“which one are you again?”
she looks at him with blank eyes–violet irises with pupils gone pale with age, searching through his face as if unable to articulate the question.
“maekar’s son, who was your cousin daeron’s fourth son.”
a smile cracked across her old face. “aegon. of course. i thought. but no. no that would have been years before, and he never named a son after himself.”
“no, he didn’t, aunt,” aegon agreed, knowing she meant her cousin aegon the unworthy. she was old–older than anyone else in the palace, or so it seemed.
“i went to your wedding,” she said. “to the blackwood girl. not missy, though she looked rather like her. what was her name?”
“betha,” aegon says.
“betha. yes. betha. not bethany. she was a bracken, and older besides. how many years ago was that?”
“thirteen. i was positively young then, wasn’t i? how old was i?”
“we were wed just after your seventieth name day.”
“seventy and then thirteen. so that would make me eighty three. gods i had not thought to live this long. daena died before thirty, and i can still remember her face…and would you know? i used to be able,” she waved a gnarled finger in the air, “i’d once have been able to do that math in my head. seventy plus thirteen is eighty three. yes. but i fade. that’s age. fading eyes, fading wits, fading memory.” she looked at him again with those pale eyes. “aegon. son of maekar, son of daeron my dear beloved cousin. i loved him.”
“i know, aunt,” aegon says.
“and you had a little sister. rhae, was it?”
“rhae and daella. two of them.”
“yes, but rhae was the one who was frightened of me. i heard her telling your father so once. didn’t want to wish me a happy name day.”
aegon blinked, and almost laughed. “i’d forgotten that.”
“i suppose there’s something left in this old mind,” cackled elaena targaryen. “she was a sweet girl. afraid of getting old. that’s youth for you. afraid of all the wrong things.”
she gave him a significant look and he felt a chill go up his spine. if rhae had been afraid of aunt elaena because she was old, aegon had always been nervous about her because somehow she always managed to–
“i raised seven children,” she said, patting his arm. “but you weren’t one of them. i know when you’re frightened. you only ever come find me when you’re frightened.”
“if you wait much longer to spit it out, i may die,” she japed and aegon felt his mouth open in surprise. how rarely did he speak with her these days that those words would surprise him? he knew she had a cutting tongue, and spoke her mind. betha had liked her very well in the early days at court, before their children, before she’d begun to make friends, before elaena had grown too old to easily make her way across the red keep to take tea with her. and now she barely remembers betha…a face in a sea of people over a long life, i suppose. he would tell betha to visit her when he was done. if you wait much longer to spit it out, i may die.
“aunt elaena, what if they make me king?”
elaena targaryen frowned. “you have older brothers.”
“aerion is dead, and aemon wears a maester’s chain. he did not say if he would put it aside for the crown. what if he doesn’t. what if i’m to be king? i don’t want to be king.”
“no man in his right mind should want to be a king.”
that made aegon smile, though he couldn’t say he was amused.
“if they make you king, they make you king. it’s an unfortunate thing–most kings don’t decide to be king. it happens to them. you’ll be part of that grand tradition.”
“yes but…but i’m not prepared. i was supposed to be a knight of the kingsguard.”
“and now you’re married with heirs and next in line for the throne after your brother who has none but you.”
aegon swallowed. “yes,” he said, his voice the uncomfortable midway point between a whisper and a murmur.
“what? speak up, boy.”
he cleared his throat. “yes, aunt.”
“that’s a good thing to be afraid of. kingship and your first foray of fatherhood. that was the last time, you know.”
“the last time what?”
“the last time you came to me frightened. i remember now.” she was smiling and there were gaps between some teeth where others had fallen from her gums. she seemed less addled as if she were able to pull the world together around her despite being barely able to see and hear. did she remember? or did she just guess–correctly–that as betha had taken to her birthing bed, aegon had gone to find his aunt who had born seven children, since his own mother and grandmother were long dead. “fear’s a good sign,” she continued. “a sign you’re not stupid. neither mad nor stupid. a good start to a reign.”
aegon tried to laugh.
“what if i am bad at it? what if i’m worse than aegon the unworthy and all the kingdoms spit upon my memory?”
“don’t worry about that. you’ll be dead,” elaena said dryly. “why do men always worry about how they’ll be remembered? i’ve never understood. daeron and conquering dorne, baelor and his sept, aegon and his manhood…daeron was the only one with a head on his shoulder and he was called daeron the good because of it. aim for that. or aim for no one remembering you so they’ll remember how odd it was you made it to your throne to begin with, youngest son of a youngest son that you are.”
“no. no buts. don’t worry about how the histories will write you. someone will always hate some king or another. that’s how it goes. do good. be good. serve. that’s what it is to be king–serving. some kings think it’s the other way around but they’re wrong. don’t be that arrogant, or you shan’t be a very good one. and you’re neither mad nor stupid. you have that as an advantage already. don’t squander it.”
“yes aunt,” aegon said. she made it sound so very easy, but that had always been aunt elaena. even when he’d been a boy, the way she’d spoken about the crown’s accounts, the kingdoms’ economy as though it were something even a child could master…how stunning she was. he’d only begun to realize as she’d grown too old and her mind had begun to fade.
“you won’t be alone,” she added. “you’ve your ser duncan to help keep your head on properly. and me so long as i’m alive, but you and i both know i shan’t last forever. and i’m sure betha will have her opinions. she’s always had them. it’s what i liked about her to begin with.”
“oh, i imagine her opinions won’t be going anywhere,” aegon laughed, though he didn’t truly feel humored. “but it all feels…well it’s no matter. perhaps aemon will shed his chain.”
“you and i both know he won’t,” elaena said, and her voice cut through the room, and aegon stiffened. “that boy’s headstrong. all of maekar’s boys were. comes from maekar himself, and dyanna. she was a stubborn one too. just like betha. he gave his word when he forged his chain and put aside his name. that’ll be that. you’ll be the next king. best to prepare yourself for that now.”
aegon took a deep breath. she was right of course. he remembered his grandfather saying something like that once. “always listen to elaena. she’s always right.”
they sat quietly for a time, and aegon staring vaguely out of the window. king aegon. aegon the fifth. aegon the unlikely. that’s how he’d be remembered, he was sure of it. youngest son of a youngest son. why do men always worry about how they’ll be remembered?
he heard a shuffling snore.
he glanced back at aunt elaena. her head had rolled forward and her pale eyes were closed and she had fallen asleep. aegon got to his feet and found a woolen wrap and wrapped it gently around her. she was old. he dreaded that she would catch a cold.