“That is what you wear to greet the king?”
Rhaenys twisted her head, drawing her attention from the grooming of her horse to look at her mother before returning her brush to its mane. “I believe it shows him the level of respect I believe he deserves.”
Arya could not help but smile at her eldest's words, smoothing the skirts of her fine gown. Truth be told, she wished to have the same kind of reckless courage as her daughter, wished she could thumb her nose, dress in rags, and hide away in the stables; but Arya was not a girl anymore, and, if she wanted her children to be safe, wanted Winterfell to be safe, then she needed to at least play at being a good, submissive subject. Arya could not remember the last time she wore one of her southron gowns, the last time she put jeweled pins in her hair or rouge on her cheeks; rarely in the North did she have to pretend to be anything other than the fallen daughter of Eddard Stark, the cast down queen.
Even in filthy breeches and a tunic so stained Arya could not discern what its original color was, Rhaenys was still the most beautiful young girl Arya had ever seen. Sometimes she caught herself staring at Rhaenys, unable to believe someone so breathtaking came from her womb; since reaching her fourteenth name day, Rhaenys drew the eye of every man, young or old, in the North. She possessed Aegon's height, standing nearly a head taller than Arya, and the ebony curls which were so unruly in childhood now tumbled over her shoulders in a thick gloss. Her clothing now clung becomingly to her body, her breasts drawing the attention of any man who passed when she wore one of her gowns, and there was an innate grace in the way Rhaenys moved. But it was her eyes which Arya credited for entrancing so many because they gave away nothing; Aemon's violet eyes and the grey of Alysanne's and Brandon's provided an openness which her dark-eyed daughter lacked.
Arya heard the servants refer to Rhaenys as “the Lady Stoneheart” and it never failed to amuse her; of all the characteristics Rhaenys possessed, a heart of stone was the only which she lacked. She felt things far too strongly, and Arya knew the reappearance of Aegon in her life would stir old pains.
“I know you do not want to see him - “
“And you do?” Rhaenys challenged, brushing the horse more aggressively. “He threw us away! He made you a whore and the three of us, his bastards, so excuse me if I do not want to take the knee and pretend everything is forgotten!”
“I would not want you to forget,” Arya replied reasonably, crossing the stable to lightly pet the horse's nose. “But you are not stupid, Rhaenys. You know this visit is surprising and certainly done for a reason.”
Her daughter rolled her eyes with a snort. “He is coming because Connington is dying.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because Rhaego told me.” Returning the brush to its place on the wall, she added, “Just because you pretend the south doesn't exist does not mean I do the same.”
“I was not aware Rhaego still wrote you.”
In the beginning, when they first returned to Winterfell, Arya lost count of how many ravens were exchanged between her daughter and Daenerys's son. So little could make Rhaenys smile back then, but the letters from Rhaego could make her entire mood shift instantly; Arya remember how Rhaenys would peel the wax seals bearing the dragon and horse from the parchment, saving them in a small cedar box Bran carved for her. After Brandon's birth, Arya's attention was focused on the baby and then on Alysanne, who fell ill so frequently, and she was embarrassed to admit her concerns for Rhaenys lessened. Of all her children, Rhaenys was certainly the most capable and, like Aemon, she bonded quickly with Robb's sons; Arya always assumed Rhaenys's reliance on Rhaego dissipated with her growing friendships and comfort with Winterfell.
“How often does he write you?”
The smile on Rhaenys's lips made something suspicious twist in Arya's gut. “As often as I write him.” Giving Arya her back as she stripped off her filthy tunic to reveal a less soiled undershirt, Rhaenys continued, “Rhaego says Connington has greyscale and Aegon's having a crisis of conscience. And the good Queen Jessa keeps giving Aegon children but no sons.”
“You think he's coming for Aemon,” Arya interpreted.
Rhaenys turned, and Arya was stunned by the dark fury brewing in her eyes. “I think it will be a cold day in all seven hells before any of us bend the knee to the king or his false queen.”
“Any of us?” Arya echoed.
“The Iron Throne belongs to us,” Rhaenys fiercely declared. “Jessa Tyrell's daughters are not my father's trueborn children, and the entire kingdom knows it.”
“I have explained to you why your father did what he did, why - “
Rhaenys scoffed. “I am not Alysanne, so spare me the pleasant stories about why King Aegon is so right and just. I may have been a child when we left King's Landing, but my memory is true; I recall the words Mace Tyrell and Petyr Baelish exchanged in the dungeons. They orchestrated our downfall, and I have made sure Aemon and Alysanne know that.”
Fear begin to flow in Arya's veins. “What have you done? What game are you playing?”
“I'm not playing,” Rhaenys spat. “Let the king come with all his witless followers. You and Grandfather and Uncle Robb can play at obedience, but there is nothing on earth that will make me take the knee.”
Dropping her voice, heart twisting, Arya implored, “Do not go looking for battles, Rhaenys. If we are to have any peace - “
Rhaenys spat upon the ground. “There is your peace. I curse the entire lot of them: the Tyrells, Littlefinger, Varys, Viserys, and every other craven who smiled to our faces while supporting our fall. I curse the king for filling my ears with tales about the life I would lead that he then stole away, and I curse the High Septon for serving Mace Tyrell rather than the Seven.”
“Rhaenys - “
Her daughter stepped forward, body tight with tension, as she continued, “Mayhaps your fighting days are over, but I have not yet begun. I was not born to kneel and I will not start now. You make your peace with my father, but until what was taken is returned, all he will get from me is more curses.”
There had been a time when Arya considered Rhaenys to be her father's daughter, but now Arya knew better.
Rhaenys was her daughter through and through, and Arya sincerely hoped Rhaenys did not make the same stupid mistakes.
She found Brandon in his bedchamber with Septa Maeve, fighting desperately against being dressed in the silk tunic and velvet surcoat Arya spent a ridiculous amount of coin on for the king's arrival. Despite being freshly bathed, his unruly black hair stuck up in every direction, and Septa Maeve, usually so even-tempered, looked as if she wanted to beat Arya's son.
“Mother, help!” Brandon shouted when he saw her, squirming out of Maeve's grasp and rushing to embrace his mother's legs.
“Lady Arya,” Septa Maeve began in a long-suffering voice, and Arya held up a hand, already knowing what the words would be.
“I can dress him,” she assured the harried septa. “Would you check on Alysanne and Aemon, make sure they're presentable? The king is coming up the kingsroad as we speak.”
When she was alone with Brandon, Arya squatted down, looking into his stormy grey eyes. “It is quite improper to be so unruly when she is only trying to help you.”
“I don't like those clothes.”
Arya gestured to her gown. “Do you think I like these ones?”
Brandon giggled, burying his face in Arya's shoulder. “No.”
She scooped him up, carrying him over to his bed and playfully dropping him upon the mattress, a few feathers flying loose. As he scrambled up onto his knees, obediently lifting his arms for his shirt, Arya felt her heart ache a little. Brandon was the last of her babies, and he was already halfway to manhood. Unlike Aemon, he did not care much for lessons with Maester Luwin or had much of an interest in music; Brandon was the most physical of her children, wanting to run, ride, fight, and climb. Whereas Aemon studied swordplay only because it was required, Brandon longed to be a knight of the Kingsguard, a stick sword always looped through his belt while he begged for a piece of real steel. He was not as talkative as Rhaenys or Alysanne, not as selective with his words as Aemon, but Brandon was far more honest with his mother when it came to what was in his heart.
“Alysanne said King Aegon is her father,” Brandon began as Arya pulled the tunic over his head, tucking it into his breeches.
“You already knew that,” Arya pointed out, tugging one of his arms through the sleeve of the grey surcoat.
Brandon nodded, wincing as she began to fasten the coat. “But is King Aegon my father?”
Arya paused, staring into Brandon's handsome face for a long moment. When she first told her family she was pregnant upon their arrival at Winterfell, both Catelyn and Ned assumed the baby was Aegon's. Arya knew Robb had his suspicions but never did her older brother say a word to question it, and when Brandon was born with the Stark look, no one seemed to care much who put the child in her belly.
The last letter she ever received from Aegon arrived just days after Brandon's birth, the three-headed dragon of his seal seeming to mock her. When Arya finally summoned the courage to read it, she did not find recriminations or accusations; instead, he congratulated her on Brandon's birth, told her he would increase the amount of money he provided to run her household, and then included the line which erased the lingering hate and anger in her heart.
I will claim Brandon Snow as my son if you wish it. My seed or not, I would be honored to call any son of yours a son of mine.
The letter from Storm's End arrived a few days after Aegon's, Renly's crowned stag sealing it shut. He made a similar offer, volunteering to claim Brandon as his son and request Aegon to give a decree to legitimize him, making her son the rightful heir to Storm's End.
”I am a man in need of a son,” Renly had written, ”and your son is in need of a father.”
Arya considered Renly's proposal, knowing he did not want Storm's End to pass to Joffrey, but she ultimately refused; having Brandon declared the son of Renly Baratheon would only raise more questions. No man or woman in the Seven Kingdoms would believe Renly got a child on her, and it would only drag the scandal of their marriage and her desertion back into the forefronts' of everyone's minds.
The final letter came from Casterly Rock, a crowned stag and lion protecting the words. Arya carried the letter for weeks before she summoned the courage to read Gendry's words and, when she finally broke the seal, she was legitimately stunned to find the words inside were written in Sansa's hand.
Congratulations on the birth of your son. Mother says you named him Brandon and that he has the Stark look; I am sure he is a happy spot after the turmoil of the past year. I do not know if Mother has told you, but I am with child as well; Maester Finn says the babe shall arrive near my name day. Mayhaps when we are both recovered and able to travel, you and your children could be guests at Casterly Rock. I think it would be fitting if our sons played together.
Sansa was always a master at speaking in riddles with the truth carefully camouflaged in pleasantries, but Arya understood her sister's meaning perfectly well: Sansa knew Brandon was Gendry's son, and she wanted to make peace for the sake of their children. Arya went through a dozen drafts of a reply before finally sending one, accepting Sansa's offer and thanking her, and, for a few brief months, Arya truly thought she and Sansa could be sisters again.
But then Sansa's infant son was stillborn and Aeron died of sweating sickness along with half of the Westerlands, and Brandon's mere existence became a reminder of the sons Sansa lost, the trueborn sons and heirs of Lord Gendry Baratheon. Arya never received another letter from her sister, though Catelyn and Jeyne Westerling received them regularly, and Arya began to suspect she might never hear from Sansa ever again.
Gendry never sent anything; Arya pretended she did not hate him for that.
It was only in the past year Brandon began to ask questions about his father. While he always understood that Ned was Arya's father and Robb was the father of his beloved cousins, Brandon never questioned who his father was because his older siblings did not have a father either. It was only when he heard one of the Karstark boys refer to him as a “bastard” that Brandon asked what the term meant, why he did not have a father.
“You have a father, my boy,” Arya told him as she brushed hair as thick and dark as Gendry's back from his forehead. “Everyone does. But some people have fathers who are with them every day and others have fathers who love them from afar. Yours simply loves you from afar.”
It seemed the answer which served a boy of five would not satisfy a boy of six.
Arya exhaled heavily through her nose, lifting Brandon off of his knees and setting him on his backside. As she climbed onto the bed to sit beside him, he curled against her body in a way he would never dare to do when his older siblings were around, and the ache in her chest deepened a bit; soon he would be like Aemon, too much of a little lord to rely on his mother for comfort.
“Some day,” she answered carefully, “we will have a long talk about your father, and I will answer every question you have. But for now just know this: your father loves you more than you will ever know.”
“When I become a knight, will he come and see?” Brandon asked, a hopeful smile on his face, and Arya's heart broke for all the unintentional pain she bestowed upon her boy.
“Of course.” She ruffled his hair as she added, “But first you must make yourself presentable for the king so he has cause to knight you some day.”
It was amazing how compliant a boy could become when he thought knighthood was on the line.
She had forgotten how handsome he was.
It felt beyond silly to even think; Arya was four-and-thirty now, certainly not a blushing maid or the young woman who once loved a blue-haired sellsword. She was thrice a bride, four times a mother, and she gave up on romantic distractions long ago. “Celibate as a septa” was the teasing phrase Theon liked to use to describe her, and it certainly fit. Sometimes Arya even felt as if was true, as if her return to the North stripped her of every womanly desire she once possessed.
But her body responded to the sight of Aegon Targaryen as it always had, and Arya knew there must be something left of her old life inside her body.
Aegon was perched upon a great destrier, Ser Rolly and Ser Loras flanking him in their white armor; Rhaego and his bloodriders were also mounted with a handful of men Arya did not recognize. Targaryen red and Tyrell green flew above the massive train, and, as more and more wagons appeared, Arya realized she forgot how many people could accompany a king. All of court was certainly now gathering in Winterfell, and, judging by the size of the party, Arya suspected there were lords from all the kingdoms present for whatever reason. She flicked her eyes towards Ned, who clearly recognized the same thing, his face folded into a deep frown; it had been years since Winterfell hosted a king, not since the visit from King Robert where he made Ned Hand of the King, and never had so many high lords from the south sought out the North.
“I do not like this,” she whispered to Robb, who nodded minutely in agreement.
Aegon swung down from his horse easily, and, as everyone took the knee, Arya studied him beneath her lashes. He kept his silver hair short now in the southron fashion, and there were lines around his eyes and mouth which had not been there when last they parted; his body was still lean but the swagger of his youth was now replaced with something she would have named weariness in other men. In Targaryen colors, he certainly cut an imposing figure, but, as he bid them all to rise, Arya saw the smiling kindness in his face.
“Lord Stark,” he greeted, clasping Ned's hand firmly. “Thank you for welcoming me so warmly to the North. I have heard wonderful things about Winterfell.”
“We are honored to host you,” Ned smoothly replied, and Arya swallowed back a smile; for all his hatred of courtly politics, her father had become a master at them while in service to the Iron Throne.
He greeted Robb and Jeyne next, asking for introductions to their sons, and Arya saw Jessa Tyrell climbing from a litter with her young daughters climbing out after her; they were still quite small, three and four, but they were outfitted richly in silks and laces, the sorts of dresses Rhaenys and Alysanne once owned. They both bore the look of their mother, soft brown curls and green eyes, and, like their mother, they looked at Arya with disdain.
The kingly courtesy slipped from Aegon's face as he stopped before Aemon, who was so tall he was nearly eye-to-eye with his father; the resemblance between them was so striking, even Arya was taken aback by it. She thought of Rhaenys's words in the stables, waiting for Aemon to lash out at his father, but instead her son smiled in much the same way Aegon did, his voice soft and pleased as he greeted, “Hello, Father.”
Aegon clasped Aemon tightly against him, an embrace more suited for the boy of five he had last seen rather than the young man of twelve he now was, but Aemon embraced him with the fervor, a strong showing of emotion from her stoic son. Aemon was always so close to Ned and Robb, Arya never worried about the effect of the loss of a father; now, as she saw the way Aemon responded to Aegon, Arya wondered if mayhaps she misunderstood all of her children.
Aegon knelt to be level with Alysanne, stroking her soft cheek with a gloved thumb. “Why, this cannot be Alysanne. She is only a baby.”
“I am eight, Your Grace,” Alysanne supplied helpfully, her manners far more perfect than Arya's had ever been, and Aegon's smile flickered for a second before assuring her, “I know, my love. I never forget your name day.”
Arya felt Brandon clutch her hand tightly when Aegon knelt before him, his face as gentle as it was when greeting his own children. “And you must be Brandon. We have not met, but I have been looking forward to making your acquaintance.”
Brandon eyed him for a moment with uncertainty before replying, “Thank you, Your Grace.”
Arya resisted the urge to squirm as Aegon rose, stepping before her as he had with her brother and father. If she was younger, she might have blushed at the way Aegon looked at her, at all the secrets and memories hinted at in his violet eyes, but instead she offered a small smile as she murmured, “Your Grace.”
“How is it possible for you to have grown even more beautiful?” he asked in Valyrian, and Arya laughed with a shake of her head.
“My sole talent, it would seem,” she replied, the foreign words tripping off her tongue as if she used the language daily.
Aegon looked left and right before querying, “Where is Rhaenys?”
For a moment Arya considered lying but instead gave him the truth, however unwelcome it was. “She does not wish to see you, Your Grace.”
There was genuine pain in Aegon's face as he nodded curtly, and Arya almost reached to rest a comforting hand upon his shoulder before remembering her place in the Seven Kingdoms; Rhaenys may have believed there were those who still respected their claim, but Arya knew likely even more lords and ladies still thought her to be nothing more than the king's whore. As Jessa Tyrell approached, her skirts swirling around her ankles, Arya felt the unpleasant sting of long-ago slights burning in her chest.
At two-and-twenty, Jessa was even more beautiful than she had been at five-and-ten. Like her aunt Margaery, she moved as if she owned the world, and it made the part of Arya's heart which harbored bitterness as sharp as Rhaenys's to recoil when she was forced to bend and pay homage to the woman who took her place. When she saw the hint of superiority in the younger woman's eyes, Arya wanted to tear the hair from her head, to slap her face so hard that her handprint would remain upon Jessa's cheek for the rest of her life.
Instead Arya curtseyed and welcomed Queen Jessa to Winterfell, knowing the sacrifice of her pride would be worth the peace it would bring her.
The feast her parents planned for the arrival of court was the finest to be held since Robert's long-ago visit, and Arya knew it bothered her father to spend so much money on something he found to be so frivolous. Theon escorted Arya into the great hall, leading her to the table which was occupied by Robb, Jeyne, her nephews, and her children; Rhaenys's seat was conspicuously empty, and, as Arya let her eyes travel the room, she saw many familiar faces.
Daenerys and Viserys were seated at the table closest to the head table, which held Aegon, Jessa, Ned, and Catelyn; Mace Tyrell, Joffrey Baratheon, Margaery Tyrell, and Margaery's eldest son, Aegon's squire, were also seated with the elder Targaryens. Prince Oberyn, Ellaria Sand, and a collection of Dornishmen occupied one table while Uncle Edmure and his family sat at another. There were none present from the Stormlands or Casterly Rock, and Arya wondered at that; Myrcella Baratheon wed Trystane Martell ages ago, but she seldom ventured far from Sunspear, and Tommen held his wife's seat at Horn Hill since Dickon Tarly was killed during Aegon's quest. With Gendry hidden away at the Rock, only Joffrey remained a presence in King's Landing, the roles of power reversed now; the prince Arya despised now relied on the status of his wife's family, and it made Arya incredibly uncomfortable to think of Joffrey Baratheon, one of the cruelest people she ever met, having any sort of sway over the kingdom.
Arya was in the middle of a conversation with Rickard when a hush fell over the hall; she looked up, expecting to see Aegon calling for attention, but his eyes were focused on the doorway, his face a mixture of shock and awe. She turned towards the entrance and found her own breath stolen.
Arya did not know where Rhaenys got the gown she was wearing. It was brilliant Targaryen red with black embroidery, the neckline square and low enough to reveal more decolletage than Arya was comfortable with her fourteen-year-old daughter revealing; a necklace of obsidian with a massive ruby drew the eye, and Arya recognized the jewels immediately. After Rhaenys's birth, Illyrio gifted the expensive necklace to the newborn, which was to be worn on Rhaenys's wedding day; Arya knew for a fact it had been left in the Red Keep, and, when Arya saw it was Rhaego who was escorting Rhaenys into the hall, she wondered just what her daughter and the khal were trying to do.
They made a striking pair, both more beautiful than any two people had any right to be. Rhaego wore Targaryen colors as well, his purple eyes startling against his warm copper skin and thick, black hair; like all Dothraki men, Rhaego kept his hair tightly braided, the end of the braid brushing the center of his back, and Arya heard the heavy tinkling of bells as he moved. Rhaenys's black hair was piled in a complicated tumble of curls atop her head, her lips stained red, and, as they moved closer, Arya saw her lips were also swollen.
They have been kissing, Arya realized with a start, something like panic clutching her breast. Rhaenys was so like her mother, and Arya knew how stupid and reckless she had been at four-and-ten, the poor choices she made when it came to her heart. Is she in love with him? Is he in love with her?
Mace Tyrell looked to be the color of eggplant, and Arya knew why: with a khalasar and the North behind her, Rhaenys could try to take the throne which rightfully belonged to her and her siblings.
“Seven hells,” Theon breathed, and Arya slammed her heel hard into the man's shin, disgusted by the blatant admiration in his voice. He hissed sharply in pain, but Arya barely heard it as she watched Rhaego escort Rhaenys to their table, pulling out her chair and pushing her gently beneath it. Rhaenys squeezed his hand lightly in thanks before murmuring something in Dothraki; Rhaego joined his mother and uncle at their table, and Arya acutely felt the eyes of the hall upon them.
“You look like a princess,” Brandon said innocently, smiling at his big sister, and Arya's stomach dropped at Rhaenys's reply.
“I am a princess.” Gesturing for a servant to fill her wine cup, Rhaenys added, “And no one is like to forget it again.”
“What are you doing?” Arya demanded in Dothraki, hissing the words with tension in her voice.
Rhaenys met her gaze evenly, completely calm. “I am the eldest trueborn daughter of Aegon Targaryen, the Sixth of his name, a princess of Dragonstone. If the king is going to come to my home, he will acknowledge me as such or he can be uncomfortable for the duration of his stay, but he will not know peace if he continues to deny me, deny us.”
“Rhaenys, for Gods' sake...”
“You're going to ruin the feast, Mother,” Rhaenys chided softly, nodding in thanks at the servant who filled her cup.
Arya wasn't sure if she wanted to kiss her daughter or smack her.
When the music began, Rhaego returned to the table to partner Rhaenys, and Aemon, who preferred making music to dancing to it, surprised Arya by inviting one of Oberyn's granddaughters to take a turn with him. As the floor filled, Arya sighed, draining her cup of wine in a heavy swallow; the usual celebrations at Winterfell were full of boisterous, Northern men and women who cared nothing for the game of thrones, and Arya forgot how exhausting it could be to play. While the beautiful young couples swirled about the floor, Arya found Brandon snuggling against her side, burrowing his head against her side; in the privacy of his chamber, such childlike behavior was not unusual but Arya sensed there was an unease to her youngest tonight.
“What's wrong, sweetling?” she murmured, pushing his hair back from his forehead, brushing a soft kiss against his skin.
Arya blinked in shock when Brandon scurried into her lap, looping his arms around her neck, drawing her ear down to his mouth. She knew she should reprimand him for acting so young at such an event, but Brandon's face was so serious, she could not bear it.
“If Rhaenys is a princess, then so is Alysanne. And Aemon is a prince. What am I?”
The Lord of Storm's End, instantly popped into Arya's head but she put it aside as quickly as it came. She thought for a moment, trying to figure out what the best answer was. And then she found she needed no answer at all, for Aegon was dropping into the chair beside Arya, chucking Brandon under the chin.
“Is something wrong, my boy?”
Brandon squeezed her a bit tighter for a moment before lifting his head from Arya's collarbone. Arya knew the thoughtful expression on Brandon's face well; it was the one he wore when he was uncertain whether or not someone was japing at him. Finally Brandon repeated his question, and, for half-a-second, Arya saw something unfamiliar flash in Aegon's eyes before he leaned close, meeting Brandon's gaze steadily.
“You're a prince of Dragonstone, the same as your brother,” Aegon stated unequivocally, “and someday you will the grandest knight to ever walk the earth. They will sing songs of Brandon the Brave.”
The tears came unbidden to Arya's eyes, and she quickly turned her face away so Aegon would not catch them glistening in the candlelight. When she swelled with Brandon, Arya did not doubt Gendry fathered her baby; she still didn't. But it was not outside the realm of possibility for Aegon to have put Brandon in her belly, and there were times when Arya even wished he was Brandon's true father, an explanation which would fix everything she broke with Sansa. Arya knew Gendry Baratheon was Brandon Snow's father as certainly as she knew Aegon Targaryen was the father of her other children, but it still made her ache to hear Aegon so freely claim her son when Gendry would never be able to do the same.
“Would you mind terribly much if I introduced you to some people?” Aegon continued, his voice so sweet and amiable, it brought back a thousand memories of Pentos and Vaes Dothrak, of Rhaenys and Aemon when they still toddled on unsteady legs. “I am certain your aunt Daenerys would like to meet you.”
It shattered Arya's reserve as Brandon went willingly into Aegon's arms, grinning broadly at the recognition, and she managed to make it outside the great hall before her tears came, hot and fierce. She stuffed her fist into her mouth to muffle any sound, whether it be sobs or the screams which were climbing in her throat, but Arya could do nothing to abate the flow of her tears. In the month since the raven arrived, she truly thought she was prepared for this, prepared for Aegon; in the years since King's Landing, she convinced herself she did not really miss him at all, the husband she chose for herself, the life she chose for herself.
And she didn't miss King Aegon or being Queen Arya, but that was not who appeared to have come to Winterfell, who smiled at her children with such love. He was Aegon again, her Aegon, and she hated how desperately she wanted to slip into his arms, to have him cup her face and kiss away her breath. She wondered if they always would have ended this way or if he only agreed to put her aside because of what she did with Gendry, a thought she has refused to allow to enter her brain for seven years. Confronted with the idea she contributed to her children's illegitimacy, the tears increase, and Arya had never felt weaker or more like a silly lady as she did spilling useless salt over long ago choices.
The hand on her elbow startled Arya, and she whirled around, wiping at her cheeks only to find Theon standing there, extending a large cup of mead. His ever-present smile was more sympathetic than usual as he quipped, “Want to get drunk with me?”
“Absolutely,” she agreed, chugging down the mead as if she was the Greatjon Umber.
Theon was the only other person in Winterfell who knew what it was like to be part of a family without being part of it all, and, as such, he was the only person Arya wanted to be around while her former husband played doting father.
Despite the amount of mead she drank with Theon, Arya could not sleep. With the moon at its peak, she found a robe, cinching it at her waist before hurrying down to the kitchen for wine. She did not bother with a candle, knowing the halls of Winterfell even in the blackest of night, and she was surprised to find light flickering in the cavernous hall. Arya paused as the figures came into view: Aegon sat on one side of the table, Duck in his white armor on the other, both with cups of wine before them. The shuffle of her feet gave her away, and Aegon's eyes widened before he grinned pleasantly, waving her over.
“You must have heard us speaking of you, “ Aegon said as she cautiously approached the table. “Duck was just reminding me of that day in Braavos when you dueled with that bravo who grabbed your arse.”
Arya smiled despite herself. “He is lucky his friend saved him.”
“You were such a fierce little thing,” Duck mused, mussing her hair as if she was a child; Arya nudged him to stop but the armor padded the blow significantly. “I told him from the moment you rode up on that house in the Stormlands, 'That one is nothing but trouble.'”
Reaching for the cup of wine before the knight, she teased, “I believe Viserys said the same and Connington too. I was quite troublesome in my youth.”
“No,” Aegon argued softly, his voice loose from wine, “you weren't troublesome. You were...You were so bold. Fearless.”
“Stupid,” Arya corrected, “impulsive, careless, selflish - “
“That's not you.”
“Then you're not remembering clearly.” Arya felt Duck rise from the bench, subtly removing himself from the conversation, and she wanted to grab his mailed hand, make him stay so the past could stay as buried as it ever did.
The fog of wine softened his speech, but Arya saw Aegon's eyes were clear as he stated, “I remember perfectly. I remember I made you a solemn promise and then, when enough people leaned upon me, I broke it. And then, when you were forced to be what you never wanted to be, I got angry because you would not forgive me so easily. I drove you to what you did, and then I punished you and our children for it.”
Arya scoffed, reaching to pour more wine into Duck's cup. “Do not give yourself so much credit, Your Grace. What I did, I did because I wanted to do it. You do not get to take that from me.”
“Did you always love him more than me?” Aegon asked hoarsely. “Did you marry me because you couldn't marry him?”
“I do not love him more than you,” she softly contested. “I married you because I loved you, because you were the first person who ever loved me and let me be as wild as I wished. I slept with Gendry because I was angry at you for bringing me back to court. Coming back here, I had to face what I did and the people I disappointed, and every time I heard a whisper about how I was a traitor or a whore, I thought I may as well act as one. I wanted to hurt you as you hurt me.” Staring down into her wine, she murmured, “I wanted to hurt Sansa. I wanted to hurt everyone, and the only people I truly hurt were the children.”
“You hardly did that single-handedly.” Aegon stared down into his own cup before sighing, “I threw them away. I was so angry at you, I let it blind me. Gods, Arya, I love them so much...”
“I know that. They know that,” she stressed.
“But Rhaenys - “
“You broke her heart,” Arya cut in, “but if she didn't love you as much as she does, she wouldn't care so deeply. It's different for her in comparison to Aemon or Alysanne; she had the most time with you, and she remembers what it was like...before. All she knows is one day she was the center of your universe and the next, you were having new daughters with Jessa Tyrell.”
“Connington says it was the stupidest thing I ever did.”
“Having children with Jessa?”
“Letting the High Septon declare our children bastards,” he corrected. “He never bore much love for you and he recognized what the Tyrells could bring, but the children...He said I disgraced my parents' memories by tossing them away.”
“Is that why you're here now, because you want to make Connington proud before he dies?”
“No, I'm here because I miss my family.” Aegon swirled the contents of his cup, seeming to carefully consider his words before stating, “You were right, you know. I'm surrounded by flowers, and they're choking me. Mace and Garland on the small council, Loras guarding me, Margaery whispering in Jessa's ear, I cannot catch my breath. Viserys is thick as thieves with them, so hungry still for the throne, for the power, and, when Connington dies, I won't have a friend in King's Landing.”
“That cannot be true.”
“Haldon hasn't the stamina for this, Daenerys wants to save everyone without any consideration for realities, Ashara refuses to leave Starfall, and Rolly cannot do everything. Mace is actually pushing for Joffrey to become Hand. Joffrey! I'd sooner name Moonboy.”
“Who do you want to name?”
Arya froze at the smile on Aegon's face, the quirk of his eyebrow. He said nothing, simply stared, and she instantly understood what he was saying. Arya shook her head, a disbelieving gasp leaving her lips.
“You cannot be serious!”
“Why not?” Aegon calmly asked. “You're better at reading people than most, you're observant, you understand the motivations of others, and you have never been shy about sharing your opinion with me.”
“The realm didn't want me as queen, and you think they'd accept me as the second most powerful person in the realm? How much wine have you had?”
“More than I should have,” he freely admitted, “but that does not change what I am saying. Connington says I need to appoint a Hand I trust implicitly, and you are the only person I can truly say I trust to make decisions based on the realm rather than your own ambition.”
Arya rose from the bench, pacing for a moment before snapping, “I cuckolded you! I took our children to the Wall rather than go where you sent us! I threatened to raise the realm against you! How can you possibly say you can trust me at all?! How could you ever expect me to trust you?!”
“Arya - “
“If you traveled a thousand leagues to be so fucking stupid, you can spend your time here as far from me as possible.”
As she turned to return to her rooms, Aegon called after her, “I did not give you permission to leave.”
She froze before turning, fury burning in her chest. Pinning him in place with her eyes, she growled, “You gave me permission the day you branded me a whore to all Seven Kingdoms. If you want to play king, you do it with someone else.”
It was a curious thing, Arya decided as she angrily beat her pillow, how much she could love and hate Aegon Targaryen.
For nearly a week, Aegon honored her request; he barely acknowledged her existence, spending his days meeting with the Northmen who rode to pay homage to the king, touring Winterfell with Robb and his men, and holding councils with his own men. Arya rarely saw anyone during the days; Jessa Tyrell kept court with the highborn ladies of Winterfell, and Arya was not surprised to find she was excluded from activities she did not want to take part in anyway. Even after years in the North, years away from the gossip and the whispered accusations, Arya knew every southron person in Winterfell still thought her to be the king's mistress, and mistresses did not get invited to sit and embroider with the queen.
On the seventh day of the court's stay at Winterfell, Arya came out of the castle to find Aegon kneeling beside Brandon, who was heavily padded and carrying a wooden sword; Ser Rodrik was strapping Robb's youngest son into padded armor of his own, Robb smiling pleasantly as he leaned against the fence with Ned and Rolly, still clad in his gleaming white armor. As Aegon helped Brandon wrap his hand around the pommel of the sword, showing him how to hold it properly, Arya thought of her own lessons with Aegon so long ago, the silly lessons which changed her life.
The boys hacked at each other with impatience and little grace, the way Arya remembered Robb and Jon doing when they were younger. Both Rodrik and Aegon called out instructions, but neither Brandon nor Maxwell seemed to heed them, more focused on striking each other with broad, fanciful strokes than actually learning swordplay. Brandon would be seven soon, and the time for playing would start to fall by the wayside as he learned the things he would need as a man; Arya preferred to watch him play with his cousin when the time for play was nearly passed.
“It's not a hammer, Brandon,” Aegon laughed as Brandon began to swing powerfully from the shoulder, and Arya felt nausea rise in her throat before choking it back.
Brandon hit Maxwell in the arm, tumbling his cousin onto his padded backside, and, as he advanced, Maxwell held up his hands and cried, “Yield!” while Rodrik bent to help him back to his feet. Arya laughed at the pure joy on Brandon's face as he turned his bright grey eyes on his mother and Aegon.
“I won! Did you see, Mother? Did you?”
“I did! You were wonderful!”
Brandon's grin only widened as Aegon knelt down, removing the helm atop his head and ruffling his dark hair. “If you practice enough, mayhaps we can see about you getting a real sword for your name day.”
“Aegon,” Arya began, shaking her head, knowing her son would manage to skewer himself and likely one of his cousins if given actual steel, but Brandon was already whooping in excitement, throwing his arms around Aegon's neck and squeezing him tightly. Arya saw a shadow of sadness pass over Aegon's face for a moment even as he returned the embrace, pressing a kiss to Brandon's hair, and, when Brandon pulled away to spar with Maxwell again, Arya dropped her eyes to avoid Aegon's gaze.
“He is wonderful,” Aegon murmured as the boys began again, the clicking of their wooden swords meeting in an uneven rhythm.
“I broke my fast this morning with him and Alysanne. They remind me of Rhaenys and Aemon when they were small.” Aegon smiled sadly before adding, “Except they far more formal. Rhaenys would have stolen my bacon and Aemon would have climbed into my lap.”
“They don't know you,” Arya pointed out, surprised by the coolness in her own voice, in the heavy echo of resentment she would have sworn did not exist in her heart any longer. “What did you expect?”
“I did not expect anything - “
Aegon exhaled sharply through his nose, irritation plain on his face. “What do you want me to say, Arya?”
Ignoring the speculative looks of her father and brother, Arya turned to face Aegon, keeping her voice deliberately low so Brandon would not overhear. “I don't want you to say anything. You come here with your new wife and your new children, and it is as if you expect all of us to be so happy to see you, like the past seven years did not happen.”
“I did what we agreed - “
“Agreed?” Arya scoffed. “What choice did I have, Aegon? Should I have gone to Dragonstone, let you come visit as you liked, be the whore the court still whispers I am? I brought them here so they could be away from the people who would call them the king's bastards, to give them a chance at the happiness Rhaenys and Aemon knew when they were small.” She was startled by the feel of tears on her cheeks and quickly wiped them away as she gritted out, “We're not the people you left.”
“Then come back to court so I might have a chance to know you, know all of you,” Aegon entreated softly, stepping closer but not touching her, something for which Arya was grateful. “You do not have to be Hand, but just come back. Let me be their father again.”
“If you think Mace Tyrell will ever allow that - “
“I am the king,” he declared, his voice hoarse yet fierce, “and, contrary to what you seem to think, Mace Tyrell does not make my decisions for me. I told you once I did everything I did so our children would have a legacy, and I mean for them to have it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Our children deserve more than to be hidden away in the North with nothing to call their own. They were born to be kings and queens. I saw that years ago, and I still believe it. And I know you believe it as well or else you wouldn't be so scared.”
“I'm not scared,” she lied, folding her arms over her chest, her eyes instinctively finding Brandon still hacking away at Maxwell.
“You're terrified,” he argued, and Arya shivered as he gently clasped her elbow, keeping her in place so she could not flee from his words. “Do you remember what I said to you the first night we kissed, what I said about you?”
“You said there was a queen inside of me.”
“For as long as I have known you, all you have ever been able to believe is the terrible things people say about you; you let them twist you up inside your head so badly, you cannot even see the truth anymore. Whispers can't hurt our children.”
“But ambitious men with daggers and poisons can.”
Aegon smiled wryly. “The Arya Stark I knew did not tremble at shadows.”
“The Arya Stark you knew did not have four children to protect.”
“Arya - “
“If we come with you to court, people are going to ask questions and I do not...” Arya's eyes drifted to Brandon, dancing away from Maxwell's blows, and she felt tears rising in her throat again. “I do not want him to know where he comes from, what I did.”
Aegon caught her beneath the chin with two fingers, forcing her eyes to lock with his; immediately she felt it, the siren song of his body, the love which they were both far too careless with when they were younger. “Brandon Snow is my son, and I will take the head of any man who says otherwise.”
“Why?” was all she could manage.
Genuine anguish filled Aegon's handsome features as he murmured, “Because he's yours.”
Before Arya could reply, Brandon flung himself at her legs, squeezing tightly while bouncing with excitement. “I won again! Did you see me?”
Arya bent, scooping him off of his feet, pressing a soft kiss to his cheek. “You will be a wonderful knight.”
Her heart broke as Brandon's arms reached for Aegon, who took him easily, a grin stretching across his face. As Aegon began to praise Brandon for his fighting prowess, Arya looked away only to find Jessa Tyrell watching her from a window.
There was something in Jessa's expression which reminded Arya of Cersei Lannister, and Arya knew better than anyone the lengths the former queen had gone to in order to get her own way.
Arya never much cared for music; Sansa was always the one who pleaded for Ned to bring singers to Winterfell, who could enrapture men with the sweet soprano of her voice. Septa Mordane gave them music lessons, but only Sansa took to them, Arya always finding her fingers too clumsy, the pitch of her voice too sharp or too flat.
Now, as she followed the sounds of Aemon's harp, finding him seated before a fire in one of the smaller parlors, Arya wished she had been more appreciative of Septa Mordane's lessons. Aemon smiled at her as she entered the room, taking a seat opposite of him as his fingers continued to pluck out a melody Arya vaguely recognized from her time on the Gift. Mance used to play it, called it “her song,” but Arya did not know the words or what it was called.
Of all of her children, Arya always felt closest to Aemon. Rhaenys was first Aegon's daughter and then wholly her own person; Alysanne and Brandon belonged to everyone, both having grown up at Winterfell, but Aemon was always hers, her sweet, quiet boy whose heart was too big for his own good, who preferred his harp to his sword. At two-and-ten, he was all long limbs, more gangly than graceful, and, though his features were fully Targaryen, Arya saw so much of her father and Jon Snow in her son, the seriousness of the North having filled his soul where the fire of the dragon filled Rhaenys's.
When they first arrived at Winterfell, Aemon barely spoke except to ask when Aegon was going to visit; Arya lost count of how many nights Aemon climbed into her bed, huddling beneath the furs and pressing his face against her neck, his face hot with tears. It was not until Brandon was born that Aemon began to return to the boy he used to be when they lived amongst the wildlings. Aemon had always been sweet to Alysanne, but having a little brother seemed to give him a purpose, and Arya suspected Aemon wanted to be as much of a father to Brandon as he could be. Alysanne was Brandon's best friend, Rhaenys was his idol, but Aemon was the one Brandon did not want to disappoint.
He was not meant to be a warrior, her eldest son; unlike Rhaenys, who took to every weapon as if it was an extension of her body, or Brandon, who was always so physical, Aemon preferred books. Robb called him “the little maester” and Arya always thought of Maester Aemon, gone so long now. Like Ned and Jon, Aemon never acted impulsively; he was the sole person Rhaenys listened to when she was in her rages and the person who could soothe Alysanne's tears the quickest.
He would make a wonderful king, Arya thought, surprised by the sudden thought. Even when she was still a queen and he was still a prince, Arya never thought of Aemon as the future king, and Arya highly doubted Aemon ever thought of himself that way.
“Did you ever want to be king?” she asked with a candidness she never would have used with Rhaenys and her mercurial temper.
Aemon's fingers paused over the strings, and Arya could see the careful consideration he was giving the question. Finally he settled on, “I don't care much for power.”
A small smile tugged at Arya's lips. “Unlike your sister?”
Aemon smiled as well. “In Dorne, women can inherit before men. Rhaenys thinks it is unfair she would be passed over for me, and she would make a better ruler if we were ever to rule.”
“Why would she be better?”
“Because she was born to fight.”
“And what were you born to do?”
“Listen.” Aemon's smile became smaller, sadder as he countered, “What were you born to do?”
Arya shrugged. “I do not know. What do you think I was born to do?”
Long fingers plucked out a melody Arya recognized instantly; it was the tale of Daena the Defiant, and it had been one of the few songs Arya enjoyed as a child. “Whatever you wish to do. You're not like other ladies, other mothers.”
Aemon shook his head, scattering his fine silver hair in all directions. “I remember what you used to be like. You were different then.”
Genuine curiosity bloomed in her chest. “What do you remember?”
“You used to wear pants and keep your hair braided like a Dothraki. I remember when we lived in the tent with Grandmother Ashara, when Uncle Jon used to visit, you smiled more.” A shadow fell over his face as he murmured, “We all used to smile more.”
Studying his face, so much like his father's, Arya queried, “Would you want to go south, to return to court with your father?”
“No, all of us would come as well. Is that something you would want?”
Aemon set the harp upon the seat beside him, taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly. After an indeterminable amount of time, his cheeks flush with embarrassment, he confessed, “I missed him.”
“You do not have to be ashamed of that, Aemon.”
“But I am.” In that moment, the boy poised on the cusp of manhood looked even younger than Brandon as he stated, “He sent us away, Mother. He took your crown and the crown which was supposed to be mine, and he gave them to Jessa and her daughters. How can I miss someone who took everything away?”
“Because he's your father.”
There was a tremble to his chin when Aemon declared, “He loved us once. I know he did. I remember it.”
“He loves you still,” Arya assured him, reaching across the gap to squeeze his hand. “You will never understand how deeply he loves you all. What happened...There was so much which went into that, but love for you and your siblings was never a reason for it.”
“We aren't supposed to be here. At Winterfell,” Aemon clarified, answering the question painted on her face. “I do not know why, but I have always felt that way.”
“Where are we supposed to be?”
For the first time in his life, Arya saw a flash of fire and blood in Aemon's violet eyes. “We're dragons, Mother. Do you truly believe anyone in the North ever forgets that?”
No, Arya knew no one ever forgot who fathered her children, forgot what she had done by running off with the exiled Targaryen prince. Time healed wounds but it never erased them; the scars of her actions were still visible in every part of her life: the shuttered disappointment in Catelyn's eyes, the sadness in Ned's smile, the echo of reproach in Robb's voice, the unbearable silence from Sansa, the distrustful glances the people of the North exchanged when they saw her or the children. Arya wanted so badly for her children to have a place at Winterfell, to be wolves, but if there was one thing Arya was learning, her children were well-aware of what they were.
“Do you want to go to court?” Arya repeated softly.
Aemon squeezed her hand tightly. “I want to go where we belong.”
Where do dragons belong? Arya nearly asked, certain he was offering her some sort of riddle. It was only as she posed the question to herself she recognized the answer, knew it as if it was imprinted on her heart.
Arya rose, brushing Aemon's hair from his eyes and pressing a kiss to his brow. “I love you.”
Her son offered her a smile so much like Ned Stark's, it made her heart ache. “I know. I've never doubted that.”
Arya never cared much for the gods, the old or the new. She prayed because she hoped someone was listening, but Arya did not put much stock in the existence of more powerful, benevolent beings. Catelyn and Jeyne Westerling still lit candles in the small sept; Ned and Robb sought help before the heart tree, but Arya had not implored the gods for anything since that day years earlier in the Riverlands when she asked for a sign and received Nymeria.
The godswood was silent, one of the few places untouched by the visitors from court, and Arya smiled when she found her father sitting near the small pool, his cane resting beside him as he polished Ice with great care. She remembered when she was very small how massive the greatsword seemed and how jealous she was that one day it would belong to Robb instead of her. Sometimes, when she slipped away from Septa Mordane, Ned would set her in his lap and let her help him polish it, the ripples of the Valyrian steel dancing before her eyes.
“You're quiet as a shadow when you want to be,” Ned remarked as she sat down beside him, uncaring about messing her gown in the dirt. “When you were little, I could hear you coming a league away.”
“Tormund Giantsbane taught me to be silent or else I'd never catch anything when I hunted.”
“And a fierce hunter you were, I'm sure.”
They sat in companionable silence for several minutes, Ned's hands working over Ice as Arya stared at the ripples dancing across the pool. Finally Arya blurted out, “Did you ever love Jon less because he was not truly your son?”
“No,” Ned answered immediately, “because he is my son. He may not have come from my seed, but I taught him to walk, to talk, to swing a sword, to shave, to be a man; is that not what makes a father?”
Arya thought of Jon Connington, wasting away from greyscale a thousand leagues away, and softly sighed. “Do you ever regret it, not telling Jon that Aunt Lyanna was his mother and Rhaegar Targaryen was his father?”
“I regret hurting your mother with the lie,” he replied diplomatically, “but it would only have caused more pain for Jon to have known.” Ned turned his grey eyes upon her, a knowing light shining in them. “Is this about Brandon?”
It never failed to amaze Arya how quickly she seemed to turn from fully grown woman and mother to an embarrassed child under her father's gaze. “Do you think a man can love a child which came from betrayal?”
“I think a man can learn to do anything if he loves the woman enough.” Ned's face was troubled but his voice certain as he declared, “And he loves you more than enough.”
Arya shifted uncomfortably, crossing her arms over her chest as she pulled the corner of her lip between her teeth. She did not want to think about how much Aegon loved her or how much she loved him in return. When it came to love, Arya wished she could be more like Sansa, who always knew her heart; Arya knew how to take down a deer with one shot from her bow, how to disarm a man with a sword, how to wield an arakh with the deadly talent of a Dothraki screamer, but Arya never understood her own heart.
“You must be so disappointed in me and the choices I've made.”
“Sometimes I am,” Ned admitted, and Arya loved him for such blatant honesty, “but mostly I envy you for your courage.”
Arya snorted. “My courage? What have I done - “
“When you first returned, I confess I had no idea what to say to you, how to treat you. It was as if I was being asked to choose which of my daughters I loved more, which I was choosing to support. And then Ashara came to me.”
“I did not think you two spoke.”
There was a surprising amount of affection in Ned's voice as he said, “Oh, I did not so much speak as listen. She told me all which you had gone through since leaving the Stormlands, and then she said, 'If she was a son, you would ask to hear of her adventures and forgive her indiscretions. You forgave Lyanna easily enough.'” Ned exhaled deeply with a small shake of his head. “She loves you as fiercely as your own mother does.”
“Ashara loves everyone fiercely.”
“She always did.”
Intrigued, Arya blurted out, “Do you still love her?”
Ned returned his attention to Ice, and Arya saw there was more force in his hands now. “Your uncle Brandon, he was so much...more than me in every way which mattered to our father, but Ashara Dayne, the most beautiful woman in the Seven Kingdoms, wanted me. I was young and it was a heady feeling. I loved her more than I thought possible, and I was certain I was going to marry her.”
Arya knew what came next. “But then Aerys killed Brandon and Grandfather Rickard, and you had to marry Mother.”
“War changes everything; it always has. I wrote Ashara, told her how sorry I was but how I had to marry Catelyn. Even though I knew it would make the child she carried a bastard, I still wed your mother, and I swear to the gods, I have loved your mother as best as I am able ever since.”
“But I mourned her for twenty-five years, and I have never forgotten the daughter we lost. I try to live as honorable a life as possible, but it was considerably easier to do when the only woman who would have tested my honor was thought dead.” His hands stopped moving, the Valyrian steel gleaming in the spring sun, and Ned Stark suddenly looked far older than he had only a few moments earlier. “If the king loves Brandon and Brandon loves the king, the truth can become what you wish it to be.”
“You're telling me to lie?” she asked in shock.
“A lie can be kinder than the truth, especially for children.” Grey met grey as Ned looked her square in the eye. “To protect your children, lies are worth the smudges on your honor.”
“What honor?” she drawled bitterly. “Seven kingdoms believe I am a whore and a traitor besides.”
“And four children think you hang the moon while the king grants you more respect than he does the woman he calls his queen.”
“You used to say a man was only as good as his name.”
“I used to say many things.” Ned wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her in to kiss her temple the way he had so many times when she was young. “Of all my children, you are the one I worry about the most and the least.”
Despite the gloom hanging over her, Arya laughed; she felt the same way about Rhaenys. “I wish to warn you: I am going to do something very stupid which will rile Mother to no end and may likely put me in a position to be killed by Mace Tyrell.”
Ned's deep laughter surprised her. As he struggled to his feet, bracing his weight on his cane, he chuckled, “Seven years of peace was more than I ever hoped to get from you, my girl. Are you certain you know what you are doing?”
Falling into step beside him, Arya admitted, “Seldom, if ever.”
He did not ask her what she was going to do; he did not try to stop her.
Arya never loved Ned Stark so much as she did that day in the godswood.
A week before all of court was to return to King's Landing, Arya went to Aegon, trying to remember the brash young woman she once was, the woman who hunted down a blue-haired sellsword and demanded sword lessons, the woman who fled everything she knew for a man she had known for only a few moons' turn. She found him seated in one of the solars with Viserys, Daenerys, Joffrey, and the Tyrells, and, with the exceptions of Daenerys and Aegon, everyone looked at her as if her presence was an afront.
“I need to speak with you,” was all Arya said, her eyes locking with Aegon's, mimicking the composure Catelyn Stark always seemed to possess.
“That is not how one addresses the king,” Viserys snapped, his face pinched in disgust. Age had not been kind to the eldest Targaryen; where once Arya thought he might be considered handsome, now he resembled a weathered bird. “Do they not teach manners in the North?”
“No, we are taught useful things here.” Returning her attention to Aegon, she repeated, “I need to speak with you.”
“You cannot - “
Arya whirled on Prince Viserys, her intense disdain for Aegon's uncle rushing to the forefront, breaking her fragile calm. “You do not tell me what I can and cannot do, especially not in my home.”
Viserys opened his mouth to retort, but Aegon held up his hand, silencing the words. Arya saw Jessa frown deeply as Aegon rose, her bow mouth twisting unattractively, and, when she said Aegon's name in an attempt to still him, Arya recognized the blatant irritation there. For the first time, she wondered what Aegon's marriage to Jessa Tyrell was like.
Arya lead him to a small alcove near Maester Luwin's office, her skirts swirling around her ankles, and she could acutely feel his eyes upon the line of her neck, left bare by the net which kept all her hair gathered. She dressed with particular care today, eschewing the plain dresses she usually wore for one of the elaborate gowns she had not worn since being at court; today Arya Stark looked like the queen she once refused to be, and there was something in Aegon's gaze which made her shift uneasily, as if she was young again and being judged by Septa Mordane.
“What?” Arya eventually said, smoothing her skirt, suddenly longing for the breeches and tunics she stopped wearing after Brandon was born in order to play at being a proper mother. Never had she felt unsure in her body when hidden beneath layers of men's clothing, and Arya thought she left such uncertainty behind long ago.
“You were my wife for seven years, and I believe I have seen you wear more gowns in the past month than I did our entire marriage.” Arya tried not to shiver as he traced her exposed collarbone with the tips of two fingers, his touch making her body come alive. Of all the problems which existed in their marriage, physical attraction had never been one of them. “It makes you look like someone else.”
“You preferred me in dirty breeches and painted vests?”
“I preferred you in nothing at all,” he countered with a sly smile, and Arya shook her head with a soft chuckle, the tension in her limbs dissipating beneath the warmth of his laugh.
Playfully pushing him backwards with her hand, she said, “I did not pull you away so we could reminisce.”
“Why did you pull me away?”
“The offer you made me.”
Aegon's eyebrows rose in surprise, hope filling his features. “You're accepting?”
“I cannot be Hand,” she declared, keeping her tone low so they would not be overheard. “I would not be respected and, what's worse, neither would you. If Seven Kingdoms would not support me as queen, they would surely not support me as the second most powerful person in the realm. They would say you gave away the realm to your whore.”
“You are not - “
“I know I am not a whore,” she interrupted, “and I do not need you to tell me so. However, after speaking to the children, I think you are right: our children should know you and you should know our children. If you wish us to come south with you, we will, but we will not stay at court.”
“Then where will you stay?”
“Dragonstone, as you once promised. It will be close enough for visits but still private enough that it will not make a spectacle of our return.”
He grinned, nodding immediately. “I can make the arrangements. You'll return with us.”
“There is more,” Arya added, watching as his happiness began to falter. “I have conditions.”
Aegon waited, his face expectant.
“You'll make them Targaryens again,” she began, trying not to sound as nervous as she was. “Rhaenys, Aemon, Alysanne, they deserve to have their name back. I won't ask you to legitimize Brandon - “
“I will,” he cut in, face softening. “He deserves a name as well.”
Choking back the emotion which threatened to overwhelm her, Arya rushed on, “Aemon will receive lands and a title, and you'll provide Rhaenys and Alysanne with dowries when they marry. And they will choose who they marry; there will be no betrothals made without their consent.” Voice breaking, she managed, “I want them to marry for love.”
He stepped into her, carefully brushing away the single tear which escaped her eyes. “I want that as well.”
“And returning to court does not mean I am returning to your bed.” Squaring her shoulders, inhaling deeply, she reminded him with a hint of reproach in her voice, “We cannot go back.”
“I know.” And yet his fingers still traced the neckline of her gown, still tripped over her shoulder before following the delicate line of her neck. When he cupped her face, his thumb softly stroking the arch of her cheekbone, Aegon sighed, “But wouldn't the world be sweeter if we could?”
The kiss he bestowed upon her was chaste but it shook her more deeply than any passionate kiss she had ever been given.
Regret hurt so much less when there was someone to share it.
”Are you certain you know what you are doing?”
Ned's words echoed in Arya's mind as she sat down to dine the first evening in the Red Keep. Arya never thought she would look upon the castle ever again, certain she would live the rest of her life at Winterfell, and, as Brandon gasped, she wondered if this was the wrong choice, if bringing her children back to King's Landing was going to be the end of the peaceful lives she strove so hard to give them.
“That is Rhaenys's Hill,” her eldest daughter told her youngest brother who sat beside her at the table, answering a question Arya did not catch, “named after the first Aegon's sister and wife. That is where they kept their dragons.”
“Dragons?” Brandon echoed, his eyes wide.
“Aegon rode Balerion the Black Dread,” Rhaenys recited, Arya assailed with the memory of Jon Connington telling the same story to her when she was small, “and they say his scales were black as midnight. Queen Rhaenys, she rode Meraxes, who could swallow horses whole. And do you know who Queen Visenya rode?” When Brandon shook his head, she continued, “She rode Vhagar, and its breath was so hot, it could melt a man's armor.”
“Truly,” Aemon chimed in, and Arya could not help but smile at the picture he and Alysanne presented seated side-by-side, their silver hair gleaming in the candlelight. “Aegon and his sisters conquered Westeros with their dragons, but the dragons which followed were never as large or as powerful until they died away completely.”
“And the only time all the dragons took to the sky together was during the Field of Fire, when they killed 4,000 men and destroyed House Gardener,” Alysanne piped up, startling Arya with history she knew Septa Maeve never taught her. “That is how the Tyrells came to control Highgarden, because they bent the knee to Aegon the Conqueror.”
Mace Tyrell, who sat near the head of the table alongside Margaery, laughed. “Only a stupid man does not bow before a dragon.”
“Yes, House Tyrell seems to do quite well when one of its members goes to their knees before the king,” Rhaenys quipped, and, while Jessa and Mace obviously bristled at the insinuation, Arya knew her daughter phrased the insult just deftly enough to claim ignorance if confronted for its impropriety.
“Why did the dragons die?” Brandon queried, oblivious to the tensions in the room, his eyes still wide as if listening to one of Old Nan's stories.
“The maesters and maegis say that magic left the world,” Daenerys offered, smiling fondly as she picked at her food, “and, since magic gives birth to dragons, they had to die away.”
Brandon sighed, slumping in his chair. “I want to see a dragon.”
Viserys laughed, but there was nothing kind or joyous about it. “You are sitting at a table with them, boy.”
Arya bit her lip to keep from laughing at Brandon's thoroughly unimpressed expression. “I meant real dragons.” As everyone present at the table, even Jessa, gave small chuckles at Brandon's words, her son turned to Rhaenys and asked, “But can't you hatch dragons from your eggs?”
The silence which fell over the hall seemed to echo, and, while Viserys began to puff up with indignation, Arya looked to Rhaenys, who seemed utterly unaffected as she replied, “Mayhaps someday.”
“You gave your eggs to them?!” Viserys exploded at his sister, and Arya felt her entire body stiffen at the scared expression on Alysanne's face, at the way she grabbed Aemon's arms tightly for protection.
Daenerys was unruffled, used to her brother's tantrums. Both Rhaego and Ser Jorah, who stood at Daenerys's back, looked positively ready to kill the eldest Targaryen, but, much like Rhaenys, Daenerys simply said, “They were mine. What does it matter whether I kept them or gave them to our nieces and nephew?”
“Because those eggs were our inheritance!”
“Those eggs were wedding presents from Illyrio to me when I wed Drogo. They were mine to do with as I pleased, and it was my will to give them to the children when they set sail from Volantis. If they were of such great importance to you, you would have asked after them long before now.”
“Wait,” Aegon spoke up, turning his gaze on Arya. “You have Daenerys's eggs?”
“She put them in our things when we left the Dothraki Sea,” she explained, reaching for her wine cup. “I did not even know we had them until we were in Braavos. I assumed they were meant for the children, so I gave them each an egg.”
“Those eggs were to go to the heirs of House Targaryen,” Viserys rushed on, “and the heirs are the children born to Queen Jessa. They cannot keep them. They must go to the true dragons of the Seven Kingdoms.”
“Viserys,” Aegon began, his voice weary over what Arya assumed was an argument he and his uncle had been having for the past month, but it was Rhaenys who cut in, Rhaenys who pinned the man in place with eyes which burned black.
“You think a marriage blessed by the High Septon makes a dragon, Prince Viserys? You believe because a fat man in a silly hat declared us to be bastards, that somehow makes the blood in our veins different from the blood in yours?” Viserys opened his mouth but Rhaenys rushed on, her voice gathering strength. “We are the blood of the Kings of Winter and Old Valyria, ice and fire made flesh, and it is our song which people will remember when your bones are naught but dust.” Rhaenys lifted her cup of wine, swirling the liquid as she drawled with deliberate mocking, “And you would not wish to wake the dragons, would you, Uncle?”
Viserys pushed to his feet, bracing his hands on the table as his face twisted in anger, furious words about to pour from his mouth. Every maternal instinct in Arya told her to rise as well, an action Aegon was echoing, but what happened next startled Arya to her very core.
As Viserys leaned forward to shout in Rhaenys's face, Aemon reared up suddenly, grabbing the knife beside his plate and embedding it deeply within the wood of the table between Viserys's splayed hands. Jessa gave a shout, but no one else moved, waiting to see what was about to happen.
“You will stay down, ser, or I will put you down,” Aemon growled, and, while Arya did not recognize the fierce young man staring down his great-uncle, she certainly recognized his tone: it was the voice of Ned Stark, of Winterfell, of the North.
Arya finally found her voice, getting to her feet and resting a hand upon Aemon's shoulder; she could feel the heavy tension throughout his limbs, and she instantly regretted bringing her sweet, peace-loving son to court, to men like Viserys.
Aegon had given them rooms in the Tower of the Hand when they arrived, but it was her own chamber Arya lead her children to as Aegon dressed down Viserys. Aemon was vibrating with anger, and it was not until they were locked away in the privacy of her rooms Arya saw Rhaenys was squeezing his hand tightly as if to tether him to the earth. Alysanne and Brandon both curled up on the large bed, their bodies fitting together as they had when they shared a nursery, and Arya ran her hands over their heads as if they were still babes, sensing just how upset they were.
“How dare he?” Aemon finally spat, and there was fire in his voice, a rage Arya was only familiar with when it came from Rhaenys. “How dare he say we are not true dragons?”
“Aemon - “
“I am a prince of Dragonstone!” he cried, and, if his fury startled Arya, the tears which now coursed down his cheeks knocked her even further back. “I have just as much right to the throne as any whelp of Jessa Tyrell's! More even! The dragon has three heads, and we are those heads!”
Rhaenys grabbed her brother's face, forcing him to look at her, and, as always, Aemon began to calm beneath his sister's gaze. “And they will see that. Remember what I told you.”
The words chilled Arya to the bone, and, when she asked what Rhaenys meant, none of her children would answer. Even Alysanne, usually so open and honest, lowered her eyes, and Arya understood that, in this, her children were a united force. She could not get a single syllable from her children with Aegon and later, as she put Brandon to bed, when she asked him if he knew what Rhaenys was speaking of, Brandon shook his head.
“Am I a dragon?” he murmured as sleep began to take him, snuggling into the mattress as Arya tightly tucked the blankets around him as he preferred.
No, thank the Gods. “You are whatever you wish to be.”
When she returned to her chamber, she found Aegon seated on the bed, his head in his hands. As he lifted his face as she entered, Arya saw how genuinely exhausted he appeared, and she was certain she knew the feeling. Reaching up to remove the pins from her hair, Arya stilled when Aegon asked, “May I?”
The correct answer was “no.” It was too intimate, too much like the past; she used to tease him over his appreciation of her hair, the way he used to gently untangle it after a hard day of riding, the way he'd arrange it to cover her breasts while she rode him. And yet Arya turned, silently giving him permission, wanting to be taken care of even if it was only for a moment.
Seven years was a long time to be lonely.
“I spoke to the children,” he said after a moment, his fingers carefully separating the hairpins from her thick hair, setting them neatly on the edge of the table. “I apologized for Viserys, assured them they are as trueborn as my daughters with Jessa, but I do not think Rhaenys trusts me still.”
“It will take time. The legitimization will help. She loved you more than anything on earth once; she'll love you again.” Arya exhaled in pleasure as his fingertips gently massaged her scalp, sifting through her locks with calloused fingers. “Gods, that feels nice.”
Aegon chuckled softly at her back, carding his fingers through her hair before beginning again. “You are always so easy to please.”
Arya laughed. “We both know that isn't true.”
Gathering her hair in one hand before releasing it, letting it scatter around her shoulders before repeating the motion, he murmured, “I think it would be best if you and the children leave for Dragonstone sooner rather than later. I did not think...I did not think your presence would cause such discord amongst everyone.”
Of course you didn't. King or not, you've always been painfully naïve. “I would prefer it.”
“Rhaego and the khalasar will join you,” he said, and Arya wondered how much of a role Rhaenys had in arranging that. “I assumed you'd prefer them to a knight of the Kingsguard.”
“Rhaenys certainly will,” she drawled, and Aegon's hand tugged a bit painfully at her hair as he gritted out, “She's a child.”
Arya turned, smiling at the look of consternation on his handsome face. “She's older than Daenerys was when she wed Drogo, the same age I was when I wed Ned Dayne. And trust me when I say, the way she and Rhaego look at each other - “
He pressed his fingers against her lips, glaring in a mixture of affection and genuine irritation. “Stop it.”
Stepping backwards, Arya pointed out with a giggle, “You were her age the first time you shared a bed with a woman.”
Aegon made a grab for her, and Arya darted away with a laugh, feeling younger than she was, safer than she was as she twisted past him, putting the bed between them and throwing a pillow at him for good measure. As he frowned, she teased, “You have become slow in your old age. If I had been a traitor with a dagger, little Olenna would be taking the throne in the morn.”
“Mayhaps you are right where I want you,” Aegon retorted, his face more alive than she had seen it since Vaes Dothrak. “You cannot leave the room without passing me, and I guarantee you will not pass. I shall seal you up in here like Baelor did his sisters, make this your very own maidenvault.”
“I am no maiden.”
Aegon's eyes darkened with lust as he deliberately looked her over from head to foot and back again. “I remember.”
Good humor leaving her, Arya shook her head minutely. “Stop.”
“Why?” he challenged, taking a seat upon the bed. “You do not love me? You do not miss me or want me?”
“I do not wish to be anyone's mistress ever again,” she corrected, sitting on the opposite edge of the featherbed. “I told you before we ever left Winterfell that we could not go backwards - “
“And I am not proposing that.”
“Then what are you proposing?”
He looked decidedly un-king-like as he lied back, staring up at the canopy over the bed the way they once stared at the stars above the Dothraki Sea. For a moment Aegon said nothing and finally he murmured, “I want to make love to you. I want to fall asleep with you on my chest and wake up with you in my arms. I want to feel for just a moment how I used to feel when we were together, when the children were small and we were just beggars. I want to be with our children every moment and forget all that happened after the war: Gendry, Jessa, everything.”
“But we can't,” Arya said thickly, “because you have two daughters with Jessa, and I have a son whose blood is not that of the dragon's. And we are both far too old to play at pretending.”
A tear shimmered in the candlelight as it rolled across Aegon's temple to disappear in his hair. “And to all seven hells with what we want?”
She lied back, her head resting alongside Aegon's, her vision swimming with tears as well. “Jon told me once life isn't always about what you want.” Twisting her head so she could look at him, she offered, “Mayhaps we used up all our wanting when we were too young to realize what it was worth.”
Arya did not move when Aegon sat up, pulling her along with him. She shivered as he cupped her face, kissing away her tears, his breath hot against her skin. “One last night of wanting and in the morning, we will be the king and lady we are supposed to be.”
A smart woman would have said no.
No one ever accused Arya Stark of being smart when it came to love.
Arya did not particularly love Dragonstone, but her children adored the island fortress of House Targaryen. She remembered sailing past it when fleeing Essos, catching sight of the fearsome dragon towers, and, while she could only find peace in the garden where the trees reminded her of the North, her children loved everything about it. The few houses who called Dragonstone home were unsure about the Dothraki now settling there, but Rhaego and Arya both gave them assurances they would not be bothered. The servants were cool the first few weeks before her children's kindness won them over, and somehow the presence of Septa Maeve soothed their fears; there was no godswood upon Dragonstone but the sept was often used by the residents of the island. Even Rhaenys, who worshiped the old gods more than the new, began to visit the sept and soon Arya found Rhaenys, Aemon, and Alysanne gathering there daily for prayer. Only Brandon remained her stubborn Northern boy, wanting no part of the elaborately carved relics in the sept, joining her in the garden at the tree she painted a face upon to say his prayers.
“Do you know what they pray for?” she asked Brandon one afternoon as they watched the trio disappear into the sept.
Brandon remained quiet, staring up at her with large grey eyes, and Arya knew she would get no answer from Gendry's son; he may not have been included in whatever was happening amongst his older siblings but even the Others would not be able to wrench from him their secret.
The decree of legitimization arrived by raven six months after they settled upon Dragonstone, and, as Arya read the parchment at dinner, declaring Rhaenys Snow, Aemon Snow, Alysanne Snow, and Brandon Snow to all be the legitimate children of Aegon Targaryen, the Sixth of his name, she saw Rhaenys's shoulders droop. For a moment she thought her eldest was disappointed, but Arya quickly realized her daughter was crying from relief, the burden of being a bastard finally lifted from her back.
“May I see it?” she requested, wiping at her cheeks, holding out her hand, and Arya complied, giving her the parchment. Rhaenys read Aegon's bold hand, nodding silently to herself, and, when she finished, she set the parchment upon the dining table and drew a deep breath.
“I am Princess Rhaenys Targaryen,” she declared, and her voice sounded so certain, so queenly, Arya found herself studying her daughter as if she was a stranger instead of the babe she suckled. “I am the dragon's daughter. He recognizes that, and now everyone will have to as well.”
“Yes,” was all Arya could reply.
“They will have to recognize us all.” Rhaenys's grin was blinding as she turned it upon her siblings, who returned it with as much vigor. “Let the Tyrells pretend we don't exist now.”
“Rhaenys,” Arya began, shaking her head at the troubling tone of her daughter's voice, “the Tyrells are not our enemies.”
“Anyone who is not us is an enemy.” Rhaenys looked at her meaningfully. “Protect the pack, remember?”
Arya wondered if she had taught her ambitious daughter all the wrong lessons.
Brandon was sick with fever, miserable and complaining of a sore throat; Maester Marwyn gave him a tea to drink, but Arya remained in his chamber, singing him to sleep before eventually succumbing to sleep herself. It was the strange flickering of green light which woke her from repose, Brandon still snoring beside her; Arya rose from the bed to look outside and found her heart immediately in her throat.
She knew what wildfire looked like; Thoros of Myr used a flaming swords in tournament when she was young and, even then, it terrified of her. Wildfire was unpredictable and always fatal, burning until it was gone, unable to be quenched; Rickard Stark was cooked alive in his own armor and Jon Snow bore scars on his arm from saving Lord Commander Mormont, and that was the result of regular flame. As Arya ordered Septa Maeve to remain with Brandon, she raced down the stairs, shouting for assistance, taking off across the grounds as if she was a child again.
When she was the wildfire inside a contained circle of sand, the Dothraki, Maester Marwyn, and even the lords of Dragonstone surrounding it, Arya knew something was happening she did not understand. She rushed to Rhaego, opening her mouth to demand to know what was going on, when she saw movement inside the flames, movement which looked remarkably like Aemon.
“My gods,” Arya breathed, her legs giving out, Rhaego catching her easily.
“You must trust it, Arya,” Rhaego said above the loud crackling of the flames. “This is what is meant to be.”
She screamed, loud and piercing, screamed until her voice gave way, screamed as the flames consumed her children. Rhaego's grip upon her did not budge, and, as the sun began to rise over the water, the wildfire began to die. It was not until she heard the gasps and prayers, saw men and women taking the knee, that Arya turned her attention to what she assumed would be the charred and ruined remains of her family.
They stood in the center of the blackened circle, their naked bodies covered in soot, untouched by the flames; that in itself would have been breathtaking, but Arya knew it was not their unburnt flesh which earned the devotion of those surrounding them.
A black creature was perched upon Rhaenys's shoulder, its red eyes taking everything in; a cream-colored monster wrapped itself around Aemon's bicep while Alysanne cradled a thing with emerald scales. As the Dothraki began to murmur, Arya finally shook free of Rhaego, not knowing the word the Dothraki used but certain of its meaning.
”Dragons,” the khalasar chanted while the lords remained silent in fealty, and Arya could scarcely catch her breath at what she was saying, what her children had done. The words of Maester Aemon pushed their way to the front of her brain - wake dragons from stone - but never had Arya expected this.
“What have you done?” Arya murmured as the children approached her, dread and awe twisting into a knot around her heart.
“It is all right, Mother,” Alysanne offered, cuddling the green dragon against her heart the way Arya once held Nymeria as a pup. “Fire cannot kill dragons.”
As the black dragon on Rhaenys's shoulder opened its mouth and screamed, Arya knew with certainty her children were now the most dangerous and the most endangered people in all of Westeros.
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