The day after the Tyrell ball opening the season, Sansa receives a card in her dressing room as her companion is putting up her hair. It is too early in the morning for callers, but that hasn’t stopped Lady Arianne Martell before and it looks unlikely to stop her now. Sansa and Arianne are considered intimates, although Sansa has no truly close friends amongst the Ton; it would be devastating to this precisely-arranged relationship to refuse her.
For a long moment, Sansa closes her eyes and focuses on the pain in her temples. She hadn’t slept nearly enough last night, not after a raucous dinner with Alysane Greyjoy and her sisters at the Mormont townhouse on South Audley Street and dancing every set at the Tyrell ball, and she is not shored up for Arianne’s bright spirits.
“Please send her up,” Sansa finally tells her companion, placing the card on her dressing table. “Have the footman send for chocolate, please, Jeyne.” She tries to blink away her headache, which is about as successful an endeavor as one might think.
“Have you heard?” Arianne says as she sweeps into Sansa’s dressing room in a swirl of bright yellow muslin. “It’s delicious, absolutely delicious, Sansa.”
“I have no idea,” Sansa says. She gestures to a chair by the fire, which Arianne rejects in favor of circling the room. Her expression is one of salacious delight.
“Gossip of the first calibre and it’s mine,” Arianne says, savoring the words like they are an ice on a hot day.
“You’ll have to share it,” Sansa says; she forces herself to sound playful. No one else in the family will play the game of the Ton--if there is gossip to be heard that might serve them well or ill, it is for Sansa to ferret out.
Despite having resigned herself to her duty, she can’t help but wish that the ferreting could be done at a later, more civilized hour.
Arianne finally flits to Sansa’s side. She collapses into the chair by the fire and sweeps her skirt across her knees. “It’s the Baratheons,” she says, attempting a serious look. “You do recall that the previous lord had a natural son--Gangrene, or what have you.”
“I believe it is Gendry,” Sansa says. She cannot turn to look at Arianne head-on, as Jeyne is still braiding the ends of her hair, and this saves her from having her eyes seared by Arianne’s vivid morning dress.
“Are you sure?” Arianne says. “Well, regardless, we’ll be sure to hear it about and get the right of it eventually--because, you know, he’s not Robert Baratheon’s natural son after all.”
There is a knock on the door and an upstairs maid appears with a silver chocolate pot and a pair of cups. “Thank you, Nance,” Sansa murmurs as the tray is placed on the dressing table and Nance slips back out of the room.
Arianne waits in silence for Jeyne to cease braiding and Sansa to pour them both chocolate and dispense sugar; it takes Sansa nearly an entire minute to realize that she is waiting for Sansa to say something.
“Goodness,” Sansa says, handing Jeyne the cup and saucer to take to Arianne. “Is he the by-blow of another house, then? The Baratheons took on the cost of his education; how scandalous.” Only years of training and discipline prevent this from coming out in a decidedly sarcastic manner.
“Better,” Arianne promises. “They were married.” She flicks a look at Jeyne through her lashes as she accepts the cup and says, “Good morning to you, Mrs. Poole.” Jeyne bobs a curtsey and does not reply.
Sansa lifts her own cup to her lips. “Who?” she asks.
“Robert Baratheon and Gangrene’s mother,” Arianne says.
“ No ,” Sansa breathes. She prides herself on her composure, as must all ladies, but Arianne will want a scandalized reaction so Sansa needn’t hide it. “Does she still live, the lady?”
“Died in the childbed, by all accounts,” Arianne says. “No, the marriage to Cersei Baratheon hasn’t been invalidated--but this has neatly scooped the title right out of her greedy little hands.”
Sansa has no love for Cersei Baratheon--one could even say, if one were in the kind of ungenerous mood best characterized by Sansa’s sister, that Sansa loathes the woman and the very air she breathes--but with that comes respect of a talented and ruthless enemy. Sansa had only failed to engage herself to Cersei’s oldest son and for that she had spent a year being brutalized by the lady’s poisonous schemes. Sansa cannot imagine what Cersei will do to anyone so stupid as to steal a title from him.
“There will be carnage,” Sansa says, for a brief second forgetting herself and her company.
Clearly satisfied with herself, Arianne wriggles back into her seat and takes a sip of her chocolate. “As I said-- delicious .”
The news makes the rounds so swiftly that the first card Sansa receives at half past three is Petyr Baelish’s and he strides into the front sitting room brandishing a bottle of champagne.
“Brava,” he says, sweeping her a low bow. “Truly a triumph, my lady.” He comes out of the bow and presents the bottle of champagne to her with a small flourish.
“I’m not sure I can accept,” Sansa tells him, lightly pressing her fingers to the label as she reads it. “Wouldn’t it be dreadfully unpatriotic of me to take French champagne during a time of war?”
“We’re taking on the French like water, they might as well bring along their best export,” Baelish says lazily. “It wouldn’t do to mark the occasion with anything less, my lady.” As always, the title--technically correct but nonetheless inappropriate when spoken so silkily--sends a small shiver of trepidation down Sansa’s spine. Many people see her mother when they look at her, but Baelish is the only one whose appreciation feels dangerous. Sansa has learned from rough experience not to ignore these feelings.
“I daren’t ask what triumph you’ve assigned to me,” Sansa says, drawing her fingers back and tucking them into her lap. She looks to Jeyne, who puts down her sewing and rises, with a curtsey, to accept the bottle. “I’m afraid it will make me look so very countrified.”
“Fetch us glasses, Mrs. Poole,” Baelish says. “We must have a toast--to Gendry, Lord Stormsend, the newest bird pecking at Cersei Lannister’s eye.”
“Let’s not be unkind,” Sansa says. She doesn’t mean it, of course, but there’s no point in being trapped into an anecdote that Petyr Baelish can dine out on for the next fortnight. “I had heard some word, of course, but you must have the full story. Is it true that a solicitor found the entry in a parson’s book buried in Cornwall?”
“In Bristol, but really, that’s nearly as bad,” Baelish says. Behind him, Jeyne leans out into the corridor to send a maid for champagne glasses. She flicks a look at Sansa out of the corner of her eye and Sansa minutely shakes her head. It won’t do for visitors to come and find Sansa and Petyr Baelish laughing into champagne so early in the day--Sansa will have to refuse callers until he’s gone.
“I hadn’t realized the Baratheons had property in Bristol,” Sansa says to Baelish. She gestures for him to take a seat on the settee catty corner to her chair, which will be close enough to make him feel satisfied but far enough away that Sansa’s skin needn’t crawl off of her fingers.
Baelish says, “Oh, I couldn’t, my lady, my spirits are far too high,” and he leans back to brace his shoulder against the mantle above the empty fireplace. “When his father was alive and Robert Baratheon was still Blackhaven, he made some pretext of stopping over in Bristol and within a matter of days had married some local curate’s widow and made her the Marquess of Blackhaven. The gossip is Old Steffon wouldn’t stand for it and called for an annulment; but by then the lady had whelped and died and the family thought it better to bury the whole thing. Had the child put about as illegitimate and hid him in plain sight.”
Jeyne returns from the doorway with the glasses and then sinks back into the background, picking up her sewing and making an excellent show of being a piece of statuary. Baelish cheerfully pops the cork off of the champagne into the fireplace and pours Sansa a tall, fizzing glass.
“To Old Steffon,” he says, raising his glass. “Still a thorn in Cersei Lannister’s side some twenty years dead. I would consider that the mark of a true master of the Ton.”
Sansa raises hers as well, smiles thinly at Baelish, and takes a small sip. It is so hard to get French champagne now; it tastes deliciously light and cool on her tongue. This makes it easier to turn her smile into a small, real one. “Until he’s declared, it won’t be much of a victory,” she says. “Has the matter been put before the House of Lords?”
“Tomorrow, by all accounts,” Baelish says. He looks about as cheerful as Sansa has ever seen him. Now, with the excuse of the toast, he is lurking closer--looming above Sansa, in a way, although Sansa is not vulnerable to threats of height, as she is so very tall herself. “No one wants Lannister’s demonic grandson sitting pretty on top of the largest landholding in Cornwall and they’re pleased enough to be fighting amongst themselves on who will present it. Gendry Baratheon will be the duke and Cersei Lannister the mere mother of his heir--until, that is, Lord Stormsend sets up his nursery, which if he has any sense will be by January.”
“I dare not ascribe sense to any member of that house,” Sansa says quietly. Baelish adores, above all else--above even Sansa’s dead mother--carefully describing the clockwork ticks of his own brain. Sansa has learned so much from Baelish’s lectures that she daren’t cut him off.
“True enough,” Baelish says. “But a lack of sensible brains will make him ripe for the mamas of the mart and someone clever will snap him up. Frey has a thousand daughters, hasn’t he, and some dragon seeing them out?”
Sansa sips at her champagne. It is so easy for a brash young lord to die--carriages are prone to accidents, horses are prone to being high-strung, highwaymen in the south are prolific and dangerous. The footpads in London are getting worse every year; why, last year, they’d slit the throat of Frey’s eldest son as he walked home from his club. Only a fool would consider Cersei Baratheon a threat fully quenched.
“Oh, at least,” Sansa says.
“And your dear sister, of course,” Baelish says lightly. “Lady Arya is making her debut, is she not?”
For a moment, Sansa’s hand feels very chilled. Perhaps it is the champagne, which had to have been kept in a bucket of ice in Baelish’s carriage to be this temperature now. But likely it is Baelish’s small, lazy smile in the corner of his mouth.
“Yes,” Sansa says. She lets herself be visibly weary for a moment. “She’s so wild, you know. It’s the northern blood. I daren’t throw a coming out ball lest she do something tragically outré, but Mrs. Poole and I will be ferrying her about. That would put something in Cersei Baratheon’s eye, would it not?” She laughs, to make it sound foolish.
Baelish laughs as well; she has left him no choice. Sansa does not let herself think that that will be the end of it, but she has made her meaning clear: Arya will not be forced into marrying a Baratheon. Maybe one day Sansa will regret that she could not be more cold-blooded in gambling to secure her own protection. But it is so exhausting, you know, to guard only yourself and leave those you love vulnerable. It makes a bitter, grasping shell of a person. Sansa need only look at Petyr Baelish to know this.
This Season is to be Arya’s first--a coming-out in the least strict sense of the term, as Arya cannot be trusted in court dress to meet the Queen and is barely capable of dancing a set at a halfway decent ball; Sansa does not even think about Almack’s, let alone mention the possibility--but it is Sansa’s fifth. Such accomplishments are hard-won.
“The wardrobe is non-negotiable,” Sansa tells Arya. “You dislike balls and parties and fripperies, which is fair enough, but you will dislike them more if you look like a country bumpkin. Sit still for an afternoon and Madame Cormier will outfit you comfortably for our stay.”
Predictably, Arya says, “I’d rather have a new horse. I have plenty of dresses--why not give the coin over to something I actually want?” She says this with petulant disdain.
“You have dresses, certainly,” Sansa says, not looking up from her breakfast plate and the piece of toast she is buttering. “I would hesitate to term their number plenty . Regardless, you haven’t a single ball gown, dinner gown, carriage gown, or pelisse, so your wardrobe in fact does require expansion. Our stables do not.”
When Sansa looks up to see how Arya will take this, she sees that Arya is scowling down into a pile of kippers and eggs. The child eats like a midshipman and curses like one, too. “It’s three months,” Sansa tells her, frankly. “It has to be done, because you are the daughter of a duke and the honor of our house demands it, but it won’t last the rest of your life.”
“If I fall asleep at a dinner party, you’re going to have me hitched to some marquis faster than I can wake up and spit,” Arya says. She looks far too demoralized and suspicious for someone who is nineteen and pretty and not in the kind of dire financial straits that require marriage.
“I haven’t dared to lift my hopes so far as a marquis,” Sansa says, innocently nibbling on a piece of toast. Arya makes a face at her.
Once upon a time, Sansa had desired a house full of noisy children. She had dreamed about laughter and shrieks filling stone corridors, a daughter or five who would want to cling to the silks of her skirts and borrow her grandmother’s pearls to play princesses. The corridors and boudoirs of her imagination had always looked like Winterfell; it had not occurred to her to daydream of raising her children somewhere else.
But Sansa had become responsible for her siblings once her parents had died and the reality was much harsher than she had imagined; harsh enough to smother her pleasant dreams with the reality of doing your best to raise someone who imagined you as the enemy. Sansa had thought her children would be quiet and fair, like herself, that their desires would be simple and easy to fill and they would adore her for doing so. The purest memory Sansa has of her own mother is the small smile on her face as she had bent down and dabbed the crystal stick of her perfume against Sansa’s neck behind her ears. They had understood each other, where others had not.
Arya’s desires are simple but she resents Sansa’s fulfillment of them and there is no room for adoration between them. Sansa’s duty is to do best by her sister and she loves her, the way it is possible to love someone and want to wring their neck at the same time, but that does not make the shopping any easier.
“Please trust that I do not suggest this merely to torture you,” Sansa finally says. Of course it is with Arya, contrary and difficult, that the rules of polite society are anathema. Being honest is the only way to convince her to do anything, and delicate manipulation is distrusted or rejected. How exhausting it must be, to be Arya, to demand unflinching honesty at every turn.
“I daren’t,” Arya says, but by rote. She finishes her eggs and then says, sullenly, “I suppose, then, we’re going to waste the whole day on this farce.”
Sansa bites off the nearest corner of her toast. She chews thrice and swallows. “I will do my best,” she says, “to confine your torture to a single afternoon.”
“The longest afternoon in the world ,” Arya says.
“But think of how lovely you’ll look in pink,” Sansa says innocently. “It’s all the rage this season and you have the coloring for it.”
Arya stabs a kipper through the midsection and hefts her fork like Triton triumphant. “No pink,” she growls.
Sansa says, “Please, let us compromise on something fashionable, Arya.”
Arya bites the head off of the kipper. “ No pink ,” she says.
Sansa sighs and pretends to be badgered. She’ll sacrifice ruffles after breakfast--terrible for someone of Arya’s uncompromising, no-nonsense attitude--and the lace fichus somewhere into the second hour at Madame’s, and by the evening Arya should have a complete wardrobe that she can feel satisfied at having wrested out of Sansa’s control and Sansa can rest easy that no true sartorial disasters await them further into the Season.
“We’ll see,” Sansa says. She puts down her piece of half-eaten toast and signals the footman to take away her plate. “I suppose you look well enough in mint.”
“Mint!” Arya barks, predictably. “No, I’m not done,” she tells the footman. “And don’t take her plate--Sansa, are you going to starve yourself into getting a husband? It hasn’t worked yet, you know.”
Sansa pours herself another cup of tea and takes a bracing sip. “It’s all right, Ed,” she says to the footman. “I’m done, thank you.” After he’s whisked her plate off to the kitchen, she says, “Don’t comment on someone else’s eating habits, Arya. It’s dreadfully rude.”
“So’s fainting into your bowl of soup,” Arya retorts.
“Let us hope we both manage to navigate around such disasters,” Sansa says, choosing not to rise to Arya’s bait. She’s come far from a nervous seventeen-year-old being badgered into marriage and it wouldn’t do anyone any good for Sansa to revert back to such behavior--except maybe her own temper, which feels constantly at the edge of its leash--least of all Arya. “You may of course eat as much as you wish. Perhaps, however, you might refrain from holding your fork in such an aggressive conformation.” She drops her eyes to Arya’s fork, still held clenched in her fist, and raises an eyebrow. “Good for stabbing bad conversationalists, perhaps, but otherwise not very useful.”
Arya bares her teeth in an expression only the very lackest of wits would term a smile. “That’ll get me a reputation as eligible, won’t it?”
“You won’t like the suitors that shakes loose,” Sansa says, and something in her expression makes Arya sulkily drop her fork onto her plate.
“I suppose mint would be acceptable,” Arya finally says. “But not a single lick of pink!”
Sansa hides her smile in her next sip of tea. “All right,” she finally says, when she has sufficient control over her mouth. “We have our first compromise.”
After two dinners during which Arya manages not to stab any of her dining companions, Sansa deems her ready for a larger social gathering. Lady Corbray’s ball, ostensibly for her son’s birthday but in reality the latest in a series of desperate attempts to get him to marry literally anyone, is the ideal location for Arya’s de facto coming out--it is sure to be crowded, mostly with young people, and crawling with chaperones. The house has so many daughters that every rake with a self-preservation instinct will be far, far away. Aunt Lysa has agreed to serve as Arya’s chaperone, as Jeyne had asked a few weeks ago to have the evening for herself.
It does indeed turn out to be a dreadful crush and Sansa dances every set until the dinner dance. There is an alchemy to the evening such that it feels like the kind of glittering dream that Sansa had held to herself in bed, at ten and eleven and twelve--the heavy smell of rosewater and lilies from too many perfumed petticoats, the brilliant light of a dozen perfectly polished chandeliers, the murmur of voices and shrieked laughter and music for dancing. Sansa is chased for every dance and she hasn’t more than a half-second to spare between sets to make sure that Arya is still presentable and hasn’t escaped. She’s been swallowed by a passel of rowdy-looking bucks but judging by their laughter she’s holding her own, and she anyway has Lyra Mormont on one side and Jorelle Mormont on the other, which means their elder sister Mrs. Alysane Greyjoy must be nearby. It’s not surprising that Arya will take with the more exuberant of the younger people; they love blunt talk and daring acts.
Dreams are fragile things, and Sansa should know better than to trust balls that feel like champagne: bubbles coming up through her nose and lifting her head off of her shoulders. She dances every set until the dinner dance, retires to dinner on the arm of Willas Tyrell, Earl of Gardener, quiet and charming, and then he relinquishes her after dinner to Perros Blackmont for a minuet. Everywhere that Sansa looks as she turns, people are laughing and dancing. She can barely feel the heat, which is normally oppressive and inescapable.
“Champagne!” cries Perros once he’s spirited her off of the dance floor. “I must have champagne, and not another moment must pass without it. If you disappear I shall mourn forever and die, Lady Sansa.”
“I’ll await your return, sir, if only for some refreshment,” Sansa tells him. “As to your own fate, I cannot comment.”
“A hit!” Perros cries, clutching his hand to his chest. “A hit, from such beauty.”
“ Champagne ,” Sansa reminds him, laughing, and then she deliberately turns away from him and opens her fan. She languidly sweeps her fan in front of her, trying to cool her neck and chest without being obvious about it, and appreciates the moment to rest her feet.
The dowager Lady Corbray, very small and wearing a very large turban, spies Sansa through the crowd and makes towards her determinedly, her fan striking the air. She’s followed by someone tall and dark, obscured by the height of the turban. “Oh, Sansa, dear,” says Lady Corbray, “have you met Targaryen? My lord, Lady Sansa Stark.” Lady Corbray is beaming at Sansa, drunk and well-meaning; she is not an unkind woman nor is she prone to gossip. Maybe she even thinks to be turning her hand towards matchmaking outside of her immediate family, an enterprise in which all the elderly ladies of the Ton delight in dabbling.
“Yes, ma’am, we have. My lord,” Sansa says. She can feel the ice crusting over her skin and down her spine, lending her strength as she snaps her fan shut and sinks into a gentle curtsy.
“Lady Sansa,” Lord Targaryen says. It would be cowardly, not to look at him, and the sort of thing that would make people talk behind their fans. Sansa fixes her eyes to the bridge of his nose and relaxes her face into a mask of calm, polite attention. “How does this evening find you?” He has an unfashionably scratchy voice; it is low, and unsuited to crushes in ballrooms. Sansa can barely hear him over the screeching of the violins.
“Very well, my lord, thank you,” she says. “And yourself? I had not thought you to join us in London for the Season.”
“I had not, myself, until very recently,” he says.
“I had not realized you were acquainted,” Lady Corbray declares. She is too kind to feel truly upset at being thwarted; Sansa turns towards her politely and sees that the lady is still delighted with them.
“We are cousins, ma’am,” he says. “My mother was a Stark.”
“Oh! Oh, but of course!” Lady Corbray says. She has realized her error; Sansa sees her face turn red. If Sansa does not act quickly, the embarrassment might have a chance to gel itself into resentment.
“T’was a kindly-meant introduction, my lady, and much appreciated,” Sansa says. She takes the chance to press her palm down on the lady’s forearm and squeeze it gently. Do not fear; I, too, am embarrassed , the gesture means.
After a terrible second, Lady Corbray lifts her own hand to rest atop Sansa’s. “Thank you, my dear,” she says. The danger of this particular moment has passed; Sansa is left keenly aware of the danger that remains.
“My lady, I had to go positively feral in your defense,” says Perros, appearing with appalling timing at Sansa’s elbow with two glasses of champagne.
It is difficult to look at Jon’s face, with its weathered lines and cragginess. It is the face of the North, and a face that northerners trust; the face of Sansa’s brothers and her father, who had been loved and respected by their tenants as their forefathers had been when they were kings. How can Sansa feel anything but resentment, looking into that face and knowing that all of her years of hard work will never earn her the respect that that profile engenders within seconds? But she does. It is a small, burning coal of something that must be smothered.
“I appreciate your struggle, sir,” Sansa says, and it is not arch enough, it is too absently spoken. Sansa is forgetting herself.
“Lady Sansa,” Lord Targaryen says, quiet and grave, “might I have this dance?”
“Oh, but it’s mine, you know,” says Perros, taking a sip in turn from his glass and then offering the other to Sansa. “If you take it from me I can’t swear to my own good behavior.”
Sansa sees the line of Jon’s mouth flatten and she is keenly aware that the situation requires expert handling. “I’m revoking my acceptance,” Sansa says to Perros, molding her voice into a silky, sulky sound. “This champagne is flat and you are banished from my presence, sir. I will take a walk about the room with my dear cousin and you must think on your sins.”
“ No ,” Perros says, horrified and gleeful. “I must beg the pardon of the lady a hundred times. Tell me what I must do to make amends. A thousand roses on your doorstep before dawn tomorrow?”
“I will accept nothing less,” Sansa tells him, and then she doesn’t allow herself to pause before she tucks her hand into the crook of Lord Targaryen’s elbow. She looks up to him and throws him a brilliant smile, letting delight glitter in her eyes. “Come, I have danced holes clear through my slippers and cannot accept this dance, coz, but I’ll take a turn with you.”
He looks dazed, but also angry. Maybe it is unfortunate that these are the circumstances under which they are meeting again, when Sansa is playing at the height of her character. She hasn’t spoken a word of sense to anyone in hours. As always, the cool grey of his eyes is like a shock of frost. Sansa’s hands are burning in her gloves where they clutch at his elbow; she’s conscious of the rise and fall of his chest as he breathes, the fine cut of his coat, the careful way his hair has been combed back at his temples. Someone has oiled his curls enough to keep them tame--the same someone who has tied his cravat, presumably, into a careful and subtle knot. Lord Targaryen is a man of austere tastes, or so the gossip goes.
Sansa’s mouth is so very dry. She’s glad she didn’t finish the champagne.
“You seem well, my lady,” he says when they’ve gone half a turn around the room. It’s not an elegant walk, for all that he has measured his strides to match her shorter ones. The crush is nearly unbearable. How is it that his voice can cut through the noise so clearly? Sansa wishes she could pretend not to hear him and smile like a simpleton for the next dozen minutes.
“Thank you,” she says. It’s as if there is someone inside of her, a hand opening and closing her mouth. She isn’t conscious of the words she’s saying until they’re already emerging, which is a dangerous state. “Of course, it’s Arya’s first Season. I am very well, to have my sister with me.”
“Surely not,” he says. “Arya’s first Season, already?”
“She is nineteen,” Sansa tells him, but surely he remembers. “It was to be last year, but she broke her leg.” And Robb and Mother broke their necks, but Sansa does not speak of them.
“Yes, Theon wrote to me,” he says. How dour and grave he is. How much it hurts to hear the sincerity in his voice, low and for her ears alone. He has a peculiar way of speaking that is narrowing, absorbing. Sansa feels at the center of his great capacity for focus. It is unbearable. “She is recovered?”
“Yes,” Sansa says. It has been ages since she has smiled; she affixes one onto her face, twitching her mouth into position.
“And you?” he asks. “Have you recovered?”
“Oh, yes,” she lies. It’s easier to smile now, to twinkle up at him like a pretty piece of glass. “You must come by the house, of course. Arya will be so pleased to see you. Rickon has come with us, he will want to hear of your adventures.”
“What adventures?” he says, as though that matters at all.
Once a great monster had lived inside of Sansa’s breast and poisoned her brain, making her silly and surly and a terrible bore. She has no time for that kind of overpowering emotion, not anymore, but still she can feel the curl of the sleeping creature in her chest. It would take so little to awaken it again.
It is foolish, but she takes a moment to wish that he will not smile. If he smiles, she is lost.
“Oh, every and any adventure,” she says. “Rickon misses the north--we have a lovely garden at Stark House but it isn’t nearly enough, you know. There is something that craves wildness in Rickon.”
This is a calculated bit of honesty. It hurts, but is worth the gamble. His eyes soften from their terrible, grey stare. “Yes,” he says. “Of course. I have missed them.”
Them . Sansa should be too clever for this to cut. It does, of course, very deeply, but she is not going to let anyone know. There will be gossip if Lady Sansa Stark and Lord Targaryen are thought to be at odds--the nasty kind of gossip that Sansa’s mother had weathered thirty years ago, with her thin, reed-like strength--and he will feel guilty, maybe, if he knows that her feelings are tender to his careless slips of tongue.
She forces herself to smile as genuinely as possible, bright with real joy. “If you do not hunt Arya down this very night, she will skin you, you know.”
He does not smile, but his expression is kinder. Most of the ice has melted out of his face. Sansa looks at his cravat, at its neatly starched folds, drawing attention to the strong line of muscle in his throat. The fashion now is for pins, but Sansa is not surprised that Lord Targaryen eschews them. Someone skilled has turned his native staidness into an attractive, elegant simplicity. Sansa hopes they are being paid accordingly for this monumentally skilled work.
If she looks at his cravat, his expression remains a mystery and she can thus lie to herself, later, when she is in bed, that they had pulled this off with skill and aplomb. “Oh,” she says lightly, as the last of the violins fade and applause erupts from the dancers, “but I have promised this next sixsome to Mr. Marbrand, and I daren’t offend him with my absence. Do find Arya, won’t you?” She presses her hand against the curve of his elbow, feeling the tips of her fingers burning, and then she draws back her arm.
“Lady Sansa,” he says, with a neat bow. “I will call, my lady.”
“Yes,” Sansa says, snapping open her fan. Over his shoulder, she can see Addam Marbrand delivering Sera Peckledon to her mother with a polite, exquisite bow, and turning unerringly in her direction. She smiles at him, brilliantly, and flicks her eyes back to Lord Targaryen’s neckcloth so that she looks like she’s flirting with him. “We look forward to your visit, your grace.”
“Don’t--” he says, but either he is too smart or too reserved to finish this piece of idiocy; either way, he nods to her once more and leaves her to Addam Marbrand and the complex figures of the sixsome reel. The bubbles have gone out of Sansa like flat champagne and so the next two hours are a long, slow grind. Her head is aching again and she really has danced through the soles of her slippers by the second country dance after supper, but she forces herself through no other mechanism that her own willpower to rally and smile and laugh, silly but beautiful, through to the end.
Sansa will always rally.
She sleeps poorly.
Rickon careens into Sansa’s morning room after he’s had his breakfast. “Is it true?” he asks Sansa, at something between a shriek and a yell. “Is Jon coming for tea?”
Sansa says, “I suppose that might be true,” and gives Rickon a boost as he scrambles into her lap, kicking her embroidery hoop to the floor with a loud clatter. Arya, who has followed behind Rickon somewhat less akimbo, makes a face at Sansa. She doesn’t pick up the embroidery hoop but she nudges it to the side with the toe of her shoe, out of the way of Rickon’s likely path, before she throws herself onto the settee. “Have you thought about what you might like to have while he’s here?”
“Jon likes fruitcake,” Rickon says, “but fruitcake is vile .”
“What a boorish celebration,” Arya says. “We ought to have chocolate cake and meringues and clotted cream for tea.” She props her feet up on the arm of the settee and crosses her legs at the ankle. If Sansa didn’t know any better, she would think Arya was admiring her new slippers. They are, in Sansa’s opinion, the least sensible and most beautiful of the shoes Arya had been strong-armed into purchasing.
Rickon shrieks, as he is wont when clotted cream has been mentioned. He is heavy in Sansa’s lap but she would keep him here far longer than he would stay of his own volition; his small, warm body is the closest Sansa will ever come to holding children of her own. The envy does not burn as tightly in Sansa’s chest when she holds Rickon as it does when she has to coo over the babies of her friends. There is no bitterness between as a barrier to her love.
“I suppose Rickon wants clotted cream,” Sansa says, “but we ought to be thinking of what Lord Targaryen might like to eat. Perhaps Cook can set aside some fruitcake, just for him.”
Arya huffs with her whole body. “Oh, yes, let’s ask Lord Targaryen ,” she says. “Lay off it, Sansa.”
Sansa’s arms briefly tense around Rickon, who wriggles in response. “My apologies, dearest,” Sansa says. She smooths a hand over Rickon’s forehead, where his curls are the wildest. “We are always being watched,” she says to Arya. “If I am too familiar with him, they will gossip.” She can feel the heavy emphasis she puts on they , the nebulous enemies of their house. She can also feel the moment that Arya dismisses her concerns as absurd.
“He’s our brother!” Arya says. “You’re not walking around calling Rickon ‘Lord Winter,’ are you?”
Sansa, who had been left to run their household and the holdings of the dukedom until their brother comes of age, in fact spends a great deal of her time referring to Rickon as Lord Winter. But she had made a choice to protect Arya from the grinding workings of the title and its estates and there is no room now for regret or second-guessing that decision.
“He is our cousin,” she reminds Arya.
Arya has stopped admiring her new slippers. When she twists around to stare at Sansa, there is a disbelieving, almost venomous look on her face. “Why can you never say that he’s our brother?” she demands. “It’s always been like this-- oh, Jon, he’s our half-brother . You could never admit that he belonged with us.”
Sansa is holding Rickon too tightly. “Can you speak to Cook for me?” she asks him. Her hand is smoothing over his forehead again. She has to fight the urge to pull him closer to her breast. “If there isn’t any cake for our visitor, she will need to make more and maybe she would like you to help.”
Rickon dutifully slithers off of Sansa’s lap, holding onto her kneecaps through the thin silk of her dress with his small fingers. “Please don’t yell,” he says to Sansa in his loud whisper. It will be perfectly audible to Arya, several feet away. “We’re happy that Jon is coming to tea, aren’t we?”
“Yes, of course,” Sansa tells Rickon brightly. “It is always lovely to have the family together.”
“You’re a hypocrite,” Arya says; she barely waits for the door to shut behind Rickon. “The family together. Ha!”
“There is nothing I can do about when we were children,” Sansa says to Arya. As always, it is the sacrifice that Arya demands: honesty, Sansa’s insides peeled open like an orange. “I made mistakes and did terrible things, as do all children. I have apologized to Lord Targaryen and he has forgiven me. You have not, but it was not you whom I slighted.”
Arya has gone pale and fierce-eyed with rage. How strong her love is for Jon. She would protect him from the entire world, were she called upon to do so. It brings Sansa some measure of relief to know that this love is not misplaced; Jon would do the same for Arya. They are true siblings by many metrics.
“Who cares about what other people think?” Arya spits. “You use these arbitrary rules of society to rule everybody’s life, and if they don’t follow exactly what it’s said they should do, you ignore them or make fun of them. You say that there’s other people gossiping about our family, but really it’s all you .”
Sansa says, “That is enough .” She does not have control over her voice; it is a sharp whip that cracks out of her throat. Arya flinches back, pulling her knees up to her chest, and Sansa has to hold onto the arms of her chair. “Maybe the rules of society seem arbitrary and cruel to you, Arya, but they are vitally important. Our parents are dead and we are in an extremely precarious situation until Rickon is of age. You are not too young to have realized this, so stop hiding behind that veneer of ignorance.”
Arya’s mouth has completely disappeared. Had she a fork in hand, perhaps it would be in Sansa’s eye. “I’m not an idiot,” she says. “You always treat me like an idiot--”
“Cease acting like one,” Sansa says. Her voice has gone so terribly cold. “Our extremely unique relationship with Lord Targaryen relies upon everyone pretending that it is normal. As someone who is not an idiot, you have of course realized this.”
Arya says nothing. Sansa is burning their tender bridges; the compromises of mint dresses and lace fichus and ruffles are being destroyed. Sansa cannot afford to let Arya run around calling Jon their brother--that is how she will justify this, when she has calmed down. But really, Sansa is furious and she is not thinking. She is striking out like a wounded creature, and Arya is the bush that has left a thorn in her paw.
“We have very few true allies, Arya. We have almost no one who will weather all scandal with us. But if we follow these rules that you so abhor, there will be no scandal, and we will not need those allies we lack. We will survive.”
Sansa stands the way she had been taught by their mother: the graceful movement of the daughter of a duke, of a woman who would always be a lady no matter whom she married. There is a string tied to the top of Sansa’s head and it pulls her upright, letting each vertebrae of her spine fall into place. There are no rewards for perfect posture, which is why Arya had never learned, but it impresses something upon someone who witnesses it. There is a lesser victory won by manners and elegance; a show of strength like a beautiful sword, one that warns off trespassers.
It should not be necessary to use this display on one’s sister. It should not, and yet.
Something is pounding inside Sansa’s head by luncheon, brutally repetitive. Arya does not make an appearance for the meal and Sansa sends Nance up with a tray before eating with Rickon in the breakfast room. Afterwards, she teasingly threatens to make him help her sort the day’s correspondence and he accordingly bolts back to the nursery, leaving Sansa to some measure of peace. She picks through the day’s deliveries--mostly flowers--picking out cards and jotting notes on the back for each arrangement. There are three dozen pink roses from Perros Blackmont; the card says, Forever your most devoted etc. Sansa notes on the back that she owes him a dance.
Arya has a respectable number of bouquets from names that Sansa recognizes and doesn’t fear; younger sons of earls, brothers of Sansa’s friends, someone who has signed their note on plain cardstock as simply G. W. Sansa collects the cards so she can pass them along to Arya at some point. Arya’s face upon seeing them all is sure to be hysterical.
For her own bouquets, Sansa collects the cards and writes the senders into her day’s diary. She had begun the practice as a kind of extension of her vanity--she had always written Joffrey Baratheon’s name at the top of the page and drawn little hearts surrounding it--but she has since found it a useful way to keep track of her suitors. It has helped her avoid ones who have grown too ardent in the past; bouquets after a dance or two at a ball are expected, but repeated, lavish arrangements with no precipitating social engagement are a dangerous sign.
And maybe it is still an act of vanity, as well. Sansa pauses halfway down the list, her fingernail lined up underneath Willas Tyrell , who has sent her lilies after their supper set. Does it soothe her ego to know that these men find her pleasing and beautiful?
Sansa sighs and puts her left hand to her temple. The headache is making her snappish, even towards herself. What does it matter if it flatters her ego? It had also forewarned her to Edwyn Frey’s attempt to compromise her in a conservatory at a musicale and she’d been accordingly forearmed with a potted cactus. Her lists have a purpose.
The headache feels as though Arya is inside of Sansa’s skull, hitting the front of her head with a hammer. You could never admit that he belonged with us , the headache says, rocking a heavy blow. Sansa has to squeeze her eyes shut for a moment. She can remember with perfect clarity the incredulous look on Jon’s face when she had apologized for her cruelty. He had barely managed to scrape together enough leave from his army posting for Bran’s funeral and she’d caught him, alone, on the front staircase as he’d left the following morning. They had both been so broken-open, so heartsore and weary. Children are just like that , Jon had said. You don’t have anything to apologize for .
Please, Sansa had said. Please, accept my sincerest apologies--
Sansa , he had said. That is--Lady Sansa--we were all cruel to one another as children. I haven’t forgotten what we used to say to you, Robb and Arya and I. Please, put it out of your mind.
Sansa had lied, when she had told Arya that her apologies had been accepted. It is not the same thing, to have your apologies gently brushed aside. Perhaps Sansa deserves this terrible pain in her head, although if headaches are a divine punishment for falsehoods likely Petyr Baelish would never make it out of bed.
“My lady,” Cassel says, gentle but stiff, and Sansa opens her eyes and drops her hand.
“Yes?” she says. She has to blink twice to chase the extra colors out of her vision.
“Lord Targaryen, my lady.”
“Yes, of course,” Sansa says. “Show him in. Have Lady Arya and Lord Winter sent down, please. We will be en famille for tea.”
“Ma’am,” Cassel says quietly, withdrawing, and Sansa has precious seconds to herself to scatter sand over her diary, put away her quill, and quickly run a handkerchief over hands to check for ink. She doesn’t have any time at all to steel herself; perhaps that’s for the best.
Jon appears in the doorway. He is again in unfashionable colors; his waistcoat is a deep, beautiful green. “Lady Sansa,” he says, with a short, quick bow that is nonetheless too low and too long for his station. Sansa’s teeth have begun to hurt.
“Lord Targaryen,” she says. She has to smile and she fears that it is not quite right. There is always the worry with Jon that he will be able to see whatever it is that she is hiding away. “Arya and Rickon are upstairs, but I’m sure they’ll be down once they hear you’ve arrived.” She gestures with one hand to the chairs arranged in the center of the room. “Do take a seat, won’t you?”
Jon has been moving towards her; instead of going around to one of the chairs and claiming a spot to sit, he stops only a foot or so away, directly in front of her. “Are you all right?” he asks, in his quiet voice.
Sansa laughs; it sounds brittle from the inside of her headache, as if it is a glass breaking very far away. “Your manners are getting better but they’re still not quite the thing, are they?” she says. Jon, predictably, does not laugh. “Oh, it’s nothing. Too much champagne and not nearly enough sleep. You’ll notice, I’m sure, that Arya’s had half of Vauxhall Gardens cut and sent for her. I won’t be able to escape the smell of lilies for days.”
Jon says, “I had noticed something in the air, yes.”
Sansa laughs and this time it is not quite so far or quite so brittle. The fine line between Jon’s brows relaxes, incrementally. “She’s taking, if you can believe it.”
“I can,” Jon says. Before Sansa has a chance to realize what he’s doing, he has taken one of her hands between his own. Her palm is trapped between his; can he feel that she is trembling? How absolutely embarrassing. “There is no one better suited for this—managing a first Season—than you.” His ears are a little pink, she notices.
“Ah,” Sansa says; it comes out strangled. With nothing else to do, she fists her free hand into the fabric of her skirt. “How very kind of you, Lord Targaryen. Oh, Rickon! Look who it is.” She has just enough strength of will remaining to slip her hand free. Arya won’t be far behind and there’s no telling what she might read out of this stupid, stupid situation.
Rickon has launched himself at Jon, shrieking like a wild animal, and Jon catches him without a single thought for his pressed coat and cravat, swinging Rickon up into his arms with a shout that Rickon madly echoes. For a moment, all Sansa can see and hear is her father--her father and Bran, in the front hall of Winterfell, caught up in the raucous and joyous reunion that their father had always received upon returning home. It didn’t matter if he was gone two hours to visit a tenant’s leaky roof or two weeks to London for business; always Bran ran to welcome him back.
The headache is squeezing Sansa’s insides. It feels as though lilies are crawling inside of her nose and mouth, suffocating her.
“Jon!” Arya yelps. She also throws herself from the doorway; Jon has to hold Rickon up over his shoulder to catch her against his side as she presses her face against his chest. “It’s so good to see you,” Arya says, as though Lady Corbray’s ball ended years ago instead of less than ten hours previous.
“Yes,” Jon says. All Sansa can see of him is a large hand, firm against Rickon’s back, holding him steady. “I’ve missed you, Arya.”
“And me!” Rickon says.
“Ha!” Arya says. “Why would he have missed you?”
“Because I’m charming,” Rickon insists. “Sansa, I’m charming, aren’t I?”
“Yes,” Sansa says. She risks coming close enough to pull Rickon off of Jon’s shoulder and into her arms. “Much more charming than Arya. Perhaps even the most charming of all the Starks.”
“It’s not that hard,” Arya says. Sansa can see now that she has both arms around Jon’s waist, squeezing him tightly. Her eyes are closed. There is a pain close to the surface in her that Sansa has not seen for many months. “We’re all rotten and mean, us Starks.”
Sansa puts Rickon down on the chair closest to the fireplace. “Come and sit,” she says to Jon and Arya, not turning to look at them. “I’m sure the tea tray will be in soon. Rickon, dearest, where on earth are your shoes?”
“In the nursery,” says Rickon. He blinks up at Sansa guilelessly. “We are in family, aren’t we?”
“En famille,” Sansa corrects gently.
“En famille,” Rickon says, “means no shoes.”
Arya laughs. It is not a mean sound; she comes around Sansa’s left and pretends to tickle the bottom of Rickon’s foot. “No shoes means you’re vulnerable to attack,” she says. Rickon, predictably, screams at this threat. Arya, equally predictable, launches an attack on the backs of Rickon’s knees. Nance has ducked in with the tea tray and she puts it now on the table in front of Sansa, bobbing her head twice and making an escape. She doesn’t even blink at Rickon’s flailing.
“Tea?” Sansa says to Jon, flicking her skirts out of the way and taking a seat.
Jon puts a hand against the back of her chair and leans his head close to hers. “Is it your head?” he asks.
Sansa closes her eyes for the smallest of moments. “Only a little,” she says, opening her eyes and smiling at Jon from them. “Sugar and lemon, Lord Targaryen?”
“Yes, thank you,” Jon says. “If you need to rest, Lady Sansa, I can call on you again some other time.”
“Don’t be silly,” Sansa says. Jon’s dark eyes are soft in the corners, nestled into crow’s feet that speak to years of squinting. In the north, the sun glinting off of the snow is blinding; all northerners have those wrinkles. Even Sansa has them, although she uses a cream at night to try and smooth them away. “Take a seat, Lord Targaryen. There’s no need to stand on Arya’s account. I would say that torturing Rickon has temporarily revoked her status as a lady.”
Rickon is still shrieking; Arya is breathlessly, ruthlessly attacking him from both sides. If she’s not careful, she’s going to get a black eye from one of his knees and far fewer invitations to dance at the Reed ball tomorrow night.
Jon, thank God, does not smile; but his eyes soften. Sansa finally must look away. She busies herself with his tea, and then Arya’s and Rickon’s, and finally her own. There is fruitcake on the tray, along with chocolate tart and berries with clotted cream for Arya and Rickon. She talks with Jon about the weather, unusually dry, and the havoc it is causing at Hyde Park as the afternoon promenade swells with ever-increasing hordes of participants. Eventually Arya and Rickon settle down, disheveled, and gulp their lukewarm tea.
Sansa is conscious the entire visit of her head, tethered on a string floating ten feet above her shoulders, swollen and aching. Arya and Rickon want to hear about Jon’s adventures fighting the French but he demures after only a handful of short anecdotes and outright refuses to tell them anything about Waterloo; “I have to go,” he says, an hour and a half after first arriving. “I have some errands to run and then an obligation this evening.”
“ Errands ,” Arya scoffs. “An obligation, really? Sounds like a mistr--” At the very last possible second she catches herself, and then she betrays herself in the next instant by peeking at Sansa and turning scarlet.
Sansa, irritable from her headache, raises a single eyebrow and does not rescue her.
“Uh!” Jon coughs. He doesn’t even have a crumb of fruitcake to pretend to choke on; he had eaten all three of the slices on the tray within twenty minutes of sitting down. “No,” he finally says. “Dinner at my club, with Theon.” He recovers enough to slide a sideways glance at Sansa and quirk his lips. “He’s still a wastrel, as you might have guessed from my terming it an obligation.”
“Will we see you at that nonsense tomorrow night?” Arya asks eagerly. “At the Weeds’ ball or whatever.”
Sansa says, “The Reeds , Arya.”
Arya receives a small smile from Jon. His beard obscures most of it. Sansa, hating herself, pours herself a cup of extremely chilled tea and concentrates on stirring half a teaspoon of sugar into it. “I believe I accepted their invitation, yes. Will you save me a dance, Arya?”
“Yes, of course,” Arya says dismissively. “I want to hear about the army, Jon. I won’t be put off for long.”
“You will have to wait at least twenty-seven hours, I’m afraid,” Jon says. “And you, Lady Sansa? Will you save me a dance?”
Sansa looks up from her inane stirring. She has a comment already prepared-- you will have to ask again tomorrow night, Lord Targaryen, and see --but she is trapped by his eyes. This was so much easier to ignore when Jon was far away. So much of Jon is hidden away beneath his quiet, dour surface, and looking into his eyes Sansa feels on the cusp of tumbling headfirst into a deep, dark lake. It is the act of a second to drown.
“Yes,” she says. It comes out appallingly breathless.
Content warning in this chapter for mention of past rape. Read safely!
Sansa spends the next morning in the music room with Haydn’s cello concerto in C major. She has not had much time to play since arriving in town; there is always so much to do before the beginning of the Season, and Arya and Rickon to be carefully run herd on. Sansa can anyway not always stomach the music room. It is a place full of ghosts.
She has played for hours by the time Jeyne comes for her. Her fingers and shoulders ache but her head feels clear, most likely because she has banished all of the bouquets to the front parlor. “Lady Sansa,” Jeyne says. “A gift has arrived from Mr. Baelish.”
“Ah,” Sansa says. “Do you have it, Jeyne?”
“It was another bottle of champagne,” Jeyne says. “I had it put in the wine cellar. There was a note.” Jeyne is holding it in her hand, pinched between her thumb and forefinger. When Sansa leans forward to receive it, she is hit suddenly by Baelish’s scent; he must dab his cologne onto his stationary. Sansa cannot help wrinkling her nose. “Yes,” Jeyne says. “I know.”
“Is it an affectation he learned from Lady Margarey’s grandmother, do you think?” Sansa says, and Jeyne coughs a low laugh.
Sansa runs a finger under the wax seal to break it and unfolds the letter. Brava , it reads. It is signed Yours, PB .
“Oh, God,” Sansa says. “I’ve been ascribed another social victory, Jeyne. I daren’t guess as to what’s happened.” She turns the letter over to check the back for any clues. Perhaps it is another small thorn in the side of Cersei Baratheon, who had arrived at the Netley soiree two days after Gendry Baratheon had been given her son’s title dressed entirely in red; perhaps it is something worse. “I’ll need to know what this is for, Jeyne. Will you be able to investigate the matter tonight, at the Reeds’ ball?”
“Of course, my lady,” Jeyne says.
“If there’s no luck tonight--and there might not be, the circle is not nearly rarefied enough for some--we will make some calls tomorrow.” Sansa, realizing that she is tapping the letter against her chin, grimaces and passes it back to Jeyne. “Please put this with the others.” She looks back to her sheet music and then says, remembering, “Oh, Jeyne?”
“Yes, my lady?” Jeyne asks, pausing near the door.
“Can you find Arya and have luncheon sent to her?” Sansa says. “I want to keep working on these measures for a little longer.” She touches her fingers to the edge of the sheet. This movement wouldn’t be quite so difficult if Sansa had managed to keep up with her normal practice schedule.
“She went to the park with the younger Martell sisters,” Jeyne says. “I believe she has just returned.”
“Good,” Sansa says absently. “After all that walking she might want something substantial. Will you speak to Cook for me?”
“Of course, my lady,” Jeyne says. Sansa has refocused her attention on the music before Jeyne has even shut the door. It is easier to think about these two dozen tricky measures than to think about Jon, and his soft eyes, and this dance that Sansa was an idiot enough to be tricked into. A poorly-performed Haydn concerto will not send Sansa’s family crashing into social ruin. The worst that will happen is the dogs will start howling again; and while that is embarrassing, Sansa will at least survive that shame.
The Reeds are family friends--good, quiet, self-contained people--and their ball is accordingly not quite the dramatic crush that is considered good Ton. Sansa puts on her mother’s sapphires and a new dress, pale blue shot through with silver, and then goes to leave their grandmother’s pearls in Arya’s dressing room and subsequently spends a half-hour bullying Arya into pairing them with a new dress just delivered from Madame Cormier. Although Arya had liked the lavender stripes well enough when she’d first seen them at the modiste, it takes Sansa an awful lot of goading to get her to put on the finished dress.
“Oh Arya,” says Aunt Lysa, when they have stopped at Arryn House to collect her for the evening. “You look beautiful.”
Arya makes a loud huffing noise. “Not that it matters at all,” she says. “No one’s going to be looking at me. Too many obvious bosoms on display.” She nearly manages to sound as though she doesn’t care, peering out of the window of the carriage and ignoring Sansa quite pointedly. Jeyne, hands folded in her lap, has dissolved so thoroughly into the background that Aunt Lysa fails to greet her. It is her particular skill.
Aunt Lysa, perfectly capable of reading between the lines, waits until Arya has flounced out of the carriage at the Reeds’ to say, “It does the Tully stones good to be worn, dear.”
“Thank you, Aunt Lysa,” Sansa says. The necklace is heavy around her neck, dripping with a fortune in sapphires; Sansa had wanted to be reminded of her mother and her lessons. She needs something to weigh her down and keep her from floating away on girlish fancies. “I appreciate your assistance with Arya this Season. We have Mrs. Poole with us, of course, but watching over Arya takes more than a single pair of eyes.”
“Oh, of course,” Aunt Lysa says. She accepts the hand of a footman and steps out of the carriage. “I would do anything for my sister’s children.” She is already flushed; she unfolds the fan at her wrist and waves it with more vigor than elegance. Her eyes are darting along the line of carriages depositing their contents onto the front steps of the Reeds’ mansion, seeking the only man that Aunt Lysa has ever loved. With each passing Season her unfortunate tendre for him pains Sansa more and more.
Sansa says quietly, “I know, Aunt Lysa.”
Inside, Sansa and Jeyne quickly lose track of each other. Sansa is taken out of the receiving line by Jyana Reed, who wonders if Sansa would be amenable to being introduced to a Greywater nephew, very recently returned from France. He is a pale, quiet individual who says approximately three words to Sansa after securing her hand for the opening set. Although he looks well enough, there is a sense of something haggard about this nephew, as though his years in France have worn away at him. Like Jon, it is very clear that he does not want to speak of his time at war. Sansa obliges by not engaging in conversation at all, and is rewarded by a faint spark of appreciation in his expression at the end of their dance.
Sansa is approached afterwards by a series of starry-eyed gentlemen, all of whom seem to have difficulty looking away from the largest sapphire in her necklace, which is set to dangle a little lower into the scoop of Sansa’s bodice than perhaps appropriate for an unmarried lady. They are increasingly silly and Sansa smiles at them, makes figures for foursome and sixsome reels, and tries to ignore a creeping sense of dread.
Between sets, she finds Arya with the Martell sisters--the younger ones, in their debut--and chats for a few polite minutes, wishing Arya could be bothered with the pretense of familial accord. Jeyne, in her ostensible role as Arya’s chaperone, is just out of earshot, hands folded at her waist, watching over Arya from where she is propping up a bit of wall. Lady Arianne Martell is with her, fan held against her chin as she languidly looks at Jeyne over the top of it. If they are engaged in conversation, it is one without words.
“Did you see Jon?” Arya says abruptly, as Sansa is excusing herself.
“No,” Sansa says, keeping her voice even. The Martell sisters raise their eyebrows as one and then turn away slightly, speaking between themselves, and thus reveal themselves to be better bred than the majority of the Stark family.
“Well, he was looking for you,” Arya says. “For your--dance. He says the supper one.” Their grandmother’s pearls look very well on Arya; they bring out the sheen in her skin, which sees more sun than it should. Even when Arya looks like she’s being skewered by a fireplace poker, she looks very well--it is the vivacity in her expression. The lavender stripes are exceptionally flattering.
“I see,” Sansa says. “Thank you, Arya.”
“Don’t embarrass him,” Arya hisses, low enough that hopefully the Martell sisters won’t be able to hear.
Sansa says, “I am better bred than that, Arya.” The musicians are signaling the beginning of the next dance. “Who are you engaged with next?”
Arya looks sullen. “Dashed if I know,” she says, peering at her fan. “It’s all smudged.”
This is probably a lie, but Sansa’s nerves are not up to an interrogation. If it weren’t for the weight of the sapphires on her collarbones, she feels like her skin might have jumped off of her bones long before now. “Very well,” Sansa says. “Keep your secrets.” After a moment, she says, “I have no intention of refusing Lord Targaryen a dance.”
Arya snaps her fan shut and stares at Sansa beadily. “Right,” she says.
“Enjoy the reel, sister,” Sansa says. She smiles at Lord Pommingham as he appears at her elbow with a short, elegant bow. “Is this your dance, my lord?”
“Lady Sansa,” he says, “I would claim them all, if I could.”
“I couldn’t spare them, sir,” Sansa says, laughing, and she lets him lead her out into the dancers. She sees a dark head claim Arya for a dance, but he is facing away, whoever he is, and she cannot see his face. Between bobbing feathers and turbans, all she can see is Arya’s face: suddenly flushed, her eyelids fluttering down briefly before she collects herself and converts the look into a suspicious squint. She can’t quite hide that she is pleased to have been singled out. Sansa feels something sharp between her shoulder blades, like the jab of an unseen enemy.
Jon does indeed find Sansa for the supper dance. He is dressed in white and black again, with his severe, unpinned cravat and his carefully managed hair. Sansa finds him a soothing monochromatic isle in the sea of brightly-colored guests.
“Lady Sansa,” he says, with a deep inclination of his head. “Would you join me for this dance?” He offers her his hand, palm facing up towards the ceiling. Jon’s manners are not courtly or elegant; they are precise and unadorned.
Only the once had Jon done something that might be considered courtly and Sansa had sufficiently been a beast about it to ensure it never happened again. Sansa had been fourteen, irritated that a visit to her mother’s family had been cut short by purportedly urgent business and she had cried when she had seen snow in Winterfell’s courtyard. It had felt like an insurmountable obstacle, climbing through three feet of snow when only four days previous they had been swimming at Riverrun in their shifts. It had felt like she was cursed like a maiden in a story, doomed to snowy exile. Jon had carried her over the courtyard in Winterfell so she would not have to wade through the snow and had called her my lady when she had sharply reprimanded him for letting her cloak drag along behind them. Arya had gotten her back for it later--tadpoles in her porridge--but Jon had said nothing. How many small kindness had been regretted in the face of Sansa’s sharp words?
For a moment, looking at his fingers, Sansa can feel the grip of his hands at the sides of her waist and knees, how capably he had carted her through the snow. The skin of her knee prickles insistently.
“Yes, thank you,” she says, placing her hand in his. Her voice is not as light as she would have wished. Sansa is taller than almost all the men of her acquaintance, even Jon, but she has cultivated mannerisms to disguise that when necessary. She keeps her stride short; she is fanatical about how high her hair is dressed. Even when she uses these tricks, however, Sansa rarely feels smaller--they are designed to appease a male ego. With Jon, with his broad shoulders and wide hands, Sansa feels conscious of his presence more than his height, and it is the latter that makes her feel small.
The opening figures are performed by someone who has taken over control of Sansa’s limbs; her mind feels scrambled by the phantom touch of Jon’s hands from so many years ago. His hand now feels in contrast much lighter and fleeting; she can barely feel his fingertips as he grips her wrist to swing her into a turn. Her body feels as though it is burning inside of her dress, a conflagration from a few points that has turned feral and consuming. Sansa cannot concentrate on anything else. She looks blindly ahead of herself, catching glimpses of Jon’s neckcloth and then the other whirling figures of the dance as she turns away.
Jon had already known by then that he was not Sansa’s brother. Sansa and her siblings would not be told until later that year, when the Queen decided that she would acknowledge Jon as her nephew, that she would make him Targaryen when he was of age. Jon had known, when he’d taken Sansa into his arms and carted her across the snowy courtyard. But Sansa had not .
Faintly, there is the prickling sense of responsibility: Sansa must make conversation. Her thoughts are unruly and she cannot marshal them for even the most banal of comments regarding the weather. She makes the mistake then, in their next turn, of looking up and trying to focus on Jon’s face. His eyes are always so very gentle, even when he is being fierce; they reveal the true tenderness of his sensibilities, which were always being bruised when they were children. Sansa does not want to think about Jon being tender, but she cannot stop.
The orchestra feels as though it is playing from very far away; all Sansa can hear is the crunch of snow under his feet, his harsh breathing against her hair, the soft snuffling of the dogs. Everyone else had been so delighted to be home, and Sansa had been furious and hurt. She had been rude to everyone in the carriage on the long journey home and she had been particularly insufferable to Jon. How Sansa had loathed him, then; how cruelly she had treated him. And even as she’d hated him, how his touch had burned.
“I’m sorry,” Sansa says.
“Your pardon?” Jon says. In a sudden rush Sansa can hear again the sharp and cheerful sounds of the violins.
“I’ve been so rude,” Sansa says. She forces a short, bright peal of laughter. “You asked me for a dance and I’ve been abominably rude--not a single ounce of conversation to be found.”
“The music is quite good,” Jon says; it seems for a moment to be a non sequitor, until Sansa realizes that Jon is making an excuse for her lapse. It makes her throat feel tight for a moment. “I have also been--preoccupied, listening.”
“Yes,” Sansa says. She cannot make herself sound silly. “Yes, the strings are very good.”
They are moving now into the last figures. “Do you remember the evenings at Winterfell?” Jon asks her suddenly. “The musical nights, with your cello and Lady Winter on the harp and Bran--”
He has to pause for a second to swallow; Sansa can see his throat strain.
“And Bran’s beautiful voice,” she finishes for him, when she is unsure that he will manage it. “Yes, of course I do.” Sansa would say, Why does everyone think that I have forgotten them , but of course she knows why. It is much safer to be vapid and shallow.
“Nothing I have heard, in the years since, has sounded as lovely as those nights,” Jon says. Even though he speaks softly, Sansa hears every word clearly. It feels like they travel across the air and dart into her through her chest instead of her ears, like arrows piercing through her heart. Sansa cannot think of anything to say; she feels suddenly opposed to playing her normal character, as though it will dishonor Bran and her mother and those loud, beautiful evenings. She says nothing as the dance ends and Jon takes her hand to place it on his arm so he may show her into the dining room. When she looks at him, he has a terrible expression on his face. Sansa feels it too keenly to even put it into words in her own mind; she has to look away. It is an unforgivably cowardly thing to do, but it is all that she can bear.
It is late when they arrive home and Sansa is weary down into the marrow of her bones. She is tired of having to speak--Aunt Lysa had been bright-eyed, feverish-looking, in the carriage and unbearably chatty--but after Arya has escaped upstairs, she presses two fingers to the inside of Jeyne’s elbow. “Need we discuss anything tonight, Jeyne?” she asks quietly.
“Yes, my lady,” Jeyne says. “We had better.”
“Have tea sent up, if you please, Mrs. Cassel,” Sansa says to her housekeeper. “Will you come help me take down my hair, Jeyne?”
After tea has been brought and the Tully stones locked away in the safe in the library, Sansa and Jeyne rest their aching feet in front of the fire in Sansa’s chambers. Sansa dreads crawling out of this dress and her stays, but she pushes the thought away for now. “What did you hear?” she asks Jeyne, passing her a cup and saucer with a thin slice of lemon.
“It is bad, my lady,” Jeyne says. She does not drink her tea. “The new Lord Stormsend is making eyes at Lady Arya.”
Sansa closes her eyes for a very, very brief second. “Ah,” she says. “Ah, it is no wonder that Baelish is so pleased with himself.”
“She’s making eyes back,” Jeyne says. “As much as Lady Arya makes eyes at anyone. It’s all sulky and mean but you know what she can be like.”
“Yes,” Sansa says. She had spent the whole evening being overheated and now she can feel the cold creeping in, starting at her fingertips and clawing its way up her arms. “I hadn’t heard a thing-- why haven’t I heard a thing? Not from Arya, of course, but--Lady Arianne, at the very least. Has it gotten far?”
“She is being uncharacteristically subtle, my lady,” Jeyne says. She lifts her slice of lemon to her teeth and nibbles on the edge slowly. “Mr. Baelish has eyes everywhere and he knows Lady Arya rather well; it is no surprise that he saw it first. They are being helped by the Martell sisters, although I doubt either of them realize it; they’re loyal girls and they’re not prone to gossip. A few dances and an encounter or two at the park are not the sort of meetings that the sisters would think to share.”
“Thank God for that,” Sansa says. “So it is not too far gone?”
Jeyne makes a small grimace. She puts her slice of lemon back on the saucer next to her cup. “I didn’t say that, my lady,” she says. “Lady Arya forms connections so quickly and deeply with those she cares for.”
“Yes,” Sansa says. Of course she does; Arya has a gift for knowing the genuine heart of a person. It is why they have never gotten on. “Oh, yes, she does.”
“It will be hard to separate them,” Jeyne says.
The cold has gotten its fingers into Sansa’s scalp. It wouldn’t be quick--it would be after the wedding, half or three-quarters of a year, long enough to see if Arya will breed, not long enough to have the child born--and it would be something sudden but not a surprise to anyone who has heard tales of the wild Lady Arya Stark. A riding accident, almost certainly. The land around the Baratheon seat in Cornwall is treacherous and winding; sheep fall off of the cliffs constantly. The whispers will be that she could never be tamed.
Sansa closes her eyes, but she cannot fight off the despair. It crashes over her and drags her under like the tide.
After a moment, she feels Jeyne’s fingers lock around hers in a strong grip. “We will manage this, my lady,” Jeyne says. “We must, and so we will.”
Sansa dreams of Joffrey Baratheon that night. She dreams of him as he had seemed that summer, the summer after what Sansa had thought to be the most glorious Season of her life, at the Baratheons’ house party. He was so courteous and elegant, five years Sansa’s senior and so slim and tall, his hair like spun gold as it flopped into his eyes. He had taken Sansa for walks in his mother’s endless, hypnotic gardens, and complimented the new ribbon she had used to trim her summer bonnet. He had spent weeks listening to her talk about her dreams of a husband and a home and a family; he had told her he was sure her kind heart would be rewarded with a dozen children.
Joffrey’s smiles had always been careless--brilliant and recklessly given, bestowed on Sansa at every opportunity. His kisses had been terrifying because he was older and Sansa had never kissed anyone before, but he had always tasted sweet and been, she thought, patient with her.
He had been very patient as he had taken Sansa deep into the hedge maze; he had been patient as he had told her she was so beautiful, and would she be his wife? And he had become less patient when she had said yes. Sansa had laughed, pitched too high, too nervous to say anything as he’d used kisses to press her back against the stone bench at the middle of the maze.
Just a taste , he had said. If we are to be married, I don’t want to wait. Do you want to wait?
Just a taste , he says in Sansa’s dream, the sun gilding his hair and turning it blinding, luminescent. She can’t move; it feels like the warmth of the sun is baking her like clay into her stiff posture. She lets Joffrey pull at her petticoats, grope his way past her unmentionables to stroke her bare skin. She thinks, we are in love , and in the dream it feels like peals of thunder. There is a storm breaking overhead, and it is full of light.
When the storm clears and Sansa is alone again, alone as she had been in the Baratheon hedge maze--rumpled, close to tears, with blood tacky between and along her thighs--she sees Arya across the clearing.
We are in love , she says to Arya. Arya had been too young to come to the house party; she had stayed home with Father and Bran. But she is watching Sansa now in her dream. She watches as Sansa picks herself off of the bench and tries ineffectually to smooth out the wrinkles in her dress. She watches as Sansa lifts her trembling hands to her cheeks. She watches as Sansa begins to cry.
Sansa struggles awake; the curtains are drawn across the windows and it’s impossible to know the time.
“Sansa?” says a small voice, and she realizes that this is what had woken her.
“Rickon?” she says groggily.
He scrambles up over the edge of the bed and struggles to find her amongst the blankets; his legs flail and he kicks her in the shins, but eventually they manage to wrestle him into place. “Can I sleep here?” he asks her belatedly, after they have settled in place and Sansa has wrapped her arms around him.
“Yes,” she says. His curls are tickling the underside of her nose; she has to turn away to sneeze, and then sleepily turns back to press her cheek to the top of his head. “Did you have a bad dream?” she asks sleepily.
“Yes,” Rickon says. He holds onto her forearm with both of his small, hot hands. “Did you have a bad dream, too, Sansa? You were crying.”
After a moment, Sansa says, “Yes, I did. But it’s gone now. Thank you for coming so I wouldn’t be alone, dearest.”
“You’re welcome,” Rickon says with a quiet, sleepy lisp.
The best way to determine how much gossip, if any, is being circulated about Arya and Gendry Baratheon is to get Arianne Martell alone for half an hour. Sansa and Jeyne draft and reject half a dozen pretenses over breakfast until they decide that it’s best to wait until the Martell ladies’ at-home, which will be Wednesday afternoon. A day and a half seems an unholy amount of time to wait but it’s the quietest way.
Sansa cuts Arya loose for the evening under the air of compromise, mostly because without more information there’s no way to know how infatuated Gendry Baratheon actually is. Does he fancy himself in love with Arya? If so, he might just be stupid enough to follow her to any evening’s entertainment, and he would be so very obvious at the musicale to which Sansa had sent their acceptance.
“I don’t have to go?” Arya says suspiciously. Sansa hands her the stack of cards from today’s flower deliveries--there is nothing with Lord Stormsend’s card, but another plain G.W. had made an appearance and Sansa has her suspicions--and Arya says, distracted, “Wait, what are these?”
“Last night’s conquests,” Sansa says, and she lets herself laugh at the scalded look on Arya’s face. “I’ll find a marquis for you yet, sister.”
“Don’t you dare,” Arya hisses. She flicks a look down at the cards in her hands and can’t quite mask her disappointment that the top one is from the younger Blackmont brother. “Ugh,” she says, with feeling. “Is this why the front of the house smells so vile?”
“As a virginal young lady of a respected house you are, of course, inordinately fond of lilies,” Sansa tells her.
“ Ugh ,” Arya repeats.
“Lord Targaryen sent an invitation for a ride this afternoon,” Sansa continues, picking up her quill to return to her correspondence. “He for some reason suspected that you might be tired of the usual social pursuits.”
“Probably because I told him I’m bored to tears with all these stupid balls,” Arya says, rifling through the cards. Sansa hears the pause a few seconds later and Arya’s swiftly in-drawn breath; so Gendry Baratheon is the mysterious G.W. A second or two later Arya recovers and resumes her shuffling until she gets to Jon’s note at the end. “He says I can pick a mount from the royal stables! There has to be something interesting in there, the Queen’s supposed to be horse-mad.”
“Please don’t break your neck with something too high-spirited,” Sansa says mildly, to which Arya scoffs. As Arya makes to leave the sitting room, Sansa adds, “Arya, do wear a habit if you’re going riding out in one of the public parks, would you?”
Arya sneers. “I’ll wear what I like,” she says and stomps out of the room, guaranteeing that she’ll be furious with Sansa until she leaves and unlikely to come back to pester Sansa about why she’s been excused from attending the musicale.
Sansa finishes her letter to the younger Cassel, butler at Winterfell, settles a few bills from glove- and boot-makers, and sends her regrets to Mr. Baelish that she cannot join him in his box this evening for a performance of Iphigénie en Tauride as she is previously engaged for a musicale. There are letters still to answer from friends who are not in town for the Season, almost all of them because they are increasing, but she still feels raw from her dreams the night before and unable to summon up happy gossip for them.
Sansa presses her fingertips to the stack of letters. On the top, Bethany Flint’s sharp, jagged letters greet Sansa, I hate to complain because I know you have your hands full with that wild sister of yours, but no one else will understand. It’s so horrifying to take a younger girl in hand, especially if that girl is a hellion who resents you for marrying her brother and insists that you’re some kind of demon who descended on her home. She’s taken to calling me The Cow because my breasts are so swollen with milk for this baby who refuses to be born. What a horrid creature. Everything is awful and I wish I were in town and we could enjoy ourselves like the year before last. I haven’t seen my feet in months, let alone danced a vigorous reel .
In another world, maybe Sansa would be one of their number--married, expecting a child, happily ensconced in her husband’s home. In this other world, if this husband were Joffrey, it would be a nightmare existence. Sansa would be writing letters like this one, but they would be hiding something ugly and terrifying beneath them. When Sansa’s mother had elected not to approve of the marriage, Joffrey had thrown an ugly tantrum and said horrible things about Sansa--crude, vile things that had made Sansa cry for months afterwards, until she had managed to build herself a mask to protect herself. A marriage to Joffrey would have been full of such tantrums and Mother would not have been there to protect Sansa from that rage.
Mother is dead now; Sansa must protect Arya as she herself was protected from the sharp cruelty of Cersei Baratheon. If she does not, there was no point in being rescued in the first place.
Sansa rings the bell on her desk. “Have Jeyne found and sent to me, please,” she tells the footman who answers. “I would prefer not to be disturbed for a few hours; do tell Cassel that I am unavailable to callers, Cal.”
“My lady,” Cal replies, bowing.
“I’d like to know what my sister is wearing when Lord Targaryen comes to collect her, Cal; would you send someone in after she’s left?”
“Yes, my lady,” Cal says. “Would you and Mrs. Poole like a tray for luncheon?”
“Thank you, Cal, that would be very kind,” Sansa says. She smiles at him and his whole face, austerely composed, turns a delicate pink.
“My lady,” Cal murmurs nearly inaudibly and he makes his escape with another low bow. Once upon a time, making a man blush with her smile was the kind of power that Sansa daydreamed about, when she thought it to be unbearably romantic. It now makes her feel very, very old.
Sansa had accepted the invitation to the musicale because it was being given by particular friends and it was the sort of event at which Arya was expected to be seen and gossiped about; she had known that there would be, accordingly, a number of very young ladies present, but she had not thought that they would be quite so young.
The first young lady who asks her about Jon is rather circumspect about it; oh, how lively Lady Arya was in company, how lovely her dress with the lavender stripes, who was it that she had danced the Sir Roger de Coverley with so well--oh, Lord Targaryen, of course. And how delightful it was to have the queen--here a delicate blush-- sort out that terrible situation. And did the recently-returned Lord Targaryen enjoy the company of the Stark ladies frequently? He did! How wonderful it was to have family at your bosom. And Lady Arya, was she to have a particular entertainment to celebrate her coming-out?
The subsequent ladies are not so circumspect: They want to meet Lord Targaryen, and Sansa could provide an introduction.
Sansa cannot laugh in their faces--indeed she cannot feel anything for them but pity, because once she had been one of their number. Subtlety has to be learned with age. These young girls have a burning in them for Jon’s dark curls and his serious mein that so soundly rebukes his lineage and they want him, both for the duchess’ coronet and because his lovely, honest manners suggest breeding where there is not legitimacy. Perhaps Sansa had once been so obvious in her pursuit of Joffrey Baratheon, starry-eyed and whispering at the elbow of Cersei Baratheon. It is impossible to imagine herself so young and raw, scraped open for the censure of the world.
“Oh yes,” Sansa says, once and then again and then a thousand times, for endless dancing pieces of white muslin. “Yes, it is wonderful to see our dear cousin in town. Oh no, Arya has taken quite firmly and we are delighted with it; we aren’t to host any balls this season, as dear Rickon--my brother, the new Lord Winter--is far too young for hosting duties that extend past the dinner hour.”
This gets a quiet, desperate laugh, and then the very young lady in question excuses herself. Directly before the musicale begins, as Sansa settles in her seat of choice and arranges her skirts around her ankles, she finds a moment to be grateful for Arya’s absence. Who knows what sort of horrific nonsense might have spurted out of Arya when she became aware of Jon’s status as this season’s coup. Some anecdote about Jon’s wild past, most certainly, and more likely than not to fan the flame of his romantic appeal in the heart of a young debutante.
The music is very, very bad: violins, piano, one competent mezzo in a sea of piercing sopranos, and Sansa distracts herself by affixing to her face an expression of pleasant interest and racking her brain for what is to be done about Arya and the omnipresent G.W. Perhaps they can be separated, although of course Jayne had been correct that Arya is likely to form a deep, lasting connection on only a moment’s acquaintance. Perhaps G.W. would be so good as to succumb to the machinations of some matchmaking miss and break Arya’s heart by being irredeemably compromised in a conservatory--with a Frey, even, to match Sansa’s own erstwhile compromisation.
Sansa is still, vaguely, fantasizing about such a scenario when she is collected by her carriage and shown home; she spends the entire ride, all twenty-seven minutes of it, imagining with increasing luridity the Frey sister of her choice with her skirts tossed over her head and G.W., who looks in her mind’s eye to be a very bewildered Robert Baratheon, caught in the trap of her ankles. This is what she is contemplating when she arrives home and alights and is greeted by Cassel at the bottom of the steps of Stark House.
“Cassel?” she says, automatically accepting his hand as he guides her out of the carriage.
“Madam,” he says. “Lord Targaryen is in the library.”
He is as grave as ever; Sansa’s hands tighten of their own accord. “Lady Arya?” she says, sharply.
“Well, I believe,” Cassel says. “She is in her room.”
Sansa releases her crushing grip on Cassel’s gloved hand. “It is not--?” she says, unsure how she means to finish her sentence; she has to get a hold over herself before she sees Jon, lest she lose the thread entirely.
“No, madam,” says Cassel. He has by now escorted her up the stairs and into the front foyer of the house; he waits for her to unhook her cloak at her throat and shake it off of her shoulders. She is wearing an evening gown of dark navy and her hair has been caught up with hematite combs; the sedate dress of an older lady among girls. She is wearing none of her jewels or finery and her bare shoulders feel so terribly exposed. Can she feel Jon’s presence in the house, or it is her own terrible imagination?
“Tea, Cassel, if you would be so kind,” Sansa says. She begins to peel off her evening gloves and then thinks better of it; better to be protected. “Send down Jeyne, if you would? She can bring in the tea tray. Or has she retired?”
“Mrs. Poole would not object, I am sure,” Cassel demures, and Sansa, an idiot, says, “Oh, no, don’t wake her.”
The library is very dark; someone has lit a fire in the hearth but turned the lamps to be very low. Jon is sitting in one of a pair of chairs in front of the fireplace. The room is immaculate but sparse; Sansa does all of the estate work in her morning room, where there is natural light and she has her soft, delicate furniture. The library is so overwhelmingly masculine that to be inside it is to be suffocated by mahogany and leather: the scent of Sansa’s father. Jon has lost his correct posture; he is in recline on the chair, holding a glass of what could be brandy but is likely northern whiskey, and his hair has sprung into wild curls. Sansa’s heart has gone mad in her chest. She feels like weeping but isn’t sure if it is sadness or a deep, deep happiness and she daren’t investigate the feeling further.
“Lord Targaryen,” she says, and Jon rockets to his feet. She comes closer, extending a hand in greeting, and now she can tell that it is good, northern whiskey. It is the color of her mother’s hair in the firelight.
Jon takes her hand and bows over it, very quickly. “Lady Sansa,” he says. “Please excuse the interruption. I know you must be very tired.”
“It was a quiet evening,” Sansa tells him. She remembers to pause and laugh. “Well, it was in fact a very discordant evening, but not quite so exhausting as a ball. And imagine, we were just discussing those musical nights in Winterfell. Young ladies in London enjoy a different kind of music.” She gestures for Jon to retake his seat; he does not do so until Sansa has settled in the chair opposite of his.
“You were at a musicale, then?” Jon asks. Sansa cannot quite read his expression as he reclaims his seat. Now that she is there--now that she is sitting with him, looking like her mother, no doubt, who could signal displeasure with her very posture, let alone her expression--he is sitting very correctly in his chair. The glass of whiskey is still gripped in his hand; perhaps he has forgotten he has it, or perhaps it is convenient to hold.
“Yes,” Sansa says. “We are invited every year, as we are known to be patrons of the arts. It is where Robb met Jeyne Westerling, you know.”
“I did not,” Jon says, gravely.
“Her voice is quite remarkable,” Sansa says. “Perhaps she does not sing anymore. I know that I do not have the heart for music these days.”
This is a stupid thing to say and Sansa wishes immediately for an interruption: the tea tray, or a bolt of lightning to strike through the ceiling and kill her. Sansa had too many glasses of sherry at the musicale, or she was simply made this way: stupid, careless, ready to catch fire at the smallest of glances.
There is no interruption, and so Sansa must make her own. “How was the ride?” she asks. It is easier to ask than, Why are you here ?
“The ride?” Jon says. He is staring at her. Maybe he is thinking about her stupid, careless remark about music. Sansa can play the fool for any number of people, but she wants Jon to think well of her. Silly, stupid, careless girl.
“Your ride, with Arya,” Sansa says. “She was so pleased to have the invitation--there is all sorts of gossip about the queen’s stables, I understand.”
“Ah,” Jon says. “Yes, our ride. It was quite pleasant.” He pauses for a moment, that queer, arrested look on his face, and then he says, “It was hell. Arya is a hellion in the saddle and she nearly died a dozen times taking jumps she ought to have avoided.”
Sansa laughs at this; she cannot help it. “Yes,” she says. “You cannot stop her. Arya will do whatever she desires and take whatever she wants, regardless of the consequences.”
“It is surprising, isn’t it?” Jon says. “How someone so wild could be born of Lady Catelyn.”
“Arya is a true daughter of the north,” Sansa says; she even manages it without bitterness. “If we survive this Season it will be--well, perhaps not a miracle, because I doubt God will intervene. But it will be something.”
“A triumph,” Jon says, quietly.
“Ha!” Sansa says. “Perhaps.”
Jon is staring at her, even though she is wearing her dour navy gown and her hair is so plainly dressed. Maybe he is thinking that she looks like her mother. His relationship with Lady Catelyn had been contentious and hard and there had not been room for love between them. Maybe coming to him like this, she has made it easier for him to hate her.
“I had thought,” Jon says, and he sounds far away and considering, “that you were at the opera this evening, with Mr. Baelish.”
“ Iphigénie en Tauride ?” Sansa says. She is thrown by this change in subject. “I received his invitation but I had already accepted for the musicale. How--that is, perhaps Arya told you that he had extended us the offer of a place in his box?”
“No,” Jon says quietly.
They sit in silence for a short moment. “You are a member of the same club?” Sansa says, finally.
“Yes,” Jon says.
“I suppose there is some ghastly wager,” Sansa says.
“Twenty thousand pounds in all, give or take,” Jon says. “The dates for the banns are all in June. Mr. Baelish himself has the twenty-sixth, although it was thought to be unsporting for the subject to place a bet of his own. It is thought you might not be receptive, though, due to his advanced age.” He looks at the glass of whiskey in his hand as though it is a foreign object; after a moment, he lifts it to his lips and drains it.
In this moment, Sansa realizes that a tray of tea will not be dispatched to the library any time soon.
“It is not Mr. Baelish’s age to which I object,” Sansa finally thinks to say through cold lips. “There are other factors, of course.”
“Of course,” Jon says, more sharply now. “His disposition, perhaps--slimy to the end--or perhaps--”
“--perhaps,” Sansa says, as coldly as she feels, frozen in place in her leather armchair, her spine drawn straight, “because I have decided not to marry altogether, regardless of the gentleman in question.”
“No one believes that,” Jon says. His cheeks are becoming flushed above his beard.
“They do not have to,” Sansa says. “As it is my choice, and my decision. If they want to lose twenty thousand pounds betting on something that will never happen, they are welcome to their debauchery.”
“You can tell a room full of drunk idiots that a beautiful woman does not wish to be married and not a single one of the entitled morons will believe it,” Jon declares, as if this will be a point of some novelty to Sansa.
“ I , in fact, will continue to do nothing but what I have always done--that is, accept Mr. Baelish’s friendship without succumbing to the romantic allure of his personality.” Sansa allows herself to go beyond delicate irony: she sounds decidedly sarcastic, and quite rude.
“He’s not patient,” Jon says.
“Yes,” Sansa says, “he is. It is his greatest weakness.”
“Maybe he has been, in the past,” Jon allows, “but he is not patient now . He means to have you, Sansa, and before the end of the summer.” He looks so very serious; a portrait of brotherly concern. Sansa feels the heat of the fire like coals burning through the fabric of her dress.
“I can manage Mr. Baelish,” Sansa tells him. She tries to sound gentle, but her temper is getting the better of her. It is so like Jon--just like her brothers, like her father--to sweep in and expect to take care of the situation for her. When he is gone, does he think of her like a doll, left sitting quietly and helplessly in a chair in the corner of the schoolroom?
Jon’s hand spasms around the empty glass in his hand. “Can you?” he says.
Sansa stands abruptly. “If you will allow me to beg your pardon, I find myself quite exhausted,” she says. “It was a lengthy evening, and I have to escort Arya to an al fresco breakfast in the morning. You will excuse me, won’t you, Lord Targaryen?”
“Sansa,” Jon says; he also has come to his feet. Her mother may have hated Jon, but she had ensured that his manners were impeccable. “I didn’t--”
Sansa interrupts him coldly to say, “I know, my lord. Good night.”
Sansa rises early and spends a few precious hours with her cello in the music room, the doors firmly shut both to preserve her privacy and to prevent waking anyone else in the house with her shrieking scales. She expects it to calm her mind, as it has so many times in the past, but she is still deeply furious with Jon and she cannot turn her thoughts to where they ought to be--on Gendry Baratheon, at the very least, or on Petyr Baelish’s latest scheme. He would not be so stupid as to make a wager where it might get back to Sansa and not have further layers in play. Sansa will have to be vigilant with him. She cannot afford to be distracted because Jon has insulted her by thinking of her as silly and useless.
Of course he thinks she’s silly and useless--that is the whole point of her wretched days and nights, the gossiping and her pretty, elegant clothes. It is hypocritical to blame him for being blinded by the disguise she has spent so many precious years crafting, with the aid of her mother and Jeyne.
But Sansa had feared--had longed for and therefore imagined, more likely--that he was always on the verge of seeing through her disguises.
Silly, silly , wretched creature.
“Sansa!” Arya yells, banging on the doors to the music room with what sounds like the flat of her palm. “Are we going to this ridiculous picnic or not?”
Sansa does not give in to the urge to yell back; she stands, lets her cello rest against her chair, and goes to open the door. “Good morning,” she says to Arya, who is scowling in a turquoise walking dress. “You look very fine this morning, Arya. Yes, I had still planned on attending the al fresco breakfast.”
“It’s noon,” Arya says flatly. “Breakfast was hours ago!”
“You know how town hours work,” Sansa reminds her, pulling the door to the music room shut behind her. “Have you seen--oh, good morning, Jeyne. Is that my bonnet? And my gloves! You think of everything. Arya, where is your bonnet?”
“Oh, somewhere,” Arya says evasively, and then she sees the look on Sansa’s face and rolls her eyes. “Oh, fine ,” she hisses, and she stomps back down the hall to the stairs up to her rooms.
Sansa pulls on the first of the gloves. The tips of her fingers are tingling from the cello; her calluses have been lost in the year since she last played. “Following the breakfast, we will attend the Martells’ at-home,” she says to Jeyne, offering her wrist for Jeyne’s quick fingers.
“Yes, my lady,” Jeyne says, doing up the buttons along Sansa’s wrist. “Would you prefer a reason for Lady Arya not to attend?”
Sansa tugs on the second glove. “No,” she says, finally. “She likes the younger girls, and it will give Lady Arianne the reminder if there is gossip to be heard. You needn’t come to breakfast, Jeyne, unless you so wish.”
“I will attend, my lady,” Jeyne says. She finishes buttoning up Sansa’s gloves and Sansa bows her head, allowing Jeyne to arrange the bonnet over her hair, which has been coiled in its customary braids at the back of her head. Jeyne arranges the bonnet to its most pleasing angle and ties the ribbons in a bow to the left of Sansa’s chin. “It does not appear that Lord Stormsend will be present at the breakfast.”
“We continue to manage this by the skin of our teeth,” Sansa says. “My parasol is still downstairs, I believe. Do I look properly pristine, Jeyne?”
“Yes, my lady,” Jeyne says. She pulls on her own gloves; they do not button. “You look beautiful, as always.” Jeyne says this in her usual way, which is to say precisely and crisply. She is an orderly, observant woman, and although she has worked with Sansa for many years, she is intensely private and does not share much of herself. At the end of this Season, when the task for which Sansa’s mother had hired Jeyne will finally be completed, it is unclear to Sansa whether Jeyne will choose to stay employed in the Stark household.
“Arya!” says Sansa brightly, seeing her sister return. “How dashing you look, I think the feathers were a very inspired choice.”
“Don’t make fun of me,” Arya says, stomping past Sansa and not bothering to stop to have a proper conversation. The feathers adorning the side of her bonnet--which do look dashing, in fact--wriggle in her wake. “Are we leaving, now? I’m absolutely starving. At this rate we’re not going to get breakfast until tea time.”
“Let us be off,” Sansa says. “Do not forget your parasol, Arya.”
“My complexion’s already ruined,” Arya throws over her shoulder. “What’s the point?”
“Ruined is a strong word,” Sansa says, following after her at a much more sedate pace. “Besides, you should never discount the usefulness of a parasol. It can save you from an impertinent gentleman and no one will be the wiser.”
“I can save myself,” Arya sneers.
“No one will be the wiser,” Sansa stresses. “I know subtlety is a foreign concept to you, Arya, but it really has much to recommend it.”
Arya accepts the parasol when Cal hands it to her, the look on her face suggesting that she is receiving into her keeping a live snake. “What, do I hit him with it?” she asks Sansa. Cal, who is young, looks briefly horrified.
“The pointed tip can be used on a gentleman’s foot,” Sansa suggests. “Thank you, Cal. Has the carriage been brought around?”
“Yes, my lady,” Cal says. He steps forward quickly to open the front door.
“What if he’s wearing boots?” Arya asks, stomping out of the front door. The feathers on her bonnet are like the tail of a peacock, following in her wake. Arya has such majestic bearing when she isn’t in a sulk; it’s because she has masterful control over her body. Everything about Arya that is handsome has been a happy accident of fate. She has incredible luck.
“Open the parasol between you,” Sansa advises. “He will be forced away. Most gentlemen are taller than you; if you rest the opened parasol against your shoulder, they will not be able to move close enough to importune you again without being dreadfully obvious.”
Arya is clearly considering this as she is handed into the carriage.
“My lady,” Jeyne says quietly, following Sansa down the front steps.
“I know,” Sansa says in an undertone. “But she wasn’t going to take it otherwise. Keep an eye on her, please. If she looks likely to swing it at someone, intervene.”
Perhaps the advice regarding the parasol had been a bad idea; Jeyne is correct, Arya is just as likely to cause a scandal as avoid one when armed. But perhaps Sansa has done Arya a disservice, not properly preparing her for London. It had seemed such an uphill battle--first convincing Arya that the dangers of the Ton were real, not Sansa’s overactive imagination, and then somehow teaching her to respect, understand, and acquire the skills required to navigate those dangers.
Sansa has had years of training and she is very good, but she had been properly scared into learning. They had only just returned from Storm Abbey when she had asked her mother to show her what to do, and her mother, the daughter of a marquess who had been raised in London and had weathered the horrible scandal of raising her husband’s illegitimate child for many years, had been the best possible instructor. But Sansa adored her mother and always did what she had said. Arya does not adore Sansa, and she doesn’t listen well. So there would have been no instructing Arya in the ways of the Ton, and it is foolish to wish otherwise.
“Shall we?” Sansa says brightly. “Look, not a single cloud in the sky. It’s truly a marvellous day for a picnic.”
As the current Duke of Dorne is a recluse, the Martell family is overseen socially by his brother, a wastrel of the first order with a half-dozen illegitimate daughters and no apparent inclination towards matrimony. Sansa likes Lord Oberyn, for all that he is a wastrel; he is an enemy of Cersei Baratheon and had made a point of dancing with Sansa at a handful of balls that dreadful Season after Sansa had been forbidden from marrying Joffrey Baratheon, when Cersei had been doing her best to ruin the Starks. We ought to look out for each other, Lord Oberyn had said, as those large hunting cats are known for striking when one’s back is turned.
Sansa had accordingly made friends with Lady Arianne, his eldest niece, who had received her overtures of friendship with apparent delight. Similar to Lord Oberyn, neither Sansa nor Arianne have any interest in marriage, but they have to pretend otherwise. Amongst all of the little lies Sansa has to maintain, this is one of the hardest; men are exhausting. It is why she has maintained her friendship with Arianne, despite their fundamentally different characters.
“You won’t believe it,” Arianne says as soon as she and Sansa have settled into chairs by the front window, where their profiles might be admired by passers-by. “ I still can’t believe it, and I saw it with my own two eyes--I think Gangrene’s trying to court one of my sisters.”
“No!” Sansa says. She lifts her eyebrows at Arianne and pauses in the act of lifting her china cup to her lips.
“He has no finesse whatsoever, it’s tragic,” Arianne continues. “It’s impossible to tell which one he’s after but he’s always coming across them in the park on one of their walks and joining them to stretch his legs . And I saw him at the Reeds’ two nights ago, he made his bow in the receiving line and then cut right over to them. Your sister was there, smirking the whole time. You know what she’s like.”
“Arya finds many aspects of the Season to be tedious,” Sansa says. “What do your sisters think of him? Are his manners atrocious?”
“The suit’s being well-received, if that’s what you mean,” Arianne says. “My father’s standards are absurd for a man with three daughters but he’s not about to turn up his nose at a duke, even if he was illegitimate two minutes ago. As for my sisters, I can never tell what they think. They’re too well-bred, you know. Uncle Oberyn wasn’t allowed to get his hands on them the way he did for me, Mama threw an absolute fit about it. Whichever one Gangrene wants, she’ll say yes.”
“I haven’t been introduced,” Sansa says. “To Lord Stormsend, that is. I believe I saw him at a distance at the Reeds’.” She trails off delicately and Arianne grins at her.
“A luscious man, if you’re the sort to go for that sort of thing,” she says. “He has the look of Robert Baratheon about him but none of the rot from drink and age. His shoulders are massive . He’s too short for you but I think he’ll do for either of my sisters.”
“And not for you?” Sansa says, looking at Arianne as she hides a grin in the rim of her cup. She’s well aware that Arianne does not favor men; to even call it a secret would be courting absurdity.
Arianne flicks a look over Sansa’s shoulder, quicker than a blink, for a moment looking uncharacteristically serious, and then a grin breaks across her face. “Oh, you know my tastes,” Arianne says. “Nothing with the remotest chance of shackles, and he’s far too respectable. What with everyone and their uncle telling him to set up his nursery before Cersei Lannister has the chance to poison his wine cellar, he’s making the rounds of the debutantes. I even saw him dance with your sister, who looked spitting mad the whole time.”
Sansa feels a momentary surge of panic at this that she is careful to conceal. “That desperate?” she says drily.
“If he’s ingratiating himself with my sisters, it was the intelligent thing to do,” Arianne points out. “They adore Arya. He’s endeared himself to them by making pains to be nice to the prickly beast.” After a moment’s pause, she adds, “Of course she’s a darling.”
“Oh, of course,” Sansa says. She sips her tea and then puts it down. “Can you see her behind me? She isn’t in the process of saying something horrid to the dowager Lady Blackthorn, is she?”
“Not a single hair misplaced,” Arianne assures her, peering over Sansa’s shoulder and affixing a look of casual interest that belies the bright focus of her eyes. Only Sansa is close enough to see true, intense interest in her gaze. “That companion of yours has her well in hand.”
“Jeyne is a blessing,” Sansa says. “God knows that Arya won’t listen to me, but she’s at least not quite so recalcitrant towards Jeyne’s advice. Presumably because Jeyne never tattled to Mother about Arya throwing her needlepoint into the horse trough and got her sent to bed without supper.”
“What a little beast you were!” Arianne says, delighted. “It appears that Mrs. Poole has quite civilized the both of you.” Her voice goes a little thin over Jeyne’s name.
“A veritable miracle-worker,” Sansa agrees, and after a second they both remember to laugh.
Cassel comes out to help Sansa from the carriage when she returns, alone, to Stark House. She had left Jeyne to chaperone Arya and the younger Martell girls on their now-daily constitutional to Hyde Park with strict instructions to observe any subsequent interactions with Lord Stormsend.
“My lady,” Cassel says, handing Sansa out onto the pavement.
“Surely this is beneath your duties, Cassel,” Sansa says.
“Lord Targaryen is in the library, my lady,” Cassel replies.
The rage that comes at this is surprising in its strength. Sansa can feel herself grow flushed with it. “ Ah ,” she says; it escapes before she can eat it back. “Where is Lord Winter?”
“His governess took him for a picnic by the Serpentine earlier this afternoon, my lady,” Cassel replies, following Sansa up the steps to the front of the house.
Sansa sweeps into the front foyer and begins stripping off her pelisse and bonnet, handing her parasol to a footman. “In five minutes, please have Lord Targaryen shown to the morning room,” she instructs Cassel. “Five minutes after, have Nance bring in a tea tray. Let’s not have this one go astray, if you would be so kind.”
“My lady,” Cassel replies, bowing deeply.
“I understand,” Sansa says to him in an undertone. “If Nance cannot be trusted to relocate herself swiftly, perhaps some other duty might be found for her after the tray has been delivered.”
“Yes, my lady,” Cassel says.
The five minutes Sansa spends alone in the morning room are not quite enough time to collect herself. She fixes a few stray hairs, unpins and repins her sash to shake out the wrinkles, and tries to wipe her expression clean. When she checks her progress in the small mirror above her desk, she sees anger burning in her eyes like small flames. She tries to think of all the reasons why it is important that she be calm--Rickon’s precious face, Arya’s, the halls of Winterfell. She thinks of her mother, cool as a fall breeze.
“Lord Targaryen, my lady,” the footman announces, ushering Jon into the morning room. Sansa’s last glimpse of herself does not reassure her that she has wrestled her feelings back.
“Good afternoon, my lord,” Sansa says. She can hear the frost in her voice and she sees Jon visibly check his stride at the sound. She takes a quick breath and tries to soften it. “Another visit, so soon? I’m afraid Arya and Rickon are out of the house.”
“I came to see you,” Jon says. “I had to apologize for last night.”
“Ah,” Sansa says. She holds her hands at her waist, because she cannot think of what to do with them. “Thank you, my lord.”
“Don’t, please, until I’ve finished,” Jon says, holding up a hand. “I really am sorry, Lady Sansa. I was drinking but that’s not--that is, I shouldn’t have been drinking and I am sorry about that, too. I spoke to you as I would to Arya, to a--a sister--but that was not appropriate. I apologize for treating you like a child. I did not mean to cast doubts upon your ability to care for yourself or your siblings.”
Sansa’s lips have begun to feel numb, she is holding them so tightly. She is no longer quite so angry, but it’s worse, to feel instead deeply wounded. He still thinks of her as his sister; she did not know that. What was the point of being childhood enemies if not to burn away fraternal feelings? But it’s that deep, ravenous beast in Sansa that thinks this way, poisoning her and making her weak. It’s better for everyone involved if Jon thinks of her as his sister.
“Thank you,” she says. She sounds strange. The look on Jon’s face at the sound of her voice is also strange; a kind of spasm passes quickly across his cheek. “I accept your apology, Lord Targaryen. But it was not necessary.”
“Yes,” he says. “Of course it was. I hurt you.”
“You did not,” Sansa lies.
“Sansa,” he says, taking an aborted step towards her. “I know that I hurt you. You swept out of the room before I could say anything else, looking every inch a queen. That was always how you ended things when you were hurt.” His voice has become quieter, softer.
“I was quite exhausted,” Sansa says. “That was rude of me. I apologize.”
“I don’t accept,” Jon says.
The door opens behind him and Nance enters quickly, head down, holding a tea tray. “Thank you, Nance,” Sansa says. “That will be all for now.”
Nance curtsies and exits the room as quickly as she had entered, and now Sansa has turned her back on Jon, which is rude and also proves to have been a tactical error; when she turns to hand him a cup of tea, he is standing closer than she had expected. He is nearly at her elbow. He smells like the library--leather, salt, ink.
Sansa startles, jostling the cup, and he lifts his hands to stabilize the saucer. “Their graces left you with a nearly impossible task, Sansa,” he says. He is not wearing gloves; his hands are so warm that she can feel them across the inches separating their fingers. “Arya and Rickon likely don’t think of it, but they would be lost without you. I should not have said what I did. I was angry.”
“Lord Targaryen,” Sansa says. His hand twitches underneath the saucer and she feels his knuckles drag along the back of her hand. “I was not being overconfident when I said that I can handle Petyr Baelish.”
“He covets you intensely,” Jon says, his voice gone low--rough, almost. Sansa should let go of the saucer but she is not convinced that he has a firm grasp on it.
“Yes,” Sansa says. “It’s because I look like my mother. But he has his weaknesses.”
In a quiet, forceful voice, Jon says, “Let me help you, Lady Sansa.”
“I do not require assistance,” Sansa says. It feels paramount that he not know about her horrible fancies, now that she is aware that he still thinks of her as his sister. Further intimacies would only result in embarrassment and pain. “Would you prefer your tea prepared another way, Lord Targaryen?”
“I’ve been here for three hours,” Jon says. “I’ve drunk more tea than any human in existence. But thank you for preparing a cup for me, my lady.” He takes the saucer from her and then places it back on the tray. He does not step away from her. One of his hands goes to her elbow; he holds it gently, a touch that does not importune. Sansa feels rage and sorrow battle their way down her throat until she feels as if she might choke. “Tell me how I can help you,” he says. He is no longer forceful; his voice has gone almost pleading.
“Stop letting Baelish goad you into arguments,” Sansa says. “Let me handle this. Please. He might be relying on you causing some kind of scene--he knows we cannot weather a substantial scandal. It might be his intention to cause mischief and set himself up as my only recourse. He enjoys playing the white knight.”
“I’ve never met a man I would more enjoy shooting,” Jon says, “but I defer to your superior judgement.”
“Thank you, Lord Targaryen,” she says.
The strange look passes over his face again. She can see it better now that they are closer; it’s the muscle in his cheek, tightening under the skin. “My lord?” she says, and it happens again.
After a long moment, he manages, “Whatever you need, Lady Sansa, I will provide it.”
Sansa’s treacherous heart lurches in her chest. She hates it, and herself, and the way that warmth flows back into her limbs. “Thank you,” she says. She says it with too much relief; Jon’s fingers clamp around her elbow and his eyes narrow. Perhaps he can tell that she is more adrift than she would like to admit.
Although he must have business elsewhere--his title, although in and of itself recent, had nonetheless been cobbled together from a handful of ancient Targaryen properties that had been absorbed into the crown’s holdings over the centuries and is, accordingly, a mess--Jon stays for the rest of the afternoon. When Sansa attempts to shoo him off, making excuses about needing to attend to her correspondence, he informs her that he is quite capable of laboring over a book for an hour or two before needing assistance and then winks-- winks! --at her.
So: he stays. Sansa tallies the day’s bouquets, answers letters from her friends that can be done quickly, and spends longer on the day’s parcel from Winterfell. She’ll be home for the harvest but there’s preparations that must be undertaken. There are tenant farmers in Winterfell, of course, but most of the land is forest and logging is their business. There will need to be a controlled burn before the winter and Sansa has been sent a map for her approval.
Jon does not interrupt until Sansa forgets that he is there and suffers a brief moment of exhaustion. She puts down her letter from the steward and lifts a hand to her eyes, holding them closed with her palm and thinking back to when the forest at Winterfell was home , simply home, and not a continual source of frustration.
“Are things well in Winterfell?” Jon asks quietly and Sansa startles, badly, knocking her inkwell to the floor. Jon is there in moments, righting the well and fishing out a handkerchief. There is ink on the floor, on Sansa’s mother’s favorite carpet, and on her slipper, oozing down over her foot. Jon has removed her shoe before Sansa knows what is happening; his head is bent over her leg, solicitous, and he is dabbing at her foot with his handkerchief. It is a stupid thing for him to do because Sansa is wearing stockings that have protected her, but there he is.
“Don’t,” Sansa says. “If it stains my foot no one will notice.”
“Take off the stocking,” Jon says.
“ My lord ,” Sansa says. She sounds exactly as scandalized as she intends, which hides whatever more uncomfortable feelings are lurking below. She cannot discern their true nature but she can feel them, crawling up her throat and spine. He is cupping her foot with one hand and he is so appallingly warm. If he looks up Sansa is not going to be able to control herself.
He does not look up; his shoulders shift under his coat. “I’ve seen your bare feet, Sansa,” Jon says, “and not been struck dead, so presumably I will be safe. You don’t want to drip ink onto the rest of this rug, do you?”
“If someone comes in here and sees your hands up my skirt--” Sansa hisses.
“What, dear coz?” he says, low, and it takes Sansa a moment to hear the whisper of anger at the end of it. She tries to yank her foot back but Jon has got it firmly in his grasp. “Take off your stocking, Sansa.”
“You have to let go of my foot,” she says. “You need to be--far away. If anyone comes in.”
“I thought your orders were for us to be left alone,” he says.
Sansa says, “Jon--” and then she is rescued, thank God--the drivel that might have come out of Sansa in that moment is horrifying to contemplate--by the door to the sitting room bursting open on Arya and Jeyne, the latter already saying, “My lady, our apologies for disturbing you.” Jon’s hand is warm around the curve of Sansa’s foot.
Sansa has turned her head to look at Jeyne and Arya and she sees Cassel pulling the door shut behind them; he, at least, can be trusted not to say anything about this somewhat compromising position. “Thank you, Lord Targaryen,” she says, falsely bright. “I think it did not stain my stockings too terribly.”
Jon’s grip on Sansa’s foot shows no sign of loosening for two, three, four heartrending seconds, and then he says, quietly, “Nothing terrible, indeed,” and releases her.
“Jeyne?” Sansa says, tucking her foot out of sight amongst her skirts. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Jon fold his handkerchief and place it in the breast pocket of his coat, rising to his feet.
“My lady?” Jeyne replies, not quite flicking her eyes to Jon.
“Please continue, Jeyne,” Sansa says.
“It wasn’t that terrible!” Arya takes the opportunity to say. Sansa is not surprised. It was too much to expect a season out of Arya with no mishaps: It has always been a matter of when disaster would strike.
“Ah,” Sansa says, raising her eyebrows briefly at her sister; it’s enough to render Arya red and furious but, thankfully, mute. “Jeyne?”
“His grace, Lord Stormsend, and Lady Arya were found engaging in private conversation in Hyde Park,” Jeyne says.
“By whom?” Sansa asks.
“The dowager countess of Netley and her companion,” Jeyne replies.
“How private?” Jon asks quietly.
“Within sightline of the Serpentine walk,” Jeyne says, and Sansa feels a spurt of relief. “They were alone at most thirty or forty seconds; the dowager lady seemed willing to be convinced that they were properly supervised, but her companion is a Lannister spinster.”
“ Fuck ,” Sansa says.
“Sansa!” Arya gasps.
Sansa ignores her. “Who was on the Serpentine walk?”
Jeyne closes her eyes for a moment; Sansa can see her eyes flickering under the lids. “Lord Mullendore, Lady Margarey Tyrell escorted by her brothers, a demimondaine with her maid, Lord Pommingham, Sir Simon Leygood, Mr. Perros Blackmont and his younger brother Mr. Jon Blackmont. Lord Winter and his nanny were on the opposite bank, with a few other governesses and charges. Perhaps Sir Simon?”
Sansa says, “He is not enough of a gossip, and anyway already ours; I was friends with his wife before she died. No, it should be Perros Blackmont, that incurable gossip. He sent me three dozen roses this morning.”
“The champagne silk,” Jeyne says, with instant understanding. “I will see to having it pressed, my lady,” and she briefly curtsies to Jon before leaving the morning room. Their conversation has taken less than a minute; when Jeyne opens the door, Cassel is still standing out in the corridor, guarding against eavesdroppers.
“What was that?” Arya says, sounding bewildered and combative.
“This has to be handled,” Sansa says. She stands and turns to Jon, offering her hand. “Lord Targaryen, your visit today was much appreciated.”
“Whatever you might need, Lady Sansa,” he says, “you will let me help you.” It is not a question.
“This is a task that will be best accomplished by a vapid expression and decolletage,” Sansa informs him. He looks stubborn as he reaches out to accept her hand and there’s a moment, as he grasps it, during which Sansa remembers how firmly he held her foot, how unwilling he had seemed to release her. “If you wish,” Sansa relents, “you may help by appearing at the Follard charity ball tonight and, when pressed for details, act extremely bored or surprised at the interest in such an unremarkable event. Do not bring up the subject yourself.”
“As my lady commands,” Jon says, and he bows over her hand and takes his leave. “Listen to your sister, Arya,” he throws over his shoulder, and Arya makes a horrible face.
“We weren’t doing anything,” Arya says. “I don’t know why it should matter that we were out of sight for half a second--it’s not like he had my skirts up over my head and anyway half of London could see us, even if Jeyne couldn’t. I wasn’t compromised.”
“It is the appearance of being compromised that matters, Arya,” Sansa says. She tries to keep her voice exasperated but not furious; she does not want to fight with Arya. It is always obvious when they have been arguing and it won’t do, not if they are going to pull this off. “If you’re compromised--even if it just seems like you’ve been compromised--the first thing everyone is going to say is, ‘Where was her guardian, who was supposed to keep this from happening?’ And if no one can find Uncle Benjen, someone could petition the crown for guardianship of you and Rickon.”
“Who would want guardianship of us, we’re a ramshackle lot,” Arya says, but not angrily--she sounds interested in the answer, as much as Arya is ever interested in anything that isn’t related to the stables.
People who wish us ill , Sansa thinks, but she can still remember Arya’s accusations of paranoia and she does not say it. “Mother’s family, perhaps,” she says. “And Uncle Edmure is often complaining that we run wild in Winterfell; he might take marrying you off more seriously.”
Arya’s face instantly crumples into a furious pout. “I won’t marry,” she says. She sounds less sure than she had even a week ago; Gendry Baratheon, or whatever name he uses on his cards, certainly has been working quickly on her. “And I’m definitely not going to go live with Uncle Edmure and let him have a go at it. Or, God, Aunt Lysa .”
Sansa lets herself look annoyed. “We’d all kill each other,” she says.
“Ugh,” Arya says. “I suppose we’re going to this ball tonight and pretending that everything is fine?”
“Yes,” Sansa says.
“ Ugh ,” Arya says, pretending to retch. “Should I dance with Gendry, if he asks?”
“Yes, but only once, and pick something not terribly romantic, please. A set you wouldn’t mind dancing with Jon.” Sansa looks down at her desk, the list of suitors--some serious, some silly--who have sent her flowers, and runs the fingernail of her thumb under where she has written P Blackmont, roses (36, that idiot) . “What we need are witnesses that nothing happened.”
There is a long pause before Arya speaks. When Sansa looks at her, Arya is staring at the floor under Sansa’s desk, her brow folded. Finally, she asks, “Is your champagne dress that yellow one that doesn’t have a bodice?”
“Yes,” Sansa says, although the gown in question is not yellow and does have a bodice. Arya has a native distrust of low necklines that likely stems from a lifetime of having to worry about frostbite.
Arya says, “Ugh,” for a third time, sounding distracted. “I can’t believe men are so stupid.”
“Yes,” Sansa says. “Lucky, isn’t it?”
Sansa wears her hair very softly, in loose braids and flattering curls that soften the sharp edges of her cheekbones. She pinches rouge into her cheeks, across the bridge of her nose, and into the center of her lower lip. She wears the pearl necklace that her parents had given her for her sixteenth birthday--her first grown-up piece of jewelry, she’d thought at the time, but it now looks innocent and youthful, the string of seed pearls crowning the dip of her collarbone. She has Jeyne lace her corset more tightly than usual and pack a second set of slippers for when Sansa dances through the soles of the first.
Sansa is mobbed within seconds of arriving at the Follard charity ball. She is too tall for most men of her acquaintance to successfully stare down her bodice but they all make a good faith effort and Sansa pretends to be flattered, playfully hitting importuners with her closed fan on their shoulders, making them beg for dances. She sinks her weight onto the back of her heels and softens her knees, letting herself appear to be a more attractive and approachable height.
She had been distracted in the carriage, trying to sneak more advice to Arya without making herself sound like a pompous governess, and she hadn’t noticed Aunt Lysa’s mein. This turns out to have been a mistake, as Aunt Lysa is always the best barometer for the presence of Petyr Baelish.
“My lady,” he says when he appears at her elbow. A few of Sansa’s usual admirers look openly annoyed at his presence; perhaps word of the wager is making itself known. “You look ravishing.” He lifts her hand to kiss the air above her knuckles and his eyes are laughing at her. He knows that this absurd charade is for Arya; does he care enough to thwart it? If he wants her vulnerable, this is a way to see it done. But sabotaging her efforts here is a gamble; she will know that he is up to something, and Baelish wants most of all for Sansa to love him.
“Mr. Baelish,” Sansa says, and she flutters at him enough to be flattering, letting her eyes tip up in the corners. “Thank you for the compliment, sir.”
“I say, this is my set,” Sir Simon Leygood says and he elbows his way through the crowd to Sansa’s other elbow. He’s not quite daring enough to snatch her hand out of Baelish’s grasp but he looks like he’s considering it.
“Do you have a set for me, Lady Sansa?” Baelish asks, ignoring Sir Simon and pressing Sansa’s hand more firmly between his palms. “Or perhaps they are all reserved by your special admirers and I have come too late.”
He puts a light, barely-there emphasis on special . He probably means Jon; he’s been poisonous on the subject a number of times. Sansa suspects that he had not expected the Queen to acknowledge Jon and he finds the elevation irritating. Or it could be that Jon looks so much like Sansa’s father, who had been Baelish’s rival for Sansa’s mother’s affections. Most likely it is both. Baelish has many reasons to dislike Jon, who is kind and honest and honorable when Baelish is none of the above.
Does Baelish think him a rival now, for Sansa? It is best not to underestimate Baelish. Perhaps he has seen into Sansa and found the horrible, aching feelings that she nurtures in her heart. Perhaps he means to use them.
“The sixsome after supper is all I have to offer you, Mr. Baelish,” Sansa says.
“Thank you, Lady Sansa,” Baelish says, with silky condescension. “I believe this is your dance, Leygood,” he adds, passing her hand to Sir Simon like her body is his to direct. He gives her a paternal pat on the top of her hand and then excuses himself. He is acting appallingly like he is her father--the actions of a man who wants to be seen as trustworthy when someone’s whole life has spun out of control.
As Sansa had suspected, Sir Simon does not require any wrangling. He does not even mention Hyde Park or the Serpentine and at the end of their dance he asks if Lady Sansa and Lady Arya would perhaps join him and his sister in their box at Drury Lane next Tuesday. “Maery is having trouble making friends,” he admits to Sansa as they applaud for the orchestra. “I think she would get on with your sister.”
“Yes,” Sansa says, feeling her gratitude for men like Sir Simon--men who do not covet her body or dowry or attention--deep in her bones. Although the trust and support of someone like Sir Simon, of minimal standing in the Ton, will not go very far, he is at least one more ally Sansa may rely upon to repel gossip when he hears it. “What a marvelous idea! Will you have Maery send me a note?” Sir Simon agrees that he will do so and hands Sansa off to her next partner, who unfortunately is much more interested in the contents of Sansa’s bodice than actual conversation. It is at least a chance for Sansa to rest her dry mouth.
Sansa has saved a handful of sets after supper for Perros Blackmont, who makes a habit of being fashionably late to everything. He appears at her elbow when Sansa is sitting out a set with Willas Tyrell, whose leg does not favor dancing. From her chair, Sansa has the perfect vantage from which she may watch Arya whirl around the floor on the arm of Lord Trystane Martell. Arya is laughing, because Arienne’s brothers are both charming rakehells and sure to do anything to get a pretty girl to like them.
“My dearest Lady Sansa,” Perros announces, displaying an elegant leg as he makes his bow to her. “Please take pity on your poor lovesick swain and bless him with the honor of a set--of anything! Even the most unrefined country reel would be looked upon with delight.”
“Blackmont,” Willas says.
“Lord Gardener,” Perros says, coming out of his bow and giving another, less elegant, to his faux rival. They’re both engaged so this sort of posturing is nothing short of theatre, but Perros has always favored dramatics. Robb had forever been sending Sansa letters from school about him. It is how Sansa had known to make a small conquest of Perros, whom she uses as a sort of mouthpiece from which she can dispense tidbits she wishes to circulate through the Ton. “How is Lady Myrcella these days?”
“Well, I believe,” Willas says. None of the Baratheon children have been seen--not even Joffrey, thank God--since their half-sibling was made legitimate. “Still too young for romantic overtures. And your own future bride?”
“Similarly afflicted,” Perros says. “Youth! It is too wretched.”
Sansa affects a pout, as though she is put out by this talk of betrothed ladies. “It is much better to be an ancient crone,” she says, “as one might then be allowed to attend balls.”
“Oh, my lady, never ,” Perros hastens to assure her. “Would a crone have so light a pair of feet? If I might be so bold as to mention them--the quickest in Mayfair, I would say. Would you not, Gardener? Although, of course, you would not know, would you?”
Willas gives Perros a tight smile. “Lady Sansa is known for her grace,” he says. “Even lurking in the corners of ballrooms, I have noticed it.”
Sansa says, “If either of you wretches mentions my ankles, I will flee this instant.”
They both assure her they would never be so bold etc, which gives Sansa time to peek over Perros’ shoulder at Arya, finishing her set with Lord Trystane Martell and looking flushed, happy, youthful. Everything she should, as the daughter of a duke, as a carefree virgin who has not been compromised.
“The next set is a minuet,” Sansa informs Perros, “and I have not promised it elsewhere. It is yours, sir, provided no younger rivals are mentioned in my presence.”
“Of course, my lady,” Perros says, offering her his hand.
“My lord,” Sansa says to Willas, “thank you for a wonderful set.”
“As always, it was my pleasure, Lady Sansa,” Willas says, the venom gone from his voice. He always speaks to Sansa so softly and kindly. Had he not been engaged to Lady Myrcella Baratheon from when she had been, quite literally, in the cradle, Sansa thinks he would have pursued her in truth. But if he had been available, Sansa would not have made a swain of him. She cannot afford actual suitors. Refusing the heir to a marquessate would be very dangerous for a woman with no male guardians; Sansa might not have been able to keep herself free and then who would protect Arya and Rickon? Uncle Benjen , whom no one has seen in a decade?
Perros leads Sansa out to the dancefloor and flutters around her as the orchestra rustles the pages of their music and gives the dancers a few moments to find their partners. “I’m glad that you and Lord Gardener are such good friends, my lady, as I find that good friends make the best brothers,” Perros says when he has Sansa and himself arranged in their beginning poses of the dance.
Sansa does not have to try very hard to make herself look confused. “Mr. Blackmont, you are being tryingly clever,” she says. “I haven’t even the faintest idea what you’re talking about. Oh no, don’t tell me I’ve missed some delicious new tidbit about Myrcella Baratheon? You shouldn’t be so cruel to schoolgirls, sir.”
Perros puts his free hand to his chest as though he has been shot. “My lady!” he says. “I would never be so cruel to Gardener as to insult his affianced bride. No, I speak of her brother--the newest one, that is. Did you know that his lordship is the finest catch of this season? I was surprised that you hadn’t set your cap at him, you know.”
After a turn, Sansa raises a quelling eyebrow. “Mr. Blackmont, I do not set my cap at anyone.”
“Oh, of course,” he agrees instantly. “But have you made his acquaintance?”
“Who?” Sansa answers dismissively. “Lord Stormsend? No. Why, are his manners absolutely vile?”
“No, he’s up to scratch,” Perros says. “But I confess myself surprised to learn you haven’t met him, my lady, as he appears to know your sister quite well.”
Sansa makes sure that Perros sees her roll her eyes as she whirls away from him. When the figures bring them close together again, she says, “My sister, Lady Arya, is positively horse-mad. She makes friends with anyone like-minded who can discuss horseflesh for hours. We accordingly share very few acquaintances, as I cannot stand such talk. A horse is necessary to move oneself from London to the country and then back again, but must it be discussed any further?”
“My lady,” Perros says, taking the chance to lift her hand to his mouth and kiss the back of it swiftly, “you understand me perfectly. However, the horse-mad are a breed unto themselves. I saw your sister and the new duke discussing their horses quite ardently this morning by the Serpentine and they did not appear to be chaperoned for this discussion.”
How obliging of Perros to get straight to the point. Sansa actually respects him for it a little. He never even attempts to hide his love for the Ton and its games.
Sansa lets herself laugh. “Arya is wild enough, it’s true,” she says, “but she knows better than to go about without a chaperone in London. I believe Mrs. Poole, our former governess, was accompanying her. And even if one were to miss Mrs. Poole--as one might, as she’s a rather dowdy lady, as one might expect all chaperones to be--Arya is anyways always out with the Martell sisters.” Sansa pauses for a moment as if a thought has only just occurred to her. “They are quite short. One might find them easy to miss.”
“My lady ,” Perros says, and his face brightens instantaneously with mischief. “Tis true, the ladies Martell are rather pocket-sized.”
“Gentlemen always adore their pocket-sized ladies, don’t they?” Sansa says, and she makes sure that she’s pouting. Their set is close to finishing; she only has a scant handful of seconds to ensure that she’s maneuvered Perros where she wants him. “I suppose I will have to have a talk with my sister, then, to ensure that she does not lose sight of any of her friends when she is out in public. I think she finds it trying, but, of course, what I find vastly more trying is having to play the shrew.”
“My lady could never,” Perros says gallantly.
“You are too kind to me, Perros,” Sansa says, voice gone low, breathy, and then she lets herself turn pink. She has said it quietly enough that no one else should have heard, but when she peeks at him out of the corner of her eye, she sees that he looks quite struck by it. Will it be enough to keep him loyal to her, to defend her sister when the gossips come scraping for confirmation? She has given him her excuse and tied him to her a little more firmly to make him invested in believing her.
Their dance has ended; it will have to be enough.
“My lady,” Perros says, taking her hand and tucking it into the crook of his elbow. “Thank you, as ever, for a truly marvelous set.”
“Mr. Blackmont, one day your luck will run out and I will not have an open set for you to claim at so late a time--and whatever will you do then?” she asks him, not looking at him as he returns her to the side of the ballroom.
“Throw myself off of the top of the Tower of London,” Perros says. He releases her arm and sketches her a swift, deep bow. “May I fetch you something, Lady Sansa?”
“Indeed, you may not,” Sansa replies. “Thank you for the set, Mr. Blackmont.”
And then he is gone. Sansa has a few moments to herself, which she occupies by furiously praying to every possible deity: Let Perros laugh off any gossip he hears tonight. Let it be enough. Only time will tell if she has been successful.
Unfortunately, these few moments are the only time that Sansa has before the partner for her next set finds her. “My dear,” Baelish says. “Our dance, I believe?”
She is granted a few moments of peace before they are brought together and his insidious whispering begins. How Sansa hates his whispering. When she’d first encountered it at that horrible Baratheon house party it had seemed to be a godsend. She had been such an idiot to think him an ally, just because he had said nice things to her mother and offered Sansa advice in such a kindly voice.
He does not get to threats until they are nearly at the end of their set; for what feels like an interminable age, he deals solely in flattery that makes Sansa itch all the way down to her toes. But she waits, patiently, her skin trying to crawl off of her shoulders, until he says, “I am so pleased to see you in London this Season. The whispers about your uncle, my dear, were becoming quite deafening. But you have done the right thing, coming to town and showing how well you and your sister are managing. Who would think to question her guardianship, or the guardianship of young Lord Winter, when both give the appearance of being amiable, well-bred young people?”
Sansa says nothing through her turn and then, after a brief, thin-lipped smile at Lady Margarey Tyrell, she returns her hand to Baelish’s and says, “Yes, how pleased I have been to hear no more whispers.”
If there had ever been any at all.
“Your welfare is my paramount concern, my lady,” Baelish says quietly, as if speaking only to Sansa--although of course there are few moments for truly private conversation during a sixsome reel and this is not one of them.
“I have few friends, Mr. Baelish, as you well know,” Sansa replies. “I am grateful for your help. It is almost as though my mother is with me again.” Lies, lies, lies, but Baelish looks pleased. Has he remembered that her mother had hated Jon? Perhaps she will need to say something a little more overt.
But before she has the chance, Baelish says, “Your mother had excellent judgement, Lady Sansa. She was a keen judge of character.”
Which is why she didn’t marry you, you snake , Sansa thinks, but she hides the thought down deep inside and says, blandly, “She was indeed.”
“As long as you know to whom you may turn,” Baelish says as they finish the set. “It would be my greatest pleasure.”
Sansa drops into a curtsey, which conveniently prevents Baelish from taking her arm. “Mr. Baelish, thank you.”
“Lady Sansa,” says Jon, who has appeared--materialized, frankly, like a spectre--from the perimeter of the dance floor. “Is this my set?”
It is not, but Sansa offers him her hand before Baelish can grab it himself. “My lord,” she says. “Perhaps some refreshment as the orchestra rests? I’m absolutely parched.” She makes sure to look especially stupid and wide-eyed so that Baelish can see her use her tricks on Jon. “How was your dance with my sister? I hope she did not trample your toes too terribly.”
“Your sister was all grace, my lady,” Jon says, taking her hand and tucking it into his elbow. He is warmer than anyone else Sansa has stood near this evening, and it is not repellent. He smells so deeply attractive that Sansa feels her head nearly swim on her shoulders. She had not realized until this moment, but her treacherous heart has made its choice: Sansa cannot afford to trust anyone, but she trusts Jon. “Baelish,” Jon says with a curt nod, and then he sweeps Sansa away. Sansa glances back over his shoulder and sees Baelish standing there, looking furious for half of a second, before he catches Sansa’s eye and smirks at her. She only has a moment to look forlorn and irritated and then she turns away and can let her face relax.
“Are you all right?” Jon asks her in a very low voice; she nearly doesn’t hear him.
“Yes, I think,” she says. “He was just--being himself. I need a moment. Can you take me to the refreshment table? I think I have this set free, I just need a moment to check my card.”
“It’s a crush over there,” Jon says. “Let me take you out onto the terrace, you can get some air.”
“No,” Sansa says, “no private conferences on terraces, I just spent a whole dance ensuring that Baelish thinks I hate you.”
“Then you’ll have to genteelly resist, won’t you?” Jon says. “You need some air, Lady Sansa.”
“Are you telling me I’ve gone unattractively flushed?” Sansa retorts and when Jon says nothing she lets herself laugh, just for a second. “It’s all the rouge to make me look youthful and innocent, Jon, I am in no danger of overheating. I simply require a moment to myself.”
Jon’s arm tenses under her fingertips, muscles bunching under the constraint of his coat, but he does not say anything. He ushers Sansa over to a bench underneath a spray of palm fronds, conveniently devoid of wallflowers or matrons, and then positions her there. “Let me fetch you some lemonade,” he says as she fusses with her skirts; he is too much the gentleman for this to be an actual order and it comes across a little uncertain.
“Thank you, Lord Targaryen,” Sansa says, conscious now that she is visible to the majority of the ballroom. She makes sure to blink up at him dewily. “Lemonade would be wonderful.”
Jon looks down at her for an interminable dozen seconds, something moving uneasily in his expression, and then he gives a short jerk of his head and turns on his heel to fetch her a cold drink. Sansa hasn’t been fussed over in nearly two full years; she finds herself softened by it, the way she might have been when she was fifteen and hideously romantic in her sensibilities.
Little girls, who don’t know anything about subtlety, think honor is gilding on a face: golden hair, pretty eyes, lavish gestures. They think honor is something men talk about, instead of something hard that has to be striven and sacrificed for. Sansa had been a little girl for too long, kept guarded by parents who wanted the best for her. Arya had always seen their care as stifling and paternalistic and she’d escaped often accordingly. Sansa hadn’t thought to escape, because she’d known it to be love.
Jon is honorable. It’s like a kind of cage around him. Sansa can see how it keeps him closed off, how it brackets the way he moves and how he speaks. Honor has him excruciatingly conscious of how much power he has and who might be vulnerable to it. From far away it’s the kind of intoxicating display that would’ve made fifteen-year-old Sansa swoon in the telling--the polite, honorable gentleman, quiet in his dignity. It had made fifteen-year-old Sansa swoon, and she had hated herself for it.
“Lady Sansa,” Jon says quietly as he offers her a glass of lemonade. Sansa makes the mistake of opening her eyes--still closed, people really will think her overheated--and looking directly at Jon, who has almost no expression on his face. His eyes are blazing, though, trying to say something to Sansa that she cannot quite parse. It is easier to let her eyes drift down to his cravat than to try to read him further. She does not trust herself.
“Thank you, Lord Targaryen,” Sansa replies, accepting the glass and taking a sip. “And how does this evening find you, my lord?”
After a long moment he replies, “Well enough, my lady.” Sansa pretends to be occupied in watching the dancers and does not look at him. As she sips at her watered-down lemonade, she begins to feel pinpricks of panic over the back of her neck, like the wriggling eyes of a thousand creatures. What is happening to her, why does being near Jon--smelling his shaving soap, feeling the warmth of his body in proximity to hers, looking into his soft grey eyes--result in this total eradication of self and self-control?
“And you, Lady Sansa?” Jon finally says.
“I am well,” Sansa replies, and it is said too faintly. She can feel that Jon turns to look at her but she keeps her eyes fixed on the dancers. “Will this evening ever end, you suppose?” she asks him lightly.
He does not answer.
By noon the next day, Arya’s usual flood of insipid carnations and sickly lilies have appeared in the front parlor.
“Have you made a list of the senders?” Sansa asks Jeyne as she directs a bevy of footmen to redistribute the bouquets throughout the house. “All the lilies to the front rooms, please, Ed--oh, and the roses from Mr. Blackmont to the dining room, Cal, if you would be so kind.”
“Yes, my lady,” Jeyne replies. “All the usual suspects. Arya was not being flirted with by any particular sticklers, however.”
“As long as she isn’t ruined, I don’t care if she’s not invited to the Marbrand’s summer fête.” Sansa and Jeyne look at each other and Sansa cannot help dissolving into a brief, unbecoming spurt of laughter at the thought of Arya having to be introduced to Addam Marbrand’s mother. “Can you imagine that disaster?”
“Better not,” Jeyne replies and Sansa squeezes the bridge of her nose to fight back her giggles.
They have only just recovered themselves when Arya stomps into the front hall in her riding habit and brandishing her whip. “What’s all this?” she demands.
“Your usual admirers have all sent their regards,” Sansa replies. “Your reputation remains unblemished.” She has the urge to reach out and put her hand on Arya’s arm and squeeze it, the way that their mother had offered her support and approval to Sansa when she had become too old for hugs. But who knows how Arya might receive such a gesture? Arya had never gotten the chance to become too old for hugs from Mother.
“Hurrah,” Arya replies flatly. “Does this mean I can go for a ride with Jon without having to worry about being unchaperoned?”
“Take a groom,” Sansa says. “Please.”
Arya swats an invisible opponent with her whip, scowling. “I was unchaperoned with Jon for literal years--” she says, irritated, and Sansa lifts a placating hand.
“He’s not our brother anymore,” she says. “Please, you know you’ll outride the groom anyway. It’s just for appearance’s sake. I’m sure you don’t want to be forced into marrying him.” Sansa just barely manages to keep her tone light enough to deliver this warning as a joke.
Arya makes a disgusted face. “Who’d do the forcing?” she says. “Rickon?”
Sansa says, “He’s too honorable not to marry you if you were ruined, Arya, you know that.”
“Jon doesn’t want to marry me,” Arya says, and then her head snaps around as Cal passes behind Jeyne bearing a crystal vase containing a bouquet of beautiful, barely-open yellow roses and snapdragons. Arya says, “Wait, where are you taking that?”
Sansa says, “Of course Jon doesn’t want to marry you. But he will, if you’re in danger. He would see it as his responsibility. Those are going to the library, I believe.”
“No, I want those in my room,” Arya says. “Take them upstairs, Cal.”
The footman looks to Sansa. “Please, Cal,” she says and he bows and then turns on his heel to go up the stairs. Arya is looking after them with an almost ravenous expression. Sansa does not need to inspect the card to know who has sent these flowers. “I thought you didn’t like roses,” Sansa says lightly.
“The yellow ones are nice,” Arya mutters, and she does not quite manage diffidence.
“True,” Sansa replies. “They’re very cheerful.”
Arya snaps her head around at this and stares at Sansa suspiciously. “Don’t make fun of me,” she says.
Sansa can’t help herself; this time she does reach out and put her hand on Arya’s forearm. She is so short and slight; she hasn’t grown much since she was thirteen and had her final growth spurt, which had managed to send her rocketing up to a final, triumphant one full inch taller than Bran. He’d gotten sick by the end of that summer; Arya did not end up having very much time to gloat over him, but she’d made the most of it. There had been a large number of faux-solicitous offers to fetch Bran things off of the tall shelves in the schoolroom.
It nearly defies belief that Arya is now old enough to wear her hair up and her skirts long, let alone that she has made her debut and fallen in love with a duke .
“I wasn’t,” Sansa says, almost choking on the feeling in her throat.
After a long, suspicious pause, Arya replies, “Well, all right.” Her expression changes, her eyes softening from their squint, morphing into something a little more vulnerable. “Do you want to come riding with us?” she asks.
The thought of seeing Jon sends a pulse of panic coursing through Sansa’s veins. “Ah,” she squeaks. “Thank you, but no.” Her immediate thought is of retreat but she forces herself to gently squeeze Arya’s arm and then release her. “We’ve been nearly run off our feet, I thought I would take the morning to myself.” God knows if she manages to sound calm; it feels like her heartbeat is galloping in her ears.
“Another time, then,” Arya says.
“Yes,” Sansa lies. “Cassel, please fetch a groom to accompany Lady Arya.”
“Oh, it’s fine, I’ll rummage someone up,” Arya says and she waves the whip behind her in farewell as she darts around a returning Cal and makes for the stables.
After the faint sound of a door closing behind her, Jeyne says in an undertone, “She will marry him.”
“Yes,” Sansa says quietly. “I know.”
“Perhaps--Lord Targaryen?” Jeyne offers.
“She loves him,” Sansa says, “but I don’t think she would take his advice any better than my own. She keeps her own council. Ah, thank you, Cassel,” as she receives the proffered stack of cards. “Were there any unusual deliveries this morning?”
“I believe the yellow roses were delivered by his grace personally,” Cassel replies. As always, he offers this news with no expression whatsoever.
Sansa squeezes her eyes shut. God save her from idiots in love. All that work last night to keep Arya’s reputation pristine, dancing through the soles of her shoes and flirting with every lech in London, and what does the man do? He comes to deliver roses, personally , to their doorstep in front of all of Mayfair. “Of course he did,” she mutters. “Who is keeping house for his grace, Jeyne?”
“He has a bachelor residence, my lady,” Jeyne replies. “Should I have a card sent around to him?”
“I think perhaps that would be for the best,” Sansa says. “Invite him to call upon me at his earliest convenience. Take down the knocker once he arrives, Cassel, we will not be at home otherwise.”
“Yes, my lady,” Cassel replies.
“Jeyne, come and help me dress,” Sansa says lightly, and it takes all of her years of practice to keep her expression placid, blank, until they have escaped upstairs to the privacy of her bedchamber and she can say, almost to herself, “This must stop.”
“If you are not careful, Lady Arya will catch wind of this and she will not forgive you,” Jeyne says. “I believe they are very much in love.”
“Of course they are!” Sansa says, and she’s surprised herself with the vehemence of this outburst. “It’s the way we were raised. None of this Tonnish distance and polite loathing--our parents were violently in love. You didn’t know me as a child, Jeyne, but I was an incurable romantic. They didn’t outright encourage my delusions but they didn’t have to. All I knew of marriage was theirs, and it was--” here she begins to choke on the words, “-- perfect . They were perfect. The introduction I had to love was cruel but it was worse because my expectations were so totally impossible.”
Jeyne is staring at her. Has Sansa ever raised her voice in Jeyne’s presence? Impossible to know, but it is unlikely. Sansa has survived these years by pretending to be cold and removed.
“Arya believes that Mother prevented my engagement to Joffrey Baratheon because our parents thought I was too young for marriage. She doesn’t know what happened. She has never needed to know. She thinks Cersei Baratheon is a figment of my imagination.” Through force of will, Sansa has managed to even out her tone. “But Lord Stormsend will know the truth of his stepmother.”
Jeyne is still staring at her.
“I will speak frankly with his grace,” Sansa continues. She forces herself to breathe deeply, evenly, to pull these furious emotions back inside of herself where they can be encased in ice. “I know they are in love, Jeyne. I am relying on it. It’s the only way I can convince him to protect her.”
Finally, many seconds of silence later, Jeyne says, “Lady Sansa, if I may be frank?”
“Of course, Jeyne,” Sansa says. She nearly sounds calm again.
“You must not think that I am ungrateful for the help tendered by your family. I owe a great debt to Lady Winter, still, for all she did for me.” Jeyne folds her hands, gently trembling, in front of her waist. “Cersei Baratheon’s will was too mighty for me to withstand. For a long time, I believed it to be an inherent weakness in my own character. But now, with hindsight, I believe it is a much simpler truth: we were children. It is easy to overwhelm a child. A woman grown is another beast entirely.”
“You believe Arya could manage it?” Sansa says.
“If anyone could,” Jeyne says, “it would be Lady Arya, who does not care for the Ton or the subtle fluctuations in its temper. And if it would be because of anyone, it would be because of him.”
Sansa has understood herself for many years to be past the danger of being lured by romantic nonsense. She has known love and been battered cruelly by it. She has loved someone suitable to her station and class and discovered him to be a monster. She has loved someone unsuitable and been trapped like a rabbit in a snare, unable to do anything except struggle against it, the two halves of her will pitted against each other. But this idea of love protecting Arya against Cersei Baratheon—it is unspeakably tempting.
“That may be true,” she says softly. “But I swore to my parents that I would protect Arya and Rickon. How could I let her marry him? If something happens to her and I could have prevented it--oh, Jeyne. It will kill me.”
“She is not a child any longer, my lady,” Jeyne replies. “You will run yourself down to the bone trying to keep her from harm. And the harder you try, the more strongly she will fight you.”
Sansa’s head aches fiercely; she wants nothing more than to put herself to bed and pull the coverlet over her head. If only lightning could come out of the sky and strike dead her enemies: Cersei Baratheon, Petyr Baelish, Uncle Benjen , who is not so much her enemy as a thorn in her side. If only she could protect those she loves with her will alone.
“Leave me, Jeyne, please,” Sansa says, putting a hand to her brow and pushing at the pain she feels there. “Bring me a tray of coffee in an hour. I will dress to receive his grace when I no longer feel like my head is going to split in two.”
Jeyne curtsies. “Of course, my lady,” she says. “Shall I have the peach tabbinet pressed for you?”
“Yes,” Sansa says. She is not surprised that they have thought of the same dress as ideal for this discussion; she and Jeyne have shared the same thought many times before. She has trusted Jeyne as she has trusted no one else for the last two years. Jeyne’s advice is always impeccable. “Thank you, Jeyne. The peach tabbinet will be perfect.”
Sansa’s headache has not quite resolved itself by the end of the hour, but the silver pot of coffee that Jeyne brings in on a tray with a plate of ginger biscuits smoothes the edge off of what lingers. The peach tabbinet, freshly pressed, does the work of making Sansa appear well-rested and cheerful. Under ideal circumstances, Sansa would wear her navy silk and her hematite combs and do her best to look like her mother, a woman who would have, had the world been a righteous place, scared the stuffing out of Gendry Baratheon for even thinking of falling in love with her youngest daughter--but it is too early in the day for dark colors. They will make Sansa look sallow in daylight, and Sansa can not afford to look unattractive; her youthful beauty is one of her most important assets.
“Lady Sansa,” Cassel says as he opens the door to the morning room. “His Grace, the Duke of Stormsend.”
Sansa comes to her feet as Cassel bows and ushers in a tall, dark-haired man. He is built with incredible proportions; Arianne had not misrepresented his shoulders. He is wearing a dark green coat and a silvery grey waistcoat, looking not so comfortable in either, and his hair is cut unfashionably close to his skull. He looks like someone tried to tailor the clothing of a gentleman for one of Lord Elgin’s marbles.
“Lady Sansa,” he says, bowing to her. Like Jon, he bows too deeply for his station.
“Your grace,” Sansa says, dropping into a curtsey of appropriate depth. For a moment she almost has the urge to laugh. Arya, so deeply opposed to her own femininity and its perceived wiles, has managed the dream of every debutante in London and snagged herself a monstrously handsome duke. “Thank you for accepting my rather unorthodox invitation. Thank you, Cassel.”
Cassel bows and pulls the door shut behind himself.
“I am gratified to make your acquaintance, my lord,” Sansa says. “May I present to you my companion, Mrs. Poole?” And then, after Jeyne has bobbed a curtsey from by the window, Sansa gestures to a chair catty-corner to her own. She had ordered the settee removed before his arrival, to ensure that he will have to take the chair. It squeaks like a colony of mice and has a broken spring. It had been Sansa’s mother’s favorite chair for when she had wanted to interrogate a wayward child.
“Mrs. Poole,” the duke says, bowing to Jeyne.
“How are you finding London, my lord?” Sansa asks, settling herself back into her chair. She twitches her skirts to the side and crosses her ankles under them, folding her hands in her lap. She wants to look demure for the time being; someone who looks so much like a bull will be uncomfortable with anything that looks like it belongs in a china shop.
Lord Stormsend sits in the chair she has offered him and makes a pained face at the squeaking noise of protest this action engenders. “Well enough,” he says. He has a very deep voice and the accent is unmistakably Cornish, although someone has been doing work on refining it.
“Different from Cornwall, one might imagine,” Sansa says. “That is where you grew up?”
“Bristol, first,” he says. “Lately of Lostwithiel.”
“The West Country is very beautiful,” Sansa says. “It is very different from the north, where I was raised. We are not so close to the sea at Winterfell. The castle sits in the center of a great forest. Perhaps my sister has mentioned as much to you?”
“Yes,” he says.
Sansa observes, “The first time I went to Storm Abbey I was quite shocked at the absence of the huge trees I had known as a child.”
The duke, still appearing uncomfortable, begins to look confused. “Is that right?” he says. “Thee--that is, you’ve been to Storm Abbey?”
“Yes,” Sansa says. “I was a guest there when I was seventeen.”
She must do something to the word guest because the duke’s whole body stills. Sansa does not know what he was doing before he was discovered as the legitimate firstborn of Robert Baratheon, but he looks quite dangerous in this moment.
“Which one did it?” he asks.
How quickly he knew to ask this question. Still, Sansa looks at his expression and sees nothing other than grim determination. She does not think him likely to be a gossip. “Lord Joffrey,” she tells him. He does not look surprised.
“A dangerous snake he is,” the duke says.
“Yes,” Sansa replies. “As inevitably happens when one is suckled by such a creature.”
“You’ll be meaning my stepmother, the duchess,” the duke says. “Aye, she’s a piece of work. But there’s nothing I can do for it, as I won’t be seeing the children thrown out on their ears. I would have Joffrey conscripted in a heartbeat but the younger two aren’t of the same sort.”
“Yes,” Sansa says. “I understand. That is not why I asked you to call upon me today.”
The duke looks confused again. “I can take him in hand,” he says. “If that’s what you’re after. He might do better after having his stuffing removed.”
“You know as well as I that Lord Joffrey is not the most dangerous branch of that family tree,” Sansa replies. “And, unfortunately, she cannot have her stuffing removed. You yourself just admitted there was little you could do about her.”
She lets them sit in silence. The duke wriggles a little under her stare, his chair squeaking in protest, and he uses the flat of his palm to swipe down the back of his head. He looks at Sansa, and then to Jeyne, silent in front of the window, and then back to Sansa. Eventually he says, “Aye?”
“You will understand then why I have reservations about allowing my sister to marry you,” Sansa says.
The duke’s ears turn pink almost immediately. “I haven’t asked thee for Lady Arya’s hand,” he says, his accent turning the words into a thick mumble.
“And you have no intention of doing so? There’s no need to prevaricate, we both know that Lady Arya is a rare find in the Ton. You’ve been sending her flowers every morning and meeting her every afternoon. If you weren’t after marrying her, I would have my cousin take you to Hyde Park one morning and kill you. Perhaps Lady Arya has mentioned him? He’s a decorated war hero.”
“Aye,” the duke says, still pink but steelier now. “There’s no need for threats, my lady. I’ve only got honorable intentions.”
“I would be pleased to hear it,” Sansa says, “but, of course, if I agree to let you marry Lady Arya, I will be sending her into the lion’s den. You are familiar with your stepmother’s character, you say, and I believe you. But do you know all that she is capable of? Do you know how far such a woman would go to see her son restored to your title?”
The duke says, “She’s a rough woman, true.”
“She would have drowned you as a baby if she knew your parents had married,” Sansa says, feeling that the man is stout enough to handle this, and she’s correct: He doesn’t even flinch.
“Aye,” he says. “That she would have.”
Sansa says softly, a little venomously, “She would do the same to your children. To my sister’s children.”
“Nothing will happen to my children,” the duke says. Although it’s clear he’s not the fidgety sort, he has been looking increasingly uncomfortable in the spindly little chair that Sansa has placed him in with every passing minute. That discomfort leaves his expression now; he leans forward and doesn’t bat an eye as the chair lets out a sad, protesting squeak. “She’ll die before she lays a hand on any of them.”
“And my sister?” Sansa asks.
“Lady Arya’d kill me for saying it, but she’ll be safe with me. I swear. I’ve given my stepmother property in Devon and an allowance for her children--not that they need it, with her Lannister portion. She’ll never step foot in the Abbey again.”
“You understand, don’t you, that your stepmother would not need to come herself to see harm done?” Sansa asks.
“Aye, but assassins I can handle,” the duke says flatly.
Sansa leans back in her chair. He does not sound like he is boasting, but rather stating grim fact. “How recently were you of Lostwithiel?” she asks.
“It’s been a few years,” he says shortly.
Although she wracks her brain for a few seconds, Sansa cannot remember any gossip of the new Lord Stormsend having served on the Continent. When she flicks a glance at Jeyne out of the corner of her eye, Jeyne is staring down into her embroidery and is slowly shaking her head. Perhaps he is boasting, and is very good at it. Perhaps not.
“Were you acquainted with my cousin?” she asks.
“Aye,” he says. “Ask Snow, if you wish. He’ll answer what he can.”
Sansa knows that she cannot prevent this marriage. If she uses outright force, Arya will elope and Sansa will be lucky to get the family name scrubbed clean enough in fifteen years to find Rickon a decent match. If she uses treachery, Arya will never forgive her, and God alone knows what Arya would do then. Run away to India, probably, and then Cersei Baratheon wouldn’t have to have her murdered, as pirates would do it instead.
And, of course, underneath all the little logical deductions is the hardest fact of all to swallow: Arya is no longer a child, and must be trusted to make her own decisions for her own future. How deeply Sansa loathes those who seek to mold her to their will and control her future. How could she do the same to her sister, even from a place of sisterly concern? She cannot resent men for their patronising behavior and then do an about-face and deliver the same nonsense to Arya. There will never be room for love between them in the absence of respect. Sansa has come to realize that these last few weeks, and with it the even more staggering realization that she truly does long for Arya to love her. They have so little family left to them.
“My sister is a strong-willed, impetuous woman,” Sansa says finally, when the duke has begun to look a little uncertain around the eyes. “But she is not to be treated with any less courtesy or kindness for her strength. I hope you understand that.”
Of course he does; he wouldn’t have kept sending her flowers every day otherwise. But Sansa wouldn’t be surprised if he has been managing this courting business purely on instinct.
“I will treasure her,” the duke says. His ears flush dark red and he coughs once, eyes skittering away from Sansa. “Only don’t be telling her that, or she’ll skin me for boots.”
Gendry Baratheon is long gone by the time Arya returns from her ride, Jon in tow. They tromp into the morning room trailing dust in their wake, Arya looking bright-eyed and cheerful. From this display Sansa judges it unlikely that Arya has learned of her admirer’s call, as she’d be spitting mad if she knew. “I’ve invited Jon to supper,” Arya announces, tossing her hat onto the table next to the settee and throwing herself after it. “We’re not dining out, are we?”
“Good evening, Lady Sansa,” Jon says and Sansa offers her hand--regrettably covered in ink--to him. “I will not importune you for supper, but there is something we should discuss.”
“You are welcome to dine with us, my lord,” Sansa tells him. “We were to have the Reeds with us, but their youngest has come down with something nasty and they had to send their regrets.” Jon squeezes her hand instead of kissing the back of it and then he doesn’t release it. He looks worn, covered in a fine layer of brown dust, his hair springing free of its wax into the wild curls that Sansa remembers from childhood. After a moment’s consideration of his expression, Sansa says, “Let us go into the library. Arya, the supper bell rings in an hour.”
But Arya has her arms tucked across her chest and is already fast asleep.
“That must have been quite a ride,” Sansa whispers to Jon. “You’ve exhausted her! I didn’t think it possible.” As they exit the morning room and cross the hall to the library, Sansa reaches out and snags a passing maid. “Bethy, can you send someone to wake Lady Arya in half an hour? She will need to wash up for supper. And tell Cook we will have Lord Targaryen joining us tonight.”
Jon does not say anything as Sansa ushers him into the library and pulls the heavy door shut behind them. A fire has been laid in the hearth but not lit; it’s dim enough that Sansa goes to the windows behind the desk to pull back the drapes and let in the last of the day’s sunlight. When she turns back to Jon, she can see him a little more clearly. He has braced his weight against the chair facing the desk and is gripping the back of it with knuckles gone white.
“What is it?” Sansa asks. “Arya? Did something happen on the ride?”
Without looking up from his hands, Jon says, “Arya is well, as far as I can tell. She’s absolutely gone on him.”
“Stormsend? Yes, I know. It appears to be a mutual affliction. Did you know him? On the Continent?”
Jon looks up at her, surprise writ clear on his face. “Where did you hear that?” he asks.
“I thought it might be the case, from something alarming he said to me about being able to handle assassins. Does he have enough skill to do that? Could he protect Arya from Cersei Baratheon? You needn’t tell me anything specific if it’s meant to be kept secret.”
“Yes,” Jon says slowly. “Yes, I believe he could protect Arya if her life were in danger. Would it be?”
“If she married him? Absolutely.” Sansa lowers herself into the chair behind the desk and lets herself lean back into it, trying to drop the weight off of her shoulders. “But I don’t think I could keep her from marrying him. Besides, as much as I hate to admit it, I am not sure she would be much safer here with me. I still cannot determine what Baelish’s game is, but I know Arya and Rickon are part of it. He brings up Uncle Benjen too often for that not to be the case.”
Jon says, “I saw him. Today.”
Sansa straightens up in her chair. “Uncle Benjen?” she breathes.
“No,” Jon says. “Baelish.”
“Enjoying the afternoon promenade at Hyde Park?” Sansa lets out an irritated noise and relaxes back into her chair. “Likely he retreated there when he saw I’d had Cassel take the knocker down.”
“I’m not so sure he was retreating,” Jon says. “He hailed me and we had a--discussion.” It takes him a few seconds to decide on the word discussion . The look on his face is one that Sansa has never seen before. He looks almost hollowed out. The only sign of greater feeling is his hands, twisting against the chair.
“He is a poisonous creature,” Sansa says. “Whatever he might have said to you, it was intended to do insidious harm. You mustn’t--let him. It is how he accomplishes his horrible goals, through this kind of manipulation.”
Jon says nothing, staring down at his hands. His mouth has flattened under his beard into a tight line.
“What did he say to you?” Sansa finally asks. It takes her an enormous amount of willpower, because she thinks she knows. What else would make him look so angry and sad, scraped open like this? Baelish must have told him about Sansa and her degenerate feelings. She’s been trying so hard to be careful this Season, not to let on, but of course she hadn’t been trying nearly so hard in previous years. It would have taken only a moment, someone mentioning a letter from Jon in Sansa’s presence with Baelish looking on, and he would have been able to tell. She’s such an idiot .
It feels like Sansa doesn’t breathe in those long, silent seconds. Finally, Jon shakes his head and says, “It was all venom and spite under polite nonsense. The specifics don’t matter.”
“Of course they matter,” Sansa says, her heart hammering in her chest. What did he say to you, Jon? “Go through it with me and we’ll sort it out--”
“Sansa,” Jon interrupts, “the specifics don’t matter. He had a letter.” Jon lifts a hand to his mouth and rubs, hard, and then he says, “It was obviously a forgery, because it was made to look in Uncle Benjen’s hand--and if I haven’t been able to find him, Baelish certainly wouldn’t be able to manage it. But it looked nearly perfect.”
A letter. A letter from her guardian.
“I’m of age,” Sansa says faintly.
“It was more than approval of his suit,” Jon says. “It had details--financial arrangements, information on your dowry and what your settlements should be. It wouldn’t hold up in front of a magistrate, of course; without witnesses, it’s not a legal agreement.”
“He doesn’t need to take it to the courts,” Sansa says to herself. It feels like she’s been plunged from a great height into the ocean, descending from hot, panicky shame into cold fear. She doesn’t realize she’s digging her hands into the arms of her chair until her nailbeds begin to hurt. “He only needs to show it to a few close friends and then it will be as good as a public announcement of a betrothal. He knows that we cannot afford to have anyone asking after Uncle Benjen. I would not be able to break it off.”
She is so unbelievably cold. She can almost feel Baelish’s breath against the back of her neck. He has always loved to stand directly behind her when delivering his most dangerous advice in his slippery, whispering voice. Twice while doing so he has called her Cat and both times it made Sansa’s whole body seize up. Is that what he will call her when they are married?
“Please let me kill him,” Jon says and it pulls Sansa back from where she had been, small and hurt, deep inside of herself.
“Dueling is illegal,” Sansa reminds him. Without conscious effort, her voice has relaxed into a level monotone. “If you kill him, you will have to leave England.”
“No one in the Lords would convict me,” Jon says. “Even if there were witnesses. He is universally loathed and once he is dead he will have the whip hand over no one.” In this moment Jon sounds like Gendry Baratheon had, four hours earlier, informing Sansa that no assassins would be able to kill her sister with him there to protect her: quietly, confidently lethal. It is so easy to forget that Jon has been at war for nearly a decade.
“No,” Sansa says. “No, don’t be--” She sighs. “Don’t let chivalry get in the way. Please. I just need a moment to think. A letter! What a perfectly Petyr way to trap me. He created all of this gossip to force me to lean on the fiction that Uncle Benjen serves as an active guardian to Rickon and Arya and now he will exploit that.” If she breathes deeply, slowly, she can force the panic back down and hopefully rational thought will fill the space it leaves vacant. “There is no possibility that we might recover Uncle Benjen? He really is gone?”
“There has been no word of him since ’07,” Jon says. “When I was in Portugal last fall I did my best to track him down, but he disappeared completely after the Lisbon occupation. There was some thought among his fellow officers, as he was fluent in Russian, that he might have gone north, but if he did, I could find no trace of him. It isn’t surprising; the Peninsula is a bloody mess.”
“No, I suppose not,” Sansa says absently. “What date did he have for the wager? Baelish, at your club.”
“June 26th,” Jon replies instantly. When Sansa looks at him, surprised and pleased at his swift memory, he flushes. “It’s the day after Arya’s birthday,” he says.
Of course it is. Sansa has known for months that she won’t be able to host a proper birthday ball for Arya--who would anyway loathe it--but she will be expected to host some sort of festivity marking the occasion, or else be seen as a horrid bore. She had sent an inquiry to Vauxhall Gardens just last week about reserving a grove with tables and servers for the evening of June 25th and asked after the likelihood of there being a fireworks display that night. How on earth had he learned her plans so quickly? Vauxhall is the ideal location for him to compromise her and brandish the letter as proof of betrothal, as poor debutantes are constantly being compromised at Vauxhall. The gardens being so scandalous is exactly why they will be an enjoyable surprise for Arya’s birthday.
“What a vile little man,” Sansa says. “I only just decided on Vauxhall for Arya’s birthday at the beginning of last week. He has his thumb in every pie in London, by God.”
“Vauxhall!” Jon says.
“I thought she might like the fireworks,” Sansa says. “And besides, all of her friends are in the fast crowd. With possibly the exception of Gendry Baratheon, I think every one of her admirers participated in that stupid racing stunt to Bristol last year. She’d have a lovely time.”
“She’s too young for Vauxhall Gardens,” Jon states firmly.
“Jon,” Sansa says, and she can’t help laughing at the look on his face, all outraged propriety, “Arya’s going to be engaged--if not married--to Gendry Baratheon by her birthday. I don’t think anyone’s going to run the risk of being fresh with her, not with him scowling by her side. Does he scowl? I haven’t had the opportunity to notice.”
“Miserably,” Jon says. “If she marries him by special license, there’s going to be talk about Gendry being no better than the circumstances of his birth.”
“By all means,” Sansa says, “ you be the one to tell them to wait, then. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Arya is stubborn enough that she might refuse him, you know.”
Jon says, “Maybe, perhaps the first time. But not the second.”
Sansa lifts an eyebrow and teases, “You think his pride robust enough to endure a refusal and then a second go of it?”
“Yes,” Jon says. “Gendry Waters always gets his man.”
G.W.! At least Sansa might count one small mystery as solved. And, surprisingly, this discussion has raised Sansa’s spirits a little. She has no solution as of yet, but Arya’s birthday is still a little over a month away. If Baelish is going to sit on his letter until her birthday--and it seems quite likely he will, if he wishes to collect his winnings--then Sansa has time to think on how to fix this mess.
“Thank you for telling me about the letter, Lord Targaryen,” Sansa says. “And not murdering Baelish on the spot, as I am sure you were quite tempted to do. There is a little window of time now wherein I may think of some way out of this mess.” She puts her hands on the arms of her chair and propels herself to her feet. She feels quite wrung out, as there are only so many times in a single day that a woman might panic before the sensation runs her off her feet. “I should change for supper. I will have Cassel send up someone to brush out your coat for you.”
Jon says, “Thank you, Lady Sansa.” His mouth tightens in the corner, a small display of uncertainty. “I don’t have to stay for supper. I seem to be inviting myself back into the household. I hope you know that isn’t--ah, that it isn’t my intention to intrude.” He has gone awkward and reserved with this little half-apology, drawing his shoulders back and stepping away from her path to the door as Sansa comes around the desk.
“You aren’t intruding,” Sansa says. She almost tries to say, you are our brother , but she knows that the words will not come out from between her lips. “You’re always welcome, Lord Targaryen.”
“If that’s true,” he says, a little miserably, “then you should call me Jon.”
“You know I can’t--” Sansa starts to say and he cuts her off, clarifying, “At home. With family. No one--calls me by my name, anymore.”
“Oh,” Sansa says. He’s not standing close to her by any conceivable metric, but his eyes are holding her in place as though he has put his hands on her shoulders. She feels herself begin to flush at the thought. “Yes, all right, then.” And then, softly, because she is losing her battle with composure: “Jon, at home. Sansa, with family.
“Thank you, Sansa,” Jon says, and then, horribly: he smiles at her.
Although Sansa offers to have port brought up from the wine cellar for him after supper, Jon demurs and goes to pour himself a glass of whiskey from the decanter in the library before joining them in the family parlor for dessert. He’s only barely let the door close behind him when Arya asks, “What’s wrong with you? You’ve been an idiot all evening.”
“Arya!” Sansa hisses.
“Well, you have,” Arya says. “Rickon had to ask you three times to cut his meat.”
Sansa flushes--further proof that Arya is right and she’s being a complete ninny--and says, “I had some distracting news from Jon, that’s all.”
“Hmm,” Arya says, narrowing her eyes. “News about what?”
“Just gossip,” Sansa says, as lightly as she can manage.
“Sansa,” Rickon interrupts, climbing up the sofa to sit next to Sansa and kicking her thoroughly in the process, “will you play since Jon is here? If you play then he can sing the roving song for me.”
“I’m not sure that’s appropriate--” Sansa tries.
“That sounds nice, actually,” Arya says, kicking off her shoes and pulling her feet up onto her chair. “No one’s played in this house in ages.”
“Oh, offering to fetch your violin, are you?” Sansa shoots back and Arya makes a disgusted face.
“No one wants to hear what sounds I can wring out that wretched thing,” she says. “Jon can use it, if he likes. But you’re the only one who’s been practicing of late, so you’ve got the best chance of not making our ears bleed.”
Sansa looks back and forth between her siblings--Arya arranging her skirts around her toes, Rickon staring up at Sansa with huge, pleading eyes--and says, not quite able to shake a niggling feeling of suspicion, “I suppose with that sort of vehement praise, who am I to refuse? But you must ask Jon to sing, Rickon, not demand it.”
Jon has pushed open the door to the family parlor and only just managed to put a foot over the threshold when Rickon jumps to his feet and shrieks, “Jon! If Sansa plays will you sing the roving song for me?”
“Of all the folk songs to be his favorite, it had to be the one about a drunkard,” Sansa says to Arya in an undertone. She raises her voice and turns to the door, where Rickon has grasped one of Jon’s hands between his own and is tugging on it furiously between whines. “Jon, don’t feel obliged.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” Jon says. “Can’t say that I’ll do it much justice, though. Maybe you should pick something else for Sansa to play,” he says to Rickon, who shrieks, “ No! ”
“Absolutely not,” Sansa says, rising to her feet. “If I must suffer, I refuse to do so alone, and Arya has already said she won’t join me. I have to collect my cello from the music room. Do you remember the tune, Jon? I might have the sheet music for Bran’s arrangement somewhere.”
“I can muddle along,” Jon says. “There’s a lot of singing in Her Majesty’s Army, as it turns out. Not much else to entertain you when you’re stuck in a sea of mud in the Portuguese countryside. No one wanted to hear me recite Milton, if you can believe it.”
“Blasphemous!” Sansa says, laughing. “You still remember it? Paradise Lost ?”
“I’m afraid that if I forget even a single word, Mr. Chayle will rise up out of his grave and beat me with a switch,” Jon says. “Do you want me to fetch your cello for you?”
“No, but thank you,” Sansa says. Rickon has Jon trapped in the doorway still, clinging to his hand. Jon tries to shuffle out of her way but Rickon won’t be moved, asking Jon who Milton is and what the Portuguese mud was like, words tripping over each other in his haste. Sansa puts her hands on Rickon’s shoulders and squeezes out of the door behind him, so close to Jon that for a second she can feel the heat of his body like she’s moving along beside a raging house fire. He smells like whiskey and pine needles. Jon quirks an eyebrow at her and tilts his head down towards Rickon, still chattering, and then up towards Arya in her chair. Sansa shakes her head in a quick jerk. She has no idea why they’re acting so strangely.
When she returns with her bow and cello, swiftly tuned, Arya and Rickon are sharing the sofa and a plate of biscuits and Jon is in the process of moving a wooden chair--it looks like the one from her desk in the morning room--close to the fireplace. “Oh, thank you,” Sansa says, surprised and pleased that he’s remembered she needs a shorter, firmer seat for playing than the comfortable armchairs that populate the family parlor. After he helps her settle, Jon stays, lingering by her chair, his hand resting against the high back. Sansa is so aware of his presence that she fancies she can feel every inch of distance between the back of her head and his fingers. Her hair feels curiously heavy.
Sansa launches into the beginning of Bran’s arrangement of The Wild Rover without any fanfare, scrambling a few of the notes in the beginning before she calms down. Jon comes in at exactly the right place, his low baritone scraping along for a few measures. It clears as he goes, the whiskey smoothed out of his vocal cords, and then they reach the chorus and Sansa joins in harmony without conscious intention.
She drops away in the next verse, letting Jon carry them through, and she moves her fingers to pluck a few of the notes instead of drawing across them with her bow, trying to evoke the sound of her mother on the harp. Bran’s arrangement had pulled from all of them and Sansa should feel frantic and inadequate, trying to manage for all the parts, but she doesn’t: She feels nothing at all, just the deep music of Jon’s voice reverberating through her.
Rickon joins them on the final chorus, his cheerful boyish soprano harmonizing above even Sansa, and she grinds down on her cello, remembering the harsh, almost off-putting noises that Robb had managed to get out of his fiddle. Bran’s arrangement ends with no singing, just strings, and Sansa launches into it, these measures that she should not have to play alone, and she can almost hear them--she closes her eyes, remembering the swelling sounds of Robb’s fiddle, her mother’s fingers flying over the harp, and Sansa, the main melody, drawing firmer and firmer on her cello until it seemed to be crying. The Wild Rover is a rowdy drinking song but Bran’s arrangement had made it threatening, nearly sorrowful, and her mother had allowed them to play it for Rickon because she claimed it had become nearly a ballad of temperance under Bran’s pen.
Sansa finishes the final note and has to blink a few times to get her eyes open, because they have filmed over with tears. She almost expects to see them when her vision clears, but of course the family parlor is half-full, Arya and Rickon cuddling together on the sofa, and there is no sign of Robb or Bran, Mother or Father.
But Sansa had felt them with her in those long final moments of the song and that is more than she had ever expected to feel again.
A handkerchief edges into her line of vision; Jon, silent at her side now. “Oh, dear,” Sansa mumbles wetly. “What a dreadful watering pot. Thank you, Jon.” She takes the handkerchief and folds it in half and runs it along her bottom lash line, soaking up the two or three tears that have managed to escape. When she folds it in half again to do the other side, she feels the raised bumps of embroidery under her fingers.
J. S. in the corner, amongst maple leaves in shades of reds and yellows. The stitches in the J have gone loose with age, or perhaps Sansa had not been quite so deft with a needle when she was fifteen. Arya had commissioned it for Jon’s birthday; she had worried that he and Robb were forgetting their sisters while they were away at Cambridge.
Sansa cannot think of anything to say, because what she wants to say is so deeply frightening that she has to claw it back down into herself. Ten years . Did he carry it with him to war? Has he had Sansa’s stitches tucked into the breast pocket of his coat for all of these years? Or perhaps--and this is most likely--she is getting fanciful, and it is one of many handkerchiefs that Jon uses, and mere coincidence had him bring it today.
“Thank you,” she finally manages, handing the handkerchief back to Jon. Hopefully he had not noticed her hesitation; for a moment she had worried that her hands would not open to let it go.
“Can’t believe you,” Arya croaks. “That’s not even one of the really sad ones.” She rubs a knuckle across the bridge of her nose, as though Sansa won’t notice her wiping away a stray tear.
Rickon says, “You made it sound right. How’d you do that without the fiddle, Sansa?”
Sansa exhales slowly, to make sure that her breath is steady and unlikely to erupt into sobs, and then she looks at Rickon and widens her eyes at him. “Magic,” she says, only a little hoarse.
“Sansa!” Rickon sighs.
“Maybe if you didn’t try to escape from your lessons, you would learn some,” she says primly. “Only good boys who attend to their governesses assiduously are taught magic, you know.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Rickon says.
“She means you’d better be a right swot,” Arya informs him.
“I don’t know what that means, either,” Rickon says, beleaguered. “Will you play us another one, Sansa?”
“Yes,” Arya agrees, so quickly that Sansa hasn’t even had time to think about demuring, let alone open her mouth to respond. “Do The Braes of Balquhidder .” She plucks a biscuit off of the plate next to her and shoves it into Rickon’s mouth, opening around some other statement that will now remain a mystery.
Sansa narrows her eyes at her sister, who most definitely is playing at something. She hates The Braes of Balquhidder , which she had once called the stupidest song in existence. Robb had sung it with Jeyne Westerling at the musical evening announcing their engagement; Arya hadn’t been out yet and not allowed to attend, but she’d apparently sat on the stairs and listened because she’d complained vociferously to anyone who sat still long enough for the subsequent fortnight about its insipidity.
The wooden back of Sansa’s chair creaks. “I don’t remember the words,” Jon says; he must have tightened his grip.
“The sheet music for it must be somewhere,” Arya says blithely. “Sansa always made Mother and Father sing it for her birthday.”
“Yes,” Jon says slowly. “I recall.”
Sansa does not hate The Braes of Balquhidder , which may be insipid but at least does not involve adultery, untimely death, or drunken debauchery. Among folk songs, it is uniquely free from tragedy, and it had always made her romantic little heart flutter when Mother and Father had sung it in harmony--when she was a child, and thought herself likely to make a similar marriage. She knows better now, of course.
“It’s getting late,” Sansa says. “I don’t think it a good idea to go digging for the sheet music now. We can sing something else--what would you like to hear, Rickon?”
“ Alasdair Mhic Colla ,” Rickon says, bloodthirsty as always.
“Oh, that one’s far too long,” Arya declares. “Rick, come with me, I bet we can find the sheet music for The Braes of Balquhidder ,” and she grabs Rickon around the upper arm and physically carts him off of the sofa and out of the room, moving at a speed that might, exhibited by someone not a lady and the daughter of a duke, be termed a sprint.
“What on earth is that about?” Sansa asks blankly as the door slams shut behind her.
“Arya’s making mischief,” Jon says tightly. He releases his grip on the back of her chair and steps away from her side. She hadn’t realized he was still holding his glass of whiskey, which he quickly tips back and finishes. “Better to leave it for now. I’ll take my leave while they’re distracted. Thank you for the invitation to supper, Sansa.”
“You don’t have to go,” Sansa says, but she can see that he’s made his decision. He places his now-empty glass on the mantelpiece and then makes his bow to Sansa and is out of the door to the family parlor nearly as swift as Arya before him. Sansa is left alone in front of the fire, which has not been lit--it’s been an unusually warm May--and she is, for once, at a complete loss about what has happened.
Some time after Jon has scarpered--it’s impossible for Sansa to know how long she’s been staring blankly into space--Arya bursts back into the room, brandishing a fistful of papers. “Found it!” she says, and then, “Sansa?”
“Jon took his leave,” Sansa says. “I suppose I will play Alasdair Mhic Colla for Rickon after all, and then it will be bed for all of us.”
Rickon cheers from the hall and forces his way past Arya, who is looking annoyed. “Just like that?” Arya says. “What did you say to him?”
“Nothing,” Sansa says. When Arya peers at her suspiciously, she says, “Truly, not a word. I didn’t have a chance, as he left almost immediately. Perhaps he--” and she does not know how to say it, so after a few seconds of futile thinking, she manages, “found it difficult to think of them. He could not come home for all of the funerals. He never had the chance to say goodbye.”
“Fucking Bonaparte,” Arya says bitterly.
Sansa is too tired to berate her for her language. “Indeed,” she says instead. And then, with forced cheer, “Ah, Rickon, dearest, come and stand by me and we will see how much you remember of the grand adventures of Sir Alexander MacDonald.”
“I just want to listen,” Rickon says. So it is Sansa alone who plays for them in the dim, cozy light of the family parlor, singing verses with increasing softness until she has lured both Rickon and Arya to sleep on the sofa and she can finally rest her smarting fingers. She sits with her slumbering siblings for a long time, listening to their heavy breaths and thinking of Jon’s solid warmth against her back, his deep voice, how good it had felt to have him with them again at their table. Jon, with family . Sansa, at home .
What an idiot she is. What a complete fool.
"Bran's arrangement" of The Wild Rover belongs to Lankum and you should go listen to it immediately.
For nearly a full, blessed week, Sansa is not besieged by mischief of any kind. She attends two garden parties, makes her fifteen minutes’ worth of calls at a dozen at-homes, goes shopping with Arianne to buy new slippers and ribbon to re-trim a hat that has suffered the unfortunate attentions of the kitchen’s mouser, dances every set at Almack’s on Wednesday, hosts her own successful at-home on Thursday afternoon, and manages to get the entire house awake for church on Sunday without anyone having to be threatened with eternal damnation for their laziness.
She still has not managed to think of a way out of her situation with Baelish, but she has time to manage it and Arya’s birthday party to plan in the meantime. Other than paying an actor to be Uncle Benjen for a fortnight--which is a ludicrous suggestion that Sansa is sure Jeyne only mentions so they can laugh about it for a few minutes--or marrying someone else, Sansa cannot think of any other options.
“I couldn’t manage it, besides,” Sansa replies, to Jeyne’s suggestion of finding someone else to bring up to scratch. “I’d need a proposal in the next two weeks and all of my swains are engaged elsewhere or confirmed bachelors-- for good reason . Lord Tyrion Lannister once offered to marry me whenever I found the prospect convenient but I’m positive he was completely soused, and besides, everyone knows he’s in love with that opera dancer. If the goal is to keep Arya away from Cersei Baratheon, becoming her sister-in-law seems rather counterproductive.”
“I wasn’t speaking of Lord Tyrion, my lady,” Jeyne replies. “I believe Lord Gardener would marry you, if you made the slightest overture of interest. It would be expensive to break the engagement with Lady Myrcella, yes, but that family can afford it.”
Sansa says, “ Jeyne .”
“At some point, you will have to trust that Lord Stormsend will do as he promised,” Jeyne replies. “You must think of your own safety for the time being; yours and Lord Winter’s, as whomever you marry will be his guardian. You cannot entrust him to Perros Blackmont or Tyrion Lannister. The man is a spineless drunkard, for God’s sake, no matter how witty his conversation.”
“Of course not,” Sansa says. “But Willas Tyrell couldn’t break an engagement with Myrcella Baratheon and form a new one with me in two weeks, even if I managed to get the man completely besotted with me. And the moment word of the broken engagement got out, Baelish would know what we were on about and he’d have that letter from my so-called Uncle Benjen circulating within the hour. No, if the solution is that I must marry, it cannot be someone so obvious.”
Sansa’s wretched heart lurches at the thought of marriage, of the perfect partner, and she ruthlessly ignores it. There is no time for romantic nonsense with Rickon’s future on the line. He thinks of her as his sister. Across from her, tucked into the armchair on the other side of the fireplace in Sansa’s bedchamber, Jeyne pauses as she lifts her slice of lemon to her lips. “My lady,” she says, her eyes widening. “Perhaps--Lord Oberyn?”
“Oberyn Martell ?” Sansa says. “That wastrel!” But although she begins to laugh she stops almost immediately. He has never married but it almost certainly is because the love of his life--a perfectly charming and wildly successful authoress of some renown--is so deeply ineligible that his brother had never agreed to the match. “He lives with his mistress .”
“As such, I cannot imagine your comings and goings would be of much interest to him,” Jeyne replies. “A man who lives with his mistress and daughters despite having no legal requirement to provide for them--such a man would understand your continuing guardianship of Rickon, would he not? And he hates Cersei Baratheon. He hates all of your enemies.”
“I don’t know if he hates Baelish,” Sansa replies absently. “Although presumably he does, as I cannot imagine anyone actually liking the man--Aunt Lysa excepted, of course. If I did this--and I think I would have to completely lose my mind to consider it--I would have to find a way to appeal to his chivalry.”
“With all due respect, my lady, you most certainly qualify as a damsel in distress,” Jeyne says, and Sansa wrinkles her nose.
“How absolutely galling,” she says. “But I believe you are correct.”
They both dissolve into somewhat hysterical laughter. At some point in the middle, as she’s clutching her side to keep the whalebone of her corset from puncturing her lung, Sansa goes a tinge more hysterical than seemly, and Jeyne puts down her cup of tea and comes to crouch by Sansa’s chair. “Lord Oberyn Martell is so in love with his mistress that he lives with her as his wife,” Jeyne says quietly, taking a firm grasp of Sansa’s hand. “Such a man might not take another woman to bed, even if she was his legal spouse. He might never find out.”
“Oh, Jeyne,” Sansa says. “I’ve been such a fool. An unmarried woman is always vulnerable to these sorts of machinations. Why didn’t I accept Harold Hardyng when he proposed two years ago?”
“Because he’d impregnated half of the maids at Vale House,” Jeyne replies, squeezing Sansa’s hand firmly. “That was the right decision.” She looks at their clasped hands and then says, so quietly that Sansa has to strain to hear her, “If you must marry Baelish, my lady, we will find a way to sort it out.”
It takes Sansa a few seconds to realize what Jeyne is offering. “ Jeyne ,” she says. “Don’t--”
“I have faith that the situation will not come to that,” Jeyne continues calmly. “But if it does, I want you to take heart. I know what despair can do to a woman. I rather think we both do.”
Sansa cannot quite bite back a bark of laughter. “You know,” she says, “you’re the second person to offer to murder him for me in the last week.”
“I am not surprised,” Jeyne replies. She squeezes Sansa’s hand one last time and then comes off of her knees. “I will bring you a cold glass of lemonade to refresh yourself, my lady. You have a little time to rest before supper, and then you and Lady Arya are joining Sir Simon Leywood and his sister in his box at the theater.
“Ah!” Sansa says, leaning back in her chair and putting a hand over her eyes. “ Twelfth Night , I’d completely forgotten. Thank you, Jeyne. A cold drink sounds truly lovely.”
Sir Simon Leywood is a recent widower, only just barely out of mourning, and he had become one of Sansa’s admirers early in the season when she had mentioned to him at the Tyrell ball that she had known his wife when they were girls. It had been obvious to her almost immediately that he longed for the opportunity to speak of his wife, so recently gone from his life, and Sansa had welcomed the opportunity to have a conversation partner who did not require constant flirtation. It would be very nearly a true friendship, but Sansa does not have male friends as a rule.
“Lady Sansa, Mrs. Poole,” Sir Simon says as she, Arya, and Jeyne are shown into his box, coming to his feet. “And Lady Arya, how does this evening find you both?”
“Very well, thank you,” Sansa replies, coming forward and kissing his sister’s cheek. “Maery, how lovely to see you. You remember Mrs. Poole, I hope.”
“Sansa, it is always a delight,” Miss Leywood says, returning the gesture. “Yes, of course, lovely to see you again, Mrs. Poole. Sansa, introduce me to your sister. I am delighted to make her acquaintance after all these years.”
Sansa keeps her hand on Miss Leywood’s elbow and turns, gesturing so that Arya ventures further into the box. “Arya, let me introduce Miss Maery Leywood to you. I spent some time at school with her and Mrs. Leywood.”
“Thank you for the invitation,” Arya says, briskly shaking hands with Sir Simon and exchanging a quick, graceless curtsey with Miss Leywood. If Sir Simon is startled by Arya’s somewhat masculine greeting, he manages to hide it. “If it had been Romeo and Juliet I might’ve declined but I love Twelfth Night .”
“Oh, absolutely,” Miss Leywood agrees cheerfully. “Most of Shakespeare’s tragedies get quite insipid, don’t they? But the comedies are cracking good fun. We saw Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth last year and everyone claims she’s reinvented the role but I still found it a crushing bore.”
Arya visibly takes a moment to assess this statement for any underhanded motives, her brows crinkling together. Taking pity on this fledgling conversation, Sansa says, “Arya has never been a very great fan of Shakespeare. We put on A Midsummer’s Night for our parents one year over Christmas and she was a very capable Puck, though.”
“Oh, I adore Puck!” Miss Leywood exclaims. “What a horrid little man he is. Come and sit by me, Lady Arya, and you must tell me how you found playing him. Simon would never let me have any of the fun roles when we were children.” She takes Arya by the arm and tugs her over to a pair of chairs set close to the railing. Jeyne follows after them, playing the quiet chaperone.
“Maery’s spirits seem high again,” Sansa observes. “Has she found her footing?”
“Yes,” Sir Simon says, sighing and settling back on his heels. “It only took two months and my mother’s constant nagging to accomplish it. She’s hardly the only young woman of the Ton to have lost her betrothed on the Continent, but from the way my mother’s gone on about it, you would have thought she’d contracted some incurable illness.”
“Grief is a wretched thing,” Sansa says and Sir Simon replies, “Yes,” nearly inaudibly.
“I am glad to see her making such fast friends with my sister,” Sansa continues before either of them have the chance to become very maudlin. “I had hoped this might be the case. It really was very kind of you to invite us to share your box, Sir Simon.”
“No point in the two of us rattling around in here alone,” he replies. “Can I have something fetched for you? Some ratafia, perhaps?”
“Yes, thank you, how delightful,” Sansa says. “And some lemonade for Arya, if you wouldn’t mind.”
About halfway through the first act, Sansa’s mind has wandered sufficiently for her to be thinking on the question of Petyr Baelish’s impending marriage proposal--or perhaps, more aptly, marriage ambush --and her eyes have begun to similarly wander from the stage, which means that she has mentally just undertaken consideration of Lord Oberyn Martell when her eyes come across him, sitting across the way in the Martell box with a fleet of young women who must be his natural daughters and a very beautiful woman of middle years who must be the authoress Ellaria Sand.
Sansa has read her books but most of what she knows of the woman known professionally as Mrs. Sand has been gleaned from years of friendship with Arianne, who calls her Aunt Ellaria and speaks of her cousins with warmth and fondness. It had apparently been a very great scandal when Lord Oberyn had taken up with her, thirty years ago, because the lady was the natural daughter of a Spanish count and a Russian ballet dancer and society had suffered her presence because she was so very beautiful and her books so very delightfully horrid--ghosts, rattling chains, mysterious heroes and heroines who were always throwing themselves into danger. The former Duke of Dorne had absolutely refused to allow the marriage and, rather than be cut off without a cent, Lord Oberyn had bought a house on Park Street and lived with the lady there without any fanfare or legal bond.
Although Sansa’s father had suffered the acquaintance rather grimly, Sansa has never found Lord Oberyn anything other than a perfect gentleman. It has helped, of course, that he is even older than her parents, but there are lecherous old lords aplenty who don’t let anything so paltry as a girl’s age keep them from leering at her.
One of the Martell daughters, sitting in the second row of seats, leans forward and whispers something in the ear of one of her sisters. The sister does not quite manage to stifle her snicker into the palm of her gloved hand and, without looking, Mrs. Sand reaches out with her fan and taps the girl on the arm with it. She whispers something to her mother and the two grin at each other before everyone’s attention is returned to the stage.
Sansa feels a spike of something that might be envy in her chest. She misses her mother so horribly in this moment that she has to look away from the Martells and focus on the stage, where Olivia is violently flirting with Viola to the increasing laughter of the audience. “How does he love me?” Olivia asks, and Viola replies, “With adorations, fertile tears--” and Arya and Miss Leywood are laughing as she skirts away from Olivia, who has begun to circle her in a somewhat predatory way.
Sir Simon leans over to whisper, “I haven’t seen Maery laugh this much in months. You and Lady Arya will have to come to dine with us soon.”
“Yes,” Sansa whispers back. “What a marvelous idea.”
Her eyes creep back to the Martell box. She is just in time to see, as the daughters are all distracted by on-stage antics, Lord Oberyn finish peeling the glove off of Mrs. Sand’s left hand and slowly press a kiss to the center of her palm. The act is so intimate that Sansa’s whole body flushes--she can feel the blood flare in her cheeks and down the front of her chest, like she’s seventeen again and only just discovering the intimacies between lovers.
Sansa cannot imagine, as she watches a wicked smile curve in the corner of Mrs. Sand’s mouth, that she will have anything of actual value to offer this man to convince him to marry her. Even if he is as chivalrous as Arianne claims, his devotion to his scandalous family seems quite apparent. Sansa would not blame him for turning her down flat, and as she realizes this, her blush is calmed by icy realization; it is very unlikely that he will be able to save her. Sansa is once again left with very few options, and no one to whom she may turn.
Although her eyes remained fixed upon the stage for the remainder of the performance, Sansa sees very little of it and remembers even less. It feels like her mind is wildly circling the same horrible, insidious thought: He means to have me, and he will .
In the full week that has lapsed since Sansa last saw Jon, she has only thought of him every single day--she keeps remembering his handkerchief at inopportune moments, or recalling the deep baritone of his singing voice, or thinking of his quiet, gentle request to be known as Jon with family, which is made even more horrible with the constant reminder that he thinks of Sansa as his sister. She both longs to look upon his face and fears seeing him again.
Arya and Jon go riding every day, like clockwork, but it is not until two days after Twelfth Night with the Leywoods that Arya brings Jon back with her from their ride, the two of them dusty and invigorated from the exercise. “Have I gotten any deliveries today?” Arya asks, bursting into the morning room where Sansa is at work at her desk, and Sansa does not look up as she replies, “The cards were sent up to your room. Were you expecting a bouquet from anyone in particular?”
She does not expect a reply, so when Arya answers, “Yes,” Sansa’s head jerks up and she whirls around in her chair.
“What?” Sansa says.
Arya clears her throat, flushing. “You’re to have a caller later today, Sansa. And he wanted to see Jon, too, which is why I asked you to come back with me,” she says, which is when Sansa realizes that Jon is standing in the doorway to the morning room, his boots brown with dust, wearing a black coat and grey waistcoat. His cravat is tied into a simple knot that Sansa cannot help staring at for a few seconds before she recovers herself.
“I am to have a caller? And he requested that Jon be present?” Sansa says blankly.
“Yes,” Arya says. She makes a great show of rubbing the toe of her riding boot along the floor, staring at it so she does not, presumably, have to look Sansa in the eye.
“Arya,” Sansa says slowly, “has someone proposed marriage? To you?”
“You needn’t sound so surprised!” Arya says, whipping her head up to glare at Sansa.
“Why needn’t I?” Sansa demands. “The last time we spoke on the topic, you said you weren’t ever getting married! Jon, come in and close the door, we don’t need to let the entire household listen in on this.”
Jon takes one step into the morning room and an unseen footman closes the door quietly behind him.
“I changed my mind,” Arya says. Her whole face is ruddy and she looks so wildly uncomfortable that Sansa almost wants to end this charade and stand up, take Arya’s hand between her palms, and reassure her that of course she is loved, of course she is someone who should marry for love. But there is no telling how Arya might respond to this.
“Who?” Sansa asks.
“Does that matter?” Arya replies swiftly.
Sansa splutters for a few seconds and then says, “Yes! Obviously! If you’ve gone and fallen for some wretched fortune hunter or known philanderer then he’s going to get your dowry over my dead body --” and Jon says hurriedly, before Arya has the chance to do more than open her mouth, “We only want the best for you, Arya. Do you love him?”
Arya goes from furious to embarrassed in about half a second, which is answer enough. She opens and closes her mouth twice before she spits out, “It’s Gendry. Lord Stormsend.”
Jon does not look at Sansa, and, other than a very swift glance in the middle of a blink, Sansa does not look at Jon.
Eventually, into the silence, Arya says, “We met at Lady Corbray’s ball, ages ago, and he’s been--asking me to dance. Nothing happened when we were unchaperoned in the park! I wasn’t lying about that. But he’s asked me to marry him and I--I haven’t told him yes or no, but I said he had better come and tell you that he’s asked.” Her chin jerks up, the muscle in her cheek firming. “But just because Uncle Benjen is missing doesn’t mean you get to tell me what to do. I’ll make up my mind for myself.”
Sansa lets herself put her hand to her forehead. “ Arya ,” she says, making her voice soft, confused. “You mean you’ve been courted by a duke for the last month and you haven’t said a word about it to anybody?”
“It wasn’t-- courting ,” Arya hisses. “We were friends and then he went and got all mush on me.”
“Mother of God,” Sansa mutters, rubbing at her temple like she does when she has a headache looming on the horizon.
“I know him,” Jon finally says. Sansa drops her hand a little and looks at him. Jon is still standing just in front of the door, shifting uncomfortably on his feet. “We worked together, on the Continent, over the last few years. He’s--a good man.”
Arya says, surprised, “You know Gendry?”
“Yes,” Jon says. “Or, I knew him when he was Gendry Waters. He’ll treat you well.”
“Oh, I know that ,” Arya says, annoyed. “But maybe I’m not after marrying anyone. And he could do well to remember it, fine title or no.”
Sansa says, making a show of being perplexed, “Am I supposed to approve his suit or not?”
“You’re just to listen!” Arya huffs. “Both of you!”
Sansa can tell that they are reaching the outer limits of Jon’s patience with subterfuge; he really looks quite uncomfortable, his face stuck somewhere between perplexed and annoyed, and he doesn’t know what to do with his hands, which he keeps clenching and unclenching by his sides. “When am I to expect his card?” Sansa asks to get Arya’s attention on her and away from Jon. “We’re not at home until Thursday.”
“Yes, with an audience ,” Arya says. “He should be here half-three or so.”
“Arya, it’s quarter after,” Sansa says, now legitimately shocked. “You mean you’re going to have someone come and propose marriage in fifteen minutes and that’s what you’re wearing?” She gestures along the line of Arya’s truly filthy riding habit. “For God’s sake, if it must be a riding habit, at least go put on a clean one. You’re absolutely covered in dust--” Sansa propels herself out of her desk chair and descends on Arya with both hands outstretched. “Jon, I’ll have someone bring you some water and a brush.” And then to Arya, who is starting to look mutinous as Sansa bodily drags her into the corridor, “Don’t you even start, you’ve gotten the chaos you wanted and now you’ll have to suffer the consequences. Jeyne, have someone pull out Arya’s most fetching riding habit, I think it’s the turquoise velvet.”
“I want to wear that green dress,” Arya says in an angry mumble as Sansa and Jeyne swiftly bear her around the corner of the bannister. “The one with the topaz buttons down the back.”
“The mint it is,” Sansa says quickly, willing to take advantage of Arya’s brief flare of anxious vanity and ride it as far as she can take it. She’s gotten Arya to the bottom of the stairs and begun pushing her up them when she remembers the imminent arrival of their guest. “Jon,” she says, turning back towards the morning room, but Jon is standing in the doorway watching after them and he lifts a hand.
“Yes, I’ve got him,” he says. “We’ll have a tray or something in the library.”
“Thank you,” Sansa says with real feeling. It feels so good to know that she has left this situation in Jon’s capable hands and can instead direct her attention towards the matter at hand--which is to say, fuss over Arya with enough force to keep her from going completely white at the eyes with fear.
The mint with topaz buttons is located swiftly and, luckily, requires only minimal pressing. Sansa orders a set of maids to rip Arya out of her habit and stays and then she tugs a proper corset onto Arya over a new chemise the second that they have finished. As Jeyne fusses with the mint silk afternoon dress, Sansa puts both hands on Arya’s shoulders and shoves her down into the chair at the dressing table in the corner of the room. It has a brush and comb set with a hand mirror but no rouge or charcoal sticks for darkening the lashes, no creams to smooth wrinkles, no bottles of perfume to scent the insides of Arya’s elbows and behind her ears. There are a rather alarming number of seafaring adventure novels piled on it that Sansa has the maids remove so the mirror isn’t obscured.
“Where’s your jewelry box?” Sansa asks, pulling the pins out of Arya’s hair and letting it down from the haphazard knot she’s been wearing to ride since she turned fifteen and Mother put her foot down about Arya becoming some approximation of a lady.
Arya has truly gorgeous hair, dark and streaked with red and gold from the hours she spends in the sun, hatless. As Sansa brushes it out with swift strokes, it crackles from the force of her movement and the dust rises off of it in a palpable cloud.
“Ouch!” Arya hisses. “If you take out a chunk of my scalp I doubt you’ll get him to take me, all malformed as I’ll be.”
“ Jewelry box ,” Sansa repeats, and then she sees it when the maids remove the final stack of adventure novels. “Oh, there it is. Have you still got Aunt Lyanna’s necklace, the tourmaline?”
Arya looks down at her hands. “No,” she says quietly, and then she jerks her head up--nearly scalping herself in the process--and she stares defiantly at Sansa as she says, “I gave it to Jon.”
It feels like Sansa’s heart is visibly beating out of her chest. “That was a wonderful idea,” Sansa says, too tender, too heartsick; Arya’s eyes narrow at her in the mirror. “I’ll have to go through the safe and see if we have anything else of hers. Jon will want them for his wife.” She does not choke on wife but she forces herself to sound easy and calm by focusing very hard on brushing out a snarl at the back of Arya’s neck.
“No rush on that ,” Arya says. “Jon’s got the courting instincts of a snail.” She stares at Sansa in the mirror and says, “None of this fancy business with my hair. Just put it in a knot or something.”
“I know how to dress your hair,” Sansa says. “Don’t worry, I won’t give you some horrid Bourbon-esque monstrosity. Or would you like for me to tuck a boat in here somewhere? It would advertise your reading interests, at least.”
“I hate you,” Arya says.
“Ah, that’s no to the boat, then,” Sansa replies lightly. “Jeyne, when you have a moment, would you fetch my seed pearls?”
Sansa has Arya wipe her face and neck with a damp cloth while she twists the weight of Arya’s hair into a soft knot against the high point of her skull. It is a little more flattering than Arya’s usual style but Sansa eschews the fashionable curls along the hairline that are thought to soften a debutante’s features. Gendry Baratheon ought to know exactly what he’s getting himself into.
Only three minutes after sitting down at the dressing table, Arya is being laced into her mint silk afternoon dress as Sansa clasps the seed pearls around her neck. Flushed with irritation or anticipation or both, Arya requires no rouge; although if she had required some, it seems unlikely Sansa would have been able to put any on her without losing a finger.
“There!” Sansa announces cheerfully. “And only twenty minutes lost to the enterprise. Jeyne, Beth, Penny: you are all geniuses, every single one of you.”
Jeyne tugs a brown velvet pelisse off of the corner of the full-length mirror, enabling Arya to inspect her appearance. Sansa thinks she looks quite fine--like herself, not in any way hidden away by fripperies, but to her best affect.
“Looks well enough,” Arya declares after approximately a half-second’s inspection. “Let’s get this over with, then.” She nods to Beth and Penny and then sweeps out of the room at a fast clip.
Sansa stares after Arya for a few seconds after she has disappeared, feeling like her heart is climbing up her throat and trying to crawl out of her mouth. She feels Jeyne’s cool, small fingers slip into her own hand and Jeyne whispers, “Take heart, my lady!”
“Am I a fool?” Sansa whispers back, putting a hand to her throat.
Before Jeyne can answer, Arya stomps back into the doorway and demands, “Well? Aren’t you coming?”
With a final squeeze, Sansa releases Jeyne’s fingers and pretends to check the fall of her dress, running her palm down the front swiftly. “Yes, I’m coming,” she says. “Impatient, are we?”
Arya says, “It’s rude to keep guests waiting,” and Sansa hasn’t even stepped both feet out into the hallway before she’s taken off down the staircase. With no witnesses, Sansa lets herself indulge in a hearty huff at this reminder of manners from Arya, of all people, who had responded to Sansa’s query if she wanted to be formally presented to the Queen with a dismissive, sounds boring .
Disinterested in breaking her neck, Sansa is the last member of the family to enter the library. Arya is standing just inside the doorway, her posture screaming uncertainty and no little terror, and Gendry Baratheon is on his feet in front of one of the wing-backed chairs by the fireplace, looking like he’s in the process of choking on his own stomach. Across from him sits Jon, paused in the act of raising a china cup to his lips.
The tableau is frozen for four, five, six seconds and then Sansa briskly announces, “Lord Stormsend, I presume?”
Jon lowers his cup--of coffee, presumably, as it’s becoming clear to Sansa that the tolerance for tea that he’d possessed as an adolescent has died in the intervening years--back onto the tray set on a low table between the two chairs. Gendry Baratheon, clearly unable to wrest his eyes away from Arya, says, “Ma’am.”
“This is my sister, Lady Sansa,” Arya says, a little faintly.
Gendry Baratheon pivots fifteen degrees to the left and sketches a bow to Sansa--for once, an appropriate depth for his station--and says stiffly, “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Lady Sansa.”
Sansa bobs in and out of a curtsey and says, “Likewise, Lord Stormsend. What brings you to call on us this morning?” She takes advantage of Arya’s preternatural stillness to move around her, come up behind Jon’s chair, and place her hand against the back. From this angle, she can see Arya fully and about three-quarters of Gendry Baratheon’s profile. Jon makes to stand and Sansa moves her hand from the chair to his shoulder, pressing him back down. He stills at her touch and she feels the muscles under her palm grow hard but he does not refuse her. It will be easier to observe Arya and her suitor if they are not splitting their attention between two separate chairs.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Lord Stormsend says. He’s still talking mostly to Arya, looking at her with the expression of a cow recently hit on the head by a falling bit of masonry, and then he sighs minutely and turns back to Sansa and Jon. When he’s no longer looking at her, Arya visibly wilts as the tension leaves her small frame. The violence of her feelings is incredibly clear to Sansa in this moment; no wonder Jeyne had been certain they couldn’t be separated. Sansa has never seen Arya like this.
After a deep breath, Lord Stormsend continues, “I’ve come to ask for your sister’s hand in marriage.”
Sansa lets them all stew in silence for close to a full minute before she says, “We have been informed that we are not to make any decisions for Arya, but are instead to listen to you present your case.” She tries to sound decidedly ironic, to jolt Arya into annoyance, but Arya says nothing. Her eyes are so big in her face that they look like they’ll tumble out onto the floor at any moment.
“Present my--” Lord Stormsend says, and then he turns back to Arya and says, “What happened to no faradiddle?”
“Not that ,” Arya says, cheek twitching as she tries, and fails, to make a disgusted face. “What you’re supposed to have told my father--the settlements, that sort of thing. Sansa will want to know that.”
Sansa’s heart feels so unbearably full. She wants to cry. She squeezes Jon’s shoulder and he reaches up, for just a second, to place his palm over the top of her hand, holding her steady. Her vision actually does start to go blurry for a second and then she takes a firmer grasp of her emotions. If she cries Arya will never forgive her.
“Yes, my lord,” Sansa says, when she has collected herself. “I would like to know how you plan on taking care of my sister. Although, if you feel inclined to share any romantic faradiddle with us, I would not be wholly opposed.”
This wakes Arya up enough to shoot Sansa a poisonous look. Finally!
“I will see to her every need,” Lord Stormsend says. “She’s welcome to try and bankrupt me buying those horses she loves, although I don’t think she’d manage it. I’ll be true and I’ll keep her from harm.”
It is patently obvious to Sansa that any lessons Lord Stormsend has received upon joining the gentry have not included the details of how a man discusses marriage with his intended’s father. “I appreciate these sentiments, my lord,” she says gently. “If you may excuse my indelicacy, however, I will require numbers for these promises. What amount will you settle on my sister? What will be her pin money? Will you pay it quarterly or annually? How much of your estate is entailed? What will you settle on any children who are not the firstborn son? Will you take her dowry into the estate or will you set it aside for investments so she may use it upon your death to support herself?”
Gendry Baratheon looks wholly overwhelmed and he turns back to look at Arya, who is scowling. “Ah,” he says, clearing his throat roughly. “I, uh.”
Arya lets him dangle there for a bit before she loudly huffs and says, “Forgot all of it, did you?” and she stomps past him, pulling a sheet of crumpled paper out of the sash at the waist of her dress. She unfolds it before she hands it to Sansa. “Here, this is what he’ll settle on me, this is my pin money--buying horses won’t come out of that--and this is what he’s promised to settle on--” she turns pink “--children, the ones that aren’t the son who’ll get the title and the entailed property.”
Sansa scans the contents of the paper before handing it to Jon. “Is this from Mother’s betrothal agreement?” she asks.
“Yes,” Arya says. “Worked well enough for her, didn’t it?”
“We will need to adjust for currency depreciation,” Jon says.
“Additionally, most of the property owned by Lord Winter is unentailed,” Sansa says, “which is why Mother’s agreement specified which properties were to be settled upon second and later sons. I think the majority of Stormsend properties are entailed. There will have to be some language about buying new properties or breaking the entail.”
When she looks up at Lord Stormsend to see how he is taking these orders that Sansa is only barely couching as suggestions, he is staring at the three of them. “Yes, I know,” Jon says. “You’ll get the hang of it soon enough, Stormsend.”
“Go bugger your mother’s horse, Targaryen,” Lord Stormsend says politely, and then a bare second later, to Sansa, “Apologies, ma’am.”
“Accepted,” Sansa says briskly. “Have you taken these numbers to your solicitor, Lord Stormsend?”
“I have not,” he says.
“Good, as we will need to adjust them. I hope your estate has engaged a whole fleet of determined fellows, Lord Stormsend, as I intend to tie up nearly every available penny for my sister. I will order my solicitors to have no mercy. Do you understand?”
Lord Stormsend says, “Aye,” and he’s mooning at Sansa’s sister again and probably only half paying attention.
The visit ends very quickly after that. Cassel comes to show Lord Stormsend to the door and almost as soon as it’s shut behind him, Arya whirls on Sansa and Jon and says, “Well?”
“Well, what?” Sansa asks, raising an eyebrow.
“Well, what did you think ?” Arya demands.
“I wasn’t under the impression we were to think about anything,” Sansa replies.
“Of course you were, don’t pretend to be an imbecile!” Arya says, nearly hysterical.
“He’s a good man and he’ll take care of you,” Jon replies soothingly. Sansa is still behind him and cannot see his face, but he sounds gentle, open, the way he often does when speaking to Arya. “He hasn’t got much money sense but I wouldn’t hold that against him, Sansa, as he didn’t have two farthings to rub together until about six months ago. But he’s extremely practical and he’s not a spendthrift.”
Arya has not quite relaxed yet. She lifts her eyes from Jon to Sansa and there’s a mute appeal in them, like she’s searching for something in Sansa that she desperately wants but doesn’t know how to ask for. Sansa has felt the burden of this appeal--and her own complete inability to answer it--for the last two years, as she has served as surrogate parent to Rickon and Arya and felt so totally unable to meet their needs.
It takes Sansa what feels like an entire geological age to step around Jon’s chair and open her arms. For an awful second she stands there, like an idiot, unsure of whether or not this is the correct decision, and then Arya is throwing herself into her embrace, pressing her face against Sansa’s neck and clutching at her tightly. “You must promise me that you love him as much as he loves you,” Sansa whispers into Arya’s hair, “as it’s obvious that the man is completely gone over you.”
“I do,” Arya says, breath catching on a shaky inhale. “I do, it’s awful.”
“I know,” Sansa murmurs, squeezing Arya in her arms. She hasn’t held anyone other than Rickon like this in years.
Although she attends services at St. George’s every Sunday assiduously, Sansa is not a particularly religious person. But as she holds Arya tightly in her arms, she prays for the first time in what is likely years. Please, please let him keep her safe. Let her be happy .
Content warning for this chapter for mentions of past assault and suicidal ideation. As always, read safely!
Although Sansa’s solicitors seem happy enough to spar with Stormsend’s man of business until the end of days, she harries them as best she can. Arya does not care about any details of her and Stormsend’s wedding, except that she would like it to occur at Winterfell in the autumn, and so Sansa writes to their vicar in Wintertown to ask how she might arrange for the banns to be read and would he be obliging enough to perform the service. She sends a note to the Times announcing the engagement in the Thursday paper, purposefully waiting a few days so that every busybody in London will descend on her at-home and she’ll be able to do all of her dispensing of gossip and misinformation in one single afternoon.
It will, of course, be a hellish day, but Sansa has engaged them for supper with the Mormonts and no balls afterwards, for all that Sansa should probably be seen making the rounds. She knows that she will have approximately zero wits about her by the end of today and she can’t afford to go out and be vulnerable. She has heard nothing from Baelish in days and it worries her, when she has a moment to spare for it.
Cassel puts their knocker out at three exactly and twenty seconds later, as Sansa and Jeyne are arranging themselves prettily on the furniture in the front parlor with their embroidery, Cassel announces the first of their guests: Lady Arianne Martell.
“You wretch !” Arianne shrieks as she throws herself through the door. She’s wearing shades of orange and she looks absolutely stunning as she affects a high dudgeon. “I can’t believe you didn’t say anything! I can’t believe you let me think he was going to marry one of my sisters .”
“Would you believe me if I told you I had no idea?” Sansa asks, setting aside her embroidery hoop and letting Arianne see her exhaustion, very briefly, before she hides it away again. “He sent her roses every day--and they were anonymous . When Cassel announced he had come to call I thought, why on earth is he here? And then he was clutching his hat in the library and stammering on about finding Arya enchanting--”
Arianne lets out an exaggerated huff and whirls in a circuit around the parlor, her rust-colored skirts fluttering in her wake. “Enchanting!” she scoffs. “Ha!” As she passes Jeyne’s chair next to the front windows, she says, “Mrs. Poole,” almost in an undertone, and Jeyne replies, “Lady Arianne,” very coolly. Arianne’s hand visibly clenches and then slowly relaxes.
“I was just as shocked,” Sansa assures her. She lowers her voice to a whisper just piercing enough to carry. “But I’d been sure that no one would have her, so of course I said it was a brilliant idea. I wrote to Uncle Benjen right away and he’s set a fleet of solicitors on Stormsend to sort out Arya’s pin money and the like. And now I have to have a wedding dress made for her. A wedding dress! For Arya!”
Arianne, not quite willing to let go of her play-acting, says, more sulkily now, “I suppose it’s to be some monstrosity at St. George’s in August?”
Sansa lets herself laugh at this; just a light chuckle, but a sign of real, not affected, humor. “If I tried to force Arya to get married at St. George’s with the full Ton looking on, she’d be on horseback and bound for Gretna Green before I even finished getting the words out.”
Arianne thinks about this for a moment and then she lets herself drop into the chair next to Sansa’s, picking up Sansa’s discarded embroidery hoop and tossing it onto the spindly little table between their chairs. She lets her posture go soft and she tilts back her head and rests it against the chair, letting out a long sigh. “It’s absolute carnage at home,” she says, no longer bothering to sound indignant. “My father’s glad, of course, because secretly he doesn’t want any of us to marry and leave home, the ridiculous man. And, you know, it’s hardly a secret that Cersei Baratheon’s going to go after whoever marries him with claws fully extended.”
Sansa has known Arianne for long enough to recognize this for what it is: a kind warning, a gesture born of friendship. Arianne is not a true friend, perhaps, but she has never betrayed Sansa’s trust or tried to do ill to her. Maybe that is friendship of a sort.
In response to this gesture, Sansa extends an honesty of her own. “Yes,” she says, “I know.”
“What will you do?” Arianne asks, completely serious now.
“Pray, I suppose,” Sansa replies. “You know, Arianne, she plays the game of the Ton better than anyone alive, and it gives her immense power. But I have never seen her try to use it against someone who does not care a fig for London society. I haven’t the faintest idea how this will go.” When Sansa looks up from her fists, clenched in her lap, she sees that Arianne has a look of distraction on her face as she stares towards the front windows. Jeyne is framed there in a patch of sunlight, looking quite unlike her usual, dour self. In the sunlight, it is readily apparent that Jeyne is actually a rather young, beautiful woman.
“You know,” Arianne finally says, “that is a rather intriguing idea.” She sharpens enough to flick a glance at the clock on the mantle above the fireplace and that characteristic air of bright, cheerful lecherousness comes back almost instantaneously, like a chandelier has been lit behind her eyes. “And to think, in February I was lamenting to Aunt Ellaria that I thought this season likely to be so ever tryingly dull.”
“I thought I had done a better job describing Arya to you,” Sansa says teasingly and Arianne laughs, throwing back her head and exposing her long, beautiful neck.
“There’s scandalous behavior,” Arianne says, mock-reproving, “and then there’s snagging one of the two available dukes in the first month of your first season. I think the little beast has acquitted herself quite nicely. She’s certainly doing better than you.”
Sansa lifts an eyebrow and says, “Oh?” as Arianne straightens in her chair, lifting her spine so that it does not touch the back, arranging her skirts with a few quick tugs of her wrist to hide her ankles, laughing all the while a shade too archly to be truly decorous--and then Cassel steps through the doorway and announces, “Lady Corbray.”
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” Sansa says cheerfully, turning to the lady in question and extending her hand for a quick, friendly squeeze. “It is so lovely to see you.”
“Sansa!” the lady declares, bustling forward and taking a chair. “And Lady Arianne, how do you do my dear. I heard the most marvelous news--tell me, is it true? Is your sister to be Arya, Lady Stormsend?”
“She is,” Sansa says with real warmth, leaning forward and clasping Lady Corbray’s hand between her own. “And it is all thanks to you, you know! They met at your son’s birthday ball.”
“Oh!” Lady Corbray gasps, putting her available hand to her chest. For a moment, the ancient lady really does look as though she’s going to have heart palpitations, but then she recovers. As Sansa had suspected, she is wildly entranced by the idea of her matchmaking having been successful, even if her wastrel of a son remains unencumbered by the bonds of matrimony. “Oh, how absolutely delightful . Is Lady Arya to join us today?”
“She is out,” Sansa says, flicking her fingers in the general direction of Bond Street, although of course Arya would have to be drugged and kidnapped to make another appearance there. “There is so much to do, you know, to plan a wedding. Although it will be quite small, as Lord Stormsend insisted upon it. He is a private man, it seems. I am amazed you convinced him to attend your ball, Lady Corbray.”
The lady turns a little pink at the implied compliment. “I sent an invitation and told him he might come and get his feet a little wet,” she says. “I promised I would not have the majordomo announce him, I suppose that likely to be what convinced him in the end.”
“That’s genius,” Arianne says. “I should have done the same, he’s joined Quentyn’s fencing club but he refuses to accept any invitations we’ve issued. I suppose we ought to have made the same concession.”
“Now we may appeal to Lady Arya,” Lady Corbray says with obvious cunning, her little eyes disappearing into the wrinkled folds of her face. She winks cheerfully at Arianne, who barks out a laugh.
“Oh, I wish you all the luck in the world!” Sansa says. “Now that she is engaged, I doubt I will be able to drag her to a single ball--the only thing in the world that girl loves is horses. And Lord Stormsend, I suppose.”
Lady Corbray and Arianne are laughing at this when Cassel announces that there are four new visitors for her ladyship and Arianne, her fifteen minutes expired, stands, declares that she must now bear off this delightful gossip to anyone who will listen, and takes her leave. She is replaced within three minutes by two more young ladies, accompanied by their mothers, and Sansa finds herself repeating the same conversation for two full hours as more ladies trickle in and out of the front parlor. Some of them are accompanied by sons who look politely bored, or swains who do a better job appearing interested in gossip, but often they travel in packs of their fellows.
By five, Sansa has dispensed as much information as she dares to as many ears as she can possibly reach: the whole family is delighted at Arya’s engagement, Uncle Benjen heartily approves, it will be a small ceremony (this is received with universally depressed spirits), the engagement will be on the longer side for a match made during the Season, as Arya prefers Winterfell in the autumn months. The latter should put paid to any gossip regarding speedy weddings or eight-month heirs.
But all through, as Sansa laughs and gossips and pours tea and leans close to dispense information sotto voce , she is aware that the most obvious visitor has yet to arrive. He had sent her champagne to congratulate her when Arya and Gendry Baratheon had had their first public walk together in Hyde Park--Sansa and Jeyne had put that together eventually--so he approves of the match and perhaps even thinks it the result of Sansa’s own machinations. So where is he? Why has he not come to gloat and croon and stand at Sansa’s shoulder and whisper things to her that make her skin crawl?
He comes, of course, when Sansa has almost convinced herself that he will not. He is her last visitor, announced at quarter past five, with a casual apology that he is after visiting hours, and perhaps Lady Sansa is too tired to receive more visitors?
“No,” Sansa replies, offering him her hand. “I am never too tired to receive you, Mr. Baelish.”
He grasps her fingers and leans closer, brushing his lips across her knuckles. She breaks out in a horrible cold sweat almost immediately and it is only years of experience that keeps her face calm, reserved, perhaps--hopefully--even a little friendly. After he has raised his mouth, he keeps a hold of her hand and pats it gently.
“My dear,” he says. “What an absolute marvel you are.”
“You once again ascribe me with victories I daren’t guess at,” Sansa says to him with a small smile. “What have I done this time? I suppose Bethy did a particularly good job dressing my hair this morning--”
Baelish smiles at her, smug and oily, and says, “No need for dissembling, my dear. We are alone.” He does not so much as glance at Jeyne, who has gone still without tensing and is doing a truly amazing job of appearing to have become a piece of statuary. “You have sent your pawn to become a queen. Although it is a dangerous move, it is laudatory.”
Sansa knows that he only says as much because it had been his idea, eons ago.
“This is what happens when shepherds become dukes,” Sansa says lightly and Baelish laughs at this as though she has said something astonishingly witty. He is still holding her hand and Sansa feels as though her skin is burning, as though his touch is peeling the flesh off of her bones. She longs to wrench her hand out of his grasp and kick him in the knees until he cries, but she affixes her placid smile and says nothing, does nothing as he lifts her hand to his lips and kisses her knuckles again, this time for far longer.
“I am afraid it is an affliction,” he says. “The breeding cannot be overcome, no matter how fine the title or rich the lands.”
“But how fine a title it is,” Sansa says brightly, “and how terribly rich the lands.”
Baelish laughs. “I cannot imagine your sister to be particularly expensive. Her taste is not so fine, not when compared to some ladies of my acquaintance.” He releases her hand, finally, and Sansa places it gently in her lap so she will not give in to the temptation to wipe it on her skirts. “You, my dear, will need someone quite deep in the pocket to keep you in your beautiful silks.”
“Oh, yes, I suppose,” Sansa says, with the nonchalance of a young unmarried lady who has never had to think of financial matters.
“No matter what Targaryen might say, my dear, I’m afraid he is not quite so liquid as you might expect,” and Sansa is literally so shocked that for a moment she does not say anything and she is stuck, frozen, in the act of folding her hands. She’s looking at Baelish with some expression that is probably politely disinterested but she cannot know for sure.
“Pardon?” she says.
“Oh, did you not know?” Baelish looks appalled, concerned, and he comes back and kneels by her chair so he can pull her hand out of her lap. Sansa gives it to him without resistance, still reeling. “My dear, surely you have noticed his attentions? They have been quite--assiduous. There has been talk.”
“Talk of what?” Sansa says, through lips gone numb.
“Targaryen officially retires his commission and the first thing he does is come to London and take up with his cousin, the wildly eligible and beautiful Lady Sansa Stark. He should be setting up his nursery, and yet he spends his time with only two ladies--and one of them is now engaged to be married to Lord Stormsend.” Baelish’s eyebrows draw together, a look of paternal interest affixed on his face. He looks like a constipated rat. “If he has not asked you, my dear, it is only a matter of time.”
“My cousin has said nothing of marriage,” Sansa finally manages. Hopefully Baelish will think her sensibilities wounded. Sansa cannot tell what emotions are actually coursing through her body, just that they are prickling her all over from the inside.
“You need not accept him,” Baelish says. “That brute, that illegitimate swine. You need not feel trapped into accepting him, my dear, just because he will tell you that you have been compromised.”
“I have been compromised?” Sansa parrots back. Her fingers are unpleasantly warm, moist, and she realizes after a long second that it is from Baelish’s tight grip on them.
“You have been alone with him on a number of occasions,” Baelish says. “There are those who speak of it as familial closeness, but many know that Targaryen’s attentions have not been quite so--brotherly.”
Sansa rips her hand from between Baelish’s without any conscious intention. She can see the triumph flare in his eyes but he sounds soothing, gentle, as he puts his hand on her shoulder and says, quietly now, “It is a disgusting thought, of course. But how could we expect him to behave otherwise? He is a child of uncontrollable lust--if you will pardon me for being rather blunt, my dear. His father being struck down before he could beget legitimate children, the throne passing to the sister--truly, it was the act of a merciful God. Better for the line to die out.”
“You believe he will offer marriage?” Sansa asks Baelish. She cannot look away from his face, like he is a cat and she is the mouse with whom he is toying. Her only hope is that he gives something away unintentionally, something that can rescue her. She feels as if she is drowning.
“Oh, he most assuredly will, and soon, I think,” Baelish says. “My dear, you must promise me something.”
“Yes?” Sansa says, dazed.
“If he tries to force your hand, you should know that,” and then he pauses, takes a deep breath, visibly steeling himself, “you have other options. Even if you think yourself to be compromised, you are not without allies.”
Oh, of course . His wretched plan suddenly coalesces for Sansa. She can see the neat noose as he attempts to slip it over her neck.
“You are the kindest of friends, Mr. Baelish,” Sansa says, and she is able to make herself sound grateful, even a little girlishly pleased. “Thank you.”
“I am yours, my dear,” he says, squeezing her shoulder. He means, you are mine , and she can hear the covetousness in him. He might not even need the letter from Uncle Benjen, if he can convince Sansa to flee from imagined whispers straight into his arms. What a horrible man! How confidently he invents rumors to force Sansa to dance to his will! She wants to spit directly into his eye.
“Thank you,” she says, lowering her eyes to her lap. “You are too kind to me.”
“Nonsense,” he says. She can feel his exhaled breath against the top of her head. “I will always take care of you, my dear.”
He takes his leave, clasping her hand again, and after he has been given his hat and shown to the door, Sansa asks Cassel to inform any other visitors that she is no longer at home. After he has bowed and departed, Sansa and Jeyne are left alone in the front parlor, their only company the unbearably loud ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece.
For all that Baelish’s plan has become quite clear to her, Sansa’s thoughts on other matters--on Jon’s purported preference for her, on his having resigned his commission--feel disordered, rushed, confused. It must be like the rumors about Uncle Benjen: nonsense that Baelish has made of whole cloth to make her feel trapped by nothing more than illusion. But she cannot stop coming back to the thought of Jon’s attentions being considered assiduous . He thinks of her as his sister; he had said so. Or had he felt obliged to say it?
And on and on she goes, for what turns out to be close to thirty full minutes, and then Jeyne says, “Lady Sansa?” and Sansa jolts. “You will have to leave for the Mormonts’ in an hour.” When Sansa stares at her blankly for a moment, Jeyne adds, “For supper.”
“Oh!” Sansa exclaims and she jumps to her feet. “Thank you, Jeyne, I had completely forgotten. Will you come and dress my hair in twenty minutes? Let me wash up first. Can you check on Arya first, please? Make sure that she is ready, or in the process of it. Even if it is the Mormonts, she will need to put on something at least a little pretty.”
“Of course, my lady,” Jeyne replies. She looks uncertain for a brief moment, and then she says, “Would you care to--discuss the matter, my lady?”
“What matter?” Sansa says, and then, “You mean Jon ?”
“And Mr. Baelish, yes,” Jeyne says.
“What is there to discuss?” Sansa says. “Mr. Baelish is inventing rumors again, just as he did when he wrote me letters to say that people were claiming Uncle Benjen was letting us all run wild up at Winterfell. I am not compromised. It is that letter I have to worry about, as he will undoubtedly use it once he realizes I’m not going to flee from Jon’s attentions into his arms.”
She realizes almost immediately that this has been the wrong thing to say. Of course there is much to discuss; Sansa and Jeyne have been going in endless circles over the falsified letter for days. This glimpse of Baelish’s character should be picked apart for any insights it might contain. By not wanting to talk about it, Sansa is revealing to Jeyne that it is a tender subject for her. Jeyne will know, now, what Sansa has been too cowardly to put into words.
“Oh, my lady,” Jeyne says, and she sounds horribly gentle. “I had not realized.”
“It is no matter,” Sansa says briskly. She takes the feelings of guilt and shame that want to course through her freely and she shoves them deep inside of herself, where they might never be discovered. “You are correct, Jeyne, that the matter should be discussed. I know that tomorrow is to be your half-day; tonight, then, after I have returned from the Mormont house? It will be an early evening.”
“Yes,” Jeyne says. She still sounds soft, as though Sansa is in danger of falling apart without gentle handling. “I will go and check in on Lady Arya.”
“Thank you,” Sansa says, both because she knows that Jeyne will leave immediately and because she will ensure that Arya is properly dressed. Once Sansa is alone, she indulges in a few moments of furious pacing, an attempt to burn out the tumultuous feelings coursing through her now that there are no witnesses to pick her apart and try to divine the truth in her heart. Sansa does not know how she feels, only that it is wretched and she wishes someone would come and offer to kill Petyr Baelish for her again.
Much is made of Arya’s engagement at supper. The Mormonts are old family friends, their estate neighboring Winterfell and their children mixing freely with the younger Starks. Sansa had made her debut with Alysane, who, being only ten months younger than Sansa, had been able to come to London with the Starks seven years ago and be sponsored by Lady Winter. Sansa and Alysane had not been good friends, not like she and Dacey, but there had been no talk of Dacey making her debut. It had taken Sansa years to realize that she was in love with Sansa’s brother, who did not reciprocate her feelings, and that she would likely never make a great match in the Ton.
Although the Mormonts do not enjoy London as a rule, they have come for the Season for the middle sisters Lyra and Janelle to make their debut. Alysane, who had married Maron Greyjoy that first Season and been almost immediately widowed by an idiotic duel over a hand of piquet, has rented a townhouse and appears to house therein some combination of Greyjoys and Mormonts. Sansa has noticed that Alysane’s sister-in-law Asha does not seem to live with her parents and instead enjoys Alysane’s hospitality, but Sansa knows better than to ask after the particulars of their arrangement.
“Oh look, it’s the duchess, girls!” Theon, Lord Pyke, says when Arya and Sansa have surrendered their wraps and been shown into the front parlor. “She deigns to bless us with her presence!” He leads Asha and Alysane in a ragged cheer. Sansa notices after a single glance around the room that he is the only gentleman present; Alysane has never cared much for matched numbers.
“Fuck off,” Arya says, and when Sansa says, “ Arya! ” sharply, she amends, “ Please fuck off,” and Theon laughs as he envelopes her in a boisterous hug that lifts her clear off of her feet. He had been good friends with Jon and Robb at Cambridge and spent nearly every summer holiday at Winterfell with the boys, but Sansa sees very little of him during the Season--he does not mix with polite society. He looks taller, thinner than she remembers.
“Is it a love match, then?” Lyra demands.
“Surely not!” Jorelle replies.
“None of your business,” Arya tells them haughtily. Everyone else knows better than to try for a congratulatory embrace, although Asha comes over to briskly shake her hand. “This dinner’s not some kind of engagement soiree, is it?”
“Would we really do that?” Alysane says drily, and Arya visibly relaxes at this reminder. “No one in this room gives a fig if he’s a duke--except maybe you, Sansa--” with a nod towards her, “no offense meant.”
“None taken,” Sansa says, although she had spent most of her youth being offended in one way or another by various Mormonts. They had always liked Arya better, as she had enjoyed running wild over the countryside and going on expeditions to explore Celtic ruins or hunting parties when they were old enough to be trusted with the guns. Sansa had always been home with her mother, supervising the jam-making or bread-baking or receiving cello lessons. Dacey had been the only one with any sort of common ground with Sansa, and that had been because she’d broken her leg falling out of a tree when they were thirteen and learned how to knit mostly out of self-defense against boredom.
When Sansa turns to look at him, Theon has a little half-smile in the corner of his mouth. He lifts a brandy snifter towards her in a toast that feels slightly flavored by mockery. “You must be glad someone’s taking her off of your hands,” he remarks. “Never thought the day would come, ey?”
“I knew Arya would find her way,” Sansa replies. “Doesn’t she always?”
“True enough,” Theon allows, knocking back a long swallow. “This mean you’re for Winterfell, then? Massive wedding to plan and whatnot?”
“We will remain in London for the rest of the Season,” Sansa tells him. “Arya and Lord Stormsend want a small wedding that will not require much planning on our part. I can manage it once we’re home in July. We cannot leave before then, as Arya’s birthday is already planned for Vauxhall Gardens. You’ve received your invitation, I hope?”
“Undoubtedly it’s somewhere,” Theon says, waving the hand holding the brandy snifter. “Did you send it here? Uncle Euron’s refused me admittance to the house for the rest of the year, something about my needing to shape up before he’ll admit to the connection--my God, does that man want the title so bad that he can taste it. He acts the viscount as if having been my guardian was enough to give it to him.”
Sansa did send the invitation to Pyke House. “Consider this an informal invitation,” she says. “The evening of June 25th at Vauxhall Gardens. For you and Asha both.”
“Accepted!” Theon announces. “Asha, did you hear that? We’re for Arya’s birthday on the 25th of June, there’s to be fireworks.” He turns to Sansa on a wobbly heel and says, “There will be fireworks?” which is when Sansa realizes that he’s already quite soused. She can’t believe it’s taken her this long to figure it out. He seems to be in strange spirits.
“Of course,” Sansa replies.
“We cannot possibly wait until June to make the man’s acquaintance,” Alysane says. “Theon, for God’s sake, you’re to take Sansa in to dinner, she’s the highest-ranking lady. Are we supposed to starve waiting on your good manners to reveal themselves?”
Theon sweeps Alysane an exaggerated bow, tosses back the last of his brandy, and brandishes his elbow at Sansa. “I hadn’t realized we were dining quite so formally,” he says to Alysane and then, as she makes a rude gesture at him, he adds, “Lady Sansa, if you would do me the honor?”
“Thank you, Lord Pyke,” Sansa says, placing her hand on his elbow and allowing him to lead her into the dining room. “If you are feeling very impatient, Alysane, you need only join Arya for a constitutional in Hyde Park one afternoon. It appears that Lord Stormsend also enjoys the exercise.”
“Sansa!” Arya hisses.
Theon makes a scene out of seeing Sansa settled as Asha neatly deposits Alysane at the head of the table and goes to take her seat at the foot. He drops into the chair between Lyra and Sansa and lifts a finger so a footman will come and fill his wine glass. Sansa feels uneasy at the gesture. She hasn’t seen much of Theon in the last few years, but she remembers him as a university student and he’d been prone to wildness and debauchery. Sansa has accordingly made little attempt to maintain the connection, for all that she longs for the company of people who remember Robb as she does.
“Well, you’ve got Arya sorted,” Theon says to Sansa abruptly as their soup bowls are being whisked away. He interrupts her conversation with Alysane, speaking over the latter as she warns Sansa that Arya’s wedding had better not replace the autumn fête at Winterfell. “I suppose you’re next, then?”
“I beg your pardon?” Sansa replies politely.
Alysane hisses, “Theon, don’t be an idiot.”
“You’ve successfully married off Arya,” Theon says, enunciating each word with sharp precision. “Rickon’s too young, presumably, so that must mean your marriage is next.”
“Does it?” Sansa says coolly.
Theon, leaning back indecorously in his chair, smirks at her. “Of course. I’m surprised you’ve waited this long. Oh, don’t hiss at me, Alysane, you were saying the same thing just yesterday. Lady Sansa was born ready to marry and run some lordling’s estate for him.”
“I think what I said was, Pity Sansa has to wait to get married until she sees her siblings grown up and settled ,” Alysane replies. “Which is a nice thing a person might say about their childhood friend--as opposed to whatever you’re going to say, you vicious bully.”
“It really is too bad my sister chose to spend her life with such a harpy,” Theon says to Sansa conversationally. “You aren’t offended by the question, are you? We grew up together, after all.”
“I don’t believe we did,” Sansa says.
“Why don’t you go dunk your head in a trough until you’ve sobered up?” Lyra says from Theon’s other side. “No one wants to talk to you when you’re like this.”
“Perhaps not,” Theon says, “but everyone wants to know when we’ll hear the banns read for Lady Sansa. And which lucky gentleman, of course.”
“Do they?” Arya says, bored. “By God does no one in London have nothing better to be doing with their time?”
“Apparently not,” Theon tells her. “There’s quite a tidy sum riding on the question, you know. I myself put a small fortune on next month.”
“Men!” Alysane says to Sansa, disgusted.
“Oh, yes, because women so rarely play games of chance,” Asha says and Alysane shoots her a poisonous look. “Of course Theon’s being a beast, but there’s no point in playing the saint, my dear.”
“I hadn’t realized you had such faith in Mr. Baelish’s suit, Lord Pyke,” Sansa says to him. “What has he done to earn himself such loyalty?” If she’d known that Theon was now in residence she would not have accepted the dinner invitation. After such a long day, Sansa had longed for a meal among Arya’s friends and sensible conversation that would require no real artifice. She’s such a fool; nowhere in London is safe.
“Oh, my money’s not on that snake,” Theon says. “I put it on my old friend, Jon Snow--that is, His Grace the Duke of Targaryen.”
“Theon, shut up ,” Arya snaps.
“Why?” Theon says, widening his eyes across the table at Arya. “We’re all old friends here. There’s no need to pretend we don’t know what’s going on. I thought myself quite clever when I placed my bet; thought I had the inside line on some prime intelligence on the matter. But I wasn’t even the first, you know. Corbray had two hundred pounds on Jon and the banns being read last Sunday.”
“You think you’re clever, but you’re a rotten friend,” Jorelle tells him.
“I’m a wonderful friend!” Theon says, looking not so much offended as deeply amused. “Jon writes to me and tells me he’s resigning his commission, do I have a line on any rum bachelor properties he might let for the Season, and do I make any sort of comment about the timeliness of this announcement and the ending of Lady Sansa’s mourning period? I do not.”
“What a saint,” Alysane says sarcastically. “No,” she says to the footman when Theon lifts his empty wine glass, “I think he’s had quite enough, thank you. Please send down his valet to see him to bed, I think he’s not going to be able to handle the stairs on his own.”
“I am ,” Theon says, sharply now, no longer amused. “A man doesn’t poach on his friend’s preserves, you know, and I still considered him a friend even when he disappeared into the wilds of the Continent. No letters for years, not until Robb’s funeral. Did he write to you?” Theon asks Sansa, who does not answer. “I suppose you answered his letters,” he adds, bitterly, in a low undertone.
Sansa had not received any letters from Jon while he was abroad, as it would have been quite inappropriate. He had sent them to Arya, of course, and she had performed ridiculous acts of subterfuge to receive them in secret and in the process only drawn more attention to them. Sansa had thought it best to say nothing and pretend not to notice.
She had, however, received one letter from Theon, after Robb and Mother’s funeral. He had offered to marry her if she needed any help. She had not replied, finding the entire situation to be wildly inappropriate. She had not thought him serious. They barely knew each other, and Theon was a wastrel. He had always called her little miss and mocked her ruffled petticoats and persnickety ways. She had thought the proposal, if it could even be termed as such, to be further mockery.
“Good evening, Thurston,” Alysane says to someone behind Sansa. “I am sorry to have interrupted your supper. Could you see Asha’s idiot brother off to bed, please? He needs a thorough dunking.”
“I’m fine ,” Theon insists, coldly, but he’s wrestled out of his chair and into the hallway by a massive, silent figure dressed entirely in black. The door shuts with a click behind them that is so loud it sounds like a gunshot.
“I suppose I should apologize for him,” Asha finally says, heaving a sigh. “He’s not really recovered yet, from the accident. He feels responsible for it.”
“He didn’t force us into that carriage at gunpoint,” Arya says irritably. “He recommended that Robb buy the matched greys but it’s not as though he knew they would be so skittish. No one knew.” She shoves away her plate and the footmen appear to take this as a signal that the fish course is completed; they descend on the table swiftly and bear away the plates, most of them barely touched.
Sansa does not know what to make of Theon’s dreadful behavior, which so closely walks the line between grief and boorishness. “It is not his fault that our mother and brother are dead,” she says, although she does not know to whom. Asha, perhaps, although Sansa finds her an uncomfortable conversationalist; her stare is very direct. “He may drink himself to death if he so wishes, but he cannot use the accident as an excuse.”
Their deaths do not belong to him.
“He won’t listen to any of us,” Alysane says. “We thought perhaps, if we came to London and forced him to see some of his old friends, they would sort him out, but it seems that he and Jon had a wretched row and it just made him worse.”
“This is not Lord Targaryen’s fault,” Sansa snaps, too quickly. Another silence greets her words; they stew in it for a few seconds that feel like endless minutes.
“No,” Alysane agrees at last. “It’s Theon’s mess, assuredly. But Robb’s dead and Jon will not speak to him so there is accordingly no one left to talk any sense into Theon.”
Likely Sansa could, if she found it necessary. Men cannot be talked around into reasonable action for its own sake, but they can be manipulated. Sansa could flatter Theon, wear soft gowns in pale colors to remind him of those summers at Winterfell, she could pet his hair while he cried and console him over his guilt. She could marry him. But she does not wish to do so, and she will not. She owes him nothing, least of all herself.
“Perhaps it would be best if he did not join us for Arya’s birthday at Vauxhall,” Sansa says.
“Aye,” Asha agrees. “Fair enough.” She looks down at her plate--the entree, something with rabbit--and makes a face. “I think I might be done with dinner. Anyone for port and pudding in the library?”
“Oh, hear hear ,” Jorelle declares, pushing her chair out from the table, apparently too enthused by the prospect to wait for assistance.
Sansa remains seated until a footman helps her out of her chair; it means she and Arya are the last to leave the dining room and are alone for a moment, the Mormont sisters and Asha disappearing into the library. “Sansa,” Arya says, lingering by the door, “what Theon was saying about Jon, and the money--”
“It’s no matter,” Sansa says quickly. “Jon told me about the wagers regarding me a few weeks ago. I hadn’t realized that he was included amongst the potential bridegrooms, but perhaps he found it uncomfortable to share.”
“Perhaps,” Arya says, unconvinced. She does not appear satisfied by this explanation, and a moment later she adds, abruptly, “Is this what you meant?”
“Meant by what?” Sansa asks, lifting an eyebrow.
“All those--threats,” Arya says, hands going to the sash of her gown as though she doesn’t know what to do with them. “The things you’ve always told me, how people are watching what we do and talking about us, and how that kind of gossip can have real consequences--is this what you meant? Wagers by stupid men at clubs?”
It is an unexpectedly astute observation from Arya, who so loathes polite society and finds its ways mysterious. Sansa, wanting to encourage this curiosity, says, “Yes, I suppose. There are other ways that gossip can cause ill, but these kinds of wagers can be quite dangerous. It may be easier for someone to compromise me and force me into marriage, now, than it would have been a few years ago when my reputation was unimpeachable.” Arya’s brows furrow over her eyes in concentration, thinking over what Sansa has shared. Into this contemplative silence, Sansa finds herself saying, “Arya, I am sorry if you thought that I was making threats. I was trying to warn you. Mother was always warning me to be careful because she knew that I had to protect myself, but you--”
Arya interrupts, very focused now, “What do you mean, she knew you’d have to protect yourself?”
“Oh,” Sansa says, “a woman leaves her home when she marries, you know that. Mother wanted me prepared for whatever would happen once I had left Winterfell.” She tries to sound airy, unconcerned, the way she has always tried to sound when discussing a hypothetical situation that has already occurred.
“That’s a lie,” Arya says flatly, and when Sansa says, “Arya, don’t be--” she replies swiftly, “I’m not. You just lied to me. Sansa, did something happen to you?”
It would be ridiculous to say that something happened to Sansa, to characterize her time at Storm Abbey and her Season in London afterwards as if it were a tornado or an earthquake. Things that happen to people are unavoidable. Sansa could have very easily avoided the situation with Joffrey; she’s certain Arya would have. Joffrey happened to Jeyne, for example. Sansa had been an idiot who had enabled her own destruction.
“Did Mother ever tell you the story of why she married Father?” Sansa asks. When Arya glowers and opens her mouth, Sansa lifts a hand and says, “If she had, you would know why I asked. She was supposed to marry Uncle Brandon--”
“--and she fell in love with Father instead, yes, I know,” Arya says. “It caused a great hullabuloo but Uncle Brandon died before they were married so it all was all right in the end. I’ve heard this story a hundred times.”
So has Sansa, who had loved nothing more than listening to her mother’s story of true love and happy endings. When her mother and father sang The Braes of Balquhidder for her birthday, Sansa would sit in a delighted trance and fantasize about the story as she’d heard it her whole life--picturing Mother, how she must have felt when she arrived at Winterfell for the first time, scared and alone, and met a quiet young man who had taken her on long rides and shown her the secret places in Winterfell’s vast forest. Mother had fallen in love with him, although she was engaged to his brother and knew they could not be together. When word came of his brother’s death, they grieved together for a year and a day, and then the young man had asked her if she would stay with him and become his bride. I was so scared, Sansa , Mother had always said, but I knew that he would care for me and keep me safe. I’ve never loved anyone as I love your father, and I never will .
After Storm Abbey--after Joffrey --her mother had told her the truth. “Mother and Father wanted to protect us, I think,” Sansa tells Arya. “They loved each other so much, perhaps it was easier to think of what happened as if it were a tragic romance from a folk song.”
“Mother and Father never lied to us. They wouldn’t,” Arya says flatly.
“It wasn’t a lie, really,” Sansa says. The distinction comes so easily to her, but she can tell that Arya is balking at it. “They fell in love, and probably with time it became clear to them that it was a mature and lasting love they might not have found elsewhere. But Mother was engaged to Uncle Brandon for years and they were very much in love at the time. I don’t know about Father, she would not speak of his feelings. But Mother was angry when Uncle Brandon died and she did not want to marry Father. She was forced into it by her parents, who told her they would cut her off if she did not do as they said.”
“ Grandfather ?” Arya says. “He couldn’t force a horse to water!”
“He was quite fierce then. Or perhaps he did not have to threaten very hard; you know Mother, she was very keen on duty and honor. Once he made it clear that someone had to fulfill the marriage contract, she likely did as she was told.” Sansa sighs at the look of mulish incomprehension on Arya’s face. “I don’t mean to make you angry. It wasn’t really a lie, Arya. But I believe that their first few years of married life were very uncomfortable and filled with anger, because she had not known about Jon until they were already married and Father refused to send him away. Of course we know now why he insisted, but all Mother knew was that the man she had loved for many years was dead and now she had to marry his brother, who insisted that she raise his illegitimate son in her own household.”
With the clear eye of an outside observer, Sansa can see the many ways in which Arya emulates their mother. Her stubbornness, her pride, her loyalty--all traits Arya had used to bring Jon into her heart and their mother had used to keep him out.
Arya demands, “But why didn’t they tell us the truth?”
“It’s a difficult story for children,” Sansa says, musingly. “I have always supposed that it was simply too painful to discuss. They never spoke of Uncle Brandon or Aunt Lyanna to us. It’s still unclear to me how he died. I really do think it must have been a duel, perhaps even over Aunt Lyanna, although it would have been treason to challenge the crown prince.”
“What, you think Uncle Brandon went and slapped a glove in Rhaegar’s face?” Arya says, startled out of her mulishness into an actual gape. “Damn!”
“I have never been able to determine the truth of what happened to him,” Sansa says. “Someone knows, undoubtedly, but perhaps it is better to let the past die.”
Arya considers this for a long moment. “I don’t know that I agree,” she says.
“Well,” Sansa allows, “you always have been rather bloodthirsty.”
“Better than missish!” Arya shoots back. “Why did she tell you all of this? Mother, I mean. Why not tell all of us?”
“I believe she was preparing me for marriage,” Sansa says. “She wanted to temper my expectations, which were of course at that time quite high.”
“What time?” Arya asks.
Sansa ignores that. “She told me that she and Father found love in their marriage but it had taken them years. She actually made it sound lovelier, in a way, than the romantic fairytale we always heard growing up. She said that they both had quite a lot of growing up to still do when they became Lord and Lady Winter and that they became true partners to one another in the process.”
Arya’s nose wrinkles, the way it always does when talk of romance is afoot.
“That’ll be you, soon enough,” Sansa teases. “What will you tell your children one day? They’ll want to know how you and Gendry met.”
“He asked me to dance and then he crushed my feet for thirty straight minutes,” Arya says flatly. “Hardly a romantic twilight ride through the forest at Winterfell, is it.” In this moment, it must suddenly dawn on Arya that she will soon be leaving Winterfell; her expression looks almost lost for a moment.
“I think you’re going to adore Storm Abbey,” Sansa tells her, trying to rub away some of the sadness. It never seems right to see Arya in one of her rare broods. “You were made to live by the sea. Perhaps you can add sailing to your list of unladylike attributes.”
“Perhaps I will!” Arya retorts, looking instantly more energetic. “I always forget that you’ve been there. You never talk about it.”
“It was so long ago,” Sansa says. “I only really remember the sea.”
Storm Abbey is situated above the sea, high on a sheer-sided promontory jutting out into the water just south of Dartmoor. There had been a number of private beaches belonging to the Baratheon family that Sansa had been encouraged to enjoy during her visit. The climb down to them could be treacherous, as the cliff face was so steep and rocky, but Lord Joffrey had taken care to show Sansa the safest path down to the beach during her very first day. She and her mother had gone for long walks every afternoon, so they might have privacy to discuss their thoughts.
Sansa had been particularly full of feeling that day. Lord Joffrey had proposed that morning and he had been so pleased at her acceptance that he had stolen a kiss. Sansa had found it exhilarating at first, but something in the embrace had turned quite cold, rough, and she had needed to use actual force to separate herself. But when she had, he was smiling at her again, her golden prince, and she had forgotten to be afraid.
She and her mother had been walking in comfortable silence for a number of minutes as they approached the edge of the west-facing cliff so they might look out over the beach onto the sea. The cool, salty air had blown into their faces and Sansa’s mouth had burned with what she had thought at the time to be titillation but later realized was the raw ache of an open wound; Lord Joffrey’s kiss had split the inside of her lip against her teeth. They were still far away when they first spotted the tall, lonely figure standing on the cliff’s edge. Later, Sansa’s mother admitted to thinking her a tree, she had been so still.
When they were within earshot, Sansa’s mother had called out a greeting, probably, “Good evening,” although Sansa never quite remembered what she had said, and the woman--the girl, really--had turned to look at them. Her hair had been down, dark and tangled around her face, and her eyes had been huge, bleak, the right one set into a swollen socket. “Please do not approach,” she had said, looking directly at Sansa. “The edge of the cliff is quite dangerous.”
Sansa’s lip had ached fiercely, as if it sensed the connection between Sansa and this woman, as if it knew that the same hand had dealt the blows from which they both suffered. Although she had been a sheltered child, kept away from true unhappiness and despair by her privileged circumstances and her parents’ love, Sansa had recognized instantly what this woman was going to do.
“Please come away from the cliff’s edge,” Sansa’s mother had said. “We do not want you to fall.”
“Do we not?” the woman had replied steadily, and Sansa’s mother had said it again, calm and soft, asking after the woman’s name and her family, where she lived and what she did with her time--inane, polite questions that a lady was taught nearly from birth to prolong a conversation indefinitely. Sansa did not think these questions to be quite so stupid as she knew her sister did but she did not think of them as true conversation so much as a necessary evil; or, she did not, until she watched her mother use them to deftly coax the woman--Lady Myrcella’s governess, it transpired--away from the cliff. It had taken Sansa’s mother only ten minutes but the time had seemed endless and terrifying to Sansa, who had been stiff with fright.
Sansa will remember the sun, huge and warm and brilliant as it set over the sea, its pink and purple fingers reaching out for Jeyne, until the day she dies.
Jeyne is waiting for Sansa in her bedchamber, reading by the light of a candelabra in one of the chairs arranged by the fireplace. When she closes her book upon Sansa’s entrance, Sansa can see from its red leather cover that it is from the Mayfair lending library. “Good evening,” Jeyne says, putting her book aside and coming to her feet. She moves more swiftly than Sansa, who feels so dogged by exhaustion that she can barely lift her feet high enough to kick off her slippers.
“Good evening, Jeyne,” Sansa says wearily. “Thank you for waiting for me. I’m afraid we had a rather turbulent dinner at the Mormonts’.”
“More so than usual?” Jeyne asks. “Do sit and let me take down your hair.”
Sansa sits at her dressing table and removes her earrings as Jeyne begins to pick pins out of her updo. “Oh, it was particularly wretched, even for the Mormonts,” she says, and she tells Jeyne about the whole horrid evening, from Theon’s drunken rambling to the raucous charades they had played after they had drunk their port. “I had not realized he thought himself--I cannot even begin to characterize his actions. In love with me, I suppose? But so insincerely. In love with the idea of marrying Robb’s sister, no doubt,” Sansa finishes, unclasping her bracelet. “I don’t know how I missed it. I suppose we do not really move in the same circles anymore.”
“Perhaps he is jealous of Lord Targaryen,” Jeyne suggests. She has finished unraveling the braids and loops of Sansa’s chignon and begins to pass a wide-toothed comb over the long tail of Sansa’s hair to untangle the ends.
“Oh, Jeyne, he can’t possibly know--” Sansa says quickly, and she can see in the mirror that Jeyne is shaking her head behind Sansa, the comb moving slowly in Sansa’s hair.
“It would not surprise me to learn that you were something of a first love for either or both of them,” Jeyne says. “It is not uncommon--young men who return from university and find that the sisters of their friends have become quite charming and beautiful while they have been away. It is not a serious affection and it only sometimes results in marriage, but I think it has a very strong hold on the lovers. Memory can give a first adolescent love an attractive patina.”
“Jon was hardly in love,” Sansa says, and she can hear the insincerity in her own voice; how desperately she wants to believe it, how unsure she is. “Certainly not with me! He still thought of me as his sister. He still does.”
“He does not,” Jeyne says gently. She puts the comb down on the dressing table and picks up the matching brush, silver with boar bristles and C.T. engraved on the handle. Arya had not wanted the set and Sansa had been happy to inherit it, eager for any reminder of her mother. She had smelled the bristles every night for weeks after her mother’s death, chasing her scent, until it had faded fully and Sansa could smell nothing but dust. It was only then that she had begun to use the brush. “My lady, I had not said anything as I thought you were aware of his feelings and disinclined to return them.”
Sansa says weakly, “There is nothing--that is, he does not--” and her voice dies in her throat when she catches Jeyne’s eyes in the mirror. “ Jeyne ,” she says miserably. “I have needed to guard myself for so many years. He was my brother . It is too shameful to even complete the thought, so I trust you to manage it yourself.” Sansa has worked her way around to being cross with herself and she has to squeeze her eyes shut and take a deep breath to let the irritation pass.
“I understand,” Jeyne tells her. The motion of the brush through Sansa’s hair makes a soft sussurating sound. Jeyne’s hands are so steady. She helps Sansa take down her hair nearly every night; it has become their ritual, akin to the afternoon walks that Sansa had taken with her mother. “At times one’s greatest enemy is oneself. It is better to shut oneself away.”
“I cannot afford to be vulnerable,” Sansa says, although of course Jeyne knows this. “Intimacy, vulnerability, love , they are all weaknesses. If I show them to him, how do I hide them away again? How do I protect myself?”
“A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed,” Jeyne says.
Sansa says, “That was a rhetorical question, not an invitation to quote Scripture,” but she is not really reprimanding Jeyne, who quirks a smile without looking up from the careful movements of her brush.
They enjoy the silence, the soothing rhythmic noise of Jeyne’s brushing, and then Sansa asks, “Do you suppose it worth it, Jeyne?”
“To open one’s garden?” Jeyne replies.
“Yes,” Sansa says.
“I do not know, my lady. I have not.”
“Have you not?” Sansa replies and Jeyne once again says nothing, although with her next stroke she presses firmly enough to Sansa’s scalp to make the skin itch. “Will you join her household when I return to Winterfell, Jeyne? You have been my companion for so many years but we have accomplished the task that Mother originally set for us. Arya will be safely settled.”
“The task was to see you both settled, my lady,” Jeyne says softly. “I made a promise to your lady mother when she hired me and spirited me away from Storm Abbey that I would see it done.”
“We both know that I will not marry,” Sansa says. She looks down at her lap, where she has folded her hands in their long, pale gloves, and she tells herself that the exhaustion she feels is at the sight of all of those tiny buttons. “Unless I do not manage to wriggle my way out of Petyr Baelish’s scheme, that is. But if we get too close to Arya’s birthday without a better idea presenting itself, I suppose I will go to Lord Oberyn with my hat in my hand and make my case.” She begins to work at the buttons along the inside of her left elbow with her right thumb and forefinger, although she gives up after the first few fumbles and applies the buttonhook.
“There are other ways for a woman to be settled,” Jeyne says. “My lady, if I might be so bold?”
“Always, Jeyne,” Sansa says absently, focused on the small mother-of-pearl buttons along the inside seam of her glove. “You know that.”
“Lord Targaryen is a reserved man and I do not believe that he makes a display of his emotions, but he is conversely not skilled at subterfuge. This was clear to me almost immediately upon making his acquaintance four years ago, for all that it was the acquaintance of a single evening.” Jeyne returns the brush to the dressing table and begins to braid Sansa’s hair back into a single thick rope that will hopefully keep it tamed while Sansa sleeps. “If you wish to know the truth of how he feels, I believe you would not find it a difficult task.”
No, she would not. It is why Sansa does not trust herself with him. It has been better not to know. For all that her hope is tempered by hot, prickling shame, Sansa prefers it to the alternative--which is to say, no hope at all.
“Perhaps not,” Sansa allows.
Jeyne finishes the braid and uses a ribbon to tie it off. “Your hair needs a trim, my lady,” she says. “The ends have begun to fray.”
“Undoubtedly you’re right,” Sansa says. “Perhaps you might cut it for me, the day after tomorrow?”
“Yes, of course,” Jeyne says. She does not put her hands on Sansa’s shoulders or lean their heads close together; she is not a woman who favors physical intimacy. But she meets Sansa’s gaze in their reflection in the mirror and she looks almost gentle, her eyes soft in the corners. Jeyne cannot be very many years older than Sansa but her face is drawn like a woman’s twice her age. In this moment of tender understanding, Sansa wishes furiously for Jeyne to be loved as she deserves, as she must desire somewhere beneath her cool reserve.
“If you share with him your well of living waters, my lady,” Jeyne says, “I believe he will prove your equal.” When Sansa finds herself mute and without response, Jeyne bids her, “Sleep well, my lady,” collects her library book, and takes her leave.
Sansa does not sleep. She sits at her dressing table for close to an hour, thinking of Jeyne’s calm, placid expression and the Song of Songs, which Sansa had not realized she still had memorized from her girlhood. Although she picks up her embroidery hoop, she almost immediately puts it down when she finds herself unable to concentrate on it.
Finally, she wraps herself in a dressing gown and goes down to the music room. The grandfather clock in the hall is ticking steadily as she passes it but she does not observe the time. The night stretches infinitely both ahead of and behind her. The music room is dark and it feels as though it folds her gently into itself, cradling her and keeping her safe.
She practices the Haydn concerto for hours, until the sun begins to appear as golden streaks along the carpets, and then she puts her cello away and goes to dress.
Arya, Rickon, and Sansa are enjoying an unusually amiable breakfast when Cassel brings in Jon’s card on a silver tray. “My lady,” he murmurs from her elbow. “His grace requests a few minutes with you in the library at your convenience.” Jon has scribbled We need to talk about PB on the back of his card.
“Please invite his grace to join us for breakfast, Cassel,” Sansa says, holding Jon’s card between her thumb and forefinger and letting her eyes linger on the beautiful curves of the Targaryen family crest printed next to his title. He must have had it designed himself; below a fierce, soaring dragon runs a wolf with a maple branch in its teeth. The motif is faintly familiar to Sansa, who had spent her young womanhood embroidering running wolves on nearly everything--a waistcoat for her father, the cuffs of Robb’s shirts, even the first draft of Jon’s handkerchief, which she had not given to him because she had worried he would think it some kind of a statement regarding his place in the family.
When Sansa finally drags her eyes up from the card, she catches Arya staring at her with fierce concentration. “Is something the matter?” Sansa asks.
“No,” Arya says, but her expression belies that. “Just woolgathering.”
“An unlikely occupation for you,” Sansa points out. “Look, Rickon, Jon has put a wolf on his family crest.” She shows Rickon the card and lets him excitedly examine it.
“Did you ask Jon to call on you?” Arya asks, stabbing at her pile of eggs. “You’re not still going over those settlement figures, are you?” But she doesn’t sound particularly put out by the thought.
“No,” Sansa says. “I am allowing the family solicitors to sort out the first draft. I think Jon will want to discuss what happened last night with Lord Pyke.”
Arya rolls her eyes and stuffs a forkful of eggs into her cheek. “Theon’s gone off,” she says after she swallows. “He’ll sort it out or he won’t. There’s no point in worrying over him.” She turns towards the door when it opens, Jon quietly thanking the footman out in the hall, and says loudly, “You’re not here about Theon, are you?”
“Should I be?” Jon asks. He hasn’t bothered to neaten his hair this morning and it’s curling wildly in such a way that strongly suggests he hadn’t worn a hat on the ride over. It’s ridiculous for Sansa’s heart to tighten sweetly at this, but it does. She wants to touch the side of his face. To prevent herself from doing any such thing, she reaches for the coffee pot and pours Jon a cup.
“No,” Sansa says. “Have you eaten this morning, Jon? Hands up, Rickon,” and when he offers her his hands, she places the cup and saucer in them and says, “Put this next to Jon’s plate, please,” which Rickon does with some gentle rattling of the china.
Jon comes forward to pull out the chair next to Rickon and says, “I have, thank you. My thanks, Rickon.”
“May I try some?” Rickon asks, peering into Jon’s coffee with intense curiosity.
“You may not,” Sansa replies before Jon has the chance, as he is occupied in settling in his chair and refusing the toast that is being offered to him by a footman. “You will have to be a little bit older before you may drink coffee.”
“You’d hate it,” Arya advises. “It’s the fruitcake of beverages.”
“Blech!” Rickon declares, rearing back. “Why do you always want to eat such disgusting things, Jon? When I’m a man grown I’m going to have chocolate cake for breakfast and four spoons of sugar in my tea and no one will be able to stop me because I will be Lord Winter.”
“You’ll be Lord No-Teeth,” Arya says and Rickon scowls at her.
Jon looks up from Rickon to Sansa and smiles at her, very quickly, from the corner of his mouth. She knows what he is thinking, because Sansa thinks of it frequently herself--little Rickon, grown to be so much like Bran. Much wilder, of course, and very much his own person, but similarly opinionated and brash. It is hard to know now what sort of duke he will make, but he lacks the steadiness of character that Robb had exhibited even as a child. This is likely a commentary on Sansa’s parenting when compared with her mother’s, but she doesn’t have the heart to reign in Rickon’s tempestuous nature. At least she’s gotten him to stop biting Alysane’s eldest.
“What has Theon done, then?” Jon asks Arya, lifting his coffee to his mouth. Sansa watches his throat constrict as he swallows, and then she collects herself enough to return to buttering her toast. For God’s sake.
“Oh, he was awful at supper last night and had to be banished. Completely soused and the hour not even half-seven,” Arya says. “He made a fuss over you and Sansa. Sansa says you know about these wagers that everyone’s making?”
Jon looks down into his coffee. “Ah,” he says, slightly strangled. “Yes.”
“Well, apparently Theon’s convinced that you’re going to marry her and he’s put a small fortune on it. I knew Theon had his vices but I thought most of them were liquor and petticoats--has he really turned to gambling?”
Sansa says, “ Arya ,” and flicks her eyes towards Rickon, who is staring at Arya with a rapt expression.
“Gambling, liquor, and petticoats are very bad,” Arya says to Rickon seriously. “You’re not to even begin thinking about them until you’re of age.”
“Are you going to marry Sansa?” Rickon asks Jon, apparently too distracted by this bit of news to be excited by forbidden topics.
Jon opens his mouth and then looks at a loss.
“Lord Pyke is a horrid gossip,” Sansa says calmly, smoothing butter to the very edge of her slice of toast. Although it is a frightful expense and so very frivolous, Sansa has the butter from Winterfell sent to them when they are at Stark House in London. She fancies that she can taste the difference and it always reminds her of home. “He has been behaving very poorly of late, Rickon. Do you remember Theon, Lord Pyke? He came to stay with us at Winterfell when you were a baby.”
“I suppose so,” Rickon says, which means that he does not. “Why is he gambling about you and Jon getting married? I thought that people gambled when they played piquet, or vingt-et-un.”
“Some people,” Sansa says, “gamble over events for which they believe they know the outcome. Many people wager money on the outcomes of horse races, for example.”
“Horse races!” Rickon says, face brightening. “Like when Arya jumped all of the hedges at Winterfell and Miss Asha had to give her her new bow?”
“Yes,” Sansa says. “They wagered Asha’s new bow on the outcome of that race, and Asha lost.”
“She should’ve known better,” Arya says smugly.
“Indeed,” Sansa says. She puts down her butter knife and takes a bite of the corner of her toast.
“What does Theon get if you marry Sansa?” Rickon asks Jon. “Does he get your new bow? Do you have a new bow? May I see it?”
“I do not,” Jon says.
“Oh,” Rickon sighs, deflating. “What do you get if Jon marries Sansa, Arya?”
“A large number of nieces and nephews, undoubtedly,” Arya mutters and Sansa chokes on her toast. She has to put her hand over her mouth as she wheezes and this, unfortunately, gives Arya the opportunity to say to Jon, “You’re not going to do something tiresome like call Theon out about this, are you? Just give him a thrashing and be done with it.”
Sansa has been trying quite hard not to look at Jon over the course of this conversation, but of course she is also curious to see what he has to say about Theon. He has put down his coffee cup and his face is flushed, his cheeks pink above his beard. He looks uncomfortable but not disgusted by the course this conversation has taken. Sansa’s heart, that traitor, makes a little lurch in her chest. Perhaps he does not think of her as his sister, after all. But Sansa stomps on that ember of hope quite strongly and tells herself not to think on it.
“I’ve already given Theon a thrashing,” Jon says, “and it did little to fix the situation, I’m afraid. For now, I am ignoring it and I hope time will see Theon returned to his senses.”
“Ha!” Arya barks. She returns to sawing at her bacon. “I would hardly hold my breath.”
“You fought Theon?” Sansa asks, trying to ask politely and managing something a little desperate.
Jon peers down into his cup of coffee and clears his throat. “Hardly much of a fight,” he says. “Just a match at Gentleman Jackson’s that got a little out of hand. He was not to speak of it to you, Sansa.”
“Oh,” Sansa says, strangled. She does not know what to think of this. Her heart feels like it is beating so swiftly that it might escape out of her chest at any moment.
“What is Gentleman Jackson’s?” Rickon asks, his attention predictably snagged by any mention of violence.
“A club for boxing,” Jon tells him. He looks a little grateful for the question. “Jackson is a famous boxer and he trains gentlemen in the practice. When you are older, if you are interested, I will take you. That is--if your sister gives her permission.” He clears his throat and does not quite look at Sansa; his eyes stop somewhere at her shoulder.
“Not until you are grown,” Sansa says immediately. She looks down at her hand, where she is still holding her toast. It is likely now gone stone cold but she nonetheless lifts it to her lips and takes a small bite.
“ Everything must wait until I’m grown,” Rickon whines. “What a load of rubbish.”
“Not everything,” Arya declares. “If you beat me to the mews, I’ll take you on my ride today, Rick.”
Rickon and Arya stare at each other beadily across the table for one full second and then Rickon shoves his chair out from the table, shouting, “MayIbeexcusedSansa,” and jumps from it to scramble towards the door to the corridor. Arya is after him a scant second later, grabbing the last of her bacon to eat with her fingers. Sansa has just enough time to shout after them, “Don’t you dare scuff the floors! Mrs. Cassel just waxed them yesterday!” as they disappear around the corner.
Sansa places her toast, which has indeed become unpalatably cold, back on her plate and rubs her thumb and forefinger on her napkin to remove any lingering crumbs. “That whole interlude reflected rather poorly on my parenting, did it not?” She smiles at Jon a little ruefully, inviting him to join the joke.
“I think it is good to see their spirits recovered,” Jon says. “I don’t know what they were like after Robb and Lady Catelyn died, but I remember them at Bran’s funeral.” Sansa’s smile dies. She can remember the days leading up to Bran’s funeral with crystal clarity, as though the memories have been pressed between glass plates for preservation. Rickon had been tiny but old enough to know and respond to misery. Arya had been silent, her eyes hollow in her face, unwilling to speak with anyone. Not even Robb had been able to get more than a word out of her. She had only spoken to Jon, who had arrived on their doorstep the night before the funeral. “I know you and Arya don’t often get on, Sansa, but--you have given them a home where they might feel safe, and they have recovered there.”
Sansa cannot say anything. She does not know what to say to this raw observation, which does not feel like the kind of compliment with which she is familiar.
“You have a special skill for it, I think,” Jon continues. “It was clear even when you were a girl.”
Bizarrely, Sansa feels as if she is going to weep. She looks down at her lap and sees that she has crumpled her napkin between her fingers, twisting it into a tortured shape. “Thank you,” she says and her voice is rough. “But I do not think--”
“Sansa,” Jon interrupts, and she looks up at the sound of his chair scraping against the floor to see him stand up and come around Rickon’s abandoned chair to her side. He goes to one knee at her side and puts his hands over hers, covering her white, strained knuckles and her twisted table linen. “You have done well by Rickon and Arya. I know you do not always get on, but I believe she must know how much you care for her.” Sansa cannot look at him for more than a second. She can sense that he is struggling with what he wishes to say; as she stares at his neck-cloth, she can see his throat working behind it. “You are going to make an exceptional mother.”
Sansa does begin to cry then. She does not do it in a ladylike fashion, unfortunately, but instead erupts into a rather loud, hiccuping cough. “It does not matter,” she says, burbling. “It does not matter, Jon. I will never be a mother.”
“Of course you will,” Jon says. He makes a gesture that she cannot see the full scope of; she realizes when she hears the door open that he is telling the footmen to leave. Oh, and now the staff has seen her cry --what is becoming of Sansa? But she is choking on her breaths and she cannot think of the repercussions of this just now. “You will find someone worthy of you to marry, eventually. I cannot think of a man who deserves you, but surely there will be someone.”
“Oh, Jon,” Sansa says miserably. “There will be no such man. There cannot.”
Jon reaches up and places his hand, carefully, against the back of Sansa’s head. He is so warm that she can feel the full stretch of his fingers, the press of them into her hair, and then he is guiding her forehead to rest against his shoulder in a kind of open embrace. “There will be. You deserve the life that you’ve always wanted,” he says. He can speak softly now, because his mouth is so close to Sansa’s ear that she can feel the warmth of his exhale against it. “Whatever you require, Sansa, I will do it. Baelish cannot have you.”
“To the devil with Baelish,” Sansa manages between gasping sobs. “Jon, I was ruined. It happened years ago.” She can feel him stiffen, his hand tightening to cup the crown of her head more firmly. “It is so apparent--there are scars. We could be sued for breach of contract.”
“ Scars ?” Jon says, voice harsh.
“He was not kind to me,” Sansa says. Jon smells so unbelievably good. He smells like the woods at Winterfell; like the tall trees and the clean, sweet snow. Sansa loves him so much that she cannot protect herself against him. Her heart cannot be hardened; her words cannot be tempered. She longs for him to take her into his arms and warm her against the cold cruelty of the world, and she cannot even berate herself for the idiocy of it, because she loves him.
“Who was it?” Jon asks. He has softened his grip but his voice is hard, scraping over the words.
“It matters not,” Sansa manages. She has to breathe through her mouth; her nose is clogged.
“Tell me his name, Sansa,” Jon says quietly.
“Jon, it doesn’t matter. It was years ago. He hurt other women far worse than he hurt me.” Sansa holds her breath to choke a sob and then she releases it unsteadily. “Look at me, still such a goose over it.” She can feel pinpricks of shame crawling up her throat and she squeezes her eyes shut, resting them against Jon’s shoulder in the hope that it will prevent them from further leaking. “You were right, all of you. I was such a silly child.”
Jon inhales sharply and asks, “How old were you?”
“Seventeen,” Sansa says. “Old enough to know better. But I have accepted the penance for my stupidity. I’m sorry for crying all over you, Jon. I promise not to do it again.” She tries to lift her head and Jon catches her before she can go further than an inch, his fingers pressing her back down.
“It’s all right,” he says softly. “You may cry as much as you need.”
“Oh, don’t say that,” Sansa says with a watery laugh. “We’ll be here all day.” But she does not try to lift her head again and she lets herself accept his proffered comfort. She concentrates on controlling her breathing, on packing her distress and sadness back inside of herself, and slowly the muscles in her neck begin to relax. Sansa’s mother had been quite honest with her after they had left Storm Abbey with Lord Joffrey’s proposal of marriage, firmly refused, behind them--Sansa would need to be very careful if she ever did decide to take a husband. He would need to be a man who would not mind his expensive, pedigreed bride proving to be decidedly unvirginal, and it would be difficult to know for sure that Sansa had found herself such a man. Men could be so unpredictable when it came to virginity.
Sansa had listened to her mother’s advice and privately decided that the best route would be not to marry at all. She had not told her mother, sensing that this would distress her, but perhaps her mother had figured it out. Sansa’s father had received three offers for her hand after the incident at Storm Abbey and Robb had fielded two his first Season as Lord Winter, after their father had died in the sailing accident with Robert Baratheon. Sansa had rejected them all.
And then, of course, Mother and Robb had died and no one could find Uncle Benjen and the care of Rickon and Arya had become Sansa’s sole responsibility. Whom could she trust to do well by her siblings? Rickon had been so young when he had inherited the title; if Sansa had married and chosen poorly, some wretch might have had the raising of Rickon and absolutely ruined him.
Accordingly, Sansa has had years to resign herself to the fact that marriage and children--her heart’s only true desires--will not be hers. She has no good reason for dissolving into tears, now, except that she has not slept very well these last few weeks and she is very worried that she will have to marry Petyr Baelish. She does not know if he expects her to be a virgin or not, and frankly either option terrifies her for the horrible futures they might entail.
“Sansa,” Jon finally says, when Sansa’s breath no longer feels like it is rattling around in her rib cage every time she inhales, “I know that you do not wish to accept my assistance and I do not mean to infringe on your independence.” At some point, his hand--the one that is not holding the back of Sansa’s head, keeping her whirling emotions contained--has come up to cup her shoulder, and she feels his warm touch move across her shoulder blade, down the line of her back, until he is holding her in a loose embrace. “But it pains me, to be unable to help you.”
“You cannot kill Mr. Baelish,” Sansa tells him and Jon lets out a short, rough bark of laughter.
“I don’t know much of anything other than how to kill,” Jon says. He sounds quite bleak for a moment, as though he actually believes this to be true, but before Sansa can interject he continues, “But I have--other things to offer. Sansa, I can protect you. If you let me give you my name, I can keep Baelish away from you. I can keep anyone away from you. No one would touch you ever again.” In a raw, nearly inaudible voice, he says, “That includes myself.”
It takes Sansa a stupidly long amount of time to understand his words. In her defense, she has cried absolute buckets and her head is beginning to ache with an incipient headache from dehydration. She sits there, her body trembling, caught against Jon’s firm, steady shoulder and his warm hand against her back, and she inhales and exhales and inhales and then, “ What ?”
Jon immediately releases her. He leans his weight back so more of it is settled on his heel and he takes both of her hands between his. “I wish to keep you safe. You and Arya and Rickon have been alone for years while I have been stuck in France, unable to help. I have done nothing for so many years. Please let me be of use to you.”
“Done nothing? But I thought the Duke of Wellington speaks very highly of you and your service,” Sansa says blankly.
“To the devil with Tormund,” Jon says hotly. His eyes blaze at Sansa as he says, urgently, tightening his grip on her hands, “I swear to you, Sansa, that with the rest of my life I will do all in my power to take care of and provide for you, in whatever capacity you require. Let me give you the protection of my name. Please. Let me take you away from London.”
“As your wife?” Sansa says. She feels quite weak saying the words, but they come out of her mouth betraying nothing.
“Yes,” Jon says. His gaze is so focused, so strong, that Sansa feels trapped; she cannot look away from him. His eyes are such a clear, beautiful grey. She can see that he is desperate, but why ? She cannot fathom his reasons for offering for her, other than guilt--survivor’s guilt, perhaps, because he is alive and Robb and Father are not. There are no men left to protect Sansa. But he does not have that pinched, pleading look that had always characterized his guilty conscience when they were children. It had always been so easy to know when Jon had been up to mischief.
Inside of Sansa, something wicked and unbelievably strong awakens. It is a thick, molten heat that starts in her belly and climbs swiftly up her throat. It makes her knees weak; thank God she is still seated, although she is clinging rather precariously to the front of her seat. It crosses the back of her tongue and she feels it there, heavy, like honey. “Would you give me children, Jon?” it asks, from Sansa’s lips.
Jon’s beautiful grey eyes darken; it takes Sansa a moment to realize that his pupils have dilated. His warm hands, curled around her own in her lap, feel like they become hotter. “Yes,” he says, and it is low, rough. “If you desire them, I will give them to you.”
Any willpower Sansa might have possessed is gone, now, dissolved by the hot honey that pours through her veins. She sways in her chair and Jon moves a hand from her lap to her hip, to stabilize her, and she can feel the press of his fingers through all her layers of clothing--her stockings, her chemise, her petticoats, the sprigged linen of her morning dress. Although he has not spoken to her of any finer feelings beyond obligation and desire to aid her, she can see them in his face, in the tight line of his jaw under his close-cut beard and his dark eyes, so fixed on her face. He loves her . She knows it. Her whole body knows it, like a plant awakening at the first touch of the spring sun.
“Let my beloved come into his garden,” she says softly, “and eat his pleasant fruits.”
“ Sansa ,” Jon says and they come together, so slowly that Sansa feels as though her teeth have begun to ache. Jon’s mouth is warm and soft under hers and he moves with gentle fierceness, as though he is determined to possess her only through tender, lingering touch. He tastes like coffee, as Sansa discovers when he opens his mouth and touches the tip of his tongue to the corner of her mouth. She opens for it and is rewarded with the hot, slow slip of his tongue. The hand on her hip clenches, hard enough for her to feel it, and he puts his other hand to her cheek. It feels as though he is steadying her in the middle of a great storm.
“Sansa,” Jon murmurs, “oh, Sansa,” and then he kisses her again, and again, and again, until all she can taste is coffee and all she can smell is crisp, fresh pine. “Marry me, Sansa, please.”
“Yes,” she says. “Yes, I will marry you. Oh, Jon .”
Sansa spends the rest of the day in something that feels like a dream state. Jon tells her he will purchase a special license but he expects it to take the rest of the day; would it be acceptable to Sansa if he came to collect her the following morning to be married? Sansa says yes, of course, she will send her regrets to Mrs. Reed regarding the garden party she had agreed to attend, and then Jon offers to marry her some other time that is more convenient. Sansa assures him that she would much rather be married to him than attend the Reeds’ garden party. “Good,” he says, a little fiercely, and then he bows over her hand and takes his leave.
It is, incredibly enough, only quarter after ten.
Sansa sits in the breakfast room for about five minutes, in a daze; her mouth feels swollen, rubbed a little raw from the soft bristles of Jon’s beard, and she knows that she looks completely an idiot. Oh, and his hand was in her hair .
But there’s nothing to do for it; she presses the backs of her hands to her cheeks to cool them, runs her fingers along her hair to neaten it, and then exits the dining room to a nearly empty corridor. “Good morning, Cal,” she says to the footman passing by carrying a large silver candelabra that normally sits on the desk in the library.
“My lady,” Cal says, bobbing a quick bow.
“I see that Mrs. Cassel has already gotten a start on polishing the silver this morning. Please let her know that Lord Targaryen will be dining with us for luncheon tomorrow and she need not confer with me regarding any changes Cook might need to make to the menu we discussed.”
“Right away, my lady,” Cal says, and he waits for Sansa to enter the morning room across the hall before he continues on his way.
Sansa deals with her morning correspondence--poorly--and the packet from Winterfell--also rather poorly, although slightly more competently because she has by then called for a pot of coffee and consumed most of its contents. Once she has sealed her replies and falsified Rickon’s signature to frank them, she finds herself quite unable to get up from her desk. If she looks down at the carpet and concentrates very hard, she can almost make out the faint remnants of the stain caused by the ink she had spilled all over herself, although Mrs. Cassel and the upstairs maids had done a fine job removing most of it.
Now that she is allowing herself flights of fancy, Sansa thinks back on that afternoon with Jon in this room and she remembers his firm hold on her ankle, the sharp way he had called her coz , the strange look on his face as she had tried to get him to release her foot. Of course, now, she has seen him with that expression again and knows it for what it is: desire, or longing, or some mixture of the two. Perhaps a little bit of anger, as they had been fighting.
Sansa knows nearly the exact moment that she had begun to fall in love with Jon--with the caveat, of course, that she had been a girl with simple, girlish feelings--but she does not know when he became similarly afflicted. The thought that Jeyne is correct, and they have both felt this way for years, makes Sansa’s heart feel tight. If she had told him when they were children, would he have married her then? Would she have been safe from Joffrey?
There is no usefulness to that way of thinking , Sansa tells herself. Only pain . Her mother would never have approved. Sansa herself does not approve of girls marrying out of the schoolroom, without the chance to learn a little bit of the society from which they have been isolated.
She is grateful that they had not married when they were so very young, but Sansa still closes her eyes and thinks back to the last summer they’d had at Winterfell before Father had purchased a commission for Jon and let him go to France. Sansa had returned to school in the fall but Jon and Robb and Theon had just graduated from Cambridge, with some mixture of success--Robb had taken a first in philosophy, Jon a first in history, Theon had not been sent down and therefore viewed the enterprise as laudatory--and were cheerful and wild at their freedom. Robb had taught Arya how to fence. Theon had had all of the girls in the village in a tizzy. Jon had come across Sansa embroidering Robb’s initials onto a new waistcoat he had brought back with him and he had complimented Sansa on her fine needlework, in his quiet, reserved way.
Thank you for the handkerchief , he had said, although it had been nearly a year since Arya had given it to him.
What handkerchief ? Sansa had asked, pretending ignorance because it was supposed to be Arya’s gift.
I know that it was your work , Jon had said. Haven’t you heard, I took a first. I’m not quite so much the idiot as you might think .
He had been teasing her, Sansa knows now with the clearer eyes of adulthood, but the soft, easily bruised Sansa of adolescence had thought he was mocking her. I don’t know what you’re talking about , she had said in a snooty voice, stabbing her needle into the neck of Robb’s new waistcoat. Why would I have made you a handkerchief? It is too intimate a gift when you are not even really family .
Jon had not said anything and left. They had not spoken privately again before he left in the fall, and then Sansa had not seen him again until Bran’s funeral. He had not even been able to get leave for her father’s, as he had been in Portugal then and it was a bloody mess; all the papers said so. Sansa had not been able to apologize for years, and during those years she had tried to find a better, more respectable object of affection and made her choice rather poorly.
Sansa releases the memory and opens her eyes to the warm, bright colors of her morning room--her mother’s delicate, beautiful furniture, Aunt Lyanna’s watercolors framed on the walls, a mysterious and gorgeous oil by the rather bitter and reclusive Mr. Turner hung above the fireplace--and she realizes that by this time tomorrow, this will no longer be hers. Undoubtedly she and Jon will spend time at Stark properties, as they will have to be assiduous in training Rickon to take on the responsibilities of Lord Winter when he is of age, but Stark House will not be Sansa’s home. She will no longer belong to Winterfell, as she does now. She will be another creature entirely.
Sansa, Lady Targaryen.
Rather than dwell on this thought, Sansa turns to her diary and writes Have new cards made at the bottom of the list of items she must accomplish this week.
Sansa is still quite stupid and useless when Jeyne returns from her half-day away from Stark House. Tonight is the Martell family’s masquerade, an annual evening of debauchery that is saved from being regarded as solidly the purview of the demimonde by the continued attendance of nearly every aristocratic family in Society. Willas Tyrell’s grandmother had once told Sansa that it was her favorite event of the Season and not even wild horses would be able to keep her from attending; she had then smacked her closed fan against the inside of Sansa’s wrist and said, “Of course, I remember when Lord Oberyn was not quite so confirmed a bachelor,” and she had winked at Sansa from behind her mask. Sansa had known it was the dowager marchioness, of course, because her turban was quite famous and no other older lady had quite so poisonously funny a tongue, but she had been willing to pretend she did not and had said, “You are being awfully scandalous, ma’am, even for a masquerade,” before going off to dance the Sir Roger de Coverley with Jon Blackmont.
Although Sansa does not plan on conducting herself in such a way that would reflect poorly on her house or her reputation, she nonetheless is anticipating the opportunity to be a little less recognizable for an evening. She does not know if Jon will be in attendance--she had forgotten to ask, what with every single sensible thought in her brain having been melted down by his kisses--but she has noticed him making an effort to be present where Sansa or Arya might require his aid. It is strange to think of Jon as feeling helpless or useless, as he had confessed to her earlier that morning; he’s a war hero, for God’s sake. But it explains why Jon, who hates society and dancing, has been present at nearly every ball and reserved a dance with Sansa and Arya nearly every night.
Sansa feels a small twinge of annoyance, as she always does when someone underestimates her abilities, and then she remembers Jon’s hoarse voice, begging her to give him some small way in which he might be of use to her, and the annoyance eats itself until it is a tight knot lodged in her ribcage.
Jeyne returns from the wardrobe with a few pieces of Sansa’s fancy dress and says, “My lady?” sharply enough that Sansa suspects it is not the first time she has tried to grasp Sansa’s attention.
“My apologies, Jeyne,” Sansa says, shaking her head and coming away from the windows. She has been staring out over the back garden for long enough that the sun has set without her realizing.
“You’ve been distracted for hours, Bethy said,” Jeyne says. When Sansa shoots her a look, she says, “I told her not to repeat her opinion elsewhere, of course, but at least if she shares it with me she will not be tempted to share it with others. Nance, for example.” Jeyne drapes the veil across the foot of Sansa’s bed so it will not wrinkle and places the gold mask next to it. The remaining pieces of Sansa’s costume--a linen underdress, stays, bliaut, and girdle--have already been pressed and draped on the clotheshorse.
In the interest of concealing her most distinguishing feature--which is to say, her hair--Sansa has chosen a veil of pale blue to compliment her bliaut, the color of a robin’s egg. With her hair folded up in braids and carefully pinned in place, it should be all but impossible to discern the shade of her hair underneath her veil. Sansa is normally almost impatient for the moment of transformation--it is why she adores fancy dress balls and masquerades, as they give her the chance to be free of her silly, useless, pretend self for a night--but she finds herself lost in thought again, easily distracted.
“--Lady Sansa,” Jeyne says, and Sansa comes back to herself with a jolt to realize that she is sitting at her dressing table, touching her index and middle finger to her lower lips. She can see that she has a dreamy smile on her face.
“Oh,” Sansa says in surprise; Jeyne has finished the braids and woven them into a high crown upon which her veil will sit. “Jeyne, it looks marvelous.”
“Thank you,” Jeyne replies drily. “You should put on your underdress and bliaut before we pin on the veil.”
“Of course,” Sansa agrees, standing up and unlacing the front of her dressing gown. “Do you mind lacing me into my stays, Jeyne?”
“No, my lady,” Jeyne replies. “You seem very distracted this evening. Did you receive more correspondence from Mr. Baelish?”
Sansa steps into her stays and pulls her shoulders back, automatically correcting her posture, as Jeyne tightens the laces. “No,” she says, and she exhales slowly, trying to breathe out her own impossible giddiness. “Jeyne, you should know that Lord Targaryen has asked me to marry him, and I have accepted.”
Jeyne ceases her tugging for a moment. Because Sansa is facing away, she cannot observe Jeyne’s expression, but she can hear real, sincere happiness in her voice as Jeyne says, “Congratulations, my lady.”
“He is purchasing a special license so we might be married tomorrow. Even if Mr. Baelish catches wind of it, we must act too swiftly to allow him to put that wretched letter into play.” Jeyne finishes with the stays and steps away, returning a second later with the linen underdress that she drops over Sansa’s head, careful of the crown of braids. “We will need to be a little vigilant, I think, until we leave London.” Sansa pulls her head free and shakes her shoulders to encourage the underdress to settle; once she has, she can see Jeyne again, standing in front of her, and the skin around her eyes is tight in a way that looks almost like sorrow. “That is--you should not feel obliged to stay with us until the end of the summer, Jeyne.”
“It is not an obligation,” Jeyne says softly. She carefully lifts the bliaut off of the clothes horse and says, “Mind the sleeves, my lady, they are very tight to the elbows,” and they work in near silence to wriggle the tunic on without destroying Sansa’s hair.
When they have finished fussing over the skirts and tying on the girdle, a very convincing medieval lady stands in the middle of Sansa’s bedchamber. She has white flowers embroidered along the long, trumpet-shaped sleeves of her bliaut and matching blue flowers embroidered on the hem of her underdress, which will be visible when she makes a turn through a dance. Although she will eventually wear a long veil and a gold mask over most of her face, she is currently bare-headed and flushed. She looks like a young girl in love.
“You look very fine,” Jeyne says. “Please take a seat and I will pin on the veil.”
Sansa does so mutely. She barely recognizes the person she sees in her mirror.
“I met Lady Arianne today by chance at the Royal Exhibition,” Jeyne says quietly, adjusting the veil so it fully covers all of Sansa’s hair. “She asked after you, my lady, and then inquired as to whether I would be returning to Winterfell with you in the autumn.”
“ Jeyne ,” Sansa murmurs, but she says nothing else; Jeyne is too private for any sort of actual congratulations. After she is able to control her delight, she says, “I hope you informed her that you were quite able to travel at your discretion.”
“The lady made an offer of employment,” Jeyne says, with zero inflection.
“Oh, Jeyne ,” Sansa says, “you know how Arianne is. She cannot reveal her true emotions in public. At the Royal Exhibition, no less!” And then, “ ow !” for Jeyne has stuck her with one of the hairpins.
“I informed Lady Arianne I would consider her offer,” Jeyne says evenly. “She has asked me to call upon her tomorrow morning. I informed her that my next half-day would not be until Tuesday next.”
“Jeyne, don’t be ridiculous,” Sansa says. “Of course you may have tomorrow morning off to go and meet with Lady Arianne.”
“I will not,” Jeyne replies stubbornly. “You are to be married tomorrow morning, my lady.”
They sit in silence for one, and then two minutes, and then Sansa says, “You will have to go in the afternoon, then.”
“I will go when I have prepared my answer,” Jeyne says. “My lady, if you continue to move I am going to accidentally put a pin in your eye--” but she does not do so, not even when Sansa comes out of her chair to pull Jeyne into a swift embrace.
“I want us both to be free of him,” Sansa whispers into Jeyne’s ear. “I feel that moment to be so near that I can almost taste it.”
After a moment, Jeyne lifts her arms and wraps them loosely around Sansa’s waist. “What a day that will be,” she says quietly, and she presses her cheek to Sansa’s, firmly, and then pulls away. “If I do not choose to join Lady Arianne’s household, I will return to Winterfell with you and Lady Arya, if that is agreeable, my lady. Even a married lady requires companionship, does she not?”
The companionship that Jeyne receives from Sansa is so vastly different from that she could enjoy with Lady Arianne Martell that to compare them feels almost sacrilegious. It does not take much courage to fall in love, as Sansa can truthfully attest, but to choose to live with love--to make one’s life upon the bedrock of it--is a terrifying prospect. Sansa can only count herself lucky that she has apparently inherited some measure of the Stark family foolhardiness.
“I do not wish loneliness for you, Jeyne,” Sansa says. Jeyne’s face is expressionless but her eyes are dark and heavy. There are times when Sansa worries that Jeyne has spent these last seven years still standing on that cliff face, waiting for the hand of the sun to reach down and spirit her away. “I can only give you friendship, and you deserve a love better than wine.”
Jeyne says, “No more of the Song of Songs, please.”
“That is entirely your fault,” Sansa replies, unrepentant. “I am afraid you will simply have to suffer the consequences.”
It had not occurred to Sansa to be concerned about Arya’s costume, as Arya has never had much interest in fancy dress and had said over breakfast, when asked, that she would figure out something to wear before they left. Sansa had assumed Arya would decide on one of her new ballgowns with a black domino to conceal her features; it is what Jeyne is wearing.
But it is not a debutante in a black domino who meets Sansa and Jeyne in the front hall of Stark House. It is a knight, wearing a padded doublet and breeches and something that looks alarmingly like actual armor --a breastplate, vambraces, a silvery-grey mask that hides her face--a sword buckled to her hip--
“Arya!” Sansa shrieks.
“I thought I might go by Sir Knave for the evening,” Arya says musingly. “Do you suppose it’s too obvious?”
“That you’re a woman?” Sansa replies, somewhat hysterically.
“Who would know the difference?” Arya says diffidently, adjusting her mask. “I am slight but my figure is not so very fine. We’re ready, Cassel,” and the butler turns to Sansa for permission before opening the door. At least someone has some sense in their brain this evening.
“If you go out dressed like a man and anyone finds out--” Sansa says, but Arya flaps her hand dismissively.
“Who would?” she answers. “I hate dancing, besides. I want to play cards and smoke a cheroot.”
“Women may do both of those things!” Sansa points out.
“It’s not the same,” Arya replies mulishly. She’s right, of course. It’s not supposed to be the same.
Although Sansa cannot see Arya’s face, she can hear the cheerful good spirits in her sister’s voice--enthusiasm that has been rather absent since they arrived in London and Arya realized the Season would necessitate dancing, shopping, and a large number of rather insipid social gatherings. Sansa suspects Arya had thought she would be able to get away with spending every morning at Tattersall’s and every afternoon racing on the mail road.
It is undeniably true that Arya’s figure, slight as it is, is indistinguishable as either male or female when stuffed into a doublet and breastplate.
Sansa turns to Jeyne and lifts an eyebrow. Can this be managed? Jeyne coolly surveys Arya, tip to toe, and then nods once at Sansa. It can be done.
So Sansa, inexcusably softened by the joy of being in love and having her love returned, allows Cassel to open the door and spirit them down to the carriage, hopefully swiftly enough that none of their neighbors notice that Lady Sansa Stark and her companion-cum-chaperone are being accompanied by a young man of uncertain origin.
Inside the carriage, Arya sprawls on the backward-facing seat, her legs spread and one tucked up nonchalantly under her seat. The worst part is, of course, that she does look like a boy. She could so easily be someone’s younger brother sent down from university, eager to be set amongst the debutantes like a fox among hens.
“You are absolutely not to remove your mask under any circumstances,” Sansa tells her after they have traveled a few blocks and are rapidly approaching the Martell residence. “If you get into any sort of trouble, you absolutely cannot come to me. I do not know how recognizable I am, but I suspect my height will make me easy to spot. No one can suspect that you are a lady, let alone Lady Arya Stark. Have a servant send word to Jeyne if you absolutely need it.”
Arya rolls her eyes so hard that the movement is visible behind the eyeholes of her mask and then their carriage is rattling up to the front steps of their destination and Arya says, “I’ll have Gendry give me a lift home,” and she darts out of the opposite door of the carriage, swinging silently down to the ground, just as the door facing the house opens and the footman standing outside stiffly offers his hand to Sansa.
So: Arya is alone, dressed as a man, and Sansa is Eleanor of Aquitaine for the evening, trying to use her regal bearing as a kind of disguise. Upon entering the house they are immediately absorbed into a crush so absolute that Sansa loses Jeyne after only a few steps; when she tries to turn to look for her, she needs to yank her trailing sleeves out of the path of a nearby Bottom, whose papier-mâché head is so large that it bobs wildly from the shoulders of its bearer.
Sansa does not bother to slouch and finds that, at her actual height, she can nearly see over the heads of those around her. It is surprisingly much less claustrophobic to be tall in a crowded ballroom, she finds.
A masquerade is something of a free-for-all, and there is accordingly no receiving line and no guarantee that one might find one’s hostess, let alone solicit her for an introduction. Sansa could certainly find Arianne, should she so wish, but she does not need the assistance to make her own introductions. She dances the first set with Bottom and it is exactly the sort of mess one might expect when one’s partner is wearing an enormous papier-mâché donkey’s head; Sansa laughs so hard that she is grateful for Jeyne’s secure pins keeping her veil in place.
Sansa has just finished her set with Lord Bryon--one of a dozen in the ballroom, not a single one the man himself--when she escapes to a corner next to a set of glass doors leading out onto the terrace, trying to cool herself with a faint evening breeze and deeply regretting her choice of costume. Had she chosen something of Greco-Roman origin, she could have gotten away with fewer layers and then she might have even been cold . Oh, what a thought.
She does not have her fan, and so Sansa is using the trailing end of her veil, waving it to encourage air to flow over her damp neck, when she finally spots Jeyne and the bit of wall that she has chosen to prop up this evening. She is an anonymous dark-haired figure in a grey gown with a black mask, wearing no jewelry other than the small gold cross she has tucked underneath her fichu, but there is an extremely beautifully-dressed Cleopatra who seems to have recognized her and is moving to greet her. As Sansa watches, Cleopatra comes to a halt only a handful of inches away, her waist undulating as she makes a somewhat exaggeratedly exotic curtsey. Jeyne’s mouth does not move; she bobs into a brief curtsey in return.
There follows a conversation that Sansa cannot quite follow, as Cleopatra’s back is turned to the room and therefore all Sansa can see is Jeyne’s face, cold and unmoved, and the gestures that Cleopatra chooses to bestow upon her: all exaggerated movement, fluttering fingers, a gentle sway indicating her interest to move closer, if the lady would be so inclined? Jeyne does not appear to say much, but slowly the line of her mouth softens, her breathing deepens, and then, suddenly, she is blushing and shaking her head.
A blush! From Jeyne!
“Oh, well done, Arianne,” Sansa murmurs to herself.
It is then that Sansa’s attention is snagged by a dark, hulking figure clinging to the wall near Jeyne. He is moving towards her. For a moment she is still, her mind going completely blank; but then her body, somehow knowing him instinctively, orients itself in his direction. He is wearing furs over his evening dress and surely must be boiling. She recognizes his dark curls. They are not tamed at all tonight; when they are not waxed, they riot down over his ears and nearly to his shoulders. He is wearing a full mask, covering him from forehead to chin, but Sansa does not need to see his facial features to recognize him. She would know that hair anywhere; she would know his bright eyes, staring out at her from behind his mask. And she recognizes the fur draped over his shoulder because she had been there when he had brought back a brace of badgers from a hunt with Robb.
Jon had loved Commentaries on the Gallic Wars as a young boy.
“Vercingetorix,” she says, when he has pushed his way past a passel of young wallflowers--still unfortunately identifiable despite their costumes, as they are uniformly dressed in white with silver or gold dominos only barely covering their cheeks--and come to her side. “Are you hiding from Caesar? I saw him over by the punchbowl not twenty minutes past.”
“No,” he says and he takes her hand and lifts it to his mouth. “Your majesty?” Her fingers, suddenly nerveless, drop her veil as he kisses the back of her knuckles. He does not politely stop with an inch of air between them; she feels his hot breath against her bare skin.
“Eleanor will do,” she manages.
“I am surprised you recognized me,” he says, and when she stares at him blankly he says, his voice a little muffled from behind the mask, “as Vercengetorix, that is.”
“I suppose it is rather unpatriotic of you,” she allows, “but otherwise, I don’t know how I would not have known.” He is still holding her hand, not against his mouth but with her fingers pressed against his palm, in a loose grip. “You really should be attempting a French accent, you know.”
“They spoke Celtic, Eleanor,” he says, a thread of humor running through his voice. “And you are hardly one to be throwing stones regarding the French.”
“Ah,” Sansa replies, switching to her polite schoolgirl French, “but I would of course respond in kind to one of my countrymen.”
“Would you?” he answers her, in a rusty little scrape of the Scottish Gaelic they had both learned--with varying amounts of enthusiasm--as children.
“Of course,” Sansa replies in French, haughty. “Perhaps not to a barbarian, I am afraid I have some standards--” and she bites back a low gasp when he lifts her hand to his mouth again, this time turning her hand so he can kiss the pulse thudding against the inside curve of her wrist. She can barely feel the press of his mouth from inside of his mask but that makes it worse, somehow. She breaks out in goosebumps.
“May I have this dance, Eleanor?” he asks quietly.
“Yes,” she answers, and then she says, “oh, but we’re halfway through the set--” but he has tightened his grip on her hand and pulled her towards the dancefloor in the center of the crowded ballroom. They find a couple on the very fringe of the dancers making the foursome figures with only two and join in, with surprising ease, until they are whirling together amongst a shepherd and his shepherdess, Juno and Pierrot, two anonymous lovers in a whirlwind of them. Sansa has always loved to dance for the romance of it, but she has never considered the practice particularly erotic, as there are so many witnesses. But tonight she lets her Gallic chieftain hold her a shade too close to be truly proper, his palms hot on hers when they have to link hands, and it draws a scalding line down her spine from her neck to her navel and pulls it tight.
By mutual, unspoken agreement they remain together on the floor as the dancers for the next set assemble. “Do you suppose if I paid them, I might get the orchestra to produce a waltz?” Jon murmurs, leaning close enough to Sansa to speak into her ear. She can barely hear him above the pounding of her pulse.
“I don’t think the Martells would eject you, but you might find yourself barred from every other house in Mayfair,” Sansa replies, half-serious.
“They will dance nothing else on the Continent,” Jon replies. He sounds a little flustered as he says, “I do not think myself very skilled at it, but I believe you would, ah, find it quite pleasing.”
“I would dance anything with you,” Sansa says. “I know you hate the practice, so I must enjoy every chance I get.”
“It is boorish for a man to monopolize his wife’s attentions,” Jon says, with a flare of humor in his eyes. She can only barely make them out, faintly glittering, inside the eyeholes of his mask. “That said, I do not suppose I care much for the opinion of others.”
“You do not have me snared quite yet, Vercingetorix,” Sansa tells him in French and then, with such marvelous timing, the orchestra finishes their tuning and begins to play a minuet. Sansa has always loved the weaving figures of the minuet; it is a dance designed for flirtation. When she releases Jon’s hand and steps away, she comes around the couple behind them--Aphrodite and King Arthur--and Jon has eyes for no one but her. She feels the intensity of his regard like she is stepping into the warm embrace of the sun. Her breasts are heavy inside of her gown.
“You are mine,” he says when they have been brought back together, Aphrodite and King Arthur safely delivered ahead of them. The stately rhythm of the minuet feels exceptionally slow tonight, set against Sansa’s furiously racing pulse. “You will be mine, won’t you, Eleanor?”
It takes Sansa too long to realize that he has not asked this in English--thank God!--and that he is not speaking to her with the firm command of a man who expects to be her lord husband but instead a soft, nearly desperate grind of words. He is not sure of them, either her or himself.
“Yes,” she replies; first in Scottish Gaelic, and then in English. “Yes, I will,” and it is a long, soft sigh of words.
Sansa dreams that night of her wedding, the way that she had when she was a child. It is Winterfell in the spring, the forest so bursting with new life that the air is thick and difficult to breathe. Sansa is wearing a fine new dress, elegant but cheerful, and a bonnet that she and her mother have trimmed with silk flowers and ribbons. Her family walks her from Winterfell to the church in Wintertown, a journey of several miles that in this beautiful, hazy dream world takes almost no time at all.
The church is festooned with irises and daffodils, Sansa’s favorite spring flowers, and Sansa has a posy that she uses to hide her blushing face when she steps into the church on her father’s arm. His face is not quite clear to her, but she can hear his voice as though he speaks from inside of a great bell: “Be happy, dear one,” leaving her ears ringing.
“I will, Papa,” she promises.
The wedding ceremony passes in an instant, like a peal of thunder, and then Sansa is holding her husband’s arm and being born out of the church, ready to face the bright sunlight and fistfuls of rice from the villagers. Their carriage is awaiting them, dressed with more flowers, and it seems to Sansa that it is not the Stark family carriage but one more suitable for a fairytale--gold and silver and glass, like an enormous lamp, with cushions covered in white velvet. Her husband, his face only just visible out of the corner of her eye--when did her bonnet brim become so very large? She can barely see--helps her into the carriage. She feels him brush a kiss over the corner of her mouth, although she does not see him do it. She feels the sensation afterwards, like the fleeting touch of an insect.
“I adore you,” he says, and she knows that he is tenderly touching her cheek, although she cannot see him. “I could not live another day without you, my dear.”
“My love,” she says, the words escaping from her mouth like birds.
“Yes, you are my love,” her husband says, and this time she feels the brush of his lips against her mouth. His face becomes clear to her as he pulls away. The villagers are cheering very loudly for this romantic display as Joffrey smiles at her with the self-satisfied smirk she had last seen on his face as he had led her out of the hedge maze at Storm Abbey. “You are mine, aren’t you, Sansa?” And he pats her hand, upon which he has placed his ring: his mark of ownership. “Be a dear and wave to the villagers, won’t you? Peasants care for this sort of thing.”
Although Sansa wishes for nothing more than to throw herself out of the carriage, she lifts her hand and waves to the cheering onlookers. She can feel the muscles of her face tense, conforming into a delighted smile, and she hears her own laughter as if it is coming from very far in the distance.
Sansa sleeps for so long that Jeyne has to come and wake her. “My lady,” she says, her hand on Sansa’s shoulder as Sansa blinks her way into consciousness. “I am sorry to wake you, but Lord Targaryen has sent a note that he will come to collect you in an hour.”
There is sun coming through the windows--Jeyne must have pulled back the curtains--and Sansa is deeply disoriented for a moment. Are they back at Winterfell, truly? Does Joffrey await her at the church in Wintertown? But no, the walls are papered with green stripes and the fireplace is unlit. This is not one of the chilly stone bedchambers of Winterfell. There will be no long walk to the church with her parents, no chapel full of irises and daffodils, no blond bridegroom standing at the altar.
“Thank you, Jeyne,” Sansa says muzzily.
Jeyne says, gently, “Shall I bring you some chocolate?”
“Yes,” Sansa says. It is so bright that her eyes ache; she has to close them. “Arya? Rickon?”
“Still abed,” Jeyne replies, and then, after a quiet click, “Fetch some chocolate for Lady Sansa, please,” faintly.
Behind Sansa’s eyelids, all she can see is Joffrey, pulling back from their nuptial embrace, his face bright with triumph. How many times has Sansa believed herself to be safe, only to find herself trapped by her naivety? There is no such thing as true happiness. She is a fool.
“My lady?” Jeyne says.
When Sansa forces herself to open her eyes, Jeyne is standing in front of the window, pouring Sansa a cup of steaming chocolate out of the silver pot. She is doused in sunlight like flames. “Has your decision changed?” Jeyne asks her, placing the cup on its saucer. “If you do not wish to marry him, we will find a way out of it.”
“No,” Sansa says, her voice gone flat. Jon is not a true unknown; he is not a stranger, like Lord Oberyn. She knows he will treat her respectfully, honorably, and if he rides roughshod over her decisions she can likely shame or manipulate him into eventually allowing her her way. Sansa had always thought of her unmarried state as being a kind of protection of its own, but the events of this Season have shown her that she is alarmingly vulnerable as long as she remains unwed. She needs to marry. There is no better candidate. This is the rational choice.
Her heart feels heavy and full. It is an unpleasant sensation.
Jon collects Sansa and Jeyne in his carriage promptly at eleven. His witness will meet them at the church, he explains, and then he does not say anything else. He looks very stern this morning, his hair waxed into obedience, his cravat holding its pristine folds as though it is made of pure starch. He does not meet Sansa’s eyes, choosing instead to stare out of the window, which unfortunately does little to calm the nerves that have lifted Sansa’s heart into her throat.
A very tall, robust gentleman dressed in shades of brown meets them at the church. He has a shock of red hair and a full, bushy beard, and he calls, “Snow!” in greeting while Jon is assisting Sansa from the carriage, courteously holding his hand flat so she might stabilize herself. Sansa is wearing a pair of her modest church gloves; they insulate her from his touch.
“Tormund,” Jon says, after he has seen Sansa deposited safely on the ground and offered his arm. “Thank you for coming.”
“Couldn’t resist,” the man says. As he comes closer, Sansa realizes that he is very, very tall. She does not know many people, even men, who dwarf her. It is this height, more so than his face, that informs Sansa as to the identity of Jon’s mysterious witness. She has seen his likeness depicted in the newspapers for many years and there have been drawings published of a statue commissioned to stand in Hyde Park, modeled on Achilles, but they are not fair portraits. His height, though: that is far more distinctive.
“Tormund, may I present to you Lady Sansa Stark?” Jon says.
“A pleasure,” the Duke of Wellington says, his accent pure Scots. “Congratulations, Lady Sansa.”
“Thank you, your grace,” Sansa replies steadily. Everyone speaks of Lord Targaryen being a particular favorite of the newly-laureled Duke of Wellington, recently titled in recognition of his service to the crown, but she had not realized they were friends. Jon would not ask a polite acquaintance to stand up with him at his wedding. What had Jon been doing on the Continent?
I don’t know much of anything other than how to kill , he had said to her, very matter-of-factly, but strained. And he had known Lord Stormsend, who had also shown himself to be rather fierce and unconcerned with his own deadliness.
The Duke of Wellington has a reputation as a short-tempered and impolite man, but he bends very kindly over both Sansa and Jeyne’s hands, pronounces himself glad to be of service to his old friend Snow, and ushers them all into the church with good humor. It is good to have someone loud and friendly with them, because Sansa finds herself unable to offer more than the polite necessities. Jon is monosyllabic and Jeyne is silent. The vicar accepts the special license but makes a point of taking Sansa to the side and inquiring as to how voluntary her participation in this wedding might be. Is she being coerced in some way? No, Sansa assures him, she is not. He takes her word for it but looks disapproving, slightly thin-lipped, as he takes them through the service.
Jon has brought a ring for Sansa. It is a gold fede band, two hands clasped into a small, tight knot. Sansa does not recognize it, and she wonders for a moment if he has bought it explicitly for this purpose, but then she chances a look at him as he says, “With all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you,” placing it on her finger, and she knows, in a way that clenches in her stomach, that it is something he has had for a long time. It has to be forced over her knuckle but it fits perfectly once it has come to rest at the base of her finger. Jon’s face is blank, composed, but he rubs her reddened knuckle with his thumb, gently, as the vicar drones on.
Jon releases her hand when they have finished the ceremony and Sansa puts her glove back on, buttoning it at the wrist with fingers that feel numb. The Duke of Wellington shakes Jon’s hand vigorously and says, “Never thought I’d see the day, you spineless southern wanker,” but it is said with some affection.
“Watch the tongue,” Jon says, equally fond.
“Pardon, Lady Targaryen,” the duke says. “Not much for polite company, me. Although polite company seems eager enough to take me into its bosom of late.” He lets out a booming laugh and shakes Sansa’s hand. “Now, where’s this book we must sign?”
“You look lovely,” Jon tells her, quietly, after they have signed their names-- Sansa Stark , for the last time--and Jeyne and the Duke of Wellington are affixing their signatures in the vicar’s book as witnesses.
“Thank you,” Sansa replies, looking down at her hands, clasped together at her waist. Although she longs for Jon, to feel some physical reminder of his presence, her hands will not be moved. It is as though they belong to another woman. “Last night, Jeyne ripped out the original ribbon trimming this dress and replaced it with lace we had bought for a morning dress back at Winterfell. Her speedy needlework is astonishing.” To her own ears, Sansa’s voice sounds thin, almost reedy.
“Indeed,” Jon says.
“And you--look quite well,” Sansa says. “Is that a new waistcoat?”
“I do not know,” Jon replies. Of course he doesn’t know; Sansa was an idiot to even ask.
They stand in silence for an endless string of seconds. The distance between them feels like the Channel rather than a few scant inches. Sansa can remember her own heady happiness, her greedy grasping at Jon’s proposal of marriage as though it were one of love, as though she deserved love, as though romantic love is something one might achieve and then keep, forever, like a painting or an antique rug. She can remember those emotions but they feel very distant. All she feels now is a vast numbness.
The Duke of Wellington does not accept Sansa’s invitation to join them for luncheon. He waves them off and departs on foot, an enormous figure cutting through the London foot traffic. He takes with him any sense of ease. Sansa, trained as a lady since birth, should be able to manage some measure of polite conversation--the beautiful weather, how delightful this run of Twelfth Night has proven to be, inquiring after how Jon had made the acquaintance of so boisterous a man as Tormund Giantsbane--but she cannot say anything at all. Marrying him has turned Jon into a stranger.
“Oh, Jon,” Arya says when she comes downstairs for luncheon and finds Jon and Sansa on their way to the terrace, picnic basket in tow. “I didn’t realize you were joining us. Will you ride with me this afternoon? I’m going mad here, Rick’s governess had her half-day this morning and he’s a terror.”
“I am not ,” Rickon replies instantaneously, following closely at Arya’s heels. “Why are we eating outside today?”
“The weather is quite lovely,” Sansa says vaguely. “I thought it might be pleasant.” And private, of course. “Cook has made up lemonade and sandwiches. Shall we eat up here, or have a proper picnic out in the garden?”
“A proper picnic!” Rickon exclaims and he is off like a shot, grabbing Jon’s sleeve in his fist as he goes, down the terrace stairs into the garden. It’s a tiny little plot, of course, as they are in the middle of Mayfair, but Sansa’s mother had always made sure there was enough grass to satisfy her wild brood of reprobates. Sansa asks a footman to fetch a few blankets before following. She’s surprised when she turns back to observe Jon and Rickon’s progress to find that Arya has been waiting for her.
“Where were you this morning?” Arya asks, shading her eyes from the sun with her hand and peering suspiciously at Sansa. “Cassel said Jon came and fetched you.”
“We had some business to attend to,” Sansa says. “We can discuss it further over luncheon. Oh, thank you, Jor,” and she accepts the blankets from the footman. “It’s all right, I can carry them.”
“Oh, let me,” Arya says irritably and she wrestles the blankets away. “The two of you have been thick as thieves of late, plotting away in the corners of ballrooms--what on earth is going on ? Is it those stupid wagers?”
Sansa hums noncommittally as she gathers her skirts to descend the slippery marble steps down into the garden.
“Sansa,” Arya says, seriously enough that Sansa stops halfway down the steps, holding her skirts out of her way, and looks at her sister. Arya has stopped at the bottom of the stairs and is clutching the blankets to her chest, staring at Sansa out from over them. “I’m not a child anymore.”
“Yes, I know,” Sansa says.
Arya says, with emphasis, “You’re not alone anymore.”
Sansa has never truly been alone. She has had her teachers--Mother, Jeyne, Baelish--and her allies in the Ton--Arianne, Willas Tyrell, Perros Blackmont--and she has built a life for herself upon those gossamer foundations. Perhaps she has needed to hide away the vulnerable bits of herself, and perhaps she has not had any true friendships between equals, but she has had partnerships and understandings. For many years, she has made do with these relationships and been grateful for them.
But Sansa has been lonely. She has been so deeply, terribly lonely.
“Thank you,” Sansa says. Her voice is raw and she delicately clears her throat and looks down to navigate the last few steps. She hears Arya loudly sigh and stomp off, which gives Sansa time to compose herself. She smooths the front of her skirts and stills when the ring on her finger catches the light. It is thin, unassuming, but the craftsmanship of the clasped hands is astonishingly detailed. Although it has been polished, the band has the knicks and dents characteristic of gold worn daily for many years. Who was she, the woman whose ring this used to be?
Has Jon ever been engaged? Sansa cannot breathe for a moment; she has to put a hand at her waist and force air into her lungs. God, but Sansa is an idiot. Jon is a man grown and has been for a number of years. Sansa does not come to this marriage a virgin; it is absurd to think that Jon would. Even if there had been another woman who had worn this ring, given to her as a symbol of Jon’s devotion, it is no longer hers--it is Sansa who now wears it. And if Sansa is unsure as to whether the ring speaks of Jon’s love or instead his devotion to duty, she has no one to blame but herself. The time for marrying for love has passed. Physical attraction and desperation will have to do.
“Why are you such a fool?” Sansa asks herself in a furious whisper.
“Sansa!” Rickon hollers. “Arya’s going to eat all of the ham!”
Sansa closes her eyes, counts to ten, and stills her breathing. She presses her hands flat against her stomach and pulls her useless, messy emotions deep inside of herself where they might be safely stored. She recalls the cooling numbness she had felt earlier that morning as she had recited her vows and she lets it wash over her again, and then she joins Jon and her siblings at luncheon.
Most of the sandwiches have been demolished and Jon is distributing biscuits to Arya and Rickon when Sansa announces, “Jon and I have some news.” They are sitting on blankets under the shade of a beautiful old oak; although Sansa is out of the direct sunlight, she feels rather light-headed, sunsick. She hasn’t managed more than a few mouthfuls of lemonade.
Rickon stuffs a biscuit into his mouth and says, “Whazzit?” in a spray of crumbs.
Arya says nothing. As she accepts a biscuit and bites it in half with a loud crack, her eyes, gleaming, drop to Sansa’s hands where they are folded in her lap.
“Sansa has agreed to marry me,” Jon says steadily.
“Has agreed to?” Arya parrots, lifting an eyebrow at Jon. She does not look like she’s going to leap at Sansa and claw her eyes out for having the temerity to marry Jon, which Sansa had not necessarily thought to be incredibly likely but had seemed a possibility in her own feverish imagination.
“Jon and I were married this morning,” Sansa says and Arya, with a deeply self-satisfied grin, pops the second half of her biscuit into her mouth and leans back to prop her weight on her hands. Sansa is alarmed that Arya does not appear surprised by the news of their marriage.
Rickon says, “Will you have a party? Will there be cake?”
“This is the party,” Sansa tells him, distracted from Arya for a moment. “We’re having biscuits.”
Rickon looks comically disappointed. “Arya told me there would be cake,” he says. “Arya, you said there would be marzipan animals and loads of icing!”
Arya adopts an expression of extremely unconvincing innocence. “I don’t know what he’s talking about,” she says.
“Arya, what the hell--” Jon says, looking bewildered.
“Oh, come on.” Arya drops the act, blowing out a heaving breath and rolling her eyes. “I am sorry if you’re expecting me to act like this is some massive surprise.” She widens her eyes at them and says, “ Married , you say? Sansa, fetch my salts. As if you haven’t been making eyes at each other since we got to London. It’s sickening. To be honest, you”--this to Sansa--”are wretchedly cold and you”--to Jon--”are wretchedly shy, so I thought it would take ages to get this far.”
“We were helping,” Rickon adds.
“Oh?” Sansa says. She literally cannot think of anything else to say.
“ Were you ,” Jon says, in a low voice. “Spontaneous musical evenings, for example?”
“We all knew Sansa would fall in love with the first man who sang The Braes of Balquhuidder with her,” Arya says. She leans forward and snags another biscuit with her fore and middle fingers. “Are you telling me that you didn’t want it to be you she was doing the falling over? Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t want any details, mind, but it was clear as day that you’d take ages to get here on your own.”
Sansa, feeling so lightheaded that she’s faintly surprised she’s still conscious, lifts a hand and presses the back of it to her cheek. It confirms that she’s incredibly warm, putting out heat at such a prodigious rate that her whole face must be the color of her hair. She can’t quite tell if she’s embarrassed or furious. Perhaps both.
“Arya, it’s rude to match-make,” she says. Her voice sounds level to her own ears.
Arya says, “That might be the most hypocritical thing I’ve ever heard you say, and you’ve delivered some real whoppers. Is that Aunt Lyanna’s ring?” This last bit is asked of Jon. He’s a figure just on the periphery of Sansa’s field of vision. She can’t force herself to look at him. She’s too worried she’s going to burst into flames.
“Yes,” Jon says.
Arya says, “Thought I recognized it. Are you moving in?”
“We have not discussed it,” Jon says.
“What, you’re going to move Sansa into your sad little bachelor flat?” Arya barks out a laugh.
“Oh yes, Jon, please come and live with us again,” Rickon urges. “Although we can’t have fruitcake for tea all the time, I absolutely forbid it.”
“I will discuss the matter with your sister,” Jon says with a thread of fine steel and Rickon and Arya both look abashed. It’s only for a few seconds, but it’s enough to jolt Sansa out of her terrified paralysis. She can turn her head now, enough to look at Jon, and he’s glaring across the picnic blanket at Rickon and Arya, those self-satisfied little demons. His hair is slicked back, so Sansa can see his ears. They’re as red as Sansa’s face must surely be.
There is a spot of coolness against her cheek; Sansa realizes after a protracted minute that it is her ring. Aunt Lyanna’s ring . The little knot of clasped hands is pressing into her flesh. She is still holding her hand to her cheek, because she’s gone hot from the top of her head to the bottoms of her feet. She must look an absolute fright, because when Jon glances at her, he does a swift double-take. The dour, remote man of this morning is gone; Jon looks annoyed, frustrated, and, when he moves his eyes across Sansa’s face, she can see deep in his eyes the man who had told her that he would give her the children she has always craved. Oh, Jon . Will she ever be able to look at him without Joffrey’s ghost between them?
But she must. She made vows to him that she has every intention of upholding.
“Yes,” Sansa says. She can hear that her voice has gone soft. “Yes, Jon will come and live with us.”
Somehow they are in the library--Sansa had said something about needing to discuss a few practical matters, Jon had agreed in his deep voice, and Arya had loudly complained about newlyweds while dragging Rickon back to his lessons--and Sansa has only just shut the door behind herself when Jon turns to her and pulls her into his arms. He kisses her with such fierceness that Sansa’s breath completely leaves her body and she digs her fingers into his shoulders, clinging to him so her knees don’t do something totally embarrassing like collapse.
Jon pulls back and frames her face between his palms. He stares at her, moving his eyes over his face, and asks, “What happened this morning?”
“I’m so sorry,” Sansa says.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “Did I do something? I was so nervous.”
“I had a wretched dream,” Sansa says. “Oh, Jon, it’s all too jumbled. I cannot always escape the memory of him. I know that you aren’t of the same mold, but I have to remind myself of it sometimes. I am sorry.”
“Do not be,” he says tightly. “But you must--surely, Sansa, you must know that I would never let you come to harm, by my hand or any other.”
Sansa cups his hand with her own, closing her eyes for a moment to feel the texture of his hand, the springy hair against her palm, his calloused fingertips on her cheek. Joffrey’s hands had been so soft; Sansa had only felt them for the pressure in his grip. She strokes the back of Jon’s hand and thinks, His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.
“You have made a rather poor trade, Jon,” she tells him, slowly opening her eyes. “A golden ring for a woman who is distrustful and deceitful by nature.”
“Don’t speak so poorly of my wife,” Jon rasps.
“Jon,” Sansa says, in a low moan, and he reels her back in and moves his mouth over hers, drinking her down in long sips. He releases her face to move his hands down, around her waist, tugging her body in against his. He is so prodigiously warm that Sansa can feel herself begin to sweat, in a rather unladylike way, but she cannot find it in herself to care enough to pull away.
There is a knock at the door behind Sansa and they startle apart, moving so swiftly that there are four or five full paces between them within half a second. Sansa croaks, “Yes, enter,” and Cassel opens the door.
“My lady,” he says. “Mr. Baelish has asked to speak with you.”
Sansa, chest heaving, does not immediately have the breath to answer. Of all the men--of all the times --that wretch --
“Yes, show him in,” Jon says into this silence. His voice is like ice; Sansa can tell that he is furious.
“Jon,” she says, meaning to warn him, and he says to her, voice urgent, the chill dropped suddenly from his expression, “Sansa, let me do this.” She has mussed his hair; he looks like he had as a young man, home from Cambridge for the summer. It reminds her of a time when Sansa had trusted others to take care of her. “If you won’t let me kill him, at least let me--do this.”
My wife , Jon had called her, moments ago, and he had made the word sound so very precious to him. Sansa had not realized how much Jon longed for a family, and how important it would of course be to him to protect his family once he had it. This man is Sansa’s husband; he has vowed to take on her burdens as his own.
“Cassel,” she says, not looking away from Jon, “please show in Mr. Baelish.”
Jon’s eyes gleam with satisfaction. “If you would be so kind,” he says to Sansa, offering her his hand and guiding her to one of the chairs by the empty fireplace. It is the one he himself had occupied when Lord Stormsend had come to offer for Arya. He positions Sansa in her seat and then stands a little in front of it. She expects for a moment that he will adopt a rigid military posture, but he relaxes into a near slouch and props a shoulder against the mantle above the fireplace. He looks at home like this.
“Mr. Baelish,” Cassel announces and Baelish sweeps through the door, a small, intimate smile affixed to his face.
“My dear,” he begins, and then he sees Jon and his expression is wiped clean.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Baelish,” Sansa says into the ensuing silence.
“Yes,” Baelish says. “Good afternoon, Lady Sansa. Targaryen.”
“Baelish,” Jon replies coldly.
Baelish’s eyes flick between Jon and Sansa swiftly. “I have come to extend an invitation to the opera this evening, Lady Sansa,” he finally says. “It is to be Artaxerxes at Drury Lane. I know Arne to be a particular favorite of yours.” He adds, dismissively, “Of course, if you find yourself at loose ends you must also come, Targaryen.”
Sansa would not consider herself particularly fond of Arne, but she does not find him tiresome. That said, she derives an almost absurd amount of pleasure in replying, “Thank you, Mr. Baelish, but I am previously engaged for the evening.”
Baelish’s mouth folds into a thin line. “Indeed?” he says. “I suppose I must learn to tender my invitations with more advanced notice. Perhaps an evening next week would be more suitable?”
“I am afraid I cannot recall where we might be engaged next week,” Sansa tells him.
“‘We’?” Baelish replies tightly.
There is a brief, uncomfortable pause that Sansa has the absurd impulse to fill with laughter. Instead, Jon says, very chilly, “Baelish, you will have to be the first to congratulate Lady Targaryen and myself. We were married this morning.”
Baelish’s face drains of blood, becoming a ghoulish white color. “Indeed?” he says evenly. “I must have missed the announcement of your engagement.”
Of all the possible emotions Sansa could feel in this moment, it is perhaps absurd that relief is the strongest. But it is, as it is clear that Baelish had not seen the truth in Sansa after all. He had never been aware of her true feelings for Jon. She has beaten him at his own game quite thoroughly.
“Lady Targaryen agreed to marry me by special license,” Jon says. His voice is a deep, cold thing; it inspires a long, slow shudder down Sansa’s spine. She has to fight to keep herself still, although her fingers spasm in her lap.
“Well,” Baelish says. “My congratulations, then.” He looks as though the words sicken him. “Couldn’t wait, could you?” He adds, nearly spitting, “Young love and all that.”
“We did not wish to take attention away from Arya’s wedding,” Sansa says. “It is rather unseemly for a confirmed spinster to make much ado over her wedding, is it not? That is the purview of debutantes.”
“Surely every lady deserves the wedding of her dreams,” Baelish says. “No matter how old she is or whom she marries.” There is a rather obvious emphasis on whom that makes his opinion on Jon’s suitability patently clear. It is unsubtle, for Baelish. He must be absolutely furious.
“The rest of my life will be devoted to meeting Lady Targaryen’s every desire,” Jon says. He is speaking with uncommonly precise diction, as though to ensure Baelish can understand every word. He reminds Sansa of no one so much in this moment as her mother, chilly and irreproachable. “I have gladly taken her burdens as my own.” His eyes glitter harshly from underneath his brows. “It is the least I may do, as I have asked her to join a family that can only count two amongst its numbers.”
The other being, of course, his aunt. The Queen. Baelish blanches further at this reminder.
“Three,” Sansa says.
Jon’s eyes move to her and they drag up from her stomach to her forehead in a long, possessive stare. Sansa can feel goosebumps erupt along her arms. “For now,” he says.
Under literally any other circumstances, in front of any other audience, Sansa would be furious. But she has given him permission to deal with Baelish as he sees fit and she can tell from the white, hard cast of Baelish’s face that this has dealt him a tremendous blow. Undoubtedly he will react eventually with some new scheme, but Sansa cannot live her whole life in terror of his machinations. Jon has given her hope for a future. She does not wish to let Baelish poison it.
“Thank you for the invitation, Mr. Baelish,” Sansa says. She does not look away from Jon immediately; she finds his gaze an impossible weight to shake. She feels it deep in her bones.
“Lady Sansa,” Baelish replies. He sketches her a bow, turns on his heel, and departs without another word.
The door has only just shut behind him when Jon says, “He will continue to plague us.”
“Yes,” Sansa says absently. “I know.” She feels as though her body is melting into the armchair, her bones liquifying underneath her skin. Had she ever felt this way with Joffrey, in the days at Storm Abbey before she had realized the truth of his character? It seems unlikely; Sansa had been a child then, with a child’s romantic dreams. She is a woman now. She desires Jon the way a woman desires her husband. The thought of taking him into her body does not make her seize up with terror, and this realization--of her freedom--is so intoxicating that Sansa is grateful to be seated. Her knees do not feel up to the task of standing.
“Must we speak of him?” she asks, and Jon bites out, “No,” immediately, pushing away from the mantle and crossing the space between them in two long strides. “Tell me if it is too much,” he says, plunging his hands into her hair and yanking her body up to meet his. Their teeth click together when they kiss, Jon’s harsh breaths puffing against Sansa’s open mouth. It feels for long, endless minutes as though they share one set of lungs and must breathe together.
“Sansa,” Jon murmurs, “my wife,” and something else, too low for Sansa to make out the words. She feels feverish and shivers in his arms, shaking so hard that after a moment Jon pulls away. He looks dazed as he says, “Are you well?”
“Yes,” Sansa moans. “Kiss me again, Jon,” and he does, closing his arms around her and pulling her close. For all their layers of clothes between them, it feels to Sansa that this is their first true moment of physical intimacy. It is here that their wedding night begins: this fully-clothed embrace in the library at three in the afternoon, Sansa’s belly pressed so firmly to Jon’s that she can feel the individual buttons on his waistcoat.
Jon drags his mouth away from hers to kiss her chin, then up the line of her jaw to behind her ear. When he licks her there, open-mouthed against her skin, she does actually stumble for a moment, knees gone to jelly. Jon catches her before she has a chance to go far. “Sansa, I’m going to--we can’t--” he pants, his hands running up her back, urging her spine to curve so that he can kiss her clavicle and then the tops of her breasts just barely exposed by the neckline of her dress.
“Yes,” Sansa answers, barely conscious of what she is saying, “we can, Jon, you married me this morning--please, Jon,” and her breasts are so heavy that she feels a curious sense of relief when Jon lifts them with his hands, pressing open-mouthed kisses harder and harder until they turn to licks.
They get to the floor, somehow, although Sansa does not really pay much attention--the benefits of marrying so physical a specimen, perhaps, include an unexpectedly dextrous lovemaking experience--and Sansa is on top of Jon’s long, hot body, curled down to kiss him as he wriggles his hand under her petticoats and drawers to find the place where she has gone soft, liquid, open. Sansa has never been this wet before. Jon lets out a harsh groan when he feels her, his fingers pressing against her cunt and scraping for a moment before they find her clitoris. “ Fuck , Sansa,” he says.
Together, they manage the placket on his breeches and buttons of his waistcoat. Sansa is distracted from her attempts to yank Jon’s shirt up out of the way by how soft Jon’s mouth feels against her cheek, how the drag of his beard leaves her tingling, aching, desperate for soothing. His cock is so very hot against her hand, wet at the tip, and he goes very quiet as she uses her hand to guide him towards her cunt.
It pinches to take him inside, but not too terribly. Sansa lets out a long, low breath and sits up, letting gravity help them, closing her eyes so she can focus on relaxing her inner muscles. When she is fully seated on him, she opens her eyes and looks down to see him staring up at her, mouth slightly parted, hands on her hips to hold her in place.
“God, Sansa,” he says, and he lifts her up, somehow managing it with just a grip on her hips, and then he jerks her back down, arching his back so he is rising to meet her, and the friction of it against her clitoris is so good that Sansa sees actual sparks, her vision going spotty for a moment. Sansa puts her hands on his chest to brace herself and rolls her hips, feeling the wet drag of him moving out and then deeper inside. It feels as though she was made to be filled by him in this specific way and never before could recognize her aching as the absence of it.
Time spools out so gently and kindly for them, as they couple together on the floor of the library. Jon tells Sansa, increasingly frantic, how beautiful she is, how he cannot believe she’s married him, how happy he will make her if only she lets him try--and when he finally comes, spilling inside of her, he pants harshly and says, “Sansa, my wife ,” like it is something of which he is in awe. He clutches her to him and kisses her neck, her chin, her mouth, and Sansa feels the aftershocks like his heart is throbbing between her legs.
My thanks to everyone who commented on the previous chapter, you are all wonderful readers & pals. I am under the weather at the moment but I wanted to get this chapter (final other than the epilogue!) to your eyeballs.
Jon stays the night at Stark House, although he and Sansa take their supper on trays and do not join Arya and Rickon down in the dining room. Jeyne does not come to wake Sansa, as is her wont, and so they sleep quite late and Sansa wakes long after she should have left for breakfast and croquet with the Marbrands. Jon says, “Do you have any very important business today?” but as he is sliding down her body, lifting her nightgown up over her hips, and Sansa’s brain has gone absolutely liquid. “ No ,” she gasps, although she cannot even recall the date.
By afternoon, though, she has mustered her senses. “It’s the Casterly ball tonight,” she tells Jon.
“Your attendance matters?” Jon says, bemused.
“I am fond of the new Lady Casterly, astonishingly enough,” Sansa says. “She and Lord Casterly had an arranged marriage in infancy that neither enjoyed the prospect of but fell quite unfashionably in love when they met--oh, but you have been on the Continent and missed it. It was right after Lord Casterly’s duel, when he lost his hand. Everyone thought he had slunk back to the Rock to lick his wounds and die in peace but he returned within the year with his lady. She is a very lovely person, Jon. So very honorable and kind.”
Jon agrees to escort Sansa and Arya to the Casterly ball, looking resigned to it, and so after they have had luncheon together--on trays, because Jon so thoroughly ravishes Sansa when she tries to put on a dress to go downstairs that she needs a bath before being seen by another person--Jon takes his leave to return to his bachelor lodgings to bathe and dress.
“Have your man pack up your things and send them here,” Sansa says as Jon takes his leave with his hand around the back of her neck and his lips on her brow. “Unless you have very much you will need to see to, to close up your lodgings?”
“No,” Jon says quietly. “Shouldn’t take him more than the afternoon.”
“You ought to take some of the footmen if you think he might need assistance,” Sansa says. She lets Jon draw away a few inches before sneaking in one final kiss. Jon’s face, which had already begun to settle into its habitual remote cast, softens a little. When Sansa brushes her cheek against his, she feels the delicious scrape of his beard. It has left her covered in red marks, from tip to toe, and she savors those little aches the way she savors her cello calluses--marks of hard work, to be savoured.
“Thank you, Sansa,” Jon murmurs, and then he is gone.
Sansa wears a bright green dress for the Casterly ball that night. It is a color that is too daring for an unmarried lady under most circumstances but she had thought she might get away with wearing it to Vauxhall Gardens, with its infamously dim lamps. She had fallen in love with the fabric at Madame Cormier’s and allowed herself to be talked into the creation of an evening gown with it--”How ravishing mademoiselle will look in such a dress with the Tully stones,” Madame Cormier had said, in her extremely beautiful and utterly false French accent--and she finds herself now deeply grateful for this impulsive purchase. She wears it with her mother’s sapphires and dresses her hair in a loose, luxurious pile of curls on top of her head. A certain amount of scandal accompanies a wedding by special license and Sansa can weather it by either a palpable aura of incorruptible virginity or making it rather apparent that she and Jon have a love match that couldn’t bear the endless weeks of waiting for the banns to be read.
She chooses the latter, of course. It is the truth, in a way. She is tired of playing the innocent. Besides, Arya had asked to borrow her seed pearls, her only virginal jewelry.
Jon’s gaze is very warm against the exposed nape of Sansa’s neck as they wait in the receiving line. Sansa waves her fan under her chin and looks away, idly perusing the waiting crowd for Aunt Lysa--as good an indicator as any that Baelish might be attending--and she feels that now-familiar delicious clench of the muscles in her stomach when Jon’s hand brushes against the small of her back, shifting her out of the way of a passing ground of rowdy bucks. Sansa feels a twinge of soreness every time she shifts her weight.
“Lady Sansa, good to see you,” Lady Casterly says with genuine kindness when they have come to the front of the receiving line, taking Sansa’s hand between her palms. She and her husband are two of the few members of the Ton who are taller than Sansa and they look at a distance like a pair of glittering golden statues. Lady Casterly is not a beauty but she wears the adoration of her husband like cloth of gold.
“Lady Casterly, may I present you to my husband, Lord Targaryen? I don’t believe you have made his acquaintance,” Sansa says, after she has taken Lady Casterly’s hand.
“Lord Targaryen,” Lady Casterly says, and her husband says, drily, “Husband, is it? The ink can’t have dried very long ago on that,” as he shakes Jon’s hand--with his left, of course, the right being his customary hook.
“Yesterday,” Sansa says.
Lord Casterly’s eyebrow inches up into his forehead. “Indeed?” he says. “How very inspired of you both.” He says this in a teasing, languid way that could almost make it an insult, but there is a spark of humor deep in his eyes.
“Congratulations, Lady Targaryen,” Lady Casterly says warmly. She elbows Lord Casterly in the side and he adds, not quite sincerely, “Oh, yes, felicitations and all that. You too, my dear,” this last said to Arya, hovering behind Jon and looking deeply bored.
“Thank you,” Arya says, barely gracious.
Lord Casterly gives Arya a thorough looking-over that does not strike Sansa as being lecherous in any sense. It is clear that he is curious about the debutante brave--or perhaps, in his opinion, foolish--enough to take on his sister’s infamous temper. “How does this evening find you, Lady Arya?” he asks. “All the delights of our house are open to you, et cetera.”
“Hmm,” Arya says, cottoning on to something in his expression. “Fine enough, I suppose. Heard you got Tempestuous Off the Heath for a song last month.”
“I did,” Lord Casterly says easily. “A few hands too high for you, I think.”
“Sure your jockey doesn’t think so,” Arya replies.
“Sansa,” Lady Casterly says quietly, while her husband twitches an amused look at Arya and continues to exchange barbs, “you ought to know that Lady Stormsend is attending this evening.”
“Yes, I had expected she would be,” Sansa replies in a soft undertone. She and Jeyne had discussed the possibility while Jeyne had dressed Sansa’s hair and they had decided in the end that it would be safer for Jeyne not to attend the Casterley ball. Placing in her orbit three subjects of Cersei Baratheon’s ire--women who had had the temerity to refuse to marry her son, accuse him of ungentlemanly conduct, and would one day produce a child who will inherit his title--had seemed too much of a risk in the end. “Thank you, my lady.”
“Please,” Lady Casterly says, “it is Brienne.”
Sansa says, “Brienne, then,” and receives a smile of shy warmth and crooked white teeth. “We won’t keep you.” She ushers Arya and Jon out of the front hall into the ballroom, which is already packed to the gills with debutantes in pastels and rakes in jewel tones and everyone else in-between; the Casterly ball attracts attendees from all strata of the Ton, equally known for its fine card tables as its unique political opportunities, as Lord Casterly had attended Christ Church with the Prime Minister. Some clusters of people notice Sansa’s dress right away; she sees their heads swivel towards her and then away and their faces go gleeful with the potential for gossip. There are enough people here that, were she feeling particularly lazy, Sansa could not bother writing to the Times to make an announcement. After tonight, everyone will know.
“What was that Lady Casterly said to you?” Jon asks as they make their way down the staircase descending into the ballroom.
“Cersei Baratheon is here tonight,” Sansa replies in a swift whisper. “We’ll need to keep an eye on Arya, just in case.” And then, louder, brighter, “Oh, Lady Corbray!”
“Sansa, my dear, how does this evening find you?” Lady Corbray inquires brightly. She does not wait for Sansa to answer before adding, “And in such a magnificent dress!”
There is only more of the same after Lady Corbray. The green dress has done its duty and advertised that Sansa is no longer an unmarried lady of restrained tastes, and she fields catty congratulations and sharp barbs for what feels like a full hour until the receiving line is done and Lord and Lady Casterly open up the dancing. There is to be a waltz--this announcement is received with an audible increase in pitch amongst the attendees--and Jon silently writes his name on Sansa’s dance card for it, along with the supper minuet.
“Where do you need me?” he asks her in a lull between waves of gossips. Sansa recalls the feeling of pure tenderness that had swept over her the first time he had asked her this--his trust in her skill had felt like a gift--and it is tempered now by the realization that Jon only really knows how to be a service as a soldier, as someone given orders who then follows them.
“Stay with me,” Sansa says, impulsively, and a little foolishly, for she is already engaged for half of the sets. But Jon’s eyes come to rest on her face after she says it and they look as though a tightness in them loosens, a little. He lifts her hand to his mouth and kisses the back of it.
“As my lady commands,” he says quietly.
Arya is approached and then swallowed up by a passel of her friends--the younger Mormonts and Martells, Jon Blackmont, his ilk--and Sansa is collected by Sir Simon for a dance. She sees Lord Casterly approach Jon as she is borne off to the dancefloor and what conversation passes between them appears, if not easy, at least civil. Sir Simon offers Sansa his sincere congratulations on her nuptials and they have a pleasant half hour conversing about Twelfth Night and the recent Royal Exhibition before he returns her to Jon, now in conversation with the Duke of Wellington.
It takes Sansa almost until supper to realize that, although her feet ache from dancing, her characteristic headache is completely absent. At first she thinks that it is the pleasant lighting in the Casterly ballroom, but of course she realizes quite swiftly how unlikely an explanation that is. It isn’t until she has almost finished her usual seated set with Willas Tyrell--joined this evening by Jon, who had not been quite so pleasant in greeting Willas as he had Sir Simon--when she realizes that it is because she is actually quite happy. She does not have to draw upon deep reserves to fake her cheerfulness.
Willas Tyrell finishes his tale of youthful misadventure with good humor, smiling at Sansa when she laughs. How many times has she falsified her laughter, even with people like Willas, whose company she can genuinely enjoy? Too many to count, undoubtedly.
Without conscious thought, Sansa finds herself lifting her hand to place it against Jon’s, curled around her shoulder with his thumb resting against the back of her neck. He stands behind her while she shares a settee with Willas Tyrell. Jon’s hand had come to rest on her shoulder very early in the conversation, after some seemingly casual observation about the rather lax bonds of matrimony enjoyed by most of the Ton, and Sansa had felt his touch like a bolt of lightning down her spine. Willas Tyrell’s smile had gone decidedly rueful then, and he had turned the conversation rather tactfully to stories from childhood.
“I believe this is my dance,” Jon says to Sansa. “The supper minuet.”
“Already?” Sansa says to him, turning so she can lift her smiling face up to him. “I suppose the wait has been interminable to you.”
“Hardly,” Jon replies softly.
They have a long moment of silence, gazing upon one another like actual lovesick fools, before Willas Tyrell clears his throat and Sansa, blushing, turns back to him. “Thank you for your company, Lady Sansa. Forgive me, Lady Targaryen,” Willas says.
“There is nothing to forgive, Lord Gardener,” Sansa assures him. She senses no real malice in him, or indeed any real regret. Men are always covetous of attention, but she suspects Willas Tyrell will forget his affection for her soon enough. “As always, thank you for a lovely half-hour of company.”
Jon helps Sansa to her feet and then tucks her hand into the crook of his elbow. “I didn’t realize,” he says as they step away, and then he stops speaking.
“Realize what?” Sansa prompts.
“I had thought you to be alone,” he says hesitantly. “I thought you might need my help, as you would be without Lady Catelyn. When Theon wrote and said you were bringing Arya to London to make her debut, I thought you would need allies. But you had them already.”
Sansa feels a rush of tenderness so acute that she almost sways on her feet. How wonderfully foolish Jon is. How deeply she adores him.
“You were the only one to tell me of Baelish’s wager,” Sansa tells him. “They aren’t allies, Jon.” She lowers her voice and tucks herself closely into his side, pretending it is so they might make their way through the crowd more easily. “They are spectators. Many of them are outright vultures. I’m so happy that we can leave and not come back until Rickon’s of age. Maybe not even then--he’s awfully fond of Alysane’s eldest.”
“Doesn’t he keep biting her?” Jon murmurs back.
“It is, unfortunately, a mutual tendency,” Sansa tells him, and Jon hides a grin; Sansa catches a glimpse of it, twitching at the corner of his mouth, before he tucks it away. “I suspect it may blossom into affection, given time. But even if it does not, I am willing to return to Winterfell and give them all the time they might need to nurture their fledgling relationship. Such as, say, fifteen years.”
After a moment’s thought, she says, “Oh, perhaps we might not live in Winterfell?” She keeps the inquiry light, unconcerned, but she feels a spike of anxiety.
“I rather thought we would,” Jon admits, and Sansa beams at him then, because she cannot stop herself. “We will have to spend some of the year at Dragonstone. My aunt has been after me about my responsibilities for a while.”
“Jon, she is your monarch ,” Sansa says.
“If she wanted the manor at Dragonstone so thoroughly looked after, she shouldn’t have given it to me,” Jon replies, and then he pulls up, stopping so abruptly that Sansa almost trips on the hem of her gown and has to clutch his elbow to keep from some sort of ungainly display.
She sees why he’s stopped immediately. Cersei Barathon is planted directly in their path, a few dozen steps from the dancefloor, dressed entirely in red and dripping with rubies. She is holding her omnipresent glass of wine and has an amused smirk curling up the corner of her mouth. Her hair positively shines in the lamplight; she is a woman made to be the center of attention in ballrooms.
“Lady Stormsend,” Sansa says through numb lips. She can feel her smile begin to falter and has to work quickly to shore it up. “How does this evening find you?”
“But really, one must ask, how does it find you , my dear,” Cersei replies.
“Very well, thank you,” Sansa says.
“I am glad to hear it, of course, but you will have to forgive my shock,” Cersei tells her, “as when I heard the news I thought that surely the bearer of it was mistaken. I had rather understood you not to be the marrying kind.” She speaks in a clear voice that cuts through the conversation around them, sending it stuttering into silence.
“Oh?” Sansa says calmly. She tightens her grip on Jon’s elbow, warning him to keep silent.
“Oh, yes,” Cersei says. “Why else would someone break off an engagement after having given every appearance of being desperately in love?” She takes a sip of wine and swallows, luxuriating in the attention, her eyes fixed on Sansa’s face. “I had taken it as a mark of a rather admirable character, that you had set yourself against marriage. Some may have called you a tease, but I always defended you, you know. Lady Sansa knows her mind, I said. You have to respect that in the young.”
Someone chokes off a high-pitched giggle.
“How kind of you, my lady,” Sansa replies with no inflection.
“Little did I know, a tendre had been lurking there in your heart the whole time,” Cersei continues, lifting her eyebrows and toasting Jon with a brief tilt of her wine glass. “Ah, childhood sweethearts. Who could stand in the way of such affection?”
There is a malicious glint in her eyes, now. The next sentence out of her mouth is going to feature the word brother , Sansa knows it. The only option is to go on the attack--something about Lady Baratheon’s infamously close relationship with her brother? He had after all lost a hand in a duel over her.
Sansa has only just opened her mouth when there’s a loud rustling noise as Arya elbows past a pair of scandalized dandies to flank Sansa’s other side. “Oh, that’s laughable,” Arya interrupts loudly. “Sansa and Jon couldn’t stand each other as children.”
Cersei’s eyes go glacial. “Indeed? How intriguing.”
“You know how children are,” Arya says. “They’re always being petty about stupid things.” Arya is so much tinier than Cersei Baratheon, who shares her twin’s height, but she has a fierce presence. Sansa is surprised by how calm she appears; haughty, almost. Her chin is fixed very high.
“What a positively fascinating idea,” Cersei says flatly. Her eyes have narrowed; she can tell that Arya is taking this somewhere, but she can’t quite intuit in which direction. Sansa feels a little hysterical. She is clutching Jon’s elbow so tightly that she is probably going to leave bruises.
“But of course you know what children are like,” Arya points out. “After all, you raised three of them.” She doesn’t quite manage a polite tone of voice; she sounds instead quite threatening.
Cersei stares down at Arya, her knuckles going white on the stem of her glass. “Yes,” she says in a lethal hiss. “The dearest parts of my heart.”
“Aren’t they always?” Arya says dismissively, and this time someone doesn’t actually manage to choke off their giggle and it echoes rather alarmingly in their pocket of silence. A few dancers whirl by behind Cersei but Sansa can barely hear the orchestra directing them. “Where are they, by the way? Haven’t seen much of Joffrey--that is, Lord Joffrey.”
“Business has kept my son away from London,” Cersei replies coldly.
“Oh, that’s a shame,” Arya says cheerfully. She pauses, as though suddenly struck by a thought, and then she adopts an almost comical look of helpfulness and says, “If he needs assistance, I’m sure Lord Stormsend would be happy to sort him out.”
“ It out,” Sansa corrects her, strangled.
“Right,” Arya says. “Sort the whole--” she lets the pause drag on, past the point of subtlety, until it’s become horribly rude “-- business out.”
There’s a few snickers from their audience, choked back into obnoxiously faux sneezes and coughs. It’s a reminder that actually very few people like Cersei Baratheon; most of her purported allies are too opportunistic for true loyalty.
Cersei looks like she’s contemplating the fastest way to remove Arya’s head from her shoulders and is opening her mouth to begin the process when Lord Casterly cuts through the nearest clump of scandalized matrons and announces, “Supper’s being served. Cersei, come, Liverpool’s asked to share your table for the meal and I promised him your company.”
“How lovely to see you again, Lady Stormsend,” Sansa says mechanically, because she doesn’t know how else to end this horrifying encounter.
Cersei says nothing; she flicks a dismissive glance at Sansa and then tosses back the rest of her wine and turns on her heel to join her brother. Arya receives no acknowledgement and appears in fine spirits about it.
“That was a bit chilling,” she says to Sansa and Jon as the silence around them fills with excited chattering. Everyone in London is going to know about this by tomorrow morning , Sansa realizes.
Sansa affixes a sulky look to her face and says, low, “Not here,” and then, more loudly, “How rude you were! Trapping us in conversation so that Jon and I missed our minuet. You know how I adore the minuet, sister.”
“You’re always telling me I need to engage in more polite conversation,” Arya retorts. “You can’t tell me to be polite one minute and then be telling me off for it the next.”
Sansa rolls her eyes and clutches Jon’s arm with both hands, leaning against him with exaggerated weariness. “Husband, there is no talking sense to this girl. Take me to supper so I might fortify myself. Arya, come, I’ve lost sight of your supper dance partner so you’ll have to dine with us.”
They move off towards the supper room with the rest of the guests, Sansa complaining about her missed minuet and flirting outrageously with Jon, batting her eyelashes like she’s going to take the stage as Olivia in Twelfth Night , Arya pretending to be irritable, Jon looking reserved but not too terribly uncomfortable. By the time they find a table set for three in the supper room, the people around them have stopped eavesdropping and Sansa can put off her playacting for a little bit. The tables in the supper room have been set in amongst enormous potted rose bushes and although the scent is overwhelming, Sansa is grateful for a few moments of privacy.
Jon settles Arya and Sansa in their chairs. He touches Sansa’s cheek with the tips of his fingers; this intimacy, borderline scandalous, is hidden from the rest of the room by his broad frame. “Can I get you something?” he asks her very softly.
“Yes, something for Arya to eat, please,” Sansa says quietly. “Will you make a point to speak a little with Lord Casterly? Better not to let this whole business ferment and become some kind of horrid feud between our families.”
“You might be asking too much of me, Lady Targaryen,” Jon says, with a very brief grin that disappears into his beard.
“Oh, I very much doubt it, Lord Targaryen,” Sansa replies, smiling back up at him without conscious intention.
After Jon has gone off to the buffet tables, Sansa waits until she is sure that they’re not being overheard and then she whispers to Arya, “What on Earth possessed you?”
“We both know where she was going,” Arya replies. She doesn’t bother to look anything other than what she is: which is to say, smug. “I headed her off before she could get it out. No doubt she’ll be after me now but she was always going to be, wasn’t she? After what Gendry told me.”
“After Gendry told you what?” Sansa says sharply.
The smug expression slides off of Arya’s face and is replaced by a rather more serious one. Sansa realizes with a chill that Arya knows , somehow. Gendry Baratheon had not struck her as a man who betrayed confidences, but perhaps he had not realized it was one. Or, perhaps, Arya had figured it out herself, the same way she had somehow been able to ferret out the truth of Jon and Sansa’s feelings for one another. How appallingly insightful Arya is proving to be in her grown womanhood.
Not here , Sansa begs with her eyes, and after a moment Arya jerks her chin in a quick nod.
“She’s horrible to everyone,” Arya answers finally. “Apparently Gendry’s had to almost totally change over the staff at Storm Abbey. He says they’re so petrified of her that they can’t function properly.”
“You have your work cut out for you there,” Sansa points out, lifting her eyebrows.
“I’m up to it!” Arya retorts, straightening in outrage. “I sat through Mother’s lessons, same as you.”
“Did you?” Sansa replies. “I rather recall you sleeping through most of them--” and then she laughs at the offended look on Arya’s face. After a long moment, Arya relaxes enough to laugh as well. If she had actually listened to half of their mother’s lessons on managing an aristocratic household, Sansa will eat her fan.
The two of them are still giggling when Jon returns with plates piled with various tasty delicacies as well as the fruits jellied in rosewater for which the Casterly kitchens are famous.
“All right?” he asks Sansa quietly, handing her a plate with a little pile of jellied lemons. She can’t believe he’s remembered that she adores them.
Only God himself knows how Cersei Baratheon will respond to Arya’s goading; it will no doubt be something horrible. But the terrible lump of dread in Sansa’s stomach--the one that had coalesced the moment that she had realized that Arya’s secret suitor was Gendry Baratheon of all people--feels as if it has shrunk. It is true that Arya does not know how to finely manipulate the Ton; she has no true skill in subterfuge. But she has grown into a surprisingly astute woman who has loyal allies and a thick skin.
Has anyone ever tried to bully Cersei Baratheon before? With outright threats? Sansa cannot recall; Cersei’s enemies often rely on poisonous whispers instead of direct confrontation. All Sansa can think of in this moment is the scalded look on Lady Baratheon’s face when Arya had offered to have Joffrey sorted out . How absolutely delicious.
“Yes,” Sansa says to Jon, still chasing off the last of her somewhat hysterical giggles. He is smiling at her from his eyes. Her darling, dour husband. “Yes, I do believe everything is well.”
Chapter 15: Epilogue
Dearest readers! I continue to have moderate to low levels of oxygen and enough energy to just about manage chapter-posting and not much else, but know that I am so overwhelmed by the support and affection you've all given me throughout this ~WIP journey. Thank you all so, so much.
It rains every day of their two-week journey to Winterfell. Sansa rides inside the traveling coach with Jeyne, but Arya and Jon insist on making the trip on horseback and Rickon goes most days up in front of Jon. Although they stop twice a day--once for lunch and a second time in the evening for supper, warm beds, and a change of horses--Sansa sees very little of her husband and siblings for most of the journey. She and Jeyne take turns reading aloud from Mrs. Sand’s latest novel as the other attends to her needlework. Sansa longs to be home at Winterfell so deeply that she feels the ache of it in her bones, but her heart lurches when she thinks on what awaits her once they arrive: Arya married in a month and gone to Storm Abbey and Jeyne to Sunspear Hall at the end of October.
Jeyne will not speak of any understanding she has or has not come to with Arianne. Sansa, who is still so incandescently happy with Jon that it feels like a dream from which she will soon have to wake, understands the fear that keeps Jeyne from being able to be truly, openly joyful.
It is enough to share the old Stark traveling coach and look upon Jeyne’s face, the dark circles nearly banished in entirety from under her eyes. It is enough to hear Jeyne’s warm, steady voice narrate the increasingly ridiculous situations in which Mrs. Sand’s heroine finds herself.
It is enough to think upon the future and know that, for once, Sansa will part from someone impermanently. Everyone who has left her recently has done so into death, but Jeyne and Arya will only go a distance of a few hundred miles.
They stop in Wintertown for a late luncheon, rather than push on to the castle, because Rickon’s little-boy ravenousness cannot be contained a moment longer. The rain has died down into a slow, persistent drizzle and she and Jeyne don’t have to dash into and out of the carriage like they have for the previous fortnight.
It turns out to have been particularly prescient on Rickon’s part to insist upon their stopping, because the courtyard and stables at Winterfell are flooded from the recent rains and the house is in chaos as the staff attempts to find somewhere to stick Arya’s horses until their hay can be dried. Arya spares about half a second’s look at the situation and then takes off down the road to the Mormonts’, where Alysane’s half-empty stables might be dry enough to take a few guests. Sansa has a quick consultation with Cassel the elder, butler at Winterfell for thirty years and uncle to Cassel the younger, who oversees the managing of Stark House in London. His implaccable facade, firmly affixed since Sansa was a child, is not perturbed by having to consult with his lady while standing in close to two feet of muddy water. Sansa remains in the traveling carriage as she dispenses orders.
She doesn’t see where Jon goes off to, but he comes back after Sansa has only just finished discussing how they might clear out the stables with Mr. Hullen. Jon has dispensed with his greatcoat since last she saw him and is wearing only his waistcoat and shirtsleeves. Sansa, who had until this moment considered herself to be quite good in a crisis, literally forgets the next word in her sentence. Jon’s muslin shirt has turned transparent in the rain and his hair is completely wild. Somehow it is more arousing to see the damp film of his shirt clinging to his arms than it has been to see them bare in the privacy of a bedchamber. Sansa makes a horrible croaking noise and then has to swallow.
Mr. Hullen coughs. “Aye, that’ll do,” he says, and then he scarpers off, as swiftly as a man can do in two feet of water, leaving Sansa to blink at Jon like she’s recently suffered a blow to the head.
“I’m sorry,” Jon is saying once he’s close enough to be heard. “I hadn’t realized you were still in here--come, let’s get you inside,” and he reaches up into the carriage and offers his hand.
Sansa takes it blindly and then, at the hot press of his bare hand, marshals enough sense to say, “Oh, but Jeyne--”
“Mrs. Poole, will you be all right for a moment?” Jon asks, leaning into the carriage. “I will return for you once I see Lady Targaryen safely to the house.”
“That is unnecessary, my lord,” Jeyne replies from behind Sansa.
“Have you got your cloak?” Jon asks Sansa. “There’s still a bit of rain coming down.” Sansa nods, dumbly. She says nothing as Jon squeezes her hand and then brings it around his neck so that it is resting on his shoulder, her elbow behind his head. He puts his hands under her knees and across her back and then lifts her out of the carriage into his arms. Sansa assists him in doing this by having zero control over her own limbs.
Jon takes two steps out into the courtyard and then pauses a moment to adjust his grip. This minor jostling sends an acute wave of heat from Sansa’s knees up her spine and she suddenly comes to her senses, throwing her arms around Jon’s neck and clinging to him. She can feel his pulse hammering in his neck against her fingers.
“I’m not too--” she says, and Jon says, gruffly, “No.”
The courtyard is a mess, all full of furiously bustling people, barking dogs, shouted orders, and so Sansa nestles a little closer to her husband, closing her eyes for a moment so she can savor the sensation. Sansa has always thought Jon’s little courtesies to be a mark of his fine manners, beaten into him by her mother. It has never occurred to her that they might be something precious; a private gesture of tenderness.
“Jon,” she murmurs.
“Are you cold?” he asks her softly, tightening his grip. She feels the press of his fingertips into the soft flesh of her knees. “We’re almost inside.”
“I love you,” she says, eyes squeezed shut. She has to say it; she feels as though if she does not, the words will burn their way out of her.
Jon stops walking. “Are you--” he says, and then he falls silent.
“I have loved you for so many years, Jon,” she says, like a coward, whispering into his skin without opening her eyes. “But what I thought I felt, when you were gone and I had only my memories--it is nothing to how I feel now.”
After another second, Jon starts walking again, more swiftly this time; Sansa hears the water sloshing around his legs as he carries her through the courtyard and then up five of the fourteen steps that lead to the front door of the house. He stops there, on the sixth step, and lowers Sansa to her feet. She has to open her eyes so she doesn’t fall.
He is still silent. Sansa, her arms around his neck, would look elsewhere if she could. But they are of a height, and she can look nowhere but into his eyes. They are very bright, glittering at her, that beautiful clear grey color that greets Sansa every morning when she wakes and in the evening as she falls to sleep.
“Sansa,” he says, ragged, “you have no idea how much I love you,” and then he crushes her to him, hands around her waist, and kisses her on the steps of Winterfell, in front of everyone. Perhaps they are too busy with the flood to notice; perhaps not. Sansa cannot think of them at all. She can only think of her husband and his soft, warm mouth open under hers. She will remember the shape it had made around the words I love you for the rest of her life.
They share the same air for a long moment after their kiss ends, their foreheads pressed together. I loved this man as a boy and now he is my husband , Sansa thinks, dazed. Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
“Welcome home, Jon,” she says.
“I have missed it fiercely,” he tells her, voice rough. One of his hands is cradling the back of her head; it is a warm, comforting weight.
“Yes,” she says. “But no longer. Now you are home.”