Mariah heard them just before she opened the door. Her nursemaid’s voice and another, younger one. And Baelor who was giggling. She opened the door but her smile died the moment she saw that Daeron was there as well. Elaena and Daeron, and Baelor who looked like he did not belong at all, as black-haired as they were fair, a Martell in a Targaryen court…
Winter grew heavy on her. Her pregnancy was just in this stage when she felt uncomfortable and weary enough to weep when she got a stitch wrong but the world around her was all wrong, let alone a stitch. The fear in Daeron’s eyes when he looked at the door tugged at her heart. Of course, he thought – feared – that it might be someone from the Queen’s chambers bearing bad news…
“Mama!” Baelor cried out happily, trotted against her and bumped into her legs. She smiled and knelt down to hug him.
“So, how are the three of you here?” she asked and her earlier discomfort disappeared. Just like this.
“It’s been… interesting,” Daeron replied tactfully and Elaena shifted a little, undoubtedly hoping to hide the red spot in the lower corner of the tapestry from Mariah’s view, then smiled when she saw that Mariah had seen.
“I have no idea how he did it,” she exclaimed. “I swear I looked away just for a moment.”
Baelor grinned at her and she grinned back. Mariah shook her head, a smile tugging the corners of her lips. It was so stupid to be jealous of Elaena. She might look so right next to Daeron but she was not. She was much younger than Daeron, much younger than Mariah, the fact that her years casted her older notwithstanding. She wanted children of her own but she clearly perceived those she saw like… playthings and kittens both. She was half a child. It only showed Mariah’s own uncertainty that she felt jealous of half a child.
She was grateful to King Baelor for arranging her marriage – but she could never understand why he had stolen from his sisters everything that they could have experienced, felt, suffered, and rejoiced in.
“What happened?” she asked when she saw the bruise on Elaena’s cheek. She expected to hear that the other woman had bumped into a door or something but the answer took her aback.
“The King happened,” Elaena said coldly.
“I refused to flutter around Barba Bracken as if she were queen… and she took offence and complained to him. He told me what his expectations were and they clashed with mine. I told him so. Fortunately, Daeron entered before he could go further with making his point clear and stopped him.”
Mariah blinked. As much as she had come to accept loving Daeron as a part as inherent of her as her black eyes, as much as she thought no man could compare, she was not blind. He could not stop his father physically or… at least…
“He recoiled as soon as he was faced with someone who would defy him?” she asked.
“Indeed,” Daeron said. “He is this cowardly.”
This was not what the people of Sunspear said! The Seven knew that some fifteen years ago, Dorne had offered the Targaryens nothing but defiance but Prince Aegon had not let them have their way. And then the thing that was important suddenly sank into her mind and she went cold. “He… he wants you to treat her as if she were queen?” she asked.
“He did not put it this way but that’s what I understood,” Elaena replied. “And her father doesn’t make it a secret that he expects of Naerys to die any moment now.”
Daeron flinched and she glanced at him. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s nothing,” he said steadily. “This isn’t the first time they expect this. They will be disappointed this time as well. My mother will pull through.”
“But is this the first time someone intends to make their daughter wed your father in her place?” Elaena asked and Mariah blinked. For a sheltered half-child, Elaena’s getting to the heart of the matter was quite impressive!
By the Seven, what were they going to do if this happened? She felt shame and remorse at thinking about this when Daeron was scared that his mother might die but in Aegon’s court, she was already made to feel like intruder, people’s looks on Baelor’s hair and eye more daring and their whispers more pronounced. Lord Bracken was one of the people who had been heard openly claiming that King Baelor’s peace had been too rash, had done everything to push Barba into Daeron’s bed before it had become clear that it was reserved for Mariah alone. If he did succeed to make her queen? Mother, if he did?
“His intentions don’t matter,” Daeron finally replied. “And he will be driven away from court, you can trust me. He made the mistake of revealing his stakes too soon. He has staged it all on my mother’s death but she won’t die…”
Elaena opened her mouth and Mariah shook her head. At the moment, Daeron could not take much more. Surprisingly but Elaena bit her wordsback without even seeing Mariah’s warning. She does care about him after all, Mariah thought and smiled. Elaena was as protective of Daeron as he was of her – and no more interested in him like a man than she was in pretending that Baelor was hers until he had to be disciplined.
It was only later, with Elaena long gone to her own chambers and Daeron pacing in their solar that she realized that this was more than a family scene. It was gaining allies. Because the battle lines were being drawn.
To be the queen in waiting was not a bad position to be in. But it was far from gaining her the respect and influence she needed if she wanted to have the very objective of her marriage achieved. She had to fight for her crown and she could see few ways to do this as the court got changed in a manner she disliked and Naerys was expected of everyone but Daeron to follow her newborn son into an early grave.
“You’ll have to be the model lady wife”, her nursemaid said. “People may think that Lady Barba will make the court a merry little place, as opposed to Her Grace with her piety – but they don’t want to see a wanton woman as their queen, believe me. She can only be looked on favourably as long as she is a mistress. A queen is not a part that fits her. And she cannot be considered a respected woman because even if he weds her, the babe was conceived and born before this. You must present yourself as the perfect queen.”
“You mean, I have to behave like my goodmother,” Mariah said bluntly. “I won’t.”
“Really?” Eludra rose, leaving the clothes she was folding neatly to lie around in disarray. “Is your pride more important than the peace that was so hard to attain?”
Mariah gaped. This was a low blow, to put the blame onto her if the peace fell apart, as if the new King and his friends had nothing to do with it. Only she, the unprincipled, overproud princess. “It isn’t fair!”
“The world isn’t fair,” Eludra replied calmly. “Be a wife now! Focus on Baelor and the child you’re carrying! Focus on dignity and the royal functions! They hadn’t thought of giving the girl these and believe me, a queen is much more than the one who dances with the King at the balls!”
“Perhaps,” Mariah said, “I will do it. I’ll give it some thought.”
As she leaned over the cradle of little newborn Daenerys, she prayed fervently that Naerys would live; as she lay in Daeron’s arms at night, she prayed even more fervently. His heart had started growing embittered ever since the day King Viserys had breathed its last. Mariah’s love was a great comfort but it could not heal him from the sickening suspicion that his father had poisoned his grandfather; his mother dying would only make it worse because everyone knew why Aegon kept bedding her.
During the day, she walked around, pretending not to notice the looks, the whispers, the new faces filling the halls and courtyards. But she did go with Daeron to see off the dismissed Master of Law, a man of great ability and devotion. They did not know who would replace him but it would undoubtedly be someone of ill repute. One by one, the people who had kept the Seven Kingdoms stable for fifteen years were going away and Mariah feared that the ones who were coming would only bring forth war – a war on her own people, the land she had been born into.
Daeron was a little anxious about doing it. The night before this departure, he was more silent and withdrawn and she did not force him into talking. She knew what ate at him: the man had offered him a way to prevent this and he had refused – and now, the gates were thrown wide open for all kind of reptiles to sleaze through! And the men from King Viserys’ council were losing offices that had become part of them. But he would not allow anxiety to stop him from doing what was right. And Mariah would not leave him to do it on his own. For better or for worse, they were a team, so she donned a gown that made her belly evident and a cloak with the three-headed dragon and went to have her hand kissed by the man who was proud and dignified even in his retreat – and this time, she did not mind the looks and whispers. Let them talk that the Dornish princess did not agree with the King’s changes, the King’s cohorts. The Master of Law actually pressed his lips against the back of her palm. He knows that no matter what, Daeron and I are the future, the alternative, she thought and a warm flush overcame her cheeks. Winning allies. Fighting for her place of queen. Her goodfather was exhibiting a very bad judgment. He should have kept his father’s men close by. Forbidden them from leaving the capital, instead of letting them spread all over the realm, everyone returning to their place of birth. Their authority and connections would not disappear just because they had been stripped of their offices.
As she turned back and headed for the Queen’s solar where she would have petitioners heard in Naerys’ place, she heard Daena’s angry voice over Lord Bracken’s more peaceful overtures. She’s started to realize how Aegon and Barba set her up for failure when he got her with this child, Mariah thought and smiled. There was no need for her to make an enemy of Lady Barba now – enough others had done it already. She just needed to serve as a contrast.
This very day, her goodmother opened her eyes.