Disclaimer: I own neither GOT/ASOIAF nor Harry Potter.


(1)

In the depths of the Kingswood, a stag hunted its own.

The hunter was cloaked in shadow, oaks and elms towering over him like so many giants, silent and unmoving. The knobbly branches twisted about each other like gnarled, broken fingers, and arrow thin wisps of sunlight pierced through the brush to the ground below.

Harry would rather there was more light. The forest was silent around him, save for the short, rapid clicks of cicadas hiding in the leaves, the far off chirp of a bird's song echoing through the boughs. This was his first real hunt. He had escaped the attentions of his minder for the day, Ser Meryn, and slipped away to the city, and from there to the Kingswood. His mother would be wroth for his recklessness, he knew, but he was a boy of adventure and daring, and he would accept her rage for a chance at glory, however small.

The stag stood in a meadow beyond the thicket, and what a magnificent stag it was, as tall as a horse, with great jagged antlers that branched off into a dozen bone barbs. Harry nocked and aimed as he stepped away from the tree, drawing his bow in a well practiced motion. The stag jerked its massive head towards him and stamped the ground once, then twice. Harry inhaled and held his breath in his chest. The beast charged.

He exhaled as he loosed the arrow. TWANG. The broadhead sliced through the air and cut a deep gash across the beast's snout. Blood spurted across the grass. The stag let out a sound half mewl and half snort, then jerked away and dashed off into the dense wood across the meadow. Harry loosed a second arrow. It sunk deep into the beast's muscled flank, but still the stag did not fall.

He gave chase through the brush, ducking beneath low hanging branches, dodging aside brambles and briers, a trail of crimson marking his way. He came upon the stag in time to see it collapse to the ground with a pitiful grunt, saw it kick and writhe, trying and failing to fight off the inevitable. He counted the seconds as he drew nearer. In the breath between his eleventh and twelfth count, the stag was dead.

Harry's grin stretched from ear to ear. Joffrey had tried and failed to bring down a stag only the week before, and had earned naught but scorn from their father in the attempt. Harry hoped to earn his praise instead, even though he was forbidden from venturing into the Kingswood alone. Not without a guard, and not at the expense of his lessons. Maester Pycelle, the old toad, would be terribly disappointed. He probably has half the castle looking for me by now. If his mother had her way he would be locked up in the Red Keep all day just like little Myrcella, playing at court with the sons and daughters of the lords who visited his father, or worse, with Joffrey and his cruel games. No, better to hunt in the Kingswood, even if it meant a punishment. And since he had managed to bring down a stag, all the better.

He stared down at the beast. It was even bigger up close; too large to carry, not without help, and he was alone. He reached for the magic in his blood and willed it into being, shaping his intent with his thoughts. It was like an extra limb or a sixth sense, sometimes hard to grasp, like oil slipping through fingers, other times easy to manipulate, easy to guide, like a knife through cheese. The more complex the magic, the more difficult to control. This was simple. Rise, he thought.

The corpse climbed slowly into the air, limbs and head dangling limply. Follow. He started his trek back to the copse of trees where he had tied his horse. The corpse followed, floating along behind him at head height, dripping blood onto the grass and weeds.

His thoughts turned to wands as he walked. If he ever wanted to use greater, more powerful magic consistently, he would need one. He had yet to find the right ingredients to craft a lasting, working wand. Some of the trees in the godswood were decent enough, if a bit weak, but the most important component, a core, continued to elude him. He had tried to use his blood, but it made for too volatile a conduit. His hair didn't work either. He still had the blisters on his hand from when a poorly crafted wand had exploded in his grip after he'd tried to cast a spell.

If he could get his hands on some sort of magical creature then he might have better luck, but as far as he knew, there weren't any such beasts in his father's lands. He would have to venture to Essos to find such, and he didn't think he would be allowed to journey across the Narrow Sea until he was a man grown. Last year the menagerie in Pentos had come to King's Landing, with their singers and mummers and strange, exotic creatures. They'd had a unicorn, more goat than horse he had been told, and a basilisk, described to him as the queerest creature one would ever see. But Harry hadn't been allowed to see them. He only learned of the creatures from the mouth his uncle Jaime, the golden knight of the Kingsguard. Hopefully, if the menagerie came west again, he would be allowed to go and speak to the men who handled the animals and maybe solve his dilemma.

His existence was a strange, queer thing. In his waking hours he lived as Prince Harrold Baratheon, the second son of King Robert and Queen Cersei. But at night, when he lay his head to rest, he dreamed of a wondrous world, too fantastical to believe, rife with adventure and riddled with magic. He dreamed of deeds great beyond measure, of evil vanquished and defeated, of death and its cold embrace.

He had thought himself mad, cursed by the ghosts that haunted the Red Keep. Then, one hot summer day in his eighth year, he and Joffrey had gotten into a fight, as they oft did, and in the aftermath, he had been confined to his chambers. He had been so angry. He remembered feeling unbearably warm, and when his anger churned too high, a gout of flame had burst from his hand and scorched the wall black. He'd had to cover the burn with a tapestry.

Almost two hundred years of life lurked behind his brilliant green eyes, memories of a strange place, where owls instead of ravens carried messages, and men and women both fought with magic wands instead of sword and shield, took lessons in castles with moving stairwells, rode flying brooms. But he didn't feel like the man from his dreams and memories. He wasn't so weary, so tired. Words couldn't quite explain the sheer strangeness of it, to live a life in dreams, seeing and hearing and tasting, but never feeling. That was the only barrier between who he was and who he had been. The thoughts and motivations of the Chosen One were beyond him.

He came upon his horse, Flatfoot, a black dun courser, near the edge of the forest where the King's Road bordered the woods. "We're going back to the keep, girl," he murmured, reaching up to rub her flank. Flatfoot nickered and turned her huge gray head to look back at him. Green flashed in her coal black eyes. Be still, he thought, and it was so. He pulled a rope from his pack, and as the stag's corpse settled into place behind the saddle, the rope uncoiled from his hands and tied itself about the horse, securing the stag in place.

Flatfoot bore the extra weight with little issue. She was big, too big for a boy his age to ride and control, but his magic made her manageable. He had never once fallen from the saddle, and Lord Jon always said he rode like he was half-horse himself. It was easy to control Flatfoot, to mold his magic to her mind and set her to purpose. It was even easier than moving things with magic, though not so easy as setting them on fire.

He climbed into the saddle, checked his packs and his sword, and kicked Flatfoot into a steady canter up the kingsroad. Why is that? he wondered as he rode. He could see the city even from this distance, leagues away. The Red Keep stretched high above King's Landing, its seven massive drum towers like stout fingers reaching up to grasp the sun. Why does fire come so readily?

He rode up the trodden path for over an hour, to the barge that ferried travelers across the Blackwater. Rows of ramshackle hovels sprawled across its muddy southern bank. Downtrodden souls haunted the leaning shacks, more mud than men, garbed in roughspun rags. There were fishermen without boats, farmers without land, drunkards, lamed men and women, and their half starved offspring, children as thin as ghosts, with big, protruding eyes. He had once asked Lord Jon where they came from, how they had fallen upon such misery. "They ran afoul of a lord, or a knight, or a brigand," Lord Jon had said. "Or perhaps locusts decimated their crops, or a man gambled his property away. Foulness falls upon all, just as readily as rain." Harry threw them a few coins as he passed, and one filthy little girl with thick, matted brown hair reached out to touch him. He threw her another coin, for her daring if nothing else.

The men that manned the ferry hailed him as he led Flatfoot onto the barge, but aside from a nod to each of them, Harry paid them little mind, his eyes instead on the bay beyond the river mouth, the deep blue waters speckled with dozens if not hundreds of fishing and trading ships. He had always liked to watch the business of the bay, watch the ships as they sailed and oared their way through the dark waters. It made him think of bees buzzing about a hive, laden with honey but unable to land for the sheer number of their brothers and sisters.

The river gate, stones tinted green with algae, loomed before him. He saw a few bowmen manning the crenels, looking down at him from beneath black halfhelms. The portcullis started rising as he led his horse off the ferry. Twenty gold cloaks awaited him at the edge of the gate, all ahorse. They fell in alongside him as he passed beneath the thick curtain wall and into the city proper. The walls made the city into a realm all its own, massive but cramped for the great number of people that called it home, the stacked buildings built too close, the streets made too narrow, winding throughout the great hills like coiling serpents.

The stench hit him as he entered the city, worsened by the midday heat. Horse shit, hog slop, and worse things riddled the streets, the smell so sharp and pungent he almost gagged. This city is a corpse, he thought, overripe and half decayed. Servants kept the Red Keep pristine in comparison, scented oils and candles burning in every room and every hall. But sweet oils can do naught for the rot but mask the smell.

Flatfoot didn't seem to mind the smell or the filth. She trotted almost gaily down the road, the stag's great antlered head jumping with each step. The pair went first through Fishmonger's Square, pushing through the gathering crowds that parted only at the sharp urging of the gold cloaks at his side. Then they took the Hook's curving cobbled road down a lane of towering manses, storefronts, and warehouses, growing taller and taller as they stretched and turned up the slowly rising incline. Harry was hailed by children running the streets, women washing in the windows and even the men as they worked, pushing carts and selling wares. The Hook carried him up to the Red Keep and its reaching towers and stout walls, the ashlar a pale red, like watered down strongwine. He imagined his mother was waiting for him, with Maester Pycelle at her heels like the shiftless fool he was, frowning down at him from the castle steps. Ser Meryn too, if the King had not set him to another task.

He imagined his father as he always did, as the King always was, more oft than not, well in his cups with a whore in his lap, mind absent of worry. The King paid his sons little mind, his daughter even less, and though he had more words for Harry than he did for Joffrey, it wasn't as many words as he had for the whores who warmed his bed.

It hadn't always been that way. When he was very young, his father had played with him, and Joffrey, and Myrcella too, but as they grew older, so too did he grow more distant, till sometimes he seemed not even a father at all, but a stranger, parading about under the guise of a familiar face. Joffrey had always seemed most affected by his dismissal, and sought solace in their mother and her honeyed words of encouragement. Harry had turned to Lord Jon for a father, and heard from him the tales of the rebellion, of the great battles won and lost that saw his father sit the Iron Throne.

He remembered battles. They were different, in his dreams, than what Lord Jon described. The Hand spoke of death, more oft then not. A great many deaths, of noble and common alike. But there weren't so many wizards as there were people in the Seven Kingdoms. And wizards weren't so inclined to killing. His was a kingdom of butchers; Harry would be surprised if there was a single ser in Westeros who hadn't killed at least one man. In his dreams, though, he could count on two hands the number of wizards he had witnessed take a life. The Battle of Hogwarts didn't hold a candle to even the smallest of Westerosi wars. He had seen floggings more bloody.

"Prince Harrold," a quiet voice announced, cutting his musings short. "You've returned. The castle will be glad to hear it." Ser Brenden Rykker, the captain of the gate, was a young knight, plain of face, with a thick beard and a head of brown curls. He stepped forward to aid Harry's dismount, while the other gatesman, Ser Connell Buckwell, a sharp faced man more prickly than he had right to be, moved to take the stag down from his horse. "Ser Meryn will be gladdest of all, I should think," Ser Brenden continued. "Your father ordered him to guard the privies."

"He certainly won't lose track of those," replied Harry with a smile, even as his eyes were drawn to the small crowd standing beyond the gates at the castle steps. He saw neither his mother nor the Grandmaester present amongst them. Instead it was his uncle Tyrion's ugly misshapen face that greeted his eyes, his pretty little sister Myrcella with him, along with the dusky skinned, black haired Ser Aron of Dorne, the fairer Ser Arys of the Kingsguard, his white plate bright beneath the sun, and...

His smile withered. His Uncle Stannis stood with the group as well, clad in silver mail and a surcoat bearing the Baratheon stag, the few feet between him and the cluster of people seeming as if a vast chasm for how rigidly he held himself. Stannis was the single most dour man in all the Seven Kingdoms, if not the most boring, and he carried his belligerence about him as a weapon to be drawn upon any who crossed his path. He never laughed nor smiled. Harry rather thought that he didn't know how.

He heard a grunt of exertion behind him, and looked to see Ser Connell staggering under the weight of the deer. Ser Brenden rushed to help him. Ser Connell turned a confused face down to Harry, skin red with the strain of his effort.

"How did you manage get this up here?" He seemed annoyed by the weight of it, as if he'd been done some horrible grievance. He was sweating beneath his helmet, and his red hair clung to the sides of his face. "It's as heavy as a cow."

"The smallfolk of the Kingswood helped."

"You killed this yourself?" Ser Brenden asked, wrapping his arms about the beast.

Harry nodded in return, and the young knight let out a low whistle.

"Quite impressive," said Ser Brenden. "I was much older than you when I killed my first stag. The skinning was even harder than the killing. A bloody business, that. Bloody and messy."

Harry smiled. "You cut open the bladder, didn't you?"

"The bladder, the bile sack, the stomach. It took days to wash the stench out of my hands."

Ser Brenden called for servants from the keep. As Harry approached the castle steps, two young men scurried out to take hold of the carcass. He hadn't seen exactly where they had come from - behind the curtain walls the keep was a sprawling maze, dotted with courtyards and bridges and barracks and dungeons, as if one wasn't enough. One could get lost before even entering the Red Keep. "Wait for me in front of the Great Hall," Harry told the servants. They hurried to do his bidding.

"Ah, you've finally decided to grace us with your exalted presence," Tyrion quipped when Harry finally drew near. "Let us all bow before the great lesson-skipping prince," and bow he did, so low his big head almost touched the ground. "We must celebrate his arrival with wine and women. More of one than of the other, though I'm not quite sure which, just yet."

Harry grinned, even as Stannis' face curled into a sneer.

"Really Harry, what possessed you to run off this time?" Tyrion continued. "Not that I blame you, this keep is an awfully dreadful place. And the company! Why, some are no more engaging than dung piles, for all their ranks and titles -"

"Quiet, Imp." Stannis glared at Tyrion, his wide jaw clenched tight. He looked to Harry then, and his expression didn't ease. Blue and green warred for the briefest of moments before Stannis looked away.

Most people couldn't stand to look him in his eyes. Especially those with secrets. He could see them sometimes, their secrets, and they could feel the weight of his gaze, judging the things they would rather hide away in the shadows of their mind. Stannis, though, didn't seem the sorts for secrets. Harry surmised his avoidance of eye contact to be a different matter entirely.

"The King wishes to see you," said Stannis. "You've skipped out on your lessons. Again. And worse, you ventured into the Kingswood alone in the process."

"And see him I shall," said Harry. He nodded in greeting to Ser Arys who was standing dutifully in Myrcella's shadow, and winked at his sister, reaching out a hand to ruffle her golden hair. She leaned away and took his hand in hers instead, pulling him closer.

"You smell," she said, face upturned, her green eyes a shade paler than his own. Harry only grinned in response. She hugged him anyway, and remained tucked under his arm when they broke apart. The scent of her jasmine and lavender perfumes wafted up to his nose.

"I haven't missed my arms lesson, have I?" Harry asked Ser Aron. The Dornishman wasn't his favorite knight, but he was Master-at-Arms for a reason.

"No, my prince," Ser Aron began, his accent giving his words a strange lilt, "but do you recall the Queen's orders regarding your lessons? No arms practice until - "

"After my book lessons," Harry finished. He pouted dramatically, coaxing a laugh out of Myrcella. She hid her giggles behind her hand, shoulders shaking as she laughed.

"Don't pout, boy. You are a prince. Act like it," said Stannis.

Harry's face curled into a frown. What a joyless man. Does he not know the pleasures of laughter? Myrcella's laughter especially was a precious thing, like crystals chiming in the wind. Would that I could make music of it, men and women across the kingdom would flock to listen.

"Master-of-Ships, Lord of Dragonstone, and a messenger. My lord, where do you find the time to manage it all?" Tyrion said.

Stannis bristled at the insult, jaw working furiously. Harry imagined he could hear his teeth grinding. They might break if he grinds them any harder. Instead of replying, the Lord of Dragonstone settled on a glare so full of vitriol that Tyrion said nothing else, and instead bid his niece and nephew goodbye.

"I've a woman to see about a particular itch," he said, and then he was waddling through the gate, into the city and away from the keep.

Harry turned a questioning eye down two Myrcella, wondering why she was present. He asked her as much.

"I was waiting for you... you promised to go to the gardens with me, remember?"

He didn't. It had completely slipped his mind. He had been so focused on getting to the Kingswood that he had forgotten. "I can't now," he told her, "but later I'll come find you and then we'll go pick your favorite flowers and have us a proper sword fight, alright?" Despite his many duties and responsibilities, he always made time for Myrcella. Always.

She nodded happily, but didn't leave until coaxing another promise out of him.

"Well, Uncle Stannis, Ser Aron, shall we?" Even Stannis's dour personality wouldn't ruin his mood. Today, he had proved himself a hunter. He walked past them and followed the winding path of stone that led into the Keep, through massive doors of oak banded with black iron. Both men fell into step behind him, one at each shoulder. Stannis seemed less inclined to sneer now that Tyrion was gone, but he was no more amicable for the dwarf's absence.

A handful of ghosts greeted Harry in the halls with disparaging oaths. Some of them tried to scare him, popping out of the black suits of armor that lined the halls with shrieks and howls. Others didn't bother him at all. He didn't react in the slightest. As only he could see them, it didn't seem wise, and he had long since grown used to their games.

"You brought down that stag yourself?" Ser Aron asked.

Harry nodded. "I did," he said. "And it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be." He suspected his magic had something to do with that. Sometimes it was very subtle, his magic, and carried a slight touch.

"Probably luck," Ser Aron said, his smile softening his words. "You're certainly a strong lad, to be able to draw that bow of yours. Might be I should start you on the warhammer, eh?" He laughed. Harry only smiled. "Meet me in the usual place after your lessons with the Grandmaester."

No doubt for some manner of grueling drill. "I will," said Harry. "I still need to work on my aim."

"You're but a boy of ten," Ser Aron said. "I'm a man grown twice over, and still I work on my aim. A true warrior never stops his practice." And he too departed, turning down a hall and leaving Harry and Stannis alone.

"I know the way, uncle, or did my father bid you to see me all the way to the throne room?" said Harry. He would rather not have to walk with Stannis. Perhaps he was behaving childishly, but his uncle was ruining his mood. His overbearing and unyielding presence was like a mass of clouds swarming thick and black on the horzion, blotting out the sun.

Stannis didn't reply at first, and his face never once softened from the slight sneer he had been sporting since Tyrion left. Harry wondered just what had happened to make Stannis such a man, absent of smiles or laughter, when Renly, Stannis's younger brother, was so lighthearted, and the King was so often full of drink all he did was make fun.

"Why must you insist on these childish endeavors? Sneaking out of the city to hunt alone in the Kingswood was foolish. Surely you know the risks. You've wits about you."

"I'm a child," replied Harry. Something in his voice made Stannis' sneer deepen. Harry thought he looked rather like a snarling dog. "I'm allowed to do childish things. Foolish things." He shrugged. "I don't see the problem. The small folk love me anyway; nothing would've happened."

"More than smallfolk walk the streets of the city," said Stannis. "Targaryen loyalists exist still. Men who would not balk to strike at the king, who sharpen their blades, awaiting opportunity. Men who would have no qualms with taking his son for ransom, or cutting off his head. At least take a guard if you insist on this foolishness."

Stannis left him at the Great Hall. Good riddance, the boy thought. Now the sun can shine anew. Servants were waiting for him with a large wooden tray bearing the deer's carcass. He nodded his thanks to them as he walked into the throne room, the doors towering over him just like the trees in the forest, giants of oak and bronze inlaid with iron whorls.

The empty throne room seemed even more cavernous for its emptiness, the walls decorated with hunting tapestries and the banners of House Baratheon, a rearing black stag in a golden field. Two rows of massive pillars stretched to the rear of the room, iron vines winding up and down the smooth stone, braziers at the base of each.

His father stood at the foot of the twisted, hulking mass of swords that was the Iron Throne, his back to the door, a flask in hand, one foot propped up on the narrow steps. He was a massive, black-bearded man, standing at six and a half feet tall, with wide, broad shoulders and a monstrous belly, black hair combed away from his forehead and hanging to the nape of his neck. His skin was flushed, no doubt from wine, but he didn't seem that far into his cups yet. He wasn't swaying, at least.

Lord Jon stood with him. He was much older than the king, with a lined, craggy face and thinning gray hair, the half moon and falcon of House Arryn standing proud over the chest of his finery. A chain of linked hands hung thick and heavy about his neck. They appeared to be in conversation. Joffrey's whipping boy, Pate, face pimpled and sullen, stood off to the side of them, arms folded behind his back.

The Queen sat on her stool beside the Iron Throne itself, in the shadow of its swords. She sipped from a golden, ruby-encrusted chalice, draped in a myrish gown the color of the sea. She was as beautiful as she always was, and her golden hair shone especially bright, her lips red like fire. She looked deep in thought, far, far away, her eyes half closed as if dazed. She perked up when Harry entered, and Harry was caught by how much his sister and mother resembled the other. They could be twins, if not for the years between them. Her handmaidens clustered behind her, talking amongst themselves.

"Your Grace," the guard by the door announced, acting as herald. "The prince has arrived, and he bears tribute."

The King waved him over, only briefly glancing at Harry before resuming his conversation with Lord Jon. Pate, Harry saw as he approached, appeared to be preparing himself for some daunting task.

His mother finished her wine in one mighty gulp and rose to greet him, descending from the throne with all the grace of a Lyseni dancer. He had seen one in the year hence, after following Tyrion to the Street of Silk. He wondered, not for the first time, why his father bothered with whores and serving girls. "Harry dear, come." She beckoned him closer. She mentioned nothing of the stag the servants carried behind him, and she didn't seem to be angry. Relief shone in her face, but she wouldn't meet his eyes. She almost never did, in fact, and he wondered if it was because she had figured out what he could do, or if she just didn't like the look of them. How could she not, though; they were her own green eyes, the exact shade, set in a face like his father's, with dark hair to match.

"You skipped another lesson," she began without preamble. He opened his mouth to protest but she shushed him with a finger. "I warned you to not defy me, and you ignored my warning. If you will not mind me, then you will mind your father." She brushed the hair away from his brow, staring at his face. "Visit me later, love, and tell me what sort of adventure could call you out of the city absent a guard. I assume it had something to do with the deer?"

He nodded, expression sheepish, and she smiled, a slight, crooked thing, truer still than the smiles he had seen her give to others.

"It's an impressive specimen." Her fingers traced his face, danced along his jawline. "Such a willful child... even more so than your brother. What ever will I do with you..." Her voice grew soft.

"Mother?"

Then her fingers tightened on his jaw, her nails digging into his flesh. Her gaze pierced him more deeply than any sword. "Do not leave the city again, Harry, not without a guard. Do you understand?"

He could do naught but agree. The pain was sharp, but he had felt worse, in life and dream both. His voice was level when he replied, "Yes, mother."

What did she see in him that made her treat him so much differently from his brother and sister? Sometimes she wouldn't even acknowledge him, went out of her way to avoid him, to belittle him, and other times... other times she would hold him close and whisper sweet nothings in his ear as she played with his hair and trailed her long fingers along the contours of his face, eyes alight with wonder. Sometimes she was scathing, as sharp and cutting as Valyrian steel, and other times she was soft and sweet and loving. It was maddening, but he craved her attention, her love, all the more for it.

The corner of her mouth twisted into a smile and her grip relaxed. "Good," she said, hands still on his face. "I trust, after this business with your father, that you will seek out the Grandmaester for your lessons?"

Harry nodded again.

She stared at him through narrowed eyes for several long moments before finally speaking. "Be good, love, and don't forget to visit." She patted his cheek and left the room without speaking a single word to his father, trailed by her handmaidens.

Harry turned his attention to his father, who had yet to acknowledge him. He waited in silence, and as the time went by, he began to fiddle nervously with the buttons of his jerkin. He had already been apprehensive about being summoned, and the prolonged silence did nothing to assuage his feelings. Just as he was about to speak up the King turned to face him with a bored expression, his fat face visibly brightening when he caught sight of the stag. His eyes lit up and his cheeks widened into a smile.

"You brought that down yourself? Without help?"

How many times will I be asked the same question? Harry nodded, his eyes shifting to Lord Jon to gauge his reaction. The old lord smiled a smile that crinkled his eyes.

"Look at that, Jon," his father said. "Barely ten and already hunting deer. And a stag at that! You'll be coming with me on the next hunting trip."

Harry smiled so wide his face hurt. "Thank you father."

"But," Robert continued, "you skipped your lessons, again, after your mother forbade you to do so. Worse, you went to the bloody Kingswood to do it. This is the fourth time in the past two weeks you've skipped your lessons, and I tire of being bothered with it. Since no other punishment has worked..." Pate stepped forward, and revealed that he had been holding a rod behind his back. He handed it over to the king. "We'll try a new one."

Harry gulped. A whipping? He wasn't afraid of pain, but it seemed rather extreme for skipping a lesson. Maester Pycelle was an old fool anyway, and despite his less than stellar attendance, he was even further along in his learning than Joffrey, who was a full year older. Stranger still was his father's participation in the first place. He had never seemed to care what Harry did.

"I noticed your displeasure last week, when those brigands were flogged in the city square," Jon Arryn said. "And so after much deliberation between your mother and I, we devised this punishment."

The King tossed the rod at his feet. "You'll beat him," he nodded at Pate, "until I tell you to stop, and then you'll attend all your lessons, or you'll be made to do it again, and again, and again."

Harry opened his mouth to argue, a rebuttal on the tip of his tongue, but Lord Jon's hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Even a prince must be held responsible for his actions," he said, "and all the consequences that arise thereafter. You brought this on yourself Harry. Pate did nothing wrong, and he deserves no punishment, but more often than not, it is the innocent that pay for the crimes of the wicked. That is the way of the world."

"No," Harry said, aghast. "I refuse." He couldn't believe Lord Jon, of all people, would betray him in such a way. Lord Jon, who never failed to preach on the virtues of honor, who implored him to be fair and just in all that he did, who had more hand in raising him than his own father. "I skipped the lessons," he continued. "Not Pate."

"You would deny your king?" his father said.

"I would," Harry said. He stood tall and straight, chin upturned. "I will not whip Pate."

"You've got some nerve, boy." Robert gestured to the rod. Pate retrieved it with shaking fingers, and presented it to his king. "More nerve than any man in all of the Seven Kingdoms. See here, boy, if you don't whip him, I will, and it'll be a lot worse coming from me."

Harry was beyond shocked. "You - you would do that? Just for skip-"

"This isn't just about those bloody lessons!" Robert bellowed. His thunderous voice reached every corner of the hall, echoing off the aged stone. "You have a kind heart," he said with a sigh, his words weighted with weariness. "Too kind, some say, and I agree."

Harry had never seen this side of his father before. So full of regret. So tired. So weary. Is that why he drowns himself in his cups? "Better to be kind than cruel," said Harry. "Would you rather I be like Joffrey?"

"No," his father replied. "Joffrey is too much like his mother."

"But you are two sides of the same coin," Lord Jon cut in. "I would rather you learn to harden your heart and find a middle ground. A king can be both loved and feared," he said. "Loved for what he does, and feared for what he might do."

"A King? Me? Might be you've forgotten in your old age-" and Robert laughed, a loud guffaw that startled Harry, "-but I'm the second son. Joffrey will be king."

"Second sons have been kings before," Jon muttered quietly; so quietly Harry almost didn't hear him. "And yet you still must be prepared," he said louder. "For truth, you might never be king, but you will always be a prince. Your every action and inaction will reflect upon the crown. Mayhaps you would follow in my steps, and be Hand?" He paused, old bones creaking as he shifted to look Harry in the eye. "I've seen something in you, Harry. We all have. You are a very special boy, and it's good that you are kind, but this world has no place for kind men."

"Then I will make a place," said Harry.

"'I will make a place,' he says." Robert scoffed. "And how are you going to do that, boy? Hold hands a sing songs? Men respect steel. They respect death. They respect power."

Why are they pushing so hard?.What are the asking of me? "What does any of that have to do with Pate?" he asked. "You ask me to be unjust, and that I cannot do. If a man is worthy of a beheading, I will have him beheaded. If a man rapes a lady, I will have him gelded, but I will not whip Pate for something I did." He took a breath. "I'll take the beating, but spare Pate."

"He's a whipping boy," said the king, sounding amused. "He's for whipping." He turned to Jon. "Hard to believe he's so young. Was I ever as stubborn?"

"Yes," Lord Jon answered succinctly. "He's just as stubborn and bullheaded as you were at his age."

"He's smarter than I was," the King admitted. His eyes bore into Harry. "You see this crown, boy? It's heavy. Heavier than any sword or hammer, heavier than any bloody stag." He turned his attention back to Lord Jon. "Between my sons, mayhaps they will be able to bear the weight."

"We can only hope," said Lord Jon. Harry was suddenly struck by how old he was. The lines in his face had never seem so long, so deep.

"He reminds me of Ned," his father said.

"Another stubborn, honorable fool," said Lord Jon.

"That he is, the bloody runt." Robert chuckled. "How long's it been since I last saw Ned? Five years? Six?" The King took a long pull from his cup. Wine dribbled down his bearded chin. "But you, boy... I can't decide if you're the worst of Cersei and I, or the best." And then he struck Harry across his chest with a blow so strong it knocked him from his feet. It was so swift, so sudden, even Lord Jon was caught off guard. "I've said my peace. Either you whip the boy, or I will." He leaned forward over Harry and held out the rod. "That was just a practice swing."

Harry scowled at his father and picked himself up from the ground. Ser Jaime, he noticed, had edged closer. "Just do it," his uncle mouthed silently.

Harry sighed. "Fine." He snatched the rod from the king's hands. He had never dared to show such insolence, not to his father, but he had never been in this situation before, and he found that his foreign memories and experiences paled in comparison to the emotion he felt, the hot anger coursing through his veins.

"Scowl at me all you want, boy. You'll thank me for this when you're older."

Thank you? Harry almost laughed. He would have if he wasn't so furious. He couldn't ever imagine thanking his father for this. Cursing him, more like. You great fat muttonhead.

The rod was light but solid and smooth, unlike the barbed whips and rods used for floggings. He looked to Pate and saw resignation on his face, knew it was mirrored in his own. This was an argument he could not win. He was surprised he had managed to argue as much as he did. He had only seen one man openly disagree with the king, and Jon Arryn occupied a place and status none could match.

He wondered why Lord Jon never sat with Joffrey, never spoke with him, never gave him lessons on ruling, or kingship, or leading men. Or maybe he tried, and Joffrey simply didn't care to listen. Surely they don't mean to make me king?

"Get on with it boy!" Robert demanded, breaking him from his reverie.

"Yes, Your Grace," he ground out through clenched teeth. This wasn't fair, not by far, but he would rather whip Pate himself than let his father do it. He would find a way to make it up to Pate. I'm sorry.

He never skipped another lesson.