Sansa stood on the steps of Winterfell and watched as the Tyrell men lifted Arya and Rickon's luggage into the carriage. Though it was bitterly cold, she did not wear a coat. It was a penance of sorts; a punishment for what she was about to do. Bran sat beside her in his chair, nearly completely hidden beneath his heavy blankets. He hadn't spoken to her for three days, ever since he realized she truly meant to send them away. She could not bear to look at him and see that anger and grief in his eyes, the same anger and grief she wore beneath her carefully crafted facade. She would remain strong; she would not let them see what it cost her to do this.
Arya came out of the house, head held high. As if to humiliate Sansa--no, not as if, it was to humiliate her--she wore not a dress, as Sansa had specifically requested, but trousers and a waistcoat. She even wore her sword at her waist, that ridiculous thing Jon had given her before he had gone off to war. Sansa bit her tongue and said nothing, even as Arya refused the hand of the carriage driver.
Rickon came last, Osha following him with Shaggydog at their feet. Osha had chosen to go with them, and Sansa had, after consulting with Margaery, agreed to it. In truth, it would be easier without Osha; the fewer servants she had to pay, the less difficult the next few months would be. Rickon had fought Sansa at first, steadfastly refusing to leave until Sansa had finally put her foot down and said he had to go. He had thrown a tantrum at that and locked himself in his room for over a day. No one had taken Sansa’s side except the servants who understood the circumstances.
She was prepared for Rickon to snub her as well, but to her surprise, he stopped to seize her in a hug. Startled, she at first did nothing; then she wrapped her arms around his thin shoulders and rested her head against his golden curls. He had grown quite tall in the last few years; Sansa suspected he would end up the tallest of the Starks. "Do we really have to go?" he asked.
Unbidden, tears came to her eyes. A lady did not cry in public, she reminded herself. She gently prised Rickon off her and knelt down to look him in the eye. "You will be very happy with the Tyrells, I promise. Margaery is lovely, and Highgarden is the most beautiful place you could hope to see. You won't even miss Winterfell." She forgave herself that last lie; perhaps it might even turn out to be true.
"And you will visit?" Rickon asked, wiping at his nose with the back of his sleeve. Sansa tugged his hand away and took out her handkerchief to clean his face.
"Of course," she said. "And Bran too. Now be strong and keep your sister safe, all right?"
Rickon nodded fiercely, small face set, and Sansa had to repress a laugh. As though Arya would need anyone to keep her safe, let alone Rickon. But perhaps it would give him a sense of purpose. At least they were together; they had that.
Once Rickon had climbed up into the carriage, Sansa came down the steps to greet Loras, Margaery's brother. When she was younger, Sansa thought him handsome and had hoped he might offer for her once she was of age. Instead he had taken the cloth and taken up residence at the parish on the grounds of Highgarden, in time to marry his sister to Renly Baratheon. Though Margaery was not the lady of Highgarden in name, in practice she served as the family head while her brother Garlan lived with his wife at Brightwater and Willas remained unmarried.
"Thank you for coming yourself," Sansa said after Loras had bowed. "I cannot tell you how thankful I am to your family for taking in my brother and sister. We are in your debt."
"There is no debt," Loras said with that smile she had adored so as a lovestruck girl. "We count the Starks as our friends. We were devastated to hear of your parents' and brother's passing. You are fortunate that the rest of you did not succumb to the disease."
Sansa did not look back to Bran, at his ruined legs. "Yes," she said. "We are fortunate indeed."
"Of course you want the best for your siblings, and at present it must be difficult to provide them with the education and upbringing they deserve," Loras said. "I can assure you that Margaery will spare no expense. We will treat them as part of our family."
"Though you say otherwise, I say again, I am in your debt." Sansa bowed her head in thanks. "Please pass along my greetings and thanks to Lady Margaery and Lord Renly. If there is anything in the future they may desire and it is in my power to give, they need only ask."
Loras bowed again and bade her farewell. Sansa retreated to the steps to watch the carriages leave. Rickon waved; Sansa lifted her hand. Arya did not even look up.
Beside her, Bran asked Wylis to return him inside. Sansa did not move, watching the carriage retreat towards the horizon, until the mist had swallowed it. Then she turned, strode inside, and commanded that the doors be shut. She shook her head at offers of supper and instead returned to her room. There, she sat on the floor by the fire and at last let the tears come, sobbing until her skirt was soaked and her chest ached. Once she had exhausted herself, she stood, wiped at her face, and set off to have Arya and Rickon's rooms closed.
In the morning, their family's longtime solicitor came to speak with her. Petyr Baelish had never been a favorite of Sansa's; she did not like the way his eyes lingered on her, nor the way he spoke of her mother with longing. Servants’ gossip said that he had proposed to Catelyn when they were teenagers, but by then Catelyn had already been betrothed. Sansa suspected that despite the years between then and now, Baelish had never truly moved past that rejection, but of course, that was no reason to keep him from her presence.
Her father had not liked Baelish either, but Catelyn believed he was trustworthy, and so they had entrusted him with knowledge of the family's finances. Their passing meant that Sansa had to spend rather more time than she liked with him, until she was content that she understood their situation. She suspected that he had his own motives for how and why he chose to help her; but as she could not find fault in his advice, she was forced to listen until other options became available.
"Is it done?" Baelish asked when Sansa welcomed him into the study that had once been her father's. "The house seems quieter."
"Yes," Sansa said. "Arya and Rickon left yesterday morning."
"That should help take the strain off your finances," Baelish said, as he had said when he first suggested it. He sat down across from her at her nod. "But we must discuss your situation further."
Sansa did not groan, though she wanted to. "I am well aware of my situation, Mr. Baelish."
"You are?" Baelish sat back, trying to hide his smirk and failing badly. Sansa bristled internally. He thought she was still a stupid girl. Well, she was not.
"I have no resources," Sansa said bluntly. "No money. If I do not do something quickly, the wolves will descend upon us and seek to force Winterfell out of our hands. If it is not the royal family, it will be someone else. The Greyjoys might make a claim through Theon. My cousins at Riverrun or the Eyrie could be persuaded to insist they take stewardship of Winterfell. I cannot have that. The Starks belong at Winterfell, and we will not be chased from our home." She stood, chin held high. "The solution is very clear. I must find myself a husband."
Baelish said nothing for a long moment, his smirk having turned into a smile. "Precisely what I would have suggested, Lady Stark. Do you have any candidates in mind?"
"No," Sansa said. "But from a powerful house with access to the funds I cannot have would be preferable. I leave for Town in two weeks. The Season begins."
"Milady," Baelish said as he, too, rose to his feet. "It is a bold plan to be sure. But what of Bran? Should he be left alone? I can stay with him—"
"Thank you, but no." Sansa smiled so that he would not take it hard; she did not want him to know she did not trust him. "Bran's dear friends the Reeds will be coming to stay at Winterfell, and my uncle Benjen has promised to look after them. Bran shall be well cared for. I need you where you work best, Mr. Baelish: I need you to find out what you can about the Queen regent's investigation into my father."
“Very well.” Baelish rose and bowed to her. “I look forward to seeing you in Town, milday.”
“And you, sir.” Sansa waited for him to leave before she let herself sit again. Her hands were trembling; she pressed them between her knees and knotted her fingers in the fabric of her skirt. It would all be all right; she had to keep believing that. She had to be brave and strong, like her lady mother. That was how they would survive.
“No, the green dress,” Sansa said to Jeyne. “Thank you.”
She surveyed the arrayed clothing with a critical eye. She had done her best to hide how out of fashion they were, but she would have to wait until she arrived at King’s Landing to finish the alterations. If she was careful, no one would know that she was wearing made-over gowns. It would not do for people to know just how much she was struggling.
There was a loud, impatient knock at the door. “Come in,” Sansa called.
Bran came in, his face set. His knuckles were white on the wheels of his chair, and he looked as furious as she had ever seen him. Sansa braced herself; she had been waiting for this.
“You are going to Town?” Bran asked, a hard edge to his voice. “Were you even going to tell me? You send Arya and Rickon away, and then you go to Town to swan about? Our family is hardly six months dead. I always knew you were selfish, Sansa, but this is just cruel.”
Sansa straightened up and dismissed Jeyne with a wave of her hand. As soon as the door had closed behind Jeyne, she looked at Bran. “Selfish?” she asked softly. “I am the only one who is paying any attention to our family’s well-being.”
”By satisfying your own vanity?”
”You chose not to take on the responsibilities of Lord of Winterfell,” Sansa said. “You were ill—you are still ill—so I did not hold it against you. But whenever I tried to speak to you of our situation, you said not now, not now. Do you even know how close we are to losing our home?”
Bran went white, his hands clenching at the armrests of his chair. “What?”
”Ah, now you want to listen.” Sansa felt horribly, strangely triumphant. Before, every time she had tried to explain why she had to dismiss Nan, had to shutter up their parents’ rooms, had to sell off their horses, Bran had ignored her. He was young, hardly more than a boy, and the sickness that had claimed their parents had nearly killed him, too, and so at first she had forgiven him for it. But as the decisions became harder and his anger became clearer, she resented his absence, his lack of desire to take his rightful place as Lord Stark.
“Before his death, our father had an argument with the Queen regent over some matter. Before he died, she raised our taxes to the limit, began conscripting our men for the war. Mother and Father borrowed to pay for Robb’s doctors once he was ill, and then for you and themselves. And they would not beggar our tenants only to have the queen bleed us all dry. We have no money, Bran. We are out of favor with the royal family, and if we do not do something, they will give our lands away to our cousins, or worse.”
”But I am Lord of Winterfell,” Bran said.
“You are crippled,” Sansa said, brutal. She saw how the words wounded Bran and wished she could be kinder, but he had to understand. “I myself do not believe that to be an impediment to your abilities. But the moment it became clear that you were to inherit Winterfell, I began to receive missives suggesting that you were not competent to manage the estate. The crown wishes to take our land from us and give it to another family. One ‘better suited’ to hold such a valuable estate.”
“Then why are you going to Town?” Bran demanded. “Should we not stay here and fight?”
“I have tried,” Sansa said. “I have cut costs and sold off what I could. That is why Arya and Rickon are with the Tyrells. Margaery agreed to care for them so that cost would not be on our books. But I am running out of options, and winter is coming. We will not survive a snow like has been predicted. There is too much damage to the lands already.”
Bran sat back, hands slowly relaxing. His face was ashen, and Sansa knew that Bran had truly not known. He had been pretending that nothing was wrong; she understood why. If she could pretend, if she could tell herself that life was just as it had been before, she would. “Why have you not told me any of this?”
“I tried,” Sansa said. “You did not listen.”
Bran sighed and rubbed at his face. For a moment, he looked far older than his seventeen years; and Sansa saw the lord he might be. A thoughtful, brave lord. Like their father had been. “I am sorry, Sansa. I—I did not know. I thought you were angry that our parents’ deaths cost you the Season you were owed, or—I don’t know what I thought.” His voice was heavy with regret, and Sansa knelt down at his side to take his hand.
“There’s nothing we could have done differently,” Sansa said quietly. “I would have liked your help at the beginning, but now that is the past.”
Bran squeezed her hand. “But I am sorry nevertheless.” For a moment they sat in silence, both lost in thought. Bran then asked, “Why are you going to Town, then?”
“I am going to find a husband,” Sansa said, releasing his hand. “Someone who can provide us the wealth and strength of alliance we need to keep back the wolves. Any money I receive I will send to you, so that you may prove yourself a worthy steward of Winterfell.” She sighed and sat down heavily on the edge of her bed. “I do not know what I will do. If Prince Joffrey were alive—”
“You would not marry that monster,” Bran said fiercely. “Not for me. Not even for Winterfell.”
Sansa smiled despite herself at Bran’s protectiveness. He had never liked Joffrey, even before he had revealed his true colors in the way he liked to humiliate Sansa or the time he had started a fight with Arya. “I would brave that monster for you.” She looked down at her lap and smoothed her skirt over her knees. “There must always be a Stark in Winterfell . That is what Mother used to say. I will not let us lose this place.”
“Very well,” Bran said. “But promise me you will not allow yourself to be married to anyone who will harm you. Winterfell is not worth that.”
Sansa promised and, with a lightened heart, she allowed Bran to stay while she finished packing, the two of them discussing the state of Winterfell and all Sansa had done in her efforts to preserve it. It was wonderful having her brother back in her confidence, and she felt as though a great burden had been lifted from her shoulders.
When Jon Snow was seven years old, Theon Greyjoy confronted him in the gardens at Winterfell and informed him, with no small amount of glee, that Jon was a bastard.
“A bastard?” Jon had asked. “What does that mean?”
“It means your parents weren’t married when you were born,” Theon had said. “You have no family. You will inherit nothing. No one will ever want you.”
At that age, Theon had been utterly insufferable; later in life he grew out of it, especially after the War, but back then Jon expected Theon to be awful. He remembered distinctly trying to convince himself that Theon was only trying to be mean. But the word had stuck with him: bastard. He did not carry the name Stark, as did Robb and Arya and Bran. Unlike Theon, he had no memories of a family before he came to be a ward of Ned Stark. So that night he had found Ned, whom he had called Father his entire life, and said the word: bastard.
Ned’s eyebrows had drawn together, not quite in a scowl, but near enough that Jon had regretted mentioning it. “Now where would you have heard that word?”
“Around,” Jon had said, because even at seven he knew not to betray his peers, even rats like Theon. “Is it true, then? Am I a bastard?”
Ned had knelt down to Jon’s level and taken his hands and said, “You are my son in every way that matters.” Back then, that had been enough to satisfy him. Now Jon recognized it for the evasion that it was. Ned had never formally acknowledged Jon as his bastard, even as he raised him as part of the family. For years Jon had thought it was to spare Lady Catelyn’s feelings.
But perhaps, he thought as he stared unseeingly at the letter clutched in his hand, it was because Ned knew that one day Jon might receive a letter such as this. A letter, claiming him as the son of Rhaegar Targaryen, heir to Dragonstone and the Crownlands. A letter signed by a maester who had witnessed his birth and swore it was true, before the old gods and the new.
And if Jon had any question as to why Ned would take in the son of Rhaegar, that too was answered: his mother was Lyanna Stark.
“Bad news?” Tormund asked briskly, having delivered Jon the letter as they sat inside their garrison awaiting orders. The men around them were clearly listening, though they did their best to hide it. Life at the border was often quite dull, punctuated by brief skirmishes with the Emperor’s forces. Jon was sure they were hoping for a love letter or some news from Westeros, anything to pass the time.
“My—uncle is dead,” Jon said after a moment. “So I suppose yes.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Tormund clapped Jon awkwardly on the shoulder. “Were you very close with him?”
“I’ve never met him in my life,” Jon said honestly. He had never met a Targaryen, and never thought he would. The family that was left lived in Essos now, far away, and many assumed they would stay there, never to reclaim their title or lands in Westeros. But Viserys’s death meant that Jon was the sole male Targaryen left; Rhaegar had left specific instructions that Jon was to be treated as heir in that event.
“That’s a bit awkward, isn’t it?” Tormund laughed uproariously before quieting when he saw the troubled look on Jon’s face. “What else, then?”
“I must return to King’s Landing,” Jon said. He folded the letter into quarters and slipped it inside his coat. His head was spinning already with all he must do. The letter from his solicitor had outlined his course of action, and though he was loathe to claim a family he had never met, he knew he was honor-bound to see their lands were taken care of until he might find a more suitable heir. “I’m afraid I’ve been made a Lord.”
“A Lord?” Tormund guffawed. “You hear that, lads? Our Jon’s a Lord! All hail Lord Snow!”
All around the room, heads turned. Edd lifted a cup and shouted, “Lord Snow!” and so did Ulmer and Satin and the others. Soon the walls were ringing with cheers, and despite the shock still in his veins, Jon smiled.
General Thorne did not take the news of Jon’s new position kindly. He sneered, as he usually did, and announced that it was all well and good for Lords to skip out on real battle. Jon gritted his teeth and did not point out that he had more than proved himself on the battlefield. Thorne would never like him, and he had come to accept that. It was enough that he had the respect of the other men.
Tormund he took with him, insisting he was to be the Targaryen man-at-arms when Thorne tried to protest . Tormund was not one of them; he had been born in a village in the Empire, and had only become part of their battalion following his capture. Jon did not trust that Tormund would be well-treated in his absence. He knew too well what people thought of the Imperials.
“Sure you want to bring me?” Tormund asked as they packed for their ship south. Rather, Jon was packing; Tormund sat at the foot of Jon’s bed, swinging his feet. “I’m not all posh like the lot you’re going to be rubbing elbows with now.”
“That’s why I want you there,” Jon said. “I need someone to remind me that I’m nothing special.”
“Oh, I can do that,” Tormund said cheerfully. “But tell me how you came to be a Lord, anyhow. I thought the name Snow meant you were a bastard.”
“Technically I still am,” Jon said. “But I’m also the only male heir left.” He glanced at Tormund. “How much do you know about Rhaegar Targaryen?”
Tormund shrugged. “All I know is he died,” he said. “Heard the name from people here. Sounded like a nasty story.”
“It is.” Jon sat down beside Tormund. “I didn’t know all the details until now.”
Growing up in the Stark household meant he had always known the story of Rhaegar and Lyanna. Lyanna had been a famous beauty; but more than that, she had been charming and headstrong. A unique girl. Ned had loved her dearly. When Lyanna had made her debut at court, she had made an immediate impression. King Robert, Ned’s close friend, had asked permission to court her; but by then Lyanna had fallen in love with Rhaegar. It could not be. He was a married man, but no one could miss how they danced with each other, even when Lady Elia was watching.
“Rhaegar was a good, honorable man,” Ned had said once. “We all knew him to be a generous lord, a kind master, and a loving husband. But something happened the day he met Lyanna. If they had met a few years earlier, before his marriage—perhaps the matter might have been salvaged.”
Lady Catelyn had rarely spoken of Lyanna, but on those rare occasions, she often said that Lyanna was too willfully romantic for her own good. “She wasn’t naïve, exactly,” she had said. “But she had dreams, and she let those get the better of her in the end.”
Ned had forced them to separate, reminding them that Rhaegar had his duties, and Lyanna had hers. Lyanna had agreed to leave Rhaegar, and after a period of separation, Rhaegar appeared to get over his infatuation. Lyanna was engaged to the King, and everyone rejoiced at the idea of their new queen, a beauty from a well-regarded house. What more could they ask for?
The month before her marriage to Robert, Lyanna disappeared. Rhaegar Targaryen disappeared several days later. King Robert engaged in a massive manhunt to find her, and at the end of it, Lyanna was found dead in an inn in the Riverlands, in a room rented under Rhaegar’s name. The details were confused, but the story that circulated was that Rhaegar had murdered Lyanna in a jealous rage. Jon knew now that Lyanna had died giving birth. She had died giving birth to him.
King Robert’s anger was fierce and immediate. Rhaegar was given a public execution in the capitol. The remaining Targaryens fled to Essos, fearful of Robert’s rage and humiliated by Rhaegar’s misdeeds. Dragonstone was put into trust, and the Crownlands were seized by the King himself to be used as hunting grounds. The King mourned Lyanna for two years, so they said, before he at last took Cersei Lannister as his wife. Upon his return from the wedding, Ned Stark stopped off in a small village for a night and returned to Winterfell with Jon in his arms.
Ned had never given any explanation for Jon, had only brought him to Catelyn and said that they were to raise him as their own. As Jon grew older, he came to resemble Ned more strongly than any of his children save perhaps Arya. People had no doubt that he was a by-blow of Ned’s, and Ned had done nothing to dissuade people of that belief. Perhaps it was to preserve his sister’s honor, or perhaps it was to protect Jon. He would never know the answer to that now.
He told all of this to Tormund, who listened with wide eyes and an open mouth. “Bloody hell,” Tormund said when Jon finished. “They always said that the families of Westeros were complicated.”
Jon smiled. “I suppose we are. In any event, as Viserys is dead, I am now the heir to the Targaryen name. It is my duty to go to King’s Landing and announce myself formally to Queen Myrcella. I should be able to claim Dragonstone and the Crownlands, and perhaps I might even convince her to allow my aunt back into the country. It is all ancient history by now.”
“How do you do that?” Tormund asked. “Give the queen a good fucking?”
“Queen Myrcella is seventeen,” Jon said reprovingly.
“Well, then, her mother, the Queen regent.” Tormund grinned and waggled his tongue suggestively. “I hear she’s properly beautiful. Wouldn’t mind getting my head between those legs.”
“You’re disgusting,” Jon said without rancor. “I doubt you’d be saying that if you’d ever met her.”
“Once,” Jon said. “A long time ago.” Back when they thought Sansa would marry the prince. Thank the gods that had come to nothing. Robb had thought Queen Cersei very beautiful, and she was. But there was a coldness about her eyes that frightened Jon, and she had always been dismissive of him. He was only a bastard, after all; she did not need to pay him any attention. “She is not a woman to be treated lightly.”
“I see.” Tormund stroked his beard contemplatively. “So perhaps you might just flirt with her.”
Jon stood and resumed packing his belongings for their journey. “I have sent a raven to my solicitor,” Jon said. “They know to expect us. I hope to only stay in Town long enough to speak with the queen before I go to Winterfell. I should like to see my family again.” His heart squeezed at the thought. The last time he had seen them, the Starks had been whole and unbroken. Jon had missed the bout of the Sweating Sickness that had swept Westeros, taking King Robert and his sons, as well as Ned, Lady Catelyn, and Robb. He hadn’t been there when they died; he never got to say goodbye.
“And I’m to come with you,” Tormund said. “Never thought I’d see King’s Landing, unless we managed to make it across the channel and conquer you lot.”
Jon snorted at that. “That would have been lucky.”
“I’ll have you know we are fierce warriors.” Tormund flexed his arm. “I suppose that’s what I’m to do, eh? Protect you from the ladies who’ll be throwing themselves at you for your fortune.”
“I doubt it,” Jon said. “I’m still a bastard.”
“A bastard with a shitload of money ,” Tormund said, waggling his finger. “And a title to boot. And you aren’t bad looking, for such a gloomy sod. I’m telling you, as soon as you arrive back in that city of yours, you’ll have every single lady in the country on you.”
Jon shook his head, smiling despite himself. “Then it is a good thing I am bringing my trusted servant along.”
“Oi. Man-at-arms.” Tormund thumped his vest. “I’ll have you know I’ll be the best damned guard in all of Westeros.”
“You may have to wear a cravat,” Jon warned, and he laughed when Tormund groaned in disgust.
Upon their arrival in King’s Landing, Jon and Tormund were greeted at the docks by a red-headed woman named Ros. She introduced herself as having been sent by Conleth Varys, the Targaryen family’s solicitor, and took them by carriage to the Targaryen estate in Town. “We took the liberty of opening it up once you sent your reply,” she said with a small incline of her head. “I do hope that it is to your liking.”
“I’m sure it will be perfectly fine,” Jon said, just as the carriage came to a stop. Ros stepped down and began calling orders to the staff—good gods, Jon had a staff. He had never had a staff, unless he counted the younger men in their regiment.
“Fuck me sideways,” Tormund said in awe when they stepped out and saw the house. It was a massive property, taking up half the block, and the façade was made of lush, red-violet marble. Jon knew that better part of the Targaryen’s wealth had come from mining the marble, called Dragonstone for the way light reflected off the red flecks. The Starks had even owned a small table of Dragonstone, a present from many generations back when the families had been on better terms. But he had never seen this much in one place. It was staggeringly opulent, a gross display of wealth, and it was his.
The crest of the Targaryen family—a three-headed dragon—was inscribed on the iron gates. Jon reached out to them, only for the gates to swing open, revealing a well-tended path and a small army of servants waiting beyond.
Ros proved to be not only Varys’s trusted messenger, but the head housekeeper as well. She introduced him to the staff, so many names that Jon could not hold them all in his memory, and led them both to their rooms. Jon, as Lord Targaryen, received the master bedroom; it seemed as large as their entire encampment in the north. His trunk had already been brought upstairs and left at the foot of his bed. It looked very lonely and rather pathetic. Jon sat down on the edge of the bed—a huge, ridiculous thing it was, canopied and draped in silk—and stared up at the massive painting of Rhaegar and Elia that loomed over the fireplace.
Elia Martell had been a beautiful woman. In the portrait, her dark eyes seemed almost alive, though she was frail and insubstantial beside her larger-than-life husband. Jon felt as though at any minute she might speak to him. Likely to call him a bastard and blame him for her husband’s death. She had remarried after Rhaeger’s death; Jon believed she was still alive in Dorne somewhere. He hoped her husband was kinder to her than his father had been.
Rhaegar was as handsome as the stories said. Like all Targaryens, save Jon, he was extremely fair, his hair so blond as to be nearly white, and his eyes were deep violet. Jon thought he could see in Rhaegar’s face where he had gotten his build, his downturned mouth. His coloring was Lyanna’s, but the structure of his face belonged to Rhaegar. It was strange to see that, after spending so many years studying the Starks’ faces to try to suss out who he looked the most like. He had always thought it was Arya he best resembled; now he wasn’t so sure.
Tormund burst into Jon’s room, interrupting his thoughts. “Have you seen this bloody place?” he said, turning around in a circle to gape at the surroundings. “And this is all yours!”
“So it would seem.”
Tormund followed Jon’s gaze. He scratched his beard contemplatively, eying the painted figures with an unimpressed air. “Is this your father?” he asked.
“Yes,” Jon said. “And his wife, Elia Martell.”
“Who was not your mother.” Tormund shook his head and slapped Jon on the back, startling the breath from his lungs. “Jon Snow! Your Westrosi families are so complicated. And you call us uncivilized.”
Jon smiled. It was hard to feel maudlin with Tormund around. And now that he was here, Jon could enlist his help. “I suppose we have our own share of uncivilized behavior. Perhaps I should keep it up, but I feel rather strange having them stare at me. Would you help me take this down?”
Together they dragged a chest over so they could reach the painting and ease from the wall. They set it down facing away from the room, and Jon made a note to ask Ros if there was a place where it could go. He had no desire to erase the house’s history; but he did not particularly desire to be reminded of his unusual birth every night when he was trying to sleep.
“How is your room?” Jon asked as he pushed the chest back to the foot of his bed. “Everything all right?”
“It’s three times the size of that hovel we were staying in up north,” Tormund said. “Bed’s too bloody soft, if you ask me, but I think it’ll do just fine.”
“Glad everything is to your liking, Sir Tormund,” Jon said. Tormund snorted and made a rude gesture “We ought to go thank the staff,” Jon added. “That’s what Fa—that’s what Lord Stark always did.”
“I’ve never had a staff before,” Tormund said as he followed Jon from the room. “I suppose you must be used to it, raised in a castle and all that.”
“I wasn’t raised in a castle,” Jon said. “Or, well, it isn’t really a castle.”
“Lord Snow,” Tormund said cheerfully. “Probably never slept on anything but the finest goose feathers until you joined the army.”
“Swan feathers,” Jon said. “Nothing but swans for us Starks.”
Tormund burst out into raucous laughter that echoed around the corridors. A maid poked her head from one of the rooms, smiled in return, and disappeared again. Jon grinned. He had made a good choice bringing Tormund along.
Ros was in the parlor when they entered, and she dropped a curtsey when she saw them. She had put a cap on over her red hair and had a cleaning cloth in one hand. Jon couldn’t imagine what it was she was dusting; the room looked absolutely immaculate.
“I trust everything is to your satisfaction, milord?” she asked.
“You’ve done a wonderful job,” Jon said. “I should tell you that I’m rather new to this.”
“We know, milord.” Ros bobbed another curtsey, as if to make up for her cheeky tone. “Mr. Hill, your solicitor, he asked us to look after you. He’s looking out for you, too, though he’s very busy. He sends his apologies for not being able to greet you in person.”
“That’s all right,” Jon said. “Is there anything I need to know?”
“You already have several invitations,” Ros said. “You’ll find them on the table in the front hall. And Mr. Hill says the Queen has summoned you to appear before her in a weeks’ time.”
“Of course,” Jon said. He started to bow, realized that he was her lord, and ended up nodding his head in a decidedly ungainly way. “Thank you, Ros.”
Ros looked as though she were trying very hard not to laugh; the corners of her mouth were twitching. “Not at all, Lord Targaryen.”
“Oh—no,” Jon said. “Lord Snow will be fine. Or Jon.”
Ros did smile then, a soft, sad sort of smile. “Lord Snow.” She curtsied again. “Do tell me if there’s anything you need.”
“Right,” Jon said, and he left as quickly as he could while not appearing to be fleeing. Tormund was laughing at him under his breath. “What?”
“She’s got red hair, that one,” Tormund said. “Feeling a bit tongue-tied?”
“She’s my servant,” Jon said. “That would be a terrible overreach of my authority, even if she were willing.”
“I know, I’m just teasing you.” Tormund nudged him in the side. “I’m going to investigate the kitchens.”
Jon waved him on and continued to the front hall. Just as Ros said, there was a small pile of calling cards and invitations waiting for him. Many were from people he had only heard of, like the Hartes and the Cranes, but there were a few he put aside to accept, like the invitation from Lady Cerwyn and the card from Wylla Manderly. At the bottom was a letter from Varys that told him, in no uncertain terms, to accept the invitation from Lady Crane, to decline all offers from the Freys (who were out of favor with the royal family), and to expect a formal summoning from the Queen in the next few days.
He finished off the letter with, I am so dreadfully sorry I could not be there to greet you myself, my lord, but I am afraid I am occupied in handling the estate of your Aunt Daenerys, who would have inherited if it were not for your late father’s will. Do accept my apologies, and I humbly ask that you trust me in what I ask.
Yr obedient servant,
Jon folded up the letter, a little amused by the flowery language, and took the whole lot of them. He had to ask Ros for directions to the study, but once he had found it, he set to writing responses. This, at least, he knew a little of; he had done some of this kind of thing for Lord Mormont. His handwriting had never been very good, but they would have to accept that. As long as it was legible: that was all that mattered.
Lady Crane’s invitation he accepted once he had taken the time to think over his response, as he knew her to be a well-loved hostess and her approval could make or destroy a person’s reputation. He was very careful in his words, thanking her for the consideration and expressing his desire to make her acquaintance properly. When he was satisfied, he sprinkled sand over the ink, folded it up, and went to find Ros again so he could ask her who sent his letters for him.
Sansa departed Winterfell with a heavy heart. She never liked to leave home, not anymore, and while King’s Landing had once been a sparkling jewel of perfection in her imagination, she now knew it to be no different from any place else. People there were no kinder, the air was no sweeter, the weather—well, the weather was a little better, but it had winter, same as everywhere else, and the summers were unbearable. She was comforted by the knowledge that Winterfell was in safe hands. Now that Bran was aware of their situation, he had taken to studying their finances, telling her he may as well as he could no longer hunt or ride.
The house in Town was no longer its usual splendor. Sansa had been forced to let it out during the summer months for extra money, and she had sold the furniture and decorations that held no sentimental value. She took the first few days after her arrival to sort through her parents’ and Robb’s clothing that remained in the house. She no longer felt like crying just at the sight of them; but she could not help tracing the embroidered wolf on her father’s doublet.
“Oh, Father,” she said quietly. “What a mess I’ve made of your legacy.”
Her mother’s gowns she set aside to take apart for fabric. Robb and Father’s clothes could be remade for Bran or even Rickon once he was older. She hoped by then they would not have to scrimp and save every last noble, but she needed to plan for every eventuality. That was what this whole mess had taught her.
Baelish called upon her at the end of her first week in Town. She accepted him into the parlor for tea and pretended she did not notice him inventorying the sadly diminished room. He told her he had been unsuccessful in persuading the Queen regent to forgive the Stark family for Ned’s offense, but that he was optimistic for the future. He then asked if she had any thoughts about who she might marry.
“I haven’t even been here a week, Mr. Baelish,” Sansa said. “I have had no time to attend any social events as of yet.”
“Though it seems you do not lack for invitations.” Baelish indicated the small pile of cards on the table. “Will you be at Lady Crane’s soiree two weeks hence? She has said it will be a night to remember.”
“Lady Crane’s soirees are always highly memorable,” Sansa said. “Am I to assume I will see you there?”
“You shall.” Baelish inclined his head. “And if I may be so bold, I would like to request your hand for the first dance of the evening.”
“Oh—” Sansa said, startled. “Are you sure?”
“Quite sure, my dear.” Something in the way he said my dear sent an unpleasant shiver down Sansa’s spine. “Will you do me the honor?”
Sansa could not think of a way to refuse without offending him. Though Baelish was only a solicitor, he was highly respected and was a long acquaintance of her family. There was nothing untoward about his request, save for the way he looked at her as though she were a prize to be won. “I suppose I will,” she said reluctantly.
Her answer did not please him. Anger flickered across his face before he regained control of his placid smile. “Thank you, Lady Stark. I look forward to it.”
They both stood, and he bowed over her hand. Sansa discreetly rubbed her palm against her skirt as he made as if to leave. Just as he reached the door, he looked back at her. “Have you heard the news about your brother?”
“I beg your pardon?” Sansa asked, voice even despite the sudden rush of panic. Had something happened to Bran? To Rickon? Surely she would have heard first. “My brother?”
“Well, that’s just it,” Baelish said. “As it turns out he isn’t your brother.” He smiled, foxlike, a deeply unsettling smile that never failed to put Sansa’s back up. “Jon Snow is no longer a bastard.”
Sansa kept her face calm, even as her heart leapt at the mention of Jon, whom she had not seen in nearly five years. Though they had never been close, in the days and weeks after Robb’s death, she had missed him dearly. If he had been there, perhaps Arya would not have grown so angry. Perhaps Bran would not have grown so cold. Perhaps he might have lifted some of the burden from her shoulders. “And who has claimed him?”
“Rhaegar Targaryen,” Baelish said.
“Rhaegar Targaryen is dead.”
“Ah, yes.” Baelish swept his arms out. “And so is his heir, Viserys. Thus a part of his will comes to light: Rhaegar’s son, Jon Snow, must inherit.”
“And who was his mother?” Sansa asked, dreading the answer even as the words left her mouth.
“Why, your late aunt,” Baelish said. “Lyanna Stark. I believe he is returning to King’s Landing this week to claim his inheritance.” He bowed again. “Good day, Lady Stark,” he said, and he slid from the room like an eel.
Any doubts about the veracity of Baelish’s tale were extinguished by the gossip. Everyone had heard about Jon, it seemed; everyone but Sansa. She had received no letter, no word from him about his altered fortune. Not that she should have expected it. She and Jon had never been close. He had always been with Robb or with Arya, and Sansa had thought him beneath her. She wished now that she had not treated him so poorly. She had done so because her mother hated him; but she was wise enough now to know that her mother was not always right.
Still, the news gave her an unexpected advantage: everyone was suddenly eager to see her and find out what she knew about Jon. So long as she let small, inconsequential details slip—how her father had never said who Jon’s mother was, for example—the matrons were satisfied. In exchange, she learned which gentlemen were searching for brides that season.
The first and perhaps most desirable prospect was Willas Tyrell. He was Margaery’s elder brother, handsome and kind, and heir to the Tyrell fortune and lands. He was kind, and marrying him would mean she would be sisters with Margaery, surely a happy circumstance. He only remained unmarried due to the injury that had crippled his leg, though Sansa did not think it made him any less desirable, and she believed he could be convinced to give up his seat at Highgarden in exchange for Winterfell.
The second was Tyrion Lannister, the brother of the Queen regent. On the rare occasions when she had spoken to him, he had been friendly enough, but he had a sharp tongue. Nor did Sansa fancy the idea of being related to Queen regent Cersei. Myrcella was a sweet girl, but her mother was not, and at least half Sansa’s gratefulness regarding her broken engagement with Joffrey was due to the knowledge that she would not have to live under Cersei’s thumb.
The third was Ramsay Bolton, once Ramsay Snow. His father had legitimized him the year before after his heir’s death. Sansa had met Ramsay on only a handful of occasions and had never spoken to him for very long. But something about his eyes—they were unsettling. Which perhaps was not a good reason to spurn him, but Jofferey had taught her it was better to be cautious.
There were others, too, that were in discussion: her cousin Robert Arryn, who she felt was far too young to be marrying, but whose caretakers thought he needed an heir as soon as possible; Theon Greyjoy, though she did not think marriage to him would solve any of her current problems; and, the whispers said, Petyr Belish.
She did not know why she was surprised by that last name. In all the time she had known him, Baelish had been unmarried. She was so accustomed to it that she never thought to question why that might be. And now she found herself rethinking her every interaction with him, wondering if his request for her hand at Lady Crane’s ball was the beginning of a courtship, or simply courtesy. She knew he thought her beautiful; she could tell by the way his eyes followed her around. But he was so much older than him, nearly her father’s age.
There was no point in speculation, not until she had a chance to better assess her situation. And she would have that chance at Lady Crane’s, where most, if not all, of those men would be in attendance. She submitted herself to Jeyne’s ministrations and thought instead on the flowers at Winterfell; a much more pleasant daydream.
Sansa kept her eyes closed as Jeyne ran the comb through her hair. Jeyne’s hands were gentle and kind, slipping through the strands. “You have such pretty hair, milady,” Jeyne said quietly. “Just like your late mother.”
“Yes,” Sansa said without opening her eyes. “I am often told that.”
Once Sansa’s hair had been pinned up, Jeyne helped her with her stays before she took out Sansa’s favorite blue dress. It was not quite fashionable, but Sansa could not help her small sigh of happiness at the sight of it. Jeyne smiled.
“I thought you might like this tonight, milady,” she said. “For courage.”
“Thank you, Jeyne.” Sansa touched the skirt, the softness of the fabric giving her a small bloom of hope. “I think it will do very nicely.”
It was rather strange to be attending a social event without an escort. In the past she had gone with Robb, or her mother. Now she sat in the carriage alone, watching King’s Landing pass outside her window. Once she had been so excited to come; when she had first made her debut, back when they had thought she might marry Prince Joffrey, she remembered being unable to sit still. She was convinced that her hair was falling down, or that she would forget how to curtsey. Of course, it had all gone very well, until Father had upset Queen Cersei.
Now she felt only resigned as she was handed down from her carriage outside Lady Crane’s beautiful home. The house glowed with light, and even from the steps she could hear the music and laughter. She wanted to be back at Winterfell, with Bran and Rickon and, yes, even Arya. But she had to be brave for them. So she put on her smile and ascended the stairs to make her entrance.
The house was full to the brim, and Sansa found it rather difficult to find Lady Crane at first. At last she spotted her in the corner, surrounded by admirers, and she made her way over to pay her respects. Lady Crane stood as soon as she saw her and drew Sansa into a warm embrace.
“Oh, my dear,” she said. “I am so sorry about your parents and dear Robb. We have missed you and them these past Seasons. I hope the rest of your family is doing well.”
“They are, Lady Crane, thank you.” Sansa curtsied deeply, indicating her respect with a graciously inclined head. “I will tell them you asked after them.”
“Of course.” Lady Crane cupped her cheek fondly. She had always been kind to Sansa; she had been great friends with Catelyn in her youth. “And tell dear Arya we are all looking forward to her debut.”
“I do not know if King’s Landing is ready for Arya’s debut,” Sansa said frankly, knowing it would make Lady Crane laugh.
It did; Lady Crane threw back her head in delight, attracting much attention from her gentlemen admirers. Though she was around the same age as Catelyn, rumor had it that Lady Crane had no trouble finding lovers. Sansa could understand that; she was still a beautiful woman, and one whose magnetic personality made up for her disregard of society’s more restrictive rules.
“I am glad you came, Sansa,” Lady Crane said. “Please, enjoy the party.”
“I will.” Sansa bobbed another curtsey before departing. As she made her way through the crowd, she greeted those she knew with small curtsies or nods. Many people murmured their condolences regarding her family, which she accepted with a grateful nod. She had nearly made it to the edge of the room when she was stopped by Willas Tyrell, who smiled warmly at her.
“Lady Sansa,” he said. “King’s Landing is all the brighter for having you here.”
“My Lord.” Sansa curtsied and smiled pleasantly at him, careful not to seem too eager. Of all her choices for a husband, he was her favorite. “I was sorry to have missed you when I visited Highgarden this last summer.”
“As was I,” Willas said. “I should have liked to show you the library. I understand you quite like stories.”
“I did love fairy stories as a child,” Sansa said. “Though I am older now, I think sometimes the world might be better if more people believed in them.”
“An interesting thought.” Willas offered his hand to her. “I cannot dance, but if you would take a turn about the room with me, I would be honored.”
His grandmother, Lady Olenna, was also in attendance, Sansa discovered. When she inquired as to what had brought her to Town, Willas smiled and said, “My grandmother, of course, cannot resist the temptation of the Season and its intrigues. Would you like to say hello?”
“I should like to pay my respects,” Sansa said, and she allowed Willas to lead her to where Lady Olenna sat with several other matrons, all surveying the room with interested beady eyes. Lady Olenna shook Sansa’s hand in lieu of getting up, her grip very businesslike. They had met on a few occasions before, back when Sansa had been engaged to Joffrey, and while Lady Olenna had never been precisely kind, she had always given Sansa good advice.
“And how are you, my dear?” she asked. “I was so sorry to hear about your honored parents and of course that dear boy Robb. I’m glad to see that the lions haven’t managed to descend upon you just yet, though heavens know they’ve tried.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Oh, don’t pretend that you don’t know what I’m talking about,” Lady Olenna said shrewdly. “But I see you’re trying for diplomacy. Good girl. Willas, this one’s got a good head on her shoulders. Knows her politics.”
“Her ladyship is too kind,” Sansa said, bowing her head to hide her flushing cheeks.
“Thank you, Grandmother, for that input,” Willas said, amusement coloring his tone. “Now if you’ll excuse us, I ought to return Lady Sansa to the dancers.” Willas took Sansa’s arm again and led her away. “Apologies,” he said. “Grandmother has never been one to watch her tongue, and nothing we can do can persuade her otherwise. I think she has only grown more incorrigible with time.”
“Lady Olenna is merely doing as the Tyrells do,” Sansa said. When Willas looked at her curiously, she smiled and said, “Growing strong.”
Willas laughed, a startled sound, transforming him from the often-serious man he was into something else entirely. Looking at his face, Sansa could not help but think she could do much worse than Willas for a husband.
After Willas returned her to the floor, Sansa danced with several others, some she knew and some who introduced themselves to her. Ramsay Bolton claimed her for a deeply uncomfortable dance, after which she begged off so she might find something to drink. She had a glass of wine in her hand when Baelish found her. It was a mystery to her how he moved in the circles he did; her father used to say it was because Baelish knew everyone’s secrets.
“Lady Stark,” Baelish said, inclining his head. “You look radiant tonight.”
“Thank you,” Sansa said politely. “You are too kind.”
“I speak only what is true.” Baelish bowed. “Will you do me the honor of a dance, Lady Stark? Nothing would please me more.”
There was no way out of it. She smiled and set aside her glass to take his arm. He led her towards the dance floor, chatting away, but she did not listen. She had heard something; a voice that made her want to smile. She turned her head to look, but saw no one she recognized. Perhaps it had been her imagination, her eagerness to be at home. She looked back at Baelish and laughed at whatever he had just said. She took her place in the line of dancers, smoothed her skirts, and waited for the music to begin.
That voice again! She caught a bit of it as she turned under Baelish’s arm, and she craned her neck. Not Willas; not Ramsay, never Ramsay. She stepped forward, turned, and saw him: Jon, standing with a man she did not recognize with wild red hair and an unfashionably thick beard. Her breath caught and she forgot where she was. She forgot Baelish. She forgot everything but Jon.
He was thinner than she remembered, and he wore his hair differently now. There was a scar over his right eye, and something about his bearing had changed, but it was him. She would know him anywhere, just as she would know Arya’s voice or Rickon’s whistle. Just as she had known Robb’s laugh. He was here; he was real. He could help her, perhaps, or—
But he was Rhaegar’s son. He was a Targaryen, not a Stark.
Baelish touched her arm and said her name, but she paid him no mind. Jon had turned towards her. She saw the moment where he recognized her, the little step back of surprise. He mouthed her name: Sansa? She smiled, her first true smile of the evening. He took a few hesitant steps forward. Seeming unsure of his welcome, before she gave in and ran to him.
He caught her up in a fierce embrace before she could think twice about propriety. He was an anchor keeping her tethered to the earth. Unbidden tears came to her eyes as she remembered his anguished letters in the weeks after Robb’s death; he had wanted to come home for the funeral, but war did not wait for grief. He should have been there. He belonged at Winterfell with the rest of them, no matter who his father may have been. He was a Stark; he would always be a Stark.
They clung to each other for longer than they should before he set her back down on her feet and held her at arm’s length. His dark gaze roamed over her face, taking in every part of her, and she submitted to his consideration, knowing she had done the same.
“Sansa,” he said at last, his voice thick. “I did not know you were in Town.”
“I’ve only just arrived,” she said.
“As have I.” Jon seemed to realize then that they were drawing stares, and he offered her his arm. “Let’s take a turn out in the garden. Tormund, will you be all right?”
“Is that wine for anyone?” the red-headed man asked.
“I think that’s a yes,” Jon told Sansa with a wry smile. “Come. I think we have much to discuss.”
Jon could not help sneaking looks at Sansa as they made their way from the crowded ballroom. She was completely composed, as impassive as a statue. She nodded to those she knew as they passed, but it seemed she had recalled that they were in public and had retreated within herself. Jon remembered Sansa had been the best of any of them at putting on a pleasant face under any circumstances. Robb could do it at times, but he was far too honest. He wished she were not quite so talented at hiding her feelings; he wanted to see her smile again.
The last time he had seen her, she had been fourteen going on fifteen, an awkward age for most. She was taller now, taller than him, and though the substance of her face had not changed, she had grown more beautiful. More defined, more settled into herself. She looked much like the portraits of her mother at her age, though there was something about her that reminded him of Ned, too. Perhaps it was the set of her mouth, or her bearing.
They stepped out into the garden and moved down the path away from the crowd. Sansa had not looked at him once; Jon realized that her hand was trembling on his arm.
“Sansa,” he said quietly. “Come now; it’s only me.”
Sansa drew in a breath, ragged and unsure. When she spoke, though, her voice was steady. “But you are no longer you. You are Lord Targaryen.”
“Lord Snow,” Jon said. “I am still a bastard.”
Sansa nodded. “But not my brother.”
Jon gently turned her so she was facing him. She would not meet his gaze, looking steadfastly over his shoulder instead. “We are still family, are we not? Don’t tell me you plan on abandoning me now.”
“No! Of course not.” Sansa looked down at where his hand rested on her elbow. Jon wondered if he ought to pull away, but Sansa did not shrug him off. “I keep thinking about how terrible I was to you. How terrible Mother was—don’t look at me like that, I know how she could be. For so many years, I treated you as though you did not deserve to be my brother, and that was wrong of me. And now that you have your own lands, your own title—surely you no longer have any need of us.”
“This isn’t about need,” Jon said. “Or perhaps it is, but not the kind you mean .”
“Sansa, please.” He slid his hand down to hers, taking her bare hand. She raised her eyes to his, lips parting soundlessly. His chest clenched unexpectedly at the sight. “I don’t care about politics or money or whatever it is you’re worried about. I am in King’s Landing to sort out my inheritance; then I would like to visit Winterfell.”
“It isn’t as you remember,” Sansa said, her voice aching with an emotion he could not name.
“That isn’t important. What’s important is you, and Bran, and Arya and Rickon.” He squeezed her fingers, then let go. “You are my family. And I haven’t been here for you.”
“That isn’t your fault.”
“Perhaps not.” Jon offered her his arm again. She slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and allowed him to lead her once again. “But I regret it nonetheless.”
Lady Crane’s gardens were exquisite. Her gardeners planted according to the season so that there might always be something blooming. Winter roses like the ones at Winterfell lined the pathway, their sweet blooms stretching out towards them. Jon paused beside a particularly lovely one and took out his knife to cut it free. He spent a moment cutting out the thorns before he sheathed his knife again. Sansa watched all this without any outward sign of curiosity, at least not until he turned to her with the rose in his hand.
“What?” she asked in surprise. “Jon—”
“It matches your eyes,” he said. Sansa fell silent, staring at him. Jon’s face heated, but he did not move away. He carefully tucked the rose into the intricate twists of Sansa’s hair, where it might stay safe for a time. When he stepped back, Sansa cautiously reached up to feel what he had done. A smile, a real one, bloomed on her lips.
“Thank you,” she said, nearly shy. Her cheeks had grown rosy, and he hoped he had not embarrassed her, even as he was glad to see some of her reserve disappear.
Jon dismissed her thanks with a wave of his hand. “It is nothing. Come, tell me about Bran and the others. How are they faring? Has Arya agreed to ever make her debut?”
“Oh, Arya,” Sansa said. “No, I rather think she never will, at least not formally. What on earth she expects to do with her life I really couldn’t say.”
With a little more coaxing, Jon was able to get her to tell him all the news he had missed in the letters Bran and Arya sent. Rickon and Sansa sent their own, of course, but far less frequently, and besides, every one of them was subject to their own particular biases. Arya tended to write short letters about her horse and the dogs and her fencing lessons. Bran wrote long, involved letters about what he had read, with endless questions about what it was like to be a soldier. Sansa, when she wrote, was much more matter of fact.
Yet though she offered him a great amount of news—Bran was out of bed and moving around in a wheelchair devised for his use, Arya and Rickon were well and visiting a neighboring family, Sansa herself was in Town for the Season—he could sense there was something she was still holding back. It was in the way she cut her eyes to him; like she was afraid he could see she wasn’t being wholly truthful.
It was impossible to guess why she might be hiding something from him. Perhaps it was only shyness, with them only just meeting again. Or perhaps it was something else—embarrassment, or pride. He could not begin to guess. Of his—cousins, he supposes, he had known Sansa the least. Robb had been his closest friend; Arya had been his favorite, though he tried not to let on . Sansa had always been in another world, sequestered with tutors or Lady Catelyn to become the refined lady she was now.
“I suppose I ought to return you to your partner,” Jon said at last when they had exhausted all topics of conversation. “Was it Petyr Baelish, or am I mistaken?”
“No, you are correct.” Sansa looked back towards the ballroom; not with longing as she might once have done, but trepidation. “I suppose you are right. It was dreadfully rude of me to run off like that.”
“I am quite sure he will understand.” Jon stepped back and bowed. “Will you permit me to call on you, Lady Sansa?”
“Oh—you mustn’t do that,” she said. “Call me Lady Sansa, I mean. I would rather like for you to call.” She smiled then, wistfully. “It is rather lonely in the house without the others around.”
Jon could not help but wonder why it was she was alone in King’s Landing. Perhaps the others did not wish to come, which was not unlikely. Arya hated Town and Rickon was too young to take into society. But then what was Sansa doing here? Looking for a husband, if he had to guess. He did not like the idea, though he could not say why.
“And you ought to call on me, as well,” Jon said instead of voicing any of these thoughts. “I think it is likely you will know more about my house than I. You were a more careful student than the rest of us.”
Sansa shook her head at that but said nothing. Together they reentered the ballroom, her hand on his arm. A man in Tyrell colors asked for Sansa’s hand, and Jon gave it, watching as she disappeared into the crowd. Willas Tyrell, that was his name. Jon had met him once long ago. Perhaps that was who Sansa had her eye on; she could certainly do worse.
“So who is the girl?” Tormund asked from behind him. Jon started and looked around. Tormund had a glass of wine in his hand and was chewing something loudly. Jon did not wish to guess.
“My sis—my cousin,” Jon corrected. “Sansa.”
“She’s awfully pretty, that one,” Tormund said. “I’m surprised you didn’t guess you weren’t siblings sooner.”
“Thank you, Tormund,” Jon said. “You always know just what to say.” He looked around the room and saw Baelish watching him with that smug smile he always seemed to wear. Jon nodded to him politely—Baelish had always treated him with a fair amount of abstracted indifference before—and turned back to Tormund. “I suppose you have satisfied your hunger?”
“I am well-sated,” Tormund said happily. “But Jon, did you know that bastard—oh, forgive me,” he added hastily. Jon waved it off, and Tormund continued, “That absolute prick Ramsay Snow is here.”
Jon’s neck prickled, and he instantly began to search the crowd for Ramsay’s familiar stocky shape. “Bolton now, or had you not heard? He’s been legitimized.”
“What man would legitimize that shite?” Tormund asked in disbelief. “After he got dismissed from the army like he did?”
“Lord Bolton is in need of an heir,” Jon said. And Roose Bolton was nearly as bad as his son, though he would not say so in public.
But Ramsay was a different kind of monster, with a disregard for life and property that would be disconcerting enough if it were not for the pleasure he took in causing pain and misery in others. Jon hadn’t been in his unit, and so had not seen first-hand the mind games he played with his fellow soldiers, but the stories had spread. The repeated complaints against him, followed by an incident that occurred during the liberation of an Imperial-controlled village, had led to his discharge. Jon still did not know the full details, which had been kept quiet by the general, no doubt on Roose Bolton’s orders; but he had met the women while he recuperated from a wound to the side. One was hardly more than a girl.
“Someone ought to put a dagger in his heart,” Tormund said, echoing Jon’s own thoughts. Jon shot him a look.
“Careful what you say in public,” he said. “If you’re done stuffing your face, we should go pay our respects to Lady Crane before we go.”
“Tired of being a Lord already?” Tormund teased as they began to wind their way through the crowd. “Aren’t you going to dance with any pretty ladies?”
Jon had to concede that Tormund might have a point there. After he had greeted Lady Crane and introduced her to Tormund—she was charmed at the idea of meeting an Imperial, as he thought she might be—he asked her if she might accompany him in the next dance.
“Oh, Lord Snow,” she said, laughing, “I’m far too old for dancing.”
“It would be a great honor,” Jon said.
Lady Crane regarded him for a moment, still smiling. Then she rose to her feet and said, “Very well. We shall see if you are fine a dancer as your father.”
Jon was about to say that Ned had never been much of a dancer until he remembered she would be speaking of Rhaegar. “I will trust you to judge, milady,” he said gravely. Tormund winked as Jon led Lady Crane to the dance floor and made an obscene gesture. Jon scowled at him, then quickly put on a smile when Lady Crane turned to face him.
Lady Crane was a fine dancer, elegant in her movements. As she turned under her arm on her way to the next partner, Jon caught a glimpse of Sansa turning beneath the arm of Ramsay Bolton. A moment later, she was in his arms, and for a startled moment neither of them moved. Then she laughed and took his hand for the next turn of the dance.
“You are better than when we were children,” Sansa observed. She flashed him a smile before he relinquished her into the arms of her next partner, and he had no chance to warn her, as he wished to, not to trust Ramsay Bolton. Never mind; he would tell her when he called on her.
Lady Crane returned to Jon and remarked, “Your cousin has grown into a fine lady. Please convey to her that if she is in any need of my support, I will gladly offer it to her.”
“Support?” Jon said.
“With the Queen regent, of course,” Lady Crane said, and with that enigmatic statement, she returned to her corner of the ballroom.
Before his meeting with the Queen regent, Jon wrote to his solicitor for any light he might shed upon Lady Crane’s statement. Varys wrote back that all he knew was that the Starks had fallen out of favor with Queen Cersei; but Jon ought not to concern himself with that. Jon thought of Sansa saying, surely you no longer have any need of us, how strange she had acted at first. Perhaps she thought he would abandon her once he learned the Starks’ sad state—and no doubt his solicitor would say he should.
Jon went to pay his respects to the queen and her mother head full of questions and knowing he would not be able to ask any of them. He brought no one with him, not sure how the queen might take it if he brought Tormund to the palace, and regretted that decision the moment he arrived. In his memory the palace was not quite so large, nor so intimidating, and this time he did not have Robb or his father—Ned—at his back.
He was admitted to a small parlor where Queen Myrcella sat with her mother. Queen Cersei looked much as Jon remembered: beautiful, remote, and disdainful. He had never seen her smile; he did not think there was anyone who could make her smile, not even her late beloved Joffrey.
Queen Myrcella, on the other hand, was much changed. She was a girl of seventeen now, with her mother’s looks, but not, Jon was pleased to see, her temperament. She greet Jon warmly, rising to her feet to offer her hand, while her mother remained seated, watching them with cold eyes. Jon kissed Myrcella’s hand and took the seat she offered him, clasping his hands in his lap before wondering if that looked too strange.
A servant entered with tea, which solved Jon’s question of what he ought to do with his hands, and they made pleasant, idle conversation for the first quarter of an hour. Myrcella was eager to know about his journey, about the Targaryen home, about the war. Cersei said little, but Jon felt her gaze upon him. When she at last spoke, Myrcella instantly fell silent, shrinking back a little. Jon bit the inside of his cheek.
“Lord Targaryen,” Cersei said, “it is a great pleasure to see your house restored. It is one of our country’s oldest and most distinguished houses, of course, and we hated to see it lie fallow.” Jon translated this to mean that she dearly missed the taxes brought in by the estate. “Your aunt Daenerys is still in Essos, is that right?”
“I believe so, Your Majesty,” Jon said politely. “I have never met her myself.”
“Nor have I.” Cersei picked up her teacup delicately; Jon was not deceived. There was nothing delicate about her. “But I fear she may try to claim precedence to your title. We must not allow this to happen.”
“Your Majesty,” Jon said.
“Have you given any thought to marriage?” Cersei asked. “If you wed a daughter of one of the great houses —well, they would be glad to unite themselves with the Targaryen name, and it would bring you security if you had an heir. ”
“I have only just arrived back in Westeros, Your Majesty,” Jon said. “I have had little time to think of anything but my family.”
“Ah yes,” Cersei said. “Your family. Have you seen any of the Starks since your return?”
“Only Lady Sansa,” Jon said. “The others are still in the north.”
“Yes, of course.” Cersei was looking at him with a sharp expression. “She, I believe, is soon to be married to Willas Tyrell, if the rumors are true.”
“I have heard nothing of that,” Jon said, even as he wondered why Cersei would pay so much attention to who Sansa married. Joffrey was dead, so Sansa was in no longer in any danger of being Cersei’s daughter-in-law. The only reason Jon could see was that Cersei wanted to keep a tight leash on Sansa; but to what end? He weighed his options, then gave into his curiosity. “Your Majesty, may I inquire about something strange I heard soon after my return?”
Jon chose his words carefully, not wishing to openly accuse Cersei of anything. “I am told that there was some falling out between yourself and my late uncle before the king’s death. Is that so?”
“Your uncle was a very loyal man,” Cersei said after a long pause that sent a chill through Jon’s veins. “He would never do anything to hurt the king.”
Which was no answer at all. Jon knew he would gain nothing by pressing the issue, so he turned instead to Myrcella and asked, “And you, Your Majesty—have there been any suitors asking for your hand?”
Myrcella blushed and looked quickly at her mother before answering. “Not until I am eighteen, Lord Snow.”
“I am sure that many will seek you out,” Jon said politely. “You are as beautiful as your mother.”
Cersei pursed her lips as her daughter giggled. Jon was careful not to meet her eyes as he continued to speak with Myrcella, effectively ignoring Cersei, until Myrcella’s tutor came to call her for lessons. When Myrcella had left, Cersei leaned back in her seat, a glass of Dornish wine now in her hand, and observed Jon with arched eyebrows.
“My daughter likes you,” she said after a moment. “I suppose I can see it—you have that wild Stark look about you.”
“What is it you want, now that you have your title?” Cersei asked, ignoring him completely.
“Only to live my life in peace, Your Majesty,” Jon said after a moment of careful consideration. “I have seen enough of war.”
“Indeed.” Cersei drank deeply from her cup and regarded him over the rim. “I once hoped to marry your father,” she said. “When I was a girl. My father would have liked to see our families united. Perhaps it might still be.” She rose to her feet and Jon immediately stood as well. “It is a fine thing to see you again, Lord Targaryen,” she said. Jon bit back the urge to tell her it was Snow, not Targaryen, and bowed instead.
“It was an honor to see you again, Your Majesty,” Jon said with as much sincerity as he could muster. “Good afternoon.”
Cersei saw him off with a languid wave of her hand. Jon quit the palace feeling much as though he had been bashed about the head, and determined that he would visit Sansa as soon as possible. If he was to learn anything about the Starks’ situation, it would be from her.
Sansa had just sat down for supper when Jeyne came in, smiling brightly. “Lady Sansa,” she said, “your brother—sorry, milady, I mean your cousin—is here to see you. Should I show him in?”
“Oh—yes,” Sansa said, getting to her feet. “And let’s set a place for him, shall we?”
Jon was dressed very finely indeed when he came into the dining room. The black waistcoat and coat he wore were of a fine cut and cloth, though Sansa could not help but notice that his cravat was poorly tied. She wondered if he had found himself a valet yet, or if he was still dressing himself. He paused in the doorway, taking in the table set for one, and said, “I didn’t mean to interrupt your supper.”
“No, please,” Sansa said, reaching out to stop him. “It can be rather lonely. I’ve asked Jeyne to bring you a place so you might join me. Won’t you sit?”
It took some coaxing, but she convinced Jon to take the seat across the table from her. Sansa rarely ate in the dining room, feeling acutely the absence of her family when she did so, but she forced herself to eat one meal there every few days. If they had opened the room, she would make use of it, and she knew she shouldn’t shut herself in her room. Still, it was such a relief to have Jon there as well, looking familiar and yet so different.
Sansa waited until Jeyne had returned with Jon’s soup to ask him what had brought him to the house. “It is late to call, after all,” she said.
“I know,” Jon said, wincing. “And I am sorry—but I only just came from seeing the queen.”
Sansa paused as she reached for her wine glass. “Queen Cersei?”
“And Myrcella,” Jon said. “Queen Myrcella, I should say.” He stared down at his bowl, then burst out, “I think Cersei wants me to marry her. Myrcella, I mean. She said Myrcella liked me.”
Sansa could not help her laugh. Jon scowled at her, and she waved her hand, saying through her laughter, “I am not laughing at you—well, not precisely. Only, of course she does.”
“Why would you say that?”
Sansa took a sip of wine and smiled at Jon, amused at how innocent he was in some ways. “She thinks you’re stupid,” Sansa said. “She thinks all of us Starks are stupid. That’s what she wants, you see: a stupid husband for her daughter, so she can manipulate him. It helps that you are from one of the oldest and wealthiest houses now; then she’d have access to your inheritance and free reign over your lands. And if Myrcella likes you, then she will listen to your advice, and Cersei can control both of you.”
Jon blinked at her in astonishment. “When on earth did you get so smart?”
Sansa shrugged and bent over her soup to disguise her pleased blush. “If you spend enough time with Queen Cersei, you begin to understand the way her mind works.”
“And you saw much of her when you were engaged to Joffrey,” Jon said quietly. “I’m sorry, Sansa.”
“What for? Father and King Robert arranged the match; there was nothing you could have done,” Sansa said, startled. “Robb tried, but Robert thought I would be good for Joffrey. A sweet Northern girl might temper him, he said.” Sansa’s mouth twisted. “Though I think it was too late for Joffrey to be anything but cruel.”
“That is what I mean,” Jon said. “Robb told me some of how he treated you—I know he struck you—”
“It’s in the past,” Sansa said sharply. “I don’t waste my time thinking of him, and neither should you.”
Chastened, Jon fell silent until Jeyne had taken their bowls and returned with fish and vegetables for both of them. Jon ate as though he were starving, Sansa noted, quickly and efficiently. That he must have learned in the army; she didn’t remember that from before. Conscious of the awkward silence she had caused, Sansa asked, “What else did the queen have to say?”
Jon looked up at this and swallowed before answering. “I asked her about a rumor I heard about our father—about Lord Stark.” Sansa went cold, knowing even before he spoke what he would ask. “Do you know what happened between him and the queen?”
“No,” Sansa said heavily. “Only that she is—very angry. Father told me it wasn’t because he broke our engagement—but it could be. Perhaps she didn’t like the idea that her son wasn’t good enough for a Stark. Or perhaps it was something else. Now that Father is—” She had to pause to collect herself. “Now that Father is gone, I doubt we will ever know.”
Jon nodded. “And has she done anything?” Sansa tried to keep her expression blank, but either Jon already knew or he saw something in her face. “Sansa. What is it?”
“It is no concern of yours,” Sansa said. “You have your own estate to manage.”
Jon got up and came around the table to kneel at her side. Sansa did not look at him, not trusting her face, not around Jon. “Sansa, I know something is wrong. Lady Crane told me as much and the queen—she was asking after your marriage prospects.”
Sansa laughed bitterly despite herself. “Prospects. Yes, I have many. Willas Tyrell, who will not inherit; Ramsay Bolton; and Tyrion Lannister. A true wealth of potential.”
“Is it so urgent that you marry?”
It was no use hiding the truth any longer. Someone would be sure to tell him, and Sansa would rather him hear it from her than from some gossip or worse, the queen. So she poured out the whole tale, how they had been forced into destitution, how she had done all she could to save Winterfell, but now it came to her marrying or selling, and she would never sell the place.
“It cannot be Tyrion,” she said when she had concluded. “I will not give that family any sort of control over me, not again. Willas Tyrell would be advantageous, as would Ramsay Bolton. Though I do not like him,” she added.
“Good,” Jon said fervently. “I served with him; he is worse than Joffrey, if such a thing is possible.”
Sansa shuddered. “I will take that into consideration.” She took Jon’s hand and squeezed gently. “It will be all right, Jon. I will not let them take Winterfell. If I have to marry Baelish to do that—well, at least Bran, Arya, and Rickon can have their home again.”
“Sansa,” Jon said quietly, and when she looked at him, she saw that he looked sad. Not in the way he used to when they were children, but almost—wistful. And heartbroken. “I wish you didn’t have to do this.”
“I think Willas likes me,” Sansa offered. “And he is kind, and Margaery is my friend. It could be a great deal worse.”
Jon shook his head, clearly disagreeing with her, but he let the subject drop before he returned to his seat. Sansa changed the topic to ask about Jon’s red-haired friend from Lady Crane’s, and Jon obliged by sharing how he had met this Tormund fellow, who he intended to make steward at Dragonstone. Sansa found herself laughing as she had not in months, and she was sorry to say goodnight when he finally left. He made her promise to call at his house, saying that she had to see it, and she agreed with a smile.
Jeyne was waiting upstairs for Sansa to help her get ready for bed. As she brushed Sansa’s hair, she remarked, “He has grown quite handsome, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I daresay he has,” Sansa said after a moment. “Everyone says Lyanna was very beautiful, and I suppose he must take after her.”
“I am glad to see he has not much changed,” Jeyne said. “He asked my father, and seemed pleased to hear he was still steward at Winterfell.”
Sansa smiled at Jeyne in the mirror. “Do you like him, Jeyne? I never knew that.”
“Not I, milady,” Jeyne said. She began braiding Sansa’s hair for bed, hands moving swiftly. “I am only thinking aloud.” Still, Sansa could detect a hint of a smile at the corner of Jeyne’s mouth, and Sansa unaccountably felt a wave of possessiveness towards Jon and his soft smiles, his gentleness undiminished by his time at war. Who was Jeyne to speak of him in that way?
But Jeyne had known Jon her whole life, Sansa reminded herself. For all Sansa knew, they had been friends at Winterfell; Jeyne had never said a word of it, but Jeyne wasn’t always with Sansa and Jon had often eaten with the servants. Perhaps Jeyne even loved Jon, and why shouldn’t she? A marriage between them was likely impossible, but if they liked each other, it could be arranged.
“There,” Jeyne said, patting Sansa’s braid. “Goodnight, milady.”
Sansa remained in her seat before her vanity long after Jeyne closed the door behind her, staring at her reflection unseeingly, before she at last rose and went to bed.
The next few days flew by in a flurry of social engagements. Her appearance at Lady Crane’s party, not to mention Jon’s return to King’s Landing, had made her a very desirable person to know. Of course, a large number of the young women wanted her to introduce them to Jon, who was perfectly mysterious and a little scandalous. Sansa deflected those requests as politely as she could. She didn’t think Jon would appreciate her sending a horde of marriage-seeking young women his way, not when he was still settling in .
Willas Tyrell continued to pay particular attention to Sansa whenever their paths crossed, and he even called on a number of occasions. They took a carriage ride around the park together when the weather was fine, and Sansa was sure that he would use that opportunity to declare his suit, but instead he handed her off at her home and said only that he would see her at the Manderly soiree.
“I think he is shy, milady,” Jeyne said when Sansa voiced her dissatisfaction. “When he calls upon you, it seems clear to me that he likes you.”
Yet her tone was disapproving, and Sansa frowned at her. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” Jeyne said quickly, bending to resume letting out the hem of one of Lady Catelyn’s old dresses. “He is a perfectly suitable match.”
“You don’t like him,” Sansa guessed.
“I like him well enough,” Jeyne said. “I only don’t think he will make you happy, milady. Not in the way that a husband should.”
“You’re a romantic,” Sansa teased. “You suppose all marriages must come with the deepest of affections.”
Jeyne sighed but nodded. “You know I do. And I understand why you are eager to marry as soon as you might—but I do want you to be happy, milady.”
“That is kind of you,” Sansa said. She reached out to rest her hand on Jeyne’s. “But knowing I have secured my family’s future is enough to ensure my happiness. ”
Jeyne did not look as though she believed this, but she didn’t voice any further disagreement. Sansa looked down at the ribbon she was embroidering and ran her fingers over the wolf sigil she had already finished. There was still room to add the Tyrrell rose.
Jeyne finished altering Lady Catelyn’s old dress in time for Sansa to wear it to the Manderly home. It was a fine gown, pale spring green, with a lower waist than was fashionable, and when Sansa looked at her reflection, she saw her mother. Tears sprang to her eyes; she dashed them away with her hand and raised her chin.
The Manderly family were old friends of the Starks, and they welcomed her warmly. Their two daughters, Wynafred and Wylla, were close to Sansa in age, and it was a welcome change to have girls to speak with. She did not have to feel as though she were an adult, with the weight of Winterfell upon her, and they passed a pleasant half hour speaking of the latest fashions and the most recent volume of poetry from Alaric Eysen. She did not think to look for Willas until they were being seated for dinner, and she had to lean around Robert Flint to ask Wylla if he would be attending.
“Oh, no,” Wylla said in an undertone. “He couldn’t come. He was rather suddenly asked to dinner with the queen!”
“Queen Cersei?” Sansa asked in astonishment.
“And Queen Myrcella,” Wylla said, nodding. “We found it quite astonishing as well, given that Lady Olenna has no love for Queen Cersei—but I shouldn’t say that.” She covered her mouth with a hand and giggled. “Mother thinks Queen Cersei wants Myrcella to marry him. Can you believe that? He is so much older than her!”
Sansa could not believe that Cersei would ever marry one of her children to a Tyrell; Lady Olenna had too much sway over her family for that to be in Cersei’s interests. No, Cersei had something else in mind, and Sansa suspected it did not bode well for her. Cersei had never seemed to like her much, and when Father had broken the engagement between Sansa and Joffrey, Cersei had told Sansa that she was lucky to have even been considered good enough for a prince.
Her fears were confirmed when, several days later, she learned that Willas Tyrell had been seen with Joanna Swyfte, a cousin by marriage to the Lannisters. Lady Olenna might not like Cersei, but she was intelligent enough to see how the wind blew. If Cersei did not want Sansa to marry Willas, then it would not happen.
She couldn’t help crying a bit at the news, but she quickly recalled her composure. Cersei could do all she wanted; Sansa would not be deterred. She would go to Essos if she had to, she would sell all her dresses, she would even work as a lady’s maid if it meant they kept Winterfell. She and all her siblings had been born in the lord’s chambers; her parents had died there; generations of Starks had spent their entire lives there and she would never let it be taken from them.
Baelish blew in like a bad wind the next afternoon to convey his deepest sympathies. “Willas Tyrell is a good man,” he said, “but his family can be so flighty with their loyalties, I find.”
“Indeed,” Sansa said neutrally. “I thank you for your sympathy, but there was no understanding between us.”
“What a shame,” Baelish practically purred. He came to sit down on the settee beside her and took her gloved hand in his. Sansa kept still, not acknowledging the breach of propriety. “He is a fool not to realize what a valuable asset you would be to him.”
“I’d like to think I have more value than a well-equipped wine cellar,” Sansa said. “If that is what you mean by asset.”
“Of course not.” Baelish stroked the back of her hand and then released her. “My dear Lady Sansa, it pains me to see your family brought so low by the queen. I have tried everything in my power to restore your family to its proper place, but she will not be reasoned with.”
“I see,” Sansa said coolly. Baelish always seemed to be offering his apologies instead of solutions; it was becoming rather tiresome. “What will satisfy her, do you think?”
“An apology from your lord brother may be a start,” Baelish said. “You may have to promise her something—what, I do not know—but I do not see any hope in her forgiving the family’s debts. So long as you openly seek to unite yourself with another powerful family, she will see you as at threat.”
“Not all of us are consumed with ambition as she is,” Sansa said tartly. “If I am not to marry someone from a wealthy family, how am I to ever bring us out of poverty?”
“I said powerful, not wealthy.” Baelish dropped his eyes coyly. “There are many men, my lady, who may be wealthy, but not of families Queen Cersei would see as a threat.”
Sansa suspected she knew where this was going, but played along. “And who might you suggest?”
“I might humbly offer myself, my lady,” Baelish said, meeting her eyes. His gaze was hungry, devouring; she wanted to recoil back, but there was no room. He sat so close that the heat of his thigh bled through her skirts. “You must know that I ardently admire you , as I once did your mother. I have ever served your family, and I would serve you well as a husband. You could live at Winterfell still, be lady of that place.”
Sansa smiled, a forced expression that made her teeth ache. “You are too kind, Mr. Baelish.” She arranged her dress over her knees, hoping to give the impression of shyness. “It is very flattering—and very sudden, I must say.”
“I thought my intentions were clear,” Baelish said, voice low. “If they have not been, I do apologize.”
“I must have only interpreted them as kindness,” Sansa said, though of course his intentions had been clear to her for some time. “This has taken me rather by surprise. I hope you will not mind if I take several days to consider your offer. And of course, I must speak with my brother.”
“Your brother is a good boy, but you are the true Stark heir. You are the eldest, and you have been most concerned with your family’s survival,” Baelish said. “You have earned the right to be Lady of Winterfell. What do you need with his approval?”
Sansa kept her smile. “It is not his approval I seek, but his council,” she said calmly. “Thank you for your proposal, Mr. Baelish. I will speak with you later.” She swept from the room and went upstairs to where Baelish could not follow. There she gazed at her reflection, cataloguing every place where she resembled her mother and, for the first time, resenting their similarity. Is that what Baelish saw every time he looked at her? Her mother reborn, in a form he could mold and shape according to his wishes? It was a loathsome thought, as was the thought of supplanting Bran as heir. Baelish seemed to think she shared his ambitions. She did not.
But it might be the best offer she would receive. And Baelish was right; Cersei could take no offense to the match. Baelish was low-born, a solicitor. Yes, he had money, but it was not an alliance that could threaten Cersei’s power. Cersei would prefer Sansa marry someone under her influence; but someone she perceived as powerless would do just as well.
Sansa turned away from the mirror, resolved not to act rashly. Their state was dire, yes, but not so much so that she had to rush her decision. Perhaps Willas would change his mind; perhaps she would find another way. She hoped she could find another way.
When Jon at last met his solicitor, he was surprised to find that Varys was a small, pump man. He was completely bald and impeccably dressed, so much so that Jon felt self-conscious of the poor knot of his cravat. Jon had Tormund assist him in the mornings, too embarrassed to ask Ros for help, but neither of them had any talent for cravats, and he knew it branded him as unfashionable.
“Ah, Lord Targaryen,” Varys said warmly when Jon came into his office. He rose and pressed Jon’s hand between his; his palms were soft, and Jon thought he smelled lilac perfume. Were Varys gentry, he would be a dandy. “It is a pleasure to meet you at last.”
“And you as well, Mr. Varys,” Jon said. “I was half-convinced you didn’t really exist.”
Varys laughed lightly and returned to his seat. “I’m afraid I have been very busy getting all your papers in order. Until recently, Dragonstone was held in trust, and you can imagine the bank was loathe to relinquish such a valuable property.”
Jon, who did not understand anything regarding property or trusts, merely nodded. “Has it been resolved?”
“Yes.” Varys slid a sheet of paper that proved to be a deed. “You are Lord of Dragonstone, milord. The Crownlands will be rather trickier to reclaim, but I have filed a grievance with the Crown. I am optimistic about our prospects.”
“You think Queen Cersei will relinquish their ownership?” Jon asked skeptically.
“Never underestimate the power of knowledge,” Varys said serenely. “I think you’ll find me to be a very valuable ally. And I, of course, am delighted to see the Targaryens return to Westeros.”
With that settled, Varys began to outline the status of the estate’s finances. Jon’s mouth fell open when he was shown the depths of the family’s funds, and wondered dizzily why on earth anyone would need that much money. Varys then moved on to discuss Dragonstone, the various items of value, and everything Jon would need to reestablish a household. By the time Jon rose to leave, his head was spinning and he had no hope of remembering half of it.
He was nearly through the door when he thought to ask, “Have you heard anything further about Queen Cersei and the Starks?”
“I’m afraid not,” Varys said, eyes very wide. Jon had no idea if he was lying or not; Varys was impossible to read. “But I believe she wishes to give Winterfell to an ally or a member of her family.”
Jon nodded. It corresponded with what Sansa had said, though he seemed to recall that Cersei hadn’t liked Winterfell on the one occasion she had visited. “Will she succeed?”
“Yes,” Varys said bluntly. “Lady Sansa is doing a creditable job of securing alliances for herself, but the queen has more resources. It would take a very great surprise to upset Queen Cersei’s plans.” He inclined his head. “Good morning, Lord Targaryen.”
Jon didn’t correct him, too lost in thought. Instead of returning home, he directed his carriage to the Stark house and gave Jeyne his card. It occurred to him as he waited that it was odd that she was the only servant he ever saw when he visited Sansa. He supposed she must have a footman and a cook of some sort, but Jon hadn’t seen either of them. There was no sign of the large household Lady Catelyn used to have, none of the bustle he associated with the Starks. He wondered that he hadn’t noticed sooner.
Sansa greeted him in the parlor. She was pale and drawn, as though she were not well, but when Jon asked if he ought to leave, she shook her head and bade him sit. She looked at his clothes with a critical eye and remarked, “You still lack a valet, do you not?”
“Why—yes,” Jon said. “Is it that obvious?”
“I could help you find one, if you are having difficulties,” Sansa said, neatly sidestepping his question. “I cannot profess to knowing a great deal about men’s fashions, but I am sure Jeyne will know of someone.”
“Thank you,” Jon said. “I have planned to take it up with my housekeeper, only I seem to keep forgetting.” He plucked at his cravat sadly. “I must confess I feel a right peacock in these things.”
“I think you look very handsome,” Sansa said loyally. She changed subjects then to ask him what he had done earlier that day, and he told her about Varys. They talked of all that had passed since they had last seen each other, exchanging news and gossip, until at last Sansa said, “And if the rumors are true, Willas Tyrell is to marry Miss Swyfte.”
She said it lightly, as though she didn’t care, but her lip wobbled, just a tiny bit. Jon reached out to her, thought better of it, and instead offered her a handkerchief. She took it with a wan smile and dabbed at her eyes. “It’s silly to cry,” she said. “But I had hoped—not that I am in love with him. It is only that I don’t know what I am to do now. I suppose I could marry one of Cersei’s cousins, perhaps Lancel—that might convince her to relent.”
“No,” Jon blurted out. Her gaze darted to him, eyebrows contracting. “No, you mustn’t. I don’t know what Cersei means to do, but I know you can’t let her have even an inch.”
“Well, what am I to do, then?” Sansa burst out. “We are in debt to all of our friends, the taxes have been levied past what we can stand, and if I ask the tenants for more, we will have a revolt on our hands. And they are suffering as it is; we have not been able to help with repairs.”
“Let me pay for it,” Jon said. “The Targaryens—I mean, my family, I suppose—they have an obscene amount of money.”
But Sansa was shaking her hand. “No,” she said. “That would only be another loan.”
“You aren’t my brother,” Sansa said sharply. “This isn’t a matter of lending me pocket money. Your solicitor would never stand for it, and besides, it just isn’t done.
Jon stared at her, at the fine bones of her face, the straight line of her nose, and said, unaccountably, “Marry me.”
Sansa dropped the handkerchief. It fluttered to the floor, forgotten, as she stared at him, eyes wide and her mouth open. Jon ought to lean down and pick it up for her—but he was waiting, holding her gaze with his. She seemed at lost for words, her mouth opening and closing for several moments until she finally said, “You can’t be serious.”
“As you said,” Jon said, “I am not your brother. Cousins may marry, yes? And a husband may give his wife any amount of money he pleases?”
“Jon—don’t be ridiculous,” Sansa said. “This isn’t something we could take back. You will want to marry for love one day, and you will have your choice of women, I know you will. Don’t throw away your chances on me.”
“I’m not throwing anything away,” Jon said. “As you said, I must marry at some point. Why can’t it be you?”
“Imagine what Arya will say,” Sansa said. “And Bran, and everyone. Cersei will hate you for it.”
“We can keep it secret, at least at first,” Jon said. “And when have you ever cared what Arya might say?”
Sansa laughed disbelievingly. “Jon, honestly—we can’t. I appreciate the thought, but I’ll find another way.”
Jon took her hand in his and her laughter quieted. “Why can’t we?” he asked. “You need a marriage. I will need a wife. We will return Winterfell to its former splendor and turn her over to Bran’s keeping once he is grown. And if Cersei ever tries to come for us, why, the Targaryen name surely still carries weight in this country. And she will not be queen forever.”
Sansa’s lips parted as she gazed at him. He could tell she was thinking hard, running through the advantages and the dangers as she seemed to analyze everything. “And heirs?” she asked softly.
Jon’s hand tightened on hers. He had not expected her to ask so bluntly, though the thought had been on his mind as well. “We will have plenty of time to consider that,” he said evenly. Sansa flushed, gaze dropping modestly before she glanced up at him through her lashes. “Sansa, I could not ever regret having you as my wife. You are the good in your father and your mother both. And I vow I will keep you and our family safe.”
Sansa laughed a little, wetly, and said, “Oh, gods, can you imagine what Mother would say?” Her hand was trembling, but she met his gaze evenly as she lifted her chin and said, “Yes. I will marry you.”
“Married!” Tormund fairly bellowed.
“Will you be quiet,” Jon hissed, looking around as though Cersei might appear from behind a corner. “Half of King’s Landing will know if you keep that up.”
“Sorry,” Tormund said, much more quietly. “And to your sister ? Well, your cousin.”
“I know it is strange,” Jon said, who could not help but feel as though that were drastically understating the situation. “In truth, we hardly spent any time together as children. I feel more like I am marrying the daughter of my liege lord—which in a sense I suppose is true.”
“The two of you did disappear for an awful long time at Lady Crane’s,” Tormund said, waggling his eyebrows. “Did you compromise her?”
“What? Of course not!” Jon scowled at him. “No, Sansa simply is in need of a husband, and I offered to be that man.”
“And why not,” Tormund said. “When is the wedding to be?”
“In a fortnight,” Jon said. “You and I leave tonight.”
He and Sansa had agreed that the sooner the better. If Cersei caught wind that Sansa might have a way out of her trap, there was no telling what she might do, and they both agreed that it would be better for the matter of Winterfell to be settled before they spread the news of the marriage. Let people think what they might; in the end it would not matter so long as they were successful.
“We are to marry at Dragonstone,” Jon continued. “It is the safest place. And I ought to see the place, I suppose.”
“Ah, yes,” Tormund said. “See the massive grounds and that. Am I to come with you?”
“Only if you like,” Jon said. “I ought to be paying you a proper wage if I do.”
“Oh, you are,” Tormund said. “Your solicitor settled it. I’m proper well-paid, don’t you worry about that.” He patted his coat which, now that Jon had occasion to notice, was rather nicer than anything Jon remembered him wearing. “And I’m to be steward of your lands, is that it?”
“I thought you’d like that better than being steward of the house,” Jon said.
“Damn right I would.” Tormund clapped Jon on the back. “If we’re to leave tomorrow, I’d best go pack. And you’d best speak with that housekeeper of yours so she knows what’s to happen.”
And Ros was Jon’s best line to Varys, who would also need to know about Jon’s plans. Ros, when he found her, exhibited no surprise when Jon told her that he would be departing for Dragonstone and that he would soon be married. She only nodded and said that she would go along with him, but that the majority of the household would lag a bit behind.
“Oh—you’re all to come with me?” he asked.
“What, do you suppose servants just wait around an empty house for their lord to return?” Ros asked tartly. “Well,” she amended, “I suppose at times that’s true. But we are your staff, and that means we will care for your home in King’s Landing as well as the estate at Dragonstone. Milord.” She bobbed a curtsey. “Anything else, milord?”
Jon gave her a letter for Varys, which outlined the plan in the vaguest terms possible, and only identified Sansa as “the unfortunate lady in need of alliances,” hoping Varys would remember their conversation. He was gratified when a messenger returned in the evening, no doubt paid well to deliver so late, with a missive that said simply, I understand. Best wishes.
Jon and Tormund left the next morning along with Ros and one of the maids, a young woman called Marie who had white-blonde hair and a solemn air. She spoke little, instead working on mending what Jon recognized as one of his coats. He hadn’t even realized he had ripped it.
Ros, on the other hand, kept up a steady commentary all the way through the countryside, relaying what she knew of where they were passing. Jon knew much of it from his childhood, but Tormund was fascinated, asking her about the different families and the history of the country. Jon listened without interjecting, something like anxiety beginning to build in his gut.
They saw Dragonstone long before they arrived. It sat atop a small hill overlooking the Crownlands, and the red-violet color of its stones were unmistakable. They passed several dragonstone quarries as they approached, all abandoned now, and Jon thought idly that he ought to look into restarting operations. Then he came into full view of the house and forgot all else.
He had not expected to be impressed. He had grown up in Winterfell, after all, a fortress-like estate that had long ago been the seat of the Northern kings. It was very grand and very large; it had been built to hold off armies and winter alike. But it could never properly be called beautiful. It was austere, and sturdy—a bulwark of stone.
Dragonstone was—there was no other word—exquisite. When the Targaryens had arrived in Westeros from Valyria, they had brought their Valyrian sensibilities, which included elegant pillars, graceful lines, large open spaces, and ornamentation for its own sake. Dragonstone would never withstand an attack, but it would never have to, and so it had the luxury of beauty. He gazed at the carved steps leading to the front door, at the huge windows reflecting the grounds. It was more a palace than a home.
The grounds were unkempt from years of neglect, but Jon could see that they, too, would be beautiful with some work. There was a large lake that would be perfect for fishing, with a large statue of a three-headed dragon in the center. Woods edged the property, and what looked like formerly manicured gardens had erupted into a wild tangle of brilliant blooms. The tree-lined drive led up to the house itself, and Jon could not help his gasp of astonishment when they arrived at the entrance.
The doors were huge, twice his height, and rather than being made of wood, they were made of colored glass, edged with dragonstone. It would have cost a fortune; and the fact that it remained intact was a testament to either the power of the Targaryen name or the respect of their tenants. He looked to Ros, who smiled and held out a key to him.
“I’ll let you open it up, milord,” she said.
Jon ascended the steps slowly, taking it all in. If life had gone differently, he might have been raised here. If Rhaegar had met Lyanna earlier, or if Rhaegar had not died. He could have grown up in these halls, roaming wild in the fields. It would have been a pretty life.
He unlocked the door and stepped inside.
The floor was thick with dust that raised in small clouds as he passed. Ros sniffed disapprovingly when she followed him in and saw the state of the place. Jon began to pull at the curtained windows, and after a moment, the other three began to help him, until light was pouring in and he could see the true beauty of the place.
The entry hall stretched the length of the house, interrupted only by a staircase leading to the upper levels. To his right was a vast ballroom paneled with more colored glass, and to his left was a parlor that no doubt led to an equally vast dining room. Jon let out a small breath and turned to look at his companions.
“We’d best get started,” he said. “There is a lot of work to do here.”
The next few days were spent opening up the house. Ros tried to prevent Jon from helping on a number of occasions, but Jon convinced her that as he had never been to Dragonstone before, he might as well get to know the place. He suspected she was glad for the help, especially as the rest of the staff didn’t arrive until nearly a week later. There was an absurd number of rooms just for the main family alone, and even more for the staff. In Rhaegar’s day there must have been well over fifty servants employed to tend to the needs of the family.
Jon’s staff wasn’t a quarter of that, even counting Tormund, so he bade them take rooms from the family living quarters as there were plenty to spare. Though they made a show of protesting at first, he could tell they were pleased. For his part, Jon disliked the idea of sleeping all alone on the second floor of the house; he had grown used to the close quarters of war.
There was a small parsonage on the estate occupied by a young man named Pylos. He had taken the over the place from his predecessor despite the lack of a lord, and had apparently been living entirely off the goodwill of his congregation. Jon thanked him for his work, told him that he would be needed for a wedding, and set Tormund to assessing Pylos’s cottage and planning any necessary improvements.
By the time Sansa arrived with her small retinue—only Jeyne and one footman—Jon felt Dragonstone was tolerable enough for visitors. He had a room especially made up for her and asked the cook to make lemon cakes; he seemed to remember that she liked them. He even went and picked flowers from the overgrown garden to put in her room, though Tormund snickered at him the entire time. Ros pinched his cheek and declared him a sweet boy.
Jon could not say exactly why he wanted so badly to make a good impression. Sansa had known him his entire life, after all. Perhaps it was that he knew she was only marrying because she had to, when she had once been a romantic, dreamy-eyed girl. Perhaps it was the memory of Joffrey’s cruelties towards her. Or perhaps it was just that she was beautiful, and nearly a stranger to him, and he was to marry her.
Sansa arrived in the late afternoon, the sun blazing off her fiery hair. Kissed by fire, Jon thought, and did not weep. He no longer mourned Ygritte. He still missed her, of course, and he loved her. She had been his first love, and nothing would change that. But if she thought he was wasting his days pining for her—why, she would laugh in his face. All men must die, she would say.
Yes, he thought, taking Sansa’s hand in his to help her from her carriage. But first we’ll live.
Sansa had heard stories of Dragonstone before; none of them held a candle to reality. She felt like a wide-eyed country girl as she trailed after Jon, staring around at the fine sculpture, the rich carpets, the soaring pillars. Jon was telling her about the place, all that he had found in the time he had been there before her, and Sansa did her best to listen, but there was so much to look at.
“I felt the same,” Jon said suddenly. Sansa jerked back from the elaborate grandfather clock she was admiring and whirled around to see that he was smiling at her. “When I first arrived, I mean. It’s madness, isn’t it? This whole place.”
“Like something out of a fairy story,” Sansa agreed, settled by his admission. She took his arm and said, “There must be a portrait gallery.”
“Oh, yes,” Jon said, and he took her up the stairs to a long corridor lined with large paintings. He pointed out the portrait of his father, Rhaegar, who was as handsome as was said; the painting of his grandparents, Rhaella and Aerys; all the Targaryens back to Aegon, the first to arrive in Westeros. They were all fair, with hair so pale as to nearly be white, and eyes in varying shades of blue and violet, otherworldly in their looks. Sansa wondered if Jon’s portrait might one day grace these walls; if hers would be there as well. How strange they would look beside these icy beauties.
After, Jon showed her to her bedroom then and left her to settle in. The room was tidy, clearly meant for a young woman with the vanity and mirror and the large wardrobe against the south wall. It was thoughtful of Jon to have a room prepared so nicely for her when she would only be using it for a few days. After that, she would be staying with Jon.
She shivered at the thought. She had been kissed before, chastely in most cases, and certainly Joffrey had made sure she knew what happened to a woman on her wedding night, but she suspected it would be different with Jon. And it would be with Jon, who was, she had to admit, a handsome figure with his broad shoulders and solemn grey eyes.
“Milady?” Jeyne asked. “Is anything the matter?”
Sansa turned and smiled at her, suddenly more hopeful than she had allowed herself to feel in ages. “No,” she said. “I’m quite all right.”
Jeyne let Sansa’s hair down for supper, which was rather unconventional, but they had been traveling all day and besides, Jon would soon be her husband. She was rewarded by Jon’s startled smile when he saw her. He tucked her hair behind her ear and said, “I had no idea your hair was so long.”
“Longer than nearly anyone’s,” Sansa said. “I’m quite the envy of King’s Landing.”
She couldn’t hide her pleased smile at his clear admiration, and for a moment it was almost as though they were a real courting couple, one that had met in a ballroom and taken a liking to each other. Perhaps it might have been that way, if Jon had been raised here instead of at Winterfell. How strange to imagine that they could have lived their entire lives without meeting. Even if they had never spent much time together as children, Jon had always been there, a steady presence that she had taken for granted. What would Robb have been like without a friend to confide in? Or Arya, without someone to aid her mischief? Sansa suddenly regretted fiercely that she shunned Jon so often before. She knew her siblings loved him, believed he was a good man, and she believed that too; but she did not know him as they did.
Jon had invited the parson who was to officiate their wedding to dine with them. He was a young man, hardly older than Jon, solemn and incredibly polite. Jon had invited the servants to join them as well, clearly remembering Ned’s tendency to invite his household to join them at dinner, and Sansa met Ros and Tormund and all Jon’s household, whom he knew by name. Sansa greeted them warmly, thanked them for their hard work, and saw in their answering smiles that she had done well.
Supper was a lively affair, just as Sansa remembered the meals at Winterfell, and some of the stiffness she had carried in her spine since her parents had died began to loosen. At Winterfell she’d had to establish her authority quickly or else risk losing the household’s respect, but she missed this, getting to know people and even, maybe, being friends.
Joffrey would call them soft-hearted fools. But then, Joffrey’s household had hated him, and it was clear that Jon’s was devoted to him, regardless of his experience as a master. Joffrey had never understood that love and respect were more powerful than fear.
They fixed on the morning two days hence for the wedding. Sansa could not help wishing they could marry at Winterfell in the godswood, which seemed only right, but she knew that it was important to be quick. They would ride to Winterfell once they were married and begin the process of repairing the estate and repaying the Starks’ many debts; and then they would bring Arya and Rickon home.
There was a fine mist covering the grounds the morning of the wedding. Sansa dressed in a gown of heavy ivory silk and sat patiently as Jeyne braided her hair up around her head. The ribbon Sansa had been embroidering was complete now; she had finished it with blue roses, for Lyanna, and the three-headed dragon of the Targaryens. She gave it to Jeyne to pass on to Pylos, and swept from the room, her skirts rustling around her.
She took the carriage to the parsonage and found that the entire staff had come to watch. Ros took Sansa’s hand and said quietly, “I can lead you to him, if you like,” and Sansa’s heart clenched at a false memory of her father doing this, of him smiling at her and taking her to her new husband.
Jon stood with Pylos at the end of the aisle. His hair was once again pulled back, and he was wearing a beautiful blue-grey waistcoat over his white shirt. She was so accustomed to seeing him in black that he seemed almost a different person, younger and softer. When he saw her, his face did—something, and then he smiled, so wide that the corners of his eyes wrinkled, and she smiled too, unaccountably relieved.
As custom dictated, he put his cloak over her shoulders when she joined his side . His hand brushed briefly against the join of her neck. She shivered, chanced a look, and met his eyes before they both quickly looked away. Pylos waited for them before he gestured for the ribbon and proceeded with the ceremony.
Their hands were bound together; they repeated their vows, bowed their heads to receive their blessing. I am his and he is mine, Sansa thought, just before she had to say it aloud. There was a magic to speaking, as though saying made it so. It was not true—marriage vows could be broken in more ways than mere infidelity—but she knew that she was giving herself over to Jon, and he was in turn entrusting himself to her. She had expected to tremble; but her hand was steady in his.
Pylos slid the ribbon from their hands, leaving the knot intact. “Both of you, repeat,” he said, “‘With this kiss I pledge my love.’”
Sansa’s face heated and she saw her embarrassment reflected in Jon’s sheepish glance. But they both dutifully repeated the pledge, and then Jon cupped her face—oh, his hand was rough, but she did not mind—and he kissed her.
His mouth was soft and yielding, nothing like Joffrey’s demanding kisses. He did not push, did not demand, but asked for her to let him in, and so she opened her mouth to his, letting him have what he wished. His beard pricked at her skin, and his hand had slid to the back of her neck, holding tight. Her stomach felt hot and fluttery, the tender place between her legs sparking with what she was astonished to recognize as desire. That had not been in the plan, not really, but she welcomed it, even as Jon pulled away and she tried to chase him, eyes still closed.
When she opened her eyes, slow as if waking from sleep, Jon was pink-cheeked and dazed, his gaze fixed upon her mouth. He had not let go of her neck; his hand was hot as a brand against her skin, and she wanted desperately to feel his touch on the rest of her body. But she was recalled sharply to the present by the sound of clapping, and they both looked to see that their staff was applauding. Jeyne was beaming, and Sansa noticed tear tracks across her cheeks, as though she had been weeping with happiness. Tormund put his fingers in his mouth—Jon hastily removed his hand from Sansa’s neck and plugged his ears—and let out an ear-piercing whistle of approval.
Sansa caught Jon’s eye and they both laughed, ducking their heads, and then he took her hand and led her down the aisle, out to where their carriage was waiting, and he was hers and she was his.
Supper was nothing like the wedding feasts Sansa had attended as a girl. Those had all been huge, sprawling affairs, like when her uncle Edmure had married one of the Freys, or when Margaery had married Renly. This was quiet: Sansa and Jon and their household—their household, because they were joined now—around the dining table talking and laughing.
Sansa drank two cups of wine before she stopped herself, feeling giddy already, and knew she was flushed and bright-eyed. Jeyne wept again, pressing Sansa’s hand between hers and saying, “He will be good to you, I know this,” and kissed Sansa’s cheek like a sister. Tormund made a number of ribald jokes Sansa pretended not to understand, simply for the pleasure of seeing Jon attempt to explain them as politely as he could.
For dessert they had lemon cakes, and when she looked to Jon in surprise, he said, “You like them, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Sansa said, pleasure blooming in her chest. “I do. I’m only—I did not think you’d remember something like that.”
Jon smiled. “I hoped I’d remembered correctly.”
Sansa carried that feeling with her as she returned with Jeyne and Ros to her chambers. There, Jeyne took down her hair and clothed her in her nightdress and dressing gown while Ros massaged perfumed oil into her hands. Sansa did not know Ros very well, but she was kind and gentle as she cleaned Sansa’s nails.
“Ordinarily I suppose your mother would speak to you before your wedding night,” Ros said eventually. “But as she is not here, perhaps you will allow me to offer you some advice?”
Sansa glanced at Jeyne, who she knew was as much a maiden as she, before looking at Ros. “You can do that for me?”
“I was not always a housekeeper,” Ros said. She did not elaborate, nor did she look up. Sansa suspected it took a great deal for Ros to admit that much. “Lord Snow is a good man. He will be kind. My advice to you is to not be afraid. Try to relax. It is much better that way.”
Sansa’s face was hot as a fire and her mouth was dry. “What if I don’t please him?”
“You will learn what pleases him.” Ros released Sansa’s hands and pats her knee. “You’ll do well, milady. I am sure of it.”
They took her then to Jon’s room, which was empty still. Sansa sat on the edge of the bed, clasped her hands in her lap, and waited for him to arrive. His chambers were larger than hers, although not by much, and had clearly been redecorated. Rather than the silks and gold of her rooms, it was rather simpler, though everything was of high quality. She passed her hand over the blankets, noting how well it was woven.
The door opened, and she sat upright, feeling caught out even though she hadn’t done anything wrong. Jon stood in the doorway, silhouetted by the light in the corridor. For a moment Sansa was afraid; he seemed like a stranger in the darkness. Then he closed the door behind him and he was Jon again.
“Sansa,” he said, almost sounding surprised. “Have you been waiting long?”
“No,” Sansa said. She rose to her feet, clutching at her dressing gown. “Would you like me to tend to you?”
“Tend to me?” Jon came into the room, taking off his coat as he did. “What do you mean?”
“You have no valet,” Sansa said. She beckoned him to her, feeling her shyness fall away in the face of his uncertainty. “Which we must remedy.”
“If my lady wife commands,” Jon said, mouth quirking into a smile. Her hands hesitated at his throat briefly, then she began to untie his cravat. He stood quite still as she eased the cloth from his neck, folded it, and set it aside. Then she began to unbutton his waistcoat and he caught her hands.
“Sansa, what are you doing?”
“You can’t sleep in this,” Sansa said without looking up. She was shaking, but not with fear. The heat of his body rose between them, and he was so close that she could smell the sugar on his breath. She tugged her hands away and resumed undressing him, each small button slipping free. “It would be terribly uncomfortable.”
She slid the waistcoat from his shoulders and put that aside too. When she turned back to him, he had taken off his boots, but still wore his shirt and trousers. Sansa itched to touch him again, and so she did, untying the laces of his shirt until he let out a small groan and said, “We don’t have to do this.”
“Do you not desire me?” Sansa asked, not daring to look up. She could not bear it if he said no, not now, not when she desired him. She had never allowed herself to think much on desire, not when that had to come secondary to her duty. There were men she liked and men she thought handsome, but none set her skin blazing as Jon had with one kiss.
“Oh—no, it is not that.” Jon touched her chin and lifted her face. “I don’t wish you to feel obligated.”
“This is not obligation,” Sansa said. She flattened her hand against his chest, skin to skin, and was gratified to feel him shiver. “I want this.”
Jon’s mouth worked silently before he said, “Sansa,” and pulled her into a kiss.
If their wedding kiss had set her skin alight, this was the heat of a hundred fires. He clung to her, and she to him, her hands slipping inside his shirt. He was scarred, she could feel the puckered skin over his ribs and chest, and she wanted desperately to see. But before she could get him to take off his shirt, he pushed her dressing gown from her shoulders and a moment later the back of her knees hit the bedframe.
“Ouch!” she said in surprise, breaking away from Jon’s mouth. Jon laughed, kissed her jaw and neck.
“Sorry,” he whispered. “I should have watched where we were going.”
“It’s all right,” Sansa said, “only I cannot think why you are still wearing your trousers.”
She grinned at his laugh and sat on the bed as he stepped out of his trousers, baring his shapely legs to her admiration. His prick was hard; the shape of it was visible through his smallclothes. If she’d had any doubt he desired her, she knew now that he did. He saw her looking and blushed.
“Really, we needn’t do this,” Jon began. Sansa shook her head at him and snagged the hem of his shirt, pulling him closer until he stood between her legs.
“I want this,” she repeated, and she tugged him down to her.
Sansa had heard girls giggle about the marriage bed before. She knew what was to happen. But it was very different having Jon’s weight upon her, his hands hot upon her hips. When she took off his shirt, she could not stop running her hands over him, along his ribs, his back. She kissed his collar; he gasped and leant his head back, letting her press kisses across his chest. And his leg was hard between hers, and when she arched her hips up, it felt good to press against his thigh, it sent pleasurable waves through her until her nipples were taught and her breath was coming in short, uneven pants. Her night dress had rucked up, nearly to her waist, and she should be embarrassed, but she couldn’t bring herself to care.
“Can I—” Jon asked, taking a hold of the fabric. She nodded and lifted her arms so he might strip her bare. He tossed the nightdress aside—Sansa winced, wishing she could have folded it—and then sat back, looking down at her.
“What?” Sansa asked, resisting the urge to hide her breasts.
“You are so beautiful,” Jon said. He laid his hand on her stomach, trailed his fingers down between her legs to where she was wet and aching. “There’s something I want to do for you.”
His touch skated along her folds, and she could hardly speak for how tense she was. She was waiting for something, she didn’t know what, but she needed it, she needed him to touch her—
And then he lowered his head and his mouth was upon her and Sansa’s gasp caught in her throat, coming out shrill and needy. He looked up, eyes wide, and she shook her head urgently, pushing at his head until he grinned and ducked down again. That was his tongue that danced upon her, that was his finger that pressed slowly into her, breeching her, and it was not painful as some girls said. It wasn’t painful, it was frustrating, because it wasn’t enough.
But—“Oh,” Sansa gasped. Jon’s hair had come loose from its tie, and her hands were fisted in his curls. “Do that again.”
Jon obliged, and Sansa’s thighs began to tremble. She could feel it coming, a wave cresting over her, and she dug her heels into the bed to push into Jon’s mouth—and then she was shuddering, shaking, as the bow-tight tension in her broke. She chased the feeling, gasping as she pressed Jon into her, and then fell back against the sheets as the last of the tremors fell from her body. Jon kissed her cunt, the crease of her thigh, just below her navel. When Sansa thought she could lift her head again, he was watching her with a smug smile.
“Oh, shut up,” she said breathlessly.
Jon laughed, delighted, and moved up to kiss her again. His mouth was damp, and Sansa realized it was from her. She shivered and wrapped her legs around his waist, urging him closer. His hardness was pressing against her through the fabric of his smallclothes, and she wanted more. She wanted him.
She reached for him to finish undressing him and he said, “Are you sure?” and she said, “If you ask me that one more time, Jon Snow—”
But he was laughing again. She didn’t know that it could be like this—that it could be fun and full of laughter. She smiled at him as he stepped back and took off his smallclothes. Her gaze dropped to his prick. It looked much like the pictures she had seen, shown by giggling girls when their mothers weren’t around. As he came to kneel on the bed, she touched him, closed her hand around it. His eyes drifted shut.
“Is that good?” Sansa asked. It was a curious thing to hold, warm and weighty. “That feels nice?”
“That feels wonderful,” Jon said. Emboldened, Sansa moved her hand, watching his face closely. He seemed to like it when she held tighter, so she did, and she was prepared to try more when he said, “Stop.”
“What?” Sansa pushed herself further upright. “Am I doing it wrong?”
“No, not at all,” Jon said. “But I don’t wish to spend just yet.” He pulled her up to him, bare skin to bare skin. “If you want this, then I will do it properly.”
He kissed her until she was pliant and shifting in his arms. She was wet again, she felt it on her thighs. As he shifted them back onto the bed, he hooked one hand under her thigh and moved so he was between her legs. “This might hurt,” he warned her.
“Do it,” Sansa said, meeting his eyes.
She did not turn her gaze away from him as he pressed inside her, slow and achingly right. He was right; it did hurt, a little, but in a way that she didn’t mind. A ragged gasp fell from her lips as he pushed in, unbidden and unnoticed by either of them. His mouth was open, eyes wide and startled. She couldn’t stand it; she had to kiss him again, and he groaned into her mouth when she pulled him to her.
It grew easier. She was like a flower opening up to the sun, her body accepting Jon as though she had been missing him her whole life. She was moaning, soft wanton noises that she surely shouldn’t be making, and he was kissing her lips, her neck, her breasts. She dug her nails into his back as he drove into her, and she felt that same tension building in her again. She welcomed it, moving in time with Jon, and then she was released again, crying out in pleasure, wetness leaking from her eyes at the crisp joy of it. Nothing in the world was like this.
Jon buried his face in her shoulder when he spent, his hands tight upon her hips. The heat of it within her made her flush pleasurably, knowing that they could, just now, have made a child. He didn’t move away from her, only turned his head to catch her mouth with his, and they kissed languidly for a while until he pulled out, grimacing a little.
“We’re a mess,” Sansa remarked, sitting up. “Is it always this messy?”
“I’m afraid so.” Jon kissed her forehead. “I have some water and cloths to clean up, if you wish.”
Sansa cleaned herself and dressed in her nightdress once again. Jon had pulled on a nightshirt, and was looking rather shy. Sansa stepped up to him and kissed him, said, “I’m glad we did that,” and then took his hand to lead him to bed. He came willingly, and she arranged them so that she was lying in the circle of his arm.
For a long time, neither of them said anything. Finally Sansa gave into her curiosity and said, “That wasn’t your first time.”
Jon went still beside her. “No,” he said after a long silence. “Are you angry?”
“No,” Sansa said, which she supposed was true. She wasn’t precisely angry—she had guessed, after all—but more embarrassed. She had no experience at all. If he had been with other women before her, how could she possibly prepare. She steeled herself and asked, “How many others?”
“Just one,” Jon said.
That did surprise her. “Oh,” Sansa said. “Did you—did you love her?”
“You don’t have to answer,” she said quickly. “I’m only curious, is all. I really don’t know that much about you.”
Jon signed, the rumble of it reverberating through her shoulder. “Yes. I did.”
“What was her name?”
Jon was quiet for so long she thought she had offended him and he would not answer. Just as she was going to give it up for a lost cause, he said, “Ygritte.”
There was grief in his voice, weighing down the name. Sansa knew before she asked, but she had to hear it from him: “What happened to her?”
“She died,” Jon said. He turned over then, and Sansa knew she couldn’t ask anything more. She stared at his back, chest tight. Perhaps Jon should have married this Ygritte; perhaps he would have been happier. She felt a sudden surge of sadness and an unexpected surge of jealous at this woman she would never meet, who had a claim on Jon’s heart.
Sansa crushed the feeling ruthlessly. She had no right to be jealous of a dead woman, who had known and loved Jon before their marriage had even been a possibility. It was enough that she and Jon liked each other; that they desired each other. Many couples could not even say that much. Love was a gift, a fortunate accident, and she could not fault Jon for having loved. She laid her hand against his back and felt him relax, tension bleeding out of him. After a moment, he shifted onto his back and let her press against him, and soon she drifted into sleep.
Jon woke before Sansa, long used to early mornings. Her hair had come loose from its braid and was spilling across the pillows, vibrantly red and shining in the morning sunlight. Jon’s chest was tender and warm, like a bruise only pleasant, and he couldn’t help leaning down to kiss her cheek before he got up. Sansa made a soft noise and shifted into the spot he had vacated. Her neck and jaw were a little red—from his beard, he realized, rubbing at his chin. Perhaps he ought to shave; he would ask her when she woke.
Jon was struggling with his waistcoat when Sansa stirred, and he turned to see her sitting up, sleepy-eyed and enchanting. She clicked her tongue exasperatedly when she saw what he was doing and got out of bed to button him up. She smelled of lavender, he noticed, and if she tipped her head down just a bit they’d be kissing.
“We really must get you a valet,” Sansa said as she finished fastening the last button. She laid her hand over his heart and smiled sweetly at him. “Good morning.”
Jon had to kiss her then, and they lost several minutes in each other’s arms before she drew back and said, “I have no clothes in here,” and blushed.
“I will call for Jeyne,” Jon said. He kissed her cheek, thought to ask, “Do you regret it?” and laughed when she glared at him.
“No,” she said, “and even if I did, at least we know the queen cannot force us to annul the marriage.”
Which was something Jon had not even considered, but he nodded to concede the point. He called for Jeyne—or rather, he called for Ros who called for Jeyne—and stepped out to allow the women their privacy.
They set out for Winterfell the next morning, leaving Tormund behind with Ros to mind the estate. Tormund was rather put out at being left behind, but when he understood that he would have free run of the place, he perked up considerably. Jon sensed that Tormund wasn’t particularly happy at being confined, and he knew his friend would welcome the opportunity to take in the grounds, perhaps hunt or fish as he used to in his home.
The journey was long and took several days. They filled their days with discussions of what Winterfell needed—to rehire its staff, to repay the debts they had incurred, to attend to their tenants—and how they might best approach the challenge. Sansa had clearly spent a great deal of time studying the books and learning what the estate needed. It seemed in the time since Jon had left, the managing of the estate had fallen to her.
Sansa warned him that she had not told Bran the news of their marriage; she had kept it a close secret in case any word got out. Jon wasn’t sure what to expect. He knew that Bran could no longer walk, but it still took him by surprise to see Bran come out to meet them in a wheeled chair, Wylis behind him. Meera and Jojen Reed were with him too, looking very grown from the last time Jon had seen them, and they all greeted him with cheerful waves, except Jojen, who had always been a solemn boy.
“Jon!” Bran cried joyfully when Jon came up the steps. “I thought you were never going to come back!”
“And stay away from you?” Jon ruffled Bran’s hair, laughed when Bran scowled up at him, and then bent to embrace him. “Look at you, you’re a man grown!”
“Not yet,” Bran said morosely. “Still a few more months until I turn eighteen.”
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” Meera said. “Hello, Jon. I hear you’re a lord now.”
He took her hand and kissed the bruised knuckles. “I see you’re still as fierce as ever, Lady Meera.”
“Don’t encourage her,” Bran said. “She’s been teaching me to fight while in my chair. I honestly have bruises in more places than I care to mention.”
“That’s because you won’t listen,” Meera said.
“Good to see you again, Jon,” Jojen said seriously, stepping forward and offering his hand. “You look well.”
Jon shook Jojen’s hand, feeling as though he were meeting an elderly relative rather than a boy he’d known since birth. “You as well, Jojen.”
“Is Sansa with you?” Meera asked. “I thought she was to be in town for the whole season.”
“There’s been a slight change of plan,” Jon said. “I think it’s best if we go inside.” He turned back to see Sansa stepping down from the carriage, and he hurried to her side to help her. She murmured her thanks and did not release his hand. Her grip was so tight that Jon’s fingers began to lose feeling after a moment, but he knew she had to be anxious about how Bran would take the news. He was as well, and he clung back just as tightly.
Sansa asked Bran to come with them to the study, where she closed the door after thanking Wylis and turned to look at him. Bran’s brow was furrowed as he looked between them, and before Sansa or Jon could say anything, he said, “Something is the matter.”
“Well—I suppose,” Sansa said hesitantly. “Not bad, really.”
“You said you were going to stay in town until you had married,” Bran said. “Did something happen? Did the queen do anything else?”
“Yes, but—no.” Sansa looked helplessly at Jon, who took the cue and said, “We’re married, Bran.”
Bran blinked at them. “I beg your pardon?”
“Sansa needed a husband. I offered.” Jon shrugged awkwardly. “I know it’s a bit strange.”
Bran stared at him with those large, too-wise eyes. Jon fidgeted beneath his gaze, feeling as though he younger of them. At last, Bran said, “Strange? Do you think that’s an adequate term for this?”
“Bran,” Sansa said. “Don’t.”
“He is our brother,” Bran said sharply.
“He was never our brother,” Sansa snapped. Jon nearly recoiled, startled by the vehemence in her voice. “Maybe he was raised among us, but does that make Theon our brother? Does that make Jeyne our sister?”
Jon knew why she was saying this, but he could not help the hurt that struck him at these words. It was so like what her mother would have said: that he was not one of them, that he did not belong. He turned away, not wanting to be party to the argument.
But then Bran asked, “But are you happy with this choice?” His voice was soft, worried, and Jon realized abruptly that Bran was not angry with Sansa but with him. Bran did not know, could not know, that Jon would never hurt Sansa. He may have trusted his brother, but he had not seen Jon for five years, and Jon had returned as a cousin, with Bran’s sister as a wife. It must have seemed very suspect to Bran, as Jon was the eldest of them and had appeared just when Sansa was at her most vulnerable.
“Yes,” Sansa said. “I am.” Her hand found Jon’s; and he turned back to see her smiling at him. The tightness in his chest loosened, and he squeezed her fingers.
Supper was almost like Jon’s childhood, raucous and cheerful. Meera was a lively girl, and she brought out the smiles in Bran. Jon wondered idly if Bran liked her. The Reeds were a good family and Meera would be a good match for Bran even if she was several years older than him. Even Jojen livened up when Bran mentioned the tutoring they had been doing.
They slept in Sansa’s chambers, hands just touching over the sheets. In the morning they took Bran out to tour the grounds, surveying what needed upkeep and repair. By the end of their first week in Winterfell, Sansa and Bran had finished a careful record of needed improvements and estimated costs, all in Sansa’s tidy hand.
“I’m sorry it is so much,” Sansa said when they presented the tally to Jon over dinner. “I told you our situation was desperate.”
Jon surveyed the numbers along with the debts Bran had tallied. “It is a great sum, it is true. But we can bear it.”
“Truly?” Bran and Sansa chorused, looking so alike that Jon had to laugh.
“Yes,” Jon said. “With no expenses for twenty-odd years, the Targaryen estate has grown very great. I will have to speak with my solicitor, but there should be no impediment to giving my wife’s family aid.”
“That is—oh, what a relief!” Bran sank back in his chair with a smile. “We can bring Arya and Rickon home. And surely once Queen Myrcella is of age we will not be taxed so by the crown.”
Sansa and Jon looked to each other, and Jon saw his own doubt reflected in her eyes. “Perhaps,” Sansa said. “But Bran, perhaps—might you come to King’s Landing with us? To petition the queen yourself?”
“Petition?” Bran said, bristling. “But we have done nothing wrong!”
“I know.” Sansa covered his hand with hers. Jon admired her ability to calm any situation, something she must have learned in her time at court. “But Queen Cersei is a proud woman. Whatever Father did, we can’t amend, but we can at least apologize on his behalf.”
Bran looked to Jon, who nodded. “I tried asking the Queen what the quarrel was between her and Lord Stark, but she would not answer. I think he gravely offended her on a personal matter. I doubt she will forgive the family anything except an apology, perhaps in the form of a tithe.”
“She has already taken so much,” Bran said. “Surely she cannot be greedy for more.”
“She’s a Lannister,” Sansa said. “The only thing they value is gold.” She looked to Jon, mouth twisting into a wry smile. “And I don’t think she will accept the apology coming from Jon or me.”
“Not when she hoped to have her hands on the Targaryen fortune,” Jon muttered. He took the accounts after looking to Sansa for her confirmation. “I will write to Varys. Perhaps he will deign to come north to speak with me.”
“I hope so.” Sansa rose to her feet, hand resting briefly on his shoulder. “Winterfell is not the same without you.”
She bade them both goodnight, departing for her room with a small smile in their direction. When she had left, Bran fixed his gaze upon Jon, eyes narrowed. Jon waited for Bran to speak, hands folded in his lap.
At last, Bran asked, “What do you intend to do once you are finished here? Will you and Sansa return to Dragonstone?”
“I suppose we ought to,” Jon said, surprised by the question. “I am the lord there, they tell me.”
“And I am the Lord of Winterfell.” Bran gazed broodingly at the fireplace. “Dragonstone is very far from here.”
“Yes, it is several days from here, though with a swift horse I suppose you could make it in less than two.” Jon realized what Bran was saying a moment later. “But we will not be strangers, Bran. Sansa did all of this for Winterfell. This is her home.”
“It is your home too,” Bran said. “I know what Sansa said, but you are a Stark.”
“She didn’t mean it,” Jon said. “Not—she said it to make a point.”
“Still.” Bran straightened up in his chair and looked every inch Ned Stark’s son from his serious gaze to his firm expression. “As long as I am Lord of Winterfell, you will be welcome here.”
“Thank you,” Jon said, touched by the show of support. “And you will always be welcome in our home.”
Bran broke into a smile, finally looking like the teenaged boy he still was. “Now tell me about the army. Did you fight a lot of Imperials?”
“I did,” Jon said. “I even made friends with some.”
“What!” Bran seized Jon’s arm. “Tell me everything.”
By the time Bran had grown tired enough to release Jon, Jon’s throat was scratchy from speech. He couldn’t regret it, though. Bran had dreamed of being a champion dueler, even spoke of joining the army with Jon though his mother would have never allowed it. If Bran wanted stories to live through, Jon was more than happy to oblige.
Sansa was still awake when he arrived at their chambers. She was embroidering by candlelight, mouth pursed in concentration, but she set aside her project when he came in. As had become their custom, she rose to help him with his waistcoat, muttering as always that they really did need to find a valet for him. Jon was perfectly happy putting off that duty for the time being. He liked Sansa’s attentiveness, and tried to repay it when he could, clumsily brushing out her hair when she let it down for her baths. He had a vague idea of learning to braid so he could help her with that as well, but he didn’t know who he might ask.
He took her hands in his when she had finished unbuttoning and pulled her close for a kiss. She sighed into him, and the kiss quickly turned passionate. Sansa pulled at his shirt, he at her nightgown, and they fell to the bed.
“Don’t forget—we aren’t alone,” Sansa said breathlessly as his hands slipped up her thighs.
Jon smiled into her neck and said, voice low, “Then I suppose you’ll have to be quiet.”
“So will you,” Sansa shot back, and she grasped him with a boldness she had learned in their handful of nights together. Jon bit the inside of his cheek to hold back his groan and kissed her to silence himself.
They made love swiftly, furiously, his her legs locked around his hips. Sansa left scratches on his arms, ones she would apologize for in the morning, and he kissed her like he was drowning, drinking in the taste of her. Despite what she had said she couldn’t quite hold back her soft gasps, but then, neither could he. He was saying her name over and over again, almost like a prayer, and when he reached down between their bodies, between her legs, she cried out helplessly, and Jon swallowed up the noise with a kiss.
They lay together after, limbs entwined. Sansa seemed to be drifting off to sleep, but then she spoke, her fingers drumming thoughtfully on his chest.
“Once you have written to your solicitor, I will need to go to Highgarden,” she said. “After Margaery sent her brother for Arya and Rickon, it would be rude of me not to go in person.”
“You can’t go alone,” Jon said. “Let me come with you.”
“They can’t know we’re married,” Sansa said. “Not unless we want Queen Cersei hearing of it before we’re prepared to announce.”
“It won’t be so strange,” Jon said after a moment of thought. “We are cousins. I have not seen Arya or Rickon in five years, and with no prior acquaintance with Lady Margaery, it would only make sense that you introduce us.”
“Why Jon,” Sansa said, “you sound like a proper lord now.” She turned a luminous smile on him. “Where did you learn that diplomacy?”
“It’s surprising, the things you learn in the army,” Jon said.
“Tell me,” Sansa coaxed. And though he had just spent an hour telling Bran stories of fighting, he found it in him to tell Sansa about his men. About Edd and General Thorne and Pyp and the infighting and the training and the brotherhood of it all. And Sansa listened, even as her eyes began to close, and when she at last fell asleep, Jon stroked her hair, kissed her cheek, and then blew out their candles so they could rest.
Though winter was fast approaching, Highgarden looked the same as ever, exquisitely beautiful with perfectly manicured grounds and riotous rose blooms. Sansa took a deep breath of the crisp air and looked to Jon, who was surveying the grounds with a curious eye. It occurred to her that perhaps Jon ought not to have come; he did not know the Tyrells, and after all until recently the eldest son had been courting her, or nearly so.
But Jon had wanted to see Arya and Rickon, and Sansa selfishly wanted him with her to fill the hours of the journey. She dithered over whether to say something—reassure him, perhaps? Though it was presumptuous of her to think that he needed any such thing—but he broke the silence with, “It is a beautiful place, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Sansa said, relieved. “One of the most beautiful places in Westeros, I think. And you will like Margaery. Did you ever meet Renly? ”
“No, but F—Ned spoke well of him,” Jon said. “For the most part.”
“Father thought Renly wasted his gifts,” Sansa said wryly. “Which may be true, but he is a kind man, and not given to the same vices as his brother.”
“His wife must be very grateful,” Jon said, and they shared a smile.
They were met by one of Margaery’s maids, a girl who introduced herself as Sera, and Brella, the housekeeper, who saw them into the parlor to wait. Margaery was the first to arrive, sweeping in dramatically as always. She wore a shockingly low-cut dress, as was her custom, and her brown hair spilled down her half-bared back. Like most men who were confronted with Margaery, Jon had a moment of stupefied admiration before he remembered himself and bowed.
“Lord Snow, it is I who should be bowing to you!” Margaery cried. She sank into a curtsy and looked up through her eyelashes. “It is good for the realm that Dragonstone no longer sits empty.”
“Thank you,” Jon said, looking dazed. Sansa prickled with jealousy even as she wanted to laugh at him. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Margaery. You are as lovely as my—as Sansa said.”
“You are too kind.” Margaery turned then to Sansa and took her hands in hers. “And Sansa, my dear, you look wonderful. I was so sorry to hear that we are not to be sisters after all. Please do consider me a dear friend.”
“I will, my lady,” Sansa said. “Miss Swyfte will be an excellent wife for your brother.”
“I should have liked it to be you,” Margaery said. “Oh! But I shouldn’t say such things. Where is my husband to stop me?”
“Behind you, my dear.” Renly entered the room and came to stand next to his wife, smiling warmly. He looked just like King Robert in his youth, dark-haired and blue-eyed, though a little slimmer in build. “Sansa, what a pleasure to see you again.”
“Lord Renly.” Sansa curtsied again. “May I present my cousin Jon Snow, newly named Lord of Dragonstone?”
“Yes, I heard about that,” Renly said, shaking Jon’s hand. “I can only thank the gods Robert isn’t alive.”
“Renly,” Margaery said chidingly.
“You know I’m right. If he knew that Rhaegar and Lyanna had a child—he was angry enough that they ran off together! Not that he’d admit that, he always insisted Rhaegar had kidnapped her.” Renly shook his head. “Gods rest his soul, but he was a stubborn bastard.”
As Jon was clearly trying not to laugh at Renly’s impertinence, Sansa intervened by saying, “I hope my siblings haven’t been too much trouble.”
“Not at all,” Margaery said. “They were perfect delights.”
At this Jon had to actually turn away to hide his face. Sansa, who doubted that her wild younger sister and wilder youngest brother were anything close to delightful, smiled and said, “I am happy to hear that.”
“Your sister is one hell of a fencer,” Renly said. “I caught her sparring with one of the butcher’s boys and decided Brienne ought to teach her. She’s from the Tarth family,” he added, seeing Sansa’s curious expression. “An excellent swordswoman herself. I daresay she could even beat Jaime Lannister.”
“I would like to see that match,” Margaery said.
Jon, having recovered himself, asked, “Are they hereabouts? I would like to see them.”
“Rickon is just out in the garden,” Margaery said. “Would you like to follow me?”
Margaery and Renly were talkative sorts, pointing out all interesting items on their way, from the portrait of the family to the hideous vase they had received as a wedding present. Margaery’s brother Loras came looking for Renly as they came out into the garden and with an apologetic grin, Renly left with him. Sansa thought she saw Renly place his hand on Loras’s lower back just before they disappeared inside the house. Then she heard Shaggydog’s barking, and she turned to see where he was.
Rickon and Shaggydog were tussling on the grass under Osha’s watchful eye. Shaggydog was nearly as large as Rickon these days, but Rickon was stronger than his small frame indicated, and he succeeded in tugging away a stick from his hound. He raised it over his head, laughing as Shaggydog when on his hind legs to reach for it, and then tossed the stick toward the far end of the garden.
“Rickon!” Jon called. Rickon looked over and lit up as bright as a lamp. He abandoned Osha and Shaggydog to come running at Jon, shouting his name. Jon bent to catch him in a fierce hug.
“Look at you,” Jon said, ruffling Rickon’s hair after he’d set him down. “You’re gonna be taller than me any day now.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Rickon said. “I’m only twelve.”
“That means you’re still growing,” Jon said. “And I’m not very tall, am I? Not like your sister.” He looked up at Sansa with a fond smile, and Sansa flushed. Her height had always been a bit of a sticking point with Joffrey; he hated that she was taller than him and always insisted she wore shoes with absolutely no heel.
“I’m not that much taller than you,” Sansa said. She embraced Rickon as well, smiling down at him. “How do you like Highgarden?”
“There’s a river and a forest and Lady Margaery lets me take out her horse,” Rickon started, and he didn’t stop expounding on everything he liked about Highgarden until they were inside the house and he was handed a plate of sweets and a bowl of treats for Shaggydog. Osha came to sit with them when Sansa beckoned her forward and confirmed that they had enjoyed their stay with the Tyrells.
“Though I should like to go north again,” Osha said. She had the heavy northern accent that reminded Sansa of her father; Jon had it too, while Sansa had consciously modeled her speech after her mother. The rough vowels never failed to make her long for home. “It’s much too warm down here.”
“Too warm?” Margaery laughed. “Many people come here just for the warm weather.”
“I prefer the cold,” Osha said simply.
Sansa decided to intervene by asking Rickon where Arya was. He turned a crumb-covered face towards her, rolling his eyes expressively and opening his mouth to speak. Sansa took out her handkerchief, wiped at his cheeks, and chided, “Finish chewing first.”
Rickon swallowed and said, “She’s off with Gendry again. And Brienne,” he added as an afterthought. “She’s always with Gendry.”
“Gendry?” Sansa asked. She glanced at Jon, who shrugged. “Who is that?”
“One of Robert’s by-blows, I’m afraid,” Margaery said with a sad little shake of her head. “Renly was kind enough to take him in as a ward, though of course we’ve had to keep very quiet about his origins.” She mimed locking her lips and grinned. “He’s a good lad.” She rose and added, “I’m guessing they’re out in the pavilion. That’s where they have the most space.”
Rickon stayed behind with Osha, intent on his sweets, and Sansa and Jon once again followed Margaery outside. This time they passed through the manicured garden to the wilder part of the grounds. Loras’s parsonage stood off to the south, a pleasant building with a cheerfully blooming garden. The pavilion was a large, roofed area held up by columns and paved with marble. Margaery informed them that in the summer months they would often eat out there to enjoy the fresh air.
“I’m afraid until your sister arrived it rather went to waste during this part of the year,” she said. As they approached, Sansa could hear the clack of wood hitting wood. “At least someone is getting use out of it.”
As they crested the small hill the pavilion sat upon, Sansa saw Arya, clad in trousers and a loose shirt—heavens, was she even wearing underclothes?—lunging at a boy nearly a foot taller than her. He was dressed just as casually, and Sansa noticed that their coats had been cast aside. Watching them was an impressively tall woman with golden hair and a severe expression.
“Turn your leg out, Gendry,” the woman barked. “She’s going to catch you under your—”
Arya neatly disarmed Gendry, whose practice sword fell to the ground with a clatter, and pressed the tip of her sword beneath his chin. “Yield.”
“I yield,” Gendry said, holding up his hands. “You win again, milady.”
“I wouldn’t if you would just try,” Arya said. “How am I supposed to get any better if you always let me win?”
Gendry opened his mouth to answer, then caught sight of Margaery and instantly dropped into a bow, nearly hitting his head on Arya’s still out-stretched sword. “Lady Margaery.”
“Lady Margaery,” the tall woman echoed, also bowing. She too wore trousers, Sansa noted, although she also wore a long tunic in the style popular in the east, with slits up to her belted waste to allow free movement.
Arya turned, saw who it was, and let out an almighty sigh. Sansa glared at her and Arya hastily added, “Hello, Lady Margaery,” and bobbed the quickest curtsy Sansa had ever seen, which looked even more ungainly in trousers.
“No need for all of that,” Margaery said with an airy wave of her hand. “Lord Snow, Lady Sansa, may I present Gendry Waters, my nephew, and Brienne of Tarth. Arya of course you already know.”
“Not this tall lass I don’t,” Jon said as Sansa, Gendry, and Brienne murmured their greetings. “Where’s little skinny Arya no bigger than her own blade?”
“I’ve been eating all my vegetables,” Arya said proudly. “I bet I could even take you on.”
“I bet you can’t,” Jon said. He bent to pick up Gendry’s abandoned practice sword. “Why don’t you show me what you’ve learned?”
Margaery excused herself at that, laughingly saying she had no interest in sword-fighting. Sansa moved to greet Gendry and Brienne properly while keeping an eye on Jon and Arya. Gendry was a tall, sturdy lad and looked much like his father as well as his uncle Renly—the same dark hair and pale blue eyes, and the same stubborn tilt to his chin. His accent was rougher than she would have expected from a ward of the Tyrells, and when she delicately broached the subject, he said he had been working in the same inn as his late mother when Renly had found him.
“I was fifteen then,” he said. “That was nearly ten years ago now. Lord Renly and Lady Margaery have been very kind to welcome me here.”
“He’s a footman,” Arya put in without breaking her stride. While she was much shorter than Jon, she was nimbler and swifter on her feet. “And he’s good with horses.”
“I used to work for the farrier in my town,” Gendry said. “You’ve got to be good with horses to keep them from kicking you in the head.”
“Still think you got kicked a few times,” Arya said. Sansa was about to scold her when Gendry laughed.
“She likes to say that,” he told Sansa. “She’s stubborn as a mule.”
“She’s always been that way,” Sansa said. “Ever since she was an infant.”
Arya protested, but Jon burst into laughter. A moment later, there was an almighty thump and Sansa turned to see that Arya had dumped Jon onto his back.
“Jon!” Sansa flew to his side, offering a hand. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine.” Jon winked and allowed her to pull him up. “Arya is pretty handy with that sword, is all.”
“She’s been a fine student,” Brienne said, speaking for the first time. She had a low, melodious voice, pleasant to listen to. “Very dedicated. I shall miss teaching her.”
“Do you live here?” Sansa asked curiously. “Tarth is to the south, is it not?”
“Yes.” Brienne eyed Sansa. “I came to live here a few years ago. My father does not have much use for unmarried daughters.”
“If you have no obligations here at Highgarden, you’re welcome at Winterfell,” Sansa said, glancing to Jon. “If you’d like to keep teaching Arya, I mean.”
“Are you staying at Winterfell, then?” Arya asked Jon. “I thought you would be at Dragonstone.”
Sansa and Jon both tried to speak at once, Sansa saying, “He’s staying with us for a time,” Jon saying, “I came to visit.” They stopped and looked at each other. Jon gave a tiny nod, and Sansa spoke for them.
“He’s visiting,” Sansa said, “while Dragonstone is settled.”
“Oh.” Arya balanced her sword on one hand. “And I’m coming back to Winterfell?”
“Yes,” Sansa said. “Unless—I suppose you could stay, if you wanted—”
“Can Gendry come too?” Arya asked. “No reason he has to stay here, is there? He’s a grown adult now.”
“Have you asked Gendry if he’d like to come?” Sansa asked. “What if he doesn’t want to come?”
“Don’t be stupid, of course he wants to,” Arya said. “Winterfell is far better than Highgarden.”
Sansa looked at Gendry, inviting him to confirm or deny Arya’s claim. He shrugged and said, “It sounds as good a place as any.”
“I’m sure my brother would welcome any friend of Arya’s,” Sansa said. “Are you finished with your day’s practice?”
“Well, I beat Jon, so I suppose there isn’t much more to do today.” Arya tossed her sword up in the air and caught it neatly by the hilt. She turned a sharp grin on Sansa. “And besides, you’re going to have to tell me why suddenly we’re allowed back home.”
“It’s not an issue of allowed,” Sansa said irritably, but Jon held out a hand to stop her before she could get going. Arya was just so good at needling her. But he was right: it wasn’t the time.
“Yes, let’s get back inside,” Jon said, “and you can tell me more about these sword lessons you’ve been having.” He put his arms around Arya’s shoulders and led her away, diverting her attention from Sansa and the question of Winterfell. Sansa took the army Gendry offered her and asked him about his mother as they went back to the house.
Renly and Loras joined them all for tea in the formal parlor, which was bedecked in the Tyrell roses and so opulent that even Sansa, who found the north rather ascetic, felt it was a bit much. Arya and Gendry had changed into clean clothing—Arya was even wearing a dress—and as they ate delicate pastries they talked of gossip from King’s Landing. Sansa, watching Arya out of the corner of her eye, saw the exact moment where Arya’s temper frayed. Sansa spilled her tea on the hem of her dress, cried out, and declared she would have to go wash it out.
“Arya, come with me,” Sansa said, taking her sister’s hand. Arya tried to resist until she met Sansa’s eyes. She sighed dramatically but got up anyway, following Sansa out of the room.
Sansa led them through three rooms before turning to Arya and saying, “Do you know if there’s a study somewhere?”
“That way.” Arya pointed to the left. “What do you need a study for?”
“You were bored and you have questions,” Sansa said. “Best not to do have it out in front of the Tyrells.”
“Oh, all right.” Arya beckoned Sansa on, leading the way through the corridors until they reached a study that had very few books in it. Seeing Sansa’s expression, she said, “Lord Renly isn’t big on reading.”
“Ah.” Sansa fiddled with the hems of her sleeves, looking around for something so she wouldn’t have to look at Arya. “You asked why you’re coming back to Winterfell. I think—you must know that we’ve been struggling.”
“I’m not stupid,” Arya said with a scowl. “Bran may have been in denial, but when you started dismissing the staff—yes, I knew.”
“So you know that I sent you here because we couldn’t afford it,” Sansa said, relieved despite Arya’s hostility.
“Yes,” Arya said, “but as far as I know nothing’s changed. You aren’t married, we would have heard.”
“Except I am married,” Sansa said. “To Jon.”
Arya stared at her, mouth falling open, for so long that Sansa wondered if she ought to repeat herself. Then Arya burst out, “To Jon?”
“Yes, to Jon, and keep your voice down,” Sansa hissed. “No one can know, not yet.”
“You married in secret?” Arya darted up to Sansa and prodded at her stomach. Shocked, Sansa tried to push her away, but Arya danced back, brow creased. “You aren’t with child?”
“No!” Sansa said. “At least—I don’t think so.”
“But you eloped,” Arya said. “You eloped.”
“Well, I suppose,” Sansa said slowly. “Though I wouldn’t call it that. We had a proper parson and witnesses, and he didn’t throw me over his horse.”
“That would have been much more exciting ,” Arya said. She narrowed her eyes at Sansa and put her hands on her hips. “But if you aren’t with child, then why would he marry you?”
“He asked me,” Sansa said, stung. “He wanted to help us.”
“There are ways of helping us that don’t involve marrying you.” Arya shakes her head. “It makes sense why you would want to marry him, of course. He’s miles better than anyone else you might have had, and besides the Targaryens are even wealthier than the Lannisters, they say. But why would he marry you? You aren’t in love, after all.”
“If that’s all you have to say,” Sansa said stiffly, pushing back the hot prickle at the back of her eyes, “then I suppose we’re finished.”
She strode from the room, ignoring Arya’s call after her. She was nearly back at the parlor when Arya caught up with her, seizing the back of her dress. Sansa yelped, crying, “Arya, careful!” and batted her hands away.
“I’m sorry, Sansa, I’m sorry!” Arya said breathlessly. “I didn’t mean that you’re not—oh, hell, I only meant that it’s odd is all.”
“Don’t swear,” Sansa said automatically.
“No one’s around to hear,” Arya said. “Do you accept my apology?”
“Fine, yes, I accept,” Sansa said testily. “Now do you think we might go back to tea?”
“Bloody tea,” Arya muttered. Sansa pursed her lips and strode back into the parlor, her head held high. She took her seat beside Jon on the settee, and just barely restrained a flinch when he leaned over to touch her hand.
“Is everything all right?” he asked, voice low and intimate in her ear.
“We’ll talk about it later,” she whispered. She gave his hand a pointed look and he withdrew it with a small, wry smile. Sansa caught Arya watching them, expression blank, and flushed. That Arya had jumped to the idea of Sansa being with child—where had that come from? And her comment about her and Jon not being in love! Sansa supposed it was true—desire was not the same as love, after all—but for Arya to say it so baldly, as if it were impossible, had stung.
She would have to tell Jon that Arya knew. Perhaps he could talk to her and explain things better than Sansa had been able to. But between one thing and another, she and Jon weren’t able to get a moment alone for the rest of the day. Margaery wanted Sansa’s opinion on a dress she had ordered, Renly wanted news of the war. Then there was dinner, with Sansa seated to Renly’s left and Jon at the other end of the table beside Margaery.
After dinner, Brella showed Sansa to a guest room. Sansa stood there, feeling acutely how empty the room was without Jon, and was on the verge of seeking him out when there was a soft knock at the door and Jon’s voice whispering her name.
Sansa rushed to the door and let him in, closing the door behind him. As soon as the door had clicked shut, Jon kissed her needily, his hand tangling in her hair, and Sansa felt relief bloom in her chest. She knew he desired her—it was clear from how he acted around her—but Arya’s words had shook her more than she wished to admit. She kissed back but then reluctantly pushed him away, common sense prevailing. “They’ll know if you spend the night here,” she said.
“I know.” Jon tucked her hair behind her ear. “I wanted to see you, was all.”
“And I you,” Sansa said, smiling helplessly. “But I also needed to speak with you. About Arya.”
“Is it about Gendry?” Jon asked. He led Sansa by the hand to the vanity and gestured for her to sit. Once she did, he began taking down her hair, a process he seemed to find curiously pleasing as he often found excuses to do it. “I think she likes him.”
“Well, yes, they do seem to be friends,” Sansa said.
Jon laughed. “Not that. I think she fancies him. Did you see her? Couldn’t help teasing him.”
“Arya fancying someone?” Sansa stopped to think back to how Arya had insisted that Gendry come with them. “What do you think of Gendry coming to Winterfell, then?”
“Could be good,” Jon said. “Could be bad. Like I said, she fancies him. Do you think it’s wise to bring them under the same roof?”
“I never thought Arya would marry,” Sansa said frankly. “And if you think she fancies him, well—she could do worse than Robert Baratheon’s bastard.”
“Devious.” Jon leaned over her shoulder to pick up a brush and began gently pulling it through her hair. “He does seem like a good lad. He would be a good grounds steward for Bran.”
“If that’s what he wants. But it wasn’t Gendry I wanted to talk about.” She looked down at her hands. “I told Arya we were married.”
The brush paused in her hair before resuming its steady strokes. “You did?”
“I knew she would ask questions,” Sansa said. “I hoped to answer them before she said something in front of the Tyrells.”
“And how did she take it?”
“Better than Bran, I think,” Sansa said. “But Arya and I—we’ve never really—well, you know. Sometimes I think we can’t have a single conversation without arguing.”
“As different as two sisters can be,” Jon agreed. “Would you like me to speak with her?”
“Would you? She’s always liked you better.” Sansa didn’t quite manage to conceal the bitterness in her voice. When Arya was born, she had been just old enough to understand what was happening, and she had been so excited for a sister. There were so many boys around—Robb and Jon and Theon—and all she wanted was a little sister to play with.
Except then Arya had preferred swords and archery to dolls and sewing. She had seemed to fall so naturally in with the boys, a small shadow that they tolerated because they found her amusing. Sansa tried on occasion to join them. She had never been very good at it.
Jon didn’t speak at first. He leaned over her shoulder to set down the brush and gathered her hair at the base of her neck. “I will speak to her when we ride back for Winterfell. Do you plan on telling Rickon?”
“Not until we’re away from Highgarden.” Sansa flattened her hands on her thighs, the heat of her palms bleeding through the fabric. “He’s too young. He might say something by mistake.”
“I agree.” Jon pulled her hair away from her skin and pressed a kiss to the knob of her neck. “I should get back to my room.”
I wish you didn’t have to go. Sansa bit back the words. “Sleep well.”
Jon kissed her temple. “You as well.”
Sansa didn’t stand as Jon left her room. She didn’t trust herself not to reach for him. When she looked at her reflection, she saw that her lips were pinked, swollen from his kiss. She pressed her fingers to the corner of her mouth, then rose to climb into her vast, incomprehensibly lonely bed.
Sansa was oddly quiet and withdrawn the next few days that they spent at Highgarden. She rarely spent time with Jon, often opting to go for walks with Margaery or spend time in Arya’s room packing for her, since Arya couldn’t be bothered. After some discussion, it was decided that both Gendry and Brienne would return to Winterfell with them for midwinter at least, perhaps longer. Brienne had much admired Lady Catelyn on the few occasions they met, and expressed to them that she would be honored to continue teaching her daughter.
Arya was delighted by this news and very smug as well. She was nearly as slippery as Sansa, always off to sword fight or ride or shoot a bow—she was getting quite good at that—and Jon never did get a moment alone with her to talk about his marriage. It would have to wait until they returned to Winterfell, where they did not have to worry about eavesdroppers.
But the day they were to leave Highgarden, their party much larger than when they had arrived, Jon received a letter. Brella brought it to Margaery, who stared at it before saying, “Lord Snow! This is for you! But how on earth did they know you were here?”
Jon took the letter and stared. “It has the Targaryen seal,” he said. Sansa held out her hand in a mute question, and he passed it to her so she could see the three-headed dragon for herself.
“But you’re the only Targaryen left!” Margaery said, blatantly eavesdropping.
“The only male Targaryen,” Sansa said, and she met Jon’s eyes. If his aunt were writing—if she were disputing his claim to the title and the inheritance—everything they had done might be for naught.
Jon ripped the envelope and turned away to read it. The script was neat and slanted, written in violet ink. He read quickly, then folded it up and explained, “My aunt has arrived in King’s Landing. My solicitor gave her my direction.”
“What does she want?” Sansa asked.
“To meet me.” He wanted to reach for Sansa’s hand, but he couldn’t in front of Margaery. “I can’t return with you to Winterfell. I must go to Dragonstone.”
Jon and Sansa had no time to say a proper farewell, nor to discuss the possible outcomes of his aunt’s return to Westeros. He knew very little about Daenerys, only that she was nearly the same age as him and that she had spent all of her life in Essos. Jon was the heir to the Targaryen estate and fortune by law; but if Daenerys chose to contest his claim, she had the advantage of legitimacy.
When he was ready to leave, Jon mounted the horse Lady Margaery had graciously loaned him and looked down to Sansa. She had wrapped her arms around herself, and Jon wished he could just dismount and take her in his arms, or lift her up to join him. He knew he could face his aunt alone; he simply did not want to.
“I promise you nothing will change,” Jon told her in a low voice so he couldn’t be overheard. “No matter what, I promised I would care for you, and I will find a way to keep that promise, even if she wishes to strip me everything.”
“Surely she wouldn’t,” Sansa said, but her brow was furrowed in worry. Jon reached down and plucked at the end of her braid. She smiled wanly and covered his hand with hers. It was all they could have with the Tyrell household around them.
He traveled to Dragonstone as quickly as he could, changing horses twice along the way. When he arrived, he discovered that Ros had already been alerted to Daenerys’s imminent arrival by Varys, and between the two of them, they organized the staff into opening up the remainder of the house and preparing their kitchen for visitors. Varys’s letter had been maddeningly vague as to how many people Daenerys had brought with her, so Jon told Ros to prepare for anything up to a small army.
Daenerys arrived in advance of her retinue, with only three companions. Her horses were beautiful creatures; Jon had heard that her late husband had been a horse breeder of repute. With her as well were three huge mastiffs that she called to heel with a sharp command in tongue he did not recognize.
She strode up the steps to greet him, as sure as a queen approaching her throne. He was startled to see just how small she was; she hardly came up to his shoulder. Yet the way she carried herself gave the impression she was much taller than she was, and her gaze was direct and assessing. She looked much like her late brother, the same silver-blonde hair and blue-violet eyes: beautiful, but unapproachable.
“Hello, Aunt,” Jon said, bowing. “Welcome to Dragonstone.”
Daenerys pursed her lips, looking very much as though she had bit into a lemon. “I think, as we are the same age, we can dispense with that,” she said. She held out her hand. “Daenerys will do fine.”
He kissed her knuckles and smiled sheepishly. “Apologies. And you should call me Jon.”
“Very well.” Daenerys regarded him for a moment, then turned to gesture her companions to join them. “This is Missandei, my maid, and Grey, my footman.” She indicated two young people, both very handsome. She nodded to the third person, a man wearing practical leathers. “And this is Daario Naharis, my lover.”
Jon must have made a startled noise, because she looked at him with thinly disguised amusement. “Does my frankness surprise you? It seems to me there is no need for deception here. We are family, after all.”
“Few are as open about their romantic affairs,” Jon said. “Though I admire your honesty.”
Daenerys’s mouth quirked up. “It’s quite all right if you find me shocking,” she said.
Jon decided not to respond and instead offered her his arm. “May I take around the house? I will introduce you to the staff as well.”
Daenerys was quiet for most of the tour, only occasionally asking questions on points of clarification. She shook all of the servants’ hands and made a point of repeating their names, something Jon really should have done himself, and Jon could tell that half of them were already in love with her. She paused before the portrait of her parents on the second floor, and Jon was struck with how much she resembled them.
“My mother died shortly after I was born,” she said. “Do you know I’ve never seen a picture of her before? Viserys sold nearly everything we had to keep us from begging on the streets.” She touched her own face, seeming transfixed. “He always said I looked like her.”
“I would agree,” Jon said, suppressing the urge to add, “my lady.” Technically he was of superior rank to her, but in her presence he did not feel he deserved it. “I know it will mean very little, but I would like to extend my apologies on behalf of my—my parents for how their indiscretion affected you.”
“You hardly had any say in it,” Daenerys said. She turned a smile on him, somewhat forced. “Though I appreciate the thought.”
She insisted on riding out with Tormund to survey the estate that day rather than putting it off. Tormund seemed to find her fascinating, particularly her strange garb of a long tunic over trousers, which was far more practical for riding than a dress. Her dogs—Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion —came along with them, bounding through the grass eagerly. She watched them fondly, much as a mother might watch her children, and said to Jon, “They felt rather confined aboard the ship, I’m afraid. They are not bred to live indoors.”
“They are fine animals,” Jon said, watching as the larger dark-haired dog—Drogon—leapt at a real or imaginary rabbit. “What breed are they?”
“Valyrian Mastiff,” Daenerys said. “Very rare these days, especially purebreds.”
“Do they hunt, milady?” Tormund asked, voice unusually deferential. Jon suppressed the urge to grin and put on a curious expression to match Tormund’s question.
“Oh, yes,” Daenerys said with relish. “Do you hunt, Tormund?”
Jon let them discuss the hunting opportunities available at Dragonstone as they rode along the estate’s borders, his thoughts wandering back to Winterfell and Sansa. They would have been back for a day or so, if they had gone quickly. Jon had received a letter from Varys confirming that he had set aside the requested sum for repairs to Winterfell, and Sansa would be able to begin the long list of tasks she had created with Bran.
Daenerys abruptly spurred her horse forward into a gallop, and Tormund followed after her, the two of them whooping. Daenerys’s hair came loose from her braids, flying behind her in a wild silver-blonde cloud. Jon looked down at the pale-haired dog—Viserion—who gave him a look as if to say, She does this all the time before loping off after his mistress. Jon laughed to himself and urged his horse into a trot.
After they returned to the house, Daenerys and Jon went their separate ways to wash the sweat from their faces. When they met in the parlor, Daenerys had exchanged her tunic and trousers for a long silken gown of grey-blue. She fit here among the halls of Dragonstone; Jon felt like a great hulking beast in comparison.
“Shall we have a glass of wine?” Daenerys suggested. “I have brought a few bottles of a Valyrian vintage—I would be happy to share it.”
Jon assented, and they went together into the room. Missandei stayed to serve the wine, but aside from her they were alone. When they each had a glass, Jon raised his in a toast and said, “To family.”
“To family,” Daenerys agreed, and they both drank. It was a very fine wine—even Jon, who preferred ale, could tell that it was good—and they let out identical sighs of appreciation. Daenerys laughed, and she instantly transformed from an untouchable, intimidating woman to a girl just barely older than him, whose cheek dimpled when she smiled.
Emboldened, Jon asked how she had acquired her dogs, and from there they fell into an easy discussion of their childhoods. Daenerys had spent much of her early years traveling from place to place, relying on family friends, and then friends of family friends, for food and shelter. Jon felt it impolite to speak of his own childhood, but she asked, and he had to admit to himself that even if he had suffered from the stigma of being a bastard, he had at least grown up comfortable.
Daenerys was particularly interested in his stories from the army and called Tormund back to ask about the Empire. Tormund told a rather implausible story about an encounter he’d had with a bear, leaving all of them in laughter. Ros came in then to tell them dinner was ready, and they all ate in the formal dining room, continuing to share stories.
Grey spoke very little, and when he did, his speech was heavily accented. He looked often to Missandei for confirmation of his words, and when she saw Jon looking, Missandei explained that she had once been a translator. This, naturally, got Tormund to test her on her knowledge of the Imperial language. Daario was a bit stiff at first, but when he saw that Jon did not flirt with Daenerys, he relaxed and began to share his own tales of working as a sword for hire.
“Yes, not very honorable,” he said cheerfully, “but we were one of the most in-demand companies in all of Pentos. It has made me a very wealthy man. Not as wealthy as all this, of course, but I am comfortable.”
“You fight with a sword?” Jon asked with interest, and despite Daenerys’s sigh of exasperation, they spent much of the meal deep in discussion over military maneuvers and minutiae.
After the meal, Daenerys and Jon retired once more to the parlor, the mood having grown more subdued. Being several cups deep, Jon found the courage to ask Daenerys if she would marry Daario.
“He seems like a fine man,” he said. “He has been with you for several years, I take it.”
“Yes. And I think he would like me to marry him.” Daenerys sat back contemplatively, gazing at her wine. “I loved my husband,” she said after a moment. “Many here would call him a savage, I suppose. And I’ll admit the Dothraki can be intimidating when you first meet them. My brother gave me to Khal Drogo in exchange for horses and to force someone else to take on the cost of feeding me, and I thought—well, it doesn’t matter what I thought.
“The night of my wedding, I was terrified. Viserys had told me so many terrible things about what a man could do to his wife. But Drogo was gentle. He was kind. When he died, I thought I might die too. I was very young, you see. I didn’t think I could live without him. He was my sun and my stars.
“I like Daario,” she said. “But I will never marry another.” She drained her wine glass and set it aside. “I’m sorry, that was a bit more long-winded than I’m sure you expected.”
“Not at all. I am sorry for your loss,” Jon said. “But what about—” He hesitated, unsure how to put it.
“Ah.” Daenerys sipped at her wine and smiled. “Are you worried about your heirs? You have no reason to fear. I am barren.”
“Oh,” Jon said, and failed to come up with anything further. He knew he ought to say something, but Daenerys seemed to enjoy his discomfiture. While he struggled for an appropriate response, she called for Missandei, had her wine refilled, and settled back against the settee.
“Yes; the Targaryen line is entirely up to you, I’m afraid. But we still have a few other details to work out.” Daenerys tucked her feet up beneath her. “My brother’s will was very specific: the estate is yours. But you—forgive me for my bluntness—are a bastard. I am the last true Targaryen, and by right these lands are mine.”
Jon had been anticipating this, and he opened his mouth to speak—to say any one of the arguments he had formulated on the ride from Highgarden—but Daenerys raised her hand to stop him.
“I have no wish to dispute your claim,” Daenerys said. “It was my brother’s last wish and I will honor it. But my family—our family—has been in exile for years. I returned to Westeros because it seemed that I would no longer be beheaded for doing so, but I will not return to the life I had before, living off the generosity of others. I have just as much right to the Targaryen estate as you.”
“I agree,” Jon said. “I do not have to live at Dragonstone—”
“Oh, no, you must live here. You are the heir. And were I to take my place as Lady of Dragonstone, I would have to put up with every eligible gentleman in Westeros demanding my hand. Am I wrong?”
“You are not,” Jon said. “Likely a few ineligible gentlemen as well.”
Daenerys laughed. “Yes, I imagine they would. May I ask what progress have you made in reclaiming Summerhall?”
Jon blinked in surprise. “Summerhall is a ruin.”
“Yes, but it is our ruin,” Daenerys said. “And we still own it, do we not?”
“We do,” Jon said. “Though it is in the midst of the Stormlands, which the crown has been using for their hunts.”
“No matter. I will charge them to hunt on our grounds if they wish to continue, and I will rebuild Summerhall.” Daenerys raised her chin proudly. “My brother was born there, the night it was destroyed.”
“I’ve heard the stories,” Jon said. “A fire, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. I will have to see what remains myself, but I would like to restore it to its former glory.”
“We should have the funds for that,” Jon said. “But—there is something I must tell you.”
Daenerys arched her eyebrows. “Yes?”
“I have taken a wife,” Jon said. “Lady Sansa Stark of Winterfell. Her family has of late fallen out of favor with the crown, and are in dire need of funds. I have given direction to Mr. Varys to supply them with the capital they need to pay off their debts and repair their estate.”
“Ah.” Daenerys cocked her head to the side. “Stark. So she would be your cousin.”
“Yes. I grew up in her household.” Jon smoothed his hands over his knees nervously. “Queen Cersei had a quarrel with my late uncle, Lord Eddard, and since then she has been determined to drive the Starks from Winterfell. This seemed the only way to save them.”
“How selfless of you,” Daenerys observed. Jon’s face heated, and she smirked. “So it wasn’t sheer altruism? Tell me, is she pretty?”
“She’s beautiful,” Jon said, face as hot as though it were pressed to a fire.
“She’s beautiful and you pitied her situation. Many a stupider reason for marriage,” Daenerys said. “Do you know, people have been telling me I ought to remarry from nearly the day we laid my husband in the ground? For the sake of the bloodline, they said.” She shook her head. “But never mind that. Tell me about your wife, Jon Snow. I have been talking all day, and you have hardly said a word.”
But how to begin to speak of Sansa? Sansa, once a dreamy-eyed girl with an unexpectedly sharp tongue. Sansa, who wanted so much to be like her lady mother. Sansa, who was still such a stranger to him at times and yet at others he felt he knew her better than he knew himself.
When he fell in love with Ygritte, it was an instant thing. He couldn’t look away from her, couldn’t hide how he felt. Everyone had known it within days, and had teased him for it, even her. Sansa, though—he had not intended to take her into his bed. Or, rather, he had not expected her to want him. He still could not name what had possessed him that day he had offered for her hand. Daenerys was right that it wasn’t altruism, but neither was it pity. And it wasn’t leftover affection from their childhood.
No, he desired her. He could no longer deny that. She was beautiful and she was strong and she was brave, and he desired her as he hadn’t desired anyone since Ygritte had died. How had it come on so quietly? How had he not realized until they were apart that he never wanted to let her go?
“Why,” Daenerys said, voice softer now, “you love her. Don’t you?”
Jon looked up and met her eyes. She was gazing at him with sympathy, lips slightly parted. “I think I do,” Jon said.
“Does she know?”
Jon shook his head mutely and drank deeply from his wine. Daenerys nodded and leaned over to squeeze his hand. “You should tell her,” she said. “Life is unpredictable.”
“What if she doesn’t feel the same?” Jon asked, voice rough. “She married me because I could save her family, not because she loved me.”
“I married Drogo because he would save my family,” Daenerys said. “And I will never find someone I love as much. It is not impossible that she could grow to love you.”
Jon sighed and did not share his fears that Sansa could have done better. That she could have loved Willas Tyrell more, or that she might have found someone she truly loved who could have done as much for her as he had. “Thank you for your words.”
“Of course.” Daenerys eased back. “What are aunts for, if not advice?” She smiled at him, and after a moment he laughed, and lifted his glass to her.
“To an aunt’s advice,” he said gravely, and they drank together in newfound understanding.
Winterfell was, as always, a welcome sight when they crested the hill south of the house and saw the grounds stretching out before them. Gendry let out a low whistle when he saw it and said to Arya, “I knew you grew up in a castle.”
“It’s not a proper castle,” Arya said. “We haven’t got a moat.”
“Still. You’re a proper lady.” Sansa had to bite her lip to conceal her amusement at that. “Even if you do dress like a boy.”
Arya huffed and sat back with a scowl. “Brienne’s a lady, and she doesn’t wear silly dresses.”
“There’s nothing wrong with silly dresses,” Sansa said. “The right dress can be as good as armor under some circumstances.”
“But a dress can’t stop a sword,” Arya agued.
“Some of those corsets could,” Sansa said, wincing as she remembered how tight they could be. “And I meant metaphorically.”
“Oh, metaphorically,” Arya parroted back. “Of course.”
“Are they always like this, or just when they’ve been traveling?” Gendry asked Rickon.
“Always,” Rickon said long-sufferingly.
Brienne chose that moment to ride up alongside their carriage and say, “It looks as though we have a welcome party.”
Sansa looked through the window and saw that, indeed, Bran was riding with Jojen behind him, Meera on another horse. And with them, she saw with a jolt, was Petyr Baelish. She sat back and wished Jon were here. But that was a cowardly thought, and she was no coward. She could face Baelish.
“Welcome home!” Bran called when they drew even with them. “Sansa, we have done so much already—wait until you see!”
“I look forward to it,” Sansa said, forcing a smile. Baelish was watching her with that vague smile he always wore, as though the world amused him. “Bran, this is Lady Brienne of Tarth, who I wrote you about.”
“Yes, hello!” Bran said, and he urged Jojen to fall in beside the carriage. With their new escort in place, they made their way up the drive to Winterfell. Gendry handed down Arya and Sansa from the carriage before Baelish could offer—Sansa suspected he did it so Arya would be annoyed, but she was grateful nonetheless—but as the servants came out to unload the carriage, Baelish offered Sansa his arm.
“Lady Stark,” he said, eyes glittering. “Or should I say Lady Snow?”
Sansa went cold. She looked to Bran, who was being taken down from the horse by Wylis, then back to Baelish. “I beg your pardon?”
“No need to fret, my dear,” Baelish said. “Your lord brother only confirmed what I had heard.”
“Who told you?” Sansa asked.
“Now, now, I can’t tell you that,” Baelish said, shaking his head. “I can’t give away all my secrets. You have nothing to fear, Lady Sansa. I am ever your servant.”
“Are you?” Sansa asked. She took her hand from him and made a show of helping wheel Bran up to the house. She felt Baelish’s eyes on her back.
In the time she had been gone, Bran had hired back much of the staff, started repairs on the roof and windows in preparation of winter, and had restocked their larder. He told her all of this as she took him into the parlor, where a roaring fire was waiting for them. She excused herself quietly and went to the study, Baelish following behind her. She shut the door and turned to fix him with her most imposing glare.
“What do you want, then?” she asked coldly.
“Want?” Baelish pressed a hand to his chest, as though offended. Sansa was not fooled. “Why would you ask me such a thing?”
“You wouldn’t have come to Winterfell unless you wanted something,” Sansa said. “If you already knew I was married, there was no reason to come all this way. So what is it that you want?”
Baelish’s expression hardened. “You know very well what I want, Sansa. But as you are married now, only an annulment or widowhood would render that a possibility.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Of course not,” Baelish said. Sansa did not believe him in the slightest, and moved to the door, no longer remotely interested in speaking with him. He seized her arm and she whirled on him.
“Unhand me now,” Sansa said sharply.
“You denied me in King’s Landing on the grounds that you wished to wait a while longer before making your decision,” Baelish said. His fingers were digging into the flesh of her arm, and Sansa forced herself not to wince, not wanting him to see her discomfited. “How long did you wait before you opened your legs for Jon Snow, hm? The bastard son of the man who started a war?”
“Watch your tongue,” Sansa said, voice very cold indeed. “I am not some little girl you can intimidate any longer.”
“I could have helped you,” Baelish pressed. “I would have loved you. You could have stayed at Winterfell. By all rights, it should be yours. You saved it, you stood strong against the queen—”
“Yes, the queen,” Sansa snapped, “who you kept promising to speak with on my behalf, and yet kept saying not yet, not yet. You wanted me to be beholden to you, Littlefinger. You didn’t want a partner, an equal. You wanted a meek little girl who would be grateful for your help. Well, I don’t need your help.”
Baelish had gone white at the use of his hated nickname. He released her arm and stepped back. “Yet you needed Jon Snow’s?” he asked with a sneer. “Do you think he’s any different? No one gives up something for nothing, little bird. Watch him carefully, because one day you’ll have to pay.”
“Jon isn’t like that,” Sansa said, ribs squeezing at the very thought.
“Everyone is like that,” Baelish said. “Don’t fool yourself.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “I could have been a valuable ally to you, Sansa. Better than the bastard of a disgraced family—”
“Call him a bastard again,” Sansa said softly.
“That’s what he is,” Baelish said. “A bastard.”
“And he is worth ten of you,” Sansa said. She drew herself up to her full height, looking down at Baelish with all the contempt she could muster. “You come to my home, insult and threaten my husband, dare to speak to me in that tone—you may have been my mother’s friend, but you are not mine. Leave Winterfell today and don’t ever come back while I’m here.”
“I am your solicitor,” Baelish said.
“I can find another,” Sansa said. She opened the door to the study and found Arya standing outside, eyes wide. Sansa suppressed a sigh and looked to Baelish. “Good day, Mr. Baelish.”
Baelish straightened his coat and strode from the room. Arya waited until he was gone to dart inside, and Sansa shut the door again. She walked unsteadily to the desk and sat. Her hands were shaking. She would have to find a new solicitor. She would have to write to Jon—no, she couldn’t write to Jon. Jon did not know about Baelish’s proposal, and besides, what would she say? That he had threatened Jon? He hadn’t, not really. There was nothing Jon could do, not anything more than he had done already.
“Sansa,” Arya said hesitantly.
“What?” Sansa snapped. Arya bristled, opening her mouth to snap something back, but Sansa stopped her with a raised hand. “I’m sorry, you didn’t deserve that.”
Arya came around the side of the desk to perch on the corner, despite Sansa’s warning look. She had changed into a dress, a simple one that she had owned for years, and her hair was actually styled into a fashionable coiffure instead of tumbling in a mess down her back. “Bran had them cook a proper meal and all for us coming home. I was coming to fetch you and Uncle Petyr.”
“Don’t call him that,” Sansa said, sick to her stomach. “He doesn’t deserve it.”
“I never liked him anyway,” Arya said with a sniff. “But Sansa—if he isn’t in our service anymore, he could go straight to the queen.”
“Let him,” Sansa said viciously. “Jon is my husband. If she or Baelish or anyone tries to separate us, I’ll go straight to his aunt and tell her what they’ve done. She’s a Targaryen, she can’t have any love for the Lannisters.”
“And if he hurts Jon, I’ll kill him myself,” Arya said flatly. She slid off the desk and wrapped her arms awkwardly about Sansa’s shoulders. “Did he hurt you?”
“No,” Sansa lied. She knew the place where Petyr grabbed would bruise; she had learned that from Joffrey. “Pray don’t think on him any longer, Arya. He is not worth our consideration.”
Arya pulled back and pursed her lips. “You’ve gotten better at lying,” she said, “but I’m still better than you.” She kissed Sansa’s forehead, like their mother would have done, and slipped away toward the door. “Come to dinner, Sansa. Jeyne’s even promised lemon cake.”
“There are other things I like,” Sansa protested, but she followed Arya from the room with a lighter heart. It was gratifying to know that Arya was on her side.
With the return of Arya and Rickon, and the addition of Brienne and Gendry, new life was breathed into Winterfell. Gone were the echoing halls and the closed-up rooms, the empty dining room and quiet nights. Instead Sansa took it upon herself to deputize her siblings, the Reeds, and their guests into helping the still meager staff return Winterfell to its former glory. Windows were cleaned; the floors were swept; beds were remade with fresh linens. Gendry reshod all the horses, and Brienne polished their family’s ancestral sword to gleaming brightness.
It was Brienne who provided her with the name of a new solicitor—a young man from a lesser branch of the Payne family, named Podrick. “He can be a bit—naïve at times, I suppose,” Brienne said, standing very straight in front of Sansa with her hands behind her back, as though she were giving a military report. “But he’s a good lad, and he’ll do well for you.”
“Thank you,” Sansa said, a little puzzled by Brienne’s amount of deference. Strictly speaking, they were of equal rank, and Brienne was so tall that having her stand while Sansa sat meant she had to crane her neck awfully to look her in the eye. “Brienne, please—sit.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Brienne took a seat on one of the chairs. The solar had not seen much use since Sansa’s mother had died, but since Sansa had returned to Winterfell, she began to take her late afternoon tea there, so she might sew in the afternoon light. Strictly speaking, she did not have to undertake the mending for her siblings, but she enjoyed the work, and her father had always said that it was good for his children to take on duties that other nobles might consider beneath them.
Noting the way Brienne was eying her needle, Sansa asked, “Are you experienced at all with sewing, Brienne?”
“No, but not for lack of trying,” Brienne said. “I can mend a tear, but that’s all.”
“It’s the same with Arya,” Sansa said. “She never had the patience for it.” She set aside her sewing and looked at Brienne’s face, at the way Brienne didn’t quite meet her eyes. “Do you have any siblings?”
“None living, my lady,” Brienne said.
“It’s Sansa.” Sansa reached out to touch Brienne’s hand. Brienne looked up, clearly startled. “And I’m sorry.”
“They died as children,” Brienne said stiffly. “I was very young.”
“So you are the heir to Evenfall?” Sansa asked. “Why are you not there?”
“My family has long been friends with the Baratheons,” Brienne said. “Renly—Lord Renly, that is—he has always been kind to me. At my debut in King’s Landing, he was the only one to dance with me without laughing.” Her mouth twisted wryly. “The others, they pretended to think it a great honor, but I heard them. ‘Brienne the Beauty,’ they called me. As if I hadn’t heard that joke by then.”
“Brienne,” Sansa said, attempting to stop her, but Brienne did not seem to hear.
“When it became clear there were to be no other heirs, my father thought I should learn how to run an estate from someone. I mentioned Lord Renly and Lady Margaery, and so I went to live with them, until you arrived.” Brienne finally met Sansa’s eyes. She had lovely eyes, Sansa noted, very blue. “I met Lady Catelyn once.”
“My mother?” Sansa asked in surprise. “When was that?”
“She came to ask the Tyrells for help so they might pay for your brother’s doctors,” Brienne said. “She was already sick by then, though she did a good job of hiding it. I—I liked her. She was very strong. Brave.”
“She was,” Sansa agreed. She hesitated, then asked, “I don’t know that I have much to offer, but I have been managing Winterfell these past three years. As we have taken you away from your tutors at Highgarden, I should hate for you to lose your education.”
“Thank you, my—Sansa.” Brienne nodded and rose to her feet. “Your brother said you might be going to King’s Landing in the spring. If it is no trouble, I should like to accompany you. It has become clear to me from watching Lady Margaery and yourself that if I am to inherit Evenfall Hall, I must become at least acquainted with the players at court.” She scowled, seemingly unconsciously. “Much as I may dislike it.”
“I have no doubt you will do well,” Sansa said. “King’s Landing could use more honesty.” She stood as well and took Brienne’s arm. “We will have to see about finding some gowns for you.”
“Not gowns, please,” Brienne said, pained. “I do not look well in them.”
“Then something that you like.” Sansa smiled up at Brienne—and how novel to have a woman taller than her!—and led her from the room. “Perhaps we shall even find you a husband.”
“I doubt that, my lady,” Brienne said. “Sansa.”
“Ah, well,” Sansa said lightly, “then perhaps just a lover. ” She shot Brienne a look, and was pleased when, after a moment, Brienne laughed.
Daenerys was gracious enough to provide Jon and Tormund with horses from her own stables for their return to Winterfell. She had enough to outfit an entire regiment, all beautiful creatures of fine breeding. When Jon suggested she might think of selling them, though, she shook her head fiercely.
“I might breed them,” she said, stroking the nose of her mare, “but I would never sell them. They are what’s left of my husband.”
Along with the horses had come her retinue, nearly thirty in total, some friends of her family such as Sir Selmy and Sir Mormont, but others who cared for the horses or attended to Daenerys herself. They all seemed to adore her, referring to her using the word khaleesi, which she explained was an honorific in Dothrak. Jon they called khal until he instructed them to call him Jon for simplicity’s sake, at which point they began calling him Lord Snow, as his servants did.
“Common you may try to be, Jon Snow,” Tormund said at that, “but you’re a noble, and nothing is ever going to change that. Weep in your feather bed and let the rest of us common folk use our given names.”
“You have no problem calling me Jon,” Jon pointed out.
“Ah, yes,” Tormund said, “but I’ve seen your pecker. And who could take you seriously after seeing that your pecker is this small?” He held up his thumb to demonstrate and heaved out a deep belly laugh before wandering off to examine his horse.
Daenerys and Jon had decided that while Daenerys worked at restoring Summerhall, Jon would live with Sansa and the rest of the Starks while Daenerys stayed at Dragonstone. In the spring, she thought she might go to King’s Landing, “and remind everyone that the Targaryen line still lives,” she said with a proud tilt to her chin. “Shall I see you there?”
“I expect so,” Jon said. “Bran must go to speak with the queen, and Sansa and I had planned to go with him.”
“Good. I would like to meet your wife.” Daenerys held out her hand to shake, a decidedly unusual gesture for Westerosi women. Jon clasped her hand in farewell and let one of Daenerys’s servants help him into the saddle. Daenerys stepped back, gazing up at him with that inscrutably serene expression he had learned to recognize as the face she most often wore. “Farewell, Jon Snow. Safe travels.”
“Farewell, Lady Daenerys,” Jon said formally. He inclined his head deeply, and was gratified with a small, pleased smile on her face. “I will see you when spring returns.”
With that, he spurred on his horse and left Dragonstone behind.
Winter made itself known the further north they traveled. The road was hard and icy, and they had to be careful not to injure the horses. They took more time than they might have otherwise, staying nights at inns along the way and once with Samwell Tarly and his wife Gilly. Sam had served as chaplain to Jon’s regiment until he had met Gilly, an Imperial girl with an abusive father. The ensuing escape of a then-heavily pregnant Gilly had been the talk of camp for months after they had gone back to Westeros, and Jon was delighted to see they were well.
“You know young Sam, of course,” Sam said, indicating a lad with Gilly’s wide dark eyes. “Though I suppose the last time you saw him he’d only just been born.”
“Yes indeed,” Jon agreed, crouching down to offer his hand to young Sam. Young Sam handed him a smooth, polished rock before running to hide in his bedroom. Jon looked up and caught Sam’s eye. “Shy, is he?”
“We don’t get many visitors,” Sam said apologetically. “Here, let me call Gilly—she’ll want to see you.”
Gilly was indeed glad to see them, embracing Jon unselfconsciously and greeting Tormund as a fellow Imperial. She pestered him for news while Jon went to meet the younger of their sons, a small babe of not even a year who was called Jon.
“Really?” Jon asked, offering his finger to young Jon. The boy grabbed at it with tiny fingers and hung on tightly. “For me?”
“You helped us get back to Westeros,” Sam said. “I suggested it and Gilly agreed. We have you to thank for this life we have.”
“You made your own life,” Jon protested. “You’re the one who found yourself a patron. I had nothing to do with that.”
“Perhaps that’s so,” Sam allowed. “But without you I’d never have even had a chance to settle down as a proper parson. If my father’d had his way, I’d have died fighting the Imperials. I didn’t get no help from that quarter. Anyway, it’s a nice name.”
“I suppose it is.” Jon looked down at the small bundle, at the dark eyes and wrinkled face. He realized then that he didn’t know if Jon was indeed his name. Had Lyanna thought to name him when she had felt herself quickening with child? Had she given Jon his name in her last breath, or was that just was Ned had decided to call him?
“Jon?” Sam asked. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” Jon carefully untangled himself from the boy’s grip. “I’m honored, Sam.”
Sam beamed at him. “I’m glad. And pleased you could come by. You’re on your way back to Winterfell, I take it?”
It was a pleasant night, warm and welcome, and a nice change from being in unknown beds every night. Gilly made a decent stew, and Sam baked a pie, delicious and flaky. Tormund drank Sam’s house dry of ale , or nearly so, and entertained Sam and Gilly with highly exaggerated stories of Jon’s exploits since the last time they’d met. Jon listened with amusement until he grew restless and excused himself for a walk. Sam warned him to stick to the road, saying, “It’s well easy to get lost if you go into the woods.”
“Thanks,” Jon said, shrugging on his heavy cloak over his coat. “I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
He slipped out into the crisply chill air. The moon was out in full, casting the land in its strange, eerie glow. Jon stopped on the path leading from Sam and Gilly’s door to take in a deep breath and letting it out slowly. There was a different quality to the cold here than there was in the Empire, a different feeling to the darkness of nights. He had missed home, more than he had expected. He had been so happy just to be coming back. And now—now there was Sansa too.
After Ygritte, Jon hadn’t thought he would love like that again. And in truth it wasn’t quite the same, just the way no two sunrises were the same. But he had learned to crave her smiles, to anticipate the touch of her hands at his throat in the morning when she tied his cravat, to turn into her body when they slept in bed together. She was familiar, a piece that fit neatly in as though it had always been missing and he had only just realized.
Could he say any of that to her when they next met? How could he? Sansa was so guarded now, much more so than he remembered, and he no longer trusted himself to read her. She was fond of him, that much he was sure of; but did she love him too? She married him because he had offered, and because it was a neat solution, and because she trusted him. Perhaps that was enough. As Daenerys had said, there were worse reasons for marriage.
Still, he couldn’t stop worrying that Sansa had been forced into marriage. It was common enough for women to have to marry for their family’s advantage, but he knew Ned and Catelyn would have hated the idea of Sansa marrying someone she did not love. For all that Joffrey had proved to be a monster, Sansa had liked him at first. That was the only reason Catelyn had agreed to it.
What Jon hoped, more than anything, was that Sansa would be happy, that he would give her no cause to regret her choice. He longed to do something nice for her, other than providing money for Winterfell—something that was just for her. Perhaps a gift, he thought. Something important, something she would love.
Snow was falling when they arrived at Winterfell, nearly a week after they had planned. Arya came running out to greet him, skidding on the ice as she reached the horses, and Jon slid down to grab her before she could fall over. He embraced her and the boys, introduced Tormund, and finally looked over to Sansa house as Tormund was shaking hands with Arya.
Sansa stood motionless on the steps, watching him with a guarded expression. The wind plucked at her hair, sending vibrant strands flying loose from her braid. Jon couldn’t help smiling at her, so happy just to see her again, and after a moment, the corner of her mouth lifted.
“You’re late,” she called. “Your letter said you’d be here a week ago.”
“Winter has come,” Jon said. “Traveling is not so easy as it might be otherwise.”
“I suppose,” Sansa said. For a moment they just looked at each other, and then Sansa made a tiny, aborted movement toward him. Jon was across the drive in a moment, Sansa meeting him at the foot of the steps. She flung her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder, and so softly he could hardly hear her, she whispered, “I missed you.”
“And I you.” Jon stroked her back and kissed her temple before setting her back on her feet. Her eyes were bright with tears, but she was beaming and she wouldn’t relinquish her grip on his coat. Jon kissed her, not caring that they had an audience and then stepped away to nod at Tormund, who was watching them with an amused expression.
“I’ve brought you a gift,” Jon told Sansa as Tormund went back to the horse and took down the basket they had rigged up. “As a wedding present, I suppose.”
“Oh, you didn’t have to—” Sansa started, but then she clapped her hands over her mouth. Tormund lifted the small snow white pup from the basket and handed him to Jon. The pup whined and licked at Jon’s face before sniffing the air curiously. Jon offered Sansa the pup, and she took him in her arms, laughing when he nosed at her chin. “Oh, he’s lovely.”
“He was the runt of the litter,” Jon said, scratching behind the dog’s ears. “I thought—it’s been a few years since Lady—there’s no replacing her, of course—”
“He’s perfect,” Sansa said firmly. “Does he have a name?”
“Not yet,” Jon said. “I was waiting for you.”
Sansa smiled brilliantly at him, one of the purest expressions of happiness he had seen from her since he returned home. “You’re sweet.” She kissed the top of the pup’s head. “He’s like a little ghost, isn’t he? Shall we call him Ghost?”
“If you like,” Jon said. Behind them, Arya and Rickon were scurrying back up the steps toward warmth while one of the stable boys took the horses. “As I said, he’s yours.”
“Ours,” Sansa corrected. She lifted Ghost up to look him in the eyes. “Do you hear that? You’re ours now.”
Ghost yipped and licked her nose, which Jon decided to take as approval.
Winterfell had changed dramatically in the little time Jon had been gone. Already Bran and Sansa had begun returning it to its former glory. The Reeds had departed in advance of the snow so as to be with their parents, but with the addition of the younger Starks as well as Brienne and Gendry, their absence was hardly noticeable.
Jon and Tormund had arrived just in time for supper, though they had to hastily rearrange the table to accommodate two more guests. Sansa scolded him for not sending word that they would be late in their return. But Jon had the feeling she was not admonishing him for taking so long as much as being gone at all, a feeling that was reinforced when she took it upon herself to show him all the improvements he had been absent for.
“I’ve been working at repairing some of the tapestries,” Sansa was explaining as she led him up to the bedroom they were sharing. Rickon had taken the news of their marriage easily enough, simply shrugging before running off to play with Ghost and Shaggydog. Jon supposed he hadn’t been overly concerned with other people’s marriages when he was twelve, either. “It’s cut down on the drafts considerably.”
“You’ve done a wonderful job,” Jon assured her. He caught her by the arm, intending to kiss her again before voicing the confessions of affection he had composed on the ride home. But Sansa gasped and flinched away from his touch. Jon frowned. “Sansa?”
“It’s nothing,” Sansa said dismissively. “Come, you ought to change out of those clothes.”
Jon kept an eye on Sansa as he exchanged his riding clothes for something appropriate for supper, but she gave no further sign of discomfort, and when he offered his arm to her, she allowed him to lead her back downstairs. He couldn’t help looking at her, nearly tripping on the stairs as he did, drinking in the straight line of her nose, the softness of her cheeks, the slight roundness beneath her chin. She caught him staring and flushed, chin going up defensively.
“What?” she asked. “Is something the matter?”
“No,” Jon said. “Only that you are very beautiful.”
“You’ve already married me,” Sansa said. “I hardly think you need to court me further.”
“I would court you every day for the rest of our lives,” Jon said honestly, the closest he would come tonight to confessing the truth. Sansa’s eyes widened and she stared at him, mouth slightly open, until he leaned in to kiss her. She sighed against his lips, and Jon thought he could never get enough of this, the silken pleasure of her mouth against his, the feeling of her in his arms.
“Jon,” she said quietly, resting her hand against his face. “I don’t—what could you—”
“Oi!” came Arya’s voice. A moment later she appeared at the foot of the stairs, her arms crossed over her chest. “What are you two doing? We can’t start eating until you’re here, that’s what Jeyne said.”
Sansa flushed darker and stepped back from Jon. “I’ll speak with her.” She hurried down the steps, leaving Jon and a smirking Arya staring at each other.
“Really?” Jon asked her grumpily, coming down the stairs. “Couldn’t you have thought of a politer way to interrupt?”
“What’s the point in having a sister if I can’t tease her?” Arya asked. She linked her arm through Jon’s and began towing him in the direction of the dining room. “And I’ve always teased you, too.”
Jon had to admit she was right there, but did have one question. “What have I done to warrant teasing this time?”
“You married Sansa,” Arya said. “And you’re completely moon-eyed over her—don’t even pretend, you bought her a dog, Jon—and she’s just as stupid about you, if you ask me. It’s all quite absurd.”
“One day, you will fall in love, and from that day forward I intend to mock you until we are all in our graves,” Jon said dourly.
Arya laughed at this. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “I’m never going to fall in love.”
Once inside the dining room, Arya darted to her seat beside Gendry while Jon took the seat beside Sansa. Her flush had faded, though she still seemed a bit embarrassed by the way she avoided his gaze at first. But she did look to him with interest when Bran asked about Daenerys. Jon hastily swallowed a mouthful of soup as everyone’s gaze turned to him and dabbed at his mouth with the napkin before saying, “She’s a very strong woman.”
“One of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen,” Tormund volunteered, “saving the ladies currently present.” He lifted his cup in salute to Brienne, who looked so befuddled by the attention that Jon had to smother a laugh in his own drink. “And fierce besides. Nearly as small as the little lady here—“ at this, he indicated Arya, who protested, “Hey!”—“but she knows her horses and she knows her dogs.”
“She has dogs?” Bran asked. “What kind?”
“Valyrian mastiffs,” Jon said. “Three of them. Nearly as nice as our direwolves.”
“I heard she can ride a horse and shoot a bow at the same,” Arya said excitedly. “And that she once ate a horse heart raw!”
“Where on earth did you hear such a thing?” Sansa demanded, going pale. “That’s disgusting!”
“Someone at Highgarden said it,” Arya said. “One of Lord Renly’s friends.”
“One of his spies,” Gendry put in.
“They are not spies,” Brienne protested, and they were off, squabbling about what technically qualified as spying and what qualified as gossip. Jon couldn’t resist laughing when Tormund decided to feed them wildly exaggerated stories of Daenerys’s arrival at Dragonstone. By the time they were finished, Tormund had them all convinced that she had ridden up bare-breasted with only her hair as clothing, a pack of dogs at her beck and call and a small army of mercenaries behind her. Rickon turned to Jon for confirmation, but Jon just widened his eyes and shrugged.
“You shouldn’t tease them,” Sansa said, nudging him. “We’ll meet her one day, and I’d hate for Rickon to ask her where her mercenaries are.”
“I think she would enjoy that, in all honesty.” Jon beckoned for Sansa’s wine glass to be refilled. “She’s quite an interesting woman. She’d like to meet you.”
“You told her about me?”
“She wanted to discuss the inheritance,” Jon said. “I felt she had the right to know I was married.”
“Yes, of course.” Sansa began fiddling with the cuff of her long sleeve. “I just worry that too many people know now.”
“We can’t keep it a secret forever,” Jon said. “Unless you are ashamed of me?”
He meant it as a joke, but Sansa’s head jerked up at that. “No, of course not!” She reached over to take his hand. “I only worry what Cersei might do.”
“Of course.” He squeezed her fingers, then let go. “Did anything happen while I was away? Anyone come to visit?”
“No,” Sansa said lightly, turning away from him. “It was rather quiet.”
Across from them, Brienne dropped her fork with a loud clatter. Face going red, she disappeared to retrieve it. Sansa lifted her glass and sipped from it; Jon could not help watching her throat work. She caught him staring and smiled. Jon went a little lightheaded and had to look in another direction until he felt he had himself under control once more.
After dinner, they all adjourned to the family parlor where Gendry beat Jon badly at cards and Sansa tried futilely to enlist Arya’s help in repairing an old dress. Eventually Sansa gave up and instead joined the card game, much to Arya’s amusement. She then proceeded to fleece all of them, leaving everyone gaping at her as she collected her winnings—hardly more than a few bits, but still—and walked away from the table.
“Where on earth did you learn to play cards like that?” Arya called after her in amazement.
“As I’ve tried to tell you on a seemingly endless number of occasions,” Sansa said primly, “sometimes it is actually a good thing to be able to disguise your emotions, Arya.”
Which at the heart of it was what worried Jon so much. Sansa really was very good at hiding what she was thinking, and Jon wished he did not have to constantly guess at her thoughts. He excused himself to follow her upstairs, ignoring the teasing whistle from Tormund and Arya’s giggle, and caught up with her on the stairs.
“I probably shouldn’t have done that,” Sansa said wryly. She held up her reticule, which was bulging with coins. “Perhaps I ought to set it up as Arya’s dowry.”
“Arya told me today that she would never get married,” Jon said, falling into step beside her. “Or at least that she is never going to fall in love.”
“As though she has any say in the matter,” Sansa said. “We can hardly choose who we love. Well, I suppose we could, but it would take quite a while, and the heart is not an obedient organ.” She tucked the little purse away and smiled at him. “I did not mean to take you away from the game.”
“It’s quite all right,” Jon said. “It was a long trip here. I have been looking forward to bed.” He blushed as soon as he’d said it, even more so when Sansa looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
“Indeed,” she said. “My mother warned me about men like you. Only interested in one thing, she told me.”
“She was right to warn you,” Jon said, still rather embarrassed and hoping she did not think he was trying to push himself on her. “I hope I do myself more credit than that.”
“Oh—Jon, I was only joking,” she said. “I know that is not what you—I mean, we have—” Now her face was as red as his felt. “That is to say, I know you would not ask me to do anything I did not want. You have been very—considerate.”
Jon stepped in to take her hand, then hesitated, fingers nearly touching hers. “May I?” he asked.
“Yes,” Sansa said firmly, lacing her fingers with his. “I don’t want you to think that I—I quite enjoy, um. It is nice.”
“Nice?” Jon asked before he could stop himself.
“Very nice,” Sansa said, somehow turning a deeper shade of red. “I’m glad it was you.”
With that, she led him the rest of the way to their chambers and proceeded to begin undressing herself unselfconsciously. Jon rarely saw this part, when she took off her many layers, the corset and the shift, the silken scarf that lay beneath the collar. As she turned away to lay her dress out for Jeyne, he saw a smudge on the pale skin of her upper arm. Bruises—faded to yellow now.
“Sansa, what happened?” he asked, an unexpected fury rising in him. He did his best to keep his voice steady, but he heard the anger in his voice, saw that she flinched at it. He reached out, then thought the better of it. “Who did this to you?”
“No one,” Sansa said quickly—too quickly. “It’s nothing.”
“Was it Gendry?” Jon asked, hand clenching. It was impossible to imagine Jojen or Bran leaving those marks, but Gendry—Gendry could have. And if he had—
“What? No!” Sansa jerked around, shaking her head emphatically “It’s nothing, Jon, please.”
Jon offered his hand and waited until placed her fingers against his palm. She wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Sansa. We have to trust each other,” he said. “We’re in this together, remember? I am yours, and you are mine, from this day—”
“Until our last day,” Sansa said. “I know.” She slowly turned her gaze up, her brow furrowed with worry. “Promise me you won’t do anything, Jon. It would only make things worse.”
“Promise me,” she said sharply. “Trust me when I say it won’t do any good for you to get angry.”
Jon didn’t want to, but he could tell from her expression that she would only tell him if he agreed. So he nodded and said, “I promise.”
Sansa bit at her lower lip, staring at him, then nodded, as if in reassurance to herself, and said, “Do you remember Petyr Baelish?”
“Yes, of course,” Jon said. “You were dancing with him at Lady Crane’s.”
“Ah—yes.” Sansa flushed and looked away. “He—well, he wished to marry me, you see. Before you proposed. I told him I’d think on it, but then you came along—but he found out. That we are married, I mean. He was very angry that I had refused him. I shouldn’t have told him that I’d—I never wanted to marry him.”
“He hurt you,” Jon said with more calmness than he truly felt. “For not marrying him?”
“I don’t think he meant to hurt me,” Sansa said. “But—yes.”
Jon turned away so she would not see the anger on his face and think she was the cause of it, and began to pace. “He is old enough to be your father. He is your solicitor.”
Jon shook his head. “I wish you hadn’t made me promise, Sansa.”
“Jon.” Sansa caught him by the shoulder and made him turn to face her. “It is just a bruise. I’ve had worse.”
“That’s what I hate the most,” Jon said. He cradled her face between his hands and, when she did not move away, kissed her gently. “Do we need to worry?”
“I don’t know,” Sansa said after a moment. “I dismissed him as solicitor, and I’ve sought out a recommendation from Brienne to replace him. I fear he will tell the queen now that he is no longer in my service.” She sighed and leaned into him, wrapping her arms about his waist. “The estate we will keep, I know that now. But what I worry is that the queen will damage Bran and Rickon’s chances at good and happy marriages.”
“Not Arya?” Jon asked.
“Arya will only marry if she is wishes to,” Sansa said. “Whether it is a ‘good’ marriage in the political sense is entirely a matter of chance.”
Jon laughed and rested his chin atop her head. “Thank you for telling me. We are united in this, remember. I don’t wish you to fear telling me anything.”
“I trust you with my life,” Sansa said. She took his hand and guided to her chest. Beneath his palm, her heart beat steady and true. She stood before him, fragile and laid bare. Her voice caught as she said, “I trust you with my heart.”
He kissed her; he could hardly do otherwise.
Sansa pressed into him, hands already at the buttons of his waistcoat. She eventually grew impatient and just yanked at it until it came loose with a clatter of buttons.
“I’ll fix it,” she said breathlessly, and she pushed him back onto the bed.
When she removed her shift, he was struck anew by the beauty of her. He kissed her breasts, drinking her gasps, mapped the landscape of her body with his hands and mouth. She, in turn, took him in hand again, gaze flicking down, and then lifted herself up on her knees. Jon realized what she meant to do a moment before she did, and clenched his fists in the bedsheets so he wouldn’t grab at her hips as she sank down on him.
She took her time, her hands braced first on his hips and then on his chest. She kept her eyes closed at first until he reached down to rubbed his thumb against the soft, slick nub at the top of her cunt, and she gasped, eyes flying open. He did it again and she moaned with pleasure, clenching around his cock.
Sansa was beautiful already; but lost in the throes of pleasure, she was incandescent. Jon watched hungrily as she fell apart, her gasps becoming higher and a hectic flush rising to her pale cheeks. When she reached her climax, she seized his hand in hers and brought it to her mouth, kissing the taste of herself from his fingers, and that was enough for Jon to join her in completion.
They lay together in bed afterward, the cool air refreshing against their overheated bodies. He could not stop kissing her; his lips felt raw and his cheeks were sore from smiling, but every time he drew back he saw her smiling at him.
“I trust you with my heart as well,” Jon said at last when exhaustion was making itself known. He brought her hands to his chest, and said, “You have it already.”
Sansa’s lips parted soundlessly. Briefly, irrationally, he was afraid she wouldn’t say anything or, worse, that she would reject him. But of course she didn’t. Instead she said, “And you have mine.”
An unfamiliar warmth bloomed inside Jon’s chest. After a moment, he recognized it: joy.
As winter settled in around Winterfell, their days began to take on a pattern. Jon and Sansa would see each other at mealtimes, at odd moments during the day, and in the evenings following supper when the entire household would retire to the largest parlor for conversation and games. Sansa spent her days about the house, inventorying what they had and supervising the repairs. Jon and Tormund spent much of their time out on the grounds or seeing to the tenants. When they had time, Jon and Sansa trained Ghost, who took to following them around based on a logic known only to him.
Their nights they spent together, learning each other’s bodies in full. They did not always make love; sometimes Sansa would just trace his scars and ask about each one. Sometimes they would kiss for hours, their legs intertwined, feeling hedonistic and wild. He was surprised at how easily it came to them; he had expected awkwardness and uncertainty, but there was nothing uncertain about her embrace.
It was near midwinter before Sansa asked again about Ygritte. Jon suspected that Tormund had said something that had reminded her of it, as Sansa had been quiet for much of the evening. As they lay in bed together, Sansa asked, “Will you tell me about her? The woman you loved.”
“Her name was Ygritte. She was an Imperial. I met her when I was scouting. She took me prisoner.” Jon shifted onto his side. After a moment, Sansa rolled over to face him. “That was how I met Tormund. They were ordinary villagers, stuck in the middle of a war they wanted no part of. I spent quite a bit of time with them before the army came for me. Ygritte died. Tormund didn’t.”
“I’m sorry.” Sansa gazed at his face, her eyes gleaming in the candlelight. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
“It’s been two years,” Jon said. “It’s time I moved on.”
“What was she like?”
“Brave. Irreverent. Fierce.” He cupped Sansa’s face. “She had red hair like you. Tormund thinks that’s funny. Says I have a passion for red hair.”
“Perhaps I do.” Jon ran his hand down her shoulder and arm before taking her hand. “I don’t want you to think you’re a consolation prize, Sansa. I married you because I wanted to, and because I thought we could do well by each other.”
“I’m not so young as to believe people are only capable of loving one person their entire lives,” Sansa said. “It doesn’t offend me that you once loved someone else.”
Jon squeezed her hand. “You really are extraordinary, Sansa Stark,” he said.
“Snow,” she said. “Isn’t that my name now?”
“Yes,” Jon said. “I suppose it is.” He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. “Sansa Snow.”
The snows had only just begun to melt when Sansa received the letter from Margaery —shocked, delighted, and titillated all in equal measure. Sansa read it over breakfast, her hand shaking, and when she finished she threw it to the table. Jon frowned up at her and reached over to take the letter for himself. Everyone else at the table watched them without saying a word; Rickon had frozen with his fork halfway to his mouth, sausage slipping from the tines.
“What?” Arya demanded impatiently. “What is it?”
Jon looked at Sansa as if to ask if he were allowed. Sansa waved her hand, still trembling with anger and frustration. “Go on,” she said. “Read it. It isn’t as though it isn’t spread all over half the countryside by now.”
Jon nodded and began to read. “Dearest Sansa,” he said. It was strange to hear Margaery’s voice in his mouth, her light airy phrases in Jon’s low tones. “You have been keeping secrets from me, my dear. I should hardly have believed it, only we have heard from the most trustworthy source of all—the queen. But I am getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?
“Several weeks ago a messenger came by Highgarden with a letter for my husband from Queen Cersei. As he is uncle to darling Myrcella, Her Majesty wishes us to come to King’s Landing to celebrate her eighteenth birthday, and to come in advance so we might cheer up the dear girl, who always misses her father dreadfully around this time of year. Now of course we went, and it has been an absolutely wonderful time. But the strangest thing happened: we chanced to meet your solicitor, Mr. Baelish, when he came by the palace to speak with the Queen regarding a matter of finances, and when I asked after you, he said, ‘Lady Snow is quite well.’
“As you can imagine, I found this very strange, and I asked him what he meant, only for the Queen to tell me that you have been married these five months to your brother —I mean your cousin—Jon Snow! I said that could not be true, as I had seen both of you at my own home in November and it could not be so, or else you would have told me, but Queen Cersei had the documents to prove it.
“I must congratulate you on the coup. Jon Snow is quite a conquest, and if you did it quickly enough, anyone might think the child is his.” Jon faltered here and looked to Sansa, who had pressed her lips together in her efforts to keep her face still. “No need to be shy, dear Sansa. You are not the only woman to have thought to take a nobleman into her bed in order to secure his loyalty with a son. In the long run I think you will be better off with Jon than a certain Lord B, and it shall be our little secret. I had not thought you so wicked—but perhaps I do not know you as well as I thought! In any event, I wish you a happy marriage and a safe confinement. When I see you in the spring, I hope to greet you and your lord husband properly—and the little one too.”
There was silence as Jon put down the letter. Then Arya said, frowning, “But you are not with child, are you?”
“No,” Sansa said tightly. “But that is hardly the point. Cersei is taking a gamble. Either I am, or I lost the child. She wishes to slander me and our families, if nothing else will do.” She rose abruptly to her feet. “The haste, the secrecy—it will all seem damning evidence to anyone who listens to her tale. Why else would we marry so soon and without ceremony? To avoid drawing attention to my supposed condition.”
“But how does this help her cause?” Bran asked. “She wishes to punish us socially as well, is that it?”
“And no one who might otherwise help us would want to be publicly seen to be friends with us,” Sansa said. “We should not have kept it a secret so long. That has worked against us rather than being the help I had hoped.”
“It is slander,” Jon said flatly. “Never mind that it is our business if you had another man’s child, she wishes to demonstrate you as underhanded and untrustworthy.” He looked to Brienne, who had remained quiet so far. “Your solicitor—the one you recommended—do you trust him?”
“I do,” Brienne said. “And, if I may—he knows the Lannisters. He understands how they operate.”
“Good. We will have to send him a formal announcement of our marriage to circulate.” Jon rose to his feet as well and took Sansa’s hand, drawing her in toward him. “It will be all right, you’ll see.”
“We’ll have to come up with a story,” Sansa said. “We cannot merely say that I married you for your money.” She could not help smiling as she said it, though, and Jon’s answering smile cooled her anger. She rested her hand against his jaw. “Two cousins, raised together, who fell in love upon meeting again after many years apart. That should stir some romantics. And when I fail to produce a child on Cersei’s schedule, that will stir some doubt.”
“We will have to go to King’s Landing sooner than we thought,” Jon said. He held her hands still; Sansa was distantly aware that they were not alone, but she could hardly bring herself to notice. “My aunt will be there. We can count on her, and Lady Crane, I am sure. If we don’t act ashamed, if we act as though nothing is wrong—”
“Yes.” Sansa kissed Jon’s hands and was brought back to their present situation by Arya dropping her fork with a loud clatter. She quickly stepped back from him, her face hot. “Ah—yes. And of course we will have to bring Bran to Queen Myrcella.”
“I won’t beg,” Bran warned. “But you’ve said Queen Myrcella is a reasonable girl; perhaps if I simply explain our situation, without blaming her mother, she will take pity on us.”
“We can only hope her mother won’t be there as well,” Jon said dryly.
In the end, they took two carriages to King’s Landing, Jon and Sansa in one, Arya, Brienne, and Bran in the other. Arya had flatly refused to ride with Sansa and Jon, saying, “The two of you are sickening enough as it is without being confined to a carriage with you,” but she was laughing as she said it, so Sansa did not take it too ill.
Each mile south brought with it fresh signs of spring. Flowers were bursting in untamed, riotous blooms along the road, the snow had gone completely, and the sun was out more often than not. Still, Sansa found herself missing the snow-blanketed grounds at Winterfell, the thick tapestries, and the roaring fires. But Winterfell would not be her home for much longer; once they had settled things with Queen Myrcella, she and Jon would return to Dragonstone. How often would they return?
At least she would have Jon at her side, she reminded herself. It could be far worse. The Dreadfort, for one, or Casterly Rock. When she was unsure, she would reach out for Jon’s hand and take comfort in how he held on with the same urgency she felt. Ghost slumbered at their feet, lulled by the carriage’s movement.
King’s Landing was visible long before they came into the city proper, and Sansa took pleasure in watching Arya and Bran hang out the windows of the other carriage to see. Arya had been once when she was younger, and Bran had never been. Even though Sansa did not love it as she once had, she still took pleasure in the soaring buildings, the sun-soaked walls, and the wide array of people.
Jon’s aunt was staying at the Targaryen house for the time being—Jon explained that the matter of what to do with Town homes had been discussed and was to be evaluated once the queen was dealt with—so Jon and Sansa stayed at the Stark home. Jon hadn’t been permitted to attend King’s Landing when Robb had been presented at court, though they were the same age; after all, Jon was a bastard. He had his manners, to be sure, but Sansa took to teaching him as well as Bran, Arya, and Brienne about the many intricacies of court intrigue.
They made no effort to hide themselves, though Sansa hated the way people looked at her when they took a turn about the park with Ghost, or if they went calling upon Lady Crane or their new solicitor. She had grown used to being whispered about when she had been engaged to Joffrey, but the maliciousness of their looks made her wish to stay inside.
They had been in Town for two weeks when Lady Daenerys threw her first ball, inviting her nephew and his family as guests of honor. The ball was to celebrate the mingling of Daenerys’s upbringing in Essos with her new home in Westeros, which sent the ladies of town into a panic as they sought to find appropriate attire to fit the theme. Sansa received several frantic messages from friends asking what on earth Lady Daenerys expected, and did they really dress like this in Essos?
“She did say she intended to set the ton on its ear,” Jon said, reading one of the notes over Sansa’s shoulder. “You needn’t worry about us. Daenerys has promised to send all of us clothes as gifts.”
And indeed a few days before the ball, Sansa received an exquisitely wrapped package containing clothes for all of them, even Brienne. Sansa shook out her dress in her room and immediately blushed at the sheerness of the silk. It was a lovely shade of dark blue, cut in Qartheen fashion, with a wide silver belt with the insignias of the Targaryen and Stark families. It was beautiful, an incredibly thoughtful gift. Sansa would have to find some way to thank her.
The evening of the ball, Sansa descended the stairs with her hair in loose waves, as was fashionable in Qarth, only adorned with two simple wolf-shaped pins. The dress was cut in a low v, shockingly so, and Sansa was conscious of her bare shoulders and the soft drape of the fabric, so much more revealing than anything else she owned. Jon was dressed in Qarth style as well, in a high-collared, asymmetrically cut doublet in dove grey. When she approached, Jon’s mouth fell open and Sansa blushed.
“You look—” Jon seemed unable to find words and instead bowed over her hand, brushing his lips against her knuckles. Sansa’s face heated further.
On his other side, Arya rolled her eyes dramatically. She had been provided with a Braavosi-style dress with a full skirt and bolero and a very fine silk blouse. Her hair had been pinned up, which must have taken a great deal of doing from Jeyne, as Arya hated doing anything with her hair. Bran matched her in a Braavosi high-cut waistcoat in dark colors. And Brienne had been provided with a blue tunic in her family’s colors and trousers, a twist on traditional Dothraki clothing. All had been chosen with exquisite care and consideration for the people who would wear them; it was both kind and unnerving in its accuracy.
Daenerys herself came to greet them on the steps to the house. She was tiny, hardly taller than Arya, and ethereally beautiful, nearly glowing in a gown of pure white. She embraced Jon warmly, kissing his cheek, and then took Sansa’s hands in hers, fixing her with a penetrating blue gaze.
“You must be Sansa,” Daenerys said. “I have been so looking forward to meeting you.”
“You as well, my lady,” Sansa said. “Thank you for the dress—and for everything. It was very kind of you.”
“Not at all! We are family, after all.” Daenerys smiled and turned to Arya and Bran. “Arya and Brandon, yes?”
“Bran,” Bran put in.
“Bran.” Daenerys smiled and clasped his hand. “And this must be Brienne. I have heard great things about you. They say you are a great swordswoman.”
“They do?” Brienne asked as Daenerys took her arm. They looked quite funny beside each other; Daenerys had to be more than a foot shorter than Brienne.
Supper was a private, intimate affair with Daenerys’s household. Daenerys was charming and curious, but Sansa could sense the steel beneath her smiles. She took in everything they said with a calculating gaze, as though she were filing everything away for further evaluation. Sansa found herself very glad Daenerys was on their side. In the old days, the Targaryens used to say that they were descended from dragons. Sansa would not be surprised if it were true in Daenerys’s case.
Once they had finished eating, they adjourned to the ballroom, which had been decorated in Pentos style in draped textiles and leafy ferns. Daenerys led Sansa by the hand through the room, telling her about her childhood in Pentos with her brother Viserys and the strange limbo of being impoverished nobility. Sansa attempted to apologize on behalf of her late aunt, but Daenerys shook her head.
“Rhaegar made his choice as well,” she said. “The way it played out—it should not have been so. But I have no patience for vengeance, not anymore. In the past it has brought me nothing but grief.” She turned to face Sansa, her face set and serious. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t seek justice. I want you to know that when you go before the queen, you will have me as an ally.”
“Thank you,” Sansa said, touched. “I appreciate everything you’ve done to help us, I really do.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” Daenerys said. “The ball hasn’t yet begun.”
Guests began arriving after eight, appearing in swirls of silks and satins and nervous giggles as they took in their fellow guests and the exotic décor. Sansa noticed many looking to her and she realized that the daring dress Daenerys had sent served a second purpose: no one in her supposed condition would be able to hide a pregnancy in a gown of this cut.
Margaery arrived on Renly’s arm, looking radiant in a pale blue Lys gown and flowers in her hair. Renly disappeared almost instantly to play cards, but Margaery of course made her way to Sansa and Jon, beaming all the while. Sansa put her hand to Jon’s back gently as a warning, and they both turned to smile at Margaery.
“Dear Sansa, it would appear I’ve been dreadfully misinformed,” Margaery said after they had exchanged greetings. “But not in regards to your marriage—is that right?”
“Yes,” Sansa said. “You’ve met Jon, of course, but yes. He is my husband.”
“And Lord of Dragonstone, how marvelous.” Margaery looked around the room. “Your lady aunt has done an incredible job. What a way to welcome back the Targaryens!” As she spoke, attention was turning to the dessert cart being wheeled out into the room. There were three cakes atop, all in the shape of dragons to mimic the family crest. As they watched, the middle was set aflame, and everyone burst into applause.
Daenerys came forward then, and everyone fell silent, waiting to hear the first words of the much anticipated arrival. Though she was small, she seemed to not notice her height, bearing herself with all the dignity and grace of a queen.
“Welcome,” she said in a clear, powerful voice. “I am Daenerys Targaryen, last daughter of Aerys, and I am grateful to all of you for welcoming me back to Westeros.” A small smattering of applause at that, until Daenerys lifted her hands. She smiled and said, “I would like to also welcome my newfound nephew, Jon Snow, and his lovely wife, Sansa of Winterfell.” She reached out to them.
Sansa lifted her chin as heads turned to look at them and slipped her hand into the crook of Jon’s arm. He cast her a smile and then led the way to where Daenerys stood. She kissed both of their cheeks theatrically, smiling up at them with a fierceness that belied her serene facade. A formidable woman indeed.
“The Targaryen family has been gone for twenty-odd years,” Daenerys said. “But our name remains. I know that my nephew and niece will restore our family to the place we once occupied. All of you here tonight are our true friends, and we thank you.” She inclined her head in a solemn bow. When she looked up again, she was radiant, benevolent, saintly. “Please, enjoy the party.”
With that, she gestured for one of the servants to cut the first cake. The reverent silence that had fallen when Daenerys spoke slowly disappeared as people began to talk, the rising tide of voices taking up the room. In one fell swoop, Daenerys had declared the Targaryens restored, implied she would be in Westeros permanently, and publicly declared her support for Sansa and Jon while also hinting that she would consider any words against them to be disloyal. It was masterful, the kind of political maneuvering that Cersei had never been capable of. Sansa found herself hoping very much that the two women would meet, and soon.
She was going to thank Daenerys again when Jon leaned in, mouth at her ear, and said, “A dance, my lady?”
Sansa turned in his arm and smiled. “I would be honored, my lord.”
A Meereenese waltz began as they took the floor, and Jon slid his arm around Sansa’s waist, hand resting just above her hip. The heat of his hand bled through the thin silks, sending a thrill through Sansa’s body. She took his other hand and sucked in a startled breath when he pulled her close.
“Jon,” she hissed.
He kissed the corner of her mouth and smiled at her. “You are so beautiful,” he said, completely unprompted, and Sansa forgot what else she wanted to say in the face of that smile, the one that warmed his face and made her want to smile in return.
“You’re lovely,” she said, words slipping out without her permission, and Jon only smiled wider as the music cued them in to begin dancing.
Sansa had never had much occasion to waltz before, though Joffrey had liked it. Jon was a much better partner, gentler in his leading and sensual without being obscene. She had not thought it of Jon—which she supposed proved how much she still had to learn about him—and as he twirled her under his arm, she asked, “Where did you learn to waltz?”
When Jon brought her back, he said, “We were often bored in the army. Tormund taught us waltzing. I could do your part as well as mine.”
“I should like to see that,” Sansa said. “Is Tormund a very good dancer?”
“Oh, very good indeed.” Jon grinned at her. “He is surprisingly light on his feet.”
“Perhaps he can teach Arya,” Sansa suggested, and they both burst into laughter, nearly losing count of the steps.
In all, it was a wonderful night, by far the happiest Sansa had spent in King’s Landing in many years. They left when Sansa spotted that Bran was starting to flag, and they collected Arya from outside before searching out Brienne, who was of all things talking with none other than Jaime Lannister in the study.
“Sir Jaime,” Sansa said, startled, and curtsied.
Jaime shook his head, raising his hand in protest. “None of that. If I’d wanted people to bow and scrape, I would have announced myself when I arrived.” He took her hand and kissed her fingers. “It’s very good to see you again, Lady Sansa. I hear you are married. Many blessings.”
“Thank you, Sir Jaime,” Sansa said, casting a curious look at Brienne, who had gone very stone faced and was standing stiff as a poker. “I see you have met our guest, Lady Brienne.”
“A very interesting lady she is,” Jaime said, a smirk starting at the corner of his mouth. “I have been enjoying her company most profoundly.”
Brienne coughed and said, “My lady—Sansa. Are we leaving?”
“Yes,” Sansa said. “I’m afraid I must steal away your companion, Sir Jaime. My brother Bran is tired and we must take him home.”
“Of course. I am sure I will see you soon.” Jaime bowed to Sansa, then turned his sly smile on Brienne. “And you I hope to see soon as well.”
“I also, sir,” Brienne said woodenly before turning sharply on her heel and marching out the door. Sansa decided that discretion was the wisest action in this case and did not ask Jaime why Brienne had reacted so. She was about to leave as well when Jaime said, “Wait,” and she turned back to see him fiddling with the ties on his false hand.
“Yes?” Sansa asked.
“About my sister,” Jaime said. “I know what you are doing with Lady Daenerys, and I would warn you that she will not take kindly to it. She sees you as a threat.”
“Me?” Sansa asked, startled. “Why on earth would she think that?”
“You would have been queen, had the engagement not ended,” Jaime said. “And you have Myrcella’s affection and have married into one of the oldest houses in the kingdom. Cersei sometimes acts as though it is still the Middle Ages and a revolt is likely to happen at any minute. You have to convince her you aren’t a danger to her. Use Myrcella’s friendship to your advantage. She will be queen in her own right soon, and I do not think Cersei will have as much control over her as she once did.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Sansa asked.
“Because, if I’m honest, I like you,” Jaime said. “And I once told your mother I would look out for you in the capitol. I failed you before, with Joffrey. I won’t do it again.” For a moment, the Jaime Lannister Sansa had been in love with as a girl shone through his wry, sarcastic mask. There was that part of him that was loyal and determined and kind beneath the ruthless Lannister teachings, and Sansa newly appreciated that he was Myrcella’s uncle as well as Joffrey’s.
“Thank you,” Sansa said quietly. “It’s very kind of you.”
Jaime waved his hand as though to brush away her thanks. “Never mind. Get out of here.”
Sansa pressed her lips together to hide her smile and bobbed a quick curtsey before slipping out after Brienne, who was waiting for her in the hall. Brienne looked her over, nodded curtly, and began striding away. Sansa hurried to catch up and fell into step beside her, though she had to walk rather faster than she usually did to keep pace with the taller woman. Brienne cast her a glance, then said abruptly, “I did not know who he was.”
“No?” Sansa asked in surprise. “Well, I suppose you have not been to King’s Landing before, and Sir Jaime rarely leaves the capitol. Did he not say?”
“No,” Brienne said. “If I had known he was the queen’s brother, I would have never, my lady—”
“It’s Sansa,” Sansa reminded her. “And it’s quite all right, Brienne. Sir Jaime isn’t as bad as all that.”
“He was the one who found Rhaegar and brought him in for execution,” Brienne said. “Your husband’s father.”
“He is a knight of the realm,” Sansa said. “That is his duty.” She touched the back of Brienne’s arm lightly. “Brienne, honestly. If you like him, I can’t—won’t—stop you from being his friend.”
“I don’t like him,” Brienne said irritably , with enough force that Sansa doubted her sincerity, but by then they had reached the foyer where Jon and the others waited for them. Arya was flushed and grinning, hair coming loose from her buns, and Bran was beaming as well, both of them clearly delighted with their evenings.
“I heard at least five people say that you didn’t look pregnant at all,” Arya informed Sansa as they climbed into their carriage. “Lady Thorne even said that Mr. Baelish must have been mistaken. And you notice he wasn’t invited?”
“Of course not,” Bran said with great dignity. “Don’t you see what Lady Daenerys was doing? She was making her support clear. And the Targaryens are quite wealthy, so people will listen to what she says.” He went a little dreamy-eyed then. “And she is rather beautiful.”
“You fancy her?” Arya asked, poking him in the side. “She’s Jon’s age!”
“That’s not so very old,” Jon said indignantly. “I am only five and twenty.”
Sansa began laughing, and when they both turned to her with cross expressions on their face, she only laughed harder. She could not say precisely why she was laughing; only that once again she had faith that this was a problem they would solve.
They had to wait two weeks for an audience with the queen mother, a tactic Pod said was likely to intimidate them. “She wants you to believe she sees you as unimportant,” he said over tea. “Of course, if you really weren’t important, she would hardly be going to so much trouble.”
“At least we have that,” Sansa said wryly. “Is there anything we might use as precedent?”
“There are a few cases that I found where the petitioners successfully proved they were being unjustly taxed due to a personal disagreement, but without knowing what the original cause of the dispute was, I think it would be safer not to say anything.” Pod fiddled nervously with his butter-smeared knife. “For all we know, your father may have said or done something worthy of a greater punishment, but the crown taxed him instead of publicly shaming him.”
“He would never—” Sansa started hotly. Jon raised a hand to stop her, not that he disagreed. But he saw Pod’s point.
“Ned Stark is dead,” he said. “Should the son be punished for the sins of the father?”
“That is the argument you should make,” Pod said. “Would you like me to come with you as well in the event that I might be able to assist?”
“I think we will leave the solicitors aside until we have to call upon you,” Jon said after exchanging a look with Sansa. “Bran, what do you think?”
“I think we should be appealing directly to Queen Myrcella,” he said. “She will be eighteen soon, after all, and after that she will be queen in her own right.”
“Surely Cersei will still try to rule,” Arya said. “That old harridan would never give up the throne.”
“Arya, really,” Sansa sighed. “I know you dislike her, but she is the regent.”
“I think Bran might have a point,” Jon said, thinking of what Sansa had told him about her conversation with Jaime Lannister. “We can’t know unless we speak with her. Pod, do you think you can arrange for Queen Myrcella to be there as well?”
“I can try,” Pod said. “Queen Cersei is unlikely to want Her Majesty there, but I can get word to her.” He made a note on the sheaf of paper he carried with him. “Will all four of you be going?”
“Only if Arya can hold her tongue,” Sansa said. “We’re not trying to start another feud.”
“Someone ought to tell her what the people think of her,” Arya said grumpily. “Hardly anyone likes her.”
“So Arya will not be joining us,” Bran said, looking at Pod, and Jon had to quickly turn his laugh into a cough when Arya turned a baleful glance upon him.
Sansa was quiet when they retired for bed that evening, her gaze distant as she combed out her hair. Jon drew her into bed and waited until she had come out of her reverie to ask her what she was thinking about.
“Oh,” Sansa said. “It’s nothing, really.” She set down her brush and turned to face him on the bed. “Only—I used to dream of being queen, you know. But I haven’t wanted that in a very long time. It feels strange to realize I was that fourteen year old girl who thought gold hair and blue eyes made you a righteous prince.”
“You always did love your romantic stories,” Jon said.
“Yes.” Sansa smiled and raised her hand to stroke his face. “But I should have been looking for my grey-eyed rogue instead.”
“Rogue?” Jon asked.
“Well. Mysterious gentleman, perhaps.” Sansa kissed him lightly. “I never would have guessed that I would be here. But I am, and I think there is no woman alive happier than me. I—I love you, Jon Snow.” She blushed fiercely as she said it, but she did not lower her gaze or remove her hand.
Jon’s chest felt like it might burst with happiness, his heart beating fast and urgent. He had not realized how much he longed to hear those words from her lips until now, and at first he could not speak in return. How had he arrived here, with this lovely woman as his wife for the rest of his days? Had it really been less than a year since his return, less than a year since he had laid eyes on her once again and found that she was a woman grown? It felt far longer than that. At last he managed to speak and say, “And I love you, Lady Snow,” and the air between them bloomed with joy.
Queen Cersei did not see them in the same small parlor that Jon remembered. Instead, they were shown to a formal reception chamber, a grand room bedecked with the Baratheon stag and the Lannister lion. There were only two seats in the room, very much like thrones, and so they were forced to stand as they awaited the queen regent’s arrival. Bran drummed his fingers against the armrest of his chair as they waited a quarter hour, then a quarter hour more. At last he said, “This is childish,” and looked up at Sansa.
“Yes,” Sansa said. “But I’m afraid we mustn’t—”
“Hello,” came a quiet voice from behind them. Jon turned and saw Queen Myrcella at the door. He immediately bowed, and beside him Sansa curtsied. When he straightened, Myrcella had come closer, her eyes dancing merrily.
“Mother intends to keep you waiting another ten minutes at least,” she said. “So I thought perhaps I would take the chance to speak to you without an audience.” She took Sansa’s hands and kissed her cheeks. “My dear Sansa, you look so very well.”
“Your Majesty,” Sansa said. “You look beautiful.”
She did; Myrcella was wearing a gown of radiant yellow, her hair in an artful tumble of golden curls down her back. She seemed far more lively than the last time Jon had seen her, and he wondered what had passed in the months to have given her this new life.
“You are too kind. Let me call for seats—it is perfectly ridiculous for you to stand.” She turned to one of the footmen and waved at him. He nodded and slipped out the door. She then gathered her skirts and settled down upon one of the two chairs. “Now, Mother tells me this is something to do with taxes. Tell me what the matter is.”
This, Jon and Sansa had decided to leave up to Bran. As he told Myrcella, in the most delicate of terms possible, that there seemed to have been some kind of disagreement—“or error,” he said diplomatically—that had resulted in the Starks being taxed beyond what they could bear. The loans they had been forced to take out in the last year of Ned Stark’s life had only made the problem worse, and though they were recovering now thanks to Jon’s generosity, they could not bear this much longer.
By the time he finished, the footman had fetched seats for Sansa and Jon, who sat on either side of Bran, flanking him. Myrcella had listened to all of this with a thoughtful gaze, her hands neatly folded on her lap. When Bran ended by saying, “I hope Your Majesty will understand that it is not that we don’t wish to pay our part, only that we cannot be of service to the realm if we are run into poverty,” Myrcella leaned forward and fixed him with a firm stare that reminded Jon unnervingly of Cersei.
“Tell me truly, Brandon Stark,” she said. “You don’t believe there was truly an error, do you?”
“Your Majesty?” Bran asked, clearly startled.
“A little before your father died, my mother came storming into my father’s rooms declaring that Ned Stark had insulted her beyond all sufferance and that he did not wish her children to rule the realm.” Myrcella smiled then. “As the heir at that time was my dear elder brother, I cannot say I blame him.”
“Your Majesty,” Bran said, just as Sansa said, “Your late brother—”
“My brother was a monster,” Myrcella said bluntly. “My mother allowed him anything he wished, and he was cruel and spiteful. We are fortunate his rule was as short as it was.” She sighed and sat back. “I don’t know what your father did to provoke my mother so. I have wondered for some time what her revenge would be. That was why I wanted to see you alone. I thought it might be those stories she spread about Sansa—yes, I heard those,” she said at Sansa’s questioning look. “But I see now that she wishes to ruin your family entirely, not just you. Well, that will not stand.” Myrcella straightened in her seat, chin raised proudly. “The Starks are an old, loyal family. Your father was the dearest friend of mine. Whatever the offense was cannot possibly warrant your destruction.”
“Your Majesty,” Sansa said faintly. “I am—I think—”
“I only wish I could have acted sooner.” Myrcella reached up to touch her pendant, and Jon realized with a jolt that it was shaped in the symbol of the Martell family. A curious choice for a Lannister. “Until recently, my power has been greatly limited. But I can assure you that once I am crowned queen, I will see your family restored.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Bran said, awe coloring his voice. Jon looked at Myrcella with a newfound respect, and realized that she must have spent the past years as her mother’s puppet learning from her and becoming the politician her mother had never been. Myrcella would be a powerful queen after she took her crown. And if that Martell necklace meant anything, she would have Dorne as an ally as well. Perhaps they ought to have been focusing on Myrcella from the beginning.
Then Myrcella was suddenly getting to her feet, her demeanor changing entirely. Jon and Sansa hastily stood as well as Queen Cersei swept into the room. When she noticed her daughter, Cersei paused for a moment, then carried on as though nothing had happened, gliding over to where Myrcella stood.
“Myrcella, dearest,” Cersei said, “I did not know that you were going to be joining us.”
“I saw them waiting and though I ought to keep them company,” Myrcella said sweetly. “Of course, I was curious why they were here. Did you know that we have been overtaxing them? There must have been some dreadful error. They would have been run out of Winterfell had not Lord Snow been a most kind husband to Sansa.”
Cersei’s eye twitched, but she managed to cling to her serenity as she said, “Indeed. I am sorry to hear that.”
“I have assure them that the matter will be remedied,” Myrcella said. “We will see to that, won’t we, Mother? And of course I will always be glad to see such dear friends.” She swept down to kiss Bran’s cheek and then clasped Sansa’s hands. “You must come to me sooner if anything like this happens again.”
“Of course,” Sansa said, the only one of them to have maintained any semblance of composure. “Thank you ever so much, Myrcella dear.”
“It is nothing!” Myrcella embraced Sansa, then Jon. “I’m afraid I have a dress fitting for my coronation, so I must leave. Mother, be sure to sort this out.” She bade them farewell and fluttered from the room in complete contrast to how she had been earlier. Jon turned startled eyes on Sansa, who looked like she was trying to hide a smile.
“You have a most extraordinary daughter,” Jon told Cersei.
At this, Cersei’s lip curled unpleasantly. “So it would seem,” she said. “I suppose our business is concluded.”
“It appears so,” Bran said. “I look forward to Queen Myrcella’s coronation.”
Cersei actually scowled at that and said, “Thank you for coming,” before turning on her heel and striding from the room. They waited until the door was closed behind her to look at each other and break out in relieved grins. All that planning and worrying—only to find that Queen Myrcella was far more cunning and clever than any of them.
Everyone was in much lighter spirits when they returned to the house, and when they told Arya the news, she shrieked and danced around the room. “So we can go home now?” she asked excitedly. “Back to Winterfell?”
Jon looked to Sansa. “If you’d like. I think I’d like to stay a bit longer.”
Sansa seemed startled at first, but then she smiled and said, “I would as well. Perhaps a bit longer.”
“Oh,” Arya said, making a face as Bran snickered behind his hand. “I see. Well, fine. Bran and Brienne and I will return home. You two enjoy your time.”
“We never did have a honeymoon,” Sansa observed to Jon, resting her hand upon his chest.
Jon smiled and kissed her, and when they thought to look around, Arya and Bran had gone, and they were alone in the parlor. Sansa laughed and hid her face in his neck. Jon wrapped his arms about her waist and held on tight, thinking that at last—at last—he was truly at home.
Myrcella was crowned late in spring in a lavish ceremony attended by hundreds of guests. Jon and Sansa went together and were publicly treated to Myrcella’s embrace during the feast afterward, cementing their newly regained approval among the ton. It was not long after that Cersei retired to Casterly Rock, the Lannisters’ ancestral home, and soon after that, Myrcella announced her engagement to Prince Trystane Martell of Dorne, securing herself both a powerful alliance and independence from her family in one move.
“You don’t look very surprised,” Sansa remarked to Jon when they heard the news. “I hadn’t even the faintest notion they had ever met.”
“When we saw her, she was wearing a Martell sigil about her neck,” Jon said. “I thought—but I could not be sure, of course.”
Trystane arrived to great ceremony, and Sansa and Jon were invited to those festivities as well, as particular friends of the new queen. Myrcella took Sansa away during the engagement ball, their heads bent together as they giggled. Jon had a feeling Myrcella might be asking Sansa for advice about the marriage bed, and thought perhaps he ought to be embarrassed. Certainly Trystane was, if his constant glances in their direction was any sign.
“Don’t worry,” Jon told him. “There are some things women need to discuss alone.” He clapped Trystane on the shoulder. “I’m sure you will be glad for it one day.”
“Are you telling the prince how to deflower my niece?” came Jaime Lannister’s voice. Jon turned, suppressing a wince, and sketched a bow. “Oh, don’t look like that, Lord Snow. I’m only teasing.” Trystane, if anything, looked even more frightened, and hurriedly made an excuse to leave.
“I imagine you’ve promised him all sorts of horrors if he hurts Queen Myrcella,” Jon said once Trystane had disappeared into the crowd.
“Only small horrors,” Jaime said. He looked over towards Myrcella with a fond, almost parental look. “She will be a good queen. I won’t have him taking that from her.”
Jon simply nodded, unsure of what to say. Jaime turned back to him then, hand resting at his hip where ordinarily his sword would be. “Lord Snow,” he began, “I’ve been meaning to seek you out.”
“Your father—” Jaime looked distinctly uncomfortable at even broaching the topic, but he soldiered on. “Rhaegar was a good man at his heart. His wife—he loved her, enough, but it wasn’t anything like when he met your mother, Lyanna. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen two people more in love. Save, perhaps, you and your lady wife.” He gave a small bow. “I offer you my congratulations and best wishes.”
“Very kind of you, Sir Jaime,” Jon said. “I don’t blame you for his death.”
“I wasn’t apologizing for it,” Jaime said, although he seemed relieved. “Nevertheless.” He turned as if to leave, then glanced back. “How is Lady Brienne? I understand she has been staying with your family.”
“Brienne?” Jon blinked at him in surprise. “I believe she is well. She is at Winterfell, teaching sword fighting to my sister Arya.”
“Is she indeed?” Jaime smile. “I should like to see that.” He lifted his hand in an ironic salute and disappeared into the crowd, leaving Jon bemused. He looked around for Sansa and saw that she had been waylaid by Roose Bolton. Jon made his way over to her and drew her out to dance as she waved apologetically to Bolton.
"He is insufferable,” Sansa said through her smile as they took their places among the dancers. “Thank you.”
“Of course.” Jon held out his hand to begin the first steps of the quadrille. “I am at your service.”
When they went home, Sansa took him into bed, shedding her clothes unselfconsciously. She had learned not to be ashamed of lovemaking, to embrace the pleasure of it, and he liked now that she did not hesitate to ask for what she wanted. Nor did she shy from teasing him, as he had learned. She liked to make him beg, her smile wicked when she placed her mouth on his prick—oh, how he had started when she did that for the first time—and her fingers featherlight against the insides of his thighs. And when she sank down upon him, her head tilted back in ecstasy, Jon thought he had never seen a more perfect sight than this: her long, pale limbs, her breasts, her vivid hair bright against her skin.
She set his hands upon her hips, braced her hands on his chest, and took her pleasure from him. Her face was focused and intent, her lower lip caught between her teeth, and Jon was torn between the exquisite torture of her slow, rocking movements and the desire to prolong this. He pushed up into her, and was rewarded with a startled gasp, her eyes flying open, and when he tried it again, she moaned, hands spasming against his chest.
“There you go,” Jon breathed, gripping onto her hips. “I’ve got you.”
And she was riding him harder now, her breath pushed out of her in sharp pants, her voice cracking whenever she sparked on some unexpected bit of pleasure. Her thighs began to shake as she reached her climax, her movements jerky and uncertain until, with a great shudder, she came. Jon couldn’t hold back then as she clenched around him, but it hardly took much until he too peaked and climaxed.
Sansa had fallen forward to rest against him, and he slowly softened inside her until he had to gently move her to rest beside him on the bed. When he turned onto his side, he found she was watching him. One hand rested on her stomach, and he couldn’t help the sudden bolt of hope that shot through him.
“I don’t know,” she said in answer to his silent question. “It hasn’t been long enough yet.” She reached out and guided his hand to cover hers. “Maybe tonight.”
Jon imagined it, a small child with his unruly hair and Sansa’s blue eyes, resting in Sansa’s arms. He could picture in perfectly, and the wave of longing that went through him was startling in its intensity. He moved closer to her and said, “What would you name it?”
“I think Lyanna for a girl,” Sansa said. “And—perhaps Ned for a boy.”
“Eddard Targaryen,” Jon said. “It has something of a ring to it.”
It was summer again, and little Ned was just over a year old. He sat alert on Sansa’s lap as they rode up the path to Winterfell on the last day of their journey from Dragonstone. Ghost slumbered on the seat opposite, having been tired out from a game of fetch during an earlier stop, and Jon was dozing too. Sansa smoothed her hand over Ned’s dark curls and gazed out to where she could see the walls of Winterfell beginning to come into view.
“Do you see that?” she asked her son quietly. “That is Winterfell. It’s where I was born. Your namesake, too.” Ned grumbled under his breath and pawed at her arm. “Yes, and your father was raised there as well.”
Jon stirred at the sound of her voice and blinked awake. “Are we there?” he asked sleepily.
“Nearly,” Sansa said. “I was just showing Ned Winterfell.”
“Ah.” Jon leaned over to look past, through the window. Ned gurgled happily and pulled at Jon’s hair. Jon had taken to wearing it pulled back to avoid just attacks, but it did very little to deter the boy. “Careful, lad.”
Ghost woke up, then, and as the carriage pulled up in front of the house, Rickon came running out, followed by Arya, then Gendry and Bran. Sansa lifted Ned up onto her hip and waited until Tormund had opened the carriage door to step down. Ned turned curiously towards the house; a stray breeze picked at his curls, and his clear grey eyes seemed at once innocent and wise beyond his years. Sansa wished, with a painful squeeze of her heart, that her mother and father could have met him.
But there was no erasing the past. She kissed Ned’s cheek, then smiled as Jon came to her side. Ghost bounded out of the carriage and up to where Shaggydog was playing around Rickon’s feet. Though Dragonstone had become familiar and safe over the last year, nothing would compare to this: to coming home to the north, to the Starks.
“Welcome to Winterfell, little Ned,” Sansa said softly. “Welcome home.”