III
QUEEN RHAENYS' RIGHT HAND


The sun was beginning to set, tinting the sky with shades of orange and pink, when the call came for dinner. As I adjusted a golden tiara on my forehead, I listened to my brother argue with the guard who had come to fetch us.

"It's not yet time for dinner," Qoren protested. He had taken off his shoes and was lying on my bed with complete disregard. "Not until nightfall, at least."

"Qoren," catching his eye, I turned to face him, inadvertently causing Nalia to stagger. The maid was stitching the hem of my yellow dress with gold thread. "Since I know you, you've been insufferable and arrogant, but today you're worse than ever."

"That's how I am when I know people have no choice but to put up with me."

Ignoring his haughty smile, I walked over to where he had left his sandals, picked one up, and threw it at him, hitting him squarely on the head. The soldier, taken aback by the unexpected reaction, took a few steps away from me, as if he feared being the target of the other sandal.

"Get off my bed and let's get this over with; I want to finally go home. Don't make things more complicated," I retorded.

And, between curses, the Prince of Dorne had no choice but to obey me, and so we headed for the Queen's ballroom.

They had decorated the place with the Targaryen and Martell banners, and the long ebony table was laden with Dornish lilies. The candles flickered in the glassware, and the gold cutlery had been polished so many times that it seemed to gleam with its own light.

"How did they get Dornish lilies?" my brother asked.

"The Red Keep's Godswood has several types of plants from Dorne," the voice of the Dowager Queen, Alicent Hightower, emerged behind us. "It was a gift Prince Nymor sent to Aegon the Conqueror after he accepted his offer of peace and withdrew from Dorne."

"That was over a hundred years ago," Qoren narrowed his eyes.

"Exactly, but the King's gardeners have cared for and protected Dorne's plants more than the rest, for they knew that if they died, it would be impossible to replace them." Alicent smiled. "Until now," and she linked her arm with mine, pulling me away from my brother. "I don't want you to think me greedy, Alaessa, but the main reason for this union is for you to bring me a specimen of sand jasmine from Dorne," she joked. "It's the only plant we're missing."

"I will, my lady," I smiled, and Alicent smiled back. If it bothered her that I was skipping the Queen's treatment, it didn't seem to.

"Let me introduce you to the Queen, Helaena," she led me over to a young woman with frizzy silver hair. "Something tells me you'll get along very well."

Helaena Targaryen was already seated at the table, holding in her fingers a Dornish lily that seemed to have fallen out of the flower arrangement. She was looking at it carefully, and it took her a couple of seconds before she looked up at us.

"It's nice to meet you, princess," she greeted me, offering a shy smile.

"Oh, I'm not a princess," I said, noticing the awkwardness that hovered between me and Alicent.

"But you will be soon enough," Helaena observed in a very sweet tone of voice, and then, standing up, she placed the lily in my hair, holding it with the tiara. "And the flower of Dorne will be drenched with sapphire dew."

I did not know what to say and tried somehow to make sense of her words. It seemed Helaena had told me something that was good for her, for she smiled delightedly and had taken a lock of my hair to finger-comb it.

"The Queen enjoys poetry," Alicent explained.

I had intended to say something, but all thought vanished when the King, my betrothed, and Aemond Targaryen entered the ballroom. They were dressed in Hightower green, and though they arrived together, they went their separate ways: Aegon sat at the head of the table without a word, immediately seizing a goblet and demanding that the cupbearer fill it for him. Daeron scanned the room with his eyes and, upon finding me, walked over to where his mother, sister, and I stood. Aemond, for his part, strode purposefully towards my brother, who was engaged in conversation with Ser Otto.

Daeron kissed his mother and sister's cheek in greeting, then took my right hand and placed a polite kiss on my knuckles.

"Beautiful attire, my lady," he complimented me. I noticed he had replaced 'princess' with 'my lady' and I knew at once that this was due to some sort of corrective. "The gold suits you."

"You are very kind, my prince," I could see Qoren, Otto and Aemond exchanging words from the angle I was standing, and while the Targaryen prince's face betrayed no emotion, my brother's did, "If you will excuse me..." I excused myself and hurried over to the three men.

"And then I'll use your lizard's teeth to make me a crown," I heard my brother blurt out, furious.

"Princes, please, there's no need for you to..."

"What's the matter?" I interjected, interrupting Otto Hightower.

"Your future brother-in-law has had the gall to tell me that, once our houses are united, his dragon, Vhagar, will be free to fly over Sunspear," Qoren explained with a tense jaw.

"Vhagar." A shiver ran down each of my vertebrae at that name. Vhagar had been the dragon that Queen Visenya, sister and wife of Aegon the Conqueror, and on his back had scorched much of Dorne systematically for two years. The beast had tormented my people a century ago, and the knowledge that it was still alive made me nauseous.

That Prince Aemond had declared his intention to fly over Sunspear was a direct enough threat.

"She will not. Vhagar will not fly over Sunspear." I turned my attention to Aemond Targaryen. "My prince, don't you worry about endangering your dragon, or don't you remember what happened to Meraxes, and Queen Rhaenys, when they decided to take to the skies over Dorne?"

"Meraxes returned to King's Landing, yes, but as a skull," my brother added. "It will be the same with your dragon."

"I see," Aemond said, straightening his shoulders. His voice was soft, and he spoke calmly. A calmness that somehow gave a glimpse of the fire inside him. "Grandsire, there's something I don't understand. Why would my dragon be a threat to the Dornish if this wedding is supposed to end hostilities between the Targaryens and the Martells?"

Ser Otto Hightower took a deep breath of air. He was a diplomatic man, yes, but he seemed just as fed up as we were.

"The wedding is not a peace treaty," the Hand of the King explained. "It's a military alliance. Dorne is still independent, and as such, it's in everyone's best interest that no dragons cross its borders."

"Dragons know no borders," the Targaryen prince pitched in, slyly. "If the lords of Valyria had had that sort of consideration, they would not have conquered Westeros, ravaging the Andals and the First Men, or taken over much of Essos, forcing the Rhoynar to run away, like the good cowards they were."

I had to stand in front of my brother to stop him from lunging at Aemond Targaryen, and so did Ser Otto. Hitting a Targaryen prince was not the same as hitting a toothless wretch, and if Qoren did it, not only would any kind of alliance fall apart, but we'd both end up in a dungeon and the next day our heads would be on pikes.

"Look, boy, I'll do you a favour," Qoren growled as I used all my strength to hold him back. "When I return to Dorne, I'll send you Queen Rhaenys' right hand, the same one she most certainly used to grab Aegon's cock. Perhaps it will serve you to jerk off".

Aemond flashed a haughty smile and walked away towards the table with that imperturbability that I would later recognise as so typical of him, and which was only capable of breaking down in very definite situations.

Ser Otto also walked away, most likely to reprimand his grandson, and then it was just my brother and me.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?", I scolded Qoren in a quiet voice.

"I defend my house, sister," my brother replied, his eyes fixed on Aemond. "You should do the same."

"You idiot, don't you see? We're two Dornish in a cave full of dragons. How the hell are you going to defend your house when you're dead?"

"They can't do anything to us, Alaessa," he spat, growing more and more furious. "They need us."

"Keep believing that, you imbecile." Before I walked away, I gave him a subtle slap across the face, to wake him up. "And in a few days, Aliandra will be Princess of Dorne."

The musicians arrived, the servants carrying platters of food, and dinner began. I was seated next to Daeron, of course, and across from me, I had my brother. Qoren, whose anger had subsided, was chatting animatedly with Helaena on his right and, though originally Aemond was to sit on his left, some last-minute changes were made and that place was taken by Ser Otto Hightower.

Aemond, therefore, was at the head of the table, facing his brother the King, and enjoyed a panoptic view of the whole table.

"Next time I come to King's Landing," Qoren said to Helaena, "I'll bring you a fire butterfly from the Red Mountains."

"Oh, thank you!" The young Queen clasped both hands together, looking excited. "I've never seen one in real life. Only in books."

"Do you intend to return to King's Landing, Prince Qoren?" It was Aemond who had asked the question. "You seem to have taken a liking to the capital, despite your complains about the smell of shit."

"I'll have to go back, I suppose," my brother replied. "Isn't there a wedding to be celebrated here?"

The Targaryen prince didn't answer; instead, he forced a smirk and took a sip of his wine.

"Speaking of weddings," King Aegon interjected, already seeming drunk given the way his tongue struggled to modulate the words, "Prince Qoren, did you know that during the Stepstones War my father and the Council broached the possibility of marrying you to my half-sister, Rhaenyra?"

Suddenly, the cutlery stopped on their plates, the bustle became quiet and the music became extremely annoying. I looked up from my plate to my brother, who was wiping his mouth with a napkin, preparing to speak.

"Your Grace, I don't think this is a proper conversation," Alicent was saying to the King's left, until she was interrupted by the King himself.

"If Dorne is to be our ally, I want to be sure to what extent they are involved with us rather than our enemies."

"That's correct, my lord," Qoren nodded, unperturbed. "In the year 110 there was talk of me marrying your sister because I supported the Triarchy during the War of Stepstones, but the idea died that way: as an idea." My brother smiled, "I was never sent a raven with a proposal. It never even left the Council Chamber."

"And how did you find out?" asked the King, and Qoren's smile widened: that was the point he was getting at.

"Let's just say that, in the Red Keep, there were always people loyal to the Dornish cause."

"Fuck," I cursed inwardly and took a sip of wine.

"Are you telling me they spied on my father?" Aegon's face was red and he had leaned across the table.

"Your father, the Hand of the King, the Maester, and anyone else who would dare to put Dorne's name on their lips," Qoren fiddled with the cutlery. "May I give you some advice, my lord?" He did not wait for Aegon to answer. "There is not a day... no, rather, not a minute when your family is not being spied upon. And I'm not talking about the Dornish only."

The silence was deafening and, out of nowhere, it seemed that everyone at the table had turned to stone. All but Qoren, who, all too casually, continued to eat as if he had not set the Red Keep on fire with his words.

"My lady, would you like to dance?"

Suddenly, Daeron at my side, offering me his hand, and in my heart, I thanked him, for I needed to get away from that table: besides the tension, the food was bland, too heavy for the heat, and the wine tasted sour.

The prince, who was half a head taller than me despite his age, took me with subtlety and elegance. The closeness provoked something in him, for his cheeks flared and after a few minutes he began to avoid my gaze. I, who knew that kind of reaction in men like him, thought it was a good idea to lighten the situation.

"Is something wrong, my prince? Am I such a bad dancer?," I joked.

"Oh no, no" Daeron shook his head and hurried to explain. "It's just that I feel very lucky, Lady Alaessa. You are, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman I have ever met."

"You've known few women, I see," I replied, in an attempt to play down the seriousness of the matter, but I realized my mistake when Daeron's face flared even brighter. "Ah, no. That's not what I meant. Please don't misunderstand me."

"I hope to be the husband you expect me to be, Lady Alaessa," he said, swallowing.

And my heart broke.

Maester, I had no desire for Daeron Targaryen. He was handsome, polite, and unlike his brothers, extremely gentle, but he was still a boy in my eyes. I could not imagine being his wife, laying with him, or bearing his children, for all I could see was a fine boy who should have been betrothed to a maiden his own age, as good as he was, and whom he could deflower. I was no more than a foreigner nearly ten years his senior, experienced and demanding, and with the effervescent personality of the Martells.

"You'll make the best husband of all, my sweet Daeron."

The prince's eyes widened at my words and he clung to me tighter. For a moment, I thought he was going to kiss me, and I'm almost certain he would have if Aemond Targaryen hadn't appeared beside us.

"Brother, would you allow me to dance with your betrothed?"

Daeron hesitated, not entirely sure, and I inwardly begged him to refuse. But he agreed, and suddenly, who was holding my hand was Aemond.

Allow me a moment to describe what I felt then. Tell me, Maester, have you ever woken up on a hot summer's night, cramped in your bed, with the boiling sheets clinging to your back? That's how I've felt since I first set foot in the Red Keep: stifled, annoyed but with no way to escape because the situation transcended me, just as the inclement weather transcends us all. Now, have you ever, during that hot night, got up and opened the window? Tell me if it's not a blessing that night breeze, with its coolness, the sound of crickets and tree branches swaying in the moonlight. You feel and enjoy the cool air caressing your face and you surrender to it, giving up sleep, for your skin no longer burns and suddenly, you can breathe.

When Aemond Targaryen took my hand and wrapped it around my waist, I felt a night breeze around me and, at the time, I couldn't explain why. My muscles were no longer tense, and though I was dancing with the very man who had threatened to take his dragon to Dorne, I did not feel uncomfortable. Strange sensation indeed, but in retrospect, I think our bodies, oblivious to the bickering and histories of our houses, knew in that instant that they were made for each other.

"My brother has been smitten with you, my lady," Aemond commented.

"That seems to be the case," I limited myself to reply.

"And you? Have you been smitten by him?"

"I met him today, my prince. Why do you ask?"

Aemond gave an "hmm," and I saw his eye glint with mischief.

"I have learned that you are no longer a maiden, my lady," he blurted, without a hint of embarrassment, "and I'm aware of the Dornish customs regarding paramours. I want you to know that I will not tolerate the existence of any bastard in this family." He paused for a second, deliberately, to revel in the way my expression darkened.

"What do you want to tell me, Prince Aemond?" I blurted out, with a growing rage inside me. "First you're after my brother, and now you're after me, aren't you?"

"What I mean is, I don't like the way the Dornish live, their customs, the debauchery..."

"Nor the bastards," I finished the sentence for him. Aemond nodded.

"Exactly."

"Then why are you dancing with a bastard right now?"

His face lit up, and it was there that I knew he'd steered the conversation that way, because he'd wanted me to ask him that question all along.

"Because I'd never had the opportunity to dance with a golden bastard before."

Any other woman's reaction, I think, would have been to slap him, and, oh, Maester, I was tempted to do so. But I was too smart to know better, and, unlike my brother, I always knew how to control my impulses.

What I did was to let him see a smile and cling more tightly to his hand, and that unsettled him. It was an almost imperceptible expression that let me know, for just as I kept the paroxysms at bay, Aemond did so with his gestures.

"Golden Bastard," I repeated, feigning wonder. "If I may say so, my prince, I have never been so beautifully complimented in my life," I whispered, pulling my face a little closer.

Aemond Targaryen was disconcerted. He put distance between him and me, danced one or two minutes more, and then, with a bow of his head, he moved away from me and returned to the table. My brother had been watching us throughout the process, ready to come to my rescue, if necessary, but once I returned to my chair, I silently let him know that the Golden Bastard never needed, nor would ever need, to be rescued.