Lord Walder Frey was among the first ones to reach the capital from all the high lords and knights Princess Daenerys had invited to the mummery. Although his seat was too far from King's Landing to arrive there in only two days, a raven must have found him visiting one of his many sons or daughters who married to a castle nearby. Freys became a good match after their alliance with Lord Tywin Lannister, although it was as short lived as Lord Tywin himself after the Red Wedding.
Lord Frey bent his knee to the Mother of Dragons despite that he could barely walk, well past his ninetieth name day. His sons and his bastards carried him to her presence in a litter draped with fineries earned with the northern blood. Sansa noticed how the costly hangings were arranged on his carriage with a taste of a lesser house posing above its position and wealth, without any sense for colour or for order. Not that a pretty palanquin would matter to the queen in a game of thrones, she thought, wiser for the short time she had lived.
Daenerys was receiving the oaths of fealty in front of her ship, and Sansa sat in her court, on a large pillow seat in the green grass turning brown and rotting from too much water brought by the autumn rains. She was very near the queen, as a beloved child would be, in a precious blue gown the queen's maids have made for her from foreign silks. It attracted the eye but it preserved her modesty unlike the gowns grown too tight Cersei let her wear when she was a hostage of the Lannister crown. A few pale yellow lace ribbons adorned her bodice and her sleeves, widening smoothly around her wrists. Sansa's eyes were cast down, just like she used to do in Joffrey's court.
Lord Walder Frey had barely finished his solemn oath of faith when he proceeded to ask favours of the Queen.
"Your Grace," he said, "I thank you for your kind invitation and for your royal pardons of my so-called crimes in the eyes of gods. I have indeed helped to kill the Young Wolf at his uncle's wedding. Robb Stark gave his word to marry one of my daughters and then dishonoured us by marrying to a lesser house than mine, old in name, yet now clothed in tatters. The Young Wolf's father, Lord Eddard, was the right Hand of the Usurper and the man who helped most to set the Usurper on the Iron Throne, washed in blood of the dragons. The Starks have always been your enemies. In sign of your gratitude for my noble deeds against your foes, now and then, I dare ask you to grant me a small favour. My last wife has just died and I feel like I have it in me to take one more before my days are numbered by the gods. If you value my service to your house, I ask you to give me the hand of the Lady Sansa Stark in marriage. I will rule the North for you and you will never have known a more faithful servant."
Daenerys Stormborn lowered her eyes, purple rather than lilac on that day, yet colder than stone in the crypts of Winterfell, conceding only one glance to the latest suitor of the Lady Sansa, who for her part kept looking down, unmoving in her display of dignity. Ser Barristan Selmy stood guard in front of the queen, in a shiny white armour of the Queensguard, sword at ready, as if an almost nine and ninety years old man in front of her could still do her harm.
"Lord Frey," she said, staring forward and through the man in question. "Thank you for your oath of fealty and for honouring my invitation. It is very kind of you to offer more services to my house than those you have already named as such, and to honour my ward, the Lady Sansa Stark, with the proposal of marriage."
"Lady Stark," she addressed Sansa then with equal coldness. "Rest assured that I shall consider all such matters concerning your person only when the mummery is done and when the matter of the validity of your first marriage is resolved by the High Septon to the satisfaction of all. Then, if the Faith allows you to marry, I will ask only one thing of you. That you hear out in person the proposal of the lord whom I will deem worthy of an alliance and of your hand. Do I have your word that you will accept this terms? Or shall I answer Lord Frey immediately?"
The decision in the eyes of the queen held no trace of doubt and Sansa understood it more than well. Despite any services she may have done to Daenerys by spying on Lord Euron or helping the queen before Drogon took them to safety when they were both enslaved, despite all the queen's gestures of friendship and kindness towards Sansa, if she was to refuse the terms offered, she was to be betrothed to Lord Frey as a reward. Frozen on the inside, Sansa gathered her courtesies and gave the answer Daenerys wanted to hear. "Thank you, Your Grace. I will do as you ask, you have my word."
"You have heard my ward, Lord Frey," Daenerys said to the air above the old man's head. "Until the mummery is done, I beg you find the suitable accommodation in the capital and join us on the morrow."
When Lord Frey was gone, carrying with him a gleam of satisfaction on his old cunning face, Sansa burst into tears before the next lord would be brought to the presence of the Queen.
"Lady Sansa," Daenerys said, measuring her words. "Surely you understand how a queen needs to respond in her court."
"I do," Sansa said. "It is just that, Your Grace, I do not wish to marry. I have recently experienced a calling of the Faith and I seek to become a septa, or a silent sister if I may."
The queen examined Sansa with keen eyes. For a moment, an innocent face of a harmless young girl she wore the whole day in court was replaced by an expression more cunning than Lord Frey or even Petyr possessed. A new kind of fear washed over Sansa when the Mother of Dragons spoke again with a sense of finality. "The proposals for your hand are many, and I have yet to ponder my decision. So I will say it again. When I ask you to hear out one of your many suitors, of my choosing, it would be wise to at least listen to his suit. That is all I have to say in the matter."
Thus spoke the daughter of Aerys II, the Mad King, who let Sansa's grandfather Lord Rickard Stark burn alive in his armour while his eldest son Brandon choked trying to help him.
"Thank you, Your Grace," Sansa mumbled, defeated. Please, let it not be Lord Frey. The unavoidable demands of duty were returning for Sansa after being invisible for a long while, offering an illusion she could be left alone. She abandoned Petyr who only wanted to marry her according to his designs, but Daenerys, or any other conqueror in the game of thrones, would have them just the same. A noble alliance forged with my body. Sansa Stark had no family to protect her like Margaery Tyrell did. She wondered if there were more dangerous nets with jewels such as she received as a gift from Lady Olenna among the treasures of the Red Keep. She could choose to wear one on her new wedding day if they made her marry a Frey. Or ask the queen to allow Sandor Clegane to follow her as a sworn shield and spread her legs for him whenever the occasion allowed.
But he would hate it, Sansa was certain.
Not because he cared about the propriety or the custom. He would hate it for it would all be a lie. He told her everyone was a liar in court, yet all he ever wanted from Sansa was the truth. And when she delved deeper, to the place inside her where she was very much a Stark, she despised lies just as well. As much or more than he did, for as much as she learned to accept it was the way of the world. That was at least one single thing they had in common, different in most other matters like the sun and the moon. Strange as it was, it gave her hope.
She suspected the Hound would not be able to stand and watch how another man became her lord husband, even if he was once able to watch Joffrey beat her. Not after he gave himself to her, as surely as she gave herself to him. He would not let me go, she hoped and she feared it at the same time. For the last thing she yearned for was to see his head on a spike or his body eaten or burned by the dragons.
Sansa was still barely able to tell a straightforward lie without getting caught. She regretted deeply it took so many deaths of her loved ones, among them Septa Mordane, to learn what her septa meant when she named the courtesy a lady's armour. The empty well-spoken phrases satisfied Sansa's need to believe in goodness and order of the world where little true kindness could be found. She believed they may have helped her survive, and that was all.
But with Sandor Clegane she tasted the unadorned truth of the world as it could sometimes be. She had known the rare precious moments whose meaning could not be put into words, yet it was nevertheless there. Lovelier than all the intricacies of polite speech. More fulfilling than Sansa's dreams of home which no longer existed. More certain than the gods she believed in. She could remember and see in new light every detail of their acquaintance since the Hound rode into Winterfell after Prince Joffrey and Ser Jaime, or since he frightened her on the kingsroad.
Sansa finally understood why the songs she loved so well were still written in a world as cruel as it was, and why there were so many of them. Not for being the truth, not at all. It was only that men and women were compelled to speak of both the profound happiness and the sorrow that had befallen them, and which could not be contained fully in ordinary words. So the words grew in number, shaped verses and tales, and spoke to each other over the depths of time, creating well or less well crafted recollections of those moments of truth. It could well be that Sansa was not as stupid as she thought for still clinging to her songs. Maybe Petyr was stupid for believing that life was not a song or for not knowing what life was. Or what life could all be. Her conclusion gave her force, and she daintily wiped the last traces of her tears.
"Lady Sansa," Daenerys said, trying to sound like a young girl she pretended to be. "Do not worry about your marriage for now. I too will have to marry some day. We may yet hold a feast together, and rejoice."
"Perhaps," Sansa tried to agree, although the consolation she was hastily offered had been hollow. She had dared to believe Daenerys was different, only to discover she was made of the same stuff as all her previous keepers. She would marry her off to a Frey if it suited her goals. Sansa frantically thought of what else to say, not to sound ungrateful. "But not too many courses should be served, if it please you," she managed in the end. "Less than seventy-seven at any rate, Your Grace."
"My lady, Sansa, I could gladly agree to that," the queen said with a laugh full of crystals wrought of dragon glass. "And no golden locusts by any means!" She was not ashamed to sound as Sansa's friend, just like Petyr used to feign he was having only Sansa's best interest in his mind when he posed as her loving father.
Sansa stared forward, suppressing the desire to weep further. She carefully arranged a pale yellow ribbon the wind carried to her face and sighed in sign of acceptance.
It is all a lie, she thought. More elaborate that the gown I was made to wear.
When Lord Mace Tyrell approached the queen and he too, recently widowed, made a proposal for Sansa's hand, her face remained impassive, and her attire was immaculately adjusted. He was the last highborn lord to be received on that day. Lord Baelish too had asked to marry Sansa earlier that morning. The line of men competing for Sansa's hand, and with it for the rule over the North, would be steadily growing as it seemed.
She should have been more terrified. Or she should have applied Petyr's teachings and bend the queen's will to her own, either to avoid marriage or to marry according to her own designs for power, and never, never for love.
Sansa found she couldn't do any of it. Instead, she agreed to play a game of cyvasse with Daenerys when all the lords and ladies were gone. The Dragon Queen had no love for Sansa but at least she had not had her beaten, or kissed. The maids whispered a lot of the queen's tastes in bed. In their rumours Daenerys did kiss some of them, at times, for loneliness or pleasure; the maids could only guess her reasons. Cyvasse figures drew their prudent moves on the board, and Sansa's soul was elsewhere. She was in Highgarden again and Sandor was inside her, as the pain she prepared herself for was being reborn into something else entirely. A different oath, a promise, a waking dream. She wanted to absorb him, not minding his weight, his scars, his hatred, she needed all that, she needed him.
Just like he was.
When she lay on her cot in the belly of the ship that night, the last one before the mummery, Sansa could not hold to her memory from Highgarden any longer. It started fading as the red roses with the arrival of winter, as the memory of a kiss the Hound never gave her in King's Landing. Her sadness regarding imminent marriage prospects had slowly crept back through the crevices of the ship with the sea breeze, together with the first stars slowly rising in the sky. In solitude she could finally drop all her courtesies and let the blood of the First Men stream unbound through her veins, breaking through the strong and dutiful Tully part of her heritage. Then, she understood her aunt and why she had to love Prince Rhaegar, who acted towards her a fool, not the prince he was, asking for nothing in return. Then, she wished for the Hound to come back to her, and kill all her suitors with her father's sword, ice cold and sharp like a sting of the implacable winter.
Sansa remained awake for hours, drifting from wishing she could run away to acceptance of what was awaiting her as someone's ward. Before uneasy sleep saved her from her thoughts, and contrary to all she had ever been taught, Sansa was glad she loved a killer.
And not a true knight.
Brienne walked back to the room where Jaime made her his wife. And I made him my husband. She blushed at the thought, straightening a clean short sleeved tunic and male breeches she put on. Black, the colour of the dragons. she realized. Clegane's more than likely, she rearranged her thoughts as she did her garments. A play about an important part of Jaime's life was being read out several times on the outside since the first light. She believed he should come out and see it then. Not to discover first hand what the singer has made of it in the presence of the high lords and ladies, who would enjoy the Kingslayer's discomfort, whispering merrily against him where once they had to stay quiet if they wanted to keep their heads.
"Jaime," she called to him tenderly, remaining vulnerable, remaining honourable, remaining Brienne. Her husband had removed the armour from her shoulders, and she was not going to don it back. Not for him, if for all the rest.
"You left," he murmured, displeased.
"I'm right here," she said. "It's just that they have woken me with reading. Come and see, please. Trust me. This time there is no Lady Stoneheart I am taking you too."
Jaime smiled in an open and simple way she had never seen on him, and accepted her muscled armed to get up. Together they sat on the doorstep, which had seen its share of rehearsals and whispered conversations, since the mummers started residing in the house.
Two children were holding hands under the watchful eye of Mance Rayder, in front of the wall where Jaime and Brienne were married.
"I love you, sweet sister," the boy said. "I will take the white, and become the greatest knight in the realm to be worthy of your love."
"Sweet brother," the girl said. "You are already the bravest knight of all. Please, do not leave me."
The children had black hair, and no blond curls to grace them. The boy towered over the girl, overgrown in a fortnight. His pale hands shook like in an old man, from an obvious ailment of the body.
"It is the only way I can always be with you," young Robert Arryn said sweetly, reading the role of Ser Jaime Lannister. "Or father will find me a wife and make me rule Casterly Rock. And then he will send you away to marry Prince Rhaegar. This way I can guard you when you become my queen. Our father is very powerful. Rhaegar has no sister and he is some years older than us, past the age to marry. So King Aerys will surely accept your betrothal to his son."
"Don't leave me, please," Willow Heddle repeated, reading the role of Cersei Lannister. "You are mine. You are a part of me. You ought to do as I say." The girl stood on the tip of her toes and grabbed the boy by the shoulders. When he leaned down, only a little bit, she placed a chaste peck on the boy's lips and immediately withdrew from their clumsy embrace, smiling.
"I won't, I promise," the boy said, embracing the girl in return, keeping a proper distance, an image of a knight from the books courting his lady love.
The children bowed to the public, and Mance Rayder shot an inquisitive look at Jaime. Brienne leaned to her husband, afraid of his reaction.
"Some time after that, I have sworn the Kingsguard vows, and Prince Rhaegar married Elia," Jaime said thoughtfully as one searching in his memories. "Father never told me that Aerys refused his son's betrothal to my sister with as much scorn as he could muster. And it was not little, believe me. I never learned when Cersei was told. She was often bitter about not marrying Rhaegar when she became the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Her husband was a very different king than Aerys was, or that Rhaegar may have been..."
A wave of pity and love swirled through Brienne's chest. What was the bet about her maidenhead, rough and crude, in comparison with the subtle torture of the mind she now suspected Jaime had lived through, torn between the commanding spirits of his father and his sister?
"The innocence I have lost," her husband said peacefully to Mance Rayder, "you have captured it well. It was the beginning of all the wrong I have done later on."
"If you are able to see it that way now," the singer said, "you may yet regain some of what you have lost."
"I have already gained more than I ever had the right to receive," Jaime said, turning to Brienne. Fire flickered under his eyelids with unmistakable delight of the senses. Brienne endured and returned his look, applying considerable force of her will to do so, conquering an impulse to cast her eyes down to her boots.
"This conversation between siblings takes place before the main story of my play starts," Mance said cautiously, weighing Jaime's response to his words. "I will sing of it as a dream or a memory of yours before the other scene with you is played, the one I would still like to rehearse before you now, if I may."
"I know," Jaime said, and his eyes darkened. "Best be done with it then. If I could withstand remembering this part of my life as my past, and nothing more, I should have no trouble with any other sin I committed later on."
Brienne embraced her husband on a doorstep, not believing him fully, even if she adored his words. She wanted to be his present and his future, and one day also his past. A past that wouldn't bring him any shame.
Ser Lyn Corbray walked to the wall of Aegon the Conqueror, in the cloak of black and red, in true colours of fire and blood. Before she woke up Jaime, Brienne learned that Mance sang for it to the women washing royal garments in the Red Keep, and won it as a reward for his prowess with the lute.
With blinding madness in his eyes, Aerys II motioned to his faithful helper, played by some sparrow Mance must have found in the streets, one of those who were still bringing shoes to worship the Elder Brother instead of the Seven.
"How did you make Corbray's eyes look purple?" Jaime inquired and it was only then that Brienne noticed too that the colour of Ser Lyn's eyes was wrong, and not what the nature had given him.
"Tears of Lys," Mance said. "I asked here and there if it can be done and how. One drop, a quantity that does not kill, will make any naturally dark eyes, black, brown or grey look purple. The same will not work on blue or green eyes. The effect is maintained if you go on taking the poison regularly, and if you do not, the natural colour of your eyes returns... "
"My pyromancer," Aerys II said with expectation, "it is time to illustrate your art to the entire world in your wisdom."
"Bring forth the fruit of your work," Aerys II continued with loathing. "My son and heir lies dead on the fields of Trident, and my Hand, Tywin Lannister plots to change sides and betray me."
"What shall we do, Your Grace?" the sparrow peeped weakly.
"Burn them all!" Aerys commanded. "Burn this entire city, its people, its nobles, its smallfolk, even its whores. I, the rightful ruler, will burn with them, and be reborn as a dragon of old!"
"But, Your Grace-" the pyromancer tried to object.
"-Just burn them all, haven't you heard me? Burn them all!" Corbray bellowed with grace, opening his arms like a dragon Aerys II believed himself to be would have spread his wings, threatening the imaginary crowd, which consisted only of Brienne and Jaime, watching.
When Aerys II stood up from his high seat of stone, built that morning in front of the wall of Aegon the Conqueror, just on the spot where the famous Aegon's descendant's true killer had married the night before, a thin blade protruded between his body and his shoulder as if it had just crossed his back.
"I can't let you do it," Sweetrobin stuttered from behind the stone throne. "I can't, my king, I'm so sorry."
Fat tears crawled down the boy's cheeks as he chased the sparrow pyromancer who tried to run away, piercing him in make-believe with the same thin sword that killed the king, wrought most likely of gilded copper, but shining like pure gold.
The boy than sat down on the flat stone, from which the king had fallen. Pieces of chopped wood behind his back posed as the swords melted in the Iron Throne. The boy looked steadily forward, avoiding looking at the two bodies at his feet. Focused, he positioned the thin golden-looking blade over his knees and waited.
"I didn't speak that much when I did what I did," Jaime said very slowly after a tremendously long while. "But the essence of what was passing through my golden head is there, I believe. I stopped being a knight on that day."
"On the contrary," Lord Arryn said, abandoning his role and his posture. Wiping the unmanly tears he still carried on his face with the speed of a child, he scurried to the side and returned with his own blade and a new pretty shield with the falcon of his house. Brienne noticed how the little lord's hands shook less when he took hold of his own weaponry. "Ser, you have done a brave and a noble deed on that day. King Aegon and his aunt have to see that."
"Thank you, boy," Jaime said. "But there is nothing noble in stabbing a king and his servant in their backs.
"If that is all..." Jaime said, most likely wishing to leave.
"It is," Mance added.
"How did you know?" Jaime asked.
"You missed one pyromancer. He hid in the skull of Balerion the Black Dread in the throne room. He kept quiet for years, and he is a pyromancer still," Mance Rayder said. "I have a gift to tell stories and also to make others tell me their own..."
"I see," Jaime said with unseeing eyes that placed a weight of steel in Brienne's guts. "Then we will all meet tonight for the mummery. I need to clear my head."
"If you please," the singer offered Brienne and Jaime a long parchment each. "Your final lines if you care to read them before tonight."
"Thank you," Brienne took things in her own strong arms, picking up all the scrolls, Jaime's and hers, careful to gather all the writings, and her husband's only hand. She placed a huge kiss on his cheek, smiling when her heartfelt gesture brought some life back to his thinned noble features.
"My lady," he said, returning to his usual provoking mood. "Should we return inside, to continue where we stopped in the night?"
"No," Brienne denied him, and her. "Or a bit later," she blushed. "I would walk a bit with you now. If you are not embarrassed to be seen with your wife in the streets, that is."
Her own unwanted challenge worked a miracle. Jaime's left arm sneaked around her waist, and his expression turned from badly hidden suffering to unhidden pride.
"I want everyone to know, and to see," he said to confirm his gesture. "Let us revisit this awful city with new eyes, together."
The paramour of a Prince of Dorne
Tristana Waters stepped out into the shady garden of her house, in the better part of King's Landing, combing her greying long hair. She would go to the mummery everyone was talking about. It would be the first time she left her house in months. She was very old for a woman, a bit older than Ser Barristan Selmy who had recently returned to King's Landing too, as rumour had it, and whom she would like to see again. Age notwithstanding, Tristana kept the brightness of her spirit and she was eager to hear some songs and see how some people from the old times fared. Even if it meant a certain remembrance of how Lewyn rode to the fields of the Trident with Rhaegar, never to return.
A bastard of King's Landing and the paramour of Prince Lewyn Martell of Dorne, Tristana was left with enough gold and coin in the Iron Bank of Braavos. She led a peaceful existence, never reminding the Iron Throne of that fact. When she passed an ivory comb to the tangles of her long hair, she sensed, rather than saw somebody, watching her in silence.
Her uninvited guest sat in a dark corner of the garden, obscured by the dark green needles of a southern pine-tree. When he saw her, he rose on his feet, taller than the Mountain that Rode before a black dragon sealed its death in the green hills of Highgarden, according to the latest gossip. Tristana's visitor was very well hidden in the long black robes. Large cowl obscured his face and his body was immersed in wide dark folds in such a way that it could have been anyone. A man, a woman, or a child.
"Who are you?" she asked. It seemed quaint, but she wasn't afraid of the tall intruder. It was as if she expected this particular guest ever since Lewyn died, to be able to speak up about the past. "Are you Aegon or Daenerys?" she asked. "For only they might have an interest to see me after all these years. Everyone else who might wish to do so died long time ago."
The guest sat again, handing her a writing in strange elaborate letters, refusing to talk or to reveal his face.
She looked at the mysterious stranger and nodded. The times were changing, the dragons were back, and someone understood what poor Lewyn had done out of love for Elia.
"You want to know what Lewyn told Rhaegar when they rode to the Trident together," she read part of the writing out loud.
The figure nodded, not moving another muscle.
"You have to understand," Tristana tried to explain the best she could. "Lewyn loved Elia. We all do things that shame us to help the ones we love."
The threatening huge figure turned its cowled head, impatiently, in disagreement, looking as if it were going to burst in flames, engulfing Tristana and her orderly garden.
"Please," she said, "forgive me for voicing my thoughts of an old woman who lived alone for more than she can tell. I will tell you what I know and you can do with it anything you want. If I do, I might die in peace. For I may well be the only person still alive with that sad knowledge."
Tristana looked away from the stranger in her garden, weighing the possibility that it was Daenerys or Aegon who had come to learn the truth. There was no way to tell and she had to speak carefully.
"Aerys came to see Lewyn in this house, where he normally stayed when he was off duty. Only a few of his brothers from the Kingsguard knew about its whereabouts but the king had spies, and when he needed the knowledge to find it, he found it very fast," she finally said, remembering one of the saddest days in her long life, as if it had happened only the day before. She relived it often, burdened and hurting from what she had learned. "He told Lewyn Rhaegar was going to publicly abandon Elia, Rhaenys and Aegon, and wed Lyanna Stark, if someone he trusted didn't teach him the truth about the whore from the North."
The stranger did not like the word whore, she could tell, so Tristana hurried to clarify. "It was the king who called Lady Lyanna that, not I. Lewyn was apprehensive and suspicious. He asked what Rhaegar should learn about. Aerys than said Lyanna bedded Rhaegar only to become the queen. And once she would succeed in that, she would abandon his bed for the maidenly sheets of his best friend, and most trusted member of the Kingsguard, stronger and more handsome than Rhaegar on all counts. Northern whores liked their men powerful, Aerys said, not the weak ones who stayed awake to read at night or loved to play the high harp. She would not stop until she had Ser Arthur Dayne."
Tristana changed position on her seat, observing the stranger turning more restless than the sea in winter.
"Lewyn... He didn't believe the king. Lewyn and Aerys were closer in age than Lewyn and Rhaegar were. Above that, Lewyn came as close to a friend as it was possible to be with a man like Aerys II Targaryen in his later life. So Lewyn let him finish his accusation, and then he asked in cold blood what kind of men were the dream of noble whores from the Westerlands... I never understood what he had meant, but Aerys's features turned green from fury... He slapped Lewyn over his face and nearly choked him to death with his bare hands without calling for his guards. I have never seen the old king that angry. Not even when Ser Barristan rescued him from his imprisonment in Duskendale... Lewyn managed to push the king away and then he swore he would do anything to keep Rhaegar's heart with Elia. He swore he would tell anything Aerys wanted, but he bid the king to first tell him the truth of Rhaegar and Lyanna, not the court gossip or a lie of king's choosing. He said Ser Arthur Dayne did not care for women, even if Lady Lyanna was the kind of woman Aerys had said she had been. He begged Aerys on his knees to tell him the truth of the matter."
Tristana had to pause, feeling the burning gaze of the stranger in her garden on her moving lips.
"The king..." she said, "the king stared at the ground weighing his choices. Than he gave Lewyn what he wanted. The truth. He said both Rhaegar and Lyanna were so honourable that they would never break faith with each other. He said Lyanna loved Rhaegar more than her life from what his spies were able to discern. He said Arthur Dayne would die for both of them as Rhaegar's best friend. He said, that... unlike the whore from the Westerlands, Lyanna was not only beautiful, but honourable and truthful, and a thousand times more dangerous for Elia than if she had been a whore. He retold how Lyanna, a wisp of a young girl, so short that she barely came to Aerys's or Rhaegar's chest, was not afraid to provoke the wrath of the dragon king, one of the very few men or women who were not. He told how she dressed up as a mystery knight and defeated three tall strong squires with a single lance, to preserve the honour of her father's bannerman from the Neck as a true Stark... Aerys was impressed with Lyanna as much as he was afraid of her and her influence on his son."
"Then, Lewyn believed him and feared for Elia's destiny. He went to the Trident and told Rhaegar that Arthur and Lyanna were paramours behind his back. He told him Lyanna invited him, Lewyn, to her bed too, during the tourney in Harrenhal, but he had refused her. He told him Arthur and Lyanna laughed at him... At the prince who was not man enough, and not a true dragon..."
The stranger rose to his full height and looked exactly as Tristana imagined the god of death. "It was all a lie," she whispered. "Poor Lewyn. He told all that and yet they all died... Even Aerys, in the end. The gods have seen fit to punish them all..."
Tristana cried from the force of her memories. She didn't notice when her guest left and she remained weeping in the garden, alone. The ivory comb lay among the flowers, waiting for his lady to come to her senses, and finish dressing up for the mummery.
When the next evening came, Sandor Clegane started swimming again. They were nearly past the enemy fleet and approaching the last ships of Daenerys Targaryen. When the moon rose, flapping of wings was heard in the silence of the night, and soon the sky above them turned black, with no moonlight and no stars.
A tongue of flame passed the Hound in the water and nearly scorched the blond-haired woman on the boat who luckily had the presence of the mind to roll on a side faster than a snake and avoid it.
"Daenerys' dragon," she said in awe. Another burst of flame pierced a hole in the raft where Tyene had been lying moments ago. The boy woke up and started crying from exhaustion.
The Hound didn't waste time. He climbed back to the vessel of wood and reed, and positioned his huge body, dripping water, between the woman and the menace of the dragon, forgetting his distaste for fire.
"I am a natural daughter of the House Martell," she said behind him, foolishly. "We are the most trusted allies of the dragons, old and new."
But the mention of her house only enraged the animal further, as if the House Martell was the main enemy of the Targaryens. Sandor Clegane knew they would all sink in the next gust of flame. He might be able to swim with the boy to one of the Daenerys's ships, but the Sand Snake would die. He snarled towards the sky.
"Look at me!" he growled in frustration, not expecting the dragon to listen. He was stupid to free the beasts, and now he might die from them. Or Tyene and the boy would die if he swam away like a dog he was. A boy younger than Sandor when Gregor burned him, a boy who enjoyed building boats. "I did all I could for you beasts, and you, you, you let me live! Me, Sandor Clegane, a brother of the Mountain who butchered dragon children. I don't know why but you did it! Why now attack a Dornishwoman only for her father's name, and with her the son of Mance Rayder?"
He felt Tyene's gaze on his back, and he thought he felt the dragon relenting, as he kept protecting the woman and the boy with the barrier of his body.
The world turned cold and freezing when light autumn rain began to fall on the raft. But the black wings were gone, and the stars showed up again on the clearing sky.
"You... you are a Clegane!" she parroted.
"How clever of you," he retorted. "So what?"
"The dragon..." she stuttered, "he would do your bidding but not mine. He approved of you. Why didn't you tell me you were a dragon friend?"
"I'm not one. But even if I were and if I told you that, would you have believed me?" the Hound barked like a rabid dog, shivering from cold in the rain.
"I guess not," she said.
"There you have it," he said. "The dragons do not care about men, nor about the houses and their fealty. They do as they please."
"Then I am glad that it pleased the dragon to fly away," she muttered. But she looked at the Hound with such respect, larger than an innocent maiden would offer to a true knight who came to save her from a blood-thirsty beast.
"Let us continue," he said.
Way before morning, they were on the shore facing the Mud Gate, and the Hound must have been exhausted. He didn't even react when Tyene helped him out of the shallow water to the firm land, nor when she wiped his body in her own travelling cloak, as a mother would do to a child, until he was dry and falling asleep on the ground. She dressed him up, covered him with dry grass, and watched him closely, together with the boy. When the light came, Tyene walked to the city gates and found them closed for all.
"His Grace King Aegon and his noble aunt commanded all gates to be shut until the mummery is finished," a guard explained instantly, eyeing Tyene's beauty and innocent blond hair as men were wont to do.
When she heard all the news she could obtain from the guards, she ran back and mercilessly hit the Hound with her hands and feet, avoiding the sensitive parts in an almost unconscious man, until he stirred awake.
"I would have let you sleep," she said. "But the mummery will start this afternoon, and I suspect they will give someone else your role if you don't show up. That is the least how the mummers did in Dorne when I was young: more of them would exchange in the same role if one would fall ill, or was otherwise unable to play. The city gates are closed. If I were you, and if I wanted to read my bloody role, I would walk on the rocks under the city walls, until the part you know well, where the fishermen live. Over there, it is possible to scale it with bare feet."
"Thank you," he told her without thinking, and Tyene took his hands in hers.
"For what it's worth," she said. "I am sorry for the way I treated you. I would have never made it here without you."
"What will you do?" the Hound asked.
"Wait until they open the gates," Tyene answered lazily. "Play with the boy. Tell him tales of vipers in Dorne. I am in no hurry."
The stage for the mummery was made in front of the Great Sept of Baelor.
The high dais stood on the end of the stairs where the head of Lord Eddard Stark had rolled, although he was innocent of any crime in the eyes of either gods or men.
Sansa was wearing a simple grey dress, holding a mask of white weirwood ready to cover her face. She stood behind the stage, in the Hall of Lamps, watching the noble guests come in from all sides of the city. There were many of them from all lands. From the Riverlands, the Reach, the West, the Stormlands, and all the way from the borders of Dorne. The envoys of Prince Doran Martell came on fastest horses in Westeros, and barely made it to the capital before the closure of the gates, she heard. Sansa wondered if their delay was the reason Prince Doran did not ask for her hand yet, or if his wife was still alive.
All lesser nobles and hedge knights who could come to King's Landing on time gathered to see the play wild stories were being told about. Smallfolk followed them like cattle. The plaza of the great sept was more crowded than when Joffrey executed Sansa's father. Daenerys was in the front row with Ser Barristan, and Aegon was with her, in the company of Jeyne as his only guard, hooded deeply in the softness of dark velvet.
When the heralds announced Lord Walder Frey, a few people whistled, and when they announced Lady Cersei Lannister and her son Tommen Lannister, absolute silence reigned. Lady Cersei wore thick bracelets of odd transparent crystals on both arms all the way to her elbows. Her blond hair was of a lighter shade than the usual golden one. It fell almost to her knees in a long single braid in Myrish style. She was more beautiful than ever, in a new yellow gown woven with red threads.
The queen and her nephew did not move an eyebrow to acknowledge any of that.
Last came Lord Euron Greyjoy who had not come to swear fealty to Daenerys before. The lord of the krakens stood proudly in front of the queen, looking her in the eye.
"What are you ready to give me, woman," he asked, "to stop my alliance with the slavers?"
Sansa watched Daenerys stand up slowly. The Dragon Queen surprised Euron by walking to him, unguarded, and taking his dark face with both silvery hands. With passion, she kissed him on his lips. It was not chaste, Sansa knew. It was devouring as the Hound did with Sansa, and despite being a lady she had loved every moment of it.
When the queen backed away, more solemn than before, Lord Euron was more confused than a green boy. It was clearly the last thing he expected.
"My queen," he stuttered, as Daenerys took his hand, leading him to a place on her right side. She made him seat on the cushion of green silk between her and Aegon.
"Lord Greyjoy," she said. "Welcome to my court. May you find that an alliance with me brings other and greater benefits than anything the slavers offered to you as a reward."
Sansa could still feel Daenerys' hatred for Lord Euron, stronger than ever, yet the queen spoke words to him which were almost of love.
She is a better liar than Petyr, Sansa confirmed her earlier suspicion, fearing to the bone the intentions of the Mother of Dragons towards her, a mere warden of the Iron Throne.
To make things worse, Sandor Clegane was still missing, and Ser Daven was going to read his part.
Sansa decided to think of Sandor with every word she would speak for her Aunt Lyanna. She knew that if she did that, the multitude would see true love in her eyes, more abundant than the autumn shower which luckily stopped in the morning before the mummery.
It was time.
Sansa donned the weirwood mask and walked out to the stage, her red-rimmed blue eyes searching in the mass, hoping to see the hulking figure hounding her dreams and every step, breaking his way through.
He was not there.
Wherever he was, he had no time to arrive. Or he was captured by the slaver's fleet for Sansa was certain he was not with Euron. Her excursions to the army of the dead continued in the past days, since the first successful one, to confirm discreetly that no firm alliance or promise had been made between two enemies, and that Lord Euron would accept Daenerys's invitation, making it seem like a last moment decision.
Daenerys Stormborn told her to call her Dany, but Sansa could not bring herself to obey her in that. It would be the same like calling Joffrey Joff to his face or continue to love him deeply after he had put her father to death.
Sansa stood in the middle of the stage, alone, and the people watching turned more quiet than dust in the grave. She noticed Lord Walder Frey among the nobles, watching her with lust and murder in his eyes, his thoughts concerning Sansa clearer than those of Sandor's horse. I will not live long in that marriage if it ever comes to pass, she realized.
She heard steps behind her back and nearly turned to face Ser Daven as she was supposed to do.
Before she would turn, she heard him.
"They say that Winterfell is cold, my lady, and that no flowers grow among its walls," a deep burned voice rasped behind her back, different than whenever she had heard it before. Full of expectation, and hope.
Her love came back to her as if stealing cursed horns, freeing dragons and finding a safe way into the city under siege was the most natural and the easiest thing to do.
The mountain of ice in Sansa's heart melted, as a dark lake in the grove of the old gods would, when dreaming of spring.
Lady Lyanna Stark greeted the unknown man, who would reveal himself to be Prince Rhaegar later on, with the most enchanting smile that had ever been seen in Westeros.
Her smile had sealed the fate of the Seven Kingdoms, as well as her own.