“And what,” Alicent asked fondly, “was wrong with that one?”
Her Royal Highness Rhaenyra Targaryen, the Realm’s Delight, Princess of Dragonstone and Heir Apparent to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms, scrunched up her nose and stuck her tongue out.
“I don’t like him,” she muttered.
“You liked him two months ago,” Alicent reminded her.
“That was two months ago.”
“You gave him your favor in the lists.”
“That was a formality.”
“You looked at me,” Alicent said patiently. “And you said the words, ‘that one was charming, I hope he wins, I liked him’.”
“Well,” Rhaenyra said petulantly, “I don’t like him.”
They were, ostensibly, braiding flowers into wreaths in the courtyard of the Red Keep.
In practice, Alicent had braided nine separate wreaths of cheerful white-and-gold daylilies; and Rhaenyra, with admirable skill and precision considering she was transparently paying no attention to her surroundings, had efficiently dismantled every single one.
“All right. Explain—don’t destroy this one,” Alicent instructed without much hope, tucking a final stem into place and surrendering Sacrificial Ornament The Next, Tenth Of His Name, to the savage mercy of the Crown. “And explain to me what Boremund Baratheon has done to earn your ire.”
“He’s arrogant,” Rhaenyra muttered. Slender fingers plucked viciously at the wreath, which unraveled in the span of a heartbeat and joined the growing pile of loose blossoms covering the princess’ stomach.
“He’s the Lord of Storm’s End,” said Alicent reasonably. “If he wasn’t at least a little arrogant I’d suspect him of plotting something.”
Rhaenyra gave a low growl more befitting Syrax than the Crown Princess. “He’s plotting enough.”
“Yes. A dark and treacherous conspiracy to wed me to his son, Rhaenyra, it’s hardly high treason.”
“Don’t roll your eyes at me,” was the grumbled response.
“I’m not rolling my eyes at you, Rhaenyra.”
Alicent rolled her eyes. “Oh, forgive me, have I disrespected you, Your Highness?”
Rhaenyra’s glare was, briefly, poison. After a moment she scowled, and settled more firmly into place against Alicent’s thigh.
“Don’t be silly, either.” She toyed with the stem of a lily, snapping it between her fingers. “You’re my friend. You don’t have to worry about disrespecting me.”
Alicent’s stomach twisted. That was, for all Rhaenyra meant every word, categorically untrue. To be lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Dragonstone was a position of great respect and prestige—but she had no real status at Court except her father’s name and Rhaenyra’s favor.
That favor was not meaningless. It carried more weight now than ever, since Queen Aemma’s narrow brush with death and the white-faced King’s acceptance that another pregnancy would kill her and gain the realm nothing. The gods had spoken their will; Rhaenyra Targaryen was not to be supplanted. And it was her will that Alicent Hightower be given every possible courtesy.
But that blessing could be withdrawn at any moment. There were days Alicent could not decide what it said about Rhaenyra Targaryen—good or ill, wisdom or ignorance—that such a power had never even occurred to her.
Rhaenyra muttered darkly under her breath.
Rhaenyra, slowly shredding daylilies with an exactness that was rapidly becoming concerning, glared into the middle distance.
“I just—!” She fluttered her hands, scattering golden petals and ragged greenery. “You’re my dearest friend. I just want to be certain you marry someone good enough to deserve you!”
Alicent was charmed. Against her will, but charmed nonetheless.
“Well,” she said kindly. “My father’s already made it clear that he won’t be entertaining Borros Baratheon’s suit anyway. I’m not certain why, but I gather the son’s intentions don’t match the father’s. So you may calm yourself, Rhaenyra. There’s no need to be unpleasant.”
“I’m never unpleasant,” Rhaenyra griped.
Alicent quirked an eyebrow.
“I,” declared Rhaenyra regally, “Am Crown Princess of Dragonstone, Heir to the Seven Kingdoms, and if I declare that I am never unpleasant—”
“Then let it by all means be the law of the land.” Alicent picked up a flower and tapped her firmly on the nose with it. Her liegelady was temporarily appeased.
The silence quickly became melancholy again, however.
“...Imagine if you married someone who was cruel to you.”
“I’m—” She swallowed, worrying at a hangnail. “I’m sure my father would never let that happen.”
“Or disrespected you to other men.” Rhaenyra’s brow creased further; she didn’t seem to have heard. “Or took you far away to some drafty miserable castle, to eat boiled sausage and keep records about sheep. What if he made you unhappy? Then I’d have to swoop in on Syrax, raze his House to the foundations and salt the earth.”
She said it with such matter-of-fact seriousness that Alicent had to stuff her sleeve in her mouth to muffle her laughter. A flicker in Rhaenyra’s gaze said she’d failed; but there was a flash of good humor back in that expression, so Alicent considered it a victory regardless.
“I’m not allowed to start a war unless someone else starts one first, you know, my mother would never approve.” Rhaenyra was definitely teasing her now. “This is for the good of the realm, Lady Hightower.”
“My champion,” said Alicent drily. Rhaenyra grinned and threw a handful of daylilies in her face.
Rhaenyra scuffed her heels against the stone floor.
The look the Queen sent her way was gentle, but quelling nonetheless. Rhaenyra flushed and ducked her head again. “Sorry.”
“It’s unladylike, Rhaenyra.”
“I’m unladylike,” Rhaenyra muttered, shoulders hunched.
A long sigh.
“Believe me, darling,” said her mother, not unkindly. “I have noticed.”
Rhaenyra Targaryen, who feared nothing outside her lady mother’s disappointment, bit her tongue and glared at her toes. For several long minutes, the only sound was the light, unhurried scratch of quill against parchment.
Finally, without more than glancing up at her daughter, Queen Aemma asked mildly, “Would you like to explain to me—”
“He deserved it!”
The long, unimpressed silence rang louder and louder until Rhaenyra, ears burning, lowered her head again.
“Would you like to explain to me,” her mother asked again with no change in tone, “Why you felt it necessary to land a dragon on top of Lord Mallister this afternoon?”
Rhaenyra kicked viciously at the floor. This time her mother didn’t bother chiding her for it. It didn’t feel like a victory.
“...We didn’t land on him,” she muttered finally. Then, “Serve him right if I—”
“Fifteen feet, Rhaenyra. Entirely unprovoked, with no warning given? You might as well have. You shamed the man.”
Mulishly, Rhaenyra insisted, “I was fifteen feet from Alicent as well and she didn’t piss herself about it.”
“You are not to land a dragon fifteen feet away from the daughter of the Hand of the King either, Rhaenyra. Do you understand what could have gone wrong today? Recklessness I expect from you, but you placed your friend in terrible danger.”
“Syrax wouldn’t hurt Alicent.” Rhaenyra waved the concern off. “And if Lymond Mallister doesn’t want to be frightened he shouldn’t go where he’s not wanted. Alicent can’t tell him to leave her alone without political consequences and he knows it, he’s old enough to be her father —”
“And Harwin Strong? Omer Oakheart? That poor Baratheon boy—”
“That was an accident,” Rhaenyra said hastily.
“This cannot keep happening, Rhaenyra.” Her mother’s voice was gentle, but unyielding. “You cannot keep doing this.”
“I shouldn’t have to,” Rhaenyra replied, heated. “And if Otto Hightower wasn’t such a cowardly, self-serving bag of cunts—”
Rhaenyra glared and crossed her arms.
“You know he’s pressuring Father to try again for a boy,” she bit out. “He never shuts up about it.”
“So you injure his own daughter’s prospects? Ruin her chance at a good marriage? Rhaenyra, my love, taking vengeance that way is taking vengeance too far.” She shook her head, exhaustion in her eyes. “Your father has no intention of supplanting—”
“I don’t care that Otto Hightower wants me disinherited.” Rhaenyra scoffed, stung by the petty cruelty of the suggestion. “Half of King’s Landing and most of the lords of Westeros want that, I’m used to it. I care that he’s trying to kill my mother!”
Very carefully, the Queen lay down her quill and set the letter aside.
“Ah,” she said quietly.
“He doesn’t care that it would—his own wife died in childbed and he still doesn’t care. Alicent’s father won’t protect her. So someone has to.” Before she could be interrupted, Rhaenyra pressed forward in a rush. “Mother, if I’m to rule I should reward loyalty, shouldn’t I? Alicent has been true to me. She keeps my secrets like her own. She’s—a good advisor. What kind of Queen would I be, if I don’t…?”
The censure in her mother’s eyes, at least, was gone. Rhaenyra wasn’t sure this new expression—the tender, tired sadness—was better.
After a long moment, her mother held out a hand.
“Come here,” she said, not unkindly.
Rhaenyra, for once, obeyed, and let her mother draw her half onto her lap like a child.
“It’s frightening, isn’t it.” Gentle hands carded through her hair. “To be a girl on the cusp of womanhood.”
“I’m not frightened,” said Rhaenyra.
“Of course you’re not.” Her mother’s smile was warm. “Rhaenyra. Your heart is in the right place. But you cannot keep her with you forever. Fear for your future is not cause to sabotage Alicent Hightower’s.”
She flinched. She couldn’t help it.
She swallowed. It hurt.
Alicent’s gasp of delight was almost sweet enough to chase the bitterness off Rhaenyra’s tongue.
“Rhaenyra! These are beautiful.” Her fingertips—less bloody today than they had been of late, Rhaenyra noted with relief—danced over the quilted leather gloves, brushing along the fox-fur cuffs with visible pleasure. “But is there an occasion?”
“The occasion,” Rhaenyra informed her seriously, linking their arms together as they walked, “is that I thought the lining would look well on you. It matches your hair.”
Alicent blushed and gave a self-conscious little laugh—but she also loosened one lock of hair and brought it to rest against a glove to check.
“It comes very close,” she agreed. “I mean it. Have I missed a festival? I’ll feel terrible if I’ve forgotten to get you something.” A giggle. “Is it my nameday? Have I forgotten my nameday—”
“Well, now I hardly want to tell you,” Rhaenyra complained. “When not telling you is so much more fun. No, you haven’t forgotten anything. I wanted…my mother told me to…that is, it’s…come to my attention…”
She sighed—a harsh, reluctant huff.
“I’m sorry for scaring your suitors away,” she said with poor grace. “I’m not trying to keep you from making a respectable marriage and I’m sorry for terrorizing your prospects into thinking courting you would bring the wrath of House Targaryen down on them. I still say they deserve it but I should have asked first.”
Alicent seemed to be having trouble with her glove. At the very least, she kept one hand over her mouth for a very long time before finally lowering it.
“Thank you, Rhaenyra.”
“And I stole a jar of candied peaches from the kitchens,” Rhaenyra added gruffly, producing said jar from a pocket. “They’re your favorite.”
Alicent’s lips twitched.
“Thank you, Rhaenyra.” She accepted the jar. “Though I hope you don’t expect me to eat all of them by myself?”
“They were a gift,” Rhaenyra protested, as the jar was held out toward her expectantly. Her self-control lasted approximately two seconds. “But if you insist.”
“Ah yes.” Alicent quirked an eyebrow and took a bite out of a slice of crystallized peach. “The legendary iron will of House Targaryen.”
“You’re not funny,” Rhaenyra informed her.
With a prim toss of her hair, Alicent pointedly reached over and took back the jar of peaches.
“I don’t mind, you know.”
Rhaenyra, who had been quite happily dozing off in Alicent’s lap, blinked awake. She then blinked several more times, nose wrinkled, and glared up at the sun.
Alicent didn’t laugh at her disorientation. Indeed, she hardly seemed to notice it at all.
“I don’t mind,” she said again, quietly. She marked her place in her book with a thin ribbon, free hand tangled loosely in Rhaenyra’s hair. To clarify, she added, “Having you as my protector. You’ve yet to drive off anyone whose company I would miss.”
Eyes still closed, Rhaenyra settled back into place and smiled, unable to keep from preening a bit. “I thought not.”
Alicent scoffed a bit at her arrogance, but there was nowhere near enough scorn in it to count as a rebuke.
“It makes me feel like a princess,” she admitted. “Just like in the stories. A fair maiden locked away in a far-off turret. Knowing that any strapping young knights wanting to court me will have to earn their way past the fierce, jealous dragon who guards my door. It’s quite comforting.”
Rhaenyra grinned sleepily. “A princess in a what now?”
Incredible. She could actually hear Alicent rolling her eyes. “In a high tower, yes, you’re very clever, Rhaenyra. Gods, why do I talk to you.”
She ignored that last bit in favor of a contented sigh. “Syrax and I shall be your secret test of character,” she decided. “Granting passage to the worthy and eating any man who disrespects you.”
Alicent stroked her hair. “Perhaps less of that last bit. But yes.”
For a long time, they let the quiet of the godswood wrap around them.
“You know,” Rhaenyra said finally. “Those stories don’t end very well for the dragon, usually.”
“Yes,” said Alicent, achingly fond. “Well. If a knight runs you through with a lance in the courtyard of the Red Keep, I promise not to marry him.”
Rhaenyra was in trouble again.
That was nothing unusual. She was hardly the first headstrong heir in the history of the world. What had Alicent’s anxiety wound tight was that for once she knew very few details.
Clearly, Rhaenyra had insulted another lord. Otherwise she would have taken Syrax out for their usual afternoon flight, instead of being sent back to her chambers. Not in disgrace, precisely; but extra theoretical logistics mathematics work was the oldest punishment in the book. It was, in fact, a very clear message that were Rhaenyra Targaryen anyone but Rhaenyra Targaryen her tutors would like very little more than to take a switch to her behind a woodshed.
The problem was that, normally, such pointedly exasperated punishments made Rhaenyra laugh. She hadn’t laughed all afternoon. Well, maybe once—out of pure shock, perhaps—when Alicent revealed that the pile of books she’d justified bringing to the Princess’ chambers had been cleverly arranged to hide a game set.
As rebellions went, it was very much a defiance on the scale of Alicent Hightower, The Least Rebellious Woman In King’s Landing. But she was doing her best.
“All right,” she said. “Are you ever going to tell me what you said to my father?”
Rhaenyra blinked guilelessly. “I have no idea what you mean,” she said in the smooth royal tone that meant she was lying through her teeth. “It’s your move, by the way.”
Alicent picked up her fox and moved him to an open peg without looking. “I’m not angry, Rhaenyra, but I’m not a fool either.”
“There was an open capture,” Rhaenyra pointed out. “It’s illegal not to take it.”
Alicent moved her fox back to his original position and corrected the move, removing one of Rhaenyra’s beautiful ivory geese from the board. She turned it over in her hand, biting anxiously at her fingernail as she watched Rhaenyra study the board.
“It’s all right,” Rhaenyra said kindly, not looking up. “Really, Alicent. You don’t have to worry. I didn’t say a word to your father, that’s all.” She picked up a goose token and placed it decisively on a corner peg, then looked up with a sheepish expression. “Just… about him.”
Alicent sighed, but couldn’t deny the rush of relief. Just a minor power struggle between the Heir and the Hand, then. She moved her fox back toward the center of the board and away from the threatening line of waterfowl, then busied herself organizing her pitifully small gaggle of captured geese into a more organized line. Wordlessly, Rhaenyra passed her a handkerchief and waited until Alicent had dabbed the blood from her thumbnail before returning her attention to the board.
A long time passed. Longer than even Rhaenyra could possibly take to think about the strategy of a simple token-capture game.
“Sometimes,” she said, barely audible, “I wish I’d been the son my father wanted.”
It would be stupid to ask why.
“Your father loves you,” Alicent told her instead. “He believes in you.” We all do, she nearly said, but that would be a lie. “I believe in you.”
Rhaenyra slid one of her geese sideways, mirroring the fox. “I know he does. And I wouldn’t want to be a boy, anyway. But it would make so many things easier. I think your father would respect me more.” A scowl. “He’d respect my mother more, certainly. Plenty of people see everything I do as a sign of either weakness or madness. Never strength.”
“Well, that’s just as true about your father,” said Alicent reasonably, then froze dead as her own words registered.
Rhaenyra stared at her. Slowly, expression frozen, her hands started to tremble.
“I’m—so sorry,” Alicent managed to force out through strangling terror. “I didn’t—I didn’t mean—I’m so sorry —”
She couldn’t fully comprehend the look on Rhaenyra’s face. Her breathing was sharp and fast, brow just slightly furrowed as something twitched around her mouth. The Princess looked—incredulous, almost too shocked to be angry, but the shock would pass soon and then—
Alicent realized, with dizzying abruptness, that Rhaenyra was laughing.
“Gods,” she gasped, tears of raw mirth finally starting to stream down her face. “Do you know—I’d almost forgotten —that King’s Landing is—is a pit of vipers?”
Too bewildered to understand what was going on, Alicent stuck with what she knew. “Rhaenyra, please forgive me, I meant no offense—”
She was, bafflingly, waved aside. But, thank the gods, Rhaenyra’s brief fit of hysterics seemed to have passed. In fact, she was grinning broadly when she lifted her face from her hands.
“No, no, you’re right!” she laughed. “What was I thinking? They were always going to undermine me! The Court, respect an heir to the throne? On what—merit? Hardly.” Rhaenyra shook her head in self-deprecating good humor. “Your move, I believe, Lady Hightower?”
Heart still racing, Alicent hopped her fox, a beautiful creature carved from breathtaking fire opal who deserved a more skilled mistress, over a goose and removed the unfortunate bird from play.
Rhaenyra, at least, seemed in much better spirits. As if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. The chuckles faded, but they faded into a quieter and more contented atmosphere than before.
“There is one thing that would be easier,” she acknowledged, after several long minutes of watching her flock of geese chase Alicent’s poor battered fox all across the board.
Alicent saw an opening and lunged for it. “Oh?”
Rhaenyra moved a goose. “Well,” she said. “If I were a boy I wouldn’t have to spend nearly so much time running off suitors with a sharp stick. I would just marry you myself.”
Alicent, who should have laughed at the absurdity, found herself inexplicably flushing instead. “Rhaenyra—!”
“Not even your father could object to that,” Rhaenyra pointed out, entirely correctly. “And then I wouldn’t have to marry some strange man either, and we could simply fly off together to Dragonstone or across the Narrow Sea and never have to be bothered by any of these people again, or do a single problem more of theoretical logistics. And I would know for certain that your husband respected you, and was treating you properly. ”
Alicent laughed, unable to make eye contact but equally unable to look away. “Bold of you,” she said. “To assume that even the Prince of Dragonstone would be sufficient to meet your exacting standards.”
“I am the Prince of Dragonstone,” said Rhaenyra in brief irritation. “Prince, princess. Darilaros. It’s all the same. And excuse you, I would make an excellent husband.”
Alicent, entirely for something to do with her fluttering hands—she had more than lost track of whose turn it was—pushed her fox blindly to the next peg. “I’m—sure you would, Rhaenyra.” Then, more genuinely, “I’m sure you would. You’ve always been very kind.”
Rhaenyra nodded, seeming suddenly lost in thought. After a moment, she moved another goose with a sharp click.
“I would certainly court you better,” she said abruptly. “You like books, everyone knows that. I wouldn’t bring you flowers and trinkets and ugly jewelry like all these old men and stupid boys.”
“That would improve your chances,” Alicent admitted, but Rhaenyra barely seemed to hear her. She’d gotten to her feet, pacing the room, suddenly animated.
“I would—I would gift you the rarest and most interesting histories I could find,” she declared, violet eyes bright. “A cloak of dragonhide lined with sable. And pearls from Old Valyria. And I’d do it in secret. I’d climb to your window after dark, so your father couldn’t interfere.”
Rhaenyra was breathing too hard. The promise hung in the air between them—too heavy, too bright, the weight of something that Alicent didn’t dare look at too directly for fear of—fear of something .
“Pearls set in bronze,” Rhaenyra said, barely a whisper. “Not gold. To match Syrax. So all these lords with wandering eyes would know you were mine.”
Maybe it wasn’t just Rhaenyra who suddenly couldn’t breathe.
In desperation she tried to redirect to the game—but Rhaenyra’s final move had ended it. Alicent’s bright dragonfire fox stood surrounded, hemmed in on all sides, outnumbered and unable to flee any longer.
“What,” she rasped instead, finally. “What—what would I do with a dragonhide cloak?”
Rhaenyra stared at her for a long moment; then, weakly, the corner of her mouth twitched with something reassuringly familiar.
“Come flying with me,” she murmured, with a ghost of her usual smirk. “Of course.”
“Alicent. I’m glad I found you.”
Alicent startled badly—embarrassingly so, in front of her father. She hadn’t realized how thoroughly she had…lost track of her surroundings.
She couldn’t say honestly that she had been lost in thought. That would imply far more certainty, far more capacity for reason and reflection, than she felt remotely capable of.
It wasn’t even as if she could put into words why she was so preoccupied. Rhaenyra’s sudden breathless fervor was hardly out of character for her; she had always been confident bordering on arrogant, decisive bordering on bullheaded, a creature of snap judgements and unconventional declarations.
She had been in an odd, frustrated, introspective mood that night, that was all. It was Rhaenyra. Her smiles were sunlight and her temper was an ice storm on the sea; neither could be influenced by any craft of men. She was a force of nature.
But the personal weather systems generated by the sheer force of Rhaenyra Targaryen’s unfiltered personality were usually brief. They were unambiguous, with clear causes and clear desires. This time—this time was different. It had been over a week and Rhaenyra’s restlessness had not abated. She was not quite ill-tempered; but she was sullen with her father and distractible in her lessons, and in their snatches of time in the godswood together she seemed to switch from utter contentment to a distant, painful melancholy with no clear cause and no explanations forthcoming.
All attempts to reach out, to understand, to ask what had happened and figure out how to guide Rhaenyra through this newest storm, had come to nothing.
Alicent couldn’t help but feel a bit of proprietary chagrin at that. She was, after all, a Hightower.
Far deeper, however—she was afraid for her.
Too late, she tried to fold her hands and hide her ragged cuticles. Judging by the sour look on her father’s face, it didn’t work.
She knew he disapproved. It was a stupid, childish habit. She tried to be better, she did, but—without Rhaenyra on hand the past week, awkwardly unable to be together for too long after—whatever that had been—there had been no one to step in and draw her out of the death spiral her worries tended to build themselves into. Without that quiet comfort Alicent had found herself jolting back to awareness with bloody nails and raw knuckles, unaware of the damage she had been doing or how long it had gone on.
Today, at least, her father said nothing about it. That meant he wanted something.
“I’m glad you found me, Father.” She stood, setting her book on the low garden wall. She hadn’t been able to focus on it anyway. “I feel I’ve seen you so little of late.”
Her father chuckled and grasped her shoulders warmly. “I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes I feel I haven’t seen you properly in years. I had hoped to speak with you about that, actually.”
She smiled. “What do you mean?”
Her father stepped back, but didn’t release her shoulders.
“I wonder,” he began. “If you remember Lord Lymond Mallister, of Seagard.”
Oh, no. Alicent took several moments to be sure she hadn’t said it out loud, and by then it was too late.
Hoping the memory of a grown man screaming at high enough pitch to crack glass overlaid by Syrax’s triumphant roar wasn’t too visible behind her eyes, Alicent nodded carefully.
“It would benefit us both to deepen the friendship between our Houses,” her father said, heedless of the way her stomach lurched at the words. “He expressed a desire to share a meal with me tomorrow; but my duties, unfortunately, prevent me from accepting. It would be kind of you to go in my place.”
It was well, Alicent thought with not a small about of waspishness, that her father was not spymaster. Such transparent maneuverings would doom the Seven Kingdoms.
“Surely,” she said carefully, “Lord Mallister would much prefer the company of someone closer to his own age. I’m certain he would find me silly, just a child—”
“Nonsense, he speaks quite highly of you.” That her father’s voice and eyes were kind made it worse.
“I…I would…be delighted,” said Alicent, halting and panicked and trying to hide it, nails digging firmly into her own palms to keep them still in front of her father.
“Wonderful.” He smiled. “I’ll inform—”
“Wait,” Alicent blurted.
Her father frowned, and her mind raced. There was no polite way to refuse, no obligation to cite, no excuse that would let her duck the man’s company without causing serious offense. Landing a dragon on his head was something even the Princess of Dragonstone could only get away with once, and Alicent had been slightly too diligent in assuring him that it was nothing personal and no offense had been meant.
There was a time when she would have known what to say. She’d grown complacent. Too accustomed to having Rhaenyra as her snarling bodyguard—
She seized on the thought like a lifeline.
“Please—please tell Lord Mallister that I’m flattered by his invitation,” she said quickly. “Deeply honored. But unfortunately Princess Rhaenyra has asked me—”
Her mind blanked.
Of course no one could argue that the Heir took anything but total precedence—especially to Alicent, whose official role was, in fact, to act as her stalwart companion. But the fact was that even such an obligation was secondary to a specific, less-common invitation. Alicent was not a servant. The fact was that it was expected she would make the time, and that Rhaenyra would not monopolize her to such a degree.
Without a suitable, ironclad excuse, something that absolutely could not be delegated or was too great an honor, too prestigious to miss—
“She’s invited me flying tomorrow,” Alicent blurted, like an idiot.
She and her father stared at one another, mutually trying to determine who was more shocked by the statement.
“On dragonback,” she clarified, like an even greater idiot, as if there was any doubt. “At just that time, I’m afraid. And I’ve already accepted. Please do give Lord Mallister my sincerest apologies—”
And she fled before it could occur to her father that he had never actually mentioned a time.
To fly on dragonback was an honor untold.
The dragonriders of legend were larger than life, closer to gods than men. Above reproach or defiance, equal only to another of their kind. To be allowed to touch a dragon was more than most men could have in a lifetime; to survive the experience, more than most men ever dreamed.
To ride such a mythic creature—to shed the chains of the earth and fly, to be given wings even briefly—was rare enough even within the lineage of the Targaryens. To be gifted such an experience, to have it offered, even once, a single taste of the power of the gods—
It was not just the gift of a lifetime. It was an honor so great as to be incomprehensible. You would tell your children about it, and your grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren in turn. It was the kind of honor that would justify changing your heraldry, that would raise your House in esteem for a thousand years to come.
Alicent Hightower had, at best estimation, laughingly treated this honor as an unreasonable imposition upon her person seventy-nine times in a row and counting.
Putting her worst fears to rest, Rhaenyra said nothing of ingratitude and less of presumption when a frantic Alicent dragged her into a side chamber by the wrist and explained the situation. All she did was quirk an eyebrow, cross her arms, and lean back against the wall with all her old cocksure good nature present in full force.
Insufferably smug—and worse, justified in it—she smirked. “I knew I’d wear you down eventually.”
“We don’t have to go flying, you know.”
If Alicent had been even slightly less terrified, she would have had to laugh at the obvious reluctance in Rhaenyra’s voice. Still; she was attempting, albeit grudgingly, to be a gentlewoman about this.
Swallowing with difficulty, and unwilling to slow her stride for fear that she wouldn’t have the nerve to start walking again, Alicent shook her head. She was committed now.
“That would hardly be appropriate,” she pointed out. “You were kind enough to offer, after all.”
Rhaenyra’s lip twitched.
“Is that how it happened,” she commented under her breath, low enough that their Kingsguard escort couldn’t hear.
Alicent’s ears went hot; but Rhaenyra, aside from a brief chuckle, didn’t tease her about her audacity any further.
“I want you to enjoy it,” she insisted, linking their arms together and giving Alicent’s elbow a worried squeeze. “There’s no fun it in if you’re afraid.”
“I’m not afraid,” Alicent lied baldly.
Rhaenyra stopped outright, turning to fix her with a single raised eyebrow and a deeply judgmental look. She dropped Alicent’s arm entirely and waited.
Alicent’s throat worked. She couldn’t lie again—but that meant that just as she couldn’t claim not to be scared, neither could she claim that she wanted to turn back.
After a long pause, wordlessly, Rhaenyra smiled and held out her hand. Alicent took it.
“Come,” Rhaenyra said, not unkindly.
Syrax glistened in the midday sun. Rhaenyra’s dragon was the finest of her generation—powerful and elegant, not too heavy to be agile in the air, not too slim to hold her own in a fight. There was a faint mother-of-pearl sheen over every inch of her body, even the great leathery wings. She lifted her head and shook herself impatiently as she waited, scattering light from her beautiful golden scales in every direction—
Bronze, Alicent’s mind whispered. Bronze, not gold.
The memory made her breath catch in her chest.
The great head came around to track them as they approached; Syrax’s handlers took a step back, not foolish enough to stand between a dragon and her rider. The raw speed at which her neck moved through the air was dizzying; dragons moved on too great a scale to fully understand. At a distance, there was nothing alarming; but this close, it felt strongly as if nothing so large should be capable of moving so quickly.
The dragon hissed, a blast of sulfur that could have ripped shutters from their hinges. Alicent froze.
“Syrax,” Rhaenyra chided mildly. “Don’t be rude.” She didn’t drop Alicent’s hand; but, when she felt resistance, didn’t force her to keep moving either. She simply put up a hand, murmured “Lykiri, Syrax. She’s a friend,” and waited.
Syrax lowered her head to the ground, sniffed her rider, and then—very slowly—snaked her neck out to the side to peer at Alicent. The motion, Alicent thought in a rush of what she fully understood to be hysteria, resembled nothing so much as a deeply suspicious toddler peeking around its mother’s skirts. If toddlers could breathe fire, or unhinge their jaws to swallow a trio of warhorses whole.
“There you are.” Rhaenyra sighed with pleasure, running one gloved hand along the ridge of Syrax’s eye. Her fingertips put just the faintest pressure on Alicent’s hand, an invitation rather than an order; and before she realized what was happening Alicent found herself with both palms pressed to the warm surface of a dragon’s snout.
She had expected—she wasn’t sure. For Syrax’s scales to feel like sun-warmed metal, perhaps, hard and unyielding as she knew dragonhide to be from stories. Or else rough and stonelike. Not…soft. Like snakeskin, just writ large. She could feel the thrum of life under her hands, the minute twitch of muscle as Syrax breathed.
She gave a breathless giggle. She couldn’t help it.
Rhaenyra was speaking to her dragon; Alicent had been too distracted, mesmerized by the control it must take for a creature this large to place its head so carefully beside a human being without crushing her, to keep track of what was being said.
“...must keep her safe, Syrax,” Rhaenyra finished quietly. “As you would me.”
And then Alicent was drawn away from the dragon’s head and along her right side, toward the crease of neck and shoulder.
The saddle was a new one, she realized immediately. The dragon saddle she was accustomed to seeing had been designed for a young girl and an adolescent dragon—all soft satin in mild colors that didn’t match the mount so much as the sensibilities of a child. This was a more mature design—dark natural leather and mahogany with pale gold inlays, perfectly suited to Syrax and Syrax alone.
It also had a true second seat—not a pillion cushion like a horse might have, or the modified pack-saddle the previous arrangement had boasted for long flights. Rhaenyra had, apparently, been entirely serious in her promises that Syrax would be saddled for two once she was large enough—and had intended to make good on them some time. Such a piece could not have been produced overnight. The double saddle had been months in the making.
For some reason that made her mouth go dry. The sensation was not entirely unpleasant.
“Here.” Rhaenyra tapped a broad, tapered loop of leather, then laced her fingers together. “Give me your right foot; left goes in the mounting stirrup, then brace the right foot against her wing and swing into the saddle, just as you would with a horse.”
Alicent, who had never in her life ridden a horse astride, thought this would likely be a bad time to mention it. She followed Rhaenyra’s instructions haltingly, awkwardly, but to the letter.
Syrax shifted, impatient at the delays and eager to be off. It made the entire world roll and pitch like the deck of a ship in storm, and Alicent lurched badly and made a wild grab at the seat in front of her.
“Steady. Syrax! Rybas! Lykiri. We’ll be off in a moment.” Rhaenyra hauled herself up, balancing with one foot in the mounting stirrup and the other braced against the muscle of Syrax’s wing, looking entirely comfortable. Very gently, she took Alicent’s calf in one hand and adjusted the positioning.
It was not at all like riding a horse; the dragon saddle required that she take on a half-kneeling position, and Rhaenyra fastened and painstakingly adjusted a series of broad leather straps to secure her legs firmly into the padded grooves built into the saddle for that purpose.
“On a long journey,” she explained, concentration on her face as she tested the fit of the straps. “You would use the forward position instead; your legs will go numb if you hold this one for hours without moving. But it’s more secure for your first flight.”
“Thank you,” said Alicent, and meant it. The difference was obvious even to her, and she was barely comfortable on horseback let alone astride a dragon. But Rhaenyra’s careful repositioning had shifted her balance on the saddle in a way that made everything suddenly feel right. This time when Syrax rolled her shoulders in annoyance, Alicent merely swayed and felt a tiny thrill at the raw power she could feel rippling beneath her.
There were, she noted as Rhaenyra vaulted into the saddle, no safety straps on the rider’s perch, though there were slots where they might be applied. For combat, she assumed, or in case of inclement weather; but it seemed they were not something a seasoned dragonrider made use of by default.
Alternatively, Rhaenyra was showing off.
They were equally likely explanations.
With her rider in place, Syrax’s head lifted once more. The massive body shifted beneath them—wings broader than Alicent could make sense of spread on either side, suddenly seeming absurdly thin to hold all this mass aloft—a low vibration filled the air and Alicent’s bones alike as the dragon crooned her desire to fly —
“Hold on,” said Rhaenyra, as Syrax crouched. Then, after a pause, “Alicent, I mean it, hold on—”
Alicent grasped her meaning a split second after Syrax lost patience and leaped for the sky.
She managed to lock an arm around Rhaenyra’s middle and cling before she was flung violently backward. She grunted at the impact, and Alicent winced. But when Rhaenyra turned to glance over her shoulder, Alicent—even with her face buried in the Princess’ shoulder, trying not to shame herself by screaming at the way her stomach was being wrenched from her body—could feel her ear-splitting grin.
“You’re all right!” Rhaenyra called, voice filled with the kindest sort of laughter. “Alicent! You can let go!”
She absolutely could not.
What kind of foolishness had been in her head a moment before, thinking her new position felt stable? If she loosened her death-grip on Rhaenyra, she was most certainly going to slide right off Syrax’s impossibly broad shoulders and splatter messily on the cobblestones—
The rhythmic pounding of Syrax’s wings stopped. Alicent tensed and clung tighter, expecting to fall—but they didn’t. Cautiously, not loosening her grip at all, she lifted her head from between Rhaenyra’s shoulderblades.
For a long moment she didn’t fully comprehend what she saw. She’d expected a rapid rush of landscapes, overwhelming and dangerous. But all she saw was smooth blue in all directions; below the faint, impossibly distant glitter of wave-tops, and above a smattering of clouds. Even the wind was quiet; Syrax hung suspended on the updraft of the ocean breeze, barely needing to flap to stay aloft.
“Lean with her,” Rhaenyra instructed, squeezing Alicent’s hand. “Don’t fight it. We won’t drop you.”
Syrax dipped one great wing and slipped into a long, slow, shallow bank. Alicent felt her center of balance shifting and the attendant spike of panic—but she trusted Rhaenyra and, against her better judgment, let herself lean into the turn rather than balancing against it.
She’d expected dizziness, like standing too close to the lip of a cliff, or sitting in a too-high window. To her surprise, shifting with the banking dragon alleviated her sense of overbalancing. Syrax pumped her wings strongly into the turn, rising higher, as King’s Landing fell away beneath them.
With her arm still tight around Rhaenyra, she couldn’t help but feel her friend’s tense muscles relax as one, or the soft way she sighed into the wind.
Syrax roared, scattering every bird for a mile in any direction. Alicent laughed, and Rhaenyra grinned.
Syrax’s tail swept around as they changed direction; they were high above the Keep, a touch Alicent instantly realized was for her benefit—there would be no call for sudden, jarring direction changes this high above any possible obstacle. Rhaenyra’s obvious care and forethought soothed her nerves, and she settled more comfortably into place.
“I thought it would be colder!” she commented, raising her voice to be heard over the wind. “This far from the ground, with wind off the sea?”
Rhaenyra found Alicent’s hand where it still rested against her stomach. Their fingers laced together.
“Of course not,” was the reply. “Dragons are always warm.”
Rhaenyra didn’t want to go back to the Keep just yet.
So she didn’t.
That was the beauty of dragons. Duty, obligation, schedules and rules, expectations, the demands of Court…Syrax and the fire in her belly outranked them all. It was a dangerous thought to have, for the heir to the Iron Throne, for a Targaryen, with no prying eyes and Alicent so close and—
It was a dangerous thought to have.
Rhaenyra guided Syrax into an easy, gradual descent—toward a distant rocky outcropping at the edge of the bay.
Oh, she would hear about that from the Kingsguard, from her father, from her mother, from just about everyone, later. She stood by it. No one intending her harm could have planned an ambush out here when even she hadn’t intended to come; no one opportunistic enough to try anything could get close without being seen; and anyone who was seen, Syrax could burn.
Alicent’s breath was shaky in her ear as they settled onto the rocks; but it was pleasant shakiness, the tremble of adrenaline rather than fear. Good.
“That was…” Alicent gave an unstable, exhilarated laugh. “That was incredible, Rhaenyra, thank you.”
Rhaenyra tried not to preen too obviously. She didn’t try very hard.
She stretched and cracked her back, then swung her right leg over Syrax’s neck and slid to the ground. She hadn’t been kidding before—dragonback riding in the most secure positions would cramp your legs terribly, especially if you were relying on your own grip on the saddle to keep your seat.
And she needed to breathe.
Syrax settled onto the rocks, rolling her weight onto one hip but clearly still aware of the presence of a rider. For now, Alicent was tolerated; rather than lounge on her side Syrax carefully kept her shoulders level, and amused herself instead by blowing smoke rings at passing fish.
“She likes you,” Rhaenyra observed.
Alicent tugged at one final strap of her safety tethers, freeing herself to stretch as well with a sigh of relief. Then she leaned over and stroked Syrax’s wing. “I’m honored,” she informed the dragon. “I like you too.”
It was impossible to keep from grinning. Rhaenyra didn’t even bother to try; there was no one here to hide from.
It was equally impossible to keep from noticing that Alicent had never looked better.
She was flushed from laughter and exhilaration, windswept and disheveled, pupils blown wide; her hair had long since been torn from its sensible upswept bun, and hung in ragged waves around her face. Riding dragonback and astride had done a number on her dress. The sea spray clung to every inch of her, and the hem of her skirt was drenched on one side from where Syrax had dipped a wingtip in the waves en passant, throwing up a roostertail that caught her second rider in a glancing blow.
She sat a golden dragon like she was born for it.
And she was cheerful. For the first time Rhaenyra could remember, Alicent had completely forgotten everything else in the world.
That was also the beauty of dragons. They made you believe nothing else in the world could touch you. They made you believe you could do anything. That you could answer to no one. That nothing mattered but the question of who would dare try to stop you.
Rhaenyra Targaryen was the Prince of Dragonstone.
It was a dangerous thought.
“...What?” asked Alicent, smilingly self-conscious, checking her hair by reflex, and Rhaenyra realized she neither knew nor cared how long she had been staring.
“Nothing,” she said. Then, “You’re beautiful, you know.”
Alicent blushed delicately and glanced away. “You’re teasing me.”
“I am not.” Rhaenyra accompanied the firm statement with a leap and a scramble up Syrax’s side. She earned herself a warning grumble for the trouble, but settled decisively onto the padded surface of the saddle, seated sideways and twisted around to face Alicent. “If I had my way I’d want you like this always.”
There was a slight edge to Alicent’s laughter this time. “What,” she said. “Shamefully mussed and smelling like dragon?”
“Happy,” said Rhaenyra.
Alicent’s head came up, expression blank with shock. She swallowed, but couldn’t respond.
Rhaenyra leaned in.
“And,” she said conspiratorially, “Shamefully mussed and smelling like dragon.”
Alicent gave a distinctly unladylike scoff and shoved her away, laughing.
“It looks well on you,” Rhaenyra said defensively. “If Lymond Mallister can’t see that, it’s no one’s loss but his own.”
Alicent winced, and Rhaenyra nearly kicked herself for bringing it up again. She could almost see the shutters being drawn behind Alicent’s eyes.
“Thank you,” she said, much more formally this time, hands twisting in her lap. “I doubt it will be the end of anything, but—it means a great deal. I know my duty, I’m not a child, I only wish I could—”
Rhaenyra reached out and took her hands as gently as possible between her own. Alicent’s fingers twitched, then quieted.
Slowly, trying to control her own trembling, Rhaenyra lifted the bloody fingertips to her lips and held them there.
“If I had my way,” she repeated, a hoarse whisper against Alicent’s hands, “I would have you happy. Always.”
Alicent’s mouth traced the lines of her name. No sound came with it.
Rhaenyra’s fingers shook as she released Alicent’s hand, reaching—careful, agonizingly slow—to brush them along her jaw instead. For once, she felt no shame at showing weakness.
Alicent’s breath came high and fast, like it did when she was scared—but her hands were still. Her eyes were locked on Rhaenyra’s mouth.
There were a thousand things Rhaenyra should have said. A thousand things she wanted to say. Promises to make, reassurances, oaths on her name and her life. She wanted to snarl and roar defiance like a primal beast challenging for mating rights. She wanted to cup Alicent’s face between her hands and quote embarrassing poetry from books the septas would faint if they knew she’d seen. She wanted to wrap this girl in black and scarlet in front of gods and men. She wanted to sing. She wanted to die.
“Alicent,” she managed, and kissed her.
She did it badly. She realized this even as she couldn’t stop. Too hard, too fast, too desperate; hungry and lopsided, clumsy, off-balance. Alicent twitched violently rather than relaxing. Her muted gasp was of shock, not pleasure.
Rhaenyra, finding herself with difficulty, pulled back as discourteously as she’d begun.
Alicent looked like she’d been clubbed over the head, and it was impossible even for her dearest friend to tell from her expression whether she’d enjoyed the experience. She was, visibly, inches from outright panic; but in Alicent Hightower that didn’t tell you much either way.
Rhaenyra considered the merits of dropping off Syrax’s side and drowning herself.
“I—shouldn’t have done that,” she said thickly, half to herself, frozen in an absurd half-lurch across the center of her dragon’s saddle.
“You shouldn’t have,” agreed Alicent in a rough, strangled voice. Rhaenyra’s heart was halfway shattered by the time she whispered, “Don’t stop.”
Rhaenyra could speak very convincingly of her own status as a rogue.
She made a great show of careless ease. There was no one quicker than her to say she had never wanted the crown in the first place, that the trappings and pageantry of royalty were stupid, that given her own will she would simply fly off across the Narrow Sea never to be heard from again except in songs of her adventures and debauchery.
(When she said this with Queen Aemma in the room, the speech for some reason always ended at “adventures”.)
But it would take a certain brand of fool to believe her.
Rhaenyra’s studied indifference was a poorer piece of playacting every day. She was all too aware of her obligations. Took her duty to the realm, the responsibilities inherent, all too seriously. Alicent had long suspected, and was now certain, that even Rhaenyra’s childhood fantasies of riding off to glorious battle were less a desire to flee than the product of intolerable frustration.
She was a dragon, after all. Dragons were creatures of action. They did not equivocate or form committees—they identified a problem and then fixed it themselves. Rhaenyra, for all her breathtaking arrogance, had a need to help that cut to the bone.
Alicent realized that she was smiling far too broadly.
She couldn’t entirely stop; but she took the end of her quill from her mouth, at least. She’d been chewing on it without registering the act; the near edge of the feather was distinctly worse for wear, and her attempts to fix it with her fingers did not improve the situation.
Ah, well. At least it wasn’t one of her nicer pens.
And who was there to care if she was smiling to herself like an idiot? She couldn’t help but laugh at it, a little. Silly of her to not know what to do with herself in the evenings anymore, just because her lover was attending a last-minute late-night session of the small council.
It had been less than half a year since she’d gone flying with Rhaenyra, since—well, since coming to an understanding with the Princess of Dragonstone. But by the same mark, it had been almost half a year, and in the past few months of it they had slept apart only very rarely.
It was incredible—terrifying, thrilling, mind-boggling—how much they could get away with simply by virtue of Rhaenyra refusing to ask either forgiveness or permission.
Rhaenyra’s father, at least, had never possessed any skill for denying her.
It was as if the thought had summoned him.
“Father.” She sat straighter, setting aside the scant few lines she’d managed of a letter to her brother. “Are you not needed in…? You’re the Hand of the King.”
He smiled slightly, acknowledging it with a half-nod. “I stepped out,” he explained. “I’ll rejoin them in a moment. Sometimes, it’s best to let the King and his daughter shout for a quarter hour or so before trying to step in.”
“Oh, no.” Alicent rubbed her temple. Rhaenyra would be either insufferable or heartbroken this evening, and while the latter was of course infinitely worse, the former involved a great deal more ranting. One of these days, Rhaenyra was going to learn how to actually breathe fire. “Dare I ask? How is Rhaenyra taking it?”
Her father held up his hands. “It will be resolved,” he assured her. “A political issue more than an active emergency, which is all I can say.”
“Of course.” She would be filled in on everything later that night, regardless. But her father didn’t seem like he was settling in to chat. “Is there something I can…”
She trailed off a moment before she fully registered the sound of a trio of armed and armored men following her father into the little study. Hightower men.
Alicent stood slowly.
Otto Hightower folded his hands behind his back.
“It’s time for you to go, Alicent,” he said quietly.
Alicent glanced between him, and the guards, and moved carefully to place the little writing desk between them.
Her father closed his eyes and sighed.
“Alicent,” he said, a gentle censure in his tone. “Please. They are not here to hurt you. These men are loyal to you as their lady. They’re here to ensure your safe return to Oldtown.”
Her father glanced at his men.
“Give us the room,” he ordered.
They filed out, pulling the door of the study closed behind them. There was no scrape of a door being barred, or turn of a key—of course there wasn’t, this wasn’t a prison—but Alicent could still feel the chains closing around her wrists.
“Alicent,” her father began.
“We’re leaving?” she blurted. “Has something happened? Is Rhaenyra—the royal family, is everyone safe?”
“Everyone is fine, Alicent,” he said. “No one is in danger, but this is not the time to discuss the matter. I’m sending you home. It’s in everyone’s best interests that this be done quietly, tonight. Before you ask, my dear—your things have already been packed and are waiting with a pony in the stables. The rest of your belongings will be sent after you in a few days.”
“Why?” Alicent changed her mind, shaking her head sharply. “That’s madness, Father. It will be seen as an insult, not to have informed the King—”
“Let me handle His Grace,” her father soothed. “I will smooth over any wounded feelings in the morning, by which time you will be well underway.”
“I don’t—” I don’t want to leave stuck in her throat, a child’s protest that would carry no weight. “I don’t understand—”
“I think,” her father said softly, “That you do.”
That was impossible, Alicent protested silently, only for something vicious and cruel in her core to turn and mock her for it. Of course it wasn’t impossible. They had nearly flaunted it. She had reveled in the high of knowing how clearly she was marked out as something higher than lady-in-waiting, these past months.
Rhaenyra’s hand around her waist in public—always proper, always respectful, but with a distinctly possessive air. Rhaenyra handing her down from horse- and dragonback like a knight-errant in an old tale, before any of Alicent’s own men-at-arms had the chance. Taking meals together, the Princess insisting that Alicent did not have to address her with titles even in company, warm lips on the back of her hand at every opportunity, the cluster of Valyrian pearls in bronze that nestled at her throat even now. Rhaenyra’s sudden and uncharacteristic preference for sharing a bed.
Of course he knew. Only an idiot could have missed it.
Her father nodded, having read something in her eyes she hadn’t intended to give up.
“I have failed you,” he confessed. “The gods set men to be their daughter’s greatest protector. I have failed in that charge, Alicent. I placed too high a value on ambition—on the opportunities you would win, here, at the Keep, positioned so near the King. I weighed that ambition above the risk of doing harm to your reputation. I intend to rectify that mistake.”
“How?” she asked, voice wavering, like it wasn’t terribly clear already.
No one would question the daughter of the Hand leaving the Keep, quietly, with her House’s own men. The meeting of the small council—over some tangled political issue, and wasn’t that convenient, that her father had been able to make these arrangements at just the right time?—would run too late for anyone to bother chasing her down. No doubt orders had been left, if Rhaenyra asked, to tell her that Alicent was sleeping elsewhere.
Rhaenyra, too much a gentlewoman to wake Alicent in the middle of the night especially if she herself was in a bad mood, would take until the next day, very possibly late into the afternoon, to even realize something was wrong.
And by that point Alicent herself would be almost a full day of travel ahead, no doubt with remounts or a carriage having been provided along the road. The head start would be meaningless to Syrax, of course; but putting down pirates and rebellion on dragonback was a far cry from killing loyal retainers of the Hand of the King and kidnapping a noblewoman by force. Kidnapping it would be, legally. Otto Hightower had every right to decide was was best for his daughter, every right to send her to her uncle for safekeeping.
Rhaenyra would be furious, but she would be surrounded by advisors emphasizing the foolishness of acting on that anger. Suggesting, even, that Alicent had left willingly…
One of those advisors would be Lord Hightower.
“I don’t want to leave,” she said. “I don’t—I want to stay here.”
He didn’t shout. He didn’t even seem angry.
“With Rhaenyra,” he said.
Alicent could taste bile. “Yes.”
Her father nodded. “For how long?”
He sat down in a nearby armchair and steepled his fingers.
“Alicent.” That there was no cruelty in his condescension made her fists clench. “She’s a lovely girl. And certainly has been a...gratifyingly loyal friend to you over the years. But you are not children any longer. Soon Rhaenyra will marry—I see your skepticism, daughter, but she will, and in the next few years, for the good of the realm. And when that happens, and she has a husband on whom to more properly focus her devotion? You will have thrown away all chance at a respectable and happy marriage for the sake of a few years of Rhaenyra’s gratification—and have nothing to show for it in return.”
Alicent’s ears were burning at his bluntness. “She wouldn’t—I won’t be— discarded, it’s not—like that—”
“That,” said her father with finality, “Is the refrain of every royal mistress from the dawn of time. All were thrown over to protect the legitimacy of the Crown. Many were killed. You deserve better. I don’t doubt her…” His face went through several complicated expressions, and Alicent tried and failed to suppress a flinch as he cycled through badly-hidden disgust. Finally, he decided on, “Affection. But affection is a transient thing. Monarchs have short memories, Alicent. A paramour has no legal rights, nor protection. All the tenderness in the world will not make the Heir to the Throne sacrifice standing or power for anyone’s sake.”
Shaking, Alicent swallowed with difficulty. “I can’t just…”
“No ruffled feathers or injured pride at your leaving suddenly will cause more damage to the reputation of our House than to allow this to continue. You will return to Oldtown; I will remain here and salvage what respectability your name has left.”
Alicent said, “No.”
The flat refusal shocked them both with its boldness. But this time, this time—this time she refused to back down.
There was nothing to be done. The plan was brutal in its simplicity and would be brutally effective—no one had any right to protest Alicent’s being removed. To protest her being removed in disgrace, even, if it came down to it. And then she would be kept under watchful eye if not under lock and key, and there was nothing she or anyone else could do to stop it, except…
Except that she refused to believe that. Except that Rhaenyra took promises seriously. Except that she was strong and fearless and Alicent believed, chose to believe, in love with her. That it meant something.
If she was wrong…
Her father stood. “Alicent.”
If she was wrong...
It came down to this. Did she believe, in her heart of hearts, that Otto Hightower was capable of keeping Rhaenyra from something she set her mind to? Something she truly wanted?
If she was truly wanted.
If she was wrong...
If she was wrong…
There was a rough patch of skin behind one nail. She worried it for a moment, then deliberately placed both hands flat on the table. “I said no, Father. Please see my belongings returned to my chambers.”
“Alicent, one way or another—”
“Touch me,” she said, and watched him jerk upright at the sudden edge of steel in her voice. “And I will scream treason so loudly dogs howl in Winterfell. I have never been without a protector."
For all her brashness, Rhaenyra Targaryen could be inexpressibly tender.
She had a dozen soft touches for every sardonic aside comment. Her courtship had been a thing of sweeping grand gestures, yes—but also of trembling hands and feather-light kisses from slightly chapped lips. Of intense violet eyes and unyielding iron in the voice of a girl who knelt at Alicent’s feet and swore that she came as supplicant and not conqueror; the guardian at the door, not a brash young knight to force her way in where she was not wanted.
She would, she insisted, all dragonfire and sincerity, see Alicent defended from all uninvited attentions. Even her own.
And what could Alicent do in the face of that but fall?
But at the same time—
The breath was driven from her lungs in a single hard rush as she fell back against Syrax’s saddlebags. With what little oxygen she had left, she managed a thin laugh.
It was a long flight to Dragonstone. And not all rumors about Targaryens proclivities, apparently, were false.
She’d said as much, briefly, half-joking, when Rhaenyra had first leaned back in flight to kiss her.
Don’t you know? she’d drawled with a wolfish, lopsided grin, turning to perch backwards in the saddle. Dragons mate on the wing.
Alicent tangled her grip in silver hair and gasped, “Rhaenyra.”
The low chuckle against her jaw sent a bolt of lightning racing along her spine. Dizzy from pleasure and altitude, she turned her head and searched blindly for her lover’s mouth.
Rhaenyra was capable of profound gentleness. She took a deep and abiding pleasure, one that had not been lessened by years of familiarity, in laying Alicent down on satin sheets and touching her like glass. Calling her wife, calling her my darling, my love, my queen.
And sometimes, the Prince of Dragonstone took her due.
Alicent was inclined to complain about neither.
Rhaenyra made a sound that was half a groan and half a growl, tightening her grip to better align the slick rolled-leather shaft fastened at her hips. Alicent’s leg twitched by reflex, trying to hook her waist, and caught against the safety straps that Rhaenyra still, after all this time, insisted on fastening and maintaining herself.
Perhaps, Alicent thought wryly with what remained of her cognitive function, there had been ulterior motives this time. And then Rhaenyra found her questing lips and took her in a long, deep kiss, and she stopped thinking.
“Mmm,” she managed after the gods only knew how long, fingers fumbling in the vague direction of her calves. “Rhaenyra—I’m still—”
“I know,” was the hoarse response. “You’re perfect this way.”
Any further complaint was silenced when Rhaenyra rolled her hips in a slow, luxurious thrust that threw sparks behind Alicent’s eyes.
“There’s an old Targaryen belief,” Rhaenyra murmured, mouth pressed over Alicent’s. “The superstition says—that all the strongest heirs—were bred on dragonback.”
“Th-that, that can’t be true,” Alicent panted. “Your mother never flew Balerion.”
“Oh, good girl.” Rhaenyra drove into her hard enough to make her nearly wail, pressed a kiss to her forehead as reward. “We’ll test it anyway.”
Alicent, in absolutely no condition to point out that was not remotely how any of this worked, could only gasp, “Yes.”
“Yes what?” Rhaenyra gripped her by the back of the neck, pinned her hips immobile against the rough leather saddlebags with her bare hand and the muscle of a dragonrider. “Yes, you’re the lady of my house, you’re the mistress of Dragonstone, you’re going to bear me a little dragon—?”
“Yes.” It was nearly a sob. Alicent thrashed, not for escape but from a desperate desire to get closer, to find movement, hovering on the edge. “Yes, my prince—”
Rhaenyra buried teeth in her throat, filled her to the hilt, Syrax roared —
And Alicent Hightower was, for a brief, perfect moment, untouchable.