Ned was right; she did like Dorne. Though completely opposite of Winterfell in every way, Arya found herself enjoying the mountains, the warm winds off the Summer Sea, and the nearly endless rides upon Winter, the sand steed Ned promised her at the beginning of their betrothal. The servants and smallfolk of Starfall were all kind, seemingly amused by their Northern lady, and Arya found herself enjoying their company. When they traveled to Sunspear upon the invitation of Prince Doran, Arya found she especially enjoyed Oberyn Martell's bastard daughters, each more scandalous than the next; and yet she also found herself unbearably sad, for if bastard children were treated as kindly in the North as they were in Dorne, she never would have had to part with Jon Snow.
She vowed to see Jon Snow again someday, and, when she did, she would tell him everything about Dorne and give him the dragonglass dagger she found when exploring what remained of the Tower of Joy.
The first few years of her marriage were not terrible, but Arya could hardly say she loved Ned Dayne; if anything, she was fond of him, the same way she was fond of Jory Cassel or Harwin. He was always kind, never raising his voice or uttering a cruel word when they occasionally quarreled; never once did he come to her rooms and force himself upon her the way she heard some husbands did. It saddened Arya her life had been reduced to such simple comforts – she would have died as a child to consider not being raped by her husband a courtesy – but Arya could not think that way; to not go mad, she had to cling to what little remained.
Thrice her stomach swelled in those first three years, and thrice Arya bled before the baby could quicken; though the maester and Ned kept assuring her she would bear a healthy child, Arya began to associate pregnancy with ruined gowns and bloodied sheets. It was peculiar how little she felt with each lost child; the first time she was so panicked and scared, she did not feel grief until much later and even then the grief was more at what she perceived to be as her failure. The second time, the longest of her failed pregnancies, she lost so much blood, the maester thought she was going to die as well. The last babe, lost only three months earlier, had hardly seemed real; Arya had not expected to carry the child to term, convinced her womb was as hopeless at nurturing as she was, and so, when she bled again, she felt only a curious feeling of inevitability.
She was not meant to have children, not like Sansa, who had given Gendry two daughters and was due in the birthing bed any day.
Maester Malcolm had a thousand ideas as to what could help increase her fertility, what could help her provide Ned with an heir. Arya choked back the vile concoctions of herbs, drank teas which stained her tongue purple, went mad as she did not ride Winter or do anything strenuous but no child came and Arya began to despise the sight of Ned in her chamber, his eyes twisted full of hope and resignation.
Once she told Ned it would not bother her if he sired a bastard, if he named that child his heir, and offended Ned's honor so badly, he would not speak to her for an entire moon cycle. Arya tried to explain her reasoning, but her husband wanted to hear none of it, and so the subject was never broached again.
It was only the Second Ironborn Rebellion which ended their fighting, and that was simply because Ned was leaving for war. Euron and Victarion Greyjoy were laying siege to the Reach and to the Dornish coast, and Arya knew war was required to push them back. As the men of Starfall readied, Arya was loaded upon her horse with a retinue of men, being sent from Starfall in case the Ironborn were able to make it to the castle.
“I know your father's ward was a Greyjoy, but the Ironborn are merciless when they raid,” Ned explained as Arya complained of being sent away. “Should something happen to me and they take Starfall, they will rape you to death, and that is if they are being merciful. I would rather have you safe with your sister hundreds of leagues away than risk you becoming someone's saltwife.”
“I am not some helpless woman,” she argued. “I can fight!”
“This is not playing with swords in the yard, Arya; this is war! I will not have my wife in the midst of that.”
“This is ridiculous. The Greyjoys will not take Starfall; Prince Doran will not allow it. I can stay here - “
“Gods damn it, Arya, could you not argue with me in this?!” Ned shouted, startling her with the ferocity in his voice. Repentance instantly filled his face as he quickly said, “I am sorry, my love, but I will not be moved in this. This siege could be long and bloody, and Princess Sansa says you are more than welcome as one of her ladies.”
“I would rather fight the Ironborn than go be one of Sansa's ladies.”
“Arya,” he sighed, exhaustion creeping in, and Arya knew it was a lost cause. She was going to be hidden away in the Red Keep, back to listening to the Tyrell cousins prattle on while she wondered if she could survive the fall should she jump from the window to run away.
“I will send for you when this is over,” Ned said as the horses were being packed, the supplies loaded onto carts. He gently cupped Arya's face, tender even now, and Arya wondered why Edric Dayne seemed to love her so well when she had done nothing to deserve it, to reciprocate it. “When you return, we will try for another baby. I am certain you will bear a healthy son.”
“I am certain as well,” she lied, kissing him softly, his beard scratching her cheeks. “Stay safe, my lord.”
“Try not to get into too much trouble in King's Landing.”
She could not help but smile. “No, only the usual amount.”
If Arya had known it would be the last time she would ever see Ned Dayne, she liked to think she would have said something profound or declared her love, would have done something to show Ned she was not as cool to him as he thought.
But since she thought she would see him again, Arya simply mounted Winter and rode for King's Landing.
It was much colder in the Crownlands than it was in Dorne, and Arya was embarrassed to shiver beneath her cloak; she had the blood of Winterfell in her veins, and there she was, shuddering like the summer child she was. By the time they reached the Red Keep, both she and Winter were covered in a dusting of snow, and Arya was certain she would never feel her hands and feet again.
“Lady Dayne,” one of her father's men greeted as he helped her from Winter's back, and, even after three years, Arya still felt the impulse to protest and say that was not her name.
She shook the snow from her hair as she entered the castle, throwing back her hood, and Arya froze in place as her father, Gendry, and Lord Baelish stepped into view. In the years since she left for Dorne, so much had changed in the Crownlands already, and the men before her were no different; Ned Stark's beard was now almost completely silver and Lord Baelish had begun to grow a bit of a paunch beneath his doublet. But the differences were most clear on Prince Gendry.
At three-and-twenty, Gendry looked more serious than he ever had; though his eyes were the bright blue she remembered, a dark beard now covered his cheeks and framed his mouth, kept short and far neater than the one King Robert wore. Arya could still read the strength in his arms and shoulders, his chest seeming to have gotten even broader in her absence, and there was a hint of exhaustion to him now, as if the responsibilities of his birth finally caught him. She knew she did not look like the girl she once was; age and three pregnancies had changed her body, softened the places which were once purely muscle, added to curves which were once minimal. Arya was never a vain woman, but suddenly she worried what Gendry would think of her now and she hated herself for it.
Your husband is at war and you're concerned what your sister's husband thinks of your looks? a voice which sounded remarkably like Sansa snapped in her brain. What sort of person are you?
“Arya,” Gendry breathed, the hint of a smile tugging at his lips, and she was so grateful to not be addressed with Edric's name, she nearly ran to him as if she was three-and-ten again.
She had never been good with her curtsies, and she was woefully out of practice, but Arya still bent the knee, impertinence in her eyes even as she did so. “My prince.”
Gendry chuckled as she rose and Ned stepped forward. “You are the only person I have ever known who can make my title sound like a jape.”
“A lady does what she can, my lord.” Arya hugged her father with a desperate closeness, three years worth of missing him encapsulated in the embrace; she smiled at how tightly he returned the gesture, and it made her feel far less childish to know her father missed her as much as she missed him.
“Sansa has been anxiously awaiting your arrival,” Ned reported as they broke apart.
“I highly doubt that.”
“Well, certainly she has been awaiting your arrival,” Gendry corrected. “She is with your mother and the children in her solar if you wish to join them, though I'm sure you're exhausted from the trip.”
Ned turned to Gendry and Littlefinger. “I will join you both later as soon as I have seen Arya settled in.”
“You do not have to - “
The moment Gendry and the Master of Coin disappeared, Ned took her into his arms again, squeezing her tightly as he sighed against her ear, “Oh, my girl, I have missed you.”
“Not nearly as much as I have missed you.” Smiling as her father took her arm, she asked, “Is Bran at court?”
“He is at Casterly Rock with Prince Joffrey; he is helping to fortify the coast, should the Ironborn attempt to attack the Westerlands.”
Arya felt the disappointment begin to wrap around her body; she had so many stories to share with Bran as well as a fine dagger she had the armorer at Starfall make for him. “So only Sansa is here?”
Ned smiled indulgently. “Your brothers will come once the rebellion has been put down.”
“Why is Gendry not at war?” she asked as they entered Maegor's Holdfast, headed towards the apartments of the future queen.
“Robert wants him here in case the Stormlands need defending.” Patting Arya's arms, he assured her, “This rebellion will not last long, and everyone will safely return.”
Sometimes Arya thought her father forgot who she actually was. She was not like Sansa or Margaery Tyrell; Arya understood war and weaponry as well as any of her brothers. Men often rode to war to never return again, and there was no guarantee of safety. And while Arya could appreciate Ned trying to comfort her, she also had no desire to be given the platitudes fed to wives; she would always prefer the unkind truth to a sugared lie.
Sansa had only grown more beautiful in Arya's time away from court, motherhood seeming to have made her blossom. As Arya accepted her restrained embrace, she found herself envying the lush auburn hair flowing down her sister's back, the womanly curves which were only enhanced by the emerald-colored gown she wore; her husband frequently told Arya she was pretty, but there was no denying that Sansa Stark was the sister who turned heads. The three princesses Sansa birthed all had hair as red as Sansa's, though their features were clearly Baratheon, and Arya was certain they would grow to be as comely as their mother someday.
Her mother's smile was wide and warm, and Arya felt like a child again as she inhaled the sweet scent of Catelyn's hair. She had never been as close to her mother as she was to her father, but life was lonely in Dorne; there were nights when all Arya wanted was to see her mother again, to feel Catelyn's gentle hands trying to untangle her hair.
“I am sorry of the circumstances, but it is so wonderful to see you,” Catelyn declared, motioning for Arya to sit. “Your presence has been missed.”
It was a mother's lie, the sort designed to comfort a child, but Arya appreciated it; she was not naïve enough to think anyone outside of her family even realized she was gone. She was well-aware of the opinions of the other members of court when it came to her, the wild daughter of Eddard Stark, and Arya was fine with that; the only opinions which had ever mattered to her were those of the Starks.
Sansa's daughters were called Elinor, Rose, and baby Alisa; Arya balanced Rose upon her knee while Sansa regaled her with all the things she had missed while in Dorne. She barely managed to feign interest in the comings-and-goings of ladies she barely remembered, of men she did not care for, but, if Arya had learned anything since being married, it was how to school her face to not reveal her actual thoughts. Mayhaps I will end up a lady yet, she thought without humor as she absently ran a hand over Rose's auburn hair.
“I was sorry to hear of your babies,” Sansa offered, kindness in her Tully blue eyes, and Arya felt a surprising rush of affection towards her sister in that moment. Arya was used to pity when it came to her inability to bear a child; she was used to well-meaning people offering bits of advice or empty platitudes. There was only genuine sadness in Sansa's words, and, while Arya had come to terms with the losses, it strangely meant more to her to hear it from Sansa.
“If you would like, Grand Maester Pycelle could examine you to see if there is something which could help.”
The idea of that wrinkled, old man touching her made Arya shudder. “No, thank you. I'm quite sick of maesters.”
Sansa adjusted baby Alisa in her arms, staring down into her daughter's face with a pained expression; Arya was certain she was imaging what it would be like to be as barren as her younger sister, and Arya could not even blame her for it. It was far more important to Sansa's life to have healthy children, to provide Gendry with an heir. She didn't doubt it drove Sansa crazy to have birthed three babies and not a single boy, but everyone always seemed to underestimate Sansa's drive; Arya knew her sister would have as many children as it took to deliver a little prince.
Let her have a dozen and be the kindliest queen to ever live. Just let me have some kind of adventure once Ned returns, anything more exciting than managing the household accounts and begging Maester Malcolm to be given leave to ride.
Arya did not begrudge Sansa the things she wanted; she just wished she could get something she wanted too.
The snows were starting to drift when Arya returned from walking Nymeria, who was desperate to run after being penned with Lady. By the time Arya returned to the Red Keep, she could barely see six inches in front of her face, and the wind was howling like the wolves at Winterfell. She headed towards the Tower, wanting to change out of her wet clothing before dinner, and Arya could feel the chill in the air down to her bones.
Opening the door to her chamber, Arya was stunned to see her parents waiting inside, a piece of paper clutched in Ned's hand. Unhooking her cloak, she began to ask what was going on when she saw the expressions on their faces. Instantly Arya knew what they were going to tell her, and she found herself calmly sinking to the bed as her father spoke.
An Ironborn's ax ended Edric Dayne's life as he tried to defend Starfall's coast. While Dorne ultimately won the battle, it was not without heavy losses; Arya read the names on the paper Ned held, recognizing most of her husband's closest friends amongst the fallen, and she closed her eyes as she pictured the faces of those who fell, men she dined with, men she respected. She could feel her mother waiting for her tears, but Arya found she had none, a peculiar feeling of numbness settling throughout her body as well as the realization she no longer had a place in Westeros.
Ned was dead, and he had no heir; Starfall now passed to Allyria. She knew what happened to young widows; they were married off again as quickly as possible, usually to men who were less likely to care over their bride's maidenhood. But that was what happened to widows who were not barren, and Arya knew there was no way she was going to be wedded to any man who required an heir, which left only men old enough to have sired or grandsired her.
She thought of her aunt Lysa in the Vale and dead Jon Arryn, and Arya swore right then and there she would never wed again, to all seven hells with the consequences.
Two moons after learning of Ned's death, Arya found herself driven from her bed, plagued by heavy thoughts and a lingering sense of guilt. She slipped quietly through the halls of the castle, finding her way to the library; Arya never much cared for books – not like Bran, who could recite all of the histories without flaw – but it was still too bitterly cold to go outside. There was a large table in the room, and she could see someone left scrolls and maps; taking a seat, she followed the line representing the Kingsroad, tracing the way back to Winterfell, measuring the distance between King's Landing and the Wall.
Once, right after they were married, she had asked Ned if they could ever go to the Wall to see Jon. She tried to explain how important Jon Snow was to her, how long it had been since she last saw him, but logical Ned only saw 1,000 leagues stretched out between Starfall and Castle Black, not to mention the impropriety of a lady amongst the Night's Watch.
“I do not want to join,” she remembered objecting. “I just wish to see my brother.”
“No brother would want his sister in the company of murderers, rapers, and thieves.”
Ned had no siblings; it was the only excuse Arya could think of which would explain why he could not understand what it was like to be taken away from the people who knew you best.
“Are you plotting my war, Lady Arya?” a voice asked in the darkness, and she jerked up, prepared to run, when she saw it was only Gendry, a lantern in one hand, a wineskin in the other.
“Why are you sneaking about?” she snapped, settling back into her chair.
“I was here first; I only went to get wine. Not to mention you are in my castle, therefore I cannot be the sneak.” He smiled as he sat, extending the wineskin. She accepted it, taking a sip, and wrinkling her nose at the taste of the hippocras.
“That is bloody awful.”
“It was all I could find this late. What has driven you from your bed at this hour?”
Arya shrugged, not wanting to say anything; she returned her gaze to the map, using her fingers to measure the distance separating Westeros from Essos. After a moment, she asked, “How much does it cost to book passage across the Narrow Sea?”
Gendry blinked in surprise. “Have you business in the Free Cities?”
She scoffed. “Yes, I am going to hire a Faceless Man because you insist on being so stupid.”
The prince shook his head before venturing, “I am not sure. It would depend on the ship, I suppose. Why do you ask?”
“Because I want to leave.”
“If you wish to return to Winterfell - “
“Why, so I can be called back to court one day and given to a new husband?” Arya pushed the map back towards him. “I know what people say about me, you know. Just because I do not care does not mean I do not hear, and everyone says your father is going to give me to some old, fat lord in Lannisport.”
“Arya - “
“As soon as the war is over, he is going to send me there. My father will protest, but I will still be sent because your father is the king and stupid Lord Marbrand gets a young wife to fuck while his son goes out and wins battles from the Iron Throne! And what's worse is everyone will sing of what a good match it is because what else can a barren, wild widow hope for?”
“Arya - “
“I would rather spend the rest of my life begging in the Free Cities than ever spending a night pinned beneath Lord Marbrand - “
“Arya!” When she started in surprise at the volume of his voice, he said in a much gentler voice, “Do you honestly believe I would let you get traded away to Damon Marbrand? He asked for you, that much is true, but I told Father there was no way Eddard Stark would ever agree to a match like that.”
The fight began to drain from her as his words sank in, and Arya reached for the hippocras, choking back the cloying taste on her tongue. Finally, her voice whisper soft, she confessed, “I was a poor wife.”
“I am sure that is not - “
“I hated it, being a wife. It was not Ned's fault; he was as kind as I could have ever hoped. But I never did any of the things I was supposed to as a wife. I did not embroider his shirts or remember his favorite foods so I could tell the cooks. Half of the time we did not even speak because we had nothing to say to each other. And on top of it all, I could not even give him a child.” Arya wiped at a stray tear which escaped her eye. “Jeyne Poole was right all those years ago. I am too much a boy to ever be a lady and too much a lady to ever be a boy. There is no place for me.”
“That is not true,” Gendry argued. “Mayhaps you're right and you don't belong at court or as someone's wife. But I knew you at Winterfell, I saw how happy you were there, and there is no doubt in my mind that is your place.” Scrubbing at his face with his hands, he groaned, “This is why I knew you should not go to Dorne.”
“Because you knew I would be a horrible wife?”
“Because they have made you think there is something wrong with you!” Getting to his feet, pacing in agitation, he snapped, “When I first met you, you were unlike anyone else I had ever known. All of the ladies I knew where so proper and joyless, but you, you were the freest, bravest girl I had ever met. You were not meant to be some lord's wife. You are worth more than that.”
“It does not matter what you think I'm worth. We both know eventually my father will agree to another marriage, and, when he does, I'll be sent away again. I will not wed again, Gendry, I won't!”
His face twisted in anger, and it gave Arya a perverse thrill at the fight building between them; Ned hated to argue and, the few times his anger peaked, it dissipated just as quickly. Arya missed it, the give and take. “You would not have to if you had just said yes when I asked you!”
It was an old argument, and it was one which never served to make Arya feel thirteen-years-old again, confused by feelings she didn't understand and hungry for something she couldn't put into words. “We would still be exactly where we are except you'd be married to Margaery Tyrell instead! Your parents would never have approved a match between us, and it would have killed Sansa's prospects as well.”
“Why do you care for Sansa's prospects? She certainly cared none for yours!” Arya recoiled, opening her mouth to curse him for daring to speak ill of her sister, when he rushed on, “I told her I wanted to marry you! I told her I was sorry but I could not wed her, and Sansa went directly to my mother and told her everything!”
“She wouldn't,” Arya objected, shaking her head.
“She did. My father came to me that very night and said I could bed you as often as I needed to get it out of my system, but Baratheons do not break marriage contracts. I tried to tell him I loved you as much as he loved your aunt, but he wouldn't hear of it. If you had just agreed - “
“It does not even matter anymore! You married Sansa! You have three children, children you never would have had with me! And you are even stupider than I ever thought if you think even for a moment that we ever could have been happy together.”
“Why wouldn't we have been happy? I would not have forced you into a gown and asked you to pretend at being someone you are not.”
“Which is precisely why I could never have been your queen.” Arya pushed to her feet, nearly tumbling the chair backwards. “You are as bad as your father. You are so miserable in your own life, you have convinced yourself how different everything would be if you had just married me instead. But all we ever did was play or fight, and your father would have fucked every woman in the Kingdoms whether he was married to Cersei Lannister or Lyanna Stark. I thought you were my friend, but now you are not even that.”
Gendry caught her upper arm as she tried to pass, and Arya began to struggle instantly; he grunted as her elbow caught him in the stomach, but Arya found herself pressed against the wall, held easily in place by the strength in his hands. “You are the most frustrating, irritating woman in the entire world, do you know that?”
“Then let me go or else I'll scream.”
A pained expression flickered over his features as he released her. “I wasn't going to hurt you. I wouldn't...” Gendry took a step back and then another, grabbing the hippocras and swallowing it down like a man dying of thirst. He sounded as young as Rickon when he murmured, “I'd have been a good husband to you. I am not my father.”
Arya did not let him say anything else. She hurried back to her room, leaving Gendry to his maps, hippocras, and regrets.
They would not speak again for months.
The corridors beneath the Red Keep were as cool as the crypts at Winterfell and nearly as dark, but the blackness did not scare Arya. There were a few torches upon the walls, but, the deeper she went, the less the light touched. Gendry once offered to show her the dragon skulls hidden away down here, but, after their last argument, she could not bring herself to make the request, especially with so many lords descending upon King's Landing for the feast to celebrate the crushing of the Second Ironborn Rebellion.
It had been eight moons since Ned's death, and now, with the Rebellion over, Arya knew her life was no longer going to be held in limbo. Whispers still filled the halls about what her fate would be – every day there seemed to be a new suitor put forward – and Arya could read the weariness in her father's face well enough to know he did not like the plans any more than she did. She pleaded to go back to Winterfell, to Robb, Jeyne, and her nephews, but Catelyn repeatedly told her it was not an option they could explore.
“Daughters wed, Arya,” Catelyn said earlier as embroidered a new gown for Elinor. “I understand Edric's death is still fresh, but hiding in Winterfell will not accomplish anything. You are only eight-and-ten; there is so much life still before you and you could still - “
“I am not going to be a mother,” she cut in, frustration mounting. “You had five children; Sansa has three and will certainly have more, and neither of you have ever bled. I am barren, and pretending as if I am not will not make me a better prospect.”
Catelyn frowned, setting down the dress. With a tired shake of her head, her ruby hair scattering across her shoulders, she sighed, “Arya...you know the words of the Tullys?”
“Family, duty, honor.”
“Do you understand what that means?” Without giving Arya a chance to respond, she said, “We must do what is required of us rather than seeking the pleasure of what we want.”
“What sort of life is that?”
“A lady's life.”
“I do not want to be a lady.”
Catelyn smiled sadly. “You have been saying that since you were six-years-old, but it does not change the fact you are a lady. Whether Stark, Dayne, or any other name, you shall always be a lady; it is in your blood.”
So is the North, Arya wanted to say, but she didn't; instead she waited until her mother left before deciding she would go exploring as if she was a child again.
The largest of the dragon skulls were massive, bigger than anything Arya had ever seen; she remember Old Nan's tales of mammoths and giants, but Arya could not recall any of her dragon tales. She ran her hands across the bones, tracing the points of the teeth, and, when she stepped into the massive jaws of what she assumed was once Balerion the Black Dread, Arya found she did not even fill half of its mouth; even Hodor would have been able to stand erect and still have room to spare.
“Aren't you a bit old to be playing with dragons?” a voice in the blackness asked, and Arya gasped, pulling the dragonglass dagger from its hiding place amongst her skirts. When the man stepped into the muted light, she sighed in exasperation, lowering the blade.
“Honestly, Gendry - “
“I am not Gendry, my lady.” Stepping fully into the torch's light, Arya saw that, while the man bore an incredible strong resemblance to the prince, he was not quite as tall and his ears were bigger as well. “I am Ser Edric Storm.”
Gendry's natural-brother, the one from Storm's End. “You should not creep about after ladies. Have you no manners?”
An amused smile spread across his features. “Everyone knows bastards are not like ordinary men. We are born of shame, suckled on disgust, and raised with unnatural tendencies. And do not forget how untrustworthy we are.”
Arya scoffed. “The most honest man I have ever known was a bastard. I believe it is simply you who has poor manners.” Tucking the dagger back into her gown, she spat, “Why were you following me?”
“An attempt at chivalry, I assure you, my lady. When I saw you come down this way, I assumed you were lost, and this is a poor place for a highborn lady to find herself alone. Had I known you were simply an admirer of dragons, I would not have bothered.”
“Then why not announce yourself?” she challenged. “For all I know, you followed me down here to rape me.”
“If I intended to rape you, I would not have announced myself and given you a chance to pull your blade. Tell me: where does a lady obtain an obsidian blade? They are remarkably rare.”
“I do not have to tell you anything!”
Edric Storm held up his hands. “I am sorry if I frightened you - “
“You did not frighten me; you startled me. And I thought you were your stupid brother, so I certainly was not scared.”
His face sobering, eyebrows raised, he said, “You speak so crassly about your prince, the future king?”
“Do not bother defending his honor. I have told him to his face how stupid I find him half-a-hundred times.”
Realization dawned on his face. “You are Princess Sansa's sister, the Lady Dayne.”
“I am Arya Stark,” she corrected.
Edric nodded as if her name explained everything. “Gendry has mentioned you often.” His blue eyes taking her in, he added, “You are not what I was expecting.”
You are not as pretty as your sister, Arya silently translated. “Yes, well, this is what I am.” Gathering her skirts, she moved to brush past King Robert's bastard but he followed, silent as a septon as they ascended the stairs. When the stale air became fresh again, the return of light making Arya squint, she nearly stumbled on the last step, and Edric shot forward, catching her elbow to keep her upright.
“Thank you,” she said begrudgingly as she regained her balance.
Edric Storm studied her face for a moment before venturing, “You should go to him.”
“I fought beside him at Storm's End, and I was at his side when the fever from his wound nearly took him. It was your name he called, your face he saw when the septas tended him. He misses you.”
Bristling, she snapped, “You have no idea what you are talking about.”
“I know he made me swear that, if he should fall, I was to spirit you away to Braavos so you could not be married off again.” Edric's eyes burned blue as fire as he repeated, “You should go to him.”
Before Arya could reply, Sansa entered the room, stopping in her tracks at the sight of them. Arya blushed, realizing how the situation must look with Edric's hand still lingering on her arm, and she instinctively jerked away which, judging by the way Sansa's eyes bulged, only made them look even more guilty. Edric bent the knee, murmuring a courteous greeting, before fleeing the room, leaving Arya to withstand her sister's disbelieving stare.
“Do not say anything,” Arya ordered as Sansa opened her mouth.
“He's a bastard, Arya,” her sister hissed, her voice dropping on the last word as if it was the foulest curse ever to be uttered. “If anyone else saw you with him - “
“What, they would whisper about me? Let them. I do not care.”
“You should. It is going to be difficult enough to find you another husband. If it is suspected you have been – if you allowed Edric – if you were thought - “
Only Sansa, Arya thought, could be the mother of three children and still be unable to discuss what men and women did together in bed. “Have no worry, Sansa. I have no interest in Edric Storm.”
Doubt shone brightly in Sansa's eyes. “Whether he is King Robert's son or not, you cannot put yourself level with him. If he comes to you again - “
“I do not need you to defend my honor, Sansa.”
Her sister gave a decidedly unladylike snort. “How can I, when you continue to behave as though you haven't got an ounce of it?”
If they were still children, Arya would have slapped her or pulled her hair, so enraged at Sansa lecturing her on honor when all Sansa had ever done was whatever others told her to do; if she was married to anyone else, Arya would have said something vicious and deliberately hurtful, something which would bring tears to her eyes and make her rue the day she ever crossed her.
But they were adults and Sansa would one day be queen, so Arya simply walked away, her fists clenched so tightly at her sides, her nails drew blood on her palms.
Arya's distaste for feasts and celebrations had not changed over the years. Though she gamely wore her finest dress and wore the jeweled bracelet Ned Dayne gave her for her sixteenth name day, Arya refused to sit to have her hair done, preferring for it to fall unbound over her shoulders, and she positively refused to allow Sansa to paint her face with rouge or lipstain.
“You could be pretty if you would just try,” Sansa offered, clearly hoping it would sway her little sister, but Arya remained adamant, and Sansa declared she would be the plainest girl at the feast.
It would never occur to Sansa that was Arya's goal. Being invisible in these sorts of situations was the only way Arya could maintain her sanity.
Sansa was right, of course; every lady at court, from those who had not even flowered to those who were barely able to stand upright, were done up as if it was their wedding day. Dresses of every color filled the hall, silk and Myrish lace telegraphing who was the best off, and all the ladies wore their hair in the complicated southron updos Sansa favored. Her sister was a trendsetter at court; hardly a day could pass where Sansa did not favor one style of gown and suddenly all of her ladies were wearing the same. The men were finely dressed as well, and Arya smiled at how uncomfortable her father looked in the outfit Catelyn had made, the Hand pin standing out against the gray of his coat. Bran wore similar garb, looking tall and handsome, and Arya saw how the young ladies blushed when Bran favored them with a smile; Bran, of course, was completely oblivious to it, and Arya heard rumors there was some girl in the Neck her brother was having an affair with, some crannogman's daughter.
With all three princes back from war, the ladies of court were falling all over themselves to congratulate them on their bravery. Everyone knew of the wound Gendry took at Storm's End, an arrow having pierced his shoulder which turned into a festering wound; he was the last of the princes to return to court, riding gingerly on a new horse, nearly a stone-and-a-half lighter. Sansa sat beside him at the head table, smiling and engaging with all those around them, but anyone with eyes could see just how unhappy Gendry was to be there. He pulled heavily from his cup of wine, speaking to hardly anyone, and Arya watched as he rose and crossed to the table where Edric Storm sat, dropping into the seat beside his natural-brother.
“What has put such a serious look on your face?” Bran asked, stealing a bit of fruit from her untouched plate.
“Nothing.” Pushing her food around, quiet for a moment, she asked, “What was it like, being at war?”
Bran paused, considering, before he sighed. “It was not exciting like I thought it would be. I served beneath Prince Joffrey and rode beside Prince Tommen, but I spent most of the time with regular men from the Westerlands. All they wanted was to return to their peaceful lives. And war, it makes...It turns some men into savages.” He sighed again. “It is over now, and we all paid a price, you as much as any.”
Arya looked down at the amethyst bracelet on her wrist, the one Ned had looked so proud of when he gave it to her, and, for the first time, she felt a genuine twist of grief for the man who died in Dorne, the man she had never been able to love well enough.
By the time the dancing started, Arya was downright surly, tired of the noise, the people, the pleasantries; the rest of Sansa's ladies were changing partners as often as possible, fluttering eyelashes and tittering at the drunken flirtations, but, beyond a few Dornishmen Arya knew at Starfall, no one asked to take a turn with her. She had already tried to sneak out twice, both times having been caught by Catelyn, and Arya felt decidedly less like a woman-grown when her mother was nearby.
“You look as if you are about to be marched to your death.”
Arya looked up from her wine to see Edric Storm standing above her, a cup of wine in his hand. “I should be so lucky.”
The king's bastard smiled, setting down his cup and extending his hand. “Will you honor me with a dance, Lady Dayne?”
“Arya,” she corrected with a wrinkle of her nose, accepting his hand as she rose, “and only because it will irritate my sister. Do not presume to think I like your company.”
“I would never.”
He was a better dancer than she, moving with a surprising amount of grace for someone his size, and, up close, Arya could see he looked less like Gendry than she initially thought. The trueborn son of Robert Baratheon was taller, broad without being bulky, the same way Jaime Lannister was; Delena Florent's bastard was built more like the king, a bulk to his body which would one day turn soft as it had with Robert. But his eyes, his eyes were Gendry's as well as the black hair which laid neater against his forehead than his elder brother's ever did.
“Are you this unpleasant with everyone or is it specific to me?”
Arya smiled despite herself. “It would depend who you ask, but most would say I am always this unpleasant.”
“I have asked about you. Would you care to wager a guess how you were described?”
“I can only imagine.”
“Willful, wild, unladylike, troublesome,” Edric ticked off. “There was some mention of you slapping one of the Tyrell bannermen - “
“He grabbed my arse!”
Edric chuckled. “And, of course, Gendry has much to say about you.”
Arya shifted uncomfortably in his arms. “I do not want - “
“Brave, smart, beautiful, fun,” he listed. “You were all he could talk about some days. I must have heard every adventure you two had, at least, twice. I've never heard Gendry speak so highly of anyone.”
“I do not know what you are trying to do - “
“I am trying to do nothing, Lady Arya.” There was a challenge in Edric's eyes as he asked, “Is there something you would like me to do?”
“Yes,” she answered immediately. “Leave me alone.”
Arya did not care how it appeared, her leaving the dance floor before the end of the song, Edric Storm standing there in surprise; she did not care about anything beyond putting distance between herself and the stupid natural-son of the king. She did not know what game Edric was playing, but she wanted no part in any of it.
This is not my place, Arya thought for the thousandth time as she took in the festivities. I have no place at all.
So lost in her thoughts, Arya gasped and nearly stumbled when King Robert caught her by the arm, jerking her to him. She could smell the stench of wine leaking from every pore, and Arya twisted her face away when the king leaned forward, pressing a sloppy kiss to her cheek, the gruffness of his beard scratching roughly at her cheek.
“Lady Arya! Has Ser Edric done something to displease you? I'll have him beheaded for it.”
“No, Your Grace,” she managed, trying to subtly twist herself away. Arya could easily admit she did not have the courtliest manners but not even she was going to risk drawing attention to and embarrassing the royal family at a celebration. Her eyes darted around the room, trying to find her parents, but Robert kept turning her head back towards him with an amused laugh.
“Do not tell me you are shy! You've never seemed so shy with my son.”
“Not shy, Your Grace,” Arya gritted out, hating the fat, drunk king more than she ever had.
“You look so much like her,” Robert declared, his plump fingers capturing her chin to study her face. “Sometimes I lose my breath because I think she has returned to me.”
Arya did not need the king to elaborate; she knew exactly whom he wanted to pretend she was. “I am sorry for your loss.”
“Ah, but there is no loss while you are here.” Arya flinched as his grip tightened upon her, his mouth uncomfortably close to hers. “You must get lonely, widowed as you are, a pretty, young thing like you. I am more than happy to offer you my company.”
I would die before I ever let you fuck me. “I cannot imagine my father would approve of that.”
Robert laughed, blowing the scent of alcohol into her face. “I was under the impression you enjoyed doing things without approval. And I assure you I've more skill at pleasing a woman than my son or your dead husband.”
“I do not need pleasing.”
“Well, I do.” His fingers bit into the soft flesh of her arse. “Tonight I shall - “
“Get your hands off of her,” Gendry ordered, his voice tight and brittle as he sidled up to them. Arya lifted her eyes, imploring him for assistance, but her old fiend's eyes did not leave his father's flushed face, murder in his Baratheon blue eyes.
Robert's grip loosened but he did not fully release Arya, one hand lingering on her arm in a mockery of dance position. His round face was as red as the strongwine he drank, and his body stiffened with indignation. “Now see here, boy - “
“I am no boy, and she is not Lyanna Stark. You are embarrassing yourself.”
The king's hold on her instantly dropped, but Arya could read the fury in Robert's eyes, a fury echoed in Gendry's. Arya was dimly aware that people were starting to turn and look, but she could not bring herself to care about the appearances when there was a very real chance that the king and the prince were going to come to blows on the floor of the Great Hall.
“Careful, boy,” Robert warned, voice heavy with threats. “Your wife is watching.”
Gendry did not turn to confirm this, but Arya did; Sansa was watching with wide eyes across the hall, having stilled her dancing with Lord Renly to take in the scene. Arya could see the accusations in her sister's eyes, the demand to know, What have you done now?
“If you ever touch her again, my uncle will not be the only kingslayer,” Gendry pronounced, his voice unwaveringly calm. “Do you understand me?”
King Robert did not have a chance to respond; Ned Stark and Ser Barristan were suddenly there, the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard escorting Gendry away as Arya's father said something to Robert. Arya quickly hurried past the gawking members of court, exiting the Great Hall without any interference from her mother. She managed to make it all the way to her chamber before the scream of frustration exploded from her chest, her hands tearing at her bedclothes as she raged; she grabbed the dragonglass dagger and shredded her pillows, feathers flying in all directions as she pretended the overstuffed pillows were the king's massive stomach and the feathers, his entrails.
Arya would have traded anything in that moment to have been born a man, to know no man would ever grab at her again, to have the training and the weapons needed to defend herself. Robb, Jon, Bran, and Rickon would never have to worry that a drunken king would grope them like a common whore; they would never have to wake every day burdened down by the fear they would be forced to wed an old man. Her brothers were free and Sansa was a princess, but Arya...Arya was trapped.
They should seal me up in the Tower of Joy and be done with it.
Arya barred her door that night, slept on her ruined bed with feathers around her like snow. She dreamed of Winterfell that night, of Jon Snow and Robb, of Old Nan and Hodor; Arya dreamed of home, the only place she wanted to return to and the only place she knew she may never see again.
But most of all Arya dreamed of Lyanna Stark climbing on the back of Rhaegar Targaryen's horse, riding as far away from the life that had been planned for her in exchange for the promise of a life of her own making.
She awoke with the scent of winter roses in her nose.
Arya was summoned to the king's solar a month after the disastrous feast. Ser Jaime escorted her from her embroidery session with Sansa and her ladies, his armor gleaming in the sunlight trickling in through the windows, and Arya saw something familiar in the cut of Jaime Lannister's jaw, the jaw she remembered Gendry possessed when his face was not covered with a black beard.
“Is the king alone?” she asked as they reached the door, anxiety and fear twisting in her gut.
“No, my lady,” was all Ser Jaime offered, and then she was entering the solar to find the king in the company of her father, Lord Renly, and Queen Cersei. With the exception of the queen, no one looked particularly happy, and Arya knew this meeting was not going to end well for her.
Arya was surprised when it was Queen Cersei who spoke rather than the king. “A lady of your age and breeding without a husband is a poor situation. With the war over, it is time you wed again. Lord Renly has agreed to such a match.”
Her eyes snapped to the king's younger brother, who looked well and truly miserable. Unlike most of the ladies at court, Arya understood what the “friendship” between Lord Renly and Ser Loras Tyrell was; the chances of Renly Baratheon asking for her hand were the same as Ned declaring Hodor to be Lord of Winterfell.
“You shall wed before the next moon so you and Renly can return to Storm's End. It requires a strong hand, especially after the damage sustained by the Ironborn.”
Arya took several deep breaths, choking back the sharp words she wanted to throw at the queen, before turning her eyes upon Renly. “I'm barren,” she announced. “They have told you that? You'll have no heir from me.”
“They have,” the older man confirmed. “But all I require is your company, Lady Arya.”
“Your father always says how clever you are,” Cersei chimed in. “Mayhaps you can bring some of that Northern cleverness to the Stormlands.”
She looked to Ned, who met her gaze unflinchingly before shaking his head minutely, and Arya's hope sank. The king's brother was being offered as a husband, and, if he protested the match, it would put all of House Stark at odds with the Iron Throne. On the surface, wedding the Lord of Storm's End was a coup for a barren widow, especially when Renly was as handsome and well-liked as he was. The rumors of his preferences were well-known, of course, but Arya had heard the same rumors about Whoresbane Umber, Oberyn Martell, and a half-dozen other men throughout the years; rumors were always a part of court and all of those men eventually took wives and paramours.
“Have you nothing else to say?” Cersei prompted.
If she was Sansa, she would know precisely what courtesy to offer, what words would make the queen smile; if she was Robb or Bran, she would bend the knee and say something about the honor of House Stark and what a wonderful offer this was.
But Arya was Arya, so she said, “Would it matter?”
Cersei Lannister smirked. “No.”
Arya left the solar with the date of her wedding, her presence requested at the Great Sept of Baelor in a fortnight; only her father's arm linked through her own kept Arya from collapsing entirely.
“Did you know - “
“No,” Ned cut in, knowing what she was asking. “I had no idea they were planning this until I was told this morning. I tried to talk Robert out of it but - “
“But he's angry at me for the feast,” Arya finished, “and the queen has never liked me.”
Ned was quiet for several long beats before stating, “I swore to you once I would never force you into a marriage you did not want. If you truly do not want this, I will find a way to honor that promise.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to hold him to it, but Arya did not want trouble to rain upon her family due to her actions. “No, I can withstand a marriage to Renly Baratheon. It is not as if he will come to my bed.”
Ned did not smile; Arya had not expected it. “I am sorry, Arya. I should have sent you back to Winterfell when you asked.”
“You couldn't,” she pointed out. “Sansa wanted me here, and she will be the queen.”
Her father bent, pressing a kiss to her dark hair. “You are a Stark, my girl, through and through. Sometimes I believe there is more winter in your blood than in mine.”
That is because I have to be as icy as the Wall to survive.
“You look as if you will be attending a funeral rather than a wedding,” Sansa complained as Arya grudgingly stood still for the fitting of her wedding gown. Her sister sat upon a stool near the window, her hair looking aflame in the early afternoon sun, and Arya could barely suppress the urge to leap from the pedestal and stab her with one of the seamstress's pins.
“Lord Renly is very handsome,” her sister continued, “and you will be the Lady of Storm's End. It is certainly a better option than some minor son. You should be more grateful.”
“Grateful? You do not understand; you wanted to wed Gendry. It was the only thing you ever wanted. You have no comprehension what it is like to be married off to a man you do not know and do not want.”
“You act as if you're being carried off and raped by some savage. I thought this would be a match you'd want.”
“Why would I want it? He's over thirty and a stranger besides!”
“You are impossible! You did not want to wed Ned Dayne when he was a perfectly kind man, and now you do not want to wed Renly, whom I was certain you'd find pleasing! I would never have suggested it if I didn't!”
Arya froze. “You suggested this match? You?”
Sansa's hands fluttered nervously. “I simply thought...It was not my intention...” Turning her eyes on the seamstress, she ordered, “Leave us.” The moment the chamber door closed, the proper princess receded and Sansa Stark, Arya's only sister, returned. “I thought you would be attracted to him.”
“Why? When have I ever given you any indication I thought about Renly Baratheon at all?”
“Well, he is the spitting image of Gendry, and the Seven know how attracted you are to him.” Sansa got to her feet, pinning Arya in place with her gaze. “I am not stupid, Arya, despite what you and my husband seem to think. I have seen the way you look at him when you think no one is watching, and Gods know he cannot be in the same room as you without staring. All of court whispers about it.”
“Sansa - “
“He told me before we were ever wed he was in love with you, and Cersei assured me it would pass once I gave him an heir. Well, I have given him three daughters and been a loyal wife besides, and still he longs for you.”
“I have never shared a bed with your husband.”
“Of course you haven't,” Sansa snorted, brushing dust from her skirts. “Gendry is not King Robert, and his honor would not abide it. I may not be the woman my husband wants, but I know him.”
“I do not have to listen - “
“I am not Queen Cersei,” Sansa rushed on, her voice stronger than Arya had ever heard it, sounding more and more like their lady mother with each breath. “Mayhaps she can turn a blind eye to Robert's indiscretions, but I will not be laughed at in my own castle. I am not some silly child, and I will not wait until you both finally break and I am forced to bear witness to the shame of it all.”
“Gods, Sansa - “
“You will let me speak!” Taking a steadying breath, Sansa declared, vulnerability creeping into her voice, “I had thought when you returned from Dorne that we could finally be sisters. I thought your time in Dorne and your marriage would have made you softer, but you are as much a stranger to me now as you were when we were children.”
Arya felt a peculiar hollowness in her chest at Sansa's pained words. She carefully stepped down from the pedestal, one of the pins pushing painfully into her skin, but Arya did not cry out; the pain was her penance. Finally she weakly managed, “What would you like me to say?”
“I do not want you to say anything. I just want you to leave. Go to Storm's End, go be Renly's bride, go as far away from my husband as it takes for him to forget he ever knew Arya Stark. You can pretend Renly is my husband for all I care but just leave Gendry to me.” Wiping at a stray tear on her porcelain cheek, Sansa gritted out, “As long as you remain at court, you ruin everything.”
She nodded as if she understood, as if she agreed, but Arya was certain she would never understand anything ever again. When she looked at Sansa now, she did not see the pretty princess the women of court envied or the frustrating sister of her youth; for the first time Arya saw the woman beneath the courtesies and pleasantries, the lady of only one-and-twenty who was scared she was going to lose her husband.
“I loved him too,” she found herself confessing for the first time, her voice trembling.
Sansa studied her for a moment before calmly ordering, “If you bear me any love, you'll stop.”
Arya sat in her unfinished gown for the rest of the afternoon, Sansa's words ringing in her ears.
Renly looked as if he was going to be ill.
Arya stood in the chamber, having managed to keep her shift during the bedding ritual this time, shifting her weight uncomfortably as she stared at the man seated on the bed in his smallclothes. Sansa was right; he was handsome, his body lean and lightly muscled. She was used to seeing him in his fine clothing, the garments which were beautiful enough to rival her gowns, but, in only his underclothes, Renly Baratheon looked even younger than she did, his skin a sickly pale, a light sweat visible on his forehead.
I bet he has never laid with a woman before, Arya thought as she poured them each a cup of wine, throwing hers back in one hard gulp. He is more a maiden than I.
Renly murmured his thanks as he accepted the cup, draining his cup as quickly as Arya drained hers, and Arya reached for the skin to refill it. “Mayhaps you shouldn't,” Renly protested, swallowing hard. “It can be...difficult for a man to perform his duties when he has drank too much.”
“It can be difficult for a man to perform his duties when he has no interest in his wife,” Arya countered, taking a seat at the foot of the bed.
His blush was ferocious. “My lady, I find you - “
“If you are going to be my husband, Lord Renly, I would prefer you not to lie.” Arya stared at her hands for a moment before meeting her husband's watery gaze. “I am no maiden; they will not look at the sheets in the morn. We do not have to do this.”
“Our marriage will not be valid without a bedding, Lady Arya.”
“I will swear before the Seven you bedded me well.” She pushed herself towards the center of the soft mattress, drawing her legs under her shift as if she was a child again. “I know they forced this marriage upon you, and I am sorry for that. It was my fault.”
Renly settled back against the headboard, quirking an eyebrow in interest, the color starting to return to his face. “How so?”
“My sister thought I would prefer you due to your looks.”
He chuckled in his chest. “So the stories are true about you and my nephew then?”
Arya bristled at his tone. “As true as the stories about you and Ser Loras.”
The smile disappeared from Renly's face as he pushed off the bed to fetch the wineskin. When he returned, Arya could see there was weariness in his eyes as well as a touch of fear. Feeling a bit of guilt, she assured him, “I do not care what you do with the Knight of the Flowers as long as you are discreet. I hate to be laughed at.”
“That is something we have in common.” Renly handed her the wineskin, and she drank. “Your father gave me very strict orders to make sure I did everything in power to keep you happy. He can be a terrifying man.”
Arya smiled for the first time since her betrothal was announced. “Did he tell you what would make me happy?”
“He said you are homesick. I thought mayhaps we could go North when spring comes.”
Hope fluttered in her chest. “Truly?”
“I have never seen Winterfell, and I must confess I am not nearly as skilled at running Storm's End as Cortnay Penrose. Mayhaps we can see all Seven Kingdoms.” Renly smirked, gesturing for the wineskin. Raising it as if in a toast, he declared, “If we are going to be in this sham of a marriage, we may as well have a bit of adventure.”
Though she certainly hadn't thought it possible when the day dawned, Arya supposed it would not be terrible being Renly Baratheon's wife.
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