When Brienne sees it again, King’s Landing is a blackened pile of rubble. The fires are out by the time she arrives, but she is told that parts of the city kept burning for weeks because there were no men left alive to smother the flames. She rides through the streets towards the Red Keep, past the ragged survivors who stare up at her blankly, their clothes still dusted with ash. She saw the bodies piled high after the battle for Winterfell, and yet this somehow is more devastating, because she knows it was not magic, nor the gods, nor the Night King that brought them to this place—it was the choices of men and women. This, we did to ourselves.
She steels herself and rides to her new king.
It worries her how fragile he is, this king she has chosen to serve, hardly more than a boy—the last son of Catelyn and Ned Stark, bundled under layers of blankets and robes even in the southern heat, as if he means to cloak himself from the world. If he could stand, he would be taller than his sister Sansa, but when Brienne helps lift him from chair to bed and back again, he is startlingly light. He nearly starved out there beyond the Wall and he still eats less than he should. His lady mother, Brienne thinks, would not allow it; she would go to the kitchen herself and supervise the cooks preparing his food and then she would stand beside her son with her arms crossed and not budge until he finished the entire meal. She tells him as much, one time, though she knows it is not her place to say such things. His reaction is colder than she expects: just “thank you, Ser Brienne,” and nothing else.
It’s clear that she has offended him and so she doesn’t press the issue. He wants them all to believe that Bran Stark doesn’t exist anymore, but she wonders, would the Three-Eyed Raven become upset over the mere mention of his mother, or the suggestion of what he should do with his body? She doubts it. Still, days and weeks go by and his attitude towards her returns to normal, and so she starts to believe he has forgotten it, or if not forgotten it, at least let it go.
It turns out she is wrong. She learns this when the king has her take him to the courtyard of Maegor’s Holdfast so he can inspect the new construction work. The rubble has been removed and the ceiling repairs are almost complete, though the scaffolding still rises high above their heads. Now the workmen have turned their attention to the floor, which is currently being laid with patterned blue and white tiles. “Cersei had the floor painted. She wanted a map of the world she could walk on. A bit heavy-handed, no?” The king’s voice is quiet as ever, but she can sense the undercurrent of amusement. He points to the far corner of the room. “She died over there, in her brother’s arms.”
Brienne flinches before she can help herself. The king glances up at her and she schools her expression into blankness. She has seen him provoke people in this fashion; how, in the middle of another conversation, he will suddenly turn on them and push them to their breaking point. She has witnessed him send hardened soldiers running from the room and collapse outside in tears; men who swaggered in confident they could get whatever they wanted out of the Stark boy in his chair. This is the first time he has tried it with her, and king or no, she will not, will not stand there and allow it. “Stop it,” she warns him. After a moment, she adds, “Your Grace.”
He studies her carefully and she gazes right back into his dark eyes. Lets him look away first, which he does. “All right,” he relents. Then he very quietly says, “Lady Commander. I know you are concerned for my health. I know your concern is genuine. But you are not my mother, and believe me when I say I hear enough gossip about my health and whether I will die. I don’t need to hear it from you.”
That seems fair. She inclines her head. “Yes, Your Grace.”
To take him back to his rooms, she has to scoop him up in her arms like a child and carry him down the steps, Podrick following behind with the chair. She has heard that Samwell Tarly has been working on some contraption, some system of platforms and pulleys that will allow the king to be raised or lowered from one floor to the next, chair and all, but for right now it is still just a drawing on a piece of paper. “I swore an oath,” she tells him in his ear so only he will hear her. “I swore an oath to your mother to protect her children. I swore an oath to you to keep you safe from all harm. I mean to see it through.”
The king meets her eyes. “I know you will,” he answers gently. “You are everything I wanted to be and cannot. You are everything he wanted to be and could not. The truest knight. He would have been immensely proud of you.” This he says of Jaime, who threw him from a tower when he was just a boy and stole away the future he had dreamed of. Everyone looks at this king and thinks him weak, and Brienne had thought so too, but now she is beginning to see something else in him.
By the time they reach the bottom of the stairs and she sets him back in his chair, she is starting to cry, and by the time they have returned him to his chamber and shut the door, she knows her eyes must be swollen and red. “Milady Commander? Ser?” Podrick asks tentatively.
She wipes her eyes and blinks. “It’s nothing, Podrick. Let it be.”
Once, she finds Podrick hunched over and weeping in the corridor. He straightens up quickly when he sees her but it is too late for him to hide the tears running down his cheeks. She doesn’t ask why or tell him to stop. After years of war, everyone has their share of secret hurts, their sorrows: let Podrick have his. Better not to push them away or deny their existence. If they are too painful to speak aloud and drag into the light of day, then stay there at his side and wait until his sadness runs its course. And so without saying a word, she puts her hand on his arm and waits, so he knows he does not have to carry all this weight himself; he does not have to face it alone, no one has to face it alone.
She thinks of Jaime more than she ought to. Of course it is impossible not to think of him, not when she wears the white cloak he used to wear, or sharpens the sword he gifted her, or when she sits in his place at the table, or retires to the chambers that once were his, or stands in the corner of Maegor’s Holdfast where he died. Retracing his footsteps, she imagines him as a young man, newly appointed to the Kingsguard under Aerys Targaryen: his confidence in his skills and his pride, and also his insecurities and his fears that he will disappoint his father and his king; that he will be tested and found wanting. She knows his fear intimately, because she has felt it too—this fear that she will never be strong enough. Never enough of a lady, never enough of a knight, never worthy enough of love, never enough.
She should be angry with him for leaving her behind in the snow, for riding off to King’s Landing to die, for the pain and grief he caused her and so many others. Only she feels no anger, just heartache and longing for what might have been. All very well to claim that everything happens for a reason, as the king does, but the thought brings her little comfort when she lies alone in her own rooms at night and lets the impossible future take shape in her mind. A fantasy of a life together, of marriage and even children. (How many? Two? A boy and a girl, healthy and happy, playing with wooden swords in the courtyard?) At dawn, at sunset, in the glow of the firelight, down in the woods, the stables, the privacy of their rooms—Jaime draws her to him and kisses her tenderly. Lady Brienne of Casterly Rock. Would she have been content, or as the time went by, would she have wanted to be more? She doesn’t know. She asks the gods, but they keep their silence.
So the nights pass by, Jaime on her mind, Jaime in her dreams. The moon waxes and wanes; the stars follow their grand celestial course, indifferent to the humans gazing up at them. Then, to the east, the sky gradually begins to brighten from black to gray to rosy pink. She rises from her empty bed, washes her face, and her squire comes to assist her with her armor, though of course she doesn’t really need the help. Chainmail, breastplate, vambraces, cloak, Oathkeeper at her side—it’s yours, it will always be yours. She steps out of her chamber and goes to relieve Podrick from duty and attend to the king personally. She takes him to the meetings of his Small Council, to the throne room to receive guests, to visit the maesters in their laboratories, or out to the gardens for a breath of fresh air. Sometimes out of the corner of her eye she will catch a glimpse of a white cloak disappearing through a doorway or hear his laughter echoing down the halls. Kingslayer, oathbreaker, Jaime: do you see this? Are you watching us now?
She doesn’t spend all her time within the Red Keep, however: once the king’s new saddle is made ready to Lord Tyrion’s exacting specifications, they bundle him onto his horse and ride out beyond the castle walls together to inspect the work being done. One would think that the people of King’s Landing would be through with kings of all sorts by now, but a curious crowd gathers around them nevertheless. She tenses up as they ride through the people and make their way to the Lion Gate, keeping one hand on the hilt of her sword because this is how assassinations are carried out. He glances her way and gives her an amused look, silently telling her not to worry, and sure enough, they make it to the city walls without incident.
After they pass beyond the gate, the king suddenly urges his horse from a walk to a trot to a canter, and they all follow after him. She is about to raise her voice and say, “Have a care, Your Grace; not too fast,” but then he looks back over his shoulder and she catches a glimpse of pure boyish delight on his face, and she lets that thought go. She initially thinks he wishes to circle around King’s Landing and then go back. Instead, he keeps riding further and further out until they reach the edge of the woods. There, he brings his horse to a stop and turns around, and she realizes that what he wants is to see the city in its entirety—now he has seen the view from the top of the Red Keep, the lowliest streets of Fleabottom, and outside the walls. He must be tired from the ride; his cheeks are flushed and he is panting slightly, but there is a look of triumph on his face she has never seen before.
She turns her gaze from him and back to the city. In the distance, Brienne can see the masons hard at work repairing the walls. Even from this far away she hears the clanging of hammers and the faint shouts of men—though she knows it is not just the men toiling out there under the hot sun, but also the women who prepare the mortar and the children who run about to bring water and deliver messages. She understands then that it will not be Bran Stark alone who will rebuild this city, these kingdoms, these broken people and their shattered lives: it will be all of them together; the work of a lifetime and more, and it will be worth it. No way but forward.
In her mind, she pictures Jaime on his horse beside her, looking out towards King’s Landing. He never speaks in her dreams, but now he does: what use have I for your grief? Go out and live, Lady Commander; live, and do your duty.
I will, she tells him. You have my word.
And so, stone by stone, she watches the city rise.