Serah calls upon Lord Stark herself the night before she is to take his eldest daughter South with her. Dressed in shimmering, aqua silk, black curls loose with pride, the princess resembles the river nymphs Catelyn speaks of when maudlin.
"Highness," Ned dips at the knee to her, catches the satisfied curl of her lips at the deference that she does not return. On some days, there is more of the Queen in her eldest than anyone will admit, least of all to the King. "To what do we owe the honor?"
"I merely wish to reassure you, Lord Stark," to see her now, Lord Stark understands why Sansa believes the princess to be sweet and good. She is a consummate actor, wearing skins and shedding them like a snake might. "Lady Sansa will be well taken care of, you have my word."
"The word of the Princess of Storm's End is not to be trifled with, I am sure."
The reminder of her new title pleases Serah enough that she does not speak of the hint of insolence. It was announced not two days previously at Court by the King himself. Though rumors abound the Queen flew into such a rage nothing in her chamber survived, the princess bears no marks of her mother's making. Prince Joff on the other hand... well, Ned has made sure to thank the Old Gods more than once that Robert has not followed through with the betrothal of the prince and Sansa.
"Might I ask where Lady Arya is?" Serah chooses her words with care; as always, the dour Lord Stark closes his long face at the mention of his younger of his daughters. One would think it was I who threatened to beat the girl with a horsewhip and not mother, the way he acts. Face open as a book, Serah merely inclines her head, every inch the gracious princess when the Lord Hand hems and haws an excuse.
That night, Serah chooses Lady Sansa as a bedmate, dismissing all others and attends to the girl's hair herself. Seated at the vanity, Sansa is flush with pleasure as the princess of the blood brushes her man of fire kissed hair.
"Such a beautiful color," Serah coos, and she speaks the truth. It is a rich, vibrant auburn that she has only ever seen those in possession of Tully blood to have. Even the Blackfish, for all his grey hair, once had a head full of hair thick enough to be the envy of any maiden. "I wonder if your future children will be blessed with such beauty."
Predictably, the girl flushes so deeply that, with her hair, she resembles a pomegranate. "Your Highness is too kind to say so," her blue eyes sparkle with interest. "Is it true that Ser Loras will accompany us to Highgarden?"
"He will indeed, little dove," Serah hands her the silver-backed brush and they switch places. "Do not worry, you shan't hurt me, Lady Sansa." Serah comments when the girl pauses at the first knot in her wild curls. "My Septa had little patience for mewling and whining... as such, my scalp is quite capable of handling such abuse."
They sit in a silence broken only by the crackling of the fire in the hearth. Serah closes her eyes and tilts her head back, relaxing for the first time in what feels like days. She is a princess, born and bred for courtly machinations, but she freely admits that Renly's planning exhausts her. It also stings that, though he denies it, her favorite uncle still hides things from her.
"Lady Casia was telling me about Lord Willas," Sansa venture shyly, so suddenly that Serah nearly starts in surprise. She catches the girl's eye in the mirror, silently encourages her to continue. "They say he is kind and gentle, for all that he is..."
"A cripple?" Serah finishes, though her voice is light, and Sansa flushes with shame.
"Forgive me, highness, I spoke out of turn."
"There is nothing to forgive, Sansa," Serah touches her hand, though she longs to slap the hesitant expression from the child's face. Willas is twice the man that Joff will ever be, she thinks, while anger curls in her breast, "Yes, Lord Willas is a cripple, but he is so much more than that. Mayhaps you might find out, little dove."
Their first night at Highgarden, Serah dresses lady Sansa herself that night, in silks of white and grey, with freshwater pearls roped through her fire-kissed hair and slender throat. The girl is slim as a reed, yet her body holds promise of womanly delights when the time comes for her to flower. At four-and-ten, Serah has been a woman for over two years, with gentle curves, tall enough to look her mother in the eye. Such a beauty would be wasted on Joff. Her brother will play the gallant, young knight, pale in comparison to their uncle, until he wearies of the game and of Sansa.
The poor girl has the startled look of a cornered rabbit when Willas asks the pleasure of her company to take a turn about the roses, after the evening meal. Serah watches intently as little Sansa - she is not yet two and ten, Serah knows - colours beneath the attention of the heir to Highgarden. Not for the first time, Serah feels relief that she has swept the Stark girl from Joffrey's thumb before he could play at the golden princeling. The fiasco at the Trident was hellish enough.
Willas is comely to look at, with the almond-shaped doe eyes he shares with his siblings, the soft brown curls that tickle his collar and the darker shade that makes up his beard. Loras and Garlan received the lion's share of the looks in the family, but Willas is comely to look at. Better yet, he is a man grown. Lady Olenna squirms forward in her seat once the pair heads out to the rose gardens to partake in the late summer blooms before night settles.
"A well matched pair, I think," the Queen of Thorns announces to Lord Mace's bluster. "Oh, come now, Mace," she snaps sharply over him, as if he were still a toddler lisping away in the nursery. "She is a beauty, more a Tully than a Stark, and what better offers have you for Willas' hand?"
The look Lord Mace sends Serah is more telling than if he had bellowed like the bull his mother thinks him to be. His aspirations to place his son on the throne through Serah have borne little fruit; though she is fond of Willas, and he her, she does not think a perfect match they will make. And, lest we forget, I have two brothers and uncles to spare. Though the throne will be hers by rights if Joffrey and Tommen were to both die, there is no guarantee that Stannis will throw his weight behind her claim.
Perhaps he will remain at Dragonstone, hidden away from the world, to be brow beaten by his harpy of a wife. She is not overly fond of her aunt, the Lady Selyse Baratheon, nor of her surly, grim uncle. To find him gone from King's Landing upon their return was the greatest of pleasures, as he does little more than stew over the perceived slights he receives from those around him.
She retires to Margaery's rooms, the heady scent of roses a constant companion. They lounge on the balcony and peer at Lady Sansa and Willas as they stroll through the gardens.
"What say you, Margaery my love?" The taste of summerwine is like honeycomb on her tongue. "Do you think it a good match?"
Margaery flutters her lashes as they have been taught, her lips a playful moue. "You say her eldest brother is comely, yes? Perhaps I might ensnare a wolf in my thorns."
Laughter, high and girlish, echoes through the humid air of the Reach when Lady Olenna enters the apartments. Her guardsmen, two stalwart six-footers wait behind in the doorway to find conversation with Ser Corwen. The Queen of Thorns settles on a plump settee, embroidered with golden roses and twining, thorny vines.
"Will Lord Mace accept the match?" Serah asks, apple-button cheeks and half-lidded eyes. The Highgarden air agrees well with her. Any air would agree with me, so long as it is not King's Landing. "My lord uncle is most desirous that it shall come to pass." Even if he does not tell me why. Her uncle's reasons for desiring to unite the Starks and Tyrells remains a mystery that even she cannot uncover.
Lady Olenna smiles, thin-lipped and tight. "Mace will bluster and bleat like the oaf he is. But, he will listen to his mother, as all good sons should in the end." Serah does not doubt it, and so she smiles at the wrinkled old woman, who favours here with a rare smile only the princess and her granddaughter see. "Now, you must work on Lord Stark, my dear girl,"
Serah does not relish the task given to her; Lord Stark is thick witted as a pullet, out of touch with the goings of courtly life. Father would have been better off to shove the chain at grandfather and been done with it. Though he might mislike his good-father, no man or woman of the Seven Kingdoms can deny Lord Tywin is the best suited for the job as Hand.
As their visit winds down to a end, it finds Willas and Serah in the gardens, the sweet scent of summer roses heady in the air. She slows her stride to match Willas' slower, stilted one; though he is resigned to his limp, he is sensitive enough that Serah would never presume to make light of it. She will leave the self-deprecation to him.
"Tell me," she takes his arm in a light hold, the soft brocade of her gown, fashioned in the style and cut of the Reach, a whisper of silk. Her hair smells of the rose oil she dips it in - a gift from Lady Alerie. "What do you think of Lady Sansa?"
Willas, the veneer of the heir to Highgarden gone, cannot hide himself from her. He colours beneath the scruff of his beard, just the faintest hints of pink skin. It is enough to make her smile and forget herself, to press a giddy kiss to his cheek as they halt along the hedges. Ser Corwen, several steps behind them to give them a modicum of privacy, stops mid step.
"I admit at first, I did not relish the idea... she is so young, Serah. Too young to make a proper wife but," at this, the colour deepens, disappearing beneath the collar of his fine doublet. "I believe, in a few years, we might find a modicum of happiness."
"Oh, Willas, I shall never be as happy as this moment," the dramatic vow makes a chuckle rumble from the depths of his chest. "All I have ever wanted is your happiness - and if you find it with Lady Sansa, then all the better."
Even if it is not with me. The words hang unspoken in the air, light and winsome and frail as a flower. Though a match with the heir of Highgarden is like a dream for the daughter of another lord Paramount and Serah cannot begrudge Sansa her happiness. She will make Willas far more happy than I ever could. I have been born and bred to claw and climb my way through the game of thrones.
Serah knows she will never be happy as the wife of a mere liege lord, no matter how much she adores Willas. It is with tears in her sea-blue eyes that she presses a sisterly kiss to his lips before she sweeps to the privacy of her rooms to grieve in peace.