Beside Willas in the wheelhouse grew a pile of shredded papers. He'd known before embarking that the trip to the Water Gardens would be a long and fascinating one, so he had brought several blank books. Over the course of two moons of travel, he'd filled most of them with notes and observations and sketches. Now, less than a day away, the blank pages instead fell victim to nervous habit. Too aware of the estate's nearness, Willas pulled yet another sheet from its bindings. Staring blankly out the wheelhouse window, he began to twist and untwist it until, with a meticulous kind of viciousness, he ripped it into tiny pieces to add to the paper snowdrift beside him.
Maester Lomys, the other occupant of the wheelhouse, looked at him kindly. "Prince Oberyn is as thrilled to meet you as you are him," he said. "You have nothing to be afraid of."
Willas hmmmed. It was a finely tuned hmmm, with many nuances to the socially conscious. The word itself said: I am acknowledging the words you have spoken. Its noncommittal tone said: I am not offended by the words you have spoken. This left the undercurrent of the hmmm free to say the most important part: get off my back, old man.
To his credit, Maester Lomys took the hint with good grace, leaving Willas to the mercy of his second thoughts. A small part of Willas felt guilty. The maester meant well. Today, however, Willas’s anxiety left no energy to spare for tolerating condescension. And he didn’t feel like talking.
Unfortunately, there was little to do but talk. Writing was impossible with the stray bumps that jarred the wheels. Reading in the cart made him sick to his stomach. Ordinarily that wouldn’t stop him, except he was already nauseous with nerves, and vomiting all over himself would only make it worse. That left nothing to do except watch and wait and think, so that was what Willas did.
He'll pity you, said a voice in the back of his head. He invited you because he felt guilty.
Willas ripped more paper.
They stopped near Sunspear, three leagues away from the Water Gardens. After sitting for so long, even Willas's good leg was stiff, so he couldn't climb from the wheelhouse without assistance. Stopping to stretch and massage his knee added an hour to the trip, but better a delay than Oberyn seeing him having to lean on someone like an old man.
Willas hardly noticed the time difference. The last three hours were a haze of anxiety that doubled the pile of shredded papers.
When the wheelhouse rolled to a halt in the private courtyard in the Water Gardens, Willas sat, stiff and still, waiting for the door to open. He’d written ahead to request a quiet reception—no feasts, no frills, no fanfare—and Oberyn’s return letter read, “My friend, you wound me—nine years, and you think I do not know you at all.” Reading it, Willas had smiled, but now he wondered. Did they know each other, truly? What could they know, only interacting by letter? Would their friendship, if it could be called a friendship, still exist off the page?
Light flooded him as the footman opened the door. Willas moved slowly, feeling more like a marionette than a man, controlled by another person very far away as he felt his body climb from the wheelhouse.
The courtyard was wide and open, decorated with pink marble and smelling strongly of citrus. A small cluster of people stood at the far end, dressed in Dornish style: draping silks in warm colors, pinned with brooches. The head of the group was unmistakably Oberyn Martell, although he looked different from how Willas remembered him. His memories of the tournament were blurred beyond usefulness. All he remembered was Oberyn’s height, his black hair, and his gleaming copper helm. Oberyn’s hair was still black and he wore no helm, but he was far shorter than Willas remembered. Which Willas should have expected, as he had been one-and-ten at the time.
Willas took in the widow's peak, the white teeth, the crinkles of crow's feet at the corners of Oberyn's eyes. He was—as the rumors had said—remarkably handsome, but now Willas noticed something else. The broad lines of Oberyn's being—his shoulders, his stance, his smile—spoke to a kind of effortless confidence. Willas would believed it except, when he looked closer, he could see the restless energy lingering and flickering around the edges.
It was a gentle, practiced smile, the kind calculated to put people at ease. It worked; Oberyn's grin loosened, became more genuine. He strode forward to clap Willas on the back.
“My friend!” Oberyn exclaimed.
“Prince Oberyn,” said Willas.
Laughing, Oberyn said, “None of that—you must call me Oberyn, because I intend to call you Willas and it would be dreadfully rude of me otherwise.”
It was something so characteristically Oberyn, sounding straight out of his letters, that Willas’s anxiety almost immediately began to fade. “Dreadfully,” he agreed.
“Speaking of rudeness,” Oberyn said. “I believe introductions are in order.”
He gestured behind him at his family. Willas glanced them over, thought back to Oberyn’s letters, and came to a decision.
“May I?” Willas asked. “You’ve written of them so often.”
There was a glint of approval in Oberyn’s eye as he beckoned Willas forward.
“You, my lady,” said Willas to the striking woman with a toddler in her arms, “can only be Ellaria Sand.”
She favored him with a smile and he knew that he was right. He kissed her hand and continued to name the rest. The little girl Ellaria carried was clearly three-year-old Obella. Obara was closest to Willas’s own age and height, and then Nymeria; Princess Arianne was recognizable by her height, or rather the lack thereof. Tyene alone had yellow hair, and Sarella's features spoke of the Summer Isles. Prince Quentyn was absent, fostering in Yronwood. Prince Trystane was of course the only little boy, which left five-year-old Elia, clutching her mother’s skirt.
By the time Willas identified them all, he felt much more confident. When it came to Willas's traveling party, Oberyn could only identify Maester Lomys—Willas clucked his tongue as if disappointed to make him laugh—so Willas turned to introduce his small assortment of followers.
The formalities done, Oberyn said, “Now—I imagine you’ll all be wanting rest and refreshments, yes?”
“One important matter first,” said Willas, smiling. He addressed his footman. "Olymer, would you be so kind as to fetch the trunk with the gifts?"
"That can wait!" protested Oberyn, but many of the young faces behind him distinctly brightened.
Hiding a smile, Willas doled out the treasures. There was a box of sweets for all, with dried sugared fireplums and candied golden rosepetals. Willas produced dry Arbor reds for Oberyn and Ellaria, half out of principle and half for Oberyn to laugh and feign insult. For Obara there was a decorative-yet-functional round shield and for Nymeria, slim elegant knives disguised as hairpins. He presented woodharps from Oldtown to both Arianne and Tyene. The only gift not made in the Reach was for Sarella, a small, collapsible Myrish Eye.
The most elaborate gifts were for the youngest children, Elia, Obella, and Trystane. Each received a doll with real hair, a carved, painted face, and a soft cotton body. Margaery's favorite dolls were the ones with chestnut curls and big brown eyes, so these had olive skin and black hair. Their clothes were green and gold. Willas took great delight in the way Oberyn shook his head in mock offense before producing the alternate outfits, more appropriately in red and orange.
Their siblings were, of course, too old for such things. Still, Willas had remembered how his brothers had pretended not to sulk whenever Margaery received beautiful dolls. He saw that envy reflected on a few of the faces before him. Pleased with his own foresight, Willas unveiled the last gift: a set of smaller dolls, ostensibly for the youngest three to share, carved and painted to look like Oberyn's daughters and their cousins. The older girls came over to look at themselves in miniature, exclaiming in delight over the small details. Even Obara, who was only two years younger than Willas, wanted to see her likeness's serious face and tiny spear.
After the gifts were distributed and cooed over for an appropriate amount of time, Oberyn clapped his hands together again.
“Enough,” said Oberyn. “Willas, my friend, you must rest. I would be a poor host if you keeled over from exhaustion. I insist.”
Keeling over from exhaustion was, in fact, seeming dangerously likely. “Well," Willas said, "if you insist.”
After a few last exchanges—orders for the footmen, pleasure-to-meet-yous between hosts and guests, and delegation of which hosts would bring which guests where—Oberyn and Willas escaped from the courtyard, so Oberyn could escort him to the guest suite.
“I meant to say earlier,” said Willas in the hall. “I have the books you wanted from the Hightower library. Later I’ll show you the horses, as well. Doubtless at least a few will meet your approval.” They’d arranged to meet over horses, after all, when Oberyn suggested to interbreed Willas’s stock with Dornish Sand Steeds.
Oberyn appraised Willas out of the corner of his eye. “So generous,” he said. “How lucky we are, to be spoiled by such extravagant gifts."
"Oh, I don't know about that," said Willas with blatantly feigned modesty.
“I could not help but notice that the gifts were all from the Reach,” said Oberyn. “It was almost as if you were attempting to politic with dollies.”
“What a strange notion,” said Willas lightly. “Certainly that would be possible if all the gifts were from the Reach, but as it was...”
“As it was?”
“The far-eye was from Myr,” explained Willas. “So of course what you’re suggesting is absurd.”
Oberyn snorted. "Of course."
Then Oberyn stopped and opened a door which lead to what must be the guest suite, and held it open for Willas. That was oddly polite, even for a Dornishman; Willas wondered if Oberyn thought Willas couldn’t do it himself. Deciding not to take offense, he stepped inside and prepared to collapse on the bed, but Oberyn stopped him with a hand on his arm.
"One important matter first," Oberyn said, smiling.
He led Willas through the chamber to a door on the other side. He held the door open once again, and when Willas peered through curiously, he saw the most welcome possible sight: a deep copper tub, filled and steaming.
“I find,” said Oberyn, clearly pleased with Willas’s reaction and with himself, “that there is nothing better after travel than a hot bath.”
Oberyn left him to it blessfully quickly, after letting him know the seneschal would wake him for dinner. Willas practically dove into the tub.
For a long time he lay with his eyes closed, basking in the heat and comfort. When he opened his eyes, he spotted a jar beside the tub. Curious, he reached for it. The substance inside smelled of cloves and resembled molasses. When he rubbed a bit between his fingers, it began to foam. He had to laugh. Soap. Of course even Dornish soap was different—and of course even the soap smelled of spice.
Willas soaked until he was in danger of falling asleep and drowning. Clean and significantly less sore, he managed to stay awake just long enough to dry off and reach his bed. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.
Some time later, a toothless seneschal came to wake him for dinner, as Oberyn had promised. Willas changed into something suitable and followed him out.
They took a direct route through elaborate and beautiful halls, but Willas was distracted from admiring by hunger. Earlier Willas couldn’t appreciate the architecture because he was exhausted, and now he couldn’t because he was ravenous. There will be time tomorrow for an entire tour, he promised himself.
That thought distracted him so much that he didn't notice anything out of the ordinary until the seneschal cleared his throat beside him. Willas looked up, about to apologize for whatever he missed, and saw that he wasn't the target of the throat-clearing at all.
There were two figures tangled intimately in the hall. Oberyn and Ellaria, Willas realized in dawning horror. Ellaria's thick, dark hair was a curtain obscuring their faces, but it was obvious that they were kissing--not least by the smacking sounds. Willas had never seen an adult woman's bare thigh but he saw Ellaria's now, slipped through the slit in her skirt and wrapped around Oberyn's waist. Oberyn's hand appeared to be holding it in place, but then Willas saw, to his mortification, that it was inching higher.
The toothless seneschal cleared his throat again, louder. Fortunately for Willas, this time Oberyn and Ellaria heard it. They pulled apart, laughing like lovestruck youths and not longtime lovers who had already made two children together. Willas knew from Oberyn's letters that they adored each other, and it might be touching to see evidence of that love in person if it weren't so embarrassing. Oberyn pressed one last kiss to Ellaria's jaw before stepping back, still close enough to keep his hand on her waist.
"Apologies," said Ellaria.
"Yes, apologies. We became... distracted," said Oberyn. He made as if to kiss Ellaria's jaw again, and she pushed him away, laughing.
Willas's cheeks were as hot as they'd been when he'd first tried Dornish pepper. He felt the fiercest desire to be anywhere but this corridor.
His discomfort, more than anything, seemed to sober Oberyn. He straightened, as did Ellaria. In a manner of seconds, they were as composed as if they'd returned from a sedate stroll in the garden. Willas got the distinct impression that this was a common occurrence. His face grew still hotter.
The seneschal eyed them, then shook his head. "Dinner will be served shortly, my prince," he said in his wheezy voice. "My lady."
"Of course," replied Oberyn smoothly. "Thank you, Ricasso."
He offered his arm to Ellaria, who glanced at Willas.
"I should like to freshen up before the meal," she said. "Perhaps you can escort our guest instead?"
By route, Willas began, "That's very kind, but--"
Oberyn interrupted him. "I would love to, if you have no objection, Willas," he said. "I am eager to discuss the books you brought me."
Somewhat thrown, Willas tried to regain his footing. "I'd love to," he replied, only slightly wavering.
"Then this works out perfectly," said Ellaria. "I shall be along shortly."
Willas inclined his head. "My lady."
Oberyn caught her hand and kissed it. They looked at each other in some significant way that Willas couldn’t read. Then Ellaria ducked back into the bedchamber and closed the door.
The seneschal began walking ahead, and Oberyn fell easily into step beside Willas.
"I had the most difficult time deciding what to read first," he said. "And don't think I didn't notice the copy of Garth’s Glory: A History of Highgarden, you sneaky creature."
Somehow, that regained some of Willas's equilibrium. "It is important to be well-rounded in one's scholarly pursuits," he replied mildly.
Oberyn was laughing. "How thoughtful of you to consider the diversity of my library."
Willas couldn't resist. "Perhaps now they will call you the Well-Read Viper."
"Oh, Willas," said Oberyn. "Oh, my friend, that was awful. Truly. Truly awful. How long have you been waiting to say that?"
Since he put the book in the trunk. "A few seconds."
"You are a dreadful liar."
"Do you accuse all your guests of lying?" Willas asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Only the very handsome ones," said Oberyn.
Willas nearly stumbled. This wasn't the sort of flattery typical in the Reach, or at least not the sort Willas received. He wasn't sure if it was typical in Dorne, either, or just typical of Oberyn, who was far more forward than even the average Dornishman.
Seconds tripped by uncomfortably. Finally Willas's mind produced, And you accuse me of lying, as something to say, but surely it was too late to reply without adding to the awkwardness. He wasn't certain it would be an appropriate reply regardless.
Oberyn rescued him. "You slept well, I trust?"
Seizing the topic gratefully, Willas said, "Yes. Very well. And the bath was wonderful. A truly thoughtful gesture, having it ready and waiting. You can't imagine how much better I felt afterwards."
"I can," Oberyn reminded him, smiling. "And it was nothing, my friend, as I said before. After you traveled all this way, it was the least I could do."
"I enjoyed the trip tremendously," Willas said.
It was true, although it had been a difficult one. Oberyn would have been able to make the trip in half the time, as Willas's leg made travel slow and painful. Even with Willas’s specially trained mare—his treasured, sweet-tempered Florys—he could only ride short distances horseback before the pain became unbearable. He did it anyway, to his maester’s despair; he never stopped until continuing was impossible, rather than merely inadvisable.
Oberyn brightened. His face was surprisingly expressive—something Willas should have predicted, since even his handwriting was expressive—but it was fascinating to see in person.
“I knew you would,” said Oberyn. “My beloved Dorne. You must tell me everything.”
“I took notes,” Willas admitted.
Oberyn laughed. “I would have been surprised if you didn’t,” he said. “Will you permit me to read them?”
They arrived to a small dining room, where an impressive, aromatic spread was waiting on the table. Only three places were set, and Willas raised an eyebrow.
“I assumed you’d be too tired to dine with all the children, as well,” Oberyn said. “They can be… a handful.”
Willas laughed. It was true, but he was looking forward to dining with the rest of them. Oberyn loved them all dearly—it was clear from the letters—and Willas wanted to see them together. He could imagine Oberyn in thirty years, surrounded by daughters and granddaughters and perhaps even the odd great-granddaughter or three. He ached to know that he would never see it.
But Willas was curious about another person. "Will I be meeting Prince Doran?" he asked.
Oberyn’s face briefly flickered with indecision, before a laugh chased it away. "My brother is a bore," he said. "I am a far more interesting host. Besides, I'd like to keep you all to myself, if I am to have you for so short a time."
Deciding not to pry, Willas said instead, "You make it sound as if I am a favorite toy.”
"I confess, I do see similarities," said Oberyn.
Ellaria materialized at his side and swatted his arm. "My love," she said, playfully scolding. "If you continue in this line Lord Willas will feel you don't think much of him."
"On the contrary," said Willas, feeling rather warm. "There is no downside to being a favorite."
The word favorite made Oberyn and Ellaria glance at each other. It was the second time that night that they'd exchanged a look Willas couldn't read. Irked, Willas felt himself frown. He never liked to be excluded from the deeper meaning of a conversation.
Fortunately, Oberyn chose then to diffuse the situation. “You must be starving,” he said to Willas. “Let us sit and eat. I recall you have a particular fondness for crab?”
The beginning of the meal passed in the quiet that comes from being distracted good food. The conversation was limited to occasional exclamations on something particularly delicious until Willas tried the bread and promptly choked.
The bread appeared to have been baked with peppers diced and folded in the dough. After two moons of Dornish food, Willas’s palate had evolved to tolerate this level of spice, but he hadn’t been expecting it from bread. Heat rushed to his face and he started coughing, nearly choking from surprise.
“Are you alright?” Ellaria exclaimed.
Willas waved a hand to indicate he wasn’t dying, and Oberyn began laughing.
On the trip to the Water Gardens, nearly everything Willas's hosts served had pepper in it. Willas's pale face always flushed with the heat, to the good-natured laughter of his hosts. It had been something of a relief for his sensitivity to spice to give amusement and not offense. He learned to ask before the meal was served if there was anything to soothe the burn, and generally they were pleased enough to bring him rich dark beer and a thickened, soured cream. After light teasing, of course, but Willas was content enough to entertain his hosts with a blush. It seemed he was in for another round of it now.
“Not bland enough for your tastes?” asked Oberyn.
When Willas stopped coughing, he wiped at his eyes and said, “Is there nothing in Dorne not hot or sour?”
“My sweet disposition,” said Oberyn immediately.
“Of course,” Willas said. “How could I forget.”
“And I understand everything in Highgarden is made with flowers.”
“With them, for them, or by them,” Willas agreed.
“Speaking of which,” said Ellaria, “I did try the floral reds you gave us.”
Willas raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”
“Red water,” Oberyn said promptly, and Ellaria swatted his arm.
“I found it lovely,” she said. “Oberyn wouldn’t even try it.”
Meeting Oberyn’s eyes, Willas took a long, slow sip of the sour Dornish wine in front of him, and Oberyn laughed.
“You are more courteous than I, my friend,” he said.
Ellaria shook her head. “Behave,” she said to Oberyn.
Before long, the majority of the food before them was demolished, and Ellaria excused herself to attend to her daughters. Oberyn offered to escort her, and Ellaria declined again. That struck Willas as strange, but then Oberyn kissed her good-bye and Willas had to duck his head, blushing.
Once Ellaria left, Oberyn turned to Willas and said, “The sun is on its way down,” he said. “And I am dying to show you our observatory.”
“Oh!” said Willas. “How fortunate. I’m dying to be shown the observatory.”
“We’d best show and be shown then,” said Oberyn. “To avoid dying. I hear it is unpleasant.”
On the way, Oberyn stopped to duck inside his chambers. He returned with a bottle of wine—Dornish, of course—tucked under his arm and two tumblers in one hand. His other held a long, slender shape wrapped in draping cloth which he presented to Willas.
"I have had... something made for you," Oberyn said. He was still smiling, but there was a new tension in his jaw. Willas promptly decided to love the gift.
Willas peeled back the fabric to reveal a long, smooth ebony cane, topped with a rose carved of what appeared to be gold-veined marble. Willas turned it over in his hands, examining the details. He tested it against the floor. It wasn’t quite the right length, but that could be fixed by sanding down the bottom. He looked up at Oberyn curiously.
“It’s—” Oberyn began. He stopped, wet his lips, and began again. “May I?”
When Willas passed it over, Oberyn pulled on the rose-shaped handle and drew a slender blade, and suddenly the gift made sense.
“A sword cane,” explained Oberyn, slightly too quickly. “They were fashionable in Braavos while I was in exile.”
He said the word ‘exile’ so casually. It was fascinating to Willas that Oberyn considered it less a punishment and more an opportunity. He loved to travel—he was the most well-traveled person Willas knew—and Willas was hideously jealous. Of course, Oberyn was delighted to regale him with tales of his voyages whenever Willas asked, and often when he didn’t; still, it was no substitute for going somewhere in person. Although Willas imagined if he himself were able to travel more, he’d collect somewhat fewer daughters than Oberyn.
Oberyn passed both parts of the cane back to Willas, and Willas tested the weight of the blade in his hand. Willas was unlikely to find the sword very useful—he wasn’t challenged to duels especially often—but the gift was so quintessentially Oberyn on so many levels that Willas couldn’t hold back a smile.
The relief on Oberyn’s face was palpable.
“Of course, I had this made before you smothered us in gifts from the Reach,” said Oberyn then, still speaking slightly too fast. “Now I am thinking I should have made the handle a sun or a viper’s head.”
“You should have. I’m concerned I’ll forget who it was from,” said Willas. “Where’s the ostentatious Dornish flair?”
Oberyn sighed. “And here I tried to be considerate of your family’s prejudice against me,” he said. “Ah well. Tell me you’ll use it often.”
Willas was warm all over. “I shall,” he said. It was flashier than his normal attire, but not even his father could protest the subtle elegance of this cane. “Every day.”
Oberyn’s answering smile was so genuine that Willas felt distinctly melty. “Wonderful,” said Oberyn.
Theb Oberyn led Wills to a wide room. It was scattered across with books, on shelves and in stacks and left open on desks. Star-charts in various stages of completion were pinned to walls and spread beside books. Far-lenses of various sizes occupied every window. By the largest one, Oberyn's maester, Caleotte, and Maester Lomys had their heads together. When they heard Oberyn and Willas enter, they looked up in unison.
“My prince, my lord,” said Caleotte. “We did not expect you.”
“Maester Caleotte,” said Willas. Unlike Oberyn, Willas remembered Caleotte's appearance quite well. “It is a pleasure to see you again.”
Caleotte inclined his head. “Under better circumstances now, to be sure.”
Willas smiled wanly.
He didn’t much care to think back to the days after his injury. Caleotte, sent by Oberyn, had provided excellent treatment, but his memory of Willas was probably as a sullen, snappish child. He’d barely spoken to Caleotte, or anyone at all, instead barricading himself in the Highgarden library. Caleotte had brought with him Oberyn’s first letter; Willas didn’t even read it until after Caleotte returned to Dorne. Nearly four moons later, when the anger at the world had faded into a dreary numbness, Willas found the letter again by chance. He had turned it over in his hands and found that he couldn't dredge up any resentment.
Willas had written back to say so. Somehow—Willas couldn’t quite remember—it had turned into a correspondence. He hadn't realized at the time, but he was desperately lonely; over the course of his recovery he had alienated himself entirely, the bitter, hurting thing that he was. The letters were both a respite from the wretched monotony and something to wait for, to look forward to. The correspondance continued even after Willas emerged from his self-imposed hermitude, after Willas had a new baby brother and sister to entertain. They had no shortage of conversation topics; Willas and Oberyn had much and more in common, from mapmaking to astronomy to horseflesh. When Willas thought of Oberyn, he didn't think of him as the man that injured him, but rather as the fascinating and enthusiastic man behind the letters.
Caleotte turned to Oberyn. “My prince, would you have us leave the observatory?”
“I am loath to interrupt scholars at study,” said Oberyn. “Willas, would the roof suffice? The view is exquisite, I think you’ll agree.”
Thoughtfully, Willas tested his weight on his leg and decided he could handle stairs. “That would be a fine alternative.”
Oberyn led Willas to the roof, careful to keep pace with Willas on the stairs, yet somehow making it seem natural. Thoughtful. Willas had known Oberyn was thoughtful already—it came across even in writing—but it was strange, seeing how Oberyn’s traits manifested in person, as opposed to on the page.
On the rooftop, Oberyn plopped down and poured two glasses of wine. Willas folded himself down more carefully, subtly rubbing at his knee as he stretched it out straight before him. Once Willas was seated, Oberyn handed him a glass.
“They say never drink with Dornishmen when the moon is full,” Willas said.
Oberyn snorted. “Who says?”
“Someone who’s never drank with Dornishmen at all, I expect,” said Willas.
“I will drink to that,” said Oberyn, and did.
Willas followed suit.
A comfortable silence settled between them. Willas leaned back on his elbows and gazed in wonder at the heavens. The constellations were different in the South—this time of year in Highgarden, the King’s Crown was far higher in the sky, and the Moonmaid wasn’t visible at all. The sky was clearer here as well, with a stark dust-dry quality to it that made the stars all the clearer. Willas's fingers itched for pen and ink.
After a moment, Oberyn spoke. “I… cannot express how happy I am to have you visit.”
Smiling faintly, Willas looked over. Oberyn was avoiding his eyes. “I can scarcely believe I’m here,” said Willas. “One would think after two moons I’d have gotten used to the idea, but…”
Oberyn hissed through his teeth. “Two moons. That is…”
“It really is,” Willas said with feeling. “It’s a shame it’s too long a trip to make regularly.”
"The solution to that is clear," proclaimed Oberyn grandly. "You shall simply have to stay here."
It was a jest, and Willas laughed, but he couldn't help imagining what it would be like if he could stay. You can't, his brain told him, you're the heir to Highgarden, and yet Willas basked in the picture in his mind's eye.
Oberyn was fit enough—and restless enough—to make the trip, but of course that was impossible. While the rivalry between Willas and Oberyn was nothing more than a joke, the rest of Willas’s family had revised their memory of the tourney. In their minds, the deadly Red Viper purposely charged Willas down to crush his leg. It was as if Oberyn had stolen something from them personally, as if the mobility of the heir was some communal family treasure. Garlan and Margaery alone listened to Willas when he explained it was an accident—and pointed out that a boy of one-and-ten had no place in a tourney. Loras had simply decided that if Willas weren’t holding a grudge, then Loras had to hold it for him.
“I hope you enjoy my notes on the journey,” said Willas. He would have liked to read Oberyn’s, were their positions reversed. He took another sip of wine and regretted that Oberyn couldn’t come to Highgarden. He would have loved to show Oberyn the fields of golden roses, and watch him scandalize Tyrells everywhere by not even pretending to enjoy the comparatively bland food and sweet wine.
Perhaps when I’m the lord of Highgarden, Willas thought, and then smiled wryly. The chance that Oberyn would outlive Mace Tyrell was… slim. At best.
He didn’t want to ruminate on that. He opened his mouth to change the subject, but Oberyn beat him to it.
“I hope you weren’t uncomfortable, earlier,” Oberyn said. “Seeing Ellaria and myself in a—compromising position.”
“No,” said Willas immediately. He blushed, again, his mind catching on the image of Oberyn’s hand on Ellaria’s thigh. “I—I was embarrassed, true, but not uncomfortable. It is only—I am not used to such things.”
Oberyn digested this. “Is it a—” he began, and paused. “Forgive me, I do not wish to pry.”
“Please,” said Willas. “Ask, if you would.”
Hesitating, Oberyn glanced at Willas out of the corner of his eye and then away. “I wondered,” he said, “if it is experience you lack, and not merely exposure.”
Ah, Willas thought, through the renewal of his blush. It seemed Oberyn sought a gentle way to ask if Willas was a virgin. A reasonable question, if an embarrassing one, but it seemed Willas would need to numb himself to embarrassment in order to survive this visit.
“Yes,” he said, once he was certain his voice would be steady. “It is a lack of both.”
Oberyn propped himself up on one arm. “Why is that, if I might ask?”
“Why is what, exactly?”
Waving a hand, Oberyn said, "You are a handsome young man, and eligible, with much and more to offer. Are you not a lover of women?"
There was Oberyn calling him handsome again. Willas ignored it and said, "I am a lover of books,” instead.
This, truly, was familiar territory, and that was his usual reply. Willas's bachelorhood was tolerable, albeit barely, due to his status as an eccentric and a scholar and a damaged man; those concerned about his progeny were easily soothed by Mace Tyrell’s robust health. Still, people often pried where Willas wished no prying, and he became talented in the art of deflection.
Oberyn laughed. "Books make fine friends but poor lovers, I find."
"Yes, I imagine more skilled lovers don't leave quite so many paper-cuts."
Oberyn laughed again. He was a man of many different laughs; Willas wanted to bottle them, sketch them, catalog them for later study. This one was booming, warm, and delightful. Oberyn was a man of many different delights, as well.
Once Oberyn’s laughter died, he said, “Yes, magnificent.”
Willas furrowed his brow at the non-sequitur.
"Your delivery," Oberyn explained. "Reading your letters, I wondered how you would sound, all these witticisms of yours. And now to have them from your lips, I know how to hear them in my head in your future letters."
It made Willas blush for the hundreth time that night to think of Oberyn reading his letters, wondering at Willas’s voice and tone. It was a warm thought, although Willas wasn't certain why. He wanted to know what else Oberyn had wondered about him. It was impossible to ask.
He glanced at Oberyn. He wanted to say something about his own imaginings. He couldn’t find the words.
Oberyn looked back. There was a soft expression on his face that Willas didn’t know what to make of, couldn’t look away from. It was in the magnetic quality of Oberyn's eyes. From this distance, Willas thought he could count his eyelashes. He felt strangely inclined to try. The moment stretched long and slow into a viscous and timeless thing. Willas was lost in it. He wondered why Oberyn didn't move away. He wondered why he himself didn't either.
“May I?” said Oberyn, finally. His voice was strangely rough.
Willas didn’t know what Oberyn was asking, and found he didn’t care. He wanted to allow Oberyn anything at all—to keep Willas here, to break all manner of social convention, to crack Willas open and examine what he found inside.
Oberyn’s fingertips brushed Willas’s cheek before his hand settled on his jaw. He held Willas still, careful and reverent, before pressing a soft kiss to the full of Willas’s mouth.
Despite its chasteness, the kiss lasted too long to be familial. It didn’t feel familial. It felt warm, and sweet, and soft.
When they parted, Willas couldn’t manage to open his eyes for a few long moments, too overwhelmed.
It wasn't entirely a suprise. Willas had heard rumors that Oberyn bedded men, and had mulled over those rumors privately. None of Oberyn’s letters ever made mention of male lovers, although he wrote of Ellaria in nearly every one. Willas had wondered if the talk stemmed from distrust of Dorne and Dornishmen, but it seemed there was truth to it after all. The biggest surprise, truly, was that Oberyn would find anything in Willas worth pursuing.
When Willas finally opened his eyes, he saw Oberyn watching him, wariness lurking in his expression.
“Surely you have heard of such a thing,” Oberyn said. There was an anxious tension in his jaw. “If you are uncomfortable—”
“No,” Willas said immediately, though he was still reeling. “But. Ellaria—?”
“She will be thrilled,” said Oberyn dryly. “She accuses me of swooning over your letters like a lovestruck maiden.”
That was confusing, so Willas took a minute to process. Was she leaving us alone together because of this?“And she is—she is your lover, correct?”
Oberyn looked amused. “That is the definition of a paramour, yes.”
Irritated, Willas said, “Did I not make it clear I am inexperienced in these matters?”
“You did,” said Oberyn, chastened. “My apologies.”
Willas closed his eyes and breathed until his temper waned. “I’m sorry for snapping,” he said quietly. “So she does not… you do not keep to her bed?”
“A strange way to put it,” said Oberyn. “We truly don’t keep to beds at all. As you noticed earlier.”
Cheeks flaming, Willas looked away. “You’re teasing me.”
“It’s so easy to do,” said Oberyn. “Should I stop?”
Willas couldn’t decide. “You should answer my question.”
Oberyn’s shrug fell slightly short of casual. “We love each other dearly,” he said. “But we have never found fidelity an appropriate way to express this.”
“That is…” Willas blinked. “Is this common in—?”
Oberyn shook his head. “It is a personal preference,” he said. “Spoken of more openly in Dorne, I imagine, but still present elsewhere.”
Thinking about that, Willas lay back down, crossing his arms behind his head. He had never really thought about such arrangements. He thought about it now. He wondered how to feel about being propositioned by a man who was, for all intents and purposes, happily married.
“It helps that we often share,” Oberyn said lightly.
Share? Willas thought numbly, and then choked as soon as the realization hit.
Oberyn was laughing. “Is that too much for you?”
“I,” said Willas. “Yes. Slightly. Perhaps.” At least all at once.
“You are,” Oberyn started. He hesitated. “Will you take offense if I call you adorable?”
Willas threw an arm over his face. “At least my embarrassment is charming.”
“It is,” said Oberyn. “It truly is.”
There was nothing to say to that. The quiet that fell upon them had a note of anxiety to it that had been absent in the preceding quiets.
Finally Oberyn said, “Truly, I have no desire to… if you would prefer not to—”
“No,” said Willas.
“It’s,” started Willas. “New. Very new. I’m not sure what I want.”
“I understand, I can—”
Willas shook his head. “I know I want to be kissed again,” he said, bravely.
Oberyn’s eyebrows rose, a smile quirking at his mouth. “Now?”
“No,” Willas admitted. “Not just yet. But again. And… I don’t… Ellaria…”
“She’ll understand. Whatever you chose.”
Sighing, Willas turned on his side to look at Oberyn. “And you understand that if my family knew, they’d be out for blood?”
“Let them try,” said Oberyn.
Willas watched him, and then he asked, “You are not afraid?”
“Of a Tyrell?”
You were afraid of this Tyrell, Willas thought. “In general.”
“No,” Oberyn said. “Never.”
That was impossible. “Never?”
Oberyn was silent for so long that Willas turned to look at him, to watch, to wait.
After a long silence, Oberyn said finally, “All men must die.” There was a far-away expression on his face, a grimness Willas had not yet seen taking root in the tightness of his mouth.
Willas closed his eyes. He called back to his mental image from earlier, Oberyn surrounded by daughters and granddaughters and great-granddaughters, and once again he knew it to be a child’s fancy. Oberyn was a short-wicked candle. Burned too brightly, extinguished too quickly. He would not rest until… well. Until. Willas couldn’t pretend not to know where such a quest would likely end. He was not a man who lied to himself. He wouldn’t start now.
“Valar morghulis,” Willas mumbled.
Oberyn’s night-black eyes had the wicked edge of a knife. “Precisely,” he said.