‘Noooo!!! Boooo!!! Show us her teats! Show us her teats! Teats out! Teats out! Teats oooooout!!!’ cried the crowd.
So much for asking one of the Tyrell men to throw the Lannister whore a cloak, for the pink in Myrcella’s cheeks that had looked so well with her crown of roses had all but withered away.
To be fair, if those teats weren’t attached to the Lannister whore, he’d want to see them too, but right now, he’d rather see those droopy numbers on a toothless old lady who was pushing men half her age aside to get a better view.
‘You, boy, need to be shorter,’ said the old lady, elbowing a young man in the ribs. ‘Out of the way! I need to get a good look at the Kingslayer’s sword.’
‘He didn’t stab the Mad King in the throat with that,’ said the young man. ‘Or did he?’
The men around them jeered.
Robert tore his gaze away from Myrcella and Tommen. There were always casualties in war, and this, too, was war. The type he fucking hated. But necessary, nonetheless.
Most things had gone his way. Catching the Lannister whore and the Kingslayer at it after Robert had vacated their bed earlier in the night, pretending to be distracted by a kitchen wench who had, in truth, very distracting doe-brown eyes and a nice bit of hip, really gave them the edge. After all, a good bit of fighting always made blood run hot, and not just his. He’d expected to feel a great sense of satisfaction upon catching the two of them red-handed, for it’d make the accusations much harder to refute; what else could they be doing? Recreating scenes from their mother’s womb? When it really came to it, however, he’d flown into a rage, and, before he knew it, he’d sliced the Kingslayer’s hand straight off with the Kingslayer’s own sword. Thank the seven that the viper had the good sense to pull him back before he could finish off the Kingslayer altogether, else he’d not be able to fulfil the other half of the bargain.
The High Septon took his place beside him and gave him a nod, making that fat chin wobble. His own chin was taking shape again these days, and he could finally see his feet while standing up, thanks to Clegane’s efforts. Which brought him to the only part of his plan that hadn’t gone well. Fucking wildfire. The gold cloaks were going through the Kettleblack brothers’ tents for clues, not that any of them had a fucking clue. Maester Ballabar was with the remaining Kettleblack, waiting for him to talk. He’d made Stannis send his best man there as witness besides the Strongboar; the onion knight needed a maester for those ribs anyhow.
Robert raised his hands for silence, and the commons fell silent, one by one, until there was only the voice of that old woman, saying, ‘Ha! I knew it! He’s a shower, not a grower.’
‘Now,’ said Robert, using his battle voice. He hadn’t gathered the whole world to witness the downfall of the lions only for half of them to miss what he was saying. ‘I’m sure most of you are wondering why the queen is missing her dress today. We have only brought her and her twin out in the state we found them in last night.’ Uproar. He waited for them to quieten down. ‘By we, I mean Prince Oberyn Martell, Lady Olenna Tyrell and Ser Loras Tyrell of the Kingsguard. We were discussing matters related to the tourney, and couldn’t find my queen. Luckily, a Dornish guard had caught sight of her sneaking away, and here we are!’
‘Whore!’ jeered the commons, as they should. ‘Freak!’ cried some others. And, ‘Shame! Shame! Shame!’
He cried for silence once again, and beckoned the High Septon forth. ‘Before you think me a cuckold, the High Septon has some words to speak.’
The High Septon cleared his throat. ‘It has come to my attention, sitting with the queen after the events of last night to better understand her intentions, that there may be circumstances, unknown at the time to the king, that made the union between them unlawful under the eyes of gods and men. ’
A gasp when through the crowd. Damn it. He hated this part. Hated the lying and scheming. But please be kind to the children, the ghost had said. And he did not want to paint Myrcella and Tommen into monsters born through incest.
‘It has come to the High Septon’s attention,’ he boomed out to the crowd, making sure that they’d catch his every word, ‘that before her marriage to myself, Cersei Lannister had in fact married herself to Jaime Lannister. A most unnatural marriage, to be sure, but one that is nonetheless lawful in the Seven Kingdoms. As you can all see, there is no doubt that the marriage was consummated. So it turns out that I have been unknowingly cuckolding Jaime Lannister for many a-years, begetting three bastards on her! I hereby accuse Cersei Lannister of treason and adultery, and Jaime Lannister of treason! What do you have to say for yourselves?’
‘I…’ the shock had all but rendered Cersei speechless. ‘I… I demand a trial by combat. Both of us… both of us demand trials by combat!’
‘Very well. Select your champion from the Kingsguard.’ As a queen must. ‘Did you want to have your brother fight for your honour?’ he said, nodding at the missing sword hand. He’d sent old Selmy away, and the Knight of Flowers would yield on purpose. Who else was there for her to choose?
The Kingslayer leaned over and whispered a name in her ear.
‘Ser Mandon Moore!’
Robert nodded at that. Ser Mandon already looked like a corpse. Perhaps he’d soon become one, and stop putting Robert off his food with those dead fish eyes.
Ser Mandon drifted in, his steel plate as white as his cloak, set down his bright white shield and drew his sword, white steel icy bright.
‘Who do you name as champion, Your Grace?’ said the High Septon.
He was no Aerys. His champion would not be fire. Sevens be good, he only hoped that fire had not caused his champion too much damage. But he’d held his own against the Mountain. Endurance often separated a good solider from a dead one. If there was one thing Robert knew how to spot beyond a good lay, it was a good soldier.
Clegane bowed his head and strode to the front, still in his soot-grey armour. His face was as unreadable as Ser Mandon’s, though his eyes were, as always, angry instead of dead. The crowd cheered their new-found champion.
‘Sandor Clegane,’ said the High Septon, ‘will you champion the king?’
Clegane stared at him, and he wondered if he understood why it had to be him. The love of the commons was not easily won, and the name of the Lannister dog was not easy to escape. But here, in front of all the lords and ladies, in front of all the smallfolk, was a chance for Clegane to serve the king, to serve the seven, to serve himself and become his own damned dog so that, after the lions are all but gone, there’d still be a place for him. Robert owed him that much.
Not just so, this was now, truly, the best path for Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen. The Tyrells were so close to victory already, and Cersei had been brought so low, that should the trial by combat find Cersei innocent, and stamp her children as still-legitimate heirs to the Iron Throne, it’d be only a matter of time before they’d find themselves removed by other means. From the pinched look on the old lion’s face, someone must have understood perfectly well.
‘Aye,’ said Clegane, and drew his longsword. Dark, plain steel, honed to an edge to sharp to touch, only marred by notches from his fight against the Mountain.
The High Septon beckoned the two of them forward, one crisp and bright, and the other dark and stinking of blood and sweat, so that they knelt, facing each other. Cersei shuffled so that she was between them, and the High Septon lifted his holy crystal above them all, shattering coloured lights across their faces. The crowds held their breath, waiting for the prayer to come to a close. Robert sent the Warrior a prayer of his own, though, by the looks of it, not as fervently as Ned’s eldest daughter; her hands were clasped together so tightly that her fingers had grown as pale as Myrcella’s cheeks.
‘May the trial begin!’ cried Robert.
Ser Mandon raised his heavy shield, and Clegane turned to face him, making a show of throwing away his own shield. It landed on the ground in a cloud of dust. There were no testing blows; they’d seen each other often enough in the practice yard. There was no doubt that Clegane was the stronger, deadlier man. But tired too, after the melee then the lists, and Ser Mandon knew it. Speed had to be Ser Mandon’s greatest advantage, and he’d not have it heaving an oaken shield around, while Clegane’s was no longer weighing him down. Tossing his own away, Ser Mandon swirled away, just out of reach, and the shield wobbled and stilled, abandoned on the ground. A vainer knight might have been tempted to give chase, especially with the crowd crying, ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’ But Clegane drew back and circled Ser Mandon instead, almost leisurely, examining every inch of his opponent. There was little to see. Ser Mandon’s squire had done a fine job securing his full plate armour.
But it was enough for Clegane. In a flash, he closed the distance between himself and Ser Mandon with two swift strides and swung his sword. Almost caught unawares, Ser Mandon took a step back, but raised his sword to meet Clegane’s, steel against steel. The two swords drew an arc around the knight, and with a flick, Clegane pushed Ser Mandon’s ice white blade to the right. Before Ser Mandon could bring his sword back in front of him or leap away, Clegane had turned his own sword around, gripping the blade with his mailed fist, pommel out, and, with a deafening clang, struck it against Ser Mandon’s helm. The crowd roared, and Robert with them. Nothing like a good bash on the head! Sadly it wasn’t with a war hammer, else Ser Mandon would be dead already. If Ser Mandon had not been deafened before, he had to be now. His sword swung uselessly in Clegane’s direction, but fell short, by speed and by reach.
And it was no longer the direction that Clegane was in. Faster than a man that size had any right to be, Clegane had circled around Ser Mandon, who was still trying to straighten his head and his helm. Turning his sword back around, Clegane gripped the hilt with his sword hand and the blade with the other. A thrust at the back of Ser Mandon’s right knee splattered an arc of red on the grounds. Ser Mandon groaned and tried to twist himself around, limping, but Clegane had taken aim again, this time right through the weak spot between Ser Mandon’s sword arm and breast plate. Ser Mandon had no shield to block it as the steel slid through flesh once again. His white Kingsguard cloak bloomed red.
The stab was not deep enough. Ser Mandon staggered back, scrambling for his discarded shield, but Clegane gripped the hilt of his sword with both arms and brought it down on Ser Mandon’s right shoulder. The knight barely managed to meet the blow with his own sword. But it was no use. The strength of the blow was too much for an injured sword arm. With a cry, Ser Mandon dropped his sword and fell back.
Still, Clegane did not slow. With brutal efficiency, he gripped the middle of the blade once more with his left hand and pressed the blade into the gaps in Ser Mandon’s visor, where his dead fish eyes used to stare out at the world. It most likely was staring at nothing now. But Clegane made double-sure of it, as only a soldier who’d seen a man presumed dead rise up from the ground would do. Kicking Ser Mandon’s arm aside, he sank his bloodied sword into the gap under Ser Mandon’s arm once again, this time sinking it far enough to reach the heart.
Mere moments had passed, and it was already over.
‘TRAITOR!!!’ screamed Joff, but it was drowned out by the cheers of other lords, ladies and smallfolk alike.
A few ladies even threw their handkerchiefs at him, but he merely stepped over them as if they were fallen leaves. Robert felt a stab of disappointment, seeing that Ned’s redhead daughter had not thrown her own handkerchief. Instead, she was now half-staring at the Kingslayer, carefully keeping her eyes glued to the top half of him, with a frown on her face.
In the din that ensued as he ordered the Lannister whore to be dragged away to the black cells, Janos Slynt’s ugly frog-face appeared, a silken handkerchief in hand. Robert was about to ask him whether he picked up one meant for Clegane when Slynt spoke.
‘Your Grace, we found this in Ser Osney Kettleblack’s tent.’
Robert unfolded the handkerchief. It was a familiar square of rose-gold with a circlet of vines in a darker gold, along with a flowery initial: M.
‘Where in Ser Osney’s tent?’ he asked.
‘On his bedroll, Your Grace,’ said Slynt.
He waved Slynt aside. Others take him. Hadn’t it been Littlefinger who’d convinced him not to replace Slynt, because the next man could always be worse? The words he’d exchanged with Ned’s younger daughter and unruly sons right after the disaster of a melee came to mind once again.
‘Rickon saw with… with his own eyes…’ the younger daughter had said. ‘The queen was speaking with Littlefinger by the godswood. They were careful not to get too close to Shaggydog, of course, but still… Rickon saw with his own eyes! Littlefinger was jesting with her, saying how boring he was sure the tournament would be, and how only wildfire would make the melee a touch more exciting! We were sitting with him when everything went wrong, and he didn’t look surprised at all!’
But it was just a jest. So much so that Ned’s children hadn’t seen fit to warn anyone beforehand. Robert could not arrest a man for making a jest, else he himself would be the first to rot away in the black cells.
Still… This… Janos Slynt should not have found this handkerchief; Robert had already asked Ned’s children to look through their tents before he’d given the gold cloaks their order. He’d asked them to check the bedrolls, in particular, for anything that might belong to a lady, because Ned’s children had mentioned Cersei. They’d not come back with this handkerchief.
The old lion’s sour voice snapped him away from his thoughts. ‘Your Grace, I wish to provide a champion for Jaime’s trial by combat.’
Robert snorted. ‘As a member of the Kingsguard, I’d expect him to defend himself. But… seeing as he’s missing his most important member, name your champion!’
‘Ser Gregor Clegane,’ said the old lion.
‘Then,’ said Robert, breaking into a wide grin, ‘to champion the king, I name Prince Oberyn Martell of Dorne!’
The viper smiled back.
Everything was going just the way they’d planned.