The coming days, they would make way to the Foxhole. At first, it was just for tea, where they would soon meet each and every one of the Florents present, and they would sit and converse. That is, only after Selyse’s brothers were done testing him, which caused Davos to laugh to himself through Stannis’ teeth grinding when they leave the Foxhole afterwards.
Imry is not taller than him, as it turns out, and if Stannis were pressed, he could certainly say that growing up with Robert made him more than capable of holding his own during a scrap. Robert always won when he came back from the Eyrie on his rare visits, but he’d had to work for it once Stannis began growing. Imry may have more male relatives to pit himself against, but Robert was Robert. Big, hard-hitting, a menace once he caught you and put you into a headlock and obnoxiously boastful while beating everybody who came at him. It was demoralizing for everybody else; Stannis would brood and grind his teeth in his room as a boy, consciously tried not destroying his toys in fits of anger, and then throw himself at Robert the next few days, ignoring the tremendous aching in his limbs or his gut from getting punched there one too many times. Imry immediately wanted to spar with him in the training yard and came at him like rabid creature; his strikes were fast with deadly intent and he was not above kicking and attempting tripping maneuvers so much that Stannis had to literally throw him across the yard and use his superior reach to get the spar under his control for a win. Imry could respect him after that, at least.
Erren was less an overt threat, having witnessed Imry’s testing and rationally deciding to come to his own conclusions afterwards. He very politely engaged in conversation, which was perfectly civilized. Except he would ask bizarre questions and challenge Stannis to defend his opinions on such esoteric topics such as: Which is better, cake or pie? Which would you rather fight, a dozen duck-sized horses or a single horse-sized duck? And "I could care less" vs. "I couldn't care less."
On that last topic, Stannis had not known that he had a relevant opinion or that he could reach the levels of frustrated rage that he did and yet not wish to end the argument. Erren calmly goaded him on, merely looking vaguely curious as Stannis’ grip on his chair arms became white knuckled as he insisted they were NOT the same and furthermore, one was more correct than the other-! Which meant afterwards that Stannis had the displeasure of looking up occasionally and seeing Erren looking at him with a distressingly contemplative expression, as if he was the odd one. The younger boys were of the habit of staring at him from behind large pieces of furniture or around door corners. When he caught them at it, they would smile at him, before ducking back out of sight. Baffling.
Lady Selyse was voraciously curious. Unlike Erren, she covered useful topics. She inquired as to what Stannis’ goals were for the Royal Fleet, what his ideal would be. She asked about Dragonstone. That made Stannis clam up, but she had been very curious about the architecture, having read up on the history of the place. Davos was able to give a fair description, which carried the conversation along. It showed how much Stannis was beginning to trust her good intentions because he revealed that it was an affront that Robert took Storm’s End from him.
“Dragonstone is no prize holding, true. But the King’s heir has always been Lord of Dragonstone and it is your right, as grandson of Rhaelle Targaryen. Dragonstone inevitably was your family’s holding to claim.”
Davos nodded, seeing the sense of this, while Stannis blinked at her. Davos had thought that Lord Stannis would cease being so very surprised by her statements by now. As it was, he was not sure that very many ladies would appreciate a man’s face going as expressionless as a statue and the blinking like he’d been blind side punched. Fortunately, Lady Selyse seemed to just know that this was Stannis’ expression of surprise and chose not to bring it up.
“There is also the fact that Dragonstone’s resources will be valuable eventually. In preparation, would you grant me permission to investigate Dragonstone after we are married?”
“You plan to exploit whatever you find?”
“If I find what I expect to find, then yes. I will of course explain my reasons to you.”
“I am starting to believe,” Stannis said after a moment of consideration. “That everything of seriousness that you do, you do for the realm.”
The visits became less serious over time and became lunches. Davos loved them; as fine as the spread was in the Red Keep, the Florents were friendly and their food was filling and memorable in a different way. Salads with vinaigrette dressings. Pulled pork on bread with baked beans and coleslaw. Chicken and mushrooms braised in red wine. Barbecue pork baby back ribs with a sweet and spicy brown sauce. Egg and cheese pies made with different vegetables or meats, depending on what was available at the markets. An onion soup with caramelized onions, capped with bread and melted cheese! Davos was sure that Marya would be able to replicate such recipes, if only she could visit herself to learn directly from the cook! (He later learned that they were dishes refined by Selyse! Why, if she weren’t a proper lady and had to cook in the kitchen herself, what a treasure of a wife she would still prove to be!) He watched Stannis and was sure that he held the same opinion; at the first bites there was a loosening of the usual tension in his face, eyes dropping closed with pleasure at the flavors.
Eventually, every morning Renly was escorted to the Foxhole, where he would have lessons with Maester Willis along with the Florent children and then to spend the rest of the day until dinner, playing. Stannis noticed that Renly’s lingering sadness from enduring the siege and subsequent shyness from the uncaring isolation of the Red Keep was swept away by the boisterousness of the Florent boys.
Stannis was not comfortable with children from when he was a child himself, but he could see that the Florents did not tolerate too rough and tumble play. The boys did not just play at knights in battle or King of the Hill; Selyse insisted that they ‘build up cardiovascular strength, dexterity and teamwork’ with a ball game called soccer, they would sit and read, play indoor games like Pictionary, Jenga (You’re going to have steadier hands than that to win! -Shut your mouth, Imry!), Connect Four, Cyvasse, that card game Mere, and traditional games with Florent House Rules.
Come Into My Castle had mutated into something that required slates and chalk, matrices, and point counters, with penalties. Stannis almost preferred the simpler old version where Robert could be depended upon to never allowing Stannis into the Castle when they were children, no matter that he did answer the questions Robert posed correctly. Robert always was a contemptible pain during Come Into My Castle. He was wrong so much of the time, but won because he said so! On the other hand, Renly was learning heraldry and Houses faster than ever, as the Florent boys, being Florents, would consistently try to trick their way into the Castle by relying on the most obscure trivia about the Houses and abusing double negatives in their answers. He was forced to pay attention during lessons and read up on House histories on his own or else he should always lose.
They would tinker with the safer tools from the Foxhole’s workshop, they would draw, they would practice musical instruments and sing, and they would recreate and conduct simple scientific experiments, and challenge each other to impromptu verse composition, singing out nonsense songs. They had the distressing habit of sneaking about, stalking each other in a strange version of Hide and Seek, ambushing each other and miming hits to the throat or kidneys. Renly was the favorite target of opportunity for weeks until he learned better about the concept of situational awareness. Stannis decided he would not ask about the purpose of that particular game. Davos decided not to reveal to Stannis that the Florents referred to the game as ‘Murder’.
Renly originally tried to put on airs about being Lord of Storm’s End. The Florent boys were very unimpressed, but instead of beating him, as Stannis would expect from his own experience with rougher Stormlander boys, they quickly posed Renly questions about his lands and what it would take to be a good overlord, asking questions that might be asked of him during petitions and if he had any useful opinions or interpretations of law, one after another, until Renly was in shamed tears, unable to answer them, having never thought of such matters before. They did not jeer at him for the weakness, however.
“Lord Renly, you had better pay attention to our lessons, or you’re going to end up killed,” Erren declared. “If you don’t get hustled for everything you are worth.”
“Hustled?” Renly asked, wiping at his eyes.
“Worked over. Conned. Fucked in the arse, and not the good way,” Imry said. “Like Lord Tytos Lannister, before Lord Tywin went ultra-murder on the Reynes and Tarbecks.”
Renly gasped at the profanity.
“Imry, don’t curse,” Omer objected.
“Yeah,” Merrell added.
Imry responded by scat singing a series of profanities that had all the boys laughing.
Davos thought it was heartening, how the Florent boys enfolded Renly into their little group. He was also satisfied with how Stannis was being drawn into the Florent fold also. He was often so ill tempered from a session of Small Council, that to go to lunch at the Foxhole and be surrounded by canny thinkers who were unserious in manner but deadly serious about duty and problem solving was like being brought in to a warm hearth fire after being left out in the cold.
He was scowling and snappish in the first few minutes, but by the end of a working lunch, where one or another of the Florents would discuss developments from the workshop, Renly happily reporting on some new educational facts he learned, Lady Selyse being forthright with her conversation and patient with his mood, and entertained by a good musical performance or two, he was beguiled into his more impassive of expressions, almost smiling at every outlandish yet inspiring statement the Florents made. The Florents eventually coaxed him into joining in on their table games, as their games were quite playable in conversation.
They planned the upcoming wedding together. Stannis had not thought he would have any opinion, one way or another, but Lady Selyse met him one lunch with an entirely new notebook of lists to go through. She debuted a drink called lemonade for him to sample, saying that she did appreciate lemon water, but that perhaps he might like this also for a festive occasion. She asked for his favorite foods, asked to be allowed to send ravens to the castellan of Storm’s End for coordination purposes. He was gratified to see that she was of a practical mind for the feast. No very extravagant nonsense like roasted swans or peacocks.
“Unlimited garlic cheese bread,” Selyse read off her list. “The Florent onion soup. Salad with raspberry vinaigrette dressing. Chicken in creamed mushroom sauce. Pan fried white fish in brown butter sauce. Pulled pork and beans. Crown roast of lamb. Finish it off with sweetness with cakes and fruit tarts. That is as much variety as I care to have, what say you?”
“That will do well for me.”
“Excellent. Lemonade available throughout, and if Robert must get drunk we will have punch.”
“One part lime juice, two parts sugar, three parts rum, four parts water.”
“Robert is insisting on a grander affair.”
“Is he? As I doubt he had anything to do with the planning of his wedding, he must needs stay out of the business.”
Stannis felt a guilty thrill when Selyse put her pen down, slowly turned so that she was staring right at him and showed her teeth in an unfriendly version of her sharp grin.
“He will. I will make it so.”
“He is the King.”
“Irrelevant. You’ll see.”
Wonderfully, it happened. He did not know what manner of threats Selyse put to Robert, but for the rest of the planning he was blessedly silent. Robert did spend the next time they saw each other in court breaking out into unprompted chuckling, however. Stannis resolved to ignore him; it was worthless to know his thoughts on the matter.
She wanted to know his preferences for the guest list. He had been struck dumb by her consideration when she suggested that Maester Cressen be issued a personal invitation. As it was a royal marriage, it was protocol to have invitations issued for all the Lords Paramount and the most ranking amongst their bannermen. Selyse wanted most of all to celebrate with Melessa and Rhea present with the rest of her family. She and the Florents were most understanding of his distaste for the necessity of more Reachers in the halls of Storm’s End, so they carefully arranged the seating so that he need not look directly at Mace Tyrell if he did not wish to while at the feast. Nobody ever cared about how he would like things arranged, before.
Delena and Alekyne were training up a troupe of musicians and singers to be able to perform a selection of the Florent songs. Selyse is very clear that she wanted no other sorts of mummers at her wedding.
She then made contact with a court tailor of the Red Keep, to have new suits of clothes made for him, in the style of those jackets and trousers the Florent men wore. He protested, saying that he did not like frivolity.
“Pockets are not at all frivolous,” Selyse replied. “Furthermore, you have not had a suit of clothes appropriate for a feast or more formal court appearances made since Harrenhal. You are not a green youth of seventeen anymore, my lord. You are a grown man.”
She made that husky purring, insinuation laden way of speaking at the last sentence and he was blushing again. He was discomfited and disliked being discomfited. It was too similar to being mocked.
The problem, that he could admit to himself, was that Lady Selyse was prone towards mocking most of the people she knew, even herself. But she did not mock him. She was serious and kind to him, choosing not to fight or take offense when he would say combative things that afterwards, he would wonder why he even said in the first place. He usually scoffed at anybody’s offended sensibilities over what he had always thought of as him valuing the truth. However, Lady Selyse herself was more direct than usual amongst highborn ladies and she moreover had expressed impatience herself about ‘useless emotions’ and ‘illogical nonsense’ and ‘flattering drivel’.
It made him uncomfortable all over again each time he crossed her very generous boundaries and she would bring up his offense in private after the end of a discussion, explaining how and why she disliked what he said and requested that he exercised more care with his words. In this, again, she was forthright. Sometimes, Davos reminded him, a man could do with a scolding.
So if he must admit to himself that she was not mocking him when she… indicated her willing interest in his person, he must accept that it was true.
He had no idea what to do with this information.
Nobody paid attention to him when they could pay attention to Robert, the heir. Nobody liked him, unable to charm or tolerate small talk, who had nothing to say during feasts, who was always suspicious of the intents of others and waiting to be offended, so he chose to ignore niceties from the start. Of course when he first came to court, now a royal and on the Small Council, he was expected to show up at Robert’s innumerable feasts and expected to dance.
With the first few false simpers and giggles, he revolted, maddened by the idea that all these ladies who would not have thought of him at all prior to this were now trying to convince him that they were interested now. He waited for Lord Arryn to pester Robert into arranging a marriage for him, as expected, and washed his hands of bothering to ask any to dance or even have conversation henceforth. He would marry whoever they said he must and father heirs. It was a duty and he could safely relegate it as something to be undertaken and endured because it was proper to do so.
He never thought overmuch on what it would be like to be married. To take a wife. He only knew that it disgusted him that Robert fathered one confirmed bastard so far and probably innumerable others and while betrothed to Lyanna Stark at that, who he claimed to be his great love. He did not let up chasing after wenches or whores after marrying the Queen either. Robert always took oaths and duties so lightly, so negligently. Stannis had no notion how this could be so, when their father was not at all like that, Lord Arryn was a reliable man to work with on Small Council, even Robert’s oh-so-wonderful friend Ned Stark was known for honorable repute (except for the bastard. It’s probably all Robert’s bad influence anyway). He did not have Robert to look up to as a brother and certainly not as a liege.
So he took to ignoring the physical appeals of women, setting out to overcome the base lusts of the body that everybody had and after enduring starvation, it was easier than ever before, for hunger was a more imperative urge than lust. Lust was nothing, nothing to thirst and hunger or the need for air.
If he had to think on it, he supposed that he expected no surprises about Lady Selyse once it was known that she was plain. What did it matter if she was or not? She was his betrothed, he would not look at others from that moment forward as a point of pride and duty. Disappointment was useless. He only hoped that she would be sensible and tolerable to live with. This was not what happened. Perhaps Robert weighted the dice before he met her by mentioning how a specific region of her figure was notable enough to distract from her face. He had been skeptical of that, too. She put paid to that suspicion very early on the day they met, striding away from him to the globe to explain latitude and longitude to Davos. She was… enticingly lush. Immediately he wondered wildly what it would be like, to grip her there, to pull her up against himself with both hands.
He dismissed such thoughts, disgusted, and tried to focus on her explanation of the sextant. He was able to do so, but as the weeks went on during their betrothal, he found that she was not so plain when her eyes would glint and light up as they spoke of her theories and experiments. There was something engaging with how she gestured so eloquently with fluttering motions of her hands and shoulders when she grew excited. He was used to court ladies who followed after Queen Cersei’s style; a bored and aloof superiority that demonstrated that nothing was truly interesting or new, all jaded sophistication. The Florents were sophisticated, more sophisticated than any Stormlander nobles Stannis knew, but they abhorred boredom. They preferred to think and discuss, to weave conversation, to enjoy good food and drink, to laugh and explore the frontiers of knowledge and invention. That smile or smirk as she spoke made her the center of his attention, her openness in posture towards him, her curiosity focused on him, those moments when she laughed from something he said, as if he was clever in that moment, those all too often instances when she purred and cooed at him with shocking forwardness, left him… thirsty.
He had no one else to speak of such things, certainly not Robert. He did not know what this urge was, this idea that it would be wonderful if he could taste her, to have his lips on her skin. It went beyond kissing and he did not know if it was right, if he could. Could he lick her? Is that something allowed? He then thought of slobbering hound dogs and the distaste he felt whenever he felt the cold press of dog noses to his hands when he was forced to go out hunting. Surely she would feel the same revulsion if he came at her like some beast.
He tried to hide this discomfort, this bewilderment from her. The obviousness of her flirtations was strange and foreign to him. Almost threatening. It was as if she knew things that he did not, was experienced in manners he was not, and yet, he would like to know such things as her. But how could he? He had nowhere and no one to learn such things from; he had no past exploits like Robert! He had thought he was doing well, until one day she made Ser Davos and her cousin Delena step away, just out of earshot and walked so that they were looking out the window, facing away from their observers.
“You are uneasy, my lord. Will speaking of it solve the problem?”
“I do not know. Probably not.”
“Do it anyway,” she almost commanded. “Unless this is a secret business having to do with the security of the realm, within the Small Council. Then of course, I must not hear it.”
“It is not serious as that.”
She waited. Selyse was very patient with him, Stannis found. Almost as well as Davos, who had the sailor’s patience with waiting for tides, with being becalmed, to being delayed by a storm blowing you off course.
“Are you truly a maid?” Stannis finally burst forth.
“I am. No man or woman has copulated with me in this world,” Selyse promptly replied. “And as I come to you a maid, do you come to me, similarly untouched?”
“... Yes,” Stannis hissed. “Do not jest.”
“And what ails you, my lord? I think it is not just this question.”
“The way you look at me.”
“What way? This way?”
And now she’s, as her cousin Alekyne so aptly described, eyefucking him. Embarrassment floods him, he feels his face flushing, intolerable, and a shiver down his spine and a sudden terrible pleasure, readiness, as that shiver seems to settle in his groin. If he ignores it, it might go away in time, but now, he can feel his contrary, traitorous cock coming to attention. It is very fortunate that they are standing at a window and one with a higher ledge, at that.
“It’s the gaze of- of a whore,” Stannis growls at her, unable to soften his words, unable to take back the insult.
He grimaces and looks away, waiting for her to rebuke him, to hate him. He is always ruining things.
“It isn’t, Stannis,” her voice is a low murmur, serious. “Whores must fake it. This is real.”
“You are a maid, what can you know, how can you look-” Stannis can’t go on from the embarrassment, so his jaw clenched shut.
“Are you of the impression that women do not become aroused by looking at men? Was that something a septon told you?”
“No. No, I do not think that. Women giggle and fawn over Robert enough.”
“I’m not the sort of woman who giggles very much at all,” Selyse reasonably pointed out. “So you cannot expect me to be like other women. I’m not much like other women of your acquaintance anyway, correct?”
“Then the way I look at you is just that. No more, no less.”
“It is just- You look at me.”
He grimaces again from this piece of inarticulate foolishness. Why did he just admit to her that he thinks her a blind fool for looking at him?
“Who told you that you are not handsome?” Selyse’s voice had an edge to it. “Who lied to you?”
Stannis had to look away, out the window.
“All of the women looked only at Robert. I hear what they say. Maiden’s dream, Warrior incarnate, and he beds enough wenches. I am not- I am not like Robert.”
“Do you want to fuck them, these other women?”
Stannis almost reared away from her, from this sudden vulgarity.
“What!?” he hissed, glancing nervously towards Davos and Delena, who were occupied with their own conversation, with Delena showing Davos some of her embroidery work.
“You heard me.”
“So you do not want them. You merely desire being desired, perhaps? That is something almost everyone wants.”
Stannis’ scowl showed what he thought of that idea.
“I find your face pleasing,” Selyse continued. “Your eyebrows-”
“I’ve heard,” Stannis interrupted, blushing. “You can’t possibly-”
“Like two ink brushstrokes on fine parchment. Bold. Strong. I like your eyes. Most blue eyes look like the sky. Yours is the deep blue of the sea. I could lose track of time, following the shadows of your cheekbones and your chin. Your lips…”
Here, the tip of her tongue flashes into view for a moment between her own lips and her gaze drops down to his mouth and Stannis feels like he’s being choked, like he can’t breathe from the mortification of desire that hits him. They stand a very correct arms length apart, but it would take nothing at all to step closer, to take hold of her, to pull her in-
“Shall I go on?” Selyse’s voice has dropped into a soft murmur. “Shall I speak of the rest of you? Or shall we wait until we are wed?”
Selyse tilts her head and belatedly Stannis realizes that he has not actually answered her questions.
“After we are wed,” he clears his throat.
They stand together, gazing out the window, while Stannis admonishes himself to calm down.
It is later, after he and Ser Davos have left the Foxhole that he realizes.
“I must give Lady Selyse a gift.”
“Aye, Lord Stannis. It would be proper.”
“... What am I going to give her? After she gave me things more valuable than gold!?”
Stannis had shown his gifts to Lord Arryn and Lord Arryn had an emergency Small Council session announced. Robert hadn’t truly understood, not until he paraphrased Lady Selyse: Nobody would ever get lost, ever again. Selyse had gladly revealed the method of manufacture of compasses and the hunt was on in all the Seven Kingdoms for lodestones.
Replicating the sextant was only a matter of materials and educating more craftsmen. The book, though, the precious book was a good copy commissioned from a team of scribes. It would be entirely possible to have new books by royal commission and paid for by the treasury, but Stannis despaired at the time it would take to produce enough for the Royal Fleet, to say nothing of how long it would take to find and teach literate captains.
Until Selyse smiled again and like some trickster fox spirit from the fanciful tales she told the younger children, including Renly, produced yet another miraculous contraption from her bag of tricks.
“Seals and stamps are endlessly reusable. And I thought, well, letters make the words. Let’s do many little stamps of all the letters and numbers to make the words! But how would you keep them in order and in line with each other? And then of course, I had to figure out a frame to hold them in place, and then how to hold the whole frame for inking, as it’s heavy enough loaded up and then Lord Florent was drinking some Arbor gold and of course I thought: Wine presses! It was only a moment to throw together a prototype-”
In addition to the precious Westerosi Practical Navigator, the Florents were putting together primers and their more simple childhood stories suitable for teaching children and adults how to read and readying them for publication from their own newly established publishing house; Bellflower Press. They were also planning to make inroads in Old Town and the Citadel by reproducing prints of books they most used for reference and their various treatises that espoused their educational and scientific goals.
Davos watched Stannis grind his teeth, from anxiety this time around.
“What might she like, my lord?”
Stannis made a distressed, inarticulate mutter.
“Lady Selyse likes… Knowledge. Discovery. Being correct. She hunts down the unknown, hidden from human ken like nobody I have ever known. She leads that pack of Florent foxes, sniffing out answers to questions that only they have the audacity to think up on the first place! You ask her why, how, and she must know!
I ought to give her an answer. An answer to some question she has not had time to find out yet, to save her the time of seeking it out. But what do I know? I know too little. I can’t give her anything of knowledge.”
“You could give her a book.”
Stannis nodded slowly.
“Yet it is not enough. I already have no practice at giving gifts and for her, this must be special. It must be. It must please her.”
“... Well, my lord, pardon if it is obvious, but I’ve not met a woman yet who doesn’t like a fancy bit of jewelry.”
“Aye. She is always going about with those pretty sapphire flowers of hers. I deduce,” Davos smiled at the new word he learned. “She likes some glitter on her person.”
Stannis thought a mere bauble wouldn’t be nearly enough to express his esteem for her, but Davos had the right of it. Over the next few days, he met with court jewelers to have something made. He had never agonized over jewelry before; obviously earrings were unacceptable for a Florent. That still left necklaces, brooches, bracelets, rings! What sort of metal, what sorts of stones- maddening.
His palms started to sweat when at the earliest opportunity, he presented the box to her. There was a fraught hush between them as she picked it up and opened it.
It was a golden brooch, consisting of a horizontal oval bas relief scene, with a stag’s profile, nose lowered to touch the nose of a fox’s in front of it with curiosity pricked ears. The scene was surrounded by a rim of gold, with the bottom edge embedded with tiny leaves made of emeralds. The rest of the rim was set with many sapphires, indicating a sky. The eyes of both creatures were diamonds.
“Oh, Stannis! Stannis it’s lovely!” Selyse made a surprised, delighted inhale of breath, her eyes going bright and she picked up the brooch while rising from her seat and impulsively embracing him about the shoulders.
Stannis froze, blushing, smelling the scent of her hair and her perfume, having never been so close to her before, a playful mist of citrus bergamot, gardenia, and jasmine. It was really too much that she was so engaging and gladdened by him for some reason and now he finds that she even smells lovely! He swallowed and closed his eyes. She retreated before he could make any motion.
“Thank you ever so!” her exclamations of pleasure were so unstudied that it gave him pleasure to see her so happy.
He was not expecting to feel this way about it, at all. He was so preoccupied with not offending her, not being inadequate, that he did not consider what success would mean or how it would feel.
She was pinning it to the breast of her jacket already.
“Thank you, thank you,” she leaned in again, making him heady again with her perfume, and pressed a raindrop light kiss to his cheek.
One corner of his mouth twitched upward for a moment, despite himself.