A feast for crows, p.58
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       A Feast for Crows, p.58

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

  castle sows, and served them ham studded with cloves and basted with honey and dried cherries. It was not what Cersei wanted, but she made do. Afterward they had baked apples with a sharp white cheese. Lady Taena savored every bite. Not so Orton Merryweather, whose round face remained blotched and pale from broth to cheese. He drank heavily and kept stealing glances at the singer.

  “A great pity about Lord Gyles,” Cersei said at last. “I daresay none of us will miss his coughing, though.”

  “No. No, I’d think not.”

  “We shall have need of a new lord treasurer. If the Vale were not so unsettled, I would bring back Petyr Baelish, but… I am minded to try Ser Harys in the office. He can do no worse than Gyles, and at least he does not cough.”

  “Ser Harys is the King’s Hand,” said Taena.

  Ser Harys is a hostage, and feeble even at that. “It is time that Tommen had a more forceful Hand.”

  Lord Orton lifted his gaze from his wine cup. “Forceful. To be sure.” He hesitated. “Who…?”

  “You, my lord. It is in your blood. Your grandsire took my own father’s place as Hand to Aerys.” Replacing Tywin Lannister with Owen Merryweather had proved to be akin to replacing a destrier with a donkey, to be sure, but Owen had been an old done man when Aerys raised him, amiable if ineffectual. His grandson was younger, and… Well, he has a strong wife. It was a pity Taena could not serve as Hand. She was thrice the man her husband was, and far more amusing. She was also Myrish-born and female, however, so Orton must needs suffice. “I have no doubt that you are more able than Ser Harys.” The contents of my chamber pot are more able than Ser Harys. “Will you consent to serve?”

  “I… yes, of course. Your Grace does me great honor.”

  A greater one than you deserve. “You have served me ably as justiciar, my lord. And will continue to do so through these… trying times ahead.” When she saw that Merryweather had grasped her meaning, the queen turned to smile at the singer. “And you must be rewarded as well, for all the sweet songs you have played for us whilst we ate. The gods have given you a gift.”

  The singer bowed. “Your Grace is kind to say so.”

  “Not kind,” said Cersei, “merely truthful. Taena tells me that you are called the Blue Bard.”

  “I am, Your Grace.” The singer’s boots were supple blue calfskin, his breeches fine blue wool. The tunic he wore was pale blue silk slashed with shiny blue satin. He had even gone so far as to dye his hair blue, in the Tyroshi fashion. Long and curly, it fell to his shoulders and smelled as if it had been washed in rosewater. From blue roses, no doubt. At least his teeth are white. They were good teeth, not the least bit crooked.

  “You have no other name?”

  A hint of pink suffused his cheeks. “As a boy, I was called Wat. A fine name for a plowboy, less fitting for a singer.”

  The Blue Bard’s eyes were the same color as Robert’s. For that alone, she hated him. “It is easy to see why you are Lady Margaery’s favorite.”

  “Her Grace is kind. She says I give her pleasure.”

  “Oh, I’m certain of it. Might I see your lute?”

  “If it please Your Grace.” Beneath the courtesy, there was a faint hint of unease, but he handed her the lute all the same. One does not refuse the queen’s request.

  Cersei plucked a string and smiled at the sound. “Sweet and sad as love. Tell me, Wat… the first time you took Margaery to bed, was that before she wed my son, or after?”

  For a moment he did not seem to understand. When he did, his eyes grew large. “Your Grace has been misinformed. I swear to you, I never—”

  “Liar!” Cersei smashed the lute across the singer’s face so hard the painted wood exploded into shards and splinters. “Lord Orton, summon my guards and take this creature to the dungeons.”

  Orton Merryweather’s face was damp with fear. “This… oh, infamy… he dared seduce the queen?”

  “I fear it was the other way around, but he is a traitor all the same. Let him sing for Lord Qyburn.”

  The Blue Bard went white. “No.” Blood dripped from his lip where the lute had torn it. “I never…” When Merryweather seized him by the arm, he screamed, “Mother have mercy, no.”

  “I am not your mother,” Cersei told him.

  Even in the black cells, all they got from him were denials, prayers, and pleas for mercy. Before long, blood was streaming down his chin from all his broken teeth, and he wet his dark blue breeches three times over, yet still the man persisted in his lies. “Is it possible we have the wrong singer?” Cersei asked.

  “All things are possible, Your Grace. Have no fear. The man will confess before the night is done.” Down here in the dungeons, Qyburn wore roughspun wool and a blacksmith’s leather apron. To the Blue Bard he said, “I am sorry if the guards were rough with you. Their courtesies are sadly lacking.” His voice was kind, solicitous. “All we want from you is the truth.”

  “I’ve told you the truth,” the singer sobbed. Iron shackles held him hard against the cold stone wall.

  “We know better.” Qyburn had a razor in his hand, its edge gleaming faintly in the torchlight. He cut away the Blue Bard’s clothing, until the man was naked but for his high blue boots. The hair between his legs was brown, Cersei was amused to see. “Tell us how you pleasured the little queen,” she commanded.

  “I never… I sang, was all, I sang and played. Her ladies will tell you. They were always with us. Her cousins.”

  “How many of them did you have carnal knowledge of?”

  “None of them. I’m just a singer. Please.”

  Qyburn said, “Your Grace, mayhaps this poor man only played for Margaery whilst she entertained other lovers.”

  “No. Please. She never… I sang, I only sang…”

  Lord Qyburn ran a hand up the Blue Bard’s chest. “Does she take your nipples in her mouth during your love play?” He took one between his thumb and forefinger, and twisted. “Some men enjoy that. Their nipples are as sensitive as a woman’s.” The razor flashed, the singer shrieked. On his chest a wet red eye wept blood. Cersei felt ill. Part of her wanted to close her eyes, to turn away, to make it stop. But she was the queen and this was treason. Lord Tywin would not have turned away.

  In the end the Blue Bard told them his whole life, back to his first name day. His father had been a chandler and Wat was raised to that trade, but as a boy he found he had more skill at making lutes than barrels. When he was twelve he ran off to join a troupe of musicians he had heard performing at a fair. He had wandered half the Reach before coming to King’s Landing in hopes of finding favor at court.

  “Favor?” Qyburn chuckled. “Is that what women call it now? I fear you found too much of it, my friend… and from the wrong queen. The true one stands before you.”

  Yes. Cersei blamed Margaery Tyrell for this. If not for her, Wat might have lived a long and fruitful life, singing his little songs and bedding pig girls and crofter’s daughters. Her scheming forced this on me. She has soiled me with her treachery.

  By dawn the singer’s high blue boots were full of blood, and he had told them how Margaery would fondle herself as she watched her cousins pleasuring him with their mouths. At other times he would sing for her whilst she sated her lusts with other lovers. “Who were they?” the queen demanded, and the wretched Wat named Ser Tallad the Tall, Lambert Turnberry, Jalabhar Xho, the Redwyne twins, Osney Kettleblack, Hugh Clifton, and the Knight of Flowers.

  That displeased her. She dare not besmirch the name of the hero of Dragonstone. Besides, no one who knew Ser Loras would ever believe it. The Redwynes could not be a part of it either. Without the Arbor and its fleet, the realm could never hope to rid itself of this Euron Crow’s Eye and his accursed ironmen. “All you are doing is spitting up the names of men you saw about her chambers. We want the truth!”

  “The truth.” Wat looked at her with the one blue eye that Qyburn had left him. Blood bubbled through the holes where his front teeth had been. “I might
have… misremembered.”

  “Horas and Hobber had no part of this, did they?”

  “No,” he admitted. “Not them.”

  “As for Ser Loras, I am certain Margaery took pains to hide what she was doing from her brother.”

  “She did. I remember now. Once I had to hide under the bed when Ser Loras came to see her. He must never know, she said.”

  “I prefer this song to the other.” Leave the great lords out of it, that was for the best. The others, though… Ser Tallad had been a hedge knight, Jalabhar Xho was an exile and a beggar, Clifton was the only one of the little queen’s guardsman. And Osney is the plum that makes the pudding. “I know you feel better for having told the truth. You will want to remember that when Margaery comes to trial. If you were to start lying again…”

  “I won’t. I’ll tell it true. And after…”

  “… you will be allowed to take the black. You have my word on that.” Cersei turned to Qyburn. “See that his wounds are cleaned and dressed, and give him milk of the poppy for the pain.”

  “Your Grace is good.” Qyburn dropped the bloody razor into a pail of vinegar. “Margaery may wonder where her bard has gone.”

  “Singers come and go, they are infamous for it.”

  The climb up the dark stone steps from the black cells left Cersei feeling breathless. I must rest. Getting to the truth was wearisome work, and she dreaded what must follow. I must be strong. What I must do I do for Tommen and the realm. It was a pity that Maggy the Frog was dead. Piss on your prophecy, old woman. The little queen may be younger than I, but she has never been more beautiful, and soon she will be dead.

  Lady Merryweather was waiting in her bedchamber. It was the black of night, closer to dawn than to dusk. Jocelyn and Dorcas were both asleep, but not Taena. “Was it terrible?” she asked.

  “You cannot know. I need to sleep, but fear to dream.”

  Taena stroked her hair. “It was all for Tommen.”

  “It was. I know it was.” Cersei shuddered. “My throat is raw. Be a sweet and pour me some wine.”

  “If it please you. That is all that I desire.”

  Liar. She knew what Taena desired. So be it. If the woman was besotted with her, that would help ensure that she and her husband remained loyal. In a world so full of treachery, that was worth a few kisses. She is no worse than most men. At least there is no danger of her ever getting me with child.

  The wine helped, but not enough. “I feel soiled,” the queen complained as she stood beside her window, cup in hand.

  “A bath will set you right, my sweet.” Lady Merryweather woke Dorcas and Jocelyn and sent them for hot water. As the tub was filled, she helped the queen disrobe, undoing her laces with deft fingers and easing the gown off her shoulders. Then she slipped out of her own dress and let it puddle on the floor.

  The two of them shared the bath together, with Cersei lying back in Taena’s arms. “Tommen must be spared the worst of this,” she told the Myrish woman. “Margaery still takes him to the sept every day, so they can ask the gods to heal her brother.” Ser Loras still clung to life, annoyingly. “He is fond of her cousins as well. It will go hard on him, to lose them all.”

  “All three may not be guilty,” suggested Lady Merryweather. “Why, it might well be that one of them took no part. If she was shamed and sickened by the things she saw…”

  “… she might be persuaded to bear witness against the others. Yes, very good, but which one is the innocent?”

  “Alla.”

  “The shy one?”

  “So she seems, but there is more of sly than shy in her. Leave her to me, my sweet.”

  “Gladly.” Alone, the Blue Bard’s confession would never suffice. Singers lied for their living, after all. Alla Tyrell would be of great help, if Taena could deliver her. “Ser Osney shall confess as well. The others must be made to understand that only through confession can they earn the king’s forgiveness, and the Wall.” Jalabhar Xho would find the truth attractive. About the rest she was less certain, but Qyburn was persuasive…

  Dawn was breaking over King’s Landing when they climbed from the tub. The queen’s skin was white and wrinkled from her long immersion. “Stay with me,” she told Taena. “I do not want to sleep alone.” She even said a prayer before she crawled beneath her coverlet, beseeching the Mother for sweet dreams.

  It proved a waste of breath; as ever, the gods were deaf. Cersei dreamt that she was down in the black cells once again, only this time it was her chained to the wall in place of the singer. She was naked, and blood dripped from the tips of her breasts where the Imp had torn off her nipples with his teeth. “Please,” she begged, “please, not my children, do not harm my children.” Tyrion only leered at her. He was naked too, covered with coarse hair that made him look more like a monkey than a man. “You shall see them crowned,” he said, “and you shall see them die.” Then he took her bleeding breast into his mouth and began to suck, and pain sawed through her like a hot knife.

  She woke shuddering in Taena’s arms. “A bad dream,” she said weakly. “Did I scream? I’m sorry.”

  “Dreams turn to dust in light of day. Was it the dwarf again? Why does he frighten you so, this silly little man?”

  “He is going to kill me. It was foreseen when I was ten. I wanted to know who I would marry, but she said…”

  “She?”

  “The maegi.” The words came tumbling out of her. She could still hear Melara Hetherspoon insisting that if they never spoke about the prophecies, they would not come true. She was not so silent in the well, though. She screamed and shouted. “Tyrion is the valonqar,” she said. “Do you use that word in Myr? It’s High Valyrian, it means little brother.” She had asked Septa Saranella about the word, after Melara drowned.

  Taena took her hand and stroked it. “This was a hateful woman, old and sick and ugly. You were young and beautiful, full of life and pride. She lived in Lannisport, you said, so she would have known of the dwarf and how he killed your lady mother. This creature dared not strike you, because of who you were, so she sought to wound you with her viper’s tongue.”

  Could it be? Cersei wanted to believe it. “Melara died, though, just as she foretold. I never wed Prince Rhaegar. And Joffrey… the dwarf killed my son before my eyes.”

  “One son,” said Lady Merryweather, “but you have another, sweet and strong, and no harm will ever come to him.”

  “Never, whilst I live.” Saying it helped her believe that it was so. Dreams turn to dust in light of day, yes. Outside the morning sun was shining through a haze of cloud. Cersei slipped out from under the blankets. “I will break my fast with the king this morning. I want to see my son.” All I do, I do for him.

  Tommen helped restore her to herself. He had never been more precious to her than he was that morning, chattering about his kittens as he dribbled honey onto a chunk of hot black bread fresh from the ovens. “Ser Pounce caught a mouse,” he told her, “but Lady Whiskers stole it from him.”

  I was never so sweet and innocent, Cersei thought. How can he ever hope to rule in this cruel realm? The mother in her wanted only to protect him; the queen in her knew he must grow harder, or the Iron Throne was certain to devour him. “Ser Pounce must learn to defend his rights,” she told him. “In this world the weak are always the victims of the strong.”

  The king considered that, licking honey off his fingers. “When Ser Loras comes back I’m going to learn to fight with lance and sword and morningstar, the same way he does.”

  “You will learn to fight,” the queen promised, “but not from Ser Loras. He will not be coming back, Tommen.”

  “Margaery says he will. We pray for him. We ask for the Mother’s mercy, and for the Warrior to give him strength. Elinor says that this is Ser Loras’s hardest battle.”

  She smoothed his hair back, the soft golden curls that reminded her so much of Joff. “Will you be spending the afternoon with your wife and her cousins?”

  “Not toda
y. She has to fast and purify herself, she said.”

  Fast and purify… oh, for Maiden’s Day. It had been years since Cersei had been required to observe that particular holy day. Thrice wed, yet she still would have us believe she is a maid. Demure in white, the little queen would lead her hens to Baelor’s Sept to light tall white candles at the Maiden’s feet and hang parchment garlands about her holy neck. A few of her hens, at least. On Maiden’s Day widows, mothers, and whores alike were barred from the septs, along with men, lest they profane the sacred songs of innocence. Only virgin maids could…

  “Mother? Did I say something wrong?”

  Cersei kissed her son’s brow. “You said something very wise, sweetling. Now run along and play with your kittens.”

  Afterward she summoned Ser Osney Kettleblack to her solar. He came in sweaty from the yard and swaggering, and as he took a knee he undressed her with his eyes, the way he always did.

  “Rise, ser, and sit here next to me. You did me a valiant service once, but now I have a harder task for you.”

  “Aye, and I have something hard for you.”

  “That must wait.” She traced his scars lightly with the tips of her fingers. “Do you recall the whore who gave these to you? I’ll give her to you when you come back from the Wall. Would you like that?”

  “It’s you I want.”

  That was the right answer. “First you must confess your treason. A man’s sins can poison his soul if left to fester. I know it must be hard for you to live with what you’ve done. It is past time that you rid yourself of your shame.”

  “Shame?” Osney sounded baffled. “I told Osmund, Margaery just teases. She never lets me do any more than…”

  “It is chivalrous of you to protect her,” Cersei broke in, “but you are too good a knight to go on living with your crime. No, you must take yourself to the Great Sept of Baelor this very night and speak with the High Septon. When a man’s sins are so black, only His High Holiness himself can save him from hell’s torments. Tell him how you bedded Margaery and her cousins.”

  Osney blinked. “What, the cousins too?”

  “Megga and Elinor,” she decided, “never Alla.” That little detail would make the whole story more plausible. “Alla would sit weeping, and plead with the others to stop their sinning.”

  “Just Megga and Elinor? Or Margaery too?”

  “Margaery, most certainly. She was the one behind it all.”

  She told him all she had in mind. As Osney listened, apprehension slowly spread across his face. When she finished he said, “After you cut her head off, I want to take that kiss she never gave me.”

  “You may take all the kisses you like.”

  “And then the Wall?”

  “For just a little while. Tommen is a forgiving king.”

  Osney scratched at his scarred cheek. “Usually if I lie about some woman, it’s me saying how I never fucked them and them saying how I did. This… I never lied to no High Septon before. I think you go to some hell for that. One o’ the bad ones.”

  The queen was taken aback. The last thing she expected was piety from a Kettleblack. “Are you refusing to obey me?”

  “No.” Osney touched her golden hair. “The thing is, the best lies have some truth in ’em… to give ’em flavor, as it were. And you want me to go tell how I fucked a queen…”

  She almost slapped his face. Almost. But she had gone too far, and too much was at stake. All I do, I do for Tommen. She turned her head and caught Ser Osney’s hand with her own, kissing his fingers. They were rough and hard, callused from the sword. Robert had hands like that, she thought.

  Cersei wrapped her arms about his neck. “I would not want it said I made a liar of you,” she whispered in a husky voice. “Give me an hour, and meet me in my bedchamber.”

  “We waited long enough.” He thrust his fingers inside the bodice of her gown and yanked, and the silk parted with a ripping sound so loud that Cersei was afraid that half of the Red Keep must have heard it. “Take off the rest before I tear that too,” he said. “You can keep the crown on. I like you in the crown.”

  THE PRINCESS IN THE TOWER

  Hers was a gentle prison.

  Arianne took solace from that. Why would her father go to such great pains to provide for her comfort in captivity if he had marked her for a traitor’s death? He cannot mean to kill me, she told herself a hundred times. He does not have it in him to be so cruel. I am his blood and seed, his heir, his only daughter. If need be, she would throw herself beneath the wheels of his chair, admit her fault, and beg him for his pardon. And she would weep. When he saw tears rolling down her face, he would forgive her.

  She was less certain whether she would forgive herself.

  “Areo,” she had pleaded with her captor during the long dry ride from the Greenblood back to Sunspear, “I never wanted the girl to come to harm. You must believe me.”

  Hotah made no reply, except to grunt. Arianne could feel his anger. Darkstar had escaped him, the most dangerous of all her little group of plotters. He had outraced all his pursuers and vanished into the deep desert, with blood upon his blade.

  “You know me, captain,” Arianne had said, as the leagues rolled past. “You have known me since I was little. You always kept me safe, as you kept my lady mother safe when you came with her from Great Norvos to be her shield in a
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