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Winter Rose, Growing Strong

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As she stepped delicately from the grass and onto the footpath back towards the castle, Sansa struggled to breathe properly. She had taken a great risk by confiding in Margaery and her grandmother, and she may yet suffer the consequences of her recklessness. But how could she have let Margaery walk into the lion’s den without at least a proper warning? No, she told herself, telling the truth was the right thing to do. If this choice brought further suffering upon her, well, she wouldn’t be the first Stark to get hurt trying to do the right thing in King’s Landing – though she might be the last, given the cloud of danger hovering over her family at the present moment.

It wasn’t the possibility of getting hurt again that truly scared Sansa; it was the possibility that her circumstances might improve. To hope that she might yet escape the Lannisters, only to find the bars of her gilded cage slammed closed once again…it would be utterly crushing. Imagining the many ways she could accidentally screw this up for herself, Sansa shuddered, and vowed that she would not speak a word of this Tyrell betrothal plot to anyone. Indeed, she would forget Margaery had even mentioned her brother Willas. It would be easier if she erased any hope of escape, because then she could not be broken by the discovery that the plan to marry her to Willas was merely an offhand, thoughtless remark. If she kept her lips sealed, at least she would know that, if the promised marriage failed to materialize, it was not her fault.

Unlike Father’s death, which was entirely her fault. If she had not told Cersei about the ship…no, it was useless to dwell on this. Keep smiling, stay silent, and think of nothing, she told herself. But even so, her responsibility for her Father’s death laid heavily on her. Every day, her guilt motivated her to be especially careful with her words, to keep secrets even if she was nearly certain that the information she kept close to her breast was useless to anyone else. You never know when something that seems innocuous might be the missing piece of intelligence that allows some unknown person’s schemes to fall into place.

Gods, she hated King’s Landing. She hated watching her back, minding her words, shrinking herself into nothing to avoid attention from her tormenters. I have to get out of here, Sansa thought desperately. Maybe it will work out, with Willas…

She pinched her arm to keep the thought at bay. Nothing happened, she told herself sternly. You know nothing. Forget it, before your hopes blow up in your face.

 

***

 

I should have known, Sansa thought, as silent tears streamed down her face. I should have known nothing good can ever happen, that life is not a song and there are no true knights, that hope is merely the ascent that allows you to fall ever harder and ever further onto the rocks below. She gazed out her window, picturing herself falling, falling, falling, like the Lady Ashara Dayne.

First Bran and Rickon, and now this.

I thought it couldn’t get worse. I was wrong. A surge of hysterical laughter bubbled up inside her, but she killed it before it escaped her lips. I am dead inside and I will stay dead, my heart will become like stone, my mind will escape into the clouds, and I will feel nothing ever again. They can hurt my body but there will be no one inside to feel it, because my heart is dead, dead, forever dead.

How could they be so cruel? Even the Lannisters…she had known that they were capable of great evil – Joffrey had shown her that, when he beheaded Father, after promising her mercy – but this…

It was so horrible she could not put her thoughts into words. Her mind reeled, her stomach rippled with nausea, her mind was a smooth, blank, icy sheet of misery. There was no room for thoughts, for words. Only silence and stillness and images she could not stop from flashing before her, images of Robb, dead, Mother, dead, Grey Wind, dead, Father, dead, all of them dead dead dead. Grey Wind’s head sewed onto Robb’s body. Father’s head, falling from his shoulders, on a spike, covered in tar. Lady’s head, falling from Father’s sword. Mother’s throat slit, Bran and Rickon burned.

Why didn’t she realize it, after everything they had done? Why didn’t she know how rotten they were when Lady died? Why did she still think they would let Robb win anything, that they would play fair? What fools were they – her and Robb and Father – trusting such niceties as honor and guest right?

For days, Sansa lay still and silent in her bed. Eventually, the tears stopped leaking from her eyes, and she simply lay there, stone-faced. Her arms and legs felt heavy. She found food utterly unappealing. Ashara Dayne, she thought, over and over again. Ashara Dayne, Ashara Dayne. Can I be strong like she was, strong enough to choose my own fate, strong enough to end my suffering?

It seemed no one noticed that she was missing from court. Margaery, her supposed friend, was absent. Perhaps she was merely busy with wedding planning, but Sansa saw it as cowardice. Some friend, she thought, her heart aching.

After days – how many? – lying there in the darkness, still and quiet, she finally rose. Whether it was weakness or strength, she could not say. She decided to forget. Forget Robb, forget Mother, forget Bran and Rickon, forget Father and Grey Wind and Lady, forget Winterfell. In her mind, she sealed them off, as if they never existed, as if they were only a dream, half-remembered and quickly fading, until nothing but a feeling remained lodged in her memory.

Willas, she thought, as she crept towards the kitchens, feeling her stomach rumble. Maybe there is still a way out, if not for my family, then at least for me. But who would want a traitor’s daughter? Hadn’t she learned by now that hope was always a lie, a precondition for eventual despair?

All of them are dead but me, she thought dispassionately, as she popped a stolen grape into her mouth. I am alone in the world now. I must forget that it was ever otherwise.

***

The Red Wedding – that was the disgusting name everyone was using for the horrors committed against her family and the Gods. No, no, I do not care about the name, I do not care at all.  Nothing happened, nothing matters, it was never otherwise, she told herself firmly. In time, the Red Wedding began to slip from her mind. She locked away her memories of her family in a dark, inaccessible vault in the back of her mind. She forgot the beating she suffered after Robb’s victory at Oxcross, and Joffrey’s delight at the slaughter at the Twins. She erased them all, one by one, the good memories along with the bad.

In time, she also began to forget her conversation with Margaery and Olenna. Willas, erased along with Robb and Bran and Rickon and Mother and Father and Lady and Grey Wind. Gone.

In fact, she was so diligent in her forgetting that it did not even occur to her that Ser Dontos’s offer might conflict with Margaery’s. Choosing to trust the Fool – but importantly, telling him nothing he did not already know – she idly prepared herself for her impending escape. On the day of Joffrey’s wedding, she wore the hairnet of black amethysts, as instructed.

Of course, she didn’t really believe anything would come of Ser Dontos’s promises. After all, he was a drunkard from a disgraced family. He held no title and no castle in which to hide her. He was unlikely to be capable of beating even the greenest squire in a swordfight, much less sneaking her out of the formidable Red Keep under the hawkish eye of the Queen and Joffrey. And if he did somehow manage to spirit her away, where would they go? There was no home to return to, no future ahead.

Their love was doomed, she knew, but still, Sansa found it pleasant to imagine Ser Dontos as her knight in shining armor and to pretend that he might rescue her. Unlike the Tyrells, who frightened Sansa precisely because they likely possessed the power to save her if they so chose, her Florian’s silly dreams of running off together were toothless, which made them a nice distraction from her miserable life in the Red Keep. By now, of course, she knew better; life was not a song. But fantasy is all that’s left for a woman whose heart is stone and ice. Daydreams could soothe the pain, but it was important to keep them separate from reality – and that is why she did not daydream about Willas. Only a fool would hope that he might still want her, with her traitor’s blood and her empty claim on a burned-out clump of stones in the frozen North. Ser Dontos, though – there was a dream she could dally with, knowing that the hope was false from the start, enjoying the simple pleasure of imagining that life was otherwise. Songs could still come true inside one’s mind, in secret daydreams and play-acting among friends. Hope couldn’t hurt you if it was only a game of pretend, if you never really believed it in the first place.

So on Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding day, Sansa wore the hairnet. She wore it to honor Florian and Jonquil’s flights of fancy in the Godswood, to honor the romantic songs she used to love, in all their childish glory. Dontos was a fool, and she was a fool; they were perfect for each other. It gave her a beautiful lie to tell herself when she lay awake at night, unable to sleep for fear that Joffrey might arrive at her door to make good on his threats. Because she did not take him seriously, however, she did not recall his solemn advice to wear a warm, dark-colored dress and a concealing cloak.

Along with the hairnet, Sansa put on the nicest of her ill-fitting dresses. It was a royal blue dress of sturdy cotton, and though it was a few inches too short and the bodice a shade too tight, she had done her best to render it presentable. Saving scraps of lace and thread from her occasional invitations to Margaery’s sewing circle to use as materials, Sansa had sewn a ring of lace around the hem and neck to create the illusion that the dress fit properly. She also modified the sleeves, shortening and slitting them so they billowed around her shoulders. As a finishing touch, she added festive embroidery, displaying the Lion of House Lannister and the Crowned Stag of Baratheon frolicking in a garden of flowers. Surely, she thought, no one could object to such harmonious, crown-loyalist imagery at a royal wedding, but she was nonetheless frightened that Joffrey would find some way to interpret her embroidery as treasonous.

Sansa threw up her hands. As usual, she was in the unenviable position of trying to discern the indiscernible, striving – utterly in vain – to predict Joffrey’s unpredictable rages. There was no use worrying about the embroidery. Nothing about it could be reasonably interpreted as disloyal, and if Joffrey arbitrarily decided otherwise, then so be it. There was nothing she could do.

At that precise moment, Sansa heard a knock at her door, and seized up with fear. Was that him? Was that Joffrey, coming to take advantage of her in his final moments of freedom? Had she preserved her maidenhead for this long, only to lose her last bargaining chip just before she could cash it in?

“Sansa?” The voice came floating through her door, sending a surge of relief coursing through her body as she realized the voice was too deep, too tired, and not nearly angry enough to be Joffrey’s. It wasn’t him. Thank the gods, it wasn’t Joffrey! The voice was friendly, but at first, she couldn’t quite place it.

“Sansa? Are you there? It’s me and Tyrion!” called a second voice, a girl’s voice. It sounded like one of the ladies from the Reach, but Sansa wasn’t sure which one.

Attentive to the need to arrive to the wedding in a timely fashion and grateful that she would be escorted to the ceremony by at least relatively tolerable friends of the Crown, Sansa opened the door.

“Desmera?” Sansa said, hoping she hadn’t gotten Margaery’s ladies mixed up and trying to squelch any uncertainty that might seep into her voice. She was nearly certain that this was the young lady Redwyne, sister to Horror and Slobber.

“Yes! And Tyrion, too. Hello, Sansa! Margaery sent me to fetch you, and on my way, I ran into Tyrion, who was apparently sent by the Queen Mother for the same purpose. Are you ready to go to the Sept?” Desmera Redwyne replied.

“Yes, of course. Thank you both for escorting me,” Sansa replied politely. She stepped out into the hallway and closed the door behind her, hoping neither of her escorts had seen the sorry state of the room the Queen had assigned to her.

“Hello, Sansa,” Tyrion said softly, gazing at her with a strange look in his eyes.

“Hello, my lord,” Sansa replied impassively.

 

***

 

The ceremony was a long, elaborate, but ultimately dull experience. Sansa – who had once craved the pomp and glamour of the South – found herself wishing that everyone kept the Old Gods, with their simple Weirwood ceremonies. But then again, she thought ponderously, the court would probably find a way to make an Old Gods wedding last for hours, too.

Sansa was happy to see Margaery’s radiant smile as she finally strolled down from the dais, arm-in-arm with Joffrey, but she wondered if the smile truly reflected the way the Tyrell (now Lannister? No, Baratheon, of course) girl felt in her heart. Sansa wouldn’t be happy to be in Margaery’s place, and surely Margaery couldn’t be either, after everything Sansa had told her about him. Perhaps Margaery wanted to be Queen badly enough to endure Joffrey, but Sansa found that hard to imagine. Sansa was unspeakably grateful that it was Margaery on the steps of the Sept, and not her, but she felt guilty for wishing such an evil man on anyone, much less her one true friend in the world.

Of course, Margaery was no true friend, not really; but still, it seemed cruel to wish Joffrey on such a kind person, even if she did make herself scarce while Sansa grieved in the darkness and dreamed she was Ashara Dayne. Even if Margaery’s certain torment might provide Sansa a moment’s peace.

Letting her mind wander as the ceremony dragged on and on, Sansa thought of Ser Dontos’s hairnet. He said the stones were black amethysts from Asshai. Sansa did not know much about Asshai, except that it was far away and that its name was spoken only in terms of fear and awe. I wonder if they’re really from Asshai, or if that’s just an old wives’ tale, perhaps passed down by his mother and her own mother before her.

Eventually, the ceremony ended, though by the time it finished, Sansa had already forgotten most of it. The new royal couple made their way to their carriage, and the front pews emptied into their carriages. Finally, Sansa and the others consigned to the lesser rungs of seating were allowed to begin making their way back to the castle for the wedding feast, and hopefully dancing. Despite an undercurrent of apprehension that never left her, somewhere inside, Sansa felt just a teeny bit excited. Maybe, for once, she could enjoy herself just a little. Maybe Joffrey would be so enthralled by Margaery that he wouldn’t notice her at all.

Haha, Sansa thought acridly to herself. Silly girl, don’t you know better than to get your hopes up? Hope is always a lie.

 

***

 

At first, the wedding feast was lovelier than Sansa had dared to dream it might be. The ballroom and courtyard were lavishly decorated, with flowers everywhere and cloth-of-gold hanging from every rafter. Ice sculptures of stags and lions dotted the courtyard, a lavish expense this far South and given the inevitability that they would melt. Every wall torch in the ballroom was lit tonight, and every table full of guests. A decadent meal of seventy-seven luxurious courses was planned, and already the smells wafting from the kitchen seemed absolutely tantalizing to Sansa, who so rarely had the opportunity to indulge (or even, with Joffrey and Cersei hovering around all the time, to simply eat enough to quiet the ache in her belly).

As a traitor’s daughter and a traitor’s sister, Sansa was seated far from the royal family, which suited her perfectly well. The front tables were full of Lannisters and Tyrells, along with most of Margaery’s handmaids and the greatest of the lesser houses, including the Redwynes and Fossoways. Though above the salt, Sansa’s table was further from the Royal family than most of the lesser nobility of the Crownlands, the Reach, and the Westerlands. Between Sansa and the head table were tables full of Rosbys and Stokeworths, Hayfords and Marbrands, Rowans and Cranes.

Sansa’s place at a table just above the salt was clearly intended as a slight, but she bore it with dignity. She had no desire to be anywhere near Joffrey’s line of sight, and mercifully, she found herself among reasonably pleasant (albeit mildly disreputable) company. Her dining companions comprised a humorous mix of notorious oddities and upjumped hanger-ons: Sansa, the Traitor’s Daughter and heir apparent to Winterfell; the exiled Summer Islander Prince, Jalabhar Xho; the roguish Dornish Prince Oberyn and his scandalous paramour, who could not be seated among any truly noble houses yet refused to sit apart; one of the singers, a blue-bearded man called Collio Quaynis of Tyrosh; Lord Tyrion’s bawdry sellsword, Bronn, and his nervous squire, Podrick Payne; and a pair of friendly Tyrell bastards, Garrett and Garse Flowers. Sansa wondered at the choice to sit Tyrells, Lannisters, and Dornishmen all together, given their enmities, but she supposed the other noble houses would refuse to be seated with foreigners and bastards, so they would have to make do.

Though she noted the location of her seat immediately upon arriving, Sansa joined Desmera in mingling a bit before settling down in the designated spot. Feeling unusually confident, Sansa did her best to charm everyone she met. She told Lord Rosby that his cough sounded like it was getting better, and the usually serious man graced her with the sad smile of a man who knows his days are numbered but hopes it isn’t so. Don’t bother with hope, Lord Gyles, Sansa thought cynically.

She spotted Elinor Tyrell, dressed in one of the loveliest gowns Sansa had ever seen. It was turquoise silk, overlaid with gold chiffon, cut low at the neck and bound at the waist with a flowing, pale yellow sash embroidered with multi-colored flowers.

“Elinor! It’s so good to see you. Wasn’t the wedding delightful? And this feast! Why, everyone looks so beautiful tonight, especially you, in that amazing dress. Did you stitch the flowers yourself?” Sansa exclaimed.

Elinor beamed. “Why, thank you, Sansa! I must confess, I love this dress too. The family seamstress did the flowers, as I didn’t trust myself to make them perfect. But you! Look at that embroidery! That’s your own handiwork, is it not? I swear, you are better than our seamstress. I wish my stiches were as elegant as yours.”

Sansa cast her eyes downwards as if humbled by the compliment, but when she looked up, her eyes were sparkling and her grin was wide and genuine. “Oh thank you, Elinor! That’s so kind of you to say. Your stitches are lovely too, you know.”

After chatting with Elinor and a few others, Sansa began to make her way back towards her table. Along the way, she ran into Kevan Lannister and his son Lancel. Unable to avoid them without appearing rude – and very attentive to the fact that the Lannisters held her fate in their hands at all times – she made polite small talk with them before continuing on to her table.

“Ser Lancel!” she said as she passed by, “It’s so good to see you up and about again. I was sorry to hear that you were wounded in the battle, but I heard that you showed true valor that day. One day, when you’ve regained your strength, you will have to tell me all about it. I give thanks to the Mother for your recovery.” Ser Kevan looked very happy to hear her praise his son, and Lancel smiled and thanked her, though his eyes did not lose their haunted cast and his movements appeared slow and pained. Sansa had little sympathy for Lannisters, but she did feel a brief flash of pity for Lancel; after all, he had only been doing his duty, defending the city from Stannis.

When Sansa took her seat, Prince Oberyn was regaling the table with exciting tales from his time in Essos.

“So then I told the Norvoshi sellsword that I couldn’t possibly respect his religious customs if he remained intent on keeping them all a secret to outsiders like myself!” Oberyn was saying. “For how could I respect what I do not know, eh? I think he might have let it go if I hadn’t followed it up with a joke about his ridiculous beard – sorry Collio, there’s nothing wrong with it, it just looks foolish to Dornish eyes, I must confess – well, actually, he might still have hesitated to challenge me to a duel if I didn’t ask if they colored their netherhairs as well…Oh dear, a lady has arrived, and here I am speaking of netherhairs!”

Sansa blushed bright red as the table roared with laughter. His paramour looked at Sansa’s horrified expression and slapped Oberyn playfully on his upper arm with the back of her hand.

“Apologize, you rouge, for offending this poor young lady,” Ellaria hissed, but then she smiled and kissed him on the cheek.

“My apologies, my lady,” Prince Oberyn said to her, his eyes bright with mischief. “I fear someone has made a terrible mistake, seating a proper young lady among us ruffians and bastards. Whatever did you do to so offend the Queen that she would place you here?”

Sansa’s smile, which had begun to creep back onto her face at Ellaria’s kindness, drooped again. She stared at her plate.

“My brother is a traitor and my father too,” Sansa said, her voice utterly without inflection. Oberyn looked stricken by her words, and Ellaria glared at him again.

“Gentle lady,” Ellaria said softly, “What is your name?”

“Forgive me, I did not mean to be rude,” Sansa replied quietly, still looking at her plate. “I am Sansa Stark, of Winterfell.”

At this, Oberyn and Ellaria exchanged knowing glances. “My dear lady Stark, it is I who must be forgiven for my rudeness,” Oberyn said. “I know well how little girls can suffer in the lion’s den. Let us speak of something happier, if it please you.”

Tyrion’s squire frowned at Oberyn’s words, but his sellsword looked amused.

“Perhaps Prince Jalabhar might tell us about wedding customs in the Summer Isles,” Sansa ventured.

The ebony-skinned prince smiled at this, gesturing animatedly with his hands as he described beautiful dresses of rainbow feathers and wedding feasts of exotic fruits served with freshly caught fish. Then, glancing from Oberyn to Sansa and then around the table, he finished by commenting, “As for the ceremony…well, Oberyn, you would surely love to hear all about the wedding ceremonies I have seen, but with Westerosi shyness, I dare not describe it in such dignified company as the Lady Stark.”

Sansa was confused. “What do you mean, my lord?”

“He means that they fuck each other, in Summer Islander weddings,” Bronn interjected. Sansa’s mouth dropped open. Ellaria giggled, and soon the rest of the table was roaring with laughter again.

At that precise moment, Margaery – who was making the rounds from table to table, with her grandmother in tow – arrived at their table.

“Why, what did I miss? It looks like you all are enjoying yourselves. I’m so glad that each of you could be here to celebrate with Joffrey and I on this wonderful day,” Margaery said.

“Thank you for having us,” Sansa replied politely, as the others continued to chuckle.

“Margaery, my dear cousin,” said Garrett Flowers, rising from his seat to kiss the new Queen on her cheek. “I am so happy for you.”

“Garrett! It is ‘my Queen’ or ‘Your Grace’ now, not cousin Margaery!” Garse admonished in a tone of mock-offense.

“Oh, no, please don’t,” Margaery replied with a silvery laugh. “I couldn’t bear it if the two of you were to become formal all of a sudden! I may be the Queen, but I’m still your cousin.”

“Of course, Margaery. Your Grace.” Garse said with an exaggerated bow and a wink.

“And Sansa! I was wondering where you were. It has been too long since we lunched in the gardens, has it not?” Margaery said, as her grandmother appeared behind her. “But you remember my grandmother, surely?”

Sansa looked at Margaery and Olenna, her heart suddenly burning with foolish hope. But she suppressed the feeling and replied in a friendly-but-not-too-friendly tone, “Of course, who could forget a great wit like the Queen of Thornes? I am at your disposal, your grace, and I would be happy to lunch with you in the gardens once you have recovered from all this excitement.”

Olenna fixed her steely gaze on Sansa. “Oh, don’t bother with flattery, girl. I’m no great wit, just an old woman who lost her patience for fawning and frippery before you shot squalling out of your mother’s womb. A Tully, wasn’t she? Very fertile, that lot. Goes with being from the Riverlands, I suppose.”

“Grandmother!” Margaery exclaimed.

“Oh, hush, Margaery. We’re in the presence of Dornishmen, singers, sellswords, foreigners, bastards, and traitors, I can say what I like.” Sansa’s eyes dropped to the floor and Oberyn looked cross at that remark. It looked like the prince might say something – probably something rude – but Olenna started up again before he could get a word in. “Don’t look so sad, Sansa, I say only what that haughty brat of a Queen must have been thinking when she put this table together. Only a fool would seat my grandchildren next to the man who crippled my dear Willas.”

Willas, Sansa thought with longing. Then she pinched her arm, driving the thought from her head.

“Old lady Tyrell,” Oberyn said with mild irritation, “You know as well as I that it was an accident, one that Willas forgave long ago.”

“Indeed. And you know as well as I that it was not your error but my Oafish son’s that led to the accident. Entering a boy of eleven into a tourney, bah! What foolishness. But don’t say that to the Fat Flower or that simpering wife of his – truly, why do the Gods hate us so, that they would give us the only stupid Hightower? But I suppose better Alerie than that mystical fool Malora.” Olenna paused, fixing her eyes on Sansa’s hair. “You look exquisite, child, but the wind has been at your hair.”

Olenna reached out and righted Sansa’s hairnet, tucking a few stray strands back inside. “You know, I was very sorry to hear about your losses,” she said as she poked and prodded at Sansa’s hair. “I know, your brother was a terrible traitor and all, but if we start killing men at weddings, they’ll be more frightened of marriage than they already are. Just ask Ellaria here, Oberyn’s never going to make an honest woman of her, is he? There, that’s much better!” she proclaimed, letting go of Sansa’s hairnet and stepping away.

“Grandmother,” Margaery warned, glancing at Ellaria and Oberyn.

“No offense taken, your Grace,” Ellaria replied lightly, pressing a hand to Oberyn’s chest to keep him in his seat.

“Anyway, I’m pleased to say that I’ll be leaving this stinking city the day after tomorrow. You really should visit, Sansa, while the men are off playing at war. I shall miss my Margaery so dreadfully, and all her lovely ladies. Perhaps the Dornish could even accompany you. With my Oaf son away, there’s no one to gainsay it, and no one need tell him. What he doesn’t know can’t hurt, surely,” Olenna nattered on.

“Unfortunately, my place is here in King’s Landing, at least until I get what I came for,” Oberyn replied. “The Imp promised me justice for Elia, you see.”

“You are so kind to invite me, Lady Olenna,” Sansa added sadly. “I would love to visit, but as you know, I am a guest of Queen Cersei. Perhaps one day, if she gives me leave.”

“I see. Well, forgive an old woman’s blathering. I think I have bothered you people enough. Time to go eat a few bites of this ridiculous feast. Seventy-seven courses, it’s a bit much, don’t you think?”

“I think it’s delightful,” Sansa said, with just a touch of hesitation. Eyes glistening slightly and open wide, Sansa met Margaery's gaze directly, and spoke from the heart. “Truly, Margaery, I wish you the best.” She willed Margaery to understand her true meaning.

“Thank you, Sansa. Do not worry, all is well. Come, Grandmother, it is indeed time for us to return. I think the pies will be out soon.” With that, Margaery took Olenna’s arm, and the pair walked back towards the front of the ballroom.

“I think I shall join them, I believe it’s my turn to sing soon,” Collio said, getting up from his chair.

“Well, that woman doesn’t pull any punches,” Bronn remarked with amusement.

“Indeed, Olenna has always been quite a character,” Garse replied stiffly.

“A breath of fresh air in this deceitful city,” Oberyn said with a shrug.

“I can never tell if she likes me or not,” Ellaria said, shaking her head. “She says the same things that non-Dornish nobility usually say when they disapprove of my existence, but I never get the sense that she actually holds it against me.”

This small display of vulnerability from Ellaria immediately endeared her to Sansa, who remained hidden inside her armour of courtesy at all times. Sansa could not display vulnerability, not when she was surrounded by cold-hearted, powerful enemies, but she missed the intimacy she once had with friends like Jeyne. That kind of true friendship could only come from sharing each other’s fears and secrets, and Sansa missed having a person she could share her true self with.

“I think she’s just stating the facts as she sees them. I don’t think she means it in a judgmental way,” Garrett assured Ellaria. “Olenna’s like that. She knows how social power works, and it’s true that us bastards and paramours have a black mark against us in the eyes of society. But that doesn’t mean she cares about that black mark, unless it poses some external impediment to one of her plans. Like, she would tell me I’m crazy if I said I was going to try to marry a princess, but she’d probably think it was funny if I tried and funnier if I succeeded.”

“Don’t dispel her air of mystery entirely,” Garse cautioned, half-jokingly. “She wouldn’t thank you for it.”

It was then that the pies arrived.

Chapter Text

Tyrion was bored. The entertainment had mostly been fine, he supposed. The battle of the bards had been mildly interesting, if only because he enjoyed being one of the few people in the banquet hall with sufficient grasp of High Valyrian to follow the blue-bearded bard’s song about star-crossed lovers during the Doom of Valyria. The best part so far had been the dancers from the Summer Isles, whose sensual routine Tyrion enjoyed as much as Joffrey and Pycelle. The food was fine, as well; the stuffed peacock was perfectly roasted and spiced with rare herbs, including saffron, one of his favorites. Yet, there was something missing from the evening, Tyrion felt.

Perhaps he should have permitted Joffrey the dwarf play-fighting show he had tried to insist upon, but it seemed ill-advised to re-enact the War of the Five Kings before the eyes of nobles who had only recently abandoned other claimants in this as-yet unconcluded war. When he had discovered Joffrey’s plans, the insulting use of dwarves as objects of mockery had made his blood boil, and though he was loathe to appear as a supplicant before his domineering father, Tyrion had informed Tywin of the boy-king’s plans. Tywin was a proud man, and as much as he despised Tyrion, he could not allow Joffrey to mock the presumptive heir to Casterly Rock, nor could he permit such a diplomatic catastrophe to unfold unimpeded. Wroth at the news of the planned entertainment, Tywin had put an end to it immediately, and treated the boy-king to an ear-blistering lecture. At the time, Tyrion had been pleased. But now, he almost wished he had let Joffrey proceed with his foolhardy plans. If nothing else, it would have been entertaining to see if any of the noble houses who had once followed Renly or Robb would come to blows with those who had been loyal to the crown all along.

Tyrion tipped back his glass of wine, draining it. Yes, yes, he thought, as the servants wheeled out the pies. This is all very pretty. But I wish I could have Shae beside me. She so wanted to see the birds fly out of the pie, and he wanted to see her smile and feel her hands on him under the table.

Shae, he thought sadly as the servants finished wheeling the pies into position and prepared their cutting implements. Would he have to put her aside, once Father’s plans to wed him to Sansa Stark were realized? Or could he devise some scheme to bring her with him to Casterly Rock, and perhaps later, to Winterfell? He would have to be very careful. Father had almost discovered Shae in his room a fortnight ago, and he shivered as he thought of what happened the last time he defied his father. Shae would not thank him if Tywin learned of her presence in the capital. Tyrion had earned some slight credit in his father’s eyes, for his actions at the Battle of the Blackwater – or at least he thought so. Tywin was sparing with praise – no, not merely sparing, downright miserly. Tyrion had yet to receive even a single word of thanks for his role in saving the city and defeating Stannis, though he thought he detected a glint of pride in Tywin's eye when Tyrion recounted his efforts as Hand. But even if he had earned some miniscule measure of respect from his father, Tyrion knew it would not be enough to stay Tywin's hand if he uncovered Shae.

I suppose Father thinks I should be grateful to receive the hand of Sansa Stark, Tyrion thought to himself as the servants began to cut the pies. But I find the prospect of wedding a girl who despises me very bleak indeed. And I still have not received a single guarantee from my father that he won’t disinherit me at the last minute, or poison my wine and replace me with my infant son the moment he has the chance. After all, if Tywin put no stock in guest right, what reason did Tyrion have to expect he would balk at kinslaying? Whatever Tywin said about his unwillingness to murder Tyrion for the sake of his mother or the Gods, Tyrion doubted his father truly meant it. Moreover, Tyrion had the utmost confidence that Tywin could induce some agent to act on his behalf while keeping his hands clean, at least in his own eyes, just as he had with the Mountain and the Red Wedding.

Well, at least Sansa is beautiful, Tyrion thought, but she will never love me as Shae does. Pausing to allow a serving girl to refill his wine glass, Tyrion wondered whether Sansa would kill him in his sleep. She seemed a shy and biddable girl, of course, but it would be fitting if his father’s gift was poisoned in more ways than one. His eyes searched the crowd, trying to find Sansa among the bustling tables, but he could not locate her. She truly is beautiful. Our children would be beautiful, if she will have them. But she would not, he assumed. Pretty Sansa Stark would flinch from his touch, and even if she did as she were bid and allowed him to defile her, he knew that there were many ways for women to prevent or purge an unwanted child from their bodies. Had not his own sister done so?

His eyes drawn to the spectacle of the pies, Tyrion realized he had entirely missed the emergence of the birds from the piecrust, so lost was he in his own thoughts. But he could not miss what happened next. Holding his giant chalice in one hand, Joffrey drunkenly stumbled towards his seat, hand-in-hand with Margaery. On Joffrey’s plate sat a slice of pie, with a dollop of lemon curd on top. The boy-king jammed his fork into the pie, and shoveled it into his mouth.

“It’s good!” Joffrey exclaimed, looking at Margaery for approval. He coughed a little, spraying spittle of pie crust. “A little dry, though. Needs to be washed down.” He poured more wine down his throat, and coughed again. Though still coughing, Joffrey inexplicably jammed more pie into his mouth. Coughing violently now, he tried again to clear his throat with wine. The boy’s eyes went wide, and he dropped the chalice, gripping Margaery’s shoulder.

“Mar…Marg…Margy!” Joffrey wheezed. “Wha…I…I can’t…”

Joffrey continued coughing, his arms dropping away from Margaery and rising to his throat.

“He’s choking!” Margaery cried. “Oh, someone, please, help him! My dearest Joffrey!”

“You heard the girl, help the poor boy! Dolts! Go help your King!” Olenna shrieked beside Margaery.

Ser Garlan and Osney Kettleblack rushed to the boy-King’s side, whacking him on the back and tearing open his collar. Joffrey’s face began to turn purple and his eyes bulged. A high-pitched keening rose from his swollen throat. The High Septon was reciting a prayer for the Mother to protect her children, and Mace Tyrell was screaming at Garlan – or perhaps at anyone, at no one in particular? – to get Joffrey some water, to turn him over, to do something. Maester Pycelle murmured uselessly, checking the boy’s pulse and otherwise doing little to help.

“Help him! Someone help him!” Mace Tyrell shouted again.

“Oh Joffrey, my poor Joffrey!” Margaery wailed, collapsing to the floor in a faint. Her grandmother rushed to her side, as if concerned that the girl might have "choked" as well.

Choking? Tyrion thought, looking at Joffrey’s purpled face. No, not choking. Poison. The boy is going to die.

The same thought seemed to occur to Cersei at precisely the same moment. “He’s been poisoned!” Cersei snarled, pushing away Joffrey’s ineffectual rescuers. “Pycelle, Father, help him!

But it was no use. Half the court had gathered around the boy’s body, which now lay still and silent. Cersei clung to him, weeping. Jamie hovered by her side, his expression crestfallen and confused.

“Someone do something! Father, Jamie, bring him back!” Cersei demanded, her voice choked with tears.

“The boy is dead, Cersei,” Tywin said, pulling her away from the body.

The High Septon began a new prayer. “Father above, judge our King justly,” he said woefully, “Mother bless him and keep him…”

Lady Alerie was speaking in hushed tones to Mace, saying something about how tragic it was for a fine young man to choke at his wedding feast. “What cruel irony!” Alerie exclaimed, “Dying on your wedding day.” She wiped away a single tear with her index finger.

“He didn’t choke,” Cersei snarled, lunging at Alerie. Tywin caught her before she could make contact with the Lady Paramount, pulling her back and holding her in place.

“That is enough, Cersei. You cannot know that it was poison. There will be a full investigation,” Tywin said sternly. “You are a Lannister of Casterly Rock, pull yourself together or I will have you confined to your rooms until you are well.”

“He did it,” Cersei suddenly proclaimed, pointing an accusing finger at Tyrion. “I don’t know how, but he did it! He hated the boy! He wanted him dead! I heard him, he told me, he threatened Joffrey – ”

Tyrion’s blood turned to ice. He looked at his father, frozen, waiting for his response. This is just the excuse he needed, Tyrion thought sourly. This will be the end of me.

But Tywin did not condemn him.

That is enough,” Tywin commanded, glaring at Cersei. “Have you no sense? Ser Meryn, the Queen is unwell. Please escort her to her chambers.”

“Yes, my lord,” Meryn Trant replied, taking hold of Cersei.

“I’ll go with her, she shouldn’t be alone,” said Jamie, rushing to follow Cersei and Trant.

Father must want Winterfell terribly badly, Tyrion thought, to forego such a perfect opportunity to rid himself of his hideous progeny.

 

***

 

That night, Tyrion sat by the fire in his bedchamber, sipping wine and pouring over a compendium of poisons he had pulled from his personal, private collection of books – a collection that had once boasted one of the few remaining copies of The Lives of Four Kings, illuminated by Grand Maester Kaeth’s own hand. Such a shame that Joffrey was not poisoned before he chopped that spectacular volume to smithereens, Tyrion thought sourly. He wondered, and not for the first time, why he was bothering to conduct his own investigation into Joffrey’s death. He scarcely mourned the boy’s departure, but it seemed important to identify the culprit, even if he decided to keep that knowledge to himself for now. If he could discover who was responsible for poisoning the boy, he would be better equipped to protect himself from his family’s unknown enemy, and if he could find proof, it would make a worthy contribution to his personal blackmail files. Thus far, Tyrion had not had occasion to use much of the information he collected, but one never knew when such files might prove indispensable.

Tyrion rubbed his eyes, feeling the tiredness that had crept into his body by the end of this exceedingly taxing day. His legs and back ached from all the standing and walking, and his head pounded. Though he had gotten rather tipsy at the wedding, his merriment – such as it was, anyways – had been cut short by Joffrey’s death and the pandemonium that followed. By the time he returned to his chambers, he had already begun to sober up. Scale of the dragon that burned you cures all ills, he thought, draining his glass. He emptied the rest of the bottle into his now-dry chalice, and decided he would put the book aside after he finished this last cup of wine. His investigation could wait another day. After all, the autopsy had not even concluded yet; perhaps Pycelle would discover the means of Joffrey’s death before Tryion happened upon it. Certainly, Pycelle’s knowledge of poisons surpassed his own, though Tyrion was certain that his research skills far surpassed Pycelle’s.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that old lecher hasn’t opened a book since he forged his last chain, Tyrion thought, unkindly. He envied Pycelle, just a bit. As a child, Tyrion had aspired to the priesthood, but later on, he had hoped to become a maester. Tywin had shot the idea down immediately, and he would not budge, not even when Tyrion begged leave to take just a few courses at the Citadel. I still do not understand why Father objected to that notion, Tyrion mused. It is hardly uncommon for sons of great houses, even the heirs, to spend a few years of their youth in Oldtown, learning medicine or numbers and logistics or some similarly useful knowledge. Why did Tywin prevent his son from following the precedent laid by the sons of other great houses, including Rhaegar Targaryen, Oberyn Martell, and Willas Tyrell?

Why, indeed. Perhaps Tywin had worried that Tyrion would use the opportunity to learn how to poison his father while escaping detection, but if so, Tywin was foolish to think this knowledge could not be gained in other ways. Perhaps, instead, he had feared that Tyrion would defy him and marry another whore. No, Father, you saw to it that I would never dare defy you again, at least not in that regard, he thought miserably, memories of Tysha springing to mind unbidden. It had been so brutal, and the horror and guilt never fully left Tyrion.

Think not of Tysha. Think of Shae instead, Shae who is alive and beautiful and loves you, Tyrion told himself. My lion of Lannister, my Giant of Lannister, she calls me. He brushed the wetness from his eyes and turned his attention back to the book.

Taking another sip of his wine, Tyrion turned the page, and happened upon a very interesting entry in the compendium. “The Strangler,” he read, peering closely at the small text written in High Valyrian beneath the poison’s name:

Symptoms include difficulty breathing, coughing, purple or blue discoloration of the face and neck, swelling of the glands, bulging eyes, severe pain, and rapid death. Distilled from the annodevasari yonali plant, known to grow only on a tiny island in the Jade Sea. The plant must be pickled, aged, washed in a mixture of lime juice, sugar water, and other rare spices native to the Summer Islands. After processing the leaves in this manner, extract the essence of the plant, which should form a dark purple liquid. Thicken with ash and allow to set for eight moons or more, until the liquid forms small sparkling crystals. Though not native to Asshai, the poison is strongly associated with the city, like many of its analogues, due to the sophisticated technique needed to correctly synthesize the poison from the listed ingredients and the danger of improperly preparing it for the would-be poisoner.

That could be it! Tyrion thought with excitement and no small measure of pride. The symptoms fit, at least. Reading the words a second time, doubts began to form. A poison from Asshai, with ingredients from the Jade Sea and Summer Islands? It’s rather obscure, he reflected. Who would have knowledge of such a poison, much less a means of obtaining it? Well, Pycelle, for one. Or any maester, likely. Oberyn Martell, for another. Perhaps Stannis’s Red Witch. Possibly, though unlikely given what I know of him, Jalabhar Xho.

Quite the puzzle, Tyrion mused, rubbing his eyes and draining his glass as he continued to contemplate the text before him. Ah, well, my cup is dry once more, and my thoughts are sluggish. Time for sleep. Mayhaps I will wake with a different perspective and the pieces will fall into place. Or mayhaps Pycelle will resolve this question tomorrow, with no need of my assistance.

With that, Tyrion struggled off his chair and waddled to bed.

 

***

 

The autopsy did not go as Tyrion expected. He had assumed that, given Pycelle’s supposed loyalty to his father, the lecherous old man would actually try to find the culprit. Perhaps, Pycelle would even succeed, at least in identifying the substance that had caused Joffrey’s throat to close. But, to Tyrion’s surprise, it was not so.

It was late afternoon by the time his Father summoned Tyrion, Cersei, Jaime, and Kevan to Pycelle’s office, though Tyrion had only just awoken from a long slumber, after his late night of reading and thinking and drinking wine. Tyrion’s headache was largely gone within an hour or two of waking, aided by another glass of wine and a bit of food summoned from the kitchens. If it had been any other wedding feast, there might have been some delectable leftovers that Tyrion could feast on for days, but after Joffrey’s death, all of the remaining food had been discarded. No one would have been willing to eat it, Tyrion supposed, and if any of it was poisoned, the smallfolk would have our heads for following through with Margaery’s plan to give the uneaten food to the needy. Still, it was a shame to lunch on chicken and herbed rice with vegetables when one might have had swan and peacock.

The siblings assembled, along with Kevan and their father, in Pycelle’s chambers at the appointed hour. Cersei looked worse than even Tyrion, her eyes rimmed with dark circles and her cheeks puffy and red. She looks like she has not slept at all, Tyrion thought, and from the bloodshot coloring of her eyes, I’d bet she was crying from the time I saw her last until just before I entered this room. He did not feel sympathy for Cersei, exactly; it was hard to feel truly bad for the mother of a dead monster or a sister who surely planned to murder you at the first opportunity. But Cersei’s one redeeming quality was her love for her children, twisted as that love may be when coming from one as selfish and foolish as Cersei. Tyrion could not help but feel a modicum of pity for a mother’s grief, though the feeling passed as soon as Cersei opened her mouth.

“Why is he here?” Cersei demanded, eyes narrowing and flicking from Tyrion to Tywin and back again. “I tried to tell you yesterday, before you so rudely dismissed me, Tyrion is the one who – ”

“Be quiet, Cersei,” Tywin replied coldly. “You are present as a courtesy, because you are Joffrey’s mother, but if you cannot hold your tongue, then I will have you returned to your rooms at once.”

“But, Father –” Cersei began.

“ENOUGH!” Tywin shouted. Cersei took a step back, surprised by the vehemence of her Father’s response and the volume of his voice. Tywin Lannister rarely yelled, except on the battlefield. His anger more often took the form of cold rage and slow but obliterating vengeance. All three siblings were taken aback. Even Kevan frowned.

“Cersei has lost her beloved son,” Kevan said quietly, looking at Cersei with pity and perhaps gratitude, that it was not his son lying there on the stone slab before them. “It is only the grief speaking.”

“I did not invite you here to share your opinions on this matter, only to listen,” Tywin said in a much more even tone, directing his comment not just at Kevan but at all of them. Kevan nodded, and said nothing further. Tywin nodded at Pycelle. “You may proceed.”

Pycelle licked his lips nervously. “Yes…yes, my lord,” he wheezed, moving towards the stone slab. “After examining the boy…very thoroughly, I assure you…and I know this may be difficult to hear, but…I have concluded…that the cause of death was natural…”

“WHAT!” Cersei interjected, unable to contain herself.

“SILENCE!” Tywin roared.

“But Father – ” Cersei tried again.

“Jaime, please fetch Ser Meryn,” Tywin said, fixing a fiery gaze on Cersei.

“No, no, please, I want to hear, I’ll be quiet, but –” Cersei started to say. Tywin took a step towards her, and Cersei fell silent.

“Then be quiet, Cersei,” Tywin said coldly. “In light of your tragic loss, I will let it go for now, but if you speak one more word, you will regret it, I promise you that. Pycelle, continue.”

“Yes…as I was saying…you see, I found a chunk of pie…caught in the boy’s throat…see, here it is...right here, on this tray..." Pycelle pointed at a large hunk of slobbery, undigested pie on a silver platter. "I took that from his throat...and there was no trace of poison…not the Tears of Lys, nor Sweetsleep, nor any that I know of…it seems that…it was simply an accident…horrible as that might be to believe…he simply took a bite of pie, and…it caught in his windpipe…and efforts to revive him did not succeed…A natural death, you see.” With that, Pycelle looked up at them, his eyes darting from Cersei to Tywin to Jaime, Tyrion, and Kevan. The ancient maester’s posture expressed uncertainty, as Tyrion saw it, perhaps even fear.

“No trace of the Tears of Lys, nor Sweetsleep,” Tyrion said slowly. “What of The Strangler? Did you test for that?”

Cersei’s face twisted in rage. “You see, Father? He did it! He even knows what poison was used! How would he know that, unless he did it? How much did you pay Pycelle to lie for you, Tyrion? How dear is the cost of a half-dead, disloyal fool’s treason?”

“Jaime, please fetch Ser Meryn,” said Tywin with cold anger.

Jaime looked at Tyrion for a long time before moving towards the door. Ser Meryn entered, and Cersei began to shout hysterically and fight him, but he quickly subdued her. After Ser Meryn had ushered Cersei from the room, Jaime again looked at Tyrion, and the distrust that showed in his brother’s eyes cut Tyrion to the bone.

“Come on, Jaime,” Tyrion said, his voice breaking with anguish. Then his tone lightened as he bound himself back up in his armor of cynicism and humor, adding, “You must believe that I am truly an idiot, if you think I would go to the trouble of obtaining such an obscure and difficult to detect poison, only to tell all of you how I did the deed – after the death was ruled an accident, no less. I have many vices, but stupidity is not one of them.”

“That is enough commentary, Tyrion,” Tywin warned. “Pycelle, you may answer Tyrion’s question.”

“Yes, my Lord Tywin…well, you see…I did check…I did test…for that category of poisons, anyways…very rare, you see…even to test for it is foolishness…but when a King dies…one cannot be too careful…but it was not poison…he simply choked on his pie…” Pycelle explained, twitching a bit and shuffling some papers. “Ah, yes…here it is…you see…his bile levels are not high enough…simply not high enough…it could not be The Strangler…trust me, I am an expert…and besides…where would one get such a poison?”

“There, you see?” Tywin said with a note of finality. “An accident.”

Mindful of his father’s disinterest in continuing their discourse about poisons, and chastened by the uncertainty on Jaime’s face, Tyrion said nothing further. Instead, he scrutinized both Tywin and Pycelle, searching for some hint of deception in their expressions. But Tywin’s face was impassive, and Pycelle was always nervous…

Perhaps his father was merely glad that Joffrey had been moved out of the way, allowing the more biddable Tommen to take the throne. And Pycelle, he might simply be incompetent, and not actively deceitful. Yet…Tyrion wondered. Could his father have done this, possibly in cahoots with Pycelle? Or at least, could he have used Pycelle to cover up Joffrey’s true cause of death? The maester’s explanation was unsatisfying to Tyrion, and he found it curious that Tywin accepted the accidental death ruling so easily.

Puzzles within puzzles, Tyrion mused.

“Any further questions?” Tywin asked. It seemed the question was merely perfunctory, but Kevan and Jaime exchanged a glance.

“So, you are certain, then?” Kevan asked, looking at Pycelle and then at Tywin. “You are satisfied with this investigation, as it stands?”

“Yes…I am quite sure…quite sure…simply a tragedy,” Pycelle wheezed glumly. Tywin nodded his agreement.

“Yes, a very sad day,” Tywin concurred. “But we will move on, as we must.”

“How can we just move on,” Jaime muttered under his breath.

“What was that, Jaime?” Tywin said sharply.

“Nothing,” Jaime muttered.

“All right, then. That will be all. You are dismissed,” Tywin declared, frowning at Jaime as he spoke.

Jaime, Tryion, and Kevan left the room, though Tywin did not follow them. I wonder why, Tyrion thought. What is he discussing with Pycelle, now that we are gone?

“I can’t believe it,” Jaime muttered as they walked towards the Lannister wing of the Red Keep. “How could it have been an accident? His face was purple. Bright purple! I’ve never seen anything like it. How could he have just choked?”

“I, too, doubt the validity of Pycelle’s verdict,” Tyrion replied. “But, Jaime, you must know I had nothing to do with it…Yes, I disapproved of some of Joffrey’s behavior. I tried to discipline him, that is true. But I would never hurt a hair on the boy’s head. He was my nephew, Jaime.”

“I know,” Jaime replied, unconvincingly.

“I suppose it could have been an accident,” Kevan said as they walked. “If Tywin believes it…”

“Does he believe it, or does he only wish us to believe it?” Tyrion shot back. Kevan frowned, confused.

“What? Do you mean that he will continue investigating, but he does not want us to know? Why would he do that? Unless…you think he suspects one of us?” Kevan thought out loud.

“No, that’s not what I meant, though now that you suggest it, that’s possible, too,” Tyrion replied. Kevan’s eyes narrowed.

“Are you suggesting that Tywin might have had something to do with Joffrey’s death?” Kevan asked, incensed at the mere suggestion.

“Mayhaps,” Tyrion said with a shrug. “Or he knows who did it, and does not want to act on it yet.”

“Why wouldn’t he act on it?” Jaime demanded. “His grandson, the King, is dead!”

“You suspect one of our allies?” Kevan inquired. “The Tyrells, perhaps?”

“They certainly have a motive,” Tyrion agreed. “But I do not know yet. The Dornish also have motive, and they are known to use poison. And there is always the possibility that it is someone we would not suspect, an enemy who walks among us unbeknownst. All I am certain of is that Pycelle’s explanation was unsatisfactory.”

Kevan considered that for a moment. “So, what will you do?” he asked Tyrion.

Tyrion shrugged again. “Nothing, for now. But I will keep my eyes open. I will let you know if I learn anything, if you will do the same.”

Kevan looked thoughtful. “I still think it might have been an accident. Tywin is my brother, I am sure that he would tell me if he suspected foul play. And I am quite sure that he is no kinslayer. That’s a fact you ought to appreciate, Tyrion. But it is possible, too, that Pycelle made a mistake. So I will do as you say. I will keep my eyes and ears open, and I will tell you if I discover anything suspicious. But the moment we have something concrete, we must go to Tywin.”

“As you like,” Tyrion replied, with no intention of going to his father with this, at least not until he had concrete proof rather than mere suspicion.

“How did you know about that poison? The Strangler?” Jaime asked, searching Tyrion’s face.

“I stayed up reading, late into the night, after we left Father's solar,” Tyrion replied. “I thought…perhaps if I could figure out the means of Joffrey’s death, it might lead us to the culprit.”

“Ah. That’s lucky, that you stumbled upon that information so quickly,” Jaime replied, a note of accusation in his voice. Tyrion glared at him, hurt once again by his brother’s suspicions of him.

“It wasn’t lucky, Jaime,” Tyrion shot back irritably. “I searched for hours, through several books, some of them quite rare, until I found a poison with the right symptoms. I still don’t know if it is the one that killed Joffrey, but I don’t trust Pycelle’s assurances that he tested for every possible poison, because that is, quite frankly, impossible. It is certainly not possible to perform all of the necessary tests in a single evening. I wonder if he tested for anything at all, except perhaps one or two of the most common poisons. He mentioned sweetsleep and the Tears of Lys, but that’s all. Isn’t that curious?”

At this, Jaime’s expression cleared, but Kevan’s frown deepened. “That makes sense, I guess,” Jaime admitted.

“Stranger and stranger,” Kevan muttered. Tyrion’s uncle clearly did not wish to disbelieve the verdict offered by Pycelle, with Tywin’s support, but Kevan had to admit that something did not seem right about that meeting.

They walked in silence the rest of the way, each returning separately to their own chambers.

 

***

 

Days went by, then a week, and still Tyrion found nothing further to confirm or disprove his suspicions. Soon, he was distracted by his impending nuptials, though to his concern, Sansa still had not been informed that she was to marry him.

She will always hate me, Tyrion thought morosely, shoving aside a book on poisons from Asshai. He massaged his cramped legs and took a sip of wine, before sliding off his chair. Poor Sansa, poor me.

It was almost time for the ceremony. Wretched as it was sure to be, Tyrion intended to be properly dressed. He waddled from his office as Master of Coin, back towards his bedchamber. Once he arrived, he rang the bell for his attendants to come and help him dress.

Why can’t I marry Shae instead of Sansa? Tyrion moaned silently, in his head. Shae may not be of noble birth, but at least she likes me. Or at least she did. It has been some time since I last saw her, with all this recent fervor. Perhaps I shall visit her tonight, instead of doing my husbandly duties, and save the poor Stark girl one more night of misery…

The servants arrived promptly, and Tyrion stepped onto the dressing-stool, waiting with trepidation. As his man-servants dressed him, Tyrion continued to wallow. He was almost fully dressed when Podrick suddenly burst into the room.

“My lord! She’s gone, my lord! She’s gone!” Podrick was saying. The boy was not making sense.

“Slow down, Podrick! What is it? Who’s gone? What are you talking about?” Tyrion replied, waving away the servants and stepping down off the stool.

“Sansa! Sansa Stark! She’s missing!” Podrick cried.

“What?” Tyrion snapped. “Missing? What do you mean?”

“She wasn’t in her chambers, my lord. You sister went to dress her, but she wasn’t there. The chambermaids had a look and said it looked like Lady Stark had been absent for some time. Lord Tywin questioned the servants and some of his loyal bannermen, but everyone said the last time they saw her was the day after the wedding. I don’t know how it wasn’t noticed, but she’s gone my lord. No one seems to know where she has gone or how she managed to leave without anyone noticing.”

That was a lot to take in. “Well,” Tyrion said heavily. Some small part of him was relieved, but he was also a bit offended that the girl had fled. Somehow, she must have gotten wind of Tywin’s plans. I suppose I am not surprised that she finds the prospect of marrying me so odious, Tyrion thought. But still, it made his heart ache. Somewhere inside, he had hoped that Sansa might grow to care for him, despite his ugliness and the many reasons she rightly hated his family. After all, he too hated his family; perhaps they could have bonded over that. But now she was gone.

“Well,” Tyrion repeated, stepping into his shoes. “I suppose my father wishes to speak with me, then?”

“Yes, milord,” Podrick said, flushing. “That’s what – I mean – he sent me to fetch you. I’m sorry, I didn’t say that. I just told you she was gone. But, um, yes, Lord Tywin sent for you.”

“Very well,” Tyrion replied, waddling out into the corridor and thinking that the one pleasant aspect of this unexpected situation was that his father was sure to be furious, and for once, that rage would not be directed his way. It will be quite funny to see his reaction, Tyrion speculated, increasingly relieved that the wedding was off. And I cannot wait to discover who has managed to abscond with Sansa Stark, right under the Lion’s nose.

Chapter Text

Tywin was baffled and enraged by Sansa Stark’s disappearance, made worse by the knowledge that no one in his family had made any effort to secure the girl’s person or remain informed about her activities. Must I do everything myself? he wondered bitterly, for the thousandth time. Why are my children so incompetent? 

As he paced across the Hand’s solar, waiting for Podrick to fetch Tyrion, Tywin heard a slight knock. Before he could tell the dwarf to enter, the door swung open. To his surprise, it was not Tyrion, but Olenna Tyrell, who he believed had left the capital several days ago. It seemed she had not left, despite speaking of her intentions to anyone who would listen. Not simply a scheming bitch, then, but an outright liar as well. She is giving me indigestion.

“I suppose I can assume that you are responsible for Sansa Stark’s mysterious disappearance?” he asked, fixing Olenna with a stony gaze. “On the eve of her wedding, no less?”

“Oh, was the Lady Sansa Stark to be wed today?” Olenna asked with mock innocence. “I had no idea, my lord! Why, you must have kept it very quiet, since no one seems to know of any marriage plans, including the girl herself. I confess, I was under the impression that the young lady was to wed one of my grandsons, but perhaps you had other ideas?”

“Don’t patronize me,” Tywin growled, gritting his teeth. “The Rains of Castamere” played in his head and his stomach churned.

“Very well, if you wish to speak frankly, then we shall speak frankly.” Olenna met Tywin’s gaze with cool amusement. “You saw in Sansa Stark the opportunity to wed your dwarf son to a Lord Paramount’s daughter and gain a claim on Winterfell. I saw much the same, only for my crippled grandson. We are more alike than you think, Tywin.”

Tywin glowered at her. He had little to say to that. They sat in silence for a moment. And so he spoke, and so he spoke, that lord of Castamere, Tywin thought as he waited for Olenna to continue, But now the rains weep o’er his hall, with no one there to hear.

Olenna was more than happy to fill the silence. “Let me tell you how it went, and then we can discuss what will happen next. Sansa, the dear girl, has been dreaming of marrying my Willas for months now, ever since I planted the idea in her head. She was quite astonished – dare I say horrified? – when I suggested you might be planning to wed her to that dwarf-son of yours. I must thank you for all you and your offspring have done to help convince her to run into Tyrell arms, for we could not have done it without your bountiful assistance. The poor little bird is terrified of all of you.”

Yes now the rains weep o’er his hall, and not a soul to hear, Tywin thought, still glaring at Olenna.

“So, when I asked her to leave the capital with me and promised you would not hear a word of it until it was too late, she came easily enough,” Olenna continued. “Now she is secreted away at an undisclosed location, slowly making her way towards Highgarden. You might catch her if your men are very clever hunters and if they ride horse after horse until it founders, but then what? If you send enough men, perhaps, they could kill the Tyrell honor guard and seize the girl. But you need our army, and you need the Redwyne fleet.”

Do not forget, you scheming whore, that the lion still has claws. You will regret this, Tywin thought. How dare she pull rank on him? He was Tommen’s regent and Hand of the King. Why, I am the King in all but name.

“And what do you propose?” Tywin asked flatly, tiring of this woman already.

“A mutually beneficial arrangement, as is our wont. Growing strong, and all that nonsense. The first bit, I suspect we are already agreed upon. Margaery will wed Tommen, and our alliance will continue as it would have under Joffrey, with you as regent, my Oafish son in some position on the small council where he can do the least harm, and Paxter Redwyne as Master of Ships. Agreed, on this much, at least?”

“Mayhaps, depending on the other terms,” Tywin replied, as if he could hold himself aloof from the political realities that made the Lannister/Tyrell marriage necessary in the first place.

“I thought we were to be honest with one another,” Olenna tsked.

“Very well. Yes, we are agreed on that point, unless the rest of what you propose is unacceptable and non-negotiable.”

Olenna nodded, perhaps appreciating Tywin’s carefully conditional wording, or perhaps simply enjoying having the upper hand in their negotiations. She had prepared for this; he clearly had not even known it was coming.

“The second point,” Olenna continued, “Concerns the Stark girl. As I said, we have custody of her person, and you do not. She will wed Willas –”

“You may do as you like. But why should I agree to that?” Tywin replied, a touch of irritation in his voice.

“Be patient, I am getting there,” Olenna admonished. “Sansa will wed Willas, but Tyrion shall have a bride as well. He will wed Desmera Redwyne.”

“The Redwyne girl?” Tywin considered it. He would not give Olenna the satisfaction of his admitting it out loud, but privately, he had to concede that it was a politically astute match. Before the war, Steffon Lannister had been in negotiations with Paxter about a marriage between his son Daven and Paxter’s daughter, but the negotiations had been broken off to further secure the Frey alliance by marrying Daven to one of the Late Lord Frey’s horde. Substituting Tyrion for Daven would likely smooth any hurt feelings between Steffon and Paxter, or either of them and Tywin. On top of that, it would secure the very alliance Steffon had hoped – with Tywin’s blessing – to craft with the Redwynes before the war began.

The Redwynes were an old house, with the blood of Garth Greenhand and the Gardner Kings in their veins. Though technically bannermen to Highgarden, they were also one of the most powerful houses in Westeros in their own right, thanks to their ever-expanding involvement in the wine trade and their powerful navy. Indeed, the Redwynes had more to offer financially and militarily than many Lords Paramount. Quite a lot more than a dwindling, ruined house like the Starks, who held claims to ample land but little else. Moreover, it did not escape Tywin’s notice that the Redwynes offered him the potential to check the Tyrells’ power, as much as it bound the Lannisters closer to the Reach. For another generation, perhaps, the marriage of Olenna Redwyne to Luthor Tyrell, followed by the marriage of Mace’s sister Mina to Paxter, might keep the Redwynes in the Tyrell fold. But after that…well, it could be as much a curse as a boon to be liege lord to powerful houses. Even now, the Redwynes could easily serve as a formidable counterweight to Tyrell power, managed properly. Furthermore, since Paxter’s sons Horas and Hobber had been at court for some time and seemed intent on staying at least until they found suitable matches, Tywin would possess built-in hostages to keep Paxter loyal.

Yes, it was a very good offer. Too good, Tywin thought bitterly. An offer I cannot afford to refuse.

“And the Redwyne girl, she does not object to the match?” Tywin asked finally. “I will not be humiliated again, if she refuses. She will be expected to bear Lannister children.”

Olenna looked sharply at Tywin, as if surprised by the question, then smiled. “Desmera has agreed to the match, on the condition that you guarantee that she will be Lady of Casterly Rock one day. By law, of course, it seems clear that Tyrion will inherit, but everyone knows how you waver on this matter. You may do as you like as concerns your own family, I daresay, but Desmera expects to have a position of honor and power, either through your son or hers. Beyond that, I am told the girl made an effort to get to know the dwarf during her brief stay in the capital, and that she found him agreeable enough. Ask Tyrion, if you like, about his impressions of the girl. Just because the lad is rather short of stature does not make him a wholly undesirable option for an ambitious young lady.”

Tywin smarted at the reminder that his son was deformed – and the demand that he declare Tyrion his heir, or risk giving the Redwynes control of the Westerlands. This lion still has claws, do not forget it, he thought angrily.

“You may assure the Redwynes that, barring some further disqualification beyond those he was born with, I expect that Tyrion or his son will be the next Lord of Casterly Rock,” Tywin said stiffly. I do not like this, he thought. But I suppose I needn’t honor it, if it no longer suits. Words are merely wind, after all.

“Good! I take it that means you are satisfied with this tenet of our bargain, too?” Olenna replied.

“So it would seem,” Tywin remarked dryly. “Anything else?”

“Well, there is the matter of Winterfell…” Olenna probed.

“Do not push your luck, old woman,” Tywin said sternly. “If you are taking responsibility for the Stark girl, then you are also taking responsibility for waging war to establish her claim. As hand of the King, however, I forbid any such hostile actions until the present war is concluded.”

“That is not a problem,” Olenna replied serenely.

Of course not, Tywin thought. She can see as clearly as I do that it is best to let the Northerners destroy each other, Bolton versus Manderly and Stannis-men versus crown loyalists. Only a fool would invade the North with Winter approaching, and the Queen of Thornes is no fool.

“One further point,” Tywin said aloud. “I will need assurances that Sansa and Willas, should they have a son, will take a Lannister for a wife.”

“I’m afraid I cannot commit to any such thing until a babe is born, at the very least, but I will put your suggestion to Willas.”

Tywin stewed. It was a small enough promise, he felt, in light of all the Tyrells had stolen and demanded. And who are you, the proud lord said, that I must bow so low? Tywin thought. That is what the Reynes of Castamere thought, too, and they learned quickly enough, though too late to save them.

“I shall depart on the morrow,” Olenna said, rising from the chaise. “Will Tyrion be joining our party?”

“I will speak to him, but I see no reason why not,” Tywin replied.

One day, my grandchildren will throw you off the walls of Highgarden for your guile and treacherous plotting, Tywin thought. It must have shown on his face, for Olenna turned to scrutinize his face more closely.

“Oh, and Tywin?”

“Yes?”

“Before you go getting any ideas – Rains of Castemere, Red Wedding, and so on and so forth – would it stay your hand if I told you who killed your grandson?”

Tywin’s whole body tensed. “And how do you know that?” he demanded.

“I don’t, not for certain,” Olenna admitted. “But I would beware of mockingbirds. Such damnable little pests, you see. Not dangerous like a lion or a stag, to be sure – fragile little things, in a fight. But they pick at you and pick at you, nonetheless. Dangerous like a snake, I think, those mockingbirds.”

That is not enough to save you from the fate I am planning, Tywin thought, but it was an interesting suggestion, and he considered it for a passing moment. It makes little sense for Baelish to harm Joffrey. A diversion, to conceal the truth? Mayhaps, but he would take greater care with Littlefinger nonetheless.

“Speculation does me little good,” Tywin answered lightly. “But I will keep an eye on him.”

“Then I suppose I will be seeing you – or perhaps not, since old farts like ourselves have little hope of seeing another Spring. I doubt I will return to this stinking hellhole of a city again,” Olenna replied by way of a goodbye, stepping out the door and almost bowling over Tyrion, who was arriving as she left.

Speak for yourself, you contemptible harlot, Tywin thought as Olenna sauntered away. Tyrion peered inside the doorway, his ugly head poking into the room from the corrdidor.

“Don’t just stand there gaping,” Tywin growled. “Get inside and close the door behind you.”

Tyrion stepped inside the room and closed the door. “Yes, father? You summoned me?” the snide little man said as he settled himself on the chaise.

“Did Podrick tell you what happened this morning?” Tywin inquired.

“Oh, yes. Sansa Stark was so terrified of having my hideous face between her legs that she ran all the way to Yi Ti,” Tyrion japed.

Tywin glared at him. “Do not make light of it. This is a grievous slight to our reputation, and the Tyrells will pay for it, in due course.”

Tyrion raised his eyebrows. “So the Tyrells are to blame? I thought as much, from the Queen of Thorns’ presence here at this precise juncture.”

“Yes, it seems that the Stark girl accompanied them as their party left the city, and none of my children noticed she was missing. Explain it to me, Tyrion. How, precisely, does Sansa Stark disappear for days without anyone noting her absence?”

Tyrion frowned. “You’ll have to ask my sister, the girl was in Cersei’s care. Though given how Joffrey turned out, I’m surprised you would entrust anyone to that madwoman.”

“Do not speak of your sister in such a manner,” Tywin hissed. “And do not think you will get off lightly for your role in this debacle. After all that bragging about your tenure as Hand of the King, it seems I cannot trust you to take the initiative in any important matter. You let your bride ride out of the city, and did not notice until someone else discovered her absence, days later, on the very day you were to marry her. And now you’ve lost her for good.”

“You’re going to let the Tyrells keep her?” Tyrion asked with surprise. Tywin, who had resumed his pacing, whirled around to fix his flashing eyes on the dwarf.

“And what choice do I have?” Tywin snarled. “Should I march my men after them, and alienate our allies, with all their troops and ships? Shall I send you, knight in shining armor that you are, to go sweep the girl into your arms and smuggle her back to the capital? Perhaps if you were Jaime, but it seems the girl loathes and fears you – an attitude for which one cannot blame her –  and you can hardly expect to defeat her guards in single combat, much less one-on-many. So, tell me, Tyrion, what would you have me do?”

Tyrion’s eyes raked the ceiling stones. Tywin felt a wave of frustration wash over him anew. Was the little gargoyle even listening to him? Did his alleged son ever have anything to contribute besides sulking and making idiotic japes?

“I asked, what would you have me do?” Tywin repeated.

“I don’t know, Father,” Tyrion said with a sigh. “Perhaps if you proclaimed me your heir, some great lady might take pity on me, but I agree that Sansa Stark is lost to us for now. Mayhaps if we could locate Arya…”

“And what have you done, to find the other wolfling?” Tywin snapped. “Jaime rides for the Riverlands tomorrow and he will search for her, but you know as well as I that the girl is likely dead.”

“Indeed,” Tyrion affirmed, nodding his head. “But it is not like you to do nothing, when another house steals from our family. Has the old lion lost his claws after all?”

“That is enough, you drunken, whoring little bastard,” Tywin hissed. “If you were a normal man, none of this would have happened. But I make do, cursed though I may be with such disobedient and hapless children. I did not say I would do nothing, only that we will wait until the opportune moment to douse the flowers with kerosene.”

“As you say,” Tyrion replied. “Then I may go?”

“Not so fast,” Tywin snapped. “You are to leave on the morrow, with the Tyrell party.”

Tyrion’s eyes widened. “So you do want me to try to seduce the Stark girl and sneak her away? Father, flattered as I may be by your confidence in my boudoir skills, I’m afraid the girl won’t let me get close enough to use them on her.”

Tywin rubbed his temples. “Stop talking and listen to me. You will go to Highgarden, and you will marry Desmera Redwyne in a joint ceremony, when Sansa Stark weds Willas Tyrell.”

Tyrion’s jaw dropped. “I’m to be rewarded for losing the Stark girl?”

“Rewarded? You were to marry the future reigning Lady of Winterfell, and now you must settle for the third child of a second-tier house.”

“Yes, but Desmera doesn’t hate me,” Tyrion said brightly. “And she’s nearly as pretty as Sansa.”

“Is that all you care about?” Tywin snapped. “What she thinks of you? How pretty she looks? You are depraved.”

“Forgive me, Father. After a lifetime of doubting that I will ever receive my birthright, pleasure means more to me than titles. Though I’d like the titles too.”

“I have given my assurances to the Redwynes that you will inherit,” Tywin admitted. A wide grin appeared on Tyrion’s face, but before he could say anything, Tywin continued. “But do not count on it.”

Tyrion’s smile dropped. “So words are merely wind, then. I see.”

“Indeed. Now, tell me, what do you know about the Redwyne lass? Olenna intimated that the two of you were familiar,” Tywin said in a disapproving tone.

Tyrion shrugged. “She was friendly towards me,” the dwarf said. “Didn’t insult me or run away screaming, but rather looked me in the eyes when she spoke to me. Now that you mention it, she did take care to engage me in conversation several times, and I unexpectedly crossed paths with her more often than mere chance would adequately explain. I assume she knew of Olenna’s plans? Well, she was subtle about it. I only notice that she paid me an unusual amount of attention now that I look back in retrospect. Cute girl, a redhead with freckles and a pleasant smile, appears to take after the Tyrell side more than the Redwyne side in her visage – she has an adorable little button nose, not a big hooked schnoz like her brothers. Smarter than her brothers, too, and knowledgeable about the goings-on of the Seven Kingdoms. She’s even taking lessons in the Summer Islander tongue, with Margaery’s ladies, if I recall correctly – some new fashion in the Reach apparently. From what I can tell, she is close to her family and firmly ensconced in the Reach’s inner circles, with Margaery and her ladies. I take it that she does not count herself among the new Queen’s handmaids only because Paxter Redwyne is too proud to let his daughter serve. He aspires to higher ranks, I think, and I am not surprised that he would leap at the chance to wed his daughter to a future Lord Paramount – and don’t look at me like that, Father, you said yourself that you assured them that I would inherit, whether you meant it or not. The Redwynes have always been an ambitious family, and though I do not get the impression that they plan to contravene their liege lords, they are up to something.”

Tywin was surprised by the intelligence of Tyrion’s analysis. Had he misjudged the dwarf? No, Tywin reflected, All of that is obvious enough, once one considers it for a moment.

“Very well. You will discover the nature of the Redwynes plotting when you are in Highgarden, and you will father heirs for House Lannister once you are properly wed. That is all,” Tywin said, his tone making it clear that Tyrion was to leave now.

“As you say, Father,” Tyrion replied, jumping up from the chaise and mocking his father by bowing with great flourish before he departed.

Tywin sat back in his chair, leaned back, and massaged his temples. What a humiliating, exhausting, god-forsaken morning.

As Tyrion closed the door behind him, Tywin’s bowels burbled, and a slight pain shot through his abdomen. Springing up from his chair with an alacrity few older men still possessed, Tywin walked rather swiftly towards the privy.

Chapter Text

For the first two days of the ride from King’s Landing to Highgarden, Sansa had remained utterly petrified, certain she would be apprehended and dragged back to the capital at any moment. She did not truly begin to breathe until their party reached the boundaries of the Crownlands and crossed over into the Reach. Only then did Sansa marvel at how frightfully easy it had been to escape.

When Margaery had arrived at Sansa’s door with her mother Alerie and grandmother Olenna, carrying horrifying news of an impending marriage with the Imp and offering the tantalizing possibility of salvation by way of clever escape plans followed by marriage to Willas…in that moment, the simultaneous terror and hope had nearly paralyzed Sansa. Yet, though the Tyrells had taken a number of intelligent precautions – such as dressing Sansa in a flowing hooded cloak in the blue-and-maroon colors of House Redwyne, and instructing her to claim to be a Redwyne cousin named Delena, daughter of Desmond, if she was stopped and questioned – no one had looked twice at her, much less inquired about her name or family history. In retrospect, Sansa reflected, it did make sense that no one noticed that she was missing until several days later. No one truly watched over her in the capital, as she had discovered when she cloistered herself away with her grief after the Red Wedding, only to find that her lengthy absence from court had gone unnoticed by anyone besides Margaery. It is almost a shame that I never had the chance to use that clever cover story, Sansa thought. The fake identity as a Redwyne would easily explain my hair color and my purportedly brief presence in the capital for the wedding, and though Delena is fictional, Ser Denys could very well have had a sister around my age who went by that name.

Their riding party left the King’s Road behind as the Kingswood gave way to rolling farmlands. It was at that point in their journey that Lady Alerie had explained to Sansa that they would not yet be taking the Roseroad to Highgarden. Rather, they would ride a few leagues North, to Tumbleton. Once at Tumbleton, they would wait for Olenna and her party to join them, or failing that, to send word instructing Alerie to carry on towards Highgarden by either the Roseroad or backroads, depending on the likelihood of pursuit.

“Don’t you worry, Sansa,” Alerie had said, her voice kind and motherly. “If there is any hint of trouble, we shall ride straight for Mathis Rowan’s seat at Goldengrove. Mathis won’t be there, of course, since he is busy with the war and political business in King’s Landing, but his wife Bethany would harbor us through any storm. Bethany is Paxter’s sister, which makes her niece to Olenna and mine own goodsister twice over, once through Paxter’s marriage to Mace’s sister Mina and a second time through the marriage between my brother Baelor and Mathis’s sister Rhonda.”

At times such as this, Sansa thanked the Old Gods and the New for her diligence in studying houses, sigils, and family trees. I think Olenna must have been lying when she called lady Alerie ‘the only stupid Hightower,’ Sansa reflected. At least, if not lying, she was being unkind and unfair. Lady Alerie may not be a scholar, like some members of her family, but she seems to be a wizard at diplomacy and rather good at courtly scheming, too. Her manners are perfect and her knowledge of the tangled family ties between Houses great and small is seemingly encyclopedic.

To Lady Alerie, Sansa said only, “Thank you, my lady. You are most kind to reassure me and inform me about our intended route. I shall count myself quite fortunate indeed to have you as my goodmother someday soon.”

Alerie beamed at this, blinking back a tear or two at the thought of her eldest son marrying this sweet young lady with such refined courtesies and of such excellent pedigree to boot. She patted Sansa gently on the shoulder before riding off to catch up with the older ladies.

Upon reaching Tumbleton, Sansa finally had time to relax and unwind, not only from the road but from her entire experience in King’s Landing. She had gotten used to the daily horrors and unrelenting state of fearful vigilance, so much so that she now felt vaguely sinful for enjoying even the simple luxury of reading a lovely story while taking a long bath. Though Sansa did not let her guard down completely, she began to open up just a bit to the ladies of the Reach.

It helped that their hosts, the elderly Lady Footly and her daughter-in-law, treated Sansa and the others quite warmly. The Footly ladies were clearly honored to host such esteemed guests, particularly the Lady Paramount. Their hosts' apparent amazement and general flusterment at receiving a visit from Lady Alerie and Lady Olenna gave Sansa the impression that the relationship between liege lord and bannermen was different here in the Reach than it had been in the North. Though Sansa never paid terribly much attention to her Father’s work – an ignorance she now regretted – the Stark family had welcomed their bannermen and even the local smallfolk to their dinner table on a regular basis. Her father routinely visited his bannermen, often taking Robb with him once he was old enough, on a rotating schedule that ensured that any who swore fealty to Winterfell could boast of welcoming their Lord into their halls in recent years. It seemed that this was not common practice in the Reach, perhaps because the Tyrells were more involved in the politics of the realm than the Starks, who had little inclination to travel below the Neck.

There is something to that observation, Sansa reflected. But I do not know what, exactly. She continued to ponder the cultural difference as she put away her few belongings in the room she had been assigned. The room had a window, and though the castle was old and much smaller than the Red Keep, Sansa felt the window overlooking a courtyard automatically made her quarters in Tumbleton an improvement upon her quarters in King’s Landing. When she mentioned this observation to her hosts the following day at breakfast, they looked shocked, then showered her in thank-yous and you’re-too-kinds and bless-you-miladys. Sansa beamed at the attention, and made a mental note to herself that she ought to remember how much compliments might mean to the lesser nobility.



***

 

One day, Alerie and Desmera took Sansa shopping in the town.

“I’m afraid the shops here are rather provincial,” Alerie said apologetically. “They’re nothing like what you will find in Highgarden or Oldtown. We can fill out your wardrobe once we reach the end of our journey, but I thought you might like to get another riding outfit or two and a couple of dresses to wear once we reach Highgarden.”

“Oh, you are too kind!” Sansa exclaimed. “I would be honored to receive such generosity, but are you sure you do not mind? I do not wish to be a burden.”

“It is no burden at all,” Alerie assured her. “A few dresses is little enough, and you must let me know if there is anything else I can do to right the wrongs done to you in the capital.”

“Thank you, Lady Alerie, I am very grateful,” Sansa replied.

Once they arrived at the shops, Sansa squealed with delight over the pretty colors and fabrics of the dresses. It seemed that shops considered ‘provincial’ in the Reach far surpassed the quality and selection one could find at a dress shop in the Wintertown, and rivalled the quality of the finest shops in White Harbour. When Lady Alerie paid for the dresses Sansa had selected, however, the Stark girl went pale.

“Oh, no. I had no idea I had been so greedy!” Sansa exclaimed, flushing. “Please, let me put a few things back. I am so sorry.”

Alerie waved her hand at Sansa’s protests, insisting that it was no trouble at all and that Sansa must keep all of the garments she had picked. “Truly, it is nothing,” Alerie said, her eyes crinkling as she smiled at Sansa. “And it is a bit selfish on my part, as well, for I so enjoyed the delight on your face as you picked out these gowns, and I wish to ensure that your beauty is properly complemented by your clothing when you first meet my son. Though you did a truly estimable job of maintaining a ladylike and reasonably fashionable appearance in the capital, given what you had to work with, I wish to see the look on my boy’s face when he realizes how exceedingly fortunate he is that his mother and grandmother have won him the hand of such a lovely lady from such a prestigious family.”

Sansa could only respond by smiling exuberantly and reiterating her endless gratitude.

These delightful days of relaxation eventually slipped back into days of anxiety, for it took longer than expected for the Lannisters to notice Sansa’s departure. Just as Sansa was beginning to wonder what would happen if her disappearance went completely unmarked, like Arya’s, they received a raven from Lady Olenna, proclaiming her victory over Tywin and offering an estimated date of arrival for the second half of their party. When Alerie shared the message with everyone at dinner, Sansa breathed a deep sigh of relief.

This is really happening, she thought. Willas! I get to marry Willas! Hope is not always a complete lie.

But deep down, she still feared that something would go amiss, somehow. It always does, she thought, unsure if she should try to embrace her hopes or stifle them.

 

***

 

Late at night, a few days after the raven, Olenna Tyrell and her party arrived. When Sansa awoke to find the castle brimming with new faces and bustling with preparations for the second leg of their journey to Highgarden, she was delighted. By this afternoon, they would be riding along the Roseroad. She would be on her way to finally meet Willas, and this time, she could let her hopes inflate freely, no longer inhibited by a cloud of uncertainty and anxiety. Looking around at the new members of their party, Sansa smiled widely.

When Sansa laid eyes on Tyrion, however, she panicked. “Have you come to take me away?” she cried. “Oh, no, oh, no, I did it again. I did it again. I let hope get the better of me. I should have known. I should have – ”

“Calm down, milady,” Tyrion said bitterly, rage and humiliation blooming inside him. “Do not fear, you will not be subjected to the nightmare of marrying the Imp. I am only troubling you with my ugly face because I, too, must go to Highgarden to wed. After you so cruelly abandoned me, the Lady Desmera Redwyne agreed to have me in your stead. I am not here to stop you from marrying Willas or to force you to wed someone you despise.”

Struggling to reign in her over-rapid breathing, Sansa tried to comprehend his words. He was not here to force her to marry him? She could still marry Willas? The hope had not been a lie, after all?

“So you are not here to force me to marry you, you’re here to wed Desmera?” Sansa repeated slowly, trying to understand. The memory of trauma seemed to slow her thoughts to a trickle, making the simplest facts impossible to understand if they ran counter to the tide of her anxieties.

“Precisely,” Tyrion replied icily. Then, noticing the poor girl’s hyperventilation and trembling, his expression softened just a bit. His hand moved, as if to reach out to her, but then he seemed to think better of it, realizing his touch could only exacerbate her terror. “Did I ever do anything to harm you, Sansa, that you would believe I would be so cruel as to drag you back to King’s Landing? That you would believe me a rapist? Have I not shown you what kindnesses I could, constrained as I was by my family? I had thought we were becoming friends, but I see now that I was wrong to imagine it so.” He laughed, but it was an ugly laugh, the laugh of a man who had been treated like a monster for so long that he wondered whether he ought not embrace the monstrosity.

Sansa immediately felt ashamed. He was right. Tyrion was a Lannister, but he was the best of the lot, as low a bar as that might be. He had never touched her, never done her any physical harm, had even tried to save her from Joffrey’s wrath once or twice. Neither had he been verbally cruel to her, never even ribbed her with playful mockery.

Realizing how foolish she must look, quivering here on the ground, covered in dirt like Arya, Sansa dug deep into herself and found her sense of decorum. She rose, straightened, and bravely looked Tyrion in the eyes.

“I am ashamed of myself, Lord Tyrion. I do not know what came over me,” Sansa said evenly. “Please forgive me. It was not you that triggered my reaction, but my memories of Joffrey’s abuse. I do remember that you tried your best to stop him, and I am aware that your father rules your family with a gilded iron fist. You have my sincerest apology. May we start again, and try to be friends, especially now that you are to wed my friend?”

Tyrion blinked, apparently surprised by this complete transformation in Sansa’s demeanor.

“I, uh, well,” he stammered. “Yes, my lady. Let us start over and see if we might be friends, without my family hovering over us.”

“Wonderful,” Sansa replied, smiling.

“Does this mean you do not find me so grotesque that you must flee to Sothoryos to escape the very sight of me?” Tyrion asked, meaning it as a jape, but his tone came out half-teasing and half-plaintive, a note of sincerity ringing underneath the attempt at humor meant to conceal it.

I think he truly means it, Sansa marveled. He really wants to know if I find him horrible. He sounds like a puppy that’s been kicked repeatedly, whining for attention but scared to trust its new master. Is that what I sound like?

Gazing at Tyrion with amazement, it occurred to Sansa that Tyrion had endured his family for his entire life. Unlike her, he never had precious memories of loving family relationships that had to be locked away. It gave him a measure of protection, because he was not like to be overly trusting and he was surely well-practiced at deception, but it also weakened him, because he must be terribly desperate for even the tiniest scrap of love. With this realization, Sansa resolved to be kinder to the poor man. But she also filed away the knowledge that Tyrion could likely be moved by displays of affection, probably even transparently false ones. Perhaps that is why he is so fond of whores, she mused.

“I do not think you are hideous, my lord,” Sansa assured Tyrion. “I know that you are not the same as your father, or Joffrey, or Cersei. I think they must have been rather cruel to you, too.”

“Indeed,” Tyrion replied, kissing Sansa’s hand and then quickly letting go of it, as if taking care not to give the impression that he meant to seduce her away from Willas. “That is truer than you know.”

Perhaps that is why he is so fond of drink, Sansa speculated, as she bid Tyrion goodbye and went back to fetch her few belongings before the caravan could depart without her.


***



Sansa did not have a chance to speak with Desmera alone until the following day. The first day on the road, Desmera and Tyrion had ridden side-by-side, nearly the entire day’s travel. But after lunch on the second day, Sansa found herself riding amongst the ladies of the Reach, including Desmera. Spurring her horse to pull up along Desmera’s right side, Sansa spoke to her in a low voice.

“Are you okay, Desmera?” she asked.

“Oh, hello, Sansa. I’m fine, how are you?” Desmera replied.

“No, I mean it,” Sansa said urgently. “Are you okay with this marriage? No one is forcing you into something you did not agree to?”

Desmera laughed. “Oh, Sansa! Is that what you are worried about?” Desmera shook her head, incredulous. “Truly, I am pleased with the match, Sansa. In the Arbor, we consider it quite advantageous for a lady to wed a future Lord Paramount. I thought you might be mad at me, for stealing your betrothed, but Margaery assured me you were displeased with Tyrion and much preferred Willas.”

Sansa looked relieved. “I’m glad to hear it. And of course I am not angry with you! I am half in-love with Willas already and I haven’t even met him yet. You will have to tell me all you know of him from your visits to Highgarden.” Sansa hesitated. “But, truly? You do not object to marrying a dwarf?”

Desmera smiled wickedly. “A man’s skills in the bedroom are of far greater use to me than his height or the prettiness of his face, and I hear Tyrion is quite the champion in that regard,” she confessed, a lustful glint in her eyes. “And his stature means I shall not have to worry about him raising his hand to me. I am no trained knight, but a girl with a dagger is threat enough to a man his size. Besides, I’ve seen him drunk, many times, and drink only makes him happy or weepy, not wroth. It is no great sacrifice, to gain access to all the wealth of Casterly Rock and power over the Westerlands.”

“I see,” Sansa replied. This way of thinking was somewhat foreign to her, though she was in profound agreement with Desmera regarding the importance of avoiding an abusive husband. But there was one thing the Redwyne girl had said that left her baffled… “Skills in the bedroom? What do you mean by that, exactly?”

Desmera giggled. “You know.”

I don’t, Sansa thought, but perhaps I should not let her see my ignorance.

“Or if you do not,” Desmera amended with a sly smile, “You will find out on your wedding night.”

Looking bashfully down at the dirt, Sansa wished that Margaery had been able to accompany them. She wouldn’t have felt embarrassed to ask Margaery what Desmera had meant, but although she was becoming friends with some of the other ladies, Sansa did not yet feel that they were her bosom friends. They were not close enough, at least not yet, to ask scandalous questions about what happened on one’s wedding night. Sansa briefly considered asking Lady Alerie, but decided it would be too awkward, given that the groom in question was Alerie’s son.

I wish my mother was here, Sansa thought, tears leaping into her eyes. She turned her face sideways, pretending to glance out at the flowering hills, so that Desmera couldn’t see her disproportionate reaction to such gentle teasing.

Though Sansa had locked away her feelings and memories in King’s Landing, now that she was safe, the suppressed thoughts and emotions had begun to leak out again. I wish my mother was still alive, Sansa thought. I hate the Lannisters, and the Freys, and the Boltons. A mother should be there for her daughter’s wedding. Why did they have to kill her? I know they had little choice, as concerned Robb, but why would they kill Mother? She didn’t do anything wrong. She should be here.

At this thought, tears began to fall down Sansa’s cheeks. Fortunately, Desmera was oblivious to Sansa’s tears and pain, already chatting noisly with Lady Fossoway.

 

***

 

The most spectacular moment of their journey – the moment when it well and truly hit home for Sansa that she was in a completely new world, unlike anything she had known in the North or in King’s Landing – was their arrival at Bitterbridge and the means of their departure.

Unlike humble Tumbleton, Bitterbridge was a central rub of business and politics in the Reach, and though it was not as exquisite as Highgarden, it was still one of the most beautiful castles she had ever seen. Located at the nexus of the Roseroad and the Mander river, the low flat land made the objectively smallish castle loom large, appearing to pierce the sky itself from certain points of view. The lush plains and the bubbling, clear waters of the river made Sansa feel that she had stepped into a storybook. As if that were not enough, she soon discovered that the Tyrell’s riding party was to be a riding party no more; they would travel the rest of the way by barge, sailing gently down the Mander on one of the Tyrells’ luxurious pleasure-barges.

“It’s so beautiful,” Sansa breathed, gazing out over the Mander from the castle’s observation deck.

“I know,” agreed Leonette Fossoway. A lovely blonde woman with kind green eyes, Leonette was Ser Garlan’s wife, and she had taken an interest in her soon-to-be goodsister during their travels. “I grew up along the Mander, but even for a dyed-in-the-wool Reach girl like myself, the Mander is a lovely sight and the Tyrells travel it in style.”

“You are from Dustonbury, if I recall correctly?” Sansa ventured.

“Yes,” Leonette said, nodding. “I’m of the Green Apple Fossoways, not the rotten ones.”

“Will we pass by Dustonbury on our journey?” Sansa asked. “Will I be able to see it from the barge?”

“Oh, yes!” Leonette exclaimed. “It’s a lovely little castle, right next to Highgarden. We are to be neighbors, you and I, though I spend more time at Highgarden than New Barrel now that Garlan and I are wed. Well, we shall be neighbors for a time, at least, until Garlan takes control of Brightwater. But even once we take up residence in Brightwater Keep, you and I shall not be far from one another. Once you are wed, you must be sure to visit both New Barrel and – once it’s safe, anyways – Brightwater.”

Sansa frowned. “Why isn’t it safe at Brightwater?”

“It will be, once Garlan has convinced his new subjects to accept his rule. But that takes time. The castle has been in the hands of House Florent for a long time, and they have always had ambitions. They resent the Tyrells, because they believe they were the rightful heirs to the Gardner Kings, but the Targaryens decreed House Tyrell the Lords of Highgarden and Paramount Lords of the Reach. House Florent has had a troubled history ever since, and to this day, many believe the legend that House Florent is descended from Florys, the cleverest of Garth Greenhand’s daughters. I think it’s all nonsense, that they care so much about what happened in a time even the best historians at the Citadel say is more mythic than known to us, but it matters not what I think. At any rate, House Florent is still in open rebellion against the crown. They’re one of the few families in the Reach to side with Stannis, presumably because his wife is a Florent. I worry that they will not submit easily to their new Lord, and I will fear for Garlan’s safety until the province is fully quelled,” Leonette explained.

“That does sound worrisome,” Sansa agreed. “It’s odd, coming into these century-long feuds, as an outsider. In the North, I knew which houses were friendly and which had rivalries. I thought that if I simply memorized all the heraldry and mottos, the names of the present lords and heirs, a few facts about the major houses – I thought that would be enough. But there is a lot of history here, and a lot I do not know about the people my future husband will someday rule.”

“I know what you mean. It isn’t quite the same, but us New Barrel Fossoways are a house of recent vintage, an offshoot of Cider Hall. We have but our one feud, with the Red Apples, but we do not have centuries of history like the Florents or the Tyrells. It can all be quite baffling when you are thrust into the middle of it,” Leonette said, smiling sympathetically at Sansa.

“The feud between the Green Apples and the Red Apples began in the time of Ser Duncan the Tall, is that right? I think I know the story, for there are songs about it, and they are sung even in the North. At least, they are sung when a travelling bard bothers to visit us. But why don’t you tell me the story as it is told, in your family? I’m curious to know what the songs leave out,” Sansa replied.

Leonette’s face brightened. “Of course, I should be happy to tell you the tale! You are right, the songs leave out much and more. But it is a long story, so what do you say I tell it to you over a chilled glass of Arbor Gold?”

“That sounds delightful,” Sansa said. The pair linked arms and walked back into the castle.

 

***

 

Though Sansa had quite enjoyed her evening with Leonette, and though they had talked late into the night, she found herself waking early, unable to fall back asleep. It must have been the wine, she thought, groaning a little and pulling her pillow over her head. I should not have drank so much, with a full day of travel ahead.

To Sansa’s relief, however, travelling by barge was much less onerous than travelling by horse or caravan. She had her own sleeping-chamber on the barge, and she took the liberty of napping in the afternoon, rocked to sleep by the gentle rocking of the boat. When she awoke, Sansa felt much refreshed, and even moreso after she called a chambermaid to fill the fancy cistern with water so that she could wash herself. It was not quite as relaxing as a bath, but the sprinkle of heated water was pleasant in its own way.

I could quite get used to this, Sansa thought, as the maid helped her comb through her hair and dress in a flowing gown. I fear I will grow spoiled from all the luxury.

The remaining days on the pleasure barge were an absolute delight, providing Sansa with an opportunity to view the landscape of her new home and continue her efforts to befriend the other ladies. As the barge passed by castles and villages, the smallfolk would stop their work and run to the side of the Mander, waving hats and scarves in the air. Sansa smiled at the sight, pleased to see that the people of the Reach loved their lords and that they were not starving, like the people of King’s Landing. Margaery’s charity made even more sense to her now, knowing that the new Queen must have grown accustomed to the love of the smallfolk from her early years in Highgarden.

Days seemed to pass all together too quickly on the barge, and it was not long until Highgarden towered overhead. For leagues in every direction, verdant hills surrounded the castle. Below its walls flowed the Mander, shimmering in the late afternoon sun. The castle was surrounded by three rectangular, crenellated walls of white stone, dripping with ivy, flowering vines, and perhaps grape vines as well. Within each wall were extensive gardens, full of brightly-colored fruit trees and exotic flowers. Extending outwards from the walls were delicate gilded poles on which more plants hung. Even from a distance, Sansa thought she could make out three massive weirwoods and a glass garden thrice the size of Winterfell’s. Even more majestic than the Godswood, which warmed Sansa’s heart, was a massive Sept covered in stained-glass panes. The castle itself was surrounded by a gigantic, bustling city. On the dock, singers and peddlers and smallfolk gathered, singing and crying out their wares and throwing flowers onto the walkway. Sansa’s mouth dropped open at the beauty of it. No wonder Highgarden was said to be one of the world’s greatest wonders. I cannot wait to see it up close, she thought with growing excitement.

But after she had gathered her things, as she prepared to step out onto the dock, a knot of nervousness coiled in Sansa’s stomach. She gazed out at the crowd on the dock, wondering if Willas was among them.

Alerie put a gentle hand on Sansa’s forearm, seeming to read her mind. “Willas will not be here, on the dock. It is a difficult trip for him, to come down from the castle, with his injured leg. He will await us in the Great Hall, I expect, or perhaps in the alcove of the entryway. At least, I hope he will be prepared to meet us…there is always the possibility that he gets caught up in his work and forgets we are arriving today, and then I will have to go and drag him from his office to meet his new bride!” she told Sansa.

The knot in Sansa’s stomach twisted tighter. I hope he likes me, she thought, suddenly terrified that he would have no interest in her. Everyone described him as kind and intelligent, but she had gathered further information during the journey, and by all accounts, Willas was also a very serious man who spent much of his time pouring over books, ledgers, and letters. Will he find me frivolous? she wondered, her dread beginning to drown out her amazement at the beauty that surrounded her.

What if he refuses to marry me? The thought struck her, sending a thrum of fear coursing throughout her body. What if he sends me back?

Some of the inner turmoil must have shown on Sansa’s face, for Leonette also reached out, laying a gentle hand on Sansa’s shoulder.

“Hey, Sansa, it’s okay,” Leonette said. “All of this can be pretty overwhelming, but trust me, you will grow to love it here.”

If they let me stay, Sansa thought, the terror beginning to render her immobile. How can I step off this barge, knowing my journey is at an end, knowing what may await me?

“Truly, it is a beautiful sight,” Sansa heard Tyrion saying to Desmera. “I’ve read so much about it, but it is quite something to see it in person. I do not think the little pictures in the books do it justice.”

As he spoke, he seemed to notice that Desmera was distracted, and he glanced back over his shoulder to see what she was looking at. His eyes landed on Sansa, who was visibly trembling by now, a haunted expression on her face. Alerie and Leonette looked on with concern, not sure what to say or do. Desmera and Tyrion whispered something to each other, and then the pair took a few steps closer to Sansa.

“Sansa, are you okay?” Desmera asked, a note of worry in her voice. “Are you nervous?”

“Yes,” Sansa said in a tiny voice, still trembling.

“Never fear, Sansa. This is a civilized place. There are no krakens rising from the sea or dragons flying over head, ready to eat you. Why, in the land where you are from, one must deal with all those hideous grumkins and snarks on a daily basis! You are the girl who once tamed a direwolf and brought it home as a pet! You have nothing to fear from a few flowering plants, I assure you,” Tyrion japed, trying to lighten the mood.

Sansa’s eyes narrowed at the mention of Lady, but Desmera’s widened.

“Grumpkins and snarks?!” Desmera shrieked. “For real?? I thought they were just legends! Did you really have a direwolf for a pet? Tell me, Sansa!! Did you really??”

“Yes,” Sansa replied in the same tiny voice, tears flooding her eyes. “Her name was Lady. Father killed her because of Joffrey and Cersei and Arya.”

“Fuck,” swore Tyrion. “I’m sorry, Sansa. I was trying to cheer you up and distract you from all the bad memories, but I had forgotten how Lady met her end. I was not there and I completely forgot. Truly, I apologize. I am a beast.”

“Yeah,” was all Sansa could manage.

“Okay, look. Here is a solution that never fails,” promised Tyrion, fumbling around in his bag until his hands found a flask. “Take a swig of this, that should set you to rights, if nothing else will.”

Sansa took a sip, then coughed. “What is that?” she demanded. “That’s not wine!” It tasted like some kind of cleaning liquid. 

Desmera giggled. “It’s strongwine.”

“That’s disgusting,” Sansa pronounced, but whether it was the wine or the efforts of her new friends to cheer her up, she did have to admit that she felt slightly better. Sansa took a deep breath, and stepped onto the dock, steeling herself. I am about to meet the man I will marry, Sansa thought. I must be strong. I cannot faint in front of him. I must be charming, or else he may not want me.

With that thought, Sansa followed the rest of the party towards the carriages that would take them up the hills and into Highgarden. She pasted on a smile for the smallfolk, but the smile did not reach her eyes.

Chapter Text

Willas Tyrell was working at his desk when he heard a cry from the servant girl on the balcony, alerting him that his mother’s barge was pulling up to the dock. Melena Flowers, she was called, and she was the sister (cousin?) of his office assistant, Martin Flowers. Willas had chosen the girl for this task because her brother (cousin?) had mentioned how excited she was about the wedding and impending arrival of Willas’s betrothed, whom she referred to as “Princess Sansa.” Sansa’s ordeal in the capital – or, at least, what little of it the girl had gathered from the palace rumor mill – had transformed her into a romantic heroine in Melena’s eyes, a beautiful and long-suffering maiden on a quest for true love. Though he knew it was important not to miss Sansa’s arrival, the heir to Highgarden had no time to sit on balconies waiting for a barge to appear at the docks, so he decided the job was perfectly suited for a 12-year-old devotee of romantic songs and poetry.

Smiling as Melena rushed into the room, hopping up and down excitedly and shouting that Sansa was here, Willas gathered up his papers and locked them in the drawer beneath the desk’s top surface. He told Melena to run ahead, and the girl dashed off. Glancing about the room until he saw it leaning against the wall behind him, he picked up his cane. He might not need it today, but it would be better to have it and not need it, than to need it and find himself unable to walk on his own at a crucial moment. Stepping gingerly around the desk, he walked slowly out of the office and made his way towards the entry hall. Thanks to Melena’s timely warning, Willas had made it to the entryhall before the arriving party had even finished disembarking from the barge. He settled himself onto the cushioned bench in the alcove, and waited. He waited for some time, until he began to wish he’d brought a book to keep him occupied.

Finally, he saw his mother stride through the door, surrounded by a chattering crowd of courtiers. She smiled widely when she saw Willas waiting in the alcove.

“Willas, darling!” she cried, making a beeline for her son and wrapping him in a hug.

“Welcome home, mother,” Willas replied, hugging her back. “How were your travels?”

“Pleasant enough,” Alerie replied, stepping back.

“Willas! My dear boy, come here and give these old bones a hug,” Olenna said, opening her arms.

“It’s good to have you back, Grandmother,” he said, hugging her gently.

“And now, it is time for me to introduce you to your betrothed. Willas, this is the Lady Sansa Stark.”

Noticing her for the first time, Willas gazed at Sansa, half-astonished that Margaery had not exaggerated the girl’s beauty. She is absolutely ravishing, he thought to himself, eyes sweeping over his bride-to-be. Sansa had the loveliest red hair, with notes of gold that shone in the sun and undertones of auburn in the shadows that wreathed her neck. Her skin was alabaster, smooth and surprisingly free of the freckles he had assumed were typical of redheads, based on his Redwyne cousins. A slight blush colored her shoulders, as if her delicate Northern skin had grown pink in the sun during her days of travel. Her body was very slender, perhaps a bit too thin for his tastes, but his mother had warned him that Sansa had been mistreated in the capital, so perhaps she would fill out now that she was free from the Lannisters. Looking closer, he noted that her underlying build did indeed leave room to fill out; her hips were bony but wide, and her breasts round and perky, despite her slenderness. A figure like an hourglass, Margaery had told him, at least once we get her into your hands, where she can grow strong and flourish. It seemed true.

Yet, for all her beauty, there was something vacant about the girl’s expression. She smiled, but her eyes darted about nervously. Her curtsy was perfectly executed, but her hands seemed to tremble as she took hold of her skirts, before lifting and releasing them with a movement so smooth he wondered if he was mistaken about her hands shaking only seconds prior. Mother warned me that the girl was terribly frightened of everything, after what she suffered in the capital, he reminded himself. Willas resolved to be as kind and gentle as possible with his new bride.

I will give her space to grow and find herself again, he thought. And mayhaps she will love me for it, despite my brokenness. We are both broken, she and I, albeit in different ways. The shy, abused wolf pup and the flowering tree with the dead, twisted limb. What a pair we make!

Willas took Sansa’s hand, brushing his lips gently across the back of it before letting go.

“It is wonderful to finally meet you, my lady,” he said. “You are even more beautiful than Margaery claimed, and I offer my warmest welcomes. Highgarden is at your service, as am I. If there is anything at all that you want or need, please do not hesitate to ask. While I cannot promise that I will succeed in fulfilling your every desire, I will do my utmost to make it so.”

“Ooh la la,” Leonette teased.

“Hush, Leonette. He’s trying to be romantic,” Desmera hissed. They both giggled, and Willas chuckled politely, though Olenna and Alerie glared at the tittering girls.

“She’s caught me,” Willas confessed, a twinkle of good humor in his eyes. “I’m no Garlan the Gallant, but I do what I can.”

“What he’s not telling you is that I’m not truly so gallant either,” Garlan chimed in. “He gave me that name to save me from a worse one. You see, I was a fat child, and we do have an uncle named Garth the Gross. Willas dubbed me Garth the Gallant to protect me from such a fate, though not before threatening me with Garlan the Greensick, Garlan the Galling, and Garlan the Gargoyle.”

“I still call you Garlan the Galling, from time to time, but only when you tax my patience tremendously,” Willas replied fondly, smiling broadly and clapping his brother on the back. “Well met, brother. I have missed you.”

Willas noticed that Sansa smiled at Garlan’s story, a real smile.

Perhaps there is hope for us, Willas thought. I shall win her heart with kindness, and perhaps she will not mind my plain face or my crippled leg or my long hours of working somberly. The ladies of the Reach are mostly sheltered from the storms outside our borders, but Sansa is a Stark, and the Starks know that winter is always coming. Mayhaps she will understand that I must be serious, that running a kingdom is serious work that cannot be shirked.

At least, Willas hoped so. He would have to find out more about his bride-to-be, as soon as he could convince their entourage to give them a moment alone. He saw that his mother was already ushering Sansa towards her new rooms, perhaps concerned that the girl might be overwhelmed by all the excitement. As the group dispersed to put away their things, making plans to reunite for tea in an hour, Desmera took Willas aside.

“She had a pet direwolf, but don’t ask her about it, because something terrible happened to it on the King’s Road. Get her a puppy,” Desmera hissed into her cousin’s ear, before darting off to her room.

A direwolf? Willas thought. I thought direwolves were mythic creatures. There were rumors that one fought beside her brother in the Riverlands; I dismissed them, but this seems like confirmation, for now there are rumors of two direwolves, with a witness to their existence here in my own home. I shall have to ask her about it someday, once I know her well enough and after I have built up some trust.

A puppy, though? That, he could provide. I have the perfect pup in mind, he thought. Thanking the gods for Desmera’s hint, Willas wandered towards the kennels while the others unpacked.

 

***

 

Willas arrived at the parlor just after the tea hour began, with a fluffy golden-haired puppy in his arms.

“Feel free to decline if you wish, but I heard you’re fond of canines,” Willas explained, holding the puppy out and letting Sansa take him into her arms with glee. “She’s yours, if you want her, or you can come and pick one out for yourself. This one is bred for gentle temperament and pleasant appearance, but you shall have to let me know if she gives you any trouble, so I can take her sire out of the petting-dog breeding pool. The father is a new acquisition, recently arrived from Bardshome, but all the pups by the mother dog have bred true so far, so my expectation is that this girl shall make a fine companion.”

“Ohhhhh, she is so cuuuute,” Sansa squealed with delight, rubbing the little dog’s silky ears and kissing it on the brow. She looked up at him with a wide, genuine smile. “Oh, thank you, Willas! What a lovely gift. What shall I call her?”

“Queenie? Rosie? Amaline?” suggested Desmera, who had spent the last hour thinking up dog names.

“Too boring,” said one of the other ladies, an Ambrose cousin whose name was Amaline. “How about Hyacinthe? Or Rhododendron?”

Leonette deemed those names unpronounceable, suggesting instead that Sansa pick a name that reminded her of her homeland. “What sort of flowers did you have in Winterfell? I don’t know what grows up there, but I’m told you had glass gardens.”

“We had winter roses, and calendulas, and snapdragons,” Sansa recalled. “Bleeding hearts bushes, petunias, and pansies. Queen Alysanne’s Lace, also. But none of those would make good names…how about Alyssum, for the Sweet Alyssum flower? It would bring together my new home, with all its flowers, and my old.”

“Alyssum it is,” Leonette declared, scratching the pup under its chin. Alyssum wiggled playfully and sneezed. The ladies laughed, charmed by the puppy.

“She’s perfect, Willas,” Sansa said brightly. “Thank you.”

“It is nothing, my lady,” Willas replied. “I am happy to please you.”

“Oh, I bet he is,” chuckled Desmera. “And you better be too,” she added in a mock-scolding tone, looking at Tyrion.

“I live to please,” Tyrion said, licking his lips lewdly.

Willas glanced at Sansa, and found her blushing. She is shy, then, he noted. That will make things rather difficult. I wish Oberyn was here, so he could give me good advice on how to coax her out of her modesty…

“Enough,” Alerie said firmly. “We are ladies, here, and we are graced with the presence of your future Lady Paramount. Please behave, all of you.”

Desmera rolled her eyes, but let it go. The other ladies began to chatter, filling the silence with gossip from the capital and information on the latest fashions in King’s Landing. It was all rather overwhelming for Willas, whose leg had begun to ache. I have so much work I could be doing, he thought to himself.

After a moment, Willas turned to Sansa. “So, my lady, how were your travels? I hope the journey was not too taxing. Did you find your accommodations to your liking?”

“Oh, yes, everything was most wonderful,” Sansa gushed. “I quite enjoyed the trip on the barge. I have never been on such a conveyance, and I found it quite pleasant. It was very informative, too, to see the landscape and the people. The plants grow much taller and the fields are much bigger, with far fewer rocks and trees, compared to the North.”

“Perceptive, my lady,” Willas replied. “As you may know, the Reach produces over fifty percent of the food grown in Westeros, compared to the twenty percent produced by the Riverlands. We are the primary exporters of almost every crop, save lemons, where Dorne takes the lead due to its highly advantageous climate. I am surprised, actually, that we do not have greater competition in wine production from the North, or at least the Vale, as there are several varieties of white grape that fare especially well in colder, rockier environments. But I have read that beer is more popular than wine in the North, so perhaps that explains why more families do not try to grow grapes. I once spoke to Wyman Manderly – do you know him? a very large man? – about potentially expanding Northern wine production and establishing a trade deal to exchange the results for some of our own wines, but though he seemed intrigued, he told me there was not much demand for wine up there.”

Why am I nattering on about agriculture and trade? Willas thought suddenly. His cheeks colored with embarrassment.

“I’m sorry, my lady. I’m afraid I spend so much time dealing with such matters that I can be a terrible bore. Please forgive my soliloquy on crop production,” he said to Sansa.

“Oh no, it was quite interesting, my lord,” Sansa replied politely. “I never paid attention to such details in Winterfell, but I have come to appreciate their importance. You must forgive my ignorance, however. I have had but little time to learn about such weighty matters.”

“Some people look down on others for their ignorance,” commented Willas. “But I do not. I find it delightful, in its own way, because it presents an opportunity to share knowledge. There is nothing finer than the way one’s face lights up upon discovering new and interesting information. My problem is that I often cannot tell the difference between interesting and uninteresting new information from another’s point of view, because I am curious about everything.”

Sansa laughed at that. She has a charming laugh, Willas thought.

“Garlan mentioned ugly nicknames earlier, and you just brought up Wyman Manderly,” Sansa said hesitantly, a smile flickering on her lips. “Do you know what Lord Wyman is called up North? They call him Lord Too-Fat-To-Sit-A-Horse.” She waited, ready to giggle, seeming to wait on his reaction. Willas chuckled, and Sansa let her giggles loose again.

“What are you two giggling about?” Desmera asked, coming up behind Sansa.

“A Northern Lord that I’ve done business with,” Willas answered. “I’ve just learned that he is called Lord Too-Fat-To-Sit-A-Horse. Please, cousin, promise me that if anyone ever calls me such a thing, you will inform me immediately and insist that I go on a diet.”

Desmera giggled. “Of course, cousin.”

“I think I would embrace it, if I were him,” Tyrion commented. “I’ve met Wyman Manderly, and I can tell you that he would never give up the pleasures of food and drink. And why should he? Drunkenness and gluttony are too fun to give up. Better to resolutely bear the ugly names that others call you, than to cringe away and let your tormenters know they’ve pricked your pride.”

Glancing at the dwarf, whom he had never met before today, Willas raised his eyebrows and inquired, “So you do not mind, then, when people call you the Imp?”

“Not at all!” Tyrion proclaimed, but Willas had his doubts.

“Well, you have a tougher skin than I,” he replied. “I do not mind if people speak of my crippled leg, and my grandmother has surely disabused me of any hurt feelings at being called Willas the Crippled, but I must admit that it smarts when someone treats me as if my injury makes me less of a man.”

“Oh, my lord,” breathed Sansa. “But surely no one would dare? You are heir to Highgarden, after all.”

“You are kind to think so, Sansa,” Willas said, gently. “But I am afraid that people say all manner of ugly things when they think no one is listening, and betimes it gets back to me. And there are some who do not hesitate to say ugly things to my face – for instance, when turning down a marriage proposal. But you should feel free to speak frankly, my lady, for we are to be married. My injury does not bother you?”

“Oh, no, my lord! It is nothing. I am quite pleased to be marrying you.”

“Well, it is polite of you to say so, though one never knows how company might restrain a lady’s tongue. You needn’t give an honest answer presently, but if you are concealing your discomfort for my sake, I hope you will come to me or my lady mother to call off the ceremony, for I would not have you wed me if it is not your wish to do so. We will not keep you here against your will,” Willas continued.

Leave it to me, to turn a friendly conversation serious, he thought bitterly.

“Please, my lord,” Sansa begged, a look of fear in her eye. “Don’t say such things. Truly, I wish to be your wife, if you will have me.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear it,” Willas said awkwardly. "I shall be pleased to be your husband."

“So!” exclaimed Leonette, hoping to revive the merry spirit that had slipped away at this turn of the conversation. “Willas, would you like to hear about Margaery’s wedding?”

“I am not sure that’s an appropriate topic, either,” cautioned Alerie. “Given how the wedding ended.”

Leonette’s head drooped. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Everything is so dark these days, it’s hard to know what’s safe to speak of.”

Fortunately, Alyssum let out a well-timed little bark, bounding up to Sansa and demanding pettings. The ladies cooed over the puppy, and the awkwardness broke.

At the end of the tea hour, Willas – internally cringing at his lack of conversation skill and the mess he’d made of his first meeting with Sansa – bid the ladies goodbye and returned to his office. He threw himself into his work again with such fervor that he missed dinner, and had to send Martin to fetch some leftovers later that night, after much of the court had already turned in for the evening. Martin reported that the Lady Sansa was still awake, listening to one of Highgarden’s bards play in the gardens, but Willas did not wish to disturb her with his presence. Instead, he set aside his work for the night, and picked up a book of Northern fairytales he’d found in the library after he learned he was to marry Sansa.

During the Age of Heroes, the Thirteenth Commander rose to lead the Night’s Watch, Willas read. Perhaps a Stark or mayhaps a Bolton, the Thirteenth Commander was a man who did not know fear. They called him the Night’s King…

 

***

 

Willas must have fallen asleep atop his book of fairytales, for he started awake at the sound of a knock on the office door. He looked up, and to his surprise, he saw that it was fully dark outside and his friend Oberyn was at the door.

“Oberyn!” Willas exclaimed. “I did not expect to see you here. Grandmother told me you had business in King’s Landing that could not wait.”

“Indeed, I did,” Oberyn replied. “But it was a visit I declined, not a wedding. I could not miss the chance to be here, when I had assumed for all these years that I would not be invited, due to your father’s unrelenting anger at me. It took some creative planning, which is why I arrived so late, but I was able to make alternative arrangements in King's Landing. I had to hasten some of my plans, but I think the results shall be the same, despite the slightly compressed timeline. And anyways, you know I am not a patient man, so it was little hardship to speed things along."

Willas smiled broadly. “I’m surprised but gladdened to hear it, and to see you. It has been a long time since you last made it to Highgarden, and I have had to settle for your letters for the last few years. In fact, I was just wishing you were here, earlier today.”

“Oh?” Oberyn replied, cocking an eyebrow. “Whatever for?”

Willas blushed. Oberyn smiled seductively, moving just a shade too close. “Uh, I didn’t mean…I thought you might know…it’s about my wedding night,” Willas stammered.

Oberyn laughed at that, his voice rich and deep. “I would be happy to teach you and the Lady Stark how to make one another writhe in pleasure, but I fear I am a rather hands-on teacher.”

“Not that I don’t appreciate the offer, but, uhm, that isn’t what I meant. I thought…perhaps you could give me some advice?”

“Certainly.” Oberyn looked quite amused at the direction their conversation had taken. “You see, Willas, the most crucial thing to do is to dip your fingers between the lady’s folds and find the little pearl of pleasure…”

Oberyn,” Willas groaned, half in frustration and half in want. “I am to be a married man. I meant only to ask if you had any advice for how to put a maid at ease, if she is shy and has not known the touch of a man.”

“I see. Well, we might begin by thinking back to your first sexual encounter,” Oberyn replied. “How did I put you at ease?”

“That’s different,” Willas said, shaking his head. “Between men – that’s frowned upon. Between man and wife, it is understood to be right and good.”

“Oh?” Oberyn asked. “Do you think that’s what the Septas tell young maidens? My, my, Willas. You are a very smart man, but for such a smart man, you are quite a babe in certain areas.”

“You are suggesting that Septas teach girls that it is sinful, even once they are wed?” Willas asked, with interest.

Oberyn shrugged. “They teach girls that their sexuality is dangerous, that it must be suppressed and hidden away, kept safe for their lord husbands. The Septas frighten them, warn them of the dangers of childbirth and the shame of bearing bastards. And so, I am told, it is often quite difficult to shed that deeply ingrained fear overnight. Besides, Septas rarely speak of pleasure. They will speak of duty to bear heirs, or duty to satisfy one’s lord husband, but pleasure? It is foreign to them, forbidden. And that is what they teach their charges.”


“So how do I undo those teachings?” Willas asked.

“I am probably the wrong man to ask, for I do not seek out maidens, and those who come to me have already set aside their Septa’s cautionary tales. But I assume one ought to reassure one’s lady wife that it is right and good that she feel pleasure, that there is no sin in lying with her lord husband. And then, drive her mad with pleasure, until she cannot string two thoughts together long enough to shame herself, so caught up is she in your ministrations.”

Oberyn moved closer still. Should I tell him to leave? Willas wondered. I am not wed yet…surely there is nothing wrong with one last night of fun.

Oberyn’s hand dropped to Willas’s breeches, and Willas moaned at the Dornishman's touch between his legs. Stroking Willas through his breeches, Oberyn leaned closer, until his voice was breathing in Willas's ear.

“I know you’re to be wed,” Oberyn whispered. “Should I go?”

Willas did not respond immediately, growing hard under Oberyn’s clever fingers. Competing desires warred within the heir to Highgarden, who did not wish to dishonor Sansa, but also did not wish to lose his opportunity for one last liaison with Oberyn.  Once we’ve said our vows, I will be faithful to them, but we have not said our vows yet, Willas thought.

“Don’t go,” Willas said. “But this must be the last time.”

A gentle laugh escaped Oberyn’s lips. “And there you are. That’s how you do it,” he said, moving to place a quick kiss on Willas’s lips, then undoing his belt. “How did I convince you? You said yourself that this is frowned upon, men lying with men. And you hesitated, worrying that this might constitute a betrayal of your wife-to-be. What made you decide to lie with me, even so? That first night, all those years ago, and then again tonight? That feeling is what you must conjure in your wife if you wish to overcome her Septa’s teachings.”

Distracted, Willas filed away this advice to contemplate at another time. His hands fell to Oberyn’s waist, pulling him closer and tugging at his waistband.

“Okay, lesson concluded,” Oberyn announced, kissing Willas deeply.

Chapter Text

When Sansa first laid eyes on Willas, she realized that she had made a terrible mistake. Eyes sweeping over him, she tried to take in every detail. I did not even know what he looked like when I decided I loved him, she thought, expecting the man she had invented in her mind but realizing suddenly that he was a stranger. She had been picturing Willas based on Loras and Garlan, as if she could amalgamate the two brothers to envision the third. But though she saw the resemblance, he was not quite as she had imagined him. She had expected Willas to have Loras’s face with Garlan’s build, combining the best features of the two to make the perfect handsome prince. The real Willas was not a perfect synthesis between his two brothers, but more like a muddled middle between the slender, chisled, almost womanly beauty of Loras and the broad-shouldered, bearded, masculine handsomeness of Garlan. The real Willas, in short, was perfectly average. His face was neither beautiful nor ugly, but simply the normal face of an utterly regular-looking man.

 I thought I loved him, but I don’t even know him, Sansa thought, her heart dropping. I held his name like a talisman, to conjure pretty thoughts in my darkest moments. I loved the fantasy of him, I loved what he represented and how I imagined him in my dreams. I do not even know if I can love the real man, who stands before me now, not as a mythic figure but as flesh-and-blood.

Descending from the clouds, Sansa resolved to look at the actual person before her, without the filter of her imaginings. Willas had medium-brown hair, cropped fairly close but neatly coiffed; he was of medium-height, with an average build; his eyes were dark, foresty green and his nose was a tad prominent and slightly bent, like it had been broken. Did he break it during the joust where he hurt his leg? Sansa wondered. She decided his nose was distinguished, a unique feature that saved him from appearing bland. Indeed, his overall appearance was quite pleasant, if she did not view him through the filter of her daydreams. He is certainly far, far lovelier than Tyrion, Sansa admitted. And everyone tells me he is kind and gentle, unlike Joffrey.

I must try to love him, this real Willas, Sansa resolved. Her mother had told her many times that she must try to love her husband, even if it was difficult at first. Catelyn had promised that the strangeness would fade, and her groom would become familiar to her in time. “Every bride is nervous,” her mother had explained to her before she departed for King’s Landing, back when she thought she was to marry Joffrey. “It is frightening to walk into the arms of a man you scarcely know, to go with him to his home, which is unknown to you and full of strangers and jarringly different than what you have always known. But, if you both make the effort and your parents have matched you well, you can grow to love each other. He will be the father of your children, and you will love him for that. You will grow used to his presence, until his absence makes your heart ache, and you realize suddenly that you miss him, that you love him. At least, that is how it was for me. I did not love your father when we married, but I love him dearly now.”

Sansa promised herself that she would try. She and Willas would be like her mother and father: strangers at first, but true love in the end. I will try, she thought. And if he will, too, we can make this work.

 

***

 

He began to win her over when he met them for tea, with the most beautiful little golden puppy in his arms. She is no replacement for Lady, she thought as she stroked the pup’s soft ears and cooed over it, but I love her all the same.

When Willas told her that he feared she would not want him, however, Sansa was gripped by both fear and longing. Fear, because she was terrified that the wedding would not take place, and she would have no one to protect her. Longing, because she recognized Willas’s wounded heart and ached to comfort him, to reassure him that he was desirable despite his injured leg. Truly, I do not know why they make such a fuss over his leg, she thought. One hardly notices it, and if it prevents him from riding off to war beside his brothers, at least that means he is safe at home rather than facing death. It is selfish, I suppose, but I am glad I will not have to wait anxiously to find out if he still breathes, as other ladies must wait for word of their lord husbands during war-time. She did not say this to Willas, however, because she feared he would take it amiss. Men could be sensitive about their prowess in battle, and she did not want him to perceive her as mocking his physical limitations.

 

***

After refreshing her hair and changing into an evening gown, Sansa made her way from her beautiful rooms in the Tyrell wing of the castle, hoping she would remember the route she must take to arrive at the formal dining room. The soon-to-be-bride was looking forward to the evening meal, because it would be her first opportunity to meet some of the Reach ladies who had not travelled to the capital for Margaery’s wedding to Joffrey. I should have reviewed my sigils instead of lazing in the sun, during our journey on the barge, Sansa thought, worrying that she had forgotten too many of Septa Mordane’s lessons. I should have studied harder at Winterfell. I treated my lessons as a game, as trivia facts and fodder for songs and stories, without realizing how essential that knowledge would become once I arrived at court.

Sansa found the dining hall, and as she swished into her room in the delicate green silk dress the Tyrells had bought her in Tumbleton, Alerie guided her to a seat at the head of the table, beside Willas’s seat as the acting Lord of the Reach.

“Though Mace did not institute a formal regency before he left for war and politicking in the capital,” Alerie explained as she took her seat at Sansa’s left, next to Garlan and Leonette. “He did make it clear to everyone that Willas was to be treated as the Lord in every respect, save a few. I’m sure my dear lord husband thought he was giving his heir an opportunity to practice ruling, but in truth, Willas has managed the bulk of the kingdom’s business for years, even when my husband is at court in Highgarden. Mace forgets how much of the realm’s affairs have passed directly from his mother’s hands to his son’s.”

“That’s surprising,” Sansa remarked.

“Yes, well, we all strive to employ our talents in the areas where they shall do the most good,” Alerie replied. “Mace is not as oblivious as he seems, but even so, he has no talent for numbers. He is in his element with people, rather than papers. Where do you think your own talents lie, as future Lady of the Reach?”

“I,” Sansa stammered. “I…I do not know, my lady. I had not considered it, which now seems dreadfully stupid of me. My lady mother taught me how to manage a household, but I confess, I never had much talent with figures.”

“But you know your courtesies, and people tend to like you,” said Alerie. “And Elinor and Margaery have endless praise for your talents at sewing and embroidery. I think you shall be a good complement to my eldest son, whose strengths lie in facts and figures, papers and charts, research and planning, but not so much diplomacy.”

Sansa blushed, embarrassed by her ignorance, but then she recalled Willas’s comments on ignorance during tea-time. “I hope you are right, my lady, but even so, I should like to take the opportunity to improve in any areas where my education proves lacking. I do not wish to disappoint.”

Alerie nodded. “I was born to House Hightower, so I had knowledge thrust upon me from my earliest days, but you would not be the first lady to pursue further education in your maturity. We have ample resources available if you wish to fill any gaps in your education. Our maester, Lomys, is a highly respected scholar in a surprisingly wide range of fields, and further expertise is never far away, with the Citadel so near to Highgarden. For now, of course, it’s most important that you sow affection in your marriage, but given Willas’s devotion to his work, you shall have ample hours that may be filled with study as well as leisure, if you so choose. Once you have a babe in arms, you may find much of that once-free time is occupied, but help is always at hand in a keep as large as Highgarden. Besides, children age, and mothers can learn along side them.”

Sansa felt uncomfortable at the mention of babes, recalling that her mother conceived Robb on her wedding night. I hope I have a little time before that happens, she thought to herself. Not that I do not look forward to having children, but I should like a bit of time to acquaint myself with my new husband before adding children to the mix. I still feel half a child myself, at times.

To Alerie, Sansa said, “Thank you for your wise counsel, my lady. Are you sad that your children are all grown? That Margaery and Loras have left to pursue lives in the capital?”

“I am happy and sad at the same time,” Alerie said wistfully. “Loras – darling Loras, with his lovely armor and tourney glamour – was always destined for the Kingsguard. Margaery, too, seemed destined to be a Queen. I am pleased that they have embarked on their own journeys, but I worry terribly, and I miss them already.”

“Loras gave me a rose, at the Hand’s Tourney in King’s Landing,” Sansa said without thinking. “I found it terribly romantic at the time, but he did not recall it, when I thanked him later.”

The chatter around Sansa and Alerie lulled suddenly, many faces glancing in her direction, some with expressions of surprise or distate. Sansa glanced from face to face, confused at the nature of her mistake, and then flushing as she realized she had nearly confessed her love for the brother of her betrothed.

“I,” Sansa tried to say. “I did not mean…I meant only that I saw it, too, Ser Loras’s beauty and gracefulness. That I am not surprised, that a true knight such as he should be honored with an appointment to the King’s Guard. I did not mean…I did not mean to suggest that I fancied him, or anything untoward. I love Willas. I am so pleased and grateful to be marrying Willas.”

A smattering of giggles broke out around the table, and Lady Alerie seemed taken aback, as if she did not know what to say. Seeming to reach a decision, the dignified Lady Paramount placed her hands on the arms of her chair, as if preparing to rise from her seat.

“Thank you for your kind words about both my sons, Sansa. I think I shall check to see if the bread is ready yet, for it should be on the tables by now,” Alerie said, sweeping her skirts out of the way as she rose. She glanced from Leonette and Garlan, to Desmera, to a few others Sansa did not know. “Someone explain it to her, please. It is not appropriate for me to speak publicly about my son’s proclivities. I shall expect the topic to be well and truly dropped by the time I return from the kitchens.”

With that, Lady Alerie swept rapidly yet gracefully from the room. Sansa’s whole face had turned scarlet, and she was dying of embarrassment. What did I say? Sansa fretted, afraid to say anything else for fear of further compounding her error. Did I offend her by praising Loras too highly, when she expects me to faun over Willas instead? What does she mean, ‘proclivities’?

“Loras prefers lords to ladies,” Leonette said, quietly and politely. “By the Seven, it is a sin for men to lie with men. When people say that Loras was always suited to the King’s Guard, they mean that it was an honorable way for him to avoid marriage without causing a scandal. It is unlikely that any courtly gesture by Loras towards a lady was intended romantically, and pointless for a lady to fancy him.”

“He prefers lords to ladies?” Sansa repeated. “I am terribly sorry for pressing the matter, but I must understand, so that I do not offend the Lady Alerie further. I know not what you mean.”

More titters broke out, especially at the far end of the table, full of unfamiliar faces.

“Loras prefers to lie with men, as other men lie with women. He has no interest in a woman’s touch, which makes him a poor marriage prospect for any woman who desires the intimate touch of her husband. Or even a babe in the womb, for that matter,” explained Desmera, somewhat delicately.

“He likes cocks,” Tyrion added. “Cocks, not tits.”

That was clear enough. Though now that she understood, Sansa found herself confused in deeper ways. Her blush continued to deepen.

“Tyrion, that’s my brother you’re speaking of,” Garlan warned, though he was mollified by Tyrion’s quick apology.

“Thank you for explaining,” Sansa said finally, in a very small voice. “I am terribly sorry for ruining dinner. I beg you, forgive my ignorance. Such things are not spoken of, in the North,” Sansa managed to say.

“It is perfectly fine, Sansa. We shall forget we ever spoke of it,” said Leonette, who mercifully changed the subject. “So, Alys, why don’t you tell us about your marriage plans? You are still your father’s heir, are you not? I heard you may have found a candidate who is prepared to take your name through matrilineal marriage, so that you might inherit, in the absence of any brothers.”

“Yes, we have begun talks with a Dornishman, a third son of House Qorgyle by the name of Arthur,” answered Alys Rowan, the eldest of Lord Mathis’s three daughters. “His brother Arron is the heir, and his brother Quentyn the spare, with a younger sister besides. It is a respected house, roughly on par with mine own, but the Dornish are accustomed to female heirs, so he does not consider it an insult to take my name and father Rowans.”

“That’s wonderful, Alys! I’m terribly happy for you, and I hope the talks go well,” Leonette replied. From there, the conversation wandered ever further from Sansa’s humiliating misstep, the other ladies continuing to exchange the latest gossip and discuss one another’s martial prospects.

Sansa, however, was deaf to all of it. The talk washed over her like words spoken in a foreign language, merely noise rather than comprehensible speech. Her face remained scarlet. I am such an idiot, Sansa thought, frozen and silent with shame. I think I shall die. I shall simply die, I cannot take such embarrassment. I have shamed myself with my ignorance. They shall always see me as an imbecile, after this. I shall never live it down and I will surely die. To think, I thought myself in love with Loras! How foolish, how terribly, terribly stupid and foolish of me.

The knot in her stomach loosened, though only slightly, as Sansa realized that she was most fortunate to be betrothed to Willas rather than to Loras, as she had once hoped. I am so, so, terribly glad that Willas was not here to witness my shameful idiocy. No matter what he says about the joys of curing one’s ignorance, I do not think he would find this particular area of ignorance delightful. He might have been offended, like Lady Alerie.

In stony silence, Sansa waited for Willas to arrive, hoping no one would speak to him of her humiliating error. He was still absent when the servants began to bring in baskets of freshly baked assorted spheres of bread, made from four different types of grain. Lady Alerie arrived just after the bread, skirts swishing as she returned to her chair and joined the ongoing conversation about the loveliest islands to visit. Sansa reddened once again, fixing her eyes on the bread to avoid looking at her goodmother-to-be. She took one of the brown spheres of bread, cutting it delicately and buttering it carefully.

“So, I was saying to Prince Jalabhar that I really must visit the Summer Islands, after hearing his compelling description of their beauty and peacefulness,” someone was saying. “That’s why I started learning the Summer Islander tongue, you see –”

Sansa took a bit of bread, scarcely listening to the din around her.

“It’s almost a pity you are to be wed so soon,” someone else was saying, their words passing over Sansa’s ears unheard. “Or perhaps you could find yourself a Prince of the Summer Isles, with your newly acquired language skills. One that isn’t disinherited. Oh, but please don’t take that as a slight against your betrothed, that’s not how I meant it, not at all.”

Sansa chewed the bread, the sound of her molars grinding the soft dough drowning out the conversation. It tasted delicious, but as Sansa’s embarrassment faded, she became increasingly concerned about Willas’s tardiness. Had she offended him, at tea-time? Had Lady Alerie gone and told him about the episode at dinner, such that he no longer wished to spend time in her presence? Would he still wish to marry her once he knew how much of a dolt she was? Lady Alerie claimed my social skills were one of my strengths, Sansa thought, but she can hardly believe that now. Perhaps she no longer thinks I would make a good match for her son. I have nothing to offer, nothing but my claim to Winterfell, and I am not even sure they wish to make use of that.

Soon, the servants brought out further plates. First, they brought a second appetizer course, a variety of exotic dishes served on small plates, to allow everyone to sample widely. Then, they brought out a main course of roasted waterfowl, served over some kind of round fluffy grain intermixed with carrots and peas and little cubes of orange squash that looked like it had been browned in butter. The whole dish was smothered in a cream sauce, swirled lightly together with a paste of herbs and pine nuts, and topped with tiny, edible flowers.

If this is what they serve for dinner on an ordinary night, I cannot wait to see what they serve at the wedding, Sansa thought, feeling a little better now that she had eaten some food. Besides, she was sure that Willas would arrive soon. He could hardly miss the main course. Sansa sat there politely, her hands folded demurely in her lap and her silver waiting untouched on her napkin.

“Oh, please, go ahead and eat,” Lady Alerie said kindly. “I am sure that Willas is caught up in his work. Do not starve yourself on his account.”

Sansa blushed at being addressed by her almost-goodmother, recalling her awkward exchange with Alerie before the meal began.

“It is no trouble to wait for him,” Sansa replied politely.

“No, Mother tells it truly, Sansa,” Garlan advised. “If Willas isn’t here by the time the main course is served, you can assume he forgot about the meal entirely. He does this all the time. We are hoping you can break him of it, but do not get your hopes up, because the bad habit is thoroughly ingrained by now.”

“If it is as you say, I shall not wait, then. This meal looks wonderful. Thank you all for your hospitality,” Sansa answered.

“I’m sure that Willas must be working on something terribly important. I know he wouldn’t miss this dinner for any other reason,” Leonette assured her. Sansa wondered if that was the truth, or if Leonette was only saying it to make her feel better. He is already bored with me, and we have only just met. How am I to keep him entertained for years to come, if he is already bored with me? Sansa wondered desperately.

“That’s kind of you to say,” Sansa said to Leonette.

“Perhaps he will come down after dinner, to listen to the music as we eat our dessert,” Leonette predicted, optimistically.

“As I said, do not count on it, though,” Garlan added.

Sansa ate her meal in tiny, polite bites. Her goodfamily was kind to her. At least there was that small comfort here, even if Willas did not seem to like her much. She finished her meal in silence. Though she waited long after the dinner had concluded, listening to the lovely singing of the bards and enjoying a few lemon cakes, Willas did not appear.

Finally, Sansa returned to her chambers without seeing her betrothed again. Stepping inside her room, she smiled as Alyssum wagged her tail in greeting, placing her tiny paws on Sansa’s skirts and demanding to be petted. Sansa stroked the beautiful little dog, hoping tomorrow would be a better day.

“Willas gave you to me, Sweet Alyssum,” Sansa told the puppy. “He cares for my happiness. Perhaps we will grow to love each other, with time, like Mother said.”

Sansa changed into her dressing gown and fell asleep with the golden little pup snoring on her bosom.

 

***

 

Sansa awoke the following morning to happy barking and face-licking. For a moment, she thought of nothing but the little dog, who was jumping around the bed as Sansa rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Then, suddenly, it occurred to her. Today is my wedding day, Sansa thought with astonishment. It had seemed so far away when she left King’s Landing, but the journey to Highgarden had stolen most of her short engagement from her. There was scarcely any time to prepare, though Margaery had sent her measurements ahead from King’s Landing, assuring Sansa that a beautiful gown would be waiting for her and that it would only require minor adjustments before she could wear it.

Leaping out of bed, Sansa called for her new maids, who helped her dress in a light shift and pinned up her hair in a simple knot, before ushering her off to the fitting room. The rest of the morning and early afternoon felt like a whirlwind, as Sansa rushed from the fitting room to the baths to the parlor, where expert craftswomen skilled in the arts of hair styling and cosmetic painting awaited her. By the time she was nibbling at the delicate luncheon laid out in the parlor, surrounded by the other Tyrell ladies, Sansa’s nerves had been dissolved in the distractions offered by all the feminine fripperies she had always desired.

Delicately eating tiny hors d'oeuvres, Sansa thought, It feels strange to sit here in my shift, with my hair styled and my face painted, surrounded by all these people.

“Your dress is so beautiful, Sansa,” Desmera gushed, as the gown was carried in, the final touches concluded. “I cannot wait to see it on you! By the Seven, this is exciting, isn’t it?!”

“Yes, it’s very exciting,” Sansa agreed. “Though I have scarcely had a moment to think, all morning!”

“Well, it’s better that way, isn’t it?” Desmera remarked. “That way you don’t have time to get nervous.”

“Oh, I am sure I will find time for that,” Sansa said, but her tone was jocular and self-deprecating, not serious. Desmera giggled.

As the attendants began to dress Sansa in her elaborate gown, the Stark girl noticed that Desmera’s dress was the wrong color for a wedding. “Desmera!” she called, from atop the dressing-stool. “Aren’t you and Tyrion getting married today, too?”

“That was the original plan,” Desmera explained. “But Lady Alerie assured us that it was no trouble to hold the ceremonies on separate days, so that no one would overshadow one another. Lord Tywin would probably be angry with us for changing the plan, but we are to marry on the morrow, so we shall be wed before he hears the news. Even he could scarcely begrudge a postponement of a single day, I’m sure.”

“How well do you know Lord Tywin?” Sansa asked wryly. Desmera giggled again.

“I know, I know. I’m sure he could begrudge anything, for any length of time, at least where Tyrion is concerned. But we shall leave for the Arbor soon after the wedding day, and from there to Casterly Rock. Tywin will remain in the capital as Hand, or in the field leading his armies, so I do not think he will be able to trouble us overly much, for the time being.”

“That’s true,” said Sansa. She gasped as one of the attendants began to cinch her corset. The bride’s desire for idle conversation evaporated as the laces pulled tighter and tighter, stealing her breath from her lips with every tug.

“Are they – trying to – kill me?” Sansa gasped out between tugs.

“It’s the latest fashion!” Desmera said brightly. “It’s unpleasant when they tie you in, but after a while, you will not notice anymore.”

More attendants came over to help with the cinching, pulling at the laces again. The corset cinched ever tighter around Sansa’s torso, and she struggled to breathe. For once, her shallow breaths were not caused by nerves, but by her gown.

“Hrrk!” Sansa gasped as they yanked the corset tighter still. “I think,” she started to say, cut off by another yank of the laces. “That is – quite – tight enough.”

“Just a bit longer, Sansa,” Leonette said sympathetically. “It will be over soon. They must pull it a bit tighter than usual, because you were so thin when Margaery took your measurements in the capital. You have gained a stone or two, and it is healthy weight, but I’m sure you want to fit into your dress.”

YANK. YANK. Gasp. YANK.

“Yes,” Sansa wheezed.

“There, you see? You look so beautiful, Sansa,” Leonette said, beginning to fuss a bit.

With the next yank of the laces, Sansa saw stars.

“Hfff,” breathed Sansa. It might have been a cry of pain if she could breathe deeply enough to cry out properly.

“Last one,” the burly attending lady promised. The final yank was the hardest of all, and Sansa’s head swam from lack of air. The fabric gripped her body so tightly that Sansa was held immobile at the waist and hips, unable to rotate the middle part of her body, much less bend at the waist to sit. The bones of the corset dug into her pelvis and ribs.

“Hrrrk – hrrk – huff,” Sansa coughed, a slash of pain shooting through her abdomen as her body tried to expand with her coughs.

“Are you okay, Sansa?” Desmera asked with concern.

I can feel my innards re-arranging themselves, Sansa thought hysterically. I am turning to jelly.

“Fine,” Sansa managed to whisper. She would not lose her courtly manners now, on her wedding day, of all days. If this is the height of fashion in the Reach, Sansa thought, her vision blurring, then I shall bear it. Cersei did warn me, once, that beauty is pain. I only hope Willas will love me for it, and that I shall not faint before the heart tree from inability to breathe.

Leonette reached a hand up to Sansa, helping her step down from the stool. Sansa’s movements were even more graceful and refined than usual, as the corset held her posture perfectly erect. The feeling of weakness in her limbs and the confinement of the harsh fabric made her slow and docile. Is that the purpose of this fashion? Sansa wondered. To render ladies placid on their wedding days?

“Breathe slowly, Sansa,” Leonette said. “A little in, a little out. Stay calm, and you will adjust. Here, let me help you. There is a special chair designed for ladies in corsets. See? Over here.”

That is a stool, Sansa thought, gazing skeptically at the uncomfortable seating. But she sat, as Leonette instructed.

“Breath in, and then out,” Leonette coached her. “There you are. It’s getting better, is it not? Do not think of the corset and you will forget it’s there.”

Not likely, Sansa thought acidly. She struggled against the tight fabric, trying to balance herself in such a way that she could take at least shallow breaths. But once she had found a position that allowed her at least a small measure of comfort, Sansa looked up and noticed a Myrish glass before her. She gazed at her reflection, noticing how perfectly shaped her figure appeared. The infernal device does improve my shape, she had to admit.

“My…breasts,” Sansa breathed. “They look…larger.”

Desmera grinned lasciviously. “That’s the point,” the other redhead replied.

“Pretty,” said Sansa.

“Okay, Sansa,” Leonette said, the note of authority in her voice catching Sansa’s wandering attention. “Once you’ve rested for another moment or two, we shall finish dressing you, and it will be time for the ceremony in the Godswood.”

Sansa must have looked miserable at the reminder that she was still not fully dressed, for Leonette added, “Don’t worry, the hard part is over. The dress should slip on easily, with the corset bound.”

“Good,” Sansa breathed. In, and then out, she coached herself, hoping Willas would appreciate how nice she looked in this damnable thing.

 

***


To honor both the Old Gods and the New, the wedding ceremony was held in the Godswood but performed by a Septon. Some Septons might have balked at performing a ceremony under the eyes of other men’s gods, but the Septon of Highgarden was a scholarly and tolerant man with an interest in foreign cultures. When he visited the ladies’ parlor before the ceremony, he greeted Sansa warmly, telling her to call him Septon Triston or even just Triston if she preferred. He then proceeded to pepper her with questions about the North, its denizens, and their religious beliefs and practices. Answering as best she could at first, Sansa eventually had to assure Septon Triston that she would visit him and discuss these matters further on another day, when they could be freer with their time.

Taking a deep breath – well, as deep a breath as she was capable of, in this awful garment – Sansa draped her maiden’s cloak about her shoulders. It was gray, trimmed with white ermine fur and too heavy for the Reach’s warm autumn temperatures. The cloak was one of the few belongings that had made it to Highgarden, following her down from Winterfell and then with her as she left the Red Keep. Her mother had given it to her before she left the North, back when she thought she would soon be marrying Joffrey. It was funny, almost, how much had changed since then. When she left Winterfell, Sansa had been merely a girl; by the end of this evening, she would be a woman wed. Sansa-the-girl had danced and shrieked in joy at her betrothal to Joffrey; Sansa-the-woman knew how close she had come to a lifetime of suffering and likely an early death. Sansa-the-girl had thrilled at the prospect of becoming Queen, had desired nothing more than a golden-haired Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet. Sansa-the-woman was overjoyed to marry a smart, kind, diligent man like Willas. He may not be a Prince, but Highgarden was lovelier than King’s Landing and much more joyous too, and Sansa knew she could make a good life with Willas.

The ceremony in the Godswood was brief and simple, as Sansa had hoped it would be, even before she knew that she would be saying her vows while starving for air. She was grateful to Septon Triston for avoiding the sin of verbosity, unlike the High Septon at Margaery’s wedding. Since she had no family remaining – no fathers or brothers to give her away before the heart tree, her uncle Benjen far away at the Wall, her aunt remaining cloistered in the Vale – it was Garlan who led Sansa to the heart tree.

As the pair made their way through the Godswood, Sansa felt a sense of peace. Arm in arm, she walked with Garlan, until her almost-husband and their guests came into view. Sansa stood before the crowd, pausing to catch her breath, radiant in her full-skirted, narrow-waisted gown with its intricately beaded bodice and sweetheart neckline. A breeze kissed her gently, rifling the curls left dangling from her elaborate updo and causing her maiden’s cloak to billow behind her. Willas stared at her, eyes open very widely, seeming to drink her in with his gaze. His mouth parted slightly, as if it had been about to drop open until he caught himself just in time to keep from gaping like a squisher. Her bridegroom wore a perfectly tailored doublet in the green of the freshest spring grasses, embroidered with bright red roses and swirling patterns in green-gold thread. The doublet gleamed atop velvet breeches in the dark green of the winter forest. His hair was neatly combed, and Sansa’s heart warmed as she saw the way he looked at her. He looks very handsome, Sansa thought. Perhaps he might love me, just a little bit, already.

On Garlan’s steady arm, Sansa made her way towards the biggest of the three weirwoods. The wind rippled through her hair once again as she walked. For a moment, she could almost hear her father whispering, brave and gentle and strong. She wondered if he meant Willas or herself, before realizing it had only been the breeze she’d heard.

“Who comes? Who comes before the heart tree, before the Seven, before the eyes of men and gods alike?” asked Septon Triston, who was obviously enjoying himself mightily. He must have studied Northern wedding vows, months or days before he asked me, Sansa thought, smiling at the Septon’s thoughtfulness. He’s embellishing, adding elements from Southron weddings, but he’s kept the bones of the Northern ceremony. It’s perfect. It’s exactly what I wanted.

Garlan answered the Septon, and he had clearly been practicing as well. Their kindness brought tears to Sansa’s eyes.

“Sansa of House Stark comes here to be wed,” Garlan boomed. “A woman grown and flowered, trueborn and noble, she comes to beg the blessings of the Old Gods and the New.”

“And who comes to claim her?” intoned Septon Triston.

“I do,” replied Willas. “Willas of House Tyrell, Lord of the Reach and Heir to Highgarden. I claim her.”

“And who gives her?” inquired Septon Triston.

“I do,” said Garlan. “Ser Garlan of House Tyrell, brother to the groom and the bride’s goodbrother-to-be. I give her in the name of her Father and her brothers, who are lost to her, who would be here if they could. For Ned Stark, for Robb and Brandon and Rickon Stark.”

At these words, tears rolled down Sansa’s cheeks. Sansa, whispered the wind. Blessings, she thought she might have heard.

“Lady Sansa of House Stark, do you take this man?” asked Septon Triston.

“Gladly,” said Sansa, her voice clear and resonant despite her tears. “I, Sansa of House Stark, take this man for my lord and husband.”

“And you, Lord Willas of House Tyrell, do you take this woman?”

“Yes,” he said somberly. “I, Willas of House Tyrell, take this woman for my lady and wife.”

“You may now exchange the cloaks,” announced Septon Triston.

Willas removed her maiden cloak, and draped his own across her shoulders. “With this cloak, I offer my protection, and promise to keep you and cherish you from this day forth.”

“Now it is time for you – Sansa of House Stark and Willas of House Tyrell – to seal your marriage with a kiss,” the Septon concluded.

“I pledge my love with this kiss,” the bride and groom said in unison. Septon Triston beamed as Willas pressed his lips gently to Sansa’s. He is soft and warm and gentle, Sansa thought. I hope he will love me, as he promised.

Willas took Sansa’s hand in his, and Septon Triston bound their hands together with a white silken scarf. He ushered them forwards, and the newly married pair walked hand-in-hand through the Godswood, smiling bashfully at one another as they strolled towards their wedding feast.

Chapter Text

The wedding feast was as beautiful as the wedding itself. It was held in Highgarden’s grandest ballroom, and the keep’s gardeners and chambermaids and all the others who had surely helped decorate the massive space had clearly outdone themselves. Sansa and Willas sat at the high table, surrounded by Willas’s closest relatives and the ladies that Sansa had grown closest to during their journey. In the corner to Sansa’s left hung a banner emblazoned with the Stark sigil. The side of the ballroom where her family would be seated if this wedding had occurred under normal circumstances was decorated according to a Winter theme, with many of the decorations in Stark colors. Bolts of gray silk billowed along the walls, and delicate snowflakes cut from glittering paper hung from the ceilings, giving the appearance that it was snowing in that half of the room. On the tables, which were covered in white silk tablecloths embroidered with snowflakes, sat crystal vases of flowers native to the North, with a different flower highlighted in each table’s unique bouquet. The other side of the ballroom mirrored the décor of Sansa’s side of the ballroom, but with the seasonal theme of Spring and the colors of House Tyrell. The tables were covered in green silk, stitched with elaborate floral designs, and tiny pink flowers dotted the floors. The rafters dripped with elaborate flower arrangements, and the banner of House Tyrell hung proudly in the corner to Willas’s right. Vines were twined around the chairs, and candles flickered everywhere throughout the ballroom, in addition to the wall-torches.

“It’s so beautiful,” Sansa crooned as she made her way to the head table on Willas’s arm. “Oh, Willas, it is so kind of you to honor my family with the decorations! I am touched, truly. I know they are traitors, but they are my family all the same, and it means so much to see this image of home on my wedding day.”

“It is no trouble at all, Sansa,” Willas replied as they took their seats. “Though I confess that the decorations were none of my doing, so you will have to thank my mother and the servants for this lovely display. But I hope you will soon feel that you no longer have to mouth those ugly words about your family being traitors. Treachery is in the eye of the beholder, as I’m sure you know. My family could be seen as traitors, not only because we fought for Renly at the beginning of this war, but also because we fought against the Baratheons in Robert’s Rebellion. The Martells and Greyjoys are surely traitors, too, for they have also rebelled against the crown. To Stannis, Queen Cersei is a traitor who betrayed the King through an incestuous love affair with her brother, which therefore renders all who fight for the Crown traitors as well, for upholding a Lannister pretender over King Robert’s trueborn brother. Your House has done nothing that many others have not done as well, and you need not feel ashamed for loving them.”

Sansa pondered this, feeling unmoored. These matters are too weighty to consider at a wedding, she decided. I shall have to think on what he said, and perhaps we can discuss it further. His ideas are strange to me, but there is something of the truth in what he says.

“As you say, my lord,” Sansa said aloud, as the wedding guests began to filter in from the Godswood. One of the first among them was Septon Triston, who made a beeline for the head table.

“Sansa! Willas! Congratulations to you both. I am overjoyed to have the honor of performing your wedding ceremony, and I wish you a long and happy marriage,” the Septon exclaimed. His eyes wandered to Sansa’s face. “My lady, was the ceremony to your liking? Did we get it right? Do you feel that we honored the Old Gods properly, despite the intermixing of elements from the Faith of the Seven?”

“The ceremony was perfect, Septon Triston,” Sansa assured him. “You could not have done a better job if you were born and raised in Last Hearth. I am truly grateful for your kindness and respect for my Father’s gods.”

“And your gods?” the Septon inquired.

“I keep both the Old Gods, in honor of my father, and the Seven, in honor of my mother,” Sansa explained. “So the ceremony you designed was not only a beautiful interweaving of Northern and Southron traditions, but also an interweaving of two sides of mine own heart, which is ever split between the faiths.”

Septon Triston beamed. “I am overjoyed to hear you say so! Simply overjoyed! Now I shall stop bothering you two lovebirds, so that you may enjoy your feast, but I insist you keep your promise to tell me what you know of Northern religious customs. I shall hold you to it!”

“Of course, Septon Triston. I shall visit you within the fortnight,” Sansa promised.

“Wonderful! Absolutely excellent!” the Septon proclaimed before dashing off.

“He is a very nice man,” Sansa said after the Septon had taken his leave.

“Yes, I am quite fond of him,” Willas agreed. “He studied theology, as well as foreign cultures and languages, at the Citadel in his youth. Even though he chose the Church over the Citadel in the end, he is well-suited to serve in a court like Highgarden, due to his erudition and tolerant attitude. He is also a very kind man, who spearheads a number of charitable projects for my family. I am glad that you have decided to get to know him better, for he shall make a trustworthy ally.”

Sansa smiled at this, but did not have time to say anything further, because the first course of the meal appeared at their table. Though they did not have seventy-seven courses, like the royal wedding, the Stark/Tyrell wedding had ample and delicious food. The first course was cheese and fruit and nuts, each paired with a tiny goblet of a specially-selected wine.

“This is a wine from the mountainous inland region of Braavos,” Willas explained. “It is made from the grapes I suggested that Lord-Too-Fat-To-Sit-A-Horse might grow. There are sweeter variations, but I’m fond of this one, which is rather tart and dry, with an undertone of wet stone on the palate and a slightly floral bouquet on the nose. The red one is a bold, acidic red from Dorne, the chief competitors to the Arbor in the Westerosi wine trade. The flavor is deep red fruits, with a backbone of spice. The other, the pale pink one, is a local rose wine.”

Sansa tried each of them, along with the paired cheeses and other nibbles. “I like them all, but I think I like the sweet pink one the best. I am glad they only served small tastes, because some are quite overpowering. I think it shall take some time for me to get used to tart and spicy wines,” Sansa commented.

“Indeed,” agreed Willas. “One must cultivate one’s palate, to fully enjoy the experience.”

The second course was a platter of elaborately carved vegetables, served with a hummus dip from Essos and a dill-and-lemon cream dip native to the Reach. It was followed by a third course, a butternut squash and carrot soup topped with roasted pumpkin seeds. Both were delicious, but the fourth course was truly a work of art. It was composed of tiny versions of common entrée dishes, itty-bitty burgers and miniscule salads and tiny pasta dishes and a tiny hunk of roast boar. When Sansa bit into them, however, the flavors contradicted the visual appearance of the dishes. The “burger” was actually moussed salmon, and what appeared to be the “cheese” atop the burger’s “beef” was actually a delicate ginger-and-coconut gel. The “salad” was shavings of hot green peppers from Dorne, with tiny bits of other kinds and colors of peppers as garnishes. It was so hot it burned her tongue, and Sansa had to gulp down water. The “pasta” was actually strands of spun sugar, topped with tiny chocolate balls that looked like meatballs and the “tomato” sauce was truly frosting, a pleasantly sweet note after the spicy peppers. The “boar” was actually smoked and roasted watermelon, rubbed with exotic spices, delightfully sweet and savory at the same time.

“My tongue is so confused!” Sansa exclaimed with surprise and delight.

“The chef has truly outdone himself,” Willas agreed solemnly. “This is a dish fit for the greatest Emperors of Old Valyria.”

By the time they reached the entrée and dessert courses, Sansa could hardly eat another bite, though she tasted each dish out of politeness, and they were all quite tasty. Finally, the food was cleared away and the music changed from quiet atmospheric melodies to a more lively tune for dancing. I wish I could dance with my new husband, Sansa thought mournfully. But with his leg, I do not know if he can dance. She tried to stifle her melancholy, so that Willas would not believe she thought ill of him for an injury that was no fault of his.

Willas saw the sadness sweep Sansa’s face, and he rose from his chair, extending his hand.

“May I have this dance, my lady?” he asked. Sansa’s eyes lit up. “I can only do a single dance, because more would tax my leg over-much, and I regret that I am not a graceful dancer, but I would not let my wedding night pass without dancing with my new bride.”

“Oh, yes!” Sansa exclaimed with delight. “And of course I do not mind if you are only able to perform a single dance. You are so kind to dance with me even though it pains you. I shall treasure our dance, for what is rare is also precious.”

“You are too kind, my lady,” Willas whispered, his voice catching with emotion. Truly, Sansa’s heart is pure, he thought. I hope I shall not ruin her, with my cynicism and scheming.

“You’re so beautiful,” he told her, gazing at his bride with growing affection as he whisked her around the dance floor. “Absolutely ravishing.”

“Thanks,” breathed Sansa. The dance was proving more exhausting than she expected. Her manners were slipping – that was not exactly the sort of refined, courtly reply she would otherwise speak to her husband just after their wedding – but she needed to conserve air.

Willas brushed his finger along her side, scandalously tracing up her waist and then along the outer edges of her breasts. A pang of desire shot through Sansa’s body.

“Oh,” she sighed, leaning against him to keep herself upright.

“Are you all right, Sansa?” Willas asked, frowning.

“Corset,” Sansa wheezed, as if that explained everything. Willas’s frown deepened as he led her off the dancefloor.

“Grandmother!” Willas called urgently, as Sansa wilted into his strong grasp. Olenna appeared from the crowd. She did not speak, but raised an eyebrow, waiting for Willas to explain why he had so rudely summoned her.

“Go with Sansa, and make the attendants loosen her corset,” Willas ordered.

“Oh? Why should I? This sounds like your mother’s business,” the old woman replied.

“That is precisely why I asked for you,” Willas said coldly. “The servants are scared of you and you outrank Mother. Make them loosen it, or take it off of her, I care not which. But do it before my bride is permanently addled by her lack of air.”

Grumbling on about her gooddaughter, Olenna led Sansa to an adjoining room and supervised the adjustments to her clothing. Though still tight, the corset was much more comfortable now, and Sansa gulped a giant breath of air the moment it was loosened.

When Sansa returned, Willas apologized for interrupting their dance, and gamely committed to the next one. We only danced the initial verses of the first dance, he reasoned. I can make it through one full dance. I owe it to her. This dance went more smoothly, but by the end, Willas’s leg was aching enough that he was not sure he had followed the wisest course when he agreed to a second dance. He called for his cane, and Melena Flowers dashed to his side, thrusting out the cane and gazing at the “Princess Sansa” with awe. Noting the girl’s expression, he introduced her to his new wife.

“Sansa, this is Miss Melena Flowers,” Willas said, gesturing at the child, whose eyes were large and sparkling with excitement. “She is one of your greatest admirers, here in Highgarden.”

“I am pleased to meet you, Miss Flowers,” Sansa replied warmly, extending her hand to the astonished little girl. “Perhaps I shall take you into my service, if my lord husband can bear to let you go,” she added, glancing at Willas to see if he objected.

“I shall be sad to lose such a diligent aide, but I can deny you nothing, my lovely wife,” Willas answered, smiling. “I shall have my mother make the arrangements on the morrow.”

“Oh, thank you! Thank you, Princess Sansa!” cried Melena, curtsying deeply but awkwardly.

“Oh,” said Sansa, somewhat more sharply than she intended. Her tone softened as she continued, “Sweetling, you must not call me that. It is Lady Sansa, not Princess.”

“I am sorry, Pr – Lady Sansa,” chirped the bastard servant girl.

“Run along now,” Willas said, and Melena dashed away. Leaning on his cane, making an effort to remain standing, he turned to Sansa. “You must dance with Garlan or someone else of your liking, if you wish to keep dancing. I must retire to the table.”

“You do not mind?” inquired Sansa fretfully.

“Not at all,” he assured her, smiling as she took Garlan’s hand and returned to the dancefloor.

“My brother is half-in love with you already,” Garlan whispered as they danced.

For several more songs, Sansa continued to dance, accepting invitations from many of the Reachmen lords who were present at the wedding despite the war. I love dancing, she thought. And it is not entirely frivolous, for I am meeting my husband’s future bannermen. Eventually, with fervent apologies and promises to return if there was time, Sansa took her leave from the dancefloor and returned to her husband’s side. As she took her seat, a gong rang out.

“What was that noise?” she asked, mildly alarmed.

“That was the warning gong,” Lady Alerie explained. “It calls the guests who may have wandered away back to the banquet hall, so that we may perform the bedding ceremony.”

“The bedding?” Sansa said, with increasing alarm. Her face went pale, and Willas noted the color draining from her face, once again resolving to treat her gently.

“Do not worry about the bedding, Sansa,” Desmera admonished her. “Lady Alerie watches the men like one of Willas’s hawks, and any man who takes untoward liberties is quietly informed that he may no longer participate in bedding ceremonies. If they took liberties with you, her eldest son’s new bride, she would be exceedingly wroth, and she is terrifying when she becomes truly angry. It’s supposed to be fun, not dangerous.”

The other ladies nodded in agreement, but Desmera’s words did not appear to dissolve Sansa’s fears. Desmera calls it ‘fun,’ but I shall be naked before the entire court of Highgarden. It will be like that day in the throne room, all over again, she thought with terror.

“We’ve all been through it,” Leonette said sympathetically. “It’s a bit embarrassing, but having everyone see you like that makes it less embarrassing for your new husband to see you in such a state. There is a purpose to the madness, and later on you will laugh about it.”

“I am sure,” Sansa said politely, thrusting the words forth through her frozen lips. Willas took her hand and squeezed it. Heart beating rapidly, Sansa once again struggled to breathe, this time from both her anxiety and the accursed corset. In, and then out. One breath, then another. Slowly, slowly. In and then out again, Sansa recited silently, as Leonette had taught her.

Shortly afterwards, the gong rang out again, this time three times. The ladies leapt from the seats, giggling and chattering. Most of the men rose, too, but Sansa took note of the ones that remained seated. One of the men who remained seated had an especially ominous mien. He had long, lank dark hair and narrow eyes, but his sigil was proudly emblazoned on the chest of his doublet. A silver wyvern within a red double tressure, on a sable field, Sansa thought, searching her memory. House Vrywell? No, Vyrwel, of Darkdell. Officially declared for the Black Dragon during the Second Blackfyre Rebellion, but known later to be spies for Lord Bloodraven. And what is the name of the present Lord? Ian? Or Igor, I think? I shall have to be wary of him.

Sansa was lost in thought when she felt the poke of Desmera’s elbow, which shifted her attention abruptly back into the present. Willas was standing, leaning on his cane and holding out his hand to Sansa. She took it, rising with trepidation. As the crowd separated by gender, the ladies massing behind Willas and the gentlemen behind Sansa, she saw Willas catch Garlan’s arm and whisper something to him.

“Cut her corset, before they lift her up,” Willas hissed into his brother’s ear. Garlan nodded, making his way over to Sansa.

“I’m going to use my knife to cut the laces, do not fear when you see the blade,” Garlan whispered to Sansa. He pulled a knife from his boot and slid it carefully down the back of her corset, severing the laces that bound it but largely preserving her modesty. Heaving in a massive breath, Sansa felt a surge of gratitude and found herself relaxing just a bit. It felt good to have that awful device unbound. She rubbed discreetly at her hips, where the corset had bitten in only moments before. I shall not make a habit of wearing such things, Sansa thought. Even if it means I am less than fashionable. Though Leonette was right that it was not as noticeable once I got used to it, it was still uncomfortable, even after Olenna made them loosen it.

Sansa’s heart leaped into her throat as Garlan whispered another quick warning and then lifted her abruptly into the air. She felt more hands on her back and buttocks and legs, as Garlan passed her gently to the rest of the gathered menfolk. As Desmera had assured her, none of them groped her, but even a well-behaved bedding was a nightmare for Sansa. Her shoes fell to the ground, leaving her feet bare. She could feel them tearing off the outer layer of her gown, and she closed her eyes, the memory of Joffrey ordering the beating in the throne room arising despite her efforts to forget and erase it. Ser Meryn, she could hear Joffrey’s snide voice commanding. She could feel the fist in her gut, and the flat of the broadsword on her back. Her corset was gone now, and she struggled to keep her mind in the current time and place. There went the underlayer of the gown, and then her petticoats. On and on it went, as they carried her towards Willas’s bedchamber, shouting raucously. Hands, everywhere. Clothing stripped away. Sansa was becoming nearly hysterical when suddenly she found herself placed back on the ground, dressed only in her flimsy smallclothes, the undermost layer of her clothing, practically (but mercifully not entirely) naked.

“Blessings!” cried one of the men, waving at her as he started back to the ballroom.

“Cheers to the future Lady Paramount of the Reach!” cried another, also departing.

“You honor us with your beauty,” added a third as he walked away.

“I’ll pray for a son, my lady!” called another, stepping away.

“Enjoy yourself, milady,” Tyrion offered with a polite nod of his head, having followed the crowd even though he was not tall enough to help carry her. He, too, left. Others followed, until only Garlan remained.

“Goodnight, milady,” Garlan said politely, leaving as the ladies arrived with Willas, having ensured her safety throughout the ceremony. I am grateful that he waited, Sansa thought. Horrible as that was, it was kind of him to wait and watch, to ensure that nothing inappropriate happened.

The ladies were a more boisterous crowd, hooting and hollering rude comments and bawdry jokes. However, they also left Willas a shred of modesty. They planted him beside her, dressed only in his thin cotton under-breeches, which covered only his manly parts and a few inches of skin below his hips. She stared at him, forgetting her fears for a moment as she examined her nearly-nude new husband. His chest and stomach were firm and strong, though not as muscled as some of the men she had seen practicing swordplay shirtless in the courtyard in King’s Landing. Oh, his leg, she thought as her eyes swept downwards, gazing upon his knotted scars and his twisted, bent limb. It looks painful, but it is not too hideous. Besides, it is all the way down there. It is ugly, but I can ignore it, and it is easily hidden when he is not stripped bare like this.

Leonette remained behind, as her husband had for Sansa. Scrupulously avoiding looking at his nearly-naked body, Leonette handed Willas’s cane to him, and he thanked her. Nodding politely, the Fossoway lady scurried away, leaving the newly-married pair alone. Willas smiled, though he looked slightly pained. She is staring at my leg, he thought. Damn it, damn it all. It was going so well! But now she sees how hideous I am beneath my clothing. Kind-hearted she may be, but can she endure a crippled husband with a deformed leg? Will she still be able to love me, despite my injury? Or was she merely so frightened of the Lannisters that she would take any opportunity to escape them, only to sour once she realizes what she has truly bargained for?

Realizing that she had been staring impolitely, Sansa broke her gaze and glanced up to Willas’s face.

“Shall we enter the bedchamber, my lady?” he asked her stiffly, not waiting for a reply before pushing open the heavy door, not without some effort. She nodded, following him into the room. Without speaking, Willas limped over to the bed and eased himself onto it, groaning in both pain and relief. Sansa struggled to close the door behind them, barely managing to heave it into place. She stood in the doorway, silently watching him and wondering nervously whether she should join him on the bed. Will he seize me immediately, jumping atop me to break my maidenhead before I can even catch my breath? she wondered as she stalled in the entryway, before eventually deciding that he was both too kind and in too much pain to do anything of the sort. Breathing carefully, in and out, Sansa tiptoed to the bedside. She stood awkwardly beside the bed for a moment, watching Willas knead his injured leg, his eyes squeezed shut. Finally, she worked up the resolve to join him, climbing into the bed. Unwilling to lie beside him just yet, she sat perched at the far edge of the bed, an arm’s length away.

“I’m sorry,” Willas muttered, still kneading his leg and tossing around as he sought to find a comfortable position. “I know my leg is a troubling sight, and I deeply regret that I am not yet ready to do my husbandly duties. I hope you do not find me disgusting, now that you have seen the worst parts of my body. I beg you, my kind and lovely wife, may we have a few moments to rest before we consummate our marriage?”

Sansa’s heart melted, put at ease by his nervousness, now understanding that she was not alone. Inching slightly closer to him, she assured him that it was no trouble at all and that she did not mind his leg. “You are very handsome, even with the leg, but I am sorry it pains you so,” she added. “And to tell it truly, I wish to pause and catch my breath as well, for I am very nervous.”

The pair lay there in silence for some time, until Willas’s pain eased and Sansa’s breathing returned to normal. Finally, Willas rolled onto his side, his injured leg lying atop his good one. He gazed at Sansa, and she thought that he looked a little nervous too.

“Thank you for letting me rest, my lady,” he said, breaking the silence. “You are too kind to your poor crippled husband.”

“Do not be so mean to yourself, please, my lord,” Sansa replied, looking concerned. “I cannot bear it when you speak ill of my lord husband for an injury that was no fault of his own.”

Willas smiled, still uncertain but growing more comfortable with her reassurances. “Thank you, my lady. I shall endeavor to be kinder to myself. How could I fail, with such an exemplar of kindness to guide me?”

Sansa blushed at his words, and they lapsed into silence again, until Willas slowly reached towards Sansa and gently ran his finger along her cheek and jawbone. “May I kiss you, my lady wife?”

“Of course,” she said, though her eyes revealed her nerves.

“Do not fear, Sansa,” Willas murmured. “I shall be very gentle, and all I seek is a kiss, for now.”

Somewhat reassured, Sansa moved slightly closer, letting her eyes fall closed and puckering her lips. She felt his soft lips brushing hers, very lightly at first and then more insistently. Then she felt his tongue grazing her lips, and her eyes shot open in surprise. He slowed, withdrawing his head for a moment, before kissing her again, more deeply this time. The sensation was strange, but ultimately pleasant, she decided.

As they kissed, Willas pulled her closer to him, taking her into his arms and running his hands over her body. At first, he brushed his hands along her arms, careful not to be too forward. Then he rubbed her shoulders and back, kneading gently. That drew a pleasant moan from her, and she curled into him, no longer quite so hesitant. He continued kneading, feeling her muscles loosen under his touch. Eventually, he ran his hands along her side, brushing against the side of her breast as he had done during their dance. Then, more boldly, he took her breasts in his hands, squeezing and stroking them. His fingers then dropped lower, caressing her hip and kneading her buttocks gently. As his hands cupped her backside, she pulled back from their kiss, a bit startled and shy.

“It is all right, Sansa,” he said softly. “There is nothing improper about a husband touching his lady wife, or a wife touching her husband, even in those places no one else is allowed to touch.”

She smiled bashfully at this, her hand fluttering hesitantly up to touch his bicep. He smiled, kneading her buttocks again, hoping to encourage her. His lovely wife gazed at him, and let her hand move a little more, until she was stoking his muscular arm. With growing confidence, she mimicked his exploration of her body, running her hands over his shoulders and pausing to knead his back, before grabbing his butt for a moment and then quickly letting go. Willas looked at her with amusement, still smiling, and Sansa reddened but smiled back. They caressed each other for some time, enjoying one another’s touch and exploring one another’s bodies, still wearing their smallclothes. Eventually, Willas paused, and moved away enough to look Sansa in the eyes.

“This is lovely,” he said calmly. “And I look forward to all the future days where we can move slowly together, enjoying one another’s touch with no expectation of where it will end, taking our time to get to know one another. But, as I am sure you know, tonight we are expected to perform a particular act.”

Sansa’s body went rigid, and Willas’s hands returned to her shoulders, massaging them gently.

“Do not be afraid, Sansa,” he said softly. “I will not take your maidenhead if you demand that I unhand you. I will not fight you if you thrust me away. I will not hurt you, and I will not take from you anything that you are unwilling to give. I will be slow and gentle, as I was when we were simply kissing and caressing. But you know as well as I that, if the marriage is not consummated, it can be annulled. I cannot bear the thought of losing you, and with war raging all around us, I think we must perform the marital act on our first night together. After tonight, we may go as slowly as you wish, and do as little or as much as you like on any given night. I shall not molest you as you sleep, nor shall I become angry if you wish to kiss and nothing more. I shall not demand babes or insist that your body is mine, to do with as I like. You shall always be allowed to say no to me, or to change your mind and withdraw your consent, and that includes tonight. But tonight is not just any night, and I fear what will happen if we leave this undone.”

Sansa mulled over his words. He was right, of course. They must consummate the marriage. And he was as kind as she could ever have hoped, reassuring her that she could change her mind at any time and that on future nights they might take their time or only kiss. But there was no escaping it. It was their wedding night, and she could not deny him that. It was too dangerous to leave the marriage unsealed, not knowing what the future held. Too dangerous to leave the deed undone, even for a day or a week.

“I know,” Sansa said softly. “You are right, we must consummate our marriage, though you are very kind to reassure me.”

“I shall endeavor to make it as pleasant as possible,” he promised. “But before we begin, I wanted to ask…what do you know of the marriage bed? Do you know what happens next, or would you like to talk about it, before we do anything?”

Sansa blushed furiously, pulling away a bit and gazing at the pillows in embarrassment. “I confess, my lord, I know little of what comes next. My mother told me that it might hurt a little, like a pinch, but that it would not be unpleasant after that initial pinch. My Septa told me that it was inappropriate to speak of the marital act, but she did inform me that pregnancy results when a husband places his member between his wife’s legs, inside her body. That is all I know.”

Willas rolled onto his back, staring up at the ceiling and wondering what to say to that. Why does no one tell them more than this? he thought miserably. Oberyn was right; it is as if they wish for maidens to be frightened on their wedding nights. Why must I be the one to explain it, and to show her how, all at once and on a single night? How can I accomplish this without making her hate me, or hate intimacy? He sighed, choosing his next words carefully.

“Yes, that is what the marital act entails, as your Septa told you. And yes, there might be a brief moment of pain, like a pinch, when I break your maidenhead. But what no one has told you is that there is much more to intimacy than intercourse, and that all of it is supposed to bring you pleasure,” Willas said, looking at her intently. Sansa looked uncertainly at him, still not sure what to expect.

“So what happens next, my lord?” Sansa asked timidly. “Can you show me, perhaps? Explaining what you are doing as you are doing it?”

Willas smiled at this. “Yes, that would be a good way to approach it, I think. The first step is removing our smallclothes, so that we are nude together.”

“Okay, I can do that,” Sansa said. She slid across the bed, standing to remove her remaining clothing, and then slowly stripping it from her body. “Like this, my lord?”

Willas breathed heavily, hardening at the sight of her. “Yes,” he whispered hoarsely. “Exactly like that.”

“And you must remove yours as well? Let me help you,” Sansa said, moving to stand at the end of the bed, reaching up and pulling off his smallclothes.

“Oh, gods,” said Willas as she bared his skin. Sansa smiled, scrutinizing him for a moment before climbing back into their bed.

“What now, my lord?” she asked.

“Now, we need to prepare ourselves for coupling,” Willas instructed, growing harder still at the thought of Sansa following his next instructions. “That means we shall continue touching each other, but this time, we shall touch the parts that were covered by our smallclothes before.”

“Should I go first?” Sansa asked, reaching out her hand. Willas stared at her hand, hovering over his cock but not yet touching it, and nodded, speechless with anticipation. Sansa lowered her hand, reaching out to touch him very gently, her fingers just brushing his cock. Willas moaned, and Sansa withdrew her hand as if she had been burned. “I’m sorry. Did I hurt you, my lord?”

“No,” he replied, closing his eyes. It was agony, waiting for her to touch him. “I moaned because it felt so good to finally have your hands on my cock. Go ahead and try again. Wrap your fingers around it this time.”

Sansa nodded, reaching out more confidently this time, wrapping her fingers around his shaft.

“Now, slide your hand up and down, slowly,” he instructed. Sansa did as she was bid, and Willas groaned again.

“Good, my lord?” Sansa asked nervously.

“Oh, yes,” Willas breathed, as she continued to stroke him. Realizing he would not last long if they went on like this, he waved her off. “That was very good, Sansa. Now it is my turn.”

“What will you do, my lord?” Sansa asked, frightened again, but also excited.

“I will touch you, very gently,” he said, placing his hands on her hips and slowly dragging one hand towards the flesh between her legs. She gasped as he made contact, his hand cupping her mound and then caressing her outer lips. No one has ever touched me there, she thought. It feels strange, to feel the hands of another there, where only I have ever touched before. But it does not hurt.

“Now, I will touch between your folds, with just a finger or two,” Willas explained, his fingers parting her netherlips, stroking more deeply and beginning to drift upwards, in search of her clitoris. “Once I find your pearl of pleasure –”

“Oh!” Sansa cried, as his fingers found it. Pleased with himself, Willas dipped a finger inside her to whet it, and then returned to her clit, just skating across it at first and then beginning to rub gently but rhythmically. “Oh, my lord!” Sansa cried again, and Willas smirked.

“See, I have found it,” Willas said, still caressing her. Sansa felt the heat of desire gathering between her legs, and she writhed under Willas’s gentle but insistent touch. Her mouth puckered into an O-shape, and her toes curled. Her legs and hips seemed to move of their own volition, shaking and kicking involuntarily.

“Oh, Willas!” Sansa cried. His fingers kept working, and she felt a tension building inside. “I – what is this – strange sensation - I feel as if – is something coming?”

“Shhh, Sansa, do not think so much. Just enjoy it,” Willas whispered. His other hand moved to Sansa’s breasts, cupping them and then running his finger around her nipple until it stiffened. Sansa bucked against his hand, not sure what was coming over her, desperate for something but not sure what she was desperate for. Willas stroked her faster, harder, and the tension continued to build until –

“OH!” Sansa cried, plateauing, all thoughts driven from her mind as pleasure washed over her. Willas ran his finger over the spot he had called her ‘pearl of pleasure’ one last time, and she shuddered, melting into his arms like putty. “Oh, Willas, that was wonderful!”

Willas grinned even more widely, pulling her close, running his hands over her and clutching her to him. She felt his cock against her leg, thick and hard, and glanced downwards. She ran her fingers over his member, and he moaned into her neck.

“It’s grown,” Sansa said with surprise. “Your…cock…it has gotten larger and stiffer. Are you sure it will fit inside me?”

“Yes,” Willas breathed, finding it difficult to form words as he pictured himself ramming his cock into her, splitting her with his girth as she cried out.

“So now that we have touched one another…is it time to consummate now?” Sansa asked, realizing she desired it too, even though she did not quite understand what it entailed. That earlier sensation had been truly lovely, but she desired something more, something deeper. It is truly quite large, though, she thought, looking dubiously at his penis. I think he might rip me apart if he tries to fit it inside me.

“Yes, if you are ready,” Willas replied, rolling Sansa onto her back and dipping his hand between her legs once again, feeling her wetness. His cock ached for her, but he knew he must be delicate. Pushing himself up and positioning himself at her entrance, Willas waited, agonized.

“I am ready, husband,” Sansa said confidently. Hearing the certainty in her voice, Willas gave thanks to the gods that this seemed to be going well, and nudged at her opening with his cock. Sansa shuddered, whether in fear or anticipation, she did not know. Before penetrating her, Willas rubbed his cock between her netherlips, drawing a gasp from her.

“I am going to enter you now,” Willas said, struggling to control himself. “This is the part that might hurt, a little, but it should pass quickly.”

Sansa nodded, steeling herself for pain. Willas butted against her gently and then nudged the tip partially inside. Pausing at this slight depth, he levered his cock up and down before entering all the way, to ensure that he ripped through her maidenhead at the very beginning, so that she would be able to enjoy the rest without fear of pain. He felt it tear, and Sansa let out a little cry, this one not in pleasure but in pain. Satisfied that it was done, Willas pushed slightly harder, until the head popped inside. Sansa felt herself stretching to take him in, only heightening her fear that she would fracture if he pushed all the way inside.

“The pain is over, now,” he said, fighting the urge to plunge inside her and sheath himself in one stroke. “Now I shall enter you, inch by inch.”

Are you not already inside, my lord? Sansa wondered, but then she felt him push deeper into her, slowly but surely filling her. She writhed, marveling at the sensation. He felt full and hard and large inside her, but she ached for him. Inch by inch, as he promised, he sheathed himself. It will not fit, she thought, feeling stretched almost to her breaking point, her inner walls widening at his slow but unrelenting entry. It’s too much. But she said nothing as he continued to slide further, deeper, until he was fully sheathed. The feeling of fulness inside her was not quite pain, but not fully pleasurable, either. She squirmed, trying to accommodate the large hard appendage inside her. He bottomed out, hitting full depth, and she felt a flash of pain as he bumped against some inner barrier, but it quickly dissipated. She writhed on his cock, and he nearly lost it.

“There,” he said, stilling, waiting for her to adjust. It is torture to pause at this moment, he thought desperately, feeling her warm and tight around him. I must be slow and gentle, I must not hurt her, but oh, it is so terribly terribly difficult to wait. He felt her insides flutter against his cock and nearly lost himself again, but he soldiered on, holding himself together somehow. Sansa moaned and rolled her hips, trying to get used to the weight of him between her legs, feeling trapped but somehow liking it.

“Oh, Willas,” she cried, bucking against him harder this time and willing him to move.

“I’m going to thrust now,” he managed to spit out the words before he could no longer bear it, dragging himself out and plunging in again. Gods, she feels so good, he thought, sliding in and out of her. She’s so tight, and she’s being so good to me, taking my big hard cock like this even though she was a maiden only moments ago.

“Oh!” Sansa cried out as he thrust into her again, harder and faster now. “Oh, please!”

Her whimpered ‘please’ was all the encouragement he needed to truly pound his cock into her, utterly losing control of himself, taking her exactly as he had wanted to from the moment she dropped her smallclothes to the floor. He gripped her by the hips, bringing her flush against him, splitting her over and over as she struggled beneath him. He held her to the bed, pushing into her with all his strength, only to withdraw and penetrate her again.

“Oh, gods, Sansa,” he moaned, thrusting harder and faster, filling her again and again. She moved, slithering beneath him, the sensations overwhelming, almost too much. He’s so big, she thought. He feels so full within me. One of his thrusts bumped against a particularly sensitive spot inside her, and she groaned with desire.

“There,” she murmured, and he thrust into the spot again. The tension started building within her, pleasure spiraling as his cock wedged itself into her channel and hit against her cervix and g-spot in turn, a dash of delicious pain followed by a wave of deep satisfaction. Having found the right depth and angle, he battered against her inner walls, hitting the same spot over and over.

“Willas!” she shrieked, raking her nails down his back, unable to stop, bucking her hips against his. When she came a second time on his cock, walls contracting and gripping him like a vice, all the careful stretching now pointless as her inner walls sucked violently around him, he lost it. Thrusting deeply one last time, he shot his seed inside her, finally collapsing against his lady wife in exhaustion. Carefully, he extricated himself from her body, flopping onto the bed beside her. Only then did he realize that his leg was screaming with pain, having not only danced too much but also having ridden his new wife hard and fast.

Sansa gazed at her new husband, a deep lassitude washing over her. “That was lovely,” she finally said. “I am quite glad we did that.”

Willas smiled, nearly chuckling, pleased that he had performed well enough for her to enjoy her first time. Too tired to move, he simply took her hand and squeezed. Sansa pulled the covers up over them, and they cuddled for a few moments, but sleepiness quickly overtook them both.

Willas snores, was Sansa’s final thought, before she drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Willas awoke the next morning to a sharp rapping on the door. Beside him, Sansa murmured and rolled over, clutching a pillow over her head.

“Willas?” a voice called from the hallway. “Willas, I am deeply sorry to bother you the morning after you were wed, but a raven has arrived and it is truly urgent.”

Willas groaned, but heaved himself out of bed despite his desire to continue sleeping next to his beautiful wife.

“I’m coming, Lomys,” Willas called back through the door, pulling on a clean pair of breeches and a loose white silk shirt as quickly as he could, with his aching leg. As loathe as he was to leave Sansa alone before they had a chance to talk about the previous night, he knew that Maester Lomys would not be at his door at this hour on such a day for anything less than the death of a king or an act of war or some such urgent matter.

Some lords did not allow their maesters to read their correspondence, and others did not bother to read most of the correspondence themselves, but Willas had devised a system that allowed Lomys to do his job while preserving the Tyrells’ ability to communicate with the necessary privacy when the situation required it. He had instructed Lomys that he was free to read incoming letters, so long as the maester alerted him to anything pressing straightaway. Though he did specify that the maester was not to read ravens sent to Highgarden’s guests, particularly if it was labelled as private on the outside of the scroll, Willas assumed that his instructions did not stop the maester from reading some of that correspondence nonetheless, and he did not disapprove so long as Lomys was discerning in his selections and careful to properly re-seal the messages. For such correspondence as Willas wished to keep safe from the prying eyes of Lomys or others who might intercept his ravens, the heir to Highgarden used ciphers, and he had advised all of his correspondents on their use to ensure that they would communicate important and confidential information as securely as possible. Though technically possible to decode a cipher, Willas mainly used Ottendorf ciphers, which required the reader to know which reference text to use to unravel the code. Any who hoped to spy on his correspondence without knowing the correct reference were unlikely to decode the message with mere guesswork, especially because Willas disdained the use of the Seven Pointed Star (the most common text used for encrypting messages in the Seven Kingdoms) for his ciphers, preferring to choose more obscure books when possible. This system also meant that Willas’s correspondents could opt to leave messages unencrypted, if they wished a quicker response and trusted Lomys with the information they sought to convey.

Because of this system, Willas could be confident that Lomys had good reason for appearing at his door this morning. If the maester had received a raven that he was capable of reading because it was unencrypted, and it was alarming enough to drive him to wake Willas at this early hour and this particular day, the information the raven brought was likely public knowledge elsewhere already, and others at Highgarden would know very soon. Action was required, and quickly.

Grabbing his cane and closing the door behind him, Willas hobbled out the door and followed the maester to the ravenry. He did not ask about the news on the way, preferring to read the news himself once they arrived at the ravenry, and to use his time en route to get his thoughts in order. Groaning as he climbed the long and winding stairs to the rooftop, Willas wondered what could possibly have happened. Everything had seemed stable, at least for the short-term, last he checked. Was it news from the capital, or the siege of Storm’s End, or elsewhere?

Finally, they arrived at the ravenry. Lomys silently unlocked a tiny silver box, withdrawing a letter and handing it to Willas, who scanned it quickly. The letter was from his sister, and it contained only a few sentences:

 

Willas,

 

Tywin Lannister is dead. Maester Pycelle decreed that it was a natural death, caused by ruptured bowels. More information to follow soon, but I wanted to get the news to you as quickly as possible, in advance of the formal declaration of death.

 

Margaery

 

Since Margaery was adept at using code, Willas assumed the information about Tywin’s death was widely known in the capital. Moreover, her remark about getting the news to him in advance of the official announcement, along with the lack of encryption, suggested that she wanted Lomys to alert him before the news could reach Tyrion. Though Willas only knew Tyrion in passing, his sister likely knew the newly-minted High Lord of the Westerlands better than he, due to their overlapping time in the capital. I cannot predict how he will respond to this news, but given Margaery’s message, I think it best to keep this information close to the breast until after the wedding, Willas thought.

“Thank you, Maester Lomys,” Willas finally said, his thoughts racing. “This was indeed a matter of supreme importance. I ask that you keep this information secret until the official announcement of death arrives from the Crown, and that you inform me once you have received the formal declaration, before you announce it to the court.”

“Your word is my command, my lord,” replied Lomys. Though many lords distrusted their maesters, and not without good reason, Willas had known Lomys since he was a child, and they had grown close given Willas’s studiousness. It helped, too, that Lomys was likely a Tyrell bastard, a half-brother or cousin of some sort who could be trusted to protect the family’s interests. I have no bastards and do not intend to father any, Willas reflected, but they certainly have their uses.

The old maester inclined his head as Willas bid him goodbye, then looked skywards, awaiting the storm of ravens that would soon arrive as news of Tywin’s death spread throughout the Seven Kingdoms. Willas hobbled back down the stairs, letter in hand, and rushed to his office as quickly as his injured leg would allow. Once he arrived at the office, he immediately rang for Martin to join him. The secretary stumbled in shortly thereafter, still half-asleep and scarcely dressed. Willas promised Martin that he could return to bed momentarily, and apologized for waking him, but explained that his leg was paining him far too much to run about fetching courtiers. After Martin was on his way, Willas sat at his desk with steepled his fingers, deep in thought.


***

 

Though Martin had woken him almost an hour ago, it was later into the morning before Oberyn answered Willas’s summons.

“So, Willas, was the wedding night truly that bad, that you must summon me before the sun rises?” Oberyn asked playfully as he sauntered into the office. Willas was in no mood for Oberyn’s jokes, so he drove the conversation straight to the point.

“I have received word that Tywin Lannister is dead. Natural causes, I am told. Ruptured bowels, according to my sister,” Willas stated blandly. A strange expression on his face, he stared directly into the Red Viper’s eyes as he shared the news.

“It seems the Gods have finally granted my prayers for vengeance against the murderers and rapists who stole Elia and her children from us,” Oberyn said, a sly smile playing on the Dornishman’s lips.

“Did they now,” Willas replied flatly.

Oberyn shrugged, his cat-like grin growing wider. That grin confirmed what Willas had already suspected from the moment he received Margaery’s letter. He did not know precisely how Oberyn had done it; perhaps he had used a slow-acting poison to delay Tywin’s death until after he’d left the capital, or perhaps he had left one of the Sand Snakes behind to finish the job, or perhaps both. But regardless of how the deed was accomplished, that smile left him with little doubt that Oberyn and his poisons were the true cause of Tywin’s death. Ruptured bowels, hah! What rubbish, Willas thought with irritation, rolling his eyes up towards the ceiling.

 “Mother’s mercy,” Willas groaned. “Gods save me from the recklessness of my friends. We needed him, Oberyn, to ensure a stable transition. After all the time that’s passed, could you not have waited one more year?”

“Kevan Lannister yet lives,” Oberyn replied, clearly regretting nothing. “As far as I am aware, he was not involved in that particular crime against the laws of gods and men for which I have prayed the gods exact vengeance, and he is capable enough.”

“That is true,” Willas acknowledged, a note of mild condemnation still present in his voice.

“Ah, my friend, you worry too much!” Oberyn exclaimed, draping his arm languidly over Willas’s tense shoulders. “You and Doran are much alike. Wait, you both tell me. It has been seventeen years, how much longer must I wait? Your sister is Queen, with Loras in the Kingsguard, and your father and Paxter on the small council. They are safer without Tywin’s scheming, and along with Kevan, they will hold the realm together. All is well, and the great beast Tywin is finally dead. We should celebrate!”

“The timing is imperfect,” Willas said reproachfully. “I do not wish for this news to reach Tyrion Lannister before he and Desmera are wed, which is to happen this very day. We shall be racing the clock to get them married before Tywin’s son learns of his father’s death. Mayhaps the news would change his mind about the marriage alliance and mayhaps it would not, but since I do not know how he will take it, I think it is best kept under strict secrecy until tomorrow, if possible.”

“Well, the timing of your wedding was imperfect,” Oberyn shot back. “And even so, I made it work. I accounted for the timing of Tyrion’s wedding, too, but your mother elected to move it back another day, and there was naught that could be done.”

Willas sighed. Oberyn had a point, though his friend’s rationale did nothing to ease the difficulties that now faced the heir to Highgarden. This would be a very complicated situation to finesse, and that was before accounting for all the other things that could potentially go wrong with the wedding, unrelated to Tywin’s death. Saying a prayer to the Warrior for strength and to the Stranger, patron saint of intriguers everywhere, Willas dismissed Oberyn and set to work.

 

***

 

A knock sounded at the office door. “Yes?” Willas called without glancing up from his papers.

“It’s Sansa,” came a hesitant voice from the other side.

“Come in!” he called back, shuffling his papers to the side. Sansa opened the door, and behind her followed a servant, carrying plates of hot breakfast.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Sansa said, glancing at him uncertainly. “Only I awoke to find you absent, and when I rang for your personal staff to ask if they knew where you had gone, I was told you had left for the ravenry early this morning and then went hastily to your office. I am sure your work is urgent, if it got you out of bed so early, but I thought you might need some sustenance and I wondered if perhaps we could break our fast together before you return to your work.”

“Thank you, Sansa, that is a brilliant idea,” Willas said warmly, reaching for his plate and beckoning for her to sit. The servant left and closed the door. It was very thoughtful of her to bring me food, Willas thought, scooping a forkful of eggs into his mouth, suddenly ravenous. They ate in silence for a while before Sansa spoke again.

“I wanted to apologize for my wantonness last night,” Sansa said quietly. “I am embarrassed to have behaved in such a manner, now that I reflect on it this morning. I hope I did not cause you to doubt my chastity.”

Willas set his fork down. “You did nothing wrong,” he assured her. “I quite enjoyed our evening together, and chastity is a maiden’s virtue, not one you need keep as a woman wed.”

“That is good to hear, my lord,” Sansa replied, blushing. She took a delicate bite of the quiche on her plate, using fork and knife to eat it.

“Did you enjoy yourself?” Willas asked, almost as an afterthought. Sansa grew redder still.

“Yes, my lord,” she said in a tiny voice. “You were quite kind to me.”

“Good, I’m pleased to hear it,” Willas said, wondering how to dispel the awkwardness that now sat between them. There was something ugly about the way they’d had to rush from first meeting to wedding night, and he vowed to ensure that any daughter of his would have some time to get to know her intended before the wedding itself. At the thought of having a daughter, a thought struck him.

“Um,” said Willas. “I…I am not sure how to broach this subject, because I do not know your thoughts on it…but if it is your wish, I can send for Maester Lomys to bring you some moon tea.”

Sansa looked startled, perhaps even appalled, at his words. “I mean, that is, I do not mean to suggest that I do not wish to have a child with you,” he quickly added. “Only to say that you should have a choice in the matter, and that I would not be angry if you wished to wait before potentially bearing my heirs.”

Sansa still said nothing, appearing to think it over, before finally shaking her head. “I am the last of my family, my lord,” she said eventually. “I could not refuse the gods if they chose to bless me with a child, at least not until both our lines are secure. Though in truth I hope that we shall have some time to get to know one another better before I become with child.”

Willas nodded, wanting to tell her that the gods had little to do with such things, but unwilling to say so aloud without knowing whether her piety was sincere or merely a façade. He took a bite of toast to give him time to answer, before replying, “As you wish, my lady. I hope the gods shall hear your prayers and bring us a son, but only in due time.” He looked at Sansa to gauge her reaction, and she seemed pleased by his response. He could not resist adding, “But if you should change your mind about the moon tea, please feel free to come to me or directly to Lomys, as you prefer.”

It was not that Willas did not want a child. In fact, he desperately wanted a son and had been waiting many years to marry so that he could finally beget his own heirs. He had helped raise his younger siblings, and many of his cousins. He was ready to be a father, and had been ready for some time. But Sansa was young yet, and he did not want to demand over-much of her. It did not matter, in truth, whether she bore him a child a year from now or three. Her careful courtesies often left him worried that she was only saying what she hoped would please him, and not what she truly desired, but he did not know how to break through her courtly outer shell.

“If I may ask,” Sansa said hesitantly. “What was the urgent news that drew you from our bed this morning?”

Willas paused, uncertain whether he could trust Sansa with such sensitive information. His wife was beautiful, well-bred, and well-mannered; she had borne everything that was expected of her with patience and a gentle temperament. Not a single thing she had said or done gave him any reason to doubt that she would be faithful to him in every way. But still, he hardly knew her, and if he did not know her, how could he trust her?

“Before I tell you that,” he answered slowly, testing the waters. “Would you do me the favor of giving me your opinion on a related matter?”

“Of course, my lord,” Sansa answered politely, before frowning and adding, “Forgive me if it was not my place to ask about your business.”

“It’s not that,” Willas said quickly, kicking himself mentally for mishandling this situation. “It’s just that I don’t want to color your opinion, and I could use your advice, before you learn how the situation has evolved.”

“As you like, my lord,” Sansa replied, gazing demurely at her feet.

“You knew Lord Tyrion in the capital, and you have gotten to know my cousin Desmera as well,” Willas began. “Do you think they are well-suited to one another?”

She pondered the question for a moment before saying, “Yes, I think they are well-suited. I was surprised, at first, that Desmera did not resist the marriage but seemed to be pleased with her betrothal, but she explained to me that a marriage with the heir to Casterly Rock would serve her ambitions.” Sansa hesitated again, as if unsure whether to say the next part. “And she also suggested that…that she did not care about his height or face, so long as…I do not know how to put this delicately…so long as he lived up to his reputation regarding his skill at performing his husbandly duties.” By the time she finished speaking, Sansa’s blush had returned in full force.

Willas laughed, unable to help himself. Shaking his head, he said, “Well, that’s Desmera for you. No surprises there, I suppose.”

“You do not…disapprove?” Sansa asked. Willas shrugged.

“Desmera is who she is,” he explained. “I would not ask her to change – and she would not listen, I am sure – any more than I would ask a zorse to change its stripes.”

“That is kind of you to say.”

“Anyways, it’s as I expected with Desmera, but what of Tyrion? I know him not, but you spent significant time with the Lannisters when you were at court, did you not? Is he pleased with the marriage, or do you think he might leap at the opportunity to marry someone else?”

Sansa pondered that as well. “Hmmm,” she said slowly. “Well, it is true that I spent time with the Lannisters, and I can say that Tyrion is the least awful of the lot. He did not go out of his path to treat me cruelly, and tried to blunt his family’s cruelties where he could, though I do not think he would put his own throat to the knife for mine or anyone else’s sake. In the end, he is too frightened of his family to truly strike against them, so I am sure that he will do as his father bids as regards his marriage.”

“But what if he could be assured that he would not have to worry what his family thought? Do you think he would decline the marriage, if not for his father’s influence?”

“I am not sure, my lord. On one hand, I think he is well-pleased with Desmera. She shows him affection, for which he is starved, and it seems he finds her forwardness charming. She is bright, which he likes, though not so much so that she overshadows him, which is important because so much of his identity is tied to his belief in his own intelligence. The Redwynes are a powerful house, as well, so he is surely pleased to join himself to their wealth and strength. But, on the other hand, he is rather fond of…well, it is rumored, anyways…that he is fond of…ladies of the night. That is, prostitutes, my lord.” Sansa’s cheeks were flaming as she spoke these final words.

“So you think he might have a mistress? Or be inclined to marry a…a lady of the night, as you say?”

“Perhaps, my lord. I could not say for certain, but it would not surprise me, either. His grandfather did so, if I recall, and Lord Tywin repaid the debt of humiliation and then some. If Lord Tyrion did have a lady love of some kind hidden away, I think he would hesitate to make an honest woman of her for fear of the terrible rage it would wake in his father, but if Lord Tywin were not a factor…it is possible he might do such a thing.”

Willas pondered this. It would be a terrible scandal, and a great embarrassment for Desmera and more importantly Paxter, if Tyrion refused to wed her at the latest hour, only to wed some common mistress or whore, he thought with grave concern.

“That is quite troubling,” Willas said aloud.

“But also,” Sansa said, continuing to think. “I truly do think he is fond of Desmera. Perhaps he would marry her regardless, now that he has had the chance to become invested in the notion. I am fairly certain he brought no one from the capital, besides his squire and his guardsman, because the second riding party from the capital was a small one and he did not know he would be departing in time to lodge a spy within the party I travelled with on my way out of King's Landing. So perhaps whatever love affairs he may have carried on, they have not continued, or at least he was not fond enough of any lady to bring her with him. That would speak to his likeliness to move forward with the marriage regardless.”

“You are very good at this,” Willas said softly. “At analyzing people, at seeing their motives, predicting their behavior. I am impressed with your counsel.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

Sansa’s thoughtful analysis – and her openness, in sharing with him what information she had gleaned – brought him to a decision about what to tell her.

“Well, I said that I would tell you of the news I received, once you had advised me on this matter,” Willas said to his wife. “So, I suppose I shall do as I promised, since you have given me so much useful information. But before I tell you, I must ask. Do you truly wish to know? The message the raven carried is a very sensitive one, and though I would not hesitate to share it with you on the morrow, it might be dangerous to know today. And you must keep it absolutely secret, if I tell you. You cannot tell a single soul. Not Desmera, especially not Tyrion, not my mother or my grandmother, no one. The more people hear the news the more likely it is to cause a crisis. So I ask again, do you still wish to know? Or would it suffice for me to tell you of it when we lay down to sleep tonight?”

Sansa looked thoughtful, then shook her head. “If it is truly that sensitive, I do not need to know, my lord. I can tell it was important, which was my only concern. I wished to know if you had truly left because your business was important, or if you found some fault with me, which led you to invent a reason to escape my presence before I woke. After this conversation, I am satisfied that it was the former.” She paused for a moment. “Besides, I can make a good guess at the nature of the news you received, given your questions to me. I shall not speak a word of my suspicions, or this conversation, to anyone. You may trust me to keep your secrets, and I intend to show you the truth of that, by keeping this one. Perhaps then you will not hesitate to tell me, in the future.”

Willas was deeply impressed by Sansa’s answer. He did not mind if she guessed, and perhaps that had been part of his motivation in asking her in the first place, though he did also wish to know more of Tyrion and his likely reaction to his father’s demise, but he felt relief that Sansa did not press him to speak the secret aloud. To suspect was not the same as knowing, and the more ears a secret passed through, the greater the chance of discovery.

“I am impressed, and relieved, at your answer,” Willas said. “It is not that I do not trust you, but simply that it is exponentially more difficult to keep a matter secret, the more people know of it, and I am afraid I am a very cautious man by nature. I am pleased that you have discerned the nature of the news, and I am grateful for your vow of silence on this delicate matter. I promise that I shall not keep news of any importance from you, without good reason, and never if it concerns you directly. And with that in mind…I do have something I wish to share with you.”

Sansa’s eyes widened in surprise. “Oh? Of what do you speak, lord husband?”

Willas looked away, slightly ashamed that he had kept this from her, but he had needed to wait until they had been wedded and bedded. Hopefully, Sansa would understand. He unlocked one of his desk drawers, shuffling through his files until he found it.

Before handing the letter to Sansa, Willas took a moment to explain himself. “Before you read this, you should know that a raven arrived for you from Riverrun a few days ago. I did not tell you yesterday because I thought you deserved at least a brief reprieve from matters of state, as you had enough on your mind with your arrival to Highgarden and with our wedding so quickly approaching after you arrived. I feel a little guilty for keeping you waiting for word from your remaining family, but it could not be helped. Here, read it for yourself.”

Willas passed the letter to Sansa, who unrolled it quickly and read it greedily, her eyes pouring quickly over the text before her.

 

To Sansa Stark, the daughter of my dearest niece, Lady of Winterfell, and mayhaps the Queen in the North (if you like)

 

I assume this message is like to be read by our enemies, so there is much and more that I would tell you that I cannot rightly put to paper. I write because Jaime Lannister stands outside the gates of Riverrun. He tells me you have agreed to marry Willas Tyrell, the heir to Highgarden, and that you will likely be a woman wed by the time this letter reaches you. I know not what this means for our campaign, though I hope you are well. Your mother would have been pleased, I think, despite the complications your marriage poses now that she and Robb have been so brutally and unjustly slain, in violation of the sacred tradition of guest right and all the laws of Gods and men. You may not know that your mother bargained with the Imp and set the Kingslayer free, to win yours and Arya’s freedom, but it seems the honorless Lannisters have no intention of honoring that agreement. Your mother also sent a lady knight, Brienne of Tarth, to bring you home, but I know not where she has gone or even whether she lives.

I will not surrender to the Kingslayer – nor to any Lannister or Frey – and the siege at Riverrun can hold indefinitely. However, it is not my place to decide on matters of war and peace. That is rightly the decision of Robb’s heir. If you wish me to surrender, as the Kingslayer claims, I will need hear those words from your own lips. You have allies here, and our fight continues. I await your guidance, and entreat you to come to Riverrun at your earliest convenience, assuming you are not a prisoner still. (And we will come for you, Tyrell, if you are holding my great-niece against her will. Do not doubt it.)

 

Regards,

 

Bryndyn Tully, “The Blackfish”

Regent of Riverrun

Commander of the Army of the North and Riverlands, or what remains of it

 

Sansa sat with the letter for a long time before speaking. Willas waited, wondering how much of the Blackfish’s innuendo Sansa had picked up on. “Mayhaps the Queen in the North (if you like),” for instance, was quite a loaded phrase. So too was the choice of “Robb’s heir” rather than a direct reference to Sansa. Could there be something the Blackfish knows that I do not? Willas wondered, not for the first time. Has one of Sansa’s brothers survived, unbeknownst to the Crown? Or does he know of Lady Arya’s whereabouts? Who would be Robb’s heir, if not Sansa?

“This letter is treason,” Sansa said finally, likely hoping to gauge Willas’s reaction.

“As I told you at our wedding feast, treason is a slippery word that can mean many different things to many different parties,” Willas replied sedately. “I would have us speak honestly to one another, my lady, without worrying how others beyond this room might perceive our talk. This room is secure, I assure you. No one shall hear of what you say here, not from me and not by cupping an ear to the door. You may speak freely.”

“Well, if I am to speak freely, my lord,” Sansa replied with uncharacteristic venom. “Then do not tell me that you kept this news from me for mine own well-being. It is obvious, is it not, that you did not trust me and did not wish me to see these words until I was properly and irrevocably bound to you. That is, I assume, also why you wished to consummate our marriage immediately, though I did not object and do not blame you for it. But if you ask honesty from me, will you not do me the courtesy of giving me honesty in return?”

Willas sighed heavily, but he was proud of Sansa, for mustering up the courage to say that to him.

“A fair demand, my lady,” he said to her. “Of course, you are right. I could not hand over a potentially treasonous message to you while we remained unwed, lest you ride off to claim the Kingdom of the North and the Trident without honoring your pledge to marry me. That would have put me and my family in quite a precarious position, especially with my sister in King’s Landing, where Queen Cersei hovers over her waiting for any excuse to cry treason. You may trust me not to keep secrets from you or make important political decisions regarding the North on your behalf, now that you are my wife in truth and not merely promised to me, but as I said, I am a cautious man. I do not count unhatched falcons in my ledgers, nor would I count myself espoused before the wedding and bedding.”

Sansa nodded, but said nothing. She looked back at the letter, seeming to read it a second time.

“I do not blame you, my lord. This letter could set spark to the dry tinder in the capital, and I too worry about Queen Margaery’s safety. I am rather surprised you gave it to me at all, rather than burning it,” Sansa eventually replied.

I thought about it, Willas thought humorlessly. To Sansa, he said, “I could not keep it from you, my lady. By rights, it is yours to decide the disposition of your family’s lands, titles, and armies.”

“So you plan to let me decide what to do, as concerns my claim to the North? And apparently, the Riverlands?” Sansa asked with surprise. Willas shrugged.

“It is not my place to decide it for you, though you shall have to persuade me of your cause if you wish me to join my armies to yours,” he told her. “But if I could offer my advice, regarding your response to this letter?”

Sansa nodded. “Please, my lord. What is your consel?”

“You should know, first, that my grandmother promised Lord Tywin that the Tyrells would not raise arms to support your claim on Winterfell until the present wars are concluded. As you have likely guessed, that agreement may now be moot, though I suspect my sister will expect us to honor our pledge regardless. House Tyrell, it seems, is well and truly bound to the Crown, at least until my sister bears Tommen an heir. Given his youth, I expect that will take a few years time, though you can count on Margaery to get with child at the earliest opportunity. Because my hands are tied, I counsel patience and caution, until such a time as we are able to act freely. I thus advise you to say whatever you must to keep your claim alive, while promising as little as you can, so that we might bide our time until the opportunity ripens.”

“If I take your meaning, then, you wish me to broker a truce with or on behalf of the Blackfish. Stop the war, for now, and let the smallfolk return to their fields until winter has passed. Then we can push my claim at our leisure, once Margaery has secured the throne with an heir. Is that what you are advising?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“And after the truce, once Margaery has borne an heir, what then? Am I to be Queen in the North and Riverlands, or Lady of the Trident, or merely lady of Winterfell? Is it to be independence and possible treason, or am I to somehow convince my brother’s men to give up their fight and swear fealty to the Crown?”

“We need not decide such questions at this time; we can wait to see how the political situation in the Seven Kingdoms develops, with Margaery on the throne. There is much and more that could happen between now and such a time as you are prepared to stake your claim. But at any rate, the question of independence or fealty is yours to decide, Sansa,” Willas replied, his voice growing serious.

“Truly, you would leave that to me?” Sansa asked with astonishment. “What if I decide to be Queen in the North, what would that mean for you? And what of our future children, what shall they inherit?”

“Perhaps I would declare myself King of the Reach, and we could be like Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, King and Queen in their own rights and King and Queen by Consort to one another’s lands, with their children to inherit both,” Willas attempted to joke.

“Who?” asked Sansa. Now it was Willas’s turn to blush.

“Nothing,” he muttered. “It’s from a fantasy novel. Nevermind. The point is, we do not need to decide for now. As regards our hypothetical offspring, my presumption is that our first son shall inherit Highgarden and our second son, the North. Or if we should have only one child, he or she would inherit the North, and the Reach shall pass to Garlan. If, however, you decide you wish to be a Queen, then that raises further questions about the status of the Reach and the Iron Throne itself. Margaery would need to be involved in any decisions that would affect her children’s prospects, and I assume she would oppose independence for the North, though I have a few ideas about what we might offer to win her support. But there are many, many options to consider, and much depends on who has how many sons and how the distribution of power and alliances are arrayed at the time when we must render a decision.”

“I see,” said Sansa, clearly becoming overwhelmed by all of this.

“And all of that assumes, of course,” continued Willas, “that you are the sole remaining heir to Winterfell. If that is not so, our plans would shift accordingly.”

Sansa stared at him. “What do you mean, my lord? Am I not the only remaining heir to Winterfell?”

In lieu of answering, Willas struggled up from his chair and stepped to Sansa’s side, until he could place his finger on the letter, pointing at the words ‘Robb’s heir.’

“What does that mean?” Sansa asked. “Do you think he meant to leave it in doubt, on purpose? If I am not Robb’s heir, then who is?”

“I do not know,” Willas said, his voice heavy and solemn. “I have been trying to figure out who else he might mean since I first read those words. It could be that your sister Arya has been found, but your brother’s men have maintained their silence, allowing the Crown to believe her missing still. It could be that one of your brothers escaped Theon’s brutality, or that Robb left a babe in his wife’s belly, or that your father had another child of whom I am not aware, or that there is some Stark cousin out there with a potential claim. This is something you must endeavor to learn, when you visit Riverrun.”

Sansa appeared dazed at the wide array of possibilities, placing a hand to her forehead to cool it, as if she might faint. Willas looked at her with concern. Then an idea flashed before her eyes.

“My father does have a bastard son,” she said quietly. “Jon Snow. But he took the Black, so I do not see how he could be Robb’s heir. Though I suppose I know only that he planned to join the Night’s Watch, and departed for Castle Black as I left for King’s Landing. It is possible he did not swear his vows, though I rather doubt that he would decide not to join the Night's Watch and then remain completely absent while our family came to such ruin. I suppose I should write to him in care of Castle Black, to find out what has become of him since last we spoke.”

“Indeed, you should,” Willas agreed. “But assuming he swore his vows as he intended, I share your skepticism that he could be a serious rival for your title, as I doubt the North would accept an oathbreaking Black Brother as their lord or King.”

Another strange look passed over Sansa’s face. “My lord, a moment ago…you said something about me visiting Riverrun?”

“Well, you need not go immediately, if you need time to prepare,” Willas reassured her. “But I see no way around it, if you wish to make peace or preserve your claim. I suppose we could pretend that we never received the Blackfish’s letter, but he’s probably more like to assume that I’m holding you hostage than to think the raven was shot down or some such, which means that sooner or later there will be a rider or mayhaps even an army at our doorstep.”

“I suppose you are right. I do not think we can afford to ignore this letter, and if we do not ignore it, then there is no way around it. I must go to Riverrun, if only to ask about the information my mother’s uncle left out, in fear that the raven might be intercepted.”

“Exactly. If you go, I will send an honor guard. Margaery will not take offense at that much, I am sure, and I will not have you riding into a war zone with no protection. I would accompany you, but travel is difficult for me even in the best of times, and at any rate, I cannot abandon my duties. There is no one present that I would trust to govern the Reach in my absence, except for Garlan, who is set to depart for Brightwater in a few days time. While I could leave matters to my mother or grandmother, I fear that some of our bannermen might take that as a sign of weakness and an opportunity for defiance. I would send an army with you, but too great a show of force might prove harmful to your diplomatic mission as well as our relationship with the crown. Instead, I propose to send you with a moderately-sized retinue stuffed full of my best and most honorable warriors. Parmen Crane, for instance, and Jon Fossoway. Perhaps Oberyn, if I can convince him.”

“Oberyn?” Sansa asked, with great curiosity. “You trust him?”

“Indeed, I do. We have become very close friends over the years. My father still holds my disability against Oberyn, but as my grandmother has likely already told you, it was as much my father’s fault for insisting I participate in the joust at such a tender age. After he injured me in the tourney, Oberyn begged my forgiveness and sent his own maester to tend to me, and later, as I approached the age of majority, he wrote to apologize once again. We struck up a lively correspondence, which we have maintained for around a decade by now. Once I was a man grown, he came to visit me in Oldtown, while I studied at the Citadel, and we have been bosom friends ever since. Oberyn is dangerous, but he will not do harm to me, or to you, and he is a fierce friend to have fighting on your side. Even so, I do not know if he will agree to accompany you to Riverrun. He may have other plans.”

Sansa nodded. “Well, you have given me much to think on, my lord. I should let you get back to work, and perhaps we can discuss my plans to travel to Riverrun on the morrow, once I have had more time to think.”

“I was thinking much the same, my lady,” Willas agreed. “By your leave, I will prepare a list of men who might accompany you, devise a list of questions you might investigate at Riverrun, and perhaps sketch out a few possible truce agreements that seem likely to be acceptable to all. It goes without saying that the final decision is yours, but I am well-versed in these matters, and I should like to help prepare you before sending you off into such a delicate situation.”

“I would greatly appreciate any help you have to offer,” said Sansa, smiling.

“Excellent. Then if you wish to take your leave, I shall plan to return to our rooms in time to prepare for the wedding, and we can walk to the Sept together a few hours from now.”

“That sounds lovely, my lord,” Sansa agreed. Kissing him on the cheek and blushing, Sansa departed, closing the door firmly behind her.

Left to his own devices once again, Willas returned to his work with even more fervor. He first prepared a letter to send to the Lord Commander at Castle Black, offering a few supplies and men to open a dialogue, in case something came of Sansa’s query to her half-brother. Then, he assembled a list of men who remained available to send with Sansa, crossing off any whose honor or loyalties were suspect. From this list, he selected a handful of the best swordsmen, bowmen, and other warriors who might prove useful to Sansa. Once this task was completed, he sent for the birth registries kept at Highgarden’s library, and pulled out some of the family trees and inheritance charts he kept for himself, making notes where updating was required.

So lost was he in his research that he nearly forgot to make plans for dealing with Tywin’s death, but he caught himself eventually, setting aside the papers he was preparing for Sansa’s trip to Riverrun for the time being. With his full concentration devoted to the Lannister situation, Willas jotted down some questions and notes regarding the Lannister family inheritance and the personalities involved. It may be possible that Cersei or Jaime will attempt to usurp Tyrion’s claim, Willas thought. In which case, I may need to support his claim militarily, stretching our armies even further or calling my father back to Highgarden. Perhaps, though, the Redwynes might be able to provide any support that is needed to establish Tyrion at the Rock, assuming there is an issue…

Willas continued mapping out the possibilities and strategizing how he might respond to them, lost in thought for several hours, until jolted back to the present by a knock on the door. It was one of his chambermen, sent by Sansa to fetch him so that he would be bathed and dressed in time to attend the wedding. Grateful for her wifely supervision, Willas snatched up his cane and limped back to his rooms.

 

***

 

Willas breathed a sigh of relief once the wedding was concluded. Now they needed only for the bedding to occur, and he could breathe easily, knowing that at least the first hurdle had been cleared. With Sansa in tow, he made his way to the grand ballroom for the second time in two days, to attend yet another feast. With all this feasting, I shall soon grow fat and lazy, he thought with irritation. He would much prefer to be working on his plans for the negotiations at Riverrun. There is so little time to prepare, given the importance of this meeting between Sansa and the Blackfish. And though my wife is a natural at diplomacy, I worry that she will not see the far-reaching implications of the choices laid before her. This would be much easier if I could go with her. I must convince Oberyn to accompany her, so that she has someone competent available to advise her, for my main worries concern words and implications rather than swords and sieges.

Performing his best imitation of courtly merriment, Willas took his seat at the head table and attempted to engage in smalltalk with his cousin and the other friends and relatives seated near him. Mercifully, Sansa was much better at such things than he was, so he was able to leave much of the work to her. Excusing himself, Willas sought out Tyrion, congratulating him and trying to evaluate the type of lord he might become. Inquiring after Tyrion’s family, Willas was pleased to hear that Jaime at least seemed to be close to Tyrion, though the way the dwarf spoke of Cersei only increased Willas’s concerns about potential conflict in the West. After chatting with Tyrion, Willas made excuses to others at the table and went off in search of Oberyn, hoping to convince him to join Sansa’s excursion to the Riverlands.

Willas was so preoccupied with these political matters that he overlooked something important. When he returned to the head table, after trying and failing to locate Oberyn, his wife was no longer there. At some point during the feast, Desmera informed him, his wife had been mingling and chatting with some of the other ladies, only to burst into tears and flee from the ballroom.

What in the Seven Kingdoms is going on with her? Willas wondered, hobbling into the gardens to search for his wife. What could someone have said to her that would make her flee? Why is she crying? Is it some silly matter of a lady’s pride, or something I should be truly worried about?

“Sansa?” Willas called, cursing his damned leg. He needed a day’s rest, but with all these weddings and ravens and crises, it seemed he was cursed to suffer the results of over-taxing his injured limb. “Sansa, are you out here?”

Finally, he heard Sansa’s voice coming from the hedge maze. He made his way towards the sound, peering through the hedge to determine which turn to take to reach his wife’s side. There - at last, he spotted her, sobbing with utter self-abandon on a bench in some forlorn corner of the maze. He was pleased to see Leonette beside his wife, trying to calm her down, but deeply concerned by Sansa's apparently immense distress.

“I am so stupid!” Sansa was wailing.

“It’s okay, Sansa,” Leonette was saying. “You’re not stupid. Just tell me what’s wrong.”

“She said – she said – oh I cannot bear it!” Sansa cried.

“Who said? What did she say? What is it that you cannot bear?” Leonette kept asking.

“I am a fool! So stupid, so foolish! Of course he doesn’t love me! I should have known!” Sansa sobbed hysterically.

“Tell me, Sansa,” Leonette pressed. “What should you have known?”

“Oberyn!” Sansa wailed.

“What about Oberyn?” Leonette inquired, hopelessly confused by Sansa's gibberish.

“Him and Willas! I should have known! I didn’t know with Loras and I didn’t know with Willas and I am simply a fool, a fool…” Sansa managed to say before bursting into heaving sobs once again. Willas’s blood turned to ice. What had she discovered? Who told her, and what did they tell her? Willas wondered, cursing himself for ruining his marriage before it even began. He should never have slept with Oberyn again, but it had seemed so harmless at the time...

“What are you talking about, Sansa? What about Willas and Oberyn?” Leonette wanted to know.

“Willas! He’s like Loras! I should have seen it! He loves Oberyn, not me! I shall never find love, not ever! I always choose the wrong man, because I am such...a...dunce!" Sansa cried.

Leonette seemed deeply confused by this outburst. She put her arm around Sansa’s shoulders and tried to talk some sense into her. Suddenly needing to speak to his wife himself, Willas left his eyehole at the hedge and hurried towards the ladies, limping along with his cane.

“Sansa, Willas is not like Loras. Who told you that? Willas prefers ladies, Sansa. Did you not enjoy your wedding night? How could you think that Willas is incapable of loving you? He is half in love with you already, everyone can see it,” Leonette was saying.

“No, he isn’t,” wailed Sansa. “He isn't in love with me, he couldn't be! Willas doesn’t love me, because he loves Oberyn.”

“Sansa, I swear to you, I would know it if Willas preferred men to ladies. I am married to his brother, and Loras’s preferences are not exactly a secret, okay? I don’t know who told you this nonsense, but I am certain, Willas prefers women,” Leonette insisted.

Willas finally rounded the last corner, stepping into view. He locked eyes with Leonette, then looked away.

“Willas prefers women, except for Oberyn,” Willas said darkly. Leonette looked shocked, and Sansa started sobbing again.

“See! See! I told you! He will never love me! He loves Oberyn! I should have known it, he nearly told me himself earlier today, he told me how they’re bosom friends and I’m so – so – stupid that I couldn’t grasp his meaning,” Sansa shouted.

“No, Sansa, you’ve got it all wrong,” Willas tried to say.

“You!” Sansa screamed at him, gathering a fistful of leaves from the hedge and throwing it at him. The leaves fluttered uselessly to the grassy ground. “How dare you! I thought – I thought – how can it all be a lie?”

“It’s not a lie,” Willas insisted. “Listen to me, Sansa. Take a deep breath, calm down, and let me explain.”

All at once, the energy seemed to go out of Sansa, and she deflated, sinking to the ground. She lay there, staring up at the sky.

“I don’t know who told you, or what they told you,” Willas said. “But Leonette tells it truly, I prefer women, and I especially prefer you, Sansa. I am already hopelessly infatuated with you, and I expect it will ripen into love, with time. I find you attractive – very attractive – and I would have hoped that you would have understood as much from our lovemaking last night.” Leonette looked away, blushing as Willas spoke, seemingly debating whether to stay or go.

“Then why…?” Sansa whispered.

“Why, what, Sansa? Why did I have an affair with Oberyn, if I prefer women? Why would I sin against the Seven if I could have chosen to pursue only women? Why did I call Oberyn a friend rather than a lover? Why, what? What did you hear?” Willas demanded to know, his voice bitter.

“All of it,” Sansa answered, her voice very small. “But especially, why did you lie with Oberyn the night before our wedding?”

At this, Willas also deflated, sinking to the ground beside Sansa. He looked into her teary eyes and begged her forgiveness, hoping it was enough.

“I’m terribly sorry, Sansa. I should never have let it happen. I did not mean to dishonor or displease you, and I swear to you, I will keep to your bed and yours alone so long as we are wed. But I gave into a moment of weakness, seeing my dear friend after so many years of communicating only by raven. It will not happen again, and it does not mean that I do not desire you. I carry deep affection for Oberyn, but you are my wife. Please, Sansa, I beg of you, do not let this ruin what we had begun to grow together.”

Hearing his words, Sansa pushed herself into a sitting position.

“I forgive you, my lord, for it is true that what you did before we were wed is not my concern. But you must explain it to me, for I am a stupid, naïve girl when it comes to these matters. I only just learned the truth about Loras at dinner the other night, and – ” Here, Sansa paused to glare at  Leonette before she should sneak away. “You told me – all of you told me – that a man who desires other men makes a bad husband because he does not wish to touch his wife.”

Willas sighed with relief. “They told you truly, as concerns a man like Loras, who has eyes only for other men. But it is possible to desire both equally, as Oberyn does. For my part, all those I have ever desired were women, save one. I do not know why I was attracted to Oberyn, when I have never found myself drawn to any other man. Mayhaps it is because he is an expert at seduction, and knew which levers to pull to unlock my lust. More likely, it is because he was the first to tell me that I was beautiful, to show me that I could still be desired, after my injury. I am desperately embarrassed that someone has told you of our dalliance, Sansa, and anguished that you believe it meant I did not desire you. I promise, I will prove my faithfulness and desire for you every day for the rest of our marriage, if you wish it. But please, you must believe me that my dalliance with Oberyn does not negate my budding love for you.”

Sansa also sighed with relief, his words finally seeming to get through to her. “All right, my lord. I shall hold you to it,” she said finally.

It was at this point that Leonette pounced. “Sansa, can you please tell us who told you of this – to me, heretofore entirely unknown – information about Willas and Oberyn? And what, precisely, did they say?”

“It was a woman at the feast,” Sansa said slowly. “I had not seen her before, and I am not sure I could describe her. She told me that Willas was like Loras, that he desired men. She said he did not love me, and he never would, and that I would never be happy in my marriage.”

Willas and Leonette both frowned. It is one thing for Sansa to learn of my rather secretive affair with Oberyn. That is humiliating, but not entirely unforeseen. However, it is another matter altogether for some strange woman to plant these seeds of discord within our marriage. So, too, is it disturbing that she somehow knew - or mayhaps guessed, or possibly lied, telling the truth only by accident - that I slept with Oberyn so recently, when I had thought my office to be safe from spies. That she did not succeed in breaking up my marriage this time is little comfort, if her identity cannot be uncovered. This stinks of intrigue, Willas thought. But by whom? Which of our enemies seeks to drive a wedge between Sansa and I, and for what purpose?


“What did this woman look like?” Leonette demanded, asking the truly important but imminently practical questions, as she often did.

“I...I don’t recall,” Sansa murmured. “She was blonde?”

“What colors was she wearing?”

“Pale blue, I think.”

“And her ears?” Leonette asked urgently. “Did you see her ears?”

“Her ears?” Sansa seemed confused by this question, and it took Willas a moment to see what Leonette was getting at, too.

“Yes, her ears. Were they bent, as if flopped over, or otherwise strangely shaped?” Leonette asked insistently.

“I’m not sure. I did not look closely at her ears,” Sansa said quietly. “Why are you asking? What do her ears have to do with anything?”

“Leonette sees Florents behind every plot these days, but in this case, she might be right,” Willas explained. “They have peculiar ears, so if you noticed something about her ear shape, that would provide some evidence of Florent involvement.”

Leonette nodded. “Exactly.”

“I’m sorry, I truly do not recall seeing the woman’s ears,” Sansa said apologetically. “They were covered by her hair, I think.”

“If I had to guess, I’d say a Florent or a Lannister,” Willas said to Leonette. “Blonde, with ears covered, clad in pale blue? That could point in either direction. Or it could be someone else entirely, and the details Sansa remembers mean nothing, or else the intention was that we would suspect the Florents and thus overlook the true culprit.”

“I will look for her,” Sansa assured them. “If I see her again, I will look at her ears and I will come back to you with a better description, or I will have the guards seize her if possible, so that she can be questioned.”

“It’s okay, Sansa. You couldn’t have known it was important to look at her ears,” Willas said kindly.

“I’m sorry I believed her,” Sansa added, her voice sad and hesitant again. “I shouldn’t have. I should have come and asked you about it, rather than panicking and making a mess of everything. I should have remembered that you told me...you told me that you enjoyed lying with me on our wedding night...it should have been obvious that something was not right about this woman's tale. I was just so upset, I wasn’t thinking clearly, and there was this stinky candle burning on the table, and it kept distracting me…”

Leonette and Willas exchanged another worried glance. “There are candles that enhance feelings of distress, or otherwise disrupt one’s natural emotional reactions,” Willas noted, for Sansa’s benefit. “It could be that you were set up, provoked into reacting the way you did.”

Sansa stared at them, horrified that there was someone out there who would go to all this trouble to ruin her marriage. “But why?” she asked, alarmed. “Why would someone do all of this?”

“I don’t know, Sansa,” Willas replied. “But we will have to find out, and quickly. Do not worry, I will speak to my grandmother. She is a wizard at uncovering plots and exposing the plotters, before they can do us harm. We will fix this. As long as you forgive me, there is no permanent damage here.”

“Yet,” added Leonette ominously.

Chapter Text

It did not take Tyrion long to realize that his new lady wife was no maiden – he would stake half the gold in Casterly Rock on that – but she had faked a maiden’s nervous innocence so prettily and then taken to his debauched fantasies with such fervor that he could not find it in his heart to begrudge her lack of purity. If wedding a woman who had seen a cock or two before was the price of having this saucy noble-born redhead in his bed (though perhaps not only there) for the rest of his life, it was a debt Tyrion would gladly pay. Once we return to Casterly Rock, perhaps I can convince her to re-enact One Thousand and One Valyrian Nights with me, for a thousand and one nights in a row, Tyrion mused as he fell asleep on his wedding night, fat and drunk and happy.

When he first heard someone knocking the next morning, Tyrion was deep in sleep. Stirring just long enough to yell at them to leave him be, he promptly fell back asleep as soon as the knocking stopped. The second time the knocking started, Tyrion was balls-deep in his new bride. “GO AWAY!” he’d shouted angrily, though he was pleased to note that neither the knocking nor the shouting had thrown him off his rhythm. After they were finished, Tyrion allowed himself to doze off once again, hoping to sleep off his growing hangover. The third time the knocking started up again, this time unrelentingly, Tyrion groaned at the noise but felt obliged to dredge up some sort of response, if only so they would leave him alone for good this time.

“What is it?” Tyrion demanded groggily. “Who’s there, and why will you not stop that infernal knocking?”

“Please, my lord, it is nearly mid-day. A raven has come bearing very important words, and Lord Willas insists that you be the first to hear it, before he will allow the maester to make his announcement to the court,” called the maidservant on the other side of the door.

Yawning, Tyrion stumbled out of bed. “Fine,” he called back, still annoyed at the disruption of what had been a lovely morning, except for the knocking. “Just a moment.”

“Please, milord. It’s urgent,” the voice replied. “This is the third time –”

“I said I’m coming! But unless you want a naked dwarf waddling through your halls, you will have to give me a few moments to get decent,” Tyrion japed, a note of irritation in his mocking tone. It would seem that that image stilled her tongue quickly enough, Tyrion thought, struggling into a new pair of breeches and fumbling around for a shirt. He did not look forward to appearing before the stately young Willas in his current bedraggled condition, but he supposed it could not be helped. If they insisted on dragging him out of his bed the morning after his wedding, this is what they would get. Finally having achieved some semblance of readiness to face the miserable world outside his bedroom door, Tyrion planted a kiss on the sleeping Desmera’s cheek and joined the servant in the hall.

The chambermaid quickly led Tyrion to Willas’s office, where the dignified youth sat at his desk looking fully awake and prepared for a day of work, his hair perfectly combed and his clothing neatly pressed. I must look quite an exquisite mess compared to this prim and proper young man, Tyrion thought, somewhat miserably. In retrospect, he reflected, the Tyrells’ marriage plans had been well-conceived. Far better to match the courtly Willas to the shy yet unfailingly polite Sansa, while pairing the debauched dwarf to the worldly, adventurous daughter of the Lord of Wine and Ships. His prospects for happiness had improved significantly since the previous afternoon, and he was almost glad Olenna’s scheming had brought him to this point. Or at least, so he thought, until Willas shared the dismal news brought to Highgarden on ravenwing.

“Lord Tyrion,” Willas said somberly. “Please sit.”

“As you like,” Tyrion replied. The couch across from Willas’s desk was tall, but someone had placed a stool discreetly next to it. Young Willas is as unfailingly polite as his lady wife, it would seem, Tyrion reflected. He was glad he did not have to struggle up onto the seat like a wriggling child trying to sit at the adults’ dinner table, though slightly embarrassed to need the assistance in the first place.

“Now what is it that you had to tell me, that’s so damnably important?” Tyrion grunted once he was seated.

Willas sighed, perhaps having hoped to ease into the conversation. Once prompted, however, he got straight to the point. “I am terribly sorry, my lord, but I must inform you that your father has passed away,” Willas said with great solemnity and a touch of sympathy.

“What, on the battlefield? I thought he was to remain in the capital for the rest of the fortnight, if not longer,” Tyrion said with astonishment.

“No,” said Willas, shaking his head gravely. “It was a natural death, caused by ruptured bowels. Maester Pycelle writes that he felt no pain, passing quietly in his sleep. Here, you may read it for yourself.”

“A natural death?” Tyrion snorted. “Natural, like Joffrey’s, I presume?”

The Tyrell lad scrutinized Tyrion’s face, as if searching for a clue. “What are you implying, Lord Tyrion?” Willas finally asked.

“My stunted height does not mean my brains are stunted as well,” Tyrion snapped. “And by all accounts, you’re an intelligent man. Please do me the courtesy of assuming neither of us are idiots.”

“I apologize, Lord Tyrion. I know well that too many courtiers take one’s physical limitations to be a sign of mental limitations as well, and I did not mean to slight you. It is only caution speaking, no disparagement intended,” Willas replied, sounding as if he truly empathized with Tyrion’s years of suffering.

I suppose I must count him among my cripples, bastards, and broken things, Tyrion thought with some reluctance. Though his leg isn’t really that bad, compared to the hand I was dealt.

“No offense taken,” Tyrion replied. “Now, where were we? Oh, yes. My nephew’s untimely death. And my father’s. Is it your opinion, my lord, that there is nothing suspicious about their deaths? Fat chance of that, I say.”

“If you are saying that the Grand Maester is lying, or mistaken,” Willas answered deliberately, “Then I have no reason to doubt you. I have not been to the capital since I was a child, so I could not say what happened to either King Joffrey or Lord Tywin. Mayhaps it was merely an unfortunate coincidence that two seemingly healthy men passed so closely in time, but mayhaps not. So, enlighten me, my lord. Why are you convinced that these were not natural deaths? Do you know something I do not?”

Rubbing his pounding head, Tyrion tried to focus on the Tyrell’s words. I am not nearly awake enough for this verbal sparring, he thought blearily. Mayhaps that’s precisely the state he wanted me to be in when offering me word of my father’s death, so that I would not be cogent enough to suspect him or his family. But then again, perhaps the heir to Highgarden simply did not understand precisely how early noontime was to a drunkard. The boy did not seem to indulge in much more than a glass of wine or two, from what Tyrion had observed.

“I am sorry, Willas – may I call you Willas? – this news is such a terrible shock to me, that I find I am not in the mood discuss these matters. Perhaps at another time,” Tyrion said eventually, head still throbbing.

“Of course, Tyrion – if I may. I understand that this must be quite a blow. I simply wanted to ensure you heard the news before the crier called it for the court. I have made a copy of the Crown’s declaration of death for you, to examine as you like. Please do not hesitate to seek me out if you wish to discuss these matters further,” said Willas, sliding a piece of parchment across the desk. Tyrion picked it up, blinked at it, and stuffed it into his waistband, having neglected to put on a proper coat when he dragged himself out of his room.

“Thank you,” Tyrion said, as politely as he could, before nodding his farewell and returning to bed.

 

***

 

Sometime in the afternoon, Tyrion finally rose for the day. Desmera had already bounded off somewhere, to attend a ladies’ tea hour or somesuch, so Tyrion went to find Bronn and Podrick. He half-wished Varys was around, so he could ask him who was truly responsible for Joffrey and Tywin’s deaths. The eunuch might not tell the truth, but his answer would be informative regardless. As he waddled around the castle, searching for his squire and his sellsword, it hit Tyrion how much had changed with his father’s death. He wondered how long it would take Kevan to send him a raven, exhorting him to hurry either back to the Red Keep or to Casterly Rock. The latter, he assumed. No need to endanger more Lannister skins, when he could be safely ensconced in the Rock by the time the assassin struck again.

“Bronn!” Tyrion shouted, as he made his way onto the practice field. “Podrick!”

“I’m here, my lord!” Podrick said, rushing to Tyrion’s side. Bronn took his sweet time, sauntering over at his leisure rather than sprinting like the squire. The sellsword arrived a few paces behind Pod, folded his arms, and raised an inquisitive eyebrow at Tyrion.

“So, gentlemen, it seems that there has been another death in the family. Consequently, we’ve all received a promotion,” Tyrion said sardonically.

“My lord?” asked Podrick, who was a good boy, but easily confused. Bronn simply waited for Tyrion to continue.

“My father is dead, which makes me the new Lord of Casterly Rock. And that makes you two my Paramount Knight and Master-at-Arms, respectively,” Tyrion explained. “Congratulations!”

“But…but, my lord…I am not a knight,” Podrick sputtered.

“Well, you’re about to be, as soon as I can find a knight to dub you. If you’re to be my Sworn Shield, you will need to be a knight. It’s in the job description,” Tyrion said, enjoying the look on his squire’s face as it dawned on him that Tyrion was serious.

“Thank you! Oh, thank you, my lord! Wait, what should I call you now? Is it still Lord Tyrion? High Lord Tyrion? My Lord Paramount?” the boy fretted.

“Just Tyrion is fine, Podrick,” Tyrion replied with amusement.

“So, Master-at-Arms. Does that mean I get a castle?” Bronn demanded.

“In due time. I’ll grant you a title when we get to Casterly Rock, but as Master-at-Arms, you will need to live in my castle. I promise you shall have bedding of spun gold, however, and a lady wife, should you want one.”

“Bedding of spun gold? Can I sell that?” Bronn asked, only half-serious.

“You’re still thinking small,” Tyrion admonished. “Do consider what this means. All of the gold in Casterly Rock is mine. The armies of the Westerlands are mine. All of it is mine, and I will see to it that both of you are handsomely rewarded for your loyalty.”

Bronn seemed satisfied with that answer, and Podrick looked like his mind was boggled by his sudden ascent in the world. Yesterday, he was a distant cousin of the King’s Justice, from a cadet branch of a lesser house in the Westerlands and squire to his lord’s joke of a son. Today, he was to be the Paramount Knight of the Westerlands and the right hand to his high lordship.

“So, what happened to your father?” Bronn asked.

“Oh, yes, my lord! I’m – I’m so sorry, my lord! How could I forget – I mean – I am so sorry for your loss!” gushed Podrick.

“It’s fine, Podrick. According to Pycelle, my father died peacefully in his sleep, a painless and natural death, if a bit of an early one. But…”

“But, that’s a load of horseshit and we all know it,” finished Bronn.

“Precisely,” agreed Tyrion. “So our first order of business is to figure out who has been killing off my relatives, so they don’t knock me off as well. Which would have dire implications for the wealth and status of both of you, just so that we are clear on that. Do remember my standing offer to pay you twice as much not to kill me, if anyone offers you gold for my head.”

“Won’t forget it,” Bronn said. His eyes were glinting with the thought of all the gold he was about to pocket.

“All right, that is all, for now,” announced Tyrion. “I will not keep you from your training any longer, but I expect we will be travelling West in the next few days, so be prepared.”

“Aye,” said Bronn, nodding.

“Yes, my lord!” Podrick said, though the lad looked slightly confused, perhaps wondering if Tyrion was really so unconcerned by his father’s death.

Yes, Podrick, it’s true. I don’t mourn my father’s death. Indeed, if he hadn’t gotten himself killed sometime soon, I might have had to do it myself, one day, Tyrion thought. But still, he wished he could have had a little more time to enjoy his new wife before all these new responsibilities got dumped on his head. I will not be like Willas, holing up with parchments full of crop production numbers all day, Tyrion vowed. A smart man delegates.

 

***

 

Tyrion did what he always did, when he found himself alone in a strange castle with nothing of import to do: he went to the library. It did not disappoint. In fact, he had to admit, it was grander than the library at the Red Keep and Casterly Rock combined. There must be thousands of books here, he thought, with delight. Who knew what ancient, mysterious, rare tomes might be found here?

The library had massive, vaulted ceilings with crystal chandeliers dripping down, hovering over the heavy dark wood shelves. The bookshelves along the walls went all the way up and up, stopping only at the point where the ceilings began to curve. Sliding ladders dotted the shelves along the walls, allowing people of standard height to reach the books far above their heads, and allowing Tyrion to reach any book he desired without assistance. Strange artifacts from far-away lands were displayed in glass cases near the entry way, and as Tyrion gazed out into the spacious room before him, he saw further glass cases deeper into the stacks. There were tiny boats in bottles, from the Summer Isles; dragon statuettes carved in jade and ivory, from Yi Ti; sinister, lifelike, leering dolls from Asshai; a lock of beaded hair strung with many bells, hanging over a loin cloth, labelled as a Dothraki artifact; a strange bottle of purple sap, a chunk of petrified bark, and carefully dried leaves, tagged with the name of Qarth; and much more that he did not even recognize, including primitive arrowheads described as being from “The Land Beyond the End of the World.”

Winding staircases led from the main floor of the library, down into seemingly endless caverns below. Unable to resist, Tyrion followed the stairs downward. He was greeted by more books, and more artifacts; among the strangest was a room of maps to places that were either long lost to history, beyond the edge of the known world, or entirely fictional. Down and down the stairs went, until the walls became smooth, oily black stone and tunnels – no longer filled with books and rare objects – led off into unbroken darkness. Unnerved, Tyrion began to climb back up, reaching the first floor above the dark tunnels, still deep in the belly of the library.

It was then that he heard whispers, punctuated by occasional giggles. Following the sound, Tyrion crept silently, closer and closer, until he could make out the words.

“So, what do you think will happen? With him gone...does that change the timeline?” a voice was saying.

"Mayhaps. I don't know,” replied another. Tyrion was certain that he knew that voice, but he could not quite place it, with the low volume and the unusual acoustics of this room. He crept closer, listening carefully.

“Do you think he'll go along with it?” the first voice was asking.

“Oh, yeah, I’m sure of it,” replied the second, confidently. “Maybe not yet, but I have him wrapped halfway around my finger already, and we’ve hardly even done anything. Just the normal stuff. Wait ‘til he gets up the courage to ask me to do something really deviant. I’ll let him do whatever he wants to me and that will be that.”

Oh, yes, I know that voice, Tyrion realized, his heart sinking. Desmera. She was talking about him. Something broke inside of him, even as another part of him stiffened at the thought of making her fulfill his most deviant fantasies.

“You’re enjoying this,” said the first voice, the tone one of amusement. That voice, Tyrion did not recognize. Is she truly? he wondered. And what is it she enjoys – her time with me, or pulling the sheepskin over my eyes?

“Of course I am,” Desmera shot back. “Why do you think they picked me?”

“I don’t know, because of your father?”

“Ah, well, that’s part of it. But it could have been practically anyone who was sufficiently pretty and wild. And loyal, of course, that’s crucial. Plus, their bloodlines needed to be good enough, at least while Tywin lived. Even so, I’m not the only one who fits that description. It could have been me with the Summer Islander prince, and Megga in my place, if I didn’t want to play the role. It worked out nicely, though, don’t you think? Convenient to send me, directly, and not some proxy whore.”

At these words, a blinding fury rose in Tyrion. I suddenly understand my father, much better than I did when he yet lived, Tyrion thought bitterly, balling his small hands into fists and wishing he was a larger man so that he could enact his rage with his body. Lost in his growing anger, Tyrion missed the sounds of shuffling, but he was perceptive enough to hear the creaking floorboards as one of the whisperers stepped quietly towards him. Rather than confront his wife, Tyrion turned and fled, but her voice called after him as he climbed the steps as fast as his short legs would allow.

“Tyrion, wait!” Desmera cried, racing after him.

You lied to me, he thought, ashamed that he had fallen for it. Tyrion kept climbing.

“Tyrion, come on! Did you miss the part where I said I was enjoying this?” Desmera called up to him, taking the stairs two at a time.

She’s going to catch me, he thought. I won’t even make it to the main floor of the library at this pace. Self-hate welled up in his throat as he stopped on the landing to catch his breath.

Desmera’s head poked up out of the stairwell. “Oh, good, you waited!” she said, climbing the rest of the way up and taking a seat on the floor next to him. He glared at her, hoping she saw the loathing in his eyes.

“Look, Tyrion, it’s not what you think,” she started to explain.

“Why should I believe anything you say?” he demanded, his voice coming out a dry rasp.

“I haven’t lied to you, about anything,” Desmera protested. “Well, okay, maybe one thing, but you saw through that lie from the start, and I thought you didn’t mind. At least, that’s what you said to me when you thought I was asleep.”

Tyrion’s eyes narrowed further. “It would seem our entire relationship is a lie,” he replied coldly.

“No, it isn’t. You’re a brilliant man, so I doubt you were unaware that my family – like everyone else in the Seven Kingdoms, to tell it truly – has various interests and plots, which I hoped to further with the position of power and wealth I would have as your wife. That's hardly a secret, is it?"

“That is true,” he said slowly. “But, fool that I am, I believed you when you claimed to enjoy our time together. You’re very good, you know. I could not tell that you were faking it. You’d make a truly superb whore.”

Desmera seemed not to be offended by this, which only made him angrier. “I repeat," she said, "did you miss the part where I told her that I am enjoying this? I wasn’t faking it, no more than you were. Did you hear me tell her how I get off on knowing that you can do anything you want to me? Don’t you want to stick around and find out how far you can push me, to discover what you can make me do before I cry and plead for you to stop? To find out what I meant by truly deviant?”

“Temptress!” he spat, his body reacting despite himself.

“Tyrion, please, you've misunderstood my meaning. You’re angry, I see that…” There was a cruel, seductive glimmer in her eyes as she spoke the next words, sliding down onto her hands and knees. She crouched there on the floor of the library’s catacombs, ass in the air and her large breasts brushing against the cold stone below his feet. “Maybe you should punish me, my lord. I know I have been very naughty. Plotting and scheming…maybe you should teach me a lesson.”

I will not be distracted, Tyrion thought, stifling a groan. Instead, the rage flaring inside him once again, he shouted at her. “Siren! Succubus!”

Desmera fell back on her knees for a moment, torso lifting upright again as she giggled. “Oh, Tyrion. How many synonyms for whore do you know?”

The situation was becoming so farcical that he couldn’t help but laugh at that. Thinking for a moment, he listed off, “Slattern, camp follower, slut, whore, Aezebel, she-devil, woman of the night...” ticking them off on his fingers as he spoke them.

“Tyrion, you are a delight,” Desmera said, laughing even harder. “Please forgive me? We can go upstairs and you can exact your vengeance on my poor, vulnerable body, if you will just forgive me.”

Tyrion sobered a little at that. “Your attempts at distraction shall not work, my little honeypot,” he replied sternly, though his voice softened as he spoke the endearment. “I shall forgive you only if you tell me of this plot in which you seek to enmesh me.”

“Oh, that,” Desmera said airily. “Sure. My father wants to invade the Summer Isles. He’s planning to press Jalabhar Xho’s claim once the War of the Five Kings is over, and he wants me to get you to help. Build some more ships at Lannisport, fill them up with soldiers and later with criminals and adventurers and starving smallfolk hoping for their own bit of land, and send them off to settle on the islands.”

Tyrion gaped at her, astonished at her careless manner as she tossed that information out. But then, he thought, that’s all? That’s all she wanted from me?

As if reading his mind, Desmera continued. “That’s how we do it, here in the Reach. We fulfill your heart’s desire, and once you’ve gotten that, why would you not go along with our plots? We wouldn’t ask it of you if we thought you’d truly object. We’d ask someone else instead, someone who was better-suited to the task. ‘A tool for every task, to the benefit of all,’ that’s one of Olenna’s sayings. Frankly, it surprises me that anyone else does it differently. Force is just so messy and unreliable, you know? And the blowback, no thanks! Look at your father – he got away with it for twenty years, but in the end, what happened? Better to make people happy and let them return the favor.”

“You know what happened to my father?” Tyrion asked, urgently.

“No, obviously not,” Desmera said, rolling her eyes. “Besides the fact that he is dead, in a manner that is inescapably suspicious to anyone who's paying attention. Whoever did it would never share that kind of information with me. As you’ve now seen, I’m fairly awful at keeping secrets. But let’s tick off the likely suspects, shall we? Who has the motive to kill Tywin? Well, there’s the Martells, obviously, and any Targaryen loyalists still floating around. The Reynes and the Tarbecks, if any of them remain. The Starks, clearly, but I think Sansa’s rather too timid to do such a thing, and anyways, she was here when it happened, not in the Capital. But it’s not just the Starks, of course, it’s the entire stinking North. The Tyrells, mayhaps, if they think Kevan will be easier to manipulate than Tywin, but I’d guess not, because the timing is poor from their perspective. I’d suspect them if this happened after Margaery had birthed a son, but not so early into Tommen’s reign. Beyond that, there are a few dyed-in-the-wool Renly supporters, like Courtnay Penrose, who might bear a grudge. Stannis, of course, probably has the most to gain from Tywin’s death, and it seems he is not above stealthy means of killing, given Renly’s mysterious death. Then there’s you, and quite possibly your sister as well. I’m sure you both have ample reasons to hate him, and you surely stand to gain from his death. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few. The point is, your father has been accumulating enemies for decades. I’d much rather do as the Tyrells do, and accumulate friends. Beginning with my husband.”

At this, Desmera placed a kiss on Tyrion’s lips, surprising him. His head whirled as he tried to process everything his wife had just said to him. Invade the Summer Isles? Making friends rather than enemies? And which of those suspects she’d just listed off did he find most compelling?

Finally, Tyrion’s mismatched eyes met Desmera’s warm brown ones, and he asked the question he most feared to ask. “So you do desire me, truly? I care not, about the rest of it, so long as you are not secretly cringing inside when I touch you.”

Desmera smiled saucily, falling to her hands and knees again, and waggling her ass. “Oh, trust me, my lord…there is no pretending involved, and I cannot wait to prove it to you.”

Tyrion gulped, desire flaring in his loins, but he stifled it. “Why?” he asked hoarsely. “Why should I believe you?”

Desmera sighed, resigning herself to the fact that she was not going to be able to divert him until she’d answered his questions to his satisfaction. Sliding back into a sitting position, she tried to explain. “Think about it this way. Sansa Stark is the best, the absolute best, at pretending to enjoy things she hates and molding herself into what others want her to be. But do you think she could pull this off, what I’m doing? Could she lie with you, night after night, giving the impression she’d enjoyed it when you debased her with your lust? No. She’d hate it. She’s all refined, a perpetual blushing maiden. She’d slip, and you’d notice. And could I do what she’s doing, with Willas? Play at being a perfect gentle lady, day in and day out? No, no way. I’d be bored stiff. You’re actually fun. The whole point of a marriage alliance is matching people well, so that they actually get along, desire one another, and cement the alliance interpersonally so that the political side holds together. Olenna wouldn’t have suggested me as a match for you unless she had good reason to believe we’d be happy with one another. I like you, Tyrion. That's not a lie. I really, sincerely enjoy your company. You get me all hot and bothered with your lustiness, and teasing you is so…damn…fun.”

With these last words, Desmera’s hands dropped low, brushing over Tyrion’s breeches. He moaned, suddenly no longer caring about invasion plots or murder plots or anything besides his beautiful, naughty wife. This is exactly what they want from me, Tyrion thought, giving in to Desmera’s unrelenting temptations. Too addled by desire to question their demands.

But, Tyrion found, he did not care. He’d give this woman the whole damn Westerlands if that’s what it took to satisfy her. What did he care about the Summer Islands, about wine sales and trade routes? His wine-drenched lioness had her claws in him already, and he liked it. Let her take what she wanted, indebt herself to him, and he would take repayment from her flesh.

Chapter Text

When Sansa awoke the morning after Tyrion and Desmera’s wedding, her heart dropped when she saw that her husband was already gone, just as he had been when she’d woken the previous morning. He must be working on the plans for my trip to Riverrun, she reassured herself. He is absent, but it is for my sake, so I cannot hold it against him. Still, she hoped he would not rise so early every morning, leaving her to start her day alone.

Rising from her bed and dressing in a simple morning gown, Sansa walked to the kitchens to break her fast, and then returned to her room to bathe and dress for the day. Once properly dressed to be seen at court, she wandered through the castle’s sitting rooms and parlors until she found a group of ladies engaged in needlepoint. After asking if they minded, she joined them, participating in the polite chatter and gossip while she worked at her embroidery. When she had stitched so long her fingers ached, Sansa bid the other ladies goodbye, and went to find the painting teacher Margaery had recommended to Sansa before her departure from King’s Landing. The painter was a jolly, red-faced man who was only too happy to admit another noble lady to his afternoon painting lessons. He showed her the vase of flowers the class would be painting at their next lesson, and then demonstrated on a nearby easel how to move to brush to create an image of the flowers. Sansa shot him a dazzling smile and promised to return.

I do believe these painting lessons will be quite merry, with such a happy, grandfatherly gentleman as the instructor, Sansa thought happily. There was an extra pep in her steps as she returned to the kitchens to request that two servings of the mid-day meal be sent to Willas’s study an hour after noontime. On her way out, Sansa could not help but filch a lemoncake, savoring the sour sweetness on her tongue as she headed for the gardens to speak to the head gardener about converting some of the space in their glass gardens to food plants rather than flowers.

Just in case, Sansa thought. For winter is coming, even to the Reach.

 

***

 

When Sansa returned to the kitchens, she was told that the meal had just been sent along. Hurrying after the kitchenmaid, Sansa arrived at Willas’s office just in time to thank the serving girl before she departed. Taking a seat on the couch across from Willas’s desk, Sansa smiled brightly at her husband.

“How have you fared this morning, Willas?” Sansa asked, his given name rolling somewhat awkwardly off her tongue, but he had started insisting that she use it when they were alone and she had resolved to try.

Willas sighed. “Well enough, my lady. I finished putting together the list of men to send with you, and had Lomys prepare ravens to send to the ones who are not here at present. I thought we might discuss them after we are finished eating, and if you approve, the ravens shall be sent with due haste. I’ve taken locations and travel routes into consideration, so I have included only men within a three-days ride of Highgarden or those who might be met along the way. I assumed that you would not wish to wait a moon’s turn for Crane to ride from Red Lake, when it is just as well he should ride Northeast and meet you at Wythers or Alden Keep.”

“That is meet, my lord…I mean, Willas,” Sansa replied, flushing at her mistake. But then, he had called her ‘my lady’ instead of Sansa, had he not? It seemed that they were both getting used to this new informality.

“Thank you,” he said softly. “Sansa.

Her name sounded so lovely when he said it. She smiled shyly at him.

While they ate their meal, she told him of her plans to take painting lessons and her suggestions to the head gardener.

“I hope that is okay with you…Willas,” she added quickly, after telling him about her plans for the glass gardens. Willas smiled back at her.

“I think it is a wonderful idea, Sansa. How fortunate we are to have a Stark to oversee our winter preparations,” he told her earnestly.

They continued eating, sitting in companionable silence as they sipped their soup and ate their bread and cheese and greens. Finally, Willas set down his spoon, and helped her gather up the dishes and set them in the small alcove carved into the white stone walls in the hallway for the servants to pick up on their way to the kitchens.

The table cleared, Willas picked up a piece of parchment from his desk and rolled it out on the coffee table before them. It was a list of names, some of which Sansa recognized and some of which she did not. He pointed at them, one by one, explaining his reasons for selecting each member of their riding party bound for Riverrun. As he spoke, Sansa felt a deep gratitude and affection welling up inside her. Even if he leaves me alone in the mornings, she thought, my husband is kind and thoughtful to oversee the preparations for my journey so carefully.

“Ser Parmen Crane of Red Lake,” said Willas, as he pointed to the first name. “He’s the best swordsman of the bunch, nigh-unbeatable. Rumor has it, he was almost named to Robert Baratheon’s Kingsguard, but in the end was passed over because it is said that he enjoys killing too much. That’s true enough, and reason to be leery of him, but he is not a lawless man. Far from it, actually. I believe he binds himself to rules and honor because without them he would have no limits, for he lacks a natural sense of revulsion at deeds that would churn other men’s stomachs. But all the same, he takes his knightly oath and his sworn obligations to his liege lord with the utmost seriousness. You can trust him to follow orders and the demands of chivalry to the letter.”

"If he’s such a beast, why send him with me?” Sansa asked, concerned by this unflattering description.

“Because he is the best damn swordsman in the Reach. While I would never send only Ser Parmen as your guard, you need at least one man in your party who is capable of beating the likes of Jaime Lannister and the Mountain in a duel. The Kingslayer might not be so formidable without his sword hand, but one never knows – mayhaps he can fight just as well with his other hand, or mayhaps he has found other men to fight his battles for him. You do not know what kind of troubles you will meet on the road, and a kind-hearted knight does you little good if your sortie loses the fight to a gang of bandits, and though unlikely to come to it, one does not send a lady into hostile lands without a champion who’s guaranteed to win a trial by combat in a pinch. Besides, I am confident that Ser Parmen will do naught but what you command. His honor is all the more rigid because his conscience serves as such a poor guide.”

“I see,” said Sansa, not fully convinced, but willing to accede to Willas’s greater knowledge of the man.

Willas pointed at the second name. “Ser Jon Fossoway is as true a knight as Ser Duncan the Tall. Unlike Parmen, he is one of the kindest men I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. His honor is unblemished and he is Leonette’s uncle. He is competent all-around, though his breadth of skill means that he is not truly great at anything in the way that Parmen is with his sword. He is also older than the others, and wise from his years. Any task that requires flexibility and good judgment, he’s your man. He was to go to Brightwater Keep, but Garlan’s agreed that he can spare him, since your need of him is greater.”

“He sounds wonderful,” Sansa said sincerely. “I had begun to despair that there were no true knights, when I was in King’s Landing.”

A dark look passed across Willas’s face, but it disappeared quickly. “I am proud that the Reach can redeem your faith in knights, milady,” he finally said. Sansa smiled broadly at that, and Willas continued with his list. “Dickon Tarly, Lord Randyll’s second son and heir. He was left behind to protect his mother and sisters, but he is eager to prove himself in battle, so I think he will agree to accompany you, and since I am not ordering him directly into battle, Lord Randyll could hardly object to the honor of my appointing his son to your honor guard. He is young and somewhat green, but his father raised him to be tough and strong, and he has had some success on the tourney field. Moreover, he is friends with Garlan, who vouches for his character. While Lord Randyll is a hard man, I understand his son to be both talented in the military arts and a chivalrous, friendly fellow.”

“He sounds like a good choice,” Sansa agreed. I feel that I do not have the knowledge to gainsay Willas’s choices, she thought to herself, but he is kind to give me explanations of these men so that I know what to expect from them.

“Lord Gunthor Hightower is my mother’s brother. Though his mother is a Florent, he’s married to a Fossoway, and I trust my uncle well. You met him at the wedding, but you may not recall, because you met so many of my family members at once on our wedding day. He is a competent fighter, but his true skill lies in diplomacy. Like all the Hightowers, his education is unparalleled, and he spent a number of years forging a few links of a maester’s chain at the Citadel before deciding he’d rather wed and remain in Oldtown than serve some unknown lord. His depth of knowledge will serve you nearly as well as a maester’s, as will his experience at negotiating trade deals and settling disputes. You can rely on him for counsel as you would rely on me. If I cannot go myself, he is the best I could send in my place.”

“I understand that your place is here,” said Sansa. “But I thank you for sending your uncle to advise me. I think I do remember him. He seemed jolly.”

“Indeed, he is, and he will be glad that you remember him,” Willas said with a smile. “The next name on the list is Ser Ryam Flowers of Bardshome, who is a childhood friend of mine. He rode in the same tourney where I was injured, though he has a few years on me, and luckily emerged unscathed from his defeat that day. In the years since, he has made quite a name for himself in the tourneys, and he was knighted by Garlan for his service protecting the Arbor from marauding pirates. I trust him with my life, and the only stain on his honor is his bastardy, which is no fault of his own.”

“I shall be glad to meet him, since he is your friend,” replied Sansa.

"Ser Torgen Oakheart is the second son of Lady Arwyn Oakheart, who is my mother’s dearest friend. His brother Ser Arys is a member of the Kingsguard, and Lord Torgen is said to be an even greater swordsman than his younger brother – ”

“No,” said Sansa, suddenly and vehemently, cutting Willas off before he’d finished speaking.

“What?” replied Willas, confused by Sansa’s reaction.

“If he is the brother of Ser Arys of the Kingsguard, I cannot trust his honor,” Sansa stated calmly, though fear glinted in her eyes. Images of her beatings by the Kingsguard flashed across her mind, and her heart started beating rapidly.

“Sansa…” Willas said, trailing off as if unsure what to say.

“How much do you know, about what happened to me?” she asked quietly. I do not want to speak of it, I do not want to at all, she thought. But I must give him some idea, if I am going to reject one of his men’s aid.

“I – I only know what Margaery has told me,” Willas said uncomfortably. “I do not wish to pry, my lady, but…”

“Joffrey had the Kingsguard beat me,” Sansa said with as much dignity as she could muster. “You may have noticed the scars on my back, on our wedding night.”

She could tell by his expression that he hadn’t. He hadn’t noticed. She was not sure whether to be grateful or angry with him for that, but if he had not seen them, she must show him now, so that he would understand. Sansa turned her back to Willas.

“Unlace the back of my gown, husband, and I will show you,” she said, breathing carefully to control her rapid heartbeat. Gently, ever so gently, Willas reached for the laces on her gown. Very slowly and with great care, he untied the laces halfway down her back. With concern for her modesty, he cautiously folded down the sides of her gown until he could see the scars. She knew he saw them because he took a sharp intake of breath, before carefully lacing her dress again. When she turned to look at him, his eyes were flaming with contained rage.

“Who did this to you?” he whispered. His voice was very low, but he did not sound timid; he sounded dangerous. “I will see them dead, my lady. Tell me who did this to you.”

“All of them,” Sansa croaked, tears finally springing to her eyes. “Every member of the Kingsguard obeyed Joffrey’s orders to beat me, except for the Hound. Ser Meryn was the worst of them, but they all did it.”

Willas’s eyes narrowed, and his forehead creased. His hands balled into fists. I know this form of anger, Sansa thought. He is like Lord Tywin, not in other respects, but in this one, at least. His rage is cold and all the more deadly for it.

 Then a thought seemed to strike Willas, and his eyes began to shine, as if with tears. “Even Loras?” he asked hoarsely, looking at her like he was begging it not to be true. “Not Loras, surely?”

“No, not Loras,” she assured him. “He was not yet a member of the Kingsguard.”

“And Jaime Lannister? Am I sending you to parlay with one of the men who beat you? Is that why you hesitated, when I spoke of you going to Riverrun?” Willas looked stricken at the thought.

“No! No, not him, either,” she said. “He was my brother’s prisoner at the time, and our paths crossed only for a day or two. Joffrey was distracted by Margaery, so I do not know if Jaime Lannister would have struck me or not, if he were ordered to do so. His brother – Tyrion – he tried to stop them, when Ser Meryn ripped off my dress and beat me with the flat of his sword in the throne room. I could not say if the Kingslayer has as much honor as the Imp, or if he is more like Joffrey and Cersei and Tywin, but my sense of him from his visit to Winterfell before the war began is that he is arrogant, devoted to his sister, and likely as ruthless as she is. After all, he slew the King he swore to guard with his life, so I can scarcely believe he has an honorable bone in his body.”

Willas stared at her in a rare moment of speechlessness at Sansa's passing reference to the beating in the throne room.

“It’s okay, Willas,” she said quietly. “You saved me from that fate.”

“Oh, Sansa,” he said, pain in his voice. He lurched from his seat and moved to her side of the table, taking her in his arms. They sat together for some time, until her cheeks were dry and her breathing slowed to a normal pace. Eventually, Willas drew away, and returned to his seat on the opposing couch.

“Well,” he said hesitantly. “Not Ser Torgen, then.”

“It’s okay, Willas,” Sansa said soothingly. “It’s okay to continue with your list. I am learning to live with the scars on my back and on my heart. You need not fear for me. I shall not shatter, and I am safe now, because of you.”

Willas reached for her hand and kissed it. “I promise you, my lady Sansa, no one will ever hurt you again.”

“Thank you,” she said, her eyes misting again. “But let us put it aside, I wish to forget it.”

“As you wish, my lady,” Willas said, sighing. He picked up the sheet of paper again. “The next name on my list is Septon Triston.”

“He is a fine man, but why a Septon?” Sansa answered, prodding Willas onwards.

“Because the Faith Militant are becoming a problem, particularly in the Riverlands and Crownlands,” he said heavily. “Septon Triston is decent with swords, good with words, and has a sterling reputation with the smallfolk and church hierarchy alike. If you have any trouble with the Faith, Septon Triston will know how to handle it. As you saw, he is also open-minded, so he will not cause further problems for you if you encounter others who keep the Old Gods or this new Red God from Essos that seems to be making inroads in the Riverlands in the last few moons. We will miss him, here at Highgarden, but there are other Septons that he supervises. I spoke to him about it, and he assures me that the man he’s training as his successor will do a fine job in his absence.”

“You have planned for everything, it seems,” said Sansa warmly, a tiny smile appearing on her lips.

“I have tried, my dear lady wife,” Willas replied solemnly. “I wish to keep you safe, even when I cannot be by your side to ensure it. Thought I am even more loathe to send you away now that I know more of what you have already suffered. If there were any other way…”

“But there is not, my lord, and you know it,” Sansa said plainly. Willas spread his hands helplessly. “Are there any other names on your list?”

“The final name is Lady Rowan, whom I believe you’ve met?”

Alys Rowan?” Sansa said with great surprise, her mouth dropping open. Willas chuckled at her reaction.

“Oh yes, that’s the one,” he said. “You’ve probably only seen the gilded outer layer she displays at court, but believe it or not, her father began training her in the military arts once he realized he was not like to have a son. He was loathe to do it, I think, but the thought of handing over Goldengrove to an heir who was not capable of commanding armies was even more intolerable to him than educating his daughter for command. My mother told me that he oft spoke of how military logistics are not so different from managing a household, more to convince himself than to justify himself to her.”

Sansa laughed brightly at this, the traces of her sadness finally receding entirely. “My sister Arya would have loved to hear that tale,” she said without thinking, and then the sadness came crashing back. Willas took her hand and squeezed it.

“I will instruct your honor guard to look for her as you move through the Riverlands,” he said, with great seriousness. “If she is alive…we will find her, sooner or later. I promise.”

Sansa wiped away a tear. “If any girl could survive out there amidst a war, it is Arya,” she informed him, hoping it was true. “She is very tough and she has always made friends with the smallfolk. Mayhaps a miller’s family or a butcher took her in.”

“I hope it is so,” Willas said, a note of melancholy in his voice.

He does not believe she is alive, Sansa thought. I know the odds are against it, but if he knew Arya…I just cannot believe she is gone. She escaped, I know it, and she survived somehow, I must believe it. Mayhaps I will see her again someday. Mayhaps I am not the only Stark left. Sansa knew it was unlikely, but now that she had seen her hopes borne out once, she was more willing to let herself hope on Arya’s account. I wish I had been a better sister to her.

 “I’m sorry, my lord. I keep mentioning sad memories, and distracting you from your business,” Sansa said aloud.

“Do not apologize for that,” Willas said, somewhat harshly, and then his voice softened. “You have nothing to apologize for and I will not hear it. I am glad you felt comfortable sharing what happened to you, and I am honored that you spoke to me about your family, because I know how hard it is for you.”

“I am grateful that I can confide in you,” Sansa replied quietly. “Now, you were saying, about Lady Rowan? I must hear this.”

Willas smiled, somewhat grimly. “Ah, yes, the Lady Rowan. She began learning the military arts later than most, but her father taught her well. Her main strength is in tactics and logistics, so if the Blackfish makes grandiose claims about taking the Lannisters in the field, she can tell you whether it’s bluster or truth. She’s utterly useless with a broadsword, but she has a keen eye for archery and she’s quite good with throwing daggers. As is often the case with lady warriors, she is like to be underestimated. But mainly, I recommend her because I thought you ought not be the only woman on this mission.”

“I shall be grateful to have the company of another woman,” Sansa affirmed. She took Willas’s hand, squeezing it gently before letting it go. Looking into his eyes, she thanked him once again for helping her prepare and providing an honor guard.

“It is no trouble at all, my darling Sansa. It is the least I could do,” he assured her.

 

***

 

Willas left his office at a reasonable hour that evening, and joined Sansa in attending the Tyrell family dinner, which was held on a rooftop terrace. Sansa wondered if he’d made sure to be there for her sake, because of what she’d shared that afternoon. Regardless, she was pleased to see him. She liked his family, but it was not the same as it had been with her own family, in Winterfell. As they ate roast boar and spicy salad greens and fancy purple fruits from Essos, Sansa gazed up at the stars, and wondered if Arya was seeing the same stars.

I believe you are out there, somewhere, sister, she thought, her eyes trailing down from the starry sky until they landed on the weirwood grove, the crowns of the trees just barely visible from the rooftop terrace.

After dinner, they lingered on the terrace, listening to the bards sing tales of knights and fair ladies and the epic romances betwixt them. It was so perfect Sansa almost thought it must be a dream, that she would wake up and find herself back in King’s Landing awaiting further torment.

But when they returned to their rooms for the evening, there was little chance to kiss or explore one another’s bodies, as Willas had promised on their wedding night. Her husband was asleep before his head touched the pillow. Sansa laid awake, feeling both grateful for the safety her marriage provided and discomfited by the growing distance between her and Willas.

He just spends so much time working, Sansa thought, biting back tears. And it’s sure to get worse, once he’s Lord of the Reach in truth rather than merely unofficially. What if he never has time for me? What if I only see him when he has business to discuss? How shall I be happy then?

 

***

 

For the third morning in a row, when Sansa awoke a few hours after sunrise, her husband was already gone. Yawning, Sansa splayed her fingers over the empty space, running her fingers across the bedsheet where Willas would have lain if he were not such a dutiful steward of the Reach. She was proud of him, of course, for his diligence and work ethic. However, she could not help but wonder if his absence meant more than simple busyness. After all, he had not touched her, save to offer gentle kisses, since their wedding night. Initially glad for the respite, enough time had passed that she now wondered if she had been too quick to believe his denials in the hedge maze. No, that was not fair, she knew; he desired her, that much could not be a lie. But why, then, had he remained so distant?

He does not wish to get me with child, she realized, recalling how he had offered her moon tea. In retrospect, she could see that he had encouraged her to accept the offer, though he was too polite to insist. But she had told him truly, that while she hoped it would take some time so that they might get to know one another better before parenthood was thrust upon them, she could not turn away the prospect of a son or a daughter. The idea of adding to her family was too precious, even if she was not fully ready, because she was all alone in the world, the last of the Starks. Besides, Mother says you are never truly ready, Sansa reminded herself. No one is prepared to be a mother the first time they carry a babe. It is always new, and always difficult, but joyous too. That’s what she always told me, and so I must believe.

Why, though, would Willas not want a child? Did he not wish to have an heir of his own loins? Mayhaps that is it, she thought. Perhaps he would prefer that Garlan remain his heir. Perhaps he worries he will die too soon, and leave us with a child lord. But that, too, made little sense. Mace Tyrell yet lived, and if something happened to both Lord Mace and Willas, all the qualities that made Garlan such a wonderful heir would also make him the perfect regent for a child lord. Is he afraid he cannot sire a child? she wondered. I thought it was only his leg that was injured, and I cannot see what bearing a leg would have on one’s ability to sire sons, especially when I know that everything between his legs works perfectly well…unless there is something I still do not understand about how children are made? Mystified, Sansa resolved to try to talk to Willas about this matter. He said I should feel free to tell or ask him anything, no matter how improper it seems, she reflected. But there is little point in speaking of future babes when I am set to ride for Riverrun so soon. I shall take it up with him when I return.

Trying not to think about it, Sansa got out of bed and sent for breakfast to be brought to her. A servant soon arrived with a bowl of assorted berries and cream, which she found delightful. In addition to the berries in the cream, there was a fresh orange and a slice of toast spread with nut butter, and a bracing glass of lemon water. One of the loveliest things about Highgarden was all the fresh fruit, even this late into autumn. At Winterfell, most fruit had to be shipped from Highgarden or Dorne into White Harbor, as the only native fruits were hardy blackberry and blueberry bushes, plus occasional strawberries from the glass gardens. Perhaps I will go to the orchards and pick some fresh apples later today, Sansa thought. One of the ladies had told her over dinner that this was a favorite pastime of the court of Highgarden during autumn, and she found the prospect thrilling.

After finishing her breakfast, Sansa fastened the lovely pink ribbon leash Willas had given her to Alyssum’s collar, and took the pup for a long walk around the castle grounds. After spending so much time in King’s Landing as a prisoner, the ability to go for a stroll with her puppy or ride her horse or wander through the endless gardens felt absolutely decadent to Sansa. By the time Sansa was ready to return to the castle, poor Alyssum’s little legs had tired out, so Sansa scooped her up and carried her the rest of the way. Depositing the pup back in her rooms, Sansa spent some time exploring the library. She had never spent much time at the library at Winterfell, but the library was like a place from a storybook, and she found that her thirst for knowledge had grown. There was something about being buffeted by events and powers she scarcely understood and certainly did not control that drove Sansa’s nascent interest in history, for she hoped that by learning more about the past she might learn how to shape her future.

As Sansa ate her mid-day meal – a simple sandwich of warm brown bread and sliced cold meat and sharp orange cheese, with a fresh bowl of salad greens punctuated by tiny edible flowers – on one of the upper terraces, Melena Flowers burst out the Myrish doors and onto the balcony.

“Prin – I mean, Lady Sansa!” the girl said hurriedly.

"Yes, Miss Melena, what is it?” Sansa asked.

“You must come quickly. Lady Olenna says she thinks she found your blonde woman, and Lord Willas sent me to fetch you to his grandmother’s solar,” Melena said, the words tumbling out rapidly from the girl’s pink lips.

Sansa put her sandwich down at once, no longer hungry. Ringing for someone to come and clear away the leftovers (which, she had been told, would be used to enrich the soil if half-eaten, or given to the smallfolk if untouched), Sansa followed Melena through the maze of halls and rooms, down a flight of stairs, around several more corners, and down another staircase.

I will never get used to the sheer size of Highgarden, Sansa thought as she tried to keep up with the little servant girl. It is as much a maze as the hedges outside.

Finally, the pair came to a stop outside a white wooden door, carved with thorny vines, set into a corner in one of the outer hallways. Is that weirwood? Sansa wondered briefly, sparing a few seconds for a second glance at the door. Then, glancing about the large and lavishly decorated solar, Sansa’s eyes were struck by the massive glass panes that covered most of the space on two of the walls. The sun shone brightly through them, and because they were on one of the higher floors, the view of the gardens was breathtaking. Finally, reluctantly, Sansa glanced at the velvet sofas where Olenna sat, a surprisingly strong yet slightly wizened hand clasped around the wrist of a blonde woman about Sansa’s age.

“That is her!” Sansa cried. “I’m almost certain of it!”

“Yes, dear, she’s confessed already,” Olenna replied without much inflection. “But I shan’t have her repeat her tale until my grandson manages to heave himself up those stairs.”

“I’m here, grandmother!” Willas called from the hall, breathing heavily. “A moment, though. To catch my breath.”

He must have nearly run up those stairs, Sansa thought, concerned. He shouldn’t have done that. His leg needs gentle treatment, after all the strain he’s put on it lately.

As Willas composed himself, Sansa took a seat across from Olenna and the scoundrel she’d discovered, staring at the woman’s ears. Scrutinizing them carefully, Sansa concluded that they did not seem bent or strange as far as she could tell, but perhaps she did not know what she was looking for? Or had Leonette been wrong, Florent-paranoia once again getting in the way of reasoned judgment? It had seemed a good line of inquiry, though. Mayhaps not all Florents had their family’s hallmark ears?

Finally, her husband took his seat beside her, and Lady Olenna took that as her cue.

“Let us begin!” Olenna announced, with no little theatricality. “First things first – Sansa, is this the woman who told you those horrible rumors about my Willas?”

“Yes, my lady,” Sansa replied politely.

“And you, girl, you confirm it? Do you say that the Lady Sansa tells it rightly, that it was you who placed that nasty candle on the table at the wedding while you spat ugly words into the ear of my grandson’s new wife?” Olenna demanded of the young woman seated next to her, whose wrist she still held tightly in her bony grip.

“Yes, milady,” the blonde woman said sullenly.

“Now, you tell them what you told me. Who are you? What’s your name, and where are you from, and all of that?” Olenna continued.

“My name is Ana, and I’m from Gulltown,” the woman recited dully.

“A whore from Gulltown, isn’t that what you told me?” Olenna prodded.

“Yes, milady. I was a whore, once, afore I was sent here.”

“And who do you work for? Who sent you here?” the old woman continued her interrogation.

“Lord Petyr Baelish of Harrenhal, though I entered his service when it was only just Lord of the Fingers still.”

“You see, Willas? It’s as I suspected,” Olenna crowed. “I told you, he was my very first thought, once you finished your sorry tale, did I not? Rumor had it, twenty years ago, that he deflowered both Tully girls under Hoster’s own roof, and he took an inordinate interest in rumors about Sansa’s marriage prospects in the capital. It was he who told me the Lannisters meant to wed her to Tyrion, did you know? Of course, that was only my initial intuition, and it could have proved wrong – it could have been some Northerner wanting Sansa’s claim for themselves, a Bolton or somesuch, and it could have been a Lannister or a Florent as you suggested, or mayhaps someone else – but it wasn’t, was it? It was Baelish, as I said it would be.”

He claimed to have deflowered my mother and my aunt Lysa? Sansa thought, incensed. My mother’s honor was beyond reproach, and surely her sister's is too.

“Are you suggesting he wanted Sansa for himself?” Willas asked. “Why would he help you sneak her here, only to break up our marriage once it is too late to annul it?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Willas. Mayhaps he hoped to drag it out, weakening us by setting you at each other’s throats, distracting you from the affairs of the Realm by drowning you in discord at home. Or mayhaps he meant to steal her away, on the Roseroad, but your mother was too careful to allow him the opportunity. Or, perhaps he simply wanted her to run from you, so he could scoop her up and make you play the cuckold, putting his own babe in her womb and calling it your heir. Who can say? All that matters is that he took too much interest in her, and he’s been obsessed with Tully women from the very start, and that’s how I knew.”

Sansa ventured a glance at Willas and then at Olenna, before asking as delicately as possible, “Pardon me for asking, Lady Olenna, but how do we know she’s telling the truth?”

Olenna looked taken aback for a moment, then smiled broadly and cackled. “Willas, my boy, I was terribly worried that I had brought you an empty-headed, wilting flower for a wife, but it seems there’s some cleverness and a bit of steel buried beneath those good manners, after all. How do you know I didn’t plant this story in the girl’s head, hmm? That’s what you’re asking?”

Sansa flushed. “Lady Olenna, I did not mean – ”

“Oh, I think you did, and good for you. Well, why don’t we let this little bird from the Vale explain. How did I get you to talk? Did I put you on the rack down in the dungeons and teach you to sing this song?”

“No, milady,” the woman replied wearily. “When you confronted me, you knew all I’d say afore I said it. You knew my true name, and where I was born, and how I came into Lord Petyr’s service, and what he offered me. There were no purpose in lyin’, when you could tell it true yourself, no matter how much times I said the lie were true. Then you promised I can stay forever, and said you’d pay me double to feed the lies to him instead of the other ways. I dun care what lord I serve and it’s nicer here than Gulltown a’sides.”

“Just so,” Olenna said with a nod. “I have kept an eye on Littlefinger ever since he negotiated that marriage alliance between Margaery and the Lannisters. He was too clever by half, that ruse where he kept stubbornly insisting on Joffrey’s virtues while his servants spread the truth, knowing it would get back to us in the end. A clever man is a dangerous man, and don’t you doubt it, though stupid men are dangerous in their own fashion, too. That eunuch isn’t the only one with spies in the capital, you know. I planted a spy in Lord Baelish’s camp as soon as I arrived in the capital, and started making inquiries into his past. Warned Tywin about him, too, for all the good it did the old fool. My web was already closing around Littlefinger before my darling grandson came to me distraught, wailing about someone trying to turn his pretty new wife against him.”

“I did not wail, grandmother,” Willas corrected. “I simply asked your assistance.”

“Oh, you came to me with those sad little puppy dog eyes, all right,” Olenna shot back, turning to whisper the next sentence conspiratorially to Sansa. “His voice was plenty mournful if you ask me, Sansa, my dear. But that is neither here nor there. When he asked me to find your blonde woman, I made short work of it. Talked to every servant in this pollen-strained castle, and by the end of the first day, I knew which one she was. Asked her friends about her, finding clues and contradictions. Put myself in her way a few times, noted her most distinctive features and confirmed her accent was typical of the Vale. Checked back over my spy’s reports to pin down her name and background, and traced her all the way back to her birth records in the Starry Sept’s register. We keep a copy in the library here at Highgarden for precisely this purpose, you know. With all that in hand, it was simple enough to call her to my solar and catch her in lie after lie, until she was good and ready to turn her cloak. You’re welcome to check the details if you like, Sansa, dear, but I am certain. It was Baelish, you can be sure of that.”

 

***

 

Just as Sansa was placing brush to canvas, peering closely at the vase of flowers and attempting to replicate its form with delicate lines of paint, Melena Flowers rushed into the room, interrupting Sansa’s day for a second time.

“Lady Sansa, Lady Sansa!” the girl cried frantically. Blushing with embarrassment at being the cause of this noisy disruption to the silence of the painting classroom, Sansa hushed Melena and followed her out into the hall, closing the door behind her.

“You should use your inside voice when speaking in such a quiet room,” Sansa admonished. “Now what is it that is so important?”

“There’s a giant in the entryway!” Melena said excitedly. “She says she’s come to rescue you!”

What?” Sansa interjected, baffled.

“A giant lady knight! She says your mother sent her!” the girl insisted.

My mother? Sansa wondered, head spinning as she followed Melena towards the entryway.

As they approached, Sansa could hear a voice shouting, “I’m here to rescue Sansa Stark! Her lady mother sent me. Where is she? Unhand her or I will cut you down where you stand!”

“Go fetch Willas,” Sansa said to Melena, who nodded vigorously and then dashed off down the hall again. Sansa stepped into the entryway and saw that there was indeed a very tall lady knight waiting for her, though Sansa was fairly certain she was not an actual giant.

“Lady Sansa!” the large woman cried, dropping to her knees and placing her sword at Sansa’s feet. “I have come to rescue you! I was sworn to you lady mother and promised to bring you home, but now that she is gone, I pledge my sword to you!”

Sansa stood there, stunned and immobile, scarcely understanding what was happening.

“Who are you?” she finally asked the woman. “How did you know my mother?”

Before the lady knight could answer, Willas appeared at Sansa’s side, limping mightily. “That’s Brienne of Tarth,” he said, nodding at the woman. “The one your great-uncle mentioned in his letter. The very same woman that Loras believes responsible for the murder of Renly, according to his most recent letter.”

“Oh,” said Sansa.

“I did not kill Renly!” Brienne said hotly, glaring at Willas. “And lady Catelyn vouched for it, before her death.”

“I would love to hear the story of Renly’s death from your perspective, once these other matters are settled, but first I must insist that you do not abscond with my darling wife, mother’s wishes or no.”

“Oh no, oh no,” wailed Brienne. “I am too late! What has he done to you, Sansa? I’ll kill him!”

“No!” Sansa shouted. “Leave him alone. He is my husband and he has been very kind to me.”

“But…” Brienne said, trailing off with a confused expression on her face. “We heard…it was said in King’s Landing that you were kidnapped by the Tyrells…is that not so?”

“What? No. Of course they didn’t kidnap me. They rescued me,” Sansa said, equally confused.

“Perhaps we could discuss this in your solar, Sansa?” Willas asked. Sansa noticed that his leg was trembling, and felt a pang of guilt. He must have rushed here as quickly as he could, and his leg must surely be aching.

“Yes, let us do that,” Sansa said quickly, taking Willas’s arm. “But I am afraid this is the first occasion I have had to use my solar. Can you take us there?”

“It’s not far – right over here,” Willas panted, walking gingerly down the hall a ways. He pointed, and Sansa rushed ahead to open the door, helping him to the couch.

“This is lovely,” Sansa remarked, looking around the room. It was decorated in pastel pink, with a large cherrywood desk and bookshelves along one wall. An elaborate Myrish rug of pink and purple lined the floor, and delicate pink curtains hung from the windows, which overlooked a bed of tulips.

“I’m glad you like it,” Willas said, his tone even despite his obvious pain. “Mother is responsible for the décor. Margaery told us you liked the color pink. It’s one of the first things I learned about you, to tell the truth.”

“Oh, Willas, that’s so terribly sweet!” said Sansa affectionately. Sitting beside her husband, Sansa beckoned for Brienne to sit across from them. Once they were all comfortably seated, Sansa turned to Brienne. “I’m not sure what you heard, my lady, but as you can see, I am perfectly fine here.”

“But Jaime – Kevan – the Lannisters said –” Brienne sputtered.

“And you believed them?” Sansa asked incredulously.

Brienne tried to explain, stringing together confusing partial anecdotes about Jaime Lannister and bear pits and shadow assassins. After several minutes, Willas held up his hand to silence her.

“Slow down, Lady Brienne. Start at the beginning,” he instructed her. And so she did. It seemed the lady knight talked for hours, and by the end, Sansa was not sure what to believe.

Could she truly have met my mother, and would my mother have accepted her into her service? Sansa wondered. Is it possible that Renly Baratheon was slain, not by this woman, but by some dark magic by Stannis’s red woman? And if so, do I have anything to fear? Will they come for me too?

In the end, it was decided that Brienne of Tarth should stay with them for now, until they had some time to determine whether her story was reliable, though the choices before them were complicated by Sansa’s looming departure to Riverrun. Willas confessed privately that he was concerned that the woman might be mad, and that she would try to kidnap Sansa once they were on the road.

“Well, that’s why you’re sending Prince Oberyn and Parmen Crane and all those others with me, is it not?” asked Sansa. Willas was not reassured, but he agreed to leave the matter up to Sansa, who increasingly felt that this Brienne was likely trustworthy. Leaving Sansa to think it over on her own, Willas returned to his study, declaring his intention to write Loras and his friends in the Stormlands to discover what he could about this strange lady knight.

 

***

 

Willas missed dinner again that evening, but this time it was not his work that kept him. It was his leg, which had been growing worse for days due to the his continued insistence on straining it by climbing stairs, racing to defend Sansa from strange hedge knights, taking the pup out when she cried in the night and walking about without his cane even when it pained him. Though he left his study early once again, meeting Sansa and joining her for the walk up to the third-floor terrace where they would sup with the rest of his family, he faltered on the second stair case. Sansa looked on in horror as his foot slipped off the step. She held out her hands, uselessly, as if trying to catch him, but he tumbled downwards until he hit the landing.

“Willas!” Sansa screamed, running to him. Someone must have heard her shrieking, for servants appeared from nowhere, gathering around her husband as he lay flat and groaning beneath the stairs. Someone must have fetched the maester, because Lomys appeared shortly after Willas’s fall.

“I warned you to take it easy, my lord!” Lomys cried with dismay, examining Willas’s leg.

“Sorry,” Willas wheezed. “Is it all right? I haven’t injured it further, I hope?”

“You will need to spend the next day resting in bed,” Lomys insisted.

“But I have work to do – ”

“I’ll not hear a word of it, and your lady mother will agree with me on this. You may be the heir to Highgarden, but you are not its Lord yet, and your mother’s word is final,” Lomys declared, somewhat haughtily.

“Fine,” Willas grated out. “Just get me to my bed.”

The assembled servants rushed to help him, and it was pandemonium until Sansa tapped the three largest on the shoulder and told them they would be the ones to carry Willas back to bed. Once he was settled, Lomys somehow convinced her stubborn husband to drink a cup of dreamwine. For the next day, Willas drifted leisurely in and out of consciousness, as Sansa read to him. At one point, he declared his undying love for her, falling back asleep in the middle of his impassioned speech. But when he woke, he remembered none of it – not the reading, nor her tender massaging of his injured limb, nor his desperate proclamation of his love.

It must have been the dreamwine speaking, Sansa thought sadly as she fell asleep beside him.

Chapter Text

Lord Commander Jon Snow. The title still felt strange to Jon, newly elected to lead the Night’s Watch in the middle of a crisis that seemed it would never end. Their supplies were dwindling already, and he had too few men to man the guard posts atop the wall. Too preoccupied with his new duties, Jon knew he had been neglecting his friends, but what choice did he have? The monsters were coming, just as in Old Nan’s tales, and somehow he must be the one to shield the realms of men. The responsibility laid heavily on his shoulders, made worse by the terrible news that kept streaming in about the war and his family.

As Jon walked back to his office near Donal Noye’s forge, Ghost pressed against his leg, whining. At least I have you, Ghost, Jon thought affectionately. The direwolf had proved himself beyond measure during their time beyond the wall, and sometimes Jon felt like the wolf was the only family he had left in the world.

When he reached his desk, Jon held up the two scrolls he had just fetched from the ravenry. Both stamped with the rose of Highgarden, one bore Sansa’s name and the other the name of Willas Tyrell, heir to the Reach. Can it really be from Sansa? Jon wondered, nervous fear washing over him. And if it is, what could she possibly want to say to me? He was almost afraid to open it. Setting Sansa’s letter aside, he unrolled the other scroll first. The letter was short, but polite. He scanned the words quickly:

 

 To the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch,

 

The Reach has heard your pleas for aid, and we shall answer your call. As the war is still ongoing, I can send only a few men, a handful of volunteers and some lesser criminals from our jails, but I shall do my best to round up further recruits in due course. I have sent twenty-five men – five volunteers, ten rapists or murderers, and ten thieves or swindlers – by ship from Old Town to the Shadow Tower. They should arrive in a few moons, with a load of food supplies from our reserves, assuming they do not encounter trouble with the Ironborn. Please consider this my gift to you, on the dawn of your reign, as well as a gift to my new lady wife.

By the by, I hear that Stannis Baratheon travels North. I am grateful that the vows of the Night’s Watch bind the men who guard the Wall to neutrality, and even more thankful that a son of Ned Stark leads the Watch. I am told your father was an honorable man who took his duties seriously, recent events notwithstanding, and I offer my condolences for your loss of him and the other members of your family who have died in this terrible war. So long as the Watch adheres to its sworn obligations to protect the Realm while taking no part in its affairs, you may count the Reach as your friends. I hope we shall have a long and prosperous relationship over the coming years.

 

Sincerely,

 

Willas Tyrell

 

Lord of the Reach

Heir to Highgarden

Acting-Regent and Steward for High Lord Mace Tyrell of Highgarden

 

If Jon had thought the Tyrell’s letter would be easier on him than Sansa’s, he may have been mistaken. He stroked Ghost’s fur to calm himself as his head spun. On the surface, this was indeed a polite letter, and though it was not near enough, Jon was immensely grateful for the men and supplies Lord Willas promised he had sent. They could surely use any aid that was offered, and he intended to take it. The Tyrell lord also hinted at future aid, which Jon hoped would be forthcoming, though he did not plan to hold his breath. Southron lords were fickle, and he would not plan on further assistance. But if the Watch had a friend in the Reach, that could prove vital as Winter approached.

Yet, there was an implicit threat here, too. Jon’s pride prickled at the suggestion that the Night’s Watch might not keep to its sworn obligations, and though he was pleased by the praise for his father, it seemed insincere. The Tyrells had not known his father, as far as he was aware. In reminding Jon of his father’s reputation for honor, this Lord Willas surely meant to encourage Jon to govern the Night’s Watch with honor, too. The mention of Stannis Baratheon gave the play away, making it clear to Jon that the Reach worried that the Night’s Watch might be won over by the least of the Five Kings, who was apparently on his way to the North.

Reeling and unsure how to handle this delicate situation, Jon resolved to seek the counsel of Bowen Marsh. He sat there, brooding and staring into the fire, before finally opening Sansa’s letter. He did not know what to expect. Have they hurt her? Jon wondered. Does she hate me, as her mother did? We were never terribly close. What could she possibly have to say to me? Is she writing at the behest of her new lord, or does she pursue her own purposes? Maybe now that their whole family had been decimated, she simply sought word from someone who was known to her from their days at Winterfell?

Sighing heavily, Jon began to read Sansa’s message, which read:

 

 Dear Jon,

 

I hope this message finds you well. I am sorry I was not able to write during my time in King’s Landing, though I am glad I have the freedom to write to you now.

I am sure you were distraught, as I was, to hear the news about Bran, Rickon, and Robb. (I do not say Father, because I did not merely hear the news of his demise; I watched it happen. He was to join you at the Wall, but King Joffrey changed his mind at the last moment. I am sorry for the King’s death, but I am glad that sweet Tommen now sits the Iron Throne.) It has been a terrible year for the Stark family, has it not? Now we two, who were never close, are the only ones whose whereabouts remain known. I thought, perhaps, I should reach out to you, since you are my only remaining brother. Mayhaps we can be closer than we once were, despite the distance. Perhaps someday, when the snows clear, I shall visit you at the Wall. Or mayhaps you do not wish to hear from me at all? I do not know, so I hope you will write me back, and tell me of everything that has happened since we last spoke.

Surely, you are hoping for news of Arya, but I am afraid that I have none. She disappeared from King’s Landing on the day of Father’s death. Most believe she is dead, and that is probably so, but I still hope that she is alive. You knew our Arya best of all, I think. Do you think she had it in her to escape, out from under the nose of the Gold Cloaks who guard the city? I want to believe that she did, and that she survives still, perhaps hiding amongst the smallfolk. Have you heard word of her? It occurs to me as I write that she is probably more like to race to your side than to mine, if she is out there. If you do know where she is, do not tell me straight away, much as I am loathe to wait; you must hear the instructions of one of the men we sent, about how to send letters that cannot be intercepted. His name is Arthor Flowers, and he is one of the volunteers Willas sent.

I am married now, did you know that? To Willas Tyrell, the heir to Highgarden. He has sent you his own letter enclosed with mine. He is a good man, Jon. I think Father would approve of him. He told me, before he died, that he wished me to wed a man who was strong and brave and gentle, and Willas is all those things. I miss our Father terribly, and my mother too (I am sure you do not miss her, but I do, I miss her every day). I am safe here, at Highgarden. It is everything I dreamed the South would be, foolish child that I was when I left Winterfell. King’s Landing was a disappointment, though, to say the least. What is it like in the Night’s Watch? Was it like the songs and stories, or nothing like you expected? I have had many ups and downs since I saw you last, and I have come to see that very little is like the songs. But just when I had given up on songs and dreams, I learned that sometimes it works out, that not all hopes are lies. Highgarden is truly wonderful, and I am grateful for that. I hope the Watch is everything you wished it would be. I want to hear of all your new friends and how you got elected Lord Commander!! (Can it truly be so?! That’s what they tell me, but I can scarcely believe it! Not because you don’t deserve it of course, but we are both so young, still! It must be some kind of record, to be elected Lord Commander at your age, mustn’t it? Oh, Jon, Father would have been so proud, I am certain of it!)

How is Uncle Benjen? I confess, I did not spend much time talking to him when he visited Winterfell, but he is one of our few remaining relatives now. I hope he is well. It soothes my heart to know that at least one of us has not been entirely alone all these long moons.

Anyways, I guess this letter has rambled on long enough. I am sure you are busy with many serious matters and have little time for the letters of your frivolous half-sister. (Sorry. I can’t help it sometimes. I just worry that you do not wish to hear from me. I hope you will forgive me for the awful things I said sometimes, when we were children.)

I truly hope you are well, and that the men and supplies my husband sent will help you.

 

With affection,

 

Sansa of House Stark and House Tyrell

Lady of Winterfell (in absence)

Lady of the Reach (by marriage)

 

Jon was taken aback by this letter. It did sound like Sansa. I can hear her voice as I read the words, and she mentions things that only she would know, he thought. I do not think they made her write this. Yet, she had clearly grown up in the time since he last saw her, as he surely had too. The Sansa he remembered was well and truly infatuated with songs and stories of knightly valor and romantic love. The Sansa of this letter was a bit more worldly, though he could tell she was still a romantic at heart. It seemed that time away from her mother had softened her feelings about bastards, though he felt guilty for even thinking that, knowing how the lady Catelyn had died. She was not kind to me, he thought, but she was the mother of the siblings I adored, and she did not deserve what happened to her.

He stared at the part about Arya for a long time, his heart breaking. I remember that she was so brave, and so fierce. Could she have escaped from King's Landing and survived? Or is that merely wishful thinking on Sansa's part? He did not know what to think, but he did know that Arya was the toughest of all of them. Perhaps it was not entirely far-fetched to believe she might be out there somewhere. If only he knew where.

Taking out his quill, Jon tried to think of what to say to Sansa. It was hard, to put his thoughts and feelings into words, because he had become so closed off since becoming Lord Commander. With all the responsibility and the grave threats he faced, there was little room for such soft things as friendship and emotion. But he had to write something back.

Should I tell her about the wights, about the Others? Jon wondered. She will surely think I’m mad, but can I forego this one chance – likely my best chance – to convince the Southron lords that something is truly wrong? He dithered over it, then decided he had nothing to lose.

Jon put his quill to the parchment and wrote:

 

 Dear Sansa,

 

It was good to receive your letter. Thank you for writing to me, and please thank your husband for sending men and supplies. We need them sorely.

So much has happened that I scarcely know where to begin.

I am sorry to report that Uncle Benjen is missing, presumed dead. He went beyond the Wall for a ranging shortly after I arrived, and no one has seen him since. The men we sent to look for him also disappeared. I have been beyond the Wall myself, and it is a very large and dangerous territory. Likely, he is dead, though I hope he returns one day and proves me wrong. Some believe he might return. He was a tough, clever man, so who can say?

I am also sorry to report that I have no more knowledge of Arya or her whereabouts than you. I am not just saying that, because I am afraid this will be intercepted or something. I truly have not seen or heard of her. I hope you are right that she is alive and that she will come to me at the Wall. If she seeks my aid, I will protect her. It is not a violation of my vows to protect innocent people who come to Castle Black for sanctuary, at least I believe it is not.

The Night’s Watch is not what I expected, but it has become home to me nonetheless. I am gladdened to hear that you are safe and happy at Highgarden. At least one Stark ought to be alive and well! Thank you for saying that Father would be proud of me. It means a lot and I hope it is true. I also hope you will come North again someday, and I would be happy to receive you as a guest here at Castle Black, though you know I cannot interfere with the situation in the North, much as it pains me. It was very hard to keep my vows when I knew Robb needed me by his side, but I suppose I would not have done him much good, as a deserter. The penalty for desertion is death, as well you know.

I hesitate to tell you this, because I am sure you will not believe me. You will think me mad, but I swear that I am not. You have learned that not all songs and stories are true, and I have too. But some of them were real, Sansa. I beg you to believe me. The true purpose of the Wall is not to protect the Realm from Wildlings. Wildlings – or the Free Folk, as they call themselves – are just men like you and I. Their traditions are strange to us, but they need not be our enemies. I have come to know them on my travels beyond the Wall, and I have become convinced that they must be our allies against our true enemies.

Our true enemy – Sansa, I cannot bear to write it, you will think me stupid, I am certain – they are creatures from Old Nan’s stories, the tales of dark magic that Bran used to love. I have seen them, Sansa. I have seen men rise from the dead as wights. Many speak of White Walkers, the Others. Winter is coming and we are not prepared. I fear for what will happen if the Wall fails. We need all the help we can get. If you believe me, please, you must speak to all the Southron lords and convince them to help us. If the Wall fails, no one will be safe. There, I have said it, and I expect I will not hear from you again.

 

All my best,

 

Jon Snow

Your Half-Brother

Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch

 

Jon set aside his quill and contemplated throwing the letter in the fire. She will not believe me, he thought with anguish. I would not believe me, if I were her. She will think me mad, or a liar.

Ghost put his head on Jon’s lap, whining softly. “At least I have you, good boy,” Jon said affectionately, though even the direwolf’s reassurance did little to lift his sullen mood. It was foolish to send that letter, and he knew it. He would alienate his last remaining family member, or near enough, given that both Arya and Benjen were likely dead, even if he could not quite give up on them. Sansa would not help them. It was more than a long shot, it was foolhardy. But what else could he do, but try?

He wondered if there was some way to prove the truth of his tale to Sansa, but he could not think of anything. If she came to the Wall herself, he could show her, with the bodies in the ice cells. But that would do him little good with her in the South, at Highgarden. He had to hope that the gods would somehow move her heart. If the gods even have power, that far South, he thought glumly.

Jon’s vows also weighed heavily on him. He had written to Sansa that he would help Arya if she came to the Wall, and he meant it. She was his little sister, his favorite sister, and he could not abandon her when she had nowhere else to turn. He did not think that it was a betrayal of his vows, to offer sanctuary to a guest, but he was not sure the other men would see it that way. They already misliked and distrusted him due to disagreements over what to do about the wildlings.

Troubled, Jon rolled up his letter and set it aside. He would wait to send it until he had a chance to talk to Bowen Marsh and write some sort of response to Sansa’s husband. Sansa’s husband! he thought wearily. It is strange to think those words! I can scarcely imagine her as married. She is so young, still. But she speaks well of him…

Jon rose from his desk and made for the door.

“To me, Ghost,” Jon said with a whistle, and the direwolf gamely followed him from the room. He climbed the stairs to his chambers, shivering from the cold, Ghost walking at his side. Maybe he should ask Maester Aemon if it was a bad idea to tell Sansa about the Others. The old man might know how to convince the Southron lords. He had lived at the Wall a long time, but before that, he had spent time at court, hadn’t he? Maybe someone at the Citadel still remembered him. And maybe he should consult Sam, too. Sam was from the Reach, he might know something about Sansa’s husband and the attitudes of the lords in his jurisdiction. Sam was good at politics; the Lord Commander election proved that. If he could convince even one or two that the threat was real, that was surely better than none, was it not?

Ygritte’s words came back to him as he lay sleeplessly in his bed, the fire dwindling. You know nothing, Jon Snow. His heart ached. She was right. Why must I be the one? He wondered. I am not good enough. I am not the right man to lead. But I am the only one we have.

Chapter Text

“Oh, I wish I were coming with you,” Lady Alerie clucked, sweeping Sansa into a hug. “I know Willas promises you shall have adequate counsel and that he needs me here, and though he swears that it’s too dangerous and claims he cannot bear to have his lady mother and his lady wife both endangered, I truly think I should be there with you. I shall worry terribly for as long as you are away, dear girl.”

Oberyn might have believed the Tyrell woman was sincere if her eyes hadn’t kept darting down towards Sansa’s mid-section, as if her eyes could see through her gooddaughter’s flesh to the potential grandchild she hoped might lie within. He said nothing, however. See? An old horse can learn new tricks, he imagined saying to Ellaria. I am learning to hold my tongue, though it pains me greatly.

The Dornish Prince missed his paramour immensely, but he had booked her passage on a ship bound for Dorne before leaving the capital. She had protested vigorously, but in the end, he had persuaded her that there was no place for her on his hunt and she had failed to convince him to accept Tywin’s death as sufficient to avenge the brutal crimes committed against Elia, Rhaenys, and little Aegon. Though he had agreed to accompany Sansa Stark to Riverrun as a courtesy to his dear friend, Oberyn’s primary mission was finding and killing the monster that raped his sister and slew her children so viciously. As he had informed Willas and Sansa, the lady would have to do without him on their return trip, because the Prince did not plan to leave the Riverlands without the Mountain’s head impaled upon his spear. For the dozenth time, Oberyn wondered if he had erred in agreeing to accompany Sansa’s expedition. The girl seemed pleasant enough, but Oberyn itched to complete his quest for justice. Only then could he return to his lovely Ellaria and their beautiful, talented children, whose absence he felt so profoundly.

Still, at least he would not be entirely alone in his search for the Mountain. His friend and lover, Daemon Sand, rode by his side today and would continue on with him after Riverrun. Oberyn knew the odds were rather slim that two men – even two as skilled as the Red Viper and the Bastard of Godsgrace – could complete the task before them. Even so, they must carry on, for he could not live with himself if he did not make every effort to punish the man most directly responsible for the suffering and gruesome deaths of Elia and her children. Oberyn had failed her once; if he must fail her a second time, he at least intended to do her the courtesy of dying in the attempt.

Elia would not have wanted you to sacrifice yourself, leaving your children all alone in the world, he could hear Ellaria saying to him in King’s Landing. There was truth to that, but it mattered not. Oberyn had spent years envisioning his revenge against the Lannisters, and he could no longer be deterred from this goal, which had given his life meaning for years before Ellaria began to tame his wild nature. If only in honor of the Oberyn of the past, the Oberyn who hoped to blot out his own life, who sought to enter whatever afterlife awaited him because this one had become too painful to endure, he could not give up his pursuit of justice without seeing it through to its natural end.

The Prince of Dorne had changed in the intervening years, of course; now he hoped to survive his duel with the Mountain. But regardless of the outcome, Oberyn could not let that monster live if he could help it, no matter what Ellaria said. His one concession to his paramour and his cautious brother had been leaving his daughters behind rather than allowing them to accompany him on this doomed quest, as Obara especially had begged to do. This was his duty, his obsession; if he could spare his daughters the consequences of his recklessness, then that was right and good. If he could blame his own jealous safeguarding of his daughters’ lives on Doran and Ellaria, all the better! The Red Viper of Dorne did have a reputation to uphold, after all, and he preferred it not be said that he had grown soft with age.

Once everyone had said their goodbyes and fetched their horses, the entire party – both human and animal alike – boarded a barge to Bitterbridge. From there, they would ride Northeast across the Reach, meeting the remainder of their party at Alden Keep. After crossing into the Riverlands, they would make their way up the Trident until they reached Riverrun itself. The route seemed simple enough, but Oberyn had a feeling that nothing would be simple once they left the peaceful farmlands of the Reach behind and began moving through the warzone outside its borders.

 

***

 

Knowing that this journey would eventually reach the point where everyone would tire of one another’s constant presence, Oberyn largely kept to himself or whiled away the hours with Daemon during the barge portion of their trip. Oberyn wondered idly if any of their companions realized how much of his time on the barge was spent in bed with Daemon, kissing and cuddling and fucking. Even in Dorne, Oberyn tested the limits of his culture’s tolerance for sexual self-expression and all-around hedonism. Up here, he knew he must tread especially carefully, which meant this was likely his last chance between here and Riverrun to enjoy Daemon’s chisled body.

He wondered if even this small pleasure was too indiscreet, with the Lady Sansa nearby. Though Oberyn was not particularly interested in catering to the whims of scolds, he did feel a bit of remorse when Willas had informed him how distraught Sansa had been when she discovered that the Prince had slept with her husband-to-be the night before their wedding. I wonder if I should apologize and swear that I shall not touch Willas again without her express permission – or ideally, participation – or if it would be better to avoid mentioning the topic entirely? Oberyn asked himself, more than once.

I wish Ellaria was here. She would know. For all that the highborn assholes he was forced to endure presumed that noble birth guaranteed a courtly manner, his bastard-born lover was far better at discerning the proper words and courtesies than Oberyn. And she is also much more skilled at wooing gentle noblewomen into our bed, he thought with more amusement than arousal as he tried to picture Ellaria flirting with the Lady Sansa. The image struck him as rather ridiculous, which was unfortunate, because that meant he must resign himself to a lifetime of being denied Willas’s cock in his mouth, never getting to share with his friend the pleasure of sharing a woman (for Ellaria had not been present for their previous dalliances). They had always spoken of someday tasting that particular pleasure together, but it seemed the someday of Willas’s wedding had come sooner than the someday of a Dornish menage a trois. A pity, but one Oberyn would simply have to accept, for he had no interest in destroying his friend’s marriage and would never seek to convince anyone to share his bed or to share their lover with him, unless the very thought of doing so had them burning with desire.

Oberyn reflected back on all the lovers he had shared with Ellaria over the years, fondly at first, then lustfully. At this train of thought, he stifled a groan and rolled over, curling his body against Daemon’s. Feeling Oberyn’s hardened cock against his back, Daemon sleepily pulled Oberyn’s hand down between his legs.

“Ready for another round?” Oberyn asked brightly as he stroked his lover, gently and then more vigorously. Daemon smiled and brought Oberyn in for a kiss.

 I’ll take that as a yes, thought Oberyn, a sly grin playing on his lips. And damn anyone who’s listening. I may be dead within two moon’s turns; I shall not deny myself like a Septon in my final days. For though he hoped he would return to Dorne, alive, to rejoin Ellaria and their children, to once again enjoy his brother’s company in the Water Gardens, and to guide his niece as she someday grew into her position as ruling Princess of Dorne…the Mountain loomed before him, and in truth, Oberyn did not expect to see his homeland again.

 

***

 

When their riding party became a riding party in truth, after departing Bitterbridge, Oberyn found himself growing more social, though beneath his boisterous appearance a deeper melancholy remained.

“You know, my brother joined the Nights Watch,” Dickon said conversationally as they rode along.

“Really?” replied Sansa with surprise. “I did not know that Southerners still viewed the Watch as a noble vocation. Did he…I mean, I assume he volunteered?”

“Ah, you could call it that,” replied Dickon, his tone disclosing some discomfort. “He wasn’t a criminal, if that’s what you’re asking, but my father kind of made him do it.”

“Oh?” replied Sansa. “What do you mean?”

“Well, Samwell was my older brother, and my da was always on him about how he needed to be tougher and braver. He didn’t think Sam would make a good heir. I still feel guilty about that…not that I could have done anything to stop him, but I could have tried, you know? Joined the Watch myself or something first, so that da couldn’t make Sam do it without making my sister his heir, but I was afraid my da would kill him if I did anything of the sort. I don’t know. My da can be a right arse sometimes.”

“There wasn’t anything you could have done, lad,” Jon Fossoway reassured him. “I know Randyll well, and woe be to anyone who gets in his way. The dishonor is entirely your father’s, not yours, and you can be a different man than he. Honor your brother by defending the weak and cowardly, as your knightly vows demand.”

Dickon nodded. They rode on in silence for a stretch.

Glancing at Sansa as she rode along serenely, Oberyn wondered if he should mention the connection between their families, the stormy relationship between Elia and Lyanna. Not a sexual relationship, of course; his sister wasn’t like him in that way, though it would surely have been easier on all of them – Rhaegar, Lyanna, and Elia herself – if Elia had shared her brother’s interest in both sexes. He liked to think the two women might have found a way to coexist, if only for the sake of their children, had they not been torn from this world before their time. If Ned had made it to King's Landing sooner...if Rhaegar had thought to send for a maester before there was trouble...if Oberyn had not been so caught up in his own affairs that he failed to notice the dark clouds on the horizon...the ifs and maybes would always haunt him. But now all of them were dead: Rhaegar, defeated on the Trident; Elia and her children, slain viciously in King’s Landing; Lyanna and her babe that might-have-been, dead in the birthing bed somewhere in Northern Dorne. He wondered how much of the story Sansa knew, but decided it was best to leave old wounds bound up rather than picking at the scars.

“I’ve never been to the Wall,” Oberyn commented instead. “What’s it like?”

“I’m ashamed to say that I have not seen it either,” answered Sansa. “My father used to tell us that the Wall was no place for little girls, and I left the North before I had the chance to visit. But I hope to see it, one day. My half-brother Jon is Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, I have been told, and I would like to see him again when I can.”

Oberyn looked contemplative at that. “Your half-brother?” he asked finally.

“My father sired a bastard, during Robert’s Rebellion,” Sansa replied, flushing with embarrassment. “He grew up in Winterfell with the rest of us, much to my lady mother’s dismay.”

“Ah,” replied Oberyn, still thinking. “Who was the boy’s mother?”

“Father never told anyone, as far as I know,” said Sansa. “It was not spoken of.”

“Likely the lady Ashara Dayne,” commented Gunthor Hightower. “Rumor was that she was dishonored by a Stark, at the tourney of Harrenhal, when Rhaegar sought to call his Great Council.”

“I thought Ashara Dayne’s child died in infancy,” said Oberyn casually, as if it was no concern of his. But inside his head, he wondered. This story does not quite add up, he thought.

“I heard from Ned Dayne that the Stark bastard’s mother was a common woman,” remarked Ser Ryam. “A wetnurse, or some such. The boy bragged that he was milk-brothers with Ned Stark’s son.”

“That makes sense,” agreed Alys Rowan, nodding. “The penalties for losing your maidenhead are rather daunting for a high-born lady, but for a pretty common girl, it’s somewhat of an opportunity. Wet-nurse to the Daynes is a good position, one she might not otherwise have acquired, if she were not mother to a lord’s bastard.”

“I never thought of it that way,” said Sansa, looking pensive.

 

***

 

In a little more than a moon’s turn, they arrived at Alden Keep. Ser Parmen Crane was waiting for them, and Oberyn could not resist trying his sword against Parmen’s on the practice field. Though Oberyn put up a decent fight, Ser Parmen defeated him rather handily, and then went on to defeat Daemon Sand even more easily. The Red Viper was impressed.

“I do not suppose you wish to join me in bringing the Mountain to the King’s Justice?” Oberyn inquired after the second match.

“My orders are to protect the Lady Sansa,” Parmen replied stoically. “That is what I shall do.”

“As you like,” replied Oberyn with a shrug.

To everyone’s surprise, the lady knight – though she was not a knight, in truth, he had discovered a fortnight ago, when he tried to call her "Ser Brienne" – stepped into the ring to try Parmen’s sword after he had beaten Daemon.

“Let me try,” Brienne said, taking up a practice sword and setting her feet in a fighting stance.

Ser Parmen looked around at the other men, seemingly uncertain about what he should do. The other men looked equally baffled, except for Jon, who looked intrigued. Fossoway nodded at Parmen, as if granting him permission.

“If the lady requests a match, I see no dishonor in it,” Jon said to Parmen.

“In Dorne, we are no stranger to women warriors,” put in Oberyn, for his part.

At that, Parmen shrugged and fell into his own fighting stance. Parmen is quicker, but Brienne appears stronger and better-trained than I expected, thought Oberyn. The duel did not last long, but then, neither had Oberyn’s or Daemon’s match with Parmen, who was clearly a league above all the rest. When Brienne bit the dirt, Parmen’s practice sword at her throat, she yielded sullenly. Oberyn clapped, and the others joined him.

“Very impressive,” he said to Brienne. She smiled hesitantly, as if unsure whether he was joking. He smiled back, exuding sincerity. Finally, the lady knight nodded and took her leave.

 

***

 

Oberyn stared at the devastation around him. Every hut in the village was burned, and bloated, rotting bodies appeared to be strewn everywhere, as if not a soul had been left alive to bury them. Disfigured by decomposition, it was sometimes hard to determine the age or gender of the bodies, but it was clear to Oberyn that many had been women, children, or elderly men. Some of the bodies were burned and partially bound with singed ropes, as if they had been left to burn alive inside their homes, bound and unable to escape. Bird cages with emaciated bodies hung from the trees, as did other bodies with nooses wrapped around their throats. Bile rose in Oberyn’s throat. The massacre disgusted him; these smallfolk were not combatants, but simply peasants trying to eke out an existence in the middle of the war.

Witnessing this rampant destruction of the smallfolk and their homes, however, pulled Oberyn in two directions at once. Part of him wanted to rush back to Doran’s side and tell his brother that he finally understood Doran’s caution, his hesitation, his distaste for even a just war. But another part whispered that this would never had happened if he had allowed Oberyn to kill the Mountain twenty years ago, and hungered for vengeance all the more. The latter would win out, of course; if Oberyn was mellowing with age, his rage and grief still burned hot within him. Even so, it shook him to imagine this scene replicated in his beloved Dorne.

The ruination before them seemed to affect the delicate Lady Sansa most of all. From the first day their riding party began their trek through the Riverlands, he noticed that Sansa – who had endured the long days of riding with aplomb throughout their travels in the Reach – began asking to stop and rest more frequently. On several such occasions, he observed the red-headed beauty sneaking off and spilling the contents of her stomach quietly in the woods. Oberyn did not fault her for it; some of the sights they stumbled across left even the hardened Prince a little queasy. Though Sansa’s mostly even-keeled endurance was admirable, some horrors ought to turn one’s stomach, and Oberyn felt that it was his own defect that it no longer bothered him as much as it once had to see men’s mangled bodies hanging from trees and women ripped to shreds, lying in the road. The children, though…the mutilated children still made him weep, and damn any of the men in their party if they faulted him for it. Having a kind heart and a visceral reaction to injustice was naught to be ashamed of; indeed, Oberyn considered it practically a virtue.

 

***

 

The night before they reached Riverrun, Oberyn found himself unable to sleep. It felt as if they were being watched, though whether it was by loyal Riverlanders or Lannister men, he could not say, and he had not been able to find a trace of anyone when he walked the perimeter of the camp. In addition to the sense that he was being watched, Oberyn was unnerved by the constant howling of wolves. The beasts sounded far too near for his comfort.

Giving up on sleep, Oberyn uncorked his second-to-last bottle of Dornish red – the final bottle, he intended to save for his celebration of Gregor Clegane’s death, assuming he survived to tell the tale – and sat before the fire. He sat there for some time before he saw a small shape creeping out of the darkness. His hand went to the dagger on his belt, but dropped away when he saw that it was only Lady Sansa.

“Can’t sleep?” he asked her.

“No,” she said in a small voice. She shivered, glancing behind her into the darkness of the woods. “It feels like someone is out there.”

“I feel it too,” agreed Oberyn. “But I searched, and I did not find any scouts.”

They sat there in companionable silence for a while, before Oberyn offered Sansa a cup of wine.

“No, thank you, Prince Oberyn,” she politely declined. “I hope you will not take offense, but I prefer sweeter wines. Anyways, it seems a poor idea to drink, for I must be sharp for tomorrow’s negotiations. The lack of sleep is already unfortunate, and I do not wish to add a wine headache to my plight.”

“Suit yourself,” replied Oberyn with a shrug, drinking directly from the bottle.

They lapsed into silence once again. A wolf howled, and Sansa looked wistful.

“What is wrong, my lady?” Oberyn asked her.

“I had a wolf, once. A direwolf. The howling reminds me of her,” she said, without explaining further. Oberyn did not press her, because she sounded so terribly sad.

Silence fell once again, punctuated only by the rustling of leaves and the howling of wolves.

At length, Sansa spoke again. She gazed at Oberyn hesitantly. “I heard that…you and Willas?”

“Yes,” said Oberyn somberly. “I was sorry to hear that our behavior had upset you. Your husband made it clear to me that it was to be friendship only, between us, forever more.”

“It is nothing,” said Sansa quietly. “It was before we were wed.”

“Indeed,” said Oberyn.

Neither spoke for several minutes, and then Sansa looked at Oberyn again. “How…?” she asked.

“Hmmm?” inquired Oberyn, smiling a little. What is she asking me, exactly? he wondered.

“Nothing,” Sansa said quickly, the redness of her cheeks visible even in the dim firelight.

From the blushing, it is almost as if she were going to ask me how two men make love, he thought with amazement. But surely not. This is a lady, after all. But he knew well that even the most prim and proper of ladies sometimes harbored hidden desires. Oberyn quirked an eyebrow at Sansa, encouraging her to continue.

“It’s a stupid question,” Sansa whispered.

“There is no such thing,” Oberyn declared.

“How…how do you feel about the fact that your friend has wed? Do you hate me for stealing him away from you?” she asked finally.

“No, surely not,” Oberyn replied, a little disappointed that her question was not more provocative. “I value friendship, and I do not see it as lesser than romantic or sexual love. You are within your rights to keep your husband to yourself. I am merely glad I had the opportunity to enjoy him, before you arrived, and I thank you for your understanding about that. Many a lady would want to see me burned at the stake. I should know, for some have demanded it in the past when they caught me with their husbands, though none have gotten their wish.”

Sansa giggled a little at that.

“I am glad you do not resent me for wishing to keep my lord husband all to myself,” said Sansa. “I think I love him.”

“Oh? How wonderful, sweet girl, for I believe he is coming to love you as well,” commented Oberyn, smiling. He was happy for Willas. His friend and his new bride were getting along well, it seemed, and Oberyn was pleased that his friend had wed a kind and gentle lady rather than a harpy.

“You think so?” asked Sansa, hesitantly.

“I do,” proclaimed Oberyn. “Willas is slow to open his heart, but fiercely loyal once he does, and I could see already during my visit to Highgarden that he cares deeply for you. I am sure he eagerly awaits your return.”

“I hope I can do this,” commented Sansa, looking worried. “I hope I can broker a peace deal and go back to him. I miss him already.”

“As I miss my lovely Ellaria,” agreed Oberyn. “But we have other duties, you and I.”

“Yes,” agreed Sansa, somewhat mournfully.

Oberyn drained the rest of the wine.

“I am sure that you will do as you must, tomorrow, my lady,” Oberyn assured her finally. “But perhaps we both ought to get a little sleep, before the sun rises.”

Sansa looked at him strangely for a moment, as if misreading his words as an invitation. Then the look passed, and she stood.

“Yes, Prince Oberyn,” she said, turning to walk in the opposite direction, towards her own tent. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Lady Sansa,” he said, returning to his own tent.

But once there, Oberyn found he still could not sleep. Something ominous seemed to hover over their camp, and once or twice he would have sworn he caught the scent of something rotten on the wind. Nearby, a wolf howled, and Oberyn shivered, at the sound as much as from the cold. He stared up at the canvas ceiling for some time, discomfited, before finally drifting off to sleep.

Chapter Text

After a fitful, mostly sleepless night, Sansa awoke in her tent with an aching back from sleeping on the ground and a stomach churning with nerves. Her pulse was racing and she had to carefully calm her breathing, in and out, before dressing and joining her companions in breaking their fast. Throughout her travels, Sansa had worn simple riding gowns made from durable fabrics. Today, she wore one of the two nicer dresses she had brought with her from Highgarden. The one she wore today laced in the front, across her breasts, with a white stretchy fabric under the laces to preserve her modesty. Below the laces, the gray velvet dress fell into pleated skirts. On the skirts, Sansa had stitched a direwolf’s face – a portrait of Lady, based on the memories she had only recently allowed herself to unlock. She had chosen to bring this gown for Riverrun because it was reasonably formal, yet she could don it without aid. Over her shoulders, she wore her maiden's cloak, even though it was not quite cold enough to warrant it. She wanted to look like a Stark, today.

Sucking in another deep breath, Sansa pushed aside the tent flaps and made her way to the fire. Ser Ryam was roasting freshly caught fish, and everyone else assured him that it smelled delightful, but the smell made Sansa feel slightly nauseated. I am far too nervous to eat a heavy meal, she thought, choosing to snack on nuts and berries instead.

The journey had been a long one, objectively, but to Sansa it had flown by. She had gone over the details of possible diplomatic arrangements with Willas, over and over, before she left, but she still did not feel prepared for the meetings that were about to take place. It would have been easier if she had ever met her mother’s uncle, but she knew him only from her mother’s stories. Even so, surely he would be on her side, for her mother’s sake? She hoped so, but she did not fully know what to expect.

Once the camp had been folded up, the group mounted their horses for the short ride to Riverrun. Outside the castle, she saw, someone had erected a shoddy gallows, and the sight of it sent a jolt of fear through Sansa’s body. Red-and-gold tents shimmered on the riverbanks, and it was not long before Sansa spotted Jaime Lannister, in his brilliant white cloak. As they approached, the Kingslayer walked towards them impatiently. Reaching the edge of the encampment, Sansa pulled up her horse.

“Ser Jaime,” she said coldly.

“Lady Sansa,” replied the Kingslayer, a mocking note in his voice. “We have been waiting a long time for your arrival. The Blackfish refuses to surrender without your express approval.”

“So I have heard,” Sansa said evenly.

Without warning, Jaime started yelling up at the castle, his voice booming loudly enough for the far-away figure on the parapets to hear him. “SANSA IS HERE, YOU CAN BLOODY WELL SURRENDER NOW!”

“NOT WITHOUT SPEAKING TO HER!” the man on the parapets roared back.

The Kingslayer grimaced, then treated Sansa to a sardonic grin. “It seems, my lady, that you will have to go into the castle and try to reason with him,” he said to her.

“I shall,” Sansa replied. “But first I would see my uncle Edmure.”

“As you like,” replied Jaime. His eyes swept over her honor guard, and he seemed to startle at the sight of Brienne, but he did not comment on her presence.

“Wherever Sansa goes, we go with her,” said Jon Fossoway, in an amiable tone.

“All of you?” Jaime demanded. “There’s not even room in the tent for all of you, but if you want to stand on top of each other, I suppose that’s your choice.”

“A few of us can wait outside the tent,” replied Jon, nonplussed.

Shrugging, Jaime led them to one of the tents, where he was keeping Edmure. Sansa rushed into the tent as soon as Jaime beckoned her in, flanked by Parmen Crane and Gunthor Hightower. Once inside, she saw a red-headed man who strongly resembled her mother and her brother Robb, tied loosely to a chair.

“Uncle Edmure?” she breathed, hesitating to embrace him before making absolutely sure it was him.

“You must be Sansa,” Edmure said warmly. “I’d give you a hug, but…” He moved his arms a little, demonstrating his limited range of motion. Sansa did it for him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and giving him a squeeze, before pulling up another chair to sit across from him.

“How are you? Have the Lannisters treated you cruelly?” Sansa asked with great concern. She knew how the Lannisters treated valuable hostages. Like garbage, that’s how they treat their noble prisoners of war, she thought.

Edmure seemed to consider this before finally saying, “I don’t know how to answer that. Since the Kingslayer got here, they’ve treated me well enough. Before that, one of the Freys walked me through a mock hanging every day, though he lacked the courage to actually follow through and hang me. Before that…”

“The slaughter at the Twins,” breathed Sansa, flinching a little.

“Yes,” Edmure said solemnly.

“How did you escape?” Sansa asked in a quiet, hesitant voice. Edmure responded with a bark of humorless laughter.

“I didn’t,” he answered sourly. “They took me prisoner and forced me to lie with Roslin until she was with child, and then they shipped me here in chains.”

“Oh, uncle, I’m so sorry,” she said with anguish, grief causing her voice to break. Edmure’s eyes glistened, but he said nothing further. Sansa remembered when she was like that, unable to speak of the horrors she had encountered, too traumatized to say anything more than was absolutely necessary. Though her time in Highgarden had begun to heal her, the scars on Sansa’s heart were still fresh and pink, and she felt a kinship with her uncle because of their shared victimhood as much as because of their shared blood.

“And what of you, Sansa? Your mother worried terribly about you,” Edmure asked, looking at her with an expression that was mostly grief and pain and pity, with an undertone of joy at seeing his sister’s daughter, who looked so much like her.

“I…I was treated cruelly at first as well,” she began. “But the Tyrells rescued me. I have heard it said that I was kidnapped, but that is a lie. I went willingly, and my marriage is a refuge for me. I…I have been happy at Highgarden, though I grieve my family and I miss my mother terribly. I am sorry your marriage has been a trial rather than a refuge.”

Edmure closed his eyes. “I am sorry, Sansa. I can only imagine what you suffered, and I share your grief. It was…it was horrible.” He shuddered. “But I am glad to hear that you are well, despite it all.”

“I am going to negotiate with the Blackfish, and with the Lannisters. I hope to free you,” Sansa told her uncle, not wanting to promise too much in case she could not deliver it.

“That would be nice,” said Edmure, in a tone that made it clear he did not expect to be freed.

“I must go now, but I will be back after I visit the castle,” Sansa promised.

“Farewell,” said Edmure. He sat there listlessly, as if he did not care about anything. Sansa kissed him on the cheek before leaving, disturbed by what he had said and what she had seen. Poor uncle Edmure, she thought. He is broken like I was, before Highgarden.


***


As the drawbridge was lowered, Sansa’s great-uncle and his forces gathered at one end of it, clearly prepared to push back enemy forces if this proved to be another Lannister ruse. Sansa and her honor guard – all save Daemon Sand, who stayed with the horses – crossed slowly, the rivers flowing beneath their feet. The Kingslayer watched them cross from a few meters away, keeping his forces further still. When Sansa reached the other side, she curtsied.

“Well met, Ser Brynden,” she said politely, smiling at her great uncle. Looking upon her face, the Blackfish’s stony expression broke into a broad grin. He didn’t bother to bow; he pulled Sansa into a big bear hug instead.

“You look just like Catelyn, come back to life,” he said, chin resting on her hair for a moment before he released her. Her line of sight no longer hidden by her great-uncle’s bulky arms and clothing, Sansa saw that her guards had tensed, hands on their swordbelts.

“At ease, my lords,” Sansa said, reassuring them. “This is my great-uncle. We are among friends.”

Her companions relaxed, but only slightly. Ser Brynden scrutinized them, seemingly uncertain as well.

“You vouch for them?” he asked skeptically, eyes lingering on the green livery of House Tyrell.

“Yes, ser,” Sansa said firmly. “They were hand-picked, and they have seen me safely from Highgarden and across the Reach and Riverlands. I trust them all.”

The Blackfish nodded, beckoning for her honor guard to follow them into the castle, where a page awaited with bread and salt. As they partook in the guest right ceremony, Brynden Tully took Brienne aside.

“I see you have fulfilled half your vow,” he said to her, his voice a mixture of approval and disapproval.

“I will fulfill the other half, too,” Brienne promised. “But I wished to see the Lady Sansa safely here before beginning my search for Lady Arya. I do not know her whereabouts, but I will not stop looking until she is found. What would you have had me do? Abandon one daughter to go off in search of the other?”

Brynden shrugged, accepting this answer, though misliking it.

After the guest right ritual, the Blackfish led them into the great hall, where the remains of her brother’s court and army were gathered. He led Sansa to the head table, beckoning for her guards to take a seat nearby. Sansa would have preferred to hold this conversation in private, perhaps in her grandfather’s solar, but she did not wish to begin on the wrong foot by insisting on privacy for a matter that concerned all those who were present in the great hall. They sat in silence for a moment, and Sansa wasn’t sure whether she was meant to speak or whether her great-uncle intended to lead the conversation.

“I came here because I received your letter,” Sansa said finally. “I wanted you to know that I am not a prisoner, and I wished to hear the news you were not willing to entrust to ravens.”

“Straight to the point, eh? Practical, like your mother, I see,” said Brynden with no little satisfaction. “Well, where would you like to start?”

“Well, you said ‘Robb’s heir,’ in your letter,” Sansa ventured. “So perhaps that is a place to start. Who is Robb’s heir?”

“Whoo, boy. You’re asking me?” howled the Blackfish, slapping the table. Then he sobered slightly. “Yes, that is the critical question, is it not? But it is complicated, so let me start by telling you what I know, that you probably do not.”

“Yes, that would be much appreciated, great-uncle, if you would be so kind,” replied Sansa politely.

“So, here’s where it starts. Your mother and Robb disagreed quite vehemently over who was to be named his heir. Robb wanted to name Jon Snow, because he said you were just a girl and that your father never prepared you to lead an army, but your mother prevailed upon him to recognize your claim. In the end, Robb agreed, but with a few conditions. You were to inherit, but only if you were no longer in captivity. You stand before me now, so I’d say that one’s rightly fulfilled, which ought to quell some of the murmuring. But the second condition was that you were to be wed to a Northern lord. Yet, here you sit, already wed to a Southerner. No one knows how to square that. The third condition is that Jon was to serve as your regent in military matters, at least for the time being. If neither you nor Arya could be located in time, or for some reason you were determined to be unsuitable, Jon was to inherit. To allow him to serve as your regent, or as heir if need be, Robb left behind documents legitimizing Jon and releasing him from his vows to the Night’s Watch.”

“I see,” said Sansa with distaste. What was Robb thinking, leaving such documents behind? She wondered. Her mother had been right, of course; Robb had only muddied a line of succession that should have been straightforward. Sansa hoped Jon would see that Robb had erred, and she wondered if her letter had reached him yet, and whether he’d sent a reply.

“Oh, do you, now?” The Blackfish chuckled. “Well, you shall have to explain it to the rest of us, then, because there’s a helluva lot that still isn’t clear.” There was much laughter at that, and the Blackfish waited for it to die down before continuing. “Now, mind you, here at Riverrun we know who we serve – the Tullys – so our immediate loyalties are clear enough. Your uncle Edmure is Lord of Riverrun and High Lord of the Trident, and I’m his regent until someone manages to free him from the Lannisters. At least until the Frey girl spits out her babe, you’re Edmure’s heir, that’s clear enough too. And if there is to be another monarch in the North and Riverlands, then by our lights, it would obviously be you. Blood of Tully and Stark, your mother’s trueborn daughter – that’s enough for us.”

Sansa was relieved to hear him say so. It is good to know that some people have sense, unlike Robb. Perhaps my mission is not entirely futile after all. It was difficult to be angry at her brother, given his gruesome death and how terribly she missed him, but she was angry all the same. His miscalculations were going to make the tasks before her far more difficult.

However, the Blackfish was not done yet. “But up North, it is not so clear. A lot of voices are hailing Jon as King in the North, saying your marriage negates your claim. You are lady of Winterfell, by anyone’s accounting, save perhaps the Boltons, but you may or may not be Queen in the North. And if you’re not Queen in the North,” he continued, “then what are we doing here, holding out against the Iron Throne? Are we going to be the Kingdom of the Riverlands, at war with both the Lannister bastard that sits the Iron Throne and the Stark bastard in the North? And if we’re on our own, are we to serve a Lord and a Queen, both ruling over the same territory? If there’s no alliance with the Starks anymore, why not make Edmure our King, which would make you our Princess for now, and Queen only if Edmure dies without issue?”

That suggestion troubled Sansa, though she could see the logic of it.

At this point, the Blackfish sighed heavily and looked her in the eyes. “But then again,” Brynden said, “Edmure’s in captivity and you no longer are, so you’ve as much right to give orders here as me. But even beyond the question of whether you’re just Edmure’s heir or his liege lord too, declaring independence without our Northern allies strikes a lot of men as foolhardy. It seems a lot of fighting for not a lot of gain, when our people have already lost much and more. So, you see, my lady – or your Grace, if you would have it – it’s bloody well unclear to me who’s in charge and what we’re doing here, besides giving Jamie Lannister the bloody finger. Which I’m happy to do, of course, for as long as you wish. But…”

“But, mayhaps it is time to put an end to the fighting, at least for now?” Sansa inquired delicately, hoping she was taking his meaning.

“Precisely. Mayhaps it’s time to negotiate a peace,” said the Blackfish glumly. “It galls me, but I am not entirely opposed, if I can surrender to you as the representative of the Iron Throne, instead of the Kingslayer, who’d probably lop off my head as soon as I’d laid down my sword.”

“It seems we are on the same page,” Sansa said in a pleasant voice, taking her great-uncle’s hand. “While I am prepared to join the struggle for independence in the future if my bannermen support me in such an endeavor, the political uncertainties will take time to untangle, and winter is coming. So many people’s lives and livelihoods and families have been destroyed, and it seems we are in a losing position. I think it is best to retreat, allow the smallfolk and lords alike to recover, and simply to ensure we can survive the coming winter. But I do not wish to make these decisions single-handedly, so I did not come here to tell you what you must do, merely to talk about how we should move forward from here.”

“Well, to hear the Kingslayer speak of it, you came here to tell me to surrender,” said the Blackfish wryly.

“I did not,” Sansa stated, bristling a little at the implication that she was a pawn of the Lannisters, but not sure what else to say.

“So, what would you have us do, if not surrender?” he wondered aloud.

“Make a truce,” Sansa proposed. “Swear not to make war against the Iron Throne for some period of time, perhaps a year or mayhaps five, in exchange for retaining your positions and titles in the intervening years.”

“You think they’ll accept that?” he asked with no little skepticism. “Not that titles matter much on my account, for properly I have none besides 'Warden of the Southern Marches' - which your brother granted me - but I am thinking of Edmure.”

“It was Edmure I thought of too.” Sansa shrugged. “Mayhaps they will not accept such a proposal, but mayhaps I can convince them. Tywin is dead, and I have a friendly relationship with Lord Tyrion. The Lannisters must still defeat Stannis in the field, so it is to their benefit to avoid a two-front war. Margaery is Queen and my husband’s family has substantial influence over the small council. I assume they will demand hostages, but a truce does not seem out of the question.”

The Blackfish pondered this, and after declaring that he saw sense in her proposal, he invited others in the hall to speak. Most spoke in favor of a truce, though there was some grumbling about revenge at a later date. Finally, someone Sansa vaguely recognized rose to speak. A Northman, she was certain. Robett Glover, she thought, the name finally coming to her.

“Your Grace – or my lady, I suppose – what of the North? Will you allow your bastard brother to seize your crown? Will you leave your home to be destroyed by the Boltons?” Glover asked, somewhat sharply.

“I believe I can settle matters with my brother Jon, who is not only a sworn member of the Night’s Watch but its Lord Commander. I do not think he means to forsake his vows, whatever others may say. Nor do I believe he wishes to fight me for a title that does not belong to him, whether that title be Winterfell or the Kingdom of the North.” Sansa paused. She had no idea how to deal with the Boltons or Freys, and she was terrified that admitting it would make her look weak, but she felt that honesty was the only viable course. Northerners would not be satisfied with vague, pretty words. She plunged onwards. “But I admit, I do not know what to do about the Boltons or the Freys. I do not want to allow them to destroy my home and my homeland with impunity, but I know not how to stop them. If you have counsel, I welcome it.”

“The North remembers, my lady,” replied Glover with reverence in his voice. “You have more friends – and a bigger army, I suspect – than you realize. But I believe you should go to White Harbor. Lord Wyman despises the Boltons – despised them even before the war, but all the more now – and I am certain he is planning something.”

“What do you think he is planning?” Sansa asked, glancing at her counselors. They will not wish me to go further North, she thought, suddenly realizing the problem with relying on her husband’s bannermen – even the best of them – as her primary advisors. As she suspected, Jon Fossoway shook his head and Gunthor Hightower looked highly doubtful. Oberyn’s face was impassive, however, and Sansa resolved to ask his thoughts on the matter once they were no longer in such a public setting. As a Dornishman, he had no direct stake in these matters, and his comment about duty the night before led her to believe that he would not be unduly biased by his friendship (or whatever lay between them) with her husband.

“I have been in the Neck and the Riverlands for too long, and my counsel is like to be out of date,” Glover replied with a shrug. “But I suspect the Manderlys have a plan to retake the North in one fell swoop, some way or another. No one likes the Boltons, and no one likes the Freys. Indeed, I would say they are hated by every Norhtern house, large or small, and even by the smallfolk. You are not the only one who lost family that day, my lady.”

That day, he called it, as if there was no other day that lived in such infamy, as if she would unquestionably take his meaning, as she did. It warmed her heart to hear that day spoken of with such solemnity and gravity. It was so unlike the gleeful mockery and jocular disapproval she heard in the voices that spoke of ‘the Red Wedding.’

“Who did you lose, Lord Robett, if I may?” Sansa asked softly, her words sounding both gentle and surprisingly vengeful, even to her own ears. I hear that cold anger in my voice, that quiet rage that I have heard in Willas’s voice and Lord Tywin’s, Sansa thought with no little amazement. She did not know she had it in her to carry such threats on a whisper.

“My cousin, Brandon Glover. Many friends, including Dacey Mormont and your brother Robb. Many of my own men, whose names you would not know because they were not noble-born, called Alyn and Cayn and Edderion and Ronnel. My goodsister Sybelle’s father, Lord Donnel Locke. My whole family, the whole castle that was my home, was captured by the Ironborn besides.” He spoke each of the names with great seriousness and visible pain.

“I lost my mother, Catelyn of House Stark and Tully,” Sansa recited in a low, mournful tone. “My brother Robb, and insult was added to injury when the bodies of my brother and his direwolf were mutilated. My uncle Edmure was captured and brutalized. My father was beheaded before mine own eyes, after I was led to believe he would be granted mercy and permitted to take the Black. My flesh bears the scars of my mistreatment in King’s Landing, and my sister Arya has disappeared, likely murdered in secret by the Lannisters or lost in the chaos of war. My brothers Bran and Rickon were slain in a grievous betrayal by a man I thought to be like a brother to me, reared beside my siblings and I from childhood, their bodies burned and mounted on the walls of my home. The castle where I was born and reared was burned, and all the people who lived there, who raised me from childhood alongside my parents, were slaughtered. I have lost all my family, my lord, though not all on that day. I shall mourn them forever. Do not think that I forget the North.”

“My heart aches for you, your Grace,” Robbett replied, his eyes sparkling with tears. “And I am glad you have not forgotten us.”

Others spoke after Robett, but Sansa scarcely heard them. I was a fool to think I could leave the North alone until winter has passed, she reflected. The crimes against my family and our loyal bannermen cannot go unpunished. She would speak to her advisers, and wait until she had negotiated the truce for the Riverlands, but she had already half-decided that she go to White Harbor before returning to Highgarden. Much as she hated to leave Willas for longer, and frightened as she was to place herself in greater danger, the Northmen would never respect her – and indeed, she was not sure she could respect herself – if she left them to fend for themselves against the vile traitors who had slain so many men under the protection of guest right. She must ensure that they would have peace and food through the winter, yes, but she must also ensure that some measure of justice would be done.

After all who would speak had taken their turn in the Great Hall, Sansa retreated to her grandfather’s solar with her honor guard. They discussed what they had learned, and considered which of Willas’s plans best suited the situation as they now understood it. Arriving at agreement on the issue of the Riverlands truce rather easily, Sansa sidestepped the issue of the North, telling them they could make their plans for a Northern truce after the present negotiations were settled. Her guards and advisers agreed, and Sansa sent a page for the Blackfish, so that she could tell him the specifics of her plan. He listened eagerly, nodding in places, and gave his blessing once she was finished speaking. With everyone in accord, Sansa and her honor guard descended the steps from the solar and prepared to depart.

The sun was beginning to set by the time Sansa and her party rode out the gates of Riverrun. As she descended the drawbridge, she found the Kingslayer waiting for her. After treating them to a few ugly japes about fishes, he led her to his own tent. Gunthor, Oberyn, and Jon followed her into the tent, at her behest. The Kingslayer offered them wine, but all four of them declined, perhaps fearing poison.

“So,” said Jaime Lannister. “Is he going to surrender?”

“You get ahead of yourself, my lord,” Sansa said, her tone polite but with an edge.

“Do I?” asked Jaime, rolling his eyes skywards. “Gods save me, what is the problem now? I thought you were here to negotiate a surrender.”

“I am here to negotiate, but it was you who presumed it was to be a straightforward surrender,” replied Sansa neutrally.

The Kingslayer looked at her with irritation. “So, if not surrender, what is it to be, then?” he demanded. “What do you propose?”

“White peace,” said Sansa, using the term Willas had taught her as if she’d been born knowing it. She slid over a piece of parchment listing her demands, placing a quill next to it as if bidding him to sign. “That’s what I propose. The Blackfish will surrender into my custody, returning with me to Highgarden as a hostage of the Crown. You will return Edmure to his seat at Riverrun, if he will swear on his honor not to take up arms against the Crown for five years, during which time I hope to reach an agreement that can serve as the basis for an enduring peace. During this truce, I shall reach out to the Northern lords. Once I have a better understanding of the situation, mayhaps we can broker a peace for the North as well.”

“Riverrun rightly belongs to my aunt Genna and her husband Emmon Frey,” the Kingslayer declared pompously, frowning at her. He scarcely glanced at the parchment, bristling at the initial words and then ignoring the document.

“No,” corrected Sansa. “They claim it only by the Crown’s decree, and a legally shaky one at that. By rights, Riverrun belongs to my uncle Edmure. The Riverlands will never accept rulers without Tully blood, and the Blackfish says the siege can hold indefinitely, so you have no way to take the castle without destroying it in the process. That is why you are here negotiating with me at all, I presume. Find another castle for your aunt Genna, and let the Freys be satisfied that Edmure’s heirs will be born by a lady of House Frey.”

“Edmure is a traitor, his claim is void,” the Lannister insisted.

“I am not, however,” Sansa snapped. “If Edmure’s claim is void, then I am Lady of Riverrun. Unless you are no better than Joffrey, to declare me a traitor by blood alone? If I am to be removed from the succession as well, then Riverrun should surely fall to my aunt Lysa, who has kept the King’s peace even as her kin were slaughtered. Unless you’d prefer that the Vale finally enter this war? Mayhaps my great-uncle would prefer to keep fighting, with the Valeman on his side. Or mayhaps King Stannis would accept our offer of peace and fealty, if you will not.”

Jaime’s lip curled. “When did you become such a Northern firebrand?” he demanded. “Did the Tyrells put you up to this? The girl I remember from King’s Landing would not make such impossible demands.”

“The girl you remember from King’s Landing was an abused, frightened child,” Sansa said softly, in her newfound tone of icy fury. “I am now a woman flowered and wed, and the rightful Lady of Winterfell besides. No one needs to put me up to anything to get me to defend my family’s rights. It isn’t as if there is anyone else left to defend them.”

“Well, you ask too much, whoever you are,” the Kingslayer said dismissively. “What right do you have to stand here making demands? You lost, the war is over.

“The real question, ser,” Sansa hissed with sweetness and poison. “Is what right have you to negotiate here at all? Your lord father is dead, and your brother Tyrion is now the High Lord of the Westerlands. Have you spoken to him? Mayhaps I should ride for Casterly Rock and ask him myself. We are friends, you know, and he is wed to my husband’s cousin. Or perhaps I should ride for King’s Landing and offer my proposal to sweet, peaceful King Tommen and my goodsister Queen Margaery? Have you received word from them? Your uncle Kevan is Hand, do you think he is eager for a two-front war? Or do you think he might hesitate, recalling the suffering of his sons throughout this war and feeling the loss of his brother’s military genius?”

Jaime looked discomfited by that, but his anger at her resistance to his pre-conceived plan carried him onwards. “Even so, why should I agree to your ridiculously self-serving truce? What kind of fool would that make me, if I restored a captive enemy to his seat so that he can take up arms against me once my back is turned? Why should I trust any of you?” the Kingslayer shot back.

Sansa’s honor guard must have been listening to their negotiations just outside the tent, for the tent’s opening was flapping open even before the Kingslayer had finished speaking. A terrifyingly enraged Brienne stormed in, her finger shaking angrily as she pointed it at Jaime.

“YOU SWORE AN OATH!” she bellowed, stalking towards the stunned Kingslayer and grabbing him by his lapels. “To the Lady Sansa’s mother! You swore an oath! No wonder you don’t trust your enemies to honor a sworn truce, because you have no honor! Kingslayer! Coward! Oathbreaker! Liar!”

Sansa’s mouth dropped open as she watched the scene unfolding before her, wide eyes darting between Brienne and the Kingslayer, who looked…cowed and shamefaced? What is going on here? Sansa wondered, and then she remembered bits of Brienne’s confusing story as she’d told it at Highgarden. She did seem convinced that the Kingslayer had some sense of honor, Sansa recalled. It seems she feels betrayed. He’s made a fool of her for having faith in him. 

Brienne let go of Jaime’s lapels as her tirade petered off, and the Kingslayer slumped in his chair, silent and sullen. Sansa watched conflicting emotions play across his face, but the arrogance he had displayed only minutes before seemed to have been drained away by Brienne’s accusatory shouting.

“Well?” boomed Brienne. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

The Kingslayer looked helplessly at Brienne, and then at Sansa. Both women waited, frozen, for some response. Finally, Jaime leaned forward and drained his wine glass, throwing it to the ground once it was emptied. He stood, glaring at Sansa and Brienne in turn.

“Fine!” he snarled. “What do I care? This godforsaken war is over anyways, so what does it matter to me if it’s Edmure or Emmon or Moonboy who holds Riverrun? If all of you will swear on your honor to set down your arms for the next five years, then fine, you can have your truce. Let Tyrion figure out how to deal with you people from here on out. I’m not cut out for this. Put a sword in my hand, not a quill. But you better keep your word, Stark.”

Jaime Lannister picked up the quill and scrawled his name with quick, angry motions. With that, he whirled and stormed out of the tent.

Sansa sat there, blinking, staring at the tent’s front flap. We won? she wondered, unable to process the possibility. We actually won? He agreed to it? 

Her companions – with the exception of Brienne, who had followed the Kingslayer for some reason – also stared at the empty doorway. Their expressions were equally stunned.

This was not the plan, Sansa marveled, with growing giddiness. We did not expect to get everything we asked for. I did not expect I would be able to free Edmure. And the Blackfish is to be hostage in name only, effectively swearing his shield to me. Sansa had meant only to drive a hard bargain, demanding her wildest dreams in order to ensure the deal they reached in the end would be satisfactory.

Did he even know what he was signing? she wondered. Does he realize he’s affirmed my claim to Winterfell – effectively revoking his alliance with the Boltons – and granted me royal privilege as ruling Princess of the North, like the Princes and Princesses of Dorne? That last had been included purely on a whim, at the suggestion of Prince Oberyn, and she was not even sure she wished to use her new title. Surely he had not intended to grant the entire list of demands, she assumed. But it mattered not; his signature was on the parchment, and she could hear him shouting orders for his men to pack up their camp.

Truly, he should have called his brother Tyrion here to represent his family’s interests, instead of allowing the Blackfish to summon me, she thought. The only reason he allowed it must be because he thought me a shattered, stupid, obedient little girl who could be bid to mouth his surrender terms. He did not think me to have an agenda of my own, and he was caught unprepared when I presented him with my own terms. There is value to being underestimated, as Willas counselled. In fact, Sansa realized rather quickly, it was likely she would have to give up some of Jaime’s concessions once Tyrion realized what his brother had impulsively and somewhat inadvertently agreed to, if she wished the truce to hold. Still, for now their victory was complete, and some of the terms – such as the reinstatement of Edmure as Lord of Riverrun and the entrustment of the Blackfish into her custody rather than the Lannisters’ – would be practically and politically impossible for Tyrion to reverse.

Smiling genuinely, Sansa rose and led her honor guard to oversee Edmure’s release.


***


Later that evening, when Sansa returned to Riverrun with Edmure at her side – no longer in chains, but a free man and reinstated as Lord of Riverrun – a great cheer went up from the castlefolk gathered near the drawbridge. There was hugging and laughter, and though they were cautious not to deplete the castle’s foodstocks overmuch, Edmure decided this occasion called for a moderate feast. Even Sansa ate her fill for once, the sickness she had been feeling washed away by the pleasure of their diplomatic trouncing of the Lannisters.

Sansa’s celebrations were interrupted, however, when a page raced in to summon her to the ravenry. She left the other revellers behind and followed the young boy up the winding steps to the rooftop, overlooking the beautiful rushing waters of the Trident and the unending greenery of the treetops.

“I am sorry to bother you during the feast, my lady,” said Maester Vyman. “But you received a raven from Highgarden, and I did not want to miss the opportunity to give it to you before you left.”

“Thank you,” Sansa replied, smiling. She took the scroll from the maester’s outstretched hand, and smiled wider at the seal. Roses! It’s from Willas! she thought with delight, breaking the seal and unrolling the parchment as quickly as she could. Her eyes flicked across the elegant, looping script of her husband:

Dearest Sansa,


Your half-brother has replied to your letter (see enclosed), but he has written some very strange things. Do you think he is easily fooled or like to go mad, or do you take this message seriously? I have written to my Grandfather Leyton at the Hightower, asking him to investigate this matter by consulting with the Citadel and writing to Maester Aemon (Targaryen, I was surprised to learn) at the Wall to verify the Lord Commander’s story. However, I have no sense of Jon Snow’s wits or character, and I would be grateful for your insights into the person while I pursue the more metaphysical questions.


With my sincere and eternal affections,

Your husband (who misses you terribly),

Willas


Confused and alarmed, Sansa shuffled the parchments to look at the next page, and quickly read Jon’s letter, which only left her more baffled and worried than before. What in the Seven Kingdoms does he mean? She wondered, staring at the paragraph about dark magic and Old Nan’s stories. Others and wights? Men rising from the dead? The scary stories had never been Sansa’s favorites, and she tried to recollect the details of the stories about the Long Night and the evils that lie beyond the Wall. I will have to write him back and ask him to tell me everything, every detail, so that I understand.

It was so absurd that she could not think of any reason Jon might make such claims besides that they were true. He sounded so reluctant and uncomfortable, so worried that she would not believe him. Is this some ruse to steal my titles from me? She considered it, but could see no way that falsely convincing her of fairy stories could help Jon attain the Northern throne. It has to be true, she thought with wonder and terror, or else why would he say it? If she had not already decided to do as Robbett Glover recommended, and ride for Maidenpool to take a ship to White Harbor, this decided it for her. She needed to find out if Jon’s worries were well-founded, and she could only determine the truth of this matter if she went North. As grateful as she was that Willas would be pursuing the same line of inquiry through different channels, and as much trust as she generally placed in the learning of the Citadel and the wisdom of maesters, it was known that maesters were skeptical of magic.

What are we going to do? Sansa wondered, trembling. Can the Wall truly fall? What will happen to us if the dead walk freely on the earth? Her mind went blank with terror. As a wave of dread washed over her, Sansa fruitlessly looked around for some sort of bucket. Finding nothing as the bile rose in her throat, she leaned over the walls and heaved the celebratory meal she’d just consumed over the walls and into the river.

“I’m sorry,” she said to the maester, flushing at her lack of decorum. “I don’t know what has come over me lately, I just can’t keep food in my belly. I think it must be nerves.” She imagined saying instead, I have just learned that the 800-foot wall that protects the realms of men may collapse from some dark magic wielded by an army of the dead, and our kind may be wiped from the surface of our world, just as the Children of the Forest once were. So, you can see why I found that upsetting! The mental picture so ridiculous she nearly laughed aloud, but she managed to stifle her desire to collapse into hysterics. I must be strong, she thought. Maybe it isn’t true. Maybe Jon is overreacting. Maybe the Wall will hold. Maybe Willas and Lord Leyton and the Citadel can devise a solution. Maybe, maybe, maybe. But she knew not to place her future in the hands of fate. She must go to White Harbor, and if need be, the Wall itself. She must protect her people. Robett Glover had shown her the truth of that. She could no more abandon them to the monsters than she could abandon them to the Boltons.

The maester looked at her strangely. “Are you sick, my lady? When did these nerves start affecting you?”

“Just after I crossed into the Riverlands,” she confessed. “About a moon’s turn after I left Highgarden.” If you only knew what I have just learned, you would not be so shocked at my discourteous vomiting, she thought, half-tempted to tell him the message Jon’s letter contained. But no, he’d think me mad. I must keep this news to myself for now. Sansa felt a bit uncomfortable returning to the survival stragies she had learned in King's Landing, but she knew she must be careful.

Maester Vyman’s penetrating gaze remained fixed upon her. “My lady, I wish to be delicate, but I have served your family for many years. May I ask a personal question?”

Sansa frowned. “More personal than asking about all the times when I heaved up my supper or breakfast?” she japed, but the joke did not land, so she nodded her consent to his questioning.

“When were you wed, child? Was the marriage consummated?” he asked.

“About…two moon’s turns ago?” she thought, calculating in her head. “And yes, it was consummated.”

“My lady,” the maester said cautiously. “I believe you may be with child. You must allow me to examine you.”

With child? The possibility drove all thoughts of Others and grumpkins and snarks from her head for a moment. Her mouth dropped open in shock, but the more she thought about it, the more sense it made. Her mother had gotten pregnant on her wedding night, too…and Mother had been sick like this, with Rickon…the timing aligned…

“You must tell no one,” she said frantically. I must go to White Harbor, but how can I, if I am with child? I must keep it a secret, or they will try to stop me.

“Of course, my lady,” replied Maester Vyman, sounding almost offended. “I would never break your confidence.”

“And you must tell me what to do,” she added. “Is it safe to ride? How long can I continue travelling before I must return home to rest? Is it better to travel by ship? I have much and more to do before this babe is born.”

Willas was right about the moon tea, she thought, too late. This is right awful timing. We could have waited just a little while. But now that she knew she carried a babe, she felt fiercely protective of it, even though she had just learned of its presence. The reasons for bearing an heir sooner rather than later remained the same. Besides, she could not shame herself by asking some other castle’s maester for tansy, not even her uncle’s castle, despite his debt to her.

She struggled to listen to the maester’s instructions, as he told her it would be safe to ride until around her fifth moon, and that a ship might worsen her nausea but that it bore no particular dangers for women who were with child, above and beyond the usual terrors of shipwrecks and piracy and Ironborn raiders. With child! She thought desperately. And at such a time, when the world may be ending! 

This day had been going so well, until her visit to the ravenry. Dark wings, dark words, she thought miserably, wishing she could be back at Highgarden with Willas and Lady Alerie and Leonette and Maester Lomys for support. How am I going to do this, all alone?

Chapter Text

When the Westerosi strangers arrived, Daenerys Targaryen was eating fat purple grapes on the balcony of her newly-acquired pyramid, gazing out over the recently liberated city of Meereen. Her amethyst eyes followed the strangers as they made their way towards her pyramid, her slivery-blonde hair billowing in the breeze as she watched their progress through the city with mild interest. Perhaps word of my dragons and my campaign of liberation has reached the shores of Westeros at last, Daenerys thought, pleased to imagine her exiled countrymen flocking to her side to swear her fealty. Mhysa, they call me, here in Slaver’s Bay. Mother. I wonder what they will call me in the Seven Kingdoms?

 When the strangers were no longer visible, Daenerys left the balcony and looked into the Myrish glass in her room. She adjusted her long, wavy hair, bells tinkling as she placed her crown atop her head. As a final touch, she brushed her lips with carmine and painted a thin line of khol across her eyelids. Satisfied, but unwilling to display an un-Queenly excitement at the guests she imagined to be gathering in her royal audience hall, she sat on the chaise lounge and waited until Reznak Mo Reznak appeared at her door.

“Great Queen,” he said reverently, bowing deeply. “You are so radiant I fear to look upon you, for fear I will go blind like a man who stares into the sun.”

Daenerys smiled at his flattery, but she was impatient to hear about the strangers. “I am pleased to hear it, but I assume you did not come all the way to the top of the pyramid just to tell me that?”

“Of course not, your Worship! I would never presume to interrupt your leisure for my own sake,” Reznak said nervously. “You have visitors, your Radiance.”

“Excellent,” said Daenerys, rising to her feet. “Take me to them.”

“As you wish, Magnificence,” he said, bowing again before leading the way.

Daenerys followed Reznak mo Reznak down the stairs at a leisurely pace to avoid seeming over-eager. Irri and Jhiqui trailed behind her. When Dany finally reached the formal audience hall, Missandei announced her arrival.

“All kneel for Daenerys Stormborn, the Unburnt, Queen of Meereen, Queen of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Shackles and Mother of Dragons!” Missandei cried, first in Ghiscari and then repeating her announcement in High Valyrian and the Common Tongue.

Smiling, Daenerys settled herself on the hard, uncomfortable bench from which she conducted her royal hearings. Ser Barristan was already there, standing behind the bench, ready to guard her from any dangers. Though he had lied to her about his identity, Daenerys was coming to like the gruff old soldier. He was a font of information about her family and her homeland, and although she sometimes misliked the things he told her, she was still hungry for information. Viserys had given her a version of the truth, she had realized, but he was not entirely reliable.

Daenerys looked out over the throne room with interest, but she frowned when she saw that the strangers had not knelt but merely bowed, and the silver-haired boy had not bowed terribly deeply either. Still, Dany was immediately interested in the boy because of his Valyrian appearance, so strikingly alike to her own. Could we be related somehow? She wondered. Is that why he does not bow so low, because he is also of royal blood? But Viserys told me that we were the last two living Targaryens, the last of the blood of the dragon. Could he have been mistaken?

 As if he read her mind, one of the men spoke. “If I may, your Grace?” Daenerys nodded, and he continued. “I am Jon Connington, Lord-in-Exile of Griffin’s Roost, former Hand to King Aerys Targaryen. With me today are…” He hesitated.

“Speak freely, my lord,” said Daenerys.

“Your Grace, is it possible we might speak in a more private setting?” Connington asked, somewhat anxiously.

Daenerys glanced at Barristan, who nodded, and Reznak, who shook his head vigorously. She briefly considered her advisers’ conflicting opinions, but quickly decided to deny the exiled lord’s request. Even assuming that this man was who he claimed to be, she could not be certain that he did not hope to win a pardon for killing her, as Jorah had once sought to do.

“Surely we can do our introductions here?” Daenerys said lightly. “I do not even know your names.” After all the lies and secret identities she had encountered thus far, Dany had no desire to play further games of guess-who. They could speak their names before the court, or leave.

The silver-haired boy whispered something to Lord Connington, who nodded.

“Very well, your Grace,” said Connington. “With me today are Harry Strickland, Commander of the Golden Company, Lady Malora Hightower, and Ser Rolly Duckfield of the Kingsguard. This is Haldon, formerly the Maester of the Dunfort before his maester’s chain was stripped from him for helping Ser Barristan save the life of your father, King Aerys, during the defiance of Duskendale. The young man who stands before you is King Aegon Targaryen, the Sixth of His Name, the true King of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, trueborn son of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen and Princess Elia Martell of Dorne.”

 Her first thought was, who is this pretender who dares usurp my titles? I am the one who hatched the dragons! He must be the mummer’s dragon Quaithe warned me about. But her second thought was one of hesitation. What if this was truly her nephew, her brother Rhaegar’s son, and she turned him away? Hadn’t she occasionally wished that Aegon yet lived, imagining he might have made a better husband than Viserys, picturing herself wed to her brother Rhaegar’s look-alike? What if this is really him? she wondered.

“Forgive me if this is an ignorant question, for I am just a young girl, unschooled in the ways of the world,” cooed Daenerys. “But is it not known that my nephew Aegon perished in the siege of King’s Landing before I was born?”

“It is known,” intoned Irri and Jhiqui.

“It is also known that Prince Aegon’s face was smashed, his body unrecognizable when it was found in the Red Keep,” explained Connington in a neutral tone. “That was by design, so that no one would realize that Prince Rhaegar had bid the spylord Varys to smuggle his son out of the castle. Lord Varys brought him to me after the Usurper was crowned, because I was a dear friend of Prince Rhaegar’s and he knew I would protect the boy. We took refuge with the Hightowers, at first, then travelled to Dorne, to join you and Prince Viserys, though you may have been too young to recall it now. For years after, we travelled Essos, pretending to be a simple sellsword and his son while we waited for the right time for Aegon to reclaim his throne.”

Dorne? Daenerys wondered. Did I ever live in Dorne? The house with the red door and the lemon tree by her window flashed into her mind, and for the first time, she wondered if it was truly in Braavos. Had her memories of early childhood mixed together in her mind? Had she misremembered her beloved house with the red door? What struck her about that memory was the way she had felt, safe and warm and happy. There were certain details she could recall with certainty, such as the door and the lemon tree and the green grassy fields, but it was Viserys who had told her the house with the red door was in Braavos. She had been too young at the time to pay attention to such details as where on the map they lived, especially since they had moved constantly in her earliest years. It was possible she had gotten her memories mixed up, conflating the house with the red door with her actual trip to Braavos.

“What color was the door?” Daenerys demanded suddenly, interrupting Connington.

“What?” Connington asked, looking startled and confused.

“The house in Dorne, where you claimed to have joined Viserys and I,” clarified Daenerys. “What color was the door of that house?”

Connington glanced at Aegon, as if trying to recall that particular detail from so long ago, and the Prince looked back helplessly, for he too would have been very young at the time. Then the answer seemed to come to both of them at once, and they turned their heads towards Dany.

“Red,” answered Connington and Aegon in unison.

Dany’s heart leapt with joy at the possibility that this boy could genuinely be her nephew, that she might not be the last Targaryen. She resisted the urge to squeal and leap to her feet, clapping like an excited child. She knew better; she had to be careful. Someone else could have given them the answer in preparation for their visit to Meereen, or fed them that story about Dorne. It could be that the house with the red door was truly in Braavos, as Viserys had said. Many things could be true, that would make their story impossible. This silver-haired boy could still be the mummer’s dragon.

“Very good,” said Daenerys warmly. “Though I am not sure that is sufficient proof of your tale. Why did you come here? To convince me to give up my crown, my birthright?”

“Not at all,” Connington said quickly, and he was about to explain, but the silver-haired boy – Aegon? – interrupted him first.

“I came to offer my hand in marriage, your Grace,” the boy said, smiling at her. “I propose that we rule the Seven Kingdoms hand-in-hand, as partners, with my ships and your dragons and both our armies.”

That is a tempting offer, and he is handsome, Daenerys thought. He does look much like my brother Rhaegar. It could be true. But he could also be the mummer’s dragon…

“Your Grace,” Ser Barristan said quietly. “I remember Jon Connington and Maester Haldon well, and though I would speak to them further to verify their identities with certainty, I believe they are who they say they are. I do not know about the boy. This is the first I have heard about Prince Aegon surviving, though it is possible. The face of the infant found dead in the Red Keep was smashed, unrecognizable. And if I may say so, your Grace…if it is indeed he, Prince Aegon would be a much more appropriate suitor than Harzoo.”

“Hizdahr,” Daenerys corrected idly, considering his words.

Then the answer came to her with a flash. Remember who you are, Quaithe had said to her. Your dragons know. It was the perfect test! Her dragons would know if Aegon was truly her nephew. She was certain of it. If he was really the blood of the dragon, her dragons would recognize him as kin, and maybe Rhaegal or Viserion would even let him ride them. Perhaps this Aegon – if he was truly her brother’s son – was one of the three heads of the dragon from her vision in the House of the Undying.

“Thank you for your offer. I will consider it. However, I cannot agree to marry you unless I know for certain that you are Aegon, son of Rhaegar,” announced Daenerys. “You must pass a test if you wish to win my hand, one that will tell me if you are truly the blood of the dragon. But if you lie, if you are a mummer’s dragon, then you may not escape this test with your life. Do you accept?”

Connington looked worried, but Aegon’s eyes were gleaming with anticipation.

“I accept,” the boy said confidently. “What is your test?”

“You must try to ride a dragon. If you succeed, I will marry you, and we will rule Westeros together. If you fail, I will assume you are a false dragon. If you are a fraud, the dragons may burn you as a pretender on the spot. Even if you somehow survive, if the dragons reject you, I will bury you before I let you take my crown,” said Daenerys in a commanding tone.

“Lead me to the dragons,” said Aegon, entirely unphased. Several of the other members of his party looked deeply concerned, but it appeared that none were willing to countermand the boy they held up as their King.

Smiling, Daenerys stepped down from the dais, took Aegon’s hand in hers, and led him down the spiraling staircases to the dragon pit below. Their footsteps echoed as Daenerys led Aegon (or the boy who called himself Aegon, anyways) through the labyrinthine passageways below the base of the pyramid, under arches and around dungeons and past cisterns. Down and down into darkness they descended, until they reached the foreboding iron doors that marked the dragons’ lair. The doors were hot to the touch, dented, and cracked in places from dragonfire.

Daenerys looked at Aegon to search for traces of doubt or hesitation, but she saw curiosity and eagerness on his face instead. Perhaps he truly is my nephew, she thought, still holding back her full belief but beginning to accept the possibility. If this boy is truly Rhaegar’s son, I will have to marry him, or else lose my claim to the throne. Pulling a ring of keys from her belt, Dany unlocked the doors, and motioned for her guards to open them.

Behind the doors, complete darkness awaited them, but it was a familiar darkness for Daenerys. My poor children, Dany thought sadly, once again wondering if she had made the right decision when she had chained the dragons up in this pit rather than allowing them to rampage freely. A wave of warmth, along with the scents of charred meats and ash, swept out when the doors were opened. Calmly, Daenerys took the torch from Reznak and stepped into the dragon pit, motioning for Aegon to follow her. He did, without hesitating. If nothing else, he is certainly confident…perhaps too much so, Dany thought.

As she walked slowly and elegantly into the cavern, the torch spilled light on the large dark shapes of Viserion and Rhaegal, who whined and hissed smoke when they saw their mother. I should not have locked them away, Daenerys thought, with growing conviction. Fire and blood are my House words. How could I have forgotten? Quaithe told me I must remember who I am. The dragons remember, she said. How can I remember who I am if I keep my dragons chained and locked away?

Standing before her dragons, Daenerys was not quite sure how to proceed. Finally, she gestured at the green dragon and then the white one. “Aegon, this is Rhaegal, and this is Viserion. Rhaegal, Visierion, this boy claims to be Aegon Targaryen the Sixth, the true King of Westeros. If he lies – if he has no dragon blood – you have my permission to burn him and eat him. If he is truly my nephew, truly blood of the dragon, I bid you let him approach.”

A fireball shot past Dany as she spoke, demonstrating the dragon’s rage but clearly not intended to hit her.

“My poor babies,” Daenerys cooed. “I will let you out of here soon. Just promise to come back, and try not to eat any people, okay? Stick to goats and sheep.”

At this, the dragons whined, almost as if they understood her. She wondered if they did. As she spoke to them, Aegon was staring at the great beasts in awe, his arrogance replaced with wonder.

“You hatched them?” he breathed, amazed to be standing in the presence of two of the three only living dragons. Dany nodded but did not explain further.

Instead she said, “Go ahead. Approach them. If you are who you say you are, they will accept you.”

Carefully, Aegon took a few steps towards Viserion, who growled and shot a warning burst of flame in his direction, singing his fancy doublet. Looking uncertain and slightly frightened for the first time, Aegon turned and tried to approach Rhaegal instead. The green dragon lay down and whined. Growing more confident, Aegon continued walking slowly towards Rhaegal. When he was close enough to touch him, he stood there, gazing at the beautiful and terrifying beast. Slowly, Aegon raised his hand, and when that did not draw any reaction from the dragon, he reached out to stoke the beast’s green scaly nose. Rhaegal closed his eyes and looked almost happy. Daenerys smiled, making her way over to Viserion to make sure he would not feel neglected. The two blondes stood there in silence, petting the dragons.

“Should I see if he will let me ride him?” asked Aegon.

“He might eat you,” Dany warned. She still had not ridden Drogon, and she felt a little irritated at the possibility that Aegon might ride one of her dragons before her.

“He hasn’t so far,” Aegon pointed out. Dany shrugged, and Aegon spoke again, this time directing his words at Rhaegal. “Can I climb up? If you let me ride you, I’m sure your mother will let you leave this cave, to go soar in the sky.”

The dragon whined and lowered its head the rest of the way. Taking this as a sign, Aegon carefully reached up and gripped the spines along the dragon’s back, lightly hoisting himself up until he was seated on the dragon. Daenerys was impressed but burning with jealousy.

“Unlock him,” Aegon said. “I want to see if he will let me fly with him.”

Dany bristled at the boy’s commanding tone, but she could hardly deny him, after he had come this far. If I look back, I am lost. She walked over to Rhaegal, unlocking his chains, and then bid one of her guardsmen to open the hatch to the outside. As the guardsman pulled the chain, the hatch inched open, the hinges creaking with lack of use. Rhaegal stalked towards the opening, whining and puffing smoke, Aegon still on his back. Out of a sense of fairness, Dany unlocked Viserion’s chains as well. When the hatch was open, Rhaegal spread his giant green fibrous wings and shrieked, taking off in one fluid movement. Up and up he flew, until he emerged from the mouth of the giant tunnel and soared up into the sky. Viserion followed, spitting flames and shrieking as he launched himself into the air.

Because they could not follow the dragons’ way out, Daenerys led the rest of the group up the stairs and out one of the side doors. Once outside, she searched the sky, looking for her children and the boy who – there could be no doubt anymore, could there? – was surely her nephew in truth. She saw two giant winged lizards, one green and one white, spiraling playfully together in the skies over Meereen. Hoping to get a better look, Daenerys walked towards the piazza, a big open space where the skies stretched endlessly overhead. For a moment, she thought she saw a dark shape on the horizon. Is it Drogon? She wondered, her heart pounding in her chest. Seeing Aegon ride Rhaegal, she wanted to ride Drogon more desperately than ever. But when she looked again, the shape was gone.

Daenerys stood there, increasingly angry with Aegon for stealing her place as the first dragonrider in a hundred years. She watched the dragons frolic overhead, her heart aching. How I wish that I could join them, she thought bitterly. Putting her hand over her eyes to shield them, Daenerys turned in a circle, searching the sunny sky for Drogon, but she did not see him. Her eyes glistened, whether with tears or simply because of the bright sunshine, she could not say.

Then, suddenly, the largest of her children was flying directly at her, swooping down from directly overhead in an elegant dive. Drogon shrieked, spitting tiny licks of flame from his nostrils as he dove. Within moments, he landed before her, shrieking louder still and hurling a great beam of flame into the sky. Without hesitating, Daenerys reached up to grip the dragon’s spines, hauling herself up onto him like he was her silver. With a booming cry, Drogon launched himself upwards and Dany clung to him as the wind bit her face. Spiraling up and up, Daenerys hung onto the black dragon for dear life, filled with both terror and delight.

I am riding a dragon! I am riding a dragon! She thought with joyous wonderment. Letting out a loud whoop of her own, Daenerys tried to lift her head, but it was a struggle with the powerful force of the wind. Drogon is not only the largest and strongest of my children, but the fastest and the most expert flier, she thought. From what she could tell, Drogon was flying in gigantic loops around his brothers. Where Rhaegal seemed to be holding back a little, perhaps concerned for his rider, Drogon was intent on showing off, diving and spiraling acrobatically in the endless blue skies over Meereen.

“I am blood of the dragon!” Dany shouted. Viserys would be so jealous to see me now, she thought, for the first time missing her abusive brother. Viserion flew alongside his brothers, but unlike them, he was riderless. The dragon must have three heads, she thought, recalling her vision. But who is the third head? Daenerys did not know who it would be, but surely the third dragonrider was out there somewhere? Or had she erred in failing to save Viserys from Khal Drogo? Would Viserion be doomed to loneliness, because of her mistake? If I look back, I am lost, she told herself firmly, resolving to think no more of the matter and trying to focus on this amazing moment. I am riding a dragon!

As if reading her thoughts, Drogon launched into a mid-air somersault and then a dive, Daenerys laughing with sheer pleasure as she held on as tightly as she could.

 

***

 

After their mutual dragon ride, it was clear to everyone what must happen next. Whether or not there was a third head of the dragon out there somewhere, these two dragonriders must surely wed. Daenerys had not wanted to wed Hizdahr anyways, but she did feel a slight pang of sadness, knowing that marrying Aegon meant she must soon leave for Westeros. She had hoped to dwell in Meereen long enough to combat the threat of the Sons of the Harpy, and to learn how to rule, but there was no time for that now. As soon as they could locate a few ships large enough for the dragons, they would have to be on their way to Westeros. Daenerys consoled herself by recalling that Aegon had been prepared to rule, and that she would have him as her partner, so he could help her learn how to be a good and just Queen. Still, she had a nagging feeling that Aegon had somehow stolen her own story out from under her. Wasn’t it she who hatched the dragons? Wasn’t it she who had conquered cities, compared to this boy Aegon, whose first and only accomplishment was riding her dragon? Wasn’t it Dany who most resembled Aegon the Conqueror, in her deeds if not in what lie between her legs? I am the Mother of Dragons, she sometimes reminded herself, increasingly feeling overshadowed by her nephew.

If I look back, I am lost, she thought on the day of her wedding. She wondered if her brother Rhaegar had felt the same reluctance when he was ordered to marry the Dornish Princess. Daario, she thought sadly. I will miss him. It does not take the pain of losing him away, simply because I always knew he was not of noble enough blood to be my husband. Political marriage had always been her future, but Dany wished deep down that she had never met Aegon, that she could have been the sole conqueror of her age to ride a dragon into Westeros and claim her birthright. If I did not marry him, his claim would trump mine, as my older brother’s son, she reminded herself. Still, it galled.

At least she would not have to wear those hideous tokars anymore. The ceremony was to be conducted in the Westerosi fashion, with Septa Hightower presiding instead of the Green Grace. Daenerys was pleased with her gown, a white flowing gown of the finest silk, with a low-cut V-shaped neckline. The gown tied at her shoulders, leaving her arms bare except for four billowing bolts of silk that flowed from the tie at her shoulders in both front and back. Her arms were ringed with gold bracelets inlaid with rubies, and more rubies dripped from her ears and throat. Crown gleaming atop her head, her hair was done in an elaborate Westerosi style, with braids weaving everywhere and curls piled high.

The one concession Dany had refused to make was her bells – she would keep them, in honor of her Khalasar. I am the one who hatched the dragons, she thought, when Aegon’s Westerosi counsellors tried to tell her that the bells were a sign of savagery. I am the blood of the dragon and these minor lords cannot tell me what to do. Even Aegon cannot tell me what to do, for I can always ride off with Drogon to make my own destiny if I decide I do not like him well enough. Still, she would try to like Aegon and rule by his side. It was their shared birthright, after all. There was nothing to do be done for it.

The wedding ceremony clashed in an ugly way with the surroundings in which it was conducted. Out of respect for the Graces, Dany and Aegon had elected to be wed in the piazza before the Great Pyramid, rather than in the temple. In the absence of a Sept, this would have to do. Septa Hightower had to teach her the words of the wedding ceremony, because Dany did not know them. She had never seen a Westerosi wedding before. The Septa had instructed a team of freedwomen seamstresses in the making of cloaks for Daenerys and Aegon, and though the cloaks were lovely, Dany chafed at the tradition, for it was far too warm in Meereen to dress in heavy cloaks. Besides, the cloak covered up her beautiful dress, which was the best part about this whole strange ceremony. Still, Dany knew that she must follow the tradition, even though she hated it.

For the first time, Daenerys wondered if Westeros would feel like home to her. She had been just a babe when she had fled, after the Usurper stole her throne. It is not fair that I have been away from my homeland so long that I feel more at home around the Dothraki than my own people, she thought bitterly. Aegon had not spent his childhood fleeing assassins, like she and Viserys had. He had been allowed to grow up peacefully, with a pristine Westerosi education despite his exile. Westeros would not seem foreign to him, she was certain. Why didn’t they take care of me like that? she wondered. Why didn’t I have a Septa and a Maester and a Westerosi lordling to teach me the ways of my own people? All I had were Viserys and Jorah, and they both betrayed me, in their own ways. Even Ser Barristan had lied to her about his name when he first arrived.

As the ceremony dragged on, Dany fidgeted, wishing for it to end. When it came time to say her part, she stumbled over the words, flushing with embarrassment. Will the people of Westeros think me savage because I do not know their ways? She wondered. Daenerys had always prided herself on her fluency with languages and cultures, the ease with which she learned the ways of the people she travelled among. But for some reason, it was different when the culture she was struggling to learn was supposed to be her own. Shouldn’t it come more naturally to me? she wondered. Why does going home make me feel homesick and lonely?

Finally, the ceremony ended, and the couple led the celebrants inside the pyramid for the feast. The feast was uneventful, except that Strong Belwas took ill. Daenerys saw the Septa whispering with Maester Haldon, looking concerned, as Dany’s guardsmen helped Strong Belwas to his room. The Maester followed, and then the Septa was whispering with Lord Connington. Eventually, Daenerys asked Barristan what was happening, and he told her that one of the dishes – honeyed locusts – had been poisoned. Dany was furious that this matter was not brought before her at once, but Jon Connington claimed that they had only wished to allow her to enjoy her wedding day without interruption.

“But I am the Queen,” she had protested.

“Yes, your Grace,” Connington agreed. “You have my apologies. We will make sure to inform you straightaway, the next time something goes awry.”

Yet, for some reason, she did not believe him. They are shutting me out, she realized, a wave of fury rising within her. I cannot allow this to happen.

But there was nothing Daenerys could do until the wedding was concluded, so she simply stewed, waiting for a chance to assert her authority. She tried to enjoy herself, but the food seemed to turn to ashes in her mouth, and she could not enjoy it with the threat of poison hanging over them. Finally, it was time for the bedding ceremony. At least that Westerosi tradition is familiar and fun, Dany thought, recalling her wedding to Drogo and her initial horror at the Dothraki’s comfort with nudity and sexuality. Daenerys knew she was beautiful, and she enjoyed displaying her body for all to see and envy.

Finally, she found herself nude and alone with Aegon in her rooms atop the pyramid. It was strange to have an interloper in her space, to lie with some other man in the bed where she had lain with Daario many times before. Daario, she thought wistfully. She missed him. What could this boy Aegon offer her, when she had experienced such pleasure with Daario?

Aegon’s touches were hesitant, boyish, and it annoyed her. Much as she was irritated by Aegon’s unfounded self-confidence, she wished he would display at least a little more of it in the bedroom. He brushed his lips lightly over hers, but she felt nothing. Glancing at her, as if asking permission or afraid that she might refuse him, Aegon’s hands hovered near her breasts. Just take me, she thought angrily. Why are you so shy? Finally, apparently concluding that she would not bat his hands away, his hand lightly grasped her breast. She still felt nothing. You are nothing like Drogo or Daario and you will never take their place, she thought. Was she to be doomed to a lifetime of hesitant touches? Did he not desire her? She knew she was beautiful, so if he did not lust after her, it was surely because there was something wrong with him.

After fondling her breasts, Aegon’s hand dropped lower, and he paused. “Is this okay?” he asked nervously.

“You don’t have to ask!” she snapped. “You’re the blood of the dragon, aren’t you? Just take what you want!”

“You want me to treat you cruelly?” Aegon asked, frowning.

“I want you to stop acting like a little boy and start acting like a man, a warrior, someone who’s worthy of me,” Daenerys said angrily, sitting up. “I’m not some blushing maiden. I’m a Queen, a mother, a widow. I’m the blood of the dragon, a dragonrider descended from Aegon the Conqueror. I want you to plunder me, not dance hesitantly around the edges.”

“But I don’t want to hurt you,” Aegon protested. “They told me to be gentle.”

“Do you always do what you’re told?” Dany demanded. “Gentle is boring! And it’s not like you’ve been shy about taking everything else that belongs to me. Why are you so worried about taking my body, which means nothing?”

“Nothing?” Aegon asked, startled. “I’ve never done this before!”

“Well, pretend like you have and just do it,” Dany hissed.

“Fine!” he snapped, pushing her back onto the bed and grabbing her roughly between the legs. Now he was hurting her, but she didn’t protest, because at least she felt something.

Without warning, Aegon plunged himself into her. She was hardly wet with desire for him, so the intrusion hurt. She gasped as he pushed, hard, and felt a tiny tendril of desire welling up in her belly. Yes, this is what I wanted, she told herself as he thrust, callously ripping into her flesh. Pain, at least, was familiar to her. For a moment, Aegon’s untutored fervor and careless disregard for her pleasure reminded her of Drogo. But before the spark of desire could become flame, it was over, as suddenly as it began. Aegon cried out, spilling his seed into her barren womb and eventually rolling off of her. They lay there, saying nothing. Unfulfilled, Dany wondered if she could sneak out and see Daario one last time after Aegon fell asleep.

“Is that what you wanted?” Aegon demanded at length. “You like to be treated like that?”

“Yes,” replied Daenerys, though she wasn’t sure if she meant it.

 

***

 

Just when everyone – except Daenerys, who was still unsure if she actually wanted to go to Westeros – was beginning to worry that they would never find a ship large enough to accommodate the dragons, a strange fellow by the name of Aurane Waters appeared with a small fleet of massive dromonds. Is he the third head of the dragon? Daenerys wondered, but the dragons had behaved aggressively with Waters unless coaxed by Dany or Aegon to behave for the captain of their new fleet. A pity it wasn’t him, Dany thought, staring lustily at Aurane’s strong, hard body. She wondered if the third head would be a man or a woman, and spent much of her time on the ships contemplating the possibilities. Maybe she and Aegon would be better together once the third dragonrider joined them.

Dany felt wistful as they sailed past Volantis and Lys and Myr and Tyrosh. At one time, she had hoped to liberate all of them before returning to Westeros.

If I look back, I am lost.

Chapter Text

Willas sat at his desk, shuffling through the letters Lomys had brought down from the ravenry. After his fall on the stairs – his cringe-inducing, utterly humiliating moment of physical weakness, witnessed by his lovely new bride – Lomys had insisted that there was no need for Willas to climb all those stairs to the rooftop. The heir to Highgarden found it frustrating, for it meant that he would have to place even more trust in Lomys, but he had little choice in the matter if he wished to avoid worsening his chronic pain. Perhaps eventually he could devise some other route up to the ravenry; he had spent the previous evening pouring over compendiums of blueprints for various vertical cart-and-pulley systems, and found the notion promising, but such designs would take time to craft and implement. For now, he was trying to accept the maester’s assistance as graciously as possible.

In addition to the routine correspondence, the ravens had brought messages from Sansa and his grandfather, Lord Leyton of the Hightower. Opening both letters one after the other, Willas glanced at them. Seeing that Lord Leyton’s was very brief while Sansa’s was far more involved, he read the raven from his Grandfather first.

 

Willas –

 

I have neither the time nor inclination to explain everything via raven, especially with your damnable code. Come to Oldtown.

 

Yours,

 

L

 

Well, that was to the point, albeit almost entirely unhelpful, thought Willas. His grandfather was an eccentric, difficult man, though his genius was indubitable and went some ways towards excusing his oddities.

Willas considered his grandfather’s request – or demand, more like. A trip to Oldtown was possible, though not convenient. He could make the whole trip by barge, rather than horse, which made all the difference in the world, given the limitations imposed by his godforsaken leg. Despite what Willas had said regarding the Riverrun negotiations, he knew he could leave his mother in charge if truly necessary. In this case, he anticipated that his bannermen would see nothing amiss if his mother took over his duties for a fortnight or a moon’s turn while he visited Oldtown, even those he expected would challenge Lady Alerie’s authority if her husband and sons were all afar for the same lengthy stretch of time. It was unlikely that any who learned of his journey would perceive his destination as dangerous or even diplomatically significant, due to Oldtown’s proximity to Highgarden, his familial ties to the area, and the joint presence of the Citadel and the Starry Sept. There were plenty of reasons why the heir to Highgarden might visit Oldtown, and all the more because of his Hightower ancestry from his mother’s side.

The Tyrell heir was suddenly very glad that he had denied his mother’s request to travel with Sansa, electing to keep her in reserve in case she was needed here at home. If he had allowed his mother to accompany Sansa, a trip to Oldtown would leave him with no choice but to elevate his grandmother Olenna to acting-regent, and gods only knew what she’d get up to if given free reign.

Still, Willas would prefer to avoid travelling anywhere at the present moment, if duty did not require it. He wanted to remain at home to receive word from Sansa, Garlan, and his father in case of any trouble at Riverrun, Brightwater Keep, or Storm’s End. Though messages could be forwarded to the Hightower, Willas found the prospect of delay nigh unbearable. Besides, the political situation in the realm was still quite fragile, and future events might require his timely response. The war continued in the North, and Stannis Baratheon had taken up residence at the Wall for reasons no one understood. Tommen was very young, and from Margaery’s latest reports, Dowager Queen Cersei was descending into madness. It remained possible that Cersei would defy Kevan and attempt to unseat Tyrion from Casterly Rock, though the new High Lord of the Westerlands was unlikely to be overthrown now that he had successfully returned and taken up residence in his ancestral home. The Sparrows and other assorted militants continued to pose significant risk of revolt. It felt as if anything – or nothing at all – could happen in the coming moons, and Willas worried that his hands would be tied by distance even here at Highgarden.

Resolving to consider the matter further after reading Sansa’s letter, Willas eagerly devoured her initial words before taking out his code book to translate the encoded sentences and phrases in the following paragraphs. For this mission, Willas had opted for Archmaester Laurent’s Old Places of the Trident as the decoder text, both because he enjoyed its whimsical stories about the Children of the Forest and because he was confident that the library at Riverrun would surely contain a copy. Once he had written the decoded text on a separate sheet of parchment that could be burned if necessary, his wife’s letter read:

 

To Willas, my dear husband

 

I was delighted to receive your letter here at Riverrun, though I am sorry that the pressing matters addressed in Jon’s letter had to take precedence over heartwarming updates on life at Highgarden. I hope you and the others are well. I miss you terribly, as strange as that may sound, given that we have only known one another for a short time, but it feels like longer than two moon’s turns since you welcomed me into your home. Please give the little pup Alyssum a scratch behind the ears for me, as I miss her awfully too. Now, with a sad heart, I shall turn my quill to business.

First, I must address your question regarding Jon. I do not know if or how it is possible, but my sense is this: he is telling the truth. Though a Snow rather than a Stark, Jon took my father’s lessons on honor as seriously as (or even more seriously than) Robb. He was educated no differently than the rest of my brothers, and surely understands the gravity of his words. While he and I were not the closest – he was far closer to Robb and Arya than me, for I take after my mother and my mother was not kind to him – I do not believe the boy I knew would participate in any scheme to usurp my position. My mother feared he would do so one day, and those fears were not entirely unwarranted, as I have learned from my great-uncle (more on this in a moment), but I think it would be very out of character for the Jon that I knew.

What he says about the Wall falling and the wights and the Others…I do not know if it is true, but I do not think he is lying and I would be surprised if he had gone mad. Jon never struck me as anything but sane and reasonable; if anything, he was too somber and brooding, not overly excitable or prone to strange fancies. His letter was very clear that he knew his words would sound strange to my ears, and if he were mad, why this hesitation? I considered the possibility that he was trying to ensnare me in some plot, but I could not see any way that convincing me (falsely) of mystical nonsense could serve any rational political purpose. I can only conclude that he speaks the truth, as he understands it. I hope your inquiries bear fruit, for I am terribly worried after receiving that letter. Actually, as I will try to explain – and I hope you will understand – I intend to make further inquiries of my own.

The negotiations at Riverrun were surprisingly successful. As we had hoped, I found an ally in my great-uncle. The truce followed nearly exactly from your Sample Treaty Version B. However, further trouble is brewing. The Blackfish informed me that Robb left behind a will which grants me the North, but only if I am not in captivity, wed a Northerner, and allow Jon to serve as my military regent. This has caused strife in the North and to a lesser extent the Riverlands.

I feel confident that I can convince Jon to foreswear Robb’s will, but I believe that I must go North to win the support of my bannermen and ensure some measure of justice for the crimes committed by the Boltons and Freys, not only against my family but all of the North. At the behest of my Northern allies and over the objections of most of my honor guard (who truly did their best to convince me to abandon this course, so please do not blame them for my stubbornness), I have decided I must travel North to White Harbor before returning home. This will allow me to assess and perhaps intervene in the political situation as well as seek further information about troubles beyond the Wall and children’s nightmare tales come to life. By the time you receive this letter, I hope to have arrived at Maidenpool to board a ship for White Harbor.

I am sorry, my love my dear and darling husband. I wish nothing more than to return home to Highgarden immediately to be by your side once again. My absence has only led me to realize how terribly fond of you I have become. If there were any way to maintain my claim to the North without leaving you for another moon or three, I would not hesitate to take the alternate route. You have my sincere promise that I will return home after White Harbor, and I shall be counting the days until we are re-united. Please do not be angry. I will make it up to you in any way you request and I shall bring you the loveliest present when I finally return.

 

With great fondness,

And ongoing misery at our continued separation,

Your wife,

 

Sansa

 

Willas stared at the letter from Sansa and rubbed his temples, trying to remain calm. He was torn in many directions at once by Sansa’s words. Part of him could not help but smile at the place where she had written “my love” and then crossed it out, and longed for his wife’s return. Another part was indeed angry, that Sansa had taken this opportunity to commandeer his most valuable men and drag them on a journey to the North that went far beyond the scope of her original diplomatic mission. Yet another part understood her decision, in light of what she had learned from the Blackfish about Robb’s will and her belief in the truth of Jon’s letter. Still another faction within Willas’s heart shrank in fear and tugged at him to attend to the existential threat, whether it ultimately proved to be true or false.

With Sansa travelling North, and assuring him that her best judgment indicated that this bizarre dark magical threat should be taken seriously, Willas felt he had no choice but to heed his grandfather’s instructions to visit him in Oldtown. There was little he could do about his wife’s decision to head to White Harbor (without even consulting him before riding off!). They would have to sit down for a very serious conversation about the meaning of partnership once she returned, but such a conversation could lead to grave misunderstandings and hurt feelings if conducted by raven, on a one-moon delay. The only thing he could do in the mean time was try to protect her by investigating this strange – and surely imaginary? he hoped so, at least – threat from North of the Wall.

Willas was rather embarrassed to be taking Jon Snow’s letter so seriously, but Sansa’s faith in her half-brother only reinforced what Willas had already felt on some level. By every report, Jon Snow was an honorable and sensible man, if a bit green and cursed (blessed?) with Stark naivety. Even so, Willas found it utterly ludicrous that he was actually contemplating a lengthy (for him, anyways) journey to Oldtown to research a fairytale. A fairytale, just like the ones he had started reading to learn about Northern culture after he learned of his betrothal to Sansa! But something about those stories had lodged in his consciousness, contributing to the plaguing sense that something must be amiss up North, if otherwise rational men were professing genuine belief in the return of wights and Others and the Long Night. That his grandfather Leyton seemed to be entertaining the same thoughts was somewhat of a comfort, though it only amplified Willas’s fear that there might be truth to Lord Snow’s words.

Yes, I will have to go to Oldtown, Willas decided reluctantly. He would never forgive himself if he declined the opportunity to learn some bit of information that could have saved Sansa’s life, and if she was going North, then he would have to make sure she was well-equipped with the best possible information. A visit to the Citadel and the Hightower would surely provide the highest quality and greatest quantity of information available. Plus, Jon had mentioned in his second letter that he would be sending Samwell Tarly, son of Randyll and a sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch, to the Citadel to learn what he could and plead their case to the Archmaesters. Willas could not quite be sure if the young man had arrived yet, since his ship was inexplicably stopping in Braavos and sailing all the way around the great horn of Dorne rather than simply sailing down the Western coast from the Shadow Tower, but there was a chance Willas’s visit to Oldtown might just barely overlap with the Tarly boy’s arrival.

Willas did not know Randyll’s older son as well as Garlan knew Dickon, but he had heard that the boy was intelligent yet lacking in both physical and mental courage. I wonder why he decided to join the Night’s Watch, thought Willas, trying to picture poor fat Samwell fighting wights atop an 800-foot wall. The image was ridiculous, but then everything had gotten rather ridiculous lately. I do not believe in magic, Willas tried to convince himself. Only madmen, children, and fools believe in magic.

But here he was, the heir to Highgarden with his much-lauded reputation for knowledge and reason, embarking on a research trip to uncover the secrets of this dark, mysterious Northern magic. I shall bring my skepticism to bear, full-bore, upon this problem, Willas reassured himself. One does not become a fool or a madman simply for asking a question and seeking evidence of the truth. If magic is real, there is surely some physical property involved that we simply do not understand yet. It does not automatically mean it is derived from an Otherworldly source. A true skeptic must investigate every possibility before reaching a conclusion, and that is all I am doing. If, as I strongly suspect, it proves to be the case that there is no such dark magic, then I shall rest more easily.

Even so, Willas felt half a fool making his travel arrangements, and he offered a purely political explanation for his visit to Oldtown when asked by his mother and grandmother why he was going to visit Lord Leyton at such an inconvenient time. Willas told Alerie and Olenna that the purpose of his trip was to assist Sansa’s diplomatic mission to the North by gathering geographical information about the terrain, following up on rumors about the loyalties of various Houses, identifying economic resources and needs, learning more about the mythological and historical past of the region, and so on. It’s close enough to the truth, Willas thought as he tried to relax in a cozy chair on the starboard deck of the pleasure barge. It’s just that my focus will be on the lands North of the Wall rather than simply North of the Neck…

 

***

 

Sailing down the Mander should have been a pleasant affair, but Willas was beset by worries. On the pretense of sieging Dragonstone, his brother Loras was even now sailing home from the Eastern coast of Westeros, through the stepstones and around Dorne. According to the latest rumors, there were several pirate kings jaunting about in that area, and Willas hoped his brother would arrive safely, though he knew Loras was likely itching to fight a pirate king. Garlan had hopefully begun to pacify the Shield Islands by now, but even once the Ironborn were expelled, they were likely to return and pillage again. He hoped Garlan would be careful, and return to Leonette whole. His father was at Storm’s End with half the Redwyne fleet, the other half having sailed with Loras. Father is surely safe there, Willas thought. At least I do not have to worry about him. Lord Stannis is at the Wall, so there is little risk at Storm’s End.

Most of all, he worried about Sansa. Has she made it Maidenpool yet? Will she send word when she arrives there? Is she even now aboard a ship, bravely sailing North into a political and military maelstrom? His beautiful wife was in the most danger of all of them, Willas believed. I hope she returns home soon, and safely. I could not bear it if I lost her. He had waited so long to marry, and now that he had acquired a wife who was beautiful and courtly and clever, he wished to keep her. It would be a terrible loss if she was lost to him before they could even truly know one another, before they could spend years learning one another’s quirks and endeavoring to grow together.

Perhaps she will not wish to return, once she sees her homeland again, he worried. Perhaps she was only pretending to like me, as ladies must. But then he recalled the little “my love” in her letter, that she had crossed out. A secret message for him, he assumed. She wished to say it but did not wish to take the risk of being the first to declare her love. Sansa would not leave him, surely, if she thought herself in love with him already? He hoped not.

The river flowed and the rolling farmland eventually gave way to rocky beaches. Willas did not stop worrying.

I wish I had been able to make this journey with Sansa, Willas thought as the barge approached the large and beautiful old city. She would love Oldtown.

 

***

 

Willas winced as he climbed off the barge and onto the dock at Oldtown, nearly tripping over a cat as he struggled up into the carriage he had hired to take him to the Hightower. Cursing his injured leg and embarrassed that his condition was too severe today for him to ride to his grandfather’s castle as other young men would have done, Willas settled grouchily into the cushions. To add insult to injury, the cat leaped in after him, perching on the seat across from him and letting out a friendly mrow. He glared at the cat, but it seemed unaffected by his irritable mood.

“You cannot come home with me. I have no need for dirty alley cats when I have a barn full of pristine Gardnerian long-haired cats at home that I bred myself,” Willas said testily to the cat.

“Meow,” said the cat, unperturbed.

Trying to ignore the animal, Willas reached down and massaged his injured leg. This trip was a terrible idea from the start, and he should have known it. What was he thinking, sailing down to Oldtown with his bad leg and the war still raging and his wife wandering alone in the frozen North? Well, practically alone, anyways – he trusted her honor guard, but there was only so much a small number of men could do if faced with an army.

“I’m worried about my wife,” Willas said to the cat, beginning to warm up to the little fellow. “Every day, I wake up hoping I don’t receive a raven carrying word that she’s been slain by the Freys or the Boltons or Stannis Baratheon.”

“Meeeeeeoooooow,” said the cat mournfully.

Sighing at the futility of his daily worrying, Willas reached out to scratch the cat behind the ears. It hissed, tried to bite him, and smacked at his hand with a paw, claws unsheathed.

“That’s why I don’t like alley cats,” he growled at the vicious little animal, returning his hand to his painful leg. Travelling by barge was usually pleasant, but Willas had slept poorly almost the whole way, consumed by his anxieties about the endless threats looming over Westeros and especially his own family. During his journey, he’d received word that Garlan had left Brightwater Keep for the Shield Islands to put down an Ironborn invasion. They’re growing bolder, he thought gravely, hoping that Garlan would return safely after restoring the islands to their rightful lords.

The carriage rolled to a stop outside the Hightower and the driver leapt off his seat at the front and scurried over to open the door for Willas. The heir to Highgarden thanked the driver and pressed a coin in the man’s hand before hobbling up to the door. He lifted the big heavy knocker and banged on the door.

“Meow!” complained the cat from somewhere behind him. Willas was surprised the cat had followed him, but perhaps it had developed its own little cat-scam, following passengers from the docks to their homes and begging for scraps. He had to admit that the little beast seemed to be rather clever.

“I don’t have anything for you,” Willas informed the cat.

When his knocks went unanswered, Willas pulled the rope for the bell that would ring at the top of the tower, in case his grandfather was working late. He could hear someone clomping down the stairs, and then the peephole slammed open.

“Go away!” commanded an older man’s voice. “We don’t want any!”

“Wait! It’s me, Willas, your grandson,” he called back quickly.

The peephole slid open again. “Willas?” the voice asked suspiciously.

“I wrote you a letter – you told me to come to Oldtown if I wanted answers,” Willas reminded him. When that received no response, he continued. “I’m here because the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch told me the second Long Night was upon us. Remember?”

Finally, the door swung open, revealing a skinny old man with a long white beard dressed in a white cotton smock and a flowing orange silk robe with little lighthouse sigils embroidered on it.

“I already knew that, about the second Long Night, before I received your letter,” replied Leyton smugly, but he did open the door widely enough for Willas to enter. “Over a decade ago. But, come in, my boy, come in and let us talk.”

Slightly disturbed by his grandfather’s demeanor, Willas nonetheless followed the old man into the tower, the cat trailing behind him. Grandfather has deteriorated since the days when I lived here in Oldtown, Willas thought with an aching heart. I shall have to ask Mother to check in on him more often. Malora clearly isn’t up to the task.

The old man started up the seemingly endless winding stairs from the ground level entrance up towards the top of the tower, but stopped after he noticed that Willas was wincing with every step as he tried to follow.

“Come, come, let us use the lift,” said Leyton, leading Willas back down the steps and back into a corner where a concerningly rickety-looking cage suspended by a complex arrangement of ropes, pulleys, and counterweights awaited them. Beckoning Willas into the cage, Leyton began flipping levers and cranking dials until the cage began to inch upwards.

“This is an impressive design,” commented Willas, hoping the device was sound and that they would not crash down into the abyss below.

“Yes, a clever machine,” agreed Leyton. “My father designed it and had it built when he grew too old to climb so many stairs. I think the plans are still lying around here somewhere, if you’d like to see them.”

“I would love to see them, if you can find them. I have been planning to install a similar system at Highgarden to allow me to reach the ravenry and the higher floors without overtaxing my injured leg,” said Willas. “It would save a great deal of time and human effort, especially since my current plans are based on a much simpler system, essentially a large bucket on a rope with a servant to pull one end of the rope. A system modelled on your – lift, you called it? – would allow me independent mobility.”

“Then I shall certainly endeavor to locate the plans,” Lord Leyton assured him. Willas was grateful that his grandfather had not teased him for his injury or for needing such contraptions despite his youth, as he suspected his father might do when he pitched the lift plan to him. As they rode upwards, the only sound was the squeaking of the gears as his grandfather continued to crank the dial that lowered the counterweights. Finally, they reached the top and Leyton opened the door of the cage, gesturing for Willas to follow him.

The pinnacle of the Hightower was a lavishly decorated though very cluttered study with a few adjoining rooms that Willas suspected were living quarters for the tower’s lord. Broad windows overlooked the city and the sea, and a small set of stairs led up to a door that Willas suspected opened onto the rooftop observatory and the great Light atop the Hightower. The walls were lined with bookshelves that overflowed with books and papers, with further piles of books and scrolls and parchments atop every surface and parts of the floors. Strange devices and artifacts were strewn everywhere, and though Willas considered himself a learned man, most of them were unrecognizable to him and their purposes inscrutable. At the center of the room, a twisted green glass candle burned. Willas yearned to ask his grandfather to show him the glass candle and its magics, but he assumed that must wait until more serious matters were handled.

Lord Leyton took a seat in the plush red chair that sat before the heavy dark wooden desk, and motioned for Willas to take a seat across from him. Once they were seated, his grandfather began speaking.

“All right,” Leyton said. “I would be happy to answer any of your questions. Before we begin, you should know that there are some things I cannot tell you, since you are not an initiate of the Order of the Green Hand – though now that I think of it, I should sponsor your membership, as you're a smart boy of Hightower blood who will one day rule the Reach, remind me about that if we’re both still alive when all of this is over – but, at any rate, I shall be pleased to clarify such matters as I can.”

“Thank you for seeing me and agreeing to assist me,” replied Willas politely, discomfited by his grandfather's talk of the Order of the Greenhand, which had supposedly become defunct long before Lord Leyton's birth. Ignoring his grandfather's eccentricities, Willas reached into his doublet’s inner pocket and pulled out a parchment that contained a copy of Jon’s letter in Willas's own hand (the original, he had forwarded to Sansa). He handed the parchment to Lord Leyton.

“This is a copy of a letter my wife recently received from her half-brother Jon Snow, who is the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch,” explained Willas. “Most of the letter is not relevant for our purposes, but I would direct you to the last couple of paragraphs, where he speaks of some grave, dark magic threat from beyond the wall. I thought that you would be the best person to advise me on whether this man speaks madness or truth.”

Lord Leyton quickly read the letter, lingering on its final passages. Then he looked up, pushing his spectacles up on his nose, and replied, “Oh yes, this Lord Commander has sense. The wildlings should naturally be our allies against the Deep Ones and the Others. As nomadic peoples with an oral cultural tradition, their connection to the old ways is uncorrupted by writing or stable centralized power structures...you should tell him to beware of the walrus men, though. It’s said they interbreed with selkies.”

Willas did not know what to make of that response. That does not exactly answer my question, and I have no idea what he’s on about, with Deep Ones and selkies…perhaps coming here was a bad idea. Perhaps grandfather moved from mere quirkiness to genuine madness sometime in the last decade, Willas thought to himself. He tried again.

“So, it is true, what he says about armies of the dead? You think the Wall could truly fall?” Willas asked.

“Quite so,” affirmed Leyton. “I have known of this threat for many years, thanks to my glass candle. What do you think I have been doing up here for all this time, neglecting the affairs of the realm? I have been endeavoring to find a solution to this magical invasion from the North, so that I would be ready when the rest of you noticed that there was a problem. And now you are here, as I expected!”

Willas pondered that, then decided to humor his grandfather, at least for now. Once he understood Lord Leyton’s position, he could cross-reference his claims with the maesters at the Citadel tomorrow, and attempt to determine how much of it was true and how much was folly. “I appreciate your service to the realm, grandfather. Have you discovered a solution through your research?”

“Yes, but all of the possible solutions require dragons,” Leyton answered bluntly. “Dragons! That’s what we need, my boy.”

“But I thought the Citadel – and I assumed you as well – opposed dragons and denied the existence of magic,” said Willas, surprised by that answer and still unsure how much faith he should be putting in his grandfather’s potentially crazy notions.

“No, no, you have it all wrong. We do not oppose dragons. The point is to balance ice and fire,” corrected Leyton with a harrumph. “So, yes, yes, your Hightower ancestors helped start the Dance of the Dragons and a couple of the Blackfyre rebellions to weaken the power of fire, which was getting out of hand, but my studies have led me to conclude that the idea was never to get rid of dragons entirely. Though I do suspect that there is - or at least was - a faction within the Citadel that did – or perhaps does – hope to eliminate magic from the world and went a bit too far in poisoning the dragons.”

“And regarding magic? Is it not as Archmaester Ryam claims, that magic is falsehood and folly? Or is it not as Maester Marwyn is wont to say, that the Citadel seeks to eliminate magic from the world?” asked Willas, deeply confused. His grandfather's explanation was entirely contrary to the impressions Willas had formed when he briefly studied at the Citadel in his youth.

“Oh, Marwyn,” Leyton said dismissively. “He thinks the Citadel hates magic just because they're skeptics and their ethical code keeps them from performing dark, blood magic rituals. He has some good ideas and that's why they keep him around, but he also has a chip on his shoulder and gets a lot wrong in his arrogance. He’s convinced the other maesters are out to get him, but the truth is, most of his work just isn’t that rigorous and his ethics leave much to be desired. Everything in moderation, including moderation - a man like Marwyn is at his best as a critic, and you need extremists around to show you your own blind spots, but I can’t take him too seriously because he’s either not willing or not capable of building. And Ryam is a rationalist zealot, brilliant as a naturalist and mathematician, but worthless when he goes beyond his expertise to proclaim on matters of politics or metaphysics."

From what Willas had observed of the two men, he could see his grandfather's point. Even so, it was odd to think that he had gotten such a wrong-headed impression from his time at the Citadel. Had he been too young to see the scheming below the surface? Was his grandfather privy to deeper currents that could not be discerned by a mere student? Or were his grandfather's thoughts about magic as fringe as they appeared to Willas, with the maesters merely humoring the old man because of his powerful position?

Leyton paused, taking a swig of beer before continuing. “Anyway, the idea was never to drive the dragons extinct but to prune their numbers to keep the forces of ice and fire in balance. Obviously, some within the Citadel went a bit too far in that endeavor. Yet, as dragons dwindled and even more so after the last dragon died, magic did recede from the world. Many thought that it would soon disappear forever, and though they were wrong, they were not entirely unfounded in arriving at that conclusion based on the evidence. The whole point of studying the higher mysteries is to become a critical thinker, Willas. If you understand that, you will better grasp the competing agendas within the Citadel and the sometimes opaque ends towards which they are directed.”

Willas pondered that for a long moment. Finally, he smiled. “It is good to know you still practice the art of critical thinking, grandfather. I was starting to worry that you had gone mad, but if it is true that magic is returning to the world, that seems a better explanation than madness for your growing entanglement with the higher mysteries.”

“Ah, well, if it’s evidence of magic that you seek, evidence you shall have!” his grandfather declared, leaping from his seat and walking excitedly towards the glass candle. He motioned impatiently for Willas to follow him, and then began reciting strange phrases in a language Willas did not speak.

Is that the Old Tongue of the First Men? he wondered. The language sounded familiar, and the Old Tongue would be his best guess, but he did not know enough of the language to say for certain.

“Gaze into the flame, my boy,” instructed Lord Leyton, once he had finished reciting those odd, presumably magical phrases in the unknown tongue.

Willas did as he was bid. He stared into the bright, pale, harsh light atop the tall, twisted candle. All of a sudden, images flashed before his eyes, dark and terrible images. The moving pictures were sharp and all-too-real. They seemed to consume him, impacting all of his senses at once. Buffeted by strange and frightening visions, Willas felt almost as if he were standing inside a dream...or a nightmare, more like.

…A bone-chilling, blood-curdling sound from a great and terrible horn…The wall, beset by endless armies of the dead. Chips beginning to flake off the Wall, then chunks. The Wall, buckling, collapsing, blowing in the wind like ash…Terrifying creatures of cold and ice, freezing his breath in his chest…A madman with a bloodred eye, sailing on a sea of blood, monsters rising from the deep…Women and children clad in furs and other crude clothing made from animal skins, stinking of fear and screaming, screaming, on the shores of an icy sea…Endless darkness and unending winter, blowing down from the North to touch the lands he loved with the fingers of cold death, turning rich and fertile land to frozen, barren nothingness…Dead bodies, each carrying a face that he knew and loved, their eyes turning blue, their bodies rising, impossibly lurching towards him, undead, grotesque, filling his nostrils with rot…  

Gasping, Willas threw himself away from the candle, so quickly that his injured leg buckled and he fell to the floor, striking his tailbone sharply against the carpeted wood.

“What in the seven hells was that?” he demanded, trying to rub the ugly visions from his eyes.

“That is the glass candle,” Leyton said smugly. “Now you understand, my boy. I have no time to question whether ‘magic is real’ or whatever nonsense you came here to ask. This is what is coming, and I have known it for years and years.”

“How do you know it’s true?” Willas shot back. “What if they are simply nightmares? How do you know it will happen that way? Who is sending these visions?”

Leyton shrugged. “I do not know if these terrors will come to pass, and anyone who says they know the future with true certainty is a fool. I still hope to prevent these events from occurring. Yet, I have tested the candle many times. It can show events that are happening in this moment, far away, with perfect accuracy. It can show the past, as it truly unfolded. It stands to reason that it tells truly of the future as well, or at least possible futures.”

Willas’s body was rigid with fear. Would those awful things truly come to pass? How could he know? What could be done? He sat there, unmoving, for some time.

Finally, his grandfather spoke again. “Let me show you a vision of the present, so that you can test the truth of what the candle shows. Something pleasant, to cleanse your palate after the horrors you just witnessed.”

Mutely, Willas nodded. Pushing himself up with his arms, he struggled to his feet.

“What would you have me show you?” asked Lord Leyton.

“My wife,” whispered Willas. Only knowing that she was safe could soothe him, now that he had seen what she was sailing into. Nightmares. He shivered.

Leyton nodded and spoke again in the strange, foreign tongue. The candle’s flame brightened with an almost artificial light, and Willas hesitated to look into it again, terrified that he would be beset by unspeakable monstrosities, as he had been before. Gathering up all of his courage, he gazed into the bright flame once more.

Sansa was resting against the railing of a ship’s deck, leaning out to gaze over the sea, elbows propped on the rail. The sea, the sky, the tenuous rays of the sun beaming through the clouds – all of it was cast in grays and muted blues. All except for Sansa’s hair, which billowed in the wind, bright red and gleaming, a kiss of fire amidst all the blue and gray. Mist sprayed from the sea as the bow of the ship carved its way through the waters, and the scent of salt hung in the air. Sansa smiled faintly as she looked out over the horizon, though even her smile carried an undertone of melancholy. “Willas?” she whispered to the sea. “I miss you.” Gulls squawked overhead, and Sansa let out a gasp of delight as a pair of dolphins appeared, leaping from the water and racing along beside the ship. Waves gently struck the Starboard side of the ship, and the sails were full of strong yet mellow winds… 

“I can see why you never leave this tower,” Willas breathed finally, tearing his eyes away from the image of his beloved wife. Beloved? he asked himself ruefully. It was foolish, he knew, to believe himself in love with a woman when he had spent only a moon’s turn with her. But what a glorious moon’s turn it had been! And what had she said, in her letter? My absence has only led me to realize how terribly fond of you I have become. Her words, it seemed, were true on his part as well.

“Yes, it is difficult to tear one’s eyes away when one can see the whole world from atop this tower,” agreed his grandfather. “Your wife is lovely. A Stark, did you say? She looks more Tully than Stark.”

Willas felt a vague sense of unease at his grandfather’s words. Lord Leyton had seen Sansa, too. Indeed, he had likely seen many things, many people, many events. Those he watched surely did not know that his great magical eye followed them in secret. There was something disturbing about that thought. Did he ever look in on me? Willas wondered. He must have, for what grandfather would not use this miraculous – and dangerous – device to check on his grandchildren? He wondered how often Leyton had observed him, sight unseen.

“Her mother was Catelyn Tully, and it is said that she takes after the maternal side,” Willas explained distantly, the visions of Sansa on the ship still dancing in his mind’s eye. “But her father was Eddard Stark.”

Is it ethical to spy on my wife through this magical device? Willas wondered suddenly. Perhaps she would not be pleased to learn that I am watching her when she knows it not. But a little peek is surely fine; I simply wished to know that she was safe. She would understand that, and I am sure she would do the same in my position. But I must not abuse this power to invade her privacy, as much as my heart wishes to watch her endlessly.

“Good bloodlines,” noted Leyton. “Stark and Tully, of course, but also Whent on her Mother’s side from Minisa. Plenty of magic there. Add Garth Greenhand’s blood to the mix and I expect your children will be more than capable of meeting the challenges they shall face. Too bad there’s no Targaryen in either family.”

“Mmm,” said Willas noncommittally. Then his mind keyed in on the reference to the Targaryens, and he forgot all about his wife for a moment, thinking instead of the terrible visions he had witnessed of the Second Long Night that may yet come. “You were telling me about dragons, before, grandfather. If they are all dead, does that mean we have no hope of defeating the evils I saw a few moments ago?”

“Oh, there is good news on that front!” exclaimed Leyton. “The dragons live again! Rhaegar’s youngest sister, Daenerys, hatched three dragon eggs in the Dothraki sea. Rhaegar’s son Aegon lives, as well, and Malora has been by his side for years helping him to learn the art of government. Only a few days have passed since I saw the two young dragonriders wed, through this marvellous device.”

What?” Willas demanded. His grandfather's words raised so many questions that he almost did not know which to ask first. “You mean to tell me that you have been participating in efforts to restore the Targaryens to the throne for years? And you never thought to inform us of your plans?”

Leyton rolled his eyes dismissively. “Secret plans do not stay secret for long if you shout them from the mountaintops. Besides, these plans were in motion fifteen years or more ago. I cannot go changing them just because your father foolishly decided to support the usurper in truth rather than merely for pretend.”

“But what about Margaery? Where does she fit into your plans?” Willas asked, with growing frustration.

“Margaery? Your sister Margaery?” Leyton asked, blinking at Willas.

“Yes, my sister Margaery, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms?” Willas shot back, completely exasperated.

“But she’s just a little girl…” Leyton muttered, trailing off. Then he waved at the air and declared with gusto, “Well, you shall have to get her out of King’s Landing. Throw a tourney or fake a funeral  or somesuch. You will figure something out, I have faith in you. Now, as I was saying…”

“And what of her marriage to the King?” Willas inquired angrily.

“Well, if the dragons don’t off her husband for you, then get the marriage annulled, of course. It can’t have been consummated and the Lannister boy is an abomination of incest, at any rate. Marry her to someone else.” Leyton waved his hand airily.

“Marry her to whom, Grandfather?”

“Edmure Tully or Robert Arryn or some such. Mayhaps Quentyn Martell. I don’t know, why are you asking me? This is Olenna Redwyne’s business, or Alerie’s. Now, can we get back to the important matters or are you going to keep bothering me with this nonsense all night? This is why I never come out of my tower, you know. Too many distractions out there. Marriages! Bah. I’m busy dealing with krakens and dragons and armies of the dead up here.”

“Krakens?” Willas asked, startled enough to drop the political issues for a moment.

“Yes, yes, krakens,” Leyton said impatiently. “Euron Greyjoy, believing himself the earthly incarnation of some eldritch horror, is already on his way to Oldtown to perform a massive blood sacrifice to raise the Deep Ones or a pod of krakens, or something to that effect. Or he will be soon, I can’t quite keep the timelines straight. But either way, you can see how that’s more important than your sister’s paper marriage to a Lannister bastard, surely?”

“How do you know that?” Willas demanded.

“The glass candle, obviously,” Leyton replied with no little irritation of his own. “The monsters, on the sea of blood? You saw it too, did you not? I always said you were the smart one of Alerie’s brood, but do try to keep up, my boy. Anyways, the Ironborn have moved up my priority list ever since Balon’s nasty brothers Aeron and Euron revived their ugly little death cult. Life must triumph over death!”

“I thought the point was balance?” the heir to Highgarden asked testily. Willas raked his hand through his hair, wondering how much of his grandfather’s yammering he should believe. Is he mad, as some have been claiming for years? Willas wondered. He had long heard whispers that Lord Leyton and Lady Malora were mad. Willas had dismissed it as a malicious rumor, or ignorant gossip passed along by poorly-educated nobles who failed to appreciate his grandfather’s manic genius, but now Willas was beginning to wonder if there was not some truth to it, after all.

“Well yes, life and death must remain in balance too, no one is saying we ought to mess with immortality or eternal summer, but I admit to a certain preference for what's alive and green over what's drowned and dead...something you can surely appreciate, as a scion of House Tyrell?”

“I see,” said Willas, though he did not see. The visions from the glass candle were very vivid, and it would be easy enough to test their accuracy as concerned the past or present, but Willas was starting to suspect that something was amiss with his grandfather's intricate belief system. He relies too heavily on that magical candle, Willas thought with some concern.

He tried to listen as his grandfather droned on, talking about mazemakers and the Great Empire of the Dawn and many other things that made Willas’s head spin as he tried to determine what was real and meaningful, and what was nonsense.

“I’m sorry, I do not follow you,” Willas finally interjected.

“Willas, my boy, I can’t do all your research for you. I’m trying to give you the gist of what I've learned through decades of study, but you're going to have to do some reading if you truly want to understand. You’re a man grown and wed, it is time to become an independent learner, is it not? Here, let me write up a reading list for you...no, no, better yet, let me find you some books…” The old man started humming as he rummaged around his study at the top of the Hightower, pulling out books from underneath piles of parchment, bizarre instruments, and artifacts from distant lands. Willas accepted the books eagerly, but he was relieved when his grandfather finally dismissed him for the evening, showing him how to use the lift and escorting him down to a suite of guest rooms on the ground level before returning to his study.

That night, Willas laid awake, tossing and turning. His bed was very comfortable, but his thoughts were not. How much of Lord Leyton’s notions were wisdom and how much were madness? It troubled him.

The cat had somehow gotten into his room and it was meowing at him, walking in eager little circles on the floor.

“I don’t have anything for you,” Willas told the stray sternly.

“Meow!” the cat yelped angrily.

Resigning himself to the impossibility of sleeping with his worries and this yowling animal bothering him, Willas got up and limped to the kitchens. Rooting around in the cupboards, he finally located some tuna preserves. Hopefully grandfather will not mind, Willas thought, wondering why he was bothering to feed this little monster. He wasn’t even a cat person, and if he had somehow discovered a newfound love of the finicky creatures, he had many beautiful, well-bred cats at home.

I am feeding it so that it will be quiet, he reasoned, limping back to his sleeping quarters. Eventually, the cat came back into the room and curled up on Willas’s chest. He had to admit, the little devil’s purring was reassuring.

At least Sansa is safe. For now, he thought as he closed his eyes and rolled about.

 

***

 

The next morning, before his grandfather awoke, Willas scrounged up some breakfast and prepared to visit the Citadel. Hopefully, the maesters would be able to sort through his grandfather’s theories and tell him how seriously to take the visions from the glass candle. The cat followed him around all morning, apparently having concluded that he was a reliable source of food.

As Willas departed from the Hightower, a street urchin accosted him.

“Hey! You stole my cat!” shouted the dirty boy.

“The cat followed me,” Willas replied mildly. "Please, do take him back."

Wordlessly, the boy scooped up the cat and ran away. Good riddance, Willas thought, though a part of him would miss the vicious yet adorable animal.

Hobbling towards one of the major thoroughfares, Willas hailed a carriage and instructed the driver to take him to the Citadel.

Mayhaps that Night’s Watchman will be here, thought Willas. I would dearly love to hear a first-hand tale to confirm or dispel my grandfather’s speculation.

Chapter Text

Sansa stood on the deck of the ship as it sailed towards the dock at White Harbor, which was presently visible and moving closer. The journey had not been too terrible, all things considered, but her doubts were growing with her distance from Highgarden. She had succeeded in her negotiations with the Lannisters at Riverrun, but only because Jaime was impulsive and Brienne had managed to browbeat him into giving up.

The Northmen would not be so easily manipulated, she believed, and the more time passed the less confident she felt in the words of Robett Glover. It seemed clear that he meant what he said to her, but on reflection, she could not be certain how representative his views were. As Glover himself had said, in the moons since the slaughter at the Twins, he had spent more time in the Neck and Riverlands than in the North proper. Could his faith in Wyman Manderly be merely wishful thinking? Was she sailing into a trap? After all, the Manderlys were officially supporters of the Crown and the Boltons.

But then again, thought Sansa, I too am officially a supporter of the Crown, and the Lannisters have abandoned the Boltons as of the Truce of Riverrun.

Sansa was also plagued by doubts about her extended absence from Highgarden. She missed Willas, and she was terrified that her success at Riverrun had been entirely due to his coaching. Without his wise counsel, would she would fail at her present mission? She also missed Alyssum and the sunshine and the flowers. She missed dancing and fancy dresses and pleasure barges. In fact, she missed her new home so much that she had half-convinced herself that Willas was somehow watching over her from afar. There had been a moment on the ship, about mid-way through their voyage, when she had felt a strange presence. Initially, she had been convinced that it was somehow her husband, to the point that she even tried to speak to him. But that made no sense, and the feeling had quickly passed, so she put it from her mind just as she had done with the strange presence in the woods outside of Riverrun.

She worried, too, that all her travelling might harm her child or that she had irreparably jeopardized her marriage when she decided to keep her pregnancy a secret until it was too late for anyone to stop her from going North. Once she settled in at White Harbor, Sansa intended to write her husband to tell him the full truth, but she feared he might never forgive her for the risk she was taking. Had she made the wrong choices? What else could she have done? At least her stomach troubles had been eased by the potion Maester Vyman pressed into her hand before she departed from Riverrun.

Their party was larger now, despite the loss of Oberyn, Daemon, and Brienne of Tarth. Oberyn and Daemon had said their farewells to Sansa at Riverrun, as the prince had informed her they would back at Highgarden. Sansa was a little dismayed that Oberyn did not decide to follow them North, but she understood what it was like to lose loved ones, and she could sympathize with his desire for justice. She hoped his quest would be successful, but she feared she would never see either of the Dornishmen again.

Brienne had travelled with them as far as Maidenpool, where both she and Sansa had quarrelled with Randyll Tarly, who disapproved of their mission. Dickon had persuaded his father to relent, but only barely, and Randyll had said some awfully nasty things to Brienne when he realized she was not headed North but back to the Riverlands to look for Arya. Though Sansa knew Randyll Tarly was a valuable military resource, she did not take kindly to his declaration that he hoped Brienne would get raped so that she would ‘understand her place’ and ‘learn her lesson’ about ‘trying to play at being a knight.’ Sansa had imagined Lord Randyll saying such things to Arya, and it had driven her into a fury, though she managed to hold her tongue just enough to avoid creating long-lasting intra-region diplomatic problems for the Tyrells. Still, Sansa intended to take the matter up with Willas when she returned to the Reach, to see if Randyll might be reprimanded in some way. I hope he dies in the war so that Dickon can take his place, she thought rashly as they embarked in Maidenpool.

But though they had lost three, they had gained more men overall. The Blackfish had joined them after Riverrun, Sansa’s ‘hostage’ in name only. Robett Glover had also pleaded to accompany Sansa’s party, eager to return home to retake his castle from the Ironborn now that he had convinced her to go North. Along with Glover came a handful of lowborn Northern soldiers who had been left behind to recover from injuries or had somehow gotten separated from her brother’s army in the chaos of war (or deserted, mayhaps, but Sansa did not intend to inquire into the potential cowardice of untrained farm boys and merchants’ sons).

To Sansa’s surprise, Wylis Manderly had also joined them, at Maidenpool. Though the release of hostages was listed among her truce demands, she had not expected this provision to apply to the Northern hostages, and even then, she had worried that the Lannisters and Freys might not fully honor their promises in that regard. As it turned out, the truce indeed applied only to the Riverlords, but Wylis explained that Lord Wyman had bargained with Tywin for his son’s freedom before the old lion’s death. The heir to White Harbor heard rumors that Sansa rode for Maidenpool with the intention of going North, just in time to cancel passage on his original ship and wait another fortnight for the Queen in the North – as he insisted on calling her – to arrive. It was very gallant of him to wait for me, Sansa thought, moved once again by the loyalty of her bannermen.

Her eyes fixed on White Harbor as it drew closer and closer, Sansa endeavored to focus on her more immediate concerns. She wondered what Lord Wyman would think of her. It helped, surely, that she was effectively returning his son to him. But he accompanied her party only because she had happened to arrive at the right place at the right time; she had done nothing to secure his release, so she was skeptical that Lord Wyman would credit her over-much for his heir’s return. Wylis assured her that his father would be delighted to see her alive and well, but he had been held captive for a rather long time, and Sansa was not so confident in the accuracy of the young knight’s prediction as he and Robett seemed to be. Why do they trust and support me so easily? Sansa wondered. Have I spent over-long in the South and grown unreasonably suspicious? Mayhaps it is enough that I am the daughter of Ned Stark?

The cold sea wind bit into Sansa’s face as they drew into the outer harbor. This morning, Sansa had dressed in the same gown she had worn at Riverrun. Thankfully, the Valyrian-waist cut and the pleating of the skirts covered up any slight rounding of her belly that might have been visible in a tighter dress. Her maiden’s cloak was once again draped over her shoulders, but this time, she truly needed the added warmth. Sansa shivered, unused to the cold after her long absence from the North. It seems it does not take long to become accustomed to the warm, sunny South, she thought with mild annoyance, feeling like a poor imitation of a Stark. For once, she wished Arya was by her side. Arya had always been a better Northwoman than Sansa, with her perfectly Stark-like looks and her wolfish nature. Sansa worried that the Northerners would look at her and see a Southron lady, a Tully by appearance and a Tyrell by marriage, rather than a Stark.

Sansa gazed at the massive Seal Rock as they sailed. She had seen it before – a few times, her father had allowed Sansa and her mother to accompany him and Robb to visit his bannermen, and Catelyn enjoyed the markets at White Harbor – but it looked different from the sea and after a long absence. The sight of the fifty-foot grey-green stone rising up from the waters, carved with the runes of the First Men and surrounded by fortified ringforts, struck a cord with Sansa. The Seal Rock appears so distinctly Northern to me after my time away, she thought. It still feels like I am returning home, but not fully. It feels that nothing has changed, and everything has changed. As the ship crossed into the inner harbor, Sansa smiled at the sight of several families of seals lounging on the Ring Fort.

Finally, the ship docked, and it was time to disembark. Taking a deep breath the steel herself, Sansa led her honor guard and recently-acquired Northmen onto the dock, past the Wolf’s Den, and into the New Castle.

 

***

 

Lord Wyman Manderly was waiting for them in the Merman’s Court, shuffling impatiently on his great chair. At either side, he was flanked by marble statues of beautiful yet frightening mermen. Posted along the banquet hall, Sansa noted the guardsmen of House Manderly, wearing silver armor and blue-green cloaks and clasping impressive silver tridents instead of spears in their fists. Lord Wyman’s eyes lit up when he saw Wylis approach the entrance, then darted to Sansa. The large man paused, as if debating whether to leap up and hug his son or greet Sansa’s party formally.

“Please, my lord, you have my leave to greet your son,” Sansa said quickly, pausing in the entryway and waving Lord Wylis ahead of her. “I can only guess at the joy of reuniting after fearing you would never see one another again. We may conduct formal introductions afterwards.”

“You have my deepest gratitude, your Grace,” replied Manderly, rising from his chair with surprising vigor to embrace his eldest son. The two tall, broad men grasped each other tightly. It appeared that they whispered to one another for a few moments, and then Lord Wyman patted the younger man on the back and they broke apart. Wylis returned to his place behind Sansa, and Lord Wyman returned to his seat, gesturing for Sansa and her party to formally enter the Merman’s Court and instructing his crier to announce him.

“You stand before Wyman Manderly, Lord of White Harbor and Warden of the White Knife, Shield of the Faith, Defender of the Dispossessed, Lord Marshal of the Mander, and a Knight of the Order of the Green Hand,” said an old man cloaked in maester’s garb.

Warden of the White Knife? wondered Sansa. My brother must have given him that title, as he granted great-uncle Brynden the title ‘Warden of the Southern Marches.’ Wardenships may only be granted by Kings. Mayhaps this is a good sign, if he uses a title granted him by Robb. Smiling her most brilliant courtly smile, Sansa held her head high and approached Lord Wyman on his dais, walking past walls covered in artifacts from House Manderly’s defeated enemies. As she strode elegantly towards the front of the banquet hall, Robett Glover announced the members of her party.

“The Princess Sansa Stark, Lady of Winterfell, trueborn daughter of Ned Stark and Catelyn Tully, Heir Apparent to the late King Robb, Heir to Riverrun and the High Lordship of the Riverlands, and wife to Lord Willas Tyrell, Heir to Highgarden and the High Lordship of the Reach. With her today are myself, Robett Glover; your son, Lord Wylis Manderly, Heir to White Harbor; Ser Brynden Tully of Riverrun, Warden of the Southern Marches; Lord Gunthor Hightower of Oldtown, Lady Alys Rowan of the Goldengrove, Ser Jon Fossoway of Dustonbury, Ser Parmen Crane of Red Lake, Ser Ryam Flowers of Bardshome, and Septon Triston of Highgarden; and assorted stragglers from the Northern army.”

A couple of the courtiers whispered amongst themselves at her titles, and Sansa was suddenly glad that she had won the right to call herself ‘Princess,’ given Lord Manderly’s string of titles and the delicate line she must walk to preserve her claim to the North without overtly disrupting the King’s peace. Actually, Sansa believed that Robett had embroidered just a little, to make her sound as impressive as possible. Heir apparent to a nonexistent Kingdom and heir to Riverrun for a few more moons, until Lady Roslin bears her child, she thought. Though she appreciated Robett’s gesture, this business of claiming titles was very fraught for Sansa at the moment, and she hoped they had struck the right balance between making it clear that she did not cede Robb’s crown to Jon without committing any overt acts of treason or undermining the truce she had brokered at Riverrun.

I wish Willas was here to advise me, Sansa thought, for after Joffrey I cannot tell what is rightly called treason and what is not. In lieu of actually consulting her husband, Sansa recalled his words from their wedding feast, about how treason was in the eye of the beholder, hoping that these beholders would not see no treason and no abdication in Robett’s words. Mercifully, the audience hall was nearly empty, save a handful of onlookers that strongly resembled the Lord of White Harbor and his son – likely close relatives, she assumed.

Several eyebrows raised at the final name, causing Sansa to wonder if the Northmen would distrust her because she travelled with a Septon at her side. Here at White Harbor, most kept the Seven, so the inclusion of a Septon in her honor guard was likely to be perceived with mere curiosity rather than hostility. Elsewhere in the North, however, rumors that Sansa worshipped the Seven could prove highly problematic. I will have to make some gesture of respect towards the Old Gods while I am here, to avoid spreading the wrong impression, Sansa noted to herself. And hopefully Septon Triston will brag about the wedding ceremony he designed so that the people here will learn that I was properly wed before a heart tree. In the Northmen’s eyes, it is the weirwood that matters, more than the words said before it or the allegiances of the officiant.

Lord Wyman hauled himself out of his immense chair and bowed, dipping exactly as deep as protocol required for a Lord to bow to his Princess, and not an inch more or less. She responded with a shallow curtsy that expressed courtesy from a liege to an esteemed bannerman. Abandoning the dais, as it would not be appropriate for him to seat himself higher than Sansa whether she was his Queen or his liege-lady, Lord Wyman invited Sansa, Wylis, and a few of Sansa’s men to accompany him to his solar, where they could speak more privately. Sansa selected Robett, Brynden, Gunthor, and Jon Fossoway to accompany her.

Once they had retreated to the solar, away from prying eyes, Lord Wyman’s demeanor changed rather abruptly from the perfect courtly formality he had displayed in the Merman’s Court to the jolly friend-of-the-family Sansa recalled from her previous visits to White Harbor. Now cheery, Lord Wyman beamed at her and opened his arms.

“My dear Sansa Stark!” he exclaimed. “I hope it is not too forward of me to ask if I may give you a hug? Not only have you returned my son to me, you have restored the Starks to the North as well. It is a joy to see Ned’s eldest daughter again, alive and well, despite everything.”

Uncertain how to take this transformation, Sansa replied simply, “I do not think it overly forward, my lord. I remember you well from my visits to White Harbor as a girl.”

Having received permission, Lord Wyman clutched Sansa to his soft, plump body and squeezed her for a moment before releasing her and taking a seat on a very large, plush couch. He motioned for the others to sit as well.

“And you gentlemen!” Wyman continued, turning his bright smile to Gunthor and Jon. “You have my thanks as well, for returning Sansa Stark to us. Please carry my regards to young Lord Willas.”

“I shall,” promised Jon Fossoway. “But I must admit, our intention is to return Sansa to her husband once she has set matters right here in the North.”

“Oh?” Wyman inquired.

Sansa flushed, wishing Jon hadn’t said that. “Yes, my lord. I have heard that Winterfell is nigh-uninhabitable, so I thought to return to Highgarden at least until the reconstruction could be completed.”

“Ah,” replied Wyman in an agreeable tone. “So what can I do for you, then?”

“Well,” said Sansa tentatively, glancing at Gunthor.

“We had hoped that you might be able to inform us about the strategic political and military situation in the North, as well as potential threats from beyond the Wall, whether that be wildlings or somewhat else,” said Gunthor in a mellow, friendly tone that closely mirrored Wyman’s own.

“And Robett suggested you might have a plan, for dealing with the Boltons and Freys?” Sansa added.

“Ah, yes,” said Wyman amiably. “I should be happy to tell you a bit about our present circumstances and include you in my plotting. But first I must ask – only because it is relevant to the nature of such plans, you understand – do you intend to claim the title of Queen?”

“I have heard it said that one who must declare that she is Queen is no Queen at all,” Sansa remarked lightly. “I do not presume to say what my bannermen might claim on my behalf. With their support, if we cannot negotiate a sensible peace with the Iron Throne, who is to say what recourse might become necessary? For now, I claim simply that I am the rightful Lady of Winterfell and that if Robb or my Father have an heir, I am she. As you heard Robett cry on my behalf, I have been granted the title Princess of the North, per the Truce of Riverrun. Whether that is merely courtesy or somewhat more remains to be seen.”

Wyman began to laugh, and Sansa worried she had said something wrong. She had practiced that little speech a thousand times on the ship, with Jon and Gunthor! Had they failed to apprehend how it would sound to Northern ears? Neither Brynden nor Robett had gainsaid the speech when she was practicing it…

“I am terribly sorry, your Grace,” Wyman managed to say, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes and chuckling still. “I meant no offense. In my defense, I say only that I cannot believe my ears, hearing such a perfectly savvy answer from a Stark. You do not know how many times I have raged or despaired over unwisely blunt statements by your father – who I loved dearly, do not take me amiss. To hear his daughter speak so, brings me great joy. Your family may survive yet, if you have gained such wisdom from your brief time in the South as I could not teach your father in twenty years.”

“It is quite all right, my lord,” said Sansa politely, uncertain what to make of Manderly’s laughter or his soliloquy. She looked over at her councilors, trying to read their expressions.

“The Princess Sansa is a Stark alright, but she’s half-Tully, too, and it’s not been said that Hoster or Catelyn lacked in diplomatic skill,” harrumphed the Blackfish in response to Lord Wyman.

“So she is,” Wyman smoothly affirmed. “And thus a better candidate to rule the North and Riverlands than Jon Snow, I daresay.”

“Indeed,” agreed Jon Fossoway. “With that in mind, do you have a proposal regarding the next steps? I confess, the possibility of a military victory appears quite unlikely to me if I correctly understand where the loyal Northern forces stand at present, and a political solution seems untenable given that there is little to offer our enemies and given the hostility of our allies to a truce.”

Wyman glanced at Sansa. “Your Grace, may I speak freely around these men?” he asked before answering Jon’s provocation.

“Yes, my lord,” replied Sansa firmly. “I am sure you know Robett Glover and my great-uncle Brynden to be loyal and true to my family. Gunthor Hightower and Jon Fossoway are my husband’s most trusted advisors and my kin by marriage, through my goodmother Alerie Hightower and my goodsister Leonette Fossoway. They have seen me safely and offered wise counsel from Highgarden to Riverrun to Maidenpool and here.”

“Good!” declared Lord Wyman with gusto. “It is inspiring to witness the valuable allies you have managed to win to our cause, your Grace.”

“Thank you,” Sansa said courteously.

“Now, regarding my plans,” continued Lord Wyman. “Before I knew if you were free or captive, and before I received word that you planned to go North, I made arrangements to secure Winterfell against any claimant whose name was not Stark. So, too, I planned to take revenge for the murder of my son Wendel and all the others who were slain against the laws of gods and men at the Twins. I have not forgotten, your Grace. My castle and my city are teeming with Lannisters cockroaches and Frey maggots, I have done as I must to ensure Wylis’s safe return, but I remember. The North remembers.”

“They are here, in White Harbor?” Sansa asked, heart pounding. “The Freys?”

Lord Wyman looked glum. “Yes. That is why I allowed only a small audience in the Merman’s court for your arrival and why I swiftly brought you here. I am dancing a delicate dance here, your Grace, maintaining my true loyalties while creating cover to shield me and my family until my larger plans come to fruition. Your arrival helps in many respects but also raises new complexities.”

“I see. Does that mean I shall need to assist in maintaining your ruse, by playing a particular part in public while I am here?” asked Sansa. “Such an act is not unfamiliar to me. It is how I survived in King’s Landing.”

Wyman Manderly smiled ruefully at Sansa. “I did not anticipate that you would be capable of such, I confess, though you have proved me wrong. My plan requires only that you remain within your quarters until we depart for Winterfell. If you choose to accompany us, we would be honored to have you, though I shall certainly understand if you do not deem it worth the risk.”

“Winterfell?” she queried, surprised again.

“Let me start at the beginning,” Lord Wyman sighed heavily. “Do you know your aunt Lysa’s husband, Petyr Baelish? Former Master of Coin and, as of late, Lord of Harrenhal?”

“Lord Baelish?” gasped Sansa at the same time as the Blackfish spat, “Littlefinger? That rat?”

The fat lordling looked confused at the strong reaction that name had drawn. Quickly, he asked, “Is that a problem? I had been led to believe he was a friend of your mother’s from childhood.”

“Aye, you might say so,” replied the Blackfish in an acidic tone. “If you wanted to mislead someone into thinking Littlefinger was trustworthy. In truth, he is a social climber with an aptitude for coin, flattery, and lies. I could throw him further than I would trust him, and I suspect he is only further corrupting Lysa, who has become…less rational, in her grief.”

“He is quite dangerous,” was all Sansa said, but her tone left little doubt that she meant to cast serious aspersions on his character.

“Well, well,” replied Manderly, uncomfortably. “That is good to know. I suspected as much given the condition of…but I am getting ahead of myself. What I meant to say is that Lord Baelish communicated to me that he was in possession of a girl who would be familiar enough with Winterfell, and looked as well as sounded the part sufficiently, that she might be able to briefly impersonate your sister Arya.”

Sansa’s eyes lit up and she forgot to breathe. There was only one such girl whom Littlefinger could have gotten his hands on easily in King’s Landing, and as far as Sansa knew, she’d been missing since the night Ned Stark was arrested. Could it be? Could it be that the girl he spoke of was her friend, Jeyne Poole?

“You may know her…the Steward’s girl, Jeyne Poole?” Lord Wyman continued, searching Sansa’s face.

“Jeyne? You have Jeyne?” stammered Sansa, resisting the urge to let her hopes fly free, for she knew that King’s Landing was not kind to noble young girls who could make useful political pawns. How much worse might it have been for a Steward’s girl in the same position? She shuddered to speculate on it.

“Yes,” confirmed Lord Manderly. “But I must warn you, she was ill-treated Littlefinger’s custody. I assure you she has been treated very well since she arrived here at White Harbor, but some misuse does not wash away easily.”

“That surprises me not,” said Sansa, calmly but with a note of melancholy in her voice. She resisted the urge to run her fingers across her scarred back. “I must see her at once.”

Lord Wyman hesitated, but when Sansa did not withdraw her request, he rightly took it for a command. Gesturing at his son, Wyman instructed Wylis to fetch Jeyne Poole at once. After Wylis left the room, they sat in silence for several moments.

“I wish you to know that my plan does not involve handing Jeyne over to the Boltons, but only pretending to do so, in order to get inside the castle,” Lord Wyman commented anxiously, after some time had passed.

“It is noted,” said Sansa, without much inflection.

“It was the only way,” Lord Wyman explained, glancing from Sansa to Robett and the Blackfish. “I told her of the plan and she agreed, for your family’s sake. I assured her that I would never turn a girl over to such a monster as Ramsey Snow, but promising him the hand of Arya Stark was the best means I had available to me, to entice him to open his gates without suspecting that we meant to turn on him. I told Lord Roose that I was loathe to give him ‘Arya,’ but that I had no choice given my son’s captivity, and I believe he bought it.”

“I understand,” replied Sansa, somewhat flatly. She did understand – it sounded like a plan that was likely to prove effective – but if Jeyne had been harmed in Lord Baelish’s custody, Sansa was skeptical that she would feel comfortable declining to participate in such a plot.

“The Lannisters required some overture to demonstrate my loyalty before they would release Wylis,” Wyman continued, looking worried. “You understand, I could not allow them to hold my son prisoner, and I intended to betray them from the start. Young Jeyne was to come to no further harm. The North remembers, your Grace. I remember that it was the Starks who offered safe harbor to my ancestors when they had nowhere else to go, and I lost my son Wendel at the Twins. I could not lose Wylis too, but I would never cooperate with the Boltons or the Freys or the Lannisters. I have been arranging a conspiracy to overthrow them, and Jeyne’s role was crucial in realizing that plan.”

“I understand,” Sansa repeated, her tone warming slightly. “Intrigue is not always kind to those used as pawns, but I believe you that you intended no harm to come to Jeyne, and that you planned to betray our enemies. The North remembers, as you say.” She was not entirely confident that Manderly was telling the whole truth, but if it was not his original plan to betray the Boltons and Freys, he seemed sincere enough in his commitment to such a course now that she had arrived, at any rate. Robett had advised her well when he told her to make haste for White Harbor.

Finally, young Lord Wylis returned, with Jeyne Poole in tow. When she and Sansa saw each other, they both burst into tears and shot across the room to clutch one another tightly. The two friends embraced, sobbing ungracefully, grateful to have one another again after their separate ordeals. Eventually, Sansa backed away just enough to look into Jeyne’s face.

“Jeyne, are you okay?” she asked solemnly. “Have the Manderlys treated you well?”

“Yes, my lady – your Grace?” replied Jeyne in a tiny voice.

“Jeyne!” Sansa scolded mildly. “Are you not my oldest, dearest friend? It is Sansa, always, for you. Though technically I am a princess now.”

Jeyne smiled through her tears. “Sansa, then. Oh, I have missed you terribly! And you are a princess, you say? How lovely! When did that happen?”

Sansa smiled ruefully. “I shall tell you all about it, later, when we are alone. For now, I only wish to know, truly, if you are well. I have heard that you were mistreated in Lord Baelish’s custody.”

“Oh.” Jeyne paled, but said no more. Sansa did not want to press; she knew how it felt, to have your speech frozen in your throat by traumatic experiences.

“It is okay,” she said quickly. “You do not have to tell me about it now. Or ever, if you do not wish to. I…I was mistreated too, in King’s Landing. I suspect I know somewhat of how you must feel.”

“You?” Jeyne replied with surprise and alarm in her voice. “They hurt you too? Not…surely not as badly?”

“I shall show you,” Sansa replied, her voice deadly serious. She looked away from Jeyne for a moment, to all of those gathered here, but especially Lord Wyman and Lord Wylis. Seeing the concern on their faces, she took off her cloak and handed it to the Blackfish. “Great-uncle, if you would be so kind as to hold this cloak in front of me, to preserve my modesty?”

The Blackfish took the cloak and nodded curtly. He spread it in front of Sansa, who unlaced her dress, leaning into the cloak to cover her front side as she pulled the dress down far enough to expose the scarring on her back. She heard several gasps, then glanced at Jeyne and saw tears in her eyes. Satisfied that they had seen what she intended to show, Sansa pulled her dress back up and laced it closed, taking her cloak back from the Blackfish.

Sansa addressed Jeyne first. “Jeyne, I know not what horrors were visited upon you. My station protected me rather little, but there are a few acts of violence I was spared. They left my maidenhead intact and preserved my face, for they gave me greater value as a hostage, though my value did not stop them from abusing me. I hope that what was done to you was nothing worse than what was done to me, even as I worry you had it much worse than I, without even the meager protection my rank afforded. But I wanted you to show you, so that you could see that you are not alone. So you could see that, truly, I do understand what it is like to face cruelty, at least some small measure of it.”

Then, looking at the shocked Manderly lords, Sansa continued. “This is what we are up against, my lords. Men who would do such to a young girl, a noble ward, a rightful hostage of war. Trust them not.”

Wylis and Wyman nodded gravely. The younger man’s face was twisted up in rage, while the older looked deflated, as if he had aged a decade in only a moment. Silence fell in Lord Wyman’s solar, as if no one knew quite what to say after Sansa’s display. Finally, Gunthor Hightower spoke.

“I am sure that all those gathered here are as wroth as I am over your ill-treatment by the Lannisters, Princess Sansa, and with the misuse of your friend Jeyne as well,” said Gunthor. “However, I am likewise confident that many of us would prefer to conclude our business, so that we may retire to our own affairs or simply to rest from the long journey. Lords Wyman and Wylis, as well as the Princess and her friend, surely have much to discuss privly. Let us make such plans as are necessary to make at this juncture, so that we may go our own ways.”

“Thank you, Gunthor,” agreed Sansa. She then turned to Lord Wyman. “So, as I understand it, your plan involves using a marriage to faux-Arya as a ruse to get inside Winterfell and bring our enemies to justice. As well, I understand that this castle is full of spies and enemies, along with friends. Thus, I assume I must pretend that Jeyne is my sister when others are present. What else must I do, to preserve your plot?”

“Well,” said Lord Wyman nervously. “You must pretend to be my hostage for a time, until our enemies have been sent on their way with the requisite guest-gifts. I can provide Manderly guardsman uniforms for your honor guard to assist in the ruse. This would allow you to accompany me to Winterfell to claim your rightful family seat.”

“Is that not dangerous?” inquired Jon Fossoway, somewhat testily. “Why must Sansa go to Winterfell?”

“I do not mean to suggest that the princess must do anything, my lord,” clarified Lord Wyman. “Though it would surely help turn the tides against the Boltons and Freys if she were to accompany myself and Jeyne, it is true that it would be a risk. I mean only to say that if the princess wishes to preserve the possibility of accompanying our party to Winterfell, she must needs pretend to be under my power in the mean time, until a decision is reached about where she is to head after White Harbor.”

“That seems reasonable,” affirmed Sansa, looking from Lord Wyman to Jon, who shrugged. It seemed clear that he misliked the idea of an additional detour, especially one that would take them further into enemy territory, but he could not reasonably contest the notion of maintaining a cover story while they considered their next course of action. “Anything else?”

“No, I believe you have gotten the gist, and we may speak again after you have had some time to think and consult with your advisors. I shall set you up with rooms in the old castle, the Wolf’s Den, to keep you separated from the Freys. Is there anything I can do for you in the mean time, while you consider your options?” replied Lord Wyman.

“Yes, actually. I wish to send a raven to my husband. Is that possible?”

“It is possible,” answered Lord Wyman, though his tone betrayed his hesitation. “Though I would take care about what you write, because our maester is a Lannister of Lannisport, and I do not trust him.”

“That is not a problem. I shall choose my words with care,” replied Sansa. “Then, if there is nothing else, might we retire to our rooms?”

“Yes, I shall have them prepared at once!” said Wyman, attempting to resurrect his initial jolly tone and ringing for the servants.

 

***

 

The Wolf’s Den is due for a bit of renovation, thought Sansa with a frown, as she inspected her rooms. Her nose wrinkled at the pervasive smell of mold and salt. Lord Wyman had warned her that the old castle was in disrepair and he had offered to find space in the New Castle if she insisted, but Sansa was not of a mind to share her place of residence with the Freys if she could help it.

Sansa’s rooms adjoined with the rooms assigned to Jeyne and Lady Alys, and also to the first in a chain of three rooms that housed her honor guard and other men. All her men save Septon Triston and Robett Glover, anyways. Triston had joined House Manderly's Septons in the rooms above the Sept, where he could plausibly claim sanctuary while discreetly spreading and collecting useful gossip. Glover had taken a room in the New Castle in order to maintain the fiction that he had betrayed Sansa into the hands of her enemies under the guise of rescuing her. Personally, Sansa was not sure that anyone was like to be convinced that she was a prisoner once again, but she hoped the cover story would work at least long enough for her to decide what to do next.

Should I accompany Lord Wyman to Winterfell? Sansa wondered. She desperately wished to see her home again, but by all accounts the castle was ruined. Such a trip would add a moon’s turn or more to her journey, yet it also held the potential to reinforce her claim to the North securely enough that she could spend as much time in Highgarden as she wished before returning to claim her seat. Even so, she could not discount the possibility that Lord Wyman’s plan might go horribly awry, or even that he might be actively misleading her.

I need not decide this right now, Sansa reminded herself. She planned to consult with her advisors on the morrow. For the moment, she simply needed to write to Willas, and then she could spend some time getting reacquainted with Jeyne.

Sitting at the old, beat-up desk made of driftwood, Sansa took out a quill, ink pot, and parchment. Is it safe to write to Willas in code? She wondered. If the maester is a Lannister, he might recognize that I am using code, even if he cannot discern the content of my message. Would that reveal our hand? Deciding to err on the side of caution, Sansa wrote:

 

To my dearest husband,

Lord Willas of Highgarden,

 

I write to inform you that I have arrived safely to White Harbor and to provide my assurances that House Manderly is treating me as befits my station. I will write again soon with more, but for now I wished only to relieve your worries. I am well, and I hope the same is true of you. Please pat Alyssum for me and tell her I shall be home soon.

 

Affectionately,

Your adoring wife,

Sansa

 

Around the edges of the parchment, Sansa scrawled an additional, secret message using code. She had requested a copy of Archmaester Laurent’s Old Places of the Trident along with several other books about Northern history and culture when she called for the inkpot and quill. The secret message was written to look like nonsense decorations, random letters of calligraphy doodled around the borders of the parchment by a lady struck with boredom. The coded message read:

Truly, I am safe. Wyman is an ally but we cannot trust the maester. Full story to follow in a fortnight or two. I love you.

She had hesitated before writing that last bit, but it felt right to her, and she wished to offer Willas some consolation for her tersely worded letter. Besides, she felt guilty that she still had not shared her joyful news with him. She should have written from Maidenpool, but she had been so wroth with Randyll Tarly that she had not thought to write to Willas before her ship sailed. Before she arrived and realized how delicate the situation was here, she had hoped to inform Willas that she was with child by raven from White Harbor, but it seemed that would have to wait a little longer. Putting down her quill, Sansa rolled up the parchment, sealed it with wax, and stamped it with the direwolf sigil stamp Willas had given her before she departed, to help ensure the security of their communications. I’m sorry, Willas, she thought. Truly, I shall write again soon and tell you all there is to tell.

After she summoned a servant to take her letter to the maester, Sansa knocked at Jeyne’s door.

“Jeyne?” she called.

“Yes?” came a wavery voice from the other side.

“May I enter?” Sansa asked hesitantly.

“Yes,” Jeyne called back, her voice just barely loud enough for Sansa to hear. Bracing herself for what she might learn when she entered the next room – for the scars Jeyne might reveal, mental or physical – Sansa took a deep breath and opened the door. She found Jeyne half-sitting, half-lying on her bed. Sansa sat beside her friend, curling her knees up to her chest with her bottom and feet resting on the bed.

“Are you truly okay?” Sansa asked after a few moments had passed.

“I’m fine,” said Jeyne, in a tone that clearly said the opposite.

“I was so worried about you. They wouldn’t tell me where you’d gone. I thought you might be dead, like real Arya,” Sansa whispered.

“That might have been a kinder fate,” Jeyne whispered back, eyes glistening.

“I know what you mean,” replied Sansa, flinging herself onto her back. “After the slaughter at the Twins – or the Red Wedding, as they called it in the capital – I kept dreaming that I was Ashara Dayne. I…I almost flung myself from my window. A few times, actually.”

“Really?” asked Jeyne reluctantly. “Did it get better?”

“Yes. I don’t think the pain or grief will ever go away completely, but it doesn’t consume my whole body in every waking moment, as it once did. I wish I could say you’d forget it all, but that would be a lie. It just grows more tolerable, like an old scar that you only notice when you see it in the Myrish glass. Out of mind, but never gone, and not entirely forgotten.”

“Hmm,” replied Jeyne.

“You don’t have to tell me what happened to you,” Sansa said, sitting up again. “I know it’s hard to talk about at first. But if you want to talk about it, I’m here, and I understand, at least some measure of it.”

Jeyne was quiet for several moments. Finally, she said, “I don’t know.”

“We can just sit here in the quiet and enjoy each other’s company if you wish,” suggested Sansa. “Or I could leave you to think in peace, if you want. But I remember…I remember how I wanted to be alone but also I didn’t want to be alone, and I was angry that no one came for me. I felt like no one cared. I just want you to know that I care. I care what happened to you, I care how you feel, you are my friend and I care about you.”

“That means a lot,” said Jeyne in a tiny voice, the ghost of a smile playing at her lips for a moment before it died away.

They sat there in companionable silence for some time.

At length, Jeyne whispered, “They…they beat me. And…they…they dishonored me.”

“Oh, Jeyne, I’m so sorry,” Sansa whispered back, tears filling her eyes.

“I don’t wish to say any more about it, not yet,” Jeyne continued. “Mayhaps, eventually…but I wanted you to know at least that much.”

“I’m so sorry,” Sansa repeated. “I don’t know what else to say – I know there’s nothing I can say that will truly make it better. But I am so, so terribly sorry that happened to you. I tried to make them let me see you or at least tell me where you’d gone, but Cersei and Littlefinger refused to say a word. I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you needed me. I was supposed to protect you.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” said Jeyne.

“Still, I am sorry it happened,” said Sansa. She said nothing further, not wishing to make Jeyne attend to her feelings when it was Jeyne’s feelings that needed attention.

“I know.”

They lapsed back into silence again for some time.

“You know what I think sometimes?” said Sansa idly, after a while.

“What?”

“That Arya had the right of it, after all,” replied Sansa, smiling ruefully. “That we should have learned to fight instead of spending all that time on embroidery. Mayhaps we could have rescued ourselves. Can you imagine us, armed with swords and swashbuckling our way out of the Red Keep?”

Jeyne giggled at the ridiculous imagery, and Sansa was pleased that she had managed to make her friend laugh. Then Jeyne grew quiet again, and looked at Sansa, as if gauging whether it was okay to say what she was thinking about saying. Sansa motioned for the other girl to go ahead.

“Do you think real-Arya rescued herself?” Jeyne asked finally.

Sansa looked down at her hands for a moment and then back up at Jeyne. “I don’t know. Some days, I do. Other days, I think I’m foolish for hoping she’s still alive.”

“Yeah,” agreed Jeyne. “I know what you mean.”

“I don’t know,” Sansa said again. “If anyone could have escaped that madness, it was Arya. I have to believe it’s at least possible. You know she ran all around the Red Keep chasing those cats. Maybe she discovered a secret way out. Or maybe the Lannisters just killed her on accident and covered it up, I could not say.”

“I hope Arya’s okay, too,” said Jeyne, putting a comforting hand on Sansa’s shoulder. “We were kind of mean to her sometimes and I feel bad about that.”

“Me too,” said Sansa. “It seemed like we were focused on the right things, on the important things, and she just wouldn’t cooperate or do what she was supposed to. I thought the teasing would make her see that, eventually. But it was me that had it wrong. There’s no sense to any of it. Life is not a song.”

“But you and Willas,” Jeyne objected. “That’s like something from a song.”

Sansa smiled. “I know, it truly is. I could not believe it at first. I felt like I was in a dream and I kept fearing I would wake up.” Then Sansa’s eyes went wide and her mouth circled into a little ‘O,’ her hands flapping excitedly. “Oh! Oh, Jeyne! I almost forgot! I have to tell you something! But I have not told anyone else, not even my honor guard, and you must swear on your life that you won’t tell anyone!”

Jeyne smiled faintly. “I promise,” she said, bemused.

“I am with child!” Sansa whispered excitedly. Jeyne’s eyes went wide as well.

“Truly?” Jeyne breathed. “With Willas’s child?”

“Of course,” replied Sansa. “Oh, isn’t it wonderful, Jeyne? I am so afraid and not truly ready, but it is wonderful, isn’t it?”

“Of course it is!” Jeyne said, hugging her friend. “Oh, Sansa, I am so happy for you! Congratulations!”

“Thank you,” said Sansa, beaming.

“But why haven’t you told anyone?” Jeyne asked, frowning a little.

Sansa sighed. “It’s a long story, but the short of it is that I knew I needed to go North, and I didn’t want to tell anyone before we set sail. And now that we are here, I had planned to speak of it, but the situation is more complicated than I expected. So, for now, at least, you must keep it to yourself and tell no one.”

“I already promised,” Jeyne reminded her. “I am still a woman of my word. They couldn’t take that from me.”

“Oh, Jeyne, I’m sorry!” said Sansa quickly. “I didn’t mean –”

“It’s fine, Sansa,” Jeyne assured her. “I wanted to hear your news. I’m honored that you chose to share it with me, when you haven’t trusted anyone else enough to tell them. And…honestly, it is nice to hear some good news for once. It…it makes me think…perhaps we might form good memories again. New memories, to cover up the bad. Even if it never goes away…it is hopeful news, Sansa, and I am delighted to hear it.”

“Thank you,” Sansa replied, a little reluctantly. She still worried that she might have been wrong to tell Jeyne right away, after they had been speaking of such serious things. But Jeyne’s point about good news resonated with Sansa, so perhaps it was truly fine.

The two girls sat quietly for a while once again. Eventually, Sansa got up from the bed.

“I think I am going to go bathe,” she announced. “I shall leave you alone for a bit, but feel free to come over to my room after supper, if you like.”

“I will,” Jeyne assured her. She got up from the bed as well, and gave Sansa a hug. “It is truly lovely to see you again, Sansa. I’m so happy we’ve been reunited, even if it is not under the best of circumstances.”

“I feel exactly the same way,” Sansa assured her, hugging Jeyne tightly before returning to her room.

 

***

 

As Sansa slept, that first night at White Harbor, she dreamed of wolves. Running, running through the Riverlands. Howling. Arya? Sansa wondered. Where are you? 

A knock on the door, an hour or two after mid-night, woke Sansa from her strange dreams. The knocking sent a bolt of fear through her, the kind of fear she had not felt since King’s Landing. Who could possibly be knocking on her door at this hour? Was it the Freys, come to slaughter the last of the Starks? The Boltons, or supporters of Jon’s claim, or some unknown Northern faction seeking to do her ill? Was Lord Wyman perhaps not so friendly as he appeared – did he come to her in the night to ask improper acts of her, as Joffrey had always threatened to do?

It was a woman’s voice who called softly to her, however. That eased Sansa’s worries, somewhat, anyways.

“Your grace?” called the young woman’s voice.

Sansa struggled out of bed and pulled on a robe to preserve her modesty, walking over to the door. For a moment, she hesitated, still afraid. I must be brave, she told herself. It could be important. Breathing carefully, in and out, Sansa opened the door a few inches.

“Yes?” she whispered to the girl in the hallway.

“It’s Wylla, Lord Wyman’s daughter,” the girl whispered back. “It’s urgent. May I come in?”

Lord Wyman’s daughter? Sansa scrutinized the girl’s appearance, searching for the resemblance. Wylla shared Lord Wyman’s medium-brown hair, though hers was not streaked with gray like her father’s. She also shared his jolly round cheeks and slightly snoutish, upturned nose. Most unfortunately, she also shared her father’s build, though the girl’s pudginess struck Sansa as rather cute. She does resemble Lord Wyman and I think I recognize her from the Merman's Court, Sansa thought, deciding the girl must be who she claimed to be.

As Sansa opened the door, Wylla rushed in.

“Get dressed,” Wylla hissed, throwing open the doors of Sansa’s closet. “I have to take you to my father.”

Sansa joined Wylla at the closet door, then paused.

“Why does your father need to see me in the dead of night?” Sansa asked, her fear returning and seeping into her voice as mild anger. “What is the meaning of this?”

Wylla hoped impatiently from one foot to the other, in a gesture that reminded Sansa strangely of Arya. “He has something important to tell you! Something he couldn’t say in front of the others. Come on, come on, we have to go!”

“I suppose I must go then,” muttered Sansa, selecting a loose woolen dress and pulling it on over her sleeping shift.

“You’ll need your cloak,” Wylla added, eager to be on their way.

“Where are we going?” Sansa asked as she pulled on her maiden’s cloak.

“I’ll show you in a moment,” Wylla replied, heading for the door and motioning for Sansa to follow.

Sansa followed Wylla through the winding hallways of the Wolf’s Den and out into the frozen night. The girl led Sansa to the godswood, where a massive weirwood dominated the land, choking out the other trees. But the godswood was not their destination; she followed Wylla behind an iron-wrought gate, down watery stairs and past salt-encrusted walls, into a damp, mold-infested cellar. They continued onwards through a series cellars and cells, until they reached a solid stone passageway. After following the passageway, they reached a series of stairs. Sansa had begun to wonder if they would ever reach the end, when finally Wylla opened a door and beckoned for Sansa to enter.

The room behind the door was cozy and warm, a relief after the chill of the tunnels. A beautiful Myrish carpet lined the wooden floor, and beeswax candles flickered everywhere. On the wall hung a large map of the North, painted on tanned hide. Various colors of hairpins marked unknown features – likely armies and similar information. Seated on a giant cushion before a low table was Lord Wyman Manderly, who gestured for Sansa to sit across from him.

“Sansa – may I call you Sansa?” the fat lord said, almost as impatient as his daughter. “My lady, I shall get straight to the point. There are several things that I must tell you. The first is something so sensitive that I dared not entrust it to any ears but yours alone. The rest follows, more or less, depending on your answer. But first, I must needs know – how much of a Stark are you, truly? What if you are not the rightful heir to Winterfell and the North? Are you Stark enough to cede your claim to rightful heir? Or are you more Tyrell by now, clinging to power with poison and honey?”

“What do you mean, my lord...Wyman?” Sansa was terribly confused, though she noted dully that Manderly had called her ‘my lady’ instead of ‘your grace' or even 'my princess.'

Watching her carefully, Lord Wyman said, “Your brothers Bran and Rickon likely live. Leastwise, they were not killed by Theon Greyjoy, as that treacherous scoundrel claimed. So, are you Stark enough to cede your claim if one of your trueborn brothers yet lives?”

“Bran and Rickon are alive?!” Sansa demanded, leaping to her feet in shock. “Where are they? You must take me to them!”

“I suppose it’s answer enough, that you worry only of your family and not of your claim,” replied Wyman calmly. “But I shall need a proper answer before I tell you any more.”

“An answer to what?” Sansa had scarcely heard what Wyman said after sharing the news that her brothers may still be alive.

Wyman chuckled. “An answer to whether you would cede your position as Lady of Winterfell and heir to King Robb, should Bran or Rickon appear to claim the titles.”

“Of course I would,” said Sansa impatiently. “How can you even ask that? If my brothers are alive, it would not even occur to me to usurp their rightful places. I never wanted to rule the North. I am here only for the sake of my family and out of duty towards my people, who clamor for justice against our enemies. I would much rather be down South at Highgarden with my husband, raising babes amongst the flowers and puppies. Now, tell me, I command you – what happened to my brothers? Do they truly live?”

“I believe so, my lady,” said Wyman. “But you ought hear it for yourself.” The Lord of White Harbor rapped on the wall, and Robett Glover appeared with some boy Sansa did not recognize.

“Who is he?” Sansa asked, confused. That boy was clearly not either of her brothers. Was Manderly trying to trick her?

“This is Wex,” said Robett. “He was Theon Turncloak’s squire, and last I saw him, he was on a ship headed for the Iron Islands to negotiate an alliance between King Robb and Balon Greyjoy.”

“Yes,” said Wyman, his nose wrinkling with distaste at the thought of Theon Greyjoy. “Wex cannot speak, my lady, but he can answer questions yes or no with a nod of his head. We are teaching him his letters in hopes of getting the full story –”

“Wex,” interrupted Sansa. “Are my brothers alive?”

Wex nodded vigorously and then shrugged.

“What does that mean?” Sansa demanded.

“I think he means to say that yes, they were certainly alive last he saw them, but who knows what happened after that. Is that what you meant, Wex?” asked Robett.

Wex nodded vigorously, without the shrug this time.

Sansa’s heart was pounding in her ears and she had to make an effort to control her rapid breathing. Could it be? Bran and Rickon, alive?

“How much do you know of the official Frey story of what happened at the Twins and at Winterfell? That might be the easiest place to start,” said Wyman.

“Not much,” admitted Sansa. “The Lannisters did not bother to lie about it. They were proud of what they did.”

Wyman’s lip curled in disgust. “Very well. Officially, they are saying – forgive me, my lady, for it is reprehensible and no one believes a word of it, I assure you – they are saying that Robb murdered his own men at the Twins. It’s said he was a warg, that he turned into a wolf and ate his supporters alive. The Freys killed him only out of self-defense, after he violated guest-right by committing murder under their roof.”

Sansa’s face pinched in fury.

“It’s a damn lie,” Robett put in. “We all know it. A few survived and lived to tell the truth, and I heard it in the Riverlands. It was the Freys who violated guest-right and slew King Robb and Lady Catelyn and all the rest out of pure greed and nothin’ else.”

“I know,” Sansa said, her anger hot and bitter in her throat. “Please go on.”

“It is also said that Theon Turncloak betrayed Robb, put the people of Winterfell to the sword, and burned down the castle. He murdered your brothers, burned their bodies, and speared them on the castle’s walls for all to see. The Boltons, it seems, merely rescued the survivors and took hold of the damaged fortress,” continued Wyman.

“Another lie,” spat Robett.

“Yes, though a more believable one,” said Wyman levelly. “According to Wex, Theon took the castle without bloodshed. It was Ramsey Snow – Roose Bolton’s monstrous bastard – who murdered the people of Winterfell and burned the castle.”

“His blood is wrong,” sneered Robett. “A bastard born of rape. Evil flows in his veins.”

“Indeed,” agreed Wyman darkly. “Sansa, do you know the tale of Lady Hornwood?”

“No,” Sansa said softly.

“Lady Hornwood was mine own kin,” Wyman explained, his eyes narrow with rage and grief. “Snow – could snow ever be so black? – married her to steal her claim to the Lordship of Hornwood. When my men found her body, she was thin as a ghost and just as dead. Her fingers were missing. It’s said Ramsey locked her away in a tower and forgot her, left her there to starve. It’s said she ate her own fingers in her extremity.”

“Oh, Wyman,” murmured Sansa, her stomach lurching. “I am so sorry. That is awful. Unspeakably awful.”

“The Boltons have always been as cruel as they are cunning,” Robett growled. “But that Ramsey is a beast in human skin.”

“He must pay for this,” Sansa agreed, anger flaring inside her along side her growing sadness. Poor Lady Hornwood.

“Well,” said Wyman heavily. “She was not his only victim. It’s said he took the women of Winterfell hostage. Took them to the Dreadfort and hunted them for sport.”

“Hunted?” asked Sansa, feeling sick.

“Yes. Rode them down on horseback like they were hares or deer, then skinned them just the same. If they gave him good sport, he was merciful and slit their throats first. If not, he skinned them alive.”

“Merciful like Joffrey was merciful,” Sansa whispered, closing her eyes and trying not to envision the fate of those poor girls.

“Quite,” agreed Wyman, wiping a tear from his eye.

“So what happened to Bran and Rickon?” Sansa asked again.

“According to Wex, they escaped,” said Robett.

“How did they escape? For that matter, how did Wex escape?” Sansa queried, trying to forget the evil deeds of Ramsey Snow but feeling that they were seared into her mind forever.

“They hid in the crypts,” explained Wyman, regaining his composure. “And Wex hid in the branches of the weirwood. It seems that Theon or Ramsey killed some smallfolk boys and passed them off as your brothers. Wex saw Bran and Rickon leaving Winterfell after everyone believed them dead, in the company of Hodor and a wildling woman. Is that right, Wex?”

Wex nodded vigorously.

Robett handed Sansa a parchment, where someone (Wex?) had draw a crude picture of two boys with two wolves, another stick boy, a stick girl, a very large man, and a woman with tangled hair, walking amongst stick trees. One tree was drawn more carefully than the others, and the artist had drawn a face on it. Up in its branches was another stick-boy.

Sansa breathed, in and out, tears streaming down her cheeks. Bran and Rickon alive! Truly? Could the gods be so good?

“Where did they go afterwards? Does anyone know?” asked Sansa quietly.

“Wex followed Rickon and the woman,” said Robett. “We don’t know what happened to Bran, except that he was alive and travelling with Hodor. Perhaps Jojen and Meera Reed as well.” Robett pointed to the stick boy and stick girl who did not have wolves.

Sansa nodded, scarcely daring to hope. “And Rickon?” she asked.

“Show her, Wex,” instructed Wyman.

Wex smiled and took out a dragger, pressing the blade into the map. Sansa’s eyes widened in horror.

“Skagos?!” she breathed. “Where the cannibals live?”

“No one knows if they are truly cannibals,” said Wyman evenly. “But yes. That is why we have not been able to retrieve your brother yet.”

“We must send someone at once!” Sansa insisted.

“Yes, in due time,” Wyman agreed. “But there’s more that you must know.”

“What else could there be?” Sansa asked wearily.

“I have been building a navy, at the direction of your father and Robb,” Wyman informed her. “A few ships, you may have noticed in the harbor, but more are hidden up and down the White Knife. I have more knights and heavy horse than anyone else in the North. That has always been true, but it is even truer now. I have also been reaching out to the other Northern houses, and I have won Umber, Mormont, Flint, Glover, Tallhart, and many others to your cause. My hope is to use the wedding to get inside the gates of Winterfell. Mayhaps we can take it bloodlessly, as Theon did. But if not, we shall have more than enough men nearby to storm the castle by force. Once Winterfell is back in Stark hands, we shall sail up the Weeping Waters and take the Dreadfort as well. My hope is that many Bolton men will die of the snow and cold, marching from Winterfell to the Dreadfort, as I plan to write Lord Roose that Stannis means to attack his home. If he sends reinforcements, that too should help ease our taking of Winterfell, as the majority of the men will be our allies rather than his own.”

“But what of guest-right?” Sansa asked.

“The Freys shall travel by horse, while I will travel by barge and litter, as it’s said I’m too fat to ride a horse,” explained Wyman wryly, smiling viciously. “They did not bring horses from the Twins, so I shall give them horses as parting gifts. At Winterfell, we cannot be guest to invaders, and we shall not take their bread and salt. We shall greet them with naked steel, concealed behind our cloaks, revealed as soon as the gates are lifted.”

Sansa considered it. Technically, she supposed, that adhered to the letter of guest-right. She nodded.

“This is a good plan,” she remarked. “I shall go with you to Winterfell.”

“It is a risk,” cautioned Wyman. “I meant what I said, that you need not accompany us if you do not wish it. I would not bring you into further danger if I can help it.”

“I shall not be in much danger, if you have as many men as you say,” noted Sansa. “And we can dress my honor guards in the uniforms of your household guard, as you suggested earlier today. The Boltons will assume they are there to keep me from running, not to protect me.”

Wyman inclined his head.

“Are you sure, my lady?” asked Robett anxiously.

“I am sure,” Sansa said firmly. Her councilors would not be pleased with this, but she needed to go and see for herself. She could not wait here, while others took her castle for her. She turned to Wyman Manderly, her eyes solemn. “There is somewhat else that you must know, my lord.”

“Oh?” inquired Wyman, raising an eyebrow.

Sansa quickly told them about the letter she’d received from Jon and his claims that the dead rose once again beyond the wall. Wyman and Robett exchanged glances.

“We have heard rumors of such,” Robett admitted. “Even before the war.”

“Your father didn’t believe them,” Wyman commented carefully, gazing at Sansa. “But if you do…”

“I believe that Jon is telling the truth as he knows it,” Sansa clarified. “But I know not whether his understanding of the situation is correct.”

“Very well,” said Wyman. “I shall look into the matter and see what I can determine.”

After they discussed the remaining details, Sansa had one last question.

“What would you have done if I said I meant to usurp my brothers’ place?” she asked curiously.

Wyman gazed coolly at her. “Nothing, for the nonce,” he replied in a chilly voice. “I would have told you that your brothers’ locations were not known, but that I would endeavor to find them. I would not have acted against you until I had a Stark of the trueborn male line in my hands. It’s entirely possible that we shall not recover either Bran or Rickon, even if they yet live, so I would not alienate you, as you may yet prove the legitimate heir to Winterfell if your bothers cannot be retrieved. I would not rely on a speculative claim against your strong claim to the right to rule, if only as regent to your missing kin. And then I would have mercilessly driven you back South, once the boy was in my hands.”

Sansa smiled. “Good,” she said approvingly. “House Stark appreciates your loyalty, and your cleverness.”

Wyman smiled back, relaxing and warming again. “Then, if there is nothing else?”

Sansa bid him goodnight. After Lord Wyman had taken his leave, Wylla led Sansa back through the winding passages and the freezing godswood and ultimately back to her room. As she followed the younger, plumper girl, Sansa felt as if she was in a daze, torn between joy that her brothers lived and fear at the tales she had heard of Roose Bolton’s bastard. He is worse than Joffrey, from the sounds of it, Sansa thought with a shiver. But Bran and Rickon live!

 

***

 

When she got back to her room, Sansa lit a candle and took out another sheet of parchment. I will have to send a rider to take this message to another castle, or mayhaps directly to Jon, she thought. Perhaps Robett can ride for Castle Cerwyn and get their maester to send it. He has been saying that he wishes to gather some Cerwyn and Tallhart men to take back Deepwood Motte. Using the book Willas’s man had advised Jon to use for the cipher, Sansa carefully translated the sensitive portion of her message into code.

When she was finished writing, Sansa threw the unencoded letter in the fire and sealed the other with the direwolf stamp, hiding it underneath her pillow before she tried to return to sleep. But sleep did not come. Can they truly be alive? she wondered, hope warring with doubt inside her heart. Should I not risk sending word to Jon? But what else can I do? He deserves to know the truth.

When the sun rose, she was still clutching the letter beneath her pillow. Finally, her grasp loosened and she drifted off as the sun’s rays fell over her blankets, one of the pillows clutched over her head to block the brightening light.

Chapter Text

Tyrion took great joy in fucking his lady wife in his father’s bed, and in Cersei’s hot water bathing pool (which he had never been allowed to see, much less use, much less use for his own deviant purposes), and in the cavernous audience hall that had once been the throne room for the Kings of the Rock, and essentially anywhere else he could think of. If I had known that marriage would be so enjoyable, I would have ended my bachelorhood many years ago, Tyrion thought, trying to ignore the pang in his heart which reminded him that he had, indeed, attempted to marry once before.

Now that Tyrion had taken his lord father’s rooms as his own, he had the opportunity to examine them closely for the first time. In a discovery that he found immensely gratifying, albeit mildly surprising and somewhat disturbing, Tyrion had pulled aside a curtain to find a queer chain hanging from a ring that was attached loosely around a hefty pole that ran across the rocky ceiling. Pulling at the chain, Tyrion discovered that it slid easily along the pole. Upon further examination, he determined that the chain was attached to a crank that allowed it to be lowered, heightened, or locked into place. At the opposite end of the chain dangled a pair of manacles.

So father was a pervert after all, Tyrion mused. He considered briefly that the device might have been installed by his grandfather, but surely Tywin would have removed the offending contraption if he had not desired to use it. On further contemplation, Tyrion briefly wondered if the chain and manacles had been used for genuine torture rather than play, but he put the thought aside because the possibility made him uncomfortable. Instead, he imagined Desmera squirming in simultaneous pleasure and pain, hanging from the ceiling as he placed the Lord’s Kiss between her thighs. Tyrion resolved to try to realize this vision, assuming his wife was up for it. She always is, he thought to himself, pleased with the woman’s zest for lust and drink. A lady after mine own heart.

Desmera should be back any moment now, Tyrion realized, suddenly remembering that it was almost time for the council meeting. His lovely wife had spent the afternoon at the port, where she was overseeing the construction of new ships for the expanded Westerlands navy.

There was a spring in Tyrion’s step as he walked from his living quarters to meet with his regional governance council. In addition to Bronn as Master-at-Arms, Podrick as Paramount Knight, and Desmera as Mistress of Ships, Tyrion’s council included Maester Creylen; Lord Garrison Prester as Master of Laws; his cousin Cerenna Lannister as Mistress of Whisperers; Tyton, the heir to House Lannister of Lannisport, as Master of Coin; and Damion Lannister, a distant cousin, as Castellan. (Well, a distant cousin from his father’s side, at any rate, though closer from his mother’s side.)

It had been unexpectedly difficult to decide on the appointments to his council positions. So many of the relatives Tyrion would have liked to appoint were now missing or dead, busy with the ongoing war effort, recently promoted to cadet houses, or in King’s Landing serving Tommen. For instance, he would have preferred to take Kevan as his castellan rather than Damion, and he would have preferred Aunt Genna to Stafford’s daughter as his spymaster. Actually, his first choice for castellan would have been his uncle Gerion, but he had gone missing in Essos when Tyrion was still a boy, while searching for Brightroar, the family’s ancestral Valyrian steel sword. Even Martyn or Tyrek would have been preferable to Damion, but Martyn was with Kevan in King’s Landing and Tyrek had gone missing during the riots in the capital during Joffrey’s brief reign. Daven might also have made a good choice, but he was headed for the Twins to marry his Frey.

Actually, I should keep a rather close eye on Daven, once he returns, thought Tyrion. Stafford once planned to marry him to Desmera…mayhaps he resents the downgrade in his prospects. Certainly, Tyrion would not have been pleased if Desmera had been snatched from his clutches at the last minute and replaced with a stoatish Frey. It was doubtful his cousin felt any differently.

Overall, the Lannisters who remained at Casterly Rock were the least reliable and most distant of his kinsmen, but Tyrion supposed it could not be helped. War left no family untouched, and the Lannisters had not done so badly all in all. His nephew was King and most of their enemies had been defeated. It was still inconvenient that Tyrion’s once sprawling family had been depleted of many of its most competent members over the years, but there was nothing to be done about it besides making new heirs of his own. If, that is, Desmera is willing to brave the risks not only of death upon the battlefield of the birthing bed but also of bearing a deformed child. Unlikely, he assumed.

Regardless, Tyrion knew, he must soon recruit more of the minor lords from his region to replace his semi-competent relatives on his council and in other lower offices. Indeed, ensuring that a diversity of voices from the Westerlands were represented on his council and that talent did not languish unrecognized would go a long way towards stabilizing the region in the wake of the recent wars.

Unfortunately, many of his bannermen were also still at war or in the capital, and Tyrion was not terribly popular among the Westerlords due to his father’s open disdain and the insecurity of his previous position as merely a possible heir to the Paramount Lordship. Then again, Tywin had steamrolled his bannermen repeatedly, relying on fear to compel their loyalty and making little effort to win them over diplomatically. Mayhaps the very lords the father had most offended could now be coaxed to view the son differently, the strength of Tywin’s loathing serving to recommend Tyrion in a backwards sort of way. The worst of his bannermen – the Reynes and Tarbecks – had already been exterminated, leaving only those discontents with sufficient wisdom to avoid crossing Tywin. Those who remained might prove a valuable resource.

I shall have to throw a feast, or better yet, a tourney, Tyrion thought as he waddled towards the council chamber, so that I can scope out talented councilors and better assess the political dynamics at home after several years in King’s Landing or otherwise galivanting around the Seven Kingdoms.

With these thoughts swimming in his mind, Tyrion arrived at the small council chamber. He was preceded by Maester Creylen, a kindly and scholarly old man who had almost been a father figure to Tyrion at times. After greeting Creylen warmly, Tyrion rang for the servants and requested a bottle of wine and a plate of cheese, meats, nuts, and fruit. He meant for his councilors to feel comfortable and welcome in his presence. Desmera appeared next, slightly out of breath.

“It was a close thing, but I made it here before the meeting hour!” she declared, kissing Tyrion on the cheek. “I shall save my report for the full council, but you’ll be pleased to know that construction on the new ships has officially begun!”

“Wonderful,” replied Tyrion, beaming. Truly, the ships were Desmera’s project, but he admired her diligence in overseeing their construction so closely. It seemed his wife had learned a great deal about ships and sailing from her father, and he suspected she knew at least a bit about trade and naval warfare as well, if only by listening carefully to her father’s pontifications on these subjects. Tyrion had found Paxter to be a dreadful bore on those rare occasions when he had been forced to interact with him, and thereby subjected to the man’s spontaneous lectures on the proper proportion of drommonds to galleys and cogs in a fleet. Even so, Tyrion had to admit that he had found Lord Redwyne’s thoughts on export-forward trade balances a bit more intriguing. But that aside, it was fair to say that, unlike Paxter, Desmera had a gift for making such dry subjects sound exciting, and Tyrion was very glad his wife had taken after her Tyrell mother’s vivacious personality moreso than her dour father’s. This marriage could have been dreadful if he had been forced to wed a female version of Horror or Slobber, as the ladies of King’s Landing called Desmera’s brothers.

The other councilors filtered in one-by-one, with Damion appearing slightly later than the appointed time and Bronn sauntering in last of all. If Bronn does not take his duties seriously, I shall have to try to recall Addam Marbrand from the capital, Tyrion thought, frowning at the sellsword but deciding to let the matter go for the nonce. Bronn ought to have been appreciative of his rising status, but it seemed he lacked the proper gratitude. Mayhaps Tyrion had been wrong to think Bronn’s loyalty was to anything or anyone but gold. If so, he would need to watch Bronn as carefully as he watched Daven.

Ruling is a greater challenge than I expected, Tyrion thought, dismayed at Damion and Bronn’s lateness. The newly-minted Lord Paramount enjoyed political maneuvering, but the day-to-day management of the Westerlands was an entirely different affair. Once he managed to find a better castellan, much of that work could be delegated, but so long as he relied on men like Damion and Bronn, substantial oversight would be required. I suppose I shall have to be like Willas, with his charts and paperwork, for a time at least, Tyrion thought morosely.

“Now that the stragglers have joined us, shall we begin?” asked the Lord of Casterly Rock at length, only a mild note of reprimand in his tone. Bronn poured himself a glass of wine, looking amused, but Damion at least had the grace to drop his eyes to the ground and mutter an apology for his lateness.

“Yes, let us begin,” said Maester Creylen. “I have but one matter to bring before the council. Ser Garlan Tyrell has reportedly re-taken the Shield Islands from the Ironborn invaders, though Euron Greyjoy is still at large and menacing the coast. No further word regarding Balon’s son Theon or his daughter Asha has been received.”

“Thank you, maester,” said Tyrion. “That is good news, regarding the Shield Islands. I trust that Fair Isle is on high alert?”

“Yes, my lord,” the maester answered respectfully.

“Excellent. Anything else from the ravenry?”

“No, my lord.”

“Very well. Then perhaps my lovely wife would like to report on the progress at the shipyard?”

“Yes, lord husband,” replied Desmera brightly. “Construction on our new warships has officially begun. The flagship drommond and several longships should be finished within the moon’s turn. I am paying extra workers to labor on the night-time shifts due to the Ironborn threat. Once the first two rounds of warships are completed, we will begin to alternate between trading galleys and military vessels. Within a few years’ time, we shall easily trade with cities as far as Tyrosh and Myr, and the navy of Casterly Rock shall rival that of the Arbor, so long as coin remains sufficiently plentiful.”

“That is wonderful to hear, my dear,” replied Tyrion with a smile. He turned to Tyton. “And how is the situation, regarding coin?”

“The Westerlands are in decent shape, my lord,” replied the Master of Coin. “The Crown still owes us a massive debt, which has put a dent in our reserves, and the Lannister mines are still generating substantial gold, though some of the lines are becoming depleted. To continue to finance the fleet at the current pace for several more years, mining must be expanded or taxes will have to be raised. Unless…perhaps the Crown were to repay at least a few of your father’s loans?”

Tyrion shook his head. “The Crown is bankrupt, and the debts to the Iron Bank must precede those owed to House Lannister, for I shall not overthrow my nephew for failure to repay while the Iron Bank would do so without the slightest hesitation. I sought to placate them while I was Master of Coin, but I doubt their patience shall last long. What opportunities exist for expanding the mines?”

“If it please you, my lord,” said Tyton cautiously. “I suggest re-opening the mines at Castamere. Your father refused to open them, but the mineral deposits are perfectly sound. It is likely to be an awful task for the workmen, at least initially, but there is no reason to believe that there will be any trouble resuming mining once the water is drained and the bodies removed.”

“A smart proposal!” Tyrion proclaimed. “See it done.”

Lord Tyton gaped at him. “But, your father – I have been proposing this for years and – ”

“I am not my father,” the new Lord Paramount replied in a neutral tone. “Lord Tywin was sentimental about the Reynes and Tarbecks, albeit not in the usual manner. I have no such compunctions. A mine is simply a mine. See them re-opened, as you please.”

Tyton of Lannisport closed his mouth, nodded vigorously, and then broke into a broad smile. “Of course, my lord! Thank you!”

“Thank you for your resourcefulness in finding never-ending sources of gold – or at least I hope they shall be never-ending,” japed Tyrion. No one laughed, but Desmera did smile a little.

“If I may?” asked Lord Garrison Prester.

“You may,” said Tyrion lightly.

“I am concerned about the continued restlessness on our borders with the Riverlands,” declared the Master of Laws. “The sparrows and the bandits who follow the Red God both continue to make trouble.”

“What do you suggest ought to be done about this problem?” asked Tyrion.

Lord Prester looked startled, as if he had not expected to be asked for an opinion. “I – my lord – your father would simply have told me what to do.”

“I am not my father,” Tyrion said again, this time with a note of annoyance in his voice. “I intend to solicit wise council from my advisers and bannermen. So, I ask you once more – what would you have me do about this religious rabble?”

“I…I think you must reach out to the Riverlords to discuss a peace,” Lord Prester mumbled.

“To the border lords, or Riverrun, or Harrenhal?” asked Tyrion. The Riverlands were still disputed territory, last he had heard. It was not obvious who – if anyone – had the power to quell the unrest there.

“I…I know not, my lord,” Prester said quietly, hanging his head.

“Very well,” replied Tyrion with mild irritation. “Let us both consider the matter further and table this discussion until the next council meeting.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Bronn,” Tyrion called in the same irritated tone. The sellsword’s head, which had begun to droop after the second glass of wine – the second glass during the council meeting, anyways – snapped up.

“Yes?” asked Bronn, reflecting Tyrion’s annoyance back at him.

“How go your efforts to train the small folk and the green boys from Lannisport and the counties surrounding the Rock?” Tyrion asked, somewhat sharply.

Bronn yawned and stretched. “Good, milord. I practice with them once a day, and they’re gettin’ better. Still smallfolk and green boys, of course, but give me a couple of years. They’ll do all right.”

“That is satisfactory,” said the Lord of the Westerlands, in a tone that left some doubt. Now that his position afforded him more options, Tyrion had begun to reconsider his initial impressions of Bronn. The sellsword had helped him when he had been in dire straits, and they had survived many dangers together, but the very attitudes that had made Bronn a worthy companion when Tyrion was wandering, friendless and in dangerous territory, were proving maladaptive in more formal settings.

Perhaps captain of the household guard would have been a more appropriate position than Master at Arms, Tyrion reflected, wondering if it was too late to shuffle men around.

 

***


Tyrion’s plan for dealing with the Riverlands had just begun to take shape when his aunt Genna arrived and threw it all back into chaos. He was in the library reading about King Maegor and his efforts to subdue the Church when Maester Creylen appeared, summoning him to an emergency meeting in his solar.

“From the fact that you are here rather than still in the Riverlands, I take it that Edmure Tully or some agent working on his behalf has taken up the reigns at Riverrun?” asked Tyrion as he waddled into his father’s – no, his – solar.

Genna Lannister looked at her nephew sourly. “Yes, you have the right of it. Your brother Jaime has made a mess of things. He brokered a truce in the Riverlands, but it was a seriously misguided one. Your father must be rolling in his grave. I knew it was a mistake to let the Blackfish summon Sansa Stark, but Jaime swore she was a meek and biddable girl.”

“Sansa Stark?” Tyrion inquired, raising an eyebrow. “Or Sansa Tyrell, now, I suppose.”

Words pouring out, Genna quickly filled Tyrion in on the negotiations at Riverrun and her disastrous expulsion from the region.

“The girl rode for Maidenpool and intended to sail North, to White Harbor,” Genna concluded. “I was banished from the province, along with my husband and our children. I know not what it means to be banished from a land to which my husband has a right, as a Lord of the Crossing, even if that claim is a distant one given the size of his family, but I knew enough to get out before Edmure Tully changed his mind and decided to hang us all. Freys have been turning up dead all over the Riverlands, you know. I rode straight here, as fast as my horse could take me. Emmon and the children are in our rooms. We are all heartbroken. Absolutely heartbroken.”

“I am sorry, Aunt Genna,” Tyrion replied with as much kindness as he could muster, though he was secretly pleased that the situation in the Riverlands seemed to be resolving on its own. From the sounds of it, Jaime had truly made a mess of the negotiations, but what was done was done.

“Thank you, nephew. Now what are you going to do about it? I have always said that you are Tywin’s only true son, that you lived up to his legacy in ways that Jaime and Cersei could never have done. Are you going to live up to that praise, or am I to discover that Tywin was right and you are like our father after all?”

“Father knew how to make war, but not peace,” Tyrion declared. “Jaime was rash, yes, but letting your enemies walk away from a negotiation feeling that they’ve gotten everything they wanted is not such a bad thing. At any rate, it may be that we can ensure that your eldest son inherits Riverrun, if the Frey woman bears a daughter.”

“But they stole the castle out from under us!” Genna objected. “That cannot go unpunished!”

“And it will not, in time,” Tyrion assured her. “But for now I shall let it stand. It would not be wise to break this truce, at least not until Stannis is properly dealt with.”

“Stannis will be dead within the fortnight, up in the freezing North,” said Genna dismissively. Her eyes narrowed. “It seems that I was foolish to think you could live up to Tywin’s legacy. He was the kind of man who comes around only once in a thousand years. None of his children, not even you, could ever be his match.”

Tyrion was hurt by her words, even though he knew she spoke only from anger. She cannot mean it, he thought, recalling all of the times she had been there for him to comfort him after his father’s cruelties. He thought of her like a mother, almost. It pained him to hear her insult him.

“I have never been as violent as my father, and you should know that,” Tyrion said reproachfully. “I inherited his intelligence, but Cersei got his ruthlessness and Jaime his military prowess. A pity, that none of us inherited all three. But mayhaps it is a boon as well. Unlike my father, I intend to make more friends than enemies.”

“That Redwyne girl has really gotten her vines twisted around you, hasn’t she?” Genna shot back disapprovingly.

“Not exactly,” Tyrion said sharply. “I have always been more willing to opt for diplomacy than my father was. As Hand of the King, I ended our decades-long feud with the Dornish, did I not? Yes, Desmera offers wise counsel and points me towards a different way, but that does not mean I am controlled by her. I am still willing to do what must be done when there is not a better way. I have Tywin’s stomach, if not his zest for cruelty. But, tell me, auntie. What would you have me do? Break the truce, when our armies are already spread thin? That would not be wise and you know it.”

Genna sighed. “I know it seems that way, Tyrion, but Tywin always said that one cannot let a single slight slip by without emboldening all one’s other enemies. You would understand if you had known your grandfather. Tytos –”

“Did Tywin do as his father did, exactly and in every matter?” Tyrion interrupted. “No. He corrected my grandfather’s failings and charted his own course, as brutal as it was. I intend to do the same. Tywin did as he thought best, but at times, he went too far, and towards the end he overreached. If I do not mirror my father exactly, it is because I am my own man. Not Tywin, but not Tytos either. I wish to steer own course, a more moderate one that uses diplomacy as much as force.”

“So what shall you do about the Westerlings?” Genna asked. “Edmure threw them out as well. They should be back at the Crag by now, I expect. What does your new course mean for them? Will you let them get away with betrayal too?”

“The Westerlings are mine own subjects, and I can certainly help you with them,” Tyrion said lightly.

“But not with Riverrun?” Genna demanded. “Your father would not have stood for this insult, even if it was done by Jaime’s permission.”

That time, Tyrion let Genna’s comment pass without a response. Instead, he kept his silence and took a moment to contemplate his options. What to do about the Westerlings? he wondered. My father would wipe them out. Sansa would beg for their lives, at least her goodsister’s, if she were here. Mayhaps I should strip their titles, give the Crag to Genna, send the Westerlings to the North or to Highgarden where they can become someone else’s problem? Yes, that seems the wisest course.

“The Westerlings shall forfeit all their titles, and I shall banish them from the Westerlands,” Tyrion pronounced. “That does not break the truce, as I am well within my rights to discipline disloyal bannermen.”

“And the Crag?” Genna asked hopefully.

Tyrion smiled. “It is yours.”

“Wonderful! Thank you, Tyrion!” Genna cried, hugging him. Then she backed away. “Will you send your men to reclaim it for us, in case they resist?”

“Certainly,” said Tyrion. “Though I do not think that will be necessary. I intend to summon them here, and send them off by ship with the clothes upon their backs. Let them become Sansa’s problem, the natural consequence of her demanding truce. I expect that with their lords far from here, the Westerling men shall surrender rather easily, but I shall send Bronn and some of his men with you, to be sure.”

“That goes some way towards making up for the wrongs that have been done to us by your brother,” Genna admitted. “Though the Crag is no Riverrun.”

“I know. But I meant what I said about potentially arranging a marriage to Edmure’s daughter, if indeed the babe is a girl.”

Genna nodded, still not fully satisfied, but mollified at least.

 

***

 

As he expected, his nubile bride was happy to try anything that crossed his mind, at least once. Desmera giggled as he clasped the manacles around her wrists and slapped a hand across her arse, just hard enough to sting. She gasped when he cranked the dial to shorten the chain, lifting her until her bended knees hovered an inch or so above the bed. To stabilize herself and provide some support for her body weight, she rested her calves and feet lightly against the bed. The sensuous redhead moaned as Tyrion slid his face beneath her, and by the time he was finished kissing between her netherlips she was screaming her release and rocking against his nose. When he moved behind her to take his own pleasure, he found her dripping wet for him. His fingers dropped back between her legs to caress her pearl of pleasure as he stood behind her, her body dangling at the perfect height to receive his thrusts. She was shrieking once again by the time he grunted and collapsed, though he did not dally long, conscious that a posture that felt tolerable in the heat of pleasure could quickly grow uncomfortable once the fun was over. She sighed as he lowered her back to the bed and rubbed her wrists, smiling, when he unclasped her. Folding her into his arms as best he could with his short limbs, he whispered endearments to her, feeling like the luckiest man in the Seven Kingdoms.

Laying there, pleased and fully sated, Tyrion’s mind returned to a stray thought from earlier in the day. Sansa would never have willingly borne my offspring, but is Desmera truly any different? Tyrion wondered. The notion of becoming a father pleased him as much as it discomfited him. On one hand, Tyrion did not wish to risk Desmera’s life, and with his own mother’s untimely demise in childbirth, he knew all too well that the birthing bed was a battleground. On the other, he knew it would be expected of them to produce heirs sooner or later, especially after so many had been lost to war.

I would be a better father than Tywin or Tytos, he told himself. I would teach my sons to be observant, clever, and knowledgeable. I would teach them to be ruthless when ruthlessness is required yet kind when the situation allows it, and diplomatic most of all. With Desmera as their mother, it stands to reason that my heirs might find a way to blend the vicious efficacy of House Lannister with the subtler methods of the Reach. Such a combination would be lethal, in the most beautiful way. But did Desmera envision such a future too? Surely, a child would cement her power here. But mayhaps she does not wish to risk a deformed babe. Tyrion realized he did not even know if Desmera had been drinking moon tea or if she had already rolled the dice on spawning a demon monkey of her own. Now that it occurred to him, he felt the need to ask. Tyrion rolled onto his side to look at his wife, a questioning look in his eyes.

“Desmera, I have realized that I do not know if you are drinking moon tea, now that we are wed,” he said carefully. “Are you?”

“No,” she said, propping herself up on an elbow and trying to read his expression. “Should I be? I stopped drinking it about a moon before our wedding.”

“No, no need to start drinking it again,” Tyrion said hastily. “My family is short on heirs at the moment, so it is good that you stopped.”

“Good,” replied Desmera, laying back down and closing her eyes. “I figured as much.”

But Tyrion was not finished discussing the matter yet. “You would tell me, if you were not willing to bear my heirs?” he asked. “It’s just that, with Cersei as a sister, I am fully aware of the ultimate powers that women wield over such matters. A husband may forbid all he likes, but who is to say he will be listened to? Will he hover every minute, for years and years, to make sure his wife does not take tansy in the secret of the night? To make sure she lies with him and no one else? It is impossible to be sure, no matter what a man does. My fate, and the fate of my family, depend on your goodwill.”

Desmera opened her eyes again and looked at Tyrion with mild consternation. “Are you accusing me of lying?” she demanded.

“No! No. I mean only that…I…I would not be surprised if you did not wish to bear my children. Only you must tell me, if that is so. We could make other arrangements if you refuse, if you consider it one thing to sleep with the Imp and another entirely to bear potentially deformed children. Perhaps Jaime…it would not be so terrible if my ‘sons’ were truly nephews, so long as I knew. All of which is to say only that I would rather know if you have chosen not to allow my seed to take root, or if my children are not truly mine. It would hurt me terribly if you were to lie to me about such matters. It would hurt less to know the truth, even if it is an unkind truth to speak.”

“You insult me,” said Desmera, glaring at him. “Of course I wouldn’t lie to you, certainly not about that. If it turns out you cannot father children, then we can discuss alternatives. Your brother is an attractive man, so mayhaps he would serve, if it turns out that your condition prevents you from siring sons. But I would never do such a thing behind your back. What kind of evil whore would do that?”

“Cersei,” said Tyrion, glumly.

“So it’s true?!” Desmera shrieked, sitting up again and beating at her pillow. “That awful letter Stannis sent out? It’s true?!”

“You did not know?” Tyrion asked with amusement.

“I mean…it is a little weird that all of them came out blonde, but inheritance is a strange thing sometimes. My aunt Alerie’s hair is Targaryen silver, and there’s no Targaryen in our family tree. Everyone assumes her coloring came from a distant Dayne ancestor or some such. Most of the Stark children are said to look more Tully, like Sansa. It is not so strange that Robert would get blonde children on Cersei,” Desmera replied, thinking aloud. She put a hand to her forehead and laughed. “Gods, Tyrion! The King is an incest baby! Margaery married an abomination of incest and he’s not even a Targaryen! Oh, this is good. I wonder if she knows?”

“You must not say anything about this, especially not to Margaery and especially not to anyone here at the Rock,” Tyrion cautioned. “It’s an open secret, but it would not serve to confirm it.”

“I know. I’m not stupid, Tyrion,” Desmera fired back. Then she giggled again. “Oh, gods! Poor Stannis! No one believed him but it’s actually true. If he weren’t such an arse, he might have been King. Well, until Olenna poisoned him to replace him with Renly, anyways. Oh, it is too good! How absolutely wicked of Cersei! Her own brother!”

Tyrion smirked. “It is rather funny, isn’t it?” Or it would be, had it not led to the most destructive war since Robert’s Rebellion, he added silently to himself.

 

***

 

Damion was on time to the next council meeting, though only by a hairsbreadth. Bronn was late again, if not quite as late as the previous meeting. Tyrion glowered at Bronn, who seemed not to notice.

“Now that the master of arms has seen fit to join us, shall we begin?” asked Tyrion, rather pointedly. The sellsword ignored the implicit reprimand, popping a bite of hard yellow cheese into his mouth and pouring a glass of wine.

“Yes, let us begin,” agreed Maester Creylen, a note of concern in his voice. “There is much of import to discuss today.”

“Oh?” asked Tyrion, rather surprised by this. What can have happened now? he wondered. Somewhat to do with Euron Greyjoy, mayhaps?

“Yes, my lord,” said Creylen, bowing and withdrawing a stack of letters from his robes. He handed the first one to Tyrion.

“A letter from my sister. What a joy,” deadpanned Tyrion, his eyes skimming quickly over the parchment.

“The Dowager Queen writes to say that she has appointed Daven Lannister the new Warden of the West, and she denounces our Lord Tyrion as a kinslayer unworthy of his title,” Creylen announced, watching Tyrion’s reaction carefully.

“Ah, dear Cersei,” Tyrion said with distaste. He looked up at the other members of her council. “She is under the impression that I poisoned her son, but I assure you, I did not.”

“I thought King Joffrey’s death was an accident?” inquired Damion, appearing confused.

“Grand Maester Pycelle declared it so, that much is true,” affirmed Tyrion. “But however misguided Cersei’s suspicions towards me, I cannot disagree with her conclusion that poison is a more likely cause of death than choking on a piece of pie. The boy’s face turned a rather lurid shade of purple as he gasped his last breaths, and his eyes bulged in the most unnatural fashion.”

The lords murmured amongst themselves for a moment before Tyrion rapped on the table, signaling the need for an orderly discussion.

“If it was poison, why did Lord Tywin not object to Pycelle’s findings?” asked his cousin Cerenna, rather sensibly.

Tyrion shrugged. “I suspect that my father either did not know the culprit or could not prove his suspicions, and that he wished the matter to be closed as soon as possible, to avoid further embarrassment. Kevan and I planned to investigate further, but my wedding and my father’s death have precluded any meaningful investigation. I plan to continue looking into the matter, in part to prove the idiocy of Cersei’s accusation and in part to identify the threat to our family. It may be that my father was also a victim, or that further victims are planned.”

The other Lannisters glanced at one another, frightened by the prospect of some unknown enemy picking them off.

“We shall have to appoint a cup-bearer and a food-taster for you, my lord,” cautioned Creylen. “Only as a precaution, until we can determine whether there is any threat to you personally.”

“That seems wise,” said Tyrion drolly. He took another sip of his wine, which he had been drinking from before the meeting began. “Luckily, it would seem that this bottle was safe enough.”

“What are you going to do about Cersei?” asked Desmera, angered by the Queen’s aggressive maneuvers to counter their newly-established authority in the Westerlands.

“If I may say so…it might happen that King’s Landing, at least, will take care of itself,” interjected Creylen, a mean smile playing at his lips.

“What do you mean?” asked Desmera. Tyrion raised his eyebrows, sharing his bride’s curiosity. The maester handed Tyrion a second letter.

“It seems that the Targaryens have returned,” the maester announced, his demeanor altogether too calm as he shared this earth-shattering news. “A pair of silver-haired, purple-eyed dragonriders have landed at Storm’s End, claiming to be Aegon the Sixth and Daenerys Stormborn. They write demanding fealty.”

The maester’s words sent a shockwave around the room, and Desmera glanced at Tyrion, her face pinched with worry. Her father was commanding the ships at the siege of Storm’s End, Tyrion thought, suddenly putting the pieces together. The maester picked up a third letter and handed it to Desmera, who quickly tore it open.

“My father says that he and Lord Mace have sworn fealty and given up the siege of Storm’s End,” Desmera informed the council after she quickly read her father’s note. “He bids us do the same.”

Further murmuring followed Desmera’s words, until Garrison Prester’s voice cut through the din. “Do you mean to bend the knee, my lord?” he asked, looking deeply concerned. The other councilors looked anxiously at Tyrion.

Leave it to my father to die right before the truly difficult decisions arise, Tyrion thought sourly.

“Well, my preference is not getting burnt to a crisp by dragonfire, if it’s all the same to you,” japed Tyrion. “But I would hear whatever counsel you have to offer, and I wish to think it over carefully before deciding upon any course of action.”

“Do we know if it is truly Aegon, son of Rhaegar?” asked Cerenna, looking contemplative.

“Does it matter?” Tyrion shot back. “They have dragons.”

“The King of the Rock fought back, when the dragons came,” said Prester in a tone of mild disapproval.

King Loren Lannister and the last Gardener King joined forces against Aegon the Conquerer, and they commanded a host of men the size of which had never been seen before and is not like to be seen again, thought Tyrion. Yet they were defeated on the Field of Fire. Their great army meant nothing in the face of dragons. Our forces are already paltry in comparison to King Loren’s, even if Mace Tyrell were bluffing, which he surely is not.

“I am not a King,” Tyrion said mildly. “And, if you’ll recall, it’s House Baratheon that sits the throne, not House Lannister.”

What would my father have done? Tyrion wondered as he searched the faces of his advisors. Fought, surely. And likely died.

“King Tommen is your nephew,” Desmera reminded him, frowning.

“It may be that the dragons can be persuaded to spare the boy, in exchange for the throne,” Tyrion commented, looking around to gauge his councilors’ reactions.

As a boy, I wished that I might live to see a dragon, and cried when I was told the dragons were extinct, thought Tyrion. Now that they have returned and seem like to burn us all to ashes, I regret ever wishing such a foolish thing. But, oh, it would be quite a sight to see!

“I ain’t fightin’ any dragons, no matter how much gold yer offering,” remarked Bronn. “If you want to fight them, be my guest, but I will leave that to you brave folks. I value my skin.”

“Your courage and loyalty are inspirational, Bronn,” Tyrion said snidely, thinking Yes, I shall have to replace him, and soon. He is not wrong to think fighting dragons is a dead man’s play, but I cannot have him undermining the morale of my men with his sellsword’s cowardice. How could I have ever thought I could rely on him?

Podrick, who had said nothing the entire meeting, finally piped up. “I will fight for you, my lord!” the boy declared. “On my honor as a knight – well, an almost-knight, a knight-to-be, soon, that is, whenever you get around to it. I mean…I just mean…I know I cannot fight a dragon…but I…I would die for you, Lord Tyrion. I have honor,” Podrick declared passionately, rising from his chair and dropping to one knee.

Tyrion patted the boy on the shoulder and motioned for him to get back up. I really ought to find someone to knight the poor boy, Tyrion thought, his heart swelling at his devoted squire’s speech.

“Thank you, Podrick. That is very noble of you, but my hope is that shall not be necessary,” Tyrion said aloud. “Anyone else wish to comment?”

Desmera glanced around the table, as if waiting to be sure that she would not be interrupting anyone else who wished to speak. Finally, she said, “I agree with your instincts on this, my lord husband. I do not see how we can stand alone against the dragons, and we have few allies remaining if the Reach has bent the knee. I do not think my father or Lord Mace would give up if there were any hope of military victory. Without the Reach, after the War of the Five Kings, we have nowhere to turn for allies. Let the dragons deal with Stannis. Let Dorne resist if they wish. I see no upside to fighting. If there was any lesson to be learned from the history of the first Aegon’s conquest, it’s that King Torrhen of the North and the Hightower Kings of Oldtown had the right of it. The rest of the Kingdoms burned, while their people were spared. I see no reason to fight a war of independence when we have long been leal subjects of the Iron Throne. If these Targaryens are mad, there are subtler ways to resolve such problems.”

She means we could poison them, thought Tyrion affectionately.

“My wife is as intelligent as she is beautiful,” declared Tyrion. “That was my thought exactly.”

“What other ways?” asked Damion Lannister, confused.

Tyrion sighed and brought a hand to his face. Gods, he is a stupid man. There must be someone else who would better serve as castellan.

“The way our enemies dealt with Joffrey remains open to us, if these dragons prove more Aerys than Jaehaerys,” Tyrion explained.

“You may wish to know, my lord, that your uncle Kevan is on his way to us as we speak,” interjected Creylen. “If you wish to hear his counsel before sending a reply.”

“Kevan? But he is King Tommen’s hand, is he not?” Tyrion asked, frowning.

Maester Creylen handed Tyrion another letter and explained that Kevan had resigned over disagreements with Cersei. At this, Tyrion groaned aloud.

“Well, someone has to get Tommen out of there,” Tyrion said glumly, looking around to see if anyone had any ideas. All of his advisors’ eyes dropped to the floor or rose to the ceiling. Even Desmera wouldn’t look at him.

“You all think he is as good as dead,” Tyrion said with a note of accusation in his voice.

“I think his life is at the mercy of the dragons, if we bend the knee,” Desmera said quietly. “You would save many lives by making Torrhen’s choice, but Tommen may not be one of them.”

She was right, he knew, but it galled him. Tommen was such a sweet boy. He never wanted to be King. He did not deserve to die. Mayhaps I can convince them to spare him, Tyrion thought, but even before he could finish thinking it, the long list of counter-examples rose in his mind. The first that came to mind was his father. Tywin had slain Rhaegar’s children – or thought he had, anyways.

Could this boy truly be Aegon, son of Rhaegar and Elia? wondered Tyrion. He found the notion doubtful. Surely the boy was dead, murdered by the Mountain during the siege of King’s Landing. It is possible, if unlikely…the boy’s face was smashed beyond all recognition…but how could anyone have gotten him out of the castle without others noticing?

"What say you, Tyton? You have been very quiet,” Tyrion prompted. “Should I bend the knee or somewhat else?”

Tyton hesitated. Finally, he said, “War is bad for business, my lord. I am sorry for your nephew, but for the people of Lannisport, it does not matter so much who sits the Iron Throne. I would much prefer to continue making plans for expanding our role in ocean trade routes, than for making war against dragons. There is no advantage to fighting wars that one is doomed to lose.”

“Wise counsel,” Tyrion said heavily. “Cerenna?”

“I think you should fight,” his cousin said hotly. “There are only two dragons, and dragons have been slain before. These dragons must be young yet, and more easily killed. Better to smother the Targaryens in the cradle than let them re-establish themselves. And what of Tommen? Would you truly abandon him?”

Tyrion sighed. “I do not wish to abandon the boy, no.”

This is exactly why I wanted to protect Tommen by having my men take him somewhere safer, when I was Hand, he thought. But Cersei could not countenance being separated from her sons even briefly. She is the one who is putting the boy at risk, by remaining in King's Landing. What can I do, from so far away?

“Then fight!” Cerenna urged him. “Or trick them. You are a clever man, are you not? A descendent of Lann the Clever? Then act like it! Find a way out of this situation that neither humiliates us nor turns us to ash. It’s what your father would have done. I know not how he would have accomplished it, but Lord Tywin always had an answer.”

“I shall think on it,” Tyrion promised, growing tired of his councilors’ constant comparisons between him and his father. “And I shall search in the library for information about weapons that might aid us in dragonslaying. If there is a way out of this that does not involve another Field of Fire or my nephew’s head on a pike, I shall endeavor to find it.”

“Good,” sniffed Cerenna, who reminded Tyrion more and more of Cersei.

She is Daven’s sister, he thought. Mayhaps I ought to watch her closely as well. It is getting to the point where I must needs replace my entire council. Except for Tyton and Creylen and Desmera, of course. For now, however, Tyrion knew he must keep Damion and Cerenna. In order to dismiss them, he would need to select replacements that were both of higher birth and higher skill, to avoid offending his cousins. Besides, it was not so bad for Cerenna to challenge him and prompt him to seek more creative answers. Mayhaps he could find something in the library after all. Even if he meant to make peace with the dragonlords, backing his diplomacy with force was a smart move.

After he dismissed them, the others trickled out of the council room. Tyrion stopped Creylen before he could finish gathering up his papers.

“Maester,” Tyrion said respectfully. “I need to send a raven to Addam Marbrand in the capital, but I need to ensure it is not read by anyone but he. Is that possible?”

The maester thought for a moment. “I could send a bird to Haverford or Darry and have them send a rider,” he suggested. “That is, if you do not trust Pycelle. I always thought him to be loyal to your father?”

“To my father, yes,” Tyrion agreed. “And now to my sister.”

“I see,” replied the maester sagely.

Tryion asked for a parchment and quill, and quickly began to write. When he was finished, he stamped his seal on the scroll and handed it to the maester, who headed immediately back to the ravenry. Once they were alone, Desmera turned to her husband, her face pinched with worry.

“I did not want to contradict you in the council meeting, and I do not entirely disagree that bending the knee is wise, but I am worried about my brothers in King’s Landing,” Desmera confessed.

Tyrion looked at her with sympathy. “I am sure that your father accounted for their safety when negotiating with the dragons. This so-called King Aegon has no reason to harm your brothers, especially at the risk of angering your family.”

“I know,” she said softly. “But still, I worry. And what of Margaery? They have all too many reasons to view her as a threat.”

“You could write to them, if you are concerned,” suggested Tyrion. “Invite your brothers here to visit. They could bring Margaery with them and deposit her at Oldtown on the way. I am sure her grandfather would look after her and send her along to Highgarden. And that is assuming that your uncle does not have a plan in place for ensuring Margaery's safety. One must assume he does, if he has bent the knee. Or if not he, then Olenna or Alerie or Willas surely has set something in motion.”

Desmera’s frown lifted at that suggestion, though she twirled a strand of hair nervously around one finger. “That is an excellent idea and I shall do so at once. However, I fear my brothers are determined to remain at court until they find wives of their own. If father has written to tell them that it’s safe, I worry that they will decline my invitation, thinking there is naught to fear from the dragonlords.”

“If your father deems it safe, it probably is,” he pointed out. “No doubt he wishes to protect them as well, and since he was among the first to bend the knee, I expect your brothers will find favor with the new King and Queen, if their siege is successful.”

“But during the siege? That is what I fear.”

“Stannis Baratheon survived over a year on shoe leather and rats before his onion knight saved the men of Storm’s End,” Tyrion reminded her. “It would be unpleasant, yes, but I expect they would be fine in the end.”

“But what if your sister deems them traitors, because my father bent the knee?”

“That,” said Tyrion heavily. “Is a serious concern, I must admit. Perhaps you might point that out in your letter to them.”

“I hope they will listen,” she murmured anxiously, the expression on her face leaving some doubt that she believed they would.

Horas and Hobber did strike me as fools, Tyrion thought, though he did not say it aloud. It would be to his advantage if they happened not to listen, for that would make Desmera heir to the Arbor, though he would not wish the death of her brothers. If she was not as close to them as he was to Jaime, still, they cared for each other. Hopefully they shall prove to have more wits than I was able to discern, or at least the Tyrells will rescue them in some fashion or another. He did not want his lady wife's heart to break, after all, even if it granted them ownership of all the best wine in the Seven Kingdoms. Still, if it came to pass despite their best efforts...the silver lining would not be negligible. He would not speak such ugly words aloud, of course, but it did cross his mind.

 

***

 

Tyrion spent the next several days deep in the cavernous library of Casterly Rock, searching for a solution to their dragon problems. The histories of Dorne provided some small clues, but he was struggling to find anything more than the barest hints about precisely how the Dornish had killed Meraxes or why the Targaryens’ dragons had sickened and died over the years. It seemed the dragons had retained a tight control on information about the death of dragons while they ruled. He wondered briefly if more information might be lurking in the libraries at Highgarden or the Citadel, and wondered if Lord Willas would share any such information if he requested it.

Likely not, he thought. He does not seem foolish enough to share such a military advantage with a rival power, and I do not even know whether he objects to the rule of dragons. His father bent the knee, yet his sister is Queen and her life dangles by a silken thread that could snap at any moment. 

To clear his head, Tyrion decided to continue his explorations of Casterly Rock as he mulled over the dragon problem. Though he had spent much of his youth exploring, there were always new areas to be discovered, especially in those parts of the castle that had been off-limits to him in his youth. With this in mind, he headed for the dungeons, thinking to ensure that his father had not left any valuable prisoners languishing in secret when he died so unexpectedly in King’s Landing.

Casterly Rock was only a partially man-made structure; the vast majority of the castle was carved out of the rock itself, with only its pinnacle crafted by human hands. The dungeons were carved into the deepest, broadest part of the base and into the ground itself, alongside the cellars and sewers and gods only knew what other long-forgotten secret chambers. Tyrion knew the sewers well, due to his father delegating their management to him when he came of age, an insult Tyrion had quickly turned to his credit by performing exceptionally well at the job he had been assigned. Not that Tywin noticed, of course.

The dungeons had an ominous vibe to them, and Tyrion enjoyed the mild creepy feeling that rushed over his skin as he explored. There was always a chance that he might happen across some hidden oubliette or unexpected corpse. At times, he imagined he could hear the screams of long-dead ghosts, but the peacefulness of the realm in the preceding two decades suggested that it was unlikely the dungeons housed any living prisoners. Mayhaps some common criminals or lesser lords in the upper dungeons, where the standard holding cells were located. Less likely that he would find much of interest in these deep, dark, forgotten caverns.

Or so he thought.

What began as an exercise in taking his mind off his Targaryen predicament became something far more horrifying when he did, indeed, stumble upon the remains of an old oubliette.

He first noticed something was amiss because the wall – an artificial one, of brick rather than unbroken stone – appeared to be crumbling. Something light in color gleamed behind the gap in the wall, and Tyrion debated whether he ought to investigate or leave the dead to rest in peace.

His curiosity got the better of him, of course, as it always did. Tyrion brushed away the crumbling masonry, pieces of brick scattering on the floor as the hole opened wider.

Immediately, he wished he hadn’t. The body entombed in the wall shifted, likely due to the movement of the rocks that hemmed it in. A jolt of fear caused Tyrion to jump, and in his haste, he knocked against the body. It tumbled out, falling on top of him.

Tyrion lay on the stone floor of the dungeons, screaming, staring into a mummified face that he recognized as his cheerful favorite uncle who taught him to tumble and whet his appetite for adventure and stories about faraway lands. Tyrion began to scream, his wailing cries of horror and grief richocheting off the walls of the cave as he stared into the leathery face of Gerion Lannister. The man who had once been called the Laughing Lion would not laugh again, it seemed.

By the time Tyrion’s screams brought assistance, he had already shoved Gerion’s body off of his own. When the jailors found him, the newly-risen Lord of Casterly Rock was curled up like an infant in the womb, rocking and crying hysterically like the young boy he had been when Gerion gave him his first books about dragons.

Tyrion went through the rest of the day in a daze, hearing only snippets of conversation floating around him. His wife was deeply concerned about him, that much he could tell, but even she could do little to rouse him from his stupor. Aunt Genna had forgiven him immediately for his failure to take back Riverrun, once she saw his condition and learned the cause of it. She held Tyrion for some time, clutching him to her soft, plump body like the mother he had always wished she was. Maester Creylen looked almost guilty, offering soothing potions but saying little.

“Just because your uncle died down there doesn't mean your father is responsible,” said Desmera sensibly. “And you do not know for certain that it is he, rather than some long-dead ancestor who resembled him.”

But Tyrion knew.

“It had to be,” whispered Tyrion, his voice breaking.

“You do not know that,” said Desmera gently, fussing over him.

Time seemed to ebb and flow without reason or order.

“There, there,” Genna whispered as she rocked him, humming the lullabies she had sung to him when he was but a babe in the cradle. “It shall be all right, Tyrion. It happened a long time ago. You shall be all right.”

He did not know how long she held him, though it brought some small comfort.

Finally, Tyrion asked Creylen the question that had been burning inside him since he discovered the body.

“Was it my father?” he croaked. “Did my father kill Uncle Gerion?”

The maester hesitated. “I wanted to tell you at the time, but your father forbid me,” the old man whispered, hanging his head.

“Why?” Tyrion choked. “What happened?”

“Your uncle returned from Essos, empty-handed but swearing he knew the sword’s location and that he needed only a little money to bring it back to your father. Gerion said he would hire Unsullied slave soldiers to sail into the ruins of Old Valyria with him. He had a map, and swore that his information was accurate. But Tywin wouldn’t finance Gerion’s second quest for Brightroar, no more than he was willing to fund the first. So your uncle thought to steal it, as Lann the Clever stole your ancestral home from the Casterlys. Your father caught him and ordered him sealed up in the dungeons and forgotten, reasoning that the oubliette did not constitute kinslaying because he would not be outright slaying his brother but simply leaving him to die,” explained Creylen, whose voice conveyed his misery and regret.

“Who knew?” he demanded.

“Only your father, myself, and the jailor who did the deed. Your father had the jailor poisoned within the fortnight, and swore I would meet the same fate if I ever spoke a word of it,” said the elderly maester who was more like a father to Tyrion than his own, real, kinslaying father. “I swore a vow to serve the Lord of Casterly Rock and keep his secrets, and I could not break that vow, no matter how I wished to tell you. Please believe me, Tyrion, I did everything in my power to stay your father’s hand, but it was not enough. It was never enough. There was no stopping him when he got that rage inside him. I tell you now only because you are now the Lord of Casterly Rock, and it is your secrets I vow to keep. Your lord father’s secrets are yours by rights.”

“I do not know that I wish to know them, if the rest are like this one,” Tyrion said bitterly.

“All the same,” Creylen said gently, gazing at Tyrion with tears in his eyes. “If you ask, I shall always tell you. All that I know is at your disposal. I am so sorry, my boy, my lord. So terribly sorry. If I could have stopped him…I still think on that conversation and wonder if there was aught else I could have said…I failed you, and I shall take my regrets to my grave.”

“This crime against the laws of gods and men is on my father’s conscience, not yours,” he assured the maester.

I wish my father was still alive so that I could have the pleasure of killing him, Tyrion thought with white-hot fury and bone-deep sorrow.

Chapter Text

Conditions at the Wall were worsening as winter arrived in full force. Despite his Northern tolerance of cold weather and Satin’s diligence in keeping his fire stoked, Jon was tired of feeling half-frozen and found it difficult to remember the last time he had felt truly warm. At Winterfell, they had not realized how fortunate they were to have the castle heated by the hot springs even in the dead of winter. Castle Black possessed no such luxuries. He lay in bed, shivering and missing Ghost. The direwolf had gone out on a hunt the previous evening but had yet to return. Thanks to his wolf dreams, Jon was reassured that Ghost was safe despite his absence from the Wall. Likely, the wolf simply preferred to avoid Castle Black for a while, due to the lingering presence of Borroq’s aggressively unpleasant boar.

Jon did not wish to leave even the paltry warmth provided by his bed and blankets, especially because rising for the day meant he would have to deal with Stannis again. The would-be King was growing on Jon’s nerves and eating up the rations Bowen Marsh had carefully collected and counted during the summer years. Between Stannis’s men and the wildlings, Marsh had warned Jon that the Watch retained only a year’s worth of rations at the current rate of consumption, even now that they had switched to winter portions. On top of that, Jon’s men did not seem to understand why he was sharing food with Stannis or the wildlings he had allowed through the Wall. They resented the early switch to winter ration sizes.

Now that Sam was gone to Oldtown, and Dolorous Edd to Long Barrow, Jon’s allies were dwindling. He felt very alone, but believed he had made the right decisions to send his friends away. It was more important to have trustworthy men in those positions he could not personally supervise, than to surround himself with men he liked. To keep my friends close would have been selfish, Jon reminded himself. It does not matter that I miss them. Kill the boy and let the man be born, that’s what Aemon told me I must do, and so I shall. A man does not miss his friends, or at least does not let such feelings of weakness get in the way of his duties.

Still, despite his reluctance to begin his day, Jon knew that he must attend to his responsibilities, so he heaved himself up and left the warmth of his bedding behind. He rang for Satin, who got the fire burning hot again and brought Jon’s breakfast up to him.

Sipping lukewarm coffee, Jon wondered yet again whether he was handling Stannis correctly. He had been duly grateful when Stannis’s army saved the Watch from Mance Rayder’s wildling horde, but the would-be King had been nothing but trouble ever since. The lady Melisandre, intent on burning weirwoods and gaining converts, was causing unrest among Jon’s men. Queen Selyse and her kinsman Axel Florent continued to prance around Castle Black as if they owned it, wrinkling their noses at bastard-born Jon and the other misfits who served in the Night’s Watch. The Lord Commander knew he must tread carefully, but he did not understand what Stannis wanted from him.

If he is truly here to protect the realm, then why is he so intent on claiming the Iron Throne? And why isn’t he doing more to assist us in preparing for the coming assault from North of the Wall? Jon wondered, not for the first time. Does he truly believe in the Others, as he claims?

Jon did not have much time to wonder before he needed to descend into the courtyard to drill his men. Today, it appeared that a handful of wildlings and King’s men had joined the Watch for their drills. None of the Queen’s men, however, Jon noted to himself. He unsheathed Longclaw and began to direct their morning drills.

“Faster!” Jon called out, demonstrating the proper motions. “Feint, then slash!”

The men duly followed his commands – or tried to, at least. We must be ready when the Others come, he thought desperately as his ears rang with the clashing of swords. We are not ready. We need more men, and the ones we have are not good enough. We need more food…more knowledge…more everything.

“That’s enough. It is time for practice duels. Leathers, you pair up against Jarmen Buckwell. Tormund, you’re with Wick Wittlestick. Satin, with Arthor,” Jon announced. He continued calling names until everyone was matched. “Begin on three!” he called, counting down until the clang of practice steel rang out once again.

When they had finished training for the morning, Jon released his men to their duties. Just before he returned to his office, he spotted the Lady Melisandre lingering in the practice yard. What does she want? he thought irritably.

“Jon Snow,” Melisandre called in her melodious voice.

“Yes?” replied Jon. “Can I help you with something, my lady?”

“King Stannis wishes to see you,” she said simply, offering him her arm.

He knew it was rude – he had absorbed enough lessons in courtliness during his years at Winterfell to understand that much, at least– but Jon’s arms remained at his sides. Something about the Red Woman disturbed him, and Jon did not wish to touch her if he could help it. Apparently accepting his rudeness without comment, Melisandre dropped her arm and beckoned for him to follow her. The priestess’s expectation that Jon would do as he was bid rankled, but he knew he must keep the peace, so he followed her anyways.

When they arrived at the King’s Tower, Stannis was waiting for them, along with a cadre of his advisors.

“Lord Snow,” he said, motioning for Jon to take a seat. The Lord Commander sat quietly, listening closely, as Stannis and his men debated their next course of action. He said nothing until Stannis asked his input on the Umbers.

“Mors Umber, also known as Crowfood, is the uncle of the Greatjon,” Jon explained. “They call him Crowfood because a crow once took him for dead and pecked out his eye. He caught the bird in his fist and bit it off, so I’d say he won the match, despite the loss of an eye. Though he is an older man now, he was a fierce fighter in his youth, and there is likely much strength in him yet. His sons died on the Trident. His wife is deceased as well, lost to the birthing bed, and his only daughter was carried off by wildlings decades ago. Despite or perhaps because of these losses, he is loyal to his family. Even in wartime, I doubt he would fight against his brothers, at least not directly. May I know why you are asking?”

“This Crowfood Umber and half the men of Last Hearth say they are willing to swear for me, but only if I meet their terms,” Stannis grated out, looking irritated. “I wish to know if I can trust them to keep their word.”

“If they will swear before the heart tree,” Jon said with a shrug.

One of Stannis’s men started joking about tree-worshippers, and they resumed debating the matter of the Umbers. As their conversation continued, it became clear to Jon that these Southerners knew nothing about the politics, culture, or religion of the North. He spoke only when his opinion was requested, however.

I must be careful not to become overly involved in Stannis’s campaign, much as it pains me to hold my tongue as they trade insults and misconceptions, thought the Lord Commander. But it is Sansa’s right to rule the North, and I do not wish to help them overthrow her claim, simply because she is married to a Crown loyalist. She tells me that Tommen is a sweet boy, unlike the boy-king who beheaded our father in front of her. Besides, the Night’s Watch takes no part, as Sansa’s husband was quick to remind me. Still, I can hardly refuse to answer basic questions when asked directly.

It was a careful balance Jon needed to strike, between maintaining his Oath and watching his sister’s back and pleasing the man who occupied the Wall. Stannis had enough men to seize Castle Black for himself if need be, so the man could not be ignored. Besides, he seemed honorable enough, at least. Jon hoped he was getting that balance right, but he knew that there were already men who grumbled that Jon was too close to Stannis – and others who complained that he was not helping him enough.

Eventually, Stannis grew tired of his men’s bickering and dismissed them. Surprisingly, he asked Jon to stay behind.

What does he want from me? Jon wondered. I must needs make it clear to him that I cannot violate my Oath.

“I have no love for the Boltons, but I hope you understand that my vows –” Jon began.

“Spare me,” Stannis snapped. “I know all about your vows. I do not need your swords, only your counsel. I have a mind to march on the Dreadfort.”

The Dreadfort? thought Jon, his eyes widening. Even to get there, he would first need to resolve his contentious relationship with the Umbers, for he would need to march through Last Hearth’s lands. Once in Bolton territory, scouts would quickly alert Lord Roose to an invading army’s presence, and the element of surprise would be lost before they could march to the castle. It would be easy enough for forces from Winterfell to cut off their line of retreat, making it difficult to resupply as well. Even then, the Dreadfort is strongly held and easily defended. I have no doubt that Roose has an ample winter stockpile, likely one that exceeds that of the Wall and Winterfell combined. He is not a man that is like to take chances, from what I know of him.

Jon’s surprise must have shown on his face, for Stannis smiled. It was an odd sight, the would-be King’s weathered face ill-suited to smiling. I think he is not a man who smiles often, Jon reflected.

“I am glad that surprises you,” said Stannis in a self-satisfied tone. “For if you are surprised, it is likely that the Boltons will be as well. They think I mean to march for Winterfell, but taking the Dreadfort would undermine their support as much as your brother Robb’s loss of Winterfell undermined his, would it not?”

Not exactly, thought Jon. Like as not, you cannot take the Dreadfort. Even if you could, much of the North surely remains loyal to the Starks. Taking the Dreadfort would boost your reputation, that is true, but so long as Sansa opposes you, it shall not be easy to win the Northern houses to your cause. In fact, I would not be surprised if the Umbers were playing you in some fashion or another. I wonder if they will swear only to fight against the Boltons with you, and not much else, once you get them before the heart tree. It is not true that the loss of Winterfell undermined Robb’s authority. It only undercut his bannermen’s confidence in his ability to defend the lands that rightfully belonged to him; it did not call into question his rights.

“If you can take the Dreadfort, that would indeed be a blow to the Boltons’ authority,” Jon agreed aloud. That much is true, at least, he thought.

“And if I take the North, who would you have as Lord of Winterfell?” Stannis asked, his eyes boring into Jon’s. “Horpe and Massey both want your father’s seat. The former lives for battle, the latter fights in hopes of winning the wildling princess Val as his bride. Which would you have, Lord Snow? The slayer or the smiler?”

“Winterfell belongs to my sister, Sansa Stark,” replied Jon stiffly.

“Sansa Tyrell, now, is it not?” replied Stannis, his voice cold. “Your half-sister is a traitor, bound to the pretender through her marriage to the false Queen’s brother.”

The way Stannis pointedly said ‘half-sister’ reminded Jon of Lady Catelyn. The association did not endear him to the would-be King.

“She is just a girl,” Jon argued, a hint of cool anger seeping into his voice. “She wed the Tyrell lord to escape the Lannisters. When you failed to take King’s Landing, what was she to do? I am sure that she would have bent the knee had you won the Battle of the Blackwater, but the capital remains in Lannister hands. I have received my sister’s letters since she arrived at Highgarden, and though she is careful not to say too much, it is clear to me that she was treated as a prisoner in King’s Landing. She describes your nephew as a cruel man. I know not what that means, precisely, but I hope you do not fault a helpless young lady for reaching for safety. Sansa had no family left to defend her.”

Stannis ground his teeth, annoyed at the reminder that he had lost the Battle of the Blackwater. “Joffrey and Tommen are not my nephews. They are bastards born of incest.”

“Even so,” said Jon, glaring back.

“And your half-sister is no helpless girl, as you imagine,” Stannis declared.

That startled Jon. “What do you mean?” he demanded.

Stannis raised his eyebrows, as if amused by Jon’s ignorance. “The lady Sansa Tyrell negotiated a truce at Riverrun on quite favorable terms, I am told. After that, she sailed for White Harbor. It is said that she is a prisoner once again.” Stannis snorted. “But I do not believe it. I have sought to win Lord Manderly’s support and been rebuffed. His son was murdered by the Freys and Boltons, so I do not believe the story that he is loyal to them now. It is clear enough that Lady Tyrell is his guest and his liege lady, mayhaps his Queen. It beggars belief that these Northern Houses insist she is a victim and that she does not intend to make any claim, when it is obvious that she is an active agent of the bastard boy who has usurped my rightful crown. The naivety of it! How can men who are so formidable in battle be such fools when it comes to politics?”

Mayhaps the Northmen insist she is a victim because they are plotting your downfall, and that of the Boltons and Freys. Have you considered that it is you who are a fool, for believing so easily that Sansa acts on behalf of the Crown rather than the Starks and the North? For believing that grown men are so stupid in the North that they do not understand the realities of the present situation? That they are so naïve that they cannot trick you, only be tricked by you? Jon wondered, unkindly. Stannis Baratheon’s Southron prejudices were blinding him, and the insult of his homeland being so profoundly misunderstood by this would-be King grated on his nerves. Maybe Robb had the right of it, declaring independence. I hope Sansa will take up his cause.

“You do not know that,” Jon insisted aloud. “Mayhaps she only went to White Harbor at the bidding of her husband. Or perhaps she was tricked by one of the men she spoke with at Riverrun. You presume too much. My sister is not a traitor. She is simply trying to survive, alone, in a world made by men.”

“If it is a pardon for her that you seek, that is done easily enough,” replied Stannis coolly. “But, in any case, it is clear to me that she cannot be trusted to rule the North as Lady of Winterfell. Either she is a foolish child or a willful traitor. Neither will do, when the worst winter of our time is upon us. Winterfell needs a strong hand at the rudder. A man’s hand, not a girl’s.”

What is he implying? wondered Jon with growing horror. Does he mean to offer me Winterfell? That cannot be. I have no right to Winterfell. I am only a bastard.

“I am a sworn member of the Night’s Watch,” Jon reminded him again.

“I am aware,” replied Stannis with a grimace. “But I am King, and a King may dissolve a man’s oaths if there be need of it.”

Jon’s mouth went dry. “Even if I were not a man of the Night’s Watch, I am a Snow, not a Stark. I have no claim to Winterfell.”

“A King may remove the taint of bastardy as well,” said Stannis, his voice calm as fallen snow.

Jon stared at him. “What are you saying?”

“I am the one true King, and your father was a man of honor. The North is divided between illegitimate claimants, between competing factions of traitors, between Boltons and Tyrells. What is needed is a proper Stark, a loyal Lord of Winterfell.”

Irrationally, Jon thought of Robb, and the games they had played as boys at Winterfell. I am Lord of Winterfell! Jon had shouted once. But it was only pretend. He had not thought…he had never considered…he would not usurp his siblings, no matter what the Lady Catelyn had believed.

But…it was a temptation, to imagine himself in his father’s place. He knew he would do a better job commanding the Northern armies than Sansa. She was better with needlepoint than a sword. If it had been Arya, that would be different, but could Sansa hold the North even if she tried?

I cannot be seriously considering this, he thought suddenly, immediately ashamed. Not after Sansa put aside her mother’s prejudices and reached out to me as a brother. I cannot agree to this. Sansa said my father would be proud of me, for achieving the status of Lord Commander. He would not be proud of me if I broke my vows and overthrew my sister. Jon could imagine his father’s disappointed face, his grey eyes shining with sorrow and humiliation. He could imagine Catelyn, crowing that she had been right all along, denouncing him as a scoundrel. And Sansa…he could see her face in his mind’s eye, tears streaking down her face, asking him why he would do this to her. Asking him why he would betray her trust. Sobbing that her mother had been right all along.

“I cannot,” Jon managed to say hoarsely. It destroyed him to reject what he wanted most in the world, but he was an honorable man like his father. Wasn’t he? Guilt pooled in Jon’s belly. To even consider Stannis’s offer for a moment was a blight on his honor, even if he was the only one who knew it had tempted him for half a second. Honor is not primarily a matter of outward appearance, but of keeping faith in one’s heart and acting rightly, he could hear his father saying to him as a boy. Well, if he could not restrain his grasping heart entirely, he could act rightly, at least.

“Are you certain?” asked Stannis, seeming to discern Jon’s hesitation.

“I am the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and the Night’s Watch takes no part,” replied Jon firmly. “Besides, it would be dishonorable to usurp my sister’s claim.”

Stannis ground his teeth, displeased with this answer. “Very well. I trust you will speak to no one of our plan to march on the Dreadfort?”

“I swear it,” replied Jon, relieved that was all he asked.

“Then leave me, Lord Commander Snow.”

Jon leapt from his seat and hurried away, grateful to rid himself of the temptations Stannis offered him. I am an honorable man, he told himself. I keep my oaths.

By the time he reached his office, Jon was angry again. Stannis claims he does not want the throne, that he seeks it only out of righteous respect for the law, yet he offers to usurp Sansa in favor of me, a bastard and a sworn Night’s Watchman? He bids me to abandon my duty to the realm and to my family, and for what? A castle I could not keep even if I wished to? The leal Northmen would cut me down a dozen times before accepting a Southron King’s proclamation over the true Stark heir, married or no. Stannis’s promises are poison.

 

***

 

True to his word, Stannis Baratheon marched for the Dreadfort the next day, though he left behind his queen, his daughter, and the Red Priestess, along with a handful of Queen’s men to protect them. Jon was not displeased to see him go, though he wished the would-be King had taken his womenfolk with him as well.

He will likely fail to take the Dreadfort, for all the reasons I dared not speak, thought Jon, as he watched Stannis march away. I kept my silence to honor my oath, but in honoring it, did I breach it as well? If Stannis weakens the Dreadfort but fails to take it, that can only help Sansa and the men who are loyal to her. Have I intervened in the affairs of the realm by refusing to intervene? The thought made Jon uncomfortable, so he pushed it away.

In the coming days, Jon occupied himself with training his men and searching for solutions to their dwindling food supplies. Bowen Marsh hinted that Jon might ask Sansa’s husband for further donations, but the idea left a bad taste in his mouth. He did not wish to benefit from his assistance to the Tyrells, if in fact his unwillingness to advise Stannis had the effect of aiding the Tyrells and the Lannister boy upon the Iron Throne.

Did I do the right thing? he wondered a dozen times. What else could I have done? Helping Stannis would have been a betrayal of the Night’s Watch’s neutrality too. How am I supposed to remain neutral when there are so many competing claims to the throne? What does neutral even mean in the midst of an ongoing war? And why am I worrying so much about Southron politics when the War for the Dawn is like to come again, with us woefully unprepared?

Jon buried himself in his work to distract himself from such unanswerable questions. He trained harder than ever. For a few days, at least, it worked. He began to feel a little better, though still he wished that Ghost would return. From his dreams, it seemed the wolf was journeying farther North, for reasons Jon did not understand. Briefly, Jon succeeded in preoccupying himself with preparations to fight the Others, momentarily forgetting about the irksome politics he had been forced to deal with since Stannis had arrived at the Wall.

But then Sansa’s letter arrived.

When he broke the seal, he saw that Sansa’s letter was written in code. Gazing at the mixed-up letters, he hesitated. Should I attempt to decode it myself? I would lose precious time and I worry that I would not do it correctly. But can I trust someone else to do it for me? He wished Maester Aemon was there. The maester could have been trusted to help him with the decoding. Sighing, Jon sent Satin to fetch the book he needed to decode the message. Painstakingly, he translated Sansa’s gibberish into her true words, writing the decoded message on a scrap of parchment. Decoded, Sansa’s message read:

 

Dear Jon,

 

I have learned from Lord Wyman Manderly that Bran and Rickon may be alive!!!! Theon’s squire, a mute boy named Wex, used writing and pictures and gestures to tell me that it was Ramsey Bolton who put Winterfell to the sword and torched the castle. Theon did not kill our brothers – he killed two miller’s boys instead, and pretended it was them. Bran and Rickon escaped! No one knows where Bran went, but Rickon is said to be on Skagos, according to this boy Wex. He used a map and a dagger to mark Rickon’s location.

I would not ask if it were not so terribly important and serious, for I know it skirts your vows, but is it possible for you to conduct a ranging to Skagos? It is not beyond the Wall, I know, and I am sure you are dealing with much and more given the supernatural threats brought on the winds of winter, but I beg of you. If you truly consider yourself my brother, please, please, can you bring Rickon back? Or if not for me, then for Robb and Arya and Father? I would go myself, as ill-suited as I may be for such a task, but I am with child and I must return to Highgarden before I can no longer safely ride a horse. Please, Jon, I swear that I shall never ask of you anything again, for as long as I shall live. I will make Willas send all the food you need. I will do anything. Please do what I cannot. Please go save our youngest brother. Save Rickon. Bring him back from Skagos. Please. We need you. There is no one else.

 

Your sister,

 

Sansa

 

Rickon, thought Jon, his heart shredding itself as he pictured the little boy he remembered from Winterfell. And Bran. He thought of Bran, climbing rooftops, then lying unconscious in his bed after he fell from the tower during his final climb. It took him some time to absorb Sansa’s words, and he read the letter again. He checked that he had done the decoding properly. But no matter how many times he checked, the words remained the same.

Bran and Rickon are alive. He had hoped that Arya still lived, but Bran and Rickon? He had given up hope. Can it be true? Jon was shaken to his core by Sansa's words.

Bran and Rickon are alive, and they need me. They needed him, just as Robb had needed him. I failed Robb. I cannot fail Bran and Rickon too. 

Tears swimming in his eyes, Jon searched for a way to justify a mission to Skagos to rescue his brother. There is no reason for the Night’s Watch to get involved. The thought was like a punch to the gut. But I cannot abandon my brothers, not this time, not again.

But what about his oath? He had sworn that he would take no part in the politics of the realm. He had sworn to let go of his ties to his family, to embrace the men of the Night’s Watch as his brothers. Even Benjen had reminded him of that, before he left for his doomed ranging. He is not my uncle, he is my Brother. All of these men are my Brothers. How can I abandon them to save the brothers of my blood, when the realms of men are under threat from mythic horrors? How can I abandon my post when I have sworn to be the light in the darkness, the defender of the realms of men? They elected me their Lord Commander. 

Momentarily, Jon wondered why Sansa could not go to save Rickon. If she is Lady of Winterfell or Queen in the North, is it not her duty to rescue our brother? But he knew the answers to this, and could not fault her. She had only a few men to her name, and no ships to sail to Skagos, at least not anywhere nearby. The Tyrell fleet was on the other side of Westeros. Reading her letter again, a line that he had missed at first jumped out at him. ‘I am with child,’ Sansa wrote. She cannot go chasing down rumors on an island of cannibals when she is pregnant, Jon realized. The very picture of it in his mind was absurd. A pregnant woman, fighting half-wildling cannibals! No wonder Sansa begged him to go in her place.

Sansa called on him, as her brother, in the name of Robb and Arya and their father, Ned. ‘Please,’ she wrote, over and over. She was begging him. There was no one else.

Reading her letter again, for what felt like the hundredth time, Jon saw that she promised to solve the Watch’s food shortage. She offered him anything. Maybe my Brothers will accept that rationale, he mused. Though the Watch has no reason to save the Lord of Winterfell from Skagos, we have every reason to bargain for much-needed foodstuffs. Jon hoped that would prove true, but he knew that there was little hope his men would see it that way. Bowen Marsh would tell him that the Tyrells already owed them food, as their duty to the realm. He would not take kindly to Jon’s desire to intervene in the affairs of the realm, even if he justified it as a way to secure the Night’s Watch for the winter years.

I have no choice, thought Jon. I must go to Skagos, whatever the consequences. My little brother needs me. My sister needs my help. She is with child. There is no one else.

 

***

 

After discussing Sansa’s letter with Tormund, Jon began to plan. He gathered his men in the Shield Hall, along with the wildlings. Reading the letter aloud, Jon explained his plan, Tormund standing at his right.

“As you all know, winter is approaching, and there must be a Stark in Winterfell. The Night’s Watch needs food, and it is the Southerners who have the harvests that we need. All of you have been complaining that we moved to winter rations early, and the solution to our problems has appeared. I know that the Night’s Watch is sworn to take no part in the affairs of the realm, and I have tried to honor that vow as best I can. But Qhorin Halfhand taught me that the honor of any individual Watchman pales before the survival of the Watch itself. Sometimes you must break a vow in order to be true to it. But if this be oathbreaking, the dishonor is entirely mine. I shall not let my men take the dishonor upon themselves. Therefore, I ask the wildlings who are gathered here. Will you go with me, to rescue my brother and unlock the granaries of the South so that we may survive the winter?”

A raucous cheer went up as Jon finished speaking. He did not notice that it was only the wildlings who cheered. He did not notice as Bowen Marsh and Wick Whittlestick and others slipped out of the Shield Hall.

“I said, are you with me?” Jon cried again. The cheering and shouting grew louder. He began to feel that perhaps he was doing the right thing. If this be oathbreaking, at least he chose it out of love and familial loyalty rather than selfishness. Jon had preserved his vows even when tempted by Stannis, and his friends had kept him from breaking his vows to help Robb. He had betrayed Ygritte to stay true to the Watch. He had chosen duty over love many times, and even now, he fulfilled his duty as he broke it, securing the Watch’s food supplies even as he deserted to rescue his brother Rickon from Skagos. I have been so, so good for so long, in the face of nigh-irresistible temptations, thought Jon. Hopefully the gods will forgive me this broken oath, if indeed this be oathbreaking. All around him, the wildlings shouted their approval.

Before Jon had time to call for mead and bread, he heard a commotion outside and went to investigate.

Wun-wun? Someone was attacking the gentle giant, who seemed afraid and confused. What is going on? Jon wondered, drawing Longclaw. He ran towards the giant and the men who were attacking him.

But before he could reach Wun-Wun’s side, Jon felt a pain in his stomach. His vision swam as he swiveled his head, trying to understand what was happening. Bowen Marsh? he wondered as he laid eyes on his loyal adviser.

Marsh was crying as he stabbed Jon. “For the Watch!” the spoon-counting steward cried. Another shooting pain, this time in his side.

Betrayal? Jon wondered dully. Mutiny?

“For the Watch,” cried Wick Whittlestick as he thrust a dagger into Jon’s chest, tears streaking down his face.

But Jon did not feel the final knife. He felt only cold.

“Ghost,” gasped Jon as he fell to the frozen, snowy ground. The light in his eyes flickered and died. His eyes rolled up into his sockets, only the whites visible as he bled into the snow.

"Snow, Sword, Snow," shrieked Mormont's raven as it flew overhead.

Chapter Text

The morning after Sansa’s midnight meeting with Lord Manderly, she sent for Robett Glover and bid him ride out with her letter to Jon. After sending it by raven from a safe castle, he was to ride for Castle Cerwyn, to begin gathering men to take back Torrhen’s Square after Winterfell was back in Stark loyalist control. After Robett departed, she sent for her great-uncle Brynden, to inform him that it was likely her brothers yet lived. To her surprise, tears rose in his eyes at the news.

“I wish your mother was here,” he explained, his voice choked with tears. “She wanted so badly to protect all of you. She would be so glad to know that Bran and Rickon are alive. It nearly destroyed her when she learned of their deaths.”

Now Sansa was crying too. “I miss her so much,” she whispered. The Blackfish wrapped his arms around his niece’s daughter and hugged her tightly, as she sobbed into his shoulder.

When Sansa finally pulled away, she said, “I’m sorry. I know I must be strong. I have responsibilities. I cannot be crying like a child.”

“It’s all right to miss your mother, lass,” the Blackfish said kindly. “You must be strong in public, aye, but you and I are family. I miss her too. We had only just reunited, after many years apart, when she was taken from us before her time. I wish…mayhaps I should have come North more often. But Lysa needed me.”

“What is Aunt Lysa like?” Sansa asked, curious about her mother’s other sibling. It had been wonderful to meet Edmure, even under such unfortunate circumstances and for such a short time. It soothed the ache in her heart somewhat, to get to know her mother’s family.

The Blackfish hesitated. “Lysa…has had a difficult life,” he said slowly. “It…eats away at her. She lost many babes, and though she did not love Jon Arryn, his presence was stabilizing for her. When last I saw Lysa, she was half-mad with grief and worry for her son.”

“How is he? Little Robert Arryn?” Sansa asked, hungry for information about her cousin.

“He is…sickly, unfortunately,” murmured the Blackfish. “If Jon Arryn had lived, Robin would have fostered with Stannis, and I suspect it might have done him good. But with only his mother and Littlefinger there to care for him, I worry about the boy.”

“That is concerning,” replied Sansa, her face pinching into a frown. “Is there aught I might do?”

“Not for now,” he replied, looking thoughtful. “But mayhaps after this trip North is concluded, you might reach out to Lysa. I do not know if she would wish to hear from you, for there was some rivalry between her and your mother, at least in Lysa’s mind…but it could not hurt, I suppose.”

“Then I shall write her once we are back at Highgarden,” Sansa promised. The Blackfish smiled at her, and Sansa was half-tempted to tell him of her pregnancy. She hesitated, because she had not told Willas yet. But she had told Jeyne, and now Jon…

Seeing the pensive look on her face, Brynden asked, “Is somewhat amiss? You can trust me to keep your confidence, you know, for all that I am technically your prisoner.” He smiled a lopsided smile. Sansa gazed at her great-uncle, debating with herself. Finally, she made up her mind.

“I am with child,” she confessed.

The Blackfish’s smile widened. “Truly? That is wonderful, my dear!” Then he hesitated. “It is Willas’s babe, I take it?”

“Of course!” Sansa exclaimed, surprised that he asked. Does he not know that I am an honorable woman, like my mother? she wondered.

“Then congratulations are in order,” he replied, hugging her again, more briefly this time.

“Yes, it is very happy news,” agreed Sansa. “But Willas does not know yet.”

The Blackfish sombered at that. “Why have you not told him?”

“I struggle to put it into words,” Sansa admitted. “A letter does not seem the best way to learn that one is to become a father. I do not know how to put my thoughts to paper on this matter.”

“Just speak from the heart,” he advised her. “I am sure he will be glad to hear the news. But we must get you back to Highgarden forthwith.”

“I know,” Sansa agreed, looking away. “After Winterfell, it is straight to Barrowton to take a ship to Oldtown, and then a barge to Highgarden.”

But it was not to be Barrowton after all. When Sansa explained her plans for returning home to Wyman Manderly, he agreed it was appropriate for her to return to her husband and offered to share the duties of regency with her while she was in the South, but he cautioned her against riding for Barrowton after Winterfell.

“Lady Dustin had little love for your father, and even less for your mother,” he warned her. “And she is a Ryswell by birth –”

“And therefore kin to Roose Bolton, through his late wife, Bethany Ryswell,” finished Sansa. “I had not thought of that, but you are right. From whence would you have me sail, then?”

“If you are looking for a port on the Western side, there are few,” Wyman said thoughtfully. “Bear Island is too far North, and Sea Dragon Point is out of your way entirely. But you could board a ship near Fever, just North of the Neck, if the ship knew where to meet you and if the captain had instructions to send a smaller boat to carry you to it.”

“That will serve,” said Sansa, nodding. “Can you make the arrangements? I shall write to Willas about the ship, but if you could notify the Lord of Fever, I would be grateful.”

“Certainly,” he replied warmly. “I take it you still plan to accompany us to Winterfell?”

“Yes,” she said firmly.

“Then you must needs prepare,” he said in a fatherly tone. “We depart two days hence.”

 

***

 

Two days later, Sansa awoke before the sun rose. Her stomach had begun to settle just as she ran out of Maester Vyman’s potion, but new discomforts had taken its place. She tired so easily now, and her back ached no matter how she positioned herself as she slept. Her sleep, too, had become restless, though whether that was due to her worries or her body’s changes, she could not say.

I hope I can make it to Fever before I cross the threshold of my fifth moon, thought Sansa. Though Maester Vyman did say that it was a slow increase in the danger, not a sharp dividing line. Still, I do not wish to gamble with my baby’s life. Besides, it would not be long before others began to notice her growing belly, no matter what she did to hide it. Sansa quickly dressed, thankful that her travelling gowns did not require the assistance of maids, who might notice her condition. Once clothed, she rang for the servants to take her few belongings to the ship.

 

***

 

The journey to Winterfell was smooth, if full of dread. Many times, Sansa wondered if she was making a terrible mistake. What if Lord Wyman’s plan fails, and I am captured or killed by the Boltons? she wondered, recalling the story of Lady Donella Hornwood and shivering at the dire possibilities that might arise if anything went awry. They could murder my child, or keep me alive until I give birth and take the babe from my arms, to secure their hold over the North. Given how his bastard had turned out, Sansa was petrified at the notion of Lord Roose raising her child.

Willas would rescue our babe, she reassured herself. If he did not go himself, he would send Garlan and the massive armies of the Reach. I must believe it would be so.

She needed to tell him, in case something happened, but how? She could send a rider with a letter to send by raven from a trustworthy castle, as she had done with her letter to Jon, but now that they were already on their way, such a decision would require docking the ship. Lord Wyman would surely wish to know why they stopped.

I should have sent a letter while I was still at White Harbor, as my great-uncle advised, she thought morosely. If truth be told, she had known at the time that she should not wait any longer, but every time she attempted to explain her condition and her decisions with ink on parchment, her words failed her. Willas would be angry with her no matter what she wrote, she knew, but still she searched for the words that might dampen his anger. Whenever she tried to write, she remembered Joffrey’s fury and its consequences, and wondered if Willas might prove dangerous to her if she enraged him sufficiently. Sansa’s father had never raised a hand to her mother, but he was an exception, she suspected. In retrospect, she appreciated Desmera’s reasoning about Tyrion’s dwarfism protecting her from his fury, but Joffrey’s commands to the Kingsguard proved that a man need not use his own hand to brutalize his lady.

Even if Willas did not raise a hand to her – and in truth, she knew she was unfair to believe him capable of such an act – there were other restrictions he could impose on her that might prove even more troublesome. After this trip, I fear Willas shall never let me travel anywhere again. He will not trust me after I lied to him with my silence, she speculated. Yet, if that was so, returning to Highgarden would be a very dangerous choice. She could not rule the North without traveling, at least for a few moons a year in the summertime.

In light of these fears, her fingers fell still when she tried to compose a letter to Willas. Now, she was almost to Winterfell and if the worst happened, he might never know that her body had begun to kindle their child. I have made a terrible mistake, Sansa fretted. I should have told him. Even if I could not find the right words, I should have written something, or gotten Jeyne to compose the letter for me.

Now, however, it was too late. On the morrow, they would reach their stopping point, switching from ships to horses and litters. They would spend one last night aboard the ships, and then travel the final half-day’s ride to Winterfell on the morrow. As much as she dreaded their impending confrontation with the Boltons, a part of her yearned to see her home once again, though she wished she could visit it as it was in her memories of days past, instead of the burned-out shell it was now reported to be.

 

***

 

The final day of sailing and subsequent ride to Winterfell went as quickly as the river voyage. As they rode away from the White Knife, the Manderly party was joined along the way by riders from House Cerwyn, including Robett, and they brought Lady Maege Mormont and a few of her troops along with them, with the promise that more would join at Winterfell itself.

Before Sansa could even stop to think, Winterfell loomed before her, broken and singed. With a sharp intake of breath, she pulled up her horse, tears gleaming in her eyes. Oh, Winterfell, she thought. What have they done to you? 

Though the walls still stood, the signs of damage to her family’s seat were apparent even from outside the gates and beneath the snow. The gates themselves had been replaced with raw, unstained new wood, likely cut from the wolfswoods that surrounded Winterfell. Gone were the sturdy old gates of polished hardwood, inlaid with iron reinforcements and intricate carvings of the wolf sigil of House Stark. Black soot snaked up the damaged library tower, and the bridge between the Bell Tower and the rookery was gone. The Maester’s Turret had been obliterated entirely, and Sansa silently wept for Maester Luwin, who had reportedly died in the sack. Almost as heartbreaking, the glass gardens had been smashed. It will be costly to replace them, thought Sansa with frigid fury, her tears drying on her cheeks as her heart frosted over. Though I suppose that everyone they were meant to feed lies dead, by Bolton hands.

Lord Wyman called out to the men atop the crenellated bulwarks which flanked Winterfell’s main gate, and bid them to lower the drawbridge. The men scurried about, seemingly checking to be sure that these men had permission to enter. After a few minutes, the gate began to creak upwards. Though the sound of swords loosing from their scabbards was too quiet for the Bolton men to hear from this distance, Sansa could hear a gentle snick as the men around her slowly bared their steel, concealing the naked swords behind their cloaks.

Once inside the gates, Sansa choked back a sob. The market square of the Wintertown had been burned to the ground, and it was ghastly to see the once bustling square empty and bereft of life. The Manderly party followed one of the Bolton guardsmen through a narrow passageway, until they reached the Great Keep and the Great Hall. The roof is different, Sansa noticed with dismay. The Great Hall’s roof had once been beautiful, wrought in lovely stained wooden panels that had been installed generations ago. The new one was an unsightly mess of hastily-assembled thatch.

Roose Bolton and his bastard met them outside the Great Hall, and when Lord Wyman caught sight of them, he gave the signal. At his loud, hooting whistle, all the warriors in their party revealed their naked steal. Alys Rowan pulled out her bow and nocked an arrow, and even Jeyne and Sansa held daggers in their hands. As useless as either girl would be in a genuine fight, the precautionary measure gave Sansa at least some small measure of comfort.

If it comes to it, I can always cut my wrists, Sansa reassured herself bleakly. It would be better to bleed out in the snow than to let Ramsey Snow take her prisoner, she figured. At least I would die a Stark of Winterfell, and my bones could rest peacefully in the crypts beside my forefathers. Ashara Dayne’s body was never recovered, but there could be no doubts about mine.

“What is the meaning of this?” Roose Bolton asked softly, his voice a deadly whisper.

“IF YOU CAN HEAR ME,” thundered Wyman Manderly in his loud, resonant battlefield voice, “IF YOU’RE NOT A FILTHY OATH-BREAKING COWARD, COME DEFEND THE LADY STARK!” Sansa hoped the men inside the Great Hall could hear him. Her heart fluttered as the hall’s doors opened, and a few curious faces peeked out.

“I said, what is the meaning of this,” murmured Lord Roose, frowning.

“Can’t you see, Father?” snarled a young man with dark hair and icy ghost-grey eyes, drawing his own sword from its scabbard. “They’ve betrayed us!”

He must be Ramsey Snow, thought Sansa, shuddering at the viciousness in the bastard’s expression.

“I SAID, IF YOU’RE NOT A GODSFORSAKEN TREACHEROUS SON OF A WHORE, DEFEND THE LADY SANSA STARK, AS ALL YOU LOT HAVE SWORN TO DO!” boomed Wyman Manderly, completely ignoring the Boltons.

More men began to filter out of the Great Hall. Sansa spotted some friendly sigils among them, including the giant of House Umber, the grey stone hand of House Flint, and the trio of buckets on a blue field, for House Wull of the Mountain Clans. Sansa’s heart soared at the sight of her bannermen. Perhaps we will not be defeated, she thought. Perhaps this was not a mistake.

“Do you mean to violate guest right?” asked Roose calmly.

At these words, Sansa snapped. “Guest right? You dare speak to me of guest right?” she snarled, tempted to step outside the circle of protection her honor guard provided.

“Sansa Stark?” queried Lord Roose in a soft voice, his milky, ghost-grey eyes flashing.

“I am Princess Sansa Stark, Lady of Winterfell and rightful heir to the North after my trueborn brothers,” Sansa boldly proclaimed, for now that she had drawn attention to herself, she knew she had to stake her claim. “In the name of House Stark, I claim this castle as my ancestral home and rightful family seat. Let it be known that the Boltons are traitors and usurpers with no host-right to this place, and that none who slay them shall be held to have broken guest right. For you can only be my guests here at Winterfell. Invaders have no right to safe passage.”

“CHOOSE A SIDE, AND DO IT QUICKLY!” Lord Wyman roared, as men began to raise their weapons in preparation for the violence that hung over the courtyard like a thick storm cloud. “STARK OR BOLTON, HONOR OR TREACHERY, THE WOLF OR THE FLAYED MAN!”

The Wulls and Flints crossed the courtyard first, swords still in their sheaths, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Manderly soldiers. The Norreys and Umbers quickly followed, and more began to trickle to Sansa’s side.

We’re winning, she thought. Mayhaps we can retake Winterfell without shedding a drop of Northern blood.

But the thought came too soon. With a howl of rage, Ramsey Snow ran directly at Sansa, sword in hand.

She barely had time to scream before Ser Parmen Crane slew him where he stood, cutting him down with a single slashing stroke, leaving behind a horrible red line from Ramsey Snow’s left ear to his right hip. As his body fell, hot blood gushed out, melting little red rivers into the snow that blanketed the ground.

Sansa realized she was still screaming, and she turned her face away, the screaming turning to sobs. She clutched at Ser Jon Fossoway, the older knight the closest she could come to running into her father’s arms. He held her against him with one arm, the other holding his sword in a defensive position across his body, and her other guards surrounded the two of them, enclosing them in a tight circle of protection as the battle raged around them. Sansa’s eyes were screwed tightly shut as she struggled to calm her breathing and compose herself. She could hear the clanging of steel on steel all around her.

For several moments, the battle raged, with men shouting and arrows raining down and swords ringing as cold steel met cold steel.

And then, as quickly as it began, it was over. Ser Jon let go of her, and Sansa dared to open her eyes, glancing about the courtyard. Men in the pink sigil of House Bolton littered the ground, and everyone else had seemingly either dropped their swords in fealty or turned them against the Boltons. As planned, Lady Alys had taken Jeyne up into one of the remaining towers as soon as the fighting began. Holding her bow and arrow with one hand as it rested against the windowsill, Alys waved, and so did Jeyne, peering over Lady Rowan’s shoulder. Thank the gods they are both safe, Sansa thought, a wave of relief washing over her.

In fact, once they were able to assess the battle site, it seemed that only a few Manderly soldiers had been lost, all of them of the smallfolk. Sansa felt a pang of regret at even this small loss of life, and she asked Lord Manderly to write down the names and villages of the men so that she might send each of their families a heartfelt letter of thanks and remembrance, along with an extra bag of flour, a pound of dried beans, and a few jars of dried fruits and pickles. I wish there was more I could do, she thought, but at least, this way, the men’s families will be well-supplied for winter.

“I would be happy to give you the names of the men and their villages, my lady,” agreed Lord Wyman. “Though I shall have to send a knight with the letter and the goods, since most of the smallfolk cannot read.”

Sansa’s face warmed and her cheeks turned red. “Yes, of course. Thank you for attending to such details. Once winter is over, perhaps we might address the matter of educating the smallfolk, at least enough that they might do simple sums and read simple messages. That would be another way to honor the men who have fallen here today.”

“A wise notion,” Lord Wyman replied. His expression looked cheerful, as if he were amused with her fretting over so few deaths, but the look on the Lord of White Harbor’s face only strengthened Sansa’s resolve to improve the conditions of the smallfolk. They fight and die for us, and send us tithes from their harvests, she thought. We owe it to them to do our best to protect them and improve their lots in return. That is what my father taught me, and I shall endeavor to make it so.

Sansa was quickly realizing that she had no stomach for war. So many lives lost, all because a handful of Lords could not resolve their conflicts civilly. When spring comes, I shall give them a century of peace, she promised herself. I shall give them prosperity – trade and education and diplomacy, not warfare.

But before she could return to Highgarden, and begin asking Willas and the Citadel and anyone else who might know how to bring about such outcomes, Sansa knew she must face the most difficult challenge she had yet faced on her journey to the North and Riverlands. She gathered up her courage as Manderly soldiers dragged a prisoner before her.

“Roose Bolton,” Sansa pronounced evenly, wondering what in the world she ought to do with him now that he was taken prisoner. Why couldn’t he have been slain in the battle? she wondered. But then, hadn’t her father always said that Lord Roose led from the rear? Coward, she thought bitterly.

“Sansa Stark,” the Bolton lord replied from his knees, held in place by the Manderly soldiers. His icy blue-grey eyes stared at her without emotion and his voice was without inflection. She shivered as he said her name, goosepimples rising on her arms.

What should I do with him? Sansa wondered, her back aching and her stomach churning. She knew what her father would have done with him. Did she possess the fortitude to do what must be done, what all the men around her would surely expect?

“Lord Roose of the Dreadfort, I name you a guest-murderer, a kingslayer, and a traitor. Take him to the cells and lock him in,” Sansa ordered, her voice sounding calmer than she felt. “Stay outside the door and watch him until I send other guardsmen to relieve you. Make sure he does not escape.”

“Yes, milady!” the soldiers replied, dragging Bolton off.

The second prisoner they brought before her was more pitiful than frightening. The fat blonde woman was blubbering and struggling as the guardsmen led her out of the castle.

“We found her in a closet,” said one of the soldiers, depositing her in front of Sansa. The woman fell to her knees and began begging, though she was so terrified that her words were jumbled, and Sansa could not make out what the woman was trying to say.

“This is Fat Walda, of House Frey by birth and House Bolton by marriage,” explained one of the Cerwyn soldiers who had joined their forces at the river. He spat on the ground next to Walda after naming her.

“Please!” Fat Walda cried, crying and clutching her plump hands over her pink face. “Please! Please, have mercy on me!”

“Lady Walda, please rise,” instructed Sansa in a kindly tone. The woman tried to struggle to her feet, then fell. She is so terrified that she cannot stand, thought Sansa with pity. “Or remain on the ground, if you prefer,” Sansa added.

“Please,” Walda whispered. She tried to kiss Sansa’s feet, but the Stark woman took a step back, afraid this Frey-Bolton meant her harm.

“It’s all right,” Sansa replied in a tone she usually reserved for babies and pets. “I mean to take mercy on you, but first I shall need to have the answers to a few questions. Can you answer my questions?”

“I…I shall try…my lady…your Grace?...please,” Walda whimpered.

“Did you have any involvement in planning the deaths of my kin at the Twins?” Sansa asked.

“No!” Walda cried, tears streaking down her wind-chapped cheeks. “I am just a girl! It was the menfolk who planned it. I didn’t know what was going to happen! No one told me anything. I have a big mouth, you see. I can’t keep secrets for the life of me.”

That is believable enough, Sansa reasoned. Clearly, this woman is not a threat.

Aloud, Sansa asked her second and final question. “Did you have anything to do with the burning of Winterfell or the murder of the boys?”

“No!” Walda cried again. “Roose did not bring me here until afterwards. It was his son who took the castle, while we were still at the Twins.”

“Very well,” said Sansa, relieved that she could spare this woman. “Then you are innocent of any wrongdoing. I shall have you confined to a bedroom until I have figured out what to do with your husband, and then you shall be free to go home or wherever else it please you.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you, my lady, your Grace,” babbled Fat Walda.

“Do you think you can stand?” Sansa asked, smiling a reassuring smile.

“I…I shall try,” Walda whispered, struggling to her feet again, more successfully this time.

“Help her return to the room where you found her, and stand guard outside the door,” Sansa instructed the Manderly soldier.

“Yes, my lady,” the man replied, his nose wrinkling as he gazed upon Fat Walda and dutifully escorted her back to the room she had been occupying.

 

***

 

Sansa looked around the singed remains of her Father’s solar, her heart aching as she compared the dismal reality to the pictures of this room in her mind’s eye. I shall rebuild this place, she thought, the destruction of her home weighing heavily on her heart. When Bran and Rickon and Arya reappear, they shall have a home to return to. I shall restore this place. They do not need to see Winterfell in such a state, a shadow of its former glory, as I do presently.

Ser Jon Fossoway and Ser Gunthor Hightower stood guard outside the door of the ruined solar, as she waited for the most trusted of the Northern lords to gather here, to discuss the fate of Roose Bolton. Sansa did not look on this meeting with anticipation, for all that she had gone North to fulfill Robett Glover’s pleas for justice. Justice was proving to be a hard task-mistress, and Sansa wondered if she was capable of dispensing it.

I feel far more at home when I must charm the court or sue for peace, Sansa reflected. I am not built for war or punishing wrong-doers. I much prefer to deal with situations where one might compromise or strive to please. She doubted that the Northerners would accept peace or compromise, after the slaughter at the Twins. You are not the only one who lost loved ones that day, she could hear Robett telling her at Riverrun.

I wish to be merciful, fretted Sansa. But I do not think my men can live with mercy, for such terrible crimes, and I cannot blame them.

To distract herself from the conversation that awaited her all too soon, Sansa tried to use this idle time to restore her father’s solar to some semblance of order. The fires had wrought too much damage for her efforts to make much difference, but it made her feel better to sweep away the ashes and gather together the chairs or benches that remained intact enough to bear a person’s weight. To Sansa’s regret, the old, beautiful furniture that had once decorated this room was either lost to the fires or looted. Mayhaps it was simply moved to another room, where people had greater need of it, perhaps for the purpose of sleeping, she hoped, knowing it to be unlikely.

Finally, the Northmen arrived. A few sat down on the chairs and benches Sansa had salvaged, and the rest stood behind those who were seated. Sansa looked around the room, hard stares looking back at her. Not a single face looked like to ask for anything but blood.

Can I do this? Sansa wondered again. Do I have it in me?

“Thank you all for coming here to meet with me,” said Sansa finally. “And you have my deepest gratitude for helping to recover my family’s ancestral home. It could not have been done without your admirable loyalty and impressive skills in combat.”

“You are most welcome, my lady,” replied Lady Maege Mormont. “Now, what do you plan to do with Roose Bolton?”

“I assume there is no one here, save his wife, who would plea for mercy?” Sansa asked, hoping she was wrong and that someone would offer her a reason to stay her hand.

“Not a one,” growled Lord Robin Flint of Flint’s Finger.

“Aye, he deserves a traitor’s death,” boomed Big Bucket Wull.

“He murdered my daughter,” added Lady Maege, her eyes aflame with grief and rage.

“And many more,” put in Robett Glover.

Sansa glanced at Lord Gunthor and Ser Jon, who looked at her impassively. Can I truly order a man’s death? Sansa wondered, searching for a way out and finding none.

“Very well,” said Sansa shakily. “How ought it be done?”

“Cut his throat before the heart tree,” suggested Hother Umber, known as Whoresbane.

“A blood sacrifice?” asked Gunthor in an even tone, though his nose wrinkled slightly in disgust. Septon Triston looked rather green, but he also quivered with nervous energy, as if he was dying to find out more. Wisely, he kept his silence, at least for the nonce.

“An execution,” corrected Lady Maege.

“With an extra punch,” added Whoresbane.

“You be needin’ it, way this winter’s goin,’” grunted Big Bucket Wull.

“Roose Bolton violated the laws of the gods as well as men, by slaying guests at a wedding,” explained Robett, his voice making the absurd suggestion sound eminently reasonable.

Sansa glanced at Lord Wyman, wondering what he would think, as a worshipper of the Seven. Manderly shrugged.

“I have no objection,” Wyman remarked, his jovial tone jarring when contrasted with the cruelty of his words. “I follow the Seven, but Roose Bolton’s crimes merit death regardless, so I care not how it is done. If I had my way, I would bake his bastard son into a pie and feed it to him, then shut him up in a tower to eat his boy and hopefully his fingers, as my kinswoman Donella was forced to do. But I know you to be a kind and merciful lass, Sansa Stark, so I shall not ask that of you. A slit throat before the heart tree is as merciful a death as Roose could hope for, I promise you that much.”

Sansa blanched, grateful that Lord Wyman had not asked her to commit such an ugly act. She looked to her Southron counsellors again.

“Lord Gunthor? Ser Jon? What say you?” she asked, hoping they would offer an alternative that would allow her to live with herself.

“The man’s crimes are justly punished by death,” said Lord Gunthor, a disapproving look on his face. He does not like it, but it seems he is not willing to speak against it, Sansa thought with growing despair.

“To sacrifice an innocent human being for purely heathen purposes would be an abomination,” noted Ser Jon. “But I agree that death is a just sentence for these grave crimes, and the execution must take place somewhere. I do not see that it matters whether it takes place before a tree or somewhere else. But mayhaps the Septon could better guide us on whether it be a sin to execute a man in a pagan style. If it is not a sin, I advise doing as local custom decrees.”

“The Seven forbid blood magic and human sacrifice, that much is true,” advised Septon Triston, who could scarcely contain his excitement at this encounter with heathen ways. “However, the Faith recognizes that a lawful sentence of death is distinct from unlawful and unjustified killing. It is rather a gray area of theology, as the Seven do not prescribe a particular place or manner of execution. If your father’s gods require the execution to take place before the heart tree, I think it is defensible to follow local custom in this matter. There is no doctrine directly prohibiting that location and manner of lawful execution.”

Well, it seems my honor guard shall not speak against it, Sansa thought wearily. Which means I either must comply or offer my own objections. As she considered it, she supposed they were right that it made no difference where the execution was to take place, and she had decided it would be best to make a display of respect to the Old Gods while she was in the North… Sansa shivered at the thought, but she could see no other path.

“My father taught me that the one who passes the sentence should swing the sword,” Sansa whispered, looking at the floor and trembling. It made her sick to think of it, but she knew that she would lose the respect of her bannermen if she did not at least speak this truth.

“Aye, it is the old way,” said the Flint, nodding.

“It was your father’s way, and you would honor him by following it,” said Lord Crewyn quietly. He knew my father well, thought Sansa. I think he is right that father would have wanted the Stark who passed the sentence to carry it out, though it would break his heart that it was I who must needs do the deed. Even Arya would have been better. I am a lady, not a warrior. Am I capable of such an act?

“It is justice,” said Big Bucket Wull simply.

“But I cannot swing a sword, and Ice has been stolen from us,” interjected Sansa, still gazing at the floor. Her breathing was speeding up again, and she tried to calm herself.

“It does not take any special strength to slice a man’s throat open with a dagger,” suggested Lady Maege in a tone of bland practicality.

Sansa cringed. That option had occurred to her, but she had hoped no one would mention it.

“If you do not have the stomach for it, any one of us would be happy to take Roose Bolton’s head, I suspect,” commented Lord Wyman gently.

Sansa looked up and searched the faces of the Northmen. She saw distaste on too many of them to accept Lord Wyman’s alternative, as desperately as she wished to do so.

Her heart pounding in her chest, Sansa steeled herself for what must come next. “Very well,” she said in the coldest voice she could muster. “For his crimes against gods and men alike, I shall cut Roose Bolton’s throat before the heart tree.”

A murmur of approval rose at Sansa’s words. I do not know if I can do this, she thought, a pang of terror shooting through her extremities.

“Let us get it over with before I lose my resolve,” the Lady Stark declared. “Lord Manderly, go to your guardsmen and bring them to the godswood. Lord Robbett, please go to the Lady Walda and ask if she wishes to be present to bid her husband goodbye, but do not compel her to attend if she has not the heart for it.”

 

***

 

Every soul in the castle, it seemed, had gathered in the godswood to watch the execution. Sansa clutched her maiden’s cloak around her, trembling from cold and fear alike.

Am I doing the right thing? Sansa prayed to the Old Gods. Is this your will? 

The wind gusted in reply, and Sansa could feel in her heart that this was a sign from the gods. Yes, the wind whispered. Justice, she thought she heard.

Is this justice or barbarism? Sansa wondered. She looked at the cold, hard faces of the Northmen gathered around her, and then looked down at Lady Walda. In the distance, Sansa thought she could hear the howling of wolves.

“Please,” Fat Walda begged. “Have mercy! I do not even know yet if I carry Roose’s son. Please do not kill him, I beg you. Mercy!”

“I am so terribly sorry,” said Sansa, eyes glistening, visions of Joffrey swimming before her eyes. “I have been in your position, and it grieves me to deny your heartfelt request. But unlike my father, your husband is guilty, and the evidence of his guilt is known to all of us who are present here. Your pleas tear at my heart, but I cannot do you the cruelty of giving you false hope. If his crimes were any less, mayhaps I could offer to let him take the Black, but Roose Bolton’s crimes were not committed just against mine own family, but against many Northern families and against the gods as well. What would be a kindness to you would be a grave affront to them. Death is the only just sentence.”

Fat Walda began to sob in earnest, and Sansa was crying now too, silent tears dropping down her cheeks and choking her voice. Am I like Joffrey? she wondered, her heart breaking. Images of her father’s head, falling from Ser Ilyn’s sword, covered in tar, on a spike above the Red Keep, swam in her mind’s eye. She swayed, then caught herself, trying to be strong.

“I am so sorry, my lady,” Sansa managed to say. “I promise, I shall not hold you or any child you may carry responsible by association, and I will ensure you are taken care of. Let it be known that no one is to be held a traitor by blood ties alone, but only by their own acts. If indeed you carry Lord Bolton's heir, your child shall inherit, as is his or her right. Please know, as well, that you may leave. You need not watch this happen. I saw my father’s head struck from his body, and I know well how much it hurts to witness such an act. If you wish not to stay, please go, knowing that you have done your best to save him and that your presence here was surely a comfort in his last moments. I would spare you the pain of seeing it, if you would take it. I know that all of that is little comfort, but that is the only form of mercy I can offer you today.”

Fat Walda nodded, and fled. Two Glover men followed her.

After that heart-wrenching moment before the court, Sansa could not deny Lady Bolton the courtesy of carrying out the sentence with her own hand, though it made her ill to think of carving into a man’s flesh, even the flesh of a treacherous man. Because her family had lost its Valyrian steel sword, and because she was not strong enough to wield a greatsword properly at any rate, Sansa would have to use the dagger as Lady Maege had suggested. In a grotesque echo of the way her mother had been slain, she would slice across Lord Bolton’s throat. It took no great physical strength to perform such an act, though until the very last moment, she wondered if she possessed the courage to follow through. She had selected the fathers and brothers and sons of men who had been slain at the Twins, to hold Lord Bolton in place on the snow before the weirwood.

When at last the moment came, the greatest test she had faced thus far, tears again streaked down Sansa’s face. At first, she closed her eyes, but then she opened them, feeling it was wrong to kill a man without looking in his eyes. She shivered at the cold, calm, almost otherworldly blue of Roose Bolton’s eyes. He did not look afraid.

He killed Mother and Robb and many others, when they believed themselves safe by guest right, she reminded herself, trying to gather her courage. I must be strong. I must be a Stark today.

“I am sorry,” she whispered to Lord Roose. “It must be done. It is justice, I cannot shirk it.”

A faint smile played at Roose’s lips, but he said nothing. That little smile chilled Sansa to her bones. Why is he smiling? She thought with horror. What is he thinking? Does he not regret it, what he did? That smile gave her the strength to do as she must. Choking back a sob before it could be heard by others, Sansa placed the dagger to Roose Bolton’s throat. Before she could plunge it into his skin, he finally spoke, so quietly that she almost did not hear him.

“Get it over with, Stark,” he whispered in a tone that sent shivers down her back.

Sansa nodded tearfully and plunged the dagger home, severing his artery and dragging the blade all the way across his throat from ear to ear. Blood ran across her hands and forearms, and she cringed away in horror. When it was done, she dropped the knife and stood, wanting to flee. Seeing the pool, she plunged her hands into it to wash them clean, crying in earnest now. It is not ladylike to cry like this, she thought ridiculously, after performing the most unladylike act she had ever committed in her life. What must they think of me, carrying on like this? But she could not stop crying. It did not matter that he had planned the slaughter at the Twins. She had killed a man.

I have killed a man, she thought, tears streaming from her eyes. I had no choice. But there is so much blood.

“Burn the body,” she instructed them, before running to her chambers to bathe and sob.

 

***

 

Winterfell’s heating system was badly damaged, so Sansa’s only options for bathing were cold water in the castle or the hot springs beneath it. She washed first in cold water, unwilling to allow the blood to remain on her hands for a second longer than strictly necessary. Then she bathed a second time, in the hot springs, sitting there in silence for hours before someone came to check on her. I killed a man, she thought, the tears pouring out once more.

It was Alys Rowan who eventually appeared, carrying her own towel and slipping into the water beside Sansa. They sat there in the hot water, smelling the faint scent of sulfur, without speaking. Sansa wiped at her face and idly scrubbed her hands and arms with a pumice stone.

“Careful, my lady,” remarked Alys softly. “Your skin is already raw from scrubbing.”

Tears came to Sansa’s eyes. “No matter how I scrub, I cannot remove the feeling of his blood upon my hands and arms,” she said blankly. I killed a man, and I cannot stop seeing his blood running over my hands.

“You did what needed to be done,” Alys told her firmly. “I know how you feel. I never wanted to be a warrior, and my heart is still not in it. The first time I slew a man in battle, I begged my father to let me quit, to let me be a simple peacetime lady. He forbid it, and in time, I made my peace with it, but it still weighs heavily on my heart. I would still prefer to strum a harp rather than a bow, but as your House words remind us, winter is always coming. Even ladies must shoulder some of the burden, when there are no men to do the job.”

Sansa did not respond immediately, but she thought on the Rowan lady’s words. To hear that Alys also felt unnatural in the role she had been forced to play strengthened Sansa somewhat, though she still felt utterly wretched. They call it justice, but I scarcely see how it differs from vengeance, she thought morosely.

“It is good to know that I am not alone,” Sansa said finally.

Alys smiled at her. “Before this winter is over, I suspect there will be more like us than anyone imagines.”

“That is not a comforting thought,” replied Sansa, frowning and splashing a bit of water in Alys’s direction, as she had once done with her sister and brothers when they bathed in the hot springs.

“Oh, are you hungry for another battle already?” teased Alys, splashing back more vigorously. Sansa cried out as the water hit her face, and began to splash Alys back in earnest. After both were drenched and giggling, they both relaxed back into the warm water again, enjoying the heat and companionable silence.

Sometimes it is good to feel like the girl I am, thought Sansa, smiling for the first time since the execution.

Eventually, Sansa rose, ready to leave the pool behind. As she reached for her towel, she caught a glimpse of Alys’s stunned expression, and suddenly sank back into the water.

Oh no, oh no, thought Sansa with growing horror. I am wearing only a bathing shift, and I have revealed too much. 

“Sansa…” said Alys carefully. Wide-eyed, Sansa looked back at her, wondering if she was certain enough to speak what she’d seen aloud.

“Yes?” whispered Sansa.

“Your belly…” Alys whispered back.

“You must not tell anyone!” Sansa hissed, quivering.

“I won’t…but…please tell me the babe belongs to Willas?”

“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” Sansa groused. “Of course the babe is Willas’s. He is the only man I have ever lain with, and only the one time, at that!”

Alys giggled, unable to help herself. “You only laid with him the one time, on your wedding night, and he got you with child?”

“It happened to my mother, too, during Robert’s Rebellion,” Sansa said crossly. Alys giggled again. It was odd to see how Lady Rowan switched so easily from battle-hardened warrior to gentle, giggling lady. That is what I must become, Sansa thought.

“I guess Olenna is not wrong to keep remarking on the fertility of the Tullys,” she said with good humor. “Do not look so distressed, Sansa. The Tyrells shall be very pleased with you.”

“Will they?” Sansa whispered, serious again. “You do not think they will be angry that I kept it from them and journeyed all this way while with child?”

“Oh, they’ll be mad, all right,” replied Alys airily. “But that anger should be quickly overwhelmed by the joy at having a new heir.”

“You think so?”

“I know so,” said Alys firmly. Sansa breathed a sigh of relief.

“I need to write to Willas,” she admitted. “I just have not been able to compose my thoughts.”

“Well, you have had much and more on your mind,” Alys reassured her. “Just write the facts for now and you can talk of feelings later, when you can look on one another’s faces.”

“That is a good way to think of it,” said Sansa thoughtfully.

 

***

 

Sansa spent the rest of the day with Jeyne, distracting herself from the gruesome execution by throwing herself into planning the restoration of Winterfell. Together, Sansa and Jeyne catalogued the damage and discussed improvements that could be completed during the winter as well as those that must wait until Spring. It made Sansa feel a little better, but when she lay down to sleep that night, her sleep was fitful.

Her old room had been damaged in the fire, so she did not even have the comfort of sleeping in her own bed. Instead, the limited availability of rooms meant she had no choice but to sleep in her parents’ room, where Roose Bolton had laid down his head only the night before. Jeyne helped Sansa strip away the bedding, replaced with bedding found in an out-of-the-way turret, but it did little to keep Sansa from feeling the ghost of blood on her hands.

 

***

 

When Sansa awoke the next morning, she did not have time to feel guilt over Roose Bolton’s death, because she was overcome with wonder before any negative thoughts could seep into her mind. I can feel our baby moving! she thought with glee, pressing a hand to her belly. It was a strange feeling, just a little flutter of movement, but she was certain of it.

As if the baby’s movements had summoned him, Sansa looked up to see her husband’s face. Am I dreaming? she wondered, staring. Have I gone mad?

“Sansa?” Willas said. “Can you see me? Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” said Sansa softly, convinced she must be sleeping still, and that this was surely a dream. “Are you truly here?”

Willas looked relieved. “No, I am using the glass candle. After I received your last letter, I was worried. I wanted to check in on you, but I feel guilty for watching you without your knowledge. My grandfather told me that the glass candle can be used to project visions across large distances. I do not understand quite how it works, but it seems that it does, if you can truly see and hear me.”

Sansa was startled. Could it truly be Willas? What is he talking about – a glass candle? Is this some strange form of magic? Or am I truly mad or dreaming? Then a thought occurred to her.

“Did you watch me when I was on the ship, to White Harbor?” she demanded.

“Yes,” Willas admitted sheepishly. “I only wanted to know that you were safe. I hope you do not mind. I thought…if you had possessed some means of looking in on me, you might have used it too. But that is the only time besides now that I have used the candle to look for you. I did not want to violate your trust.”

“I do not mind,” replied Sansa. A worried look crossed her face. “Willas, there is something I must tell you –”

“There is much that I must tell you, too,” interrupted Willas. “The Targaryens have returned. They have taken Storm’s End, and my father bent the knee to them. I need to know what you plan to do.”

Sansa’s senses fled, and her mouth fell open as she gazed at the apparition before her. “Tar…Targaryens?” she stammered.

“Yes, King Aegon VI and Queen Daenerys, they name themselves,” said Willas impatiently. “We have only a few moments before the candle flickers out. Now tell me, do you intend to bend the knee, as your ancestor Torrhen Stark did? I think it best, and we can discuss it further when you return, but they have dragons, and –”

“I shall not fight another war,” Sansa replied quickly, thinking of the smallfolk in the Riverlands and those that had died fighting the Boltons the previous day. “I shall try to avoid making any gestures either way until I am reunited with you, but if called upon by a pair of dragonriders, I shall bend the knee as Torrhen did.”

“Good,” said Willas. “I also need to warn you that Euron Greyjoy has taken over the Seastone Chair, and you shall need to be very careful on your return voyage, for the Ironborn are actively raiding the coast. Garlan has taken back the Shield Islands, but we expect further attacks. If it no longer seems safe, you must stop at Casterly Rock rather than continuing on to Oldtown. Desmera will harbor you, I am sure of it, and you have said that Tyrion is friendly with you.”

“Yes, I believe they would do me no harm,” agreed Sansa, her mind whirling.

“Now what was it that you needed to tell me?” asked Willas. “We only have a few moments more – ”

Sansa’s mouth went dry. “I am with child!” she blurted, and then the words began to tumble out. “Our child. I carry our child within me, and I have known since Riverrun, and I am so sorry that I did not write you of it, but I was afraid, and I could not find the right words –”

“You carry our child?” replied Willas slowly, the shock of this news written upon his ghostly face. “You have known for moons and you did not tell me?”

“I’m sorry!” Sansa cried. “I wanted to tell you, but whenever I tried to set the words to parchment, my thoughts went blank and I….I knew you would be angry, and I was afraid, so afraid, I just did not know how to say it. I am sorry. I am so sorry. I hope you can forgive me one day.”

“Afraid? Of me?” A strange look crossed Willas’s face.

“Please,” whimpered Sansa. “Please do not hate me. I…I wanted to tell you, I swear it. I am so sorry, so sorry…”

“I do not hate you,” Willas said, somewhat sternly, but then his expression softened. “Afraid…of course, I should have seen it. You have been so brave, it is easy to forget the scars your heart bears from your time in King’s Landing. Yes, Sansa, I am displeased that you withheld this news from me, but it is joyful news, truly. I am delighted to hear it. And yes, I am angry that you did not feel that you could tell me, but I do not hate you, I could not hate you. We can speak of this when you return, but know that I shall love you and our babe, and that you shall have my forgiveness in due time. I am not a monster, Sansa. I shall not hurt you, even if I am angry.”

“You are so kind to me,” Sansa whispered.

“Tell me, Sansa, did your parents never grow angry with one another? Did they never argue?”

“They did, at times,” Sansa admitted.

“And did your father strike Lady Catelyn, when she angered him?”

“Never,” Sansa said, her voice growing stronger.

“Good. Then you should know that a man can love his wife, and grow angry at her words or deeds, without becoming a terror. I shall never strike you, or harm you in any way. I wish you to be honest with me, Sansa, and though I cannot promise never to anger, I shall never give you cause to mistrust me. You should not hesitate to speak the truth to me, even if you fear that I will mislike it. I can handle it, Sansa. I will not hurt you if you say something I mislike.”

“There’s one more thing, lord husband,” said Sansa quickly, her thoughts suddenly racing, as if his comforting words had melted the sludgy slowness of her mind into a gushing river. “Well, several, actually. Send the ship to Fever instead of Barrowton, to bring me home. I am coming home, truly this time. The Boltons are dead and Winterfell is ours. Also, my brothers Bran and Rickon are said to be alive. I have sent my brother Jon to fetch Rickon from Skagos, and if he returns, I have agreed not to challenge his claim to the North.”

“What – ” That was all Willas was able to say before his image began to fade.

I hope he heard me, Sansa thought, staring at the blank space her husband’s astral self had occupied only moments before. The baby kicked at her, as if excited to hear its father’s voice.

“That is your father, little one,” Sansa cooed, running a hand across her belly. “He is a good man. You shall like him, I know it.”

Collapsing back against her pillow, Sansa lost herself in thought. I had no time to decide, she reflected, thinking of the news about the Targaryens and hoping she had not made a terrible mistake. I must get home so that I might discuss this all with Willas. So that we may have a proper conversation, rather than one conducted in stolen moments, by some magical device.

Eventually, Sansa shook herself from her reverie and dressed. There was much and more to be done, so that she could return home. Getting her thoughts in order, she called first for Jeyne, who was very happy to see Sansa functioning normally again, focused on the important tasks rather than caught up in her worries about the execution and the babe.

“You look much better! Did you sleep well?” said Jeyne as she joined Sansa in the bedroom.

“You might say so,” replied Sansa, knowing she would only sound mad if she were to tell Jeyne that she had just seen Willas. It shall be our little secret for now, mine and his, she thought, her heart warming at the idea that they had grown close enough to hold secrets together.

“Good, I’m glad to hear it,” said Jeyne. “Now, what was it you needed to speak with me about?”

Sansa grew serious. “I have a notion in my mind, but I wish you to know that you may decline, if you do not wish the responsibility or if you have some place you would rather be than here,” she told her friend.

“Oh? What is on your mind?” Jeyne asked, looking curious, if slightly worried.

“I wondered if you might…would you like to serve as Castellan of Winterfell, whilst I am gone?” Sansa asked. “I know it is not the safest place to wait out winter, so you must tell me if you do not want the position until I have returned and can personally see to your safety, but you would have the protection of Cerwyn and Manderly men – ”

Jeyne interrupted Sansa by throwing her arms around her, squealing with delight.

“It would be an honor, Sansa!” Jeyne cried. The two smiled at one another.

“Truly?” asked Sansa. “I thought, there is no one better for the job. Your father was once Castellan, and I know you learned bits of his trade from him. I trust you, more than anyone else to oversee the reconstruction of Winterfell, but if you would rather come South with me as my lady-in-waiting or if there is aught else you wish, I could find someone else – ”

“Don’t be silly, Sansa,” replied Jeyne. “I want nothing more than to serve as your Castellan. It would be good to have a place and a purpose, and I cannot wait to see your face when you return, to find your family’s home restored and improved. I know exactly how to approach the task after our conversation yesterday.”

“Oh, good!” exclaimed Sansa, beaming. “You shall be perfect at the job, I know it! I am so glad you have decided to accept the position.”

“I cannot believe you thought I might not want it!” said Jeyne, laughing.

After Jeyne, Sansa called another meeting of the Northern Lords and Ladies. She granted Robett Glover leave to retake his family’s seat, with the support of Tallhart, Hornwood, and Mormont men. With the exception of those Houses, Sansa requested that each of the leal Houses contribute five men to garrison Winterfell, in addition to half of Castle Cerwyn’s forces and a substantial force made up of Manderly men. Finally, she and her honor guard spoke with Lord Wyman separately, to iron out their plans for Rickon’s regency and what would happen if Jon was not able to locate him. They also discussed Lord Wyman’s plans for taking the Dreadfort, though Sansa advised him that he was to retreat if the plans went awry.

“You have done so much for House Stark already,” she told him. “I would not have you cripple your forces taking the Dreadfort now that the Boltons are already extinguished. It is no longer an urgent task, though I give you leave to fight for it, if you deem it necessary.”

“Someone ought to take it,” Manderly replied. “And if it is not me, I suspect it shall be Stannis. I do not wish for him to gain a toehold here.”

“That is wise,” Sansa agreed. “But please promise me that you shall retreat if necessary.”

“Of course,” said Wyman, impatiently. “I am not a fool. If it does not look as if we shall be able to take it now, we can always do so in the Spring.”

“One last thing,” said Sansa, before she dismissed Lord Wyman. “I wish to tell you how truly grateful I am for your leal service. If you wish it, you shall have a marriage alliance as a reward, or whatever else you wish of me. I cannot say for certain which Stark shall be available – Rickon was always a wild boy, and I cannot promise that he will listen to my advice on marriage – but if none of my siblings are willing and available, I hope to offer mine own son or daughter one day.”

Lord Wyman looked at her with curiosity. Sansa flushed.

“I am with child,” she informed him. “I know not if it shall be a girl or boy, and of course my lord husband must have a say, but I hope to have several children one day, so there ought be ample choices. We need not decide anything now, but I wanted you to know that I am open to the idea, and that my gratitude for all your assistance runs deep.”

“I am honored, my lady,” replied Lord Wyman warmly. “Is this news that I might share with others?”

“It is less of a secret than it once was,” Sansa admitted. “But until I reach Highgarden, I should like for it to remain quiet.”

“Very well,” said Lord Wyman. “Congratulations, my lady! It is good to hear that the Stark line shall continue, and I would be delighted to make a match between your family and my own when the wars are concluded and the snows begin to melt.”

“Wonderful,” replied Sansa. They parted with a hug, and Lord Wyman insisted on sending at least a few men to help escort her to Fever.

With all her plans in place, and the North secured, Sansa gathered her honor guard and began the long ride to Fever.

Chapter Text

MARGAERY

Margaery had always dreamed of being Queen, though whether the dream was her father’s or her grandmother’s or her own originally, she could not say. When she was a girl, it had seemed the only logical ambition for the beautiful young daughter of one of the wealthiest Lords Paramount in the Realm. Any other marriage would have been a lateral move – respectable, but hardly likely to strengthen her family’s power bloc after the blow dealt to the Tyrells by Robert’s Rebellion.

At first, it had been innocent enough. She had dreamed of wearing the most beautiful gowns and a jewel-encrusted crown, sitting beside a handsome young King and filling the halls of the Red Keep with lovely children. Later, as she had come to better understand politics and government, becoming Queen had seemed the natural extension of her charitable efforts to improve the conditions of the smallfolk.

Margaery knew that her charity was often perceived in King’s Landing as an affectation, but she had come by it honestly. Once, when she was about nine or ten, she had visited Oldtown with her family and witnessed urchins begging in the streets. As a kind child, her first instinct had been to plead with her mother for coins to throw to them. Before that trip to Oldtown, Margaery had known only peace and plenty; realizing that there were others who suffered deprivation had stung her heart, and she wished fervently to help the less fortunate once she learned of their plight. At the Starry Sept, she had asked the regal Septon how to save the poor children outside the Sept’s doors, and he had counselled her to speak to the Septon of Highgarden about charitable projects she might pursue at home.

Taking the Septon at his word, Margaery had indeed embarked on charitable endeavors when she returned to Highgarden. Even when Septon Triston replaced the elderly Septon of her childhood, she remained devoted to these projects, which had only grown over the years. Her parents had encouraged her interest in helping others, and their support had strengthened her resolve whenever she tired of the hard work. True, her parents had condoned this hobby because it earned the affections of the smallfolk for the ruling family of the Reach, but it was not so cynical as everyone assumed.

My generosity only appears false because the Lannisters are so miserly, Margaery would think quietly to help herself preserve her pleasant manner, when courtiers smiled snidely or mocked her charitable efforts. It is possible to do good while also benefitting one’s political interests. Only the selfish assume the two must be opposed.

In time, as she grew wiser to the ways of the world, Margaery’s interest in charity had become a zeal for politics and governance. After all, what better way to improve the lives of the people than seeking a position of power and influence, from which she might effect reforms? She had studied the reigns of the great Kings and Queens of Westeros, seeking to learn from the example of Jaehaerys and Alysanne, as well as rulers in far-off places in Essos. Under the tutelage of her mother, her grandmother, and her eldest brother, Margaery had learned how to play the courtly games of the ladies and the game of thrones, as well as learning how to manage a household and a Kingdom. All of her life had led up to this moment when she became the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.

But now that she was in the thick of it, Margaery had begun to doubt herself. King’s Landing was nothing like she expected, and her marriages to three Kings had not ensured her access even to small council meetings. To her dismay, rather than a confidant and partner, she had been treated as an ornament. No one wanted a woman’s advice on how to maximize the harvest or ensure the conditions of the smallfolk did not deteriorate to the point that banditry and rebellion appeared a more attractive option than abiding the law and the noble structures of authority ordained by the gods.

Worse, Queen Cersei had perceived the younger Queen as a threat from Margaery’s first day in the Red Keep. Though Margaery had tried to befriend her goodmother as best she knew how, and though she had deployed every manipulation in her mother’s repertoire, Taena reported that the Queen Regent remained firm in her commitment to destroying Margaery. I wanted to get along with her, Margaery often lamented to her ladies. But she has made it utterly impossible.

There was still some hope that Margaery might wield meaningful power once Tommen was older. The boy seemed to listen to her opinions, and though he lacked awareness of the realm’s affairs, his instincts were righteous and kind. When he reached majority, it would not be so difficult to persuade him to appoint her to his small council, if only in an advisory role. Once they had a son, perhaps, Margaery might convince the boy-King to send his mother away. If not, mayhaps Grandmother Olenna might be persuaded to make another visit to King’s Landing, to fix the Cersei problem once and for all.

Better to win friends than enemies, but if you face an isolated enemy who cannot be won over despite your best efforts, someone who stands in your way at every turn and will not make common cause at any price, it is best to have done with it and poison them, Olenna had once advised Margaery. At the time, the aspiring Queen had found Olenna’s advice cruel and underhanded, and she had argued with her grandmother, telling her that poisoning people was murder – a sin in the eyes of the Seven!

But now that Margaery understood the nature of the people governing the realm, she found her views had changed. Gods forgive her, but sometimes there was not a kinder, more virtuous way. Some people simply could not be reasoned with, or bought off, or otherwise manipulated. When Kings and Queens held such power over the lives of the nobility and the smallfolk, there was little recourse besides removing a rotten King or Queen from the board. Such had been the case with Joffrey, and now, it seemed, with Cersei.

Sometimes, Margaery wondered why the gods had elected the Lannisters to rule the Westerlands. She knew what Willas would say; he claimed the gods had naught to do with the affairs of men, that they were better understood as builders who made the world and observed it from afar, but that was heresy. The gods must have had some purpose in Lann the Clever's rise, only the Lannisters had strayed from that purpose. It was this reasoning that allowed her to reconcile her faith with regicide.

Even so, Tommen could still be salvaged, Margaery thought. At least, that is what she was thinking before she read Willas’s letter.

Margaery was having tea in the gardens with her ladies, while Tommen played with his cats in the grass beside them, when Maester Pycelle brought the scroll to her. Thanking him and bidding him a warm good-day, she tore it open immediately after he was gone. The note was simple:

 

 

Dearest sister, Queen Margaery,

 

I regret to inform you that our Grandmother Olenna has passed away. Maester Lomys said she died peacefully in her sleep, from a bad heart. Please return to Highgarden at once, to attend her funeral.

 

With all my love and a heavy heart,

Your brother,

 

Willas

 

For a moment, Margaery’s heart stopped. Grandmother had been so healthy, just a few moons ago! Had the travels put an unnecessary strain on her heart? Tears leapt to her eyes and guilt wound its thorny vines around her heart, but Margaery forced herself to control her emotions, biting back her sorrow. Then she noticed that the letter’s decorative border was wrought of random calligraphied letters, and she allowed herself to breathe again. Perhaps it isn’t true, she speculated. Perhaps this is only a cover story. Making excuses to her ladies and her husband, Margaery forced herself to glide gracefully back to her rooms, though in truth she wished to run.

Once inside, Margaery pulled a book from her shelves, and quickly began to translate the message. When she had decoded it, the message read:

 

Grandmother is alive and well. The dragons return to claim the throne. Get out of the city at once, by any means necessary.

 

The relief she felt at the first sentence turned to terror by the time she read the next two. Eyes fixed to the page, Margaery thought quickly. What should be my next move? How am I to get out of the city? Loras and Father have left me alone here, damn them. I cannot go to the Lannisters for help. Who else can I trust? The answer came to her almost immediately. Her cousins, the Redwyne twins. They still lingered in King’s Landing.

Still trying to cultivate an air of grace and gentle courtesy, Margaery began to search for her cousins, while appearing to be doing nothing of the sort. She stopped to chat with noble lords and ladies along the way, joking with the Blue Bard and complimenting Lady Tanda on her new dress, all the while keeping her sharp green eyes open for her cousins’ whereabouts. When she finally spotted them, Margaery joined their conversation, and then ushered them away under the pretense that she had received news of a death in the family.

Once she had the twins alone, Margaery showed them the papers with Willas’s letter and the decoded secret message. Hobber began to read aloud, but Margaery cut him off after the first word crossed his lips.

“Hush! There are little birds everywhere in the Red Keep,” she scolded him. Margaery watched the twins’ faces as they read the message, noting with concern that they did not seem terribly surprised.

“Oh, that,” said Horas dismissively, when he was finished reading. “Father already wrote me with that news. It is nothing to worry about.”

“Right,” agreed Hobber. “Willas is just being paranoid.”

“Then why haven’t I received a message from mine own father?” Margaery demanded.

Horas and Hobber both shrugged. “Mayhaps the raven got lost,” offered Hobber.

Maybe Cersei withheld Father’s letter from me, and she only let this one through because it said my Grandmother was dead and she wished to hurt me, Margaery thought. That appeared to be Cersei’s reason for passing on the lie about Loras suffering terrible burns on Dragonstone. Thank the gods Willas is smart enough to design a cover story that can make it past Cersei’s hatred-blinded gaze.

“Our father says that our families have…erm…acceded to the beasts’ demands, and they have negotiated to ensure our safety when they arrive,” Horas commented awkwardly, trying to communicate without saying anything specific enough that it could be overheard and understood.

So Father and Uncle Paxter have bent the knee? Margaery was puzzled. Why would Queen Cersei allow that message to reach the Twins? Mayhaps she is stupider than I thought, and either did not recognize the significance of the news or did not realize the twins are related to the Tyrells. Or mayhaps Paxter is cleverer than Father, and worded his message in such a way that its meaning was obvious to the twins but not to Pycelle.

Margaery looked at her cousins skeptically. “That is all fine for you, I suppose, but forgive me if I am not so sanguine,” she remarked. “Do you have a ship in the harbor that I might…charter, to take me home to Grandmother’s funeral?”

“Nay,” said Hobber. “Father and Loras took them all.”

“That is surely why he asked us to remain,” explained Horas. “It is not as if we could do otherwise.”

“But surely there must be something you can do, to help me…get home for the funeral rites? You know how close I have always been with our grandmother, and my heart is broken. I simply must be there with my family,” Margaery pressed.

“I do not know why you are asking us,” replied Horas. “We have less money and power than you do. Why do you not simply ask the Queen-Regent to send you home?”

“That would not be wise,” answered Margaery, glaring at them. Why are my cousins such dullards? she wondered helplessly. Their sister is bright. Why are they so different than her, despite the same upbringing and an even more thorough education?

“Sorry we couldn’t help,” said Hobber, already making for the door. “I am sure you shall find a way, or if not, it shall be fine regardless. Father and Lord Mace send their love.”

Margaery fumed as her cousins departed, wondering what other options she possessed. It was a cruel irony to find herself draped in all the trappings of wealth and power, yet unable to book passage on a ship, as even a merchant’s daughter could easily do. She did not lack the coin, and surely her jewelry could be sold if she needed more than her small reserve of gold dragons, but the trouble was that she would be recognized anywhere she went. I suppose that is the downside of having the people’s love, she thought sadly. Mayhaps I could disguise myself? But that is risky, for if I am caught, it might give Cersei the excuse she has been waiting for, to declare that I am up to some plot…

Then an idea struck her, and Margaery smiled. Yes, of course…that might work…I must go find Megga.

 

CERSEI

Cersei was finally free of the men who had sought to restrain her power. As Queen Regent and the rightful Lady of Casterly Rock, her dictums could not be challenged. Unlike the kinslaying dwarf who defiled her castle or her beloved yet increasingly neglectful Jaime, Cersei knew that she was the true heir to her father’s legacy. Tyrion made mockery of their family, galivanting about with that Redwyne whore, and Jaime had proved too soft, too beholden to his boyish dreams of knightly honor. Kevan, too, had shown himself disloyal. In the vacuum left behind by their failures, she, Cersei, would rule the Seven Kingdoms with a gilded iron fist, just as Lord Tywin had done when he was Hand to King Aerys.

When word of Jaime’s truce with the deceitful Lady Sansa had reached King's Landing, Cersei had raged about the Red Keep, hurling chalices at serving girls and cutting down courtiers with her sharp tongue. As soon as she could determine who was in charge of the Lannister forces in the Riverlands, Cersei intended to retake Riverrun from the stinking fishes. Sansa is a traitor twice-over, and my brothers are too stupid to see it. She was born of barbaric Northern blood and Tully bottom-feeders, only to spread her legs for the Tyrell cripple. Thrice a traitor. She isn’t even that pretty. I do not fathom why I ever believed her to be the Younger Queen that Maggy the Frog proclaimed would be my downfall. With that hideous red hair, she could never be anything other than a scheming slut. It was clearly Margaery who was the threat, all along.

The Tyrells were the true threat, Cersei knew. Their pretty words and false generosity had fooled the court, but Cersei knew the truth. The Tyrells could not be trusted. Margaery was surely plotting with the dwarf and his Redwyne whore. At least that acid-tongued grandmother of theirs was dead. Without her, that buffoon, Mace Tyrell, could not plot his way out of a rucksack.

Cersei drained her glass of wine and rang for the servant girls to help her dress, only to discover that those incompetent fools had shrunk her new gowns, too. Why is it so hard to find good help in the capital? she wondered. I never had such problems at Casterly Rock. It seemed that even the threat of sending them to Qyburn was not enough to convince them to treat her gowns with care. Finally locating a gown that had not been damaged – a gift from Taena – Cersei let the servants dress her, scolding them for their carelessness all the while. When they were finished, she bid them bring her another bottle of wine, which she took with her to the small council meeting.

As Cersei settled in at the head of the table in the small council chambers, she thought about how pleased her father would have been to see her now. She was the shining image of the regal ruling Queen. Beautiful, brilliant, and ruthless in destroying her enemies. Any day now, she knew, her plot to use the Sparrows to bring down the Tyrells would come to fruition. It was only a matter of time before that slut Margaery gave into temptation and fucked the handsome Osney Kettleblack. No woman can resist his charms, thought Cersei proudly. After the Faith tried Margaery for her deviance, Osney could be sent to the Wall to deal with the Stark bastard, who had cruelly murdered the honorable Janos Slynt.

Unfortunately, it seemed, problems were piling up before her. Cersei had not realized that being Queen was such a difficult job. During that scoundrel Robert’s reign, it had not been so difficult being Queen. In part, that was because they shut her out of the halls of power, a situation she was pleased to have corrected with that clever plot with the boar and the strongwine. But it also seemed that everyone was out to get her in a way that they had not sought to bring down Robert. They cannot accept a ruling Queen, she thought angrily. Why do they not understand that I am a better man than my brothers, in my mind and heart, no matter what lies between my legs? Would that I had been the boy and Jaime the lady. I am my father’s true son. Why will the noble houses not fall in line?

 There was no alternative. She would have to crush them all like bugs, as her father had done to the Reynes and Castameres. They would regret disrespecting her.

Finished with her first glass of wine (from this bottle, anyways), Cersei poured herself another as the council trickled in. The first to arrive was Maester Pycelle, then Qyburn, followed by Ser Harys Swift and Lord Orton Merryweather. The last to arrive was Lord Gyles, with his hideous coughing.

“Your Grace,” murmured Pycelle, the doddering old fool. “Urgent news…It seems…I have received word that…the siege of Storm’s End has been broken…by two Targaryens…dragonriders…who name themselves King Aegon IV and Queen Daenerys.”

“WHAT?” Cersei thundered. She did not even have to attempt to imitate her father’s battlefield voice; it came naturally to her. What is that old fool talking about? “The Targaryens are all dead!”

“Of course, your Grace,” replied Qyburn soothingly. “But these pretenders claim to be Aegon, Rhaegar’s son, and Daenerys, Rhaegar’s youngest sister.”

“The Mountain slew the boy Aegon in the siege, on my father’s orders,” Cersei protested.

Her councilors glanced at one another anxiously.

“Indeed,” replied Lord Merryweather, nodding vigorously. “A filthy lie!”

“But they do have dragons,” remarked Qyburn softly.

A jolt of terror struck Cersei at these words. My baby, she thought with increasing worry. I must keep Tommen safe. But how do I protect him from dragons?

“How do we fight dragons?” demanded Cersei.

The small council members exchanged looks again.

“Don’t just sit there looking at each other, answer me!” Cersei said, infuriated by their incompetence. “Doesn’t anyone know?”

“There might be a way,” offered Qyburn. “There is a device called a Scorpion. When I was at the Citadel, I learned that it was used to kill the dragon Meraxes, in Dorne.”

“Dorne,” scoffed Cersei. “Of course those sneaky poisoners knew how to kill dragons. You must build as many of these Scorpions as possible, and quickly.”

“If I may, your Grace?” asked Merryweather nervously.

“Yes, go ahead,” replied Cersei magnanimously.

“Will Scorpions be enough?” he wondered aloud.

“There is…another option…” murmured Pycelle. “During the Battle of the Blackwater…”

“That’s right,” said Cersei, tiring of the man’s stuttering speech. She wondered why she had not given him to Qyburn yet. She knew that he had helped cover up Joffrey’s death. “The kinslaying dwarf used some stupid chain to defend the city. I do not see how that would help with dragons.”

“Not…the chain…” said Pycelle. “The wildfire…”

Yes. Wildfire. The dwarf was a sinful little beast, but he was not stupid, she had to grudgingly admit. Wildfire had protected the city against Stannis, and her father had approved of it. Maybe I will keep Pycelle around a little longer, thought Cersei, feeling triumphant.

“Of course!” the Queen exclaimed with great enthusiasm. “Wildfire. I can’t believe I did not think of it first. Send for the Pyromancer’s Guild at once.”

 

JALABHAR

He and Robert had developed an understanding over the years. Jalabhar would ask the King to invade the Summer Isles and restore him to his rightful place, and Robert would tell him ‘next year.’ It was always next year, never this year. But frankly, that suited Jalabhar just fine. He had made a home here in King’s Landing, and he no longer burned hot with rage. Robert’s continual ‘maybe’ allowed Jalabhar to stay at court without shaming himself, and Jalabhar’s continual asking allowed Robert to fantasize about once again taking up his great Warhammer and doing what he was best at: making war, not governing. He helped Robert relive his glory days as a younger and fitter man, while Robert helped Jalabhar keep the flame of hope alive, to believe that he might return home one day. Now that Paxter was getting serious about the invasion plans, Jalabhar would need to think of some way to stall.

It was not that he did not wish to return home; Jalabhar missed the Summer Isles deeply. Even now, after all these years of exile, he could picture the crystalline azure waters of his homeland. Each of the fifty islands was beautiful in its own distinctive way, but the place that Jalabhar missed most was the island of his birth, known as Jhala. One of the largest three islands, Jhala was lush and verdant despite its sizable population. It was one of the few places in the world where the famed goldenheart trees grew, from which the Summer Isles's acclaimed and highly effective bows were carved. He sorely wished he could return to reclaim the Red Flower Vale, the princedom that was his birthright, situated in the Eastern river valley of Jhala. It was paradise, the castle that he had foolishly lost in a war against his cousin from Jhala’s Western river valley, the princedom known as the Sweet Lotus Vale.

No man could forget the unspeakably gorgeous stone palace nestled amidst bright flowers with colorful birds flying overhead. He recalled the tropical forests, teeming with life. While playing in the jungle as a boy, Jalabhar had encountered fluffy spotted panther cubs, and brought them home to add to his family’s menagerie. Before his exile, Jalabhar had taken it all for granted – the luxurious spices and the chattering monkeys and the endless gems and metals mined from the coastal cliffs. Like it was yesterday, Jalabhar remembered his last glimpse of Jhala, from the port city of Ebonhead, the palms and goldenhearts swaying in the sea breeze as the ship carried him away forever. Though time had weakened the pain of leaving, and though he had created a whole new life here in Westeros, Jalabhar missed it still.

No, it was not his desire to return that was lacking. In fact, it was that very desire that warred in his heart against his reticence to bring true warfare to the islands. Though his people had fought valiantly in real wars against slavers and pirates, they did not truly war with one another. Instead, they maintained their indigenous tradition of ritualized warfare, which was more akin to a Westerosi tourney than the ugly, total war the Riverlands had witnessed during the War of the Five Kings. In the Summer Isles, ‘war’ meant a competition between teams of champions, both male and female, who were anointed by priests to compete in a melee with only slings and spears. Use of the goldenheart bow in such ‘wars’ was forbidden, because it was too powerful a weapon. The team that lost was condemned to exile, as Jalabhar had been, but it was rare that anyone would lose their life in such a contest, and even if they did, it would only be by accident. The point was to settle disputes, not to kill.

Thus, the notion of retaking his rightful seat presented a serious problem for Jalabhar: he could not win back the Red Flower Vale without returning as a foreign conquerer would, bringing total war from Westeros to the shores of his beloved islands. His people would never accept him back, believing the ritual war conclusive, and there was no way to change that short of destroying the homeland he wished to return to. For the residents of Jhala, or any of the Summer Islands, the justness of one’s claim was settled by the ritual war, as with trials by combat in Westeros. It mattered not that Jalabhar’s cousin had been the aggressor. Prince Jalabhar’s whole life had changed on that one, terrible day, when he lost the war.

Robert’s endless deferrals had allowed Jalabhar to dream of going home, without worrying that he would inaugurate the first genuine intra-island war in countless generations. Paxter, however, was a different man. He did not understand the conflict in Jalabhar’s heart, the way Robert had, without Jalabhar’s even needing to speak it aloud. His impending marriage to Megga, and the ships the Redwynes had promised him, revived an internal struggle that Jalabhar had thought he had let go of for once and all, many years ago.

Jalabhar was playing bocce by himself in the gardens when the Queen appeared, along with his betrothed and her other ladies. He was surprised to see them, as they had already visited the previous morning, for their language lessons. Megga, he would not have been so surprised to see, but the Queen herself was a rare visitor indeed. Even though it brought new problems into his life, Jalabhar’s chest puffed at the thought of his rising status in the world. I am truly a Prince, if I can count Queens among my friends, he thought proudly.

“Prince Jalabhar!” exclaimed the lovely Queen Margaery, her green eyes sparkling. “I had hoped to find you here!”

“It is a pleasure and an honor to receive a visit from her Grace,” Jalabhar said warmly, sweeping his glorious cloak of green and scarlet feathers to one side as he bowed elegantly to the beautiful young Queen.

“Well met, Prince Jalabhar!” chirped Megga Tyrell, smiling at her betrothed. Though she was still a bit young for Jalabhar’s tastes, the Prince believed his future bride would grow into a lovely young woman, and Lord Mace had been only too happy to allow for a long betrothal, much to Lady Megga’s dismay. In Westerosi eyes, Jalabhar knew, Margaery’s willowy shape was preferred to Megga’s ample figure, but Jalabhar was as pleased with Megga’s curvy frame as he was with her refreshingly forthright sensuality and her readily apparent desire to wed him. The Tyrells and Redwynes had chosen well, offering such a luscious fruit to tempt him into leading their navies to his homeland.

“Lady Megga!” Jalabhar replied with equal enthusiasm, kissing the back of Megga’s hand as she smiled and giggled. “I am a very lucky man, to receive this special visit from our lovely Queen and my bethrothed, who is – forgive me, your Grace – the most beautiful woman in the world.”

His wife-to-be swooned at this hyperbolic praise, grasping Alla Tyrell’s arm for support. “Isn’t he gallant?” Megga gushed.

“We are both honored to count you as a friend, Prince Jalabhar,” agreed Margaery.

“Is there aught I might do for you, your Grace, my ladies? Or is this a social call?” asked Jalabhar. Much as he enjoyed this fawning attention, he was an intelligent man, and he knew that Queens did not call upon exiled Princes for idle chatter.

“How sweet of you to ask,” said Margaery in a voice so treacly that Jalabhar began to wonder what he was getting himself into. “Now that you mention it, there is something you could do for us…”

“I am at your service, your Grace,” proclaimed Prince Jalabhar. Always with the plotting, these Reach ladies! he thought, stifling a chuckle. He wondered what it would be this time. A prank they wished to pull on a rival lady? A secret trip to Maester Pycelle to fetch illicit moon tea? An elaborate plan to strip the Queen Regent of her power?

 “Can you help me find a ship whose captain will allow me to purchase not only passage to Highgarden, but also his silence?” asked Margaery.

Jalabhar blanched. This was no girlish prank and no small favor to ask.

Seeing his expression, Margaery tried to reassure him. “I need to leave King’s Landing and return home to Highgarden for my grandmother’s funeral,” Margaery explained, her fingers picking nervously at the beading on her skirts.

Prince Jalabhar did not believe that story for a second, but he assumed the Queen must be truly desperate if she was asking him for help, and the excuse could provide plausible deniability if he were caught assisting her escape. He searched Margaery’s face, noting the tension behind her outward smile. She is still just a girl, he thought. It appears she is in some kind of trouble. I should help her…it is a risk, that is true, but it might also prove an adventure. I could use some excitement in my life that doesn’t involve Paxter Redwyne. 

“I have a friend,” said Jalabhar slowly, gazing cautiously at the Queen as he spoke. “Some might name him a pirate or a smuggler, but he calls himself a privateer these days. Admittedly, my friend’s reputation may not be pristine enough for such highborn ladies, but if it is truly urgent…”

“It is,” replied Margaery, speaking frankly at last. Still, Jalabhar hesitated, testing the waters further.

“My friend once served the false King Stannis,” Jalabhar admitted. “But he abandoned Stannis, because he could no longer pay the monies he promised. My friend serves the true King Tommen now, but his past is checkered. Would that be a problem?”

“I was once married to Renly,” Margaery reminded him. “Your friend’s previous loyalties are not a problem so long as he is a leal subject of King Tommen now. Do you trust him not to betray us?”

She must be truly desperate, Jalabhar thought, increasingly surprised by how this conversation was unfolding. To think, only moments ago, he had been practicing his bocce game and mooning over his memories of the Summer Isles!

“He will not betray you, so long as you have coin to pay,” replied Jalabhar. “He is honorable, to a point, but his business sense is too savvy for him to dance to the tune of promised gold that never materializes. Do you have coin to pay?” The Prince felt silly asking such a question of the Queen, a daughter of one of the richest families in Westeros, but he knew Salla would not help if she could not pay. He was finished with pauper-monarchs, and Jalabhar could not blame him, after his troubled alliance with Stannis Baratheon.

“Yes, ample coin,” Queen Margaery assured him, smiling brilliantly. “And if the coin we have in hand is not enough to book our passage, we have jewels, as well. I trust that shall suffice?”

“Perfect,” said Jalabhar, nodding. “When do you wish to leave?”

“As soon as possible,” said Margaery, her brow tensing slightly.

My, my, what sort of trouble has she gotten herself into? Jalabhar wondered. He hoped he would not hang for this.

“Very well, I shall go to find my friend at once, and inform you as soon as I know when he is able to set sail,” he replied, bowing again. “By your leave?”

 

CERSEI

When the dragons came, Cersei was sitting on the iron throne, her little boy cuddled in her lap. She was confident that the Scorpions and the wildfire would be enough to protect them from the dragons, but if not, she was prepared to take her own life as well as Tommen’s. I cannot let us suffer the fate of Elia and the real Aegon, she thought bitterly.

But surely, their weapons would be enough, and it would not come to that.

Cersei leaned back, only to feel a sharpness in her side. This damnable throne, she thought, touching the spot where the sword had cut her. It wasn’t deep. There was nothing to worry about. She took another sip of wine and stroked little Tommen’s head, offering words of reassurance.

Gazing out the high windows, their view of the city visible only from the throne itself, Cersei watched with fascination as the dragons appeared and began to burn their soldiers in the streets. She watched as the dragons dodged the Scorpion bolts. Once, it looked as if her men succeeded in striking one of the beasts in its side, but the bolt bounced harmlessly off its armored scales. The usually fearless Queen suddenly began to feel afraid.

“Mommy?” whispered Tommen, staring at the scaly beasts, eyes wide with horror.

“It’s all right, Tommen,” she whispered. As the dragons drew closer, wreaking havoc everywhere they went, Cersei poured a little vial into her wine and offered the cup to Tommen. “Drink this, it shall make you feel better. Nobody will be able to hurt you anymore.”

The boy did as he was bid, and Cersei drained the cup after he had drank a few sips. She judged that would be enough. Choking, Tommen’s little hands clutched at his mother’s throat, and she felt herself slipping away. Just before she lost consciousness, the boy went limp in her arms. Her last sensation was a sequence of loud explosions and a searing heat.

 

DAENERYS

Until this moment, Daenerys had been proud of her military prowess, imagining herself as Queen Visenya come again. Drogon had dodged the Scorpion bolts expertly, and Aegon had kept Rhaegal a safe distance away from the infernal devices. Between the two of them, they had made short work of the city guardsmen and the pathetically small army gathered in the streets below, and they were well on their way to taking the city with dragons alone. After Storm’s End and Dragonstone had been taken with few lives lost, Daenerys had thought they might take King’s Landing without losing a single one of their own men.

From atop her dragon, Daenerys Targaryen looked on in horror as King’s Landing exploded into green flames beneath her. She tried to catch a glimpse of Aegon, circling high above. Even through her armor, she could feel the heat rising from the city as the caches of wildfire exploded, all throughout the city. There is nothing I can do, she thought with sadness.

“Up,” she said to Drogon, flying them safely out of reach of the destruction below.

 

MARGAERY

Margaery did not breathe easily until the ship began to pull away from the dock, but once they reached the open ocean, a sense of pride began to bubble up within her. I did this all on my own, she thought. I had few friends and few resources, and I managed to escape King’s Landing. She could not have done it without Jalabhar’s help, of course. Without his cunning and his chivalrous willingness to aid them, she would have remained stuck in King’s Landing for gods only knew how long. I shall owe him much, much more than the gold I gave to Salladhor Saan. 

Salladhor Saan, the captain of the Valyrian, had proved to be a very interesting person. When they boarded his galleas, Margaery had not known quite what to make of the charming sellsail. He was strikingly handsome, with white hair and blue eyes and nut-brown skin, reflecting his mixed Lysene and Summer Islander heritage, though he was quick to note that the Saan family traced their roots to the forty dragonlord families of Old Valyria. He introduced himself as a law-abiding privateer and styled himself a Prince of the Narrow Sea. In time, his wonderful stories about his past adventures made it clear that he had also been a pirate, a smuggler, a banker, a trader, and an admiral in “King” Stannis’s navy. Salladhor’s ancestor, Samarro Saan, known as the Last Valyrian, had been a member of the Band of Nine against whom most Westerosi families had fought during the War of the Ninepenny Kings.

But though Margaery found herself utterly charmed by Salladhor Saan, it was another passenger on his ship that she found most intriguing of all.

It was not until several days into their voyage that Margaery encountered him, but when she finally spotted him, she was unable to suppress her gasp. She was so surprised that the words flew out before she could think better of speaking.

“Renly?” Margaery cried, grabbing the boy’s shoulder.

The boy – or perhaps man, for he was surely on the cusp of manhood, with those broad shoulders – whirled around. Looking upon his face, Margaery realized that it was not Renly, though the boy was his spitting image.

“Not Renly,” the boy said sheepishly. “I’m Edric Storm.”

Edric Storm. King Robert’s bastard son, gotten on Delena Florent in Stannis and Selyse’s wedding bed. Margaery’s mind whirred, as she began to consider the possibilities.

“Pleased to meet you, Edric,” replied Margaery, flashing him a brilliant smile. “My name is Margaery Tyrell.”

Chapter Text

When the glass candle cut out right after his wife dumped an avalanche of vital information on his stunned ears, Willas was tempted to throw the godsforsaken magic candle to the floor and smash it under his bootheels. Could it not have lasted another moment or two? he wondered, overcome with frustration. Fortunately, Willas was a civilized man, capable of leashing his temper even when he desperately wished to throw a childish tantrum, so he did not destroy the priceless magical artifact. Instead, he picked up the terra cotta disk-and-spool toy from his grandfather’s desk, looping the string around his finger and letting the disk drop and return to his hand. The undulating motion of the disk was soothing, almost meditative, and the toy reminded him of his boyhood. As he watched the disk rise and fall, spinning it out from his hand and catching it again as it cycled upwards, he reflected on his conversation with Sansa.

I am to be a father, he thought, hope and fear swelling in his chest. Though he had long wished to wed and raise children, everything was happening so quickly and none of it was unfolding as he had imagined whilst idly dreaming about having a family of his own one day. In his daydreams, he had envisioned learning that his wife carried his child shortly after the maester diagnosed the pregnancy. He had pictured himself by his lady wife’s side as she grew large, fetching her the foods she was craving and feeling the babe’s movements within her belly and rubbing her sore feet (for he was the eldest Tyrell child, and when his mother had carried his younger siblings, Willas’s mother had impressed upon him what the husband and other children of a pregnant woman ought to do to ease her burdens). In his mind’s eye, it was always summer and always peacetime, and his children laughed and played in sunlit gardens.

Never had he imagined that his wife would be worlds away when she discovered her pregnancy, or that he would learn of the news over a glass candle, or that his child might be born amidst a long, harsh winter that might even signal the return of the Long Night. The Northern myths that Willas now knew by heart spoke of children who were born, lived to see old age, and died without ever seeing the sun. Those myths took on a new meaning as Willas realized that it could be his children who might live their whole lives in darkness. We must find a way to stop this winter from consuming the world, he thought, a fierce desire to ensure that his child would see sunshine and spring rising in his heart.

He was angry with Sansa for waiting to tell him of their child growing in her womb, but more than angry, he was afraid. His wife had miraculously survived a harrowing journey so far, but could she make it home to Highgarden, with Greyjoy ships raiding all along the coast and dragons flying overhead and rebellious gangs marauding around the Riverlands? He did not know how his parents withstood the knowledge that their family was scattered throughout the Kingdom, each facing dire threats. He worried about Sansa in the North, and Margaery in King’s Landing, and Loras in the Stepstones, and Garlan on the coast. He worried about dragons and winter and dark magic. What kind of world were they bringing a child into? How could he have been so blithe about creating a new consciousness in this chaotic world? How could he ever hope to protect his wife and child amist a broken kingdom filled with dangers?

Sansa has made it this far, and she has good men to protect her, he reasoned with himself. If she cannot make it home safely, she has agreed to wait at Casterly Rock until the Ironborn have been dealt with. I must not let my worries consume me. 

Almost to distract himself from worrying about his wife and their unborn child, Willas turned his mind to the other information Sansa had left him with. Her youngest brothers are still alive, and one of them is on Skagos, he thought, wondering what this meant for their future plans. She does not wish to challenge their claims, though I suspect it is not yet certain that either of them can be retrieved. She has sent her half-brother Jon to fetch her youngest sibling from an island of cannibals… What, on Garth Greenhand’s green earth, was he to make of that information?

“Damnable glass candle,” Willas muttered, flinging the disk toy downwards again to prevent himself from smashing the offending magical object. He needed Sansa to help him interpret this information about her brothers. It was unclear to him, as a Southerner, whether Sansa truly had a choice regarding whether to challenge her brothers’ claims. It could be that the North would accept no other ruler than the rightful one. Mayhaps that is what drove Stannis to the North, Willas speculated. If lawful claims carry more weight up there, he might have thought to persuade them that he was Robert’s rightful heir. 

As a Southron lord, Willas also did not know whether Skagos was truly a dangerous land of cannibals and unicorns that no ship dared land upon, or whether those were simply ugly rumors. Thus, it was hard to speculate about the likelihood that Rickon could be retrieved. So, too, was he uncertain about the boundaries of the Night’s Watch’s neutrality. Could Lord Commander Jon Snow truly take his men to Skagos to rescue his brother, without violating his oath? Would not his men rebel? But surely Sansa had thought of that, if there was any possibility that her request might cause a mutiny?

Even before his conversation with Sansa, too many complicated matters had been weighing on Willas’s mind. He enjoyed a good political struggle as much as the next schemer, and in more peaceful times, he might have found a Targaryen restoration thrilling. Yet, with the dragons returning at such an inauspicious time, Willas did not truly know which side he ought to support. His father had bent the knee, and his grandfather Leyton insisted that dragons were needed to prevent or stop the Second Long Night, so Willas supposed he was to become a Targaryen loyalist. The only alternative was to try to fight dragons, which seemed a fool’s errand.

But what of Margaery? Willas had asked his grandfather that very question, and he still had not obtained an acceptable answer. He hoped his sister had received his letter and that she was able to find some way to extricate herself from King’s Landing – and perhaps even from their swiftly deteriorating alliance with the Lannisters. Desmera’s marriage to Tyrion was the only strong thread that remained of what had once been a thickly woven bond between the Roses and the Lions.

As if those problems were not enough for one man, Willas was also trying to help Garlan and their uncle Baelor Hightower find a solution to the Ironborn problem. On top of that, he spent most of his days trying to navigate the intricate internal politics of the Citadel and uncover further information about the magical threats in the North. Samwell Tarly had finally arrived from the Wall, and the young man had proved a font of information, though he was even more of a neophyte than Willas when it came to negotiating the complex factions among the maesters. Fortunately, the Tarly boy had brought old Maester Aemon along with him, and the elderly Targaryen’s wits had proved sharp despite his advanced age.

Replacing the disk toy on his grandfather’s desk, Willas sighed. The one good thing about the glass candle was that it would allow him to remain in Oldtown for longer than he had originally planned, as he could use it to communicate with his mother at Highgarden or other members of their family if the situation was dire enough. Mother would surely be surprised to see him appear like a ghost in the halls of their castle, but if he needed to get a message to her quickly, he would be able to do so.

His face tense with worry, Willas limped over to the lift. Time for yet another day of research and war-planning and Citadel politics, he thought unhappily.

 

***

 

When news of King’s Landing’s firey demise reached Oldtown, it was utter pandemonium at the Citadel. Early reports suggested that everyone in the Red Keep, including Grand Maester Pycelle, had perished in the blaze. There were conflicting stories about who was responsible for the fires, with some claiming it was dragonfire that had turned the city to ash and others suggesting that it was wildfire. Depending on which version one believed, either the young Targaryen dragonriders were as mad as old King Aerys, or Queen Cersei had decided that she would take the entire city with her if she must lose her crown. Since everyone who knew the truth was dead, save the young dragonriders who had every reason to mislead, Willas felt he could not be certain of the truth.

Most of all, he was worried about Margaery. Is my sister dead? he wondered, stricken with grief at the thought. I should have done more to help her, but I thought that Father had the situation in hand, and I did send her a letter of warning. Perhaps she escaped, somehow. The chances that his sister lived were slender, Willas knew, but he would not give up on her this easily. We should never have withdrawn so many of our forces from the capital without getting Margaery out, he reflected guiltily. Loras was supposed to be there to protect her, but we were so focused on Euron Greyjoy that we neglected the sword of Daemocles hanging above King’s Landing. Whoever is responsible – Targaryens or Lannisters – I should have seen it coming. 

Fortunately, Grandfather Leyton had the answers, as he always did, assuming one trusted the accuracy of the glass candle’s visions of the past. Even before word reached the Citadel, Lord Leyton told Willas that Cersei Lannister had distributed cannisters of wildfire throughout the city, and that these caches had been set off by dragonflame. Not that anyone was like to believe that unless they already had reason to support the Targaryens, but at least it made Willas feel a little better about his cautious support for the young dragonlords.

“You see, my boy,” Leyton crowed, showing him the city’s final moments in the excessively bright flame of the candle. “The side with the dragons is always the safest bet.”

“Did you see Margaery in your glass candle?” Willas demanded, looking over his grandfather’s shoulder to see the images reflected in the candle’s too-bright light. “Is my sister dead?”

Leyton mumbled something in the Old Tongue, and waved his hands in intricate patterns over the glass candle. Willas stared into the flame, which was disorienting, because the picture seemed to stop and start, speed up and slow down, moving forwards sometimes and in reverse at other moments. Finally, Lord Leyton settled on a time and place, and Willas peered closer.

“Aha! Margaery boarded a ship with her ladies and a Summer Islander,” announced Leyton, pointing. “She did not die in the flames. You thought that sending her a letter about a fake death in the family was too simple to work, didn’t you? But Margaery has Hightower blood, just like you. She’s a smart girl. With sufficient warning, she can make her own escape plans. You see! Right there!”

Willas breathed a sigh of relief as he saw Margaery, along with Alla and Megga and a man who could only be his cousin’s betrothed board a ship called The Valyrian. The captain seemed to be some sort of pirate, flying no flag on a ship purple sails and wearing loads of gaudy jewelry, as men who obtained luxuries without spending their own coin were wont to do. His senses keenly tuned in to this vision of the past, Willas could smell salt water in the air, but nothing of smoke. Thank the gods, he thought. Satisfied, Willas stepped away, still reluctant to rely over-much on the glass candle, but beginning to understand why his grandfather had become so enraptured with the device.

“Thank you, Grandfather,” said Willas, his voice conveying deep and genuine gratitude. “I am much relieved to know that Margaery escaped. I would worry about her passage through the Stepstones, but it seems she’s found her own pirates to protect her. With luck, she will reach Oldtown within a moon or three.”

“Wonderful!” proclaimed Leyton. “Now, with your worries settled, may we get down to business? The Grand Maester is dead! There’s to be a Conclave in a fortnight’s time! We must be prepared.”

“A Conclave? But I thought only Archmaesters could attend. Why should we need to be prepared for it?”

“You have much and more to learn, my boy,” replied Leyton, shaking his head. “Though it is officially the case that only Archmaesters may attend, the Archmaesters usually bring their apprentices to take notes, and even regular castle maesters may be invited as a courtesy. Indeed, such an invitation often signals that one is a candidate for Grand Maester. I suspect your Lomys will be among the honored guests this year, and your father’s uncle Gormon.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” said Willas thoughtfully.

“Besides, there is a passage from the lower levels of the Hightower that leads directly into the underbelly of the Citadel,” his grandfather continued. “In the auditorium where the Conclave is held, there is a secret chamber behind a screen, reserved for our family. The Lord of the Hightower always attends the Conclave! And this year, I shall bring you as my guest. Even though we officially play no part in the selection of Grand Maesters, we have a certain unofficial influence…since it was, after all Prince Peremore of the Hightower who founded the Citadel. So, my boy, get to thinking who ought to be the next Grand Maester! We have little time, I am afraid. Do be sure to scope out the names that are being floated, when you return to the Citadel tomorrow.”

Willas was fascinated by the prospect of watching a Conclave at the Citadel, so he did not protest. It seems I still have much to learn about the Hightower branch of my family, he mused. I wonder how many of their secrets my father knows? Or my grandmother Olenna? Surely Mother knows, at least, from her girlhood here and her visits in the years since. It was said by some in the Reach that the Hightowers had never truly ceased to be Kings, and the more time Willas spent with his grandfather, the more he felt that such murmurs had the ring of truth to them. He was lucky to have a Hightower for a mother; without that blood tie, there was no telling what sort of mischief his maternal relatives might cause him when he was Lord of the Reach one day. Even with that familial bond, the Hightowers were a force to be handled with care, he was realizing. 

As part of their preparations for the Conclave, Lord Leyton bid Willas to invite his ‘friends from the Citadel’ to dinner. Willas dutifully invited his cousin Leo Tyrell, a perpetual novice known more for his hedonism than his scholarship; Leo’s commoner friend Pate and his mysterious Dornish friend Alleras, both of whom were smarter than Willas’s lazy cousin; Leo’s current master, Archmaester Marwyn; Maester Gormon, the bastard brother of Willas’s other grandfather, Luthor Tyrell (who had died years ago in a strange hawking accident); as well as Samwell Tarly and his masters, Maester Aemon and Archmaester Walgrave. Willas thought of inviting Archmaester Ryam, whom he had studied under during his own time at the Citadel, but he assumed Ryam would not mix well with the rest of their company. Leyton also extended an invitation to Willas’s uncle, Baelor Hightower, the man who actually governed Oldtown while Leyton occupied himself with the pursuit of occult knowledge. The result was one of the strangest dinner parties Willas had ever attended.

Lord Baelor was the first to arrive, several hours early.

“What is your impression of my grandfather, these days?” Willas asked his uncle as they enjoyed a cup of tea while waiting for the others to arrive. “I confess, I cannot tell if he is merely eccentric or plunging into madness.”

Baelor regarded his nephew with an amused expression. “You know, it is rather hard to tell,” he replied finally. “My father has always been a brilliant and eccentric man. At what point does that tip over into madness or dementia? Frankly, I feel I lack the necessary learning to make such judgments. Though I forged a few links of a maester’s chain in my day, I studied only practical subjects – medicine, warfare, and trade. Only someone with a Valyrian steel link could truly judge my father’s wits, and most of them are half-mad, too. So, who is to say?”

“Does the possibility not concern you?” inquired Willas.

“If Father does not concern himself with the affairs of his men or interfere in the business of the city, then I see little harm in his occultism. Though with the apparent re-emergence of magic, perhaps that is no longer the case. You shall have to tell me if you notice anything amiss.”

“Everything seems amiss. Or nothing. I cannot tell,” answered Willas honestly.

“Indeed,” replied Baelor wryly. “That is the problem, is it not? Perhaps you could ask your Citadel friends their thoughts on the matter after dinner tonight. This is the first time father has shown his face to such a crowd in many years. Why, he’s even talking of leaving the tower!”

“To attend the Conclave, you mean?”

“Yes, exactly,” affirmed Baelor. “He invited me to attend with all of you, but I am far too busy bolstering our defenses against the Ironborn to concern myself with the Citadel. You and grandfather shall have to represent our family, but I trust you. You’ve always seemed to me to have a good head on your shoulders, Willas.”

“Thank you,” replied Willas, smiling.

Eventually, Lord Leyton came to join them, and the trio chatted about Baelor’s recent work on the city’s defenses and Willas’s research on the Long Night as they waited for the other guests. In due course, the others arrived, piling out of the carriages that had brought them from the Citadel to the Hightower.

“Welcome, welcome!” his grandfather said pleasantly as he ushered their guests into the tower. It was a strikingly more jovial welcome than Willas had received when he arrived at the Hightower’s doors.

With a Conclave in the offing, Lord Leyton had recovered a bit of the charm Willas recalled from his visits here as a youth. It seemed the old man could still behave socially when the situation required it. Leyton had even hired a new cook from a local tavern and one of the local urchin boys to serve as a cupbearer, since the Hightower was unusually understaffed, due to his grandfather’s paranoia and frequent dismissals of servants he mistrusted. To Willas’s surprise, the new serving boy appeared to be the one whose cat he had briefly ‘stolen’ on his first night in Oldtown. Why grandfather trusts urchins more than castle-trained servants is beyond me, he thought to himself, though the boy seemed to be on his best behavior tonight.

“Well met, cousin,” said Leo in his usual sardonic tone.

“Indeed, it has been too long,” Willas replied, just warmly enough to make it believable. In truth, he was not terribly fond of his cousin. There had been a time when Willas would have given anything to be allowed to forge a full maester’s chain, and Leo had the freedom to live that dream, but he squandered it. The Tyrell could not help but dislike his cousin, given his lackadaisical approach to his studies.

While Samwell helped Archmaester Walgrave to the table, Alleras guided blind old Maester Aemon to his seat. Gormon, though nearly as old as both of them, was able enough to find his seat on his own. Marwyn walked proudly to the table, clearly having little patience for the infirmities of his colleagues. Once everyone was seated, Lord Leyton called for wine and plates of cheese, nuts, and fruit.

“So!” announced Marwyn, gazing around the table with interest. “What do all of you make of the Obliteration of King’s Landing?”

“That is what you get when you use dragons in a siege,” remarked Gormon. “How quickly we all forget that the beasts are dangerous, even if their riders have sense, which young Aegon and Daenerys may or may not have.”

Maester Aemon looked pained at those words, but held his tongue, seeming to wait for others to speak before defending his family.

“We…we don’t know that it was their fault,” interjected Samwell, appearing nervous about speaking in such illustrious company but apparently unwilling to let his master’s family’s honor go un-defended. Willas found himself liking the Tarly boy, for despite his irritating cowardice, his mind was sharp. After weeks of researching side-by-side, Samwell had earned the Tyrell’s respect.

“It doesn’t matter,” replied Leo airily. “The smallfolk will blame them whether or not it was their fault.”

“Besides,” argued Gormon, “Ackham’s razor suggests that the simplest explanation is the truth. Dragons breathe fire, and the city burned. Hence, it was the dragons that did it.”

“The simplest explanation is true, except when it isn’t,” said Alleras.

No wonder they call him The Sphinx, thought Willas. I wonder what he truly thinks? It is hard to tell the difference between profundity and strategic vagueness when it comes to Alleras. 

“Dragons are dangerous,” put in Walgrave. “But young Rhaegar is a good boy. Just because fires need be put out doesn’t mean the family’s blood is bad. Are we scholars or pig boys, to hold a boy accountable for the sins of his forefathers?”

“I’m the only pig boy here,” commented Pate, and everyone laughed, grateful for a joke to break the tension that formed as it became increasingly apparent that Walgrave was fully senile.

“What do you think, Leyton?” asked Marwyn. His familiar manner with Willas’s grandfather suggested this wasn’t his first visit to the Hightower, and Willas made a mental note of it. Curious, that his grandfather had spoken critically of Marwyn when they were alone, but now they seemed the best of friends.

“You know as well as I what happened, Marwyn,” commented Leyton. “Did you not show your apprentices, in the glass candle’s flame?”

“I have not yet had the chance,” Marwyn replied, flushing.

“Then let me fill the others in,” Leyton replied, though first he paused to call for the salad course. “Cersei Lannister placed caches of wildfire throughout the city, and the dragonflame set them off. The flames that burned King’s Landing were green. I think that puts the question to bed, do you not agree?”

“I do, I do,” answered Marwyn. “But the boy Leo is right, it matters not. Many will blame the Targaryens regardless. Not I, of course. But many at the Citadel already think as much. That fool Ryam, for instance.”

“This is not the first time my family’s name has been maligned, and it shall not be the last,” said Aemon calmly. “But do tell me of this glass candle. I have read of them, and in my day I wept when I could not light it during my vigil, but I had not heard. Are the candles burning once again?”

“Indeed, they are,” replied Leyton, and Marwyn nodded vigorously. “The one here at the Hightower was never allowed to go out, but now that the dragons live again, they are lighting with the same ease they did during the reign of the first Aegon.”

“Marvellous,” replied Aemon. “At the Wall, I did not mind the loss of my sight, but it is times like these when I miss it sorely.”

Leyton looked ponderous at that. “It might be worth trying to see using the candle,” he speculated. “If you can see when you are dreaming, it might be that you could see the candle’s visions. We ought to try it, after we sup.”

“I would like that very much,” said Aemon, bowing his head in polite gratitude.

“So, if we are in agreement – at least approximately – about the truth of the matter in King’s Landing, then might we discuss the successor to the poor late Grand Maester? Who is in the running, do you think?” prompted Marwyn.

“Yes, I am quite curious to hear everyone’s thoughts,” agreed Lord Leyton.

“As you know, I have never wanted the position,” began Gormon. “But many are putting up my name, all the same.”

“I’ve heard Maester Caleotte’s name spoken,” added Alleras.

“Caleotte?” asked Willas. “He is one of Sunspear's maesters, is he not?”

Alleras looked slightly nervous at Willas’s question, and the Tyrell heir wondered why. It had been an innocent enough question. Looking closer at the boy, Willas began to wonder more about his background. The boy claimed his mother was a trader from the Summer Isles and his father a common Dornishman; his appearance and habits seemed to support it. With curly black hair and big black eyes, with skin the color of teak, he could very well be Dornish by way of the Summer Isles. His proficiency with the Goldenheart bow and his rather Dornish reluctance to condemn the private vices of others also supported his story.

All at once, it struck Willas. Alleras was the first man he had heard throw Caleotte’s name out as a candidate for Grand Maester. The boy claimed to be of common stock, yet he seemed to be quietly advocating Sunspear’s maester as the Conclave’s choice. Whether or not his father was truly a commoner, it seemed Alleras was allied with the Martells. Willas smiled, pleased that he had figured it out, then realized that the conversation had passed him by while he was puzzling over the Sphinx.

“Isn’t maester Aemon the obvious choice?” Samwell was saying. “If we are sending him to two Targaryens, wouldn’t they be more like to listen to their kinsman? And, that aside, he is the only one who truly understands the danger we are facing at the Wall.”

“Not the only one,” said Leyton heavily.

“Indeed,” agreed Marwyn. “Leyton and I have been working on this problem for some time, and your story has served only to confirm it.”

“Little Aemon is not to blame for the doings of his grandfather,” argued Walgrave, apropos of nothing. “We must protect the boy. Rhaegar believed him to be the Prince that was Promised.”

No one paid him any mind, save Aemon, who seemed to be hearing something in Walgrave’s ramblings that no one else perceived.

As the evening continued, it became clear that Maester Aemon was the favorite, at least at the Hightower’s table. Except for Gormon, who kept saying that he did not want to be Grand Maester while continuing to argue his suitability for the task, and Leo, who seemed to favor Marwyn, most of those gathered here found Aemon to be the logical choice. Even Gormon and Leo found Aemon acceptable.

Even so, Marwyn made it clear that the other Archmaesters mostly did not agree.

“Ryam and the other rationalists will never accept a Targaryen as Grand Maester,” Marwyn kept saying. “If they can get away with it, they will poison him and myself both.”

“Oh, Marwyn,” replied Gormon with a frown. “You know that isn’t true. The other archmaesters respect you. It’s just that you do not make it easy for them, with all your suspicions and your occult interests, but no one wants you dead, my good man.”

After dinner, Willas stayed at the table with the other young men, drinking and chatting of lighter matters, while their elders went upstairs to peer into the glass candle. For once, Willas was glad that he could be simply another young man, without the weight of a kingdom on his shoulders. He knew it would be a long time before such a moment arose again, especially now that he was to be a father.

 

***

 

The passage that ran beneath the Hightower to the Citadel was carved into a deep bedrock of oily black stone, and the texture of the walls sent shivers up Willas’s spine as he hobbled along the long stone corridor. He would have preferred to take a carriage to the Citadel, as he usually did, but Leyton insisted that this was the only way to access the secret room. The whole time, his grandfather was rambling on about secret Targaryen children and the Great Empire of the Dawn and other such nonsense. Willas tried to ignore him, concentrating on walking without slipping on the smooth, slick stone. Finally, just before his leg fully gave out, they arrived at their destination.

As Willas and Leyton took their seats behind the screen, the young Tyrell lordling could hear an Archmaester arguing with his apprentice.

“Archmaester,” the young man was pleading. “Truly, I have done double – nay, quadruple! – the work of your other apprentices. It is time you granted me the final link, so that I might compete for one of the castle maesterships that is sure to open up in the wake of all these wars.”

“In due time,” the archmaester assured him. “I still need your assistance with this final project. I’m afraid I can’t grant your final link until the results are published.”

“But I have already helped you complete several experiments, and I was the lead author on most of the write-ups for our last project! I have done much and more for you. It is time for me to graduate and become a maester in my own right.”

“Not quite yet,” replied his master irritably. “You still have more to learn. Besides, I cannot complete this project without you.”

“If I’m so useful to you, doesn’t that mean I’m ready to graduate?” the younger, almost-maester whined.

“Be quiet, boy. The Conclave is about to start! We are witnessing history in the making!”

At the head of the auditorium, Archmaester Ryam and the Steward, Theobald, were calling the Conclave to order. His pain forgotten for a moment in the excitement of witnessing this great historical moment, Willas leaned forward in his chair to hear their voices over the din.

Much of the meeting was less exciting than Willas expected. Several obscure maesters had bribed or persuaded or snuck their way in, to put forth their own names, despite their clear lack at any chance to win. Willas wondered if they were truly so arrogant as to believe they had a chance, or whether they simply meant to raise their profile, so that the next time they might have a more reasonable hope of being chosen. But towards mid-day, the quality of the nominations improved, and the debates began to grow heated.

“I nominate Maester Aemon,” coughed Archmaester Walgrave, the master of the ravenry. His apprentice, Samwell Tarly, stood beside the Archmaester and smiled proudly as Walgrave nominated his mentor from the Wall. Walgrave is known to have lost his wits some time ago, and we saw the truth of that at dinner the other night, Willas thought. Samwell must have put him up to this.

“Aemon hasn’t published a scholarly work in decades,” sniffed Archmaester Norren, the increasingly senile former Seneschal of the Citadel.

“Neither had Pycelle, when he was chosen,” replied Archmaester Agrivane calmly. “Grand Maester, like castle maesterships, is a generalist position. It is not as if Aemon is being considered as a candidate for Archmaester.”

“I nominate myself,” announced Archmaester Marwyn a little while later. “As anyone who is paying attention shall tell you, we are on the cusp of several magical apocalypses. There is no one better to advise our young dragonlords than an expert practitioner of the higher mysteries. My qualifications include multiple significant scholarly monographs on the history and mythology of magical practice, several years as a visiting scholar with the Shadowbinders of Asshai, substantial firsthand knowledge of the cultures and geography of Essos, fluency in an array of ancient and contemporary tongues, and unlike the other candidates, I am an Archmaester in my own right.”

“Precisely because you are an Archmaester, the Citadel cannot afford to lose your wisdom in such dire times,” remarked Ryam blandly. “For there is no one to replace you as Archmaester of the Higher Mysteries.”

“Maester Aemon would make a fine replacement, as Archmaester of Magic!” protested Marwyn.

“But as Archmaester Norren pointed out earlier, Aemon cannot hope to match your scholarly qualifications,” replied Archmaester Theomore. “I oppose Marwyn’s candidacy for Grand Maester, and I hope the rest of you shall follow suit.”

“I concur,” remarked Archmaester Ryam, who had been relatively quiet throughout the debate so far. “I nominate Maester Gormon.”

“I’m afraid I do not want the position,” protested Gormon with faux-humility. “But I shall accept if the Conclave insists.”

The deliberations went on for days, until the competition finally narrowed to just two names: Gormon and Aemon. It was then that Lord Leyton bid Willas return without him, slipping down another secret passageway to have a quiet drink with Archmaester Ryam. Willas did not know what his grandfather said to persuade the man, who had been staunchly opposed to Aemon’s candidacy from the beginning, but his attitude was transformed when they returned the following day for the final vote.

“Scholars and gentlemen,” Ryam said the next morning, just before the vote was taken. “I spent the night praying to the Seven and keeping vigil, and I have finally arrived at a decision, as concerns my own vote. Though I am fully in support of Maester Gormon’s qualifications in an ordinary time, men of reason must realize that extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary actions. I have examined the evidence suggesting that the return of the dragons has brought grave new threats to the North, and having considered the delicate peace of the realm under our new Kings, and particularly given his advanced age means that he is unlike to inaugurate a new era but rather to see this one to its proper conclusion…I have reluctantly decided to support Maester Aemon’s candidacy.”

“What did you say to him?” Willas hissed as an uproar went through the crowd.

“Oh, let me have a few secrets, my boy,” said Leyton smugly. “Though you can surely guess that it was the politics that convinced him. He’s no more a believer in magic today than he was the day before.”

In the end, his grandfather’s support swayed the vote, just as Leyton had predicted on the day they learned of the capital’s demise. Maester Aemon was chosen as the new Grand Maester to King Aegon VI.

 

***

 

After the Conclave was concluded, Willas turned his attention to the Ironborn situation. He wrote to Casterly Rock, seeking to entice Desmera and Tyrion to join him in stopping Euron Greyjoy once and for all. In reply, Tyrion agreed to contribute his ships to fight the Ironborn off the coast of Oldtown, but he asked a boon in reply: he wanted information about how Meraxes was slain, and if possible, plans for the device that had been used to do the job.

This new Lord Paramount of the Westerlands is an astute man, thought Willas, upon receiving that reply. Willas knew such plans existed, deep within the Citadel, because he had inquired after them himself, after he learned that dragonriders would soon arrive once again on Westerosi shores. Though he would not have shared this information without prompting, it was not a costly request to grant, and the Tyrell alliance with the dragons was an uneasy one at best.

So, too, was it reasonable for Tyrion to request a favor in return for his naval assistance. True, the Reach and the West shared a common interest in destroying the Ironborn, but Casterly Rock could easily wait to see if the Redwyne navy was sufficient to counter the threat. Win or lose, the impending battle of Oldtown would almost certainly trim Euron’s numbers of both men and ships, and the smaller Lannister navy could simply mop up any Ironborn raiders who survived. It would be a gamble to stand aside, for if Euron survived the consequences for the Westerlands – Fair Isle especially – could be dire. Thus, Tyrion had not asked a high price for his involvement, but the dwarf lord did stand to strengthen his negotiating position substantially against the Targaryens. After the disaster that was the sack of King’s Landing, the Lannisters must be desperate for weapons that could prove effective against dragons.

Willas responded positively to Tyrion’s request, sending a small, fast ship up the coast with copies of the pages of The Death of Dragons that concerned Meraxes, along with copies of the Citadel’s blueprints for Scorpions. Of course, he did not send more than was necessary to dutifully fulfill Tyrion’s asking price; Willas saw no benefit in providing information about any of the other ways that dragons could be slain or stolen, and Tyrion had asked only about Meraxes. In this way, Willas retained the upper hand and avoided compromising his father’s alliance with the Targaryens, yet strengthened the alliance between the Reach and the West, which might one day be needed to counter the power of the Targaryens if they proved ill-suited to rule.

The greatest surprise, in the days leading up to the battle, was the appearance of Garlan and an Ironborn woman at the base of the Hightower a few evenings before the battle was likely to take place. Careful not to compromise his grandfather’s security, Willas exited the tower. The damnable alley cat – who had taken up residence in the Hightower once more, now that its master was gainfully employed as a serving boy in the tower fortress – followed Willas outside. Ignoring the finicky animal, he hauled the door closed behind him.

“Well met, brother,” the elder Tyrell said calmly, clapping his brother on the back and eying the Ironborn woman warily. “What are you doing here in Oldtown? I thought you were to remain at the Shield Islands until the battle was won.”

“I plan to return to the Islands forthwith, but an opportunity has arisen that I did not feel comfortable deciding independently, and I thought you might wish to speak to the Lady yourself, in order to judge her character,” replied Garlan. He gestured to the woman beside him. “This is Asha Greyjoy, daughter of Balon. She offers to join us in fighting against her nuncle if we will support her claim to rule the Iron Islands. Lady Asha, this is my brother Willas, acting regent of the Reach until our father returns from Storm’s End.”

Asha bowed, smiling fiendishly. “I told you to call me Asha,” the woman scolded Garlan mildly, rolling her eyes at the title. “You greenlanders are too obsessed with such pleasantries, with your ‘milord this’ and ‘milady that.’ Among the Ironborn, every captain is a lord on his own ship, and no other title matters much. If you must do me a courtesy, I prefer Captain Asha, please and thank you.”

Willas gazed at her, trying take the measure of this woman, about whom he knew relatively little. It was said that Balon treated her like a son once all his boys were gone, and she had taken Deepwood Motte when the Ironborn raided the North.

“Well,” said Willas, sighing heavily. “I think this is a conversation that shall take some time. Would you care to join me in the gardens, brother? Lady…err, Captain Asha?”

His guests nodded, and Willas led them away from the street, towards the gated gardens that blanketed the ground on the sea-facing side of the tower. He pulled a key from his breast pocket, opened the grate, and led his companions into the gardens. Once they were seated on the wooden benches beside the fountain, the cat leapt up next to Asha and began purring. She stroked the animal absent-mindedly. Traitor, Willas thought, frowning at the cat.

“Welcome to the Hightower…Captain. Do you care to tell me the details of your proposal?” he said aloud.

“Well, it’s simple enough,” replied Asha with a shrug. “I want my nuncle dead, but I’m no kin slayer. You want him dead, too. I’ll join your battle in hopes he doesn’t survive, and in return for my assistance, you will hopefully stand a better chance of defeating him and you’ll support my right to rule the Iron Islands.”

“It seems we do share common interests as concerns Euron,” agreed Willas. “But what, precisely, do you mean when you ask that we support your claim?”

Asha frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Is it military assistance you seek? Diplomatic support? Recognition?” pressed Willas. It was readily apparent to him that this Asha Greyjoy had far more experience planning battles than negotiating alliances. It seemed the lady (captain?) had not thought far beyond ‘kill Euron and claim the Islands.’

“I don’t need Greenlanders to fight my battles for me,” Asha grumbled. “So I guess…I want you to get out of my way and treat with me as the rightful ruler, rather than my nuncle.”

“So, recognition, primarily? Would that be recognition as Lady of the Iron Islands, or Queen?”

“Does it matter?” muttered Asha, looking out over the sea with a distant expression, as if she were scripting the naval battle against her nuncle rather than paying attention to the discussion in the gardens.

“That depends…how do you feel about fighting dragons?” interjected Garlan, amused.

“Nay, I’ve no interest in fighting dragons,” Asha replied, her attention snapping back to the present. “I’m happy to keep the Islands under the Iron Throne if need be. Actually, I had hoped your lady wife would be here, because I wished to speak with her about acquiring a bit of land in the North or Riverlands.”

“My wife drives a hard bargain,” replied Willas proudly. “But once she returns from the North, if you survive the battle, I would be happy to arrange a meeting between the two of you.”

“Look,” said Asha, staring Willas in the eyes. “Raiding is not a sustainable economic endeavor, and if it goes beyond a few toppled merchant’s carts, it provokes violent pushback from you Greenlanders. The future I envision for the Ironborn is one where we leave the old ways behind in exchange for some of the mainland’s riches. I foresee us farming just enough to feed ourselves, and mayhaps mining and ship-building as well, for there are none better at making longships than us. In the longer term, mayhaps we might join the other coastal powers in getting into the shipping and trading business. Or perhaps we might act as a defensive force, protecting the other Kingdoms from pirates in exchange for coin and goods. Regardless, we must find a way of life that is more profitable than stealing what trinkets we can lay our hands on before the Greenlander King and Lords smash our ships and bleed our men in retaliation. I don’t know how to translate that into Greenlander diplomatic talk, but that’s what I want.”

Her frankness is rather charming, thought Willas, enjoying this negotiation. He, too, would prefer a future where the Ironborn no longer plagued his coast with raiding.

“I am intrigued by your vision, and I would love to see a day when the Reach no longer needs fear raiders along our coast,” he told Asha. “But much of that will have to be developed in negotiation with our new Targaryen King or included as part of the peace process that brings the War of the Five Kings to a conclusion.”

“I know,” said Asha irritably. “That’s why I didn’t ask you to make any of that happen for me. I just want to fight with you against Euron, and I want you to acknowledge me as ruler of the Iron Islands. Mayhaps I could use your support in those future negotiations, too, but I assume you cannot make any promises in that regard without a representative of the North and mayhaps the Westerlands.”

“Indeed,” agreed Willas. “In that case, I accept your offer to fight on our side against Euron, and you shall have the Reach’s acceptance of your claim to the Iron Islands, if we can reach agreement on one remaining matter. That is, where is your brother and how does he fit into your plans?”

“Theon?” asked Asha, startled. “He is a prisoner at the Dreadfort, and he does not even know his own name. What does he have to do with any of this?”

“Well, by the succession laws of every Kingdom save Dorne, your brother is Lord Balon’s heir,” explained Willas mildly.

Asha shook her head. “He’s not fit to be the lord of a children’s play yard, much less anything bigger. The Boltons have tortured him to the point of insanity. I tried to rescue him and he wouldn’t even leave with me.”

“Oh,” said Willas, his eyes widening in surprise.

“You didn’t know?” Asha laughed bitterly.

“I do not know what my wife plans to do with him,” Willas admitted. “Does that prove a barrier to our alliance in the battle ahead?”

“No,” Asha stated, her tone cold. “Killing him would be a mercy, though I shall take him back if the North does not want him. As long as his claim is no barrier to your support for my right to rule, then whatever justice the North wishes to visit upon him is no problem for me. Only I would like for him not to be tortured any further, if your wife is amenable to that.”

“Lady Sansa is a kind woman, as I’ve told you,” noted Garlan. “I am not even sure if she could put a man to death.”

“Regardless, I doubt she would order someone tortured,” agreed Willas. “And if the man is truly as wretched as you say, that is clearly disqualifying. A madman cannot rule a Kingdom. The Reach shall not stand in the way of your claim to the Iron Islands.”

“Great,” said Asha, standing up. “Now can we get back to my ship? We have a battle to plan.”

The cat let out a little ‘mew,’ leapt down from the bench, and wound itself around Asha Greyjoy’s ankles. Garlan stood up as well, looking to Willas, who struggled up with greater difficulty.

“By your leave, brother, the lady…uh, captain, I mean…is right,” said Garlan. “I must needs return to the Shield Islands.”

“You do not wish to stay a night in the tower?” Willas asked his brother, sorry to see him go so soon after he’d arrived. Garlan shook his head.

“Much as I would like to sleep in a decent bed tonight, Euron could arrive at any time,” Garlan answered.

“Very well, then,” said Willas, leading them back towards the gate. Once it was shut and locked behind him, he gave his brother a parting hug. “Be safe, Ser Garlan the Gallant.”

“You, too,” his brother replied. “I imagine you’ll be plenty safe up here in this tower, but even so…I hope to see you again soon.”

“May the Warrior lead you to victory and the Mother protect you,” Willas called after the pair of them as they walked back towards the docks. Pleased to know that their forces would be even stronger than he expected, but nonetheless worried about the upcoming battle, Willas let himself back into the tower. He waited until the treacherous feline had re-entered before closing the door, hoping to avoid another conflict with the wretched serving urchin.

 

***

 

As he stood atop the Hightower, watching Euron Greyjoy sail towards Oldtown, Willas was even less confident about their prospects than he had been a fortnight ago, when he negotiated that fragile alliance with Asha. Most of the tactical planning had been left to the war council off the coast, which included Garlan, Loras, Asha, Paxter Redwyne, and Kevan Lannister, who had arrived with the Western fleet. (According to Paxter, Mace Tyrell had remained behind at Storm’s End, hoping to continue his council position under the new regime.) The heir to the Reach had to hope that their cleverness and might would be enough to counter the conventional military threat.

Willas had remained in Oldtown to assist his grandfather in developing solutions to the more occult possibilities that might arise during the battle. A few days ago, he had discovered a scrap of knowledge in an old book at the Citadel, which suggested that the Hightower itself could become a weapon against the darkness. It had struck a cord with his grandfather, and though the old man could not explain precisely what he meant to do, he assured Willas that the Hightower would protect the Reachmen and their allies during the battle.

With little else to do as they waited for the battle to begin, Willas – who did not pray often, believing most of the Faith of the Seven to be mere superstition – had spent the previous day praying at the Starry Sept. Please, he prayed to the Crone, guide my grandfather. Let this mysterious plan of his be born of wisdom, not madness. To the Warrior, he prayed for victory. To the Mother, he prayed for the lives of his brothers. Now, looking out over the wild, choppy seas, Willas prayed again.

If I were not a cripple, I would be out there, helping my brothers and my uncle, Willas thought with sorrow and a guilty conscience. My little brothers are fighting my battle for me, when I should be protecting them. 

Gazing through a Myrish eye, Willas searched among the ships until he found Euron’s Silence. He shivered as he saw that Euron’s visible eye was wild and bloodshot, and the man’s expression was twisted as he shouted orders Willas could not hear. With horror, the young Tyrell lord saw that there were people tied to the prow of the ship, their blood spilling onto the dusky water. Aboard the deck, Euron was disembowling some poor man, tossing his entrails into the sea. The next victim was a woman, and what Euron did to her was so disturbing that Willas dropped his eyes to the rooftop balcony underneath his feet, bile rising in his throat.

Lord Leyton had offered Willas the glass candle to view the battle, but the Tyrell lordling still mistrusted the magical device, preferring to watch the battle with his own eyes, aided if necessary by a mechanical eye whose functioning he could explain, rather than a magical one whose inner logic remained opaque to him. Besides, if Willas was being honest with himself, he found the thought of experiencing the battle with all of his senses, as if he were in the midst of it, more terrifying than appealing. Now, watching Euron begin his blood magic rituals, Willas was grateful that he had rejected his grandfather’s offer. To see all these gruesome acts as if standing beside this demonic Ironborn man, to smell the fluids leaking out of the bodies of his wretched victims as he tortured and sacrificed them, to feel the spray of their blood against his arms and cheeks…even the notion of it made Willas tremble in horror.

Unwilling to look back at the grotesque violence happening aboard Silence, Willas instead turned the Myrish glass to the edges of Euron’s fleet, where the three allied fleets had begun to engage with Euron’s ships. The Tyrell heir was comforted somewhat, to note that their combined forces were three or four times greater in size than Euron’s fleet. Another crucial advantage was the size and type of their ships. The allied fleet was flexible, with Asha’s longships alongside Redwyne and Lannister warships. Asha’s men had already boarded an opposing longship, cutting down their opponents and throwing their bodies to the sea. As Willas watched a Redwyne drommond crash against one of Euron’s longships, breaking the smaller vessel against its prow and sending the enemy Ironborn to their watery graves, it dawned on Willas that the only way they could lose was if Euron’s magic worked.

All this time, I half-believed that my work with grandfather was mere foolishness, but it may yet prove to be the most important dimension of this battle, Willas marveled. I thought my brothers had the more important task, but now I see that our study of the occult may be crucial to my brothers’ survival. It was not a cheery thought. He hoped more fervently than ever that Lord Leyton knew what he was doing.

Willas’s pulse throbbed in his throat as he watched Garlan, dressed only in light leather armor, begin a duel with one of the Ironborn captains, who bravely fought in full, heavy plate and mail. At first, Garlan fought beautifully and honorably, as if fighting an opponent in a tourney melee, and Willas feared he would soon witness his brother’s death. The Ironborn captain took Garlan’s sword thrusts easily, the blows glancing off his armor. But then Willas noticed something. Garlan’s thrusts, it appeared, were not intended to pierce the man’s armor. His brother was driving his enemy towards the side of the galleas, creating the impression of an honorable fight as he maneuvered his opponent towards the precipice. Once the man was in position, standing right beside the lip of the ship and raising his sword to strike Garlan dead, the usually chivalrous knight kicked the Ironborn soundly in the chest, sending him tumbling into the sea, where he would surely drown under the weight of his armor.

Thank the gods that Garlan’s honor does not run so deep that he would rather die honorably than live, Willas thought.

His next thought was much more troubling. If blood magic truly works, we are playing right into Euron’s hands, Willas realized suddenly, as he watched Paxter slice an enemy soldier’s throat and kick his body overboard.

As if triggered by his fear, the seas began to swirl and churn, creating a maelstrom in the bloody waters. Before Willas could find Garlan’s ship again in the midst of the rising chaos, Lord Leyton burst through the door from his office onto the rooftop.

“Now! Now! Follow me!” Leyton shouted, climbing up the rungs of the short ladder from the rooftop up to the Hightower’s light. Shoving the Myrish glass in his breast pocket, Willas took a huge breath and began to haul himself up the ladder, his injured leg dangling uselessly as he poured all his strength into his arms and his good leg. Fortunately, his arms were strong, and he was able to half-pull half-push himself into the lighthouse.

“Use the Myrish glass. Shine the light’s beam on the beast while I perform the chant,” instructed Leyton. Willas did as he was told, hands trembling as he peered out at the monster rising from the deep. Beside him, his grandfather chanted nonsense words in a language Willas had never heard before. The Hightower’s light blazed with unearthly brightness as Willas struggled to keep it trained on the immense sea creature – was it a kraken? A sea-dragon? The Drowned God himself?

As Lord Leyton completed his chant, the terrible thing began to move towards Euron. Using every ounce of his willpower, Willas kept the Hightower’s beam trained on the beast, until both the thing and Euron were bathed in a halo of otherworldly light. He watched with terror and fascination as a massive, dark cloud rose from Euron’s skin. The beast hovered, waiting. As the dark smoke cleared, tiny rivets of light began to break through Euron’s skin. Firewyrms, Willas realized with grim fascination. The same way Aerea Targaryen died. If Willas had the right of it, this meant that Euron truly had sailed through Old Valyria.

“Keep the beam on them!” Leyton shouted. “It’s working!”

His grandfather began chanting again, this time in a different, still unfamiliar language.

Abruptly, the kraken – if that’s truly what it was, for Willas knew only that it was dread and horror personified – opened its gaping maw and swallowed its summoner whole, before returning to the deep.

All at once, it was over. The seas calmed. The skies lightened. The beast was gone, and with it, Euron. All across the naval battlefield, swords clattered to the deck. The Ironborn were surrendering.

“We won, my boy, we won!” crowed Lord Leyton, dancing about the lighthouse with an energy that belied his age. “You can loose your grip now, child! It’s over. We won!”

We won? Willas wondered, looking at his grandfather as if through a dim haze, still clutching the tower’s light with a white-knuckled grip. Truly? We won?