Arya's hands shook as she opened the door to her father's solar, her chest burning as if she had remained under water too long. Only a few hours had passed since her arrival at court, but all Arya could think about was Ned, Robb, Bran, and Rickon waiting somewhere in the castle. She smiled through a forced conversation with Daenerys, bathed and donned the first gown she had worn since her wedding day, and supped with Aegon and the children, but her thoughts never drifted far from her family lingering somewhere in the Red Keep.
Aegon explained the structure of court under his rule: Connington was his Hand, Viserys and Daenerys holding places on the small council, Duck was a member of the Kingsguard, and Haldon was serving as Aegon's personal maester. Lord Varys and Lord Baelish still maintained positions with the council, and, as a show of goodwill towards House Baratheon, Gendry was given the remaining seat upon the council.
“He is as honorable as you always said,” Aegon told her as he balanced Rhaenys on his knee while they ate. “His mad mother wanted to raze all of King's Landing with wildfire before ever giving it to me, but he put his own mother into a black cell to keep the peace. She's a prisoner now at Casterly Rock. But I have to say, what Gendry has done to help hold the realm together is admirable.”
“My sister,” Arya began, unsure how to finish the sentence.
“Your sister and her children are safe,” Aegon assured her. “I've allowed them to keep their rooms in Maegor's Holdfast until something more permanent can be found. She's quite polite.”
Arya wished the smile on her lips was less bitter. “Yes, Sansa was always courteous to a fault.”
“Your father has been kind as well,” Aegon continued. “There was some initial resistance as there was with everyone, but he and Robb have been instrumental in arranging the loyalty of the North. And your brother Bran, he fought valiantly in the Westerlands; he held Casterly Rock when Tommen took a wound, and he held the siege until Gendry conceded.”
Aegon's face tightened momentarily before admitting, “Things are a bit slower moving with him.”
She thought of the last time she saw Rickon, of how he had gotten into his cups at her wedding to Renly and ended up nearly brawling with both of the Redwyne twins. If she had a drop of wolf's blood, Rickon had nothing but the blood of the wolf.
Arya thought of that now as she entered the solar, her heart in her throat.
Her father, brothers, and sister were seated around the table, and all rose as she entered. Arya was startled by how much everyone seemed to have aged; when she realized it had been almost six years since she last saw them made her ache. There was silver in Robb's beard now; Bran bore a scar on his forehead and Rickon, who always seemed so young, was now broader than them all. Sansa was still beautiful, far more beautiful than Arya ever was, but she could read the sadness in Sansa's blue eyes, undoubtedly the result of having her entire life blown apart by her sister's husband. But it was Ned, now bearing his weight upon a cane, which drove home the reality of Arya's situation: she did not know her family anymore.
“I'm sorry,” Arya blurted out, suddenly overwhelmed with tears. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry. If I had known what was going to happen - “
“Hush,” Ned ordered as he hobbled forward, enfolding her in his arms as tightly as he had when she was child. Arya buried her face in his chest, inhaling the scent of home as he pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “Just hush, girl. Oh, gods be good...”
Arya clung to him, her anchor in this storm, and she never wanted to raise her face from his chest, never wanted to leave his embrace. From the moment she left Storm's End, she longed for her family, to be as small as Rhaenys and held in her father's lap, assured of the goodness and safety of the world by the man she trusted above all. Sometimes, when Rhaenys was particularly ornery with her but would immediately bend to Aegon's soft requests, Arya thought of Ned and Catelyn at Winterfell and all the rejection her mother must have felt when Arya always chose her father over her.
Bran embraced her next, squeezing her even tighter than Ned had. “I saw your wildlings earlier,” he said with a laugh in his voice. “Did you go beyond the Wall?”
“Jon wouldn't let me. Besides, we were supposed to do it together, remember?”
Bran pulled back, eyes wet his emotion. “King and Queen of the wildlings.”
Robb and Rickon both hugged her tightly, but Sansa remained at a distance, her face cool and poised. Arya hesitated, unsure how to proceed, when Sansa stepped forward, a light, polite kiss brushed against Arya's cheek.
“Welcome back, Your Grace.”
Arya recoiled from the title, wincing as if it was a blade in her ribs, and Sansa's eyes darkened. For a moment, she tried to figure out what to say to her sister, the queen she usurped, but Arya found there were no words; all Sansa had ever wanted was to be a queen, an office she held for only a fortnight, and for her children to be princes and princesses, which they no longer were. Arya knew Gendry never much cared if he was king or not; the only reason he hadn't abdicated was to spare the realm from Joffrey as their king. But Sansa...A crown was all Sansa ever dreamed of having.
“Sansa,” Arya began, hoping the words would come to her only to be left wanting.
Her sister's poise did not falter as she said, “I am sure you've had a long journey and such matters are not yet at hand, but my children's septa is happy to see to your children as well. Prince Viserys approached me about it, and, I can assure you, Septa Glynnis is kind.”
Certain she was misunderstanding, certain Sansa could not possibly be speaking of septas and Viserys's wishes after everything which had happened, all Arya could manage was, “My children do not keep the Seven.”
“What do you mean?” Sansa asked in surprise. “You have not taught your children the Faith?”
Trying not to scoff at the ridiculousness of the conversation, Arya replied, “We keep the Old Gods. What does it matter?”
“What does it matter?” Sansa echoed, an edge to her voice which made all of their brothers shift uncomfortably at whatever was about to happen. Arya saw her father opening his mouth to still Sansa's words, but her sister was suddenly flush with an anger Arya recognized often in herself. “It matters because you are now the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms! It matters because your children are now heirs to the Iron Throne! It matters because the realm and the Faith will not stand for the rulers of the kingdom saying their prayers before trees, especially not when the king and queen are more used to savages than good people!”
“Sansa,” Ned warned as Arya snapped, “You have no idea what you are talking about! The Dothraki and the wildlings are honest, which is more than I can say for courtiers.”
“Honest?” Sansa repeated. “You are going to lecture me about honesty? What would you know about honesty?”
“Sansa,” Robb said, moving forward to lay a hand upon their sister's shoulder only to be shook off.
“You have broken every vow you have ever made!” Sansa cried, furious tears filling her eyes. “You broke your marriage vows to Renly, you shamed our family, you hid away from the husband you claim to love and stole his children, and your children now will hold what was meant to belong to mine, so do not stand there and lecture me on honesty!”
“That's enough!” Ned snapped, his voice as deep and stern as it ever was.
But for the first time, Sansa did not heed their father's words. “No, it will never be enough. Let everyone else forgive you and fall at your feet, bowing to the Dragon Queen, but you remember every time you wear your crown, you stole it from your own blood.”
The words hung in the air, thick and poisonous, almost as if even Ned Stark did not want to touch them. There was such fury on Sansa's face, a sense of betrayal which ran deeper than any of their past arguments; Sansa was angry for herself or for Gendry but for her children, the three little nieces Arya was once so puzzled by and the nephew Arya did not know. Arya knew what it was like to be willing to die to protect your children, and Aegon's ascension to the throne put the futures of all the Baratheon children in peril. Gendry held no lands and, if wealth was seized, was as poor as a beggar; no one had ever fallen as quickly or as steeply as Sansa's family, and Arya knew Sansa was not like her, was not meant for wandering the Free Cities or camping with wildlings.
If Arya was still the girl she had been at Storm's End, angry and impulsive, she would have thrown the truth at Sansa: that it was she who was always meant to be queen, that Gendry had wanted her and only married Sansa because Arya refused his proposal. If Arya was still the girl she had been after Ned's death, she would have apologized and promised to make it up to her. If Arya was still the girl she had been at Winterfell, she would have kicked Sansa in the shin and pulled her shining auburn hair.
But Arya was none of those women now, so she said the only thing which felt true in her heart.
“I did not do any of this to steal from you, Sansa. I did not make any decisions based upon you.”
“Of course you didn't because you only make decisions based upon yourself.” Sansa scoffed as she bounced in a mocking bow. “May I have your leave, Your Grace? I feel ill.”
Hurt and anger flared brightly in Arya's chest. The voice which passed through her lips was not her own; it belonged to the girl who always felt slighted, always felt less than her prettier, better loved sister. “No, you will stay. Stay and be ill. I will go.”
“No, Arya, both of you - “
Arya did not let hear the rest of her father's words, rushing from the solar and down the staircase as if she was a little girl again, trying to outrun the pain Sansa caused her. She would not let Sansa see her cry, to let her see how conflicted she was with this situation. All Arya wanted was her family back, to feel whole again.
But no man could serve two masters, and Arya was rapidly discovering that the world she left was not the world to which she was returning.
When she returned to her bedchamber, she was stunned to see Aegon and all three of their children in the large featherbed; the children were all freshly bathed in their nightclothes, Rhaenys and Aemon snuggled in tightly beside each other while Alysanne slept in her father's arms. Arya quickly wiped away the tears on her cheeks, her heart warming at the sight of the family she created.
“All the rooms in the castle, and we're all staying in mine?” Arya quipped, drawing giggles from her children.
“We want to share a room,” Rhaenys explained, speaking for Aemon as she had since his birth. “We don't like sleeping alone.”
Aemon nodded silently in agreement, his purple eyes watching Arya unflinchingly.
“I told them we could see about sharing a chamber,” Aegon explained, “but that they are getting older and it's not appropriate for a brother and sister to share a chamber.”
“But I do not want to share with Alysanne. She is a baby!”
“That's unkind,” Arya mildly replied.
“Well, she is! And Aemon and I have always shared a pallet. We do not mind, do we, Aemon?”
“We can share with Alysanne too,” Aemon offered softly, ever the conciliator.
Her eyes found Aegon's across the bed, and, though she was still uncertain about the future course of her marriage, Arya still smiled at the obvious look of pride on her husband's face. When she was heavily pregnant with Aemon, Rhaenys used to press her hands against the stretched skin of her middle, giggling madly whenever Aemon moved and proudly telling everyone about “her baby”; Aegon loved it, telling Arya he wanted their children to be the very best of friends, to know and love each other better than any other siblings ever had. Arya knew Aegon imagined he and his sister would have been great friends if the rebellion had not occurred; Rhaenys and Aemon's devotion to each other fulfilled the fondest wish in Aegon's heart.
“We shall think about it,” Aegon offered, setting Alysanne's sleeping form beside Aemon, who easily made room for his baby sister in the crook of his arm. “Mayhaps for tonight, your mother will allow you to share her bed.”
“Of course,” Arya easily agreed, unwilling to admit she preferred for the children to be with her. She did not care what peace Aegon swore was reached; Arya knew the lords and ladies of Westeros well enough to know they did not approve of their new king and his foreign allies. Aegon may have grown up with the stories of what happened to his mother and sister, but Arya grew up under the weight of it; if someone were going to try to harm her children, they would have to fight their way past her.
“Will you stay with us too?” Rhaenys asked, her voice sounding decidedly less firm than it usually did. “Like at home,” she added when there was hesitation between her parents.
Arya resisted the urge to smile; Vaes Dothrak would always be Rhaenys's home as Winterfell would always be hers, the only place on earth where her daughter would ever feel truly comfortable.
She saw Aegon melt at Rhaenys's request, always so pliable to their daughter; Arya knew it was probably not fair to have a favorite child, but the bond between Aegon and Rhaenys was something powerful, something which reminded Arya of the relationship she once had with Ned. Rhaenys was Aegon's child as surely as Aemon was hers; Alysanne was everyone's, too good-spirited and friendly to ever confine herself to having a preference for anyone.
“If your mother does not mind,” he murmured, eyes soft with affection.
They always used to sleep together as a family, first in Pentos and then in the Dothraki Sea; Arya remembered what it felt like to wake for the first time with Rhaenys's small body between her and Aegon's and to realize this was her family, that they belonged to her and no one else. After she awoke from her sleep following Aemon's birth, Arya would wake up sometimes to find Aegon staring down at the three of them, sadness and love clouding his features as he made the same realizations she did. Arya knew she was not a good lady, obedient wife, or the type of mother who taught her children piety and deference, but she truly loved her family.
She just never realized she might have to choose which family to love.
Sleep never came easily for Arya, but it did not come at all that night. Alysanne slept curled around her mother while Aemon and Rhaenys burrowed tightly against each other, Aegon on their daughter's other side. Finally, as the moon reached its peak in the sky, Arya slipped from the bed, crossing the chamber in her nightgown to stare out at King's Landing from the high windows. She thought of Cersei Lannister held in the bowels of Casterly Rock and Rhaella Targaryen before her; queens never seemed to meet kind ends in Westeros.
She inhaled sharply at the feel of Aegon's hands resting on her hips, sliding around her waist to hold her against him; Arya could feel the heat of his body against her back, his bare skin hot to the touch, and she instinctively turned her face towards his, resting her forehead against the elegant line of his neck.
“Do you hate me for all I've done?” he whispered against her forehead, sounding far more vulnerable than any king should.
“Only sometimes,” she answered honestly. “Do you hate me for all I've done?”
“Not as often as I hate myself for driving you to it,” he replied, rewarding her honesty with his own. They were quiet for a moment, the sounds of their children's breathing a sweet lullaby before Aegon sighed, “We married for love.”
“There are not many in the world who can claim that.”
Arya thought of Ned Dayne and Renly Baratheon, good men both whom her heart was never able to take to as it should have. “That is very true.”
“Is there love between us still?”
She nodded, emotion rising hard in her throat. “Love and respect and three beautiful children I never thought I would ever have.”
“But no trust?”
“Never again,” Arya swore, meaning the words as surely as if they were vowed before the heart tree. Twisting in his arms, finding his lilac eyes in the muted light, Arya knew he could see the tears in her eyes. “Every promise you made me you have broken. How could I ever trust you?”
“I did this for us.”
“You did this for you,” she corrected, forcing herself to keep her tone even and soft so as not to wake the children, “for Viserys, for Daenerys, for people who lived and died before either of us could even know them, but you did not do it for me or our children.”
“What sort of legacy could I have left our children in the Free Cities, living off the kindnesses of others or by gold won by fighting other people's wars?”
Arya scoffed as tears rolled down her cheeks. “I did not marry you or bear your children for a legacy. They would love you if you were a sellsword, a beggar, a king, or a god. But our children will never be loved here.”
“What are you talking about? They are the prince and princesses of - “
“They are the issue of a woman who was never well-loved before she abandoned her marriage to one of the most popular lords in the Seven Kingdoms and wed the man who stripped her own blood of their legacy.” She shook her head in frustration. “You may be skilled at warfare, but the battlefield is nowhere near as bloody or vengeful as the Red Keep. You'll see.”
“See why I preferred exchanging my honor to a sellsword rather than remaining in its shadow.”
The first hints of anger began to flush Aegon's face. “You are the most honorable woman I have ever known, and I will take the tongue of any man who says otherwise.”
“Then you shall have quite the collection of tongues, Your Grace.” Arya rose on her toes, brushing her lips against his, tasting the salt of her own tears; Aegon clutched her too tightly, half-longing and half-desperate, and Arya knew she would bear bruises in the morning. She did not resist when he pushed her towards the bath, closing the door before lifting her to sit upon the cool stone edge of the wash basin.
Aegon buried his fingers in her tangled hair, holding her head so that she would meet his gaze. “I love you more than I could ever love a crown.”
Liar, she thought without malice even as she tipped her hips upwards in silent request to be touched.
“That one is always looking at you,” Val declared one afternoon as she and Arya sat in the gardens while the children ran and played. In the few months since first arriving in the Crowlands, Arya found Val to be the only friend she had at court and her friend would be departing with Mance and the others in three days time. All of the Seven Kingdoms was descending upon King's Landing for Aegon's coronation and the feast which would follow, but, no matter how loyal they had been, the small council made sure the wildlings would have no part in it.
Arya turned her head to try to follow Val's pointed stare. “Which one?”
“The big one who is with your sour-faced sister.”
Her eyes instantly found Sansa and Gendry as they approached the doors to the Keep, Sansa's hand resting upon Gendry's elbow, walking as regally as she practiced all those years ago in Winterfell. Not once since that first horrible day in Westeros had Sansa spoken a word to Arya; she kept to her rooms with Margaery Tyrell and Tommen's wife, the princesses usurped by the girl they used to mock when they were young. Even Sansa's children were kept away, hidden away with the other Baratheon issue; they were claiming the children were ill with fevers and terrible colds, but Arya knew it was far more than that. Thus far Aegon had not noticed the slight upon their children, too involved in trying to fix the realm he broke, but Arya knew it was only a matter of time.
Only Gendry was about, stern-faced and silent except when courtesy demanded otherwise. And Arya did not need Val to tell her how her good-brother's blue eyes followed her every move.
“Yes,” was all Arya said in reply, watching as Aemon and Rhaenys held Alysanne's hands to swing her between them.
Arya wasn't sure why she chose to tell the truth to Val when she denied it when confronted every other time. But still she found herself saying matter-of-factly, “Because once we loved each other, and he offered to make me his queen. But I said no and he married my sister instead.”
“Why did you say no if you loved him?”
“Because I did not want to be queen and my sister did. And because I was stupid.” She took a heavy swallow from her cup of wine. “But mostly I was stupid.”
Val chuckled with a roll of her eyes. “You kneelers make everything so bloody difficult. All you worry about is what's proper and what's honorable, but where does it get you? Miserable bastards, the lot of you.”
“It isn't like with the Free Folk. We can't just steal people we like.”
“Oh really? Isn't that how you ended up the queen?”
Arya bristled at the insinuation. “I wasn't stolen.”
“You were stolen,” Val argued mildly, “and you don't even realize it.”
She turned as the children laughed and giggled, Rhaenys now chasing her brother and sister, and Arya considered Val's words. After a moment, she confessed the most treasonous belief she held in her heart, the one which felt like a betrayal to her children every time she even thought of it.
“Sometimes I wish my husband had lost the war.”
Val offered a half-smile. “Just because he sits on the throne doesn't mean he won.”
Nobody won, not in Westeros. Arya did not need Val to point that out to her.
When Arya entered the hall for dinner, she was genuinely surprised to find so many people at the table: her father and brothers, Sansa and Gendry, Margaery and Joffrey, Tommen and Elaine, Ashara, Daenerys, Rhaego, Viserys, Connington, and Lord Varys. She instantly dropped her eyes to the floor, not wanting to see the judgment in their eyes as she walked to her place beside Aegon, the skirts of her gown rustling against the floor; since her return to court, Arya had made a conscious effort to not be with Aegon in front of her family or Gendry, as if it would lessen the guilt she felt about what she did if they did not need to see her with her husband.
As the servants began to fill their plates, Arya found herself stealing glances at Gendry from the corner of her eye; he sat between Sansa and Joffrey, silent and stone faced, his black beard hiding most of his face, his blue eyes focused on Bran as he spoke. It was her subtle study of her old friend which lead Arya to miss the beginnings of the conversation between Viserys and the men around her.
“It's completely infuriating,” Viserys was saying, gesturing with the hand which held his wine cup. “Marriage is the only claim she has to House Hornwood, and if this Bolton bastard wants to marry her for it, she should be grateful.”
“There are stories of Ramsay Snow's...preferences, Prince Viserys,” Lord Varys offered, clearly trying to be selective with his words. “And he is only the heir to Dreadfort because he is rumored to have killed his trueborn brother.”
“A woman cannot keep a holdfast, especially in the North,” Viserys insisted.
“What would you know about what a woman could do in the North?” Arya snapped, hating the heavy condescension in his tone. “Have you ever set foot above the Neck? Have you ever met Lady Hornwood?”
“No, but - “
“Then what right have you to determine what she can and cannot do? And to force the Bastard of Bolton on her besides - “
“Arya,” Aegon began, his voice clearly trying to keep the peace, but Arya would not be silenced, not with Viserys Targaryen looking and acting so irritatingly smug.
“A woman cannot fight a war.”
“Well, someone must let Maege Mormont and her daughters know, for the ladies in their family have been defending Bear Island for centuries.”
“I am certain no one is doubting a woman's capacity for defense,” Varys offered diplomatically, “but it is far preferable to have a man to rule. Ladies are more talented at keeping a home and raising children whereas men are more skilled at warfare. It is simply how the Gods designed it.”
“Oh, yes, how could one forget the magical properties of possessing a cock?”
“Arya!” Ashara gasped sharply as Rhaego laughed, quickly silencing his amusement when he saw the uncomfortable expressions on their dinner guests' faces.
“I'll not force any woman to marry someone she does not want to marry, especially a man as twisted as Ramsay Bolton,” Aegon pronounced, setting a comforting hand atop Arya's.
Viserys was furious. It was enough to make Arya's day feel less like it was wasted.
She barely heard the rest of the dinner conversation, Aegon's insistence to the Baratheon sons about how he wanted to make a stronger realm together, how he wanted the North to be a strong ally to the Iron Throne. Arya never cared for politics before Aegon's ascension to the Iron Throne, and she cared even less about it now. She picked at her food, the second-finest cuts of meat, the rich dishes which churned her stomach after so many years spent with the Free Folk and the Dothraki, and instead Arya found herself drinking too heavily of the Dornish red, her head swimming long before dinner was done.
Connington caught her elbow when she rose, unsteady on her feet, and Arya saw disapproval in the man's eyes, which she promptly ignored. Aegon was holding a meeting with the men, the ladies Baratheon retiring to Sansa's solar, but Arya did not even try to pretend she would be joining them. Instead she wandered through the hallways of the Keep, head foggy from wine, remembering when she used to run the corridors, used to be someone else entirely.
I was fierce once, she thought as she walked aimlessly. I was a she-wolf, bold and brave, and now I am the dragon's wife with no pack to call my own.
She did not realize until the wind blew against her face that she was at Traitor's Walk. The bridge stretched high across the ground to reach the other side, the spikes on the wall now devoid of the heads Aegon took. Arya stepped carefully onto the walk, staring down at the drop before carefully lowering herself to sit, her feet dangling. She gasped when her slipper came loose from her foot, dropping into the darkness, and Arya heard the soft slap it made as it landed.
Everyone whispered “traitor” behind her back; it seemed only right she spend her evening here.
Arya was uncertain how long she sat upon the bridge before she heard the approaching footsteps. Between the darkness and her drunkenness, she could not make out who it was at first; only when he joined her on the bridge did Arya recognize the figure as Gendry. He sank down beside her, the wide breadth of his shoulders and the barrel of his chest so different from Aegon's lean figure, and Arya wondered what it felt like for Sansa to fall asleep in the circle of his arms.
Neither of them said anything at first, both staring into the blackness, the noises of the Keep muted. And then Arya sighed, her head listing to rest against his shoulder, and Gendry's arm came around her body, his hand resting against her hip.
“I missed you every day,” Gendry confessed in a murmur, turning his head so his lips brushed the top of her head with every word. “I went mad when I heard you wed him.”
“I never stopped thinking about you,” she offered in reply, inhaling the familiar scent of him. “I was so scared of what would happen to you.”
His fingers bit into her hip as he held her, agony twisting his features, as he implored, “Why could you be his queen but not mine?”
Too drunk to still her tongue, Arya shook her head, spilling her hair in every direction. “I didn't want to be his queen, just his wife. If you had been an armorer instead of a prince, I would have been your wife. I would have given you babies and happiness, I would have shared your bed every night, I would have loved you better than - “
His mouth was hot against hers, his beard scratching at the soft skin of her face, and Arya recognized even through her haze this was wrong. Aegon would take his head for this, and Sansa's hatred towards her would never abate; her head could end up on a spike beside Gendry's if any of this was ever discovered.
But Arya still whispered against his mouth, “Come to me tonight.”
There was fire in Gendry's blue eyes as he whispered in return, “Truly?”
“In the godswood,” she said, rapidly sobering as reality began to assert itself. “I'll be waiting.”
No one questioned when she sought out the godswood hours later, head nearly cleared of wine; men and women bowed when she passed, but Arya could not remember their faces. They bowed because she was the queen, not because they loved her; her father always said you could never trust a man who did not bear love when he bent the knee.
Arya loved her husband and she loved her sister as well; it was being forced to be something she was not which she hated.
She spread her cloak upon the ground, sitting upon it as her stomach fluttered in nervous anticipation. From the time she was thirteen, she had wanted this, had wanted it before she even truly understood what it was; Arya was never one to deny herself what she wanted, and it was only her desire to keep her honor which made her stay far from Gendry's bed.
But her honor was gone now, given to a sellsword who was an exiled prince, a prince who broke his word to become king, and Arya was exhausted from pretending otherwise.
She thought of Jon and Val as Gendry entered the clearing, smiling hopefully as he saw her resting on her cloak; honor and vows kept Jon Snow well-and-truly miserable while they kept Val lingering in hopes he would break. Arya made vows to Aegon Targaryen because she thought love would override a man's ambition; Gendry made vows to Sansa Stark because he thought the Baratheon name was worth more than his personal happiness. They had been dutiful children to their fathers once, back when they were young and the world still seemed fair.
“I have dreamed of this a thousand times,” Gendry confessed as he knelt beside her, his hand rising tentatively to touch her cheek as if he was afraid of startling her.
Arya loosened the ties of her gown, peeling the sides apart to reveal her shift. “You talk too much,” she declared, pulling him down for a kiss.
There was nothing tender in their coupling, no sweet words or gentle kisses. Arya ripped the collar of Gendry's tunic in her haste to undress him; Gendry sank his teeth into the curve of her shoulder hard enough to bruise when he entered her. It was as much a fight as any they had before, but, unlike their other spats, Arya did not mind losing. She arched her back hard when Gendry caught her wrists, holding them above her head, effectively keeping her in place as their hips met in a fast, desperate rhythm; she did not try to reverse their positions so she might be in control. Arya learned lovemaking from Ned Dayne and learned to enjoy it from Aegon Targaryen, but the only man she ever wanted with absolute desperation had always been Gendry.
She cried out sharply as Gendry raised her hips, trying to get deeper inside of her, and Arya flung her arms out, uprooting grass as she tried to remain attached to the earth. The spring air was cool, but Arya felt as if she was aflame, Gendry's skin burning as hot as her own, and both were slick with sweat. Gendry panted her name, his lips wet and hungry against her throat, and Arya's nails bit into the flesh of his shoulders as he rose on his knees, grasping her tightly around the waist; he now sat upon her ruined cloak, Arya straddling his lap, rising and falling without faltering.
His laugh was breathless and joyful, a sound Arya had not heard since before the Ironborn Rebellion, and it made her laugh as well. “What?”
“You have leaves in your hair.” Plucking a bit of golden leaf from the tangled mess, he teased, “You shall be my forest lass.”
“Stupid,” she breathed even as she smiled and took his mouth for another kiss. Gendry laughed against her, the noise turning to a moan, and Arya shook as she peaked, Gendry following soon after.
They lied on their backs beside each other, both of their breaths heavy as their blood cooled. Arya could hear the leaves singing above her, but too many years away made her forget how to understand the trees; she closed her eyes, trying to focus, but all she could make out was fall, fall, fall.
“We should not have done that,” Arya said when she was calm.
“Regret already?” Gendry drawled, and she could hear the bitterness starting to creep into his voice.
“No, simply stating a fact.” She rolled onto her side, rising up on her elbow. “I do love my husband.”
Gendry mimicked her position. “I know that. If you didn't, you would have stayed at the Wall with your children.”
“Do you love Sansa?”
It was the only question she never asked of him before because she knew he would be honest; with his seed on her thighs, the truth of it did not seem so damning. “I respect her and appreciate her; the love I bear her is not passionate but is real. But she hates me now for giving the Iron Throne to your husband without a fight; she curses my manhood and accuses me of not loving our children well enough to give them an inheritance.”
Arya idly traced a pattern upon his bare chest. “She'll forgive you. You'll stay here or go to Storm's End, and then she'll give you more red-headed children.”
“And you'll be a miserable queen who has to pretend you are not smarter and more capable than the men who advise the king while simpering and curtsying to men who whisper about your alleged dishonors.”
“The things we do for love,” Arya drawled, and Gendry smiled mirthlessly.
They dressed in silence, Arya's fingers fumbling with her gown's ties as Gendry attempted to hide his torn tunic beneath his surcoat. She laughed softly as Gendry removed the golden leaves from her hair, and he rewarded every smile with a kiss. When he was finished, Arya gathered her filthy cloak from the ground, shaking it free of dirt before fastening it around her shoulders, the scent of Gendry surrounding her.
“This cannot happen again,” she declared, holding his face between her palms.
“As you wish, Your Grace.”
They both knew it was a lie.
Her mother was coming. Bran told her first, finding her as she was breaking fast with the children and Ashara; he scooped up Aemon, drawing a rare laugh from her serious son, and tweaked Alysanne's nose before telling her how Catelyn left Winterfell with fifty of the Stark guard, Meera Reed, and Jeyne Westerling. Arya could scarcely believe little Rickard was old enough to act as Lord of Winterfell in their absence, but he was four-and-ten now; the years seemed to be moving faster than Arya could comprehend. Even as Bran gave her the details of their mother's arrival, Arya found her eyes drifting towards Ashara, who was pointedly avoiding her gaze, urging Rhaenys to remember her table manners.
“Do you dislike my mother?” Arya asked Ashara later in the day when Rhaenys and Aemon were taken by their septa for lessons, Alysanne napping peacefully.
Her fingers did not falter as she continued her needlework. “I barely know your lady mother. I only met her once, and she was barely more than a child then.”
“That wasn't my question.”
Ashara lifted her violet eyes, brushing a lock of dark hair off of her forehead. Since returning to court, Aegon provided her with the finest of gowns, draping her in jewels and insisting she be treated as the Queen Mother. Arya knew from her last discussion with Aegon that he entered into talks with Lord Beric and Lady Allyria about Ashara receiving Starfall, her right as the elder sister, but Ashara did not seem in a hurry to return to Dorne.
“It was not Catelyn Tully's fault that Brandon Stark was killed by King Aerys. Nor was it Lady Catelyn's fault that her father insisted on House Stark keeping the betrothal in exchange for his bannermen. I do not dislike your mother for that which was out of her control.”
“But?” Arya prompted, knowing there was more.
“But a woman never forgets what it is like to see the man she loves marry another.” She smiled sadly. “You, of all people, understand what that is like.”
“You shouldn't listen to gossip,” Arya chastised teasingly, rising to pour herself a cup of wine.
“If I stopped listening to gossip, I would have nothing to listen to,” Ashara retorted.
Sometimes Arya found herself wondering what it would have been like to be the daughter of Ned Stark and Ashara Dayne. She knew it was disloyal to Catelyn, who always loved her as well as she could, but Arya knew from the time she was small that Sansa was the daughter she preferred. Arya was too wild and too unrefined, too willful and too quick to anger; Catelyn never quite knew what to do with Arya and, as her own children grew, Arya certainly understood the confusion. But Ashara never judged her for her less ladylike behaviors, never lectured her on propriety; beyond a few gentle reminders since returning to court, Ashara accepted Arya as she was.
Arya thought of Allyria Dayne, so beautiful and strong, quick to anger and even quicker to forgive, and she knew she would have preferred to have grown up as Allyria's little sister instead of Sansa's sister. Ashara insisted Arya never tell Ned or Allyria the truth of her parentage, and Arya made the promise easily, but she found herself wishing for a sister who did not look at her as if she was the evilest thing in the world. The closest she had now was Daenerys, but Arya never forgot for a moment that Dany was a dragon, not a direwolf.
On the morning Catelyn was to arrive, Arya found herself unable to sit still. She rose long before the sun, her stomach twisting and churning with nervous anticipation, and Arya knew she would never be able to survive until midday when the train from Winterfell was to arrive. In the very bottom of her trunks, Arya found her riding leathers and the painted Dothraki vest gifted to her when Rhaenys was still suckling; donning them was like slipping into the skin of the girl she once was, and Arya found herself inhaling deep, trying to recall the unique scents of the Dothraki Sea. As she wove her hair into a loose braid, Arya found herself remembering how happy she and Aegon were in those early days of their marriage, the way they doted upon Rhaenys and thought nothing of riding, laughing, and frolicking the days away. They were so free then, living amongst the khalasar, drinking fermented mare's milk, dancing around the fires; Aemon was even conceived beneath the stars in the Dothraki way, something Arya knew would scandalize every lord and lady in Westeros.
Now she and Aegon rarely spent any time together, let alone in each other's bed, and the only man she spent time with beneath the stars was Gendry, guilt and shame their bedmates.
Two of the Kingsguard stood outside Aegon's chamber, and Arya saw their eyes widen at the image she presented. As she slipped into the dark, cool room, Arya realized she had not been in the king's apartments since the day Robert ordered her to marry Renly; Aegon always came to her rooms. The tapestries were all Targaryen colors now, and, as Arya came to sit upon the massive bed beside her sleeping husband, she found herself thinking of King Robert and Aerys before him, all the Targaryens who slept in this room and the unsettling fact that, one day, her son would sleep in it as well.
Aegon frowned in confusion as Arya roused him, brows lifting in concern as he said, “Arya? What is it? Are the children - “
“They're fine,” she quickly assured him, letting him settle back into the pillows. “Let's go riding.”
“Riding? It's not even light yet - “
“So what? We used to ride before the sun all the time.” Taking his hands, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man she fell in love with in the Stormlands, she prodded, “Do you remember when we first got to the Dothraki Sea when Rhaenys was still swaddled? We left her with Ashara and we rode through the waist-high grass until all we could see were the different colors.”
“You put me to shame on your horse,” Aegon recalled with a small smile, “and when I laid you back in the grass - “
“It was as blue as your hair.” Lowering her face close to his, she begged, “I need you to be my husband today instead of the king. If you bear me any love, you'll get up and come riding with me.”
Aegon lifted his hand, cupping the side of her face. “Arya, you know how much I love you, but I cannot just stop being king for a day.”
“Why not? Isn't that what Connington is for? My father sat the throne for Robert a hundred times while he stopped - “
“And I am not Robert,” he cut in gently. “The realm is barely being held together as it is, the people's faith in me is fragile at best, and I cannot take a day off to play.”
“Play,” she echoed as she pulled away. “I am not a child, Aegon.”
“No, Arya, that's what not what I meant,” he objected as he sat up.
“I am so sorry to have disturbed you, Your Grace,” Arya spat before stomping from the room, slamming the door like the child she claimed not to be, furious and stung by his rejection. As she descended the stairs towards the stables, Arya thought of the guilt she kept in her heart for cuckolding Aegon; she loved the man her husband used to be but she did not care for the King of the Seven Kingdoms. What she was doing with Gendry did not make her feel good; the moment things were over, the shame of it all returned to them. The last time they laid together was two days earlier and Arya meant it when she said they could not do it again.
She told herself she stopped the affair because it was the right thing to do, because she loved Aegon and because Sansa was her sister. But she knew the true reason was Catelyn, who always seemed to see right through Arya when she looked hard enough.
The stable boy was asleep against the wall when Arya entered, but she did not need him, had not needed help saddling a horse since she was a child. She chose one of the flat Dothraki saddles from the wall, fastening it around Aegon's destrier. She thought of Winter, who had perished on the trip from the Dothraki Sea to Volantis, and her heart ached; the only creature she missed more than Winter was Nymeria, who had broken her leash at Storm's End to never be seen again.
The stable boy awoke with a shout as Arya galloped past him, riding hard for the hills. Members of the khalasar guarded the gates, recognizing her easily and letting her pass, and Arya inhaled deeply the scent of freedom. She knew the men at the gate would not send up an alarm; she might actually get to ride without a member of the Kingsguard for once. And if enemies came, she was prepared; the arakh Rhaego gave her long ago rested against her hip.
By the time Arya returned to the Red Keep, the sun was high enough in the sky that Arya knew it was mid-morning; her braid had loosened considerably during the ride, hair sticking to her skin, and a heavy sweat covered her body. As she rode into the Keep, she saw lords and ladies alike gaping at her as if she possessed a second head, but, for the first time since returning to King's Landing, Arya did not care. She returned the well-lathered horse to the stables before entering the castle, barely managing to keep from smirking at the gasps which came from Sansa's lips.
“You look like a savage!” Sansa hissed, her hand literally fluttering against her chest. Elinor, now a tall girl of eleven, looked nearly as outraged as her mother; Rose and Alisa seemed stunned but also intrigued at the sight of their aunt clothed so strangely.
“I am what I am,” Arya replied, bending down so she was eye-level with Rose and Alisa, chucking Rose beneath her chin and earning a giggle for her action. “Would you like to play with your cousins?”
“We can't get dirty,” Alisa immediately responded. “Grandmother is coming, and it is not proper to dirty yourself when family is arriving.”
Arya gave a half-smirk as she rose, her eyes locking with Sansa's. “You've raised lovely young ladies.”
Sansa appeared thrown for a moment, unsure how to accept the compliment before grudgingly replying, “Thank you.”
“My children would appreciate their company.”
Sansa was still for a moment, glancing down at her trio of auburn-haired daughters before returning her gaze to Arya. For a beat, Arya thought she saw her sister behind those Tully blue eyes, the one who whispered secrets with her at Storm's End before she fled; and then, as quickly as it appeared, it was gone and Lady Sansa reemerged.
“I believe our children have different types of lessons during the day,” was all Sansa managed.
It shouldn't have stung; from the moment they were born, she and Sansa could not agree on anything. But Arya's children were wonderful, and it broke her heart none of the other children at court wanted to play with them. Only the children of the Dothraki socialized with Rhaenys, Aemon, and Alysanne, and already Rhaenys was slipping back into the habit of not using the Common Tongue; Arya heard the whispers about the unsuitability of the prince and princesses, and she did not want her children to grow up as outcasts the way she had.
There is no place for them here either, Arya thought as she moved towards Maegor's Holdfast, struggling to keep down the emotion rising in her throat. She wondered if mayhaps she should have insisted on Rhaenys wearing pretty gowns and having a septa, on Aemon spending more time with the little boys at court rather than permitting him to stick close to his big sister. Suddenly she was starting to understand why Catelyn always fussed over her so much, why she tried to get her to act as Sansa did.
There was no room for different in the Seven Kingdoms.
Arya was nearly to her rooms when Gendry entered the corridor, literally stopping in his tracks at the sight of her. She felt a blush rising in her cheeks, which she knew was ridiculous; Gendry had seen her as bare as the day she was born. But the way he was looking at her, as if she was something wondrous was a balm to her aching heart.
“The Kingsguard has been looking for you,” he reported softly, stepping towards her tentatively as if she was a wild animal. “The king thought you'd take protection with you.”
Arya's hand ghosted against the arakh on her hip. “I did.”
“You know how to use that?”
He was now standing so close to her, Arya could smell his skin. “Yes, and a sword, a bow, a dagger, a spear...I'm quite lethal.”
Gendry quirked an eyebrow. “No poison?”
“Poison is a woman's weapon.”
“You're not a woman?”
“Not when it comes to killing.”
He reached out, his fingers brushing the handle of the Dothraki weapon. “Have you ever used it?”
Arya could feel heat rising in her body; she needed to leave the hallway, leave Gendry before this spiraled out of control, before somebody saw. But she still found herself answering, “Once in the North.”
“Wildlings don't marry like us,” she explained. “They try to steal someone, and, if they succeed, they are wed. A man came to my tent one night and tried to steal me. I broke his nose but he didn't stop trying, so I opened his throat.”
She shivered as his fingers trailed up from her hip, across the exposed skin of her middle before reaching the ties of her painted vest. He gave one of the leather strings a gentle tug, undoing the knot; the laces loosened with each short breath Arya took, and she made a noise low in her throat when Gendry traced the curve of her cleavage.
“I want to take this off of you,” he confessed against the side of her face, his lips brushing against her skin.
“You can't,” she stated, trying to make her words as hard as iron but finding them to be irritatingly breathy. “We agreed to stop this.”
“So let's agree to start again.” He kissed her temple, her brow, the bridge of her nose before tilting her chin to look in her eyes. “I do not have to be at the council meeting for another hour. No one is expecting us. Let me love you, Arya.”
As Arya led Gendry into her chamber, she wondered when she became so weak.
“Why must I wear this? It itches,” Rhaenys complained as she tugged at the bodice of her dress. It was a very fine gown, the sort fit for a princess; it was red trimmed in black, silk and Myrish lace, and, with her dark coloring, it made her daughter appear even more beautiful than she already was.
“Because you are a princess and your lady grandmother will be quite pleased to see you look so well.”
Rhaenys wrinkled her nose, struggling a bit as Arya clumsily attempted to fasten a silver circlet atop her head. “Grandmother Ashara does not care if I wear a gown.”
“Grandmother Catelyn is not like Grandmother Ashara.” Securing the circlet, Arya added, “And please do not call Ashara 'grandmother' in front of Grandmother Catelyn. It will upset her.”
“Because it will. Please do not fight me on this, Rhaenys.”
Her daughter was quiet for a moment as if weighing the sincerity of Arya's words. Rhaenys finally nodded reluctantly before casting a glance at Aemon and Alysanne, already dressed and playing quietly on Arya's bed. “Is Grandmother Catelyn like Grandfather Ned?”
“In some ways.” Arya pulled a dark choker from the jewel box Aegon gave her, tying the ribbon around Rhaenys's throat, liking the way her daughter smiled at the sight of the onyx resting against the hollow of her throat. “Grandmother Catelyn is a Tully of Riverrun. Do you remember their words?”
“Family, duty, honor,” she recited easily, remembering her lessons from Haldon. The septa which Aegon enlisted for the children had declared Rhaenys the most stubborn, willful child she ever met and requested to only care for Alysanne. Arya suspected Rhaenys only acted so wildly in order to have lessons with Aemon and Haldon, and, thus far, they seemed to be working well.
“Do you understand what that means?”
“Your family comes first and then your duty and finally your honor.”
“And do you know know what honor means?”
Rhaenys gave her a look which clearly expressed how stupid she thought her mother to be. “It means whether or not you do the right things. Grandfather Ned has a lot of honor because he always does what is right. Jaime Lannister did not have any honor because he killed Great-Grandfather Aerys even though he swore an oath to protect him.”
“Right.” Patting at Rhaenys's curls, Arya thought of Gendry taking her hard against the wall in this very room earlier in the day. “Right.”
“Lord Mace says I look like Grandmother Elia,” Rhaenys reported, continuing to fidget with her skirts as Arya gathered the cosmetics on her vanity to begin to prepare herself. “He says I look exactly like the Martells of Dorne.”
“You do,” Arya confirmed. “The Martells are an ancient house, the lords of the only kingdom Aegon the Conqueror could not make fall.”
“Unbowed, unbent, unbroken.” Rhaenys watched Arya with keen eyes as her mother painted her mouth with lip stain. Then she said, “I do not like it here, Mother. Something is not right. I told Tormund and he said I was not meant to kneel.”
Arya smiled; she missed Tormund in all his inappropriateness. “That is because you are a princess.”
“But we all still kneel,” she rationalized, sounding so much older than her six years. Arya was startled to realize her seventh name day was fast approaching. “Everyone kneels before Father and the ladies, they all kneel to their husbands. And people say bad things about us. I hear them all the time.”
“What do you hear? When?”
Guilt flushed her face before admitting, “I skipped my dance lessons last evening to chase the black tomcat down into the dungeons. Father says I'm not to go down there because it's dangerous but I wanted to pet the cat. But then the men came, so I hid.”
“I could not see their faces, but I am certain one of them was Lord Mace. The other one was smaller and sometimes I see him with Father.”
“Did he have a sigil on his clothing?”
Rhaenys thought for a moment before nodding. “A mockingbird.”
Baelish. “What did you hear?”
When she leaned close to lower her voice, Arya knew her daughter was more than serious, especially if she was attempting to keep it a secret from Aemon. “They said you are not really the queen because you and Father are not really married, and they called us bastards. Lord Mace, he said the Faith will put it to a trial, and Father will have to put us aside or the realm would fall.”
Arya's blood turned to ice in her veins. “What else did he say?”
Rhaenys leaned even closer, uncharacteristic anxiety all over her face. “That Father has to marry someone else, a...a lady of the flowers? And then the mockingbird man, he said Aunt Sansa would have been a better queen and that...that the stag has been rutting with the wolf. What does that mean?”
Arya hoped her humiliation did not show on her face. “I am not certain. Did they say anything else?”
She nodded. “The mockingbird said they had to be careful of making people Blackfyres because it ended so horribly the last time. What does Father's sword have to do with anything?”
Casting a quick glance towards Aemon and Alysanne, still happily playing with the wooden toys Bran carved for them, Arya bent down, her make-up forgotten, Taking Rhaenys by the shoulders, Arya said, “I do not want you to speak of this to anyone else, not even your father. What you heard must remain a secret between us. Do you understand?”
Rhaenys nodded solemnly before stating with a wisdom far older than her years, “Bad men are trying to hurt us.”
Arya did not bother lying. “Yes, they are.”
“We won't let them,” Rhaenys declared, and there was something like Valyrian steel in her voice, a fierceness which came from Winterfell and Sunspear, Dragonstone and Riverrun.
Never before had Arya felt such pride in her daughter. “No,” she agreed, “we won't. What are the words of House Stark?”
“Winter is coming.”
Inclining her head until her forehead rested against Rhaenys's, Arya murmured, “We are winter, and, when we come, men will cower.”
As Rhaenys drew her shoulders back, nodding resolutely, Arya decided Sansa could keep her little ladies; they would never be half-so-useful as Rhaenys Targaryen.
Arya could count on one hand how many times she saw her mother cry: when Bran fell, when Grandfather Hoster passed, when Robb's first son was born. So when Catelyn Stark began to sob upon seeing Arya and her children, Arya did not know how to react. She gasped when her mother held her so tightly it hurt, but Arya returned the embrace just as fiercely, more grateful to see Catelyn than she thought she would be.
With each of her children, Arya thought of Catelyn. Once, when she was barely older than Rhaenys, Arya accused Catelyn of loving Sansa more than she loved her; Arya could still see the wrinkling of Catelyn's brow followed by the words which directed Arya's own attitudes towards mothering.
“I understand your sister more, it's true. Mayhaps I even favor her sometimes the way your father favors you more than he does Sansa. But a mother cannot love one child more than the other, for each and every child wholly holds her heart. You think I love Sansa more; Sansa thinks I love Robb more; Robb thinks I love Bran the most, and Bran thinks I love Rickon the most. I love each and every one of you in different ways, but never doubt how much I love you.”
Arya understood Rhaenys better than her other children; she felt the most connected to Aemon and preferred the company of smiley Alysanne, but she would battle to the death for each and every one of them.
“Gods be good, Arya,” Catelyn sniffled against her shoulder, “I thought I would never see you again.”
“I am sorry I upset you,” Arya lamely offered, wiping at the stray tears on her face, pulling back from the embrace when she felt Aemon clinging to her leg. Dropping a hand to his soft hair, she said, “Let me introduce my children.”
Catelyn beamed as she bent eye-level with the children. “Oh, they need no introductions. Your father writes of them often. This must be Rhaenys, Aemon, and Alysanne. I am your Grandmother Catelyn.”
Arya smiled as Rhaenys bent in a curtsy, Alysanne mimicking her on unsteady legs; Aemon bent at the waist, and Catelyn laughed before drawing them into her arms, pressing kisses to their faces. She thought of Robb's sons and Sansa's children, how Catelyn doted upon them all, and Arya hoped deep in her heart that her mother would come to love her Targaryen children just as fiercely.
“I have brought presents from Winterfell.”
They were fine gifts: a beautiful doll for Alysanne, a child-sized bow for Aemon, a dress with elaborate embroidery for Rhaenys. But Aemon cared little for bows and Rhaenys seldom wore gowns, and it made Arya ache to realize that her mother did not know her children because of the choices Arya made. She thought of Ashara, who made breeches for Rhaenys to wear, who always found books for Aemon, and a flush of guilt rose in Arya's cheeks as she realized how it was not just her children who thought of Ashara Dayne as family; somehow, between Storm's End and now, Ashara had become her surrogate mother, her children's grandmother, and an enduring member of their family.
Aegon was involved in a meeting with Lord Baelish and Viserys during dinner. Arya sat at the long table with her reunited family and felt acutely out of place. Her children patiently answered the questions posed to them, Rhaenys rambling extensively on Vaes Dothrak and describing what it was like to stand atop the Wall with Jon. As even Sansa chuckled at Rhaenys's description of Viserys falling off a horse, Arya looked up from her wine to find Gendry smiling at her.
Even as her conscience ordered her to look away, her body reacted, recalling the pleasure he wrought from her earlier. He had been inside her half-a-hundred times since their affair began, but each time felt new, as if every time was the first time in the godswood all over again. It was only Rhaenys's knowledge of the Baelish and Tyrell's whispers about the stag rutting with the wolf which kept her from responding; if the High Septon did plan on putting her on trial and challenging her marriage to Aegon, the last thing she wanted was for her indiscretions for Gendry to be trotted out before Sansa and her children, before Aegon and their children.
Mayhaps Loras Tyrell had been right all along: she was the most selfish woman.
Gendry came to her three days before the coronation feast, finding her with Alysanne in the gardens. Immediately Arya began to shake her head, angry he would dare approach her when she was with her daughter, but there was nothing light or flirtatious in his eyes as he said, “Renly has been summoned to the small council chambers.”
Since Renly arrived at court a fortnight earlier, Arya had spent a great deal of time with her former husband, her last true friend at court. She knew no one understood how Renly could embrace her so easily, could sneak treats to her children and dance with her at dinners, but Arya did not care; she had truly cared for Renly and, since sending Loras to ferry her and the children to safety, Arya knew there was no man in the Seven Kingdoms she trusted half-so-much. He was also the only person to whom Arya shared Rhaenys's knowledge, and Renly easily confirmed what Arya assumed.
“There's no love lost between you and the realm,” Renly stated matter-of-factly one afternoon as they shared midday's meal. “Even those who hated the Lannisters and even the Baratheons loves Sansa and her children, and the rumors of you and Gendry have never gone away. You went from the prince's mistress to my runaway wife, and then you returned with your dragon husband to take the throne from your lover and sister.”
“But I did not - “
“I know that,” Renly assured her, “but people are stupid. Robert was not greatly popular by his end, but Gendry always has been; there are a great many people who would still see him on the throne. His support of Aegon is sincere, but, with you as his queen, people are worried.”
“And Mace Tyrell wants to soothe their fears?”
“Mace Tyrell wants to have a Tyrell sit the Iron Throne,” Renly explained, peeling a blood orange. “He put all his money on Margaery and, when Robert chose Sansa to wed Gendry, he took it hard and personally. I think he probably came in his pants when Gendry nearly died during the Ironborn Rebellion at the idea Joffrey might get the throne and Margaery would be queen after all. He's out of daughters now, but Garlan's daughter is five-and-ten, virginal as the Maiden, and comely enough to even draw my eye.”
Arya knew which of Garlan's daughters Renly was speaking about; Jessa Tyrell came to court with her parents and every man stopped to watch her pass. She was serving Margaery as a companion, but, with Renly's revelation, Arya began to watch the girl closer. There was something in the girl's movements, some raw cunning in her doe eyes, which reminded Arya of Margaery Tyrell at sixteen, ambition and hunger evident in every thing she did. Within days of their conversation, Arya saw how subtly Jessa Tyrell was positioned near Aegon, and, what mayhaps stung worse, how obvious Aegon was in his affection for the girl.
Arya knew she had no right to be jealous, not after having spent so many nights and days in Gendry Baratheon's arms, but she highly doubted any woman would be unmoved by being replaced with a younger, prettier girl who brought Highgarden and all its wealth into a potential marriage. All Arya brought was shame, dishonor, and no hope at uniting the Seven Kingdoms.
“Mayhaps they need to discuss an issue at Storm's End,” Arya offered as she lifted Alysanne from the grass, cradling her youngest against her, inhaling the sweet scent of her hair.
“With the High Septon?”
Arya tried not to shiver. “Our marriage was never consummated. Renly will tell him that - “
“And the Faith will not care because it was not dissolved before you wed Aegon.” Running his fingers through his black hair, Gendry shared, “They have banned me from the meetings. I am to be interrogated after Renly.”
“Interrogated? For what?”
“Ser Loras told Renly the charges against you are to adultery and bigamy. Your marriage to Aegon is proof of the bigamy, and, if your marriage to Renly is considered valid, then your children are considered the proof of the adultery.”
“Then why do they need you?” Arya pressed.
“Because they believe you slept with me while you were with Renly, and I am to be questioned about the adultery they are alleging we have committed since wedding Aegon.”
A hysterical panic flared in her chest for a moment before Arya took a deep breath, forcing herself to remain calm. Finally she pronounced, “I am not going to let them do this.”
“Arya - “
She moved forward, handing Alysanne to Gendry, catching him off-guard. “Take her to my mother or Ashara. I am going to deal with this.”
“Wait, Arya!” Gendry called, but Arya did not hesitate, marching into the Keep, strengthening herself as best as she could. As she stalked through the throne room, Arya tried to remember the girl she used to be, the bold, fearless girl who stalked the woods at Winterfell, who rode with the Dothraki, who lived amongst the wildlings. She was no pampered lady, no useless queen; she was a she-wolf of Winterfell and she would not let a group of men decide her fate.
Duck guarded the council room, and his face darkened as she approached. Shaking his helmed head, he began, “Queen Arya - “
“Let me pass, Rolly.”
“I have orders from the king - “
“Rolly.” Her voice nearly cracking, she implored, “For the love you bear my children, for the friendship we share, please let me pass.”
He hesitated only a moment before stepping aside. As Arya moved to open the door, Duck caught her forearm, stilling her momentarily. “I told him I do not agree with what is being done here.”
“Thank you,” Arya managed before entering the council room, startling everyone inside.
Aegon and the High Septon sat at the head of the table, Renly seated opposite of them in a chair. Lord Varys, Lord Baelish, Haldon, Daenerys, Viserys, Mace Tyrell, and Rhaego occupied the remaining seats. Immediately Viserys got to his feet, shouting for Arya's removal, but she held up her hands, trying to still him.
“You have no business here!” Viserys shouted, but Arya ignored him, focusing her attention on Aegon and the High Septon.
“You must stop this.”
Aegon said nothing, his gaze unwavering, but the High Septon scoffed. “You dare to speak to the king in such a manner?”
Arya did not spare him a glance. “I am not speaking to the king. I am speaking to the father of my children.” She felt a stab of success at the way Aegon flinched from the reminder of their children. “I do not care if you put aside our marriage if that is what you truly want. I have no interest in staying wed to a man who does not want me. I will let you declare me a whore and our children bastards if you think that will hold the realm together, because, gods know, I am tired of fighting. But you do not need interrogations and trials. I will agree to whatever you'd like.”
“You do not get to set the terms here,” Viserys snapped. “You have no power.”
Turning, burning with cold rage, Arya drawled, “No, I am but one woman. But there are twenty thousand wildlings settled on the Gift whose king was treated deplorably while here at court. They have giants, you know, thirteen feet tall. And the Westerlands, they do not care much for House Targaryen, especially after what was done to the Lannisters. That's...what, another thirty thousand swords? And, of course, should you try to hold me, my brothers would need to defend me; the North would bring twenty thousand swords and Riverrun, another twenty. And my cousin Robert, he holds the Vale and its thirty thousand swords. Now, Aegon may be the son of Elia Martell, but tell me, husband: do you think Prince Oberyn or Princess Arianne will look kindly on you tossing your wife into a black cell and naming your legitimate children as bastards?”
“Stop,” Aegon murmured, shaking his head.
Glaring at the men, enjoying the fear in his eyes, Arya declared, “I may have no power, I may be just a woman, but I could make things very difficult for everyone here. Do you really want another war when you're about to strip yourself of heirs?”
Aegon rose, his face impassive. “Leave us.”
“Your Grace,” Mace Tyrell began.
When only he and Arya remained in the room, Aegon came towards her, moving as if his body was unbearably heavy. After a moment, he asked, “Would you really start a war with me?”
“Do I need to?” she countered.
“No.” Sighing, tucking a lock of her hair behind her ear, he repeated, “No, of course not. I am doing this because - “
“I know why you're doing this, and you should have told me.” Tears filling her eyes, she asked, “How can you do this to our children? How can you claim to have done all of this for them and then take it away because Mace Tyrell says I am unpopular?”
“It is more than that,” Aegon insisted. “The Kingdoms and the Faith do not recognize our marriage as valid, and, as such, they will not recognize our children as legitimate heirs. Should something happen to me and the throne pass to Aemon, they will rebel again. I can legitimize them - “
“And what of me?” she challenged. “I get sent to the Silent Sisters while you have a dozen babes with Jessa Tyrell?”
Aegon turned crimson in embarrassment before confessing, “I love you so much. I do not think you even understand the depth of the love I have for you. But I also know I lost you the moment I stepped foot in Westeros, and you cannot pretend otherwise.”
“So the solution is to have the High Septon declare me your mistress and wed the Tyrell girl without ever speaking to me about it?”
Arya saw the first hints of anger in Aegon's purple eyes. “Do not play innocent and wounded, not when every one of Varys's little birds carries messages about what you are doing with Gendry Baratheon in the godswood.”
“And what you're doing with Jessa Tyrell is excusable because you're the king?” she retorted.
“I have not bedded that girl!”
“Only because I'm sure her grandfather has taught her that her cunt will fetch a higher station if unused!”
Aegon inhaled sharply, pride clearly stung, before gritting out, “You do not even want to be my wife. You have barely so much as spoken to me since your first night here, and you flinch from my touch at every turn.”
“I always wanted to be your wife, just not your queen. You promised - “
“I am sick and tired of hearing about the damned promise!” he shouted, startling Arya with the force of his fury. “This is where we are now, and choices must be made!”
“They have already been made!” Arya shouted right back, refusing to be cowed. “I am to be thrown away, our children are to be thrown away, and you shall end up a king so covered in flowers, they will choke you!”
He took a step backwards, his hands flexing, and Arya knew he wanted to strike her; never once had Aegon raised a hand to her with anything but tenderness, but Arya knew this king was not the man she married. Of course, she was not the woman he married either. War changed everything as it always had.
“You'll confess to the High Septon and the small council,” he stated flatly, speaking to her as the ruler of Westeros rather than the man whose children she birthed. “When our marriage is declared invalid, they will strip you and the children of the lands and titles which rightfully belong to my wife and heirs. I will provide you and the children with everything you will require.”
Her pride hurt so badly, Arya could scarcely breathe. “And how much is the king's whore and her bastards worth?”
“I will be more than generous, and I will give you Dragonstone - “
“No,” Arya immediately objected. “I do not want your family's rock. Robb will take us at Winterfell; we will go there.”
“It is a month's journey to Winterfell from here.”
“Then I suggest you invest in a comfortable saddle,” she snapped.
Aegon flinched but did not argue. “When I have...legitimate heirs with Jessa, I will legitimize our children, return their name. They will only be Blackfyres for a short while.”
“They will never be Blackfyres. If you are going to make bastards of the children I bore you, they will be Snows. They will be Snows of Winterfell, and I do not care if you ever make them Targaryens of Dragonstone ever again.” Tears slipped free of Arya's lids. “Forget them. Let them live happy lives in the North and never have to worry that the Tyrells will come for them.”
“Forget them?” he echoed incredulously. “You know how much I love them, Arya. I have already missed so much, I barely know Alysanne as it is; you cannot ask me - “
“Do you think Mace Tyrell will let you keep them close?” she countered, crying in earnest now. “Mayhaps you do not do not remember your history, but I do. Blackfyre is a cursed name in the Seven Kingdoms, and, when you have me declared nothing more than a whore, if you show any preference towards our children over Jessa's, they'll come for them.”
“I would not allow - “
“You do not know these people, Aegon! You're playing the game of thrones, and you do not even understand the players! Do you honestly believe any of the men you have surrounded yourself with would not do to our children what was done to your mother and sister if it meant securing a throne for their House?”
There were tears in his eyes now, sincerely aching from the pain of it all. “They will think I do not love them. Rhaenys...”
“When they're old enough to understand, I'll explain,” Arya swore. “Rhaenys will be safe and sound at Winterfell with her cousins and far away from the Red Keep.”
Aegon wiped at his face, nodding resolutely. “All Seven Kingdoms will call you a whore if you agree to this. They will smear your good name and treat you as if you belong in a brothel.”
Trying to push down the nausea brought on by his declaration, Arya proclaimed, “They may call me whatever they like so long as I am in the North when they do it.”
It took an exiled king, prince, princess, a stripped lord, a halfmaester, an armorer's son, a khalasar, and the Golden Company to make Arya Stark a queen.
It took a High Septon, a handful of lords, and one piece of paper to make her nothing more than a common mistress.
Arya signed away the very last shred of her honor, knowing it was the only thing which would keep her children safe.
Word always spread quickly at court, but even Arya was stunned with the speed her fall reached everyone. When she left the small council's chamber, Gendry was waiting with her father and brothers, with Catelyn and Sansa, but Arya said nothing; she did not have the words, did not know how to look into her honorable parents' eyes and declare herself to be the king's mistress and her children, bastards. She left the explanations to the men who orchestrated her fall, grabbing two skins of Dornish strongwine from the kitchens and fleeing to her solar.
Arya was well-and-truly in her cups when someone knocked upon the door. She did not bother responding, not having the energy to talk to her family, not wanting to hear them encourage her to fight; when the door opened anyway and Ashara entered, her beautiful face ashen, something broke within Arya and she began to sob hysterically, crying harder than she ever had for ten thousand reasons: for Rhaenys, for Aemon, for Alysanne, for the Aegon she once loved so fiercely, for the stupid girl who ran away from her life and threw everything away for nothing, for long-dead Ned Dayne who loved her so foolishly, for Renly who loved her despite the pain she caused, for the dishonor she brought upon Sansa's marriage, for the love she bore for Gendry who loved her in spite of all she did. By the time Arya found her eyes dry, day had become night, and Ashara still cradled her against her breast, carding fingers through her hair and whispering nonsense the way she did with the children.
“You are a good mother,” Arya blurted out as she sniffled, keeping her face against the front of Ashara's dress as if she was still a small child, needing the comfort she offered.
“So are you.” Ashara kissed the crown of her head. “And someday they will understand what it cost you to do what you did today.”
“I do still love him,” she murmured. “If we had stayed in Essos, we would have lived our whole lives happily together.”
“Perhaps,” Ashara acknowledged, “but Aegon is too much like Rhaegar; there is too much sadness in him, too much weight of expectation for him to ever truly be free. Viserys, Jon, Illyrio, they have filled his head with memories of a prince who was careless and told him the only way he can ever avenge what was done is to hold the realm. I am sure the Tyrell girl will help him hold it, but I do not think he will be able to bear the cost.”
“I am sure Illyrio will find the coin,” she sniped unkindly.
Ashara forced Arya to lift her chin to meet her gaze. “Do you honestly believe that losing the children will not devastate him? Do you think for even a moment he will ever forgive himself for looking into Rhaenys's eyes and telling her she is not his trueborn daughter?”
“I hate the people we have become.”
“Then become someone different,” Ashara challenged, a small smile playing at her lips. “In the years I have known you, you have been Lady of Storm's End, a runaway, a mother, a member of a khalasar, a wildling, and a queen. You can be anyone, Arya. That is your gift, a gift you have given to your children.”
“I have not - “
“Your daughter speaks the Common Tongue, High Valyrian, Dothraki, and the Old Tongue,” Ashara listed, her face as fierce as a warrior's with her voice brooking no argument. “She sits her horse as well as a knight, and she is the most resourceful child I have ever seen. Your son reads twice as well as any boy thrice his age and has already begun to play the harp. Alysanne is sweet and empathetic and smart, and she is barely two! Those children have relied on you for over half their lives, and they are glorious. A surname will never change that.”
Tears swelled in Arya's eyes again but she forced herself to keep from crying. “Thank you.”
Wiping at Arya's swollen face, Ashara ordered, “Now you are going to get up, make yourself presentable, and we are going to dine. You will march into the hall with your head high, a Stark of Winterfell, the mother of dragons, and you will remind Jessa Tyrell that she will never be half the woman you are.”
It took a considerable amount of cosmetics to camouflage the red, swollen skin of her face, but, for once, Arya did not care. She wore her finest gown, a silk frock of sapphire blue which had been made for the coronation which would never be now; she even sat stock still as Ashara pinned up her curls, creating a tumble which highlighted the line of her neck. As Ashara tied a jeweled choker around Arya's throat, Arya stared at her reflection n the mirror, repeating Ashara's words to herself, an affirmation which would keep her head high.
I am a Stark of Winterfell, the mother of dragons.
Conversation stopped temporarily as she entered the hall, but Arya did not acknowledge it; instead she strode to her seat, as proud and dignified as any lady in the Seven Kingdoms, and she saw the nervous looks Viserys exchanged with Mace Tyrell and Petyr Baelish.
I am a Stark of Winterfell, the mother of dragons, and the direwolf does not cower before flowers and mockingbirds.
Never before had Arya acted so queenly, and, as she sipped her wine, Arya swore Jon Connington smiled at her.
“It is not right, what he has done to you,” Sansa said as she joined Arya in front of the Red Keep, her spring dress a bright yellow which stood out prettily against her hair. Stark men finished securing the trunks in the wagons, the horses saddled and ready for the long ride back to Winterfell, and Arya was surprised to find her sister seeking her out, acting as if they spoke regularly when she could not recall the last time Sansa initiated a conversation.
“I thought it would make you happy.”
“Happy?” Sansa parroted, shock on her face. “Why would this make me happy?”
“Because you did not want me to be queen. Because you hated that my children took from your children.”
“You truly think me so evil I would wish bastardization on children? What sort of monster do you take me for, Arya? Why do you hate me so much?”
Arya recoiled from the words. “I hate you? You have hated me from the moment I was born!”
“That's not true,” Sansa immediately argued. “A thousand times I tried to include you at Winterfell, and every time you spat on me while running off with Jon or Bran. When King Robert wanted to make you a marriage, I suggested Ned Dayne because he was a good, kind man who I thought would treat you well, and when he wanted to send you to some old lord in Lannisport, I pushed for Renly, who I thought would please you.”
“You pushed Renly to get me from court.”
“I wanted you away from Gendry, yes,” she agreed, “but I did not want you to suffer. And I was right! You and Renly are still friends after all which has happened. If you had not run away with Aegon, mayhaps - “
“Sansa - “
“I know Gendry fucked you,” her proper sister interrupted, and Arya was not sure if it was the matter-of-fact statement or the phrasing which startled her more. On the list of things she expected the Lady Sansa to say, a vulgarity was as likely as Catelyn inviting Ashara to visit Winterfell.
“What?” Arya finally managed.
“Littlefinger showed me the document you signed for the High Septon. You confessed it.” Sansa brushed imaginary dirt from her bright skirts. “Was it before or after you ran from Storm's End?”
Sansa nodded, her face revealing nothing, and Arya wished Sansa would try to tear out her hair, scratch her face, kick her; silence was so much worse.
After several excruciating minutes of silence, Arya ventured, “Sansa, I am so - “
“Don't you dare apologize to me,” she cut in, her voice shockingly even despite the steel within it. “You took my husband to bed. All I have ever asked of you is to respect my marriage, and you could not even do that. I know you do not believe it, but I love Gendry. I loved him when he was a prince and I love him still. We have our problems, yes, but that does not make what you did right.”
“We're leaving court,” Sansa continued. “We have been given Casterly Rock, and I do not want the children to hear the rumors. Gendry has been removed from the small council, and it has been made clear there is no room for Baratheons here.”
Arya said nothing, certain Sansa did not want her words.
“I know you loved him once, and I know he has always had this...fascination with you, the one who got away. And I do not think what Aegon has done to you or your children is correct, especially if he is planning on marrying a snake like Jessa Tyrell. Whatever your sins may be, he made his choices as well and should live with them. Every person should be forced to live with the choices they make.” Sansa smiled mirthlessly. “I suppose that is what has always bothered me when it comes to you.”
“You make the choices, and I bear the consequences.”
Arya's chest tightened painfully as she recognized the truth in her sister's words. Finally she managed, “I hope you and Gendry are happy in the Westerlands. Aeron shall make a good Lord of Casterly Rock some day.”
Sansa nodded at the compliment before offering in reply, “I have never known anyone so singularly unhappy as you, Arya. Whether you believe it or not, I truly do pray to the Gods, old and new, you find whatever it is you have spent so much time looking for. I hope someday our daughters will be able to look upon each other as friends.”
“But?” Arya prompted, knowing there was something else coming.
“But I fear every time I look upon you for the rest of my life, all I will see is the woman my husband bedded, and I cannot forgive that.”
Arya did not even realize she wanted Sansa absolution until presented with the denial of it. “But you will forgive Gendry.”
“Gendry is not my blood.” Her voice breaking, blue eyes now wet with tears, Sansa stressed, “You are my sister, Arya. No matter how angry I have ever been, I could not imagine doing to you what you have done to me. I just...I know I am not perfect, that I have been unkind and jealous, but I deserved better than this treatment.”
Tears now rolled down Arya's face as well. “Then you must do what you need to do.”
Sansa smiled mirthlessly, carefully wiping away her tears, pulling herself together as effortlessly as putting on a new gown. “I always do what needs to be done.”
It was, in fact, the greatest difference between them.
As Arya entered the courtyard to join the train departing for Winterfell, the first thing she became aware of was her children crying. Alysanne clutched Ashara around the neck, sobbing as her septa tried to pry her off, and Aemon clung to her leg, wrapped tightly around her with all limbs. Only Rhaenys was not desperately holding her surrogate grandmother, but that was only because she was weeping in Rhaego's arms, both of them murmuring so quickly in Dothraki, Arya could not understand what they were saying. Ned and Catelyn looked both saddened and furious at their grandchildren's obvious pain, and Arya saw all of her brothers had murder in their Tully blue eyes.
Arya thought there could never possibly be something worse to witness than the goodbyes between the children and Aegon. Alysanne barely knew her father; when he kissed her cheeks and declared his love, Alysanne giggled before happily retreating into Arya's arms. Aemon, who had some understanding, asked his father if there was something they could do to stay with him; both were crying when Aemon went to his mother side, hiding his wet face in her skirts.
But when Aegon reached for Rhaenys, who understood precisely what being a bastard meant, she stepped back and slapped his hand away, her beautiful face flush with fury. Rhaenys had never so much as raised her voice to her father, the man she idolized above all others, and Arya saw the physical reaction Aegon had to her rejection. He tried to talk to her, wheedling in the soft voice he used to use when she was still suckling, the one which told of just how deeply he loved his firstborn, but Rhaenys turned her face away, a dismissive princess even when bastardized. It was only when Aegon begged a kiss from his daughter that Rhaenys responded, breaking Arya's heart soundly.
“I am not your daughter anymore. I am Rhaenys Snow, and you made me that. If I do not deserve your name, you do not deserve my kisses.”
Arya had never seen anything break Aegon Targaryen: not the murders of his family, not exile, not being a beggar, a sellsword, or a rebel. But a little girl of barely seven reduced the King of the Seven Kingdoms, the Dragon King, to a shell of a man with her rejection.
She watched as Rhaego placed Rhaenys atop her mount, her brave daughter still sniffling; Rhaego pulled the arakh from his hip, sheath and all, grasping it by its dragonbone handle. He fastened the belt around Rhaenys's waist, said something to Rhaenys, and then pressed a kiss to her brow. Arya was surprised when Daenerys's son stopped before her, his face as hard as stone.
“Should you ever want what is yours, you will have my khalasar,” Rhaego vowed, and it was strange how deeply his offer touched her, how much he loved his cousins and hated what was being done to them for the sake of politics.
Bran lifted Aemon to the front of Rhaenys's saddle, ruffling his hair, but Arya knew Aemon's heart as well as her own; her sensitive boy always felt everyone else's pain far more acutely than his own, and there was enough sorrow around him to drown. As the septa took her place in the litter with Alysanne, Arya stepped to Ashara, holding her as tightly as Alysanne had.
“You remember what I told you,” Ashara whispered in her ear, the heat of her falling tears scorching Arya's skin. “Do not let Rhaenys become a perfect, little lady. Make sure Aemon practices his harp. And tell Alysanne good things of her father, for you know as well as I there is a good, honest man inside the king.”
“I promise,” Arya swore, burying her face in Ashara's dark hair.
“I cannot come to Winterfell, but you can come to Starfall,” Ashara continued, and, for the first time, Arya realized she was losing her family as well. “I would so love to see you and Allyria together. And do be kind with your poor father; he worries after you so.”
“I will.” Resolutely pulling back, Arya looked into Ashara's face and nearly lost all her composure. “I love you.”
“And I, you.” Ashara kissed her forehead and the tip of her nose, the same as she had done a thousand times to the children as she put them to bed. “Now go home.”
Like her children, Arya cried as they rode from King's Landing, refusing to look back at the place which held such misery. She thought of Sansa and her children on their way to Casterly Rock, forcing herself not to think of Gendry, to never think of Gendry again. By the time they reached the Riverlands, Arya had nearly convinced herself Gendry Baratheon was nothing more than a memory.
And then she realized her moon blood had not come in three moons, lost and forgotten amongst the turmoil of her fall.
When their party stopped at an inn, Arya sought out the godswood, leaving her children to the company of their aunts and uncles. There were so few true godswoods south of the Neck, and the heart tree in this one looked more sad than fierce. As she knelt before it, Arya's hands found their way to her still-flat stomach, to the tiny stag swimming inside of her.
There were teas a woman could take to rid herself of an unwanted child. In Dorne, Elia Sand told Arya one of her sisters once used tansy to eliminate the seed which took root; Arya did not know the specifics, but there was surely an old woman or a maester which could be bribed with coin to brew it. The thought made Arya ill; Rhaenys, Aemon, and Alysanne were all wanted children, the bright spots in her frequently dismal world, and the idea of killing Gendry's babe in the womb, a babe as much conceived in love as its siblings.
“All of my children are Snows,” Arya said to the tree, pondering aloud more than praying. “A bastard is a bastard, and most would believe it to be Aegon's child as well. And if they thought differently, if it looked like a Baratheon, no one would be surprised; they all think me a whore anyway. Father would never send me away.” Touching the painted trunk, she continued, “But Sansa would truly be lost to me for good, and it is not as if Gendry could ever claim it. Mayhaps it would be a kinder life for everyone if I stopped it now.”
The wind tossed the leaves about, the whispering song too unintelligible to understand.
“I need a sign. If you truly listen, please show me what I should do.”
The crackle of branches brought Arya to her feet, expecting the intruder to be one of her siblings or even her father, who often prayed when their party stopped. For a moment, Arya thought she was hallucinating, so certain it was childish fantasies forcing their way into her mind. But then the large she-wolf licked at her hand, the rough tongue familiar after all these years, and Arya found herself bending to squeeze her tightly.
“Nymeria,” she breathed, pushing her face into the direwolf's fur.
As she walked back to the inn, Nymeria padding along at her side, Arya decided she would wait until they reached Winterfell to share the news of her pregnancy with her family.
Maester Luwin found her in the yard with the children, the letter in his hand. Arya sat with Alysanne upon the ground, Alysanne making crowns of flowers while Rhaenys and Aemon crossed swords under Ser Rodrik's watchful eye. Robb's youngest son shouted encouragement from the fence, his older brothers waiting patiently for their next turns, and Arya's eyes quickly scanned the yard for Brandon.
At six, her youngest child was already larger than Alysanne, taller and more sturdily built. Though he wore the face of a Stark, Arya knew Brandon Snow was fully his father's son: stubborn, strong, and silent. His adventuring drove Arya to distraction, forever chasing him from Mikken's forge or finding him stranded up a tree. Often Arya found Alysanne playing maester to her baby brother, clandestinely bandaging his wounds, attempting to take the blame for his wilder exploits; when her efforts failed, Aemon or Rhaenys appeared to explain away Brandon's actions, perpetually overprotective when it came to their younger siblings. They were a fierce pack, her children, and nothing ever made her prouder than to see them all together.
Brandon balanced atop several bales of hay, a wooden sword tucked into his waistband, his dark hair unkempt, face covered in dirt despite only waking two hours earlier. When he saw her looking at him, he grinned, pushing his tongue through the opening left by the loss of his two front teeth, and Arya laughed before the old maester reached her.
“A raven from the south,” he said, his face serious.
Dark wings, dark words, Arya thought as she saw the three-headed dragon seal in crimson wax. Unfolding the parchment, she skimmed the words before rising, Alysanne's floral crowns forgotten, moving quickly through the castle. She found her father and Robb breaking fast with Catelyn and Jeyne, Rickard laughing at something his father said. When they saw Arya approaching, Robb began to gesture for her to join them when she held up the parchment.
“The king and his court ride for Winterfell.”
Surprise registered on everyone's faces before Robb stated, “Aegon has not sent so much as a letter in almost seven years. He has all but forgotten the North exists. Why would he ride now?”
“I suppose we can ask him when he arrives.”
Six years of peace was more than most people ever got in their entire lives. Arya thought she should be grateful for the happy years she and her children had here at Winterfell, lives untouched by the Iron Throne; Rhaenys and Aemon never mentioned their father, Alysanne had no memories of anyone but Ashara, and Brandon knew only the North. She did not know what they talked about amongst themselves, but never once had Arya heard the name “Targaryen” slip past their lips.
But Arya also knew it was the blood of dragons in the veins of Rhaenys, Aemon, and Alysanne, a bond which Brandon could never quite replicate, a silent understanding which was nearly supernatural. Arya did not believe in magic, but she believed in Maester Aemon, remembered the words he said to her on the day she brought Alysanne to him.
Whatever was bringing Aegon to the North had nothing to do with kingly duty or a sudden burst of fatherly concern. Arya was many things, but she was never stupid.
She knew war when it was coming.
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