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Matters of Honor

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Morning shadows stretched across the training yard, the curve of the moon still visible alongside the White Sword Tower. Only the first fingers of sunrise lit the space, but it was bright enough to fight by. Jaime parried a sharp stroke hard enough to send Ser Ilyn staggering. You’re too slow, you silent fool.

Jaime took advantage of Ser Ilyn’s stumble and brought his sword down in an arc, slamming the flat of it against his back. Ser Ilyn fell to one knee. Jaime kicked his sword hand and sent his blade skittering across the yard. He put his own sword to the back of the man’s neck. “Yield.”

A nod signaled Ser Ilyn’s assent. The knight retrieved his blade, then stood and faced Jaime once more. He waited, silently asking whether they were to continue. The former captain of his father's guard was an unsettling man at the best of times, but the moment did him no favors. His pockmarked face was red, the ends of greasy hair hung from his halfhelm, matted to his neck with sweat, and his eyes burned with what Jaime suspected was resentment.

Jaime didn’t mind. I wouldn’t like being pushed around the practice yard for hours a day either. At least it doesn’t have anything to do with Aerys. When Jaime told Ser Ilyn how the king had shit himself before Jaime touched him with a sword, how he’d squirmed and squealed like a pig until Jaime drew a crimson smile across his throat, the other man had smiled like the tale was a gift.

The memory drew a slight mercy from him. Jaime sheathed his sword. "Let's be done."

Ser Ilyn bowed his head again, and they went together to the armory.

Jaime studied his father’s man as they walked. Robert had appointed him King’s Justice as one of many small attempts to appease Lord Tywin for marrying the disgraced Stark girl instead of Cersei. It'd caused quite a stir, that choice, as he'd already given a halfhearted promise to make Cersei queen when Ned Stark dragged Lyanna back, to everyone's surprise.

Jaime would've rather Robert wed Cersei, much as the circumstances would've irked him. But Ser Ilyn was something of a hollow consolation. He was someone to talk to, and lonely enough to indulge Jaime, more or less. Or simply obedient to my father. That was always a possibility. Whatever his reasons, it was better to practice with him than others of the Kingsguard.

Jaime slowed as they approached the armory. Voices drifted from inside. One rang out louder than the other, too far for words to carry, but the tones familiar. Ser Ilyn made a clacking noise that passed for his laugh.

Jaime trudged onward. I will not cower. Ser Ilyn’s laughter spoke the truth of it, however. They both well knew Jaime would have fled had the headsman not been there to make standing his ground a matter of pride.

“I’m still twice the swordsman you’ll ever be,” Jaime muttered. “And I have a tongue.”

Ser Ilyn cast a pointed look at Jaime’s crotch to indicate what he believed he had that Jaime lacked. Jaime flushed crimson, but said nothing.

In the armory, Ser Arthur and Ser Mark were readying for practice. Ser Arthur looked up at the sound of footsteps, and though Jaime wished to make a clever quip to demonstrate his indifference, he could no more produce a sound than Ser Ilyn would’ve been able. It was easy enough to pretend with the others, but Arthur still looked at him like he expected something. What, Jaime could not say, and that only frustrated him further.

Jaime thrust his blunted sword into its place, devoting the full of his attention to the task.

Ser Arthur spoke. Not to Jaime. To Ser Mark. His friend from the Tower of Joy. The kind, soft-spoken Northman who was touted throughout court as the truest of true knights. Ser Mark was too busy watching Jaime to keep up his half of the conversation.

A true knight, thought Jaime. I could cut him in half with my eyes closed.

Jaime removed his helm and began to set aside the sparse armor he’d donned for training. Turning his back further, he picked up his sword belt and good sword. His white kingsguard armor was back in his chambers at the tower. He had time yet to wash in the bathhouse and break his fast before he was to report to the queen.

Jaime forced a smile and looked at Ser Ilyn. “We will meet again tomorrow,” said he, then walked from the armory without looking back.

Jaime rarely guarded the king. It wasn’t because Robert didn’t trust him. The king liked him, at least in the generally friendly way he liked most people. Robert was in fact the only person who reacted to Aerys’s death in what Jaime felt a logical manner.

He didn’t guard Robert because the Stark woman took all his time. She did not wish to be guarded by those who were with her in Dorne. Ser Barristan and Ser Arys, she allowed, but felt she needed to behave constantly for their benefit, and disliked them for that. And Ser Mark treated her as a child, as Ned would have, she insisted.

Lyanna told him all of this when he’d asked why Eddard Stark’s sister wanted anything to do with him.

“I’d think having the Kingslayer around all day would be more objectionable to any of those things,” was his reply.

“You underestimate the value I place on freedom,” she returned. “Even if it’s only granted through your indifference.”

He’d considered protesting that he wasn’t indifferent, but she had the truth of it. As it didn’t seem to bother her, he saw no reason to lie. Thus he spent his days trailing her like a duck its mother and let her get away with her little adventures, always within reason.

The arrangement did in fact suit them both. As Robert no more liked having Lyanna guarded by her former captors than she, Jaime scarcely had to interact with those of his brothers it hurt the most to see.

This day, he watched Queen Lyanna and a number of ladies mingle in the gardens, occasionally commenting on the flowers or the weather. This cannot actually entertain them. But watching them did not interest him either. Still he did it. Because it was expected. Because it was his job. It’s the same for the queen, if not the others. His eyes tracked her as she wandered from the others, steps quickening, arms extended on either side of her like a bird’s wings. Though wings not as fit for flight as she’d like.

Perpetual sadness clung to the queen as it had Rhaegar, but she hid it better, not indulging it, but shoving it deftly aside. Jaime saw it only because he knew more than anyone about suffocating dark thoughts with smiles. Even now, she interacted with the ladies as if they were the best of friends, like she couldn’t see the venom in their glances, or the things they whispered behind her back. Wolf Bitch, Dragon’s Whore, The Sullied Queen. She has more names than I do.

Lyanna wandered his way. She was tall for a woman, her head coming past his chin, with a long face that should have been plain, but which formed a pretty enough whole when taking into account the shape of her eyes and mold of her nose and lips. She’s nowhere near as beautiful as Cersei, but she’s lovey, in her way.

“Your grace,” Jaime said.

She stopped near him and traced a finger over the petals of a flower budding on a nearby bush. It should’ve been an inane, girlish gesture, but she did so solemnly, almost with anger. “A pretty flower,” her expression said. “What a silly, stupid thing.”

She stared at it a moment longer, then came back to herself.

“I’m bored senseless, Ser Jaime," said she.

She talked to him for the same reason Jaime talked to Ser Ilyn. He was available and had little choice but to listen. Elia had done the same, sometimes. He’d once come upon the princess in clear discomfort, and she’d told him plainly that she wasn’t ill – her moon’s blood was upon her. She saw she’d shocked him and laughed and put a hand on his cheek. “A princess cannot hold her tongue all the time, Ser Jaime. You’ll not judge me if I act a little human when I must?” Jaime fidgeted, and she’d kissed his cheek. “There’s a sweet boy somewhere in there, isn’t there?”

Jaime stared at the flower Lyanna had been studying. It was stupid. A useless, pretty thing that was good for nothing at all. He had to fight the urge to crush it in his hand.

To Lyanna, Jaime said, “You’re the queen. If you’re bored, tell the women to leave. Do something else. Robert would allow it.”

“A queen can do many things. There are also many things she should do. I cannot neglect every lady at court.”

“They speak snidely of you.”                  

“What does it matter what they say?” Lyanna threw her nose up, long hair rippling around her shoulders. "Words are wind.”

The word Kingslayer never felt like wind. It felt like a hundred burning knives, sent straight into his back whenever he heard it. False Brother was another name he'd gained, this from the others in the Kingsguard. He’d slipped away unseen the first time he heard, then hurried to his cell and cried. How he hated himself for that. It was when he’d gone to bribe Ser Ilyn to practice with him, so he'd not have to bother with the others.

Lyanna moved closer to him, her arm brushing his. “I’ve been meaning to ask you something,”

Jaime frowned at her. With Lyanna so close, voice lowering to share a secret... She doesn’t mean-

She hit his arm. “Don’t be stupid. I'd think you believe what they say about me.”

Jaime didn’t. He didn’t think she was a whore anyway. He wasn’t so certain she'd been kidnapped, exactly, but no one thought that except the king. Even Lord Stark didn’t think it. Jaime had watched him at the wedding, had seen him level his judging stare on Lyanna just as he had on Jaime. It was one of the reasons he did not hate her.

“I think you’re the epitome of queenly elegance, your grace,” said Jaime. “Now tell me what you want from me. I am at your service.”

She wrung her hands, looking genuinely apprehensive.

“I want you to teach me to use a sword.”

Jaime looked away.

Cersei used to like swordplay. She borrowed his clothes and stole his lessons. She'd been heartbroken when their father found out and put a stop to it. "Why do you care so much?” Jaime asked his sister.“Girls learn other stuff. That’s how it is.”

“Girls learn how to be weak. I get to learn how to serve all the men around me. I want to be strong, Jaime. Why can’t I learn to be strong?”

Jaime remembered kissing her forehead. “You don’t need to learn. You’re already strong.”

She’d hit him and spat at his feet and said he didn’t get it.

He hadn’t then, but he did more and more as he watched Cersei become someone else, trying to be strong in the ways she was allowed and becoming different because of it. Not worse. He admired how powerful she remained despite everything. He wouldn’t be anything without his sword, and Cersei couldn’t use a sword and she was everything.

But he didn’t think she was happy. Maybe the queen could be happy.

At least someone would be.

"My sworn brothers would disapprovae. Robert, likely as well."

"We'll do it in secret," the queen said.

There were half a hundred ways this could turn out disastrously.

Jaime said, “We’ll start tomorrow.”

Lyanna smiled a true smile. “Thank you."

I shouldn’t be doing this. My brothers wouldn’t – it isn’t honorable to hide such a thing from the king – it’s –

Oh, what did he care? What did he know of honor? What did he know of anything? Even if they were caught out, what would it change? They'll think me dishonorable no matter what I do. I might as well do as I please.

 …

Lyanna Baratheon came to him wearing breeches, her hair done back in a braid. Jaime had procured two wooden swords from the armory, both weighted to build strength. He handed her one of them. She scowled at it. “Why’s it heavy?”

“It will make you stronger.” He might’ve worried she would complain or prove to have little endurance, but he suspected from watching her ride, even from watching her move, that it would not be the case. Her comment wasn’t a complaint, but an observation. Jaime didn't dwell on it. “Have you done this before?”

“Benjen and I snuck away and practiced with sticks,” she admitted, “though he wasn’t much of a swordsman, and only a boy anyway. Brandon let me swing his sword sometimes, but he never let me practice."

The mention of Brandon made Jaime fidget. He thought of bulging eyes, the man’s grasping hands. Someone had said, he wasn’t sure who, he’d been the Stark sibling most like the queen. Had they been close? He had the feeling Eddard Stark had been the odd one out, as he’d spent those years fostered with Jon Arryn. Don't think on it. It’d do no good to think on it.

“I doubt you worked much on technique, then?” Jaime said, taking care to keep his voice even.

Her smile was somehow half sheepish, and half a rogue’s grin, proud and biting and embarrassed all at once. “Not truly. I know the basic guards, but mostly we tried to hit each other as hard as we could.”

“Not a bad philosophy, but not a good way to get better. Show me your grip first, and we’ll work from there."

Jaime arrived in the Round Room early, a full quarter hour before the meeting was to take place. He’d found that when he entered late, everyone looked at him. However, if he came before anyone else was present, it was as if he became another piece of furniture, and was not glanced at twice.

They’d met five full times since the rebellion, in a space of four months. It was more often than the full kingsguard had met in the two years Jaime served previous, but they’d been left with a lot to talk about.

There’d been the horrible, miserable meeting with the survivors, in which Ser Gerold talked of how things had changed, and then ended by asking Jaime to explain why he’d killed Aerys, right there, in front of all of them. When Jaime’s tongue died in his mouth and he'd been unable to utter a word, the While Bull looked disappointed and upset and said in front of all of them that it might’ve been best if he’d been forced to take the black. "But as that's not the case," he concluded, "we'll carry on as best we can."

Then there’d been two meetings, one for each new member, when Ser Mark and Ser Arys were appointed, so that they could go over procedure and expectations.

After, Ser Gerold called a meeting when it became clear the queen didn’t trust half the kingsguard. Ser Arthur said, “We held her captive in a tower,” and he and Ser Gerold argued about orders and whether they should’ve followed them, and where blame for the Tower of Joy should be leveled. Then Jaime had muttered, “You’ve admitted you helped start a war – why am I hated for ending it?”

Ser Barristan said, “Are we to be proud of you for choosing family loyalties above those to the king?”

Jaime walked out of that one. Apparently nothing proper was decided, because Ser Gerold called another meeting two days later so they could actually make arrangements that would suit the queen. He'd begun by suggesting it'd be helpful if all the members remained until the end of the meeting.

Jaime wasn't sure what else they possibly could meet about now, but he had no hope this would go better than the last five.

He went to the weirwood table in the room’s center and sat in his usual chair along the left side. As he’d fallen to doing when he had the opportunity, he pulled the White Book in front of him and opened it to his own page.

Ser Jaime of House Lannister. Firstborn son of Lord Tywin and Lady Joanna of Casterly Rock. Served against the Kingswood Brotherhood as squire to Lord Sumner Crakehall. Knighted in his 15th year by Ser Arthur Dayne of the Kingsguard, for valor in the field. Chosen for the Kingsguard in his 15th year by King Aerys II Targaryen. During the Sack of King’s Landing, slew King Aerys II at the foot of the Iron Throne. Thereafter known as the “Kingslayer.” Pardoned for his crime by King Robert I Baratheon.

He glared at the entry, his blood boiling.

Why’d they have to include the Kingslayer bit? The White Book was for writing deeds, for recording history. By what necessity was the nickname included? And why that when Ser Gerold had written so little in comparison about his feats against the Brotherhood? Why was it not written that he’d won a tourney at thirteen? Ser Gerold had included Ser Barristan’s first tourney – when he’d tried to enter at ten and Ser Duncan had jousted with him only out of pity.

He gets the nickname “the Bold” for being a young fool. I save King’s Landing and I’m called Kingslayer. I suppose I should at least be grateful he didn’t add False Brother as well.

He hated them. He hated them all. Ser Arthur, who’d left, who’d spent all his time serving Rhaegar and ignoring the king he also was sworn to. He hated Ser Gerold, who told him not to judge while he watched Brandon and Rickard Stark die. He hated Ser Barristan for treating him like a child before he killed Aerys, and treating him like a monster after. He hated Oswell Whent for whistling the Rains of Castamere the last time he’d passed Jaime in the halls, and Ser Mark and Ser Arys for being new and unsullied and for not having to deal with Aerys at all.

He fought the abrupt impulse to tear their pages from the White Book and rip them to shreds. Their deeds mean nothing. They’re ink and paper now.

It was Jaime’s deed that mattered. It was because of Jaime the Tower or the Book or the Red Keep had not been turned to ash. That wasn’t ink and paper. 

Jaime shut the book and pushed it from him.

The door opened not long after. Ser Gerold entered, saw Jaime, and proceeded to act like he didn't exist. The rest of his brothers soon arrived as well, one by one. Ser Arthur took the space next to Jaime and tried to catch his eye.

Jaime glared at him. They’d judged him guilty before they knew a thing of what’d happened, just like Ned Stark. He owed them nothing.

When they were all present, Ser Gerold ensured the king would be guarded, then ordered them to be seated.

“Ser Arthur wished to call this meeting,” Ser Gerold said. He didn’t sound pleased with the fact. Jaime fought the urge to make a sly comment about dissention in the ranks. You’re not all so perfect, he wanted to say. You can’t even agree with each other.

Gerold went on. “He questions the oaths of the Kingsguard and wishes to discuss the matter with his sworn brothers.”

This was unexpected. For a heartbeat, no one spoke.

Ser Mark broke the silence. “What do you question about the oaths?”

Arthur tapped his fingers on the weirwood table. He looked uncomfortable. Like he himself wasn’t sure of what he was saying. Jaime might’ve thought he even looked frightened.

 “During the rebellion, it came to pass that for several of us, our Kingsguard vows prompted us to act in a manner that contradicted the vows we took as knights.”

Jaime snorted. What do you know of it?

Ser Gerold heard. He was always watching Jaime now, like one would watch a snake placed at his feet.

“Have you something to add, ser?” Gerold said, dark eyes fixed on Jaime’s.

“I simply wonder what contradictions Ser Arthur faced, as while I’ve served, I rarely remember him accepting orders from Aerys personally. He acted at the behest of the prince.” Jaime looked in Ser Arthur’s direction and smiled indulgently. “Aerys was furious when he learned Rhaegar had stolen Lyanna. If you’d have been concerned with your vows to the king, you wouldn’t have done it. You kept a fifteen-year-old girl in a tower because your friend wanted to fuck her. Not for your vows.”

Ser Barristan flew to his feet. “You have no right-”

Ser Arthur held up a hand. “You are frequently in Queen Lyanna’s company, are you not? You’re expected to follow her orders as you would her husband’s.”

“As long as they'd not displease the king,” Jaime countered. “As I said, Aerys became rather upset."

 “You think the oaths are reasonable, and the failing was of my character?” Ser Arthur said evenly.

“I think the oaths are ridiculous, but that you didn’t obey the prince because you were bound to do so. You obeyed him because you were friends. Not because of your oaths, but despite them.”

“As you assisted your father because he was family?” Ser Arthur said, sounding as if he’d lit upon something. Jaime could’ve punched him.

Instead he smiled. “Yes. You understand so well."

Ser Oswell said, “Where was this discussion supposed to take us? It leads in no direction that does not involve tempering our obedience to the king.”

Ser Arthur said, “When knights offer their service to the lord or lady of a house, the one to whom they offer swears not to ask the knight to perform dishonorable acts. We of the kingsguard have no assurance-”

“We would be less effective as guardians if we were also made judges,” said Ser Gerold.

“I ask not that we judge. Only that we approach the king and request an alteration of oaths, so that he might not ask of us something that is contrary to our chivalric vows. We are supposed to be the best knights in the realm – at the end, not one of us who served under Aerys acted the true knight.”

The room fell silent. Ser Barristan said, finally, “There is no dishonor in serving loyally.”

“Even if it’s a monster whose orders you follow?” Ser Arthur said.

Another stretch of quiet, this one strained.

Ser Gerold soon shook his head. “King Aerys was a rare horror. It would be impractical, even impertinent to alter hundreds of years of tradition because one king has made us doubt.” He looked off as if into the distance. “Ser Jaime was correct. If there was dishonor in your, and Ser Oswell’s... eventually, in my behavior regarding Queen Lyanna, is was not because we were bound to contrary oaths, but because of loyalty to the prince above the king."

“What of the rest of it?” Arthur said. “Watching, doing nothing, while innocents were hurt?”

Jaime noted no one told Ser Arthur to shut his mouth and stop questioning. Not like they all did when they saw even a trace of doubt on my face. Arthur was looking at him again too, expectant, waiting. What do you want? I’ve given everything I have.

“Why does this bother you now?” Ser Oswell said.

“It bothered me always. But what would we have done then? I’ll admit to placing my hopes on Prince Rhaegar. I resolved to wait Aerys out until he died, and I assure you, the prince planned to enact change when he was able.” Ser Arthur’s eyes grew sad. “But he was killed, and King Robert sits the throne. He is not Rhaegar, but he’s not mad either. Surely he will listen.”

What does it matter? You’re already too late.

Jaime dug his nails into his palms and focused on the pain so he would not be so tempted to speak.

“What if our number have contrary ideas on what is right?” Ser Gerold said. “What if our vows as knights hold us back from taking necessary action on behalf of the king? The more freedom we have, the less use we are to the king, and in turn to the realm. Donning the white cloak is meant to be a sacrifice, and a sacrifice is not true unless something vital is lost.”

“The white cloak is meant to be donned only by the truest knights.” Ser Oswell leaned forward, gaze intent. “Arthur may have a point. As soon as the king begins asking us to behave as no knight would, it upsets the purpose of wearing the cloak in the first place.”

“But it is not so simple as merely ignoring undesirable orders,” Ser Barristan said. “If we’re to protect the innocent, and a king were to delight in harming innocents, as a knight, we would not be expected only to refuse to take part. We would be expected to stop it. That is dangerous territory.”

Jaime glared at the tabletop. Are we then to let the king get away with anything? He was seized by a burning curiosity to know what Ser Barristan would have done in his place. He thought of the man going through with it and killing Aerys, his honor and self-righteousness dashed to nothing. It would have ruined him to kill the man. He’d have gone mad himself.

He could also see, almost more clearly, Ser Barristan seeing Rossart depart and watching him go, holding his peace and clutching to his honor for comfort as he and all the city burned.

None of you know a gods damned thing.

“I don’t know why I’m here,” Jaime said, cutting off Ser Gerold in the middle of what certainly would’ve been an interesting response. “It’s all talk of honor and duty and what is right, and I’ve got no honor, I failed my duty and what has a Lannister ever cared for right?” He drew himself out of his chair, though it was hard to do, as if his armor had come to weigh half a ton.

Jaime made himself stand tall and look them all the in the eye. “Tell me what you decide, and I’ll find a way to fuck it up at my leisure.”

He hurried from the room before they could glimpse the grief he knew to be in his eyes.

That night, Jaime dreamed. He was fifteen and keeping vigil the night before he was to be knighted. He’d knelt so long his knees were bloody, and he waited for Ser Arthur to relieve him. But the sept remained empty.

He’ll come, thought Jaime, even as time ticked away. His stomach growled, and he lost feeling in his legs.

Arthur remained absent.

Jaime resolved to wait. He needed to prove himself worthy of being knighted. He would remain in place, as he ought. Maybe this is a test, he thought. But if it was a test, it was a cruel one. Finally, he could not take it. His knees burned and he’d been alone for so, so long, but when he tried to get to his feet, he could not.

He thrashed and struggled and cried out, longing for honor gone. Now, he wished only for Ser Arthur to come for him. It doesn’t even have to be Ser Arthur. I need help. I do not care who it is. He threw his head back and screamed and begged. Yet he remained kneeling.

Then the door opened. He jerked his head up, but it was not Ser Arthur who entered the sept. The Smiling Knight strode toward him, a hand held out as if in invitation.

“Stay back,” Jaime said.

But the man continued to approach. When he reached Jaime, he crouched in front of him and leaned in close. His breath smelled like blood, and his eyes were hollow and laughing. “Ser Arthur is not to knight you. It has fallen to me, as there is no other who will.”

“No,” Jaime said, shaking his head. “This is not right. Get away-”

Instead he knelt more fully by his side and wrapped an arm about Jaime’s shoulders. “Get away?" he said, his voice... changing, growing crisper, slightly deeper. Familiar. “Why, my boy, you’ve already invited me in.”

Jaime tried to push him, but he remained where he was, pressed cheek-to-cheek with Jaime, so close, his breath hot on Jaime’s face, Jaime could not tell where he ended and the other began. Jaime struggled until he realized no one else was present, and was left wondering if he'd been fighting another person at all.

Jaime jerked awake to find his body trembling, sweat cold against his skin. He staggered to his window and shoved his head out, gulping in cold air until his heart slowed and the nausea twisting his stomach eased. He donned a tunic and breeches, then went from his room and to the armory. He selected a sparring sword, then retreated to the training yard. It was night still, the moon high in the sky, but returning to sleep was the last thing he wished.

Jaime hacked at a stuffed dummy and imagined it was the Smiling Knight, bothering not with form or smooth strokes, but striking it as hard as he could, again and again until his heartbeat echoed in his ears, so loudly he could not think even of unpleasant things.

Footsteps on stone tore him from his trance. Jaime froze, the fingers of his right hand stiffening as if only just now affected by the evening chill. He became aware also that he had been crying, his face cold and stiff with tears. Discomfort writhed like worms in his gut, and he remained standing still, face turned from the intruder, his harsh breathing echoing through the courtyard.

“It’s late,” Ser Arthur said.

Why must it be him? Jaime roused himself and lifted his sword again, and without a word he slammed it into the dummy once, twice, thrice more, frustration fueling the strikes. Mayhaps he’ll go away.

Arthur spoke as if Jaime had acknowledged him. “I thought you would be more interested in the meeting yesterday. You expressed dissatisfaction often enough before the rebellion.”

And no one cared.

Jaime shoved his fist into what would’ve been the dummy’s stomach. He imagined it was Ser Arthur.

“I already dealt with my dissatisfaction, in case you’ve forgotten.” Jaime kept his voice light and free of remorse. I won’t pretend I’m sorry. I don’t care what you think. He lifted his sword and whacked the dummy again. “Whatever you think to do now, you’re too late.”

Ser Arthur moved closer so he stood at Jaime’s side. “Look at me.”

Jaime had to obey. He would look a craven otherwise.

He turned and faced Ser Arthur. The moon was out, and stars as well, and there was no hiding the wetness of his face, nor the pink of his eyes.

Arthur studied him, his pale eyes unblinking, expression unreadable.

Jaime clenched and unclenched his left hand, and he gripped his sword more tightly with the right. He’d always found Arthur enigmatic. Likable enough, but distant, serious and hard to read. It’d added to the mystery of him, the feeling that he was a hero who wasn’t quite a man.

It was a lie. He keeps his thoughts to himself because if he shared them, everyone would know the truth: he doesn’t know anything the rest of us don’t.

Jaime wanted to throttle him for being a fraud, for lying with his reputation if not with his tongue. He wanted to demand an apology – because he had wanted to be Ser Arthur, but for the life of him, he no longer knew why. He knew I was struggling. He knew we were doing wrong. He said nothing, did nothing.

He’d cared not that Jaime was drowning, dying in front of him. Only now that the twisted remains the boy Jaime had been lie prone at Arthur’s feet did he acknowledge there’d been a problem at all.

 Arthur put a hand on his shoulder, as if to support him, or possibly to hold him in place. “I wish you would not pretend you find this all a great joke. Our brothers believe you.”

Jaime reminded himself of Arthur’s words at the meeting. “As you assisted your father because he was family?” It hadn’t been said as a taunt, but that only made it harder to swallow. Arthur took it as a given he’d killed Aerys as part of a great Lannister scheme.

Jaime released a shaky breath. “I care not what those men think. I have only one brother. He’s a dwarf and he’s ten and he looks nothing like any of you.”

“Only Ser Gerold and Ser Barristan have said anything of that sort.”

“No, no – it’s not what they think that’s the problem. It’s that I never deserved the cloak in the first place. I was given my position only because Aerys wished to anger my father, because I’d make a useful hostage. Now I deserve it less than ever, and I wear it still only because King Robert hates dragons more than he values justice. I am not one of you, and I never have been.”

Arthur stilled. “Did Ser Barristan tell you this?”

Jaime wanted to slam his head into something hard. A stone wall, perhaps, so his brains would come leaking out his ears. You never really looked at me, he thought, but acknowledged also that he did not blame Arthur entirely. Jaime had always wanted to appear as if Aerys’s ill use of him did not bother him at all. There’s a point where you cannot be okay with something if you realize the full extent of the horror of it. If he thinks me a fool, it’s because I played a part too well.

It did not make it easier to swallow, and Jaime said, as if it were Arthur who was the stupid one, “I gathered it for myself when he sent me from Harrenhal.”

The other man’s expression flickered, and he took a step away, looking thrown off genuinely for the first time since Jaime had met him. Jaime imagined a reset taking place in his mind, though the caution now in Arthur’s gaze made him wish to double over laughing. It was as if Arthur thought, because he’d misjudged Jaime in that one area, he’d misjudged him entirely, and was now searching for a new explanation for all Jaime’s past doings.

Jaime turned away. “I’d like to get back to my training, if you don’t mind.”

“Ser Jaime-”

He spun and lifted his sword in the same motion. “You had no trouble leaving before. Why do you struggle now? If I pointed out a girl I’d like spirited away, would you head off then?”

Arthur clearly struggled with himself. He said, finally, “I don’t know what to make of you. Nothing you say feels like the truth anymore. But you… actually have come to hate me, haven’t you?”

Jaime did not have to lie.

“I hate all of you.” It sounded so different from the reality, phrased like that, a million other thoughts and emotions removed from the equation, hate alone laid bare.

It visibly cut Arthur. Jaime hadn’t expected that, and it brought vicious satisfaction that Arthur would resent having lost the admiration of the stupid boy who’d followed at his heels like a dog. That boy is dead and gone, thought Jaime. It’s your own fault.

Ser Arthur bowed his head. “I’m sorry to have bothered you.”

Jaime had wanted nothing more than for him to go, but once he disappeared, Jaime hated him even more for leaving again.

Lyanna Baratheon had a knack for swordsmanship. He saw in her eyes that they were kindred spirits, hot-blooded, a lion and a wolf, driven by the song of swords and the thrill of the fight. She had to have practiced every chance she got, because she improved rapidly. Soon he well and truly broke a sweat when they sparred in full, and though experience and greater opportunity to train kept him a notch above her, as weeks, then months passed, he began to get more out of his bouts with her than those with Ser Ilyn.

“I am getting better, am I not?” she asked one day once they finished, the two of them sitting against a tree, panting and muddy, the ground softened from rain the night before. “You’ve begun to get red in the face after these bouts as well.”

“You’d be good for a man, on par with many a knight.” Jaime paused, his eyes fixed not on her, but upon his muddied boots. “May I ask, why are you so determined to improve? You won’t… use any of this, will you?”

She fixed him with a firm gaze. “You would not understand it. I spent… months trapped somewhere I did not want to be, because I was not strong enough. I know, you don’t have to say, that there isn’t a man alive who could’ve fought those Kingsguard all together, and I’d been-” Her voice hitched. “I’d been with child, which…” The child had been stillborn, they said. Dead a week before Stark’s men reached them. The sorrow in her gaze shook him, but she plowed forward before he could dwell on it.

“I know it would’ve made no difference then, but it makes me feel stronger, and… I’ve spent the last year feeling like a weak, silly child with no control over anything.” She grasped her practice sword. “There is control in this.”

Jaime licked his lips. “Aerys kept me close, as a hostage, you know. It wasn’t the same, but I was trapped, and – and helpless, I felt helpless.” He put a hand on the hilt of the blade with which he’d slayed Aerys. “When I’d killed him, before I realized what it meant… I could breathe for the first time in years.”

“I suppose you don’t have to be locked in a tower to be a prisoner,” said Lyanna. She pushed herself to her feet. “It’s best we get back. We’ve been gone a long while.”

They put the training swords within a hollowed log they’d taken to using for that purpose, and they then slipped from the godswood, where they found a modicum of privacy from Lyanna’s claim a crowd of guards would distract her from prayer. She always looked worse for the wear coming out, but her wildness was known around the castle, and most assumed her proclivity toward adventure explained her appearance. It was the coming and going from the secluded woods with Jaime that courted potential problems, but few eyes were ever trained on the area.

They’d had no trouble, and did not appear to do so that day either, so he was surprised when a grim-faced Ser Barristan told him to report to the throne room that evening. Lyanna already stood before the Iron Throne, wearing dark gray, her hair loose, her crown setting inelegantly on her head as if placed there as an afterthought.

Robert was on the throne, red-faced, fidgeting. You’ll cut yourself, thought Jaime, but held his tongue.

“Here. Ser Jaime is present,” said Lyanna once the doors had had been shut. Ser Barristan remained in the room, Ser Gerold near the king. She stared down her husband. “Now tell me what this is about.”

“I have received word before that you two have a habit of disappearing alone together,” said Robert, attempting to keep his voice even but failing to do so. Jaime’s stomach dropped. “I’d assumed my queen wished to pray, but – what am I to think when Varys tells me- ah, I’ll get to the point of it. Are you two fucking?”

“Would you really expect either of us to say yes,” Jaime began – Lyanna slugged his arm.

“We are not,” said she, though calmly, as if she had no reason to be offended by the accusation.

“So you were… doing what that had you sneaking from the forest, panting and sweating like rutting pigs?”

Jaime’s heart went into his throat. His mind raced, and he took a small step that placed himself between Robert and Lyanna. A step that didn’t go unnoticed, by the way Robert’s eyes tracked the motion.

“I gave her no choice in the matter, your grace-”

Lyanna shoved her foot into his shin enough to make him stumble. “Telling the truth doesn’t always have to be the last resort, even for a stupid Lannister.” She faced Robert and with confidence said, “He’s been teaching me to use a sword.”

Robert balked. “A… sword.”

“Yes, a literal sword,” Lyanna said, her eyes dramatically wide. “One of steel, with which men fight. Not everything is about cocks.”

Jaime stared at her.

Robert stared at her.

“A sword.” He shook his head, but a smile was twitching on his lips, and Jaime was astounded to realize his anger had turned to surprise, which was fast turning to amusement. “I’ll need proof of this, I suppose. Ser Jaime, hand my queen your blade.”

Jaime could do nothing but unsheathe his sword and present it to her.

Robert then gestured to Ser Gerold. “Go on then. See if my queen shows evidence of practice.”

Of course he did not protest. Jaime doubted Ser Gerold would have protested should Robert have asked him to fight Lyanna in truth. Jaime put a hand on the girl’s arm, and he whispered in her ear, “Strike fast and hard near his hand. He took an arrow to it a few years back, and his grip was weakened. He’ll be reluctant, so you might disarm him if you’re quick enough.”

Lyanna bit her lip, her eyes sparkling.

Robert clapped his hands together. “Enough whispering or I’ll get suspicious. Come on then. Get to it.”

Lyanna let Ser Gerold hit first. He was slow, his blow soft. She deflected and pretended to have to put effort into it, and Ser Gerald countered with an even lazier move. Lyanna barked a laugh as she parried it hard and sharp, and when the shock of her blow’s strength threw him off balance, she brought her blade down again quick as lightning near the handle of his blade.

His bad hand gave way and he lost his grip. He didn’t drop his sword, but Lyanna gave him no chance to recover before she struck again.

This time it was enough.

His blade fell to the ground, and Lyanna kicked it out of the way before she leveled Jaime’s sword at his neck.

“Yield,” said she, grinning like a wolf.

Robert guffawed, clapping his hands together as if he'd witnessed the final strike in a melee. “Leave us,” he said. “All of you, leave us.”

He’s turned on by it.

“In the throne room?” Lyanna said, arching a brow, though she did not seemed fearful. Indulgent, perhaps a touch annoyed, but not cowed. 

“What other reason is there to be king?” Robert said, and laughed as if he’d said something funny.

“Your grace?” Jaime ventured, hating that he sounded hesitant still.

“Keep training her as you will, though do it in the open. I’ll not have men whispering and gossiping about my wife.” He paused and looked Ser Jaime in the eye. “Do not think I didn’t notice you were half a second from claiming it rape when you thought to protect her. I’d have had your head. Surely you knew that.”

Robert surprised him by coming down from the throne and thumping him on the back.

“This is why you guard the queen while those bastards who kept her in the tower watch my ass all day. Useless all of them. I ought to make you Lord Commander instead of this one.” He jabbed Ser Gerold in the shoulder with his hand. “You’d bend over and take it from me in the ass if I asked it, wouldn’t you?”

Ser Gerold did not answer.

Robert clapped Jaime’s back again. “Go on then, boy, and the rest of you too.”

“You don’t actually mean to make me Lord Commander,” Jaime ventured, wincing. The others would kill him in his sleep.

“What? No, no. Jon Arryn would have my head. You don’t want it either, do you? Smart. Authority’s no fun. Ask the king.” He gave Jaime another impatient wave, and Jaime glanced once more at Lyanna to make certain she was not troubled. She waved him out with a trace of a smile.

It was not so long after this that Lyanna told him they would have to stop training.

“Robert changed his mind?” said Jaime, not at all pleased by the fact. But the queen instead laughed and told him she was with child.

Jaime did not know what to make of that. She seemed such a girl in his mind, half a child though her eyes were so old. She has been pregnant before. Carried a babe to term. Then lost it, as well. He thought he saw in her fear it’d happen again, a wariness that darkened her pleasure. He gave his congratulations as expected, uneasy though he was at the thought his sparring partner soon to swell with child.

As if sensing his thoughts, Lyanna laughed and ruffled his hair. “You forget I’m a woman sometimes, don’t you? It’s no matter. It is one of my favorite things about you. Do not worry about growing bored. The maester says I shall be able to ride all through the pregnancy, and that we can train lightly if I am careful. Swimming also. I can swim.”

He imagined her standing in front of Pycelle and drilling him for a list of activities she could indulge in. The thought brought a smile to his face, and it gave him the grace to congratulate her a touch more genuinely.

She ruined it quick enough.

“You may have to spar every now and then with your brothers now. You shouldn’t make Ser Ilyn indulge you all the time.”

“My brothers have stopped talking to me entirely,” said Jaime. “They are not snide anymore at least, so there is that.” In truth, he'd rather they were still snide. The silence had become deafening. Only Ser Mark and Ser Arys sometimes exchanged a few words with him, and then it was always awkwardly, as if they expected to be struck by lightning for doing so.

“You said Arthur tried-”

“He tried too late and not well enough. I’ll spar with Ser Ilyn, and that will suffice.”

She tilted her head. “Actually, it might be I have another idea.”

The next day, Robert Baratheon met him in the training yard, his war hammer dangling from one hand as if it weighed nothing at all.

“I was thinking swords,” Jaime could not help but say.

“I won’t hit you hard enough to hurt you, not badly.”

Jaime felt some misgiving at the thought of Robert Baratheon swinging the hammer he’d used to cave in Rhaegar’s ribs at him, but he also did not want to back out now.

“Very well, your grace,” said he, and argued no further.

The fight surprised him by being enjoyable. Robert was at least his equal, far beyond him in strength, but he had little quickness, while that had always been Jaime’s best advantage.

They sparred far longer than they ought to have, Jaime landing more blows, but those Robert got on him knocking him breathless, sending him sprawling — hits that would have killed him as dead as Rhaegar had Robert been swinging hard as he could. Yet for every one of those, Jaime found openings that would have ended the king equally as effectively had that been his wish.

It was Jon Arryn who finally made them stop. “Your grace, you have duties to attend to, and you’ve been at this all morning.”

The king was red-faced and sweaty, gasping for breath. “Gods, Jon. Do you know when I’ve last had a truly good fight? I do. When I killed Rhaegar at the Trident. This pretty boy is better than that one also, though it loses something that I couldn’t swing hard as I might’ve.” He grunted toward Jaime. “We’ll do this again. Tomorrow. I went too long without, and going without a good fight is near as bad as going without a good fuck.”

Jon Arryn said, “You cannot do this every morning-”

“I won’t do it all morning. But the people need a strong king, don’t they? Would you have me get fat? What would Lya think?” He lifted his hammer and began walking back toward the keep. “Now dump whatever duties you think I have at my feet so I can find someone more suited to do them. Oh don’t scowl, I never claimed I’d be a good king.”

Better than Aerys, Jaime thought, though it was, truly, about all he could give him.

He supposed at least he made a good sparring partner.

Jaime did not seek, nor encourage Robert to find a friend in him, but the man did not seem to find his indifference at all cause for concern, and instead took to using the time preceding and following their sparring sessions as an excuse to talk. Often it was only to complain of being king, to make sure Lyanna did not seem ill or out of sorts while Jaime was with her, or to tell tales of some adventure or another, whether involving women or hunting or battling or childhood antics with Ned Stark in the Vale. He was ridiculous, Robert was, but a combination of duty and loneliness left Jaime to let him talk.

Yet one morning, he ended their session early and became uncharacteristically serious.

“Lya likes you,” said he. “But Lya worries as well. Hell, even I’ve noticed your brothers don’t like you much. A stupid thing, considering the favor you did me in killing Aerys, but your sulking isn’t helping. Stop worrying about them and all the other bastards whispering at your back and get on with your life. You don’t think a good half the country hates me for rebelling? The other half probably hates me for being a shit king.”

“Your grace-”

“Don’t pull that shit with me. You think it too sometimes. I see it in your eyes.” He looked pointedly at Jaime. “I don’t refuse to talk to anyone who says a bad thing of me. That’s when it’s most important to break out the wine and find a new drinking buddy, or at least hash the thing out aloud. You’d best talk to your brothers. I’ll make an order of it if you don’t.”

Jaime winced.

“I do not think-”

“An order,” Robert repeated, leaving not the least room for argument.

That evening, Jaime returned to the White Sword Tower in a dour mood. He’d not talk to his brothers all at once. It’d be incredibly inconvenient, and he doubted it’d accomplish a thing. Instead he went to Arthur’s chambers and knocked on the door before he could talk himself out of it.

The Sword of the Morning appeared after only a moment. He frowned upon seeing Jaime. “Ser-”

“The king has ordered me to speak with you,” Jaime said, wanting to establish he’d not crawled to him of his own will.

Ser Arthur frowned, but stepped aside so Jaime might enter. “About what? Is it urgent?”

Jaime scowled. “He mentioned something of wine and becoming drinking buddies. I think he means me to attempt to stop fighting with you and the rest.” His scowl deepened. “The queen pushed him into it.”

Arthur shut the door, then went to his bed and sat upon it, looking amused and troubled at the same time. “Do you mean to attempt to mend bridges, or are you here to fulfill his order in the literal sense while not caring to fix a thing?”

“The latter,” said Jaime. “I know when something cannot be fixed.”

“Do you?” said Arthur.

Jaime did not speak.

“Jaime...”

“I’ve spoken with you. I think-”

Arthur caught his arm before he could head to the door. “You mentioned wine. Come here.” He went to a cabinet in his room and pulled from it a skin of wine. “I have no goblets. You’ll not mind sharing?” He handed it first to Jaime.

“You mean to make me drunk?”

“I mean to get drunk together. It’s hard to remain cold to someone when you’ve had enough to drink, and I’m sick of your chill. Go on then.”

Despite his misgivings, Jaime swallowed a mouthful. “I do not think two knights of the Kingsguard should be doing this.”

“You’ve made it clear you think already knights of the Kingsguard have no honor,” said Arthur. “You are right, I think. Or it might be we have only honor, and nothing else.” He took the skin and had a drink of his own, and so it went.

When the wine was near to gone and a pleasant warmth had sunk into Jaime’s veins, Arthur said, “Do you hate me in truth?”

“Yes,” Jaime repeated. “But I don’t only hate you.”

He shut his eyes, suspecting loosening his tongue had been part of Arthur’s plan. But it seemed such a fine thing, that all these things he’d been desperate to say now wished to come easily.

Words continued to flow. “I wish you had not left. You were all gone at the end, and it was only me and Aerys in those last weeks, those weeks he knew he would lose. He became madder, and he made me stay at his side because he thought it protected him from my father.”

“I couldn’t have stayed. The prince-”

“Was as mad as Aerys. Listen to Lyanna. Do you hear how she speaks of him? He hurt her because of a prophecy.”

“I regret what happened to the queen.”

“Yet you helped. You were supposed to be the best knight, an honorable knight. You were all supposed to be honorable. But no one is honorable. No one is good.”

“Ser Jaime…”

“What’s the point if we’re all horrible?”

“You aren’t horrible.”

“I am the Kingslayer, and you all think I let Elia and the children die, that I let my father kill them. Of course I’m horrible.”

Arthur sat nearer him. “That’s what we think?”

“I didn’t know he’d do it. I didn’t think he’d hurt them. I thought they were safe.” Jaime reached again for the wine, wishing he could have just enough more that he would stop caring what he said, that maybe he would stop caring so much he would have the courage to tell Arthur the rest of it.

But they’d finished it, he realized, and threw the skin aside.

“You didn’t know what your father had planned?”

“I was a hostage. I’d not seen my family in two years. Now stop. No more questions. I’ve talked enough. You don’t want to hear the rest. I’m not sure you cared to hear this. I don’t think you care to hear anything. You’ve never cared before.”

Arthur said, “Ser Barristan was right. You were too young. You should not have been put through any of this.”

“I wish I hadn’t. I wished I hadn’t as soon as Aerys sent me away from Harrenhal. But it’s too late. Let’s see if the cloak can taint me more. I’ve begun having dreams you know, where I wear the face of the Smiling Knight.”

“Oh Jaime.”

He got unsteadily to his feet and frowned at Arthur. “I still don’t like you. I suppose I did not drink enough, or maybe Robert was wrong.”

He looked once more at Arthur, willing him to — Jaime did not know, but he wanted something from him. He wanted him to stop him and push further. But Ser Arthur remained silent, and Jaime left without another word.

Lyanna had a healthy boy, but took ill with birthing fever right after. She called Jaime into her room more than once and babbled nonsense, clutching his hand. Several times she called him Rhaegar, and Jaime wondered if he should maybe recite a poem or say something wise to improve the illusion, but she did not expect words from him, and would only ask again and again, “Why?”

She begged for her baby too, but Jaime had the impression she meant the stillborn child she’d lost, for she never calmed even when little Brandon was brought to her.

Robert was in fits.

“This is his fault,” he growled, clutching his war hammer. He’d come to Jaime saying he needed to get out and train, but so far he had only prowled the training yard looking as if he wished to kill something. “When he put his dragonspawn in her, it- it-”

“My mother died in childbirth,” Jaime offered evenly, so that he did not lose his temper. “So did Queen Lyanna’s. It is dangerous. I do not think Rhaegar has anything to do with her illness.”

“I can’t kill a thrice damned fever,” Robert growled, and spun and swung his hammer through empty air.

“You can’t kill Rhaegar Targaryen either. He’s too dead for it.”

“Bah. Too dead. You’re supposed to indulge me. That’s your job, Lannister. Too dead. That man can never be too dead. I ought to ravage his corpse, is what I ought to do.”

Jaime turned away.

“Don’t you look at me like that. If you’ve got something to say, say it. I hate you Kingsguard prowling around all the time, never saying anything unless I ask, and then it’s just what I’d want you to say, like a bunch of trained birds. Show me you’ve got a bit of person in there, before it all comes out at once and you slit my throat.”

“You just said I ought to indulge you.”

“I didn’t mean it. Indulge me now in this, before I thump your opinion out of you.”

Jaime would not mind having Robert try to thump it out of him, for then he could dodge the blow and they might actually use the training yard for training, or at least fighting, which was far better than talking.

Yet he answered as requested. “Thundering around yelling about Rhaegar is not accomplishing a thing. You might either go to the queen’s side, or at least hold your tongue. You’re making half the castle nervous, and Lyanna too.”

Robert sighed and lowered his hammer. “I’m scared. What else am I to do? What’d you do when it was your mother?”

“She died all at once. She called Cersei and I in to see her so she might say goodbye. There was blood everywhere, and she looked horrid, and Father was crying. I took her hand because she asked, and Cersei had her other. But she was too weak to speak, or to hear anything we might have said. I stood there a minute not knowing what to do, and that was all of it.”

Robert slammed his mouth together. “I ought to go to Lyanna.”

The words were scarce out of his mouth before he did, leaving Jaime alone, no sparring at all having been accomplished.

Jaime tried to find Ser Ilyn, but he’d disappeared wherever it was he spent his time.

Agitation took him then to the White Sword Tower. Arthur and his new friend Ser Mark were in the common room, speaking of whatever real knights spoke of. Jaime went to Arthur.

“I want to hit something.”

Arthur looked slowly up at him. Jaime feared he would throw in his face that Jaime had not been pleasant to him this past year. Instead, he got to his feet and said, “Let’s go then.”

Arthur wiped the floor with him. Challenging as it was to fight Robert, a war hammer was not a sword, and sparring was a very different thing. Lyanna had just been learning, and Ser Ilyn was of average talent at best. It’d been far too long since he’d fought a true swordsman, and it showed.

After the third time Jaime let himself be disarmed, Arthur said, “Does this mean you’ll train with us again now? You’re becoming rusty.”

“I’ll train with you. Not them.” Arthur at least had never thrown the term false brother around as Ser Barristan and Ser Gerold had, and Jaime was already better than Ser Arys, Ser Oswell and Ser Mark. Seeking them out to spar wasn’t worth it.

Arthur looked like he was going to protest, but he gave it up after a moment. “If that’s what you wish, Jaime.”

Lyanna’s health improved, despite Pycelle’s certainty it would not. Two weeks after Brandon’s birth, she could walk with help. Robert took to hovering incessantly and going off on long tangents about how important she was to him, which instead of cringing from as she had when he became affectionate early in their marriage, she tolerated with wry indulgence.

The baby was always around too. Lyanna insisted on nursing it herself, through some northern custom Jaime supposed, and had laughed until she cried when she saw Jaime’s face the first time he looked into the nursery to find her with her dress pulled down and the creature suckling her teat. If she was not feeding it, she was carrying it or singing it northern songs or telling it strange northern stories that rivaled Uncle Gerion’s tales of the things Lann the Clever’s ghost got up to in Casterly Rock.

The worst of it was, Lyanna seemed intent on making sure he was not excluded. She pushed him into holding the infant or listening to her stories. Once she caught him sing to the child when she slipped off to the privy. It'd been mere habit, as he’d done it sometimes to see Tyrion laugh when he was yet an infant. A silly thing, but it delighted the queen.

“You’ve a nice enough voice,” she declared, then pushed him to sing something else, laughing in her absurd, wild way when it turned out most the songs he knew were filthy.

“You can’t teach him those yet,” she chided. “At least wait until he’s old enough not to repeat all this in court. Then, by all means. Brandon, my brother Brandon, he would want someone around to be a bad influence, and I refuse to let it be Robert.”

Jaime was not particularly fond of little Brandon, but he did not dislike him either, and he found himself thinking more than once of how fragile the boy was, and remembering what Aegon’s little body had looked like placed before the Iron Throne.

One evening as he stood in the doorway of the nursery, half standing guard, half listening to Lyanna hum to her son, he could not help but blurt, “You know I would not let anyone hurt him. Not even my father. Not like-”

He could not bring himself to mention Elia by name. Lyanna did not like talk of her, not in a way that hinted she carried jealousy, but in a way that suggested mention of the woman left her sick with guilt. She liked less to hear mention of the children, and Jaime had heard her fight with Robert about what’d happened to them several times early in their marriage.

Lyanna looked up at him, appearing not at all concerned. “I know, Ser Jaime. Of course you would.” She said it like a mother reassuring a child of some obvious thing. “Of course you would.”

She went back to her humming.

Jaime almost felt like a knight again.

The problem with sparring with Arthur was that Jaime enjoyed it too much, and found it difficult to remain distant. Jests and taunts fell from his lips when he landed a good hit, and when Arthur did something exceptional, the stupid awed boy Jaime thought he’d gotten rid of lifted his head and stared far too openly.

Even so, their exchanges remained distant, and Arthur did not push him further on larger matters.

Jaime sparred still with Robert as well, for the king had developed a taste for it. He’d developed a taste for Jaime’s company as well it seemed, for increasingly often he invited him to his solar so he had someone to talk at. Sometimes about trivial matters, but sometimes also about unhappy things.

During once of these exchanges, Ser Arthur was the man guarding the door, which had been left open so that Robert’s voice, loud as it was, no doubt reached him. In the middle of a diatribe about the Battle of the Bells, he stopped and said, “I bet that one is standing out there judging, isn’t he? Thinking what a crude, horrible king I am compared to his pretty Rhaegar.”

Jaime did that sometimes. He’d lost much his love for Rhaegar upon befriending Lyanna, but he thought still he would have been a better king than Robert.

“The Kingsguard do not judge,” Jaime recited dully. “We obey.”

“Got that straight from the book, didn’t you? But look at your eyes. You don’t believe it for a second. Do you judge me, Lannister?”

“Sometimes,” said Jaime.

“But you’re not a self-righteous shit about it, so there’s that. I don’t like those others, not the three who took Lyanna and kept her in that tower. What kind of men do that to a girl? What kind of men?” He slammed his hand on his desk for emphasis.

“They were following orders,” said Jaime.

“Orders,” he scoffed. “Arthur, you, get in here.”

Ser Arthur appeared in the doorway, his face unreadable. “Your grace?”

“Come here, shut the door. We’re having a talk, the Kingslayer and I. Join us. Would you have a drink?”

“No thank you, your grace.”

“No thank you. You’re polite for a Dornishman. I’ve been to Dorne. Fucked a Dornish woman. I’ve fucked women from all the kingdoms. She was one of the best — not near so polite either. Though I suppose you were raised better than a whore.”

“I would like to think so, your grace.”

“I want to know, I want you to tell me, honestly — none of that drivel you steal straight from your oaths — tell me how far you would’ve gone following your prince’s orders. Would you have raped Lyanna if he’d have decided he want to watch?”

Arthur looked steadily at the back of the room. “Rhaegar would not have.”

“So he has a line, does he? Aerys might have, will you deny that? If Aerys had asked you to fuck my wife, what would you have done?”

Arthur gripped Dawn so tightly his fingers turned white. “I would not have.”

“He would’ve killed you.”

“Then I would’ve died.”

Robert grunted. “So you’ve got a shred of a spine, though just a shred. I imagine you watched worse. Didn’t do a damn thing. If being told to steal away a girl and keep her in a tower doesn’t break your loyalty, what would? What’d it take for you to kill me like this one here killed Aerys?”

“There is nothing,” Arthur said.

Jaime could not help himself. “If he wanted to kill a hundred innocents?”

Silence echoed.

Arthur looked at Robert. Robert, now cautious, sobriety creeping into his eyes, said, “Answer the boy. If I wanted to kill a hundred men?”

“I would need to know the reason.”

“What’s the reason, Lannister?”

“Madness. If he went mad and wanted to kill a hundred innocent men, women and children.”

Arthur worked his jaw. “Then — then I might have. I might have stopped him.”

Robert said, “A hundred innocents… did the Mad King mean to destroy the Red Keep? Is that why?”

Jaime said, evenly, “It was a number I threw out.”

“It was a damn specific question you threw out.”

Jaime stood. “I ask your permission to leave, your grace.”

“I order you to sit, Kingslayer.” He looked at Ser Arthur. “Leave. Now. I want to talk with this one.”

Arthur gave Jaime a long, lingering look, but he went.

When the door had closed, Robert stooped to look him in the eye. “Has anyone ever asked you why you did it?”

Jaime said, “It was a hypothetical question.”

“Answer me, boy.”

“No,” he said.

“Your king is asking, and I’ll put you to trial right his second if you don’t spit out an honest answer. You’ve been lurking and brooding and glaring for so damned long it’s giving me a headache. By the gods, if there is a reason, let it be known.”

Jaime stared straight ahead.

“That is an order.”

He lacked the strength to continue lying. Not now, not when assumptions weren’t being made, but an explanation demanded.

“It was not a hundred innocents.”

“How many, Lannister?”

“Half a million.”

Robert was smart enough not to announce before the city that there were deadly amounts of wildfire beneath. Instead he had Jaime take him to the locations he knew it’d been planted and show him, and cursed up a storm each time they came upon a new cache.

“What the hell am I supposed to do with this, Lannister?” he grumbled. “Enough wildfire to blow up the whole damned city. Were you ever going to mention this?”

They were in the Sept of Baelor, staring at the rows of jars.

“I did not trust you,” Jaime said, “and nobody asked.”

“Nobody asked.” He put a hand through his hair and looked old and tired and nothing like himself. “By the gods. By the fucking gods. You killed a fucking king and nobody asked.” He rubbed his eyes. “We all thought-”

“I know what you thought,” Jaime said sharply.

Robert put a hand on the edge of the wildfire. “Seven hells. Seven hells.”

“Are you going to get rid of it?” Jaime said — wary now, watching him, his gut tight. He half thought, if Robert said no, he might slit his throat as he had Aerys.

The king heaved a sigh. “I’ll put it before the small council. We’ll get rid of most of it, certainly. Having this much sitting around is asking for trouble no matter how we store it. On the other hand, it might make a damn good weapon in the right circumstances. Don’t look at me like that. I’m not planning to use it to burn my enemies. If I ever do, I give you advance permission to kill me yourself. I know I’m not a good king, but I don’t want to be gods damned Aerys either.

Jaime’s throat tightened. “That... that is reasonable.”

“I stumble into reason every now and again. Now we’ve got to get this whole mess straightened out, and then I’ll get on to finding you a reward. You sure you don’t want Hightower’s spot as Lord Commander? I’m becoming more and more convinced you’re the only one of the lot who can wipe your arse without a king giving the order.”

Jaime shook his head quickly. “I don’t want to lead.” I don’t know what I want, thought he, for he could think of no reward that would give him any true pleasure.

Robert boomed a laugh. “Don’t want to lead. Ned tried telling me you wanted to be king. Gods. Gods. I’m going to send him a letter, dear old Ned. He’s wrong so little I’ve got to relish this. Won’t even be Lord Commander. Come on then. I’ll think of something. For now I’m sick of looking at these jars. It’s depressing as the seventh hell.”

The adventure took more energy than Jaime would have expected, and rather than feel at all better at having the matter off his chest, he instead had the sensation he’d been ripped open and left raw. He was supposed to guard the queen that afternoon, but Lyanna took a look at him and said her household guard could cover it and told him he ought to have a nap.

He retreated to his cell for much of the evening, and only came down near dusk when hunger stirred him. It boded ill for him when he noticed Ser Gerold sitting at the weirwood table, hands steepled, apparently lost in thought.

The small council meeting is done, thought he, but he did not dare speak to the man, for he did not know how much Robert had told him or whether he’d believed it or whether it mattered to him at all. I broke my oaths, no matter what the reason. He might not care. It might make no difference.

He thus made a point of not even looking at him, as had become his habit over the paths months, and tried instead to slink from the room.

“Ser Jaime,” said he, just as Jaime lifted his hand to open the door.

Jaime had half a mind to ignore him, but that would only make him look a coward, so he steeled himself and turned and reminded himself killing Aerys was his greatest act no matter what anyone said about it, and not even the Lord Commander would make him think differently.

“Come here.”

Jaime went to him. The White Bull said nothing, but slid the White Book to the edge of the table, in front of Jaime. It was open to his page.

Ser Jaime of House Lannister. Firstborn son of Lord Tywin and Lady Joanna of Casterly Rock. Served against the Kingswood Brotherhood as squire to Lord Sumner Crakehall. Knighted in his 15th year by Ser Arthur Dayne of the Kingsguard, for valor in the field. Chosen for the Kingsguard in his 15th year by King Aerys II Targaryen. During the Sack of King’s Landing, slew King Aerys II at the foot of the Iron Throne. Thereafter known as the “Kingslayer.” Pardoned for his crime by King Robert I Baratheon.

Discovered later to have prevented the Mad King from realizing a plot to destroy King’s Landing via wildfire. Recognized by King Robert Baratheon in 284 AC for putting the safety of the realm before personal reputation.

“He’s to hold a tourney in your name as soon as it is safe to explain,” said Ser Gerold. “Win it, and it would make a fair conclusion to the section.”

Jaime splayed his hand across the page, his heart in his throat. He wanted to yell, to be angry. To say, You would have known this before if you’d asked. But his relief was too strong.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” he heard himself say. “I saw his pyromancer trying to leave, and I knew what he wanted, and I thought then I needed to get to Aerys and stop him from sending another message, to the others, and I didn’t — I didn’t consider any of the rest, until Roland Crakehall came into the room and looked at me like…” Like near everyone has looked at me for over a year.

He looked at Ser Gerold, suddenly needing to know. “What would you have done?”

The man reclined in his chair and sighed. “I might have tried to restrain him. I might have killed him, but died trying to keep the throne for Aegon or Viserys. Or I might have done as you did. I cannot know.”

“I thought to try declaring one of them,” said Jaime. “I did. But I did not want another Targaryen on the throne. So I sat and waited to see who would take it. I should have — I should have gone straight to Elia, but my father, I didn’t think he’d… I didn’t know…”

He looked away, embarrassed that all of this was coming forth now, when he’d held it in for the very reason he did not wish to appear he was justifying himself. It was a frustrating thing how telling part of his tale to one person seemed to loosen the whole story inside him, so it flowed through his lips so swift and easy he could scarce imaging stopping it.

“It is done,” Ser Gerold announced. “It is done, and — if it was not handled perfectly, youth and misfortune played far greater parts than dishonor. You have learned now, and-” He sighed. “The rest of us have learned as well. I do not like to speak ill of the dead, but Rhaegar was… it was a mistake, to leave one boy guarding four people, one of them a madman, while three guarded a single girl. He had his reasons, but in hindsight they were not good enough. He, we, are to blame for the princess and the children as much as, more so than you, and as for Aerys…”

He only shook his head. “I will ask you only to cease stalking around acting more like a sellsword without morals than a member of the Kingsguard. You have honor. If you’re told otherwise, the response is not to listen, but to prove those who say as much wrong. Do you understand this?”

He felt breathless, his chest heavy. “Yes, ser.”

“One last thing. Talk to your Ser Arthur, preferably without telling him you hate him. He’s struggled with these matters as you have. It might ease his mind should you explain. And perhaps forgive?”

Jaime swallowed heavily. “You haven’t-”

“No one knows outside the small council. We have been given orders not to let it go further. But it is your story to tell, should you wish.”

Jaime nodded slowly.

Yes. He might as well tell.

Arthur only looked sad when Jaime told him. Mournful even.

But Jaime's anger had eased as the pressure upon him lessened, and he could not resent him for it. Instead he noted for the first time how haggard the Sword of the Morning appeared, saw the truth of Ser Gerold’s words. While slaying Aerys and all the implications of that had not been easy for Jaime, following Rhaegar’s orders had twisted something within Arthur as well. And now Robert spends his days insulting him…

And I speak of how I hate him.

Jaime had not been the only one to fall from grace, he saw in hindsight.

He bit his lip. “I don’t believe you are not honorable. I was disappointed. And angry. I thought you were supposed to be perfect. I resented it when I discovered you were not.” 

Ser Arthur sighed. “No one is perfect, Jaime. We can only try.”

“I still wish to be a great knight,” Jaime admitted. He looked away. “Like you. Though maybe, not exactly like you.”

Arthur laughed. “That is good, for you’re a fine enough knight in your own right, and I believe you can become better still. I told you once all knights bleed. Do you recall that?”

“Yes,” said Jaime. He recalled almost everything Arthur had ever told him.

“You have shed a lot of blood these past months, if not all of it literal. It shows your strength. But no one can survive if they bleed without healing. We might try that next.”