King Rhaegar gazed forward quietly, a black armoured man on a black horse. A black shadow lost among the black and the grey shadows of the evening; some having a life of their own, and no flesh to give them substance. He kept as close as he could to his young human sister on her white horse since they cleared the Dragon Gate. A white-headed eagle landed gently on his right arm, as the favoured left one nervously curved around the pole of the lance, that used to float broken in Trident, once. The nightfall had been upon them for a while, and the world as it was known to any of them hung in balance. I slept for too long, he thought, I do not know how to do this any longer.
If I ever did.
As if to discredit his craven, wormy thoughts, the eagle carefully picked on his right eyebrow with the tiniest pinch of her sharp beak.
Yes, beloved, I've been a fool once and I'm bound to be a fool again, he talked to the eagle in his mind. The eagle was not a dragon and Lyanna could not hear him. Yet it was the best he could do; he could not say those words to her out loud at the head of an army. Florian the Fool! Rhaegar laughed inwardly, at the both of them, Lyanna and he, and there!
All the shadows seemed lighter and less invincible.
If I was not helped by my travelling companions, I would have never stood here as myself, honouring my heritage, and much less seen a true dragon... he added a measure of justice to his thoughts. He could sense Drogon's presence behind them, safely perched on the high stone walls either built or reinforced by their common ancestors. Meeting him was worthy of a lifetime of solitude.
The bird just croaked, undeterred, towards the long ships anchored in front of them, looming ever closer in their line of sight, as they advanced slowly towards the waterfront. Fearless, that's what you are, Rhaegar thought of his wife again, no matter what you say or think of yourself. They built you a pyre and you refused to burn, you refused to give the vultures the pleasure of seeing you broken. You just looked up, fancying yourself a true eagle who would fly free. And maybe, with the strange customs of your people up north, a part of you would have flown away. But I bless the gods, Lyanna, for bringing me to you on time, before the eagle was the only one left...
There was only one dark cloud left hanging in the sky of his mind. With jealousy he knew he had to fight, and temper, to avoid falling victim to the madness of his house, Rhaegar still feared what Lyanna would not tell him before he rode to battle, again. And you're still keeping your secrets, even from me... He could only hope that the Blackwater would not become another Trident for the House Targaryen.
The king and his sister, Princess Daenerys, led a well-ordered army of the Unsullied and the Golden Company, surrounded by torch bearers from all sides. Aegon, Ser Barristan, and Mance Rayder had already cautiously slipped away from the ranks behind them, melting into shadows, with a small company of men-at-arms. The nightfall had its blessings, as Rhaegar and Daenerys hoped it would, devising a battle strategy; the small vanguard seemed to have gone away unnoticed. Ser Jaime Lannister followed them of his own free will, without being commanded to do so. They departed before Lord Euron's sudden change of heart, and his offer to help them. Rhaegar had a moment to wonder briefly where Lady Brienne was, for he had not seen her since the mummery, before returning all of his attention to the inhuman ending of the clash in front of him and Daenerys.
The path they faced gaped empty from where they were to the galleys of the slavers from across the sea. In front of one of them, largest of all, a pack of at least three dozen wolves led by a direwolf Rhaegar knew so well as the brother of the Faith, was sharing and almost finishing a meal consisting of several grey looking figures such as Rhaegar had never seen in his life. Not as a Prince of Dragonstone, nor as a man of the Seven. Daenerys appeared content with the sight. Her lips curled up imperceptibly, the gesture oddly reminding Rhaegar of their father when he was a younger man, and occasionally in a good mood.
"You have seen these… grey people… before, haven't you?" he asked her.
"I have," she said. "And I would call them blue, not grey. They drink a potion called night shade for their lips to become, or to remain blue, I have already forgotten the exact reason. Though grey could be the apt way of describing them, here, in this land devoid of light that is supposed to be our home. Eternal sunlight reigned in the city where I had met them, and the colours of all things were different. They are called the warlocks, and they wield magic. When I was in a need of sustenance, and allies, and knowledge, in the ancient city of Qarth, their blue mouths rained with prophecies and promises about the dragons, enticing me to accept their help. But in the end all they showed me were mere visions, or so I thought at the time…" she said, staring deeply in her brother's eyes. Rhaegar admired how her eyes mirrored his own, albeit less dark and harbouring a lesser amount of past sorrows. Yet, born as a fugitive, she must have suffered too, Rhaegar was certain. He hoped that one day she would trust him enough to tell him about her life.
"Won't you tell me more of those visions?" he asked of her, politely, as if he were still a lowborn in comparison to her.
"Maybe. In a while," Daenerys continued saying what she could, at that moment. "Their promises were empty. All that they had served me in the end was an attempt to take my life. Drogon was very small then, but he repaid them in kind. Many died on that day, but not all."
"It would appear that it is the first time these… warlocks, have met a direwolf or even a wolf…" Rhaegar speculated. The eagle sat peacefully on his shoulder, crowing with pride.
"I've never seen wolves in Essos," his sister said. "I know they live over there, just like here, from Viserys' stories. But until Ser Barristan taught me a bit more about the great houses of Westeros I thought of all the wolves as the Usurper's dogs…" his sister's voice became tinged with embarrassment. "I was so ignorant of so many things."
"Who wasn't?" Rhaegar responded rhetorically before his own lips curved to a smile similar to their father's. He fought it, not wishing to look like Aerys, ever. "Just like Lord Euron comes from one of the poorest corners of Westeros, and despite being as highborn as their mothers can make them on the Iron Islands, he's as ignorant of the old Valyrian as if he were a bastard from Flea Bottom. I heard everything you told the slaves… You have grown wise, and dangerous, sweet sister. If they obey you, our men will have an easier task, and we are one step closer to victory. "
"I had to do so," Dany said, reining her horse in. "It remains to be seen whether the deceit was necessary."
"On this, I am with you, sister," Rhaegar said. "We could not risk taking Lord Euron on his word. I, for one, will find difficult to accept anyone's, apart from my own wife's, after the treason of Prince Lewyn Martell."
"We will wait here," Daenerys decided, perhaps sensing Rhaegar's inner doubts and disquiet. "It's a good place as any." And so they did. The army slowly halted, a slow long trail of faces and steel. They waited patiently, surrounded by a ring of torches, under the starless night sky. A pale moon started rising after the warlocks had fallen, defying and dissipating the shadows they had cast around the city. Pearl-coloured moonlight joined the torches in bathing the outskirts of the capital in a ghastly glow. It spread over the lands, the galleys, the walking dead and their stranded ship. It hovered over the sellswords crawling out of the darkness of the woods, and the silver hair of the true king and his sister. The dead advanced slowly towards the sellswords, in utter silence, led by Silence and its dead captain, ignoring the army from King's Landing, as if it were not there. Sellsword companies crept further out from the woods, baring weapons of all kinds, confident in their number which surpassed the dead. With great force they attacked, and with cries of slaughter.
But the dead had more power despite the soft elegance of their movement under the wing of Silence. Slowly, the dread of their presence and the sheer strength they possessed washed out all resistance of the paid warriors from afar. They devoured the flesh of the living, turning it into carrion fodder. Rhaegar forced himself to study the carnage, as he would observe an ugly wound susceptible to heal. His breath accelerated when he saw a change from the pattern he had witnessed earlier in Highgarden. With the defeat of the warlocks, and Euron's false priest, the dead remained dead. They were not rising as fresh walking corpses and moving limbs eager to devour their former companions in arms on Euron's command.
Rhaegar pitied the sellswords, although he knew what war was, better than many. They had to be defeated one way or the other, but that did not make matters any prettier. Saddened, he turned his face away.
And saw a small riding party; two galloping horses and a direwolf left a tangle of fur and teeth where the warlocks were being feasted upon. They would join the king's ranks before either the advancing dead or the fugitive sellswords losing ground would make it to the galleys. The king's heart forgot the war and widened beyond measure. Sandor Clegane carried Lady Sansa in his arms, as if she were a fallen red autumn leaf. His other niece was close behind, on the Hound's horse. Awake! A day and a night for miracles, Rhaegar thought, joyful, fire flickering in his veins. He thanked the Father as he would do when he thought he was a monk. And only at that moment he started to believe they could be victorious. He almost believed in Euron Greyjoy's honour until he remembered how his lordship had killed his own brother, hoping to conquer the power that was never his to attain.
When the torch bearers stepped aside to let the riders into the king's presence, Rhaegar patted the eagle and smiled, greeting them. His unease of what the night would still bring melted faster than ice in spring in the south, at the sight of his brother and his lady, safely back where Rhaegar could protect them, as was his duty, for the time being. He immediately bent over Lady Sansa, as a healer, not a king. She was alive, and it meant that with time she would be well. He gently touched the burning glass candle in her cold stiff hands, wondering if she knew what she was holding and what she hindered by grasping it. Sansa's tight grip on the black glass finally relented under the warm touch of the king, heated by the blood of the dragon streaming through his veins.
"I will tend to her myself," he reassured his brother then, and the Hound's ashen, burned face regained a semblance of calm at those words. "I haven't yet lost a life that could be saved, as you well know, in all the years that I prayed and healed. For now, just hold her a little bit longer. She may need no more than warmth."
His younger niece dismounted and stood next to her wolf, in apprehension and rebellion at the same time. She glanced at Daenerys and bluntly addressed a princess of blood. "Last thing I remember before opening my eyes in the woods, I was on an errand to kill you. I was no one, then."
"But you didn't. You chose not to. Why? I was hoping I would get a chance to ask you this for a long time," Daenerys said, not showing any trace of slight. "Shall I have your answer, my lady, or are you no one still?"
"I'm not a lady. I am Arya, of the House Stark," the girl said bravely, looking a bit like Lyanna in her younger years did. Yet her cold, almost cruel bearing and some sharp facial features were entirely her own. "I tried hard to be no one, but in the end I failed. Like in all else. As to why I could not kill you, I do not know. I raised my sword, and before I could lower it, it felt as if I would be killing my own kin. After that, I woke up in the woods on his horse" she said, pointing at the Hound, "with a knife in my hand, and an ugly grey man was killing my sister. He, he's a killer, a murderer of children," she said with blunt dislike, never stopping to point at Sandor Clegane. "But he still watched over me in his way when there was no one else. And even back then he was a fool for my stupid sister. I saw he'd not make it to her on time. I did the only thing I learned how to do well."
"Kill," Rhaegar permitted himself to say.
"Kill," his younger niece agreed without hesitation.
"And who paid for the taking of my sister's life to the guild of the Faceless Men," Rhaegar asked. "I assume you belonged to them if you were no one. In my youth, they also existed, but few had enough coin to buy their favours."
"Now, that, what you just said, is plain wrong," Lady Arya said. "I don't remember my stay with them as thoroughly as I would wish. It's like an odd dream now, with so many things in it that I can't understand. But it's not the gold that counts. It is a wish for a life to be taken. And if the god of death finds it well, then it's done."
"Who made a wish then?" Dany asked.
"I don't know, not for certain," Arya said. "There were some men from Westeros who came to the House of Black and White and prayed. Later that day they also visited the Iron Bank of Braavos. A girl who was no one followed them until they boarded a ship, a dromond, I think, and left. The day after I was sent on an errand to take your life. The servants of the temple of the Many-Faced God gave me back a face telling me it was my own. They wouldn't give me a false name for the task as is their custom, and they instructed me to retrieve a weapon of my own to complete it, for it was the only weapon that would avail me against… that would fortify me to take the life the god wanted," Arya's voice faltered. "But in the end I couldn't take your life and my sword is missing..."
"I kept it for you," Daenerys said distantly.
"Thank you," Arya said, suddenly apt at courtesy.
"Maybe it's not her life your god wanted, girl," the Hound barked ferociously. "Maybe you're as stupid as you think your sister to be."
"Wait," Arya exclaimed with fear, recognising the high stone walls behind Sandor Clegane when he finished speaking. "This is King's Landing! You have captured Sansa and me for the Lannisters! Who are you?" she asked the king and his sister. "Your hair is silver, not gold!"
Daenerys gazed at Rhaegar, at a loss for words.
"I'm your uncle," he said.
"Uncle Edmure," Arya said after a while. "I never imagined you this way. Didn't they kill you too, the Freys and the Boltons, at the Red Wedding?"
The king stretched his spine to appear more confident. "My name is Rhaegar Targaryen, not Edmure Tully. This is my sister, Daenerys Stormborn."
"You kidnapped my aunt before I was born!" Arya shouted immediately, with both anger and amazement. "Didn't you die on the Trident?"
Rhaegar was enthralled with Arya's eyes as they darkened, reminding him of the lady he loved so well. But before she could and most certainly would have done something uncalled for, like attacking the king, if she were anything like his wife in deed and not only in looks, both the eagle and Nymeria barred her way, affectionately detaining her skinny form, in an embrace of undulating fur and flapping feathers.
"There's your aunt," Rhaegar said about the eagle. "Just like you can be in your wolf if you wish. She will tell you of her life when we return home."
"What is... home?" Arya asked, lost between the two animals, less certain about her intentions all of a sudden, and sounding much younger than she was. A child yearning for the home it had lost.
"The Red Keep," the king answered with melancholy. "The beauty of its warmly-coloured walls has been stained too many times with blood that should have never been spilled. Yet it is still my home. I have no other. And I hope to wash some of the injustice away, in the time that will still be given to me."
Arya remained mute, pondering the king's words.
Rhaegar gazed forward again remembering he was king now, expected to lead in war.
The galleys were leaving, some of them, at least. The surviving sellswords manned the oars, abandoned by the slaves. They needed no drummer to row away as fast as the force and the span of their arms could take them. Some dead jumped into the water to form a pursuit, but a deep, vengeful voice from Silence called them back to the shore. The dead regrouped behind the black sails of Lord Euron's ship. Doggedly, they started marching towards the king and his army, slow, yet determined to face it.
"Now," the king whispered.
Daenerys lifted both of her slender arms in the evening air, and called the slaves to come and honour their mother with flames, in High Valyrian. And she would free them as she promised she would when she had asked them to keep their collars for a bit longer. The king's torch bearers moved in a position between the army and the dead. The woods came alight at Dany's call, with branches starting to burn in the arms of the slaves. And a flood of men freed from the galleys approached the dead from the back, until they were fully surrounded by a ring of fire. Ser Barristan, Mance Rayder and Aegon led them, from centre and on both wings. Ser Jaime Lannister was in the first ranks too, but in place of a torch or a sword he dragged six cursed gowns of human skin, bearing the appearance of the slaver lords from Essos from face to toe, except that they contained no flesh.
The king sat his lance aside and handed the glass candle to his sister. He reached for a large saddle bag behind him, and took out the horn of the dragonlords. In his harp-loving hands, those of its rightful master, the horn was cool like fresh water. Yet I would never be able to touch it, or blow it of my own free will, if my brother was not willing to sacrifice his life to lift the curse laid upon it, Rhaegar knew. In a corner of an eye, he noticed that Lord Euron knelt on Silence, weapons dropped in front, palms of his dead hands turned forward in sign of surrender. He didn't even bother to put a bandage over the eye he had lost as a living man, or to hide his condition of a corpse from any living ironborn he may have still commanded.
The Elder Brother would have forgiven him. Rhaegar, the Prince of Dragonstone would have believed him. But King Rhaegar could not afford to trust. Not when he was close to victory and the end of bloodshed he never desired.
The king's hands curled around the red rings of the Horn which survived the doom of Valyria. As a true dragonlord of old, he raised it and he blew.
He blew and the sound travelled over the kingswood, the sea, the roads leading to the capital and its high walls. It was not ominous and deep as it had been in Highgarden. It was crystal and shrill, and it called. It called forth. And it called far. It could be heard as far north as the High Heart, as far north as the Wall.
The dragons came then, all three of them, hearing their lord's call. First came the black one from the walls of King's Landing. Then came the green one with a thin layer of white snow and ice tinging the tips of its bright green scales. Rhaegar hoped he would have brought his son from the Wall, or beyond it, but there were some things not even the dragons were able to achieve. We will go and find Jon together, he promised Lyanna, who was now on her willful niece's head.
And finally the white dragon came from the still warm south, carrying a tall unconscious blond woman with prickly hair on its back. Her cheeks were red from flight few men could stomach, and her large soft hands grasped tightly a blue oval stone.
At the unexpected sight, Rhaegar straightened up in the saddle and lowered the horn. The joy in his soul was unequalled and for two seconds he believed he could conquer the world.
Laughing, he told his sister.
"Daenerys, look!" he said, but there was no need for it. His sister's eyes were already on a blue stone. "How…?" she asked. "Where…?"
"Lady Brienne will surely tell us when she wakes up," Rhaegar observed. "It is by no means an easy feat to tame and ride a dragon with no blood to guide your actions."
Then the king turned to Lord Euron in his surrender, and asked in a voice of his father before he could control it and make it sound like his own. "Speak, kraken," his words spurted like dragonfire. "And tell me why I should spare you from burning?"
"I have laid down my weapons before you called your dragons as you have well seen," Euron said. "I took care of the sellswords for you, and I spared their slaves. I kept my end of the bargain."
"You have laid down your weapons after ordering your army to march on me, " Rhaegar contradicted, "and before being surrounded by fire."
"That much is true," Euron conceded. "In defeat, the ironborn do not yield. They fight until the last man dies."
"That much is true in what books and scrolls record about your house," Rhaegar admitted. "So why did you lay down your weapons then? Why did you go against your barbarian custom?"
"I am not asking for mercy for myself," Euron said. "I ask for mercy for the army I created in my foolishness. You will say, why should we pity the living dead? They are dead already! Take my word, for I have tasted this condition, and it is a curse! Yet it is still a life when all the sweetness and taste of things has been irreparably lost. The beggar and the noble alike will cling to such life as he has. Spare them, and they will fight for you. You may yet need their strength when you head far up north…"
Mind in a turmoil, Rhaegar observed how his sister approached him and said: "I have walked with the dead, brother, when you and Drogon left me to save your wife. They possess… some understanding. And what of Lady Jeyne, she has helped us all! She sensed that the House Tyrell had tidings of where Lord Euron was, and where he was taking our dragons. If you sentence them to burn, what of her? What of Aegon? Shouldn't you judge everyone by the same measure of law?"
Rhaegar considered her words.
And against his will he remembered a corpse of Ser Ilyn Payne, severely maimed by his father in life. Aerys had Ser Ilyn's tongue cut out when the unhappy knight praised his liege lord, Tywin Lannister. Yet Ser Ilyn nonetheless may have kept his honour in death, just like his cousin Podrick believed he might have wished. The dead tongueless knight kidnapped the Elder Brother of all people in the riverlands, when the wights and the white walkers attacked the future king's party. To kill him faster… Or… Or perchance in his cursed condition Ser Ilyn was able to recognise him and he decided to protect the Prince of the Dragonstone from the true enemy… from the white walkers who urged their dead to get the monks before anyone else, as a few brothers who lived through that night could tell. The Others had followed the Elder Brother to the woods as if they knew very well who he was when he didn't know it himself yet… Until Sandor Clegane killed one of them who would have finished off Rhaegar then and there with the obsidian pendant. And Rhaegar returned the favour by throwing the Valyrian steel dagger in the heart of the other enemy who wrenched a chunk of flesh from the Hound's massive shoulder…
Rhaegar knew he might never find answers to his questions, but they still lingered on. They could not be easily ignored or forgotten.
Lady Sansa chose that moment to stir in the Hound's arms. The king recalled her words from the Quiet Isle, when for the first time in twenty years he became angry like a man at Petyr Baelish, thinking he deserved death. The words Ned Stark must have given his daughter mingled with mother's milk: "It is not for us to decide who lives and who dies." She had said so, and the Prince of Dragonstone within the monk had stirred back to life, only to wake up fully weeks later, on the stairs where Ned Stark had been murdered like a traitor he never was. Yet the truth he taught his daughter remained. If there was to be peace, life and death should be governed by the laws, and not by a whim of any man, even if he was a true king.
"We will return to the Dragon Gate," the king commanded. "There, I will hold court in the open and pass my judgement for certain crimes, past and present, in the light of the laws of the realm to the best of my abilities. All who so wish may come and watch."
"I hereby summon to my presence Lord Euron Greyjoy! Mance Rayder! Ser Jaime Lannister! Lord Walder Frey! Lady Olenna Tyrell! His Holiness the High Septon! And the Lord Paramount of the Trident Petyr Baelish!"
"Those whom I have named can choose to come willingly, or they will be brought by force…"
He gave his sister a pleading look. Daenerys understood and in a few chosen words in Valyrian, her commander, Grey Worm, formed a company of men for each person the king summoned.
Rhaegar was not surprised when Mance Rayder immediately started in the direction of the city. Nor when Ser Jaime Lannister whistled to Viserion who landed next to him, with Lady Brienne still resting on the dragon's back. Ser Jaime embraced the dragon's snout, told him something, and walked to the city as well, alone and without the sister with whom he had come to the world. Rhaegar's lips curved with the certainty of knowledge.
And went slightly open with new questions, when Lord Euron approached one of the brothers he killed, Aeron Damphair, the one who used to be the priest of the Drowned God of the ironborn. He didn't spare a glance for his other dead brother, Victarion, who stood proudly on a side, always the second in command, a great captain of the dead, as he was the great captain of the living. Aeron accompanied Euron to the shoreline, pushed him knee deep into the sea, and poured a copious amount of salty water on Euron's head speaking some words of their strange faith. Then, the summoned kraken departed towards the Dragon Gate as well, carrying no arms, only something that resembled a rather large bag of turnips.
When Rhaegar himself rode back to the city, he stopped to regret the sight of battered heads and limbs soiling the ground in front of the gates. Heaps of putrid flesh, still bleeding, that used to be Lord Mace Tyrell and his best knights, devoured by the evil shadows of the warlocks. For all the cruelty and unchecked ambition of the late Warden of the South, few deserved such death. He wondered how many of the dead shared their commander's goals, and how many were just obeying his misplaced orders, not having known any better in their life of the men sworn to his House.
How many more will have to suffer and die before we finally have peace? Rhaegar thought, and then, his thoughts were churning. His guts were burning. Drogon obeyed the command the king could not force himself to utter, not even in his mind. Soon, dragonfire caught the drying grass and absorbed the corpses and their armour, purging the space in front of the gates where the court was to be held, granting the summer knights of the south the only reward that could still be given to them...
Sansa was pleased by the warmth she would not expect in dying. I must have been taken to seven heavens, she hoped, inhaling rapidly a scent of the sweat she knew, and it made her open her eyes. She would have hummed from pleasure if it wasn't a very unladylike thing to do.
Two pairs of grey eyes bore into hers, one restless, belonging to a man holding her close to his heart, and another calm like water, less childish than when she had seen it before.
"Arya," she said, "you have grown."
"So have you," her sister said and grinned with malice. "I thought I would find you in the arms of another handsome prince when I returned."
"I am glad you found me so…" Sansa said, blushing. "…That you returned, I mean," she corrected her unseemly remark, and Sandor's grip stiffened. Sansa blushed again, not wanting to cause her lover any grievance, real or imagined, so she ventured on even more unseemly grounds. "And I would not have you find me in anyone else's arms."
"Than I am thrilled I didn't put my dancing lessons in practice with him when he asked me to," Arya said, laughing clearer than the water could fall. "I can't believe you picked up a dog just like King Robert counselled Father when they killed Lady…" Her sister's long face lost mirth when she spoke of their father, and Sansa did not feel offended by her rudeness. Or by her remark on dancing she did not quite understand. Because the Hound's embrace grew even tighter, and his eyes wore a smirk of hope where once only anger had its dwelling.
Sansa took in her surroundings. They were in front of the gates where Queen Cersei's trial by combat had been held, well placed in the first row of the nobles waiting on the king in his court. Torches lit the night from all sides, some stuck in the city walls, some carried by the men on the ground, and some by the onlookers on the battlements. The hour was growing late, and the people tired, yet it seemed that every living soul in the city had gathered together to witness the end of a day full of miracles for some, and grief for others.
King Rhaegar sat in front, on a seat less noble, and less frightening than the Iron Throne. It made him look like an ordinary knight, and not a king in whose hands the power was laid, to grant life, or to take it. He wore no helm, nor crown, and his silver hair spilled freely on his black armour. His Queen of Love and Beauty, Aunt Lyanna, Sansa remembered with joy, sat demurely at his side, garbed in blue and grey. The blue of the winter roses for Rhaegar, and the grey for the House Stark… Sansa marvelled. Her hair followed that of her husband, and also by coincidence the custom of the north, in contrast with the elaborate combing styles of the south. Sansa admired her aunt's choices. Only her tiny stature made her appear moderately below the king, just as the most conservative propriety would demand of the queen.
"What is going on?" Sansa inquired, and the Hound replied quietly. "His Grace will hold court and pass judgement. Knowing him as we do, he may well forgive them all."
"It is the king's right, to carry out the laws," Sansa said, not knowing what she wanted. Too old on the inside to expect justice, she nevertheless hoped for a resemblance of it.
"Then I hope he will let his dragons devour the prisoners, starting with Lord Walder Frey," Arya said with hatred the Hound once spoke with in the Red Keep.
"Let us hear," Sansa said, standing up between them. The face she used to know as the Elder Brother's looked as if he would not do either of those two things.
Sansa missed the Hound's closeness as soon as she had left it. But her strength was back, and it was only proper that she would behave according to her station. She steeled herself, and listened.
"People of the Seven Kingdoms, lords and ladies, all of you who are wiling to listen," King Rhaegar spoke. "My beloved sister Daenerys extended her royal pardon to all, before the mummery which has given me back my life so that I can devote it to the good of the realm. And since you have acknowledged my claim to the Iron Throne, I see that no other choice lies before me than to uphold and apply the laws we have. Or I will be no more than another Usurper. To this regard, I have summoned some among you for whom I believe that they have committed deeds which need to be known to all, at the very least, and some of them may demand punishment according to our laws."
"Lord Euron Greyjoy, step forward," Princess Daenerys called the first prisoner, when the king gave her leave to do so. Just like when Sansa saw him through the bars of the crow cage, both of his eyes were visible, dead, and black.
"A wight!" one of the surviving ironborn cried in distress. "Base treachery! We elected a wight on a kingsmoot! Lord Euron missed an eye in life! A dead man cannot be our lord!"
"Lord Euron," Daenerys said, ignoring the roars of contempt. "You have brought a horn from the ruins of Valyria to the Iron Islands. You gave it as a present to your brother Victarion not telling him what it was or that it took your natural life away from you. Then you sent Victarion after me at the head of the Iron Fleet, to capture me, and three dragons, with the intention to enslave us. He caught two dragons for you and you enslaved them, for a while. You followed a man who said he was a priest of the red god and whose presence gave you power to resurrect others you killed, and force them to be your soldiers. What have you to say in your defence?"
"Aye, I did all that, and more, as you well know" said the cursed kraken in an angry voice which resounded in the darkness, almost blowing out the torches nearest to him by the mighty blow of his hatred. "I will not deny what I did. I would have taken you to wife by force if I could. The kingdoms belonged to no one then! No one had a rightful claim to the Iron Throne. Why should not a kraken be chosen king, by the force of his arms, if a bastard stag could? Have your dragons burn me, princess, and be done with this mockery! I have tasted my revenge."
Unmoving, he emptied the content of the bag he carried at Daenerys' feet. A grey wrinkled head with blue lips rolled down in the muddy ground. Sansa had to stop the urge to retch, remembering what they did to the head of her brother Robb. She fought hard to keep her shoulders straight, as a lady should, and hide her discomfort.
"This is my gift to you, Silver Princess," Euron said in a changed voice, but what was in it then, Sansa could not name. "His name was Moqorro. And if he could, he would have enslaved you all, you and your brother, and all of your dragons. He would have taken you back to Valyria, to keep feeding the everlasting fires by your old blood, enhancing the powers of his wicked kind! He would have succeeded if your knightly dragon friend, Sandor Clegane, did not outsmart me and defeat me in Highgarden, before Moqorro or I could discover you or your living brother and force you to blow the horn when it was still cursed by the warlocks… I understood too late what they wanted from me. What they used me for."
Lord Euron nodded to Sandor Clegane when he finished speaking, and Sansa thought he may have smiled at her. A genuine smile, not a dead one. A gratitude where there should have been none.
"Not a bloody knight," Sandor had muttered when Euron spoke, but only Sansa could hear him.
King Rhaegar spoke then, and there was not a shadow of the Elder Brother left in his kingly voice, despite the lowness and the simplicity of his chosen seat. "Lord Euron is right in that there was no rightful king on the Iron Throne when he aspired to kingship. By the strict understanding of the laws, anyone could lay a claim, or recruit an army in any way, forced or not, as long as that condition lasted."
"A question for the accused, if I may, Your Grace," Daenerys inquired, and the king stopped speaking.
"Lord Greyjoy," she said, standing more beautiful than ever in front of his dead lordship. "Why were you late in seeing through the deceit of the warlock who put on a skin of the priest of a Lord of Light in your service, to better fool you with his prophecies?"
"Do not ask me that, princess," Lord Euron objected. "The laws do not forbid a prisoner to die with dignity, if he is so able, without sullying his breeches."
"I hold no interest in what was once between your thighs, wight," Daenerys said with disdain of a woman wedded and bedded, for whom men had no secrets. "I would have your answer before a sentence is passed. Or I will urge my kingly brother to let the dragons burn the army for which you have pleaded mercy. Before they burn you."
"I hoped… I hoped…" Euron started and he could not finish, the humiliation of what he had to say making him bend deeply to the mud stirred by autumn rains, appearing more like a corpse he was than he ever did before. "I had dared hope..." he said, lifting his gaze to face his King's Justice clad in yellow silks, towering above him in a position of might, despite the fragile slenderness of her built. "I hoped beyond hope that if I could force you and prove to you that I was still a man, maybe the true dragon blood of yours could call me back to life. And that maybe you would forgive me, in time, and call me your own. Give me your… affection. I couldn't think clearly of anything else. This hope drove my ambition, and madness, and all I did."
Having said those words, the black gaze of the vanquished wight dropped to the ground, and he was utterly unable to look up any longer.
King Rhaegar and Princess Daenerys exchanged a glance before the king stood up and spoke, thin as a birch, yet stronger than the wind. Stern and with balance, he spoke: "For as much as you may deserve it, the sentence of death cannot be passed against one already dead. And as to burning you into nothingness, it could prove to be a reward and not a punishment to your kind. You pleaded mercy for the army of the dead you created of your own free will. Yet turning free men and women into slavery is a crime under the laws of the Seven Kingdoms so you ought to be punished..."
"This is then the punishment I will deal to you, Euron Greyjoy. You will bend the knee to my rule. And you will lead your army in war at my side as I command it and see fit. And you will be seeing my sister every day, more beautiful than the sun, and one day wed to a good man, and a true lord, as you were not able to be. You will never address a word to her, and you will remain what you are, a dead body condemned to solitude until your existence comes to an end. Those are the terms of your punishment. You may refuse. If you do, you leave me no choice. You will watch every single wight in your army burn, before you are burned yourself."
The dead kraken silently bent the knee, unable to look up, his gesture of acceptance as clear and as proper as it could be performed.
Mance Rayder walked forward next, not waiting to be summoned.
"Mance Rayder," King Rhaegar said flatly, sounding almost like the Hound in his most impassive moods, "you were proclaimed King-beyond-the Wall by the people living beyond it. You led them against the Wall in order to settle them in the safety behind it, willing what was best for them. You were defeated in battle, yet you won in what you sought. My son, who was elected Lord Commander of the Night's Watch allowed your people in the Seven Kingdoms. As I would have done myself. The laws of the realm cannot be used to sentence you to death for treason because you never willingly proclaimed yourself king in any part of the Seven Kingdoms. What say you?"
"I have never proclaimed myself king, on either side of the Wall, that much is true," Mance said. "Yet murder is a crime on both sides. And not burning a man you kill is a crime against the old gods on my side of the Wall."
"The man you murdered," Rhaegar said, "was it in the Seven Kingdoms?"
"No," Mance shook his head and opened his mouth to continue.
"Than I have no power to decide over your punishment," the king ruled, and the queen stood up on his side, her grey eyes urging the wildling not to speak.
"If the lands beyond the Wall are ever made part of the Seven Kingdoms," Rhaegar said, "and if by the grace of the gods I am still king, only then, I will be able to rule. Whatever you did, it is between you and any gods you keep. You are free to go and do as you please."
Mance Rayder stepped aside, abashed, never bending a knee, since nobody thought to ask it of him.
"Ser Jaime Lannister," King Rhaegar called out.
Ser Jaime came out in a simple tunic, crimson and gold. He had left the white armour of the Kingsguard behind. Yet his breeches and boots were black, something Sansa would find more fitting for the Hound, or even King Rhaegar. The odd attire, and a carelessly arrogant posture to match it, drew all attention to him, even of those who could resist the handsomeness he possessed with inborn grace.
"You have removed the white armour with which you chose to serve the king, years ago," Rhaegar observed. "Yet the crime I am supposed to judge you for is the murder of the king you were sworn to protect, wearing that same armour. What say you?"
"I have done as you say, Your Grace," Ser Jaime said with ease, "as I have fathered bastards with my sister, to sit as usurpers the Iron Throne, and threw a boy from the high windows of Winterfell to protect that secret. I stand defenceless before you, for a sentence long due."
"Haven't you recently come to know something about yourself that would…mitigate your punishment?" Princess Daenerys asked, and Sansa surprised herself by how much she did not want to see Ser Jaime die, laws or not. He was almost a friend to Sandor, and he seemed to be a gentle husband to Lady Brienne.
A gurgle sounded from behind Sansa's back, followed by the voice of Thoros of Myr. "Lady Catelyn Stark confirms that the Kingslayer tried to kill her son Brandon, a small boy, to hide his unnatural relation with his sister."
Arya grasped Sansa's elbow and whispered. "In a dream, I have seen our mother dead, floating in the river." Sansa embraced her sister. "And so she was," Sansa said. "But her body was somehow brought back. They call her Lady Stoneheart now, and all she knows is vengeance…" Sansa's choice of words made Arya shiver, and the older one of the two sisters could only holdthe younger onecloser, wishing what she said to go away, if it had hurt her sister so.
"Lady Catelyn Stark was killed at the Red Wedding," King Rhaegar said. "The creature for which you speak wanted to take the king's justice in her own hands. Yet she had done no other crime since, and I cannot sentence to death what has already died. That is the only reason I didn't summon her before my face. Shouldn't she weep for the loss of a noble husband who never betrayed her? Shouldn't she weep for not loving my son Jon, who was never her husband's bastard? Shouldn't she stop desiring blood and think of her own sins and of what may be truly important, in life and in death? She would have burned me, a monk of the Faith, in the Riverlands, for defending Ser Jaime's right to a trial. And she would have burned his innocent lady wife who did nothing against her kin, and who spent months riding in the riverlands looking for her daughters! I wonder what your lady would have said then if her intentions were fulfilled, and if I rose from the dead before her eyes… Would she burn me again and again, to quench her thirst for revenge?"
"If I am to be king, I will yearn for justice, and peace, not for vengeance."
The king was shaking with rage on his legs, almost spitting fire through his human nostrils. The queen approached him then, softer than the first snow could fall. She pulled him back to the seated position, gently tapping his armoured forearm.
"Thank you for your words, Your Grace," Jaime said. "Yet the result of either justice or vengeance, when it comes to my person and your father, strikes me to be pretty much the same."
"Not quite," Princess Daenerys said, signalling something to one of the Unsullied standing close at hand.
Lady Brienne was brought in, in a litter Daenerys would sometimes use, Sansa remembered, but it was now covered in light blue, and not in yellow silks the princess preferred. She seemed tired, barely awake, and in her hands she held a blue oval stone.
"Do you know what this is?" Daenerys asked, and Ser Jaime appeared offended. As if he were certain she was mocking him, but could not comprehend the reason.
"A stone," he said, "a stone one of your dragons wanted from the treasury in Tarth."
"And who retrieved the stone for the dragon?" the princess continued, delaying Ser Jaime's agony.
"I did," he said.
"You did that, when the dragon by coincidence chose you as his rider. Or do you deny that of all people Viserion chose you to ride him and do his bidding?"
Ser Jaime had no answer to that.
"Ser Jaime Lannister," King Rhaegar ceremoniously addressed the man before him, as if the proper treatment would return him the gift of speech. "When I left the capital and rode to the Trident, when I still desired victory, and before Prince Lewyn Martell spoke treason to my ears, what did I tell you?"
"That everything would be different once you would return, Your Grace," Ser Jaime found the grace to stutter.
"And if I returned with life, I would have imprisoned my father and sentenced him to death by the laws, for the crime of ordering the King's Landing to burn," the king said. "The king has no leave to kill his people who committed no crime. You were only guilty of passing the just sentence which was not yours to pass… And I should sentence you to death by our laws, if the hand of the gods would not stay my hand in this matter. For I cannot sentence you, if I want to remain in life myself… " the king's voice faltered.
"Kinslaying is worse than kingslaying in the eyes of the gods, is it not?" Queen Lyanna continued where King Rhaegar had stopped, and the multitude approved of her words in sighs and quiet nods. Those were the first words she said since the Court was being held. "The king and I, we both know that you have understood who you are some time after the mummery, if you have not suspected it before. Yet you remain a Lannister to the core, like your mother was, and you are too proud to admit what you now know, and plead for your life. So we will let your lady wife plead in your stead, and only then the people will hear the king's judgement."
"No, please," Jaime said, humiliated.
But it was too late.
Lady Brienne stood up, somewhat shaken in body but not in honour.
"You have hinted at the truth yourself, Your Grace, as did Her Grace the Queen. When you spoke to all of us about your past, you mentioned that King Aerys II, your father, was told to have hurt my lord husband's mother... And that Lord Tywin Lannister took his revenge by betraying him when he had a chance. My lord husband, he… He loved his sister since they were children. His love was pure at first, and not carnal at all, different than the affection uniting other siblings in the Seven Kingdoms... Many years later, in the riverlands, he burned his chest wanting to save two children from the wights. After he did it, his chest hair was burned, but his skin remained intact. You told us, Your Grace, that the fire cannot kill a dragon. But it should have at least burned a lion, it should have!
After, in Highgarden, the white dragon bore him away on his wings. And the dragons do not allow riders who do not share their blood. At least that is what my father believes. He was secretly learning the lore of the dragons during the reign of King Robert, when he was mourning the death of my mother and my siblings. The scrolls gave him comfort where people could not... Then he took a young wife, first one, then another, hoping to have more children. He abandoned his studies. Only two things remained, two treasures he brought home from the ruins of Summerhall, a blue oval stone hidden under a rounded shield among the scorched masonry. The shield of Ser Duncan the Tall, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard of Aegon V who must have laid down his shield in what he may have thought a vain attempt to protect the greatest treasure in Harrenhal at the moment when wildfire, not an ordinary fire, devoured him, his king and his king's heir. For this is not a stone, Your Grace as you well know. It's not a stone at all. It's a dragon egg, Your Grace, no more, no less, a token of survival of your blood and kin," Brienne paused to gain breath.
"Viserion, the white dragon singled Ser Jaime out of all people, to bring him the egg from my father's treasury. Is it not fair to say, Your Grace, when all this is acknowledged and measured, that Ser Jaime and his sister, Lady Cersei, could very well be your father's bastards, carrying a drop of dragon blood against their knowledge or will? Isn't that what made everything Ser Jaime did possible, both the good and the evil?"
"Lady Lannister," King Rhaegar said. "Thank you for your eloquence. I will never know for certain what my father did to Lady Joanna Lannister. But indeed, before I went to Trident, I suspected Ser Jaime and Lady Cersei to be my father's bastards. And of the things you cannot recall from the past, I would have you know that Lady Cersei fancied herself in love with me, of all nobles in the realm, when she was but a little girl, and I a grown lad betrothed to, and in love with Princes Elia."
"The dragons love twice," Lady Brienne said.
"That they do, most of them," King Rhaegar said. "And while this is good in our kind with tooth and claw, it rarely bears fruit among mortal men. It rather leads to tragedy and to despair... I will never know what Lady Joanna was to my father and if he was anything to her. For all I know, he could have been a godless rapist who forced her, or a rejected lover. Or something else entirely. All who may have known, have died."
"And you haven't quite finished your tale, my lady. Viserion has chosen his rider. He then came to your call, when you addressed him as a brother, acknowledging you as his human sister for being Ser Jaime's wife."
"There is another old saying, my lady, ancient but valid still. The dragon has three heads! And the dragon will need all three of them if we are to stand against the evil coming from the north..." the king turned pensive, and silent, staring at a torch burning with particular brightness on the wall above his head.
"Ser Jaime," the king turned his attention from wife to husband when he spoke again. "It is clear to me that your fate has led you to become a kinslayer, and not only a Kingslayer, for you have most likely murdered not only my father, but also your own... And that in itself is yet another proof of the drop of Targaryen blood coursing through your veins. Alas, kinslaying was not uncommon in the house of the dragons... Lastly, your sister seems to have recently turned to madness, a deadlier enemy of the Targaryens than any true conspiracy could be."
"With all this knowledge, I cannot sentence you to die, for my crime would be more grievous than yours. I would then be a kinslayer, a murderer of my brother, in full awareness of what I did. Let no one speak of what you have done with contempt ever again! For I know from Viserion's mind that my father's dying face has haunted you all your life. If that is not punishment enough, I do not know what is."
"Yet, you remain a Lannister as well. Lord Tywin always recognised you as his son and heir. And I would never deny the inheritance from your mother, or of any other noble lady of the realm. If I would, I would have to forgive my queen if she decided to challenge me to a duel. And I would deny the tradition of my own house where in the old days the queens were equally important as the king..."
"So I proclaim that it will be you, and your sister, if she ever wakes up to health again, who will continue to bear the title of the Wardens of the West. I see no one more suitable for the role."
"Rise, Ser Jaime," the king commanded to the man summoned, who bent a knee half way through the king's long speech.
"Before you leave, there is one punishment, however, that I have to inflict on you," the king smiled, and he never looked less like the Elder Brother since Sansa had met him. "For it concerns the indisputable honour of your lady wife. Let it not be said that you dishonoured her outside the vows of marriage. For I have married you when I thought I was a septon, and as it turned, I wasn't one. There is still a godswood in the Red Keep, I believe. Its heart tree is not a weirwood, but it will do as good for your cause as any septon would. Go there with your lady wife and renew your vows!"
"May that be your punishment, and may it last for a lifetime!"
Ser Jaime Lannister obeyed his king. He rose, light on his feet, and offered his arm to Lady Brienne, as a proper lord would, more handsome than ever in the light of the torches framing his golden locks.
Lady Brienne seemed torn about what to do, and at a loss of where to look. The blue egg she held was between them, a man, standing, and a woman, reclining again after she had dared to speak for him. Princess Daenerys scurried forward, faster than a little girl, eager to relieve the Lady Brienne of the precious burden.
When her hands were free to do what they wanted, Lady Brienne accepted Ser Jaime's hand. She stood up from the litter, watching her feet, careful not to step on a long trail of blue silk sweeping behind her, and Sansa finally understood the true source of her unease. She observed with wonder how the lady knight did not wear an armour for a change. Brienne donned an odd blue dress Daenerys' foreign maids must have contrived in great haste, where the Westerosi gown and the long sheet of silk named tokar Daenerys sometimes wore, married in a peculiar fashion. Sansa decided that the attire was most fitting. It did not enhance any womanly curves, but rather the natural elegance the tall people possessed. The softness of the fabric wrapped Brienne's body as a lover would, gentling her every move. An exceptional gown for an exceptional lady, Sansa thought. Without thinking, she clapped her hands and cheered.
Her youthful motion was echoed by many pairs of hands. Including Arya's, Sansa noticed with pleasure. Her sister needed some joy. They all did. There is nothing wrong in rejoicing, there can't possibly be, she told herself. Yet as she did so, she still feared some unknown doom that was yet to come. She took a step closer to Sandor Clegane's shadow, as if it could protect her from life itself.
Cries of approval followed the Kingslayer when he took his bride to the Dragon Gate, proud as only a Lannister could be, for being allowed to cherish her hand.