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“It’s called Secret Septon. Once a year you honor the gods by exchanging gifts. It started out as small things, something you could carry with you as a reminder of the seven-sided god, but over time, it’s evolved into . . . something less holy. It is not unusual now for large gifts to be given or received,” explained Septa Mordane.

"What kind of gifts?" Sansa liked the idea of presents very much.

“A small scale or counterweight for the Father. Now it can be as much as a fish dinner, sometimes called the Feast of the Father. Scales, you know." Septa Mordane shook her head at this blasphemy. "A scrap of cloth for the Mother has turned into clothing. A bit of kindling or tinder for the Crone became a lantern but has now evolved into anything that gives light, even precious gems."

Sansa couldn't help but gasp, earning her a stern look from her septa. Joffrey had given her a beautiful necklace upon their betrothal. The thought of her golden prince giving her another piece of jewelry, so personal yet suitable for public display, sent a thrill through her.

Septa Mordane continued in a dampening tone, "One thing that hasn't changed is the Stranger's gift - usually a piece of fruit or food, to keep the recipient healthy and delay her meeting with the Stranger. It's a reminder of one's mortality."

Sansa wasn't interested in anything so dark. “But why is it a secret?” Sansa was eager to participate in this southron tradition. Her mind was racing, her heart pounding in anticipation. Oh, the idea of Joffrey smiling at her as he opened her gifts made her heart flutter and a delicious heat flush her face. A half a hundred ideas flashed through her mind. A new doublet, perhaps? A handsome cape? Surely her father would allow her to spend amply on Joffrey. He was to be the king, after all, and it was only fitting that his future queen see him properly honored with gifts. Perhaps the right gift would calm the unease that had existed between them since that day by the river on their way to King's Landing a year ago. . . Sansa pushed the thought away. Her prince tolerated her most days but, others, was cold and cruel. She could not seem to make him love her. Sansa raised her chin. Her future would be bright and sparkly and it would begin again on Sevenmas.

“Because godliness can be found in anyone, even where it may be unexpected.”

“How does it work?”

“At the start of the Seven Days, families get together, it’s best if there are seven of you but any number will do, and each person puts a small item of theirs into a bowl. It has to be something small enough to be concealed in the palm of one’s hand, mind you, so the others can’t see what's drawn from the bowl. You become the Secret Septon, or Septa, for that person and your task is to select seven small gifts, each representing one aspect of the Faith, to remind the recipient of the gods’ graciousness and power. These gifts were meant originally meant to humble and inspire but, as I said, Sansa, that was the old way.”

Surely the gods would see to it that she pulled Joffrey’s trinket from the bowl, and he hers. They had to! As soon as was seemly, she rushed to the sept to say a brief prayer to all of the gods but the Stranger, who frightened her. She considered stopping at the godswood to enlist the old gods’ help, too, but decided that the old gods and the new might not get along and she did not want to upset any of them, especially not when such an important outcome was resting in their hands.

The evening meal crawled by but finally, at last, it was time to meet in the royal family's solar. Sansa had eaten carefully, making sure no speck of food or drink marred the perfection of her beautiful dress. A blue silk, the color of her eyes, with a wide neckline extending almost to her shoulders that showed off her collarbone and graceful neck, it was nipped at the waist and fell in a narrow column to the floor. Small silver beads adorned the neck and hem while around her waist she’d tied a shimmery sash. On the sash she’d affixed a small silver pin in the shape of a direwolf that she meant to use as her Secret Septon trinket. Sansa’s maids had brushed her hair until it shone, and she’d left it mostly down, knowing her father thought the neckline of her dress a bit mature for her 17 years.

She entered the solar and swept a gracious curtsy to the king, queen, and her betrothed. Her father and Arya were there and she went to stand beside them, excitement sending shivers down her spine. It was like a dream. Everyone, even Arya, was so beautiful and perfect, they fairly twinkled. How enchanted it all would be! Her marriage to Joffrey would make them all so happy. Her father and his best friend would finally be united as family. The queen would look upon Sansa as her own daughter. They would spend every Sevenmas together, laughing and singing, and the ugliness of the past would be forgotten. Sansa wanted it so much it nearly hurt! Surely it would take more than a mere year for them all to make their way with each other? Surely, once they did, everything would be all right.

“Ah, Ned, it’s good to have you here,” said King Robert, who lifted his glass toward Sansa’s father.

“Thank you, your grace. We’re pleased to be included.” Her father inclined his head toward the king, who smiled broadly, and the queen who pressed her lips together and looked away. Sansa felt a ripple of discontent but couldn't put a name to it. Arya had hotly contested having to attend this gathering at all but their father had reminded them both that it was an honor. Robert was an old friend, Ned was in his service, and it was for the best if everyone could get along. Sansa had nodded in agreement with every word while Arya glowered darkly.


Robert gave a booming laugh. “Missing your trees, are you? You didn’t seem to, that one Sevenmas we spent in –“

“I’ve kept to the old gods as faithfully as I could, even when my friends would have seen me stray.” Here he gave the smallest tip of his head towards Sansa and Arya.

Robert laughed and poured more wine into his goblet. “Fair enough, Ned, fair enough but you're in the south now.”

"I've not forgotten."

“Shall we start?” said the queen curtly from her seat near the fire.

“Yes, let’s start!” said Joffrey, walking to a sideboard where a pretty enameled bowl was resting.

“Shouldn’t there be seven of us?” Sansa cried. If any one of the gods felt slighted, her fervent prayer to exchange gifts with Joffrey and Joffrey alone might go unanswered. There had to be seven!

Joffrey’s eyes snapped to hers and, for a moment, Sansa’s blood ran cold with the thought that she might have angered him, might have ruined her best chance to repair the rift between his family and hers and secure a future filled with happiness. “Perhaps Myrcella . . .,” she started to say before Joffrey cut her off. Without looking away he called, “Dog!”

A large shadow separated itself from the darkness near the door. Sandor Clegane stepped forward. Sansa had not noticed him when she’d entered the solar, though he must have announced her arrival. “Your grace?”

“My lady wants seven of us to participate in Secret Septon."

"Who shall I summon?"

"You’ll be the seventh.”

“I don’t practice, your grace.”

“Practice obeying your prince’s orders, dog.” Joffrey laughed at his play on words.

Clegane gave a stiff nod and then stood so still Sansa believed him half-frozen.

Joffrey put the bowl on a table in the center of a room. From his pocket he pulled a golden Dragon. “Whoever pulls this had better give it back to me,” he said, not quite joking, as he dropped it into the bowl with a loud clang. The queen stepped forward and quietly slipped an earring, dangly, golden, and bearing a large emerald, from her ear. Her gaze fell on each of them before she returned to her seat. There was no question the earring would be with its mate again at the end of the week.

“Seems I’ve forgotten something,” chuckled the king. He looked around and grabbed a cork from a nearby cart, tossing it into the bowl, where it promptly bounced out the other side. Joffrey gave a disgusted look as he plunked the cork back into the bowl.

“Go ahead, Arya,” prompted her father.

Sansa’s sister stepped forward and turned over her hand so everyone could see her trinket. It was a rock. “I found it on the Kingsroad!” she said proudly as she dropped it on top of the Dragon and the priceless earring. Sansa’s face burned with shame. What must Joffrey be thinking? Why did her sister constantly have to embarrass their family with her wild, unlady-like behavior?

“Sansa?” Her father’s kind voice recalled her. Sansa took a deep breath, striving to appear calm though her nerves were jangled. She stepped forward and turned to unfasten the pin from her sash. Her fingers couldn’t seem to work the clasp. Her frustration was mounting. Her sister, the clasp, Joffrey’s cold look, the queen’s inexplicable displeasure. Why couldn’t her first Sevenmas be perfect? Sansa’s disappointment was nearly getting the better of her when the pin finally cooperated and came loose. She worked the sharp end back into its holder and looked up. Her gaze fell on the burned visage of the Hound. She hadn’t realized he’d been paying attention to the proceedings at all but he was looking at her, an odd, somehow pinched expression on his ruined face. Startled, she looked away and held out her hand so they could see her trinket. She hoped Joffrey would note its irregular edges so he could distinguish it from the rest of the items in the bowl.

Her father produced a scroll from within his cape. “It appears I came as prepared as you, your grace,” he said to his friend with a smile as he pried the seal off the scroll and added it to the other trinkets.

“I suppose your memory hasn't thawed yet,” Robert said, reaching for some grapes.

An awkward pause followed.

“Dog,” said Joffrey, when his sworn shield didn’t move. Sandor Clegane stepped forward and paused. Surely he has no trinket prepared, Sansa thought with pity. He unfastened the pin holding his cloak, a blunt, round, jeweled thing, dropped it into the bowl with a glance at Sansa that did not reach her face, and moved away from the table, draping his cloak over his arm as he did so.

Joffrey swirled the bowl around, the contents making a rough metal-on-metal sound that suddenly reminded Sansa of the Hound’s voice. “Who’s going to pick first?” Sansa’s heart leapt. Surely he’d honor her by letting her select the first trinket. It would give her the best chance of choosing his, after all.

“Mother?” he said, and Sansa’s heart fell. Cersei approached, reached her long elegant fingers in the bowl, mixed the contents around a little, and withdrew with a satisfied look.

What if she’s chosen the Dragon? Sansa could not risk it. Her chest felt constricted with worry. “May I, your grace?”

Joffrey looked surprised but said, “You may,” thrusting the bowl at her so he could choose next. Sansa concealed her own surprise but held the bowl as her prince dipped his hand in and quickly retrieved a trinket. Feeling as wicked as Arya, she reached for the bowl as soon as it was back in Joffrey’s hands. Please, she prayed, please, pleeeease. Her fingertips glanced off the cork and she pushed it away, rattled by her near miss. They next touched on something hard and smooth and she seized it and felt the cool roundness of it in her palm. She stepped away, nearly breathless. Joffrey had only to have selected the direwolf pin for her prayers to be answered.

Arya chose next and then the king, her father, and, last, the Hound. Sansa scarcely paid them any attention, concentrating only on the feel of the coin in her hand. She ran her fingertips over it, the metal slick from the dampness of her palm.

“In seven days we’ll meet here again for the Secret Septon exchange,” said Joffrey.

Sansa hoped her prince would escort her back to her rooms but the queen had claimed his attention. “Ned, about the hunt . . .,” the king said to her father, leading him towards the door. Arya was already gone. Sansa stood helplessly until the queen noticed her.

“Sansa?” she inquired, a bit impatiently.

“Yes, your grace?”

“Clegane will see you to your chambers.”

Sansa could do nothing but thank her and move to leave the solar, the Hound falling in line behind her. She walked along the corridors without seeing, her breath slowing. It occurred to her that she was being discourteously quiet.

"Is this your first Sevenmas, my lord?"

"The first in many years," he answered, looking at her from the corner of his eye.

"Are you pleased to celebrate again?" Why was it so hard to talk to him at times? He made her feel like her courtesies were a fly hovering in his face.

"It was for your pleasure that I have to celebrate at all."

That stung. Now he would have to bear the expense of gifts and . . . Sansa flushed. How could she have known Joffrey would make his sworn shield be the seventh rather than his own sister or brother?

"I'm sure whoever pulled your broach will give it back to you."

"So it wasn't you."

Sansa's cheeks burned even hotter. The Secret Septons were supposed to be a secret and she was ruining it already!

When she didn't answer, he said, "It's just a pin. I'll get another."

"Of course, my lord." She felt terrible for insulting him and fell into a troubled silence.

When they reached her rooms, Clegane stood to the side of the door as he always did. Suddenly inspiration seized her. "Your cape, my lord."

He eyed the cloth hanging over his arm and looked at her questioningly.

"There's a chill in the air tonight. You'll need your cape. Use this to fasten it." Sansa reached for the sash at her waist.

Clegane began to protest but quickly ceased to speak as Sansa's shoulders moved back and forth as she worked at the knot. She held up the sash and smiled as though bestowing a favor upon him. "My thanks," he said, wryly.

"Good night, my lord."

He inclined his head. "Good night, little bird."

She stepped into her room and closed the door behind her, leaning against it. She heard the Hound's heavy footsteps move down the hall, followed by a low, raspy laugh. Her eyebrows drew together in confusion. What was so funny? Sandor Clegane always left her feeling bewildered and clumsy. She thought she'd made amends for her slip in courtesy so why would he be laughing?

At least one thing had gone right tonight. She squeezed the warm, round, hard trinket in her hand and smiled. She would enjoy selecting gifts for Joffrey. He would see their alliance as a thing to be valued again. She opened her hand and stared in disbelief. In her palm was Arya's stone, a small round river rock, polished smooth by silt, water, and time. No! She was sure, so sure, it had been the Dragon! Tears welled up in her eyes and she hurled it to the floor where it skittered away under a chair, mocking her with its dull grayness. She sent her maid away after she was undressed and flung herself on her bed to cry bitter tears.