Hello everyone. I am alive despite the sticky situations down at home and the world with Covid. I do not have meaningful words, they are spent in handling the collective and individual grief around me.

There is a note at the end of the chapter with more updates/details.

Chapter 14

Rhaegar VI

Rhaegar was sitting in his solar, waiting for everyone to arrive.

He was feeling much grounded and calmer. He must have been running through an nth scenario in the head when Azalea had all but lured him out of the sink hole.

He should not have given in, but Azalea was persuasive and alluring, and he had so badly wanted to know he was alive.

After their exhaustive copulating, he had all but passed out.

When he woke up, his head was cradled against her bosom; and it was quite late in the morning.

Rhaegar had almost been irritated. She is the one who gets poisoned and he is the one who ends up needing reassurance. And against all sanity, he had ended up ravishing her mere hours after she nearly died of a curdling poison. Azalea has insisted she was alright. Good as new. Not the worst poison in my system, Rhaegar...

As if that was a tangible excuse. But he had decided to let it be. It had been a hard day. He would be careful in the future. She did not care about her well-being. He had to be the one to watch out for it.

He understood why people had not disturbed them. He had been reluctant to let go of her, so they had ended up in the bath together, then breaking their fast together until Viserys came running and asking for Azzy.

She had spent the rest of the morning with Viserys. His little brother was enamored and considering he had seen little of Azalea yesterday, he had all but demanded her attention.

There was no court today. There were two crucial meetings though: the small council was going to sit in the evening. And today would be Azalea's induction and introduction.

And more immediately, they were going to meet regarding the whole poisoning. Rhaegar had too many thoughts and ideas and nothing made sense.

His mother was joining them. Most of the Kingsguard would be there. Darry was keeping tabs on Pycelle and Selmy was the one dealing with Viserys' excitement, but others were going to be present.

Ashara was going to be there. And Azalea had requested that Varys would drop in between with things she had requested.

Azalea entered in a courtly dress. You could not tell that she had nearly died yesterday. She was good at appearances and it was one of the things his mother admired.

"Anybody has thoughts?" He asked

Azalea was sitting on the couch near the window, pouring over the copious notes he had taken yesterday.

She had passed him the bundle from Iron bank yesterday. There was nothing there, but methods of assassination Sunspear had used over the years.

"I don't have much to say. I saw Valor this morning. He is the one who told me about Princess Wera's condition. When he had made the move with the Dornish flag at the great council, he had gotten a whiff. She smelled of sickness and death, doused in a great amount of perfume. I wondered if he might have something to add. He said she smelled sweat like decaying flowers. That is how butterfly fever manifests. Prince Martell was not lied to." Azalea said.

Or reading the subtext, Prince Martell had not lied to them.

"Moreover," Her eyes passed regretfully over Prince Martell, "Butterfly fever is rather ghastly. Soon, Princess Wera will be taken over by delirium followed by massive spasms that will appear like uncontrollable dancing. Soon, her flesh will start sloughing itself away before she finally succumbs to it. Considering how long she already has had it, I would say Doran would be succeeding her within a week because even if she doesn't die, she will be incapable of making coherent decisions."

So, that is what all the tomes that she was carrying were about.

"Doran would be grieving. To accuse his dying mother without solid proof, to mar her legacy…" Azalea continued.

"Yeah, a war is ill-advised." His mother promptly agreed.

"I am not leaving it alone." Rhaegar stayed stubborn about his stance.

"We should at least focus on preventing further attacks until we reach a consensus. The queen has a list of methods Princess Wera prefers…" Hightower began.

"Gentle Curdle does not have a known antidote that only Martells know of. Can you confirm this Prince Martell?" Azalea asked.

"Yes, my lady." Prince Martell nodded.

"I think Princess Wera is just biding time until she receives the news of my demise. She will not have a second plan in place because the first is infallible." Azalea said, "Unless you have the antidote on you Prince Martell, and could have given it to me?"

"No, my lady. I do not deal with poison. That would be more like Oberyn." Prince Martell shook his head.

"Was he in the city the night of the wedding?" Arthur Dayne asks, "I don't remember seeing him. Last I heard, he was in exile?"

"Are Dornish always this stupid about taking lovers?" Azalea skipped over Arthur's interjection and addressed Prince Martell. Her query, from her tone, was rhetorical.

"Are you suggesting…" Whent looked very bothered and squeamish.

"Butterfly Fever spreads two ways: If you go to Naath and acquire it through the butterflies there. Otherwise, it only passes through internal human fluids, for example, blood. Unless Princess Wera has a liking to drinking blood, yeah I am suggesting she acquired the illness through a lover." Azalea said crisply.

"Very likely," Prince Martell nodded, thinking hard.

His mother's nose flared but Rhaegar did not have time to respect his mother's sensibilities.

"What are you thinking of Lea?" His brain was whirring, but he could not pinpoint it and in the midst, the nickname slipped.

Arthur's lips twitched a little. But mostly everyone ignored it.

Azalea spread out her hand in an appeasing gesture, "Hear me out, the lover could be of two kinds. Someone who visited Naa'th and came back with the illness, in which case they would be dying too. Or someone who is of Naa'th, carries the fever in his blood but is unaffected by it, but anyone he knows intimately would acquire it."

"We could ask Varys to ask around deaths or I could reach my sources," Ashara quickly suggested.

"I don't see a woman like Wera lowering herself to take an ill lover." Azalea said quietly, "And the information I acquired from Iron Bank suggests two exotic young men. I did not think much of it because her proclivities are not my business, but considering the butterfly fever, I was wondering if she managed to acquire someone from Naath. Mostly because I did come across a distinct man who was working the drinks."

"The braided one, with golden eyes." Arthur immediately interjected.

"Flat features, dark-colored." Whent added promptly.

And Arthur and Azalea nodded in synchronization.

"I recognize the description. I saw him, I think, in Harrenhall at the time you got engaged," Ashara seemed to be thinking aloud.

"He kissed my knuckles on the wedding. He lingered. I remember because he greeted me in a different tongue before remembering something and then bowing to kiss…" Azalea was nodding, her eyes and stance deliberating fast.

"How does that help in the least?" His mother's agitation was clear.

"Why would a man from Naa'th be here in Red Keep at all? Naa'th is a pacifist isle. They do not incur violence. They also do not think much of our ways. We did not even serve their cuisine in any courses or drinks and the Sunspear household had long since left," Rhaegar was piecing together the idea that Azalea was putting forth.

"I do not think he knew what he was doing. Either he was seduced into doing it or he was ordered." Azalea said pointedly. And it would click.

"So Princess Wera is either acquiring slaves or she used her lover's guilt as leverage." Rhaegar summed up.

"It has been a week. Do you think he made it back to Dorne? I don't think the Princess would like to see the face of the man who ensured her death." Hightower asked.

"Varys is confirming it for me. Either he was killed as soon as the task was done, or he has sailed through the numerous ships that are leaving after the wedding. He could be foolish enough to linger despite order too," Azalea said, "But meanwhile, we have a parley even if we do not find him."

Rhaegar looked at her patiently, deducing her line of thinking, "He kissed your knuckles, does that mean that he was poisoned too?"

"Exposed before me, likely would have died before me." Azalea confirmed, "So, even if we do not acquire the body, we can claim we have it."

"All of it is circumstantial…" His mother shook her head vigorously.

"Not enough to indict the leader of a great house," Azalea nodded easily, "Nor an heir, but perhaps it can be pinned on the daughter.

"Especially if we can place the man with Elia," Azalea's eyes gleamed with a sense of victory before narrowing at Prince Lewys, "Wait for me to finish before looking horrified, Prince Martell. I do not intend to hurt your niece especially when she is innocent."

"Apologies my queen," Prince Martell looked chastised.

"Only we know that Prince Martell has confirmed our suspicions on several things. We need to leave a trail of false intelligence. He writes to his sister using a personal code but no signature, urging her to protect and control Elia. He describes a poisoning that I escaped with some Valyrian cure and that I have spies through Iron Bank in Sunspear and I linked it to them. We describe Wera's lover, only insinuating that we think it is Elia's lover. He asserts our fury and our long game to hurt Elia. It is far-fetched, but Westeros would believe anything about me right now, especially because of recent developments like valor, the dragon-speech."

"Ashara writes to Elia enquiring of the rumors around her lover and to tell her that she should know better; if you are willing to strain your relations with her for a bit Ashara," Azalea asked and Ashara nodded resolutely.

"We also meet the Hightowers. Or rather, Rhaegar and I meet Lord Hightower and I manage to describe Wera's lover and how I managed to buy books off him. Last seen with the Dornish party of Sunspear. Only Dorne cannot know about the books. Lord Hightower won't be able to resist writing to Sunspear asking after the man. Considering, the knight of Hightower is on top of Elia's suitors after Rhaegar, Princess Wera will be spooked."

"Maybe enough to take responsibility for the transgression and prevent her daughter from becoming a pariah because of rumors spread by Targaryens." Rhaegar completed the line of thinking Azalea was at.

"A risky maneuver, but it could work and even if it fails, it can hardly be traced back. Men often don't realize how much women value their children, even within their ambition. Very well thought Azalea." His mother looked impressed.

"She takes responsibility, but she does not suffer because she is already dying. We just must figure out an appropriate penalty to Dorne that benefits the realm in the long run because Prince Doran will be writing to us asking to make amends." Azalea said in conclusion, "A proportionate response to the slight against the crown."

"That's rather novel, my queen." Hightower said, "My nephew will fall for it. He has always been rather scholarly and cannot resist exotic books."

"And rather fair, your grace." Prince Martell nodded.

"What do you ask for though?" Whent wondered.

"That is a conundrum I am leaving to Rhaegar's authority. Ashara and I have a court of women who need to be pacified about my absence after my nuptials." Azalea said with some humor and excused herself.

If his mother wasn't there, Rhaegar probably would not have bothered with propriety. As she was present, he just gently nodded at Azalea.

The Small Council meetings had been rather frustrating.

Maester Pycelle had a way of telling him and others about how things were done.

Azalea downright mistrusted the maester and while Rhaegar had offered to take his head, she had been unamused by it. Mistrust and annoyance are not enough to kill someone.

Azalea was coming in today and both of them together were probably as erudite as the maester in matters, so Rhaegar hoped for a reprieve.

It was also a rather imbalanced council for now. Tywin and Kevan both sat in it. Lannisters and Redwynes had a rather weird rivalry so there were tensions between Tywin and Lord Redwyne. It boiled down to who was richer.

Ser Willem Darry was not exactly the best Master of Laws. He was good at training people, not so much as managing people and laws. He was not good at administration yet, as Azalea had pointed out. People expected someone a lot more seasoned to take care of the justice. And hence, his voice was overruled by other dominant figures.

They had zeroed in on certain names. Lords Penrose, Tarly, Royce, and Mormont.

Azalea was leaning on Mormont. They needed representation of North and Mormont was a rather prominent house. It wielded influence. It had a refreshing voice.

And Jeor Mormont had an imposing personality, not likely to be drowned. That Rhaegar knew from when he had met the man from the Bear Island in some tourney or the other.

And unlike the other three houses, Mormonts were dormant in the affairs of the whole realm. Everyone else had a stake.

If anyone could justly overhaul the justice system, it was someone who did not gain much out of its politics.

The only consideration was the intelligence that Mormont was planning to take the Black and abdicate the title to his son. They were one of the houses that still valued the Night's watch and considered service to the Wall an honor.

They needed good men like him in the Watch.

After some consideration, they had made an offer. They needed him at least for a year, at most for two. He was welcome to take the Black after that.

Azalea was of the mind that it might bolster the reputation of the wall if a member of small council willingly took it.

They had at least a year to find someone else. Jon Connington lingered in his mind, but he had heard only briefly and formally from his friend since everything around Azalea was happening. He would be coming to court in two moons. His friend had a keen sense of justice but had a rather poor attitude towards women.

Rhaegar prayed that Arthur was wrong, and Jon would not give grief to Azalea. As it happened, Rhaegar's tolerance for anything against his wife was at an all-point low.

Jon Arryn had been surprised by their choice but pleased. Redwynes had nodded, their brains whirring at the implications.

The others had not been involved in the decision and would only hear the declaration if Mormont accepted.

As for the last knight of Kingsguard, the small council had suggested several names, among the early applicants as well as others.

Myles had been on it. The second son of House Royce. Another Hightower. One Yronwood. Lannisters, of course, from cousin branches,

Some had suggested taking the younger brother of Lord Swann. The family was loyal now.

Azalea had asked him and the other Kingsguard for suggestions. In fact, she had pretty much had them describe fights that were memorable or gestures that were, asking questions.

She had given him the names of three people when he asked: Barthelme Blackwood, younger brother of the Blackwood Heir, Cristin Royce, the second son of Lord Royce, and Cleon Penrose, a knight of House Penrose.

She had lightly suggested Jon Connington and even Myles as his close confidante, but she was hesitant on them; because Rhaegar spoke little of Jon these days and Myles was already into their royal fold.

It seemed a little unfair to worthy candidates.

He had sat with it. Her recommendations more than others simply because they were interesting.

He remembered all of them. Good, strong fighters. They had not won a lot in recent years but consistent fights and improvement. All of them were young, not yet matched or married, and not yet set in their ways or fighting stances.

All of them had merits.

In the end, Rhaegar decided to go with Penrose. He remembered the boy, he was soft-spoken and gentle, but well-measured swordwork.

Too many knights were enamored with the glory of knighthood rather than the duties and solemnity of it.

Moreover, as Azalea had pointed out, they needed strong allies in the Stormlands.

With these thoughts in mind, Rhaegar interrupted the afternoon tea of the ladies of the court as he walked along with Ser Hightower.

Arthur was standing outside, and he could not help but ask, "Has she been okay? Tired, weary. She will not tell…"

"She did eat, and she has taken to sitting, rather than take part in enactments or playing instruments. If she felt tired, she took care of it." Arthur murmured back, "But I think she will appreciate the rescue."

Rhaegar nodded and let Arthur announce him.

Rhaegar and Azalea walked together into the small council meeting. They barely got greetings out of the way when the staring began. It seemed that they had realized that Azalea was not merely passing by, but staying in the meeting.

But she paid them no mind, taking a seat beside him in a chair prearranged by his order. Rhaegar was taking cues from her on this.

The subtle gawking ebbed when they realized that an explanation was not coming. Rhaegar simply called the meeting to order, "Lord Arryn would be leaving at dawn for three sennights for the trial of Robert Baratheon for his conduct towards Lyanna Stark and for raising his arms against Azalea. Ser Selmy will accompany him as Azalea's champion, in case Robert demands a trial by combat. Lord Lannister will be leaving in two sennights to Casterly Rock. Therefore, I would like Ser Kevan and Lord Redwyne to take over most of the duties of the Hand for the time being."

Then, almost as an afterthought, Rhaegar added, "Of course, Azalea will be joining the court and small council meetings henceforth. Anything of note? Any issues in movement of people from the capital?".

"There have been complaints about the GoldCloaks from various avenues. I have spoken to the Commander and will be taking note of the matter. The city is worse for wear, so we might need to supply more resources. Most parties have left. There were complaints of some knights getting drunk, brawling, and going after common folk women. They were dealt with, either by fining them or reporting them to their liege lords." Darry swiftly filled them in.

"The Goldcloaks have been emboldened. The previous master of laws was not just lax but quite indulgent and ignorant when it came to justice. It will be taking some time and good leadership to get them back in shape." Lord Arryn added.

"Noted," Azalea nodded in his stead, "If we could focus on our economy for a bit, Ser Kevan, have you been able to go through the books of the previous regime?"

"They are well maintained, for the most part, my queen. There are some discrepancies. I am expecting that some…"

"Are we expecting undeclared or uncleared debts?" She asked.

"Not that I saw, your grace. Moreover, with the dowry…" He trailed off but Azalea merely nodded understanding that her dowry covered any existing debts.

She did follow up as she made notes in her ledger, "Could you point some discrepancies to the council? There might be patterns that pervade other things besides the books."

"There are loans from the crown. For instance, to the Velayron knight, some 9000 dragons. The interest is weirdly measured, and it went on for years, before being showed settled in books. Only the dragons don't reflect in the charter. Not the principal, nor the interest."

"Not entirely surprising. My father's neglect ran deep, and he was suspicious of anyone who tried to right things," Rhaegar nodded at Tywin. It was best to keep the Lion Lord appeased. And for all his faults, Rhaegar knew that the realm and treasury were somewhat stable through Lord Lannister's efforts as the Hand, despite being constantly sabotaged by his father. Rhaegar gave him his due on that.

"Major expenditure since the great council?" Rhaegar asked.

"The budget of the wedding had already been approved. In terms of major expenses, as directed supplies were sent to the Wall along with the Starks. Goldcloaks were paid for extra hours and the guard that was installed for your father. The retinue had to be increased to keep in mind the hostile indications we got from Velayrons." Ser Kevan completed his report.

"On that note, your grace, Lord Arryn and I discussed and have deployed a few ships around Dragonstone. As a precaution, in case there are still loyalists in the Iron Fleet, I have directed a few Redwyne boats instead." Lord Redwyne added.

"Let Ser Kevan know the cost of maintenance and crew. Your house should not have to bear the cost." Rhaegar directed.

"That will not be necessary. It is minuscule." Redwyne waved away the remuneration. It was coy.

"How many ships and crew members and what kind?" Azalea jumped in and Redwyhe dutifully replied.

"After taking everything you have told me into account, the cost comes to about fifty thousand and eight hundred ninety-four, no eighty-four for 1 moon. It is not a minuscule amount, Lord Redwyne. I have not dealt with numbers in a while, so Ser Kevan can correct me if my estimates are wrong." Azalea calculated the expenditure mentally in moments before announcing it and looked at Ser Kevan and Lord Redwyne expectantly.

Tywin looked highly interested in her at that moment. Ser Kevan merely looked surprised. Arryn looked impressed.

"The estimate is correct, my queen. I had it calculated earlier." Redwyne admitted sheepishly.

"We appreciate your cooperation and generosity, but I am afraid you will be reimbursed with the coin," Azalea said.

Rhaegar nodded to Ser Kevan to get him to make a note of it.

"Are there more matters to discuss at the time?" Rhaegar asked after a moment of silence from all end, "Anything from the end of my father's loyalists, Varys?"

"They are grumbling. But they aren't foolish enough to try anything in light of the alliance from seven houses. Their latest ploy is to wait for Viserys and get him..."

"to do to me, what I did to my father." Rhaegar completed the thought with a tilt of his head.

"A safer path would be to try and secure a marriage alliance with Viserys to get back into the good graces of Targaryens." Azalea piped in, as she wrote something down in her ledger.

"Neither are crucial concerns for right now then," Rhaegar nodded

"Do you expect troubles with Lord Baratheons' trial, Lord Arryn?" He asked seriously.

"Stormlands is fractured on the issue. Everyone is waiting for the verdict of the trial; innocent until proven guilty. Of course, Stannis is regent until the trial is completed and he swore fealties just as many crucial lords from Stormlands did. Most of them have sworn oaths. But as it happens, Robert does have loyalists, some within the Eyrie too. But they are also friends with Eddard. Of course, now that the trial has the crown's backing, most of them are not bold enough to stir the pot ." Lord Arryn summed up.

"It should not be an issue. Earlier it was the word of a Great Lord vs a daughter and a minor lord. Now, he is pitted against the word of the queen. Unlike your father, you and the queen are rather well-liked amongst the houses. I would not be too concerned about the fallout." Redwyne pointed out.

"He has a child in Eyrie?" Azalea asked.

"A daughter born right before the tourney at Harrenhall, your grace." Arryn nodded

"Assure that she does not suffer for who her father is or become a scapegoat in anything he plans out. Remove the mother and child from Eyrie for a while actually." Azalea said. That did get looks but Arryn graciously nodded.

"If we are done with everything else, then I have an announcement. After taking various inputs into account, I have made a decision about the seventh Kingsguard." Rhaegar said simply.

That made everyone alert. All houses had stakes in who was in the inner circle of the Targaryens and who was protecting them.

"It will be Cleon Penrose." Rhaegar said without much ado, "Commander Hightower will write to him with my seal and invite him to court."

There were murmured assents. He did not explain his decision much. They will figure it out. None of them was a political novice.

"I also am interested in the issue with Goldcloaks. I have been aware of it for some years and it has also been brought up enough since I was crowned. Azalea and I discussed and have decided to expand the repertoire of the Master of Laws. I was also impressed by two more names that came up in the lists for Kingsguard: Garett Hightower and Torin Royce. I would like them to work for the Master of Laws, and liaison and if necessary, lead the Goldcloaks. Ser Darry will be inviting them. I would like to make similar overtures in all offices. I am inviting recommendations from you all. I have already written to the Citadel, Maester Pycelle and they will be sending two more maesters. The rest of you have a free will to make recommendations and have a say in who would be best to work for the office as well as learn under you. They are not being necessarily groomed for small council. They are free to go back to their households after this; like being apprentices or squires, only in running portions of the realm. But I think we need a wider involvement and delegate work as we try to keep up with the realm. Call it branch councils of the small council?" Rhaegar informed all of them seriously.

"That's an interesting play, your grace," Tywin spoke for the first time in the entire meeting. Tywin's eyes flicked to Azalea, deducing that the plan was not Rhaegar's doing entirely. It was almost like he could not help but comment.

Rhaegar remembered his discussions with Azalea on dealing with Tywin and left the comment at that.

"We do have names in mind, but we would rather that the respective Masters work with people they trust and work well with. But we also do not want you to ignore worthy candidates simply because of ties or lack of them." Azalea took it forward.

"It certainly builds more ties. It also allows an office to operate from multiple locations." Redwyne mused.

"Rebuilding is going to take time and people." Rhaegar gave a single nod of acknowledgment to Redwyne. Of course, they had run the idea by Arryn once before tackling it here. Lord Arryn, therefore, merely nodded in affirmation.

It is strange that this fic is almost wrapped. YES. One more chapter after this. I had never intended to write this till the Long Night. In quite a few ways, this was an exercise in brevity. I succeeded mostly because this is shorter than Flipped despite being not that short.

I did chart the story more in my head, and I might post one-shots or I might not. I have lost faith in any kind of certainty and do not bank on it anymore. So, no promises!

That said, yes the story is done. It has been done for months but I did not have the mental space or energy to edit it or ask lifeconfused to edit it either. All I can say is that times are weird, and I have spent a lot of time in my head, and a lot of time reading.

But I was talking about strangeness pertaining to this fic and well, I started writing this fic to cope with emotions I could not articulate or to distract myself. My father was dying in a hospital, and this was an outlet. It has been more than three years since the first word. I have written more than this. Small Vignettes that do not fit anywhere, that exist in my head. Is the grief better? I don't know. I am not walking off my jitters for eight hours a day. Yes, I walked that much. I still do avoid looking at his portraits because the stab of pain is paralyzing.

Right now, grief is all around me. I stick to pieces and media and books and fics and shows that are not intensely emotional because it is overwhelming. That is trauma for you.

But this fic helped, this world helped, you folks helped. It is almost a journey. Hopefully, I should update the last chapter soonish and I can wrap this project with some closure.