One of the servants, a girl named Mara, delivered a raven scroll sealed with the mark of Bear Island on it. Sansa's fingers had trembled just the slightest bit as she took it, getting wax under a nail as she broke the seal. The words were sparse and simple, a child's cramped hand, but they shook her to the core. Prince Doran had said that there were lords in Westeros who took great interest in when she would become a mother and what gender the child might have--though of course he knew that she and Oberyn were not likely to have a child of their own for a few years at least--but this was something else entirely.
Were her inheritance in Dorne there would be no question of her right to succeed her brother, no matter how many little brothers, and there would be no drama if she named a daughter as her own heir. The North might accept her but they would want her to have a son, for it was only in extremity that girls were given dominion of their father's holdfasts.
House Mormont eagerly awaits any news of their Queen's enterprise in Dorne. Should the Queen's heir be a girl House Mormont would gladly foster the princess so she might grow up worthy of her mother's seat.
Like so many of the letters there was the presumption that Oberyn would get her with child as soon as he could--indeed, were he nearly any other man Sansa would expect it as well--but this one offered up the service of fostering a member of the royal house. It was impertinent, it was utterly strategic too, but most of all it was devastatingly important. Robb had been no king until he'd had his bannermen swear to him as King in the North, and had their grandfather's bannermen swear to him as well. Now House Mormont offered an intimate act of fealty--a royal heir was a delicate thing. Taught badly they turned into Joffrey Baratheon, taught well they turned into men like King Torrhen or women like Princess Meria.
Normally she discussed these things in private with Prince Doran and Princess Arianne--he taught them both in the same breath things that ought to serve them their whole lives, and he taught them to look on one another as equals. Arianne would rule Dorne someday, while perhaps Sansa would rule the North--at the very least, she would be permitted to live in Dorne all her days like Jalabar Xho lived in King's Landing. A queen in exile. There would be some melancholy and loneliness, but unlike Jalabar she would at least have family to turn to in hard moments.
"Aelyn, do you know where Prince Oberyn is this morning?"
"I believe he went riding with Ser Daemon before breakfast." How odd--
"But his horse is at the farrier's, I remember he chose to walk back rather than--"
Aelyn did not flush or avoid Sansa's eyes as she answered, a little more deliberately this time as though Sansa were slow at learning her sums.
"The Prince is riding, milady." Oh. It was a little embarrassing that she still did not know all of the euphemisms the Dornish used to describe the indiscretions people engaged in--though Sansa knew she would learn all of them before too much longer, given that Oberyn did something like this at least once a month. At first she had been mortified, not knowing where to look, feeling distinctly that she'd failed Oberyn somehow though now she understood that this was how things were done in Dorne. It was a little disconcerting but it was an easy thing to survive after everything else she'd come through.
Besides, it meant she would be able to corner Ellaria and express her concerns and fear to her. Ellaria, who spent some nights curled up with Sansa rather than staying with Oberyn, would thread her fingers through Sansa's hair and murmur consoling words. The older woman had similar worries to Sansa herself, though not exactly of course. Bastards could and often did inherit here in Dorne, but it was a tiny bit unconventional that a bastard's bastard would serve as their heir--and such was the case for whenever Ellaria took up her father's mantle as Lord of the Hellholt.
"Then I will go speak with Ellaria," Sansa said, folding the little parchment into a neat square and tucking it into her sleeve. Now Aelyn's face fell a little, for she knew Sansa well enough by now that companionship was often the order of the day after receiving a letter. The resolution that had perked Sansa up for a moment fled her and she felt quite foolish when her maid announced:
"Milady, Ellaria has been examining linens since last evening."
"Oh," this time a blush crept up her cheeks, embarrassment at being seen as so needy and unaware of her household's whereabouts. Something in her chest was aching and turning sharp, her eyes pricking too with suddenly forming tears. Aelyn took a step forward but Sansa shook her head decisively, turning on her heel and leaving her chamber in a hurry. She ignored a plaintive milady and forged on ahead to a little balcony that Princess Arianne had shown her shortly after they'd made friends of one another. My only request is that this place be a solitary one. This is a place to share secrets with the gods and the winds. Sansa had not come here much but it was a good, quiet place in the castle here at Sunspear.
There was no shade to hide in, but the sea was pleasant to look at. There were dolphins out there, Myrcella had said she'd seen them on her voyage from King's Landing, but Sansa could not see them from here. She sat in the corner of the balcony, squeezed between the wall and the railing, taking deep breaths of the sea air. The heat was a little alleviated by the breeze, and the air was for the most part silent. Sansa knew she could afford to cry out here, none would see or hear her, but the tears would not come. What right did she have to cry over others finding companionship and intimacy? Was her safety and comfort here not enough for her? How would the Dornish, the Martells in particular, feel to discover she was still so selfish?
Oberyn and Ellaria had had a life of many years before Princess Arianne had negotiated for Sansa to be given to the Martells in marriage--however the families of princes and princesses often had little control over their own fates and such had been the same with Oberyn. Sansa had seen how the news of what his niece planned for him had blindsided him upon their first meeting. She had seen his reluctance behind his eyes at their wedding, she knew he struggled still in their day to day lives.
Saving Sansa had been Arianne's first official act as her father's regent. Arianne had confided in her that riding out of King's Landing with Sansa in tow was something Arianne would treasure throughout her life. The Princess of Dorne rescuing the Princess of the North, making a statement to those in King's Landing that Dorne and the North were more alike than they differed. Marriage was the most simple but powerful way to cement the message, and marrying Sansa to Oberyn, someone so far from inheriting the Sun Chair, heavily implied that the Martells were equipping Sansa to rule the North in her own right.
He had not wanted to marry her but he'd done it. Sansa tried to respect his sacrifice and not cause him any inconveniences, nor did she force her company on Ellaria more than she could help it. It was a lonely marriage, without even the hope she might have a child to hold and raise--Oberyn had faked a bedding sheet on their wedding night and had kept a separate bed chamber from her every night since, always dodging when she gathered her courage to press the issue.
Sansa had vowed on the road to Dorne that she would not bring any shame on House Martell, to give Arianne no reason to regret her gamble, and she could not bear to take a lover as her husband and his paramour did. Maybe in a dozen years when she knew the household and lords and ladies of Dorne better she might, but for now who could she trust with her sensitive secrets--that she was lonely to the point that she felt half-starved for any sliver of affection, or that she was yet a maid? No one. That was who. Mara and Aelyn were good handmaidens, they were intelligent and gentle with her, their jokes were not at her expense--and they were also agents of Prince Oberyn and his brother, as all the family servants were. Arianne had her own cares, too great for comforting Sansa's insecurities and disquiet.
With a wry twist of her mouth Sansa wondered if perhaps young Lady Mormont would understand or have some wisdom--the child seemed to understand the games of the nobility far better than Sansa herself had at that age. It was too great a distance to risk such questions going out by raven, though, and so any hope of getting answers in plain Northern words was out of Sansa's reach.
Her dress was sticking to her back now but still Sansa sat. The wind out on the sea was picking up a little, bringing in bigger waves to crash on the beaches and rocks below. Only light breezes reached her though in her corner, just strong enough to relieve some of the heat but not enough to fully blow it away. The sun would burn her, and burn her badly, but Sansa just closed her eyes against the glare coming off the sea and willed her mind to settle. Loneliness was not so bad, she tried to convince herself once more, and Oberyn was kind to her when he was around her. He expressed his thanks when she mended his clothing, he gave her one of the horses bred from his stables and let her ride whenever she wished, he did not cavort with his lovers before her--though she gathered he had been quite shameless before Arianne had given his hand to Sansa.
Ellaria could never seem to decide to be motherly or simply companionable with Sansa. She knew all the best soothing words when she found Sansa sad and quiet, but the nights she snuck into Sansa's chambers were not the most innocent for all that they were also fairly chaste and gentle. Examining linens is what the Dornish apparently called it when it wasn't so tame. Another new euphemism to remember.
The tears finally came when Sansa's thoughts settled once more on the fact that aside from the two of them she had almost no one, and no prospect that anyone else would or could rescue her more than the Martells already had done, that this was truly to be the rest of her life. Princess Arianne had done all she could and this was the extent of it. The waves and the birds listened to her sobs until the sun was low on the water, burning an ugly red through the sea air. Her stomach ached from hunger and her mouth was dry but she couldn't summon the energy to move so she curled a little tighter to ward off whatever chill the night brought and closed her aching eyes to rest.
When she opened her eyes again it was dark and chilly, the moon not even risen and the sea breezes had turned into winds snapped at her skin and hair. She'd huddled even closer to the wall and her limbs were stiff from the cold--the desert was frigid at night compared to the heat of the day, and were her dresses not made of the lightest silk Sansa would have appreciated the cold more for it reminded her of Winterfell just a little.
There were voices shouting inside the palace as well as on the ramparts above her little balcony--they were looking for her, she realized, and no one had found her yet. Her heart, already heavy from the day, sank a little more for having caused such trouble. Arianne would label her ungrateful and send her to be locked up somewhere, or keep her out of the way but have someone's eyes on her so she could not slip away again. The thoughts felt a little wrong but Sansa couldn't help them, they felt true too.
Her legs were shaky as she levered herself up to stand, resolving herself to face whatever fate she'd brought on herself. Once she was fully standing a wave of nausea almost overwhelmed her and she clutched at the railing to steady herself. Sansa took several slow breaths, trying to make sure that she wouldn't wobble once she made her way into the hallway.
She took careful steps towards the door on the balcony, half falling on it as everything started to spin. It had been far too hot to spend the day crying in the sun. Far too hot. Unbidden tears welled up in her eyes, hurting as they did so, how could she be so weak and useless! Shutting her eyes made her whole head twinge painfully, but Sansa managed to get the door open just by touch. Once inside she sank to the floor, seeing spots and knowing that if she kept moving she was sure to faint. A guard would find her soon and bear her back to her chamber and she would be punished for hiding all day.
No one had ever raised a hand towards her since she'd arrived--most likely because she'd never broken a rule or stepped out of line. A few fresh tears, searing on her cheeks, fell as she envisioned all the fearsome things that might be done to her. Her head was aching terribly, and Sansa was dizzy through the tears.
Sansa didn't have to wait long for someone to see her slippered feet and the hem of her dress peeking out from where she sat. They called for someone, she couldn't make out the name, and soon after the sounds of half a dozen people running filled the corridor. Her poor husband was the first to make it to her, half-skidding on the smooth marble floor as he tried to stop in front of her. Sansa's eyes had a little trouble focusing on his face but he looked quite mad, his hair in disarray and the lines on his face bunched in concern as he cupped her face in his hands.
Oberyn's hands were warm, but they were gone the instant she started to appreciate them. He stood up and pulled her to her feet just enough to sweep her up into his arms. Sansa's stomach roiled at the motion and she gagged on acid, her breaths shaking and shallow as she did so.
"Get Myles, and Caleotte too if my brother can spare him, she's half-cooked," he ordered someone she couldn't see. Sansa shut her eyes and didn't dare open them as Oberyn started walking, she was sure she'd empty her stomach if she saw the world bobbing along in time with his steps.
"Where was she?"
"One of the balconies probably, or tucked in an alcove so we didn't see her."
"Is she alright?"
"We will see. I hope so. I worried--well, I am grateful she has been found. I can make it the rest of the way back, please let everyone else know the search is over."
"I'm sorry," Sansa croaked out once the other people had dispersed, wanting to hide her face but feeling too dizzy and ill to do much more than take a weak grip on Oberyn's shirt. Her husband made no reply, his stride never breaking. She drifted a bit, lulled by his warmth and the steadiness of his gait and how securely he held her. The next moment it seemed she was being laid down gently on her own bed, her eyes opening just enough to look up at Oberyn before the two maesters almost pushed him away from her bedside. The mad look had receded somewhat, instead replaced only by deep worry.
"I'm sorry," she managed to say, trying to assuage or comfort him, "I'm sorry."
"There's nothing--you've done nothing wrong, little wife."
It took her many days to get well, days where Oberyn did little but sit at her side. Sansa pretended to sleep when he was there, not wanting to face whatever harsh lecture he no doubt intended to give her. Arianne also visited once, sitting on her bed and laying a gentle kiss on her forehead and stroking her hair for a moment. Ellaria came in too a few times, reading aloud from a book of Dornish history and poking fun at some of the maester's words--the maester had not been from Dorne and apparently got a number of things wrong.
Aside from trying not to laugh at Ellaria's words, it was easy to fain utter exhaustion--her skin had burned beneath even some of the layers of her clothing, the silk not being sufficient to shield her fair complexion, and she'd indeed been very ill. The maesters had forced a great deal of water on her the first two days, waking her up regularly for her to have another few sips of water and a few bites of food.
It was Aelyn who confronted her on her cowardice late one night. She was combing Sansa's hair, for Sansa's shoulders were far too burned to reach backwards to tend to it herself, and her maid's voice held no judgment as she spoke.
"Prince Oberyn asks after you every morning, before he comes to sit with you, milady. How you fared during the night, if you require anything, what might he do for you to make you comfortable, things like that. I do not know what to tell him other than I am sure you will let him know if he catches you awake. He persists in hopes of speaking with you, of giving you his sincere attention. If you do not require anything--or--or don't wish to speak to him I shall let him know in the morning. Your burns will be healed soon, and you must wish to be free of your sickbed."
Sansa's shoulders drooped in shame. Her maid should not be the one counseling her that she was acting foolishly. Oberyn had seen to her every comfort and she hid from him behind closed eyes for hours and hours every day. Her lady mother would be ashamed of her, even Arya would scoff and roll her eyes that Sansa was being childish. There was also the dim recollection of his frantic tone when she'd been found, how his boots had almost failed him on the floor from how fast he'd been moving. He at least cared for her in some measure, somehow.
"Would--would you ask him if he will talk with me tomorrow? And if he can be honest? If he's--if he's not ready then I will understand." Aelyn gave her a gentle smile and a nod as answer, focusing her attention on Sansa's hair once more. Perhaps the girl was not entirely a spy of Prince Doran or Oberyn, perhaps she could be trusted.
The next morning she was sitting up in bed when Oberyn was admitted to the room. Her sunburn had mostly been on her arms and face, some on her shoulders, so resting in bed as she had been had not been painful. The maesters still had her maids bathe her burned skin in a sticky mixture of honey and milk twice a day, letting it dry before gently patting it away with damp cloths, and at least one of the girls stayed awake during the night to ensure Sansa did not scratch at the still healing skin.
Oberyn looked like he hadn't slept in a week as he drew up a chair next to her bed. The pinched sadness in his eyes had guilt welling up in Sansa once more, reminding her why she'd tried to avoid this. He was stuck tied to a broken little girl masquerading as a woman, his whole life shattered to pretend to be married for her benefit. All of her her courage failed her.
"Your maid tells me you are much better today," he finally said when she could not summon up any words to start. Sansa nodded, swallowing as she looked away from him.
"I am sorry that neither I nor Ellaria--"
"It was no trouble," she interrupted him, still not meeting his eyes and flinching when he laid one hand on top of hers.
"Sansa, they told me you received a raven and disappeared only a handful of minutes afterwards. Aelyn says you asked for me, then Ellaria, and we were not here. She thought you only needed--"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry--please, think no more on it. I was being foolish."
Oberyn sighed and Sansa choked back a sob--she'd had grand things to say, to ask him, last night but they were all gone now. She only wanted to hide--to shut her eyes and forget all of this.
"Sansa look at me." She shook her head, squeezing her eyes shut against the tears that fought to escape. Her lungs burned as she held her breath to keep from weeping.
"Sansa. The maids found the letter from Bear Island when they took your dress to be washed and gave it to me. I know you must want to go home--"
"And you must long to be free of me! I'm just--I'm just a burden, a boring, stupid girl without anything to recommend her, more foolish than anything." Sansa's words were spit out between hiccupping sobs and she tore her hand out from under his. "You were happier before I came here, I ruined everything," she said, shimmying to curl up on her side, ignoring how the skin of her shoulder seemed to snarl in anger at her for putting harsh weight on the blisters and burns there. Aelyn or Mara would no doubt tattle on her to Maester Myles for putting herself at risk for actually opening the skin and possibly getting an infection.
Oberyn stood up, she heard the chair scrape on the floor, and Sansa thought he meant to go. Her words had been offensive enough he ought to go and feel no guilt at leaving her to her tears. Instead the bed behind her dipped with his weight and Oberyn swung his legs up on the bed as well as he fit himself against her back. Sansa held her breath as he draped on arm over her middle and dropped a kiss at the nape of her neck.
"I long for you to be happy, for you to see your worth, and to never ask of you anything you don't wish to give. You aren't a burden, or boring, or supid, Sansa. You are wise and empathetic, you work with your hands as well as with your heart, you are everything my own mother would have wanted for me if she'd had her choice," he said, his voice low but sincere.
"But you have Ellaria, and I'm--I'm too afraid to, you see I'm not brave enough--"
"I have always thought you were plenty brave, Sansa, even before I met you and only heard rumors about you. A dragonslayer is no braver than the shepherd who walks past snakes to retrieve a lamb, and each has fears that are just as valid as the other's. One is called for duty, the other is born to it. Now tell me, what was wrong that day?"
Sansa didn't speak for a long moment. It was pleasant to have someone hold her, to feel them breathing. There was a bulk and strength to Oberyn's arm that Ellaria's did not quite have, it reminded Sansa that her husband was an annointed knight such as the kind in the stories she'd treasured when she'd lived in Winterfell. Before coming to Dorne she'd given up on honorable knights and brave princes.
Her shoulder was finally settling down to being numb. No doubt Maester Myles would scold her for putting such weight on it but that lecture was hours and hours away.
"I was so lonely, and I didn't have anyone to talk to. I never have anyone to talk to when you're gone, but it's not--it's not fair to make you change because I'm lonely. I told you--it's childish, foolish."
Oberyn's arm squeezed down on her middle, and she felt him inhale at the crook of her neck. Sansa hoped he wouldn't try and convince her that she wasn't being childish, she was tired of hearing those sorts of things. She was tired of people not listening to her.
"Aelyn left you alone, she said she thought you needed time to yourself. When the sun went down, though, she went to Ellaria hoping to find you with her. You were not anywhere to be found and no one had seen you all day. None could find you. I thought you'd received some terrible news from the North and chosen to throw yourself in the sea--and then to find you half dead from exposure to the sun, but alive, I could barely stand up after giving you over to the maesters. They said you might not live the night, and all I could think was that there were so many things I never said to you. I prayed all night for the Seven to give me the chance, but still you slept and slept."
"I was afraid," Sansa whispered, "I told you, I'm not brave."
"What are you afraid of?" His breath was pleasantly warm on her neck, his voice no more than a whisper. He said he'd read the letter from Lady Mormont--he should be able to see what she did, shouldn't he? Her stomach churned but he had not abandoned her yet. He had been most concerned with her recovery, seemingly without true motive other than to see her well.
"I'm afraid of not having a family of my own," she finally brought herself to say, her voice trembling. Oberyn seemed to stop breathing, not moving a muscle. Sansa wished she could articulate herself better--that she didn't fear him, she only feared her future with him.
She also left unspoken her further fears that if she ever took a lover Oberyn might discover some previously unknown jealousy in his heart. Her husband was not like Robert Baratheon but all the same.... it was all well and good for a man to fall into whatever bed he pleased, but quite another for that man's wife to do so.
Sansa also knew that she did not have the freedom that Ellaria did--Ellaria was a bastard yes, but she stood as her father's only child and the longtime paramour of a Prince of Dorne. Those who might criticize or shame her risked the ire of House Uller and that of the Red Viper. Sansa's defenders were, on the other hand, the very ones she might offend by acting with impunity.
But what if Oberyn died before he deemed her old enough to share his bed? What if he died before he gave her a child, an heir for her to add to the strength of her laughable claim to the North?
Sansa knew that if he had his way Oberyn would not properly consummate their marriage--and probably with no small amount of prodding even then--until she was seventeen or eighteen. But Oberyn was in his middle forties, and she'd learned from Maester Caelotte that his parents had both died young. His lord father Ser Arnolt had not seen forty, dying of a seized heart when Oberyn was hardly ten, and his lady mother Princess Loreza had died of a complaint of the stomach when she was fifty one. Given these facts, could Sansa truly count on having him around for another three or four years--and then beyond that, to live long enough to protect her and her child should she leave Dorne to reclaim the North and retake Winterfell? He seemed healthy enough, true, but he did not have the blood of long-lived Tullys or hardy Starks in his veins.
Oberyn had so far been silent, allowing her to shake and tremble and curse herself, but now he finally drew a breath to speak.
"You do have a family--you will have a family," he said, tightening his arm around her waist. Sansa had tears spring to her eyes and had to bite her tongue as it moved to refute him. Men would have their fantasies, she'd learned, and disliked being corrected on them. Instead of speaking she started to curl up, away from him. His body followed hers though and he inhaled deeply at the nape of her neck before he spoke again.
"I would have you feel needed, loved, everything but lonely. When you came up missing I realized that I have grown to treasure you, more than I perhaps thought I would when we wed, and that your aims are my own. So--when you are recovered, I wonder if I might court you--even, perhaps, seduce you to my bed chamber if you were willing."
Sansa swallowed harshly, feeling every place he touched her and knew that he was waiting for her answer. It was frightening in its own way--she needed him to fulfill his duties as her husband, but she would have to trust him to look after her and not hurt her. What would Ellaria say? Something saucy and witty no doubt, a bit of jolly teasing to put her prince back in his place. She cleared her throat a little, the words coming more easily to her now.
"Hopefully I recover quickly--the Mormonts of Bear Island are not known for their patience, my prince."
Her husband laughed, laying a tender kiss on the burned skin on her shoulder and nudging another just behind her ear. Sansa's stomach fluttered with warmth and worry at the same time. She would be recovered in a fortnight and then Oberyn would set to winning her and Sansa was not sure her bravery would hold that long. Something scandalous, enough that her mother might even raise up from her watery grave to slap some sense into her wicked daughter, occurred to her then.
"Might Ellaria help me--us--me, when it...when it comes to it?"
If her question confused her husband he didn't let on, only murmured his assent that she would have whatever she needed. Ellaria was sweet and good to her, hopefully she would agree when Sansa put the idea to her as well. Oberyn's casual acceptance of her request reassured her more than she could say and Sansa took a deep breath while closing her eyes. There was no guarantee Sansa would ever go home, she'd learned a long time ago there were very few guarantees for anything at all in this life, but she could at least trust the family she found herself in now.