Sevenmas morning dawned overcast and chilly. Sansa attended the service in the sept, happily adding her voice to the hymns. Afterwards, she dashed back to her room for Sandor's saddle blanket, but that was not the gift she most looked forward to giving him. With nervous anticipation, she made her way to the royal family's solar. King Robert had invited her family to celebrate the Feast of the Father at midday followed by their Secret Septon exchange. To her chagrin, Sandor was not invited to eat with them. No one seemed to care as he stood while they dined on a stew of fish, clams, scallops, and lobster. Lamprey pie, eel cakes, and octopus poached in ink and served with a rosemary bread followed. Roasted carrots, boiled potatoes. Crisp white wine. Iced peaches, lemon cakes. Had she not been so eager for the exchange, Sansa might have wanted a nap after all the rich food.
They eventually moved away from the table to a sitting area near the fire. "Who chose my Dragon?" Joffrey demanded right away.
Everyone looked around until the king said, "I did – and I got you a Dragon!" He pinched the coin between two fingers and laughed.
Joffrey's eyes narrowed.
"Ah, learn to take a joke, boy. Your gift is in the cupboard over there."
Joffrey crossed the room and opened the cupboard door. "A crossbow!"
Robert seemed pleased that he liked it.
"Your grace?" Sansa said. "I wasn't fortunate enough to draw your token but I got you something anyway."
Joffrey looked annoyed at first but then nodded, seeming to decide that she should, indeed, have gotten something for him. Sansa brought forth the quiver she'd had made. On checkered red and gold leather were yellow lions and black stags. The corner of each square was studded in brass. It was truly fit for a prince. It's a shame to waste something so beautiful on him, Sansa thought.
"It's empty -" Joffrey began just as Ned noted, "A handsome quiver, your grace. It will serve you well during the hunt."
The prince looked displeased but gave a nod. "I had you, Stark. You'll find your fig preserves over there," he said, waving a hand at a table in the corner of the room with an air of absolute indifference.
"Thank you, your grace." Sansa felt badly for her father. He hated figs.
"Alright, who had me?" asked the king.
"I did!" Arya said, setting a bag on the table in front of him.
King Robert pulled the bag down to find it contained an enormous tankard. He laughed from his belly as he picked up a flagon of wine and poured it into the tankard, which he raised in salute before taking a long draw from it. "Thank you, my dear. It's just the right size to take the edge off a king's thirst."
"I'm glad you like it, your grace," said Arya. Looking around in anticipation, she added, "Who had me?"
"I did," said her father. "I've arranged dancing lessons for you."
"Dancing lessons?" Arya's face fell.
"Yes, like we discussed." Ned winked at her and Arya's eyes widened in surprise.
"Thank you, Father!"
He squeezed her shoulder.
"Who's next?" Arya asked. "I already gave King Robert his gift."
"Cersei?" Robert invited. The queen gave him a venomous look and held out her hand. On her palm was her own earring, which she threaded into her earlobe with a sinuous grace.
"Mother! You're not supposed to choose yourself!"
"Let that be a lesson in being more specific, Joffrey."
An uneasy pause followed, which the king broke by saying, "Clegane, what do you have for Lady Sansa?"
Sandor handed her a rectangular wooden box, the top of which was carved with a direwolf on a snowy outcropping of rock, a weirwood tree in the background. She smiled at it. Home! She opened the box and on a bed of fleece laid a delicate silver bracelet. Small charms hung from it: a scale, a cradle, a lily for the maiden, a hammer, a sword, a lantern, and a lemon. "It's beautiful, thank you!" She held it up so the others could admire it before fastening it around her wrist.
"Great gift," muttered Joffrey. "Your turn, dog," he added, louder.
Sansa moved to retrieve Sandor's gift from a side table. He unwrapped it and the hint of a smile passed over his face. The corner of his mouth twitched.
"What is it, Sansa?" her father asked.
"It's a saddle blanket," she said, as Sandor unfolded it.
"Fine work," said the queen.
"Thank you, your grace."
"My thanks, Lady Sansa," the Hound said stiffly before turning to place it on the side table, his back to the room. He fingered the stitched dogs and turned the blanket over to look at the other side.
"This crossbow could take down a boar!" Joffrey said loudly, turning the talk to the morrow's hunt.
"The lemon didn't -" Sandor started to say quietly.
Sansa blushed. She suddenly knew what he thought of the lemon. "Lemon cakes are my favorite. It was kind of you to remember. Oh! I have your broach." She pulled it from her pocket and offered it to him. His rough fingertips brushed against her palm as he took it from her. He held her eye as he flipped back his cloak and affixed the broach to the inside of it. Her direwolf pin was there, too. When his cloak fell back into place, both were hidden from view. Then he looked away and slowly began to refold the blanket. The others were distracted by Joffrey's enactment of exactly how he would clear the forest of game with his new crossbow. If she didn't speak to Sandor now, she might miss her chance. "Are you on duty tonight?" Sansa asked under her breath.
"May I join you?"
"No, it's cold and looks like rain."
She had to give him his gift tonight or tomorrow Joffrey would ruin the surprise for sure. It sounded terribly forward but she couldn't think of a better way. "Would you come to my chambers on your rounds?"
Sandor flicked an eye toward her.
"I have another present for you," she said to explain away any implied salaciousness in her request.
He snorted. "As it happens, I have one for you, too."
"Oh no, the bracelet is more than enough."
"The bracelet was for them. I have something else for you."
Sansa attended the afternoon services at the sept and the feast in the great hall that evening. She took a long bath and put on a heavy woolen gown. Surely Sandor would be along any time. She found she couldn't settle to anything, expecting his knock every moment. After a couple of hours, she began to wonder if he was coming at all. Had something happened? Maybe I should go find him. No, he'll be angry if he comes and I'm not here. She eventually stopped listening for footsteps in the hall and sat by the fire with a book, the day's excitement and the late hour making her eyelids heavy. She dreamt of Winterfell. She was reclining in one of the spring-fed pools, the warmth soaking into her bones, when the water seemed to press more heavily against her, weighing her down just slightly. It was pleasant but unexpected and roused her a little. A noise. I thought I was alone . . .
Sansa's eyes fluttered open and before her was a hulking shape. Sandor was in the chair opposite hers, his elbows on his knees, one hand clasped over the other, just his nose and eyes visible above his hands. His long hair was wet, as was his cloak. He was staring at her.
"How . . . how long have you been here?" she asked, straightening up and adjusting the blanket that hadn't been covering her when she'd fallen asleep.
"What time is it?"
He dropped his hands between his knees and sat up straighter. "It's late. My shift is almost over."
Sansa struggled to figure out what time that meant it was but her mind was still wooly with sleep.
"Where's the box your bracelet was in?"
"On the mantle," she said as she made to stand.
Sandor motioned for her to stay and stood to retrieve the box himself. He knelt on one knee before her and opened it, angling it toward the fire so she could see. "There's a false bottom," he said, removing the fleece lining and pressing an edge of the floor of the box, causing it to shift as though on a fulcrum. He lifted out the wood and below was another compartment in which rested a small sheathed dagger and a length of silken cord.
Sansa stared. The Hound raised his eyes to hers. "If you're going to stay in King's Landing and continue to go out alone, or without a proper escort, you should carry steel."
He stood and pulled her to her feet. He rested the box on a table and withdrew the dagger and cord. He stepped close and brought the cord behind her back, his arms encircling her. As he pulled the cord against her lower back, swaying her body toward his just slightly, the scent of him reached her nose. The rain had stripped away any smell but his and she was almost overwhelmed by the desire to taste that scent on his skin, to breathe it in and lick the rainwater from the side of his neck. There was something so clean and natural in it yet something else, something strong and defiant and dominant. Stop it. What is wrong with you? Sandor was kneeling in front of her again, drawing the end of the cord attached to the dagger through a loop at the other end.
"The length is off. You took your sash before I could use it as a measure."
Sansa knew she had to say something, needed to say something to cover the distraction she was feeling. "What am I to do with a dagger, my lord?"
"Once the length is right - ," he unsheathed the dagger and cut off some of the cord, "- you can wear it under your cloak. You could wear it with a dress and put the dagger in a pocket, maybe cover the cord with a sash . . ."
Sansa nodded. He was reknotting the cord to the sheath, causing it to tug against her waist. He stood again and looked at her, evaluating the length of the cord and seeming to decide it was long enough to reach a pocket but short enough not to show if she chose to hide it. Then he stepped toward her and placed one hand on her waist to hold the loop in place while he pulled the dagger-end through. Sansa didn't doubt his concern for her safety but she seemed to be alone in finding his outfitting her with a weapon to be somehow intimate. She couldn't stop herself. She laid a hand on his forearm, so thickly roped with muscle, causing his eyes to travel from her waist to her face. "Thank you."
He stepped back and started to rewind the cord to return it and the dagger to their hidden compartment. "I can show you how to use it when I come back from the hunt. It's late and we leave early."
"I still have a gift for you."
Sandor returned the box to order and put it on the mantle before turning back to her. "You should go to sleep. Joffrey will want you to look pretty to see him off."
"Joffrey will likely want my head on a spike tomorrow because you're not going on the hunt."
Sandor drew himself up to his full height and crossed his arms over his massive chest. "Explain."
"My father told the king he wished to call off my betrothal to Joffrey because of, because of his treatment of me lately," she said in a rush. "King Robert wants to preserve the alliance between our families so he treated with me privately."
"Treated with you."
"Yes. And," heat flushed her face, "and I requested that you be put in my service while Joffrey is away at the hunt. I made King Robert promise to tell Joffrey it was his idea, that it was a punishment for accusing me of trying to steal you, your services, that is, from him in the first place and for his . . . behavior this week."
Sandor regarded her for a moment. "A better punishment would have been to make him miss the hunt."
"Having him here would be a punishment for me." It was treason but true.
A flicker of amusement crossed the Hound's face. "In your service while half the court is on a hunt? And what would you have me do? Escort you to the godswood? To the market?"
"No, my lord." She hadn't explained clearly. "I'd have you do nothing. Nothing but what pleases you, that is. You wouldn't have to patrol the walls, or be on-duty all the time, or at all . . ."
Sandor snorted but didn't say anything. She thought maybe he was displeased. He wasn't a toy to be passed around, after all. "And . . . and I could sing you the song I promised you, if it please you."
"You'd sing for me." He was looking at her with something akin to appraisal.
"Daily, if you wish it."
"In exchange for nothing."
"Yes. It's what I thought you'd like best for Sevenmas."
He chuckled and rested his hands on his sword belt. "I like it, little bird, but they could be on that hunt for a fortnight. I'm sure you didn't think –"
"I think you've been on-duty for nearly twenty years. I hope you will enjoy the freedom."
He laughed. "Your father will be on the hunt as well, and some of his men."
"That's true, my lord."
"You won't be very well protected."
"I've recently acquired a handsome dagger."
"Which you don't know how to use."
"You can teach me when they come back."
"I'll teach you while they're gone."
Sansa smiled broadly; she couldn't help it. "The time is yours to spend however you'd like."
"Is it mine to spend with whoever I'd like?" He looked down at her, waiting.
For just a second, Sansa froze in surprise but then, emboldened by his directness, she leaned in to brush a kiss against his cheek, murmuring, "Happy Sevenmas, Sandor."
He turned and caught her lips with his, pulling her towards him. She tingled all over.
"Aye, it is."
Author's Note: Okay, it's not quite the end. There's a sequel: Seven More.