A feast for crows, p.24
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       A Feast for Crows, p.24

         Part #4 of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin
 

  “Half his life? He cannot be more than twenty.”

  “Two-and-twenty, and what of it? Father was not even one-and-twenty when Aerys Targaryen named him Hand. It is past time Tommen had some young men about him in place of all these wrinkled greybeards. Aurane is strong and vigorous.”

  Strong and vigorous and handsome, Jaime thought… she’s been fucking Lancel and Osmund Kettleblack and Moon Boy for all I know… “Paxter Redwyne would be a better choice. He commands the largest fleet in Westeros. Aurane Waters could command a skiff, but only if you bought him one.”

  “You are a child, Jaime. Redwyne is Tyrell’s bannerman, and nephew to that hideous grandmother of his. I want none of Lord Tyrell’s creatures on my council.”

  “Tommen’s council, you mean.”

  “You know what I mean.”

  Too well. “I know that Aurane Waters is a bad idea, and Hallyne is a worse one. As for Qyburn… gods be good, Cersei, he rode with Vargo Hoat. The Citadel stripped him of his chain!”

  “The grey sheep. Qyburn has made himself most useful to me. And he is loyal, which is more than I can say of mine own kin.”

  The crows will feast upon us all if you go on this way, sweet sister. “Cersei, listen to yourself. You are seeing dwarfs in every shadow and making foes of friends. Uncle Kevan is not your enemy. I am not your enemy.”

  Her face twisted in fury. “I begged you for your help. I went down on my knees to you, and you refused me!”

  “My vows…”

  “… did not stop you slaying Aerys. Words are wind. You could have had me, but you chose a cloak instead. Get out.”

  “Sister…”

  “Get out, I said. I am sick of looking at that ugly stump of yours. Get out!” To speed him on his way, she heaved her wine cup at his head. She missed, but Jaime took the hint.

  Evenfall found him sitting alone in the common room of White Sword Tower, with a cup of Dornish red and the White Book. He was turning pages with the stump of his sword hand when the Knight of Flowers entered, removed his cloak and swordbelt and hung them on a wall peg next to Jaime’s.

  “I saw you in the yard today,” said Jaime. “You rode well.”

  “Better than well, surely.” Ser Loras poured himself a cup of wine, and took a seat across the half-moon table.

  “A more modest man might have answered ‘My lord is too kind,’ or ‘I had a good mount.’”

  “The horse was adequate, and my lord is as kind as I am modest.” Loras waved at the book. “Lord Renly always said that books were for maesters.”

  “This one is for us. The history of every man who has ever worn a white cloak is written here.”

  “I have glanced at it. The shields are pretty. I prefer books with more illuminations. Lord Renly owned a few with drawings that would turn a septon blind.”

  Jaime had to smile. “There’s none of that here, ser, but the histories will open your eyes. You would do well to know about the lives of those who went before.”

  “I do. Prince Aemon the Dragonknight, Ser Ryam Redwyne, the Greatheart, Barristan the Bold…”

  “… Gwayne Corbray, Alyn Connington, the Demon of Darry, aye. You will have heard of Lucamore Strong as well.”

  “Ser Lucamore the Lusty?” Ser Loras seemed amused. “Three wives and thirty children, was it? They cut his cock off. Shall I sing the song for you, my lord?”

  “And Ser Terrence Toyne?”

  “Bedded the king’s mistress and died screaming. The lesson is, men who wear white breeches need to keep them tightly laced.”

  “Gyles Greycloak? Orivel the Open-Handed?”

  “Gyles was a traitor, Orivel a coward. Men who shamed the white cloak. What is my lord suggesting?”

  “Little and less. Don’t take offense where none was meant, ser. How about Long Tom Costayne?”

  Ser Loras shook his head.

  “He was a Kingsguard knight for sixty years.”

  “When was that? I’ve never—”

  “Ser Donnel of Duskendale, then?”

  “I may have heard the name, but—”

  “Addison Hill? The White Owl, Michael Mertyns? Jeffory Norcross? They called him Neveryield. Red Robert Flowers? What can you tell me of them?”

  “Flowers is a bastard name. So is Hill.”

  “Yet both men rose to command the Kingsguard. Their tales are in the book. Rolland Darklyn is in here too. The youngest man ever to serve in the Kingsguard, until me. He was given his cloak on a battlefield and died within an hour of donning it.”

  “He can’t have been very good.”

  “Good enough. He died, but his king lived. A lot of brave men have worn the white cloak. Most have been forgotten.”

  “Most deserve to be forgotten. The heroes will always be remembered. The best.”

  “The best and the worst.” So one of us is like to live in song. “And a few who were a bit of both. Like him.” He tapped the page he had been reading.

  “Who?” Ser Loras craned his head around to see. “Ten black pellets on a scarlet field. I do not know those arms.”

  “They belonged to Criston Cole, who served the first Viserys and the second Aegon.” Jaime closed the White Book. “They called him Kingmaker.”

  CERSEI

  Three wretched fools with a leather sack, the queen thought as they sank to their knees before her. The look of them did not encourage her. I suppose there is always a chance.

  “Your Grace,” said Qyburn quietly, “the small council…”

  “… will await my pleasure. It may be that we can bring them word of a traitor’s death.” Off across the city, the bells of Baelor’s Sept sang their song of mourning. No bells will ring for you, Tyrion, Cersei thought. I shall dip your head in tar and give your twisted body to the dogs. “Off your knees,” she told the would-be lords. “Show me what you’ve brought me.”

  They rose; three ugly men, and ragged. One had a boil on his neck, and none had washed in half a year. The prospect of raising such to lordship amused her. I could seat them next to Margaery at feasts. When the chief fool undid the drawstring on the sack and plunged his hand inside, the smell of decay filled her audience chamber like some rank rose. The head he pulled out was grey-green and crawling with maggots. It smells like Father. Dorcas gasped, and Jocelyn covered her mouth and retched.

  The queen considered her prize, unflinching. “You’ve killed the wrong dwarf,” she said at last, grudging every word.

  “We never did,” one of the fools dared to say. “This is got to be him, ser. A dwarf, see. He’s rotted some, is all.”

  “He has also grown a new nose,” Cersei observed. “A rather bulbous one, I’d say. Tyrion’s nose was hacked off in a battle.”

  The three fools exchanged a look. “No one told us,” said the one with head in hand. “This one come walking along as bold as you please, some ugly dwarf, so we thought…”

  “He said he were a sparrow,” the one with the boil added, “and you said he was lying.” That was directed at the third man.

  The queen was angry to think that she had kept her small council waiting for this mummer’s farce. “You have wasted my time and slain an innocent man. I should have your own heads off.” But if she did, the next man might hesitate and let the Imp slip the net. She would pile dead dwarfs ten feet high before she let that happen. “Remove yourselves from my sight.”

  “Aye, Your Grace,” said the boil. “We beg your pardons.”

  “Do you want the head?” asked the man who held it.

  “Give it to Ser Meryn. No, in the sack, you lackwit. Yes. Ser Osmund, see them out.”

  Trant removed the head and Kettleblack the headsmen, leaving only Lady Jocelyn’s breakfast as evidence of their visit. “Clean that up at once,” the queen commanded her. This was the third head that had been delivered to her. At least this one was a dwarf. The last had simply been an ugly child.

  “Someone will find the dwarf, never fear,” Ser Osmund assured her. “And when they do, we’
ll kill him good.”

  Will you? Last night Cersei had dreamed of the old woman, with her pebbly jowls and croaking voice. Maggy the Frog, they had called her in Lannisport. If Father had known what she said to me, he would have had her tongue out. Cersei had never told anyone, though, not even Jaime. Melara said that if we never spoke about her prophecies, we would forget them. She said that a forgotten prophecy couldn’t come true.

  “I have informers sniffing after the Imp everywhere, Your Grace,” said Qyburn. He had garbed himself in something very like maester’s robes, but white instead of grey, immaculate as the cloaks of the Kingsguard. Whorls of gold decorated his hem, sleeves, and stiff high collar, and a golden sash was tied about his waist. “Oldtown, Gulltown, Dorne, even the Free Cities. Wheresoever he might run, my whisperers will find him.”

  “You assume he left King’s Landing. He could be hiding in Baelor’s Sept for all we know, swinging on the bell ropes to make that awful din.” Cersei made a sour face and let Dorcas help her to her feet. “Come, my lord. My council awaits.” She took Qyburn by the arm as they made their way down the stairs. “Have you attended to that little task I set you?”

  “I have, Your Grace. I am sorry that it took so long. Such a large head. It took the beetles many hours to clean the flesh. By way of pardon, I have lined a box of ebony and silver with felt, to make a fitting presentation for the skull.”

  “A cloth sack would serve as well. Prince Doran wants his head. He won’t give a fig what sort of box it comes in.”

  The pealing of the bells was louder in the yard. He was only a High Septon. How long must we endure this? The ringing was more melodious than the Mountain’s screams had been, but…

  Qyburn seemed to sense what she was thinking. “The bells will stop at sunset, Your Grace.”

  “That will be a great relief. How can you know?”

  “Knowing is the nature of my service.”

  Varys had all of us believing he was irreplaceable. What fools we were. Once the queen let it become known that Qyburn had taken the eunuch’s place, the usual vermin had wasted no time in making themselves known to him, to trade their whispers for a few coins. It was the silver all along, not the Spider. Qyburn will serve us just as well. She was looking forward to the look on Pycelle’s face when Qyburn took his seat.

  A knight of the Kingsguard was always posted outside the doors of the council chambers when the small council was in session. Today it was Ser Boros Blount. “Ser Boros,” the queen said pleasantly, “you look quite grey this morning. Something you ate, perchance?” Jaime had made him the king’s food taster. A tasty task, but shameful for a knight. Blount hated it. His sagging jowls quivered as he held the door for them.

  The councillors quieted as she entered. Lord Gyles coughed by way of greeting, loud enough to wake Pycelle. The others rose, mouthing pleasantries. Cersei allowed herself the faintest of smiles. “My lords, I know you will forgive my lateness.”

  “We are here to serve Your Grace,” said Ser Harys Swyft. “It is our pleasure to anticipate your coming.”

  “You all know Lord Qyburn, I am sure.”

  Grand Maester Pycelle did not disappoint her. “Lord Qyburn?” he managed, purpling. “Your Grace, this… a maester swears sacred vows, to hold no lands or lordships…”

  “Your Citadel took away his chain,” Cersei reminded him. “If he is not a maester, he cannot be held to a maester’s vows. We called the eunuch lord as well, you may recall.”

  Pycelle sputtered. “This man is… he is unfit…”

  “Do not presume to speak to me of fitness. Not after the stinking mockery you made of my lord father’s corpse.”

  “Your Grace cannot think…” He raised a spotted hand, as if to ward off a blow. “The silent sisters removed Lord Tywin’s bowels and organs, drained his blood… every care was taken… his body was stuffed with salts and fragrant herbs…”

  “Oh, spare me the disgusting details. I smelled the results of your care. Lord Qyburn’s healing arts saved my brother’s life, and I do not doubt that he will serve the king more ably than that simpering eunuch. My lord, you know your fellow councillors?”

  “I would be a poor informer if I did not, Your Grace.” Qyburn seated himself between Orton Merryweather and Gyles Rosby.

  My councillors. Cersei had uprooted every rose, and all those beholden to her uncle and her brothers. In their places were men whose loyalty would be to her. She had even given them new styles, borrowed from the Free Cities; the queen would have no “masters” at court beside herself. Orton Merryweather was her justiciar, Gyles Rosby her lord treasurer. Aurane Waters, the dashing young Bastard of Driftmark, would be her grand admiral.

  And for her Hand, Ser Harys Swyft.

  Soft, bald, and obsequious, Swyft had an absurd little white puff of beard where most men had a chin. The blue bantam rooster of his House was worked across the front of his plush yellow doublet in beads of lapis. Over that he wore a mantle of blue velvet decorated with a hundred golden hands. Ser Harys had been thrilled by his appointment, too dim to realize that he was more hostage than Hand. His daughter was her uncle’s wife, and Kevan loved his chinless lady, flat-chested and chicken-legged as she was. So long as she had Ser Harys in hand, Kevan Lannister must needs think twice about opposing her. To be sure, a good-father is not the ideal hostage, but better a flimsy shield than none.

  “Will the king be joining us?” asked Orton Merryweather.

  “My son is playing with his little queen. For the moment, his idea of kingship is stamping papers with the royal seal. His Grace is still too young to comprehend affairs of state.”

  “And our valiant Lord Commander?”

  “Ser Jaime is at his armorer’s being fitted for a hand. I know we were all tired of that ugly stump. And I daresay he would find these proceedings as tiresome as Tommen.” Aurane Waters chuckled at that. Good, Cersei thought, the more they laugh, the less he is a threat. Let them laugh. “Do we have wine?”

  “We do, Your Grace.” Orton Merryweather was not a comely man, with his big lumpish nose and shock of unruly reddish-orange hair, but he was never less than courteous. “We have Dornish red and Arbor gold, and a fine sweet hippocras from Highgarden.”

  “The gold, I think. I find Dornish wines as sour as the Dornish.” As Merryweather filled her cup, Cersei said, “I suppose we had as well begin with them.”

  Grand Maester Pycelle’s lips were still quivering, yet somehow he found his tongue. “As you command. Prince Doran has taken his brother’s unruly bastards into custody, yet Sunspear still seethes. The prince writes that he cannot hope to calm the waters until he receives the justice that was promised him.”

  “To be sure.” A tiresome creature, this prince. “His long wait is almost done. I am sending Balon Swann to Sunspear, to deliver him the head of Gregor Clegane.” Ser Balon would have another task as well, but that part was best left unsaid.

  “Ah.” Ser Harys Swyft fumbled at his funny little beard with thumb and forefinger. “He is dead then? Ser Gregor?”

  “I would think so, my lord,” Aurane Waters said dryly. “I am told that removing the head from the body is often mortal.”

  Cersei favored him with a smile; she liked a bit of wit, so long as she was not its target. “Ser Gregor perished of his wounds, just as Grand Maester Pycelle foretold.”

  Pycelle harrumphed and eyed Qyburn sourly. “The spear was poisoned. No man could have saved him.”

  “So you said. I recall it well.” The queen turned to her Hand. “What were you speaking of when I arrived, Ser Harys?”

  “Sparrows, Your Grace. Septon Raynard says there may be as many as two thousand in the city, and more arriving every day. Their leaders preach of doom and demon worship…”

  Cersei took a taste of wine. Very nice. “And long past time, wouldn’t you agree? What would you call this red god that Stannis worships, if not a demon? The Faith should oppose such evil.” Qyburn had reminded her of that, the clever man. “Our la
te High Septon let too much pass, I fear. Age had dimmed his sight and sapped his strength.”

  “He was an old done man, Your Grace.” Qyburn smiled at Pycelle. “His passing should not have surprised us. No man can ask for more than to die peacefully in his sleep, full of years.”

  “No,” said Cersei, “but we must hope that his successor is more vigorous. My friends upon the other hill tell me that it will most like be Torbert or Raynard.”

  Grand Maester Pycelle cleared his throat. “I have friends among the Most Devout as well, and they speak of Septon Ollidor.”

  “Do not discount this man Luceon,” Qyburn said. “Last night he feted thirty of the Most Devout on suckling pig and Arbor gold, and by day he hands out hardbread to the poor to prove his piety.”

  Aurane Waters seemed as bored as Cersei by all this prattle about septons. Seen up close, his hair was more silvery than gold, and his eyes were grey-green where Prince Rhaegar’s had been purple. Even so, the resemblance… She wondered if Waters would shave his beard for her. Though he was ten years her junior, he wanted her; Cersei could see it in the way he looked at her. Men had been looking at her that way since her breasts began to bud. Because I was so beautiful, they said, but Jaime was beautiful as well, and they never looked at him that way. When she was small she would sometimes don her brother’s clothing as a lark. She was always startled by how differently men treated her when they thought that she was Jaime. Even Lord Tywin himself…

  Pycelle and Merryweather were still quibbling about who the new High Septon was like to be. “One will serve as well as another,” the queen announced abruptly, “but whosoever dons the crystal crown must pronounce an anathema upon the Imp.” This last High Septon had been conspicuously silent regarding Tyrion. “As for these pink sparrows, so long as they preach no treason they are the Faith’s problem, not ours.”

  Lord Orton and Ser Harys murmured agreement. Gyles Rosby’s attempt to do the same dissolved into a fit of coughing. Cersei turned away in distaste as he was hacking up a gob of bloody phlegm. “Maester, have you brought the letter from the Vale?”

  “I have, Your Grace.” Pycelle plucked it from his pile of papers and smoothed it out. “It is a declaration, rather than a letter. Signed at Runestone by Bronze Yohn Royce, Lady Waynwood, Lords Hunter, Redfort, and Belmore, and Symond Templeton, the Knight of Ninestars. All have affixed their seals. They write—”

  A deal of rubbish. “My lords may read the letter if they wish. Royce and these others are massing men below the Eyrie. They mean to remove Littlefinger as Lord Protector of the Vale, forcibly if need be. The question is, ought we allow this?”

  “Does Lord Baelish seek our help?” asked Harys Swyft.

  “Not as yet. In truth, he seems quite unconcerned. His last letter mentions the rebels only briefly before beseeching me to ship him some old tapestries of Robert’s.”

  Ser Harys fingered his chin beard. “And these lords of the declaration, do they appeal to the king to take a hand?”

  “They do not.”

  “Then… mayhaps we need do nothing.”

  “A war in the Vale would be most tragic,” said Pycelle.

  “War?” Orton Merryweather laughed. “Lord Baelish is a most amusing man, but one does not fight a war with witticisms. I doubt there will be bloodshed. And does it matter who is regent for little Lord Robert, so long as the Vale remits its taxes?”

  No, Cersei decided. If truth be told, Littlefinger had been more use at court. He had a gift for finding gold, and never coughed. “Lord Orton has convinced me. Maester Pycelle, instruct these Lords Declarant that no harm must come to Petyr. Elsewise, the crown is content with whatever dispositions they might make for the governance of the Vale during Robert Arryn’s minority.”

  “Very good, Your Grace.”

  “Might we discuss the fleet?” asked Aurane Waters. “Fewer than a dozen of our ships survived the inferno on the Blackwater. We must needs restore our strength at sea.”

  Merryweather nodded. “Strength at sea is most essential.”

  “Could we make use of the ironmen?” asked Orton Merryweather. “The enemy of our enemy? What would the Seastone Chair want of us as the price of an alliance?”

  “They want the north,” Grand Maester Pycelle said, “which our queen’s noble father promised to House Bolton.”

  “How inconvenient,” said Merryweather. “Still, the north is large. The lands could be divided. It need not be a permanent arrangement. Bolton might consent, so long as we assure him that our strength will be his once Stannis is destroyed.”

  “Balon Greyjoy is dead, I had heard,” said Ser Harys Swyft. “Do we know who rules the isles now? Did Lord Balon have a son?”

 
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