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a soft epilogue

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*

Stannis tried to resist the urge to grind his teeth. He was eager to be off and to be on his way. He had not wanted to be parted from Johanna and his children, to be summoned back to King’s Landing while his wife was with child once more. It was intolerable that he had spent these last four months here as she grew heavy with their child. The resentment boiled under his skin was tempered only by the fact that, for once, it was not Robert’s fault.

With Waters at his shoulders, Stannis stalked through the hallways of the Red Keep. He did not care to be summoned just as he was meant to be leaving. His plans had been made several weeks ago and now, on the morn of his departure, came this summons. He knew what this was. This was a ploy, a means to detain him longer. Did she keep him in King’s Landing now, so her assassins could sneak ahead to Dragonstone or did she once more hope that her smile might sway him to her side?

Cersei Lannister awaited him on the balcony, sitting behind a small table, with food to break the morning’s fast on top, facing the entrance. An empty chair sat waiting on the other side of the table from her. She smiled at him, lovely as the sun but he knew it to be false. And he preferred brown hair to gold, grey eyes to green.

“Your Grace,” he greeted, bowing.

“Lord Stannis,” the queen said, her voice light and sweet. “Won’t you join me?”

“If that is what you wish, Your Grace.”

She continued smiling. “It is.”

He sat. Waters remained standing, within earshot. Cersei glanced at him, like she had since Stannis had first brought Waters to King’s Landing nearly a year ago. He knew she would not make Waters leave. He was counting on that.

Robert might hate who Waters resembled, the Kingslayer might not be able to look him in the face, but Cersei could not take her eyes off him. She showed favor to him. Waters smiled back at her, flattering her and always returned to Stannis’s side, speaking in low voices to Renly. Stannis left the two to their plots. He had no head for such things and knew it.

“I am sorry to hear that you are departing today. You spend too little time here in our city, these days,” the queen began as the servants started to dish out the meal.

“My wife is with child, Your Grace,” he replied, trying hard not to grind his teeth. Renly said he gave too much away when he did this, and Stannis was trying hard to accept the help his brother was offering. It did not come easily but they were both were trying. “She will give birth soon. I must be there.”

He saw her face flicker at that, something dark and angry in her eyes before she forced it down. Cersei was a consummated actress.

“Men are not necessary for such things,” she laughed, “Certainly the king was never here for the births of our children.”

“I know. I remember.” He and Robert had fought bitterly about it each time. The entire Keep had heard them. Robert was never quiet, especially when he was angry. “I am not my brother.”

Cersei took a sip of her drink. Stannis eyed her warily. He wondered if she would be so brazen as to try and poison him as he ate with her. Once, he would not have thought so. But then she had tried to kill his son through her own relative and in the middle of the day.

The queen continued to smile at him. He wished she would not.

She was splendid in her gown of red, her golden hair elaborately done. But Stannis only longed to look at Johanna, to have her back in his arms.

“Indeed, you and my husband are very different men,” the queen commented mildly, “The two of you quarrel quite often. The Red Keep quakes when you and His Grace fight.”

As if it does not when you two fight? They might have fought locked away in the dark, but everyone always knew.

“It breaks my heart to see brothers such as the two of you fight.”

Stannis felt the curl of his lips. Four months ago, on the heels of his letter informing his brothers of Johanna’s second pregnancy, the missive had come from Robert, summoning him back to the city. Robert’s orders had not said why but Renly’s, arriving the same day, had more than enough information to make up for that.

According to Renly, it seemed that the queen and her favorite courtiers had taken to commenting and complaining that Stannis did not spend enough time in King’s Landing anymore and so should not remain a member of the Small Council. They said he should be replaced as Master of Ships and that Stefford Lannister, the Master of Lannisport, should take his place.

The letter had barely survived Stannis’s rage.

“Robert is my brother and my king. He knows I will ever do my duty, no matter what he asks of me.”

The queen’s smile slipped momentarily. They both knew it to be true. And, truthfully, both had been equally surprised by it.

Robert might lust after Stannis’s wife, but he also trusted in Stannis’s loyalty. It never ceased to shock Stannis when he thought of it. For years he had thought his elder brother had never noticed Stannis’s loyalty or even Stannis’s contributions to his rule. There was certainly no great love between the two of them, not like with Robert and Ned Stark.

But in the face of questions about Stannis, about his worth and loyalty, Robert had only laughed.

“You are my brother,” Robert had told him simply when he had told Stannis to hold Storm’s End, when had promised to make Stannis a new match after Selyse’s death, and when he had summoned back to King’s Landing four months ago.

Stannis had held Storm’s End for Robert, sailed against the Targaryens and Greyjoys for Robert, and had married twice at Robert’s command. He had always carried out his brother’s orders no matter his feelings on them.

“You’re the grimmest asshole in the whole bloody Realm. You’re never happy with me,” Robert had told him gruffly when he had arrived in King’s Landing, “But you are my brother. We agree on nothing, but you have always known your duty and your place.”

“You are my brother and my king. I will bend my knee to no one else. I am loyal to you, your throne, and our blood,” Stannis had answered in a low tone.

Robert snorted and downed his wine in a single gulp. “Fucking Cersei,” he said irritably. “What the hell is she playing at? We have two healthy sons. Joffrey might not be worth much, mind you, but the boy has rarely ever been sick. And it’s not like I’ve ever reproached her for their looks,” he added defensively, “Though I would have been well within my rights to do so.”

So, what was driving Cersei’s anger against him?

Hatred against Johanna for having Robert’s attention? Cersei had always been insulted by it, of course, but she had found Johanna amusing enough-an entertaining diversion-before she laid eyes on Orys. And Cersei might not have liked Stannis, but she hadn’t worked against him until he had fathered a son.

It all came down to Orys.

“Loyalty to family is important,” the queen demurred, “Does your loyalty run only to your brothers?”

Stannis’s eyes narrowed.

It all came down to both their children.

“My brother’s trueborn heirs,” he said slowly, thinking of Tommen’s bright eyes and Myrcella’s brighter grins and trying hard not to think of Joffrey, “will always have my loyalty.”

The queen did not smile.

*

Sometimes it still gave Johanna pause to comprehend the radical shift her life had undergone. Barely two and a half years ago she had been a bastard girl in Winterfell, dreading the future, spending her time learning ledgers, history and sewing, and heading into the godswood with Robb to swing a sword. She had been surrounded by her siblings but stood ever apart from them; she had no prospects, no name-only a hunger to be more.

And now she was more.

Now she was a wife, a mother, and a lady of one of the Great Houses of Westeros. She was the Lady of Dragonstone, the wife of its lord, the mother of its heir. She was the goodsister of the king-no matter how little she personally liked the man, it did not change his status.

She breathed in the ocean air and smiled.

Margaery had told her of the gardens of her home, of Highgarden’s colorful rows of flowers, of its gentle breezes that always carried the sweet scent of spring and its peaceful rivers one could float down without a care. Her friend proclaimed there was no place as beautiful as Highgarden. And Johanna only had to close her eyes and she could see the wolfswood-she could smell the pine trees, feel the cold wins and see the low fog and summer snows. She could see Robb and Theon racing ahead as Arya laughed, chasing after them, and she and Bran walked hand in hand.

Yet, as she watched Orys drag Shireen over rocks and around towering birch trees, leaving the path behind, Johanna knew she could find no better sight in all the world than this.

The love she felt at the sight of her son and his sister took her breath away.

“Stay in my sight!” Johanna called out as a reminder.

“Yes, Mama!” Orys called back. “Look ‘En! Worms!”

Johanna snorted inelegantly.

“How wonderful!” Shireen said in a high-pitched voice. “Let’s keep going, brother, let’s leave the worms be.”

“But-”

“No,” Johanna raised her voice, “Listen to your sister, sweetling.”

Orys tumbled back into her view, pouting, his hand cupped together, clearly holding worms in them.

“Why not?” he asked sadly.

Shireen came into view next, carefully picking her way over the dirt back to the path.

“Because the garden is their home. They are happy here,” Johanna replied, smiling at her son, “They wouldn’t be happy in your room.”

Orys sighed but crouched down, letting go of the worms he had picked up. Shireen tried to hide her shudder.

“We’re almost there,” Johanna said, motioning them forward.

Orys perked back up, looking at his sister. “Race?” he asked with a smile.

Shireen grinned. “Only if you want to lose!”

Orys giggled. “No! You’ll lose!”

“One,” Johanna began to count and Shireen and Orys hurried to stand on the path next to each other, “Two, three, go!”

Both Shireen and Orys dashed ahead but Johanna wasn’t overly concerned. Nearly every time Johanna brought Shireen and Orys to the growing godswood with her this occurred. Normally, Johanna would even be racing alongside them.

She smiled and rested her right hand on her protruding stomach. At eight months, she was finding it easier to walk about than it had been when she carried Orys but she still didn’t have the energy to race after Shireen and Orys. Still, her pregnancy brought a happy smile to her face and a curious fascination to Orys’s. Shireen loved to curl up with Johanna during their sewing and when Stannis had been there, he couldn’t stop running his hands over her stomach.

He departed King’s Landing yesterday, she knew. She had had no missives to the contrary, to say his plans had been changed, so Johanna trusted that he would be home soon. She could not help but still feel annoyed that Stannis had been gone at all during her pregnancy. Rationally, Johanna knew it was not unexpected, that, in fact, it was expected for many ladies that their lords would not be by their side during their pregnancies, but Johanna grew up in Winterfell. Eddard Stark could only be moved from his pregnant wife’s side by war.

Selfishly, she wanted that.

And adding to her own conflicted feelings, the idea of Stannis being in King’s Landing while Johanna carried their second child was not an easy one to bear. She could never forget, no matter how long she lived, that heart-stopping moment when Orys had begun to fall.

She did take comfort in the news from her goodbrother that another fraction had sprung up in the face of the queen’s courtiers and their grumblings. A pushback, so to speak, from other lords of the Realm, lords who made up the bulk of the fleets and had money in sea trade. They were content with Stannis as Master of Ships. And they also just happened to be a larger fraction that the queen’s. Johanna hoped the queen hated every bit of it.

Renly, Johanna had quickly learned, could be utterly vicious and cruel when he wanted to be. She loved him dearly for it and was only too glad he loved Orys as fiercely as she and Stannis did.

Renly and Ser Loras would likely not be in Dragonstone for this birth, but Johanna clung to the hope that Stannis would be.

Ahead of her, she could hear Shireen and Orys laughing. She forced her dark thoughts away. She would not brood on the woman who had once tolerated her and now plotted to kill her son and likely the child Johanna now carried.

Both turned to look at her as she came into view, their faces flushed and smiles wide. Behind them was the still growing weirwood. There would never be a face carved into it but just the sight of its white bark and red leaves was enough to bring Johanna peace.

Orys came quickly to her side and said, as quietly as he could, which was not very quiet at all, “I won, Mama!”

“Did you now?” Johanna asked, smiling. “Congratulations! I’m so proud of you!”

Orys beamed up at her.

“You are so fast, little brother,” Shireen added, grinning just as widely as Orys. Their grins were the same.

“En, you’re fast too,” Orys told her, “but I’m faster.”

Johanna couldn’t help her giggles. Shireen was also shaking with laughter but trying to muffle it.

“Are the two of you ready?” Johanna asked after she had gotten herself under control.

Both Orys and Shireen nodded solemnly. Shireen joined them, standing on Johanna’s left as Orys stood on her right.

Carefully, Johanna faced the weirwood and knelt on the mossy ground. She bowed her head in prayer.

Gods of my father, grant me justice.

She prayed for that ever since they had taken Orys to King’s Landing. She wanted one day to stand before Cersei Lannister and be given the answers to why. Why her son.

Gods of my kin, watch over my children.

Her son was a blessing. So too was the babe growing inside her. She would do anything, she knew, fight any battle she had to, to protect them. She was their mother. She would do what was necessary to protect them.

Never had she understood Lady Stark more and why she had always seen Johanna as a threat. She wished she understood Cersei Lannister, wished she could understand why the woman found Johanna and her children such a threat to hers.

Gods of my heart, protect my family.

The wind blew and made the branches sway. It almost felt like an answer.

*

It always made Shireen uncomfortable to be reminded that there were those who thought Shireen should resent her younger siblings. They looked at her and wondered why she was not angry to be displaced as her father's heir. Shireen did not have the courage to tell them the truth, simple as it was, but she wished she did. Perhaps one day she might.

She had never had any desire to be her father's heir. She would have done it, as it was her duty, but her only real desire was to be happy. As such, she would not give up Orys and her new sibling, whether they were another brother or a sister, for all the crowns and riches in all the world.

It was terrible, Shireen often thought, that they could not understand that. That they prized power and ambition over joy and family.

She was in Johanna's sitting room, now, the one carved into the cliffs, with only three walls. She faced the open side, looking out onto the sea and smelling it as the winds blew the scent to her. She stood, relaxing in the quiet and the sounds of distant waves.

As she relaxed, she began to think of what she would write in her next letter to Bran. Bran was her favorite of Johanna's siblings to write to. He was her age and his honest joy could always be felt in every word he wrote. They traded stories and drawings. She spoke of the open ocean and the cry of gulls and he spoke of dark woods and the howls of wolves. And as he had awoken in her the desire to see the forests he told her about, she had awoken a desire in him too, to come and see Dragonstone and the sea, and to scale the cliffs which made up her home.

Shireen smiled. She hoped someday she and Bran could meet face to face and show each other their different homes.

Thoughts of her friend and the peaceful solitude had done much to ease Shireen's nerves. But it did not ease her tension entirely.

Orys's birth had gone well but even with that knowledge in the back of her mind, Shireen was still tense. Father was due home soon, perhaps only hours away at most, but Johanna was also likely to give birth any hour now. It made her anxious. And it did not help that instead of the comforting presence of her uncle and Ser Loras, several of the lords sworn to Dragonstone had arrived instead.

These lords still intimidated her, though she was far too humiliated to admit it. But her words were lost in her throat whenever she had to face them and it was embarrassing. She didn't know how anyone could have ever expected her to be anything when she still tripped over her own words when speaking to people she felt were judging her.

It was hard, she could admit that. In Westeros, and perhaps the world as well but Shireen did not know a lot about the cultures of Essos to say for certain, women were judged by the blood and by their looks. Though no one had ever told her so outright, Shireen was not stupid. She understood what everyone did not want to speak of.

Shireen had the right blood. She would never have the looks.

And more, there were times when she looked at Orys, so healthy and hale, and was overcome with a fear that left her shaking and breathless. What if the greyscale which marred her spread to her brother? What if she made him sick?

What if she caused her new sibling to become sick?

Those dark thoughts haunted her. She could not stop herself from dwelling on them.

She would never, never, forgive herself if either of her siblings became stricken with greyscale.

Her tension returned, and her stomach churned unpleasantly. She closed her eyes and breathed slowly through her nose and then out her mouth.

She was a Baratheon. She would not allow her fear to ruin her. She refused to suffer such a fate.

There was a knock on the closed door behind her. Shireen jumped slightly before she turned hastily. Was Johanna entering into labor?

“You may enter,” she called out.

Lord Monford Velaryon entered, much to Shireen’s surprise and dismay.

“Lord Velaryon,” she said, sweeping into a curtsey, trying to imitate Johanna. “Is Lady Johanna all right?”

“Yes,” the Lord nodded, “Lady Baratheon is still quite fine. I apologize for startling you, Lady Shireen.”

Shireen tried to smile. “Thank you but there’s no need. I was only momentarily startled.”

She hoped that was the right thing to say. It seemed to be because Lord Velaryon just continued to smile. He didn’t seem offended or bored at all.

“How are you today, my lady?” the Lord asked, still smiling and seeming quite friendly. Shireen was still a bit intimidated by the man, as he was formidable and could have a sharp tongue, but he also seemed to truly like and respect Johanna. He had gone from being one of her father’s most cankerous vassals to being perhaps his most loyal.

Whatever Lord Velaryon had decided on Orys’s first nameday, it had made him fierce and unwavering in his devotion.

And many other lords had followed him as well, both those sworn to Dragonstone and others in the Crownslands along with some in the Reach. It was strange, and she knew Johanna was puzzled and mystified by it as well.

Her father just seemed irritated by it all. Uncle Renly was making overtures of friendship to them.

“Love wins fiercer loyalty than fear,” Uncle Renly had told her before. “Fear only wins you loyalty until you die. Love means men will die in your name even after your death. They will fight for your House and your children, even if you are gone.”

For whatever reason, Johanna held Velaryon’s love and loyalty.

“I am well, my lord. Thank you for asking,” she replied, wondering why he had sought her out. She found it harder to trust the intention of strangers these days after she was finally told what happened in King’s Landing.

“I’m glad,” he said, still in a kind and friendly tone, “The Lady and your younger brother are both very fond of you.”

Ah, she thought. That is what this is about.

Her fury rose inside her at the thought of this man daring to question her love of her brother, but she swallowed it down. Did not people always assume?

Though Johanna had never spoken of it to her, Shireen knew her friend and stepmother suffered from the assumptions people made when she was younger. Bastards were said to be lustful and treacherous like Daemon Blackfyre. Jealous souls easily led astray and who would try to usurp the rights of their trueborn siblings.

It was why Lady Stark had not loved Johanna, why Johanna had never felt she belonged in her father’s halls.

And people looked now at Shireen and Orys and likely thought of Rhaenya and Aegon II.

But the difference is, she thought, I love my half-siblings and desire no throne. I was never the Realm’s Delight.

“As fond, as they are of me, I am fonder still of them,” Shireen said evenly, drawing herself up to her full height and squaring her shoulders. She looked Lord Velaryon in the eyes and refused to blink.

Lord Velaryon bowed his head in acknowledgment and made to speak but Shireen was not yet done.

“Most people wonder at it, I’m sure,” she continued pleasantly, never knowing at that moment how much she resembled her father and late grandfather, “But those people do not know me. They do not know what it is like to be me. They do not know what it is like to not only be the only surviving child of their parents but to also be marred. I am not a fool, my lord. I know people look upon me, look upon my scars, and see me as cursed.”

The man was silent, letting her speak.

“But Johanna never did. She looked at me and smiled. She reached out her hand and offered me all her love. Orys was never raised to fear me. He looks at me and trusts me to never hurt him. I helped teach him to walk, to read. He comes to me when he struggles with his lessons, or when he wants a companion to play with. Orys will one day be the Lord of this House instead of me, that is true, but that does not matter. Wherever and whoever I marry will not change this one fact: I will always be his elder sister and protector. I will kill any man or woman who is a threat to him, whether I have to do so myself or ask the men sworn to my House to go to war for my brother.”

She knew she should not be threatening Lord Velaryon so openly. Uncle Renly would not approve but she burned with her anger.

But Lord Velaryon was not offended at all by her words. He looked pleased.

“You are truly your father’s daughter, my lady,” he said, bowing to her and gazing at her with respect. “It is true, I was concerned. It is easy when you are young to love but harder when you grow. Power is seductive. Some remain unchanged in the face of it and others die in a mad desire to have it. I wanted to take your measure. But I see now that you are a true Baratheon, even more than your uncle, our beloved king. You are strong. Like your father and his father before him.”

“Then I am glad we understand each other now, my lord,” she said slowly, nodding to him. “You and yours are my brother’s loyal men and I am his sister. For now, and always.”

“For now, and always,” he promised, “I shall be your brother’s most loyal subject.”

*

Arya sighed, staring morosely at the carved face, weeping its red tears. It was easier to hide from people in the godswood then in her mother’s sept, though Arya liked both well enough for prayer. She only felt any true loyalty to the Old Gods, but the sept was warm and comforting. She had the stupid feeling that the sept felt like one of her mother’s hugs.

Sansa did not like the godswood, preferring the Seven and the sept. Arya could count on her hands the number of times Sansa had willingly entered this deep into the godswood, to sit before the weirwood.

The godswood was Arya’s place.

This was the place where Arya played hide and seek with Johanna. This was where she had watched Johanna and Robb learn swordplay. She could still remember being around three years of age and watching Robb correct Johanna’s stance before they began to spar, wooden swords clanging, Johanna laughing and Robb grinning.

She and Bran liked to race each other through the trees, pretending they were wolves running wild and free. They liked to play pretend, Bran climbing up into the trees and proclaiming himself King while Arya grabbed a stick and yelled that she was the Outlaw Leader.

This was her place, the place she shared with the siblings who liked her.

And that was why she was here because she missed her elder sister so much it hurt. Sansa and Jeyne were being awful today.

The one-time Jeyne had called her Arya Horseface where Johanna could hear her, Johanna had gone into a rage. She had drawn herself up to her full height, towering over Jeyne and Sansa, her gaze so fierce that both had flinched.

“What did you call my sister, Jeyne Poole,” Johanna had demanded in a voice of steel. Her words were perfectly enunciated and the look on her face had been so severe and cold that it had been terrible to behold. Jeyne’s courage had failed her. She had paled rapidly and could not raise her eyes from the floor. Sansa, on the other hand, had colored, her face flushing to match her hair.

“Half-sister,” Sansa had corrected then, trembling. “Arya is your half-sister for she is trueborn, an-and you are just a bastard.”

Johanna’s face had not changed at Sansa’s words, but Arya had gone hot with anger on her behalf. Sansa was always saying stupid things like that, though. It didn’t matter that Johanna always treated Sansa as her sister, was always kind and helpful and loving. Sansa held their sister at arm’s length, just like Mother did.

Arya hadn’t understood it then and she still didn’t understand it now.

But even with Sansa’s hurtful words, Johanna had not wavered in her defense of Arya.

“Indeed. I am a bastard and no true lady like yourself, dear sister. But Arya is your full sister, the daughter of your lord father and your lady mother. She deserves more curtsey from you than you have shown her.” The iron tones of Johanna’s voice had left no room for argument. She had been all steel and the chill of winter.

Then, once she was done speaking, she proved that Arya was right to love Johanna most. She had put her arm around Arya’s shoulders and led them away. Jo had had the stable hands saddle their horses and led them from Winterfell, where there was nothing but the world and the wind before them.

Arya’s lady mother had been furious with Johanna, after, and Sansa had been unbearably smug by Johanna’s punishment. It still made Arya want to rage and tell Mother the truth, that Johanna had only been protecting her from Sansa and Jeyne. But she had been afraid that it would only make things worse between Mother and Johanna.

She wished Johanna was here now to protect her from Sansa and Jeyne.

Jeyne had never called her Arya Horseface again, but she and Sansa still called her ugly and dumb. She resented that Sansa tried so hard to be perfect like Mother. She wasn’t Mother. She could never be Mother.

Sansa was nothing like Johanna either. It was so much easier with Johanna. Johanna was patient with Arya, never speaking to her hurtfully. She didn’t make japes about Arya’s sewing. And it was fun to read with Johanna, learning about the history of Westeros, because Johanna always had a comment on what they read, and she wanted to hear what Arya had to say too. She didn’t think that Arya was wrong, just because they didn’t agree with each other. And Johanna also liked to ride horses and to race Arya. She liked to learn about weapons too, just like Arya did.

It wasn’t fair that Arya could love Sansa so much but not like her at all. That she wished it was Sansa who was taken South and that Johanna was still here.

“I miss my sisters,” Arya told the old face sadly.

Johanna was far to the south, but Sansa was further away than that. Arya didn’t know if she and Sansa could ever get along again.

But they used to.

Johanna might have always sat between them, mediating their clashing personalities, but the three of them had giggled together, playing in the snow, and racing in the sept’s gardens. She and Sansa would play with their brothers together, Sansa as the beautiful princess and Arya as the fierce knight, and they’d laugh and shriek at the scary stories Robb and Johanna made up. Sansa used to braid Arya’s hair, her face screwed up in concentration, as she carefully did Arya’s hair, making sure never to pull too hard.

They didn’t do that anymore.

Sansa had outgrown Arya. She wanted to be a lady, all grown up and beautiful, just like the people in one of her songs. But all Arya wanted was to still play in the snow and laugh alongside their brothers, just as she always had.

“Sansa and I don’t like each other anymore,” she continued, trusting in the Old Gods to keep her heart protected in their grasp, “She’s so stupid. And mean. I don’t understand why being a lady means I must stop being me. I want to be like Jo. She learned how to use a sword and still knows how to sew and sing. Jo is a lady, just like Mother. I don’t want to act like Sansa-like I don’t know how to have fun.”

The woods were silent.

“It’s not my fault,” Arya said defensively, “Sansa wants to be perfect. She wants to be pretty and sweet, so everyone will love her. I don’t want that. I want to ride horses and play outside and explore. I don’t want to go South.”

She swallowed hard at that, her vision blurring.

“Would that make you happy? Staying here in the North?”

Arya lurched forward and scrambled to her feet to see her father behind her.

“Father!” she cried, surprised to see him.

He smiled at her. “Your mother is looking for you,” he told her, his voice soft but his eyes intent. “You ran from your lessons with the Septa.”

She colored and lowered her eyes. Her tongue felt clumsy. She had run away rather than deal with Sansa, Jeyne, and Septa Mordane’s judgments. It had been the act of a coward.

“Do you want me to go back?” she asked.

“In a moment. I’d like us to speak before you go and apologize to your lady mother.”

He came to stand beside her and gestured to the ground as he began to sit. Arya quickly sat back down beside him.

“Will you tell me what upset you today?” he asked. He didn’t seem angry with her.

She shrugged. When Johanna had stood unflinchingly before Mother, defending taking Arya riding and speaking to rudely to Sansa-as Sansa had claimed-Arya had wanted to speak up, to tell Mother that Sansa had started it, and had even started to do so but Mother had been too angry to hear Arya. She wondered if Father would be too angry to listen to her now.

“Are you angry with me?” she asked instead.

“I was,” Father said mildly. “Everyone has stopped their work to look for you. No one could find you and you missed the midday meal.”

Arya’s stomach growled at the reminder. “Oh.”

“But I see now you were too upset to come back,” he continued.

She swallowed and nodded. They sat in silence, Father waiting for her to speak. Finally, the words bubbled up and with them, her courage.

“Septa Mordane was lecturing me and Sansa and Jeyne were giggling because I was being scolded,” Arya told her father, “But I don’t care that my stitches aren’t as nice as Sansa’s! I don’t care that I’m not a proper lady! What so good about the South and the Queen? I don’t like her!”

Father looked at her sharply at that. “Arya,” he said in his most serious and firm voice, “You must not say something like that openly. It’s dangerous.”

That made Arya lower her eyes, suddenly ashamed. Her stomach churned. “I know.”

They sat in silence for a minute before Father took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Why don’t you like the Queen?”

Arya focused on the pond, knowing she had to answer. “I heard about her cousin. About what she tried to do to Orys.”

It made her angry all over again, just to think about it.

“It’s dangerous to say anything about the Queen or her family,” Father warned her softly. “Do not speak openly about that again. Swear it to me, Arya.”

“I won’t,” she promised, “I swear.”

She swallowed. Father took her hand in his and she clutched it tightly.

“But I guess Sansa doesn’t know. Or maybe she just doesn’t care. She was talking about the Queen, admiring her, saying how great she was. She said we should all try to be more like Queen Cersei and me especially. She said I should admire the Queen instead of Jo and I got really mad at her. I didn’t tell her why, just that Jo was better than the Queen, and that she was stupid for saying otherwise.”

Father sighed. “For the moment, it’s better for Sansa to be unaware of what happened in King’s Landing. It would have been better for you not to know, either. I will inform your sister in my own time. Do not speak to her of it before I give you my permission.”

“Yes, Father. I will,” she said, feeling small and a little afraid.

“Does Sansa often criticize you?” he asked her after another pause.

“All the time! She doesn’t want to do anything fun, she just wants to sew and sing!”

“People like different things, Arya,” Father cut in, “You and Sansa are two different people.”

“But why can’t she be more like Jo? Jo likes all that soft stuff while still being fun!” Arya complained.

Father chuckled at that. “All three of you are different people, for all that the same Stark blood flows through your veins. It’s not fair to Sansa to want or expect her to be Johanna. Just as it’s not fair for Sansa to disrespect your likes and dislikes to fit her needs.”

She considered that and found she understood it, even if she didn’t like it. Arya leaned against her father, still holding his hand. “Do you remember when Mother got angry with Johanna for taking me riding and being mean to Sansa?”

She thought he would. He and Mother had fought about it, Arya knew. They had been cold and distant with each other for days.

Father frowned at the memory. “I do. It was five years ago, wasn’t it? Why is that memory bothering you now?”

“Jo got mad because she heard Sansa and Jeyne calling me Arya Horseface,” she blurted out, “That’s why she took me riding. And she wasn’t really mean to Sansa. She just told Sansa and Jeyne to stop.”

“They called you Horseface?” Father asked, upset.

“For a few months before Jo heard them,” Arya admitted. “Mother was too angry to listen when I tried to explain.”

“Your mother had a reason to be angry,” Father sighed, sounding tired, “Johanna shouldn’t have taken you out of Winterfell without permission. She should have come to me or your mother and told us what had happened.”

Arya frowned up at him. “Taking me riding made me happy.”

“Yes. But it was the move of a child. It didn’t solve the problem, did it? No adult chastised Sansa or Jeyne for their behavior,” her father explained.

“Oh.” Arya turned that over in head and considered it. It was an odd thing to think.

“Were Sansa and Jeyne calling you names again?” Father asked in a stern voice. He sounded like he did when he spoke to his men and other lords. There was a part of Arya which wanted to lie. She didn’t want Sansa to think that Arya went crying to their father over a few hurtful words. But Arya knew that tone of Father’s well. Her lord father would tolerate no lie from her.

“Sort of,” she admitted, “They were talking about the Queen like I said earlier, and I got angry with them. Then Sansa got angry and called me ugly. And then I shouted at her that I wasn’t because I look like Jo and Jo is not ugly and Septa Mordane came over. And then Sansa said I wasn’t behaving and the Septa noticed my stitching was wrong and she started to lecture me. So, I ran away.”

Father was quiet again. Then he sighed. “You are a great deal like my sister, Lyanna. She detested the women’s arts and work. She was wild and passionate, just as you are.”

Father stopped there, grief displayed plainly on his face. Arya leaned in closer and hugged her father, wrapping her arms around him as much as she could. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and held her close.

Her father did not talk about his sister.

“Lyanna,” her father said at last, “struggled to find her place. Our mother died when we were young and our father.” Here, Father paused before continuing in a heavy and tired voice, “He was a good man and a great lord. He sought to do well by his sons by fostering us and sought to do well by his daughter by making her a great match.”

“Did that make your sister happy?” Arya asked, marveling over what her father was sharing with her. Her father wasn’t like her mother; he did not share stories of the relatives his children had never met. Arya had never considered why that was before, but she thought now it was because most of Mother’s family were still alive. Arya had a grandfather in the Riverlands as well as an uncle and she had met Mother’s sister, her Aunt Lysa, when Johanna had gotten married to Stannis Baratheon.

But only Uncle Benjen was left of Father’s family. And even when Uncle Benjen made a visit to see them, he and Father did not speak of the past. Uncle Benjen only wanted to hear about what they had done, though if they begged enough, he would smile and speak about the lands north of the Wall.

Father smiled sadly. “Choosing her own match would have made Lyanna happier. Our father considering Lyanna’s own desires and values would have made my sister happy. All she wanted was a say in her own fate.”

“But she didn’t get that, did she?” Arya asked sadly.

“No,” Father said quietly, “She didn’t.”

*

The look in her mother’s eyes made her feel more ashamed than the frown on her father’s face. Sansa was not used to facing her parents’ displeasure. She had always been the most well behaved out of her siblings.

“Sansa,” Father began, “I have heard of your treatment of your sister.”

Sansa wanted to protest but she didn’t know how. She didn’t know how to explain her love and resentment of both Arya and Johanna. Arya was always in trouble. She ran as wild as a boy, disobeyed the Septa constantly, and while Mother chastised her for it, she was never properly punished for it either. Mother and Father expected Arya to be a lady, the lady she was born to be, but they loved Arya even though her sister didn’t obey them at all.

It was so hard to deal with Arya who never listened and never spoke with any curtsey at all. Sansa hated it.

Arya just couldn’t accept that she could never be a knight or a warrior. They were ladies. They were meant for grand castles and keeps, not battles and bloodshed.

Sansa wanted that. She wanted those grand castles and keeps, the love all the songs were about. She wanted the sweet tenderness which she saw every day with Mother and Father.

She couldn’t understand why Arya didn’t.

It was even worse with Johanna.

Johanna had been a bastard, even though she wasn’t anymore thanks to the King, and yet all eyes had been drawn to her. She could sing and sew just as well as Sansa could and she played the harp better than Sansa could ever dream, but she also liked to run wild with the others. She liked to swing a sword against Robb and play games with Arya and Bran.

As an older sister, Johanna had been the best because Johanna was so kind and loving, always there when Sansa needed her, even if Sansa had just spoken angrily to her an hour ago… and the worse because she was so perfect, Sansa had felt she could never measure up.

Johanna had been a bastard and Sansa was trueborn, but it didn’t matter. Everyone could see how wonderful Johanna was. And Sansa loved Johanna, she truly did, for all that Johanna was only her half-sister. She loved Johanna.

She loved it when Johanna gave Sansa hugs when she was feeling upset or sang with Sansa. Johanna was the only one of her siblings who loved songs as Sansa did and it was so nice to be able to curl up with one of her sisters and talk about songs and romance. She loved to receive letters from Johanna, telling them how happy she was and how beautiful Orys was. She was glad, truly glad, that her sister was happy.

But it was also hard to deal with all of it. With everything that Johanna represented.

Because Sansa didn’t know how to surpass Johanna.

It would make Mother so happy for Sansa to be better than Johanna because Johanna being raised in Winterfell was an insult to Mother. Everyone knew it. Everyone knew that Father bringing his bastard home to be raised alongside his trueborn children, to be granted a place of honor among his household, meant that he valued Johanna as much as he valued Sansa and Arya. And for him to value his bastard daughter as much as he valued his trueborn daughters, then he must value her mother just as dearly.

Perhaps even more dearly than he valued his wife.

Sansa didn’t like to think about it because it made her angry and confused. She didn’t understand how Father could be so good and honorable and still have had Johanna. Could still bring her home to Winterfell, even when he knew how much it would hurt Mother.

And in the back of her mind, she was left always wondering: did Father love Johanna more than he loved Sansa? Did he want Johanna more than he wanted the rest of them?

She was terrified and hurt that the answer might be yes.

Her parents were watching her, but Sansa didn’t know what to say. She knew she had been unkind. She should not have lost her temper. Arya was young, and her little sister still missed Johanna and wanted their older sister to come home to Winterfell. Sansa should be more patient with Arya, she knew that. With Johanna gone, it was up to Sansa now. She had to guide Arya as Johanna had once guided and protected both Sansa and Arya.

But sometimes her younger sister made that so difficult.

“I…,” she took a deep breath and tried again when she faltered, “I was not kind to her, earlier.”

“No,” her mother said, in a soft and even tone, which Sansa knew was even worse. If Mother shouted, her anger would pass when she was done. When she was this controlled, it meant she was truly angry. “You were not.”

Sansa looked down, ashamed.

“But you were not just unkind to her today, were you?” Father asked.

She blinked back her tears, her shame hot and ugly. She shook her head.

“Your sister did not want to admit it, but she told me you and your friends used to call her Arya Horseface. Until Johanna made you stop,” Father said.

She nodded again.

“And you told me that Johanna had been unkind to you,” her mother said evenly, “when she took Arya out riding that day. You did not mention Johanna had been unkind because you were being cruel to your sister. Instead, you let her face a greater punishment, rather than admit your own wrongdoings.”

The memory of that day still burned. She could still remember how cold Johanna had looked, and how dignified. She looked every inch a lady. Like someone Sansa could never be.

“Sansa,” her father said, “What is wrong? Why are you treating your sisters this way?”

She hesitated, unsure of what to say. Because Arya did not behave and wanted to act like a boy? Because Johanna was so much better than Sansa and she felt small and inferior because of it? They seemed like such petty reasons, but they hurt. And Sansa didn’t know how to explain how much they hurt.

“Sweetling, we will listen to you, no matter what you have to say. You are unhappy, that much is clear,” her mother said.

“I’m not. I’m not setting out to make Arya upset,” Sansa tried to explain but faltered. She felt so conflicted and lost. Why couldn’t Arya understand that one day she would have to grow up? Her sister wouldn’t be a little girl who could run around in the dirt and swing swords forever. They were expected to be more.

They were meant for silk and songs. They were meant to be beautiful and gracious.

“Arya never listens,” she finally blurted out, “And Johanna is perfect.”

Her father looked taken aback. Her mother stilled, and Sansa panicked for a minute, thinking she should not have mentioned Johanna, despite what her mother had said about listening no matter what.

She didn’t want to upset her mother. She never wanted that, just like she never wanted to disappoint her father.

“Lysa didn’t always listen to me,” her mother said, after a short pause, “And though she would not admit it to me, I could tell that it hurt her to be compared to me. But I am older than Lysa. I danced more gracefully because I had additional years of practice Lysa did not have. It was not so much that I was better, as it was that I was older.”

“Do you think so?” Sansa asked, hating how small her voice was. “She always told me that I had the better voice and the steadier hand, but I thought she was just being kind.”

Father laughed. Both Mother and she turned to look at him with surprise, but he was smiling. “You do have the better voice,” he told her, stating it as though it was a fact of the world. The sun rises in the morning. Sansa could sing better than Johanna. “And your sewing is lovely. You are polite and charming to everyone you meet, whether they are noble or not. You are perfect, Sansa.”

She turned red at that, smiling at her father. She had never loved him more than in that moment.

“Ned,” her mother said fondly, shaking her head at him.

“Our daughter is perfect, my lady,” he replied, still smiling, “Do you not agree?”

Mother’s lips twitched. She was fighting back a smile. “All our children are perfect, my lord. I will never argue against that. But that is not what we are here to discuss.”

Father turned serious again at Mother’s words. “Your sister has the wolf’s blood, Sansa, as my own father would have said.”

Sansa blinked, puzzled. “The wolf’s blood, Father?” she asked.

“My brother Brandon had it. My sister had more than a touch of it as well,” her father said quietly. Mother was silent at his side. Sansa went cold at the mention of her father’s late siblings-the ones who had died young. She could not help but think it an ill omen. She did not want to lose her sister, as Father had lost his.

“He would say that there was too much of our land and people in them. We are Starks. We are meant for the hardness of the North and the wild. It does not mean she will always be as she is now. My father did not have much of their wildness in him, but my mother did. And yet she bore the weight of the North and sang just as sweetly as you do.”

“She did?” she asked, dazed by all the new information about her father’s family. How strange and yet sweet it was to know that her father’s mother had sung just like she did.

“She did,” her father confirmed quietly, “You and Arya are as different as night and day, that is true. You could be happy anywhere in Westeros, but your sister will only be happy here in the North. But your differences should not drive you apart from one another. You are both Starks. You are both wolves. And remember this most of all, my daughter: the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.”

The words chilled her, but Sansa understood at once what her father meant. No matter how many leagues separated them, she and her siblings were meant to be stand by one another. They were meant to love and protect one another.

She nodded. “I understand.”

“Good,” her mother said. “Because from now on, you and Arya will be spending part of your lessons with me. I do not wish for my daughters to be strangers to one another and so you will learn together, and only together until I am satisfied with your understanding.”

Sansa was very careful not to grimace. It did not sound fun but perhaps it might help. Perhaps it would let Sansa and Arya grow close again. To like each other again. It had been so long since they had. At the very least, Arya would listen more if it was Mother telling her what to do and not Septa Mordane.

But, secretly, Sansa hoped it would be a fresh start.

*

Even after more than a decade of living in Winterfell, there were places where Catelyn still felt like she did not belong in. Every time she stepped foot in the godswood to retrieve either Ned or one of their children, Catelyn felt the gazes of the Old Gods. The silence in the air always seemed to whisper to her that she should not be here, that the godswood was not her place.

But the crypts were far worse.

For ten thousand years, the Kings of Winter were buried down in the depths beneath Winterfell, their silent statues staring down at any who entered. The tunnels were long and winding, full of the dead, and always quiet. The crypts belonged to these dead kings, not to the living.

This was a place meant only for the Starks.

For many years, Catelyn had stepped foot in this place only once, at her new husband’s invitation, to see Brandon’s statue put into its place. Brandon’s death was still a painful memory, though time had softened its bitter edge. Seeing Brandon laid to rest, with all the honors he was due, had hurt, especially with his younger brother at her side-the husband that had so recently humiliated her.

After that day, Catelyn had not gone down to the crypts again, not even to visit her once fiancée’s bones.

She had never come down to openly grieve Brandon and make her peace with his murder out of fear of further undermining her position as Ned’s wife. By bringing home his bastard daughter to raise in a position of prominence and pride, Ned told the world that he valued his bastard and her mother just as much as he valued Catelyn and his trueborn son-even more, perhaps. His refusal to send her away, insisting that Winterfell was Johanna’s place, had hurt Catelyn both politically and personally.

Now, she knew that Ned had not meant that Winterfell was Johanna’s place because she was his daughter. And he had been correct: the daughter of Lyanna Stark did indeed have a place in Winterfell.

But she hadn’t known that then. Ned hadn’t trusted her-or anyone, truly-with that secret. Then, Ned’s claiming his bastard daughter had been enough to almost irreversibly damage the budding relationship between the two of them.

At the time, Catelyn had resolved to not make her position worse by displaying her grief for all to see. She would not let anyone, but especially her lord husband, see her grieve her husband’s brother.

She regretted that, now. Brandon had deserved better.

But she had been thinking of herself and her son, bereft of allies and kin in a strange land.

She was thinking of all her children now, as she came to stand before her goodsister’s effigy.

Ned and Benjen went down into the crypts often: Benjen paid his respects at the end of every one of his visits and Ned went to visit his lost siblings and parents on the anniversaries of the deaths, on the days of their births, or when his grief carried him down into these dark passages. He came down to stand before his sister’s grave the most and, these days, Catelyn found herself doing the same.

She had never known Lyanna Stark. She had never laid eyes on Brandon and Ned’s sister while the girl had been alive. She knew only the statue before her.

Catelyn was certain she knew the truth of Johanna parentage and the treason Ned had been so afraid to share with her. For if the secret of Johanna’s mother could be deemed treasonous, then Johanna could not be Ned’s daughter. The King would forgive his foster brother anything… except hiding Rhaegar Targaryen’s last child and letting her wed the King’s own brother.

That was a treason that would both enrage King Robert beyond reason and break his heart.

Catelyn could even understand why Ned had done it, why he had risked them all for his sister’s daughter, but Catelyn was not sure yet how to make her peace with this knowledge. It was terrifying. If King Robert ever learned the truth…

House Stark would die for it. She was certain of it.

That part of the truth Catelyn doubted she would ever make peace with. The other part, however, the far more personal hurt…

She came down to look at the mother, to try and make peace with the daughter.

But today she was in turmoil for more reasons than usual.

Lyanna Stark had died far too young and every time she came to this place, Catelyn saw her own daughters in the frozen face of their dead aunt.

Lyanna was three years older when she died than Sansa was now. Arya was currently ten years old. In five years, her youngest daughter would be the same age as the aunt she so resembled in looks and personality had been when the Dragon Prince had stolen her away.

Had Catelyn failed her daughters?

Even yesterday, Catelyn would have been certain that the answer was no-that she was doing enough to prepare her daughters for the world.

But now…

She had no idea Sansa was being so cruel to Arya and encouraging Jeyne Poole to do the same. She hadn’t realized that part of Arya’s disdain for sewing, for music and the arts came from the scorn heaped upon her by her own sister-and by the septa Catelyn had hired to teach her daughters.

She also hadn’t known that Sansa was insecure about her own accomplishments in comparison to Johanna. This was something Catelyn knew was her own fault. She had wanted her daughter to surpass Ned’s bastard in every sense, as a sop to Catelyn’s pride.

Catelyn had never wanted her children to consider Johanna Snow their sister. How many times had Catelyn been told, by septas and septons and even her own father, that bastards were lustful, sinful, and treacherous? So many times, that she couldn’t even recall the first time. She felt almost like it was a truth she had been born knowing.

But all she had thought she had known about Johanna was false. She doubted she even knew the girl’s true name, as she doubted Prince Rhaegar had wanted his daughter to be named Johanna.

She lived in your home for ten and six years, a voice in her head whispered, filling her with shame, but you know nothing of her.

It was true. She didn’t know who Johanna was because she hadn’t wanted the girl to become real to her. She had wanted the child to disappear, to never darken Catelyn’s sight again. She had taken out her anger at Ned’s insult to her out on the child who had done nothing to Catelyn.

But Johanna had not asked Ned to bring her to Winterfell. She had not asked Rhaegar Targaryen to do as what he had, either.

But the shameful truth was, it had been easier to be angry with Johanna than Ned. Because he was the man Catelyn had slowly fallen in love with… and because he was her lord husband and she had no other option but to obey him.

Before Johanna’s wedding, she had been able to justify her treatment of Johanna to herself, when late at night her conscious had churned. She had been able to justify her distrust and coldness by reminding herself of all the ways a bastard could prove a threat to Catelyn’s children-an ambitious husband using her to lay claim to Winterfell, Johanna seducing either Sansa or Arya’s husbands and causing discord, or even Johanna giving birth to sons who would seek to usurp Robb and his sons… But the truth was, Catelyn had resented having the girl in her parlor and taking lessons with Catelyn’s daughters, as though she belonged in Catelyn’s home.

As though she had a right to be there.

But Lyanna Stark’s daughter… If she had been allowed to openly be Catelyn’s niece…

And now there was no way to hide from the guilt she had always felt. She could no longer bury the guilt she felt whenever she saw Johanna looking at her with sad and hurt eyes.

She could try to justify herself once more by telling herself that she had been lied to, but it rang hollow. She could tell herself all she wanted that she was justified in treating a bastard of her husband with all the distrust and rage she could muster, that it was what was expected of her by the rest of Westeros… but Catelyn had never truly been able to justify hurting a child.

A child who was, in truth, her niece.

What could Catelyn say in the face of that? I’m sorry? I thought I was doing what was right? Those statements changed nothing. She had hated Johanna’s mother and the hold she had on Ned, on Catelyn’s husband. She hadn’t known the woman was the beloved younger sister who had died in Ned’s arms. Catelyn couldn’t even imagine being in Ned’s place but if it had been Lysa…

She swallowed back her tears. They would not help her. She had to be strong.

With the Lannisters moving against Johanna and Stannis, for whatever reason, she and Ned needed to show a strong and unified front against any who would seek to hurt their families and people. The matter of Johanna’s mother was a known issue between them. It was their most obvious weakness to strike at, to cause personal discord between Catelyn and her husband. It was past time, then, for her and Ned to speak honestly to each other.

And yet, Catelyn found herself struggling to do so.

What could she say? What should she say?

She had told Ned she could forgive him and that was the truth. She loved her husband and their children enough to let go of her anger, given enough time. But did they have that time?

More and more, Catelyn doubted it. It was time to speak to Ned.

This was the one place where Catelyn knew, without a doubt, they would have their privacy. And here, beneath the eyes of his family, beneath the eyes of his sister, Ned would not, could not, deny the truth.

Hearing footsteps behind her, Catelyn took one last look at Lyanna’s face and found her courage. I am a Tully of Riverrun, a mother of Starks, she thought, I will not falter, not when my family needs me.

She turned to face her husband.

Ned stood before her, his face grave and still, looking so much like the carved ancestors surrounding them that a chill ran up his spine. This is not his place, not yet. I will not let it be his place until we are old, and our children have had their own children.

“Ned,” she said into the silence.

“Catelyn,” he said, his voice quiet, “Why did you want to speak here?”

She almost smiled. “To ensure we are not overheard, of course. And because your sister is here.”

He stiffened, and his voice grew cold. “What do you know of my sister, my lady?”

“I know who Johanna’s mother is.”

For a long moment, Ned did not speak. His eyes never left hers. He searched her face and found the truth of it there.

“How?”

“The words you spoke on Johanna’s wedding night. And the colors of Orys’s eyes.”

Her husband’s eyes slid shut then and there was raw pain on his face before he mastered himself again. “There are many explanations that could be given for Orys’s eyes.”

“Yes,” she agreed quietly, “And I would love for the reason to be because Ashara Dayne is his grandmother. Just as I would love for his father’s Targaryen grandmother to be the sole reason. But it is not just his great-grandmother who had purple eyes. He gets that from Johanna’s other parent-the one who is not a Stark.”

Again, for a long moment, Ned did not speak. And then he let slowly let out a breath.

“Yes. He gets it from his dragon blood,” her husband admitted at last.

This time it was Catelyn who closed her eyes, blinking back tears and hurt.

“I understand, now, why you brought Johanna to Winterfell and raised her here, but the risk has grown greater, my lord.”

“I know,” Ned whispered, looking now to his sister’s effigy, “But the risk of Robert wondering why I did not accept the honor he was offering was too great as well.”

“Yes,” Catelyn agreed, “It was.” But that was no comfort to either of them.

“I do not believe the Lannisters know. Whatever grudge the Queen carries is not because she knows-if any of them knew, they would not skulk in the shadows. They would unveil the truth for all the Realm to see. Likely, the Queen wishes to remove Johanna because of how much she looks like her mother,” Catelyn said, refusing to speak, now, of her personal hurt, “Also, if the King favors his nephew too much, it would be to the detriment of the Queen’s sons.”

Ned sighed. “I thought Robert’s behavior is likely at the root of what happened. His interest in Johanna is… poorly hidden. Stannis keeps Johanna away from King’s Landing for that reason and Johanna tries not to let me know how much she hates the attention.”

She could have laughed because Johanna’s letters had masterfully danced around the subject of how much the King’s attention bothered her but only Sansa, with her romanticism, and Bran, with his youth, had been fooled.

“Cersei Lannister remains a threat,” Catelyn said softly, “And with her, her kin. We can no longer afford silence and secrets between us. There cannot be weakness our enemies can use.”

Perhaps it was also an excuse, a reason Catelyn had gladly latched onto to force this confrontation with her husband, but, right now, Catelyn did not have to admit to that.

“I am sorry,” Ned told her. “I am sorry that I have involved you in this. This should never have been your burden.”

“I told you before, your treasons are my treasons,” she told him angrily, her temper fraying.

“That is no comfort. I have lost too much, I cannot lose you as well,” he told her, his voice breaking.

“My ignorance was no protection,” she said quietly, “Robert Baratheon’s rage is too volatile for that. He has celebrated the murders of Elia Martell and her children for nearly two decades now, denied them justice all that time, just because the Princess was wed to Rhaegar Targaryen. Just because Rhaenys and Aegon were Rhaegar’s children. The children and I would not have been spared.”

She could see that Ned did not want to believe it of his old friend but there was resignation in his eyes as well. He knew, some part of him knew, for all that he did not want to admit it.

“I was twenty years old when Lyanna died in my arms,” he said, turning to look at his sister’s face now, “I did not think of myself as young-I was the Lord of Winterfell and a father. How could I be anything less than a man grown? But I think of Robb, now, and I know I was young.”

He fell silent for a long moment, just staring at his sister’s grave. Catelyn wondered if he was back in Dorne, his sister’s (a girl of ten and six, her mind whispered, and she thought again of her daughters) body in his arms.

“The wet nurse placed Johanna in my arms,” he continued, his voice nearly a whisper, “And I did not know what to do. Her mother was dying, was dead, and all she had begged of me was to protect her daughter. To take her home and keep her safe. To let her grow old. That was all she wanted at the end. For both of them to come home to Winterfell.”

The words hurt to hear. She hurt for Ned and for Lyanna.

The tears rose but she swallowed them down. She reached for anger, instead. “Why did you never tell me?” she asked him.

His lips twitched into an almost smile. “Many reasons. First, I did not know you. When I did, I told myself it was safer that you did not know. I told myself, it would be suspicious for you to love your husband’s bastard. I told myself, the truth would only do more harm. But none of those were the true reason. I had to admit the true reason when I let Johanna be wed without telling her the truth.”

Now he faced her, and she met his eyes, barely breathing. This was what she needed and wanted to hear. She had been waiting for nearly twenty years to hear this explanation from Ned.

“I never wanted to tell the truth because I wanted to erase Rhaegar Targaryen.”

Her mouth dropped open and she stared at her husband. Ned looked at her, ashamed, and Catelyn was shocked she could barely speak.

“What?” she demanded, stunned. “What do you mean?”

“She is my daughter, now. I do not want to lose her,” he explained quietly. Abruptly, Catelyn remembered that he had confessed that as well the night of Johanna’s wedding.

“You want to be her only father,” she spoke slowly, turning the idea over in her head.

A flash of anger stole across her husband’s face. “He was married! He was wed to a Princess of Dorne and had two children with her! He should never have looked at my sister!”

“Do you hate him?”

Ned had never spoken of the Dragon Prince before. Catelyn knew he hated the Mad King, but Ned had never spoken of Rhaegar and the Prince’s name was never spoken in the halls of Winterfell either.

“Yes,” Ned admitted quietly, giving his sister’s statue a pained look, “And no. I blame him for a great many things. I blame Rhaegar Targaryen for acting with such secrecy when he knew his father was mad. I blame him for involving my sister in his plots and dreams of prophecy. But, for a time, my sister thought she loved him. And because of him, I have Johanna.”

Ned sighed heavily before speaking again, “I do not think he was an evil man like the Mad King was. But I don’t approve or like the actions he took during and after the Tourney at Harrenhal.”

The Tourney where Rhaegar crowned Lyanna. That Tourney was the beginning and the end of far too much.

“Only for a time?” she asked as she tried to digest all Ned had just told her. Seeing Ned’s puzzled look, Catelyn elaborated. “She loved him only for a time?”

Ned grimaced. “When Ser Gerold Hightower tracked them to the Tower of Joy, in Dorne, he told them what had happened. What Aerys had done to Father and Brandon. She wanted to leave, then. She wanted to come home. She didn’t want him to go to war against me.”

Oh, Catelyn thought. Of course not.

“How did the Prince respond?”

Her husband was silent for a long moment. “From what little I know, he commanded the Kingsguard to keep her in the Tower and protect her, at all costs.”

She winced, stricken on behalf of her goodsister. When had Johanna been conceived? Before or after the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard found them? She refused to do the math. That was one secret she would be happy to never know.

“And what of you?” Ned asked softly, “Do you hate her?”

For a moment, Catelyn did not understand what he meant. But when she did, she was the one who turned to face Lyanna Stark’s grave.

“I do not hate her,” she admitted. She hoped that, wherever she was, Lyanna knew that.

Now it was her turn to confess dark and unhappy feelings.

“When she was an unknown woman who had a hold on your heart that I could not touch, I hated her. But now that I know…” she smiled a bit, “Well, now that I know, I am happy you do not feel for me as you feel for her.” Ned chuckled at that. It made Catelyn smile to hear before the darkness pressed down on her again.

“I do not hate her, nor do I blame her. But I am angry with her,” she confessed.

"I am angry that she went willingly with Rhaegar Targaryen, a man she knew to be wed and with children. I am angry that the between the two of them, they enveloped the Realm in a war that cost thousands of people their lives. And more, I am angry what her decision did to me.”

Here, she had to take a deep breath and clench her hands to keep them from shaking. She did not dare turn to look at her husband, unable to bear any look he might be wearing.

“I’m angry that to save her daughter, you lied to me, lied to everyone. I’m angry because if I had known Johanna was my niece, if she could openly be my niece, it could have been very different between us. I’m angry that, for all these years, I resented Johanna for something that was not even true! Further, I’m angry that you had to come back from a war to a home in turmoil because of your sister’s decisions. I am angry, terribly so,” she spoke calmly but deliberately. “But I do not blame her.”

“I don’t blame her because she was fourteen and sheltered. She had been brought up in the seclusion of Winterfell, sheltered by its walls, her father, and her brothers. Benjen told me once that all of you doted on her, that she was the favorite sibling of all three of you,”

“She was,” Ned said, the pain all too audible in his voice

“She did not want Robert Baratheon, did she?” Catelyn asked, not turning to look at Ned. She thought of the king as she had last seen him and how he treated his queen. Small wonder Cersei Lannister saw a girl who resembled Lyanna Stark and who bore a Baratheon looking babe such a threat.

“She didn’t,” Ned whispered, “She never did.”

“I thought as much. Rhaegar Targaryen,” she mused and then let out a small, shaking her head. “I remember the silver prince too, you know. What girl didn’t dream about marrying him? I had Brandon and I still envied Elia Martell, just a little bit, when she wed the Dragon Prince. He must have seemed like a dream come true for your sister! A handsome prince coming to sweep her off her feet. But he wasn’t. And she learned that to her sorrow. She died at sixteen, in a lonely tower far from her home. I pity her, I truly do,” she said softly, “And, more, I imagine my daughters in her place and want to weep.”

Ned gripped her shoulders hard, turning her to face him. His eyes blazed with intent. “I will never let our daughters suffer my sister’s fate.”

“But we didn’t know how unhappy they were,” she whispered.

He drew her close and she entered his arms willingly and gladly. She breathed in the scent of him and could not deny how much she loved him, despite all the pain his secrets had caused her.

“We do know,” he said, “I promised Arya she would never have to go south. I will find her a northern match. A match that will make her happy.”

“Good,” she whispered because, for all she wanted strong marital alliances, she wanted her children to be happy as well. If this could make Arya happy, the child most like Lyanna Stark, then Catelyn would seize it willingly and with both hands.

“I won’t marry any more of my children without their consent first. I can’t do it, my love. I’m sorry,” he whispered to her and here, in front of the tombs of his family, Catelyn could not find it in herself to reproach him.

“I understand,” she whispered back. “Robb must wed a northern girl, mustn’t he?”

“Yes,” Ned agreed, “He must. I have been considering inviting the sons of the bannermen here as well. Robb must begin to forge his own alliances, with the boys who will be his lords.”

“I agree,” she said, resting her head on Ned’s shoulder, “I must speak to my father and brother.”

She surprised him. “Why?”

“House Stark’s fate is tied with Johanna and her children, Ned. Robb will never abandon her, and neither will any of our children. Nor will you. And… she is my family too, for all that I could never accept it before. My father’s support, and my brother after him, will be invaluable.”

Ned was silent, thinking it over. “Let all of us, save Robb, go. Let Robb be the Stark in Winterfell, surrounded by his future bannermen. Let us introduce your father to his youngest grandchildren.”

“We should see Johanna and her children as well. Her second will be borne, soon.”

“I…” he trailed off and Catelyn knew what he was hesitating over, now.

“It’s time, Ned,” she told him, “You have to tell her. She has two children of her own to protect now. She must know.”

Ned sighed. “Yes,” he finally agreed, “It is time she knew.”

*

Orys had brought the storm with him.

It had been raining lightly throughout his birth, the clouds dark and heavy in the sky, but it was only when Stannis had held Orys in his arms for that first time, that the storm finally began to rage.

When his youngest daughter was born, it was very different.

It was quite different, as well, from Shireen’s birth. His eldest child had been born in the dead of night when all was black, and most were fast asleep. The moon had been high in the sky before Selyse had at last brought Shireen into this world.

Anna was born in the full light of day; the sun was high in the sky and the waves were breaking peacefully upon the rocks and the shore.

Stannis had arrived home the day before. He had barely been awake long, Johanna already awake and brushing her hair as she got ready to face the day when his wife had suddenly gasped. He had sat up at once, all trace of tiredness leaving him.

“Johanna?” he asked, alarmed.

She laughed shakily at him. “Well, your child is glad you are home, it seems. They are quite eager to meet you.” And she had stood up and he had noticed the wetness on her seat. He understood then what was happening.

“Shall I get the Maester?” he asked in concern.

“And my maids, if you would,” she said, smiling at him.

He had gotten dressed then and fetched his wife’s maids to attend her, as well as the Maester. After he had gotten all the ones Johanna would need, he had gone to inform his older children of the impending birth, all the while trying to steady his own nerves.

For he was nervous, for all that he did not want to acknowledge it.

He loved her. He had never thought he would or that he could, but he had been wrong. During that first trek North, Stannis had been certain there would be no joy in this second marriage of his; he had thought that the age difference was too much, that he would never be able to look at her and not feel discouraged by their ages and that she would never be able to find any joy in wedding a man old enough to be her father. But he had been wrong.

Johanna did find joy in being wed to him. She smiled at him. She loved him.

The thought of losing her was unbearable.

He had found joy unexpectedly in his life when he had been convinced for so long that he never could. He had thought that it was simply not in him to enjoy life, as everyone else did so. And yet, here he was. Openly, or rather, as openly as it was in him to be, proud to be a father and a husband.

It was unexpected. But Stannis was grateful. He wondered only if his mother would be happy for him.

He stopped in front of Shireen’s chambers, needing to take a moment and wrestle his emotions back under control. It would do no good to alarm either of his children. He knocked.

After a moment, his daughter’s voice, still filled with sleep, answered. “Yes?” she called out. “Who is it?”

“Shireen,” he said and then fell silent when he heard frantic movement inside the room. He prudently took some steps back before the door was hurriedly pulled open. His daughter stood before him, her hair a mess and a robe half fastened.

“Father?” she gasped out, wide-eyed.

“Johanna has gone into labor,” he explained. “I’ve come to inform both you and Orys.”

Shireen’s eyes widened even further. “Oh! I’ll get dressed at once! Do you want me to come with you to see Orys?”

He considered that for a moment. “If you’d like,” he finally said.

“Yes, please, just give me a moment,” his daughter replied and at his nod, she closed the door again.

He did not have to wait long before Shireen was dressed, and her hair tied back. Once she had joined him, they continued down the hall to his son’s room. He held out his arm to his daughter and she gladly took it.

They made their way to Orys’ room as the news no doubt spread throughout Dragonstone. It was easy enough to fetch Orys, in truth, as his son was an early riser.

“Mama?” he asked curiously, yawning a bit when Shireen and Stannis entered his room.

Stannis shook his head. “Your mother is in labor.”

Orys blinked and then lit up as he remembered the conversations they had had. “The baby?”

“Yes!” Shireen beamed, “The baby is ready to be born!”

“Come,” Stannis said as he picked his son up, “We shall break our fast as we wait for your mother and younger sibling.”

They ate a light meal and Stannis could not help but smile as he watched his children. He was so proud of them. Watching them nearly made his heart hurt with love. Who would have thought that one day Stannis would be here, happy with his life and circumstances?

They waited several hours, Stannis outwardly more patient than his children, who grew restless with the wait. Ser Davos joined them within an hour into their wait, with Lord Velaryon not far behind him. Stannis did not mind as others joined them, his thoughts too focused on his wife to take much notice of any besides his children.

But it was not until the midday meal approached that their wait finally ended.

The sun was high overhead when, for the third time in Stannis’s life, Maester Cresson slowly approached, a live and fussing babe in his arms.

“The baby!” Orys cheered as he caught sight of the maester. A warm feeling of pleasure overtook Stannis and the old maester smiled at him.

“My Lord Baratheon,” the old man said formally, “I have the honor of presenting to you your third child and second daughter.”

“Oh,” Shireen gasped with a delight, “A sister!”

With great care, Stannis took his youngest child into his arms. Already, there was a fine head of black hair and the open eyes that glared up at him were pure blue. She was a true Baratheon, Stannis thought, smiling ever so slightly, as his youngest made unhappy noises before settling down into his arms. He bent down to let Shireen and Orys look at their sister.

“She’s very small,” Orys said solemnly.

“Yes. That’s why we have to protect her,” Shireen agreed.

Orys considered this and then nodded. “I’ll be a good brother. Like you, ‘En.”

“I know you will be,” Shireen replied, fierce and true.

“As do I,” Stannis said and his son beamed at him.

Stannis stood up slowly, his daughter content enough in his arms, and he looked at the softly smiling maester. Cresson did not look distressed, but Stannis still had to ask, just to make sure.

“My wife?” he asked, and it was all he needed to say.

Maester Cresson did not lose his smile. “Lady Baratheon is recovering well. She says if it pleases you my lord, that your youngest will be named Anna.”

Stannis smiled more obviously this time. “It does,” he answered, remembering long conversations with his wife about names for their children. Anna was one of the names discussed for a girl: to honor her grandmother, Cassana, her great aunt, Lyanna, and then her mother, Johanna.

He looked down at Anna, black haired and blue eyed, and felt both joy and the nagging feeling that he was missing something obvious. But there was nothing that Stannis could determine was amiss and so he tried to ignore this notion.

Instead, he tried to focus solely on his joy. For the third time, he had a healthy and living child of his own in his arms. Just looking at Anna made him smile. She was a Baratheon and she looked so much like her siblings. No one could doubt who they were. Having her in his arms like this made him remember how his mother had smiled the first time Stannis had held Renly, Father by his side. Anna looked very similar to how his uncle had looked.

He wished his parents were here, for Stannis to introduce their grandchildren to them.

With some surprise, Stannis realized he also wanted Renly here to meet Anna. He did not want Robert here, not as his elder brother was, but he would have liked Renly to be here with him, in this moment. Perhaps even Myrcella and Tommen. He was sure they would love to be here, to hold their cousin.

He remembered when his niece and nephew had been this small, so sweet and small, their golden hair catching in the sunlight of the same color…

And suddenly, it hit Stannis. He knew what he had been missing. He knew what had been nagging at him since Anna was put into his arms. This moment in time was so like when Myrcella had been placed in his arms, the summer air hot and heavy as the sun glowed bright high above. He remembered.

His niece had been a beautiful babe but Myrcella had been as golden then as she still was. There was nothing of Robert in her. There was nothing of Robert in Joffrey or Tommen either.

Why had Alana Lannister, kinswoman to the queen and a respected lady-in-waiting who had been trusted with the royal children, who was devoted to them, hoped for Orys to be gravely injured? Why had someone then entered the Black Cells to kill the woman before she could be questioned, along with the gaoler on duty that night? The Queen was certain it was the fault of the guards who were now missing but it was too easy and convenient an answer. And not an answer Stannis would accept when he could recall all too clearly how fiercely Cersei had argued for leniency and a simple dismissal.

Varys had stated that it was his opinion that the gaoler had died after Alana Lannister had been killed and Stannis, after having observed the scene, had been forced to agree. The goaler had been stabbed in the back and his back had been to the prison door. He had been facing the stairs leading back to the Keep. The gaoler had let someone in and then had paid for it with his life.

Why would Cersei risk it? What threat could Orys pose to his cousins-except to reveal a truth Cersei did not want to be seen.

He didn’t want it to be true, he could admit that to himself. He had watched those children grow and he was genuinely fond of Myrcella and Tommen.

But, all the same, it was a theory that made far too much sense.

But would she have done it? Would even Cersei have dared?

Cersei was a proud, vain and reckless woman, yes, but she wasn’t stupid. There was a cunning in her. She knew that adultery in a queen was treason, an instant death sentence. She knew how much Robert hated her.

Surely the woman would not have risked Robert having a legitimate reason to dispose of her – and in such a bloody fashion as well.

The children had to be Robert’s.

Yet Stannis still could not let the thought go. Considering the hatred, resentment, and contempt which existed between Robert and Cersei, could Cersei’s pride have born carrying Robert’s children to term? Would she have birthed Robert’s children and loved them so dearly?

He needed to speak to Jon Arryn. The Hand could be trusted with Stannis’s suspicions. Arryn knew Stannis well enough to know it was a legitimate concern and not ambition. Jon Arryn could help him.

But he had to hide his sudden realization and turmoil, for the time being. He could not let on what he had figured out. Cersei had already tried to kill his son once. Stannis would not give her another reason to act before he was prepared to end her and her threats.

When the time came, Stannis meant to be the one who triumphed. He would never let Cersei threaten his family ever again.

He went to his wife, Anna sleeping in her crib, and did not let his dark thoughts show.

Johanna smiled at him, tired but awake still, her beautiful eyes sparkling with delight.

“Stannis,” she said, a radiant smile on his face.

Stannis was almost overcome with the strength of his love. “Johanna,” he said and could not hide the warmth in his voice. He sat down beside her, and she drew him close.

“She’s beautiful,” he told her, his voice catching.

“She is,” his wife replied, a hint of tears in her eyes. “Beautiful and perfect.”

“Almost as much as her mother is,” he teased her, daring in his joy.

Johanna laughed, delighted. “Are you sure you are not biased, my lord?” she asked, a playful smile on her face, “I’m sure many men think such of their wives.”

“Perhaps,” Stannis replied, “But they are wrong. Their wives are not you and so they cannot be the very image of beauty and perfection.” He could no longer hide from her. He loved her and he wanted her to know.

She looked at him wide-eyed and her breath catching in her throat. “Oh,” she whispered. Stannis waited.

His wife searched his face intently. For a moment, Stannis almost felt like they were back in the godswood of Winterfell, standing before the heart’s tree, as Johanna look at him with her dark eyes, too intent and knowing to belong to someone who had barely even lived to see two decades.

And then she smiled. She was beautiful, as lovely and proud as any queen of old. She was undaunted by life, with a will stronger than many men Stannis had known.

“Stannis,” she said softly, cupping his face, “I love you too.”

He kissed her and knew that here, at her side, was where he belonged.

 

 

EPILOGUE

Years and years later the old Dothraki crones would one day tell the story of how, when the sun was high and the fields were full, Rhaego Flameborn the Great Khal of Khals, Lord of the Plains, Horse Master, the Subjugator, He of the Thousand Bells, and the Stallion Who Mounts the World met with Orys Baratheon, the King of Westeros, the Renewer, the Dragon King, Lord of the Skies, and the Prince Who Was Promised.

A great brotherhood arose between these sons of the Khal Drogo the Blood Stained and King Stannis the Righteous, when they recognized the other at sight as an equal in power, youth, and likeness; and so, by fire and blood, they were bound to one another’s fates.

And each took to wife a sister of the other, with the promise that one day their children would wed, and their grandson would rule. A great dynasty, these kings proclaimed to one another, would flow forth from their blood.

Thus, it was so with Balerion, the First of His Name, King of the Twelve Realms, the High King of Men, the Khal of all Khals, the Golden; the grandson of Rhaego Flameborn by his father and Orys the Renewer by his mother; and he who was the first to step forth and lay upon his head the crown of men united and rule all the lands bound by the Narrow Sea.

From him, the Realm would spread, and his sons and daughters would rule it well for fifteen hundred years with the line unbroken.

But the crones would whisper too a tale of another meeting, this one underneath the moon and stars.

There, in the deep of the night, would they who rose to claim their thrones, the mothers of dragons and kings, meet: Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, Queen of Meereen, Breaker of Chains, Conqueror of Slaver’s Bay, the Vanquisher, the Unburnt; and Johanna Baratheon, once Visenya Targaryen, Queen of Westeros, the Lightbearer, the White Wolf, the Night’s Defender, the Snow Queen.

Daenerys came on her gleaming silver, the worthy gift of her husband, and Johanna with her great wolf, the gift of her mother’s blood. And they spoke long and deeply under the starlit sky for three nights until the sun rose for the third time; and there, in the dawning light, they who had met as strangers, parted as kin.