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A Song of Bastards and Wards

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His father had only been absent for a few days, yet Robb already missed him more than he could bear. No one thought of Robb as the Lord of Winterfell. Everyone continued trying to manage their duties as if his lord father had simply borrowed half of the staff for a short while. People seemed more inclined to listen to his mother than to him, which would be fine if she were in any state to give commands.

Robb only half-listened to Theon’s ramblings as he sipped his wine. He did not know what to do about his mother. He had Joanna looking after her. It seemed proper to have a lady attending her needs and setting Joanna to the task gave his sister a way to feel useful. He wanted her to have some part in all this. Until she married, she was of House Stark. Robb had no intention of making her worry about her place amongst the upheaval left in wake of the king’s visit.

Gods, thinking of marriages, was it now his duty to arrange the matches? Honestly, Robb was not entirely sure which duties were his. He knew from his studies what he had to take note of and how to handle traditional lordly responsibilities, but his father was not dead. Thank the Gods, he was merely away. Perhaps Robb would leave it up to him to find some nice squire or lowborn tradesman to wed Joanna in King’s Landing. It was an area Robb would rather not meddle in.

“So… so, I was thinkin’. About the whole fallin’ business of Bran. Now the Lann’sters are gone—“

“Theon, you need to slow down. You’ve had nearly four cups of wine in the time I’ve spent on this one and they still haven’t even brought out the meat. If you’re going to be a drunk the whole time, I won’t be listening to any of your counsel.”

His friend looked affronted, comically so. Robb knew Theon was only taking advantage of their newfound freedom from Lord Stark’s disapproval, but he did not want such drinking to become a habit. He did not want to be the lord of lazy drunks.

“Y’sound more like your mother than your father, y’know.” Theon put a hand to his mouth to hold in a belch and looked out over the small hall that they were dining in with a selection of servants, guards and remaining guests from King’s Landing. “Where’s Joanna?”

“I sent some maids to help ready her for dinner. She should be…” Robb looked up as the doors opened and his sister walked in. “There she is.”

It was amazing how little it took to transform his sister into the perfect lady. Robb was not so attuned to women’s fashions that he could pinpoint exactly what made the difference, but the Joanna Snow who walked into the hall that evening could easily be mistaken for a trueborn lady of House Stark.

“Seven hells…”

When Robb heard the whisper under Theon’s breath he looked over to his friend curiously. Theon watched Joanna’s approach like he had never seen her before. As she reached the table he lurched up out of his seat and yanked a chair out for her. The heavy wooden chair clattered and screeched against the stone, making both Joanna and Robb wince. Then Joanna frowned bemusedly at the chair, then at Theon. It was an unusual show of gentlemanly manners from him. The most chivalry that Robb had seen from him before now was when he had carried Joanna from the Great Hall on the night of the royal feast.

“Um, thank you?”

“S’alright.”

Theon dropped back down into his own chair and reached for his wine. Joanna eyed the glass then raised her eyebrow at Robb. He shrugged back at her. Tracking Theon’s drinking was not an official responsibility of the Lord of Winterfell.

“Did you have these made for me?”

His sister nodded down to her new clothes. Robb wanted to claim responsibility for her happy smile, but it would not be honest.

“Father did. He only remembered just before he went, so he asked me to make sure you got them. He must have had more important things to discuss with you.”

“He did.”

If Joanna noticed his curiosity, she had no intention of indulging him. She simply nodded, the memory making her serious. She had wanted to ride out with their father towards the kingsroad, but Robb and Theon had advised against it. Best to keep her away from the king. Theon had said something about keeping her away from the Kingslayer as well. Her goodbyes to their lord father had to be as brief as Robb’s. Unbearably brief. Who knew when he would be returning to Winterfell?

“You look very beautiful.”

Theon’s slurred compliment came out of nowhere, startling Robb and Joanna both. Robb fancied she blushed more though. Joanna’s lips parted and closed a few times, as though she did not know what to say.

“Um…”

“Maybe you should retire for the evening, Theon.”

The firmness of his voice surprised him. Perhaps he would be able to channel his father’s authority after all.

Theon tossed the dregs in his wine glass into his mouth and pushed away from the table. He rubbed a hand over his eyes and nodded.

“Yeah. Night.”

Joanna watched him stagger away from the table. Her brow furrowed with concern.

“Is he okay?”

“He’s just over-celebrating his freedom to drink to excess. He’ll calm down, I’m sure. Unless there’s more entertainment in drinking yourself sick than I realise.”

His sister’s lips twisted at the reminder of her own recent misadventures with drink. Robb still could not quite believe she had been so foolish, but was not about to say anything so harsh.

“It’s not fun. I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“I don’t plan on doing it. I’ve got Winterfell to run.”

“All grown up now,” she teased with a faint smile.

“We both are. We just need to make sure we act like it.”

Joanna’s big, storm-grey eyes blinked at him innocently. Robb could see her trying to decide if he was accusing her of bad behaviour. She was so sensitive to imagined slights. The smallest comment from Robb’s mother could send Joanna into fits of melancholy, even if it was advice meant for her own good.

Eventually she returned to cutting her dinner.

“No one could accuse you of taking your new role lightly, Robb. You’ve mastered the sombre look father always wore.”

“That’s something, I suppose. But wearing father’s furs doesn’t make me a lord any more than wearing that gown makes you a lady.”

Her fork clattered onto her plate and Joanna scooped it back up quickly. His remark had hit harder than he intended and he had not even struck with the point of it yet.

“There isn’t much that can make a lady,” Joanna said bitterly, still glaring at the meat on her plate rather than at him. “Unless your lady mother is so maddened by her grief that she adopts me as her own in a fit of insanity.”

“My mother’s grief isn’t funny,” Robb snapped. “Neither is your dallying with Theon and the Kingslayer.”

He needed to visit his mother again, he knew. He had not stopped by Bran’s room that day or the day before. It was not that he did not trust Joanna to care for her properly, but perhaps Joanna could not care for her sincerely. For all that his mother had tried to raise her properly, there had never been any affection between them. Joanna had always been a duty, never a daughter. It went both ways though. Joanna had never tried to see Lady Catelyn as a mother. She had always made her gratitude cold and civil.

“What dallying?” Joanna asked, reminding Robb of his point. She looked offended.

First Theon, now Joanna. Robb would not have anyone to dine with at this rate.

“You know what I’m talking about. You and Theon… it’s not proper now you’re a lady full-grown.”

“I’m not a lady. I never will be, no matter what finery you throw on me.”

Robb reached out and took her arm gently, trying to calm the anger he could see on her face.

“You’re my sister and the daughter of Lord Eddard Stark. Whatever the circumstances of your birth, we’re his children. He’s trusting us to behave as he would. We have to stop playing games now. Both of us have the reputation of House Stark to consider.”

“The incident at the feast was an accident! You talk like I do it all the time!”

He drew back his hand with a sigh. Why was this so difficult to explain? His father would make her see sense with a mere sentence.

“I know you didn’t mean to get drunk and pawed at by the king. You think I’d believe otherwise? But the closeness between you and Theon was there before that. You must see it’s getting inappropriate. Not to mention your walks with the Kingslayer.”

“His name is Ser Jaime Lannister. He’s a gallant knight, not a defiler of bastard girls.”

“You aren’t a girl,” Robb argued. “You’re a woman and women don’t get to wander around with men who aren’t family.” He held up a hand to still the argument he knew she would make. “I know it’s not fair, okay? I know. You don’t get silly around men like Sansa does and you don’t want to prove you’re better than them like Arya does. So you don’t see a problem in talking to them. I know there’s nothing more to it than that. But it isn’t what we know, don’t you see? It’s what other people want to believe. And we both know what they like to think of bastards.”

Her jaw tensed from the moment he said the word bastard. It always made her defensive and deaf to well-intentioned reason.

“So what instructions are you giving me, my lord? How would you have your bastard sister conduct herself?”

The tone of her voice was so brittle and sharp that Robb looked around to make sure no one else had heard her. That would amuse everyone, would it not, if their new lord could not even guide his own sister?

“I’d have you think a bit more about how others see you and act accordingly.”

Joanna’s gaze was cold as ice when it rested on him once more. She set down her knife and fork and pushed back her chair with more grace than Theon had managed. She took up her gown neatly and stepped back from the table.

“By your leave, my lord. I find my appetite’s gone. It’s probably best you aren’t seen dining with a bastard anyway.”

“Jo…”

“I don’t have a problem with it,” she went on, “but I’ve no control over what people might think. So I’ll leave you to it.” She curtseyed. “My lord.”

Robb sighed heavily as his sister strode away from their table and out of the hall. Men from Winterfell and King’s Landing alike all gazed curiously over at him. He adopted what he hoped was a calm expression and continued to finish his dinner, wishing all the while that his father sat beside him.