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I was whole, whole I would remain

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282 AC - KING’S LANDING

Rhaella thinks perhaps the gods, any gods, have heard her prayers, when Aerys vomits up blood in bed. He has just finished with her when it happens, has just rolled back over, breathing haggardly, proudly, as if he’d just accomplished some great feat, as though he had proven something to her. Rhaella lies very still, as she always does, fighting back the last of her hoarse sobs of pain and humiliation, trying to calm herself by breathing steadily, in and out.

It is something her old septa advised, in the days leading up to her wedding to her brother. She had been just a child then, a timid girl of thirteen, newly flowered. Aerys had been a child himself, only a year her elder, but he had had his fair share of girls and women; it was well known around court, for he was a handsome boy then, tall and lithe and so charming and carefree. Charming. He had never held any charms for her, Aerys, who though he claimed reluctance at the idea of wedding ‘his sweet sister’, well-

She had come to him a fortnight before they were to be wed, had hoped that, although they had never been close growing up, that he might see reason now- neither of them wished to wed the other, it was only at the behest of their mother and father that they do so, and-

“So, you see,” she had told him, “if neither of us desire it, but we must obey- well, we need not have a bedding, brother, only a wedding. You may be with whomever you like, and I will not breathe a word of it to Father, I swear to you, Aerys, let us both be happy in this. We may still live as brother and sister,” she had assured him, innocently, hopefully. He was her brother, for all his arrogance and cruel temper, and she did love him, as all good sisters should.

He had looked at her and laughed, as if she had just told a fantastic jape. “If I am to wed you, sister,” he had almost sneered, “you may rest assured that I will not shirk my duties as your husband. Any of them.” And then he had cupped her face with his hand, and stroked her cheek with his long fingers while she struggled to hold back tears of shock and anger.

She had confided this in her septa, and the woman had told her, “You must never show your fear, Princess. Remember, you are a Targaryen. It may be unpleasant, but you must maintain your composure. Focus on your breathing, when he is… attending you. It will help. Come now, child. No one wants to see an unhappy bride on her wedding day.” She had held Rhaella as her mother the queen never had, and Rhaella had taken her words to heart. Aerys could do what he pleased to her, she had assured herself, but he would never make her feel less than. She was a princess. She was going to be the queen, the most powerful woman in all of Westeros.

And here she lies, Her Grace the Queen, the most powerful woman in all of Westeros, and the gaunt, sickly creature that was once her handsome, vindictive, reckless brother begins to hack and cough, and she breathes in and out, blinking hard to dry her eyes. Her arms and legs are mottled with fresh bruises, and there is blood between her thighs. She closes her eyes and feels at the vicious bite mark on the side of her neck, swollen and hard under her fingers. Aerys continues to retch, and then doubles over and vomits.

She would think he had drank too much wine, but he rarely drinks anymore, so frightened of poison or being in a vulnerable state. As if he is not in one now! Aerys was never a warrior, and he has looks as though he had aged twenty years in the past five. His face is lined and wrinkled, his hair the pure white of an old man, not the silver and gold of a true Targaryen, and his body is frail and withered, for he seldom eats or sleeps undisturbed. She has heard his shrieking nightmares before, echoing down the halls.

Now he gags and vomits some more, and a coppery smell reaches her nostrils. It cannot just be her blood on the bed sheets. She sits up slowly, wincing, and looks at him, the panicked, slightly dazed look on his face. He sways, then collapses, falling off the bed and onto the hard stone floor. Rhaella stares in shock, and then, when he does not stir, screams for the Kingsguard.

She is sure to scream “The King!”, for they are well used to hearing her scream and shout for help for herself. It never comes. They are sworn to protect Aerys, you see. Not her. The first time he struck her in front of one of them, she had looked to Ser Gerold Hightower, clutching her cheek, waiting for him to… she is not sure what. Say something, perhaps.

But he had only averted his eyes, shifting in his pristine white armor, and she had realized then that this was it. There was nothing to be done for her. Aerys could rape her in front of them, and not one of these fine, brave men would lift a finger. If he asked, they would likely hold her down themselves. They might not like it, but they would obey. He was the king. They had vowed to obey his will in all matters.

Now Ser Jonothor Darry bursts in, a hand on his sword, young Ser Jaime Lannister on his heels, and at the sight of Aerys lying prone and still spitting on bile and blood on the ground, shoves the younger knight in the direction of the door. “Get the maester! Now!” The boy glances at her as she lowers her eyes and pulls the sheets up over her naked form, and then he is gone, mail clanking as he runs. Ser Jonothor lifts Aerys back up onto the bed, and Rhaella scrambles off it, ignoring her body’s protests. Everything aches. Her hair is a matted, snarled mess. Aerys likes to pull and rip at it while he… It does not matter now.

She backs away from the scene, and stumbles into Ser Barristan Selmy. She has always liked Barristan, who is quiet but not stoic, gallant without making a show of it. “Your Grace, come with me,” Ser Barristan says quickly now, putting a gloved hand on her bare shoulder, where Aerys fingermarks burn like brands. She flinches, and he removes his hand, only guides her from the room and into the torchlit hall.

She stands barefoot on the floor, wiping at her eyes, while he summons a servant from the growing crowd outside. A few moments later she is escorted down the hall to her own bedchambers, where Ser Barristan assumes his post outside. A maid helps her into one of her silken dressing gowns, and hastily pulls her hair back with a net, trying not to look at the bite mark on her neck.

She is asked if she would like a bath, but she shakes her head jerkily, and sits on the edge of her bed instead. She had laid down here hours ago, praying she would not be summoned. She was, of course. Aerys, for all his talk of how dull she was in bed in the earliest days of their marriage, as of late has taken her almost every night. Two years ago, the first time he ever wrapped his hands around her throat while he rutted against her, she had fought back, flailed and screamed and clawed at him, spit in his face and bucked frantically underneath him, certain he would kill her.

He hadn’t killed her, of course. Only beaten her bloody for resisting him, screamed in her face that it was her duty to lie beneath him, to give him another child, that she should be honored he had kept to her bed. And he had, since Jaehaerys’ death. He had sworn off all his tittering mistresses, had told her he would be true to her and her alone from now on, and she had been forced to thank him for it before the court, as if it were some demented play they were putting on. Oh, how grateful! How noble of him! How lucky she was, that the King had seen the error of his ways.

Her entire body shudders with either a sob or a laugh, she is not sure. The maid leaves. A few of her ladies file in to dutifully console her, but she sends them out almost as soon as they enter. She is in no mood to play the part of the frantic wife at the moment, grieving her husband’s sudden illness, distraught over his condition. She is anything but. She hopes he is in agony. She hopes he is in pain the likes of which he has never known. She hopes he is weeping from the pain of it, that his insides have gone to knives, that he wants to die.

Gods know she wants him to die. She would have felt guilt over this ten years ago, perhaps. When he was not the mad creature he is now. Now she feels nothing but burning, hateful hope. Please. If there is any justice in this world, end him. Please, Stranger, hear her prayer. Take him. Take him as cruelly as you like, only take him. The Mother may condemn her to the seven hells for this, for a wife to wish death upon her husband, her lord and master, the king, but Rhaella cares not. She has already lived through one hell at Aerys’ side. How much worse could the rest be?

The sky is beginning to lighten outside when Pycelle comes to her. “The King is most unwell, Your Grace,” he says, folding and unfolding his hands in front of his grey robes. There are fresh stains upon them, below his gleaming chains. “A sudden onset of some sort of stomach illness- he vomits no more, but he is burning with fever. I have requested a list from the kitchens of all that he ate yesterday-,”

Rhaella cares not what he ate or did not eat or what the origin of this is. “Will he live?” Her voice trembles, and she hopes it is mistaken for grief.

Pycelle pauses, and that is all she needs. “I… I think all that can be done now is to give His Grace milk of the poppy. To ease his suffering, and to… well, so he might go peacefully.” His eyes gleam in the dark, and Rhaella focuses on her breathing, then lets her expression cave with false sorrow.

“Of- of course,” she stammers, bowing her head. “You are most wise, Maester. I- I only ask that I be the one to tend to him. He is my husband and my king, and I would… I would see his face one last time, before he is lost to me forever. Please,” she adds, hoping to stroke his ego even more, to think of the queen begging favors from a lowly grey worm such as him, who has been writhing about in Tywin Lannister’s deep pockets for years now.

Pycelle falls for her ploy. “Of course,” he says graciously. “I will show you how to administer it, Your Grace. Your compassion has no bounds.”

He does, and then she cries some more, to get him to leave the room, leave her with her beloved husband, her king. Pycelle scurries out at the sight of her tears, and Rhaella sits at Aerys’ bedside, the thick white potion in her hand. She looks at Aerys, who lies white and frail in bed, shaking and whimpering with the fever, and then rises and tosses the potion out the open window. It splatters down the red stone walls. Rhaella sits back down beside Aerys, takes his claw-like hand in her own.

“Husband,” she says gently. “Aerys, look at me.”

He twitches a little, his eyes drift over to her, and she is not sure if he sees her truly or not, but he seems to sense her presence. He mumbles something incoherent, and his grip tightens around her fingers. That will bruise, too, but Rhaella for once does not mind. It is the last injury he will ever give her. This past night was the last time he will ever rape her, violate her, scar her. No more. There will be no more of that. He is a dead man.

“You are dying, Your Grace,” she whispers to him.

“No,” mutters Aerys, “no, Mother-,”

He was always fond of their mother, and she him. How Shaera loved her Aerys, her sweet, fickle boy, the apple of her eye. Just like his mother, everyone praised him. Shaera was ever the darling of the court. Rhaella always took after her father, Jaehaerys. Quieter. Subdued. A shadow to the bright light that was their wife and brother.

She had thought herself her father’s favorite, just as Aerys was Mother’s, until he commanded them to wed, told her it was her destiny, that she would birth a mighty line of kings and heroes, that they would save House Targaryen, bring about a new age of dragonfire and dynasties.

“Mother,” her brother-husband weeps, and Rhaella extricates her hand.

“Mother is not here,” she tells him softly, sweetly. “Only me, Aerys.” She pauses, licks her dry, cracked lips, feels the swelling where he bit her there, too. “You will be with her soon, I think."

“It hurts,” he rasps. “Please, Mother, help me, it hurts-,”

“I know,” hums Rhaella under her breath. “I know it hurts, Aerys. Call for your guards, Your Grace,” she suggests, leaning in close, letting her breath fan across his tear-streaked face. “Can they help you? Perhaps not. And I am glad.”

His feverish ramblings die away, and he quiets, eyes glassy. It will not be long now, she thinks. “Brother, you have been such a dutiful husband,” Rhaella tells him in little more than a whisper. “And I hope I have never forsaken my duties as your wife. Permit me this last one, Your Grace.” She plucks up the nearest pillow and presses it firmly over his face. He barely makes a sound, gives the weakest semblance of a struggle before she lifts it once more.

His breath rattles in his chest now. She lays her hand on his damp forehead. It burns and burns. She imagines fire licking his bones inside out. He chokes a little, and then stills. She waits for the next breath, and when it does not come, she sags in relief. Removes her hand from his head, wipes it on her robes. Stands, as the door creaks open. Pycelle and the Kingsguard await.

“The king is dead,” she says, and now her voice is hard and firm, like glass. “Long live King Rhaegar, First of His Name.” The knights bow their heads, repeat her pronouncement. “As the king is away from court at the present, I will head the small council in his stead,” she says, and sees surprise flicker across their faces. Pycelle most of all. “I want word sent to Dragonstone and to Dorne immediately. And I want Lord Brandon and his peers removed from their cells and put into rooms in Maegor’s Holdfast, under guard.”

“The northerners are our prisoners, Your Grace,” Ser Jonothor says. “His Grace the King decreed that Lord Rickard appear before the court to answer for his son’s treason-,”

“I do not think Lord Rickard will be appearing anywhere in the Crownlands, once word reaches him that the King has died,” Rhaella says evenly. The entire city will know by midday tomorrow. There is no sense in trying to halt the rumors, which have been fermenting all night, from the unending whispers and chatter of hundreds of courtiers and servants. “And so we shall endeavor to make this as simple as possible for my son, His Grace, to resolve upon his return to court. I want our prisoners clothed and fed, as befitting of highborn men.”

“Apologies, Your Grace,” Pycelle says, after a long moment of stunned silence. “I do not doubt your goodwill, but I cannot help but suggest that- well, it is only that- you are the Queen Dowager, not the King, and-,”

“Ah, yes,” says Rhaella mildly. “And I want Grand Maester Pycelle arrested, on suspicion of poisoning my late husband, the King. There will be a formal investigation. In the meantime, find a room in the holdfast for him as well.”

Ser Barristan gapes at her, and when she offers a serene look in response, glances at Ser Jonothor. “Your Grace-,” Pycelle begins, but Rhaella has already turned back to Aerys' corpse as he shouts and struggles against the men. A small smile blossoms across her face as she stares down at what was once her husband. She thinks she may have a very restful sleep tonight.