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The Logistics of Good Living (ASOIAF, Brandon Stark SI)

Chapter II.4: Burned Wedding Crashers Make for Stringy Crow Food (The Warrior)

Karmic Acumen

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Chapter II.4: Burned Wedding Crashers Make for Stringy Crow Food

"-. THE WARRIOR .-"

Women, thought Robert Baratheon, were like the rain: slick, loud and wet where you most and least liked it.

Alyssa Waynwood was a daddy's girl and then some, which meant she wasn't shy about speaking her mind. Or bewailing her mind, as it were. Being a lady among ladies meant she'd bear her duty to her family and husband-to-be with a straight back and demure smile, but it didn't mean she'd be doing that any sooner than she had to, and don't you forget it. She also had a vindictive streak to fit the Grey King himself, so whoever she decided was to blame for her latest woes most certainly didn't get to forget it. In this case, the one to blame was the one that got away. Unfortunately for his great and magnificent self, that was Robert.

Not so unfortunately, Ned was such a saint that he needn't but plant himself in their path and it didn't matter how many or angry the rampaging she-demons. Robert didn't even have to get on his knees to beg for it! The very soul of goodness, that Ned, Robert vowed to not let him catch even a hint of the gloating vindication he'd resolved to throw in Alyssa's face the whole trip.

So of course that when they did finally set out, it rained cats and dogs.

Robert blew at the water pouring down his nose and glared at the sights around him. Which were barely anything, even absent of mist. Where was the sun? The warmth? The wind in his hair, the vista of green fields, the blue sky, the Vale of Arryn bathed in the noon's light amidst verdant woods and snowcapped mountains, where was the glorious nostalgia of parting from the land of his youth, dammit!?

Tap-Tap-Tap came from next to him, because of course the sound would ring clearly even over the hollow rain spatter against his armor.

Robert glared at the smug face of Alyssa Waynwood smirking at him. He wanted to whip the water off his cloak right in her face, but she was on the other side of the awfully clear northern glass that had oh so conveniently been built in the wheelhouse windows. He glared even harder when she pulled the curtain in his face. He wished he could spur his horse ahead, but he'd outright demanded of Elys to be treated like the man he was so he couldn't just leave his place in formation because mountain clans, don't you know. A pox on nature! And he didn't even get a shoulder to cry on because Ned had 'bravely' consented to be indoor sentry against nature's oh so fearful wrath, damn him!

No he wasn't jealous, what a crazy idea!

The plight of ages poured down for days as the Bloody Gate fell further and further behind them, a moody fortress to go with the moody land of thick black mud, wide and murky rivers, and hundreds of small lakes that looked like the black spots of a poxy… well, that thing that the immaculate and virginal turned into when you plowed them with a whip and wet truncheon. Robert tried to be glad on the farmers' behalf. The Vale prided itself in the wheat and corn and barley that grew high in its fields, and pumpkins that were no smaller nor the fruit any less sweet than in Highgarden. But then he remembered that it might actually be a bad thing for the crops too. It was getting to that time when grain wasn't quite ready to harvest, but the seed was getting loose in the ear. A bad enough rain could ruin the whole harvest, and this was a big one. It wasn't the worst turn that the Vale could take with war on the horizon, but it was up there. Plowed right and proper and then some.

They soon began ascending the Mountains of the Moon, so Robert now had to suffer through having to look up into heavy droplets every time he needed to take in his surroundings. They had reached the eastern end of the valley, where the road began its winding ascent to the high crests a mile or more above. The peaks had always looked tall and sheltering from the Eyrie's highest rise, but now they seemed more like the walls of a dam, such were the torrents they had to trudge through. The Vale was narrow here, no more than a half day's ride across, and the northern mountains seemed so close that Robert could almost reach out and touch them. He could still see the jagged peak of the Giant's Lance every other turn, that mountain that even the other mountains looked up to, its head lost in icy mists three and a half miles above the valley floor. But Robert no longer felt like it loomed above him, and he could no longer make out the ghost torrent of Alyssa's Tears either. The shining silver thread that that flowed from the Giant's Lance's massive western shoulder no longer glinted against the dark stone.

And now he was sounding like Ned even in his own head. Which was fine for anyone else, but Robert would be Robert his way or no way, thank you very much!

"It's a day's ride to reach the top," Ser Morton Waynwood told him, Elys' grandnephew. The Knight of Ironoaks had offered to show Robert the ropes on his first escort mission, which of course meant Elys had 'secretly' tasked him to be his minder. Robert was too sullen and wet to care about that slight at the moment. "Usually it's less, but the wheelhouse will slow us down some. Better buckle up for the long haul."

"Right," Robert grumbled as the man spurred on ahead, then he pounded hard on the wheelhouse wall. "Oy Ned!"

The window opened. "What?"

"Fuck you."

"No thanks, I'm well sorted."

"Very well sorted," said Aly's airhead of honour number three as she pulled Ned back and shut the window in Robert's face.

Fuck you too! But he didn't say that aloud because Aly would come out to sneer at him that he was too little too late, and then Robert would have to defend his own honour because there was nothing little about him, thank you very much, only he wouldn't be able to go and prove it proper because he didn't drop his drawers for no dame that took it as an insult that he didn't dishonour her willy nilly, evil woman.

The window opened again. "By the way, my lord, you ought to cover your head," Aly said with a genuineness so fake that Robert's teeth ached. "You will take a chill."

"It's only water, Lady Bracken," Robert replied, the perfect picture of knighthood he hadn't earned any more than she had her soon-to-be-name.

Aly glared and slammed the window in his face once more. Robert was sorely tempted to poke her a few more times just so she'd slam the window hard enough to break it. But Ned would surely take the window seat and suffer the brunt of whatever wayward raindrops made it in for the rest of the trip, and he deserved better.

For days they plodded along, first slowly up the mountainside and then through the Mountains of the Moon on the way west. The wheelhouse slowed them down even more than Robert had expected, though it turned out to be less than everyone else had feared.

"We've been lucky so far," Ser Morgarth told him when he and his humongous red nose shared Robert's watch one evening. He was whittling at a block of wood. He really needed a proper bollock knife, that thing looked undersized in his gnarled hands. The wheelhouse had broken an axle right as they'd entered one of those passages where the cliffs rose tall and steep on both sides. The thing made for a mean plug. "There's times when wheels break wholesale one after another and we have to make new ones."

Robert grunted, glaring forward along their path away from the fire, not that it was such a big hit to their night vision with how weakly it sputtered in the rain. He thought he spotted a pair of yellow eyes, but they vanished when Robert glared at them so it couldn't be anything too impressive. Like a squirrel. Or a goat.

The night passed, the rain didn't, the wheelhouse was repaired, and they moved on into the upper mountains. Up there the land was harsh and wild, and the high road little more than a stony track. Robert spent the trip taking in what he could of that poor excuse of a view while the others talked about whatever passed for their glory days. His hair hung wet and heavy, there was always a loose strand stuck to his forehead, and he didn't need to imagine how ragged and wild he must look, even though he still shaved as often as ever. For the first time in his life, Robert Baratheon thought that maybe his father wasn't jesting about how much hard work went into looking as good as he did.

Ned occasionally emerged to ride in the rain with him, which made the torture bearable. But of course the she-demons soured that too and began to interrupt with ever so demure inquiries after Ned's wellbeing whenever their conversation seemed to pick up.

Incidentally, Ned had absolutely no issues to the point of ludicrousness. The more time he spent in the rain, the more the arse looked refreshed.

"This southern rain is soft and warm as a lady's kiss," Ned explained as if he had Robert's own expertise coaxing kisses. "In the North, the rain falls cold and hard, and sometimes at night it turns to ice even in summer years. It's as likely to kill a crop as nurture it, and it sends grown men running for the nearest shelter. We very rarely get rain like this."

Robert thought the rain was cold and dull, because why should it matter that he'd been doing the same conditioning as Ned for years? This was nothing like the storms back home, where the rainfall was as warm as the sea, the raindrops broke on your face from buffeting gales that invigorated the lungs, and cracks of thunder sent the blood pumping in your veins every time lightning turned darkness to light even at midnight and chased away the snarks.

"I imagine they're treasured on the rare occasions they do come then," Aly said from where she rested her chin on her palm at the window, because of course she'd butt in as much as she could instead of letting Robert have his friend to himself. He resolved to ask Elys to rotate the formation more. He wouldn't even need to- "What do northern ladies do?"

Ned paused before answering. "I can tell you what my sister used to do." Robert's ears pricked. Could it be? Was Ned going to share intimate details about his mysterious sister of mystery he was always so evasive about for whatever reason? "I remember Lyanna loved warm rain like this. She would run out into the rain to dance. She'd sing the whole way, and it sounded ridiculous because good luck singing on the move when even bards can't keep a steady note. The rain would fall into her eyes and open mouth, choking her when she turned her face to the sky. We'd laugh at her, my brothers and I, so she'd tackle us into the nearest puddle, or pelt us with mud balls if that didn't work."

Robert watched Ned, riveted, then noticed the fascinated expression on Aly's face and scowled at her. She scowled back.

Ned obliviously continued. "When we were well enough riled, she'd run into the godswood and bounce among the trees, shaking all the drooping branches heavy with moisture in our face as we chased after her, laughing the whole way. Sometimes she would make mud pies and she'd offer them to us, the mud slick and brown between her fingers. Brandon always had a toy or pastry ready to distract her while he 'kept his for later', but I could only pretend to eat them. She was most cross when she realised my deception, which led to more mud fights and unplanned baths in the hot spring. Only Benjen was still young enough to fall for it, loyally accepting Lyanna's entreaties while she served him, giggling. Only the once though. That first time he accepted her 'cakes' he ate so many he was sick for days."

Lyanna sounded downright precious, so why was Ned so reluctant to speak of her compared to his brothers? What, was he trying to keep her and only her to himself? Robert absently blew at his nose drip and looked at him suspiciously. Did... did Ned have a thing? Nah, that was just silly, Ned was too good and pure for something like that.

What Ned wasn't shy about was using the continued downpour as an excuse to escape incoming saddle sores into the unfathomable depths of the she-demon hell, but that was besides the point.

What? It was!

The days plodded on some more. The rain thinned now and then but never stopped. That didn't stop their journey none though. Elys kept them moving in a regular pattern, with periodic changes of the guard, starting as early as he could rouse the ladies, and stopping as late as he could get away with in absence of an actual sun to see by.

"I am soaked straight through," Chett Pudgeface complained when his turn in the rotation landed him next to Robert. "Even my bones are wet. We'll need proper shelter tonight, and some fresh game to make a proper hot meal out of." What use was all that fat if it didn't even keep him warm?

Robert pretended to listen even though he was more focused on other things. The woods pressed close around them, and the steady pattering of rain on plate and leaves was accompanied by the small sucking sounds their horses made as their hooves pulled free of the mud. The sound was annoying, but also reassuring because mud meant level land and less odds of landslides. Robert looked over the heads of everyone else. The path sloped up again. They were traveling along the side of a rather steep mountain face and coming upon another one of those narrow, gravelly gorges between ravines, except this one's cliffsides weren't as steep as those before. That wasn't exactly good news for them though. He asked Chett if there were maybe ways to go around it. When he only got a shrug for his efforts, he rode ahead to ask Elys instead.

"None that aren't likely to invite clan mischief, I imagine." The man scowled at a gulch they had just passed by. "I love the idea of giving the clans a bloody nose as much as the next man, but we're not here for that, and I'm not risking my daughter and the other women."

Robert fell back in position and squinted up through the rain, trying to spot any of those black mountain goats that liked to perch on impossible inclines to chew on devil shrubs. He didn't see any, but he did spot a few nooks he wouldn't have seen without some mountain lion slinking between them.

The caravan didn't reach the ravine that day, but they got close enough to shelter beneath an outcropping in the mountain face, and the evening and night's watch passed peacefully. More peacefully than usual even, because none of them birds came to take shelter near the warmth of their fire and chirp their ears off. The ladies were disappointed that they didn't get to feed the birds for once. Robert resisted the impulse to point out they never managed to get even one to come close enough to eat out of their palm. That would just rile them up, and though he'd normally be all for it, he didn't need certain parts of him to get any bluer after so many days without proper workout.

The weather finally turned into a proper thunderstorm that night. Robert woke up at the hour of ghosts and walked out into the tempest to watching the lightning. He basked in the thunder all the way to morning. By the time it was done, he felt invigorated like he hadn't felt since the start of the trip, even before he changed into dry clothes. Then the rain finally stopped. When dawn broke, it brought the first clear, unobstructed rays of sunlight since they left the Bloody Gate. They played like liquid gold on the lustrous coat of his proud steed. It was a shame to cover him up, but Robert wasn't going to deprive him of armor.

Everyone was put at ease by the sight of the sky finally starting to clear, and so the caravan resumed its trek in good spirits.

Robert watched the rising mists against the backdrop of the gloomy cloud cover that seemed determined not to withdraw without a fight. Here and there he could even see odd, loopy grey wisps rising from the clifftop high above them into the sky, like dregs of smoke from fires freshly quenched.

"That were some mean lightning last night, wasn't it?" Mused Ser Creighton when he saw what Robert was looking at. He was a hedge knight that had won a place in their guard by virtue of not getting knocked silly by Shaggy back at the brawl, unlike the man originally hired on. A big-bellied, ageing man with a, heh, shaggy untrimmed beard the color of old gold that covered his cheeks and chin. "You should be thankful, Lord Robert. That smoke could have been you. Frolicking in the rain, honestly, I don't want to even think about what else you Stormlanders get up to at night."

"What everyone else gets up to but better." Robert dismissed his words, and not because the man had some problem with Ned's homeland for whatever reason, or even because he was slow and prone to idle boasts. Ser Creighton was, however, near-sighted. He wasn't exactly fit to have an opinion on far-off views of any kind. Even now he had to squint to spot what Robert was looking at. Robert waited until the man excused himself to ride with Ser Illifer.

Then he pounded on the wheelhouse door. "Oy Ned!"

The window opened. "Yes?"

"We're walking into an ambush."

Ned did a double-take, then his eyes sharpened. "When, where and how?"

Ned believed him immediately. Robert felt an absurd burst of relief. Then he felt embarassed, he should never have doubted him! He hoped it didn't show on his face as he explained as quickly as he could before the path narrowed too much to do what was really urgent. "I have to tell Elys."

"Go," Ned agreed. "I'll armor up in here."

That distracted the she-demons from asking what they were muttering about and then some, Robert thought sourly as he hastened ahead. But it was a real bother now that they were on the last stretch leading to the gorge. The path was already narrow, and riding around wasn't an option because nature had decided at some point in the past that it made perfect sense for the mother of all gorges to be preceded by a mountain side-road with a steep drop on the side. What even was the name of the devil stream responsible for this travesty? Actually, he didn't care. "Ser Creighton!" Robert called on a whim on the way, because backup would be nice and none of the regulars would listen to him without explanations he didn't have time for. "With me! We're heading the convoy for the next stretch."

"Excuse me? I wasn't told-"

"Bring your friend, and Plump Chett over there, I'll meet you out front!" Robert left them behind before they could challenge him. Either they followed or not, he didn't have time to play herdsman even though moving ahead in the order wasn't getting any easier. The path was so narrow now that two horses barely fit on the main path, and all the carts and wagons had to go in single file. It would make moving and signalling a bitch between convoy elements. Which was bad even without the sharp turn the path made up ahead, disappearing from their line of sight into the ravine proper. By the time he squeezed in place next to Elys, there was no line of sight inside at all.

"Elys."

"Robert," Elys nodded distractedly, gaze focused on the road ahead. "What's on your mind?"

"We've never been less alert than now. The ravine ahead has walls too steep to ride or walk on, but not too steep to slide down. Those wisps above us are smoke, not mist. But I was out in the storm all night and didn't see lightning strike nearby even once." The mountain lion also may or may not be the second skin of someone or other if the Thesaurus was anything to go by, but let's not blurt every crazy idea out at once.

Elys shifted in the saddle but didn't move his gaze. "As it happens," his voice was low, quiet. "The two outriders I sent ahead haven't returned."

Well crap. "We should stop."

"I'd agree, if you hadn't just told me there are clansmen above our heads just waiting to set off a rockslide."

"Well shit," Robert resisted the impulse to look up. "That'll be the plug. The ravine is the killing field. What do we do?"

It was at that point that Sers Creighton and Illifer caught up to them and tattled on Robert for trying to order them around, never mind that he'd obviously done more than try if they were there. Not bringing Chett was clearly a form of rebellion.

"Sers," Elys called, cutting them off just when they began talking over each other. He pulled out an apple and bit on it. "Please give us a moment." He turned back to Robert, speaking lowly. "Why them?"

He wasn't going to order him to safety? Well then. "They're hedge knights. Seasoned ones. And yet still alive. In the Vale."

"Sers, I'm glad you could join us," Elys called, turning back to them. "I was just discussing with Robert here the art of the ambush. Maybe you can give some pointers, given your long experience afield."

Ser Creighton and Ser Illifer very graciously began expounding on just that, missing the hint entirely. Robert didn't hold it against them – Elys had been quite vague, and he himself was tempted to dismiss the idea that any outlaw band would be crazy enough to attack a party as big as theirs. Ser Creighton in particular must have been signing on with large parties for years and not strained his back fighting for it, how else would a vagrant become such a fat fuck? Robert couldn't help thinking over their predicament though. There were three sides to an ambush: the stopper, the killing field, and the plug. The stopper was to stop the target in place. The killing field was the open area where the target didn't have cover and could be prevented from fighting back. The plug was whatever you dropped behind the target to prevent retreat. It looked like they were headed into all three.

"Robert." Elys' eyes were roaming quickly over their assets, but he kept his posture casual. "That horse of yours, does it prance as good as Ned says?"

Was Ned talking himself up now or Robert? "Ned's not one for idle boasts and he'd know best here." Robert's mighty steed was a chestnut-colored Cerwyn-Flint thoroughbred that Ned had given him for his coming of age, incidentally outshining literally everyone else who gave Robert a gift for his sixteenth name day. And probably anything Robert himself would be able to come up with for Ned's coming of age, which was just the worst.

"That's what I thought." Elys tossed the apple core down the mountainside. They neither saw nor heard it hit anything. Guaranteed death if something pushed them over the side, assuming they somehow survived rocks falling on their heads. "There's a village about a day's ride hence. It's not big, but it's easy to find on the main path, has a palisade and ravens. If it's looking bad and I'm downed, that's where you can hunker down and get the word out. If things go foul, don't try to save everyone, just get there and rustle up reinforcements."

Well shit. "Ned's back with Aly and the rest."

"I assumed as much, or he'd be here with you. You conveyed your suspicions?"

"I did."

"Hmm."

That was when the scouts came out of the ravine mouth to wave the all clear, before they disappeared into it again.

"They didn't report in person," Elys said grimly.

Bird calls rose above them, because of course they did.

"You think they were caught," Robert said, because it wasn't a question. "Those were decoys dressed up as them."

"They were good men," Elys growled. "We'll just have to be better. Robert, take point." The man levelled him with a grim, intense gaze. "As the only other person who saw this coming, I'm putting Sers Creighton, Illifer and Morgarth under your command. Use your best judgment."

Robert nodded stiffly and rode forward to the very front of the line, taking his cloak off as casually as he could. He was soon joined by the three, now grim-faced men who were all at least twice his age or older. Their combat endurance was undoubtedly shit, but their grip should still be firm enough, and their weapons were decent. Armor was all patchwork though. A potted doeskin jerkin, a rusted mail, hoods of patched roughspun mantle. Even Ser Morgarth only had breastplate over tattered mail. Robert would have to draw and keep the enemy's attention on himself if they were going to get anywhere.

The turning point approached both faster and slower than he liked. He imagined he could feel the mood of the expedition shift as Elys sent discreet runners up and down the convoy. He wasn't the only one that felt it either. The knights behind him muttered darkly to each other. Beneath him, Robert felt his horse grow anxious with every step they took towards the bend. "Easy, Prancer, these aren't the Swamps of Sadness we're wading into, we'll be fine." That reminded him, he really had to badger Ned into telling him the rest of that story. Unless the story was called The Neverending Story just because it was never finished. It would fit Ned's sense of humor for sure.

"Sers," Robert idly called back without turning around. "Stay close and do as I do."

They reached the bend. Robert put on his helmet. The men put on their helmets. Robert breathed a quiet sigh of relief at them following orders despite seniority. They turned. The caravan creaked its way into the ravine until the wheelhouse was just about inside. The two scouts were riding far ahead, making no move to turn as if the first rule of every ambush was anything other than don't just stand there, do something!

"Hya!" Robert took off like a crossbow bolt.

The scouts spooked.

"Ambush!" Robert roared, his hammer already in his hand. "Spring the trap, cut them down, OURS IS THE FURY!"

Battle cries rose from behind. Bird calls became howls and the yells of savages. Pebbles and rocks bounced off his armor as he swooped upon the two imposters like the storm they'd tried to hide in. They tried to run but were shit riders. He was on them before the boulders even started rumbling down from the scarps around them. The first got a curse half-way through his lips when the warhammer split his skull, then Robert was past them both. The wet thud of the second 'scout' falling was barely heard, but the shouts of his men were much louder and welcome.

"The Vale! The Vale! The Vale and House Arryn!"

Above them, warhorns blared loud enough to muffle the noise of the rockslides at both ends of the ravine. Haroooooo! From above the logs and boulders came sliding down the clansmen themselves. Lean dark men in boiled leather and mismatched armor, faces hidden behind barred half helms. Their gloved hands clutched longswords and lances and sharpened scythes, spiked clubs and daggers, heavy iron mauls and all other manner of weapons. Robert ignored them, his vision narrowing down to the sight of the other end of the ravine, the boulders and trunks rolling down on top of it.

He shot past the collapse with time to spare, and the other three caught up just barely in time to avoid being buried.

"Sound off!"

"Here!" "That was close!" "What in hells are we DOING!?"

"Hunting the snake's head!" Robert flicked up his visor and looked around for precisely one second before he nudged his horse to side-hop the way he learned while playing hammerball – PLINK. The arrow bounced off Robert's cuirass because full plate was a bitch like that and the head wasn't even metal. "Follow the arrows!"

"You're crazy, boy!"

"And so big that I'll draw the eyes of every bowman on the field. On, Prancer! HYA!" He grabbed his pollaxe and shot into the trees.

He didn't see the sentry hidden in the bush before he trampled him on the way to thrusting the pollaxe tip into the bowman that really should have climbed higher up that tree. Three more arrows – PLINK, PLINK, SHINK – exposed three other sentries who barely managed to notch second shots before the knights were on them. Robert dropped his visor, yanked on his reins and spurred Prancer towards the nearest ridge. A clansman jumped onto his back out of nowhere and began stabbing at him with something or other, so Robert shattered his spine with a backswing of his warhammer because he didn't walk around with no short shaft. Arrows started pelting him again then. Squinting through his visor, he spotted them atop a rock up ahead. He charged forward straight at the rock just past them, and when he was about to crash Prancer reared.

Robert hooked his pollaxe under the nearest foot and yanked.

The clansman yelped, fell and broke his neck. The other stared, shocked.

Then ran away.

"I've found the path! Sound off!"

"Here!" Pant. "Almost there!" Wheeze. "I'm – GASP – alive."

"Great. Let's go back!"

"What!?"

But they obeyed, following him back to the stoppered ravine mouth and past it, all the way to Robert being pelted with arrows by another two clansmen guarding the path up to the other side. "Fall back!" They rode back to the ridge before the second minute was even up.

Robert hooked his pollaxe to the saddle and pulled himself out of it by the ledge just enough to peer over. He dropped to the ground. "Clear." He bent over and cupped his hands. "Ser Morgarth first, then Creighton and Illifer."

"What – was – the point?" Creighton panted while Morgarth scrambled up.

"No, it makes sense," Morgarth grunted as he helped hoist his heavy companion. "More – hngh! - lookouts meannnnns the leader's most likely this way."

"That's right." Robert boosted the last man up, then jumped and hoisted himself onto the rock in one smooth tug, manfully ignoring the gape of Ser Illifer who was on one knee, his pointed, narrow face looking up in surprise with his hand still out. "Let's go." Robert rubbed his hammer shaft in preparation of the next fray as he took point. "Lightning rod's calling."

Back in the defile, trumpets sounded. da-DAAA da-DAAA da-DAAAAAAA. Brazen. Defiant.

Not victory.

Robert dashed up the goat path right into a spot of ambush prepared just for him.

"Timett!" Came the hollers, five clansmen jumping from crannies above. "Timett! Timett! Timett!"

Robert went to one knee beneath them, threw them off just as fast and caved two skulls with his hammer before a sword got past his guard. He trapped the blade in the crook of his elbow and the hammer wiped the shocked cunt's dumbfounded look along with half his face in a splatter of blood and bone and brain. The last two just made it back to their feet when the knights caught up from behind.

"Arryn! Arryn! Arryn!"

That's when the second wave charged down the track.

"Timm-ERK!"

Wham.

"THE FURY'S MINE YOU SHITS!"

They lasted just enough to realise how badly their buddies had failed in their attempted ambush.

Two more skirmishes and Robert Baratheon burst onto the clifftop to the sight of one or two score clansmen gaping at his audacity, clustered around a big man in a striped shadowskin cloak armed with a two-handed greatsword. "You look important!"

"… How-when-kill them!" The Old Tongue was so garbled that Robert barely understood him.

The nearest three rushed him, but he'd been charging since before the big man opened his mouth so he shoulder-checked them all at once before they could bring their weapons to bear. He hammered the next two out of the way while they were stumbling over their flying fellows. One tackled him with a roar, so Robert crouched and threw him over the edge mid-step. Noise came from below, shouts in common and Old Tongue, the screams of frightened horses and the crash of metal on metal. A full dozen bullrushed him then, and Robert found himself stopped in his tracks for the first time since the fight started.

Then Creighton, Morgarth and Illifer were there, cutting the men piled on him left and right after having been missed in the ruckus exactly as planned, and Robert exploded from under the mass of bodies, his warhammer already swinging down.

The chieftain managed to sidestep and respond with the first competent riposte Robert had seen all day. Robert parried the greatsword with the haft, missed on the next swing because of the man's better reach, and then he was trading blow for blow on the edge of a precipice where one misstep would mean falling down into the ravine below. The enemy was in his element and the greatsword firm in his grip despite one hand being burned and missing the little finger. But he was weaker, slower, shorter and he faced Robert Baratheon, who'd lived half his life amidst the highest peaks in the world and knew exactly why you didn't bring a sword to a knight fight. The man faltered, the notched blade broke, and Robert caught the largest shard in mid-air and threw it like a spinning top right at the thickest cluster of enemies that were overwhelming Ser Illifer while his warhammer swept forth to-

Haroooooooooooooooooooooooo.

The horncall drowned out the yelps of the clansmen who reflexively ducked out of the way of the thrown blade. It hit a man near the back with the flat side, doing no harm.

Haroooooooooooooooooooooooo!

The horncall came from below, long and loud and as magnificent as thunder in winter.

HarooooooooooooooooooOOOOOO!


It was completely unlike all the others of before, so loud and resounding that Robert felt it down to his bone marrow and everything came to a halt.

"Risna!"

The clansmen who were set to attack again suddenly faltered. The knights took the chance to back away to where Robert now faced the leader of whatever clan this was, clustering back to back. A clan whose chief wore grizzly self-inflicted burns as marks of pride. The Burned Men.

"I invoke Risna!" came from below the voice of Eddard Stark, loud and thunderous as if born aloft by the horncall's echoes.

Robert quickly took in the situation, ignoring the heart pounding in his ears calling for him to finish the job. The convoy below was in terrible shape, wagons torn and burning, men and horses and carts scattered and fallen everywhere. Clansmen were mixed with crownsmen all over, not all of them dead. A few had even made it to the wheelhouse and frozen part-way through dragging one of Alyssa's handmaidens away. There were more clansmen on the clifftop across the ravine from them. There were more than a score of enemies around Robert and his men, and a mountain lion. Atop the wheelhouse, Eddard Stark stood and waited. Across from Robert Baratheon, the chieftain of the Burned Men looked from the three knights to Robert and hesitated.

The moment loomed between them.

Then Elys Waynwood down below collapsed where he stood.

The chieftain's grizzled face shifted to that smirk of misguided self-assurance of someone who'd failed to take in the full length of Robert's hammer shaft. "Shoot-"

Warhammers make mean hooks. "Jump!" The chieftain's eyes bulged as he was dragged over the edge by the scruff.

The ground disappeared. Everyone cried in shock. Even his own men. You'd think they thought Robert hadn't planned for something like this from the very beginning, honestly!

Then the flight turned to a fall and he barely had time to wrap himself around the cunt before they crashed into something and he fell short one hostage because the man barely had armor on worth a damn.

"AH!"

They rolled down the cliffside.

"AH!" "UGH!"

The hard cliffside.

"UGH!" "HN!" "URK!"

The very hard and bumpy cliffside full of rocks and logs and thornbushes.

"AH!" "UGH!" "URK!" "HN!" "OGH!"

They rolled down and down and somehow missed the worst of the rockslide's aftermath before they came to a stop in a mud-blasted pile of limbs, tangled belts, and the sounds of soul-crushing agony as his men slid to a sudden stop against some of the larger chunks of debris all around them.

"Ooooohhhh…" Ser Illifer moaned piteously. "This is the last time I try to keep up with the fucking Warrior."

Robert ignored them and wrapped his arm around the neck of the chieftain who'd come out of the fall largely intact, more's the pity. He looked around. He didn't see Elys. He didn't see Morton. He saw smoke, dust, death and overturned carts while his ears filled with the infuriating noise of good men moaning, the girls sobbing, and Old Tongue battlecries, coarse, harsh and clanging as if they didn't know what a hostage even was and-

HarooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

It was almost like thunder up close. Everything stopped again, and this time no one interrupted Ned when he slowly moved the horn away from his lips, pulled his dagger and threw it over to where Robert held the chieftain of the clan in a lock. Everyone around and above followed its path as the knife flew and buried itself tip-first just short of where they knelt. Robert could practically feel the change in the clansmen upon noticing that their leader was still alive.

And worse.

"I am Eddard. Son of Rickard, the Stark in Winterfell, Lord of the North, Magnar of Winter, Steward of Vows Ancient and New. And I invoke the rite of Hospitality." Ned spoke in Old Tongue. Then in Common. He spoke from above the field of blood and grime, resplendent in his ashen coat of plates and the snowbear cloak that shone like freshly fallen snow in the sunlight. His eyes unerringly sought those of the man in Robert's grasp, cold as ice. "Who here will give me bread and salt?"

… The fucking cunts, they made Ned sully his wedding clothes!

The chieftain tried to pull Robert's arm away – ha! – then reached for the knife on his belt to find Robert's other hand already there. "Fucker," he snarled under his breath, then glared up at Ned. "You think me stupid, boy? Guest right is for peers, but I only see beggars."

"Is that so? Perhaps sharing our fire will change your mind." Ned gestured idly at the burning wagons. "I fear we've no wine to afford, seeing as your rocks broke half the kegs and the rest we need for the wedding, but you're welcome to some of our food and spare horses."

"Our mountain," the man growled, deep and hard and unfriendly. "Our food. Our wine. Our horses."

"I invoked Risna, not offered."

Timett struggled angrily in Robert's hold. The dust was settling , but the smoke continued to rise. Robert still couldn't see Elys or Morton anywhere.

"Don't think you can use the old way against me, boy. What could you possibly offer that's worth guest right to me?"

"Broken limbs," Robert snapped. "A snapped spine, a broken neck. Give me a reason."

"Respite, parlay, amity for a time." Ned hopped down from the wheelhouse, landing on fist and knee before he rose to stride over without a hint of the wreck that must have made of his legs. He stopped just short of his knife, a handful of the surviving guards forming a shield wall around him. "My hostage. Will you claim yourself a worthless offering, Timett Red Hand?"

The bowmen that had been slowly aiming at Ned before he deprived them of a target backed off. There were fewer people watching from above. Retreating or regrouping?

Ned looked to Robert. "Let him stand."

Robert roughly hauled the man to his feet but removed his knife and tightened the arm around his neck.

"… You've a good dog, boy," the madman finally said. "But that's all you have. You've no claim here. You're a stripling, a foreigner, a lowlander far from home. Even if I did offer, guest for you won't bind anyone else. This can only end one way."

The knights and guards had regrouped and seemed to have had their second wind. The numbers weren't in their favour though, and there was still no Waynwood in sight-

"I offer guest right then!" Alyssa Waynwood emerged from the wheelhouse, dress rumpled, sleeve torn and tresses floating wildly in the smoky air. What guards were close enough rushed to form a guard as she glided over with whatever grace she could muster while also struggling no to look around for her fallen father and cousin. "I am Alyssa Waynwood, blood kin to Jon Arryn, ruler of this land. If you can't treat with him, you can treat with me."

The fucking bastard bellowed with laughter. "You? A girl in ruffled skirts? The only thing of yours worth offering is between your legs."

"Then it's blood and death," Ned said before Robert could crush his windpipe, how dare he- "We'll break every wheel, lame every horse, set every cart and keg on fire and make you climb over your own dead. If any scraps are left of your tribe to sift through the remains, they'll find only the murdered kin to kings of two kingdoms, who'll come down upon these mountains with all of our men and our weapons and our horses and none of the respite, parlay and amity we gave the mountain clans up in our mountains. History will remember Timett Red Hand as the first and last fool to have united the First Men and Andals in a blood covenant the likes of which will see these mountains scoured clean in blood and iron once and for all."

And the Stormlands would help along with everyone else because Robert's father was the Hand of the King, but Ned was obviously keeping that in reserve.

"… That's a fine boast, boy," the Burned Man sneered. "So fine that I might just want to see how it goes."

"You won't,' Ned said with iron-clad certainty. "You'll die first."

"Please do say no," Robert snarled. "I already went through you and your best, imagine what I'll do after I break your neck."

Timett elbowed Robert in the gut but only hurt himself. Then he spat on the ground at Alyssa's feet and glared hatefully from her to Ned. "There ain't no pact sworn with Hugor's godless get that Arryn and the rest didn't already shit all over. I wouldn't trust anything tainted with their blood if it were Artys himself returned. No deal."

"A middleman then," Alyssa rasped as if the fucking fuck didn't just call for slaughter all over again. "Ned can have guest right. Yours and mine. Then we'll both be obliged."

"You have no claim-"

"-that isn't contested," Ned broke in sharply as Robert squeezed the man's neck just enough to cut off his air. "Thus a third party whose word is good and true. Unless you're calling me and mine all godless liars and therefore calling for a blood feud with House Stark and all the Masters and Magnars sworn to us. Are you?"

Inside his hold, Timett Red Hand trembled with such fury that Robert was sure the man would have cut his own throat if Robert had been holding a knife.

Robert tensed. Ned glared with ice eyes. Alyssa Waynwood stood with windswept hair and eyes ashine with unshed tears as she still refused to look around for her father and cousin. The crownsmen panted, coughed and waited. The clansmen watched and sneered. None of these cunts deserved Ned's best foot forward.

"… Get me some fucking bread and salt!"

"-. 278 AC .-"

By the time smoke cleared and the mud had dried, Ned had somehow negotiated free passage for everyone including the two girls that had already been carried off when Robert wasn't looking. All in exchange for half the wine, half the food, half the weapons (all of them from the fallen), and the clan's help in clearing the rockslide because otherwise they wouldn't be able to take any of the spare horses (and only those horses). It was a whole talk in Old Tongue that took almost an hour and Robert couldn't follow past the first three minutes.

Now he was back with his trusty steed, going through his things in preparation of going farther off the beaten path than he'd ever been because no way in hell was he going to leave Ned on his own. Which, strangely, had made Ned's job harder because none of the cunts wanted Robert in their midst after everything he'd done.

Everything he'd done. Bah!

Robert didn't bother withholding his sneer of disdain as he watched the enemy argue over their undeserved bounty. He had more important things to do.

Warhammer, pollaxe, mace, flail, morning star, bollock knife, boot knife, shoulder knife, thigh knife, throwing knives, shortbow, arrows, crossbow, bolts, shortsword, longsword, greatsword and the almighty stick, alright. And look at that, his rations and survival kit were still in the saddle bags where he left them too, everything was accounted for. Robert rubbed oil over everything that needed rubbing, then he did the same to the spares while smirking at his all-new minder that had grown increasingly pale during his inventory.

He fastened everything in place and mounted Prancer. "Let's go."

"… Fucking lowlanders." The man turned around and went looking for safety in numbers as fast as his legs could carry him.

Robert glanced at the men as they set off. The clansmen were thin, ragged men, what horses they hadn't just stolen were scrawny and undersized, with every rib showing. What weapons they had were none too impressive either. Mauls, clubs, a scythe. Even Timett, who'd seemed so tall and imposing next to his fellows, was not so big after all. His cloak hung loose on him, and Robert would never forget how badly notched the blade had been, its cheap steel spotted with rust. If it had come down to the knife, their side might just have won after all.

Below and back from where they'd left, a young maiden gave a cry of desolation.

Elys was dead then. At least Morton had been quick.

"Well look at that, guess the Arryn whor-"

Whack.

"Man, battle fatigue sure sneaks up on you fast," Robert said flatly, hauling the now unconscious moron out of his saddle to lie arse-up in front of him. "For a moment there I almost mistook it for catching the stupid when you've already got a glass jaw, but that never happens 'round these parts now does it?"

"Stark!" Timett hollered from the front while the moron was made the problem of the moron's cowardly friends. "Leash your dog or else!"

"Not to worry, I'm sure nothing like this will happen again."

The nerve of them, they thought he was some big old brute!

… They thought he was some big old brute.

The clansmen didn't know his last name. His voice was deeper in his helmet. Nobody knew who yelled what in the initial chaos. Robert had killed everyone who heard his war cry after.

They didn't know who he was.

Oh, the fun he was going to have tearing them a new arsehole.
 

Simonbob

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Fun stuff.


I just read the whole thing.


I'll just say, the bait and switch was not the best idea. If you'd done a chapter that showed us him changing, we'd most likely accepted it. It's not that we'd like it, but......


Look, if he had wet dreams at 13, woke from that, and was suddenly attracted to ravens for a moment, we could see it happening. If he found himself looking at hounds, and both being attracted as well as seeing them as just not right.......

Looking at men, and being attracted, but only for a moment. Finding he wanted somebody, something, but his body didn't?




To do that change, you have to show us. Otherwise, it's not the person we've been reading about. And, honestly? It's not the uplift I'm most enjoying. It's the characters.
 

ATP

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Now,good time for showing clans that they have bad idea.Not that it matter - they could die or prosper,and it would still be of little importance.
 
Chapter II.4: Burned Wedding Crashers Make for Stringy Crow Food (The Mother)

Karmic Acumen

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Three guesses who the Father is.
====================================


"-. THE MOTHER .-"


Rhaella climbed out of the big wooden tub and held out her arms for Melessa to help her into her shift. Around them, her wedding vestments were brought for by her other ladies-in-waiting. Each garment brought bittersweet feelings. She would be losing a full half of her trusted companions once the festivities were over. As always with large tourneys and weddings, a score more had been planned and sealed before the sun even dawned on the day of matrimony. Tyanna Wylde would set off to the Riverlands with a Frey escort to pay off her father's debt to Old Walder. Melessa Florent would be going to Horn Hill to wed Randyll Tarly. And her sister Rhea would stay in Oldtown at Leyton Hightower's own invitation, which was the worst of blows.

"You seem displeased, my queen." Rhea began to clip her nails. Her maid of honor saw through her like only Joanna used to, long ago. "It's been two days, the play wasn't that terrible, was it?"

"Oh it was dreadful," Rhaella admitted, so glad for the diversion that she didn't even try to demur. "Truly, my soul is much aggrieved after such an insipid display."

"I suppose The King's Landing was nothing new or exciting, and if you're going to suck up to royalty you have to mean if you want to be taken seriously." The Crone has truly blessed this woman. A shame the maiden hadn't, but it wasn't like Rhea's plain looks and prominent ears had stopped Leyton Hightower. "But the troupe was quite striking, wasn't it? Those masks, the mummer's boats with quilted sails of half a hundred colors – did you see them sailing up the Honeywine from the Whispering Sound? Such a colourful sight! And the way they can change their faces on a whim…"

"I regard the entire personnel of the ensemble as — if you will pardon me being Dornish for a moment — painted hussies."

Rhea pretended to be delightfully put upon. "But they've got to paint, it's part of the disguise!"

"Well, they needn't huss."

"I suppose that's fair," Rhea hummed, stepping back to let Bethany Redwyne finish tying the laces.

Rhaella walked in a circle to test the give of her corset. When she judged it to be no more a burden on her breath than usual, she motioned for Denyse Hightower to bring her dress. Leyton had offered his third daughter in place of Rhea for the duration of the royal party's stay, but it was clearly begrudging. He wouldn't have offered if his courtship didn't put such a burden on the time of the Queen's maid of honor. This was the first time Rhaella had both women in the same room in fact. Denyse attended to her with a smile, though. You couldn't even tell how much she actually wished she was part of the constant giggling on the other side of the dividers.

Times like this, Rhaella wished her brother had just sent Leyton Hightower back home from the start if he wasn't going to execute him. It didn't become her, she knew, but still. Hightower's son wouldn't have gone so out of control then, and the father wouldn't have been around to seduce her maid of honor away from her. Alas, the two seemed quite taken with each other despite Leyton's advantage in age. Or perhaps because of it.

Rhaella took a seat at the vanity and began putting on her jewelry. She gladly accepted Rhea's assistance in putting them on, and Loreza's too. The Lady Martell had been quite helpful in selecting the best necklace, rings and earrings that would best complement Rhaella's outfit without outshining the bride on her own wedding day.

"Disturbing and shameful, no better words for it," the Lady Martell tsked as she held up Rhaella's necklace of jade in the window light. "The Lady of House Targaryen, the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms herself, has never had the chance to let her beauty run truly loose. Sixteen years since your crowning. All those worthies out there have slobbered out a sea's worth of praise about the dragon dynasty. I can't believe they never properly bowed down to the woman behind the throne, it's always the Iron Throne itself, so big and ugly. Your king-husband did the both of you a disfavour by keeping you in the background, my dear. I should send you the where and when of all my subjects in Dorne so you and your handmaids can take turns slapping them in the face with a satin glove-covered hand... But since this is my daughter's wedding and I am compelled by both love and duty to put her first, I regretfully must defer at this time."

"Like you deferred from shipping her back to Dorne the moment she set foot in King's Landing?"

"Oh no, definitely not like that," Loreza laughed. It transformed her entire demeanour. It made Rhaella sad for the friendship that might have been. Unfortunately, after that mess in the Kingswood with that outlaw that put an arrow through Ser Harlan's hand – and then stole Elia Martell's jewels and coins and first kiss – the only way the Queen of Westeros could have the Princess of Dorne as a lady-in-waiting was if they dangled Rhaegar in front of her, and Aerys wouldn't even hear of it.

Needless to say, that dragon had since flown the pit.

There was a commotion behind the dividers so typical of the Hightower. Ashara Dayne appeared a moment later, the hand over her mouth doing nothing to muffle her laughter as she headed to the door before remembering the two of them. "Your Grace. Princess." Ashara greeted with a perfect curtsy. Change her hair from ebony to silver to go with her purple eyes and you could easily believe she was a Targaryen herself, with a smile as wicked as that. Little wonder women noble and common alike admired or resented her when they thought no one noticed. "By your leave, I'll go retrieve Prince Oberyn post-haste."

She nodded after a moment. "Not some emergency I hope?" Because it begged asking.

"Not that sort," the purple-eyed beauty replied on the way out. "The bride merely wishes to see her brother's head explode."

"Only a little!" Laughed the lady in question from her hidden retreat just as the door closed.

Rhaella was silent as Loreza and Rhea put her jewels around her neck, on her fingers, her ears and in her hair. It felt like a goodbye ritual. She was tempted to ask for a cup of wine, to distract herself before her face betrayed her again, but she needed her fare light and her head clear. The wedding was to be at midday in the Starry Sept across the city, and come evenfall the feast would be held in the Hightower's grand hall. A thousand guests and forty-two courses, with singers and jugglers and mummers. But first came a family breakfast in the Royal Suite for Houses Targaryen and Baratheon, while the Martells would be breaking their fast with the Hightowers in their own chambers just across the corridor. It wouldn't do much for Aerys' mood, that the Dornish would break their fast among themselves just a dragon flap away, and for once Rhaella agreed with him. This was clearly a snub paid in kind to Aerys for refusing the original invitation, to join the Martells and Hightowers for breakfast with their delegations in the Lower Ballroom. It was just the latest in Hightower's neverending undeclared sedition.

Ser Gerold Hightower opened the door. "Your Grace, Oberyn Martell requests entry."

Loreza rolled her eyes, but Rhaella couldn't begrudge the man his caution. Oberyn Martell shouldn't even be in Westeros, having been shipped off to Essos years ago in what everyone pretended wasn't exile over the Yronwood fiasco. "He's expected."

"Lewin Martell is with him as well." The White Bull ignored the presence of Loreza Martell right in front of him with the same ease he omitted Dorne royal titles. Rhaella couldn't remonstrate him for it even if she had the heart to. For all that Aerys had banned him from his side on pain of becoming the first Kingsguard to be dismissed from service, the man never let even that undeserved humiliation interfere with his duty. He was the greatest victory on the Targaryen side of their feud to date, if only Aerys would acknowledge it. Besides, he was completely right that men really had no business in the lady baths.

Alas, the Dornish didn't care. "I'll allow it. This time."

Aerys would no doubt mock her for making yet another concession, as he always did when she indulged others their way. Even when it was her right. Her sphere as matron of House Targaryen to conduct private diplomacy, her very responsibility as Queen. Even when she consulted with his Hand, whom he didn't begrudge making decisions without his input when it was anyone else than her. Though in this case Steffon would probably take his side, Rhaella begrudgingly admitted.

The White Bull stepped in to let the men and Ashara past him, staring hard all the while.

"Thank you, Gerold."

"Your Grace." The man retreated and closed the door. Grudgingly.

"I can see why he commissioned that helm." Oberyn Martell was tall, slender, graceful and fit, with a sardonic face with thin eyebrows, black eyes and a sharp nose. His hair was lustrous and black and receded from his brow into a widow's peak. "If not for the cow's face, I'd have mistook him for a dog."

"You don't get to call other people animals, little viper," Loreza scoffed at her son before Rhaella could chastise him herself, waving a hand in dismissal. "You're only here at your sister's sufferance. Don't push it. See what she wants and then begone."

Oberyn's scoff made Rhaella wish he'd stayed in Lys, if only to spare her the grief of wondering if Aerys was right about him not having acted independently at all. Elia had been shocked to see him, and even Loreza had seemed more incensed than glad. But Loreza was always whatever suited her best, so Rhaella couldn't rid herself of her doubts. It was impossible that Oberyn's coming had nothing to do with Yronwood's absence from the nuptials. As the Queen of a court that insisted on clinging to its decadence even with a man-shaped hurricane going at it with a steel brush and razor, Rhaella had to acknowledge that Oberyn Martell did seem the half-mad sort prone to both cuckoldry and murder.

"Well?" Oberyn demanded, glaring at Ashara. "I've come as you asked, Dayne. Now where is this speech-stealing sight you boasted about? Unless you just wanted a reason to have me here where you can see me?"

"You cad!" Ashara gasped in outrage. "How dare you, call me wanton will you, think I'm as taken in as all your other simperers is that it, you think I'm too stupid to tell? You wastrel! Well joke's on you because I at least kept my words feasting my eyes on this." Ashara Dayne grandly presented the bride. "Behold your Princess!"

Elia Martell emerged from behind the screens and Rhaella Targaryen gaped like a witless washerwoman.

There was stunned silence.

Then yet more.

"Gods be good, miracles do happen!" Ashara laughed. "Oberyn Martell, finally speechless! My oh my, I can't believe it, my word, the luck, Father and Warrior and Maiden all, I'm all a shiver… Look at me, my knees are knocking together that's how much I'm shaking with emotion, Seven above I almost perspired it's just so, so… Wait, don't rush her, don't rush her I say, you cad! Can you even fathom the sight in front of you? No you can't because you're just a silly man, see, what do you know about stitching and silk and thread count? It'll be a wonder if you can even recall the name tomorrow, say it with me – lin-ge-rie." The syllables dripped off Ashara Dayne's tongue like melting snow as she flamboyantly gestured at the entirety of Elia Martell, who slowly spun in a circle while stroking her curves in the most Dornishly wanton manner.

And they were curves now, all of them. Elia was a delicate beauty with slender arms and middling hips, but her rear was barely there on her best day, and her chest could most charitably described as flat. Until now.

"The Devil of Debauchery exists and he lives in Winterfell!" Ashara swooned and practically draped herself all over the young princess. "Oh Elia! Dear, sweet, irrevocably doomed to marry by today's end Elia, can you imagine if you weren't already spoken for, oh the catfights we could've had! Look at him, this wastrel of a brother of yours is daydreaming over your figure, your own brother!"

Elia Martell burst into laughter that Rhaella had been too thunderstruck to realise had been barely kept back until then.

"What do you think?" Elia asked innocently, her hands roaming all over her flesh as if- "Should I wear these to the wedding? Or leave them for after so they don't get ruined by some drunken loud during the bedding?"

"… Who did this?" Oberyn ground through clenched teeth, sounding murderously aroused. "Who's responsible for this? Who dares?"

"Sister," Prince Lewyn Martell asked flatly as he beheld his niece. "What is the meaning of this?"

"I have no idea whatsoever," Loreza shamelessly admitted, fanning herself with a positively alarming look to her eyes. "But oh, do I plan to."

Rhaella stared at the lace and the lace and… practically nothing down low except a hair-thin sheet of silk and more lace like the one connecting the two padded cups that made Elia's chest look three times larger. She was astounded.

Then she was indignant. Where was this absolutely shameful, despicable, unconscionable decadence on her wedding night? Not that she'd have wasted it on that farce when her brother would have only mocked her for it, but that tourney… and the one that foreran the War of the Ninepenny kings, when Bonifer rode the lists and unseated all others to name her Queen of Love and Beauty with her favour tied around his wrist. Wherefore did Fate presume to mock her so?

Ashara giggled at them, disappeared behind the screens and came back with the proof that the devil had only just begun to corrupt the helpless daughters of man with his sinful craft.

The coat spilled out into the light. Northern lynx, fashioned from pure white bellies, which were speckled with subtle black markings like dry leaves fallen on an early snow. Ashara draped it around Elia's shoulders. Just to make them gawk even more unseemly, Rhaella was sure. Her own face would match her dress if she had to wear that into a sept.

"Brother dear," Elia sashayed over to drape her arms over Oberyn's shoulders. "It is my utmost grief to inform you that you are no longer the world's biggest cad. I am so sorry."

"Get off me, woman!" Oberyn ducked out from her before brazenly striding past the dividers into the screaming midst of Elia's own hadmaids that were doubtlessly in various states of undress. Fabric and papers were shuffled unseen and then: "Of fucking course! Of course it would be Stark!"

"Not so, the Lord Ratter had nothing to do with this," Ashara 'soothed.' "This was all the son, the note says so."

"You only say that because you've never met the man!" Oberyn hollered from amidst the increasingly less outraged coterie. "Fucking Starks, it's always the fucking Starks, what else have they been keeping from us?"

"The stolen modesty of our daughters, clearly," Prince Lewyn said dryly. "I've seen enough, I think. By your leave Your Grace, sister, I'll go look at things less likely to make me contemplate murder upon someone who shouldn't have been able to match those things to size so perfectly."

"Actually, that was us," Ashara said. "They came with instructions."

"I appreciate the attempt, Lady Ashara, but it's not much help. Nephew, get over here and let's go."

Lewyn left with the younger man spitting murder. For someone who'd gone from being dismissive to feeling inadequate towards his sister's man, Oberyn Martell seemed remarkably oblivious to the common cause he'd just been handed on a golden platter.

Rhaella didn't watch them leave, instead motioning to her increasingly bedazzled handmaids to collect themselves. "Come on, girls. I dare say you've seen enough as well." We've all seen enough, I think. "You're all dismissed until the final fitting."

The girls curtsied and gave their goodbyes, but didn't move.

"I'll join you," Rhea said. "We're headed for the same place."

That was true. "Bethany."

"Yes, my Queen?"

"I believe Wyman Manderly is hosted on the same floor as your Lord Uncle." Rhaella Targaryen was the Queen. Spreading new fashions was her duty. "If you happen upon him, tell him I wish to meet him in the following days. You've my permission to lean on my authority for anything else, within reason."

Bethany blinked, then gasped in delight when she realised what role the man must surely have played in recent events. "Thank you, my Queen!"

Just for reference purposes of course. A real woman made her own garments.

And a true Queen knew when to leave her hapless handmaiden to the mercy of her fellows.


"-. 278 AC .-"

The walk back to the Royal Suite was too short for Rhaella to properly picture her future accoutrements. In fact, it was just across the corridor, because you always had to add insult to injury if you wanted to call yourself true Westerosi nobility.

"Tell me, Gerold, was this floor always set up this way?"

"It was not, Your Grace. The arrangement was created by Manfred Hightower shortly after Oldtown opened its gates to Aegon I."

Manfred Hightower split the family floor into two identical suites just to deny the King his rights. In a world that ran on displays of power, the King's household was always entitled to the best accommodations available, which were almost always the private rooms of the head of house and his family. But not here. It would send exactly the wrong message when they could rightly claim to have already surrendered the best suites available.

Or the right message, depending on your view.

Aerys had been of a mind to demand the whole floor to themselves anyway, and for once Rhaella didn't entirely blame him, even disregarding the secrets they might have found. Nothing good ever came of Targaryen and Martell sharing the same air, never mind the same home and table. She couldn't expect one friendship to make up for all that, even if it was hers.

Especially if it was hers.

Cooler heads prevailed though, in the end.

And by cooler heads, Rhaella Targaryen of course meant Steffon Baratheon.

If only he'd get along with Loreza like anything other than oil and water.

Gerold opened the door and checked inside before letting them through.

"Valyrian word for father," Cassana called the moment she saw her. She was nursing Renly under the window near a tea table that Viserys was barely able to peer over. "Four letters."

"Kepa," Rhaella replied as Rhea lit up and went to greet Leyton. The man was seated across from Cassana but rose to kiss the hand of his lady with a delight at the sight of her that Rhaella could see no falsehood in, damn him.

"Re-Re?" Viserys blinked in surprise at her sudden appearance, then he turned and finally saw her. "Mama!"

"Viserys," Rhaella knelt and opened her arms to receive his heroic charge.

"K-e-p-a," Cersei Lannister sounded in her sweetest tones as she filled in the word on the week's crossword. House Stark had sent a special edition of The Winds of Winter, printed specifically for the occasion. The bulk would be distributed during the wedding feast, but the host and royal parties got them early. "There, all done!" Always so dulcet and eager to please, that girl.

When she knew you were watching.

Viserys finally reached her. "How's my Little Prince?" His had been a slow and toddling charge, but a heroic one nonetheless.

"Mama!" Came the complaint from her bosom. "Seffy where?"

"Doing important work for Dada."

"Dada?"

"Yes, Dada will be here soon. Are you hungry?"

"No!" Which was a complete lie but he'd spit the food out if she forced the issue.

"Mother next." Cassana absently shifted Renly to her other breast. "Also four letters."

"Muna." Rhaella picked up her son and took him to look out the window while hating herself for her jealousy. She hadn't nursed any of her children. Whenever she tried, it was like all the life and joy was sucked out of her and she cried as if her world had ended. She pushed through only once, with Rhaegar, but was left so tired and soul-weary that she couldn't bring herself to get out of bed without being pulled and prodded. She'd thought it was the Gods' punishment, but it was the same with each new child that came only to be taken from her, her own mind and soul tormenting her for her sins. She never got to know what other women swore was the pinnacle of joy. The envy only made it worse. The Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, jealous of her closest friend. Of her own wetnurses even, every one except the last who didn't deserve Aerys beheading her. Oh how she envied the common woman for the visceral joy they felt with a child at their breast.

Rhaella had hoped Viserys would be different, that he would heal her, her child burdened with none of the blemishes of the others, her sweet boy that not even Aerys could find fault in, but it was all the same.

"Warrior," Cassana read. "I think I'm starting to see this issue's theme."

Maybe. "Azantys." It certainly continued until the set was seemingly complete.

"A-than-ts," Viserys bumbled the word, then all the ones that followed, his pale lilac eyes twisted into an adorable frown. Father, Mother, Warrior, Smith, Maiden, Crone, Death. Kepa, Muna, Azantys, Setegon, Rina, Abra, Morghul.

"Strange," Cassana frowned. "That's barely half of the big ones. Maybe it's a riddle, or a diversion? Two possible answers, but only one is correct? If Death replaces the Stranger…"

Or you're just overthinking things, Rhaella thought. You're missing the other half. 'Dragon' was implicit in the terms. 'Of dragons' where more befitting. Such were the vagaries of High Valyrian, and they held true for the other half of the Fourteen. Balerion, Caraxes, Meraxes, Meleys, Syrax, Terrax, Vhagar. Sure enough, Cassana asked the names of the dragons that belonged to this and that Targaryen, never realising the true riddle in front of her. Then again, who could blame her? Rhaella herself had only learned the names of the Fourteen as curiosities, not that much more was possible ever since Baelor the Befuddled burned all their family's ancestral heritage. She wondered what kind of world it would be, if the man hadn't taken it as an affront when he found those most typical of archetypes to not be unique to his adopted faith.

She hoped the hair was the first and last thing Viserys had in common with that madman.

"Dragon – even I know this one."

"Zaldrizes!" Cersei jumped in, so eager to please as to interrupt the Hand's own wife.

"Alright, here's a tougher one: little sister. Eight letters."

"Valonqar."

"What!?" Cersei shrieked.

Rhaella turned to her with astonishment perfectly mirrored on Viserys' open-mouthed face and everything came to a stop.

"That can't be right," Cersei Lannister protested as if she wasn't snapping at the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. "Valonqar means little brother, I know it does!"

"And little sister." Rhaella craned her neck so Viserys could stop trying to jump out of her arms in his quest for hair to chew on. "Valonqar can mean either."

"But…" At twelve name days, Cersei Lannister was neither the most level-headed girl nor the most astute. "But Septa Saranella said…"

"Septas are mere women, child, so they can be wrong," Leyton said crisply. "Her Grace has corrected your ignorance. I believe the appropriate words are 'thank you.'"

The man could even ingratiate without ingratiating, truly House Hightower was the most terrible of foes.

"… Thank you, Your Grace, for enlightening me." Cersei tried and failed not to look as though her entire life had just been upended. Rhaella had no idea why. "I-May I please be excused?"

"… Very well," Rhaella allowed, not showing her confusion.

Cersei all but fled from the room.

"Loud girl." Viserys mumbled, unable to choose which tress to bite. "Bad girl. Sil-y."

Well there it was, truth from the babe's mouth.

If and when Tywin Lannister brought his daughter to court, Cersei Lannister would have a very short life unless she lucked her way into the bed of someone very important. Even with Steffon's impossible headway in sifting through the chaff, court still had all sorts, from power-brokers who stood behind the king, to servitors who knelt in his shadow. If she expected to be one of those favored few, Cersei needed to learn more than just how to spend her nights in bed-hopping and intrigue, never mind that she was just twelve and shouldn't be given to such things at all yet. Grace, wit and raw charisma went a long way, but any courtier worth the name understood art, politics and human nature too. Cersei had so far shown no hint that she grasped the price of misstep. Embarrassment. Disgrace. Wedlock. Losing all chances of it.

A horrible death.

Steffon Baratheons didn't show up every generation.

Then again, Tywin Lannister clearly knew this, or he wouldn't have pawned his daughter off to Cassana for the duration. No doubt he expected Rhaella to take over when the time came. She hoped Steffon wouldn't intercede on his behalf, because she couldn't say no to him. But Tywin probably knew that too of course, so he would probably ask Steffon as a favour because he was a most meddlesome man.

The door opened.

"Dada!"

"What's this? Someone claims relation to the King?"

Aerys had arrived.

"Husband," Rhaella greeted while the others made to kneel.

"Wife." He waved Cassana to skip protocol but not the others. "And who's this that's calling for me? No, woman, let him down to put those feet to work, the King doesn't wait on just anyone, isn't that right boy?"

"Right!" Viserys chirped, toddling over on his little feet. He tripped and fell on his face half-way through, but he didn't cry even though Aerys just stood there watching. He bumbled back to his feet and finished the trip.

"Well done." Aerys lifted him and took him to sit on the armchair next to the hearth. "And how's the prince of the Seven Kingdoms today?"

"Hungry!"

"Nothing new then."

Rhaella considered the second armchair, but she knew better than to hover over Aerys. "He was asking for you."

"Of course he was, I'm his father."

"Seffy where?"

Aerys huffed. "Yes he's on his way as well, him and all his touchy-feely nonsense, don't you worry."

Rhaella could never hear any resentment in Aerys over Viserys' attachment to Steffon. She didn't know if she should be reassured or terrified. What would happen if Aerys ever learned he came second in the eyes of his own son? Assuming he didn't already know. Maybe he could forgive Steffon even that.

Viserys looked at his father suspiciously. "Milk?"

"Milk and honey too, yes you little glutton, just wait till you grow as wide as you're tall. I'll have the Kingsguard kick you from place to place because you won't be able to get anywhere except by rolling like an inflated pig's bladder."

"Nuh-uh!"

Rhaella already wished her son was back in her arms, but instead she joined Cassana, Rhea and Leyton while father and son had their moment.

"What do you think about Gunthor?" Rhea asked the moment she sat down. "Or Humfrey? We haven't settled on girls yet."

Good gods, they were already choosing names? They weren't even pledged! "They're strong names." Which was clearly the point, seeing as both of them meant 'warrior.'

Cassana chimed in with a suggestion, thankfully, freeing Rhaella from further obligation for now. She looked at the bottle of Northern Blue and was tempted, but Cassana had already poured her a glass of cherry syrup, complete with glittering cubes of the freshest ice. Rhaella accepted it and cast her eyes after the seltzer.

"Allow me," Leyton picked up the bottle, popped off the cork and somehow knew exactly how much she liked in her cherryade. "Your drink, Your Grace."

Rhea shares more than she should. "Thank you, my lord."

"'Tis nothing." Nothing, or nothing good? "Liddle mineral water, bottled in Ywenclyr," he read off the label. He then rubbed his fingertip over the back. "Cast into the glass too. I'd very much like to know how they make it so clear. This is a statement."

Rhaella took a sip. It was, unfortunately, perfect. "Envious, my lord?"

"Suspicious." He put down the bottle. "You were there when Wyman Manderly 'commiserated' with Loreza over having to 'suffer whatever burdens the Gods saddle us with, even troublesome pets your liege lends you that you never asked for.' He had the birds with him when he went to the Citadel. You might not know this, but the white ravens and the black ones quarrel like Dornishmen and Marchers, so the Maesters keep them apart. Only this isn't the case in the North, apparently. The Citadel still has its hands full digging itself out of the hole that Stark shoved it in. We didn't need to be told that the Sleeves have figured out how to train the birds better, especially when their white ravens are the same ones that Stark's been collecting and breeding instead of letting his lords send them back. Dorne reconsidered Baelor for Elia in part because they want access to all the Citadel secrets the North has been throwing in our faces all these years. The fact Manderly was so brazen was a message to the Conclave. That the Conclave pretends ignorance is a message to us."

Sunspear hadn't mustered the coin nor the prestige to fund its own Citadel, largely because Duskendale and Lannisport got there first. Tywin had wanted his in Casterly Rock after Stark put the Winter Institute in his own backyard, or so Cersei told her. Rhaella didn't believe it, even Tywin Lannister didn't have the ego to host the order of poisoners he believed had murdered his wife right inside his home.

It was all moot of course. Even the second-rate maesters who answered the call of coin over everything else were as paranoid as a Lyseni magister now. They had categorically refused to put themselves at the mercy of another lord after the last one culled them, much less the Butcher of Castamere. Not that they called him that to his face.

"Stark is telling us it won't matter what all we squeeze the Citadel for at this point, and he might be right. The Maesters can't account for even half of what's been coming from up there. Unless Stark is overestimating them somehow, in which case Manderly is a warning that they'll respond in kind if the Citadel rocks the boat again. Probably by doing everything we don't want done, like checking on all the noise Yronwood's been making about beggaring himself to fund a Citadel all his own."

"Are you sure you're not just jumping at ghosts?" asked Cassana while covering herself. Their conversation paused while she returned Renly to his crib. "The North is hardly the Citadel's biggest problem anymore." That was true, it was the likelihood of being lynched for every odd death they happened to be within a mile of. Also, the Alchemists. They'd been making up for lost ground and then some. "I for one am perfectly ready to not go mad over some pet of a man I've never met before."

"I expect you won't say that once Renly's name day comes," Leyton promised. "Besides, the Conclave is hardly the only person with a specially-tailored message."

Rhaella wanted to dismiss it, she really had more than enough on her mind as it was. But the North aroused suspicion from everyone and she still remembered Cersei's outburst. "How so?"

"Yes, how so Leyton?" Aerys asked idly from where he watched Viserys' disastrous attempt to finger paint the northern lights in 'northern lights,' those metallic glittering paints that Lord Stark had sent as his name day gift. "Keep in mind that my patience for unsubstantiated slander is at an all-time low."

Leyton grimaced. Rhaella hoped he'd drop it. Aerys was already stressed from being in what he considered enemy territory. He'd only taken residence up there to make a statement. Rhaella didn't want to know what he'd do if he decided the façade wasn't worth maintaining.

Alas, Leyton bulled through. As one does when they're in their own place of power and already conquered all fear years ago. Little wonder Rhea was so smitten, Rhaella thought grudgingly. "Lady Cassana." The man reached out for the newspaper. "May I?"

"Of course."

Leyton took the newspaper, flipped a couple of pages and read. "The inefficiency of evil, now with mathematical proof."

Rhaella blinked.

'Log' Cassana mouthed.

Rahella had skipped morning reading when she learned it lacked the usual chapter of the biweekly novel. Now she wished she hadn't. What could Leyton Hightower possibly have found so alarming about Brandon Stark's little corner of quaintness?

"Garth, Galon and Gael have just settled the Western continent. They've finished building basic shelter and are ready to get to work on the finer things in life. They want five chairs each, but can only make one a day. On the second day, Galon realizes he can get done faster by stealing from Garth and Gael. He does this for two days until he has a complete set of chairs. Garth and Gael spend two extra days each to complete theirs. If Galon decided to continue building, the total workdays would have been fifteen. However, by taking his time to steal from others while cutting his work time to three days, he increased the total to seventeen. This does not account for the time lost if Garth and Gael decided to spend their next days protecting their work, investigating who stole it, or lynching someone who might not be Galon. This is why you should hate evil, not because of some feeling, not because it's bad, but because of pure pragmatism." Leyton set the newspaper on the table. "This is a message to Quellon Greyjoy if ever there was one."

Well.

When he put it like that.

Aerys harrumphed. "I suppose all this thin air you breathe up here hasn't completely addled you lot."

"As you say," Leyton replied, which of course meant the complete opposite.

Rhaella wondered about paranoia, assuming he wasn't just pretending. It hardly took any effort to twist whatever you laid eyes on into lies and slander. If not the newspaper, it could just as easily have been anything else. The ship figurehead, the food, the time of arrival, the cut of Lord Manderly's trousers. But Leyton Hightower had never done anything stranger in King's Landing than sleep under the moonlight on his balcony. And yet he was always so uncannily informed about some things, even as a hostage constantly watched and deprived of informants. "I want to disbelieve you," she admitted at length. But he had given her an opportunity. "But then I'd have to pretend ignorance of the message specially aimed at you, my lord."

"… Is that so?" Leyton leaned back in his chair. "Will you enlighten me on which you mean, Your Grace?"

Rhaella took the newspaper, flipped another page and looked for – yes, there it was under the Healer's Writ just as Rhea had said. "Proper eyedrops are indistinguishable from the Tears of Lys. They share the same properties and effects. Both are clear and tasteless, but if swallowed they all lead to severe stomach pain, flux, vomiting, shakes, stupor and death. If circumstances are such that you can't keep the Lys out of your life, make sure not to mix sources or overindulge. It's pronounced same as lice for a reason." She put the paper down. "Since you mentioned girl names, sweet Rhea, I think you should at least give Alicent a pass. There's a tad too much stigma attached to that name in certain circles. Entirely undeserved I'm sure, but nonetheless."

For a moment, Leyton Hightower's face darkened with a resentment so bitter and resigned that Rhaella finally felt victory fill her.

Back during the Conquest, Lord Manfred Hightower communed with the High Septon and decided not to oppose Aegon by force of arms. History had since proven that decision to have been true to the very last letter. After years of matching word and wit with his descendant, Queen Rhaella of House Targaryen was finally vindicated. Finally she knew her suspicions were true. To this very day, House Hightower didn't oppose House Targaryen.

By force of arms.

"I think we should get going if we're to match our outfits, my lord," Rhea said quietly, rising from her seat. "As the bride's father, you can risk no delays."

Belatedly was Rhaella reminded that the world they lived it didn't suffer clean victories.

"You are quite right, my dear," Leyton agreed, rising as well. "I suppose I could take this chance to prevail upon my son not to pass his own name to any of his children, but I doubt I'd have much luck. He knows his history better than everyone else I know. By your leave, Your Graces."

What did that mean? Why bring up Baelor?

"Yes, yes," Aerys said with a dismissive flick. "We have more important engagements."

Leyton bowed barely enough to pass muster and led the now conflicted Rhea Florent out the door.

The tension did not lessen after they were gone.

Did I reveal too much?

Rhaella drained the last of her drink and frowned at her empty glass. Alicent Hightower. A-lys-ent. She arrived at the court at age fifteen, when the Conciliator was 'fallen ill' after losing his wife and Prince Baelon one after another. There were a lot of wasting sicknesses and bad bellies hitting House Targaryen back then. Usually within a month of a new Grand Maester being sent by the Conclave. Alicent then proceeded to nurse the ailing king for the last two years of his life while her father Otto ruled the kingdom as Hand. She would fetch his meals, help him wash and dress him, and read to him. Near the end, Jaehaerys grew convinced that Alicent was his daughter Saera. Then he died in 103 AC while Alicent was reading to him from the books of Septon Barth, which Baelor the Befuddled would later destroy along with so much other sorcery.

Mushroom the Jester accused Alicent of poisoning King Jaehaerys. The accusation was 'dispelled' by a septon who remained anonymous in all maesterly chronicles to date. His 'explanation'? 'He didn't die of poison, he died in his sleep!'

While Otto Hightower continued to rule as Hand under Viserys I, Queen Aemma Arryn died along with her last newborn son after a string of miscarriages every bit as suspicious as Rhaella's own seemed now. Alicent promptly seduced the new king just in time for Grand Maester Runciter to urge Viserys to remarry immediately. Runciter then presented the king with the lavish choice between just two: Alicent and a twelve-year-old. The thirty-five year-old man of course chose the eighteen-year-old he had been rumoured to have bedded while Aemma Arryn was still alive, ignoring all advice from his council. And the rumors that Alicent had given her virtue to Prince Daemon long before. When Viserys then 'died in his sleep' in 129 AC, a servant warned Alicent in advance as instructed, without telling anyone else. Then the Dance of the Dragons happened.

"Oh don't you start wallowing," Aerys snapped. "You made the man flee from your sight, where is your dragon pride? Boy, go lend her some of yours and tell your mother to stop being silly, go on, get on with you."

"Sil-y, sil-y!"

Aerys Targaryen could make even reassurance feel petty, yet somehow his words eased Rhaella's spirit. Oh, how the world had changed.

No, she decided. That was just far enough. Knowing the face of the enemy has been a luxury too long denied to our family.

Viserys was almost there. She rose from her chair to-

SMASH.

"I am here! With me! And myself! And my boredom from having to walk all the way up here with just Barristan the Bland for company because Rhaegar was oh so broken up over a tiny gash he gave me in the yard that he decided I'd somehow feel better if I had to suffer that fucking lift and stairs full stag! Well I didn't! I still don't! And I didn't even have Joncon to complain to because the little traitor was practically wilting from all the pining that I couldn't stomach another moment, and Rhaegar didn't even pretend to mind me giving my own bloody squire more liberties than I afford myself, the little shit! Oh, the gods must mock the righteous to spring such chains of misfortune from just a little dizzy spell! And do you think they have the courtesy to do something good with my generosity? Of course not! They're probably in Rhaegar's room right now, badgering poor Arthur to hold Dawn up as a mirror so they can do his hair! I have suffered! Oh, how I have suffered in desolation so forlorn, lonely, lonesome, friendless, forsaken and alone! I want my dragon! Where's my Little Nugget? Little Nugget!"

"Seffy!"

Steffon Baratheon swooped down on Viserys Targaryen with a roar and threw him into the air so high that Rhaella's heart jumped in her throat.

Be still, my useless heart, he didn't hit the ceiling, he does this all the time, it's fine!

Viserys fell down giggling like it was the best fun in the world and Steffon hugged him so tight she thought her son might burst like a ripe melon, then he plopped him down like a sack of flour which was not fine, damn them both!

And what was that slander against her firstborn, did Steffon think he'd get away with it?

Steffon rose to his feet and turned. "Wife!" He hugged Cassana so tight he lifted her off her feet, then dropped her. "Son – oh he's asleep, never mind!" Steffon turned to Rhaella with smile full of delight. "Cousin!"

His arms were a bulwark around her. He was warm. Strong. He smelled of thime and sea hail and unbridled strength freshly unleashed and he kissed her cheeks just to get away with everything as usual, the boor! She was powerless to stop him from enveloping her and raising her up and from the deepest depths of her heart she longed

Steffon carried her to the hearth in a handful of strides and set her down.

Then he turned from her to the last man, and the galestorm turned into a fluffy cloud that cast its warm shade with kindly loving eyes, while the sun's light streamed forth from his halo and his open arms. "Cousin."

Aerys Targaryen scowled mightily as if he'd never seen a more unsightly display. "You have entirely too much cheek." He spread his arms no more than he had to with a put-upon air worthy of The King's Landing understudy. "Go on, then, get it over with."

But of course Steffon did the opposite. He enfolded the undeserving in a mighty tenderness and basked in it as if he was the one being given grace.

Rhaella sat down. Drank in the way all the harsh edges of her once hated brother melted in the warm light that had come into their lives. She breathed deeply and slowly to keep the tears from her eyes, as always when Steffon Baratheon barged in to kick everyone's fears and worries out the window because the world wasn't big enough for his personality. She quietly beckoned Viserys and waited until he toddled over. She lifted him into her lap and stroked his hair, still watching.

Aerys always took the longest.

Rhaella didn't know if he still tried to rationalise it in his mind.

Finally, the King let his arms fall limp at his sides.

Steffon rubbed his back a few times before withdrawing just enough to look at him, hands still on his shoulders. He watched Aerys closely. "How are you coping?"

"Testily," Aerys grunted, retreating and sinking back into his own chair. "I indulge you entirely too much."

"For which I am grateful. Will the King prefer business before pleasure today?"

"Your pleasure and none else's." A claim Aerys presumed to make for her that was sadly completely true. "Why, do you presume your time is better spent elsewhere?"

Steffon lifted Rhaella's chair – Viserys! – and dropped her next to Aerys' before taking a knee and one each of their startled hands. "I'm here for you, my King."

Aerys yanked his hand away. "Oh get you gone!"

Steffon grinned. "At once!" He jumped to his feet but paused. "Fair warning, Rhaegar's all tragically melancholic again after all the library time. Also-" Knocks on the door, followed by Rhaegar and- "Stanny! Just the lad I was talking about! He's pissed, see. Saw that bit in the Winds about how goshawks and falcons aren't the same. So now he's pissed to know Proudwing was fine when Harbert made him abandon her, and even more pissed to realise Harbert was just an idiot for not knowing the difference instead of the arsehole he built up in his mind for easy hating." The same idiot who was now Castellan of the Red Keep in their absence. Rhaella wondered what tragedy would ensue when the method to Steffon's madness finally failed him. "By the way, Stannis, as soon as you get over it and put that energy into something less silly, I'll be very proud of you! Don't make me wait too long!"

Stannis closed his eyes and visibly restrained himself from sinking his face in his hands. "Noted, father. I shall endeavour not to disappoint you."

Steffon scowled. "Ignore the grump, you probably won't tell the difference anyhow, he's the embodiment of emotional constipation on a good day. Alas, as his father it's my thankless job to be hopeful!"

Stannis ground his teeth so loud that even Rhaella heard it. She made sure not to let her amusement show. Watching Steffon Baratheon's eternal failure to make Stannis laugh was her best entertainment. Both of them always turned so sour.

Rhaegar gave a put-upon sigh and went to greet Cassana.

"My hero," Steffon dully said at the sight. Then threw them one last grin. "I'll leave you to it." Then he went to the door, stuck his head out and came back with a tray of food which he took to the dining table. Milk, honey and sticks of freshly baked bread. Viserys started squirming for the fragrance immediately, so she let him toddle off but stayed behind. They still had it to get over with. They were far enough from the others to go unheard if they spoke lowly.

She sat back and placed a hand on the arm of the chair, waiting.

Steffon had taken to Handship by delegating everything he could, upending everything he couldn't, and putting the remaining nine tenths of his obstinacy towards fixing their family life. He'd barged into the Red Keep when the Royal Family was at its worst, spiralling down into their grief the further they travelled down the path of second-guessed memories. He sat them both down, knelt before them, took their hands and bluntly explained how stupid it was to stay hung up on what a shit situation it was that they were married in the first place. Do you plan annulment? Do you plan murder? No? Then live the best you can. Get to know each other. Become friends like your parents never let you be as children. I believe in you!

This was the same man who'd opened the Red Keep to commoner children to play in while court was away. Promised them candy and coin for every new discovery. The same man who'd just stabbed a breadstick in the tip, dunked it into his milk, slathered it with honey, and then held it out to his wife with a smile that was positively demonic and squeezed.

Rhaella was hard-pressed not to cross her legs.

Cassana gaped in outrage, yanked his stick dripping white and gold, dropped it on her plate and sliced it to pieces with a serrated knife. Viciously.

Rhaella looked away.

Aerys laid his hand over hers. "Is Rhaegar Hasty's?"

Hope turned to poison as the foundation of Rhaella Targaryen's life collapsed from under her.

She truly was a fool, to dream that Aerys would finally find some peace in their marriage. When did he ever allow himself peace?

But then, what peace had she herself ever found? Born to a family culled by its own madness. Married to a brother she hated before she'd even flowered. Told what to do, what to think, what to want. Look at her grandfather working to restore dragons to the world. Look at her frail father restoring order to the kingdom. Look at the gallant prince and the mighty friends he's making. Look at them securing Targaryen reign for another generation.

She would have done her duty if only she wasn't the only one that had to. Pay for our egoism, my daughter. Fix the harm we caused because we couldn't do our duty, daughter. Rejoice, daughter, for your womb will bear the child that will save a world that doesn't need saving. Arrogance, hypocrisy, madness. She knew she couldn't change it, that she couldn't escape it, but weren't the gods supposed to be just? Could they not send her even a ray of sanity?

The gods seemed to answer her. They sent her a knight so good and bright who worshipped her like she was the Maiden herself, who bore her favour like she wore his crown that very night. When Aerys took her just hours later, it was the first and last time she felt strong enough to bear her future's weight. Only later did she realize what she'd done, after Summerhall burned down around her. Rhaegar came, and all his features that didn't come from her were ones both Bonifer and Aerys shared. She would never have certainty nor closure because of that stupid, stupid girl.

Aerys' grip tightened.

Her silence had already damned her.

"Go on then," Aerys said, his mockery a well-oiled hinge as he watched the only man in the world that was sinless. "Watch him. Stare at him. Yearn for him. Lust after him to your heart's content. He, at least, will never betray me."

"Like you betrayed me?"

Aerys' grip turned painful – have I gone too far? – before he released her. "Moon tea would have sufficed," he lied.

Like it sufficed for Joanna? Rhaella though bitterly, even as she didn't know the truth about that either. If not for Pycelle you'd be the second unworthy. "Are you going to kill him?"

"Why would I? He only committed treason." But the darkness in his eyes said something else. "Tell me truly, sister, do you really believe he loved you?"

No, she thought despairingly. He loved an idol, and as soon as I didn't live up to it he decided jousting was an empty vanity and put away his lance for good and all.

"I should let you wonder," Aerys said pitilessly. "But I'm told a house divided against itself leads to Summerhall. I'll leave him be, but that's all. The gods will not suffer a bastard on the Iron Throne." He rose from his chair and joined the others.

Rhaella Targaryen felt as if she might faint from dread at what his last words could mean, but she composed herself and followed after her husband, making sure not to look at Rhaegar lest she give something away.

Seeing them, Steffon nodded to Cassana to get the rest of the food set out while he and Stannis helped the two of them into their chairs. Then the man stood across from them and clapped his hands together. "I have a big announcement!"

He was so happy. Despite herself, Rhaella felt some of her dark mood wane.

Then Steffon Baratheon put his hands on his hips and proudly declared: "I'm going on holiday!"

… What?

No.

No.

"What?" Aerys was white.

She wasn't in a dead faint back in the armchair. This wasn't a nightmare. Rhaella's world really had just collapsed all over again.

"We did it Aerys!" Steffon punched the table and leaned forward on both fists, smiling fiercely. "We did it. We've culled the brownnosers, the only place in King's Landing that still stinks is Fleabottom, and I just heard from Harbert – he's finished training our core of scribe-squires that we've been grooming to travel around and gather information. He's just waiting on the hedge nights here. And the best part? The kids playing hide and seek in the Red Keep have finally run out secret tunnels to hide in! We've got it all, Aerys, the whole thing. We beat Alysanne. We beat Jaehaerys. We beat Maegor. We did it!"

There was stunned silence. From everyone. The King and Queen of Westeros weren't the only people that the Hand of the King hadn't had the courtesy to forewarn that he would hand in his resignation.

"Ahhh," Steffon Baratheon plopped himself down on his chair. "I can check on Storm's End just in time for Robert to come home. Joke about him being besotted with the Stark lad without worrying he might hate me for the rest of my life like some people. Go sailing with my boys! I can finally stop holding up everything else from tumbling like a bookend, fucking bookends! And soon as I'm away, the last rats and vipers will act out so we can finally single them out and dump them in the harbor. It's going to be great!" Steffon Baratheon sighed in bliss at the thought of wonderful things to come. "Well, unless someone decides to assassinate the High Septon or something silly like that, like start a war. But I'm hopeful! We did it, Aerys, we did it!"

No, you did it, we aren't doing what we're supposed to be doing and talking you out of this fit of madness, Aerys say something!

"… We did it," Aerys said woodenly.

Not that, you fool, Rhaella pled as her own words failed her. He can't just make this choice by himself, you're the King! He's your Hand! One word and this nightmare will disappear!

But Aerys said nothing more. He just sat there blinking at the other man with face slack in the same incomprehension as everyone else while Cassana laid out the food in a stupor.

Rhaella stared blankly at the plate in front of her. She'd never imagined that their life would suddenly fall apart because things went too well.

She reached for her husband.

In her grasp, Aerys' hand trembled.


"-. 278 AC .-"


The day of the Hightower-Martell wedding should have been the sixth worst of her life.

So of course it wasn't. The infuriating man had them all grinding their teeth, commiserating, or united against him in rage over the most ridiculous things before the bells even tolled, driving them to complete distraction. Steffon didn't stop there and alternatively talked or asked them to speak about events, people and places the whole day, starting with the atmosphere in the sept and on and on from there.

The Great Sept of Baelor in King's Landing was a massive dome of marble with seven crystal towers and the roof made of glass and gold and crystal. The Starry Sept of Oldtown, though, was dark, wholly made of black marble with narrow arched windows. Even with the thousands of candles around and aloft, its interior was never cast in anything more than twilight, even scattered through the crystal hanging from the middle of the ceiling. Rhaella knew that Septs were generally dark places, that Baelor's Sept was an anomaly in being so bright and open, but it was still startling even having visited prior to the event.

Baelor Hightower wore a white coat with flame-patterned hem, such that he looked like he stood atop the Great Beacon itself in that darkness that quivered in a thousand firelights. Elia wore her red, orange and gold wedding cloak over a voluminous gown of ivory silk that hugged her hips, but grew wider further down until it streamed in a myriad waves. As her father was years dead, Lewyn Martell led the Princess down the aisle to her groom, who waited beneath the bloodstone gaze of the Mother and the jade eyes of the Father with his gilded beard. There, under the guidance of the High Septon who'd come from King's Landing with them, the seven vows were made, the seven blessings were invoked, and the seven promises were exchanged. When the wedding song had been sung and the challenge had gone unanswered, Lewin swept the maiden cloak off Elia's shoulders, and Baelor replaced it with one that bore the Hightower crest on its back.

The trip back to the Hightower was its own procession through throngs of smallfolk gathered to stare and shout and throw flowers. There was a multitude of brown robes mixed among them, throngs of holy men and women who'd come for what would happen after the wedding, but were nonetheless more than willing to take advantage of the occasion for a free meal. There were one thousand guests in the Grand Hall, but more were fed outside in tents and open tables, trenchers and leavings going to feed the same commoners that hailed them in the streets. It was a lavish festivity, the promised forty-two courses all accounted for, and thankfully none of those hundred doves baked into a great pie that would fill it with feces and then fly out to roost in the rafters and rain down even more on the guests.

There was a singers' tourney, tumblers, even a fools' joust. The lackwit Jinglebell proved his title to the laughter of his Frey siblings, trying to catch Butterbumps the Fat while the wedding guests ate trout cooked in a crust of crushed almonds. Butterbumbs somehow tumbled, juggled, spun and performed sleight of hand despite his girth. A troupe of Pentoshi tumblers performed cartwheels and handstands and balanced platters on their bare feet while the guests sampled roast herons and cheese-and-onion pies. They didn't stand upon each other's shoulders to form a pyramid though, much to Elia's disappointment, on account of being one short – one of their members had eloped with a Hightower maid according to Ashara, which Denyse later confirmed.

Songs were sung aplenty as well, some by minstrels, some by the increasingly inebriated guests and their entourage. A Cask of Ale, The Bear and the Maiden Fair, Fair Maids of Summer, The False and the Fair, the Magister's Fall, Alisanne, The Dornishman's Wife. The Dornish troupe even dared to sing Hands of Gold to Tywin Lannister's face, which of course got The Reynes of Castamere in response.

When the time came for gifts, there were a few standouts. House Tyrell gave Baelor a green leather jousting saddle and Elia an emerald velvet and silk dress. From House Baratheon, Baelor received Stannis' best ship-in-a-bottle, while Elia was given a brooch shaped like the design on her wedding cloak. Jon Arryn presented a majestic falcon he had trained himself, and a number of silk and velvet bolts of cloth in many colors. House Lannister produced the most ostentatious ornamental longsword Rhaela had ever seen, with hilt made entirely of gold and a blade with long inscriptions etched in silver that promised to eat up many hours of polishing once tarnish set in. Robett Glover gave Baelor a great weirwood bow he could barely draw, while Elia received a dark shadowcat coat. Wyman Manderly produced a miniature couples' sailboat that was the splitting image of the real thing that waited for them in the harbour. It had surprisingly tall triangular sails and was clearly not made for slow rides. To Elia he gave a recipe book of 'all the best meals,' including the new foods the North had come up with recently that everyone below the Neck still had to pay a king's ransom for. Jorah Mormont then surprised the hall with his single gift of an ancient taiga flycatcher bird trapped in amber mid-flight. It was the most amazing thing Rhaella had ever seen.

But the Northern delegation announced that House Stark had sent its own present, and that really turned the hall upside down: a book with instructions for creating cures to every ailment under the sun, including antidotes to all poisons Rhaella knew of, and a fair few she didn't. This was accompanied by a chest containing all the vessels, tools and contraptions required to make them, including a very peculiar device apparently called a microscope. A set of vials with pre-made concoctions was included as well, each cork labeled with the name, dosage and expiration date.

"My Warden is quite on the nose, isn't he?" Aerys mused with his first hint of a better mood of the whole day. "He has no subtlety at all."

House Targaryen's gift was a full wardrobe for Elia and the newest Velaryon galley fresh out of Driftmark. Surely the grandest gift, but Rhaella felt it was lacking in personality after all the others.

The dishes and diversions succeeded one another in a seemingly endless profusion, buoyed along upon a flood of wine and ale. Honeyed chicken, summerwine, roasted onion dripping brown with gravy, spiced wine, wild boar. Rhaella sampled each course only slightly while answering Steffon's many questions about the guests.

Jon Bulwer, Lord of Blackcrown, was courting Victaria Tyrell, Lord Mace's distant cousin, though the woman seemed more interested in Black Jack, his much more accomplished cousin. Quellon Greyjoy was present with Balon and Victarion, but not Urrigon or Aeron as they had caused some manner of scene earlier in the day. Tyanna Wylde looked miserable next to Aenys Frey, her new betrothed. Selwyn Tarth had brought his ailing wife just to give her one last grand experienced before she faded entirely. Tytos Blackwood was there with his wife, which made the absence of the Brackens quite noteworthy. No doubt they would take it as an insult that they were forced to stay behind for Arryn's machinations. Especially since their liege lord had chosen this over them. Hoster Tully had brought his two daughters, Catelyn and Lysa. Catelyn Tully was beautiful, with fair skin, long auburn hair and blue eyes, long fingers and high cheekbones. She resembled her mother, Minisa Whent.

Rhaella had to pause there for a moment, as the woman had been one of her ladies in waiting once upon a time.

Tywin Lannister was his usual forbidding self, though thankfully not at the high table. He seemed to have brought Kevan Lannister and his wife Dorna Swift just to fill in for everything Tywin himself wasn't willing to lower himself to. Rhaella assumed she was there to mind Cersei and Jaime, who seemed fairly awkward around each other. Elia was still surprised the woman was there, though, on account of her gentle soul that was never comfortable except at home with friends and kin around her. Oberyn was less restrained than his sister and freely remarked on the woman being chicken-legged, flat-chested and chinless like her father. Loreza was off dancing at the time, so Doran waited until he was finished before 'reigning him in.'

Dorne was otherwise out in force, the South's many daughters shamelessly stealing time with everyone they could at the expense of their Reacher rivals. Ashara Dayne, Myria Jordayne, Delonne Allyrion, Larra Blackmont and a dozen others, they befuddled the eligible knights and lordlings of the realm with their forwardness and amount of skin on display. They drove spare with jealousy the likes of Rhonda Rowan, Alys Beesbury, and Rhaella's own Bethany.

The northern party was the smallest, though the stores might not tell the difference. Wyman Manderly ate richly from every course, sat amidst Robett Glover, Jorah Mormont, Medger Cerwyn and his wife Taelya. The ravens were with him even now, one black, one white, charming treats from the various guests and flitting to and back from the rafters. The obese lord unashamedly made japes at the expense of Lord Titus Peake of Starpike for his lack of daughters. Rhaella looked at Tywin, but the man didn't seem to notice or care about events half-way across the hall, even though Peake's wife was a Lannister, albeit an admittedly distant branch.

What Rhaella enjoyed most, much to her own surprise, were the Dornish dancers – they were positively exquisite. Her favorite dance was the Rhoynish Flamingo, much to Elia's pleasure. She spoke admiringly of the traditions preserved by the Orphans of the Greenblood, and nostalgically about the time when she was still allowed to dance it in public.

"Only the very young or older dancers are considered to have the emotional innocence or maturity to adequately convey the soul of the dance," she said. "I'm neither now, alas. Unless my husband would like to persuade me otherwise?"

"You boasted of having your own mind," Baelor said, sipping his wine. "Was that a lie, or have you merely changed your mind?"

"Ruin my fun."

"Turnabout, my dear."

Elia responded to Baelor calling her bluff by dragging him to every other dance there was music for. Rhaella's handmaids all enjoyed half a dozen suitors as well. Ashara Dayne exhausted enough men for all of them combined. Steffon took Cassana dancing repeatedly, even switched with a dozen others from all over the realm during the carola. Rhaella herself had thought she'd have to pass the eve without indulging herself, as any man who looked like he might approach her was scared off by Aerys' frigid stare.

She should have remembered that some people don't care how much the King scowls and grunts. Dancing with Rhaegar was torture, for she spent the whole time pretending Aerys hadn't implied he'd disinherit him just that morning. Steffon, though, banished all of that from her mind because he knew exactly the bright light he was in their lives. He took her dancing as soon as Cassana tired, then he did it again and again, and again whenever Loreza Martell started to make her way in his direction to get one last dig in their passive-aggressive back-and-forth.

"I wish you two could set aside your differences, if only for one night." Rhaella said when the last rodlieb was winding down.

"And I wish you hadn't roped my wife into helping you make that happen."

"Can you finally tell me why, now that Loreza's staying behind and I literally can't betray your confidence?"

"It's not you I'm worried about, it's my wife."

"Cassana? Surely not."

"You don't know how Dornish my wife can be in the dark."

The jealousy she suddenly felt shocked her, but she forced it back. "I won't discuss it with her. Tell me."

"Is that a command from the Queen?"

"No."

"Good, 'case I'd have said no."

Of course he would, why would she have more sway over him than the King himself? "Then?"

"Have you met her boys? They're killers. Clever, vicious, scheming little shits that always know more than they're saying, just like their dear old ma. Her girl though, she's an angel, the Maiden's sweetness, the Mother's own pride, the very soul of goodness and then some, so pretty and innocent and pure. I don't like it. You don't raise your kids so different unless you're setting them up for some scheme, and you don't keep only one innocent unless you want her unprepared for what you prepared her siblings for. I'll freely admit my house's history with the Dornish makes me biased, but I'll never not despise someone who sets their own children up to fail."

"That's a bit harsh, isn't it?"

"They literally raised her to be as useless a hostage as possible."

Didn't everyone? "Now you're being paranoid."

"Maybe, but I don't think so."

Steffon began to walk her back to the high table, though Rhaella wondered if he should bother. It was getting late. The bedding would be soon. Even the minstrels were fading into the background and settled on just a low, unobtrusive tune as if to get out of the way.

That was when Rhaegar signalled for his harp and proceeded to sing a song she'd never heard before, but which was undoubtedly the saddest, most heart-rending, most wonderful song she'd ever heard in her life.

Hear, o gods, my desperate plea
To see my love beside me

Sunk below the mortal sea
Her anchor weighs upon me
Fasten her tether unto me
That she may rise to sail free

Don't look back

Close enough that light we can see
My doubt betrays the better of me
A glance to the stern is all it would be
That anguished shade shall haunt me

Ever on

Calm
Seas
Winds a-lee
But now the squall's upon us
We're foundering
Drowning

Don't look back
Don't look back
Don't look back



By the end of it, she was in tears. Then Rhaella realised Rhaegar had sung while staring meaningfully at Elia Martell straight in the eye. A fact that hadn't gone unnoticed. Suddenly she felt like she should cry for completely different reasons.

Rhaegar, what are you doing?

The other women in the hall were as overcome as she was, but what men were still somewhat sober were of a decidedly less besotted persuasion. Their mood was soon noticed by their ladies, whose smiles began to die one by one as the silence began to turn from deeply moved to deeply indignant.

"Your pardon, My Prince," Lord Manderly pierced the silence with all the bluntness of the chicken leg his two ravens were nibbling on. "That was a most moving song, but perhaps our hosts might allow a slightly more upbeat tune to close the evening?"

Baelor wrenched his eyes away from Rhaegar with no small effort. "Indeed I would, my lord. Have you a suggestion?"

"More than that. Medger, lad, would you like to do the honors?"

"If I must."

What Rhaella had dismissed as the most unassuming of the Northern contingent waved for a strangely pear-shaped lute to be brought over. Then, after his wife knocked on wood with a strange metal fork that she then held near his ear, the man surprised the hall by playing a song that sounded as if it came straight from Chroyane.

To really love a woman
To understand her
You gotta know her deep inside
Hear every thought
See every dream
And give her wings when she wants to fly

Then when you find yourself lying helpless in her arms
You know you really love a woman

When you love a woman you tell her that she's really wanted
When you love a woman you tell her that she's the one
'Cause she needs somebody to tell her that it's gonna last forever
So tell me have you ever really—really-really ever loved a woman?


Medger Cerwyn wasn't half the singer her son was, but he held the tune well, and he got the hall dancing instead of weeping when Elia took Baelor out onto the floor with all the soul of one making a point.

To really love a woman
Let her hold you
'Til you know how she needs to be touched
You've gotta breathe her
Really taste her
'Til you can feel her in your blood

And when you can see your unborn children in her eyes
You know you really love a woman

When you love a woman you tell her that she's really wanted
When you love a woman you tell her that she's the one
'Cause she needs somebody to tell her that you'll always be together
So tell me have you ever really—really-really ever loved a woman?

You've got to give her some faith
Hold her tight
A little tenderness
You gotta treat her right
She will be there for you takin' good care of you
You really gotta love your woman


The tune was languid, sensual, but Elia Martell found a way to whip between steps, her white dress blooming like a flower around her and her dance partner. It was an impressive sight that Rhaella had no eyes for because they weren't the only ones indulging one last performance.

And when you find yourself lying helpless in her arms
You know you really love a woman

When you love a woman you tell her that she's really wanted
When you love a woman you tell her that she's the one
'Cause she needs somebody to tell her that it's gonna last forever
So tell me have you ever really—really-really ever loved a woman?

Just tell me have you ever really—really-really ever loved a woman?
Just tell me have you ever really—really-really ever loved a woman?



When the song finished and Rhaella Targaryen realized what she was staring at in every way unbecoming, Steffon was looking at her over his wife's crown with a sad, knowing smile.

There's no stopping me shaming myself, is there?

She looked away. By chance, her eyes landed on the newlyweds and she realized they were right in the middle of the now empty dance floor while all had fallen silent and expectant around them.

Rhaegar was closed off.

Medger Cerwyn was smirking.

"It's time for the bedding!"



"-. 278 AC .-"



She went to sleep that night praying to the Gods for anything that would make Steffon change his mind.

At first the gods didn't seem to have heard her and the days passed in a blur. There was a tourney that Aerys flatly forbid Rhaegar from participating in, as punishment for his display at the feast. Rhaegar responded to this by going on a hunt outside the city with his former squires, Myles Mooton and Richard Lonmouth. Rhaella was not surprised when a mystery knight joined the lists. She was only surprised when there were two of them. Unfortunately, since the brackets were planned based on how much spectacle was likely to be had, neither was given the favourable matchups that they otherwise would have. They passed the first bracket, but Rhaegar was unhorsed by Steffon on the second day in a reversal of the joust in Highgarden, despite Steffon wrestling with indigestion – ill-fitting armor, ill-fitting helm for even worse visibility, unfamiliar horse, they proved too much of a handicap together. Rhaella comforted her son of course, but Rhaegar was even more closed off than ever, no doubt due to Aerys having gotten to him first.

The other mystery knight was defeated by Ser Barristan and caused a major scandal when he was revealed to be Simon Toyne, the leader of the Kingswood Brotherhood. Aerys almost called for his head before Leyton reminded him about guest right, though it took Steffon agreeing before Aerys backed down. Toyne managed to disappear soon after in the bustle.

Ser Barristan went on to unhorse Prince Oberyn, Leyton Hightower, Jon Connington, and Steffon himself, before coming face to face with Arthur Dayne on the third day. Barristan only barely managed to unhorse him after breaking twelve lances, but was left sore and with in his shield arm sprained. He was unable to beat Gerold Hightower afterwards, but took enough of a toll that Gerold couldn't prevail in the Champion's tilt. The tourney ultimately went to Jorah Mormont, to the surprise of everyone present. The man then crowned Denyse Hightower his Queen of Love and Beauty with a wreath of white roses and asked her if she'd be available to consult on the matter of investing his sudden fortune.

He may as well have asked her to marry him right then and there.

Rhaegar watched the end of the proceedings quietly, emerging only briefly from his melancholy when Steffon knighted Connington. Aerys presided over events with all the pomp of his position, but he constantly avoided the matter of Steffon's plans to leave. When Rhaella finally broached the subject, her husband snapped at her to keep her opinions to herself and let him handle it.

She slept uneasily, dreaming of saner worlds where Steffon Baratheon was king.

Then the fourth day came with proof that the gods had heard her, but had decided to fulfil her wish in the worst manner possible.

It happened around noon, when Rhaella and her ladies were finishing the first planning session for their new Northern-inspired garments. Branda Rogers came with a positively frantic air about her, Cassana's lady-in-waiting. Rather than descending to the Baratheon suite on the floor below, though, she led him to Aerys' suite where the King was completely different from earlier, when she talked only briefly with him just after the Small Council meeting they didn't have excuses to put off anymore. He'd been short with her then, but not angry. More despodent, if that was even possible for him. Now he was positively furious, shouting orders to a constantly moving train of squires, knights and servants. Standing nearby with his own attendants and writing messages was Jon Arryn, Lord of the Vale, looking ready to order mass executions. Farther away, on the balcony, Cassana sat at the outdoor table with her face in her hands. Rhaella quickly approached her. "Cassana, what has happened?"

"Robert's been taken by the mountain clans."

…No.

Cassana held out a letter. Rhaella read it and found herself capable of wishing thousands of people dead.

The Gods… The Gods were cruel. She'd asked them for mercy and they gave her this, would she ever learn to stop being selfish?

"Where's Steffon?" Last she heard, he'd gone to the Mansions of the Pious to arrange for suitable premises for when Aerys had to go preside over the impending synod as Protector of the Faith. "Has he still not returned?"

"No, we've sent Barristan after him. Oh, how am I to tell him, Rhaella? What will I tell Stannis?"

Rhaella wanted to comfort her, but how could she when she'd literally prayed for anything it took? Instead, she went over to the railing and looked towards the Starry Sept in the distance. It was far, but the height of the Hightower made it easy, and eyesight was one thing Rhaella had never had trouble with. Unfortunately, that only meant she got to be the first to see when everything else went wrong.

The mansions were full to bursting with septons, septas, lay brothers and sisters, and so was the great plaza outside the Starry Sept itself. But the teeming masses of brown robes suddenly turned startled, then frenzied and began either trying to flee or to get further in. Some strange clamour spread, the echoes of which reached even them on the wind, as sound does on high. She watched as the minutes passed, straining to see through the hair being blown in her face, hear through the wind in her ears, her heart filling with dread. She didn't even notice when Aerys joined her, but she felt it when her hair mixed with his in the gale.

From within the Mansions inner yard, three horses burst forth in a gallop, only two of which had their riders. Barristan. Connington. The third was carried over the saddle.

This was a nightmare.

Heart full of dread, she looked at her husband.

Aerys Targaryen looked absolutely horrified.

Then all his horror and fear and anger and everything else he'd stewed in the week past just… vanished.

"I will burn them all."
 

Simonbob

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Well.

That's so..... GoT. Everything's manipulation, everything's an insult, nobody's trustworthy, and if they are, nobody respects them.


I am waiting to see what the hell they'll make of Ned's ability to get them all out of it with shear genius, though.
 

ATP

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Oberyn is another person who wont kill Brandon now - for his sister clothes.Would be funny,if he succed.

Cersei is Cersei - it is really strange,that person as bad in manipulating people as her manage achieve anything in canon.Probably ,becouse GRRM decided that Lannisters must keep winning till he decide otherwise.

Steffon really did it - now,let look see how it fall.

And who get Rhaegar? Blackfyres? how ?

Anyway - Brandon with Ned help would made things right.

P.S thanks for good chapter.
 

Karmic Acumen

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Who was carried on saddle,then? certainly not Robert,or Ned.Both are fine.
That has nothing to do with stuff happening over in the Vale. Steffon went to the Mansions of the Pious to make sure the premises were fitting the King, who would have to basically keep order during the synod that's happening now. Steffon, JonCon and Barristan went in, but only the latter two came out ahorse - Steffon's laid out over Joncon's saddle.

Thus Aerys' freakout.
 

ATP

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That has nothing to do with stuff happening over in the Vale. Steffon went to the Mansions of the Pious to make sure the premises were fitting the King, who would have to basically keep order during the synod that's happening now. Steffon, JonCon and Barristan went in, but only the latter two came out ahorse - Steffon's laid out over Joncon's saddle.

Thus Aerys' freakout.
So,he died ? stil better then canon.Who coud do so? Blackfyres,some hiding maester,or corrupted Faith member?
 
Chapter II.4: Burned Wedding Crashers Make for Stringy Crow Food (The Father) (I)

Karmic Acumen

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"-. THE FATHER .-"

(I)


Looking forward to peace and quiet after years of not getting any peace and quiet made life so much brighter! After the first cold of his life joined hands with indigestion to ruin the tourney for him, Steffon Baratheon was quite glad to finally have something to buoy the spirits that Rhaegar and Toyne rode into the ground. It didn't compare to thumb-wrestling Renly, or having Viserys on hand to hug and toss up and down, but he had to be mindful that he'd soon need to manage without his comfort dragon. Besides, maybe he and Cassana could finally get that fourth baby that kept eluding them, that wasn't too much to hope for, right?

Sure, looking forward to a holiday didn't compare to actually being on holiday, but it was only a matter of time! In fact, it would be just enough time to get past this blasted heartburn, because of course that had to happen at some point in his life too. Good thing he didn't catch it during the actual feast, that would have been mighty annoying and then some. Not that a Lords' Council was a much better place to be one lurch away from puking all over the table, but he'd done better with worse.

Now if everyone and their mother-in-law could kindly not take the last shine away by trying to ram their oh so grandiose projects down his throat in the eleventh hour, that would be just grand. Unfortunately, misfortune just refused to take a break from courting Steffon's increasingly smug pessimism. Which is to say, someone squealed again. About important need-to-know information. Namely the still vaguely defined idea for a Royal Bank of Westeros that Steffon could have sworn he hadn't discussed with anyone but Aerys in private.

So now the Great Lords were all falling over each other arguing how they knew just the place to put the damn thing, because of course they did! After all, why would high lords not act on their gods-misbegotten egos during such an auspicious time? They simply had to put their best foot forward, after all it was a wedding, wasn't that right? Besides, it wasn't every day that the King held council with his lords directly. Steffon was sorely regretting not holding the Small Council meeting before this gathering instead of after. He was also wondering where the high nobility's complete disgust for coin counting had disappeared to. And he couldn't even give them the stern talking to they deserved because they were grown-arse men he couldn't just take into hand like the misbehaving children they acted like.

It would have been easy enough to send them off with empty platitudes if they hadn't all come armed with bucketloads of ever so brilliant ideas that it was literally impossible for the crown to not give them due consideration without giving insult. It wasn't like the Royal Bank would have to naturally be located in the capital or anything!

Hoster Tully wanted to base the Royal Bank in a second Riverrun he wanted built at the confluence of the Blue and Red Forks (complete with a moat to wall off the third side). And to provide adequate defense, he proposed a writ to establish riverrine navy. Tully acted like it would be a token gesture from the 'decisively proactive Iron Throne we are blessed to serve under in our time' but he wasn't fooling anyone. Or, well, not everyone if Mace Tyrell's attempt to look like he was on to him was any indication, poor lad. It would give Hoster the ideal place to stash a second branch of his House, and allow him to dominate traffic on all three Forks by giving House Tully the upper hand on the lords of the Trident, especially the more easterly parts of their dominion. It would also be a major source of revenue from increased tax collection and tariffs, while offsetting the geographical disadvantage of Riverrun being so far away from the centre of their land.

Tywin wanted the Royal Bank based in Casterly Rock, naturally, ostensibly for more streamlined investment for whatever future great works the Seven Kingdoms had planned. Steffon wondered if Tywin really expected everyone to be blind to how this would allow him to fuck with the value of gold even more than he already did. Tywin also wanted a license to keep a permanent fleet at Lannisport of at least 300 ships. As if naval expertise and tariff exemptions grew like shrooms in mine warrens! And that was without mentioning all the shady shit Tywin had already suggested to Steffon in confidence, as if it was all hunky-dory to spy on their allies and torture secrets out of kidnapped Qohori smiths!

Mace Tyrell followed up with wanting the Bank in Highgarden because of course he did. Then he did one better and proposed a sub-treasury system for farmers to sell their crops to a public warehouse at a guaranteed minimum rate in exchange for an official letter of credit, which they could then redeem for their crops again if prices rose. Of all the plans proposed, this one was most obviously developed by a poor maester desperate to rehabilitate his order's image because Mace did a terrible job of explaining it. Which was a very mixed blessing because it was a really, truly, dangerously good plan that Mace would have been better off carrying out at home with his own funds without warning anyone. The wealth mobility would increase and stabilize farmer's incomes and their access to credit, while massively expanding Highgarden's wealth reserves by a huge factor, maybe enough to make Highgarden richer than House Lannister. Tywin was sure regretting letting Tyrell speak after him, just look at his ever so stony face!

Steffon felt a little guilty when Quellon Greyjoy gave him a reprieve from splashy ambitions. The man was clearly blindsided by everyone else's projects, and he didn't even pretend the Iron Islands would ever be in the running for something like this. He did a really good job of looking down on his peers without looking down on them for their, ahem, 'bold' proposals. He even pulled some ideas out of his arse about freeing thralls, forbidding most reaving, discouraging salt wives and bringing more maesters to the Iron Islands. When it came out that he needed outside support for all of it, though, there was much empty encouragement offered because that was the sort of thing you needed marriages with the mainland for, and his leverage on that front was very small indeed after Euron's literal treason. It wasn't fair to expect the same treachery from the man's other sons, but it was difficult to imagine a worse failure as a father and as a man. How could you not worry that his other children were cut from the same cloth?

Jon Arryn mercifully had nothing to posture about, so he was officially Steffon's new favorite not-friend.

Then Loreza Martell 'kindly' distracted everyone from Greyjoy's plight by 'not tainting the proceedings with her own personal ambitions' and instead offered Dorne as the 'proving ground' for the 'understandably young and untested institution to cut its teeth on.' Which is to say, she brought up Aerys' old abandoned ideas for Dorne. In fact, she 'graciously' reassured everyone that Dorne could 'easily' just 'settle' for 'merely' diverting the Torrentine river eastward, what the fuck, woman? And nobody except Tywin seemed to realise she was just tossing it out there for the hell of it, because really? Did they not realise this would literally dispossess House Dayne and destroy an established fertile valley in exchange for a sandy swamp that would take decades to become a tenth as fertile, if that? Aerys of yesteryear might have been completely insane to suggest digging a tunnel from one side of the Red Mountains to the other, but at least he only wanted part of the water diverted eastwards, not the whole damn river!

"And what about you, Lord Hand?" Lady Daft Dame ever so graciously aimed her spear at the roiling stormcloud. "Surely the Stormlands have not let their best minds stay idle? Please, tell us your own plans."

Steffon looked at her incredulously. "Any plans I have for my homeland are just that: my plans. Which I will carry out when and how it suits me." Without begging for handouts from the Iron Throne would've rung like a death bell in the ensuing quiet if self-awareness was not, in fact, a myth.

The Daft Dame tittered.

Steffon glowered her, but the damage was already done. Everyone was all a tizzy now because of course Dorne couldn't be allowed to have right of first refusal, especially for something that would benefit the Seven Kingdoms as a whole if only built elsewhere. A link from Blue Fork to Ironman's Bay would hugely increase trade in the Riverlands, Tywin naturally needed a canal linking Hornvale to the Red Fork (it would cut the time from the Westerlands to King's Landing from over three months to five days, don't you know!), and Mace Tyrell suddenly needed two canals of his own too, from the Mander to the Blackwater and from the Mander to Honeywine because of course he did, he was sitting in Hightower's Hightower while Hightower wasn't allowed to sit on a meeting held in his own tower by his most begrudged guest with his mother-in-law, another slight that Aerys insisted on, great optics there!

Speaking of Aerys, this was around the time where the King should step in and remind everyone it was still House Targaryen that ruled the Seven Kingdoms. Alas, His Grace had chosen to ever so gracefully sulk over Steffon's entirely reasonable vacation plans, and wasn't that just perfect? Why shouldn't both of his friends decide to be absolutely terrible to him when he needed them?

Steffon took a deep breath and willed his heartrate to drop back to normal. Unfortunately, he'd gone from excitement at his upcoming vacation to whatever-excitement-wasn't. His knee started bouncing up and down.

What should he even do here? Refuse, delay, defer, or make a judgment call and hope the parties slighted didn't spend his vacation nursing the motherlode of all resentments like children mad over having their toys taken away? Cancel the Royal Bank plans entirely? Pretend to cancel them? Maybe he could beg off on account of his malaise, it was the weather, you know, the harbour air was just too clean compared to King's Landing and it blew in the opposite direction, his constitution just couldn't adjust, that was the sort of dogshit people could actually pretend made some sense, right? More than faking his own suicide at least, though it would get him out of this right quick.

Steffon eyed the railing speculatively. Aerys had chosen to hold his meetings on the terrace because it left a single, windowed wall to eavesdrop through, and their voices were otherwise lost in the wind. If he jumped off, not only would Steffon be dead the moment he hit the ground, he'd have long enough for life to flash before his eyes and rethink all his life's decisions, thus reaching the other side wise and enlightened. He would escape this torment and the eternal torment of the Seven Hells by becoming a martyr. Sure, Aerys would be crushed and Rhaella would be doubly crushed without closure for her unrequited love, but he wasn't about to apologise for being the ideal man, that would be crazy!

But then Cassana would have to raise Renly without a father, Stannis would grind his teeth to sand, and Robert would break the Seven Kingdoms to pieces in his rage and piss on the remains. Steffon couldn't do that to them, he still had so much to teach them, so many shortcomings of his own to make up for one bellowing hug at a time, he couldn't die, he just couldn't die, he didn't want to die yet, he just couldn't!

Wait, what was he thinking, he was in a good mood today, no way was he going to let simple stupidity bring his spirits down! Now, granted, this was rather more complicated stupidity, but still!

"What say you, Lord Baratheon?" Hoster Tully asked before Mace Tyrell could gird his loins for yet another failure to pick up where Daft Dame left off. "What does the Hand of the King think about all this?"

"I think you're all arseholes." Would you look at that, it was so quiet all of a sudden. Bliss! "I am, in fact, well aware that I've failed to secure the Iron Throne from unwanted ears. I don't quite appreciate that you all chose not to inform the Crown of this intelligence breach instead of trying to profit from it via this unsightly display. I especially don't appreciate that you've chosen to throw it in my face two measly hours before I have to go secure the premises where our King has to preside over the first Starry Synod in over a thousand years. Tomorrow. Because the Most Devout are seriously scared of a schism that will paint this city red with the blood of priests for the second time in less than five years. There's this word I've been teaching Viserys, see, his r's still sound like a strangled duck but he made a better attempt at 'restraint' than-"

"What my Hand is trying to say," Aerys suddenly interjected, and fuck, what kind of day was this when Aerys Targaryen was the one soothing ruffled feathers, ugh. "Is that your contributions to this meeting are rather greater in scope than this informal setting was intended to accommodate at this time. As you know, the Crown has barely finished its last great work. All of you know there are more urgent short-term issues that take priority now. The Iron Throne cannot be distracted at this sensitive juncture, especially since there are outlaws aplenty to do so in your stead, you were all there for Toyne's brazen display."

Yes, Your Grace, go ahead and compare the Great Lords to bandits, that's surely better than calling them out for acting like entitled brats worse than a two-year-old, don't mention how the Iron Throne has to either grant something to every one of them now (thus wasting gold and favour on things that would likely go nowhere alone), refuse all of them (thus inflicting flagrant insult on everybody), or choose just one or two of the lot (thus inflicting a really big flagrant insult on everyone left out). And don't think Steffon didn't notice how Aerys didn't say anything about the holiday he had planned, sound the bells, Jon Con, there's an all-new battle coming up and nope, never mind. Jon Con was a knight now, Steffon didn't even have his squire anymore to grouse invectives at, wonderful.

Did it not occur to any of these people they could make their own banks? Then they could fund all their pet projects and then some. Then again, that would open a whole other can of worms, because who even knew where the authority of the Iron Throne ended and the Lords' began then?

"We do apologise, Your Grace," Mace Tyrell simpered – no, Steffon shouldn't be scathing towards the only one with stones enough to talk back to the King in spite of having the worst harridan in the realms for a mother. "It's just… we assumed you wanted to hear our proposals as soon as possible given all the… disruptive elements afflicting the Realm's stability in recent years."

"Elements that continue to insist on playing coy," Tywin coldly agreed, and now Steffon was seriously wondering if someone had finally managed to poison him for Tywin Lannister to agree with Mace Tyrell on anything. "Let's not pretend we don't know who and why is absent from this council."

Oh right, that's why. The can of worms was right open already, thank you kindly for the reminder, Tywin.

You cunt.

"We shall adjourn here." Aerys' voice was two shades colder than before. His eyes were locked on Tywin's, because why shouldn't Steffon's friends insist on being the most troublesome friends to ever have? "My Hand and I need prepare for the Small Council meeting. The matter of the Royal Bank is tabled until further notice. Please enjoy the rest of the festivities."

The men – and Daft Dame – made a good show of pretending to leave without any hard feelings.

Not that it made much difference. The Small Council had nothing else to talk about either, so much so that Aerys adjourned that early too. Alas for the blissful ignorance of transparent arguments! The Realm's chronic lack of subtlety was alive and kicking him in the balls with the same enthusiasm that got four Masters of Whisperers fired within his first year on the job. Soon to be five, it seemed. Looked like Darklyn and his woman were finally getting the other half of what they wanted. Good luck to them, they'll need it with this bunch. Worse than Viserys, the lot of them. At least the little dragon had the courtesy of being adorable and cute!

But that was the rub, wasn't it? Mace Tyrell was right. There were very good reasons to do something as soon as possible about those 'disruptive elements' that had everyone south of the Neck freaking the fuck out.

The North no longer imported food, they'd introduced new crops never before seen, their sugar beets had practically crippled the Reach's cane sugar exports, and their crop rotation freely offered could throw the Reach into complete disarray within the year. The Northern Citadel hadn't failed, the Sleeves had upended everything previously known about sickness and defeated the plague. The north was no longer struggling with raids and rebellions, they were outpacing all other realms in metalworking to equip their professional war force unlike all but Casterly Rock had managed to afford before. The Company of the Rose and Wolf Pack mercenary companies were now Rickard Stark's standing army deployed around the Bay of Ice and the Dreadfort.

House Stark sold booze in clear glass bottles and sails to Braavos. The Crown of Winter Institute of Learning was called the Crown of Winter Institute of Learning. And now Tywin Lannister was furious and worried enough to make common cause with Mace Tyrell, of all people, because he was disturbed enough to think the North was mining gold.

His holiday couldn't come fast enough.

"I forbid it," Aerys said out of the blue when it was just the two of them left.

Well, the two of them and the raven that continued to badger Steffon for snacks even though he'd been feeding the Fat Foul since he first sat his arse on that chair that morning. "Forbid what, Your Grace?"

"I do not give you leave to abandon your responsibilities."

"I'm not a slave, Aerys. I do what I want."

Aerys actually gaped in shock at him.

Steffon got up from his chair and promptly had to grab onto the edge of the table when a dizzy spell came over him. When it passed, Aerys was standing as well, his look of alarm not hidden quite fast enough. "You are unwell."

"I'm well enough," Steffon grunted. "It's the air, too much gall getting passed around all at once."

"This is no joking matter!"

The shout sent Fat Foul flying off to watch from the safe distance above the door. Steffon harrumphed and walked over to stand in front of the other man. "Aerys, look at my face." Steffon waited for Aerys to comply. "Now tell me, how different is it from when I took this job?"

Aerys retreated from him with a scoff. "We are all different now."

"Aerys, I just got dizzy. Me. And it's not even the first time. I got dizzy in the yard too, way back when we got here. I was sparring with Rhaegar and it just came over me. Brat got a good hit in too, we weren't using live steel but it still broke skin, that's how unused to this I am. I felt like shit taking the lift today too, like all the heatstroke I avoided since leaving King's Landing caught up to me all at once. I got over it fast because I'm, reasonably speaking, the strongest man in the world. But I'll be outright amazing after a good break."

"Do not pretend you are leaving for my benefit."

"Well then, seeing as you're so worried, I hope I don't need to keel over and die before you stop holding my limits against me."

Aerys shoved back his chair and strode over to the edge of the terrace, robes swirling as he grabbed the railing and leaned over to glare at the city below. "You dare call me a slaver?"

"I think you're starting to forget the difference."

"Am I?" Aerys asked disdainfully. "Do enlighten me, then. How do I treat you like a slave?"

"You haven't. Yet." Steffon shrugged, considering the drinks on the table before choosing a cup of mead. "You treat plenty others like that, though, and you take me for granted."

"Others? Like who?"

"Your petitioners, your servants, you son-"

"Is he?"

"Oh please, Rhaegar is not a bastard and you know it." This was the perfect occasion for Steffon to test his ideas for remote bird feeding. Fat Foul proved quite adept at snatching puffcorn out of the air. "The only thing he got from Rhaella is how pretty he is. Everything else is you, all the way to his ever so lofty designs for a realm he hasn't inherited yet. The only difference is that he started off on the bad side of pessimism, mister 'I'll bring the Titan to its knees right after I build an underwater canal to make the desert bloom.'"

"You have some cheek to speak to me like this."

You can no more prove Rhaegar isn't yours than Tywin can prove that about Tyrion, but Aerys hated being compared to him even when the shoe fit, which was all the time. "No. I have faith that you'll take it in the intended spirit."

"Perhaps I will not."

"Won't you?" Flick – gobble. Fat Foul wasn't missing the mark at all, even when Steffon flicked wide. "The only way you'll prove me wrong is if you choose to do it out of spite. You're not a bad enough man for that." Anymore.

"I am your king."

"And the only reason that peasant last week didn't tell you to go fuck yourself when you ruled in favour of the merchant is because he chose the course that spared him further cruelty. It wasn't because you control what he wants and does. Whoever told you the King commands the hearts and minds of his people was a fat oily liar."

Aerys' grip on the railing went white-knuckled. "You would compare my treatment of you to that of the smallfolk?"

"The life of commoners sucks, but at least they can live it without being driven to murder."

Aerys clearly had no idea what to say to that. Kingship had made him a master of deflection though. The man averted his eyes and glared instead at the terrace garden three levels below, where Rhaella and her women's court were having brunch with the other High Ladies in residence. "Look at them. Look at her, all prim and proper in that garden, as if it's a point of pride for her and not our House's greatest enemies. What great banquets and lavish social affairs were hosted there under the stars, do you think? Did Hightower ever live up to its claims of propriety, or did they mock us like they mocked the stoic melancholy of the moss-covered fountains and angelic statues, their salacious trysts half-hidden in the hedgerows, their morality slipping ever deeper into the mud."

"Oh Aerys," Steffon said sadly. "Do you truly think Hightower will rub off on her that easily? Rhaella's as much a Targaryen as you. She's your wife."

"She neither loves nor respects me." The King spat bitterly, looking at Steffon over his shoulder with death in his eye. "She only has eyes for you."

"Of course she does." Steffon said mildly, shocking the man into turning around. "I'm the only man she has regular access to that's good and strong and honest and more handsome than you." Really, how was this not obvious? Honestly. "Also, you treat her like shit for things she never did even though you're the worse adulterer in your matrimony by a thousand leagues."

Aerys was gaping at him with an affront so close to apoplectic that Steffon seriously worried he'd be finishing the day one head shorter.

Finally, finally though, Aerys grit his teeth and turned his back on him again, his silence heavy ad damning between them.

Oh well. Not like that ever stopped Steffon before. "Grandma was a Targaryen too, remember that? She told me something once. Life is a balance between two extremes. The noble man devotes his material wealth to lofty ends, the advancement of science, or art, or some such true ideal. The base man does the opposite by concentrating all his abilities on the amassing of wealth and power. This is the real distinction between the true noble and the common blue-blood, or, if you prefer it, between the gentleman and the cad."

It was fifteen puffcorn tosses later than Aerys finally unclenched his jaw enough to respond. "That is a most depressing way of thinking."

"But it's not wrong, or The King's Landing wouldn't be the summit of entertainment."

"You remain far too optimistic for your own good."

"Only because you can't be bothered to muster any of your own. I only do what I do for you."

"Me and everyone else."

"You and everyone else I love, yes." Also the realm, but work ethic was the one front Aerys had absolutely no problems on.

Once again, Aerys shut up uncomfortably. This time, though, he couldn't hold himself back. "She lusts for you."

"Yes she does, I'm pretty good looking and well-endowed after all."

"… She's in love with you."

Steffon sighed and sat against the table. "Yes," he said lowly. "She is. And she deserves a man as good as I am, but I'm faithful and happily married. I'm sorry neither of you two will ever have that. I don't know what to do about that. I'm sorry."

The silence this time was raw and grief-stricken, the king's heart bleeding heartbreak in the wind.

"You deserve better too, Aerys, but you'll never have it if you go on like this."

"I never will, will I?" Aerys murmured bleakly. "It was impossible the moment our father forced us to marry on the word of some crackpot witch."

"That's right," Steffon sighed, looking over to him. "So why, Aerys? Why put so much effort into making things even more painful for yourself? Why, Aerys?"

Aerys didn't reply.

Steffon lost count of how much corn Fat Foul badgered out of him by the time Aerys talked to him again.

"Handship was never a trial for you before."

"Not in the beginning, because I was fresh and enthusiastic." Like the forest fire from a lightning strike, forever doomed to go out eventually. "Now I'm burned out." Steffon threw the bird one last kernel and went over to lean his hip against the railing. "Aerys, I need a vacation or I'll start ripping heads off with my bare fingers. Or did you not notice me having a shorter temper than yours? If you won't give me leave, I'll use your great warrant to do it myself. Unless you plan to withdraw that?"

Aerys glared at him, and his eyes had never before spewed such venom. The King pulled away from the railing and turned to face him, challenge written bare over his face. "And if I do deny you?"

"I'll resign and not come back at all."

Aerys drew back, shocked. Hurt.

Steffon had never given Aerys an ultimatum, but he had his own lines never to be crossed, and the king's oath to 'never bring you into dishonor' was one of the big ones. Besides, it was about time something shocked Aerys into thinking. That was just how his mind worked. This dragon had not given the matter due thought yet. Since Steffon had a very full day planned on his behalf, he really didn't need the added stress any more than he could afford to wait the rest of this latest full week for the man to catch up to the right conclusion.

Hear oh gods my desperate plea, to understand why Targaryens are so terrible at being human.

Oh, who was he kidding? He didn't need to beg answers from gods he didn't believe in, he knew the answer already. It's because House Targaryen was made up of dramatic shits.

"Aerys," Steffon called softly, barely concealing the brief vertigo that made him glad he wasn't close enough to tip over the railing. "Have I not done my part?"

"Oh, stop being facetious."

"Then why are you punishing me?" It was an honest question, but no answer came. "I did my part and even managed to bring matters to a good enough point where there aren't any fires burning for once. Are the months and years of working myself to exhaustion and barely getting enough sleep not enough?"

"Don't presume to hold that against me when you showed not a sign!"

"Of course I didn't let you see it, you need me to be strong."

Aerys' face twisted between guilty shame and offended outrage at the very idea that he needed emotional support of any kind.

Steffon snorted, pushed from the railing and gave Aerys his belated hug of the day. "You can handle things without me just fine. I believe in you." Then he left without waiting for his King's dismissal because his friend deserved that and worse for being a jackass.

To his delight, Stannis was waiting for him inside.

"Son!"

"Father." Stannis rose from his armchair. "How are you feeling?"

"Cressen put you up to this?" Steffon eyed the book that Stannis had been reading. Poison or Sickness? A record of Common Commonalities. "You think I'm being poisoned?"

Stannis put the tome under his arm and walked beside him while staring straight ahead. "I believe this place has put you in greater danger than you've ever been in."

"I appreciate your concern, my boy." And he did. "But I'm pretty sure it's just a cold."

"You've never been sick in your life," Stannis said flatly. "Also, a cold only accounts for the congestion and fever, not everything else."

"And general unwellness, which does cover everything else."

"Nevertheless, as you are too busy to take proper care of yourself, I will stay vigilant."

"I'm such a shit father these days," Steffon sighed gustily, prompting Stannis to look back in disbelief. "I need to replenish my dad energy!"

"Robert will be over the moon, I'm sure."

"And you won't because you never are, yes, I know."

"… We'll just have to see."

"Oh my dear Stanny Boy, you don't see shit." Steffon sighed. "Except poison, apparently. Although I guess someone would have gotten to my milk and honey eventually."

"Cressen did not rule it out," his boy said loftily. Steffon would have laughed if Stannis wasn't completely incapable of putting on airs. "… But if it bothers you, I will try to be more discreet."

"No. If it's you, I don't mind. Do what you need for your peace of mind." They entered the lift and Steffon quickly amended his statement. "Except for my trip out to the Mansions. You're not coming. I don't want you within a mile of the place." Steffon didn't believe for a second there wasn't still rot there. "Line continuation, you understand."

"Robert will rejoice at his new place in succession, I'm sure."

"Cheeky brat." Steffon was so proud that he felt like he could defeat all the sicknesses in the world at once. Stannis said a joke! Finally, after so many years his toil was paying off! "I'm telling on you to your mother." She'll be so glad!

"Will that be before or after your thankless errand on our king's behalf?"

"Don't cast aspersions on His Grace, there's only one great warrant in this realm and I'm not ready for you to inherit that yet." Hopefully never, though whether Rhaegar would be any easier to handle remained unlikely. Still better than both at once though. "But to answer your question, it depends on whether she plans to ambush me on the way to the North's assigned quarterage."

"Ah."

'Ah' indeed. Steffon had hoped that meeting directly with the Wardens and Paramounts would make for a fresh change of pace from the Small Council's rote arse kissing, even if Aerys had only agreed to it because of the snub to Leyton Hightower and his get. Unfortunately, it was looking like all it managed to do was insult the Northern delegation for nothing. Not that punishing Rickard's absence wasn't a shit decision to begin with, but Aerys had a point that the Lord of the North had put off his public commendation several years too many and needed a slap on the wrist to get on with it. But snubbing Wyman Manderly while allowing Greyjoy in was a bit too much. Euron Greyjoy may have revealed that the North was building shipyards in secret, but it wasn't like anyone had bothered asking if they were, and at the end of the day it was still treason.

You didn't reward treason. Especially when it took away your access to the only viable source of information on the most cagey of the Seven Kingdoms now that even Branda Rogers nee Stark had proven to be completely useless.

"Come on, Stannis," Steffon said when the lift finally stopped at the right floor. "Let's see about hooking a merman."

He should have brought a net instead, it turned out. The sitting room was wide, spacious, airy, and populated by the single fattest man Steffon Baratheon had ever seen in his life, big, wide and his pale hair glinting silver in the sun where he stood at the window, leaning into the sea breeze with Fat Foul perched on his shoulder begging for corn.
 
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Simonbob

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Even with the blood of the Storm God flowing though his veins, there comes a point where a man must have a holiday.

Where he must recharge his Dad Energy.
 

ATP

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Well,it was matter of time.Even superman Saint would become sick if he was in Steffon shoes.
But,since everybody are blaming North/and for good reason - crop rotation really hurt Reach,and Tywin have reasons to fear,too/ we would either have war,or something bigger unite Westeros again.
Others invasion would work,i think.

P.S How many of childrens and giants could Brandon save? And would he even try?
 
Chapter II.4: Burned Wedding Crashers Make for Stringy Crow Food (The Father) (II)

Karmic Acumen

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"-. The Father .-"
(II)



Steffon was wrong. Manderly wasn't the fattest man he'd ever seen, he was only the second fattest man he'd ever seen, enough that he should still be able to sit a horse if the animal was large enough. He sure seemed bigger than he was, though, with all those layers under the sea-green silks. More than everyone else in residence, and no pansy-arse threadbare fabrics either. White wool, it looked like. Steffon wondered why he was even surprised, if people in Dorne went around wrapped in wool to shield themselves from the heat, someone up north accustomed to summer snows would find it too warm to walk around exposed too. The fabrics though, they were woven and cut to hang loose and breathe as much as possible without being hard on the eye. Well, no harder on the eye than being a fat fuck naturally made you. "The hell even is the thread count on those?"

Fat Foul flew out the window as Wyman Manderly turned to look at him, completely dumbfounded.

It occurred belatedly to Steffon Baratheon that he might have spent a tad too much time with Rhaella Targaryen that he even noticed that sort of thing. No wonder she was in love with him, gods, why was it so troublesome to be the best of men?

"I can inquire," offered Manderly, walking over to the tea table in the middle of the room. "It might be some time before the ravens fly back and forth, however. I'm afraid I didn't bring a tailor with me."

"No, no, that's fine," Steffon cleared his throat. "It's not important." He sat down a bit harder than he meant to, the day was already getting to him, damn.

"You'd be surprised." The man smiled briefly. Mysteriously. Over wool, what even? That beard made him look surprisingly good for such a fat man too, neat and thick and sharp, it hid his second chin perfectly. "You wanted a meeting, Lord Hand. Here we are."

"Right." Steffon motioned to Stannis, who handed the stationery he'd taken to carrying when Steffon agreed to let him stand in for Jon Con. It was a severe hit to Stannis' social life, but Steffon consoled himself knowing the sheer disdain Stannis held for the very concept. Hopefully this would gain him valuable insight into administration, and connections that would help him later in life. Maybe even train him to hide his grumpiness a bit better. It was still an adjustment for both of them though. Jon Con had picked up a lot of the slack over the years. Any other month Steffon might have been tempted to accept Tywin's offer to squire Jaime, but the boy was already squiring for Summer Crakehall. Steffon wasn't in the habit of enabling Tywin's habit of insulting good men. He didn't fancy having to accommodate the kid right now either, when he was so close to finally having some family time again. Not that Tywin didn't know that, the arse only made the offer to express his displeasure (again) over Steffon taking Jon Con to begin with, instead of waiting for Tywin to get over his tiff way back.

But now he was getting distracted, a dangerous thing in front of the man that had so soundly neutralised Rhaegar's gaffe during the wedding feast, then somehow persuaded everyone since that he was nothing but a craven glutton instead of peacemaker that successfully derailed the bubbling outrage of a crowd of drunks. "I'm sure you know of the meeting that the King and I just concluded with the Paramaount Lords. I wanted to ask if Lord Stark conveyed any agendas of his own he wanted to put forward for the King's consideration." Translation: let's pretend it wasn't a deliberate slight so everyone can go back to keeping up appearances, yours first.

"Nothing specific at this time." Really? No tax cuts, no bank, no money grant for their new navy, maybe the New Gift back? Not that it was the Crown's to return anymore, which was going to be its own problem eventually, Steffon was sure, that was just his luck these days. "And I dare not speculate on the meeting topic. Pie?" Deliberate slight noted and fully reciprocated.

Oh well, it was worth a try. "What sort of pie?"

"Lamprey."

His upset stomach waged a vicious war against the kingly offer and lost miserably. "Maybe a small slice if you've any tea to settle me after."

"As you will. I hope you don't mind if I indulge, though, I try not to waste treats fresh out of my cooks' ovens."

So Manderly didn't bring his own tailor but he did bring his cooks. Good to know his priorities. The proof that the food wasn't poisoned was also appreciated. Steffon disliked that he had to always think about that these days, but he consoled himself knowing he'd be free from that and all other worries soon. He decided to have a couple of crumpets as well, soaked in copious quantities of that wonderful maple syrup that would probably be able to finance the North all by itself in another five years.

"I know you're a very busy man, Lord Hand, so if you like we can dispense with the small talk. Snacking is no excuse to shirk on business."

Dare he hope? "That's fine, if you're sure."

"One's mind is always best known by one's self."

So deep! "Right." Steffon decided to have a bite first – holy shit, for food like this he might become a fatass too. Even his stomach was shocked out of its queasiness for a little while. "My compliments to your cooks, this is very good!"

"My thanks on their behalf."

"Excellent. So what was Euron Greyjoy thinking breaking the King's Peace?" The pie wedge briefly paused half-way to Manderly's mouth. Only briefly though, damn, Steffon had weaponised his abrupt directness and then some, how did this Northman recover so fast? "Was he stupid or crazy, you think?"

Manderly wiped the crumbs from his beard and pulled over a large hardcover without the book, instead it held a bunch of papers secured on spokes with a metal rail. He unbent the fastener and took out part of the stack until he found the sheet he wanted and held out for Steffon to take, what a terribly useful device.

Accepting it, Steffon found it to be a page cut from some issue of the Winds of Winter newspaper he'd never seen, with prominent placement of a drawing depicting some bizarre contraption of sticks and sails that looked like the mother of all centipedes. "The Ice Bay Strandbeast Makes Its Stumbling Debut," he read the title. Skimming the article, Steffon found himself forced to go back and read it more carefully because no way did this thing exist. "Children made this?"

"Quite so."

"How?"

"As far as I understand it, with bedsheets, sticks and determination. Plus a dash of mathematics, I suppose. And someone would have had to take charge at some point, I imagine."

Why thank you, Lord Manderly, that sounds like a whole lot of dogshit. "What are you even teaching your children up there?"

"Everything we can," Manderly shrugged, munching another piece of pie. "It's proven very useful in finding those with a knack for crafts early. Besides, it's better than leaving them to their own devices, can you imagine so many clever hands left idle? I shudder at the thought."

How smart were these brats? And where did they even get idle children in the North, they were eternally short on bodies up there. "How many can there possibly be?"

"Several times over compared to the past, we've had something of a population boom, as you might fathom."

That was something he was supposed to fathom? "Right." Population boom. In the North. Alright. Surely this would have no major repercussions to the make-up of Westeros for centuries to come. "So what does this have to do with Greyjoy?"

Wyman smiled grimly and handed over a second sheet from a different issue.

Steffon frowned reading it. "The Strandbeast – Ironborn War of 278 AC, this thing scared off the Ironborn?" No, Steffon didn't fake any of his incredulity. "This thing walks?"

"Yes and yes." The words were at odds with the other man's somber mood. "Imagine you're a raider disembarking with friends on the shore at night, and suddenly a giant beast of a thousand limbs and shadows begins shambling vaguely in your direction." Oh, to have been a crab on that beach while that went down! "Yes, I rather wish I could have been there myself. A shame how it all ended, wouldn't you say?"

Go ahead and kill the mood, why don't you. But the more Steffon read, the more things he wanted to say that weren't fit for polite company even by his standards. Apparently, Euron Greyjoy was offended that Ironborn raids were being thwarted by the North's semaphore towers, another terribly useful invention that Steffon had already commissioned for his own coasts. Euron was even angrier that the things had revealed the Ironborn for the petty resource thieves they were, skulking through the night to steal wood and forage undiscovered, as opposed to the glorious conquerors and thrall snatchers they painted themselves as. Though this was only learned from his mid-rampage rants, much later than the incident that sparked his insanity.

Which is to say, Euron had just finished a night landing with a concentrated force of Ironborn on the beach, intending to conduct a night attack and destroy a bunch of the signal towers to open a window of opportunity for actual plunder. Except that was the same beach that the nearest village kids had been using to compete on who could build the more absurd monstrosity. The competition was fierce, apparently, so fierce that both bands of brats had assigned permanent sentries to keep watch against mutual sabotage.

So there were two boys there to see Euron and his raiders disembark. At which point the brats chose not to do the sane thing and instead set their beasts loose to shamble forth like, well, giant beasts of a thousand limbs and shadows. The Ironborn ran screaming and paddled back to their boats cursing every god that wasn't their drowned corpse.

To their credit, the imps at least dismantled the things and carried them off when they fled later, confounding the raiders even further when there was nothing to find come dawn. And when Euron later disguised himself as a local and went to the nearest port town to look for rumours of terrible snarks roaming the coasts, he was not at all amused to learn the true nature of his nemesis. Steffon couldn't really blame the asshat, he tried to imagine getting scared shitless by a stick figure and couldn't fathom it either.

The result was a murderous rampage in pursuit of the children responsible in broad daylight, which culminated with the survivors running from the burning port town to the next best defensible location, which happened to be one of the secret shipyards that House Stark had created over the past few years. Euron caught up to them, killed the men quickly, had the women raped and killed while he killed the children more slowly, and then burned down the whole place in his snit. Then Greyjoy set off on a self-imposed mission to find and suffer fiery failure in seizing as many shipyards and vessels he could find that the North had secretly established in every other fjord.

Then his raiders were annihilated in a single engagement without getting even one hit in return, somehow. A shame he somehow managed to get so many of his father captains to join him in exile later, because no way were they all hunting the traitor down.

"To answer your question, Lord Baratheon," Manderly said when Steffon gave Stannis the paper to boggle at. "I believe that Euron Greyjoy set about breaking the King's Peace because he is a dangerously functional lunatic that the world would be better off dead with."

No shit.

What a different tale, compared to Quellon's claim that Euron had discovered the shipyard by accident during an unsanctioned raid, then reacted rashly to what he believed was a plan to make war upon the Iron islands. Because there could be no other reason for re-establishing the Northern navy, obviously. Certainly not the Ironborn being self-admittedly guilty of everything they were accused of that justified any and all action against them. Only Mace Tyrell had agreed with Greyjoy that the North had no right to keep such a huge thing a secret, that House Stark surely had nefarious aims. The man was fortunate to be asked by Jon Arryn if Highgarden was still doing its clandestine minting of Green Hand coinage. Steffon had been one word from asking if he'd like the privilege of strategic planning to be taken away by the Crown outright. The other Paramounts and even the Small Council certainly knew better than to openly question a kingdom's right to keep their own confidence on strategic assets.

Steffon leaned back and watched the other man. Everyone and their mother-in-lawlessness still thought the North was doing some unsavoury devilry or crimes to get ahead, when the truth was so much more straightforward. So much more amazing.

They were just being clever. Had found a way to weaponise the cleverness of everyone and their baby know-it-alls. Very, very, very clever know-it-alls.

He was actually kind of outraged on their behalf now. "My condolences to the families of the children."

"They all died too, I'm afraid." Another parade rained on, fuck the Ironborn, seriously. "A terrible tragedy, to lose such clever minds. Greyjoy didn't get all of what he hoped for, though. The boys' martyrdom has children the North over taking up their same hobby now."

And every Northman was doubtlessly seething in righteous anger they were probably no less able than their precocious children to put to productive use.

Good for them.

And good on the North for giving him all he needed to know he wasn't wrong about them acting in good faith all this time. Unlike the Synod, this was the only loose end he'd dared hope he might see tied up before his holiday. And now here he was, being given peace of mind on a silver platter with no strings attached. This would neuter the arguments of the jealous and warmongers quite nicely too, come the next and last Small Council meeting before his vacation. For the first time in months, he actually looked forward to it, if only for the looks on everyone's faces.

Steffon Baratheon felt a weight lift from his shoulders as his belief in humanity began to heal from the bruised and battered heap it had been reduced to. Not everyone in the world was a cunt, thank fuck.

It was too bad Aerys was so annoyed at Rickard for putting off his public commendation. Steffon would have to do something nice for the man himself. Might be it was time to finally suggest that betrothal. He had high hopes for the match, he hadn't heard much about the girl herself but was confident she'd be the perfect little lady. With how much Robert waxed poetic about Rickard's second son, if his other children were even a tenth as accomplished there would be literally nothing to complain about. Well, except for that wild story about Stark's firstborn condescending to an immortal god-sorcerer that came begging to swear absolute devotion and only narrowly managed to earn his chance to serve by reforging Valyrian steel bare-handed in the middle of court, but Steffon wasn't about to begrudge the North their tall tales. It was the most outlandish he'd ever heard, pure gold, he'd sit for part two any day. Maybe it would make it into the Winds of Winter at some point? He'd certainly prefer it over the Song of Ice and Fire, that tale was heading dark places fast, he liked his stories a bit less depressing.

Alright, a lot less depressing.

What were they talking about? Oh, right, nothing anymore and he really had to wrap this up. "Thanks for the enlightening story, I don't suppose I might be able to keep these?"

"If you like." Wyman closed the cover and rose when Steffon did.

The man probably had spares, which reminded him. "One last thing before I go, this printing press contraption, what would it take for the North to share the plans?"

Manderly shook his head apologetically. "I am not the person to ask, that is wholly My Lord's creation. Inquiries will have to go to him."

Rickard did what now? "Stark made that?"

Wyman Manderly smiled, and it was a strange one. Wholehearted and earnest but also secretive, somehow. "My Lord is a man of many talents."

Great, even the good ones were playing with his head now, and they didn't even need to dissemble to do it. He'd be more annoyed if he didn't do the same himself every so rarely. "Well, it's been good." It really had been. "Guess I'm off to the Mansions now. You're with the Seven, right? If you've any accommodation concerns, now's the time to say it."

Manderly frowned. "I am not staying for the Synod, the Faith of White Harbor does not answer to the southron church." He looked concerned now. "You did not know? I sent reports the day after I arrived here, on this and much else of import. You did not find them? My runner swore the whitecloak on guard passed them into your study."

Steffon stilled. The nausea returned with a vengeance. He took a few quick, shallow breaths to stamp on the sudden urge to scream in rage. He'd just puke if he tried, he could feel it.

The other man stood there, watching tensely.

With a final steadying breath, Steffon exchanged a look with Stannis. His boy looked both worried and startled. "I see." The day had just turned from bothersome to dangerous. "I will look into it. In the meantime, I'll appreciate whatever you can tell me."

Manderly slowly nodded. "Septon Urizen is an ambitious man with designs to restore the Faith Militant, as I'm sure you know." Jon Arryn had intimated as much, yes. "What you might not know is that he is not all empty boasts. Nor has he conveyed that he will wait for permission to do what he believes the Gods demand of him. The current High Septon may be loudspoken, but he is past his prime and his actions speak much more softly. Normally, this would be all well and good – Maegor Targaryen only dismantled the Faith Militant, the Faith was not deprived of the funds that once went into that institution. That gold has loosened the belts of many of the most holy, but it has also given rise to orphanages, widow's homes, healing houses, soup houses, and at times even a handful of trade schools for the poor. But while the Septons serving the spiritual needs of White Harbor's faithful don't answer to anyone here down south, they do keep in touch. They say that a steady number of these fixtures are losing funds or closing down outright, a phenomenon almost entirely lacking in the Riverlands, and the Crownlands to a lesser extent. Interestingly, Septon Urizen has been associating with many of the people running them. Meanwhile, Septon Sparrow is using his prior commitment to the Waynwood-Bracken wedding as an excuse to investigate this plight and shelter those sidelined that increasingly share his discontent. Incidentally, he is not attending the Synod despite being the only true opposition that Urizen has not… overcome, let's say. That is all I know."

Steffon briefly, briefly gave in to the impulse to palm his face. His heart beat fast and sent his temples pounding. He hoped he didn't actually sway in place like he felt he did. He wished he could trust a hope that Manderly was just reading too much into it, but then he remembered all the other enterprises that mysteriously failed every so regularly. Lens makers, maester schools, every attempt to establish a Westerosi bank ever, including the Bank of Oldtown that mysteriously failed the moment Samantha Tarly wasn't around anymore. What if they all weren't because of outside sabotage? He dropped his hand. "Thank you for the information," he said woodenly.

Manderly's eyes were grim and scrutinising and they saw far too much. "Good fortune, Lord Hand. Keep protection close."

Steffon nodded and left in a worse mood than he came in. It was a dismally familiar feeling.

"You should cancel," Stannis said before they were half-way to the elevator.

"Don't be absurd, I'm not sending the King into unsecured premises."

"Send Ser Barristan then, or Lord Commander Grandison, it's their job."

"Barristan's shit at skulduggery and Grandison is going to keel over any day now, it's a miracle he still wakes up in the morning."

Stannis' teeth gnashed together loudly. "At least go to Cressen first then."

Steffon turned and put a firm hand on his son's shoulder. "Stannis. If this is poison, it's so slow acting that I must have been poisoned days ago, if not weeks. If I haven't flushed it yet, I'm most likely already doomed."

The jest fell flat. "All the more reason to visit the Maester."

"Cressen already saw me today, as he does every day, and I haven't eaten or drunk anything since then that the other guy didn't also take first. So unless I was stabbed without noticing, there won't be much for him to do. But if it makes you feel better, I'll go visit one of them fancy water-clogged privies to take a load off, will that suffice?"

"No."

"Well, tough, it's all you're getting."

He went to the privy. He had precisely as little business to take care of as he expected. His bladder, at least, wasn't causing him any problems. It was less demanding than usual, even. Small mercies.

Thankfully, the small mercies weren't over yet because Jon Con was waiting for him with Ser Barristan when he exited the Hightower's front doors.

"Firebird! What are you doing here, shouldn't you be busy having a life?"

"My Liege Lord still lacks a squire," Jon Connington said with his usual grimace at the nickname, which just went to show how privileged he was to not know what Steffon really called him in his head. Which was still better than Griff, seriously, was no one original anymore? "Though if you'd rather your son attend to you instead, I will of course abide."

"Nah, he's staying here." Steffon waved off. "I'm not about to say no after I delayed your knighting precisely because I didn't want to let you go."

"A ghastly example of selfishness, my soul will nurse this grudge to the end of my days."

I didn't want to let you go off to pine after your doomed infatuation that will inevitably see you dishonoured no matter what. "Your forbearance is appreciated." Steffon turned and finally hugged Stannis because his boy always pretended he was too big for them unless there was someone there to make whining unseemly. "Thanks for the escort, son. Try not to chip a tooth while I'm gone."

"Good to know your faith in others still exceeds their own, father. Ser Jon, Ser Barristan." Stannis stepped back, nodded to the two knights before leaving with a last concerned look to his dear old dad.

Steffon sighed wistfully. "There goes the second best of men."

"After yourself I assume?" Said Jon Con.

"Of course!"

"Your heir will be devastated to hear."

"Never said it was an exclusive position." Steffon moved past the men to mount the horse that Jon Con already had tacked and ready. Which was good because Steffon wasn't in the mood to bother figuring out how to fill the silence all the way to the stables.

They set off downriver at a steady trot, and now he was getting motion sickness on his own damn horse too, that was just perfect! Steffon kept his eyes straight ahead and tried to think of literally anything else.

The crowds thickened considerably the closer they got to the Mansions of the Pious, enough that they might not have made it to the Starry Sept if not for the eight-man escort pushing through. Which was really rather mindboggling considering how much room there was. The Mansions of the Pious were really their own town, an enclave of manors, villas, residences and facilities surrounding the seven-pointed Starry Square which should have been big enough to host a crowd worthy of a king's coronation. And yet it was so packed with bodies that the crowds spilled into the adjoining streets, most of them wearing a frock or septa's robe or lay brother's garb of some manner. It went to show just how vast the Faith's numbers really were, how many and rich its holdings. The Faith of the Seven may as well be its own nation spread through the Realm like vines putting down seven-stranded roots and tendrils of different colors in every other village. Its own citizens, its own holdings, its own laws, its own hired swords to enforce those laws, wealth enough to fund its own kingdom thanks to drawing taxes on top of regular taxes without paying taxes. And at the centre of it all was the Starry Sept, from whence the High Septon with his Crystal Crown literally ruled his half of Westeros before the coming of House Targaryen, on pain of sudden rebellions springing all over the realm from the nearest port town whenever a Lord or King dared challenge the voice of god.

When Baelor Targaryen built the Sept of King's Landing, it must have been the worst blow to the Faith's authority. Burning down the Starry Sept with a gigantic black dragon named after the god-king of the Valyrian pantheon should have been an achievement impossible to surpass, but Baelor Targaryen did it. He moved the Grand Septon and the Most Devout from Oldtown to King Landing, cutting the heads of the Faith from their power base and put them directly under the Crown's shadow. He then usurped the Most Devout entirely by appointing the High Septon himself. Twice. Once an illiterate stonecutter, then an eight-year-old child. You literally couldn't find anyone worse for the job, they were terrible choices to the point of mockery. And then there was the divorce from his sister-wife. On the surface it seemed innocent enough, especially from a seeming lunatic, but in practice it undermined the High Septon's authority over marriage, and by extension all religious rite.

Baelor Targaryen was either every bit the insane zealot history books depicted him, or a total genius that played the part in order to get away with acting like the supreme head of the church. Thus breaking the compact between the Faith and the Crown that Jaehaeris and Septon Barth had established, and replacing the Seven as the one authority the Faith supposedly obeyed, thereby destroying the moral and divine veneer of the entire institution in one lethal swoop.

Baelor the Blessed. Ha! The biggest insult truly was also the biggest irony.

"An interesting viewpoint, Lord Hand," Barristan said from the horse to his right.

Shit, he didn't mean to say that aloud, was he getting heatstroke now too? He certainly felt like a sack of crap beaten with a stick. Hopefully he wouldn't be lynched on top of it.

"Never mind me, Barristan, it was just a silly thought."

It really wasn't though, because for the first time since Baelor Targaryen, the High Septon, the Most Devout, the clergy and all of the Faith convened in Oldtown once again. Aerys was right to smell a rat, even if he only did so because he mistrusted everyone.

The rat smell intensified the closer they drew to the Starry Sept proper. When they got there, they barely pushed past the lines. That would have to be the first thing he fixed, for there to not be a clear path in and out of the square was unacceptable. The closest bunch of revisionists were closing ranks against all others. The robes around them pushed and shoved without aim. The sentry monks on duty were tense and awkward. And the reason for all that was the argument in the antechamber which could be heard from outside despite the screaming racket.

Steffon dismounted and waited for his unsteadiness to fade while Barristan and Jon passed the horses to the nearest groom. He swallowed against a dry heave, then he ordered their escort to take sentry points outside and went in with only Jon and Barristan in his wake.

He found Septon Urizen of the Eyrie arguing with Sister Can't-Remember-Her-Name-Right-Now while various others in white robes stood and watched around the room.

"Lord Hand, I'm glad you are here," said Urizen with gladness Steffon wished wasn't as hard to suspect for phony as it was. "Perhaps you'll have better luck with my Exalted Brothers and Sisters, because they are not listening to me."

Why was it always another problem? "What's the situation?"

'The situation' was that the nave was sealed, never mind the transept, because the High Septon had locked himself in seclusion with orders not to be disturbed. This in itself was not unusual. What was unusual was that this was now leaving the Hand of the King in the lurch even though his High Holiness was the one who chose the time for the security inspection to begin with. So now Steffon had to walk all over the Most Devout and possibly break into the Starry Sept like a dragon king on the warpath because no way in hell was he leaving without doing his damn job!

Oh what's that, the High One was surely communing with the gods and no mortal man had the right to intrude on his meditations?

Think of your holiday, think of your holiday, if you start strangling the Most Devout you'll have to ax your holiday. "Barristan, if she doesn't step aside, move her."

Septa Can't-Remember-Her-Name-Right-Now balked an hmmed and hawed with much hand-wringing but finally stepped aside when she saw that both Steffon and the whitecloak were completely serious.

Great. Now to wrangle the man in the sparkly headgear that hopefully wouldn't fall down and crack like the last time he had to do this.

It was dark inside, even more than the first and only time he attended service there, which was already almost pitch black compared to the wedding. No one had ever explained to him why there would be such darkness inside a seven-pointed star, but in moments like this he definitely appreciated the Sept of Baelor. It seemed to be the only sept not built in a manner deliberately designed to make the inside as dark as possible. Steffon took a candle from the entry sconce to light his path, but it barely helped. Certainly didn't do his unsteadiness any favors. There were no lit candles in the chandeliers, and the candles at the feet of the statues were mostly blocked by the pews. By the time he reached the other end of the Sept, he felt like he could lie down for days, he had shivers going up and down his spine even though he still felt hot after the stressful ride, and the nausea was almost unbearable from all the fumes in the air.

Don't puke on the High Septon now.

The High Septon was knelt at the foot of the Father, quiet and still. Very, very still.

"Your Holiness?"

No answer.

"Your Holiness, we really should talk security for the Synod tomorrow."

No answer. No sound. Steffon couldn't even hear the man breathing.

Wait.

Steffon stepped around the High Septon, put the candle next to the others at the Father's feet and turned to nudge the man- "MOTHERFUCKER!"

Steffon recoiled, bumped against the nearby pew hard enough to knock it over and crashed on top of it as it fell with a deafening rattle.

Shouts came from the door. Barristan and Jon Con threw the doors open and came charging with torches. Steffon groaned in pain as he rolled over. His eyes couldn't tear away from the knife sticking out of the High Septon's chest.

He climbed unsteadily to his feet just as the High Septon fell over, already half-way stiff.

"My Lord!" "Lord Hand!" "By the Seven!" "Your Holiness!"

Steffon blinked owlishly. His who body felt chilled. The voices washed over him but he barely heard. He panted heavily. He motioned at the fallen corpse of the chief of the Faith but he didn't know what to say. He made to speak anyway, only to shudder as his stomach almost turned over in his belly. He watched Barristan inspect the body with sword drawn and collapsed where he stood.

The shouts got louder, and they came from above now, though not as high as the Father's jade eyes. Why didn't anyone make sense? Why was he on the ground?

He blinked. Chills. Fever. Fast breathing. Pounding heart on and off. Nausea. And worse. He grasped Jon Con's reaching hand for lack of anything better to do. There were red dots on his skin. "Fuck me I'm poisoned…" Stannis was gonna be pissed. "Stannis is gonna be pissed…"

This was shock, wasn't it? And the High Septon was dead. Which he hadn't processed yet. It was probably trauma.

He barely remembered the frenzied ride back to Hightower's Hightower. He passed in an out of dreams to Stannis and Aerys and Cassana's sobbing wails. He tried and failed to understand why Aerys was screaming for burnings and executions and burning down the Mansions wholesale and war with Arryn's clans in the mountains. He joked while Cressen fretted over the pile of useless flesh and mess he had become at some point, but nobody appreciated his wit for some reason. Well fine then, he didn't appreciate them right back and just decided to sleep. Except for when Septon Urizen was reading him his last rites for some bizarre reason, that was the fuckmothering of all jumpscares. Steffon tried to call him out or being a murderer, even though he didn't quite figure why he thought it was so important, but it came out slurring unintelligibly. Fortunately, everyone still got the message when he glared with all the hate of the Storm King's usurped bloodline, so that was something. Well, back to rest. The world was too complicated and he refused to wake up for anything but his holiday anymore. He felt a lot more like himself while asleep anyway.

This dream was different though. He was finally able to roll out of his body and pop his back so the eighth of him that was dragon could smash him through the ceiling to fly up into the red sky over to the big ball of fire up yonder and wait a minute, only an eighth? Shouldn't it be half? Damn, he got short-changed bad!

"I'm going to hell," he thought as the red flame pulled him in. "That sucks."

Then Fat Foul swooped in and dropped him on a ball of rock and grass in the middle of the void before leaving wherever.

Steffon blinked at the stars, at the world way down, at the ground beneath his feet, and at the spade that a little kid he'd never seen before was holding out to him. Little, blond and blue-eyed and that smile was whoa. He must hug him. And he did!

"You're so cute!"

The Little Prince smiled, thanked him and told him he better earn his keep while he was there, which was just as well. Wasn't like he wasn't curious about these baobab things anyway.

I'm on my deathbed while the gods fight over my remains, Steffon mused while he worked.

There was only one explanation.

I really am the greatest.

 
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ATP

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Great chapter,as always,but...DID HE DIE,OR NOT?
P.S Poor Barristan,he died for sure.Some kind of poison in air?
 
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