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Your sister, Lyanna writes, not bothering with greetings beyond the name on the missive, is being urged to make an heir. A host of suitors will descend on us, as quickly as they are able, I suspect and Gods be good, the whole situation will be over soon, and the security of the North secured.

 

Arya snorts, thinking that Sansa has finally managed to train some conniving into the outspoken Bear, and turns to her sister’s missive which is dated after that of Lyanna’s.

 

The letter from Sansa contains details of every one of the new improvements to Winterfell, assurances as to the health of their mutual friends, the news that a pack of Direwolves have been spotted by the Long Lake, and no mention of herself or the necessity of an heir at all, and Arya has to roll her eyes at her sister, even though she’s not there to see the action.

 

How like her sister, she thinks, as she gets things sorted so she can go away for awhile and her ship won’t suffer for it, not to mention something like this. Her twice — or was it thrice? — wedded sister, who hadn’t had a choice yet, would have a choice this time, Arya swears as she starts for Winterfell and her sister, even if she has to take the faces of every other suitor until only a decent one remains. 

 

The travel takes close to three weeks, and when she slips into Winterfell it’s on the heels of a retinue of brightly colored southerners, come to give their greetings before, presumably, setting up camp outside the walls, like the others she’d passed on the way in.

 

“When did the first get here?” she asks and Brienne starts so violently that Arya can’t help but snicker. 

 

“Three days,” she says, mouth tightening as her gaze turns from the back of the hall where they stand, to the front where Sansa sits, gracefully greeting the second son of someone or another. 

 

Arya doesn’t think the displeasure is with being startled, and she scans the crowd with fresher eyes. “Anyone I should know about?” she asks, trying to remember banners and names, and mostly failing. 

 

Brienne doesn’t answer, for a long moment, and then her mouth relaxes and she tips her head slightly. “Not yet. Go greet your sister, lady.” 

 

Arya makes a face and then moves from the shadows, striding straight through the crowd, pushing where necessary, until she’s stepping around the presumptive suitor, kneeling low, and Sansa is raising from her chair, finally, with a real smile stretching her face. 

 

The man at her heels — must be Dornish, but she can’t remember who has the black panthers on yellow, and isn’t sure she cares enough to find out— gasps when Sansa smiles and Arya suspects she can hear quills scratching already to write poems to her sister’s beauty. 

 

She rolls her eyes, Sansa’s eyes crinkle and the amount of future poetry probably increases exponentially, and she’s caught up in a hug. Once she’s back on her feet, Sansa announces her, voice smooth and happy. “Winterfell welcomes Arya Stark, slayer of the Night King, Captain of the Nymeria, home.” 

 

A cheer goes up from the northern bannermen that are gathered, and is belatedly followed by the rest of the crowd. Arya locks eyes with Lyanna, who nods, and takes the seat that is hastily brought up for her, at Sansa’s side. 

 

The lord of wherever, still keeling, finally gets re-acknowledged, but Arya is busy looking at who else has come for a chance at the North, and who either hasn’t chosen to or hasn’t yet arrived. 

 

***

 

Sansa has been trying to break her fast in the hall to allow herself more time with the visitors, but with Arya’s unexpected arrival she makes an exception and instead finds herself with a more intimate group in her solar.

 

 “Why not just have a bastard?” Arya asks, with no warning. Jon, who is taking a drink when Arya speaks, sprays Sam who is sitting across from him. Sam is too busy choking on his own bit of food to seem to mind. Gilly hits him on the back as hard as she can to try to help.

 

Sansa has rather been expecting something from her sister, and is rather pleased it’s this and not something more argumentative. She continues to cut into the meat on her plate evenly, unperturbed, as she waits for the others to regain their bearings. “That was brought up, by the council. The most important part of an heir is Stark blood, but I think there are more problems to it than to choosing a consort.”

 

Lyanna snorts, loudly, “More problems? You mean more demands ,” and Sansa tilts her head in agreement. Lyanna had, of course, been present for the meeting, as had Brienne. Sam had also been informed, albeit after the fact, and had no doubt shared with Gilly. So really it’s only Jon and Arya who don’t know. Sansa is actually surprised Lyanna hasn’t already informed Arya of more of the details, and she’s rather looking forward to the reactions they’re likely to get, now that she thinks of it.

 

“Wha’?” Arya asks, around a mouthful of food, and Sansa, despite trying to keep herself serene, knows her face twists in disgust before Arya finishes chewing and swallows dramatically. “What?”

 

Sansa sighs, takes a bite of potatoes, chews and dabs her mouth with a napkin before replying. “The lords feel they have the right to choose my bedmate, or at least offer very strong opinions, if it’s just to be for a babe, but not if he’s to be my consort.” 

 

“Gods be good,” Jon says, slightly pale, and Sansa feels a moment of compassion for him, “Who did they propose?” 

 

Sansa glances up and sees that everyone but Jon and Arya are studiously avoiding making eye contact with anyone, and she can’t help but smile a little. She knows what’s coming, after all. 

 

“Jon,” she says.

 

Jon frowns, “What, am I not allowed to ask —“ he clears his throat and his eyes go wide. “Oh.”

 

“Quite,” Sansa says, still calmly taking polite little bites of her meal. Arya grabs her goblet and downs it like it’s the only thing that can help her, and Sansa has to fight not to laugh. She’s already worked through her own embarrassment, she’s had to, but it’s clear that no one else has. “So, I thought a consort might be a better idea, especially as the last queen Jon bedded he also killed.”

 

Arya surprises Sansa with a burst of laughter that seems to break the spell of awkward silence everyone else has fallen into. “Heartless, Sans,” she says, shaking her head and still chuckling.

 

They’re all left to eat in the quiet, less awkward this time, with an occasional chuckle, until Arya breaks it again. “Alright, fair point, but there are at least five camps of people from the South out there — don’t we have someone who would suit from the North?” 

 

Sansa frowns and folds her napkin into her lap, before shaking her head. This had been a harder debate and had taken the better part of three meetings. “I can’t marry an heir, as they would have to give up their holdings and dedicate themselves to Winterfell, and very few second sons have survived, here in the North. Or heirs, to be fair. If I chose someone without a holding, then I elevate him and give more honor to that house as well.” Her mouth twists into a grimace. That discussion had gotten…heated.

 

“Also,” Lyanna cuts in, having been nodding along to everything Sansa has said, “the King in the South wrote — the letter got here an hour after we’d first started the discussion of the Queen’s marriage — and suggested we open ourselves to offers from the South.” 

 

Sansa still isn’t entirely sure what to do with Bran as King in the South and the Three-Eyed Raven, and she can’t decide if his suggestion is coming from one, the other, or both positions — and she doesn’t know how to ask. 

 

The others chew on that bit of information and the meal in silence for a bit longer, as Sansa silently mourns feeling like family with Bran, before Jon breaks the silence. “Do you think they’re trying to get you — the North — back?”

 

Sansa snorts, decidedly unladylike and in a way she would never do with any other group, and shakes her head. “I will not be known as the Queen who gave up our freedom after we’ve managed to keep it by the skin of our teeth, and my council wouldn’t let me anyways.”

 

“Maybe,” says Arya, thoughtful, “They don’t wanna keep choosing people to rule though, and you do have the same blood as the king,” she pauses, and Sansa is somehow glad that talking about Bran is still painful for her as well, “so they’re hoping you’ll provide an heir for them?"

 

That’s not something she’s considered, and she finds she doesn’t like the thought much. “Mayhaps, but I will not send my children south, unless they wanted to go when they were older, and I think Bran knows that.” 

 

Sansa shakes her head and takes a last bite from her plate. She’s tarried long enough, it really is time she go and see about meeting the men who have come for her hand — she has to make an effort, after all. She starts to mentally go through the tasks she needs to accomplish today and how best to complete it all when Arya speaks again.“We should take bets on how many are going to come to win the hand of the incomparable Queen of the North.”

 

“Arya,” Sansa warns, but it’s too late because Sam and Gilly have perked up. 

 

“There’s going to be loads ,” is Sam’s vote, “and they’ll each try to distinguish themselves with some dramatic showing.” 

 

“I bet there’s at least one duel for your honor,” Gilly says, proof that Sansa has been letting her read too many of the historical stories from the library, “It’ll be ever so romantic.” 

 

“Someone’s going to get lost in the woods, looking for a flower for you, and it’ll take us weeks to find them,” Brienne adds, pessimistically. 

 

“I bet someone writes a song about you,” is Jon’s offering. 

 

“Poetry,” Arya says, “there’s going to be loads of poetry.”

 

Lyanna laughs, “Oh, there’s already poetry, and it’s awful.” 

 

And Sansa laughs and covers her face with her hands and finds herself ever thankful again that she has some support for this.

 

***

 

Oberyn has met Sansa Stark once, though she’d been a Lannister then. In King’s Landing, he’d thought her shallow and weak, still looking for the bitch Cersi’s approval, even when it didn’t come, and dismayed at being married to an imp instead of a more handsome man. He’s tried to justify his thoughts to himself, that he’d been focused on his own revenge at the time — but he still admits to feeling some sorrow, that by the time Varys had given him the actual details of the situation, he hadn’t been able to help her. She’d vanished into thin air before he’d even known the truth of the matter, and he’d thought her likely lost forever.

 

He mentally calls himself a fool, again, as he watches her now. He’s fourth in line to be introduced now, with each of those who wish to win her hand required to present themselves before her when they arrive. Doran had ordered him here, not out of any real belief the Stark girl would chose him, he doesn’t think, but to gather information, and perhaps to even set up trade between their kingdoms.  And as he’s never been to the North, he’s looking upon it as an adventure. 

 

The girl he’d seen in King’s Landing was a pale imitation of the Queen he sees before him now, and, as she greets the man before her with every courtesy, movements graceful and face serene, he wonders how he ever missed this possibility in her. 

 

The announcement, such as it was, that the Queen in the North was looking for a consort had made it explicit that they wouldn’t entertain any heirs, or anyone who was incapable of fathering children — but it hadn’t explicitly said anything about bastards. 

 

So Oberyn waits through another tedious introduction, with the second son of one of the Riverland lords waxing poetic about the beauty of the Queen, before Ser Daemon Sand’s turn. 

 

He is introduced, as all the others have been, by name and title and accomplishments — and Oberyn can hear the gossip start as soon as the word Sand leaves the seneschal’s lips. A Westernlander who is along the east side of the galley whispers loud enough to be heard by all, “They’d insult her with a bastard?” to his companions. 

 

Daemon bows, and offers a compliment, not to her beauty as all the rest so far have, but to the steel of her spirit. The Queen, who hasn’t taken her eyes off Daemon, smiles slightly in a way she hasn’t yet, and tilts her head. At this point, in the last two, she welcomed the men and offered them bread and salt, a maid stepping forward with the tray, and moved on to the next.

 

“It is quite a ways from Dorne,” she says, instead, and Daemon tenses — not in a way anyone else will notice, but Oberyn’s known the man for too long not to see it, “and you are known to me. I thank you for the compliment that the greatest sword of Dorne would be willing to travel so far for such a prize as I. I look forward to getting to know you, during your stay, and hope the North isn’t too cold for you, though we are yet in summer.” And then she rises, takes the tray from the maid, and offers him bread and salt from her own hands, as if she’s making a point. 

 

The whispers from the northmen, Oberyn sees, have all stopped, though it hasn’t quieted the tongue of the other guests, and he finds himself half in love with the girl by the time he’s stepping forward to be introduced. 

 

His is the last introduction, and though she returns to the script from before, but for adding in a wish for him to stay warm as well, the scene is over. 

 

A dark haired, dour man, goes to her chair and offers her his arm. Oberyn is still close enough, salt on his tongue, to hear as the man leans close to her. “You didn’t have to do that, Sans,” he says, voice low, and Oberyn realizes that the reports that Jon Snow had been sent to live forever beyond the Wall must have been exaggerated — though as that was an edict from a foreign kingdom to those in the North, he supposes they have the right to disobey. 

 

“Of course I had to,” the Queen’s face still looks like porcelain, but there’s heat in her words. “If just to remind them that the North cares more for deeds and honor than which side of the sheet you’re born on.” 

 

The two stop, close to the exit, and Oberyn angles himself to see the rest of the room, as if he’s in conversation with one of his retinue, as he continues to eavesdrop. 

 

“I hope,” says a new voice, female but raspy, and Oberyn resists the urge to look, “that he gets a lot of challenges, for the attention you paid him, if he is the greatest sword of Dorne.” 

 

“You just want to see Lord Hersey thrown in the mud.” Jon says, amused.

 

“Who?” the unknown woman asks.

 

“Your refusal to learn anyone’s name is childish, Arya,” the Queen says, but her sigh sounds a little like laughter, “Lord Hersey is the one with a fondness for poems comparing my hair to various foods.”

 

Arya’s the name of the Queen’s sister. The Queen’s sister who was reported sailing the world and not likely to be present for the search. Oberyn wonders if any of the information Dorne has about the North is valid at all. “If you let me challenge him then I wouldn’t have to hear anymore, but since you won’t, I hope he challenges Ser Daemon,” Arya continues, “Or I’m just going to try to annoy him into challenging me and then I can kill him and never have to hear that your hair is like apples, nay, roast duck, nay—“ 

 

“No killing,” both Jon and the Queen say at the same time, and Oberyn decides he has to find out more before figuring out how he wants to proceed. 

 

“Your Majesty,” says another new voice, “Lord Reed would like a word.” And Oberyn turns his mind to who to place where to get the most information possible. 

 

***

 

Arya remembers the sort of lords that Sansa had dreamed about as a girl, but her sister has become painfully pragmatic, and Arya hasn’t been able to suss out what, exactly, the main criteria for a spouse for her sister even are.

 

So she’s taken to coming up with ideas for tests that would show different aspects of the men, and then springing them on Sansa whenever her face has gone so smooth there must be some unhappiness hiding.

 

“We should’ve had them come in the winter,” she says, glibly, across the table when they’re breaking their fast with a handful of the hopefuls there. “Any that survived the trip would doubtless be more worthy.” 

 

Sansa’s face remains smooth, but her gaze when she glances up from cutting her meal holds mischief. “I would be honor bound to help clear the bodies come spring, dear sister, and then have to have the remains delivered to their homes. Too much fuss, I think.” 

 

Two of the men excuse themselves then and there, and as Arya isn’t particularly fond of either of them, she hopes it has chased them away for good. 

 

From there on out, forcing the men to hear her proposed tests — and Sansa’s answers — becomes its own sort of test. 

 

***

 

Connin, third son of house Vaith and the first from Dorne to present himself to the Queen, has plenty of news to share, and Oberyn has never been more grateful they’d opted to come in waves. Doran didn’t order anyone except Oberyn to the trials, but he’d suggested he would appreciate their attendance, and would not be opposed to the marriage — should they choose to pursue it. There would be twelve men, therefore, present to try their hand from Dorne, though the last few haven’t yet arrived.

 

They’d all thought — or at least Oberyn had, and assumed the rest thought likewise — the girl was likely to pick someone from the North regardless, and the rest was just a show. So it is some shock when Dyron passes on all the information that had been gathered, before Oberyn’s own arrival.

 

It seems rather than preferring someone from the North, there are no contenders from the North at all. And from what he can gather it isn’t a trick — it seems second sons are scarce on the ground in the North, after their various battles they’d been hard hit, and there’s some concern about favoritism. 

 

The lack of sons, however, doesn’t seem to have made them an easy target.

 

He’s seen them practicing in the yard now, both women and men, and even the youngest are clearly prepared to open a man from hip to helm. It makes him wonder again at the information he’d been told about the strict traditions of the North.

 

The Queen’s own master of the guard is a woman who, apparently, has been knighted. A situation that he knows is unthinkable to most who consider themselves traditional. He’s already heard some remarks from some of the other men, and he wonders at their stupidity for not knowing that surely everything they say is, eventually, going to make its way back to the Queen. 

 

Of course, those whispers and rumors do not only travel one way. He’s heard a smattering of details regarding Queen Sansa’s journey from Kings Landing to Winterfell, and more about Lady Arya’s journey. And since the love the North holds for the Queen is obvious, Oberyn is willing to believe any rumors they would willingly spread aren’t necessarily true, but do teach a lesson. So he waits and watches some more, making pains to be on the fringes of a number of the Queen’s moments with suitors, without pressing for his own just yet. 

 

***

 

There is not enough time in a day for the things she has to complete, and Sansa reminds herself, again, that her lords are only trying to support her and secure her line. There must always be a Stark in Winterfell, after all, and as she is the only one who will bare children, it’s best to get the task seen to. 

 

They waited longer than she expected, to be fair, and she can only give thanks for that. But now men have descended from the south, and summer though it is, she’s worried about their food stores.

 

She’d expected ten maybe fifteen men total. This morning the twenty-first had shown up and it seems likely he isn’t the last.

 

The other, unanticipated, problem is the amount of time each of the men requires from her. She refuses to show favoritism at this stage, especially if not everyone has even arrived, and as some force her attention for significant lengths of time, she can do no more than try to grant the same to the rest. 

 

She’s more thankful than she can say that Lyanna wrote to Arya and that Arya came. She’d been afraid that if she’d asked for her sister’s help she wouldn’t have come — not that Arya doesn’t love her, but this courtly love situation is not exactly her favored terrain. The other blessing is Ghost, who has been following her and allowing her to get some space, every day. She’s not sure what Jon told the Direwolf, or how he seems to know just when being around another crowd will send her into panic, but he’s there and the men are, for the most part, too afraid of him to approach.

 

Part of that, she suspects, is due to the stag — bigger than a horse — the Direwolf dragged in a week ago. Which had been a relief for the food stores, even if it had taken a pack of the keep’s children nearly four hours to chase Ghost down for a bath. 

 

Doing group actives — walks, sitting, dances, meals — has been the easiest way to get face time with each of the suitors, as it is. But she does still try to speak to them once, as alone as she can, as she’s not willing to go out among strangers without Brienne, Podrick or someone else at her back.  

 

This has also helped lessen the pressure, somewhat, as during these conversations she’s able to gather that some of the suitors aren’t even here for a chance at her hand, instead simply seeing it as a good time to come to discuss trade, aid, or even fostering.

 

The Dornish, in particular, who all brought their own stores to share with the keep, blessings upon them — including lemons — are here more for trade than her hand, she knows. So when she spies Prince Oberyn Martell by himself near the Glass Gardens, she checks the sun and heads his way with a smile. He’s one of the few she’s found elusive, and she knows his suit isn’t serious, but they will all pretend as if it is until the end she’s sure. 

 

“Prince Oberyn,” she calls his attention, and offers a hand when he spins around to face her. He’s not the oldest of her suitors, but perhaps the most dangerous, if the rumors about him are true, and Sansa is inclined to trust most of the rumors she hears these days, due to her source. Besides, the way he moves is graceful enough to give additional credence to it, and she knows he managed to kill the Mountain, after Joffery’s death, and that must have certainly taken some significant skill.

 

“Your Majesty,” he says, bowing over her hand — not low enough as to be mocking, but lower than he, as a prince, needs to — and kissing her knuckles softly. When he rises he doesn’t release her hand, and she arches an eyebrow at him. If she were younger she’d be blushing, she knows, but she has more control than that, these days. 

 

“It is good to see you again, and under better circumstances,” she says, making sure her serene smile is in place. It still takes effort not to grimace over reminders of King’s Landing and her time there, but as time passes it grows somewhat easier. 

 

Oberyn’s face falls, slightly, and he bends down to kiss her hand again, much to her surprise. “I owe you an apology, Your Highness,” he says into the skin of her hand, “for being too blinded by my chance at vengeance to offer my assistance to you there.” Ah, it seems she still can blush. “I can only imagine,” he says, finally raising his head but still not releasing her hand, “how you must look upon those who have failed you.” 

 

Sansa takes a moment to look at him, to truly look at him, before she responds. “I suspect, my Prince, that you had less chance to assist me than you thought.” She tilts her head, allowing her hair to fall over her shoulder in a way she thinks makes her look slightly less severe than she does normally. “And if I thought of all of the what-ifs or failed chances in my life, I would hardly have time for anything else at all. Don’t trouble yourself over the matter any longer, we both survived and our enemies didn’t.” 

 

The smile that breaks across his face is almost boyish, and she feels her heart lurch uncomfortably in her chest. 

 

The last thing she wants is to be attracted to one of the suitors who isn’t actually here for her. “It’s a great honor,” she says, instead of letting her heart speak, “to have one of the great houses here, for me.” And it’s meant as just that, she reminds herself, harshly, a great honor and not true. 

 

Only he laughs and she decides she should probably avoid speaking to him alone again as her heart dances with the sound. She knew he was rumored to be a great seducer of women, she just didn’t think herself foolish enough to fall for the bait. 

 

***

 

“She’s a good ruler,” Ellaria says, cuddling close for warmth in the tent. Some of the men had mentioned they thought it might snow.

 

Snow. In summer.

 

Oberyn can’t help but look forward to the experience, and also wish they were here visiting properly and had a room in the actual keep, as Winterfell stays shockingly warm within its walls. 

 

He hums his agreement as he plays with her hair.

 

“And you do need to marry,” she continues, pressing a kiss to his heart. 

 

“My exploits are not unknown, my love,” he says, “I doubt there would be much approval for her to marry a man from her father’s generation with numerous bastard daughters who travel with him, and a paramour he intends to keep.” 

 

Ellaria pushes herself up to look in his eyes, as she uses a hand to trace the frown on his forehead. “As I understand it, the only one you have to convince is the queen herself. Given what I can gather from her history, the lords in the North don’t feel comfortable dictating her marriage.” 

 

He takes her hand and kisses her fingertips. “I think what would turn the lords against me would also sway her the same way.”

 

“And I think,” his lover says, leaning forward to press a kiss to his brow, “that you are underestimating how much the woman wants love, and how unlikely she is to get it from the rest of the men who have a crown in their minds.” 

 

He hums and tilts his face up to take a kiss. “Oh, and you think I could give that love?”

 

“I think you’re more than half in love with her already, and I am too,” Ellaria admits, before allowing him to draw her back down into the pillows with him.

 

***

 

Gods be good, there are nearly thirty-five presumptive bastards trying for Sansa’s hand now. Which, well, Arya can logically understand why they’re there — a beautiful, unwed queen of an independent kingdom? But it’s still obnoxious and she wishes they would all go elsewhere. She half expects Sansa to agree to marry one just to get the rest to leave. Mayhaps no one else can tell how the crowds bother her, or how concerned she is growing about the food, summer though it is — or, at least, no one but those closest to her. Jon has been hovering, at least until one of the North lords had made a comment about the other plan and since then he’s been scarce, like he thinks someone would be able to trick him to get an heir on Sansa. 

 

A few have left, either scared off by the realities of the North, the information that they’d never be crowned King, or perhaps believing themselves outmatched because of one of the other suitors. Arya has very specifically not bothered to learn the names of any of them, and tries not to even notice their sigils if she can help it, calling them by the region their coloring says they are from instead in order to be as insulting as possible. 

 

And that is another sign that something is wrong with Sansa, because Arya has only been lectured the once about showing some respect. And the worst thing that could be wrong is Sansa having decided one of them would suit, who probably shouldn’t, either out of obligation to be done with it, or because of some material benefit he could bring. Her sister really has become aggressively pragmatic. 

 

So Arya will have to do something about that. “You’ve been betrothed or married what, five, six times?” she says one day when she’s dared to venture into the solar when Sansa is entertaining all the various ladies that have come along with the suitors for some reason Arya can’t quite grasp. She doesn’t want to hurt her sister by bringing up unpleasant memories, but she has a point to make — and hopefully some more of the idiots will leave and take their camps with them. “And all of them are dead?”

 

The noise in the solar doesn’t quiet, but it’s clear all the women are listening intently. Sansa continues to embroider like she hasn’t noticed. “The first man I was married to yet still lives.”

 

“Right, right. The Imp —“

 

“He’s the Hand of the King in the South, Arya, as you well know.” Arya does know. She even likes Tyrion to some extent — at least, enough not to kill him for the crime of being a Lannister. 

 

“Right, and he didn’t kill your first betrothed,” here Arya pauses to watch a smile, pleased and the most bloodthirsty Sansa ever gets, stretch her fair sister’s face — probably to the shock of the other woman, “just got accused of it. Why aren’t you still married to him, anyways?” 

 

“It was unconsummated,” Sansa says, voice even, as she continues to stitch.

 

“But the others…” Arya’s insinuation finally gets Sansa to look up and she arches an eyebrow. No doubt her sister is wondering where this is going. 

 

“I am not a maid, no.” There is some whispering at this, which is just sad, because anyone who is coming for the hand of the Queen in the North should have at least had the chance to find out about that Bolton bastard. Even if they probably don’t know that Sansa had fed him to his own dogs. 

 

There is a story to spread to get rid of a few more, Arya realizes, and decides she can have a loud conversation with Lyanna about it tomorrow, somewhere central. 

 

“So you must know what you want, you know, in bed. Or don’t want, at least.” Arya tacks on the last as Sansa’s eyes narrow slightly at her, offering a smile as bright as she can manage to try to take the sting out of her words. 

 

Sansa inclines her head in response, after a long moment, but doesn’t speak. 

 

“And I bet none of the men are maids,” the giggles that meet this statement are more nervous than anything, “so to speak. So why don’t we get them to swear what they’re like in bed so you can —“

 

The snort that Sansa makes as she turned back to her embroidery is down right unladylike, but amused. “How would you propose enforcing honesty?”

 

“Good point,” Arya grants, then goes silent for a while, as the women begin to furiously whisper among themselves. Some, she thinks, are insulted that the honor of the men they came with has been questioned — either by the acknowledgment that they’d probably been with whores, or that they’d lie about their sexual tendencies, or that they might have some sort of errant sexual desire. Maybe all three. Wait. Whores.

 

“What if we sent them all to a pillow house, and then heard from the girls there about their behavior?” Arya’s voice silences all of the women to complete stillness for a moment. 

 

And Sansa laughs, lightly, and shakes her head. “I look forward to your attempts, Arya, to convince all the lords who here for my hand to visit a pillow house, when I will doubtless hear about the visit.” Sansa’s voice is dry as the desert as she ties off her thread neatly, places aside her sewing, and rises. She places a kiss on Arya’s forehead as she goes past, and Arya is almost certain she hears more snickering from her sister once she makes it to the hall.

 

All of the women try to rise with Sansa, but are encumbered by the work they’re doing, dally for a moment longer, and then leave with haste. No doubt they head to report this interaction to the presumptive suitors. And before long Arya is almost alone in the room. 

 

There are still three ladies, two who looked Dornish and one who, while her coloring is wrong, is tan enough to have been a transplant to those lands. The oldest of which tilts her head and regards Arya, who arches an eyebrow back. 

 

“Would an affidavit from a long term lover suffice for your scheme, my Lady?” she asks, finally. 

 

Arya blinks, not expecting anyone to want to play along. But Arya can match wits with whoever this lady is. “Only if it came with an affidavit from a maester, swearing that the woman had no scars.” 

 

One of the younger ladies scoffs. “You expect any woman to be totally free of scars?” 

 

Arya shrugs, before standing, “No large scars then, like the kind that come from being beaten by men for pleasure.” Then she smiles her bloodthirsty smile, “And if the woman does have any, then we can take care of that problem here in the North, let you southerners stay clean of it.” And, though less gracefully than her sister, she sweeps out of the room before they can respond.

 

***

 

Daemon tells him he had come across Arya and Lady Lyanna speaking in a hallway, most likely trying to be heard, regarding one of the fates of Sansa’s late husbands. Oberyn has no doubt that they’d intended to be overheard, but he isn’t entirely sure what the purpose of the tale is,  and he hasn’t decided if he thinks it is true yet. And then one of the knights of House Caron has the gall to confront Sansa about it, as she takes time from her no doubt busy schedule to walk with some of her suitors in the garden. 

 

He isn’t alone in worrying about how little rest Sansa must be getting, and he suspects the Northern lords, at least, see and appreciate some of the interference the suitors from Dorne have started to run on the queen’s behalf. 

 

He is also fairly sure their efforts haven’t been missed by Sansa herself, though that is more a feeling as she’s never shown a sign of it. 

 

“My lady,” the man starts, and Daemon hisses through his teeth at Oberyn’s side at the improper address, but the man doesn’t hear. “I have heard the most improper rumor about you.” 

 

Sansa doesn’t respond, or indicate that she’s heard the man at all, and now Daemon is snickering in his ear. 

 

“My lady —“ the cur starts again, louder, before one of men by his side elbows him and hisses the correct address, and he starts again, “Your Majesty.” And Sansa tilts her head enough to glance at him to indicate that he should continue. “I have heard the most improper rumor about you.” 

 

Sansa continues to look at him for a moment, before her gaze sweeps the rest of them and she goes back to focusing on the path before her, though now Ser Podrick, the one who has the pleasure of her arm, is scowling. “One wonders then,” she says, smooth as ever, and he wonders if any of the others notice how tense her grip has gotten, “why you would think it appropriate to bring it to my attention.” 

 

The knight — and Oberyn knew Stormlanders were stupid and tactless, but it’s one thing to know it and another to see it — continues. “Well, it was your own sister spreading it, so I obviously thought it best you knew, least someone take insult and challenge her, since she insists on acting like a fighter.” 

 

“I see,” says Sansa, turning her head slightly so none of the men can directly see her face and Oberyn suspects that means she’s trying not to smile. “She does have a tendency to exaggerate.  What, pray tell, did my sister say?” 

 

Sansa allows Podrick to turn her, once they’ve reached an area with benches, and she settles down at his side. Podrick, Oberyn can see now, is biting his lip hard enough to cause real pain and his shoulders are shaking slightly. He isn’t quite as good, it seems, at hiding his amusement as his queen, and he certainly knows what’s coming. 

 

“She said,” the man hasn’t sat down, and Oberyn decides to risk it and cross the small circle to settle on the bench on Sansa’s other side before someone else does. “That you had twenty Direwolves chase your husband down and eat him, because he’d displeased you.” 

 

The story Oberyn had heard, from Daemon, who had heard Arya and Lyanna spread it, was twenty hunting dogs. But Direwolves are certainly more frightening, and he can appreciate the flair that someone, perhaps this fool, has added to the story. 

 

“Direwolves? And twenty of them?” Sansa asks in disbelief, shaking her head. Oberyn regrets, again, how chill it is even in summer here, as her hair brushes his arm but he cannot feel it through the layers. “Certainly not, Ser.” The man looks ready to say something else, when Sansa continues, lip curled back from her teeth in a manner Oberyn finds both frightening and terribly arousing. “It was seven hunting dogs, and it was here in the kennels, and I watched.” He can see, suddenly, why the Starks took a Direwolf for their sigil, as Sansa looks decidedly like one in her ferocity.

 

There is silence from the group, but for a choked half question from the knight who’d brought the rumor to their attention in the first place, and when Oberyn can tear his gaze away from the queen he sees only fear in most of their eyes. Daemon looks grim but approving, no doubt wondering — as Oberyn is not letting himself — what crime had been committed against Sansa to make her so gleeful at the man’s death.

 

“Northern justice,” Sansa continues, her face going still and peaceful again, “can be harsh, but it is fair. And the one who delivers the sentence must see it carried out, so yes, good Ser, I watched until he had died, and I slept more peaceful that night for it.” She surveys the men again. At last her gaze coming to rest on Oberyn, who can’t help but show some of the satisfaction he feels at the story as he nods at her. She tears her gaze from his, and he resists the urge to take her hand and kiss it, as she stands. “I trust you all will spread the true story, over those rumors, now you know. And I trust any that feel they could not handle northern justice, know they cannot handle being my consort either.” 

 

Podrick snickers as he offers the queen’s his arm and leads her away, Oberyn and Daemon jump to their feet and follow, even as the rest of the men muddle to their feet more slowly, shock making them tarry.

 

***

 

“You wrote that there’s a pack of Direwolves by the Long Lake, didn’t you?” Arya interrupts Sansa’s extremely polite reply to awful poetry to ask, one day in the garden. She wishes she could’ve interrupted the poetry itself, but the fool is determined and just would’ve brought it up later. This way, she hopes, when Sansa lets her interrupt and smiles genuinely at her, the idiot might get the idea and stop trying to come up with words to rhyme Sansa with. It does not work. 

 

“Yes, I suspect the leader to be Nymeria, with others tempted south of the wall to join her. Perhaps you should visit, see if you agree?” The problem with this plan, Arya realizes, is that Sansa so rarely smiles — sincerely — at any of the suitors, that them seeing her real smile, even if it isn’t at them, just increases their stupidity. 

 

“I was actually thinking,” she says, even though she hasn’t been and is hoping she can come up with something good as she continues to speak, “that we could use it as a test, for your loyal suitors.” The blankness of Sansa’s face now, Arya knows, is to keep from laughing. “The first to bring you back a lock of fur, cut from a Direwolf without injuring them, perhaps, would receive a special boon?” 

 

“Mm,” Sansa has to take an extra moment to compose herself, as the men — for the most part — try to look fierce and ready for the task. Luckily Sansa is able to speak, voice calm and smooth like she hasn’t almost broken into laughter, before any of them can vow their attention to the task. “That would, I think, be bad for the wolves. And unfair as well.” 

 

“Oh?” Arya can see the joke coming, she just isn’t entirely sure what form it will take.

 

Sansa curls her fingers over her lips in mock contemplation, mostly to hide a smile, Arya thinks. “With meals getting delivered to them they would forget how to hunt entirely. And the nineteenth or twentieth attempt would have such an advantage, going after wolves too full to move, yes?” The man with the awful poetry pales at the thought, even as one of the other suitors cracks a laugh. 

 

Arya turns her eye to him, and finds another Dornishman — she can’t fathom any of them thinking they could survive the cold of winter, but there are a shocking number of them here for some reason — grinning widely and not bothering to hide his mirth. He seems old to be trying for her sister’s hand, so maybe the father of one of the suitors? Which, him not being a suitor and being amused, raises him in Arya’s estimation immensely, and she grins at him to show it.

 

***

 

Of the thirty-one suitors that had arrived, after a series of rumors, leading questions, and even jokes, mainly instigated by Lady Arya Stark, the numbers are down to twenty-three, over half Dornish, and Oberyn finally understands the game the girl is playing.

 

It seems the midlanders don’t have much stomach for northern justice, nor do they appreciate the sense of humor exhibited by the queen’s family. Or, mayhaps they simply think the aspersions cast on their names aren’t worth even the slightest possibility of being blessed with Sansa as wife for the rest of their days. 

 

Oberlyn thinks they’re fools and thinks that northern justice sounds very much like Dornish justice. And nothing he wouldn’t admit to has been said about him, and he relishes the glimpses of a more relaxed Sansa that Arya’s interference brings.

 

He does wonder, however, if Arya truly understands how slim the numbers for her sister’s consort are, now. Because those eleven other Dornish who had presented themselves and still stay, all support his claim to fair Sansa’s hand.

 

***

 

Sansa leaves dinner as soon as it’s complete in order to work through some of the back log of reports and petitions. She hates to leave when the Free Folk have only just arrived, but she feels guilty for having fallen behind simply because she’s trying to pick a consort. 

 

She works until the words start to blur together, and then she tidies up and heads back to the hall. As she expects, most of the suitors have gone and Tormund is holding court with a skin of what is probably fermented goats milk. 

 

“Oi, why don’t one of the cunts just steal her, instead of this poetry bullshit?” he’s saying as she enters, and she is horrified that she hasn’t anticipated this exact moment and done something to prevent it. 

 

But at least it’s Tormund, and after dealing with the Free Folk for all of her reign she knows the best way to handle this — theoretically.

 

“Don’t you dare, Giantsbane, give them any ideas,” Sansa calls out as she strides confidently towards him, eyes narrowed.

 

Tormund laughs and in one motion is off the bench and picking her up and spinning her around. This close she can smell that it is most definitely fermented goats milk he’s drinking, and he probably has been since the start of dinner. But when he doesn’t immediately drop her or fall over, she decides to enjoy it and throws her head back and laughs as they spin.

 

“Hey! Stop flirting with my sister, bear fucker!” Arya says, face bright with drink, and Tormund sets Sansa back on her feet, but keeps his hands on her shoulders, probably to balance himself — the spinning seems to have gotten to him quite a bit, as he peers at her intently.

 

“I may be of the Free Folk,” he says, listing to the side, and Sansa reaches out to grab onto the furs he wears to try to keep him on his feet, “but I’d kneel for you, if you catch me meaning, and then you could kneel for me and —“

 

Sansa laughs again, and gives up on attempting to help him keep his balance. Instead she pushes him towards the bench, and once he’s stumbled back and fallen into the seat she circles around to join her sister. “I’d sooner sleep with your ex-wife, the bear,” she offers him a grin as he guffaws, and accepts a cup from Lyanna. 

 

***

 

“Giantsbane, is it?” Oberyn asks when he finds the man presumably nursing a hangover, out on the parapet. When Oberyn had retreated the night before, the other man had been passed out under one of the tables, snoring up a storm.

 

“What’s it to you, kneeler?” is the man’s harsh response.

 

Oberyn chuckles and leans against the wall next to him. “I have to say that I’ve never received anything but compliments for my ability to kneel.”

 

The man laughs and lightens, slapping Oberyn on the back hard enough that he has to use all his grace not to fall. “I like you,” he says, “even if you are one of the cunts thinkin’ they’re good enough for the kissed by fire queen.” 

 

Kissed by fire. It’s more poetic than he was expecting from the rough man, and he finds it fitting for Sansa. “Not worthy enough for her, I don’t think,” he says instead, “but more worthy than the others.” 

 

The man laughs again, loud and unabashed. “I’m Tormund,” he says, “what’s your name, southerner?” 

 

“Oberyn,” he grins back, “and I was wondering what you meant about stealing the queen, last night?” 

 

Tormund slaps him on the back again, knocking him into the wall this time. “Finally, a man willing to take what he wants — even if it’ll get you killed flatter than dead by the little wolf — get me a drink and we’ll talk!” 

 

***

 

Arya’s not worried when Sansa is late to the council meeting — she’s late more oft than not, these days, caught up with someone who just needs one more second of her attention. At this time of day she would’ve most likely been coming from checking the stores or the glass garden, and when Arya can’t find her between there and the council room she still doesn’t worry.

 

Once she’s checked half a dozen more places and not found her though, that’s when she starts to worry. 

 

She’s about to work herself into a real froth when Ser Daemon — and Arya’s a little mad at herself for bothering to remember the names of one of the suitors, but he did get challenged by a group of men for the curse of being a bastard and had whipped them all soundly, and then willingly sparred with her and she can’t help but like him — approaches and tells her he saw Sansa, though he calls her ‘The Queen,’ headed towards her suite after receiving a present. 

 

Arya’s really worried, then, when she approaches the door and can hear what sounds like crying coming from inside the room. She only doesn’t burst in because the last time she did Brienne got a little closer to skewering her than she’d like, and while it’s good practice she doesn’t want to try it if there’s something she needs to protect her sister from. So with a terse “it’s Arya,” and a knock she lets herself in. 

 

And she immediately relaxes.

 

Her sister is crying, but those are certainly happy tears, and besides the Direwolf pup is doing its best to get them off her sister’s face. 

 

“What…?” she asks, turning towards Brienne, whose eyes seem suspiciously bright as well, and gods, no one is going to take them seriously if they come in and find all three of them crying over a puppy

 

“A gift, to the queen,” Brienne says, pausing to clear her throat to fight off the tug of tears, “from one of her suitors.” 

 

“Which one?” Arya asks, wiping at her eyes as her ever composed sister collapses on the floor with the puppy chewing on her hair. 

 

“Martell,” Brienne says, and Arya wrinkles her nose. She didn’t realize any of the ruling houses had sent anyone. 

 

“You should marry him,” she says, flippantly, raising her voice so her sister can hear. 

 

“He doesn’t want to marry me,” Sansa says, cuddling the pup against her face, “it’s just politics.” 

 

Arya looks at Brienne, who is frowning slightly, but shrugs when she sees the question in Arya’s gaze. 

 

Yeah, Arya definitely needs to get to the bottom of this. But first there’s a puppy to play with. “You’re not going to name her something stupid, are you?”

 

***

 

“What’s happening?” Ellaria asks, clutching Oberyn’s shoulder and going up on her tiptoes to try to see over the crowds. 

 

“It looks like,” Oberyn says, not able to see over himself, but having found a view through, “the Northern lords and ladies are preparing to depart.” 

 

She frowns and stops trying to see, turning to him instead. “Why would they leave before she’s chosen, unless —“ 

 

Oberyn slips through the crowd, partially to avoid how she’s going to end that thought and partially to discover the truth, and finds himself at the side of Lady Lyanna Mormont as she directs the men around her. 

 

“My lady,” he says, and she turns quick enough and then rolls her eyes in a way he should probably find insulting, but is instead simply amused by. 

 

“Oh it’s you,” she says, snaps another order at her men, then turns back to him with her arms crossed. “What do you need, Prince?” 

 

“I was simply wondering about this,” he says, gesturing around at the chaos, “and the reason all of you are leaving when there hasn’t been a decision made.” 

 

She scoffs and mumbles something under her breath he can’t quite catch before shaking her head. “We all have our own holdings to return to. Sansa — the queen — has this well in hand. I trust she’ll let us know when she’s made her decision.” 

 

He tries not to show that the confirmation that she hasn’t chosen is a relief to him, instead he simply considers the numbers he can see preparing to depart. “Is it wise to take so many who support her away, when there are as of yet men with no proven loyalty to her waiting in the wings, as it were?” 

 

She scoffs again and he wonders why he was told the North was so traditional. “Over half of those left are yours, Prince Oberyn, would you fight for our queen or against her, given the chance?” 

 

“Well obviously I would tell you I would fight for,” he says, with an arched eyebrow. 

 

She rolls her eyes and shakes her head, mumbling under her breath again, before speaking clearly. “Well then we’ll have to rely on the fact that she has a faceless man at her side who would happily cut the throats of anyone who threatened her.” She grins brilliantly and nods, “G’day, Prince,” and she turns away from him and goes back to her organizing as he stares in shock. 

 

***

 

Watching the Direwolf pup play hurts a little, in ways Sansa hadn’t expected. It’s a good ache she thinks, healing — but she can’t help but think back to her first Direwolf pup and see the spirit of Lady in the movements of this one. 

 

They don’t look similar, beyond what can’t be helped, but it still aches to see the pup climb over Ghost and chew on his ear and fall and roll and — 

 

She hasn’t been able to come up with a name yet. All of the ones that come to mind hurt too much to consider. 

 

Lady was a part of her, it’s true, but she has changed from the girl she was then. This pup, she vows, won’t ever be put on a lead or have a ribbon tied around her throat. She’ll be taught to behave, because Sansa wants her by her side when she rules, but she’s a Direwolf and doesn’t need to be dressed differently. 

 

Arya has suggested a whole host of names, most of them from stories and songs, and Sansa doesn’t know how to explain that even thinking about the old stories and songs still brings her pain, still makes her ache and feel young and stupid and lost and alone .

 

She considers naming the pup for her family, but that seems wrong as well — the thought of choosing only one to honor unfathomable, and the pain of even voicing their names, even now — no. Best to let the dead rest. 

 

She considers all of her options, whiling away the morning in her solar, no one with her but Ghost and the pup. She does her best to start her on commands, but it seems the only one the puppy is willing to obey is ‘come’, happily tottering over from whatever it was doing whenever she calls. 

 

It’s probably selfish for her to spend a day as such, especially when she knows she needs to make a decision regarding her suitors. The food the Dornish brought with them was generous, but even that is running low, and she needs to make a decision so that the rest may leave and she can have her keep back. 

 

But the thought of making the wrong decision — of being wrong about her affections and being led astray by her stupid heart is terrifying. 

 

“I’ll decide,” she says to herself, tugging on a scrap of cloth the pup is half heartedly pulling on, “I’ll decide after I have a name for you. I will. I have to.” 

 

She should appreciate that the lords and ladies of the North trust her ability to choose her own husband — and she did, at first. But now when her heart is on the line and she’s not quite willing to hope and — 

 

“When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives,” she tells herself, “and I am not a lone wolf anymore.” The pup, curled up in her lap, snores. “And neither are you. Winter is coming, and —” She laughs, “Winter. I think I’ll name you Winter.” The pup kicks her feet — Winter kicks her feet, chasing prey through a dream wood, and Sansa leans down to kiss the top of her soft head.

 

Her gaze turns towards the window, because now with that decision out of the way, she has one more to make.

 

***

 

When it first starts to snow, Oberyn is delighted. He holds his arms out and watches the snow land on his palms and is amazed by how little he feels it and how pretty it is. 

 

By the third day without cessation, when snow has blanketed the ground but turned to grey slush along all the walking paths, he is significantly less delighted. 

 

Ellaria is comfortably tucked away in the Keep, he knows, along with the other ladies, even as he freezes his balls off outside. Which is his own fault, he supposes. Most of the others have also gone in, but Sansa isn’t in the hall, and isn’t in her solar with the ladies either, and he wants to see her. 

 

“Damned fool,” he mutters about himself as he wanders through the yard, the whole place gone strange and alien with the snow. 

 

He’s about to go and warm by the fire when he hears her laugh, and finds himself frozen in place, momentarily. He’s not sure why he’s so sure it’s her — it’s the ghost of laughter on the air, and he’s heard her laugh so rarely but — it’s her. 

 

He closes his eyes, tries to orient to the wisp of sound, and takes off again with renewed purpose. 

 

He can make out words, as he gets closer — and he realizes he’s at the Godwood when he can hear her unhindered, and he hesitates. These are not his gods, and he’s not sure if going in would be an insult or not — and the last thing he wants to do is offer an insult to the woman he’s trying to marry.

 

“Winter!” comes her laughing voice, “Come here!” and the snow must distort sound more than he’s realized, because from out of the wood comes a dart of grey and then he finds his arms full of warm, laughing queen. 

 

His arms tighten instinctively for a moment to keep their balance, and she lets loose a short shout and he’s trying to release her — the sound she made was pure panic — and there’s a Direwolf pup jumping up and — 

 

“Hello, my Queen,” he says, hands spread out to the sides, flat on the ground, the snow at least having broken some of his fall, with Sansa against his chest, a warm weight he could certainly get used to — and a puppy jumping around and trying to lick and chew anything she can. 

 

“Oh,” she says, as she pushes herself up off his chest — and he tries not to take it as too good a sign that she remains perched on his thighs for a moment before pushing herself up to her feet. “I am sorry, Prince, I didn’t see you there.” 

 

He snorts, grabs the pup who is trying to chew his nose, and rises to his feet as well, brushing snow off with an absent hand as he admires the flush the cold has brought to her cheeks and how brilliant her eyes look from underneath her lashes. “I am surprised anyone can see anything, with all this white around,” he grumbles, and then offers her a smile, “though I certainly won’t object to you greeting me that way from now on.” 

 

The flush to her cheeks gets brighter, and she bites her bottom lip. He wishes he had the honor to do so. “How are you liking your first snow?” she asks, stepping close so that she can take the pup from his arms. 

 

He makes sure her grip is secure, shifting closer and brushing some more snow from her shoulders when she doesn’t object. “I’m starting to see the appeal,” he says, honestly, for there’s something perfect in this moment here with her.

 

***

 

It’s a cowards choice, Sansa knows, but she’s not sure it’s a bad one either. He doesn’t make her heartbeat the way that Oberyn does — doesn’t make her mouth dry and her skin prickle either. He just makes her feel safe and warm. 

 

She might not have said anything, still, if the chance didn’t present itself so neatly. 

 

“My Queen,” Ser Daemon says, offering his arm as she rises to leave the hall that night. “May I escort you?” 

 

Sansa nods her assent, amused, even as Brienne follows behind. The words are thick in her throat, and even this takes a long moment to work up the courage for. 

 

She’s not sure that she still fears being laughed at, though this feels like that, so much as she fears others seeing through her words to the truth behind them. “Ser Daemon?” she queries, as she fixes her gaze on the path she’s taken so many times she’s sure she could do it blindfolded. “If I were to ask for your hand, as my consort, what would you reply?” 

 

The sound of Brienne taking a step wrong, armor clanking harshly, tempt her to turn, but she takes a breath and forces herself to keep looking forward, least she look to the side and see something she’d rather not. 

 

“I would say no, My Queen,” comes his soft reply, an indeterminate time later. 

 

She takes a breath, holds it, and considers if she wants to hear what she suspects she will if she asks why — that Dorne has only sent its sons to her for talks of trade, and, she thinks, to pave the way for their own independence from the kingdom they find themselves still, somehow, a part of. “Tell me why,” she demands, instead of asks, when she reminds herself she’s already taken the coward’s way in this and she can be brave for a moment.

 

“I owe too much to my Prince, my Queen, to take away even the slightest glimmer of his happiness. He loves you more than I have yet allowed myself.” They’ve reached her chambers, Sansa realizes numbly, as Ser Daemon takes her hand from his arm and kisses her knuckles. “Besides, I am too low for you to take as consort.”

 

“You’re a Knight,” she replies, sharply, able to deal with this truth at least, “and more honorable than many I’ve known who have worn the title. I could wish you had been one of the Knights I knew in my youth, and I trust some of my troubles would have been lessened for it.” 

 

“You honor me, your Majesty,” Ser Daemon bows low and releases her hand, and on impulse she goes up and kisses his cheek as soon as he’s straightened, marveling at how the red flush looks spreading itself across his cheeks, before ducking into her chambers, Brienne on her heels. 

 

Winter greets her so enthusiastically, as soon as she’s in the door, that she is momentarily distracted from the reality of what she’s done. 

 

***

 

The Martell who is, according to Sansa not here for her hand, is none other than the Red Viper of Dorne, and Arya regrets, so much, that she hasn’t been keeping track of the suitors. Because he’s the Red Viper of Dorne and she definitely wants the chance to spar against him, especially when he’s known for taking down foes much bigger than him — like the fucking Mountain! 

 

Of course, more importantly is if he’s actually interested in her sister. And obviously he’s interested in her sister. Arya has heard minstrels in Essos singing about her sister’s beauty — but if he’s interested in her sister or just attracted to her sister, that’s what she means to find out.

 

And also maybe get a spar in at the same time.

 

Sansa has been encouraging her to see the long game, to use her cunning more and all the tools at her disposal. Surely this counts. 

 

“Martell,” she says, interrupting him when he’s got his head bent close to a woman she recognizes as asking questions in Sansa’s solar and Ser Daemon. 

 

The other two bristle, but he simply raises his head and looks at her blankly. He’s the laughing man, she realizes abruptly, the one who is definitely too old for her sister. The one she thought was maybe the father of a suitor. “Stark,” he returns, and she grins like a wolf. 

 

He’s sharp though, and it had sounded like Sansa was dismayed it was just politics, and if not well. If not then no harm will be done. Probably. “We should spar,” is what she says. 

 

He considers her for a moment before smiling, “I would be delighted.” 

 

“Great,” she says, slapping her hands together before spinning on her heel and heading towards the training ground. 

 

Jon is there, when she arrives, and he sees her and the look on her face and gives one of his big dramatic sighs before clearing out one of the rings, without her having to say anything. Martell shows up a few minutes later, probably having had to retrieve his weapon, and with a crowd of people at his back to presumably observe and when Jon sees him start to approach and puts the math together, he swears under his breath and grabs the arm of the boy he was talking to, hissing something at him.

 

“Is this a friendly spar,” Martell asks, beginning to stretch as she does the same, “or have I done something to offend?” 

 

Arya arcs a look at him that she hopes is half as quelling as the one of Sansa’s she’s basing it off of, as she says cooly, “Friendly, for now.” 

 

“Oh?” he strips off his outer layer, and continues to stretch. 

 

“Mm,” she agrees, before taking her starting position. “I have some questions,” she says, as he faces off against her, “about your intentions towards my sister.” 

 

He arches an eyebrow, whips his spear around himself once, and settles into his own position. “Ser Daemon told me how fierce you were in the ring, but he didn’t speak of any interrogation. Should I be insulted or hopeful by this turn?” 

 

Arya’s nose wrinkles as she makes a feint to draw him out. “Daemon didn’t give Sans a Direwolf pup, you did.”

 

He strikes at her left side and she dances out of the way easily. “Has she trained the pup much, yet?” he asks, and Arya narrows her eyes, giving up talk — since it’s apparently getting her nowhere and he’s not answering any of her questions — and attacks in earnest.

 

She manages to get the spear from him, but he gets her sword with his dagger, and they both end up separated, panting, and one weapon down.

 

“This isn’t a game,” she spits, changing her grip on her dagger and shifting back on her left heel, “and I’d have an answer from you.” 

 

He doesn’t try to pick up his spear, instead shifting his own weight to a form better suited to the dagger in his hand. “My intentions are the same as the other suitors here, I would be her consort if she would have me.” 

 

They circle each other for a moment, and Arya becomes more aware of just how the crowd around the ring has grown. “I heard,” she says, “that you have eight girls from five different mothers, and are still with the last of the mothers.” 

 

“That’s true,” he says, and comes for her. 

 

A flurry of blows later find them on opposite sides of the ring again. 

 

“And you plan to drop this woman, when you ask my sister for her hand?” She has half a second when his foot shifts, but he’s fleeter on the mud of the ring than he should be and she almost isn’t able to block. 

 

“No,” he says, blades and eyes locked, “I think your sister could use more love in her life, and my Ellaria would be happy to give her more of it.” 

 

“And the wolf?” she asks, “Why did you give her a Direwolf pup?” 

 

“Because I don’t know her mind, and I do not know who she will choose, and I would give her the means to have love regardless, from the pup, and a means to protect herself if she were to find a poor choice had been made, down the road.” His voice is soft now, and she’s sure the audience can’t hear, and she can see the sincerity in his eyes and smell the sweat on his brow, and she grins and releases and spins so suddenly he almost falls. 

 

“Alright,” she says, and goes to pick up her sword and his spear, offering his to him with a smile, “Again?”

 

***

 

Sansa is trying to politely extract herself from a conversation with the only remaining lord from the Westerlands when one of the stableboys interrupts with a soft, “M’lady?” 

 

Facing the lord as she is, she can see him about to bristle and jump to her defense, either with her proper title of address or at the insult of being interrupted, so she cuts him off and turns away from him and towards the stableboy with a smile. “Yes, Rickar?” These are her people and they need not know the intricacies of court address for her to know they mean her no dishonor — it’s only a slight when those who know better don’t bother to obey the appropriate courtesies. 

 

“Lord Snow tol’ me to tell you that your sister n’ the Viper Prince from Dorne are fighting, m’lady.” He says, earnest in that way only those with three and ten years can be. 

 

Sansa bites back her alarm, and instead she politely takes his arm, “Take me there, please, Rickar,” leaving the lord behind her — because she’s never known a lord who would move as quickly as a stableboy. 

 

Rickar leads her towards one of the rings, and luckily he gets the attention of his friends on the fringes and they help to make a path for her to walk through until she finds herself at the edge of the ring, with Tormund bellowing something enthused next to where she’s standing. “Thank you, Rickar,” she says, absently, as she observes the fight. 

 

She can see she’s already missed part of it — Arya’s sword and a spear, presumably Oberyn’s, lay in the mud as they circle each other with daggers. 

 

“That’s true,” she hears Oberyn say before they crash together again. Her hands ache, where they’re tangled in her skirts, and her breath sounds harsh in her own ear as she tries not to cry out. She hates fighting and she hates watching those she cares for fight and she’s not even sure why they’re fighting — and she hopes, desperately, that it’s just because Arya has finally realized who Oberyn is and his reputation and she wants to try her skills against his.

 

With Tormund clamoring next to her, she can’t make out the next exchange of words, or the ones they seem to spit into each other’s faces before suddenly they’ve separated again and — 

 

Arya’s smile, small and real, is almost as concerning as her, “Alright. Again?” and Sansa feels her heart in her throat as they take positions again. 

 

Jon finds his way next to her with judicious application of elbow and lets her curl a hand around his arm, to give her something to clutch. 

 

“Are they trying to hurt each other?” she asks him, because she honestly can’t tell. She’s not even sure who won the last round — if anyone did. 

 

Tormund is yelling something about ‘five on the wolf,’ someone else in the crowd countering with ‘six on the viper,’ and she starts to feel trapped and panicky about the pressing crowd. 

 

“No,” Jon says, and it takes her a moment to remember her question as she feels like people are pressing closer and she’s losing air, “not anymore.” 

 

Her vision is starting to go dark at the edges, and the world is starting to sway a bit, so she’s not sure what happens, but the next thing she knows she’s clutching Jon’s arm with both of her hands and they’re outside the crowd. 

 

She can hear her own breath now, and it’s rattling harshly and he’s saying something she can’t quite hear and then Brienne is there — Brienne who must have hung back when Rickar led her here and then Brienne and Jon are walking her quickly towards the keep and with each step away from the roaring crowd, calling for blood, she can feel her heart slow.  

 

***

 

“Sansa’s being stupid,” Arya says, tossing her dagger into the air and catching it again. 

 

Jon scoffs and keeps at his blade with the whetstone, “Thought you said she was the smartest person you knew?”

 

Arya rolls her eyes and sticks her tongue out at him for good measure — he’s not looking to see her do it anyways. “Not about emotions,” she clarifies, “especially not these sorts of emotions.” The sound of the whetstone is soothing, and Arya tries to time her dagger so it rises and falls with the noise. “He’s clearly in love with her, and I think she likes him too, but she’s not going to do anything about it even though he’s here, literally competing with other men, for her hand.” 

 

“Who?” Jon asks, and she adjusts her throws to go with the change in his rhythm. 

 

“Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper — keep up Jon.” He really is hopeless, she thinks, and it’s a miracle he managed as well as he did as King in the North she he did. Probably because of Sansa. 

 

“Oh,” Jon says, pausing to check his blade. “Because she asked Ser Daemon to marry her the other day, so I wasn’t sure.” 

 

Arya’s arm goes wide and her dagger sticks into the ceiling beam, vibrating audibly in the silence of the room. “She what to who ?” Her voice is close to a shriek. 

 

“Yeah,” Jon says, frowning at the ceiling. “He said no, though.” 

 

Arya is lucky she doesn’t have another dagger in hand, or it too would’ve ended up in the ceiling. “He what ?” she demands, not sure if she needs to go and challenge Ser Daemon to a duel now, for daring to reject her sister, or if she needs to try to shake some sense into Sansa who wasn’t supposed to propose to him

 

“That’s what Brienne said, at least,” Jon says with a shrug. “That looks like it’s really stuck there.” 

 

“What?” Arya says, again, before following Jon’s gaze. “Oh, right. I bet I can reach it if we put the chair on top of the table.” 

 

Jon, because he’s the best brother-slash-cousin she could ask for, helps her and then promises not to tell anyone when their efforts to get the dagger out of the ceiling result in two broken chairs and the dagger still stuck there.

 

***

 

Sansa is taking one of her few moments alone, reading over private correspondence and taking her time at it, Winter curled up asleep by the window, when Ellaria Sand comes to her door. 

 

Nodding at Brienne, the woman is allowed in, and Sansa feels another pang in her heart. 

 

“My Queen,” Ellaria says with a heart stopping smile, dropping into a graceful curtsey and offering a rolled and sealed piece of parchment to Sansa. 

 

Bemused, Sansa takes it with a small smile and tilts her chin, “My lady, what can I help you with?” 

 

“Oh, I’m not a lady, my Queen,” Ellaria demurs. 

 

Using a nail to break the seal, Sansa shakes her head, “You’ve more the right to the title than many a true lady I’ve met, though,” she considers for a moment, the host of ‘ladies’ she knew in King's Landing, “if those ladies are your own objection to the title than I can certainly understand. But I do mean it as a form of respect, my lady.” 

 

Ellaria’s smile grows and dimples appear, and Sansa has to drop her gaze to the paper in her hands, least she do something foolish at the sight. “Well how can I object when you’re so passionate on the subject?” 

 

She reads the first few words, frowns, hears Brienne clear her throat, reads a few more, and glances up confused — only to be confronted with an Ellaria sans her clothes. The questions dry in her throat. 

 

“As you can see,” Ellaria starts to gently turn, acres of smooth dark golden skin on view, but for the spider web of marks left by the growth of children, “I am unscarred, my Queen.” 

 

The parchment crumples in Sansa’s hand, the only immediate sign of the turmoil she feels as she sees the smooth back of the other woman and where it tapers down — smooth all the way down. It’s cruel indeed, she thinks, to have this truth shown to her so blatantly. She already knew that Oberyn Martell wasn’t sincere in his suit, she doesn’t need his known long time paramour showing off more of the reason why. Her skin will never again be so unblemished, hasn’t been since before her first flowering. “Explain yourself,” she says, voice sharp as ice.

 

Ellaria spins around and stares, eyes wide. “I’ve upset you,” she says, no longer playful. 

 

Sansa can, at least, resist snapping at that, for she can’t imagine any other purpose to this. “Dress yourself,” she says, voice getting colder, “and explain.” 

 

It takes but a second for Ellaria to lean down and pull up and on the first layer of her clothing, and then she drops to her knees before where Sansa sits and lays her hands on Sansa’s knees. Sansa’s teeth grit and she refuses to give more of a reaction. 

 

“Your sister,” Ellaria says, pleads, “said that you deserved to know how your suitors were with another in their bed— and she suggested a signed affidavit from a lover and allowing the bare body to be examined by a maester, least the woman feel compelled to lie about the man’s temperament in bed.”

 

Surprise steals some of Sansa’s anger. 

 

“And, having seen your maester, I feared he might faint at the prospect, and I thought a firsthand viewing by yourself would be more useful anyways.” 

 

Sansa considers the woman and takes a second look at the words written on paper, carefully smoothing it out so it can be read. “You are, I think, underestimating Sam,” is all she says, “which is quite common, I fear.”

 

Ellaria must see the ice melting, though Sansa isn’t sure how, as she rests her cheek against Sansa’s knee. “I would very much like you to marry Oberyn, and I know he would like the same — and I can promise he is a thoughtful lover, as am I. And it is my dearest hope, my Queen, that you would take both of us.” 

 

The paper falls from her lax fingers. 

 

Ellaria rubs her cheek against Sansa’s knee, “Though I know it isn’t the done thing, here in the North. But I confess, were I able to put a babe in your belly — which is, I think, the main goal of a consort for you — I would be challenging Oberyn for the right to court you myself, even now.”

 

“Oh,” Sansa says. 

 

“We’ll just come back later,” Jon says, Ghost by his side, at the open door, swiftly retreating. 

 

Brienne, looking fixedly at the ceiling, snorts.

 

***

 

“I’m sorry, my love,” Ellaria says, voice low and serious, as she settles down on the garden bench by his side. 

 

He takes her hand and kisses it. The glass gardens are wondrous — and warm enough that he feels right at home, even if he is surrounded by wet green instead of dry sand. “Tell me what has happened,” he says, “and I will set it to rights.”

 

She shakes her head and bites her lower lip — not to entice, unfortunately, but out of nerves. It’s been years since he’s seen her torn thus, and he turns his full attention to her. “I’m not sure that’s possible.” Her fingers twist in his and then she pulls his hand to her mouth to deliver a kiss, more to comfort herself, he thinks. “I upset her, and I most assuredly did not mean to, and I’m worried about how I left things.” She takes a deep breath turns to him with mournful eyes. “And I am afraid I may have ruined them.” 

 

He reaches out to cradle her face, pressing a kiss first to her forehead and then to each cheek. “I suspect you are underestimating our Queen, but first you must tell me what has transpired and then we may go from there.”

 

***

 

“My Queen,” Oberyn says, offering his arm as she rises to leave the hall that night. “May I escort you?” and Sansa deliberately takes a deep breath to show she’s not affected. 

 

It’s a mistake, as it turns out, as whatever scent he uses — and she’s spent too long with men who don’t bathe regularly, or think that lye soap is sufficient for everything, not to know that this must be an applied scent — fills her nose. “Of course,” she says, resting her fingertips so lightly against him she can barely make out the texture of his shirt. 

 

He, of course, covers her hand with his, pressing her palm down against the silk that covers his arm, as soon as they’ve turned the corner and cannot immediately be seen by the rest of the hall. 

 

Podrick, who is her escort tonight, either doesn’t notice or incorrectly believes that she has the situation well in hand and she doesn’t desperately want to be rescued. She also wants Oberyn to steal her away, in equal parts to her desire to be rescued, so it’s perhaps not fair to blame Podrick for not realizing. 

 

“I know,” he says, as his thumb caresses the back of her hand, “that we have all come for the purpose of winning your hand.” He glances at her, and she must make some sound of assent, because he smiles slightly and continues. “But I suspect you know, at this point, that not everyone is actually pursuing it.”

 

Her heart in her ears feels like a drum, the beat an entire army is marching alongside — and she doesn’t know if the army is coming to save her or slay her. 

 

“So I wanted to reaffirm my purpose here,” he says, stopping suddenly and turning them and she realizes, abruptly, that somehow they’re already at the doors to her chambers. “Sansa,” he says, stepping far closer than he should and even though the keep is always comfortably warm it is suddenly suffocatingly hot and his hand rises and traces the air by her face. “Nothing would bring me greater satisfaction than to make you happy. Tell me how and I will see it done.” 

 

And he still hasn’t touched her beyond on the hand — he’s not even standing that close she realizes — if she wanted to touch him she would have to take her own step forward and — 

 

His hand is still hovering by her face, and she deliberately turns her head to rest her cheek in his palm and he gasps and she meets his gaze. 

 

“Marry me,” she whispers and she gets to watch as his eyes go bright and a grin splits his face, and then she can’t help but take a step forward and kiss him — much to Podrick’s surprise.

 

***

 

Oberyn can practically hear Doran’s smug satisfaction from the raven sent in response to Oberyn’s own announcement that he would be marrying Sansa. 

 

“You didn’t know, before we got here, that I would be taking it seriously, did you?” he demands of Daemon as soon as he’s made it back from the rookery. 

 

“No one,” Daemon replies, “ever thought you’d get married, my Prince.” 

 

“My brother seems to have thought the whole thing was inevitable,” Oberyn is aware that he’s being petulant, he just doesn’t care. He collapses back into the pillows and watches as Daemon scrutinizes first one shirt and then the next.

 

“Well,” Daemon says, slashing him a smile as he tosses a shirt at him, “it almost didn’t turn out in your favor, you know.” 

 

Oberyn considers the shirt before shaking his head, it’s good — but not what he wants to be married in. “Oh?” 

 

“She did ask me to marry her first, after all.” Daemon says, and then immediately moves to place the chest between them. 

 

“She what ?” Oberyn demands, on his feet, dagger in one hand as his other grasps for a nonexistent spear. 

 

Daemon’s only response is to laugh and throw another shirt his way.

 

***

 

Sansa has only been married twice — despite what Arya says — once before the Seven and once before the Old Gods, and she finds that she doesn’t much care how they do it this time. Because regardless of which ceremony is done this time is different — this time is different because she chose this man. 

 

It turns out, however, that while the lords and ladies of the North didn’t care who she chose, they do care about the ceremony and they want it to be before the Old Gods.

 

Oberyn, it turns out, also cares about the ceremony and he wants it to be before the Seven.

 

Which is how, after a full day in the Sept that her father had built for her mother, she finds herself in a different wedding gown on Jon’s arm as they approach the heart tree. 

 

“Who comes before the Old Gods this night?” Arya asks, deepening her voice dramatically in a way that makes Sansa bite her lower lip to keep from giggling. The fight that Arya had put up for this position had been deeply entertaining — and Sansa is sure she only won because a dagger somehow fell out of the ceiling and into her hand when she was making her final point and the council was willing to accept it as a sign.

 

“Sansa, of the House Stark, Lady of Winterfell, Queen in the North,” Jon says, grin tugging at his own mouth as he tries to be solemn, “comes here to be wed. A woman grown and flowered, true born and noble. She comes to beg the blessing of the Gods. Who comes to claim her?"

 

Sansa’s smile breaks free as Oberyn steps forward. According to his Gods — and the Gods of her mother — they’re already married, but he’s taking this as seriously as he took their earlier vows, she can see. 

 

“Oberyn, of House Martell, Prince of Dorne, Lord of Sunspear. Who gives her?” He winks at her, and Sansa can almost feel Jon roll his eyes at her side. 

 

“Jon Snow, her cousin and foster-brother,” he says, and she smiles at him as it had taken both her and Arya to convince himself to introduce himself thus. 

 

“Queen Sansa,” her sister says, voice even deeper than the last time she spoke, “will you take this man?” 

 

“I take this man,” Sansa says, joy bubbling up in her throat as she reaches for Oberyn’s hand. 

 

He helps her to kneel and she spends a moment looking at the Heart Tree, wondering if Bran is watching, before bowing her head in prayer. Her heart is too full for words, so she simply breathes in the peace of the forest and savors the warmth of her husband’s hand. She glances over when she feels his grip tighten slightly, only to find him peering at her through his bangs as he keeps his head bowed. 

 

There’s a crash of leaves that disturbs the silence and Winter comes tearing into the clearing, having clearly escaped her minders. She skids to a stop before crashing into Sansa, throws her head back and starts a rusty little puppy howl. 

 

Ghost raises his head, but no sound escapes, and then there comes a chorus of howls from the forest around them and she can’t help but laugh.

 

“I love you,” he breathes as they rise, and she feels like she has wings. 

 

Arya is the first to throw her head back and howl with the wolves — followed by the rest of the North and then, probably actually thinking it part of the ceremony, those from Dorne do likewise as she leans up and kisses Oberyn one more time.