Title: Breaking the Faith
Author: Saydria Wolfe
Fandom: Game of Thrones/ASOIAF
Genre: Fix-It, Time Travel
Relationships: Jon Snow/Margaery Tyrell
Content Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Canon-level Violence, Dark Themes, Major Character Death (Cersei Lannister, Tywin Lannister, Joffrey Baratheon, Ramsay Snow, Renly Baratheon, Petyr Baelish, Lord Varys), Canon Incest, Discussion-Other Trigger Topics (Incest, slavery, rape, miscarriage), Slavery (they get freed though because Fuck Essos and Fuck slavery), Offscreen miscarriage, Minor Character Death (…its Game of Thrones)
Author’s Notes: See Story Post
Beta: PN Ztivokreb and Fen
Word Count: 129,133
Summary: When Jon Snow died a traitor’s death for doing the right thing, the Seven had something to say about it—and a mission only he could complete.
Urgency beating furiously in his chest, Jon kicked down the door to Margaery’s favorite solar in the Red Keep and stormed in, swords drawn.
What he saw surprised and relieved him. It left him confused which he knew he never took with much grace. Princess Arianne was on the floor with blood coming from several orifices on her face and spittle decorating her mouth. Obara stood next to her cousin, spear at the ready, and Brienne was at Margaery’s back, sword drawn.
Margaery was staring at him. Her eyes were wide and her mouth slightly open.
“She poisoned herself, my prince,” Obara answered him easily.
It took him a moment to tear his eyes from Margaery’s flushed face to look at Obara. “What?”
“She poisoned herself,” Obara repeated herself. “She poured the wine and Lady Margaery asked her to taste it since her official taster was not available. She tried to refuse but we insisted.”
Jon studied the body of Prince Doran’s oldest child. “Do you know the poison?”
“It is called Strangler. Meant to be confused with choking on food, it tightens the muscles of the throat like a fist to cut off breathing. It is very expensive and hard to come by, all of the ingredients can only be found on the other side of the world, near the Jade Sea.”
“But perfect for when death absolutely has to look like natural causes,” he said sardonically.
“Yes, My Prince.”
“Lady Olenna’s little thorns watched Prince Quentyn buy poison this night in King’s Landing. What are the chances he got Strangler here?”
“None.” Obara shook her head. “This is the weapon of choice of Faceless Men. No Fleabottom rogue could afford a supply.”
Jon nodded and accepted the cloth Brienne threw to him. He set down the castle steel sword so he could clean off Dark Sister and put her away. “Prince Quentyn’s men refused to allow me entrance to his rooms to question him. There was…violence.”
“Is he dead, my prince?” Margaery asked breathlessly.
“Not yet, though he will wish he was before all is said and done. He admitted to buying poison for his sister to use on you.” He paused to look at Margaery and she nodded, far braver than Sansa on her best day. “That might not be treason yet, but it is conspiracy to murder. I have to take this to Prince Doran.”
“Do you want me to go with you?” she asked.
“No,” he answered immediately. Then he considered, “Sansa, perhaps. Though I would not allow her to stay in Dorne without me.”
“Very well, my prince.”
He held out a hand to her and she came to him easily enough. She was trembling when he pulled her close though he was not certain why. She did not seem afraid, but he was not sure what else she could be.
“I must take this to the King. Come with me?”
“Of course, my love.”
“Prepare her for transport,” he ordered Obara. “We will return her to her father.”
“Of course, my prince.”
He kept his hold on Margaery’s hand and slid his other arm behind her back to led her from the room. He ignored Brienne and Rolland as they followed them through the halls.
“Why was Darling not with you?” He asked her, concerned that her bonded beast had left her alone when he had to smell the threat of Princess Arianne.
“I sent him away.”
Jon shot her a surprised look and Margaery had the grace to flush.
“Obara did not think her cousin would act so rashly with Darling in attendance. He sits and stares at Arianne constantly when he is around, it makes her nervous and cautious.”
“As it should. Shadowcats are not to be trifled with. And bonded ones are worse.”
“He is quite put out with me. If we manage to leave our audience with King Robert without him meeting us there, I will be surprised.”
“His temper will be fun for you to deal with. Probably for the next month,” Jon estimated.
“You will not be going with me to Dragonstone, I take it,” she said to him softly.
“With what just happened?” Jon thought about it.
His retinue had just made it to the Red Keep from the Vale not even a week gone with the recent addition of Maester Aemon. Dragonstone Keep would have belonged to his oldest brother Duncan when he was a boy. It was bound to hold good memories for the aged maester. It would probably be good of him to allow Maester Aemon to see the keep one more time.
And there was no telling when they would be able to return or if the elderly maester would even live long enough to have another chance.
“We can give it a day or two,” he decided. “But no longer than that.”
They needed to control the method Doran learned about his oldest child’s antics. That was absolutely critical. The entire situation was so precarious and could go wrong so easily but Jon had decided to be family to the Dragon Maester and family had to come first.
“Good,” she said in a light teasing tone. “That should give you the time to meet our staff.”
“Staff? Other than Ser Marq?”
“Is there a new maester?”
Margaery gave him a secretive smile. “Yes, actually. Cressen and Pylos returned to Storm’s End with Lord Stannis. I refused Renly’s old Maester because the man was an ass. The new maester is named Colliff. A man of the Riverlands unless I am mistaken.”
“He is not what has you so giddy then.” She giggled at him and he sighed at her. “Fine, keep your secrets.”
“Fine,” she agreed merrily. “I will.”
“They will not survive for long. Unless King Robert denies me, we will sail at dawn.”
“That troubles me not, my prince.”
Jon just sighed.
“Bards?” Jon shook his head at Margaery as the stood good-byeing on a pier at Dragonstone. “Why do you need a score of bards?”
“As though you did not enjoy speaking with them,” Margaery playfully scolded.
“Oh, of course. Until all they wanted to talk about was me.”
Margaery failed to suppress her giggle. “Your brother Robb had no problem telling them of your antics. Talking your father into keeping direwolf pups. Searching out a wildling to train you as a warg. Fighting the Dead at the Wall and beyond. Saving the Children of the Forest and the Giants from extinction. Being gifted a unicorn—”
“And a rose,” he added teasingly. “I have also been gifted a Rose.”
“Not yet, you have not,” she sassed.
“The best Rose in the entire kingdom. Most intelligent, most beautiful, most fun—”
“Go, go,” she waved him toward his ship, the Ice Wolf, “if you miss the tide because you were extolling my virtues your captain will have your hide.”
He snorted. “If I miss the tide because I chose to list your virtues, you will be forced to entertain me for luncheon, and I will have more time to complete my list.”
“The gods old and new save us from that!”
They laughed together then she went up on her toes to kiss his cheek. “Go. Be safe and return to me.”
“As long as I have the choice,” he swore, returned her kiss, and let her go.
He knew the Seven had promised him a partner, but he had honestly not expected a woman. Or that she would fit into his life and space so well. He was by no means mad about the surprise. Margaery was a gift and he would always treasure her.
He waved to her one more time and turned to face the figurehead of his ship, an antlered wolf.
At least two weeks to Sunspear with one prisoner, a dozen bodies, and twice as many Silent Sisters onboard.
It was going to be a long trip.
“Prince Doran,” Jon greeted his fellow prince on the day he arrived in Sunspear.
“Prince Jon.” The smile fell off Prince Doran’s face when he saw that Jon was alone save Ser Rolland who never left his side. “I understood my daughter had returned with Sunspear with you?”
“She did,” Jon confirmed. “She in the company of the Silent Sisters.”
“Tell me,” the older prince demanded.
“Were you aware she wanted to replace Lady Margaery as my future queen?”
“Yes, of course. She was certain her Dornish mystique would gain your favor over yet another northern rose. Why?”
“Where you aware that her plan included murdering my betrothed?”
“No,” Prince Doran drawled. “Where is my son?”
“Captive upon my ship, out in the harbor,” Jon answered.
“He was rather conveniently seen buying poison in King’s Landing just an hour before your daughter attempted to poison my future bride and drank from the poison cup in her stead.” Jon gave Doran exasperated eyes. “Your children are from Dorne—the only one of the Seven Kingdoms that is equipped to meet your brother’s need for poisons. Do you truly believe there was any possible way your daughter actually needed your son to buy poison for her in King’s Landing? Because I do not.”
“She tricked him,” Doran declared. “She disgraced him.”
“And she did it well,” Jon agreed. “There is no way the Crown can accept him as a Lord Paramount of one of the Seven Kingdoms. Too many people know of this attempted treason already, his reputation is stained irrevocably.”
“I—” Prince Doran ran a hand over his face.
“Do you truly want a man that easily led, wearing the coronet of Dorne? You would be a laughingstock.”
Prince Doran sat back in his chair, silent and pale.
Jon was not sure if it was an act or if the man was truly in shock, but Jon was willing to bet it was shock. Two of your children behaving so foolishly would unbalance even the most even tempered and controlled of lords—witness the case of Tywin Lannister and his twins, Cersei and Jamie.
“My brother has spoken highly of you,” Doran said eventually. “He said you always had a plan within a plan.”
“That is the highest of compliments I could receive, particularly from your brother.”
“What is your plan?”
“Quentyn’s fate is up to you,” Jon told him. “Banish him to Essos, send him to the Wall, or I could behead him for you as a traitor if you wish. I care not though I would prefer not to take the head of a boy that was betrayed and used by his sister. Despite his crimes, I consider him a victim as well.”
“Whatever you choose, you will disinherit him. I cannot trust a man such as him as Lord Paramount and possible Warden of the South.”
Doran’s eyebrows flicked up at the idea of taking one of the titles that the Reach habitually held. It would be a boon and show true acceptance for House Martell to command any and all military action that took place in the south on behalf of the Seven Kingdoms.
“That leaves Trystane to be my heir,” Doran said. “How can we ensure Trystane will be any better?”
“We send him to Winterfell to foster,” Jon answered easily enough. “If anyone can beat the stupid out of a young man and make him a tactical, wise lord, it would Ned Stark.”
“We would need a betrothal with one of Lord Stark’s daughters,” Prince Doran said immediately. “If we are going to foster my son so far from Dorne without growing the rumors of Arianne’s treason and ruining the little trust my House has gained with the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, there must be a personal connection between him and the North.”
“Good thing I brought Lord Stark’s oldest daughter Sansa with me, then,” Jon gave a small smile when the light of surprise bloomed in Doran’s eyes. “They were walking together in the garden when I left them and should be sharing luncheon soon, if they are not already.
“After six months in Lord Stark’s care, we can betroth your Trystane to our Sansa. We can start rumors that it is a love match and how he went to Winterfell to prove himself to her father. Arianne’s treason will be completely forgotten. And who knows?” Jon shrugged. “In six months, talk of a love match might even be true.”
“If we sent Quentyn north on the same boat as Trystane, my son could tour the Wall and find his calling, further removing all talk of Arianne from the public eye,” Prince Doran added.
And furthering Jon’s goals for the Watch, particularly if finding yourself at the Wall became a fad among young noblemen in Dorne and other southern kingdoms.
Jon considered it. “And if he flees to Essos?”
“Then he will die,” Prince Doran said in a dead tone that actually frightened Jon. “He is a fool-hearted boy and Braavos is such a dangerous place, after all. All the Free Cities are. So uncivilized.”
Jon snorted. “Very well.
“Would you like to discuss the terms of the betrothal now or would you like to wait and deal with Lord Stark?”
“I…would like to see my daughter,” Prince Doran admitted, ringing a bell for a servant to come push his chair. “I would, truly, prefer to present the completed contract to your Lord-father but first, I must attend my daughter. Only after her burial can we begin negotiations.”
“What is your tradition for burial?” Jon asked as he stood to walk with him.
“Burial at sea is the custom of Dorne. It has been passed down from Princess Nymeria’s voyage from Essos to Westeros, adapted from the Rhoynish custom of water burial in the Mother Rhoyne.”
“Is this done from a ship or from a pier?” Jon asked.
“A ship. It would be easier for me if it were from a pier, I admit,” the man tapped one of his gout-weakened legs. “But dumping dead loved ones in the port would be a bad practice long term.”
“I can appreciate practical people,” Jon said easily. “My ship, Ice Wolf, is out in the bay. It would be a simple enough matter to see her and ourselves back out to the ship for appropriate customs.”
“Would this allow her brothers and cousins to attend?” Doran asked.
“Of course. Speaking of cousins, Nymeria Sand? Have you rendered your decision in regards to her legitimizing?”
“It would allow her to marry Willas Tyrell,” Doran considered. “Gain us another true ally within the Seven Kingdoms beyond the North—though that connection will not be firm until Lord Stark and I have signed the appropriate agreements.”
“And the Crown,” Jon reminded. “I may be a Baratheon now, but Sansa will always be my sister. Your son will be marrying the royal family. You and I will be family.”
Doran nodded, looking mollified.
“And the North has allies in the Riverlands and Westerlands. My Lady Margaery is angling to create a betrothal connection between the North and the Stormlands. Marrying Trystane to Sansa would be no small boon for your House.”
“And you command the Vale and the Crownlands.” Doran stroked his neat beard thoughtfully. “The only kingdom without a connection to you or the Starks will be the Iron Islands.”
Jon did not even try to not make a face. “Squid-fucking rapists. I would remove them from Westeros entirely if I could, but I have yet to strike upon a satisfactory method the leaves me looking neither vindictive nor weak.”
“It is a difficult premise,” Doran agreed. “They do not wish to be part of us any more than we do…mayhap we can find a solution together.”
“Mayhap we can.”
His days in Sunspear were easy.
The sun was a comfort on his skin, like the kiss of a lost lover. He neither burned like Robb nor tanned like Rolland. He remained as pale as the day he arrived no matter how much time he spent outside. He rather assumed it was his dragonblood accepting and processing the heat—not that he could tell anyone that.
Negotiating with Doran was easy. He only had an hour to spare from his princely duties, so they met every day for that one hour. Some days they did not use their time to discuss his son and Jon’s sister. Some days their conversations felt like something perilously close to friendship.
Considering Jon was holding Doran’s son hostage and had returned his daughter’s corpse to him, the idea of a friendship felt out of place. Like he was being lulled into a trap.
It put Jon horribly on edge waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And drop it did.
Not in anything Doran did or arranged but in the form of a letter from King’s Landing. Not even one from Margaery. No, the letter had come from Lord Tyrion. A raven telling him that the House Frey was dead—all members but one, with no sign of a struggle and Jon was being called upon to investigate as Master of Laws.
Jon was beyond thrilled with the news…only not really.
He had deliberately avoided the House Frey and their seat the Twins. That family and their keep had been Robb’s death in Jon’s last life, and he had no interest whatsoever in taking Robb there in any life thereafter.
There was no reason to tempt fate but the Seven were not giving him a choice.
Oh, he had no way to prove the new gods had killed off an entire family, but his instincts said they had. Whether as a gift to him or as a message or because Walder Frey was a stain on this good earth, Jon could not say but he was sure this new madness belonged at their feet. Especially with just one survivor of the name Frey—it seemed to him like a rather pointed echo of his aunt Daenerys being the only survivor of the name Targaryen.
He could not say what message the Seven might be trying to send him, though.
He thought perhaps they were getting impatient. He had not done much to break the Faith yet other than to end a few traditions. He had encouraged a few southerners to take up the Old Ways and nurtured some anti-Faith rumors but he was still learning about the Faith in order to deal with them effectively. And he had to settle into his new role of Crown Prince.
The last thing he wanted was to wage all-out war against the Faith. Doing so had tainted King Maegor—gaining him the name ‘the Cruel’—and the House Targaryen for generations. He could ill afford for such a thing to happen again.
Regardless of what the new gods were trying to do, he would deal with it when he reached the Twins.
They made a quick stop in King’s Landing on the way to Saltpans to gain Lord Tyrion. Leaving Robb and Sansa would have done wonders for his peace of mind but before they left King’s Landing, they received word that Lord Stark wanted his children home, and that sooner would be better than later.
To that end, he and Tyrion with their men left the Ice Wolf at Saltpans and switched to a pole barge to take them down the Green Fork of the Trident, directly to the Twins.
The Wolf continued North with Robb, Sansa, and the Princes Quentyn and Trystane to speed them on their ways to Winterfell and the Wall. The Wolf would return to the Saltpans for his return trip when she had done her duty in the North.
Jon honestly did not understand the obsession in Westeros with land travel. A sojourn from Sunspear to the Twins on horse would take months. The same trip with the use of an ocean-faring ship and a few river-faring boats and they made the Twins in less than three weeks. Without blowing a single horse, with highly reduced levels of grime and stress for the entire party.
“It is the pride of riding everywhere on your own horse, I imagine,” Lord Tyrion had said when Jon mentioned his feelings on the matter. “The power of being in control of your own destiny.”
“How many of us truly have control of our own destiny?” Jon asked. “Even kings must bow to some degree to the people they rule or risk an outright rebellion. No, your birth dictates your destiny. The parents you are by chance born to dictate your fate before you were even born to them.”
“Except in some cases,” Tyrion toasted him with his goblet of wine, “where the King chooses another man’s bastard to be a prince.”
“Do you honestly think that would have happened if I had not been born to Eddard Stark?” Jon asked. “If I had not been the bastard—the disposable one King Robert could take from my father without repercussions in the line of succession? He would never have taken Robb or Bran or even Rickon. Just me. Just the bastard with a dead mother.
“No, Lord Tyrion, not even I have escaped the fate given me by my parents. Even if mine was more surprising than most.”
Lord Tyrion regarded him shrewdly but without pity.
One day, Tyrion would understand the many levels Jon was living the fate given to him by his parents, Rhaegar and Lyanna. They had given him this fate just as much as Eddard Stark had.
Perhaps even Lady Catelyn deserved some credit for him. Without her disdain, he would have been far more vulnerable to the manipulations and corruption of Court. As it was, she and her hypocritical Faith had shaped him just as much as the others, just in different ways.
“I wonder what her parents did to poor Roslin Frey,” Lord Tyrion offered idly. “What road did they set their daughter upon that lead to the death of their entire House?”
“You believe she killed them?” Jon asked.
“I have never met the girl so I cannot speak of her personally,” Tyrion offered. “But she was the only survivor and that is interesting.”
“I do not believe she deserves our suspicion without any proof. Were she not alive, what would you think happened?”
“If there had been a struggle, I would assume succession issues when you consider how many trueborn sons and grandsons and baseborn sons Lord Walder had. With an entire House dying without a struggle?” Tyrion asked. “A rival moving to take the Twins. Or a poorly targeted poisoning, perhaps. There is a surprising amount of poisoning going on right now. It is suspiciously contagious.”
Jon rolled his eyes. “And if it were a poorly targeted poisoning? What would you do?”
“Speak to the kitchen staff. Speak to all of the staff, actually. It would cover both options as the servants would know if anyone suspicious had entered the castle at any point.”
“Then that is what we will do,” Jon decided. “We will gather all of the staff in the great hall—well away from Lady Roslin and whatever other noble survivors there might be—and ask. Straight, to the point: was anyone in the family acting strange? Were there any new people within the keep? Or perhaps someone doing a job they were not hired for?”
Tyrion nodded. “My Aunt Genna should be at the Twins when we get there, she was the one that wrote King’s Landing. She was travelling back to her husband Emmon Frey’s side after helping my Myrcella settle in at the Rock.”
“Just because she was not there does not mean she does not know anything about what happened,” Jon cautioned the shorter lord. “We will still have to question her.”
“She would be most offended if we did not,” Tyrion admitted, and Jon huffed a laugh. “Aunt Genna is quite…something. The last time the Iron Born thought to raid Lannisport she placed herself on my father’s war council without asking. No one was brave enough to tell her she should not have been there—not even my father.”
“She sounds like quite a character.”
“She is, she truly is. Emmon Frey never deserved her. Father wanted her to wed Hoster Tully, but grandfather was…”
“Weak,” Jon finished. “Assuming she was not involved, we will find something for her. If all else fails, Margaery could use a sharp, experienced woman at her side. One that is not a lickspittle from the Reach.”
“Aunt Genna has never been a lickspittle. Of that, I can assure you.”
“Lady Genna, Lady Roslin,” Jon bowed to both women after he dismounted.
The pole barge had only been able to take them so close to the Twins before his party had had to disembark and ride the rest of the way. There was no way to access the Twins from the water which Jon was sure was good for security, but it was annoying for travel.
“My L— My Prince,” Lady Roslin bowed. “We welcome you to the Twins. Ser Brynden and Lord Edmure Tully are waiting for us inside to complete the Guest Rite.”
Jon was surprised by that but also…not. The Lord Paramount was bound to stick his foot into happenings within their own lands like those recently at the Twins. In all honesty, Lady Genna should have sent a rider to Riverrun rather than a raven to King’s Landing but she had, and King Robert had ordered them to get involved. The King overruled the Lord Paramount, regardless of what Lord Hoster Tully might want.
“If you would show us the way?” Jon offered Lady Roslin his arm because it was only polite. The way she blushed when accepting it gave him a sinking feeling.
Margaery had teased him about getting in trouble for breaking young maiden hearts everywhere he went. He had dismissed her words as a fancy and a jest. Now he was not so sure. His chamber maid at Sunspear and the inn wench at Saltpans had reacted similarly.
The last thing he needed was to duel some angry father for a flower he neither took nor had any interest in taking.
But, then again, Lady Roslin’s father was dead. So at least he did not have to worry about that in this instance.
The bread and salt were served the moment he and Lord Tyrion were seated. He took the custom-required bites and sips and focused on Ser Brynden, Lady Catelyn’s uncle. “What brings you here? Are you simply representing Lord Tully’s interests?”
“My brother is dead,” Ser Brynden told him bluntly. “And it is no secret he does not favor his son as his heir. We want the crown to officially acknowledge Edmure as Lord Tully rather than me.”
Jon glanced over at Lord Edmure.
“It is not unreasonable to worry about an uprising at this time in the Riverlands,” Edmure offered more carefully than Jon expected. “With my father dying so soon after the House Frey—House Tully’s strongest remaining rival in the Riverlands and knowing my father’s disfavor of me. Some might choose to assume I was involved in both events and rebel.”
Jon briefly wondered if the Seven were punishing Lord Hoster for something through this ridiculous situation and the Crone filled him in that—unequivocally—they were.
Hoster, rather than be a true and faithful ally to the North and the Vale had used the circumstances of Robert’s Rebellion to coerce Lords that never wanted them into marrying his daughters or let their loved ones—including the then future-King Robert—die.
“Were you?” Jon asked, going for at least as blunt as Ser Brynden managed without qualm. “Involved in either event?”
“No, my prince,” Lord Edmure answered immediately. “I would never. I might not have been the strong warrior son my father wanted but no one cannot earn the regard of a dead man.”
“Very well,” Jon agreed. “Let us deal with the issue we were called upon to address and mayhap we will find the solution to your problems as well.”
“Should we write my sister, Lady Catelyn?” Lord Edmure asked. “We have not told anyone what has happened at Riverrun and everyone there is sworn to secrecy, enforced by the guard captain Ser Robin Ryger.”
Jon did his best not to flinch. The last person he wanted to bring to the Twins was Lady Catelyn, the gods-damned meddler. “No, I prefer to have everything settled before we introduce outside interests.” The Guest Rite was technically completed so Jon stood. Everyone stood with him. “I wish to speak with all of the Keep’s staff that was present that night. Here, just myself and Lord Tyrion.
“If the four of you could wait for us in Lord Walder’s solar?”
“Yes, of course,” Lady Genna gave him a quick curtsey which Lady Roslin copied. “We will relay your orders to the castellan, shall we?”
“Yes,” Jon agreed, “if you please.”
Jon was not pleased with the condition of the staff of the Twins when they were all arrayed before him. They were tired and drawn, a half-step away from starving, and not one of them was clean enough that he would even consider letting them muck Swift’s stall muchless attend the needs of a noble family.
“Is there food?” he asked the castellan when the man drew near.
“For the evening meal?”
“No, for them.”
The man blinked at him in confusion. “They are not allowed to eat except at the beginning and end of their work periods.”
“They are not served luncheon?” Jon asked, hoping he was misunderstanding.
“No, my prince.”
“And how long is their work period?” Lord Tyrion asked, his surprise equal to Jon’s.
“From sunrise to sunset for the most part,” the castellan said like that was not ridiculously extreme. “Except for the cooks, of which there are two—one that works from midnight to noon and the other from noon to midnight. And the night staff—which is much smaller than this—which works sunset to sunrise.”
“Get them food, I do not care if they have to eat that which was prepared for our dinner. They must eat.”
“They could not stomach such rich food, your grace,” The maester—a man named Vyman—cautioned. “It would make them sick.”
If his intent had been to placate Jon in some way, he had missed the mark in its entirety.
“Are you telling me they cannot even eat bread? Meat, vegetables?”
“Bread should be fine, in small bites. And perhaps a mild vegetable broth, diluted.”
“And why, Maester Vyman, did you allow these citizens of the Seven Kingdoms to exist in these conditions?” Jon asked dangerously. “Why did you not report this, at the very least, to the head of your order? If not to Riverrun?”
Maester Vyman looked momentarily flummoxed. “They are only smallfolk, my Prince.”
“That was the wrong thing to say,” Jon told the gray bastard honestly. “Ser Rolland.”
“My Prince?” his shadow of a Kingsguard stepped forward.
“I want this man confined. Both of them. It appears we will have to detour to Oldtown before we return to King’s Landing.”
Ser Rolland took a hold of the errant maester. “I will begin making travel arrangements.”
“And I will write King Robert,” Lord Tyrion promised. “This is a violation of at least a half-dozen of the Realm’s laws. How many of his staff did Lord Walder murder with these conditions?”
“We may never know,” Jon said solemnly. He stood and addressed the anxiously watching crowd. “Sit, rest,” he told them. “We will begin in a few moments.”
Jon led Tyrion through the door all of the staff had entered the keep’s great hall through and was unsurprised to find himself in a kitchen. It smelled divine, which had to be another layer of torture for a nearly starving staff.
He found racks of fresh bread and rolled them over to a workspace. Tyrion pulled over a stool and climbed up to it.
Jon handed him a knife. “Cut them into pieces the width of three fingers.”
Tyrion nodded and Jon went in search of a soup pot. There was one gently bubbling over an open fire. It was a thick rabbit stew, like the maester said it would be much too rich for starving stomachs.
Ser Rolland, proving himself to be more that an exceptional swordsman but also a clever companion, found Jon and Tyrion in the kitchen with Maester Aemon on his arm.
“Ser Rolland tells me we must feed the starving, My Prince,” the longest living dragon said in greeting.
“Ser Rolland is correct,” Jon sighed. “This soup is much too rich for them, but I am not sure what else to do.”
“Allow me taste of it, my prince?”
Jon found a serving spoon and carefully held it up to Maester Aemon’s mouth.
The blind maester gave it a good sniff and took a taste. “Water to start, my prince. Are there any wild river onions?”
Jon poured half of the finished stew into another large pot for room and added water as instructed. He made all the changes the maester suggested while letting Maester Aemon periodically taste it.
“Very good, my prince, we are done.” He held up the bowl he had been running his hands over. “One inch deep in a bowl this size per serving.”
“Thank you for your assistance, Maester Aemon, truly.” Jon was heartily glad to have such a good and wise man at his side. “I know this is not what Lord Commander Mormont entrusted you to me for—”
“Pish, lad. The Night’s Watch preserves the Realms of Men and that is exactly what we just did.”
“I will fetch the Lords and Ladies, shall I?” Tyrion asked. “We will need help with the lifting and carrying.”
“Thank you, Lord Tyrion.”
“Of course, my prince.”
Once Tyrion was gone, Maester Aemon reached out for him and Jon helped his hands find his face so the blind man could see him.
“You are a good man, little egg.” Aemon patted his cheek. “You have all the strength of your father Rhaegar, blended beautifully with the compassion of your grandmother Rhaella. I am proud of you though I would be lying to said I do not worry what the Iron Throne will do to you.”
“I am more than the blood of the dragon, nuncle, I am the blood of winter too. The Kings of Winter ruled the North for eight thousand years before Torrhen Stark was wise enough to bend the knee to dragons. The Iron Throne will not get the best of me.”
“I will hold you to that promise, youngling. Do not think I will not.”
“I know you will. We are family.”
Tyrion returned with Brynden, Edmure, Genna and Roslin. Together they moved the cut bread and the pot of thinned soup right out into the great hall for everyone to eat. Lady Genna took care of portioning, keeping in mind Maester Armon’s advice, and served them all—highborn and low alike.
It was infuriating how grateful Lord Walder Frey’s staff was for food. And how each and every one of them knew to eat their food slowly so as to not risk damaging themselves.
“What I would like to know,” Jon said as he sat among them, sipping his soup to encourage them to do the same, “is if any of you saw something strange before the Freys died. Was any of the family behaving oddly?”
“Oh, uh,” One of the cook girls at the next table ducked her head.
“What do you know?” Jon prompted gently.
The girl did not look up at him—he was not sure if it was out of fear or shame. “Lord Walder’s newest wife, Joyeuse Erenford, gave me a little bottle before dinner that night. She told me to put a few drops in Lord Walder’s food as a treat for him but to only put it in Lord Walder’s food because it was a very expensive spice from far away, but—”
“But?” Jon said encouragingly.
“I lost the stopper,” the girl admitted. “I poured it all in the main family pot so it would not go to waste.”
“Did she tell you anything about this spice?”
“Only that it was expensive,” the girl shook her head. “From all the way by the Jade Sea.”
Jon nodded and considered that. A spice from the Jade Sea which he chose to translate into a poison from the Jade Sea.
There were no signs of madness and violence, which eliminated basilisk blood as the culprit. He had heard no tales of choking, which eliminated the Strangler. It had happened much too quickly for Tears of Lys…and Sweetsleep was not from the Jade Sea.
Of all the poisons he knew, that left manticore venom which would kill quickly and painlessly as soon as it reached the victim’s heart.
If Lord Walder’s very young new wife had been trying to escape him, the effects of manticore venom in only a ninety-year-old man’s food would not have aroused any suspicion at all. It was unfortunate for her—and the rest of House Frey—that the staff was kept in such poor condition that none of them could think clearly.
None of them had had the energy to be suspicious before something terrible had happened.
“And Lady Roslin?” he asked.
“She was ill,” one of the more nicely dressed servants answered. “Her courses have never been kind, my prince. She had stayed in her room as she always did during her time, eating lightly and drinking only ginger tea.”
Jon nodded, accepting that. “Thank you.”
“How did we never know?” Lady Genna asked when they were sequestered in Lord Walder’s solar after dinner. “How did I never know? I never even suspected…”
“Have you ever used House Frey’s staff rather than your own?” Lord Tyrion asked his aunt. “I know you have a Lannister retinue that serves your needs including the daughter of the woman that had been your maid since you were a girl. Did you ever have any reason to interact with those here?”
“No, but I still feel like I should have known.”
“In truth, Lord Walder is fortunate that he is dead,” Maester Aemon said from his spot in the corner. “His treatment of his smallfolk would be enough to see him and his entire house on the executioner’s block.”
“That is…good.” Lady Roslin frowned. “When I was young, I thought it was strange that they were treated so horribly when my siblings and I were treated so much better. I thought it was a mistake but the one time I fed a page between meals, Father forced me to watch the boy be beaten for it.” Lady Roslin looked away in shame. “The boy died, and I never tried again.
“Seven take me, I am relieved my father is dead. The staff will live such better lives without him, I do not care if you have to punish me for their treatment, I deserve it.”
“Do not fret so,” Maester Aemon patted her hand kindly. “The violation of these laws falls on the male line and they have gone.
“My brother, Aegon V, wrote many laws to protect more than just the lords in these lands. They protect women and smallfolk, too. Many of them have been revoked by the Lords and following kings but not all. A half-dozen about the proper treatment of smallfolk in and around the lord’s keep remain because many lords—like the former lords of the Dreadfort have discovered—the smallfolk will not trust them if they are abused too cruelly. And if the smallfolk do not trust the Lord, one way or the other, they will leave.
“I am afraid the new Lord of the Dreadfort, Lord Jory of House Cassel, will have much work to do to bring smallfolk back to his lands.”
“House Bolton is dead then,” Jon said to confirm.
“According to Lord Stark, yes, my prince. The Lord has been executed for his many high crimes against the Realm. One son killed the other years ago and that son died while ranging Beyond the Wall with you.”
“Ramsay Snow,” Jon nodded. That vile creature had been beyond worthless by Jon’s reckoning. “And the Name?”
“The name Bolton has been declared anathema in the North. The Name may never be claimed again. It cannot even be spoken north of the Neck.”
“Is that not overly harsh?” Lord Edmure asked.
“If you knew the true depths of House Bolton’s depravity, you would not think so,” Jon promised. “I understand they have been holding to the ways of the Red Kings.”
At Edmure’s continued confusion, Jon shook his head. “I will not speak of it in this company.”
Not that he doubted Lady Genna’s ability to take it as it were but the young Lady Roslin was far too delicate to discuss flaying and rape and torture.
“I will tell you in the morning,” Ser Brynden promised his nephew. “Such are not suitable tales for sleep.”
Edmure inclined his head. “Thank you, uncle.”
“Now that we know what truly happened here, I have a solution to our many issues, however I am willing to compromise on our final path,” he told the gathered highborn. “I want all of us to sleep on it and come back ready to act on the morrow. Understood?”
“Yes, my prince,” the all nodded.
“Good, now go. We have had a trying day, and all deserve a rest.”
“My intention is to promote Lord Edmure Lord Paramount of the Riverlands—with conditions—and to marry him to Lady Roslin,” Jon told the gathered highborn—which did include Maester Aemon back in his back corner. “As House Tully owes the people of the Twins a great debt for what the Freys have done to them under the Tully banner, Ser Brynden will become Lord of the Twins and begin House Tully of the Twins.
“Lord Brynden, you can either get married and start House Tully of the Twins yourself or you can wait and take Lord Edmure’s second son as your heir and allow that son to do it. Either way the conditions here must be corrected and they can never be allowed to happen again.”
Ser Brynden pursed his lips and nodded.
Jon could see him swallowing his objections. Ser Brynden the Blackfish had never wanted to be a lord and had always been clear on the matter but there were truly no other options here.
“Yes, my prince,” he finally agreed.
“Your conditions, my prince?” Lord Edmure asked cautiously.
“Take Lady Genna to Riverrun with you. She will run the Riverlands in your name until you can, eventually, do it properly yourself.”
“You…do not trust the training my father gave me, my prince?”
Jon considered his options and chose to be utterly honest. “I am going to tell you something that will hurt and upset you, though that is not my intention.”
The new Lord Tully swallowed hard and nodded. “Very well.”
“You are too gentle, too kind, to be a Lord Paramount. It is not a true failing under most circumstances, but it can be costly to a man in the position you find yourself now. Unfortunately, kindness is not something a father can train out of their son and still consider themselves a father. Lord Hoster should have fostered you out for another lord to do it but he did not and here we are.
“I fear for you and the Riverlands. The last thing the Realm needs is a second Tytos Lannister.”
Both Lannisters hissed at his comment.
“A civil war or rebellion in the Riverlands is at stake if we do not keep a steady hand on the reins. If I could, I would put you at the Twins and your uncle Brynden at Riverrun, but I cannot without staining you both and your House irrevocably based on nothing more than fear.”
Lord Edmure closed his eyes and accepted Jon’s assessment with more stoicism than Jon had expected.
“Rather than staining you both or having a Laughing Trout to go with the Laughing Lion that nearly brought the Westerlands to ruin, I want you to take Genna Lannister home with you, as I said. Officially, she will be part of your betrothed, Roslin Frey’s retinue.
“Lady Genna, no one can deny that your brother was a very good Lord Paramount, every inch the Lord Paramount your father was not,” Jon said. “I know you have been part of the team with Tywin and your brother Kevan that have made the Westerlands as profitable and peaceful as they are. I ask you, please, aid Lord Edmure in the rule of the Riverlands. Teach him to be a true Lord Paramount and take all reasonable measures to ensure the king’s peace is maintained.”
Lady Genna turned to Lord Edmure to gauge his reaction rather than respond.
“I know I do not have what is necessary to be a Lord Paramount,” Lord Edmure admitted. “My father never spoke against me, but I know he never approved of me as his heir either.
“Lady Genna, if you can help me, I would be forever grateful.”
“I will,” she confirmed. “Though it would be more honest to marry me to Lord Edmure and my former good sister Roslin to Lord Brynden. That would also keep Frey blood within the Twins.
“Removing the last person of Frey blood from their ancestral keep could be taken as a sign that the Crown is punishing either House Frey or young Roslin for some crime, which would stain her and her future husband for life.”
Jon…did not have any objections to that, actually.
The North was his greatest ally and they already had strong connections to the Riverlands thanks to Uncle Ned and Lady Catelyn’s marriage. The North would soon have a strong alliance with the Westerlands thanks to Bran and Myrcella. It made sense to close the circle by marrying the Westerlands and the Riverlands.
Alright, he had one objection. “Are you past bearing age?” Jon asked delicately. “Lord Edmure will need sons.”
“I still get my courses and am not past bearing age,” she answered bluntly.
“Then I have no objections. Lord Brynden?”
Edmure gave them a watery smile. “It would complete the Tully/Lannister alliance my father wished to forge with the marriage of my sister Lysa to the Lannister’s Ser Jaime. And if Lady Genna is carrying out the tasks of the Lord of House Tully, she should claim the recognition of the name as well.”
“My sons are dead,” Lady Genna told him flatly. “I want more sons.”
“And you shall have them,” Edmure swore.
“Everything is settled then?” Jon asked.
Everyone expressed agreement.
“Very well. Let the oaths of loyalty be made, find cloaks and let us head to the heart tree. A Lord Paramount’s wedding requires his vassals attend but we can see the Twins settled before we retreat to Riverrun.”
“Heart tree?” Genna shot Lord Edmure a look. “I will be married by a Septon.”
“Of course,” Edmure agreed easily.
“Lord Brynden?” Jon asked the man that was actually about to get married.
“It would infuriate my brother beyond speaking if when I finally married, I did so in the heathen Northern tradition,” he said gravely. Then he grinned. Honestly, grinned. “Let us do it.”
Margaery looked up to see Jon standing there on the pier in front of her. She smiled. “My raven caught up with you?”
He shook his head as he pulled her close. “It did not but you cannot believe I would come so close to you and not endeavor to see your face.”
She blushed as she accepted a kiss on the cheek from him. “How was Dorne?”
“Sunny.” Jon laughed when she poked him in the ribs in rebuke. “It was fine. Hot. Prince Doran accepted all of our terms and added a few we did not think of, to our mutual benefit.”
“Good,” she grinned at him. “The Night Watch’s order of dragonglass has been fulfilled and we harvested that weight again to donate to the Wall.”
“It is ready to go?” he asked. “Now?”
“Now,” she agreed. “That was the topic of my raven.”
“You are a wonder.” His smile was more evident in his eyes than on his face. It was lovely. “Thank you.”
“You are most welcome,” she said warmly. “Where are you off to now? Lord Tyrion was close-mouthed on the topic other than that he was going with you and that King Robert had agreed.”
Jon pulled a disgruntled face. “The Twins. All but one member of the House Frey has died, and no one knows why.”
“Have you contacted the House of Tully?” They were House Freys’ liege lords. Surely, they would need to be involved in the naming of a new House to the Twins, if not the investigation and punishment of the perpetrators of such a tragedy.
“If they have not been contacted by the time I arrive, I will send them a raven,” he promised. “Did you receive a raven from the North?”
“I did but it was addressed to Sansa and Robb, so I left it for them. Why?”
“Lord Stark has requested his children return to him on behalf of his wife,” Jon told her. “They will continue on to White Harbor once I leave the ship at Saltpans.”
“Is all well with Lady Stark?” she asked, somewhat afraid.
“No one has said anything to indicate something is wrong that I have heard, but Lord Stark would not necessarily have left such news to a raven.”
“So, there could be something wrong with her?” she pressed.
“It is a possibility.”
“I will light a candle to the Mother on her behalf.” She checked the position of the sun. “After I complete my business in King’s Landing.”
“Business?” he questions.
“I am ordering fabrics for our wedding. Foreign fabrics for me, a custom black and gold brocade for you. The weaver has made three different stag patterns for me to choose from.”
“I leave it in your hands, then,” he said with relief.
“More Sansa’s hands,” she admitted ruefully. Her lady in waiting’s stitches were far more suited to the task than hers. “But I will do what I can.”
“Your captain is trying to get your attention,” he told her.
“As is yours,” she grinned impishly. “I suppose our duties call.”
“That they do.” He gave her another kiss to the head. “Be safe, I will see you upon my return.”
“Go and come back,” she ordered.
The trip from Dragonstone to King’s Landing was done nearly by rote at this point in her life, which was a startling development when she stopped to think about it. Margaery had never wanted to be a Lady like her mother that existed entirely to be beautiful and host parties on behalf of her Lord Husband, but she had never expected to be much more than that.
Running a Keep on her own and sitting on the Small Council on Jon’s behalf were…fulfilling. Empowering.
She stopped by the weaver first after her ship docked in King’s Landing.
“Our first option is woven cloth of gold with black stags,” the man laid out hand-sized sample of the cloth, “a cloth fit for a king.”
“It is lovely,” Margaery agreed, but it was far too flashy for Jon. His Northern frugality would never allow him to wear such a thing with any sort of comfort. Being on display like they would be at their wedding was going to be hard enough for her betrothed, she would not allow her choices to make the occasion any worse for him. “What else do you have?”
“Black with the Baratheon buck in gold.”
He laid out the sample. Margaery picked it up and ran her hands over it. It was sturdy and well made. “Perhaps for the bodice of my dress?”
“Of course, my lady. And, finally, black with Prince Jon’s personal sigil.”
She did not wait for the weaver to layout the fabric sample, she took it directly from his hands. It was the same as the second sample, though the stag was slightly larger with a rose—red bud and green stem—clutched in the stag’s mouth. “That is perfect.”
“How much do you require, my lady?”
“Enough for a doublet, surely, but I will pay you for twenty yards.”
“Just a doublet?” the weaver asked in confusion.
“I doubt even I can get him out of his preferred leather pants for the occasion of our wedding,” she admitted. “If I get him beneath the weirwood without his sword, I will consider it a victory.”
The man chuckled at her. “I believe you could convince him to do a great deal more than that, my lady. Northmen are said to be considerate and honorable, even doting husbands but…as you say.”
They settled down into negotiations easily.
In the end, she went with the second sample with its general Baratheon imagery for Jon, since it was his fate to become the second Baratheon king and the third sample with Jon’s personal sigil for her, since she would be becoming his on the occasion the dress was for—their wedding.
On her second stop with the cloth merchant from the Free Cities she ordered possibly too much lace and sheer veiling fabric in green and black and gold, but she had ideas for her wedding gown. She was not sure how they would all work out, but she needed enough supplies to ensure she would have something to wear when she needed it and that she would not be left scrambling for more fabrics later.
She made it to the Great Sept of Baelor in time to attend the final assembly for the day.
Normally—in Highgarden—the sunset sermon consisted of talk of the Stranger, occasionally the Crone or the Smith. Each of the seven daily sermons were dedicated to one particular aspect of the New Gods. But the High Septon within the Sept of Baelor, seemed to consider sermons pointless unless they were focused on the Father.
Particularly, the Father’s Judgement.
Every time she had come to the Sept of Baelor, it was always the Father’s Judgement.
At first, she had thought it was merely justification for Jon—or rather, King Robert—using the Sept’s front steps as an executioner’s platform. Now, she was starting to wonder if the High Septon even realized there were six other gods entitled to his regard within the Faith of the Seven.
She stood with everyone else, as there were no seats for the congregation in the Sept of Baelor. She sang with everyone else, she held hands when instructed, and every second of it made her like Jon’s quiet Northern faith a little more.
Finally, the six Most Devout in attendance all stood and used plates of crystal to light the incense within their thuribles to bless the gathered throng before the final prayer.
The High Septon himself stopped in front of her and swung his instrument of blessing in her direction seven times. And then another seven times.
When the Highgarden Septon treated her thusly, she had felt blessed. She had felt recognized as a maiden, in honor of the Maiden.
When the High Septon treated her thusly, she felt sick. Honestly, sick. Weak and woozy. With a rapidly forming headache and churning in her belly.
The High Septon began a third set of seven. It almost felt like something was trying to tear Darling out of her mind and the still-growing shadowcat charged even as she swayed and struggled to keep her feet. Her feline companion snarled and swiped at the High Septon but did not place a single foot beyond the bannister separating her from the holy stage.
The High Septon flailed back from Darling and glared ferociously but moved on.
She was going to get a lecture. She just knew it. Possibly banned from the Sept of Baelor for a time.
How would her getting banned from the sept effect Jon’s efforts against the Faith? Attendance within the Sept of Baelor was more anemic than she had ever seen it so, clearly, her grandmother’s whisper campaign was working. Would her getting banned from the Sept even for seven days help or hurt their efforts? Would reporting what she suspected was an attack on her warg bond help at all? She could not tell.
She could not think. The High Septon’s incense might as well have been poison to her mind.
Blessings done, the High Septon and his Most Devout gathered in the center of the stage. They joined hands and raised their combined fists to the gods. The windows lit up like it was noon, rather than sunset. Light hit the crystal crowns each of the seven men wore and the men began to scream.
With a hand up to help to protect her eyes from the violent brightness, Margaery watched the seven highest ranking men of the Faith catch fire.
She could not move. She could not help. By the time the light—sunlight that came through the windows, no light made by mere man—returned to its natural levels, three of the Most Devout were on their knees, burning in place. A fourth was already laid out and smoldering. Two more collapsed as she watched and the High Septon just fell, straight onto his back.
Well, she thought once her wits had returned to her and she allowed a sobbing Crownland lady cling to her, that should help our efforts against the Faith.
“What happened?” Lady Rykker sobbed. “How could this happen? What happened?”
“He called upon the Father’s Judgement,” Margaery said simply. “And was himself Judged.”
“That was… That was…”
“An act of the Seven,” Margaery told her with certainty. “Only the Seven can move the Sun in the sky. We know that. The Faith tells us that.”
“We do know that,” Lady Rykker agreed, starting to regain her senses. “We do know that… What did the High Septon do? And the Most Devout? To earn judgement such as this?”
Margaery thought about what she was now certain was an attack on her warg bond with Darling. She could use that to twist the knife a bit, but she decided to play a longer game. “I do not know,” she said comfortingly. “I just do not know.”
“Lady Margaery?” a man in a golden cloak called her attention as he was escorted into the garden pavilion in which she was breaking her fast.
The Small Council had taken to joining her and her grandmother for an informal breakfast at least once a week, so Lord Stannis Baratheon, Lord Wyman Manderly, and Grand Maester Jallen were all in attendance. They all turned to face the man from the City Watch. He took a step back from them in response.
“How may I help you, Ser?” she asked with her kindest smile.
“Just a sergeant, my lady, not a Ser.” He held up a piece of paper and brought it to her. Ser Brienne took it from him, ran her bare fingers over it, and then passed it to Margaery without a word. “Message for you from the Lord Captain.”
Margaery stood and read the missive. “The Shrines to the Seven around the city have all burned to ash.” She passed the note to her grandmother who in turn read it an passed it to Lord Stannis.
“Yes, my lady,” the man bobbed a little like he was not sure if he should bow when speaking to her or not.
“Were there any signs of foul play?”
“Not that we can tell. The sun came up and as soon as it touched the Shrine of the Father, the shrine caught fire. Because of its location, we were able to check the Shrine of the Stranger before the sun reached it. There was nothing flammable or out of place in the shrine.
“In fact, the sun reached the shrine while we was looking at it. It did not catch fire until we put it back together and walked away.
“It was an act of the gods, my lady.”
“They seem to be catching,” her grandmother, Lady Olenna, muttered and Margaery could not help but agree.
“Thank you for bringing the news personally, Sergeant,” she said. “Your captain indicated there were no injuries during any of the Burnings—for which we can all be grateful. Congratulate your men on a job well done and do what you can to encourage calm in this trying time.”
“And the shrines, my lady?”
“They will not be rebuilt,” she said firmly to the man’s evident shock. “Not until we are sure what is causing these strange occurrences,” she continued reassuringly. “We must think of the city’s safety before we consider the preferences of the Faith. Thousands of people could very easily die should these Burnings continue unchecked.”
“Of course, my lady,” the man bowed.
“It is still early, and I know you have spent your morning quite actively. If you will follow young Jax down to the kitchens, we will provide you food and wine to fortify you for the rest of your day.”
“Thank you, milady,” the watchman bowed again. “Thank you very much.”
“Good morrow, Sergeant.”
The silence lasted until the Sergeant and page were well out of hearing range. Then Lord Stannis asked, “Do we know why Prince Jon hates the Faith of the Seven like he does?”
“Because of the Faith’s oppression of women, their demonization of those that lay with their own sex, and their denial that those born in bodies of the wrong gender even exist,” Margaery told him matter of factly.
She and Jon had discussed it thoroughly. It had been startling at the time to find out how very socially advanced the so-called Northern Barbarians and their heathen religion truly were.
“Which would be—in part—why he has insisted on women joining the Small Council and the Kingsguard,” Lord Wyman said. “The Faith is very unpopular in the North. The only septs other than Lady Stark’s sept in Winterfell are the ones in my White Harbor and they know very well the bounds of what they are allowed to speak.”
“You are oppressing the Faith in your city?” Lord Stannis asked, clearly confused.
“Not at all,” Lord Wyman shook his head. “I would argue that I am nurturing it. The version of The Seven-Pointed Star my septons use is an older version—from before the Hightowers and the Citadel gave it an edit.”
“The Hightowers and the Citadel edited The Seven-Pointed Star?” Margaery asked in shock.
The Sever-Pointed Star was a holy book. The idea that men would edit it was beyond hubris. It was unthinkable.
“Why do you think my ancestors were driven from the Reach?” Lord Wyman asked bitterly. “We were Hightowers—the mother of my line was a Hightower—but my line refused to pretend the edits never happened and that The Seven-Pointed Star had always been so hateful.”
“When was this?” Lord Stannis demanded. “Why does no one know?”
“About five hundred years past or so now,” Lord Wyman confirmed easily. “We have kept it to ourselves because we did not want the Hightowers and the Gardener Kings to hunt us beyond the Reach but it was thoroughly documented in my House’s history. There is probably a damn book about it hidden away somewhere in the Citadel.”
“I can write the Citadel,” the Grand Maester offered. “To check if there is such a book and have it located.”
“Why? So, they can burn it and make my line look like fools?” Lord Manderly gave the Grand Maester a sour look.
“I will take care of this matter,” Margaery promised. She was fairly sure Jon’s man Samwell would search the history out for her and send her the relevant information. “Grand Maester, on the authority of my betrothed, Prince Jon of Dragonstone, the Master of Laws, you will do nothing on this matter. You are not under arrest at this time, but you will be under guard. If you attempt to write the Citadel within the next seven days without a direct and specific order from King Robert himself, you will be guilty of treason and you will lose your head.”
Both of the Lords seated at the table choked but Margaery ignored them.
“Unlike my betrothed, I will not let you off easy with life on the Wall. Do you understand?”
“You do not have the right to interfere with my work for the Citadel,” the Grand Maester tried.
“On the contrary, as the proxy for the Master of Laws, I have every right to prevent the destruction of evidence. Perhaps the editing of the Faith of the Seven’s holy book is not a crime, but this historical event may provide us the motive for the seven lives connected to the Faith that have already been lost in an inexplicable way.
“The Seven Kingdoms deserve to know the truth.”
“Your entire premise that the Seven Who Are One are burning people and shrines to express their fury over some unknown, imagined slight is illogical and foolish.” The Grand Maester stood and walked out from under the pavilion to stand in the clear light of day. “Surely, if there is any connection between these random fires and the Faith and the Citadel, I will be struck down as the High Septon and Most Devout were, right now.”
Margaery raised her eyebrows as the man began to smoke.
“See? There is no connection whatso—” The man started to scream.
He was not wearing a crystal crown, so she was not surprised that he was not burned in the exact same series of places as the High Septon or his Most Devout, but still he burned. The Grand Maester burned and died so quickly he did not even have the time to run to the pond nearby in an attempt to save his own life.
“Well,” her grandmother rolled her eyes and picked up her wine cup, “he did ask for it.”
Margaery hid her snort in a cough and turned away. “Elinor?”
“Yes, my lady?” Her cousin looked pale and shaken.
“Will you see if the Sergeant from the City Watch has left?” she requested. “I am afraid we have another incident to report.”
“Of course, my lady.” Elinor bobbled a brief curtsy and left with all due haste.
Margaery could not blame her. The smell of burnt hair was off putting.
It turned out—they learned through the ravens later—that seven maesters burned that very day. Margaery was sure the other six burned at the very moment the Grand Master had also burned. Every Great House that had a maester except for the North lost their Knight of the Mind. The Seneschal of the Citadel had also burned, leaving the Citadel itself technically leaderless.
“This is truly a strange conspiracy,” Lord Stannis told them after what was, hopefully, the last such raven had been collected.
“And one no man could have possibly coordinated,” Lady Olenna agreed. “The only conclusion I can come to is that the gods do have something against their Faith and the Faith’s cohort in the Citadel.”
Lord Stannis wrinkled his nose in distaste but otherwise kept his dignity.
Margaery knew Lord Stannis had no time for gods and he likely would still not have time for magic, either, were it not for his warg bond to a Great Stag.
He had also—according to Jon—seen an Other when they had ranged Beyond the Wall. The wights that had killed the majority of their party had been led by one of the Others. That Other had raised their fallen party members from the dead before their very eyes. So, she knew Lord Stannis knew magic existed.
Still seeing and accepting were very different things.
And watching the dead return to life specifically to kill you had to make it all harder for him.
“Are there no other explanations?” Margaery asked just for the sake of argument. “Any that I cannot see?”
“Did you write to the Citadel?” Lord Stannis asked after a lengthy contemplation.
“I wrote to Jon’s man at the Citadel,” Margaery told him, and he nodded. “I asked specifically about anything related to House Manderly, their banishment from the Reach, the Faith of the Seven, and historical versions of The Seven-Pointed Star.”
“Perhaps there should be a Royal Library,” Lady Olenna said. “An archive with copies of every book the Citadel contains. This current way of doing things is ridiculous. Having to send a raven, hope it reaches the hands of someone knowledgeable and honest enough to fulfill the request, and then wait for a rider to bring the book—or copies of pages someone else chose from the book—to King’s Landing.”
“It would be simpler and more efficient to go to an archive of some sort within King’s Landing to seek out our own answers to our questions,” Lord Stannis agreed, much to Margaery’s surprise.
“Ravens get misrouted,” Lord Wyman agreed. “Or shot down.”
“Where would we place such a building?” Margaery asked. She had to fight back a grin at the idea of the Sept of Baelor being converted for such use. Jon would probably embrace the idea but even with the Faith in turmoil and disgrace as it was, the people of King’s Landing might not stand for such.
“The Dragonpit,” Lord Stannis decided. “There are no more dragons. Nor are there any dragon riders. And the Dragonpit is in severe disrepair, it is a danger to the populous of King’s Landing. It would be better for use to take it down and rebuild than to let it continue to degrade.”
“I like it.” Lady Olenna nodded to Lord Stannis.
“Then we are agreed?” Margaery asked. “We will propose it at the next Small Council Meeting?”
“We are agreed,” Lord Wyman confirmed.
“I will write Jon and request he give the order to begin the gathering of texts while he is at the Citadel.” Though perhaps she should write to his man Samwell to get the groundwork laid before Jon reached the Citadel to officially begin the project.
“Prince Jon is at the Citadel?” Lord Wyman asked in surprise.
“Surely not yet,” she demurred. “But his last raven indicated his intention to go there. The conditions he found at the Twins were intolerable and illegal—borderline slavery conditions, he said. He felt the need to discuss the role of maesters in their home keeps with the Seneschal and Council to prevent such from being allowed again.”
“What came of Prince Jon’s trip to the Twins?” Lord Stannis asked.
“Jon will make his official report to King Robert upon his return to the capital, but it comes down to an accidental poisoning.” Margaery shook her head. “By a new-flowered girl with no interest in remaining in a marriage with a man older than either of her actual grandfathers.
“The conditions the servitors were kept in was a contributing factor that our Prince has a plan to deal with.”
“Very good.” Lord Stannis stood. “I will take my leave. There is much to be done this day.”
Her grandmother turned to her. “You need to write the Citadel to tell them we need another Grand Maester. Perhaps they should choose more carefully this time.”
“Or send us two.” Lord Wyman said tartly.
“I received a missive,” King Robert announced as he took a seat in the room that he had chosen for the Small Council to meet in since Lord Tyrion had not yet returned to host their meetings in the Tower of the Hand. “From some daft bastard calling himself the High Sparrow.”
Margaery picked up the scroll the king had thrown onto the table and read it. “This is a petition to re-establish the Faith Militant.”
“I would advise against this,” she said honestly as she passed the scroll to Lord Stannis.
“They have the right to defend themselves,” King Robert countered. “No one else is doing it.”
“No one knows what exactly is attacking them,” Lord Stannis informed his brother. “And not for our lack of trying. There is no evidence of any known tools of man or any known magic.”
“The timing of the attacks—coordinated with multiple targets across the breadth of the continent certainly speaks to a conspiracy beyond the scope of men,” Lord Wyman seconded.
“You think their gods are attacking them?” King Robert scoffed.
“We have yet to find a better way to explain what has happened,” Lady Olenna said as she took the scroll and read it. “You realize the powers associated with the Faith Militant include the authority to put sinners on trial for their sins? And to execute them when they are inevitably found guilty?
“Hundreds of men were executed for fornication outside of the marriage bed, laying with whores, and blasphemous pride before the gods before Maegor I revoked the original Faith Militant charter and put down the ensuing rebellion?”
King Robert eyed her grandmother wearily. “Blasphemous pride before the gods?”
“Not worshipping the Seven or not worshiping the Seven exactly the way the High Septon decided you had to,” Lady Olenna explained—and Margaery was not sure if she was actually manipulating King Robert or simply being honest. Either way, it was pissing him off which Margaery thought was all to the good. “Proper worship has historically included chastity even within the bond of marriage, making war on the enemies of the Faith that the High Septon alone had determined to be enemies, giving the Faith gifts and tithes, on and on. Things no king but Baelor the Blessed has ever managed…and we know how that ended for him.”
King Baelor the Blessed had fasted himself to death, refusing all food for forty days in the pursuit of some holy vision that had done nothing to serve the Realm or his House.
King Robert took the scroll back from Lord Wyman when the Master of Coin was through with it. “Perhaps, if the Seven are setting their own people to rights, they will take care of this presumptuous High Sparrow for us,” he said flippantly.
“May it be so,” Margaery agreed. “The lack of thorough historical records in the Red Keep has hindered this investigation and had us thinking that perhaps we need a Royal Library in King’s Landing. As it stands, if we find we need additional information on any given subject, we must write the Citadel, wait for them to find the correct tomes and then send them across the width of the Seven Kingdoms by courier or ship. Assuming they do not determine the information to be irreplaceable and refuse to part with the original. Then the process takes several more months so they can copy the book, if they even agree to do so.”
“They cannot keep information that the Crown requires from the Crown,” King Robert frowned.
“Currently there is no law saying they cannot,” Margaery countered. “In fact, the only law I have been able to find in historical records makes the Citadel the official keeper of all knowledge in Westeros. Anything the Citadel does not acknowledge and have a copy of is considered speculation at best.”
“That is not right.” King Robert shook his head. “You have a proposition?”
“We tear down House Targaryen’s Dragonpit—,” King Robert’s eyes flashed in pleasure at that, “—and build a Royal Library in its place. You write a decree ordering the Citadel to send us a copy of every single book they have, and we set a team of trustworthy men to see it happen. Lord Stannis, preferably, as we all know he will bow to no one. The Citadel is not going to pressure him into letting them keep anything back from us. Or a Stark, if you decide you need Stannis here.”
“Stannis?” King Robert asked his brother.
“I feel this project is of the highest importance to the future and well-being of the Realm,” Lord Stannis said bluntly. “And I trust myself with it.
“It will take years for everything within the Citadel to be copied so that will have to be started soon but it will also take years for the Dragonpit to be torn down and a library built in its place.”
“You think they would keep things back from us?”
“They did it to House Targaryen when the Targaryens had dragons,” Stannis told his brother. “And House Baratheon has never ridden dragons.”
“The Citadel has forgotten more knowledge than most people know,” Lady Olenna added. “If we want everything, we will have to go shelf by shelf, room by room, through the entire Citadel. And we should take them by surprise so they cannot hide anything.”
“There is no need for paranoia,” Margaery disagreed with her grandmother. “We have men in the Citadel, they will know if anything is hidden from us.”
“There is always a need for paranoia,” King Robert snorted. “You need to learn that before my son takes the throne or you will get him killed, girl.”
Margaery sat back at his rebuke.
“I will send to the Citadel for three of their best builders for a grand project for the Realm—I will provide them no other details until they are here under our eyes to plan and build the Library,” King Robert told them. “We will write the declaration for the Citadel in private and Stannis will carry it personally to Oldtown to see it done.
“Stannis, you will send us a raven from the Citadel once you have organized their efforts to fulfill the Council’s orders. We will probably need a specifically trained maester or team of maesters to manage the Library in King’s Landing so keep that in mind as you deal with the gray sheep.
“Once we receive your raven, we will announce to the Realm the formation of the Royal Library.
“At that point, I will write Ned to ask him to manage the task for you for a few moons every year so you may attend other duties. We will see about more substitutes depending on how long this takes and how much time you need.”
“Ser Kevan Lannister has a solid reputation,” Lady Olenna admitted even though Margaery knew she hated to admit it.
Unfortunately, they could not recommend any of their House for the duty. They had grown too long in the shadow of the Citadel to be trusted not the bend to the Citadel’s whims and wisdom.
King Robert accepted that with a nod. “Casterly Rock is much closer to Oldtown than Winterfell.”
“We could invite Lords to send copies of books they find to be important to our culture as a Realm and the culture of their individual Kingdoms,” Margaery said, suddenly inspired. “So that everyone is honored.”
“And change that law,” Lady Olenna harumphed. “The Royal Library should be the center of all knowledge of the Realm, not the Citadel run by close-minded sheep.”
“Now, the real question,” Lord Stannis said when no one had anything to say to counter Lady Olenna. “How are we going to pay for the Royal Library?”
“The Royal Coffers are in much better shape than they were when I took control of them,” Lord Wyman Manderly told them. “That was helped by the return of Littlefinger’s ill-gotten gains, of course. And the addition of his brothels to the Crown’s revenue sources.
“I have evaluated Littlefinger’s business model and removed a great deal of abuse that was actually driving his profits down. I have also elevated employees within the brothels to manage them under my oversight, and in a few months we will be ready to expand the Crown’s brothels into the other Seven Kingdoms.”
“We are going to pay for the Royal Library on the backs of desperate women?” Margaery just had to ask.
“That was part of the abuse I addressed,” Lord Wyman explained. “None of the women working for me now are desperate. They do have fewer options as women but that is because the laws in the Realm do not leave women many options when it comes to financing their own independence. All of my employees are happy with the work, or I find them something else. We are exploring the idea of a tea house—a place men of means can come to have the not-necessarily sexual attention of a woman of culture.”
“Like a Braavosi Courtesan,” Lord Stannis said.
“Precisely,” Lord Wyman agreed. “Though in my research I have found that the idea of a tea house is much older and further eastern than Braavos.
“Beyond…entertainment, we are exploring exporting wood—hard and firewood—to places like Braavos that have none. Dorne’s salt mines also have a surplus they have held back from the Realm for their own economic security. I have been exploring the options of exporting it for profit.”
“And those will be enough?” Lady Olenna asked. “Building grand, fireproof buildings does not come cheap.”
“If we make use of Westerosi materials, combined with tax revenue, and some thrift for the Crown, yes,” Lord Wyman confirmed. “I believe it should be enough.”
“Arthur Dayne?” Oberyn crossed the room quickly and caught the Sword of Morning up in a fierce embrace. “You canny bastard! I knew there was no way Ned Stark had gotten the best of you.”
“Technically, he did, but I did not try very hard to beat him.” Arthur laughed and clapped him on the back. “It was perhaps a foolish way to determine the path we would take with the fate of a king—but the past has been written.
“It is good to see you, Oberyn. Or should I say my prince?”
Oberyn scoffed and shoved Arthur away from him. The two of them had bonded well before Elia had married Rhaegar, Arthur knew perfectly well how he preferred to be addressed.
Oberyn’s eyes fell on the young Blackfyre Arthur had at his side and he asked. “Did we break him?”
“Young Griff?” Arthur reached up and tipped the lad’s mouth back into the natural closed position.
“You are Arthur Dayne?” the boy nearly shrieked when his eyes returned to his head. “The Sword of Morning from Septa Lemore’s stories? My favorite bedtime stories since before I can even remember?”
“Septa Lemore?” Oberyn asked.
“Ashara,” Arthur corrected absently.
“You bastard.” Oberyn clapped Arthur on the shoulder hard enough to stagger him. “Everyone thinks she is dead! Threw herself from the Palestone Sword after bearing a dead bastard girl.”
“Well, she had a bastard girl, but she did not die in the bearing. Young Lyarra caught a fever and passed after.”
“A Stark bastard?” Oberyn asked, momentarily dazed. He was fairly certain Lord Eddard’s mother had been named Lady Lyarra.
“Brandon Stark’s bastard,” Arthur confirmed. “Do not ask her about it. The topic is…sensitive.”
“Have you been in Essos this entire time?” Oberyn asked. “How have your lies survived all these years?” Oberyn could guess that one, actually. The lies that hid their deaths were spoken by an honest man with the trust of the new King. No one had ever doubted Ned Stark’s words once Robert had accepted them.
“The great thing about being dead is that lies and lives lived across the sea do not matter in the least.” Arthur frowned as he looked around pointedly before raising a pointed eyebrow at him. “Speaking of dead, the cheese monger…?”
“Illyrio Mopatis was planning a Blackfyre Rebellion,” Oberyn shrugged. “And yes, he is dead.”
“I am a Blackfyre then,” the poor boy in their company staggered over to a couch. “It…is a relief to know.”
Oberyn narrowed his eyes and sat on the couch across from the boy. “Mopatis said he had convinced you that you were a Targaryen.”
“He might have,” Young Griff agreed. “If… Ser Arthur had not already told me I was not and warned me that he suspected Mopatis was up to something terrible. A pointless war for a false claimant of the throne of a land I have never seen? Sounds rather terrible to me.”
Oberyn checked in with Arthur.
“Tis true.” Arthur nodded. “Connington was a drunkard and, in his cups, he told me he had found Rhaegar’s son Aegon in Essos. He did not specify which one, but I knew he was not a fit guardian for such a child.”
“You killed him and took his place,” Oberyn guessed.
“It was a mercy,” Arthur assured him and then laughed at the face Oberyn made. “Mopatis had not met with Connington himself but through an intermediary that I also killed. I adapted as much of Connington’s look as I could and went to the meeting in his stead. Mopatis presented young Aegon here for my inspection and I knew there was something wrong with the tale he spun of Lord Varys sneaking Rhaegar’s son to safety.
“He was too young to be Aegon VI—still nursing nearly half a year after Elia’s son had died, and…”
“His hair was the wrong color for Aegon VII,” Oberyn finished.
Arthur looked at him sharply. “You were told? Or you have met him? He should be…”
“Seventeen, recently,” Oberyn nodded. “Betrothed to a southern rose vicious enough to make any she-wolf proud.
“And he told me who he was himself…when we met, months ago now,” Oberyn said to actually answer Arthur’s question. “I went to the man that raised him to verify the story of his birth. I see now that I should have asked more questions.”
“Did you even question the story of what happened to myself and my brothers?” Arthur grinned at him, merrier than Oberyn could remember him being once he had joined the Kingsguard.
Oberyn scowled regardless. Questioning one half of the story but not the other was a foolish failing, looking back at it now.
“Will you not tell us who he is?” Aegon Blackfyre asked curiously. “My trueborn…cousin?”
“It is not my secret to share,” Oberyn told the boy. “He has plans to take back his grandfather’s throne peacefully and I will do nothing that could upset those plans—to do so would cost many good people their lives.
“Now, if you wish to swear allegiance to his throne, I am willing to take you back to Dorne and give him the option of revealing his secret to you.”
Young Aegon looked toward Arthur. “Do you think he would accept me? Or punish me for the crimes of my fathers?”
“If Aegon VII is anything like his father,” Arthur said slowly, considering, “or the man that we had agreed would raise him—he will accept you. Possibly as a lord, possibly as a cadet branch of House Targaryen. As long as you are loyal and true, he will be loyal and true in return. And both of his Houses have a long history of putting family first.”
“If worst comes to worst, I imagine he would banish you to Essos rather than take your head,” Oberyn tried to comfort the boy. “And then you will be back where you are now, wiser and probably richer.”
Aegon swallowed nervously. “I would like to meet this true Dragon, Aegon Targaryen. If he burns me…then that is the cost of dealing with Dragons.”
“It is better to fly high and be burned than to stay earth bound all of your days,” Arthur said gravely. Oberyn thought he remembered it being Rhaegar’s favorite thing to say, generally before he threw himself into something suicidally stupid.
If it did not perfectly encapsulate the blood of the dragon, Oberyn did not know what could.
“We should bring Septa—” Aegon wrinkled his nose and corrected himself. “Lady Ashara and the hostages back to this place, should we not? As we are all on the same side.”
“We have a more secure location than this,” Oberyn said as he stood. “I will go with you to retrieve your people and take you there.”
“Where are you staying?” Arthur asked as they walked out of the manse, Unbroken forming up around them protectively.
“One of the manses on the edge of the city that the Pentoshi gift to the Dothraki.” Oberyn smiled when Aegon choked. “The Iron Bank will be here tomorrow to lay claim to this one. Mopatis…gifted it to me, but I find that I do not like the walls—they are poorly placed tactically and foolishly thin. So, I found one with walls I did like and took it.”
“How did you take it?” the young Blackfyre asked, wide eyed.
“Valar morghulis,” he offered solemnly and grinned when the boy squawked. Children with overinflated dignity were so much fun. “I found a Khal and we made a wager. I killed him and won, so I took everything he had. Including more of his khalasar than I had expected.
“Hopefully, most of them will move on when a proper khal returns to Pentos,” Ser Arthur offered politely.
“Are you saying I am not a proper khal?” he demanded in mock outrage. “I would have you know my khalasar calls me Khal Obo. They are getting along with my Unbroken nicely—they started cross training without waiting for my instruction to do so—and some have even started living indoors.”
Arthur raised both eyebrows, mockingly impressed. “That is commitment. You are never getting rid of them now.”
The trip to the Inn of the Red Falcon was much shorter now that he was on it than it had been when he had been waiting uselessly for others to make the trip. They walked straight through the small bar area and Arthur nodded to several men in ways Oberyn was not sure were signals or mere greetings to be polite. With Arthur it could truly be either.
On the second level, Arthur led them straight to a corner room. He knocked a tattoo on the door that Oberyn recognized from when they were children and entered without waiting for a greeting.
He heard “Oberyn!” and suddenly had his arms full of a warm, soft body.
“Ashara,” he returned the greeting and the hug. He was not ashamed in the least to admit that it choked him up to have another lost friend returned to him. First Elia’s son—or at least the boy that should have been her son—then Arthur, now Ashara.
“Still struggling to accept that Dornishmen are not meant to have facial hair I see,” she teased, running her fingers over the band of hair lining his jaw.
“It is thin because I shave it that way,” he objected.
“Uh-huh,” she agreed in a tone that was anything but.
“Arthur has grown a respectable enough beard.” He glanced over his shoulder at where her brother was leaning on the door.
“He is a Dayne, not just a Dornishman,” Ashara sniffed dismissively. “We are different.”
“You are different,” he agreed. And it was true, she had changed. He would not have pegged her as the silent type before, but she had been reticent when he had known her. Only japing with her immediate family and his Elia.
“The wild Essosi air has been good for me,” she grinned.
He looked up without releasing her. Naera was seated comfortably in one corner with Sword standing at her shoulder. Across the small fruit-laden table from them was… “Ser Gerold? Ser Gerold Hightower?”
“I prefer Haldon Halfmaester now, if you please,” the White Bull said as he stood, still strong and fierce despite his age.
Oberyn released Ashara to take the hand of the Lord Commander of King Aerys II’s Kingsguard. He was not so precious as Ashara or Arthur, especially not as precious as Jon but he was another lost friend now returned. “Did anyone die during Robert’s Rebellion?”
“If we are being accurate, the rebellion was over before we supposedly died,” Ser Gerold pointed out.
“Not Lewyn,” Arthur pointed out as he and Young Griff hefted bags to their shoulders and a trunk between them. “He managed to escape the Battle of the Trident and join us at Starfall per Prince Rhaegar’s orders. He did not die either, but we allowed the report of his death in battle to stand.”
“Good,” Oberyn turned for the door, not willing to put too much thought into even his dead uncle having abandoned him rather than died. He accepted Ashara’s concerned face and her body back under his arm. “Ned Stark defeating four Kingsguard—including one that was supposed to be dead in the Riverlands—would have not been believable.”
“But his defeating three of us was?” Ser Gerold raised an eyebrow.
Oberyn laughed. “Considering he had just won his brother in all but blood a throne with the might no one knew the North had and no small tactical genius…”
“I suppose that would be fair.” Arthur opened the door for them.
As they trouped down the stairs together, Ashara asked, “How was the cheese monger?”
“Resting.” Oberyn grinned when Arthur snorted. “I might have given him a special something to help him sleep.”
“Well, you are the Red Viper,” she said breezily. “I am certain you did the best you could for him.”
“Will your men be coming with us?” Sword asked when they were outside.
Ashara blinked at him, “My men?”
“Your men?” Sword repeated. “The ones you said you would scream for if we tried to threaten you.”
“I merely pointed out that there were men that would hear me scream,” Ashara grinned. “I never said they were mine.”
“You had no security and remained in a room with me?” Sword scowled.
“If you think you were a threat to me at all with Haldon in the room, you need to work on your threat assessment,” Ashara told him baldly and Oberyn had to agree. Ser Gerold might have ten years on even Barristan Selmy, but one never bet against the White Bull. Not if they wanted to live to tell the tale.
“You would have been dead before your weapon cleared the sheath,” Ser Gerold promised Sword. “Whichever of the three you chose to draw.”
Sword blinked at Ser Gerold—first surprised, then starstruck. “Will you teach me? You have my prince’s respect, please teach me.”
“We will see if we can get our new company to teach everyone, Sword,” Oberyn promised before begging could begin.
In many ways his Unbroken were like children, socially unaware. Things like dignity were still a mystery to them though many of them were learning the ins and outs of humor. Though Right Arm had actually managed sarcasm just earlier that very day.
Oberyn gestured for some of his Unbroken to help Arthur and Aegon with their burdens. The walk to the Dothraki manse was longer than the one from Illyrio’s but there was plenty of room for everyone to have their own space and the increased security it was worth it.
Especially with a secret Blackfyre to guard.
Arthur went into Pentos proper every day when he was not training the Unbroken or Dothraki. Oberyn was not entirely sure what he was doing but he always came back with information about the movements of the Dothraki, once Oberyn told him who he was looking for and why.
That was when he put Arthur in charge of the boat situation that would be getting them home. Mostly because he trusted him but also because was tired of the haggling.
“The gods are smiling upon us, my friend,” Ser Arthur said as he came into Oberyn’s solar.
“The old gods or the new?” Oberyn asked.
“Both,” Arthur asserted. “It is very clearly both.”
Oberyn raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“I have taken possession of the last ship we chose,” Arthur told him. “I have a ten of spears guarding it and have the First Mate stocking the ship under Sword’s watchful eye.”
“That is good,” Oberyn agreed. They had agreed that they needed to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. Their continued welcome in Pentos was tenuous between Oberyn’s freeing of so many slaves and his antics among the Dothraki.
That position would only get worse if he ended up having to steal Jon’s aunt for him.
But he would. If the woman wanted out of her forced marriage to a barbarian slaver, or to simply return to Westeros, Oberyn would steal her and set the entire city on fire to ensure their escape.
“Have the men all been assigned their ships?”
“Right Arm is working on it,” Arthur promised. “He said an hour. Seemed to have most of it done.”
“He has known how many ships I wanted to acquire for weeks. Knowing him, he has been planning for that number since the beginning.”
Ser Arthur nodded. “There is a large khalasar riding into Pentos. At their current rate, they will arrive before nightfall.”
Oberyn stared at Arthur, silently demanding he get to the point.
“For weeks, the city has been watching the khalasar approach. It was over forty thousand strong—”
“Khal Drogo,” Oberyn sat up in his chair, giving Arthur his full attention.
“—until a week ago,” Arthur continued as though uninterrupted. “Twenty thousand broke off and began heading south, we believe to Myr.”
“Who is leading the khalasar?” Oberyn asked.
“No khal that anyone knows. The lead scouts have already reached Khal Drogo’s manse and…they are collecting firewood, Oberyn.”
Oberyn felt a sinking in his gut. “The khaleesi?”
“Has not been seen.”
Oberyn stood and left his solar for the tower facing Khal Drogo’s manse. If…if the lead riders were collecting firewood…if they were building a pyre—and had lost more than half of their numbers without a struggle—the chances the pyre was not for the khal were small.
Very, very small.
“Spear,” he greeted the man.
Spear was using a field glass to observe Khal Drogo’s mansion. “Khal Obo.”
“What do you see?”
“There is no telling.” Spear handed him the field glass. “If it is for Khal Drogo, they will have to place his stallion in the pyre before they build the upper layer for the khal himself.”
“Is…there a traditional time for the burning?” Oberyn asked. What were the chances of dawn burials to get him all the time he could need to get his people into advantageous positions?
“Fuck.” Oberyn shoved the glass back to Spear and hastened back downstairs with Arthur at his side. “Do you wish to stay here for this or go to Harry and Lysono,” also known as Ser Oswell and Prince Lewyn, “to discuss the future contract with Westeros.”
“Are you certain there is a contract for the Golden Company in Westeros?” Ser Arthur asked.
“The rightful king mentioned taking back the Step Stones,” Oberyn told him. “Perhaps an idle remark but we can provide the means he needs.”
“For a price he is willing to pay?” Ser Arthur asked.
“Yes,” Oberyn agreed. He was certain Prince Jon could pay a most unexpected price to secure the loyalty of the Golden Company, one that had nothing to do with gold.
“I will take Young Griff with me and we will tell our brethren of a future contract in negotiation for them,” Ser Arthur decided. “We will need confirmation from the true king before we can make any lasting choices. And the Golden Company will need a damn good reason to break a contract. They have never done such a thing before.”
“The rightful king will not start his conquest until he is truly king so there is yet time,” Oberyn assured him. “Caution them against renewing their contract, though.”
“I will.” Arthur nodded. “Ashara and Ser Gerold will go with you?”
“Unless they leave with you. I do not want anyone that has been seen with us but is not going to Westeros in the city after midday today.”
“Very good. I will speak with them after I have Young Griff start to pack. I will send them to you if they wish to return to Westeros.”
“Good.” They parted ways as Oberyn entered Right Arm’s solar.
Right Arm shot to his feet when he saw him.
“Have everyone start preparing to move out,” Oberyn told the leader of his Unbroken. “I want the first boat loaded and rowing away from the docks in two hours.”
“Two hours,” he repeated.
“Of course, my prince. May I ask…?”
“Khal Drogo’s khalasar has been spotted. Khal Drogo is not riding at the head of it. Neither is his khaleesi.”
“How many men will you need to take the manse?”
“I am going to attempt subterfuge but if I cannot do it with five hundred men, it will not be done. You will not be one of them.”
“My prince?” Right Arm gave him the wounded eyes.
“I promised your men freedom and a new life. They will need a leader to see them forward with success. If it cannot be me, it must be you.”
“You should go with the men, my prince,” Right Arm countered. “I will bring your nephew’s aunt to you.”
“It is my duty and I will see it done,” Oberyn told him firmly. “Five hundred men—total, both spears and screamers, Right Arm. Do not fuck with me.”
“Yes, my prince. I will see your will done.”
“Good man,” Oberyn clapped him on the shoulder. “This is not how I die, Right Arm. Do not fear for me.”
“I will try, my prince.”
Oberyn sat to one side and made plans while Right Arm sent a page—Orla’s son that Oberyn was able to recover from slavers for her—for various Unbroken officers and Oberyn’s bloodriders. None of them looked at him as Right Arm gave them orders, which Oberyn thoroughly approved of.
He did not want to deal with them, but he was not ready to be alone just yet, either. His men had clearly learned his tells.
Orla came to visit him, entirely because he had not given the household any orders, but it was easy enough to set her to packing. As long as she had people to boss around, Orla was happy and not only was the household staff answering to her, most of the women in his khalasar had started answering to her too.
“Father?” Tyene called to him from the hall and Oberyn left Right Arm’s solar so as to not disturb his efforts to see orders followed.
“Tyene,” he nodded to his oldest daughter in Pentos. Sarella was with her. Sarella was obviously trying not to look scared. Oberyn offered his hand which she took and held. “Do you already have your ship assignments?”
“Yes.” Tyene frowned. “We should be on the Viper with you.”
“Things are going to get dangerous and the Viper will be one of the last of our ships in port. You will both be safe at sea before violence falls.”
“Father!” Tyene protested.
“We are not as combat capable as ‘Bara and Nym,” Sarella told her sister mournfully before he had to.
Tyene huffed. “Clearly, father needs more fighting daughters.”
“Lady Lance should serve well enough.” Sarella offered and Oberyn rolled his eyes.
“We will have to discuss Obella’s training options with Ellaria when we return home,” Tyene decided. “We cannot allow Father to find himself in this situation again.”
“I doubt I will have to return a Dragon Princess to her family again,” Oberyn teased. “Dragons are extremely rare these days.”
“Not as rare as some would wish,” Tyene countered.
“That would be their problem.” Oberyn shrugged. “Go. Pack. Get your ship assignments from Right Arm and get on them. No later than lunch, if you would.”
“Separate ships?” Tyene asked.
“Yes,” he answered simply.
“Separating out the high value targets,” Sarella realized aloud. “We will not be separated the entire trip, will we?”
“We will be able to move people around at night once we are at sea,” Oberyn promised. He did not like his little mischief makers out of sight any more than they liked being parted from him during such tenuous situations. “Now, go.”
Lady Ashara and Ser Gerold came to him next.
“I heard a rumor Drogo’s khaleesi was pregnant,” Ashara said when they joined him in his private solar. “What do we know about the child?”
“Nothing,” Oberyn admitted. He had not even thought about a married woman reproducing and that was short sighted. “The child could be a year, possibly a year and a half old.”
“Assuming the child survived,” Ser Gerold interjected. “I mean no disparagement to the princess, but her mother had difficulty with every single one of her deliveries and the conditions in which the Dothraki live in are nowhere near as safe and healthy as those in the Red Keep, surrounded by maesters.”
“I am not entirely sure safe and healthy is a way to describe anywhere surrounded by maesters for the Blood of the Dragon,” Oberyn admitted.
“What do you mean?” Lady Ashara asked.
“I am…not certain,” he told her. “But I know my nephew does not trust the Citadel. And I know the man that raised him felt the people that delivered my nephew—the Septas and the Maester—ensured his mother would not live to provide her husband further heirs.”
“If the House of the Dragon truly fell, who would hold the Seven Kingdoms together?” Oberyn asked Lady Ashara. “House Baratheon has not done a great job of it. A single offense too great and Westeros would be back to seven warring countries instead of one united and standing together. I cannot think of why anyone would want that though.”
“I can,” Ser Gerold admitted. “The Faith used to rule the Reach nearly uncontested. They chose the Lords for Highgarden and Oldtown on more than one occasion. In situations, some in my House were certain they contrived to use to their advantage.
“If they could regain such power, the Faith would. Or, better, if they could extend that power to all of the Seven Kingdoms?”
Oberyn nodded. He could see that. “The North and Dorne have never given much power to the Faith but our children are largely educated by maesters. They are the Faith’s logical allies in their need for control.”
“I have often wondered,” Lady Ashara admitted. “If the Citadel is not…sitting on technological improvements or general knowledge of the world and keeping it from Westeros. I have learned a great deal and seen amazing things during my time in Essos.
“Learned men and women used to come to the Citadel from all over the world. I cannot see how they do not know these things, but I never heard a whisper of them back home.”
“Such as?” Oberyn asked.
“Valyrian aqueducts,” Ashara said immediately. “They still stand in many places in Essos. How much would Dorne benefit from being able to move fresh, drinkable water wherever we need it? How many lives throughout all of the Seven Kingdoms would be better for such?”
Oberyn hummed as he considered this. “My daughters feel there is a conspiracy behind Young Griff’s birth and the combination of his various bloodlines.”
“If there is, we have never been able to find it,” Ser Gerold admitted.
“And we have looked,” Ashara promised.
“And if you are looking in the wrong place?” Oberyn asked. “Could the Citadel and the Faith be behind this new attempt at a Blackfyre Rebellion? I had assumed it was a matter of like calling to like. Dragonlords can sense each other, I am sure of it, but…what if it is more to it?”
“What do you propose?” Ser Gerold asked.
“My Sarella has long wanted to go to the Citadel. Mayhap it is time I give her leave to do so.”
“Women are not allowed within the Citadel,” Ser Gerold objected.
Oberyn waved him off. Concealing her gender would be a toddle for Sarella, of that Oberyn had no doubt.
“The point,” Lady Ashara said firmly, “is Princess Daenerys’s child. Even if she lost the first, it is possible she has had a second. We need to have a wet nurse available on whichever ship she gets placed on.”
“We cannot be sure she is going to end up on a boat,” Oberyn protested. “She may choose to stay in Essos.”
Ashara gave him the look that deserved. “No sixteen—mayhap seventeen—year old girl is going to voluntarily spend the rest of her life with the Dosh Khaleen of Vaes Dothrak. That is entirely too young to submit to celibate life as an old wise woman. No, no way.”
Oberyn tipped his head. She had a point. “Arthur managed to get the wife and children of the First Mate of the Elia back for him. She is pregnant.”
“That was why you had Arthur going to the slave markets,” Ashara realized. “To reunite families?”
“I do not have the men to set every slave in Pentos free but where I can reunite the families of those I am already thought to own before removing them from the continent,” Oberyn admitted.
“You are a good man, Oberyn Martell.”
Oberyn rolled his eyes. “Mayhap my nephew will give me the men I need to truly earn the title I have been given.”
“The Breaker of Chains does have a certain something to it,” Ser Gerold agreed.
“Is this First Mate’s wife producing milk?” Ashara returned them to the subject at hand.
“I believe so,” Oberyn admitted. “I can place the First Mate of the Viper on the Elia and the First Mate of the Elia on the Viper. Unless they consent to her being on a separate ship from him and their children for the first part of the journey.”
“While I would hate to be separated from my children if I had any, I think I would prefer to reduce the danger to them wherever possible,” Ashara said agreeably. “Especially considering they just won their freedom.”
“Ask them,” was Ser Gerold’s verdict.
“I will send Spear,” Oberyn agreed. “I assume you are here because you are both staying with me?”
“We are,” Ashara nodded. “We feel we should be on your ship with you. Daenerys will need a companion and I have been the lady in waiting to the Princess of House Targaryen before.”
Oberyn could not argue with that other than to say that Elia had been a princess of House Martell…though Ashara had not become more than her friend until she had married into House Targaryen so the difference hardly mattered.
“If there are to be injuries and children of questionable health, you will need a healer and I am the best trained, most experienced option you have,” Ser Gerold said.
“Granted. I will speak with Right Arm, then I am going to keep an eye out for the Princess myself. She needs to know she has allies and options outside of her khalasar.”
“I would go with you, my prince,” Ser Gerold said. “My sword is still sharp, Khal Obo.”
“Granted,” Oberyn accepted with a nod. “Let us go speak with Right Arm.”
By the time Drogo’s khalasar thundered through the gates of his manse, it contained perhaps a thousand people. Most of the herds and wagons were gone.
Some of his khalasar wandered out of his manse to mix with Drogo’s people. It hurt, at first, to think some of them had abandoned him without even saying anything. Then the first once came to report back.
“Khal Drogo died this morning,” Jadallo, his self-appointed bloodrider, reported. “Khaleesi Daenerys is well as is the khalaka Rhaego.”
“Do you know what killed him?” Oberyn asked.
“Poisoned blood. A curse, by a godswife.”
An infection, Oberyn translated in his head. “The pyre is for him?”
“Yes,” Jadallo confirmed. “We have materials they need and have helped as we spoke with her khalasar…the khaleesi’s instructions were particular. She specified the directions the logs were laid from ice to fire, then sunset to sunrise.”
“Is that not normal for the burning of a khal?”
Jadallo shook his head. “The only requirement is that the khal’s head must point to the Mother Mountains which is almost entirely east from here. This platform will have his head toward ice.”
“Alright,” Oberyn nodded. “What order are things placed in the pyre?”
“The khal’s mount will be slain and placed on the lowest level,” Jadallo said, confirming what Oberyn had figured out for himself. “The middle will contain his prized possessions so he may have them in the next life. He will be laid on the highest level.”
“When they kill the horse, I will come down. I need to speak to my good sister before she sees her husband off to his place in the eternal khalasar.”
“It will be so, Khal Obo.”
Oberyn rolled his eyes and waved the man off.
It was half an hour before a large red stallion was led to the pyre. His throat was slit so the blood covered the bottom level of the pyre and the horse folded into his place at the bottom of the pile.
The second tier was quickly built and loaded with painted vests and fine but well used weapons and other items a Dothraki khal would need in this life and the next.
The third tier was built, and three men carried out a man with the longest braided tail Oberyn had ever seen resting upon some sleeping furs. As Dothraki only cut their hair when they were defeated, that meant Khal Drogo had never been defeated. And yet he had been felled by a woman and her treachery.
Somehow, it was fitting.
A woman in a beautiful silver-purple gown exited the tent the khal had been carried out of. She had long silver-gold hair and Valyrian purple eyes. A slender, classic beauty. There was only one person she could be.
Oberyn moved to speak to her.
A man with salted ginger hair and beard stepped into his path before he reached the princess.
“You dare approach the Queen?” the man demanded in the Westerosi Common Tongue.
Oberyn raised an eyebrow. There was a bear sigil on the man’s thick wrap-belt. A Westerosi exile in Essos with the last known dragon? Oberyn would bet he found the source of so many whispers that had reached not just the Iron Throne but Sunspear as well.
“Princess,” Oberyn corrected the man. “Her nephew yet lives.”
“My nephew?” the woman asked sharply.
Oberyn raised an eyebrow at her traitorous guard dog. The man glared at him but moved out of the way.
“Your nephew,” Oberyn confirmed once he could look on her in full. “The son of your older brother Rhaegar, Aegon Targaryen.”
Princess Daenerys frowned but nodded, accepting her true place in the world.
“I am here on his behalf, your grace,” he continued. “He wishes to know you are well. If you wish away from this place, I can return you to Westeros and keep you safe until your nephew has taken the Iron Throne back for your House.”
“And who are you to make such a claim, Ser?” her traitor guard asked politely enough.
“I am Prince Oberyn of House Nymeros Martell.” Oberyn gave the princess a quick bow. “Your brother married my sister. We are kin, you and I.
“Who is this man with you? If I may ask.”
“Ser Jorah of House Mormont,” she told him. “Swornshield and bloodrider to my son, Prince Rhaego of House Targaryen.”
“And where is the lad?” he asked. He needed to know which boy to point his men toward protecting. The princess may be his personal charge, but the continuance of the bloodline was just as important.
“There,” she pointed at a boy with the rich copper skin of his father and the unmistakable silver-gold hair and purple eyes of his mother. He looked to be a strong boy. He was also surrounded by men that would kill him the moment his father’s pyre was lit.
Oberyn looked at Spear and Jadallo. Both men started wandering toward the child.
“Bring my eggs,” the princess ordered in a strange tone. Oberyn could not have said why but it made a shiver of fear settle into his stomach.
Several women broke off from the group and made for her tent at a run, so Oberyn was not the only one unnerved by her tone.
“Khaleesi,” Ser Jorah objected. “Khal Drogo has no use for your eggs in his next life and they could be sold to see yourself and your son into a comfortable life anywhere in Essos you would choose.”
Princess Daenerys stared at him for several moments. “My eggs were not given to me to sell, Ser Jorah.”
“Khaleesi—” the man tried.
“Your place is with my son,” Daenerys reminded the man. “Go to him.”
“Khaleesi, if you—”
“Jorah, I am trusting you with my son,” she interrupted him again. “Go. Protect my son.”
“As you will, khaleesi.”
The women returned with three eggs, each the size of the princess’s head. One was black with red details, the second green with gold details, and the third cream with copper details.
“What were the eggs given to you to do?” Oberyn could not help but ask.
“They were given to me to hatch,” she said simply. Then she moved forward to climb the unlit pyre.
He watched as she placed one between Khal Drogo’s legs, the second was placed in his armpit on the heart side of his body, the last was placed beside his head in the meeting of his neck and shoulder.
She kissed her khal and the fear in Oberyn’s belly grew. Daenerys climbed back down and called for oil.
The pyre was lit without a word from her and the world held its breath.
Oberyn followed Daenerys’s gaze and found her staring up at the great red comet that had been filling the sky off and on for years. He looked to her. He wanted to ask what she was looking for, but she nodded to herself.
Before he could ask, she stepped forward, toward her husband’s pyre. He reached for her, but she evaded his grasp like a wisp of wind and the heat of the pyre kept him from following. It flared and drove him back as though it was defending her right to kill herself.
“Godsdammit,” he cursed and whirled to see Ser Jorah, Ser Gerold, Spear, and Jadallo defending the prince.
There were bodies already on the ground—Unbroken and Dothraki alike. Oberyn shouted and hefted his spear, charging the mob.
From there it was dodge and block and thrust until a great crack tore the night and everyone stilled. A second great crack sounded, and they all turned to the pyre. Like a ghost, Khal Drogo rose above his pyre on a steed of flame. He cracked his whip a third time before he dissolved into sparks and ashes and fell back into the flames.
Men and women and horses screamed away from the pyre but Oberyn found he could not move.
It was not the shock of failure that stilled him—he had failed before, though rarely. It was not the loss of lives he had valued or that others he cared for had valued. It was not the shock of an actual ghost—for he was certain the apparition he had seen was actually Khal Drogo and he was certain that the man had gone back into his pyre rather than joining the burning khalasar in the stars.
It was all of those and it was none of them that froze him in his place.
He could hear someone—Ser Gerold—walking behind him. He assumed his Halfmaester status drove him to tend the wounded and Oberyn was grateful, but he kept staring. He could not stop.
Hours or days or seconds later, a figure appeared in the dying flames. A woman. Her hair had been burned off and her clothing was naught but ash. In her were two small— Oberyn could not believe what he was seeing but in her arms were what could only be dragons. Dragon hatchlings with translucent wings and viperous necks and tails.
One was green and gold, the other cream and copper. Wrapped protectively around her neck was the black and red.
Oberyn said the first thing that came to his mind.
“All hail, Daenerys Stormborn, Princess of House Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons!”
“And send scouts up the road,” Jon ordered Ser Rolland as they walked through their camp on the side of the Gold Road. “I want nothing to hinder us between here and Casterly Rock. If there is so much a hole in the road, I want to know about it before we break camp in the morning.”
“Of course, my prince,” Ser Rolland thumped his fist on his breastplate in salute and left Jon to enter his tent.
When he did, he was greeted by a man. A man he did not know that was standing in the middle of the crown prince’s tent.
Jon was more amused than outraged by the man’s daring. “Hello?”
The man turned to face him. He had black hair with long, rolling curls—like his mother Lyanna when the Mother had appeared to him in his own mother’s guise. His jaw and mouth, even his facial hair, was pure Uncle Benjen. His eyes and cheek bones were a very good likeness to Uncle Ned.
He was handsome, just like everyone had always said—just like the Lady Catelyn had always lamented—but Jon knew he could not actually be who he appeared.
“Who are you?” he asked.
The man narrowed his eyes at him. “You know who I am.”
“I assume you are supposed to be my Uncle Brandon but that does not tell me who you actually are. Do the gods enjoy pretending to be my family?”
Not-Brandon suddenly grinned. “We knew you would not be fooled.
“We are the old gods, boy, and we are here to remind you that you are ours. We might let those upstarts borrow you because it serves us to do so, but you belong to us.”
“And you chose to remind me of that by burning people?” Jon guessed.
The old gods snorted a laugh. “That was the Mother. Mortals pray for the Father’s Judgement in the hope they will not face her wrath, but they have forgotten to fear Her more than Him. They call her Mother of Mercy in an attempt to defang her, but mercy has many definitions.”
“She is giving mercy to the many by burning the few,” Jon guessed.
Not-Brandon inclined his head in agreement. “No one lays guilt so horribly as a loving mother. Remember that when you reach Oldtown.”
“What will I find there?”
“And ruin the surprise?” The uncle he never knew grinned. “Men begging for the Wall. Institutions in need of fresh blood. Nothing we can truly prepare you for in a simple conversation.”
“Then why have you come?”
“To remind you that you are ours. To remind you strength and patience are there for those that need it within our godswoods. To remind you that you were never the Prince that was Promised.”
Jon frowned “But…Stannis’s red witch?
“Was a fool and a zealot,” his uncle said simply. “Zealots cannot be trusted, you know this. It is better to end them before they endanger everything—both what you love and what they cling to.”
“Who is he?” Jon needed to know. If the Old Gods would even tell him. “The Prince?”
“He died, in your last life. Murdered by a godswife before he could truly be born. But the changes you have made have rippled across the world. That godswife will still get his father but she will not be able to trick his mother into sacrificing him. Nor will his mother allow the godswife to destroy her fertility.”
And Jon knew what Uncle Brandon meant. The Crone whispered in his ear about his Aunt Daenerys, her khal, and their son—the Stallion prophesied to Mount the World.
Most of their fate in that other life would not come to pass simply because Jon had spoken against King Robert’s pursuit of a girl left destitute on the other side of the Narrow Sea and had been heeded. Without that external pressure, better choices had been made. Lives had been saved…and other lives would be lost.
“Her son, Rhaego,” Jon stopped before he could finish the sentence. He was not sure what he wanted to ask.
The Red Witch Melisandre’s readiness to break vows and abuse or even murder children had told him long ago that he wanted no part in her prophecies. No hero worth the name would commit such crimes.
No hero he would ever want to follow—or worse, be—at least.
“His fate is his own, AeJon StarGaryen.”
Jon gave his gods a droll look. “Really?”
“We did not name you,” the gods defended themselves merrily. “But we will aid you and watch over you, as often as you allow.”
“You are the gods of field and stream and beast. There is no where you cannot watch me.”
The old gods hummed, wordlessly saying that was not right but not arguing with him directly. “Those upstarts expect you to save magic, but they never bothered to explain to you what magic is or why it is important. They are content to let you flail about until you manage to ask the Crone the correct question—assuming you ever do.”
“And you are going to explain it to me?” Jon asked.
The man with Uncle Brandon’s face inclined his head. “Not all of it, I suppose. What you need to know is that magic has three main…types. Like the forks of the Trident—they are red, blue and green.”
“Fire, ice and…earth?”
“Nature,” Brandon corrected gently. “Trees, plants, animals, wind. Fire and Ice are part of nature, but their song was strengthened in time beyond memory to bind something worse than what Winter brings. Their song must continue to sing, or the Being will wake, and all will be lost.”
“I would not call him a creature,” Not-Brandon allowed. “His dreams create this life. If he wakes, the dream ends.”
“Not something we can fight,” Jon concluded.
The old gods shook their head. “No, he must remain asleep. It is the only way. To keep him asleep, the Song of Ice and Fire must continue to play.”
“And how do I…do that?”
“The Seven are helping—not that that makes our current situation any less their fault—but stopping the damage they have done is not enough. The damage must be reversed, if possible. The song reinforced, if not.”
“How?” Jon asked again.
“Flood the Green Fork and the Red and Blue will swell their banks as well.” Jon blinked at the old gods, not remotely sure what that was supposed to mean. Not-Brandon rolled his eyes at him and looked down at the map spread out on the largest table in Jon’s tent. “Sacrifices, Jon. Kings’ blood spilt before heart trees will empower Green magic which will flow into Ice and Fire and empower them as well.”
He watched as the old gods tapped the map in a specific order. All keeps or places with godswoods. All over Westeros, even beyond the Wall, with no logic to it that Jon could see.
“King’s blood?” He asked, a little concerned.
“These lands were overrun with petty kings once. Kings of mountains, kings of vale. Kings of rivers and kings of graves. Kings of metals and kings of seasons.”
“Kings of towers,” Jon added. He was going to Oldtown, after all. “Gardener kings,” had been the High Kings of the Reach.
“Exactly,” the old gods agreed. “Those lines still live, and kings have long discarded problematic bastards and second sons at the Citadel.”
Jon sighed, somewhat relieved he would not have to sacrifice an entire House for the good of the Realm and find himself labeled the Cruel.
Something wet and warm hit his face, startling him, and Jon sat up on his camp cot. Ghost tilted his head in inquiry. Jon scratched the wolf between his upright ears. Through his companion’s nose he could smell the breaking of day and the lighting of cook fires.
Soon it would be time to move on.
Casterly Rock would see him put on a ship—not his own, but a ship—for Oldtown.
Oldtown would see him dealing directly with the Citadel and their allies, the Hightowers and the Faith. Everything the Crone had had to tell him about the Trio of Evil was…mind boggling. Kidnapping a Targaryen princess. Paying Saera Targaryen to have a Hightower child—a daughter, specifically. They then used that daughter—Alicent Hightower—to drive a wise king nearly mad and to manipulate his grandson and great grandchildren into a civil war that had nearly destroyed House Targaryen.
And that was just the beginning of their crimes and conspiracies.
He rolled off of his cot and stared at the map on his table. He had not left it out the night previous and yet there it was, the same as it was in his dream. There were nine places faintly glowing from the touch of the gods and a sickle knife—an ancient sacrificial tool—laid upon the map, the blade made of dragonglass with a weirwood handle.
His page joining him roused him from his contemplation of the map and together they wrestled him into his armor.
Lord Tyrion came along not long after, with Ser Rolland, another page, and plenty of breakfast.
Since Princess Arianne’s little game, Jon’s guards had been especially vigilant with his food and drink. He could not blame them—Arianne had managed to slip her poison into Margaery’s own cup. He still hated the idea of someone whose company he enjoyed dying to save his life.
“You will need to visit Highgarden on your way to Oldtown,” Tyrion told him.
Jon pulled a face. “Highgarden is entirely out of the way from Casterly Rock to Oldtown. It will add at least two unnecessary weeks to our travel. And all of the interesting Tyrells are in King’s Landing, besides.”
“Along with several of the boring ones,” Lord Tyrion agreed. “But do you want to tell your future good brother and Warden of the South that you are not going to visit because it is inconvenient?”
“Of course not,” Jon rolled his eyes. “I am going to send him a raven from Casterly Rock explaining to him I will come to Highgarden after my business in Oldtown is complete. The good of the Realm must come first in all things. A Warden of the Realm must know and accept that.”
“And if he does not?” Lord Tyrion pressed.
“Then he is not Warden material and other arrangements must be made once I have the power and authority to do so. Randyll Tarly will not live forever. Someday he will not be there to bolster the Tyrell’s martial ability and someone that can actually do the job will have to take it.”
Tyrion gave him wide eyes, as though he were surprised Jon would speak the truth that everyone knew but no one acknowledged—particularly not Mace Tyrell, the current Warden of the South and Lord Paramount of the Reach.
“Besides, Lord Randyll is a vicious, hateful man. I would rather deal with him as little as possible for the rest of my life.”
“And yet you have taken his oldest son to be your personal maester and are even paying for his training,” Tyrion observed.
“You of all people should know that a son is not his father.”
Tyrion acknowledged that with a tip of his head.
“His father disowned him before I ever met him,” Jon continued. “Told him to go to the Watch before he had a hunting accident.”
“Samwise hunts?” Lord Tyrion asked.
Jon shot him a darkly amused look “No.”
“Ah, an accident.”
“Yes,” Jon agreed. “He expressly forbade Samwise from going to the Citadel despite having to know it would be a better fit for him than the Watch—”
Tyrion whistled and interjected. “Making the boy’s choices to die alone away from home or be murdered by his own father.”
“—because Lord Randyll would never recover from the shame from having a Tarly serving some other House wearing a maester’s chain.”
“But once he completed the chain, Samwell would not be a Tarly,” Tyrion objected. “Maesters give up all Names and holdings when they take their vows.”
“Precisely.” Jon rolled his eyes. “Though what say a man has in the fate of a child he disowned and disinherited is beyond me.”
“Someone with a worse father than mine.” Tyrion shook his head in wonder. “Whatever will happen next?
“Next, we make for Casterly Rock,” Jon said, deliberately being literal.
“We should reach the Rock by midday,” Tyrion said, accepting the subject change. “I have not received any news from my uncle, Ser Kevan, but a ship should be ready for you within the next day or two.”
Assuming Tyrion’s uncle received his raven, but as Jon had no reason to suspect Ser Kevan had not received Tyrion’s raven, he did not voice his concerns. No reason other than the history he alone knew of the Citadel’s manipulation of and duplicity in practically every seat in Westeros via their maesters who worked as confidants, advisors, healers, and keepers of the ravens for the House they had been sworn to serve.
Though, if he had his way, he would not be the only one to know such horrible things for much longer. There was no other option for filling the gaps in services destroying the Citadel altogether would leave in Westeros, but that did not mean they had to maintain their current intellectual dominance.
Or that they should keep the absolute trust so many maesters and the Citadel itself unjustly enjoyed.
There were several ravens waiting for them at Casterly Rock but no Maester to see responses sent.
The Maester of Casterly Rock had Burned, apparently, and no one had mentioned it to his party as they travelled. Even Margery’s raven that he had received at Riverrun only mentioned the Grand Maester burning. Otherwise, it had made it sound as though she was confident that he knew all that was going on and that he was going to Oldtown to take care of it.
While her faith in him was enjoyable, explanations would have been better.
“From what we have been able to gather, the High Septon and his six Most Devout burned in the middle of the sunset ceremonies in the Sept of Baelor some weeks ago,” Tyrion’s uncle Ser Kevan explained when asked. “That was the first Burning. The seven shrines to the Seven in King’s Landing also burned in the days after. The maesters in several Great Houses all across the Seven Kingdoms met the same fate.
“It would have been morally reprehensible to take the Lannisport maester away from the smallfolk after we lost Maester Gordar in such worrying times, so we have been dealing with a woods witch for healing. She is not much for ravenry but her poultices for training strains are better than old Maester Gordar’s ever were.”
“Thank you, uncle,” Lord Tyrion said when Jon found he could not bring himself to respond.
“My lord, my prince,” Ser Kevan nodded and took the dismissal for what it was.
“We need to learn the full extent of these Burnings,” Lord Tyrion said once they were alone.
Jon waved him off. “The Citadel will have that information when I arrive. They have to replace those that have been lost, after all.”
“And you have an inside man that will be sure to tell you,” Tyrion nodded.
“I knew people had burned,” Jon told the Lord Hand. “Margaery had mentioned it in a previous letter, but I had not known it was such an extensive happening. Why would anyone burn shrines?”
And then Jon knew, the Crone told him. The Seven had burned their own shrines because the Faith had used them to anchor spells to suppress magic and kill dragons. No dragon would have survived in King’s Landing long term—not even him as Blood of the Dragon—with the shrines still intact. The shrines had even contributed to his grandfather’s violent madness and his father’s obsession with prophecy.
Two issues that when combined in a catastrophic way had caused a war that killed tens of thousands of Westerosi lives.
“I knew the Faith was up to something,” Jon admitted. “There was just too much wrong with what they said versus what they did for them not to be. And I thought perhaps the Citadel was involved as the formal formation of the Faith and the Citadel originated in Oldtown around the same time. Even today the two often work in concert. I had not thought it was such a large conspiracy that gods would involve themselves in it.”
“Gods?” Tyrion asked.
“Can you think of another way for the sunset through crystal to set men on fire while they were inside a building?”
Tyrion shrugged philosophically. “I have never known gods to involve themselves in anything. I am not certain it is a relief to have them involved now.
“How will this affect your plans?”
“It does not,” Jon shook his head as he started to unroll his next raven. “We need answers and Oldtown is still the best place to get them.” He read for a moment. He could feel his eyebrows rising higher with every word he read.
Wordlessly, he handed the missive to Tyrion.
“I have no idea what you did to earn this woman’s loyalty, but you had best keep it.”
“My goal first in this world,” he grinned at the Lord Hand. “Lady Margery does much too much for me to ever betray her. I cannot think of a thing she could ask of me that I would deny her.”
“A royal library,” Tyrion said with amusement. “I see the wisdom of it.”
“Why stop at a library?” Jon asked. “Why not a royal college? The maesters have clearly lost any right to the intellectual dominance they have enjoyed for generations.”
“Why did they ever have it?” Tyrion counted. “Who gave them the right to dominate the intellectual and technological advances of Westeros?”
“The Faith,” Jon guessed. Tyrion grunted his agreement. “And Margaery smoothed the way with Highgarden and her brother for me, for which I can only be grateful.”
“Aye,” Tyrion agreed. “Your ship is ready to sail. You just need to decide if you leave on the evening tide or the morning.”
Jon blew out a breath. He was already tired of travelling but he knew there was no end in sight. “New journeys should always begin in the morning,” he decided.
“As you say, my prince.”
“My Prince!” a voice called as Jon lead Ghost and Swift off the Lannister ship.
He looked up to see a man in a green and gold rose brocade. Clearly a Tyrell, clearly older than Margaery or Loras, but without the knee brace and cane the Heir of Highgarden, Lord Willas, required to walk.
“Ser Garlan,” Jon guessed.
“Prince Jon,” the man waited for him to set foot on the pier before he offered his arm. “Thank you for coming.”
Concern stirred in Jon’s soul. “Has something new happened?”
“Much, my prince, much and more. Shall we?”
Jon stepped onto the cobblestones of the dock and mounted Swift while Ser Garlan mounted his own steed. “What brought you to Oldtown from Highgarden, my lord?”
“Originally, a confession via raven. Penned by Lord Leyton, it confessed to crimes beyond imagining. I confess we thought it false and my brother sent me to find who would cause such a scandal among our bannermen, but before I made a day’s ride from Highgarden, we were informed that Lord Leyton and his oldest daughter Malora had thrown themselves both from the great height of the tower.”
“It was a true confession, then.”
“As I have been able to find, yes, my prince. There is something truly rotten in Oldtown and I am afraid we may never see the end of it.”
“We will,” Jon swore. “It is my duty as Master of Laws and Prince of the Realm to correct such matters that would cost people of the Realm their lives.”
“Where do you wish to begin?” Ser Garlan asked.
“The Citadel,” Jon decided.
Garlan frowned at him. “Do you know something of Lord Leyton’s confession?”
“No, my understanding is that everything that happens in Oldtown or even the Reach is known by the Citadel. Why?”
“…I will ask you to read it, my prince. I have it in a secure location, but it must be read to be believed. And even then, it is unlikely.”
“Very well,” Jon agreed. “Do you know who is left among the Archmaesters? I know the Burnings have affected the Faith and the Citadel most of all.”
“The most senior remaining Archmaester is Archmaester Marwyn,” Garlan told him. “He has placed himself at your disposal.”
“Is he the acting Seneschal?”
“He is, my prince,” Garlan confirmed.
Jon smiled to himself. Marwyn the Mage as Seneschal of the Citadel. Just weeks ago, it would have driven the leadership of the Citadel-Faith Conspiracy into apoplexy. Now it was the only option.
“I would meet with Archmaester Marwyn first,” Jon told his future goodbrother.
“My prince,” Ser Garlan nodded and turned them onto a new road.
A number of turns and two stone bridges later, they arrived at the gates of the Citadel. A maester was waiting for them, short with coarse features he had the longest chain Jon had ever seen.
“Archmaester Marwyn,” Ser Garlan greeted after they dismounted. “Meet Prince Jon of House Baratheon. My prince, Archmaester Marwyn, Seneschal of the Citadel.”
Marwyn shot Garlan a dirty look before focusing on Jon, “My prince.”
“Archamester, how fares the Citadel?” At Jon’s gesture they started walking into the Citadel proper. It did not take long for them to be sequestered alone in what might on any other day be a classroom of some sort.
“Could be worse,” the man allowed. “Could be better. Of one and twenty archmaesters all but six have demanded they be punished for their crimes. And one of those six is so ancient he soils himself more often than the alternative.”
“Then it is the duty of the five that remain to raise up worthy maesters to archmaester status and return the Citadel to normal operations as quickly as possible. I will deal with the investigation and punishments.”
“Investigation?” Marwyn asked. “They have written confessions!”
“Do you believe a single one of them would be completely honest in their confessions? Or would they slant them in ways to make themselves look less horrible? Or mayhap, even honorable from the right point of view?”
Marwyn huffed. “Having read three confessions myself, I cannot say you are wrong. One of them was clearly written to document what the author considered a just crusade. What that crusade was, I am still uncertain.”
“What do you know about the Citadel’s official view on magic?” Jon asked.
“They hate it,” Marwyn admitted. “It is illogical, unpredictable, and counter to every scientific fact they think they know. They do not trust it, or anyone associated with it.”
“Like the Targaryens and their dragons,” Jon said.
“Aye,” Archmaester Marwyn agreed with a nod.
“Like the North with our wargs. The Starks with our direwolves. Me with my unicorn.”
“And me,” Marwyn added. “They hate and distrust me because I have delved too deep into the Higher Mysteries. I know and believe too much about magic.”
“They—the Citadel, the Faith, and yes, some of House Hightower—have been conspiring to destroy magic since, at the latest, the Conquering. It is the true reason why the High Septon at the time demanded Oldtown submit to Aegon I—so that the Faith and the Citadel would be trusted and could do their work to destroy magic and the Iron Throne from the inside. But magic must exist. Without magic, the Song of Ice and Fire ends. Without the Song, we all die.”
Marwyn blinked at him stupidly for several moments but, in his defense, Garlan Tyrell did as well. Marwyn recovered first. “What is the Song of Ice and Fire? I have seen references to it, but I have never been able to find a definition. What I have found led me to believe it might be a person.”
“It is no person, its far greater than that. The Song of Ice and Fire is what keeps the creature that creates our reality in his dreams, asleep,” Jon told him. “No song, no sleep for the creature, no existence for us.”
Marwyn was back to staring. Jon could not blame him. He would have probably been shocked too but he was fairly certain that dying, meeting multiple gods, and being resurrected back in time from where he had died had cured him of his ability to be surprised.
“How could you possibly know that?” Garlan asked in surprise.
Jon hesitated. “You will think I am mad.”
Marwyn recovered enough to give him a tired grin. “The best people always are!”
“I…died. Alone. In the snow. In the North.” Jon gave them the same explanation he gave Sam almost two years previous. “The Seven gave me a mission: to save magic. That was all I have been trying to do since they set me back on this good earth—alive, without even a scar.
“And you have been,” Marwyn confirmed. “Three glass candles were lit anew by the time we received the raven announcing your ascension. The Seneschal was furious…about the candles, now that I look back upon it—not your new station, my prince.
“That was how the Bastard of Winterfell became Crown Prince of the Realm?” Garlan asked. “The gods gave you a mission and you pleased them? It was a reward?”
Jon tipped his head in consideration. “I suppose you could take that perspective. I prefer to think they did it to give me the tools I needed to see changes made across the entire Realm. I never could have done most of the things I have accomplished without such rank and authority as I have been given.
“Agreed,” Garlan nodded.
“I assume this is information you would prefer to keep private?” Marwyn asked.
“Correct. I have told one other and he is here, at the Citadel, studying to join my household. His oaths ensure my privacy.”
“Samwell is a good lad.”
“Aye.” Jon snorted. “How his father managed to make one such as him, I will never know.”
“But you are glad?” Marwyn guessed.
“Grateful,” Jon corrected. “Now, there is another matter I need to speak with you all most urgently about. The Crown has ordered every book within the Citadel be copied and sent to King’s Landing for the new Royal Archive. I am going to go further and demand three copies of each tomb be made. I am to stay here and oversee it until Lord Stannis Baratheon arrives to oversee the completion of the project.”
Archmaester Marwyn frowned at him. “Such a project will not be popular among the Reach, I must confess.”
“I care not,” Jon admitted. “We are one ambitious Iron Born raid away from losing the fullness of knowledge the Citadel has collected. That could be disastrous for the entire Realm and it is my duty as Crown Prince to see such dangers averted.”
For a moment, Ser Garlan’s and Archmaester Marwyn’s mouths fell open. He could not have looked more shocked if Jon had struck him in the face with a fish. “That…is a valid point, my prince.”
“Aye,” Jon agreed. “I am contemplating building a third campus at Summerhall. Or perhaps Moat Cailin.”
“Perhaps both would be wise,” Ser Garlan agreed.
“Aye. That was why I said three copies,” Jon told him. “Several towers at Moat Cailin could be dedicated to a Citadel Collegiate easily enough and we can redesign Summer Hall to include a Citadel in miniature as well.”
“That would require a number of able men we no longer have,” Marwyn warned him.
“Why only men?” Jon asked. “The Citadel grew from Peremore’s Pets—you cannot tell me there were no female teachers, priests, singers, or healers back before the Conquering. I will not believe you.”
Marwyn blinked in surprise. “Where would we find female candidates?”
“There are as many daughters unfit for the roles life has given them as there are sons.” Jon snorted. “Send out ravens announcing the change and they will come without further prompting.”
“But Maesters take vows of celibacy,” Ser Garlan complained. “If women are allowed within the Citadel, how will they keep them?”
Jon gave him the look that deserved. “There are women literally everywhere. In every keep, in every city or town were Maesters may serve. Even in the Citadel among the servants, if you look. A man will either keep his vows or he will not, the premise of removing temptation is foolish and baseless. If the men and women that take the vows will keep them, that is completely up to them and not outside influences.
“Alternatively, you could change the wording of the vow, but I cannot support this.
“If a person cannot keep their vows, that should be known before they are sent off to swear themselves to some Lord or Lady’s service and the Lord or Lady should be informed of what kind of man or woman is being sent to serve them, before they are sent so that they may make the best possible decision for themselves and their keep.”
“Agreed,” Garlan said on a sigh.
“I will send one of my men to purchase an inn in town,” Jon told them. “I would like to write to my natural father, Lord Stark, and then to several of the settlements and keeps around the North offering the opportunity to take up the chain of the Citadel. To help address the loss of manpower the Citadel has recently encountered.”
“That…sounds generous,” Archmaester Marwyn decided. “You will house these men at your inn?”
“Until they have achieved their first link and are given quarters within the Citadel,” Jon agreed. “Many of them will have to be taught how to read. Do you have a Maester that could take up that project on on behalf?”
“I can think of a few,” Marwyn nodded. “Send your ravens. I will interview the candidates today and send the final three for you to choose from tomorrow.”
“Very good. Now, about the Royal Archive project…”
“Jon!” Sam cried out in surprise.
“Sam!” Jon called back in greeting.
“Jon!” Sam repeated. “Do you have Dark Sister with you?”
Jon burst out laughing. “I have been here a week, have not been able to find you once, and all you want when I finally find you is my sword?”
Sam blushed. “Now that I am no longer receiving interference, I am studying weaponscraft and am working with a smith in town to attempt to make weapons to fight those Others you told me about. The knowledge here is much more thorough and varied than it was at the Wall. Did you know dragonsteel is not Valyrian but an older variant? They do not have a recipe here for making Valyrian steel that I have been able to find—but I am still looking—but we have been working to make dragonsteel. It is quite simple really—”
Jon held up a hand to stem the flood of words. It—eventually—worked. “You want to study my Valyrian steel sword in the hopes of furthering your understanding of dragonsteel?”
“I cannot meet with your smith today, what time do you usually go to work with him?”
“I spend my morning studying my subjects, of course, and the afternoon with him—from luncheon to dinner.”
“I will clear my schedule to spend tomorrow afternoon with you and the smith,” Jon promised. “How do your studies proceed?”
Sam grinned and pulled a chain with three links from his pocket.
“Black Iron—that is ravenry, well done,” Jon Identified. “Bronze is astronomy, and copper is history. Excellent progress.”
“Copper was my first link,” Sam said. “It took me less than a week thanks to the reading my father hated so. And there are so many more books available here! Including several books specifically about the Targaryen dynasty written by their maesters—they are entirely interesting.”
“I would like to read those books,” Jon admitted. “I would rather learn from their mistakes than make my own.”
“Oh.” Shame twittered. “I was not given access to the books until I earned my link. But you are Crown Prince! Surely the rules are different for you!”
“We shall see,” Jon agreed. “Have you heard of the copying project?”
“Three copies of every book,” Sam nodded. “Paid for by the book by the Crown. If you pick the right book its more lucrative than a weekend in the Scribe Hall even if it takes a great deal longer to copy an entire book.”
“And accuracy matters more than the Scribe Hall,” Jon agreed. “If I asked you to copy books for me, would you have the time?”
“I would make the time, my prince. You are the only reason I was allowed to come here and earn my chain and I…I will make the time,” Sam promised earnestly.
“I will pay you,” Jon offered. “I am sure the list will be fairly extensive, and the books will need to be as legible as you can make them. The project will likely continue when you enter my service. There are some older volumes on Dragonstone that I am afraid to even touch and would prefer copies made for my personal use.”
Sam nearly squealed with excitement. “I get to read them, right?”
“Of course. As you copy them or before you send them on to me. Whichever. I know it will be years before you have finished your chain.”
“I would not be so sure, Jon.” Sam said gently. “I have three links already. I am reading on healing most mornings—I am almost to the point where I can work in the healing halls under supervision—and economics and warcraft and weaponscraft—though I do most of my reading for weaponscraft while I am with Ronus in the forge, not in the mornings.”
“Good,” Jon nodded. “I am proud of you, Sam.”
Sam beamed at him.
“Are you taking any subjects you enjoy?”
“I enjoy all the reading I do,” Sam swore. “Though economics is surprisingly interesting. And the study of warcraft aligns with history a great deal—now that I am no longer expected in the practice yard, at least.”
Jon chuckled softly, pleased to see his friend so excited. “Good. Lord Stannis will be here soon to take over the copying project. You have your own work to do and I do not expect you to sacrifice that to make yourself available to him but I would appreciate it if you let him know if found someone hiding books from the Crown. All knowledge is valuable, and I want to ensure everything is available to me as king when it is my turn to take the throne. Do you understand?”
“Oh, yes, of course. Of course.” Sam gave him a teasing smile. “It is in my best interest, after all, to make sure everything I could possibly want to read is available in King’s Landing.”
Jon gave Sam a small smile for his cheek. It reminded him of Margaery and made him miss her all the more. “I am sure you have somewhere to be.”
Sam glanced out the window. “Oh, yes, I do. I need to get to Ronus’s shop. I am doing something of a semi-apprentice ship with him to advance my understanding. I am learning quite a lot.”
“Good. Be sure to advise Master Ronus of Dark Sister coming tomorrow,” Jon teased.
Sam laughed. “I will. He will be so excited!”
Jon rolled his eyes and continued on his way. It was good to see Sam blossoming in a way he never did when they were at the Wall together the last time. The Citadel was better for his health too. Jon would wager he had lost a hundred pounds in his time here—he assumed that was the smithy apprenticeship, though he could not be sure.
He would have to have someone keep an eye on Sam and make sure he was eating even in the midst of his academic excitement.
“All fifteen of the Archmaesters that used to sit on the Conclave must be executed,” Jon told the gathering of his council in Oldtown—Ser Garlan, Lord Stannis, and Archmaester Marwyn. “Along with ten Hightowers, two of their closest retainers, and nine highly placed septons. The rest of the conspiracy we can allow to go to the Wall, should they agree.”
“Are you certain, Jon?” Lord Stannis asked.
“That they have to die? Yes. They have murdered children, royal and noble children across the entire Realm, seen to the abuse of children beyond counting. Some of the septons would get cut in half if anyone else knew the things they had done to a number of little lads and lasses. I will not stand for such people to survive once their crimes are discovered.”
“I understand,” Lord Stannis agreed. “And the ones you wish to send to the Wall?”
“All of House Hightower except for a handful of ladies. I am not sure what to do with the wives and daughters guilty of crimes other than to send them to a restrictive motherhouse or attempt to order their service in the Silent Sisters,” Jon admitted.
“I have a few ideas,” Ser Garlan promised. “That is if you still want me to oversee Oldtown on your behalf?”
“I do and I will provide you a copy of my list, thank you.
“I do not intend to name you Lord of the Tower,” Jon warned Ser Garlan the second son of Mace Tyrell. “I am contemplating starting a new cadet branch of my House here.”
“House Baratheon of the Tower has a decent ring to it,” Ser Garlan agreed. “I would be honored hold this place for my future nephew—with no rancor, betrothed of my sister.”
“Good,” Jon nodded. He took a deep breath and blew it out before admitting the next part. “The men will not be beheaded in the usual fashion. From what I have been able to read of their plans to kill magic, the counter is surprisingly simple.”
“The counter to their plans and to restore magic to its proper health status?” Archmaester Marwyn asked to clarify.
“And that counter is?”
“All magic is based in green magic. The best point of contact between men and green magic are weirwood trees,” Jon told them. “I am going to sacrifice these men to weirwood heart trees—on both sides of the Wall to ensure the magic of the Wall is reinforced, and in strategic places around Westeros.”
“As in making sacrifices to the Gods of Old,” Ser Garlan asked.
“Yes,” Jon confirmed.
“So was their plan. If we want our Realm healthy, this must happen and I ask no one to do it for me.”
“I do hope you try to be discrete,” Lord Stannis offered. “Rumors of your cruelty are the last thing we need for the peace of the Realm.”
“Most of the weirwoods I have chosen are well outside of any populated settlement, except in the North where I know they will accept my judgement and possibly even help me make the sacrifices properly. And the old gods have sent me a herd of unicorns to see the sacrifices are made quickly and quietly.”
“The old gods?” Stannis asked doubtfully.
“Can you think of another reason five-and-forty unicorns would randomly appear in Oldtown and tell my bonded mount that they have come to help me with my duties?”
“I cannot,” Stannis admitted.
“Good.” Jon nodded. “Are your quarters in the Citadel squared away?”
“They are. And your man at the inn has reported to me that the first future maesters from the North have arrived and will begin their learning in a few days once they have settled in.”
“Good. Thank you for taking the project on as well as the copying project.”
“I can see the wisdom of it,” Lord Stannis allowed. “No one has a reputation for honesty quite like men of the North, and we can be certain they will not fall for the Faith’s or Hightower’s tricks should they try again.
“I just hope there are enough Northmen to see it done.”
“There will be.” Archmaester Marwyn chuckled. “We have enough responses from the North to fill up Prince Jon’s new boarding house several times over. We have created a waitlist for the first time ever and are encouraging local maesters to teach their charges to read in the hope of expanding that list.
“I have asked Ser Garlan to convert another inn into a boarding house to allow more of the list to come sooner.”
“Perhaps we can convert an old Hightower manse to the project,” Lord Stannis offered. “I know of two that are standing empty due to all of the arrests and confessions.”
“That is a good thought,” Jon agreed. “And we would not have to buy them, simply claim them as reparations to the Crown on behalf of House Hightower.”
“I will see to it,” Lord Stannis said. “When do you leave?”
“After those not dedicated to the ritual have chosen their sentences,” Jon told the gathered lords. “Six-and-thirty is the minimum required to complete the ritual to restore magic, but more will not hurt anything, and the gods did send me five-and-forty unicorns.”
“Very well, my prince. We will see it done.”
“Make way!” Oberyn shouted as they rushed the princess to his ship.
She had passed out moments after bringing three dragons back into the world and then the panic had started. Thankfully, the dragons had gone to her son the moment he had gotten close enough for them to smell him and they had not had to fight the hatchlings to attend their mother for long.
Princess Daenerys, her son, and handmaidens had been loaded into a cart. He and Ser Gerold had spent the trip from the manse to the ship attempting to stabilize her. Miraculously, she had no burns. The temperature of her skin was high but that could not be sure if that was the sign of a fever or a side effect of magically remaining unburnt whilst inside a pyre hot enough to burn another human body to ash.
“Make way!” he shouted again. The city was waking up now and the Dothraki fear of the sea meant their manses were as far from the harbor as they could be and still be considered part of Pentos.
“My prince!” Ser Gerold called and Oberyn left the management of the horses and path to the driver to aid the only other healer they had.
He saw the blood before he made Ser Gerold had to tell him what to look for. “She is losing a child.”
“I do not know much about magic,” Ser Gerold said as he mixed a potion together to help ease the young woman. “But I would imagine returning dragons to the world would be quite a burden for anyone.”
“And only more so with her recent burdens,” Oberyn agreed. Losing her Lord and husband, finding out she was not the rightful Queen of Westeros, walking into her husband’s pyre, or knowing her khalasar tearing itself apart and seeing the results of it. Any of these things would be a cause of loss for any woman and only more so for one so young—particularly with all of them happening together.
“We need to get to your ship,” Ser Gerold told him. “I need my full kit if we are to keep her with us.”
“I will see it done,” Oberyn swore as he returned to the front of the wagon.
In the end, they lost only the child and Ser Jorah of those that had followed the princess to the sea. The princess survived the birth and he had sent Ashara in to tend the princess. He hoped Ashara and their similar losses would be enough to bind his nephew’s aunt to the world of the living, but he did not hold out much hope.
Ser Jorah, however, the moment they had set sail and he was assured the princess was likely to survive, the knight had leaned against a wall and slid to the floor in relief. The trail of blood his back had left on the wall had had both Oberyn and Gerold racing to tend him. He was gone to the Stranger before they reached him.
He had died in the service of his sworn lord, as a sworn shield should.
Oberyn hesitated to say his honor had been restored for Ser Jorah had been banished and lost his lordship for committing acts of slavery. But in the end he had proven there was something worthwhile about him.
Oberyn ordered him wrapped and weighted. They would commit him to the sea as soon as the princess had had a chance to say goodbye—assuming she woke from her drugged sleep before they had to commit him for the health of the crew.
The living had to come before the dead, or feelings.
Daenerys nursed the dragons at her breast as if they were the children of her body. He did not know why it bothered him, but it did. Targaryens were known for their strange ways. The rumors in Dorne had been quite ghastly before a series of intermarriages between House Targaryen and House Martell had been completed to cement the peace.
“The black and red is Drogon,” she told him as they watched the hatchling in question wrap himself around her son and make him giggle. “I name him for my Sun and Stars.”
“Khal Drogo,” he agreed with her.
“The white and copper is Viserion. I name him for my brother in the hope he can do what my brother could not—return our House to its true place in Westeros.”
“And the green and gold?” he asked.
“I cannot name it for my other brother, I have already named my son for him and that would be…strange, would it not? To name two of my sons for a man I have never known?”
“You could say it was for your mother, Queen Rhaella. She deserves all the honor you could give her. Naming a dragon for her would be sufficient.” Oberyn told her honestly. He had greatly admired the queen’s quiet strength.
He did not know the full pain of her life for she had been queen and one did not speak out of turn about the queen in the Mad King’s court without paying a steep price for it but he had seen the shadow of pain and terror in her. Shadows he had seen most often after Ironborn raids in the west or Dothraki raids in the east in men and women alike. Her life had been pain; her terrorizer the king himself, forbidding any chance of rescue, and yet she had carried on with grace and dignity.
“My brother said mother was weak,” Daenerys said with a frown.
“Did he also tell you that your father was mad?” Oberyn countered. Daenerys turned to focus on him and shook her head. “Your father started Robert’s Rebellion by dishonoring the tradition of trial by combat and using it to murder a lord paramount and his heir. And then by calling for the heads of his second heir and a second lord paramount that had no involvement in the original conflict.”
Daenerys paled. “My brother said that was a lie. That our father was a just and good king.”
“I have precious little love for House Stark and the circumstances of the Rebellion are shrouded in the lies of both sides and of those on neither side, but the fact remains—rather than trying to resolve a dispute between his heir and a lord paramount, your father accused innocent men of treason. When the lord demanded a trial by combat to prove his innocence and preserve his heir’s life, your father granted it. Then, he dishonored trial by combat by naming fire his champion rather than one of his Kingsguard as he should have done. The king’s pyromancers bound Lord Rickard Stark and set him on fire. With his son tied not far away—including a noose around his neck.
“Your father promised Lord Brandon that if he could get free and save his father, they would win the trial and they would have his help to save Lord Brandon’s sister from your brother.
“Lord Brandon strangled himself to death trying to save his lord father. His companions were murdered for nothing more than being there—including the only heir to the Lord Paramount of the Vale. And then your father ordered the deaths of Eddard Stark the new Lord Paramount of the North and then-Lord Paramount of the Stormlands Robert Baratheon—men that were not involved being as they were fostering in the Vale and had had no idea what had happened in King’s Landing.
“What about that was just or good? Or even sane or honorable?”
“None of it.” She trembled for a moment before she took a deep breath and got a hold of herself. “I could name him Elion, for your sister.”
“I appreciate the consideration.” Oberyn was touched, honestly, but, “My sister was physically frail. She was a true Dornishwoman—Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken—but her health was not the strongest. We should not wish such on the first of this new generation of dragons.
“Perhaps an older relative,” he offered. “Aerion, for the father of Aegon I. The one called the Conqueror north of the Red Mountains.”
“But not south of the Red Mountains?” Daenerys asked archly.
“Dorne did not join the Seven Kingdoms through Conquering,” he grinned. “You should know that, princess. Know it and never forget it, for we do not.”
He got to know the princess quite well after that. Though she trusted and liked Ashara better, she came to him for true answers about her family. The ones that would make her sad or angry because she seemed to want to keep such emotions separate from Ashara. Though Oberyn thought it a fool’s game, he answered her questions as honestly as he could. He could not say he was unbiased. The loss of his sister had hardened him, but he tried—for Jon, he tried.
Her dragons—Drogon, Viserion, and Aerion—grew quickly and horrifyingly during their time at sea. By the time they weighed anchor at Planky Town, the three were the size of hounds.
Thankfully they had left off their mother’s milk and turned to fresh fish quickly and with great appetite.
They did not yet fly which was all that made smuggling them onto his Ellaria’s wheelhouse possible though the black and red had managed some lift before crashing back to the deck the day previous so he knew they did not have long to contain the secret.
Ellaria’s manse was located just past halfway between Planky Town and Sunspear, set back off the road for privacy. It was not as secure as he would have liked for housing the last Targaryen princess but it had food and a large well and it was guarded by men loyal to her Lord Father more than they were loyal to their prince, his brother Doran.
“My love,” Ellaria greeted him as he dismounted.
He pulled her close and kissed her fiercely. “I have missed you these many moons,” he swore.
“Moons?” she demanded. “More than a year. Why should I entertain you here? And with you this rabble?”
“Because you, more than most, are a proud Dornishwoman and would do much to see the Usurper’s reign end—as would I.”
“And you have such a thing among…” she waved at the Dothraki and Unbroken just beginning to file into her manse, “…these,” she settled on.
He gestured for her wheelhouse to come forward and ignored her indignant huff. He knew she was not truly offended. Despite it being a gift from her father, she was far more likely to travel on horseback than to use the carriage—unless she was far too gone with his get to manage it.
The carriage door opened and Naera was the first one out of the wheelhouse. She gave him a blush and focused on holding the door. Ellaria hip checked him, and he grinned. He knew his beloved would find his latest conquest interesting.
Then the princess exited the carriage holding the hand of her son and Ellaria’s breath caught. They were followed quickly by the three dragons and Ellaria clutched silently at her own chest.
“Oberyn,” she breathed.
“I know. I will handle my brother and the king, but we must hide her until her nephew is ready to take his throne. We owe this to my lost sister and her beloved children.”
“She is the old king’s daughter, then. Not Elia’s…”
“No,” he confirmed sadly. “But that does not change our duty.”
“Very well,” she agreed. “Introduce me properly. And do not think I missed the reference to another Targaryen hiding in Westeros. You will be explaining that later.”
He planted a smacking kiss on her brow and stepped forward with a grand bow to the princess. “Princess Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons, meet my beloved lady Ellaria Sand, the only begotten daughter of Lord Harmen of House Uller and mother of my four youngest daughters.
“Ellaria, meet Princess Daenerys, aunt to the rightful king of Westeros.”
Tyene and Sarella left the wheelhouse and slipped around them to hug Ellaria in greeting and stand at her sides.
Ellaria and the Princess stared at each other for several moments before Daenerys stepped forward. The two women bowed their heads to each other.
Oberyn looked over at where Naera was still lingering in the shadow of the wheelhouse and shot her a wink. Oh, this was going to be fun.
It was not fun. It was not fun at all.
Oberyn glared hatefully up at the Red Keep as his ship came into dock. He had never wished to visit this hive of scum and villainy ever again. His brother knew that and had ordered him here regardless to inform the Crown of his actions on their behalf—on Jon’s behalf, truly, not that he could say that.
He supposed a trip to the Red Keep was the least of punishments he could have garnered for refusing to reveal Prince Jon’s true name and nature to his brother, the ruling Prince of Dorne.
Still, it was cruel to send him here now that his sister’s revenge was complete, and he had no heads left to collect here. Except perhaps King Robert’s but he had forsworn himself taking that head as it was the one that stood most directly in the protection of his nephew.
Then again, how else could he bring Jon news of his aunt? Her survival would be considered treason, much less returning her to Westeros and harboring her.
Such news could not be trusted to a raven.
Riding through King’s Landing was enlightening. Banners of more than just House Baratheon and House Lannister were decorating the buildings. He thought he saw one brave merchant flying Martell colors which was as close as one could get to Targaryen colors this far north, he knew.
The gold cloaks patrolled the streets in pairs but they did so without their hands on sword or cudgel. They were greeted kindly, for the most part, by merchants and smallfolk alike.
King’s Landing was—for the first time he could remember—a city at peace.
This had to be Jon’s doing. Oberyn knew his nephew was the Master of Laws and the gold cloaks answered to the Master of Laws. Though, he supposed he could give some credit to Tyrion Lannister. His father had been the best Hand of the King Westeros had even known until his wife had died and he had turned bitter.
A flock of doves dressed in green and gold met him within the gates of the Red Keep. He dismounted and approached the maiden at the head of the receiving line.
“Prince Oberyn,” she bobbed a brief curtsy at him. “I am Margaery Tyrell. It is my pleasure to greet you on behalf of the king and council.”
Prince Jon’s betrothed, he realized. “I take this to mean Prince Jon is not here?”
“He is not,” she confirmed, “he is out bringing the King’s Justice to the Realm. The king has made time available to you should you require an audience, however.”
“I do,” he confirmed and offered her his arm gallantly. “Shall we?”
“Of course, my prince.” She took the proffered arm and they followed one of her guards into the keep. “May I ask if you have brought Tyene with you?”
“You have met her before?” he asked in surprise.
“Yes, of course. She is a lovely young lady and my Jon respects and loves her. Rather like a sister. I am sure he would be pleased to see her upon his return.”
That was interesting. A Targaryen loved his daughter like a sister. He wondered if he should pity the girl on his arm, but he knew Jon respected her as well. “Do you know when that would be? I could send her north to see him once I return to Sunspear.”
“I do not. He is travelling to bring the King’s Justice.”
Oberyn frowned. “You said that before…what exactly is he doing?”
“I am…uncertain exactly. He discovered a conspiracy between the Faith, the Citadel, and most of House Hightower. He has sent a list of necessary executions and men remanded to the Wall. My brother, Ser Garlan, saw nearly one hundred men to the Shadow Tower on Jon’s behalf and we believe the conspiracy branches across all of Westeros, which leaves Jon with a great deal to do.
“Periodically we receive more names from Jon for men remanded to the Wall, but it has proven difficult to track a man mounted upon a horse that flies.”
Oberyn snorted and took a moment to picture his Dothraki’s response to Jon coming in for a landing at Ellaria’s manse, Hell’s Respite. They would think Jon a god, or at the least a ghost. He was not sure which response would be more entertaining.
They entered a solar Oberyn knew to be well outside of Maegor’s Holdfast. It was a public solar for the king and as such it was not the most privacy the king could offer a meeting. The number of guards in the room atop the location expressed a clear distrust of him on behalf of the king. The Demon of the Trident saw him as a threat.
Oberyn was ever so pleased.
“Martell,” King Robert Baratheon said in greeting.
Oberyn helped Lady Margaery into a chair and took a hold of his manners with both hands. For Jon. For Elia. He had to do this—he would not kill the oaf—for his family.
“King Robert.” Oberyn gave the minimal bow he had to per the peace treaty that had brought Dorne into the Seven Kingdoms over a hundred years previous. “I have returned from Essos with news.”
“Anything to do with the three thousand Unsullied you have added to the Dornish army?” Baratheon asked waspishly.
“Unbroken,” Oberyn corrected. “My men are the Unbroken. Unsullied are slaves and all of my men have been freed. They are free to stay in my service or serve another House. So far, they have chosen to stay with me and serve my family, but I imagine if your Prince Jon came to Dorne, that might change.”
“Jon did manage to impress your Shield quite thoroughly in the days he was here with your daughter Tyene,” Margaery agreed.
Baratheon snorted, clearly not amused—but Oberyn would bet Jon would be in Sunspear sooner rather than later.
“What news from Essos?” Margaery asked.
“Illyrio Mopatis, whose true name was Rhaegon Blackfyre, is dead, as you know. His death was most painful. My daughters and I have spent the last several months tracking down the Blackfyre Mopatis and Varys had planned to back to take the throne. He is surrounded by cunning men and must have a most proficient Master of Whispers—” Oberyn hoped his uncle was half as good at the game of whispers as Arthur had said at least, “—he was impossible to pin down.
“We have not given up, merely returned home to search out more leads and resources.”
“Kill that Blackfyre and I will give you gold, keeps, name it,” Baratheon swore rashly. “What about the Targaryen bitch?”
“In the last days before we cast off from Pentos—” Oberyn pursed his lips. The king was talking about his goodsister and he had to know it. “—I personally witnessed Daenerys Targaryen walk into her husband’s funeral pyre. There was a great deal of screaming.”
“But she did not walk out?” The king grinned. When Oberyn refused to answer, he slapped his thigh and laughed. “Gods be good! The last of the dragonspawn is dead!”
Robert Baratheon chuckled and poured them a round of wine for a toast.
“Keep your Unsullied!” The king grinned, the red wine staining his teeth barbarously. “And your ships! With compliments from the Crown for your good service!”
Oberyn bowed his head over his cup. “My thanks, my king.”
He raised his cup in a silent toast to the end of the Royal House Baratheon, one Aegon Targaryen, the seventh of his name. Long may he reign.
I am coming, was all the raven he had received from Sunspear said. No names, just three words and Prince Jon’s seal, almost two months after he had returned to Respite from King’s Landing. Something must have warned the lad about the secrets he was guarding, but Oberyn had no idea what.
Ellaria ran a tight ship. So did Orla. And Unbroken did not gossip.
“Keep watch,” he ordered the Unbroken and Dothraki on the heights of the manse. “Towards Sunspear. And watch the sky!”
They had looked at him like he was mad, but his orders had been passed down from shift to shift until on the third day the air was filled with excited, terrified, shouting.
“Stay in the house!” he ordered Ellaria and his daughters as he rushed out to identify the commotion.
From the north and slightly east, he could see three forms in the sky much too big to be birds but much too small to be dragons. Right Arm stopped at his right arm and handed him a field glass. It was Jon, finally it was Jon.
He came with two other riders. A Kingsguard upon a white unicorn and old man upon a red one.
They came lower in lazy circles until the horses’ hooves touched down in Ellaria’s stone courtyard.
The Dothraki committed themselves to one of two reactions. They either screamed in panic and ran or fell to their knees and humbled themselves before Jon. He looked out over the writhing bodies in confusion before he shook his head and dismounted.
When Jon was in reach, Oberyn pulled him roughly into a hug. “Nephew,” he greeted softly in his ear.
“Uncle,” Prince Jon returned just as softly.
He kept his nephew in a firm embrace but pulled back enough to look him in the face. “You know if you continue this path, my entire family will know your secret.”
“Do you truly believe they have not already guessed?” Jon asked. “They would sooner let Robert Baratheon burn than piss on him, and you have done so much for me and in my name while I am currently only known to them as his son.”
Oberyn nodded. He supposed that was fair.
“Besides, how will Prince Doran vote for me in the Great Council if he does not know me as his nephew?”
“Nephew,” he sighed and shook his head.
Jon the Just was truly too noble for his own good.
Jon pulled back and gestured at his companions. “You know Rolls from the last time we met.”
“I do,” Oberyn agreed as he shook the young Kingsguard’s hand.
“And my great grand uncle, Maester Aemon. It took us so long to get here because he spent several days spinning tales of the Night’s Watch for lads of the South. Officially, he is part of my household to help with Night’s Watch recruiting.”
“Your tardiness had nothing to do with my brother trying to wring the truth from you?”
“Can you be tardy when a time was not set for a meeting?” Jon asked, the smartass. “He did try but no one can be direct when discussing treason with the crown prince. It was rather fun to play dumb.”
“You do not want him to know?” Oberyn questioned. After what Jon said about a Great Council…
“No, I do. Just not yet. Something is afoot and I have not gotten a handle on it yet. Once I do, I am sure you would take great pleasure in…altering your brother’s world right out from under him.”
“You are not wrong,” Oberyn agreed.
“I believe you have a very talented young horsewoman here,” Jon began before Oberyn could lead him inside.
“Ooh, me! Ooh, me!” Elia, the oldest of his daughters by Ellaria popped out of the stonework to shout.
Oberyn glared at her. “You were supposed to remain inside.”
“But unicorns, papa!”
He sighed and she scampered down the stairs to take Jon’s proffered hand. Prince Jon led his bastard daughter over to the red filly with all the courtly manners one would show a trueborn princess.
“In my adventures Beyond the Wall and back, I have been assisted by a herd of unicorns,” Jon told his daughter. “Every single one of them has demanded I introduce them to their chosen companions and teach these companions about the bond they can form together. This lovely young lady is the last of the herd and she agreed to carry Maester Aemon south for me on the condition that I would introduce the two of you at my first opportunity.”
Jon placed Elia’s hand on the filly’s nose.
Elia gazed into the unicorn’s eyes for several moments before she asked, “What is her name?”
“That was for the two of you to decide,” Jon told her. “Let me bring Uncle Maester down from her saddle and you may take his place. No flying until your bond is settled—it usually takes a few days.”
“Can you not speed it up?” Elia whined.
“I cannot effect your bond at all,” Jon swore. “But you can, by relaxing with your bonded. Physical closeness helps, along with not thinking you have gone mad when she starts trying to communicate with you or sends you dreams.”
“I can do that,” his brave little Elia agreed.
She waited as Jon pulled the oldest man Oberyn had ever seen out of the saddle but still hopped on the moment he was clear.
“Now what did you need me for so urgently?” Jon asked as they watched Elia trot off on a creature of legend.
“Your Aunt,” Oberyn told him.
Jon whipped around to stare at him. “My aunt?”
“You will want to see this, Jon.” He swore and led the younger man into Ellaria’s manse. The ladies in his life were lined up in the receiving line he had refused to let them hold outside. There would be no getting to the princess until they had run this gauntlet. “This is my beloved and mother of four of my daughters, the one and only Ellaria Sand.”
“Brother,” Ellaria greeting Jon just as she had greeted any bastard ever and Oberyn fought a wince.
“Sister,” Jon returned the greeting easily and pulled Ellaria in to kiss her forehead as many a noble lad would greet an actual sister.
Ellaria smiled, clearly pleased.
“You know Tyene,” Oberyn gestured to the next woman in line.
“Cousin,” Jon greeted this time and pulled her close for another forehead kiss.
“This is my daughter Sarella.”
“The clever one that worships books?” Jon asked him.
“That is me.” Sarella laughed. “Do I get a forehead kiss too?”
“If you want,” Jon leaned forward and kissed her forehead. “But I thought you might prefer an invitation to the Citadel?”
“Do not tease me,” Sarella warned severely.
“No teasing, I swear. I have come from dealing with monumental foolishness centered around the Citadel that has left them undermanned. Before I left, I received agreement from the current Seneschal, Archmaester Marwyn, to allow women to follow the path of the Knights of the Mind. I can send you with a letter that will gain you entrance to the ranks of novices currently swarming the place to swell their ranks.”
“And if I should be refused?” she asked.
“Then you will write to me and I will take his head for lying to the Crown.”
Sarella smiled brightly and jumped excitedly in place. “I cannot wait!”
“You have already met Elia, these are the other three daughters my Ellaria has blessed me with,” Oberyn said to move them to the end of the line. They were almost free. “Obella, Dorea, and Loreza.”
“Do you have horses for us too?” Obella asked.
“I did not bring your sister her unicorn,” Jon told her gently. “She brought herself to your sister.”
“She must be really smart,” Dorea said with a frown.
“She is,” Jon agreed. “A unicorn is no horse. Bonding with one is quite the responsibility.”
“Because they are smart?”
“Yes. I am fairly certain my bonded mount, Swift, is smarter than I am.”
“Do you think he will grant me a ride later?” Dorea pressed.
“We will ask him,” Prince Jon promised.
“You girls run along. You should be in your lessons with Maester Richon right now.”
“Yes, papa,” they chorused and grinned at each other but did not move.
A day may come when he had a daughter that was not a smart ass, but that was not this day. And he adored them all the more for it.
“My aunt?” Jon prompted.
“In the lemon patch,” Ellaria told them both as she gathered up their daughters.
They found her sitting in the shade of a lemon tree. Her son was asleep with his head in her lap. She was staring at the red door to Ellaria’s guest house. It was not the first time he had found her staring at it like a puzzle she was trying to solve.
“Princess?” Oberyn called and her eyes snapped to him.
“Prince Oberyn,” she greeted softly. “Please pardon me if I do not stand up. Rhaego just fell asleep and if I rise, I will wake him.”
“Do not concern yourself,” he assured her. “I know well the pains of teething on both parent and the child. Princess Daenerys Targaryen, I would like you to meet your nephew, Aegon VII Targaryen.”
Jon shot him a peevish look before he dropped into the grass at his aunt’s side. “Publicly, I must answer to Jon Baratheon,” he explained to the princess. “But Aegon Targaryen is the name my mother gave me before she died.”
“You are…” Daenerys narrowed her eyes at him. “Eddard Stark’s bastard.”
“Never a bastard, my parents were married,” Jon promised. “But mine Lord Uncle did claim me as such to protect my life from the Usurper.”
“That is how you plan to take the throne back for our House?” she asked pointedly. “Wait for the Usurper to die and steal it back from him?”
“It is not stealing to take what is rightfully yours,” Jon told her. “And I plan to have a Great Council confirm me as king before I set my arse on that terrible chair. I would love to have you at my side when I do.”
“As your bride?” she asked.
“As my Aunt,” he corrected. “And perhaps Lord Paramount of the Vale.
“We do not have much family, you and I. Other than Uncle Maester, you are the only person I know to bear my father’s name. Neither of us were raised in the traditions of our House but I cannot see how that is a mark against us. We survived. We learned new lessons. Now we must take what we know and make the world better for it.”
“I…do not know how to be a Lord Paramount,” Daenerys admitted.
“You can learn,” Jon promised. “We will make Oberyn help you, if we have to. Though Lady Ellaria might be more useful.”
“In my own home…” Oberyn groused and the two laughed.
“I suppose I should introduce you to my other children,” Daenerys offered.
“Other children?” Jon asked, concerned.
“Drogon, Viserion, Aerion,” Daenerys called over her shoulder.
Several pleased hisses sounded in the deeper shadows of the lemon patch and three dragons quickly emerged. They were now the size of large hounds, not counting their wings and the full length of their necks and tails.
Oberyn grinned at the shock clear on Jon’s face but noted the lack of terror every other person that had met the winged trio had exhibited.
The red and black sniffed Jon, head butted his hand, and turned back to Rhaego. He curled up with his brother at their mother’s side as he was wont to do.
The cream and copper sniffed Jon, headbutted his hand as well, but something drew his interest over their shoulders. Oberyn watched befuddled as the dragon made a happy noise and raced off over the heated grounds to Maester Aemon. Only his Kingsguard escort kept the elderly maester on his feet when the two made contact—though, thankfully, Ser Rolland Storm was not so foolish as to draw his blade on the living, growing sigil of House Targaryen.
The green and gold drew close last, more cautious than his fellows. Aerion sniffed Jon and headbutted his hand but then he began to wrap himself around Jon happily. He rubbed his body on the Crown Prince of the Seven Kingdoms like a cat that caught a scent it could not get enough of and simply had to carry with it.
To Oberyn’s surprise, Jon just laughed—full out laughed in a way Oberyn had never heard—and wrapped his arms around the dragon’s long neck. “Hello, Aerion.”
Oberyn did not even think to ask until much later how Jon knew the dragon’s name when no one had introduced them.
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