"In the land of Gods and Monsters, I was an angel living in the Garden of Evil."
-Lana Del Rey
A storm is coming. Of all times, the skies decide to open up tonight.
From behind her mirror, Sansa could see the darkening sky through her open window. A steady column of blackened clouds were rolling across the western horizon, the air thick with static as it blew through the window, dancing amongst the gauzy drapes. With a disappointed sigh, Sansa stared at herself in the mirror, smoothing the fabric of her dress and tugging at the hem which fell mid-thigh. A bit too short. I really should change.
"You look pretty."
Sansa shifted her stare to the reflection in the mirror; the reflection of the woman she would undoubtedly become in twenty years or so. Her mother's thick auburn waves were a shade darker than her own, but beautifully framed the graceful features of her face, and her eyes shone a radiant blue, still glistening dreamily despite her age. All her life others had fawned over how Sansa favored her mother, an almost exact replica of the woman. And it was true. A faded, time-worn picture of her mother at eighteen years old was placed in the corner of Sansa's mirror. The similarities were uncanny, to say the least. As a little girl, Sansa would spend hours flipping through photo albums of her mother and father when they were younger. The woman in the pictures, her mother, was everything Sansa wanted to be: gentle-hearted, beautiful, a free spirit, and most of all, impossibly in love with her father and him with her.
"It's a little short."
Once more, Sansa struggled with the hem, conscious of how high it came up her thighs before pacing towards her closet with a frustrated sigh, flipping through the many dresses she owned for something a little less revealing.
With gentle hands, her mother came up behind her, delicately brushing her fingers through Sansa's hair and her voice softly reassuring.
"You look beautiful, my love. If it were too short, I would let you know."
Letting her hands fall to her side, Sansa walked once more in front of the mirror, tilting her head slightly as she evaluated herself. I guess it's not that bad. One night of being a little less conservative won't kill me…
"Alright. If you say so. But if Dad puts up a fight, I'm telling him that you said it was okay."
Suddenly aware of time, Sansa let her eyes dart to the clock beside her bed before she turned to face her mother, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips and fading away as she once more looked towards the threatening sky outside her window.
"It looks like it's going to storm. We should get going or we'll be late."
Sansa looped her arm in her mother's as they retreated from her bedroom and out into the hall, their heels clicking against the hardwood floors as they walked.
"Is Dad coming tonight?"
With a languished sigh and an abrupt shake of her head, her mother disentangled her arm from Sansa's, wringing her hands together as she always did when troubled.
"No. It will just be you and I. Your father has been at his wit’s end preparing for the deposition for the witness in the Moriarti case. He wants to get some work done tonight."
Sansa gave a disappointed nod before letting her head hang, the understanding implicit. Since his brother's death, her father, Ned Stark, functioned as the district attorney in Portland, elected by voters to replace his older brother who was much loved by the public and much loathed by the west coast crime syndicates. The circumstances surrounding her uncle's death had been mysterious, to say the least.
The Moriarti mafia family had been untouchable for the past twenty years, according to her father. Money laundering, extortion, racketeering, loansharking, prostitution, and fraud were the least of it. Their influence expanded the length of the west coast, from Portland south to San Jose, California and dotted throughout the major cities in between. Since the Moriarti-Severelli alliance collapsed, the two families had been warring, the body count was steadily rising, and witnesses willing to testify were dropping like flies, many disappearing before their testimony could take place in court. Her Uncle Brandon had worked feverishly to convict the bosses of both crime families in hopes that by putting them away for life, the families would be splintered and crumble, forcing the crime and corruption of the city to come to an abrupt halt. Brandon Stark had been dreadfully wrong.
When the underboss of the Moriarti family was arrested and charged with multiple counts of racketeering and extortion, the back lash had been almost immediate. On a constant basis, Brandon was berated with a slew of death threats. Should he not revoke the sentence and drop the case, his demise had been guaranteed in graphic detail. Much like her father, Brandon was a man bound by honor and duty and refused to be intimidated. So the case proceeded, but not before six of the eight witnesses turned up in pieces, random body parts sent to the coroner, district attorney, and presiding judge's offices. The other two witnesses refused to go through with their testimony and had not been seen since, seemingly vanishing into thin air either by their own accord or by the influence of the Moriarti mafia.
Brandon's murder had only made Sansa's father that much more resilient, unwilling to let his brother's death be in vain. Quietly and for the past two years, her father had been building a case against the Moriarti family, bit by bit and as inconspicuously as possible. Could he hit them with the RICO act, every member associated with the Moriarti family and their crimes would be booked, tried, and locked away in prison for the remainder of their lives, essentially wiping out the organization. It was the largest and most high profile case the district attorney's office had ever pursued and had the ability to turn the entire city upside down, for better or for worse. For long days and even longer nights, her father worked tirelessly, often falling asleep at his desk, his head resting amongst stacks of testimonies, affidavits, crime reports, and the scribbling of his notes.
The case had taken its toll on him; he had aged ten years in the past two, or so it seemed. His eyes were constantly hooded with fatigue, the lines of his face had deepened, and his hair was beginning to gray. Sometimes Sansa would walk by his office and see him standing in front of the window, staring out at the thick blanket of woods that surrounded their home. For long moments, he would stand at the window, unmoving with his arms folded behind his back and lost in his thoughts a thousand miles away.
As she approached his office, Sansa found him this way, staring off into the distance as the trees swayed with the wind and his secret thoughts and worries churning in his head, as unsettled as the storm brewing outside. With a light rapping at his door, Sansa cleared her throat before hesitantly stepping into his office.
Turning his head over his shoulder, her father's face met her with a disapproving scowl.
"Sansa. That dress is...a bit revealing, don't you think?"
Suddenly self-conscious once again, Sansa looked down at herself. I could have guessed as much. I should have changed…
"Myranda let me borrow it for tonight. Mom said I looked beautiful."
The mini dress was a bit short; she already knew that. She was bustier than her friend and couldn't help that the fabric pulled tightly across her chest, revealing a soft curve of cleavage. If she tugged at the neckline of the dress, it rose up higher on her legs. If she tugged at the hemline, it pulled the dress down, revealing more cleavage. Undoubtedly, she would be playing an endless game of tug-o-war for the evening.
Removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes, her father turned towards her before crossing his arms about his chest.
"You do look beautiful. That's part of the problem. You're too pretty for your own good. And I can't imagine Myranda's father lets her leave the house in outfits like that. What do you think? Hmm?"
Sansa let her eyes fall away. She hated feeling as though she disappointed him, but she had come to hate feeling as if she was still a child even more. She had already graduated high school, was accepted to the University of Oregon with a full ride, and would be starting college in a few short months. By almost all definitions, she was an adult.
"Dad, I don't know. I don't think Myranda's dad really cares."
Her voice came out a whining huff as Sansa shifted her weight from one foot to the other and crossed her arms tightly around her waist, unwittingly letting her frustration show.
Myranda's father, Nestor Royce, had agreed to be a litigator in her father's case. Nestor and Ned had attended law school together and subsequently interned at the same law firm in San Francisco. It was always assumed the two would open a firm together; with her father's sensibilities and dedication and Nestor's charisma and persuasiveness in trial, the two would have been unstoppable. However, Nestor had taken a job at a high-profile firm in Portland, and her father took a job as the county prosecutor. Since then, their families had become close friends; their daughter, Myranda, becoming Sansa's dearest friend as the two grew up alongside one another.
Named one of the top litigators of the state, Nestor Royce had gained much publicity for the progress he had made in cases relating to the Severelli crime family. He had successfully put away two of the underbosses and a handful of street bosses from various cities. Nestor had suffered the same threats on his life; empty threats that were never followed through on. Perhaps it was his presence in the media or how well connected the man was, but Nestor Royce had relentlessly and successfully pursued the Severelli family, remaining unscathed and untouchable in his own right.
Every year, the Royce's organized a gala for the district attorney's office, as well as higher up city officials. Having come into great wealth, the party was always held at Nestor Royce's estate in Lake Oswego, a suburb outside of Portland. Every lawyer, politician, and socialite of Portland attended the lavish event. Truly, the Royces spared no expense for the annual fete; a team of chefs from each exclusive restaurant in Portland were brought in to create the many decadent dishes that were served, string quartets were set up on each of the three floors of their sprawling Victorian-style home. Even an interior decorator was hired to transform their home for the event. In recent years and given the impending Moriarti case, the party had become invitation only, and private security was hired.
Relenting, her father circled around his desk to stand in front of Sansa, placing his hands heavily on her shoulders.
"Well, I'm your father, and I'm just concerned is all."
Sansa couldn't help but smile. As he rested his weight against his desk, she could see the concern gleaming in his eyes. Ever since she was a little girl, he had always been over protective of her. When she was a freshman in high school, a senior boy had asked her to prom. She had come home bursting through the door and squealing with excitement. As Sansa and her mother instantaneously began planning what her dress would look like, how she would do her hair and make-up, her father stood silently with the same disapproving scowl before going into a stern lecture about how all boys only want one thing at that age, followed by a slew of prom night horror stories that surely never happened to anyone.
With some time and convincing by her mother, he had finally relented, but not before eagerly volunteering as a parent chaperone for the dance. The entire night he watched only her, his face turning red with anger when her date let his hands travel too far down her waist. As the last song played, her father cut in, pushing her date aside while mumbling some excuse about wanting the last dance with his daughter. Irritated and offended, her date threw his hands up in the air and left with some other girl. Sansa cried the entire way home, furious and refusing to speak to her father, turning her body as far away as possible and keeping her stare out the car window.
That was so long ago, it seemed, and as she reflected back on the event, Sansa realized how petty she had been and how truly lucky she was to have a father care for her as much as hers did. Sansa adored her father and how protective he was of her. Only recently had she truly come to appreciate how he looked out for her, worried about her, and did everything in his power to give her a happy life.
Letting her frustration melt away, Sansa nodded her head and rested her hands on top of her father's.
"I know you're concerned about me, and that's why I love you. But I'm not a little girl anymore. I'll be eighteen in a few weeks."
With that, Sansa made her way towards her father's desk, sighing as she saw the myriad of papers strewn about in haphazard stacks. Delicately, she picked up a stray piece of paper and scrutinized it.
"How is the case coming?"
With a groan, her father turned towards his desk, contemplating the stacks of folders and papers with a pained look.
"I don't know, Sansa. I feel like I take two steps forward and one step back. It just doesn't make any sense. This guy, the Moriarti boss, there's literally nothing on him. For the past two years, all my leads on him have been dead ends. Even the witnesses know nothing about the guy or else they're just not talking. It's as if he's a ghost, moving through the shadows. No one has a name on him. Moriarti can't be his true name; that much we do know. I have no idea where he operates from. Hell! For all I know, he could be based in a different city, state, or even country, just calling the shots from behind a desk. Everything surrounding this guy is a mystery."
Her father tossed his fountain pen on the desk where it bounced against a worn, coffee stained manila folder stuffed full of papers with torn edges. With a deep, frustrated sigh, her father ran his fingers through the thick waves of his salt-and-pepper colored hair.
Sansa could scarcely imagine his frustration. She had heard the stories of the Moriarti boss; if not from her father, Myranda would divulge the details, giggling like an idiot and with eyes wide as saucers. It seemed Nestor was more open with the particulars of the case than her own father. Little was known of the Moriarti boss besides the fact that his men referred to him as the Hound. Some said he garnered the name due to his notorious brutality and ruthlessness. Others claimed it was because of how loyal his men were to him and him to them.
Beyond that, the only other detail the district attorney's office had was that the Hound had to be young, late twenties or so. He had probably inherited the position from family or perhaps had gained enough respect within the organization that he was eventually promoted to the top position of the Moriarti mafia. The man was calculated, meticulous, and intelligent, having dodged the authorities and DA office for so long. The city had become corrupt; major corporations were intricately involved with the Moriarti crime syndicate, and high ranking city officials and law enforcement officers were being paid off for turning a blind eye to the illicit activities occurring in the criminal underworld.
Sansa gave her father a reassuring smile before softly taking his hands into her own. From outside, the grumbling of thunder groaned loudly, vibrating through the walls of their home.
"I'm sorry, Dad. Something will turn up eventually. It has to. He can't hide forever. I'm sure he'll show up where you least expect him."
With a half smile cracking across his lips, her father wrapped an arm around her shoulder and kissed her softly on the forehead before nodding his head.
"Thanks, sweetheart. One can only hope."
As her father let her go and walked around his desk, taking his seat once more in front of the heaping pile of papers, Sansa sensed his reluctance to return to his work.
"Mom said you're not going to make it to the Royce's party tonight. Can't you spare just a little time to come? It might do you some good to get away for a few hours. After all, you are the DA and the party is partially held for the district attorney's office, so…"
Sansa let her words drift away, the meandering inflection of her voice baiting him to relent to her subtle insistence. By the furrowing of his brow, she could tell he was contemplating the option: the opportunity to put aside his work for a bit and actually have a little fun for once. But ever the dutiful lawyer, her father shook his head, the regret lingering despite his soft smile.
"I really wish I could. But I'm going to have to bow out for tonight. This deposition has to go as planned, or else I'm back to square one. But you and your mother go and have fun."
Swiveling in his seat, her father turned his stare out the window behind him, contemplating the darkening sky which was rippled with lightening from somewhere far off in the distance. The trees were beginning to bend against the constant assault of the wind, which was picking up stronger with each passing hour.
"A storm's coming. By the looks of it, it's going to be a nasty one. You and your mother, be careful. And that's an order."
A playful smile spread across his face as he jokingly wagged his finger at her, eliciting a giggle to bubble up from within her.
Sansa kissed her father on the cheek before hurriedly retreating from his office and heading down the stairs, taking her steps as quickly as her legs would carry her without tumbling over her heels. Flats. I should have worn flats. Longer dress, shorter shoes.
Stepping into the kitchen, Sansa found her mother seated at the table, intently watching the weather radar while biting her lip. Laughing to herself, Sansa waved her arms in front of the television, rousing her mother's attention.
"I'm ready if you are."
With a sigh and a smile, Sansa's mother pushed herself from the table and grabbed the car keys from their hook, letting them tumble from one hand to the other.
"It's supposed to storm later tonight. A bad storm too. I hate driving in the rain."
Cocking her head to the side, Sansa extended her hand with the other rested firmly on her hip. She knew her mother too well; the woman's hinting around at what she wanted was thinly guised and fooled no one.
"If you want me to drive, you could've just asked. Give me the keys."
The air outside was thick with humidity, sticky against Sansa's skin and causing her hair to curl into soft waves. She could sense her mother's hesitation as the sky above was blanketed with angry black clouds, and lightening broke across the horizon followed by deafening claps of thunder.
Sansa tried to ease her mother's worried mind, cheerfully speculating as to what sorts of food would be served at the party, placing bets on who would get more intoxicated, Mr. or Mrs. Royce, and discussing the highlights of last year's party. It seemed they were heading into the storm; halfway through their drive, the wind picked up fiercely, lashing against the car and conspiring to toss it off the road. With her hands wrapped firmly around the steering wheel, Sansa drove the rest of the way in silence, her knuckles turning white and a strange sense of foreboding growing in the pit of her stomach as they neared their destination.
As they pulled up to the gate of the Royce estate, a line of cars were stopped in front of them, each handing their invitation to a security guard posted at the gate who gave the invitation a brief glance before passing the car through. Once the cars ahead of them were waved on, Sansa approached the security guard, rolling down her window.
The man's abruptness startled her. With arms crossed, he barely looked at her, but instead looked back at the line of cars behind them.
"Sansa and Catelyn Stark."
The man's head snapped back towards her as she shuffled through the contents of her purse for the invitation. From the periphery of her vision, she could see the security guard eagerly peering into the car, evaluating both her and her mother intently.
As Sansa handed him their invitation, the man stared callously at her, his face unreadable, yet making her entirely uncomfortable all the same. By the way her mother was shifting in the passenger seat, she surmised he elicited the same reaction from her, as well.
The security guard set his stare at each of them in turn, as if memorizing the features of their faces, before waving them through. With a nervous laugh, her mother turned around in her seat, watching as the security guard waved the cars behind them through without so much as a second glance.
"What was that all about?"
With no insight to offer, Sansa shrugged her shoulders. Perhaps it was the electricity hovering in the air or the way the security guard had seemed to linger over them, but Sansa felt a heaviness beginning to press against her. Her stomach began to burn as they pulled up to the valet waiting at the top of the hill. Something about this night feels off.
An olive skinned boy, no older than her, with a mop of thick, black hair jogged up to the driver side door. As Sansa pushed the car door open, the boy extended his hand to her with a shy smile.
"Ma'am. Welcome to the Royce residence."
Sansa had barely heard the boy as her eyes were instantly drawn to the sight of the house in front of her. Mrs. Royce had it built as an exact replica of a gothic-revival mansion she once saw during her travels to England. As a child, Sansa thought the Royce's house looked like something from a dream, a life-size dollhouse she could roam around in. And roam she did. For hours, she would wander around the mansion and out in the gardens, pretending she was a listless princess in some English manor, waiting for her prince to come. Tonight, however, the house was more breathtaking than she had ever seen it before.
Garlands of peonies were wrapped around the railings and pillars of the half dozen porches situated throughout the front of the house, swathing it in soft floral hues of white, purple, red, and pink and filling the air with their scent. The path to the front of the house was lined with a dozen tall candelabras, each radiating a sphere of flickering light around them. Each of the bay windows were illuminated with gas lamps, beautifully lending their light to the vintage ambiance the house was so effortlessly exuding. Over the booming of thunder, Sansa could hear the gentle plucking sounds of a harp, filling the air with a lovely yet mournful song.
As they entered the house, the foyer was aglow with the soft, shifting light of the crystal chandelier above. The rooms adjacent to the foyer were filled with the murmuring of people exchanging jovial conversations. Heavenly scents wafted through the air as dozens of waiters with trays of food navigated through clusters of people, stopping here and there to explain what foods their tray featured.
With a girlish smile spreading across her rouged lips, Sansa's mother turned to her with eyes wide and her voice breathy and giggling.
"My goodness! This is even bigger than last year's party. Let's go find Myranda and her mother."
Sansa and her mother eased their way through a crowd of people gathered around one of the many cocktail bars that had been set up throughout the house. Stepping into the parlor, they found Charlotte Royce animatedly regaling a group of women about her recent trip to the Italian Riviera, her arms moving through the air as her excited voice bounced throughout the room between sips of wine.
Where her mother was demure, soft-spoken, and modest, Charlotte Royce was vivacious, ostentatious, and wholly enchanted by all forms of luxury, which her husband had happily provided her. A luminous smile swept across Charlotte's face as her eyes wandered over in Sansa and her mother's direction. As the woman waved her arms in the air, the wine went sloshing from her glass, splattering to the floor.
"Catelyn! Sansa! Over here…god damn it! I've been spilling this shit all night."
Charlotte extended her arms and shuffled over, her sequined dress glittering as she moved. The heavy scent of the woman's perfume lingered on Sansa even after the woman planted a kiss on each of her cheeks. Charlotte lifted the locks of Sansa's hair from off of her shoulder, working the strands through her fingers and standing back, seemingly to admire her.
"You, little darling, get more beautiful by the day! Who would've thought that the knobby kneed, gawky little red headed girl I used to know would turn into such a knock out. And yes, that is absolutely a compliment! Myranda is here somewhere."
Charlotte looped her arm in Sansa's mother's, whisking her away and chattering excitedly as she waved over a waiter with a tray of chardonnay.
"I am so happy you're here. I was just telling the gals about my trip to Italy. Oh my God, Cat, it was divine! Wine, you need wine, and I need wine, and then we need to catch up! I have so much to tell you."
Watching as the women fluttered off, Sansa smiled to herself, doting on how different they really were, but friends nonetheless. That difference was echoed in Sansa's friendship with Myranda. Even as a little girl, Myranda had always been outgoing, the center of attention who eagerly sought the adoration of those around her. Sansa had been drawn to Myranda's charisma and effervescence, which foiled Sansa's own shyness and cautiousness.
When they were six, Myranda had convinced Sansa to climb the tree in the front yard of her house. Skillfully and with ease, Myranda had climbed to the top, triumphantly declared herself the Queen of the World, and then effortlessly climbed back down, swinging from limb to limb as she went. 'See how it's done? Now it's your turn, Sansa.' Hesitantly, Sansa climbed the tree, her legs wobbling and her hands shaking like a leaf. Once at the top, Sansa had burst into tears, scared witless at the impending descent. Patiently, Myranda waited at the bottom of the tree, methodically and commandingly instructing Sansa on how to get down and encouraging her with each step. When Sansa finally reached the bottom and once again had her feet planted firmly on the ground, she had let out a sigh of relief and decided then and there that Myranda was her best friend. Since then, the two had been inseparable, as close as sisters.
"Oh my God, Sansa! You look fucking amazing!"
Spinning on her heel, Sansa found Myranda pacing hurriedly towards her, her dress shifting about her swaying hips and her brown curls bouncing with each step. Sansa had thought her dress was short, but Myranda's was at least three inches shorter and her heels two inches taller. Where Sansa's dress flowed easily over her curves, Myranda's clung tightly to her body. The girl was shorter than Sansa and a bit thicker too, but carried herself with a confidence that exuded her sexuality. Myranda had developed much quicker than the other girls. By seventh grade, she had a set of full breasts, and a subtle curve of her hips had begun to emerge. Much to the chagrin of the other girls, the boys were quick to take notice, and in turn Myranda was quick to lap it up, eager for the attention, even if the intentions were less than admirable.
Once developing, Myranda had been quick to explore her sexuality. When she lost her virginity at the age of fifteen, Myranda confided in Sansa, sparing no detail of the experience despite Sansa's urging to forgo the graphic retelling. When Sansa asked if she planned on ending up with the boy who took her virginity, Myranda laughed hysterically, clutching her side with tears rolling down her cheeks. Disbelieving, Myranda had asked if Sansa truly meant to wait to have sex until she found her 'prince', some perfect man who would fall desperately in love with her and her with him. In her naiveté, Sansa did not understand what was so outlandish about that thought. After all, her parents shared that sort of love. If they could find it, why couldn't she? From that day, Myranda had dubbed her with the nickname 'Alice,' a nod to the head-in-the-clouds girl from Alice in Wonderland, who Sansa seemed to emulate.
With an approving smile plastered to her face, Myranda circled Sansa, looking her up and down.
"Look at you! I never knew you had such amazing legs. You need to show them off more. And of course, your tits look great. They always do, though."
With a sigh, Myranda pulled down the neck line of her dress and pushed up on her breasts before shrugging her shoulders.
"I wish mine were bigger. Ah well, I've got the great ass. I guess that counts for something."
Flashing a warm smile and giving a soft giggle, Sansa gave Myranda a hug before releasing her hold and tugging at the hemline of her mini dress, once more becoming self-conscious and internally chiding herself about not changing.
"Thanks. You look beautiful as well. You don't think it's too short?"
Myranda rolled her eyes before sweeping them across the room of people, contemplating the men dressed in suits and ties as a devilish smile formed about her lips.
"Oh, my dear Alice. There's no such thing as a dress that's too short or heels that are too high. Plus, I do believe you are drawing the attention of almost every man in this room."
Feeling her cheeks warm with a slight blush, Sansa darted her eyes about the room. Most of the men at the party were her father's age, and each strutted about the room with self-importance and pompousness oozing out of them. Wrinkling her nose with a look of disgust, Sansa turned back towards her friend.
"Don't say that! They're so…old."
With a shrug of her shoulders and flip of her hair, Myranda took Sansa by the hand and led her through the room of people.
"Podrick is in the other room. He was asking if you were going to be here. The boy can barely contain his hard-on for you. Plus, his entire family is out of town for the weekend. Are you sure you aren't interested in him?"
Laughing, Sansa playfully nudged her friend. She was used to Myranda's crassness and knew she truly meant well. Podrick Payne was Myranda's neighbor, a shy boy who carried himself with as much awkwardness as anyone Sansa had ever met. When they were eight, Myranda introduced Sansa to Podrick. Many months later and with the encouragement of Myranda, Podrick had built up enough courage to ask Sansa if, when they were older, she would marry him and allow him to die happy. Later, Myranda confessed that she had told Podrick the right words to say, and that the poor boy had been mustering up the courage to ask since the day he had met Sansa. Not realizing this at the time, Sansa had gingerly and graciously declined his offer, telling him that she was promised to a prince. With defeat gleaming in his eyes, Podrick had smiled anyway before shoving his hands in his pockets and retreating off, but not before saying 'I hope you find your prince, Sansa.'
Many years later, Sansa had asked Podrick if he remembered any of it. Her question was met with a firm denial, but Sansa knew he remembered, just as much as she did. Since then, he had become a dear friend to her and Myranda. Sansa knew he retained the same affection for her as he did when they were younger. She loved him truly, but not in the same way he had come to love her.
Tugging at her arm and pulling Sansa from her reverie, Myranda led them into the great room, pushing through clusters of people with a steady rotation of 'excuse us' and 'pardon me’. Truly, there were more people at the party than in years past, a sea of faces Sansa scarcely recognized.
The great room of the Royce mansion was the true focal point of the house, the word 'great' a sore understatement. Open to the floor above, the room boasted marble floors and twin chandeliers whose tear-drop crystals glimmered like diamonds against the ornately carved wooden beams from which they were hung. Along two sides of the room, the hallways up above were open to the great room below, save a series of arches and hand-carved wood railings. At the far end of the room, floor to ceiling windows flanked an ornate fireplace and looked out to the lake whose waters were rippling with the wind. A number of couches and chairs were arranged about the room, separating it into two halves. On the far end of the room, an older man in a tuxedo was seated at the grand piano, filling the air with soft music which battled against the thunder reverberating throughout the house. On the opposite end of the room, a winding staircase led to the open hallways above, the iron spindles set in dark mahogany wood.
The room was dimly lit by the chandeliers above, as well as a series of candelabras placed at various points about the room. Flashes of lightening were coming more frequently and illuminating the subtle, dusky darkness. As thunder roared outside, the chandeliers above swayed slightly and the house groaned against the wind.
The room was astir as people shuffled throughout, exchanging greetings or engaging in heated discussions about business, sports, or politics. Merry laughter filled the air and mingled amongst the sounds of the piano before being blotted out by thunder. Waiters meandered about, carrying trays of champagne or hor d'oeuvres, steadying their trays as people eagerly grabbed items off as they passed.
Finally finding a pocket of space, Sansa slid along the wall and perched herself against it, avoiding the shifting clusters of people who were moving about the room. Grabbing a glass of champagne as a waiter scurried by, Myranda eased next to Sansa's side, shrugging her shoulders innocently as Sansa shot her a chiding stare.
"Oh God, Sansa! Don't look so offended. It won't kill you to loosen up a bit."
A part of Sansa knew Myranda was right. The other part of Sansa was afraid to admit it– afraid to let herself go, in fear that she might lose herself forever. And buried underneath it all, tucked deep away, was a part of Sansa that wanted to lose herself, to do at least one reckless thing in her life and free fall into the darkness, down the rabbit hole into another world.
A group of people standing in front of her cleared away, opening her vision to the other half of the room. Sansa's attention was drawn to a man seated on a plush couch situated across the room– his legs open and one arm casually draped over the back of the couch, the other resting in his lap with a cocktail in hand. The other men moseying about the room were stuffed into designer suits, expensive ties wrapped tightly around their necks. However, this man was different; he wore a white dress shirt, sleeves pushed up to his elbows, exposing muscled forearms, the top three buttons unfastened, his black tie undone and draped around his neck.
Where the other men pompously sauntered about with heads held high in arrogance, this man remained seated, silently evaluating the room with one corner of his mouth pulled up in a half smile. Perhaps his most distinguishing feature was the scars that covered the left side of his face. Starting at his forehead and extending halfway down his cheek, the skin of his face was a gnarled tangle of flesh. Strands of his shoulder length, raven colored hair covered the worst of his scars. The right side of his face was entirely masculine, framed by a sharp jaw line and high cheekbones. His nose was hooked, and his eyes glimmered grey as stainless steel.
Something about the man captivated Sansa, his presence such a dichotomy to the rest of the men at the party. Where they feigned their confidence and masculinity, this man exuded his. To his right sat another man, similarly underdressed and watching the room, every now and then leaning in and exchanging words. Adjacent to the couch, one more man sat in an arm chair puffing on a cigar, his elbows resting on his knees as he set his glare about the room.
Seemingly feeling her eyes on him, the man shifted his gaze to her, stifling her breath and causing her heart to pound steadily in her chest. She expected the man to look away– for his eyes to pass over her and roam about the room as they had been. Instead, he fixed his stare, lowering his head and lifting his drink to his lips, but keeping his eyes glued to her. Unable to maintain the stare, Sansa let her eyes flutter away and felt the skin of her cheeks beginning to burn as she blushed uncontrollably.
Breathless despite standing still, Sansa turned towards Myranda who had already gulped down her champagne and was swaying slightly with drunkenness.
"Who is that?"
Sansa winced as Myranda snapped her head over her shoulder, her eyes landing directly on the man. Subtly is lost on her…
"Mmm. That guy there? Does it matter? He's eye fucking you like crazy, Sansa."
Myranda turned her body towards the man, her back flush against the wall as she lifted her champagne glass so that it rested between her breasts. Despite Myranda's attempt at a seductive stance, the man kept his eyes intent on Sansa. Feeling a wave of heat move through her body, Sansa shook her head.
"Don't say that! He is not. Seriously, have you seen him before?"
Dropping her arm to her side and turning back towards Sansa, Myranda leaned her weight against the wall, her left knee buckling slightly as she momentarily lost her balance.
"Oh calm down! You're such a god damn prude. No, I think I'd remember if I'd seen him before. I imagine he's some big shot lawyer out of law school, looking to kiss enough ass tonight to land a job."
Somehow Sansa highly doubted that. The way the man composed himself suggested he was a man of power and influence. He carried himself with an assuredness that resonated from his body. If anything, people would be seeking him out tonight, not the other way around.
With her words slightly slurring off her tongue, Myranda turned her glance back towards the man.
"Even with his scars he's kind of hot…got that dark and brooding thing going for him. Not to mention, he has an amazing body. Mmm…and he looks to be tall too. You should talk to him!"
Huffing out a laugh and smiling nervously, Sansa shook her head adamantly, feeling her heart beat hard at the thought.
"And say what? 'Hey! I saw you eye fuc…" Embarrassed, Sansa let her voice drop off before beginning again. "'I saw you looking at me from across the room.' No. I think I'm okay."
Myranda shrugged her shoulders before pushing herself from the wall, her cheeks flushed from the champagne.
"Suit yourself. If I were you, I'd go for it. For right now though, I need another drink. I'll be back."
With an impish smile, Myranda sauntered away, leaving Sansa standing against the wall as she shyly let her eyes avoid the direction of where the man was sitting. From the periphery of her vision she could see that he was watching her, evaluating her as his focus remained solely on her and her alone despite the dozens of people moving about the room.
The other man sitting to his right leaned over and whispered something in his ear as he shot a fleeting look at Sansa. Still the scarred man kept his stare on her, intently eying her as he sipped on his drink. She knew not what the other man told him, but it beckoned his lips to curve into a mischievous smile, his eyes dark and lustrous as he slowly nodded his head.
Sansa felt her heartbeat quicken and her knees beginning to shake with weakness. She squirmed under his stare, but found herself utterly entranced by it, unable or perhaps unwilling to move. Something about his eyes on her sent shivers throughout her body. She relished the feeling until his attention turned to a woman who seated herself to his left. The leggy blonde wore a dress that made Myranda's look like a nun's habit in comparison; skin-tight, plunging neckline, backless, and barely covering her ass, the dress was tasteless at best. Leaning into him and pushing her breasts up against his side, the woman brushed her fingertips along his bare forearm.
Sansa let her eyes fall away, feeling her cheeks burn as she saw from the periphery of her vision as the man brushed the woman's long, blonde hair from off her shoulder. In an obnoxiously overt display, the woman bit her lip and gave out an audible gasp as he brushed his lips against her ear. Sansa stifled a laugh. You've got to be kidding me. I didn't realize women actually acted like this.
After the man whispered something in her ear, the woman abruptly pulled away, her mouth agape as she gathered her purse and lifted herself from his side, shooting him a furious glare. As she stood up, the man lifted his glass to the woman and curtly nodded his head, a mocking gesture which only infuriated her more and sent her stomping off across the room.
Wide-eyed and amused, Sansa watched the woman push through clusters of people, shoving them out of her way as she muttered expletives under her breath. She knew the man had resumed watching her; she could feel his eyes on her, threatening to burn her alive under the heat of his stare. As Sansa let her eyes flutter towards him, he was indeed watching her still. In one regard, she felt as if she was on display for him; something for him to stare at lustily. Much to her surprise though, she found that she liked it, and her body was responding, emanating heat from her skin and her breaths coming ragged from her trembling lips.
The scarred man shifted his stare to the man seated on his right, talking in hushed tones whilst motioning his head towards the staircase adjacent to them. Without hesitation, the man to his right lifted himself to his feet and headed towards the stairs, but not before eying Sansa coldly. Two more men followed behind him, each keeping their eyes straight ahead and their faces stoic as stone as they ascended the stairs.
As the scarred man lifted himself to his feet, Sansa saw how tall he really was; he towered over everyone around him and had to be well over six feet tall, closer to seven feet, most like. Beyond that, he was muscled like a bull, his thick arms emanating from broad, heavy shoulders.
Sansa felt her breath quicken and her heart race as he cast his gaze once more towards her, his eyes softening a bit and the scarred side of his mouth twitching ever so slightly. Oh God. What if he comes over here? What the hell am I supposed to say?
Sansa felt her heart begin to beat furiously against her chest and her head become dizzy. To her simultaneous relief and disappointment, the man didn't come to her, but instead finished his drink in two gulps before setting it down hard on the table and heading for the stairs in striding steps.
"Sansa? Are you feeling okay?"
Startled, Sansa jumped and turned to find Podrick standing behind her, his hands in his pockets and uncomfortably shifting from one foot to the other. His hair, which was normally a shaggy mess that fell into his eyes in loose curls, had been smoothed back, easily revealing the boyish features of his face. With her heart beat slowing a bit, Sansa let out a deep sigh to steady her breath.
"Hey Pod. No…I mean, yes. Yes, I'm fine. You look really nice. I like what you've done with your hair. How's everything going?"
Blushing slightly, Podrick ran his fingers through his hair and laughed nervously.
"Oh, yeah. My mom said I should get it out of my face. Things are alright, I guess. I got roped into a conversation with Mr. Mormont about football. I told him I didn't know anything about football. He responded by telling me everything he knew about it. Did you know that the Detroit Lions are the only non-expansion NFL team never to go to the Super Bowl? Whatever that means…"
As Podrick began to ramble, Sansa unwittingly let her eyes drift towards the stairs and the landing at the top of the stair case, lost in a daze and searching out the man who had somehow captured her attention in such a short amount of time.
"Hmm. Yeah. Well, that's interesting." Mindlessly, the words left her lips while her focus and her eyes remained fixed on the stair case.
"Sansa, are you sure you're okay? You seem distracted."
Instantly, she was roused from her musings and turned towards Podrick, taking his hands into her own and smiling softly before her mind drifted again despite her willing it not to.
"I'm sorry. No I didn't know about the whole Detroit Lions thing. Stay here, Pod. I'll be back in just one second, I promise."
Much to her own surprise, she felt compelled towards the stairs, her legs moving without her consent and carrying her across the room, shifting through the crowd. Sansa ascended the stairs, her eyes searching the upper balconies as she went, but not finding the man. As she reached the top of the stairs and headed down the corridor that opened to below, she could hear faint laughter coming from the end of the hall. In slow, quiet steps, Sansa headed down the hall, her heart beginning to beat faster and the breath beginning to catch in her throat.
As she rounded the corner at the end of the hall, she found a woman pressed up against an older man in a suit, her lipstick stains smudged across his cheek and neck. Startled, Sansa backed away and let her eyes fall to the floor as she muttered her words.
"I'm so sorry. I was just…"
Flushed, Sansa's apology was cut short by another sound. This time, instead of laughter she heard arguing followed by a series of thuds. The couple exchanged a wide-eyed look before pushing past Sansa and retreating back down the corridor. Sansa remained fixed in her spot and steadied her breaths to hear. Again, angry shouts were punctuated with the sound of scuffling, as if two people were struggling against one another.
Part of her knew she should turn back and head downstairs, perhaps informing one of the security guards to check it out. But the other part of her was encouraging her forward, towards the service staircase that was tucked away in the back corner of the hallway and towards the direction of the sounds. Slowly, Sansa gave into the encouraging, her legs propelling her forward in tiny, tiptoed steps until she reached the stairs.
The shouting became louder as Sansa climbed the staircase and was now accompanied by the pleading wails of a woman and the pained screams of a man. As she shifted her weight slightly, the wood of the staircase underneath her groaned loudly. Instantaneously, the shouting stopped and was replaced by a muffled exchange between two men. Sansa's heart threatened to beat out of her chest as she worked her way back down the stairs as quietly as possible before pushing herself flush against the far side of the wall, away from the landing at the top of the stairs. Suddenly, a door upstairs flew open and she heard heavy footsteps descend the steps. One at a time, the footfalls got louder and her heart responded by beating fast and frantic in her chest. Stupid. This was so stupid. Please. Please. PLEASE don't let him come down here.
Sansa's silent pleading was answered. Above her, she could hear the heavy breathing of a man before he turned around and retreated back up the stairs, shouting as he reached the top of the landing.
"No one's out here. The house must be haunted or something."
Breathing a silent sigh of relief, Sansa wiped off the sweat that had beaded on her brow before carefully tiptoeing from the corner. Suddenly, the door upstairs flew open once more, and the sobs of a woman filled the stairway, echoing from the walls as the woman scampered haphazardly down the steps. Sansa found herself frozen in place, unable to move her legs despite her mind screaming for her to flee.
As the woman rounded the banister of the last stair, she came running towards Sansa, stumbling over her feet. It's her. It's the blonde-haired woman. With blood trickling down her forehead and her mascara smeared across her face, the woman looked a fright. Her dress had been torn, somehow she had lost both of her shoes, and there was blood staining her platinum hair.
With her mouth gaped open in horror, Sansa stumbled backwards as the woman ran limping towards her and grabbed her by the shoulders, shaking her furiously.
"You have to get out of here! Go, run. NOW!" With that, the woman pushed Sansa towards the set of stairs leading to the floor below as she limped off down the main corridor.
Two popping sounds rang out from the room above, followed by a thud. Suddenly regaining the use of her legs, Sansa flew down the service staircase to the floor below. As she reached the bottom floor, she heard the same popping sound coming from all around her, echoing through the walls and rattling the windows. Somewhere within her, she instinctively knew what the sound was. Please, God. Let that be fireworks. Let it be something else.
Sansa was halfway down the stairs when she first started hearing the screams, followed by more popping sounds, followed by even more screams. She could hardly hear anything over the desperate and blood curdling shrieking which was punctuated by the thunder booming outside. When Sansa emerged in the kitchen, a man in a suit was on his knees clutching his throat, blood squirting between his fingers as he looked up at her and tried to speak. As Sansa darted her eyes about the room, she saw more bodies, more than she could count, lying amongst broken dishes and glass and people running, shoving past one another as sparks of light accompanied the popping sounds.
Stepping over the bleeding bodies, Sansa ran towards the great room, her legs shaking beneath her, her steps unsteady and stumbling as her vision started to become blurred and the smell of burning filled the air. When she entered the great room, the sight before her made her blood run cold and curdling through her veins. The room was half engulfed in flames eagerly licking up the sides of the walls, all the way up to the ceiling and filling the room with thick columns of black smoke. Amongst the flames, Sansa saw as men were dousing the walls in kerosene before kicking over the lit candelabras placed throughout the room. Beneath the smoke, Sansa could see the bodies of people she had seen eating, drinking, and talking not fifteen minutes before.
She felt the acidity of vomit hitting the back of her throat as she ran from the room and down the adjoining corridor. In front of her, a security guard was pacing hurriedly towards the foyer. As she tried to call out to him for help, her voice caught in her throat, her words coming out as whimpering gasps. Before she could clear her throat and try again, the security guard lifted his gun and pointed it towards the crowd of guests that were pushing towards the front door, their screams reverberating off the marble floors in a deafening cacophony.
Sansa felt a strong pull behind her and her feet slide across the floor. A hand flew up to her mouth, stifling her screams so they came as a muffled whimpering sound while her legs flailed violently.
"Sansa. It's me. Pod."
Podrick released his hold on her before pulling her into the butler pantry of the kitchen.
"My mom and Myranda. Where are they?"
Sansa's voice quivered uncontrollably and came out as frantic shouts, louder than she intended. Podrick paced wildly about the pantry, his eyes frenzied and darting about.
"I don't know. I heard shouting and then the gunshots. And then screaming. I ran, Sansa. I just ran."
Suddenly, he stopped and grabbed her wrist, pulling her around hard to look at him. His eyes flickered with terror.
"We have to get out of here."
As they emerged cautiously from the pantry, the kitchen was beginning to fill with smoke. The frantic shifting of a form through the smoke caught Sansa's attention. Myranda broke through the smoke, coughing and tears streaming down her face. On her left side, blood was saturating her dress. Sansa broke away from Podrick and ran towards her friend, pulling her into her arms.
"Myranda! What happened?"
Gasping for air, Myranda choked out sobs as she collapsed in Sansa's arms, pushing her weight up against her and her voice screaming.
"I...I don't' know. They're…they're killing everyone. Oh, God."
Myranda's words were interrupted by hysterical sobs as she doubled over in front of Sansa, gasping and clutching her side. Once again feeling an insistent tug on her arm, Sansa heard Podrick's voice cracking with fear and desperation from behind her.
"We have to go. Both of you! We have to go now."
Sansa pulled free of his grasp and spun around to face him, her voice quivering, yet insistent all the same.
"My mom is here somewhere. I'm not leaving her!"
Sansa turned towards Myranda who had slumped to the floor, her body wracked with heaving sobs. With all her might, Sansa tried to pull Myranda from the floor, but the girl was inconsolable and refused to budge.
"Myranda, come on! We have to go. Get up!"
The crunching of glass forced Sansa to snap her head up. When she did, she saw the man in front of her, the scarred side of his face gleaming grotesquely in the light and his white shirt splattered with blood, a pistol clutched in his right hand.
Feeling her blood run cold, Sansa tried to back away as the man paced towards her, glass breaking under his feet with his eyes glazed over in ferocity. Sansa's legs wouldn't budge as Myranda clung to her, clawing at Sansa's legs and squealing out her pleas for the man to go away. With one forceful pull, Podrick yanked Sansa free from Myranda's grasp and took a hold of her wrist before running at a furious pace towards the service staircase.
In a few hurried strides, the man crossed the kitchen, almost effortlessly closing the distance between him and Sansa. One of his hands wrapped around her arm and pulled her backwards as a stunned Podrick let go of her wrist. Spinning her around to face him, Sansa stumbled into the man, her legs melting beneath her as her knees refused to hold her weight any longer. Still clutching his pistol, the man caught her in his free arm and steadied her to her feet.
As the man tried to pull her back across the kitchen, Sansa fought feebly against him, turning in his arm so that her back was to his chest as she reached out screaming for Podrick who stood by helplessly, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly.
With as much force as she could muster, Sansa swung her elbow into the man's stomach, loosening his grip on her just enough so that she could break free of his arm. As she took two wobbling steps forward, Sansa stumbled and fell to the ground, wincing in pain as shards of glass cut into the skin of her arms and legs.
Flipping her over to her back, the man tried to pull her up. His effort was futile as Sansa frantically flailed her arms and legs to stave the man off as she struggled to get back to her feet and flee. Before she could crawl away, the man flipped her to her back once more and straddled her, sitting on her legs and pinning her arms down above her head, one of his large hands easily encircling both of her wrists. Sansa squirmed underneath him and whimpered as she felt the glass pushing further in her skin.
"Please! Please, don't!"
The man lowered himself on top of her, still holding her hands above her head and resting his other forearm next to her face, his pistol looming dangerously close to her cheek. As his face lingered a few inches above hers, Sansa could smell the scent of blood and whiskey on him, mingling amongst the faint smell of his cologne. Strands of his hair brushed against her cheek, sticking to the tears that were streaming from her eyes.
"Unless you want to die tonight, Sansa Stark, you had better fucking cooperate with me. I'm not a patient man."
Sansa could feel his voice vibrate through her as it came deep and bellowing from his chest, flickered with a strange calm despite his threatening words.
With his weight on top of her, Sansa's pleas came as stifled mewling sounds, indistinguishable through her trembling lips. More tears filled her eyes as the smoke began to stream into the room, blurring her vision and further siphoning the breath from her lungs in gagging coughs.
Through the smoke, Sansa could see that Podrick had somehow managed to glide his way past them and was standing above the man, clutching a knife in both of his shaking hands. Seeing her gaze shift, the man pulled himself up from Sansa, but it was too late. Podrick plunged the blade of the knife in the man's lower back.
Groaning in rage and frustration, the man pulled the knife from his back and tossed it aside. As he lifted his weight from her slightly, Sansa pulled her legs out from underneath him with a sudden jerk. Stumbling to her feet and with Podrick pulling her by the wrist, Sansa ran to the back staircase with her eyes searching the kitchen for Myranda. The girl was nowhere to be found, seemingly having slipped away.
As they burst through the back door and into the night, a steady rainfall lashed against their faces as the wind was a deafening roar against their ears. With Podrick leading the way, they ran through the gardens behind the Royce estate, weaving through the tall shrubs and trees, trampling over flower beds and herb patches. Turning her gaze momentarily behind her, Sansa saw as half of the mansion was engulfed in flames, the peonies garlands and beautiful turrets of the house melting into grotesque shapes under the blaze. Gunshots pierced through the night, but the screams softened as they ran down the hill that separated the Royce and Payne properties from one another.
Sansa kept her stare forward as they neared Podrick's house, her legs burning as the embedded glass worked its way further into her delicate flesh. Lightening flashed above them and illuminated the sky so that it shown like daytime. Petrified that the scarred man was fast on their heels, Sansa reluctantly turned her gaze around her shoulder, almost certain she would find him there. Behind her all she saw were plumes of violent flames stark against the churning of the stormy sky. Beyond that, the expanse behind her was empty.
After running for what felt like an eternity, Sansa and Podrick pushed through the back door of his house, both falling to the cold tile floor panting and gasping for breath. Bursts of lightening illuminated the house, which was pitch dark and dreadfully silent. Podrick sat with his back against the wall, dazed and shaking and his mouth opening and closing ever so slightly as he mumbled to himself.
Scooting across the floor, Sansa slid next to him and placed her hand on his shoulder. Panicked, Podrick snapped his stare towards the ceiling as the sounds of footsteps creaked above them. Pushing himself quietly to his feet and pulling Sansa up with him, he pushed his index finger to his lips, shushing Sansa despite her silence.
The footsteps above them moved slowly and deliberately, pacing towards the front of the house towards the staircase situated near the foyer. With his eyes wide and his body trembling, Podrick turned towards her, his words a barely discernible whisper.
"Someone's here. We have to go."
In soft, silent steps, Podrick led the way through the darkness to the door of the garage. Pushing his hand in his pocket, he pulled out his car keys. Through quivering fingers, the keys hit the ground with an echoing thud against the tile floor. The pacing steps above them turned to hurried stomping down the foyer stairs. In one sweeping motion, Podrick snatched the keys from the ground and swung open the door to the garage, pulling Sansa with him.
As Sansa swung into the passenger seat of the car, Podrick fumbled with the keys, his hands shaking uncontrollably.
"Podrick! Hurry, please! We have to get out of here."
Finally, his clumsy fingers pushed the keys into the ignition as the garage door opened behind them. With her breath catching painfully in her chest, Sansa saw the form of a man behind them, a silhouette against the volatile sky. As the man neared closer, Sansa's blood ran cold through her veins. The security guard. The one from the gate.
With a devious smile spread about his face, the man clutched an assault rifle in his hand and started towards them. Throwing the car into reverse, Podrick slammed on the acceleration, hitting the man with a thud and sending him flying through the air.
The tires squealed loudly as they flew at a furious pace out of the driveway and down the street, away from the hellish nightmare the evening had become. Turning in her seat, Sansa looked through the rear view window and saw with horror as the Royce estate was fully engulfed with flames. Her heart pounded and her eyes were stinging with tears at the thought that her mother and Myranda might still be there. But she knew, with crystalline and painful clarity, they could not turn back. So with a storm raging above them, Sansa and Podrick fled into the night and into an entirely uncertain future.