The coronation of King Aemon Targaryen, the First of His Name, was a somber affair. There was a pall hanging over everything, so many houses having lost loved ones at Summerhall, and Arya insisted the ceremony be small and lacking the opulence the realm was accustomed to; Rhaenys tried to fight her, but Alysanne agreed, managing to sway Aemon into recognizing the wisdom of Arya's words. As Arya stood in the Great Sept of Baelor in her black gown piped with grey – mourning colors for a woman who had lost her children, her husband, the people she loved – with her eyes focused on her eldest son, she wondered if every mother felt like this when handing her son over to the realm.
Arya started as Alysanne's hand slipped into hers, and Arya squeezed it tightly. In the weeks since the fire, she had seen so little of Alysanne, who stayed at Elia's bedside while she teetered on the edge of life and death. The poor girl was in near constant pain, the milk of the poppy required to keep her from screaming; the maesters were still not certain an infection would not claim her, and Alysanne remained at her bedside, clasping her good hand. The Tyrells wanted to take her back to Highgarden, their ruined princess, but the maesters insisted they wait until she was healed. Arya visited Elia a few times, the closest thing to a parent she had left, but Arya doubted she was even aware of what was going on, that she had lost her parents, her sisters, her baby brother.
Rhaenys stood silently on Arya's other side, Brandon on the other side of Alysanne. As the High Septon placed the crown atop Aemon's head, Arya bit her tongue to keep from crying out in protest. He looked so much like Aegon, like every Targaryen king, but Arya knew this was never what Aemon wanted; Aemon cared so little for power, and Arya could never understand why anyone would want a crown for their child. She thought of the cutting words once thrown at her, challenging her decision to have children with powerful men if she so disliked power, and Arya wondered how long the decisions she made with childish impulsivity would affect her children.
“He'll be a good king,” Arya murmured, more to comfort herself than anything else, and she caught Alysanne nodding in agreement out of the corner of her eye.
As the crown was placed atop Aegon's head, the Sept burst into applause, but Arya could not seem to cheer for this turn of events. How could any woman cheer for such a burden being placed on the shoulders of her son?
The Great Hall was decorated in Targaryen splendor, the aromas of so many courses filling the air; Arya's stomach growled and she tried to remember the last full meal she ate since the fire. Since that horrible night, Arya tried to keep moving forward, tried to do anything except sit still and think about what happened. There were no bodies to inter, no bones to be blessed. That was the hardest thing for Arya to accept: that she could not say goodbye to her babies, to Ashara, Renly, and Aegon.
It was a peculiar thing, being a widow again after so long. Arya knew most thought she and Aegon hated each other by the end, but it wasn't so. Life would have been far easier for them both if hatred was ever an emotion they experienced towards the other. The timing and circumstances were never quite right, but, as Arya took her seat at the great banquet table, she looked at her children and knew there was certainly nothing to regret about her last marriage. Aegon Targaryen was a good man, and, though she was not sure how much she believed in the seven heavens, she hoped Daena and Daeron were there with their father.
A lump rose sharply in her throat as tears burned her eyes. She drained her wine cup, signaling a servant to refill it, and she looked towards the center of the table. Aemon sat in the position of honor, already looking weighted down by his new role; Rhaenys was at his right hand, Alysanne at his left. Arya did not think she had ever seen Rhaenys look so beautiful before, her brilliant crimson gown a perfect complement to her dark coloring; her smile was genuine, the smile Arya remembered from when she was a girl, and if there was any good to come from this whole affair, she hoped Rhaenys's happiness would be it.
Unlike Rhaenys, Alysanne wore a cerulean gown, her silver hair woven into an intricate crown of braids held in place with onyx and sapphire combs. Alysanne had never been as beautiful as her older sister; too many of the long Stark features gave Alysanne a plainer look than Rhaenys the same way they made Arya plainer than Sansa. But even though Alysanne would never be heralded as a great beauty, there was something more pleasing about Alysanne, something which drew the eye. Arya thought it was her grin, always so open and inviting, and today was no exception; she watched as Alysanne inclined her head towards Brandon, both of them whispering before breaking into loud, boisterous laughter that made Rhaenys hiss at them in chastisement. There was a clear division now between her children, and Arya did not know how to repair it. So long as Rhaenys and Aemon kept their foolish plan to marry, Arya wasn't sure there was a way. Brandon seemed convinced such a marriage would give Rhaenys the kind of power she always wanted, and, as Alysanne confessed to Arya, Rhaenys did not seem to wear power well.
Her Stark family filled a table nearest theirs, a place of honor; Arya forced herself not to look at the Targaryen table, which sat empty. Daenerys chose not to participate in the day’s festivities, and Arya certainly couldn’t blame her. She remained with Elinor, locked away somewhere with their grief. Arya knew her niece was not taking Rhaego’s death well. For all of the fury their betrothal caused, Elinor truly loved Rhaego. Arya wondered if Rhaenys mourned her cousin and lost love as well. It was so hard to read her these days, and Arya hated how inept she felt now with her children. Though she never considered herself a roaring success as a mother, she always thought she understood her children in a way her parents never understood her. Now that she was older, now that they were, Arya found herself at a loss so consistently, the urge to apologize to Ned and Catelyn was near constant.
Her parents had not come for the coronation, sending their regrets by raven. Ned was ill, his arthritis keeping him nearly confined to a wheeled chair, and it would be impossible for him to make the journey. Arya still felt a stab of panic every time a raven arrived from Winterfell, terrified it would bring word her father was gone. Even as old as she was, Arya did not think she was ready to live in a world without Ned Stark in it. In his place came Robb, Jeyne, and their boys; Robb’s beard was fully grey now, and it startled Arya when she saw him. She didn’t know why; both she and Sansa complained of the lines on their faces and the silver finding its way into their hair. Even Bran and Rickon were starting to show their ages, and Arya wondered when they all got old.
This isn’t our time anymore, she realized as the musicians began to play. Our days have passed and now the world belongs to our children.
“They’re not ready,” Arya murmured aloud, but no one heard. Sometimes she thought people stopped hearing her years earlier.
She waited for Aemon to rise and start the dancing, but her shy son stayed stubbornly in his seat, speaking with the lords and ladies who came to offer their blessings. Arya leaned towards Rhaenys, telling her to encourage Aemon to do his duty, but Rhaenys waved her away, insisting Aemon would move at his own time. With an irritated huff, Arya looked towards the other end of the table and saw Alysanne and Brandon were already rising, Brandon leading his older sister towards the dance floor. Alysanne looked downright child sized in Brandon’s arms, but they both moved with a grace Arya was certain neither inherited from her. Brandon whispered something to Alysanne, which made her face bloom with a smile, and Arya stared for a moment at the picture they made.
The floor began to fill with other couples, and Arya soon lost sight of her children amongst the throng. She pushed to her feet, moving towards her siblings in hopes of finding some sort of sense among the madness.
Gendry found her in the library the following night, her torch burning bright amongst the darkness. Arya sat in one of the high-backed chairs, one of the large, leather bound tomes which recounted the history of the Seven Kingdoms before her. There, on the sprawling list of monarchs, was Aemon’s name, recently entered by the Grand Maester. She ran her fingers over the curves of the letters, and, as Gendry sat beside her, her eyes flicked to the names above Aemon’s, to the brief dates which recounted the rule of Gendry Baratheon, the First of his Name.
“Do you ever miss being king?” she asked.
“I was only one for a fortnight and even that was during a war. It was hardly a pleasant time to rule.”
“Is there a pleasant time?”
“My father seemed to find the whole thing quite pleasant. Of course, he left the ruling to Jon Arryn and your father while getting drunk and whoring, so that likely affected his perceptions.”
“I don’t want Aemon to be king.” Arya sighed, heaving the book closed. “He isn’t built for it. He never was.”
“He’ll learn. You can teach him.”
“What do I know about being a king?”
“You were wed to one for years.” Gendry shrugged. “No one truly knows how to be one, Arya. Everyone muddles through and hopes their advisers know better than they do.”
“And if they don’t?”
“You pray for peace.”
She snorted. “Peace. I don’t even remember it anymore. It feels like I’ve always been at war in some way.”
“Wars of your own making.” He smiled wryly at her offended expression. “We’re too old for false pleasantries, aren’t we? There was a time you’d have run me through for even suggesting it.”
“True.” She settled back in her chair, absently waving a loose lock of hair from her eyes. “I thought of that today, how we’re not young anymore.”
“We haven’t been young in a long time. I think I’ve forgotten what it was even like.”
“Do you ever look at your girls and see all the ways you did them wrong?”
His sigh was deep and weary. “I would like to believe I didn’t do them wrong, that they always felt happy and safe and loved by me. But I…I wonder if it was right to wed Elinor to Rhaego, if I erred in never allowing Rose the freedom she wanted, if Alisa has been soured by the amount of time she spent with my mother. It’s a dangerous game though, Arya, playing at what might have been.”
She nearly commented on how strange it was to hear him say that when it was all they had ever done, play at what-ifs and what might have been. Gods, Brandon was proof enough of that. Arya felt as if she and Gendry had been trying to rewrite history for nearly as long as they had known each other, and all it ever seemed to do was hurt everyone around them.
But rather than point it out, she offered, “Something bad is coming. I can feel it in my bones.”
“Because Aemon is king?”
“Because Rhaenys will be queen.” Arya’s eyes began to burn. “And because I don’t know what is
going to happen when she has that sort of power.”
“You think she’ll abuse it?”
“I think so many people made enemies of my children, and Rhaenys does not forgive her enemies.”
She quickly brushed away an errant tear. “But mostly I fear what the kingdoms are going to do.”
“What do you mean?”
“The people have always been distrustful of my children. And now with the fire…You’ve heard the whispers?”
Gendry nodded just as Arya knew he would. Though the words were exchanged in hushed voices, Arya heard them all the same: Princess Rhaenys gave the egg to little Olenna knowing mad Viserys would try to hatch it, that it was all a plot to eliminate the rest of the line of succession and leave the Iron Throne empty for her children to fill. She certainly did not want to believe it. After all, Arya could still see the shock and disbelief in Rhaenys’s eyes as Summerhall burned, as she realized her siblings, her father, the men and women she grew up alongside were dead. But there was also the niggling doubt in her belly, the constant thrum that compelled Arya to wonder why Rhaenys would travel around the world to procure a dragon’s egg only to give it to a little girl she never considered a true sister.
“I also know they’re lies. No child you raised could ever kinslay.”
Arya wanted to find comfort in the words, but she feared comfort was a thing of the past now.
Elia Targaryen’s room reeked of death. Arya blamed the maester the Tyrells brought from Highgarden for it. He refused to allow anyone to open the windows of her chamber for fear of letting in disease. If the burns festered, the old man explained, it would certainly spell death for Jessa’s remaining daughter. Arya knew nothing of burns or healing, but she doubted anyone could get better in a dark room with such a foul stench.
There was always a Tyrell with Elia, as if they thought Arya or one of her children would do something to the poor child. Arya did not fight it; she knew the paranoia in her own heart, the urge to leave her bed at night just to make certain her children were still safe and alive. With Jessa and Olenna both gone, the Tyrells lost not only their royal hopes but daughters as well. Margaery spent the most time with her great-niece, and today was no exception. As Arya let herself into the shadowed room, she sat Margaery seated next to the bed, a bit of embroidery on her lap.
Margaery Tyrell was as beautiful as she had been all those years ago when she and Sansa competed to be Gendry’s bride. Though there were a few lines around her mouth and a few threads of silver in her hair, Margaery could easily pass for someone much younger than her true age, and as she turned her gaze upon Arya, she saw the Tyrell shrewdness burned bright there.
“Your grace,” Margaery greeted with an inclination of her head.
“Lady Baratheon.” Arya crossed to the foot of the bed, looking down at her injured stepdaughter. The maesters would not let her have blankets and pus from the burns was seeping through the silk coverings, a truly horrifying sight given that so much of her body was hidden by silk. If she survived this, more than half of her body would be covered with thick scars. Arya dimly remembered the man who used to serve Joffrey, the one they called the Hound, and for the first time she thought about how the man earned those horrific marks.
“How is she today?”
Margaery tried to smile but even a courtier as skilled at deception as she was could not hide the genuine pain in her heart. “There is the start of an infection on her leg. The maesters think they might need to remove it.”
A wave of nausea rose in Arya. “Take her leg? Is she strong enough to survive that?”
“No,” Margaery stated matter-of-factly, staring at Elia’s still form. She was given milk of the poppy almost constantly to keep her from screaming and crying. Arya could not even remember the last time Elia was awake. “My father has asked the High Septon to say the rites over her.”
“Seven hells,” Arya breathed, her throat tightening. No matter how she felt towards Jessa Tyrell, Arya certainly never wished ill on her daughters. Olenna and Elia were always doting big sisters to Daena and Daeron, and she doubted anyone could find girls with sweet temperaments. She could still remember when they first returned to King’s Landing, how Alysanne adored playing the older, wiser sister to Jessa’s girls, how Arya would laugh as Olenna and Elia would try to mimic everything Alysanne did. Even when Alysanne would return to court from Starfall, they would rush to meet her, begging for Alysanne to style their hair in the Dornish fashion, demanding Aegon purchase them gowns like Alysanne’s. For the first time since the fire, Arya truly considered what it meant for Jessa’s daughters to be gone.
“It would have been a kinder death for her to perish with her sister,” Margaery offered, brushing a lock of hair away from the unblemished side of Elia’s face. “This is no way for anyone to live, let alone a child.”
“I do not understand,” Arya began before trailing off.
There was so much she did not understand, least of all how to finish her sentence.
For three days and nights, Arya waited for word that Elia finally perished due to her injuries, to hear the peel of bells from the Great Sept of Baelor signaling the death of a member of the royal family. And yet, after three days of waiting, Alysanne came to breakfast and announced the infection receded from Elia’s leg and the Tyrell maester thought she might just live after all.
What kind of life Elia would have was another matter.
It was the saddest excuse for a small council meeting Arya had ever seen. As she entered the chamber, all she could see were the empty seats, the reminders of how many good men perished at Summerhall. All four of her remaining children were seated around the grand table: Aemon at the head, Rhaenys at his right hand, Alysanne and Brandon seated beside each other on the opposite side. Bran sat further down the table, his face a pensive mask, and Arya wondered what position Aemon wanted to install her younger brother in; only last night Aemon lamented the lack of men and women he trusted throughout the kingdoms, and even Rhaenys agreed they could hardly fill the entire small council with Starks without raising a rebellion.
“We have six positions to fill,” Rhaenys announced, and Arya already knew this would be how Aemon’s kingdom was run: by proxy, “and not nearly enough people to fill them.”
“Which position are you filling?” Arya asked Bran.
He gave her a small smile. “Aemon has asked me to be Hand of the king.”
Arya hoped her surprised didn’t show on her face. She expected Aemon to appoint Rhaenys, making her queen and Hand, the same graceless offer Aegon once offered her. In so many ways, Aemon was different from his father, but their lack of political savvy, their inability to see the larger picture was a fatal flaw shared by both Targaryen men. Arya scarcely considered herself gifted at the game of thrones; it was a game she always had so little interest in, but even she knew there were certain moves you could not make without telegraphing aggression to your enemies.
“The kingdoms always operated well when Grandfather was Hand,” Aemon explained, “and the people trust House Stark. And I have offered the position of Grand Maester to Maester Sam. I’ve written to Uncle Jon, agreed to send any amount of men he’d like to the Wall for Sam to be released from his vows.”
“You should offer Lady Allyria or Lord Beric a seat,” Alysanne spoke up, her voice markedly softer than either of her siblings. “Starfall has always been loyal to our cause, Lady Allyria cared for me as if I was her own child, and it would have been what Grandmother Ashara wanted.”
“Which seat would you give her?” Aemon asked.
Alysanne was quiet for a moment, contemplating, before declaring, “Master of Laws. Lord Beric believes very strongly in fairness, which is what you would need, isn’t it?”
There was such genuine affection on Aemon’s face at Alysanne’s declaration, for a moment Arya could pretend they were children again and Alysanne mastered a task rather than decided who should sit on his council. And then Brandon shifted, drawing Aemon’s eye, and both of her boys scowled.
“You have to give a Tyrell a seat,” Brandon stated.
“Are you mad? The Tyrells hate us!” Rhaenys exclaimed.
“All the more reason to do it. They hate you, they blame you for Summerhall, think you planned to steal the throne and cut them out of everything. Do you truly want to fuel the rumors by taking away their seats and sending them back to Highgarden to plot?”
“Let them plot,” she said dismissively. “Have them march 20,000 men of the Reach towards King’s Landing, and I will let Balerion do the rest.”
“Rhaenys, do not even joke about that,” Arya snapped. “Hasn’t there been enough death without you threatening to sic a dragon on the countryside?”
“We shall not bow to the fucking Tyrells!”
“Then bow to basic commonsense,” Alysanne requested. “I don’t want to go to war with anyone, and I don’t want to lose any of you. Isn’t it bad enough we’ve already lost Father and the twins, Grandmother Ashara, Rolly, Haldon? I couldn’t bear it, Rhaenys, and I wish you wouldn’t even say it.”
It was a deft manipulation, and Arya had no doubt that’s what it was. Immediately Rhaenys apologized, her face softening as much as Arya had seen it since her return, and Aemon reached over, covering Alysanne’s hand with his own in comfort. Arya believed Alysanne meant what she said; none of them were eager to bury another. But the way she made certain her voice trembled, the way she looked pleadingly towards Aemon for support, it was downright masterful. Though Arya didn’t understand the dynamics of her children’s fighting, she knew Alysanne always seemed to be the frailest of them and all strived to protect her. If Arya knew that, no doubt Alysanne did as well, and what better way to put down a fight she did not want to hear?
But even as Arya admired the way Alysanne defused the situation, she couldn’t help but notice the twinge of hurt and jealousy on Rhaenys’s face as Aemon assured Alysanne nothing would ever happen to anyone so long as he was king.
Nor did Arya miss the anger and jealousy on Brandon’s handsome face.
The bickering over appointments took far longer than Arya wanted it to as names were suggested and promptly shut down. Even Bran, whose patience always seemed to be infinite, looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but in the chamber, and when the list was decided, Arya wanted to cheer. She felt as if she was 9-years-old again, bored out of her mind while Septa Mordane tried to correct her embroidery, and she needed to be free of the stifling room.
“Wait, we haven’t chosen a Lord Commander.”
It had been difficult enough to select an entirely new Kingsguard. There seemed to be so few knights now who were renowned for their ability; there was no Loras Tyrell or Barristan Selmy or even Jaime Lannister. Both summer and peace bred men who enjoyed the trappings of knighthood without a real talent for it, and it made it all the harder to decide who should be honored with a white cloak.
“Why not Brandon?” Aemon suggested, the chamber instantly falling into dead silence. “That is what you have always wanted, isn’t it? We used to speak of it when you were young. I would be king and you would be Lord Commander.”
“But he is the Lord of Storm’s End,” Arya eventually managed. “Renly left no other heirs.”
“There are a dozen Baratheons about,” Aemon reasonably pointed out, “between Robert’s children and grandchildren. Even Stannis Baratheon’s daughter has a child or two. Storm’s End would certainly not go empty.”
“He is not even a knight. And he cannot take the vows because he does not worship the Seven.” Arya turned to look at Brandon, who suddenly looked every bit as young as he was. “Renly named you his heir. That was a great honor.”
“Greater than Lord Commander of the Kingsguard?” Rhaenys drawled skeptically. “It was always meant to be like this. Don’t you remember, Brandon, when we lived on Dragonstone and you used to say you’d protect us when we took our thrones?”
“That was a long time ago,” Arya continued, a sickness swirling in her belly, “and things are different now. Brandon, you wanted to be Lord of the Stormlands. You…This is what you wanted.”
Brandon finally looked at her, and it took everything within Arya not to go to him, to try to comfort him as if he was small again instead of a man-grown. “I want to protect my pack. I have always wanted to wear a white cloak.”
Aemon and Rhaenys both grinned, Aemon getting to his feet to embrace his brother. The sight should have made Arya happy; all she wanted was for her sons to be friends again, to put aside the petty resentments and slights to be whole. But she had never wanted the white cloak for Brandon in the same way she never wanted the crown for Aemon; the Red Keep was a dangerous place for those who sought to wield power within it.
Alysanne did not join the embrace. As the meeting was finally adjourned, Bran joining Aemon, Rhaenys, and Brandon in discussions of what would come next, Arya sidled up to her youngest daughter and admitted, “I do not know what just happened.”
The bitterness on Alysanne’s face startled Arya. “The people like Brandon; they whisper about how good life was under Robert. In the Stormlands, who knows what a man could plan, especially an angry one? This was no honor. This was the two of them scheming to keep Brandon close so they could watch him.”
“I cannot believe – “
“You will believe what you want to believe,” Alysanne interrupted, shocking Arya with the steel in her voice, “just as you always have. You have no idea what Rhaenys is capable of doing. You’ve never wanted to see.”
“See who anyone us truly are, Mother. You have had your ideas since we were small, and you just expect us to behave that way.” Alysanne wrapped her arms around herself and sighed. “You cannot raise dragons as wolves and expect for them to change into wolves.”
“Is that what you are, Aly, a dragon?”
Alysanne turned her Stark grey eyes on her and said, “It is what I am going to have to be for what comes next.”
From the time she was small, Alysanne seemed to speak in riddles, but for the first time, Arya began to wonder if mayhaps there wasn’t some evil coming their way.
He looked like an excited little boy.
It was all Arya could think as she entered Brandon’s room to see him standing before the full-length looking glass in his very best clothing. The white cloak would be given to him at the ceremony; Aemon was paying a small fortune to have white armor made for all the new Kingsguard and Arya wondered if that would be how she came to see her youngest son: always wearing the white armor she still associated with men like Jaime Lannister and Meryn Trant. She never much cared for the Kingsguard both before and after being queen, but she recognized it was many a boy’s wish to become one of the white swords. Gods knew it had been all Brandon spoke of when he was running around with Winterfell with his cousins.
“That is a fine shirt,” Arya commented as she came to stand beside him, touching the sleeve of the white linen embroidered with black and gold. “Did Alysanne make it for you?”
“Aunt Sansa. She said it is like the one my – my father wore when he was made king.” Brandon blushed as he fidgeted with the collar, and Arya nearly asked if he wished to refer to Gendry as his father more freely. It was certainly no secret, but the actual acknowledgment of his origins was still something Brandon lacked. She thought of Jon Snow on the Wall, of finding out about his own true parentage, and she wondered if there was some sort of curse on Stark women.
Arya thought of little Aeron and the baby born without breath, and she wondered how many times Sansa dreamt of doing something like this for her own sons. She remembered after Brandon was born, how she thought Brandon belonged to everyone at Winterfell for the way he was doted upon, and Arya did not think she’d mind if Sansa wanted to do kind things for her son. There was a time Arya didn’t think it would even be a possibility for she and Sansa to be friends, let alone for her sister to make the bastard son of her husband and sister a gift.
“The ladies of court will weep today when you vow to never take a wife.” Arya absently brushed off his shoulders. “Are you certain you understand what you’re giving away today?”
“Mother – “
“Wearing the cloak means giving away Storm’s End, never having a wife or child of your own – “
“I’m not some green boy who is trundling into this blindly. I have known women – “
“Bedding a woman is not the same as understanding what you’re giving away,” she interrupted. “Your uncle Jon learned the hard way that making an unbreakable vow so young can be a difficult thing – “
“I won’t regret this,” Brandon insisted with all the arrogance of youth. “Aemon askedme to be Lord Commander, Mother. Any man in the Seven Kingdoms, and he trusts me the most. How could I say no to that?”
When they were small, it never surprised Arya to see Brandon trailing after Rhaenys or Aemon with blatant hero worship on his face. Back then, all Brandon wanted was to be included; it certainly seemed as if nothing had changed. She wished she could be happy Brandon wanted to be with his siblings, that his siblings wanted to give him this honor, but Alysanne’s words still rang in her head. How well did she truly see her children? Did every mother have such blindness?
“Be happy for me,” Brandon requested, taking her hands in his. “Renly would understand why I’m
making this choice.”
Renly would tell you it is a fruitless struggle to earn the praise of a king, especially when he is your brother. Arya reached up, smoothing the stray lock of his hair which always seemed to stand straight up. “You shall be a wonderful Lord Commander.”
Brandon smiled and kissed her forehead. “You worry too much, Mother.”
Before she could reply, Arya heard the chamber door open. She turned and saw Alysanne standing in the doorway, her face looking nearly as unhappy as Arya’s own. Her silver hair was unbound today, falling in gentle waves over her shoulders; combined with the pale blue of her gown, it made Alysanne look like one of the princesses in the stories Daena used to beg to hear at bedtime. But it was not Alysanne’s appearance that gave Arya pause; it was the way Brandon could not seem to look at her at all.
“I shall see you at the Sept,” Arya said to Brandon, rising on her toes to kiss his bearded cheek. As she moved past Alysanne, her daughter brushed her fingers against Arya’s wrist, and Arya knew in that moment Alysanne would do everything she could to talk Brandon out of this decision.
Whatever Alysanne said, it did not work. Arya sat in the front pew of the Great Sept with her daughters on either side of her as Aemon wrapped the white cloak around Brandon’s shoulders. She could not resist glancing over her shoulder to see Gendry beaming with pride beside Sansa, whose face seemed caught between pride and sorrow. As Aemon declared Brandon Baratheon to be Lord Commander and the Sept erupted in applause, Gendry looked at Arya; for a moment they only stared at each other before Gendry inclined his head and Arya understood perfectly. The past was the past now. Starting that moment, the slate would be clean.
The applause continued. Arya began to turn back around but paused as Alysanne tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, revealing a bright pink love bite behind her ear. It was then Arya saw the sheen of tears in her eyes, the trembling of her chin, and Arya realized Alysanne had been right.
She did not know her children at all.
“Do you know your children?”
Sansa looked up from her embroidery, a look of confused amusement on her face. “Yes, I am familiar with them.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. Do you know them? Do you think you know the deepest parts of them, their secrets?”
“What are you talking about, Arya? Is this about those rumors again? Because I’ve told you time and again, I don’t believe Rhaenys – “
“No, not Rhaenys.” Arya sighed, afraid to give voice to her fears, afraid of how Sansa would react. Instead she asked, “Do you know your daughters’…dalliances? The boys they’ve kissed, the love affairs they’ve had?”
“I – I do not know. I heard rumor that Rose had some sort of affair with one of the Marbrand boys, but if she did, she was wondrously discreet. Elinor was so proper, I know she went to her marriage bed a maid. And Alisa, she is so emotional, I can’t imagine she’d be able to keep a secret long. Why? Do you think one of your girls is having a love affair?”
“I know Rhaenys is no maid. Rhaego saw to that years ago. Ashara mentioned Alysanne having a flirtation with one of Myrcella’s sons, but I don’t…” Arya huffed, her tongue tangled. “I thought life would become simpler the older they got but I swear it’s harder now.”
Sansa laughed. “Mother told me once that you never grow out of it, fretting over your children. When you were gone, I think she lit a thousand candles for your safe return. The smaller they are, the more you can fix things. A cut knee, a hurt feeling, they can be soothed with a hug and a kiss. But now…How can I make Elinor feel better about being a widow? How do I convince Rose to wed? How can I convince Alisa that Gendry and I don’t prefer her sisters?”
“You and Gendry do prefer her sisters.”
“We do not!” Sansa argued, looking at Arya with the same irritation she had when they were at Winterfell. “My point is that once they can make their own decisions, their own mistakes, that’s when everything starts flying out of your control.”
“I don’t feel as if anything has ever been in my control.”
“Oh, Arya, I would have killed to have half as much control over my life as you have had over yours.” Setting aside her needlework, she asked, “What is it you think you cannot control?”
“You’ve heard the rumors about Aemon’s…marriage intentions?”
“That he intends to wed Rhaenys in the Targaryen fashion? Yes. Most of court expects the announcement any day now.”
“I did not raise them that way. They weren’t taught it was right; they weren’t raised like the Targaryens of old were. I raised them like Starks. How can they make this choice?”
“Mayhaps it is in their blood. They woke dragons from stone, Arya. The Targaryen in them is certainly stronger than the Stark.”
“It disgusts me. Gods, even the idea of it…” Arya pushed to her feet, pacing the floor in agitation. “And I think it is worse than I know. I think I turned a blind eye to everything, that I was so wrapped up in myself and Aegon and the drama of it all, I didn’t even realize what was going on beneath my nose.”
“Arya, I know you are loathe to accept advice from anyone, let alone me, but sometimes the only answer to the problem is to realize there are no answers.”
“’There are no answers?’ That’s the advice you give me?”
Sansa smirked as she picked up her embroidery. “I did not say it was good advice.”
Sometimes Arya liked Sansa better before she developed a sense of humor.
It never ceased to amaze Arya that she and Allyria Dayne shared the same blood. Arya’s fascination with Sansa’s beauty ended when they were still children; it was hard to stay in awe of a person you saw every day, whose life was so intrinsically tied with your own. With Allyria, the fascination never quite seemed to fade. Though Alysanne was the only one Arya ever shared the truth with, Arya wondered if others saw in Allyria the similarities to the Starks Arya recognized. Did they notice she gnawed her lip like Arya did? Did they see the way she studied something for a while before making a decision in the same patient way Bran did? Did they recognize her flares of temper as being like those of Robb or Rickon? Arya doubted it. Allyria looked so much like Ashara had, all dark hair and violet eyed; no one would ever expect the secrets which would likely to go to the grave without being revealed.
This morning Allyria sat in Arya’s solar, her dark hair falling in a tumble of curls over her shoulder. She did not look her age, and Arya thought mayhaps she even looked younger than Arya did. Arya never considered herself a vain person, but she thought it impossible not to compare one’s self to Allyria when she wore her beauty with the nonchalance of someone used to it. It was the same way Sansa and Rhaenys wore theirs, as if it was some pesky detail they were tired of discussing. As Allyria told tale of one of her daughters – Arya could never quite seem to keep track, what with all of the A names – Arya tried to figure out how to ask the question weighing heavily on her mind.
“I swear, I’d sell my soul to the Stranger if she had half the good sense Alysanne does.”
“Speaking of Alysanne, when she was at Starfall, did she have any…romances?”
Allyria smirked. “You mean that flirtation with Landyn Martell? I think it was far more serious in his mind than it was in Alysanne’s. I scarcely think they had time to do anything beyond hold hands. Why, are you matchmaking?”
Arya snorted. “Gods, no. I was simply wondering because she seems so…disinterested in it all.”
Hoping her voice sounded casual, she asked, “Did Brandon often come to Starfall?”
The older woman paused as she thought. “Renly brought him about once a year, I think. Ashara took Alysanne to Storm’s End as well a half-dozen times. Why?”
“I just – Have you ever – Do you ever suspect – “
“That Alysanne and Brandon loved each other as Targaryens do?” Allyria suggested dryly. “I never thought so.” Allyria’s face softened some as she reached across the table, resting her hand atop Arya’s.
“They are good children, Arya. The love they have for each other is pure.”
Arya nodded, relief coursing through her. I have been working myself up over nothing, she thought. Alysanne must have a lover, and she was simply sad Brandon is being used by their siblings. That is all.
She hoped she would never have to think of the subject again.
Most days Arya forgot about the dragons. Aegon’s reinforcement of the pits kept them out of sight, and though the sounds occasionally reached the Keep, Arya trained herself not to hear. Nymeria and Lady despised them, snapping her jaws every time one of the dragons became too loud, and Arya knew they likely never left the minds of the smallfolk. A dozen or so times, boys with too much stupid courage tried to glimpse the dragons, and each time ended in charred flesh and death. While Meraxes and Vhagar were always kept locked away both in body and in Arya’s mind, it was Balerion who worried her most. Rhaenys still refused to say where the massive black dragon was, and Arya feared some day the beast would fly overhead and destroy them all.
It was because she often forgot about the dragons that Arya did not immediately recognize the sound of the drums echoing through the courtyard. Only when one of the Kingsguard came rushing towards her screaming to get inside the Keep did Arya remember the drums were only to be sounded when one of the dragons escaped. She heard the flap of wings only a half-second before she was thrust into the Keep and she strived to see which of her children’s dragons was going to lay waste to the city.
“It’s Vhagar!” Alysanne gasped as the men inside the Keep began to gather as many arrows as they could find. “I can calm him!”
“Calm a dragon? Alysanne – “
“Would you rather I try or let Brandon die attempting it?” she challenged, and Arya could not bear the idea of losing another of her children in such a heinous manner. She watched as Alysanne rushed past Rhaenys, grasping Aemon’s hands and speaking to him urgently. Rhaenys appeared to be disagreeing, but Aemon nodded.
“What are you going to do?” Arya asked of them both, but Aemon ignored her, ordering her into Maegor’s Holdfast with the rest of the women and children. Arya hated it, the outright dismissal of her, but Sansa began shouting her name, tugging her by the hand towards safety.
They were the longest hours of Arya’s life. When Brandon and another white sword finally allowed them out, Arya saw Rhaenys standing behind them, a look of such total frustration on her face she looked like a petulant child. Brandon reported Vhagar was bound in the pit once again, held with fresh chains; the count of the dead was 20 so far, most patrons of an alehouse engulfed by Vhagar’s flames.
“You should have seen Alysanne, Mother,” Brandon said, genuine awe in his voice. “It was as if she was one with the dragon, like you are with Nymeria. She climbed right on his back and got him into the pit without so much as a struggle. Can you imagine?”
“No,” Arya said, “I can’t.”
It was the talk of the kingdoms, the way Alysanne handled the dragon. When she and Aemon returned to the Keep, Alysanne’s gown was dirty with soot; her slippers were gone, her hair unbound, and Arya thought she looked like an illustration Maester Aemon had in one of his tomes. Aemon was equally as sooty, a small cut on his forehead, but he beamed with pride as he sang the triumphs of Alysanne’s efforts. Aemon declared they would have a feast in Alysanne’s honor for saving King’s Landing, and the people seemed eager to celebrate her success. It was only when Arya saw the genuinely puzzled expression on Rhaenys’s face that she knew something was amiss.
“I rode a dragon and all of Westeros feared me,” Rhaenys said, her voice sounding strangely hollow.
“She rides a dragon, and she is a hero. Why do they love her so much but hate me?”
“No one hates you, Rhaenys.”
“They do. They will always love her better no matter what good I will do.” Rhaenys looked at her with dark eyes swollen with pain, and for the first time in years, Arya realized Rhaenys was nowhere near as tough as she tried to be. “How can I compete with her?”
“You do not have to compete. There is no reason to do it.”
But when Aemon announced at the feast that he would be wedding both of his sisters just as Aegon the Conqueror had, Arya understood Rhaenys was right. Therewas a competition taking place between her daughters, and Arya feared what the stakes were.
If Aemon’s coronation was a somber affair, his wedding was anything but. In the year that had passed since Summerhall, memories began to fade, suspicions began to abate; Rhaenys may not be favored by the people, but Aemon and Alysanne were both thought to be benevolent. The year’s prosperity helped fuel support, and, just as Aemon said it would, the choice of Bran as Hand gave the kingdoms the security of a familiar man helming the throne.
Aemon insisted no expense be spared for the nuptials. Both Rhaenys and Alysanne had new gowns made of the finest Myrish lace and silk from the Summer Islands; though neither of her daughters would wear maiden’s cloaks, the cloaks Aemon had made to give each of them were some of the finest cloaks she had ever seen. The feast alone cost more money than Arya thought the coffers could handle, but Aemon insisted the kingdoms needed a reason to celebrate.
“And what better to celebrate than love?”
Arya did not doubt her children loved each other; Gods knew she hoped she raised them to do that much at least. But she could not fathom they would love each other in the way a husband and his wife should. And, as Arya helped dress Alysanne’s hair, she suspected Alysanne felt the same way.
There was a sickliness to Alysanne’s pallor Arya watched her cover with rouge, painting health and happiness onto her face. The gown Alysanne wore was ebony with intricate crimson beading on the bodice; Arya knew Rhaenys’s was the opposite, a brilliant red with black beading. Rhaenys insisted on dressing her own hair this morning, but Alysanne asked for help and Arya suspected it was due to the utter terror on her face.
“You do not have to do this,” Arya murmured as she clumsily attempted to weave black ribbons into Alysanne’s coronet of braids.
“Yes, I do.”
“Aemon would understand if you chose a different path.”
“I’m not choosing this path because Aemon asked me.” Alysanne sighed, running her hands over the silk skirts. “Though I do think he believes I love him the way a wife should love her husband. I think he wants that.”
“He has that with Rhaenys.”
“No, he doesn’t. Aemon and Rhaenys…It is an arrangement. They love each other the way you and Uncle Bran love each other. They are doing this so Rhaenys can be queen and Aemon does not have to truly rule.”
“Then why does he not abdicate – “
“Because no one will ever follow Rhaenys alone. She needs him in a way he doesn’t need her.”
“If that is the case, why are you doing this? Is it to stay in King’s Landing? Because you do not – “
“She shouldn’t be queen, Mother. You know it as well as I do. Aemon listens to me now, and he trusts me.”
“Then you can be his adviser. You do not have to be his wife.”
“And if Rhaenys has an heir, that’s it. Her children will inherit, they’ll be the next Targaryen dynasty, and what then? I love her. I know you doubt it, but I do. She is my sister, and I would die to protect her from harm. But there is too much of the madness in her, the paranoia, the fear. What do you think that will look like in 20 years? What do you think she’ll teach her children?”
Arya felt a lump rising in her throat as she understood what Alysanne was truly saying. “You’re marrying Aemon to have the first heir. You want your son to be king.”
“I don’t want him to be king, but I want it more than I want to see Rhaenys’s power solidified. This is for the good of the realm.”
“You should not have to sacrifice your happiness for the realm. It never ends the way you think it would.”
“Aemon is a good man. Mayhaps too good for these sorts of games. I could certainly have a worse husband. He’ll treat me well and he’ll treat the children I give him well. That will be enough.”
“But he is your brother.”
“And all we’ve ever had is each other, so it will not be so different now.” Alysanne sighed, turning her face up to look at Arya. “I am not asking you to understand. I am not asking you to support this. All I’m asking is that you try to recognize we are not like other people no matter how hard you try to think we are.”
“What of Brandon?” Arya blurted out, unsure why the old fear asserted itself at this moment, and from the way Alysanne looked away, Arya knew it hadn’t been her imagination at all.
“Brandon made his choice long before I made mine.”
“So it’s true then. You and Brandon…”
“When I was seven, Rickard told me I would have to marry Brandon someday, that it was the way Targaryens did things. He said Rhaenys would marry Aemon and I would marry Brandon. Weplanned on that. From the time we were children, we always thought ourselves betrothed. Why do you think I sent back every suitor Father sent? When Olenna’s was announced, when Father summoned us all back, we thought he was going to announce ours as well. I told him it was what I wanted; it’s why he made Brandon Lord of Storm’s End. Didn’t he tell you?”
“No,” Arya whispered, her head spinning. “He never told me.”
Alysanne sighed, turning back towards the looking glass. She sat up straighter, pulling her shoulders back, and declared, “I will be Aemon’s queen, and Brandon will be his shield. We all made our choices.”
“You don’t understand how a single choice now can change everything.”
Alysanne scoffed. “My entire life has been the consequences of single choices you and Father made. If I could learn to live with those, I can certainly learn to live with this one.”
“Alysanne – “
“Just dress my hair, Mother.” Her voice cracked and tears welled in her eyes as she added, “Please.”
Seated in the Great Sept, Arya could admit her daughters were beautiful brides. Rhaenys’s smile was genuine as Aemon wrapped the cloak around her shoulders; Arya wondered if anyone else could tell how forced Alysanne’s was. As the High Septon declared them wed, Aemon brushing kisses against both of his sisters’ mouths, Arya looked to Brandon, who stared resolutely at the floor, his jaw clenched tightly. Arya recognized the expression well.
It was the same one Gendry wore every time Aegon touched her.
“I have to go to Storm’s End,” Gendry told Arya one afternoon after a meeting of the small council.
“Brandon joining the Kingsguard returned Storm’s End to me. There are matters to be settled, positions to appoint. It’s tedious work, but until one of the girls weds, it is my duty.”
Arya hoped the disappointment did not show on her face. Since Summerhall burned, Gendry had been invaluable to her. So much of Sansa’s time was spent with Elinor, and, when Sansa returned to Casterly Rock with Elinor three moons prior, it left Arya bereft of true friendship. In her absence, she and Gendry began the sort of friendship they once had, and for once no one gossiped about it. There were no ugly accusations, no insinuations; by being public with their friendship for the first time, they had managed to erase suspicion in a near instant. Some evenings they even supped with Brandon, and it allowed Arya a small understanding of what it would have been like if she had made different choices in her youth.
“I was hoping you would come with me.”
Arya nearly stumbled over her own feet in surprise. “What? You cannot be serious.”
“I am. You ran Storm’s End for Renly during your marriage. You have an understanding of the Stormlands.”
“I did that twenty years ago. And if we ride out there together – “
“Sansa gave us her blessing a year ago, Arya,” Gendry reminded her, moving to stand before her. “She gave you the moon tea, she asked for discretion, but she did not say for us to deny ourselves. Haven’t we waited long enough for our time?”
They weren’t children anymore. The ache in Arya’s joints and the silver liberally appearing in Gendry’s black hair and beard were proof of that. Their children were grown, her husband was dead, his wife agreed; all of the things that stopped them in the past were gone now. Arya realized Gendry was right. They had waited long enough.
“There must be a reason I can tell Aemon, a true reason he will believe.”
Gendry’s smile started slow but it was bright as the sun. “Tell him you’re meeting with the Conningtons, that you wish to give Jon a posthumous honor. He’ll believe that, and it isn’t wholly a lie as I’m sure we can think of something to give him.”
“How long would we be staying?”
“A moon’s turn, mayhaps a bit longer.”
A moon’s turn. The longest she and Gendry had ever been alone was a few hours. The idea of so how much time, of so much opportunity made Arya’s heart flutter as if she was a girl again.
“When do we leave?”
Aemon believed her story as easily as Arya knew he would. Rhaenys clearly did not believe her, and Alysanne hid a smile behind her napkin but no one said a word against it. The only person who expressed any true opinion was Brandon. He came to her rooms the day before she left, clasped her to him, and said, “Have fun.”
Arya scarcely remembered fun, but she vowed she would do whatever it took to make sure it happened.
They were the happiest weeks of her life.
Storm’s End was how Arya remembered, right down to the disapproving looks its inhabitants gave her. But Gendry was well loved by the people of the Stormlands and Brandon even more so, and thus Arya was spared any true unfriendliness. Old Cortnay Penrose died years earlier, and the new castellan was a great deal kinder. He welcomed Gendry effusively, and Arya smiled to herself that, at least in the Stormlands, the Baratheons were still king.
Gendry was given Renly’s chambers and Arya returned to her old chamber, the one she had not been inside since the night she fled the Stormlands with Aegon. It felt like another woman’s life, the period of time when she was the Lady of Storm’s End, but Arya could admit she missed the smell of the salt water drifting through the window, the sight of the waves crashing against Shipbreaker Bay. Storm’s End was a beautiful place, even if it had not always been the kindest to her.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Gendry commented from the doorway.
Arya turned with a smile. “It feels a bit like it. I feel as if I’ve lived a dozen lives, but this one…I always regretted what happened here, what I did. I was so young and so painfully stupid.”
“We all were then. We all are still.” Gendry set his hands on her shoulders with deliberate care, almost as if he was afraid she’d turn to dust in his hands. “But we’re here now, and the past is the past.”
“The past is the past,” Arya echoed, turning her face up for a kiss.
It was some of the best weeks of her life. Arya would never say it aloud; in some ways, Gendry was more fanciful than she was and he would start to plan beyond this time. She could not allow herself the luxury of imagination; this time was limited, and Arya intended to joy it fully without thinking of the loneliness that would follow it.
Their days were spent riding through the countryside, walking on the beach, and indulging in everything they could possibly think of; Arya did not think she slept a wink the first two days, her desperation for Gendry’s touch rivaled only by his desperation for her. It was the most wonderful of routines, waking together, going about their days never far from the other. If the servants noticed, they turned a blind eye, and Arya sourly thought of old Cortnay Penrose reporting all of her misdeeds back to Robert.
Yet for all of the happiness, all of the indulging in everything they never had, Arya knew this was likely their last times together. This was a single escape. Once they returned to King’s Landing, she would resume the tedium of being Queen Mother, and Gendry would return to Sansa. Even with her blessing, Arya did not want to bed Gendry beneath Sansa’s nose ever again. They were too old to make the same mistakes again.
Sometimes Arya would catch her reflection in the full-length looking glass that once belonged to Cassana Estermont and would realize just how far from youth she was. She was still slim, but her breasts had lost their firmness long ago, the result of nursing her children; silvery marks covered her stomach and thighs, and her face bore the lines of a woman who lived a hard life. Brandon often touched the furrow between her eyes, telling her she looked as if she was constantly considering the end of the world, and Arya did not know how to impress upon him how much she fretted over everything. Arya studied herself now, touching the lines bracketing her mouth, and thought of her mother’s face, of how she wore her worry on her face as well.
“Do you think we’re destined to become our parents?” Arya asked Gendry that night as they lied in bed, Arya drawing random patterns on Gendry’s chest.
“Gods, I hope not.”
“Do you think the gods plan our lives and we have no control over it?”
“I think we make choices. I don’t know that the gods care about us at all.”
“There are times when I do not know which I would prefer, knowing I had no control for what has happened or that everything has happened because of what I did.”
Gendry brushed his lips against the crown of her head. “Let’s not think of it now.”
The raven arrived a week before they were to return to King’s Landing. She and Gendry returned from riding through the forest, both of them aching from such a hard ride after so many years in King’s Landing, and all Arya could think of was how wonderful a hot bath would be. They were barely inside the castle before the maester found them, presenting Arya with the letter. The bright red wax of the dragon seal made Arya’s chest tighten, and she found herself afraid to open it.
“If it were truly bad news, you would have received more than one raven,” Gendry logically pointed out, and Arya nodded, breaking the seal with a trembling hand.
“Alysanne is pregnant,” she read, numbness settling into her limbs.
And with that, the time for pretending ended and reality returned.
By the time Arya and Gendry returned to King’s Landing, Alysanne’s stomach was beginning to gently curve beneath her gown. While Alysanne smiled peacefully as Gendry offered his congratulations, Aemon grinned wider than Arya thought he ever had. It was not until Aemon was in the midst of explaining his plans for the child that Arya realized Rhaenys and Brandon were nowhere to be found.
“She is having a difficult time,” was all Aemon would offer when Arya mentioned his older sister, his smile wilting for the first time, and Arya knew something was amiss.
As Arya knew she would, she found Rhaenys in the stables grooming her horse. Rather than the elaborate gowns she had taken to wearing since her coronation, she wore riding leathers and an old tunic, her dark hair haphazardly braided down her back. When she saw Arya, Rhaenys paused for a moment before spitting, “Don’t you dare look at me with such pity in your eyes.”
“It’s not pity,” Arya argued calmly. “It’s concern.”
“For what? House Targaryen is blooming. There will be an heir in the cradle in only five moons time.” Rhaenys tore the brush through her horse’s mane, her hands gripping it so tightly, her knuckles were white. “Gods bless the good Queen Alysanne. Where would we be without her?”
“I know this isn’t what you wanted – “
“What I wanted?!” Rhaenys exploded, throwing the brush to the ground. “She has taken everything from me! The only constant I have ever had in this world is Aemon’s love, and even that Alysanne has wrangled away with a single pregnancy!”
“That is not true. You have had so much more than that – “
“No, I haven’t! Father loved us when it was convenient, you were wrapped up with Father and Gendry and Aunt Sansa! The only one left to care for me was Aemon, and you know it!”
Arya cringed from the assessment of her parenting. She knew she had mayhaps not loved Rhaenys as well as she should have, that she had relied on her independence a bit too much, but she never believed her daughter would feel so abandoned by her. “Rhaenys, I am sorry – “
“I was meant to be queen! I found the way to wake the dragons, I worked constantly to learn everything I would need to know, I built an alliance with the wildlings should we ever need their support, I learned to speak languages so I would be a learned queen, and in the end it hasn’t mattered at all! Alysanne did nothing but sit around, play at being pretty, and flirt, and she will forever be higher than me for whelping his first child!”
“You know there is more to Alysanne than that. It is unfair of you – “
“Yes, please, lecture me on how one is meant to treat her sister when you have returned from a holiday with your good-brother!” Rhaenys growled.
Arya took a calming breath, trying desperately to control her temper. “I know you are disappointed – “
“No, Mother, what I am, is angry. I did everything a good queen is meant to do. I did everything I could to make certain Aemon and I would have the future we planned together on Dragonstone. And now I realize it wasn’t me he wanted. He had no intention of ruling these kingdoms with me by his side. From the beginning he insisted Alysanne wed us as well, and now I see why.” A tear began to course down her cheek but Rhaenys pushed it away immediately. “He loves her. He’s in love with her. Of course she is pregnant with his heir. He comes to my bed once a moon’s turn but spends every other night with her.”
It was a peculiar thing, hearing Rhaenys’s assessment of her marriage. On the one hand, Arya was repulsed by the idea of her children lying together, of Aemon getting a child on either of his sisters; on the other, Arya understood the complicated dynamics of a group marriage, of how even knowing that jealousy might come it still leaves you unprepared for the intense feelings which come from knowing your husband is bedding another woman. She wanted to tell Rhaenys that, wanted to assure her Aemon was simply like his father and would go in phases of fascination, but she couldn’t. It was obvious Rhaenys wanted none of her kind words.
“Everyone has always loved her better,” Rhaenys declared, wiping the tears now falling steadily on her face. “I sold my soul to the Stranger to ensure our family’s survival, and now Aemon is punishing me for it. We made the choices together, but only I have to live with the consequences.”
In that moment, Arya understood perfectly what Rhaenys meant. The image of Daeron and Daena tucked into their beds at Summerhall swam before Arya’s eyes, and bile rose in her throat. She could not even look at Rhaenys, could not consider how she’d ever look on Aemon; she did not want to believe her children were responsible for such a terrible thing, and as she stepped backwards, she saw panic flood Rhaenys’s face.
“We did not know!” Rhaenys sprung forward, grabbing Arya by the forearms to keep her in place. “Fire did not burn us. We thought it would be the same for the twins, for Father; even Olenna and Elia, we thought they would be spared. Aemon thought they would wait to try, that they would have learned from the past and not attempted to do it inside the castle. It was only supposed to show the kingdoms that Jessa’s daughters weren’t true dragons – “
“Stop – “
“Not like us, not like – “
“Stop it!” Arya screamed, startling Rhaenys into silence. Jerking her arms out of Rhaenys’s grip, she could only stumble away, her head spinning so quickly she thought she might pass out. How could they have done this? How could they live with it? It was kinslaying. Only the vilest of people ever did such a thing.
She sent the raven the moment she entered the Keep, sealing it with her direwolf and waiting until the bird departed before returning to her chambers. For nearly an hour Arya sobbed out her frustration and grief, sobbed for the innocent lives lost to her children’s machinations, and when she was done she realized she did not know what would come next. Did Alysanne and Brandon know what truly happened to their siblings? Had they played a part in it?
At supper, Arya could scarcely look at her oldest children, struggling to stay focused on the conversation around her. It was near the end she announced her plans.
“I am going to visit Sansa at Casterly Rock.”
“You never go to the Westerlands,” Alysanne pointed out.
“I am feeling restless.”
Arya saw Rhaenys and Aemon exchange glances, but she hadn’t much time to consider it as Alysanne suggested, “Why don’t I go with you? I’ve never seen the Westerlands, and I do miss my cousins.”
“No,” Aemon immediately protested, “absolutely not. The Westerlands have always been hostile to the Targaryens – “
“Then Brandon can come as my personal shield,” Alysanne reasonably pointed out. Her smile was pure innocence as she leaned forward, touching Aemon’s arm. “It will be the last chance I have before our son is born. You know Brandon would never let any harm come to me, and you can send a score of men with me if it will ease your mind. Please, Aemon?”
It was masterful, the way she handled Aemon, and in that moment, Arya wondered which of her daughters was more dangerous. Given their differeing strengths, if they worked towards a common goal, Arya knew they would be unstoppable. The idea of it was both inspiring and terrifying.
“Do you mind if we stop at Highgarden on our return to visit Elia?” Alysanne queried a fortnight later as they climbed into the litter that would take them to Casterly Rock. “I made her a new scarf to wear for her head.”
“I’d like to see her as well,” Brandon chimed in, offering his hand to help Arya into the litter.
Arya could not believe her youngest children played a part in Summerhall. It would break her heart too entirely if she did.
They were at Casterly Rock for nearly a week before Arya glimpsed Cersei Lannister for the first time in nearly twenty years. The former queen was still beautiful, though her golden hair was now white and held back with hair pins set with rubies. Her gown was in good repair though the material had faded somewhat, and her slippers were a bit worn. It was nothing like the woman she had been at Storm’s End, the one who took pleasure in making her thank Robert for treating her so shabbily. The years had been unkind to Cersei in so many ways, but any sympathy Arya managed to have for her evaporated as she fixed her emerald eyes on Brandon and drawled, “You must be the bastard my son got on his good-sister.”
“Leave him be,” Arya ordered fiercely, stepping in front of him, but Cersei only smirked, craning her neck to get a better look at Brandon.
“A Baratheon in a white cloak,” she chuckled. “I thought the only talents Baratheons had were drinking and whoring.”
Brandon said nothing, staring at Cersei with a blank expression.
“Your great-uncle wore the white cloak. He was Lord Commander as well. Mayhaps you look like Robert but fight like Jaime.” Cersei lifted her hand as if to touch Brandon’s face before pulling back with a scowl. “No, Baratheon and Stark could never make someone as gifted as Jaime.”
Arya opened her mouth, prepared to tear into Cersei with a viciousness she had been storing up for most of her life, when Brandon said instead, “It’s nice to meet you, Grandmother.”
Cersei left then, disappearing down a hallway even as she muttered under her breath, and Arya turned to look at Brandon curiously. “She did not upset you?”
Brandon shook his head. “No, Gendry warned me she would be like this. He said I should be kind to her.”
“Be kind? Why?”
“Because she is not much used to kindness.”
Arya never thought Cersei would be a pitiable thing. But as she witnessed the fallen queen repeatedly attempt to get a rise out of Brandon only to be output by his kindness, Arya thought pity was all she had left for Gendry’s mother. It had to be terrible to be the only one left, to have seen the ones you loved most executed and be left with the ones you felt betrayed you.
Arya hoped she never lived long enough to find out.
“A curious thing happened today,” Sansa said as she and Arya walked on the beach mid-afternoon two moons into their visit. It was unseasonably warm today, and Arya wished she was still young enough to bathe in the sea.
“Alysanne asked me if she could stay until her child is born.”
“Did she say why?”
“She said she missed the sea, that the Blackwater just wasn’t the same, and she’d like to spend her pregnancy in a place that made her happy. I told her it was fine, that we are happy to host her, but I cannot imagine Aemon will be quite so excited about the news.”
“No, he won’t. She did not mention this at all. I can’t imagine it’s as simple as all that.”
Sansa paused for a moment, clearly struggling with whether or not to say something else. Finally she said, “I think Alysanne likes being free of Aemon and Rhaenys.”
“Has she said something?”
“No, not to me or Elinor. It is more…Watch her when someone mentions their names. She always looks so sad at the prospect of returning. I think life as a queen is weighing on her.”
Arya tried to speak to Alysanne that night about the matter, but Alysanne repeated the same reasoning she gave to Sansa: she wanted to be by the sea. Sansa arranged for her maester to send a raven to Aemon, stating it would be unsafe for Alysanne to travel the Kingsroad so late in her pregnancy, and Alysanne included her own missive telling Aemon he should not come when there was so much work to do in King’s Landing. Arya still thought Aemon would appear with a retinue of men, but instead he sent presents for Alysanne and books to keep her from being bored.
“He seems excited for the child,” Arya ventured one afternoon as Alysanne sat with her feet up, her ankles swollen to twice their size.
“Yes,” was all Alysanne said in return, rubbing her stomach.
Alysanne’s labor began during the hottest, stickiest night most in the Westerlands could remember. A summer storm raged outside, waves from the Sunset Sea crashing against the rocks, and Alysanne’s cries rivaled the booms of thunder. Arya had never experienced child birth as an observer, and she found herself terrified by the sight. It was different when she was bringing children into the world. The pain and the goal of delivering a healthy child were all she could think of then; never once had she thought of how she looked to others, of how truly dangerous it was to birth a child.
As with most things, Sansa was calmer and more efficient in readying Alysanne for the childbed. While the servants and maester made their preparations, Sansa calmly explained all that would come next. Alysanne nodded, her body coated with sweat already, silver hair sticking to her face, and Arya thought she looked too young to have a child of her own.
Sansa took Alysanne’s left hand and Arya, her right as she labored. They were five hours into the process when a shriek erupted from Alysanne’s mouth so loud and sharp, Brandon burst into the room with his hand on the pommel of his sword. The servants tried to dismiss him, assuring him this was what childbirth sounded like, but Alysanne cried out, “No, please, let him stay,” and Arya knew then an entire army couldn’t remove Brandon from that room.
Her son looked sick as he watched Alysanne strain and push to bring the heir of the Iron Throne into the world, looking as young as Arya often forgot he was. He was only recently six-and-ten, and the expression on his face reminded Arya of the one he wore so often as a child. Arya winced at the bite of pain in her hand as Alysanne squeezed it particularly tightly, and the sound which came from Alysanne’s chest seemed like a roar as she bore down. For a moment, there was silence and then the indignant shriek of a newborn baby.
“It is a boy, Your Grace!” the maester announced, cutting the baby’s navel cord before passing him to Sansa to be cleaned and swaddled. Alysanne sighed, sinking back into the pillows, and Brandon knelt beside her, taking the hand Sansa clutched and kissing her knuckles.
“Doess he look like me?” Alysanne asked weakly, her voice raw from screaming.
Arya thought it was a queer question to ask. Though Alysanne’s features were more Stark, she and Aemon still bore a strong resemblance to each other. There was little doubt the babe would look like them.
Sansa came to the bed, Arya’s grandson nestled in her arms. Arya could scarcely believe she was a grandmother now, and though she was still uneasy with the idea of her children having children together, she found herself reaching for the baby, joy blossoming in her heart.
And then the baby opened his eyes and Arya saw brilliant, Baratheon blue.
“Oh, he has the Tully eyes,” Sansa said as she handed the babe to Alysanne, a serene smile on her face, “just like Daena did.”
“Just like Daena,” Alysanne echoed softly, turning her arms enough so that Brandon could see the babe’s face.
For a moment Arya wondered if Sansa truly believed the baby had their mother’s eyes, and then Sansa looked at her, her mouth set in a line, and she nodded minutely towards Arya. She knew then Sansa would never say a word about the truth of the baby’s paternity. Arya felt stupid for thinking even for a second Sansa would not recognize the same eyes her husband had, that her own children had.
“What will you call him?” Arya asked, struggling to keep her voice even.
“Baelor,” she answered. “Aemon wished to call him Baelor.”
Arya understood then why Alysanne wished to have the child at Casterly Rock, why she wanted to be so close to the sea, why she arranged for Brandon to accompany them. If Baelor had been born as Baratheon as Brandon, they would have had to leave Westeros as quickly as they could to avoid punishment for such treason.
A handful of days later, Arya sat in Alysanne’s solar, Baelor asleep in Alysanne’s arms, and said, “You took a terrible risk.”
Alysanne smiled at the baby in her arms. “Madness or greatness, Mother. That would have been too great of a risk.”
She sighed, exhaustion creeping into her body. “I understand you and Brandon feel…strongly for one another, but to gamble this way with your lives – “
“We will not have to gamble again. Baelor is Aemon’s heir now. No bad will come to him. He will grow to adulthood, he will become king, and that is enough.”
“There is no way of guaranteeing that.”
“I will guarantee it.” Alysanne looked up then, and Arya saw some of herself in the resolve there. “Don’t blame Brandon for this. I begged him to do it. The Baratheons are good men. I needed to make certain Baelor would be a good man.” When Arya said nothing, Alysanne insisted, “There is no more sin in Baelor’s origins than there is in Brandon’s. Aemon will never know the truth. He will love him all the same.”
Alysanne was right, of course. When they rode into King’s Landing, Aemon waited for them, so full of happiness he seemed to vibrate with it. As he took Baelor for Alysanne’s arms, he declared, “Oh, what a handsome son you have given me.”
Rhaenys looked away, her face twisted with pain.
So did Brandon.
Baelor’s first name day had come and gone when the raven from the Wall reached the Red Keep. Summer had faded quickly, the cool winds of autumn signaling what a miserable winter it was sure to be, and Arya was carrying Baelor through the castle when one of the Kingsguard came and found her.
“The king needs you immediately.”
Arya gave Baelor to his nurse before hurrying to Aemon’s solar where her other children, Bran, and Daenerys, returned from Dragonstone, already awaited her. Bran held out the letter for her, and Arya’s stomach flip as she saw it bore the black mark of the Night’s Watch and was written in Jon’s slanted hand.
For several moments she was not certain she was reading it correctly. Finally all she could say was, “White walkers? Is this a jape?”
“No jape,” Rhaenys answered, her face as serious as a septon’s. “I’ve seen them with my own eyes. Most anyone who has been Beyond the Wall has. Jon needs our help.”
“To fight White Walkers?” Arya looked to Bran, whose somber face provided her no comfort. “How does one even fight them?”
“Fire,” Aemon supplied. “Dragonglass and fire. There are too many for Jon and the Watch to fight. Even if Uncle Robb calls his banners to defend the Wall, they will be overrun. We must go. We have the means.”
“It will take over a moon’s turn to march north – “
“We will not be marching,” Alysanne cut in, and Arya understood then why Brandon looked so upset.
“You mean to take the dragons to the Wall.”
“If this is the Long Night, we have no choice. There was a reason we could wake the dragons. This is it.” Alysanne tried to smile. “What harm can come to us on the backs of dragons? When has a Targaryen ever failed on dragonback?”
Arya knew there was no argument she could make. She listened as Aemon explained that Bran would ride to Winterfell to join the Northern troops while Daenerys stepped in as Hand. They would leave Baelor in Arya’s care with the order that, should they all fall in battle, Arya would be Regent until Baelor came of age.
This is happening too fast, Arya thought wildly as they continued to talk of preparations, of ravens to be sent, of supplies that needed to be taken north.
Arya forgot how swiftly the world moved when war began.
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