Arya sat in her seat and stared at her food while the hall roared around her. The king was already drunk, the queen sitting at his side with an expression of utter disgust, and Renly was speaking to everyone, all grinning and boasting of his new bride.
Arya kept noticing him call for the wineskin. She watched as Renly emptied his goblet three times, his face becoming redder with each cup he finished. When they were called to dance, he all but stumbled from his chair to take her hand and lead her away from the table.
Arya's face was empty of expression as she stared into his stupidly grinning face. "My love," she said, her tongue fat with the lie, "have you had enough wine?"
He laughed at that as he spun her around. Arya was dizzy when he answered.
"It's a celebration," he said. "I'm celebrating my marriage to my pretty wife."
Something had flickered in his smile then, but Arya said nothing. When the time came for him to pass her off to a different partner, she was handed away from lord-to-lord, forcing herself to smile when they complimented her and told japes. She danced with Loras Tyrell at one point, who had been oddly silent and stone-faced. Given his friendship with her husband, she'd assumed he would be happiest of all about Renly's marriage. Unless he just didn't like her.
Soon she found herself in the arms of Jaime Lannister. He handled her with the sort of grace and fluidity of a trained dancer, something she would have never expected from a knight. When she told him so, he chuckled.
"You know, Lady Stark, you judge things a bit too quickly."
She bristled at that. "I do not."
"Oh, yes, you do. You like to complain about being judged as a woman, but you've just judged me as a knight."
Arya frowned as he spun her past Lord Baelish and Margaery Tyrell. "I was only surprised. I meant it as a compliment."
"Well, you surprise me, too. And I mean that as a compliment."
Arya was remembering Cersei's words to her the night they dined in private. "The queen said I remind you of her. From when she was little."
He laughed again. He had such perfect teeth; so white and straight. "That you do. She was a tiny wildling like yourself, chasing after swords and horses and armour. She despised being ladylike."
Arya bit the inside of her lip as she stared into the Kingslayer's beautiful face. He was less frightening than his twin; he had always given her the impression that he cared absolutely nothing for politics, like everything was just some great jape that he was thoroughly enjoying. It was nice, given that anyone else at court, apart from her family, was always hungry for her secrets. Varys and Lord Baelish had struck up conversations with her in the corridors sometimes, but she'd always made excuses and scurried away. Her father said she was not to speak to them.
"You said before that you did not want marriage to ruin me," Arya said, her voice shaky when she realised, not for the first time during the celebration, that she was married now. "What did you mean?"
"Well, I think you already know." Jaime spun her gracefully. "Getting shipped off to a castle, birthing babies. It tends to put a rather final end to youth. And youth looks very good on you."
Somehow, Jaime seemed to turn everything into a flirtatious jibe. Maybe that was the only way he knew how to speak. "I had no choice in the matter."
"Oh, there is always a choice," he drawled, smiling wryly. "Whether it means going to the Neck and living as a spearwife or fleeing to the East on a ship. You could have run away at any time, if you wanted to badly enough."
"I couldn't just leave," Arya argued. "My family"—
"Yes, of course. Your family. You had to stay and be a lady because of your family. Now, is this the same family that sold you to Renly Baratheon? Or have you got another one I wasn't aware of?"
Arya scowled. She hated being made a fool of more than anything else in the world. "I'll not be mocked by the Kingslayer."
Jaime clucked his tongue like Septa Mordane. His green eyes were dancing. "Now, now, Lady Stark. What did I say before about judging?"
She was grateful when she was handed off to Jory.
She danced with Bran and Lancel Lannister and more lords whose names she did not care to remember before she heard it. The horns.
Everyone dancing had broken apart and the man who'd been her partner for the last minute, some lesser Tyrell, backed away from her. They were all looking at her now. Her and Renly.
"Time for the bedding!" The king called much too happily, and she suddenly got that prey-like feeling again, panic crawling up her spine. No, not yet. The feast could not be over yet. It couldn't be. She wasn't ready yet.
She could hear them, the men coming towards her. Some of them roared with cruel laughter. They were going to strip her now, in front of everyone. In front of her father and Loras Tyrell and Tyrion and the greedy-eyed king.
Feeling her eyes blur with shameful tears, suddenly Jaime was at her side again. She recognised him from the gleam of his white-gold armour which shined in the corner of her eye. Taking her by the arm, he led her a bit closer to the door and quickly and deftly tore her dress from her. She did not know whether to be shocked or grateful.
He left her in her smallclothes and took her in his arms, carrying her out of the hall of leering eyes.
Arya blinked away her tears and leant her head against his cold metal breastplate. "Thank you," she whispered.
"It's a stupid tradition, really. No point in it. Only thought of as a way to entertain all the drunk lechers who wish they could have the bride for themselves."
Arya sniffed. "What if he doesn't like me? What if I get pregnant?" she felt suddenly hysterical, knowing that in a few minutes she would be losing her maidenhead. And then it would be done. The marriage could not be annulled or set aside. She would be bound to Renly Baratheon forever.
"He will like you. And if he gets a child off you on your wedding night, you must be from terribly fertile stock. Of course, the existence of you and your four siblings have already made that clear, I think."
Arya had never, ever thought that Jaime Lannister could be comforting. But he was. He was more comforting to her now than her father or even Jory could be. Because he was telling her the truth.
"What if I don't like him."
She looked up at the handsome knight, fear taking her heart. "What if I come to hate him? What if I end up just like the queen?"
Jaime's mouth became a grim little line. Arya wondered what he felt about the king's treatment of his sister. She wondered if he hated him for striking her and neglecting her. She bet he wanted to run him through a few times.
"You've been blessed with a kinder husband than my sister was."
When they came to the large and imposing oak door of the bedchamber, Arya was feverishly wishing it could be true.
Jaime set her on her feet. "Good luck, Lady Stark," he said with a smile. As he turned to walk away, something occurred to Arya.
"I'm not a Stark any more. I'm a Baratheon." He'd been calling her 'Stark' this whole time, even back at the feast.
Jaime glanced at her over his shoulder. "You look like a Stark to me." He smiled, and with that, he left her alone.
Arya turned and opened the chamber door slowly, holding her breath. She was still in her smallclothes; she wondered if that might displease him. She supposed it did not matter. She would be out of them soon enough, pinned beneath some panting, sweating man. Her husband.
Renly was already there, drinking more wine. His back was to her, and she saw he was nude. She realised that when she could not see his older, shaven face, it was easy to pretend that this was Gendry. Ignoring the fine furniture and heavy tapestries, she tried to imagine approaching him in the forge. She tried to picture more muscles in Renly's back, more sun on his flesh. She tried to recall the sound of a hammer on steel.
Renly turned halfway and nearly jumped. "Oh. My lady. You're, ah—you're h-here."
He was drunk, and sounded nervous. Arya shifted on her feet, feeling sick with self-consciousness and apprehension.
"Come," he slurred, bringing his cup with him and stumbling towards the bed. Arya flushed and looked down when she saw his front. She followed him nevertheless, hating how awkward and awful all of this felt.
She sat down beside him on the plush featherbed, daring only once to look him in the eye. He was bleary and rheumy with drink, all stagger and stumble.
"We must bed now," she said without thinking. Septa Mordane and her mother and her father and everyone had told her it would be so.
Renly visibly swallowed. "I—yes."
Arya frowned. Renly had always been understanding, always humorous and thoughtful. She was gambling that he might prove to be so now. "Then let's just get it done."
Renly swallowed again and looked away from her. His face was still and stiff. Strange, Arya thought. Most men looked on young ladies with blatant desire. She had caught sight of it herself a few times; from the king, mostly, but also from Lord Baelish, Ser Selmy, and even Tyrion Lannister at times. They all desired her, vaguely; probably because of her youth. But Renly did not look as if he desired her at all. She glanced quickly, experimentally, at his front, only to see him soft.
Arya was confused. "You—my lord?" she had no idea what to say now, what to do. She'd always imagined herself being played and fucked with in her marriage bed, as was the way of being a wife. She had never thought her husband would turn away from her without even the slightest hint of desire.
"It is only the wine," Renly said, his face drawn as he stared darkly into a tapestry on the wall. "Only the wine."
"They will check the sheet in the morning," Arya pointed out. "If I am not—if my blood is not"—
Renly turned a pair of sad, drunken eyes towards her. "You're beautiful," he muttered slowly, looking her up and down. "And kind and fierce. If—if I could only"—
Arya swallowed thickly. So he doesn't desire me, then. She could feel her throat closing, her heart speeding. "You...y-you must bed me, though. Or our marriage is invalid."
Renly's lips parted, and she thought of Gendry, his mouth slanted over her own. "I'm—yes, I'll try. It is only the wine," he said again.
Renly moved towards her and suddenly he had bent his head and kissed her. The kiss was messy and wet, nothing like Gendry's. But still, she tried to pretend. She kept her eyes open, watching his hair, his face, his remarkably similar face, while she kissed him. I can do this, she thought, thinking of Gendry's wolf pin, which she had left in the care of Bran during their dance. I can be a wife. I can love him.
But then she felt Renly lift himself off of her. His eyes were full of panic.
"I'm sorry," he said quickly. "I—I can't."
Arya glanced at his front again. He was still soft.
"What's wrong with me?" she asked abruptly; self-consciously.
Renly's eyes were wide and full of sorrow. "I only—I'm not—my love, I can't"—
Arya choked down a little gasp. "Are you—are you impotent?"
"No!" Renly said at once, his face so close. All Arya wanted to do was kiss him again, let him tangle betwixt the sheets with her, let him take her maidenhead. Let him be done with it so this nightmare of ceremony could end. She was already a wife, now; she only wanted all the tradition to be dealt with. Moreover, she was vaguely aroused now from thinking of Gendry and wanted to ease the ache in her thighs. If she was going to lay with a man and pretend he was Gendry, then Renly was the perfect person for the task.
"I am only...I am potent, but...but with..." Renly's eyes were cloudy from wine. Arya was growing impatient.
"With what?"she demanded.
Renly fixed her with the most tortured look she had ever seen. Between the time when he had kissed her and now, he looked as if he'd aged ten years. "My lady...I have a lover."
"A...lover." her heart had dropped. Her pride physically stung in her chest.
Renly licked his lips. "The cyvasse games with Loras...they were...they were really..."
Arya gasped and swallowed all at once. Her mind buzzed. But...he couldn't mean that—he simply couldn't. "You don't mean it," she whispered. "Not with Loras."
Renly's lip quivered with shame. His voice was the smallest of whispers when he replied, "Yes, my lady. It is Loras."
Tears were already clouding Arya's eyes. From the moment she had met her betrothed in Winterfell, handsome and kind and full of laughter, she had thought that perhaps he could make her happy. And when she had the misfortune to fall into a doomed love with a blacksmith, she had thought it good luck that her husband bore such strong resemblance to him. She had never considered that the strapping Renly Baratheon was a...a...
"You're a man-lover," Arya murmured. "A sodomist, impotent with women."
Renly's face reddened faster than it ever could have with wine. But he did not strike her or argue her statement. "Yes," he breathed, eyes brimming with shame.
Arya could feel a tear rolling down her Stark cheek. "I see," she said, voice strangled. Rising from the bed, caring nought for her nude breasts and stomach, she moved towards the single desk in the room.
"What are you doing?" she heard Renly call.
Arya shifted through parchment and tome before finding her goal. "Letter opener," she said quietly, lifting the blunted dagger.
She heard Renly shift in the bed before she turned around. "Arya, put that down!" he called out, concern obvious in his loud and determined prince's voice.
She faced him with resolution in her body. "They will need to find a stained sheet in the morning," she said, returning to her place on the bed with him and bringing the letter opener to the crease of her inner elbow. "We mustn't disappoint them."
She did not flinch as she sliced a thin, red line in her white skin, though Renly did. Rubbing the wound against the sheets, Arya lifted her arm away when she was satisfied with the blooming crimson pool. She did not know what a virgin's stain was meant to look like, but she figured a marriage bed couldn't be much bloodier.
Getting up and sliding the letter opener between two books, Arya heard Renly's hushed 'thank you.' His wine cup fell from his hand with a clang to the floor beside the bed. She went and crawled into the bed beside him, bringing the thick woven covers over the both of them as he quickly drifted into a drunken sleep. Arya, however, lay awake for at least an hour, thinking of Gendry and the filthy forge and wishing more than anything that she could be there now.
The next morning, Arya was sure to smile as brightly as she could and accept the congratulations of everyone she passed on her way to Margaery Tyrell's rooms.
"The situation is not ideal, but it is not without possibility for remedy," Varys was saying to Arya as she sat, humiliated and quiet, beside Margaery in her chamber. Arya had absurdly been thinking of how pretty it was, what with its floaty curtains dyed orange by the candlelight and pulled back to reveal the bay below the Keep. When Arya had initially come straight from Renly's bedchamber after her disastrous wedding night, the queen-to-be seemed to know instantly why she was there, and had cryptically told her to return that evening after supper. Following her directions, Arya came to find that Margaery had dismissed all her maids, and that the only person in the room besides the two women was the eerie eunuch.
Arya lifted her eyes from her lap to stare at the spymaster. "I don't see how it could be fixed."
"Your marriage can only be set aside if you produce no heir," Margaery said smoothly. "A child, a son especially, would make you untouchable. No one could question your marriage."
"And how do you suggest I get a Baratheon heir in my belly without my husband's consent?" Arya replied sharply, hating herself, hating that the world had made her into just another woman, worrying about pregnancies and babies and marriage. "I can't exactly steal his seed off him in his sleep."
Varys' smile was calm. "Well, perhaps your husband and your child's father do not have to be the same."
Panic choked Arya quicker than she could register. She had been afraid the minute she saw the sly little eunuch in the room with Margaery, knowing his reputation. "What you suggest is treason," she replied coldly, remembering her mother's advice and trying not to be stupid and get herself involved in some court web she could never get out of.
"Treason is how King Robert gained the throne," Varys reminded her patiently. "And treason, in this case, is what would provide you with security and Storm's End with an heir; elsewise it will simply pass to Joffrey or Tommen."
Arya liked Tommen, but she could not help her scowl at the thought of that stinking brat Joffrey having more control over the kingdom than he already did. "I thought you served the Lannisters," Arya said without thinking. Her mind had always connected Varys with the golden-haired fiends; the eunuch always seemed to be slipping around with the queen.
"I serve the realm," Varys said firmly, his face free of that queer smile for once. "Not those who rule it."
Arya shifted in her seat. "I...I still do not know what exactly it is you ask of me," she said. It wasn't entirely honest; while it was true she could not keep up with Varys and Margaery's cryptic little musings, mostly she was afraid of what they were asking her to do. "You want me to cuckold my husband? Have another man's baby and tell the world it is Renly's?"
Their silent stares told her that she was exactly right.
Arya swallowed. She absently noticed a small tremor in her hand as it gripped the arms of her chair. "Will Renly know?"
"I have spoken to your lord husband myself," Margaery said, touching Arya gently on the shoulder. "He agreed this is best. He cares for you, and does not want you to be made unsafe because of his shortcomings."
His impotence, you mean, Arya thought meanly, unable to feel anything but bitterness for her new husband after he made her cry tears of embarrassment in her wedding bed. She suddenly felt insulted all over again. Her 'husband' could not even speak to her about this himself, and had been making plans with Margaery behind her back to try and make up for his incompetence. "And the father of my bastard? Who will that be?"
The knowing look Margaery and Varys exchanged made Arya terrified that for a moment they would suggest the king himself, who's desire to bed his brother's young new wife had quickly become common knowledge at court. She had begun to fear the worst on instinct, and it was true that, as Renly's brother, any bastard she sired from the king would have stag's blood swimming in his veins. One Baratheon for another, she thought with a turn of her stomach.
"Your lover bears a strong resemblance to your husband, does he not? The blacksmith?" Varys said, calm as the ponds in the weirwood as Arya's throat closed in horror. She found she could not speak, could not respond, and could only stare back at the eunuch, knowing that what she said next could find Gendry hanging from his neck on makeshift gallows in front of the Keep.
"Arya," Margaery said quietly, squeezing her gently on the shoulder. "Arya, it's alright. Varys already knows."
"Unfortunately, I have an awful habit of doing that," the eunuch said with his eerie smile. "And while I admire you courage, my lady, you have not been terribly discreet."
It took a moment for Arya's terror to subside. She swallowed, and noticed that the tremor in her hand was stronger than before. A thousand ways in which the king could put Gendry to death had flooded her mind and had only just begun to slide away. She felt like crying, though she wasn't sure why.
"I'm—yes," she managed. "They bear a-a strong resemblance."
"There is a reason for that," Varys said, looking utterly unruffled by her horrified response to his question. "He is a bastard of the king, sired nine-and-ten years ago."
Abruptly, Arya had to clap a hand to her mouth to keep from retching. Margaery cried out in concern, springing from her chair to lean over her and rub her on the back. Arya felt dizzy as she swallowed the bile, and her vision was blurry with a wetness that came from the effort. She took a minute to collect herself, to let the secret she had known all along but had refused to acknowledge or allow truly sink in. She had always wanted to dismiss his startling resemblance to Renly as coincidence. In the moments when she could have mistook one for the other, she was always begging that mayhaps Stannis had a bastard, or even Steffon, his father, before being lost at sea. She could not associate someone so wonderful, so true and honest, with the man she hated most at court. And to even believe for a moment that the latter was the father of the former was unthinkable; but terribly, awfully true.
"My lady, this is not something to curse," Varys was saying, seeming far-away. "It is very good fortune, in fact, considering the...situation you have found yourself in."
"You want me to use Gendry to gain an heir?" she shouted, angry and indignant that someone would suggest she exploit him for court purposes. He was the only thing in her life that had absolutely nothing to do with her noble birth, and she wanted him to remain that way.
"Gendry?" Varys said, a bemused little smile on his face. Arya hated how he said the name. "Ah, yes, that is the boy's name, isn't it? I'm always confusing him with Edric. But my, you're certainly very familiar with him."
"As you already know," Arya spat bitterly, wondering how many times one of Varys' little spiders had seen her slip into Tobho Mott's forge, wondering if there had been a pair of eyes on she and Gendry when he confessed that he loved her and kissed her for the first time.
"Lady Arya, please. It is in your interest to listen to Varys. Renly knows about our plan, he will have no objections."
"I am leaving King's Landing in two days anyway," Arya said, her anger abating a bit. There was something very comforting about Margaery Tyrell. "Unless I can get a child in me before then, your plan will fail."
Margaery was smiling now, too. Her green-brown eyes flashed with purpose. "That is why Varys is here, Lady Arya."
Arya turned to the eunuch expectantly. "Well?"
Varys nodded his shining head. "If it please you, Lady Baratheon"—Arya flinched at the name, hating it, thinking Stark, Stark, Arya Stark, in her head—"I will send one of my contacts to the boy telling him to leave King's Landing for Storm's End at the end of the week—three days after you leave with your lord husband. He will be given enough gold to buy a horse if he does not yet have one, and he is to be given a position in the forge of your castle."
Arya's brow gathered. "Why help me? Both of you?" Here she glanced at Margaery. "What are you hoping to gain from this?"
"My family places great stock in our friends," she replied, a wry little smile on her face. "And the Lady of Storm's End is a good friend to have indeed."
Arya frowned with mistrust, but did not press the older girl for a better answer. Instead she turned to Varys expectantly.
"As I have said; I serve the realm."
"And you think getting me pregnant is what's best for the realm?"
"I think that of the potential rulers of Storm's End, you and your husband are the best, my lady."
Arya chewed the inside of her lip for a moment. Sansa would have scolded her for it, she thought absurdly. She always said it was a disgusting habit.
"Lord Varys..." Arya frowned, her brow tightening with decision. "I—yes. Yes. Follow through with your plans."
She did not know what she hoped to happen. She did not know if she even cared for maintaining her marriage to Renly. But she knew she wanted Gendry, always and forever. If the only way she could have him was as a secret lover, one she visited in the stead of her husband in order to make babies, so be it. She was already shivering, thinking of laying with him.
Margaery gave the eunuch a pointed look. "There. She's agreed. You may leave us now, my lord."
Varys rose from his seat and bowed before vanishing again. Arya thought absently that owning a pair of those slippers he wore might be a fine investment, considering how quiet his footsteps were.
"The hour is late," Margaery said softly, taking Arya's hand and leading her to her large bed.
"Won't they expect me to be with Renly tonight?"
Margaery smiled. "They will not mind. You are a tired new bride, after all. You should sleep. Come."
Margaery drew Arya into the bed beside her. Neither of them bothered to remove their gowns or shoes. Tormented and puzzled, Arya curled into the breast of the older girl, wondering why she had been born into a world of cruelty and force and dishonesty. If she had been Miss Arya, the lowborn girl she had wanted to be, she could have married Gendry and they could have slept in a shoddy apartment above his forge. She could've had his coal-headed babies and made love to him on his cot at the smithy. She could've loved him properly.
Arya felt Margaery's hand on her head. The older girl stroked her hair lovingly, reminding Arya of her mother.
"Everything will be perfect," Margaery whispered. "And you will be happy. I promise, my sweet."