A feast for crows, p.41
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       A Feast for Crows, p.41

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

  He took his own supper in Hunter’s Hall with Ser Bonifer Hasty, a solemn stork of a man prone to salting his speech with appeals to the Seven. “I want none of Ser Gregor’s followers,” he declared as he was cutting up a pear as withered as he was, so as to make certain that its nonexistent juice did not stain his pristine purple doublet, embroidered with the white bend cotised of his House. “I will not have such sinners in my service.”

  “My septon used to say all men were sinners.”

  “He was not wrong,” Ser Bonifer allowed, “but some sins are blacker than others, and fouler in the nostrils of the Seven.”

  And you have no more nose than my little brother, or my own sins would have you choking on that pear. “Very well. I’ll take Gregor’s lot off your hands.” He could always find a use for fighters. If nothing else, he could send them up the ladders first, should he need to storm the walls of Riverrun.

  “Take the whore as well,” Ser Bonifer urged. “You know the one. The girl from the dungeons.”

  “Pia.” The last time he had been here, Qyburn had sent the girl to his bed, thinking that would please him. But the Pia they had brought up from the dungeons was a different creature from the sweet, simple, giggly creature who’d crawled beneath his blankets. She had made the mistake of speaking when Ser Gregor wanted quiet, so the Mountain had smashed her teeth to splinters with a mailed fist and broken her pretty little nose as well. He would have done worse, no doubt, if Cersei had not called him down to King’s Landing to face the Red Viper’s spear. Jaime would not mourn him. “Pia was born in this castle,” he told Ser Bonifer. “It is the only home she has ever known.”

  “She is a font of corruption,” said Ser Bonifer. “I won’t have her near my men, flaunting her… parts.”

  “I expect her flaunting days are done,” he said, “but if you find her that objectionable, I’ll take her.” He could make her a washerwoman, he supposed. His squires did not mind raising his tent, grooming his horse, or cleaning his armor, but the task of caring for his clothes struck them as unmanly. “Can you hold Harrenhal with just your Holy Hundred?” Jaime asked. They should actually be called the Holy Eighty-Six, having lost fourteen men upon the Blackwater, but no doubt Ser Bonifer would fill up his ranks again as soon as he found some sufficiently pious recruits.

  “I anticipate no difficulty. The Crone will light our way, and the Warrior will give strength to our arms.”

  Or else the Stranger will turn up for the whole holy lot of you. Jaime could not be certain who had convinced his sister that Ser Bonifer should be named castellan of Harrenhal, but the appointment smelled of Orton Merryweather. Hasty had once served Merryweather’s grandsire, he seemed to recall dimly. And the carrot-haired justiciar was just the sort of simpleminded fool to assume that someone called “the Good” was the very potion the riverlands required to heal the wounds left by Roose Bolton, Vargo Hoat, and Gregor Clegane.

  But he might not be wrong. Hasty hailed from the stormlands, so had neither friends nor foes along the Trident; no blood feuds, no debts to pay, no cronies to reward. He was sober, just, and dutiful, and his Holy Eighty-Six were as well disciplined as any soldiers in the Seven Kingdoms, and made a lovely sight as they wheeled and pranced their tall grey geldings. Littlefinger had once quipped that Ser Bonifer must have gelded the riders too, so spotless was their repute.

  All the same, Jaime wondered about any soldiers who were better known for their lovely horses than for the foes they’d slain. They pray well, I suppose, but can they fight? They had not disgraced themselves on the Blackwater, so far as he knew, but they had not distinguished themselves either. Ser Bonifer himself had been a promising knight in his youth, but something had happened to him, a defeat or a disgrace or a near brush with death, and afterward he had decided that jousting was an empty vanity and put away his lance for good and all.

  Harrenhal must be held, though, and Baelor Butthole here is the man that Cersei chose to hold it. “This castle has an ill repute,” he warned him, “and one that’s well deserved. It’s said that Harren and his sons still walk the halls by night, afire. Those who look upon them burst into flame.”

  “I fear no shade, ser. It is written in The Seven-Pointed Star that spirits, wights, and revenants cannot harm a pious man, so long as he is armored in his faith.”

  “Then armor yourself in faith, by all means, but wear a suit of mail and plate as well. Every man who holds this castle seems to come to a bad end. The Mountain, the Goat, even my father…”

  “If you will forgive my saying so, they were not godly men, as we are. The Warrior defends us, and help is always near, if some dread foe should threaten. Maester Gulian will be remaining with his ravens, Lord Lancel is nearby at Darry with his garrison, and Lord Randyll holds Maidenpool. Together we three shall hunt down and destroy whatever outlaws prowl these parts. Once that is done, the Seven will guide the goodfolk back to their villages to plow and plant and build anew.”

  The ones the Goat didn’t kill, at least. Jaime hooked his golden fingers round the stem of his wine goblet. “If any of Hoat’s Brave Companions fall into your hands, send word to me at once.” The Stranger might have made off with the Goat before Jaime could get around to him, but fat Zollo was still out there, with Shagwell, Rorge, Faithful Urswyck, and the rest.

  “So you can torture them and kill them?”

  “I suppose you would forgive them, in my place?”

  “If they made sincere repentance for their sins… yes, I would embrace them all as brothers and pray with them before I sent them to the block. Sins may be forgiven. Crimes require punishment.” Hasty folded his hands before him like a steeple, in a way that reminded Jaime uncomfortably of his father. “If it is Sandor Clegane that we encounter, what would you have me do?”

  Pray hard, Jaime thought, and run. “Send him to join his beloved brother and be glad the gods made seven hells. One would never be enough to hold both of the Cleganes.” He pushed himself awkwardly to his feet. “Beric Dondarrion is a different matter. Should you capture him, hold him for my return. I’ll want to march him back to King’s Landing with a rope about his neck, and have Ser Ilyn take his head off where half the realm can see.”

  “And this Myrish priest who runs with him? It is said he spreads his false faith everywhere.”

  “Kill him, kiss him, or pray with him, as you please.”

  “I have no wish to kiss the man, my lord.”

  “No doubt he’d say the same of you.” Jaime’s smile turned into a yawn. “My pardons. I shall take my leave of you, if you have no objections.”

  “None, my lord,” said Hasty. No doubt he wished to pray.

  Jaime wished to fight. He took the steps two at a time, out to where the night air was cold and crisp. In the torchlit yard Strongboar and Ser Flement Brax were having at each other whilst a ring of men-at-arms cheered them on. Ser Lyle will have the best of that one, he knew. I need to find Ser Ilyn. His fingers had the itch again. His footsteps took him away from the noise and the light. He passed beneath the covered bridge and through the Flowstone Yard before he realized where he was headed.

  As he neared the bear pit, he saw the glow of a lantern, its pale wintry light washing over the tiers of steep stone seats. Someone has come before me, it would seem. The pit would be a fine place to dance; perhaps Ser Ilyn had anticipated him.

  But the knight standing over the pit was bigger; a husky, bearded man in a red-and-white surcoat adorned with griffins. Connington. What’s he doing here? Below, the carcass of the bear still sprawled upon the sands, though only bones and ragged fur remained, half-buried. Jaime felt a pang of pity for the beast. At least he died in battle. “Ser Ronnet,” he called, “have you lost your way? It is a large castle, I know.”

  Red Ronnet raised his lantern. “I wished to see where the bear danced with the maiden not-so-fair.” His beard shone in the light as if it were afire. Jaime could smell wine on his breath. “Is it true the wench fought naked?”

 
“Naked? No.” He wondered how that wrinkle had been added to the story. “The Mummers put her in a pink silk gown and shoved a tourney sword into her hand. The Goat wanted her death to be amuthing. Elsewise…”

  “… the sight of Brienne naked might have made the bear flee in terror.” Connington laughed.

  Jaime did not. “You speak as if you know the lady.”

  “I was betrothed to her.”

  That took him by surprise. Brienne had never mentioned a betrothal. “Her father made a match for her…”

  “Thrice,” said Connington. “I was the second. My father’s notion. I had heard the wench was ugly, and I told him so, but he said all women were the same once you blew the candle out.”

  “Your father.” Jaime eyed Red Ronnet’s surcoat, where two griffins faced each other on a field of red and white. Dancing griffins. “Our late Hand’s… brother, was he?”

  “Cousin. Lord Jon had no brothers.”

  “No.” It all came back to him. Jon Connington had been Prince Rhaegar’s friend. When Merryweather failed so dismally to contain Robert’s Rebellion and Prince Rhaegar could not be found, Aerys had turned to the next best thing, and raised Connington to the Handship. But the Mad King was always chopping off his Hands. He had chopped Lord Jon after the Battle of the Bells, stripping him of honors, lands, and wealth, and packing him off across the sea to die in exile, where he soon drank himself to death. The cousin, though — Red Ronnet’s father — had joined the rebellion and been rewarded with Griffin’s Roost after the Trident. He only got the castle, though; Robert kept the gold, and bestowed the greater part of the Connington lands on more fervent supporters.

  Ser Ronnet was a landed knight, no more. For any such, the Maid of Tarth would have been a sweet plum indeed. “How is it that you did not wed?” Jaime asked him.

  “Why, I went to Tarth and saw her. I had six years on her, yet the wench could look me in the eye. She was a sow in silk, though most sows have bigger teats. When she tried to talk she almost choked on her own tongue. I gave her a rose and told her it was all that she would ever have from me.” Connington glanced into the pit. “The bear was less hairy than that freak, I’ll—”

  Jaime’s golden hand cracked him across the mouth so hard the other knight went stumbling down the steps. His lantern fell and smashed, and the oil spread out, burning. “You are speaking of a highborn lady, ser. Call her by her name. Call her Brienne.”

  Connington edged away from the spreading flames on his hands and knees. “Brienne. If it please my lord.” He spat a glob of blood at Jaime’s foot. “Brienne the Beauty.”

  CERSEI

  It was a slow climb to the top of Visenya’s Hill. As the horses labored upward, the queen leaned back against a plump red cushion. From outside came the voice of Ser Osmund Kettleblack. “Make way. Clear the street. Make way for Her Grace the queen.”

  “Margaery does keep a lively court,” Lady Merryweather was saying. “We have jugglers, mummers, poets, puppets…”

  “Singers?” prompted Cersei.

  “Many and more, Your Grace. Hamish the Harper plays for her once a fortnight, and sometimes Alaric of Eysen will entertain us of an evening, but the Blue Bard is her favorite.”

  Cersei recalled the bard from Tommen’s wedding. Young, and fair to look upon. Could there be something there? “There are other men as well, I hear. Knights and courtiers. Admirers. Tell me true, my lady. Do you think Margaery is still a maiden?”

  “She says she is, Your Grace.”

  “So she does. What do you say?”

  Taena’s black eyes sparkled with mischief. “When she wed Lord Renly at Highgarden, I helped disrobe him for the bedding. His lordship was a well-made man, and lusty. I saw the proof when we tumbled him into the wedding bed where his bride awaited him as naked as her name day, blushing prettily beneath the coverlets. Ser Loras had carried her up the steps himself. Margaery may say that the marriage was never consummated, that Lord Renly had drunk too much wine at the wedding feast, but I promise you, the bit between his legs was anything but weary when last I saw it.”

  “Did you chance to see the marriage bed the morning after?” Cersei asked. “Did she bleed?”

  “No sheet was shown, Your Grace.”

  A pity. Still, the absence of a bloody sheet meant little, by itself. Common peasant girls bled like pigs upon their wedding nights, she had heard, but that was less true of highborn maids like Margaery Tyrell. A lord’s daughter was more like to give her maidenhead to a horse than a husband, it was said, and Margaery had been riding since she was old enough to walk. “I understand the little queen has many admirers amongst our household knights. The Redwyne twins, Ser Tallad… who else, pray tell?”

  Lady Merryweather gave a shrug. “Ser Lambert, the fool who hides a good eye behind a patch. Bayard Norcross. Courtenay Greenhill. The brothers Woodwright, sometimes Portifer and often Lucantine. Oh, and Grand Maester Pycelle is a frequent visitor.”

  “Pycelle? Truly?” Had that doddering old worm forsaken the lion for the rose? If so, he will regret it. “Who else?”

  “The Summer Islander in his feathered cloak. How could I have forgotten him, with his skin as black as ink? Others come to pay court to her cousins. Elinor is promised to the Ambrose boy, but loves to flirt, and Megga has a new suitor every fortnight. Once she kissed a potboy in the kitchen. I have heard talk of her marrying Lady Bulwer’s brother, but if Megga were to choose for herself, she would sooner have Mark Mullendore, I am certain.”

  Cersei laughed. “The butterfly knight who lost his arm on the Blackwater? What good is half a man?”

  “Megga thinks him sweet. She has asked Lady Margaery to help her find a monkey for him.”

  “A monkey.” The queen did not know what to say to that. Sparrows and monkeys. Truly, the realm is going mad. “What of our brave Ser Loras? How often does he call upon his sister?”

  “More than any of the others.” When Taena frowned, a tiny crease appeared between her dark eyes. “Every morn and every night he visits, unless duty interferes. Her brother is devoted to her, they share everything with… oh…” For a moment, the Myrish woman looked almost shocked. Then a smile spread across her face. “I have had a most wicked thought, Your Grace.”

  “Best keep it to yourself. The hill is thick with sparrows, and we all know how sparrows abhor wickedness.”

  “I have heard they abhor soap and water too, Your Grace.”

  “Perhaps too much prayer robs a man of his sense of smell. I shall be sure to ask His High Holiness.”

  The draperies swayed back and forth in a wash of crimson silk. “Orton told me that the High Septon has no name,” Lady Taena said. “Can that be true? In Myr we all have names.”

  “Oh, he had a name once. They all do.” The queen waved a hand dismissively. “Even septons born of noble blood go only by their given names once they have taken their vows. When one of them is elevated to High Septon, he puts aside that name as well. The Faith will tell you he no longer has any need of a man’s name, for he has become the avatar of the gods.”

  “How do you distinguish one High Septon from another?”

  “With difficulty. One has to say, ‘the fat one,’ or ‘the one before the fat one,’ or ‘the old one who died in his sleep.’ You can always winkle out their birth names if you like, but they take umbrage if you use them. It reminds them that they were born ordinary men, and they do not like that.”

  “My lord husband tells me this new one was born with filth beneath his fingernails.”

  “So I suspect. As a rule the Most Devout elevate one of their own, but there have been exceptions.” Grand Maester Pycelle had informed her of the history, at tedious length. “During the reign of King Baelor the Blessed a simple stonemason was chosen as High Septon. He worked stone so beautifully that Baelor decided he was the Smith reborn in mortal flesh. The man could neither read nor write, nor recall the words of the simplest of prayers.” Some still claimed that Baelor’s Hand had the man
poisoned to spare the realm embarrassment. “After that one died, an eight-year-old boy was elevated, once more at King Baelor’s urging. The boy worked miracles, His Grace declared, though even his little healing hands could not save Baelor during his final fast.”

  Lady Merryweather gave a laugh. “Eight years old? Perhaps my son could be High Septon. He is almost seven.”

  “Does he pray a lot?” the queen asked.

  “He prefers to play with swords.”

  “A real boy, then. Can he name all seven gods?”

  “I think so.”

  “I shall have to take him under consideration.” Cersei did not doubt that there were any number of boys who would do more honor to the crystal crown than the wretch on whom the Most Devout had chosen to bestow it. This is what comes of letting fools and cowards rule themselves. Next time, I will choose their master for them. And the next time might not be long in coming, if the new High Septon continued to annoy her. Baelor’s Hand had little to teach Cersei Lannister where such matters were concerned.

  “Clear the way!” Ser Osmund Kettleblack was shouting. “Make way for the Queen’s Grace!”

  The litter began to slow, which could only mean that they were near the top of the hill. “You should bring this son of yours to court,” Cersei told Lady Merryweather. “Six is not too young. Tommen needs other boys about him. Why not your son?” Joffrey had never had a close friend of his own age, that she recalled. The poor boy was always alone. I had Jaime when I was a child… and Melara, until she fell into the well. Joff had been fond of the Hound, to be sure, but that was not friendship. He was looking for the father he never found in Robert. A little foster brother might be just what Tommen needs to wean him away from Margaery and her hens. In time they might grow as close as Robert and his boyhood friend Ned Stark. A fool, but a loyal fool. Tommen will have need of loyal friends to watch his back.

  “Your Grace is kind, but Russell has never known any home but Longtable. I fear he would be lost in this great city.”

  “In the beginning,” the queen allowed, “but he will soon outgrow that, as I did. When my father sent for me to court I wept and Jaime raged, until my aunt sat me down in the Stone Garden and told me there was no one in King’s Landing that I need ever fear. ‘You are a lioness,’ she said, ‘and it is for all the lesser beasts to fear you.’ Your son will find his courage too. Surely you would prefer to have him close at hand, where you could see him every day? He is your only child, is he not?”

  “For the present. My lord husband has asked the gods to bless us with another son, in case…”

  “I know.” She thought of Joffrey, clawing at his neck. In his last moments he had looked to her in desperate appeal, and a sudden memory had stopped her heart; a drop of red blood hissing in a candle flame, a croaking voice that spoke of crowns and shrouds, of death at the hands of the valonqar.

  Outside the litter, Ser Osmund was shouting something, and someone was shouting back. The litter jerked to a halt. “Are you all dead?” roared Kettleblack. “Get out of the bloody way!”

  The queen pulled back a corner of the curtain and beckoned to Ser Meryn Trant. “What seems to be the trouble?”

  “The sparrows, Your Grace.” Ser Meryn wore white scale armor beneath his cloak. His helm and shield were slung from his saddle. “Camping in the street. We’ll make them move.”

  “Do that, but gently. I do not care to be caught up in another riot.” Cersei let the curtain fall. “This is absurd.”

  “It is, Your Grace,” Lady Merryweather agreed. “The High Septon should have come to you. And these wretched sparrows…”

  “He feeds them, coddles them, blesses them. Yet will not bless the king.” The blessing was an empty ritual, she knew, but rituals and ceremonies had power in the eyes of the ignorant. Aegon the Conqueror himself had dated the start of his realm from the day the High Septon anointed him in Oldtown. “This wretched priest will obey, or learn how weak and human he still is.”

  “Orton says it is the gold he really wants. That he means to withhold his blessing until the crown resumes its payments.”

  “The Faith will have its gold as soon as we have peace.” Septon Torbert and Septon Raynard had been most understanding of her plight… unlike the wretched Braavosi, who had hounded poor Lord Gyles so mercilessly that he had taken to his bed, coughing up blood. We had to have those ships. She could not rely upon the Arbor for her navy; the Redwynes were too close to the Tyrells. She needed her own strength at sea.

  The dromonds rising on the river would give her that. Her flagship would dip twice as many oars as King Robert’s Hammer. Aurane had asked her leave to name her Lord Tywin, which Cersei had been pleased to grant. She looked forward to hearing men speak of her father as a “she.” Another of the ships would be named Sweet Cersei, and would bear a gilded figurehead carved in her likeness, clad in mail and lion helm, with spear in hand. Brave Joffrey, Lady Joanna, and Lioness would follow her to sea, along with Queen Margaery, Golden Rose, Lord Renly, Lady Olenna, and Princess Myrcella. The queen had made the mistake of telling Tommen he might name the last five. He had actually chosen Moon Boy for one. Only when Lord Aurane suggested that men might not want to serve on a ship named for a fool had the boy reluctantly agreed to honor his sister instead.

  “If this ragged septon thinks to make me buy Tommen’s blessing, he will soon learn better,” she told Taena. The queen did not intend to truckle to a pack of priests.

  The litter halted yet again, so suddenly that Cersei jerked. “Oh, this is infuriating.” She leaned out once more, and saw that they had reached the top of Visenya’s Hill. Ahead loomed the Great Sept of Baelor, with its magnificent dome and seven shining towers, but between her and the marble steps lay a sullen sea of humanity, brown and ragged and unwashed. Sparrows, she thought, sniffing, though no sparrows had ever smelled so rank.

  Cersei was appalled. Qyburn had brought her reports of their numbers, but hearing about them was one thing and seeing them another. Hundreds were encamped upon the plaza, hundreds more in the gardens. Their cookfires filled the air with smoke and stinks. Roughspun tents and miserable hovels made of mud and scrap wood besmirched the pristine white marble. They were even huddled on the steps, beneath the Great Sept’s towering doors.

  Ser Osmund came trotting back to her. Beside him rode Ser Osfryd, mounted on a stallion as golden as his cloak. Osfryd was the middle Kettleblack, quieter than his siblings, more apt to scowl than smile. And crueler as well, if the tales are true. Perhaps I should have sent him to the Wall.

  Grand Maester Pycelle had wanted an older man “more seasoned in the ways of war” to command the gold cloaks, and several of her other councillors had agreed with him. “Ser Osfryd is seasoned quite sufficiently,” she had told them, but even that did not shut them up. They yap at me like a pack of small, annoying
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