The massive square fortress, the castle-within-a-castle Maegor Targaryen built, sprawled out in front of them across the dry moat lined with iron spikes. Old Nan once said Aegon Targaryen built his castle of red rock to remind people of the fires he had roasted his enemies in so that whenever people looked up they saw the price of defiance. His son, the Cruel, took that a step further killing all the architects who’d built his fortress so that only he knew its secrets.
Their own rooms were in a fort facing the river, getting here was quite the maze. They walked throughout the keep, past courtyards, up serpentine steps, and below stone colonnades. Even at this early time of morning, people sat outside, meeting, whispering. All the Great Lords of Westeros were here with their knights and retainers. Last night, they supped with Uncle Edmure who’d arrived alone. Her cousin Hoster was growing well and Rosalyn Tully was pregnant with another child. Uncle Brynden had returned home safely and had been updating their uncle on all they’d been up to including their council. Her uncle spoke of how proud he was of Cat’s children and how much he wanted to meet Rickon and Bran. He sounded choked up as he spoke to Rickon, no doubt seeing, as many of them had, Robb in him. You should see Bran. She missed Bran more than ever.
Behind them stood twelve-feet thick walls that made Arya feel trapped. Much like her entire time in this place had. She still hadn’t found a way out and felt a noose tightening around her neck though she knew not who or when they would kick the chair beneath her. She was surprised by Jon’s disclosure that the Tyrells had proposed Leona as his second wife. Not only was it unusual, it was unexpected. She didn’t think they’d sink that low. Aunt Lyanna was a second wife, she remembered. Why or how her aunt had accepted that marriage had died with her. I should have asked Bran. Arya didn’t understand why the aunt she was told she resembled so much would have ever have accepted such an...arrangement. Perhaps she believed in the prince that was promised too. The prince that wasn’t, well… wasn’t their son.
She thought of her father and the heavy weight he’d carried all fourteen years before his death. How he withstood all the jibes made against his honour, and the speculation of his love life. All for his sister and her boy. She remembered Ned Dayne and his adamance that Father once loved Ashara Dayne - the maid who threw herself into the sea. She considered Jon, as they walked across the bridge into the square fortress, wondering whether loving him as he was now would ever drive her to such a thing. She hadn’t done it when she first heard she’d lost him. I can’t do it now either. She caressed her stomach, waiting, hoping, worrying. Are you truly there?
Unlike her aunt, the Tyrells had no excuse of prophecy. Only ambition. She looked at the man in question knowing he was insistent that he would take no other wife, but she wondered whether a day may come when he had to. For the future of his father’s house. The queen had no children after years of marriage and it was clear that the quest to remain in the royal line was what drove the Tyrells. She’s no less barren than a ninety year old crone, Lady Nym had said of the queen. A chill rushed through Arya as she thought of what they may do if they knew of the child. It was one thing for Arya herself to be an obstacle to their plans but a royal child would make any Leona Tyrell had an afterthought. They wouldn’t stop until they have my child. They won’t.
On the far end old Ser Barristan Selmy held the bridge. Ser Barristan remained a towering figure just as he had when she’d last seen him in this city. He looked older, much as they all had, but he stood with a sense of purpose that told her an ordinary old man could not.
When they approached him, his place was taken by an unsullied soldier. They do not leave the bridge unmanned, she realised. His pale blue eyes crinkled at them with a smile as he greeted her.
“I am pleased to welcome you back to King’s Landing, Princess,” he bid her. Princess. Is that what I truly am now? It was funny when she said it to Leona Tyrell but not so funny now. Not upon the lips of a man like Ser Barristan Selmy.
“A pleasure to see you again Ser Barristan,” she said sweetly. She liked the old man and remembered her father’s suggestion once that she train with him instead of Syrio. I didn’t want to hack when I could dance but now I wouldn’t mind. I wonder if he’d teach me if I asked.
“Rickon, this is Ser Barristan Selmy,” she said by way of introduction. Rickon thankfully extended courteous greetings but the name meant little to him. Bran would have loved this. He could easily have hated it too, she remembered. Her brother had once wanted to be a knight. He’s even better than any knight now. She only regretted what he had to suffer to get where he was. I’d love to kill Jaime Lannister one more time...I suppose that’s one thing mother did right as Lady Stoneheart.
The hallways were lined with soldiers. The queen’s unsullied made up the bulk of the City Watch but judging by the numbers inside these corridors she wondered whether there were any left outside. Seeing the security in the Keep had her wondering where Jaqen was, and whether he knew of the queen’s plans to attack Braavos. Jon had told her the queen had made one payment to the Iron Bank and was about to make a second before she made no third. Perhaps they truly do not know. If so, why had Jaqen travelled to Winterfell in the queen’s party. What was he doing with this Grand Maester and Sam? Everything she heard of Pate painted the story of an unremarkable man bar his rediscovery of how to forge Valyrian Steel. The game is not played on only one side of the narrow sea, he had teased her. What game is he playing?
When they came to the queen’s solar, Ser Barristan announced their arrival to the queen’s bloodriders. They in turn went inside to announce their arrival to the queen herself.
As they waited Jon threw her a nervous smile. “No talk of Braavos. Not until her council,” he whispered.
Earlier that morning, “Please do not take offence,” he pleaded while Sarra combed her hair. “Dany sometimes… says things in a way that can rub people the wrong way.”
“Then perhaps she should mind her tongue,” she replied in a serious tone. She drew on all her lessons to bite back her laughter when she caught his face in the looking glass. He was always easy to shock.
“Arya, please,” he begged, dread filled his voice before she began laughing at him.
“I don’t know why you think I’m going to fight the queen!”
When they were led inside, Arya’s eyes first fell upon the seated queen herself. She wore a high collared black scaled dress, but it was the three headed dragon chain that hugged her body that caught Arya’s eye. The silver chain had a red scaled sash hanging from it, one that seemed to flow behind the queen as if she too were as winged as her dragons.
Arya herself had chosen a tunic of muted blues and browns with fitted breeches. She did not want to wear a dress here unless she had to. She knew sometimes, by the looks he threw her, that Jon felt she was overreacting but she didn’t care. Everything felt safe for me too until it wasn’t. She wore concealed daggers at her waist and in her boot. Jon had to leave Longclaw at the door.
Opposite the queen, Willas Tyrell wore muted versions of his house colours.
“Lady Arya,” the queen announced, as she walked over to them. “Welcome to King’s Landing.” She kissed her on both cheeks, her voice sounded warm enough. Willas came over to them at a much slower pace, dragging his injured leg as he leaned on his walking stick for support. Bran wishes he could do even this. Willas Tyrell was a handsome man with a gentle voice and kind eyes that seemed so at odds with all the machinations of his family.
As the queen greeted Jon and then Rickon, Arya shifted her eyes to the men all around the room, around the windows, behind the doors and behind the queen’s seat as well. They were a mixture of men but they had one thing in common, they’d all followed her from Essos. She does not trust anyone else.
Her Dothraki handmaids flitted around the room tasting the dishes before they were served. At least she’s careful.
As they sat and ate, the queen took great interest in Rickon, even going as far as answering some of his more… childish questions like whether she’d let him ride a dragon. “Would you like to ride one?”
“Yes please!” He exclaimed. “I can show you Shaggy. Well both of them. My horse is a shaggy unicorn too but Shaggydog is my direwolf.”
The queen laughed with him. “I’d like to meet him too. Is he as big as Ghost?” She’s no Cersei.
Comfortable with her familiarity with Ghost, he told her all about Shaggydog. She in turn told him of Dragonstone and Dragonmont, the volcano beneath which the castle sat. She told him of the pale grey steam that rose up from its vents and the smoke that sometimes came out of its peak. She said that her dragons loved the volcano and had made lairs in its caverns due to their love of heat. She asked Rickon if he’d like to see them there.
While the queen blabbered with Rickon, Arya spoke with Willas. Whatever scheming the Tyrells were up to, it was clear he was an unwilling participant.
“I hear I’m to expect your cousin to share my husband’s bed before long,” she goaded him. From across the table, Jon glowered at her while the man beside her choked on his drink. The queen stopped speaking to Rickon to look at her gasping husband.
“My lady…” he struggled. “My grandmother thought a betrothal between Leona and Aemon would strengthen relations between Highgarden and Winterfell-”
“Well, I suppose sharing a bed is one way to do that,” she mumbled into her glass.
He heard her. Good.
“My lady, that was before you married. We did not know of you and the prince’s...relation. As you know, the que-“
“Arya,” said queen cut in. “I would love us to have an opportunity to talk, as family, if you will. Would it please you to take a walk through the gardens with me?” It was posed as a question but Arya heard the command.
“Of course, Your Grace.”
Jon reluctantly parted ways with her once they walked out of Maegor’s. Arya winked at Rickon, hoping he’d remember what she asked him to do. Something told her her wolf-blooded brother would enjoy the opportunity.
They walked, boxed in by marching unsullied who walked in front of them, behind them and at their flanks. Couldn’t stop a well placed archer though. They made Arya feel trapped. She looked at them closely between their leather armour and their spiked caps; she thought she could stab one or two between in the gap but no more. To the far side she saw Joren and Lem keeping an eye on them while others watched the queen walk by with Arya at her side. When they reached the gardens the queen started speaking.
“I suppose you know I did not approve of this marriage.”
At least she’s honest. “I surmised, Your Grace.”
“Since you know then, I should explain why I do not approve.” The queen turned her head to watch Arya’s reaction. Arya smiled, prompting the queen to continue. All those years at the House of Black and White made her unflappable whenever she willed it. Learn to rule your face, the Kindly Man advised her, and rule it she had. Whether she wished to rule it was another question entirely.
“I do not know you, Lady Arya and I do not know what to make of you,” the queen began. “You go missing for years, return, and then cause havoc the moment that you do.”
Well. That’s one way to put it.
“The reality is this, you have proved yourself an obstacle to my plans. I betrothed Aemon to Lady Sansa to tie the Vale to my house. I even funded the expansion of the port in Gulltown to prove to the people of the Vale that their queen cared for them,” the queen confessed. “Lady Sansa was going to tie three kingdoms to my cause but the truth is...the Vale is the only one that had something to add to my cause with immediate effect. The Riverlands never truly recovered and the North is no real financial power.”
It will be if I have anything to do with it.
“But House Tully and House Stark are old names that hold meaning and would add legitimacy to my crown. I suppose you,” the queen continued, looking at Arya, “bring the same to my kingdom but you bring me no men. Sansa would bring me the Knights of the Vale-“
“Do you plan to go to war, Your Grace? Is that why you’d need knights?” Jon said not to talk about Braavos. He didn’t say anything of this.
The queen pursed her lips, clearly rankled by Arya’s interception of the conversation. Arya herself did not much care.
“Well, I suppose I’ll allow the question from one who has never ruled,” the queen threw back. “A good ruler always has strength to count on. I am the Queen of Westeros. All it’s people belong to me, but I wish to offer them something too. A marriage between the Lady Regent of the Vale and the Crown Prince would raise the Vale to some import, something that would no doubt benefit us both. When you had your outburst at the wedding, that is what you put at stake.” Arya decided to let the queen say her piece. I promised Jon.
They crossed a bridge into a part of the garden separated by a small pond. “My husband suggested his cousin Lady Leona Tyrell instead for a bride for Aemon. She had a good dowry and would further tie The Reach to my crown.”
As the woman droned on, Arya wondered why she was telling her these things.
“Lady Leona is of gentle birth-“
Arya interjected again, this time halting. “I had no intent to break Jon and Sansa’s betrothal Your Grace,” she informed the queen curtly. “That decision was made by the two of them when they chose not to speak to one another. As for your husband’s cousin, I’m sure it’s easy to lay the blame on my door but it was Jon who married me. I did not seek him out.” Arya Stark never did like to bite her tongue and even now she bit it some more.
When the queen stopped to face Arya, her unsullied banged their spears on the soft ground at once to pause their marching. To her side, Arya saw Lem whispering to Joren before the guard took off back to their quarters. No doubt, to call Jon.
“No one can say you bite your tongue.” Oh you have no idea how much I have...I am.
“You rankle people Arya,” And you do not? “And both you and Aemon have put me in a difficult situation with two of my principal allies. Not only that, but in marrying in secret, you have all but shouted to the realm that there were cracks in my relationship with my heir.”
“We did not marry in secret, Your Grace,” Arya corrected her. “Our marriage was attended by all our bannermen.”
The queen considered her. “ Your bannermen?”
“Yes. The bannermen of House Stark.”
“The ones who crowned your brother king and Jon after him. The ones who sought to tear my kingdom apart.”
“The ones you fought beside in the War for the Dawn, Your Grace. The ones who bent their knee to you.”
“Do you want your brother’s crown?” The question surprised Arya. Of all the queen’s reasons to dislike her this was not one she’d thought of before. A cool breeze whistled through the leaves above them before Arya heard the flapping of wings. A raven perched itself in a tree branch above them. How kind of you to join us, Bran.
“I have never seen the crown in question.”
“I had it melted when I took my throne. That was not the question I asked though. Do you plan to reclaim your independence?”
“My only plans, Your Grace, are to grow old in my Father’s home with the last of my family. I have no desire to play the game that killed my father.”
“Not Dragonstone?” the queen pressed.
“That is not my Father’s home.”
Daenerys Targaryen’s face took on an increasingly pinched expression. Her eyes narrowed in annoyance at Arya’s words. “Yet you married the Prince of Dragonstone.”
“His title does not concern me, Your Grace. I have not truly wanted to live anywhere but the home in which I grew up. Now my family is returned, I want to live nowhere else.”
“My nephew must take his seat.”
Arya resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “I believe that’s a conversation you will need to have with him.”
“You will not live with him?”
“I don’t plan to live on Dragonstone.”
“My brother Viserys always thought the end for my family started the day my brother met your aunt. Is it your plan to finish what she could not?”
“Did it not start the day your father burnt my grandfather alive, Your Grace?” Arya quipped back. “The same day he killed my uncle?”
The queen crossed her arms defensively, grimacing. Good, we can both feel uncomfortable.
The Mother of Dragons closed her eyes in irritation, inhaling, then exhaling as if she sought to calm herself. Then she opened her eyes. “My father was a mad man, Lady Arya, I’ve learned to accept that, but my point stands. My brother let go of his duty when he married your aunt. In refusing to live in your husband’s ancestral home you too are inviting him to shirk his.”
“Married people have lived apart before, Your Grace. I hear the late Prince Doran and his wife managed just fine.”
“The Dornish Prince,” the queen bristled. “I hear you’ve developed quite the friendship with the Dornish. I have heard you plan to rebel against me with Princess Arianne?”
Arya resisted the urge to laugh. “I’ve not met Princess Arianne, Your Grace and I have little appetite for rebellion.” They’d only been in the Red Keep for one full day. Arya had spent time with her friend Jorelle Mormont and Ned Dayne the previous day but that was the only Dornish interactions she’d had. The Dornish were provided accommodations on the far side of the castle and they had yet to come across one another. Though that was not to say that they hadn’t been keeping an eye on her.
“Some would say it runs in your blood, your father, your brother…” the queen prattled on.
“Both my brother and father did not act without cause, Your Grace. May I speak frankly?”
“I do not believe I’ve ever heard you not.”
“As hard as it may be to believe, when surrounded by people who only want more power, we... me, my brothers, Jon, we do not desire it. We are pleased with the land and people our father and our brother left us. There’s little more that we’d like than to live there in peace far away from this... game that no one seems to truly win.”
The words seemed to have an impact on the queen whose shoulders drooped, and her expression softened somewhat. “Aemon says something similar, is this hate for politics a northern trait?”
“I can’t say, Your Grace.”
“My lady,” the queen started, moving closer to Arya. “we are where we are now. Much as I’d like, I cannot change what you and Aemon have done.” Her face was much kinder as was her tone but the rigidity in her body suggested she found the words hard to say. “The only thing I can do is present a united front with my heir to the realm. I am sure with time you and I can come to an understanding.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
The queen extended her hand as if to prompt Arya to continue their walking. “I admire how close you appear to be with your family. I see how Rickon adores you,” the queen went on. “My brother never showed me the same warmth.”
“I’m sorry to hear that Your Grace.”
The queen smiled again. Arya thought that smiles, even those as hard as this one, became her. If only she would let herself smile some more.
“Perhaps one day we could all become family. I’d love that.” The statement startled Arya somewhat. Not long before this the queen was accusing her of harbouring an intent to rebel.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she offered in laughter. “I just spent time telling you why I did not think you a suitable bride for Aemon and now I talk of family to you. Aemon is the last of mine and as fraught with tension our relationship can sometimes be, I love him...and he loves you,” the queen added, placing her hand on Arya’s arm. “I’d like to welcome you into my family properly, in front of all the Great Houses of Westeros, at the feast to open my council.”
It would show everyone that her relationship with Jon was strong. It had little to do with Arya.
“She thinks I’m wild, that I cause problems, and come from nothing. Her exact words were The Riverlands never truly recovered and the North is no real financial power.” Arya copied the queen’s voice exactly to say that as she paced up and down the room. “She might as well have called my blood traitor’s blood for the way she spoke of Father and Robb. Can you believe that? The Mad King’s daughter?”
Jon sighed deeply from his seat on the bed and held the bridge of his nose in the way he did whenever he was sick and tired of something. He’d been doing that a lot lately. He’d arrived at the garden with a contingent of guards after Lem sent Joren out, only to find Arya and the queen smiling at one another - the falsest smiles to ever exist. Arya knew then that the queen’s dislike of her ran deep. Any amicable relationship built moving forward was based more on tolerance than love. It’s a shame, she thought. I would have liked to be friends.
“Would it make your life easier if I disappeared?” Arya knew she was being unreasonable, but she couldn’t help it. “Because the queen certainly thinks I’ve messed up all her plans as if I am the only reason we’re -“ He pulled her against him causing the rest of her words to be mumbled against his chest.
“I’m sorry, Arya. I’ll make sure she never speaks to you in that way again.”
She looked up sceptically at him. “Don’t. Rickon and I will leave this place as soon as her council is over. You can stay for as long as you’re needed. I wouldn’t want to cause you to shirk your duty.”
She went on and on and he continued to listen to her until she cried tears of frustration and hate of this place. It’s the child, she told herself though she knew it to be false.
“I’d like to sleep,” she told him instead. “I’m tired.”
He held her until her breath evened out, but Arya Stark was in no mood for sleep. She just wanted Jon to stop worrying around her and hoped her two terrors had succeeded in the task she set them.
When Jon left for a small council meeting, she stuck a mole on her face, tucked her hair in until it looked as short as Cat of the Canal’s once was and changed into rough spun wool that Rickon and Branda pilfered her from the kitchens. She felt terrible engaging them to do her dirty work but small people were smaller targets and her two terrors got as dirty as she ever did when she lived here. They probably looked like some washer woman’s children. For good measure, she sent Tom with them as well, in case they ran into trouble. Tom was easier to coax than Lem ever would be. After they stole her the apron and dress they were clearly chased by a guard or two if their heavy breaths were anything to go by. If they were caught, Branda had the exact same audaciousness that had Arya promising the gold cloaks, who once sought to prevent her from entering the Red Keep, their heads on spikes.
When she asked them what they would say if they were caught, “If you hurt me, Arya Stark will know,” Branda pouted in answer. Rickon’s answer was to show her his concealed dagger. That worried her. There was no way a boy of ten would escape an unsullied’s spear. No more involving these two in my schemes.
Bran the raven had been keeping an eye on her ever since her meeting with the queen. She didn’t know whether it was Bran being nosey or if he was trying to learn something that might help him do whatever he did. Knowing Bran it’s probably both.
The raven that was her brother guided her to a hidden courtyard, before he flew into an open window. Easy for a bird, not so easy for a woman who is rusty. She looked like a kitchen maid no doubt making her way to a tryst with a lover. Or so she hoped. She grasped the bricks with both hands, pulled herself up agile as a monkey. Bran was always the better climber. She slipped her way through the small window, slippery as an eel. Once through, she came across the scrubber women of the keep. In addition to the cleaning materials they had a number of dyes. Arya stole a rag and some of the dye. I might need this later. Father hated theft but Arya had become quite the thief. They won’t miss some rags and some dye, she tried to tell herself.
Bran the raven guided her through a crumbling part of the Keep, through a hallway, down some stairs, around a corner, and through a low narrow window into a pitch-dark cellar. No torches burnt there at all. Blind Beth preferred to be guided by sound anyway. She hated to admit to herself that she enjoyed the thrill of this. She was walking through a narrow dirty tunnel, when she heard movement just under the tiny gaps of a small bridge above her that allowed for sunlight to steal through.
Swift as a deer, she leapt out and grabbed it. When she saw it, laughter escaped her. “Hello old friend.” The angry old cat spat out at her. Again. Now as then she kissed him right between the eyes before he tried to scratch her face.
“It’s good to see you survived the end of the world….You’ve gotten slower.” He once was the bane of her life. She caught every cat in this wretched place all while he escaped her. He wasn’t so hard to catch now. It seemed he was in no real mood to converse with her, spitting and hissing as if he were harmed. Drama queen.
“Fine, have it your way,” she mocked, as she released him, no doubt sounding ridiculous picking a fight with a cat.
Then he surprised her, following her on his old paws.
She felt pain in her joints, a thirst for milk upon her tongue, and suddenly she could see. .. Thank you old friend. What a pair we make Bran, the boy who became a bird and the girl who was a cat.
She followed the Black Bastard with the chewed off ear and the black raven that was her brother. They took her through stone passageways then earthen ones held up only by timber, down stairs and then up them, round corners and through narrow windows. Arya used green dye that reminded her of Lommy to map the way. I hope you remember the way Bran. On and on they went until she came to the dirty sewers. The Black Bastard , even with her sharing his skin decided this was as far as he would go. I’ve never met a more demanding cat in my life. No wonder the Gold Cloaks called him the real king of this castle. In the end she picked him up and carried His Royal Highness while she waded through the dirty water on his behalf until finally, she came to the river. She vomited the moment she got there.
Once she wiped her mouth, she realised this must have been the route she had taken the day she heard the two men in the shadows. If one Hand can die, why not a second? One asked the other. Would Father still be alive if he listened to me that day?
Bran and the king guided her back through the tunnels until she found herself back in the hidden courtyard, she was walking head bowed while raising the apron above her head when she heard “The fuck are you wearing wolf bitch?”
Arya raised her head to the heavens willing herself to disappear. The Black Bastard merely mewled inside her arms. Somewhere along their little adventure he decided that he could stand Arya after all.
Of course he would recognise me. I looked like a dirty child my entire time with him. Arya exhaled once more and turned around.
Of course, the next time she saw Sansa she would be dressed dirtier than any street urchin in Flea Bottom.
Sansa scowled at her in disgust. I suppose I do stink. Arya grabbed her sister and dragged her back into the hidden courtyard. She could stand Sansa’s disparagement. She just didn’t want anyone else to spot her. They wouldn’t recognise her if she walked alone but Sansa and The Hound were different things entirely.
Sansa wrenched her arm away from her immediately the moment Arya stood. Her sister regarded her in disbelief and disgust which she repeated when she saw that Arya had dirtied her sleeve.
“Why are you dressed like this?” Sansa demanded.
“I got lost,” Arya struggled. Even a faceless man must struggle in front of the image of their mother. Sansa looked so much like Catelyn Stark that sometimes it hurt.
Sansa sniffed her. “You stink.”
I just waded through sewage.
“And your answer does not explain why you are dressed like that.” Sansa had a way of making Arya feel like the nine year old misfit she once was.
Arya did not have anything to say for herself. Sansa never had that problem when it came to Arya.
She rolled her eyes. How unladylike, sister. “I hear Rickon is here, I want to see him.”
Stark, Stark, Stark, Bran squawked. Sansa turned her head up at the raven, wondering where he’d learned that. She pursed her lips in frustration at the loud crowing of the bird.
“That’s Bran,” Arya explained.
“He developed some...gifts beyond the wall.”
Sansa looked at her as if she were mad. “Our brother is a bird?”
“He is a skinchanger but stronger than me or Rickon or Jon, he can skinchange animals of his choice from Winterfell. Rickon, Jon and I can only do it with our direwolves from here but any other animal I have to-” Arya realised she was blabbering.
“I’m sorry,” she said finally. “You can see Rickon. Of course you can, I need to wash and get changed and then I can send him to you.” Arya did not want to stand in one place for too long, not when she looked like this especially.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted again. “Sandor. Can you give us a moment?” I promised Bran. Perhaps I should stop promising people things. Still, she would be lying if she did not regret the way things ended with her sister.
Sansa nodded at her sworn sword.
Thankfully, Sansa spoke for her. “I hear Lady Dustin is dead.”
Arya smirked. “She is.”
“You do know she planned to say what she did at the wedding to hurt us.”
“I learned that later.”
“You made her happy.”
Arya sighed, she lowered her eyes to her sister’s hands. Sansa was wringing her hands, twisting her hands constantly as she waited for Arya to answer. She is as nervous as I am.
Bran moved to perch himself on Arya’s shoulder. I must look a mad woman with a raven on my shoulder and a cat rubbing itself against my leg.
“I’m sorry for letting her. I should have done that in private.”
“So you blame me for everything that befell you?”
Bran’s stupid (useful) raven dug his talons into her shoulder as if to beg her to say something nice following the conversation she had with him. “I think your...mistake had effects on people’s lives...but I realise you were young. And you should not have to suffer alone from your family because of me.” Arya felt rotten saying that, and rotten for being the cause of Sansa being alone even if she still held resentment for her sister’s stupidity.
“You always did speak before you thought.”
“Was I wrong to blame you? Did people not die because of your actions?”
Her sister surprised her in her admission that they did.
“Well, I suppose if one good thing to come out of this is that, then I suppose it wasn’t all a failure.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“How is Robb?”
Talk of her son seemed to lighten Sansa’s features. “He is well,” she said smiling. “I have left him in the Eyrie with Brienne. I do not intend to tarry here.”
“You should bring him to Winterfell,” Arya suggested. “He should meet his cousins.”
Bran the raven crowed in agreement.
Her sister considered her. “Did you interrupt my wedding to marry Jon yourself?”
The question made Arya feel even more foul than she did. “No.”
“Well...I suppose to think you had planned it would be to assume you think before you speak.”
I planned to leave Winterfell and travel west and if I didn’t return... Death was no stranger to Arya Stark.
“Well, are you happy.”
“To tell you the truth, I’m not sure. Look,” Arya breathed, “Sansa. I’ll find you later. I can’t be seen like this.”
“Why are you dressed like that?”
Arya bit her lip. Can I trust you? “I wanted to go exploring without anyone following me.”
Sansa nodded at her in disbelief at the sister she never understood. She walked out of the courtyard and through the hedge.
The Black Bastard decided the rough spun gown made a good scratching post before he scuttled away. Bran the raven flew away too. Abandon me too why don’t you. Except Arya’s old enemy, now friend, came back to her, mewling against her and rubbing on her. Follow me, stupid, the king seemed to say when they shared a skin. Arya Stark had never been called stupid by a cat. She followed His Royal Highness through a narrow space in another hedge. Her mouth was full of leaves as she fought her way through the bush until she came across a stone wall. He patted his old paw against the stone. She pushed it and the immovable block of brick opened into the tunnels. He took her up steep, narrow stairs. She creeped behind him. Her old friend seemed to know these tunnels better than Arya could imagine. He guided her through serpentine steps, and through even more narrow passageways until he took her back to where Bran had guided her. Alright this means I don’t need to go through a window to get here. What else?
She should never have doubted the true king of the Red Keep. Next, he showed her another exit from the castle, this time along the sea facing edge of Aegon’s High Hill. There were steps hewed into the rock leading to Blackwater Bay. We’d only need a well positioned skiff.
And then her old friend surprised her some more. He took her straight from the new exit they’d found through the earthen passageways and back into the stone, an easy to remember route Arya thought, up the steps, under a bridge, and up some more until she came across another stone wall he ordered her to open. When she did, she entered a small cell with a narrow slit that allowed for light.
“Why the fuck are you dressed like that and why do you smell so bad?”
Arya chuckled. Must everyone see me like this today?
“Hello Lem,” she said sheepishly. Arya looked down at her little friend. I will share all my clams with you, you black bastard. The Tom had found her a straight route from their cornerfort to the cliffside exit. So excited was she that she hugged Lem and gave him a kiss on the cheek before she skipped to her rooms.
“You stink of shit and have ruined my doublet!” he shouted behind her.
“I’ll buy you ten more!”
Her old friend followed her on his slow legs. She could kiss him too.
Once she was washed - scurry along to whoever you spy for to tell them of the smelly Stark - she dressed and sent Joren out to find Sansa, inviting her to the courtyard near their accommodations. Arya did not want to send Rickon out of this area without supervision.
When her beautiful sister arrived, her reunion with Rickon was… interesting. Her wild brother and her proper sister would have to build their relationship over time. Rickon’s only memory of Sansa was that she used to sing. That he remembered even that made Sansa teary.
“I’d like to take him for an afternoon,” Sansa said as she straightened.
“Of course,” Arya responded, nodding her head in agreement. “I’d only ask that you take Osha with you.”
“You don’t need to spy on us,” Sansa accused.
“I assure you, Sansa, if Osha acts for anyone it’s only Rickon.”
“And you think Rickon’s interests would be harmed if he were with me.”
“I don’t know what will happen. I’d rather he be safe.”
“And he’d be unsafe with me?”
“He’d be safest with the one person who’s kept him alive for the past six years.”
Sansa looked her up and down with derision, huffing before she spoke, “Your problem is that you look for enemies everywhere.”
And yours is that you don’t see any when you should. “If you’d like to know Rickon there’s no one better to guide you than Osha. After Mother, she’s the only mother he knows. If you’d bothered to learn anything about him you’d know that. Bran invited you to the council. You’d have met Rickon then. Somewhere he was safe and comfortable. Instead, you’ve chosen here. I am happy for you to know your brother. You deserve it but Osha comes with you.” Her words were as steely as any command Ned Stark ever gave.
Arya’s words clearly exacerbated the embitterment between them. “And how would I have done that after what you did to me?” Sansa bit back. With her shoulders raised and her head held high she looked down on Arya.
“Well,” Arya said, “don’t mess up the opportunity you have to know your brother now.” We certainly never will have that opportunity.
But Arya’s day was about to only get worse as she said that. The hag and the harlot for ambition were walking along the garden path. Arya felt her insides scowl even if she could not let it show on her face. Sansa kept her straight posture when she saw them. They were in the company of two massive men and the smirking guard Arya had spotted yesterday. So this is who sent you. He looked smug even now. As if he were taunting her with his presence. She stared at him and he didn’t blink once. He merely smiled wider. Arya Stark had never seen a more insolent man, except…. No. It can’t be. He said she pleased the House. What has Olenna Tyrell or Leona ever done for the House of Black and White?
“My lady,” Sansa curtsied in greeting at the crone.
“Lady Sansa,” Leona Tyrell of the massive tits tweeted as if she were a bird.
“It is good to see you again Lady Olenna,” Arya’s sister flattered like the lady she was.
“Yes, yes, I’m sure it is,” the old woman dismissed her.
Before she could speak Arya decided she had quite enough of holding back today. “Leona, it is a pleasure to see you,” she lied as she moved her collar so that her mark was in full view. She knew she was being childish but she had tried to behave all day...well almost all day. “From what I hear I should be expecting you to share my husband’s bed. Is there such a shortage of men in Westeros that you’d play second fiddle?”
Sansa’s eyes widened in horror and she gasped audibly. “Arya!” she screeched. Well, I’m glad we’re on more familiar terms.
“That was organised by my family my lady,” the cow-eyed girl said, “although..” she added with a smirk, “I don’t seem to think you have any leg to stand on. Didn’t you marry your sister’s betrothed?” Her smirk died the moment her eyes caught sight of the mark of Jon's pleasure.
Even Sansa bristled at the pointedness of the question. Arya simply smirked back. The insolent guard saw it too and his hidden smirk became a barely hidden grin.
“I was preceded in that by greater women. Isn’t that right Lady Olenna? I hear Lord Luthor was betrothed to your own sister.”
Sansa Stark was now positively aghast. “My lady, please my sister...she is-”
“She speaks the truth,” Lady Olenna said, “Not many people do in this city. Her father was one.”
“I am not nearly as honourable as my father, my lady,” Arya taught her. “You seem to speak some truths yourself and yet you have survived. Perhaps you and I share more in common than marrying our sisters’ betrothed.”
With her hair, if Sansa Stark got any more red, she would be a tomato.
The old woman stared at her. Her cold dark eyes bearing into her as if she could will her to disappear. “Your tongue may get you in trouble, child. Do remember that.”
“You shouldn’t antoganise them you know? What in seven hells are you thinking Arya?” Sansa chastised her, when they walked away. “You have no idea what you’re playing with.”
“Could it be them who have no idea?”
“Arya,” her sister sighed with exasperation in the way their mother once had, “I have never understood you and I never will but Bran has bid me to be good to you-”
“Oh, so he told you the same things.”
Her sister was unmoved. “You have no idea how dangerous these people can be and Lady Olenna just threatened you.”
“She is dangerous,” Sansa cautioned her younger sister through her teeth right after she grabbed her arm. Then she looked around and leaned in to Arya while Rickon ran around with Branda on the far end of the courtyard as Osha and Joren watched over them. “She killed Joffrey. Her and Littlefinger,” Sansa whispered. “They put crystals in my hair net, and I didn’t know!” Sansa’s nails bit into Arya’s arm. “They could do the same to you and as much as I don’t like you very much for what you did to me, you are my sister...and Bran and Rickon would miss you. And Jon.”
“Well, I believe that’s one of the nicest things you’ve ever said to me.” Arya’s heart felt weirdly warmed by her sister’s concern. Perhaps she doesn’t hate me entirely.
“Did you hear a single thing I said? Lady Olenna threatened you by reminding you of Father. Did you even catch that?”
“Well, at least they warned me,” Arya quipped.
“Look,” Arya said, “enjoy your afternoon with Rickon. I need to send a raven to a Manderly and a Locke.”
“Rickon!” Arya called him over. When he arrived she asked him, “You have your dagger?”
Sansa looked horrified again.
“Good. Don’t use it without warning him,” she said moving her head in The Hound’s direction.
“If you spent less time offending people you wouldn’t need to worry about him,” Sansa said, “But you need not worry, he is my brother too.”
“Good,” Arya nodded. “This is Osha, Osha has looked after Rickon for us.”
“Thank you,” Sansa said sincerely. “You have my thanks for looking after my brother.”
Arya took Branda’s hand to leave as they spoke.
“Don’t you need a guard?” Sansa asked.
“We aren’t far from our rooms.” And I have three daggers hidden in my clothes.
That evening the raven that was her brother returned. Arya would have preferred something that spoke more words than the raven. Instead, “Find Theomore Manderly and Gared Locke,” she instructed him, tying a scroll on each leg.
The moment Bran flew out of the open window, Tom O’Sevens sauntered in, positively stinking of wine. No one could ever accuse him of not holding his drink.
“What news have you?” she asked once she closed the door.
“Volantene ships were docked here until recently. They left for Dragonstone. From what Theomore hears on the docks the crews were made up of red priests and slaves she saved.” He poured himself more wine.
“The Redwyne Fleet is pouring into Blackwater Bay, though whoever is aboard isn’t getting off the ships.”
“Why do you think?”
“They could sail at a moment’s notice.”
“Now, there’s a smart girl!” he said as he sipped his drink.
So she plans to go to war soon...
“Did you find Anguy?”
“Yes,” Tom replied. “He’s staying at an inn in Eel Alley and has not visited a single whore. I visited two on his behalf.”
“I thought we agreed on Flea Bottom?”
“Flea Bottom is full of unsullied.”
“He had the ship that brought us here sail to Rosby and back. They changed the ship's name and the merman on the prow for a crab during the trip. It is now back and it has a new route: King's Landing, Duskendale, Maidenpool, Gulltown, Braavos.”
“Not White Harbor?”
“Bit obvious no?” Tom mocked.
“So your old haunts.”
“My old haunts.” He picked a happy chord from his harp. “One more thing. There are those who think Jon was usurped.” He picked another chord. “The right songs could spread that sentiment further…” He had a devious look on his face.
“No,” she shook her head. “I don’t want to risk your life.”
“You saying you care for me, Squab.”
“How do you even remember that?
She made her way to the small cell with the arrow slit for a window, pushed the door and tracked the simple route to the cliffside. She skipped in glee when she found it easily. She was making her way through the passageways when she saw someone with a light following her. Smooth as summer silk, she moved into the shadows, and removed the dagger hidden in her clothes. When the source of light got closer to her, quick as a snake she pounced out, pushed them against the wall and held the dagger against the person’s throat. The torch clattered to the floor. Arya removed the hood…it was a child. Not much older than Rickon or Branda. She removed the dagger from his throat but held him in place. “I’m lost,” she said. “I can’t find my way back. Can you help me?” I don’t want to have to hurt a child.
“Cat got your tongue?” she asked. She shortly thereafter wished she hadn’t. He has no tongue. “Please...I am lost.” she repeated. “Please help me.” Whoever this child was, he knew these tunnels well. He returned Arya to the stables of the Red Keep before he ran away. She let him.