Arthur was more than surprised to note that Rhaegar's swordwork had not suffered in the least.
Rhaegar had not practiced swordforms since assuming the throne. His days were spent undoing every fault of his father's regime. His days were spent in his solar, council rooms, or the court.
The first time he had come down to the training grounds was four days after the wedding. Arthur had been exhausted from his sparring. Arthur had presumed his exhaustion to be the reason that Rhaegar bested him as often as he did.
Things did not change when Rhaegar asked for a spar around dawn two days after the poisoning of Azalea.
This was the fourth day since that wretched... Arthur could scarcely get the sight of Azalea retching so much blood. Rhaegar had continued to come every day after that. The early day practice was being run by Willem Darry and so far, they had only wrapped a couple of sparring sessions.
Currently, Rhaegar was going against Ser Hightower, a match that had culled other activity.
It was then that a very petite figure clad in breeches and light armor, and sword by her side made her way to the courtyard.
Arthur was dumbfounded. Surely, she wouldn't!
Half the courtyard was filled with bare-chested men, brawling with each other. The Queen marching in a room like that went against propriety.
Oswell hadn't put it together yet and addressed Azalea with no inflection, "Something the matter, your grace?"
"Rhaegar owes me a dance," She offered simply.
"Shall we ask him to meet you in the ballroom?" Oswell asked. Sometimes, Oswell could be dim. Arthur rolled his eyes, "The queen meant a dance of swords, Oswell. Unless you are suggesting they destroy the ballroom with their blades, no, she doesn't want Rhaegar in the ballroom."
Azalea was transfixed on Hightower and Rhaegar's fight. She did not react to the exchange at all.
She tilted her head, lost in thought, and softly commented, "He is still not completely over his tell."
"You have sparred before? " Arthur immediately asked because that would explain a lot. Azalea had a fighting style that was very distinct from whatever little he had seen of it.
Azalea nodded, still focused on the match, "It took a little convincing. But he yielded."
"Of course he did," Oswell muttered under his breath.
Having clearly heard this, much to Oswell's misfortune, Azalea asked, "And what is that supposed to mean, Oswell. Her brows were raised dramatically, and her tone was sharp but from where Arthur stood, he could see wisps of a smile.
"Nothing, my lady. It is just, the King is quite…" Oswell fumbled.
"The king is what?" Azalea narrowed her eyes.
Arthur nearly laughed.
"He is besotted with you. Of course, he would agree to whatever you say." Oswell blurted out, and then look horrified at it, immediately bowing "My apologies, your grace. That was uncouth."
But Azalea simply threw her head back and laughed. Arthur joined her with a gentle chuckle.
The laughter distracted Rhaegar and Ser Hightower both, but while Hightower reeled from the shock of seeing the queen in the practice courtyard, Rhaegar simply smiled and return to his fight, giving a decisive defeating blow to Hightower.
Azalea was the one to start clapping, making other people notice her.
Soon, the whole courtyard was bowing to acknowledge her, "Your grace."
"Rise," Azalea said and regally nodded in return.
"You distracted me," Rhaegar walked towards her, ignoring the confusion of everyone else.
"And you still won despite the distraction, and that apparent tell when you tilt," Azalea said pointedly, albeit not loudly. It was half-compliment and a half-jab.
"Not everyone can keep me on my toes, love." Rhaegar inclined his head playfully.
"If only it were just toes, Rhaegar," She teased and then seriously asked, "Will it be alright if I impeached on your practice?"
"You are hardly impeaching. The lads can learn a thing or two from you. Come," Rhaegar offered her his hand and took her to the center.
"Your grace and I will be sparring." Rhaegar simply announced. Everyone left the central arena and began to watch.
They both did not bow to each other; just took their stances, gave each other respectful nods, and charged.
It was a fierce fight.
Azalea was shorter in her frame. She had less strength but incredible agility. Though, her blade was as long as Rhaegar's bastard sword.
Rhaegar, on the other hand, had a larger build. His friend had always been leaner than burly but he had lithe muscles and upper body strength. He was fast as well. Only his speed was overshadowed by Azalea's swift movements.
There was an elegance to both of them and this was truly a dance.
Excellent footwork, only they were predicting each other's moves rather accurately and quickly, creating a synchronized choreography.
Azalea also did not fight the classical Westerosi style. If Arthur were a little naive, he would have deemed this the Braavosi water dance, with the leaner blade and rapid, beautiful movements.
But it wasn't. It was graceful and sharp, but it was not the water dance. Azalea was also using strength albeit strategically and always in conjunction with her speed. You were bound to miss it completely if your eyes weren't trained to pick smaller subtleties.
Azalea was light on her feet, jumping and dodging in combination with her excellent blade maneuvers.
She was grinning. Rhaegar was smiling even as he charged. They were enjoying this. This was a ritual, not just for skills but for leisure and togetherness.
In a close encounter, Azalea used their clanging swords to do a complete backflip and get away from Rhaegar before charging anew.
It was strange. Her agility would suggest that she would be good at sprint attacks. Sudden, sharp movements and the opponent would be done for.
Speedy fighters usually did not have endurance. Although, Arthur knew Azalea would endure because the Kingswood battle with the Smiling knight and his band had not been short. He had not paid much attention to her stance or her fighting, but by the seven!
By the seven, this was very furious and demanding and her endurance was not just in terms of her skill, she still fought with as much as agility as she began. That her agility was not compromised for endurance was a very good tell.
Azalea Sage had practiced the sword for very long in a much-disciplined fashion.
And obviously, someone had taught her. And she had fought a great many and varied warriors to get so good. That concerned Arthur. He had never given much thought to how she came about at Dragonstone. Injured and perhaps on the run…the seven have mercy.
Rhaegar knew. He knew because he found her.
It had been several moons. That Azalea Sage Lightbringer was the Queen of Westeros was likely spread across Essos. But there were no takers of the name. None.
And no one had come after her. That was a strange turn of events.
Arthur was still rapidly thinking when Azalea simply flipped above Rhaegar and by the time Rhaegar turned to attack, her sword met his blade in a clang.
They did not separate and this was a show of strength because Rhaegar could not get her to bend. Azalea used a dagger to overpower the tilt and move away.
In a battle, it was Azalea who would benefit with her willingness to move away and reconsider stances. Her style was unpredictable.
Now, Arthur knew why Rhaegar's sparring had improved so drastically.
He had always been good, evenly matched with Arthur on most days. However, his recent string of victories was because he was being challenged differently.
"Yield," He heard twin demands from the King and the Queen. His attention had wavered in his thoughts and now Azalea's sword was at Rhaegar's neck and his, an inch from her eye.
They both gave each other solemn nods before parting ways. There was a thunderous response
Arthur was not surprised by the draw. They would not best each other even if one of them could. They were projecting unity to the outside world.
Arthur could not stop his pondering. Azalea was a winner of hearts. She inspired the same kind of loyalty that Rhaegar did. She was well-liked in the keep. By the guards, by servants, by other retinues.
Arthur liked her too, in fact, he was very, very fond of her. He just sometimes could not ignore the mystique around her past.
Azalea (interlude III)
She deliberately did not show any inclination to fight anybody besides Rhaegar after their match. She had to let them warm up to the idea of seeing her spar with Rhaegar in such a public fashion before jumping into an all-out spar fest. Though, she was looking forward to the occasion whenever it came to pass.
The spar was not just an obvious ploy to show their comfort with each other, but also a show of strength. As much as she trusted the people who knew of her poisoning, she could not appear weak. However, her assimilation in sparring sessions had to be gentle.
So instead of finding a new partner, she approached Ser Willem Darry instead.
He was startled by her approach and presence. She ignored his perplexion and told him that she will be joining them for practices 4 days a week to spar with Rhaegar and also observe. She did not want to stir things every time she arrived with people's asinine speculations.
Then, she started her observations of more people on the training grounds.
She was aware that Ser Jonothor Darry and Prince Lewyn were around the queen dowager and Viserys in the keep. The schedule of Kingsguard was such that all of them got to practice four days a week.
Ser Hightower knocked down more of the lads. Oswell and Mooton were busy going up against Rhaegar. There were more knights besides the ones she had seen around. Lanmouth was fighting one of them.
A little further away, Arthur continued to best Jaime of House Lannister. The lad positively radiated his frustration outwards. He needed more direction.
Willem Darry must have concurred with her assessment because he shouted and beckoned Jaime over. Jaime was to take a break and then go up against him.
Azalea felt sorry for the boy, hence, the rather direct cautionary tale she had subjected him to.
He was the heir when he did want to be. His father wanted something very specific from him. His sister wanted something specific from him, with no concerns for his personhood. And Jaime Lannister had such flagrant views of the world and knighthood...naivete of someone who knew little of the real world. He would stumble and learn. Eventually.
But maybe, she could warn him of potential rocks so getting up after those falls would be a tad easier.
She wanted to help him regardless of his father's stance. One, Jaime Lannister was too young. Two, he had not learned that compromise was the way of the world. Three, she had learned long ago to not hold children responsible for the machinations of their sires. Four, he genuinely seemed to have a decent heart despite his privilege and naivety, a heart that would be crushed and its goodness killed if he did not find positive support soon.
She glanced at him askance, chugging water and sitting sullenly. She takes a step closer to him, far away to be proper, but close enough so her words would be audible to him, "Ser Darry is a rigid fighter. He does not need to move around much. You will wear yourself out if you attack his shields. Make him come to you and aim for his lower limbs. You might have an advantage. Moreover, don't lean left when you go for your swings. You give yourselves away. "
She did wait for acknowledgment and moved away to speak to Oswell who was discussing the new Kingsguard with one of the younger knights.
Jaime won the match much to his surprise and delight. Azalea could tell.
Arthur and Rhaegar look surprised yet pleased. It was always a joy to see young people learning and catching up.
Azalea knew what she had done. She had given the heir of Casterly Rock a way to beat one of her husband's protectors. But again, Ser Darry was old and teaches knights like Jaime all day long. He would always have an advantage. Even when he does not, his purpose is to teach, not win. And Jaime had so much potential. His skills would only be honed. It seemed stupid to withhold knowledge simply because he might go against her family in some obscure future.
She knew better than that. This was how elitism bred. This was how the blood war happened back home. This was how you breed resentment in the masses and alienate people, by withholding knowledge and skills.
She could never do that.
So when Jaime Lannister won, she was one of the first people to start clapping. And despite cradling a sharp sword, a weapon for killing and defending, when Jaime Lannister almost whoops in the air in delight, she is the first one to start indulgently laughing and cheering.
She wanted Jaime Lannister to know that despite what went down between Tywin and Aerys, or Joanna and Rhaella, or even Lannisters and Targaryens, she will have his back. That she had his back also when she thwarted his follies. He might have been a pawn but she had protected him. Because he was just a child and he deserved someone to look out for him, not merely for the Heir of Lannisters.
Jaime caught hold of her in a corridor later in the day or more like deliberately ran into her and did not say anything except a greeting. She was not surprised. She had stoked the fire enough.
She was taking Viserys around the corridors near the courtroom, making him practice his diction of High Valyrian starting with colors and animals in tapestries.
"Jaime of House Lannister, well met. Viserys, this is Ser Jaime. He is a knight, an azantys. Repeat after me, azantys." She indulged Viserys. And Jaime lingered. He wanted something but couldn't say it.
"Azanteeee," Viserys screeched.
"Good boy," She mussed his hair.
"Good boy gets Dragon, Azzy?" Viserys asked.
"Yes, but when the good boy is older." She barbed back.
Jaime accompanied them quietly for a bit, not saying anything. She let him be.
In the next training session, when he paired up against Arthur, he listened to Darry, but he also waited after Darry was finished.
So, Azalea conversed with Darry and pointed out one more strength for Jaime and even an insight into Arthur's fighting style. It was an uneven fight despite it. Arthur was probably the only one she was sure she cannot defeat in single combat, not without trickery.
Jaime used her suggestions again. He did not win, but he gave Arthur a decent enough fight, certainly better than his matches the day before. For a thirteen-year-old, it was brilliant.
He met her eyes after the match and although they did not do much, they lingered, almost thoughtfully.
Maybe she was making headway after all.
He found Azalea pouring over the plans for King's landing sewers. The city stank and it needed to be fixed as soon as possible.
Their days have been lost in work. Sending and Receiving ravens.
Two ravens out of them had stood out. Princess Wera was dead and Prince Doran had ascended the ruling of Dorne. He had reaffirmed Dorne's fealty to Targaryens.
A second missive was declaring a rather large 'gift' to the crown. Rhaegar had been surprised that it had worked so well.
It had raised brows within the small council. Varys had not blinked and Arryn was not here. Redwyne had blinked and moved on. Kevan had tried to look at Tywin, whose eyes were fixed on Azalea. He almost looked uncertain.
Tywin and his retinue were leaving in two days. Rhaegar would be glad for it.
The court needed to move beyond the legacy of the Mad King and Lord Lannister.
"Anything," Rhaegar asked.
"Some headway. The engineers will be here tomorrow. I want to throw in the glasshouses as well. I wanted cold storage within the Maegor's Holdfast, to keep supplies aside until winter comes along so I will run that by them too," Azalea mused aloud, dropping her documents and looking at him, "How was the rest of your day?"
"Pycelle is miffed at losing his power. Varys managed to intercept several ravens. And Citadel is harried. Obsidian candles that had died with the death of dragons have lit up one after the other. Apparently, that's worrisome for them. Their best source on it: Maester Maewyn is currently in Essos and they are not pleased. We will have to tread carefully. But as we predicted, they are sending the two maesters regardless. They are pleased by our inclinations to take their counsel and they will have more eyes and ears in this place." Rhaegar sighed, "I am also meeting the Alchemists' guild tomorrow. They are not pleased by whatever it is you did to their wildfire while the Great Council was occurring."
"They would have killed the city while the Great Council was happening," Azalea sighed and slumped back in her chair.
"They would have. They are miffed but also scared. They did not think that wildfire could be bested. They are going to try to wiggle out secrets," Rhaegar said morosely. He was exhausted. Statecraft wore him out.
"C'mon, I have something that will cheer you up," Azalea caught hold of his hand and they traveled downwards into her trunk.
It was so demeaning to call it a trunk. It was a fortress.
They entered a glasshouse that he had never entered before. It had a forest, wild and old inside it. He could even hear insects.
Azalea hissed. Gwendolyn half-hopped and half-flew to them, using her claws to stay on his shoulder and stare at him with her beautiful eyes. He inadvertently smiled, stroking her wings.
"You never asked me why I had so many dragon eggs," Azalea said gently.
"I believe I stopped being shocked by whatever you were coming up with because it was all…" Rhaegar was candid and shrugged his other shoulder.
Azalea gave a small humorless smile, "The war got ugly. While most people were just scrambling to save their lives, using creatures as tools, there was a group that actively sought to protect them or preserve the species that we had. One of their camps got attacked. I intercepted the smugglers because Valor smelled something off…There were dozens of other creatures alongside the dragon eggs. Eggs, newborns of other species. I had not even known. I took it to the group. They were somehow creating havens. Newton Scamander, who was a bit of an expert and champion of creatures, was there. He was so old. He entrusted the dragon eggs to me after seeing Valor and my bond. And helped me create habitats inside my trunk. Their best hope was me in absence of active parents because I could speak to them. It was never safe enough to let them hatch. I never wanted them to hatch and stick them inside a trunk. We will not let the maesters win, Rhaegar. I will upend the entire citadel if they harm a single scale of Valor or Gwen. I will not let them keep our dragons locked up. I took a pledge to protect them and I will not let them down."
Her eyes had misted, her face was fierce.
Rhaegar was about to say something meaningful or comforting when Azalea opens her arms and hissed something to Gwen. Gwen hopped down to the ground and Azalea placed a twig in front of her and hissed again.
Gwen roared and flames sprouted out from her mouth. They are no longer weak puffs but powerful and lasting. Gwen has already grown to the size of a small wildcat, so it is not surprising. However, Rhaegar is always awed by anything that Valor and Gwen do.
Azalea looked up at him and said, "I think Gwendolyn is ready for court."
Rhaegar suddenly understands her play: good politics had to be accompanied by a show of strength, the symbol of Targaryen power, Dragons.
And Azalea could talk to Gwen and Valor and they would be wary of anyone but her and him. The dragons will be safe. Moreover, Valor had never attacked anyone and Gwendolyn was even calmer. They would not attack a person unless provoked.
Intelligence and power had to go hand in hand
The court was very interesting the next day.
Things were always eventful at court. They became almost chaotic as more news and people arrived.
Mormont came with his small household and few guards.
Penrose arrived and swore his oaths as the newest Kingsguard.
Robert Baratheon was stripped of his title as the Lord of Stormland and sentenced to the wall.
The assessment of Arryn was right. While the word of Lyanna Stark and Howland Reed had not been enough, Azalea's words had power. She had a reputation for protecting the innocents at the cost of danger to her life She was also the one who had insisted on a trial unlike the Starks and even Arryn. She had a dragon, and most people were just sold by the romance of it all. Her word had made all the difference.
Rhaegar reaffirmed Stannis as the new Lord, who swore fealty via a raven, to be done in person whenever traveling to the capital was feasible. Stannis was a serious child, even at 14. Rhaegar had been exchanging letters with him since Dragonstone, four moons before the tourney and Robert's actions. He thought Stannis and he had a rudimentary understanding.
Ser Harbert would continue to remain Castellan until Stannis came of age in two years.
Azalea and he were troubled though: Robert, being an ace warrior, did not ask for trial by combat. That's all he had been talking about since being under house arrest: give me my hammer and I will show it to the dragonwhore.
They were so certain that he would have, hence Selmy's presence.
Azalea had even convinced Brandon Stark to hold back and let Selmy be the champion against Robert when it came to trial by combat.
Arthur had wanted to go. He had gotten rather protective of Azalea but Barristan was a better choice: he was not marching with anger, had as much or more skills as Arthur, and was an older, seasoned Kingsguard. Selmy had also defeated Robert earlier.
It was Azalea who suggested it and gave Arthur an order to sit back.
"You need to trust more people, Rhaegar. You cannot play favorites in Kingsguard like that. Selmy would be better."
Selmy had taken an audience with Azalea, given her his word.
But Robert did not ask for a trial by combat. He must have known that there was no chance that he would win a normal trial. He would not have won a trial by combat against Selmy, but there had been a chance.
Of course, his physical condition was not up to the mark. He had healed but not to his prime. But he was hot-blooded, so it seemed jarring that he took the verdict with no attempt to save himself.
"He is planning to escape," Rhaegar told Azalea.
She did not contest it, looking as grim as him, having come to the same conclusion.
They had sent a raven back posthaste: keep a close eye.
It was for naught. Robert had disappeared from the cells overnight. He did have loyalists in Eyrie. Elbert Arryn was injured along with other knights who had volunteered to guard.
Something in their water tankards and hits to their head had rendered them unconscious.
They had declared Robert a fugitive of justice.
"Someone is pulling his strings. He is politically naïve and impulsive. Somebody held him down. Someone convinced him. And that someone is dangerous," Azalea thought out loud.
Varys' birds were not exactly silent. But they were not well informed.
Their course was clear. It was a game. Robert would be after two things: Targaryen's destruction and Lyanna Stark.
All they could do was play it well.
And that's a wrap, folks!
Small post fic things:
Are they mostly happy?YES
Do they win the war?Yes, eventually.
Does Azalea tell Arthur and others about her origin?Arthur yes, he is her closest confidante after Rhaegar. Others not so much…
There is no Lyanna/Rhaegar ever in this fic. When I planned the fic, I intended to pair Lyanna with Jaime eventually. I got seriously bashing things on this, so just to be clear.
Nobody we like dies, though a lot many near-death experiences. But hey, it won't be a good story without some conflict and drama.
Is there more?I have no plans of posting anything, but I do write some extra things or sequel scenarios in my very scarce spare time. So, we will see, but it is more of never say never, with little chance of actually materializing.
Thank you for sticking to this fic and me. As I said in my last update, this fic was a distraction from some real things in life. However, it became an entity of its own. I have loved writing and charting it out. I have loved hearing from people. It has given me life, feelings, and an important something to hold on to. It has given me a wonderful friend in lifeconfused (whom I have not bugged to beta this because we have been so busy, so all mistakes are my own).
It is also a fic that I did complete, so yay (sorry for those of you who are so done with how I am updating Flipped, but that fic was not charted with brevity in mind, but I am trying!)
Loads of love and warmth,