When the city came into view, she felt both relief and dread in equal measure. They’d finally arrived, after weeks of travel. Daenerys yearned for a hot bath and a soft bed but as it was with most things, she didn’t get to do as she pleased. If she’d gotten a say she would still be at home. The fact that she’d been dragged along on a trip that didn’t concern her showed just how little her opinion mattered to those around her.
Sitting on the horse next to her Missandei leaned in and whispered to her friend. “This must be Sunspear.”
All her life she’d heard tales of Dorne, but this was her first time seeing it for herself. The stories didn’t do it justice. She thought back over her time on the boat, then on horseback, trying to recall the exact moment they crossed into this new, different world. Nothing she saw looked familiar not the walls, the buildings, the farms, the houses, even the people were unique to this region.
She woke with a jolt, gasping for the air she apparently wasn’t getting in her dream. Her normally steady hand wavered a bit as she reached to wipe the cold sweat from her skin. It had been months since she’d had a dream like that. She thought she’d gotten past them.
As quietly as she could she sat up and threw her legs over the side of the bed. She took slow, deliberate breathes in an effort to calm her racing heart. At the same time, she closed her eyes and worked to keep her mind empty. If there was ever a day where she couldn’t afford to be plagued with thoughts of the past, this was it.
She stayed like that until she felt like herself again. Only then did she risk opening her eyes. It took time to adjust to the darkness. The large room had a high ceiling, small circular windows and rows and rows of beds with barely any space between them. The minimal light came from a series of candles arranged at intervals – one candle for every three beds.
She wasn’t the first one awake. She heard whispering on her left, snoring and heavy breathing on her right. Still, she did what she could to act as though she had some privacy, as if there weren’t two-hundred and twelve other men and women sharing the room with her.
The Gods alone knew how long she sat there, doing everything in her power to avoid thinking about the dream that unsettled her. Eventually she decided that attempting to get back to sleep would be either pointless or too potentially dangerous. She couldn’t risk another dream like her last. Taking advantage of the fact that almost everyone else was occupied, she collected her things and headed off down the hall toward the bath.
Her smile was fake, and she was certain anyone who paid it enough attention could tell. That said, it never faltered, not once as she moved from one person to the next, down the never-ending line. This was what was expected of her and so she’d endure.
It was always the same. Introductions accompanied by insincere smiles and trivial, repetitive compliments. They praised her hair, her dress or her beauty as if she had control over any of the three. After years of painstaking practice, she developed a pattern that worked. She’d forgot the name as soon as she heard it, wait for the person’s lips to stop moving and then thank them. They’d engage in meaningless conversation for a few torturous seconds and then she’d get a nudge from her guard to move along. Two shuffled steps later, she’d be in front of someone else and it would begin again.
After a particularly painful thirty seconds with a distant member of Prince Doran’s family Daenerys was thrilled that Jorah urged her to move along. Her excuse for needing to go was as fake as her smile but the woman didn’t seem to notice. ‘Thank the Gods for small mercies,’ she thought privately as she prepared for the next encounter.
The laughter was so out of place that Daenerys couldn’t help but seek out the source. A man and women stood together, their eyes very clearly on the Targaryen. They didn’t look away when Daenerys spotted them, rather they smiled openly and laughed louder. In a moment of panic Daenerys feared that she’d accidentally shared her personal opinions aloud. Had she spoken what was meant for only her? Had that woman heard what Daenerys thought of her? Had everyone? Her cheeks and neck showed her embarrassment and her eyes snapped back to the woman she left, expecting to see an offended glare. She was oblivious to Daenerys’s internal turmoil, already locked in conversation with one of her father’s advisors.
Why had those people been laughing at her? Was it something she did or said? She looked down at her red dress and compared it to those worn by the locals, a little different perhaps, but not extreme enough to prompt such ridicule. She went over her entire conversation with the annoying woman in her mind looking for something that might be humorous, and she came away with nothing. She didn’t know why they were laughing, but she supposed it didn’t matter. With a determined shake of her head she squared her shoulders and prepared to forget it. There was a lot of people she needed to address.
It was Jorah who brought it to her attention first. He was behind her, as he always was, within arms reach in case of trouble. He’d been silently observing, moving when she did, until he was suddenly there, standing between Daenerys and the couple that had laughed at her. “We mean your Princess no harm,” the man said in the common tongue, albeit with a thick accent. “I am Prince Oberyn Martell and this is my woman Ellaria Sand.”
So, the man who had taunted her was a Prince? She didn’t know if that was better or worse. After ensuring her smile was firmly in place, she laid her hand on Jorah’s arm. “It’s alright Ser,” she said, stepping around him to greet the Dornish Prince directly. “It is a pleasure to meet you, I am Daenerys Targaryen.”
He smiled and unlike hers, it was natural, easy and comfortable on his face. “The Dragon Princess,” he acknowledged with a formal bow. “The pleasure is mine, I assure you.” When he reached for her hand she didn’t refuse, she was used to it. He raised it to his lips and kissed her knuckles gently. “It’s rare that someone is actually more beautiful than the stories we hear.” He released her hand and shrugged his shoulder as if he were commenting on the weather. “I suppose there is a first time for everything.”
She blushed under his compliment, though she couldn’t say why. She had lost count of the number of times she’d been called beautiful that day and yet something about his words felt real, as if he truly meant them. “That is very kind, Prince.”
“Don’t you think she’s beautiful love?” Oberyn asked the woman with him. Daenerys’s blush burned even brighter when she realized this man had been commenting on her looks in front of his wife. What should she say? Should she apologize or was it more proper to act as if nothing was wrong? She didn’t know! She’d never been in this particular situation before.
“You’re right my love,” she agreed without hesitation, “even better than the stories.”
When she was brave enough to look, she sought out Ellaria. She was an attractive woman with bronze skin, and a curtain of dark hair hanging to her shoulders. Her dress was expensive and colored to match the Martell sigil. She didn’t appear annoyed by her husband’s words, in fact if Daenerys was reading her correctly, she was amused.
Oberyn looked to Ellaria and when their eyes met, they both smiled. He stepped back and waved her forward with an exaggerated movement of his hand. “Meet the Princess, my dear,” he urged, “she’s come all the way from King’s Landing.” With her focus almost entirely on the approaching Ellaria, Daenerys nearly didn’t hear Oberyn say, “I’ll find us some wine.”
“Wine?” she repeated back idiotically, hating the way her voice sounded unsteady. She was a Princess and a Dragon.
Clutching her hand Ellaria smiled. “Of course,” she said with a roll of her dark eyes. “You’ve already endured the worst,” she said, looking suggestively toward the small portion of the receiving line that Daenerys had passed through. “The rest will be better, but you’ll definitely need wine.”
Maybe it was an after effect from weeks of travel, maybe she could blame the lack of sleep she received in recent nights, or perhaps it was just the strangeness of everything that was happening, whatever the cause, she couldn’t contain her chuckle. “That is very kind of you Lady Martell.”
“Sand,” Ellaria corrected without malice.
“I don’t understand,” Daenerys admitted weakly.
“I am a Sand, Oberyn and I are not married,” she clarified.
Daenerys was immediately repentant, trying to remove her foot from her mouth. “Oh, I’m so sorry…”
Once again Ellaria’s soft hand touched hers. “Don’t worry child, it happens all the time. It is no problem.”
She said it so convincingly that Daenerys almost believed her. Luckily for the awkward Princess Oberyn returned with wine for the women and a kiss for his lover. “Thank you, Prince.”
“Call me Oberyn,” he insisted. “Your visit will be boring enough without getting drowned in formality.”
She appreciated the sentiment. “Thank you,” she said after she finally took the offered glass. With one of his hands now free he snaked his arm around Ellaria’s waist and pulled her to his side. She went willingly.
Ellaria leaned closer to Daenerys so they could whisper together. “You looked like you needed that earlier.”
She blushed again, this time because she understood why they had been laughing. “Was it that obvious?” she wondered before she could stop herself.
The seconds she waited for an answer felt far longer than they really were. “Only to me,” Ellaria assured her kindly. “I remember thinking I could use a drink the first time I had to meet everyone too.”
Her smile became just a little bit more genuine all the sudden. She hadn’t wanted to come along, she would have been content to stay in the Red Keep, or to visit Dragonstone. It was only because her father demanded she join him, that she did. Now though, after meeting Oberyn and Ellaria, Daenerys held out a small flicker of hope that maybe, just maybe, the trip wouldn’t be as bad as she feared.
“I’m sorry Princess,” Jorah said, “but we really should move along.”
She didn’t want to. She wanted to remain with Oberyn and Ellaria and have a real conversation, but she was the King’s daughter and that meant she didn’t get to do what she wanted very often. Obligations to the Realm came first. “Of course,” she said to Jorah formally, before she addressed her new acquaintances. “Thank you for the wine, and the company.”
“We shall see you again,” Oberyn promised.
He backed away to allow her to pass, but Ellaria remained. “Good luck,” she said to Daenerys when it was just the two of them.
Before she picked up where she’d left off, she paused and looked over her shoulder at Jorah. No words were exchanged, but she told him with an expression how displeased she was to be rushed. She was the Princess, not him. It was up to her to decide who she spoke to and for how long. He got the message, ducking his head in submission and talking a half a step back. Honestly, she liked the old knight but that didn’t mean she didn’t wish she could have a tiny measure of independence. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been allowed to do anything outside of her bedchamber without Jorah or someone like him standing in her shadow.
As far back as she could go in her memory, the guards were always there. Barristan for Rhaegar, Trant for Viserys and Jorah for her. The King’s safety was left in the hands of the Lannister, Tywin’s son. It didn’t seem strange when she was young, but as she grew, she began to hear more and more things that weren’t necessarily meant for her ears. Once she had all the information, she began trying to fit the pieces together in a way that made sense. Jorah had one of the most interesting stories. He was born and raised in the North. When Robert’s rebellion took root and Ned Stark rallied the Northmen for his friend, House Mormont joined with them. After many battles fighting next to Robert and his rebels Jorah had a change of heart. He deserted just days before the Battle of the Trident and rode for the capital to switch sides. It was chance that a young Daenerys happened to be in the throne room that day. She saw the exhausted soldier, kneeling before her father with many of his recent wounds still in need of tending. In addition to the standard pledge of loyalty, service and sword, Jorah brought stolen documents detailing the size of Robert’s army, maps showing what troops were stationed where, their strengths, their weaknesses, he gave her father everything. As part of Robert’s War Council, he was privy to how the rebels planned to defeat the larger, stronger, better equipped Targaryens. She was only a child when she listened in on Jorah’s betrayal, too young to truly understand the importance. It would be years before she realized Jorah’s true contribution to their victory. The man from Bear Island could have murdered Robert Baratheon single-handed and his efforts would have paled in comparison to the crumpled pages he carried under his dented armor.
It wasn’t an exaggeration to say the war was won because of Jorah’s shift in allegiance. Within weeks of Jorah bending the knee, Robert was dead, and her father had proclaimed the traitor a knight. Months later, he was assigned to guard the Princess, a prestigious post, given to the man as a reward for betraying his people in a way that led to thousands of deaths.
The castle and the city were abuzz with the arrival of the Targaryens. It affected almost everyone in Sunspear, except perhaps her. For her, where she was, her day was just like any other. The fact that the King and his family were nearby didn’t matter in the slightest.
Since she couldn’t sleep, she got an early start and had more than an hour of practice under her belt by the time the sun was making its appearance. She stayed in the yard training alone until slowly men and women like her, began tricking out. By the time the bulk of the others joined her, she could tell they’d eaten breakfast, some were still chewing, and others were cleaning crumbs from the corners of their mouths.
By midday, the heat was intense, deepening the tan she already had. After a morning working on her sword-skills, she moved on to a favored weapon of the Dornish, the spear. She’d been practicing for years and still had much more to do if she wanted to be as talented as some of the experts.
While not worldly, she had seen several distinct regions of Westeros in her lifetime and none of them prepared her for what was waiting in Dorne. It was special, not just the colors, smells and flavors she’d never experienced elsewhere, it went deeper than that. Their individuality was at the core of what separated the Dornishmen from everyone else and they liked it that way. It was a source of pride. Their laws, their views, their beliefs, all affected every aspect of their day to day lives, from how they spoke to one another, to how they interacted with outsiders. Although sworn to the King, there was no love lost between the nobles in Sunspear and their King’s Landing counterparts. There was deep distrust on both sides. Dorne it seemed was perfectly content to remain on the fringes of the Realm’s politics, involving itself in affairs only when absolutely necessary.
Dorne had a long list of quirks that provided constant proof that it and the people who called it home, were different from all others. This was never more evident than when discussing the subjects of sex. Generally speaking, as long as it took place between willing participants, no one really paid it much attention. Dorne’s many brothels were visited by men and women alike and offered just as many men for sale as women. Nobles were just as likely to frequent such establishments as the lowborn. In fact, it was not uncommon for a Dornish nobleman to have a male lover in addition to his wife and children. It was simply accepted as reality. Contrary to anywhere else in Westeros, the Dornish didn’t worry about the embarrassment of being caught, or the threat of potential blackmail, because everything was done out in the open. If you never hid your actions, then you didn’t need to fear them being exposed.
The opinion of bastards was equally unique. Named ‘Sand’ in this part of the world, they weren’t looked down on or mocked because of how they came to be. In fact, she knew plenty of Sands who held significant and important positions throughout the city. They were appointed on their merits, and not dismissed outright because of their parentage. Such things, she knew, would be almost unheard of in any other kingdom.
Another quirk, and one that drastically altered the course of her life was the Dornish people’s views on war. Unlike anywhere else she’d been, or heard about for that matter, the Dornish didn’t immediately disqualify half their population from military service just because they didn’t have a cock between their legs. If a woman wanted to train to fight, they were welcome. Few were willing to even consider it, fewer still could meet the rigorous requirements, but each time a group of recruits finished their training, there was usually one or two women among them. Was it fate or something else that brought her to the one place in the world where she’d be allowed to follow her dreams?
A shrill whistle commanded her focus. She continued the turn she was in the middle of and buried the tip of her spear into the center of the man-shaped target. As soon as the strike landed, she pulled the spear free and hurried into formation. All around her men panted and tried to gather themselves as they waited to be addressed by their instructor. She slipped into the second row, between two much larger men, exactly where she belonged. After almost a year of lining up in exactly this way, it was second nature.
On her first day, before their first lesson or drill, they had been lined up just like this. On that day they chose their own spots at random, but were told to remember them, because they would be expected to be in the same place each time they were called to order. There had been over three hundred of them that day. There were fewer now, some failed to reach the necessary goals and others quit. Regardless she remained in the designated spot between the sixteenth and eighteenth recruits. This was more than just where she was required to stand, it was also a way to be distinguished from the rest without anyone needing to learn her name. The abuse was near constant at the beginning. During the day it came from the instructor, trying to break her so she’d quit. “Seventeen, run until I get tired,” he’d call. “Seventeen, I know you weren’t born here but you could at least pretend, put down that sword and pick up a fucking spear.” Weeks later when she’d made vast improvements with the traditional Dornish weapon she was ridiculed for that too. “Seventeen are you trying to compensate for not having a prick?” All around her the others laughed, but she kept her head high and her back straight. His words didn’t offend her, they didn’t make her uncomfortable and they certainly didn’t create the slightest hint of doubt. She survived much worse than taunts and teasing.
When they were dismissed the abuse didn’t stop. In fact, without the instructor to oversee, it grew worse. Their barrack was one massive room with rows and rows of beds arranged in neat lines. Each bed was small, uncomfortable and accompanied by a single box to store a recruit’s personal belongings. She had to purchase a lock to ensure her few possessions weren’t stolen. It was money she didn’t have to spend, but in the end was worth a few hungry nights.
In those early days she was constantly being propositioned, sometimes politely, other times less so. She never said a word to any of the men who asked, regardless of their manners. It progressed beyond words less than two months after the start of her training. One night as she tried to get a few hours of sleep a pair of recruits joined her on her bed. One tried to hold her down, while the other tried to force her legs apart. If she hadn’t been expecting this, if she hadn’t prepared herself for it, she might have been overwhelmed. A small knife was hidden inside the case of her pillow, if only she could get it. Two sets of lips descended on her, one starting on her mouth and working down, the other on her knee and inching up. “Let my hands go, and I’ll make it feel even better,” she promised.
Why he let her go, she never learned. Maybe he was an idiot, maybe he already thought he’d won, or maybe he was too aroused to think clearly. He released his grip on her wrists and she immediately reached for the hidden weapon. While the man working on her top half was tasting her breasts for the first time, she produced the blade and jammed it into his neck. His partner, too distracted by what was in front of him to notice his dying friend, pushed harder on her thighs to widen her legs. She responded by slamming them closed as hard as she could against his ears. He groaned and staggered back, momentarily dazed. Unbothered by her nudity, she jumped off the bed and onto her opponent. He was beaten but alive. She could have subdued him, but the thought didn’t even occur to her. She slit his throat slowly, ensuring he’d feel it, wanting it to take a bit of time for him to die.
When it was over, she returned the knife to its place and laid back on her bed with her bloody hands folded behind her head. She watched just long enough to ensure both would-be rapers were dead and then she closed her eyes and tried to sleep. They had a long-distance run in the morning, and she’d need her energy.
At daybreak when the instructor came in to rouse them, he found two of his recruits dead while their murderer sat on the end of her bed, fully dressed, wide awake, and ready for the upcoming run. She watched as he squatted down and checked the wounds she left on her victims. When the instructor was done, he stood tall, gave her a firm nod and then went back to his task of waking the others. From then on, she was free to sleep alone.
With her father and brother in meetings Daenerys was left to occupy herself. She found a stone bench outside the Water Gardens and Missandei joined her. In addition to being her handmaiden, the woman from Naath had also grown to become Daenerys’s dearest, and only real friend.
Her arrival in Westeros, and her addition to Daenerys’s service hadn’t been something either girl planned. Several years ago, during a Small Council meeting her father heard a tale of the Unsullied from his spymaster. The erratic King insisted on going to see them for himself and took off the following day. According to what she’d learned from Missandei and others since their return, her father was impressed with their skills, commitment and obedience. He purchased eight thousand men from the slave master and then before leaving asked for a woman, claiming he needed a handmaiden for his daughter. Unprepared for this turn of events, Missandei his translator, was the only female slave he had on hand. Unwilling to risk angering the King and potentially upsetting their agreement the Master sold Missandei too.
She’d been stunned when her father told her he brought her a gift from his journey. It had been years since he bothered to remember her nameday. Any pleasure she felt vanished when she realized the gift he brought her was a person, purchased for a handful of gold dragons. Daenerys wanted to refuse but she couldn’t. There was no telling how her father would respond to such opposition. Would he yell or would she end up in the throne room while his pyromancer carted in a barrel of wildfire? What would happen to Missandei if she rejected the gesture? She didn’t know, but she didn’t think the King would simply dismiss her and set her free.
More than once she offered to help Missandei escape, so she could go and begin a life of her own, but each time she refused. At first, she thought Missandei was too frightened to run, but as time passed and she got to know the other woman better, she began to doubt that assessment. When pressed Missandei would say, “I’ll go when the time is right,” but never said when that would be.
Selfishly Daenerys hadn’t suggested it in a while. When she was being ignored by her father, harassed by Viserys, and overlooked by Rhaegar, Missandei was always there to comfort her. When advisors, guards and nobles made her feel like an object, Missandei made her smile. Never in her life had she done anything to be worthy of a friend like Missandei, yet she was smart enough to be grateful.
Regardless of the disgusting route she took to reach Daenerys’s service, the Princess couldn’t imagine her life without Missandei in it. She was the one person Daenerys could relax with, be honest with, share her true feelings with. That was a commodity rarer and more precious than any gem.
She was pulled from her thoughts by Missandei’s voice. “It’s tense here,” she said quietly, speaking in High Valyrian.
As casually as she could, Daenerys took a look around. It didn’t take long for her to see what Missandei did. She could feel the eyes on them. As always, Jorah was there with her, along with a pair of Targaryen guards she couldn’t identify through their helmets.
Daenerys smiled at the vast understatement. “Things between my family and the Martells are strained,” she said diplomatically.
After a quick look at their surroundings to make certain they wouldn’t be overheard, Missandei sought clarification. “What happened?”
She didn’t mind the question. The rift between the Martells and the Targaryens began years before Missandei joined them. Now it was a subject rarely discussed, so it wasn’t surprising that she didn’t understand. It wasn’t exactly her story to tell, but she felt Missandei deserved the truth. Like Daenerys, she’d been dragged along and now they’d been left behind while her father and brother negotiated with Prince Doran and his family. The tension was thick enough to cut and Missandei was owed an explanation. Daenerys knew she could keep a secret.
“Rhaegar was married years ago to one of the Martells,” Daenerys explained, avoiding the common tongue even though they were whispering. “They had children.”
It was obvious Missandei hadn’t been expecting that. Since the day they met, there had been so much Missandei needed to learn, about her new home. Any extra time was devoted to ensuring Missandei knew how to avoid the King’s volatile temper, and Viserys’s petty vindictiveness. She simply hadn’t had the chance to delve into the history between the two families, though in hindsight perhaps she should have. “Really?”
She nodded to confirm that she’d heard it correctly. “Yes,” she admitted after a brief delay. “I don’t know all the details myself, I was very young, but something happened and now the Martells are upset.”
“Is that why Rhaegar didn’t come?” Missandei asked, wisely making sense of the new information.
“It took months to negotiate this meeting,” Daenerys acknowledged. “According to what I heard, the Martells threatened to bar the gates and refuse us entry if Rhaegar made the trip.”
“Can they really refuse your father?” she wondered, lowering her voice even further. “He is there King!”
She admitted her lack of understanding with a dainty shrug of her shoulders. “I don’t know. The children are my family, but I’ve never seen them. I don’t know what happened, but can it really be worth keeping a father from his children?”
Missandei decided to try and brighten the mood with a change in the conversation. “If the meeting goes well, Viserys will wed the Martell girl and then maybe you’ll get to meet them.” Daenerys appreciated her friend’s effort. “If nothing else, your brother will need to remain in Dorne for a time, won’t he?”
The statement was so innocent that it took Daenerys a moment to comprehend the meaning hidden inside. She felt her lips curling into a smile and next to her the handmaiden did the same. That was why she liked Missandei, she found the best in any situation. If there was a bright spot to this, it was that Viserys would likely be too busy to cause trouble, at least for the time being.
Sweat soaked her clothes and her skin while each panting breath she pulled into her burning lungs felt as if it had glass in it. They had been running for hours with no water or rest. It was the final day of her training and the last chance for the instructor to weed out the weakest of them. She was determined to survive.
As the destination appeared in her blurred eyeline she noticed the instructor standing there with his arms folded over his chest. He didn’t look impressed. “Come on, Seventeen, you can do better than that. Don’t tell me those little legs can’t move any faster!”
Was it his taunt, or the sound of footsteps and heavy breathing at her back that propelled her forward? She didn’t know or care, whatever the reason she found a reserve of energy and used it to push herself past the spot where her tormentor was standing. As she passed, she could have sworn she heard him mutter, “Not bad,” but it was likely an illusion caused by exhaustion and heat sickness.
All she wanted was to sit and rest for a few minutes, but she didn’t get the chance. Immediately upon ending the run, she was directed to another instructor for a combat lesson. She limped her way over on unsteady legs.
“I hope you didn’t forget how to fight,” he said with a dark, predatory laugh. “Win and you might finish your training, lose and you’ll have wasted the last year of your life!”
Tired and thirsty or not, he suddenly had her full attention. As he spoke more recruits were finishing their runs and staggering over. Was he being serious? They’d just run for miles and now if they lost a sparring match they’d be forced to leave, on the last day? If that was true, half of them would be failing the final test.
Silently she hoped she wouldn’t be chosen to go first. Every match she got to watch from the side would allow her muscles a chance to recover and increase the probability she’d succeed. She should have known better than to think she’d be that lucky. After drawing a circle in the dirt with his spear the instructor called the first two forward. “Seventeen and Fifty-Two!”
This wasn’t accidental. Fifty-Two was one of the strongest recruits. He won almost all his bouts and scored top ranks in nearly every category. He was one of the few who beat her in the morning’s race, meaning he had more time to rest than she did. Someone wanted her to lose and they were pitting her against the best recruit to try and make it happen. They called her a foster, but that was just a pretty lie. People with power use words like ‘foster’ because it sounded better, cleaner than calling her what she was, a highborn hostage. The custom of fostering children in other houses was meant to be a barbaric deterrent. She was sent to Dorne at the age of eight, to punish her family, specifically her father for crimes he committed against the Iron Throne long before she was ever born. It had nothing to do with her, and yet she was paying the price for it everyday. Stripped of her name and title she was forced to leave her home and family behind to go to a new land to serve people who thought so little of her she could often go days without speaking. She spent years as a servant, sweeping floors, scrubbing pots, shovelling shit and emptying chamber pots. She did everything and anything they asked, because she didn’t have a choice. When she saw the army was looking for recruits, she jumped at the chance to be considered. Life as a soldier may be dramatically shorter than life as a servant but they both killed you eventually in their own way. She preferred the quick slash of sharp blade to sixty years spent cleaning up after smug pricks who never bothered to learn her name.
As she approached the circle, she could see her opponent was pleased with his draw. He thought she’d be easy to defeat and although she knew her odds were slim, she refused to go down without a fight.
A chest of weapons was open and waiting, giving each recruit the chance to pick whatever tool they wished. Not surprisingly Fifty-Two took a spear. He’d likely been training with that weapon since he was old enough to stand. She’d improved but knew better than to do battle with him spear to spear. The sword was tempting, and the hatchet too. She’d spent hours practicing with each and thought they’d suit her well. At the last moment she found a small curved dagger with a golden handle. She twirled it in her hand and pretended not to hear the snickering laughter of some of the onlookers when they noticed her selection.
“You’re going to best me with that?” Fifty-Two asked. With a grunt he stabbed his spear into the dirt and then peeled his shirt over his head, exposing his broad chest of well-defined muscles. She rolled her eyes in response. Was that meant to intimidate her? He pulled the spear from the ground and raised it over his head.
His comment got a reaction from the others but not her. She was confident in her choice. Using the spear properly required the one wielding it to take advantage of the distance it provided and keep the enemy back. With his feet planted he could thrust the spear through her chest before she and her dagger got close. On defence the spear’s best attribute was the thick shaft that could be used to block or deflect incoming strikes. She’d watched as Fifty-Two and countless others worked tirelessly to perfect this skill and she thought she could exploit it. The tactic they were taught was to put the shaft against the blades edge and then use the momentum to push your opponent one way or the other. She hoped that Fifty-Two would have trouble getting direct contact with the dagger’s small surface. If he missed just once, he’d leave himself vulnerable and she could capitalize on his error.
The match started without fanfare and slowly they began circling one another. She watched him closely, on guard in case that long spear came at her. She studied his steps, noticing he seemed steadier on his legs than she felt on hers. Still, she was determined to give this her all. If she failed, she’d be going back to the life of a servant. That was more than enough reason to push past her exhaustion and pain.
After three passes neither one had struck but that was about to change, she could feel it. Just as Fifty-Two pulled back his spear, her grip on the dagger tightened in anticipation. Before the blow came however the instructor raised his hands. “Stop!” he demanded.
Both of the recruits did without delay. The spear fell to the ground at Fifty-Two’s feet and she turned her dagger over, so the blade wasn’t pointed at him any longer.
“Drop the blade,” he ordered. She did and then he bent down to retrieve it. Without explaining what was happening he walked to the spear and took it. Before he turned away from Fifty-Two, the instructor handed him the dagger she’d chosen. He brought the spear back to her. “You don’t always get to choose the weapon you’re best suited for,” he said, speaking to all of them now. “Sometimes you must fight with any weapon available. For your final test, you must fight your opponent, using his or her selection.”
“I can’t use this!” Fifty-Two protested, looking at the small blade with contempt.
“Why not?” the instructor challenged. “She was going to.”
She picked up the spear and threw it back and forth from one hand to the other, testing its weight. She didn’t like the idea of being forced to use a spear, but she acknowledged she’d rather be in her place right now, than his. Her opponent looked furious and she could tell he was going to rush her with all the finesse of a charging bull. She doubted he saw the same benefits in the dagger that she did, and suspected he’d be too aggressive to wait for the right moment. That said, she’d need to be careful.
When the fight started Fifty-Two didn’t disappoint. He rushed straight at her, holding the dagger like an extension of his large fist. She used the spear to keep him back, twisting it and then giving a thrust to force him to retreat.
He was quick, but angry and his anger clouded his mind. He took wide sweeping arcs with the dagger, trying to use brute force to break her guard. She kept moving, stopping only when necessary to push the spear in his direction.
Years of mastering the spear had taught Fifty-Two how to defend against it as well, and he did that well. Again, and again they traded attempts, causing the match to drag on longer than anyone thought it would. No one looked away, the size of the crowd watching increasing as more recruits finished the run.
She knocked him off balance several times, but he was always quick to recover. When she became too predictable and attempted the same move a second time he was waiting, his dagger lined up with her throat. Jerking back wildly she pushed the spear up toward the underside of his wrist. He saw it coming and leapt back too, providing her with the necessary space to compose herself. She expected he'd be ready for her when she moved forward but he wasn’t. For the first time, he was showing signs of fatigue. Sensing an opening she pointed the spear’s tip at him and approached hard and fast. She aimed for the upper part of his chest, and he dodged it, as she expected he would. She moved right, and pushed him left, trusting him to do exactly as they’d been taught. He did. With another quick attempt, she had him shifting his body weight from one foot to the other. As he was doing that, she twirled the spear in a circle and brought the shaft down hard against the side of his knee. He cursed as he staggered but she barely heard it. She continued rotating the spear and used it to knock his legs out from under him. When the move was finished, Fifty-Two was flat on his back and the tip of her spear was pressed against his throat.
Beneath her the beaten man refused to blink. She knew what he was doing, he was waiting for an opening so he could get back into the fight. She wasn’t going to give him one. If he raised that dagger at her again, she’d push the spear into his neck, and he’d be dead before his blood wet the sand.
The instructor likely saw the same thing she did. “It’s done,” he declared loudly, looking pointedly toward the man who’d lost. To the victor he said, “Return your spear to the chest and take your leave. Return to the barracks and prepare for tonight’s celebration. The others will join you if they too can pass the test.”
She couldn’t believe it. It was a long walk back to the city, but she didn’t mind. Her legs were screaming for a rest but there would be plenty of time for that later. She’d done it. She’d gone from being a foster to becoming a soldier for Dorne. She couldn’t control the smile that crossed her face, she didn’t even try.
She’d just climbed out of the bath when she heard the footsteps. She expected to see another recruit, the next winner of the afternoon, but it wasn’t a recruit or any soldier for that matter, it was a member of the ruling family. Prince Oberyn Martell stood before her in his fancy clothes, with a sword on his hip. He had his hands behind his back and a smirk on his face. In contrast she was naked, covered in only a towel, and still recovering from the shock of seeing him there. “I hear you did well,” he said.
She bowed her head. “Thank you, Prince.”
He laughed and she felt herself smiling in return. “None of that. We are alone here, no stuffy nobles or arrogant asses, just friends. How are you?”
She smiled at him more sincerely. Her trip to Dorne wasn’t her choice. She went because she had to, not because she wanted to. As such, she didn’t expect that she’d grow to like it or any of the people she met, but without her knowledge or permission that was exactly what happened, at least with Oberyn. If she was going to choose her first friend in years, she likely wouldn’t have picked a son from Dorne’s most prominent family. More shocking than even that, was the realization that under all that power, the titles, the money and the fame, he was a good man.
They met when in her duties as a servant she was tasked with bringing items to him and his lover Ellaria. Over time they got to know a little bit about one another. Eventually he’d ask for her by name when he needed something and once the job was done, they’d spend time together as equals. Their friendship was real, and it was one of the few good things in her life.
It was Oberyn who made it possible for her to serve in a way that didn’t involve chamber pots. He practiced with her, early in the morning or late at night to help her prepare and when Doran refused to allow his foster to join the army, Oberyn spoke up for her and convinced his brother to allow it. It was because of him and him alone, that she’d have a life that was closer to the one she wanted. “I’m finished,” she confessed.
“The last test is difficult,” he remembered. “I almost lost.” She thought he was thinking back to his own training and perhaps he was but slowly his eyes returned to the present and he reviewed the empty room. “How many fought before you?”
She didn’t understand his question, or its significance, but she answered anyway. “None,” she said. “When the run was over, I barely had a chance to catch my breath before I needed to fight.”
“And you won?” he confirmed.
He was grinning when he spoke. “You don’t know what that means do you?”
She felt as if she was being led into a trap. “It means I’m finished training?” she replied. The uncertainty he was making her feel had it coming out more like a question and not the firm statement she intended.
“Yes, but it also means you were the best in the group.” In any other situation his smug superiority would have annoyed her, but she couldn’t worry about that now.
She was speechless. Surely that couldn’t be possible. She could think of a half dozen men who were better at almost every skill than she was. Fifty-Two was one of them, but he wasn’t alone. “That can’t be…”
“In the final match you’re pitted against the recruit who is closest to your skill level. As soon as the first pair are finished running, the fighting begins while the others catch up.”
“He was faster than me,” she recalled, “and better at everything. I must have been second,” she realized, speaking more to herself than him.
“Not anymore,” Oberyn chimed in from the background. “Now he’s nothing and you are a soldier of Dorne.”
“Thank you,” she said, knowing the words weren’t enough to convey her feelings. “I know they wouldn’t have let me train if you hadn’t fought for me.”
“I just told them the truth,” he explained. “I said you’d be an asset, and I was right, as I usually am.”
They laughed together for a moment. “Don’t let Ellaria hear you say such a thing.”
His posture changed at the mention of his woman. “She knows it’s true, even if she won’t admit it.”
She chuckled darkly and layered her words with obvious sarcasm. “Yes, I’m sure that’s exactly what she would say if she were here.”
For the first time since he entered, he moved his hands from behind his back and revealed what he’d been holding all along. “I was coming to leave this on your bed, but my meeting ran long, and I was delayed.” He held out the gift. “Since you’re here, I can give it to you personally.”
Her hands shook as she reached for the armor. She was grateful Oberyn didn’t comment on it. “This is for me?”
He said nothing until she took the impressive armor in her hands. It was light, but strong. It had been many years since she owned something so finely made. She wasn’t carrying it for someone else now, this was hers. Unshed tears burned the back of her eyes. “The instructor usually passes out the armor once the final match is complete but why wait?” he asked with a cocky smirk. “He can give you your boots and your helmet.”
“You didn’t have to…” she started but she was quickly cut off by the Prince.
“Whoever you were before, whatever you had to do to survive, forget it. Today, and every day forward you are a daughter of Dorne, a soldier, a warrior, a hero. I’m proud of you.”
She threw the armor carelessly onto the nearest bed and leapt into Oberyn’s arms, hugging him tight. She’d grown up thinking she had no future and now everything was changing. She’d never have to worry about emptying a noble’s chamber pot or scrubbing a stain from his clothes again. She was on a different path now and she owed that to Oberyn. “Thank you so much,” she said, hoping he could tell she meant it. “Thank you.”
A servant escorted Missandei, Daenerys and Jorah toward the hall where they would be dining. Dozens of people were there already, clustered in small groups discussing Gods knew what. Passing a group of middle-aged soldiers, or commanders she heard one say. “There was some real talent in the last batch. Some of the finest we’ve produced since Prince Oberyn himself.”
As she did with all matters of warfare she turned to Jorah for an opinion. “Did the Dornish just finish training new men Ser?”
“I believe so Princess,” he said with a kind smile. “It’s a common practice in every kingdom. King’s Landing would be training now had your father not chosen to bring the Unsullied from Astapor.”
She ignored the majority of what Jorah said, dismissing it as unimportant. What she was much more interested in was the name she heard one of the soldiers say. “I met Prince Martell earlier, do you recall?”
“That man suggested he was a fine fighter, is that true?” she asked, while her eyes searched for the noble in question. They’d been required to cut their conversation short, but he was the only Dornishman who seemed genuinely pleased to see her, and as such she wasn’t opposed to another opportunity to talk with him.
“One of the best,” Jorah admitted, “they call him the Red Viper of Dorne.”
While she conversed with Jorah about Oberyn the servant led them to the head table. Her brother and father were already there, along with Tywin Lannister, Jaime Lannister and a handful of her father’s most essential advisors. She didn’t know what they did, or how vital their assistance. All that was asked of her was that she remember their names and smile at the appropriate times.
Opposite them were the Martells, including Oberyn and Ellaria. Doran and Tristan were there, along with many more she didn’t know. She assumed one was to be her brother’s wife, though she couldn’t say which.
In the heat of a negotiation or discussion of some kind neither side addressed her as she took her seat. Missandei and Jorah stepped back once she was settled, retiring to a respectable distance. They were close enough to aid or protect their charge if necessary, without being in the way. She wanted to call them back and ask someone to find chairs for them, but she couldn’t. Apparently, the fact that they were her friends as well as being her guard and her handmaiden mattered little. Making things worse was the fact that on this trip to strengthen the relationship between the Targaryens and the Martells, Daenerys was little more than a prop. She didn’t have the authority to make a request of anyone and if she tried it would likely infuriate both sides. The Dornish wouldn’t approve of her demands and her family would be enraged that she interrupted their important business with her trivial concerns. It made her sick that Missandei’s welfare wasn’t classified as important by her own father.
Relaxing into her padded chair she took a moment to look at the faces of both the King and his son, neither looked pleased. Aerys seemed to his daughter’s trained eye to be annoyed, Viserys on the other hand was angry. Having spent years suffering the brunt of Viserys’s outbursts, she learned how to spot the warning signs and she could see all of them now. The vein in his neck was throbbing as he clenched his jaw to keep from saying something. His hands were under the table, likely in his lap, but she guessed if she could see through the wood, she’d find them balled into fists. Most telling however was the arrogant smirk, or more accurately the lack of it. From experience she knew that Viserys wasn’t the type to keep his opinions to himself. He was entitled and outspoken, a poor combination for anyone, let alone a Prince. He demanded rather than asked and was used to getting his way. She leaned forward and listened a little closer to the marriage negotiation.
“… that seems agreeable, Prince Doran,” Tywin was saying on behalf of the King. “I think they make a fine pair.”
Her eyes flashed to Viserys to witness his response. Regardless of the Hand’s contention, she could see her brother disagreed vehemently. What was more surprising was that he didn’t say so out loud. It made her wonder what she missed.
She listened while the logistics were hammered out and although Viserys’s face heated with obvious rage more than once he said nothing. Daenerys kept waiting for an outburst that didn’t come. While she tried to understand what could have happened to silence her brother, she could come up with only one potential explanation, and it fit all the facts.
The meeting was little more than a formality. Emissaries and representatives from both families had been working out the details for months. This was supposed to be just a finalization of all their hard work. If Viserys was unhappy with the bride chosen for him, he wouldn’t hesitate to say so, in front of the Dornish, their father, and his future wife. If he’d done so frequently enough to spark their father’s ire, it was possible he reprimanded Viserys for his behavior. If he did so vigorously enough it might have forced the middle child to mind his manners.
Logical as the theory was, her father wasn’t known for being a concerned parent. Usually she and Viserys were free to do whatever they wanted, as long as they stayed out of Aerys’s way. There were more restrictions on Rhaegar since he was the heir and actively working to help their father rule. When her father locked himself in his room whispering about fires, betrayals and dragons, the business of the Realm was left to Rhaegar and Tywin. Sometimes the King’s isolation lasted hours, sometimes days, it was impossible to predict.
Having missed a large portion of what was being proposed, she rejoined the conversation in the middle. “… that is non-negotiable,” Doran was saying. “We have customs, and they require the outsider to live in the city until the wedding. It will give the Young Dragon a chance to experience the life his wife will be giving up when she returns with him to King’s Landing.”
Finally, Viserys found his voice. “I am not an outsider,” he protested with acid in his words. “I am a son of the King. Dorne is one of my father’s kingdoms. I already know it.”
Doran was diplomatic and quick to mediate. “Of course, Prince Viserys, I didn’t mean to imply otherwise, it is merely a tradition. The custom exists so that before you and your wife leave to begin your new life together, you may get a brief taste of what her life was like for her here.”
Privately Daenerys thought the custom was rather sweet. Men rarely considered how difficult it was for their wives to uproot their lives and move to a new city, a new kingdom, often to marry a man she barely knew. This practice gave the future husband, Viserys in this case, the chance to see the world his wife would be leaving behind. If only he was smart enough to appreciate the experience. She knew better than to say that though. Viserys lacked the ability to empathize with anyone. He didn’t care how difficult it would be for his potential wife to leave her home and family. All he cared about was the inconvenience to him if he was required to stay.
Tywin was putting up a fight on this. He laid out a series of articulate, reasonable arguments explaining how important Viserys was to the continued success of King’s Landing. It was all shit, of course, Viserys was a spoiled ass who spent his days tormenting the staff, belittling her and fighting with Rhaegar. He whined like a child every time he didn’t get his way, but to hear Tywin tell it, the Capital would crumble without Viserys’s valiant and wide-ranging contributions. Aware that someone might be watching her she resisted the urge to roll her eyes and scoff.
The decision came from someone Daenerys suspected wasn’t even paying attention. The King undercut all of his Hand’s arguments with a single sentence. “He should stay.”
Suddenly all eyes were on Aerys and none found him faster than Viserys who was sitting right beside him. “Father, I have business at the Red Keep…”
“It can wait,” he replied dismissively. Daenerys was surprised and she wasn’t the only one. Apparently, her father was having a good day. He was lucid enough to reprimand Viserys when he needed it, made a logical ruling to settle a real dispute and hadn’t started mumbling about the voices only he could hear.
In typical Lannister fashion Tywin wasn’t willing to let the Dornish have a win, without getting some form of compensation. “Your Grace Viserys has many obligations back in King’s Landing. His duties as a commander…”
This time Daenerys’s eyes may have rolled a little. Viserys didn’t have a role within their father’s army, unless you counted ordering anyone in a uniform around. He’d been trained to fight but felt it beneath him to actually do the job. Tywin was a skilled negotiator and a better liar, and those two traits together had Doran offering a concession. “It is only temporary of course. After the wedding both Viserys and his wife will return to the Capital permanently. In the meantime, perhaps a compromise is in order.”
“What compromise?” Tywin asked. Daenerys noted he didn’t sound too eager, almost like he was forcing himself to wait a respectable amount of time before accepting.
“A new class of recruits just finished their training earlier today,” Doran said. “I’ll let you have your pick of a soldier. He can assist with things in King’s Landing until Viserys returns.”
It was a fair offer, one Daenerys would have accepted but Tywin wanted more. “Three men!” he countered.
Tywin kept pushing, trying to milk their arrangement as much as he could. “I want the best two.”
Based on his facial expression alone, Daenerys expected Prince Doran would have accepted the terms. Before he could Oberyn spoke up in opposition to Tywin’s proposal. “Brother,” he said, “don’t do this. I’ve seen the recruits. I know the recruits you are giving away. They are the future commanders that will lead all of Dorne’s armies.”
Daenerys was riveted by the drama playing out in front of her. It was strange seeing the jovial, funny, smiling man she met on the receiving line suddenly so serious. It made her wonder just who had finished first and second in the training? Was it one of Oberyn’s sons? Was that why he didn’t want his brother to do this?
“It’s only until the wedding,” Doran reminded him. “The men will return and be available to lead Dorne’s troops just as you want. Only now they’ll have more experience when they do. This is good for all of us.”
Oberyn appeared to have more to say on the subject, at least until Ellaria leaned over and whispered into his ear. She couldn’t hear what was being said but it calmed him considerably. “Very well,” he said turning in his chair to face Ellaria more directly.
“I’ll send for the recruits as soon as we’ve finished eating,” Doran said, earning a nod of agreement from the Hand of the King.
The newest soldiers and guards in Dorne’s formidable army were dressed in their armor, preparing to celebrate their success. The final test had cut the number of recruits by half, trimming many from the final tally.
After months of only training, everyone was eager to go out. Half the group wanted to start with drinking and a decent meal, the others wanted to hurry straight for the nearest brothel. Decisions had yet to be made, and the girl who finished first was sitting on her bed with her helmet in her lap, adjusting her breastplate as she listened to the spirited debate half-heartedly.
Suddenly the yelling stopped and those nearest the door stood at attention. Knowing only one cause for such a response she jumped off the bed and onto her feet, setting the helmet in place as she did.
A brave man spoke for the room. “Prince Oberyn, how can we be of service?”
“Congratulations one and all!” he yelled loudly, clearly wanting to ensure everyone heard. “I remember my training and I remember how relieved I was when it was finally over. Go and have a good time tonight.” To emphasize his point, he retrieved a pouch of gold from his belt and set It into the man’s hand. “The first drink is on me.”
“That… that is very kind. Thank you, Pr…”
All around her, the soldiers were looking at one another, questioning their luck. Was it possible that a Prince had shown up to give them gold? It didn’t seem likely, but she knew Oberyn Martell better than they did, and she knew that was just the sort of thing he’d do.
Oberyn didn’t let him finish. “Unfortunately,” he said, “not all of you will be able to celebrate quite yet.” He walked down the aisle between two beds and stopped when his eyes found her. “The two recruits who finished their final test first need to come with me. Prince Doran requests your presence.”
His smile didn’t falter but his disapproval was in his dark eyes. He didn’t want to do this. She stepped forward, again adjusting the armor she was still getting used to. She didn’t know who fought second, all she knew was who was the second to arrive back. Ninety-Four, met her and Oberyn outside. He was a beast of a man with a bald head and thick black beard. He easily weighed more than twice what the girl did and had an extra foot in length. He was imposing and skilled, it wasn’t hard to believe that he finished right after her.
They were more than halfway between the barracks and the castle when Oberyn slowed his steps and fell back to walk beside her. “When we get there,” he said quietly, barely moving his lips, “don’t speak unless necessary, keep your helmet on and under no circumstances are you to tell anyone your name.”
In the years they’d known one another she couldn’t recall seeing Oberyn uneasy or nervous, not once. It made her wary about where she was going and why. “They know who I am already,” she pointed out. It was true, she’d been presented to Prince Doran when she arrived at Sunspear, she served in and out of the castle at his instruction and it was Doran who allowed her to leave for training. Even with the helmet covering part of her face she didn’t think it would take him long to realize who she was.
“It’s not my brother I’m worried about,” Oberyn said seriously, before he once again took the lead.
Her stomach dropped when they reached their destination and she saw the Mad King waiting. He was beside Prince Doran with two of his children. The male seemed annoyed and his sister bored. She took a small measure of comfort from the fact that Rhaegar wasn’t there. It wasn’t much of a relief, but it was something. It had been a long time since she’d seen any of the Targaryens, but they didn’t look all that different, older of course, in each case, but still very much the way she remembered them, in her memories and her nightmares.
She stood at attention, next to Ninety-Four and waited to be noticed. She purposely avoided meeting Oberyn’s eye, not wanting to know what she’d find there.
“These are them?” Aerys asked, holding out one of his wrinkled hands in the direction of the young soldiers.
“Yes, your Grace,” Doran said. “These are the two recruits who performed best in their training.”
Aerys got up from his seat and approached them. Her heart was pounding in her chest. The Mad King was standing in front of her. Everything that had happened, not only to her, but her entire family was his fault. Suddenly the sword on her hip felt heavier than usual, as if it was reminding her it was there. She could kill him. She could end his reign with one swing of her sword. She’d be murdered instantly, but that felt like a small price to pay for ridding the world of the Targaryen.
“They’re not good enough,” the Prince decided. “End this nonsense father. Call off the marriage and let us return home.”
She didn’t know what marriage was being arranged, nor did she care. The sooner the Dragons went back to King’s Landing the better it would be for all of them.
“My boy may be right,” Aerys noted. “This one, I understand,” he said, holding out a hand in front of Ninety-Four, “but this one,” he said gesturing to her, “did you forget to feed her?”
The annoyed son laughed at his insane father’s joke, but she noticed from the corner of her eye that the Princess looked almost sad. Oberyn rushed to her defense. “Actually, your Grace, Seventeen finished first, over those who were bigger, stronger and more experienced.”
“Seventeen?” the King repeated, seeking clarification.
“We number the recruits, your Grace,” Doran explained. “It’s easier than remembering their names.”
He laughed, as if something about reducing people to numbers amused him. It was the same laugh she heard in the Red Keep’s throne room as the King sentenced a terrified girl to a life in Dorne. This time it was louder, without the cries of her family members to dull the sound. “Clever.” There was an awkward silence in the room for a time, before Aerys spoke to her directly. “Are you truly better than him?”
For the second time since she saw him, she considered killing him, consequences be damned. Her hand twitched as it itched to draw the steel. The King kept looking at her expectantly, awaiting an answer. Remembering Oberyn’s instructions she replied with a nod. The Targaryen watched her for a moment, staring straight at her partially covered face. She wondered if he could see past the steel of her newly acquired helmet, right through to the truth of who she really was. The helmet provided cover, hiding her hair, and stretching down past her ears on both sides. The center of her face was obscured by a protective strip down the middle that fell between her eyes and stopped at her nose.
“Prove it,” he demanded, “if you can.”
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. He wanted her to fight, for him? That was never going to happen. She wouldn’t risk her neck to entertain the man who destroyed her family. This time when her hand twitched, she shifted it closer to her weapon. She could kill him before any of his lazy guards could interfere. She didn’t doubt that -- her concerns were about what came after. Not for her, she’d be killed, and if she wasn’t, she’d be tortured for weeks before her execution, she was okay with that. Her worry was for the remaining members of her family. What would become of them if she murdered the King? Would they be punished for her crimes? She didn’t want to be the reason any of them suffered, they’d already been through too much. She didn’t even know how many of her siblings were still alive, she could be the only one left, but if she wasn’t, she didn’t want to condemn the others. She’d get her revenge, but not like this, not today.
With little in the way of choices she drew her sword and backed away from Ninety-Four. He didn’t look any more pleased by this turn of events than she was but had just as few options.
He took the first swing and as she danced away, she noticed the armor that she wore made her a touch slower than she was used to. She shifted her sword from one hand to the other and shook out her legs one at a time, getting a feel for the boots.
Ninety-Four came at her again and again she dodged his strike. This time as she slipped around him, she took a swipe at his outer leg. He got his blade down in time and used his superior size to push her away.
While preparing for the next attack her eyes landed on the trio of Targaryens. The smug Prince was sitting on the edge of his seat, leaning forward, eagerly anticipating the violence. The King had returned to his chair and was watching, albeit with less enthusiasm than his son. His daughter sat at his side, looking horrified. The soldier didn’t need to know the Dragon Princess to see she was bothered by the idea of men fighting for sport. She said nothing but held her breath each time their swords came together. At least one of the royals didn’t want to be there. She could relate.
Each time she tried to seize the victory she failed. She couldn’t put him on his back or even knock him off balance because Ninety-Four was too heavy. In contrast each time he swung at her, she felt like she was being hit by the trunk of a tree. If she was going to have any hope of winning, she would need to use his size against him. She’d need to capitalize on the fact that she was quicker and more accurate than he was. It also occurred to that this would not a be a match decided by one decisive blow. If she was going to win, she’d need to take him apart one piece at a time.
They danced together for the entertainment of people who didn’t care if they lived or died. Around and around they tested one another without either of them making progress and then finally she saw her opening. It was almost identical to her first attempt at his outside leg. She slipped past him as his momentum carried him in the opposite direction and she took a swipe. The difference this time was that she made contact. She cut into his leg, just above the knee. It wasn’t deep but drops of blood spilled onto the stones beneath them. The injury staggered him just as Ninety-Four twisted to try and face her. She hurried away hoping to force him to limp after her.
They continued on this way and she verified firsthand that Ninety-Four earned every bit of the high rank he received. He was second among the recruits for a reason. Wounded as he was, he kept coming. She managed to give him a matching cut on his other leg, and another on his upper arm but they weren’t all successes. One of Ninety-Four’s slashes struck her breastplate and got through. She could feel the slow, steady stream of blood warming her skin. Another time, when she strayed too close to her opponent, he delivered a punch to her face, denting the divider between her eyes and pushing the steel back against the bridge of her nose with enough power to break the skin.
The end came when her sword cut into Ninety-Four’s right leg for the second time. This cut was deeper, and she immediately regretted how hard she swung. With a grunt of pain, he dropped to a knee and she pounced, eager to end this senseless spectacle. She brought her sword down directly on the bracer he wore. She only struck hard enough to make him release the weapon, not hard enough to create another injury. The sound of the sword clanking off the floor was echoed by the Mad King’s applause. “You did it,” he said in a sick gleeful tone. “Kill him, you’ve proven your worth.”
There were several gasps, one she was sure came from her, and another from the man she’d beaten. The third, if she had to guess was from the Princess who wanted to be somewhere else.
All at once many voices tried to quell their King’s murderous impulses. “Your Grace,” Doran said with a sliver of authority, “that is not what we agreed.”
“Agreements change,” Aerys replied coldly. “He’s too injured to be of any use to me now anyway.”
“He’ll recover,” Oberyn pointed out accurately. She couldn’t help looking down into Ninety-Four’s eyes. He was a brave warrior and a good soldier, but she could see the fear there. She understood it, she too had once been at the Mad King’s mercy, and it was a horrible place to find one’s self.
“Your Grace,” Tywin Lannister tried, approaching the King’s seat from where he’d been standing, “although he lost the boy is still of value.”
“Kill him,” the King said again.
Oberyn had moved closer to her but was still several feet away. She asked him wordlessly for advice and he gave her a subtle nod, approving of what she’d have to do. His smile was gone, replaced by a grim look of resignation. She didn’t even consider it. She wouldn’t kill for him. If that meant she had to forfeit her life, then so be it. She gave Oberyn a sad smile and then turned her gaze on Ninety-Four who was still kneeling in front of her. He too got a smile from the woman who defeated him. Lastly her grey eyes landed on the Targaryens. If this was going to be her final act of defiance, she wasn’t going to die cowering.
The Princess looked ill as she waited to see what would happen next, her brother was perversely pleased and between them their father was impatient, waiting for his order to be carried out. “No!” she said flatly.
There were more gasps now, from all quarters of the room. Several of the Targaryen guards approached from various angles. She paid them no mind. “What did you say!?” the King shouted with fire burning in his eyes. Oberyn took another step toward her, as if he was preparing to intervene. She shook her head at him, not wanting him to join her in death. This was her choice and she was at peace with it.
Her mouth was dry, and it took an extra second to wet it. The entire time she was trying to coax her tongue to work she was expecting a sword to fall. Several of the Kingsguard were standing around her now, anticipating the kill order. “This man is a solider of Dorne,” she said as steadily as she could manage. “He is my brother and I won’t kill him for coming in second.”
All around her mouths hung open, stunned by her audacity. She used all her energy to remain still, to keep her back straight and her eyes on the tyrant in front of her. “Who are you?”
That question, so simple and so complicated brought Prince Oberyn another step closer. She remembered his advice and understood now what she didn’t then. If the King was willing to kill Ninety-Four for losing a sparing match, he wouldn’t hesitate to have her executed for being her father’s daughter. She reached up and removed her damaged helmet, revealing her bloody face for the first time. “I am a Sand,” she said, lying without guilt. “Arya Sand.”
Daenerys didn’t know what she was expecting when the winner of the pointless game addressed her father, but it wasn’t this. No one who valued life defied the Targaryen King. Friend or foe, loyal or traitorous he was as likely to burn you as speak to you and everyone knew it, including her. They called him the Mad King behind his back, when they thought she couldn’t hear. It was a title that used to upset her. As a girl she’d been offended on her father’s behalf but now she was older and wiser. She sat in a chair near the throne and watched as her father ordered men killed by the dozen for one perceived slight or another. She heard their pleas before they died, she heard their screams as they died, and she heard her father’s laughter after it was over. Each sound was haunting in its own way and all three together plagued her.
She no longer got angry when she heard the staff discussing who was burned or why. in those moments all the Princess felt was shame. It was shame she was feeling when her father ordered one soldier to kill his partner for no reason, at least it had been until the King was refused, then she was overcome by surprise.
Her emotions only multiplied when the solider removed his helmet. It was only then that Daenerys realized it wasn’t a man she’d been watching at all. Recruit Seventeen, the person they just watched defeat a man who was both bigger and stronger, was a woman. Daenerys studied her with genuine curiosity. Her eyes were dark and intense, and her face was angular and long but still distinctly feminine. Not even the blood from her damaged nose could take away from her unique attractiveness. Now it made sense, why she was so much smaller than the man she’d beaten. Her eyes slid down the woman’s body. Her armor did a good job of hiding her curves, even when Daenerys knew what to look for. Still, she couldn’t believe she’d missed such a critical detail.
Viserys arrived at the obvious conclusion several seconds behind his younger sister. “It’s a woman,” he stated idiotically. “She can’t possibly serve you while I’m away father, end this,” he implored.
Aerys ignored his son and turned to the leader of Dorne. “Explain this!” he demanded.
Prince Doran was diplomatic but firm. “In Dorne we do not forbid women from fighting.”
“It’s not their place,” Viserys added. “They do not…”
“You let them fight?” Aerys asked Doran.
“Why not?” Oberyn inquired. “If a woman is holding the sword that cuts you, the wound still bleeds.” As proof he tilts his chin toward the kneeling man, who was indeed bleeding onto the floor.
“She can not replace me!” Viserys roared. “I am a Prince, a Dragon, she’s a bastard.”
Daenerys was embarrassed. Her brother was acting like a child. She watched the woman in question carefully and noticed she didn’t flinch under her brother’s fury. She didn’t even look at him. If she didn’t know how difficult it was to ignore Viserys she might think the soldier hadn’t heard him at all. Secretly it made Daenerys like this stranger more.
Whether his motivation came from a desire to prove he was more important than a woman or if he was just determined to oppose this wedding at every turn, she didn’t know. Either way she had never hated her brother’s exaggerated sense of self worth more than she did right then. She also felt empathy for the woman who unknowingly got caught in the center of it.
“Viserys may be right,” the King started. “You can train all the women you like, if you want, but I’m not sure this one can fulfill the duties of my son while he is preparing for the wedding.”
Doran bowed his head in submission to Aerys’s point and Viserys looked entirely too proud of himself. She couldn’t say why she did it; maybe she was still impressed that someone had the courage to stand up to her father, maybe it was a desire to see that smirk wiped off her brother’s face, maybe it was the fact that she’d been completely ignored all day by almost everyone, or maybe she was seizing on the opportunity to show Viserys, her father and every other arrogant man in the room that women were their equals. Whatever the reason she lifted up out of her chair and spoke for the first time since dinner. She cleared her throat and then summoned all the confidence she could. “She can serve me!”
Everyone was watching her with a wide variety of expressions. “What’s this now Daenerys?”
She tried to give her father her most innocent smile. “She can serve as my guard,” she said to justify her interruption. “I don’t mind that she’s a woman, and she’s clearly capable.”
“Mormont is your guard,” Viserys pointed out. He looked furious, glaring at her with his jaw held so tightly she wondered how it didn’t crack. His reaction was worth whatever punishment he’d devise later. She chose to relish the moment and enjoyed putting him in his place for once.
“Jorah is one of our most experienced guards,” Daenerys reminded them. “He is surely capable of filling in for Viserys until the wedding.” She turned away from her brother and found the woman who was being overlooked by almost everyone. She was watching the Princess with an unreadable expression. Her mouth said nothing, but her eyes were a stormy mix of confusion, gratitude and frustration. “In the meantime, Arya can serve as my personal guard.”
Jorah moved until he was at Daenerys’s side. “Princess, please…”
She placed her small hands on his larger, rougher one. “It’s only for a little while.”
It was obvious he didn’t agree with her suggestion but there were too many people nearby for him to openly question her. In the end, his loyalty to her won out. “As you wish.”
Like all aspects of her life, the final say didn’t belong to her. It was her idea, but the choice was her father’s. If he didn’t approve, it wouldn’t happen. Arya may have been willing to do the exact opposite of what he wanted, but Daenerys wasn’t that strong.
“Pack your things,” the King announced, “you’ll be joining us when we depart for King’s Landing.”
Daenerys quietly thanked her father before she went to meet her newly appointed protector. Instead of gratitude for her position, or relief that she’d been spared, Arya Sand appeared furious and for reasons the Princess couldn’t understand, that rage was aimed at her.