A little thrill of excitement shivered up Sansa’s spine when she saw Sandor Clegane hunched over the table in the Museum of the Seven Kingdoms staff room. The other players were all there already too, except for Arya who was at her side, eyes glued to her phone screen whilst she texted someone. Sansa only wanted to enjoy the sight of the taciturn head of the Antique Machinery Division in a rare instance of post-work socialisation, but now Margaery Tyrell was waving at them.
Sansa waved back at Margaery, nudging Arya to pay attention.
“I’m messaging my supervisor,” muttered Arya, still focused on her phone. “I’m not sure if the new broadsword is from the reign of Maekar I Targaryen or Daeron II Targaryen. I need his opinion before tomorrow.”
Sansa gave a neutral hum in response. If the new acquisition was a tapestry or an item of clothing, she might have an opinion, but weaponry was very much not her field of expertise.
Sandor, she noticed, was fiddling with a pen, frowning at some writing on the piles of paper in front of him. His hair had flopped forward, as it often did when he wasn’t working on an engine, hiding most of his face. A blue-haired figurine sat just above the pile, what looked like a tiny woman holding an early type of firearm.
She’d already seen Sandor earlier in the day when he came to the preservation lab, to consult with her on how best to handle the seat covers of an antique automobile that he was working on. Samwell had squeaked in alarm then pointedly buried himself in cleaning the ancient, recently donated portrait of Aegon the Conqueror. Textile preservation was Sansa’s speciality anyway, and she had greatly enjoyed her consultation with Sandor.
Sansa had had a secret crush on him for months. Ever since she had moved to Kings Landing and joined Arya, who had been employed whilst writing her PhD on early Valyrian weaponry, as part of the museum staff. She had been nursing a broken heart after her relationship with Harry Hardyng imploded, if you could call finding your boyfriend in bed with two other women imploding, and had found comfort in admiring Sandor from afar. As far as Sansa could tell, and admittedly Sandor was very hard to read, he didn’t seem to have any interest in her in return. She did wonder if he might be sensitive about his appearance and how it might affect potential relationships. His scars were undeniably disfiguring, but Sansa still found him desperately attractive with his hulking physicality, blunt honesty and passion for his job. She was almost completely sure he was both heterosexual and single, but it would be rude of her to assume he found her as desirable as she found him.
The museum co-director, Stannis Baratheon, looked absorbed in reading something, but the others hailed her and Arya.
“Take a seat, ladies,” said Tyrion Lannister, saluting them with his glass of wine. “I look forward to providing my healing services to some new party members.”
“’Healing services’,” said Margaery, making air quotes. “Tyrion means he follows Calistria, goddess of lust, and heals people in ways you might want to avoid.”
Margaery flicked her warm brown hair back off her face and Sansa, Arya and Tyrion all watched the movement. It was like viewing a shampoo commercial, and Sansa experienced a jab of Hair Envy. She suspected that museum visitors often stopped at the library just so they could watch Margaery and Margaery’s hair at work.
Tyrion shrugged. “I fulfil an important role.”
Stannis made an abrupt movement and turned to scribble something on the whiteboard positioned behind him. Her name was on it and she read through the list that Stannis had written in his admirably neat handwriting.
Museum of the Seven Kingdoms: Staff RPG club
Stannis Baratheon – Dungeon Master
Sandor Clegane – gnome artificer – Zonox
Margaery Tyrell – dwarven fighter – Runa Cragsword
Tyrion Lannister – human cleric of Calistria – Mirabelle Tittington
Jaqen H'ghar – human rogue – a nameless man
Arya Stark – half-orc rogue – Griselda Ballsach
Sansa Stark – elven druid – Midnight Fairheart
So the blue-haired figure was a gnome. She took the empty seat beside Sandor, tickled that he had chosen to play a tiny little character.
“Hi Sandor,” she said brightly.
He didn’t look at her, just muttered a brief greeting in response.
Feeling awkward about Sandor’s tepid reply, she turned back to Arya. Her sister was taking the seat on the other side of Sansa, across from the head of Human Resources, Jaqen H’ghar.
“Why are you even here?” Arya was saying to Tyrion as she sat down. “You aren’t staff.”
“Philanthropy can open many doors,” said Tyrion mysteriously. “And even billionaire playboys need hobbies.”
Stannis cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention. “Sansa and Arya have kindly agreed to join our group, to make up numbers after that regrettable incident last time with Hot Pie, Varys and the cheese fondue.” He looked sternly around the table. “Which, might I remind you, we agreed to never discuss again.”
There was a general murmur of agreement and Margaery gave a delicate shudder. Sansa was intrigued, and made a mental note to ask Tyrion about it later, when he’d had a few wines.
Stannis fixed her with a gimlet eye. “Sansa. You are meeting this group of adventurers for the first time, could you describe your character please.”
“Alright,” said Sansa nervously. “My name is Midnight Fairheart. I’m an elf with dark purple eyes and long blue-black hair. I travel with my companion, a direwolf named Glimmer.”
“My suggestion would have been better,” Arya interjected.
Sansa frowned at her sister. “Wolfy McWolfface is not a proper name for a trusted companion.”
Arya scowled ferociously. “It’s a great name. You just have no taste.”
“Ladies, please,” Stannis said. “Sansa, kindly continue.”
“Oh. Okay, well I’m a druid, and I have left my solitary existence wandering the wilds of Varisia in order to undertake this important quest.”
“What are you wearing?” asked Tyrion, then yelped and clutched his leg.
Margaery wore the smug smile of someone who had just kicked someone else under the table.
“I am wearing a sturdy collection of leather armour, all fashioned by my own hand.”
Arya smirked at Tyrion. “You’re shit out of luck, Lannister, actual women don’t have their characters wear fucking impractical chain mail bikinis and that shit.”
“Hey my character is wearing a chain mail bikini.” Tyrion gestured to the scantily clad figurine in front of him, who was wearing scraps of metal over gravity defying bosoms.
“Yes exactly.” Arya rolled her eyes.
Sansa glanced at Sandor out of the corner of her eye. He seemed to be ignoring the discussion and was doodling what looked like engine diagrams on his paper.
Stannis cleared his throat. “If we could just get back to the matter at hand...”
Tyrion waved a hand to shush Stannis without even looking at him. “But wait, how can you tell if someone is a woman unless they are wearing armour shaped for a woman.” Tyrion gestured in front of himself to indicate curves.
Arya let out an indignant squawk. “A female wearing armour is wearing female armour you sexist cockwomble.”
Stannis bought his hand sharply down on the table and everyone jumped at the sudden noise. “This conversation is getting derailed. We are hearing from Sansa about her character. Please continue.” Stannis motioned towards Sansa, glaring at anyone else who looked like they might speak.
“Ahh, that’s it really,” said Sansa, keen to avoid sparking any more debate.
“That was acceptable,” Stannis intoned, “thank you Sansa. Now you all see a raven-haired druid sitting at a table in the tavern. Where is your direwolf companion?”
“She is sitting quietly behind my chair,” said Sansa, thinking quickly.
Finally Sandor did something other than stare at his papers. “Aren’t direwolves the size of fucking horses?” he rasped.
Sansa jumped a little at the sound of his voice, then heat started pooling between her legs. She sternly reminded herself to focus on the game, not get sidetracked by her regrettable crush.
Stannis turned to Sansa and raised his eyebrows in question.
“Okay,” Sansa replied, “she is sitting very quietly behind my chair.”
Sandor snorted. “Fair enough.”
“So,” Stannis continued, “beside Midnight Fairheart and her horse-sized direwolf sits another woman. Arya, would you care to describe your character.”
Arya grinned and cracked her knuckles. “I am a half-orc rogue, so I have green skin, black hair and you can see the tips of fangs poking out of my mouth. My head is shaved except for a long, badass, braided ponytail.”
“Are you named Orchy McOrcface?” whispered Sansa, with a glance at Stannis to see if he objected to her speaking out of turn.
Arya gave Sansa the middle finger without looking at her. “My name is Griselda Ballsach.”
Margaery gave a musical peal of laughter. “Arya, that’s an appalling name,” she said between giggles.
“You love it,” Arya said unrepentantly, then pointed at the board that contained their character names. “Anyway look it’s spelled B-A-L-L-S-A-C-H, so it’s perfectly fine. It’s not my fault the c is hard and the h silent.”
Sansa laughed. “It is exactly your fault Arya.”
“A girl has chosen a strong name,” said Jaqen, speaking for the first time that evening.
Everyone looked a little surprised Jaqen had spoken, even Stannis.
“Well,” said Arya, recovering first. “Thanks big guy.”
Jaqen nodded elegantly in her direction.
“Anyway, it’s better than making my character sound like they should be on that variety show.” Arya pursed her lips in thought. “You know, the one Varys likes. With that pop star?”
Margaery frowned. “Daenerys Targaryen?”
“That’s the one,” said Arya, grinning.
“We’ve had audio recordings of old episodes of the Daenerys Targaryen Variety Hour playing on repeat in the library.” Margaery’s voice held a long-suffering air.
“Oh, that sounds awful,” said Sansa sympathetically.
She and Sam were both content to work in productive silence in the preservation labs. The thought of having to examine and preserve delicate textiles accompanied by the bubble gum pop music of Daenerys Targaryen playing was a daunting thought.
Jaqen bowed his head slightly at Margaery. “A man can register a human resources complaint?”
“No thank you Jaqen,” said Margaery, “it’s fine.”
“A DRUID AND A ROGUE ARE SITTING AT A TABLE IN A TAVERN,” said Stannis loudly, and the chatting finally ceased. “Which is convenient,” he continued more quietly, “Because you, Mirabelle Tittington, are looking for two more members of your party so you can undertake the mission you have signed up for.”
“I still fucking object to that cunt being in charge,” Sandor muttered.
“We rolled for leadership fair and square,” said Tyrion, “and I won. Anyway, Mirabelle is a cleric and we are naturally trustworthy and should be in a leadership position.”
Sandor shook his head. “You’ve fucked your way across half of Varisia.”
“It’s my job,” replied Tyrion primly. “And might you recall the rule we had about no slut shaming in the Role Playing Zone of Friendship and Safety?” He gestured to indicate the table they were sitting at.
Sandor muttered something under his breath that Sansa didn’t quite catch but that Tyrion seemed to interpret as an apology.
Bickering about the hierarchy of their band of adventurers continued until an exasperated Stannis finally informed them that they only had to journey to the cellar of the Inn. One floor down. Apparently the tavern keeper had heard some noises coming from beneath the cellar.
“Why is this adventure called ‘Search for the Shattered Star’ then?” said Tyrion, sounding annoyed. “It should be named ‘Journey to the Boring Basement’.”
“Tyrion,” said Margaery patiently, “We don’t know what is below the basement.” She raised her voice. “Runa would like to examine the room for any small barrels of mushroom ale she can siphon. My personal ale supply is running low.”
“Roll a Perception check please Runa,” said Stannis.
While Margaery was having her turn hunting for ale, Sansa looked over her character sheet again. She’d read the players handbook in preparation for this evening and studied her carefully calculated character sheet but learning something in theory would only take you so far. The character sheet was a bewildering array of numbers. She had spells to cast too though at least they had names that generally represented what they were supposed to do. She’d seen one named ‘Prestidigitation’ when she was reading the players handbook, and was relieved to find she didn’t need to worry about that spell. She’d stick to things like ‘Call Lightning’ and ‘Control Weather’ thank you very much.
Sandor glanced over at her. “If you get stuck,” he muttered, “just ask me. I played a druid in our last campaign.”
“Thank you,” Sansa whispered in reply. “There’s a lot to remember.”
“Midnight and Zonox,” said Stannis, staring pointedly at her and Sandor to get their attention, then he looked around the table. “Now that the barrels of ale have been moved, you’ve all now noticed the trapdoor in the floor. What does the group want to do?”
“Can I open it and take a peek down into the darkness?” said Arya. “I do have dark vision.”
Stannis nodded. “Roll a perception check.”
Arya rolled one of her dice. “That’s an eighteen plus fifteen, so that’s thirty-three.”
Stannis checked something on his notes, which were hidden behind a tall cardboard screen. “The drop is about fifteen metres. The floor of the cavern looks damp and spongy.”
“Okay, I’m going to jump down,” said Arya, grinning.
There was a general commotion triggered by her words.
Margaery looked aghast. “Arya, wait for me to go first. It’s not safe for you on your own.”
“A girl should not split the party.” Jaqen narrowed his eyes at Arya.
“I don’t have that many healing spells,” Tyrion huffed. “And the favour of my goddess is running low. It’s been days since I made sweet love to that Duke’s son and his entourage.”
Sansa made a mental note never to play as a cleric of Calistria. “Arya, jumping into a cavern doesn’t seem like a good idea,” she said.
Arya looked mulish. “Too late, I’ve already jumped. Griselda is a rogue, I’ll be fine.”
“I’ll protect you!” Margaery looked at Stannis. “Runa will jump after her.”
Stannis pinched the bridge of his nose. “Both of you roll Athletics checks, to see how much damage you’ll mitigate.”
Sansa snuck a glance at Sandor while Arya and Margaery rolled dice and calculated the results of their jump. He was looking at the other party members, what seemed to be a slight smile hovering on his lips.
It turned out that the jump was survivable, just, with Arya’s Griselda Ballsach and Margaery’s Runa Cragsword only taking a moderate amount of damage. They were swiftly joined by the other players jumping through the hole, except Sandor’s gnome.
“Zonox, what are you doing while this is happening?” Stannis tapped his pencil on the edge of his privacy screen.
Sandor cleared his throat. “Is there a ladder?”
The rest of the party fell silent
Stannis’s lips twitched upwards. “Yes, there is a ladder.”
“Well shit,” said Tyrion, exasperated.
“I’ll climb down the fucking ladder,” said Sandor smugly. “Taking no fucking damage at all.”
Stannis nodded, then looked at Sansa. “You have a giant direwolf left in the cellar.”
“Oh. Ah…” Sansa had forgotten about her character’s animal companion.
Tyrion leaned forward, resting his elbows on the huge pile of papers in front of him. “We should have carried it. Down the ladder. Which is apparently there.”
Sandor sighed audibly. “The fucking thing is the size of a horse.”
“Could she jump down the hole too?” ventured Sansa.
Margaery nodded enthusiastically. “Let her try to land on me. My dwarf can handle anything.”
Sansa had her direwolf jump down into the cavern, only slightly crushing Margaery’s character.
The other players were discussing the next course of action when Sandor handed Sansa the plate of Margaery’s homemade brownies which had been passed around the table. She took it, letting her fingers brush against his.
“Thank you, Sandor,” she whispered.
A blush suffused the unscarred side of his face. “Fine,” he muttered in response.
Sansa shook her own hair back, in what was no doubt a far less shampoo commercial way than Margaery.
She realised Sandor was still looking at her, though he hastily directed his gaze towards the table when he apparently noticed she’d caught him. Sansa’s heart started racing.
“Let’s go!” said Tyrion, interrupting their moment, “onwards into this lovely moist cavern.”