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"Oh! It's better than all the songs." Sansa whispered as she took her seat amongst the high lords and ladies in the tourney box, resplendent in a green gown that she knew brought out her auburn hair.
She was mesmerised as knights, lords, and squires all jousted in a whirlwind of glittering armour and colourful tabards.
"Jory looks like a beggar amongst all the true knights." Septa Mordane sniffed when her father's guard captain entered the field.
With his plate armour an unadorned blue and his plain grey cloak trailing like a ratty cloth, Sansa could only agree. She would have to speak to Father about how Jory and the other guards must make more of an effort to be presentable here in the south. It would not do for House Stark to continue to look like poor beggars compared to the other great houses here.
At lease he, Alyn, and Hardwin all acquitted themselves well in combat, making up for their dreadful appearance. If they hadn't Sansa didn't think she'd have been able to hold her head up when speaking with Joff after the tourney.
The only thing that spoiled the morning was that Lord Renly had taken the seat to her side, removing Lord Baelish with a hard stare before her mother's childhood friend had even had the chance to speak.
Sansa had thankfully managed to remain the very model of courtesy to the bitter and jealous lord. Despite how difficult it was when all she could think about was his insults towards Joff, and his contemptuous dismissal of their love.
The day was ruined however, when Ser Hugh of the Vale took a splinter to the throat and died on the tourney field sands.
Septa Mordane had to take Jeyne back to the Red Keep she was so distraught.
Sansa barely registered it. She was still staring disbelievingly at the body of the gallant Vale knight as he was taken away.
This wasn't how things were supposed to be. No one was supposed to get hurt in the tourney, especially not the gallant knights.
"Not what you were expecting?" Lord Renly spoke up knowingly.
Sansa felt her anger flare at his smug tone, mocking her for daring to care about a knight falling. She was unsurprised that the stormlander hadn't been affected in the slightest by brave Ser Hugh's death. He was so bitter she wondered if anything affected him.
The king called a halt while the squires cleaned up the blood and the lords and ladies began to disperse to the tents for food.
"My lady, would you like me to escort you?"
"You know the prince will escort me my lord." Sansa noted defiantly as Joff stood and began to head in her direction.
"Indeed, I do, that's why I offered." Renly replied, looking at her pityingly.
The false pity finally caused Sansa's anger to overwhelm her. "You're just jealous that I am to be queen to a man I love, while you stay an old unwed lord. Keep your false pity. You won't stop me marrying my Ser Florian, and then you'll have to bow and call me 'your grace.'"
Sansa could barely believe the voice was hers, but it felt so good to spit the accusation at the Lord of Storms End. Almost as good as it did to put Arya in her place.
Renly simply smiled at her sadly.
"If there is one thing I am not, my lady, it is jealous of you. You'll see that in time. When you do, remember those of us who tried to open your eyes. We'll still be willing to help you."
Sansa was almost shaking with fury, but suddenly Renly was gone, and Joff was there. Her heart soared as the sun shone through his golden hair and he led her away from the tourney grounds.
Thankfully, when they returned, Father had come down from the Tower of the Hand and it was he that sat beside her as the tourney continued. Lord Renly was forced to sit behind her, next to Lord Baelish.
She felt her breath taken away as one of the most beautiful men she'd ever seen rode up to their box, the flowers and sapphires on his silver armour sparkling in the afternoon sun.
"The Knight of Flowers!" Sansa whispered in awe.
Remembering, she suddenly turned her attention to the squire leading his horse, the squire in a white silk tabard with a grey direwolf she had embroidered herself.
Sansa gave her half-brother a small smile as he searched out her and Father's gazes. As always, she felt the stab of guilt at acknowledging the insult to her lady mother's honour. But she could never bring herself to ignore Jon completely.
She was pleased Father had managed to find this position for him. Her half-brother was now squire to an excellent knight and would be a knight himself someday. He would spend his life travelling the south, saving fair maidens and fighting bandits just like in the songs, and he would be doing so far from Winterfell. With this squireship, she could be pleased for him and know he was well, without him intruding in spaces he had no right to be and causing her lady mother pain.
Truly her prayers to the Seven had been answered.
Ser Loras suddenly captured her attention again as he gave her a beautiful rose, making her blush.
She barely managed to stammer out a thank you before her half-brother led Ser Loras' horse away towards the king. It was only then that she noticed who the Knight of Flowers would be riding against.
The Mountain. The black armoured monster that had killed poor Ser Hugh.
"Don't let Ser Gregor hurt him!" She gasped, clutching Father's arm.
"A hundred gold dragons on the mountain!" Lord Baelish spoke up from behind her before Father could respond.
"I'll take that bet." Lord Renly answered, shaking Lord Baelish's hand.
"What shall I buy with a hundred gold dragons?" Lord Baelish mused, though Sansa could barely hear him over the blood pounding in her ears. Whether he continued or not she could not say. Her entire world was the beautiful knight, the very model of chivalry and the solution to her half-brother's plight, and the monster that would soon be baring down on him.
"He's going to die! Just like poor Ser Hugh." She whispered brokenly to Father, seeing all her dreams shattering in front of her.
"Ser Loras rides well." Father spoke comfortingly, patting her arm in reassurance.
For some reason Lord Renly and Lord Baelish both choked back laughter at father's words, but Sansa couldn't see what was funny.
Suddenly Ser Loras and the Mountain were charging at each other and she could only barely manage to watch.
The Mountain was having difficulty with his stallion which was affecting his lance. Sansa felt her heart soar as his lance went wide while Ser Loras' struck home, knocking the Mountain from his horse.
She was barely aware of Lord Renly standing behind her and cheering himself hoarse as Ser Loras removed his helm and cantered back to the stands, sun gleaming off his armour, mocking Sansa for ever believing that the Gods would allow any harm to come to a true knight.
Sansa suddenly felt a hand on her shoulder, she stiffened at the impropriety.
"Loras knew his mare was in heat, quite crafty really." Lord Baelish whispered to her and father.
He withdrew his hand at father's stare, but Sansa still felt the need to defend her half-brother's gallant knight.
"Ser Loras wouldn't do that, there's no honour in tricks." She spoke up with certainty.
"No honour, but quite a bit of gold." Littlefinger observed looking knowingly at father.
Sansa felt her anger rising again, but the last person she expected to ever care about anyone else spoke up.
"If that was anything other than sour grapes fabricated to sully the reputation of the knight that just cost you a hundred gold dragons, you'd never have lost those dragons in the first place Lord Baelish." Lord Renly defended Ser Loras calmly. "Everyone knows you know of every scheme in Kings Landing, you'd never have bet against someone you knew was going to trick their way to victory."
Sansa was pleased to see an ugly look pass over Lord Baelish's face as Father looked at back at him, surprised.
She turned her attention back to Ser Loras, who was bowing to the king, and her half-brother, who was approaching to take the reins and lead his knight off the field.
The scream of a dying horse shattered her dream as the Mountain suddenly advanced on Ser Loras, his horse's blood still dripping from his blade.
Sansa wailed and clung tightly to Father's arm as Ser Loras was forced to dive off his horse to avoid the Mountain's powerful swing taking him in the chest and knocking him off forcibly.
As if mocking her for thinking that this nightmare was the worst thing she'd ever seen, Jon ran forward and put himself between the Mountain and Ser Loras, dropping the Tyrell knight's sword in the sand next to him as he drew his own and blocked the Mountain's strike.
Jon's arms bucked with the effort of stopping the blow and he was pushed back several feet by the force of it. He barely got his sword up in time as the Mountain struck at him again.
Even Sansa could see he was unlikely to be able to block a third strike.
"JON!" Sansa barely recognised her own voice as she screamed for her brother to do something, she didn't know what, but he had to do something! He couldn't die!
Suddenly Ser Loras was on his feet and striking ferociously at the Mountain, yelling at her unarmoured brother to fall back as he moved like lightning, avoiding rather than blocking the Mountain's strikes as he obviously didn't trust the strength of his arms to block repeatedly, nor his glittering armour to save him from more than a glancing blow.
Sansa barely noticed, all she could see was her brother lying dead in the sand surrounded by blood. Just like Ser Hugh.
Father was screaming at the king and finally King Robert seemed to hear him as he bellowed: "STOP THIS MADNESS IN THE NAME OF YOUR KING!"
Ser Loras stopped striking at the Mountain and stook back, but he kept his sword up and an angry – guarded – expression was on his face as he clearly fought to control his temper.
The Mountain looked ready to strike again, but then two of the Kingsguard approached and drew their swords.
Bellowing with disgust, the Mountain dropped his sword and stormed off. Sansa barely heard the king's orders to let him go.
She was busy running from the stands towards her brother and enveloping him in a bone crushing hug. Her tears marking his tabard.
Father's strong arms enveloped both of them before he led her away, leaving Jon still standing there, stunned by such an open display of affection.
Sansa didn't even say a word when Father led her back to the Tower of the Hand rather than the tourney stands. All she could think of was Jon's arms buckling at the Mountain's vicious strikes as Ser Hugh lay dead at his feet, turning the sand red and mocking the very idea that the good and true would always prevail against the monsters.
Sansa never wanted to see the cursed tourney grounds again.
Ned fought to keep his hands steady as they threatened to shake at the memory of the day's events.
Promise me Ned.
It had taken hours to settle Sansa on their return to the Tower of the Hand, and she was the one who was the most distant with Jon. Ned simply thanked the Gods that Arya hadn't attended the tourney in the afternoon as he'd barely been able to prevent her from flying straight to Jon's side as it was.
Promise me Ned.
It was the hight of impropriety to call on a Lord in his personal chambers at this late hour, but Ned couldn't help it. Jon had nearly died today. He'd nearly failed Lyanna.
Promise me Ned.
Leaving his guards with the Baratheon ones at the entrance to the suite, Ned walked alone down the corridor before rapping firmly on the door to Lord Renly's chambers.
The door opened, and Ned felt a shard of agony as a face so similar to Ashara's looked up at him.
"My lord does not wish to be disturbed." Edric Dayne remarked respectfully.
"I wish to see Jon." Ned replied, shortly and loudly, so all within would hear.
There was silence for a moment before Ned heard Loras Tyrell's voice.
"You stay where you are!" Renly Baratheon snarled out.
There was silence for a moment as Edric looked within for instructions, before opening the door and standing aside.
Ned strode inside before stopping abruptly.
Loras Tyrell was on Lord Renly's bed, shirtless and reading a tome of some kind. Renly Baratheon was also shirtless, and was hugging him possessively from behind; pulling the young knight as close to him as possible.
Jon wasn't the only one who nearly died today. Ned realised. Though Renly at least didn't have the sight of what Gregor Clegane had done to Elia Martell and her son haunting his memory. Giving fuel to the fear of what he could have done on the tourney grounds today.
Ned nodded once, before turning to the other end of the chamber, where Jon was seated by a cyvasse board and an empty chair. Clearly, he'd been playing with Edric.
He covered the distance in a few strides and had swept Jon up into a bone crushing embrace before Jon could even register that he was there.
"I was afraid for you today." The Lord of Winterfell muttered. Memories of broken bodies in red cloaks swimming before his eyes.
Edric walked to the other end of the room to join the young knight and lord, beyond easy hearing if he kept his voice low.
"I was frightened myself, father," Jon replied, "but I couldn't let the Mountain strike Ser Loras. It would not have been honourable."
"No. No it wouldn't." Ned muttered, reluctantly releasing Jon. "I'm so proud of you Jon."
Jon blushed but looked as if Ned had handed him the stars themselves. Ned had to look away as Jon's expression reminded him far too much of Lyanna when she got her way.
He reset the cyvasse board and motioned for Jon to make the first move. He needed to spend a little time with him.
The bells of the Great Sept had struck the midnight hour before Ned could bring himself to step away from Jon.
He did not, however, leave the room.
Rather he walked softly towards Lord Renly's bed.
Loras Tyrell had fallen asleep while he and Jon had been playing. His curls and ringlets fell in a tumble over Renly Baratheon's pale skin, and sleep somehow made him appear even younger than his nineteen years.
Renly was still embracing him possessively.
He stared defiantly at Ned, daring him to say something cutting.
Ned said nothing. He'd held Cat just as tightly after every battle she'd survived in the birthing bed. The old gods didn't command the hatred of such men the way the Septons said the Seven did, and Ned surprised himself by finding the two men's unnatural but exclusive devotion to each other more relatable than Robert's constant whoring and legions of abandoned bastards.
The Lord of Winterfell simply gestured at the closed screens that led out onto the balcony.
The Lord of Storm's End nodded, and gently extricated himself from beneath his Tyrell knight, laying Loras' head softly on a pillow before leading Ned out into the cold night air.
"You know Loras says that if I spend any more time on this balcony an assassin is going to loosen the supports." Renly spoke up to break the silence.
Ned grinned in spite of himself. "Cat often laments the amount of time I like to spend at the window of our bedchamber, looking out over Winterfell."
A smile briefly appeared on the younger lord's face, before he became serious again.
"How is she?"
"Returning to Winterfell." Ned replied shortly. He said nothing more. No one but him would know that he had tasked Cat with making the North ready for war. She would give his orders to Helman Tallart and Galbart Glover to raise a hundred bowmen each and fortify Moat Cailin. Two hundred determined bowmen could hold the Neck against any army for as long as they had arrows. She would also instruct Lord Manderly to strengthen and repair all his defences at White Harbour and ensure that they were well manned.
Finally, Cat would inform Robb that he wanted a close watch to be kept on Theon Greyjoy from that day on. If it came to war, Ned would have sore need of his father's fleet. And with every secret he uncovered his fear it would come to war increased.
Renly simply nodded. Giving nothing away, much to Ned's frustration.
"What can I help you with then Ned?"
"What are your plans for Jon?" Ned asked bluntly. "After today I am finished with these southron games. I must know."
Renly held his gaze for a moment before answering. "As much as I hate to grant Littlefinger anything, he does have the right of it in this. I need an alliance with the North, and with no children, offering Jon the position of Castellan of Storm's End is the only way I can make one. He is your blood after all, even if he isn't your trueborn. It would not be enough for most lords I know, but you are not most lords."
Ned stared hard at Renly. "Robert is my brother, there is no threat House Baratheon and the Iron Throne I will not stand with you against. Why do you need an alliance with the North?"
"Robert himself says he's eating, drinking, and whoring his way into an early grave. If he dies, the Stark-Baratheon alliance dies with him, and you've seen his son."
Ned tensed, fear slicing through him. He had indeed seen Joffrey, and still cursed the Gods that Sansa was betrothed to him. He would find some way to end that, which was why Renly was so sure the Stark-Baratheon alliance would die with Robert. But for now... He decided to concentrate on Renly Baratheon rather than what might be waiting for Sansa.
"What about Prince Joffrey?" Ned asked fearfully, worrying it was even worse than he suspected.
"King Joffrey may need…restraining." Renly answered, clearly choosing his words very carefully. "Hoster Tully, Rickard Stark, Jon Arryn, and technically Robert Baratheon, created an alliance that was intended to…restrain King Aerys. If that alliance is necessary again, I don't intend to be left out in the cold.
"That is treason!" Ned hissed, shocked at the show of disloyalty to Robert's line, to the Stormland lord's own nephew.
"It was treason when your father did it too." Renly replied. Stopping Ned's building anger like a warhammer to the chest.
It had been. And his father had done it anyway, because he saw Aerys was a threat. Ned had thought Joffrey spoiled rotten, but this, if Renly was worried enough about Joffrey to speak openly like this about him… maybe… truthfully…
What was the harm in what Renly was asking? All it would do would to be ensure the alliance that his father created would continue passed Robert's death, that was all. Robert would probably actually be pleased to see one of Ned's sons at Storm's End rather than being offended. It needn't be treasonous, they would take no action to remove Joffrey from the throne, it could just be…there. Just in case.
"I think I can agree to continue the alliance on those terms." Ned answered carefully. His father's words ringing in his ears.
Comport yourself with dignity in the Vale and try to stay out of fights. But if you have to fight, WIN.
If Joffrey Baratheon truly was Aerys Targaryen come again, Ned would be ready. He would not lose any more family to a mad king.
The twelve guards Jon had been training fell in around me as I walked towards the main gatehouse of the Red Keep. For once Loras and Jon weren't with me.
Loras had ridden out with Jon and two score of my guardsmen at first light this morning, expanding his training into commanding men in units large and small. I hoped by the time he finally saw real battle, Jon would be used to leading at least small groups, rather than having to learn as he went. As Robb had had to do.
Our group came to an abrupt halt as Arya appeared out of nowhere and planted herself firmly in my path.
"Gods Arya don't do that!" I exclaimed. "Just because you're getting better at striking from the shadows doesn't mean your supposed to scare me to death."
A smug little grin tugged at her mouth before she started frowning again.
"You want me to marry and be a lady." She accused, crossing her arms defiantly.
It appeared Ned had broached the subject of her betrothal to Edric with her.
The guards all gave us some space as I waved them away. Edric retreated as well after I stared him down.
Only their father or regent could arrange a marriage pact for a highborn, a castellan, mentor, or teacher couldn't. So, no matter what I wanted and planned for, the only ones who could actually arrange Edric's betrothal were Edric himself or is aunt. As such, I'd already talked to Edric about the possible betrothal with Arya and walked him through the reasons why I thought she was the best match around for him.
He'd agreed enthusiastically. On a single condition. Arya had to be willing.
Not that he thought Lord Stark would force Arya to marry someone terrible. But like everyone else he believed Arya would have to marry someone, and if Lord Stark had to force the issue it was clear that Arya would hate and resent whoever it was even if they were a good man. Edric didn't want it to be him.
"I don't want you to be a lady Arya, but I do want you to marry Edric." I replied honestly. We were effectively alone, as everyone was well out of earshot even if we were in full view of them.
"I'm not marrying him!" Arya exclaimed, lifting her chin.
"You have to marry someone. Is it not better to marry someone you like and are friends with? I thought you liked Edric."
"I do like him. He's nice. But I don't love him, and I'm not marrying anyone." Arya declared.
The guilt twisted my guts harshly as I realised I would have to manipulate an innocent child. Again.
"Arya," I began patently, "Your father has taught you the importance of honour, yes?"
"Of course!" she snorted.
"And you know that means paying your debts, like paying the craftsmen for their wares, and the famers for their food."
"Yes…" The young girl trailed off, not knowing where I was going.
"Think of it like this Arya. You are of House Stark, you have received a room grander than any of the smallfolk, servants to look after you. You've never had to work in the fields or in the home, you've been educated, all paid for by the taxes of the small folk."
"Their supposed to do that!" the little wolf interrupted indignantly. "The smallfolk pay their taxes and the highborn protect them and rule the land well. That's what father says."
"Indeed, it is." I treated her to a rare smile. "It's their duty to you. So, if they have done their duty to you, why are you refusing to do your duty to them? Isn't that dishonourable? Theft almost?"
Arya gaped at me, doing a very good impression of a fish out of water.
"That's…that's not stealing!" She exclaimed.
"Isn't it?" I answered calmly. "They've fulfilled their part of the bargain and given you a life better than all of their own children. Now, as a highborn girl, your part of the bargain is to marry for the benefit not just of House Stark, but the benefit of those smallfolk sworn to House Stark. And you're refusing to. You've taken their goods and now you're refusing to do what they expect you to do in return."
"That's not…but that's…that's not fair!" Arya exclaimed tearfully.
"Life rarely is little wolf." I replied sympathetically. Despite the guilt threatening to choke me. "But life doesn't have to be completely unfair. You like Edric don't you? Wouldn't it be nicer to be married to a friend who will let you be you, and not try and make you into a lady, rather than be married to someone who will take away your sword?"
"I won't marry someone like that. I won't." Defiant Arya was back.
"So you're left with marrying someone your friends with, Like Edric, or breaking House Stark's bargain with its smallfolk."
Her face crumpled and Arya turned and fled towards my chambers. She didn't know Jon wasn't there, and hopefully by the time he got back she'd have had time to calm down and actually think about what I'd said.
I, on the other hand, tried to force the guilt down to a more manageable level and waved my party back to me. Heading out the gate and down towards the Street of Steel.
I'd commissioned a new set of armour from Tobho Mott some time before in proper Baratheon black and gold, rather than the Tyrell green armour Renly had used before my arrival. It wasn't finished yet, but it was a good reason to stop by. Of course Tobho Mott saw through my excuse at once, but the performance hadn't been for his benefit.
"Are you going to tell me the true reason for your visit now my lord?" He asked while ensuring the full range of movement in the shoulder piece I was wearing.
"I find myself due to come into the position of some Valyrian steel Master Mott." I replied casually. Taking note of how his hands froze for a moment.
"Indeed, and I will need it reworked. Its current form is far to wasteful and recognisable."
"That's disgraceful, to steal Valyrian steel and have it melted down into a new sword, so no one recognises your dishonour." The accusation was without heat, said simply because politeness demanded it. Which was good as I was betting that he wouldn't care if I handed over the legendary Backfyre and the crown of Aegon the Conqueror to melt down if it meant he got to rework the Valyrian steel they were made of.
"You say that like that hasn't been the fate of every Valyrian steel sword that's been 'lost' over the centuries." I remarked as, given their value, the size of the 'lost' blades list told anyone with critical thinking skills that. "But I never said I would be stealing anything, or that it would even be a sword that would be coming into my possession. But if it sooths your conscience, simply ask me no questions and I'll you no lies. You do want the opportunity to work with Valyrian steel, don't you?"
"I do if I am appropriately compensated." Master Mott shot back immediately.
Hook, line, sinker. Perfect. "Good, we will discuss compensation in a moment as the work will have to be done in Storm's End, not here. Is that possible?"
Tobho looked at me sharply. "Possible yes. Easy no. Especially as I will have to leave my shop here unattended."
"I am sure that the difficulty will be reflected in your price. As for the shop, I expect your apprentice's can manage everything here for a few weeks. Though I would suggest you take one of them with you."
"You know very well which one."
The temperature seemed to drop as the Qohor trained blacksmith tensed. "The boy is my apprentice. Who he was before he came to me, that's none of my concern, but I wont deliver him into a trap."
I picked my words carefully making very sure to keep my eyes on the master blacksmiths hands. I had no idea how far he'd go to protect Gendry, but I wasn't going to take any chances. "The trap is here Master Mott, and it's closing rapidly. A Hand of the King came asking questions, and now that Hand is dead. The new Hand of the King has come asking questions, and now that Hand's enemies move against him. How long before someone comes for him with blades instead of questions?"
"And how do I know that your blade won't be waiting for him at Storm's End?" Master Mott asked. Abandoning all subtlety and staring me in the face.
"Because his half-brother is there and has been for his entire life." I answered, putting all the truth I could into my expression.
Tobho Mott must have seen it because he nodded. Satisfied, the tension drained a little as he stepped back a little. "We'll discuss price later. When do we need to leave?"
"It will be some time yet. I will let you know when the Valyrian steel comes into my possession, or when the situation gets too dangerous. Either way the faster you're gone the better. You'll have only a handful of days at most to be ready to travel and your apprentice's safety will be less certain with each of them that passes.
The Qohor master blacksmith nodded and turned back to fitting my new armour without another word.
I allowed myself a smile as I mentally added another piece to my cyvasse board.
Fanfic Recommendation: The Golden Stag – by Kerjack
So, we've all seen the trope of a trueborn son of Cersei and Robert. This is not that, it's far more interesting. Meet Damon Baratheon, Joffrey's twin and second in line to the Iron Throne. How does the game of thrones play out with a child of Cersei and Jamie that is sane, competent, and old enough to fight and command men? Well, fun, frustrating, horrifying, joyous, stunning, and epic are all appropriate words!