The raven arrived from King's Landing only a month after the birth of Robb's son, King Robert's seal on the paper. Arya saw Robb's eyes widen when he read the words and, when he lifted his gaze, Arya suspected she knew exactly what it said.
“You are to come to court for the announcement of your betrothal to Lord Edric Dayne of Starfall.”
Arya wondered how feasible her plan of escape to the Wall really was.
The ride to King's Landing was long but not particularly unpleasant; Robb was nowhere near as strict with her as their parents were, and it made their stays in the inns more pleasurable with mead to help her sleep. By the time they reached the Crownlands, she had won a fair amount of coin from Theon playing dice and learned some impressively inappropriate jokes to share with Bran and Gendry.
Not Gendry, she reminded herself as they rode towards the Red Keep. He is nothing now.
Ned and Catelyn met them upon their arrival, hugging them as if they had been parted for years rather than only nine moons. Arya was surprised to see Bran had grown even taller since their parting, and Rickon was not even at court anymore, having been sent to Riverrun as a page. When Sansa came to greet them accompanied by Margaery Tyrell, Arya idly noted Gendry's other potential bride was very pretty though in a different way than Sansa. Both of the older girls congratulated her on her betrothal, and Arya could read the naked longing in their eyes, both having expected to be betrothed to Prince Gendry long ago.
“You will like Lord Edric,” Sansa declared as Arya was forced to remain still while maids laced pearls into her hair. Arya wished to turn around and tell her sister exactly what she thought of the engagement but said nothing, not when her mother was fussing with the purple gown Allyria Dayne had made for Arya as a gift. “He is kind and you will be the Lady of Starfall.”
“Ashara Dayne threw herself from the Palestone Tower at Starfall,” Arya said instead, staring at her unfamiliar reflection in the mirror. Sansa looked at her in confusion but Arya saw Catelyn freeze.
“Who is Ashara Dayne and why did she kill herself?”
“Sansa, you should ready yourself for the feast,” Catelyn answered, lifting the beautiful silk gown from the bed. “I can finish with Arya myself.” When they were alone, all of Arya's dark hair pinned and adorned with pearls, Catelyn sighed. “Who told you the story of Ashara Dayne?”
“Uncle Benjen told Jon, Jon told me some and Gendry, the rest.” Meeting her mother's gaze in the mirror, she asked, “Did she leap from the tower because Father took Jon away?”
“I do not know why Ashara did what she did, but I would not say her name before your father. He cares not at all for gossip, especially about those who cannot defend themselves against it.”
As Arya stepped into the gown, so different from her northern dresses, she asked, “Did you love Father when you married him or did you still love Uncle Brandon?”
Catelyn paused for a moment before carefully pulling the ribbons which would lace the gown up the back. “I did not know your father when I wed him. My betrothal to Brandon was long, and I knew him as well as I could have given the circumstances. I was certain I loved him, and I mourned him when he died.”
“Did you want to marry Father? Did Grandfather Hoster give you a choice?”
“There are not many choices given to women, Arya, and even less given during times of war. But once I grew to know your father, I loved him.”
“So he did not love you either when you wed.”
Arya saw her mother flinch a bit, and she instantly regretted the statement. “Many things will be said about Ned Stark one day, but the one which will carry on for generations is how well he wears his honor. He wed me because it was what needed to be done, and I suppose he felt sorry for what happened to Brandon, what was taken from me. And I suspect, if I am being quite honest, he loved Ashara Dayne and hoped to wed her before everything changed.”
“I don't want to marry Edric Dayne.”
“I know.” Smoothing the back of her dress, Catelyn said knowingly, “But you have not told me the name of the boy you wish to marry.”
“I wish to marry no one.”
Catelyn smiled. “And which boy in the Seven Kingdoms do you wish to also not marry anyone?”
Arya frowned, trying to tug the neckline of the dress higher to cover more of her breasts. “It does not matter. Nothing I want will ever matter ever again.”
Her mother frowned for a moment before plucking a large winter rose from the collection of flowers in the vase. Urging Arya to sit, Catelyn carefully wound the long step of the rose through Arya's hair, the blue petals bright amongst the dark strands of her hair.
“You never knew your Aunt Lyanna, but she was much like you. She came with Brandon and your grandfather to visit at Riverrun after my betrothal, and I quite liked her. Brandon used to say she was wilder than even the worst northern winter, but he said it with such love in his voice.”
“Father never speaks of her.”
“No, he has never forgiven himself for not reaching her sooner, for not saving her. Sometimes I do not think Robert has forgiven him either. Lyanna Stark was as much a force of nature as the wind or the waves, and I think a little piece of Ned died the day she did.” Resting her hands on Arya's shoulders, she confided, “The day you were born, screeching and red-faced as you were, he took one look at you and said, 'Oh, she has Lya's look.' It was the first time I had heard him speak her name since she died. He has always indulged you because of it.”
“He always says I have to start acting like a lady.”
“And then when you are gone, he laughs at your escapades and gets you a new horse.” Catelyn kissed the crown of her head. “My point, my dear, is memory has a way of softening what was there and making people forget what was unpleasant. Lyanna once told me she never wished to marry if she did not love her husband, and she knew Robert no better than I knew Ned.”
Arya understood what was not being said; it was her specialty. “You are saying I am exactly like Lyanna.”
“It is why King Robert took such an interest in your marriage prospects.” A teasing smile on her face, she added, “Gods forbid anything happens to Queen Cersei before you are properly wed or else I believe he might just claim you for himself.”
Turning on her stool, Arya locked gazes with her mother. “No one man would be able to steal me from Winterfell, especially if I was on a horse. I could only be taken if I wanted to be taken.”
Catelyn nodded minutely. “But why would you want to be taken?”
Because I do not want to marry the man chosen for me.
Arya sighed, slowly rising to her feet. She thought of Needle hidden away in her trunks, thought of Winterfell and the scent of the air, thought of Jon as she last remembered him, thought of everything she loved; Arya did not doubt she could escape King's Landing, hide and live as someone else entirely, but she did not want to be followed. The last time a Stark bride went missing, a war was waged to bring her home, and Arya heard the subtle reminder in her mother's voice: do not be like Lyanna in this.
She could see it in her father's eyes, in King Robert's; neither man was looking at her. They were seeing a woman who had been dead for nearly twenty years, a woman who was barely older than Arya when she died; from the whispers of the court, Arya suspected those who were old enough to remember Lyanna Stark were seeing the same. Arya lowered her gaze, staring at the floor as she was escorted to Edric Dayne of Starfall; she knew he squired for Lord Beric Dondarrion, that he was nicknamed Ned, and most everyone agreed he was an honorable man. She certainly could have been promised to someone worse, someone like Joffrey; she could survive this.
Mayhaps I will even like him.
He was not very tall or broad; his fair hair fell across his forehead, and he wore House Dayne colors which flattered his coloring. Arya supposed he was attractive, but she could not say he was handsome. When he kissed her hand, his lips were dry and a bit rough, and Arya hoped she would not have to kiss him tonight.
It was not until she was seated beside Edric that she saw Gendry for the first time since he left Winterfell. He sat to the right of the king, his blue eyes fixed upon her as he glowered beneath the dark fringe of his hair; Arya saw him summon one of the servants multiple times to refill his cup, and, as the night wore on, a flush started to fill his cheeks. She had seen Theon look like that often enough to know the heir of the Seven Kingdoms was drunk, and Queen Cersei seemed to notice it too, gesturing for the servant to skip Gendry's cup when he returned with the wineskin.
When the music began for the dancing, Arya could not help but flinch. She hated to dance, having been declared hopeless at it years earlier; she could still remember her dancing lessons back at Winterfell, how she tripped and stumbled while Sansa floated gracefully about the floor. It was not like the footwork needed for sword fighting; with Needle in her hand, Arya could always find her rhythm. With a man pushing her about the floor, all Arya ever felt was a need to take charge and stop moving backwards.
Edric held her loosely, his own feet as clumsy as hers; Arya was certain they looked ridiculous and was grateful when other couples began to join them. Her eyes found Bran's across the room, her brother partnering Princess Myrcella, and he stuck the tip of his tongue out, drawing a wan smile from her. Edric attempted to start a handful of conversations as they danced, but neither could seem to sustain them; she wished she was like Sansa in that moment, always knowing the right thing to say or do.
It felt as if the song would never end, and then Robb, Bran, and a handful of other lords were asking for the pleasure of a dance. Arya wished she could say no, wished she was back at Winterfell with Jeyne and baby Rickard; instead she smiled tersely and tried not to stare longingly at her chair. She was trying not to flinch from Lord Baelish's touch when suddenly Gendry was there, unsteady on his feet but unwavering in his gaze.
“I am cutting in,” he stated, and Arya did not recognize his voice, deep and commanding. It was a prince's voice, the voice of a man who would one day be king, and Arya saw Lord Baelish reach the same realization at she did only a moment before Gendry took hold of her.
His grip was tight, one hand settling lower than appropriate on her back, and Arya blushed at how closely he held her; she could feel the heat of his body through the thin silk of her gown, and, when she attempted to put some distance between them, he pulled her even closer, the small swells of her breasts brushing against his chest.
“You look ridiculous, Lady Dayne,” Gendry slurred.
Arya resisted the urge to raise her knee to catch him between the legs. “And you are drunk, Prince Gendry.”
His fingers biting into the small of her back, he continued, “You do not even look like you. You look like some Dornish whore.”
She struggled for a moment but, seeing the queen glaring at her, Arya stilled, hating Gendry and his stupid Lannister mother. “I do not care if you are the prince, I will - “
“They put you in a gown and put trinkets in your hair, and now you look just like the rest of them. Bet you're even going to curtsy and call him 'my lord.' You'll ride off for Starfall and when you come back, you'll be just another lady.” Arya gasped as Gendry brought his mouth down to her ear, his hot breath tickling her skin. “They will ruin you. They will take everything wonderful about you and make you like everyone else. Do not let them do it, Arya. Say no and go back to Winterfell. You cannot let them - “
Arya started as her father's hand came down upon Gendry's shoulder, Ned Stark's face outwardly calm though anger burned in his eyes. “Prince Gendry, your father requires you.”
Gendry kept his eyes on her face as he nodded. “Yes, Lord Stark.”
When Gendry followed her father towards the head table, Arya saw her escape, quickly hurrying from the great hall to catch her breath. She stood in the hallway, seething over Gendry's words, embarrassed and frustrated. With a grunt, she ripped the flower from her hair, tugging at the pins which held her hair tight against her head, shaking the locks loose; Arya wiped the stain from her lips as she hurried towards her chamber in the Tower of the Hand, angry tears welling in her eyes.
Stupid, bull-headed arse! I hate him! I hate him!
By the time Catelyn came to her chamber, Arya was dressed in Bran's breeches and an old tunic she stole from Theon, her hair tangled and messy around her face. Her mother sighed as she lifted the Dornish gown from the floor, setting it on the chest at the foot of the bed. Arya waited for the harsh words she was certain were to come, but Catelyn said nothing for a long time, perching upon the bed, her fingers stroking Arya's hair.
Finally Catelyn murmured, “What happened between you and the prince while he was at Winterfell?”
“Nothing,” she instantly replied, keeping her back to Catelyn so she could not read the lie upon her face. “Gendry is my friend, almost like a brother.”
“No brother holds his sister that closely, Arya.” When Arya says nothing, Catelyn continued, “You are not in trouble. But there are things your father and I must know, especially with the betrothal.”
“What sorts of things?”
She felt her mother shift uncomfortably behind her. “Has Gendry ever kissed you or touched you? Have you...Has he seen you without your gown or touched you beneath your clothing? Have you ever touched him?”
Arya felt her cheeks warm as understanding sank in; her mother wanted to know if she was still a maiden, if she was ruined and her betrothal would need to be broken. After a moment, trusting her voice, she confessed, “We went swimming together once. I kept my shift on but he could see through it. That is all.”
“That is all? No kisses, no touches?”
“He truly is only my friend. I did not lay with him.” Arya finally turned, her grey eyes meeting Catelyn's blue ones. “That is what you want to know, isn't it? Gendry did not ruin me and I did not give him my maidenhead.”
Relief flooded Catelyn's face, obviously thinking of Robert's many indiscretions. Brushing a look of hair from Arya's forehead, she asked, “Do you understand what happens between a lord and lady in the marriage bed?”
“Septa Mordane explained it when I flowered.”
Her kind face folding into a kind smile, Catelyn asked, “Is Gendry the reason you do not wish to wed Edric?”
Arya returned her gaze to the wall, giving Catelyn her back. “I would make a terrible queen.”
That was the closest to the truth Arya would allow herself to feel.
The Red Keep was even more boring than Arya imagined it to be. Unlike at Winterfell where she could generally come and go as she pleased, Arya was now forced to spend her days with Princess Myrcella, Sansa, Margaery Tyrell, and Margaery's cousins; she suffered through embroidery sessions and endless gossip, through meals where no one did anything more than pick at their food and through games of cards. No one played dice or cyvasse; no one was interested in tourneys beyond dreaming of being crowned Queen of Love and Beauty. Arya had never particularly felt connected to other girls, but now she felt as if she was in another country entirely where she did not speak the language or understand the customs.
Arya was miserable, really and truly, and she started to panic as she realized this was her life now.
Sansa kept telling her she was lucky. “At least you have a betrothed,” her older sister pointed out one morning as they broke their fast. “I am two years older than you and am still not promised. Margaery's father said the king will announce Gendry's betrothed after the next tourney, but I am starting to believe I will never wed!”
Arya rolled her eyes at her sister's dramatics. “Take Edric then. You can be the Lady of Starfall and I'll go back to Winterfell.”
Sansa's eyes widened in disbelief. “Are you mad? Do you know what happens if you break a betrothal?” She scoffed. “Honestly, Arya, you're not a child anymore. When will you stop acting like one?”
It was Sansa's words and her desire to prove to Sansa she was not like her which lead Arya to investigate King's Landing. Everyone paid attention to ladies in the Crownlands, but dirty beggar girls were ignored; once she put on her boys' clothing and did not brush her hair, Arya looked like any other girl in Flea Bottom. Sneaking out of the Keep required a bit more work, but, once free of its walls, Arya laughed as she walked through the streets.
There were far more people in King's Landing than in Winterfell, and the streets bustled with activity. Arya watched as familiar faces from the Keep went in and out of a brothel, as they bought pastries and treats; when she spotted the sign for the forge of Tobho Mott, Arya hurried over, looking at the daggers and other pieces of steel which were available for sale. She remembered Gendry once telling her how he liked to come here and watch Mott craft steel, how Mott made the best steel in the Seven Kingdoms.
Her eyes tracing the elegant lines of a broadsword on the wall, its handle inlaid with a black gem, Arya wished she had a sword half-so-handsome.
“If you ain't got dragons to spend, you ain't standing around here,” Tobho Mott snapped, startling Arya from her admiration.
“I was just looking.”
“And blocking the way for people who can buy what I'm selling! Get out of here!”
Arya huffed away, pushing her hair off of her forehead. She saw a few of the City Watch milling about in their gold cloaks, and Arya did not like the way one of them was looking at her; there was nothing outwardly threatening about him, but there was a shadow in his eyes, the promise of pain. Arya quickly hurried down the road, ducking into an alley which lead her down to the water. The ocean lapped at the shore, ships coming in to dock, but Arya could only stare out at the endless expanse of the Narrow Sea.
Across the sea is Essos. If I sneaked aboard a ship, I could go to Pentos or Braavos or even Volantis. I could start all over where no one has ever heard of Arya Stark and be whoever I wanted to be.
The hand fell heavily on her shoulder, and Arya whirled around, pulling Needle from her waistband; Jory Cassel stepped back immediately but shook his head. “All of King's Landing is looking for you, Lady Arya. You have your parents worried sick.”
With a sigh, Arya replaced Needle on her hip as she allowed Jory to lead her back to the Red Keep. In the distance she could hear Nymeria howling, tied up with Lady and Summer somewhere, and Arya almost howled in return, feeling the bite of a tether as tightly around her own throat as Nymeria did.
Her parents were in King Robert's solar with the king, Gendry, Edric, Robb, and Sansa with them. Her mother rushed to her, squeezing her tightly, and Arya shifted uncomfortably as Catelyn rubbed at the dirt on her cheeks.
“Where have you been?” Catelyn exclaimed.
“I wanted to explore.”
“And what are you wearing? You look like an urchin!” Catelyn began to smooth down her hair, and Arya pulled back, shaking her head in irritation. She saw hints of a smile on both Robb and Gendry's face, but Edric looked deeply confused and Sansa, disgusted.
“I did not mean to worry anyone.”
Ned stepped forward, pointing to Needle on her hip. “And where did you get that?”
“It's mine,” was all Arya said, her hand clutching the pommel a bit desperately. Her father extended his hand and Arya sighed, begrudgingly handing him her most prized possession. Ned studied the blade for a moment before declaring, “This is Mikken's mark. Who gave you this?”
“I did,” Robb and Gendry said in unison, and King Robert laughed as he motioned for this squire to refill his cup of wine.
“You gave us all a fright, girl,” Robert said, drops of wine clinging to his beard. “You shouldn't leave the Keep without protection.”
“I can protect myself,” she retorted, wincing as Catelyn squeezed her shoulder painfully in reproach.
“With your little sword?” Robert turned to Edric, who shifted uneasily on the balls of his feet. “You shall have your hands full with this one, Lord Edric. The mountains of Dorne will not know what has hit them.”
Ned Dayne's eyes met Arya's, and she saw nervousness reflected there. “There are not so many dangers in Dorne, Your Grace. Princess Arianne travels freely there unmolested.”
“Then it is a good place for our wandering lady.” Robert pointed to Needle. “So who gave you the blade, Lady Arya? Was it my son or your brother?”
Arya frowned, debating whether or not to answer at all, before seeing the expression on her father's face. Skirting the edge of the truth, she replied, “My brother,” and thought of Jon in her chamber the day he gave it to her, the soft smile on his face.
“So everything is settled then,” Robert declared, motioning for his cup to refilled again. “Off with you then, girl.”
Sansa and Catelyn escorted her back to her chambers, both her mother and sister chastising her for her behavior, but Arya heard nothing; all she could think of was Needle, now lost to her forever. It was the only thing she had left of Jon Snow, made perfect for her 9-year-old hand, and she felt tears rising in her throat at the unfairness of it all.
She felt ridiculous as she silently wept in the tub as the maids scrubbed her clean, her skin nearly raw by the time the day's adventures were washed away, but Arya could not help it. As more soap was added to her hair, the older woman clucking about its state, Arya thought of Lyanna Stark's statue in the crypt at Winterfell, of the serene stone face and the flowers her father always laid across her lap. Arya suddenly wondered if Rhaegar Targaryen had stolen her at all or if she had climbed upon the back of his horse and begged the prince to take her far, far away, betrothal be damned; though she never dared breathe her aunt's name to her father, she knew from her conversation with Catelyn that her mother, at least, had some sort of suspicion about what transpired all those years ago.
Edric Dayne did not love her even a quarter as much as Robert Baratheon loved Lyanna; mayhaps it would not matter if she disappeared. He could wed Sansa, who was prettier with courtlier manners.
But Sansa is to marry the prince.
Arya told herself the thought did not make her cry harder, but it did upset her. Sansa would never play cyvasse with Gendry or race him upon horseback; she would never do any of the things Gendry liked and certainly would not understand his wish to be an armorer. Mayhaps he thought Edric Dayne would ruin her, but Arya knew Sansa or Margaery Tyrell would ruin him, turn him into another spoiled, boring prince, not the boy who was her friend at all.
So distracted by her thoughts, Arya did not realize someone was knocking on her chamber door until her father called her name through it. Cinching her robe more tightly around her body, Arya shouted for him to enter, and she felt her heart swell at the sight of Needle in his hand.
“I do not believe Robb gave you this sword.”
Arya shrugged as she climbed onto her bed. “I did not say he did.”
Ned smiled, setting Needle upon the chest at the foot of her bed before sitting beside her. “From Jon then?”
“He gave it to me before he left for the Wall. It's called Needle.”
“A good blade deserves a name.” Ned took her hand, enfolding it in both of his; Arya remembered how she used to marvel at how her tiny hand would be swallowed by his. “What did you want to explore this afternoon?”
“Everything. It is so boring to do nothing but sew and gossip all day. Margaery wanted to go for a ride a few days ago, but we never even got above a trot! Her cousins ride sidesaddle!”
He chuckled. “It sounds as if you miss the North as much as I do.”
“But at least you get to go back someday.” Pulling her hand away, she got to her feet and began to pace. “I will never get to go back to Winterfell. You are sending me away to Dorne!”
Ned's face looked pained as he offered, “This is how things are done for ladies - “
“I do not want to be a lady! I do not want to be Lady Dayne of Starfall! I am Arya Stark of Winterfell, and that is my place!”
“Arya - “
“I will not marry him! I will run away like Aunt Lyanna - “
Ned's eyes widened as he stilled his daughter with a rough hand. “You must never say that ever again, Arya, do you understand? Lyanna was taken by Rhaegar Targaryen against her will. Everyone knows that, most especially the king.”
She stared at her father, Stark grey meeting Stark grey, before murmuring, “I wish someone would kidnap me.”
Arya was grateful when her father pulled her into an embrace, inhaling the scent of the North which always seemed to cling to him. His voice soft and comforting against her ear, he said, “I will speak to your mother and to the Daynes. I have no wish to force you to do anything you do not want to do, and House Dayne is reasonable; I am certain we can end your betrothal if it upsets you so.”
“But Sansa said it would ruin our family's honor,” she sniffled against his collar.
“Honor comes in many forms, my girl.” Ned kissed her hair. “No daughter of House Stark will ever be wed to someone against their will.”
Arya had never loved her father more.
Arya was genuinely surprised when Edric Dayne sought her out, a cyvasse board in his hands. His face was set with determination, his pale hair brushed off of his forehead, and Arya felt Sansa and Margaery's eyes upon her as Edric set the game atop the table.
“Prince Gendry says you like to play games,” Ned Dayne offered, keeping his eyes upon Arya, “especially cyvasse. I thought we could play.”
“I suppose.” Arya opened the case, removing the board and setting up her pieces while Ned did the same. She glared at Sansa as her sister smiling knowingly before rising from her seat, taking Margaery with her so that only Arya and Ned remained in the small solar.
She won the first two games easily before nearly falling to Ned in the third; by the fourth, Ned managed to eek out a victory, and Arya could see the pride in his eyes at doing so.
“You are very good at this,” Ned stated. “Gendry says you played often at Winterfell.”
“One of my father's bannermen learned it from a Dornishman, and he taught me how to play. When he returned to his home, he left me the game since I enjoyed it. I like to play dice too,” she added.
“Dice? I did not know ladies played dice.”
“I do not much care for what ladies do.”
A hint of amusement tugged at his mouth. “Yes, I have heard that.”
“What does that mean?” she snapped, awaiting some jape about her impropriety.
Panic bloomed on Ned's face. “Oh, I did not mean – I have just heard that you do not enjoy typically feminine pursuits. Gendry said - “
“What all has Gendry said?”
Fiddling with the pieces on the board, Ned admitted, “He said I should not bring you flowers or jewelry and that you do not care for dancing. He also said that you like to go riding but real riding, not the kind ladies do. He suggested I give you a sand steed for a wedding present.”
“When did he tell you this?”
Anxiously playing with the dragon piece, he sputtered, “Your father came to me a few days ago and said that you – that perhaps it was not a good match between us. My aunt Allyria does not want to break the betrothal, says she will not have a Stark shame our house again. You know this?”
Arya nodded, having heard a similar story from her father, albeit without the slights against the Dayne family honor; he was attempting to find a suitable agreement. “I do.”
“I have no sisters for your brothers to wed, and Allyria has been promised to Lord Beric for years. I thought if I...if you got to know me and I, you mayhaps you would want to wed me.” Ned finally met her gaze. “I think you to be very pretty and I would be a good husband. Prince Tommen told me you and Gendry played together at Winterfell, so I asked him if he could help me to understand you.”
Arya shifted a bit in her chair, guilt and embarrassment warring for top billing within her; she had been so desperate to be free of her betrothal, she had not given consideration to Ned's feelings. Finally she conceded, “I think I would like a sand steed.”
Ned smiled the first truly genuine smile Arya had ever seen on his face. “Dorne is very different from here and from the North. Ladies have more chances there, can do more than just sew and dance. Princess Arianne will rule one day and there is much sport to be had. I truly think you would like Starfall, my lady.”
Arya still did not want to wed, but she also knew that, if Allyria Dayne did not agree to putting the betrothal aside, it would cause innumerable problems for her father. Ned Dayne did not seem so bad; mayhaps a marriage to him would not be a terrible fate. Robb always spoke of the family coming before personal desires, and Arya did not want anyone to say she brought shame upon House Stark.
When she told her parents that night that she wished to honor the betrothal, she could see the uncertainty in their eyes.
“You must be certain, Arya,” Ned said. “You cannot continue to change your mind.”
She nodded in understanding. “I think I was just scared,” she lied, fidgeting with her skirt. “But I spoke to Ned today and I think it will be a good match.” Smiling wanly to try to sell her words, she continued, “I know Ned is already six-and-ten. Am I to be the same when we wed?”
Catelyn blinked before replying, “The date is at our discretion.”
“I do not like it here at court. I would rather go to Dorne than remain here.”
Both Ned and Catelyn utterly confused. “Arya, three days ago you were begging your father to set aside this engagement - “
“And if he sets it aside, there will just be another to take its place. Ned Dayne isn't so bad, and if you are waiting for me to find a man I would prefer, you will wait forever.” Remembering Sansa's words, the taste of them souring on her tongue, she stated, “I am a highborn lady, and ladies wed lords. It is a good match, especially for a second daughter, and it would insult the king if I broke it since he arranged it.”
Ned studied her for a moment before asking, “This is your will, free and true?”
“On my honor as a Stark, I will wed Edric Dayne and become Lady of Starfall.”
That evening, as Arya sipped watered wine, King Robert announced Gendry's betrothal to Sansa Stark of Winterfell.
The tourney to celebrate Gendry and Sansa's betrothal was a grand affair. Arya could barely believe so many people were able to fit into the stands as the melee was set to begin. Sansa sat beside her in front of the royal box, Robert, Cersei, Myrcella, and Tommen seated behind them; Margaery Tyrell was on Sansa's other side, smiling despite the disappointment of being passed over for queen; Arya heard Margaery was going to be offered as a wife to Joffrey, and she thought that was a horrible consolation prize to losing the chance to be queen.
Gendry and Joffrey both were competing in the tourney as well as Bran and Edric; all would ride tilts later in the day, but none would be competing in the melee. Arya saw Gendry across the yard, tension in his face, and she knew he was angry he could not participate in the brawl, would not be able to use his fine, new hammer. Her father explained melees were the most dangerous of the tourney events, and it was unsuitable for the heir to the Seven Kingdoms to risk himself in such a way.
Ned lowered his voice when he confided, “They say there is more honor in riding a tilt than in winning the melee, and it is not a princely sport.”
King Robert used to compete in the melees; she wondered if he held the same opinion.
After one of the Tarlys was pronounced the winner of the melee, Arya left Sansa and Margaery to explore the grounds, stopping to purchase some honeyed milk and sugared dough. As she licked stray sugar from her fingers, she saw Gendry approaching, Ser Barristan silently trailing him; he looked quite fine in his new armor, the Baratheon sigil on his chest, and Arya idly thought he was precisely the sort of man who filled maidens' dreams.
“Might I have some?” he asked, pointing to the pastry in her hand.
“You are part Lannister; have you not enough gold to buy your own?”
Gendry grinned, mischief on his face, and for a moment Arya was back at Winterfell with him. “Could you, at least, pretend to respect your prince?”
“I cannot respect anyone who is going to lose so horribly today.”
“Lose?” he echoed. “How can I lose when my uncle is one of the greatest tourney knights ever to sit a horse?”
“So? Your other uncle sits in the stands and cheers enthusiastically for Ser Loras. Will you be doing that as well?”
He laughed, reaching over and tearing a piece of the pastry to top into his mouth. Manners forgotten, he declared, “I am going to win today.”
“You have as much chance of winning today as I do of being crowned Queen of Love and Beauty. You're hopeless on a horse.”
“I have been practicing with Ser Barristan. Tell her how fine I have become,” he urged his protector.
Ser Barristan looked vaguely amused as he dutifully said, “He has become an admirable rider.”
“See?” Tearing off another piece of Arya's sweet, Gendry continued, “I will unseat every knight who rides today, and then the singers will sing of my skills.”
“Well, Sansa would certainly love to receive the flowers.”
“And you would not?”
Arya scoffed, sipping her milk before offering it out to him, which he accepted. “Everyone would think it a jape if I did. Besides, I would rather ride a tilt.”
“You could always compete as a mystery knight, like the Knight of the Laughing Tree from Harrenhal.”
“Yes, because the Harrenhal tourney ended so well for the Starks.” As the wind picked up, scattering Arya's hair, she reached to push it out of her face only to find Gendry's hand already there, softly tucking the lock behind her ear. Arya froze, unsure what to do; if she drew attention to them, it would be all over court and would certainly upset Sansa. Gendry seemed to catch himself almost immediately, pulling his hand away, grasping the pommel of his sword as if to keep himself from doing it again.
“Did you give Lord Ned a favor for today?” Gendry asked after a beat.
“He has not asked.”
“Sansa gave me a handkerchief.”
Arya was certain Sansa had been praying to every god in existence for a knight to ask a favor of her since they were small. “How disappointed she'll be when you're unseated in the first tilt.”
Gendry smirked before asking, his voice whisper soft, “May I have one from you?”
“I will not wear it where anyone could see.”
Arya scoffed. “How sweet of you to dishonor my sister and me away from prying eyes.”
Gendry's face darkened. Stepping closer, anger on his face, he growled, “Do not stand there and judge me like you are better. You love Edric Dayne no more than I love Sansa, and you would weep no tears if your marriage did not happen. At least I am honest, but you, you are the biggest liar I have ever known.”
She heard the echoes of his words for the rest of the day, most especially when he placed the crown of roses upon a smiling Sansa's lap.
It took a fortnight for Arya's fury to build, a fortnight for it to fester like a wound; by the time arrangements for Sansa's wedding were in full swing, Arya could no longer keep her feelings inside. When she marched through the Red Keep to find Gendry, she did so with violence in her heart, wanting to rip him limb from limb.
She found Gendry in Maegor's Holdfast, ascending the stairs towards his apartment with Ser Meryn at his side. Arya barely paid any mind to the knight of the Kingsguard; instead she marched up alongside Gendry and snapped, “You are wrong! You are wrong about everything, and you are stupid besides! You have no right to judge me, especially since you have not an ounce of honor to you! I pity my sister for having to wed you, for you will be as terrible a husband to her as your father is to your mother!”
She gasped when Gendry suddenly gripped her by the upper arm, all but dragging her up the remaining stairs. He flung open the door to his chamber, practically throwing Arya inside, before telling Ser Meryn, “No one enters, do you understand?”
Arya flew at him the moment the door closed, her fist catching him in the ribs; Gendry grasped her wrists to contain the blows, his strength far greater than Arya's, and it only infuriated her further. She hooked her foot behind his leg, sending him sprawling to the floor, taking her with him. For a moment they wrestled about before Arya found herself pinned beneath the bulk of him, staring up into his furious face.
“Let go of me!”
“You attacked me!” Gendry released her arms, rolling onto his back on the floor beside her. As their breathing regulated, he declared, “You are madder than Aerys.”
“I am not a liar.”
Gendry was quiet for a moment before challenging, “Then tell the truth: if I was the second son rather than the next bloody king, would you have let me ask my father about a betrothal?”
She sat up, wrapping her arms around her legs, keeping her eyes fixated on the blue material of her gown. “Yes,” she finally mumbled.
Gendry rose, turning his body to face her. “Does it bother you, my betrothal to Sansa?”
“Yes,” she repeated.
“Do you truly want to wed Ned?”
Arya finally lifted her head, meeting Gendry's blue eyes. “No.”
She drew air in sharply through her nose as Gendry cupped her face with calloused hands. Arya felt the urge to pull back, unsure what was about to happen but certain it would not be honorable; she tried to think of Sansa, of how happy she was when being crowned Queen of Love and Beauty, but all she could see was Gendry.
He's going to kiss me, she realized, shivering as his breath misted against her skin. He's going to kiss me, and I'm only supposed to kiss Ned.
Gendry's mouth was warm but firm, nowhere near as tentative as Ned's had been the only time he attempted to kiss her; Arya had not cared for Ned's fumbling kiss after the tourney, but Gendry's kiss warmed her, making heat coil in the pit of her stomach. She shifted her knees beneath her body, trying to gain more traction, and Gendry pulled back, a question written on his face.
Arya knew this was her chance to say no, to stop this here and now; if she kissed Gendry again, it was a betrayal of Sansa and Ned, but most of all her honor and potentially that of House Stark. Her father always said a man could never regain his honor once lost.
But she still leaned forward, catching Gendry's mouth with her own there on the floor of his chamber, and Gendry moaned as his fingers slid into her hair, pulling her closer.
When Ser Meryn knocked on the chamber door, she and Gendry were in his bed, their kisses having become more heated; Arya blushed as she saw the state of Gendry's clothing: his surcoat discarded, his shirt wrinkled from her grasping hands, his laces half-undone. The neck of her gown was unlaced as well, and Arya could feel the rawness of her skin from the rasp of Gendry's whiskers. She quickly tried to rearrange her skirt, which had risen near her hips, and her heart froze as the door swung open, King Robert and Ser Jaime entering.
Gendry leaped from the bed, his face flushing bright, and Arya saw the shock on the king's fat face as well as the hint of amusement in Ser Jaime's eyes. She could feel embarrassment and shame rising in her throat; Arya knew it was improper to do what she was did, even if she and Gendry were not betrothed to others. Her parents would be humiliated when the king told them.
“Lady Arya,” Robert greeted, his voice free of mirth for the first time since Arya met him. “Do you have somewhere to be?”
Arya nodded immediately, smoothing down her tangled hair. “Yes, Your Grace.”
She did not dare look at Gendry as she hurried from his chamber, all but running to the Tower of the Hand. Arya wondered if she should tell her mother, prepare her for what was going to be said; her family would hate her for what she did to Sansa, and Arya knew she deserved it for being so dishonorable.
For two days, Arya waited for King Robert to tell Ned what he saw; for two days, Arya refused to so much as acknowledge Gendry, purposefully avoiding contact with him while Sansa cooed and sighed over their wedding plans. On the third day, Arya returned from riding with the Tyrell cousins to find Gendry waiting outside her chamber.
“You cannot be here!” she hissed, looking around to make sure none of her family was around.
“You have been avoiding me. How else would I talk to you?” Gendry reached to touch her arm, but Arya jerked back, needing to keep distance between them. She flinched at the hurt on his face but tried to steel herself against it. “If this is about my father - “
“He saw us!”
“And he will not tell anyone.” He managed to look embarrassed as he admitted, “He says every king has appetites.”
“I'm not a bloody dinner!” Wrenching open her chamber door, Arya growled, “It cannot happen again. It was a mistake that would hurt a lot of people. Sansa is my sister, and you are going to be my good-brother, and that is all we are to each other. Understand?”
“It will be better when I am in Dorne,” she declared, nearly choking on the lie. “Once you learn to love Sansa - “
“I love you!”
Wide-eyed, panic and disbelief overwhelming her, she shouted, “Well, don't!” before slamming her chamber door shut, throwing down the bar which would keep him from entering. Arya crossed to her window, staring out at King's Landing as her heart fluttered wildly in her chest; in the distance she could see ships leaving port, and she wondered if it was too late to stowaway.
Sansa and Gendry's wedding was the grandest event Arya ever saw. She sat in the Great Sept of Baelor in her new gown, watching as Sansa and Gendry recited the words the High Septon gave them, and she thought this was precisely the sort of wedding Sansa always dreamed of when they were children. Sansa was undeniably beautiful in her gold gown, her Stark cloak around her shoulders; her auburn hair was elaborately done in an upsweep of curls, and her blue eyes were bright with pleasure. Gendry looked as handsome as any knight in one of Sansa's songs, his shoulders seeming impossibly broad with the Baratheon cloak around them, and Arya could not resist the urge to look away as Gendry wrapped Sansa's in his cloak, brushing a chaste kiss against Sansa's mouth.
Everyone cheered as they were declared man and wife; the furor was so great no one noticed Arya's voice did not join.
She sat between Rickon and Bran at the feast, Edric seated across from her; Arya vaguely followed their conversations, contributing when asked but preferring to keep quiet, soaking in her displeasure. Further down the table, she could see Robb and Jeyne, her good-sister's belly swelling again, and Arya suddenly longed for Winterfell, wanting to be a thousand leagues away, to be anywhere but in the great hall. Her cup was never empty, and, by the time the calls for the bedding began, Arya knew she was well and truly drunk.
“Aren't you going to help put them to bed?” Bran asked as the young ladies of court rushed to help Gendry out of his clothing. Sansa was blushing brightly as the men pulled her from her chair with grasping hands, but Gendry's face was inscrutable as ever, serious and unsmiling.
“No,” was all managed, pushing back from the table, stumbling to her feet. She swayed for a moment, grasping the edge of the table for balance, before declaring, “I am going to bed.”
“My lady, do you require assistance?” Ned asked, rising to his feet.
A raucous cheer went up from those participating in the bedding, and Arya felt vomit rise in her throat. “Yes, thank you, my lord.”
Ned grasped her elbow tightly as they navigated the halls of the Red Keep, doing his best to keep her upright; Arya's head felt too heavy for her body, the world spinning at an angle, and she wondered how Theon could stand to feel this way so often. As they slowly ascended the stairs of the Tower of the Hand, Arya slurred, “I want to get married in the godswood.”
“That's fine,” Ned replied, and she could hear the bemusement in his voice.
“And I want to go to Dorne now. I do not like it here.”
“I can speak to your father about making arrangements - “
“I am sick of arrangements! Everything is arranged and nothing good ever happens.” Arya sagged against Ned as they crested the steps, the fight suddenly leaving her body. Lifting a limp hand, she pointed to a door. “That is mine.”
“Lady Arya, I am sorry.”
Leaning against her door, afraid she could collapse entirely without it, she shook her head in confusion. “For what?”
Ned's kind face folded in empathy. “For the prince.”
Fumbling for the door handle, she snapped, “What about the prince?”
The empathy transformed into pity, and Arya felt her stomach lurch at his words. “There are no secrets at court, my lady.”
She stumbled as she forced the door open, everything in the world feeling as if it had been turned upside down. Brain swimming, she managed, “You know nothing,” before closing the door, collapsing on the floor of her chamber. Arya shivered against the cool stone but could not keep her legs steady enough to stand; somewhere in the castle, Gendry was taking Sansa's maidenhead, and Arya suddenly felt full of irrational fury towards her sister, towards Gendry, towards everyone and everything.
I shall run to the Wall, Arya thought as sleep began to claim her. Jon and I will become King and Queen of the wildings.
Her dreams were full of blood, death, and destruction, men whose faces changed, screams for help and cries of pain; there was nothing pleasant left in her brain, and, when Arya awoke, stiff and sore from the floor, she was certain there was nothing pleasant left anywhere.
This is your own fault. And Gendry is just a stupid bull-headed boy. He does not even matter.
Mayhaps if she told the lie enough, it would start to be true.
The day Sansa announced she was with child, Arya went to her father and asked for her wedding to be as soon as possible.
“There is no rush,” Ned said, his brow furrowed in confusion. “I have spoken to Edric, and he is more than prepared to wait until you are a bit older.”
“I will be five-and-ten on my next name day. That is almost as old as Mother when you wed her.”
“Arya, I do not - “
“I cannot be here anymore!” she interrupted, hating the shrill edge of her voice.
Her father stared at her for a long beat before nodding. “I will make the arrangements for travel to Dorne.” His face softening, he pressed, “You are sure this is what you want?”
No, I want to go back to Winterfell. I want to be nine-years-old again and chasing Jon through the godswood. I want to go to the Wall with Bran and have the adventures we always talked of having. I want to go back to that day in Mikken's forge and tell Gendry I want to be his queen. I want to be a common girl and Gendry to be an armorer instead of a king. I want to forget my own name and everything I am to go be someone else.
“This is what I want.”
Her wedding was nowhere near as grand as Sansa's; there was no godswood at Starfall, and so Arya found herself making vows in King's Landing, refusing to look at the guests, keeping her grey eyes upon Ned. When the soft purple cloak bearing the sigil of House Dayne was placed upon her shoulders, her Stark cloak taken away, Arya bit her tongue to keep from crying out and pleading for its return. ”It's all a mistake! she fantasized of yelling. ”I am a Stark, now and always!”
Ned's kiss was gentle, the pressure of his mouth against hers negligible; she tried to banish the memories of Gendry's hungry mouth away, but they rose to taunt her. She saw Sansa out of the corner of her eye, smiling placidly with one hand resting against her middle; Gendry met her gaze, his jaw tightly clenched, and she hated him for looking so betrayed.
They were only having a small feast, a larger one planned at Starfall upon their return, and Arya was grateful for the lack of ceremony. She sat at the head table with Ned, drinking Dornish wine from their shared cup, while he laughed and japed with the guests, and Arya gamely danced with those who asked, struggling to keep conversation afloat. Bran teased her as they danced, offering to fetch horses so she might make her getaway, and Arya found herself laughing genuinely for the first time that evening; Jon was her best brother and always would be, but only 14 months separated she and Bran, and he had always been her shadow as children. With Jon at the Wall, Robb in Winterfell, and Rickon at Riverrun, Bran was the only brother she had left now.
“You will come visit me, yes?” Dropping her voice so as not to be overheard, she divulged, “Ned says the Tower of Joy is near Starfall. We could explore it.”
Bran smiled. “Could we swim in the Summer Sea as well?”
“We can do anything we wish. I am the Lady of Starfall now, and I am in charge.”
“Does your husband know that?”
“He will.” She laughed along with Bran for a moment before confessing, “I do not think I will make a good lady wife or mother.”
“Probably not,” Bran conceded with a mischievous grin, “but you certainly cannot be the worst. Remember Lady Dustin?”
Arya smiled as the song ended, preparing to return to her seat, when the calls began to bed them. She hoped her face did not show how much she did not want to be stripped by the men at the feast, flinching slightly as the men surrounded her, the ladies pulling Ned to his feet and dragging him towards the chamber. Arya cried out in surprise when she felt rough hands jerk at her laces, the gown tightening painfully, and she lashed out on instinct, her elbow catching someone in the ribs with a grunt.
“We got a fighter!” one of the strange men shouted, eliciting cheers from the others, and Arya wished she had Needle to bury in his gut.
This is horrible, she thought as she began to struggle against their hands, the fabric of her gown tearing as it was jerked down her arms, one of the men catching the neck of her shift and ripping it cleanly down the middle. Arya's arms rose to cross over her small breasts, tears of humiliation filling her eyes, and she gasped when fingers hooked in the waistband of her smallclothes, twisting away, lashing out with her feet.
“That's enough,” Gendry ordered, and Arya jerked her head up to see Gendry standing there, jerking the drunken Stormlander away from her. The men fell back a bit as the prince stood before her, their hoots and shouts a bit more subdued, and Arya seethed as they made suggestions for how Gendry should remove her last article of clothing.
“Too bad First Night isn't around anymore or you could have both she-wolves,” one of the Lannister men hooted, and Arya saw the pure rage simmering in Gendry's eyes. He wants to hurt these men as badly as I do.
She gasped as Gendry suddenly threw her over his shoulder, lifting her as if she weighed no more than a babe, carrying her into the chamber. Ned sat on the bed, his smallclothes still in place as well, and Arya awkwardly tried to cover herself as Gendry set her upon the bed, a pained smile on his face.
“Best wishes, Lord and Lady Dayne,” the heir to the throne choked out before disappearing behind the door, which seemed to make an inordinate amount of noise in closing. Arya kept her eyes on her lap, unsure what was supposed to happen next; she spent enough time with men and eavesdropping on conversations not meant for her ears that she had a vague understanding of what happened in the marriage bed, but she could not imagine doing that with Ned Dayne.
My husband, she reminded herself, inhaling deeply. She was certainly not the first woman who married a man she did not love or even feel the slightest of attraction to; her own mother did so, and she certainly loved her father now.
Arya started a bit as Ned rested a warm hand on her knee, a slight tremor to his touch. Turning her head to look at him, she saw the same uncertainty in Ned's face she was positive was on her own.
“If it makes you feel better, I have never done this either,” he confessed. “But I am very happy it is with you.”
It was a sweet sentiment; if Arya had ever been the type of girl who wanted sweetness, it would have been perfect.
But Arya had never wanted sweet words and romantic gestures. She wanted adventure and excitement, and she was not likely to find either of those with Edric Dayne as the Lady of Starfall, hidden away in Dorne.
“We should get this over with.”
Surprise and disappointment flickered over Ned's face before he nodded resolutely, leaning forward to kiss her.
It hurt more than Arya thought it would; she literally bit her tongue to keep from crying out at the sharp stab of pain as Ned entered her, the burn which never abated. He moaned above her, pleasure on his features, and Arya closed her eyes, trying to summon to mind the scent of the godswood in Winterfell, the feel of the wind in her hair as she rode through the hills, the sound of Nymeria's howl. The afternoon she spent exchanging kisses and touches with Gendry, her body had felt overly warm, her lungs unable to hold breath; now she felt colder than the Wall, bearing the weight of a man she barely knew, joining her body to someone she could hardly conceive of as more than a friend.
He cried her name as his pleasure peaked, and Arya wrinkled her nose at the warm stickiness between her thighs, the seed she hoped would not take root. Ned pressed moist kisses to her face, breathing sweet words against her skin, and Arya tried to summon a kind feeling for him, some sort of softness or affection but found only resentment at being born a girl and an overwhelming sense of being trapped.
I can never go home again, Arya realized, and it was then – and only then – that she allowed a few tears to slip from her eyes.
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