A feast for crows, p.25
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       A Feast for Crows, p.25

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

  “Leo?” coughed Lord Gyles. “Theo?”

  “Theon Greyjoy was raised at Winterfell, a ward of Eddard Stark,” Qyburn said. “He is not like to be a friend of ours.”

  “I had heard he was slain,” said Merryweather.

  “Was there only one son?” Ser Harys Swyft tugged upon his chin beard. “Brothers. There were brothers. Were there not?”

  Varys would have known, Cersei thought with irritation. “I do not propose to climb in bed with that sorry pack of squids. Their turn will come, once we have dealt with Stannis. What we require is our own fleet.”

  “I propose we build new dromonds,” said Aurane Waters. “Ten, to start with.”

  “Where is the coin to come from?” asked Pycelle.

  Lord Gyles took that as an invitation to begin coughing again. He brought up more pink spittle and dabbed it away with a square of red silk. “There is no…” he managed, before the coughing ate his words. “… no… we do not…”

  Ser Harys proved swift enough at least to grasp the meaning between the coughs. “The crown incomes have never been greater,” he objected. “Ser Kevan told me so himself.”

  Lord Gyles coughed. “… expenses… gold cloaks…”

  Cersei had heard his objections before. “Our lord treasurer is trying to say that we have too many gold cloaks and too little gold.” Rosby’s coughing had begun to vex her. Perhaps Garth the Gross would not have been so ill. “Though large, the crown incomes are not large enough to keep abreast of Robert’s debts. Accordingly, I have decided to defer our repayment of the sums owed the Holy Faith and the Iron Bank of Braavos until war’s end.” The new High Septon would doubtless wring his holy hands, and the Braavosi would squeak and squawk at her, but what of it? “The monies saved will be used for the building of our new fleet.”

  “Your Grace is prudent,” said Lord Merryweather. “This is a wise measure. And needed, until the war is done. I concur.”

  “And I,” said Ser Harys.

  “Your Grace,” Pycelle said in a quavering voice, “this will cause more trouble than you know, I fear. The Iron Bank…”

  “… remains on Braavos, far across the sea. They shall have their gold, maester. A Lannister pays his debts.”

  “The Braavosi have a saying too.” Pycelle’s jeweled chain clinked softly. “The Iron Bank will have its due, they say.”

  “The Iron Bank will have its due when I say they will. Until such time, the Iron Bank will wait respectfully. Lord Waters, commence the building of your dromonds.”

  “Very good, Your Grace.”

  Ser Harys shuffled through some papers. “The next matter… we have had a letter from Lord Frey putting forth some claims…”

  “How many lands and honors does that man want?” snapped the queen. “His mother must have had three teats.”

  “My lords may not know,” said Qyburn, “but in the winesinks and pot shops of this city, there are those who suggest that the crown might have been somehow complicit in Lord Walder’s crime.”

  The other councillors stared at him uncertainly. “Do you refer to the Red Wedding?” asked Aurane Waters. “Crime?” said Ser Harys. Pycelle cleared his throat noisily. Lord Gyles coughed.

  “These sparrows are especially outspoken,” warned Qyburn. “The Red Wedding was an affront to all the laws of gods and men, they say, and those who had a hand in it are damned.”

  Cersei was not slow to take his meaning. “Lord Walder must soon face the Father’s judgment. He is very old. Let the sparrows spit upon his memory. It has nought to do with us.”

  “No,” said Ser Harys. “No,” said Lord Merryweather. “No one could think so,” said Pycelle. Lord Gyles coughed.

  “A little spittle on Lord Walder’s tomb is not like to disturb the grave worms,” Qyburn agreed, “but it would also be useful if someone were to be punished for the Red Wedding. A few Frey heads would do much to mollify the north.”

  “Lord Walder will never sacrifice his own,” said Pycelle.

  “No,” mused Cersei, “but his heirs may be less squeamish. Lord Walder will soon do us the courtesy of dying, we can hope. What better way for the new Lord of the Crossing to rid himself of inconvenient half brothers, disagreeable cousins, and scheming sisters than by naming them the culprits?”

  “Whilst we await Lord Walder’s death, there is another matter,” said Aurane Waters. “The Golden Company has broken its contract with Myr. Around the docks I’ve heard men say that Lord Stannis has hired them and is bringing them across the sea.”

  “What would he pay them with?” asked Merryweather. “Snow? They are called the Golden Company. How much gold does Stannis have?”

  “Little enough,” Cersei assured him. “Lord Qyburn has spoken to the crew of that Myrish galley in the bay. They claim the Golden Company is making for Volantis. If they mean to cross to Westeros, they are marching in the wrong direction.”

  “Perhaps they grew weary of fighting on the losing side,” suggested Lord Merryweather.

  “There is that as well,” agreed the queen. “Only a blind man could fail to see our war is all but won. Lord Tyrell has Storm’s End invested. Riverrun is besieged by the Freys and my cousin Daven, our new Warden of the West. Lord Redwyne’s ships have passed through the Straits of Tarth and are moving swiftly up the coast. Only a few fishing boats remain on Dragonstone to oppose Redwyne’s landing. The castle may hold for some time, but once we have the port we can cut the garrison off from the sea. Then only Stannis himself will remain to vex us.”

  “If Lord Janos can be believed, he is trying to make common cause with the wildlings,” warned Grand Maester Pycelle.

  “Savages in skins,” declared Lord Merryweather. “Lord Stannis must be desperate indeed, to seek such allies.”

  “Desperate and foolish,” the queen agreed. “The northmen hate the wildlings. Roose Bolton should have no trouble winning them to our cause. A few have already joined up with his bastard son to help him clear the wretched ironmen from Moat Cailin and clear the way for Lord Bolton to return. Umber, Ryswell… I forget the other names. Even White Harbor is on the point of joining us. Its lord has agreed to marry both his granddaughters to our friends of Frey and open his port to our ships.”

  “I thought we had no ships,” Ser Harys said, confused.

  “Wyman Manderly was a loyal bannerman to Eddard Stark,” said Grand Maester Pycelle. “Can such a man be trusted?

  No one can be trusted. “He’s a fat old man, and frightened. However, he is proving stubborn on one point. He insists that he will not bend the knee until his heir has been returned to him.”

  “Do we have this heir?” asked Ser Harys.

  “He will be at Harrenhal, if he is still alive. Gregor Clegane took him captive.” The Mountain had not always been gentle with his prisoners, even those worth a goodly ransom. “If he is dead, I suppose we will need to send Lord Manderly the heads of those who killed him, with our most sincere apologies.” If one head was enough to appease a prince of Dorne, a bag of them should be more than adequate for a fat northman wrapped in sealskins.

  “Will not Lord Stannis seek to win the allegiance of White Harbor as well?” asked Grand Maester Pycelle.

  “Oh, he has tried. Lord Manderly has sent his letters on to us and replied with evasions. Stannis demands White Harbor’s swords and silver, for which he offers… well, nothing.” One day she must light a candle to the Stranger for carrying Renly off and leaving Stannis. If it had been the other way around, her life would have been harder. “Just this morning there was another bird. Stannis has sent his onion smuggler to treat with White Harbor on his behalf. Manderly has clapped the wretch inside a cell. He asks us what he should do with him.”

  “Send him here, that we might question him,” suggested Lord Merryweather. “The man might know much of value.”

  “Let him die,” said Qyburn. “His death will be a lesson to the north, to show them what becomes of traitors.”

  “I quite agree,” the q
ueen said. “I have instructed Lord Manderly to have his head off forthwith. That should put an end to any chance of White Harbor supporting Stannis.”

  “Stannis will need another Hand,” observed Aurane Waters with a chuckle. “The turnip knight, perhaps?”

  “A turnip knight?” said Ser Harys Swyft, confused. “Who is this man? I have not heard of him.”

  Waters did not reply, except to roll his eyes.

  “What if Lord Manderly should refuse?” asked Merryweather.

  “He dare not. The onion knight’s head is the coin he’ll need to buy his son’s life.” Cersei smiled. “The fat old fool may have been loyal to the Starks in his own way, but with the wolves of Winterfell extinguished—”

  “Your Grace has forgotten the Lady Sansa,” said Pycelle.

  The queen bristled. “I most certainly have not forgotten that little she-wolf.” She refused to say the girl’s name. “I ought to have shown her to the black cells as the daughter of a traitor, but instead I made her part of mine own household. She shared my hearth and hall, played with my own children. I fed her, dressed her, tried to make her a little less ignorant about the world, and how did she repay me for my kindness? She helped murder my son. When we find the Imp, we will find the Lady Sansa too. She is not dead… but before I am done with her, I promise you, she will be singing to the Stranger, begging for his kiss.”

  An awkward silence followed. Have they all swallowed their tongues? Cersei thought, with irritation. It was enough to make her wonder why she bothered with a council.

  “In any case,” the queen went on, “Lord Eddard’s younger daughter is with Lord Bolton, and will be wed to his son Ramsay as soon as Moat Cailin has fallen.” So long as the girl played her role well enough to cement their claim to Winterfell, neither of the Boltons would much care that she was actually some steward’s whelp tricked up by Littlefinger. “If the north must have a Stark, we’ll give them one.” She let Lord Merryweather fill her cup once again. “Another problem has arisen on the Wall, however. The brothers of the Night’s Watch have taken leave of their wits and chosen Ned Stark’s bastard son to be their Lord Commander.”

  “Snow, the boy is called,” Pycelle said unhelpfully.

  “I glimpsed him once at Winterfell,” the queen said, “though the Starks did their best to hide him. He looks very like his father.” Her husband’s by-blows had his look as well, though at least Robert had the grace to keep them out of sight. Once, after that sorry business with the cat, he had made some noises about bringing some baseborn daughter of his to court. “Do as you please,” she’d told him, “but you may find that the city is not a healthy place for a growing girl.” The bruise those words had won her had been hard to hide from Jaime, but they heard no more about the bastard girl. Catelyn Tully was a mouse, or she would have smothered this Jon Snow in his cradle. Instead, she’s left the filthy task to me. “Snow shares Lord Eddard’s taste for treason too,” she said. “The father would have handed the realm to Stannis. The son has given him lands and castles.”

  “The Night’s Watch is sworn to take no part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms,” Pycelle reminded them. “For thousands of years the black brothers have upheld that tradition.”

  “Until now,” said Cersei. “The bastard boy has written us to avow that the Night’s Watch takes no side, but his actions give the lie to his words. He has given Stannis food and shelter, yet has the insolence to plead with us for arms and men.”

  “An outrage,” declared Lord Merryweather. “We cannot allow the Night’s Watch to join its strength to that of Lord Stannis.”

  “We must declare this Snow a traitor and a rebel,” agreed Ser Harys Swyft. “The black brothers must remove him.”

  Grand Maester Pycelle nodded ponderously. “I propose that we inform Castle Black that no more men will be sent to them until such time as Snow is gone.”

  “Our new dromonds will need oarsmen,” said Aurane Waters. “Let us instruct the lords to send their poachers and thieves to me henceforth, instead of to the Wall.”

  Qyburn leaned forward with a smile. “The Night’s Watch defends us all from snarks and grumkins. My lords, I say that we must help the brave black brothers.”

  Cersei gave him a sharp look. “What are you saying?”

  “This,” Qyburn said. “For years now, the Night’s Watch has begged for men. Lord Stannis has answered their plea. Can King Tommen do less? His Grace should send the Wall a hundred men. To take the black, ostensibly, but in truth…”

  “… to remove Jon Snow from the command,” Cersei finished, delighted. I knew I was right to want him on my council. “That is just what we shall do.” She laughed. If this bastard boy is truly his father’s son, he will not suspect a thing. Perhaps he will even thank me, before the blade slides between his ribs. “It will need to be done carefully, to be sure. Leave the rest to me, my lords.” This was how an enemy should be dealt with: with a dagger, not a declaration. “We have done good work today, my lords. I thank you. Is there aught else?”

  “One last thing, Your Grace,” said Aurane Waters, in an apologetic tone. “I hesitate to take up the council’s time with trifles, but there has been some queer talk heard along the docks of late. Sailors from the east. They speak of dragons…”

  “… and manticores, no doubt, and bearded snarks?” Cersei chuckled. “Come back to me when you hear talk of dwarfs, my lord.” She stood, to signal that the meeting was at an end.

  A blustery autumn wind was blowing when Cersei left the council chambers, and bells of Blessed Baelor still sang their song of mourning off across the city. In the yard twoscore knights were hammering each other with sword and shield, adding to the din. Ser Boros Blount escorted the queen back to her apartments, where she found Lady Merryweather chuckling with Jocelyn and Dorcas. “What is it you all find so amusing?”

  “The Redwyne twins,” said Taena. “Both of them have fallen in love with Lady Margaery. They used to fight over which would be the next Lord of the Arbor. Now both of them want to join the Kingsguard, just to be near the little queen.”

  “The Redwynes have always had more freckles than wits.” It was a useful thing to know, though. If Horror or Slobber were to be found abed with Margaery… Cersei wondered if the little queen liked freckles. “Dorcas, fetch me Ser Osney Kettleblack.”

  Dorcas blushed. “As you command.”

  When the girl was gone, Taena Merryweather gave the queen a quizzical look. “Why did she turn so red?”

  “Love.” It was Cersei’s turn to laugh. “She fancies our Ser Osney.” He was the youngest Kettleblack, the clean-shaved one. Though he had the same black hair, hooked nose, and easy smile as his brother Osmund, one cheek bore three long scratches, courtesy of one of Tyrion’s whores. “She likes his scars, I think.”

  Lady Merryweather’s dark eyes shone with mischief. “Just so. Scars make a man look dangerous, and danger is exciting.”

  “You shock me, my lady,” the queen said, teasing. “If danger excites you so, why wed Lord Orton? We all love him, it is true, but still…” Petyr had once remarked that the horn of plenty that adorned House Merryweather’s arms suited Lord Orton admirably, since he had carrot-colored hair, a nose as bulbous as a beetroot, and pease porridge for wits.

  Taena laughed. “My lord is more bountiful than dangerous, this is so. Yet… I hope Your Grace will not think the less of me, but I did not come a maid entire to Orton’s bed.”

  You are all whores in the Free Cities, aren’t you? That was good to know; one day, she might be able to make use of it. “And pray, who was this lover who was so… full of danger?”

  Taena’s olive skin turned even darker as she blushed. “Oh, I should not have spoken. Your Grace will keep my secret, yes?”

  “Men have scars, women mysteries.” Cersei kissed her cheek. I will have his name out of you soon enough.

  When Dorcas returned with Ser Osney Kettleblack, the queen dismissed her ladies. “Come sit with me by the window, Ser Os
ney. Will you take a cup of wine?” She poured for them herself. “Your cloak is threadbare. I have a mind to put you in a new one.”

  “What, a white one? Who’s died?”

  “No one, as yet,” the queen said. “Is that your wish, to join your brother Osmund in our Kingsguard?”

  “I’d rather be the queen’s guard, if it please Your Grace.” When Osney grinned, the scars on his cheek turned bright red.

  Cersei’s fingers traced their path across his cheek. “You have a bold tongue, ser. You will make me forget myself again.”

  “Good.” Ser Osney caught her hand and kissed her fingers roughly. “My sweet queen.”

  “You are a wicked man,” the queen whispered, “and no true knight, I think.” She let him touch her breasts through the silk of her gown. “Enough.”

  “It isn’t. I want you.”

  “You’ve had me.”

  “Only once.” He grabbed her left breast again and gave it a clumsy squeeze that reminded her of Robert.

  “One good night for one good knight. You did me valiant service, and you had your reward.” Cersei walked her fingers up his laces. She could feel him stiffening through his breeches. “Was that a new horse you were riding in the yard yestermorn?”

  “The black stallion? Aye. A gift from my brother Osfryd. Midnight, I call him.”

  How wonderfully original. “A fine mount for a battle. For pleasure, though, there is nothing to compare to a gallop on a spirited young filly.” She gave him a smile and a squeeze. “Tell me true. Do you think our little queen is pretty?”

  Ser Osney drew back, wary. “I suppose. For a girl. I’d sooner have a woman.”

  “Why not both?” she whispered. “Pluck the little rose for me, and you will not find me to be ungrateful.”

  “The little… Margaery, you mean?” Ser Osney’s ardor was wilting in his breeches. “She’s the king’s wife. Wasn’t there some Kingsguard who lost his head for bedding the king’s wife?”

  “Ages ago.” She was his king’s mistress, not his wife, and his head was the only thing he did not lose. Aegon dismembered him piece by piece, and made the woman watch. Cersei did not want Osney dwelling on that ancient unpleasantness, however. “Tommen is not Aegon the Unworthy. Have no fear, he will do as I bid him. I mean for Margaery to lose her head, not you.”

  That gave him pause. “Her maidenhead, you mean?”

  “That too. Assuming she has one still.” She traced his scars again. “Unless you think Margaery would prove unresponsive to your… charms?”

  Osney gave her a wounded look. “She likes me well enough. Them cousins of hers are always teasing with me about my nose. How big it is, and all. The last time Megga did that, Margaery told them to stop and said I had a lovely face.”

  “There you are, then.”

  “There I am,” the man agreed, in a doubtful tone, “but where am I going to be if she… if I… after we…?”

  “… do the deed?” Cersei gave him a barbed smile. “Lying with a queen is treason. Tommen would have no choice but to send you to the Wall.”

  “The Wall?” he said with dismay.

  It was all she could do not to laugh. No, best not. Men hate being laughed at. “A black cloak would go well with your eyes, and that black hair of yours.”

  “No one returns from the Wall.”

  “You will. All you need to do is kill a boy.”

  “What boy?”

  “A bastard boy in league with Stannis. He’s young and green, and you’ll have a hundred men.”

  Kettleblack was afraid, she could smell it on him, but he was too proud to own up to that fear. Men are all alike. “I’ve killed more boys than I can count,” he insisted. “Once this boy is dead, I’d get my pardon from the king?”

  “That, and a lordship.” Unless Snow’s brothers hang you first. “A queen must have a consort. One who knows no fear.”

  “Lord Kettleblack?” A slow smile spread across his face, and his scars flamed red. “Aye, I like the sound o’ that. A lordly lord…”

  “… and fit to bed a queen.”

  He frowned. “The Wall is cold.”

  “And I am warm.” Cersei put her arms about his neck. “Bed a girl and kill a boy and I am yours. Do you have the courage?”

  Osney thought a moment before he nodded. “I am your man.”

  “You are, ser.” She kissed him, and let him have a little taste of tongue before she broke away. “Enough for now. The rest must wait. Will you dream of me tonight?”

  “Aye.” His voice was hoarse.

  “And when you’re abed with our Maid Margaery?” she asked him, teasing. “When you’re in her, will you dream of me then?”

  “I will,” swore Osney Kettleblack.

  “Good.”

  After he was gone, Cersei summoned Jocelyn to brush her hair out whilst she slipped off her shoes and stretched like a cat. I was made for this, she told herself. It was the sheer elegance of it that pleased her most. Even Mace Tyrell would not dare defend his darling daughter if she was caught in the act with the likes of Osney Kettleblack, and neither Stannis Baratheon nor Jon Snow would have cause to wonder why Osney was being sent to the Wall. She would see to it that Ser Osmund was the one to discover his brother with the little queen; that way the loyalty of the other two Kettleblacks need not be impugned. If Father could only see me now, he would not be so quick to speak of marrying me off again. A pity he’s so dead. Him and Robert, Jon Arryn, Ned Stark, Renly Baratheon, all dead. Only Tyrion remains, and not for long.

 
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