(AU: In which Jon Arryn never goes poking around Joffrey's parentage and dies of natural causes several years after he is killed in the canon series.)
"Arya, honestly. The king's entire retinue is coming today, and you look like you've just been rolling around with a sow," Sansa said with a scowl that ruined her pretty face, looking over her sister.
Arya frowned, pulling at her tunic and looking down to inspect it. Arya had been riding with Bran since dawn, and she had to concede that Sansa had a point; her roughspun clothes were filthy.
"Fine," she said sourly, bumping past her sister and making her squeal about getting dirt on her gown. Arya stomped to the bathhouse, peeling off her clothing and slipping her sore flesh into the boiling water. Her thighs were aching, but the hot water helped loosen them. Arya heard the door open and turned to see Sansa moving towards her, all disgust gone from her face. Sansa had removed her shoes. She walked towards Arya and bent over, dipping her hands in the water and helping to wash her hair. Arya bit back a smile.
When Sansa had deemed her clean, she'd wrapped her in bath linens and taken her back to the tower to be dressed, perfumed, and preened for the king.
"This one will be perfect," Sansa cooed, laying a silver Southron gown on Arya's bed. "Your eyes will look splendid."
Arya blinked at the thing, imagining that she would look more like a cod and less like a 'splendid' lady. However, she said nothing as Sansa slid the bath linens from her shoulders.
"Aren't you the least bit anxious to see Renly?" Sansa asked, meeting her eyes in the mirror. "I understand if you aren't excited, exactly, but aren't you even curious? He is a wonderful match for you, after all. The brother of the king and the lord of Storm's End is an excellent bid for a second daughter. You should be happy father arranged it!"
Arya shrugged as she pulled up her smallclothes. Sansa silently urged her to lift her arms before she dropped the floaty silver gown over Arya's head. "It doesn't matter if I like him or not. We'll still be married. Best not to get my hopes in either direction, I say. How about you and your lord?"
Sansa was fighting a huge smile. "Well, I've heard good things about him," she said, her eyes distant and dreamy as they undoubtedly danced off to a place full of Edric Dayne. Arya had heard he was sweet, fair-haired and fair-faced; perfect for Sansa. She had heard Renly was handsome as well, and capable too, but she refused to trust any gossip until she saw him for herself.
By the time Sansa was finished lacing her into her dress—making Arya feel very much like she was in some kind of cage—Arya's hair was nearly dry. Sansa set to work on plaiting it into one of the complicated, many-tendriled braids she fancied so much.
"Do you know when father plans to send us south?" Arya asked quietly, staring into her own eyes.
Sansa did not look up from her work. "Soon, I'd wager. I know that I'm going as quickly as possible, since all that business with the Martells has been sorted out in Dorne and it's safe to go now. You'll probably go soon, too."
Arya refused to flinch at that. Sooner than she wanted, Sansa had finished her braid and circled it into a pretty, ornate bun at the base of her neck. Sansa leaned against her sister, affectionately placing her chin on her shoulder. The two of them hardly bonded, but on a day like today, Arya was terribly grateful to have her sister. She was the absolute worst at being a highborn lady—probably the worst in the Seven Kingdoms—and without Sansa's advice, she was certain she would have Renly Baratheon running screaming from the castle before long.
"Lyanna Stark would swoon with envy to see you," Sansa whispered in Arya's ear, both of them staring at Arya in the mirror. With her hair and face clean, her features were bright and distinct, and even Arya thought she looked quite comely. Sansa had been right about the colour of the dress, of course; Sansa was always right about those things.
Nevertheless, Arya cocked an eyebrow. "I thought I was 'Arya Horseface'."
Sansa frowned. "I didn't mean all of that when I said it, you know. About you being ugly. I was being cruel and stupid." Sansa brushed a small hair behind Arya's ear. "I used to think being a lady was all that mattered. But you would make a boring lady and a terrible one besides. I much prefer you as a wildling. You make me look better," Sansa said, smirking at her.
Smiling, Arya decided that she liked Sansa a lot better when she was betrothed.
The two sisters giggled and scandalised one another for another hour—Sansa with her gossip and Arya with her crude japes and stories—until the horns sounded, announcing the king.
They ran to the window, crowding each other to see. Sure enough, a massive retinue of at least two-hundred people were easing through the gates of Castle Winterfell, the occasional Baratheon banner floating amongst them.
"Come on," Sansa said, taking her hand. "You shouldn't be late."
Arya kept praying that something would come up to delay them. She even contemplating deliberately tripping down the tower stairs and breaking her leg, just to stave off all of this for a little longer. Everyone said she was ready to be married, but she certainly didn't feel that way.
Arya felt her heart beating against her ribs like a hammer as Sansa led her by the elbow to their family, all assembled in a neat line. She and Sansa had hurriedly thrown light furs over the shoulders as they passed through the Great Hall, but Arya felt completely bare as they passed all of the Stark bannermen. She knew that they knew what this moment meant for her; somehow, that made it worse.
Jory Cassel put a hand on her shoulder briefly as she passed and murmured "Don't be afraid. You're lovely as the moon."Arya felt a rush of affection for him as she weakly tried to return his reassuring smile, wishing recklessly that she could instead be marrying someone she knew, someone she trusted; someone like Jory.
When she and Sansa fell in line between Robb and Bran, Arya felt like a terrified rabbit, ready to bolt at first sight of a predator.
She saw King Robert meander forward on his horse before slipping off it and walking towards her family. A tall, austere beauty with gold hair that she knew must be the queen followed him. Arya's eyes looked through the crowd, trying to find her betrothed, but there were too many men dressed in finery for her to discern which was Renly.
Robert made some jape at her father before booming with laughter and embracing him. He greeted her mother in a similarly familiar way, fondly calling her "Cat", and then came to Robb, to whom he'd promised princess Myrcella once she flowered. Robert clapped him on the back and muttered something that made them both laugh. When he came to Sansa, he smiled, making little folds appear around his eyes.
"Oh, Cat, this one's the spittin' image o' you!" he chucked Sansa under the chin. "The Lord of Starfall is a lucky man indeed."
Sansa smiled graciously, curtsying and thanking him. When Robert turned to Arya, she was shocked to see his smile instantly fall.
"Seven hells," he muttered, slowly approaching her, looking as if he didn't even know he was doing it. Arya watched him with a furrowed brow, wondering if she had something in her hair or on her face that Sansa hadn't noticed. She felt suddenly uncomfortable.
"Your Grace," she murmured awkwardly, preparing to curtsey but halted when the king shot out an arm to stop her. "No," he said with a thick swallow. "You'll be my good-sister soon, Lady Arya. None of that."
Arya blinked, puzzled. Robert licked his lips, his eyes full of something that confused and bothered Arya.
"You're a pretty thing," he said, dropping his gaze to the ground as if he could not bear to look at her any longer. "Renly'll like you, I'm sure."
When he moved to greet Bran, his cheer seeming to come back to him, Arya glanced over to Sansa, who only shrugged. Her eyes scanned the yard, puzzled, before they came to rest on the queen. She was giving Arya a curious look too; not one of disdain, but one of...recognition, it looked like. And she wouldn't stop staring. She looked like she was seeing a ghost.
The banquet went as well as could be expected.
Arya was pleased to learn that Renly was just as handsome as her mother had insisted he was. The best thing about Renly, though, was not his looks; he'd sworn to Arya that when they went to court, he'd buy her a new horse and go riding with her, and that they could go swimming and hunting at his castle in Storm's End if she liked. Arya's greatest fear concerning marriage was that she would end up spending the rest of her life birthing babies and sewing and gossiping, but it didn't seem as if Renly was interested in making her do any of that.
"I've heard about you," he'd said, a twinkle in his Baratheon blue eyes. "I know better than to try and make the famous Arya Stark into some boring little housewife."
She hadn't been able to keep from smiling.
Arya felt less badly about leaving home than she thought she would. Her father, mother and Bran were coming along, and she was going to return within the year anyway for Robb and Myrcella's wedding; even Sansa would be there.
Renly entertained her every day without fail, constantly making her laugh and telling her stories about Storm's End and King's Landing. He felt less like a stranger trying to become her lover—as she'd felt around all other potential suitors—and more like a friend. She found herself oddly being reminded of Jon, before remembering that she was marrying Renly, and thinking of him as a brother was probably not the best thing she could do.
For the next moon, all she did during her days was ride, speak with Renly, ride, jape and laugh with Bran, ride, have her hair tousled by Jory, ride, curl up with Sansa to sleep. Arya never thought she would enjoy whispered conversations with her sister while they lay in bed, waiting for slumber, but she had used to think she would never get married, too.
Sansa never tried to talk to her about overtly ladylike things, knowing Arya would scoff and dismiss the conversation. Instead they discussed visiting each other's castles, exploring their new lands, learning new customs. Arya had to admit that she was excited about going to King's Landing; she would miss Winterfell terribly, but she had always wanted to see more of the world.
"I'll get you a Dornish sand steed," Sansa swore. "I know I cannot discourage you from riding, and it looks as if you've got a husband who won't mind you doing it anyway. I'd rather get you a gift you'll use, since I know that if I get you a fine gown, you'll be using it as stable bedding within the week anyhow."
Arya had grinned at that. "I should like a sand steed," she murmured back. "I hear there are no faster horses."
"Edric says so," Sansa said with a short nod. "I'll get you the strongest and fastest one the breeders have."
Arya had never loved Sansa more.
By the time they reached King's Landing, Arya and Sansa were forced to part, as Sansa had to keep riding south. Arya had let Sansa kiss her on the crown of her head and embrace her. She could only remember embracing her sister a handful of times in her life, and though they had never been very close before the past few months, Arya felt as if she was losing a half of her; the comelier, more pleasant half of her.
"You'll write?" Sansa asked. Arya smiled, blinking back tears that had sprung to her eyes. "Yes, all the time," she promised, letting Sansa take her into her arms again. When her sister leaned away, she was crying. Sansa wiped the tears away with her dainty fingers before moving to bid their parents and Bran goodbye as well.
After Sansa's retinue rode away, the king's bannermen rode on into the city. Arya marvelled, open-mouthed and staring, at the huge, sand-coloured walls and the endless winding roads filled with so many people that Arya thought that the city may burst. It was so warm there, and Arya could feel sweat beading on her neck and back. The Red Keep stood tall and imposing at the end of city, and for the first time, Arya realised that this was her home now.
A week into their arrival, the date for she and Renly's wedding had been set. She was to marry him at the next turn of the moon, in three weeks' time. During the day, Arya was instructed to spend her time socialising with Renly, and while they had obeyed that order for the first few days, Renly had surprised her by cutting her free one morning.
"I'm quite sick of sitting in my solar all day—even if it is with you," he'd said with a wolfish grin that reminded Arya of Jon again.
"What would you have me do, then?" Arya asked, puzzled and blinking.
Renly beckoned her forward, a conspiratorial gleam in his eye. "Well, I've been challenged by my friend Ser Loras to a game of cyvasse; he's slandering my name all over the castle, you see. And if you'd like, you can take my horse and see the city."
Arya had not needed him to repeat himself.
An hour later she was donning her favourite breeches and a leather cuirass Robb had had specifically made for her, built for a woman's body. Her hair tied up into a bun, she was bounding through twisting, jagged streets on the back of Renly's courser, breezing past brothels, stores and pot shops. She smiled jubilantly at the little market stands she encountered and marvelled when she happened upon a lovely fountain. Around midday, she happened upon a large store on the Street of Steel with smoke rising from a hole in its roof.
A forge, she thought instantly, and sure enough, a sign dangling from iron chains announced it to be Tobho Mott's Smithy.
When she was around two-and-ten, Needle's pommel had become too small for her hand and she was forced to put it away. She had been desperate to acquire a new sword since then, but her father had ordered every smith in Winterfell off of her. In King's Landing, though...
Arya slipped from the courser before tying him sturdily to a stake outside, conscious of the fact that someone could try to steal him. She strode to the store's entrance, pushing the creaky wooden door open.
It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the dark, smoke-filled room she suddenly found herself in. Between coughs, she managed to call, "Hello?" into the store.
"Just a minute," returned what sounded like a young man's voice from the back of the shop. Arya glanced around, her eyes finished watering, and noticed that the walls were decorated with some of the finest blades she had ever seen short of Valyrian steel. She approached them, awestruck, reaching up to touch the gleaming blade of a longsword.
Arya flipped around, startled. She met the gaze of a tall, broad young man dressed in a smith's apron. Sweat-slicked black hair hung in his eyes and he was gripping a hammer firmly in his hand. Arya found herself suddenly struck by his resemblance to Renly, her betrothed.
"No touching," he said, looking her over with eyes as crisp and blue as her soon-to-be-husband's. "What's a girl doin' here, anyhow?"
"I was interested in having a sword made," she said, hoping that she did not look too much like she was staring. This boy looked younger than Renly; closer to Robb or Jon in age.
"Alright, for whom?" he asked, crossing his arms. Arya swallowed when she saw the way tendrils of muscular vein protruded from them. Renly certainly did not have arms like that.
"For me," she said, tearing her eyes back to his face.
The boy's eyebrows lifted until they disappeared under his hair. "You? But you're just a little girl. What would you need a sword for?"
"I'm four-and-ten, I'm not a girl," she snapped, indignant. "And I'll pay you well. Isn't that what you want? Gold?"
He snorted. "S'pose so, but I ain't makin' a sword until you tell me why you need one."
"Do you make everyone who comes in here tell you why they need a sword?"
"Then I won't," she huffed. "I'll just find another smith."
"Now hold on there, miss," the boy called after her as she turned to leave. "I wouldn't trust the other smiths on this street with your gold or your presence. If you'd like a sword so badly, I'll forge you one."
Arya beamed. "For true?"
She closed the door to the shop and stepped back inside. "I'm Arya," she said.
"Arya," he repeated, nodding. "It's pretty."
"What's your name?" she pressed, ignoring the way his compliment made her stomach shiver in a nice way.
"Gendry," he replied, hooking his thumbs into his belt and smiling at her. "Armourer's apprentice."