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The Path Ahead

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Mariah was not sure what was going on but whatever it was, she liked it. Somehow, her suggestion to rub his back for him had brought them closer than she had ever expected. Over time, it had become her most favourite part of the day, the moment he would sigh in relief the one that made her homesickness, fear of the upcoming birth, insecurity of what would happen tomorrow at this court that had kept changing ever so fast look not so bad. Even now, when she could no longer reach for him over her belly, she still felt this closeness and she waited for the moment when she could renew it with passion that surprised her.

I wonder how Daena is dealing with her condition, she sometimes thought but it was never for long. Since her own state had been confirmed, she had stopped her reluctant visits to the Maidenvault. She had never thought herself superstitious but there was something in Daena’s desperate air of a beast born to run and fight but kept imprisoned that made her feel that her own babe was not safe there. The tales her nursemaid Eladra had told her about Iblis, the sand demon who came to torture and kill women with children and stood near their shoulder at the time of birth, waiting for the tiniest chance to snatch the babe who was on its way had been imprinted in her mind. She did not want her babe anywhere close to Daena and Daeron did not try to force her about this – in fact, he never did, about anything. If something could push her to go there with him, it would be her reluctance to have him spend any time with Elaena on his own – but she supposed she would have to put up with her fears for a while, for her babe’s sake.

Put her trust in him.

It was a new and unexpected sensation. Somehow, along the way, the knowledge that she was his princess, his future queen, even – she did not dare say it in front of anyone, for it constituted high treason and Daeron himself loved the King well, so she would not hurt him by talking about Baelor’s demise – had stopped being enough. She wanted him in heart, mind, and body, as frail as this body was. And it was no longer the mere instinct of possessing something that had used to be hers that she had recognized in the beginning.

He seemed to recognize this, for he constantly doubled his care and attentions to her, although every day she thought it was impossible.

“You are my Mariah,” he would say simply. “No one else can hold a candle…”

Would she that there weren’t so many that tried to put forth competing lights! The stupid parade of prospective mistresses had not stopped just because Daeron showed no interest and despite her trust in him, Mariah got annoyed.

“First come, first served,” Eladra said. “They should have tried earlier.”

Mariah was so grateful that they had not! The thought of arriving here, only to find Daeron already devoted to someone else was too much to bear. She was so lucky that this child seemed to bind him to her further.

But it was not just the girls. The noise around Daena irritated her as well. Even the King’s constant prayers that were somehow supposed to save them from this sin only served to bring attention on Daena and her babe – when the focus should have been on the one Mariah was expecting. The fact that it was not revealed in stark light just how unpopular the King’s peace still was. How many did not want a child of union, a child of a new beginning.

She was well aware of the rumours that the babe was her goodfather’s but she did not want to discuss it with anyone, even Daeron. It was too low a thing to say aloud. But it made the sentiments against her more pronounced and to her eternal anger, these sentiments now involved Daeron as well. Between the not so impressive youth, completely subservient to his Dornish wife – or so the tale went – with the unacceptably olive-skinned girl and the silver pair of Aegon and Daena, was there even a choice?

“What about you?” Mariah burst out one day in her goodmother’s chambers. “How can you stand it?”

Naerys smiled bitterly. “What about me?” she repeated. “When was I ever a consideration?”

Mariah wanted to grab her and give her a hard shake, for this was more than a lack of will by the nominal highest lady in the land. It was unconscionable of her, it amounted to treachery. When Daeron was trying to establish a position for himself, when it was evident that the King would not live to ripe old age, Naerys had abandoned not just her own cause but her son’s as well. But then Mariah looked down, ashamed of her thoughts. It was easy for her to judge because she was young and strong, because she was wed to a young and strong man and not a weak one like Naerys’ husband. The future was theirs – Daeron and Mariah’s. Knowing this, she had the strength to fight.

Until Daena’s babe was born, a silver babe, a true dragon, people said. He isn’t, Mariah thought fiercely. My son is the dragon – and aren’t they quick to renege on their own ideas? Weren’t they dismissive of us Dornish because we don’t hold bastards in the same low regard as them? Now, people whom she had learned by name back in Sunspear as thinking that Dorne was the lowest of low behaved as if Daena had birthed Aegon the Conqueror himself.

“At least it could have been a girl,” she overheard Daeron saying to Symon one day. “I don’t have anything against the babe,” he added, “but Mariah is disturbed and I’d rather have her calm as her own time comes.”

All of a sudden, Mariah’s hands become sweaty and her heart started beating faster a tune of danger. She liked the fact that Daeron was so popular with her Dornish retinue and everyone from young Shanna Allyrion and old Eludra to the guards like Symon adored him; she was glad that Daeron was noble of heart enough to not hold a babe accountable for anything that the circumstances of their birth caused and yet… Did he not feel the same impulse to protect their own babe? Did he not know that there was a competition, silent but no less fierce? That money changed hands on the supposition that Mariah would produce a girl – a swarthy one? Of course he knew – this was why he wished that Daemon had been a girl in the first place! Then what?

For a few days, she had the feeling that she was well and truly alone as she lumbered down halls and through gardens where she felt unneeded and unwanted, and eagerly expected to fail.

Her pains started in a bright, cold spring morning and lasted a whole day, she was later told. She felt that they were lying. It could not have been just a day. It was a year, a decade, an eternity… and then, here he was.

“A boy! A boy!” everyone started shouting and she relaxed, relief going straight to her head and plunging her into the sleep that she only fought because she wanted to see her firstborn.

And then, she did. And gasped in horror.

It had always been a possibility, of course. A Martell child born to a Martell princess – what could be more natural? But she had rejected this idea since she had felt the babe move for the very first time because nothing could be more undesirable right now. Nothing but a stillborn babe or a girl child. The very idea that she could even think of her son’s birth in comparison to these two horrible alternatives made her sick and to her last day, she never forgot that the moment she had first seen her son, she had wished that he was not the way he was. That she had been disappointed.

Daeron was thrilled.

“Do you really not mind that he doesn’t take after you in anything?” Mariah asked one day as Baelor took his suck and she told herself to relax but her body still could not get rid of the memory of these first weeks of pain each time he latched, although the pain was nonexistent now and she enjoyed holding and nourishing him.

“He looks like you and I’m happy,” Daeron said simply and in the blessed intimacy of their bedchamber – because she had stopped using hers months ago – it felt warm and reassuring.

Whenever they went out, it became clear just how not enough it was.

“The King is dying,” people said and Mariah knew it was true. She was surprised at how sad this made her. Baelor might be mad but he had carved out peace for the lands – his and hers. He had given her a queenly future. He had given Daeron to her. For him, she only had gratitude.

The whispers became louder with every sharp decline the King’s health took. People said that his peace should die with him – really, at times Mariah had the feeling that the only reason it still held was the Hand’s iron… well, hand. The whispers of the Dornish seductress with her Dornish child made her seethe with helpless anger. And she knew for sure that her goodfather did nothing to stop those. She stared at Daeron and wondered what it felt like to know that one’s own father delighted in one’s revilement. She loved her father and she knew that Daeron felt nothing like this for Aegon but she still wondered if such actions could really fail to instigate pain and sadness.

The more the rumours grew, the more attached he became to her and Baelor.

As the King ailed so terrifyingly fast and Naerys did not look much better under the weight of her huge belly, Mariah knew that there was just one thing she could do to protect their future – Baelor’s, Daeron’s, her own.

“Are you sure you are up to it?”

Daeron looked all but enthusiastic when he heard her plans.

No, Mariah wanted to say. I’ll never be up to such a thing as childbirth again. I want to drink moontea for the rest of my life. But this freedom was for fisherwomen at Sunspear, not the future Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. She reached up, took his face between her palms and looked at him earnestly. He looked as if he wanted to ask something, like why she had not been this tender before. Mariah did not know. What had made her hide her new feelings, whatever they were? No, she could not say. But it no longer mattered. Baelor’s birth had demolished the last wall that stood between them. And at the end, Daeron did not ask.

“Come to me,” she said. “I am well enough. And I can do it. I can. I will give you a silver son and it will not harm me in any way,” she lied, wishing with all her heart that this was true.

Daeron hesitated. He also wanted it to be true. And when she reached out, he no longer hesitated. “Come to me,” she said again and while pain and pleasure fought a fierce battle over the rights over her body, she realized that she no longer distinguished her own desires from the path she and Daeron were carving. Now, they were truly one and the same.