Aegon arrived a moon's turn after the dragons hatched, and Arya met him on the dock, entering his embrace easily, clasping him as tightly as a child with a favorite toy. For the first time since ascending the throne, Aegon traveled only with a small retinue of people, bringing with him only the people he trusted the most: Rolly, Daenerys, Haldon, Ashara newly arrived from Starfall, Bran who had come at Arya's behest, and Rhaego, who had delivered Arya's message. All wore the soberest of expressions, and Arya shivered at the blatant fear she glimpsed in Ashara's lovely violet eyes.
They rode to the castle in silence, Nymeria and Summer loping before the horses, and she thought of her children as she last left them: Brandon wielding his blunted tourney sword as he fought invisible opponents, Alysanne roasting bits of meat over the fire to feed to the growing dragons, Aemon pouring over an ancient text Maester Marwyn procured for him, and Rhaenys cradling her black monster in her arms as she spoke to it as if it understood every word.
“What are you doing?” Arya asked as she fastened her cloak around her shoulders, genuinely confused by the amount of affection her children were showing the beasts.
“We have to train them,” Rhaenys replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Otherwise they could be dangerous.”
“No living man knows how to train a dragon.”
“As no living man knew how to train a direwolf,” Aemon softly countered, turning a page, “and yet you managed.”
Arya did not think she would ever be able to look at the three creatures her children now cherished as suitable companions; she remembered how much Catelyn disliked their wolves in the beginning, how she waited for them to turn, and even then Arya thought it was ridiculous. With the exception of Shaggydog, none of their wolves ever so much as nipped at someone without provocation.
But dragons were not direwolves, and a displeased dragon could set entire villages on fire. Flames may not be able to claim her trio, but they could certainly burn Brandon, Dragonstone, and Arya herself.
Alysanne called the dragon with green and bronze scales Vhagar; already when the creature exhaled, steam escaped the slits of its nose, and Arya was certain it would breathe fire before the others. Aemon's cream-colored pet was Meraxes, and Brandon teased his big brother that the dragon's golden horns were a crown; unlike its siblings, Meraxes would allow Brandon to pet him without snapping, though Aemon made Brandon swear he would not dare try to touch Meraxes without Aemon being present. Brandon agreed, of course; though fascinated, Arya knew her youngest was as frightened by the dragons as she was.
But it was Rhaenys's dragon which truly concerned Arya. With black scales and hints of red upon its wings, it did not surprise her that Rhaenys called the monster Balerion. Already Balerion was twice the size of its siblings, quick to snap at anyone who came too close; even Aemon and Alysanne did not try to handle Balerion, whose aggression was only increasing with every passing day. Though not able to yet take flight, Arya witnessed Balerion flapping its wings, managing a few inches off the ground before crashing down, shrieking in frustration before trying again.
If Vhagar and Meraxes made her uncomfortable, Balerion terrified her, and Arya did not know what she was going to do.
As they entered the castle, Arya heard rushing footsteps, turning her head just in time to see Brandon charging the group, shouting in excitement, “Father!” Arya watched as Aegon immediately bent, sweeping Brandon into his arms, and the familiar throb began in her heart at how happy Aegon made her son, how wonderful Aegon was with him.
“Have you come to see the dragons?” Brandon asked. Not waiting for an answer from anyone, he continued, “You can look but you can't touch because they could hurt you. But if you ask Aemon, he might let you pet Meraxes.”
The children and their dragons were in one of the great rooms; Arya heard Ashara's sharp intake of breath at the sight as Duck murmured, “Seven save us.” Alysanne looked up first, grinning broadly as she set Vhagar on the floor to run to Aegon. Aemon and Rhaenys were slower moving; when Aemon went to embrace Ashara, she instinctively stepped back, fear in her eyes at the sight of Meraxes perched upon Aemon's shoulder, and Arya's son removed the dragon before hugging his adopted grandmother.
Rhaenys did not put down to Balerion to embrace Rhaego, the dragon puffing smoke from the slits of its nostrils in displeasure, but Rhaego did not pull back as everyone else did. Arya saw how wide Daenerys's and Aegon's eyes became at the sight of Balerion, and then Aegon's eyes met Arya's; no matter how much time had passed since they were man and wife, Arya could read the king like a book and knew he was concerned.
Bran was the only one who did not appear terrified, bending down to look at Vhagar and Meraxes, now snapping at each other with powerful jaws. When a laugh slipped past his lips, Arya felt irritation towards her younger brother.
“Is something funny?”
Bran grinned up at her, unrepentant. “Do you remember the story Old Nan used to tell us about what kept Winterfell warm?” Not waiting for a reply, he ghosted his hand over the dragons, feeling the heat they gave off at all times. “We'd have burned alive.”
Arya thought of Rickard Stark cooked in his armor before 500 men and wondered just how true those words were.
It was after midnight when Aegon came to her rooms. Arya had not pretended to herself he would not come; she did pretend the reasons she brushed her hair until it shone and donned a silk shift with delicate embroidery were something other than wanting to see arousal in Aegon's violet eyes. He did not knock when he entered, strolling into her chamber as easily as he once did when they shared rooms in Pentos, and, not for the first time, Arya missed having a husband, missed the easy companionship which came with it.
In a rare moment of softness, Rhaenys once asked Arya about her husbands. She knew her daughter's head was full of fantasies about wedding Rhaego, fanciful ideas of what it meant, and it amused Arya to think of her hard-headed, desperately realistic daughter indulging in girlish play. So, when Rhaenys asked Arya what she liked most about each one of her husbands, Arya replied honestly.
“Ned was sweet, mayhaps the sweetest man I have ever known. Renly could make me laugh quicker than anyone and was the first person to ever truly recognize I was capable of being more than just a lady. And your father...”
“What about my father?” Rhaenys prompted, and Arya could see the hints of childish adoration in her daughter's beautiful face.
“Your father set me free. All the parts of me that everyone else thought were shameful or unladylike or improper, Aegon loved.”
As Aegon smiled tiredly at her as she rose from her dressing table, Arya knew it was still true; she would love Aegon Targaryen until the day she died.
“I had to tell Brandon and Alysanne a half-dozen stories before they'd go to sleep,” Aegon informed her, and Arya wondered if she should protest as he toed off his boots and tugged his tunic over his head.
She laughed. “They manipulated you. They both know they cannot have more than one story, two if it is their name day.”
Aegon frowned for a moment before shaking his head with a sad chuckle. “I do not know your rules.”
“You'll learn,” she replied, unconcerned.
“I would learn quicker if I did not have to wait months between visits. If you were at court...”
“If I was at court, none of us would ever know peace.” Thinking of the three dragons residing in the castle, she added, “Especially now.”
Aegon's face darkened as he nodded, stripping down to his smallclothes. “Dragons...” An incredulous laugh burst from his chest, irritating Arya for a moment before he quickly explained, “When we married, Connington told me I was mad, that I threw away the Seven Kingdoms for...Well, for a not entirely flattering term. And I said to him, 'You don't understand, Jon. Our children are going to be dragons.' But I never expected this.”
“It was terrifying,” Arya confessed in a whisper, voicing the shameful feelings which burned in her chest over the past month. “When I saw the wildfire, when I saw the children in the fire...I've never been scared of our children before but I was. I am.”
“Arya - “
“I'm not a dragon, Aegon,” she continued. “And when I see the children with their dragons, with things which aren't even supposed to exist anymore, all I can think about are the dangers here: to me, to Brandon, to the smallfolk, to the children once the realm discovers what they have - “
Aegon pressed a finger to her lips, stilling her voice. “Which is why you must come back to court. If I have men start construction immediately, the dragon pits can be repaired before they become too large to manage.”
“If the Tyrells find out our children woke dragons, especially now that you have legitimized them, I do not wish to think what they will do - “
“They would not - “
“They are as ruthless as the Lannisters, Aegon. They are just better at choosing the winning side.” Shivering despite the heat, Arya murmured, “Legitimized or not, they will always be seen in the eyes of those who support Jessa as bastards. And if I returned to court, you'd constantly hear about how unseemly it is to bring your whore to court.”
“What if I didn't bring my whore?” he challenged. “What if I brought my wife?”
Arya was shocked into silence for several moments before finally choking out, “What?”
“The Targaryen kings of old had multiple wives,” he reminded her, gently pushing a lock of her hair behind her ear. “Your marriage to Renly was dissolved years ago; you are free to wed again. You are the mother of my children, children whose blood is so Valyrian they woke dragons from stone. You belong at my side.” Voice softening, Aegon rested his forehead against her own as he breathed, “Our children belong on the Iron Throne.”
“Your daughters with Jessa come before ours in the line of succession.”
“Not if you are my wife again.”
The weight of Aegon's words began to truly sink in, and Arya understood exactly what was being offered to her, to her children. Jessa would technically be his first wife, the High Queen of Westeros, but this proposal would make Arya a queen as well; children from a legitimate marriage, sons from a legitimate marriage would come before any daughters of any marriage.
Aemon could be king. Brandon could be a knight of his Kingsguard. Rhaenys would have the status and position to wed Rhaego as she wished. Alysanne could make a good marriage with someone kind and gentle. It was everything a woman could want for her children.
And Arya was genuinely stunned to realize she did want it for her children. After seeing the toll the past seven years had on Rhaenys and Aemon especially, Arya wanted them to be recognized for the wonderful, intelligent people they were, wanted Alysanne and Brandon to know what it was like to have two parents. Yes, Jessa Tyrell and her daughters would still exist, and Arya truly did not wish them ill; as much as she personally disliked Jessa, Arya learned long ago how to recognize when a girl was raised to be nothing more than an extension of her family's ambition. As for the little princesses Olenna and Elia, Arya would never wish Aegon's other daughters to be set aside, wanting to spare them the indignity her own children suffered.
“The gods gave our children dragons, Arya,” Aegon continued, his fingers tugging at the ties of her shift. “And dragons belong in King's Landing.”
“You would truly marry me again?”
Arya inhaled sharply as Aegon's hands slipped to the backs of her thighs, lifting her easily as he walked them to the bed. He set her on the center of the mattress, carefully peeling the shift from her body, his fingers ghosting down the front of her body. “I would marry you every day for the rest of my life.”
Robb once playfully accused her of being more of a man than he was, and sometimes Arya liked to believe it so; as much as she loved her big brother, Robb could be foolishly honorable, too blinded by abstracts to understand absolutes. But any ice in her veins always seemed to melt beneath Aegon's familiar touch, and she cursed her inability to be stronger.
She once heard Theon refer to love as “a woman's weakness,” but Arya suspected the weakness of love was not wholly a woman's problem.
“We're not too old, you know,” Aegon said afterward as they lied, sweaty and sated, amongst the tangled sheets.
“Too old for what?”
“More children.” Aegon's hand settled low on her belly, on the softness which would stretch to accommodate a baby. “We could have another, mayhaps even two if we are quick about it.”
“Easy for you to say when it is not your body which will be put through its paces.” Drawing patterns on his broad chest, she reminded him, “I nearly died with Aemon, and Alysanne's birth was no easier. And Brandon was so large, he got stuck.”
“Did he?” Aegon was quiet for a moment, idly carding his fingers through her hair, before venturing, “You know I love him. I love him as surely as I love Aemon or the girls.”
“But I don't want the last child you bear to be Gendry's,” he whispered, and Arya could hear the shame in his voice at the confession. If she was the woman she had been years earlier, she would have raged at his jealousy, but the anger of her youth had been replaced with far more rationality. She understood what Aegon was saying; that did not mean she necessarily liked it.
“That is a poor reason to have a child.”
“You don't want more?”
Sometimes she did. When Brandon was pushing her hands away, insisting he was grown and not a baby any longer, she felt an ache in her breast for how quickly all four of the children grew. But Arya had no want to wed again and her poor parents could not bear the weight of another shameful bastard birth, so Arya thought her childbearing days were over. Other days, however, she wanted to murder the children she did have, all so headstrong and certain they did not need their mother's counsel.
“I think it could be problematic,” she tactfully replied, turning her face up to look at him, hoping he could see the sincerity in her eyes.
There was something youthful and vulnerable to Aegon as he asked, “Do you love him still?”
With a sigh, Arya sat up, unashamed of her nudity. For a moment she struggled to find the words she needed before finally settling on, “There will always be a part of me who loves him. He was the first man I ever loved, the first man to ever...to ever want me.” Seeing the way Aegon flinched, she challenged, “Do you want to hear this or not?”
“Yes,” he begrudgingly replied.
“Sansa was always the perfect daughter: Mother's favorite, the beautiful one, the charming one. All she ever wanted was a handsome prince to marry and to be his princess. Sansa and I have always had a complicated relationship and we may not always like each other, but I did not want to take anything from her.” Arya laughed sardonically. “Of course I failed spectacularly at that.”
“He hated it, being the prince, being the heir; he hated it as much as I hated being sent away to Dorne, sent away to Storm's End. For the longest time, he was my best friend. Sometimes he was my only friend. And when we came back from the Wall, it was just...”
“Comforting. Familiar. And it seemed as if being honorable never got me anywhere anyway, so why not just give in? And I loved him, yes, but it was a love which made me feel guilty and ashamed and...I've lost count of how many people have called me 'the king's whore' since you landed here, but I've never felt as if I was a whore until I slept with my sister's husband.”
“And yet you still love him,” Aegon interpreted.
“How can I not when he gave me Brandon? Would you prefer I hate him, that I vilify everything he is? He isn't a bad man; he is weak and human like the rest of us. We all made choices, good or bad, but I cannot look at Brandon and ever curse what brought him to me, to us.”
Silence stretched between them for an indeterminable period before Aegon declared, “Brandon is our son. I never want him told of Gendry Baratheon's role in our lives.”
“Gendry is nothing to him. Brandon firmly believes you are his father, that he is as Targaryen as his siblings.”
“Good.” Drawing Arya back down against him, he murmured against the crown of her head, “But I still think we are not too old for one more child.”
She chuckled softly, settling into the curve of his arm. “Let us handle the three dragons, four children, and this marriage proposal of yours, and then we will discuss it.”
In the end, there was no discussion. When Aegon, Duck, Haldon, and Daenerys returned to King's Landing, leaving Bran and Ashara on Dragonstone, Arya had already missed her moon blood. By the time the dragon pits were repaired and Aegon sent for them to come to court, Arya's stomach was straining against the fronts of her gowns.
“Are you certain this is what you want to do?” Bran queried the evening before they were to return to King's Landing, his face folded in concentration.
“Which part?” she countered with a smile.
“Any of it.” Bran's Tully blue eyes were clouded with worry as he looked at her, and Arya remembered when he was still slipping through her windows, clambering up the walls of Winterfell with more grace than Arya possessed when she walked. There had been a time when she and Bran were as close as Rhaenys and Aemon; Arya missed that closeness.
“You don't want to be queen,” he reasonably pointed out. “You want Aegon, but you've never wanted a crown. And I know for damned sure you don't want your children growing up in the Keep. I don't understand why you're doing this.”
“Of course you don't.” Arya sighed as the child inside her tumbled restlessly. “I love him. I know everyone has always doubted that, but I do love Aegon. He was the only man I ever chose for myself, and we were so happy once. The children are happier with him around, and they deserve to have a father. Jon told me once that life isn't always about what you want, and, yes, being queen isn't what I want, but if it's what is best for the children...”
“And Jessa Tyrell? How will you handle her?”
“As quietly as I can.” Trying to keep her voice as calm as possible, she lied, “Jessa Tyrell is not my enemy, and her daughters are my children's half-sisters. There is no need for us to be combative.”
Bran smirked. “You honestly believe that?”
“No,” Arya admitted with a frown, “but I need to keep saying it so Rhaenys believes it.”
“Meera has a theory our wolves are a reflection of our personalities.” Bran's small smile became a grin as he quipped, “Mayhaps it's true of your children and their dragons.”
“If that is true, Rhaenys and Balerion may level entire kingdoms.”
“No,” Bran argued gently. “There's rage in her, yes, but all Rhaenys wants is to get back what she lost: her name, her father, her inheritance, her title. And she's not stupid; she knows the Tyrells conspired to remove you as his wife, that they schemed very hard to make sure a Tyrell would inherit the throne. She knows what returning is going to bring.”
“Did she tell you that?”
“Aemon did.” Bran sighed. “He does not want to be king. You know that?”
The baby inside of her kicked hard, making Arya wince. “Yes, he mentioned it, but he did not say whether he plans to abdicate some day.”
“The throne would pass to Brandon then.”
Bran's gaze and words became pointed as he drawled, “And wouldn't that be ironic?”
She ignored the implication of his words; instead she retorted, “Neither of my sons wish to be king. Unless this one is a son, Rhaenys will likely inherit just as she wishes, and she and Rhaego can rule the Seven Kingdoms.”
“I always thought the kingdoms would be better off if we returned to how things were of old, with each realm ruling itself.”
Arya smiled mirthlessly, her hands absently stroking her belly. “As do I.”
It seemed as if all of Westeros was gathered on the streets of King's Landing to see her children and their dragons arrive at court. People gasped and shouted, cried for the Seven and took the knee; Rhaenys and Aemon both rode with Balerion and Meraxes flying alongside them, but Alysanne seemed unsure with the attention, Vhagar remaining perched upon her saddle. Brandon, who shared a mount with Bran, stared at the crowds with wide eyes, and Arya could feel hundreds of eyes falling upon her swollen middle, now much larger than it had ever been with the other children when she was only five moons gone.
“They will never love me,” Arya murmured to Ashara, who rode beside her.
“No,” Ashara easily agreed, “but they will love your children.”
“They will fear my children.”
“Sometimes that is better.”
“You think so?”
Ashara nodded gravely. “I have seen queens and princesses, kings and princes who were loved, and they died easily. Mayhaps a little fear would do the realm good.”
Arya was not sure if she preferred fear to love, but if fear would keep her children alive, she hoped the men and women of the Seven Kingdoms were terrified by them.
Rolly and Haldon met them at the entrance to the Red Keep, both men smiling pleasantly at the children and pressing kisses to Ashara's cheeks. As Bran helped Arya down from her horse, she caught sight of Loras Tyrell standing silently against the wall, his white armor gleaming, and there was something in his eyes which made Arya feel like a child again, like the girl he chastised on the banks of the Vale.
Sometimes Arya feared she would always be the awkward girl who knew she was not as pretty as Sansa, as charming as Robb, as intelligent as Bran, as fearless as Rickon, as honorable as Jon; even with a crown, Arya knew no one would ever respect her. There would be no songs written about good Queen Arya or tales told to maidens about her piety; she would always be the woman who broke her marriage vows, who played mistress to a king, who manipulated a king into naming her bastard as one of his trueborn sons. Stories would be told of Arya Stark, but none of them would be flattering.
This is not your place, Loras Tyrell's eyes seemed to accuse, and Arya wanted to say, I know, but she didn't. Instead she offered him a polite greeting which would have made Catelyn proud.
She repeated the vows the scowling High Septon said in the nearly empty Great Sept, resisting the urge to tug at the clasp of the Targaryen cloak hung upon her shoulders.
She forced kind words to slip past her lips when Jessa Tyrell made biting comments full of innuendo.
She said nothing at all when Viserys baited her.
For the first time in her life, Arya Stark was the very definition of a perfect lady, and she would remain that way until her official coronation, until her children's futures were sealed and no one could deny them what was theirs ever again.
A mother must be willing to do anything for her children.
It was the only lesson Arya ever learned from Cersei Lannister.
“I missed you at supper.”
Arya lolled her head towards the door to her chambers before shifting her cumbersome body to face Aegon. She tried to struggle to a sitting position, bracing herself against the headboard, but Arya sighed in frustration, remaining in repose. “I cannot walk down the stairs.”
Amusement twinkled in Aegon's violet eyes as he perched on the edge of her mattress. He pressed his hand against the huge swell of her belly, the child inside immediately kicking his palm. “Haldon said you were having some discomfort.”
“Discomfort? I am the size of a mammoth, my ankles have swollen to twice their usual size, my back aches constantly, walking to privy exhausts me, and the damned babe isn't set to arrive for another moon!”
Aegon traced the arch of her stomach before venturing, “Haldon says there is a tea he can give you which will bring the baby sooner.”
“I do not want to risk the child. I just...” She pressed her cheek into Aegon's gentle hand. “I have never enjoyed being pregnant. Does that make me a terrible woman?”
“Yes, an absolutely horrible one,” he teased, caressing her cheek, her jaw, the line of her neck. “I cannot believe you do not enjoy sharing your body with a tiny creature who makes you grow fat and achy with every passing moon.”
“How are the children today?”
Aegon urged her onto her side, his hands beginning to firmly knead her back. “Well, Brandon got into a bit of trouble; one of Joffrey's sons said something rude to him, and Brandon split his lip. Alysanne spent the day with Olenna and Elia, and, though I doubt she'll ever admit it, I think Jessa has a soft spot for her. Aemon trained in the yard before studying with Haldon. As for Rhaenys...”
“She spent much of the day in the pits,” Aegon reluctantly provided. “The guards there say she is training Balerion.”
“What sort of training?”
“Apparently she can now get Balerion to breathe fire upon command and...” Aegon sighed, and Arya prepared for whatever was going to come next. “She is teaching him to accept a rider.”
Arya whipped her head around, eyes bulging. “She plans to ride him?”
“I do not know what she plans,” he admitted, the regret and sadness heavy in his voice. “No matter how hard I try, I cannot regain her trust. She speaks to me only when she must. I invited her to have midday meal with me, just the two of us, and she answered questions but nothing more.”
“I think she's just waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
“Waiting to see if she gets to keep this.” Arya inhaled sharply as the baby powerfully kicked her ribs. “Rhaenys never gets to keep anything: her life in Vaes Dothrak, her life with the wildlings, Winterfell, Dragonstone, you. She's careful.”
Arya was not sure why she bristled at the assessment, but she did. “She is not.”
He kissed the nape of her neck, featherlight and moist. “Rhaenys may look like my mother, but whenever I look at her, I see you as you were at Storm's End: angry, guarded, unrepentant, hungry.”
“Hungry for what?”
“For everything.” His lips found the curve of her shoulder, and Arya sighed in pleasure despite herself. “It's what I love the most about you, you know. Other women, they settle, they come to terms with things, they let their fathers and their husbands choose for them, but you...You do not rest until you get what you want.”
“That sounds like a horrible way to be.”
Aegon chuckled, one hand carefully cupping her tender breast, his thumb gently tripping over her hardening nipple. “No, it's wonderful. You're the strongest person I've ever known, and, if our daughters have to be like anyone, I am glad it is you.”
She smiled as she twisted her head to look at him. “You know I am far too big to fuck you, yes?”
“Yes, my love.” He kissed her for a long moment before whispering, “I just want to sleep here with you. Is that alright?”
Arya never slept easily, but sleep came even harder for this pregnancy. There was no position she could find comfort in, no way to ease the constant ache of her body; as Aegon slumbered peacefully beside her, Arya twisted and turned, trying to find even passing relief but nothing came. Finally, she lurched her way to her feet, her lower back screaming from the added weight of her belly, and stumbled to the window seat, staring out at King's Landing.
There were few men out at so late an hour and those who were looked to be drunk, returning from gambling and whoring. In the distance, she could make out the ships bobbing in port, and the sounds of dragons were audible even from across the hills. The child inside of her turned and flipped, and, as Arya grasped her stomach, she felt wetness between her thighs. Reaching beneath her shift, her fingers came away with blood and fluid, and Arya felt a fission of panic start in her chest.
It's too soon. “Aegon! Aegon, wake up!”
Everything began to happen so fast, Arya was scarcely prepared. Aegon immediately sent for Haldon and Maester Marwyn, helping Arya into bed as labor pains began to rip through her middle. Soon both maesters, Daenerys, Ashara, and Rhaenys were in her chamber, Ashara and Daenerys helping Arya out of her shift, Rhaenys grasping her mother's hand even as the blood seemed to drain from her daughter's face. Under different circumstances Arya would have laughed; she had seen Rhaenys draw blood on any number of boys in the training yards, but something like birth was obviously scaring her.
“When you were born,” Arya panted, squeezing Rhaenys's hand, “I labored for two days. I was certain I was going to die. This is how it goes.”
Rhaenys swallowed before murmuring, “You almost died birthing Aemon. You slept for so long.”
Arya shouted as a strong pain tore through her, and Ashara began to mop at Arya's brow with a cool cloth. When the pain passed, she gasped, “If something happens to me, you will look after your siblings. Promise me.”
“I promise,” Rhaenys breathed, looking so much younger than her fourteen years. “I promise, Mother. I will care for them.”
She did not know how long she labored before the baby finally slipped from her body, shrieking with the indignation of being ripped from the womb. Arya lifted her head, trying to see the baby, when another powerful contraction struck. As she cried out, Maester Marwyn returned his attention to her, leaving Haldon to tend the baby. Rhaenys and Ashara both were demanding answers when Marwyn declared, “There's another baby!”
This one came easier, entering the world with a few mewling cries rather than screams. Arya could barely focus her eyes, so bleary from pain and exhaustion; Rhaenys's grip on her hand did not budge, and, for a moment, Arya closed her eyes, trying to relax as Marwyn handed the bloody baby to Daenerys.
“They are small but healthy,” Haldon reported as Marwyn disposed of the afterbirth, one of the newborns cradled in his arms while Daenerys cradled the other.
“What are they?” Arya rasped, wincing as Ashara and Rhaenys helped her to rest against the headboard.
“A boy and a girl, Your Grace,” Daenerys answered with a kind smile. “The boy was hiding the girl. She's a bit smaller than he is.”
Her arms trembled as Daenerys and Haldon gave her the babies, but Arya resolutely held them, staring down into their little faces. The boy looked as Aemon had, silver-haired and violet-eyed, a Targaryen prince through and through; he was the one with the powerful lungs, the one who continued to fuss. It was the girl who surprised her, the silent bundle who weighed next to nothing; her newborn daughter stared up at her with Tully blue eyes, a light dusting of auburn hair upon her head, her bow mouth pursed as if in contemplation.
“She looks like Grandmother Catelyn.”
“She looks like Sansa,” Arya corrected in a choked whisper, pressing kisses to the tops of both babies' heads.
When Aegon entered the chamber a few hours later, when Arya and the babies were rested, the bedding cleaned, Arya took one look at his wide grin and teasingly chastised, “Do not look so satisfied with yourself.”
“Twins,” was all he said, his grin stretching even further across his cheeks as Aemon, Alysanne, and Brandon filed in behind him.
“What are we going to name them?” Alysanne queried as she carefully cradled the girl baby, Rhaenys keeping a careful hand beneath the baby's back for added support.
Arya and Aegon smiled at each other at Alysanne's proprietary tone; these babies belonged to all of them.
“What do you think we should name them?” Aegon countered, carding his fingers through Arya's hair as she leaned against him.
Aemon, who held the boy, said, “I think he should be Daeron.”
“Then she should be Daena,” Rhaenys chimed in, smiling down at her baby sister with an expression of tenderness Arya had not seen on her face for years.
In that moment, with her husband cradling her in his arms, their children all around them, Arya felt a more complete happiness than she ever had in her life.
The letter came a month after the twins were born, a month during which Arya remained abed while she healed. She was half out of her mind when Ashara came to share midday meal, the parchment in one hand. Arya instantly smiled upon seeing her, grateful for the company, but her smile faltered upon seeing the expression on Ashara's face.
“What is it? Are the babies - “
“The babies are fine,” Ashara rushed to assure her, taking a seat in the chair beside her bed. Looking down at the parchment, she said, “A letter has arrived for you from Casterly Rock.”
Arya's heart stopped for a moment before managing, “From my sister?”
“I do not know, Your Grace. I have not broken the seal.” Her face darkened before entreating, “Do not read it, Arya. Whether it is from Sansa or her husband, do not read it. It will only bring you trouble.”
She took the letter, studying the handwriting on the front; it was not Sansa's flowery script but a bold hand, a man's hand. For a moment Arya considered doing exactly what Ashara asked, casting the letter into the fire and being done with it. But if the letter was from Sansa, transcribed to a maester, Arya wanted to hear what her sister wanted; if the letter was from Gendry, Arya did not know what she wanted.
Bracing herself, Arya broke the seal and immediately found her heart in her throat.
I write to you now, not only as a loyal subject of King Aegon VI, but as your good-brother. Though it has been many years since we have spoken, I hope you will hear this request and understand it is meant with kindness for my lady wife, your dear sister.
Since the death of our son Aeron and the loss of our boy in the womb, my wife has been stricken with sadness. She has never taken to the Westerlands, and I fear Casterly Rock, the scene of our greatest losses, only saddens her further. The last time I saw Sansa truly at peace, she was at court in King's Landing. It is also the place where my daughters, now women-grown, were happy as well.
I most desperately request that Your Grace, in her infinite kindness, will take on your sister as a companion at court and my daughters as your ladies. I understand your kingly husband holds no love for me, and I would not ask his forgiveness by being allowed to return to court. If you will grant my wife and daughters to come, I will remain in Casterly Rock, continuing to serve as the Warden of the West, a faithful servant to the Iron Throne.
I thank you for considering my request. Congratulations on the birth of Prince Daeron and Princess Daena. As always, I pray to the gods, old and new, for the continued health and well-being of you and your children.
With gracious thanks,
Lord Gendry Baratheon
Lord of Casterlyn Rock, Shield of Lannisport, Warden of the West
“It is not from your sister, is it?” Ashara asked, her face thick with knowing.
“Gendry asks that I take my nieces on as ladies in my service and have Sansa as a companion. He will remain in the West if Aegon agrees as he...is not welcome here.” Arya set the letter down, hating how her hand trembled, hating even more how formal the letter read, as if she was not his oldest friend, as if she had not bore his son.
“Should I summon Haldon to send a reply?”
Arya shook her head. “No, I need to speak to Aegon first.” She laughed mirthlessly, and Arya was embarrassed to find her eyes wet with an emotion she could not identify. “She hates me, you know.”
“I am sure that is not true.”
“No, it is.” She wiped at the tears on her cheeks but, to her frustration, they continued to come. “Even before...She said she did not think she could ever forgive me for what I did. And then...And then the gods took both of her sons. Sansa did everything she was ever supposed to do, and she lost her sons while I got to have three. How is that fair?”
“You lost three babes of your own,” Ashara reminded her, brushing her hair back from her face as if she was still a child, “and you, of all people, know how unfair life can be. Good people suffer and bad people prosper, and there is no rhyme or reason. I do not know your sister well, but I cannot imagine, from all I have heard, that Lady Sansa would wish ill upon your children.”
And then something broke inside of Arya, and she was sobbing, her entire body shaking with the force of her emotions. “I loved him so much,” she wept, wrapping her arms around Ashara as the older woman held her. “He was meant to be mine, and I ruined everything!”
Ashara shushed her, rocking her back and forth, and Arya clung to her, the same desperate, clawing pain of her youth clutching at her heart. She did not know why she was reacting this way; she did not for a second doubt the depth of her love for Aegon and the children they made together. But Gendry was always in her heart, her head, her dreams and nightmares, and, what was more, with every passing day, he was present in Brandon. Stark look or not, Targaryen name or not, her son was a Baratheon through-and-through; it vexed her to no end how a boy who had never met the man who fathered him could be so much like him.
“Breathe, child,” Ashara urged, kissing her brow. “It will be alright.”
“I just want it to stop hurting.”
“It never will,” she stated with authority. “For the rest of your life, when you see him, think of him, or hear from him, you will ache with all the things which could have been. And it does not mean you love your husband less or favor his child over the others. It is a woman's burden, and we all bear it in some way.”
Fighting to compose herself, Arya managed, “Do you feel this way towards my father?”
“Every day, my queen.” She kissed Arya's brow again. “I think of how much we loved each other once. I think of Allyria and how I longed to raise her alongside your lord father, who wished to wed me. Sometimes I even imagine you are the other child I should have had with Ned Stark. Imaginings can be a comfort when you need them to be so long as they remain imaginings.”
“I love Aegon with all of my heart, I swear I do. He makes me happy, and he loves our children better than most fathers do. But knowing all of that, how can I still, after all this time, mourn Gendry?”
“Because love does not make sense. Even the maesters of the Citadel know that.”
At supper, when Aegon came to her chambers to dine, Arya said nothing, handing him the letter and patiently waiting for a reaction. She had no doubt that the moment the raven from Casterly Rock arrived in the rookery, Varys knew of its presence, a presence he likely made known to Jessa and her men. There were never any secrets in the Keep, even less amongst kings and queens, but, with the arrival of Daeron and no child swelling in Jessa's belly, the Tyrells were seeing the Iron Throne slip further and further away from Highgarden. They needed a scandal, and Arya was determined to deprive them of one this time.
“Do you wish for Sansa to come to court?”
“If that is what she wants.”
“Your nieces, they might have a positive influence on the girls? They were quite polite if I remember correctly.”
“Yes, Sansa made sure they were the epitomes of ladylike behavior.”
Aegon sighed, setting down the parchment and studying her face. Finally he asked the question Arya knew he wanted to ask in the first place. “Do you want him to come?”
“I want peace. His presence would not bring that.”
He snickered with an arch of his eyebrow. “Careful, Arya. You are starting to speak in the non-answers of a queen.”
Huffing at his words, Arya snapped, “Then here is an answer which will be suitably clear for you: I think it is hypocritical to ban a man from court when you also keep him as your Warden in the West. You do not trust him in your castle but you entrust the Westerlands to him, lands which provide you with healthy incomes and would be integral in defenses. If you were smart, you would never had dismissed him from the small council and replaced him with Garlan Tyrell, and furthermore, if you were truly smart, you would know he is the best friend you've ever had in the Seven Kingdoms.”
She saw fire start to blaze in her husband's eyes. “My best friend? That is what you call a man who bedded my wife?”
“He helped you hold the realm even after you stripped him of his crown, put his grandfather and uncle to death, and imprisoned his mother. In case you've forgotten, you were not quite so beloved when you first landed, and you would not have had such an easy transition if not for him.”
“Then I am to forget what happened between you two?”
“No, you are to remember what it was like then, how desperately unhappy we all were. All of us erred then, and if I can face Jessa Tyrell every day and call her my sister-wife, surely you can grant a bit of kindness to a man so he does not have to send his wife and children away while he rots in the Rock.”
He sighed, rubbing his face tiredly. “I fear if I see Gendry Baratheon again, I will punch him squarely in the face.”
“You think I do not wish to do the same to Jessa every time I see her? The only satisfaction I get is knowing I have sons and she does not.” She managed a smile, trying to jape. “You've turned me into a silly woman.”
Aegon scoffed. “You? If I had a hundred men like you, I could conquer any land I chose.”
She reached out, gently cupping his cheek. “I have given you five beautiful children and married you twice. You love Brandon as surely as you love Aemon or Daeron. There are no more reasons to hate.”
“I shall have Haldon send word to Casterly Rock inviting the Lord and Lady Baratheon as well as their daughters to court.” For a moment Arya thought the subject was done, reaching for her wine, when Aegon gently caught her wrist, drawing her attention. “Brandon is my son.”
“I do not want him to ever know otherwise.”
You do not want him to love Gendry as he loves you.
Arya agreed, knowing it was what needed to be said if she wanted to see Sansa and her girls, if she wanted to begin to undo the damage she caused eight years earlier.
Enough years as a lord's wife had taught Arya how to lie very well.
Alysanne doted upon her baby brother and sister, constantly underfoot in the nursery, slipping away from Septa Maeve in order to tend to them. Always the sweetest of Arya's children, she could not fault Alysanne for bringing cheer to the nursery, showering Daeron and Daena with kisses and songs; Aegon teasingly referred to her as “the little mother,” a nickname which began to stick throughout the castle.
It was by accident Arya found Alysanne, Olenna, and Elia in the nursery, staring down into the cradles at the sleeping babes. She froze as she saw Jessa waiting patiently in a bright, yellow gown, looking far more beautiful than Arya ever had; of all the accusations Arya wished to level at Jessa Tyrell, to call her ugly would never be one of them.
“They are beautiful babies,” Jessa offered, her voice devoid of inflection.
“I know what joy his children bring to our king.” Finally her voice broke as she said, “And a son is a great blessing on our house.”
For the first time Arya truly looked at Jessa Tyrell. Instead of the scheming, ambitious girl she usually saw, Arya glimpsed what she suspected was the true Jessa: still young, undoubtedly pressured by her father and grandfather to produce a male heir, High Queen in name but well-known to not be the preferred wife of the king. Arya now realized just how much younger Jessa was in comparison to herself and Aegon and how untried she likely was in matters of the heart.
She was barely older than Rhaenys when Mace brought her to court to put in Aegon's path. What sort of a man trades his blood away like a bloody horse?
“You will have sons,” Arya found herself saying.
“Mayhaps,” Jessa allowed, and there was something hard in her eyes then as she turned them upon Arya, looking her square in the face for the first time since they first met. “But even if I bear him a dozen healthy boys, he will still love yours more.” Bitterness and disgust twisted her pretty features then, her next words killing Arya's goodwill towards the younger woman. “Even your bastard will have a place before my sons.”
“All of my sons belong to the king,” Arya gritted out, trying to maintain a calm demeanor as Alysanne and her half-sisters continued to cluck over the babies.
“As bedding kings is your specialty, I am certain that is true. Rightful kings, usurpers who call themselves kings, you have a talent for ensnaring both alike. Had I your talent, I would not be sharing my husband and my title, and my House would not curse me for being unable to hold attention.” Casting an eye towards the children, Jessa turned to face Arya fully, her face as fierce as her uncle Loras's when he jousted. “I underestimated you.”
“They say you are more man than woman, more warrior than lady. Everyone speaks of how well-behaved you are now, but the memory of your past deeds lingers still.”
“No doubt encouraged by House Tyrell.”
“I thought you were a stupid, savage slut,” Jessa murmured plainly, smiling pleasantly so as not to disturb the children, “the sort of woman who pays no mind to honor and beds her sister's husband wantonly. But, as I said, I underestimated you. You kept your belly full of dragon, used your pretty daughter to seal the Dothraki to your cause, had your little stag worship the king right into legitimization, and then, as if that was not enough, brought dragons back to court. Why, Tywin Lannister himself could not have hatched a better scheme.”
“How dare you - “
“I dare because I am still High Queen,” Jessa rushed on, “and my daughters have just as much right to this world as yours. I am not your sister; I do not hand over what is mine and bite my tongue. My daughters are legitimate princesses of the Iron Throne, and no one will ever be able to dispute that. Mayhaps I have not supped with wildlings and ridden with a khalasar, but make no mistake: I will fight as fiercely for my children's rights as you have done for yours.”
“I do not wish to deprive Aegon's daughters of anything.”
“Your very presence does that.” She shook her head, wrinkling her face distastefully. “You think me a fool, a pretty but useless flower, but I am not. I know he prefers you, in his bed and in his life; he respects you and your opinions on the realm. I am younger and prettier, but it is you he gets more children on, you he positions at his right hand. All I am is the wife he cannot be rid of, as it would cost him my family's wealth and strength. I am the pity of the Seven Kingdoms.”
Arya looked at her for a moment before coldly retorting, “What would you have me say?”
“I have no want or need for your words, Lady Stark, but you will have mine.” Jessa leaned forward, her face mere inches from Arya's as she hissed, “My children have as much dragon's blood in their veins as yours do, and succession can be a tricky business.”
Rage boiling deep in Arya's chest, she retorted, “Then I suppose the dragons will have to dance some day.”
Across the room, Jessa's daughters played with Arya's daughters, as happy and peaceful as any sisters could be.
“Why are you so nervous?”
Arya lifted her eyes to look at Brandon's face, her hands still working on tucking his undershirt into his breeches. She knew he was too old for this and could certainly do it himself, but, as usual, Brandon would not listen to Septa Maeve, requiring Arya's intervention.
“What makes you think I am nervous?”
Brandon lifted his hand, pressing his index finger to the furrow between her brow, stroking gently as if to soothe it. The gesture made Arya melt, catching Brandon's wrist and pressing a kiss to his palm. He stooped slightly, resting his forehead against hers, and he whispered, “I'll protect you, Mother.”
Tears sprung to her eyes as she pulled Brandon tightly against her, cradling him as if he was as small as Daeron. She loved all of her children, but, even now, Arya still viewed Brandon as wholly hers. Since arriving in King's Landing, Brandon was never far from Aegon, always wanting to run and spar with the other boys before chasing after his “father,” but at night, he still wanted Arya to tuck him in, still required Arya's touch to gentle him.
“My love for you is deeper than the sea. Did you know that?”
Brandon nodded solemnly before burying his warm face into her neck. She inhaled the scent of him – soap from his bath, sweat from the rising heat, the lingering whisper of the North – and held him a bit tighter as a tear slipped loose from the corner of her eye. Somewhere in the Keep, Sansa, Gendry, and their daughters roamed, having arrived around midday. Arya wanted to go to Sansa, to speak to her in private, but Ashara urged her to wait until everyone was rested, until they would all sup together.
In less than an hour's time, Gendry would look upon his son for the first time, and Arya was absolutely terrified.
“Mother?” Brandon ventured as she helped him into his newest surcoat, a bright red velvet lined in black.
“Yes, my love?”
“You look very pretty today.”
Arya smiled, glancing down at the purple silk of her gown, carefully tailored to emphasize the roundness of her breasts and camouflage the weight she had yet to shed from her hips and stomach following the birth of the twins. With her hair pinned and curled, tumbling over her shoulders in a dark waterfall, Arya felt beautiful, and she tried to convince herself it had nothing to do with Gendry.
“And you are a handsome, little prince.”
Brandon's face clouded for a moment, mouth twisting as if unsure whether or not to speak. Finally he said, “Tywin says I am not a true prince.”
Arya did not particularly care for any of Joffrey's sons, but Tywin, who was only a few years older than Brandon, was known through King's Landing for being a brutish, spoiled boy. “Tywin is an idiot.”
His serious expression did not falter as he continued, “Tywin says Father isn't really my father, and everybody knows it. He says you lied.”
“Is that why you split his lip two moons ago?”
Brandon nodded. “He called you a bad name.”
“People do that sometimes.”
His small fingers tangling in the long, gold chain she wore, he whispered, “I am not a dragon.”
She could not bring herself to lie, not then. Cupping his face, staring into the eyes so much like her own, she whispered in reply, “You are my brave, strong wolf.”
Brandon was quiet for a moment, fingering the heavy amethyst which hung from the chain, before asking, “Can I still call Father 'father'?”
“Of course.” Pressing a final kiss to his forehead, Arya rose, taking Brandon's hand. “Will you escort me to supper?”
Brandon grinned, wide and happy, and Arya tried not to flinch at how much he looked like his true father. “Yes, Mother.”
He was never a chatterer, her Brandon; though not as taciturn as Aemon, Brandon never felt the need to fill the silences. It was one of the many traits Arya shared with him, an appreciation for quiet. As they approached the dining hall, Brandon seemed to sense her increasing anxiety, squeezing her hand in a playful, syncopated rhythm, and his giggle when she responded in kind lessened some of the weight on her shoulders.
Whipping her head around, Arya's heart stopped as she found her sister's family approaching the hall.
Elinor, Rose, and Alisa all had Sansa's auburn hair, though Alisa's was darker; all were tall and porcelain skinned, and Arya found it hard to believe none were betrothed yet. Whereas Elinor and Alisa sank into polite curtsies, Rose stepped forward and embraced Arya, making her smile; Arya did not like the constant reminders of her new station in life, and curtsies still only served to embarrass her.
Sansa was as beautiful as Arya remembered her to be, though there was sadness in her blue eyes now, small lines bracketing her mouth and eyes; they were all getting older now, no longer children, and Sansa was as dignified as their lady mother in that moment. Her smile, soft and small as it was, made Arya's chest puff with hope, and she grinned in reply, unable to school her face.
It was a struggle not to stare at Gendry, who held Sansa's elbow with a blank expression. He was still as tall and barrel-chested as he had been years earlier, still impossibly handsome even with half of his face obscured by a dark, well-kept beard. His eyes shone brightly as he took in the sight of Arya and Brandon, and it was only when Brandon smiled at his aunt and uncle that Arya saw something subtly break in Gendry's expression, his eyes closing briefly before slipping back into a stony mask.
“Look how big you have all gotten,” Arya forced herself to chirp pleasantly. “I hardly recognized the lot of you!”
“You look different as well,” Elinor offered, her voice prim but a hint of acid beneath the words.
“She is the queen now,” Brandon volunteered helpfully, drawing the eye of all in the corridor, “so she has to wear fancy gowns, not like at Winterfell.” Smiling up at Elinor, he asked, “Have you ever been to Winterfell?”
Despite herself, Elinor returned the smile. “Not since I was your age. Is Old Nan still there?”
Brandon nodded immediately, his smile becoming a full-blown grin. “She tells me stories about the other Brandons and Mother when she was young. My father promised we could go visit when Rickard gets married. Mayhaps you can come with us!”
Arya laughed, ruffling his hair as she suggested, “You may want to introduce yourself to everyone first, my love.”
Remembering his manners, he recited just as Septa Maeve taught him, “I am Brandon of House Targaryen, Prince of Summer...Summer...”
“Summerhall,” Arya supplied.
“Prince of Summerhall,” Brandon finished, shaking the long fringe of his hair from his eyes. “I welcome you to King's Landing on behalf of King Aegon, the Sixth of his Name.”
“A polite boy indeed,” Sansa softly said with a slightly pained smile. “I am your aunt Sansa, this is your uncle Gendry, and your cousins Elinor, Rose, and Alisa. We are of Casterly Rock.”
Brandon turned his eyes upon Gendry, studying him, and Arya felt her stomach twist in panic before Brandon finally said, “You used to be the king.”
“In another life, yes.”
“What are you now?”
Before Gendry could reply, Bran entered the corridor, greeting everyone heartily, and the awkwardness of the initial meeting was over as they filed into the dining hall. As her children and Sansa's laughed and told stories of the Westerlands and Winterfell, traded descriptions of lions and dragons, Arya almost convinced herself everything could be as it once was.
Then she caught Gendry stealing glances at Brandon, and Arya remembered just how uncertain this situation was.
It was an old habit, sneaking down to the kitchens for wine and sweets in the dead of night. Except, of course, now that she was queen, it was significantly harder to sneak, especially with a member of the Kingsguard at her door. Tonight it was Ser Daemon Sand, Arya's favorite guard after Rolly, the only one who would laugh and jape with her, the one who permitted her a bit more freedom than the rest. He took one look at her in a pair of Aegon's breeches and a soft tunic, her hair unbound, and quipped, “There is the Lady of Starfall I remember so well.”
“Shut up,” she replied good-naturedly, leading him through the darkened corridors.
She piled Daemon's arms high with a loaf of bread, blackberry preserves, and a jar of candied nuts before grabbing two skins of Dornish strongwine. The great hall was cavernous with only two people in it, making Arya shiver as she and Daemon sat at one of the long tables.
“I am not to drink while I am guarding you,” Daemon reminded her as she poured two cups.
Sliding one of the cups to him, she countered, “I shall not tell the Lord Commander if you do not.”
They drank and nibbled upon the sweets, Arya asking questions about Godsgrace and his last visit to Dorne, when they heard voices approaching. Daemon got to his feet, his hand falling to the hilt of his sword, but Arya did not move, draining her cup and pouring another. Her limbs were starting to loosen from the strength of the wine, an indulgence she had not partaken in since her last reign as queen, and, in the three days since Sansa and Gendry arrived at court, all Arya wanted and needed was to relax.
Despite her best efforts, she had not been able to secure any length of time with Sansa in private. Almost immediately Jessa and Margaery claimed her for their little court, and, whenever Arya approached her big sister, she made some excuse as to why she could not talk. Not wanting to push the issue, Arya resigned herself to seeing Sansa only at meals.
She made certain her path never crossed with Gendry's.
The doors to the hall opened, and Arya was genuinely surprised to see Aegon, Gendry, and Rolly entering. Even through the fog of wine, Arya could see Aegon's bottom lip was split and there was a purple bruise forming around Gendry's left eye, and it made her scoff in disbelief.
“Did you two fight?”
Both of the men started at the shrill sound of her voice, clearly not expecting to find her getting drunk in the great hall, but Aegon recovered first, smoothly correcting, “We had a discussion.”
“With your fists?”
Gendry ducked his head as if embarrassed but Aegon only laughed, taking a seat at the table and grabbing one of the skins. Ser Daemon remained standing, at attention alongside Rolly, both of the armored men silent against the wall, and Gendry took his seat, carefully filling Daemon's abandoned cup with the strongwine.
“I do not know why you prefer this to wine from the Arbor,” Aegon remarked.
“I suppose I have never learned to appreciate what the Reach offers as much as you, Your Grace,” Arya drawled, eliciting a small smile from Rolly. “Besides, I like all things Dornish. A holdover from my time there, I'm sure.”
“You never much speak of your time there.”
Arya shrugged. “I haven't much to tell. I rode horses, danced, lost three babes, and utterly puzzled my poor husband, Gods rest his soul.” She drained her cup again, taking the skin from Gendry to refill it. “You'd have liked Ned.”
“He was a good man,” Gendry softly agreed, and, for a moment, Arya was little more than a child again, stripped nearly nude by court with Gendry saving her from grasping hands, presenting to her to sweet Ned Dayne. “He deserved better than the end he received.”
“He deserved better in many respects.” Swirling the wine about her cup, she leveled her gaze upon Gendry. “How is your mother?”
Confusion and surprise shone in his eyes, but Gendry answered, “She is as well as she ever is. Sansa keeps her contact with the girls limited, and she fights with Tyrion as often as possible, but I am certain Cersei Lannister will live to be 200-years-old if bitterness and anger can sustain a person.” His voice faltered as he added, “She was never the same after Jaime was beheaded.”
“I liked Ser Jaime,” Arya pronounced, using the title Aegon stripped from the Kingslayer before putting him to death for the murder of his grandfather. “When the court came to Winterfell, he found me stick fighting with Bran and told me I was a natural with a sword.”
“He liked you as well. He told me once, if Robb had half the balls you did, your brother could declare himself King in the North and rule half the realm.”
“A treasonous thing to suggest,” Aegon pointed out mildly.
“Considering you executed my uncle for treason, you can hardly be surprised.”
“It was different in Robert's court,” Arya said, the edges of her words starting to slur from the wine. “You do not know, for you were not here, but Robert was not concerned with treason, so he was kinder about things.”
“My court is not kind?”
“Your uncle is a mad man,” she proclaimed with a wave of her hand, “who likes to terrorize people for his own pleasure. Mace Tyrell and his passel of sons put themselves before the realm, and the people bear no love for rich men concerned with making themselves richer. Baelish is a lech who plays upon men's insecurities like Aemon plays his harp, and Varys...Well, the gods only know where his loyalties lie. Any man in the realm I would trust stays far from your court, which is what makes it unkind.”
Aegon exhaled sharply with a mirthless chuckle. “And I thought you were honest when you were sober.”
“If you want pretty words, go find Jessa. I'm sure she'll stroke your...ego as much as you'd like.”
A bark of laughter escaped Gendry before he could catch it, and then they were all laughing, the strangest mixture of light and sadness. Gendry's broad shoulders bounced as Aegon's eyes closed with the force of his laughter, and, for a few moments, Arya felt like the girl she used to be, the one who laughed more than she cried, who talked more than she plotted. It was an odd feeling, the sense of comfort which came with being in the presence of the two men who knew her best.
When the laughter tapered off, Aegon declared, “We are behaving as fools.”
“When haven't we?” Arya countered, pouring another cup of wine.
A week into their stay at court, Arya entered the twins' nursery to find Sansa standing near one of the windows with Daeron in her arms, smiling down into his small face with such tenderness it brought tears to Arya's eyes. She was unsure how long she stood in the doorway watching her sister and her son, but, when Sansa noticed her, she turned as red as her hair.
“Their nurse required the privy - “
“You needn't explain.”
Sansa's gaze dropped back to Daeron, who was slumbering soundly. “They are beautiful babies. The girl is so small, she seems a doll, but this little prince will rule everyone.” Her chin began to tremble as she murmured, “When Aeron was born, I made him a beautiful blanket for his blessing ceremony. Mayhaps I could make one for Daeron as well?”
“I would like that,” Arya managed, her voice breaking as she recalled her poor nephew. “I was always hopeless with embroidery.”
Sansa looked up from Daeron, tears now coursing down her cheeks. “You always seem to best me. Queen, a half-dozen children, a husband who adores you...I have been measured and found wanting, it would seem.”
“I would have been a good queen, fair and just. I would not have been like Cersei; I'd have helped Gendry make a kinder realm.” Her tears fell harder now. “My son would have been an excellent king.”
Sansa crossed the room, placing Daeron back in his cradle, wiping resolutely at her cheeks. Composing herself, she rasped, “I see so much of both of you in him.”
“He is purely Aegon - “
“I did not mean the baby.” Tucking an errant lock of auburn hair behind her ear, Sansa confessed, “When my son was born without breath in his lungs, I hated you so fiercely. I hated your son so fiercely. Why should you get to have a healthy boy when I did not? And then, when the sickness took Aeron, I was certain I was being punished.”
“For wishing ill on Brandon. For wishing ill on you. For...For going to Queen Cersei all those years ago and begging her to help me make sure Gendry would not put me aside for you.” Sansa's tears returned as she declared, “I did not consider either of you when I went to the queen. All I could think about was being given to Joffrey, and he is...You do not know, Arya. You do not know what sort of cruelties he's capable of, even back then. There was a serving girl...I would have sold you to the Stranger if it meant I did not have to be Joffrey's bride.”
Arya said nothing, recognizing that Sansa was purging herself of years' worth of regret and pain.
“I tried so hard to be a good wife to Gendry and love him as Mother said I would grow to do, but there has never been passion between us. Even at our best, we were only friends who shared a bed when duty required it. I always knew he longed for you, and he always knew I longed for another as well.”
“Who?” Arya blurted out, so genuinely startled by the revelation, she could not contain herself.
Sansa smiled wanly in amusement, a flush of pride in her cheeks. “You always thought me so dull, you could not imagine me having secrets of my own, could you?” Using the back of her hand to brush away tears, she evaded, “He was a man in service to House Lannister, far too low-born to ever become anything more than a trusted friend, but I loved him dearly. Mayhaps if I had your courage...”
Trying to think of the Lannister men at court when they were younger, Arya nearly missed her sister's next words.
“He wrote you letters after Brandon was born, and I stole them from the rookery like a common thief. I was so angry and jealous...” Meeting Arya's gaze, desperation shining in her wet eyes, Sansa admitted, “He wanted to claim Brandon as his son and have him fostered at Storm's End with Renly. I could hardly get him to speak to me, and there he was, writing pages upon pages to you, begging for the chance to be a father to your son, calling you his 'dearest love,' and I - “ Springing forward, clasping Arya's hands in hers, she pleaded, “Do not hate me. I was not well then, I was half-mad from grief and still furious over the affair, and I did not want to hurt your boy. I swear it the gods, old and new, Arya, I did not mean to hurt your son.”
It was the largest role reversal of Arya's life, listening to Sansa beg her for forgiveness. And finally, when Arya found her voice, she was surprised to find she was not angry or bitter, not longing for the past or aching for missed opportunities; she was simply tired of fighting.
“The past is the past. I would rather just move forward.”
As she embraced Sansa beside her slumbering babes, Arya prayed for peace.
The problem was, Arya did not think it existed anymore.
Gendry found her a few days after her conversation with Sansa in the nursery, a hint of wildness in his eyes which Arya had not seen since before she wed Renly. She was playing cyvasse with Rhaenys, who was increasingly becoming more irritated at losing, Aemon plucking out a song upon his harp when Gendry entered her solar without knocking; startling both of her children with his brazenness.
“I need to speak with you.”
“Can it wait?”
Arya was acutely aware of Rhaenys's and Aemon's eyes upon her, and she forced herself to remain calm as she asked them to please give her and Gendry privacy. Aemon rose easily, smiling at his uncle, but Rhaenys eyed them both suspiciously as she left, her dark gaze pressing down upon Arya like a weight. When the door closed, leaving them alone, Arya stood, walking away from the cyvasse board and crossing to the window, needing to focus her attention anywhere but on Gendry.
“Sansa told you about the letters,” Arya guessed, watching as Brandon and Alysanne frolicked in the gardens with Olenna and Elia under Septa Maeve's watchful eye.
The amount of tension in one word made Arya's spine stiffen at what was to come next. “Gendry...”
“Did you know you were pregnant before you left court?”
“No, we were halfway to Winterfell before I realized what was happening.” Smiling as she watched Brandon shimmy up an apple tree out of the septa's grasp, she added, “He's my Northern boy.”
For several minutes Gendry was quiet, and Arya almost thought he was going to leave; she was not sure if she wanted him to do so or not. Eventually he managed, “Why did you let Aegon claim him when you know he is mine?”
Bristling, Arya turned, glaring at him. “Because he isn't yours! Because he can never be yours! Did you think letters would change that? Did you think you could send a raven and it would make everything better?”
“Of course not! What we did wasn't right, I know that, but that does not change - “
“What did they say?” she challenged. “You tell me what was in those letters which would have made any difference at all!”
There was true anger in his face now, the infamous Baratheon temper making its appearance, and Arya gasped when he crossed the room, seizing her by the shoulders. “No, nothing ever makes a difference with you, does it? You make all the choices, to all seven hells with the rest of us!”
“Let go of me,” she spat, trying to push him away only to gasp as she found herself pressed against the wall, her arms pinned against her side, Gendry's chest flush against hers. Arya could feel every inch of his body against hers, but there was nothing sexual about it; for the first time in her life, she was genuinely afraid of Gendry.
Breathing hard, jaw tightly clenched, Gendry glared at her for a moment before the anger seemed to drain from his body. Arya inhaled sharply as he rested his forehead against the wall beside her head, her body instinctively forming to his. “We made him,” Gendry sighed against her ear, his warm breath making her shiver. “You and I, we created Brandon out of nothing, and that...”
She ducked beneath his arm, slipping away, needing the space before she did something stupid and reckless. Fidgeting with her gown, Arya mumbled, “He needed a father. Aegon loves him, and I thought...” Voicing cracking with long-buried hurt, she sputtered, “I did what I had to do!”
“He's my son,” Gendry said, his voice so broken, Arya could not bring herself to look at him. “I wanted to be his father. I wanted you.”
“You can't have me,” she softly argued. “And would you rather have Brandon know the truth, that his parents are selfish, adulterous oathbreakers, that his birth was a shame upon both of our houses?”
Gendry pinned her with his watery blue gaze, stealing her breath. “I suppose that has always been the difference between us, Arya. I have never been ashamed of loving you.”
For hours after he left her solar, Arya sat and pondered the true reasons for her shame.
The last person Arya expected to find tending to the twins was Rhaenys. Dressed in a pair of soft leather pants and a painted vest, her eldest child could easily have passed for Dothraki, especially with the lingering scent of horse upon her clothing. Arya knew Rhaenys spent the morning riding with Rhaego and Daenerys, a bit of information relayed to her by Jessa, whose judgmental tone made it perfectly obvious what she thought about a princess behaving so wildly. She was fairly certain a responsible mother would have told her daughter she needed to begin to conduct herself as a princess should, but riding horses was certainly preferable to riding dragons, so Arya did not voice her concerns.
Daena was cradled in Rhaenys's arms, and Arya paused in the doorway, smiling at the sound of Rhaenys softly singing in the Old Tongue; Arya recognized it as the lullaby Dalla and Val used to sing to Alysanne when she was an infant, and, as it always was when Arya thought of their time at the Wall, she found herself missing the wildlings and especially Jon Snow.
“You have a beautiful voice.”
Rhaenys jerked in surprise, jostling Daena and causing her to fuss for a moment, before regaining her composure. “You shouldn't sneak. It's unseemly in a queen.”
Arya smirked as she crossed to the cradles, lifting a smiling Daeron into her arms. “Hardly the most unseemly thing I have ever done. And it does not change what I said: you have a beautiful voice.”
“Aemon is not the only one of us with talent, you know,” Rhaenys playfully teased, but Arya could hear the undercurrent of stung pride within the words.
“Do you think I believe Aemon is the only one with talent?”
“He is your favorite,” Rhaenys answered matter-of-factly, transferring Daena to her other arm, “and always has been. Aemon is talented, Alysanne is friendly, Brandon is spirited, and I am the troublemaker.”
“That's not what I think.”
“It isn't,” Arya calmly insisted. “You and Aemon have different talents. Aemon's talents run towards music and histories, but you are more skilled at languages and weapons. And Aemon is not my favorite.” She grinned mischievously. “Obviously I prefer Alysanne.”
Rhaenys laughed in surprise, her voice high and light, and it made Arya laugh as well; she could not remember the last time she and Rhaenys had just sat and laughed together. When the laughter tapered off, Rhaenys turned her dark eyes upon Arya and said, “Before the war, I remember how much you used to laugh. Even at the Wall, you laughed. You don't laugh so much anymore.”
“Neither do you,” Arya countered.
Rhaenys was quiet for a long beat, staring down into Daena's face, before confessing, “I thought everything would be better when we came back here. From the time we were declared bastards, all I could think about was getting back here, getting back what was ours. I thought legitimization...waking the dragons...I thought it would matter.”
“And now you think it doesn't?”
“I do not know.” Rhaenys clenched her jaw, frustration evident in her features, before managing, “I will never be queen; three brothers saw to that. I cannot be a maester or a septon; I cannot be a knight or take the black. All I can be is a lord's wife, popping out children as my husband wishes and pretending as if I have the slightest interest in managing a household. There is no place for a woman like me in the world.”
Arya felt a peculiar tightness in her throat as she recalled having once had a similar conversation with her father. “You are Aemon's dearest friend. He would find a place for you on the small council - “
“I do not want a place found for me. I want a place of my own, something no man can ever taken away from me.” There was something achingly vulnerable in her face as she implored, “Surely you, of all people, understand that.”
“I do,” Arya confirmed, gently untangling Daeron's fist from her hair.
“Viserys wants to marry me off to some Greyjoy of Pyke to find the Iron Islands to the throne,” Rhaenys revealed. “The only reason the council is not pushing the issue is because of Balerion. They fear what would happen if I was not here to tend him or if I set him loose.”
“Your father will never force a marriage upon you.”
Tears now glistened in Rhaenys's eyes. “But he will not grant me the marriage I want either. Haven't you heard?” When Arya shook her head, Rhaenys managed, “Rhaego is to wed Elinor Baratheon and become the Lord of Casterly Rock.”
“Nothing is to be gained from a marriage between Rhaego and myself,” she recited, and Arya knew she was repeating the words of whoever told her of the betrothal. “The Iron Throne requires a better hold in the Westerlands, and the Lannisters are the richest family in the Kingdoms. Rhaego will become Warden of the West when Elinor inherits.” Usually so unflappable, Rhaenys broke completely as she sobbed, “Father promised to make me a fine marriage with a gentle, honorable man.”
Arya rose immediately, setting Daeron in his cradle, lifting Daena from Rhaenys's arms to set her alongside her twin, and then enfolded Rhaenys in her arms. She could not recall ever seeing her daughter so forlorn, her heartbreak so evident it made Arya cry along with her. Rhaenys's hands clutched at Arya's gown, burying her face in her mother's lap, and Arya rocked her as if she was as small as her infant siblings.
“Why can I never have anything I want?” Rhaenys whimpered, sounding impossibly young.
It took hours before Rhaenys significantly calmed, Arya tucking her away in her chambers, whispering promises to her. By the time Rhaenys fell asleep, exhausted from her sorrow, Arya was nearly blind with rage towards Aegon and his council, and she refused to play the polite queen any longer.
She found Aegon in the small council meeting room, Gendry, Viserys, Mace Tyrell, Garlan Tyrell, Varys, Petyr Baelish, Haldon, Daenerys, and Rhaego seated around the table, and Arya hated each and every one of them in that moment.
Pinning Aegon with her glare, she demanded, “How could you do this to Rhaenys?”
“Arya,” Aegon began, a hint of nervousness in his eyes.
“You have utterly destroyed her, and for what, gold?”
“This is not your concern,” Viserys began, and Arya whirled so quickly, she saw both the prince and Lord Baelish recoil in surprise.
“If you ever presume to tell me what is and is not my concern in regards to my children, I will make good on the promise I made you in Pentos, do you understand?” Turning her attention to Rhaego, she asked, “How could you agree to this? After all the promises you made her, after all you have been through with her, how could you agree to this betrothal?”
Rhaego said nothing, a look of shame so fierce upon his features, he was nearly crimson.
“No one is seeking to hurt Rhaenys,” Gendry offered softly. “That is not why the contract was made.”
“What a comfort that will be to her,” she spat sarcastically, returning her gaze to Aegon. Softening her tone, she pronounced, “You have broken your daughter's heart. I hope all the gold in Casterly Rock was worth it.”
“Arya!” Aegon called after her, but Arya did not stop, heading immediately to the rookery, finding Maester Marwyn tending to the ravens. She grabbed a few pieces of parchment, scribbling out quick notes, sealing them with a direwolf rather than a dragon.
“I need you to send this one to Maester Samwell Tarly at the Citadel, this one to Mance Rayder on the Gift, this one to Allyria Dayne of Starfall, and this one to Lord Renly at Storm's End. You are not to tell anyone of these letters, and, when replies come, they are to be brought directly to me. Can I trust you with this, Maester Marwyn?”
The maester nodded immediately. “My first loyalties are always to you and your children, Your Grace. You can trust me.”
Arya was not sure if that was true.
She was about to find out.
It took nearly a fortnight for the responses to arrive at the Red Keep, a fortnight of Rhaenys's shadowed eyes, Aemon's seething anger at Rhaego, and confusion from Alysanne and Brandon. Arya found herself unable to even look at Aegon, so sickened by his betrayal, and even Sansa seemed disgusted by the way her daughter had been turned into the source of Rhaenys's sorrow. If anyone knew what it was like to be stripped of your autonomy and used a piece in the game of thrones, it was Sansa and Arya Stark.
She gave the letters from her friends to the flames, transforming the words into smoke.
Another fortnight was required to make the necessary arrangements, to use gold to buy passage, to use the threat of dragons to ensure silence. Only when everything was in place did Arya gather her four eldest children in the godswood, away from prying eyes and Varys's little birds; Nymeria prowled between the trees, better than any posted guard. She would go to Bran and Ashara later, tell them what she had done and what she would ask of them, but that was not for now.
When she was ten, Arya learned to play cyvasse from one of her father's bannermen. She watched the men play before one of the Glovers finally taught her, teaching her so well she won an entire purse from one of the Karstark boys before they left Winterfell. Even now, Arya remembered well what the most important lessons of the game were.
“You never try to strike until all your pieces are in place,” Whoresbane Umber told her, drinking heavily from a mug of beer, “and, no matter what, you always protect your dragons.”
Arya was not well-skilled at the game of thrones, but she was unbeatable at cyvasse.
“Something is wrong,” Alysanne predicted as she and Brandon sat upon a large exposed root, her nose wrinkling in anticipated distaste.
“Not precisely,” Arya corrected, aware of how closely she was being watched by Rhaenys and Aemon. “I wanted us to have a family meeting.”
“Then where's Father?”
“Father isn't coming.”
Alysanne's face fell. “Is he sending us away again?”
“No, your father is not sending you away.” Arya sighed, sinking to the ground, unconcerned with dirtying her gown. Rhaenys smiled as she did the same, but Aemon remained standing, leaning with a casual grace against the trunk of a tree. “Our lives have changed a great deal in the past two years, for better and for worse. Your whole lives, everything has been in a constant state of change, and that is my fault, your father's fault. I had hoped we could have peace here.”
“We were not built for peace,” Rhaenys stated.
“You were not built for war either.” Tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, Arya admitted, “I never wanted this life for any of you. Princes and princesses, their lives are not songs; I thought I could spare you from unhappy truths, but none of you are children, not anymore.” Looking them all in the eye, Arya proclaimed, “You all deserve lives you wish to lead, not lives which are chosen for you.”
“What's going on, Mother?” Aemon asked.
“You all are leaving King's Landing tonight.”
Immediately they began to protest, but Arya held up her hands, silencing them. Taking a deep breath, she explained, “You have done nothing wrong, and your father wishes to keep you all at court. This is not being done because of anything other than my choices.”
“Have we been bad?” Brandon queried, his lower lip quivering.
“No, my love, you have been wonderful, but...You wish to be a knight, yes? You want to be Ser Brandon the Brave?” Brandon nodded immediately. “Well, before you can a knight, first you must be a page and then a squire. Lord Renly of Storm's End is going to take you into his service.”
“We aren't going to the same place?” Alysanne asked, a frantic edge to her usually calm voice. It was only then Arya realized her children had never been separated, not once in all their lives.
“You are going to go to Starfall with Grandmother Ashara,” Arya assured her, quick to let Alysanne know she would not be alone. “Lady Allyria and her daughters are very excited to host you, and you will love Dorne.”
“What about Vhagar?”
“He'll stay here for now, but, when you are a bit older, we can see.”
“And where will we go?”
“You will go to the Citadel to earn your chain; Maester Sam of the Night's Watch is forging more links there, and you will serve as his apprentice. Afterward, if you wish to take the black, your uncle Jon will be happy to have you.”
Aemon's quiet smile said more than any words ever could.
“What becomes of me then?” Rhaenys inquired.
Arya reached over, taking her hand and squeezing it tightly. “I am sending you somewhere a woman can be equal to a man and make her own way. Does that sound like something you would be interested in?”
Rhaenys grinned. “I suppose I can stomach it.”
“You are going North.”
“Back to Winterfell?” she asked, confused.
“To the Gift.” As realization dawned in Rhaenys's eyes, Arya confirmed, “Mance would never turn away a good spearwife.”
“I will not go without Balerion.”
She was silent for a moment before neutrally reporting, “The pit guards say Balerion fights against his chains harder than Meraxes and Vhagar. Chains...They can become so fragile. And I have even heard whispers that Balerion is large and strong enough that he could carry a rider...if someone was skilled enough to ride, of course.”
“Of course,” Rhaenys echoed with a slight nod of her head.
“What about you and the babies?” Alysanne murmured. “Where will you be?”
“We'll stay here.” Motioning both Alysanne and Brandon forward, embracing them tightly against her chest, she pressed kisses to the crowns of their heads, tears starting to swell. “And we will come to visit, and you will visit us as well. We'll write letters, and think of how many adventures you will have.”
“But why can we not tell Father we're going?” Brandon murmured.
“Because sometimes we have to do things for ourselves, like when we were at Winterfell.”
“You remember, Brandon,” Rhaenys chimed in. “We protect the pack.”
“Isn't Father our pack?”
“No,” Aemon answered, surprising Arya with the steadiness of his voice, how much like a man-grown he appeared to be. “Your pack are the ones who are always there for you, who protect you. Father is the king, and he owes his loyalty to everyone; our loyalties are only to each other.”
“Only each other?” Brandon echoed.
Aemon clasped Brandon's shoulder firmly, and Arya was startled to see how old they both looked in that moment. “Only each other.”
Arya explained the rest quickly: they could not pack much, must now say goodbyes to anyone, should carry on as if it was a regular day. Only Alysanne looked wholly unsure, and Arya remained with her in the godswood while the others went to pack their things.
“You do not want to go?”
Alysanne's grey eyes were wide and wet with tears as she whimpered, “I do not want to go without you.”
Bending down so she was eye-level with Alysanne, she whispered, “If I tell you one of my most deepest secrets, will you keep it?” Alysanne nodded, sniffling. “Allyria Dayne is more than just my friend; she is my half-sister. Grandfather Ned is her father as well.”
“Really and truly,” she swore, wiping at Alysanne's cheek. “So whenever you miss me so much you cannot bear it, all you have to do is give Allyria the strongest hug you can, and it will be like you are hugging me.”
“But what will you do when you miss me?”
“I will visit Vhagar and make certain he is doing well in your absence.”
“You're scared of Vhagar.”
Cupping her face, Arya vowed, “For you, my girl, I can face any fear.”
Alysanne slipped her arms around Arya before breathing softly in her ear, “Bad things are coming.”
“I know,” she whispered in reply, squeezing her tightly.
Aemon left first, hiding his silver hair beneath a hood. He said his goodbyes to Alysanne and Brandon in their chambers, but Rhaenys saw him to the stables, where Marwyn was waiting. Arya watched as Rhaenys and Aemon clung to each other, both of them crying unashamedly, and, when they pulled apart just far enough to brush their mouths together, Arya though of Aemon, sick at the Wall, and how Rhaenys kissed him in defiance of Sam's warnings of disease, wanting to make sure her beloved brother knew he was still loved.
Their voices were so hushed, Arya could not make out their words, but both were crying in earnest, clasping each other with the sort of desperation Arya recalled from her own pained parting from Jon all those years ago.
Finally, resolutely, Aemon stepped back towards his horse, smiling weakly at both Rhaenys and Arya. “I will write often. And I will visit when I can.”
Both Rhaenys and Arya watched as Aemon disappeared down the road, and Arya irrationally worried he may not have packed his harp, the only thing which seemed to give him pleasure lately.
Alysanne left next, lower lip quivering as she clung to Rhaenys and Brandon, Ashara gently unwinding her hands from Arya's cloak. It was only after Brandon gave her his wooden sword and Rhaenys tucked one of her jeweled hairpins into Alysanne's locks that Alysanne finally boarded the ship which would take her to Dorne.
“Allyria and I will take wonderful care of her,” Ashara vowed, and Arya nodded, embracing her surrogate mother with a desperation nearly as strong as Alysanne's.
“I have no doubt.”
When Alysanne's ship was out of sight, it was time for Brandon and Bran to board the black sailed ship which would carry them to Storm's End. Unlike his older sister, Brandon did not cry, but Arya could easily read the anxiety all over his face. As Brandon assured both Arya and Rhaenys he would be brave and mind Lord Renly, Rhaenys knelt before him, unfolding his small hand and placing the silver direwolf pin gifted to her by Robb in his palm.
“What are our words?” she murmured.
“Winter is coming.”
“House Stark and House Baratheon have always been the closest of friends.” Arya's throat tightened as the full weigh of Rhaenys's words hit her squarely in the chest. “You shall be the pride of both.”
Brandon beamed beneath his sister's words, but he positively exploded in excitement when Arya removed the small sword from beneath her cloak, carefully wrapped in fur, tucked away for nearly ten years but carefully preserved for this day.
“When I was nine, your uncle Jon went to the Wall, and he gave me this before he left. He had Mikken make it for me, and I had to keep it secret since ladies are not supposed to fight with swords. It's called Needle.” Carefully placing the pommel in Brandon's hand, she said, “This is a bravo's blade, not a greatsword. It's designed for speed, not strength.”
“I'm fast and strong,” Brandon reminded her, eying Needle with absolute awe.
“But that means nothing without control.” Turning Needle so it was tucked into his belt, she ordered, “Take your lessons in the Stormlands very seriously, and you will be the grandest knight the Seven Kingdoms has ever known.”
As Brandon promised to do so, bravely walking alongside Bran onto the ship which once carried his mother and siblings from the Vale to the Wall, Arya softly asked Rhaenys, “How long have you known?”
“'The stag is rutting with the wolf.'” She shrugged. “I didn't understand it then, but...I've heard things over the years, and I put it together.” Arya was caught off-guard when Rhaenys leaned forward, hugging her tightly. “Thank you.”
“For letting me choose.” Rhaenys pulled back, and, for the first time, Arya saw herself in Rhaenys's black curls and brown eyes. “You were right, you know.”
“When Maester Aemon died, I told you everything would be alright when we saw Father again. And you said to me, 'Your father is no more magical than I am, Rhaenys. No one can fix what the gods broke.'” The confusion must have shown on Arya's face for Rhaenys explained, “The gods made us women, and no one can fix that. Princess or not, dragon or not, at the end of the day, all I will ever be is a useless daughter.”
“Aegon does not think you useless. Before you were ever born, he said you would be a warrior greater than Queen Nymeria.”
“And I will,” Rhaenys stated, “but not here, not for the Iron Throne.” The resolution on her face faltered as Rhaenys's hand rose to play with the dragon pendant she never took off, the one her father slipped over her head when she was still little more than a babe. “He loves the realm more than he loves us.”
“No,” Arya began to argue, but Rhaenys rushed on, not waiting for confirmation or denial.
“He will never find the balance. He - “ Her voice broke but she quickly recomposed herself, gritting out, “Mayhaps it will be different for Daeron and Daena. They will not know anything but this; they will be prepared. I thought this was all I ever wanted.”
“And now it isn't?”
“Ser Jorah once told me wanting can be a dangerous thing. And I think he is right.”
“Why is that?”
“When has wanting ever brought us anything good?” Holding her head high, her eyes focused on the Red Keep rising before them, Rhaenys announced, “Wanting is for men, for weak and greedy lords and princes. They can have their wanting. The wildlings have the right of it anyway.”
“The right of it?”
“They take: land, riches, husbands. When they desire something, they try to make it theirs, and, if they fail, they failed fighting and, if they succeed, it is truly theirs. So I can walk through fire and ride a dragon, so my father is the king; what good is it? The man I love will still wed my cousin, the throne which should be mine will pass to one of my brothers, and I will always be what the smallfolk whisper about: too bold, too crass, too foreign. This is not the life I was promised, but this is also not the realm I was promised.” Twisting her face to look at Arya, she said, “My blood may be that of the dragon, but the North is in my bones.”
Voice hoarse with emotion, Arya choked out, “You should ride to the pits alone.”
Rhaenys nodded in understanding, a smirk upon her lips. “The next time you see me, I shall be Queen of the Wildlings.”
“And a wonderful queen you will be.”
Arya managed to make it into the Holdfast before completely breaking down, sobbing so hard she sank to the floor, unable to catch her breath. By the time the shouts began to rise in the air, the screams of “dragon” echoing from every direction, Arya was not sure she had the strength to stand, to face what she had done.
But she was a Stark of Winterfell, so she simply carried on.
Aegon came to her a few hours after Rhaenys escaped on Balerion's back, sending the entire countryside into a panic. Arya sat primply on her windowsill, staring out into the dark at the Blackwater, and did not turn when he entered, did not turn when he asked in a pained voice, “Where are our children?”
“Daeron and Daena are in the nursery.”
“Our other children.”
She finally turned, her face deliberately flat. “I sent them away.”
Pure bemusement bloomed on Aegon's handsome face. “Why? Why would you - “
“Because I do not want them to be like us. I want them to be happy and have a chance at living ordinary lives away from this snake pit.” Rising, forcing herself not to flinch from the violet eyes blazing with suppressed rage, she explained, “I only agreed to go to Dragonstone because I thought it was what was best for the children; they all missed you so fiercely. And when the dragons hatched, I agreed to wed you so it would protect them. When the twins were born, I was absolutely certain everything would be wonderful now, but it wasn't.”
“Because Rhaego is going to marry Elinor?” he scoffed. “He is far too old for Rhaenys anyway - “
“It isn't solely about the betrothal, though it is certainly plays a part.” Arya threw up her hands. “She loves him, Aegon. They have been planning their wedding for the gods know how long; I am certain she gave her maidenhead to him, and you conspired to marry him off to her cousin. Princess or not, what man is going to want another man's leavings? Better yet: why should our daughter have to settle for a man she does not passionately want? Why can she not have chosen her husband the way we chose each other?”
“We need a firm alliance with Casterly Rock - “
“You traded your daughter's happiness for the realm,” she cut in, “and you opened my eyes to what I was doing to the children.” Rushing on as Aegon opened his mouth to protest, Arya stated, “Rhaenys was born to lead men in battle and in peace, but you wanted to put her in a gown and let her rot. Aemon does not want to be a king; he wants to be a maester. Alysanne has such a gentle heart, she was constantly being weighted down by the treacheries here. And Brandon...Well, you know what is said about Brandon just as I know that no highborn lord was going to take him on as a page or a squire, not when he is not a true prince.” Grasping Aegon's hands, she entreated, “Don't you see? We were wrong. They were wrong. Their blood may be that of kings and queens, but that is not what they want. Daeron and Daena, we can raise them here, raise them to be a lord and lady, but - “
“How could you do this without consulting me? To do it in secret, to smuggle our children from King's Landing...How can I forgive you?”
“I did not do it to hurt you. I did it for our children, to give them happier lives than we have lead.” Reaching up, cupping his cheek, she stated, “You know things are not how we planned them to be. Sacrifices have to be made, and I will not let our children be those sacrifices any longer.”
“I have never - “
“Rhaego's betrothal was the first; you sacrificed Rhaenys for Casterly Rock. What would come next? Every day we get further and further from the people we wanted to be, and I will not let the children suffer for it. They've known other, happier lives; I just wish to give them that again.”
“They would never agree to that. The legitimization, the line of succession, Rhaenys and Aemon fought for it - “
“And they learned the price is too high!” Arya sagged in exhaustion, murmuring, “The price is always too high.”
Aegon said nothing, staring at her for an indeterminable time, before pronouncing, “Until I receive word of our children's safe arrivals to wherever you have sent them, you are confined to your rooms. Someone must be present when you visit the twins.”
As he turned to leave, Arya said his name, stilling him for a moment. She recoiled at the anger and disgust on his face, the overwhelming sense of betrayal radiating from his every pore.
“I have nothing else to say to you, Arya.”
Aegon would never come to her room again.
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