to heart regardless.

“Remember, you look down to no one. Not me, not him, not anyone.”

Shireen held father’s eyes for a long time, only breaking the gaze to look at Jon’s as she walked down the aisle. She then held Jon’s eyes as the High Septon put their hands together, as she said the seven prayers and seven vows, and as she received the seven blessings. Only when it was time to pledge her love with a kiss did Shireen lose sight of Jon’s eyes, closing her own as she felt his mouth meet her own.

“With this kiss I pledge my love,” said Shireen, her words being echoed in Jon’s lower voice.

The audience clapped as expected. There was no exchanging of cloaks. When it was time to walk back down the aisle and greet the people of King’s Landing, Jon was reluctant to move. He leaned forward and whispered in her ear.

“Do we really have to face the crowd yet?”

“Surely you’re not scared, Ser Jon Stark, slayer of White Walkers?”

Jon gave a small laugh, shaking his head. “While I don’t relish sharing you with the people just yet, Ghost can smell the street of butcher’s shops. Too much of my energy is being taken up trying to get him to stay by my side.”

Shireen gave Ghost her biggest smile. “You’ll stay by my side, won’t you?”

At that, Ghost immediately gave her hands a lick. And Jon’s, for they were still entwined.

~

Jon was getting tired of feasts. Now I know why Stannis wants to host so many. It wasn’t that he wasn’t enjoying himself, no, but if one more richly dressed noble told him how valiant he was while fighting on the Wall or how blessed he was to be the future king consort he was going to scream. It took all his self-control to nod gravely at every greeting, looking to see who Ghost liked and who he didn’t. Too many ladies wanted to dance with him. He obliged some of them, mainly because he couldn’t dance every dance with Shireen. Or Sansa. And wanted to give the impression that the Wall—and death—hadn’t frozen him. No highborn lady ever gave me a second glance growing up, and now Margaery Tyrell is inviting me to masques at Highgarden and Wylla Manderly is asking if there are any other handsome men at the Wall.

Jon was enjoying the time he got to spend with Shireen and Shireen alone, and he thought more than was probably appropriate of the time later in the evening when he wouldn’t have to share her with anyone.

A large pigeon pie served as the centerpiece to the feast, and each slice was given a dollop of lemon cream. Jon and Shireen ate off of the same plate and drank from the same goblet. Jon felt his face redden with every sip or wine. Or was it every time their fingers brushed while reaching for the knife? Jon found it easier to ignore the stares of all of the guests at the feast if he just focused on Shireen, something she didn’t find any fault with.

“Your father,” observed Jon. “Is drunk.”

Shireen bit into a lemon cake. “Really?”

“He finished off a full glass of wine. Wine, not lemon water. And now he’s dancing with my sister!”

Stannis was, and by the lack of a scowl on his face he seemed to be enjoying himself too. He had also danced with Shireen and Lady Marya Seaworth. Queen Selyse was utterly ignored, but she didn’t seem like the type to want to dance with anyone save for the High Septon. Or one of the many septas present at the feast.

Shireen was amused, and her lopsided smile made another appearance. “Do you object? Sansa could be dancing with one of the questionable young men who was after my hand.” Shireen had told Jon about Dickon Tarly, and while Sam’s younger brother was present at the feast, he wisely hadn’t approached any Baratheons or Starks.

“No,” admitted Jon. “Sansa’s safe with him. He’s the last person in the realm who would take advantage of her.”

In no time at all, drunken lords were calling for the bedding ceremony to begin. Jon looked to Stannis, who had made his way back to the high table. He wondered if the king would put a stop to the tradition, especially one that might put Shireen in harm’s way. To Jon’s surprise, Stannis simply nodded and waved a hand. Jon made to grab Shireen’s hand, but it danced out of his reach.

“I’ll see you soon,” said Shireen, a faint blush spreading across her cheeks.

Jon was about to wish that he had brought Longclaw to the feast when both Ghost and Shaggydog leapt through the hall and settled themselves at Shireen’s side. Both direwolves then circled her, baring their teeth at the crowd of men that had started to make its way toward her.

“Your Grace, this isn’t fair!” came a shout.

“All males of the court are allowed to escort Princess Shireen to her marriage bed,” said Stannis levelly. “The direwolves are male, so they’re well within their rights.”

Shaggydog howled at that, and only now did Jon realize why Stannis was so keen to have the wolves present. Shireen lifted her chin and purposefully walked out of the hall, accompanied by a pair of Kingsguard knights. A number of other men still followed her at a distance, throwing ribald comments and perhaps feeling bold enough to sneak past a wolf.

Jon turned to thank Stannis. “That was cleverly done.”

Stannis didn’t respond, but he leaned over and lifted Jon’s crown from his head.

“What was that for?”

“You won’t need this for the rest of the night. And besides, it would be a tragedy if it got lost.”

“Got lost?” Out of the corner of his eyes Jon could see lady after lady making their way to the high table, but he kept his focus on Stannis.

“Yes. Bedding ceremonies can be vicious, after all.” Stannis flicked his eyes around the high table. “One last thing.”

“Your Grace?” Does he think to give me more advice? If so, this is poor timing.

“If you ever harm my daughter in any way, I will kill you. Your little direwolf, too. And then I will personally make sure that you don’t come back to life again.”

Stannis’ threat hit Jon in the gut, much like the king had probably intended it to. Jon had no doubt that Stannis was serious, and he reevaluated what he had just thought about Stannis and poor timing. The king then raised a full glass of red summerwine, smiling as he toasted Jon and downed it in a single swallow.

“Have a splendid night, Ser Jon.”

In the name of all the old gods and the new…Jon stared at the man in front of him, wondering who he was and what he had done with Stannis Baratheon. He didn’t have much time to wonder, however, as he was yanked off his bench by multiple pairs of hands attached to high-pitched giggles. Jon tried to spin and escape, but all that did was make him fall into the arms of a lady with curly brown hair and a large bosom. He felt his cloak leave his shoulders, and hands started to sneak around his waist to unbuckle his belt. Jon looked to Stannis for help, but Stannis was still smiling at him, his arms crossed. The king was clearly getting some kind of perverse pleasure by watching Jon fight off multiple ladies.

I’m going to make him regret that smile. If I don’t get smothered first. Jon felt a pair of lips graze his ear, and he stumbled as he twisted away from another pair that was aiming for his mouth. Giggles were all that he could hear, all that he chose to hear, for those were preferable to the excited speculation about what he must look like under his clothes and how passionate a lover he might be…

Jon found his footing, rapidly searching for a means of escape. He spied an opening between a pair of silk skirts and took off at a sprint.

~

Shireen sat cross-legged on her bed, Ghost’s head in her lap, listening with interest to the commotion occurring beyond the doors to her chambers—Shaggydog howled almost non-stop, the men foolish enough to follow her to her chambers sang songs best suited to taverns and brothels, and the steps of the armored Kingsguard echoed off the walls. Shireen guessed that Jon was near when high-pitched laughs were added to the raucous.

Distantly, a door slammed. Ghost lifted his head and padded over to the next room where his master was lying flat on his back, breathing as if he’d just run for his life. Shireen looked down at Jon curiously as Ghost licked his face.

“You look rather worse for wear.”

“I didn’t have any direwolves to protect me.”

Jon got to his feet, and Shireen couldn’t help suppress a laugh at his appearance. He was still fully clothed, in a matter of speaking. Both boots were on his feet, and he still had on his breeches and grey silk shirt. But his crown was missing, along with his cloak, tunic, and belt. The laces to his shirt were undone, and the threads in the hem were unraveling. As well, Jon’s hair stuck out at odd angles.

“But I thought you were a vicious direwolf, ready to hunt and ravage a doe,” replied Shireen, repeating some of the comments that had just been thrown at her. “Or perhaps you’ve been tamed, knowing that the king stag will gore you with his antlers if you make one wrong move.”

Jon let out a sound halfway between a sigh and a groan, pushing his fingers through his hair and making it even more disheveled than before.

“I want no more talk or direwolves or stags or any other kind of animal tonight.”

“I think I can do that. Now,” said Shireen, her face heating up as she held out her hand. “Will you escort me to bed, husband?”

Jon took her hand and bowed, the very image of a valiant knight. Shireen wondered if she could ever get him to lose his long-practiced control. It’s not like he’s had many opportunities up until now. Wherever we’ve been the Kingsguard or father has been one step away. When Shireen entered her bedchamber again, her eyes were drawn to the now dried crown of blue winter roses and red weirwood leaves that Jon had given her at their betrothal feast. The man who had presented it to her had no care at all about public displays and wasn’t afraid to let his emotions show.

There was an awkward silence after Jon closed the door, and Shireen noticed that Ghost was no longer with them. A pitcher of wine and a small platter of fruit and honey-covered cakes sat on a table next to the fireplace, where a fire was happily crackling. Shireen made no move toward it, as she didn’t think that more drink would do anything to stop the nerves that were suddenly racing through her.

Jon turned away and removed his shirt, crossing his arms behind his back and pulling it over his head. Shireen stared, remembering what it felt like to have those arms around hers when Jon demonstrated how to hold his sword. Her eyes were soon drawn, however, to a jagged white scar between his shoulder blades, a scar just a hair away from his spine. There was another scar on his lower back. Before Jon could turn around, Shireen stepped toward him and placed her hands on his shoulders, her lips finding the highest scar. Jon’s breath hitched in his throat.

“How many others do you have?”

“You’ve already seen most of them.”

Shireen lightly kissed the length of the scar before Jon turned around, coming face to face with her.

“Shireen…”

Shireen kissed the scar around Jon’s right eye and the one across his neck. The white scar tissue on his face was uneven, evidence that the original wound must have been deep and messy. The other, though…the scar on his neck was smooth, meaning that it was one of the gashes that had magically healed on his funeral pyre. Her hands settled on Jon’s waist, where her thumbs found yet another scar on his stomach. The muscles on his chest were hard and lean as she pressed herself close to him. He is quite handsome. All throughout her courtship Shireen had purposely focused on Jon’s other qualities. He was no Florian the Fool with a dashing smile and perfect face, but seeing him like this on this night…

“I think,” said Jon eventually, his breath far from steady, “That you’re rather impeccably dressed, wife.”

Her breathing was steadier than his, but it still took time to say: “I’ll need help getting out of this gown.”

Jon took a slight step back, and instead of reaching for the laces on her bodice his hands found the clasp of her sapphire necklace. He unhooked it and laid it gently on a nearby table. Then he undid the clasp that held her hair over her right shoulder, putting it aside and running his fingers through her hair. Shireen liked the feel of that, even more so when he tilted her head back and finally kissed her on the mouth.

His lips were a little dry, but they were gentle and soft, not demanding anything of her. Without warning, the story of mother’s wedding night came to mind, including the unwanted details of how long it took father’s cock to get hard. That’s not going to be a problem tonight, thought Shireen as she felt Jon’s hardness against her belly. Shireen broke off the kiss and looked away.

“My gown,” said Shireen.

Jon helped her out of her gown as ordered, and when she stepped out of it he went down to his knees in front of her. Shireen couldn’t stop herself from shaking as he rolled her stockings down one by one, then slid her smallclothes down. His hands were sure, his movements slow and deliberate as if he had done this all before. She swayed, feeling a bit unsteady.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes,” said Shireen, trying to sound more confident than she was.

A mischievous look passed through Jon’s eyes. “Tell me if you want me to stop.”

Shireen wasn’t quite sure what to say, as she didn’t quite know what Jon would do given their current position.

He lifted the hem of her shift, pressing a tentative kiss to her inner thigh. Shireen spread her legs apart a little by reflex, and then…Shireen let out a little gasp as Jon’s mouth found her there. She shuddered and grabbed on to his hair to keep her knees from buckling. As his tongue slid across her, tasting her in a way that she was not entirely certain was proper, Shireen wanted to tell him to hurry up, to slow down, to do both at once. At least he didn’t stop, not until she let out a small cry as another shudder passed through her. Jon’s head reemerged, and he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand.

“Did you like that?” he asked. The mischief was still there in his eyes, but it was now tempered with concern.

Shireen nodded, feeling extremely weak in the knees. She drew in a startled breath as Jon picked her up and placed her on the bed. My face must be bright red by now. She looked at Jon, noticing that his grey eyes had all but gone black. An idea came to her mind. While Shireen didn’t have any experience in these matters, she still wanted to show Jon that she was the same person who had confidently proposed to him on top of the Wall.

“Is there any reason that you’re still wearing your breeches?”

Jon didn’t have time to respond as Shireen reversed their positions, pushing him back on the bed and getting rid of his boots and breeches. He didn’t protest, not even when he lay naked beneath her. Shireen pulled off her shift and climbed on top of him, straddling his thighs and watching his eyes as she slid onto him—they widened in surprise before shutting. He let out a long groan. It took a moment for Shireen’s body to process what she’d just done, and her first response was to clench her teeth at the shock of pain that flared deep inside her. She thought that nothing would hurt since she had been sopping wet from all of Jon’s ministrations with his mouth, but maybe it was the angle or her body protesting or…Mother was right, it does really hurt…

Jon immediately noticed that something wasn’t right. “Are you sure you’re alright?” he said with long, ragged breaths, his hands finding her hips. Fear was evident in his eyes, and that was something Shireen never wanted to see.

“I…” said Shireen, shaking her head and rocking against him, trying to find a position that wasn’t uncomfortable. He seemed to understand what she was doing and gripped her hips tighter, trying to move with her. When he sat up, Shireen wrapped her legs around his waist and held onto his shoulders. They started to move together, tentatively and carefully. It took time to find a rhythm, but when they did she realized that there was pleasure every time he thrust into her.

Jon’s movements suddenly became erratic, his hands even tighter around her hips. With one last, deep thrust, he moaned and let his forehead fall to her shoulder. Is that it? Am I supposed to feel anything more? The initial pain subsided, and it wasn’t entire unpleasant. As thoughts like those crossed Shireen’s mind, Jon started to kiss her in earnest. First her hair, then her mouth, then her neck, then her breasts. Even the dead grey skin on her cheek. Shireen stayed where she was when he slid out of her, keeping her legs around his waist. There was something so very assuring about being in his arms, their strength different from that of father’s. Don’t worry so much about hurting me. If something ever does happen I’ll be sure to tell you.

Later, Shireen would weep for her parents and the disaster that had been their wedding. Their marriage never had a foundation to build upon, making it harder and harder to turn to each other when life threw its cruelest tests on them. But for now, she could think of nothing more than staying in Jon’s arms, her head resting on his shoulder.

~

The white wolf yawned as the first rays of sunlight reached him. He got up onto his paws and stretched, satisfied with how the night had progressed. His black brother had spent the night in the hallway with the white knights, and the white wolf had spent in the room outside the bedchamber to give his master some privacy. He was very pleased with the newest member of his pack, and with any luck his pack would only grow.

Jon opened his eyes, just as Ghost was contemplating whether or not to wake his master up. No, Ghost, thought Jon firmly.

Jon immediately realized that something was different. Shireen was curled up next to him, her head resting against his shoulder. That’s not it, though. Only when Jon leaned down to kiss the top of Shireen’s head did it hit him how very warm she was and how very warm he felt. The last time I woke up not feeling cold was before my death. He pulled Shireen closer toward him, wanting to make sure that the heat wasn’t an illusion.

He hadn’t really known what to expect on his wedding night. He was far from a maid, with all the times he’d had Ygritte when he was six and ten. But Ygritte had always been the one to initiate everything, to moan at him to go faster, to push harder. Jon had always complied, in part because he was scared that he’d lose his cover and in part because her insistence made it so easy for him to lose control. And all my vows slipped through my fingers like water, just like they did for my father. But while Jon’s relationship with Ygritte had only been a tryst that couldn’t have lasted, his relationship with Shireen was designed to last until as long as they both lived. Shireen was worlds away from Ygritte, and Jon didn’t want to do anything in or out of their marriage bed that might distance himself from her. They would have plenty of time to learn more of each other, after all.

Shireen’s certainly not shy about taking control, once she sets her mind to it. That shouldn’t have surprised me.

Movement at Jon’s side told him that Shireen was awake. She lifted her head and smiled at him before sitting up, gathering all of her hair over her right shoulder.

“Good morning,” she said softly.

“You as well.”

Silence followed, and Jon wasn’t quite sure what to say. Shireen seemed to have trouble coming up with a reply as well. Eventually, she blushed and looked shyly at him, a look he hadn’t seen from her yet.

“That thing you did…with your mouth. Is that what wildlings do with their lovers beyond the Wall?”

Is that…is that what lords do to their ladies, down in the south? Jon didn’t mean to think of Ygritte again, but Shireen’s words were so similar that he couldn’t help himself. A long, slow laugh escaped him. “Perhaps. I simply wanted to kiss you there. You seemed to like it.”

“I should return the favor.”

Jon’s eyebrows rose at that, and he could feel himself growing hard at her suggestion. He made to kiss Shireen, but she got out of bed and started to dress.

“Father likely expects us at the Small Council meeting today.”

Jon stared at her, trying to process her words. She can’t be serious. I doubt there are any lords sober enough to appear in the Small Council chamber today, the king included. But Shireen continued to dress, putting on her stockings after her shift went over her head.

“Aren’t you going to dress?”

I did marry Stannis Baratheon’s daughter, so I really shouldn’t be surprised. Jon sighed, rolling off the bed and pulling on his breeches. He then walked through some doorways to his own chambers to search for some more appropriate clothes. Other than his wedding finery all he really had was his Night’s Watch blacks, which would have to do for now. Back in Shireen’s chambers, she had a navy dress partially on.

“I need you to lace my dress, and then you can braid my hair.”

“Shouldn’t you find one of your ladies to do that for you? I don’t know the first thing about styling hair. You wouldn’t look presentable, and your father would glare at us and say something about negligence.”

Shireen smiled her lopsided smile, and there was a playful gleam in her deep blue eyes. “You think I actually want us to go to the Small Council meeting?”

“I…” began Jon, “I don’t know.”

“Can Ghost find us a way out of the Red Keep without anyone noticing us?”

“Of course,” said Jon, his interest now piqued. This time he wouldn’t mind a lecture from Stannis about negligence, and after the wedding feast he wasn’t feeling kindly toward the king.

“What do you have in mind?”

Chapter Text

King Stannis Baratheon was not going to let a headache ruin his day. I should never have had that goblet of wine. Or the second. Or the third. He rubbed his temples, watching the morning light reflect on the Narrow Sea through the window in the Small Council chamber. He could smell the salt in the air, and soon he could hear footsteps behind him.

“Ser Davos,” said Stannis without turning around. “Did you enjoy the wedding?”

“Yes, Your Grace,” replied Davos. “If only because I’ve never seen Shireen so happy.”

Stannis nodded in agreement, still looking out the window. He’d never seen Shireen so happy either. Something deep within him had stirred when he had walked her down the aisle of the half-finished Great Sept and placed her hand in Jon’s. It was a feeling he’d never experienced before, something he didn’t know how to describe—a strange mixture of happiness, triumph, satisfaction, and contentment. Stannis had also never seen Shireen look more beautiful.

Jon seemed to recognize that fact as well, and he didn’t even try to hide his emotions like usual. I only hope the boy doesn’t disappoint me like countless other have in my life. Stannis was loath to admit it to anyone, including himself, that he actually liked Jon. Oh, he had his flaws and a special gift for irritating him, but overall Jon was a serious and dutiful young man who cared more about the safety of the realm than personal power. Stannis was pleased that Shireen had seen those same qualities and decided to pursue Jon instead of someone charming like Renly or indulgent like Robert.

Speaking of Robert…

Robert would’ve approved of the match. Stannis knew that for certain. Robert had been in love with Lyanna Stark ever since he met Ned Stark, and then he wanted to betroth who he thought was his trueborn son and heir to Sansa Stark. Houses Baratheon and Stark are now officially joined.

That led Stannis to wonder what good, honorable Ned Stark would have thought of the match. I doubt he would ever have guessed that the boy he fathered off of a whore during Robert’s rebellion would grow up to be the son people will likely remember the most. Oh, Stannis didn’t know if Jon’s mother was a whore or not, that’s just what Robert had said. Robert was fond of bringing up Stark’s infidelity, if only to mock Stannis for being too stoic and uptight for his own good. But Stannis had no reason to believe otherwise, and no Northerner seemed to care that Jon had no relation to the Tullys. Jon was a son of Ned Stark and looked like their precious lord in his prime, thus helping Stannis cement a key political alliance. If the White Walkers ever walked again, the Crown would have no trouble raising an army even if the soft Southern lords refused to bestir themselves.

Ned Stark was no friend of mine, thought Stannis, digging his nails into the stone windowsill. But as much as he still resented Stark for being the man Robert always turned to, the god that his people were still worshiping…he felt the slightest bit of pity for him. Stark didn’t live long enough to see any of his children grow up. He’ll never know how well Rickon rules as Lord of Winterfell, how astute and kind Sansa is, and Jon—He’ll never get to be proud of the man Jon has become…

Davos’ voice interrupted Stannis’ thoughts. “Marya remarked that you enjoyed dancing last night, and she hopes that you continue doing it when the occasion allows it.”

Stannis resisted the urge to rub his temples again. It was the wine. It was the wine that caused me to dance with an absurd number of women. Shireen was one thing, as the court would expect the king to dance with the princess on her wedding day. Expectations or not, I probably wouldn’t have done it had not Sansa Stark convinced me to dance with Shireen at Winterfell. Shireen had smiled at him, though, and that smile made everything worth it. So worth it that he had barely registered his actions when he had asked Lady Seaworth and Lady Stark to dance shortly after. Strangely, he had no regrets. Both were good women worthy of his respect.

“It was also nice to see Rickon Stark again,” Davos continued. “I’m going to make arrangements to send my son Steffon to Winterfell for a time. I doubt you’ll find fault with that.”

“How you choose to raise you sons is your own prerogative. The court gossips won’t be able to fault the Hand of the King from fostering a son with the Lord of Winterfell.”

Stannis finally turned around, glad that Davos was the only man in the room with him. His Hand looked relaxed.

“I will be sorely disappointed if Shireen and Jon join us this morning.”

Davos raised an eyebrow. “If I recall, you were back to your duties as Master of Ships the morning after your wedding.”

Stannis scowled, trying to block any memories of that disastrous event from surfacing. “My wedding is not relevant to this conversation, Lord Davos.” Fighting on the Wall was far more enjoyable, for at least I wasn’t made to look like an utter fool. “It seems that my daughter and her husband might actually enjoy their marriage duties. If a few days absence from the Small Council is what it takes for an heir to be born soon, that’s a small sacrifice to make. Even seeing Shireen smile more will be worth it.”

Davos responded with a soft smile of his own. “At least Empress Daenerys Targaryen didn’t swoop in with her black dragon and scream her disapproval. With fire and blood, of course.”

Stannis’ scowl turned into a frown. “If the Targaryen girl can stomach the brother of the Usurper ruling Westeros, then hopefully she can stomach the next queen being wed to the son of one of the Usurper’s dogs. But now that you’ve brought up the topic…” Something very odd had happened at the wedding, something that Stannis didn’t quite know what to make of. “Lord Howland Reed told me that Shireen should never have anything to fear from Empress Daenerys. He refused to elaborate, simply saying to send her to Greywater Watch if trouble ever arises.”

“You didn’t insist that he elaborate?” Davos looked curious.

“I did not wish to cause a scene at my daughter’s wedding by screaming at a lord who has thus far proven himself to be loyal. Lord Reed probably saw some rubbish in a greendream.”

“I would take greendreams seriously. They often come true.”

Stannis crossed his arms and began to pace the room, remembering Melisandre and all of her visions. Some had come true, such as those about Renly and the great battle in the snow. But others…He was no more Azor Ahai than he was Robert, and never again would he put his faith in someone purporting to see the future.

“Maybe it isn’t a greendream,” said Stannis, trying to rationalize the matter. “Lord Reed fought at Ned Stark’s side all throughout Robert’s rebellion, so perhaps he learned some secret about the Targaryens that would horrify the last dragon.”

“More horrifying than King Aerys wanting to incinerate King’s Landing with wildfire?”

Stannis shrugged. “People always have secrets. It’s just a matter of finding out what they are.”

The sun had climbed higher in the sky. Stannis still had a headache, and the room was still empty save for him and Davos. He reached for a pitcher of water and took a bite from a lemon cake than had just been delivered.

“It appears that our Small Council has deserted us this morning. Their loss. But thankfully you know as well as I that a kingdom never rests.”

Davos was looking at him strangely, as if he’d just lost his mind. Only then did Stannis realize that he was smiling. And I have no desire to grind my teeth, imagine that. “What new lords would you like to make today?”

~

Shireen raced along the shore, enjoying the feeling of the sand beneath her bare feet. The Red Keep loomed behind her, but it might have been as far away as the Wall for all she knew. Jon caught her from behind, lifting and spinning her around. Shireen laughed, and eventually Jon put her down.

Beside them, waves crashed, their foamy tips lingering before being washed back into Blackwater Bay and the Narrow Sea beyond.

“What do you think, Jon? Is the shore as peaceful as the Wall?”

“Perhaps. I can see why you like it, at any rate,” said Jon. “You can pretend that you’re completely alone when you’re confronted with the vastness of the sea.”

“Oftentimes I don’t hear the city, only the waves.” Shireen wasn’t completely alone with Jon, but enough that she felt as at peace as she ever did. Ser Rolland was watching them at a respectful distance, his white cloak blowing in the wind. Ghost was sniffing the ground, and already he had dug up and eaten half a dozen crabs and discovered some beautiful shells.

A gust of wind blew Shireen’s hair in her face. The braid that Jon had done was too loose, but she didn’t mind. She walked further out into the water, letting the waves lap at her feet. Jon came to stand next to her, and Shireen immediately kissed him. He was taken by surprise, and when she pushed on his chest he gave a yelp as he lost his footing and stumbled backward into the water.

“That wasn’t fair.”

“Ghost isn’t objecting to my harsh treatment of you.”

Shireen sat down in the water next to Jon, not caring a whit if the salt water ruined her dress. She leaned forward, finding the scar on his neck and kissing it.

“I never got around to thanking you,” said Shireen.

“Whatever for?”

“For marrying me, of course. You had many reasons to stay at the Wall.”

“Aye, I did,” said Jon. He took her face in his hands, looking deep into her eyes with his own. “But none of those reasons were enough to keep me there. I can go on and on about duty and vows just like your father, but duty and vows are no replacement for family. Last night…marrying you with my family around me made me feel more like a king than any crown ever will.”

I realized that I didn’t give a damn about a realm without you in it. Father’s words echoed in Shireen’s head, so similar to the words Jon was saying now. The sincerity in Jon’s voice caused a shiver to run through her, and the emotion in his eyes was more intense than anything she had seen the previous night.

Shireen kissed him deeply, drawing his tongue into his mouth with her own.

She eventually broke the kiss. “And now you’re mine.”

Jon gave a short laugh, shaking his head as if in resignation. “And now I’m yours.

“Will you visit my bed tonight?”

“Of course. That’s always up to you, Shireen.”

Shireen couldn’t stop herself from blushing. She couldn’t remember if she’d ever felt so carefree. “Say that again.”

“I’ll be honored to join you in bed tonight.” Jon bowed as well as he could while sitting down.

“No,” said Shireen. “The part where you said my name.”

“Shireen.” Jon kissed her cheek. “Shireen.” Jon kissed her neck. “Shireen.” Jon stood up, dragging her along. He then picked her up, spinning her around and around again to her delight.

END