A feast for crows, p.36
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       A Feast for Crows, p.36

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

  light, it could be seen as a salutary lesson.

  “No, Your Grace. At the end a dragon hatches from an egg and devours all of the lions.”

  The ending took the puppet show from simple insolence to treason. “Witless fools. Only cretins would hazard their heads upon a wooden dragon.” She considered a moment. “Send some of your whisperers to these shows and make note of who attends. If any of them should be men of note, I would know their names.”

  “What will be done with them, if I may be so bold?”

  “Any men of substance shall be fined. Half their worth should be sufficient to teach them a sharp lesson and refill our coffers, without quite ruining them. Those too poor to pay can lose an eye, for watching treason. For the puppeteers, the axe.”

  “There are four. Perhaps Your Grace might allow me two of them for mine own purposes. A woman would be especially…”

  “I gave you Senelle,” the queen said sharply.

  “Alas. The poor girl is quite… exhausted.”

  Cersei did not like to think about that. The girl had come with her unsuspecting, thinking she was along to serve and pour. Even when Qyburn clapped the chain around her wrist, she had not seemed to understand. The memory still made the queen queasy. The cells were bitter cold. Even the torches shivered. And that foul thing screaming in the darkness… “Yes, you may take a woman. Two, if it please you. But first I will have names.”

  “As you command.” Qyburn withdrew.

  Outside, the sun was setting. Dorcas had prepared a bath for her. The queen was soaking pleasantly in the warm water and contemplating what she would say to her supper guests when Jaime came bursting through the door and ordered Jocelyn and Dorcas from the room. Her brother looked rather less than immaculate and had a smell of horse about him. He had Tommen with him too. “Sweet sister,” he said, “the king requires a word.”

  Cersei’s golden tresses floated in the bathwater. The room was steamy. A drop of sweat trickled down her cheek. “Tommen?” she said, in a dangerously soft voice. “What is it now?”

  The boy knew that tone. He shrank back.

  “His Grace wants his white courser on the morrow,” Jaime said. “For his jousting lesson.”

  She sat up in the tub. “There will be no jousting.”

  “Yes, there will.” Tommen puffed out his lower lip. “I have to ride every day.”

  “And you shall,” the queen declared, “once we have a proper master-at-arms to supervise your training.”

  “I don’t want a proper master-at-arms. I want Ser Loras.”

  “You make too much of that boy. Your little wife has filled your head with foolish notions of his prowess, I know, but Osmund Kettleblack is thrice the knight that Loras is.”

  Jaime laughed. “Not the Osmund Kettleblack I know.”

  She could have throttled him. Perhaps I need to command Ser Loras to allow Ser Osmund to unhorse him. That might chase the stars from Tommen’s eyes. Salt a slug and shame a hero, and they shrink right up. “I am sending for a Dornishman to train you,” she said. “The Dornish are the finest jousters in the realm.”

  “They are not,” said Tommen. “Anyway, I don’t want any stupid Dornishman, I want Ser Loras. I command it.”

  Jaime laughed. He is no help at all. Does he think this is amusing? The queen slapped the water angrily. “Must I send for Pate? You do not command me. I am your mother.”

  “Yes, but I’m the king. Margaery says that everyone has to do what the king says. I want my white courser saddled on the morrow so Ser Loras can teach me how to joust. I want a kitten too, and I don’t want to eat beets.” He crossed his arms.

  Jaime was still laughing. The queen ignored him. “Tommen, come here.” When he hung back, she sighed. “Are you afraid? A king should not show fear.” The boy approached the tub, his eyes downcast. She reached out and stroked his golden curls. “King or no, you are a little boy. Until you come of age, the rule is mine. You will learn to joust, I promise you. But not from Loras. The knights of the Kingsguard have more important duties than playing with a child. Ask the Lord Commander. Isn’t that so, ser?”

  “Very important duties.” Jaime smiled thinly. “Riding round the city walls, for an instance.”

  Tommen looked close to tears. “Can I still have a kitten?”

  “Perhaps,” the queen allowed. “So long as I hear no more nonsense about jousting. Can you promise me that?”

  He shuffled his feet. “Yes.”

  “Good. Now run along. My guests will be here shortly.”

  Tommen ran along, but before he left he turned back to say, “When I’m king in my own right, I’m going to outlaw beets.”

  Her brother shoved the door shut with his stump. “Your Grace,” he said, when he and Cersei were alone, “I was wondering. Are you drunk, or merely stupid?”

  She slapped the water once again, sending up another splash to wash across his feet. “Guard your tongue, or—”

  “—or what? Will you send me to inspect the city walls again?” He sat and crossed his legs. “Your bloody walls are fine. I’ve crawled over every inch of them and had a look at all seven of the gates. The hinges on the Iron Gate are rusted, and the King’s Gate and Mud Gate need to be replaced after the pounding Stannis gave them with his rams. The walls are as strong as they have ever been… but perchance Your Grace has forgotten that our friends of Highgarden are inside the walls?”

  “I forget nothing,” she told him, thinking of a certain gold coin, with a hand on one face and the head of a forgotten king on the other. How did some miserable wretch of a gaoler come to have such a coin hidden beneath his chamber pot? How does a man like Rugen come to have old gold from Highgarden?

  “This is the first I have heard of a new master-at-arms. You’ll need to look long and hard to find a better jouster than Loras Tyrell. Ser Loras is—”

  “I know what he is. I won’t have him near my son. You had best remind him of his duties.” Her bath was growing cool.

  “He knows his duties, and there’s no better lance—”

  “You were better, before you lost your hand. Ser Barristan, when he was young. Arthur Dayne was better, and Prince Rhaegar was a match for even him. Do not prate at me about how fierce the Flower is. He’s just a boy.” She was tired of Jaime balking her. No one had ever balked her lord father. When Tywin Lannister spoke, men obeyed. When Cersei spoke, they felt free to counsel her, to contradict her, even refuse her. It is all because I am a woman. Because I cannot fight them with a sword. They gave Robert more respect than they give me, and Robert was a witless sot. She would not suffer it, especially not from Jaime. I need to rid myself of him, and soon. Once upon a time she had dreamt that the two of them might rule the Seven Kingdoms side by side, but Jaime had become more of a hindrance than a help.

  Cersei rose from the bath. Water ran down her legs and trickled from her hair. “When I want your counsel I will ask for it. Leave me, ser. I must needs dress.”

  “Your supper guests, I know. What plot is this, now? There are so many I lose track.” His glance fell to the water beading in the golden hair between her legs.

  He still wants me. “Pining for what you’ve lost, brother?”

  Jaime raised his eyes. “I love you too, sweet sister. But you’re a fool. A beautiful golden fool.”

  The words stung. You called me kinder words at Greenstone, the night you planted Joff inside me, Cersei thought. “Get out.” She turned her back to him and listened to him leave, fumbling at the door with his stump.

  Whilst Jocelyn was making certain that all was in readiness for the supper, Dorcas helped the queen into her new gown. It had stripes of shiny green satin alternating with stripes of plush black velvet, and intricate black Myrish lace above the bodice. Myrish lace was costly, but it was necessary for a queen to look her best at all times, and her wretched washerwomen had shrunk several of her old gowns so they no longer fit. She would have whipped them for their carelessness, but Taena had urged her to be merc
iful. “The smallfolk will love you more if you are kind,” she had said, so Cersei had ordered the value of the gowns deducted from the women’s wages, a much more elegant solution.

  Dorcas put a silver looking glass into her hand. Very good, the queen thought, smiling at her reflection. It was pleasant to be out of mourning. Black made her look too pale. A pity I am not supping with Lady Merryweather, the queen reflected. It had been a long day, and Taena’s wit always cheered her. Cersei had not had a friend she so enjoyed since Melara Hetherspoon, and Melara had turned out to be a greedy little schemer with ideas above her station. I should not think ill of her. She’s dead and drowned, and she taught me never to trust anyone but Jaime.

  By the time she joined them in the solar, her guests had made a good start on the hippocras. Lady Falyse not only looks like a fish, she drinks like one, she reflected, when she made note of the half-empty flagon. “Sweet Falyse,” she exclaimed, kissing the woman’s cheek, “and brave Ser Balman. I was so distraught when I heard about your dear, dear mother. How fares our Lady Tanda?”

  Lady Falyse looked as if she were about to cry. “Your Grace is good to ask. Mother’s hip was shattered by the fall, Maester Frenken says. He did what he could. Now we pray, but…”

  Pray all you like, she will still be dead before the moon turns. Women as old as Tanda Stokeworth did not survive a broken hip. “I shall add my prayers to your own,” said Cersei. “Lord Qyburn tells me that Tanda was thrown from her horse.”

  “Her saddle girth burst whilst she was riding,” said Ser Balman Byrch. “The stableboy should have seen the strap was worn. He has been chastised.”

  “Severely, I hope.” The queen seated herself and indicated that her guests should sit as well. “Will you have another cup of hippocras, Falyse? You were always fond of it, I seem to recall.”

  “It is so good of you to remember, Your Grace.”

  How could I have forgotten? Cersei thought. Jaime said it was a wonder you did not piss the stuff. “How was your journey?”

  “Uncomfortable,” complained Falyse. “It rained most of the day. We thought to spend the night at Rosby, but that young ward of Lord Gyles refused us hospitality.” She sniffed. “Mark my word, when Gyles dies that ill-born wretch will make off with his gold. He may even try and claim the lands and lordship, though by rights Rosby should come to us when Gyles passes. My lady mother was aunt to his second wife, third cousin to Gyles himself.”

  Is your sigil a lamb, my lady, or some sort of grasping monkey? Cersei thought. “Lord Gyles has been threatening to die for as long as I have known him, but he is still with us, and will be for many years, I do hope.” She smiled pleasantly. “No doubt he will cough the whole lot of us into our graves.”

  “Like as not,” Ser Balman agreed. “Rosby’s ward was not the only one to vex us, Your Grace. We encountered ruffians on the road as well. Filthy, unkempt creatures, with leather shields and axes. Some had stars sewn on their jerkins, sacred stars of seven points, but they had an evil look about them all the same.”

  “They were lice-ridden, I am certain,” added Falyse.

  “They call themselves sparrows,” said Cersei. “A plague upon the land. Our new High Septon will need to deal with them, once he is crowned. If not, I shall deal with them myself.”

  “Has His High Holiness been chosen yet?” asked Falyse.

  “No,” the queen had to confess. “Septon Ollidor was on the verge of being chosen, until some of these sparrows followed him to a brothel and dragged him naked out into the street. Luceon seems the likely choice now, though our friends on the other hill say that he is still a few votes short of the required number.”

  “May the Crone guide the deliberations with her golden lamp of wisdom,” said Lady Falyse, most piously.

  Ser Balman shifted in his seat. “Your Grace, an awkward matter, but… lest bad feeling fester between us, you should know that neither my good wife nor her mother had any hand in the naming of this bastard child. Lollys is a simple creature, and her husband is given to black humors. I told him to choose a more fitting name for the boy. He laughed.”

  The queen sipped her wine and studied him. Ser Balman had been a noted jouster once, and one of the handsomest knights in the Seven Kingdoms. He could still boast a handsome mustache; elsewise, he had not aged well. His wavy blond hair had retreated, whilst his belly advanced inexorably against his doublet. As a catspaw he leaves much to be desired, she reflected. Still, he should serve. “Tyrion was a king’s name before the dragons came. The Imp has despoiled it, but perhaps this child can restore the name to honor.” If the bastard lives so long. “I know you are not to blame. Lady Tanda is the sister that I never had, and you…” Her voice broke. “Forgive me. I live in fear.”

  Falyse opened and closed her mouth, which made her look like some especially stupid fish. “In… in fear, Your Grace?”

  “I have not slept a whole night through since Joffrey died.” Cersei filled the goblets with hippocras. “My friends… you are my friends, I hope? And King Tommen’s?”

  “That sweet lad,” Ser Balman declared. “Your Grace, the very words of House Stokeworth are Proud to Be Faithful.”

  “Would that there were more like you, good ser. I tell you truly, I have grave doubts about Ser Bronn of the Blackwater.”

  Husband and wife exchanged a look. “The man is insolent, Your Grace,” Falyse said. “Uncouth and foul-mouthed.”

  “He is no true knight,” Ser Balman said.

  “No.” Cersei smiled, all for him. “And you are a man who would know true knighthood. I remember watching you joust in… which tourney was it where you fought so brilliantly, ser?”

  He smiled modestly. “That affair at Duskendale six years ago? No, you were not there, else you would surely have been crowned the queen of love and beauty. Was it the tourney at Lannisport after Greyjoy’s Rebellion? I unhorsed many a good knight in that one…”

  “That was the one.” Her face grew somber. “The Imp vanished the night my father died, leaving two honest gaolers behind in pools of blood. Some claim he fled across the narrow sea, but I wonder. The dwarf is cunning. Perhaps he still lurks near, planning more murders. Perhaps some friend is hiding him.”

  “Bronn?” Ser Balman stroked his bushy mustache.

  “He was ever the Imp’s creature. Only the Stranger knows how many men he’s sent to hell at Tyrion’s behest.”

  “Your Grace, I think I should have noticed a dwarf skulking about our lands,” said Ser Balman.

  “My brother is small. He was made for skulking.” Cersei let her hand shake. “A child’s name is a small thing… but insolence unpunished breeds rebellion. And this man Bronn has been gathering sellswords to him, Qyburn has told me.”

  “He has taken four knights into his household,” said Falyse.

  Ser Balman snorted. “My good wife flatters them, to call them knights. They’re upjumped sellswords, with not a thimble of chivalry to be found amongst the four of them.”

  “As I feared. Bronn is gathering swords for the dwarf. May the Seven save my little son. The Imp will kill him as he killed his brother.” She sobbed. “My friends, I put my honor in your hands… but what is a queen’s honor against a mother’s fears?”

  “Say on, Your Grace,” Ser Balman assured her. “Your words shall ne’er leave this room.”

  Cersei reached across the table and gave his hand a squeeze. “I… I would sleep more easily of a night if I were to hear that Ser Bronn had suffered a… a mishap… whilst hunting, perhaps.”

  Ser Balman considered a moment. “A mortal mishap?”

  No, I desire you to break his little toe. She had to bite her lip. My enemies are everywhere and my friends are fools. “I beg you, ser,” she whispered, “do not make me say it…”

  “I understand.” Ser Balman raised a finger.

  A turnip would have grasped it quicker. “You are a true knight indeed, ser. The answer to a frightened mother’s prayers.” Cersei kissed him. “Do it q
uickly, if you would. Bronn has only a few men about him now, but if we do not act, he will surely gather more.” She kissed Falyse. “I shall never forget this, my friends. My true friends of Stokeworth. Proud to Be Faithful. You have my word, we shall find Lollys a better husband when this is done.” A Kettleblack, perhaps. “We Lannisters pay our debts.”

  The rest was hippocras and buttered beets, hot-baked bread, herb-crusted pike, and ribs of wild boar. Cersei had become very fond of boar since Robert’s death. She did not even mind the company, though Falyse simpered and Balman preened from soup to sweet. It was past midnight before she could rid herself of them. Ser Balman proved a great one for suggesting yet another flagon, and the queen did not think it prudent to refuse. I could have hired a Faceless Man to kill Bronn for half of what I’ve spent on hippocras, she reflected when they were gone at last.

  At that hour, her son was fast asleep, but Cersei looked in upon him before seeking her own bed. She was surprised to find three black kittens cuddled up beside him. “Where did those come from?” she asked Ser Meryn Trant, outside the royal bedchamber.

  “The little queen gave them to him. She only meant to give him one, but he couldn’t decide which one he liked the best.”

  Better than cutting them out of their mother with a dagger, I suppose. Margaery’s clumsy attempts at seduction were so obvious as to be laughable. Tommen is too young for kisses, so she gives him kittens. Cersei rather wished they were not black, though. Black cats brought ill luck, as Rhaegar’s little girl had discovered in this very castle. She would have been my daughter, if the Mad King had not played his cruel jape on Father. It had to have been the madness that led Aerys to refuse Lord Tywin’s daughter and take his son instead, whilst marrying his own son to a feeble Dornish princess with black eyes and a flat chest.

  The memory of the rejection still rankled, even after all these years. Many a night she had watched Prince Rhaegar in the hall, playing his silver-stringed harp with those long, elegant fingers of his. Had any man ever been so beautiful? He was more than a man, though. His blood was the blood of old Valyria, the blood of dragons and gods. When she was just a little girl, her father had promised her that she would marry Rhaegar. She could not have been more than six or seven. “Never speak of it, child,” he had told her, smiling his secret smile that only Cersei ever saw. “Not until His Grace agrees to the betrothal. It must remain our secret for now.” And so it had, though once she had drawn a picture of herself flying behind Rhaegar on a dragon, her arms wrapped tight about his chest. When Jaime had discovered it she told him it was Queen Alysanne and King Jaehaerys.

  She was ten when she finally saw her prince in the flesh, at the tourney her lord father had thrown to welcome King Aerys to the west. Viewing stands had been raised beneath the walls of Lannisport, and the cheers of the smallfolk had echoed off Casterly Rock like rolling thunder. They cheered Father twice as loudly as they cheered the king, the queen recalled, but only half as loudly as they cheered Prince Rhaegar.

  Seventeen and new to knighthood, Rhaegar Targaryen had worn black plate over golden ringmail when he cantered onto the lists. Long streamers of red and gold and orange silk had floated behind his helm, like flames. Two of her uncles fell before his lance, along with a dozen of her father’s finest jousters, the flower of the west. By night the prince played his silver harp and made her weep. When she had been presented to him, Cersei had almost drowned in the depths of his sad purple eyes. He has been wounded, she recalled thinking, but I will mend his hurt when we are wed. Next to Rhaegar, even her beautiful Jaime had seemed no more than a callow boy. The prince is going to be my husband, she had thought, giddy with excitement, and when the old king dies I’ll be the queen. Her aunt had confided that truth to her before the tourney. “You must be especially beautiful,” Lady Genna told her, fussing with her dress, “for at the final feast it shall be announced that you and Prince Rhaegar are betrothed.”

  Cersei had been so happy that day. Elsewise she would never have dared visit the tent of Maggy the Frog. She had only done it to show Jeyne and Melara that the lioness fears nothing. I was going to be a queen. Why should a queen be afraid of some hideous old woman? The memory of that foretelling still made her flesh crawl a lifetime later. Jeyne ran shrieking from the tent in fear, the queen remembered, but Melara stayed and so did I. We let her taste our blood, and laughed at her stupid prophecies. None of them made the least bit of sense. She was going to be Prince Rhaegar’s wife, no matter what the woman said. Her father had promised it, and Tywin Lannister’s word was gold.

  Her laughter died at tourney’s end. There had been no final feast, no toasts to celebrate her betrothal to Prince Rhaegar. Only cold silences and chilly looks between the king and her father. Later, when Aerys and his son and all his gallant knights had departed for King’s Landing, the girl had gone to her aunt in tears, not understanding. “Your father proposed the match,” Lady Genna told her, “but Aerys refused to hear of it. ‘You are my most able servant, Tywin,’ the king said, ‘but a man does not marry his heir to his servant’s daughter.’ Dry those tears, little one. Have you ever seen a lion weep? Your father will find another man for you, a better man than Rhaegar.”

  Her aunt had lied, though, and her father had failed her, just as Jaime was failing her now. Father found no better man. Instead he gave me Robert, and Maggy’s curse bloomed like some poisonous flower. If she had only married Rhaegar as the gods intended, he would never have looked twice at the wolf girl. Rhaegar would be our king today and I would be his queen, the mother of his sons.

  She had never forgiven Robert for killing him.

  But then, lions were not good at forgiving. As Ser Bronn of the Blackwater would shortly learn.

  BRIENNE

  It was Hyle Hunt who insisted that they take the heads. “Tarly will want them for the walls,” he said.

  “We have no tar,” Brienne pointed out. “The flesh will rot. Leave them.” She did not want to travel through the green gloom of the piney woods with the heads of the men she’d killed.

  Hunt would not listen. He hacked through the dead men’s necks himself, tied the three heads together by the hair, and slung them from his saddle. Brienne had no choice but to try and pretend they were not there, but sometimes, especially at night, she could feel their dead eyes on her back, and once she dreamed she heard them whispering to one another.

  It was cold and wet on Crackclaw Point as they retraced their steps. Some days it rained and some days it threatened rain. They were never warm. Even when they made camp, it was hard to find enough dry wood for a fire.

  By the time they reached the gates of Maidenpool, a host of flies attended them, a crow had eaten Shagwell’s eyes, and Pyg and Timeon were crawling with maggots. Brienne and Podrick had long since taken to riding a hundred yards ahead, to keep the smell of rot well behind them. Ser Hyle claimed to have lost all sense of smell by then. “Bury them,” she told him every time they made camp
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