A feast for crows, p.35
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       A Feast for Crows, p.35

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

  “I had to know. What will happen in a year?”

  He put down his quill. “Redfort and Waynwood are old. One or both of them may die. Gilwood Hunter will be murdered by his brothers. Most likely by young Harlan, who arranged Lord Eon’s death. In for a penny, in for a stag, I always say. Belmore is corrupt and can be bought. Templeton I shall befriend. Bronze Yohn Royce will continue to be hostile, I fear, but so long as he stands alone he is not so much a threat.”

  “And Ser Lyn Corbray?”

  The candlelight was dancing in his eyes. “Ser Lyn will remain my implacable enemy. He will speak of me with scorn and loathing to every man he meets, and lend his sword to every secret plot to bring me down.”

  That was when her suspicion turned to certainty. “And how shall you reward him for this service?”

  Littlefinger laughed aloud. “With gold and boys and promises, of course. Ser Lyn is a man of simple tastes, my sweetling. All he likes is gold and boys and killing.”


  The king was pouting. “I want to sit on the Iron Throne,” he told her. “You always let Joff sit up there.”

  “Joffrey was twelve.”

  “But I’m the king. The throne belongs to me.”

  “Who told you that?” Cersei took a deep breath, so Dorcas could lace her up more tightly. She was a big girl, much stronger than Senelle, though clumsier as well.

  Tommen’s face turned red. “No one told me.”

  “No one? Is that what you call your lady wife?” The queen could smell Margaery Tyrell all over this rebellion. “If you lie to me, I will have no choice but to send for Pate and have him beaten till he bleeds.” Pate was Tommen’s whipping boy, as he had been Joffrey’s. “Is that what you want?”

  “No,” the king muttered sullenly.

  “Who told you?”

  He shuffled his feet. “Lady Margaery.” He knew better than to call her queen in his mother’s hearing.

  “That is better. Tommen, I have grave matters to decide, matters that you are far too young to understand. I do not need a silly little boy fidgeting on the throne behind me and distracting me with childish questions. I suppose Margaery thinks you ought to be at my council meetings too?”

  “Yes,” he admitted. “She says I have to learn to be king.”

  “When you are older, you can attend as many councils as you wish,” Cersei told him. “I promise you, you will soon grow sick of them. Robert used to doze through the sessions.” When he troubled to attend at all. “He preferred to hunt and hawk, and leave the tedium to old Lord Arryn. Do you remember him?”

  “He died of a bellyache.”

  “So he did, poor man. As you are so eager to learn, perhaps you should learn the names of all the kings of Westeros and the Hands who served them. You may recite them to me on the morrow.”

  “Yes, Mother,” he said meekly.

  “That’s my good boy.” The rule was hers; Cersei did not mean to give it up until Tommen came of age. I waited, so can he. I waited half my life. She had played the dutiful daughter, the blushing bride, the pliant wife. She had suffered Robert’s drunken groping, Jaime’s jealousy, Renly’s mockery, Varys with his titters, Stannis endlessly grinding his teeth. She had contended with Jon Arryn, Ned Stark, and her vile, treacherous, murderous dwarf brother, all the while promising herself that one day it would be her turn. If Margaery Tyrell thinks to cheat me of my hour in the sun, she had bloody well think again.

  Still, it was an ill way to break her fast, and Cersei’s day did not soon improve. She spent the rest of the morning with Lord Gyles and his ledger books, listening to him cough about stars and stags and dragons. After him Lord Waters arrived, to report that the first three dromonds were nearing completion and beg for more gold to finish them in the splendor they deserved. The queen was pleased to grant him his request. Moon Boy capered as she took her midday meal with members of the merchant guilds and listened to them complain about sparrows wandering the streets and sleeping in the squares. I may need to use the gold cloaks to chase these sparrows from the city, she was thinking, when Pycelle intruded.

  The Grand Maester had been especially querulous in council of late. At the last session he had complained bitterly about the men that Aurane Waters had chosen to captain her new dromonds. Waters meant to give the ships to younger men, whilst Pycelle argued for experience, insisting that the commands should go to those captains who had survived the fires of the Blackwater. “Seasoned men of proven loyalty,” he called them. Cersei called them old, and sided with Lord Waters. “The only thing these captains proved was that they know how to swim,” she’d said. “No mother should outlive her children, and no captain should outlive his ship.” Pycelle had taken the rebuke with ill grace.

  He seemed less choleric today, and even managed a sort of tremulous smile. “Your Grace, glad tidings,” he announced. “Wyman Manderly has done as you commanded, and beheaded Lord Stannis’s onion knight.”

  “We know this for a certainty?”

  “The man’s head and hands have been mounted above the walls of White Harbor. Lord Wyman avows this, and the Freys confirm. They have seen the head there, with an onion in its mouth. And the hands, one marked by his shortened fingers.”

  “Very good,” said Cersei. “Send a bird to Manderly and inform him that his son will be returned forthwith, now that he has demonstrated his loyalty.” White Harbor would soon return to the king’s peace, and Roose Bolton and his bastard son were closing in on Moat Cailin from south and north. Once the Moat was theirs, they would join their strength and clear the ironmen out of Torrhen’s Square and Deepwood Motte as well. That should win them the allegiance of Ned Stark’s remaining bannermen when the time came to march against Lord Stannis.

  To the south, meanwhile, Mace Tyrell had raised a city of tents outside Storm’s End and had two dozen mangonels flinging stones against the castle’s massive walls, thus far to small effect. Lord Tyrell the warrior, the queen mused. His sigil ought to be a fat man sitting on his arse.

  That afternoon the dour Braavosi envoy turned up for his audience. Cersei had put him off for a fortnight and would have gladly put him off another year, but Lord Gyles claimed he could no longer deal with the man… though the queen was starting to wonder if Gyles was capable of doing anything but coughing.

  Noho Dimittis, the Braavosi named himself. An irritating name for an irritating man. His voice was irritating too. Cersei shifted in her seat as he went on, wondering how long she must endure his hectoring. Behind her loomed the Iron Throne, its barbs and blades throwing twisted shadows across the floor. Only the king or his Hand could sit upon the throne itself. Cersei sat by its foot, in a seat of gilded wood piled with crimson cushions.

  When the Braavosi paused for breath, she saw her chance. “This is more properly a matter for our lord treasurer.”

  That answer did not please the noble Noho, it would seem. “I have spoken with Lord Gyles six times. He coughs at me and makes excuses, Your Grace, but the gold is not forthcoming.”

  “Speak to him a seventh time,” Cersei suggested pleasantly. “The number seven is sacred to our gods.”

  “It pleases Your Grace to make a jest, I see.”

  “When I make a jest I smile. Do you see me smiling? Do you hear laughter? I assure you, when I make a jest, men laugh.”

  “King Robert—”

  “—is dead,” she said sharply. “The Iron Bank will have its gold when this rebellion has been put down.”

  He had the insolence to scowl at her. “Your Grace—”

  “This audience is at an end.” Cersei had suffered quite enough for one day. “Ser Meryn, show the noble Noho Dimittis to the door. Ser Osmund, you may escort me back to my apartments.” Her guests would soon arrive, and she had to bathe and change. Supper promised to be a tedious affair as well. It was hard work to rule a kingdom, much less seven of them.

  Ser Osmund Kettleblack fell in beside her on the steps, tall and lean in his Kingsguard whites. When Cersei
was certain they were quite alone, she slid her arm through his. “How is your little brother faring, pray?”

  Ser Osmund looked uneasy. “Ah… well enough, only…”

  “Only?” The queen let a hint of anger edge her words. “I must confess, I am running short of patience with dear Osney. It is past time he broke in that little filly. I named him Tommen’s sworn shield so he could spend part of every day in Margaery’s company. He should have plucked the rose by now. Is the little queen blind to his charms?”

  “His charms is fine. He’s a Kettleblack, ain’t he? Begging your pardon.” Ser Osmund ran his fingers through his oily black hair. “It’s her that’s the trouble.”

  “And why is that?” The queen had begun to nurse doubts about Ser Osney. Perhaps another man would have been more to Margaery’s liking. Aurane Waters, with that silvery hair, or a big strapping fellow like Ser Tallad. “Would the maid prefer someone else? Does your brother’s face displease her?”

  “She likes his face. She touched his scars two days ago, he told me. ‘What woman gave you these?’ she asked. Osney never said it was a woman, but she knew. Might be someone told her. She’s always touching him when they talk, he says. Straightening the clasp on his cloak, brushing back his hair, and like that. One time at the archery butts she had him show her how to hold a longbow, so he had to put his arms around her. Osney tells her bawdy jests, and she laughs and comes back with ones that are even bawdier. No, she wants him, that’s plain, but…”

  “But?” Cersei prompted.

  “They are never alone. The king’s with them most all the time, and when he’s not, there’s someone else. Two of her ladies share her bed, different ones every night. Two others bring her breakfast and help her dress. She prays with her septa, reads with her cousin Elinor, sings with her cousin Alla, sews with her cousin Megga. When she’s not off hawking with Janna Fossoway and Merry Crane, she’s playing come-into-my-castle with that little Bulwer girl. She never goes riding but she takes a tail, four or five companions and a dozen guards at least. And there’s always men about her, even in the Maidenvault.”

  “Men.” That was something. That had possibilities. “What men are these, pray tell?”

  Ser Osmund shrugged. “Singers. She’s a fool for singers and jugglers and such. Knights, come round to moon over her cousins. Ser Tallad’s the worst, Osney says. That big oaf don’t seem to know if it’s Elinor or Alla he wants, but he knows he wants her awful bad. The Redwyne twins come calling too. Slobber brings flowers and fruit, and Horror’s taken up the lute. To hear Osney tell it, you could make a sweeter sound strangling a cat. The Summer Islander’s always underfoot as well.”

  “Jalabhar Xho?” Cersei gave a derisive snort. “Begging her for gold and swords to win his homeland back, most like.” Beneath his jewels and feathers, Xho was little more than a wellborn beggar. Robert could have put an end to his importuning for good with one firm “No,” but the notion of conquering the Summer Isles had appealed to her drunken lout of a husband. No doubt he dreamt of brown-skinned wenches naked beneath feathered cloaks, with nipples black as coal. So instead of “No,” Robert always told Xho, “Next year,” though somehow next year never came.

  “I couldn’t say if he was begging, Your Grace,” Ser Osmund answered. “Osney says he’s teaching them the Summer Tongue. Not Osney, the quee — the filly and her cousins.”

  “A horse that speaks the Summer Tongue would make a great sensation,” the queen said dryly. “Tell your brother to keep his spurs well honed. I shall find some way for him to mount his filly soon, you may rely on that.”

  “I’ll tell him, Your Grace. He’s eager for that ride, don’t think he ain’t. She’s a pretty little thing, that filly.”

  It is me he’s eager for, fool, the queen thought. All he wants of Margaery is the lordship between her legs. As fond as she was of Osmund, at times he seemed as slow as Robert. I hope his sword is quicker than his wits. The day may come that Tommen has some need of it.

  They were crossing beneath the shadow of the broken Tower of the Hand when the sound of cheers swept over them. Across the yard, some squire had made a pass at the quintain and sent the crossarm spinning. The cheers were being led by Margaery Tyrell and her hens. A lot of uproar for very little. You would think the boy had won a tourney. Then she was startled to see that it was Tommen on the courser, clad all in gilded plate.

  The queen had little choice but to don a smile and go to see her son. She reached him as the Knight of Flowers was helping him from his horse. The boy was breathless with excitement. “Did you see?” he was asking everyone. “I did it just the way Ser Loras said. Did you see, Ser Osney?”

  “I did,” said Osney Kettleblack. “A pretty sight.”

  “You have a better seat than me, sire,” put in Ser Dermot.

  “I broke the lance too. Ser Loras, did you hear it?”

  “As loud as a crack of thunder.” A rose of jade and gold clasped Ser Loras’s white cloak at the shoulder, and the wind was riffling artfully through his brown locks. “You rode a splendid course, but once is not enough. You must do it again upon the morrow. You must ride every day, until every blow lands true and straight, and your lance is as much a part of you as your arm.”

  “I want to.”

  “You were glorious.” Margaery went to one knee, kissed the king upon his cheek, and put an arm around him. “Brother, take care,” she warned Loras. “My gallant husband will be unhorsing you in a few more years, I think.” Her three cousins all agreed, and the wretched little Bulwer girl began to hop about, chanting, “Tommen will be the champion, the champion, the champion.”

  “When he is a man grown,” said Cersei.

  Their smiles withered like roses kissed by frost. The pock-faced old septa was the first to bend her knee. The rest followed, save for the little queen and her brother.

  Tommen did not seem to notice the sudden chill in the air. “Mother, did you see me?” he burbled happily. “I broke my lance on the shield, and the bag never hit me!”

  “I was watching from across the yard. You did very well, Tommen. I would expect no less of you. Jousting is in your blood. One day you shall rule the lists, as your father did.”

  “No man will stand before him.” Margaery Tyrell gave the queen a coy smile. “But I never knew that King Robert was so accomplished at the joust. Pray tell us, Your Grace, what tourneys did he win? What great knights did he unseat? I know the king should like to hear about his father’s victories.”

  A flush crept up Cersei’s neck. The girl had caught her out. Robert Baratheon had been an indifferent jouster, in truth. During tourneys he had much preferred the mêlée, where he could beat men bloody with blunted axe or hammer. It had been Jaime she had been thinking of when she spoke. It is not like me to forget myself. “Robert won the tourney of the Trident,” she had to say. “He overthrew Prince Rhaegar and named me his queen of love and beauty. I am surprised you do not know that story, good-daughter.” She gave Margaery no time to frame a reply. “Ser Osmund, help my son from his armor, if you would be so good. Ser Loras, walk with me. I need a word with you.”

  The Knight of Flowers had no recourse but to follow at her heels like the puppy he was. Cersei waited until they were on the serpentine steps before she said, “Whose notion was that, pray?”

  “My sister’s,” he admitted. “Ser Tallad, Ser Dermot, and Ser Portifer were riding at the quintain, and the queen suggested that His Grace might like to have a turn.”

  He calls her that to irk me. “And your part?”

  “I helped His Grace to don his armor and showed him how to couch his lance,” he answered.

  “That horse was much too large for him. What if he had fallen off? What if the sandbag had smashed his head in?”

  “Bruises and bloody lips are all part of being a knight.”

  “I begin to understand why your brother is a cripple.” That wiped the smile off his pretty face, she was pleased to see. “Perhaps my brother failed to
explain your duties to you, ser. You are here to protect my son from his enemies. Training him for knighthood is the province of the master-at-arms.”

  “The Red Keep has had no master-at-arms since Aron Santagar was slain,” Ser Loras said, with a hint of reproach in his voice. “His Grace is almost nine, and eager to learn. At his age he should be a squire. Someone has to teach him.”

  Someone will, but it will not be you. “Pray, who did you squire for, ser?” she asked sweetly. “Lord Renly, was it not?”

  “I had that honor.”

  “Yes, I thought as much.” Cersei had seen how tight the bonds grew between squires and the knights they served. She did not want Tommen growing close to Loras Tyrell. The Knight of Flowers was no sort of man for any boy to emulate. “I have been remiss. With a realm to rule, a war to fight, and a father to mourn, somehow I overlooked the crucial matter of naming a new master-at-arms. I shall rectify that error at once.”

  Ser Loras pushed back a brown curl that had fallen across his forehead. “Your Grace will not find any man half so skilled with sword and lance as I.”

  Humble, aren’t we? “Tommen is your king, not your squire. You are to fight for him and die for him, if need be. No more.”

  She left him on the drawbridge that spanned the dry moat with its bed of iron spikes and entered Maegor’s Holdfast alone. Where am I to find a master-at-arms? she wondered as she climbed to her apartments. Having refused Ser Loras, she dare not turn to any of the Kingsguard knights; that would be salt in the wound, certain to anger Highgarden. Ser Tallad? Ser Dermot? There must be someone. Tommen was growing fond of his new sworn shield, but Osney was proving himself less capable than she had hoped in the matter of Maid Margaery, and she had a different office in mind for his brother Osfryd. It was rather a pity that the Hound had gone rabid. Tommen had always been frightened of Sandor Clegane’s harsh voice and burned face, and Clegane’s scorn would have been the perfect antidote to Loras Tyrell’s simpering chivalry.

  Aron Santagar was Dornish, Cersei recalled. I could send to Dorne. Centuries of blood and war lay between Sunspear and Highgarden. Yes, a Dornishman might suit my needs admirably. There must be some good swords in Dorne.

  When she entered her solar, Cersei found Lord Qyburn reading in a window seat. “If it please Your Grace, I have reports.”

  “More plots and treasons?” Cersei asked. “I have had a long and tiring day. Tell me quickly.”

  He smiled sympathetically. “As you wish. There is talk that the Archon of Tyrosh has offered terms to Lys, to end their present trade war. It had been rumored that Myr was about to enter the war on the Tyroshi side, but without the Golden Company the Myrish did not believe they…”

  “What the Myrish believe does not concern me.” The Free Cities were always fighting one another. Their endless betrayals and alliances meant little and less to Westeros. “Do you have any news of more import?”

  “The slave revolt in Astapor has spread to Meereen, it would seem. Sailors off a dozen ships speak of dragons…”

  “Harpies. It is harpies in Meereen.” She remembered that from somewhere. Meereen was at the far end of the world, out east beyond Valyria. “Let the slaves revolt. Why should I care? We keep no slaves in Westeros. Is that all you have for me?”

  “There is some news from Dorne that Your Grace may find of more interest. Prince Doran has imprisoned Ser Daemon Sand, a bastard who once squired for the Red Viper.”

  “I recall him.” Ser Daemon had been amongst the Dornish knights who had accompanied Prince Oberyn to King’s Landing. “What did he do?”

  “He demanded that Prince Oberyn’s daughters be set free.”

  “More fool him.”

  “Also,” Lord Qyburn said, “the daughter of the Knight of Spottswood was betrothed quite unexpectedly to Lord Estermont, our friends in Dorne inform us. She was sent to Greenstone that very night, and it is said she and Estermont have already wed.”

  “A bastard in the belly would explain that.” Cersei toyed with a lock of her hair. “How old is the blushing bride?”

  “Three-and-twenty, Your Grace. Whereas Lord Estermont—”

  “—must be seventy. I am aware of that.” The Estermonts were her good-kin through Robert, whose father had taken one of them to wife in what must have been a fit of lust or madness. By the time Cersei wed the king, Robert’s lady mother was long dead, though both of her brothers had turned up for the wedding and stayed for half a year. Robert had later insisted on returning the courtesy with a visit to Estermont, a mountainous little island off Cape Wrath. The dank and dismal fortnight Cersei spent at Greenstone, the seat of House Estermont, was the longest of her young life. Jaime dubbed the castle “Greenshit” at first sight, and soon had Cersei doing it too. Elsewise she passed her days watching her royal husband hawk, hunt, and drink with his uncles, and bludgeon various male cousins senseless in Greenshit’s yard.

  There had been a female cousin too, a chunky little widow with breasts as big as melons whose husband and father had both died at Storm’s End during the siege. “Her father was good to me,” Robert told her, “and she and I would play together when the two of us were small.” It did not take him long to start playing with her again. As soon as Cersei closed her eyes, the king would steal off to console the poor lonely creature. One night she had Jaime follow him, to confirm her suspicions. When her brother returned he asked her if she wanted Robert dead. “No,” she had replied, “I want him horned.” She liked to think that was the night when Joffrey was conceived.

  “Eldon Estermont has taken a wife fifty years his junior,” she said to Qyburn. “Why should that concern me?”

  He shrugged. “I do not say it should… but Daemon Sand and this Santagar girl were both close to Prince Doran’s own daughter, Arianne, or so the Dornishmen would have us believe. Perhaps it means little or less, but I thought Your Grace should know.”

  “Now I do.” She was losing patience. “Do you have more?”

  “One more thing. A trifling matter.” He gave her an apologetic smile and told her of a puppet show that had recently become popular amongst the city’s smallfolk; a puppet show wherein the kingdom of the beasts was ruled by a pride of haughty lions. “The puppet lions grow greedy and arrogant as this treasonous tale proceeds, until they begin to devour their own subjects. When the noble stag makes objection, the lions devour him as well, and roar that it is their right as the mightiest of beasts.”

  “And is that the end of it?” Cersei asked, amused. Looked at in the right
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