There is no truth.
There is only perception.
Disclaimer: I own no rights to the Game of Thrones series written by George R.R. Martin. Eleonora, Nyx, and Moon are my own inserts, but I own no other characters.
"They do indeed celebrate the Feast of the Maiden in the South after all," said Eleonora, taking a final sip of her first course, thick sweet soup made with pumpkins. Rickon sat upon her lap, choosing to play with his wooden toy dragons than clear his plate. "I overheard some of the servants speaking on it early this morning. They have a Temple of the Maiden in Flea Bottom."
"Best of luck gaining permission from your father," said Porther, rubbing his crooked nose as he chuckled, nudging Jory beside him.
Porther, Varyl, Jory, and Jacks were the Stark guards sitting closest to Septa Mordane, Mira, Rickon, and the Stark women for their afternoon meal. Jory was the highest ranked and most respected of the foursome and of the house guard in general. Jacks and Varyl were revered by the Stark family, and Porther, despite his bumbling and whoring, was beloved in his own right as well. The group occasionally dined together in the Small Hall which earned its name to set it apart from the Great Hall, where the king could feast a thousand, but it was a long room with a high vaulted ceiling and bench space for two hundred at its trestle tables.
Fat Tom and Wyl accompanied Lord Stark to his council meeting that morning leaving the rest to dine together. Each man in the house guard now wore a new cloak, heavy grey wool with a white satin border. A hand of beaten silver clutched the woolen folds of each cloak and marked their wearers as men of the Hand's household guard. There were only fifty of them, so most of the benches were empty. Eleonora chose to sit at the very end of her table to sit closest to Jory and furthest from Septa Mordane.
"Perhaps you could pull your cock from a brothel long enough to escort me yourself, Po," she said, earning stifled laughs from the other three men who were all equally trying to remain out of earshot from Septa Mordane.
"I am rather fond of my head," said Porther, sipping his soup until the bowl was dry. "I would prefer to keep it."
"My father would allow me to attend if I was escorted," she replied, pushing some of Rickon's coarse hair from his eyes as he continued to play unfazed.
"You're delusional, my lady," said Jacks, "with all do respect of course. Flea Bottom is the underbelly of King's Landing, and your father would never permit you to be seen celebrating in the those rancid streets around those sorts of people."
"They're just people, Jacks," said Eleonora, "like you and I."
"You're being naive, Lady Eleonora," said Varyl, setting down his spoon as servants took their bowls away to bring their second course from the kitchens, "only trouble can be found in Flea Bottom."
Eleonora rolled her eyes and chose to argue no further. She looked over onto Arya. She appeared to be in a rather sour mood. Her head hung low as she concentrated on fiddling with her knife. She had been less than talkative the last few days but Eleonora had yet to broach the subject with her yet. Eleonora gently placed her hand upon Arya's fidgeting knife hand and ceased her aimless carving. The eldest Stark wrapped her arm around her littlest sister and pulled her against her affectionately, placing a kiss atop her head with no words spoken between them. Arya leaned against her sister, nuzzling her head upon her bosom. Just as the servants made their rounds for the second course, Lord Stark entered the Small Hall. He had been fighting with the council again. A blind man could see it on his face when he came to table.
"My lord," said Jory when Lord Eddard entered. He rose to his feet, and the rest of the guard rose with him.
"Be seated," said Ned. "I see you have started without me. I am pleased to know there are still some men of sense in this city." He signaled for the meal to resume. The servants began bringing out platters of ribs, roasted in a crust of garlic and herbs.
"The talk in the yard is we shall have a tourney, my lord," said Jory as he resumed his seat. "They say that knights will come from all over the realm to joust and feast in honor of your appointment as Hand of the King."
"Do they also say this is the last thing in the world I would have wished?" he grumbled.
Sansa's eyes had grown wide as the plates. "A tourney," she breathed. She was seated between Mira and Septa Mordane, as far from Arya as she could get without drawing a reproach from Father. "Will we be permitted to go, Father?"
"You know my feelings, Sansa. It seems I must arrange Robert's games and pretend to be honored for his sake. That does not mean I must subject my daughters to this folly."
Lord Eddard looked upon his eldest daughter, sharing a glance. They both knew of the King's preemptive invitation, but they both chose to not acknowledge this before the group.
"Oh, please," said Sansa. "I want to see."
Septa Mordane spoke up. "Princess Myrcella will be there, my lord, and her younger than Lady Sansa. All the ladies of the court will be expected at a grand event like this, and as the tourney is in your honor, it would look queer if your family did not attend."
Lord Stark looked pained. "I suppose so. Very well, I shall arrange a place for the girls."
"I don't care about their stupid tourney," said Arya suddenly.
Sansa lifted her head. "It will be a splendid event. You shan't be wanted."
Anger flashed across Lord Eddard's face. "Enough, Sansa. More of that and you will change my mind. I am weary unto death of this endless war you two are fighting. You are sisters. I expect you to behave like sisters, is that understood?"
Sansa bit her lip and nodded. Arya lowered her face to stare sullenly at her plate. She could feel tears stinging her eyes. She rubbed them away angrily, determined not to cry. Eleonora held Arya's head against her side again, lovingly pushing her stray hairs from her face. She whispered in her little sister's ear, "It's alright, pup."
The only sound was the clatter of knives and forks. "Pray excuse me," her father announced to the table. "I didn't mean to interrupt your meals. I have little appetite." He disappeared down the hall and into his chambers without another word.
Sansa began exchanging excited whispers at Mira who attempted to appear excited. Down the table Jory laughed at a joke with Varyl, and Hullen started in about horseflesh. "Your warhorse, now, he may not be the best one for the joust. Not the same thing, oh, no, not the same at all." The men had heard it all before; Desmond, Jacks, and Hullen's son Harwin shouted him down together, and Porther called for more wine.
Eleonora understood why Sansa and Arya fought, all too well. She would not deny that she quarrelled quite intensely with Sansa herself on many occasions yet nothing compared to the hostility between her two youngest sisters. Their bickering had become so frequent that Sansa would no longer speak to Arya unless their father forced them. Arya had not been herself since the family had traveled south, none of them had, but the joy that had once radiated from Arya had dimmed. She had been excited at the idea of visiting the sea, exploring the tunnels beneath the castle, and even for the warmer weather. She grew tired of all of these prospects very quickly. The thought of the Butcher's boy had never left her conscience, and began to bother her more and more as time went on. None of the Stark men had protected her friend, none of them, not even her father.
"Would you like to return to your room?" whispered Eleonora, so low that no one but Arya could hear. Arya's ribs sat there untouched, grown cold now, a thin film of grease congealing beneath them on the plate. Arya looked at them and felt ill. She pushed away from the table, nodded, and slowly took to her feet.
"Pray, where do you think you are going, young lady?" Septa Mordane asked.
"It's alright," said Eleonora, waving her hand dismissively at Septa Mordane. She never grew tired of knowing she had finally gained more control over herself and her siblings than the old woman.
Arya did not look back as she trotted up the winding steps, head still hung low. She had a skip in her step but only to reach her bed all the sooner. Eleonora frowned, climbing to her feet as a disapproving Septa Mordane stared on. She sat Rickon down beside Varyl and neither seemed to notice. She lifted her pale burgundy skirts and quietly drifted to her father's chambers, knocking softly as she slunk in through the slightly cracked door. He sat at his desk, resting his hand on his forehead, he looked up at her and allowed his grimace to soften for only a moment as Eleonora sent him a reassuring smile. Her father was colder in the warmth of the south. He seemed always angry, always distressed. She resented the south for this.
"You should have your supper brought to your chamber," said Eleonora, adjusting her skirt as she took a seat across from her father. "You'll make yourself sick skipping all of these meals and sleeping so little."
"You sound like your mother," he replied, smirking and leaning back in his chair as he placed down his quill.
"Wise," he grinned, lazily running his hand over his beard.
"I would certainly not go that far," she laughed. "I am merely concerned for you and for Arya. Sansa and Rickon seem to be managing fine."
"Do not worry for me, Nora," he insisted. "Once things begin to settle down and fall into place, my mood will be much more amicable."
"And when, pray tell, do you imagine that will be?"
"Do not test me now, please," he sighed, rolling his eyes in a huff. "I have been thinking quite a lot of Arya's struggles with the transition south, do not think I have forgotten. I have made some arrangements in attempt to lift her spirits."
Eleonora plopped her elbows on the table and smiled coyly up at her lord father, "go on."
"You've heard of Syrio Forel, yes?"
"I've heard stories from the likes of the guards, yes," she nodded. "He is a master swordsman if I recall and former First Sword of Braavos. They say there is no better swordsman in the Seven Kingdoms."
"And no finer swordsman to teach your youngest sister the craft," he said.
"Father, she will be beside herself," said Eleonora, semi-shocked at her father's suggestion.
"I will have Jory escort her," he went on, "and she will refer to them as her dancing lessons."
"Of course," she teased. "We wouldn't want the upper echelons of society to find out a woman's hands can hold more than just sewing needles. I fear the aristocracy would crumble at the notion."
"My father has recruited quite the unique private tutor for Arya," said Eleonora. "I am certain he has told you."
"He has," he smirked, "Syrio Forel will prove to be a skilled dancing instructor for your sister."
Jory chuckled quietly, never loud enough to welcome concerned knocks from potential outside listeners. Eleonora rested her head in the knook of Jory's shoulder, his arm wrapped around her back. Their fingers were idly intertwined, playfully battling for control of the other whilst welcoming the occasional nibble or kiss. They had done nothing but lounge aimlessly in Eleonora's bed for hours, the lovemaking that usually immediately followed Jory's late night visits had been forgotten for no reason at all. The time they spent together had become precious and rarer than it had ever been in the North. They did not lust for each other's bodies as earnestly, and instead the simple company and conversation outweighed their sexual desires more than ever before.
"Had I been exposed to similar opportunities aligned with my childhood ambitions then I imagine our relationship would not have developed to be so intimate…"
"Thank the gods your father favors Arya more than you," he joked, earning a lighthearted scoff from Eleonora who untied her fingers from Jory's to tap his chest in faux outrage. "Do you imagine he permits you to compete in the archery tournament?"
"I wouldn't dare place another morsel of anxiety upon his shoulders by asking," she sighed, "and I would not care to enter on my own accord."
"I have yet to see a woman nor man better with a bow in their hand," he replied, flexing her long and slender fingers between his hand before kissing her knuckles.
Jory moved quickly, rolling over to pull Eleonora beneath him. He grinned as he hovered over her, gently pushing her hair behind her ear. She heaved a sigh followed by an amused smile sneaking across her lips. She cupped Jory's face in her palm and kissed him softly. He held her face in his strong callused palm to returned her kiss while his free hand slid sensually beneath the skirt of her white slip. The sun loomed in the near future, a warm violet shadow in the horizon.
"I should go before we forget morning approaches," he breathed, pulling back so he straddled Eleonora's waist to better buckle his belt.
"Don't go," she said before she could help herself, reaching up to cover her small hands over his.
Jory paused he buckling and slowly looked down at her. This request took him by surprise. Eleonora and Jory had been slipping in and out of each other's bedchambers for years, but they shared an unspoken rule to never sleep in the other's bed overnight. This helped prevent any impending feelings from consummating, it did for Eleonora for that matter. She gently pulled his hand from his unbuckled belt. She brought his hand before her mouth and kissed his knuckles one-by-one.
"Why?" he asked softly.
"What do you mean - 'why?'"
"You have never asked me to stay with you before," he replied.
"Surely I have," she lied.
"Never," said Jory, shaking his head. "Why, Nora?"
"Must there be a reason?" she sighed.
"Yes," he said.
"You know me well enough to realize I put little thought behind my words," she frowned.
"I know you well enough to know you never say anything you don't mean," he said. "You care little if you are crass or occasionally hostile, and you may regret your words but you never deny their intent. If you cannot speak now and speak true then I'll leave you now."
"Jory-" she objected, but he was already striding towards the door, his boots in hand. His hand gripped the handle before Eleonora spoke up again, "The North does not feel so far away when I am with you."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"I miss Winterfell every day, from sunrise to sunset," she said, looking down into her open palms. "I miss my mother, my brothers, Theon, Nyx, Maester Luwin, and Old Nan. I miss the godswood, my favorite tree with the perfect knot in its bark, and the smell of a warm fire at the foot of my bed. I even miss the way the cold ran so deep in the evenings that it was a wonder a person's blood didn't turn to ice."
Jory slowly dropped his boots to the floor and walked back towards Eleonora. He was yearning to hear three words from her sovereign lips for too long now.
"When I'm with you, Jory, I can almost feel the warm springs, the icy wind upon my face, and the frozen grass beneath my boots," she said, and she felt foolish to say such things aloud. Jory moved closer still, wrapping one arm behind Eleonora to gently cradle her against him. He held her face in his open palm, feeling her vulnerable in his arms for the first time.
"Say it, Eleonora," he whispered, his breath warm against her cheek. Her lower lip quivered as she slowly shook her head.
"I cannot," she said, her tears escaping from her eyes.
"I have loved you far longer than I rightfully should have," said Jory, "and you've known that for years whether you're willing to admit it or not. Please do not deny your feelings as I have. It is an unbearable pain, and I would not wish such agony on an enemy and never on you."
"It will change everything, Jory," she shivered.
"Look at me," he said, tilting her chin up to make her eyes meet his. "Three words could never cage you. I would not dare allow it."
Eleonora moved her hands upwards, holding Jory's gruff face in her hands and spoke the three quiet words she had promised herself long ago would never be spoken to a man, "I love you."
Jory smiled against her lips, a genuine happiness that radiated throughout his enormous frame. He lifted Eleonora upwards and couldn't help but squeeze her a bit too tight. Though she stood securely in the arms of a man she never intended to love but now never intended to stop, Eleonora had never felt more free.
"I needed to finish shoeing Moon," said Eleonora.
"There are countless stable boys who would leap at the chance to care for your mare," said Mira, still looking a bit ruffled since barely managing to stuff Arya into her dress to join Sansa, Rickon, and Lord Stark. "You father did not seem pleased at your tardiness."
"Moon does not care for strangers," she sighed, "and I told my father this morning that I would possibly be a bit late."
"A bit late is not over an hour, my lady," said Mira. "You're an honored guest of the king. You should not leave him waiting."
"I doubt I have been missed much," she frowned, glancing over to the foot of her bed at long, narrow box decorated with unique colors and carvings. "What's this?"
Eleonora picked up the box off of her blankets to open it. A dozen of ornate winter roses had been ever so delicately woven into a crown and placed atop a deep blue velvet pillow. She extended her long slender fingers to touch the flowers but hovered over them slightly instead.
"The bouquet arrived just after you left this morning," she said. "I went to wake Rickon, and I found the gift just outside your door. There was no note. Someone must have been thinking of you."
Mira assumed king must have given her the present to welcome her by his side for the tourney. The roses were unique, even in the frozen North the flowers were a rare find. It was a thoughtful touch to give her such a sweet reminder of home. When Eleonora did not reply to her explanation, Mira ceased her tidying to look upon her lady. Eleonora had not moved. She was still staring at the roses in stunned silence, her fingers lingering above the blue petals.
"My lady?" said Mira slowly. "Is everything alright?"
"Yes," she said suddenly, allowing her fingertips to touch the petals ever so slightly. "I just haven't seen a winter rose since I was a child. I can still feel a chill upon the petals."
"Whomever sent you the flowers must have wanted you to wear them to the tourney," said Mira, smiling softly, "so we should not disappoint them."
King Robert could usually never tear his eyes away from a tourney, but Ned's eldest daughter (he reminded himself of her parentage quite frequently for his own good) was expected to join his party over an hour ago and had yet to arrive. His eyes darted from the jousting pitch to the grass path leading up to the royal audience more often than he was willing to admit as the seconds seemed to pass by slower and slower. Robert was too fat to participate in a tournament now, his once fierce and intimidating figure had been engulfed by rolls of pink skin filled with ale. His face still resembled its handsome features if one were to squint hard enough, but few took the time anymore. There was a time not long forgotten, before he was king, before the war, before Cersei; when women would lose their breath over his fleeting glance or kind word. He was handsome and charming and every woman wanted him, but of course for Robert, there ever only was Lyanna. When she died, after Rhaegar Targaeryan murdered her, he spent a lifetime attempting to fill the hole she left behind with ale, women, and power - the hole only widened. As her image faded, her memory remained.
There were nights when she would come to him in his dreams, like a ghost. He would reach out to her as if he could catch smoke with his bear hands. He could remember her face in his sleep, just like the last time he saw her when they were both young and more alive than either of them were now. Just as she faded in his dreams, her face disappeared in his consciousness as if the sunlight stole her away all over again. It would be nearly twenty years before he saw her face again, worn by woman with Riverrun eyes. She was smaller than Lyanna, slimmer and more petite, but her face, the long black hair, and the wolf blood that coursed through her heart were the same. Robert wondered how Ned could bear it, to raise his sister's ghost.
A flood of whispers began to crest upon the royal stage, Eleonora and her handmaiden had arrived. She dressed in a loose-fitting white gown to honor the Maiden on her holiest day. The sleeves fell off her shoulders allowing her long dark hair to fall upon her exposed skin. She looked lovely though the dress was more ill fitting than usual and the color (or lack thereof) was less attractive in a sea of radiant reds, violets, and turquoise; it was not her dress that earned her second looks and muffled whispers - it was the crown atop her head. She began to notice the hushed tones and odd glances as she climbed the wooden steps to take her seat between her father and Robert.
The king had not been able to exhale, his breath stuck in his throat when Eleonora became visible. Lord Eddard was the only member of the tourney audience more breathless than the king himself. Ned remembered the moment when all the smiles died at Harrenhal, when Prince Rhaegar Targaryen urged his horse past his own wife, the Dornish princess Elia Martell, to lay the queen of beauty's laurel in Lyanna's lap. The same prize Rhaegar placed in his sister's lap now sat upon his daughter's head: a crown of winter roses, blue as frost.
Eleonora curtsied before the speechless king, lifted her skirts underneath herself and look her place beside her father and Robert. Queen Cersei's tight lipped expression was unfazed as the Hand's daughter joined their party.
"Why am I being stared at as if I have two heads?" asked Eleonora from the corner of her mouth, tilting her head towards her father. Lord Eddard, without thinking, placed his large calloused palm over his daughter's hand and squeezed. She was there. She was alive. She was not Lyanna. He needed to remind himself, just once. He turned his head to look upon her delicate face, the eyes that belonged to Catelyn Tully. His Adam's apple rose and fell in his throat but no words could escape his lips. Eleonora began to feel panicked. "Father?"
"Where did you find winter roses?" asked the king finally in a brusk, aggressive tone. "Is this just a malicious way to tease us?"
The jousting match continued before them but no one in the royal box cared to watch the competitors any longer. Eleonora pivoted in her chair to face the king, releasing her father's hand. Robert's face was redder than normal.
"The crown of roses arrived in a box outside of my chambers this morning without a note," she replied, adjusting the flowers on her head. "I believed them to be a gift from you, your Grace, to wear at the tourney. I do not understand-"
"Robert, she could not possibly know the story," said Cersei, placing her long skeletal like fingers on her husband's pudgy forearm. "She was not yet born."
"Where were your houseguard, Ned?" asked Robert, pulling his arm away from Cersei's empty gesture. She recoiled as if she had rubbed her hand in filth. "What good are they if not to protect your House from threats such as this?"
"Threat? I don't-" said Eleonora.
"Nora has never required a permanent escort," said Ned. "I have always allowed her to move about Winterfell as she pleases, only insisting a guard accompany her if she were to go into the forest for a hunt."
"You know better than most the dangers that hide in King's Landing," said Robert.
"I am more than capable of protecting my own children, Robert," said Ned, harsh but quiet for only the king to hear. "We don't know for certain the intention behind the roses. We cannot assume the gift was a threat. Perhaps it was a very depraved, cruel joke."
"It is not funny," said Robert.
"Not all jokes are," said Ned, "nor are they meant to be."
"We do not know who left the gift," said Robert. "If it was left without malice then they would have left their name behind. From now on, she needs to have a guard with her whenever she is not safely within the Hand's Tower."
Eleonora's brows furrowed. She was growing more frustrated and confused as she listened to her father and King Robert quarrel about her as she sat in silence between them as if she were invisible.
"I have never assigned one of my guards to Eleonora because she has always been more than capable of handling her own protection," said Ned as Eleonora's chest grew warm with pride. "She wanted to know how to fight, even though she was young, and even though she was a girl, so I allowed her to learn to be her own guardian."
"I've seen what she can do," said Robert, slowly nodding his head and looking upon Nora for the first time as if he had just remembered she was there, "but she is under my protection as king, and I insist Lady Eleonora be escorted by a guard whenever she leave the Hand's Tower. Someone came into the Hand's Tower unseen and until the crown's intent is known, we must be weary."
"Your Grace, I would very much appreciate if my thoughts on the matter were taken into consideration," she said, sarcasm dripping from every syllable.
"Nonsense," said Robert, patting the top of Eleonora's hand as if she were a slow witted child. "I'll personally assign one of my kingsguard to mind your safety during your stay in King's Landing."
"Robert, surely we can discuss this further in private," said Ned, "and if someone were to guard one of my children it will be under the watch of one of my own men."
"There is nothing more to discuss, Ned," said Robert, suddenly beckoning over his shoulder to the tallest kingsguard standing behind the royal box. The guard climbed the steps and removed his metal helmet. "Lannister, from now on, you're to be Lady Stark's personal bodyguard. If she leaves the Hand's Tower then you are to be her shadow, whatever harm comes to her, the same harm will come upon you but tenfold."
Jaime looked over at Eleonora, noticing her for the first time and his eyes freezing on the crown of roses. She could feel Jaime Lannister's fierce green eyes upon her, more piercing than most.
"Jaime Lannister is a kingsguard," said Ned, extremely uneasy with the thought of a Lannister following his daughter around alone. "He took his vows to protect the king. He cannot be expected to follow around Eleonora."
"He will do as I say as his king, and I will hear no more arguments," said Robert, slamming his fist on his chair. "I will not lose, not again."
Several heads turned sitting in front of the group, unable to stare at the flustered and emotional king. Ned took Eleonora be the arm and forcefully lifted her from her seat.
"If you believe Eleonora's safety is at risk, I will escort her back to her chambers myself as her father," said Ned quietly but with severity in his tone. "She will stay out of harm's way on the Hand's Tower this evening instead of attending the Champion's Ball. I know you would not want to put her in any danger after today's potential threat. No kingsguard will chaperone my child while I am with her."
Ned knew all too well that Robert would want Eleonora to attend the Champion's Ball as his guest, so he would best him while he had the opportunity. Ned nudged his eldest daughter down the steps towards the path back to the castle. Eleonora, still incredible confused, looked back over her shoulder at Jory as he began to mount his horse in the distance. Four of the Stark guards followed behind their lord.
"Father, I wanted to see Jory joust," she pleaded, trying to pull herself free from his grasp.
"I'll explain to Jory why you missed his joust," said Ned as the met the path back to the Red Keep.
"Thank you, father," she replied. "I would also appreciate very much if you would explain to me why I missed the joust."
Ned paused. He slowly released the firm grip he held on his daughter's arm. She had done nothing wrong yet he was dragging her back to her room as if she was an insubordinate child. He folded his arm and offered her the crook of the inside of his elbow instead which she cautiously accepted.
"You've been told your entire life you look just like a woman you've never met, and I cannot imagine what a burden that must be," he began. "You were born as much a Tully as you are a Stark, and you had no say in how your features would develop. Your face and your body is of your own, and it must be incredibly difficult to remember that fact when it feels as if you're being accused of wearing a dead woman's corpse."
Eleonora swallowed hard but nodded. She never knew that her father had recognized how her resemblance to Lyanna had impacted her.
"To many who knew your Aunt Lyanna, it is sometimes jolting and even overwhelming to look at you - even for me," said Ned. "I, however, know and love you as my daughter who takes after my sister merely because you are a Stark. To King Robert, you are a reminder of a what he lost twenty years ago, the bride he was promised, the life he anticipated. He knows you are not Lyanna, but it is as pleasant as it is painful to him to look upon her face -your face- if just for a moment and pretend time never passed."
"But what do these flowers have to do with anything?"
"You know the story, the story every knows, of the tourney at Harrenhal," started Ned.
"Of course," said Eleonora. "Rhaegar Targaryen won the tourney and kidnapped Lyanna that led to…"
"Yes," said Ned, closing his eyes for a pained moment, "but a moment not everyone speaks of is when Prince Rhaegar Targaryen rode past his own wife, Elia Martell, to lay the queen of beauty's laurel in Lyanna's lap."
"A crown of winter roses," Eleonora breathes her realization.
"A crown of winter roses," Ned nodded.
"Is King Robert right?" she asked. "Could the flowers truly be a threat?"
"I think they are meant to be more of a cruel reminder to Robert of what he lost than a malicious gesture to you," he replied, "but relaying such a message to the king would be a delicate conversation that may not be well received."
"So he believes I will now be safer under the watchful eye of Jaime Lannister?" scoffed Eleonora.
"I will speak with the king in the morning and allow cooler heads to prevail," said Ned.
"If I am to rely on cooler heads prevailing then I should start coming to terms with a new golden headed shadow," she sighed.
Eleonora looked over her shoulder every few moments, an eerie feeling that she was being followed haunted her conscious. She lifted her white skirts as she lightly leapt over the small puddles gathered between the cobblestones. She did not object to her temporary captivity as she planned all along to escape into the night.
Flea Bottom was on the eastern side of Rhaenys's Hill, the poorest slum in King's Landing. It was a labyrinth-like warren of narrow streets, ramshackle buildings, and dark alleys. Eleonora followed the warm glow from the district center and the hum of music and laughing. A sweet smell of fresh bread and sweets from the Street of Flour welcomed any empty stomachs. For the Celebration of the Maiden, the bakers from the Street of Flour made a sacred cake, using water carried in consecrated jugs from a Maiden spring. The water was never permitted to come into contact with the earth between the spring and the cake, which also included sacred salt and brine. The hard-baked cakes were then cut into slices and offered to Maiden by the children of the Faith. The strong honeyed scent nearly coated the stench of human waste that flowed down the pipes from both Rhaenys's Hill and Aegon's High Hill and into the gutters.
When Eleonora finally came upon the celebration, it was as if she had found the center of a maze. The narrow alleyway she had been following opened up before the Temple of the Maiden. An enormous pire illuminated the city center, flames danced towards the sky as city dwellers lept and swayed to the songs of bards and beats of drums. Flower garland and colored fabrics decorated the large temple. The feast celebrated the Maiden's power of purity, strength, and independence. In the North, the Feast of the Maiden was celebrated in much tamer capacity. The women of Winterfell would gather together, each holding an illuminated candle, before the godswood and pray:
I give honor to the Maiden,
By all her names, known and unknown.
I ask she bless me with her wisdom
And give strength and courage to those in need
Her heart felt full for the first time in quite a long while. The joy exuded from those of Flea Bottom felt familiar and warm against her chest. She thought of her mother, the strange comfort that her sharp southern hand brought her during times of prayer. Her throat shuddered involuntarily for a moment before she could help herself.
In the South, during the eight days of the Feast of the Maiden, only women were permitted to enter the Maiden's temple for worship. When they arrived, they removed their shoes and made offerings to the goddess. At the end of the eight day feast, the Septas cleaned the temple from top to bottom, sweeping the floors of dust and debris, and burning various offerings of flowers and sweets left upon the temple steps to offer in the name of the Maiden.
The northern lady fit in quite seamlessly with those celebrating in Flea Bottom, surprisingly enough. The elder men and women clutched lit candles in their palms just as she remembered in the north. She remained dressed appropriately, her long white skirts and lazy peasant sleeves hung off her shoulders. White was the color of purity and strength and all the women as far as the eye could see abided by this fashion tradition.
Eleonora smiled slightly, slowly walking into the glow of the holiday. She drifted untouched between the capering audience. She exchanged pleasantries with the women and children dressed in white with flowers in their hair. She snagged a wooden mug and poured herself a glass of rose water meade. The liquid felt cold on her tongue, goosebumps appeared on her skin. She weaved between the large groups of members of the Faith until she reached the stone steps leading to the Temple of the Maiden. Eleonora set down her meade, slid out of her boots, removed her flower crown, and held the frost-colored blossoms in her open palms. She quietly spoke aloud the northern words of the Maiden:
Beneath my feet is Earth,
Soil dark and fertile.
The womb in which life begins,
And will later die, then return anew.
She kissed the roses in her palms, breathing the cool aroma before offering the roses to the Maiden. Eleonora gently placed the unique blue florets on the steps atop the mountain of flowers gifted by the others. She smiled softly, proud of the beneficence of the Faith community.
"I imagine a winter rose has never made its way to Flea Bottom before," said a deep, derisive voice from behind Eleonora, the sensation of torrid breath against the nook of her neck. The stranger was so close behind her that she felt itchy tingle from chin stubble along his jaw.
Eleonora's stomach lurched as she instinctively spun around, clutching her abdomen. She instantly gasped a heavy breath of relief once laying eyes on the violator of her personal space - Jaime Lannister. He wore his usual insufferable mordant grin with a costly pair of dark leather trousers, boots to his knees, and a very unfamiliar white billowing blouse with a low neck.
"For fuck's sake, Lannister," she frowned, rolling her eyes and punching his shoulder. "Do you truly have nothing better to do with your evening than follow me?"
"No, not when I have been commanded by the king to accompany you during your time in King's Landing along with being entrusted with your personal safety. Also, I did not follow you," he scoffed in a slightly insulted tone. "I didn't have to when you're as predictable of a person as you are." Eleonora was one of only a few who could crawl under his skin, and he could barely stand the feeling.
"What is that supposed to mean?" she said, furrowing her brow as she snatched up her mug of mead so fiercely that she spilled quite a bit onto the steps. She purposely bumped her shoulder sharply into Jaime's chest as she brushed by him. Her small frame had little impact on him. He smirked, pivoting on his heel to casually follow her.
"You too fragile to leave your chambers because receiving a fucking flower crown from a nameless admirer was simply too much for you to bear?" he laughed. "You flippantly accuse me of being an idiot, but I know you do not truly think me that dense. The entirety of the Red Keep heard you express your apparent unwavering determination to participate in this foolish Faith-inspired pilgrimage just hours before you abruptly agreed to be locked up in your tower as if you took ill with a self-diagnosed bout of feebleness. Please, Stark, I know you well enough to appreciate the fact you would never so easily surrender-"
"Yes, how remarkably clever you are to have figured me out," she interrupted, rolling her eyes. "I am terribly impressed. Is that what you want to hear?"
"Well, I must admit I certainly do not detest your acknowledgement," he teased, clutching his hands together behind his back with a cheeky grin.
The northern lady walked to to refill her mug of mead. Jaime, though begrudgingly at first, collected a mug of ale for himself. Eleonora climbed a few weathered stairs beside the Maiden's temple and sat down upon a step in the manner of a pouting child. Jaime ignored her glowering and sat down with much more grace than his counterpart. He took a large gulp of ale before looking on to the rejoicing Flea Bottom faithful, resting his elbows on his knees and allowing his mug to hang loosely in his hands between his legs. The pair sat in silence for a long while, watching the growing flames from the pyre and listening to the seductive beat of the drums. Finally, Eleonora turned her head slightly to peer onto Jaime.
"Please go back," she said, and he knew from her voice that it was a genuine plea.
"Do you honestly think I want to spend my evening drinking sour ale with you in Flea Bottom?" he replied a bit too cruelly, sighing as he watched Eleonora look away from him and take a biting sip of ale. "I was commanded by the king to protect you, and you are not safe here alone."
"I am not someone you needs protecting," she said with confidence, "and you know that."
Jaime sighed, shaking his head slightly before he hung it low.
"Listen to me, Nora," he began, his use of her shortened name took her by surprise. "No matter what you assume I think of you, believe it or not, I do not find you to be a weak person - quite the opposite, in fact."
"I think you may have come dangerously close to complimenting me," she scoffed.
"I blame this wretched piss water ale," he scoffed, taking another drink. "What I am trying to say is, I am not here to make your life miserable. I am merely doing my duty to the king."
"Were you also merely doing your duty when you drove your sword through the Mad King's back?" she asked, her eyes locked directly on the pyre before them.
Jaime clicked his jaw and looked down at his knuckles. He had forced himself to be numb to the condemnation of his killing of the Mad King Aerys, but for some reason, Eleonora's words made his chest ache ever so slightly. He grew suddenly very angry at her, not for her crass opinion but for forcing him to experience an unwanted emotion.
"You should vocalise your displeasure for my company to King Robert yourself," he seethed, "or perhaps you could place some blame on your mother and father. They are directly responsible for giving birth to Lyanna Stark's ghost after all, and had you carried your appearance as more of a Tully then I doubt Robert Baratheon would have such a strong desire to fuck you raw. We both know I am just a glorified chaperone of that seemingly indomitable cunt of yours."
"How delightfully vulgar," she spat. "Yes, I am aware of the uncanny resemblance I have to my aunt, but I am not Lyanna Stark. My indomitable cunt, as you so eloquently put it, belongs to no man - not even a king. Do not speak of me as if I exist merely as a token for the impetus of powerful men. I know what it means to be a woman in the world we live in, and I will not have you remind me of my own worth."
The silence cut like a blade, quick and gut wrenching. Eleonora turned her head away, attempting to drown her thoughts in music. The flower offering grew more immense as women and children gathered one-by-one or two-by-two gifting florets and blossoms of every color upon the temple steps. Soon, the winter roses would be buried beneath the others, no more unique or remarkable than any of the wildflowers. A film of blue coated the floral offerings, a cool hue gifted from the moon. Eleonora had nearly allowed herself to forget she had a companion by her side until Jaime's quiet voice broke the silence.
"When I was little, my mother used to tell me it was bad luck to pick flowers after sunset," he said before he could stop himself. Jaime was so surprised such an intimate sentiment escape his lips that he blinked several times to make certain he was still in his right mind. Eleonora paused, equally surprised, before turning back to meet Jaime's eyes.
"Why?" she asked.
"She insisted the sun gave flowers life but the moon gave them their beauty," he said, and the memory felt so familiar that he could hear her voice speak the words. "A silly child's fable."
"Perhaps," she said with a quiet smile, looking back at the dancers, "but I am always sentimental to a good folklore. I think I will adhere to your mother's warning in the future. I could do without any more bad luck."
"I'm quite sure if she were alive today, she would care very little what hour your plucked tea roses from the gardens," he replied, shaking the memory loose until it fell and crumbled to the floor. "I don't know why I even mentioned it."
"It's funny what we do remember from our childhoods," said Eleonora, looking up at Jaime from the corner of her eye. "I don't recall the first time I rode a horse or the first sword I held, but what I remember more than my very own name is something my father used to say."
"And what, Stark, is that?" asked Jaime, noticing an eerie shadow in a distant alleyway glaring their way. He attempted to convince himself it was merely a random drunk with an eye for beauty.
"We had nights in the North, that were so cold the icy winds managed to breathe through stone. When I was very small, burrowed deep beneath a mound of animal skins and shivering still, I would ask my father how to fight the cold. And he would give me the same answer each night before bed until it became my lullaby. He would say, 'the only way to fight the cold is to be colder.'"
"Foolish Northern sentiment," said Jaime, scoffing. "The only way to fight the cold is with fire-"
"Ser?" A tiny voice interrupted Jaime's undoubtedly witty retort. A little girl, no older than Rickon, stood sheepishly two steps below them, cradling her small hands in front of her waist. She had muddy brown hair and big brown eyes, and wore a shy smile as quietly endearing as her dusty white dress. "Would you dance with me?"
Jaime opened his mouth but Eleonora had already removed his mug of ale from his hand and began pushing him to his feet, "he would be honored."
The little girl grinned, clasped her small hands around his calloused fingers and nearly dragged him into large group of dancers. He looked quite awkward at first, a giant compared to the mouse of a girl twirling about as he slowly swayed from side-to-side like a tree in the wind. Jaime looked back at Eleonora painfully as she extended her hand holding her mead as if to salute his dismal effort, an all too amused grin across her face. Jaime finally surrendered himself to the little girl and lifted her up onto his hip to spin her around to the music. Her cheeks grew red from laughing, as did Eleonora's, pleasantly surprised at Jaime's sudden willingness to join the festivities. When the song ended, Jaime set down the little girl who curtsied to him before he returned a bow. The music picked up again as he approached a smiling Eleonora once again. He paused for a moment before extending an open palm to her. She looked up at him with a confused expression, holding her mug of mead tighter between her palms before looking away.
"May I have this dance?"
"Have you lost your head?" she laughed, sniffing her mead. "What is in this ale?"
"Will you just take my hand before I come to my bloody senses?"
Eleonora stared at his open palm for a long while before she set down her mug and gripped Jaime's extended hand. An abrupt laugh followed, shared between the two. Eleonora followed Jaime closer to the pyre before he pulled her against him, resting his hand poignantly against her back. He took the lead, stepping to the side as she followed. His rhythm was meticulous, years of strict choreography and frigid posture had given him little ability to feel the beat of the drums or focus on the sweet tune. This was no surprise and brought a smile to Eleonora's face as she looked up at Jaime who was quite literally mouthing his step count.
"Why did you want to come here?" asked Jaime sincerely, spinning Eleonora back against him. "Flea Bottom is far from a luxurious retreat no matter the occasion."
"Because from the day I left Winterfell I have done nothing but yearn for any fleeting moment to cling to when I did not feel as if I was a lifetime from my home," she said softly. "I have my father, my little brother, my sisters, familiar faced guards, even my mare, but I still cannot recall a time where I have felt anything but lost."
"As if you've never felt more alone while surrounded by so many people," he said without thinking.
"Yes," she said slowly, looking upon Jaime as if she had never truly looked at him before.
After a moment she pulled away and took Jaime's hands in her, sharing a smile as he realized what she was doing. Eleonora took the lead, skipping with no set steps, twirling under Jaime's arms whenever the moment called for it, the laughter between them as effortless as their dance. After awhile, the music wove together just as they had. In fact, it wasn't until a shrill scream rang out from across the courtyard that the pair finally ceased their steps. Jaime instinctively pushed Eleonora behind him, gripping the handle of the sword on his hip. She had already lifted her skirts to remove her dagger. A dozen or more of the King's Guard gathered near the largest narrow alleyway leading into the courtyard.
"Break it up now, filth," shouted Meryn Trant. "You've had your fun."
"Away with you now," shouted another guard, holding a bottle of ale surely from the Hand's Tourney.
"What are they doing here?" Eleonora whispered against Jaime's back.
"Flea Bottom has little to celebrate," said Jaime quietly, "There are some who would like to keep it that way."
"Why?" she hissed. "What does it matter to the likes of them what Flea-"
"Because some men quietly live in misery gathering their joy from the idea that there are countless others living in far more misery than they are," said Jaime thoughtfully.
"What a selfish, foolish notion," said Eleonora, looking around to the countless people now cowering in fear. "They weren't hurting anyone."
"We need to go before they see us," said Jaime. "Your father will hang you for sneaking out of King's Landing, and Robert will have my head for allowing you to."
Eleonora did not hear his words. Instead, she raised her voice and shouted out, "Did you come on King Robert's orders or on the selfish errand of your own tiny cocks?"
Laughter erupted from the crowd as the guards quickly grew angry, looking through the crowd from the source of their ridicule.
"Who said that?!" Meryn Trant shouted.
"Leave these people to their celebration," she shouted before Jaime could stop her. "Why don't you return to the castle, back to fucking your mothers'... or swine - though I imagine there is little difference."
"Who dare speak to a member of the King's Guard in such a manner?" he screamed, searching the crowd for the face to the voice.
The crowd began to look around clearing slightly as Eleonora stepped forward. The guards looked around but Meryn Trant was certain he saw the face of the Hand's pretty little daughter, the one with the doe eyes and the prized royal cunt. Before he could get a better look, she disappeared into the now boisterous crowd.
Jaime grabbed Eleonora's arm and forcefully pulled her into the opposite direction, through the hysterical crowd and toward the narrowest of alleyways out of the sight of the guards. Meryn Trant yelled for his fellow guards to follow him as he pushed through the crowd after the woman and her cohort that he was sure to be Ned Stark's eldest daughter. The pair slithered through street carts and under broken beams as heavy footsteps began to gain on them.
"Are you truly incapable of ever keeping your mouth shut?" he seethed, gripping her hand tighter as the alleyway began to part.
"I will not stand by and allow a herd of fools harass the innocent people-"
"Yes, how utterly fearless of you to raise your sovereign voice to a bloody guard who you could have beheaded if you were simply bat your eyes in Robert's direction," said Jaime as they neared the end of the cobblestone alley. "You were not brave, you were a cheeky impotent child."
"I would rather raise my voice like a child than sit idly by while my cohorts bully innocent people worshipping their gods," she snapped.
They had escaped the labyrinth of alleyways and rotting beams to reach the edge of the sea. Jaime and Eleonora looked back and saw the guards approaching in the distance. Jaime released her hand and turned to lead them down an ancient flight of weathered steps towards the cliffs to get closer to the beach. He figured the pair could disappear in one of the many seaside caves until the guards considered them lost. Jaime noticed immediately Eleonora had not followed him. He had taken one step downward near the beach when he realized Eleonora had her hand extended towards him.
"Stop fooling around," he hissed. "Hurry up."
"Are the stories true?"
"What are you talking about, Stark?" he snapped. "We don't have time for-"
"Did you jump the tallest seaside cliffs of Casterly Rock or is such a rumor as false as the whispers of you and your sister-"
Jaime narrowed his gaze, grabbed Eleonora's hand and sprinted toward the edge of the cliff. She did not hesitate to join him, leaping into the air with the same determination as the Kingslayer. The water hit them with the force of giant's punch. The current separated them instantly, forcing them deeper into black water. Jaime pushed himself to the surface by the rocks upon the shallow ocean floor. When he gasped his first breath of air and blinked the water from his eyes, he did see his raven headed companion, he didn't see anything at all.
"Stark?" said Jaime, humorously at first until his call went unanswered and the sea loomed black. "Stark?!"
Suddenly, Jaime's face was sprayed with salt water. He coughed and blinked away the water, his vision still slightly blurred. Eleonora appeared from the depths beneath him as if she had been born a fish. She sported a wide grin, amused at his frantic calls for her as if he was near panic. She greeted him by emptying her mouth of seawater onto his face. He was relieved that he had not assisted in the drowning of the Hand's eldest daughter.
"I told you I could swim," she teased, wading lazily in the water as her long black hair hung against her pale skin reflecting the moonlight. "I was taught how by a Greyjoy after all."
"You are also quite skilled in holding your breath, apparently," he replied, gritting his teeth.
"Were you worried I had drowned, Lannister?" she jeered. "I can hardly blame you. You were concerned just moments ago that I was incapable of keeping my mouth closed."
"Don't be absurd," he said, narrowing his gaze. "It's impossible to see when the moon is your only source of light."
"Ah, of course," she said sarcastically.
The sea was cool, cold enough to deliver a chill to the warm blooded Lannister. It felt refreshing against Eleonora's northern skin, and she wished to feel the cool embrace awhile longer. It was under the Harvest Moon, floating in the middle of the Black Sea with the Lannister Kingslayer, that for the first time since arriving in King's Landing that Eleonora Stark didn't feel entirely lost. She laid her head back into the sea to listen to the waves. She closed her eyes for just a moment then stared up into the glow of the moon.
Jaime looked on at her in silence. He had barely seen Lyanna Stark when she walked the earth, so he never truly could comprehend the awe she welcomed from the elder members of court. She was not a living ghost of a fallen queen-to-be, not to Jaime. She was this petite, almost mouse of a girl who drove him absolutely mad. She was the only lady of any royal court he had ever encountered with dismal manners and an ever more offensive vocabulary. She swore, fought like a man, and was a walking, talking contradiction of a noblewoman. Those Tully eyes she carried around were far too big for her small, dainty face. Her gowns never fit quite right and her hair was as wild as she was. She never rode with a saddle and rarely could be found in any state but barefoot, layers of filth and earth turning her callused little feet almost black. Her laugh was usually as phony as her smile and was typically followed by an inelegant snort if she was ever truly humored.
"What?" she said, pulling her head from the waves to face him just as she realized Jaime had been looking at her. "What are you staring at?"
"Nothing," said Jaime, clamoring to calculate a reply. "We should get back before someone realizes you're gone."
Eleonora smiled whimsically, feeling the chill of the waves brush against her skin like a familiar northern embrace. She sighed before following Jamie's strokes against the waves back to shoreline.
She beat the lion to the rocky shore, ringing out her skirts and long black hair as Jaime fumbled while his boots slipped atop the weathered rocks. For a man who carried himself with such stealth and grace, the darkness and slick conditions seemed to have betrayed him. Eleonora laughed as Jaime inelegantly fell onto his backside, into the blackwater again. She walked forward and took his palm into her hands and helped to hoist him to his feet before he could wave her off. She knelt down before him as he steadied himself and began to loosen the belt on his boots.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"As much as the thought of you breaking your leg would amuse me," she smiled, yanking his first boot down his ankle. "I would prefer not having to lug you up a hill of rocks to return to the castle. Now slip off your boots."
Jaime rolled his eyes and discarded his boots upon the rocky shore. They climbed the steep hill that was more like a wall until they reached the garden path leading up to the Red Keep. The pair was still soaked from their leap, Eleonora's long white skirts dragged along the stone path like a servant's mop. Jaime's bare feet felt odd, exposed against the cobblestone. He slid his jacket off and gesture it to Eleonora.
"What good will a sopping wet jacket do me?" she laughed and Jaime shrugged at the notion. They walked in silence for a long while until gardens were in sight. "If you're going to insist on following me around then you'll need to know I'll want to visit the gardens to pick a fresh bouquet of flowers in the morning."
"Why don't we just pluck your flowers now while the gardens are a arm's length?"
"Because someone once told me it's bad luck to pick flowers at night," said Eleonora.
A/N: Thank you for your kind reviews and following. I'm in the middle of editing the last chapter. I used an excerpt from another book as inspiration and then forgot to take it out. When I fix it, I'll put an author's note.
Coming Soon: Protecting Eleonora isn't Jaime's only command…