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Another, Younger, More Beautiful

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*/*/*/*/*

Little Bee, despite being little no longer but a woman grown, is still only fifteen, which is why she knows she will be forgiven for her exclaiming at all the sights that greet her excited eyes as her mother’s carriage rolls through the streets.  Bee and her family are just one of those making their way to the still-rebuilding Red Keep in King’s Landing to attend a great tourney hosted by King Jaime I and his Queen, Brienne of Tarth.

There were many reasons named for the tourney:  the progress made in rebuilding the Seven Kingdoms; five years of regular seasons and rich harvests; five years since the end of the Long Night, but all who received the ravens know what is truly behind it:  King Jaime may be wed, maimed, and old—forty!—but he is still sweet to look upon, so Bee’s heard…and he is a King without an heir after more than five years of marriage.

Every surviving noble-born family is therefore flocking to King’s Landing to dangle their unwed daughters before King Jaime’s eyes, determined that the sweet plum he picks will be theirs.  Bee may be only fifteen, but she is as pretty as some of the other girls gathering here, and prettier than most.  If the Queen is even half as ugly as they claim then Bee has just as much chance to be chosen by the King as any of the others.  She even heard her mother, when she thought Bee was dozing, confide in Bee’s older sisters that she is confident Bee will be chosen for she has golden curls, green eyes, and her true name is Cersei.

*/*/*/*/*

Bee barely hears the Queen’s welcoming words, so diverted is she by the Queen’s looks…or lack of them.

“Even uglier than the gossips said,” her cousin Cynthea whispers in her ear.

Bee can’t help but feel a surge of pity for the ugly beast and wonders what fate awaits such a creature once she is set aside by the King and replaced with a younger, more beautiful bride.  Nothing about Brienne of Tarth is fit to be Queen.  She is greeting her guests dressed in breeches and gambeson with a sword at her hip, which is shocking enough, but she is also hideously scarred and dour, slow of speech, and only nods in awkward silence as the ladies present their daughters with sly smiles and coyly mocking words.

“‘Tis no great mystery now why the Queen has not yet given the King an heir,” Cynthea whispers as they take their leave and follow their mothers, who are, in turn, following the serving girls to their apartments in the newly rebuilt holdfast to the east of the Great Hall.  “She is as slow-witted as she is ugly, and if you have no looks, you must at least have wit.”  Cynthea’s smile is thoughtful and smug as she tosses her head.  “I am both pretty and witty.”  She slides an arch look in Bee’s direction.  “The King will not want a Queen Bee; none would take you seriously with such a name!  I am also certain no one wishes for another Queen Cersei, given the last.”

Bee lets her cousin’s words wash over her as she pats her golden curls and smooths her hands down her slender, velvet-and-silk-covered waist.

“Names can be changed,” Bee says, “but you cannot change the fact you are not near as comely as I, and I, too, have a quick wit.”

“But you are both Freys,” says a new voice, and they turn to see Bess Bracken strolling behind them with a mocking smile.  “Victory is not guaranteed by looks and wit alone.”

For a moment Bee’s confidence wavers then firms.

“True,” she says in dulcet tones, “youth matters as well, for an instance.  You, sadly, have already turned twenty.”

“Twenty,” Cynthea says, shaking her head with false sympathy, “and still unwed.”

“At least I am not a Frey, and I am still younger than the Queen,” Bess says and saunters away with a knowing sway to her hips.

*/*/*/*/*

The next afternoon, Bee slips away from the other young ladies who are vying for the King’s favour—once they finally meet him, of course—to wander the Red Keep, taking care to remain unseen.  It will not do to cast doubts upon her reputation!  By rights, she should have a companion or a septa with her, but she wishes no restrictions on her wanderings and she doubts she will be this free to go where she will once she’s Queen.  She’ll have duties, she thinks vaguely, and the babes she will dutifully give the King will surely take up her time.

Bee goes where her curiosity takes her, making note of those rooms of the castle she wishes to change, and dreaming of all her cousins begging her favour once she’s Queen.  She’s lost in a particularly satisfying vision of her cousins being forced to call her Queen Bee with sincerity rather than mockery when her thoughts are interrupted by a woman’s voice, stopping her in her tracks.

“I believe you lured me here under false pretenses, Your Grace.”  The woman’s voice is warm, fond, amused, teasing.

“Nothing false about them, wench, as I proved to you twice over.”

Jaime!

“Have I told you how pleased I am that your entire body blushes when I tease you?”

There’s a thud and an ‘oof’ followed by Jaime—the King’s!—laughter.

Bee’s breath catches in her throat and her eyes widen as she realizes what she’s stumbled upon:  the King and his whore, in the same castle as his wife.  She follows the laughter to a half-closed door on her left.

“Come now, wench, you should be pleased I missed you so dreadfully all those endless nights I was away—”

“Two nights, Jaime.”

“—missed you so dreadfully that I galloped day and night—”

“You were at Stokeworth.  It’s half-a-day’s ride at most!”

“—and returned, breathless and ardent, to seek you out—”

“You sent a message.”

“—and show you how desperately I love you.”

“…well, that one is true enough.”

Jaime laughs, as does the woman, a soft, shy, pretty sound, that is abruptly cut short and Bee realizes the King must be kissing her.

Bee stands, riveted, and feels surprising sorrow for the two lovers:  the King, trapped in a loveless marriage, forced to meet the low-born woman he truly loves in half-finished corners of his castle.

Then she lifts her chin.

But she will not stand for such behaviour once she’s Queen!

“Tell me true, sweetling,” the King murmurs, “did you not miss me as well?”

“You know I did, Jaime, with all my heart,” the woman says, her voice soft, “not least because I believe I felt the babe quicken and you were not here to share in it.”

“Quickened!  Truly?”

“Truly…although the maester warns it may have only been the auroch stew twisting in my bel—”

She is stopped mid-word, and Bee puts a hand to her own mouth to muffle her gasp.  A bastard, she thinks, her heart sinking.  There is nothing to stop the King from legitimizing the babe, if a boy, and making him heir to the Iron Throne.

She frowns.

Yet another battle to fight, once wed to the man.  Mayhaps being Queen is more trouble than it’s worth.  Still…she would be Queen...

“Jaime,” the woman says, her voice soft and filled with regret, startling Bee once again from her thoughts, “we really do need to get back.  The Red Keep is overflowing with high-born guests, or have you forgotten?”

Jaime sighs.  “And whose idea was that?”

“Yours.”

“I did not hear you or the Small Council raise any objections!”

“You are the King, Your Grace; would I dare raise an objection to anything you desire?”

“…saucy wench, to tease me so when we have no more time to discuss all that I desire.”

The woman laughs again.

“Still, sadly, you are right,” Jaime sighs.  “Help me finish dressing and we shall return to the world outside these walls.”

There is the sound of rustling cloth as the hidden pair replace their clothing.

Bee glances round, looking for a hiding place from which she can catch a glimpse of her unknown rival.  She’s barely whisked herself and her skirts behind a pillar almost opposite the door when it swings fully open and the two emerge.

The King is as handsome as Bee’s been told and for a moment she’s dazzled by his good looks and arrogant air.  Then she turns her attention to his companion and her jaw slowly drops, because there, in all her ugly glory, is the Queen.  They look both pleased and relaxed, fully comfortable in each other’s presence.  They pause on the threshold of the room to share a smile that is almost overwhelming in its tenderness as is the expression on their faces and in their eyes as they gaze at each other.  Bee cannot put a name to the emotions she’s seeing--’love’ seems too pale a word for this--but whatever it is makes her heart flutter and fills her with envy.

The King and Queen kiss, Jaime lifting his chin slightly to reach Brienne’s lips, then they turn and stride away, their steps perfectly matched in speed and length.

Bee stands motionless for long moments before creeping out from behind the pillar to follow slowly behind them.

No, she cannot name with certainty what she saw in their faces, but one thing she does know:  this King will not be choosing a new Queen.

Ever.

Well, not that it matters, she supposes, a slow smile spreading across her face.  ‘Queen’ Bee would have sounded silly anyway.

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