All freeholders had a hand in Valyria’s government. It was written in all their books. All over those stones and monuments that stood to attest their power. One day, soon, it might get written all over dragons’ scales, why not? All freeholders.
It was never written in life, though.
It was not down to luck.
It was not down to skills either. Ever so often, there were some who excelled in dark arts, who could draw things from the earth that no one had ever dreamt about, who could learn to command dragons only with the shadow of a thought. And all of them ended up sick unto death, losing their minds, suffering accidents, or being tried for treason against the Freehold and found guilty, always.
All of them shared one trait: they did not belong to the most powerful Houses. The most ancient ones. Those who dared nurture dreams too lofty were put down quickly before they could even fully wake up, their bodies ever so often ending up as some of the twisted amalgamas that had brought Valyria’s might – and fame. Each time someone’s flame started burning too bright, the old order stole their promise and in moments of particular vengefulness made them into the last – for now – victim “for the glory of Valyria”. There was this invisible wall that lesser Houses could never hope to negotiate, no matter how many attempts and bodies they left at its foot.
“One day, we’ll be more than Valyrian,” Aenar Targaryen vowed and turned left, as if drawn by an invisible string. Daenys stood there and the shock on her face shocked him as well because he could say that she was not seeing him.
Nymeria of Ny Sar
No Rhoynar would have a hand in their own government. Nymeria reminded herself of this each night as the city of ships moved farther and farther away from everything they loved. Until sleep almost overcame her did she sit at the stern of her ship, staring back at the white sails cutting the blackness of night. The stirring on the decks made her heart ache, for she knew what it was. She had forbidden any sign of loud mourning for the ones who had not been young enough, or strong enough, or just lucky enough to withstand the hardships of this journey. Only at night could be they laid into their watery grave. Nymeria had forbidden herself to count the bodies she saw being lowered down, yet she did so at least once a night. There were so many. Too many. Was I right to do what I did, a treasonous little voice sang at the back of her head. Was it worth it? Was I doing it for them, or because I wanted to remain their princess – even if I had to be a princess in exile? She remembered the broad streets of Ny Sar, the magnificence of her own palace, the murmur of the Rhoyne and wondered if she had been so scared of losing it that she had preferred to lose her very people.
No. Better here, in this shaking city that could be overturned at any moment than left to the whims of people who turned other people into something… other. Were dragonlords even people anymore? Nymeria was not sure but she hated them like she had hated no man or beast, ever. Never would she place the fate of her people into their hands. Not for the world.
The world was so big, yet the stars they were now sailing under were one and the same – the same stars that turned the surface of Mother Rhoyne into sheer radiance, the same stars that were now whispering to Ny Sar of its sons and daughters who were far away but still alive. She would find them a new homeland. There must be one.
And is it going to be waiting for you with open arms, the voice mocked. How many lands without people are there, waiting for a Rhoynar princess to bless them with population? Are you going to wander until you find them, or are you going to turn into another Valyrian when you land?
“I’m going to be more than Valyrian,” Nymeria vowed and felt how her teeth gnashed. “I will do it. Somehow. I will not only conquer. I will build.”
Daeron II Targaryen
Dragons were gone – gone in the same year he had drawn his first breath in. Later, people would say that he had been born in grief, amidst Princess Naerys’ prayers to the gods to bring the dragons back which were as fervent as her prayers to be blessed with a healthy child. He knew this was not true but even if it had been, what would it have changed? The dragons would never come back, not even in the shape his namesake claimed for himself. “You have a dragon. He stands before you,” King Daeron had said; people had claimed that these words had kept everyone in rapture but young Daeron remembered his grandfather’s curled lip whenever the event was described. And he had always placed great trust in his grandfather’s judgment.
The dragons had not come back in the shape his father had desired either – the monstrosities of iron and wood had found their decay at the same time life had started burning brightly in Daeron’s last, premature son. But Daeron refused to see any omen in this. Dragons died, another dragon was born, lives pay for a life, someone said in those first, early days when the fear for both mother and child was still too great and Daeron wanted to slap them even as he recognized that without the veneration of old Valyria, it would be much harder for his House to keep their influence, so he had to tolerate and even encourage all those talks about dragons. Oh, he quite enjoyed the moment Maekar was presented at court, a pure Targaryen of Valyrian blood and not the monster Mariah had been rumoured to surely give birth but it was a different kind of joy. Pride and something akin to… gloating.
“Father, is it true that in Valyria, we were a mere noble House, of the not so important ones?” Aerys asked one day and in his eyes, Daeron saw reflected the same disappointment that he had felt at this age and this realization. But he did not hesitate.
“Yes, Aerys, it’s true.”
“Why, then, are we talking about Valyria as if it was some golden age for us? As if we were so much more then?”
“Because some illusions must be upheld.”
Aerys gave him a look of confusion and Daeron sighed. “It doesn’t matter anyway, Aerys. We are of the blood of Valyria but Valyria is no more, so it’s here that we have to live and thrive. Forget about Valyria. Try to be your best self for the Seven Kingdoms.”
The boy nodded. Out of the four, he was the one who grasped the meaning of such complex phrases most easy and flawlessly.
My Hand is a man of the riverlands, and one particular area of the riverlands at that, my Master of Ships is a man of the Westerlands, my Lord Commander is of the stormslands, and my wife is of Dorne, he thought bitterly after one of his rare quarrels with Mariah. Am I the only man of Westeros in this realm? How on earth am I supposed to turn it into a realm and not a group of kingdoms? But the thought of dragons and Valyria never crossed his mind. He’d just have to find another way, another means. He’d use the weapons of inclusiveness, peaceful policy, tolerance, forgiveness whenever possible. He had read how Valyria had ended up, had seen firsthand how the first Daeron had.
When he leaned over the cradle of his first grandson, he felt a rush of deep contentment, more profound than even the birth of his own children – although it was not hard to be more profound than what he had initially felt for Baelor which had been jealousy! In this tiny face, those ten pink toes, his years of policy had tied the blood and aspirations of almost all feuding regions in Westeros: the defiance of the stormslands, the fierce pride of Dorne, the authority of Valyrian that ensured all of them their special status. Now, Westeros finally had a prince with ties to all the regions that had given them trouble lately. A promise of peace. Fruitful cooperation.
“You’ll be so much more than Valyrian.”
Daeron had not realized that he had spoken the words aloud before he met Daemon’s eyes. The boy was seething with anger and indignation, but this time, he managed to keep silent.
The first time Rhaegar told her that the dragons would come back and she just nodded, he looked relieved, as if he could not believe that he had found someone who shared his convictions. At this point, dragons had been gone for over a hundred years. Few people would ever believe that this would happen.
But there were not so many descended from a Targaryen princess either. And in fact, Elia did not share his most important belief – that the return of the dragons would be a good thing. To her, it was something that Daenerys Martell had written just in passing, something that she had read with Prince Aerys in a book in their youth and then had had confirmed by Daeron the Drunk. Something that would just happen.
To Rhaegar, it was the salvation.
“The salvation?” she asked, stunned. “When has a dragon ever saved anything?”
“They kept Valyria safe for so many years,” Rhaegar replied. “I know what you’re thinking,” he added. “That it was not necessarily a good thing. That Valyria was as horrible as it was great – and you have the right of it. But it achieved some great things.”
Elia disagreed. “Perhaps common tongue has different nuances here and at Sunspear,” she said. “In Dorne, we think that the word great means something implicitly positive. I don’t see this much that is positive in the actions of Valyrians.”
To her surprise, Rhaegar laughed. “You’d make a horrible servant, Elia,” he said. “You’re so lucky that you were born a princess. No, I don’t see the actions of Valyrians as wholly good either. But we’ll do better. We’ll be more. They achieved many impressive things through sorcery but they forgot their place and they refused to believe they could be mere pawns in the game of some bored celestial power. But we’ll listen to old prophecies and we’ll do our best to be the ones controlling them. We’ll do better. We’ll be more.”
Something told Elia not to protest. When he had this gleam in his eye, he would not stop talking just to listen to her. And to her horror, it was this gleam that she saw in the night he fathered their second child on her – this gleam and the gleam of the comet dancing in it, enhancing it.
“Was this also being more than Valyrian?” she asked after Harrehnal, weary to the very bones but willing to throw her anger straight to his face because all she had – all that she had had – was the respect people had for their future Queen. Before her spouse had shown his preference to another so blatantly. “Were they also in the habit of humiliating women for other women?”
He looked away, almost ashamed. Human – in the most unpleasant aspects of being human he was! He started blabbering something about a knight and tried to take her hand but she pushed him away, feeing safe for the very first time. Nothing would happen to her, as long as she carried Rhaegar’s heir in her womb. Indeed, he only sighed and kept talking. She kept non-listening.
“He’ll be more than Valyrian,” he said when he leaned over their son’s cradle and Elia, tired beyond anything she had thought her body could take, wondered if he saw their son’s flawless skin and silver tufts of hair. Did he perceive Aegon’s sweet smell as he lay in his father’s arms, just bathed. Somehow, she doubted it. Rhaegar could only see his dragons and his prophecy, although how this three-headed dragon was supposed to be connected to the real dragons Rhaegar – and Daenaerys! – thought would come back remained yet to be seen. Rhaegar lived in a world of knights and prophecies. Personages like lady wives and children too young to do anything did not fit.
“I don’t want to hear a word about him being a Valyrian or more!” she warned harshly when Rhaegar came to the Red Keep after months of hiding away with the northern girl. “Don’t try to find excuses. Don’t say it.”
“I won’t,” he agreed. “I won’t disrespect you this way.”
Elia laughed openly. His respect reeked of cowardice and she told him so. He sighed. “I can see why you’re angry,” he said and his paternalistic patience drove her mad. Feeling it, Rhaegar rose and headed for the door but of course, did not let her have the last word. “But no matter what you think, he’ll be more than Valyrian. He won’t deride prophecies. He will save everyone.”
Elia only hoped Aegon would be a better person than her notions of Valyrians. That he would grow up happy. At this moment, she could have never imagined that her newborn would find death more horrible than what had happened to Valyrians, so horrible that Rhaegar would have surely looked away from the ugliness. And it could have never occurred to her that she, the Princess of Dorne would be slaughtered, with Aegon’s blood and her own all over her body.