Sansa strode from Arya's room late the next morning after finding her sister had already left, a pair of bundles in her hands, footsteps echoing past the guards and through the empty halls. Her sister had of course been given quarters next to Sansa's, but she had also requested a... workshop... in the remotest room in the castle, so Sansa made her way there. She strode past the storerooms full of food, salt, furs, leather, and other supplies for the winter and past the rooms still empty, their previous contents looted or burned, and she worried how she was to feed the North through the long winter to come. Defeating their enemies only to starve would not be the fate of her people.
She paused, then, looking up at her sister and remembering her, smaller, happier, in the same pose in the Red Keep, though back then when Arya was standing on one foot at the top of a set of stone stairs, she would hold her arms out and move around unsteadily to keep her balance. Here and now, Arya was on one foot, moving smoothly and precisely as she practiced some sort of sword drill.
One one foot. At the top of the stairs. With her eyes closed.
She loved her sister... but there was no denying it, her sister was very strange.
After a couple of minutes of Sansa watching her, Arya spoke, though she never opened her eyes, "Hello, Sansa. What did you bring me?"
"New clothes. You can't go around dressed like a poor sellsword anymore. Come to your workshop and let's get you outfitted properly," said Sansa, her voice carrying. She deliberately let more of her desire to see her sister dressed properly as a princess of the North and her irritation that Arya wouldn't bother to dress herself properly color her emotions.
Arya gracefully finished her current set, then sheathed her sword and once Sansa had made her way up, walked together with her to her workshop. She had not sensed any strange air currents at that location, and given that this floor and those above and below were entirely devoted to storage, she did not believe there were any secret or forgotten passages here that even a cat could get through. Sound traveled far through stone passages, though, so even here, she was proud that Sansa was wearing a face of mild disapproval.
Arya opened the door to her workshop slowly, watching carefully for the two tiny fragments of dark hair she'd planted to be revealed and fall, showing the door had not been moved since she'd closed it. Once the door had closed and been locked and barred as was Arya's new habit, Sansa turned the bundle of fine leathers and thick cloth around, handing it over before placing her sewing kit on her sister's workbench.
She had folded the clothes specifically so that only the soft outside had shown while she carried it, where now the strips of leather armor she'd sewn on the inside were visible, "Come on, let's get you out of that awful outfit and into something proper. You can't go around Winterfell letting people see a Stark dressed like a beggar. Try this on, let me see how it fits."
Arya took the clothes to a table she had set against a wall, shifting her whetstone aside and unfolding the clothes, setting the soft under-layer aside as she flexed and rubbed the jerkin, watching it flex easily. The armor strips were sewn in a cunning arrangement she'd never seen before that kept good coverage while not being obvious on the outside. She felt them carefully, and noted they were indeed extremely good quality, and definitely selected and cured to be armor for protection, not for show.
"I didn't know you worked leather," she said as she ran a finger over the neat stitches in the thick, hard strips of armor. There was no-one who could see them here and now, so they only had to be careful with their sounds. She'd tried sewing leather as a child, to see if she could use the lessons she hated so in the stables, for something she'd considered worthwhile at the time, and she'd found that even normal leather was quite difficult to work with. Her sister could have done the soft outsides easily, but the strips of armor was a different story, both the placement and the sewing itself.
"There's a lot of things you don't know about me anymore. There were also are a lot of people that were lost to the Greyjoys and the Boltons, and even to the South. We have all stepped up to do our parts. The Vale has generously provided some craftsmen to make armor, but I had to point out that up here they needed leather over their plate, and wool underneath. I've been putting my skills to good use - there's no reason to have idle hands when discussing things in private. We must all pitch in." She made the one of the signs they had worked out for truth, a subtle and natural positioning of the fingers, made briefly and without drawing attention.
Arya returned another variation of the same sign, then stripped down, since her sister had provided a complete outfit. They were both still getting used to using them naturally in conversation, and knew that while they were rarely necessary now, at the beginning of the game they were playing with Littlefinger, they would be vital later, and they needed practice. Arya had specific training to notice tiny details that might spell a lie from her time at the House of Black and White, and she had seen that Sansa must have learned to notice the minute as a survival skill as well.
Sansa took in a breath at the scars she saw on Arya, her lips thinning briefly. She recognized gut wounds that looked very similar to Jon's, one a rather gruesome, twisted scar, not just a straight cut, as well as a long slash Jon didn't have. They were clearly scars from battle, and her sister had been so confident under the keep, but still she worried.
"Arya, where did you get those?"
"In Braavos. Being stupid, and relaxing when I shouldn't have. Don't worry, I killed them after I got patched up," said Arya, making sure to phrase it ambiguously as she made the sign for truth. She hadn't heard anything, but she didn't yet know how sound carried here, and there were no other sounds to mask their voices. Everything had to be carefully considered in light of Baelish's spies - she'd spotted two of them last night, and she was sure they were the least skilled of the lot.
Sansa watched Arya start putting on the outfit, and reached out to help her make sure it went on correctly, giving Arya's shoulder a gentle squeeze as she did so, "Jon has battle scars much like that, from when some of the Night's Watch killed him after he let what was left of the Wildlings, the Free Folk, through the Wall. Lady Melisandre raised him from the dead somehow, before Theon helped me escape."
"Melisandre? The Red Woman - tall, creepy, priestess of the Red God like Thoros is? I was there when Thoros raised Beric Dondarrion from the dead for the sixth time, you know, after the Hound killed him. I'm not sure how, though it was very fast - a few words, and Beric's shoulder wasn't split open down to his heart anymore. All three of them are on my list, you know. Only death can pay for life. Where is she?"
Arya made the sign for truth as she waited for Sansa to step back, and then she went through a simple training drill briefly, pausing and pointing to the areas of the new outfit that weren't quite right for fighting in. When she had heard the tales on her way North, she had certainly expected Sansa to try and dress her in nice clothes, but hand-made armor overnight was not what she expected.
Sansa tugged on it briefly, stalking around Arya, then said, "All right, take it off again, I need to adjust it. You're a little bigger than I thought you were," as she patted Arya on the biceps with a slight smirk. She continued, "Jon banished Lady Melisandre after Ser Davos found out that she'd burned Princess Shireen at the stake to get King Stannis a victory. She went south, I don't know where."
Sansa thought back to when Brienne had told her about finding Arya and fighting the Hound. Perhaps soon she'll hear more of what had happened on the road. She watched as Arya took the outfit off again, pulling out a needle and settling herself on a chest to adjust the outfit right then. Arya herself started flipping the cutthroat's knife around casually, tossing it from hand to hand, spinning it, whether to play with it, as a habit, or to be able to better fight with it Sansa didn't know.
Sansa found herself looking at Arya's scars from time to time, comparing them to her own. While she didn't care nearly as much about being beautiful as she had when she'd last seen her sister, she did find herself caring about the scars. Arya's scars were borne of combat, of fighting back, of honor and of action. Her own were scars of shame... of being Joffrey's toy, of being Ramsay's toy, of dishonor and inaction.
She looked up when Arya stopped moving to see Arya watching her intently.
"When I was coming back North, you know, I heard stories of what happened to the North, to Jon, to you. You've told me what I heard of Jon is true. You're looking at my scars. Why? They aren't something I'm proud of; I got them by being foolish, by letting my guard down when I shouldn't have. They remind me of that, and I don't let me guard down anymore."
Arya set the knife down and hugged her sister quietly, then reached down to pull Sansa's sleeve up for just a moment, so she could see the fine scars laid on pale skin, and so Sansa could watch as she saw. She looked at her sister steadily, looking for the truth hidden beneath, what Sansa wasn't willing to talk about yet, but which was hurting her.
"I've traveled far, and seen a lot of different people. I've seen a lot of different scars, too. From burns, swords, axes, arrows, knives, fists, clubs, whips, belts, fingernails. I've seen them on lords and ladies, on courtesans and fighters, on people who have been freed from slavery. No scar I've ever seen has been shameful," Arya reached down to pull Sansa's sleeve up again, making the sign for truth as she made sure Sansa watched her look, "none of them. Not those from slavery. Not those from accidents. Not those from evil men like Sandor's scars. They simply show that you have survived. They can help you learn."
Sansa drew in a deep breath, then nodded. She still felt that her scars were shameful... but perhaps her nosy little sister had a point that she should consider. She finished the adjustments on the front, and turned the outfit over.
Arya continued speaking, her voice louder, her tone sharper now as she made the sign for eavesdropper, "I don't know why you're so insistent on this. I don't care about fancy clothes. I'm a fighter. Clothes like this don't mean anything to me," she made the sign for lie.
Sansa let her tired irritation rise up, encouraging that inside herself. She'd stayed up all night working on this, and her sister wasn't saying she was grateful to be dressed as a Stark of Winterfell, she was complaining about it!
"You are a Stark, Jon's sister, and third in line of succession of the independent kingdom of the North. You need to be dressed appropriately," Sansa fingered the strip of armor she was repositioning, looking at Arya seriously, though her voice was sharp, "and I will not allow you to go so much as one day in those merchant rags you arrived in now that you are here. You need to step up and make yourself useful. We need to prepare for the dead, prepare for Cersei, and if Jon fails, prepare for the Targaryen and her armies and dragons."
Arya handed Sansa some travel bread from a cabinet she'd stocked, then picked up the Valyrian steel knife again, resuming her drill. The knife was far lighter than it should have been, and she needed to spend some time ingraining exactly how it moved and balanced in every position into her reflexes.
While she did this, she spoke seriously, getting down to the business of protecting the North, "I heard Jon ordered everyone, without exception, to be trained to fight. The smallfolk I passed were trying, but no-one knew how the enemy fought. I know how knights fight, how the armies here fight. I know how a water dancer fights, how the Unsullied use their spears, how the Dothraki screamers fight. I even know some about how dragons fight, and I've seen what they did to Harrenhal. Who do we have who can tell me how the dead fight?"
Sansa settled down as well, her mind turning to business, "Tormund Giants bane is up at Eastwatch. I'll have a raven sent immediately. We have some w... Free Folk here. Always call them Free Folk, never wildlings. They do not kneel to anyone, but all of them have seen the army of the dead. I'll take you to them as soon as we're done here and have eaten."
"All right. What do we have for weapons, blacksmiths, armorers, steel, leather, shovels, pitch, tar, arrows, ballista, scorpions, trebuchets, horses, particularly garron, ships, sleds, and wildfire?"
They each continued doing their tasks while discussing matters of logistics, which turned out to be an area where their skills crossed. Sansa had the current information, and knew what could be done and exactly what would have to be sacrificed to make more of each of them. Arya knew their martial value and tradeoffs, and what kinds of enemies each might be best against. Fire was best against wights, but useless against dragons. Scorpions could be used against dragons, but were a waste against wights, and so on.
One thing was clear to both of them. They didn't have enough of anything, and time was short.
When Arya put on the new outfit for the final time, she spoke, "It looks like Father's."
"You look like Father. Like a Stark."
"Thank you, Lady Stark."
Later that week, Arya padded up the ravenry, her steps quiet, but not silent... her Littlefinger step, as she thought of it sometimes. She had spoken with soldiers and lords, with the Master-at-arms and Brienne, with the wil... the Free Folk, and with Sansa. They'd worked out everything they could made, and the best few options could be.
There was no option with a real chance of success that the North and the Vale and the Night's Watch could manage by themselves.
No option that included the Dragon Queen and her armies as they were now would likely succeed either. Arya had spent weeks studying a little bit of every fighting style that the House of Black and White had access to, for even No One needed to know how to act, how to walk, and how to fight enough like whatever face they were wearing to not give away that they were No One and not the face.
The North had few natural resources - what they did have was ice. Lots of ice. Lots of trees. Fresh water in plenty. The best furs in the world, but there were none to spare. The best garron in the world, but no-one else needed them. Silver from the Manderlys, more valuable now that it was clear the Lannisters were conserving their gold for a change for reasons unknown. Beer and ale, of course, thick leather, and other goods, but not enough of what they needed for these wars.
Arya had listened to the Maester as he sent off Sansa's messages long enough. Now, she slipped into the ravenry behind Maester Wolkan, her left hand resting idly on her Valyrian steel dagger, and spoke softly, "If you ever open any message to me, or from me, you will die. If you try to read them in any way, you will die. If you send them to the wrong place, you will die. If you try to use a bird that isn't the best available, you will die. Do you understand what I am telling you?"
The Maester had jumped and spun around before she had spoken her third word, and continued looking at the finely dressed young killer before him while he listened to that deadly voice speak to him, "What? Yes! Yes, I understand!" He'd been the Maester for both Roose and Ramsay Bolton, and whatever those Maesters who stayed at the Citadel might think about his lack of logic, he'd learned to trust his instincts. Those instincts told him that this girl was dangerous, deadly... and completely serious. She'd do it herself, without telling anyone, without any warning, he just knew it. She'd sneak up behind him like she just did and just stab him, right here, or shove him off the tower, or take that Valyrian knife and flay him alive!
The Maester closed his eyes and counted to ten. When he opened his eyes, the killer continued.
"I have five scrolls. I've already put them in cases. Do not open them for any reason. Do not shake them, pull them open, or twist them. Do not let the wax seal be broken for any reason. Do you understand?"
"Yes, my... yes." He'd already been told by Lady Sansa not to call Lady Arya Lady Arya or my lady, or any type of Princess. He wasn't about to ask either one of them why not.
"This one goes to the Sealord's Palace in Braavos, for Qarro. This one goes to the House of Black and White in Braavos, for No One. This one goes to Eastwatch, for Tormund. This one goes to Castle Black, for Edd. This one goes to Sunspear, for Sarella."
She watched carefully as the Maester sent the messages, noting every detail of what was done. She watched the ravens leave, one at a time until they were out of sight. None were shot down, or even shot at.
She'd get the answers soon enough. She knew she'd get answers from Eastwatch and Castle Black, and that the First Sword would provide her the introductions the North needed. Sunspear's answer was for Sansa, who was hoping that Arya being a deadly killer would play well with who they thought was the new Dornish ruler.
What the House of Black and White would say... what Jaqen would say, that she did not know. He'd told her she was truly No One and nodded when she'd announced her true self and intention, but what that meant now... No One would wait, and find out soon enough.
Maester Wolkan shuddered at the utter lack of expression on the girl's face, the stillness of her body, and tended to the ravens until she turned and left, quiet footsteps fading quickly. She sometimes seemed like a frightening, deadly killer of a girl... and then there were the times like this, when she seemed like a statue of the coldest ice come to life, moving without any trace of humanity or emotion. Or, perhaps, she was like no one at all.
Sansa faced her sister in her new chambers after another frustrating meeting with the Lords, noting the brief moment Arya's fingers made the sign for eavesdropper before her sister accused her, "You always liked nice things," and made the sign for truth, "made you feel better than everyone", the sign for lie. She felt herself start to smile as the childish insult amused her now rather than angered her, so she turned to put her papers down and present what Baelish's spy needed to hear as their argument intensified and became political.
Arya turned the argument to Sansa's ambitions, which they both knew were real enough, though not the threat she made them out to be for their unseen audience. The greedy maid down the hall should just be able to make out the voices and pass the argument on to Littlefinger for his coin, keeping him focused on what he sees and hears, just as her training with Brienne showed him that she was one of the deadliest fighters in Westeros. That first impression of her as a fighter appeared to be shaping his perception of her, and he wasn't looking deeper. His thinking she was a warrior foolishly and poorly playing at being a spy would cost him everything, in time.
Meanwhile, Sansa lectured sternly, "Winterfell didn't just fall into our hands, we took it back. And the Mormonts, and the Hornwoods, and the wildlings, and the Vale. All of us," she made the sign for truth, "working together." She made both the signs for truth and lie, while she let her voice turn sarcastic, "Now, I'm sure cutting off heads is very satisfying," she hesitated a moment, and then made the sign for truth, "but that's not the way you get people to work together."
"And if Jon doesn't come back, you'll need their support, so you can work together to give you what you really want," said Arya, making the sign for truth.
"How can you even think such a horrible thing?"
"You're thinking it right now," said Arya as Sansa stood still, "you don't want to be," the sign for truth came from Arya as she continued, "but the thought just won't go away." Sansa reluctantly made the sign for truth.
They had somehow fell into the habit of baring their souls to each other, of not hiding themselves from each other. Neither had the kind of honor their father had learned in the Vale, so there was no censure from the other, no shame, no judgment. They lied to each other every daily, of course, but always made sure the other knew it was a lie.
"I have work to do," said Sansa, her voice rough as she let the pain wash through her. She'd become well acquainted with pain over the past years, physical pain, emotional pain, the pain of hopes destroyed over and over. This pain cut deeper, delivered as it was by her sister, and deeper still given she knew her own mind, her own selfish desires. Yet this pain could be washed away easily enough - Arya was stating painful truths to be hurtful, true, but it wasn't to punish, or to enjoy the pain they cause, or because Arya actually disapproved. Valar Morghulis, after all, as her sister had told her more than once. This was pain caused for a purpose, to serve their family, not to destroy it, and Arya was not judging her, not looking down on her, just speaking truths.
Sansa knew, too, that they could do now what they never could manage as children. Both sisters made a final subtle sign to each other as they parted, the last sign they'd worked out, and the only one not directly required for their plan to work.
The sign for forgiveness.