Tyrion had often heard it said that when a person died, they left a gap, or a hole behind. He knew now that people who said such things had never lost a loved one. There was no hole, no pit, no gaping chasm where a human being had once laughed, and breathed, and screamed. There was nothing. The world simply continued without them, like they had never existed. The world shifted, and became a different place. It was learning to live in that place that hurt.
When Tyrion had found Jaime and Arya on the field, slain together, he had wept. He hadn’t cared who heard him, or laughed at him.
I’m alone, he had thought, I’m all alone. A selfish thought, but he hadn’t been able to help himself.
Do not think on those things again. They will make you mad.
Tyrion had not seen any of his nephews and nieces, or…her…in almost ten years. He had written to her once or twice in his capacity as Hand of the Queen, inviting her to such-and-such a tourney or asking for the North’s support in such-and-such a rebellion. Her responses had always been prompt, but something had always been…
It had taken him a long time to realise that he had never had the slightest encounter with her that could be called a conversation, not even in the days when he had seen her regularly. Words had not been important before, because words had been unnecessary and often impossible. Simply looking at her, and sometimes taking her hand, had sufficed. Words were difficult now because he had no fucking clue what to write to her beyond idiotic formalities and courtesies.
She had the same sickness.
Or perhaps she does not wish to be reminded of a time that she would rather forget.
The Khaleesi, as he fondly called Queen Daenerys, had nagged him countless times to marry and produce an heir, so that she could name him Lord of Casterly Rock the moment his father died. He had explained many times that Casterly Rock would not be his after Father’s death, but Tyrion the Younger’s, and that marrying would be sure to cause nothing but strife for his young nephew, who would have troubles enough on the day the Rock became his.
‘Tyrion the Younger has spent most of his life at Winterfell,’ the Khaleesi had replied, ‘by now, the boy must be more Stark than Lannister.’
‘It was the wish of my late brother, and of his wife, that their children be raised Northern, and as far away from my father as possible,’ Tyrion had insisted, ‘and while it certainly pains me to be cheated of my own ancestral seat, it does not pain me sufficiently to make me want to war against my own blood. I am tired of war, and I am tired of blood.’
Besides being tired of war and blood, Tyrion had no desire to marry. No desire at all.
Sansa’s children would be of age now. Neither of them had married yet, which was perhaps unsurprising. Alyssa and Steffon were the unholy offspring of one of Jaime and Cersei Lannister’s bastards, and the Khaleesi had rendered their prospects infinitely bleaker by refusing to legitimise them. In consequence, both children were still called Waters despite their mother’s repeated petitions to the crown, and probably had greater chances of finding partners in Old Valyria than anywhere in Westeros.
Jaime’s children, though legitimate, were in a similar position. Both were blond as wheat fields, which made the uneducated and the idiotic wonder constantly about their parentage, but they were also irreparably tainted; tainted by their father’s stupidity and by their mother’s recklessness.
Or her loyalty, I suppose, depending on your allegiances.
Tyrion shook his head.
They have the benefit of the Lannister name, he thought, that will count for something eventually. Gold washes everything clean.
Tyrion pulled his cloak tighter around him and shouted for wine. He could hear scribes, guards and camp followers complaining about the cold from the ground just beneath him, though he could not see most of them through the mist. Tyrion did not much like camp followers, though they could be surprisingly useful at times. It was for this reason alone that he tolerated them.
The walls of Winterfell reared suddenly out of the mist, the outer wall still half-constructed. Many of the trees immediately surrounding the ancient seat of House Stark had never flowered again, their grey branches stark and eerily beautiful against the clouds. The low-lying country around Winterfell was scarred by enormous, serpentine strips of black that seemed to carve up the earth, like thick streaks of soot on fine velvet. The legacy of the Field of Fire.
Sansa had lost everyone by the name of Stark on the Field of Fire. All gone, except her mother, and she had died of grief within months. And four children to raise, two of them not her own, aged eight, seven, six and five. An unenviable task. She could have engaged septas and maesters to do all the work for her, of course, but Tyrion knew that the concept would not appeal to her. She had always cared for everyone except herself.
Does ‘Sansa’ mean ‘sorrow’ in the Old Tongue?
Winterfell’s gates opened with the soothing, whispering creak of new wood, and as he rode into the central court with his retinue, he felt grateful that he had chosen to heed the call of his cock rather than the call of duty at the time of King Robert’s arrival at Winterfell more than twenty years previously. Had he not, he would have remembered where everyone had stood, what they had said, what they had worn, how they had looked, and he would have been inconsolable. Instead, his heart was leaping in his chest at the sight of her; scarcely noticing the presence of the four young adults at her side.
Tyrion hardly recognised the myriad of ways that she had changed in externals, because to him she looked just the same; the same courage, the same strength, the same sadness. Her auburn hair was streaked so perfectly with premature grey that he might have suspected a lesser woman of dyeing it, and smile lines wrinkled the delicate skin around her mouth, as though she had branded each one of her rare smiles onto her skin, in the hope that it would never disappear. But she did not smile as he approached, and he had not expected her to. She was Warden of the North, and a woman. She had a reputation to maintain.
‘You are welcome to Winterfell, my lord,’ she intoned, graceful as a queen as he kissed her hand.
‘My lady,’ he replied, equally formal as tedious traditional inquiries on the respective states of health of Queen Daenerys, Lord Tywin, and the Wardens of the East and South were exchanged.
I should ask her how she is. I want to know how she is. It’s not quite proper, but…
‘And…you, my lady?’ Tyrion ventured , throwing caution to the winds, ‘are you well?’
She disarmed immediately, her face breaking into a smile so different from those he had seen a decade previously that Tyrion was momentarily stunned. Smiling had become something that she did often. He was glad. She deserved to be happy.
‘I am always well,’ Sansa said, so softly that he could barely hear her.
Tyrion then braced himself as Sansa turned to the four adolescents standing in a row at her side.
‘Lord Tyrion, allow me to present my children: Alyssa, Steffon, Tyrion and Visenya.’
She made no distinction between her own children and her sister’s. That was not like her. But the children bowed and curtseyed prettily, and Tyrion busied himself with saying something appropriate to each of them.
Later on, he would not remember what he had said.
Sansa’s eldest, Alyssa, was breathtaking. She had her mother’s high cheekbones and auburn hair, but large, grey Stark eyes, so expressive that Tyrion tore his gaze away at once, seeing Arya staring out at him on the day she had taken Robert’s head.
‘I wish…Jaime were here,’ she had said, hanging her head and walking away.
The boy Steffon, however, was entirely Tully. He had a sincere, open face that prompted instant trust, an inherent sweetness in his expression suggesting both innocence and naivety. A child, still. Sansa had done well.
Keep him here, my lady, and do not teach him the ways of the world. Something in him will die on the day he starts to learn.
His heart pounded in his ears as he came to Jaime and Arya’s children, to the shadows of the past and of himself, his eyes falling first on his namesake. When the boy had been smaller, he had favoured Lord Tywin, but now he looked like no one but himself. Tyrion the Younger had hair so blond it was almost white; a small, birdlike mouth that had something of Arya in it; and a build that was rather on the plump side, though not quite; his ink-stained fingers singing to Tyrion of the smell of cold stone and parchment.
A scholar, Tyrion thought, he prefers the library to the practice yard. That is why he is so stocky.
Tyrion remembered a time shortly before the war, when he had come upon the boy in the library of King’s Landing, in a section to which no child had access.
‘Did you climb in through a window, mischievous child?’ he had asked jokingly.
Tyrion the Younger had simply shrugged in response; a charming habit learned from his mother, no doubt.
‘Did someone give you a key?’ Tyrion had persisted.
But the boy had turned back to his book, and was lost in thought already. Tyrion had smiled and left him, approving heartily.
And Visenya. Visenya was utterly and irredeemably Jaime’s; and just looking at her tore Tyrion’s heart in two. She had her father’s extraordinary height and the charisma that went with it, standing at almost six feet and evidently still growing. She was long-limbed and slender, but not at all gangly, and she looked twice as fit as most boys her age. Her hair was spun from the same gold as her father’s, the same light pierced the whispering woodland of her eyes, and her square jawline, a feature that Tyrion usually found most unattractive in a woman, became her lovely face as perfectly as it had her father’s. She also seemed to have inherited Jaime’s pathological inability to take anything seriously, for she was grinning cheekily at him in a way that could either have professed delight or mockery, earning herself an imperious glare from her aunt that only made her smile wider.
‘Will you take a cup of wine in my solar, Lord Tyrion?’ Sansa proposed, still eyeing her niece with a mix of exasperation and affection.
Tyrion turned away from the ghost of his brother with relief.
‘I will take a barrel of wine, my lady.’
Sansa had not stopped talking from the moment they had been left alone together, the words leaping out of her like a spring from the depths of the earth. She spoke not of herself, but of the North, and Tyrion attended, wine skin in hand, as she led him past the small mountains of fallen stone and rubble that lay still and silent, like corpses, between Winterfell’s inner and outer walls. He was slightly concerned by this uncharacteristic penchant for long dramatic monologues, but not enough to stop her. He liked the sound of her voice.
‘The outer wall is in a shocking state, as you can see,’ Sansa said, ‘we’ve sent as far as Volantis for master builders to examine everything we’ve built, from the foundations to the battlements, all to no avail.’
‘To no avail?’
‘It keeps falling down.’
Sansa knelt gracefully in the grass and scooped up a handful of stones from a pile of rubble. She smoothed them down in her palm with all the gentleness of a child stroking a baby bird, and Tyrion recognised fragments of limestone, granite, marble, and a variety of other stones that he could not identify at a glance. She looked up at him.
‘We have tried laying different stones, mixing the mortar in more complex ways, deepening the foundations,’ Sansa said gravely, ‘the wall refuses to stand.’
Tyrion knew very little about building, but as he looked from Sansa’s palm, to her face, to a blackened and greatly-aged section of wall behind her, he was struck by a sudden idea.
‘What about that?’ Tyrion asked, pointing.
Sansa looked over her shoulder and rose; the stones falling from her palm and ringing out against the earth like rain.
‘It is all that remains of the original wall,’ Sansa told him quietly, ‘we have retained it as a memorial to our dead.’
Tyrion’s heart sank.
‘Perhaps that is where the problem lies, my lady,’ he said, as gently and as respectfully as he could.
Sansa’s face had gone white.
‘But…I thought dragonfire only had the power to melt stone.’
‘So it does, but we do not know what else it can do.’
Sansa’s eyes raced from the smoke marks on the section of wall to the rivers of molten blackness that traversed the soil of Winterfell as far as the eye could see.
‘It even has the power to infect the earth,’ she murmured, ‘what gods would permit such creatures to be created?’
She watched the scarred Northern landscape for a moment more, before sweeping on, her skirts murmuring against the grass. Tyrion watched her face with a mix of affection and fear. She was trying to speak, but the words died on her tongue each time she opened her mouth.
‘This must have been a very difficult time for you,’ Tyrion ventured gently.
‘Difficult?’ Sansa replied softly, ‘yes, it has been difficult. When we began to rebuild, we had lost half the population of the North. Such a thing is not good for society - ’
This irritated Tyrion slightly, who did not give a fuck about society at this particular moment. Nevertheless, he listened.
‘In the beginning,’ Sansa continued, ‘many of my bannermen left alive after the Field of Fire - those who did not witness it, of course - were clamouring night and day to rebel once more against the Queen. They blamed my mother and I for surrendering…and for a great many other things too. And when one is grief-stricken, with half a kingdom to rule, the idiocies of men become difficult to tolerate. One is tempted - either to kill them, or to simply let them have their way so that they will leave you in peace.’
Tyrion smiled at her, agreeing and remembering.
‘I am glad you did the former, my lady.’
‘As I recall, it was your army that did that, my lord,’ she said, smiling back.
‘I had no choice. You asked me so very politely.’
She continued to speak, scarcely noticing the joke. That rather hurt Tyrion’s feelings.
‘And the children, of course,’ Sansa groaned, ‘Gods be good. Alyssa and Steffon were begging me every day to return to the South. They could not stand the cold; they hated living in the middle of a building site; they ran away twice, once in the middle of a snowstorm. They were willful to the point of insanity. And Visenya, of course…a more obstinate, infuriating child could not have been countenanced. She retired three septas in two months. You know that she sees letters backwards in her head.’
Tyrion nodded, remembering how Jaime had blamed himself for it time and time again.
‘Arya and Jaime had entirely given up on ever teaching her to read,’ Sansa said, ‘but I believed…’
‘That trying again might make a difference?’ Tyrion finished.
‘All children should be able to read,’ Sansa insisted sadly, ‘it is a necessity of life.’
Though Tyrion certainly agreed, he had spent far too many years listening to Jaime grumbling and growling about how much he hated Father to believe that forcing reading on a child who simply could not do it was kindness rather than simple cruelty.
‘Can she read now?’ he ventured carefully.
‘No,’ Sansa sighed, clearly resigned to the fact, ‘and it is a tragedy. She is brighter than my three others combined.’
Tyrion pursed his lips.
‘I wouldn’t be so sure, my lady. Young Tyrion seems to be quite the scholar.’
Sansa’s face broke into a smile.
‘A glorious child.’
‘Oh, yes. When I despair of the others, I think of him and reassure myself that I did perhaps do something right.’
Tyrion laughed as they once again came to the inner wall and entered the deafening peace of the godswood, its ancient trees rustling in the half-darkness and rearing out of the soil like the souls of the Kings of Winter; their arms meeting above their heads to create a vault coloured red and green by the icy veins of their leaves.
Tyrion winced slightly as Sansa paused before the heart tree, peace seeming to flow over all her soul as she closed her eyes. All Tyrion saw and heard was the horror of a howling from long ago, and he shivered.
‘Open your ears,’ Sansa whispered, noticing his discomfort, but keeping her eyes closed.
Tyrion had no desire whatever to open his ears.
‘I’m no theologian, but I believe we are listening to the wind, my lady.’
Sansa’s eyes opened, and she regarded him sadly.
‘Who do you think sends the wind but the gods?’
Seven hells. If she has turned into another Selyse Baratheon, I will fall on my own sword.
Sansa’s footsteps were soft on the earth as they walked further into the wood, her fingers brushing the bark of almost every tree they passed.
‘This godswood survived the Field of Fire along with the Keep,’ she said, ‘acres and acres of moss and trees in the midst of an inferno, and they did not burn. The gods of the south had never heard my prayers before, but on that day, the old gods answered me. I have not visited a sept since.’
When Tyrion did not reply, she mistook his silence for exasperation, and coloured.
‘I’m sorry,’ she blurted suddenly, ‘I’ve talked non-stop for hours; you must be exhausted after your journey –’
‘Not at all!’ Tyrion replied at speed, cursing himself for a fool as she began to speak even more rapidly, looking thoroughly mortified and embarrassed.
‘I do not often have occasion to…talk,’ she said, with horrifying frankness, ‘to anyone, really, and...and I suppose seeing you again after all this time and…and being able to speak…’
They were interrupted by the clash of steel on steel in a clearing just behind them, and Tyrion retreated instinctively into the shadows as Sansa smiled and rolled her eyes, evidently relieved at being so crassly interrupted.
‘Don’t worry,’ she told him, ‘it’s probably Visenya punishing someone.’
Tyrion watched as his niece appeared, sparring with a raven-haired and obviously lowborn young man of perhaps one or two-and-thirty; and looking devastatingly elegant in brown breeches and a dirty shirt. Her opponent’s reactions were painfully slow for a man of his age, but only because he showed an evident inclination to perform the beginning, middle and end of each maneuver in as precise a manner as possible. Only Visenya wasn’t letting him.
Watching her fight was like watching divinity. She was graceful as a cat, quicker than lightning, a darling of the gods. In addition to this, she knew she was; and she wanted the rest of the world to know it too. Her sword was like an old friend that she had known long enough to insult and to joke with without any diminishment of respect; and it was perfectly obvious to Tyrion that Visenya and her old friend were conspiring together to make this poor young man feel like half a fool. Her opponent’s sword went flying out of his hand, and she promptly kneed him in the side, seized his throat, and slammed him into a tree trunk.
‘You really shouldn’t grimace before you lunge,’ Visenya smiled casually, ‘gives away the game.’
The young man was not pleased.
‘You were going too fast!’
‘You were going too slow.’
Tyrion continued to watch this bizarre conversation with interest; fascinated and mildly put-off by the obvious familiarity that existed between his frankly glorious niece and this spirited, if not-overly-bright lowborn.
‘We agreed to go slow!’ he was insisting.
‘I know we did,’ Visenya was shrugging, ‘but I got bored.’
The young man threw up his hands in exasperation.
‘You promised that you wouldn’t do this again!’
‘Are you planning on trusting your enemies so implicitly?’
The young man looked about him as though searching for the enemies of which she spoke.
‘Am I fighting someone?’ he demanded, clearly irritated, ‘apart from m’lady high, that is?’
‘You’re practicing for a fight,’ Visenya specified, ignoring the jape, ‘you should practice right.’
‘Properly,’ Sansa sighed under her breath as Visenya’s opponent stalked away from her.
‘Going somewhere?’ Visenya asked nonchalantly, her attitude disappearing when she received no reply, ‘Gendry?!’
‘I’m going back to the forge!’ he shouted.
‘Why?’ she shouted back.
‘Because I’m sick of your big mouth, m’lady!’
‘You’re sick of my big mouth? How old are you?’
As the young man stalked out of sight, Visenya picked up his fallen sword, a mocking smile on her face, and walked back towards the trees, feeling the weight of it in her hand. Sheathing her own blade, she swung his tentatively, smiling slightly as she did so.
Tyrion was about to turn away when her opponent re-entered the clearing abruptly, and stormed towards her.
‘Your little sword isn’t half bad,’ she observed, watching him coming, ‘mind if I –’
The young man put both of his hands around her throat and kissed her fiercely, and Tyrion had time enough to notice his niece’s mouth opening hungrily beneath her opponent’s and tasting his tongue, before the young man jerked away from her, taking the sword out of her hand.
‘That’s mine,’ he quipped.
‘Gendry,’ Visenya growled in annoyance.
He grinned at her, clearly trying to be as infuriating as possible.
Tyrion uncomfortably averted his eyes and began to search for Sansa, whose absence he had been too shocked to notice before that moment. He found her a few feet away, sitting demurely on a tree trunk, her hands folded in her lap.
Standing in front of her, Tyrion noticed that she did not look angry, or even conflicted about what they had just witnessed. He did not know how to respond. The Sansa Stark he had known would have fainted in disgust at the mere thought of a daughter of House Lannister binding herself to a blacksmith.
What, did you think you would ride up here and find her just the same? She is no longer a girl of seventeen. She is a woman, and a leader of men. She is entitled to –
Tyrion had no notion of what she was entitled to.
‘I suppose you already knew about this, my lady,’ he began tentatively.
‘I did,’ Sansa responded.
She said nothing else. Tyrion tried again.
‘Have you perhaps…tried to stop it?’
‘And it hasn’t worked?’ he insisted.
She shifted in her seat, avoiding his eyes.
‘I no longer know how I feel about this matter,’ she confessed, ‘I no longer know what I should do. I cannot decide.’
Tyrion could scarcely believe what he was hearing, and was finding it harder and harder to be polite.
‘Has the time not come to decide about it, my lady?’
‘Why do you say that?’
How could she be so naïve?
‘Have you no notion of what my father will do if he learns of this?’
Sansa raised an eyebrow unconcernedly.
‘Your father? Is it now Lord Tywin who determines what happens beneath my roof?’
Tyrion knew that he should have been enraged at her stupidity; that he should have been roaring at her to put an end to this outrageous liaison before it ended in tears and worse; but his mind was filled with piles of silver coins as they slipped through slender fingers and rolled onto the floor; and for a moment, it was Sansa, not Tysha that he saw, lying raped and violated and dishonoured by his father’s guards…and by him, by the person who was meant to have loved her.
‘Visenya is a Lannister,’ Tyrion insisted, trying valiantly to stay calm, ‘and my father has proven, time and time again, that he will do anything to protect the family name. Anything. Do you understand? If he hears of this, he will kill you all!’
He seemed to be amusing her thoroughly. Why wouldn’t she listen?
She has become unaccustomed to receiving orders. That is no bad thing. But under the circumstances, it is most inconvenient.
‘You must act to stop this,’ Tyrion begged desperately, ‘send the young man away; lock my niece into her chambers if you have to, but you must act, before –’
‘Before what, Lord Tyrion?’ Sansa demanded.
‘Before you find yourself with yet another bastard child beneath this roof!’
The words were out of his mouth before he could check himself, and Sansa was glaring at him with barely-disguised hatred.
‘My children are not bastards!’ she declared, slowly and clearly, as though she were holding herself back from saying worse, ‘Alyssa and Steffon are true born! Both Joffrey and I were considered true born at the time of their births!’
‘There is a considerable difference between being true born and being considered true born!’ Tyrion fired back, pitying her.
The contempt on her face as she looked at him was indescribable.
‘What’s happened to you?’ she hissed.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Do you truly believe that my children should suffer for the sins of their father? The sins of their grandfather?’
‘Shall I explain to you in one easy lesson how the world works?’
She was glaring at him with murder in her eyes, and Tyrion knew what she was thinking.
You have become a bitter little man, so torn up with grief that you would make the rest of the world pay for all eternity if you could. You have become your father.
‘Alyssa and Steffon are beautiful children,’ Tyrion uttered softly, trying to explain, ‘they deserve to be the miracles that will make House Baratheon great again. But their father was the result of a…frankly despicable liaison, and that will mark them forever!’
‘But it’s not fair!’ Sansa cried.
‘Life rarely is, my lady,’ Tyrion responded bitterly, hardly daring to believe her immaturity, ‘Take a look at you. Take a look at me.’
And she did, though she averted her eyes almost immediately.
‘I thought we were talking about my children.’
‘We were, until you changed the subject.’
‘I changed the subject?’
‘Seven hells, Sansa…’
He had never called her by her first name before, and while she did not rise, her face turned redder than her hair.
‘Sansa?’ she screeched, ‘How dare you insult my intelligence by addressing me as though I were a child?’
‘I’m not insulting your intelligence, my lady,’ Tyrion smirked in return, ‘I’m denying its existence.’
The Warden of the North was quivering with rage at his impudence.
‘You – what?’
Tyrion wanted to slap the fairy tale out of her. Though if Joffrey hadn’t managed to do it, he doubted he would have much success.
What a despicable joke.
‘For someone who has endured so much sorrow,’ Tyrion scoffed, ‘you’re lamentably idealistic. It seems that life has taught you nothing.’
‘Life has taught me everything, Lord Tyrion.’
She was gazing at him with something akin to pity, and suddenly, he understood. Years without hope had taught her to cling to hope, and years without love had taught her to respect it everywhere she found it, to ignore the barriers that people built around it. He had been the same, when he was a young man.
It is noble and it is right…but it is not the way. It calls for a change in the fabric of the world that is far too great. She still believes in songs. She still believes in the shadows of song. I love that about her. But I cannot allow it to continue. For her sake, and for that of her children.
Sansa’s face was soft and pleading for every moment that she watched him think, a child and a princess despite her ruined House and her silver hair.
‘Do you understand, Tyrion?’ she asked him quietly.
Of course I do. I understand because you are what I once was.
But when he did not reply, she rose to her feet and walked away, leaving him to his thoughts.
Alyssa gazed into the mirror and grinned. Earlier that evening, Visenya had insisted on braiding her cousin’s copper red hair into a beautiful but absurdly complicated style, of Dothraki extraction, for Uncle Tyrion’s welcoming feast. She was now faced with the seemingly impossible task of taking it all out again.
‘It’s your own fault, you know,’ Alyssa laughed, ‘I told you that one set of braids would be enough, and that I would do it myself.’
‘It is not my fault,’ Visenya responded loudly, randomly selecting a pin and yanking it out, ‘I couldn’t very well do otherwise when my idiot brother had already spent hours in the library finding this monstrosity especially for you.’
‘Doesn’t he have anything better to do in the library than research how the Dothraki braid their hair?’
‘He’s an odd boy.’
‘I confess I am,’ Tyrion the Younger remarked from his habitual spot on the bed behind them, his voice muffled by the book his nose was buried in, ‘but I’m glad that my oddities contributed to the success of the evening.’
Visenya smiled in agreement.
‘By this time tomorrow, Aunt Sansa’s bannermen will be tearing their hair out because their sons will all want to marry you. I don’t think a single one of those gutless cowards let you sit down for two dances together.’
Alyssa’s lips parted in surprise at the bitterness in her cousin’s voice.
‘Will you stop being so cruel?’ she murmured, distressed.
Visenya shrugged in response.
‘They deserve cruelty.’
‘But I don’t.’
Visenya looked into the mirror in astonishment to see tears forming in her cousin’s eyes.
Seven hells. She’d said something wrong again.
Visenya spent most of her days being deliberately insolent. Sometimes, however, she would give offense without having entertained the slightest desire to do so. Her aunt had taught her to recognise such situations and to apologise immediately no matter how confused they might make her; but effective as this method was, Visenya never bothered to apply it to anyone except her siblings. And to Gendry, of course. Sometimes.
She embraced Alyssa from behind, her head nestled on her cousin’s shoulder.
‘I’m sorry, sister,’ she mumbled, ‘I talk too much.’
Alyssa squeezed Visenya’s hand, as she always did when her cousin called her ‘sister,’ and straightened up again.
‘You’re forgiven,’ she said, wiping her eyes, ‘now please get this misshapen shapenness out of my hair. I want to go to bed.’
Visenya smiled as she unwound Alyssa’s braids, knowing full well that ‘I want to go to bed’ was a euphemism for ‘I’ve had too much to drink.’ Aunt Sansa usually only allowed them one cup of wine, and that only on special occasions. Tonight, however, she had been unusually abstracted, and had only roused herself from her reverie to send the traditional fine dishes to certain members of the high table. Between these periods of lucidity, the servants had simply poured and poured, until Steffon had keeled over in his chair and had had to be carried off to bed; Visenya laughing openly, Alyssa blushing in shame and Tyrion the Younger raising his glass in salutation before returning to his habitual pastime of staring at his plate and not talking to anyone.
‘Mother looked uncommonly morose this evening,’ Alyssa observed, ‘Uncle Tyrion too, for that matter.’
‘They probably had a fight,’ Visenya said, her tone so casual that Alyssa jumped slightly.
‘How do you know that?’ she demanded.
Visenya gave her a withered look in the mirror.
‘My dear cousin, I know this because my parents only did two things during the entire course of their marriage. Fight, and fuck.’
‘Visenya!’ Alyssa screeched, scandalised.
‘It’s true!’ her cousin quipped, ignoring her, ‘if Tyrion and I know anything, it’s what fighting looks like. Don’t we, brother?’
Tyrion kept his nose firmly in his book, but raised his wine glass (still half-full) by way of confirmation as Visenya dismantled yet another of Alyssa’s auburn braids and continued to educate her about the joys of married life.
‘Fighting,’ Visenya said, ‘is followed by fucking – ’
‘Will you stop using that word?’ Alyssa hissed.
‘And fucking is inevitably followed by fighting. It’s like a circle.’
In spite of the discomfort and anger building inexplicably in her chest, Alyssa gazed at her cousin with all the fascination of an apprentice learning from a master.
‘You think that Mother and…Uncle Tyrion… are…have…entered into improper relations?’ she asked primly, feeling nauseous at the thought.
‘No,’ Visenya replied, without hesitation, ‘he wouldn’t do that, and neither would she. Pity, really. They both look like they could use a good – ’
Visenya grinned cheekily. She loved to make people feel uncomfortable, and it was obvious to her that the idea of Aunt Sansa’s having the slightest thing to do with a dwarf, and an ugly one at that, was sufficient to make Alyssa profoundly uncomfortable. Visenya did not approve. Worrying about trivial things like looks when the world was such a horrible place was so stupid. Why couldn’t people just love each other and be done with it?
‘I don’t know what sort of man he is now,’ Visenya said, ‘but don’t you remember how kind he was to her when we were small? How he saved her all the time?’
‘No,’ Alyssa replied adamantly.
‘You must do,’ Visenya insisted, ‘people talked about them for years. Everyone thought they would get married after Prince Joffrey’s death.’
Alyssa shivered at the mention of her father. She wished that Visenya would stop. But she knew that she wouldn’t.
‘I was only five when we left King’s Landing and even I remember,’ Visenya prattled on, ‘once; Uncle Tyrion threw your father into the black cells for harming her. Can’t you remember?’
‘No,’ Alyssa replied obstinately, remembering very well, ‘I can’t remember.’
Visenya frowned at her.
‘Well I do, and I wasn’t even alive. Uncle Tyrion wouldn’t have done something like that unless he –’
‘Oh yes, he would,’ Alyssa interjected, ‘any true knight would have done the same.’
Sometimes Alyssa’s intrinsic belief in the goodness of knights set Visenya’s teeth on edge.
‘You mean true knights like the ones who passed by laughing and did nothing to stop Prince Joffrey?’ Visenya snapped, the unspoken words ‘from raping her’ hanging ominously in the air.
‘My dear sister,’ Tyrion grumbled from the bed, ‘all this prattling is affecting my concentration.’
‘Go and read someplace else, then,’ Visenya snapped, turning back to her cousin, ‘if Uncle Tyrion still loves her –’
‘I don’t think I want to talk about this,’ Alyssa replied, feeling sick.
‘- and if she feels the same way, then why shouldn’t they –’
‘But he’s so ugly!’
‘What does that matter?’
Alyssa laughed out loud. Sometimes her cousin could be so stupid.
‘Visenya, it’s all very well for you to talk that way, with Gendry looking the way he does –’
‘– but if they do wed, or…she’ll…she’ll…she’ll be the laughing stock of the North, and of the South!’
‘But it doesn’t matter!’ Visenya repeated.
‘Yes it does!’ Alyssa insisted with some heat, ‘Uncle Tyrion is a dwarf, and Mother can’t marry someone who has been cursed by the gods in that way. She’ll disgrace herself!’
‘Don’t be stupid!’
‘And you can’t marry Gendry, because he’s lowborn and baseborn and you’ll disgrace yourself!’
She ignored the fury on Visenya’s face, and waited fearlessly for the coming storm.
How can she? Alyssa thought desperately, wanting to cry, how can she be so stupid, when she’s a trueborn daughter of two of the oldest Houses in Westeros; and so beautiful that one trip South will find her a lord for a husband, and children, and a castle, and music, and warmth, and light, regardless of what her parents did in the past?
Alyssa saw Tyrion close his book and begin to rise tentatively, evidently believing, as she did, that Visenya was about to turn her around in her seat and claw her eyes out.
Instead, Visenya laid the hairbrush gently down on the dressing table and looked imperiously at Alyssa in the mirror, her green eyes the colour of wildfire.
‘I don’t care if I ‘disgrace’ myself or not,’ Visenya declared, ‘we don’t get to choose who we love.’
When night had fallen across the Field of Fire, Sansa Stark had not slept. She had wandered about the Keep, between the rows and rows of restless women and sleeping children; the smell of burnt flesh on the air; the hideous fires on the plains below lighting up each room. But again and again, Sansa had returned to Mother, Alyssa and Steffon, to check that they were still alive.
She had done the same thing the next night, and the night after that. When she had fetched her sister’s children from Riverrun, she had begun to watch them too. And she had not ceased to watch them since. She could never sleep unless she checked. She had to be sure that they were safe.
She thought fondly of Steffon as she approached his chamber door; the first in the row where all the family slept. A habit retained from the days after the Field.
When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.
Her sweet, darling boy. A complete innocent. The maesters said he was simple, but Sansa knew that they were wrong.
A boy with such a heart cannot possibly be simple. He was made for summer. Perhaps he was made of summer.
She had felt that way about Tyrion once. Before he had come to her changed; with a voice like his father’s. Grief had torn summer from him. He was like an empty shell. An empty shell without a heart.
You are judging him uncharitably. There is great warmth in his eyes. Though there can’t be much left in his heart after his words today.
Do not think of him now. Think of your child.
Sansa opened Steffon’s door softly, for fear of waking him, and stepped silently into the room.
She only noticed the hooded figure when she heard the words:
‘I am so sorry.’
Sansa threw herself at the assassin without a second thought; a small vial of clear liquid skittering out of his hand and across the floor as she barrelled clumsily into him. The man’s cloak was as dark as the room around him, and as Sansa sent her fist crashing into his face, something she had seen Arya do a thousand times, she had no idea if she was fighting a man, or simply embracing shadows.
Steffon remained asleep in the arms of Arbour gold as the blow glanced harmlessly off his assailant. With terrifying grace, he raised his hands to Sansa’s shoulders and pushed her gently; sending her flying into the opposite wall with all the force of a missile launched from a trebuchet.
Her bones shattering and groaning within her, visions the colour of blood swirling before her eyes, Sansa saw him draw a long knife and approach her son once more with a devastating kind of stillness that would have terrified her had she not been a mother defending her child. Wrath tore itself from her throat as she realised that she was nothing but a fly to him; an unexpected obstacle that he had dealt with, and could now ignore.
He will not have my son he will not have my son he will not take my son
Sansa screamed like a demon as she flew at him again; seizing the blade of the knife as he brought it down; the shining black depths of its Valyrian steel edge carving up her fingers and scraping against her bones as she held it suspended in the air, two inches above Steffon’s chest; the assassin maintaining his grip with appalling composure, knowing that he would win.
She could not see his face. She did not know if he had one. She felt the darkness beneath his hood coming over her, so she concentrated hard on the pain in her hands, crying out as the full iron horror of it came over her; a sweet, rose-coloured horizon compared to the night that would follow if Steffon died.
The world was turning black, and throbbing with nausea and agony, and the strength was running out of her fingers along with her blood, making her slip, making her weak.
I’m going to faint, Sansa thought desperately, I cannot faint; I WILL…NOT…FAINT…
She screamed in pain as the blade went flying out of her hand, her own blood spraying her face; and suddenly Visenya was there, deftly ensnaring the airborne dagger with one hand; grasping her father’s greatsword with the other. There was a sickening crack as she swung the pommel of the sword against the assassin’s skull, and a stomach-turning thud of steel slicing flesh as she slammed his hand into the wall and pierced it with his own dagger, leaving him hanging there like a tapestry.
‘Don’t go anywhere,’ Visenya spat as she rushed to Sansa’s side; seizing her as she fainted.
Tyrion had been dreaming of dragons when he heard the screams. He had seen Sansa face them fearlessly as they approached Winterfell; her body clad in blood-red Lannister armour; a horn clutched in her hands. She put it to her lips and blew; releasing a symphony of screams as the dragons roasted her alive. Her, and then the North.
You bring nothing but death to the people you love. You are an abomination.
Tyrion started awake, Sansa’s screams echoing in his ears, and rushed out into the hallway to find lights burning brightly all over Winterfell and hordes of hysterical servants and bannermen well-nigh flying past his chambers in their anxiety to reach the family rooms.
Something has happened. To her, or to one of the children.
I can’t…I can’t think…
When he was finally admitted to Steffon’s chambers, cursing the stiffness in his stunted legs and the guards that laughed at him as he passed, it was to the sight of Steffon and Tyrion the Younger arguing vehemently about the correct way to staunch the bleeding before the maester arrived.
Bile rose in Tyrion’s throat as his eyes fell on Sansa; her hands wrapped in the folds of a shirt so bloody that it could easily have been wrung out and used as food for wolves. Most of her dress, the sleeping shifts of both Tyrion’s nephews, and the bed on which she sat were drenched and sprayed with blood, and the sight of her pale face and red eyes made his heart freeze and thaw repeatedly in his chest.
What in seven hells had happened?
When Tyrion approached her, his eyes met Sansa’s, and she broke down completely; holding him tightly as she would a husband or a lover, blood trickling through his shift and onto his back as the warmth of her and the smell of her and the world of her flooded into him, making his blood sing again, making it alive.
‘I’m alright; I promise I’m alright,’ she sobbed.
‘My lady, please forgive me,’ he whispered, ‘please.’
Her sons were cursing at her to keep still until the maester arrived, and Tyrion promptly disentangled himself, gently kissing her forehead and allowing them to fuss over her once more.
It was only then that he noticed Visenya pinning a man to the floor; the picture of her mother as she alternated between cries of ‘Who sent you?’ and inhumanly powerful blows to the man’s head that elicited no response at all.
Seven hells. It’s that mess with Brandon Stark all over again. Why are the gods such vicious cunts?
‘Who sent you?’ Visenya shouted, slamming the back of the assassin’s head into the considerable pool of blood that had already accumulated there, ‘who sent you?’
Tyrion could see, without having to resort to brutality, that the man was certainly not Westerosi: he had the wrong complexion, the wrong kind of face.
The Free Cities, perhaps, or Qarth. Or perhaps even further.
‘Who sent you?’ Visenya growled.
‘Is he a Faceless Man, Uncle Tyrion?’ Steffon asked innocently, his voice ringing out like that of a boy half his age.
‘I doubt it, dear nephew,’ Tyrion replied, ‘Faceless Men do not resort to knifing their victims; it is why they are so expensive.’
‘He had a bottle,’ Sansa interjected abruptly, turning in her seat to face Tyrion, ‘he had a bottle, I…I broke it.’
‘Where is it?’ he and Tyrion the Younger asked at the same time, too worried to laugh.
‘Over by the window,’ Sansa insisted, ‘it broke when I - ’
Sansa had not finished her sentence before Tyrion the Younger had reclaimed one of his old shirts from the bed and had knelt beneath the window, carefully dipping one of the shirt cuffs into the clear liquid and bringing it to his nose, smelling it. Fascinated, and rather proud, Tyrion approached the window to watch him, his fascination turning to panic as the colour drained rapidly from his nephew’s face; emerald green eyes, like Jaime’s, rising to meet Tyrion’s own.
‘This is the Tears of Lys,’ Tyrion the Younger said, ‘it’s the fucking Tears of Lys.’
The whole world seemed to shudder. Tyrion whirled around in an agony of slowness as he heard Sansa scream, wanting to shout out to his niece, to warn her to keep her distance. But he saw that Visenya had only moved closer to the assassin; forcing his jaws open with her hands as they began to snap open and shut, like a dog’s.
‘Oh no, you don’t,’ Visenya was growling, tightening her grip, not wincing as her fingers were bitten, scarcely noticing as her uncle, Tyrion the Younger, Steffon and all the guards that were now crowded into the room rushed to help her, ‘oh no, you fucking don’t. Spit it out. Spit it out!’
But the man’s face was already turning black, and his last breath was rasping hollowly from his lungs; provoking a storm of swearing from Visenya, and a storm of vomiting from Steffon and Tyrion the Younger.
As Visenya shouted angrily at her brothers, calling them lily-livered shits and gutless cowards, the maester burst into the room; Alyssa trailing behind him with his trunk. Tyrion rose and approached Sansa once again, ignoring the maester’s insistence that Lady Stark was too distressed to talk.
‘Did this man say anything to you, my lady?’ Tyrion asked, ‘anything at all?’
As Sansa stuttered her reply, she looked utterly and desperately confused.
‘He said…he said…‘I am so sorry.’’
Visenya feared, or perhaps hoped for the presence of another Sorrowful Man in the castle, and had wanted to stand guard outside her aunt’s chambers for the rest of the night. Sansa had not allowed it, willfully ignoring the scowl on Visenya’s face and ordering her to return to her chambers with the guards that had been assigned to her.
Sansa sat up on the edge of her bed and spoke with Tyrion long into the night as the milk of the poppy the maester had given her refused to take effect. If anything, the drug only seemed to make her more alert, and to make her eyes shine brighter.
‘I want to know how he passed through the inner gate,’ Sansa said grimly, ‘and I want to know how he managed it without being seen by any of the servants or by any of the guards.’
Tyrion thought her trust in servants and guards deplorably naïve; but he decided to enlighten rather than insult her.
‘It is not so very surprising,’ he remarked, ‘a Sorrowful Man once came right into the throne room at King’s Landing.’
‘I remember,’ Sansa replied, ‘that little bit of theatre cost me five thousand men that I could very well have spared.’
Tyrion briefly wondered whether she was criticising the Qartheen or the Khaleesi, before deciding that he did not want to know.
‘I was there, you know,’ he continued, ‘I had had rather a lot to drink the night before, and some imbecilic Qartheen trader had been blabbering for over an hour about a subject so tedious that I was half-asleep in my chair, scarcely attending to a word the fool was saying. Whatever it was, it eventually began to make the Khaleesi rather angry. So I woke up, called for more wine and sat wondering what in seven hells was going on as she ranted on about being Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen and therefore not inclined to listen to such nonsense. And before anyone could blink, the man was saying ‘I am so sorry,’ and had thrown a manticore at her.’
‘How very exhibitionist of him,’ Sansa replied drily, making Tyrion smile.
‘There is precious little difference between Qartheen assassins and Qartheen architecture,’ he grinned, ‘both are intended to send a message in as flamboyant a manner as possible.’
‘Do you think that war was what the Qartheen wanted on that particular occasion?’
‘I will ask the Thirteen the next time I visit their corpses.’
Sansa’s nose wrinkled.
‘Gods be good. Do they still hang above the gates? After all this time?’
‘It was my father’s idea.’
Sansa stared grimly into the fire, as though hoping to see the answer there.
‘I want the person who did this, Tyrion,’ she declared, ‘I want to know who it is that could kill four children in the night. I want his name, and I want him dead.’
While he admired her fervor, Tyrion almost pitied her. She had not made the connection. Her innocence was extraordinary. How had she survived all these years without being killed?
Do not tempt fate.
‘Perhaps…’ Tyrion ventured carefully, ‘perhaps whoever it was did not intend to kill all four of them, only…Steffon and Alyssa.’
Sansa looked intently at him, the fire forging the glorious steel of her face into a question, then into a kind of softness as she realised that no question was necessary.
‘You think it was your father.’
Tyrion couldn’t bear to look at her. He couldn’t bear to speak, and for once in his life, he couldn’t bear being right.
‘I suspect him,’ he said hurriedly, ‘I only suspect; I cannot know for certain.’
‘We must go to the Queen at once!’ Sansa insisted.
‘And tell her what, my lady?’ Tyrion retorted, ‘that my father wishes to remove the incestuous stain on our family for good and sends a Sorrowful Man, of all things, all the way to Winterfell to poison them? The very idea is the stuff of romance. It is far too absurd to take to the Queen without proof!’
Sansa plunged on, undeterred and grasping at straws.
‘We cannot know for certain that the assassin was a Sorrowful Man, my lord.’
‘Let me understand you, Lady Sansa. A common assassin, believing that he is observed by no one, decides to play at Sorrowful Men and murmurs ‘I am so sorry’ to his victim before attempting to poison him with the Tears of Lys? How can you entertain such a ridiculous notion?’
Sansa looked at him as she would at a stupid child.
‘Because he was caught, Tyrion!’
‘And had his head caved in by a fifteen-year-old girl!’
Tyrion rolled his eyes, annoyed once more at her naivety.
‘A fifteen-year-old girl who is the daughter of the two greatest warriors in Westeros!’ he declared, ‘Give your niece some credit!’
‘Why would Lord Tywin send out as far as Qarth?’ she pressed him, refusing to let the argument drop, ‘why not send a Faceless Man? He must be able to afford one. Is it misdirection, or…’
‘No,’ Tyrion interrupted, ‘it is very likely because Syrio Forel would have done everything in his power to stop it.’
Sansa could not prevent herself from laughing.
‘You suspect that swarthy little man of being a –’
‘Not me!’ Tyrion snapped, ‘Arya. And she knew him better than anyone.’
‘Is he still alive?’ Sansa asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Tyrion replied, ‘but this is not about Forel’s longevity; this is about the longevity of your children, and trying to kill them is precisely the kind of thing that my father would do. Especially now. Whatever was left of his heart - precious little, I grant you - died the day that Arya did.’
‘Don’t you mean the day that Jaime did?’ Sansa asked, openly and sweetly, as though correcting an everyday mistake.
‘No,’ Tyrion replied, his voice breaking, ‘I don’t.’
And suddenly he was shuddering with embarrassment as tears throbbed in his eyes and murdered his throat, just as Jaime’s death had done with his life. The last time he had wanted to die, he had had Jaime to tell him no; to tell him to fuck them all and to live; in colour; in intellect; in everything that he was and could be. Now he only had Father, wishing him dead with every glacial eruption of his ice blue eyes; forgetting that Jaime had ever existed, and thinking only of the good-daughter that he wished had been his own. The fool. Arya Stark had never belonged to anyone. Not even Jaime.
Tyrion felt Sansa’s bandaged fingers on his forearm, her scent within him, and her lips on his; two whispers of wind on the surface of a lake that were somehow warm and cool at the same time; soft, restrained and fiery; solace and desire. His mouth devoured hers for one moment, before he pulled back, his lips brushing Sansa’s delicately and carefully, terrified that she would disappear, but finding, as he tasted his own tears on her mouth, that she was only moving closer to him. Sansa was stroking his face, the pain in her hands forgotten, and kissing him as softly as a maiden on her wedding night, before she simply pulled him to her chest and let him cry.
He had not cried in years. He had not had the time, or the strength to look ghosts in the eye. It will make you mad, he had told himself, again and again, it will make you mad.
But they had all come to him that day; in their nakedness; in their roughspun wools; in their armour: Tysha, Jaime, Arya. And Sansa, in a way. The ghost of the frightened little girl whom he had once protected, and who now protected him.
‘Seven hells,’ Tyrion sniffled, wiping his eyes before standing up in embarrassment, ‘the gods really have been cruel to you, my lady. After everything that you have suffered, they also see fit to burden you with a misshapen, weeping dwarf on the night that you are the one most deserving of comfort. I should give you six barrels of wine in compensation.’
‘I don’t want six barrels of wine.’
Sansa’s voice was like iron, but her eyes were like the branches of a willow tree as they cast their reflection across a river.
‘I’m so tired, Tyrion,’ she said, ‘I’m tired of being proper; I’m tired of being respectful; I’m tired of doing nothing instead of doing everything.’
Tyrion sympathised, but not without some confusion.
‘Everything?’ he repeated.
‘Everything,’ she echoed.
Tyrion shook his head.
‘Sansa, what –’
‘Stay with me,’ she blurted.
Tyrion blinked, not permitting himself to think that she meant what he thought she did.
‘I take it…you don’t mean just for tonight?’
Sansa straightened her back formally and tried to fold her hands demurely in her lap, wincing when she remembered the bandages.
‘If that is your attitude –’ she began primly.
‘Yes,’ he blurted.
A strange utterance, part-laugh, part-exclamation, part-whoop escaped Sansa’s lips, and she promptly clapped her hand over her mouth, turning blood red in embarrassment.
They sat staring at each other for a moment, uncertain of what to do. They had spent so many years simply looking at each other; speaking with nothing but their eyes. Everything had changed, and nothing had. How absurd. How glorious.
Tyrion cleared his throat.
‘Shall we…shall we drink on it? Jaime always believed in drinking on matters of great importance,’ he proposed, smiling wildly at the frown decorating Sansa’s face.
‘Well you do drink wine, don’t you?’ he insisted, as flippantly as possible.
Her silver-auburn hair was shining brilliantly in the firelight as it cascaded around her shoulders; her legs were kicking against the bottom of the bed as joyfully as a little girl’s, and Tyrion saw that she was smiling at him, the lines on her face deep, and beautiful.
‘I only drink wine when I have to,’ she declared stubbornly.
‘Well,’ he smiled, ‘today you have to.’
Chapter 8: Epilogue
Each night, Tywin Lannister would dismiss his servants, extinguish his candles and sit in the past with his two shades. Joanna and Arya, the ghosts of himself.
Often, they would appear to him alone: dancing out of the dark, wandering about the room, and speaking to him; calling him by his first name. Sometimes his younger self would be with them; blond and alive and smiling (not laughing). And sometimes he would see them, and many others, in the same translucent face: Jaime’s face behind Joanna’s, Joanna’s behind Tyrion’s, Arya’s behind Cersei’s. And he would think, and think, and no one would tell him to stop, or to rest, or to listen. It was…unpleasant. Joanna and Arya had been the only two souls on earth who had not found him remotely intimidating, and while being constantly surrounded by bootlicking crownlanders was convenient enough, the tediousness of it often grated on his nerves.
There was a full moon tonight, and the breeze brought with it the smell of salt, and earth. He might have been at Casterly Rock in the company of his fathers, and he smiled in welcome as a new shade emerged from the long shadows and came to him. Long, thick blonde hair framed a pristine and extraordinary face that was far too chiselled to be orthodoxly feminine; but she was beautiful nonetheless, and hard, and dark; her smouldering eyes like jade and ice and fire; like a wolf closing in for the kill; like the wrath and memory of the North.
‘Arya?’ he whispered, his eyes falling on the crossbow she was pointing at him.
‘No,’ the shade answered, and fired.