Author's Notes: And I am finally getting around to putting my multichapter fics on here! So, this fic has two big AU conceits to be understood:
1. Jon is a girl.
2. Cersei is dead.
Also, this thing is practically in experiment in how many crack pairings you can fit into a fic that isn't really at all cracky. You'll see more what I'm talking about in later chapters.
Trigger warnings: domestic violence, marital rape, referenced character death, possibly others?
The Book of the Maiden
Jo could not get her hair to sit properly.
She'd long since given up on getting her wild curls to form neat northwoman's braids, the way Sansa's could – her hair was too unruly, when she tried it stuck out at all angles and left her looking like a half-groomed poodle – but she should have been able to tie it back at least, without all her curls trying to make their escape. She should have been able to, but she wasn't.
"Jo, your hair looks lovely. Can we get a move on?"
She groaned. "Shut up, Robb," and then she pouted in the mirror. "I don't know why I'm putting in so much effort. It's not like the king is going to pay any attention to the bastard daughter hidden away at the back of the crowd."
"You're meant to stand in the second row, aren't you? With Theon?" Robb said, and yes, the fact she would have to stand next to Theon Greyjoy throughout was possibly the worst thing about the day. Robb walked over, clasping his hand on her shoulder. "Come on, don't be like that. You know what, if it makes you feel better, I'll stare at you through the whole thing. Everyone'll think it's a bit weird."
That made her laugh. "Thanks Robb," she said.
"Now come on, if my mother discovers you made me late to meet the king, she'll actually have you flayed alive."
She might do that anyway, Jo thought, but she sighed and gave up on her hair, smoothing the wrinkles in her dress. It was the best dress she owned, though not as nice as the one Arya had been forced into, and of course, nothing near the monstrosity every seamstress in Winter Town had been making for Sansa for the last three months. They said the king was to betroth the crown prince to her, and Jo was glad – that was all Sansa had ever wanted, after all. Jo'd never been the type to collect fancy dresses; not that her father wouldn't buy them for her if she asked, but she didn't like to be a bother, and didn't want to watch Lady Catelyn sneer at the bastard putting on pretenses of being a lady. Still, it was the king. She wanted to look her best.
Bran was excited. Not as excited as Sansa, granted, but still excited – the king! At Winterfell! With all his knights! Bran had asked his father about getting one of them to take him on as a squire, he just laughed and ruffled Bran's hair, and said "We shall see." Bran thought that meant no. But still – he was sure he could talk Father into it, so long as he found the right knight to squire for.
The king took so long to arrive though. Robb and Jo showed up in a rush, like they were afraid of being late, only to have to wait for ages anyway. Arya showed up even later, and the king still wasn't there. Bran's feet were starting to hurt, but still, he couldn't bear the thought of not being there the moment His Grace finally did arrive.
Eventually, all the horses and servants and squires and the like were in place, and the king's own carriage drew into view. Bran stood up straight and puffed out his chest. He knew he was young, but still, he wanted to look as much like a knight as he could when the king first saw him. First impressions count, Mother always told him.
The king went to Father first, of course. The regular kingly courtesies were observed, of course, before he and Father laughed like old friends. Which they were. Bran got distracted, he had to admit, when he spotted Ser Jaime Lannister – the Kingslayer. Bran had heard stories about him, of course he had, mostly ones about how little his father liked him. Still, there was something interesting about the man. Maybe he'd squire me. After all, how many offers could he get?
There was something interesting about him, but also something sad. Father's stories never mentioned that. But he might not have seen it, it might only have come about when Ser Jaime's sister, the Queen, died.
Bran was dragged out of his reverie by the king leaning down to talk to him, grinning with a red face. He did not seem too sad over his queen's death. "Show us your muscles," the king said, and Bran did, and while he may have been getting ahead of himself, he thought the king looked impressed. "You'll be a soldier, boy," he said. Bran decided he liked this king.
King Robert made his way through the introductions, until he got to the end of the line. Then he stopped, and frowned, peering over Sansa's shoulder. Bran saw her look taken aback, and out of the corner of his eye, Father's spine stiffen. "...Lyanna."
Everyone looked around, bewildered, trying to figure out who the king was just referring to. Bran had to strain his neck to see it, but he managed, and found the king staring over the Starks' heads into the row behind, at Jo. It was confusing.
The king burst through to reach her, and everyone, on instinct, made way for him. Theon Greyjoy jumped a couple of inches back, and Bran thought he looked rather frightened. But Jo stood her ground, even as King Robert stood little more than an inch from her.
Father coughed, sounding very uncomfortable – Bran couldn't help but think he looked frightened too. "Robert, this is my natural-born daughter," he said, slowly and deliberately. "Her name is Joanna."
"Joanna," the king echoed in a whisper, the first syllable floating away on the breeze. "A beautiful name."
Out of the corner of his eye, Bran saw Ser Jaime flinch.
"...Thank you, Your Grace," said Jo, who clearly was not expecting this attention. Then it was her turn to flinch as the king reached forth and wrapped one of the curls she could not tie back around his finger, then tucked it behind her ear. But she didn't move away.
Bran wasn't so sure he liked this king anymore.
They all waited for King Robert to say something else, but he didn't, he just stood there a long moment, with Jo looking ever more uncomfortable and Father balling a fist. Bran didn't really understand what was going on.
Eventually, the king stepped back. "Right, let's not stand about here freezing our balls off all day!" he said, and Bran giggled.
Then they started to move back into Winterfell's warm halls, Theon leaning toward Jo and whispering "Gee Snow, if I knew all it took was a crown to get my hands on you, I would have gone looking for one years ago!" That made her punch his arm, as hard as she could get away with.
As they walked inside, Bran noticed how Father's face was still set in the stern mask of Lord Stark, and he did not relax.
The king's arrival was strange and unsettling, but everyone seemed to forget about it right afterwards – everyone but Jo. Lady Catelyn did her best to keep her hidden away throughout the visit, which for once she was thankful for, although she knew the woman wasn't doing it for her sake.
When she wasn't hidden away she saw the king staring at her, and tried as best she could to stick by Robb's side – although she wasn't sure how much Robb could do to protect her if anything did happen. Probably nothing would happen, the king had probably forgotten about her already, but he was known for his appetites, and years living with Theon Greyjoy had taught Jo that plenty of highborn men view bastard girls as nothing but born whores. Although Theon had never taken it beyond drunkenly asking for a kiss and calling her a bitch when she said no, as bastard or not, even he wasn't stupid enough to try and force anything upon his captor's daughter.
However the king would have no such reason to be afraid.
It was toward the end of the visit, maybe the third last day, when Jory Cassel came running up to her to tell her that Father had summoned her to his solar. That made her frown. Robb was always being summoned to Father's solar, but Jo, being both a bastard and a girl, had no reason to concern herself with matters of official business. Some speck of pride flared in her chest at being called to do so anyway, even if she had no idea why.
Once she got there, Father was sitting at his desk, stern frown upon his face. He wasn't looking at anything in particular, and when he saw her, he did not smile. "Joanna," he said, calling her by her full name. "Please sit down."
Her heart raced, and for some reason, she feared she is in trouble. She had no idea what she'd done that she could possibly be in trouble for, but she was sure Lady Catelyn could have thought up something (perhaps that was being unfair on her stepmother. It was not as if the woman made things up to get Jo in trouble – she was just always on the look out for any tiny infringement Jo might make). "Is something wrong, Father?" she asked.
He shook his head. "No, not wrong as such, just..." he trailed off as he drummed his fingers across the desk. It did not soothe her nerves. "I'm not quite sure how to say this."
That was odd. Father was so sturdy, so solid, so much the Lord of Winterfell – the Lord of Winterfell was never lost for words.
"Well, speaking is generally considered a good first step," she smiled softly at him. Finally, he smiled back.
"It's Robert. His Grace," Father said. "He's come to me with a proposition. About a marriage."
"Sansa, I know, she's to marry the prince," Jo said, too quickly – quickly enough she worried she sounded bitter. "I mean – don't get me wrong Father, I'm happy, for her and for you, for the whole house – but what does it have to do with me?"
Father shook his head again. "Not Sansa," he said. "And not the prince."
Jo was bewildered.
"Robert wants to marry you," Father said, looking away as he did so. "He was very insistent upon it. He said the second he saw you, he knew you were the only woman he could wed again for."
Her jaw dropped open. The king?
Immediately, rage flamed in her breast. It was a cruel joke, it must have been. Lady Catelyn set him up to it, or maybe Sansa, spiteful because the king hadn't arranged her betrothal yet, or Theon, getting his own back for her rejections. Because it wasn't true. It couldn't be.
But Father wouldn't lie to me. Which left only one possibility, one that happened to be impossible. "But – why?" she finally choked out. "I'm just a bastard girl. Why would the king want to marry me?"
"Because you look like the only woman he ever loved." Father said that so quickly, she couldn't react, and a long silence fell. Of course, her aunt Lyanna – King Robert called her that name, although in the moment Jo fooled herself she just misheard the first syllable. She'd always been told she looked like her aunt, although never in Lady Catelyn's earshot. She'd always been told what a beauty her aunt was, beautiful enough to start a war, to destroy a dynasty, and she'd had to deflect the affections of enough squires and stablehands to believe it.
Father gave a long sigh. "Look, Joanna, I understand why you wouldn't want to – I don't want to force you into anything–"
"No, Father, I–" she hesitated over her words. Did she want to marry the king? When he spoke to her in the courtyard, the times she caught him staring at her across the halls, it made her so uncomfortable. But she assumed he was just a lusty nobleman, wanting it because he assumed it would be easy to get it. He was hardly the sort of man she ever imagined herself marrying: he was so much older than her, and he was fat, lecherous and drunken.
But he is the king. Had she not always dreamed of this, deep down? Her beauty enchanting some nobleman until he could not think to marry another woman, he would have her or he would perish? She would never say as such out loud, but she had as many foolish dreams as Sansa, of some gallant knight making a noble lady of her – not just a noble lady, but a Queen. In her more spiteful moments, she had dreamed of visiting the Riverlands, somehow, and working her way into the widowed Hoster Tully's heart, just to see the look on Lady Stark's face when she had to call Jo Mother. But wouldn't it be better to see the woman have to call her Your Grace?
Some part of her flinched at that. She didn't want to wed just to spite her stepmother. But would this not be the best thing she could do for her Father too? He could marry Sansa to Prince Joffrey, sure, but Sansa hadn't even bled yet, Joffrey was not much older than her, and no-one in the royal company spoke well of the young prince. Who knew what could happen between now and the wedding day? Besides, Joffrey would be king one day, but Robert was king now – she could give her father something Sansa, the trueborn daughter, could not: the king himself for a son-by-law. She had always feared her marriage would be nothing more than an excuse to be rid of her, to foist her upon whichever of his lords had a bastard of his own to deal with, or maybe if she was lucky, the seventh son of a minor lord whose father didn't like him very much.
But like this, she could bring her father more honour than all his trueborn children combined.
So what if the king was a lecherous old drunk? It was not as if she ever had any delusions she would marry a fairytale prince. She wasn't Sansa.
"I think I want to marry the king," she said, doing her best to sound like a queen – not that she had any idea how queens sounded. Father frowned.
"Are you sure, Jo?" he asked. "Robert – I love the man like a brother, but–"
"He is a drunkard and a philanderer. I know that," she said. She did not want him thinking she was going into this as a naïve child. "But there are worse things to be. Surely, this is a better match than I ever thought I'd get? The bastard and the king. I owe it to the minstrels of the world to accept."
Father smiled at that, but then looked at her very carefully. "I just want you to be safe, Joanna," he said. "Safe and happy."
Safe and happy. He had always made sure she was the former, no-one could fault him on that, but the latter... "I know, Father," she said. "And I want the same."
Would this not fix all her father's problems? His bastard child tucked safely away in enough riches to keep her happy for the rest of her life, no longer an open wound between him and his wife, no longer a puzzle piece that had to be slotted in when trying to arrange lives for the trueborn babes, the one stain on his perfect honour finally redeemed. Jo wanted to do that for her father. Gods, how she wanted it.
"You are so young, Joanna," Father said. "Are you sure you're ready to make such a decision?"
"I'm not a child!" she said, all the authority slipping from her voice. She couldn't help but think she sounded exactly like a child. "I bled years ago!" More like a year and a half. "I'm almost fifteen now. How old were you when you married?"
"Seventeen," he said, a sad look crossing his eye. He examined her very carefully once more, and the hair on the back of her neck prickled. She had the odd feeling he wasn't telling her something. "Very well. I'll tell Robert you've accepted his proposal... if that's what you want."
"It is, Father."
He sighed, and stood. She wasn't quite sure what he was doing, but when he walked around behind her, she stood to face him. Gently, he tilted her head towards him with his finger, and smiled. "I still remember you as a babe, Jo," he said. "So tiny, so helpless, just a squalling bundle in my arms. I was barely more than a boy, I had no idea what to do with a child, and I knew how much trouble you would cause me... and I knew you would be worth it."
Her heart ached. The words were so kind, and yet, she couldn't help but know he would never dare say them if Lady Catelyn was listening. So she decided to try her luck. "Father," she said, voice almost shaking, "do you regret having me?"
A moment of silence, and then he pulled her close and kissed her brow. "I could never," he said.
He jumped at the feel of Sansa's arms squeezing him. Sansa wasn't shy about giving hugs, but they were always gentle, ladylike ones – unless she was really excited. "Um, hi?" he said as she finally released him. "You're happy?"
"Haven't you heard?!" She beamed so wide it could have split her face open. "Jo's going to marry the king!"
Bran blinked. What?
"I can't believe she's going to marry that stupid old king," Arya pouted, and Bran suddenly realised she was there. "It's Mother's fault. I bet Jo only agreed because of her."
"It is not!" Sansa said. "Isn't it romantic? The king could have any noble woman in all the seven kingdoms, but the only woman to steal his heart is a humble bastard girl from the North. Of course, he'll have to legitimise her before the wedding, but–"
"Wasn't he already married once?"
"Shut up, Arya!" said Sansa. Bran just kept blinking in confusion. No-one had told him any of this. "Why can't you see how good this is, for all of us? Jo's not just a bastard anymore, she'll be queen–"
"And then you'll be able to love her?!" Arya's face started to turn red with rage.
"That's not what I–"
"She's going to leave us," Arya said, sounding on the edge of tears.
Sansa sighed. "Only for a little while," she said, like it was something very obvious, "but when I marry Prince Joffrey, and Bran joins the Kingsguard, we'll all be together again in King's Landing–"
"What about me?" Arya asked.
"Well if you marry a Crownlands man too–"
"I'm not marrying anybody!"
Sansa sighed again and looked to Bran for support, support he was entirely too scared of getting dragged into this argument to provide. "Come on, Bran. Won't it be nice?" Sansa smiled at him. "Jo as queen, me as princess, you as our gallant protector."
Bran hesitated. Yes, it did sound nice. But he wanted to talk to Jo about it first.
Jo had to pack quickly – the king still wanted to leave in three days. Lady Catelyn helped a lot, and was kinder than she had ever been, whether out of remorse or fear of what Jo would do once she had the power of all the Seven Kingdoms behind her, she wasn't sure. Of course, Jo would never actually do anything to hurt her stepmother – to hurt one Stark was to hurt them all, and she could never do that – but she found some measure of revenge in having the woman fear her, if only a little.
A knock came on the door. She turned and saw little Bran standing there, and she smiled. "Hi Bran," she said. "Come to say goodbye?"
Her siblings had slowly come to make their farewells as they'd found out. Arya had begged her not to go, of course, and made her heart ache. Robb told her how happy he was for her, and how king or no, if Robert thought to put a curl on her head out of place he'd regret it, and then held her tight and buried a sob against her neck. Sansa merely sought to provide Jo with all the etiquette lessons she'd need for King's Landing, or as many of them as she could cram into three days – honestly, most of it Jo had already learned by observing Sansa and her mother, but she said nothing. Sansa was always the most distant of her brothers and sisters, and it was nice to receive the attention.
"Apparently," Bran frowned. "Are you really going to marry the king?"
"Aye, I am." Even saying it out loud, it didn't feel real.
"Well that was sudden."
That made her laugh. "I know, I know. Hence why I have to pack so fast," she said. "It still feels like a dream. Why would the king want to marry me?"
"Because you look like Aunt Lyanna?" Bran said. Then he sighed. "Jo, are you – sure this is a good idea?"
Of course I'm sure – it has to be, she wanted to say. But the words died in her throat. Was she sure? She didn't really know the king, and everything she knew about him did speak to him being a brilliant husband. The only thing she liked about the man was the fact he was king, and she didn't like herself for that, she didn't want to be the woman who married for wealth and power alone.
But no, that wasn't why. She did it for her father, for her family. Was it not her duty as Ned Stark's daughter to secure him the best marriage she could?
She looked away. "Well, it's not like I'm going to get a better offer," she muttered.
"Don't say that!" When she looked up, Bran had walked over to her. He was so little, but she was on her knees to pack, so they met each other eye-to-eye. "There are other men you could marry, brave men, handsome men, young men–"
"And men your lady mother wouldn't find fit to clean out Winterfell's chamberpots." Bran flinched at that, and Jo felt a pang of guilt. But he had to understand. "I don't – I don't want to be the bastard girl, foisted upon a man as far away as possible and then forgotten about," she said. "For some reason, the king himself wants to marry me. I'd be stupid not to say yes, wouldn't I?"
Bran was still frowning, but he seemed to accept this. "I'm going to miss you," he said.
She smiled. "I'm going to miss you too, little brother." And then she pulled him in close to hug him. She was going to miss him. She was going to miss all of them: Robb and his never-ending support and affection, Arya and her absolute adoration, Sansa and her shy smiles she could never quite hide, little Rickon and his beaming grin. She would even miss Theon Greyjoy, in a way, or perhaps that was just her emotions riding high talking. His behaviour had not changed: he'd come and asked for that kiss again, before it became a treasonable offence, then just laughed and raised his hands in surrender at her angry glare. Ass, she'd thought, but she'd horrified herself with how fond it sounded.
She would not miss being the bastard of Winterfell, but she would miss Winterfell horribly.
"But hey, I'll see you again soon, won't I?" she pulled back to grin at Bran. "Once you're a knight of the Kingsguard."
A determined look came over Bran's face, and Jo suddenly realised how much he was Robb's brother, and Father's son. "Yes. You will," he said. "That's what Sansa says. You'll be a queen, and she'll be a princess, and I'll be your knight!"
"Good." She ruffled his hair. "Someone's got to keep this fat drunk king in line for me."