So much could change in six years. Wars could rage, dynasties could tumble, people could turn to dust; a half-dozen years wasn't so many over the course of a lifetime, but it could be enough to alter that which a person knew, that which was familiar. It was enough time for the past to find a person, to bring forth the unpleasant truths a person worked so hard to hide.
It was all Arya could think of when she laid eyes upon Brandon for the first time since leaving for Storm's End.
He was four-and-ten now, impossibly broad and taller even than Renly; his brown hair had darkened even further while in the Stormlands, the strands nearly black now, a messy fringe falling into his Stark grey eyes. There's a thin layer of stubble on his cheeks, but it does not hide the cut of his jaw, the sharpness of his cheekbones, and Arya's breath caught as she saw the way the eyes of the young women of court followed Brandon and Renly as they entered her solar.
He's a man grown now, Arya realized with a start, sadness settling in her body. The little boy I sent to Renly is gone.
She held him too tightly when she embraced him, squeezing as if he was going to turn to smoke in her hands; her hands could not even meet as she stretched her arms around him, and she gasped when Brandon lifted her straight off of her feet with a booming laugh which immediately brought to mind Robert Baratheon.
“I'm going to be here for, at least, a moon's turn, Mother. We don't have to do all of our hugging now.”
Arya pulled back, clasping his face between her palms as she playfully scowled. “Just because you're bigger than me now doesn't mean I can't still take you over my knee.”
“You never took me over your knee.”
“Mayhaps I should start.” She stretched up on her toes, brushing her lips against his cheek. “I've missed you so much.”
The bold, cocky man before her seemed to melt away as his handsome face softened, and Arya could see her boy again, the one who dreamed of knighthood and would hide from his siblings how much he liked to be cosseted. “I missed you too.”
“Did no one miss me?” Renly quipped.
Arya was startled at the white in Renly's beard now, but his embrace was as solid as ever. She had exchanged innumerable letters with her former husband since he began fostering Brandon; he detailed her son's progress and told humorous stories. The only thing Renly had not done was bring Brandon to court; the invitation for her to come to Storm's End was always open, but each time she spent letters to request Brandon come to visit, Renly would make excuses of how it was not a good time. She understood why now; it was painfully obvious her son had not a drop of Targaryen blood in him and was, in fact, clearly of the Baratheon line. But Renly could not refuse an order from Aegon to bring his son to court to celebrate Olenna's betrothal, and Arya knew the next few weeks were going to be uncomfortable for them all.
“Oh, I missed you every day, my love,” Arya teased. “Tell me: did you long for me as well?”
“I could hardly sleep these past six years,” Renly played along. With a grin, he clapped Brandon on the shoulder and declared, “I haven't done too poor of a job raising him up, have I? A true Stormlord, he is.”
Brandon beamed under the attention. “Has he told you the news yet?”
Arya looked to Renly, who shifted uncomfortably. “The news?”
“I'm going to be his heir and take over Storm's End.” As Arya's face fell, Brandon quickly explained, “I'm not going to be king anyway; the throne was always supposed to be Aemon's, and, if not, there's still Daeron. I like the Stormlands, and I'll be a good lord.”
Head spinning, she shook her head. “No, your father - “
“Which father?” Brandon interrupted before catching himself, his face instantly folding into remorse. Arya fumbled for a moment, trying to formulate a response, when Brandon asked in a gentler tone, “Is Alysanne here yet?”
“Her party isn't arriving until later in the evening.”
The silence stretched between the three of them, no one knowing how to bridge the outright challenge of the long-accepted lie of Brandon's parentage; after several long minutes, Arya suggested Brandon bathe and shave before the evening's feast. He nodded, brushing a parting kiss to her cheek before disappearing out the door to his old room. It wasn't until he was far from earshot that Arya managed, “Seven hells.”
“I know,” was all Renly replied.
No one was ever going to believe her son was a dragon, not when he was so obviously a stag.
When Aegon declared that a betrothal had been arranged between little Olenna and Edmure Tully's oldest son, Arya knew most mothers would have been enraged; both Rhaenys and Alysanne were older than Olenna, and custom would dictate they be betrothed first.
But Rhaenys had not so much as sent a single letter since leaving King's Landing upon Balerion's back, and Alysanne politely turned away every suitor Aegon put forth, always claiming she was not ready for a marriage. Though Arya and Aegon could scarcely agree on anything any more, the one promise he had never wavered from was the one he made concerning their daughters; he would never force them to wed, never send them away the way Arya had been sent away.
Her relationship with Aegon had never recovered from sending the children away, though, if she was honest, Arya had not tried to right it. She knew he still thought it was due to Rhaego's marriage to Elinor, but it was so much more than that; it was a smart decision to wed Rhaego to the heiress of Casterly Rock, a way to end the enmity between Houses Lannister and Targaryen. And Arya also knew that, even if Rhaenys had married Rhaego, she never would have been fully satisfied as a wife and mother; mayhaps it was a terrible thing to confess, but Arya knew it never brought her true satisfaction. She loved her children, loved them fiercely and loved them well, but there was also resentment buried in her chest: towards Aegon and his long-ago desperation to get a child on her, towards herself for allowing herself to fall into the roles she raged against when she was younger, towards the children who kept her rooted in place.
No, Arya never tried to mend her broken marriage because what she had always suspected turned out to be true: she did not have the stomach for ruling. She and Aegon had lied to themselves long enough; he could never make her a queen, and she could never make him into someone who did not want a throne.
The past six years had certainly not be easy. With her separation from Aegon and only the twins to tend to, Arya often found herself painfully lonely and often unbearably bored. Though she never thought she would say it, Sansa had become a gift from the gods. Sansa was so skilled at the politics of court, at understanding what people wanted and how to give it to them, Arya could only marvel at it; she had always thought Sansa to be so useless, pretty and pleasing without a thought of her own in her head. It wasn't until seeing Sansa performing as the perfect lady that Arya realized Sansa often felt the same way she did; she simply didn't verbalize her distaste.
“You have no idea what it was like at court towards the end of Robert's reign,” Sansa said one afternoon when Arya mentioned her poise. “Robert preferred women to be seen and not heard, and Cersei always thought I was slow-witted. The only tolerable one here was Lord Tyrion, and he was just as looked down upon as I was. I learned fairly quickly to keep my mouth shut and a smile on my face.”
“How could you stomach it?”
Sansa looked at her in a combination of confusion and amusement. “You really don't see it at all.”
“Just how indulged you've been.”
“Indulged?” she repeated, bristling.
“You wanted to ride horses and play at swords, so Father turned a blind eye. You didn't want to wed Edric Dayne, and Father was prepared to break the contract. You marry Renly, and he left you to run Storm's End and toil as you wished. You run off with Aegon, and you get to spend years playing in the Free Cities and the Dothraki Sea. You go to Jon, and he shields you from the war you played a part in starting. Your children are declared bastards, and, rather than be shamed, Father takes you all back to Winterfell. You bear Gendry's child, and Aegon legitimizes him to spare you the shame of it. You send away the heirs to the Iron Throne without consulting the king, and rather than punish you, he keeps you on as his queen and insists you still be treated with respect.”
Arya shifted, strangely embarrassed to hear her life laid out so plainly.
“You know nothing of what it means to be a lady in our world because no one has ever treated you as one.” Returning her attention to her needlework, Sansa declared, “I kept my mouth shut or else Robert would have bloodied it. You'll never know what that's like.”
“You make it sound as if nothing bad has ever happened to me.”
“Most of what has is the result of poor choices you made.” Sansa lifted her blue eyes, and Arya was suddenly struck by how much she looked like their mother in that moment. “You are my sister and my queen, and the love I bear you is true. But you have had an easy and better life than most women in the realm, and your continued insistence that somehow you have been victimized by it all is ridiculous.”
There was far more to Sansa than Arya ever believed, and Arya found herself following Sansa's lead at court, trying to imitate her older sister's behaviors. She would never be beloved at court, especially with Jessa serving as the ideal queen, but Arya adapted; after all, it was what she did best.
The only true hurt which plagued her was Gendry.
It was easier to forget what she felt for her old friend when he was tucked away in the Westerlands and she, in the North. But with Sansa and their daughters taking up residency at court, Gendry was often at court for, at least, half a year's time before returning to the Rock. Before the affair, before Brandon, no one ever thought it suspicious to see the two of them engaged in conversation, to share a laugh over some jape; but their return to court also brought back the rumors, the whispers, the men and women who theorized about the timing of her fourth pregnancy. And, though she never said a word, Arya knew Sansa's eyes followed the two of them just as closely, determined not to miss what she was blind to the first time. As a result, Arya often found herself opening her mouth to say something to Gendry only to catch herself; she could count on her hands the number of conversations she and Gendry had in the past six years, and it made her ache with sadness to know the impulsive decisions they made years earlier had essentially killed their friendship.
Arya did not know why she started to give Gendry Renly's letters concerning Brandon. The first had arrived two moons after Brandon arrived at Storm's End, and, as she read about Brandon's lessons with the maester and how diligently he practiced his swordsmanship, Arya thought of how distraught Gendry was in her rooms months earlier; Aegon may have claimed Brandon as his own, but the knowledge that Gendry had wanted their son, had been denied the opportunity to be his father haunted Arya. Every time Renly's letters arrived, Arya would read them before handing them over to Gendry without a word, a silent acknowledgment of the son which would forever bind them.
She did not want to imagine how Sansa would react when she saw Brandon alongside her husband. The forgiveness Sansa was capable was impressive, but even Arya did not think she would be able to look at Brandon Targaryen and see past his origins.
Not even Sansa could be that good and kind.
Being a mother was a curious thing.
When Rhaenys was born, Arya loved her daughter far more than she ever thought possible, but she did not fully understand her. Rhaenys had been Aegon's daughter, his little shadow, and later, when they were at the Wall or at Winterfell, Rhaenys had become the child Arya came to rely on, the one who could manage her siblings with more grace and ease than Arya could ever manage. Often she wondered if Rhaenys resented her for that, if the reasons her eldest child never sent letters from the Gift because she was finally free of responsibilities which were never meant to be hers.
With Aemon, Arya awoke from the birthing bed to find a little boy who always wanted Rhaenys far more than he ever wanted his mother. Aemon was kind and thoughtful, the child Arya always felt particularly tenderhearted towards, but Aemon had always belonged to Rhaenys; even in the letters he sent from the Citadel, Aemon kept himself at a distance.
Alysanne was easily the sweetest of her children, the one whose manners never faltered, the one whose temper never got the best of her. Arya loved her middle daughter but worried for her more than the others. A heart as gentle as Alysanne's could be bruised so easily, and, unlike her siblings, Alysanne heard and cared deeply about what the smallfolk said. Of all the children, Alysanne was the one who came to court often, who enjoyed her time at Starfall but longed to return to her family.
Though she could never admit it aloud, Brandon was the child who never left her thoughts. Arya wished it was because he had been so young when leaving for Storm's End or because she didn't want her dishonor to color him, but it wasn't. She knew Brandon never left her thoughts because he was Gendry's, and it both horrified and fascinated her how much he could be like a man who played no role in his life.
But it was the twins who most confounded Arya.
It was not that Arya did not love her youngest children because she did; Arya wasn't sure if any mother could control loving her children. But Daeron and Daena had never felt like hers the way her older children had. Daena was pleasant and well-mannered; she positively worshiped Olenna and Elia, and even Jessa managed to put aside her longstanding dislike of Arya in order to dote upon Daena. Arya tried to relate to her youngest daughter, but there was some sort of disconnect between them; even at six, Daena was more a lady than Arya had ever managed to be.
Daeron was the one who worried her, whose behaviors kept her awake at night. He was nothing like his brothers; there was no peace to Daeron. As he grew, Arya found herself more and more bothered by the disregard her youngest son had for those around him, for the way he treated servants and even his sisters. Combined with a temper more volatile than wildfire, Daeron was no one's favorite, and, though Aegon often tried to teach him a better way, Arya often saw it failing. Brilliance or madness, someone once said of the Targaryens, and Arya could not help but believe that the Targaryen madness already had Daeron in its grips.
The one and only time she ever tried to broach the topic with Aegon, he shouted her down so quickly, Arya knew they would never be able to discuss her concerns about Daeron.
Arya did not know if it was possible for a child be born ruined, but she wondered if Daeron was the price which had to be paid to the Gods for bringing dragons back to the world.
“The Citadel hates magic,” Lord Varys told her a fortnight earlier when Vhagar had broken his chains and killed two guards before being subdued. “They celebrated the death of the dragons. I cannot imagine they are happy for their return.”
“Because they're destructive?”
Varys smiled indulgently, as if she was a child and not a grown woman, before explaining, “The wolf kills the rabbit. The lion kills the wolf. Man kills the lion. Dragon kills man. What kills the dragon?”
Arya shrugged. “Nothing.”
“That's a bit of a scary thought, isn't it? Men can kill dragons, but the dragon will kill scores in the process. By the time they're finished, the dragon has killed those they love and laid waste to entire towns. Men fear dragons, especially powerful men who are used to controlling the world.”
“Are you saying maesters want my children's dragons dead?”
“Oh, not just the maesters.” Varys gestured broadly with his arms. “All of Westeros is acutely aware that all which stands between them and fiery death are a few chains and the princess's good temper. I have served the Iron Throne and House Targaryen loyally - “ Arya scoffed. “Mostly loyal,” he amended, “for many years. Fear of the Targaryens and their dragons held the realm for 200 years. The last hundred were held with the memory of dragons and a king's madness. What does this tell you?”
“That you speak in riddles?”
“I apologize, my queen. I will be more clear.” Varys leaned close; the scent of him reminded Arya of the Free Cities. “Dragons make people nervous, make them wonder if mayhaps the power they hold is too great. See, stags, lions, direwolves, even krakens can be felled; they appreciate their precariousness of their positions. Dragons do not have any such fears.”
“And that is why the maesters hate them?”
“There are whispers,” Varys continued, ignoring her question. “Eight heirs to the throne: a wild princess with a dragon, a quiet princess kept in a tower in Dorne, a princess betrothed to Riverrun with another soon to be betrothed to the Eyrie, and a little princess who has always been sickly stand little chance of inheriting with three princes before them. But that is the problem, isn't it?”
Arya said nothing, waiting.
“One prince would rather rule over knowledge than people and one prince is not really a prince at all. All that leaves is the little prince who bears a startling resemblance to his mad uncle. Now, children change, of course; sometimes the bad behavior of youth can be molded into a suitable leader. But some things are just in the blood.” Smiling solicitously, he finished, “But a queen should not concern herself with whispers.”
Arya hated Lord Varys and always had; he was the worst type of man, the king who sowed dissension everywhere he went. But Arya had to admit he often wasn't wrong; Varys was a necessary evil to people in power, people who had no idea what truly happened outside the walls of the Red Keep.
She couldn't help but think of Varys's words now as she watched Brandon and Alysanne embrace and laugh, holding each other tightly before turning their attentions on Daeron and Daena. Daena greeted them politely, cautiously; she knew Alysanne from her brief visits, but Brandon seemed a giant alongside his youngest siblings. Daeron only stood off to the side, eying his siblings distrustfully; when Alysanne bent to embrace him, Daeron stepped back, a look of utter disgust on his face.
“Won't you hug me, brother? I've missed you,” Alysanne said, a sweet smile on her face.
“You're supposed to take the knee before me. I am going to be king.”
Arya barely had time to open her mouth before Brandon burst out laughing, making Daena jump at the volume. “Who told you that, Uncle Viserys?”
“Certainly sounds like him,” Alysanne mumbled under her breath, and Arya heard an undertone to her words, as if the conversation between Alysanne and Brandon was one she was not privy to.
They were dining in the queen's ballroom at Aegon's insistence. As Arya lead the children into the room, she saw the expected crowd: Aegon and Jessa, Daenerys and Viserys, Elia and Olenna, Allyria and Ashara, Renly, Rhaego and Elinor, Margaery and Joffrey, and finally Sansa and Gendry. Immediately she saw the startled recognition in everyone's eyes at the sight of Brandon, but it was Sansa's subtle flinch which made shame gnaw at her gut.
Arya could not bring herself to look at Gendry.
Aegon's smile was genuine enough as they all took their seats, but Arya had known him long enough and well enough to see he was unnerved; not knowing with any true certainty that Brandon was Gendry's child was very different from seeing the young man who bore such a startling resemblance to the Baratheons. She thought of the conversation on Dragonstone so long ago, thought of Aegon's confession about how he did not want Brandon to be the last child she bore because he was Gendry's, and she wondered how all of court would be able to refer to her son as “Prince Brandon” when it was so blatantly obvious his father was not the king.
Well, not the Targaryen king. Arya was sheltered in the Red Keep, but even she knew there were still Baratheon loyalists throughout the kingdoms, men and women who longed for the halcyon days of King Robert and his court. Varys's little birds weren't necessary to know the smallfolk thought Aegon was too stingy, too serious; whereas Robert spent gold as if it was going out of fashion and threw tourneys to celebrate the rising of the sun, Aegon was subdued, careful. Though the Tyrells were always much loved, there were those who though Garlan was an ineffectual Hand, nowhere near as capable as Ned Stark; there were whispers the Kingsguard was nowhere near as great as it once was when dearly departed Ser Barristan served alongside Arthur Dayne, Gerold Hightower, and even young Jaime Lannister. And, as always, there were those who still wished Sansa to be their queen, those who still fumbled and referred to her as “your grace.”
As Arya always knew, Magister Illyrio had lied; the people of Westeros hadn't been sewing dragon banners longing for the return of the Targaryens. The smallfolk only cared about who kept them well-fed and amused, and neither of those desires were being met by House Targaryen. Of course, as Varys pointed out: rebellion was not an option, not with dragons.
“I barely recognized the two of you,” Aegon declared as the servants began to bring the food. “I believe you have grown even more beautiful since your last visit, Alysanne.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“And the Stormlands certainly seem to agree with you,” he continued, looking to Brandon who met his gaze steadily. “You've been keeping up with your lessons?”
“With Maester Rhys and with the master-at-arms,” Brandon answered with an easy smile.
“Should we expect you to join the Citadel as well?” Jessa asked, her voice deceptively kind.
Brandon laughed as he gestured for a servant to fill his wine cup. “I believe my talents aren't best suited for Oldtown.”
As conversation began to flow around the table, Arya was certain only she heard Alysanne tease her brother with a murmured, “Since when is trying to make the eight a talent?”
For awhile, dinner went smoothly; conversation was polite, Olenna seemed to blossom under discussion of her betrothal, and, though pointed looks were being exchanged, no one said anything about Brandon. Arya was listening to Aegon describe the tourney being planned to celebrate the betrothal, a grand affair at the restored Summerhall, when the conversation took a shocking turn.
“Hopefully Aemon will be able to attend. Surely the maesters can spare him for a fortnight, and the ride isn't so long.”
“If he could book passage, it would take, at least, a moon's turn,” Alysanne corrected.
“Booked passage? It makes no sense to sail from Oldtown to Shipbreaker Bay; a horse would be much quicker.”
Arya watched as Alysanne froze for a moment, blinking in surprise. Finally, after a beat, Alysanne said, “But Aemon isn't in Oldtown.”
“What do you mean he isn't in Oldtown?” Aegon asked. “He's at the Citadel; he's been earning his chain.”
Alysanne and Brandon exchanged nervous glances, making Arya's stomach twist anxiously. It was Brandon who finally answered, Alysanne's eyes trained on her plate.
“He left the Citadel a year ago to go the Free Cities.”
“The Free Cities?” Arya gasped. “What's he doing there?”
“Visiting Rhaenys.” Alysanne looked between her mother and father before explaining, “Rhaenys went to the Free Cities two years ago. She wrote and invited all of us to come; she's gone all the way to Asshai and back. But she - “ She broke off, uncertainty on her features; Arya saw Brandon shake his head, and frustration swelled at her daughter's reticence.
Aegon did not notice the silent conversation between the children; his anger was too strong. “You will write them both and tell them they are to return to court, that they will be present at Summerhall.”
Alysanne nodded meekly, but there was something in her face – the quirk of her mouth, the way she looked up beneath her lashes, the tilt of her head – which told Arya there was nothing meek about Alysanne at all.
“Of course, Father. I'll send a raven the moment we're finished.”
Arya wondered when her daughter started playing the game of thrones and, more importantly, when Alysanne became better at it than Arya was.
Thought she was nearing seventy, Ashara Dayne was still one of the most beautiful women Arya ever knew. Her dark hair was now silver, her face lined and tanned by the Dornish sun; her movements were slower, joints swollen by arthritis. As Arya helped her down into a seat in the gardens, Ashara clasped her arm as tightly as she could for support. She thought of the last time she saw Ashara, nearly three years earlier; she had still been vibrant and active then.
When did she get old?
“Do not look at me like that,” Ashara chastised as if reading her mind. “I am not feeble. My body may be failing, but my mind is not. Stop looking at me as if I'm half in the grave.”
“Yes, my lady,” she replied, laughing as Ashara batted at her with a gnarled hand.
It was an unbearably hot day, the end of summer in sight; the scent of flowers hung heavy in the air, and Arya could feel sweat rolling down the back of her neck beneath her heavy hair. If Ashara was uncomfortable, she gave no indication; Arya had never spent a summer in Dorne, but, judging by the way Alysanne was teasing Brandon when they broke their fast, it was significantly warmer there.
“Alysanne told me you spent time at Sunspear a few moons past.”
Ashara nodded. “She and Prince Trystane's son have grown quite close. House Martell is interested in a betrothal, but Myrcella is opposed.” A wry smile played at Ashara's lips as she added, “She doesn't seem to hold a particularly high opinion of you or Aegon.”
“I find that so hard to believe, what with Aegon taking the throne from her family, beheading her uncle and grandfather, and having her mother kept as a virtual prisoner at Casterly Rock.”
“Oh, my sins are legion, and you were present for enough of them.”
“Not all of them.” Sipping from a glass of iced honey milk a servant brought, she stated, “He's a good boy, your Brandon.”
It was a compliment Arya heard often since Brandon's arrival at court. Despite uncanny resemblance to Gendry, most of the whispers concerning Brandon Targaryen had nothing to do with his origins. Brandon was charismatic, boisterous, and good-tempered; he behaved the same with lords as he did the smallfolk, and it quickly endeared him to all. Arya could not stop marveling at how much Brandon had changed in six years; the silent boy had been replaced by a man who made Renly seem reserved. Just this morning Arya had watched as he and one of the Tyrells sparred in the yard, and she was genuinely shocked to see ladies watching, whispering behind hands and blushing when Brandon turned his smile upon them.
“Hardly a boy anymore. I feel as if I went to sleep one day and, when I woke up, all my children were grown.”
“Not all of them.”
Arya blushed at her mistake. “You know what I mean.”
“For what it's worth, I feel the same way when I see Aegon or you. Age has a funny way of changing things.”
“I suppose it does.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, the lingering sounds of a singer reaching them. Arya knew the melody but not the words; Sansa would know both, even lifting her voice up to join in.
Finally, Arya asked, “Did you know Aemon left the Citadel?”
Ashara sighed heavily. “He and Brandon both came to Starfall before he left. I do not know what Rhaenys's letters said; all I know is the three of them hid themselves away in the Palestone Tower for hours and, when they emerged, Aemon's face was bruised, Brandon was furious, and Alysanne was just beside herself. I've never seen Alysanne so devastated; when I asked her about it, she wouldn't explain.”
“Why didn't you write me?”
“I assumed you knew. You and Aemon were always close, and he was always the most reasonable; I didn't think he'd flee Westeros without so much as a word.”
“I do not know what happened on the Gift, I truly don't. The only letters which arrived at Starfall from Rhaenys were for Alysanne, and I did not ask to read them. A year-and-a-half ago, I received a letter from Illyrio telling me that Rhaenys had come to him shortly after arriving in Pentos. Balerion was not with her; she would not tell him where the dragon was. She wanted gold in order to book a ship, which Illyrio provided. By the time I received the letter, Rhaenys was halfway to Asshai.”
“Why did Illyrio write you instead of Aegon?”
“I stopped trying to understand Illyrio's motivations long ago.”
“What could she possibly want in Asshai? What could make her send for her siblings?”
Ashara grinned. “Oh, Rhaenys's motivations have always been clear. What's the one thing she has always wanted?”
“You think there's something in the Free Cities which will get her the Iron Throne?”
“No.” She sipped her milk. “But, if there is, I guarantee you Rhaenys will find it.”
The sight of Gendry and Brandon seated at the table in her solar, both laughing, stole Arya's breath. Though Gendry's black hair and beard was now shot through with silver, he still carried himself like a young man, even sparring on occasion with his nephews; Arya could easily accept the fact that he still found Gendry handsome. What was more difficult to accept was Brandon knew what they had done – the lies they told, the people they betrayed, the vows they broke – and every time she met her son's eyes, she wished she could explain.
“What's so funny?” she asked, trying to feign composure.
“Uncle Gendry was telling me of the first time he met you and how you bribed him with gold to sneak you to your room,” Brandon answered.
It had been so long since Robert and his court came to Winterfell, it felt as if it was someone else's life; they had all been so young then, so certain and so stupid.
“There was a bit more to the story than that.”
“Isn't there always?”
Gendry rose from the table, a sad smile playing at his lips. “Well, I should be going. Thank you for listening to an old man's stories, Brandon.”
“I would like to hear more if you're willing.” For a moment, Arya glimpsed the little boy who used to ask to hear stories of his father in Brandon's grey eyes. “Mayhaps you, Renly, and I can go riding tomorrow.”
“I would like that.” Gendry smiled at her, a hint of irreverence on his face. “With Your Grace's permission, of course.”
“Oh, shut up!”
Gendry's departing laughter brought a smile to her face; she could not remember the last time she had heard Gendry laugh, the last time they had spoken to each other like they were friends.
“I like him,” Brandon announced as she took Gendry's seat, pouring himself a cup of wine.
“I always thought you would.”
“Who loved him first, your or Aunt Sansa?”
Arya started at the blunt question, wholly unprepared for Brandon to address the issue of his paternity directly. Even Viserys, who no one would ever refer to as subtle, had never directly questioned her about Gendry; it was the polite fiction of court, denying unhappy truths in order to curry the king's favor. Aegon had declared Brandon to be his trueborn son, and thus he was; no matter how blatant a falsehood it was, no one argued with the king.
When her voice returned to her, she managed in a carefully measured tone, “I suppose it would depend on who you are asking.”
“But you did love him?”
“More than Aegon?”
“Different from Aegon.”
“Did he know I wasn't his or was it all a trick to get me legitimized?”
Taking the wine skin when he began to pour another cup, she snapped, “Aegon gave you his name because he loves you.”
Brandon scoffed. “Loves me? He can barely look at me or haven't you noticed? He has midday meal with my siblings every day but not me. I suppose a little boy who follows him around like he's the Warrior returned is more lovable than a man-grown who reminds him he's a cuckold.”
“Brandon - “
“Did he tell you the good news?” Not waiting for a response, he shared, “King Aegon has given Renly permission to name me as his heir, the Lord of Storm's End. There is a catch though; the small council insisted upon it. From henceforth, I am not longer Brandon Targaryen, Prince of Summerhall; I am Lord Brandon Baratheon, heir to Lord Renly Baratheon and officially removed from the line of succession.”
“What? He – He removed you from the line?”
“You can't be surprised. The moment I walked into the Keep, the moment everyone saw for themselves I'm not a true dragon, I knew the council would make him. I don't care. I never wanted the damn throne anyway. I'll leave the fighting to my mad little brother and my grasping sisters.”
“Do not speak of your siblings that way.”
Brandon scoffed. As he got to his feet, swaying uneasily, Arya realized he was drunk. “Why not? Jessa's girls, they're nothing to me now. Daena is a little puppet and Daeron, he is Viserys in miniature. Aemon and Rhaenys, they can ride their dragon straight through the seven hells for all I care. Alysanne is the only one worth anything, and they're ruining her too.”
“Brandon, you've had too much wine. You don't know what you're saying - “
“I know!” he shouted, his voice breaking as tears shimmered in his eyes. “You know why I didn't go to the Free Cities? Do you?! Because I did not wake a dragon! I am their brother, their pack, and they left me! I would lay down my life for them, and it isn't good enough because I'm their bastard brother!”
Emotion began to rise in Arya's throat. “Brandon...”
“I'm their brother.” Wiping angrily at his face, he growled, “Well, to seven hells to the whole fucking lot of them: the king, his queen, the princesses, the princes. I don't need them, and they don't need me.”
“That's not true.” Stepping forward, clasping Brandon's face between her palms, she declared, “All of you need each other to be strong. That's what a pack is.”
“Except they're not wolves; they're dragons.” Shaking his mother off of him, he stumbled to the window, staring out at King's Landing. “We're the only wolves left here, Mother. Our pack left us.”
The words chilled Arya to the bone.
“Why did Rhaenys go to Asshai?”
Alysanne looked up from her needlework, smiling pleasantly. “Mother! I was just making - “
“Leave us,” Arya ordered the small retinue from Starfall who served as Alysanne's companions. When the room was empty save for the two of them, she repeated, “Why did Rhaenys go to Asshai?”
“I do not know - “
“Do not lie to me! I am not your father; you cannot play the weakling with me.”
Nodding minutely, Alysanne set aside her work, giving her mother her full attention. She sighed softly, tucking a stray lock of silver hair behind her ear before offering, “She went there to find a Red Priest.”
“Why would she need a Red Priest? And why would she need you and Aemon to go with her?”
“Rhaenys fell ill her third year on the Gift, and Uncle Jon insisted she stay at Castle Black until she recuperated. While she was there, she read Maester Sam's books and found something, a prophecy. She became obsessed with it. The prophecy talks about a Prince Who Was Promised, and, for whatever reasons, she believes it is her. She wanted us all to go to Asshai and see a Priest who could tell us if it was true.”
“And then what?”
Alysanne shrugged. “I don't know. She wrote me this rambling letter about going to Valyria, finding more eggs, proving we were worthy of the throne like Aegon and his sisters. Rhaenys doesn't want the throne for herself; she wants the three of us to rule in tandem. Promised princes or not, she doesn't understand why, if we woke dragons, no one accepts us as heirs.”
“But I sent her to Mance, to have what she wanted - “
“She wants to rule, Mother. What good is freedom when you know it cannot bring you what you desire most?”
“And Aemon believes in this?”
“Aemon believes in Rhaenys.”
“And you don't?”
“I believe Rhaenys and I have always been very different people who wanted very different things.” Smoothing her skirts, she revealed, “The prophecy talks about when stars bleed, like the comet did the night I was born. I woke a dragon from stone. I as much fit the prophecy as she does, but Rhaenys thinks it inconceivable someone like me could be a destined warrior. And even if she succeeds, what then? She and I marry Aemon and bring back a tradition best left dead? I do not want that.”
“Is that why Aemon and Brandon fought at Starfall?”
She shook her head, face folding in regret. “Brandon offered to come, to help them however he could, but Aemon refused him. He said the trip was too dangerous for someone who did not have dragon's blood. Brandon was so hurt. I don't think he meant to strike Aemon, but to realize all of these plans were being made without him...”
“I don't understand. I gave you all a chance to escape this, to not be bound to the Iron Throne - “
“We were bound to it the moment we were born.” Alysanne rose gracefully, and, for the first time, Arya saw her daughter for the woman she had become rather than the girl who clung to her when they were to be parted. “For someone who is so uncomfortable with power, I've never understood why you chose to have children with kings.”
“What's going to happen when Rhaenys and Aemon come to Summerhall?”
“What always happens: Rhaenys ends up disappointed, Aemon ends up soothing her battered ego, and I smile so no one knows anything is wrong.” If anything, her smile became even more pained. “Our roles were decided long ago, Mother. You can't protect us forever.”
Arya wasn't sure if she had ever been able to protect her children.
Arya awoke in the middle of the night to someone touching her face. Jerking awake, tangling in her blankets, she was stunned to find Daeron standing by her bedside in his nightclothes, his Targaryen face wet with tears, mouth in a pout. She could count on one hand how many times Daeron had sought her out in the middle of the night; the last time he had done so, he had still been a toddler, still had some sweetness to him.
“What's wrong, sweetling?”
“Monsters,” was all he mumbled, sounding small and pitiful.
Arya pulled back the sheets, allowing Daeron slip in, his body curving around hers instinctively. He sniffled, pressing his face to the front of her nightgown, and she could feel a slight tremor to his body as his hands clutched at her.
“It's alright, my love. No one can hurt you while I'm here.”
“Fire,” he whimpered nonsensically, eyes already drooping shut as he headed back towards slumber.
“Fire cannot burn dragons. There is no reason to fear it.”
In the morning, he would be cranky and frustrating; she would find herself correcting him a half-dozen times and wondering how he could be so different from his siblings. But for now, with the darkness around them, Daeron was just a little boy who wanted his mother.
Arya adored Summerhall. Unlike Dragonstone, which was harsh and unyielding, or the Red Keep, which forever felt like a battlefield, Summerhall was bright, airy, and beautiful. The restoration which took place shortly after Aegon's ascendance had made the summer palace of the Targaryens great once again, and the gardens were all in full bloom when the court arrived. Often, when she was feeling particularly stifled in the Keep, she would come to Summerhall and enjoy the Stormlands the way she once had. On her last visit, the twins had actually managed to get along with each other, she had managed to coax Sansa into a ride around the grounds, and, for a short time, she felt peaceful.
There was nothing peaceful about Summerhall now. Tournament grounds had been assembled, and camps were set up for the numerous lords coming to compete. There had been a time when Arya loved nothing better than a tourney; there was beauty to a well-ridden tilt, and there was not nearly enough beauty in the world. But, as she surveyed the activity from the balcony on which she and Sansa supped, Arya realized she did not recognize most of the young men who had come to prove themselves; those she did recognize looked past their prime. There were no Ser Barristans left; only knights of summer remained.
“You have the most peculiar look on your face,” Sansa remarked, sipping her wine. As the sun hit Sansa's auburn hair, making it shine like copper, Arya felt the jealousy from childhood flicker in her chest; Sansa was still easily one of the most beautiful women at court, still admired and adored by every man who crossed her path. It was silly, of course; they were both far too old for petty jealousies and imagined slights. But Arya wasn't sure if it would ever die, the combintion of awe and inadequacy Sansa inspired in her.
“I was thinking about the first tourney I ever attend, the one from your betrothal. It all seemed so exciting then.”
Sansa smiled wryly. “Tournaments or marriage?'
“Marriage never seemed exciting.”
“For you, no, but I thought it was going to be like the songs. I imagined myself Queen Naerys and Gendry would be Aemon the Dragonknight.”
“Queen Naerys wasn't wed to Aemon.”
“I know. Mayhaps I should have listened a bit more closely.”
They both laughed, but it wasn't funny; if anything, Arya thought it was a bit sad. Sometimes she forgot Sansa hadn't gotten what she wanted either.
She didn't mean to ask the question; it flew past her lips before Arya even realized the thought had formed in her head. After so many years in the Keep, Arya thought she broke her bad habit of saying whatever flew into her head; only with Sansa did her manners always seem to fail her.
“Do you ever regret wedding him?”
Sansa didn't answer immediately, her face folding in contemplation. Finally, after what seemed like hours, she answered, “No, no, I don't regret it.” Fixing her blue eyes upon her sister, Arya heard a bit of a challenge in Sansa's voice as she asked, “Are you certain you wish to hear this?”
“In the beginning, even knowing he wished to end our betrothal, I was still in awe of him. He was so handsome, so chivalrous, and I was his princess; one day I'd even be his queen. And mayhaps our love wasn't passionate or desperate, but it was still love. He always treated me so tenderly, nothing like his father; some nights he would come to my chambers, and we'd talk until the sun came up. There were so many good years, years I would not trade for anything.”
“You were lucky.”
“Lucky?” Sansa echoed incredulously. “I said I was happy; I did not say he was. Gendry loves me; I do not doubt that. But he loves me the way he loves Myrcella. He gave me children because it was his duty; he prepared to rule because it was his duty. Duty means so much to him; he's like Father in that way. He wed me out of duty, not because he wanted me.” Sansa looked down into her wine cup as if she was trying to divine the future. “He never wanted me.”
“Sansa - “
She turned to face Arya then, and, for a brief moment, she glimpsed the same exhaustion and frustration she always felt in Sansa's eyes. “You were the only thing he ever wanted. Do you think he fought Aegon's war for the throne? He didn't. It was for you, to get you back. When Aegon and his men entered the Keep, we were in Maegor's Holdfast. All of us were terrified; we all remembered what the Lannister men did to Elia Martell and the children; none of us knew if Aegon was going to do the same to us. And yet the first words out of Gendry's mouth wasn't a plea for our lives or a declaration of fealty; instead, he asked if you were alive. That's when I knew.”
“That I would have made a far better queen than Gendry ever would have made a king.” Sansa looked out at the tents, waving her hand. “When men look at me, they see a pretty face, a comely figure; they whisper and laugh about how I must be as cold as the North for Gendry to have taken to your bed. But do you know what they always fail to recognize?”
“House Stark has stood for 8,000 years; our people were kings from the moment they came into existence. But House Baratheon? Orys Baratheon was a bastard who fought for his brother, and, as a result, he got to keep the Storm King's holdings. The Starks were kings; the Baratheons were just soldiers.” Sansa exhaled sharply through her nose. “Gendry is a good soldier; when someone tells him what to do, he performs admirably. But making the decisions, facing difficult choices...In that way, he is his father's son. He would have been a popular king but hardly effective.”
“Did you truly want it, to be queen?”
“More than you ever did.” Reaching for her wine, she declared, “I had ambitions, you know. When we were young, you always thought I was frivolous, but I did have wants of my own. And once I came to King's Landing, I wanted even more: for me, for my children, for our House. We were never as different as you thought us to be.”
“I never understood you.”
“You never tried,” Sansa replied mildly. “To be fair, I never tried with you either. I saw you as my enemy, the woman who stole my crown, my son's throne, and my husband.”
“I did not want to do all of that.”
“No,” Sansa conceded, “the only thing you wanted was my husband; the rest just came along with it.” As Arya began to sputter a denial, her older sister laughed with a shake of her head. “Oh, Arya, if we cannot jape about it after all this time, it just remains sad.”
“I don't want to jape about hurting you.”
“Oh, the hurt faded long ago. If we are being truly honest, Gendry and I have not shared a bed since Aeron passed. What exists between us now is, what I imagine, exists between you and Aegon: mutual respect, even friendship, but I don't think either of us has the strength to pretend any longer. We're too old for games and lies, and I confess I never quite had the stomach for them.” Sansa removed a sachet from the folds of her gown; the small bundle of white fabric was tied with a bit of grey ribbon. Pressing it into Arya's palm, she said, “Consider it an early name day present.”
Puzzled, Arya tugged at the ribbon, opening the fabric; she did not recognize the scent but she could identify the herbs: tansy, mint, wormwood, pennyroyal. Jerking her head up in shock, she gasped, “This is moon tea. Why would you give me this?”
“Because I do not wish to be embarrassed again.” Sansa stood, resting her hands on the balcony's railing, staring off into the distance. “It took me a very long time to realize all the things I was angry at you for stealing away from me were never meant to be mine. If I had not interfered, if I had not let my ambition cloud my judgment, I suspect both of us would be living vastly different lives.”
Quickly knotting the ribbon around the sachet, Arya shook her head and declared, “I cannot use that. I cannot do that.”
“Why not? You've done it before; Brandon's proof enough of that.” Sansa turned, her face perfectly calm. “I'm not being selfless, Arya. This is not some grand sacrifice I'm making for you. It isn't about you at all.”
“Because I loved him once, and he deserved better than me scheming with his mother behind his back.” For a brief second, Arya thought she saw the shimmer of tears in Sansa's eyes, but her voice betrayed no hint of emotion. “You do not have to use it. But should you choose to, I just ask that you be discreet.”
She held up her hand, silencing Arya's words. “This will be the last time we discuss this, yes?”
Sansa made so few requests of her, Arya nodded, tucking the moon tea into her bodice. She was not sure if she intended to use it, wasn't sure if Sansa could truly be suggesting what she was suggesting.
All Arya knew for certain was Sansa never seemed to stop surprising her.
They arrived on the third day of festivities at supper. Arya sat upon the dais with Aegon and Jessa, Alysanne and Brandon beside her when, through the throng of dancing couples, they entered. Almost immediately the crowd parted, allowing Rhaenys and Aemon to pass, bending in deference as they passed.
Aemon wore Pentoshi clothing, his silver hair cut so close to his head, the pink of his scalp visible; his violet eyes seemed to glow bright in the candlelight, and Arya felt a lump rise in her throat at how old he looked. The young ladies of court were staring at him in awe, the beautiful prince who looked so much like the king, but it was not Aemon who was inspiring whispers.
If Rhaenys had been beautiful when she left for the North, she was positively breathtaking now. Her black curls, which she had often kept contained in a braid, now flowed freely over her shoulders, the ends brushing against the curve of her lower back. The dress she wore was only slips of fine silk held together with thin chains of gold; nearly every inch of her warm, bronze skin was visible through the silk, and, with her eyes lined heavily with kohl, she looked like a lord's fantasy brought to life.
It touched Arya's heart to see the instinctive smile which spread across Aegon's face at the sight of their children. Though she never voiced the belief, Arya always thought Aegon fought harder for Rhaenys's and Aemon's affections, as if he was trying to regain the bond he once had with them in the Dothraki Sea. Brandon's and Alysanne's love had come easy; the twins knew him and only him. But Rhaenys remembered every slight, every moment spent Rhaenys Snow, every unkind word the Tyrells said about her, and Aemon's allegiance had always been to his sister.
“Welcome back to court,” Aegon greeted, his jovial voice carrying throughout the hall. “You've come to celebrate your sister's betrothal?”
“We've come because you summoned us like dogs,” Rhaenys replied, her face bright with mockery. “But I suppose we can celebrate Olenna's good fortune as well.”
Jessa's face soured considerably, but Aegon, to his credit, did not falter. “House Targaryen is reunited once more, and that is certainly cause for celebration. Music!”
Arya was on her feet the moment the music resumed, rushing past Alysanne and Brandon to embrace her eldest children. Aemon wrapped her up tightly with a soft chuckle before allowing Rhaenys to do the same; as she stepped back, assessing them the same way she once had when they were small, Rhaenys laughed with a shake of her head.
“Why are you looking at us so strangely?”
“Because I am trying to determine whether or not to kiss you or kill you. Leaving the Citadel without a word? Traveling to Essos without notifying anyone - “
“That's not strictly true,” Rhaenys interrupted. “We didn't notify you; we notified others.”
“Is that supposed to be funny?”
“It is not supposed to be anything.” Rhaenys sighed. “Must we fight, Mother? It has been a long journey, I have not seen my family in so long, and there is truly nothing to say.”
“Did you, at least, find what you needed to find?”
“We found many things,” Rhaenys replied evasively before moving past her mother to embrace Alysanne.
Arya was not certain her daughter even knew what she looking for anymore.
Gendry found her prior to the start of the first tilt. She was walking with Ser Daemon Sand of the Kingsguard, hardly aware of anything but fulfilling her promise to Brandon to watch him ride, when Gendry fell into step beside her. He did not say anything at first, simply walking beside her in silence, before finally venturing, “I spoke to Sansa.”
“Not here,” she hissed, her eyes darting to Ser Daemon, who pointedly looked away, pretending as if he was not listening to the exchange. “Not now.”
“Then when? Where?” Gendry challenged. “She's given us leave - “
“But Aegon has not, and I'd much prefer you keep your head.”
“I'm not afraid of Aegon Targaryen; I never was.”
“That is not the point!” Inhaling deeply, she struggled to find the right words before finally settling on, “We cannot be brazen about it. We must have a plan.”
“Then let us make a plan.” Inclining his head so his words would not carry, he implored, “Think of how long we have waited for each other. Sansa has given us her blessing. This is the finest opportunity we will ever get, so I do not want to squander it.”
“We'll discuss it after the tilts. Brandon is riding - “
“I know. I'm the one who paid for his armor.”
“What? He said Renly - “
“He did not want to upset you.”
As they reached the stands, Gendry nodded, moving alongside Sansa and Elinor while Arya allowed Ser Daemon to help her to her place in the king's box. Aegon, Jessa, their girls, and the twins were all present; none of Arya's children were present. She was prepared to ask Aegon if he knew where they were when Alysanne hurriedly climbed the stairs, her skirts in her hands, taking a seat beside Arya.
“Where are Aemon and Rhaenys?”
Her pretty face was rich with anger and irritation, the firs true break in her facade since returning to court. “Aemon has chosen to ride.”
“Aemon is riding? Aemon? Why?”
“Because he listens to Rhaenys too closely and listens to himself not enough.” Alysanne exhaled sharply through her nose, folding her arms over her chest. “This was meant to be Brandon's day. Why did they stop considering him?”
“Because he is not a dragon,” Arya murmured.
“Well, he is still a wolf, still ours.”
Arya's heart swelled at the fervent loyalty in Alysanne's voice; it reminded her of the love which existed between herself and Jon Snow. She did not know what was going on between her two sons, but she knew Brandon and Aemon had not so much as looked at each other since Aemon's arrival. It was the first time Arya could ever recall sweet-tempered Aemon behaving like a surly man, like Aegon when he was angry; it was the first time Arya wondered how much time and distance had changed all of her children, if all this was her fault.
Aemon acquitted himself well on a horse, unseating one of the Royces from the Vale easily. The crowd cheered for him, their dragon prince, and Arya was glad for it; with his decision to leave the Citadel, Aemon was, once again, Aegon's heir. Nothing good happened for kings who were not loved. Her eldest son was not an exceptional tourney knight, but it had never been his intention to be one. Arya wondered what Aemon's intentions were.
But if the crowd cheered for Aemon, they positively roared for Brandon, who knocked a hulking Whent from his saddle with such force, the poor man seemed to bounce when he hit the earth. Arya's eyes flicked towards where Gendry sat, and she saw he was cheering along with the crowd, pride blatant on his face. It was not until she glanced at Aegon that she saw unhappiness, saw something troubled on his handsome face.
She did not know what bothered him more: the crowd cheering for Brandon or the prancing stag upon his chest.
“I never knew you wished to be a knight.”
Aemon looked up from the book he was reading, the hint of a smile playing at his lips. As she crossed the room to sit upon the edge of his bed, she remembered when he was young at Winterfell; every night she had come to his room and he would tell her about his day: his lessons with Maester Luwin, his time spent with his grandfather, anything on his mind. Once, when she was clashing with Rhaenys, her daughter had accused her of loving Aemon more; sometimes Arya thought it might have been true.
“You've become more tactful.”
“You've become more evasive.”
“One of the skills I learned in Oldtown.” Marking his page, Aemon closed his book, setting it aside. “I wondered when you were going to come. I had hoped our reunion would be happier than this.”
Arya wanted to ask him a thousand questions, wanted to stay in his room and refuse to leave until Aemon described each and every reason for leaving the Citadel, for going to Rhaenys, for spending the past year in the Free Cities. Aemon was always the most honest of her children; she did not think he'd lie.
Instead, she said, “You should make peace with your brother.”
“I did not start this fight.”
“But you can end it.”
“No, I can't.” Aemon sighed with a shake of his head. “You cannot reason with Brandon; I tried. His temper overrides his logic every time. I never meant to hurt his feelings, but he takes everything so personally.”
“He loves you; he wants to support you.”
“And I love him. It is not a matter of love, Mother.”
“Then what is it a matter of?”
Aemon was quiet, staring into the dancing flames in the fireplace, before offering, “You know, sometimes I wish we had remained with Uncle Jon at the Wall. I barely remembered who Father was then; he was half of a memory, stories and nothing more. I liked it there with Val and Dalla; I even liked those horrid cakes you'd try to make for our name days. When I was at the Citadel, I thought of taking the black when I earned my chain; I wanted to serve with Uncle Jon and then I could be close to Rhaenys as well.”
“Then why didn't you?”
“Because Rhaenys needed me more than I needed a maester's chain.” His smile became even more sorrowful as he said, “You gave up what you wanted for Father. We aren't so different.”
“But your father was my husband. Rhaenys is your sister. It is different.”
“Not for Targaryens.”
Something akin to nausea began to rise in Arya's throat. “Are you and Rhaenys - ”
Aemon's face was resolute as he pronounced, “All I am saying is the bond between Rhaenys and I isn't that different from the one you shared with Father. She needed me, so I went to her. Isn't that what you taught us to do?”
Arya got to her feet, her stomach still churning from the way Aemon was speaking about his sister. Taking a steadying breath, she repeated, “Make peace with your brother.”
In her lifetime, Arya had found herself often caught off-guard by the events in her life, but never had she even thought to consider that the feelings Aemon harbored for his sister were anything less than brotherly. Brothers and sisters should not feel the way she once felt for Aegon; it was not natural.
She had to summon Haldon for a dram in order to get to sleep that night.
Rhaenys presented the dragon's egg to Olenna during the feast on the second to last night of the tournament. It was a truly beautiful thing: green and gold, the Tyrell colors on fossilized scales. There were rolls of whispers and gasps as Rhaenys – draped in violet silks this time – handed it to her half-sister. Olenna's eyes were wide with surprise, murmuring her thanks as she ran her palms over the textured egg.
“Consider this is a gift from us all to you and your future husband,” Rhaenys said. “We have dragons; the least we can give you is a pretty egg to stare upon.”
“This is an incredibly generous gift, Rhaenys,” Aegon offered. “Where did you find another egg?”
“I won it from a man in Asshai. Aemon and I thought it would be selfish to keep it, and Olenna is as much a dragon as we are.”
While everyone clapped and celebrated her daughter, Arya watched. Years may have passed, but Arya knew her daughter; Rhaenys had never looked upon Olenna and Elia as equal to her and her siblings, never considered them to be true dragons. It made absolutely no sense why Rhaenys, more immovable than the Wall, would suddenly decide to give a priceless egg to one of Jessa's daughters.
It was not until the dancing started that Arya got the chance to ask Rhaenys why. She smiled, pushing her curls behind her shoulders, and answered, “Olenna is no threat to me; let her show the egg as proof of what a fine, Targaryen princess she is when she goes to Riverrun. It's just rock in her hands.”
“And you don't want to wake another dragon from stone?”
“There's no need now. We woke the dragons to prove we were true Targaryens. Aemon will be king.”
“And you? Will you be his queen?”
Rhaenys said nothing, getting to her feet and moving to exit the hall; Arya moved quickly, following her into the corridor, demanding she stop. Rhaenys kept moving until suddenly spinning on her heel, her face twisted with anger and frustration.
“I should be queen! I am smarter, savvier, more capable than any of my brothers! Had I been allowed, I could have bested any man on the field today, and we both know it! Did you think you could send me to Mance and I would just forget that?!”
“I sent you to Mance because I thought you could live how you wanted!”
“No, you send me to Mance because that is how you wanted to live! You wanted to be a wildling, you wanted to be near Uncle Jon, you wanted to be a spearwife! I wanted to be queen! I wanted what was promised to me! Aemon knows I was meant to be queen; he supports my claim.”
“He is your brother! To wed him to get it - “
“Targaryens have wed brother-to-sister for centuries! We love each other in a way you'll never understand! You cannot give me a throne! Father won't name me as heir! Aemon is doing what is best for the realm!”
“And what about what is best for Aemon?”
“I am what's best for Aemon!”
“He is your brother!” she repeated, nearly exploding with anger.
“And what, we only fuck our good-brothers in this family?”
Her hand swung before Arya even consciously thought of striking her daughter. With a peculiar detachment, Arya saw her hand crash against Rhaenys's cheek, saw Rhaenys's head jerk to side and crimson bloom upon her cheek; Arya had never struck any of her children before, and, judging by the shock on Rhaenys's face, she was as stunned as Arya was.
Her daughter disappeared down the corridor, leaving Arya to her guilt.
She couldn't breathe.
Arya awoke coughing, certain she was having a nightmare about drowning only to find smoke filling her chamber. Throwing back the bedclothes, Arya pushed up the bar on her door to find the corridors so heavy with smoke, she could not see. Her eyes burned, instantly watering; she pulled her nightdress up over her face, trying to breathe as she ran down the corridors. People were shouting, she could hear crashes as wooden beams and stone fell, but Arya did not look back. She could not, the smoke becoming denser as she moved. It was not until she managed to stumble out of one of the servants' entrances, greedily sucking fresh air into her lungs, that Arya realized the flames engulfing the castle were not orange; they were green.
“Wildfire,” she gasped.
The grass was cold and wet beneath her feet as she moved towards the camp; she could see others from the castle coughing, their clothing black from smoke and soot. A flash of silver hair caught her eye and, using every bit of oxygen in her lungs, she shouted, “Daenerys!”
Daenerys turned instantly, rushing towards her. It was only then Arya saw Alysanne, Aemon, and Rhaenys, their clothes also smudged with smoke. As Arya collapsed onto the grass, she rasped, “Where's Brandon? Is he - “
“He's searching for Renly and Ashara,” Alysanne cut in, bending down beside her. “Aunt Sansa, Uncle Gendry, and Elinor are safe, but most of the Kingsguard is still inside, Elia's been badly burned, no one can find Jessa - “
“Where are Daeron and Daena? Duck would have brought them out. Where are they?”
Tears shimmered on Daenerys's cheeks as she said, “Rhaego and Jorah went to get them from their beds, but we haven't seen any sign of them.”
Arya could feel the urge to scream starting to bubble up in her chest, but she knew she could not fall apart now, not when her children were missing, not when her children who were safe looked as if they were on the brink of discomposure as well.
“Still inside,” Aemon managed before becoming too choked with emotion.
“How did this happen? How did wildfire - “
“Viserys,” Daenerys spat, the name poisonous in her mouth. “He wanted to hatch Olenna's egg. None of us knew what was happening until the screaming started; the fire burnt him so quickly, there was no chance of saving him. But the wildfire moved like it was alive, and now...”
The fire raged until midday, until it had consumed every inch of Summerhall, until there was nothing left but ash. Those who had been injured were being treated in tents by the men who had served during the wars; as Arya wandered through them, she saw limbs amputated, people whose skin was burnt black, people who begged for death. Little Elia, not quite eleven, was burnt on the left side of her body; Alysanne remained in the tent with her, helping to hold her down while Aemon shouted orders for what to bring, what plants to find. A half-maester was better than none, and soon Aemon's clothing was saturated with the blood of those he was treating.
Rhaenys and Brandon mounted horses to search the grounds for anyone who might have escaped the blaze and, in their disorientation, wandered into the nearby woods. Daenerys volunteered to gather the ladies, to have them find food and drink for the wounded, while Sansa remained with Elinor, who was in shock. Arya found a strange numbness begin to work its way through her body as she gathered the lords with holdings nearest Summerhall, ordering them to bring help: maesters, silent sisters, septons, able bodied men, anyone who wished to assist. Now was not the time for grief or weeping; for now, she had to be the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.
Even as she was giving orders for men to ride to Highgarden to alert the Tyrells of the tragedy which had befallen Jessa, Arya began to make a list of all those who had perished in the fire: Daeron, Daena, Aegon, Rhaego, Jorah, Renly, Ashara, Jessa, Olenna, Duck, Haldon, Ser Daemon. It seemed as if she was forced to add another name, another person she knew, another person she cared for, another person she would never see again. She thought of the twins as she last saw them, safe and sleeping soundly in their beds, Daeron already tangled in his blankets, Daena clutching her favorite doll. She did not understand why three of her children had once been untouched by fire while two others perished, but she could not consider it now.
When the last of the flames flickered out, when it became obvious there were no survivors, Arya found Aemon bandaging a man's leg. Waiting until he was finished, she pulled him aside and said, “You need to find fresh clothing. You'll need to address the people.”
“Because, as of right now, you are King Aemon Targaryen, the First of His Name, and your people need you.”
Lord Redwyne gave Aemon a pair of pants; a Santagar lent him a tunic. Rhaenys, Alysanne, and Brandon spread the word to gather to hear Aemon speak, and Arya watched as her son began to address the crowd. He was not perfectly eloquent or a graceful politician; at times, he became too emotional for a king, but no one faulted him for it. Anyone could see the crowd needed a calming presence, and, above all, that was Aemon's specialty.
While he spoke, Arya found herself ducking into Renly's tent. She sat upon his bed, the scent of the Stormlands and her old friend surrounding her, and she felt her control beginning to unravel. Her children were dead. Her husband was dead. Ashara and Renly, who had often been the only people in the world who understood her, were dead. Tears began to well in her eyes, teetering on the brink, when she heard someone enter the tent. Jerking her head up, blinking back her tears, she saw it was only Gendry, his own face twisted with sorrow.
Arya was not sure how long she and Gendry remained in Renly's tent, how long he held her as she cried for her children; outside the tent, she would have to be strong, would need to guide Aemon and help him hold the realm.
But right then, as she sat in Renly's tent with Gendry's arms around her, all Arya had to do was be herself. With Gendry, that was all she ever had to be.
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