A feast for crows, p.53
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       A Feast for Crows, p.53

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

  His smile vanished. “Some will say so, Your Grace.”

  “Some?” She gave him a quizzical look. “Not you?”

  “I never saw a braver knight,” Waters said, “but he turned what could have been a bloodless victory into a slaughter. A thousand men are dead, or near enough to make no matter. Most of them our own. And not just common men, Your Grace, but knights and young lords, the best and the bravest.”

  “And Ser Loras himself?”

  “He will make a thousand and one. They carried him inside the castle after the battle, but his wounds are grievous. He has lost so much blood that the maesters will not even leech him.”

  “Oh, how sad. Tommen will be heartbroken. He did so admire our gallant Knight of Flowers.”

  “The smallfolk too,” her admiral said. “We’ll have maidens weeping into their wine all across the realm when Loras dies.”

  He was not wrong, the queen knew. Three thousand smallfolk had crowded through the Mud Gate to see Ser Loras off the day he sailed, and three of every four were women. The sight had only served to fill her with contempt. She had wanted to scream at them that they were sheep, to tell them that all that they could ever hope to get from Loras Tyrell was a smile and a flower. Instead she had proclaimed him the boldest knight in the Seven Kingdoms, and smiled as Tommen presented him with a jeweled sword to carry into battle. The king had given him a hug as well, which had not been part of Cersei’s plans, but it made no matter now. She could afford to be generous. Loras Tyrell was dying.

  “Tell me,” Cersei commanded. “I want to know all of it, from the beginning to the end.”

  The room had grown dark by the time that he was done. The queen lit some candles and sent Dorcas to the kitchens to bring them up some bread and cheese and a bit of boiled beef with horseradish. As they supped, she bid Aurane to tell the tale again, so she would remember all the details correctly. “I do not want our precious Margaery to hear these tidings from a stranger, after all,” she said. “I will tell her myself.”

  “Your Grace is kind,” said Waters with a smile. A wicked smile, the queen thought. Aurane did not resemble Prince Rhaegar as much as she had thought. He has the hair, but so do half the whores in Lys, if the tales are true. Rhaegar was a man. This is a sly boy, no more. Useful in his way, though.

  Margaery was in the Maidenvault, sipping wine and trying to puzzle out some new game from Volantis with her three cousins. Though the hour was late, the guards admitted Cersei at once. “Your Grace,” she began, “it is best you hear the news from me. Aurane is back from Dragonstone. Your brother is a hero.”

  “I always knew he was.” Margaery did not seem surprised. Why should she? She expected this, from the moment Loras begged for the command. Yet by the time Cersei had finished with her tale, tears glistened on the cheeks of the younger queen. “Redwyne had miners working to drive a tunnel underneath the castle walls, but that was too slow for the Knight of Flowers. No doubt he was thinking of your lord father’s people suffering on the Shields. Lord Waters says he ordered the assault not half a day after taking command, after Lord Stannis’s castellan refused his offer to settle the siege between them in single combat. Loras was the first one through the breach when the ram broke the castle gates. He rode straight into the dragon’s mouth, they say, all in white and swinging his morningstar about his head, slaying left and right.”

  Megga Tyrell was sobbing openly by then. “How did he die?” she asked. “Who killed him?”

  “No one man has that honor,” said Cersei. “Ser Loras took a quarrel through the thigh and another through the shoulder, but he fought on gallantly, though the blood was streaming from him. Later he suffered a mace blow that broke some ribs. After that… but no, I would spare you the worst of it.”

  “Tell me,” said Margaery. “I command it.”

  Command it? Cersei paused a moment, then decided she would let that pass. “The defenders fell back to an inner keep once the curtain wall was taken. Loras led the attack there as well. He was doused with boiling oil.”

  Lady Alla turned white as chalk, and ran from the room.

  “The maesters are doing all they can, Lord Waters assures me, but I fear your brother is too badly burned.” Cersei took Margaery in her arms to comfort her. “He saved the realm.” When she kissed the little queen upon the cheek, she could taste the salt of her tears. “Jaime will enter all his deeds in the White Book, and the singers will sing of him for a thousand years.”

  Margaery wrenched free of her embrace, so violently that Cersei almost fell. “Dying is not dead,” she said.

  “No, but the maesters say—”

  “Dying is not dead!”

  “I only want to spare you—”

  “I know what you want. Get out.”

  Now you know how I felt, the night my Joffrey died. She bowed, her face a mask of cool courtesy. “Sweet daughter. I am so sad for you. I will leave you with your grief.”

  Lady Merryweather did not appear that night, and Cersei found herself too restless to sleep. If Lord Tywin could see me now, he would know he had his heir, an heir worthy of the Rock, she thought as she lay abed with Jocelyn Swyft snoring softly into the other pillow. Margaery would soon be weeping the bitter tears she should have wept for Joffrey. Mace Tyrell might weep as well, but she had given him no cause to break with her. What had she done, after all, but honor Loras with her trust? He had requested the command on bended knee whilst half her court looked on.

  When he dies I must raise a statue of him somewhere, and give him a funeral such as King’s Landing has never seen. The smallfolk would like that. So would Tommen. Mace may even thank me, poor man. As for his lady mother, if the gods are good this news will kill her.

  The sunrise was the prettiest that Cersei had seen in years. Taena appeared soon thereafter, and confessed to having spent the night consoling Margaery and her ladies, drinking wine and crying and telling tales of Loras. “Margaery is still convinced he will not die,” she reported, as the queen was dressed for court. “She plans to send her own maester to look after him. The cousins are praying for the Mother’s mercy.”

  “I shall pray as well. On the morrow, come with me to Baelor’s Sept, and we will light a hundred candles for our gallant Knight of Flowers.” She turned to her handmaid. “Dorcas, bring my crown. The new one, if you please.” It was lighter than the old, pale spun gold set with emeralds that sparkled when she turned her head.

  “There are four come about the Imp this morning,” Ser Osmund said, when Jocelyn admitted him.

  “Four?” The queen was pleasantly surprised. A steady stream of informers had been making their way to the Red Keep, claiming knowledge of Tyrion, but four in one day was unusual.

  “Aye,” said Osmund. “One brought a head for you.”

  “I will see him first. Bring him to my solar.” This time, let there be no mistakes. Let me be avenged at long last, so Joff can rest in peace. The septons said that the number seven was sacred to the gods. If so, perhaps this seventh head would bring her the balm her soul desired.

  The man proved to be Tyroshi; short and stout and sweaty, with an unctuous smile that reminded her of Varys and a forked beard dyed green and pink. Cersei misliked him on sight, but was willing to overlook his flaws if he actually had Tyrion’s head inside the chest he carried. It was cedar, inlaid with ivory in a pattern of vines and flowers, with hinges and clasps of white gold. A lovely thing, but the queen’s only interest lay in what might be within. It is big enough, at least. Tyrion had a grotesquely large head, for one so small and stunted.

  “Your Grace,” the Tyroshi murmured, bowing low, “I see you are as lovely as the tales. Even beyond the narrow sea we have heard of your great beauty, and the grief that tears your gentle heart. No man can restore your brave young son to you, but it is my hope I can at least offer you some balm for your pain.” He laid his hand upon his chest. “I bring you justice. I bring you the head of your valonqar.”

  The old Valyrian word sent
a chill through her, though it also gave her a tingle of hope. “The Imp is no longer my brother, if he ever was,” she declared. “Nor will I say his name. It was a proud name once, before he dishonored it.”

  “In Tyrosh we name him Redhands, for the blood running from his fingers. A king’s blood, and a father’s. Some say he slew his mother too, ripping his way from her womb with savage claws.”

  What nonsense, Cersei thought. “’Tis true,” she said. “If the Imp’s head is in that chest, I shall raise you to lordship and grant you rich lands and keeps.” Titles were cheaper than dirt, and the riverlands were full of ruined castles, standing desolate amidst untended fields and burned villages. “My court awaits. Open the box and let us see.”

  The Tyroshi threw open the box with a flourish, and stepped back smiling. Within, the head of a dwarf reposed upon a bed of soft blue velvet, staring up at her.

  Cersei took a long look. “That is not my brother.” There was a sour taste in her mouth. I suppose it was too much to hope for, especially after Loras. The gods are never that good. “This man has brown eyes. Tyrion had one black eye and one green.”

  “The eyes, just so… Your Grace, your brother’s own eyes had… somewhat decayed. I took the liberty of replacing them with glass… but of the wrong color, as you say.”

  That only annoyed her further. “Your head may have glass eyes, but I do not. There are gargoyles on Dragonstone that look more like the Imp than this creature. He’s bald, and twice my brother’s age. What happened to his teeth?”

  The man shrank before the fury in her voice. “He had a fine set of gold teeth, Your Grace, but we… I regret…”

  “Oh, not yet. But you will.” I ought to have him strangled. Let him gasp for breath until his face turns black, the way my sweet son did. The words were on her lips.

  “An honest mistake. One dwarf looks so much like another, and… Your Grace will observe, he has no nose…”

  “He has no nose because you cut it off.”

  “No!” The sweat on his brow gave the lie to his denial.

  “Yes.” A poisonous sweetness crept into Cersei’s tone. “At least you had that much sense. The last fool tried to tell me that a hedge wizard had regrown it. Still, it seems to me that you owe this dwarf a nose. House Lannister pays its debts, and so shall you. Ser Meryn, take this fraud to Qyburn.”

  Ser Meryn Trant took the Tyroshi by the arm and hauled him off, still protesting. When they were gone, Cersei turned to Osmund Kettleblack. “Ser Osmund, get this thing out of my sight, and bring in the other three who claim knowledge of the Imp.”

  “Aye, Your Grace.”

  Sad to say, the three would-be informers proved no more useful than the Tyroshi. One said that the Imp was hiding in an Oldtown brothel, pleasuring men with his mouth. It made for a droll picture, but Cersei did not believe it for an instant. The second claimed to have seen the dwarf in a mummer’s show in Braavos. The third insisted Tyrion had become a hermit in the riverlands, living on some haunted hill. The queen made the same response to each. “If you will be so good as to lead some of my brave knights to this dwarf, you shall be richly rewarded,” she promised. “Provided that it is the Imp. If not… well, my knights have little patience for deception, nor fools who send them chasing after shadows. A man could lose his tongue.” And quick as that, all three informers suddenly lost faith, and allowed that perhaps it might have been some other dwarf they saw.

  Cersei had never realized there were so many dwarfs. “Is the whole world overrun with these twisted little monsters?” she complained, whilst the last of the informers was being ushered out. “How many of them can there be?”

  “Fewer than there were,” said Lady Merryweather. “May I have the honor of accompanying Your Grace to court?”

  “If you can bear the tedium,” said Cersei. “Robert was a fool about most things, but he was right in one regard. It is wearisome work to rule a kingdom.”

  “It saddens me to see Your Grace so careworn. I say, run off and play and leave the King’s Hand to hear these tiresome petitions. We could dress as serving girls and spend the day amongst the smallfolk, to hear what they are saying of the fall of Dragonstone. I know the inn where the Blue Bard plays when he is not singing attendance on the little queen, and a certain cellar where a conjurer turns lead into gold, water into wine, and girls into boys. Perhaps he would work his spells on the two of us. Would it amuse Your Grace to be a man one night?”

  If I were a man I would be Jaime, the queen thought. If I were a man I could rule this realm in my own name in place of Tommen’s. “Only if you remained a woman,” she said, knowing that was what Taena wanted to hear. “You are a wicked thing to tempt me so, but what sort of queen would I be if I put my realm in the trembling hands of Harys Swyft?”

  Taena pouted. “Your Grace is too diligent.”

  “I am,” Cersei allowed, “and by day’s end I shall rue it.” She slipped her arm through Lady Merryweather’s. “Come.”

  Jalabhar Xho was the first to petition her that day, as befit his rank as a prince in exile. Splendid as he looked in his bright feathered cloak, he had only come to beg. Cersei let him make his usual plea for men and arms to help him regain Red Flower Vale, then said, “His Grace is fighting his own war, Prince Jalabhar. He has no men to spare for yours just now. Next year, perhaps.” That was what Robert always told him. Next year she would tell him never, but not today. Dragonstone was hers.

  Lord Hallyne of the Guild of Alchemists presented himself, to ask that his pyromancers be allowed to hatch any dragon’s eggs that might turn up upon Dragonstone, now that the isle was safely back in royal hands. “If any such eggs remained, Stannis would have sold them to pay for his rebellion,” the queen told him. She refrained from saying that the plan was mad. Ever since the last Targaryen dragon had died, all such attempts had ended in death, disaster, or disgrace.

  A group of merchants appeared before her to beg the throne to intercede for them with the Iron Bank of Braavos. The Braavosi were demanding repayment of their outstanding debts, it seemed, and refusing all new loans. We need our own bank, Cersei decided, the Golden Bank of Lannisport. Perhaps when Tommen’s throne was secure, she could make that happen. For the nonce, all she could do was tell the merchants to pay the Braavosi usurers their due.

  The delegation from the Faith was headed by her old friend Septon Raynard. Six of the Warrior’s Sons escorted him across the city; together they were seven, a holy and propitious number. The new High Septon — or High Sparrow, as Moon Boy had dubbed him — did everything by sevens. The knights wore swordbelts striped in the seven colors of the Faith. Crystals adorned the pommels of their longswords and the crests of their greathelms. They carried kite shields of a style not common since the Conquest, displaying a device not seen in the Seven Kingdoms for centuries: a rainbow sword shining bright upon a field of darkness. Close to a hundred knights had already come forth to pledge their lives and swords to the Warrior’s Sons, Qyburn claimed, and more turned up every day. Drunk on the gods, the lot of them. Who would have thought the realm contained so many of them?

  Most had been household knights and hedge knights, but a handful were of high birth; younger sons, petty lords, old men wanting to atone for the old sins. And then there was Lancel. She had thought Qyburn must be japing when he had told her that her mooncalf cousin had forsaken castle, lands, and wife and wandered back to the city to join the Noble and Puissant Order of the Warrior’s Sons, yet there he stood with the other pious fools.

  Cersei liked that not at all. Nor was she pleased by the High Sparrow’s endless truculence and ingratitude. “Where is the High Septon?” she demanded of Raynard. “It was him I summoned.”

  Septon Raynard assumed a regretful tone. “His High Holiness sent me in his stead, and bade me tell Your Grace that the Seven have sent him forth to battle wickedness.”

  “How? By preaching chastity along the Street of Silk? Does he think praying over whores will turn them back to virgins

  “Our bodies were shaped by our Father and Mother so we might join male to female and beget trueborn children,” Raynard replied. “It is base and sinful for women to sell their holy parts for coin.”

  The pious sentiment would have been more convincing if the queen had not known that Septon Raynard had special friends in every brothel on the Street of Silk. No doubt he had decided that echoing the High Sparrow’s twitterings was preferable to scrubbing floors. “Do not presume to preach at me,” she told him. “The brothel keepers have been complaining, and rightly so.”

  “If sinners speak, why should the righteous listen?”

  “These sinners feed the royal coffers,” the queen said bluntly, “and their pennies help pay the wages of my gold cloaks and build galleys to defend our shores. There is trade to be considered as well. If King’s Landing had no brothels, the ships would go to Duskendale or Gulltown. His High Holiness promised me peace in my streets. Whoring helps to keep that peace. Common men deprived of whores are apt to turn to rape. Henceforth let His High Holiness do his praying in the sept where it belongs.”

  The queen had expected to hear from Lord Gyles as well, but instead Grand Maester Pycelle appeared, grey-faced and apologetic, to tell her that Rosby was too weak to leave his bed. “Sad to say, I fear Lord Gyles must join his noble forebears soon. May the Father judge him justly.”

  If Rosby dies, Mace Tyrell and the little queen will try and force Garth the Gross on me again. “Lord Gyles has had that cough for years, and it never killed him before,” she complained. “He coughed through half of Robert’s reign and all of Joffrey’s. If he is dying now, it can only be because someone wants him dead.”

  Grand Maester Pycelle blinked in disbelief. “Your Grace? Wh-who would want Lord Gyles dead?”

  “His heir, perhaps.” Or the little queen. “Some woman he once scorned.” Margaery and Mace and the Queen of Thorns, why not? Gyles is in their way. “An old enemy. A new one. You.”

  The old man blanched. “Y-your Grace japes. I… I have purged his lordship, bled him, treated him with poultices and infusions… the mists give him some relief and sweetsleep helps with the violence of his coughing, but he is bringing up bits of lung with the blood now, I fear.”

  “Be that as it may. You will return to Lord Gyles and inform him that he does not have my leave to die.”

  “If it please Your Grace.” Pycelle bowed stiffly.

  There was more, and more, and more, each petitioner more boring than the last. And that evening, when the last of them had finally gone and she was eating a simple supper with her son, she told him, “Tommen, when you say your prayers before bed, tell the Mother and the Father that you are thankful you are still a child. Being king is hard work. I promise you, you will not like it. They peck at you like a murder of crows. Every one wants a piece of your flesh.”

  “Yes, Mother,” said Tommen, in a sad tone. The little queen had told him of Ser Loras, she understood. Ser Osmund said the boy had wept. He is young. By the time he is Joff’s age he will not recall what Loras looked like. “I wouldn’t mind them pecking, though,” her son went on to say. “I should go to court with you every day, to listen. Margaery says—”

  “—a deal too much,” Cersei snapped. “For half a groat I’d gladly have her tongue torn out.”

  “Don’t you say that,” Tommen shouted suddenly, his round little face turning red. “You leave her tongue alone. Don’t you touch her. I’m the king, not you.”

  She stared at him, incredulous. “What did you say?”

  “I’m the king. I get to say who has their tongues torn out, not you. I won’t let you hurt Margaery. I won’t. I forbid it.”

  Cersei took him by the ear and dragged him squealing to the door, where she found Ser Boros Blount standing guard. “Ser Boros, His Grace has forgotten himself. Kindly escort him to his bedchamber and bring up Pate. This time I want Tommen to whip the boy himself. He is to continue until the boy is bleeding from both cheeks. If His Grace refuses, or says one word of protest, summon Qyburn and tell him to remove Pate’s tongue, so His Grace can learn the cost of insolence.”

  “As you command,” Ser Boros huffed, glancing at the king uneasily. “Your Grace, please come with me.”

  As night fell over the Red Keep, Jocelyn kindled a fire in the queen’s hearth whilst Dorcas lit the bedside candles. Cersei opened the window for a breath of air, and found that the clouds had rolled back in to hide the stars. “Such a dark night, Your Grace,” murmured Dorcas.

  Aye, she thought, but not so dark as in the Maidenvault, or on Dragonstone where Loras Tyrell lies burned and bleeding, or down in the black cells beneath the castle. The queen did not know why that occurred to her. She had resolved not to give Falyse another thought. Single combat. Falyse should have known better than to marry such a fool. The word from Stokeworth was that Lady Tanda had died of a chill in the chest, brought on by her broken hip. Lollys Lackwit had been proclaimed Lady Stokeworth, with Ser Bronn her lord. Tanda dead and Gyles dying. It is well that we have Moon Boy, or the court would be entirely bereft of fools. The queen smiled as she lay her head upon the pillow. When I kissed her cheek, I could taste the salt of her tears.

  She dreamt an old dream, of three girls in brown cloaks, a wattled crone, and a tent that smelled of death.

  The crone’s tent was dark, with a tall peaked roof. She did not want to go in, no more than she had wanted to at ten, but the other girls were watching her, so she could not turn away. They were three in the dream, as they had been in life. Fat Jeyne Farman hung back as she always did. It was a wonder she had come this far. Melara Hetherspoon was bolder, older, and prettier, in a freckly sort of way. Wrapped in roughspun cloaks with their hoods pulled up, the three of them had stolen from their beds and crossed the tourney grounds to seek the sorceress. Melara had heard the serving girls whispering how she could curse a man or make him fall in love, summon demons and foretell the future.

  In life the girls had been breathless and giddy, whispering to each other as they went, as excited as they were afraid. The dream was different. In the dream the pavilions were shadowed, and the knights and serving men they passed were made of mist. The girls wandered for a long while before they found the crone’s tent. By the time they did all the torches were guttering out. Cersei watched the girls huddling, whispering to one another. Go back, she tried to tell them. Turn away. There is nothing here for you. But though she moved her mouth, no words came out.

  Lord Tywin’s daughter was the first through the flap, with Melara close behind her. Jeyne Farman came last, and tried to hide behind the other two, the way she always did.

  The inside of the tent was full of smells. Cinnamon and nutmeg. Pepper, red and white and black. Almond milk and onions. Cloves and lemongrass and precious saffron, and stranger spices, rarer still. The only light came from an iron brazier shaped like a basilisk’s head, a dim green light that made the walls of the tent look cold and dead and rotten. Had it been that way in life as well? Cersei could not seem to remember.

  The sorceress was sleeping in the dream, as once she’d slept in life. Leave her be, the queen wanted to cry out. You little fools, never wake a sleeping sorceress. Without a tongue, she could only watch as the girl threw off her cloak, kicked the witch’s bed, and said, “Wake up, we want our futures told.”

  When Maggy the Frog opened her eyes, Jeyne Farman gave a frightened squeak and fled the tent, plunging headlong back into the night. Plump stupid timid little Jeyne, pasty-faced and fat and scared of every shadow. She was the wise one, though. Jeyne lived on Fair Isle still. She had married one of her lord brother’s bannermen and whelped a dozen children.

  The old woman’s eyes were yellow, and crusted all about with something vile. In Lannisport it was said that she had been young and beautiful when her husband
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