291 AC

Lord Jon Arryn

In some ways, Jon Arryn silently conceded, there was a hint of merit to this plan. Like everything the king did these days, though, it lacked any hint of subtlety. He was reminded, not entirely pleasantly, of a much younger Robert offering his toys and his practice arms and the sun and moon to Ned when the lumbering little boy had done something, once again, to offend his foster brother's rigid sense of honour. Then again, it wasn't surprising. Since taking the throne, Robert had been making overtures to reclaim Ned's friendship the only way he knew how. The North flourished for his efforts. Still, this was the most lavish gift yet. "I realise Dragonstone needs a new lord, Your Grace," he said, keeping his voice low as he attempted to talk reason into the king he couldn't help but still see as a boy all too often. "But Ned won't leave the North. He's already rebuilding Moat Cailin as a seat for his brother." On the crown's dime, Jon did not add. "He will not consent to have his only son and heir be given a seat in the South."

"Ned has two sons," Robert said. "He loves the bastard dearly, everyone says so. He should be happy to see him legitimised, and made a lord of his own holdings at that." Robert was smiling at the idea, and Jon absently wondered how much wine he had had today. It was barely an hour past the midday meal.

"There are plenty of second sons of noble Houses who did you a great service during the Greyjoy Rebellion," Jon said, hoping to reason with him. Gods, if only Stannis had had the fortune to survive the fighting. "Grown, seasoned warriors. Reward one of them, Your Grace. A boy of - what is he even? Six, seven? He will never be able to hold Dragonstone, no matter the title you give him. Your brother was nearly killed several times in his years there, and he was a man grown. They say the North remembers, but the blood of Old Valyria never forgets. Ned will not thank you for throwing one of his wolf pups to the likes of Celtigar and Velaryon. Not to mention that Winterfell is far inland. Even if the boy were ten name days older, he would have no idea what to do with an island, let alone a fleet."

Robert huffed, and the determination his eyes showed now was of the kind Jon had long since learnt to dread. "Ned's brother is a man grown now, is he not?" he said. "And yet his seat is years from being completed. And he married that Mormont girl of Bear Island. Let them come along with the boy, help him rule until he is of age. Those damn dragon lovers on the Narrow Sea could benefit from a bit of rigid Northern leadership these days. Perhaps that will teach them not to have half their ships off on business in the Free Cities the next time I need their fleet."

Jon sighed, ran through it all again within the sanctity of his own mind. Once again, reluctantly, he had to admit there was some small merit to Robert's mad plan. If Ned's bastard had anything of his father in him, he might truly be exactly what Dragonstone needed. And until he could grow into it, Benjen Stark might very well do as regent. The young man, by all accounts, had a good head on his shoulders. And the point about the Mormont woman was one Jon had not even thought of himself. They would have a hard few years at first, but down the line having the son of one of Robert's most loyal Lords Paramount - and Ned was that, regardless of the rift between the two of them, Jon had to believe that much at least - on the seat of Dragonstone could very well turn out to be a good thing. And who knew, maybe this overture of Robert's would finally be the one that would make Ned look upon him with kinder eyes.

"He even named the boy after you, did he not?" Robert asked, grinning more widely now that Jon was beginning to relent. "Jon Snow, or some such? What do they name their bastards up North again?"

"Jon Sand," Jon corrected. "The boy was born in Dorne." And by the Gods, he wished the boy had been born to any other woman than Ashara Dayne. If Ned had fathered her on some tavern wench, he and Robert might have been able to reconcile in their shared sorrow over Lyanna's death. Instead, Ned had returned to the Red Keep with his bastard, a wet nurse and Arthur Dayne in tow. Thus, his short stay for Robert's coronation had been a series of fights between the two over whether Dayne should be allowed to give up the White to help raise his beloved sister's child or not. Jon, truthfully, had breathed a sigh of relief when Robert had finally acquiesced and allowed Dayne to go North with his nephew. As big a legend as Dayne was and as powerful a symbol as he would have been in Robert's Kingsguard, Robert would've never been safe with one of Rhaegar Targaryen's closest friends and companions always at his back. The boy would have that, at least, Jon supposed. If he was to be plopped down in hostile territory when he was barely old enough to leave the nursery at Winterfell, at least he would have the Sword of the Morning protecting him. Jon barely kept himself from giving another sigh. "Very well," he conceded. "I will write out the legitimisation and send orders to Winterfell tonight." He reached out and pushed his hair out of his face. It was nearly all grey now, and slowly turning white. No thanks to Robert. "Now, what are we going to do about the Reach?"

Immediately, Robert's mood soured, and he spent a moment just glowering. For good reason too. If the Reach had come when they were called upon rather than dithering for moons upon moons, the Greyjoy Rebellion might have been a brief affair. Instead, they had sent less than half their fleet and arrived only when the bitter, bloody fighting was near done and had already claimed the life of many good men, the king's brother not least among them. "I should have Mace Tyrell's head for his inaction," Robert growled.

Part of Jon wanted to agree. He was not sure the Tyrells would ever truly forget that the Targaryens had given them Highgarden, the Reach, so much of what they had. They might have bent the knee, but they still dallied, and they would unbend given half a chance. "We cannot afford another war, Your Grace," he said. "Many of our men were lost, and those who remain are weary. They will have only just returned to their homes and families, and the Reach forces are fresh. If we try to muster now..."

"And the devils knew that when they tarried, did they not?" Robert asked. He picked up his goblet and drank deeply. "Tyrell has a little girl, does he not?"

"You cannot possibly mean to betroth her to Prince Joffrey," Jon said. "At this point, even the Martells have done more to warrant the honour. Do not reward them for their missteps."

Robert smiled as though he were playing some great joke. "They are not who I mean to reward," he said.

Jon picked up his meaning within a moment. "Ned will not consent," he said then. "You know how the North is. Ned's Lady Wife is Southron. His bannermen will not accept a Southron bride for young Robb as well."

Robert's grin widened. "Not my namesake," he said. "Yours. Ned loves young Jon as much as he loves his trueborn son. So Jon shall be given his father's name, a lordship, and a Lord Paramount's daughter for wife."

Jon sighed. Again, there was some merit to the plan, but it was risky. Sometimes he truly preferred it when Robert stayed as wilfully separate from politics and the running of the realm as he could. "Even if you give the boy the Stark name, he will still have been born a bastard. They might have accepted the heir to Winterfell, but planting their little rose on dreary Dragonstone with a baseborn husband... It is an insult, and they will take it as such."

Robert shrugged. "It is an insult. Hopefully it will teach them to think twice the next time they are reluctant to come to heel. We will find a way to give them the right incentives," he said. "More stick than carrot, I should think. And once the little rose has a Stark babe in her belly, they will be quicker to obey. Ned is my brother in all but name. His boys are the closest things I have to nephews. The Tyrells know that. They know rising against the Stag is the same as rising against the Wolf, and whatever else they are, the little flowers are not kinslayers."

"You speak about babes when the children in question are little more than that themselves," Jon said with a sigh.

"They will wed as soon as she flowers," Robert said. "They are of an age, are they not? I would wager that when she flowers, the boy will be close enough to grown to put a babe in her. Some five or six years is not that long in the great scale of things."

Robert, Jon knew, was not going to budge, not this time. So what was there to do except write out the letters?

Lord Eddard Stark

Ned did not break the seal on the letters until after the King's messenger and most of the household had gone to bed. He was not all that eager to read about what Robert wanted - or wanted to give - this time. He never was. Robert's letters were always penned in Jon Arryn's hand, and always a source of embarrassment and resentment and weary sadness. He could no more forgive Robert's easy acceptance of the Targaryen children's death than he could stop imagining Jon Sand in their place, his little skull smashed in, half a hundred stab wounds all over his small body. He could no more turn down Robert's gifts than he could be truly happy about them. He could not think about his foster brother without feeling an unsettling longing for what had once been. He sucked in a breath, steeled himself, and broke the seal.

He read the letter through once, then twice, and it was all he could do not to laugh, or cry. He was not sure which urge was strongest. He would have asked for Jon to be legitimised years ago if not for the fear and sorrow it would bring his wife, if not for his own fear of what would happen if Robert ever stopped to pay attention to little Jon's existence. Except it seemed that Robert had never forgotten about Jon, but had also never once stopped to put the clues together, and thank the Gods for that.

He had never believed in such a thing as fate, but for a moment there, he thought he might. In another world, another life, Jon would have been born the Prince of Summerhall, or even the Prince of Dragonstone. Certainly that, after little Aegon's death. And somehow, now, Robert, knowing nothing, had seen fit to make Jon Lord of Dragonstone. There was irony to it, and Ned could not help but feel chilled down to his bones at it, at the momentary thought that maybe everything had been written out already, maybe they were all playing out the roles set for them, and some things were writ in stone regardless of what else might happen. The thought of it frightened him. The thought of little Jon on Dragonstone made him shudder. The thought of sending away the child he had come to love as his own hurt like a blade between his ribs. Jon belonged in the North, in Winterfell, where Ned could look over him, could ensure his safety, where he could try his best to give him all the love his parents were unable to.

In the end, though, the only thing within Ned's power to withhold from Robert was his friendship. And if these often cruel Gods of theirs somehow, for whatever reasons, saw fit to gift Jon with some small sliver of what should have been his by birth, Ned could not deny them. Not when they weight of Arthur Dayne's accusing eyes grew heavier by the day, not when Jon himself grew more silent and solemn with every moon that passed, as if some little piece of his nephew was scoured away for every day he had to believe himself nothing more than the bastard of Winterfell.

Still, his hands shook with apprehension when he wrote back his acceptance to Robert.

Lady Olenna Tyrell

"This is an insult," Mace all but screamed, his hands shaking around the letter he held as he paced around the solar. "That, that Baratheon upstart want me to marry my daughter to a bastard?"

For once in her life, Olenna Tyrell found herself agreeing with her lackwit son. Something inside her clenched in shame and rage at the thought of sweet little Margaery married to a Northern bastard of all things. She clenched her hands around the armrests of her chair. Still, she kept herself calm. "I told you and Paxter it was not time to play games just yet," she said. "You would not listen to me." Of course, they might have all lucked out if Paxter's little scheme had succeeded and the king and his main allies had been slain fighting the Greyjoys, which was why she, foolishly, had not pushed harder. Now was not the time to dwell on past mistakes, however. She wanted her sweet granddaughter to marry a crass lowborn Northerner as much as Mace did, but sometimes there was nothing to do but work with what you had. Let the board reset, take time to reassess the pieces and move on from there. "Margaery is years away from flowering," she said. "There is plenty of time to figure out where we shall go next."

Mace huffed. "With Garlan in Riverrun with Hoster Tully - and I can no more turn that invitation down than I can turn down the betrothal - there is nothing we can do," he said. "One toe out of line, and my little boy..." He trailed off, shaking his head, his round cheeks flushing in anger. At least he had the good sense to see that Garlan would be going as a hostage, rather than a squire, whatever word Jon Arryn chose to use.

Margaery was supposed to have married so much higher than this, was supposed to have been a princess or a queen. Marrying the Prince of Dragonstone would have been a dream once - it had been all their dream, before the War of the Usurper was lost, that Margaery might be born a girl and one day be betrothed to Prince Aegon, and then he had died and their plans had been for naught. Marrying a mere Lord of Dragonstone was something else. The Starks would never be the Targaryens, and the Lord of Dragonstone was no longer first in line for the throne. Mace was right; this truly was an insult of the highest rank.

"Mayhap he is a good boy," Alerie spoke up from the other chair, her voice soft and uncertain. "Mayhap he will be good to her."

Olenna let out a long sigh at her gooddaughter's words. "He will still be a bastard," she said.

"If things had not gone so very wrong, he would not have been," Alerie said, holding fast to her opinion more stubbornly than she usually would. "It is said that Eddard Stark and Ashara Dayne pledged to wed after the Tourney at Harrenhal. If not for the war and Brandon Stark's death, they would have, and Jon Sand would have been born Jon Stark. Both his parents are highborn, and he is being raised and trained by the Sword of the Morning himself. He was born of love, not treason. The kind of bastard you lament, not the kind you despise."

Olenna bit back a snort. A bastard was a bastard was a bastard. "Like I said," she repeated. "Dear Margaery's flowering is years away yet. We have time to think. Time to meet him and see for ourselves," she added, for her gooddaughter's benefit as she tried not to roll her eyes. "Nothing is set in stone just yet." Even if the proposal could not be turned down, there were ways around that. Young boys receiving martial training often did not survive to wed, betrothal or not. And she did not imagine the bastard of one of the Usurper's dogs would go unscathed on Dragonstone, even if Olenna did not help things along.