Aunt Janei offered him a brief smile as she sat Rickon upon the stool. “I found it unexpected as well, but Robb insisted he wished to join his father.” Her youngest child busied himself with beating a pattern against the wood with his heels. “I did not think to tell you.”
“It makes no matter,” Jon sighed. He was glad for Robb, of course. And Uncle Ned, for all the illusion of coldness, was a father who took interest in his son. “My apologies for having disturbed you, aunt.” At that she shook her head emphatically, carefully manoeuvring herself around the boy on the stool.
“Jon Baratheon, in all your years, you have not even once disturbed me,” she assured, coming to stand close before him. “I will, however, be very disappointed if you do not walk with me for a little while.” The septa came through the door, as though summoned by her mistress’ words. She said not a thing, settling for taking Rickon with her to the other chamber. “There, let us make for the gardens now.”
She retrieved her cloak and allowed him to lead her to the gardens. It was not the first time she had done thusly and Jon found himself falling in line with her unspoken commands. For all the unassuming appearance she exposed, Janei Coldwater remained a formidably competent adversary, especially when there was aught she wished to achieve. “Let us hear it now, my boy. What winds have brought you to me?”
“I am certain ‘tis common knowledge by now, the incident from the other day. I fear it has upset Aegon more than he is willing to admit.” And for Robb to choose such a time to desert him. “I was wondering if Robb might coax him out of whatever spot he’d found to hide himself in. But it seems ‘tis my timing that needs improvement.”
“Have you considered allowing him the boon of a victory?” He started, glancing from the corner of his eye at the woman’s face. Lady Jaine was looking fully at him, not at all concerned with appearing disinterested. Wearing her heart on her sleeve. It was a mechanism which fitted her well.
“How is that better than him losing fairly?” He doubted Aegon would have appreciated it if he’d dared to implement that thought. But was he certain? Not at all. Strange were the inner workings of his friend and Jon confessed, at least to himself, that he was not capable of reading Aegon as he could a piece of High Valyrian writing.
His aunt tugged on his arm to avoid a rut. “Might be ‘tis not. The Prince seems the sort to prize and cherish ever victory.” Was it possible that he’d fundamentally misinterpreted Aegon and his plight? Jon made a thoughtful sound in the back of his throat. “Have you ever tried to play your sister’s harp?”
Blinking in confused anticipation of where she might lead him next, he felt compelled to admit that he’d never tried to touch the instrument, partly because Cassana would likely take his head, and partly because holding a sword as opposed to that always left more natural to him. He did not offer such a detailed explanation to his aunt, settling for, “I have none of the required patience for such a task.”
“And Cassana does?” Janei laughed. “I am not as blind as all that, my boy. Your sister, may the Seven keep her, would play our ears off were she of a heartier constitution and able to withstand continual effort of concentration.” Her fingers drummed against his arm, signaling that they would be changing paths. And idiosyncratic gesture he still found odd. “It is not always patience that dictates one’s skill or results.”
“Then you are talking of predispositions,” he offered after brief consideration. It was certainly true that his sister had no such predisposition. Her affinity to the cursed instrument came more from her interaction with her cousin. Ever since the both of them had acquired harps, an hour of suffering to any soul that happened by was guaranteed. He suppressed a smile at the uncharitable though, and then a wince, for he knew too well he must seek a solution to Cassana’s despondency at her recent loss.
“And expectations alike.” The additional information pulled him back to the matter at hand. “His Grace is by all accounts on a good path.” He nodded. “And though he has his share of failures, for the most part they do find rectification, aye?” Once more he agreed. “Then it must follow, ‘tis not predisposition, but expectations which confer strain.”
Aegon’s words flashed in his memory. He grimaced and the reverted to his earlier state of mystification. “Why should they? There has been no major failure.” Not to his knowledge at any rate and he, the Prince and Robb could be found in the company of one another for the most part.
“It is, naturally, not entirely self-imposed. His father was likely unhappy with His Grace’s loss. It might well stand to reason that there is a wealth of such instances in their history which gave rise to his reaction. You are not expected to master your sister’s instrument, therefore a failure to do so is not costly in itself. But the Prince is expected to excel in his studies, be they in the art of warfare or otherwise. A loss is costly then.” That made sense. It still left some loose ties though.
“Why should he be angry at me then? I could have one by pure happenstance for all he knew.” They’d taken a winding path towards a series of pools. Jon looked to the water, watching the sun’s reflection. The light caught against the surface, glittering in nearly blinding patterns.
“My older sister is skilled with a needle. I was expected to follow in her footsteps. Suffice to say that while adequacy was manageable, an artist with a needle, I am not. That did not lessen the blow of seeing my mother’s disappointment.” Her fingers coiled tighter around his forearm. “It may seem a silly thing; what’s embroidery ever going to gain me? All the same, I was oft cross and sullen to the point where my sister actively began consoling me, which in turn made me even angrier.” They found a bench to sit upon. “I do not expect your friend is feeling much different. And it is not your fault, forsooth.”
“Then I must wait out his foul mood.” It was not so much a question, though his aunt offered a shrug of little pertinence. Once again, she’d helped him half of the way and expected the other half he’d pick up on his own. “I do wonder at this though. His Majesty did not seem displeased to me; not with Aegon at any rate.” Might be all his friend needed was an opportunity to show off his skills, in an environment which would facilitate such an act. He sighed yet again and scowled at the glittering water. It seemed to him he was being mocked. “But you and your sister do not seem at odds.” And never had. He would have recalled were they to act in a strained manner.
“I made it a point to accept my limits. Besides, not embroidering fit to decorate the walls of Baelor’s Sept did not impede aught for me. You might have noticed that I am perfectly contented with my lot in life.” That implied, if Jon was not reading too much into it, though to be entirely fair, he hoped he was, that Aegon was not pleased with his lot. “There are some things which you will never fix, for they must be fixed by a different person altogether.”
“It is very unsporting of you to be right all the time.” She laughed, presumably at the faux-sullen expression he put on. “All the same, he is Aegon, and I am Jon. As such, my nature dictates I try finding solutions to his troubles, while his concerns him with the ideals His Majesty sets.” If his aunt was right, that was. Jon had yet to consider the alternative.
“You try to solve everyone’s troubles.” He opened his mouth to deny the charges levelled at him. “Arya told me about her Needle, you know.” He promptly shut his mouth at that. “And Sansa finding her lost circlet.” The woman tasked softly. “Bran has been wanting to follow Maekar’s example and ride crazed horses. He expects you shall teach him as well. Need I go on?”
“Only if you want to damn me with faint praise.” He chuckled, to his own derision more than actual amusement. Some things he would never be able to explain to her. “There is nothing extraordinary about helping one’s kin.”
“Then half of King’s Landing must be your kin, and that is certainly a good number more than I have.” Janei stretched her legs out and leaned back slowly. “This is such a beautiful day.” Her eyes darted to the clear skies.
Mercifully, his aunt’s words proved to be prophetic. The rest of the day was beautiful. In that no conflict arose which he might find himself forced to put out. There was no sibling bowling their eyes out at the meanness of his immediate kin. Aegon kept a sullen distance, presumably locked in self-reflection and Robb successfully avoided having his neck snapped by not appearing anywhere near Jon, who, in the absence of all the aforementioned characters, found Maekar as good a substitute as any.
His younger brother has absconded to the stables and was lying upon a bed of hay, his legs dangling over the edge. Jon considered tugging on the limbs but decided against it after briefly enumerating the disasters that could arise. Nevertheless, he climbed up as well and shook Maekar’s shoulder, who woke with a start, and a cry which prompted disgruntled whinnies from the horses.
“Were you not supposed to be taking your lessons?” he questioned sternly as his siblings offered a sheepish smile but no excuse. “I thought we’d agreed on this.”
Maekar chuckled apologetically, shifting until he sat comfortably. “At time I swear you’re my father and not my brother,” he managed by way of reply. “’Tis just for this day. On the morrow, I will attend. But it is so very boring.”
“More boring than mucking out the stables?” Jon challenged. Maekar whined, then shook his head, following which he muttered under his breath. “I could just send you to your lessons now, he ruminated out loud, ignoring the displeasure so clear upon the other’s face. “Or I could take you riding.” His brother’s mood lifted. “But only if you swear–“
“Upon my honour,” the boy cut him off, standing to move past him towards the ladder. “I will never miss a lesson again. Even the most boring ones.” Jon doubted he would follow through with that, but he was inclined to let it slide.
So they rode. Maekar upon that wilful steed he’d somehow convinced their flagrantly unreliable father to purchase and he upon his own horse. What his brother lacked in grace, he made up for with copious amounts of enthusiasm, enough of it to drive them through most of the day, to such a point where Jon barely realised it had come the time to see the both of them back home.
He debated, as he always did in more private moments, the merits of striking off on his own into the great wide world. That could end one of two ways: fetters shackling him to the bed, or the rest of his siblings following along. He shuddered at the thought and pushed away any related notions. Nay; he would return to the Red Keep, attend supper and try to keep a stoic face at the sheer amount of wine a single man could drink, and after, he would attempt to count all the sheep in the seven Kingdoms without once reaching for a sharp object should he hear door creaking. With any luck, the night would provide him with deep sleep and no opportunity to dabble into considerably darker activities that surfaced in such hours.
Or, even better, the supper table could have a notable absence, and they could enjoy a well-cooked meal. Even if the twins started throwing foodstuffs around, or Ned successfully launched a variety of unfortunate vegetables at his siblings. One could hope, just as long as he didn’t hold that too close to heart.
There was always a chance he would be sorely disappointed and deeply vexed.
“Come, Maekar, we return now,” he called after his brother who has galloped ahead.
“Now?” The boy yelled back with a pout?
“Now,” Jon confirmed sternly.
He thought he would meet the courtyard exercise with trepidation. And there was some of that; Aegon concentrated for a few moments upon the pain spearing through his chest. He breathed in and out, trying to calm his wildly beating heart, but for all his efforts, he was rewarded with no perceivable change. He stopped after the first three times. There was naught to fear, after all. Jon would not harm him. Robb even less so. And in truth, it had been his own fault for not paying enough attention.
Fear persisted as he guided himself across the distance between himself and his companions. Robb saw him first. “There he is.” The words gave him pause. But only because Jon had moved as well, eyeing him in that strange manner of his, as though he were an ear of corn ready to be husked. Instinctively, he raised his defences against the intrusion. “We thought Your Grace has been taken sick.”
“Sick?” he questioned, note entirely attentive. “Why would I be sick, Robb?” He was not glancing at Robb though. His focus point was the blunted blade whose weight Jon tested, exchanging it from hand to hand. His head snapped at the sound of steel meeting steel.
They were not alone in the courtyard. A shiver travelled down his spine. How had he not realised that much? The two squires were not paying them mind though. They were much too busy measuring skills against one another, trying their best to knock the opponent back. He blinked back a sense of dread as the smaller boy brought his guard to the front and was met with a sound assault which sent him sprawling to the ground. He’d lost.
“Aegon,” a voice tinged with worry registered in his ears. When he looked, Jon was standing before him, hand upon his shoulder. He showed little sign of concern. But for that morsel of anxiety in his voice. Shaking off his hand, Aegon plastered a grin upon his face, allowing a dismissive shrug to follow. “Are you certain you wish to do this?”
“Do what?” He accepted the sword Robb pressed in his hand. “I think we should change our pattern.” Neither Jon, nor Robb had anything to say to that. He took a few stapes back, swinging his sword in short sharp motions. “You must be tired of landing with your arse in the dirt by now, Robb.”
Robb chuckled. “Seems fair to me.” He walked to the bale of hay and climbed atop. “Let us see how you fare now, Jon,” he called to his cousin who far from being affected merely repositioned himself, so his sword might stand guard before him, tip raise heavenwards. A few other murmurs registered, but there was no one Aegon wished to pay mind to, thus he dismissed the low of conversation, focusing on his opponent’s weapon.
The thrill of danger momentarily reared its head, pushing for a swift removal of the thorn in his side, as it were. Instead, he moved to the side the tip of his own sword a threatening short distance away from the guard of his friend. “I won’t make the same mistake again.” His warning was met with a nod, nearly imperceptible. Thus he swung into an attack, targeting Jon’s side.
The sword fell into the defending position as the blunt edge of his blade came closer and closer still. Aegon reigned in his impulse to continue upon that oath, forcing a change in the trajectory. He saw the moment realisation dawned upon Jon, his eyes widening, glancing at the weapon’s change in path. But his own blade remained where it was, not even moving to counter the new attack. He did however beat a speedy retreat, narrowly avoiding a new bruise. Yet he did not move far enough for a new attack to not reach him comfortably.
It occurred to Aegon that he could simply use the opportunity to advance his own tally of wins. He could take the chance, crafted as it was, and be glad for the result. Grip tightening on his sword, his mind flashed with supper conversations and the bitter sting of annoyance, the blackness of rejection and the red of fury. Baratheons were supposed to be the furious ones. What with Durran’s blood and presumably Targaryen irritability. A wonder his trusted companion was not an open, and expressive at that, book.
At about the same time, though he knew it was impossible to be the very same moment, his anger found a target. It was not unusual for battle-lust to spice up the games of squires. He’d seen it done and done it himself a few times. It was exhilarating, freeing in a way naught else was, to simply be, without having to do aught else other than follow blind instinct. And Aegon enjoyed it much in the way he enjoyed the quietness of his bedchamber at night. There was little to worry him, to trouble his thoughts. Nay, this was no battle-lust, but battle-frenzy. And Jon was on the receiving end of the tumultuous emotion.
Obviously Aegon knew why. He’d told himself he did not carry any resentment towards the younger man. It would be absurd. ‘Twas not as though Jon won constantly and he lost all the time. All the same, the surge of rage punched him in the gut, stealing away everything, every last crumb of rational thought, leaving behind only rawness and discomfort.
Jon was not trying. His heart was not in the song of steel. So Aegon, despite knowing better, in spite of telling himself over and over again it made no matter, in spite of even the long years binding the two of them together, bristled violently, the sting of betrayal crystallising into one single coherent though.
Lacking conscious command, his hand guided the sword it held into disarming Jon. The lack of protest propelled him forth. A disarmed enemy was a defeated enemy. Jon offered a brief smile and said something he could not catch due to the roaring in his ears. His friend had given up the fight, turning ever so slowly to Aegon’s eyes towards Robb. He dropped his own blade.
Before it had even hit the ground, his fist was firmly planted against Jon’s face. Whether he had avoided the nose on purpose, he could not tell. But satisfaction swelled at the sound of bones and flesh smashing together. Lord Baratheon’s heir was upon the ground, dazed by impact and pain, no doubt. He heard Robb’s yell, but was much too busy catching the enemy in his vulnerable state.
Somehow, unbeknown to him, he fists began raining down blows. “You fucking bastard,” he hissed. “You fucking bastard. I don’t need your help.” Jon had brought his arms up, protecting his head against the blows. His success was moderate. “Do you hear me? I don’t fucking need you to help me.”
A loud crunch reverberated through the air. Pain speared his hand. He’d punched the ground. That did not stop him. Fuelled, he lifted his fist, split skin oozing blood, and aimed for the now unprotected face peering up at him. He hesitated. For a split-second, he froze, hand raised. It felt as though time itself stopped, forcibly holding his fist in place. And then the fire returned and he slammed his hand down. Aegon was certain he would see even more red until something hard knocked into him, sending him reeling to the side.
He fell on his side, flesh quivering, struggling against pain so intense for a few moments all he saw was white. Then fingers threaded through his hair, gripping painfully. “What the bloody hells is wrong with you?” Someone was shaking him. “You nearly killed him. Fuck, Egg.” The childhood moniker jolted him into awareness. His eyes opened to Robb’s red face.
“What?” Gaze darting about he saw Jon, who was slowly rising into a sitting position. He wiping away at continually trickling blood. It dribbled in thick streams, forcing him to spit it out. His eyes fell to his own hand, knuckles scraped and coated in red.
Robb released another invective and turned to Jon. But Jon ignored him, opting instead to look at Aegon who’d returned his attention to his work. One side of his face beat an angry bright colour. Likely it would swell and blacken, leaving little doubt of what had caused it. And he could do little other than stare like a dumb calf, wondering if he’d just thrown years of friendship down the drain. For what? For his father’s words.
Unexpected laughter spilled past his lips.
“He’s gone mad, that bloody Targaryen,” Robb uttered incredulously causing him to laugh even harder. He was mad. Aegon felt his lungs expanding, trying to grasp onto every little whoosh of air. It was futile. Before long he’d run out and it sounded more as though he were choking rather than laughing. He almost thought he might truly burst out of his skin, or his heart might give way and he would die there in the courtyard his mouth opened in silent hysterics.
Silence fell, his mouth dropping into a grim line eyes opening. He was barely aware that the group gathered around them gad admitted new members to its folds. Flat grey eyes bore into his own. “Are you feeling better now?” New blood spurted out of his wound. His thumb climbed the distance, wiping with curiously slow motions.
They both stood at about the same time, Robb following a moment in their wake, gazing from one to the other with obvious puzzlement. “Fuck you, Baratheon,” Aegon managed. “Try something like this again and I’ll kill you.”
“You’re welcome,” Jon said, shoulders lifting into a helpless motion. Aegon hadn’t been thanking in by anyone’s account. Bloody Baratheons, couldn’t keep their thoughts and opinions to themselves. The smile that elicited was genuine nevertheless.
“Others take you both,” the third finally cut in. Robb crossed his arms over his chest and flashed them both with a spearing glare. “If you are going to be like that, I am staying nowhere near you. Bloody insane, the both of you.”
He turned and left, as good as his word.
Lyanna favoured her son with a long look. “Is there a reason you might give for this?” She gestured to the red and raw lip and the mottled skin around it. Her son did not give a response, seemingly pleased to swallow a spoonful of soup instead. Good of him to have avoided her until this point in time.
Robert lifted his head from his chalice of wine. “Leave him be,” he said. “You don’t need to know every little thing.”
Turning a baleful glance towards her husband, she flattened her lips in a grimace. “I do not recall having asked you a thing.” In retrospect, it would have been wiser to ignore him. But bedevilled, she chose not to. “You wouldn’t care if he came home with four arrows stuck into his flesh.”
He snorted, nearly choking on the wine. “What shall we do then?” Robert snarled. “Let him hide behind your skirts? Not a good enough shield. Should I stand guard until he is old and strong enough to never suffer?” Clearly, he was taking umbrage with the very thought. The chalice slammed against the table.
The noise elicited a whimper from Steffon. Being yet a babe, he was not all that well-versed in ignoring his father’s behaviour. Wide eyes filled with tears, followed a high-pitched cry. Robert blinked as she turned in her chair and took the boy from the septa’s arms. She pressed him to her chest and shushed his weeping gently. “There is naught to fear, sweet child.” One reproving glance to Robert confirmed that he’d returned to his drinking.
“I heard there will be a hunt,” Maekar cut in after a few moments in which Steffon returned to a less despondent mood. “Will I be allowed as well this year, father? Jon was the same age on his first hunt.” And with such a well-rounded argument, who would possibly offer any form of protest?