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The calm of the warm summer’s day laid bare the dark greens and blues beneath the surface, colours which reminded Mychel that he was no longer in the Sapphire Isle or the Gods Eye. The waves were little more than stunted, feeble ripples with pearly white foam on the rims, clashing quietly against the dark wood of their ship and watering the mostly dead mass of barnacles which covered the hull.

Lord Mooton, ever the generous man, had given their retinue his finest vessel for their short voyage. It was an old, modest, but seasoned thing, with a matching crew and more than enough oars to carry them across the Bay of Crabs with or without wind in their sails. They had left the port of Maidenpool on a starry night, and they had awakened to find that the shores of the Vale were now a thin dark line on the horizon, drawing closer with every passing hour.

The sailors were hardworking, but they did not lack for good manners or camaraderie. They had been glad to share their bread and wine with their lord’s guests, to listen to the tall blue-eyed lordling sing sweet songs of the sea, and to share a jest or two as they watched him play cyvasse with his stern-looking cousin. Mychel had won all but one game thus far, much to Garrett’s increasing annoyance.

Now the heir to Harrenhal stood on the deck alone, facing the sea which glittered in the sunlight and watching seagulls approach from the nearing land to the north-east, where their destination awaited them. His first tourney, not as Carolei Tarth’s squire, but as Catelyn Mudd’s heir.

His days in Harrenhal had been few but not as lonely as he had anticipated. After his conversation with his mother, Mychel was left to aimlessly roam his childhood home, to try to acquaint himself with those who had never met him before and to share memories of years past with those he had left behind long ago. His father held him tight against his chest upon seeing him again, at long last, and the two shared many words of comfort and idle talk. Endrew Tarth had aged just as much as his lady wife had, though he hid it well with his bright smile.

A grand feast and quiet night of solitude had followed their loving reunion. His mother gave an austere but concise speech welcoming him home. His many cousins and second cousins became deafeningly boisterous after their eighth or ninth cups of wine. His uncle Brynden tried to engage him in conversations about swordfighting and cyvasse, which some of his mother’s guests participated in. Half a dozen minstrels, who were visiting the castle to play for the Marshall of the Gods Eye and her family, played and sang proudly among the crowd. Almost a hundred people, including lords, ladies, knights and servants, filled as much of the expanse of the Hall of the Hundred Hearths as they could, which was not much. Mychel ended up singing a song of his own as the feast died down and many retired to their chambers, one which his mother listened to dutifully but without showing much genuine interest in, which was not the case with some of his unmarried second cousins. Many were moved to tears.

When shadows had begun to spread through the great hall, and his mother and father left for bed, Mychel finally went to the godswood to visit Jacelyn.

His twin’s final resting place under the heart tree was too small, or so it had always felt to him. Easily lost among the bushes and flowers and fallen red leaves. The polished brown stone which covered it was itself a modest thing with no name, and the bronze bust of him paled in comparison to the finer marble ones he had seen in cities, castles and septs beyond the Gods Eye. The expression on its boyish face was vague, unreadable, and it looked nothing like anything he had ever seen on his brother’s true face. He should have been smiling triumphantly, grinning from ear to ear like he used to after his sparring lessons.

You should have lived, not me. The cruel, painful thought had stabbed its way into the fore of his mind, and his hand rested on the face that looked so much like his own once had. His fingers caressed the cold metal cheekbones and nose and lips. He did not cry, but perhaps tears would have been better than the deep, oppressive, dark sensation that spread through his core. A sensation that never truly left him, despite the ebb and flow of his mood.

As he returned his attention to where he was now, Mychel found that the sound of the sea was not too different from the sound of the leaves of Harrenhal’s heart tree rustling in the wind. The salty moisture in the air, however, reminded him of Tarth, and that alleviated him. The fog of his darker thoughts cleared somewhat as he remembered that his aunt and cousins awaited him in Gulltown, along with many other storm lords he knew. People who had embraced him and given him a home in their land. How he yearned to see and hear them again.

“And all the light, will be, will be”, he sang with the softest of voices, barely audible even with only the seagulls, the waves and the rowing below to accompany his sound. “And all the future prophecy. And all the waves, the sea, the sea. And on the road are you and me.”

He hummed when there were no words to sing, lacking an instrument to play the gentle melody of this lullaby of the straits. Leaning on the wooden railing, his hair forming a great curtain of black silk which framed the colours of the world before him. He breathed that sea air, drank deeply from it and sighed contently, feeling almost home again. Then he continued to sing, louder now, until Garrett’s unsubtle coughing brought him to a reluctant halt.

“What is the matter, cousin?” He asked the older Mudd, granting him a small but welcoming smile. Garrett took the invitation and moved to stand beside him, also leaning on the railing. He looked pale, paler than usual, and sickly. Most Mudds were accustomed to rivers and lakes, but not the seas.

“I’m curious”, said Garrett, sighing a bit too hard, like a great exhalation would cleanse his body of its nausea. “Father won’t tell me much. He disdains politics and strategy, and thinks me too thick to understand such matters as well.”

“By the way you play cyvasse”, said Mychel, “I know that is not the case.”

His cousin smiled.

“You have seen more of the Seven Kingdoms than most of us”, he said as he turned to face Mychel. “You have spoken to more people outside the Riverlands. So I ask you, cousin, where do we stand now?”

Mychel gazed into his cousin’s brown eyes, searched for the meaning that imbued his words, and thought he had found it.

“We serve House Tully”, he answered eventually, “we protect the Gods Eye and we owe a debt of gratitude to our queen. Nothing ever changes where our house is concerned, I reckon.”

“We used to be kings”, said Garrett. “Or so I was told, though I’m sure you know the tales and songs better than I do. But one day we weren’t kings anymore. There is no Kingdom of the Rivers and Hills now. So what becomes of this kingdom that we now serve when Daenerys Targaryen dies?”

Mychel had not been educated for intrigue, and most of the knowledge he held pertained to matters that had little to do with the affairs of the realm, with how the smallfolk fared in these times or how the nobility grappled with the impending possibility of a succession. Yet he had his imagination, and he knew the characters of many who would play a role in the coming days.

“Perhaps there will be a great change”, he said. “New laws, new titles, new ways of ruling. The only other alternatives I can think of spell trouble.”

“Don’t let your lady mother hear you say that”, said Garrett, maybe half-jesting. “She has complained about her fellow river lords disrespecting the Princess Serenei. She is quite adamant about her succeeding the queen.”

“A lot of lords will have something to say about it”, said Mychel.

“Lot of ungrateful, treasonous cunts, more like.”

Mychel had to scoff at that.

“You disagree?” Asked his cousin.

“I’m not sure it matters”, he answered. “Not truly. Either way, someone will scheme and the common people will bleed for it, like every other time a king grew old and the lords around him became ravenous, snapping at each other over the scraps.”

“Lords have their duties and so do the smallfolk”, said his cousin, although his tone possessed the artifice of lifelong repetition. Someone had taught him to say that. “Smallfolk live to toil in peacetime and wartime, and we live to lead them and ensure the common good.”

“My mother’s words, I presume”, said Mychel. “Does she speak to the smallfolk often?”

“She does attend their festivals after every harvest”, said Garrett. “But mostly she judges them, and lets aunt Alyssa and Leslyn deal with the pleasantries and charity. They do respect her, nonetheless.”

“Respect is not love”, said Mychel, mostly to himself. “I’ve seen smallfolk who loved their lords and ladies. I’ve spoken to them, even befriended them. And the eldest among them love Daenerys Targaryen, specially those with the blood of those she freed in them.”

“So you wish to be loved?” Asked Garrett. “When you become Lord of Harrenhal?”

Mychel did not respond. Not aloud at least.

Instead, he pushed himself away from the railing, lifted his face to the horizon and let the sunlight wash over him. He had missed this heat in Harrenhal. The summer here was warm, full of life, but it was not so there, within those gargantuan walls.

In the distance, with half-lidded eyes, he saw the the city of Gulltown take shape, surrounded by the verdant highlands of the peninsula it stood on. He saw how dozens of ships now appeared beside their own, flocking to the same destination in search for glory and much more, their sails carrying the colours of many houses from every corner of the Seven Kingdoms.

They approached the port slowly, giving him and Garrett ample time to identify many of the sigils there present. The Ironborn were already there, boasting a trio of intimidating warships, as was House Stark. No sight of any storm lords yet. No quartered yellow suns and white crescents from Tarth or crowned black stags from Storm’s End, which left Mychel with a sinking feeling in his chest.

“And all the dust will drift away”, he began to sing. The same lullaby as before, and his mind drifted from his troubled thoughts and emotions as he imagined himself swimming under the striking blue seas of the Sapphire Isle again. “And all the nights and all the days, and all the heavens go their way, and only change is here to stay…”

The Gods Eye was always watching, always waiting, and it always made its presence known to those who approached. A thick fog welcomed the son of Harrenhal like a portent of things to come, swallowing the morning light and weakening the glow of the lamps. The blue-green waters of the Gods River provided the small fleet of painted poleboats and sailboats with a gentle current, a kindness which the Blackwater had lacked, but the glass-like shimmering of the surface he remembered was nowhere to be seen.

Sombre sights for a sombre day. Perhaps the land itself mourned like its people did. Perhaps the Old Gods grieved for the dead too. Or perhaps it meant nothing, and the Gods Eye cared not for those who lived in it. Perhaps a single death did not matter in the eyes of the world.

Even with the fire of the lamp beside him, the blue in Mychel Mudd's eyes could not regain its natural vividness as the fog reflected on them. He gazed upon the darkened green of the land beyond the waters, tried to see if he could remember the shapes of the trees and the cottages that stood near the margins. It had not been so long. Most should still be there, lost in the fog, greeting his return like old friends.

A few birds, mostly sparrows it seemed, dared to sing for the passing of the boats. Their sound elicited a warmth within him, however short-lived, which far surpassed that which his doublet could provide. He let himself be carried away by the sensations, if only for a little while.

“Milord”, said a sweet, timid little voice, the reluctance to speak almost tangible in its sound. “Would you please sing another song, milord?”

The daydream ended with the interruption, though Mychel would not have called it an intolerable one. He turned to the sailor’s son and answered his expectant look on his pale face with a small smile of his own.

The boy was small. Could not be older than five. He had probably been a babe when Mychel left the Riverlands, but it was evident that the years since had made him insatiably curious. That his father carried all manner of people up and down the Gods River and the Blackwater had probably fanned those flames. He did not care to ask about Harrenhal or his family, for he saw it almost every day, even in the distance. From his father’s current guest, all he wanted was tales from the Stormlands and songs that no singer had yet sung in the Gods Eye. He had even prodded Mychel on the red priests that were said to roam about the land and their strange rituals.

Mychel had indulged him every day of their journey and had no intention of stopping now. But just as he was about to grant the boy’s request, his father, the sailor, interjected.

“Do not bother Lord Mudd, Aegon”, he said, not taking his eyes off the waters before him, hands firm on his paddle as he guided their vote northwards. “The journey has been long and his lordship must be tired.”

“It is no bother, Ben”, Mychel told the man softly and leaned back against the short mast. As he got comfortable, his long black mane cascaded down his shoulder and parted on either side. He breathed in the damp air, filled his chest with it, and sang the first few verses of an old walking song. He had learned it from a squat, hospitable farmer from the green meadows of Tarth who loved to travel almost as much as he loved to write about his quaint adventures.

“The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began”, he sang the words delicately. A pleasant, harmonious sound that contained in it tinges of a longing. “Now far ahead the road has gone, and I must follow if I can, pursuing it with eager feet, until it joins some larger way where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say.”

Aegon watched and listened intently, his eyes opened wide with delight. It made Mychel’s smile grow for a fickle instant, before he lost himself in the act and forgot where he was and where he was going.

By the time his song ended, they had reached the mouth of the Gods River, and the vast stillness of the Gods Eye awaited before them. The air was too still for sails, so all but their lordly guest began to row forward, further north.

It was a slow, quiet endeavour. They were not close enough to the shores to see or hear the people in the surrounding towns and villages. Their homes were vague shapes in the foggy distance, easily confused with the forests and rocky hills between them. The fertile fields were entirely invisible and only the top of the holdfast called Briarwhite stood out. Ben and his fellow sailors tried to stay as far away from the Isle of Faces as possible, though even from the distance Mychel could recognise the white and red of its weirwoods.

All the while, Mychel sang and Aegon listened, the two enraptured by the dreams contained in the verses and sentiments that the melody imbued them with.

The fog began to clear as they approached Harrenton, and with its retreat came the first signs of the life Mychel had left behind. There was a growing muttering of voices far away, followed by the appearance of the town itself, long since rebuilt. The charred ruin that the War of the Five Kings had left behind was now a lively community built on sturdy stone where vines and moss grew unrestrained along the walls. The sailors exchanged greetings with the people near the shore, and those who saw the colours of House Mudd hanging from Ben’s mast shouted their blessings to the returning Mychel.

Yet the town, as full of life as it was, could not hope to keep on itself the eyes of those sailing through the shimmering green and blue waters of the Gods Eye. Something far greater awaited beyond it.

There was a great shadow looming over them all. As high as a mountain and as black as night, its tallest parts reached upwards like the five long fingers of a godly hand. And even its lowest parts, which seemed to stretch from one end of the horizon to the other, looked like one terrible wave of pure liquid darkness in a raging sea ready to pounce their measly navy and plunge it into the depths of the lake.

The walls of Harrenhal revealed their true selves long before the towers did. Indeed, the towers remained cloaked behind the silvery veil of the fog as they came closer to the walls and the massive portcullis of the riverside gate. Great banners with a red-brown field and golden crown hung from the walls, looking miniscule by comparison. The moss and ivy had had far more success in conquering the walls over the decades, unrestrained by expense or the ability of seamstresses.

A guard dressed in his house’s colours hailed the approaching retinue from behind the portcullis, but did not address Mychel himself at first glance. In fact, none of the guards, neither there nor atop the walls, neither young nor old, appeared to know who he was.

“Where is our lord, sailors?” Asked the guard.

The young boy with the blue eyes and black hair quietly rose to his feet. He made no proclamations, no demands. Just let himself be seen and awaited their reaction. The group of guards at the gate had began to transform into a small crowd.

“Is it you, milord?” Asked the one guard. The helmet concealed the look in his eyes, but not his tone. Incredulity and judgement. If he was their lord, he was an odd one. One who looked very little like his mother and wore another house’s colours.

“Aye, that is our boy!” shouted someone from behind the guards. Someone whose voice had not changed at all. “Welcome, nephew!”

As he stepped forward, Mychel saw that his looks had changed little as well. A man of stocky build, brown eyes and hair, who kept his curls and beard trimmed but never shorn. A man who wore his mother’s colours with pride and always carried a weirwood spear with him.

“Uncle Brynden!” He shouted back, feeling almost ready to jump down from the boat and swim all the way to him if need be. Had he missed him so much? Would he yearn to run to his lady mother like he yearned to run to him?

Their shared outburst was confirmation enough, and so the boats were allowed to pass through. The docks within the great castle received them with little pomp, although a few more guards had formed a line at the end of the stairs which led to the Flowstone Yard. His cousin Garrett was with them, looking as proud and strong as his father in his armour, carrying with him House Mudd’s banner.

Mychel climbed down from his boat without any trouble. He made sure to give both Ben and Aegon a warm farewell, as well as a piece of gold and a piece of copper, respectively, before he left them. Ben smiled, which he had done sparsely through their journey, and Aegon attempted to hug him, much to his father’s chagrin.

The hug Mychel did receive came from Brynden. It was a hard embrace, pained. This was not the reunion that the older Mudd had envisioned for them, Mychel thought. Where there might have been pure joy on his uncle’s part, and maybe some contentment on Mychel’s, instead there was grief and the need to hide its unseemly, unmanly manifestations.

They parted just as sternly as they had held each other, and that was the extent of the comfort they could and would give to each other. No more. It was not in their blood to wallow in misery, to shed tears in front of others.

“Come, boy”, said Brynden. “Your lady mother will want to see you at once, and you must be seen around the castle.”

Mychel followed his uncle around the large yard, through the long corridors and great halls, and he saw that Harrenhal had changed much but not enough. The green of the plants continued to invade every corner where the black and grey of the stone had once reigned. More had been built, because more was always being built in Harrenhal. Perhaps the castle was doomed to always being built upon, never quite complete. To walk within its walls was to walk within a half-empty, slightly downtrodden city where every yard was on the verge of becoming a garden. The brown and gold of their house’s colours dominated wherever the vegetation did not, and the golden crown of Mudd reminded Mychel over and over that this was real. He had returned at last, and this was his home, his family, his heritage.

Every step of the way, Garrett and the guards followed at a distance. His cousin made a few comments here and there, told him some of the events he had missed. But the bulk of the storytelling fell upon Brynden’s shoulders, and Brynden was no minstrel or mummer.

“Your lady mother has not neglected her duties”, said Brynden as they walked into the Hall of the Hundred Hearths, which was now closer to fitting its name than it had in centuries. “Which my siblings think to be a sign of her recovery.”

Mychel gazed at his uncle with a questioning look, ignoring the clutter of the servants desperately trying to prepare the enormous hall for a feast that would only occupy a portion of it. “But you know better.”

“She personally beheaded almost forty men just last month”, said Garrett as they reached the dais, already richly decorated for the occasion. “And sent thirty more to the Night’s Watch. Conspiracy against the realm, sedition, banditry, murder, rape, theft, whoring, adultery, buggery...”

Mychel stopped their walk and stared at his cousin. “Buggery? That’s not a crime here. We don’t follow the Seven-Pointed Star.”

“Some guard boy got caught abed with a stablehand when he was supposed to be watching over the main gate”, said Brynden, his expression not giving away anything but his determination to speak plainly. “Your mother sent them both to Castle Black. The guard boy for abandoning his post and the stablehand for being an accomplice to it. But we all knew the true reason and I think she did too. She looked like she regretted her decision the moment she made it.”

“Father said nothing in his letters”, commented Mychel, pushing a lock of hair behind his ear, trying to make his voice sound colder, trying not to think too much, to feel too much. “To hear him tell it, she mourned for a week and then moved on. Threw away her black dresses, put a statue on Lyra’s grave, and started wearing our house’s colours again.”

“Catelyn never moves on”, said Brynden. “Not when she feels that somebody is being unjust. And right now, she probably feels that fate itself is being unjust. She does not visit your sister’s grave, of course. Not when she used to reprimand you for visiting Jacelyn’s every day. But she is mourning and it is taking its toll.”

“I’m sorry, uncle”, said Mychel, taking ahold of his arm. “I will do what I can to help.”

“You can start by speaking to her”, said the other. “Remind her that she has a living son and that he has come home. I will go find your father so he can greet you as well.”

“Where is she?”

“The bathhouse.”

Mychel’s steps were brisk as he left the Hall of the Hundred Hearths, though even a horse would have made the journey to the bathhouse long. A great stretch of the castle separated him from it, and though he had grown up in it, he knew it was still easy to lose one’s way in its labyrinthian passages. Harren the Black’s boundless ambition had far exceeded his good sense, and the result was a monstrosity that was unwieldy to rule and to traverse if you had not known it since birth.

The distance gave him the time he needed to contemplate, to take in the sights around him, the faces both old and new, and to consider what was about to happen. He allowed himself to press his hand against the black walls and the thick vines he had tried to climb as a child. He picked up one of the golden flowers that grew in the mossy cracks between the massive cobbles of the yards, took in its perfume, then gave it away to the first serving girl he came upon. He saw some of his younger second cousins playing with wooden swords, and he exchanged courteous waves with them as he passed them by. He watched Lysaro, one of the silver-haired descendants of Lorimas, ride in through the east gate, looking handsome with his leather armour and sun-kissed skin.

He passed close to the godswood and felt the temptation to enter, to look for his brother’s grave and speak to him, like he used to. But he resisted, and carried on as he thought about his mother and his sister.

Childbirth. Lyra had always been strong, healthy. How could childbirth kill her, when weaker women had lived through it? Why her? She had been the only of her mother’s children who wanted to rule the Gods Eye. The only one of them who shared her temperament and her vision.

Catelyn Mudd had never been a woman to have favourites, yet Mychel had known for years that she saw something in Lyra that she did not see in him, something worth her undivided attention. Something worth sending him away for. And now here they were, four years later. Now, Catelyn Mudd had only one child left. The one she had not groomed for rulership. The one she had sent away. The one she had left to his own devices. The one who wore another house’s colours, who jousted in tourneys and sang songs about death. The one she probably did not love.

He could not have predicted her state of mind, but he could have imagined many possibilities. Few of them were encouraging, and he was about to discover which one, if any, was right.

There was only one entrance to the bathhouse and soon, though not soon enough, he was facing it. The thick wooden door had been left unguarded, almost certainly by his mother’s orders. No cause for delay, nothing to preserve him from facing the inevitable and the long overdue. The circle that had begun years before, with his departure, was about to close.

He opened the door and stepped into the dimly lit corridor, and the sounds of his movements echoed through the damp air.

The castle’s baths could have comfortably served many dozens within its stone tubs, but only the Mudd children had ever taken advantage of that. Most of the time, only one person would use them at a time. Two, if some lord or lady was feeling adventurous and was not afraid of Catelyn Mudd’s disapproval.

Today, there was only one other person in the baths, sitting in the largest one, facing the sunlight that came in through a still broken wall. A woman much shorter than him, with dark brown hair and freckled, sun-kissed shoulders. She did not move at all as he reached the bottom of the steps, or say anything as he came near her. It was only when Mychel had walked around the tub and faced his mother for the first time in four years that she acknowledged him. Her brown eyes, which used to pierce through the soul, greeted him with a stare that no longer had that terrifying fire of old, but was instead empty.

Catelyn Mudd, Marshall of the Gods Eye, Guardian of the Rivers and Hills and Lady of Harrenhal, had lost. Her first true defeat, one from which she could not regroup. That was what that emptiness said, or so Mychel thought. She looked a decade older.

“Mother”, he whispered, bowing his head, paying no thought to her nakedness. She did not seem to think much of it either. She gave his clothes a cursory glance, then turned back to the sky above the walls of the bathhouse.

“The blue and rose of your Tarth father do suit you better than mine own brown and gold”, she said, holding some fragrant water between her calloused hands and pouring it on her plain face. “You look like a proper young lord now.”

That was her way of welcoming him. Had he been younger, had he cared more for her as he had years before, it would have hurt. He might have demanded that she said more, that she reminded him of the love they shared as mother and son. But he was not that little boy any longer, and she was not the woman he had left behind.

He merely watched and waited.

He saw then that there were tendrils of red in the water.

“Are you bleeding, mother?” He asked her, kneeling beside her.

“It’s not mine”, she said. “I went hunting. Hadn’t gone hunting in months. I could have beheaded a thousand men if necessary because it’s my duty, but hunting? Killing for pleasure? It felt wrong at first.”

She shook her head, splashed some water on her face again and rubbed it in.

“But your sister had always enjoyed it”, she said, spreading the water into her hair, soaking its roots until they looked black. “I had a weirwood bow made for her as her wedding gift. Killed a boar in her first outing with it. Caught it in the neck.”

“Did you kill something?”

She was silent for a moment and gazed sideways. In time, she nodded.

“A doe”, she said, washing the rest of her hair. “She was beautiful. Appeared just in the right moment and in the right place. I used your sister’s bow and struck her in the neck, just like the boar.”

Mychel said nothing, but she turned to him all the same, and the emptiness in her became haunting.

“She was with child”, she said, and there was a hardening of her tone. “The fawn in her belly was almost fully formed. A beautiful doe, just like her mother.”

Silence once more, though not for long.

“I’m sorry I was not here when Lyra passed away, mother”, said Mychel.

“You are here now”, she retorted without softening her tone. “It’s what I wanted and what I expected of you. No more, no less.”

“What of her husband?” He asked.

“Gawen?” She scoffed. “The boy returned to his father in the North as soon as my daughter and granddaughter were cold in the ground underneath the heart tree.”

“Did he not love her?”

“He respected her”, she answered. “And she found him pleasant to talk to and a tolerable lover. They might have learned to love one another, had she lived.”

She died bearing the child of a lesser man who did not care, was what her words implied. His mother would never say it aloud, but Mychel knew her. A man you forced her to marry.

Lyra had died fulfilling her duty and abiding by her heritage as a Mudd. She had died doing what she had learned from her mother, who had not married for duty or heritage.

You unwittingly killed your own daughter and heir, thought Mychel. And I’m your punishment. The son you gave up on.

Perhaps she saw it in his eyes, his pity for her, because her expression changed as she looked into them in silence. And when she spoke, a spark of the woman she once had been showed itself rekindled.

“How fares your lady aunt?”

“She is well”, he said. “As are my cousins. They send their regards and their prayers.”

“You love them, do you not?” She asked, though it was clearly a rhetorical gesture as she continued. “You love Evenfall Hall too. More than you love your true home, I presume. Your father is too kind to say it, to let me know of it, but his good nature betrays his sweet lies when he receives your letters.”

He did not respond. He just sat there, breathing, listening and thinking.

“Your lady aunt says you’ve performed well in the lists”, she carried on. “That you’re capable with that sword you carry, but also with the lance when you ride. She means to knight you, I can imagine.”

“She has said nothing of the sort”, said Mychel unflinching, not breaking away from their shared look. “She would never slight you like that. She understands our ways.”

“And who told you that I would consider it a slight?” Asked her, seemingly tempted to chuckle as the corners of her mouth curled upwards for the blink of an eye. “To be knighted is an honour, even if it’s not a rare one.”

She paused. She lifted herself out of the water, sat on the edge of the stone tub, and reached for a cotton mantle with which she dried herself. In her nakedness, Catelyn Mudd’s robust physique was plain to see. A lifetime of fighting, hunting, riding and enacting justice had made her who she was: an intimidating paragon whose severity in looks and behaviour reminded Mychel of the statue of the Father Above in Evenfall Hall’s sept.

“I would not take offense to it”, she said as the cotton soaked up the water in her hair. “But you are right in one regard. It would be against our ways, the ways of our gods. I could not allow my only son, and the heir to Harrenhal, to be anointed in the eyes of somebody else’s gods and lead a life foreign to our own.”

You would have before, thought Mychel. When Lyra was alive.

“I can no longer afford to let you stray from the path of our ancestors”, she said with the mantle wrapped around her shoulders like a cloak, covering her. The shadows ran deep in the creases in her face, much more so than he remembered them, but the bone and muscle beneath the skin were strong.

“I know that you would much rather spend your days idling around Tarth, singing your songs and writing your plays. Don’t you deny it. Had I a choice, I would allow it. I would let you take your father’s name if you wanted to as well, and give you my leave to live however you pleased. However, I do not have that choice any longer. You are the last of my line and I need you here, by my side. I need my blood to sit on my chair when I’m gone, to protect our family’s legacy and hold the emerging shadows in the realm at bay.”

“You want me to stay”, said Mychel, carefully crafting himself a mask of stern nonchalance, keeping much within. “For good.”

“For good”, said his mother, nodding. “I want you to sit in my councils, to study for command under your uncle Brynden and his lieutenants, and to pray in the godswood with the rest of us. I want you to rule the castle when I’m away, to be the Mudd in Harrenhal. I want you to be a proper Mudd, to wear our colours even if they’re ill-fitting, to wield a weirwood bow and hunt with it. And I want you to speak as if, through you, the voices of our ancestors could be heard.”

He looked at her without his face giving away his thoughts, but the blue in his eyes now held an inquisitive light, and she must have known that he would notice. That he would take note of her restraint, of how she appeared to be holding something back, one last demand which she would not articulate. One final matter which threatened her tranquil dominance of their conversation.

“You want me to marry”, he stated, without questioning, without any tinges of doubt. “You even have a likely bride in mind, I reckon.”

“Mychel…”

“No”, he said simply and stood up. “I came for Lyra’s sake, out of love for father and out of respect for you. I did not come to be dragged into your plans, mother. That time passed long ago.”

She stood as well, and while he was much taller than her, she still stood over him by the visible strength of her will as she faced him. There was no hesitance to her. There never was. Nor was there ever any room for dissent.

“You have an obligation, Mychel”, she said, her lips a thin, tight line in the pauses. “Your blood is as bound to this castle as mine is. Your role in the days to come is not negotiable, it is not disputable and it is not yours to neglect on a childish whim. You are the future Marshall of the Gods Eye, Guardian of the Rivers and Hills and Lord of Harrenhal.”

“You still have plenty of siblings”, he said. “And many more nieces and nephews to choose from, if you want a successor so badly. Any of them would be glad to serve you and the realm, but you choose me.”

“Because you’re my son!” She growled.

There it was. The truth hidden in the melody and rhythm, beneath the lyrics. “Because you don’t trust the rest.”

She was quiet then. She only glared at him, forced him to feel the scorching heat of her discontent. The closest he had ever seen her to confessing her true sentiment.

“You are alone”, he said. “Alone with them, and they are not your allies. They don’t share your intent, they don’t care for your aspirations and they have no respect for the reputation you’ve built for yourself and your house.”

He took a step back, pursing his lips, and leaned on the damp, moss-covered stone wall behind him. With his arms crossed over his chest, he let the silence hang between them, hoping she would admit it. That she would finally prove that she still thought of him as her son and trust him with the truth of her thoughts.

“You cannot force me to marry, mother”, he told her. “I am a man grown.”

“No, you are not”, she retorted. “As far as I’m concerned, you are still a child, impetuous and in need of proper guidance. I refuse to indulge you and your susceptibility like your lady aunt has. Not when our family is in peril.”

“My susceptibility?” He asked pointedly. “I was mourning. I had lost my brother.”

“I let you mourn for as long as was appropriate”, she said, inflexible. “You chose to mourn still, to drift through life like a living corpse, so I sent you to a place where I thought you would be happier.”

“Because it served your purposes”, said Mychel.

“Because I dreaded the thought of my son jumping from the top of the Kingspyre Tower at the age of one and ten”, she said. Maybe it was a half truth, from the look in her eyes.

“And what else did you dread?” He asked, his voice lower now, closer to a whisper. It barely echoed through the damp chamber.

She sighed. He had not heard her sigh since he and Jacelyn were five.

“I despise suggestive questions”, she answered. “Speak plainly.”

“We are Mudds”, he half jested, trying not to sound bitter. “We never speak plainly.”

She clearly understood nevertheless.

“I’m not disappointed in you”, she said. “Not entirely. Your open preference for your Tarth kin, your wearing of southron finery, your notorious penchant for frivolous interests like your songs and mummer’s farces… They vex me, but they do not trouble me. From what I hear, the Andal lords enjoy those things and, thus, they enjoy you. Maybe, when your time comes, you will provide our house with plenty of welcome friends beyond the Riverlands.”

“So what does disappoint you about me?”

It was uncommon for Catelyn Mudd to hesitate. Either she spoke or she did not. There was never any doubt, confusion or dithering on her part. Everyone who knew her understood that about her.

Yet she was clearly hesitating to speak now, though she hid it better than most.

“Jacelyn was always a brash little thing”, she said at last. “At the age of ten he was already boasting about all the girls he would kiss when he became a man. And he was beating your cousins with such ease and such glee long before that. He loved the things most boys of our kind do.”

“But not me”, said Mychel.

“No”, she said, taking a step towards him. “Not you. You were skillful with the sword, of course. Your cousins could never defeat you either. But you never boasted like he did. You enjoyed your stories and songs and poems for the beauty of their words and the virtue of the handsome heroes, not for all the blood spilt in them.”

Delicate, thought Mychel. I was the delicate one, the one who liked pretty things and was always kind and understanding, where most of the children were headstrong and selfish. But that was not what worried you.

She turned away from him, let her mantle fall to the wet floor and began to dress in her house’s colours. A tunic with a brown leather chest, the gilded crown of Mudd on it glittering in the feeble light that came through the ruined wall.

“When a vague and rather unbelievable little whisper of your behavior reaches Harrenhal”, she said as she finished strapping on her belt. “What do you imagine is being said aloud about you in the Stormlands?”

“I imagine nothing more scandalous than what is whispered about a hundred young lords and ladies”, he said, approaching her again with his arms by his side, not letting much show in his demeanour.

Not that there is much to show in the first place, he thought. Or much to whisper about.

“None of those young lords and ladies carry my name and stand to inherit my lands”, she said. There was no genuine disapproval in her tone or in her face as she glimpsed him through her thick brown locks, and that was not a mask. She did not care. Not truly. “Our name is old, but not so our lordship. We still have a long path to tread ahead of us. I know, beyond any doubt, that I don’t inspire respect because I’m my father’s daughter, but because I’ve done what was right and all that was necessary to preserve the queen’s peace and enforce her justice. I stand on my own foundations, Mychel, and I need to believe that those foundations will outlive me, that justice will not be forsaken by this house the moment I’m buried under our heart tree.”

“Whatever you’ve heard”, said Mychel as he came closer to her, “it matters not. It’s not a part of your own legacy or our family’s. It is a part of me and it’s mine alone. Whispers will not shame me into lying, hiding in the shadows or playing a mummer’s farce before the whole realm.”

“I am not ashamed and neither should you be, Mychel”, she interjected harshly, teeth gritted, “but whispers like those killed my father. He spent his life indulging in his every selfish, frivolous whim. He became so infatuated with the exotic, the luxurious, that he forgot who he truly was, whose blood flowed through his veins. And this world punished him for it.”

“I am not like him”, said Mychel.

“No”, she agreed. “If I’m right, you have not changed so much that you’ve lost what good sense you had and he lacked. If I’m right, you’ll know better than he did, act accordingly, and live a long and admirable life.”

She moved to hold his face between her two hands. They were pale, small and cold, but strong like the rest of her. They held his jaw firmly, though her thumbs did caress his cheeks with surprising gentleness.

“My son”, she muttered, “my fair son, you do have too much sapphire in you. I only hope that that sapphire gave you a sense of honour and duty as well. I love your sweetness like I love your father’s, but I do not need it and neither does Harrenhal. The castle demands more than your compassion and sorrow and songs.”

They parted then and a loneliness struck Mychel. Even at her softest, the woman before him had no loving warmth within her. All of her words, even the most tender of them, had a purpose greater than clearing the air between a mother and her only son.

“You were wrong, however”, she said suddenly. “I did not have a likely suitor in mind for you. Not yet. Once I might have encouraged you to marry within the family. Perhaps one of your second cousins. But as you said, I do not trust the rest of us. Not even for that.”

“What then?” He asked as she began to walk away, towards the stairs that led to the world outside of the bathhouse.

“Gulltown”, she answered, loud enough for the word to echo. “The tourney. Someone must represent our house during the tourney for Lord Arryn’s nameday, and I refuse to let anyone else do it. Your uncle Brynden and your cousin Garrett might do well in the melee, but they are not adept at playing the courtly games of the other lords and neither am I.”

“And you expect me to find myself a bride there”, said Mychel, not following her. “If you are right about the rumours about me, why do you think any lady there present would accept?”

She stopped at the foot of the stairs and looked at him. “For the same reason I know you will not embarrass our house when you speak to the great lords of the Seven Kingdoms or when you ride forth in the lists.”

“Because I am your son”, he said in a single breath, with a furrowed brow.

“Because you are my son”, she said, nodded, and left him without further word. Her every step resonated until they all faded into silence, and he was all alone in the cavernous chamber. The steam had left his skin covered in little droplets which fell to the stone below while he stared at the wall and thought of the song he had sung in the fog, and how he yearned to sing again.
EDIT - no House Tarth for now
@Inkarnate Neato :3
So... there's a discord thingy? :P
@Inkarnate @Abefroeman Yeah, given the lack of precedent, I've edited my CS and switched the "Ashley" for "Mychel" and "Jocelyn" for "Jacelyn".
@AtomicNut I approve :3
@Inkarnate Thanks! I'll be here if there are any things that need fixin'
<Snipped quote by Inkarnate>

Ashley Sapphire. Gods what a stupid name.


Solid reference lol
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