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The sounds from the window grew louder as the city below awoke. I steeled myself, waiting for the knock on the door I knew was coming.
It had been four days since I'd awoken in a foreign body, though thankfully one that was roughly equivalent to my own. The dark hair, broad shoulders, and 6ft height were all correct at least. But the pleasant features staring back at me from the mirror were completely unfamiliar. Gone were the high cheekbones and feminine features from my mother that got me misgendered every time I was freshly shaved. Replaced by a handsome, masculine, face, and green-blue eyes.
Going by the Great Sept and Dragon Pit visible from the balcony, the gold and black stag banners everywhere – and the absence of a beard or belly – I had awoken in Kings Landing in the body of Renly Baratheon. Things could have been worse. I had been a massive fan of the books and show and I had enjoyed many good fanfictions, including time travel and self-inserts, so at least I knew what was going on. But honestly; nothing could prepare you for something like this. Waking up in a foreign body in a fantasy world. It was utter insanity.
My first reaction had been to stick my head in the washbasin of cold water in my room to try and end the ridiculous dream I was having.
When that hadn't worked, I'd simply wandered around in a daze for most of the day after that. Enjoying the lucid dream I was having before heading to bed at nightfall. Certain that falling asleep here would cause me to awaken in the real world.
Beginning day two in the same bed that I had gone to sleep in put paid to that assumption.
The next three days had been a whistle stop tour through the cycles of grief. Disbelief had gone out the window quickly, being stuck in a giant keep with everyone fawning over you saw to that. Rage and tears followed over the next couple of days at the unfairness of it. It was no small psychological shock to realise that I was separated from my family, my friends, and the entire world that I knew after all. Especially when I could only conclude it was permanent as I certainly had no ideas how to reverse it. But it was the last stage, resignation, that had resulted in my newfound resolve to leave my chambers and face my new reality.
In the end it had been fear that had galvanised me into action. Westeros was a world in which weakness all too often resulted in a quick, dramatic, and painful end. And I had been in a daze, a blind panic, a towering rage, or despondent grief for four days now. It was time to face the music before rumours of weakness started spreading and anyone with a grudge against my new body began to get ideas.
I could certainly feel pain after all, so whether this was a dream, an interdimensional rift, or a fucking sadistic god's version of a Netflix binge, it didn't really matter in the grand scheme of things. The fact was that I was in the body of Renly Baratheon, and I had no idea how to reverse whatever had happened. So, unless I wanted to find out how painful suffering an 'accident' was, or what the food was like in the Westerosi version of Bedlam, I needed to roll with it and put on a show.
Thank god, or I should get used to saying 'thank the gods' now before I got myself into trouble, I had Renly's memories; after a fashion. Memories, after all, are stored as chemical processes in the brain. As I had Renly's brain, I thankfully had his memories. How my own memories were present was a question that ran into very murky water as they had obviously been attached my….essence, soul, whatever…so that was something that I'd decided to leave well enough alone. Just being grateful I was still me despite the extra memories rattling around in here.
Unfortunately, Renly's memories came with three big problems.
Problem one was that they were faded. Available as if they were films I had watched a hundred times until they were ingrained in my memory. Rather than as things I'd experienced myself.
Problem two was that my brain didn't know how to recall the memories that it didn't know were there.
If I thought about say…Lord Varys…my own memories brought up what I knew of the show and books and triggered Renly's as well. Which was good as it meant I wasn't going to be declared insane for not knowing any of my friends. Even the best conmen or impersonators knew to steer clear of a target's family and close friends if you knew nothing about them. You simply couldn't fake that sort of close, decades long, interaction on the fly no matter how good you were.
But the faded memories of my 'host' – for lack of a better term – wouldn't trigger on their own. I had no idea on what servants were supposed to attend me at what points throughout the day for example, or what they were supposed to do for me until I looked at them when they arrived. Thankfully, the memories of a particular servant came back when I looked at them and I figured it out from there, but it was far from ideal. It didn't mean I knew what the fuck Renly was supposed to be doing all day for instance.
The third problem was that the 'muscle memory' that so many self-insert fanfics spouted was absolute bullshit. I had the memoires of Renly's swordplay lessons of course, the few he'd ever bothered to attend, but they didn't do me any more good than watching someone practice swordplay on youtube would have done.
Right now I'd consider it a win if I managed to draw my sword without stabbing myself.
I walked out onto the balcony, pouring a cup of wine from the jug that had appeared in my chambers while I slept.
Looking down at the city of Kings Landing below, I inwardly laughed at all the SI fanfictions I had read where the people were certain they'd immediately start introducing gunpowder, or the printing press, or whatever. Maybe one or two of the writers were actually in possession of the skills and knowledge they gave their self inserts, but most were not. I was the grandson of a printer, one who had been good enough to found his own successful printing business, and I still had only a vague idea how to make a Gutenberg era printing press. I certainly had no fucking idea how to make the specific type of ink that made it possible with medieval technology, as regular medieval ink was totally unsuitable.
Even if I managed to solve that problem, parchment was totally unsuitable for a printing press. I'd have to find a way of creating paper from pulp, which I also didn't know how to do, and then create an entire industry to supply that pulp. A major problem as I had no idea what plants would be suitable for the wood pulp needed for traditional paper, and cotton was far too expensive pre-industrial revolution to use for the cotton pulp needed to make rag paper. If there were any other options, I didn't know of them.
I resisted the urge to growl in frustration. So many SI writers focused on how simple the mechanics of a printing press were, hand waving away the rest of the tech and supply pyramid needed to make them viable. What I wouldn't give to be able to do that. Unfortunately, however mad it seemed; this was my life now. I didn't get to handwave anything away.
As for gunpowder? I wasn't touching that with a hundred-foot pole.
I was, of course, able to remember the components. There were only three of them after all. But I had no idea where to get the chemicals, how to refine them to the required purity, what grain size they need to be, or what proportion to use them in to create effective and stable gunpowder.
Experimenting blindly to find those things out was likely to end badly for me.
Another set of obstacles most SI writers at home tended to gloss over but I was now staring dead in the face. Certain that they knew the formula for something, they never stopped to consider where they would even get the components. Or how they would refine them properly if they managed to do so. This wasn't home, the local apothecary's shop wouldn't have them sitting on shelves, in their pure form, with a variety of grain sizes and the proper scientific name.
Outsourcing the locating and refining of the components and the experimenting with combinations to someone else was a valid possibility of course. But that would likely be objectively worse for Westeros – and definitely worse for me – as it was certain to result in any success my researchers made making it into the hands of my enemies along with my own. At best I could expect Littlefinger, Varys, Tywin, Olenna, and Doran would all get their hands on gunpowder as soon as my first firearms prototypes appeared on the battlefield for field testing. At worst they'd compromise my researchers before I even made it that far.
The death toll of Westerosi wars was bad enough with bows and melee weapons. The thought of what would happen when my enemies made sure their levies or catspaws were armed with arquebus, muskets, and cannons filled me with horror. With weapons that required no skill, no muscles, and only minor training to use in the hands of both myself and my enemies, the death toll would be utterly horrific. To say nothing of the fact that such weapons made the smallfolk able to counter the highborn on the battlefield with only a few days training. Utterly destroying the basis of the entire governmental system of every kingdom, empire, and city state on planetos as they would not have had a chance to slowly adapt to that reality as gunpowder weapons developed naturally. Nothing short of a total White Walker victory was worse, as anyone who had studied the Russian Revolution in detail would tell you.
Not that I didn't want to introduce changes, social progress was a very welcome thing. But total revolutions resulted in oceans of blood and very rarely was it the blood of people that deserved to die. So many stories introduced gunpowder and completely ignored the revolutionary chaos that would result. Chaos that would be beyond anyone's ability to control and would likely have every place firearms spread mirroring the fate of Astapor after Danny left them to organise themselves, only a thousand times worse. I would not be responsible for that. My conscience couldn't take it.
As for more basic things, well. Agricultural tools? I wasn't a farmer or a blacksmith. Granted, given enough time with a maester I could probably recreate a seed drill, but that was about it. Westeros had to already know of concepts like the four-field crop rotation system and pickling vegetables or else they could never produce and store enough food to survive multiyear winters.
Construction methods? I was on construction sites a lot, but not as an architect or builder. About the only thing I could contribute here was the technique for constructing macadam roads, which was not immediately useful given the difficulty of transporting heavy bulky loads such as the stone required to build them outside of its immediate area. There was a reason why castles were always built with local stone. Even if it was sandstone, like the Red Keep, rather than the ideal hard igneous rocks such as granite that Winterfell was fortunate enough to be made of. It was just too difficult and expensive to transport more appropriate stone to site.
Mining? I wasn't a miner, and while I did have geological training, it all relied on non-existent equipment to locate exploitable mineral resources.
Industry? I knew the basic principles of the steam engine and early industry. As the nation that had started it, British schools focused heavily on the early stages of Industrial Revolution. But that was all it was, basic principles. I had no idea of how to go about turning them into something practical. Especially as all practical applications required either mass produced cast iron or steel. Neither of which I knew how to produce. I was an environmental scientist with a passion for history and fantasy. Not an engineer, chemist, archaeologist, or anything else useful in this situation.
I had one game changing thing I could bring to the table; namely canals. Or more specifically the locks that allowed them to ascend and descend hills, since canals were already commonplace in Dorne and Essos. The massive boost to bulk transportation that they provided compared to roads, especially the dirt roads of Westeros, would be a huge improvement. But a canal network would take decades to come to fruition and as Renly was already an adult, I didn't have that kind of time. Maybe if I managed to take some time to really think on it I would be able to come up with some small and simple things that would improve people's lives somewhat, but anything major? Not a chance in hell; at least as far as I could see at the moment. Certainly not if I had as little time as I suspected I did, given the distinct lack of activity in the Red Keep.
The knock on the door heralded the arrival of my page and startled me out of my ruminations. I turned, putting a winning smile on my face that was hopefully similar to the one Renly was known for. It was showtime.
The smile slipped away immediately. It wasn't my page.
"Hello stranger." The voice was melodic and teasing, the mass of lazy brown curls and ringlets fell into lively, intelligent, brown eyes, and there was a mischievous smirk on the stunningly pretty face gazing hungrily at me.
Loras fucking Tyrell stood in front of me, cocking his head in amusement as I was left scrambling, overcome by the memoires that were flooding into my mind.
The memory of Renly and Loras' first kiss kept flashing past. The tender moment under an oak tree in the Kingswood, next to the babbling water of the Wendwater river more prominent than any other memory. Both men had been so frightened that the other was faking, seeking to trap the other for blackmail or humiliation. But instead, it had led to a deep and fierce love between them that was stronger and truer than many of the marriages in Westeros.
Absentmindedly I noted that I now knew with certainty where Loras had secretly buried Renly's body after his murder.
"Renly?" The amusement was gone from the Knight of Flower's voice, replaced by concern as his smile faded and he started frowning.
Still scrambling, I tried to focus on the positives in this situation. Firstly, I was gay. So being Loras' paramour was actually the best thing that could have happened on that front. Faking it with Catelyn if I had woken up in the body of Ned Stark for instance, would have been far more problematic.
Secondly, thank every god in existence, it was clear that people would be their TV ages. While Loras superficially resembled the gorgeous Finn Jones, he looked like the 19-year-old he was supposed to be on Game of Thrones.
In the books Loras was 16, as he was only 2-3 years older than Robb Stark, who the books placed at 14 rather than the show's 17.
While 16 was the age of consent in Britain, I'd never even considered sleeping with a guy that young. So I sent a prayer of thanks to whatever deities ruled this world. While 19 was young, it wasn't problematically young for Renly's 23 years; and it was certainly better than the 16/20 match up that was the other option I could have been dropped into.
While I had been having a minor internal panic attack at having to face the person who knew Renly best so soon, Loras' concern had skyrocketed and he'd closed the distance and taken my face in his hands. "Renly? What's wrong? There've been rumours that you've been in a delirious fever for days flying around the keep. I came as soon as I heard."
I gently pulled the beautiful knight's hands away. While I needed Loras for Operation: 'Don't Get Stabbed by Asshai Shadow Demon' to have any chance of success, I still felt like absolute scum receiving his affection. Intended for the love of his life; received by a body snatching imposter.
"We need to talk." As soon as the words left my mouth I winced. I really should have worded that better judging by the sudden hurt and fear that overcame Loras' stunning features. And he really was stunning, the descriptions of how beautiful he was undersold him if anything.
"Renly I…." the Knight of Flowers stammered, obviously fearing that I had at last given into pressure to abandon him and take a wife.
"The rumours are true." I cut Loras off quickly before he could build up steam. "I suffered a bad fever and apparently I refused all maester assistance since I don't trust that Lannister catspaw Pycelle not to speed me into the next life. It's left me damaged."
"Damaged how?" Loras whispered, gripping my shoulders so hard his knuckles turned white.
I had decided that my story was going to be Encephalitis, a dangerous type of brain injury most commonly caused by infection. It was more believable than a blunt force head trauma, given how often people survived those with no lasting effects in the practice yards here.
As well as Encephalitis' long-lasting effects matching my needs nearly perfectly – given that it could cause permanent memory loss and personality and behavioural changes amongst several other effects – an added bonus was that its symptoms vaguely matched my public actions over the last few days. Which should make such a drastic injury a far easier sell. Also, given how few people ever fully recovered from it even with modern medical technology, the death toll and crippling damage that it must cause in Westeros meant it would be well known – and feared – by the maesters. Maesters that people would go to when they inevitably decided to check my story.
Swallowing, I span my story and prayed it would be bought. "I thought it was just the flu at first, but I rapidly became confused and disorientated, and I seem to have lost the power of speech quickly as well, so I couldn't countermand my orders regarding treatment when it became obvious it wasn't. I'm told my personality changed several times, I couldn't remember how to walk, and I kept having fits."
I stopped to take a gulp of wine and look away from the horror overtaking Loras' face. I felt terrible for what I was putting him through. One of the nicest people in Westeros and I was creating a personal hell for him while kicking away his biggest source of support.
The Knight of Flowers drew breath as if to comment, so I ploughed on before he could.
"As you can see, I've remembered how to walk, even if I was a bit shaky at first," I tried for a rueful half-smile, but I think it fell flat, "and I thank the gods that I seem to have avoided the fits, mental collapse, and crippling lethargy that the maesters say often permanently linger after this type of fever. But I didn't escape everything. This fever often causes changes in someone's personality, and my servants have already remarked on how I don't seem…myself, despite the fact that I don't feel any different. Importantly this fever also causes memory loss, and I seem to have suffered that most of all."
"Us?" Loras whispered as he squeezed his eyes shut as though anticipating a blow.
The pain in Loras' voice combined with how broken he looked made me throw caution to the wind and pull him into a bone crushing hug.
"I could never forget us. Somethings are gone for ever, but my memories of you are the most intact of all. It's just….even the ones I have feel like I'm swimming through a lake of honey instead of water, as if they happened to someone else."
My mind went blank as warm, soft, lips suddenly slammed into mine and Loras' tongue demanded entrance as he kissed me with the desperation of a drowning man seeking air.
"Don't care. You remember me."
The relief in the beautiful knight's voice as he fumbled for the seam of my tunic brought me slamming back to reality. Whatever Loras thought, I wasn't his lover, I wasn't Renly, and taking advantage of him in this state would be rape.
I grabbed his hands and held them to stop his fumbling. "I don't know if I'm the Renly you remember, that you love. Maybe this fever has left me someone completely different. Maybe you'll grow to despise that new Renly. I won't betray your trust by letting you do this until you're sure you still want to be with me."
Loras snorted and rolled his eyes. "You always overthink things. It doesn't matter what colour the sun shines, it's still the sun, and no candle can compare to it."
I placed my fingers on his lips to stop him as he leaned in for another kiss. "Then waiting won't matter."
The Knight of Flowers hesitated for a moment, then drew back, seemingly accepting my decision.
"Always trying to protect me." He smiled ruefully. "What have you lost?"
"A lot." I swallowed "Sometimes it comes back if I see someone, but I'm worried a lot is gone forever. Or if not gone entirely then it's so damaged as to be useless. My skill with a blade is gone for instance."
"Oh? Well how would we tell?" Loras japed, his trademark cocky grin back in place.
"Ohy!" I defended, laughing along with him. "Just because I don't have your gift."
"It's not a gift, no one gave it to me." Loras' expression turned sour and a distinct note of dislike entered his voice. "I'm good because I work at it. Every day of my life since I could hold a stick."
I grimaced, familiar with people dismissing the amount of work that went into mastering a skill. "I know. But you had a raw talent that your hard work forged into skill like a blacksmith forges a blade. I don't think I have that. I think I could work at it every day of my life and still be nothing more than average. And we'll find out as my master-at-arms is no doubt going to be thrilled at having to teach me as if I was a little boy again."
"Leaving aside for the moment that you clearly don't remember who your own master-at-arms is," Loras frowned, "why won't I be the one teaching you if you've really decided to finally listen to me and start working on your swordplay?"
"I thought I already worked on my 'swordplay' with you a great deal." I jested, waggling my eyebrows suggestively.
Loras hit me with a cushion from the nearby chair even as he giggled. The walking death machine that was so skilled with axes, lances, swords, and morning stars that he was in the top ten greatest active swordsmen in Westeros, was giggling like a schoolgirl.
Operation: 'Don't Fall for Loras Tyrell' was dead on arrival.
"You know what I mean." Loras teased through smirking lips
"Several reasons actually," I admitted, "but mainly because I'm going to have to return to Storm's End for a while and I know you have duties here."
"Fuck my duties." Loras' growled, fierce possessiveness on full display. "I leave you alone for one week, one week, while I practice my lance work hunting in the Kingswood, and you nearly succumb to the fitting fever. Recovering only by the grace of the gods. I'm not letting you out of my sight."
"Loras," I explained placatingly, trying to talk him down, "there's a lot going on. This fever has meant I was unable to act on a lot of things that needed to be done and now I'm scrambling to catch up. As well as find out what I've missed and what I've forgotten."
Loras simply nodded, unconcerned that I had plans I hadn't told him about. Though thinking about it, his grandmother was the Queen of Thorns. She'd undoubtedly impressed on him how he wasn't to reveal House Tyrell's biggest weaknesses to me, nor any plans they had to address them. No matter how much in love we were. It seems Loras expected the same reticence from Renly with regards to House Baratheon's business.
"King Robert has never allowed any other Tyrells at court since my father supported Rhaegar in the rebellion. He wouldn't have even allowed me if you hadn't insisted. He'll be glad to see me gone, and I can handle my family. It's not as if grandmother doesn't have many better hidden and more effective spies here. Now, what do you need to do before we depart for Storm's End?"
"Where is the King?" Seeing that it would be useless to try and persuade him, I accepted the fact that Loras would be accompanying me and voiced my suspicions. The Red Keep was too quiet. Even if Robert was away hunting the place should still be filled with the Royal Court. Cersei demanded all of the attention that she felt was her due as Queen whether the King was present or not. For both of them to be gone, John Arryn had to already be dead.
"The last messages said the procession had crossed The Neck and reached Moat Cailin. That was a few days ago, so they're probably about three weeks away from Winterfell."
"Then my raven needs to leave today to be certain of beating them there in case Robert decides to ride on head of the rest of the court."
I strode over to the desk to the half-finished slip of parchment I had been writing, before preparing for my page to enter this morning. Sadly, a raven could only carry a short message. But the King was too close to Winterfell for even the fastest human messenger to be guaranteed to make it there before he passed through Winterfell's gates, so it was all I had to work with.
I had gone for a familiar tone, given how warmly Eddard Stark greeted Renly when arriving in Kings Landing in the show. I didn't remember any great warmth between them when they met at the Crossroads Inn in the books, but hopefully, at worst, Ned would just think I was leaning hard on my brother's relationship with him to gain his favour as Hand. Doubtless I wasn't supposed to write about anything the King was going to offer him before Robert got there to actually offer it. But fuck that. I needed to make changes and I wasn't going to do that and survive by playing by all the rules.
Dear Ned. I look forward to seeing you in the capital. Robert intends a betrothal between Joffrey and Sansa. I'd advise against it, Joffrey's a shit. Myrcella and Tommen are good children though, I'd push for a betrothal with one of them if you can.
I wanted to include a warning to keep Bran on the ground, but Ned and Cat never been able to manage that no matter what they had threatened him with. How could anything I wrote succeed where they had failed? Or come across as anything other than a threat, or worse a mockery, when he inevitably fell? If I even thought about using the actual reason for his fall then I might as well just cut my own throat now and get it over with. No, I couldn't save Bran's legs. But I did have hope that I could save his mind in the days to come.
"Well if anyone can survive calling the Crown Prince a little shit it's his uncle." Loras observed, reading the note over my shoulder. "But it's only half finished. What else were you planning? Is it anything I can help with?"
The Pride of Highgarden looked at me and apparently my expression gave me away.
I would need to work on that.
"Ask it of me."
He may be prickly if you got in the way of him earning glory; and have a fiery temper under that charming smile. But it was clear that the Knight of Flowers' heart was as gold as the rose of his house's banner. I couldn't bring myself to take advantage of it.
"You'll hate it. You'll see it as a stain on your honour, and people will laugh at you for doing it. I know how much you hate both." I turned back to the desk, but Loras caught my wrist.
"For a life with you, I'd become a peasant and give up all dreams of glory. Ask it of me." Loras kissed my palm as he whispered his devotion.
My will to resist his offer broke. "I need you to transfer your squire to me. I know it's unorthodox, but if you truly want to help, I need you to take on a new one. The prestige of becoming squire to the lord paramount of the Stormlands and brother of the king should smooth over any problems your squire's family are tempted to cause in the Reach for giving him the boot."
Loras frowned again. "Why don't you take on this new boy yourself? If you're finally going to take fighting seriously you'll actually need one. You never replaced me after I was knighted."
I resisted the urge to comment that no one could replace him. I was trying to let him see that I wasn't the Renly he knew, constant endearments weren't going to help with that. So I decided to be short and blunt. "Because I'm too prominent. It will already cause a scandal that he's to squire for a third son of a lord paramount. If he actually squires for a lord paramount…."
Loras couldn't keep the distaste and hurt from his face as he withdrew and crossed his arms. "Why not one of the many Stormlands knights that owe you fealty then? If all you need is a dumping ground."
Unable to see him hurting I reached out to take his cheek in my palm. "Because I need someone I trust absolutely, and I need him taught how to fight. Really fight. Like his life depends on it, and there's no better swordsman in the seven kingdoms than you. Which is the same reason you won't be able to teach me swordplay forever. I need you to teach him."
Preening under the praise, Loras nuzzled my palm before drawing back, resigned. "Alright, who am I going to be saddled with?"
Wordlessly I turned back to the note and picked up the quill again.
Don't fear to bring your bastard south. My household will welcome him, we're all used to Robert's so he will be treated well with us. If you wish it, I have arranged for him to squire for my brother in all but blood, Ser Loras Tyrell, the Knight of Flowers. A gift of congratulations and welcome from me to the honorary 4th Baratheon brother, if you chose to except. Best wishes, Renly.
Loras tensed and gripped my arm tightly, no doubt raging internally about the disgrace of having a bastard for a squire no matter who his father was. I had little doubt that if anyone except 'Renly' had asked this of him he would have gutted them on the spot. But in the end, he just sighed and rested his head on my shoulder. "You owe me for this."
Wordlessly, I kissed his thick curls. I was going to owe him for much more than this soon.
I rolled up the parchment and sealed it. I needed to go to the tower and actually watch a maester – definitely not Pycelle – send it off. It was too important to go 'missing'. Then I needed to call into the Red Keep's library and retrieve some books on the laws of Westeros, and if that didn't make Loras realise that 'Renly's personality had drastically changed nothing would, before gathering my household guard and setting out for Storm's End.
The game was afoot.