Aegon heard the soft whooshing. He would have ignored it, but for the fact it was accompanied by a quiet sniffle. He stopped in his tracks and debated with himself whether he should turn around that very instance and leave whoever was there to their emotional release. On the other hand, he could reach out to whoever it was that saw fit to cry in the middle of the gardens of all places. Nay, it would be rather rude to leave with nary a word, especially as it sounded the likes of a woman. Thus Aegon squared his shoulder and prepared to take on whatever awaited him.
What he had not expected, and was likely to leave him confused for many moon turns to come, was the sight of the Baratheon heir with his arms firmly wrapped around his weeping sister. Jon, he knew very well, would stay far, far away when women cried. But then, he supposed he could not ignore him own sister.
“Enough now, Cassana.” But then something about the other’s face put him on edge. “If I cannot trust you to behave–“ The sister drew back and held a hand up, trying to cover her brother’s mouth. That worked about as well as one might expect. Jon caught her wrist and pushed the limb away with ease. "Best not."
"Best not what?" he inquired, unable to help himself. As though a manner of devil had struck its tail among his thoughts. Both brother and sister turned to face him completely. One blanched in the manner the ill did when leeched, the other retained a frightfully calm mask. Naught ever ruffled Jon's feathers. Aegon might have expected it. That he still managed to muster a modicum of wonder rankled. "Why is Cassana crying?"
He had never taken any manner of interest in the doe-like creature. Some years younger than his own sister, Rhaenys had never had much to say about her either. Excepting those occasions when she would giggle behind the palm of her hand, telling him some manner of mischief. Nothing to turn one hair at, certainly. Just those small instances of misbehaviour young ladies indulged in every so often. He remembered laughing at it, teasing his sister about having done the same. But he'd heard the same about many a noble daughter. Naught stood out about the stag's get. Might be with the exception that she was kin to Jon and he stood a brother to Aegon.
Yet seeing her now, staring like some sort of doe facing the hunter's bow chilled him to the marrow. He suppressed a shudder. He was not to endure such for long though. Before he could further question the siblings, the eldest broke away from his sister. Jon took a step towards him and looked as though he might offer explanation. And that was when the terror-gripped does sprang to life, pouty lips losing some of their sullenness. "I apologise," she started, "what a fool I must seem. Pray pay us no mind, Your Grace. 'Tis a silly, silly thing. And Jon was right to scold me."
That was a lie if Aegon had heard one. No woman would ever admit any man was right on any put-down he delivered, no matter how much merit he had. In fact, his own sister would die before admitting any man had the better of her. He imagined Cassana was the same. If anything, she would resemble her lady mother. And the Seven knew Lady Lyanna would not allow any man to speak down to her. More than once the esteemed lady had flayed some unfortunate soul that had walked into the trap. If most houses boasted a daring lord that struggled through the many tangles of court life, house Baratheon had gained through what many hailed as a very good alliance, an iron-fisted lady in front of whom more than one courtier trembled. No matter that Robert Baratheon himself bowed to his wife’s whims although Aegon suspected that had to do more with the fact that she never nagged about his well-known entertainments.
Her daughter would surely not fail to live up to her mother’s example. “Of course he was,” he agreed, putting his foot in his mouth, as it were. “But my question was why. And I intend to find out why. You might as well tell me and save yourself the bother.”
Jon hesitated. Aegon noted that and filed the information away, for later use. The point remained, however, that his friend was trying to keep something from him. Whatever it was, the very fact that he did so made it impossible for Aegon to ignore. He decided, in that moment, that he would find out what the matter was. Aegon crossed his arms over his chest and counted in his mind the appropriate pause-time.
“It’s the harp.” Jon turned towards his sister. Aegon watched them exchange looks. “Father damaged my harp.” He couldn’t tell what expression his friend bore. What he did know though was that Cassana had not regained her colour. And that put him on edge. “See, Your Grace? Hardly anything to pay mind to.” She offered a wan smile. Aegon cocked his head to the side. “I admit I might have exaggerated with the tears.”
The brother turned around once more at that point. Jon nodded his head as though to strengthen Cassana’s point. “As you can see, Your Grace, my sister was simply allowing herself a few instances of theatrics.” And that rang falser still.
“Over a harp?” He made certain his doubt seeped through the question. Neither sibling replied. “I have Rhaenys’ harp yet. You might have simply asked for it.” Had he expected aught which signified gratitude he would not see it from Baratheon’s children. Cassana did force herself to plaster a smile upon her face, a poor imitation of her usual gaiety. “I would have been very glad indeed to rid myself if it. ‘Tis a burden.”
“I couldn’t possibly,” the girl attempted to dissuade him. Aegon would have none of it. She might have owned up to whatever troubled her. "My lord father would not approve and I dare say Her Grace would not either."
"I doubt Rhaenys would mind. And should she have any complaints, I will simply remind her she left the instrument to me. As its owner I may do with it as I wish and I wish to give it to you." He grinned back at her, feigning ignorance over the reaction. " Jon, do not hesitate the next time your sister needs aught. After all, you as close as a brother to me." Cassana, for some unknown reason, winced.
"Your Grace is kind." Such bland words. It became apparent that as long as the two of them remained together they would not betray the other's confidence. Nay, he needed some sort of distraction. The sooner, the better.
For the moment though, he merely offered a nod and watched the girl make her excuses. Without much fuss, she was sauntering away, leaving only him and Jon. His companion had turned to watching him once his sister was out of sight. “I will found out either way if there is trouble,” he said, after a few moments of contemplation. “Besides, I cannot help unless I know what the goal is.”
“Cassana told you, Your Grace. It is about her harp.” Jon could lie. Sometimes he could do it tremendously well. This was not one of those times.
“I will believe that when pigs fly over the moon, my friend.” Jon sighed heavily. “It was a bold attempt, I’ll give you that, and she played her role well. I fear for her future husband, whoever he is. One taste of her theatrics and he’ll be bringing the moon down for her.” And an assortment of stars just to be sure. Jests aside, Aegon did not expect the reticence and he liked it not one bit. “This is not like you, my friend.”
“Neither is it something you will learn. Some matters,” the younger said, voice dropping low “are best left alone.”
“Am I to understand you refuse, under any circumstances, to speak?” One day, he would repay Jon in kind. Until then though, frustration gnawed at him.
“Indeed.” Lord Baratheon’s heir shifted until he was nearer to the tree. “I am asking you, as my friend, not to question this. Some matters not even princes need be interested in.”
“When those matters concern those dear to me, I am hard pressed not to take an interest. Very well, I will respect your wish.” For the time being. As soon as he was able to he’d pry the answers away. Jon allowed himself a nod. “Shall we move, or do you plan to spend the rest of your day here?” His companion shrugged.
Mayhap it would be prudent to seek Robb’s aid. That one was bound to know more about the going-on in Jon’s home, as it were. Or he might be able to extract some curious information from his father. Aye, Robb would do nicely.
Seeming to have regained his bearing, Jon finally abandoned the tree. Aegon followed suit, more out of habit than with intention. “I have been meaning to ask, will your father truly allow Maekar on the hunt?”
“Why shouldn’t he? My brother is old enough for it.” Aegon recalled his first hunt. He’d been so much younger than Maekar. “Mother has had arguments to make up to this point, but Maekar grows tired of indulging her and father, well, he never does miss an opportunity to remind her that he is the one who decides in the end.”
If anything that made Aegon flinch. Jon rarely commented upon his parents’ marriage. And when he did, it was not particularly flattering. “Just as well; he should learn. It would be a pity to grow without having felt the thrill of the hunt.”
“Aught tells me you and Maekar will have a fine day of it. I can see you are much restored, Your Grace.” A wolfish smile appeared on Jon’s face. The one which usually meant he thought himself the victor.
“Will you quit with that? I am not Your Grace to you, Jon. I never was.” He shook his head. Aegon felt his face heat up. “I never treated you like a prince might a future vassal.”
“That does not change what we are.” Nor did it put a damper of who they were. What Aegon did find interesting though was the sudden and rather brutal manner in which the other had spoken. “A year from now, you will be a man grown. Do you think the King will allow us to gallivant about still? You will be sent to Dragonstone more’s the like.”
“What does that signify? I can take whoever I wish with me.” But that was not necessarily true. Jon he could not retain, not in the same manner he might Robb. “I do not know what has brought this on, however, I am inclined to overlook it.”
“Very gracious of you, Aegon.” They’d already reached the main path leading through the gardens. “Continue to do so. I would be forever in your debt.” He must have struck a cord, he suspected. Jon he would not get anywhere with.
“I know. I am the soul of grace and kindness. Now that we have established as much, and I am duly vindicated, I should return to the keep, as should you.” Before anyone decided to send a search party after them. And the gods knew he thought any of their mothers capable of that.
“The soul of grace and kindness indeed. Let us hope the soul of grace and kindness will be on time on the morrow; Robb has been itching to match skills again. According to him, he will be winning.”
“According to him, he would have one every single one of our matches. And that should tell you all you need to know. Will you be there?”
“Nay, I’ve matters to attend to.”
No matter how hard he tried to find out what those matters were, Jon remained as forthcoming as a boulder. In the end, Aegon had to admit defeat on that account as well, with a promise to himself that he would find that out as well. In the meantime, trouble brewed in his own cauldron. Supper awaited him. And with it, his parents. His two very much at loggerheads parents.
That much was apparent to him the moment he stepped within the chamber. His father was sitting at the head of the table, listening to what seemed to Aegon a forceful chiding. From his expression, his son could already tell what he thought. “You cannot keep doing this, Rhaegar. I will not stand for it.”
“I cannot, can I?” He had to admit, even if the arguments grated on his nerves something fierce, he could still appreciate the “My lady, much as it pains me to point this out, I have yet to allow myself to be led by anyone. I do not plan to do so either. Pray put away your claws, you’ve no need for them and neither do I.”
His mother’s lips thinned in a straight bloodless line. His father though simply turned his gaze upon Aegon and motioned him over. “You needn’t stand there, son.”
“I did not wish to intrude.” There was a nod for him and a slightly smile from his mother, who was brilliantly adept at changing her facial expression as the situation dictated.
“You couldn’t,” his mother assured him, sliding right back into her role. One day he would cease being taken aback by the ease with which people pretended one thing or another. One day, he would not be taken in by any mask no matter how artfully applied. “Where have you been?”
“Without.” Lending credibility to his earlier concerns, his mother proved yet again that if he were to run late on a constant basis she would happily have the gardens searched, every single corner. He sat down, gazing at the bowl of soup awaiting his attention. Aegon picked up the spoon and placed it in the thick liquid.
“Aegon, what is on your mind?” Was it truly necessary to converse, he wondered. He might have pretended not to have heard were it not for his father’s presence.
A lot was on his mind. It began with the looming arrival of his betrothed. The thought of having to pay court to the girl left him somewhat at a loss. On the one hand, he did not care overmuch for the thought of marriage. On the other hand, failure to comply would end in dispute. Then there was the fact than Jon and Cassana were acting as though they planned a rebellion, sneaking about and whispering in darkened corners. And, of course, the hunt. Much as he enjoyed the thought of it, the issue remained it was an opportunity to shine. While at the same time it presented the possibility of failure.
“I was thinking of Rhaenys’ harp.” Lying was contagious. A veritable plague which latched onto one’s soul and festered. He stopped himself from wincing as he spoke the words, though he could not be certain he was not betrayed by other signs. Alas, there was little other choice. He was not about to unburden himself at the supper table.
A small gasp left the sole woman’s lips. “Like father, like son, I suppose. Lady Margaery would doubtlessly appreciate the careful consideration.” Lady Margaery would appreciate any consideration. Not because she held him in regards, heavens nay.
“Actually, lady mother, I was thinking of allowing Lady Cassana to take possession of the harp.” He purposefully kept his gaze away from his mother’s face. If there was one thing he could tell without putting his sight in peril, it was that that would displease her.
“Lady Cassana Baratheon?” That was his father.
“I know no other Lady Cassana.” He should have controlled his impulse. He failed. He did not regret it in the slightest.
“Absolutely out of the question.” Cold fury. He’d not expected that. “Your sister’s harp was left to you. If you do not want it, have it sent to Riverrun. She might enjoy it more. As for Lady Cassana, she may have a harp if her lord father will buy it for her.”
“Why does she need a new harp?” Aegon drew in a slow breath, not entirely certain if e should go on or simply abandon the thought. “I thought she and her cousin had both received like instruments.”
“Rhaegar! The harp belongs to Rhaenys.” And it was just a harp. Annoyed, Aegon turned the heat of his glare upon his mother.
“It is merely a harp,” his father pointed out. “Rhaenys would not begrudge her brother his desire to do someone a good turn. Now let us hear about Lady Cassana’s harp.”
“I do not know,” Aegon admitted. “Apparently her lord father broke the harp somehow.” He caught a mere glimpse of something dark behind his father’s gaze. Instinctively, he fidgeted in his seat. “I told her I would give the harp to lift her spirits.”
“It is your harp,” his father answered, tone lacking in inflexion. “You may do as you wish with it, no matter that your lady mother protests. “Just be certain it is what you wish to do.” What he wished to do. He was being given a choice. A choice which he could make whichever way he desired. Aegon could hardly believe it, yet there it was. His choice. And his father seemed to trust him to make the right choice.
“Rhaenys would not mind, lady mother. I do not mind either. Lady Cassana may have the harp.” It might not be what the girl truly wished for, but having put the plan in motion, he saw no means of stopping it.
“Very well, my son. Do as you wish. I shan’t make further attempts to stop you.” Yet she was displeased. Aegon returned his attention to the food. How he longed to be in his own bedchamber.
“This has been amusing, my lady, but I fear you go too far.” Elia glowered, displeasure written all over her features. “I will not pretend to understand the cause of it. I will not pretend to tolerate this either. So tell me, what has you so very irritated?”
“There is no use in speaking to you if you plan to mock me for it.” She sat down in one of the chairs and crossed her arms over her chest. “She is doing this to undermine my authority, can you not see as much?” If not for the fact that she seemed genuinely distressed and she was making quite the noise about it, he might have ignored her. As matters stood, he sat down as well after having put away the small knife he carried in his sleeve.
“Elia, the world does not revolve around you. I am very certain Lady Lyanna does not give you much thought outside the mandatory rituals which must be carried out. I have told you once, I tell you yet again, you are my wife,” for better or worse and on this night the worse seemed to be tipping the scale, “and you have nothing to fear. Could I be any clearer than that?”
“You do not understand women. You never have,” his wife chided. “You must make it clear to her she is not to be treated favourably just because at this moment she holds your interest. Give the woman an inch and she’ll take a mile and more. Of course to your eyes that should be naught. But I depend on you.”
He laughed. He could not help himself. The day she depended on him was the day the sun fell out of the sky. “Dear wife, there is no need for mummery. You never needed me. In fact, you did not need as much as my consent. You only had need to consult your desires upon the matter and forge an alliance here. You might have done differently. You did not. And now, well, should I choose to favour another, you’ve no cause for complaint. Especially not when I have done my utmost best to keep the matter in the dark.”
“You are not still mad, are you? I did not impose anything upon you, husband. You had a choice. You might have refused.” It was her turn to laugh. Not loudly. She never had been one to laugh loudly when intending to wound. “Admit it.”
“That choice.” He made a soft sound in the back of his throat. “What a choice. Wed you or lose everything that I was ever promised. I wonder if you were given such a choice? Nay; do not answer. It does not matter. ‘Tis enough for me that you know to a young man’s mind you were more palatable than a miserable existence cast away in some world forgotten corner.”
Her jaw twitched. “No insult is greater to me than the one you have perpetually dealt me by allowing your mistress to thumb her nose at me. If you allow her daughter to set her cap at my son, I will not stand idly by.”
“Elia, we speak of a harp. It is not a confession of undying love. Had Aegon set his eyes upon the lady, we would have known. Robert would not have been silent about it. He hasn’t. Our son knows his duty. He will do right by us.”
“Knowing and doing are not one and the same. If you think for one moment this is not some ploy she has hatched to get under my skin, you are a fool. And she is using the poor girl who, not knowing any better, does as her mother dictates. Her heart would be crushed. And you will have encouraged this outcome by not intervening at the right time.” Such was her delivery that he could not ignore the heat behind the words. Instead, Rhaegar reclined against his seat and brought his hand to rest his chin upon.
“This is not some ploy she has hatched to needle you, my lady. Unlike you, the lady knows her place and will not risk my wrath with such plans. Pray do not try turning us against one another. There is no great conspiracy to shake you from your pedestal; there is no need to imagine shadows where there are none and predators where you have safety and comfort.” This was growing slightly out of hand. He had been avoiding such a confrontation for the sole reason that as such it would bring too much trouble. “We do not need dissension. We do not need confusion. Let us not court either and keep matters as they are.”
“That is very easy for you to say. You’ve nothing to lose.” A grim little smile sprang to life upon his lips. “Do not give me such an expression.”
“If I have nothing to lose then that is no fault of mine. My patience is running thin besides. If you can find definitive proof that there is a plot being unravelled, then I will not hesitate to protect you. I should hope I am not so blind as to allow harm to come to my family. Is that more to your liking?”
“At least you have not dismissed me out of hand.” A nod passed for agreement. “Promise me one thing though; if I should find the proof, you will not hesitate. You will remove the threatening elements. All of them, no matter their nature.”
“I swear to you, my lady, if there is cause, I will remove any which one person thinking they may do as they wish. There, will that do?”
“It will do admirably. There are times when you are quite reasonable. I like you then; I do not like you most of the time.” That he did not allow to bother him overly. She would believe what she wanted to believe and he would make certain her delusions were met with a swift end. “You may depart, my lady.” She did.
He did not seek Lyanna straight away. Nay, no matter that he wanted to find some peace and stillness before long; it would pay to exercise some patience. He called to him his long-time companion. Richard arrived with nary a sound, as was his custom. “What manner of man pulls one from one’s rest without a single though to old bones and exhaustion?” There was no heat behind the complain for which Rhaegar treated it with a grin. “Your Majesty.”
“Lonmouth, at times I wonder where you find your daring. I do not advise persisting.” His friend waved his hand. “Shall I simply skip to the whys?”
“That would be gracious of you. I confess, I am slightly distracted.” Better than naught, Rhaegar supposed. He nodded in understanding, wondering what or who exactly had so captured the other man’s attention. The interest was brief though. Lonmouth would come to him if there was some manner of trouble.
“I want you to look into a matter for me. There is this very strange rumours I have heard. That Lord Baratheon seeks an alliance with us. And yet he has not approached me. Could it be that the man lacks courage? Or wit?” One eyebrow arched, his companion shook his head.
“I’d heard it slightly differently, Your Majesty. Lord Baratheon does seek an alliance, ‘tis true, but it seems his sight is set upon Connington’s heir. That boy, Rhaegar, I believe, might be. Confusion is not entirely improbable.” Nay; Lyanna would have surely told him something had that been the case. He frowned. “’Tis not certain, Your Majesty. I shall look further into it.”
“You do that,” he said after brief hesitation. Somewhat put off, he dismissed Richard. It was so very unlike Lyanna to avoid sharing her plans with him. And he had seen her privately so very recently. To make not even a single reference to aught of such import; he did not know what to say to that.
Abandoned to the silence, Rhaegar considered his options. He could wheedle everything out of her mouth. He could also simply wait for her to come to him with the matter. The trouble with the second option was that he was not entirely certain she would. Lyanna had a stubbornness streak a mile long and when she took into her head to act in a certain manner only dire conditions could curtail her. Long ago, when he’d been a fool young man thinking he might temper a snowstorm disrupting the calm proceedings of his existence, the lady had laughed, told him he would need more than a harp to soothe her and slipped past him with a gleam in her eyes. Had he not already been carrying a torch for the mite at the time, he would have surely fallen to the merciless blow of amour. Fortunately for him, his brush with chaos left him with a lesson.
With that in mind, he opted for the middle path. Measure in all matters should indeed prove the wiser choice. Such contemplations saw him through the darkened corridors leading from his chamber to his lover’s.
He happened upon her just as she was tying her hair out of the way. “How, Your Majesty, I see you have not gone to bed yet! And I thought this has been a most tiring day.” Paying him little enough mind, she moved about the chamber. “The morrow brings new challenges.”
“Challenges?” he echoed, moving behind her. He did not need to cast a glance at the face peering at him from within the looking-glass. “What manner of challenges?”
“The manner for which one needs to be well-rested. By the by, I will have to postpone our meeting.” He flinched.
“Why is that?” Could it be as Elia had said? Nay.
Lyanna turned around, eyes moving upon his. “I am looking to make a new friend,” she said. “You see, this particular friendship requires some courting on my part.” Suspicion sank its claws within him. “I simply must take the opportunity. No need to make such a face, my love; I promise to better organise myself the next time.”
“And who exactly are you paying court to?”
“That would be Lady Ashara.” Tension heightened. “I thought of sending Cassana directly to the girl, but apparently she is shy and weary of forging new relationships. And I though if I spoke to her mother and she kept company with our Cassana some good might come of it.”
He felt rather lost at the moment. “Come again.”