There is no occasion better suited for extravagance than a royal wedding, and no setting lends itself to adornment more naturally than the walled courtyards of Highgarden.
The stones, the trellises, the very sept itself: Every surface seems not so much covered with roses as constructed from them. Unlike the famous briars that guard the keep, the varietals chosen to line the passageways to the feast droop with heavy blossoms, each fat and round as the bells that still ring out from the countryside.
The rose of Highgarden has finally wed, and her husband is brother to the King.
Aesthetically, the match is a triumph. Some roses draped along the walls are pale as new cheese, some bright as brass, others rich as honey— but every rose is gold. Sansa has never seen so much gold in one place, and she’s spent half her life in the court of a Lannister queen. It’s just as well that Cersei has remained in King’s Landing, whatever her reasons. King Robert announced her regrets at the wedding breakfast, claiming preparations for Prince Joffrey’s nameday kept her from attending, but Arya told another story.
“The Tyrells already have a guard on the wedding chamber door.” She crashed down into the seat beside Sansa just as a serving maid was bringing in trays for tea. “Everyone is saying she stayed away because at Stannis’s wedding, King Robert fathered a bastard in his own brother’s bed.“
“Edric Storm. He’s being raised at Storm’s End by Lord Renly’s castellan.” Sansa lifted her teacup and sipped. Arya followed suit and sputtered.
“You could have warned me it was too hot!”
Sansa passed the milk with a lifted eyebrow. “How do you know about the guard?”
Arya wrinkled her nose. “They’re guarding the labyrinth too. It doesn’t even make sense. Why keep people out who are already inside the keep?” She added a drop of milk, frowned as the tea reached the brim, and poured some out into her saucer.
“What? There wasn’t enough room.”
“You didn’t leave enough room.” Sansa sipped even more daintily this time, exaggerating her own manners to compensate. She could have asked why her sister wanted to explore a famously dangerous maze of thorns, but she already knew the answer. Arya was impossible.
For that reason, she walks to the feast arm and arm with Bran. If she doesn’t sit next to her sister, she’ll have no reason to spend the evening aghast as Arya disregards every basic principle of polite behavior.
Her brother is nearly twelve, old enough to spend his days training with her father’s men, but he still retains the sweetness of youth. He presents her seat with a flourish when they reach the great hall.
“I thank you, kind sir,” Sansa replies, matching his formality.
Course after course appears on gleaming chargers with barely an interval between them. Their table is one of many that line the walls of the enormous room, leaving space in the center for entertainments. The musicians, Sansa and Bran agree, are just as fine as those at court, and the jesters and actors are better dressed and less crude. From their position near the high table Sansa can see the King, already in his cups though the dinner is not half over.
Perhaps it’s best that her father stayed behind in King’s Landing as well. The more the King drinks, the more his Hand frowns.
To the King’s right sits Mace Tyrell, jovial next to his two eldest sons. On his left, Margaery and Renly eat off the same plate, feeding each other the choicest bites between smiles.
At her own side, Rickon is equally selective. “Sansa, do direwolves eat potatoes?”
Sansa smiles. “I don’t think so.”
“Then I’m not eating mine.” Rickon drops his fork against his plate.
She catches Catelyn’s sharp look too late and corrects her advice. “But they do eat beets. Find the red ones, sweetling.” He picks up his fork and gamely hunts through his roasted root vegetables, punctuating each stab with a low growl. The soup courses he won’t touch. When his mother suggests a direwolf might steal mushroom turnovers cooling on a windowsill while the cook wasn’t looking, Rickon looks at her with disdain.
“You don’t know anything about direwolves. You told me they eat broccoli.”
Mother and daughter nod approvingly when the next course is pork chops smothered in a sweet onion glaze, but the youngest Stark pushes it away.
“You can eat this one, Rickon. Direwolves love to eat fat piggies,” Sansa reminds him.
His eyes go wide and serious. “But it has sauce on it. Direwolves only eat meat with blood.”
It’s a relief when the dancing begins.
A Fossaway is her first partner, then an Oldwyne, then a younger Royce son. The servers bring out tiny glasses of icewine, aged since the previous winter, and the dancers press on, refreshed. Three dark-haired lordlings from the Stormlands request her hand in a row, until she begs the last to escort her to her family so Bran may have a turn. They circle palm to palm, trading partners to both sides only to return to each other once more at the end of each figure. Sansa calls to him over the applause when the musicians finish.
“You are my only partner so far who hasn’t tread on my gown.” She straightens her pale lilac skirt where it falls away from her hips in soft silken folks. The fine fabric is made heavier than her usual dresses by the intricate patterns worked in seed pearls that climb up from the hem to the bodice.
Bran bows deeply. “It was my honor.”
“May I beg the next dance, sweet lady?” Sansa turns to find Ser Loras Tyrell at her shoulder.
“My lord,” she curtsies.
“My sister may wish to rest, Ser Loras. She has danced every set.”
Sansa ducks to hide her smile at Bran’s protectiveness, but Loras takes his words seriously. “Lady Sansa’s hand is fiercely sought.” He lifts her knuckles to his lips as if to demonstrate his point. “Your brotherly concern speaks highly of you.”
He beams. “Sansa?”
“I am well, Bran. Ser Loras, I would gladly accept.”
The dance is a stately promenade, little more than walking with their hands clasped over each other as they sink and rise to recognize each of the couples they meet. The steps will eventually take them past the high table, where Margaery and Renly are stationed to visit with their guests, but until then there is time for conversation.
“Your kind words to my brother will be long remembered. He has wanted to be a knight almost since he was born.”
“An unusual path for a Northman, is it not?” Loras asks.
“And rarer still for a Stark.” Sansa admits. “He rode along with Lord Renly’s men on our journey from King’s Landing and found them very impressive.”
He smiles. “Indeed. Will he join in the tourney for Prince Joffrey?”
“I don’t think so.” Sansa chooses her next words carefully. “The Prince intends the competition to draw the very greatest knights.”
Ser Loras has spent enough time in the Red Keep to understand her meaning. Joffrey is quick to take offense at any potential slight, even one so minor as a novice who wishes to ride in his tourney.
“However,” she continues “I know he wishes to become a squire. My father is close to allowing him, though my mother would prefer he stays near to her.”
“Ah, but that is the way of mothers.” Loras smiles, glancing up at Lady Tyrell. “If he is serious about squiring, let me give you a recommendation. There is a master smith in the Street of Steel—Tobho Mott is his name. All the finest knights and lords go to him for their armor.”
“Even Lord Renly?” Sansa asks, teasing him gently.
“Even myself!” he declares. Loras can never resist a boast. As a young girl, she had been infatuated with the Knight of Flowers, but years spent meeting him in company with Margaery have cured her of her former hero worship. Ser Loras is charming and gallant, and a truly skilled horseman, but he is not without his faults after all.
They have only a few moments to greet the newly wedded couple as the dance nears its end. Loras lets go of her hands so she can embrace Margaery. The new Lady Baratheon kisses both her cheeks.
“We will come visit you soon, Sansa. My lord husband—“ here she glances at Renly, the picture of love, “has promised his brother to return in time for the Prince’s celebrations.”
For years, she and Margaery have conspired to spend the same weeks of each year in King’s Landing. Ravens fly thick and fast between Highgarden and Riverrun, where Lady Catelyn prefers to raise her family. Now, her friend will travel at the pleasure of Lord Renly, and Sansa must brave the Red Keep without her dearest age mate. The prospect is bittersweet, lightened only by the genuine happiness Sansa can see in her friend’s shining eyes.
“I shall count the days,” Sansa says. “My best wishes to you both, Margaery, Lord Renly.”
“And now, you must meet my brother,” says Loras as he leads her away from the dancers. “I have strict instructions from my grandmother.”
Lady Olenna Tyrell sits three places away from the heir to Highgarden, but Sansa has the sense that she can hear every word spoken at the high table. She’s learned her lesson long ago from time spent with Margaery: never underestimate the Lady of Thorns.
Of Lord Willas, however, she remains ignorant. He rises easily to greet her, the elegant golden cane in his left hand utterly unremarkable amidst the wedding finery. His injuries are still whispered about in King’s Landing by those who witnessed his first and final joust, but Sansa sees a slim athletic man, still young, whose face lacks the haughty pride of Ser Loras and the open grin of their second brother, Garlan.
“Lady Sansa, it is a pleasure to finally meet you. I hope you and your family are enjoying your time at Highgarden,” Willas begins as Loras passes him her hand to kiss.
“The honor is ours, my lord, to be invited to share such a joyous occasion with your family.” She leans forward so that she might lower her voice. “I have never seen Margaery so happy. I must admit I shed a tear or two in your sept during her vows.”
He is not as handsome as his brothers, but his smile is kind. “It was a beautiful ceremony, just as my sister intended it. I understand that the people of the North make their marriages in a godswood—tell me, how does it compare?”
“My father does worship the Old Gods, my lord, but I have never seen a Northern wedding.” At his surprised look, she explains, “Since my father was named his Hand at King Robert’s ascension, my family has lived south of the Neck.”
“It is a great distance from Winterfell to the Crownlands. Does he ever wish to return?”
It is not a question Sansa has ever considered. “He was fostered in the Vale with King Robert when they were boys, my lord. His allegiance is to the king. And my brother Robb has lived in the north these past nine years in order to learn his duties under my Uncle Benjen. Winterfell is in safe hands.”
“I see, “ he says, thoughtful. “And when you are married, Lady Sansa, shall it be in the sept of Baelor or under the canopy of a heart tree?”
“Neither, I think.” The sept in King’s Landing is a spectacle of architecture, but its scope and its history overwhelm her. “Though I’ve spent time at court, I find the city rather stifling. I have always imagined I will marry in the sept at Riverrun, as my mother did.”
Something about this declaration makes his smile widen. “It must be a very special place.”
“It is the most beautiful place in the world,” Sansa answers without hesitation. “The sept is built near the shade of the tall redwoods that fill the godswood, but the largest windows look south onto the Red Fork. The banks there are bordered with silver willows and all the fields are full of wildflowers, every color you could imagine swaying together in the breeze. It’s nothing like the gardens here.”
Swept away by thoughts of her home, she realizes too late that the comparison must give offense. “But Highgarden is beautiful, of course. I didn’t mean…”
Willas lifts his brows in surprise as his mouth twists with amusement. “No! Do not dampen your praise, my lady. I can hardly censure you for loving your home so. Instead, I shall take it as a challenge. You must ride out with me and view our gardens with a proper guide.”
“You think to change my mind, Lord Willas?”
“My pride demands it.” He presses her hand between his as if to reassure her of his good humor. A rather desperate howl from the room behind her forces Sansa to pull away.
“Then I shall look forward to our excursion. If you will excuse me, my lord, my lady mother needs me.”
Catelyn greets her daughter with relief when she returns to their seats. “It’s time our littlest direwolf goes to bed. Bran, are you sure you won’t join him?”
“Let him stay and enjoy the feast, Mama. I’ll rest from dancing a while.”
Arya scowls as their mother drags Rickon out of the hall by his collar. “How can you need a rest? All you do is walk around in circles and let men kiss your hand.”
“And yet you always end up stepping out of rhythm.” Sansa knows she should have outgrown this kind of bickering, but her patience isn’t endless.
“It’s because the musicians are too slow. Rodjer says in the North, all the ladies are swung around through the air, and they jump up and down so hard the floor shakes.”
Sansa thinks this sounds more like brawling than dancing, and better suited for a groom in her father’s stables. “Has Rodjer ever been to a dance?”
“He was at Brandon Tallhart’s wedding. He drank so much ale he fell asleep with his face in a damson pie.” The awe in Arya’s voice makes it clear she finds this an accomplishment.
Sansa watches her take a gulp of wine. Arya has no more experience of the North than she does, but something has convinced her she would belong there as she never has at court. After the Greyjoy uprising, when her father had sent his heir north to his family seat, he promised his wife she could keep her other children close. Arya’s pleas to join Robb in the North have been summarily denied.
Sansa turns back to the dancers, graceful and glittering as they weave past one another. The movements are sedate—her sister isn’t entirely wrong— but the weight of her gown and the crowded heat of the room have tired her regardless. She wishes she could unpin a few of the heaviest coils from the crown of her head. When at last the bride is carried off to her bedding, she catches Arya in a yawn and seizes her chance.
“Time to retire, I think.” To her surprise, neither sibling protests. Sleepy and tipsy, they trip across the flagstones back to their rooms, the garden passages empty now except for golden petals beginning to glisten with midnight dew.