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The ladder to the forecastle was steep and splintery, so Sansa accepted a hand up from Lothor Brune. Ser Lothor, she had to remind herself; the man had been knighted for his valor in the Battle of the Blackwater. Though no proper knight would wear those patched brown breeches and scuffed boots, nor that cracked and waterstained leather jerkin. A square-faced stocky man with a squashed nose and a mat of nappy grey hair, Brune spoke seldom. He is stronger than he looks, though. She could tell by the ease with which he lifted her, as if she weighed nothing at all.  Off the bow of the Merling King stretched a bare and stony strand, windswept, treeless, and uninviting. Even so, it made a welcome sight. They had been a long while clawing their way back on course. The last storm had swept them out of sight of land, and sent such waves crashing over the sides of the galley that Sansa had been certain they were all going to drown. Two men had been swept overboard, she had heard old Oswell saying, and another had fallen from the mast and broken his neck.  She had seldom ventured out on deck herself. Her little cabin was dank and cold, but Sansa had been sick for most of the voyage... sick with terror, sick with fever, or seasick... she could keep nothing down, and even sleep came hard. Whenever she closed her eyes she saw Joffrey tearing at his collar, clawing at the soft skin of his throat, dying with flakes of pie crust on his lips and wine stains on his doublet. And the wind keening in the lines reminded her of the terrible thin sucking sound he’d made as he fought to draw in air. Sometimes she dreamed of Tyrion as well. “He did nothing,” she told Littlefinger once, when he paid a visit to her cabin to see if she were feeling any better.  “He did not kill Joffrey, true, but the dwarf’s hands are far from clean. He had a wife before you, did you know that?”  “He told me.”  “And did he tell you that when he grew bored with her, he made a gift of her to his father’s guardsmen? He might have done the same to you, in time. Shed no tears for the Imp, my lady.”  The wind ran salty fingers through her hair, and Sansa shivered. Even this close to shore, the rolling of the ship made her tummy queasy. She desperately needed a bath and a change of clothes. I must look as haggard as a corpse, and smell of vomit.  Lord Petyr came up beside her, cheerful as ever. “Good morrow. The salt air is bracing, don’t you think? It always sharpens my appetite.” He put a sympathetic arm about her shoulders. “Are you quite well? You look so pale.”  “It’s only my tummy. The seasickness.”  “A little wine will be good for that. We’ll get you a cup, as soon as we’re ashore.” Petyr pointed to where an old flint tower stood outlined against a bleak grey sky, the breakers crashing on the rocks beneath it. “Cheerful, is it not? I fear there’s no safe anchorage here. We’ll put ashore in a boat.”  “Here?” She did not want to go ashore here. The Fingers were a dismal place, she’d heard, and there was something forlorn and desolate about the little tower. “Couldn’t I stay on the ship until we make sail for White Harbor?”  “From here the King turns east for Braavos. Without us.”  “But... my lord, you said... you said we were sailing home.”  “And there it stands, miserable as it is. My ancestral home. It has no name, I fear. A great lord’s seat ought to have a name, wouldn’t you agree? Winterfell, the Eyrie, Riverrun, those are castles. Lord of Harrenhal now, that has a sweet ring to it, but what was I before? Lord of Sheepshit and Master of the Drearfort? It lacks a certain something.” His grey-green eyes regarded her innocently. “You look distraught. Did you think we were making for Winterfell, sweetling? Winterfell has been taken, burned, and sacked. All those you knew and loved are dead. What northmen who have not fallen to the ironmen are warring amongst themselves. Even the Wall is under attack. Winterfell was the home of your childhood, Sansa, but you are no longer a child. You’re a woman grown, and you need to make your own home.”  “But not here,” she said, dismayed. “It looks so...”  “... small and bleak and mean? It’s all that, and less. The Fingers are a lovely place, if you happen to be a stone. But have no fear, we shan’t stay more than a fortnight. I expect your aunt is already riding to meet us.” He smiled. “The Lady Lysa and I are to be wed.”  “Wed?” Sansa was stunned. “You and my aunt?”  “The Lord of Harrenhal and the Lady of the Eyrie.”  You said it was my mother you loved. But of course Lady Catelyn was dead, so even if she had loved Petyr secretly and given him her maidenhood, it made no matter now.  “So silent, my lady?” said Petyr. “I was certain you would wish to give me your blessing. It is a rare thing for a boy born heir to stones and sheep pellets to wed the daughter of Hoster Tully and the widow of Jon Arryn.”  “I... I pray you will have long years together, and many children, and be very happy in one another.” It had been years since Sansa last saw her mother’s sister. She will be kind to me for my mother’s sake, surely. She’s my own blood. And the Vale of Arryn was beautiful, all the songs said so. Perhaps it would not be so terrible to stay here for a time.  Lothor and old Oswell rowed them ashore. Sansa huddled in the bow under her cloak with the hood drawn up against the wind, wondering what awaited her. Servants emerged from the tower to meet them; a thin old woman and a fat middle-aged one, two ancient white-haired men, and a girl of two or three with a sty on one eye. When they recognized Lord Petyr they knelt on the rocks. “My household,” he said. “I don’t know the child. Another of Kella’s bastards, I suppose. She pops one out every few years.”  The two old men waded out up to their thighs to lift Sansa from the boat so she would not get her skirts wet. Oswell and Lothor splashed their way ashore, as did Littlefinger himself. He gave the old woman a kiss on the cheek and grinned at the younger one. “Who fathered this one, Kella?”  The fat woman laughed. “I can’t rightly say, m’lord. I’m not one for telling them no.”  “And all the local lads are grateful, I am quite sure.”  “It is good to have you home, my lord,” said one old man. He looked to be at least eighty, but he wore a studded brigantine and a longsword at his side. “How long will you be in residence?”  “As short a time as possible, Bryen, have no fear. Is the place habitable just now, would you say?”  “If we knew you was coming we would have laid down fresh rushes, m’lord,” said the crone. “There’s a dung fire burning.”  “Nothing says home like the smell of burning dung.” Petyr turned to Sansa. “Grisel was my wet nurse, but she keeps my castle now. Umfred’s my steward, and Bryen - didn’t I name you captain of the guard the last time I was here?”  “You did, my lord. You said you’d be getting some more men too, but you never did. Me and the dogs stand all the watches.”  “And very well, I’m sure. No one has made off with any of my rocks or sheep pellets, I see that plainly.” Petyr gestured toward the fat woman. “Kella minds my vast herds. How many sheep do I have at present, Kella?”  She had to think a moment. “Three and twenty, m’lord. There was nine and twenty, but Bryen’s dogs killed one and we butchered some others and salted down the meat.”  “Ah, cold salt mutton. I must be home. When I break my fast on gulls’ eggs and seaweed soup, I’ll be certain of it.”  “If you like, m’lord,” said the old woman Grisel.  Lord Petyr made a face. “Come, let’s see if my hall is as dreary as I recall.” He led them up the strand over rocks slick with rotting seaweed. A handful of sheep were wandering about the base of the flint tower, grazing on the thin grass that grew between the sheepfold and thatched stable. Sansa had to step carefully; there were pellets everywhere.  Within, the tower seemed even smaller. An open stone stair wound round the inside wall, from undercroft to roof. Each floor was but a single room. The servants lived and slept in the kitchen at ground level, sharing the space with a huge brindled mastiff and a half-dozen sheepdogs. Above that was a modest hall, and higher still the bedchamber. There were no windows, but arrowslits were embedded in the outer wall at intervals along the curve of the stair. Above the hearth hung a broken longsword and a battered oaken shield, its paint cracked and flaking.  The device painted on the shield was one Sansa did not know; a grey stone head with fiery eyes, upon a light green field. “My grandfather’s shield,” Petyr explained when he saw her gazing at it. “His own father was born in Braavos and came to the Vale as a sellsword in the hire of Lord Corbray, so my grandfather took the head of the Titan as his sigil when he was knighted.”  “It’s very fierce,” said Sansa.  “Rather too fierce, for an amiable fellow like me,” said Petyr. “I much prefer my mockingbird.”  Oswell made two more trips out to the Merling King to offload provisions. Among the loads he brought ashore were several casks of wine. Petyr poured Sansa a cup, as promised. “Here, my lady, that should help your tummy, I would hope.”  Having solid ground beneath her feet had helped already, but Sansa dutifully lifted the goblet with both hands and took a sip. The wine was very fine; an Arbor vintage, she thought. it tasted of oak and fruit and hot summer nights, the flavors blossoming in her mouth like flowers opening to the sun. She only prayed that she could keep it down. Lord Petyr was being so kind, she did not want to spoil it all by retching on him.  He was studying her over his own goblet, his bright grey-green eyes full of... was it amusement? Or something else? Sansa was not certain. “Grisel,” he called to the old woman, “bring some food up. Nothing too heavy, my lady has a tender tummy. Some fruit might serve, perhaps. Oswell’s brought some oranges and pomegranates from the King.”  “Yes, m’lord.”  “Might I have a hot bath as well?” asked Sansa.  “I’ll have Kella draw some water, m’lady.”  Sansa took another sip of wine and tried to think of some polite conversation, but Lord Petyr saved her the effort. When Grisel and the other servants had gone, he said, “Lysa will not come alone. Before she arrives, we must be clear on who you are.”  “Who I... I don’t understand.”  “Varys has informers everywhere. If Sansa Stark should be seen in the Vale, the eunuch will know within a moon’s turn, and that would create unfortunate... complications. It is not safe to be a Stark just now. So we shall tell Lysa’s people that you are my natural daughter.”  “Natural?” Sansa was aghast. “You mean, a bastard?”  “Well, you can scarcely be my trueborn daughter. I’ve never taken a wife, that’s well known. What should you be called?”  “I... I could call myself after my mother...”  “Catelyn? A bit too obvious... but after my mother, that would serve. Alayne. Do you like it?”  “Alayne is pretty.” Sansa hoped she would remember. “But couldn’t I be the trueborn daughter of some knight in your service? Perhaps he died gallantly in the battle, and...”  “I have no gallant knights in my service, Alayne. Such a tale would draw unwanted questions as a corpse draws crows. It is rude to pry into the origins of a man’s natural children, however.” He cocked his head. “So, who are you?”  “Alayne... Stone, would it be?” When he nodded, she said, “But who is my mother?”  “Kella?”  “Please no,” she said, mortified.  “I was teasing. Your mother was a gentlewoman of Braavos, daughter of a merchant prince. We met in Gulltown when I had charge of the port. She died giving you birth, and entrusted you to the Faith. I have some devotional books you can look over. Learn to quote from them. Nothing discourages unwanted questions as much as a flow of pious bleating. In any case, at your flowering you decided you did not wish to be a septa and wrote to me. That was the first I knew of your existence.” He fingered his beard. “Do you think you can remember all that?”  “I hope. It will be like playing a game, won’t it?”  “Are you fond of games, Alayne?”  The new name would take some getting used to. “Games? I... I suppose it would depend...”  Grisel reappeared before he could say more, balancing a large platter. She set it down between them. There were apples and pears and pomegranates, some sad-looking grapes, a huge blood orange. The old woman had brought a round of bread as well, and a crock of butter. Petyr cut a pomegranate in two with his dagger, offering half to Sansa. “You should try and eat, my lady.”  “Thank you, my lord.” Pomegranate seeds were so messy; Sansa chose a pear instead, and took a small delicate bite. It was very ripe. The juice ran down her chin.  Lord Petyr loosened a seed with the point of his dagger. “You must miss your father terribly, I know. Lord Eddard was a brave man, honest and loyal... but quite a hopeless player.” He brought the seed to his mouth with the knife. “In King’s Landing, there are two sorts of people. The players and the pieces.”  “And I was a piece?” She dreaded the answer.  “Yes, but don’t let that trouble you. You’re still half a child. Every man’s a piece to start with, and every maid as well. Even some who think they are players.” He ate another seed. “Cersei, for one. She thinks herself sly, but in truth she is utterly predictable. Her strength rests on her beauty, birth, and riches. Only the first of those is truly her own, and it will soon desert her. I pity her then. She wants power, but has no notion what to do with it when she gets it. Everyone wants something, Alayne. And when you know what a man wants you know who he is, and how to move him.”  “As you moved Ser Dontos to poison Joffrey?” It had to have been Dontos, she had concluded. Littlefinger laughed. “Ser Dontos the Red was a skin of wine with legs. He could never have been trusted with a task of such enormity. He would have bungled it or betrayed me. No, all Dontos had to do was lead you from the castle... and make certain you wore your silver hair net.”  The black amethysts. “But... if not Dontos, who? Do you have other... pieces?”  “You could turn King’s Landing upside down and not find a single man with a mockingbird sewn over his heart, but that does not mean I am friendless.” Petyr went to the steps. “Oswell, come up here and let the Lady Sansa have a look at you.”  The old man appeared a few moments later, grinning and bowing. Sansa eyed him uncertainly. “What am I supposed to see?”  “Do you know him?” asked Petyr.  “No.”  “Look closer.”  She studied the old man’s lined windburnt face, hook nose, white hair, and huge knuckly hands. There was something familiar about him, yet Sansa had to shake her head. “I don’t. I never saw Oswell before I got into his boat, I’m certain.”  Oswell grinned, showing a mouth of crooked teeth. “No, but m’lady might of met my three sons.”  It was the “three sons,” and that smile too. “Kettleblack!” Sansa’s eyes went wide. “You’re a Kettleblack!”  “Aye, m’lady, as it please you.”  “She’s beside herself with joy.” Lord Petyr dismissed him with a wave, and returned to the pomegranate again as Oswell shuffled down the steps. “Tell me, Alayne - which is more dangerous, the dagger brandished by an enemy, or the hidden one pressed to your back by someone you never even see?”  “The hidden dagger.”  “There’s a clever girl.” He smiled, his thin lips bright red from the pomegranate seeds. “When the Imp sent off her guards, the queen had Ser Lancel hire sellswords for her. Lancel found her the Kettleblacks, which delighted your little lord husband, since the lads were in his pay through his man Bronn.” He chuckled. “But it was me who told Oswell to get his sons to King’s Landing when I learned that Bronn was looking for swords. Three hidden daggers, Alayne, now perfectly placed.”  “So one of the Kettleblacks put the poison in Joff ‘s cup?” Ser Osmund had been near the king all night, she remembered.  “Did I say that?” Lord Petyr cut the blood orange in two with his dagger and offered half to Sansa. “The lads are far too treacherous to be part of any such scheme... and Osmund has become especially unreliable since he joined the Kingsguard. That white cloak does things to a man, I find. Even a man like him.” He tilted his chin back and squeezed the blood orange, so the juice ran down into his mouth. “I love the juice but I loathe the sticky fingers,” he complained, wiping his hands. “Clean hands, Sansa. Whatever you do, make certain your hands are clean.”  Sansa spooned up some juice from her own orange. “But if it wasn’t the Kettleblacks and it wasn’t Ser Dontos... you weren’t even in the city, and it couldn’t have been Tyrion...”  “No more guesses, sweetling?”  She shook her head. “I don’t...”  Petyr smiled. “I will wager you that at some point during the evening someone told you that your hair net was crooked and straightened it for you.”  Sansa raised a hand to her mouth. “You cannot mean... she wanted to take me to Highgarden, to marry me to her grandson...”  “Gentle, pious, good-hearted Willas Tyrell. Be grateful you were spared, he would have bored you spitless. The old woman is not boring, though, I’ll grant her that. A fearsome old harridan, and not near as frail as she pretends. When I came to Highgarden to dicker for Margaery’s hand, she let her lord son bluster while she asked pointed questions about Joffrey’s nature. I praised him to the skies, to be sure... whilst my men spread disturbing tales amongst Lord Tyrell’s servants. That is how the game is played.  “I also planted the notion of Ser Loras taking the white. Not that I suggested it, that would have been too crude. But men in my party supplied grisly tales about how the mob had killed Ser Preston Greenfield and raped the Lady Lollys, and slipped a few silvers to Lord Tyrell’s army of singers to sing of Ryam Redwyne, Serwyn of the Mirror Shield, and Prince Aemon the Dragonknight. A harp can be as dangerous as a sword, in the right hands.  “Mace Tyrell actually thought it was his own idea to make Ser Loras’s inclusion in the Kingsguard part of the marriage contract. Who better to protect his daughter than her splendid knightly brother? And it relieved him of the difficult task of trying to find lands and a bride for a third son, never easy, and doubly difficult in Ser Loras’s case.  “Be that as it may. Lady Olenna was not about to let Joff harm her precious darling granddaughter, but unlike her son she also realized that under all his flowers and finery, Ser Loras is as hot-tempered as Jaime Lannister. Toss Joffrey, Margaery, and Loras in a pot, and you’ve got the makings for kingslayer stew. The old woman understood something else as well. Her son was determined to make Margaery a queen, and for that he needed a king... but he did not need Joffrey. We shall have another wedding soon, wait and see. Margaery will marry Tommen. She’ll keep her queenly crown and her maidenhead, neither of which she especially wants, but what does that matter? The great western alliance will be preserved... for a time, at least.”  Margaery and Tommen. Sansa did not know what to say. She had liked Margaery Tyrell, and her small sharp grandmother as well. She thought wistfully of Hi............
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