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Sansa sat in the tower room of Maegor's Holdfast; eyes red but no longer weeping. She had no tears left to shed.
Jeyne Pool was her opposite. She was inconsolable, sobbing every moment she was awake.
Sansa couldn't blame her.
When her father's steward had thrown Jeyne into her room before she had even risen, Sansa had been indignant and had demanded to know what the mere steward thought he was doing. She was intent on asserting her authority over those lesser than her, just as the Queen Cersei had taught her she must do if she was to be treated with the respect she deserved.
Vayon Pool had completely ignored her and had slammed the door in her face.
Sansa had been overcome with anger and had nearly marched out after him in her bedclothes, but then Septa Mordane had run in and gathered both girls into her arms. Franticly patting them both, as if to ensure that they were not ghosts.
"Sansa, where is Arya? Where is your sister?" The septa had asked desperately, cutting through her indignation.
A sliver of fear had coloured her response. "She has dancing lessons before we break our fasts, septa. They begin at first light."
Septa Mordane had closed her eyes in despair and had hugged both of them tightly to her. "May the Seven watch over her."
They remained that way for a moment, but before Sansa could ask what was happening the septa had released both girls and quickly barred the door. Then she had begun to move the dressing table in front of it.
Jeyne quickly moved to help, but Sansa had still been too confused to move.
"Septa? What's going on?"
"Don't you hear it Sansa?" Jeyne had answered, terrified, as she had franticly helped Septa Mordane pile more of her room's furniture against the door.
Sansa had listened. She had heard the striking of blade on blade when she awoke of course, but had paid it no mind, she had heard that sound from the training yards all her life. But when she really listened, she had heard it.
The grunts of pain, the screams of the wounded and the fearful, the angry shouts and challenges, and the pleas for mercy.
Sansa had stopped asking questions and had helped pile more furniture against the door.
It hadn't helped.
It took the Lannisters the whole day to fight their way up the tower.
At first Sansa hadn't believed that it was the red cloaks of her beloved Joff and the beautiful queen who were attacking them, who were slaughtering her father's men. But after sunset the Hound himself had battered her door down with a warhammer and she could no longer pretend that her beloved prince was not the author of the monstrous crime. The furniture they had tried to brace the door with had been casually tossed aside with a few more strikes and then Guard Captain Vylarr had stridden into her room, ripped Septa Mordane out of her and Jeyne's embrace, and plunged his sword into her septa's heart.
She and Jeyne had been pulled forcibly out of her room by Captain Vylarr and the Hound. They were dragged down the Tower of the Hand, down the staircase slick with blood and scattered with the corpses of not just her father's guards, but his entire household. The door to each floor broken open, revealing more death within.
Jeyne had fainted as soon as they came upon her father's body.
Sansa had barely noticed as she had been in hysterics. Trying to understand why her beloved Joff would do this. A question she'd screamed at the Hound as she beat her fists uselessly against his armour, and then through the door of the room they'd been locked in. Eventually she had given up and been reduced to sobbing. Then she and Jeyne had crawled into bed together and fallen asleep in each other's arms like sisters, trying to keep the memories and the nightmares away.
She had held Jeyne as she sobbed ever since. Trying to offer what comfort she could as the guilt of her thoughts about her dearest friend of late sat uncomfortably in her belly. What a fool she had been, thinking Jeyne too plain to attract a handsome husband, too far beneath her to deserve a place as one of her ladies in waiting when she was queen. None of the ladies she had befriended at court had come to see her, but Jeyne was here, and Vayon Pool had fallen because he was loyal to Father. Father had always said that loyalty was the quality that should be most highly prized, but the queen had told her it was different in the south.
To her shame, Sansa had listened.
At least I never had the chance to betray father. She had planned to run to the queen to get her to help her stay in Kings Landing and marry Joffrey. Would her revealing Father's plans have made any difference? She wasn't sure. But would she have believed the truth about the rotten liars that the Lannisters had proven to be if she had been trapped in this room in the beginning? If she'd never seen the truth of their actions in the Tower of the Hand herself?
Sansa liked to think so, but she wasn't sure.
She thought of Joffrey's face. His lips were still red and full, but now they made her think of the worms you found after rain. Their wiggling creating lies that brought death to everyone she cared about. His eyes no longer glittered with promises, instead they were harsh and cruel, as they must have been when he ordered the entire Stark household slaughtered. That was the face that she had been blind to, the face Arya had seen since the beginning.
Her heart tightened at the thought of her sister. Arya. Stubborn, annoying, horsefaced, embarrassing, unladylike Arya. Arya who wasn't here with Jeyne and her.
Sansa refused to think of her spirited little sister cut in half by the Hound's sword as she tried to run, just as the butcher's boy had been at the Crossroads Inn. She couldn't bear the thought that the last words she had said to her sister would be so vile. But she knew that that was what had likely happened. Her sister was too spirited not to try and fight or flee, but not even the great lords had been able to escape Joffrey's wrath, so how could her poor little sister?
She remembered Septa Mordane whispering prayers of protection to the Seven as, from her window, the three of them watched the Baratheon and Tyrell banners gather at the gatehouse as the fighting raged in the Tower of the Hand. The septa had been sure that if Lord Renly and Ser Loras could escape, they would raise an army to come and rescue them.
Sansa hadn't been focused on that. Her prayers had been for Jon, who was surely with his knight and Lord Renly. She thought her heart would break when the Baratheon banner had fallen among a hail of crossbow bolts while trying to flee. Robb's answer when she asked why he was taking great care to select his banner bearer when Father rode south ringing in her ears.
'The banner bearer rides next to his lord at all times Sansa, to show his men where he is so that they might rally to him. If the banner falls, it means that the enemy has reached the lord, and that he is likely dead. Few armies will survive such a blow.'
Any hope she had left had fled when the fire that ripped through the docks outside the city walls. The burning of the green banner had announced the death of Ser Loras before he could flee across the river. Her dutiful brother would never have abandoned his lords. With both of them gone it didn't matter which one he'd been with. She knew the brother she had been so dismissive of her whole life was dead, and she would never be able to make her behaviour up to him. She knew that the same was likely true of Arya, truly, she knew it. But she couldn't make herself believe it. She couldn't believe it was true of both of them, that both her brother and her sister were dead. It was too much.
So, she pretended. She pretended that her sister was as wily and swift as the cats she was so enamoured with and was even now prowling the streets of Kings Landing. Smirking as gold cloaks searched for her in vain.
The door opened without warning, bringing Sansa out of her memories and back to her terrible present.
Ser Boros Blunt of the Kingsguard entered his white velvet cloak flowing behind him.
Sansa thought him an ugly man. But she defiantly remembered her courtesies, just as her lady mother and Septa Mordane had taught her. "You look splendid today Ser Boros."
Sansa was surprised at how cold her own voice sounded, but she was pleased. Courtesies are a woman's weapon as well as her armour her mother had whispered to her, when she had seen how her mother had treated Barbery Dustin very differently from the other Northern ladies without uttering a single unpleasant word.
"You as well my lady." Ser Boros replied flatly. "Her Grace awaits, come with me."
"No! No, my lady! Don't go! You won't come back!" Jeyne sobbed, clinging harder to her.
Sansa barely had time to reply as Ser Boros roughly ripped Jeyne off her and threw her onto the bed.
"Don't fret Jeyne. I swear I will return. I swear it on the Seven." Sansa called as she was pulled from the room and the door sealed behind her.
She frowned as she was led not to the royal apartments, but to the small council chamber.
The queen was there, looking beautiful, radiant, commanding, everything a queen should be.
Sansa bitterly wished she would look as rotten as her lying heart.
"Your dress is ripped sweetling." Queen Cersei noticed.
"The other girl wouldn't let go of her." Ser Boros grunted.
"Other girl?" the queen asked sharply. "What other girl?"
Sansa didn't pay attention; she was staring at Lord Baelish. The lord that had spent such a great amount of time in the company of Father, who Father had said he trusted because he was Mother's friend. The Lord that was still sitting at the small council table while Father likely rotted in the black cells, for surely only that or death were the fates that the queen had planned for him if she had been willing to slaughter his entire household.
"Sansa, darling," the queen spoke, capturing her attention, "I have some terrible news. Your father is a traitor."
"My father is nothing but loyal to King Robert! He was his friend!" She blurted out desperately. She knew that defending Father was useless, but she still couldn't stop herself. The accusation burned too much.
"The king thought so," Cersei responded sadly, "but he denied Joffrey as king once my husband died, claiming that the crown belonged to Lord Stannis instead."
"He wouldn't do that. He wouldn't!" Sansa begged. She was certain that he wouldn't. Father would never do such a thing, unless it was the honourable thing to do. Then nothing would have stopped him. Father always did what was right.
"We found this on him sweetling." The queen explained, holding a parchment marked with blood. Its golden stag seal was broken but clearly visible, as was another undamaged one at the parchment's base, next to her father's own white direwolf, though Sansa could not read the words themselves from so far away. "It seems he was seduced by Lord Renly's lies; the rotten Stormlander was trying to claim the crown for his brother over Joffrey."
'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.'
Unbidden, Lord Renly's words from the tourney slammed into her and Sansa almost wept as she realised that he too had seen the truth and tried to warn her, just like Arya and Father. But she had refused to see, and now Lord Renly was dead, Arya was missing and likely dead, and Father was imprisoned.
"If Lord Renly lied to him, surely you can just explain the truth and Father will bend the knee?" Sansa asked desperately. Perhaps it was all a terrible mistake. Though she did not think she could forgive the queen and Joffrey even if it were so. But if it got Father out of the black cells and made Arya emerge from hiding, she would try.
"Oh, the sweet innocence of babes." Lord Varys tittered. "We will of course explain the truth to Lord Eddard child, but it will take some time for him to accept that he was fooled. Time we do not have, as word of his treason will soon reach your lady mother and brother."
"They will rise of course, and we will be forced to remove their heads as traitors." Grand Maester Pycelle noted reluctantly.
'Or perhaps they'll remove yours.' Sansa smiled at her vengeful thought. Wishing it had been these liars who had died instead of poor Vayon Pool and Septa Mordane.
"But if you were willing to write to them, dear Sansa." The queen spoke again. "To explain how you are safe in our care, of how your father was seduced by the lies of Lord Renly and will recant as soon as the truth is explained to him. Perhaps then they would listen and bend the knee, and all would be well."
"Your Grace, I will do anything to help protect my family." Sansa answered truthfully. She kept the real truth to herself. She had to warn Mother and Robb, warn them what rotten liars the Lannisters truly were and what they had done to poor Steward Pool as well as Father. She took a seat as a quill and ink were provided.
She made to begin the letter, but the queen took her hand delicately. "We will tell you what to write sweetling."
Sansa nodded demurely and copied out exactly what the queen said to write. There was no chance to include a secret code, as was often mentioned in the songs she loved. She couldn't press more heavily on some letters, or mark them with inkblots, the queen made her begin again time she felt there were too many mistakes. In the end she had had to write exactly what was asked with no flaws or markings at all. To her dismay there was no way for her to send her family any hidden message in the letter. The queen made sure of it.
Sansa made sure not to smile until she was on her way back to her rooms. She might not have been able to warn Mother and Robb as she wished, but Father had taught her one of House Stark's secrets as soon as she learned her letters. She had treasured that secret, wishing she would be able to use it one day so that it would become a thrilling verse her own song. Today she had done so, though the reasons left a bitter taste in her mouth. She cursed herself for ever wishing that she would have to use it.
Father had explained that sometimes she would have to write a letter when she was in the care of someone who wasn't family. If she wanted the letter to be believed she was to mark the parchment with four runes of the first men he had bade her memorise, one in each corner. Father had explained that if the letter arrived without them, or with them in the wrong corners, he would know that wicked people were forcing her to lie.
Sansa had written exactly what the queen had told her to and no more. When the letter arrived without the secret runes, her lady mother and Robb would know exactly what was wrong and would come south to rescue Father, her, and Jeyne.
Sansa was bursting with excitement when Ser Boros opened the door to her new chambers, wanting to soothe Jeyne's fears with her return and whisper that rescue was coming as soon as the door to her tower room was closed and barred behind her.
But she entered her rooms to a wall of silence, and she realised Jeyne was gone.
As the door slammed closed Sansa began to cry, her elation at successfully warning her family turning to ash. Jeyne was gone, and now she was truly alone.
I sat with my back to our campfire, looking out into the Kingswood as first light began to creep over the horizon. My watch was coming to an end and soon it would be time to wake the others and begin riding with the sunrise.
We had made good time over the last two days. After our escape across the Blackwater, with the docks in flames behind us, we hadn't feared pursuit from the city that first day. We hadn't feared interception either, for though we were riding through the crownlands, their loyalty to House Baratheon, and especially to House Lannister, was weak enough that they would be slow to follow any orders to capture me. If the orders even reached them in time given the chaos in the capital.
My party had made it to the intersection of the Roseroad and Kingsroad without incident by the middle of that first day, where the campsite that Loras had set up during his ride to collect the Holy Hundred had been a welcome sight. The score of Tyrell guards there had been even more of one, but most important had been the maester, as Edric had been pale and shivering. The bolt in his arm, though had missed the bone, had been causing him constant pain, but he had borne it stoically that first morning. Arya had taken to riding next to him, babbling stories of her adventures in Winterfell and how she had driven Septa Mordane to despair in an attempt to take his mind off it. Something she had continued to do ever since, bringing a smile to mine and Jon's faces.
Everyone's mood had lifted when Syrio Forel appeared, looking completely unconcerned that he had had to crawl through the sewer passage that Arya had told him about before swimming the Blackwater Rush and stealing a horse. Arya had been overjoyed.
Ghost and Nymeria had streaked into camp not long after. Obviously pleased to find their humans here after their nightly hunt, rather than back in the stinking city. With their arrival the camp spirits had risen to something like normal.
After the maester had treated my guards from the various wounds they had received, and we had removed the crossbow bolts from every shield that was still intact enough to salvage, Loras had ordered ten of his new men to accompany me. Reluctantly separating from us and riding hard down the Roseroad with the rest to speak to his father. I had no doubt that he would be successful in swaying Mace Tyrell to my cause. He was Mace's favourite child and I was in a considerably stronger position than I would have been otherwise, so even with butterflies it should still be a slam dunk.
The rest of us had ridden on towards Storm's End, taking care to avoid the royal hunting party returning to the capital. Now we were less than a day of hard riding and horse changes from Storm's End and we would see it, and my mustering banners, before nightfall.
Despite how well I had managed to salvage things from the debacle that had been Robert's early death I couldn't help but brood as I stared into the Kingswood. Waiting for it to get light enough to wake the others.
I had completely fucked up my recruitment pitch to Ned. Perhaps if I hadn't, if I'd taken the time to actually think rather than let my fury control me when he hadn't immediately acquiesced, I might have been able to convince him.
In truth I doubted it, but it left a foul taste in my mouth that I knew that the downfall of Robb and Jon centred on their inability to align others interests with their own and communicate properly. Yet I had blundered headfirst into the same trap.
In the moment I had forgotten that none of the adults in Kings Landing, not even Cersei, realised how bad Joffrey was going to get. Yes, they knew he was weak, cruel, and vindictive, but to be blunt so were half the highborn in Westeros. From Ned's perspective I was advocating killing a child because he was an entitled cunt, and I hadn't taken the time to explain that I was actually smothering Aerys III before he could do any real damage.
Then I'd completely failed to explain just why Stannis was such a bad choice. Yes, I'd laid out the bare bones of my argument against him. But against it, Ned had still been able to weigh the fact that Stannis was perfect on paper as long as his Hand was capable of smoothing ruffled feathers. I hadn't explained that no Hand would be able to compensate for Stannis's ability to make enemies of almost everyone he didn't control through fear or lack of other options. In ruling style he was far closer to Tywin Lannister than he was to any of the other lords, but he lacked Tywin's ability to not make people resent that method of control as long as things were going well.
But I hadn't explained that. Lost in the moment I hadn't used the groundwork I'd been laying with Stannis's conversion either. Falling to highlight he now worshiped a religion that burned all septs and godswoods and non-believers as well if they could get away with it. Nor had I gone for Ned's triggers by pointing out Stannis would never have let the children of Cersei and Jamie live.
All in all, I had fallen headlong into three of the five major flaws that I despised Ned himself for possessing, and unlike him I had no excuse. For I had known exactly what I should do, had even laid the groundwork for half of it, but had fucked it up anyway.
The sudden appearance of Ghost beside me made me jump. But I reached out and rubbed between his ears, grateful of the distraction.
Jon took a seat beside me, already dressed.
"You're brooding again my lord." He commented quietly.
"Hello pot, I'm kettle. You're black." I responded with a very tired smile.
Jon snorted and dropped his head. "Aye. There's truth to that."
We sat in silence for a while before he dared to speak again. "What troubles you?"
I sighed and answered truthfully. "I'm angry that I was unable to convince your father to leave with us."
Jon almost immediately shut down. It took him a while before he was willing to speak up.
"My father…made a mistake. He should have listened to you." It sounded like that admission had caused him more pain than being stabbed in the belly.
I ruffled Ghost's head one last time before moving closer to grip Jon's shoulder.
"One of the hardest things about becoming a man Jon, is realising that our parents are just men and women too. That they aren't perfect, that they have flaws, make mistakes, and sometimes are just wrong. As boys we all believe that our fathers are gods, unable to do any wrong. As men, we love them, cherish them, honour them. But we must not be blind to their flaws and mistakes if we wish to become the men that all good fathers hope we will be."
Jon stared mutinously at the floor. "My father is a good man, the best man in all Seven Kingdoms."
"He is," I replied with a smile, "but he isn't perfect. No man is."
I let the silence continue until Jon was ready to ask the question that was making him feel so guilty for even thinking it. "What are my father's flaws?"
"He has only four flaws Jon, which is incredible considering how many most of us have." I smiled gently, softening the blow as much as I could. Ned Stark actually had five flaws, but there was no way I was going to broach the topic of how doing the honourable thing wasn't always the best thing – or even the right thing – with Jon yet. I had to take him down the path to that realisation with a lot of groundwork and baby steps rather than with one sledgehammer conversation.
Jon shifted and looked at me dubiously, obviously waiting for me to continue.
"The first is that he expects his enemies plans to be unchanged, even when they receive new information or he tells them his own plans."
Jon's closed eyes and deep breaths told me that the stupidity of that flaw needed no further explanation.
"The remaining three are deeply intertwined, but can be boiled down to the gathering, using, and communicating of information." I began, carefully explaining the core problem that had gotten Ned, Robb, and Jon killed. "The first is that Lord Stark is often not able to tell what people want, and often has given up trying to guess. This is terrible as it means that he cannot predict the actions of his enemies."
I swallowed before continuing.
"Let us take Littlefinger for example. He used to be in love with Lady Catelyn, he was nearly killed by Lord Stark's brother, and he has worked his way up from being little more than a hedge knight to Master of Coin by having no loyalty and doing favours for any and all who come to him. I was certain that Littlefinger couldn't be trusted. That at best he would serve whoever would reward him the most, which was always going to be the Lannisters, and at worst he would want revenge against House Stark. But your father was certain that he could trust him. He bet everything on Littlefinger delivering the gold cloaks for him, because he didn't know what Littlefinger wanted. So, When Littlefinger promised to deliver the gold cloaks he didn't think 'what would I do if I were Littlefinger and wanted what he wanted – power and revenge', he thought 'what would I do?' Of course if Lord Stark had promised to deliver the gold cloaks he would have done so, so he believed Littlefinger would do the same, and nothing I said could convince him otherwise."
Jon just stared at me in horror. "If you knew that, if you knew! Why didn't you just kill him?!"
"Because I couldn't." I replied simply.
"Lord Baelish is pathetic, and you can do anything." Jon hissed angrily. "I've never seen a problem you couldn't solve, a trap you couldn't escape. You could have found a way to kill him and save my father!"
"I'm deeply touched by your faith in me Jon." I answered the angry teenager calmly. "But the problem is not killing Littlefinger. It is killing him and getting away with it. Of course I could have walked up to him and just gutted him like a fish, pushed him out a window, shoved him down the stairs, poisoned his wine, or crammed him head first down one of the privy shafts. The problem is that everyone would have known it was me. There are too many eyes in the Red Keep. I would have been seen even if I had made my way to is chambers in the dead of night, and then I would have been crippled. Oh Robert would have likely not beheaded me or sent me to the Wall even though I would have been guilty of murder. But my power would have been broken and I would have been banished from court. Even if I managed to expose what I suspect is treason on Littlefinger's part, too many powerful enemies would have been invested in my banishment, fighting to fill the power and influence vacuum that my departure would cause, ensuring even evidence of treason would not be enough for me to save myself. No, there was no way that I could have killed Littlefinger myself and gotten away with it."
Jon's expression softened, it appeared that I was getting through to him.
"Of course the traditional way to get around that would be to have had someone kill him on my behalf. But with Littlefinger that's impossible. Only Lord Varys could possibly manage it, otherwise, with his networks of spies, Littlefinger would learn of any planned attempt on his life as soon as I sent or hired the catspaw I intended to use. It's why both he and Lord Varys are still alive despite so many people wanting them dead. They're dangerous Jon, in their own way they're as difficult to kill as Gregor Clegane, and just as certain to kill you if you make the attempt and fail."
"They seem so weak." Jon muttered, disbelievingly.
"When you're weak, appear strong so that no one will challenge you. When you're strong, appear weak, to lure your enemies into the open. It's not a perfect rule, there are plenty of times when it doesn't apply. But it is how Lord Varys survived the fall of the Mad King despite my brother purging anything else to do with the Targaryen's. And it's why Littlefinger is still alive."
"You will kill him eventually though. Wont you?" Jon pleaded.
I simply gave him a secret smile. Confirming nothing, even as I revelled in what I had planned for the treacherous mockingbird.
"It's nearly time to rise. Go and check that Arya hasn't crawled onto Edric's bedroll again."
Jon fought down a smile. Seeing them become even closer friends as Arya helped Edric with as much as she decently could while his arm was in a sling was so cute. Thankfully Arya had spoken to Jon about Ned's plan to betroth her to Edric before Robert dragged me hunting, so he was pleased to see it as I was.
Jon stood and gestured for Ghost to come to him, before halting and turning back frowning. "My father's flaws. There are two left."
"There are." I replied simply. "I'll tell you about them when we reach Storm's End. After all, it's there where we will discover if I suffer from them as well."
I hoped not. But there was no doubt that Storm's End was the last and biggest Achilles heel of my plan. I had to convince some of the most fractious and hot-tempered lords in all the Seven Kingdoms to declare me king over my two nephews and my elder brother. I had no idea how Renly had managed it, as neither the books nor the show told me, so all I could do was pray that I was up to the task. My disasters with Robert and Ned weighed heavily on me, because this time I truly couldn't afford to fuck it up.