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.
“For the Watch.”
Whittlestick’s and Marsh’s words rattled in Jon’s ears as he collapsed into the snow. Warmth fled his body with more than all due haste However, rather than getting darker as he had heard so many men describe dying at this point—everything got brighter.
The light burned and blinded him.
Then it cleared.
He was sitting safe and warm in the Lord Commander’s solar—in his solar—and it was full of people.
“Welcome, son,” a man that was definitely not Lord Eddard Stark greeted him. He had silver blond hair and deep purple eyes. He was clearly a warrior, clearly a knight. Tall and lean, and more beautiful than even Jamie Lannister.
“Who are you?” Then, remembering he had to be dead and that this had to be an apparition, “Who are you pretending to be?”
“Rhaegar Targaryen, your father. This is his second lawfully wedded wife and your mother, Lyanna Stark.”
A young slip of a girl settled on the arm of Rhaegar’s couch. She had a wild beauty to her and the kind of smile that made you want to smile with her. She had Uncle Benjen’s joyfully dancing quicksilver eyes as well, marking her clearly as a Stark.
“My son,” she greeted him warmly.
“No,” Jon denied it. Denied them. “No, Eddard Stark is my father.”
“Come on, Snow,” Robb dropped gracelessly into the chair next to him. “Why else would Ned Stark refuse to tell you a truth you had more than earned? Unless the timing was dangerous? Like having to talk about Rhaegar Targaryen’s sole surviving son where King Robert—who would have killed you for not being his own son—might have heard?”
“No, Ned—father was honorable. You are talking about treason! He would never do that, it is unbelievable.”
“Yes,” Stannis drawled from his place over by the window. “About as believable about the great Ned Stark bedding a whore after he was wed to another woman. Why is one type of betrayal more believable than the other?”
“Jon,” Lyanna addressed him. “Ned Stark found his sister Lyanna in a bed of blood.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Ned found Lyanna in childbed. The blood was from the delivery. The Septas that attended her had ensured she would not survive the birth. They murdered her and would have murdered you, too, had Ned not arrived when he had.”
“You are not Lyanna,” he said, rather belatedly noting her use of pronouns. She had said her, not me.
“I am the Mother.” Her voice had a faint echo to it. She was glowing ever so faintly. How had he not noticed that? “I can only appear to mortals as their mother.”
“I do not worship you,” he declared. “I will not.”
“I am not asking you to,” she snorted.
“Gods exist whether you believe in them or not, Jon,” Rhaegar tipped his head to one side. “Or should I call you Aegon Targaryen the Seventh of his name?”
He shook his head vehemently, “Jon. Please.”
Rhaegar inclined his head.
“You are the Father. Can only appear to me as my father,” Jon guessed
He turned to Robb who was now leaning slightly against his side and raised an eyebrow. It triggered a sense memory of his brother at his side, warm and safe. He wanted to sink into the familiarity of it, but he could not. He would not.
“The Warrior,” not-Robb introduced himself. “That bag of ill wind over there is the Smith.”
Stannis took his hand off his chin long enough to wave absently at him. “The fixer of broken things. Like this fool Realm, if it had gone any different.”
“Sansa would be the Maiden,” Jon guessed.
“Old Nan, the Crone,” Robb agreed. “Arya, the Stranger—outcast, wanderer to far places, the face of death. She is in Braavos, did you know? Training to be a Faceless Man.”
That broke Jon’s heart. Arya, his little sister, his favorite sibling, a Faceless Man. An assassin. What a terrible life that must be.
“Why are you here with me? You are not my gods. I do not serve you or your Faith. I am nothing to you.”
“That could not be farther from the truth,” Rhaegar disagreed. “You are everything to us.”
“We do not want you to serve our Faith, Jon,” Lyanna added. “We want you to break it.”
“The clergy have become corrupt. They have aligned themselves with the Citadel, to the detriment of the Realm. Together they work to quash all magic,” Stannis looked at him sharply. “Do you think we would have made magic—that your gods would even allow humans to have magic—if it was not supposed to be in your hands? If it was not for your use?
“Magic has grown so weak in this Realm, that the entire planet is out of balance. This bloody Wall will come down with the dead hungry and waiting on the other side. If we do not stop it, the Realms of Men will all be lost.”
“Can we stop it?” Jon asked, feeling like a child, hopeless and lost in the dark. The very thought of the Wall coming down…
“We?” Rhaegar shook his head. “You.”
“You have the skill and the will,” Rob said, straight to the point. “And the bloodline.
“We have the power.”
“We are going to send you back into your life but not to the moment you left,” Lyanna told him. “We have agreed that you can make the most changes to the Realm while King Robert is in Winterfell, so we are placing you there, a few days before.
“We will also provide you seven changes. One from each of us.”
“The Crone is providing you with knowledge, as is her wont,” Stannis told him. “So that you may know the truth of what happened the first time in order to prevent the terrible circumstances from coming to pass this time. But know the more successful you are, the sooner the knowledge She gives you will lose all worth.
“Somehow I do not think I am going back to the Wall,” Jon said glumly, the size of this task settling on his shoulders. Saving the Seven Kingdoms? Destroying the Faith? It was…huge. Terrifying.
He had just died—he had just been murdered!—for doing the right thing. Did he not deserve a rest?
Stannis carried on, ignoring him. “The Stranger is sending Ghost back with you and making him understand his change of circumstances to preserve his sanity. I think that counts as two—three with your warg bond remaining intact—but I have been out voted.”
“Your sister, Sansa, provided you a helpmate,” Lyanna said. “The most beautiful of maidens, intelligent and vicious. Worthy of your trust and strong enough to bear the weight of your tasks at your side.
“You will know her when you see her.”
Jon wanted to roll his eyes, but he refrained. The one thing he had wanted his entire life was a mother—his mother. He was not going to disrespect her now.
“I am putting Stannis Baratheon and Tywin Lannister into King Robert’s party this time around.”
Stannis’s shout of “two!” was completely ignored as Rhaegar carried on.
“And I am going to make them amenable towards you. They are two of the most powerful lords in the Realm. You will be able to make all manner of changes with them on your side.”
“Four!” Stannis spluttered in outrage.
“I will not change them, mind, but they are fathers that love their children with all they are. I will give you an opening, lad. Use it well.”
“I have not decided what my change will be,” Robb admitted, carefree and easy. “I am going to use it strategically depending on how bad you muck it all up, Snow-Dragon.
“Lyanna will not tell anyone what her change is, but considering who she truly is, that is probably a good thing. It will likely be more personal than you would like. And Stannis keeps nagging us about learning to count which means he is going to give you more favors than all of us combined, probably.”
Stannis the Smith huffed indignantly but did not naysay his brother, the Warrior. “Fixing broken things is my job.
“And kill that Raven bastard before you go too far from the Wall!” Stannis ordered as the sight of the room started to ripple away from him. “The hoarding, misleading twat.”
“Jon!” Bran’s weight landing on his chest woke him abruptly. “Jon! Jon! Jon!”
Jon groaned and pushed the demented squirrel pretending to be his little brother off of him chest. Bran’s direwolf, Summer, was bouncing around the bed too, looking like a fool of a bunny with his ears up like that.
Summer? When had Bran named his direwolf that? It had to be after he woke up from his fall, but Jon had already been at the Wall by then. He definitely had not named him yet…probably.
He scruffed Summer and pulled the pup into his lap. “Have you named this fellow yet?”
“No,” Bran settled down with a disgruntled frown. “Nothing fits! I wish he was white like Ghost. Then I could name him Sword of Morning!”
Jon laughed before he could think better of it. “That was a terrible name!”
“What would you name him, then?” Bran challenged, pulling his pup out of Jon’s arms.
“Well,” Jon thought about it. Did it matter if his siblings gave their wolves the same names? Probably not, but he did not have any better ideas, so, “Summer. Old Nan calls you a sweet summer child, does she not? And Lady Stark would say you are a sweet child. That leaves Summer for this fellow.
“And he has yellow in the gray of his fur, like sunlight on summer snows.”
Bran hummed and Jon knew he was thinking about it.
No son of Ned Stark would take anyone else’s suggestion without thinking it over thoroughly for themselves. Not even when the person making the suggestion was another ‘son’ of Ned Stark. It would likely be weeks before Bran rendered his decision.
“Let me know what you decide,” Jon ruffled Bran’s hair. “Now get out of here and bathe. If you present yourself to the King covered in muck, Lady Stark will have all our hides.”
Bran bounced some more as he and Summer left the bed. “Mayhap Ser Barristan will come! Mayhap he will show me how to joust! He is the best in the Realm, no one could teach me more.”
“Bran,” he caught his brother’s wrist because he suddenly knew why Bran had fallen from the First Keep. The knowledge the Crone had promised him was starting settle on his mind faster as he got used to receiving the information.
He thanked the Crone for the knowledge. He might not worship Her, but it was only polite to thank someone for a gift. Knowledge of Jaime and Cersei Lannister’s many crimes were certainly a gift.
“Jon?” Bran asked, uncertain.
Jon released him. “Do not climb Winterfell. Not while the King and his company are here.”
Bran pulled a face. “Mother already made me swear.”
“Bran.” Jon was not fooled. That statement about his mother was not compliance.
“The whole time?”
“Three days from the King’s arrival for Winterfell,” Jon relented. “But stay off the First Keep the entire time, Bran, I mean it.”
“Fine,” Bran whined.
Jon huffed but pushed him toward the door. “Alright, go.”
He desperately did not want Bran paralyzed again. He would take the joyful, energetic boy Bran was—regardless of how much work he was to manage—over the strange, remote Raven he had become any day.
Preferably for all of their days.
The King’s party was much larger this time around than it had been in Jon’s original life. But it had to be. From where he was standing behind several rows of Stark retainers, he could see Lord Stannis and Lord Tywin. The increase in the host was explained by their presence and attendant retinues.
Ser Barristan rode side-by-side with the King.
That was new and unexpected but perhaps it should not have been. More armsmen around the King, would make a smart Kingsguard more wary and Ser Barristan was the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. It was his job to be smart and wary.
Jon avoided the Welcome Feast same as the last time. He did not need Lady Stark to tell him to make himself scarce this time, though she had made sure to do it anyway.
He let Lord Tyrion lecture him on the matter of bastards and armor once again. It was a good speech and sound advice that he had never quite had the time for it to internalize in his last life. It was hard to be resentful about being thought a bastard now that he was back in Winterfell with all of his family alive and well around him.
He was grateful for the chance to do it all again after all of the ways he had failed his family last time—despite the new, more dangerous ways he could fail that now laid before him.
There was something strange with Lord Tyrion though.
“What is that? On your hip?” he asked.
Tyrion stopped walking away and turned back to him. He fiddled with the rough-hewn black hilt on his belt for a moment. “Dragonglass,” the Imp said, pulling the stone dagger out and holding it up to the light. “Fascinating substance. I was reading a treatise on the uses of dragonglass in the making of Valyrian Steel. It was just a theory, mind you, but I ordered a crate from Dragonstone to explore it myself.”
“It is beautiful,” Jon admitted as Tyrion handed him the dagger. He had always thought so, but the Wall had been lacking in men to share such an opinion with.
Well, other than Sam.
“It is,” Tyrion confirmed. “I intend to travel to Dragonstone when time allows. The entire keep is built of dragonglass and covered in carved dragons. I expect it to be breathtaking.”
“I have heard stories about dragonglass,” Jon told him. “They say it can kill the Others and their wight minions.”
“And grumpkins and snarks too, I imagine.” Lord Tyrion rolled his eyes.
Jon was not deterred by his doubting Southron attitude. “You better keep it close, if you plan to go any closer to the Wall. My father beheaded a deserter from Night Watch not long ago. He claimed to have seen a White Walker and walking dead in the lands beyond the Wall.”
At Tyrion’s skeptical look, Jon just handed him back the dagger. “It would not do to find out he was right with no way to defend yourself, would it?”
“Quite right,” Tyrion agreed as he took it.
“Jon!” Uncle Benjen dismounted his horse and hugged Jon all in a rush.
Truly glad to see his only uncle alive and well, Jon clapped him on the back enthusiastically. “Gods, it has been too long. How are you?”
Jon glanced around when Benjen pulled back to answer him. Lord Tyrion was gone.
“Good,” his uncle took a deep breath as he too looked around. “Rode all day, did not want to leave you alone with the Lannisters.
“Why are you not at the Feast?”
“Lady Stark’s orders,” he admitted. “She thought the royal family would be insulted to see…”
“A bastard?” Benjen scoffed. “They brought Stannis Baratheon. Half of his household knights are bastards. One would assume he prefers them.”
Jon rolled his eyes. “Aye, but unless my Lord Father speaks up, no one argues with Lady Stark.”
Uncle Benjen very carefully did not roll his eyes, but Jon was well enough aware of Benjen’s opinion of the Southron wife that had been forced on his brother to be amused about his reaction anyway and he laughed.
“Well, you are always welcome at the Wall. No bastard was ever refused a seat there.”
“There are no feasts there, either,” Jon countered.
“Aye, but a bastard can rise as high as Lord Commander in the Watch. I can think of three that have off the top of my head. What’s a feast to that?”
Jon nodded. “It would be an honor, to join the Night’s Watch. To join you on a Great Ranging beyond the Wall. To lead the Watch. I want…something for my life. To make it something,” he admitted. “But I do not know if I will find it at the Wall.”
“The Wall will always be there,” Uncle Benjen comforted him. “You have time to figure out what you want but I look forward to Lord Commander Jon Snow joining the ranks of Lord Commanders Waters, Rivers, and Hill.”
“There have been no Northern bastards in the Watch?” Jon frowned. He could not believe that. He could not possibly have been the first. “Not a single Stark bastard?”
“In the Watch, yes. As Lord Commander, no. Only legitimate Starks have made Lord Commander. I bet you could break that streak.”
“Mayhap,” Jon agreed. “I have time yet.”
“And yet I do not. If I do not get in there, Ned will take my head for dereliction of duty and treason,” Benjen joked.
“He is no doubt ready to be rescued from his royal guests,” Jon agreed.
He watched his uncle leave him for the Keep. He was not sure what to do with himself now. He did not want to keep company with anyone in particular.
At least, he did not want to keep the company of anyone alive. He eyed the door that led toward the crypts. He could go down and visit his mother’s crypt. View his own crypt, see his true name and parentage carved in unchanging stone. Not that he did not trust word of the Seven, but they were not his gods. And doing them a favor was no guarantee of their honesty.
He needed to see it for himself. To verify his identity before he sank too deep into his new role.
Not that he could go back or just not do his best on the mission the Seven had given him, but he needed to know. Once he did, mayhap his recurring dream of the Kings of Winter waking to tell him how he did not belong would cease.
Jon blew out a hopeless breath. The dreams would probably not stop regardless. It was a nice thought, though.
He did not see Lord Tyrion again until the end of breakfast the next day. He approached Jon where he was seated with his Uncle Benjen at the far end of one of the low tables, as far as he could get from the high table.
“Bastard,” Tywin’s Bane greeted.
“Dwarf,” Jon returned.
Tyrion gave him a small smile and pulled out a folded leather pouch. He handed it to Jon. Jon opened the pouch and pulled out three shards of dragonglass. One was as long as his arm from elbow to fingers and as thick as his hand.
“What is this?”
“A Gift. From one bastard to another.”
“My thanks,” Jon said honestly, relief coiling in his gut. It was not Valyrian Steel by any means, but it was almost as good. “I know just the man to turn them into proper daggers.” And he could train himself to dual wield it with a broadsword, he would bet.
“Mayhap you can introduce me to your man. I plan to visit the Wall while I am so close, and I would not want the North to think I did not take seriously their advice in regards to my safety.”
“I can take you to him right now, if you like,” Jon offered.
“Lead the way.”
It was luncheon before Jon escaped Tyrion and the blacksmith/stone carver duo. No one had ever discussed it, but he was certain everyone knew or at least understood the depth of the relationship between the blacksmith Mikken and his partner, the stone carver Conin. Their relationship was protected in this way, with silence, because no one ever mentioned it to Lady Stark or her Septon Chayle.
The King was at luncheon even though he had not been at breakfast, but the Queen and Ser Jaime were nowhere to be found. Jon did not have to think about it to know what they were doing.
“Lord Stannis,” Jon possibly took his life in his hands to seize this possible chance.
“Snow,” Stannis focused on him entirely.
“I know the North does not offer such beauty as Dragonstone or Storm’s End but I thought you might enjoy the view from the top of the First Keep? You can see the mountains and fields over the northern wall. They say a sharp-eyed man can see the Wall on a clear day, though I never have.”
“Very well,” Stannis stood.
“I would accompany you,” Ser Barristan interjected. “I have a day of leisure and little enough to fill it.”
“You would be welcome,” Jon assured him, hoping really hard that Jamie and Cersei were where he expected them to be and doing what he expected them to be doing.
At Lord Commander Barristan’s glance, Lord Tywin rose as well and silently joined them.
Jon took a deep breath and hoped they would assume it was the nerves of a baseborn in the company of such high Lords and no more than that.
He led them silently from the Great Keep, across almost all of Winterfell, to the First Keep. He was not naturally the chatty sort—neither were Lord Stannis nor Lord Tywin—so it was a silent endeavor. He wondered idly if the two lords realized how similar they were. No drinking, no smiling, great strategic minds, intensely loyal to their families.
He wondered if trying to foster friendship between them would be a good idea for the Realm or merely a fool’s folly. But what he hoped they would find in the Keep would either unite the men or tear them—and possibly the Realm—permanently asunder so he gave up his pondering as a bad job.
Only the Old Gods and the new, knew how this was going to work out.
Ghost joined them in the First Courtyard but no one objected. Not that Jon had expected them too, but they were Southerners and their thinking would always be a mystery to him. Ghost led them as they made their way round and round, up the stairs within the First Keep
They were nearing the top when Ghost signaled that he had heard something and Jon stopped. “Did you hear that?” he asked softly.
All three men with him tensed, hands going to their sword belts.
Lord Tywin looked sharply at the door on his left. Whatever he had heard made him flush scarlet to match his doublet, pull out his sword, and kick down the door. His roar of rage nearly drowned out Stannis’s vehement denial. Jon and Ser Barristan rushed in to see the source of their fury.
Jon had had an idea of what to expect but seeing Jamie on his knees behind the Queen with her dressed rucked up was still a shock.
Seeing Lord Lannister’s sword lodged into the Queen’s chest was even more a shock.
Then Lord Commander Barristan’s sword cleanly removed Lord Tywin’s head from his shoulders for the crime of harming the Queen and for a moment, Jon did not know what to think.
The rattling exhale of life fleeing Cersei’s body was a familiar enough sound that Jon immediately regained himself. She collapsed, falling off of Jamie’s still-wet cock and removing any possible doubt about their activities.
Ser Barristan shouted and turned on his sworn brother, but Jon threw himself between the men.
“No!” he held up a hand and Ghost barreled Ser Barristan’s sword arm away from them. “Ser Jamie must answer to the King’s Justice!”
“The lad has the right of it,” Lord Stannis took hold of Ser Barristan’s bracer, pulling his sword further away from Jon. “Only King Robert has the right to judge him.”
Ser Barristan did not have the ears to hear them, he just stared numbly at Ser Jaime like he had never seen such a monster.
“Perhaps the royal children should be cloistered until the King has had his say,” Jon offered, taking Ser Barristan’s sword from him since he clearly was not going to put it away on his own.
“Quite right,” Stannis agreed and thumped Ser Barristan on his shoulder to get his attention. “Snow will guard the door. I will gather King Robert and Lord Stark in the Great Hall for judgement. Ser Barristan, you need to see the royal children gathered and guarded. They should not learn their mother and grandfather’s fates from anyone but the king.”
“We will need men to carry them to the Great Hall,” Jon offered. “Perhaps with cloth or two, to obscure them.”
“I will send knights of my own House,” Lord Stannis promised. Then he turned to Jaime “You will remain at my side, and silent until everyone is gathered.”
Ser Jaime sneered at them all but did not argue. When he got close enough, Ser Barristan took his sword and belt dagger for himself. “You will not be needing these.”
Jon carefully laid Ser Barristan’s sword on a bench within the room. Ser Barristan had not done any more than his duty, but it was still evidence of a killing, just as Lord Tywin’s sword was. He followed the two older men out of the room. Under their watchful eyes, Jon secured the door and leaned on it to guard with Ghost at his side.
Lord Stannis nodded to him and led Lord Commander Barristan and Ser Jaime back down the stairs.
Jon let out a breath. His gamble had worked. Both better and worse than he had expected. However, all of this played out, nothing would ever be the same.
Ghost leaned on his thigh and gave him sympathetic eyes.
Jon desperately hoped King Robert did not decide to take Sansa as his bride. It would not make sense—she had not yet flowered and could not yet provide him an heir—but he was not sure that it would matter to the King. She was a Stark and Robert Baratheon had wanted a Stark woman in his bed for more than twenty years.
It was not long before he heard men stomping their way up the stairs.
Ser Rolland Storm nodded to Jon when he and a half dozen of Lord Stannis’s other men reached him. He kept a remarkably clear, calm face when Jon opened to door, allowing them to see the bodies inside, and Jon liked him just a little more than he had.
They had not spoken much over the course of the king’s visit. They might both be bastards, but Ser Rolland was a knight, and Jon was nothing other than a boy hated by his father’s wife. The difference in their ranks would have been enough to make Jon mindlessly jealous when he was actually the age he had appeared. Ser Rolland, of course, had to expect that and had accordingly kept his distance.
Still, they had crossed swords in the practice yard more than once and all up, Jon liked what he knew of the other baseborn.
They made quick work of loading the bodies onto the two stretchers Stannis had sent with his men. They did not remove the sword from Cersei’s body but they did fix her skirts. Tywin’s head went on his stretcher and they covered them both with blankets.
“What is the meaning of this?” King Robert was demanding when they entered the Great Hall together. “You have one of my Kingsguard—my good brother—shackled like a prisoner! My children are locked in their rooms! Explain yourself at once.”
“And yet the explanation presents itself,” Stannis waved them forward.
The four stretcher bearers laid their burdens before the king.
Kind Robert glared at his brother but heaved himself out of his chair to lift the drapery off of the first body to reveal Queen Cersei with her father’s sword in her breast. Gasps of shock resounded around the Great Hall.
King Robert pulled the drapery off the second body with less care. Lord Tywin’s head almost rocked off the stretcher with the force of it.
Jon knelt and laid Ser Barristan’s sword on Lord Tywin’s chest.
“What. Happened?” the king demanded.
When no one answered, Jon looked up to see King Robert staring down at him.
“I was leading your brother, Lord Stannis, to the top of the First Keep to see the view above the northern wall. Lord Tywin and Ser Barristan had decided to join us. Near the top, I heard a noise I could not identify where there should have been no noises at all.
“Lord Tywin seemed to recognize it. It made him furious and he kicked down the door to the nearby chamber.
“By the time Ser Barristan and I entered the room, Lord Tywin’s blade was in the Queen’s chest. Ser Barristan took Lord Tywin’s head in accordance with his just duties as a member of the Kingsguard, and… Ser Jaime was left with his cock out.”
“It is true, Your Grace. We were going to see the view from the top of the Keep and found Ser Jaime in sexual congress with his sister—your wife, Queen Cersei.”
Ser Barristan took a knee and bowed his head. “My king, it is true. I struck down Lord Tywin for attacking your queen, but I was too late to save her life. I failed you, my king.”
“Forget that,” King Robert spat. “Were they fucking?”
“Unfortunately,” Barristan sighed. “Yes, my king.”
The king turned his glare on Ser Jaime. “How long have you been fucking my wife?”
“For as long as I can remember,” Ser Jaime shrugged. Clearly, he knew he was going to die with his father already dead and saw no harm in being truthful. “Since we were little more than children.”
He did not volunteer the information Jon had saved him specifically to share, however. So, Jon did it for him.
“Are Queen Cersei’s children yours or King Robert’s?” Jon asked.
“What?” King Robert and Ser Jaime demanded together.
Jon gave King Robert wide eyes. “I— I was thinking about the Kingsguard’s vows.
“Protect the king from harm or threat,” Jon quoted. “He killed the first king he served so that is a failure to keep his vows.
“He holds no lands and as far as I know Ser Barristan had no complaints about his obedience before today so we can count those as kept, I suppose. But serve the king’s pleasure— It was not the king’s pleasure we caught him serving, that counts as a failure.”
“Clearly, a failure,” the king agreed.
“That leaves the fathering of children. If he has been laying with Queen Cersei their entire lives…”
“Well?” King Robert demanded of Jaime.
Jaime looked away.
“Your king asked you a question,” Ser Barristan rumbled threateningly. “Are you a Kingsguard or not?”
Jaime took a deep breath and nodded, still not looking at anyone. “Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen are mine. My children, my blood.”
“Rise, Snow,” the King ordered him, and he complied. “Come, be my Hand for a moment, my lord.”
Cautiously, Jon took the seat King Robert had patted with his right hand.
“What would you do with this mess?”
Jon took a moment to contemplate the question. “There are many issues before us. Clearly, Ser Barristan was simply doing his duty and did not senselessly murder the Lord of a Great House, but he is an honorable man. I would assure him that he did nothing wrong and that he maintains your trust to assuage his conscience.”
King Robert turned to Ser Barristan and gave him a nod. “Rise, Ser Barristan and stand with me. Here, on my left. Guard me, my most loyal knight.”
“Thank you, my King,” Ser Barristan rose and took the position as instructed.
“Second, Ser Jaime. Clearly, he has committed treason and broken his vows as a Kingsguard. You have little choice but to either take his head or send him to the Nights Watch.”
“If he cannot keep his vows as a Kingsguard, he will not keep them in the Watch,” King Robert argued.
“Perhaps, but once the vows of the Nights Watch are made, a man’s past dies and he begins anew so past broken vows and crimes will not matter. Nothing would count, so to speak, save keeping his vows to the Watch.” Jon glanced at his Uncle Benjen.
Benjen stepped away from the wall of the Great Hall. “My nephew speaks truly, Your Grace. With his skills and training, Ser Jaime would have a great deal to offer the Watch and if he decided to abandon his vow to the Watch…”
“Ned will be waiting to take his head,” King Robert agreed. “And the children?”
Jon hesitated. “Children do not ask to be born and they are not guilty of their parents’ crimes. However, we cannot allow any questions in regard to the Crown’s succession. I suggest we have them formally declared bastards, as that is what they are. Further, the boys should be given a choice—the Wall, the Citadel, or the Faith. Any of the three will allow them to live good lives, in service to the Realm, while removing all possible claim they might have to the Throne.”
“And the Princess? What of Myrcella?”
“Dead men cannot claim legitimized bastards, so we cannot legally make her Tywin’s child.” Jon considered the problem. “Unless she prefers to give herself to the Faith, I suggest we legitimize her as Lord Tyrion’s daughter and the heir to Casterly Rock.
“Despite his children’s crimes, it would be a mistake to set Lord Tywin’s Great House against the Crown. Making Myrcella the future Lady of Casterly Rock will keep the blood of the Lannister main line alive and in power, but we will betroth her to a loyal lad to end future rebellions before they begin. Ser Rolland Storm, perhaps. Or, if you prefer a boy of an age with her, my brother, Brandon Stark is not yet betrothed.”
“Lord Tyrion?” the king called.
The Imp left his seat and walked forward. He shook his head at his father and sister’s bodies before he met Jon’s gaze. “I take this to mean I am now Lord of the Rock and Warden of the West?”
“Lord of the Rock,” Jon agreed, “unless the King objects, of course. The rest, we shall see.”
They both looked to the king, but Robert just rolled his eyes and waved them off. They silently took that as agreement.
“Then, yes, I would agree to taking Myrcella as my legal issue and betrothing her—preferably to Brandon Stark. One legitimized bastard is quite enough in one marriage, I should think. As long as Lord Stark agrees that his son will take the Lannister name upon his marriage to my new daughter. All of this scheming to save House Lannister would be for not if the name changed to Stark in a few years.”
“I would agree to that. Your Grace?”
“Works for me,” Robert nodded. “Ned?”
The man that raised him stared at the king for an extended period before he nodded. “Robb is my heir. I have Rickon as the spare should our fates require it, and my wife is not yet past bearing. I agree to betrothing Brandon to Myrcella, daughter of Tyrion Lannister, on the condition that she will remain heir to Casterly Rock regardless of what other marriages or children Lord Lannister should have in the future.”
“Of course,” Lord Tyrion agreed easily. Jon assumed that ease related to the complete lack of interest Tyrion had shown in wedding the entire time Jon had known him.
“Will she foster in the North?” Lord Ned asked.
“I believe that is a matter for you and Lord Tyrion to discuss as fathers, Lord Stark,” Jon cut the conversation off before the king could get involved. “Personally, I would suggest retiring Myrcella to Casterly Rock under the care and tutelage of Ser Kevan while Bran remains in Winterfell for training until he is at least sixteen.”
“I take that to mean I will not be going back to the Rock?” Tyrion asked sassily.
“Do you want to go back to the Rock?”
“I am willing,” Lord Tyrion squinted at him. “But I am also curious to hear where else I might be that my uncle would take on the training of my heir. Surely a trip to the Wall will not take so long that I cannot see my own daughter comfortably home.”
“You would be in King’s Landing. Where else would the Hand of the King reside?”
“I am going to be Hand of the King?” Both of Tyrion’s eyebrows shot up in evidence of his amusement. “I suppose it would be the best service I could offer the Realm to save my family name from utter ruin.”
“You were trained by your father, who was the most successful Hand the Realm ever knew and you are twice as clever. And think, how furious would the Old Lion be to have his family nearly ruined by his Golden Son only to be saved by his Bane?”
Tyrion chuckled. “There is a certain…poetic justice in that.”
“I want Ned as my Hand,” King Robert objected.
“Winter is coming and soon,” Jon said as respectfully as he could. He did not want his father in King’s Landing. Not ever, if he could help it. “The only place the Lord of Winterfell goes in winter is further north. That is his first duty to the Realm. Even if he agreed and went south with you as your Hand, he would resign and return to the North before the first winter snows fell. History showed us that in Cregan Stark.”
Robert huffed but did not argue.
“And, think how much Cersei would hate Lord Tyrion being the Lannister. Her golden daughter going down in history as his. Him taking the place of her perfect father.”
King Robert chuckled.
“Is it not satisfying?”
“Alright, off with you,” the king waved him away. “Lord Tyrion, your chair his here.”
“My King,” Jon and Tyrion both bowed before exchanging positions.
“Well done, lad,” Lord Stannis told him as he drew close.
Another idea occurred to Jon and he turned back to the King. “What about Lord Tywin’s head?”
“What about it?” King Robert asked.
“I understand that you hate Targaryens in general and Prince Rhaegar in particular, but his wife was Princess Elia Martell of Dorne. Her children were of Dorne and Lord Tywin had them brutally murdered.
“What would you do, Lord Stannis, if a man had ordered such done to your wife and child as was done too Princess Elia and her children?”
“I would kill him,” Lord Stannis admitted for all to hear. “And all the men that participated in that vile act would either die or take the Black.”
“And would you ever let it go? If the man that ordered your family’s deaths still lived?”
“Not while I drew breath.”
“Historically, the relationship between the Crown and Dorne has never been as strong as the Crown’s relationships with the other Great Houses,” Jon said to King Robert directly. “The Stormlands’ relationship with Dorne is even worse. Lord Tywin’s head has already fallen, why not use it to buy good will with Dorne? We lose nothing in the attempt and what does Dorne value above family and revenge?”
“Nothing,” Lord Stannis agreed. “Brother, I suggest you take this course. The opportunity to strengthen the Peace of the Realm cannot be overlooked.”
“Lord Tyrion?” King Robert asked.
“While I find the practice of passing severed heads about like a holiday parcel to be barbaric, I cannot argue that Dorne does not cherish revenge. Or that strengthening the Crown’s bonds with Dorne would not be wise or good for the King’s Peace.”
“Do it,” Kind Robert waved at Tywin’s body. “Preserve it in something. Take the fastest ship. We want it recognizable when it gets there, or the gesture is lost.”
Stannis signaled several of his men to step forward. Ser Rolland Storm was the first to comply.
“If you were legitimate,” Stannis told him softly though his words still carried. “I would demand Lord Stark betroth you to my Shireen.”
“To the Seven Hells with that!” King Robert roared before Jon could make a smart remark about how his legitimacy would make him the heir of Winterfell and therefore not in any way eligible to wed the Lady Shireen. “Kneel, Snow!”
Startled, Jon knelt where he stood.
“And rise, Prince Jon of House Baratheon the first of your name, heir to the Iron Throne!”
Northern cheers echoed throughout the Great Hall as Jon stood and he one thought echoing through his head.
One word, really, and that word was fuck!
“Is anyone going to ask me if I want to go to the Wall?” Ser Jaime asked sardonically after the cheering subsided.
Jon almost laughed but the man had a good point. Part of the point of the sentence being laid the way it was, was in forcing Ser Jaime to choose his just desserts. “Very well, Ser Jaime. Do you want to go to the Wall?”
“What would you do if I said no?”
“As I am the one that laid the sentence, I would swing the sword. That is the way of the North.” Cheers of the Stark bannermen erupted at his words. “I would take out to the Judgement—”
“You and fifty of your father’s closest armsmen,” Ser Jaime offered.
Jon inclined his head. “—and I would claim your head for my new father, his majesty, King Robert Baratheon the First of his Name.”
“You steal my son’s crown and now you want to steal his father’s life?”
“I have stolen nothing. If you had not broken your vows, you would not be facing this choice. If you had not broken your vows, your son would not exist to suffer for your choices. Now. Are you going to the Wall or not, Ser Jaime?”
Ser Jaime stuck his chin out stubbornly and breathed so hard his nose flared but Jon just held his gaze. Eventually the Golden Lion nodded. “I will go to the Wall.”
Jon figured that if his sons went with him, Jaime might finally get to be a father to them, but he did not say that aloud. He knew that if he did, King Robert would demand Ser Jaime’s head immediately rather than allow him to claim such a reward. “Take him away.”
“That is my boy!” King Robert crowed uproariously. “Come! Sit with me! Ned, where is your Maester? We need formal proclamations! Letters sent to every Lord of every House! Everyone that matters.”
Jon approached his new father warily and gave him a respectful nod before sitting as instructed.
“He needs a new wardrobe! He must dress to his station. A personal sigil,” King Robert turned to focus on him. “What do you want for your personal sigil?”
Jon considered that. “Taking into account how your previous son draped himself in Lannister Lions—”
Robert snorted contemptuously and shouted for drink.
“—I think I should stick with our house sigil…Father, and simply change our House’s gold for Ghost’s white for my personal sigil.”
“To distance yourself from my false get.” King Robert pointed at him. “You are a smart one.”
“You seem to be leaving House Stark and the North behind rather easily,” Lord Tyrion offered from the far side of the king.
“I will never leave the North behind, Lord Tyrion.” Jon shook his head and held out his hand. Ghost silently stepped under his arm and Jon pulled him close. “It is the core of me. And the House Stark will walk with me all of my days, but I was raised the son of a Great Lord. I was raised to rule a Great House despite never being the heir. As a bastard, that would never be my fate.
“Is it so terrible a thing to want to use the training I have been given all of my life?”
Tyrion inclined his head and let the subject drop. He, of all people, had to understand where Jon was coming from. Being trained by Lord Tywin but never having the chance to rule the Rock had their fates not changed as they had.
“We will find you a good wife,” King Robert promised him. “The most beautiful in all the Seven Kingdoms that will give you a dozen healthy sons, I swear it. We will hold a tournament upon our return to King’s Landing.”
“Can we go to the Wall first?” Jon asked.
King Robert nearly choked on his drink. “Why in the Seven Hells would you want to go there?”
“I always expected I would go to the Watch,” Jon admitted. “I will not now, clearly, but it seems a waste to be so close to the Wall and never see it.”
“A waste to have lived in Winterfell all of your life and to have never seen it,” Lord Tyrion agreed.
“Alright,” King Robert agreed slowly. “We will escort Ser Jaime there. Ned will take us. Tyrion, we will sail back from the Wall to King’s Landing. Arrange it.”
“Yoren should be coming back through soon, Your Grace, he always stops at Winterfell,” Ned offered as he joined them. “He is a Wandering Crow responsible for seeing recruits to the Wall. Unless you would rather not wait, Benjen could see us to the Wall easily.”
King Robert snorted. “I am in no hurry to leave your warm halls, Ned. We will wait for this Yoren fellow. Jaime could use some time in your cells to adjust to the cold.
“Now, who wants to tell Cersei’s spawn the news?”
“Jaime should.” Jon had no idea why the words came out of his mouth, but he did not take them back. “Unless you want to do it, Lord Tyrion. But Ser Jamie is the one that wronged them, basically. And Stannis can watch over him, to keep Ser Jamie honest. He seems the most honest man in the Seven Kingdoms.”
“And we would know exactly what Jaime has told them with Stannis watching.” King Robert nodded. “Good thinking. Stannis! Get over here!”
“I would like to write a letter to House Martell,” Jon told his new father as they waited for his uncle to cross the hall. “To send with Lord Tywin’s head.”
“If you think you can make the Martells our friends, my blessings to you, my son.”
Jon nodded. He had a pretty good handle on what drove Prince Oberyn at least and Prince Oberyn was supposed to be Prince Doran’s most trusted. Bringing one of them closer to him should gain him ground with the other. Perhaps not as much as he would like, but certainly more than any other contender for the Iron Throne had ever had.
He took that as a dismissal and nodded to the gathered Lords and King as he went to find Maester Luwin. He had ideas for how he wanted several things phrased before he let them leave Winterfell.
If he was going to survive the game of thrones, he needed more pieces on the board and he needed them quick.
It had not even occurred to him to worry about how his family would react to the change in their circumstances, though it probably should have.
Lady Stark was perfectly polite but rigid with it. Every time she saw him, she would grit her teeth so hard he was surprised she did not render any of them to dust. He wondered how long it would take her to decide Jon Snow had died and Jon Baratheon was a completely different person.
Mayhap her Faith would give her some guidance, Jon rolled his eyes at himself.
Sansa had burst into tears when King Robert had made the official announcements over dinner that night. When Jon had sought her out to ensure her well-being, he had heard her crying that he had personally stolen her Sweet Prince and ruined everything to Jeyne Poole.
He had decided discretion was the better part of valor and left immediately.
Space was the best thing he could give her. He did not think she was foolish enough to risk a Kingsguard’s blade to hurl cruelty at him, but she had always followed her mother’s lead in disdaining him. He desperately did not want the change in his circumstances to damage a single one of the Starks in any real way.
Arya had just asked “You are going where?” so many times, he knew she was plotting to join him.
Not at the Wall, of course, she had no interest in going further north and their father would never allow it. But if she could, she would absolutely sneak into the Royal Procession when it headed south to King’s Landing. He very carefully did not mention that they were going to be sailing south from Eastwatch by the Sea.
What she did not know could not socially ruin her.
Bran had been thrilled about the idea of being a member of Jon’s Kingsguard right up until King Robert had gotten to the part about Bran being betrothed by royal decree to Lady Myrcella Lannister. A good king would never accept a betrothed man into his Kingsguard so that dream was lost to his brother.
Bran, at least, had not cried.
Rickon was a child and too young to understand what was going on, so that was a relief.
Ned Stark looked slightly sicker every time he saw Jon draped in more and more Baratheon symbols and goods. It took almost a week before he took Jon aside in the Godswood.
“Jon— Look— Your mother—”
“I know,” Jon cut him off before he could give voice to the words that would condemn them all. “I have known for a while.”
Jon gave the man that raised him a small smile. “I found a tomb in the crypt that did not match the others some time ago. It… answered most of my questions.”
“Most?” Lord Ned asked.
“I…” Shit, what questions could he ask about his parents? “Is his…instrument there?” Rhaegar’s harp had gone missing not long before his death, right? It would be a sure sign of his legitimacy if Jon showed up with it later. “Is there anything else that proves…everything?”
“Aye,” Ned looked relieved to admit it. “There are several artifacts that…prove everything. And letters between…the three adults. No one would believe it now, but everything was amicable between them. Your…the woman that should have been your stepmother was supportive of everything that was done.”
Jon blew out a relieved breath. That would make getting Dorne’s support easier.
“I cannot take it with me now,” he said.
“No,” Ned agreed. “But you could read it all on your next visit. Or we could bring it to you on your coronation.”
“That would be good.”
“Do your best, son,” Ned ordered. “Whatever you plan to do, do it the best you can.”
Since Jon’s mission, his entire reason for being alive right now, was dealing with corruption… “I will go down in history with Cregan Stark,” he swore. “Or I will die trying.”
Ned Stark bowed his head. “Long may you reign.”
Jon could not be fucked to ascertain Theon’s reaction. Theon had stolen and burned Winterfell. He had murdered Jon’s brothers. He was a betrayer—and a traitor’s hopes, dreams and opinions held no value to him.
Robb was silent on the matter of Jon’s ascension and he knew that meant his brother was furious. And probably confused which Jon knew would only make his fury stronger.
Jon could somewhat understand it.
Robb had always been the one of them that had everything. All the girls had wanted him, the future Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. He had had the brightest and most powerful future ahead of all of them with a partner of his dreams at his side while all Jon had had that set him apart was a fighting spirit and equal weapon’s proficiency with either hand.
Now, Jon had all Robb had been born with and more. Future king, Crown Prince of the Seven Kingdoms, the prospect of a beautiful bride of his choice…and he was now an even better swordsman thanks to his time spent on the Wall in another life.
It had to burn. Had to hurt. He just hoped he would not lose his brother’s love when it was all said and done.
Silence remained between them until the day they were leaving Winterfell. Jon was saddling his own horse—as he always had and always would—with Robb beside him and a Kingsguard not far away.
“My Sweet Prince,” he heard Sansa simper.
He looked up and caught Robb’s eye. Robb was trying desperately not to laugh. Together they leaned around the edge of their horses’ stalls to see Sansa holding a pathetic looking flower and fawning over Joffrey Hill.
Robb choked back several laughs as they rededicated their attention to the care of their mounts.
It was a foolish thing Sansa was doing but if their sister wanted to embarrass herself, the least they could do was minimize her audience.
Jon kept his focus on the grinning Robb as he waited for his brother to join him in the path between stalls. They were walking side by side out of the stable when they heard a resounding crack! And an enraged snarl.
When they saw her, Sansa was on the ground. She was holding one of her cheeks, crying and looking at Joffrey Hill in horror.
Lady leapt at the former prince and ripped off the hand that had harmed her bonded. Hill fell on his back in the mud. Lady would have attacked him again, but Ghost was there, shouldering his sister away from her prey and toward her master.
“Lady!” Sansa cried. “How could you!”
“Be grateful,” King Robert thundered over Joffrey’s caterwauling. “The old gods saw fit to give you a protector and ensured she was up to the task. The Seven have never bothered to protect a maiden from her would-be lover. You are lucky to have that wolf, girl.”
Sansa swallowed hard and nodded. Her wide, scared eyes never left the king.
Jon watched King Robert sneer down at his former son as he writhed in the mud. Joffrey was clutching his elbow. Lady had removed the hand that had harmed Sansa with extreme prejudice.
“No,” the king waved Maester Luwin off from Joffrey. “He broke Guest Right and struck your Lord’s daughter. He has no right to further hospitality from the House of Stark. Tend her.”
The entire party waited and observed King Robert as he watched Joffrey Hill die, crying, in the mud.
Jon tried to not take it as an omen of what was coming for him. King Robert would surely enjoy watching him die slowly just as much as he was enjoying Hill’s death—if he ever came to know Jon’s true parentage.
When Joffrey was no longer moving, King Robert turned his back on the corpse. “Move out.”
Jon looked around the courtyard. Sansa was staring at Joffrey’s still form. Lady Myrcella was crying silently into Tommen Hill’s shoulder. The Hound had his helm down—Jon would bet it was hiding a smirk. He was now standing at Tyrion Lannister’s shoulder, clearly having gone from Joffrey’s to his lord’s personal guard.
Everything else was what Jon would expect from the King’s Company preparing to leave.
Stannis was already in the saddle, reading some correspondence.
Lord Stark was fare-welling with Lady Stark. The younger Stark children were not in sight, locked away in the Great Hall so as to not get underfoot to the sheer number of guards and wheelhouses in the Yard and spilling out of the Northern Gate.
“Stark, with me,” he ordered as he mounted.
“Of course, my prince,” Robb agreed easily. They mounted their horses together and rode out to where Uncle Benjen was waiting at the head of the host. Ghost and Grey Wind flanked them, making the southern horses more than a little nervous.
“My prince,” Uncle Benjen nodded in greeting as they rode up and Jon rolled his eyes. “Robb.”
“Uncle Benjen,” they both greeted.
“How many recruits are we taking to the Wall with us?” Jon asked.
“More than we think, I would guess. We have a traitor from the Westerlands, and Yoren found a pair of young rapists in the Fingers. We also have a would-be bard and the former heir of Horn Hill somewhere around here.”
Jon did his best to not react to the mention of his old friend Sam. “That was more than you expected?”
“I have gotten some pointed questions about the Watch from a number of Lannister armsmen,” Benjen admitted. “Whether they wish to accompany Ser Jaimie or simply refuse to serve Lord Tyrion and Lady Myrcella is anyone’s guess.”
“No one has spoken ill of Bran?” Robb checked.
“Are any of them recently missing teeth?” Benjen asked dryly. Jon snorted and Benjen shot him a grin. “Not where I could hear them, Robb.”
“Which makes them at least smart enough to recognize a Stark when they see one,” Jon remarked.
“Better than many recruits the Watch has taken in recent years,” Benjen japed.
A Kingsguard, Ser Meryn Trant, was the first to join them at the head of the column. Jon did not trust him at all and ordered him to ride ahead of him rather than linger behind. He rather hoped Trant would join Ser Jaime in his exile and wondered idly if his loyalty to Queen Cersei had been purchased with the same currency that had bought Ser Jaime’s.
Samwell drifted their way next, mounted of a fine red destrier that he was not horseman enough to control. Jon expected it was another incident of mockery and pointless pride from Lord Randyll Tarly.
Ghost, luckily, was horseman enough to manage the beast for Sam and kept the horse on the other side of Jon from Robb more often than not.
Tommen Hill eventually joined them, too. When he was not lingering outside the wagon cage that held his father and the two rapists.
“The Wall is no place to show fear,” Jon cautioned both young men on the third day of their ride. His uncle did not naysay him, so Jon assumed he agreed. “It is just another settlement. Yes, it is colder than most and only walled on the one side, but the Keeps of the Watch need everything any other settlement in the Seven Kingdoms needs. Maesters, septons, sailors. Cooks, blacksmiths, clerks. Not everyone in the Watch ranges beyond the Wall.”
“We all have to learn to fight though,” Sam said morosely.
“Well, yes,” Jon agreed sympathetically. That was the part Sam had never been good at anyway.
“Septons?” Tommen asked, looking interested for the first time. “I always figured I would…when my brother took the throne, I mean, that I would go to the Faith or the Citadel.”
“You still can,” Jon encouraged him. “You will simply have to return to the Wall where your father will be waiting. No other maester gets that kind of guarantee about where they will serve, you know.”
“Huh,” Tommen retreated into himself, thinking.
He was a thoughtful lad and if Jon could maneuver him into taking Sam’s path from that other life, well, he would feel less guilty about taking Sam directly into his service.
“Why are you going to the Wall?” Jon asked Sam as Tommen drifted back toward his father. “If you do not mind me saying so, you do not— uh.”
“I am not exactly the type,” Sam said with a mournful look down at his belly. “I wanted to become a Maester, but…”
Jon tipped his head in question. “Why do you not go to the Citadel? That seems like a much better fit for you from what I have seen of you. Especially if it is what you want for yourself.”
“My father was horrified by the idea of a member of his House wearing a Maester’s chain when I told him of my dreams. He told me I had go to the Night’s Watch or I would have a hunting accident because I was not fit to be his heir.”
“But if you wore a Maester’s chain, you would not be a member of his House,” Jon said puzzled.
Sam rolled his eyes. “I know that.”
“If your father kicked you out, then why should he maintain any say in what you do with your life any longer? If you are no longer his heir, you are no longer his son and his authority over you has ended. You should choose to do what you want to do.”
“I could not. I— He is my father, I— How could I pay to live in Oldtown until I had been accepted as an acolyte without his support? How could I even get there? I have no inheritance, no support of my House. I have no choice but to go to the Watch.”
“I will pay,” Jon said dismissively. He had inherited all the crown funds set aside for Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen. He had felt a little guilty for it when Tyrion had given him his ledgers but now, he was glad of it. “And you will become my personal Maester when you are done. I will write the Citadel myself to see it so.”
“I could not ask for that!” Samwell objected.
“You are not asking, I am offering. Aegon the First and his sister wives each had a Maester in their service during the Conquering. As King, he had as many as six Maesters in his service at a single time—not including the Grand Maester—and I can see the wisdom in it. The Grand Maester is sworn to serve the Realm, but that does not guarantee his loyalty to the king and royal family.
“Compared to them, I do not think a single personal Maester is not too much to claim for myself.”
Sam looked at him with both hope and fear. “Your personal Maester…”
“My personal Maester,” Jon agreed. “Not the Grand Maester, of course. What I have in mind is not what the Grand Maester is, and I will respect the Citadel’s and the Realm’s traditions as King—but I want no one I cannot be sure is loyal to me first touching myself or my Queen. Or any of our children.”
“It would be an honor,” Sam gushed.
Jon raised a mostly patient eyebrow at Sam.
“But…my father…he wanted—”
Jon sighed. “Spend some time as a recruit to the Night’s Watch so you can say you tried, if you feel you must. You are a volunteer so you can back out at any point until you give your oath. When you realize your place is in my household and not the Wall, I will send you south with Lord Lannister and Lady Myrcella.”
“You seem very confident this is going to work out the way you want it to,” Sam observed.
“I am,” Jon admitted. “I have to be.”
“Then…” Sam said slowly. “I suppose I better study Healing while I am about it.”
“Not for your first link. Choose something that will give you time to adapt to your new surroundings for the first one.” Jon cautioned. “History, perhaps. Or Mathematics. Or Economics.”
“Not math, surely,” Sam said aghast. “Not at first.”
Jon laughed. “Law would perhaps be wise. For a member of a royal household.”
“Of course, Your Grace.”
“And be sure to take things you will enjoy. Music, magic, alchemy, poisons, metal working, whatever.”
Sam waved his hands and gave a silent scream of delight.
“And, whatever you do, do make sure your father knows that the Crown’s trust in you has absolutely nothing to do with him.”
“You do not like Ser Meryn,” King Robert observed to Jon over luncheon. The King had taken to breakfast with Tyrion, lunch with Jon, and dinner with Ned. It was a relief to not have to attend the Usurper for every meal.
“I cannot say I do,” Jon admitted.
“How did he not know about Queen Cersei and Ser Jaime? How did any of them not know? Is it truly that they did not know, or did they simply not say?
“Clearly, Ser Barristan did not know—his reaction to finding out made that entirely clear—but he is Lord Commander. You are his primary charge and when he is not with you, he is overseeing the Red Keep’s security and guard schedules. He is responsible for his brothers’ training and the like. The rest of them have never had his concerns and should have seen something.”
“Hmm,” King Robert considered that. “Ser Meryn did guard Cersei almost as much as Jaime.
“You are quite…paranoid.”
“I told Lord Stark I intended to make Cregan Stark look like an amateur. While I am not Hand of the King—”
“You were,” King Robert interjected. “I have already ordered Lord Tyrion to ensure you are entered into the history of the Hand as the youngest Hand to ever serve.”
“With the shortest tenure of any Hand in history.” Jon shook his head.
“And yet you prevented at least one war and canceled the several million of the Crown’s debt during your time in service.”
“Several million?” Jon frowned. “What?”
“Lord Tyrion agreed to cancel Our debt to the Lannisters. He said the funds in question were clearly the False Queen’s living expenses and a Lannister problem clear through.”
“Exactly. What were you saying about Cregan Stark?”
“He cleaned up a great deal of corruption in King’s Landing in mere days as Hand of the King at the end of the Dance of Dragons,” Jon said, relieved to get back on subject. “I intend to do the same. Perhaps not in days. I do not expect the treasons miring your Crown to be as obvious as the ones around that made themselves evident toward the end of the Dance of Dragons, but I intend to live long enough to make it happen and that means I need to be on guard.”
“And you need reliable guards.” King Robert scratched his chin. “More guards. Solution?”
“Why is the Kingsguard only seven men?” Jon asked.
“Because of the Andals and their Faith,” King Robert raised a single doubtful eyebrow and he was right, that answer was obvious.
“But you are not just King of the Andals,” Jon countered. “You are king of the Rhyonar, the Andals, and the First Men. Seven is the sacred number of the Andals but three and four have the most value to First Men. Nine, to the Rhyonar. If we increased the Kingsguard to twenty-seven, it would represent all of Westeros and give Ser Barristan the people he needs to guard you and I, my future wife and your future grandchildren properly.”
“Seven is still in the name for the Andals. Twenty-seven is a factor of nine for the Rhyonar, and three threes of three give three and four to the First Men.”
“I must be more drunk than I thought,” King Robert muttered. “Three threes of three is four?”
“The phrase uses the word three three times, that is the fourth three.”
“The Faith will not like it.”
“The Faith represents a fraction of your kingdom. Unless you plan to keep discounting Dorne and the North like the Targaryen kings did?”
“It would bring the North further into the fold,” King Robert sat back in his chair, looking at Jon like he was not sure what to make of him. “And Dorne, of course.”
“Of course. It would strengthen the King’s Peace and anyone that objected to it would be insulting the North and Dorne.”
King Robert chuckled meanly at that. “Ser Barristan!”
The Lord Commander ducked into the pavilion, “My king?”
“Bring Lord Tyrion, we have something to discuss, the four of us. Let us include Ned and Stannis as well. Get everyone’s opinion at once.”
“At once, Your Grace,” Ser Barristan bowed and left the tent.
Jon took a careful breath, held it, and released. He had taken a handful of steps to shake the Faith’s grip on various followers including his sister, but this was his most daring strike at the Faith’s hold on the throne yet. He was confident in its success and he knew at least Lord Stark would back him for true. Even if his father did not quite know what he was about, Lord Stark would trust him enough to go along with it and Lord Stark’s agreement would be enough to sway the King.
Returning to the Wall should not have felt like coming home but it did, and he hated it. Even with the traitors he could see walking around, it felt more like home than Winterfell.
It was intolerable.
Thankfully, King Robert drew all the attention. All focus was all on him, everyone moved with him…but then he retired to the Lord Commander’s solar with Lords Stark and Lannister and attention returned to Jon.
There were just too many questions about an obvious Stark wearing a Stark-style cloak with doublet covered in Baratheon details and a Baratheon Banner over his head.
“Place to hide?” he asked Uncle Benjen before the sneak could escape.
Benjen smirked at him, “The rookery.”
Seriously? In a cloak with white fur across his shoulders? He gave Benjen the look his suggestion deserved.
Benjen laughed and pointed to the right staircase. “The Maester’s Keep is underneath it. No one goes there without direct orders.”
Benjen stepped forward. “Alright, you lot. Ser Alliser, the recruits are yours. Everyone, you know your assignments. Let us not dawdle with the King watching. You there—!” Benjen marched forward, drawing focus with him.
Jon made haste. He did not need a sign from the old gods or the new to see that he had been given exactly what he had asked for.
He closed the door to the Maester’s Keep behind him and came face to face…with the only other living Targaryen in Westeros. Maester Aemon looked exactly like Jon had last seen him. Small, old, and frail…but surprisingly powerful at the same time.
Mayhap it was just the knowledge he now had about who Maester Aemon really was, but he felt a connection to the ancient Maester. The Son of Maekar the First. A man that would have been king had life been even a little different.
“Maester Aemon,” he greeted.
Brows furrowed about clouded eyes as the Maester focused on him. “You know my name and yet I do not know your voice.”
“I am Jon Snow— Jon Baratheon. Prince, King Robert’s new heir.”
“Yes, we received the proclamation.” Maester Aemon nodded. “Come, sit with me. How can I be of service, my Prince?”
“I am looking for information about dragonglass. There are rumors of its uses in the North but I would like to see them confirmed or denied, if I can.”
“My library is not terribly extensive, but I will help as I can,” Maester Aemon promised. “What rumors do you mean, your Grace?”
“About White Walkers,” Jon said. “About the dead walking. And about dragonglass and flame putting them down. Sending them on to true death.”
“I can see why you would believe my library could help but I am surprised a prince would be interested in the affairs of the Wall.”
“If the dead are walking as the deserter Lord Stark slew said, that is all of the living’s affair, not merely the Wall’s. It means Winter is coming and we all need to be wary.”
“As you say, my Prince.” Maester Aemon patted around blindly to find a book. When he found the one that he was looking for, he pulled it off the shelf and handed it directly to Jon. “That should be a good place for you to get started. Let me know if you have any questions.”
“Of course.” Jon was not the fastest of readers, but he could read.
He could not focus, however. He knew this man. He knew all he had had, all he had lost, all the world had taken from him. And Jon himself was a piece of all that back even though Maester Aemon knew it not. And he was in a position to get more of all that Maester Aemon’s family had lost back than the old man could ever hope to dream.
Hope. It was one of the most important things a man needed. Something he could clutch to get him through even the coldest winter.
“Maester Aemon.” Jon set aside the book and moved onto the Maester’s own bench. “I would have you see me.”
“That would be a trick!” Maester Aemon japed even as Jon took his hands and placed them on his face. “I have not seen anything since…” The old man went speechless as he ran his fingers gently over Jon’s eyes, taking in the shape of them. Then he went down his chin, scraping his fingers into the beginnings of Jon’s beard to find his true jawline.
“I am black of hair and purple of eye,” he admitted so softly only the Maester could hear him. “A purple so dark, most call it black.”
The Maester took a deep shaky breath and pulled him closer.
“My father was Rhaegar Targaryen,” Jon admitted directly to the Maester’s ear. “My mother was Lyanna Stark, Prince Rhaegar’s second legal spouse. She named me Aegon Targaryen. I am the seventh of my name and King Robert Baratheon has named me his heir.
“I will reclaim the throne for our family.” He pressed a kiss the old man’s wrinkled brow. “You are not alone.”
Maester Aemon dropped his head to Jon’s shoulder.
And he wept.
Jon was in the yard sparring under the watchful eyes of King Robert—honestly, he was doing nothing more or less than kicking the shite out of Sam’s bullies—when the horn went off once, signaling the return of rangers.
Several of the men around them started rushing about, shouting for the gate to be opened
Jon…was confused. Uncle Benjen was up on the walk with the Lord Commander, Lord Stark, and King Robert. Jafer Flowers and Othor—the men that had been returned to the Watch as wights in his last life—were alive and waiting in line for their chance to face him. He could not recall any other rangings that had gone out around this time in his last life and he had heard no talk of missing rangers on this visit.
Not that he necessarily would hear such gossip as heir to the Seven Kingdoms, but still.
He signaled for Sam to stand behind him as two riderless horses came stamping into the courtyard of Castle Black. The horses were panicked, lathered with their eyes rolling in distress. It took several men to gain control of each beast.
Two bodies were hooked to the horses by ankles in stirrups as though they had fallen off of their mounts but there was not enough damage done to their clothes or bodies for them to have been dragged a long distance. Even the softest snow damaged flesh that was drug over it for miles.
Both Ghost’s and Grey Wind’s hackles went up, they growled in menacing duality after a single sniff of the bodies.
That and the telltale blue cast to the skin had Jon saying, “We must burn them. Now. Immediately.”
“Aye,” Robb agreed. “Where is the oil? And we need wood…”
“We cannot just burn them,” Ser Alliser disagreed. “That was Ser Waymar Royce, we need to know what killed him.”
“That was Gared,” Jafer Flowers added. “Were they not out on a ranging?”
“They were,” Uncle Benjen agreed, coming to look at the bodies. “Why are they blue? That is not the blue of frostbite, what is that?”
“A reason to burn them,” Jon insisted. “The direwolves do not like it and they are from beyond the Wall. That should tell you all you need to know.”
“I am sorry, Jon,” Benjen shook his head. “We will not always have a direwolf around to make judgements for us about such things. We need to learn everything we can about this for the safety of our rangers when they go out. We will burn them after Maester Aemon has had his say.”
“Keep them under guard at least,” Jon insisted.
“They are dead men, Jon. This is not one of Old Nan’s tales, the Dead cannot harm the living.”
But the Dead could harm the living and that was exactly what Jon was afraid of.
Since the Night’s Watch would not set a guard, Jon did. Once night had fallen and Maester Aemon had retired for the night, Jon set up his vigil over the Dead with Sam and Ghost at his side. Ser Boros Blount of the Kingsguard stood outside the door.
“Your Grace?” Ser Boros called as he opened the door. “Lord Commander Mormont has come to speak with you.”
“Let him in.” Jon sighed.
Ser Boros opened the door and leaned on it, forcing the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch to pass him to enter.
Jon stood and put down the dragonglass dagger he had been fingering. “How can I help you, Lord Commander?”
Mormont stared down at the bodies of his fallen men for several moments before turning to Jon. “I was hoping you could tell me more about—”
Ghost growled and Ser Boros shouted. Jon looked up to see the dead Ser Waymar Royce standing behind the Lord Commander with blue glowing eyes. Jon pulled Mormont behind him with one hand and unsheathed his sword with the other. Ser Boros drew his sword and squared off with Gared on the far side of the table.
Just like the first time he had faced down a wight in his other life, he chopped off bits but the Dead kept coming. Ser Boros got in two death blows—the second time he decapitated his foe—and the Dead still kept coming.
“Ah!!” Sam screamed as he charged what was left of Ser Waymar with Jon’s own dragonglass dagger and sunk it into Ser Waymar’s brain through his empty eye socket.
The knight’s blue glowing eye went out like a snuffed candle and the body fell to the ground.
Jon pulled his dagger out of the formerly animated corpse and threw it at Gared as Ghost kept the sword in the dead man’s hand from ending the life of the Kingsguard. He caught Gared in the spine. The body straightened like in shock, then crumpled lifelessly to the floor.
“Can we burn them now?” Jon demanded.
Sam giggled, more than a little inappropriately, and slapped a hand over his own mouth the stifle it but Jon ignored him. The shock of the Dead trying to kill you and managing to re-kill the Dead was significant.
Jon turned to face Mormont. The Lord Commander was staring down at the body of Ser Waymar like he was not quite sure what had just happened. It was not the way he had reacted last time…but last time they had had too many reports of walking dead to not be prepared for anything long before the dead had come to kill Mormont. The man had not had the time to brace himself this time.
“The Dead, walking. Yes, Ser Boros.”
“Helped kill a wight,” Jon confirmed again. “Which brings us back to my original point. Burning them. Preferably before we find out whether or not dragonglass is a permanent death for those already dead.
Grey Wind came skidding into the room with Robb and Lord Stark on his heels, swords drawn.
Lord Stark took it all in in a single glance and gave Jon an approving nod. “I will have the men gather wood and oil. Lord Commander?”
“Yes, Lord Stark. Immediately. Your son was right… Your son was right.”
“Sam, get the Lord Commander to his solar,” Jon ordered. “And perhaps some mulled wine? Discretely, if you please.”
“Of course, Your Grace.”
“Can we…touch them?” Ser Boros asked.
Jon considered that. He did not think wights could be made by contact but he did not know what kind of information the Others could get from their reanimated minions. Or when they stopped getting that information.
“Gloves,” Jon decided. “And we will carry them in blankets that we will burn them in.”
“I will update your orders,” Ser Boros volunteered. “If—”
Jon waved him off. “The sooner we get them burned to ash, the safer we will all be.”
Ser Boros nodded and left the room.
Sam escorted the Lord Commander out behind him. They were doing a remarkable job of acting unaffected.
“How did you know?”
Jon turned and looked down to see Lord Tyrion lingering in the doorway.
“How did you know they were not frostbitten or the like?”
“It will sound cliché,” he offered then continued once Tyrion nodded. “But Winter is Coming. I have heard the stories all my life but never have I lived through one. Winter hits nowhere in the Seven Kingdoms harder than it does the Wall. I have spent the last several days reading everything Maester Aemon has of Winter, wights, and the Great Other until even Ghost grew tired of me.”
“And what did you learn?”
“There is a type of Winter called the Long Night where the Great Other rises to…destroy everything. The Others and their minions are killed with fire, dragonglass, and dragonsteel—not that I know what that is.”
“Valyrian steel,” Tyrion guessed. “Dragonsteel is perhaps an older name for Valyrian steel.”
“So Valyrian steel is older than Valyria?” Jon asked.
“Yes?” Lord Tyrion raised an eyebrow.
“So, we do not require Valyrians or Valyrian dragons to make more?”
“We still need the method of its creation. I know of smiths that can reforge Valyrian steel but none that can cast anew.”
“I am sure my new uncle will allow me access to the ancient tombs on Dragonstone,” Jon offered. Lord Tyrion inclined his head in agreement. “And I have a man I will be sending to the Citadel; he can check their records when he gets there.”
“Has he agreed to go to the Citadel?” Lord Tyrion asked, one eyebrow raised.
“Do you honestly think he will be able to resist?” Jon asked in return. “After all of this?”
Lord Tyrion chuckled. “Probably not.
“I take it I will be taking him south with me on my way to Casterly Rock?”
“I was going to wait until he actually agreed to ask such of you but that was my intent, yes,” Jon admitted.
Men came in with sheets and gloves to move the bodies of their fallen brothers and Jon watched to make sure nothing was left behind. By the time they had the bodies down to the courtyard, Lord Stark’s men had built a sizeable pyre.
Both men were added to the wood, covered in oil, and ignited.
Jon had to blink to focus. “Yes, fa—Lord Stark.”
“Go to bed, lad. A bath is waiting for you in the King’s Tower. Wash off the Dead and get some sleep. You have more than earned it.”
Jon nodded and turned toward the correct tower.
Lord Stark’s hand dropped heavily on his shoulder. “You believed when no one else did, you saw what everyone else refused to see, and you acted even when everyone else thought it was pointless. You saved Castle Black and all of our lives. I am proud of you, my son.”
“Thank you, father.”
“Well,” Lord Commander Mormont greeted him gruffly as he settled into the chair behind his desk the next morning. “I see no reason to dance around it. I owe you my life, my prince. My first instinct is to give you my family sword Longclaw to pay the debt but from what my maester tells me, Winter is coming and I will have more need of it than you when it gets here.
“But that leaves the question, how can I clear the debt between us?”
Jon took a moment to answer. He had known the one thing he wanted from the Lord Commander before he had even left Winterfell. He had a command from a god to fulfill and if he was going to kill the Bloodraven, he had to get beyond the Wall—something only the Lord Commander could grant him leave to do.
But he wanted the man to believe he had put adequate thought into his request so he took another moment, then he answered.
“I have two propositions. One would clearly be a favor to me, something you would not usually give. The other would be a favor to the both of us so I do not believe would settle the debt though it could be a start.”
“And that is?”
“Your Maester Aemon. He is an elderly man and a gifted storyteller with more knowledge in his head than any five men in the south.”
“And…?” Lord Commander Mormont drawled impatiently.
“I would like to make him part of my household. I will be travelling all over the south, getting to know the other kingdoms beyond the North. If he comes with me as a wandering crow, he will have access to the noblest of Houses. More, he will have access to their children. He can use his storytelling abilities to weave tales of the great heroes of the Watch. He can plant the idea of the Watch as necessary and heroic. With this, I believe, we can raise up future generations of lords that see the Watch as more than a convenient way to avoid losing your head.
“Lords that grow up thinking of the Night’s Watch as an honorable pursuit are more likely to send support—in people, goods, or both—to the Wall. We can create generations of men that are more likely to come themselves to serve. And once we convince the highborn of this, the belief will find its way down to the lowborn.
“It is a long-term project, but I believe it could achieve long term, possibly permanent improvement in the Watch’s manpower and supplies.”
“And all I have to give up is my maester,” Mormont shot him a sardonic look.
“Keep him until I send you another,” Jon shrugged like he was not entirely invested in getting the only other Targaryen in Westeros somewhere he could personally keep watch over him. “From the rumors I hear, Grand Maester Pycelle needs some help keeping his vows. If the charges prove themselves true, the Wall would be the perfect place to help him remember them seeing as you have an utter dearth of whores available.”
Mormont chuckled darkly and nodded. “Aye, that would do, lad. You send me a maester to take the Black and I shall send Maester Aemon to join your household as a wandering crow. All the gods know the warmth of the South will only be good for his health. It would be an honorable way I could help his old bones live longer.”
“That was the joint favor,” Mormont said bluntly. “What is the one directly to you?”
“I want to go beyond the Wall.”
“Are you mad?” Mormont demanded. “With what we know is out there? Why?”
“I have a bond I cannot explain with a direwolf,” Jon admitted.
The Lord Commander set back heavily in his chair as the full meaning of the statement hit him. “You are a warg.”
“I believe so, but it is not like anyone here in the south can tell me of what I am or teach me how to manage the bond. Some nights—most nights—I run in Ghost’s body. I hunt in Ghost’s body and I know my siblings do the same with their direwolves. The bond is powerful, seductive. And it gets harder to leave every time.
“What if one of us does not come back?” he asked in a small voice.
“You need training.” Jeor Mormont frowned at him. “All of Lord Stark’s children do.”
“There is one, Haggon. He is a warg that lives beyond the Wall, just beyond Whitetree. He is a friend of the Watch and if you can find him—and if he’s willing—I will allow him south of the Wall. Only him and his bonded beasts, lad—to go to Winterfell and teach your siblings.”
“Thank you, Lord Commander.”
Mormont waved him off. “It is nothing more than you are owed.
“I will give the First Ranger his orders. You leave in two days and you may bring a dozen of your own men with you. Choose carefully.”
“Good morning!” Sam greeted him, pulling the curtains on the windows to let the sunlight wake him the next morning.
Jon stared, more than a little dumbfounded at his friend flicking about, neatening his quarters as if he was some sort of page. “Sam.”
Sam turned to flutter nervously, now in one place while focused on Jon. “Yes, Your Grace?”
“Are you not supposed to be doing…” he was not sure, actually, what Sam’s entire training schedule with the Watch was this time. Or what time it was. “…weapon’s training?” he hazarded. The gods old and new knew that weapons were Sam’s weakest area.
“You mean, getting my bum flattened?”
Jon shrugged and started crawling out of bed. It was not like Sam was wrong in his assessment.
“After breakfast this morning, I told the Lord Commander that I had decided to swear myself into your service.” Sam handed him a robe. Jon nodded his thanks and pulled it on. “I explained to him that I had to think it through thoroughly because I knew you would want me to, and I came to the decision it was the right thing to do. He said that after the night before last, he understood, and then he wished me luck.”
“Swear?” Jon had not asked Sam for any vows. Well, other than maester’s vows but Sam had all but chosen those for himself already.
Sam suddenly went down on one knee. “Prince Jon Baratheon, born Jon Snow, and whatever future names or titles you will hold, I, Samwell—born of House Tarly—swear to you my unending loyalty, honesty, and trust from this day until my last day.”
“And I,” Jon took Sam’s hands and pulled him to his feet, “promise you my trust and protection. I swear my honesty too but know that I cannot promise you my full disclosure for some secrets are too dangerous to share.”
“Do you have any of those?” Sam asked curiously.
“I am a prince, am I not?” Sam gave him wide, surprised eyes and Jon led him over to a side table set with a selection of fruits and meat. “But I do promise to give you the information you need as it becomes relevant, if I have it. To that end, I have something to tell you that I have told no one and that I expect no one but you to know until I tell them.”
“Of course,” Sam agreed.
Jon indicated the chair across from him and Sam obediently took it. “I… died,” he admitted. It was a hard thing to get out despite the fact that he had no intention of giving Sam the full story.
“Jon?” Sam frowned.
“I died,” he repeated more strongly. “Alone, in the snow, in the North. It was…cold. And bright. And…I saw visions.”
“The Seven gave me a mission, Sam.”
“But you do not believe in the Seven, my prince,” Sam objected.
“As I was informed by the Father himself, gods exist whether mortals believe in them or not.” Jon smiled when Sam laughed. “They told me that their Faith is corrupt and in league with the Citadel. Their combined machinations could end the Realms of Man.”
Sam’s quick mind landed on the weirdest conclusion, as usual. “They cannot be in league with the Dead, Jon. They cannot!”
“No, I do not believe they are but their quest against magic can erode our defenses against the Dead. The Wall is magic as much as it is ice and stone. It cannot stand without one of the three. What would happen if it fell soon, with the Dead on the other side?”
Sam swallowed hard. “What are you going to do?”
“There is a man beyond the Wall that I have been specifically ordered to kill.”
“Beyond the Wall? How are you going to find anyone beyond the Wall?” Sam demanded. “How are you going to get there?”
“Ask me questions I can answer,” Jon answered sardonically. “Lord Commander Mormont has granted me a ranging so I can at least get beyond the Wall and has given me leave to take a dozen men with me.
“After I return from that, I will figure out what to do about corrupted clergy. But you—I want you to be careful in the Citadel. You will be accompanied to the Citadel by a messenger that will be carrying letters about what we have seen—my letter is written and I will be asking the Lord Commander Mormont of the Watch and Ser Boros of the Kingsguard to write as well. I do not want you involved in that mess though, not unless you are directly questioned on the matter.”
“Alright,” Sam nodded. “I will stay out of it.”
“We need to learn how to make Valyrian steel. It can kill the dead as thoroughly as dragonglass but is nowhere as fragile. And perhaps wildfire would be useful since Westeros has a distinct lack of dragons.”
“Is that because of…them too?” Sam asked, softly horrified.
Jon shot him a sardonic look. “What do you think?”
“By the gods!” Sam clutched his own cheeks. “Can you prove it?”
“No. At least, not yet, but you might be able to with where you are going.”
“Alright.” Sam swallowed hard and nodded. “What else do I need to know?”
“You will need to study healing, of course. We already discussed you being my family’s private healer…unless my future wife hires her own maester and then the two of you will work out your duties together.”
“Right.” Sam agreed.
“You will need ravenry. I want you to be responsible for all of my correspondence. Or to personally choose and train someone else to do it, if that becomes your preference. And, of course, I want you to study masteries of your choosing. I do not want this position to be all work for you. I wish for you to find some joy in it as well.”
“I will choose things that I enjoy as well as things you will need as my king,” Sam assured him. “For now, you need to go choose who is going on this ranging with you.”
Jon chose as carefully as he could.
Once he convinced King Robert and Lord Stark they could not go—thankfully Lord Tyrion had not even pretended to want to come—they had both demanded he take Lord Stannis with him. Since Jon knew for a fact that Stannis could handle himself beyond the Wall, he did not object too hard. Instead, he gave the man leave to choose four of his own knights to come with them.
Robb—as his fellow warg and one that actually needed training—had to come beyond the Wall as well.
King Robert also ordered him to take two Kingsguard with him. Jon chose Ser Boros Blount—who was still looking at him like the Last Hero come again—and Ser Mandon Moore. Mostly because they were terrible people that had beaten his sister while she had been a helpless captive in King’s Landing in Jon’s other life, but also because they had been dishonorable enough to laugh when Ser Barristan had been unjustly stripped of his Kingsguard cloak in front of the entire Lannister-Baratheon Court.
Jon would not mourn them if they did not survive the trip beyond the Wall, but he also had not spoken out against them as he had Ser Meryn Trant. His new father would have no cause to wonder if Jon had not done as much as he could to bring them back with him if they fell beyond the Wall and their only value to him was as additional bodies between Robb and the Dead.
Jon would sacrifice every one of the men coming with him if he had to, to ensure his brother made it home alive. Up to and including Lord Stannis. Choosing men that he would not mourn—such as Ramsay Snow, one of his father’s suggestions—would make the sacrificing of them less onerous.
He would see their bodies burned, if he could. If it was at all possible.
Benjen—Jon hoped he would not have to sacrifice his uncle to protect Robb though he would. Benjen picked his own dozen Rangers to go with them and Jon did not know if it was a good thing or not that Othor and Jafer Flowers were not included.
Lord Tyrion graciously gifted his entire supply of dragonglass to the Watch and it took an extra day to get enough of them shaped into daggers, one for each member of his party, but Jon had felt that the delay was worth it.
When they finally rode out of Castle Black, Jon, for one, refused to look back.
He had a job to do even though he had no idea how he was going to find the Smith’s Raven bastard. He did not even know where to look for the man. He rather hoped the Smith look some pity on him, but he did not bother to pray for it.
Gods would do as they wanted because that was what they did.
Still, they had a short-term mission ahead of them. Find Haggon, beyond Whitetree.
“It does not look that different,” Robb remarked idly. “I thought the great Beyond the Wall would look different. It just looks like more of the North.”
“Aye, nephew. It is more of the North,” Benjen agreed. “But below the Wall there is more green and growing things than you will find up here. The snow fades even less here than it does down there. Trees grow and bear fruit while covered in snow. Animals breed and bear young in fields of ice. The only place as green as the North are some parts of the Frostfangs because of their volcanic warmth and even then, not as often.”
“I thought the Frostfangs were even further north than this?” Robb frowned.
“They start further north than this,” Benjen confirmed. “They divide this entire area into the Haunted Forrest and the Land of Always Winter. They continue south below the wall. You just call them the Northern Mountains down there.”
Robb looked like his mind was blown.
Jon had to laugh. “You will have to forgive him uncle, geography has never been his strength.”
“I do well enough with geography!” Robb argued. “Southron geography from our current location, granted, but I never figured I would go riding Beyond the Wall.”
“Perhaps you should prepare for more than you expect to need,” Jon offered and, yeah, he was being a bit of an asshole. He had years more experience than his brother at this point but if it would keep him alive, Jon did not care. “So, you are not caught with your pants down by what actually comes.”
Robb shot him a look the promised retaliation via snowball.
Jon almost dared him to try but it felt so good to see his brother—his twin in every way that had ever mattered to them—alive and smiling that he welcomed the cold back and wet breeches Robb’s revenge would bring.
Once they reached Whitetree with no sign of the warg Haggon, they turned toward Hardhome and kept going.
They had just skirted the southern bank of one of the Milkwater’s tributaries. He and Benjen were both weary of doing anything that could hamper their party’s ability to defend itself now that they both knew the Dead were walking. Fording a river was one of those things they decided they could not afford to do. So, they circled further south than they would have normally, but they were still well within Haggon’s known range within the Haunted Forrest.
Night was falling and they were making camp when Ghost and Grey Wind both shot to their feet, staring off to Jon’s left. The entire camp noticed.
“What do they sense?” asked Uncle Benjen.
Jon could not see anything, could not hear anything over the sounds of the men, so he closed his eyes. Ghost could hear a shuffling—more than the settling of fresh snow but less than the living—and he smelled…rot. Not much and well frozen, but dead meat and of a kind smell Jon could not identify.
He caught a flicker of moment from the corner of Ghost’s eyes and Jon shot to his feet. “Gather your things, quickly. We have to move.”
“Jon?” Robb asked, his eyes were flickering white. He was trying to connect with Grey Wind, but he did not quite have the way of it. “Is it…what is that smell?”
“That is the Dead,” Jon told him softly, but the words carried and panic started.
Ser Boros and Ser Mandon rushed to him, completely forgetting his order to grab their things but they were Kingsguard and he was their first charge, so Jon tried not to hold it against them.
Ramsay Snow and several men of the Watch ran to their horses, the cowards. Uncle Benjen took up one of the firebrands from their infant campfire and pulled his sword in the other. Stannis and his men claimed the remainder of the burning logs and pulled swords, except for Ser Rolland who pulled his dragonglass dagger to go with his makeshift torch.
The Dead rushed the would-be riders first, tearing them off their mounts and swarming them. They fell screaming, but it gave Jon the time to urge the rest of them to form up with their backs to a cliff.
Having the dead on all sides promised certain death but a wall on one side offered them some room to breathe.
There was a pause after the dead took down the cowards and before they turned on the rest of the party. It was just long enough for Jon to wonder if he was wrong, to wonder if mayhap they were not all going to die.
Then the riders rose from the dead with blue shining eyes and the entire Dead company turned to them as one.
“An Other is here,” Jon realized. As far as he knew, Others required a line of sight to raise new dead.
“What?” Stannis demanded.
“Their…commander. The creatures that raise the Dead are called Others.”
“Do we have to kill this Other to defeat them?”
“I do not know,” Jon admitted. “Dragonglass and fire should do it but there was not much on Others in the books at Castle Black.”
“We have fire and dragonglass,” Stannis said.
“Aye,” Jon rolled his shoulders and brought his sword up into a defensive position to hold off the Dead while he struck with his stone dagger. “Positions!”
“Be ready!” Stannis reiterated. “Here they come.”
The world shook as the Dead hit them like a wave.
Every man that fell immediately rose again with blue shining eyes. Jon did not let the Other pull that trick more than twice and the second time he pulled the knight’s torch from his hand and set him on fire before he got off of his knees.
Jon tried to hide his surprise, but he was relieved when the creature fell back down immediately to smolder in the snow.
The newly risen were particularly vulnerable to fire. It was good information to have.
Jon was shoulder to shoulder with Stannis and Ser Rolland. Robb was behind them, tending to Benjen’s freely bleeding head.
“Men of the Watch!” A third wolf—a regular wolf, not a direwolf—joined the fray, riding what used to be Ramsay Snow’s shoulders to the ground as it savaged the wight’s head.
“Men of the Watch!” A large bear of a man was standing on a ledge above them holding a torch in each hand. “Come! Here! To safety!”
Jon did not have to be told twice. He jumped onto Ghost’s back and grabbed Stannis’s reaching arm to pull him on in front of him. His companion was not yet the size of the direwolves the Kings of Winter once rode, nor was he the size of any of the fallen horses, but he could carry them a short distance. Ghost grabbed Ser Rolland by the back of his leather armor when the man did not have the sense to follow his Lord’s urging.
“No one is sacrificing themselves today, Ser Rolland,” Jon told the knight when he flailed in the grip of Ghost’s jaws.
A glance showed Robb with Benjen thrown over Grey Wind’s back.
The wolves got them to the ledge within moments but did not let them down until they were inside the mouth of the cave beyond.
They passed over a magical barrier as they entered the cave. Jon shivered and tingled with the bite of green fire as Ghost carried him over the arch of small stones that covered the ledge from one wall of the cave mouth to the other.
“Benjen,” the man in wildling furs greeted chidingly. “I knew you were reckless, but this is beyond the pale even for you.”
Benjen pushed himself off of Grey Wind. “What can I say, Haggon? It seemed like a good idea at the time?”
“Because of your baby wargs?” Haggon, apparently, eyed them speculatively.
“Aye,” Benjen nodded, leaning tiredly on a wall while Robb bandaged his head wound with his own cloak. “My nephews, Jon and Robb. All of my brother’s children have bonded direwolves. They need someone to train them.”
“Wargs south of the Wall?” Haggon’s brow furrowed in obvious confusion.
“Six of them.” Uncle Benjen gestured at them, “you can see the proof yourself.”
Haggon glanced toward the cave entrance and kept walking. “We need to move. They cannot enter this place, but they can feel us here. As long as they do, that entrance is not safe.”
“Are there more entrances?” Jon asked.
“Hundreds,” Haggon confirmed. “But they do not always come out the same place you entered them.”
Which would explain why the King Beyond the Wall never ordered his people into them. They were warm enough to survive in without multiple layers of furs and damp in a way that promised water but if you never knew where the exit would take you—or, correspondingly, how you could get back in once you left—Jon would not have forced his people into such a situation, either.
Jon pushed himself up under his uncle’s other arm to help Robb get him moving. Benjen’s reactions were slow, off.
Jon was scared for him. Dying in the heat of battle was one thing, dying slowly of a wound you knew you could not heal was something very different. It was infinitely more terrifying.
The cave led them down, down into an inky black abyss until the only light that remained came from Haggon’s torches. Haggon finally signaled them to stop when they came to a large, echoing cavern the size of Winterfell’s Great Hall. The floor of the not-Hall was covered in the bones of thousands of dead.
“We cannot stop here,” Ser Rolland announced.
“Where else will we go?” Stannis asked him, looking around. “All of the tunnels leading off are choked closed by weirwood roots. Including the one we came through.”
“Another reason to leave. The floor is riddled with skulls,” Ser Rolland told them like they could not see it for themselves. “Human skulls.”
“Not only human,” Haggon countered.
Jon settled his uncle on a particularly large skull near the wall. He had seen a creature of that size before and Haggon was correct. Wun Wun had definitely not been human.
Robb was the one of them that spoke up, however. “Most of these are too small to be human. Not unless they were children.”
“Children?” Jon looked up to his brother. “Children of the Forest?”
“That was not what I meant, but—” Robb shrugged which was fair. How was he supposed to know? The Children of the Forest had supposedly been extinct thousands of years before even Aegon’s Conquering.
“Your mother would be proud of you,” Uncle Benjen croaked and everyone turned to him.
Benjen was staring at him.
“Uncle Benjen?” Jon asked, more than a little confused.
“You mother,” he repeated. “Lyanna. She would be proud of you.”
“Of course, I do. I was there.” Benjen took a deep breath. “It is not true what they say. She was not raped. She was in love. With Rhaegar and Elia. The three of them fell in love at Harrenhal and spent a year sending each other ravens. Your parents married in the Old Way. She was not kidnapped.”
“They…why?” Jon asked, confused to his core. “Why did… What?”
“I do not know.” Benjen’s breath shook this time. “Lyanna did not think our father would agree to her becoming the second spouse of a married prince but we knew if we told him after it was already done, he would have to comply with the Throne. She left our father a letter, explaining that she ran away and why—I saw it. We figured once he realized what had happened, he would go to his rooms to calm down and find that letter. But he never did and by the time we realized he had not, your grandfather Rickard and Uncle Brandon were dead, and Ned was teaching the South a valuable lesson about hurting our pack.”
“So, there was no reason for the War? For any of it?”
“None. Other than…”
“I was a coward,” Benjen admitted. “I hid Lyanna and Rhaegar in the Crypts at Winterfell for most of the War. I could have ended the War with a letter…but I was afraid. I could not disappoint Ned that way. And thousands of men, women, and children died for it.”
“That was why you joined the Watch,” Jon realized.
It had never made sense to him before. Benjen had been the Stark heir until Robb had been born. As such, his marriage would have been incredibly valuable to the North for ensuring new allies. His future had been as bright and open as a highborn lad could have gotten, and yet he had gone to the Wall regardless.
“…How did my mother die?” Jon asked. “If she was home—if she was in Winterfell—the entire time, I cannot make any sense of it. Was the maester gone?”
“I… Your mother did not give birth at home.” Benjen was shaking. Jon gave the man his own cloak to try and bolster him. “She and Rhaegar sailed south, to Dorne. They were supposed to meet Elia so Elia and Lyanna could officially wed before your birth, but Winterfell got word of the Sacking of Kings Landing just days after they left. Princess Elia and her children were dead before Lyanna and Rhaegar ever made it to Dorne.
“I do not know why your father went to the Battle of the Trident. Ned refused to tell me about it after he learned the depth of my failure.” Benjen’s words started coming slower as his strength began to wane. “They left and I found out Princess Elia was dead. I tried to call them back and failed.
“Next thing I knew, Robert Baratheon was king, and Ned was home with you, a wet nurse, and Lyanna’s body.
“I am sorry, Jon.”
Jon did not know what to say. It was more than he had learned about his true parents in any lifetime and he had no idea what to do with it. He looked away and realized all of their companions had been listening.
Haggon, he did not care about. Haggon was a man of the True North and had no truck with the Southron foolishness of crowns and kings.
Robb, he did not worry about either. Robb was his brother. He would never betray Jon.
Ser Rolland would react however Lord Stannis told him to react, so Jon focused on the Lord of Dragonstone.
“So, you were never a bastard,” Lord Stannis said, steadily holding his gaze. “You have always been the legitimate son of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen and his second wife, Princess Lyanna. You are the one true king on the Seven Kingdoms.”
“The Targaryen’s are a deposed line,” Jon countered.
Stannis snorted. “If that were true, the crown would have gone to the leader of the Rebellion and Ned Stark would be king. He led and won most of the Rebellion’s battles. He had the most just reason to oppose the king that murdered his father and brother.
“The Rebellion was only named for my brother after he was crowned.” Stannis shook his head. “Do not become confused by propaganda and how the maesters have written the history. Do not be confused by my brother’s boasting, either. My brother only gained the throne because of our Targaryen grandmother. He was crowned because he was the oldest legitimate son of the line with the most recent Targaryen blood.
“Most recent other than you, of course.”
“So, you support Jon’s claim,” Robb clarified when Jon did not.
“Yes. King Aerys was mad and faced justice for his crimes against the Starks. My brother murdered his father before he could face true justice which would have found him innocent of the wrongs he had supposedly done to my brother. And Robert continues to hunt your father’s line, Jon. His thirst for Targaryen blood—despite having such himself—goes beyond all reason and sanity. That is the true crime.”
“I spoke to him on the road north,” Jon admitted. “With Viserys III dead, all known males of the line are dead and King Robert agreed not to antagonize Daenerys’s horselord husband. Lord Tyrion got it in writing that the king’s demands for her head are to be ignored unless countersigned by myself and Lord Stark.”
“Wise.” Stannis knelt and looked directly into Jon’s eyes. “I will do everything within my power to defend your claim to the Iron Throne. I will see you upon it—to see my line freed from Robert’s crimes, if for no other reason—even if it is the last thing I do.”
“I have no interest in a war of claiming, Lord Stannis,” Jon admitted.
“I did not think you did but it is a comfort to hear none the less.” Stannis stood. “I and mine will keep this secret. Is that clear, Ser Rolland?”
“It is the gods’ own justice,” Ser Rolland said with a firm nod. “That the man that murdered your father and would murder your entire House puts your House back on the Throne that was unjustly stolen from it.”
Jon figured Stannis wanted to roll his eyes at the mention of the gods, but he refrained, and Jon was proud of him.
Jon stood and wiped his bloody hands as best he could on his pants for lack of something better. “I figure King Robert will drink himself to death sooner or later. As long as he remains on the throne, he can draw everyone’s attention while I clean up the corruption the Lannisters left in King’s Landing.”
“I will help you with that, too,” Lord Stannis offered immediately, and Jon grinned at him.
Ser Rolland went down on one knee. “My king—Jon the Just—I would stand as your Kingsguard from this breath until my last breath.”
He fervently hoped Jon the Just did not become as his dynastic name. “It is not my Kingsguard, yet,” he reminded the older knight. “Only King Robert can appoint Kingsguard but, assuming he does not grant your appeal, I would agree to take you as my personal armsman should your Lord agree.”
Together Jon and Ser Rolland looked to Lord Stannis.
As Jon turned his gaze, he noticed one of the figures he had assumed was a corpse entombed in the embrace of weirwood roots was breathing. More, it was watching them with shining red eyes.
And it had a wine-dark birth mark on its neck. Like a raven in flight, painted in blood upon pale alabaster skin.
Jon darted around Ser Rolland and charged, pulling his sword. He cut off the creature’s head with one screaming blow.
He was thrown back by and explosion of invisible force as the man’s body burst. He would have hit a wall with great strength if Ser Rolland had not placed himself bodily between Jon and the wall, taking the blow himself.
Jon’s skin tingled and burned cold as what he assumed was magic fled from Bloodraven’s body. He had lost his sword and wondered if it was worth looking for as magic swept over the chamber.
Animals began to rise from the floor, growing into the skulls and bones they had left behind. Ravens, shadowcats, ice bears, direwolves. Great Stags with racks so large a man could make a bed and sleep upon them. Jon was certain he could hear was a mammoth and much more, further on, hidden from his view by the inky darkness of the room.
There were more than a dozen giants, too
Jon turned to his Uncle Benjen. They had left him resting upon what Jon knew was the skull of a giant but the skull was still there. It was the only remaining skull. Nothing had grown to claim the skull that supported his uncle.
And he thought…mayhap his uncle looked stronger? He had regained some color and was holding himself up more than the cave wall was now.
Jon spun around to see a cluster of Children of the Forest. Someone in his party cursed at the sight.
One of the Children stepped closer to him and he squatted to be on her eye line.
“I am Acorn. You have freed us from the Usurper,” the leader of the Children said. “You have freed our souls and freed our magic. You will always have friends Beyond the Wall.”
“My thanks,” he nodded to her. Beyond the Wall, friendship—true friendship and its inherent loyalty—were the most valuable of gifts a man could receive, and he knew it.
“Thanks are not necessary for honors earned,” she said firmly. “But you have also earned all of the treasures the Usurper called to himself in the near five decades he wove his magic within this sacred place.” She waved an arm and her brethren approached him.
First came a male carrying a very famous sword. A very famous Valyrian steel sword.
“Dark Sister,” Jon heard Robb whisper in awe.
“He brought it with him and used it when he took this place,” Dark Sister’s bearer told Jon.
Jon took it and placed it in the sheath meant for the sword he had lost. The…boy had sounded afraid of his burden. Jon would not terrify him further by keeping it in hand.
“I am Rowan,” he offered as he moved to Jon’s side.
Four more approached with swords of various sizes in hand. Jon could see the characteristic black swirls of Valyrian steel in the blades in the flickering light of Haggon’s torches.
He took the first one because it looked like a good fit for Benjen but waved the next one to Stannis.
“These swords are yours,” Stannis objected.
“Borrow them from me,” Jon ordered. “At least until we are safely below the Wall.”
Ser Rolland and Robb did not object to being similarly gifted.
“What of my uncle?” he asked the leader.
“Son of Boar is giving his life to restore the fallen King of Winter. Your uncle will live but he will be left with the strength of a giant forevermore. Warn him,” Acorn ordered.
“We will,” Jon swore.
The next three children brought Jon one dragon egg each. Black with gold accents, black with white accents, and blue with gold accents.
“How do you have such treasures?” Robb asked.
“There was a prophecy,” Acorn explained. “He was preparing for…or preventing, a prophecy.”
“We do not know,” Rowan said, offering a bag woven out of weirwood roots.
Jon took the bag and placed the eggs within it but did not voice his opinion of prophecy. He did not want to offend their new friends but…Jon was not a fan. He had had enough of prophecy and overly dramatic hookum from Stannis’s Red Woman in his last life. He would live without it just fine from here on out.
“These wish to bond with you,” Acorn added, and Jon looked up.
Uncle Benjen was standing on his own with a black direwolf in front of him. A snow bear was stood in front of Haggon, a Great Stag before Stannis and…unicorns, three of them. A large black stallion, a silver speckled filly, and a snow-white filly walked out of the shadows.
The grey filly went to Robb and the white to Ser Rolland, but the stallion went straight to Jon. He was impatient for Jon to get on with it and get on. Jon could feel it but… “Can wargs bond with more than one creature?”
His stallion stomped impatiently. Ice in the form of flames flared from his nostrils.
“Multiple different creatures, yes. A direwolf, a snow bear, and a shadowcat, yes,” answered Haggon. “Multiple of one creature—three direwolves, no. That way lies madness.”
Jon reached out and laid his palm on his stallion’s velvety soft nose. He could feel the stallion—Swift, his name was Swift—Swift’s glee at the joining and Ghost’s amusement. The wolf was firm about never consenting to be ridden again but Jon was not offended. Swift would more than serve. He would stand as Jon’s mount gladly though he would only allow Jon to handle him.
And he was not staying in a stupid stable. Swift was firm on that and Jon knew they would make it work.
“I am not a warg,” Stannis objected. “None of my blood are.”
“You are now,” Acorn corrected. “You are dragon blood, though weakly. The Usurper’s loss of his stolen magics, returned magic where it had not been in too long.”
“Winter will be delayed,” Rowan told them. “This magic will hold Autumn in power for ten, mayhap fifteen years—but winter will come, and the Dead will come with it. The War is delayed, not diverted.”
“Gives us time to prepare,” Jon said.
Rowan nodded once, more in acknowledgement than agreement.
“Mount and we will see you to the Wall within the day,” Acorn ordered. “Your supplies are lost, and our food is not suitable for your needs.”
Jon looked around to see if he had missed anything.
Not quite knowing why, he reached out and picked up one of the shadowcat kittens gamboling around his feet, but he did not feel a bond with it. He picked up the other and did not join with it either.
Refusing to worry about it, Jon shifted his focus to Swift’s back and how he was going to mount such a height with his hands full. He could not put the kittens in the egg bag, they probably would not survive such an experience. And he could not ask one of the children to hand the kittens up, they would not be able to reach.
A pair of female human hands took the kittens from him and he followed the attached arms up to the face of a lovely woman with sky blue eyes and pale blonde hair. No, not a woman. A centaur. She had a human torso attached to the body of a buckskin horse.
“Do you need another hand?” She asked and he came very near to fainting. “Mithrif, the Dragon King needs our help.”
“Yes, Kithry,” a deeper voice answered her.
Jon turned to see a man even larger than Tormund, though that was probably helped by the heavy draft horse that made up his lower…two-thirds. Mithrif picked Jon up like a child and held him mid-air until Jon re-collected his wits and threw a leg over Swift’s back. Mithrif sat him down with a hearty pat on his back and Kithry handed him back the kittens before moving off to join others of their kind.
The Children seemed to be arming them, with weirwood weapons that had dragonglass heads.
When he looked around, Ser Rolland was seated upon his unicorn, with white eyes. He was communing with his mount.
Lord Stannis was on his Great Stag, petting the large sea eagle perched on the antler in front of him with something like awe on his face. There was a very young doe leaning against his stag’s side and Jon knew instinctively she was not for Stannis but perhaps for his daughter.
Haggon was on the shoulders of his snow bear because of course he was. Who would not ride a giant bear if given the chance? If it would not eat you for daring, of course.
Uncle Benjen was sprawled over the back of his fully grown direwolf with both hands invested in scratching its ruff.
Robb was on his unicorn as well with Grey Wind leaning against his calf. Grey Wind was not as large as Ghost yet. Jon thought it might be because his bond with Robb was weaker than Ghost’s bond with Jon but, of course, it was not as strong. Jon and Ghost had been bonded in truth for years, not the months that had passed in this life since the pups were found.
Jon thought there might be more fur-covered bundles in Robb’s hands, but he could not be sure.
“The caves will see you to the opening closest to your Wall,” Acorn told him. “Kithry’s band will see you there unharmed. Be well, Dragon King. The blessings of the Children and magic go with you.”
“Thank you, all of you, for all you have done for us.”
Acorn and Rowan and the other Children waved at them as the band of centaurs led them forward. The curtain of weirwood roots blocking their path parted, leaving a cleared hallway large enough for even the antlers of Stannis’s Great Stag and tall enough Haggon’s head was in no danger of scrapping the roof up there on his bear’s shoulders.
Jon shook his head at the look of their ragtag group and the thought of it riding into Castle Black, centaurs and all.
This was going to be a story for the ages.
Margaery outwardly focused on spreading jam on her toast when she was truly focused upon Lord Renly Baratheon and the raven his maester presented him. He read it and was pleased by whatever it said. He was soon grinning so large she could identify the food he had been chewing.
At least he had the manners to swallow before he began to laugh. Not that that meant much with the way his head was thrown back.
Renly was cackling like a loon.
Margaery exchanged a look with her brother Loras across the table.
Loras looked just as confused by his lover’s behavior as she was but that was no comfort.
Her father wanted her to entice Renly into marriage and her grandmother was not opposed to the match since everyone knew King Robert wanted a Stark girl for his son—a Stark girl for each of them, if he could get them—but the more she learned about Lord Baratheon of Storm’s End the less interested in the match she was.
Mostly because she wanted children. A husband that refused to join her in the marriage bed would never provide her such. She did not begrudge her brother his relationship with the lord. It simply made her lack of compatibility with him entirely evident.
“My Lord?” she prompted Renly when he was as red in the face as her preferred currant jam.
“My apologies,” he wheezed and struggled to get himself back under control. “It appears my brother’s sweet children are not, in fact, his children but those of his wife and his wife’s brother.”
“How was this discovered?” Loras asked, his face was a study of shock.
“Caught them red handed, they did.” Renly snorted some more. “Queen Cersei is dead—killed by her own father, and Ser Jaime has been sentenced to life at the Wall.”
Margaery blinked. The king was without a queen. That was a golden opportunity.
“Oh, my little staglings. Bless you, my little staglings.”
Loras shot her a troubled look and she tipped her head to one side. They would discuss it privately and decide what to do, but they needed more information first.
She was familiar with these types of staglings. Spies. Her grandmother called her spies her thorns. Lord Varys called his spies his little birds. She did not know the name Petyr Baelish had given his spies around Westeros, but she knew they were almost as effective as her grandmother’s thorns.
If she were home in Highgarden, her grandmother would likely have the entire story already rather than the dribbles of information Renly tolerated.
Thankfully, Renly’s little staglings came through for them regardless.
“We have it confirmed,” Renly told them at luncheon. “Ser Jaime confessed—Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen are his children, not Robert’s. I am heir to the Iron Throne!”
Margaery thought it was a bit beyond the pale how pleased Renly was by his brother’s misfortune. And short sighted as well. There was a whole ‘nother brother between Renly and the Iron Throne that he was forgetting and Stannis was not the type to yield, not to anyone. His stubborn refusal to surrender Storm’s End to her father during Robert’s Rebellion was proof enough of that.
Stannis had held his family’s keep even though it nearly killed him. Even though it did kill many members of the Baratheon household through starvation. How Renly could forget that when he was one of the few to survive the siege, she could not imagine but that was his failing, not hers.
“Joffrey and Tommen have been officially declared bastards,” Renly crowed at dinner that night. “And they must take the Black.”
“What does Lord Tywin have to say about this?” she asked because she could not imagine the Old Lion being quiet while his family was thrown into irrecoverable disgrace.
“Lord Tywin says nothing, because Lord Tywin is dead.” Renly said it like it was somehow obvious.
“You did not tell us that,” Loras objected.
Renly waved him off. “It was his party that discovered the queen getting fucked by her brother. He killed his daughter in a rage. Ser Barristan killed Lord Lannister for raising hand to the Queen.”
“Then who is Lord of Casterly Rock?”
“The Imp!” Renly laughed and slapped his knee. “How embarrassing! Can you believe it?”
She failed to see what was funny or embarrassing about that. Lord Tyrion was everything the lord of a Great House should be. Intelligent, cunning, hardworking, loyal.
There was no shame in having a disadvantageous height. She destroyed men larger than her regularly when they deserved it. And she was more effective about it than Loras’s strength of arms could ever be.
Being underestimated was an advantage that oft served her well and she knew Lord Tyrion was the same.
“HE NAMED STARK’S BASTARD HIS HEIR!” Renly thundered the next morning at breakfast. He picked up the pitcher of apple nectar and threw it. Then he followed it with a plate of eggs, the rack of toast, and her pot of jam.
When that was not enough for him, Renly upended the entire table she and Loras had been sitting at.
He continued wrecking the room like the very storms Storm’s End had been constructed to withstand.
“I am afraid Father has fallen ill,” she said softly enough only Loras should be able to hear her over the ruckus. It was their code for we need to leave with all haste.
Her brother nodded. “Recent developments must have played merry hob with his balance.”
Margaery silently agreed. Recent events had clearly played hell on Renly’s mental balance, that much was clear. She was not interested in a husband whose first reaction to bad news was violence. Renly’s reactions had been unreasonable from the beginning and they needed to get out of Storm’s End before the bootlickers and lickspittles he surrounded himself with got them all entangled in something none of them would survive.
They rode for Grassy Vale that very day and Renly was in too much of a twist to notice. From Grassy Vale, they took a barge down the Mander River as it was the fastest way to reach Highgarden.
The other option took them overland through the Red Mountains, too close to haunted Summerhall and the Dornish Marches for any Reacher’s comfort. They did not have nearly enough guards with them to make such a trip in safety and the mountains themselves would add a moon to their travel alone.
“My Rose,” her grandmother greeted her in her favorite solar in Highgarden after a quick wash and a fresh gown.
One of the few things Margaery and her mother had ever truly agreed on was that road dust should never have a prolonged stay on the body once one was done traveling.
“Grandmother,” she gave the Queen of Thorns the curtsey she required and then took the hug she wanted despite the older woman’s huff. “What news?”
“Your oaf of a father has decided to support this Prince Jon Baratheon’s claim to the throne.” Lady Olenna pursed her lips together. “For once, we are in agreement.
“There is to be a tourney in King’s Landing. To fill out the Kingsguard and help the young prince choose his future queen. Loras is expected to compete and gain himself a spot on the Baratheon Kingsguard to bring our House yet closer to the Crown.”
Margaery focused on her grandmother, silently demanding the news she wanted.
Her grandmother huffed but nodded. “We sail in two days. I have already ordered your ladies to launder your finest gowns and have sent ravens to King’s Landing ordering more that had best be available upon our arrival.”
“Do you believe my usual style will entice a Northerner?” she asked. “He is a Northerner, is he not?”
“He is,” Lady Olenna nodded. “The common Northern styles are about practicality. There is no practicality to be had in dying in southern heat due to Northern fashions.”
“We will be maintaining my current fashion then,” she concluded.
“Correct,” Olenna agreed. “Now, tell me of Lord Renly. What madness has gripped Storm’s End?”
“The kind that leaves a man a head shorter,” Margaery said shortly. “Last I knew, he had it in his mind to object to his brother’s choice of heir through strength of arms. As if such has ever worked when dealing with Robert Baratheon.”
“The King will answer that nonsense with his hammer,” Lady Olenna shook her head. “Or perhaps Prince Jon’s sword.”
“Is he a fine swordsman?”
“The finest. Said to rival the Sword of Morning, if the rumors are worth anything.”
Margaery blinked. “Better than Loras?”
“Loras has never lead men on a Ranging beyond the Wall and lived to tell the tale about it,” Olenna said tartly. “Prince Jon is not a knight, my rose. Do not expect such civility of him. He is a battle-blooded warrior of a kind your generation has never seen. With Northern honor and the might of the Iron Throne behind him, he is going to change our world.”
“If he does not get murdered trying,” Margaery countered bitterly.
“We will simply have to make sure your prince survives to be your king.”
Margaery smiled at her grandmother. “I will drink to that.”
The year changed to 299 AC before they reached King’s Landing for Prince Jon’s tourney. The seasons had changed, too, and the newborn autumn was still beautiful even in this part of the south. Margaery had never been to the capital before. It was smaller than she had expected. And the use of red stone was…excessive.
“Very Targaryen,” her grandmother had said when she had commented on it.
She was fairly sure she was sad to have never met a Targaryen. The red was certainly a bold choice. Excessive, yes, but rich and luxurious. She could not quite decide if it crossed into the realm of bad taste or not.
As they rode through the city from the harbor to the tourney ground, she noted there were a number of bare places that seemed to be oddly lacking house sigils hanging upon them. She wondered if that absence was deliberate or perhaps even pointed.
She wondered if those were places Lannister sigils used to hang and now the proprietors were waiting to see the direction the wind was blowing before hanging new sigils.
Some enterprising proprietors were flying Stark banners which was probably the safest option short of hanging the Baratheon stag, which very few places did—proving to her mind that the rumors of Baratheon unpopularity in the capital were not unfounded.
When the time came for the tourney, she found there were Tyrell banners hung on a section of stands across the lists and to the left of the Royal stands. It afforded Margaery the opportunity to watch Prince Jon without being too obvious about it for which she was grateful.
He was handsome, this direwolf turned stag, and leaner than she had expected from a Northerner. Vaguely heroic with two swords crossed over his back, he was solemn and guarded but smiles chased across his face like flashes of lightning when he spoke to Lord Tyrion or stroked the direwolf that came up to his seated thigh despite the fact that it was laying upon the ground.
She had never seen such a large creature outside of a horse and a horse did not have such teeth.
Prince Jon did not seem to have much time for her cousin Desmera Redwyne when she stopped by his box for a chat. And he did not even look at Jeyne Westerling when she bent over in front of him to show her assets to their best vantage—twice! The tart.
She was just starting to wonder how she could possibly gain his attention when his eyes met hers from across the lists. She gave him her best coy, flirtatious smile. He looked…shocked to see her. His mouth honestly fell open in surprise and he gained his feet without taking his eyes off of her.
He frowned thunderously and looked down.
Lord Tyrion had his hand on Prince Jon’s arm and was explaining something to him Prince Jon clearly did not appreciate. But Prince Jon nodded, accepting the advice of the Hand of the King, and turned to one of the Kingsguard.
She exchanged a pleased look with her grandmother when the young Stormland knight gave his prince a half bow and left the Royal Box.
It was a pleasure but not a surprise when the young knight appeared before her. “My Lady Margaery?”
“Yes, kind Ser?”
“I am Ser Rolland Storm,” he said politely enough. “Prince Jon has invited you to join him in the Royal Box if it pleases you. With anyone you wish to accompany you.”
It pleased her very much, actually, but she pretended to think about it. “It would please me,” she agreed and stood. “Grandmother?”
“Yes, yes, of course.” Lady Olenna stood and Ser Rolland offered her his arm.
It surprised both Olenna and Margaery that the Kingsguard offered Olenna his arm. He answered to the prince and his assignment was Margaery. Most knights in that situation would have offered Margaery their arm despite her grandmother’s greater need.
Margaery wondered if this was a reflection of the choice Prince Jon would have made in Ser Rolland’s place or if Ser Rolland was simply an extraordinary individual.
Prince Jon stood to greet them, “My ladies.”
“My prince,” she blushed up at him. Prince Jon just looked amused.
He helped Lady Olenna into a chair with actual arms and a back—a much better arrangement for her aging body than the benches the rest of the crowd was seated on. He gestured to the one beside his empty chair and only regained his seat once she was upon it.
“You are Lady Margaery of House Tyrell?” he asked politely.
“I am, your grace.”
“Tell me about your family,” he ordered. “Please.”
She honestly smiled this time. He was endearing in an awkward sort of way. “I am the youngest of seven children. The only one of my parent’s children that is not a twin.”
“When the old gods make a perfect being, they have no need to repeat themselves,” he said sincerely.
She was charmed. “My oldest brother Willas is overseeing Highgarden with his twin Garlan. My youngest older brother, Ser Loras, is here competing for a place on the Kingsguard. My parents are walking the tourney faire and my grandmother is, of course, here with me.”
“We have missed three brothers by my reckoning,” he said, not distracted.
“Loras’s older twin, Davith, went to the Citadel as a young boy. He begged and begged until our parents let him go. His chain will be longer than he is tall before he swears his Maester’s oaths, I am afraid.”
He gave her a smaller smile than she wanted for her rueful tone but that was fine, she could work for such a lovely sight. “And the other two?”
“We…do not discuss Baeron and Jaxar,” she admitted. “They died not long after I was born. An accident, I believe, though I do not know all of the details.”
“That must have made your brother Willas’s accident all the more frightening for your family.”
She nodded but let the subject drop. Thankfully, he did not chase it.
“Here comes Loras now,” she offered after a moment of extended silence.
“He has a good seat,” Prince Jon commented idly. Then he turned and focused on her. “Will you judge me harshly if I admit to knowing nothing about jousting?”
“What?” she laughed in surprise.
He shrugged, unbothered by her mirth. “Knights and tournaments are Southron nonsense.”
“Surely, you have cavalry in the North?”
“Well, yes but not like this. The horseflesh is beautiful, of course, but this almost seems like an art.”
“It is,” she agreed. “Men and boys spend their entire lives studying jousting in order to perform well in tournaments such as this.”
“For honor and glory,” he rolled his eyes. “In the North we fight for hearth and home. Honor and glory are for bards and their nonsense.”
“You are a rather practical fellow,” she observed.
“Northerner,” he said darkly. Then he, honestly, shook himself out of his mood. “Educate me, my lady. If you please.”
“Gladly,” she agreed as she leaned in to explain the rules to him.
He was surprisingly beautiful for a Northerner. When his eyes sparkled with mirth, she would swear they were purple, but she wrote that off as a flight of fancy caused by her earlier discussion of Targaryens with her grandmother.
Dragonblood did not mix with the blood of the First Men. Everyone knew that.
When Loras won the joust and the crown of red roses, it surprised no one when he brought the crown to her. It had pleased Jon obviously, based on the wide grin he bore as he put the crown on her head for her, crowning her the Queen of Love and Beauty himself.
“Good choice, my son!” King Robert crowed from the higher level behind them.
Prince Jon bowed to his adopted father and turned to Loras. They shook hands, thanking each other—profusely for Jon, before Jon sat back down beside her.
The look Loras shot Prince Jon’s backside told her exactly how much he approved of her choice. She glared at him to keep his eyes to himself and her brother shrugged sheepishly.
“Would your brother be interested in a place on the Kingsguard?” Jon asked her. “Truly? Knowing it comes with a vow of chastity.”
“You caught his look, then?” She asked in surprise.
“I am Northern, not dead.” Jon rolled his eyes. “And he is exactly my brother’s preference.
“Shall we go on a walk? I would like to check on the progress in the Red Keep’s godswood but I am not ready to end our conversation.”
She stood to indicate her willingness. “What is being done in the Red Keep’s godswood?”
“Green Men have come from the God’s Eye to give me a proper weirwood heart tree. They are the only ones with the magic yet to grow a new weirwood and King Robert agreed to allow it.”
A large, sleek black horse stopped in their path and Jon reached up to pat the horse’s shoulder.
When he turned to look at her, she saw the horse had a large horn sitting on his forehead like a crown. It was a deep silver with a slightly upward curve. From where she stood, she could see it was sharp enough to cut a man. He also had two small nubs of bone that glittered like gems, the upper one larger than the lower. They sat below his horn like stars upon his forehead.
“His name is Swift,” Jon told her as he rubbed the horse’s nose. “He bonded with me while we were beyond the Wall.”
“He is beautiful,” she breathed and held out her hand for the unicorn’s consideration. “What do you mean he bonded with you?”
Jon eyed her for a moment, and she let him. Swift had decided he liked her and was lipping her hand affectionately.
“I am a warg. A skinchanger, they call it beyond the Wall,” he eventually admitted.
“This is Northern magic?”
“Not solely,” Prince Jon shook his head. “Lord Stannis bonded with a Great Stag and Ser Rolland another unicorn. In fact, a fourth followed us to Castle Black and chose Ser Barristan as her companion.”
“…the horn on Ser Barristan’s mount was not armor,” she realized.
Jon chuckled. “No.
“Now, taking a ride with your lady is a Northern tradition. Would you do me the honor of riding Swift to the Keep with me or is that too scandalous for such a lovely Southron maid?”
“Am I your lady?” she asked, coyly.
“Only if you wish to be.”
She liked that answer. She liked it a lot. “Then clearly we should scandalize all of King’s Landing.”
“Surely not all of it,” he argued. “May I lift you onto his back?”
“I see no other options for ascending such a height outside of the use of a box,” she teased.
He picked her up easily, hands comfortable on her hips, and placed her toward the front of the unicorn’s large saddle. Then he took hold of the horn in front of her and mounted behind her.
When she looked around, Ser Rolland was at their side, already mounted upon the purest white horse—unicorn—she had ever seen.
“Have you ever flown?” he asked her.
“Flown? Like a bird?”
“Not quite.” He gave her a teasing smile. “Swift has no wings, you see.”
“You are japing,” she accused.
“I am not. Ser Rolland?”
“We are prepared, your grace.”
“Then to the wind with us.”
Swift surged forward beneath her. Within a stride, his hooves were no longer making contact with the ground. He ran upward, as though he was climbing a hill only he could see, and Ser Rolland’s mount matched Swift step for step.
The crowd cheered below them, and she looked down. The array of colors was dizzying, and Jon had to pull her upright before she fell.
Once they were easily twice the height of the stands, the pair of unicorns did a pass over the tourney grounds before they turned and made for the Red Keep.
She had encountered wind strong enough to make her hair stream behind her before, on the deck of boats. This was nothing like that. It was so much better. And it was cold enough that it made the prefect excuse to cuddle into Jon’s stag-covered chest. She was pleased with the strength she found there. And the gentleness he displayed as he pulled his cloak around her to share his warmth.
They did not touch down again until they reached the Red Keep. The courtyard they landed in was full of trees. His godswood, she realized.
Prince Jon lowered her back down from Swift’s back as easily as he had placed her there and she rubbed the unicorn’s nose in thanks. “That was the most amazing ride of my life,” she told Swift softly. “I shall always remember this, even if I never get to enjoy such again. Thank you.”
When she looked up, Jon was smiling at her softly.
It made her feel strange but…she had to admit she liked it. She liked Jon for all of his inherent strangeness, and she had no idea what to do with that.
“Come,” he offered her his hand. “We will see this business done and then wander the Queen’s Garden. I am sure you will find the gardens much more agreeable than my godswood.”
She took his hand but did not argue. She had always felt out of place in the godswood of Highgarden. She was not sure why they had a godswood anymore as House Tyrell worshiped the Seven and, as far as she knew, they always had.
She found herself even less at ease at the sight of a growing weirwood. Its infant trunk reached out of the ground like a hand of bleeding bone. As though some ancient giant were reaching out, pleading with them to be released from the earth.
She did not enjoy the thought at all but the men growing the tree were somehow even worse.
They were tall and skeletal with hunched postures. They wore green leather that looked like it could actually be their skin though she refused to believe it. They wore masks that were antlered and made of sheets of tree bark. She could not see their jaws move as they made words. Nor could she describe their voices.
Truly, they were strange creatures.
She did her best not to listen to Jon’s conversation and quickly enough he grasped one of the creature’s long, spindly forearms, and turned his attention back to her.
She took his arm and allowed him to lead her away from all of the…strangeness. “We shall.”
“Have you met Ghost?” he asked as they left the godswood. The great white direwolf that she had seen at his feet in his box—but had not realized until now had not been there when she entered it—met them in the halls mere heartbeats after Jon asked the question.
Riding on the wolf’s back, between the mountains of his shoulders, was a white kitten with fine black stripes.
“Oh, is not he darling?” she asked as she picked up the kitten.
He was warm when she picked him up. Warmer than he should be, and that warmth flowed up her arms to settle in her chest.
When she looked up at Jon, he was watching her intently.
“What is his name?” her prince asked.
“Darling, he liked being called it and insists it is all he will be called.” Then she stopped and listened to the words she had just said. “What?”
“It seems you have bonded yourself a Shadowcat.”
“A what?” she demanded again.
“Allow me to tell you about the day the House of Stark found a direwolf with exactly six cubs suckling at her dead breast.”
They walked arm in arm through the Red Keep about that day and the changes Ghost had wrought in him as they grew together. He told her about the dreams that followed and the mental discipline he required to keep from falling into Ghost’s or Swift’s mind accidentally.
It sounded so…foreign but she knew it was the truth. She could feel Darling in her bones. His joy at finding her, his curiosity about various smells were all hers as much as her ambitions and plans for the future were his.
Anyone that tried to take one of them from the other would learn just how deeply their claws could cut. Even if Darling’s claws had quite some growing to do before they became a true threat.
The Queen’s Garden was lovely, when they got there. It had nothing on any given equivalent in Highgarden, of course, but she adored the wide rectangular pool in the center with its water lilies and live, decorative fish. She would have to suggest fish to her grandmother because these were brilliant, darting about in the most vibrant tones she had ever seen. Purple and green and gold.
“I wish to have a serious, private conversation with you,” Jon leaned down to whisper in her ear. “But that is rather difficult when the walls have such good hearing.”
She ducked away from him and giggled coyly.
He gave her an approving look and leaned down to whisper again. “Good, you understood my meaning. The beach has almost no ears, if your slippers can survive it.”
“Would you show me?” she asked for the benefit of the ears.
“Gladly, my lady,” he answered gallantly.
He led her—and Ser Rolland, their softly clinking shadow—over the small pool’s stone bridge and down a set of stairs hidden in the foliage.
The sand beneath her slippers was warm but not uncomfortable and they walked for some distance before he asked. “Do you wish to be my queen?”
“Yes,” she answered immediately.
He shot her an impatient look. “I do not want an ornament or a lickspittle. I want a queen. Intelligent and cunning and fierce. An ambitious woman that will support my rule with every tool she has. The weapon no one sees but cuts no less deeply in the defense of our family.”
“I already said yes, Jon,” she said impatiently. Then she feared perhaps she had over stepped and been too familiar.
But he laughed. “Very well, Margaery.” He returned the familiarity with ease. “In return, I vow to be your shield and sword against all comers. You will be the only woman I know in this life.”
That sounded so appropriately solemn and Northern, she had to needle him a bit. “What about men?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I support being the only woman you know, but we are only fifteen,” she reminded him. “That seems a bit young to me to settle on a one-and-only, so what about men? I would be comfortable with you taking a male lover outside of our marriage, should you grow to need a bit of something different, but I would not tolerate you indulging the same with another woman.”
“My brother would tell you I have never found a girl I liked better than my hair.” He snorted at her. “By that I mean, I have tried men and I enjoy them. I think I would be fine if you wanted a female lover outside of our marriage. No men though. I refuse to be a cuckold as my new father was before me. And, of course, we will have to be discrete about such affairs once we are king and queen.
“I should probably beg you to choose no one I am related to.”
“A pity,” she said lightly, “Your sister Sansa is rumored to be quite beautiful.”
“She is a bit of a brat, to be honest, but once she grows out of it, I am sure she will be breathtaking. She is still holding the end of her tentative engagement to that bastard Joffrey Hill against me from her last raven.”
“From what I understand, he was a true bastard in more than blood,” she answered. “The gods did your sister a favor, removing him from her life.”
She set Darling on the sand to play with Ghost. Jon seemed pleased by her actions and helped her take a seat on a large driftwood log before he joined her.
“I am surprised by your accepting attitude,” she admitted. “Of homosexual behavior, I mean.”
“The North gives no concern to who you love or who you are,” he told her bluntly. “Men can marry men and women can marry women before the Old Gods, though such pairs are often encouraged to set up house together for breeding purposes when necessary.
“Those whose outside does not match their inside are safe among the Old Gods and their followers, as well,” he told her. “I understand that to be an issue in the south, but we do not care what a person does to make their physical self…fit their true inner self. As long as they are honest with themselves and those around them and do what they can as their true selves for the benefit of the community.”
“The North is clearly more socially advanced than I expected,” she admitted.
He almost grinned at her. “The North does not talk about such things in Southron company. You are considered unfit.
“It amuses me that you find us to be savages because of where we live while we find you to be savages because of how you treat each other. Your religion does you no favors in that regard.”
That…gave her much to contemplate, actually, so she distracted him. “Since you have tried it, what is your preference?”
“For a male lover?” he clarified.
“If he had not just sworn himself to a life of celibacy as a Kingsguard, Ser Rolland would have been my preference,” Jon admitted. “I prefer my men larger and stronger than me.”
“Me too,” she grinned. “Are you a giver or a receiver?”
He flushed scarlet. “We will have to know each other much better before we continue this discussion.”
She laughed with him, but she was concerned. Renly had had such preferences, too. “Do you even enjoy women? What you said about your brothers…”
“I do, actually. I… enjoy a woman’s delicacy and fine smells. Soft skin, beautiful clothing, and I do want children in the future, but I swore to myself years ago that I would father no bastards. It is a vow I mean to keep and one I cannot break with most men.”
“That is a comfort,” Margaery smiled. “It simply means that should we invite a third to our bed in the future, we will have to be sure you do nothing that could make a child with her.”
“Or you with him. Like I said, I refuse to be cuckolded.”
“Like your adopted father.”
He inclined his head.
“One of the changes I have discussed with the king is expanding the Kingsguard to twenty-seven,” he said out of nowhere.
“The Faith will not like that,” she immediately cautioned.
“I do not particularly care what the Faith likes,” he told her bluntly. “I have nothing against their gods, all due respect to them, but when I look at their clergy.” He shook his head. “All I see is the kind of decadence and greed the Seven-Pointed Star specifically speaks against. If they want me to seriously consider doing things their way as king or prince, they are going to have to convert to their own ways first.”
“Further, it is about practicality. Seven can guard one suitably for all the hours there are in the night and the day. But add an heir? Or a Queen? Or both? Seven men is simply not enough. Why have an office that cannot achieve the objective it was created to meet?”
“Because it has been that way for almost three hundred years?” she offered.
“That was no reason to let a broken thing remain broken.”
She conceded that with a nod.
“Regarding the Kingsguard,” he said. “Would you prefer female guards tasked with your protection? Not solely women, of course. I doubt I could find enough female warriors to build you a proper Queensguard but I can think of two off the top of my head that I could have brought into the Kingsguard for you.”
She thought about that. Being surrounded by men all the time did get tiring and men at arms were a generally a rougher sort than the men she consorted with on a regular basis. Having women around her would be…refreshing.
Particularly women with arm’s training. They would be quite different from her attendant ladies.
“I think it would be a comfort to me,” she admitted.
“Then I will make it happen,” Jon swore. “Do you have anything against the Dornish?”
“Personally, no. I know my father has bad blood with them because Prince Oberyn broke my brother Willas’s leg when he was young but Willas recovered enough to remain heir of Highgarden even if he will never be a true knight like our brothers.”
“What do you know of him? Prince Oberyn?”
She frowned. “Why do you ask?”
“I sent the Martells Tywin Lannister’s head,” he admitted, and she gasped. “And an apology for what Tywin had done to the Princess Elia and her children.”
She shuddered at the thought, those poor children. When Tywin Lannister’s Mountain That Rides had been done with them, they were said to have been nothing but bloody lumps, ruined beyond all recognition. She had not even stopped to think what the Martells—their mother’s family—would think of such a crime.
“Prince Oberyn and I have been writing since they received by gift in Sunspear and he would like to meet. I would like more information before I agree,” Jon finished.
“When I met him, he was polite enough,” she admitted. “If lecherous and angry at the world. Bit of a chip on his shoulder, I would say, though, then I did not know why. Now, I think that mayhap it was related to the fate of his sister. To see her rise so high and then be thrown so low must have been hard. Were her bones even returned to Dorne? I would be furious in his place.”
“Their tomb was on display in the Red Keep,” Jon admitted. “It was barbaric. When I got here, I had Elia and her children sent home to Dorne, tomb and all. They will soon rest in the crypts of their ancestors—if they do not already.”
“That was very kind of you,” she admitted.
“It was nothing that should not have been done a decade or more ago. King Robert did not even realize they were still here,” he shook his head angrily and refused to speak further on the matter.
“Prince Oberyn is good friends with my brother, Willas, though you would not expect them to be after my brother’s injury,” she said to their previous subject. “They have worked on several horse breeding projects together, many of which have proven lucrative for both House Tyrell and House Martell.”
Jon made a noise like any of that was actually interesting.
“And… I think my brother is in love with one of his daughters. I do not know this for sure, mind you, but I do know he has refused all matches he has been offered, regardless of the source or the wealth of the offer. And the only woman he allows in his bed is named Sand.”
“I wonder if I can help with that,” he said aloud. “Does your father object to the match?”
“To a Dornish bastard? Of course.”
Jon huffed a laugh. “Is it the Dornish part or the bastard part he objects to most?”
“The bastard,” she answered immediately. “He could overlook the Dornish part for all the money her father has made our House.”
“Then I can definitely do something about that,” Jon said happily. “Though…I do have something that perhaps you could help me with?”
“It would be my pleasure…my king.”
He blushed at her but did not have anything to say to that. “I have concerns about the corruption the Lannisters have left in King’s Landing.”
“And yet you made Tyrion Lannister Hand of the King.”
“He has seen the problem and has sworn to help me clean it up,” he waved her concern off. “But it is becoming increasingly obvious that at least a third of the City Watch is in someone or the other’s pocket. Possibly multiple pockets all at once and they help guard even the Red Keep. Petyr Baelish has grown too rich too quickly for a man of such low birth to have done it honestly. And Varys?” Jon shook his head. “Varys has told me repeatedly that he serves the greater good of the Realm and on the surface that seems right, but he is sworn as a member of the Small Council to serve the Crown, not the Realm.”
“There is a fine line there,” she agreed. “But I can see how it could be concerning.”
“I know for a fact that Grand Maester Pycelle is a whoring lecher that I will have caught and sent to the Wall upon his next visit with one of Littlefinger’s whores but I also have a deep distrust of the Faith. I am not demanding you convert to the Old Ways as my queen—I do not want you to think such as that—but I do find the way they have been cavorting themselves, especially here in King’s Landing, associating with Lord Baelish and the former queen Cersei Lannister, to be highly concerning.”
“I will help you in all the ways, as I said, Jon,” she said slowly. “But I am afraid I am going to need something from you.”
“Anything within my power, my future queen.”
“I am going to need a tutor in the Old Ways. And, of course, a betrothal contract.”
Jon laughed. “If our fathers are not already arguing over the contract details, I would be greatly surprised.
“As to your tutor, I know the perfect woman for the job. How would you like my sister Sansa as one of your Ladies in Waiting?”
“It would be my genuine pleasure.” Margaery grinned at him and teased. “Does she have any tales of your adventures as a child? From before you settled down and became so respectable?”
“Are you sure you wish to travel such a road?” he teased her right back. “That sword swings both ways and your brother may yet be hours from joining my Kingsguard. If not, he will certainly join my retinue.”
She just laughed at his playful threat. After all, all was fair in love and war.
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