A moan coming from her bedmate was what roused her from sleep. Too much wine from the revelry last night no doubt. Motes of dust floated in the sunlight breaking through the edges of the window coverings. Lazily, she turned to the head of chestnut curls that laid beside her and yawned. Myranda Royce had taken as many turns on the dance floor as she, but her friend could probably match Lord Tyrion in a duel of cups. Alayne sat up on her forearms and rolled neck. The servants would be arriving soon and the day ahead would be riveting and mercilessly long.
It was late into the night when they had finally retired from the feast. Alayne had seen little Lord Robert to bed before escorting Myranda to their chambers, giggling and stumbling the whole way back. The firelight flickered low as they continued to whisper their appraisals of their dance partners. Myranda conceded that the knights from the Sisters had their finer points. After she mentioned Uthor Shett of Gulltown had trampled her feet as well, Alayne had jested a seagull had shett on their shoes. They would never be able to look at the ginger-haired knight again without that image. Praised for taking her first foray into cursing, Alayne reminded Randa she had not truly said the word.
“Do not think I have forgotten the pillow tax, you septa. I’ve given you a reprieve long enough on account of all that blushing and I can see I’ve finally dragged you to the seven hells with me. Come now, tell me truly… which of those gallant men do you wish was giving you jousting lessons right now?” Randa nestled tight into her pillow, bracing herself for a revelation.
She is a dog gnawing on a bone , Alayne thought. Yet, she did not feel the prickles of discomfort as she ought and the warmth of the spiced wine still blossomed throughout her. Even though she could not think of any particular knight, she knew she had to give her friend a morsel of the bawdy gossip she craved. If she were truthful with herself, she wanted to confide in the older girl some secret of her heart as she would have done with Jeyne Poole. She heard Petyr’s warnings in her mind, but there would be no harm in it if she delicately chose her words.
“Not a one here. Not even stupid Ser Harrold.” She began. Randa scoffed, but she continued. “There was someone once… He wasn’t a knight, though he could have been. He was as tall as Lord Royce, but lean and built like a bull and his kiss was just as fierce. You would never have called him comely, Randa, but he had a way about him. It was only the one kiss and then he was gone. Just one hard, cruel kiss.” The spell broke after that, but she added: “I sang him a song once too.”
“I’ll wager you did.”
“No, I mean I really did sing to him. The Mother’s Hymn .” She realized how ridiculous that sounded as soon as she said it. Myranda turned her face into the pillow to stifle her peals of laughter.
“I’m sorry, but somehow I can believe it from you,” she said between breaths. “Is it this bull you think of when you are alone at night? Sometimes I send my maids away when I’m in my bath. Thinking on the hard snapping of a well-muscled, young arse between my thighs like a whip cracking serves me every time.” Alayne did not know what to say to that. Myranda must have noticed the look on her face because she asked: “You do know how to make yourself sing?” She should be horrified, she knew, but she wasn’t. This time Alayne settled in closer for a revelation.
The maids arrived that morning with trays filled with fried eggs, sausages, and slices of fresh oranges to break their fast. Whirling about the room they drew back the curtains, stoked the fire, and laid out their gowns. Alayne quickly splashed her face with cold water and nibbled as she dressed. Myranda looked like a sweet confection in a gown of pink and rose velvet despite her declaration that her mouth felt like the bottom of a birdcage. “Not to worry,” she said as she waved around a bite of sausage. “By the time my hair is up, I’ll be feeling fit to receive the High Septon. This isn’t my first tilt.” Alayne’s head was surprisingly clear, thank the gods.
Even the bastard of a Lord Protector could still not presume to dress above her station at such a grand event with highborn ladies in attendance. Alayne had chosen her dark wool gown with the gold vines embroidered on the bodice and sleeves and a cream-colored linen shift underneath. Her maid had arranged her hair in a coiled braid at the back of her head. A faint amount of copper was starting to show through the dull brown dye under the morning light, she noticed. “The autumn yellow ribbon please.” It was her only concession to ornamentation, but it looked so fine with her blue eyes when it was in her hair and tied in a bow at her nape. There was no more time to tarry with Randa. She had to settle some business about a favor. Swooping her deep green cloak about her shoulders she headed down to the tourney yard.
She remembered the opulent spectacle of her father’s… her real father’s tourney that seemed another lifetime ago when the world was splendid and full of promise. Still, Lord Petyr aspired to an event that would be remembered like Harrenhal and Ashford. An array of colorful banners snapped in the autumn breeze with the great falcon and moon of Arryn taking the center of the stands. Serving men rolled out great casks of ale, Dornish red, and Arbor Gold to keep the cups full to overflowing. The wood fire pits were already ablaze again for another round of roast aurochs. Other guests in their finery strolled the grounds and surveyed the competition, already placing their bets. Squires flitted about like dragonflies carrying pieces of plate and mail while their knights barked orders and honed their swords. Some had already donned their armor, some were sparring with practice swords, and few were heaving last night’s feast behind the hedgerows where they thought no one would notice. Mychel Redfort was among those readying their sword arms. He had a sure aim at the quintains yesterday. She considered him earnestly for a moment. No, she could not do that to Mya with a heart still bruised and battered. She continued on.
She spied Ser Lothor Brune, the Apple-Eater, checking the shoes of his horse and looking hungry this morning. “Good morrow, ser!” she called cheerfully as she approached. A wicked idea occurred to her. She lowered her voice when she stood near him. “A pity Ser Robar Royce isn’t here for a rematch.” His brows furrowed like he meant to chastise her, but a small smile betrayed him. Lothor had been unhorsed by Yohn Royce’s son at the tourney of the Hand— a tourney Alayne Stone wouldn’t know the slightest about. Ser Lothar knew the truth of it, though.
“Good morrow, my lady. And I do not intend to win any matches today by forfeit either.” He was referring, of course, to sad and foolish Dontos Hollard. And I thought that drunkard was my Florian. Who was the bigger fool indeed? “Can I be of service, my lady?”
“Not to me, ser. I have decided today is your name day and it’s high time you sowed. I have saved a seat for Mya near me in the stands. You should ask her for her favor.”
Lothor laughed heartily. “Beg your pardon, my lady. Mya does not seem like the sort.”
“She will. I have already spoken with her.” When she finished here she would need to fly to the stables and find Mya without delay. She gave her most winning smile as she curtsied and strode away.
She steered clear of Lyn Corbray, who leaned against a tree and spoke with Oswell Kettleblack. He need not be tested again today. On and on she wove her way through the yard. Her tummy fluttered with her first pangs of trepidation. Truthfully, she had not considered until now that so many of these knights had been squires a few moon turns prior. Harry was among them, but her only hope was a decisive win. Father said don’t appear too eager. Give your favor to another. Yes, father. Another who will thoroughly trounce Harry the Heir. My champion will knock your arse in the dirt, Alayne will laugh prettily, and you will seethe. At least that was the idea.
“You seem to be seeking something. Can we be of assistance, my lady?” Odd little Ser Shadrich and brawny, red-nosed Ser Morgarth were standing under a nearby tent oiling their sword blades. The Mad Mouse had been the one to call out to her. They had been among those she had danced with the night before and found no fault with their courtesy. Still, with their handsome third they were as funny a motley lot as one could ever meet.
“Perchance you can, sers. You see, I have wagered ten stags against Lady Myranda’s champion in the jousts. I seek my own to vanquish hers, else I’ll find myself plucked clean by day’s end. Alas, as I recall you will only be in the melee, Ser Shadrich. Is that also true of you, Ser Morgarth?”
“It is, my lady.” The hedge knight paused a moment then looked to the rear of the tent. “Might I suggest our Ser Byron? He’s tilted many a time and won his share. I’d put my coin on him.” Ser Byron came out of the shadows and gave a short, easy bow. He had not even put on a quilted doublet yet. He still wore a loose linen shirt over his tall frame and around his neck a small leather bag hung on a cord just inside his collar.
“Are you up to the task, ser?”
“I did not enter to leave empty-handed. You’ll be ten stags richer, my lady. Believe that.”
She studied him a moment. He was comely enough to warrant being called Byron the Beautiful with his straight blonde hair and elegant manner. In another life, she might have even swooned over this hedge knight. Not today. She was bastard brave and no one’s fool. In the most unsentimental way she could muster, she pulled the bow loose in her hair and thrust her hand out toward her champion. Something in him must have shaken because he reached out and took the yellow-gold ribbon tentatively. “A share of my winnings then.” She curtsied and whirled away, her green cloak flapping behind her. She heard him ask who Lady Myranda was favoring but she pretended not to hear. These were still Petyr’s hired swords. They need not know everything .
Gretchel had Sweetrobin looking like a proper lord in a dark blue velvet doublet with silver detailing. To her relief, he was beaming ear to ear, delighted the day had arrived he would have his own Winged Knights. She had read him every tale of Artys Arryn she could find twice over. Sweetrobin took his place in the center dais. The Lord Protector, Petyr Baelish, was beside him in grand fashion with a plum-colored cape secured with a mockingbird brooch over a black doublet. Lady Waynwood, Lord Nestor and the Lords Redfort, Belmore, and Grafton took their honored seating nearby. The rows soon swelled to capacity and horns blared the commencement. The Lord of the Eyrie had the first row of seats for his retinue. Tenderly, she kissed Sweetrobin on top of his head and pecked her father on the cheek. Alayne sat on the opposite side of Lord Robert with Myranda quickly joining her with Mya Stone in tow, straight as a spear and in her riding leathers.
“I don’t want cousin Harrold to win any wings,” Sweetrobin told her. “That means he’ll be here all the time.”
“Don’t be troubled, my lord. Only true knights could be Winged Knights,” Alayne whispered to him. If only she believed that herself. Still, her little cousin was in fine form despite his worries. She did not sense he was in danger of a shaking fit.
It was not long before she saw Lothor Brune striding toward them. Seven hells! She abruptly grabbed Mya’s hand. “Give Ser Lothor a favor.”
“You must trust me. Give him something, anything. I swear it, Mya, you won’t regret it.”
“ Him?” She did not sound opposed, merely cautious.
“He’s a man, Mya. Not a witless boy playing with swords or hearts. Nor does he indulge in silly, empty gestures or suffer fools. A man like that would only make himself a fool for one reason alone. I tell you, Mya, Ser Lothor is as solid and steady as the Wall.”
Mya stared at her a long moment as if she couldn’t decide if Alayne were completely mad or just half, but praise the gods she softened by the time the Apple-Eater arrived. “Lady Mya…” he began, though she was no lady. Before he could finish the bastard girl pulled a dagger from her boot and flipped the blade around so the pommel faced him. A smile spread across his square jaw as he took the dagger from her hand.
The rest of the day went off as well as she could hope. She only pretended to fervently watch most of the jousts of untried green boys and often slipped into wistful little daydreams. Ben Coldwater triumphed against one of the Sistermen. Andrew Tollett had barely stayed ahorse to defeat Myranda’s brother, Albar Royce. Mychel Redfort performed as well as expected earlier but was later unhorsed by Ser Byron. Lyn Corbray’s lance exploded in a cloud of splinters on some poor boy’s chestplate and the lad had to be carried off the grounds with a broken leg. Alayne found herself in the odd position of silently rooting for Ser Uthor when he faced Harrold Hardyng, but the would-be Young Falcon managed to beat the Shett out of his saddle. She felt a little sad when Ser Lothor soundly defeated Ser Roland Waynwood, who made her laugh and swept her off her feet. A man with his lady’s favor and in love could be unstoppable if the songs could be believed. She scoffed to herself at that… yet, Ser Lothor rode tall and proud in the saddle with single-minded purpose. She looked over at Mya and saw a softness in her gaze and a somber beauty in her profile. Arya’s eyes would be gray, though . At least Roland’s sweet, stuttering uncle, Ser Wallace Waynwood, won his match.
As the first day dwindled down, the competition eliminated most of the original sixty-four. She had almost lost track of who was left when one of the last matches of the day was called. Ser Harrold Hardyng would face Ser Byron. The hedge knight sat atop a red courser, visor down, and lance held firm. Faintly, she could see the autumn gold ribbon tied around his vambrace. Though she could not see his face, Ser Byron raised his lance arm up in her direction it seemed. Harry was all gleaming in silver plate with a blue moon and falcon detailing. His surcoat bore the quartered heraldry of Houses Hardyng, Waynwood, and Arryn. So presumptuous . Harry glanced up her way and flashed a cocksure smile. Sweetrobin shifted around in his seat as he glared down at him. Alayne quietly grasped his hand and stroked her thumb over his fingers.
Her breath bated as the two opponents lowered their lances. Their horses suddenly erupted into a full gallop, sending the dirt flying behind them. She prayed hard that all she had heard about Harry’s skill was the truth— that he truly was only an unjumped squire and that Morgarth was right about Byron’s experience. At the last possible moment, the hedge knight shifted in his saddle which effectively caused Harry’s lance to take only a glancing blow, but Byron’s lance took Harry square in the upper chest. Wood shattered and the crowd gave a palpable groan as the clatter of plate armor mixed with the thud of hitting unforgiving earth. The Young Falcon moved his limbs slowly like a dazed turtle on its back as a few squires ran out to attend him. She couldn’t help but wince a little for his pain, but then she remembered her father only needed Harry’s approval to seal this betrothal for true. Lady Waynwood would not force her ward. Those were her terms to help her sleep easier after her debts were paid by Lord Littlefinger.
Suddenly whoops of cheer burst from the little lord beside her and he stood to clap his hands. The rest of the stands followed suit with a polite and restrained applause. As the squires helped Ser Harold to his feet and removed his helm, he looked up at the stands. His mouth was bloody where he must have bitten himself when he hit the ground. A large dent marred his resplendent breastplate turning one falcon into a misshapen beast. Ser Byron turned his courser about and came up beside the railing. He lifted his visor and gave Lord Robert a bow, but never shifted his eyes away from hers. He can’t expect his share of the silver now, can he? Those stags I plucked from pure fancy. Alayne rose from her seat, leaned over, and meant to chastely kiss her champion on the cheek to put him off for the time being. At the last possible moment, he turned his head to claim it boldly on his lips. He lingered only a second to spare her further embarrassment. Gods, Sweetrobin will surely have a fit, possessive of her as he is. To her relief, he did no such thing. Still, she felt prickling heat blossoming all over her face as she could hear the amused tittering behind her. She overheard Lord Robert declare to Petyr Baelish that Ser Byron was surely a true knight and will have wings by tourney’s end. Myranda gave her a sly look that said the pillow tax has just been raised. By the time she had the nerve to look back down the field, Ser Byron was dismounting his saddle and Ser Morgarth came up to clap him upside his head with one of his massive paws.
After most of the stands cleared to head back for the second night of feasting, Littlefinger slipped an arm through hers and gently guided her behind a cluster of sentinel pines. Alayne knew what was coming and put on her sweetest, most dutiful smile. “Lady Waynwood tells me Harry is frothing. No one expected him to perform that well, but he’s more upset you openly favored the knight that spanked his proud arse. Just last night he was eating out of your palm. Now he’s speaking bitterly of holding out for a highborn match when he inherits.” His tone was even and patient, but his grey-green eyes told it differently. I did have him quite in hand, but I did it my way, not yours. I didn’t eat your stupid cake either.
Alayne widened her eyes in disbelief. “Father, you told me I should not appear too eager and that I should give my favor to another. How was I to know some sell-sword would win in a proper knight’s contest? The kiss was only meant to be a chaste one on the cheek, but Ser Byron was too bold by far.” She turned her eyes downcast and worried at her lip like Arya would do. “I’m sorry, father.”
Petyr kissed her forehead and stroked her arm soothingly. “All will be well, sweetling. It’s not too late to right this. No permanent harm was done. Lady Waynwood will remind him he was never truly here for the wings and she will tell him it was Ser Byron that overstepped. I will have Lothor Brune speak to him. In the meantime, you should feign exhaustion and avoid the merriment tonight. No need to salt the boy’s wounds.” Lord Petyr’s attention was drawn to Lord Nestor and he left her there beneath the branches.
Turning back toward the dais to find her little lord, Alayne saw him enthralled in conversation with Ser Byron, who had taken a knee in front of him. He was Sweetrobin's champion as much as mine . Myranda and Mya stood idly against the railings talking among themselves, while Robert was likely bombarding the knight with all sorts of questions. She would have to borrow a few stags from her friends. When she handed them over she intended to chew his ear off and then he could get a second helping from his captain. Why, though? Hadn’t her plan worked and Harry was now hopefully put off of marrying her? Truthfully, that bit of ungallantry was the icing on the cake and had served her well. It may have been the one kiss she ever had that wasn’t a disappointment and it had naught to do with desire. She couldn’t even recall what it felt like.
“My lady.” She turned to find someone’s squire approaching her. She’d seen him before, but there were so many darting around. He had a weak mustache that looked like bread mold. “Maester Colemon sent me to find you. The knight that broke his leg earlier…the maester worries he might have a swelling in the head too. It could be fatal. He wishes to confer how to handle this.”
Mealy-mouthed Maester Colemon always preferred dealing with Alayne rather than the Lord Protector, who plowed over the man like a tractable piece of land. “Lead on then.” The boy brought her to one of the last tents in the row. Inside she met neither an ailing knight nor Maester Colemon. Standing before her was Lyn Corbray who dismissed his squire. The ruby in Lady Forlorn’s pommel shone a dark, thick red. “This is irregular, ser.” She could feel the sweat on the back of her neck. Courtesy is a lady’s armor .
“Apologies, my lady.” He measured his words carefully to not frighten her, but she could almost feel the pulsing in his veins from where she stood. “We have but a moment, so we should speak plainly. I know who you really are. Do not be afraid. I’ve brought you here to offer my help, Sansa Stark.”
Something told her denial would be unwise. She swallowed hard and nodded. Kettleblack must have told him. Why now, though? I must be brave like Robb . “Why would you help me?”
“You know Littlefinger has crossed me before more than once. We both know what that whoremonger really wants from you, betrothal or no. It’s only a matter of time. There’s no limit to his ambition. I could see you safely to Runestone and Yohn Royce.”
Her breath hitched. Take a good whiff . “Lord Royce was ever my father’s friend. How, though?”
His eyes glittered at that, taking it for encouragement. “On the morrow before day breaks. The castle will still be sleeping off their wine. My squire knows which guards can be bribed and will ready the horses. The mountain passes will be slow with heavy snowfall, but we can take the longer way of the High Road. Then take a ship to Runestone. Royce has been waiting to seize an opportunity to pry Littlefinger off the high lord’s seat. Taking his pawn away from him would be a good start. Lord Royce wanted to fight for Robb. He would do everything in his power to keep Ned’s daughter safe…maybe even rally behind her once Littlefinger is sent packing to Harrenhal.”
She couldn’t help the quaking within her. A part of her wanted to believe it, but the best lies are nestled in truth. The High Road also meets the King’s Road and Sansa Stark still had a bounty on her head. Dead or alive. He would have his vengeance and one hundred dragons are no small things for a second son. He couldn’t hope to drag me out. He must have me quiet and willing, but if he gets desperate enough... I must tread carefully . “Ser, I share a bed with Lady Myranda. How will I be able to leave the room without being seen?”
“There’s a few lads here no doubt that could keep the lady occupied. I could see to it. A clever girl like you escaped one castle. This should be child’s play.”
“I make no promises, ser. I can only try, but if I see a guard or a maid about I won’t risk it. He has eyes and ears everywhere. I only move so freely because he trusts me like a daughter.”
“I trust you will succeed, my lady. We must seize the opportunity. We’ve been talking too long. It’s high time you’re off and back to the feasting. Go now.”
Her legs felt as wobbly as a new fawn as she started back. Her heart was a bird beating its wings wildly against a cage, mad to escape. I mustn’t cry. I need to think. All day she had been playing at courtly games. Lyn Corbray was no cyvasse piece. He was volatile, impatient, and deadly. Her head in a sack would serve just as well as her whole body. She felt so hot and flushed. It might have been Ser Morgarth that called out to her to ask if she needed an escort, but she waved her hand dismissively as she picked up her pace. She could not abide the company right now.