title: The Tenderness of Wolves
chapter title: fire, fire burning bright
summary: The game has changed, not ended – and by the time they realise she's playing, it's too late to stop what she's set in motion. Or How Sansa And Arya Save The North Despite Being On Different Continents.
dedication: Sakura's Unicorn. This chapter would still be postponed for months if it wasn't for you C!
The Tenderness of Wolves
The soup is creamy and filling; a hot stew of baked clams and vegetables, with a crust of flaky bread. The Braavosi diet is heavily based in the sea life that lurks off the shore, yet despite the many days she spent selling clams from a stinking wheelbarrow, she's not lost her liking for them yet.
The roof of Happy Port's most famous whorehouse, she's decided, is an excellent place from which to enjoy the view. Below her, merchants and bankers, peasants and sailors scurry about like ants, the occasional titbit of gossip floating up to her on the salty sea air. She didn't miss that, when she picked the spot some weeks ago. It's a habit she's picked up in the House of Black and White, to listen without being seen and snap up scraps of information, storing them in the dark recesses of her brain.
(And if she hears whispers of Westeros, well, that's just the luck of the draw. She isn't keeping her ears pricked for news of her only remaining brother, her missing sister. She isn't waiting for a sign.)
Let them think I'm gathering information, she thinks, wondering, not for the first time, if she is being watched. It's better than them thinking the alternative, after all.
It's better than them thinking the truth.
"There is one more you must kill," the Kindly Man says, "before you can become truly faceless."
"I am faceless," she replies, not chewing her lips as that other girl would have done. He does not accuse her of lying.
"To serve the Many-Face God, you must be able to kill anyone, girl. Can you do that? Could you give the gift to your mother, if it was asked of you?"
My mother is dead, she thinks before she can stop herself, but she's supposed to not have a mother at all. "Who do you want me to kill? Is it someone I know?"
"Who do you know?" The Kindly Man asks her, with that tolerant smile. There's a trap in there, waiting to spring.
"No one," the girl gives him the answer he wants to hear.
"That's right," he agrees. "You are no one and so there is no one that you know. So it does not matter who it is that I send you to kill."
The name they gave her belongs to a baby. Two weeks old, defenceless, bastard-born; she's scouted the assignment out with learned precision, calculated and cold.
They are testing me, she thinks, not for the first time. She's known it since she laid eyes on the infant slumbering in its wooden crib. The girl doesn't want to think about what will happen if she fails.
She doesn't want to think about where the House of Black and White got its many faces.
Her spoon clatters against the empty soup bowl as she discards it and hunches against the chilly sea breeze, tracking the movements of ships with her eyes. Getting to Braavos was easy, really. Just an iron coin flashed in the fading sunlight, the worth of which she didn't entirely understand. Now she understands all too well.
"Valar Morghulis," the girl murmurs, the words swallowed up entirely by the breeze – the words that called her in with the promise of blood. The girl has a lot of blood on her hands, spilled under many different names. But she knows there is no name out there she could use that would enable her to murder an infant. She cannot. Will not.
Father would hate me. The thought comes out of nowhere, because she's not supposed to have a father. Faceless assassins don't have fathers, or mothers, or brothers and a sister.
Faceless assassins aren't supposed to dream of wolves, either – but she still does. The dreams persist and so does her list of names, even if she no longer speaks that particular prayer aloud. She can still taste their deaths on her tongue; Cersei, Ilyn Payne, Ser Meryn, Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling…
Why should a baby be condemned to die, when the likes of them still live?
And the anger starts again, a deep, thrumming rage rising up from deep in her bones. Her head is full of stories from another life; stories of Princess Rhaenerys and Prince Ageon, their lifeless bodies wrapped in blood-stained gold cloaks, of her youngest brother when he was a new-born swaddled in furs and blankets. She remembers how fragile his skull had felt, resting against her thin, little-girl arms, and she had looked up, beaming, while Sansa cooed and Robb lifted Bran up so he could look closer, and her parents, they smiled proudly –
The memories cut, like the blade of a knife. Sharper, maybe, after being buried so long in the dark.
Five faces, forever stolen from her – five ghosts to be avenged, and they want her to kill dispassionately, at random, for a God that is not her own.
She'd spit and laugh, if she wasn't wary of them watching somehow. Kings Landing is a city of unseen eyes, but Braavos is home to men who can change their face at will. She's spent enough time as Cat of the Canals and Blind Beth to know that anyone could be of the House of Black and White, and she would never know. But they might know of her.
This is a test, she reminds herself again, outwardly expressionless. And all tests are judged somehow.
Her decision is already made. She wonders if they realise that, yet.
The sword is where she left it, castle forged steel, waiting under the sea stairs for the feel of her hand. In the night, it gleams like a smile, a promise.
"Stick them with the pointy end," she whispers, a crouching shadow, wary of watching eyes. There's a part of her that wants to burn the House to the ground and dance around the flames. They'll come after her if she doesn't, she imagines. Maybe. After all, she's seen too much of their art.
But he knows, the Kindly Man. He's always known the lie she was living, so he can't have let her get in that far. That they could change their faces, she knew well before she left the shores of Saltpans. Slipping away like a ghost is one thing – and she's long mastered the knack of shedding lives like a snake shakes off its skin – but actively moving against the Faceless Men is another entirely. Choosing which is least likely to kill her is like rolling a dice and hoping for the best. A calculated risk, either way, but she's played this game before.
It's always easier to run.
She's been running since the day the gold cloaks came and killed her dancing master. The girl wonders now, if maybe it's time to run home.
Because the truth is this: the girl has been biding her time. Braavos has taught her how to lie and how to kill, but other lessons came first.
Quiet as a shadow. Fear cuts deeper than swords.
When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.
The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.
Winter is coming.
(And oh, she will make it come. She will hack the Queens head off and wash herself in the blood, watch her feet twitch the way Lord Eddard's did. She'll desecrate Joffrey's grave and tear Ilyn Payne's eyes out with her fingers, so he can be blind as well as mute.
For the Frey's, she has other plans.)
The truth is that the girl has spent the better part of a week sitting on the rooftop of a whorehouse listening to the sailor's gossip, and she's heard strange tales coming from the East – of a smashed slave trade, of a war on a faraway city, of a silver-haired Queen.
She's been hearing tales of dragons.
(And once upon a time, there was a girl called Arya Stark, whose heroes were the Targaryen Queens of old, and who named her direwolf pup for a warrior princess. Fire and blood, are the Targaryen words and deep down, Arya grins, feral and bloodthirsty.)
The truth is this: the girl is tired of poisons and knives in the dark. When the Lannister regime comes crumbling down in a wave of fire, she wants Cersei to look her in the face and see who has brought her to her knees, the way the Queen did to her father.
(The way the Frey's did to her brother).
When House Stark is revenged, she wants the South to look on her and tremble. Still, she thinks, it would be nice, to have a dragon or three at her back – to be safe forever from plots and beheadings, because who would go after a house allied with dragons?
"No one," the girl says quietly, and smiles. The irony isn't lost on her.
Arya Stark who leaves Braavos in the early hours of the dawn, on a ship headed for Mereen.
She'll kill anyone who comes after her.
Standing at the brow, with her eyes ahead, she tastes death on her tongue, sweeter and lovelier than honeyed wine.
"Cersei, Ilyn Payne, Ser Meryn, Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling." She pauses for a moment, to chew her lip contemplatively. "House Frey."
She will kill them all, and the thought makes her blood sing, a silent wolf howl rising in the dark.
Arya is, after all, her mother's daughter.
notes: had such a mental block with this chapter, it's not even funny
notes2: ARYA WHY WON'T YOU BEHAVE FOR ME WAAAAH
notes3: that last line is in reference to season one, when Catelyn tells Robb "First we will get the girls back. And then, we will kill them all." Also, we all know what goes on with Stoneheart.
Be bold, my lovelies – and review!