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A Jade Dragon

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Sansa sat next to Littlefinger as he assembled the Vale court in the great hall of the Eyrie, or at least the lords and houses that he managed to gain the support of. Bronze Yohn and Lady Waynwood, alongside the other houses of the Lords Declarant, had refused to accept Baelish’s invitation for obvious reasons. At this point, there was a very clear divide between the old order in the Vale and those who wanted to overturn it and take their supposedly rightful place.

However, Sansa wasn’t too overly concerned about the Lords Declarant. A servant passed a letter from Bronze Yohn without Baelish noticing and before burning it, the letter read:

Lady Sansa, I’m very glad to see that you are treated well.

Everyone can see what Baelish is doing. While some support your upcoming betrothal to Ser Harrold to gain favor, others like myself and Lady Waynwood will either not support it or actively resist. But please rest assured that whatever happens, no harm will come to you.

I am also wary of what Baelish intends to do with you, but at this moment, I would advise you to not resist him and to let him plot, because no matter his intentions, he will never harm you. My best guess is that he intends to support your claim to the North, as the Boltons are fighting a three-way conflict between the houses that are actively fighting against them and the wildlings that have breached the Wall and are making good progress.

What’s more, the Seven Kingdoms are in turmoil, especially since Stannis Baratheon has proven too stubborn to die and is causing great ill to the Lannisters by fortifying the stormlands. Many are seeing Joffrey as the incompetent boy that he is, but also understand that Lord Tywin will not live forever no matter how this period of chaos will end.

Should Baelish do what I would predict he would do, I would advise you to follow along. A Stark must be in Winterfell, and the Boltons’ bungling of their wardenship is proof that no other family should occupy that great castle, your home. And you taking back your birth right will also play right into the hands of myself and Lady Waynwood, which I will reveal in due time.

Keep Baelish at a distance, but don’t let him feel alienated.

With regards,

Yohn Royce, Lord of Runestone.

Seeing the letter burn after placing it above the candle, Sansa was touched that at least one lord was looking out for her without conditions, especially since the lord in question was in a position to do something.

However, Sansa was also worried that Yohn Royce’s words could be true. While she wanted to go home, she was afraid, since any effort to take back her family’s land will have her at the front and she didn’t know if she was up to the task of leading thousands of troops while dealing with the intricacies of plotting on her own.

Sansa shook her head. You’re overthinking it. One step at a time. She started to understand the importance of not taking on more than what she could handle, and also not letting the future bog her down. She had to take things step by step, for only then could she hope to survive while also keeping a level head.

The herald pounded his staff, getting all of the lords’ attention, with Nestor Royce being the most prominent of the Baelish supporters.

“My lords and ladies, thank you for arriving here on such short notice,” Baelish began. He was still the Lord Protector of the Vale, so he sat where Sweetrobin usually did, but he was back at Runestone at the moment and so by default, Littlefinger was the one in control. “The Vale has been blessed to have been spared the scars and wounds of war. We have seen the effects of the War of the Five Kings in the riverlands, the crownlands, King’s Landing, the stormlands, the westerlands, the north, the Iron Islands, and the Reach. Thousands of sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers had been sent to the abyss of death while the sons of the Vale were able to thrive and prosper thanks to the cautious of the late Lady Lysa, my wife.”

All of the lords knew that Lady Lysa was a fool, but they all had enough respect to not sully her name out loud.

“But alas, the gods preserving the strength of the Vale while the other six kingdoms have suffered has granted us an opportunity that we must seize,” Baelish continued. “Our mountains have protected us, and our knights have never been stronger. We alone have the strength needed to influence the course of Westeros as we see fit. It is time for the Vale to take its place in the sun above Westeros.”

Sansa had to admit that Baelish knew how to use words to maximum effect, and he knew how to disguise his true intentions behind great promises.

“I must concur with Lord Baelish,” Nestor Royce was the first to speak. “Between every house in this very hall, we can raise at least twenty thousand men, all of them fresh, eager for battle, and healthy for an extended campaign. We also have enough food to last us through the coming winter, even with our boys fighting. There’s never been a better chance.”

“My lord,” Lord Jon Lynderly joined in. “Your words are true and rooted in facts, but the Vale has never traditionally engaged in aggressive actions against the other parts of the realm. Why would we care about what happens outside of the mountains that we call home?”

“Because we’re the only ones who can,” Ser Harrold stepped forward. He too was now on Baelish’s side. “And we cannot hide here forever. What will our children say when they find out that we did nothing while others died fighting?”

“Surely, they would be able to see the sense of not interfering in others’ matters,” Lord Lynderly responded.

“But there are practical reasons to consider intervening,” Nestor Royce said. “While we may have food, trade has become more difficult to sustain with the continuation of the current war. The prices of goods have increased dramatically, the safety of our traders on the seas and on the roads cannot be guaranteed, and the flow of gold and silver has been strained since whatever the king and his small council have in their possession goes towards their war effort and spending on their personal luxuries.”

“That is not a good reason,” Lynderly didn’t seem to want to have an argument with Nestor Royce, since they were both on the same side.

“Well… how about a moral calling then?” Ser Harrold posed. “We have the strength to positively influence events in Westeros, but we haven’t used it. I personally didn’t care which side we fought for while the Lady Lysa was alive, but we stood by while many have died senselessly. Consider our intervention as a test of our devotion to the Mother and to people who are beneath us, since they need our protection and there are many who want safety, which we can provide.”

Sansa listened to her betrothed’s words, and she found herself impressed. Had she heard such words earlier, she would have fallen for him. But Ser Harrold had much to gain as a supporter of Baelish, so he only did his part and she saw through his supposedly pious and dutiful act. Either he’s incredibly smart, or incredibly naïve.

But the one thing that she would not fall for again were anyone else’s kind words of support. Looking back, she was a fool in trusting Joffrey, starting from when she smiled back at his smile and being taken with his status as a prince. Even with all of the warning signs of his personality while Robert Baratheon was still alive, she refused to believe that Joffrey was anything but noble and did not support Arya when the time came. And her blind trust in Joffrey caused her to watch her father be executed in front of her, her being humiliated in front of court before Tyrion stopped it, and then living as a hostage before she managed to get out. It was from that point that she would never trust a man’s pleasantries again, a lesson that she applied to both Baelish and Ser Harrold, for her blindly believing one’s words had costed her family for all she knew. I’m so sorry, father, Robb, mother, Bran, Arya, and Rickon, she thought with shame, for she could have done something but didn’t and instead left her family to fend for themselves.

“Ser Harrold presents the most compelling case for our involvement in this war,” Baelish rejoined the discussion. “But rest assured. We will not fight against our king and his small council, for to do so would only invite retribution upon the Vale.”

“All right. What do you suggest we do with the untapped strength that we have?” Jon Lynderly was clearly not privy to Baelish’s plots despite being his friend and supporter.

“We must look to the North to make our mark on Westeros,” Baelish went straight to it. “While the deaths of Robb Stark and Catelyn Stark were justified since they were traitors, we have to admit that appointing the Starks’ rivals to Winterfell was a poor decision, since everyone could see the hand of Roose Bolton in the Red Wedding.”

Sansa had to keep her anger at bay at the word he used to describe her brother and mother. And yet, she also knew that he was insincere about calling her mother a traitor since he had feelings for her in the past. All part of the act.

Many of Baelish’s supporters began to murmur, unsure of such a venture. “You want use to fight Roose Bolton and the wildlings from beyond the Wall? The wildlings number over one hundred thousand, and the Bolton bannermen will make fighting in the North all but impossible,” Lyn Corbray was the first to voice his objections.

“And also, we have no incentive to fight in the North,” Jon Lynderly pointed out.

“That, you are wrong, my lord,” Baelish corrected him. Sansa looked at him with alarm, but Littlefinger gave her a look of reassurance before he continued. What is he doing? “I must apologize in advance, for I have kept information from you all. But understand that I did it because I made a promise to someone very dear to me.” Baelish then pointed to Sansa. “This lady, her name is not Alayne Stone and she is not my daughter. She is, in truth, Sansa of House Stark, daughter of Ned Stark and Catelyn Stark. I promised to Ned that I would protect his daughter and I have been doing that since.”

Sansa had to keep her anger hidden at him using her father’s name to his advantage. It didn’t help that many of the lords were shocked, since as far as they were concerned, she was the daughter and sister of traitors.

However, she had to take the initiative if she wanted to go home. Before the hall started to erupt, Sansa stood up. “It’s true. Lord Baelish protected me and for that, I am grateful.” She tightened her fist. “However, I beseech you all to help me take back my home. I have heard of the close relations between my house and of House Arryn, which were strong enough for Jon Arryn to declare war on the Mad King to protect my father. As Lord Baelish said, the realm is in pieces and only the strength of the Vale can put it back right. I also have a personal reason to finally reveal myself, since I must show to all that the Starks are not dead.”

More murmuring resulted. “Lady Sansa, I applaud your bravery,” Jon Lynderly began. “But as much as our late lord Jon Arryn fought to protect your father, what can the Vale stand to gain from helping you?”

“All of you have the power to influence events in Westeros, and there is no better place than the North. And if you help the North to be free from both the Boltons and the wildlings, the northmen will be forever grateful and they will answer your call for aid should that time come,” Sansa offered.

“It’s a great proposal, and one that has a high chance of success,” Baelish supported Sansa, seeing a strong chance to push his plan through. “And moreover, her betrothal to Ser Harrold will be the most visible sign of the newfound strength of the bond between the North and the Vale. Two kingdoms will stand united for all time, and we can honor the example set by Jon Arryn by helping Ned Stark once more through his daughter.”

Slowly but surely, everyone nodded their assent and pledged their troops, which was also because they were in Lord Baelish’s pocket.

As for Littlefinger, he nodded his approval to Sansa for her speech. For Ser Harrold, he was stunned at her true identity. “Forgive me, Lady Sansa. I would like to start over, if possible.”

This was one thing that Sansa was not inclined to grant, for she was content to have Ser Harrold treat her decently while she was disguised as a bastard. However, the knight was clearly trying to get close to her because of who she was, and she knew the benefits of keeping him close. “I would like that,” she said while preparing herself for the steps ahead in taking back her home.

Theon sat on the eastern shore of the Long Lake, searing some fish that he had managed to catch and watching the flames turn raw flesh into edible meat. He kept his fur cloak tight around his body while his teeth shook from the shivers that he felt throughout. It had grown colder in the North, as winter was upon them and the last moons of autumn had become evident. The only surviving son of the Balon Greyjoy had grown accustomed to the cold of the North, but many have heard that this winter would be harshest one in a very long time, which was why he was not taking the new weather well.

Eventually, the fish was cooked well enough and he proceeded to tear flesh from bone. Although not as luxurious as the feasts that he enjoyed while the Starks reigned from Winterfell, it was probably the best meal that he had in what seemed like a very long time. He was looking upon the Long Lake, surrounded by the untouched nature of the North, and taking in the peaceful air that was around him. At this point, he didn’t have to worry about Ramsay or any of his brethren coming to get him, for the wildling camp was beyond their reach.

“I was wondering where you were,” Theon was startled by a loud voice from behind him. To his relief, it was none other than the red-haired woman named Ygritte. However, he was not in the mood and he just wanted some peace in general.

“Where did you come from?” Theon watched as Ygritte sat next to him.

“Looking for you,” Ygritte answered before she took the rest of Theon’s cooked fish and put it in her mouth. “Pretty good.”

“It was,” Theon grumbled at the wildling taking his meal.

“What are you doing here?”

“Trying to get some peace,” Theon tried to push her away, but Ygritte didn’t budge.

“You’re not getting rid of me that easily,” she responded.

“Just leave me alone,” Theon made clear his impatience.

“Why?” Ygritte genuinely didn’t know why Theon was acting cold to her. “I did something wrong?”

“It’s not you,” Theon answered. “I just… need some quiet right now.”

“Why do you need quiet?”

“Can’t I just… look at this lake and just watch the water flow?” Theon exclaimed.

“That’s boring,” Ygritte pointed out. “And you did promise that we would go hunting sometime, see who’s the better between us on the bow.”

“Not now,” Theon remembered but he didn’t want to deal with that.

However, Theon should’ve picked better words, for Ygritte then punched his arm hard. Surprised at how much strength she had, he stood up while rubbing his bruised bicep.

“You dead below the waist?” Ygritte was indignant. “I think you are good looking and I want you to ‘steal’ me. And what’s wrong with me? I have red hair, which my people consider beautiful.”

Theon had some understanding on what “stealing” meant in the tradition of the wildlings. And he had a feeling that Ygritte was not going to leave him alone until she got what she wanted, so he had to really make things clear. “It’s not that I don’t have any balls. I’m just… not ready to be with another woman yet.”

“Why not?” Ygritte crossed her arms.

Theon pointed to the patch covering his missing eye. “You know how I lost my eye, how I can only see through only one eyeball from now on? Some… beast decided to play his sick games with me, starting with my finger and he only stopped until I begged him to cut it off.” As the memories returned to him, the pain that came with them gradually returned in full force. “Then, he had his girls dig their claws into me and I thought that I was going to have a good time. However, they too enjoyed tormenting me and that beast decided to pull my eyeball out. He then turned me into his own pet, calling me ‘Reek’ and making me do all sorts of things for him. And then, he made me stand by while he forced himself on Jeyne, who everyone called ‘Arya Stark.’ It was only after I had enough was I able to get out with Jeyne and make my way here.”

Ygritte listened, and then showed how unimpressed she was. “So… you don’t want to be with me because you let some sick fuck do all those things to you and letting him rule your life? Is that it?”

Theon was surprised at how… cold she was being.

“It seems that this… beast you talk about might not have gotten your balls, but he should have, considering that you don’t have the courage to ‘steal’ me.”

“What did you say?” That hit a sore spot for Theon.

“I should’ve known,” Ygritte dropped her arms to her side. “You know something? Be afraid. Be stuck where you are now, if that’s what you want to do. For me, I choose to go forward rather than stay where I am.” Theon didn’t expect the wildling to challenge him. “However, I’ll give you one more chance to steal me. If you decide to take it, you know where my tent is.” With that, Ygritte left in a huff.

As soon as she was out of sight, Theon kicked the fire and the stones surrounding the pit in anger. He then screamed out his frustrations towards the sky above, infuriated at just how messed up his life had become. But he knew that while he could blame his father, the Starks, and Ramsay for all of the sufferings that he had gone through, he already did that and realized that he wasn’t going to go anywhere with that mindset.

Without thinking, Theon walked back to camp and found himself moving inside the tent of Mance Rayder, where his wife and her sister Val, the Old Bear of House Mormont, and Tormund Giantsbane were all discussing some plan. All of them noticed Theon’s entry, with Lord Jeor still giving the Greyjoy the death glare.

“Ah, the squid has graced us with his presence,” Mance remarked at Theon’s expense. “So glad that you could finally join us.”

“Mance,” Theon took a seat. “What are we talking about?”

“What our next moves will be,” Tormund answered. “We made good progress after capturing Last Hearth and Karhold. Now, we must decide how to continue our advance further south.”

At this point, the Gift and the lands of the entire northeast of the North were in the hands of the wildlings. With the camp near the Lonely Hills while other wildling bands were venturing in the forests between the western shore of the Long Lake and the domain of the northern mountain clans, they were able to establish a wide front, something that even the Bolton bannermen would have much trouble dealing with.

“We can either advance on Winterfell or on the Dreadfort, but our chances of assaulting both are not good without siege equipment,” Jeor Mormont stated. “At the same time, our progress will be stunted with those castles still in the hands of the Boltons.”

“And we need as much land as we can get, for the more land we control, the more distance we can make between us and the Wall,” Val added.

Theon decided that now was the time he needed to know what was happening. “Mance, everyone. Why is that important? You already have the Gift and much lands in your hands. You’ve gone farther than any wildlings had hoped in thousands of years. Why do you need more?”

Mance shared a glance with Jeor, who nodded. The King Beyond the Wall took a few moments to explain the threat of the White Walkers and how the old enemy was reawakening, with many of the Free Folk already turning into the dread “wights.”

But for Theon, he wasn’t ready to believe that. “Come now. The White Walkers have been gone for eight thousand years.”

“Says the southerner who doesn’t know that the threat is coming regardless of what he thinks,” Tormund sneered.

“I don’t care if you believe me or not, squid,” Mance told him. “However, you have proved helpful to us and we gave you and your lady companion places in our camp. But remember that nothing is unconditional. Whether you remain with us is entirely dependent on how you contribute.”

Theon was instantly afraid of being thrown out, more so because Jeyne was finally moving on and had made friends with Gilly, a wildling woman who understood what she experienced. The Greyjoy was still not believing the threat of the White Walkers, but he was going to contribute.

“Maybe… we can concentrate all of our efforts on the Dreadfort,” Theon suggested.

“You do realize that the Dreadfort is quite a strong castle,” Jeor Mormont reminded him.

“It’s not as foolhardy as it sounds. I was a captive there and before I was recaptured, I was able to go out through a passage that led from its dungeon. I’m very sure that Roose Bolton doesn’t know that I know where the passage is,” Theon explained. “We can take the Dreadfort by sneaking through its dungeons without much casualties, thus opening the way to Hornwood and then to the rest of the eastern parts of the North. However, we can’t make our advance obvious.”

“What do you suggest then?” Mance inquired.

“We use the kingsroad as a diversion, making the Boltons think that we’re about to attack either Deepwood Motte or Winterfell. They’ll have to fortify both of those castles while drawing strength away from the Dreadfort, because Roose Bolton will not expect anyone to be bold enough to try to take his home. And with the Dreadfort in our hands, the prestige of the Boltons would be damaged beyond repair,” Theon finished.

Everyone could see that Theon had something personal to gain from humiliating the Boltons greatly, but they also saw the sense in his strategy. And Theon himself was surprised that he was able to think something that complex.

“All right. We’ll do it your way,” Mance nodded. “I’ll have Tormund and Ygritte support you, give you the fighters you need, and we shall have the Dreadfort. But understand what happens if you fail.”

“I will not,” Theon was not going to let his chance to strike back at his tormentors go to waste, a sentiment that Mance understood well.

As Theon and Tormund walked outside of Mance’s tent, with the ginger giant slayer noticing Ygritte giving Theon a cold stare, he turned to him. “What’s up her ass?” Theon explained to him what happened between them, causing Tormund to groan. “You dead below the waist?”

“You’re the second person to say that to me today,” Theon complained.

“You know, you will only have a few chances to go after women who are as fierce and pretty as Ygritte while you draw breath, and you’re wasting them,” Tormund scolded Theon. “Take it from me. I have a good woman and good children. And you’re letting the people who hurt hold you back, which is stupid.”

By now, Theon was strongly considering moving on, just like Jeyne. However, he was still very afraid.

“If you need help on stealing Ygritte, I can give you some pointers. But whether you take them or not is up to you,” Tormund knew when to not push hard on a lost cause. “And don’t you think that you deserve something for your troubles?”

Theon kept walking next to Tormund, but the uneducated and rough wildling gave him sounder advice than his own family ever gave and Theon was letting his past hold him. And Tormund was right in that he deserved something for his troubles.

“So… how do I steal Ygritte?” Theon asked timidly.

Tormund roared in laughter. “That’s the spirit! Now, for any woman like Ygritte, one tip always works…”

Stannis kept his focus on the map of the Dornish Marches, laid out over the table. This was the greater concern over the situation of the southern banks of the Wendwater, where the river was stained with the blood of men on a daily basis. And surrounding the table were his top commanders, a mixture of lords from the stormlands, the Blackwater Bay, and a minority from the Reach. As was expected, his most trusted man, Ser Davos Seaworth, was right next to him.

“Your Grace,” Ser Ormund Wylde began. The old knight of House Wylde had proven very steadfast in his support for his king. “What are your orders regarding the Dornish spears that are attacking Blackhaven?” With the head of House Dondarrion missing, Stannis took control of the castle for the time being until a distant relative could be found. And everyone knew that the castle could not be lost, for that would allow the Dornish spears to march through the Boneway and towards the ruins of Summerhall. If Summerhall was captured, the rest of the stormlands would be open from the south.

“Might I suggest that we reinforce Lord Caron while we concentrate our forces on Blackhaven?” Lord Eldwood Meadows offered. As the seneschal of Storm’s End, his voice was heard above all others due to being in a place of confidence for Stannis, besides Davos and Melisandre, who sat far in the back but everyone knew she was there.

“I don’t think that will be a wise course of action,” Alester Florent told him. As the uncle of Stannis’ queen Selyse, he held much importance in the current council. “Ever since we assumed the defensive, our strength has been whittled down over time. We used to enjoy a combined army of thirty-five thousand, including men from my own keep and lands. Now, we only have twenty-eight thousand men to face a combined force that outnumber us by three men for every one of ours. We’re already experiencing much difficulty holding the southern banks of the Wendwater and the kingswood against the banners sent from King’s Landing, and the new army from Dorne will dangerously overstretch our resources.”

“I must agree with Lord Alester, Your Grace,” Ser Davos nodded. “We cannot hope to hold both castles at the same time, for we do not have the strength to do that and our supplies must be used wisely.”

No one questioned the Onion Knight on his words on supplies and food, for it was because of him that Stannis and the garrison of Storm’s End were able to survive while the Tyrells laid siege to that fortress. And the stormlords were feeling the strain of continually feeding their troops in the field, for they had to appropriate the smallfolk’s storage of their harvests for their armies while vaguely promising compensation. However, they had no gold to compensate them with, which served to anger the population gradually. And they couldn’t just purchase food from abroad, for their hold over the sea was not certain even though the main threat, the Redwynes, were currently occupied with the ironborn problem in the Shield Islands, the Arbor, and the Honeywine.

“What say you?” Stannis addressed Melisandre, his most trusted advisor besides Ser Davos. “You’ve been awfully quiet as of late.”

Ser Davos was also intrigued at how silent she became. She had sung Stannis’ praises and proclaimed at the “prince who was promised,” but in recent moons, she had consulted with the fires more often while spending more time in deep thinking.

“I believe that the current situation calls for a drastic solution,” Melisandre answered, confusing many of the lords, including Ser Davos.

“What do you mean by that?” Stannis wanted to learn more.

“I have no doubt that you, my king, have a great role to play in the times ahead,” Melisandre started with. “However, for your part to be fulfilled, you must remain here and keep the enemy lined up against us occupied.”

“How so?” Stannis became more perplexed, for she was not being explicit like other times and Ser Davos also noticed that.

“Meanwhile, you must seek help from abroad, from beyond the shores of this realm.”

Stannis groaned. “As I already told Ser Davos, I will not hire sellswords nor do we have the gold to pay them.”

“You will find that there will be those who can fight without expectations of payment and that they will be more than willing to work with you to achieve common goals.” Again, Melisandre was being unclear.

“And where do you suggest we find help?” Ser Davos asked.

Melisandre paused. “Go across Essos and towards the Slaver’s Bay. I have seen the flames and the help that Stannis needs will be there, waiting for him.”

The lords murmured to each other, all of them not understanding why she would seek help from there. “You do realize what’s happening in that wretched place, right?” Stannis asked her straight.

“And that is why you must send someone to get help from there, for you will need what is there to combat the true enemies that are coming. Until then, you must buy time.”

Stannis was not prepared to ask for help from either the daughter of the Mad King or the son of the Targaryen slain by Robert. However, he was also not willing to distrust Melisandre just yet, for she had proved herself steadfast like Ser Davos and Ser Ormund.

“Your Grace, I might have a strategy that could be useful,” Lester Morrigen spoke up. Stannis gestured him to go ahead. “Your Grace, perhaps we’re looking at this the wrong way. We don’t have the resources or the manpower to hold both Nightsong and Blackhaven, but we all know that those castles are vital. I would suggest a more… flexible approach to defense.”

“Explain,” Stannis urged him.

“We are outnumbered more than three to one, but we should utilize our current advantages in a new fashion,” Lester Morrigen said. “We have the mountains and the kingswood to our advantage, with Nightsong being the only true worry since they would continue to face the onslaught from the Tyrells. However, while we can continue holding against the Reachmen, the Dornish might be a problem since they could punch through Blackhaven with enough time. So, we should withdraw from Blackhaven.”

The stormlords groaned, while Ser Davos and Stannis continued to listen. “Go on,” Stannis told him.

“We don’t know where Lord Dondarrion is, so that’ll give us an opportunity to slight the walls, take whatever is valuable from the Dondarrion lands, and withdraw to a more manageable place. The Dornish might be good combatants, but history has not judged well on their abilities on the offense. We’ll lure them up this road,” Lester Morrigen traced his finger on the map. “And then have them overextend themselves just outside the ruins of Summerhall. They won’t be able to maneuver through the Red Mountains while we know the lands around Summerhall by heart. Once at Summerhall, we attack from the flanks and destroy the Dornish spears piece by piece. That’s when we’ll damage the Dornish and take care of one army arrayed against us.”

The more Lester Morrigen talked about it, the more Stannis started to like what his bannerman was suggesting. Looking to Ser Davos, the Lord of the Rainwood was also supportive of such a plan, as it was the best one that they had in many moons and even years since their attempt to take the capital had failed.

“Anyone here have any objections?” Seeing that their king was very inclined to take Morrigen’s suggestion, no one questioned him. “All right. Contact Lord Caron and inform him of the plan. And Lord Lester, this is your idea. I leave it to you to execute it as you see fit.”

Lester Morrigen dipped his head. “You honor me, Your Grace.”

Once the war council was dismissed, Stannis, Davos, and Melisandre remained in the room. “It’s a good strategy, Your Grace. Getting the enemy to overextend themselves and then destroying them on ground most advantageous to us.”

“Best idea out of many bad ones,” Stannis replied dismissively. “But even with the Dornishmen eliminated, we still have our northern flanks to worry about. Tywin and Mace still have tens of thousands of men available while we’re struggling with less than thirty thousand and dwindling food supplies. We might not last the winter.”

“But this is a good situation, Your Grace,” Davos pointed out. “Because of you, we bought time. And with time comes many things. More people are seeing that Joffrey is unfit for the throne, that Tywin is actually in control of the Seven Kingdoms, and the realm is in tatters. Even through the Wendwater and the Red Mountains have seen heavy fighting, the rest of the lands here have remained stable. In time, people might see you as the one to put the Seven Kingdoms back on the straight path.”

Although his trust in his Hand was repeatedly vindicated, Stannis was growing doubtful of his chances of being king. Everything that Davos was saying was true but being a leader and also fighting nonstop for the past few years started to make Stannis grow exhausted. He might have believed that the Iron Throne was his by right, but no one in Westeros was coming to his aid and he was ruling from Storm’s End like his Durrandon ancestors of old. I’m ruling over a portion of the Seven Kingdoms, not all of it.

And although he didn’t want to admit this to his commanders, he started to dislike being a king. More importantly, he saw how much distress his focus on the war had caused for his daughter Shireen. He protected her as best as he could from the fighting, but his daughter was not blind, for she could see that her father was struggling and she wanted to spend more time with him.

“Your Grace,” Davos continued. “About Melisandre’s suggestions—”

“No, I shall not consort with Targaryens, whether they be fake or real,” Stannis tried to brush Davos off regarding that matter. “Too many have died trying to eject the Mad King and his brood from Westeros and I shall not spit on their graves by inviting them back.”

“I never said anything about allowing them to return,” Davos approached the subject carefully, since he himself was witness to what the Siege of Storm’s End was like. “But in this case, I am incline to agree with Melisandre. We might have stabilized our fronts, but we cannot get on the offensive, not with the manpower we have. We must either get sellswords, or get dragons.”

“As I said, Ser Davos, I do not want to deal with the dragon brood. I have spent too long trying to get the throne and I will not jeopardize my chances,” Stannis spoke from the heart because in his mind, he had come too far to be denied.  

“Your Grace,” Melisandre finally stood up from her seat. “Ser Davos never said that you had to abdicate. As for me, I believe that we must assess all of our options. We cannot ignore the benefits that could come should we successfully negotiate with the dragons in Slaver’s Bay. We need some way to improve our position and reaching out to the dragons might give us a chance. Perhaps… we can find common ground and only then will we be able to stress our position.”

By this point, Stannis had become more willing to listen to advice contrary to his own beliefs and decided to take Melisandre’s word, even though he was not going to relinquish his claim anytime soon. “I won’t promise anything significant, but I will authorize an effort to negotiate, see what we can get out of the Targaryens. And this must be discreet, for any public knowledge of me dealing with Targaryens might become a thorn in my side. Ser Davos,” Stannis turned to his Hand. “I charge you to sail to the Slaver’s Bay and see what you can do.”

“Your Grace,” Ser Davos was again caught off guard by Stannis giving him important assignments. “I’m honored, but I’m hardly diplomatic.”

“There’s another reason, Ser Davos,” Stannis interrupted. “I need you to take my daughter, Princess Shireen, with you.”

Ser Davos blinked in surprise. “Your Grace?”

“Even though she might be sheltered here in Storm’s End, I don’t believe that she’ll be safe forever. She has taken well to you, so she’ll trust you, and I know you will never harm her. Get her away from this place and keep her safe,” Stannis commanded him.

“What about Queen Selyse, Your Grace?”

“She’ll understand, even though I might have to put some effort in persuading her,” Stannis scratched his head. “I wish you well in your journey, Ser Davos. Be prepared to leave within two days.”

“It shall be done, Your Grace,” Ser Davos said after a long pause before leaving to pack.

“You sure that the Targaryens will help me?” Stannis was still skeptical.

“I talked to you about a great evil that’s coming. For you to fulfill your central role, we need to work with everyone. And the dragons are our best chance,” Melisandre explained.

Stannis still didn’t like the idea of working with the Targaryens, but he trusted Melisandre enough. “All right, then.”

But unknown to Stannis, Melisandre had the bigger picture in mind, and she knew more than he did regarding the Targaryens further to the east. Thanks to Ardroon, the Targaryens will be able to return, all of the true dragons. The Lord of Light smiles upon us, she thought.

Yujin held his cup out as he accepted tea from the emperor’s hand. Sumeng was the first to receive tea from their father since he was the crown prince, which always bothered him since he was older than Sumeng by ten years. After Yujin’s cup was filled, Captain Dao and the Grand Secretary got their cups filled by the emperor.

“Enjoy the tea,” the emperor said to them all after he poured into his cup and drank. Only after the emperor drank from his cup did the others sipped their tea, as the emperor was above them all.

“I am sorry that Kaijin was not able to attend, Your Augustness,” Sumeng addressed the emperor. “It’s a pity that he was occupied with his new duties as Commandant of Firearms.” Yujin knew that Sumeng and Captain Dao disliked Kaijin, for the emperor clearly favored him, so their apology rang empty.

“Your brother is doing this empire a great service by streamlining our firearm units,” the emperor reminded him. “And he’s a born soldier, so he should be following his true calling.”

Seeing his father defending Kaijin, Sumeng and Captain Dao shut their mouths and waited until he started to consume the many dishes laid out over their table. The emperor preferred to dine in style, with golden plates and cups and ingredients from every known corner of the earth being put in his food. Although tea was traditionally served in meals, the emperor spared no expense when it came to spirits, getting the finest wines and arakju in vessels of various shapes and sizes set up all over the room. And to add some cheerful feelings to the feast, the emperor had an entire band of musicians, complete with a group of female dancers, perform while he ate. Two additional women would serve the emperor spirits and feed his food to him.

This was the ninth such banquet to be held this moon, as the emperor ordered that a minimum of ten banquets take place every moon in a palace not far from his main one. The palace was a former warehouse the capital garrison, converted by the previous emperor as a place to escape from the restrictive atmosphere of imperial court while also being close by to the center of power. The current emperor took a further step by making it his own private pleasure space, where he could engage in all sorts of debauchery away from official eyes. Although smaller than his official palace, the emperor spent much time there and stories of his unrestrained sexual prowess circulated amongst the many ladies who had enjoyed his persona company.

At the same time, to be invited to this palace, called the Purple Palace, and to participate in the many feasts there was deemed a necessary step to advance up in the imperial hierarchy. In fact, Hudam Shu owed his appointment as prime minister to these feasts because not only did he tolerate the emperor’s indulgences, he did so in a way that didn’t offend him.

After seeing how unrestrained his father’s lifestyle was, both Sumeng and Yujin followed his example and lived however they wished. Sumeng engaged in a life filled with festivities and sexual adventures, with both women and men coming into his bed and Captain Dao being the most regular. As for Yujin, he found more pleasure in people’s pain and his servants cowering before him allowed him to feel complete control over his life. So at first, Yujin didn’t quite understand why his father held such strong dislike for him.

As he grew older, though, he started to understand that his father the emperor blamed him for causing the death of his favorite concubine when she died giving birth to him. Add that to Yujin finally giving up trying to impress the emperor after so many attempts to emulate his example and he thus became a man who didn’t give a damn about anything else in the world. That is, until he saw what a complete incompetent fool his half-brother Sumeng was.

If Yujin said that he cared about the empire, that would have been a lie since no one cared for him. If anything, he saw Sumeng being in closer proximity to power than he could ever be due to the different conditions of their births and Yujin learned early on that power was the only way that he could hope to survive in a world where death lurked in every corner.

And that was part of the reason why Yujin disliked Sumeng, for his younger half-brother didn’t really appreciate what power could do and instead let himself be ruled by Captain Dao and then the Prime Minister, believing that his status as the future emperor would protect him.

“Grand Secretary,” the emperor turned to the man who held the closest position to his person outside of his family.

“Yes, Your Augustness?” the Grand Secretary dutifully sat straight.

“Regarding the trial of Daenerys Targaryen, there is no doubt of her guilt?”

“No, Your Augustness.”

“And what about her dragon? I know she didn’t come alone, even though her mount is nowhere to be seen and there is no other logical reason as to how she was able to get inside our empire so quickly,” the emperor assessed.

“We are still looking, Your Augustness. But the beast, if it came here, has proven most elusive.”

“Keep searching. One dragon in the empire is hard enough and we don’t another on the loose,” one of the ladies gave the emperor his cup full of wine, which he drank fully. “Now, onto other matters. Captain Dao,” he addressed the leader of the imperial guard. “We face no problems in the army, especially with Lord Buko becoming more of a concern?”

“We can handle Lord Buko, Your Augustness,” Captain Dao answered. “However, it’s Lord Joon Kitara that might prove troublesome.”

“Right, because his son is a prisoner,” the emperor nodded. “He’s not going to do anything rash, because that is not within his nature. However, he does care about his family. Keep on him. Have one of your discreet men watch him and report back on anything of note.”

“As you wish, Your Augustness,” Captain Dao affirmed with a bow.

“Sumeng,” the emperor turned to his heir. “Has your wife and future empress with child yet?”

Sumeng gulped. “Not yet, Your Augustness.”

The emperor groaned in annoyance. “We are almost to the point where either she’s carrying a son, or you will be locked with her. You better hope that outcome can be avoided.”

“I shall endeavor my best efforts, Your Augustness.”

“See to it that you do, or Captain Dao will be removed from his position and the both of you will see what I can do,” the emperor promised.

“As you wish, Your Augustness,” Sumeng said with a heavy heart.

Finally, the emperor turned his attention on Yujin and everyone could see how quickly his face twisted with displeasure. “And you. Quite frankly, I wasn’t expecting you to accept my invitation to dinner.”

“When does on get the chance to dine in style with the most powerful man in the empire?” Yujin teased the emperor.

Unfortunately, the emperor was not amused. “As usual, your attempt at humor falls flat. And how could you have humorous thoughts, considering your situation?”

Yujin frowned. Even though Daeron was alive, the fact remained that the gang leader Wah had committed murder and a prince of the empire being connected to a criminal group was very much an embarrassment for the imperial family. “There is no proof that I even had deals with Wah.”

“Given time, there will be proof,” Captain Dao joined in, but the emperor gave him a sharp look and he shut his mouth.

“You do realize that your actions have brought shame to his family?” the emperor was quick to accuse. “No one from the line of the azure emperors would stoop so low as to associate with cutthroats and you interacting with such baseborn creatures proves your true nature.”

Yujin grounded his teeth. “Enlighten me, Your Augustness, on what my nature might be.”

The emperor stuffed a meat bun into his mouth and swallowed it before continuing. “You were provided opportunities that no one else could have. I gave you commissions in the army and fleet, let you have your own palace, gave you a generous income, and provided you with your own guard and household. And yet, you squander all of that and instead decided to be engaged with activities beneath you.”

“I must remind you, Your Augustness. I am not fully of the azure line, so there is a limit to what I can do,” Yujin reminded him.

That offended the emperor, Sumeng, and Captain Dao. “Hey. You don’t remind our father in any case,” Sumeng scolded Yujin.

“You don’t tell me what to do,” Yujin snapped. “Especially since you’re nothing but a weakling.”

“Prince Yujin, that is a step too far,” the Grand Secretary pointed his finger. “You are speaking to the Crown Prince.”

“You don’t address as equals, old man!” Yujin suddenly shouted.

For that, the emperor pounded his fists on the table, surprising everyone. “Silence, boy! How dare you raise your voice in my presence!”

“Oh, you’re going to scold me, punish me, like the other times?” Yujin scoffed. “Like you will soon?”

The emperor blinked, surprised. “What are you talking about?”

“You’re going to investigate me because of Wah and you’re going to try me in your court?” Yujin had heard rumors that the emperor was planning on putting his head on a spike. If it didn’t sound so grounded in fact and connected to their shaky past, Yujin wouldn’t have taken much stock in them. “You’re going to kill me?”

The emperor’s face hardened, while Sumeng, Captain Dao, and the Grand Secretary all glanced at each other in confusion. “Suppose I am?” the emperor asked.

For Yujin, that was all he needed to hear. “You would send your son to be tried and then executed, your own blood?”

“As you wisely pointed out, you are not really of the azure line,” the emperor answered. “And you’ve always been a disappointment, not because of incompetence but due to your… lack of restraint.”

“That’s one thing that I had learned from you,” Yujin shot back.

“What did you say?” the emperor became angrier.

“You have two women feeding you, you have many dancers here right now, and you eat off of golden plates, each of them worth more than what a regular man makes in his lifetime,” Yujin outlined. “You eat and you feast without any concern for the world. No wonder why you’re fat.”

Sumeng might not have had the best relationship with the emperor also, but even he knew that it was unwise to insult. “Yujin. Are you out of your mind?”

“Shut up!” Yujin barked. “If I have any faults in my character, it’s because of you, Your Augustness. But I chose to be strong while you chose to resemble a pig.”

That was one word too many for the emperor, who grabbed his cup and splashed hot tea over Yujin’s face. “You son of a bitch!”

Yujin wiped the tea off of his face while he chuckled darkly. “Bitch? I thought you liked my mother.”

“At least she died before she could see who you became.”

Yujin’s fist tightened. “If that is your feeling towards me… why did you take me in? Why not just throw me out into the street?!”

“I’m very tempted to do that,” the emperor said harshly.

“This… coming from the same man who let fucks like Captain Dao and the Prime Minister run amok in court? I never thought that you were such a fool!”

“You crazy…” Captain Dao hissed.

“And you,” Yujin pointed at Sumeng. “You don’t respect power. You had everything handed to you on a platter and therefore, you don’t really appreciate what you have. You’re still just big, whining baby who sucks the cock on his own bodyguard.”

Sumeng’s face reddened. “That’s quite enough, Yujin.”

“Don’t call me by my name! I’m older than you, so you should treat me with respect!”

“He is above you in rank, and you don’t what respect is,” the emperor roared.

“And you,” Yujin finally stared back into the eyes of the emperor. “You are not fit to sit on the throne! Nothing changed while you ruled and you have the gall to tell me what will happen to me, when you can’t even control your own court?” The emperor shook, fury rising from his being. “you only came on the throne because your father was weak, like yourself, especially below the waist!”

The emperor bared his teeth while Captain Dao, angered at the insults thrown at him earlier, grabbed Yujin’s collar. “You crazy bastard!”

However, to everyone’s surprise, Yujin revealed that he carried daggers, while weapons were not allowed in the Purple Palace. Pushing his hand away, he grabbed Captain Dao’s wrist, slammed it on the table, and unsheathed one dagger before stabbing his hand, causing Dao to scream while his hand was stuck.

Immediately, Sumeng tried to help his lover, only Yujin to shove him away hard enough for him to fall to the ground. “Know your place, you shit!”

The emperor, shocked that Yujin dared to bring weapons, stood up in anger. “What are you doing?”

As for Yujin, he pulled out a special dagger, one that he made for occasions just as this. “Let’s see how you well you can yell with a blade in your throat!” Pressing on the guards, which released a spring deep in the handle, the blade was pushed outward with enough force to pierce flesh. The blade flew the short distance between Yujin and the emperor, the sharpness being more than enough to lodge into the emperor’s throat. He fell back on the floor, coughing up blood while the women, the dancers, and the musicians all fled in terror at what was happening.

“No!” the Grand Secretary clung on the emperor and tried to get the blade out.

As for Sumeng, he was shocked at what Yujin just did and his first thought was to run away, leaving Captain Dao to face him alone. Annoyed at the crown prince leaving him to fend for himself, he struggled to get the dagger out of his hand. But before he did, Yujin acted quickly and snapped his neck.

Seeing the Grand Secretary tending to the emperor, Yujin felt everything melt away as he realized that he needed to follow through. He smashed a teapot on the Grand Secretary’s head, knocking him out cold, before pushing his body away.

The emperor was coughing up his own blood, causing Yujin to smile in satisfaction as the man who had just insulted him was now dying very slowly. “Have anything more to say to me?” The emperor tried to grab at Yujin, only for him to pin his wrist with his knee and grab the blade. “Let’s see what more azure blood looks like.” With a swift move, he cut across the emperor’s throat with the lodged blade, ignoring the gash on his fingers that came as a result, and instantly, more blood sprayed over his face while the floor was coated in it.

“Have a safe journey…. father,” Yujin stood up before spitting on his face.

Immediately, he walked outside the Purple Palace and found some of his men waiting for him. “Prince Yujin, we saw Sumeng run outside. What’s going on?”

“There’s been a commotion. Captain Dao has killed the emperor,” Yujin lied. And the fabrications that he would put forward formed in his mind.

“What?” his main man exclaimed.

“What’s more, Sumeng did nothing. He must be captured,” Yujin added. “And we cannot trust the imperial guard, for they all must have been involved in killing the emperor.”

“What are your orders?” one of the men asked.

“Get to the guard barracks and kill everyone there. Also, put a bounty on Sumeng’s head.”

“As you wish,” his main man affirmed.

“Also, gather some more men and have them storm Khiara’s and Daeron’s palaces. We must kill the dragon.”

“It will be done.”

As his men moved to carry out his orders, Yujin looked up and saw the moon light on him. Although he didn’t actually intend to kill the emperor, he knew that there was no turning back now and he had to act fast to secure his place. Otherwise, my head will be on a spike, as the slips say.