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“Why not a hook, though?” Brienne said, frowning, and Jaime followed her gaze to the golden hand covering his stump. He paused, and she added, “It’s pretty, but it’s not much use, is it? One of my father’s captains has a hook; he can get around the rigging as quick as any of his sailors.”

They’d been sparring, down in the castle cellars among the dragon skulls. It was agonizing how easily she could beat him, but he didn’t see who else he could train with who wouldn’t instantly blab it all over Westeros how terrible he was now, and anyway he had to get better than her, otherwise it was going to be the rest of his life with both of them knowing he hadn’t been as good as her with two hands. Jaime Lannister, the famous swordsman, indeed. She hadn’t actually told anyone about that either, as far as he could tell, but he could tell she was carrying the smug satisfaction of it around with her, a deep serene glow.

“You say that as though it doesn’t matter to be pretty,” Jaime said, trying to speak lightly. Cersei turning her eyes from the stump, her mouth hard. You took too long, even after she’d made him put the thing on.

Brienne gave a snort. “You’re pretty enough without lugging a useless golden hand around for show.”

“Why, Lady Brienne, are you saying you think I’m pretty?” he said, smirking, and she huffed an annoyed noise; he turned a little to face her and gave her a wistful smile, his eyes wide and soulful—he didn’t actually know what it was that made women think he was pretty, but that seemed likely to work—and she glared at him incredulously a moment and then her eyes widened and she instantly jerked her face away as if it had just occurred to her, in that very moment, that why yes, she did think he was pretty, and he’d have wagered at least one finger of his other hand that if it weren’t so dark, he’d see her blushing.

It generally annoyed him when women made calf eyes at him, but she did no such thing; in fact, she got up and very studiously said, “Are you ready for another round?” doing her very best—pathetically bad—to pretend she wasn’t thinking about how pretty he was at all.

“I am,” he said, gleefully, and let her close to grapple, after the next pass, and leaned in and murmured, “How would you compare me to the rest of the court? Am I the fairest?”

“What?” she said, and he managed to lever the sword out of her hand completely.

Three seconds later she’d kicked his legs out from under him and dumped him—grappling with her was in fact a very bad idea—but he beamed up at her from the floor anyway, and even more when she glared at him. “Do you want to make stupid jokes, or do you actually want to become decent enough with your off-hand to beat a child of twelve?” she said. 

“Why not both?” he said. “Oh, don’t be so grim. Come on, help me up,” and when she did give him a hand, he calculatedly stumbled against her and got close enough his mouth nearly brushed hers, and she blushed so hard that time he could see it even in lamplight.

“I could slip into your room tonight,” he said thoughtfully, on the next pass. “A secret assignation with my devoted admirer—”

Brienne made a sort of angry growling noise, knocked the sword out of his hand, and dumped him. “Just keep right on making clever remarks, see how much good it does you.”

It did him enormous good, actually; he’d been finishing out the sessions vaguely sick to his stomach, painfully aware of just how laughable he’d have found his own performance only a few short weeks ago. They seemed like past centuries. He didn’t really see a road back to anything better than modest competence, and even that would be a struggle. At least he felt like himself again when she got flustered on every exchange of blows, even if it had nothing to do with his skill. Swordplay had always been a game for him, not a terrible grinding slog.  This way he wasn’t just flailing hopelessly at an impossible target, he was scoring points on a completely different field.

The rest of the afternoon, he gave himself credit for every blush, every embarrassed squirm, and did his best to win them with every single tool at his disposal: he sprawled out and groaned a little more theatrically when she knocked him down; he took every chance to close with her, despite the bruises, for the chance to whisper suggestion and innuendo. He started trying to find ways to touch her, and once he managed to get his arms around her from behind and pull her back hard against him. “Well, this is delightful,” he purred at her.

“Very funny,” she said, with a sigh. “Let go.”

He let go smirking—sighs were worth half a point, he’d decided. “Don’t you enjoy my embrace, my lady?”

“Next time I’ll break it the proper way,” she said, very dryly. 

“What’s the proper way?” Jaime said. 

“Smashing my heel up directly into your balls,” Brienne said. “That’s what the iron band with the spikes is for.” His entire body winced together involuntarily. “The last man who tried it on me just lay weeping on the ground for another ten minutes until I killed him.”

“Perhaps we’ll skip that particular demonstration,” Jaime said, with an effort not to let it sound squeaking. “I’d hate to deny my lady the full enjoyment of my powers.”

She dropped her shoulders and glared at him—three points—and said, “Are you like this all the time? I thought it was only because you were chained up and hated me.”

“Just think of all the fun you could have had with me,” Jaime said wistfully. “A helpless prisoner at your mercy. I can only imagine what might have been if you’d ravished me every night in the dark woods, made me serve your every whim—”

“I’ll hit you some more now,” Brienne said, but she was blushing again too, so he still counted it, and he even had a pleasurable ache of lust in his own belly, startling and unfamiliar, that kept building; he’d never actually wanted to take anyone but Cersei to bed, but by the time his arms were too tired to lift a sword anymore, they’d gone five hours and he desperately wanted to fuck Brienne. He kept thinking of her body in the baths, the water sheeting down her skin when she’d stood up; he wanted to lick her, he wanted to put her on his cock and make her writhe with pleasure.

He thought it would go away once they weren’t fighting, but it didn’t; he went to his room after the evening court and paced for hours into the dark of the night, breathing hard, waiting for it to stop; then abruptly he left and slipped through the hallways to Cersei’s rooms, only when he turned into the last corridor, he stopped, because—because—there was someone else at the door already; a torch in the hall gleaming on Lancel’s golden hair and smooth unmarred skin as he opened the door with his right hand and went in—quickly, with assurance, like a man certain of his welcome; like a man who’d been there before.

Jaime stood in the corner and found it remarkable he remembered how to keep standing. You took too long, Cersei had said, and evidently she’d meant it; she’d run out of patience, and she didn’t care to find it again, because now he was a one-handed cripple who had to hide in the dark so no one would see how useless he’d become.

He went back to his own chambers and lay down, dull and cold. He didn’t think he’d sleep, but five hours of fighting to exhaustion took care of that, at least.

#

The next day, Brienne dumped him six times in the first ten minutes and stopped and said, “If you’re not trying, I won’t waste my time.”

“What else do you have to do?” Jaime said.

“Is that a joke? There’s seventeen masters of different schools of sword-fighting in the training grounds. Six of them will talk to me, and I can watch the others.”

He stared, then said, slowly, in rising indignation, “Have you been training more than this?”

“I don’t have anything else to do,” she said, with a shade of bitterness, then looked at him and added, pointedly, “And I don’t care to sit around feeling sorry for myself, either.”

So he got himself up and went at her grimly, and got dumped twice more, only this time at least he made her work for it. A little. She was frowning when she pulled him up again. “Your arm needs to be stronger, but that’ll come,” she said, which seemed excessively optimistic to him. “But there’s something odd. I think…let’s do that again, only half-speed, or slower if you can.”

It took a few tries, but they managed to step through it, and then she stopped him a few steps before she’d taken him down. “There’s the opening,” she said, and a pathetically obvious one it was, too: he was about to overextend his arm like a raw squire. She kept him in place with her hands and said, “Hold still a moment,” then walked around him, studying his stance.

“I could pose more artistically,” he said, mostly out of habit.

She sighed very faintly and asked, “Where were your feet just before?” in a long-suffering tone. He stepped backwards as best he could, trying to remember, and six steps back she said, “Ha!” and he realized at the same exact time that he’d come out of the turn with his lead switched back to the one he would’ve been using right-handed.

He spent the next hour solid just practicing every turn variant he knew—there were a great many—until he came out of them properly. Then they ran another spar, and he lasted five solid minutes before she took him down again. He bounded up and seized her by the waist and swung her around like a Lannisfair dance while she yelped and tried not to cut his head off with the sword still in her hand, and then she blushed again when he put her down and he beamed at her in real delight.

“We’ll train in the mornings, too,” he said exultantly.

“If you get out of bed before noon,” she said.

“Well, there’s all sorts of other things we could practice there,” he said.

“I suppose it’s better than moping,” she said aloud, in resigned tones, directed more or less at the gods; he caught her by the waist and reeled her in and nuzzled up along her neck, which was sweaty and smelled of leather, to her ear, and murmured richly, “Anything to please my lady,” and he stayed hard even when she hooked his foot out from under him and dumped him to the ground again, her cheeks scarlet.

He was alive with lust again that night, and after all, he thought savagely—alone in his room, looking out over the balcony at the gardens filled with courtiers dancing and laughing in the still-summer air, Cersei floating among them like a vision in a dress of seafoam and silver—after all, why not; he’d taken too long, so she was fucking Lancel now, and why not, why the hell not. He left his room and found a page and made them tell him where Brienne’s room was—they’d shoved her high up in the north tower, a worse room than she deserved and much too far away, which he’d fix in the morning—and then he crossed the keep and climbed up to it, taking the narrow stairs three at a time until he came to her door.

He stopped there, his hand on the knob, his left hand, a swell of grief rising through him to drown the anger. He didn’t care that Cersei had fucked Lancel; she’d fucked Robert, she could fuck a hundred men, it didn’t matter. It mattered that she didn’t want him, she didn’t even want to look at him and see him maimed and ruined, and he couldn’t blame her; how could he blame her? He didn’t want to look at himself. He almost turned and went back downstairs, to his own room and his cold bed, but it was too pathetic to endure, and in any case, he wasn’t dead, so he had to get used to it.

So he opened the door and slipped inside. The room was dark, only a single candle at the bedside, and the windows had been opened completely wide even though the tower faced the sea, and the wind was chill. The bedcurtains were open, and Brienne was fast asleep—no wonder she was up at first light—under nothing more than a sheet draped over her naked body; the room was bare and there was only the one suit of clothes hung carefully over the chair, her shift damp and washed and hanging in the window. He’d fix that in the morning, too—but at the moment, he was sincerely grateful; he wouldn’t have to fumble at her laces, and he tugged the neck of his own shirt loose as he went to the bed.

“Brienne,” he said, leaning in, and she jerked awake all at once, hand reaching automatically over—did she have her sword in the bed? Next to her? She did, and he grinned at her helplessly as she sat up clutching the sheet around her, staring at him.

“What are you doing here?” she said.

“I did tell you I’d come,” he said, and leaned in to kiss her, only she put one hand on his chest and pushed him back, leaning away from him with her face utterly astonished.

“What—no!” she said. “Are you mad?”

It was an odd lurching sensation, like coming out of a turn wrong, straight into mortification and shame. But he hadn’t—he wasn’t wrong, he wasn’t— “You want me,” he said through his teeth. “Don’t try to tell me—”

“That doesn’t mean I’m going to fuck you!” She was staring at him bewildered.

“What?” he stared at her, the rising anger halted, as if she’d just stopped him in place again. “Why not?

“Why not?” she said, her voice going up, incredulous. “Why—you can’t mean it.” She paused suddenly. “Are you drunk?”

“No, I’m—I’m not drunk!” he said, leaning back as she leaned over and actually sniffed him. “I all but fucked you on the floor in front of Balerion’s head this afternoon, and you’re surprised I thought—”

She flushed, color down her entire body, making the freckles stand out against her skin in the candlelight, but she stuck out her chin, her mouth mulish, and said tightly, “Was I also expected to think you actually wanted me while we were wandering the countryside and you were offering to introduce me to the joys of your cock in between telling me I was an ugly beast of a woman?”

“That—was because I was chained up and angry!” he said, over inward writhing; it hadn’t actually occurred to him that the insults might have lingered in her mind. He hadn’t thought of her that way in months; she was just—Brienne, now. “You were calling me an honorless oathbreaker at the time yourself, as I recall.”

“You’ve never told anyone otherwise,” Brienne said, but there was a little less heat to it, and she was frowning down, a red stain climbing into her cheeks; he thought maybe he was getting somewhere, and then she said abruptly, “I shouldn’t have let you—”

“What?” he said, exasperated. “No, you should let me, now—” and he caught her hand on his chest and brought it up to his mouth and kissed the palm, and she jerked it away so fast she nearly hit him in the nose and clutched it against herself, bunching the sheet up more over her body.

“Stop it!” she said.

“Brienne—”

“No!” she said, her voice rising. “I don’t—I should have stopped you, but—” She seemed to almost be casting about, looking bewildered more than anything, as if she couldn’t find the words to say why she wouldn’t, “—but you’re not mine,” she burst out finally, “and I don’t want to lie with a man who isn’t. No matter how pretty he is!” she added, in a sudden flare of indignation that only kept climbing. She lifted her head to stare directly at him at last, moving from confusion into anger. “I can’t believe you just came in here, and thought I’d—spread my legs for you!” and abruptly she let go of the sheet and shoved him hard with both hands and sent him skidding off the edge of the bed and over onto the floor.

He stood up indignantly. “I did not—” He stopped short, because she was swinging out of the bed after him, furious, naked, and she’d got the sword, which was too many things to pay attention to at once, and then she pointed it at him.

“You’re leaving this room in the next minute,” she said. “Door, or window. Choose.

“Are you actually threatening to throw me out the window?” he managed.

 “Yes, and it’s a long way,” she said, her eyes narrowing.

He went back to his room in a combination of bewilderment and indignation and painful embarrassment; also he wasn’t actually feeling any less lustful at all. He had to use his hand just to get to sleep, and Brienne towering naked and indignant with her sword stood behind his eyes the entire time he was gasping and thrusting into his own fist.

#

She didn’t come down to the cellars the next day. He hadn’t really held out much hope, but he’d gone down anyway to wait, ashamedly, just in case, and when she didn’t appear, he drew a breath and got up and grimly went looking instead. He hadn’t been drunk, and yet in the light of day, it all felt considerably more pathetic and also more outrageous than it had seemed last night. Appearing at her door and throwing himself at her like a gift, as if she were some tavern wench happy to fuck him for no better reason than liking his looks from across a noisy taproom.

He found her in the stands outside the practice ring, watching one of the younger knights get chased up and down the grounds by a swordmaster. She was sitting alone, but she hadn’t noticed him, her eyes were fixed intently on the sparring, and she had her hands in mid air in front of her as if she were holding a sword, moving them in imitation, shifting her feet around at the same time. He stared up at her and grimaced; if there was anything he was absolutely terrible at, it was apologizing. For anything, to anyone. In fact, he couldn’t actually remember the last time he’d apologized. To anyone other than Cersei, at least.

“May I make a suggestion?” Jaime twitched: Tyrion had quietly come up beside him in the archway. He looked up, eyebrows raised—the scar across his face was still angry and red, but it hadn’t changed his eyes, still much too clever. “Women like gifts. Also, it’s an excellent way to start a conversation.” He held out a dagger in a sheath, and Jaime took it without thinking.

“What is this?” The blade was heavy, a little long for a dagger, and the sheath was embossed with a sigil he didn’t recognize: an elm tree with a shooting star above it.

“It once belonged to Ser Duncan the Tall,” Tyrion said. “A gift from Aegon Targareyn on his joining the Kingsguard. Selwyn Tarth is descended from him somehow, I don’t recall the details, but I thought your heroine might like it. Do I get to meet her?”

“She’s been here two months. Why do you want to meet her now?” Jaime said, warily.

“It’s true, I haven’t made overtures,” Tyrion said. “I was under the impression that she was an unimportant minor Stark retainer, the only one Catelyn Stark could get to obey her instead of her son. That was before two interesting things happened.”

“And what were those?” Jaime said, even more warily.

“Well, last night, you went to her bedchamber,” Tyrion said, “and then, she threw you out. Very interesting. I’m not sure you could have gotten thrown out of any other lady’s bedchamber in the entire castle,” and Jaime nearly grabbed him by the throat.

“You’re spying on me?” he hissed, in indignation, cornering him against the wall.

Tyrion pursed his mouth and frowned up at him, not only unrepentant but actually accusatory. “I suppose that’s one way to look at it. The other is, when I was serving as Hand, I decided I preferred to exercise some independent control over the flow of information where I could. So I went round to all the pages and quietly made them an offer: they could get paid twice for any piece of information; all they needed to do was come and give it to me, first, before they took it on to Varys. I also told them I’d pay them double for any information on my family, and if, by chance, one of them ever managed to find a piece of information that I didn’t want Varys to have, they’d get something very, very nice indeed. You’ve got a new personal squire, by the way. His name is—Craston? I think? If anyone asks, you need more help because of the hand, and you asked me to recommend one of the more likely pages.”

Jaime stared at him. “And why am I taking on your spy?”

“Dear brother,” Tyrion said, very unamused. “I would like you to imagine exactly how happy it would make our beloved father to hear that last night you, a member of the Kingsguard, sworn to celibacy, violated the bedchamber of an unmarried highborn woman living here at least nominally under the king’s protection. It’s like you wanted to hand him an excuse.” Jaime stiffened. “Varys wouldn’t dare keep it from Father. Frankly, I’m thinking twice about keeping it from Father. What are the odds she’s going to tell him herself?”

“She’s not going to tell him anything,” Jaime muttered, busy cursing himself under his breath.

“You’re certain? She’d be Lady Lannister of Casterly Rock before sundown,” Tyrion said.

“She’s not going to tell him!” Jaime said.

“Does she find you that hateful?”

“She does not find me hateful,” Jaime said, and then winced as he realized he wasn’t sure that was true anymore, and darted a look over at her. Brienne still hadn’t so much as glanced away from the ring. 

“More interesting with every passing minute,” Tyrion said, and Jaime looked back at him; Tyrion had his head cocked to the side and was studying him with a slight frown. “Why did she throw you out, then?”

“Because I’m not hers,” Jaime said, trying to make it sound as absurd and stupid as he’d thought it was, last night, and found he couldn’t actually.

“A lady of principle,” Tyrion said. “What’s she doing here?

He turned and went back inside without waiting for an answer, and Jaime took a deep breath and looked down at the blade in his hand and squared his shoulders and went into the stands. Brienne didn’t notice him until he was nearly up to her, and then she stiffened as he sat beside her. It was useful to have the dagger; he held it out without having to find words to start with, and it distracted her from whatever words she might have been about to start with.

“It belonged to Ser Duncan the Tall,” Jaime said. “An ancestor of yours, apparently?” That caught her, almost involuntarily, and she pulled the blade out of the sheath and looked at it before she could stop herself, touching the sigil on the sheath with her fingers. “It was a gift from Aegon Targareyn, when he joined the Kingsguard.” Jaime took a breath as she hesitated, and pushed on. “Brienne. I’m sorry.”

She held very still a moment, looking down at the bright shining blade, and then she slid the dagger back into the sheath and held it back out to him without looking him in the face. “It’s all right,” she said. “You don’t need to offer me presents. I behaved badly as well,” but it was formal, austere, and she hadn’t behaved badly; she’d only—let him close with her, out of trust he’d bought with honesty and blood, and he knew instantly that she’d never give it again now he’d shown her he wasn’t worthy of it; she would politely refuse if he asked her to spar with him, and very likely avoid him entirely. And it was no more than he deserved; he’d insulted her honor, and now here he was holding out a trinket as if he could buy her forgiveness with it: what the hell did Tyrion know anyway.

 He swallowed and said, his mouth dry, “If you wish—we’ll go to my father,” and she did glance at him sidelong then, in confusion, and he kept going desperately, his heart pounding in terror, and this was why you didn’t apologize; it was all over once you admitted you were wrong, but he was wrong, and he had to— “He’ll—have me dismissed from the Kingsguard, and we’ll—we can marry.”

 She was really looking at him at last, her eyes wide, startled—as startled as she’d been last night, when he’d thrown himself at her like a drowning man trying to grab onto the only rock he saw, and then she blushed and looked away, down at her hands, her mouth pressed small. “Jaime,” she said, slowly, and he heard the hedged offer of his own words back in her voice, the hesitation of it, and he clenched his teeth.

“I’d say that you’d make me the happiest man in Westeros, but to be honest, I think it would actually be him,” he said, forcing himself to make it light, and then he deliberately reached out and put his hand on hers, because—he’d wanted her last night, hadn’t he? He’d wanted her to be his, and the only thing that could make that anything other than intolerable was if he’d been willing to be hers, the only return he could ask her to accept in exchange. “Brienne. Will you marry me?”

He thought he’d done it well enough; she looked up at him, and she did want him, he’d been right about that. And she was worth having, even if she wasn’t the one thing he’d ever wanted, the thing that was gone, rotting in the dirt; he could spend the rest of his days weeping over it, or he could have some damned courage and find a way to live anyway, as best he could, until they put him in the dirt too. So he smiled at her, and put his hand on her cheek. He even liked watching the color flush into her skin, and she reached up and covered his hand for a moment, and then said quietly, “I can’t.”

“What?” he said, blankly.

She took a breath and straightened away from him, shifting so his hand slipped off her. “Your father doesn’t just want you wed,” she said. “You said he wants to send you back to Casterly Rock.”

“You like it better here?” He didn’t understand at all; she couldn’t possibly like it in King’s Landing. As far as he knew, she didn’t even talk to anyone but him and, he supposed, the six swordmasters who’d talk to a woman.  

Sansa is here.”

“Sansa? She’s in the middle of the Red Keep, married to my brother—what exactly are you going to do for her?” he asked, bewildered. “Have you even spoken to her?”

“No,” Brienne said. “I haven’t found a way to get past her guards,” and he stared; it hadn’t occurred to him she’d been trying. “But I’ve watched her in the gardens. And—” She stopped, and then said abruptly, “I’ve seen the king doing the same.”

“They were going to be married once,” Jaime said, slowly, a curl of worry in his gut.

But Brienne shook her head, her lips pressed tight, a denial. “I don’t like the way he looks at her,” she said, flatly. “So I don’t know what I can do for her, but I do know she’s not safe. And I’ve more chance of doing something to help her if I’m here than if I’m in Casterly Rock, bearing your children.”

But a shadow crossed her face when she said it, a flicker of pain, as if—as if that were something she might have wanted, and abruptly he was—home, in the room that was still in his mind his mother’s room, the one his father had never used again after she’d died. He was there with sunlight pouring in gold through the windows and Brienne lying drowsy in the bed with two children cuddled in the bed on either side of her, the way his mother had let him and Cersei come and burrow in with her on lazy mornings—his father standing in the room looking down at them with a hint of tolerant disapproval, because they were too big to keep pestering their mother this way, only Jaime wouldn’t stand there disapproving; he’d be in the bed with them, kissing Brienne and tossing the children around when they complained, and she would be his, they would all be his, and he was an idiot and she had to marry him, she had to—

“He’ll let us have her,” he blurted, in desperation.

“What?” Brienne said.

“Sansa!” Jaime said. “We’ll go to my father and tell him that we’ll marry and go back to Casterly Rock, if in exchange, he’ll let Sansa come with us, under our protection, and swear that the crown will leave her alone. She can get her marriage annulled if she wants to—” Tyrion would have to forgive him for stealing his wife; hopefully he wouldn’t mind, but it was just too bad if he did, “—and marry anyone she likes, when she likes, or never for that matter; he’ll do it,” Jaime added, urgently, because Brienne was just gawking at him. “Winterfell’s been sacked, the Starks are all dead, the Boltons are holding the North; she’s not that important anymore. Not as important as Lannister heirs, not to him—”

“All right,” Brienne said, sounding bewildered. 

“—so if you want to protect her, that’s how to do it,” Jaime barreled on, and then realized she’d said yes and stopped, breathing hard, and stared at her, and she stared back at him.

#

“This is Lady Brienne of Tarth,” Jaime said. Tywin gave her the briefest nod, barely a glance, and turned his eyes back to Jaime. “She’s prepared to marry me, under certain conditions.”

It was somewhat satisfying to finally see his father completely speechless for once in his life. It didn’t last long, but Jaime enjoyed the frozen, controlled astonishment while he outlined the aforementioned conditions. When he finished, Tywin looked back at Brienne. She was standing next to Jaime stern-faced and frowning at the ground, hands clasped behind her back, awkward in her plain clothes, and Jaime had a flash of instinctive desire to get in front of her, to block his father’s gaze, something between protection and possession: she wasn’t safely his yet.

But Tywin only stared at her for a moment, expressionless, then said, “Agreed.” He stood. “Davin!” he called, and one of his aides ducked in. He jerked his head towards Brienne. “Take Lady Brienne to Ser Jaime’s chambers and arrange for attendants and suitable attire. They will be married this afternoon.” He looked at Jaime. “We’ll speak with the king now. You’ll leave for Casterly Rock with Sansa after the royal wedding.”

Jaime released a breath; it felt like clearing a high fence he hadn’t been quite sure his horse could take. And he wasn’t clear yet, but nearly: his father had said it, had put the words into the world as something he meant to see done. Jaime looked at Brienne and gave her a small jerk of a nod; she glanced at him and nodded back and went with the aide, who was working very hard not to let any thoughts show on his face. Tywin watched them leave the room. When they’d gone, he looked at Jaime once more, but he didn’t say anything, only walked out, leading the way.

“What if I don’t want to release him!” Joffrey said, eyes darting up from Jaime’s face to Tywin’s, his mouth petulant.

Jaime stiffened, but Tywin only looked down at Joffrey in the chair with a hard unblinking gaze. “Your Grace,” he said, levelly, “I dislike having to speak of this matter. But you are aware of the disgusting rumors put about by Stannis Baratheon regarding your parentage.” Joffrey’s eyes flickered back to Jaime’s face again for a moment, a hummingbird going back and forth, sharp-beaked. There wasn’t anything warm in the look; nothing of hope or even of wondering, just a cold wariness, and Jaime swallowed something hard.

Tywin went on. “His army has been destroyed, and yet the rumors linger, as Stannis does himself. Our army will soon destroy him and the remnant of his forces. Your uncle’s marriage will serve to disperse the rumors, as will your mother’s to Loras Tyrell. More importantly, you require a strong lord in command of Casterly Rock, and you require kin. Girls you can offer in marriage to your allies, boys who will be your trusted officers. You should have had them before now,” he added, with an edge that Jaime had no difficulty recognizing was aimed in his direction. “Your Baratheon family have betrayed you. Your Lannister family must be your lasting strength. With luck, by this time next year, you may have a child of your own, a half-sibling at the Reach, and a cousin at Casterly Rock. Without luck, you are still likely to have at least one of those, coming if not yet born. The wise king hopes for the first, and plans for the second.”

He turned and gave Jaime a sharp nod, and Jaime slowly knelt before the chair as Tywin looked expectantly back at Joffrey, who muttered after a moment, “Ser Jaime Lannister, I hereby release you from the Kingsguard,” low and sullen and graceless, and that was that, another oath discarded like trash and him discarded with it, only oddly it didn’t hurt the way he’d expected it to. “As Your Grace commands,” he said, quietly, and rose, and felt only—one step closer.

Tywin nodded a little, satisfied. “We will forgo ceremony,” he said. “The royal marriage requires pomp; this does not, and there is no need to have two public occasions a month apart. The marriage will take place at three this afternoon in the chapel; only family will attend.”

Joffrey was still slouched and pouting, but he put his chin up at that. “My future queen should be invited, and her family,” he said, declaring.

Tywin inclined his head. “As you wish, Your Grace. I will send the invitations in your name at once.”

Jaime went back to his rooms, which were full of women. Brienne was standing with her arms stuck out, fabric being pinned on her, looking in both body and expression roughly as though she were preparing herself for crucifixion. She looked at him and asked, “Well?” with a beleaguered note, as if she’d be able to find some consolation if he told her everything was off.

He beamed at her. “It’s all arranged. Three o’clock. I’m sure all of you will do your very best for my lady,” he added, turning his smile on the seamstresses; they all twittered and made noises. Brienne eyed him only slightly less murderous than when she’d had a sword at his throat and was chasing him out of her bedchamber. Which she’d never be able to do again, because it was going to be his bedchamber, and oh, he was going to fuck her for hours tonight. Forget this time next year; he wanted his heir in his arms nine months from today, and if it didn’t happen, it wasn’t going to be for lack of trying.

He took off his Kingsguard cloak and armor—the new squire actually did come in handy—and didn’t even watch as it was carried out of the room; he shrugged into a comfortable hunting jerkin, and then he poured himself a glass of wine and put himself in a chair to enjoy watching the rest of Brienne’s misery. The women had finished pinning everything together, a blue that caught her eyes and would look splendid next to his red and gold; now they took it all off again, and vanished off with the armfuls of fabric as Brienne stepped down in her shift and snatched back up her old clothes.

“Jaime,” she said, after the women had left, “can I speak to Sansa?”

“She’ll be your sister in law after the ceremony; I can’t imagine there’s a guard in the palace who won’t let you talk to her,” Jaime said.

“I want her to know before,” Brienne said. “She shouldn’t just be—told, as if it’s another thing happening to her.”

“There’s still time, I suppose. I’ll hunt down Tyrion, if you like,” Jaime said, and since she did like, he shortly thereafter had the pleasure of seeing yet another member of his family struck completely speechless. Twice in one day: it was the sort of thing he could get used to.

Tyrion didn’t recover nearly as quickly as Father; it took him several unblinking minutes to say slowly, “So what you’re saying is, your attempt at apology went so badly, you ended up having to offer marriage, and when that didn’t work, you bribed your lady into marrying you, by—offering her mine?”

“Well, it’s your own fault,” Jaime said.

“It’s what?”

“If you hadn’t been spying on me, Father would have caught me,” Jaime said. “Then he’d have forced her to marry me, and I wouldn’t have had to talk her into it.”

“This is an extremely strange conversation,” Tyrion said, staring at him. “Jaime, it seems very unlikely and also unfashionable, but is it possible you’ve actually fallen in love with this woman you’re going to marry?”

“It does seem that way, doesn’t it,” Jaime said, and found himself smiling at Tyrion, helplessly; his eyes even stung a little, and Tyrion abruptly folded in his mouth and blinked himself a few times and turned away and poured them both a glass of wine and handed one to Jaime and held his own up. “In that case,” he said, “to Lady Lannister of Casterly Rock.” Jaime clinked glasses with him and drank.

“I am sorry about stealing your wife,” he added to Tyrion after, while they watched Brienne go to Sansa in the garden. It wasn’t entirely a lie; he was sorry it had proven necessary, even if not that he’d done it.

Tyrion was still frowning after Brienne with a deeply puzzled expression, but he flipped his hand in dismissal. “Sansa’s a child of fourteen and our family has just finished murdering virtually all of hers. I haven’t touched her. Although I’d just as soon you didn’t mention that to Father,” he added. “I should be able to parley my cooperation in this scheme for something. But I’m just as glad, to be honest. It’s going to remove a significant complication from my life.”

“How so?” Jaime said. Tyrion looked up at him, hesitating. “What is it?”

Tyrion looked away again. “For one, Joffrey’s going to be a problem.”

“A problem,” Jaime repeated.  

“Yes. A problem. And Sansa exacerbates the problem.”

“He—didn’t want to give her up?” Jaime said, looking across the garden. Brienne had sat down next to Sansa and was talking to her too quietly to overhear; Sansa was looking up at her with the wariness of a small hunted animal. He half didn’t want to ask. There was a heavy knot in his stomach. I don’t like the way he looks at her, Brienne had said.

“Sansa is very easy to hurt,” Tyrion said. “And Joffrey…likes things that are easy to hurt. I mention that it might not be a bad thing if you found a pressing reason to leave before the royal wedding. She’ll have to attend if you’re still in the capital. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were trouble.”

For a tall girl, Sansa still managed to give off a mouselike quality when she and Brienne came over to join them, her eyes darting warily to Jaime’s face, and she looked at Tyrion. “Brienne says…our marriage will be annulled.”

She sounded so perfectly neutral about it that Jaime had no idea from her tone if she was blissfully happy, horrified, or didn’t understand what the words meant. Tyrion looked at her, frowning a little, and then he said, “Lady Sansa, I am at your service. When you want the marriage annulled, it will be annulled. But if the Lannister name feels to you like a protection you would rather keep, then keep it a while longer. I can’t do much for you, but I can at least do that. And there’s no more reasonable place for a Lannister lady to be living than Casterly Rock.”

Brienne looked at Tyrion so approvingly that Jaime had a moment of irritation—he’d only gotten that look after jumping into a pit with a bear in it—then turned to Sansa. “My lady, whatever you choose, you will be safe. Ser Jaime and I both gave your mother our word. We won’t let anyone harm you.”

Sansa darted another scared-rabbit look, at him. Jaime didn’t have any trouble reading that, no matter what she did with her voice. He said, as gently as he could, “I know I’ve been no friend to your house. But your mother gave me my life in exchange for that promise. I can’t tell you she was at all eager to trust me for it,” he added, dryly, “but—she did. And I do mean to keep it.”

Sansa kept looking at him another moment, then nodded a little. But she glanced at Tyrion and said, “We’ll—wait a little, if you don’t mind,” even so. Jaime couldn’t help eyeing her sidelong. What the hell had Joffrey done to her?

“Not at all,” Tyrion said, steadily, and then looked around at them all. “And now I believe we should go and dress. It’s almost time for the happy occasion.”

Jaime smirked at Brienne. “And your gown should be ready by now, my lady.” He offered her his arm. She gave him an unfriendly look and didn’t take it, just turned and grimly stalked back up the stairs. Jaime grinned at her back, then told Tyrion jauntily, “I’ll see you at the chapel.”

The squire helped him into his doublet, red Lannister velvet embroidered thickly in gold, and Brienne endured woodenly grim as they got her into the gown—it wasn’t much, simple straight lines, deep blue silk framing her thick neck and broad shoulders, not remotely flattering; she looked more mannish, not less, than in her tunics and armor, and also considerably less happy; it even stopped feeling entertaining when they jerked the laces tight and she actually winced.

“It won’t be long,” Jaime said, when she sighed, and added, “And then I’ll be taking it right back off you.” The seamstresses all coughed and covered giggles. Brienne gave him an outraged stare, but he smiled languidly for her and stretched himself out on the divan in the most absurdly ornamental way he could think of, one leg propped up carelessly on the arm and the other on the ground, his hand resting against his thigh, and when her eyes darted to it, he even deliberately ran his thumb lightly along the edge of his already hardening cock, a shiver of satisfaction deep in his belly as her eyes widened and she jerked her gaze away, blushing nearly purple. She didn’t even notice the rest of the awkward dressing, he thought; she was too busy energetically looking anywhere but at him, except when she thought he wasn’t watching and stole a glance.

Then at last she’d been gotten into the gown, more or less, and Jaime had sent the seamstresses off with orders to take the tunic and skirt and make her some more, only in decent fabrics, and the skirts split up the middle for movement. She looked at him for that with real gratitude, and he caught her hand and brought it to his lips and kissed it—his to kiss, now; a thought like triumph. After he’d kissed the back of it, he turned it over and kissed the palm, looking up at her while he did it, and then he traced around the triangle of skin between her thumb and fingers with his tongue, and her eyes, her eyes were wide and dazzled blue, and her mouth had gone open and breathless and soft, and she was staring at him as if she didn’t believe he was real.

It was maddening. He pushed her sleeve back so he could kiss her wrist, nuzzling at her fingers; he caught the little one in his mouth and bit the pad of it just a little. She gave a small frantic gasp at that, and he stood panting and pulled her against him and kissed her, hungrily; he pinned her against him with his bad arm and buried the other in her hair and brought her mouth to his.

“I’m yours and you’re mine,” he muttered, kissing her, devouring. “Brienne. Brienne, I’m yours,” and her arms came around his shoulders, gripping almost painfully into his muscles, pulling him in, and she was kissing him back, brutally hard, and he groaned desperately, because that was what she wanted; she didn’t care about the septon or the witnesses or anyone in the world; she just wanted him, she wanted his word; his word was good enough for her. He pulled her back with him towards the table; fuck the wedding, all of them could wait for the performance; he was already married, and he was going to cut her out of the stupid dress and pull her up onto him—

“What?” he snarled, in rage, when the door opened behind his back; he’d gotten her skirts hiked up and her legs on either side of him; she was pushing him down on the table kissing him and he was just jerking his trousers open, in another moment he’d be inside her and whoever it was could fuck off, and then Brienne went rigid above him. He looked around and his father was standing in the doorway staring at them, speechless.

Well, at least that made it three times in one day. At this rate, he’d stupefy the entire castle by the end of the week.

“I will send a raven to your father tomorrow with news of your wedding,” his father said to Brienne, austerely, as they walked down the hall.  “You may enclose a message if you wish.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Brienne said, wooden as a block, looking straight ahead. Her face was still red and stricken.

But Jaime had to be grateful to his father; they got to the chapel and went in together, straight to the altar, and it turned out actually he cared about the septon and the witnesses and the world. He lay the cloak of red over her shoulders before them, wishing he did have a hook instead of the golden hand, which was no use, but when it nearly slid off on that side, she reached up and caught the corner and helped. Someone tittered, but it didn’t matter in the slightest; because Brienne looked directly at him, her face serious, and she lay her hand in his, and the septon bound them, and she said her words, said, “I am his and he is mine,” and he said his, and everyone in the room heard them and witnessed them.

People did insist on talking to him afterwards: Joffrey looked Brienne up and down insolently before looking at Jaime and saying, “You are devoted to your family, Uncle.” Then he turned back to Brienne and sneered, “Congratulations on your wedding, Lady Brienne.”

“Thank you, Your Grace,” Brienne said, very evenly. Jaime carefully avoided hearing anything else in her voice.

Fortunately Joffrey swept from the room immediately afterwards, which meant the rest of the guests could leave. Tywin went out at once with a small tight smile of satisfaction still on his face, and Tyrion gave him a nod from across the room before taking Sansa out. After they’d gone, Tommen came out of the corner where he’d been sitting and said, half shyly, “Congratulations on your marriage, Uncle Jaime,” darting a look up at him—a look that did have a question in it, a question he couldn’t ask and Jaime couldn’t answer, and then he turned to Brienne—

Brienne, who knew, Jaime realized abruptly, because Catelyn Stark had known that her husband had no more made up a story of incestuous bastards than he’d taken his head off his own shoulders—but when Tommen looked up at her a little anxiously and said his congratulations, she said, “Thank you, your Highness,” and added, “I hope to know you better,” and Tommen brightened a little and smiled at Jaime again before he left the room.

Jaime swallowed gratitude, and by then the room was nearly empty, all the distant cousins decamping full to the brim with gossip, and he thought now, finally, only it turned out that Brienne had met the Tyrells in Renly’s camp, back when they’d been busily working on yet another losing side of the war, and so Margaery was insisting on smiling graciously at her, and Brienne was too polite to say I need to go fuck my husband now. Jaime was about to be rude to his future queen when Olenna decided she needed to open her mouth, too, and joined them. “Well, Ser Jaime, you’ve made an odd match,” she said. “I suppose you’re clever, really; you’d have been hard pressed to find a wife as pretty as you are. It’s outrageous that men only get better-looking as they get older. Why don’t you show some consideration and start drinking and get fat.” But then she redeemed her entire presence by turning to Brienne and adding, “Tell me, my dear, is it true you beat my grandson in the melee at Storm’s End? I think he’s still sulking.”

“I did, my lady,” Brienne said, inclining her head. “He fought well.”  

“You what?” Jaime said, in dawning delight—he was sure Loras hadn’t been half-starved and manacled, either—and when he finally did get her back to the bedroom and started mouthing over the line of her neck while she jerked the buttons of his doublet open, he mumbled out against her skin, “How many men were in the melee to start?”

“What?” Brienne said, distractedly, shoving the doublet back off his shoulders.

“The melee at Storm’s End,” he said, nuzzling. “How many?”

“I—I—don’t remember,” Brienne said, her voice squeaking up as he bit her ear and sucked it. “I—thirty, I think?”

Thirty knights,” he said, gleefully. “The cream of the stormlands and the Reach, I’m sure, showing off for their newly declared king… What did you fight with? Mace? Sword?” He caught her hands on the ties of his trousers, wrapped his hand around them, holding them in place to make her pause. “Tell me.”

“A—a morningstar?” Brienne said, shivering as he kissed along her jaw: yes, with her reach, she didn’t need a longer weapon; the control she’d have, the impact— “What difference does it make?” It was almost a whine.

“I want to hear every last word,” he said, cupping her head in his hand and growling it softly in her ear. “Tell me how you beat them all.”

He dropped his hand to her breast, rubbing it through the fine silk. Brienne gave a small noise and shivered forward into him, and then she suddenly backed away and glared at him, her cheeks flushed and indignant. “First you tease one way, now the other! Do you want to do this or not?”

He laughed with delight. “Don’t you want to impress me, my lady?” he said, and shoved his trousers down, then pulled his shirt off over his head with his hand and tossed it aside to stand naked before her, and she swallowed, her face almost pained with lust. He moved in on her, prowling, and pressed her back up to the bed with his body until she sat down, and he grabbed the skirts of her dress and shoved them up and knelt and started to kiss his way up her thighs, lingeringly. “Come on, tell me. First bout of the day, you must remember.” He nipped her a little.

“I just fought them!” she said, faintly despairing. “I—Ser Madron? I think? Boar on a green field—a straight mace—”

“Oh, I know him,” Jaime said, exultantly. “Strong arm, bad footwork. Is that how you got him?”

“Yes—pressed his—his left side, and—tripped him going back—” Brienne said, and made a near-whimpering noise when he nuzzled at her cunt, oh, her slick, wet cunt, and he shoved the skirts the rest of the way up and stood up and just went into her, unable to stop himself any longer, and she wrapped her endless, strong legs around him and pulled him in. He fucked her half a dozen strokes, wildly, while she pushed back to meet him, her eyes closed and her mouth pressed tight. He got his hand between them and rubbed her clit, and she jolted and moaned, and then he crawled up onto the bed with her and into her arms and just fucked her desperately, fighting off his own release, but he couldn’t, he couldn’t; she was kissing him and holding him and moving with him. He started to spill halfway through a thrust and just kept going, pushed himself deep and slid out and back in again, even though he shuddered all over with it, and when he was done he slid down her body and put his mouth on her clit and his fingers inside her to finish it, rubbing his thumb through his own seed and the small trickle of blood with fierce satisfaction.

She was writhing and gasping under his mouth, and when he climbed back up and wiped his face off on the sheets and kissed her, she was trembling all over, his lady, sweating; her dress was stained dark in enormous patches. But she was laughing a little, too, and she gasped, “Oh, this useless—” and shoved herself up to struggle out of the dress with enough violence to rip a few seams. He tugged it the rest of the way off over her head and tossed it aside, a captured banner, and pulled her against him; he was spent—for now—but he wanted the feel of her body, her hard, sweat-slick body, moving against his; her arms came round his head and she kissed him dreamily, a smile lingering on her mouth, and then she gave a deep sigh and sank into the pillows and just lay there as though she meant to sleep, here in his room with him—

He rolled onto his back and put his arm over his eyes, a burning gladness rising that was next thing to misery. She was going to sleep, and so was he. It was still daylight outside, warm sunset glow, and a breeze was coming in, and a servant would come in soon to bring them dinner, but there was time, there was time. Because she was his; she was his in her heart, and she was his in the world, too, and he’d spent so long determined not to admit that it mattered at all, determined not to care—not to care that he couldn’t be congratulated on his wife, that he couldn’t spend his nights in her bed; that he couldn’t kiss her where anyone else, even a servant, even a page, might see and carry tales. That he had to sneak like a thief, that he had to be a thief and a liar, every time.

He’d tried not to look for Cersei in the chapel; he’d tried not to think about what it meant that she hadn’t come. He was still trying. But he couldn’t help feeling like he’d made a bargain without knowing it, this for that. And he still wanted to howl at the gods, unmake it, unmake it, give it all back to me, but if the choice were put before him now, he couldn’t anymore; he’d given away the right today, to have this instead, for his own, and he already knew—he could see the shape of it coming, like a shadow growing on a wall—that soon he wouldn’t even want to choose it if he were free to do so. Not after Brienne lay a child in his arms, a child named Lannister, a child all the world would know was his.

#

They either fucked six times, or fucked a single time that didn’t end for the whole afternoon and night and into the next morning, broken up with luxurious naps and eating from a tray and hearing more delightful tales of Brienne’s conquests; after the third time he fucked her, she even stopped complaining about his demands for more details. He’d never be able to fight in a tourney again himself without looking pathetic, and probably any one of the men Brienne named could have taken him now, but that only made it more satisfying that his wife had beaten all of them to pieces.

“I’ll make every damned swordmaster in King’s Landing teach you everything you want to learn,” he said dreamily, post-coital, after the early-morning round where she told him about pasting Loras Tyrell flat on his pert backside and holding a knife under his nose to make him yield. He had her gathered in his bare arm, which felt oddly light—somewhere still in the afternoon she’d rolled over onto his metal hand a second time and demanded in a grumble, “Do you really sleep in it?” and he’d pulled it off and dropped it over the side of the bed with a loud clank.

“We should train today,” she said, drowsily.

“We should not,” Jaime said. “We don’t want my father to think we’re reneging on the bargain, after all.”

“We’re not going to start a child sooner by lying abed all day,” Brienne said, in suspiciously firm tones. “I want to talk to Sansa, anyway. And I want a bath.”

“Mm, I’ll allow a bath,” he said. “It’ll give them time to change the sheets.”

“And first,” Brienne said, pushing up from him and swinging out of the bed, despite his complaining noise, “you can stand to run through another twenty drills.”

“I don’t know that I can,” Jaime said. “Besides, I have you to defend me now, I hardly need to.” He put his arm behind his head, stretching lazily and smirking up at her when she came around to his side of the bed.

She did look him over and turn pink, but she also said, even more firmly, “You need to work that arm every other day, and you didn’t yesterday. Come on.”

He sighed and held up his left hand. “There’s really no point.”

Brienne heaved an exasperated breath. “Why? Because you’re not going to win a tourney against—what did you call Ser Loras, a curly-haired girl?” Jaime blinked up at her. “I won because those men were fighting to take a prize, and I was fighting to serve my king. They didn’t have to. They got that for showing their faces.”

“I’m fairly certain Loras showed Renly a few other things while he was at it,” Jaime said, and she pulled the pillow out from under his head and whacked him with it. “Are you abusing a cripple, now? What a heartless woman you are.” He lunged up and got her around the waist and heaved her back onto the bed and rolled onto her, pinning her wrist and diving nuzzling into the side of her neck while she squawked.

She got her other hand planted on his shoulder and her knee pulled up between them and heaved him over, but he kept them rolling, both of them shifting their weight and grips as they went over twice more, and then he managed to wedge himself between her legs and rub against her where she was still wet, and she shivered for a moment of distraction and he got himself back into her, straight to the hilt.

“So you can still win a fight when it’s something you care about,” Brienne said afterwards, still breathing hard, lying next to him.

“I think I might have had some help on the inside,” Jaime said.

“You can have some more,” she said, and sat up and heaved him right off the bed. He went out with a yelp and just managed to stop his face going into the floor.

“There are drillmasters in my father’s army not as brutal as you,” he said, complaining, and let himself sprawl out flat in defiance at her feet as she climbed out and glared down at him. “You weren’t this mean to me before.”

“Before, I was doing a kindness for a friend,” Brienne said. “And now, Sansa’s under our protection, and if someone comes for her, if someone comes for our children, I’m going to be there if I can, and if I can’t, you are.” He stared at her, startled, and she pressed her mouth hard. “Fighting’s not for tourneys! Fighting’s for killing people who are trying to hurt someone you love. So get up.” She bent down suddenly and grabbed up the golden hand from the floor and brandished it at him. “And we’re getting you a decent hook! Because then you can stab someone instead of waving a lump of gold in their face!”

“As my lady commands,” he said, still staring at her.

He’d understated the matter, he realized later that day, sitting down on the edge of the training grounds, gasping and half-blinded with sweat in his eyes. She was at least ten times more brutal than any drillmaster he’d ever had at all. “They were probably being nice to you because you were their lord’s son,” she said, unsympathetic. She’d also dragged him out to the actual grounds—“Your vanity’s not important! Do you really think any decent swordsman you might face doesn’t know you’re next to useless right now? You can’t see what you’re doing down there half the time.”—and she’d roped in three of the swordmasters to look at him, including a Braavosi, whose first words were, “Why not a hook?” so on top of everything else, she gave him a pointed stare.

They’d run him through several dozen brutally hard passes with different weapons in the left hand. “Improvement will come,” the Braavosi said finally, studying him. “But your left will always be weaker than another man’s strong hand, if he is any good.”

Jaime had to fight down the sharp flinch. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t known; he’d known damned well; he’d known from the instant the blade had come down on his wrist. It was why he hadn’t been able to see a reason to live. He’d trudged on past it, and now he’d even found his way to something worth living for, and yet it was still agony to look at it again, to hear it out loud—

But the Braavosi kept going. “So there must be a hook. Defense in the left hand, death in the right. This will be the way. Observe.” He switched his long and short blades, and motioned the longsword master to take an attack position opposing. “The enemy comes for your right. This is instinct, training.” He stepped back, beckoning for a slow swing, and then stopped the longsword in mid-blow. “You meet with the left instead.” He brought his long blade up, mimicked tapping the longsword aside. “You force the blade away. Your sword draws his eye. Now the enemy is unbalanced, he is looking the wrong way. You come inside.”

He stepped in close, and tapped the tip of his short blade to the other man’s hip. “You fight for this opening, across the body. When it comes—you strike. The hook must be heavy, thick-bladed. A sharp point, a cutting edge inside. You pierce the armor at a weak place, you enter—” He tipped his wrist back and pivoted it in, a curving motion. “And then—” He stepped sideways, twisting to bring power from the body, pulling the short blade in a vicious cutting movement tracing across the other man’s belly. “A good way to kill. Once you cut the belly, the enemy’s strength will fail. The pain is great. His body will be your shield for the next opponent.” The Braavosi stepped back from the other master and gestured casually with the short blade. “The style will come. You are a little old, but you have the strength, the speed. The muscles are built, the eye is good, the mind is quick. Only practice is wanted. In a year, two, you will be dangerous again.”

It was—an odd shifting. Jaime felt strangely blank. He said slowly, “And on horseback?”

The Braavosi made a shrugging face, the corners of his mouth spreading. “You are a lord, yes?”

“I suppose I am,” Jaime said.

“When you are on a horse, let other men fight for you. When they are all dead, get off the horse.” He nodded. “Go get a hook.”

The master swordsmith who’d reforged the Valyrian steel for his father was still in the castle, and up for the challenge; Jaime got measured for the hook, and then he and Brienne did go and bathe, in one of the private chambers so she could straddle his lap and let him fuck her slowly in the water, moving his hips up, raising her as she braced against his shoulders and looked down at him, her skin sheened wet and her mouth soft and her eyes glazed, and when he was too close to hold off any longer, he got his arms under her thighs and lifted her out of the water and lay her back on the stone, so when he came, he came inside her; he didn’t want it to wash away, he wanted—oh, he wanted, to be inside her; to plant his conquering flag, his claim.

She dried off and dressed quickly afterwards, not looking at him, but there was a little helpless smile on her mouth, as if she couldn’t stop herself, and he deliberately waited, so when she was finished and turned round, he was still naked; he held the towel out and said, “Would you mind?” with casual innocence, and enjoyed watching her face while she wiped the water from his skin, moving around him and staying fixed on the task as intently as if every single drop were a difficult puzzle requiring her attention. When she came round his side, he leaned in and caught her mouth with his; she softened in to him a moment, and then she pushed off his chest and shoved the towel back into his hands.

“Do you know, I think you can manage the rest,” she said, with a narrow look.

“What about my clothes?” he said, beaming at her, and she scowled. And then grudgingly went for them. He caught her hand and pressed it down over his cock as she laced his trousers, and she gave a small noise and kissed him hard, her hand tightening where it cupped him—oh, starting not to be so shy anymore of him, his lady—and he pushed into it.

“You could talk to Sansa tomorrow,” he suggested. “I’m sure she’d understand.”

“I told her we’d speak more today,” she said, unyielding, and let go of him. He sighed mournfully. “I won’t be long!”

“However long will be too long,” he said, and caught her hand and kissed it, as dramatically as he could, and she obligingly turned pink while also looking mulish and violent. “All right, go, get it over with; send that squire in to help me with the rest.”

He finished dressing with Carston or whatever his name’s help, then dismissed the boy and strolled the long way back to his rooms, idly shifting his shoulders as he walked—not a full movement, only feeling out in his body how he’d move, what he’d do. There were a dozen patterns burned so deep into his reflexes it was going to be brutal to retrain them; he’d need to use an overweight practice sword in the left, just to have the weight dragging against his instinctive moves. When he’d been thirteen, he’d started to sleep with a sword next to the bed so he could run through short drills every morning even before breakfast, just pick it up and do a quick pass in between moments while he washed and dressed; he’d have to do the same again.

It felt—like dragging himself out of the dirt, into air, into light. He went into the room humming, alive, and kept going ten paces in before his feet stopped; Cersei turned from the balcony window where she stood framed against the sky, her face hard, lips so tight they were bloodless. She was wearing red and gold, a gown that caught the sun, nearly encrusted, and she glittered with rage like knives.

He stood looking at her, without words, even words inside himself; he couldn’t have said anything he felt. The room had been straightened up, the bed remade to smoothness and the curtains tied neatly, which he was instinctively glad for; the rumpled sheets would have felt like—the baring of some soft underbelly.

She moved first; for a moment he thought she would come to him, put her arms around him, and he didn’t have the slightest idea what he was going to do, but she swept past him instead, going to the table. “You must forgive me,” she said, pouring herself a glass of wine from the jug, and turning to face him with it in her hand. “I’m late with my congratulations. To your wedding.” She raised the glass, a mockery of a toast, and then let it drop from her hands and smash on the floor, into a thousand shards and the red gush across the stones.

She stepped over it, glass crunching beneath her shoes, wine staining the bottom hem of her dress and climbing it like ink in water. “My darling brother,” she said, moving in towards him. “I hope you’re very happy. Are you? You look happy. Tell me, did you find her yourself, or did you let Father do it for you? Did you have any requirements? Young, of course; he’d have insisted on that, to bear you a litter of Lannister brats. Is she charming? Pretty? Surely she is.” She was smiling up at him out of her beautiful face so savagely he could have imagined her coming at his throat.

“You—sent me away,” he said, the words stumbling out, less a defense than a helpless protest, a one-handed man trying desperately to hide behind a shield. “You wouldn’t look at me. You didn’t even come.”

“Oh, I’m so very sorry I couldn’t be there,” she said, making an expression of mock apology. “You see, Father was kind enough to deliver the invitation personally. He had certain expectations for my behavior. I was to smile with joy upon the happy couple. I was to embrace my new sister with all my heart. I was to hang on Loras Tyrell’s arm and gaze up at him adoringly.” Her smile widened into a bright close-lipped curve. “And after we discussed his expectations, he shut me in my rooms and put a guard on the door. He didn’t have them let me out until late this morning. I’m sure he wanted to make sure you finished the job without interruptions.”

He stared at her, blankly. “I—didn’t know.”

“I should have nodded and told him I’d do it. But he’d taken me by surprise. Tell me, why did you think I didn’t come? Did you think I was afraid of bearing comparison?” She raised her eyebrows, arch. “Is she so beautiful, this new wife of yours, who’d take a cripple to her bed because his father’s rich and powerful? Does she hang on your arm and gaze at you adoringly? Tell me, does she make you feel like a whole man again?”

The door was opening while she spoke. He heard it, caught the movement behind Cersei’s back, but he couldn’t look away from her face, watching the knife come towards him. She had heard it too, the door opening; she spoke deliberately loud enough to be overheard, vicious as planting a hook, and then she turned away from him and saw Brienne standing with a hand still on the door, tall and mannish in her plain skirt and looking at her with a slight frown.

Cersei stared at her for a moment, utterly unmoving. He couldn’t see her face, but the line of her back and shoulders was rigid. And then abruptly she was moving; she left, gone past Brienne and out the door without another word, leaving only the wreckage at his feet, a smear of wine over the stones trailed behind her.

He stood blankly until Brienne shut the door and came to him across the room. “I didn’t,” he said, meaninglessly; Cersei hadn’t asked him for anything to refuse.

“I know,” Brienne said.

It was stupid of her, since he didn’t know, he hadn’t known. “She wouldn’t have me.”

Brienne paused, and then she said slowly, “I know,” again.

“How the hell could you?” he snarled, turning to look at her in rage, only she was just looking at him with the same frown, the same way she’d looked at Cersei, as if she saw something she didn’t like but more than that, didn’t understand.

“You couldn’t have asked me,” she said, as if that were—obvious, as if she did know, she understood, that—his throat was closing—that he’d been Cersei’s, he’d been someone else’s, and the one he’d belonged to had dropped him in the dirt, had dropped him in the dirt justly, a thing used up and broken—Brienne took his shoulders and turned him gently to face her, and drew his head against her. He took it, buried his face in the warmth of her body with helpless animal gratitude, and breathed deep in silence as she put her arms around him.

 #

She didn’t take him to bed, after; she asked him if they could go riding, and he took her into the hills south of the city, far enough to get away from the constant miasmic stink, and when they stopped to water the horses at a stream, she inhaled deeply and said, “I don’t think I’ve had a single clean breath since we got here.”

He hadn’t thought to bring anything, but he had his purse, and there were guest houses often enough this close to King’s Landing. They found one and bought a dinner of meat pies and ale, then left the horses in the yard to rest and walked up into the hills to eat overlooking the bay, dotted with shipping and fishing boats. The sun was going down, and the breeze was chill, but Brienne didn’t seem to mind, so he obviously couldn’t admit that he was thinking about getting back inside, and then Brienne said, “Do you want to sleep out?”

“What?” he said, dismayed: the madwoman, they didn’t even have a tent.

She just blinked at him as if it had been a reasonable suggestion, and then frowned and said, “Are you uncomfortable? Why didn’t you say?” He glared at her and then she laughed. “We walked across a quarter of Westeros! I didn’t think you were so delicate.”

“I didn’t do it for the fun of it!” he said. “You had me in chains!”

“City boy.” She still sounded amused. “Should we go back to the inn?”

It hadn’t occurred to him to stay at the guesthouse, which didn’t really deserve the name, but there was a room upstairs with a large bed heaped with furs and a stone fireplace. The slightly alarmed hostess served them fresh bread and stew, and it was cold enough to need to huddle in together, at least in his opinion, which counted for more than that of an uncouth half-wild woman who’d spent much too much time as a girl wandering the hills of Tarth without adequate supervision, as he loftily informed her while burrowing his half-frozen nose into the deliciously warm back of her neck.

She yelped a protest and squirmed, and he was hard, urgently hard. When he slipped his fingers down her belly, she shivered and was wet for him in only a few teasing strokes. He slid into her from behind, his fingers still on her, and fucked her with long deep strokes, and slept as solidly as in any palace bed.

They rode back to King’s Landing the next morning, and he handed the horses off to servants at the gates and took her into the city, which she’d only visited once in an entire two months. “I got lost for three hours, and it’s too noisy and smells dreadful,” she’d said, and Jaime had said, “All right, country girl, I’m taking you around tomorrow.”

He took her to the leather market, which also had one of his favorite stalls for freshly baked mincemeat pies, which she admitted were wonderful, licking the sticky oozing juice off her fingers until he had to catch her wrist to his mouth himself, and made her blush again. They washed their hands in the market fount and then wandered looking at gloves and jerkins and belts; she paused to admire a handsome swordbelt, pale calf’s leather, very fine and tooled in gold. “Try it,” he said. “Let’s have a look.”

She put it on and liked it, and then asked the merchant the price. “Half a dragon, milady,” the man said, and she shook her head and took it off.

“What are you doing?” Jaime said.  

“It’s too expensive,” she said, in all apparent sincerity. “Why are you laughing?” she added, irritably.

“Half a dragon?” Jaime said.

“Half a dragon for a belt!” Brienne said.

“You know, you’re right,” Jaime said. “Completely unacceptable.” He caught the belt out of her hand and handed it to the merchant. “One whole dragon instead: you’ll make one like this, only double-layered and wax-stitched, and tooled with lions and starbursts. Send it up to the castle by Wednesday.”

“Very good, my lord,” the merchant said, grinning and bowing from behind his stall.

“Jaime!” Brienne said. “That’s mad!”

“Do you know, I’m feeling an astonishing urge to buy you some more expensive things,” Jaime said, delighted. “Come along.” 

“No!” Brienne said. “We are not buying any more overpriced, frivolous—”

“Let’s go get you a proper warhorse,” Jaime said. She stopped with her mouth open and looked deeply irresolute, and he laughed and pulled her in and kissed her. “Do you know what would happen to the merchants of the city if rich nobles didn’t buy their expensive wares?”

“They might sell something that a sensible person would want instead!” Brienne said.

But she did let him buy her the warhorse, and a saddle, and he even managed to inflict a handsome cloak on her, in blue to match her eyes, edged in Lannister gold, in exchange for his agreeing to come with her to visit Sansa when they got back to the Keep. “She’s afraid of you, and you can’t blame her,” Brienne said. “I want her to see more of you.”

“You say that as though you think she’ll stop being afraid of me when she knows me better,” Jaime said. The reverse seemed entirely likely to him; the girl was as fragile as a porcelain cup, as far as he could tell.

But he went, and got glared at by Brienne every time he was excessively clever—often—and even let her take him back for a quiet private dinner with Sansa and Tyrion the next night. Jaime was ready for some quiet at that point; his hook had been finished that morning, so he’d spent the entire day being unmercifully chased around the ring. He stretched out with a groan in his chair. He was too tired to even be very clever, although a certain minimum standard had to be upheld, especially since Tyrion was there, but Jaime embarrassingly kept losing his train of thought between sentences. He hadn’t been getting quite enough sleep lately, and he didn’t plan on making up for it tonight, either, because after he’d been run around the ring, he’d watched Brienne get run around the ring—or rather, he hadn’t. She wanted to learn how to face a saber fighter, and the idiot Dornish master who hadn’t wanted to work with her had been given to understand the error of his ways.

To give the man his due, once he’d done a pass with her, he’d stopped objecting, and then they were just going at it, brutally; full-speed runs where the blows would have hurt if they’d landed. But they hadn’t landed, not after the first few ones. She was fast, and she was strong, too; she didn’t have the same kind of muscle as a man, but watching her he realized she’d worked out ways to make up for it using her sheer size; she always aimed to hit with the last third of her sword, to maximize her leverage, and her arms were so long that when she swung with them fully extended, the end traveled with absurd speed and power. Watching her, he’d remembered taking some of those blows on his own sword, the raw shock of impact ringing down his aching arms and shoulders, and he hadn’t leaped down into the ring and dragged her off into the weapons shed to fuck her instantly, but he’d certainly thought about it.

He kept thinking about it off and on through dinner. After the meal, Brienne was talking quietly with Sansa about Catelyn, telling her how they’d journeyed north together from Renly’s camp, and Jaime was eyeing her and wondering how much longer it would be before she’d let him get her away, when Tyrion said abruptly, “Come have some air with me,” and clapped his shoulder insistently when Jaime threw him a plaintive look.

Jaime groaned and got up; he knew better than to ignore it when Tyrion wanted to tell him something. He went out onto the balcony with him. “I realize this is early days,” Tyrion said. “But you’re clearly putting some real effort into the project, so I thought I’d mention that as soon as you have a—modest reason to think there’s a child on the way, you should tell Father. I know his satisfaction will be annoying. But don’t wait.”

Jaime eyed him. “Why?”

“He’ll find out soon enough even if you don’t, and why should anyone else get credit for it? The bearer of good news is often rewarded. Not to mention, telling Father is what you would do if you had finally and with a whole heart embraced the project of carrying the family banners onward. Whether you have or not, you’re better off if he believes you have, as long as it doesn’t cost you anything.”

“Fine,” Jaime said. “Now why else?”

Tyrion tapped his fingers on the side of his wineglass. “Your wife is old and she’s a bad match,” he said, coming out with it, finally and brutally. “Father is of course delighted to have gotten you out of the Kingsguard by hook or crook, but now that you are out, he’d much rather you had a nubile bride of sixteen with a claim to some significant property in the Riverlands that would allow him to annex a healthy chunk. He won’t act with haste, especially given your enthusiasm; if your lady starts producing heirs promptly, all else pales in importance. But you’re better off getting the thought out of his head sooner than later.”

Jaime had to fight down the impulse to go to his father and get the idea out of his head immediately, for instance by swearing to never lay a finger on any other woman ever, only he knew it was stupid to give the enemy your plan of attack in advance. He forced himself to keep his mouth shut and instead attack the problem from the other direction. It was a noble sacrifice, of course.

Except Brienne somehow noticed, after the next few times. He wasn’t sure how, since he’d actually been mad to get her with child already, but the next morning, while he was lying gasping in her arms, she said slowly, “Is something wrong?”

He rolled over onto his back and stared at the canopy and then said, “My father wants heirs.”

“And doesn’t think I’m likely to give them to him?” Jaime couldn’t say anything. “But what do you think he’ll do about it?”

Jaime swallowed, and then he said roughly, “I think he’ll tell you he’d like you to ask for an annulment. And if you say no…he’ll find something you want, or someone you love that he can hurt. I imagine it would be Sansa, actually. He already knows she’s a lever that works on you.”

Brienne paused. She sat up in the bed, the sheet bunched up around her waist. “He’d do that to you?” she asked, slowly, as if it seemed strange to her.

“He wouldn’t blink,” Jaime said.

Brienne was silent, and then she said, “Well, I won’t.” He looked at her, startled. She was looking down at him. “I’m yours. I gave you my word. We’ll find some other way.”

He pulled her into his arms and kissed her almost frantically, and then they fucked again, because he did want to, he wanted to more than anything.

They kept on taking dinner with Sansa and Tyrion. Jaime still didn’t think the idea was working; Sansa avoided looking at him, or talking to him, and her voice rarely rose above a murmur. It was hard to believe the girl was Eddard Stark’s daughter, Robb Stark’s sister. Hell, even Catelyn had been ready to smash his head in with a rock just for the pleasure of his conversation.

And then one evening when he’d stretched himself out on the divan to luxuriate in his aches and pains, he told the handmaiden, “Close the balcony doors,” yawning.

“Please do, Shae, thank you. Do you feel cold, Ser Jaime?” Sansa said, without looking up from her needlework. “You were in the north a long time.”

“Chained in a cage like a circus lion,” Jaime said. “It didn’t give me a taste for the weather.”

“Aren’t captured knights usually held in a keep?”

“Your brother had the idea that if he left me behind with one of his lords, my father would find a way to bribe me out,” Jaime said. “A very untrusting man.”

“Not enough,” Sansa said.

He had been half drowsing, and she said it so mildly he wasn’t sure he’d heard it right. When he lifted his head, she hadn’t so much as glanced up from the embroidery—the embroidery, which for the first time he noticed was beads and threads in silver and grey and black, on heavy woolen cloth of dark grey, and though there wasn’t enough done yet to be sure, he could see the line of the lower jaw, the teeth, part of the head of a wolf. Her serene, beautiful face hadn’t changed at all. Like a mask she was wearing, over—everything you would feel, a hostage and a prisoner in the camp of an enemy who'd murdered everyone you loved.

“No,” he said, low. “Not enough.”

She lifted her eyes to look at him across the room, for the first time. After a moment, she said, “Did you know?”

“No. It was over before we reached King’s Landing.” But Brienne was there, listening to him, his lady and his lodestar, and he felt it, that to say that wasn’t enough, even if it was true. He drew a breath. “I don’t know what I’d have done if I knew,” he said, because he couldn’t say anything else, anything better.

“You would have been horrified, you’d have shouted at father, and then, you’d have done nothing,” Tyrion said, brutally. “It was a vicious, monstrous, brilliant stroke that in one sweep of the board won the war on both fronts, since it freed the Lannister armies to come back here and stop Stannis, and it saved our house, including our beloved sister and her three children. It was grotesque, and it was inarguably the right thing to do.”

“No,” Brienne said flatly. “It wasn’t.” Tyrion paused and looked at her. “You’re not speaking of some clever trick. Walder Frey betrayed and murdered guests in his home. Your father put his hand to it. It was wrong, it was foul, and if that’s the only way to win a war, it’s a war that should be lost.”

“Well, I can’t argue with your principles,” Tyrion said. “Only it’s hard to stick to principles when it’s children you love about to have their heads chopped off and put on pikes.”

“And who in the Stark army was going to be putting children’s heads on pikes?” Brienne demanded.

“Oh, I don’t know. I can’t tell you. But I can tell you it would have happened,” Tyrion said. “Royal children who stop being royal always stop being alive, too, as soon as they land in the hands of their enemies. Because mercy to them means your own people die in the war that comes to put them back on the throne.”

He was right, of course; Jaime knew it, and he had—rather a bad feeling that Tyrion might even be right about him. Or at least right about what he would have done. If he’d still been the man who’d gone to war, and not the one who’d come back. He stared down at his hand. “I don’t know what I’d have done,” he said, again.

“I know what I wish I’d done,” Brienne said. “I wish I’d cut that traitor Bolton’s throat like he deserved.”

“To be fair, you wanted to do that anyway for that dress he shoved you in,” Jaime said, trying to be lighter. Brienne threw him a level and unamused glance. He looked at Sansa, and said quietly, “Your brother was a good man. And very dangerous in the field. He missed you and he loved you. I’m sorry for his death and how he and your mother died. I can’t tell you what I’d have done, but I can say that.”

Sansa looked at him a little longer, and then she inclined her head a little, acknowledging, and bent back over her work. And Tyrion was watching him with a strange, half-startled expression on his face.

#

They mostly didn’t talk to anyone else. They were spending all their time training or fucking; it didn’t leave much time for socializing, and—Jaime didn’t want to see Cersei in public. He didn’t want to see her at all. He didn’t know what she was doing and he didn’t know what she was thinking, an open hole in his mind and heart. He’d always known, before, or he’d thought he did. He’d thought he knew. But he’d lost it, somehow, the power of sharing her thoughts. He’d known that she’d be sickened by his maiming, as not by his death, but he’d thought she’d still…and when she hadn’t, he’d thought that meant she was done with him; he still didn’t understand—what she had wanted from him. He didn’t want to understand. It had a strange and lurching shape if he let himself think of it too much. The rest of his days spent in monastic service to the son who didn’t want him as a father, watching the woman who didn’t want him as a lover take other men to her bed, while she never looked at him. A ghost haunting the living it had loved in life, a bloodless shadow never allowed the smallest hunger. He didn’t want her to have wanted that of him. It felt like her wishing him into the ground.

So he was glad to avoid the court, with only one exception. But when he asked Tyrion casually to invite Tommen to dinner some night, Tyrion said, “I asked him, last week. The reply came he…wasn’t available. At all.” Jaime pressed his mouth tight. That was Cersei, surely: Tommen loved Tyrion, he was always happy to see him. “You could try going to Father, but…”

“He’d say it’s best not to create any more fodder for all those salacious rumors,” Jaime said.

“Yes,” Tyrion said.

“Then we should go to court,” was all Brienne said, when he told her, as if that were obvious. “Do I have to wear a gown?”

“You’re Lady Lannister,” Jaime said. “Wear trousers or a bearskin, it’s for you to decide, not them.”

It might not have been the best advice. He didn’t remember what people thought of Brienne when they first saw her, even though he’d thought it himself once. Now she was only—magnificent, she was brutal; he looked at her and saw her dueling swordmasters and butchering soldiers, at least when she wasn’t busy fucking him again. But when they went in to court, silence and whispers and eyes followed them around the room, and sniggering. She’d worn one of her split skirts and a tunic, and she looked neat and straightforward and anything but ornamental, a wren that had wandered into a congregation of birds-of-paradise.

No one said anything to his face, of course, and he stayed by her side so no one said anything to hers, either, but he felt the collective smirk, and it enraged him. Then he saw his father, over at the far end of the ballroom, watching the reaction with a thin-lipped mouth, and suddenly it wasn’t rage but fear, because his father didn’t care if men thought he was dishonorable, and he didn’t care if they thought him cruel, but he did care if they thought him weak, or laughed at him.

And while Tommen was in the room—so was Cersei, standing beside him. She watched the tittering birds also, her mouth in a pleased hard line, and when her eyes met his across the room, he could tell she was satisfied. Then she spoke to Tommen and drew him away—Tommen glanced back at them once, quickly, something wistful in the look—and disappeared from the public rooms with her.

Which left Jaime stuck: he and Brienne had to stay for at least an hour, since leaving would have looked like a show of weakness, as if they’d fled the reaction. They were stopped here and there by people offering congratulations: half of them the embarrassing fearful bootlickers, the other half would-be court wits just bursting at the seams with the desire to see Brienne closer and collect a bit more material for the jokes they’d tell behind her back. Jaime looked them in their faces and cowed most of them, but a few of the women masked it under cloaks of cooing. “What an unusual style of dress, Lady Brienne,” one minor Tyrell bannerwoman someone had let squeak into the place said. “Is it a fashion on—Tarth?”

“No,” Brienne said flatly. Jaime would have liked to think she didn’t notice the titters and the smirks, but he couldn’t convince himself. It was as if he’d dragged her back into everything he’d imagined of her childhood, only now the knives were sharper, and he had to watch. “A longer skirt would interfere with a sword.”

“Do you…have a sword of your own?” the woman said, hiding a smirk.

“Two,” Brienne said, even more flat.

“Or three, depending on how you count,” Jaime said, deliberately. “All well-used and kept in excellent condition. Where’s your husband tonight, Lady Mareen? I feel as though I haven’t seen him in ages.”

It was harder to say who was more appalled, her or Brienne, who gave him an outraged open-mouthed look that rather spoiled the hit, but it still made him feel a little better, at least until he steered Brienne away and she hissed at him, “That was not funny! Or clever!”

“It was a little clever,” Jaime said. “And she did start it.”

“You can’t win fights with pigs!” Brienne said. “You butcher them when you have to, and otherwise you’re just sitting in mud.”

“We won a fight with a bear, didn’t we?” Jaime said.

“We ran away from the bear!”

“We’re alive, the bear’s probably dead by now, I’d call that a victory,” Jaime said.

Brienne wrinkled up in confusion. “Why would the bear be dead?”

“It’s a bear! They were baiting it. Something’s probably killed it. It got stuck with three bolts.”

“Nothing was going to kill that bear short of six men with boar spears,” Brienne said, positively.

Jaime found himself grinning, helplessly. “Oh, come on. If you’d had a longsword you could have taken it.”

“No! I could not! It was the size of a small elephant! That bear could have eaten both of us without even trying.”

“You don’t give yourself enough credit,” Jaime said firmly.

“I’m not a lunatic who thinks he can fight a bear with a sword!”

“You’re the one who had the blade,” Jaime said. “I jumped in with nothing.”

“Which is why you are a lunatic,” Brienne said.

“I’d do it again,” he said, his voice suddenly gone harsh, without entirely meaning to, and her eyes widened a little, startled. “I’d do it a thousand times.” Her face was stricken, and abruptly he didn’t care whether it was too soon to leave, what any of the giggling cunts would think; he took her by the hand and pulled her with him into the gardens and out the other side, into the corridors, and as soon as they were deserted enough he started kissing her, and she was kissing him back, their hands all over each other, stumbling vaguely in the direction of their room until they passed a room with the door and windows open, the bedclothes flung down, being aired out for a new guest, and they went in and Jaime kicked the door shut and they fucked on the bed just there.

And it was all that mattered, all that really mattered, but not to the fucking court; he couldn’t walk the corridors the next day without hearing whispers, giggles, too soft for him to say anything and too loud to convince himself he hadn’t heard. Once he passed a courtyard and heard Loras Tyrell saying to another dripping fop, “I’m not sure she is a woman, really,” and Jaime wanted to kill him, except he couldn’t; so instead he went and got his hook and went back to the training grounds and spent another six hours working himself until his shoulders and his arms were both aching and Brienne came and found him to take him back to their rooms for dinner.

The next day, he was sore enough to be glad for a day off to laze and watch her, instead. She’d started fighting with a curved saber herself to better understand how the blade moved, the best way to learn how to counter, and she was already improving fast. Jaime made the servants bring him cushions for the stone seats and some wine and stretched out watching her with intense satisfaction until he heard one of the sniggering voices coming down the corridor saying, “Is that her grunting? I really have to see it. Can she be any good, do you suppose?” while down in the grounds, Brienne was on a brutal offensive run.

Jaime held still a moment, blank with rage: they had the gall to come here, to gawk at his lady—and then he heard a man saying, “Yes. Very good. That is a senior master from Cordona she’s pounding,” and looked around to see Oberyn Martell standing in the front row of the tiers, looking down into the ring, with a couple of the court dandies trailing him. Oberyn looked up at him and inclined his head. “Ser Jaime. Has your wife fought with the moon saber long?”

“Two weeks or so,” Jaime said coolly. “Do you know it yourself? Poor Master Nomeran is getting a little tired of being run off his feet. Or either of you?” he added, raising an eyebrow. “She’s always looking for new sparring partners. I’m sure she wouldn’t hurt you. Much. Come, Ser Flidias, you look like a man brave enough to get in the ring with a woman. Although possibly not mine. Well? Care for a match?”

Flidias flushed, his eyes darting to Brienne, who’d just halted her blade an inch short of Nomeran’s neck. “I’m not really dressed for—”

“Visiting the training grounds? No, you aren’t, are you,” Jaime said. “Maybe you should all go change.”

Flidias and Ser Jordan both took the warning and retreated to safer ground at once, but Oberyn came up the stairs instead. “You will have to pardon me. The spear is my weapon,” he said easily, as he walked along the row to sit down next to Jaime. “But it is always a pleasure to watch a gifted warrior come to grips with the saber. A tricky blade. Your broadswords are brutal, direct. The saber is seductive, it flows. It invites the enemy to meet death. Yes, she is very good,” he added, gesturing down to the ring. They’d paused for Nomeran to correct a small detail in the position of her elbow for the swing. Brienne had got the idea of it, nodding, and they were running through it together now, mirror-image; she followed step-perfect.

“I’m honored you think so,” Jaime said. 

“I am intrigued,” Oberyn said. “You knights usually dislike your women to fight. Why not you, I wonder?” And his eyes dropped to Jaime’s golden hand, and when he glanced back up, his brows lifting slightly, he was smiling a little.

Jaime smiled back, over the heat of his rage, and held up the golden hand. “Do you like it?”

“Very pretty,” Oberyn said.

“Isn’t it,” Jaime said. “I’ve got a hook for less festive occasions. I’d be delighted to show you sometime.”

Oberyn’s smile widened a little more. “And I you my spear-work, Ser Jaime.” He turned and rose as Brienne came up into the stands, unwrapping her hands; she was still building the right calluses for the saber hilt. “Lady Brienne, I believe? A remarkable display.”

“Prince Oberyn Martell of Dorne,” Jaime said, when Brienne looked at him for an introduction.

“Thank you, Your Highness,” Brienne said. “Do you use the saber?”

“Indifferently,” Oberyn said. “But my sister fought with the telisa: the woman’s scimitar. Another interesting weapon. Light, but very deadly in the hands of a skilled warrior. You should ask your master to show it to you. Elia was very good. If her husband had not refused to let her keep wielding it, perhaps she and her children might be alive today.”

Brienne stiffened. “You mean—Princess Elia Targareyn.”

“Yes,” Oberyn said. His mouth lifted at the corners. “You are fortunate that your husband does not mind letting his wife fight her own battles.”

“I am,” Brienne said. 

“With an army at her back,” Jaime said, icily.

Brienne eyed him with a small puzzled frown, then said to Oberyn, “Were you and your sister close?”

“I was a boy of seven when she was born,” Oberyn said. “I sat outside the door all night during the labor, and when the midwife went to tell my father she was born, I went inside before anyone else to see her in her cradle. My father told me it was my duty to protect her, to look after her. I taught her to swim, to ride, to fight. Yes. I loved her dearly.”

“My brother died when I was eight,” Brienne said quietly. “He was my only kin, except my father. He would let me play with his sword. It was very hard to lose him. I’m sorry for your loss.”

“May I ask, how did he die, your brother?”

“He was hit on the head by a pirate on a coast raid,” Brienne said. “He fell into the water and drowned before he could be pulled out.”

Oberyn nodded. “What happened to the pirate?”

“My father hanged him with the rest of the crew.”

“He was avenged, then,” Oberyn said.

“He was.”

Oberyn nodded again, and smiled a little. “Do you know how my sister died?”

“She was killed in the sack of King’s Landing,” Brienne said.

“How clean you make it sound,” Oberyn said. “Her little daughter was dragged out from under the bed where she was hiding and butchered in her nursery. Her baby’s skull was crushed before her eyes. And then she was raped to her death.” Brienne’s eyes had widened in horror, staring at him. “Do they not tell this story, here in the north? What some Lannister knight did to my Elia and her children?”

Jaime had clenched his fist. He’d seen Oberyn taking her there, but he hadn’t seen a way to pull her off the path. Brienne looked at him, stricken, her face asking. “I wasn’t close enough to hear,” he told her.

“Yes, you were in the throne room, weren’t you, Kingslayer,” Oberyn said. “Slaying the Mad King. An unarmed old man. Such a difficult task for a skilled knight. Are you sure you didn’t have a little time afterwards?”

Jaime jerked round, his metal hand going instinctively for the sword that wasn’t on his left hip anymore. Oberyn straightened in his seat, a thin smile on his face, but before Jaime could switch hands, Brienne put her hand on his arm. “Jaime!” she said, and he jerked to look at her. “Does he not know?” He stared at her, and she shook her head in impatience. “He has a right to know why you weren’t protecting the princess! You can’t keep expecting everyone to just assume you had a good reason that you don’t tell anyone!”

Oberyn had stilled, looking at her, and then he turned towards Jaime, frowning. “What is she talking about?”

Jaime hesitated, but Brienne just glared at him, hard, and Jaime grimaced and said shortly, “I was killing Aerys—and his pyromancers.” Oberyn’s brows drew together. “He’d ordered them to fire the entire city. King’s Landing, the Red Keep itself. Burn all of it.”

Oberyn leaned back from him, arrested. “How could such a thing be possible?” he said, slowly.

“He’d had them plant caches of wildfire in tunnels beneath the city,” Jaime said. “Everywhere.” He clamped his jaw shut tight there, determined he wasn’t going any further, except Brienne was still looking at him, damn her anyway, and he said in as close to a mutter as he dared, “I was under the city when Elia died. I was hunting down all the men who knew where the caches were, and how to set them off.”

Brienne did stop looking at him then, but she looked down at her hands instead, her face still unhappy, grieving a woman and her children who’d died long ago even though she hadn’t known them at all; she’d never seen little Rhaenys running laughing away from her nurses to hide inside the dragon skulls in the throne room. She’d never heard Elia’s voice in the hallways, singing a Dornish song to her baby boy in the cradle. Rhaegar’s son, who should have been king, instead of Jaime’s.

Jaime swallowed hard and said to Oberyn, tightly, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I should have been. If I had, I wouldn’t have let it happen. I swear it.”

Oberyn’s dark eyes were on him, all the cloak of good humor and mockery dropped for a hard, bleak intensity. After a moment he said, “I believe you.” Jaime looked away, having to fight not to snap at him that he didn’t care; it was true either way and Oberyn could believe whatever he wanted. Then Oberyn asked, “Did your father command it?”

Jaime stiffened. He remembered Tyrion saying: It was grotesque, and it was inarguably the right thing to do. “He…might have,” he said slowly. “But I don’t think he did.” He looked back at Oberyn. “Because Gregor Clegane wouldn’t need orders to butcher small children and rape a helpless woman. All he’d need is to know he wouldn’t be hanged for it. And he knew that without anyone telling him. It served my father, and it served Robert, and it served Ned Stark, and every last person who’d joined the rebellion. They all wanted the Targareyns dead.”

Oberyn was silent a long moment, looking down at his hands. “Yes,” he said softly. “It served them all.” He drew a deep breath. “And your father did not hang him. And harbors him still.” 

“Well, you don’t get very far hanging people who do your dirty work,” Jaime said. “After a while, no one will take it on.”

Oberyn nodded and then stood. “You have been honest with me, Ser Jaime. It does not answer for Elia—nothing but blood will do that. But I do thank you for it all the same.” He inclined his head to Brienne. “Lady Brienne.”

He left the stands, walking swiftly away. Jaime drew a deep breath and looked at Brienne—and she was already looking at him, with a small smile on her face. It wasn’t anything deliberate; she even seemed a bit somber overall, probably still thinking of Elia. But it was there, too: a small curve of contentment, as if she was—looking at something she liked, something that pleased her. Something she might have been—glad to call her own.

“Dare I hope you’re finished for the day?” he said.

“No,” Brienne said. “Master Nomeran wanted me to try a different weight of blade. He’s gone to get it, he’ll be back in ten minutes.”

“I suppose he’ll just have to wait for the twenty after that, then,” Jaime said, and stood up to tow her over protests into the nearest dark corner.

#

Unfortunately, the gossips didn’t care that his wife could kill a man with a Dornish saber. They didn’t care that she was as true as Valyrian steel. And they certainly didn’t care in the least that he was, bizarrely, happy. Jaime had tried writing Tommen a note, and no reply had come; when he’d gone by his rooms, Tommen had been out every time, or at least the guards on the doors had insisted as much. Brienne wanted to try to speak to him at court again, and Jaime let her persuade him. “They can’t keep talking about me forever,” Brienne said. “And I don’t care if they do. It doesn’t matter. Tommen matters.”

Only it was even worse than last time. Cersei didn’t take Tommen away this time; she just carried him along with her as she glided expertly away through the court every time Jaime and Brienne started to get near, which meant that there was no use, but at the same time they couldn’t just stop trying and go stand on a balcony out of the way; they kept having to move through the courtiers, who kept turning to speak to them. The gibes were almost coming out into the open, and some of them from men, and Jaime’s back tightened a little more with every one. He’d seen the court turn their claws and beaks on a victim now and then, but never anyone with any real power; usually there was some sensible restraint. They had to be egging one another on in a frenzy even to be making the most oblique remarks to Brienne at all, and if any of them were drunk enough or stupid enough to take it just another step further, insulted Brienne outright in front of his face—it would turn into a grotesque mess. He’d have to challenge, and then he’d be humiliated in a duel the next morning.

His father would obliterate the man afterwards, but that wouldn’t mend matters. Brienne was right that any expert swordsman understood he’d lost nine-tenths of his skill along with his hand, but if he got beaten on the challenge field by a simpering dilettante fencer from court, everyone in the whole damned world would understand it. It would make a joke of him; everyone liked seeing the mighty fall. He’d have laughed himself, once. And having his opponent’s head put on a pike afterwards wouldn’t kill the joke, either; it would just send it underground into gleeful whispers. He wouldn’t have believed any man would be stupid enough to throw his life away just to entertain the court, but the smirkers were already getting closer than he’d have believed any man would dare.

He and Brienne were trying to move through the western ballroom—Cersei had taken Tommen over to speak with a cluster of Riverlands nobles—when Ser Androy of the Red Hearth came floating out of the cloud towards them, and threw a look back over his shoulder as he did. Jaime followed the look—back to Cersei, who had a small smile playing on her lips as she glanced sideways towards them. He looked blankly back at Androy, who was—fair-haired, and slender, and reasonably pretty. Not quite to Lannister standards, nose a bit bulbous and a single eyebrow that needed trimming, but apparently he was stupid enough to make up for minor flaws.

Jaime gathered himself for it, grimly, as Androy turned to Brienne and said, deliberately loud, “Lady Brienne, I’m curious, has anyone ever mistaken you for a man?” so outrageously blatant that even braced, Jaime actually just gaped at him a moment without actually letting his hand fly; titters and faint gasps flowed away from around them, ripples around a thrown rock.

“No,” Brienne said flatly, before Jaime could move, and much too belatedly he realized that while he’d been worrying about what he’d have to do about someone insulting her, he had entirely forgotten to consider what she might do about it. “Has anyone ever mistaken you for one? Doesn’t seem likely, a yapping dog like you.” Androy’s eyes popped as Brienne looked him up and down with total contempt. “I don’t think there’s much help for it, but stop by the training grounds any time you like, and I’ll be happy to try and beat some decent manners into you, since your kennel master forgot.”

Olenna Tyrell was holding court not twenty paces away and burst into a cackle of laughter. “It’s a lost cause, dear, give it up!” she called, and a wave of laughter went around her. Androy jerked his head around towards Jaime, then back at Brienne, then back to him and blurted, “Ser Jaime, I demand—”

Brienne took a looming step towards him that made it clear just how much bigger than him she was. “What are you talking to my husband for? I’m the one who insulted you. Are you afraid of me?” She was actually smiling at him, the same smile she’d turned on Jaime when he’d tried taunting her into a fight, only this time it had a killing edge to it. “I suppose the kind of coward who insults women would be.” Androy was gaping at her. “Well?” she added, a glint in her eye. “Are you going to just stand there? I don’t know your family, but if you tell me, I’d be happy to insult them, too.”

Brienne.” Jaime finally shook himself out of staring and gripped her arm. “You can’t—”

“Why not? If he wants to swallow it and walk away, he can. Or I’m happy to kill him, if he wants to come into a ring with me.” The room was starting to go quiet and shocked: it was someone hauling out a ballista in the middle of a tourney: all the birds of the jungle realizing it wasn’t a wren in their midst but an eagle, ready to snap them in half. She frowned suddenly and looked at Jaime in question. “Do you think I can’t?”

“Of course you can!” Jaime said, automatically, and then winced, because that wasn’t remotely the point: the point was, his father was watching, from across the room, while his mannish, too-tall daughter-in-law made a spectacle of herself in the middle of the court, claiming an insult that had rather obviously been meant for her husband to answer, as if for instance he couldn’t fight for himself, and incidentally threatening to kill a knight from the Reach whose family controlled an important keep. “But it’s not really fair, is it? If he so much as scratched you, his head would be off ten minutes later. So leave the poor man alone and come have a glass of wine on the terrace.”

“Well, that certainly spiced up the evening,” Tyrion said, joining them outside, shortly after they’d gone out. The whispering hadn’t followed them onto the terrace because no one had followed them onto the terrace; the whole space was completely deserted, although it would normally be full of chattering courtiers. “Open threats of violent slaughter so enliven these otherwise dull occasions. Could you really have killed him?”

Brienne just snorted. “She’d have gutted him in three strokes,” Jaime said, tossing back another glass. “How bad is it?”

 Tyrion made a face. “Well, Ser Androy is going to complain to Ser Loras, who’s going to send a raven to complain to Lord Mace, who’s then going to send a raven back and complain to Father, and then Father’s going to order Brienne to apologize in public.”

“I’ll refuse,” Brienne said. Jaime sighed deeply.

“And won’t that be fun for all of us,” Tyrion said. “Well, we’ve got a week or two to think of something.”

#

Jaime was still trying to think of something four days later, and then Brienne came back after going to the privy, sat down on the bed next to him, and said abruptly, “Jaime, I haven’t bled.”

“What?” he said, drowsily.

“I always bleed on the second night of the new moon. It’s two days late.”

He pushed himself up on his elbow, staring at her. They’d only been married—three weeks? He could still count back every one of the days in his head. “Is that—are you never late?” He felt almost bewildered.

“Not that I can remember,” Brienne said. They stared at each other, and then Jaime was reaching for her, desperate, not to fuck her but just to—just to hold her, to pull her into his arms and press their foreheads together; he kissed her once, gently, and he was—he was weeping; he hadn’t wept for pain and he hadn’t wept for his hand and he hadn’t wept for Cersei, but tears were sliding down his face, and she was kissing him, and her face was wet, too; she was shaking, and then she—then she—she said, very softly, her voice cracking, “Thank you,” as if he was the one who’d given her—anything.

 Every morning, the rest of that week, when they woke up he looked at her, and she looked back, a question and an answer, and the answer was always yes. After five days, he said, “It’s…been a week, then,” and she nodded, and tried to smile, her mouth wobbling awkwardly around it, and he said, “We—we could ask—Qyburn.”

Qyburn listened, asked a handful of questions about Brienne’s courses, asked how she was feeling, if her breasts were tender. She turned very red and said, stifled, “Yes, but I thought,” and couldn’t finish saying that she’d thought that was because her husband had been fucking her four times a day and he liked her breasts. After he left, Jaime kissed Brienne and went through the corridors to the Tower of the Hand, where he climbed the stairs and found his father at the council table, discussing finances.

Tywin looked up and raised his eyebrows and Jaime said, “May I have a word?”

Tywin stood, nodded to the others. “Continue. I’ll return shortly,” and took Jaime into his office, the next room over, and shut the door. “This is about your wife, I presume,” he said, tightly, and Jaime stared at him and then realized—he was thinking about the stupid scandal, which Jaime had completely forgotten about; he hadn’t even really noticed the whispers and snickering, these last few days.

“It is, actually,” Jaime said. He reached over to the table, took the jug of wine, and poured two cups. He turned and held one out.

His father’s face stilled. He looked at it and raised his eyes to Jaime’s face. “It hasn’t been a month.”

“It is a little early to celebrate,” Jaime said. “Qyburn says one child in ten is lost before the seventh week, and we’re not yet four along. But I don’t see why I should be the only one worrying. At any rate, he also said even if we do lose this one, it’s still a good sign we’ll have as many as we want.”

Tywin took the glass. Jaime drank his in triumph and then sauntered out past the meeting. “Sorry for interrupting, I’m sure it’s endlessly fascinating,” he said, jauntily.

“Congratulations,” Tyrion said, that night at dinner, before they even had a chance to say anything.

“Is that boy still spying on me for you?” Jaime demanded indignantly.

“No one has to spy on you when you sail into a small council meeting for the first time in, oh, ever, and drag Father away for a private conversation that ends in both of you coming out like the cat with the cream,” Tyrion said. “You might as well have just shouted it from the rooftops. I thought you’d done it on purpose to shut up the gossips.”

Jaime overheard Sansa quietly asking Brienne, later that night, “Are you happy?” out on the balcony.

“Very happy,” Brienne said, low. “It’s…something I’d given up wanting.”

Jaime breathed deep and went out to her and kissed her. Sansa averted her eyes, but she was actually smiling a little, and afterwards she looked at them and said, “Congratulations to you both. And may the old gods and the new see you and the child to an easy birth.”

“Thank you, Sansa,” Brienne said, looking down, smiling and flushed.

“And you should be careful,” Sansa said. Jaime jerked to look at her, startled. Her face was very hard. “Not everyone’s going to be happy for you.”

Happy or not, the gossips did shut up; the smart ones immediately, and the rest after Ser Androy abruptly vanished from court the next day: Father making clear he wasn’t having it now that Lady Lannister was fulfilling her primary purpose. It made Jaime’s teeth grind, perversely.

Father called him to the Tower two days after. “All goes well?” he asked, without looking up from his desk, as if he didn’t mean to show how much he cared about the answer.

“All goes well,” Jaime said. “I will tell you if something goes wrong, you know. It’s not something I’d be able to hide for long even if I wanted to. And not news I’d want you to hear from someone else.”

“Mm,” Tywin said. He sat back, looking at Jaime. “The lords of Tarth were once kings in their own right, before they mingled their line with the Storm Kings. The second son then took the seat of the isle, and began the current line.”

Jaime eyed him sidelong. “Is there a point to this? We’ve already got Casterly Rock.”

“Which sits atop gold mines that have run dry,” Tywin said. “The Stormlands have greater strategic value, and trade over the Narrow Sea. Your firstborn son will rule the Westerlands. Your second—”

“Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself?” Jaime said. “Or more to the point, ahead of me and Brienne?”

“You’ve already got a child on your wife in the first month of marriage,” Tywin said. “It was three years before you and Cersei were conceived, and six more before…” He made a short, grimaced gesture. “This maester Qyburn of yours does indeed think you’re likely to have as many as you want. That would be as many as you can have. And Storm’s End is currently vacant.”

Jaime stiffened. “You’re serious.”

“Certainly I’m serious,” Tywin said. “Leaving Storm’s End vacant is an invitation to any ambitious former Baratheon bannerman to try and seize the fortress. Your wife is the heir to Tarth. An only modestly unreasonable claim to the stormlands seat can be contrived. You’ll take it in her name, then spend half your time there, and half your time at Casterly Rock. When your second son is old enough—”

“What if we only have girls?” Jaime said, more to prod his father than a real protest.

Tywin pressed his mouth tight. “Then they will be married to high-ranking bannermen who will take their name—”

There was a tapping on the door; Tywin frowned at it and barked, “Enter,” and a small boy in page’s clothes stuck his head in and said timidly, “Beg pardon, m’lord, but Maester Qyburn says I’m to tell you, Lady Brienne is exercising in the south court, and it’s not safe for the babe.”

“What?” Tywin snapped, and shoved back his chair.

“That doesn’t make any sense, he told her the exact opposite just the other day!” Jaime said, already getting up. “She asked him.”

Tywin shot him a hard look, but didn’t say anything, just walking swiftly through the halls. Jaime kept pace with him, and they came out onto the balcony overlooking the south court. Brienne was standing in the middle of the courtyard by the fountain, not exercising at all; she was just looking around, holding a note in her hands. “Brienne,” Jaime called down to her. She looked up, smiled at him, and then four men with drawn swords burst out of the corridor behind her.

Brienne!” Jaime howled and ripped his sword from his side and flung it down over the railing so it landed on the ground in front of her. She’d already heard the men; she jumped forward, diving, and got the blade; the Valyrian steel slid hissing out of the sheath as she drew it, turning to face them.

“Guards! Guards!” Tywin was roaring. Jaime was already running down the stairs to her, the clashing metal, her furious yell; he distantly heard Tywin coming behind him. He’d worn the golden hand, he’d worn the stupid fucking golden hand; if Brienne lived, he was going to melt the thing down and never take the hook off again, he swore it by the old gods and the new, he swore it, and he burst out into the courtyard with his father on his heels as Brienne whacked off the head of the fourth man with a snarl and it came flying to land at his feet. The other three were all dead around her.

Tywin came out on his heels and halted, staring. Jaime didn’t stop, just kept running the rest of the way to her; she was standing breathing hard, the bloody sword in her hand, her face spattered with more blood—but not hers, none of hers, and then he had her in his arms and was kissing her, desperately, shaking, and she gripped his head with her free hand and kissed him back, hard.

#

Jaime didn’t pay attention to anything until he had Brienne back in their rooms and behind a closed door; then he didn’t pay attention to anything else until there was an entire pack of guards on the door: his father went to send them. Before they arrived, his squire innocently came out of the side room moving very vaguely in Brienne’s direction, and Jaime instantly wheeled at the movement and lunged at him with hook and sword and a snarl, terrifying the boy into stumbling back and falling over the step up to the bed and going down hard into a wide-eyed scuttling back over the floor. “Jaime!” Brienne said, reaching to put her hand on his arm. “It’s just Craston.”

Jaime stopped, his heart still pounding, and then snapped to the boy, “Go and find Tyrion and tell him someone tried to kill Brienne.”

Tyrion was there not ten minutes later, along with Sansa, whose face was white and sick; she came in and saw Brienne and shuddered all over, her hands coming up over her face as she gave a gasp. Brienne went to her and put her arms around her shoulders. “It’s all right, I’m fine,” she said, gently, taking Sansa to a bench at the foot of the bed, settling her down.

“Does Father know?” Tyrion asked Jaime, low.

“He was there,” Jaime said savagely. “We both were.”

Tyrion stiffened. “Tell me what happened.”

Father came back ten minutes later, his face a mask that couldn’t entirely cover his rage. “The boy’s vanished,” he said, the words tight, as he came back into Jaime’s rooms; even as he spoke, he was looking for Brienne, who was still sitting across the room with Sansa, talking in low voices together; Sansa was gripping Brienne’s hands so hard that her own had gone bloodless white. “I had the guards gather every page and every boy under twelve in the castle: none of them.”

“Varys has an artist who’s gifted at drawing faces,” Tyrion said. “If you sit with him and describe the boy, he’ll get a picture you can give to the guards. It’s worth spending the half hour: we might find someone who saw him. But he was surely gone the instant he delivered his message. Either he’s fled the city, or he’ll wash up on the shores of Blackwater Bay in a week.”

“What about Qyburn?” Jaime said, his hands running over the smooth outer curve of the hook, back and forth, fingers brushing the edge of the blade. It was a comfort. 

“Two months ago he was a disgraced former maester in a scabby ruin, now he’s in the Red Keep, looking after Lady Lannister,” Tyrion said. “He won’t know anything about it. No one would try to involve him unless they had to, and the only thing they needed was to know his name.”

Tywin stood brooding, his eyes still resting on Brienne. “If we cannot find the trail at this end, we must begin at the other,” he said abruptly. “It’s the Tyrells who stand to gain the most.”

“Yes, except it’s not the Tyrells,” Tyrion said.

Tywin turned sharply towards him, narrow-eyed. “When they agreed to the matches for Margaery and Loras, they expected to solidify their power. Jaime’s heirs at Casterly Rock threaten that power—”

“—especially if you also put one of them at Storm’s End, which it’s perfectly obvious you’re going to do the instant that your apparently very fertile daughter-in-law pops out a second child,” Tyrion finished. “Yes, I know. But it’s not the Tyrells, because if Olenna had decided to murder Brienne, she’d have used a single good crossbowman, and she wouldn’t have sent that boy to summon you to the scene. This was personal. Whoever did this didn’t just want to remove a political obstacle. They wanted you and Jaime to watch Brienne die. Her, and the Lannister child in her belly. It’s dripping with hate.”

Jaime stiffened, a cold sick knot in his stomach, and saw Tywin straighten, too. After a moment, Tywin said quietly, “A Stark loyalist? The Dornish?”

“I don’t see how any Stark loyalist could possibly have gotten themselves into the Red Keep, much less four men,” Tyrion said. “The Dornish…they could have done it, but it doesn’t feel quite right. I’d believe that Oberyn Martell would kill Jaime in front of you, but he wouldn’t murder a woman of a different family just because she’d married into the Lannisters and was bearing us a child. That’s the crime he thinks you committed.”

“It’s not the Dornish,” Brienne said, coming back to them, tight-lipped. Sansa was standing on the balcony, looking away.

Tywin looked at her sharply. “Why not?”

“Those four men were untrained street thugs. They were ready to stab a helpless woman; they didn’t know how to face a trained fighter with a broadsword,” Brienne said. “It wasn’t a lucky fight, they’d have had to get lucky to nick me. No one who’s ever seen me fight would send them after me. And Oberyn Martell saw me training last week.”

Tyrion drummed his fingers on the table. “Leaving us with an extremely empty list of suspects.” He darted a very quick look at Father, slightly odd: just a glance at his face, then dropping his eyes again. “We’re going to need some luck on this,” was all he said. “Fortunately, luck is susceptible to bribery. Let me bring in Varys. We’ll sketch the boy, the dead men, and post rewards for information. See if we can find anyone who at least knew any of our thugs. One of them talked to someone, to a whore, to a friend; one of them spent some money somewhere. We’ll question the entire staff of the keep, find anyone who so much as got a glimpse of them coming in and out, promise a pardon to anyone who took a bribe to let someone into the castle as long as they come forward now. We need something to get hold of.”

“Yes,” Tywin said shortly. “See it done.”

There was a knock on the door, and one of the guards slid it open a little. Jaime stiffened: Cersei was standing outside in the hall, wrapped in a stole, her hair loose. Tywin gave a short nod to the guards, and they let her in. “There’s all sorts of stories going around the keep,” she said, coming in. “They’re saying—someone attacked Jaime’s wife.” She saw Brienne and stopped, looking at her, then lifted her chin and said a little defiantly, “Are you all right?”

Jaime let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding, like something uncoiling, a tightness in his chest coming loose; he’d half been afraid she’d—lash out again, or say something he couldn’t bear to hear.

“I’m fine, Your Grace, thank you,” Brienne said, in measured, level tones.

Cersei looked around at them. “What happened?”

“Four thugs dressed as palace servants set on Lady Brienne in the south courtyard,” Tyrion said, without looking up at her.

“And she was alone?” Cersei looked at Brienne again. “How did you ever get away?”

“I didn’t,” Brienne said. “I killed them.”

Cersei’s eyes dropped to the sword-hilt at Brienne’s waist, the lion’s head. Jaime had made her keep it; he wanted it in her hands all the time, not just when he was lucky enough to have a chance to throw it to her. “All four of them?”

“Yes,” Brienne said. “And I’ll kill anyone else who tries, too.”

She said it with flat, cool certainty; it was like a wash of relief, flowing through him. He reached for her, pulled her close against him, breathing; she cupped his face in both her hands, and he let the air out shuddering.

When he loosened his grip, Father was watching them both, his mouth thin. He looked at Jaime and said abruptly, “You chose well.” Then he looked back at Brienne. “Lady Brienne, this is now the third time you’ve saved the future of my house. I will not forget it. When you need something, you will ask me.” He looked at Tyrion. “Begin the investigation at once. And make sure Lord Varys knows that failure would be unwise.”

Tyrion nodded.

“My lord,” Brienne said abruptly, and Tywin looked at her. “I would ask something of you.” Tywin gave a small jerk of his head, beckoning. “I want to leave for Casterly Rock at once.”

Jaime blinked at her. Cersei stiffened. “It’s less than a week before the royal wedding,” she said. “Surely that would look strange.”

Tywin glanced at her briefly, then back to Brienne. “Your absence would be noted.”

“Only by fools who want to make fun of how stupid I look in gowns,” Brienne said. “Someone got four thugs into the Red Keep to kill me and my child, and we don’t know who. Before I get too big to fight well, I want to be in a castle my husband controls, with no guests we don’t trust, and bannermen and smallfolk who’ve served your house for generations. That’s more important than what gossips will say.”

Tywin paused, then gave a short nod. “You leave tomorrow.” He transferred the look to Jaime. “How many men do you want?”

“Two brigades,” Jaime said instantly. “I’m going to hand-pick the officers out of all our men in King’s Landing, and have them hand-pick the men. No one who wasn’t recruited from the Westerlands.”

“Good.” Tywin looked at Brienne again. “Travel safely.”

She inclined her head. “Thank you, my lord.”

Jaime spent the rest of the day tearing apart the three Lannister battalions to find his men for the trip. A castle he controlled, no guests he didn’t trust: it was something he wouldn’t have thought to ask for, and the instant Brienne had said it aloud, it had become a thing he wanted more than breath. He’d put his lady behind the walls of his fortress and man them with every decent soldier in the Westerlands, and armies could come to take her if they wanted: let them try.

He had his two brigades before sundown, every man vouched for by at least two others as Westerlands born-and-bred; he ordered the officers to have them run through some light drills on the parade grounds outside the Red Keep and was watching them get started when Cersei found him; she’d come all the way down the long stairs to the overlook point. “Jaime, what are you doing?” she said.

“I’ve just pulled them out of their units and thrown them all together,” Jaime said. “They need some practice—”

“I’m not talking about the soldiers!” she said, grabbing his arm and pushing him around to face her. “You can’t mean to let her make you leave.”

She was looking up at him expectantly, looking at him, in the old way. The afternoon sun fell on her, the gold crown of her braided hair and the gold of her silken gown, caught at the arms and throat with more gold, billowing out behind her body and clinging to the curves of her breasts and hips and thighs, like a moment caught out of every warm dream he’d seen behind his eyes during a cold and bitter year in chains. It seemed almost as unreal.

 “Someone tried to kill Brienne today,” he said slowly. “Do you expect me to sit around and wait for them to try again?”

“And what if they move on to our children, next!” Cersei said. “You’re abandoning them, you’re leaving them undefended.”

“If someone wanted to kill them, they’d have started there. Whoever this was didn’t want to kill Joffrey or Tommen, they wanted to kill the child Brienne’s carrying. The Lannister heir, not the royal one.”

“You can’t know that for certain!”

Her fingers were digging into his arms as if she could pierce the skin and make him feel her fear. He said helplessly, “Cersei, I’m next to useless in a fight right now. I’m going to be years learning how to work with my left. Joffrey is better off with another knight in my place, and Father’s not wrong. Our strength in the Westerlands is what secures Joffrey’s throne. That’s the best thing I can do for them now.”

“You think you’re helping them by getting other children on your new broodmare?” Cersei said, savage, and he flinched back from her. “You can fuck her just as well here! And here is where they need you. I don’t care if you can’t fight. You’re their father.”

“A father who can’t acknowledge them, who can’t do anything for them but guard their lives,” Jaime said. “Joffrey’s the king. He’s a man grown. Tommen’s coming of age in a year. Father’s here to look after them, they’re surrounded by the Kingsguard, by our armies—”

“You’re taking the best of our armies!” Cersei said. She caught his arms, gripped them. “I know I hurt you, I know you’re angry, but you can’t, you can’t leave us! Don’t be angry with me. You have no idea how hard it was, how hard it’s been, trying to protect them—and I’ve already failed! Tyrion sold Myrcella to Dorne, and I couldn’t stop it. Now Father means to send me to Highgarden, and then he’ll have it all his way; he doesn’t care about Joffrey, he doesn’t care about Tommen. All he cares about is you. I can’t stop it without you! I need you!”

He shut his eyes, a surge of grief welling through him, and then she moved; her arms were coming round his neck and her lips were brushing his, and he jerked back without even deciding, going up to catch her arm. “No, I—” he said, and she tried again, pushed against his grip, leaning for his right side, but he blocked her with his bad arm, and pushed her back. “Cersei. I can’t.”

She shook her head, furiously. “Do you think I still care that you married her? I understand, Father made you do it, I don’t care; he made me marry Robert. It doesn’t change anything, not anything real. I’m still yours and you’re still mine—”

“I’m not yours!” Jaime said, and she halted, staring at him. His throat ached. “You denied me; you took another man in my place. And yes, it hurt me, but—I didn’t blame you. I’m a scarred cripple now, not the man you loved. How could I blame you? But I’m not yours, I can’t be yours, if I’m only yours when I’m whole, or when you need me. I’ll always love you. I’ll always want to protect you and our children. But I’m hers now.”

“No,” Cersei said, flatly. “It’s not true. Do you expect me to believe that? That anyone could come between us?” She reached up towards him. He stepped back again, and her face twisted for a moment with a flaring desperation that hurt him to see. “I don’t believe you. I don’t. You’re angry, you’re hurt—do you want me to say I’m sorry? Tell me. You can’t possibly be in love with that lumbering beast of a woman. You only married her to hurt me back—”

“She saved my life,” he said. “She gave me her word, and I gave her mine. She’s my wife.

“And you think she’ll be true to you? She seduced you, she married you to be rich and powerful—”

“I had to promise her I’d look after Sansa before she’d have me!” Jaime said. “She doesn’t care about my money. She cares about my honor.

“Fuck your honor!” Cersei said. “It doesn’t matter, nothing matters but us.

She caught his head with both hands and pulled him down to her mouth and kissed him ferociously, holding his head in the fragrant circle of her arms, her mouth sweet with mint and lavender, her lips soft and warm; she dragged the nails of her hand down his chest, towards his belt. His cock was hard and urgent; it was everything desire had meant to him, for so long, and she was pressing her whole body against him, lithe and moving, a promise, and he had to shove her back to get her off him.

But after all, it wasn’t hard to do; there wasn’t a choice to be made. He’d already made it. “I can’t,” he said. “I’m sorry, Cersei. I can’t. I’m hers.”

#

He stayed alone at the overlook after, even after he called a halt to the drill and sent the men to get an early night. He ached through, as with a fever trying to burn itself out in his bones. His jaw still stung a little where Cersei had slapped him, but it wasn’t the pain of being hurt, it was the pain of hurting her. They’d clawed at each other as easily as breathing, all these years, but only scrapes. He’d never dreamed of leaving her. And—she hadn’t dreamed of him leaving her either, apparently. He still didn’t understand, but he did understand she wanted something of him, expected something of him, that he wasn’t giving her. It felt like driving a sword into her belly, and it didn’t help that she’d gutted him first. He’d have died for her willingly, after all. She’d been his lady.

So he sat on the wall with his hand over his face and the sun sliding down into dark, until Craston said tentatively, “M’lord?” and Jaime looked up at him. “Lord Varys asked if you’d come up?”

Jaime looked up and saw Varys standing far up above him, on the battlements—and was moving; he took the stairs two at a time, fast, and reached the top breathing hard, the ache in his gut driven out with the pumping of his heart. “You’ve found something?” he said, as soon as he got close enough to call it up, and finished the last flight of stairs before Varys could even answer.

Varys glanced him up and down and peered down over the side at the long slopes of the narrow stairs going back and forth down the wall. He flicked his eyebrows up and murmured to himself, “I suppose that explains it,” then added,  “Forgive me, Ser Jaime, I don’t yet have any news about the investigation for you. I only thought it might be a good idea for you to go back to your rooms.”

“Another attack?” Jaime tensed, ready to spring into motion, but Varys gave a small shake of his head.

“Her Ladyship is in no immediate danger. Your father has put twelve men on the door, and two tasters for anything sent to her table. But attacks take many forms. Some are directed at the enemy. Others might attempt to undercut their allies. I regret I can’t be more specific.”

Jaime eyed him, but the eunuch only gazed placidly back at him out of his round face, and Jaime didn’t want to spend the time it would take to try and pry anything more out of Varys’s bland granite. He went back to his rooms instead, the guards standing to attention as he went in, and found Brienne standing with a hard face in front of Sansa; Cersei was facing off against Tyrion in front of Father, saying urgently, “Don’t you see it makes perfect sense? He’s always been jealous of Jaime, always! And think of how Robb Stark’s wife died. What would the Starks want more than to make you watch Lady Brienne die the same way? You haven’t found anyone else, have you?”

“Which is exactly why he can be absolutely sure it’s not me. If I’d done it, I’d certainly have provided myself with a convenient scapegoat to take the blame!” Tyrion said.

“That would be much easier once you’d gotten yourself put in charge of the investigation,” Cersei said, icily.

“Have you gone mad?” Jaime said, incredulously.

She didn’t turn, only said over her shoulder, “No, I think you all have! He wants to be Lord of Casterly Rock. He wants Jaime’s place, Father, you know it. Don’t tell me he hasn’t tried to get it.”

Father had been listening to both of them, implacable, but he did frown then, and Tyrion flushed. “Jaime was in the Kingsguard!” he said.

“As though that was ever going to last,” Cersei said. “That treacherous imp hates us, all of us, and so does the bitch of a Stark wife you gave him—”

“That’s enough,” Brienne said. “It’s not Tyrion, and it’s not Sansa, and we’re not jumping at shadows.”

“At least don’t send Sansa with them!” Cersei said, turning back to Tywin, and a bitter jolt of recognition tightened Jaime’s back: I had to promise to look after Sansa, he’d told her, and now Cersei was trying to keep Sansa in King’s Landing. Which would keep Brienne here, unless he picked her up—well, had her picked up by four men, more likely—and dragged her off, and even if he did do that, she’d go back the first chance she got. 

But Brienne just said flatly, “Sansa is coming with us—and Tyrion, too, if he’s willing.” Jaime blinked; they all turned to look at her together, Tyrion as taken aback as any of them. “Will you come with us?” Brienne asked him, directly. “I know the capital’s your home. But I’m asking. If someone comes at me with a sword, I can stop it; Jaime can stop an army. But if a dozen men around us are turned traitor with some clever scheme, we won’t see it coming. You will.”

Tyrion was staring up at her, a little helplessly, and Jaime went to stand next to her. “Tyrion. She’s right. We need you.” Tywin was frowning. “Father, he kept this nest of snakes quiet with a boy on the throne, Stannis at the gates and the Starks chasing us all over the Riverlands. I want Tyrion at my back.” He turned back to Tyrion. “Will you come with us?”

Tyrion frowned down a moment, his mouth working in a swallow, and then he looked up and said simply, “Yes.”

“Father,” Cersei said, turning, but Tywin was just flicking his hand.

“Enough,” he said. “This is jumping at shadows. Tyrion will do his duty to his family, as will all of you. You have your men?” Jaime nodded. “Good. I’ll see you off in the morning. Take ravens with you and send them back as you travel.”

“I’ll take Qyburn,” Jaime said. “He can manage them for us.”

Tywin nodded, and turned and left the room. Cersei shut her eyes as he went past her. When the door closed, she turned to Brienne and said, through her teeth, “You’re being a fool. It’s eight hundred miles to Casterly Rock. A thousand accidents could happen to you along the way. And you want to trust Tyrion? Because he’s Jaime’s brother? You don’t know him.”

“I know he’s done what he said he’d do,” Brienne said. “I know he’s been kind to Sansa when it cost him. And I know he’s not going to try to kill me, because I know who did.”

It didn’t make sense in Jaime’s ears for a moment; then he stared at her, shocked, and then at Tyrion, whose lips were pursed, tightly; at Sansa, whose face was white and set and afraid. But there wasn’t any surprise in either of them, and they were both looking at—looking at—he turned his head, slowly, and Cersei was staring back at Brienne, and she’d gone completely still.

“I told you yesterday,” Brienne said. “I’ll say it just one more time. If you try it again, I’ll kill whoever you send, and then I’ll kill you, and explain to your father after why you’d want to murder your brother’s wife and child. I’d have told him already if it weren’t for the sake of your children.”

Cersei jerked a little round to look straight at him. Jaime couldn’t look away from her. The room swam around him, distorted, nothing in it but her face, her beautiful face. She crossed it towards him; he still couldn’t move. “Jaime,” she said. “Jaime, you can’t believe—”

She came in too close, blurring away too. He saw them instead, the four men coming out of the corridor behind Brienne: four assassins inside the Red Keep who hadn’t wanted to kill Joffrey, who hadn’t wanted to kill Tywin Lannister; cheap thugs, the kind you’d never send to kill a trained fighter if you understood what that meant, but still four men with swords drawn to gut his wife, to stab his child out of her belly, to cut her apart and leave her bleeding to death in front of him. “Get out,” he said, blindly, but Cersei reached out to him anyway, so he knew where she was, where she was standing, the way he’d always been able to sense an enemy moving around him, and even though he still couldn’t see, he put out his hand and took her throat in his grip. In his left hand, which wasn’t as strong as the strong hand of a whole man, but good enough for this; good enough to protect his lady from someone trying to kill her.

He shut his eyes, tears running down his face as his hand closed on Cersei’s strangled gasp, and then Brienne’s hands were reaching for his arm, his wrist and shoulder. She said quietly, “Myrcella and Tommen,” and then she gripped him, not hard enough to hurt but hard enough to remind him of her own strength, the strength that she’d used to shelter their child, and Catelyn Stark’s, and that she was offering again to protect his other children, the ones who loved their mother.

He let go and turned away to Brienne’s arms without looking again, burying his face against her; she held him tight and said to Tyrion, “Will you—”

“Yes,” Tyrion said, and Jaime distantly heard him come over and get Cersei up and take her stumbling into the other room. The door closed behind them, and Jaime drew a shuddering breath. Brienne gripped the back of his head and leaned her own down to press her forehead against him.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly, stroking his head.

“How did you—know?” he whispered.

“I told her,” Sansa said, and he lifted his head to stare at her. Her face was still white, and she had her arms wrapped around herself, the pallor of real fear.

“Sansa told me it was Cersei yesterday,” Brienne said. “I didn’t really believe it, but she was so upset, I decided I’d ask your father to let us leave right away. And once Cersei came here with that pack of lies about Sansa and Tyrion…” She trailed off.

Jaime swallowed. “How did you know?” he asked Sansa, raw. 

Sansa looked at him, still behind the smooth serene mask, and then abruptly it cracked and she shook her head, her mouth trembling, and tears were shining in her eyes. “You don’t know her. You don’t. I’m the one she’s had to play with and hurt, all these years. The one who couldn’t do anything to her, the one she didn’t need, who didn’t have any friends. She’s like Joffrey. She’s just smarter. And Brienne was taking something that’s hers. I knew she’d try to do something. I just thought she’d be too afraid of your father to—” Her face crumpled, and she gulped for air.

“It’s all right,” Brienne said quietly. “Tomorrow we’ll be gone from this place.” She paused and then said, “Why don’t you sleep in here tonight. You can take the bed, we’ll have the servants bring in some cots.”

Sansa wiped her face with her fingers and nodded. She just stood breathing for a little longer, then said, her voice wobbling, “Are you sure you can stand it for a whole night? And you, Ser Jaime?”

“It’s fine,” Jaime said, shortly.

 “Yes, Sansa, we don’t mind a cot for a night,” Brienne said, a little patiently.

 “It just doesn’t sound like it from what the servants say,” Sansa said, still sounding completely sincere.

Jaime paused. Brienne was staring at her open-mouthed, looking shocked. Then Sansa giggled a little and covered her mouth, and the absurdity of it was sharp enough to cut the band of horror still tight around Jaime’s chest; he found he could say, “Lady Sansa, have you been gossiping with the servants?”

“Shae talks to the others,” she said, still giggling, a child again in front of his face, no older than Myrcella. “Everyone’s really impressed. Some of them bet on how many times a night.”

Brienne was bright red. “She shouldn’t speak to you about such things!”

“I’m glad she does,” Sansa said. “It’s nice to know someone likes being married. I’ll take the cot, and I can sleep in the other room. There are guards on both doors. I’ll go ask Shae to bring my things here. She’s already packing for me.”

She smiled at them, and then she went out the door. Brienne looked at him still wide-eyed and dismayed, irresistible, and Jaime said, “I wonder if she could find out the highest number anyone’s bet on for tonight. It’s always nice to have a target to drive at.”

“Jaime!” Brienne said, and he pulled her into his arms and kissed her. She put her hands on his shoulders and tried to say something, but he didn’t want to talk; he didn’t want to try to find words. He wanted to speak to her with his body instead, he wanted to make her feel—everything, his gratitude, his love, his agony; he wanted to fuck her and he wanted to lie in her arms afterwards and take shelter in her. He kissed her again, desperately, and she hesitated and then she said yes: she kissed him back and her hands went for his ties and buttons and she drew him to the bed.

#

He never found out what the number had been, but by the morning, he felt reasonably sure that he’d done everything possible to beat it. He was still panting raggedly with the final effort, and Brienne was so spent she was falling asleep again next to him even with the morning sunlight pouring slantwise directly into the bed. The only thing that got him up was the promise, the shining promise, of getting the hell away; all he wanted in the world was to see the Red Keep disappearing behind him forever.

He put on the hook and dressed. Yesterday, on his way to choose his soldiers, he’d taken the gold hand down to the smiths and thrown it into the fire himself and stood and watched it melt until it was gone. The hook was far lighter, more comfortable even with less padding beneath, and the straps felt more secure. The smith had made a cover for the blade, so he could actually use it to pick things up; it was already becoming automatic.

He kissed Brienne, who was stretching herself awake. “We’ll leave in an hour,” he said, and she yawned and nodded. He went to Tyrion’s rooms and rousted him, too; it was always a good idea to be sure Tyrion was out of bed if you wanted him to be anywhere on time. Tyrion spent ten minutes groaning protests with an arm over his eyes and then finally accepted his fate and got bitterly out of bed and went to scrub his face. Jaime had already called the servants to bring small beer and breakfast; he sat down and waited until Tyrion had downed a mug and a full plate of bacon. “Tyrion,” he said, “I don’t know what to do about Tommen. I still haven’t been able to so much as talk to him since the marriage. And now I’m leaving him…with…” He couldn’t entirely go on.

Tyrion sat frowning a little, and then he said abruptly, “There’s no way around trusting someone, so it’s choosing someone to trust. Varys.”

Varys?” Jaime stared at him.

“I know,” Tyrion said. “But he’ll actually be able to get the letters back and forth, and if we’re picking someone to give a gilded invitation to be in Tommen’s confidence, I’d just as soon give it to him.”

“You want to put the Master of Whispers at Tommen’s side?” Jaime said.

“I do,” Tyrion said. “Don’t tell anyone this, but he’s actually a decent person. No, I’m not joking,” he added. “Oh, he’s entirely capable of doing monstrous things. But he doesn’t do them for fun. He does them for the greater good—and he actually tries to work out what that is. Anyway, think of it this way: the chances that Tommen will ever have a secret Varys doesn’t already know are nonexistent.”

Jaime didn’t particularly like it, but he didn’t have any better ideas. The brigades were already forming up on the road, getting ready to march out, and he went to the walls to look them over; he was only expecting Varys to come himself, but when Varys said, “Ser Jaime,” and he turned, Tommen was standing with him, his face wide-eyed uncertain, and Varys bowed and said, “I’ll give you some time,” and slipped back inside.

“Thank you for coming,” Jaime said softly.

Tommen dropped his eyes and blurted, “Varys said…you tried to send me messages.” There was a question there, and Jaime drew a deep breath.

“Yes. And we came to court to see you.” Tommen’s face fell a little, and Jaime couldn’t put him there, in the middle. “Your mother’s angry with me.”  

“Because you’re—going,” Tommen said.

“Among other things,” Jaime said, his throat aching.

Tommen stood there a moment and then lifted his head. “So why are you?”

It wasn’t a question to be answered with Casterly Rock or even Brienne’s not safe; Jaime felt it in his belly. But he had no idea how he could answer it. “There—isn’t a place for me here, anymore,” he offered, struggling. “There’s one there.” Tommen didn’t look satisfied, and Jaime said abruptly, “Tommen, it’s not worth much to say it now, when you’re almost a man grown, but—I’m sorry that I wasn’t more to you. I should have been. I should have found a way.” Tommen flinched a little and stared at him. “If it means anything, I’m not glad to leave you. But the war’s over, and Father’s here, to protect you and Joffrey. I wouldn’t go if you weren’t safe here, or if Brienne and Sansa were. But I promised that I’d go back to Casterly Rock, in exchange for the right to take Sansa away from the court.”

Tommen seemed wavering somehow, as if he was holding something in, and then he said, fast, “Mother said—you didn’t want to be seen with us. Because of the rumors. She said Sansa was just an excuse.”

“I don’t care what people think,” Jaime said. “I’d only have cared if someone used them as a reason to hurt you and your mother, and our enemies have been defeated now. But our safety’s been bought with Sansa’s pain. And I’m only alive because I made a promise to Catelyn Stark, to see her daughters safe. I owe a debt.”

Varys promised quietly to see that letters got back and forth. “Enclose them in book requests sent to the castle librarian by your brother,” he said. “I can intercept them. I wouldn’t trust anything exceptionally secret to it, but it will do for ordinary letters.”

Jaime nodded and looked at Tommen one more time, and then put his arms around him, and Tommen hugged him tight and said, a little wavering, “Let—let me know how you are.”

“I’ll write you on the way,” Jaime said, a promise.

He went down to the courtyard and checked his horse and Brienne’s, and the carriage for Sansa and Tyrion. Qyburn was there, overseeing the raven cages being loaded onto his own wagon; he inclined his head. “Ser Jaime,” he said.

“Lord Jaime,” his father said, from behind him, and Jaime turned around. Tywin was standing looking at him, his face as stern as usual, but something else in it. He beckoned a little, and when Jaime stepped over to him, he drew off the heavy signet ring with the lion’s head from his hand and held it out.

“It’s still yours,” Jaime said.

Tywin shook his head a little. “We may not meet again for many years. Perhaps never. I will indulge myself and see you this once as I always hoped: taking my place as Lord Paramount of the Westerlands.” He gave a small jerk of his chin, a nudge.

With a swallow Jaime held up his left hand and said, “You’ll have to put it on me.”

Tywin’s mouth twitched. “Not inappropriate,” he said, a little dryly. He put the ring on the small finger: Jaime’s hands were thick from swordplay and calluses. It felt strange on his hand.

“Your mother was not a good match,” Tywin said. Jaime looked up at him startled: his father was studying his hand, a small frown on his face. “And I should have married again, after her death. But she was an unusual woman.” He looked up. “I meant what I said: you’ve married well. At first I considered the choice misguided. I was wrong. You have found a woman you can rely upon. Did you know it when you married her?”

“Yes,” Jaime said.

Tywin nodded. “Travel safely,” was the only other thing he said. He cupped Jaime’s face, once more, and then stepped back and left, walking swiftly.

The journey was long enough for the days to become habit: Jaime reviewed the troops every day: drill each morning, parade form on Sundays before he gave them leisure, and dismissed them every evening; he wanted them used to taking orders from him, and he wanted to know their faces and their names. He and Brienne rode among a different company each day. They trained together in the evenings and also during the afternoon break: the weather was turning fast, and it wasn’t too hot even in the heat of the day. They had dinner with Tyrion and Sansa most nights, although occasionally Tyrion ate separately; Jaime assumed he was distracted by one of the thirty books they were carting along for the trip, until a week out of King’s Landing, he took a deep breath and said, “I have a—confession to make,” and awkwardly explained, with too many words, none of which were the ones he actually meant, that Sansa’s handmaiden Shae, who stood there while he was talking with her head bowed and her hands clasped, wasn’t a handmaiden after all. He finished and eyed them all with an air of desperation until Sansa said, “Why didn’t you tell me? I thought you were a spy from Lord Varys,” she added to Shae.

“What? Why would you think that?” Tyrion said baffled.

“She couldn't possibly have been a real handmaiden, she didn’t know anything to start,” Sansa said, smiling at Shae, who darted a look up and smiled wavering back.

“Do you mind?” Jaime asked Brienne afterwards privately.

“Because she’s done what she had to, to feed herself? No. I’d be wary of it if he wanted to bring in strange whores by the dozen that we couldn’t trust; Shae’s been loyal to him and kind to Sansa, even at her own risk,” Brienne said, his practical girl, so they sat five to table after that, and it became obvious why Tyrion liked Shae once she stopped keeping her mouth shut; she was funny and warm, and clever as well.

“You know, I’m happy to have the marriage annulled if you want to,” Sansa told Tyrion, a week or so later, over breakfast in a Goldroad inn.

Tyrion paused and said, “No, it’s—rather the opposite, if anything. As long as we’re married, Father can’t match me to someone else. It’s not as though I can marry Shae.”

“Until your father dies,” Sansa said, and Tyrion blinked at her. She looked over at Jaime. “You’ll be the head of the family then. Will you care?”

“I don’t think Father’s going to care for very much longer,” Jaime said. “No offense, dear brother, but I’m planning to do my best to put you as far from the succession as I possibly can,” he added, tipping his head towards Tyrion in mock apology.

Sansa smiled and gave Tyrion’s shoulder a small squeeze as she stood and went out to go and finish getting ready for the day. He looked as though he were going to cry, a bit, and then he looked up and said a little hoarsely, “Jaime, are we really going to settle down and be happy? It seems so very—bourgeois of us.”

“It’ll be all right,” Jaime said. “We’ll just spend enormous amounts of money.”

“Ah, yes, there’s always that,” Tyrion said. “You do know the money’s going to go in—roughly fifteen years. Once our reserves are empty, that’s it, and once the gold goes, the trade goes too. We’re going to have to come up with something else rather quickly.”

“Is there any chance of finding another mine?”

Tyrion shook his head. “Father gave me the survey reports. They’ve been looking for new veins for ten years. Nothing. Oh, one or two little ones, a bit of silver—enough to keep a reasonable household. Not nearly enough to maintain us in the style to which we’ve become accustomed.”

“I’m less concerned about us than about the army,” Jaime said.

“Well, on the bright side, once the gold’s gone, there’s much less for the army to guard,” Tyrion said dryly.

Jaime was silent. “What about the Westwatch mines?”

“Those remain bottomless, but there’s nothing there but iron and coal,”

“Well,” Jaime said, “that might not be quite as pretty, but it’s useful, isn’t it?”

“I suppose,” Tyrion said, frowning thoughtfully. “Coal is usually more expensive than it’s worth to get out of the ground, but we’re about to have a long winter. And we could have our goldsmiths start turning to steelsmiths. Fifteen years is a good amount of time to build expertise, especially if we hire some masters now to train them. It might just work.”

Their pace slowed once they hit the mountains. Jaime had to fight his own instincts to keep from pressing the men too hard, especially as the weather turned bitter, but he was desperately impatient as the days and the ground crept by, until finally he woke up one morning in country he knew, not just familiar but home, and three hours later the Rock started to appear, the highest turrets rising from the horizon in the distance. They reached the gates only a little while before sunset, and they were standing open, the household guard arrayed in full red-and-gold magnificence, and when Jaime dismounted, the castellan bowed and said, “Welcome home, my lord. I hope you had an easy journey.”

“Nothing to complain of,” Jaime said, and held his hand out as Brienne swung down from her horse. “Brienne, this is Ser Orstand. How long has Father had you running the place for him now? It must be more than twenty years.”

“Thirty years next April, my lord,” Orstand said, with a bow. “Welcome to Casterly Rock, my lady. Will you review the household?”

“Tomorrow,” Jaime said, firmly, and turned as Tyrion got out of the carriage. “Don’t wait on supper for us.”

“Of course not,” Tyrion said. “We’d all starve,” so Brienne was blushing as Jaime towed her straight into the castle and up the stairs, two at a time, and they reached the bedroom just as the sun began to dip into the ocean and the deep golden light poured in, pink and orange streaked across the horizon. Brienne drew a deep breath and went to stand on the balcony looking out on the endless expanse of the Sunset Sea; Jaime followed her out and stood with his arm around her waist, and she put both her hands over his. “What do you think, my lady Evenstar?” he said softly.

There was a small, tremulous smile on her face. She looked at him with her eyes brilliant and said, “That it’s good to be home,” and he drew her back into the room, already kissing her, to the waiting, canopied bed.

#

“You wanted to speak with me, dear.” Olenna’s face was placid, politely interested; it gave nothing away.

“I thought we might—share a few thoughts,” Cersei said. Her throat ached painfully under the filmy scarf she’d wrapped around it to hide the bruises, but she didn’t let her voice waver or go hoarse.

“And what would those thoughts be?”

“That you don’t want this marriage between me and Loras any more than I do,” Cersei said. “You want heirs at Highgarden, after all. Do you think I’m likely to give Ser Loras many heirs?”

“No, dear,” Olenna said. “Fifteen years since your last child? Stranger things have happened, but not many. But your father wants the marriage.”

“My father doesn’t want Loras to have heirs,” Cersei said. “He doesn’t even really want Joffrey to have heirs. Not anymore. Because he’s just sent my brother Jaime home to Casterly Rock to breed up a pride of hungry little lions, and he wants to feed them well.”

Olenna lifted her eyebrows briefly, gave a small nod. “Very likely, my dear. But I’m afraid he does have the upper hand.”

“He has the upper hand in King’s Landing,” Cersei said. “Not in Highgarden.”

“Mm. What did you have in mind?”

“After Joffrey’s wedding, we’ll go to Highgarden for mine, as my father has ordered,” Cersei said. “But we won’t go straight there. We’ll make a visit to Dorne first. After all, everyone knows how much I’ve missed my daughter.” Olenna’s face hadn’t changed, but at least she was still listening. “And then we’ll bring her back to Highgarden with us. Where she will marry your handsome, dashing grandson, and they’ll give you all the heirs you want.”

“And you?”

“And I—will marry Lord Mace,” Cersei said. “Who already has an heir.”

Olenna studied her in silence for a long moment, and then she said, abruptly, “Do you know, I’m sorry for you.” Cersei’s stomach clenched, but Olenna added, “Not for this plan; it’s very clever, it’s exactly what we’ll do,” and Cersei almost gasped outright; it was an effort not to let herself shake with relief. But Olenna was still going on. “I’m sorry because you had the wrong father. Most of us, highborn women, we change our houses when we marry. It happened to me. I was born a Redwyne, but once my first child was born, I became a Tyrell, and I’ve been one ever since. But you didn’t. You stayed a Lannister. And that’s a great gift to any house. One of their own, bearing their children, inside another’s house? What loyalty could be more priceless. But your father didn’t care, did he? You were a Baratheon to him from the moment he handed you over to that slobbering drunk. And your children are, too.”

Cersei stared at her, a knot in her throat. Olenna wasn’t putting on the least pretense of being kind or friendly; there was none of that lying or mockery in her expression, only a steady look right at her. Olenna gave a sharp nod. “Well, he was a fool. But I’m not.” She reached out to ring her bell. When the serving girl came in, Olenna looked up at her and said, “Tell my granddaughter I want her. We’ll dine here, the three of us.”

Cersei stiffened even as the girl left, and Olenna saw it. “Yes, I know you don’t like Margaery: why would you? You thought she was taking your son from you. And she was, of course. But now we’re going to take him together, the three of us, away from your father. After all, what right does that old man have to him, to any of your children? You’re the one who bore them, you’re the one who loves them. And your brother, well, he’s left them, hasn’t he, to go make those hungry little lions you spoke of, the ones he’ll love more than your children, because he’ll get to toss them in the air and teach them to ride.” Olenna flipped her hand, dismissive, while Cersei clenched her fists under the table so the nails pressed into the flesh. “So we’ll take Joffrey, and we’ll take Myrcella: I’m told she’s a sweet girl, she and Loras will undoubtedly be very happy adoring one another. And we’ll find a way to take Tommen, too. And yes,” Olenna added, “you’ll need to marry Mace. Your father’s going to be furious, and we’ll need the excuse to keep you at Highgarden. But it’ll be all right. My son is a fool, I’m afraid, but he’s not a brute or a drunkard, he knows how to make a woman feel good in bed, and he’s smart enough to have listened to me, all these years. That’s not nothing, in a husband.”

She leaned in on one elbow, her eyes intent on Cersei’s face. “And you’ll listen to me now, too. I know that father of yours didn’t give you anything; all the weapons you have, you’ve forged for yourself. But I’ll arm you properly. Because from the day your first grandchild’s born, you’ll be a Tyrell. And when I’m gone, which won’t be long now, you’ll be queen of thorns at Highgarden, with a family who want you for your brains and sharp claws and not just your pretty face. And Mace and Loras will have someone else to listen to. The Seven know they’ll need it,” she added, with a sigh, as she sat back in her chair. “Well, Cersei Lannister? Is that a future you could want for yourself, do you think?”

The question almost didn’t make any sense. Cersei had only come to try and save something from the wreck: to get back her little girl, even if her boys were being taken from her, even if Jaime had torn himself away, each of them like another piece of her flesh being ripped off her body. All she’d been trying to do was find a way to survive. There’d never been a future in her mind to want; there had only ever been the things she’d managed to get her hands on and couldn’t bear to lose and now was losing, with all that she could do. She’d never expected to be offered a way to get any more of it back. And no one had ever in all her life asked her what she wanted for herself.

She looked at Olenna’s lined, wicked old crone’s face, long past beauty, but with those sharp, clever eyes gleaming, playing a game not even Tywin Lannister had seen or matched, right under his nose. Cersei reached for the wine on the table and poured it, two glasses, and picked one up. “To Highgarden,” she said. And Olenna smiled, and picked up the other, and clinked it with hers.

# End