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The Tides

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 Image by Ro Nordmann

Cover image by Ro Nordmann

 

On the seventh, miserable day of his journey, the captain sent a cabin boy to wake Jaime with word their destination had been sighted, and that within a few hours they would be docking at Evenfall. He grumbled his understanding at the boy and told him to take the vomit-filled chamberpot with him as he left.

Jaime had never suffered from seasickness before, not on any of the many journeys he had taken from Lannisport, or from King’s Landing, to Dorne or even Pyke. But then for every one of those trips he had been healthy, and whole, and not the maimed lion he now was. Still, daily, the stump of his arm ached badly enough that he needed a drop or two of the milk of the poppy to get him through the night, and often a full carafe of Dornish Red to get him through the day.

Jaime leaned over his narrow cot and clumsily forced open the small porthole to let the room air a little. He was sure it stank to the high seven heavens in here, though he had long ago gone nose blind to it. He took a deep, steadying breath of the salty air, before filling his basin with water from the jug the cabin boy left behind. He stripped and washed as quickly as he was able, not wanting to focus much on the way his ribs could be counted now, or on the way his hip bones protruded sharply higher than the flat waste of his stomach. He dressed as quickly as he could, but pulled each item on slowly, awkwardly, so as not to knock his right arm against anything, for fear of the pain it would bring.

Eventually, he completed the basic task of getting dressed and inspected himself in the small looking-glass hanging on the back of the door. He could do nothing for the wine-dark bruises beneath his eyes, or the pallid grey of his skin, but his father had ordered his hair and beard trimmed before they set sail, and it still looked well enough a week later. And his red jerkin had been altered to fit this scrawny, ruined body, and as such he looked less starved and more lean.

The Lion of Lannister, he thought to himself, darkly amused, remembering the sad, emaciated beasts he and Cersei had found in the bowels of Casterly Rock. They were tame things, starved enough that they would have easily been able to slip through the bars if they’d had the spirit to try. Cersei slipped her hand through the bars to pinch the hide of the lion within reach, but it barely flinched, and she pouted at him in her disappointment. She dared Jaime to pull on its mane, wanting to hear it roar, but he had been frightened, and refused.

Now I am as tame as them.

He saved his hand for last. It was a heavy thing, wrought in iron and plated in gold filigree. It was well designed, and easy enough to attach to what was left of his arm— there were straps and a buckle— but underneath the bandage the wound was still healing, and the golden hand pressed against the worst of it in a deeply uncomfortable way. Qyburn promised that soon the pain would ease as he adjusted to the prosthetic, but had encouraged Jaime to go without the hand as often as possible, even without the bandage, to let the scars feel the fresh air. But his father told him, in no uncertain terms, that he was to be wearing it the moment he met Lord Selwyn. You must present the best possible face of House Lannister, he had said, looking with disgust at the absence at the end of his son’s right sleeve, as though this was something Jaime had done to himself on purpose. As though it were obvious where the blame for his maiming lay.

Eventually he emerged from his quarters, holding on to the balustrades as he ascended the stairs and reached the main deck. All about him the sailors were busy, moving quickly from aft to bow, some climbing the rigging, others doing something to the sails, Jaime was not quite sure what but it was clear enough they were readying the ship to port. He turned and climbed up further to the poop deck, so he would be out of the way of the sailors and could be afforded a better view of his destination.

He could not deny Tarth looked beautiful. It was bigger than he expected it to be, considering its size on the map of Westeros. The island was mountainous. Several of the higher peaks were tall enough that Jaime would not have been surprised to see snow caps on them, were it the depths of winter. The mountains stretched all the way to the water, in places, ending in looming sandstone cliffs.

There was a small settlement directly in front of the bow. There were, perhaps, two hundred brick houses in many varied colours, winding their way up what must be a fairly steep hill, leading towards a modest looking keep, built of shining white marble, sitting atop a cliff face on the northern end of the town. That must be Evenfall Hall.

At the precipice of the cliff stood a skinny tower, taller even than the main keep itself, built of the same marble as the keep. In the bright sunlight of the day, with the blue of the sky behind them, they almost blended into the light cloud cover.

“How long ’til we dock?” he asked the captain, who was standing at the helm, carefully directing the ship into the cove.

“Mayhaps twenty minutes, m’lord,” the man said gruffly, with the tone of one who’d prefer not to be asked questions at this particular point in time. Jaime nodded and left him to his business, choosing to stand portside as the ship was brought around.

They docked smoothly, and within moments the crew were jumping from the deck, securing the ship against their assigned mooring. Behind him, the captain ordered the anchor dropped, and the gangplank set out for them to disembark. Jaime was eager to set his feet on solid ground for the first time in a week, and perhaps find some relief from the rolling nausea that had beset him the entire voyage, so he did not wait for a runner to announce his arrival to the Hall, as his father had bid him do. The Lord of Tarth scarcely could have missed the grand vessel pulling into the cove with Lannister red sails and the golden lion crest emblazoned on each. Jaime was sure he had been, therefore, suitably notified of his arrival. And considering what he was here for, they would be unwise to leave him waiting.

The dock itself was solidly made, industrial, if not ornamental like the one in King’s Landing, and for a moment he let himself feel the stability beneath his feet. But as he took a step, his knees wobbled beneath him, and for a moment he feared he would fall. By instinct, he thrust his right arm out, to brace him, but then remembered too late the pain falling on his maimed arm would bring—

But a small, strong hand steadied his other elbow. It was the cabin boy from earlier. “All right, ser?” he asked, brown eyes wide with concern. He had served Jaime as something of a default squire or page boy throughout the journey, but Jaime was ashamed to realise he had not bothered to learn the boy’s name.

“Thank you, er...” He trailed off, hoping the boy would overlook the lapse on his part and continue steadying him.

“Peck, ser.”

“Peck.” Jaime repeated, and then, silently to himself, he repeated it again, so as not to forget. Peck.

“It happens, ser. Your knees get used to the rocking on board the ship, and then when you’re back on dry land they sometimes keep up the trick,” Peck explained, and then carefully, still staying close, he released Jaime’s elbow.

Still, Jaime felt a little dizzy, though that was more the fault of last night’s milk of the poppy than the dry land, but he did not feel he would fall.

“Can you see to my things, Peck, and then join me tonight up at the keep? I’m sure the captain can spare you.”

“As you like, ser!” Peck agreed, enthusiastically. It was probably the first time the boy would be allowed within a lord’s house, even if that house were as modest as Evenfall.

Jaime nodded, and carefully took a step or two. His knees seemed more stable now, stronger, and he set aside the fear he would fall into the water and made his way to the dock master’s residence. Hopefully someone would be there to greet him already, else he could wait there ‘til they arrived.

 ____________________________________

There was no one waiting for him in the dock master’s residence but the dock master— an aged fellow, wrinkled and arthritic, but still sharp as a whip.

“They will have seen you arrive from up there, and I’m sure are on their way down now, ser, but you are welcome to wait in here until then,” he said, gesturing to the simply furnished waiting room. There was a worn wooden bench lining one side of the room that did not look remotely comfortable to sit on.

Jaime considered exploring the village beyond the docks. Surely there would be an inn where he could get some wine to drink while he waited, but then he remembered the smell of the cabin he had just left, the acrid burn of the wine and his supper coming back up, and decided that he should abstain until at least dinner, lest he become too much like his siblings.

“I shall,” he said to the dock master politely, taking a seat on the bench, hoping he would not have to wait too long.

If his father were here he would be incensed by the delay, especially considering the reason for his visit. The message containing the request had arrived by ship while Jaime had been… indisposed somewhere in the Riverlands, and so understandably his father had set it aside some months ago, citing more important matters of business than the failing fortunes of some minor Stormlands house.

But then Jaime had been mostly returned, to King’s Landing and as Tywin’s heir, when he was stripped of his white cloak. Robb Stark’s campaign against their house had been thwarted with one bloody wedding, and the Lannisters’ power consolidated with Joffrey’s marriage to Margaery Tyrell. The war of the five kings was now down to three. Two and a half, as Tyrion would say, given that the Greyjoy king had no army, and it was reported that Stannis had banished his forces north of the wall for some godsforsaken reason. With the money of Highgarden at their disposal, the Lannister army could handle Stannis, and they could afford to expand the royal navy to handle Greyjoy.

Which put Tywin in mind of that letter he’d received from Tarth, and so here was Jaime, sent to Tarth to decide whether or not they would accede to the request.

Jaime had the letter, packed safely amongst the rest of his belongings, and though he’d only read it once, he remembered the important sections well enough. I fear that without the crown’s assistance, I will not be able to feed my smallfolk through the coming winter, the letter said, in a refreshingly plain way that Jaime appreciated. He never had a head for the hollow courtesies, artifice and politics that the rest of his family thrived on.

He remembered his father’s words about the situation as well: “We need to control more of the ports around King’s Landing to better guard against any Greyjoy attack. Tarth has long been a minor port, but in many ways could be more advantageous than Storm’s End.”

At dinner the following night, Tyrion agreed, for the most part, with their father’s plan. He added his own two dragons as he poured Jaime another glass of wine. “Father knows that our power is weakest in the Stormlands. Most of the strongest stormlords died for Renly or Stannis, and the rest have no love for the crown. The southern stormlords have always had strong ties of marriage with Dorne and The Reach, and as the North and the Riverlands are in such disarray, he needs to consider installing a new Warden of the East. Who better than someone like Selwyn Tarth? He is relatively well liked, if not well-known, but they are from strong ancient Andal stock. And Varys tells me there is something odd with his only heir, though I confess I quite forget the details. If The Evenstar owes us money, he’d make a much more suitable figurehead than a Connington or, godsforbid, Littlefinger.”

Cersei had been the most laconic about the situation. “Lannisters always pay their debts, it doesn’t make us bankers.

Jaime could not be sure exactly how much time had passed, but soon enough he heard the unmistakable sound of a horse arriving outside. But not a carriage. He looked to the door as it opened, in time to see one of the tallest men, not named Clegane, he’d ever laid eyes on.

There was no mistaking this man as a Clegane, however. He had a shock of straw-coloured hair, still messy from the likely quick ride down from the keep. He wore a finely-stitched tunic in a striking blue that was stretched tight across large muscled shoulders, tan breeches, and solid, well-worn boots.

“Alwyn?” The new arrival called out to the dock master, who’d gone to fetch a manifest or some such.

“You’re a woman?” Jaime said without thinking, gazing up at this… person.

She turned and seemed surprised to see him sitting there, inside the door. The surprise was tinged with some other feeling. Hurt, perhaps—embarrassment, definitely. Her cheeks flushed a deep, splotchy red.

“Lord Lannister,” she said, finally, with a sour twist of her lips.

“Ser Jaime,” he corrected, standing up to find that, yes, she was taller than him. “Lord Lannister is my father.”

She blushed again, and this time Jaime noticed that even the tips of her ears turned red, but she soldiered on through her mistake.

“My apologies, Ser Jaime, for being so late to greet you. My father is indisposed or he would have attended you himself. I am Brienne of Tarth, Lord Selwyn’s daughter.”

Brienne of Tarth sounded incredibly formal, almost rehearsed, to his ears. Suddenly Tyrion’s comment about there being something odd about the heir to Tarth made much more sense. She was an odd creature, indeed, though no odder than Tyrion. Like as not she’d never been to court; Cersei would definitely have commented on this giantess knocking her ugly head against the archways. He wondered how his brother had even got wind of the woman at all, hidden away on Tarth as she was.

“Well met, Lady Brienne,” he said back, extending his left hand, reaching for her own so that he could place a kiss on the back of it, as was the customary greeting for two of their rank.

With some reluctance, she placed her hand in his, as though worried about what he would do with it once it was in his grasp. “Brienne is enough,” she said, snatching it back as soon as his lips brushed the skin of her knuckles. “I expect you will want to rest before dinner, but it is a bit of a ride back to the Hall. We’d better leave now while there is still enough light.”

He bowed his head in acquiescence, waving his golden hand before him for her to lead the way.

She guided him outside where there were two horses tied to the hitching post. Thankfully they were both already saddled and there was a conveniently placed mounting block. He saw her glance a moment at his golden hand, before she untied the bay mare for him without a word. Brienne held it steady for him while he mounted, then handed him the reigns. There was no need of the mounting block for her, however. Her dappled grey was at least a hand taller than his yet it was no struggle for her impossibly long legs to hoist her into the saddle.

There was little talk as they rode. Lady Brienne seemed ill suited to the art of conversation, often answering his questions with as few words as she could manage. Her longer answers only were longer because they seemed to be oft-repeated; the type of perfunctory comment she would give to any visitor or guest of the hall.

Every now and then, however, they would pass a butcher or a washerwoman on the street going about their business. The lady greeted them all by name, and spoke with each in a quiet, polite way, inquiring after family members, or whether the market had been lucrative that day. It was precisely the sort of conversation with smallfolk that every member of his family, bar perhaps Tyrion, avoided at pain of death.

The ride to the hall was long, longer than he had expected. As the crow flew, Evenfall Hall was not far from the docks, but to think of it that way was to ignore just how high atop the cliffs the keep was positioned. The road there wound through the village, in a zig-zag fashion between the colourful brick houses, slowly ascending the hill.

Eventually they reached the top, coming across a wide road which followed the curve of the land in each direction. There were divots worn into the surface, where carts and wagons had eaten a track over time. Brienne directed her horse carefully to a smoother path, and he urged his mare to follow in her footsteps. One wrong step for a horse on a road like this could be quite disastrous for horse and rider alike, and he had no desire to fall. If this were Casterly Rock, his father would’ve ordered it resurfaced months before it got to this stage, and if it ever reached this level of disrepair, someone would be facing a whipping.

“This is called the Ring Road,” she said, when he asked what was in the other direction. “It encircles the entire island, and connects most of the major settlements. The next town further south of Evenfall is Pelican Bay. Morne is two days ride from there.”

“And we are not taking the long way to Evenfall tonight? I do so like pelicans,” he said with a caustic smirk, which she could not see from her position in the lead.

“No,” Brienne replied. “Cook has a fine dinner planned for your arrival.”

“Oh, a fine dinner, excellent.”

But soon enough, even he was unable to speak much. He’d had little exercise since his maiming, and it was a hard ride. The muscles in his legs were tight from misuse, and though he was loath to show it, the journey exhausted him far more than he expected.

Finally they arrived at the keep. It was bigger than it looked from the harbour below. Solid white marble stretched at least three storeys high along the outer walls. The gatehouse doors were wrought in some sort of solid metal, though they were wide open and looked like they were not often closed.

Once they were inside the gates, Lady Brienne led him around to the right, where the stables were neatly tucked in against the walls. She dismounted and handed her horse off to the waiting stable boy, then again, came over to hold his mare steady while he dismounted. He made an awkward hash of it, trying to hop down without letting his right arm knock against the saddle. It meant his left hand needed to hold up far more weight than it was used to and he would have fallen, if she had not reached out to steady his shoulder as he came down. It was at once the kindest and cruellest thing anyone had done for him since his maiming, and his mouth went immediately dry.

Lady Brienne, however, did not beleaguer the moment. She handed his horse off to the stable boy as well, and without any fanfare, she led him inside.

“I shall organise a proper tour of Evenfall Hall tomorrow, when the sun is in the right position to show the glass,” she said, as they walked down a narrow corridor. Here too, the walls were the same white marble, though it was clear that they had been polished and occasionally carved by a talented master craftsman. She was right: the light was not the best to see the detail, but there was most certainly a maritime theme to the carvings.

She took him briefly through a larger hall, probably the ‘great hall’ of this place, before ducking through a relatively hidden door. It led to a flight of stairs and then to an open landing. Here a maid was waiting, and Lady Brienne turned to him. He did his best not to look as exhausted as he felt; she walked quickly, and he had tried not to fall behind, but between her and the horse ride, he felt he could sleep for an entire week.

“Nellie will show you the rest of the way to your room. I would like to apologise in advance for your quarters. Normally we would place a guest of your stature in the high tower, it has quite magnificent views of Shipbreaker Bay, but it is in need of renovations and not habitable. My father and I agreed that in the meantime, you are to take his rooms,” Brienne said, in the longest speech he’d heard yet, and possibly the longest speech she’d ever uttered in her life.

“Am I to be sharing with Lord Selwyn?” he asked sardonically. “I thought you said he was indisposed.”

Again, she blushed, a deep red this time. “He is, but he was called to an emergency on the other side of the island. It may take several weeks to be sorted out. When he returns, he shall use one of the other family rooms if you remain long enough for it to be a problem.”

Jaime furrowed his brow, confused. “I intend to stay long enough to meet him. His letter is entirely the reason I came to this island.”

“We understand that, but we also understand that you are an important man. My father trusts me in all things, and I am the future Evenstar. He has authorised me to negotiate with House Lannister in his stead.” The note of rehearsal was back in her voice again, though Jaime was beginning to understand it. He suspected that the heir to Tarth was an intensely shy person, ill-suited to be the sole scion of the Evenstar, and yet here she was. Making do. And if that meant that she practised her lines and excuses in advance, honing the little courtesy she had like a sword against a whetstone, then who was he to begrudge her.

She was lucky that he was the Lannister that was sent. Any of his other relatives would have swallowed this girl whole and spat out the bones.

“Then please thank your father for his hospitality,” he said, affecting a similarly practised tone.

Lady Brienne left him with a nod, and he followed the maid to the rooms of the Evenstar.

 

Chapter Text

The Evenstar’s rooms were small, by King’s Landing standards, but were well appointed enough that Jaime was hard pressed to find fault. A fire was lit in the hearth and Nelly was stopped briefly on their way down the corridor by another scullery maid, who handed her a tray of refreshments. Once they stepped inside the room, she placed the tray on a table by one of the windows, then pointed to something in the corner that Jaime had never seen before: A clawfoot metal bathtub so large it would be night impossible to move it, and upon closer inspection, was plumbed into the stone.

Nelly showed him a few levers attached to the wall, one for hot and one for cold, so that he could fill the bath to the temperature he best liked. They were easy enough to operate one-handed, and then when he was done there was a chain at the side to pull, and the water would drain away. It was a feat of engineering that even Tyrion, with his morbid disdain for plumbing, would find fascinating.

“How is the water heated?” he asked Nelly, intrigued.

“One of the pipes runs through the kitchen chimney somehow, and the water is heated there, as long as they’ve got a fire going down there,” she said. “That’s the easy part.”

“Oh?”

“What gets me is how they pump the water so high. Lord Selwyn tried to explain it to me one day, m’lord, and it gave me a headache,” Nelly said with a laugh. “Something to do with one of the water tanks on the roof, and opposing forces and levels and some sort of pump…”

“Sounds too complicated for me,” Jaime agreed.

“Would you like me to send a boy to help you with your things, m’lord?” she asked, standing near the door.

“No, I can manage by myself for now,” he said, looking about the room, not seeing anything he’d struggle with that couldn’t wait until Peck arrived. Speaking of— “Actually, the cabin boy who was helping me on the ship will be bringing my things, and has agreed to serve me while I stay at Evenfall. Could you bring him up when he arrives and settle him in a room nearby?”

“There is a little room just off there that isn’t used at the moment, m’lord,” Nelly said, pointing to a door, partially hidden by a tapestry. “I could get a cot sent up. He’d be right at home and just nearby, in case you needed anything.”

“That would do nicely, thank you Nelly.”

She curtseyed politely, then shut the door behind her as she left.

For a moment, Jaime savoured the privacy these rooms afforded, grazing from the tray of refreshments that Nelly had left behind. There was a light herbal tea, some sliced fruits, cheese, and a sweet oaty biscuit. He tried a bit of yellow fruit he’d never seen before. It was juicy and tangy, yet refreshing and he wondered if it was a Tarth delicacy.

When he was done eating, he tugged and pulled at the straps on his golden hand, dropping it on the bed once it was finally free. The stump ached sharply, and he could feel his heartbeat painfully close beneath the surface of the skin. He did not look too closely at the bandages, worrying that he would see blood or some other bodily fluid staining the fabric, which would mean that, yet again, the healing was still slow going.

Instead, he drew himself a bath, revelling in the simple luxury of soaking his sore muscles and scrubbing away the layers of skin and grime that he had accumulated over a week spent cloistered and nauseated below deck. By the time he was done, the water was considerably cooler, yet he felt noticeably more relaxed. He towelled himself off with a large bath sheet, draped in readiness for him on a hook attached to the screen, then slipped into the grand bed naked for a short rest. He hoped that by the time he woke, Peck would have arrived with the rest of his things, and he could change into something more suited for a ‘fine dinner’ with the Lady of Tarth and whoever else was invited to this grand affair.

But, as was so often the case with him of late, things did not quite go to plan. His sleep was restless, still troubled by dreams of the Riverlands and of Harrenhal, and of his promise to the poor, dead Catelyn Stark. He fidgeted and readjusted, frustrated and exhausted in turns, unable to find a comfortable position for his sore legs, his aching arm, his weary mind.

Soon, too soon, there came a tentative knock at the door, and the cabin boy Peck let himself in to the room, accompanied by two male servants carrying his trunk. The boy seemed to have found the time to wash up a little himself; his face and hands, at least, were free from grime. With a deferential bow, Peck informed him that dinner was to be served within the hour.

He helped Jaime to dress, in a dark red tunic and a matching jerkin. It was a little warm on the island for the heavier sleeves, but they hid the straps of his false hand. He would rather endure the discomfort of being a little too warm in his clothes than any kind of pitying looks from Brienne of Tarth and any of the minor lords that would be invited to this “fine meal” they had planned.

Finally, Peck wet a comb and ran it through his hair and beard, getting it to settle into place. He spared a glance at his reflection in Lord Selwyn’s gigantic looking glass— he was still too pale and too skinny. His hair was less golden, more brown, peppered with grey and white. But he looked well enough for dinner, and now his stomach was growling fiercely. He lingered a moment longer, fidgeting with the sleeve of his shirt where his golden hand disappeared, before he spotted Peck watching him with concern, so he forced himself to let it be.

The boy escorted him down to the corridor, but did not take him back to the great hall, as expected. Instead he was taken to the family solar, only a little way down the hall. It was a large room— everything on Tarth seemed made large— with tall windows lining one side of the room. The sun had set, so their view was only one of inky blackness, but Jaime was sure that in daylight they would be afforded an expansive view of the harbour. Lady Brienne was already there, sitting at the head of the table, along with a maester in robes and chains, and a wiry, weathered looking man. As he entered, the three stood.

“Ser Jaime,” Lady Brienne said stiffly, still as formal as she had been on their afternoon ride. “I trust you are feeling refreshed from your journey.”

He nodded. “Yes, quite refreshed, thank you.”

She turned and gestured to the other two men, “Ser Jaime, I would like to introduce you to our maester here, Maester Craiso, and our castellan, Ser Mattew Morne.”

Jaime bowed his head lightly at the two men. “Well met.”

“Ser Jaime,” they chorused in return.

Lady Brienne waved to Peck, who was still hovering behind Jaime, and the boy jumped to pull the chair to her right out so that his new master could take his place at the table. Once Jaime was settled, he released him with a nod, and Peck made a suitably discreet exit from the room. The boy was learning quickly. Jaime was already half decided that he would keep the boy on permanently as his personal servant, as his brother had with his ‘squire’, Podrick.

“I hope you do not mind that there is no feast to welcome you, Ser Jaime,” Lady Brienne said to the collar of his tunic as Ser Mattew, who was across from him at the table, poured each of them wine from the flagon near his elbow. “Considering the reason for your visit, it seemed inappropriate to spare the expense, and we have never seen much point of standing on ceremony here on Tarth.”

Quite frankly Jaime preferred the smaller setting; there were fewer people to watch him fail at dinner. But it was clearly a topic of some concern to his three companions, because Ser Mattew was obsequiously quick to add, “But we are confident that you will still be as satisfied by the fare as you would in King’s Landing or at Casterly Rock.”

An uncomfortable feeling gripped his sides: this deference, this unearned fawning suited him ill, and was all the more awkward at an intimate dinner. So he said, as lightly as he could, in an attempt to break the ice, “It has been some years since I dined at the Rock, and for the better part of the last year and a half all the Starks fed me was stale bread and rotted bones. I’m sure even Tarth can surpass that standard of hospitality.”

But of course it was the wrong thing to say. On reflection, yes, it looked much as though he were insulting Tarth and his hosts, and perhaps bringing up his captivity was not the best way to smooth out the awkwardness. Immediately Mattew’s face fell. Lady Brienne’s mask was a little sturdier — her expression did not change — but she could not prevent the return of the bright red flush that burned up her neck and cheeks.

He regretted his words. These people seemed honest enough, and it was dishonourable for him to insult them in their own home.

I wish Tyrion were here. His brother would not have put his foot in it this badly on the very first day.

Jaime reached for his cup, aiming to raise it in a toast to his host, to mend the wound he had inadvertently opened — it seemed like the sort of thing that Tyrion would do — but his golden hand knocked the goblet over, spilling fruity Arbour Gold across the table cloth.

“I’m s-sorry,” he stammered in apology. It was his turn to blush red in embarrassment. The other three worked quickly to tidy his mess. Lady Brienne snatched up the cup before it could spill any further and Ser Mattew and the maester both blotted at the stain with their napkins.

“It is no bother, Ser Jaime,” Lady Brienne said, handing him back his cup. Placing it in his whole hand.

He met her gaze. Beautiful eyes. Clear and calm.

“I’m sorry,” he said again, with more feeling this time. He was not apologising for a little spilled wine. “I should—”

“It is already forgotten,” she said, with that same dismissive wave. She simply rang for a servant and ordered fresh napkins be sent up.

The rest of the evening went a little more smoothly. His hosts relaxed a little as they finished their first cups of wine and the conversation began to flow more naturally. It was clear that these three often dined together. There was an ease of familiarity to their conversation that Jaime envied because it seemed so free of artifice. They did not say things to be clever, as so many did in court. Nor did they participate in the kind of penetratingly dangerous conversation his siblings enjoyed, where every exchange nursed a second, more insulting remark beneath. It was the kind of battle that Jaime fought for necessity and survival in court, but did not relish.

Instead these three spoke plainly to each other, and to him. Over the course of the meal, which was some sort of creamy seafood stew — a local delicacy which paired well with the wine and the loaf of crusty bread — they explained the situation as they saw it on Tarth. It had been a series of unfortunate events that had put the island at risk of bankruptcy: a failed harvest and fishing vessels which had returned to port with thin catches for several years — the school migration patterns changed with the seasons, but this year they had dropped significantly. The maester had written to the Citadel about the problem, and had been told in return that the catch was likely to remain lean leading in to Winter, but would return to capacity once Spring arrived.

The thin catches were enough to sustain the population on Tarth for now, but there was little left over for trade, which was the next poor link in the chain. There was unrest in Essos: no ships from Qarth or Mereen had arrived in port in the last year, and so they had not paid the duty tax, nor had there been any trade of spices or fabrics. As such, the traders from Dorne and King’s Landing had dwindled as well.

“What of the marble mine?” Jaime asked, as a serving girl took his empty bowl away. He remembered his father mentioning something along those lines. Not to mention the fact that the entire keep seemed built out of the stuff.

“It has been closed for several years. We do not have the manpower to keep it open,” Ser Mattew said.

“What happened to the miners?” Jaime inquired, wondering if some sort of epidemic had beset the people as well. It seemed likely, considering the pattern of misfortune that the three had outlined to him over dinner.

The maester and the castellan paused and looked to their mistress, breaking the natural ease the conversation had developed. They had been the ones advancing the conversation, with Jaime asking the occasional question. Lady Brienne spoke more rarely still; it was clear that she was rather shy and unpractised conversing with people she was not familiar with, but still every now and then she clarified a point or answered his query directly.

But now, it was clearly up to her to explain. She set her goblet down on the table and looked him in the eye. “My father released the miners from their positions last year because they wished to answer for King Renly when he called the banners. But they all perished in the confusion following his death. A few stayed here on the island, mostly those too old to fight, but we do not have enough to safely man the quarry, and we do not have enough money to entice mainlanders across the strait.”

The same practised tone was back in her voice, betraying little emotion, but her words stuck in him sharply, like an unexpected splinter. King Renly. He had known that Tarth had likely declared for one of the Baratheon brothers after Robert’s death, but to hear it so plainly was something else. She did not say just Renly, but King. There was loyalty there.

“I see,” Jaime said, and took a sip of wine so he could stall while he thought of what next to say. He had no desire to offend his host for the second time in the one evening.

“If we had more money, we could reopen the mine and the profits would be enough to support the rest of the island until those industries bounce back,” Ser Mattew explained, with a disgustingly earnest expression. It was clear what they had been hoping for when they had sought his father’s help.

“Lannisters have been in the mining business for centuries,” Jaime acknowledged, twisting the stem of his goblet back and forth, watching the last dregs of wine swirl against the rim. “My father wants me to assess the viability of a loan for Tarth, to help you get through the winter, but perhaps an investment in the marble mine would be more suitable. My brother Tyrion is always suggesting we diversify our assets — the gold may run dry one day, and it would not do to have all our eggs in one basket.”

“Well, If you have the time, Lady Brienne will take you to the mine. It is half a day’s ride south of Morne.”

Jaime did the calculations in his head. The Lady had said earlier Morne was two days ride, which meant the trip would be more than a week there and back. He did not relish that much travelling, when the easy ride from the port to the hall that afternoon had taxed him so much.

“Would it not be better to wait for your father?” he asked Lady Brienne.

The maester cleared his throat. “Lord Selwyn’s business will keep him on the east coast of the island for several weeks. We had a raven from him this morning. There have been several attacks from pirate bands recently, and our east coast settlements are particularly short on fighting men. He has gone to see what can be done to protect them more effectively.”

That sounded reasonably exciting, and had he still his sword hand he would’ve insisted on touring the eastern coastline as well. It would have given him new stories to exaggerate to Tyrion when he and his brother next shared a carafe or two of wine. But now that wasn’t to be. Instead he would have a week-long, exhausting ride with the shy, ugly Maid of Tarth to inspect a defunct marble mine.

Jaime turned to the lady, “Would it not be quicker to sail to the mine?”

He didn’t much look forward to spending more time on a ship, but it would be a less tiresome prospect than traversing the island on horseback.

She shook her head, “It may be quicker, but the dock at the mine was destroyed by a storm last year. There is nowhere safe to make port close by.”

A week-long exhausting ride it is then. He thought, with resignation. “When will we be setting off?”

“In two day’s time, if that is acceptable?”

“You did promise me a tour of this great keep tomorrow,” he pointed out.

She nodded, “I did. Though I have some business to attend to tomorrow morning. I will be free after midday, and the light would be at its best then anyway. That will give us time in the afternoon to make the necessary arrangements to travel.”

“Then I will meet you at midday.” Jaime agreed, and finished off the last of his wine. “If you don’t mind, I think I will retire. It has been a long day.”

“Of course, Ser Jaime,” she said, and stood when he stood. The Maester Craiso and Ser Mattew stood as well.

“I think I can find my way back to my chambers without an escort,” he said, offering her a polite smile. “Thank you for a pleasant dinner, Lady Brienne. Maester. Ser Mattew.”

He took his leave without any further fuss, and within a minute he was back inside Lord Selwyn’s chambers. While he had been at dinner, Peck had unpacked most of his trunk into the tall, carved wardrobe that stood beside the great bed. The boy himself had been set up, as was planned, in the small adjoining room, and was close enough to hear Jaime return. Together they had Jaime out of his clothes and golden hand, and into his nightshirt. Peck had already turned down the covers, so he dismissed the boy to sleep after informing him that he would break his fast in his chambers alone the following morning.

Peck left him then, and once he was sure the boy was well gone to the kitchens, he retrieved a small vial from a hidden compartment in his trunk. Carefully he prised the stopper off with his teeth, and replaced it with his forefinger creating a tight seal. He shook the bottle once to leave a filmy droplet on the tip of his finger. He rubbed it into his gums, then repeated the process twice more, before replacing the stopper. He returned the vial to his trunk then slipped between the soft sheets, extinguishing the last candle as he laid down.

The tincture worked quickly. His eyes felt heavy. The pain in his arm reduced to a manageable simmer. He sank into a deep sleep.

Chapter Text

Jaime woke, slowly, when Peck entered the room with the breakfast tray. He felt particularly sluggish, and wanted nothing more than to sink back into the large soft bed to try to sleep more, perhaps for the rest of his life.

It had been better rest than anything he had managed aboard the ship, but still it was fitful. There were the dreams; it felt cowardly to call them nightmares. Truly they were memories. All his worst moments, re-lived in vivid detail each night, burning and twisting and cutting. Aerys. The Stark boy. A direwolf breathing down his neck, snapping its messy bloody teeth at him while he festered in the mud. The violent, gory loss of his hand and the rotting mess it left behind.

Every grisly memory unsettled him and he would writhe in his bed, which often meant he would knock his tender stump in his distress. It was nauseating, devastating pain, even when dulled by the milk of the poppy. Qyburn promised that soon the pain would ease, and it would be as though he’d never had a hand at all, but it was a hard thing to believe.

But it was morning, and despite every instinct, he forced himself to rise. Peck had already filled the small basin with fresh water and had taken the chamber pot away. Jaime washed his face and neck, savouring the cool cloth on his sleep-warm skin. It was not much, but it was somewhat refreshing, and he felt a little more awake.

The provided breakfast was the kind of simple fare they seemed to favour here on Tarth: fresh baked bread, some cold cut meats, fruit and boiled eggs. There was softened butter on a little saucer and a tall glass of some kind of freshly pressed juice.

Some ambitious maid had also garnished the tray with a small silver vase, filled with freshly picked wildflowers. Cersei would have made a mockery of them at once— Tyrion too, probably. Jaime found it oddly sweet. If he could say anything about the citizens of Tarth after only one day, it was that they were a genuine sort of people.

He sat at the table by the window and grazed at the tray for the following hour, gazing out the window at the harbour. It was well past the hour that the various fishing vessels would have set out— they were all well out to sea, trawling the coastline for schools of whiting or mackerel or whatever was to be found in these waters.

Despite this, the harbour was busier than he expected. Small skiffs zipped from one side of the harbour to the other, expertly navigating around the larger vessels anchored in place. The Pride, the ship that he had arrived on the previous day was one of them, no longer taking up a precious berth at the dock. The sails had been lowered, though the Lannister Lion banner still hung from the highest mast. Looking on the red and gold unsettled him, so he let his eyes drift away to other things.

Peck had thrown open all the windows earlier, to air the room out and encourage the refreshing cross breeze. It was nice to be able to breathe in the fresh, briny air. It reminded him of some of his more pleasant memories of Casterly Rock, when, as children, he and Cersei had had the run of the castle. King’s Landing’s breeze was always tainted with the sour stench of sewage.

A queer sound caught his attention, distracting him from the dregs of his breakfast. It was coming from below, from beneath the window on the other side of the room. Curious, he wandered over to see if he could discover the source.

From the height of the Evenstar’s rooms, he could see over the outer walls to the hinterland beyond. It stretched out into a sparse forest, and further again, into a peaked mountain range. But from this height he could also see directly below, into the inner bailey. It was bustling with activity at this time of the day. Servants moved quickly from one side to the other, carrying trays of bread, pushing wheeled barrows of coal and wood and all sorts of other things it was difficult for Jaime to determine from this height. No wonder this was the room of the Lord. A picturesque view of the bay from one window, and a practical view of his keep from the other.

The sound caught his attention again, and he looked further to his left, almost directly below his rooms, to see two of the keep’s guards fighting viciously with tourney swords and shields. It was a common enough sight around a castle such as this, and in years past he would have been one of the two down there, honing his craft.

But this was no common practice bout. It was extremely mismatched, for a start, in technique and size and everything that mattered. Both were large men, by any standard, but one over-topped the other by at least a head and was broad besides, the kind of bulk that was not caused by the padded gambesons they wore. To make matters worse for the smaller man, he was also clearly outmatched in skill and speed. The taller opponent moved with the speed and grace of Loras Tyrell, reinforced with the strength of The Hound. In two viciously efficient moves, she had him disarmed and on his back.

For it could be no one other than the Lady of Tarth.

Sure enough, the defeated man pushed himself off the ground and bowed graciously to Lady Brienne. He did not seem embarrassed by the loss, and the laughter that echoed loudly, even up to Jaime’s ears, was the easy kind that spoke of camaraderie, rather than mockery. The man moved to the side of the training yard, out of Jaime’s sight, but his place was taken up by another, younger looking man. This man was smaller, but more evenly matched in speed against the lady. He lasted longer— a minute or two— until he too was disarmed and made to yield.

I have some business to attend to tomorrow morning, she had said. And attend she did. In that moment he would have given her all the riches of the Lannisters and the Crown if it meant his hand would grow back and he could face her in a bout. She would have been a challenge even for him.

His arm cramped painfully, feeling as though the hand he no longer had was clenched into a white-knuckled fist. Carefully he rubbed the muscles in his forearm, willing them to loosen up.

“Keep your arm steady!” Lady Brienne called, and he forced his attention back through the window, hoping that distraction would help with the pain.

She had paused the bout and was correcting her opponent’s grip on the sword, holding her own arm out in demonstration. Lady Brienne shifted her own grip and thrust forward towards an imaginary opponent, explaining something as she went. Then she changed her hold and moved again. Jaime could not hear her explanation, but the man was nodding along, adjusting his own grip, testing the way that it felt in his hand. From what he could tell it was an advanced, nuanced lesson; the grip she was teaching the man was more solid, and protected more effectively against an opponent, like her, that wielded brute force.

The pair separated and faced off against one another again. They parried and thrust, swords singing loudly, until she began to press the man harder and harder, giving him an opportunity to test the adjusted grip. He held her off better this time, managing to keep his sword firmly in his hand— he even tried a few clever tricks of his own that seemed to challenge her somewhat — but ultimately he was still defeated by the superior challenger.

Peck returned to remove his breakfast tray and to help him dress, so Jaime wasn’t able to watch the end of the training session. But it did give him more to ponder about the Lady of Tarth.

 


 

Some time later, Jaime was dressed and his hair combed, and generally looked far better than he had the day before, most likely thanks to the fact that he had been able to keep two meals squarely in his stomach, rather than retched up into a chamber pot. Peck escorted him downstairs to wait for his tour guide to arrive.

The room looked to be a dining hall. Two long wooden tables took prime place on either side of the room, lined with heavy wooden benches. The tables themselves were clear of everything except a few candle sticks. This was probably where the servants ate, or the castle guard. There was a room like this back at Casterly; a practical space, utilitarian and devoid of all personality. But this space was light and airy. A few high windows let a twinkling bright light into the room, which reflected well on the white marble walls. Jaime suspected that it would not take much to light this room at night time as well. The stone walls seemed to glow.

Hung along the side wall, out of the direct sunlight, were several tapestries. They depicted more fantastical scenes than the ones outside his childhood bedroom. Those were bloody things, which his maester had used to teach him the history of his house as well as the benefits of various military strategies. To think on them much was to consider just how much blood soiled the hands of Lannisters throughout the centuries. A heady inheritance.

He considered the tapestries in front of him while he waited for the lady to arrive. Understandably enough, most depicted sailors on various adventures. In one they had harpooned a large whale, which then dragged their little vessel around the harbour at a no doubt breakneck speed, before it was subdued and brought to shore. Another tableau showed an innocent sailor being lured from his ship by the beautiful song of a woman, who had a fishtail in place of legs.

“I hope you have not been waiting long,” a voice said from behind him, catching him by surprise. He turned to see his host, standing with her arms held primly behind her back. Brienne’s clothes were not the ones she had been wearing to spar, and her short hair, while neatly combed back, looked a little darker, as though she had recently washed it. Still she wore the same masculine clothes as the day before, but after spying her from the window earlier, Jaime had decided they suited her better than something more feminine. She would hardly look well in any dress he’d seen, and no dress would allow for the brutal grace she inflicted with a sword in her hand.

“Not long, no,” he agreed, turning back to the tapestry. “Are these some locals that we’ll encounter on our journey to the mine?”

Lady Brienne looked at him. “No.”

“Your ancestors, then?”

He meant it as a jape, to lighten the mood somewhat. But Lady Brienne did not take the bait and looked confused instead. “No. It’s about a merling, tempting a man to his death. My father always told me it was meant as a cautionary tale about drinking too much when out at sea.”

“Oh?” Jaime said, his curiosity piqued despite himself.

“Merlings aren’t real, but drink often affects even the most seasoned sailors— they see and hear things that are not there, go overboard and then they are never seen or heard from again.”

“And what of the stories of merlings who have saved sailors?” Jaime pointed out, reasonably, “We have many sailors in the Westerlands who swear up and down that a beautiful merling woman dragged them to shore.”

“Like as not they were drinking and confused a dolphin for a mythical creature,” Lady Brienne said, infuriatingly dispassionate. Did she have no concept of humour? She was the most dour, serious creature he had ever had the displeasure to meet. It was going to be a tedious week travelling in her company.

Her expression twisted — was that a hint of distress? — and he wondered whether she had misread his look of frustration for something more sour. She added, somewhat unexpectedly, “There are many things in this world that cannot be explained, but merlings are not one of them.”

“And have you much experience with these ‘things that cannot be explained’?” he asked, doing his best to sound only curious, and to keep the natural mocking tone from his voice. Tyrion would have pulled this all off far better than he was, but he was what they had. His father, of course, would have demanded the value of the tapestries instead of making small conversation about them, adding it to his ledger, considering it alongside every other asset to determine the advantage of the investment.

Brienne tilted her head to the side in an oddly regal gesture, reminding him, peculiarly, of Cersei. For a moment, he thought she was about to respond with something as vicious and pointed as his sister, when confronted with a topic she did not like. But instead, Lady Brienne avoided the conversation using another, classic Lannister manoeuvre: changing the topic. “Are you ready for your tour of Evenfall?”

Very well. Jaime wouldn’t pry. He waved his golden hand towards the door. “Lead the way, Lady Brienne.”

It quickly became clear why she had postponed the tour until this hour. She led him into the great hall. In daylight it was transformed. The room was round and tall, with a domed stained glass ceiling that spilled sunlight into every corner of the room. The effect was to make the room radiate light, and at the midday hour it was presently, he was hard pressed to spot a single shadow. The floor was marble too, though of a darker sort, which eased some of the glare from the room, and the coloured glass above diffused and refracted the light in playful ways about the room.

“I can see why you wanted to wait for the light,” he said, awed, finding it difficult to tear his eyes away from the ceiling. At first glance, the stained glass looked to be just a pretty geometric pattern, but he was beginning to see that here too, like the tapestries in the previous room, there was a story.

“Most of the keep is made of Tarth marble,” she explained, following his gaze about the room. “The glass and cames were all wrought here on the island as well. The west coast of the island has several sand dunes and a batch house for glass production, and we’re lucky enough to have a family of glass blowers in Evenfall. They usually just produce crockery and such, but over the years…”

“Is that Lightbringer?” he said, pointing up at the image of a man wielding a fiery sword. That same man featured on most panels of the rotunda, in facing off against all manner of threats: an ominous figure on horseback, a snarling wolf and a magnificent dragon.

“No. It’s the Just Maid. Said to be the sword of Galladon of Morne. The Perfect Knight.”

Jaime tore his eyes away from the ceiling to look on his host. She was looking up at a different panel, oddly wistfully. The man featured in most of the panels was in this one too, standing astride some toppled foe. Behind him a maiden stood, clasping her hands together in supplication, staring at her rescuer with a besotted look on her face.

“He is a hero on Tarth?” Jaime asked, more curious about Brienne’s reaction than any story she might tell.

Brienne nodded. “For all the Stormlands, really, not just Tarth. He was one of our kings — we will see the ruins of his castle on the way to the mine. Legend says he saved The Maiden herself from bandits, and in return she gifted him with the enchanted sword, the Just Maid. But he was a righteous man and never used it in battle against a mortal man, fearing that it would be unjust; it is said he only drew it from his scabbard three times, and even slew a dragon singlehandedly with it.”

Jaime split his attention between the stained glass above and the lady’s face. It was not precisely transformed by the story, but there was a softness there now. Was it possible she was a romantic? Was she raised on the same tales of gallant nights and beautiful maidens that he was? Was she as sentimental as any other young lady?

“Where is the Just Maid now?” he asked.

She shrugged. “No one knows. Maester Craiso isn’t even sure the knight Galladon ever existed. There was certainly a King Galladon, and possibly he did save a maiden from rapists or bandits or some such. Maybe they were the same person. But he probably just used his own sword. You know how legends such as these are born. Magic and enchanted swords… it beggars belief.”

Jaime nodded. “Like dolphins becoming merlings.”

“Like dolphins becoming merlings,” she echoed, though now there was a sadness in her voice which he could not place. For a moment, silence settled between them, both lost in contemplation of the glass above. “Should we continue the tour?” she said eventually, and he nodded and followed her from the room.

The rest of the keep was much like every other keep he’d seen. It was airy and open and light, thanks to the liberal use of marble and glass, but it was also homely in a way that he was not used to. The library contained several comfortable looking over-stuffed chairs, and was filled with an equal share of farming and fishing instructives alongside volumes of folk tales, adventures and even poetry.

Occasionally on their tour they encountered a servant or a guard. Just as she had the day before in the village, Lady Brienne greeted each one by name. She seemed more at ease here, though; these were people she saw every day. When they passed through the kitchens to some other part of the keep, Lady Brienne helped a scullery maid fetch one of the larger mixing bowls down from a shelf that was much too high for her to reach. She did it without pausing in her explanation of the various chimneys, or whatever it was she was talking of. The maid curtseyed her thanks, scurrying away with the overly large bowl in her arms and the two of them continued out into the main keep.

They inspected the armoury, which was well stocked and the weapons well maintained. Then the smithy, run by a man so weathered and aged and angry that Jaime was sure that he was the exact same man who had had the run of the smithy at Casterly Rock when he was a child. He resented having his forge overrun with outsiders, even if one of them happened to be the lady of the house. Lady Brienne did not keep them in there long. It was hot and their presence was clearly unwanted. The stables he had seen briefly the night before, and stables were pretty much the same everywhere. Generally it seemed to be a well-managed keep, though a little run-down.

The last stop on the tour took them to the outside wall of the keep itself. The tall white tower dominated the skyline, looming so high above that his neck ached when he attempted to see the top. It too was built of the now familiar Tarth marble, and stretched perhaps one hundred feet skyward. The base flared wider than he expected, but as it rose it narrowed and it was difficult to see where it ended. On the ground level there was a wooden double door.

“This is the tallest of our watch towers, but there is a network around the island. Each settlement is responsible for manning theirs during storm season. I would show you the beacon, but it is a dangerous climb at present,” Lady Brienne explained, pointing at the very top.

Jaime craned his head, but they were too close to the base for him to see the top at all. It would be better from a distance. “Yes, you mentioned renovations?”

“The internal stairs are in need of repair, and the floorboards in the guest rooms— there was a fire. And two of the reflecting glasses in the beacon need to be replaced. It can still be lit, and it will do for now to warn sailors in a storm, as long it is not too severe, but it won’t be much help if a fog settles in,” she explained, and slowly she began walking again. He followed along behind.

“Are storms likely, this time of year?”

They had reached the wall of the keep. A little further ahead there was small metal gate, barred across. Brienne lifted the bar to the side, opened it and went through. Jaime stepped through after, and was stunned again by the sheer beauty of the waters and coastline that spread before them.

“This is the stormlands,” she said, waving her own hand at the pristine, calm waters while shooting him a wry look. It was the closest she had come to joke in his hearing, and her dark blue eyes had brightened in an amusing way. “It looks peaceful now, but I promise you, in storm season this is one of the most dangerous places in Westeros. The storms destroy the shipping lanes, and even the most seasoned navigator can find themselves turned around by the changing sand bars and trenches. There are fewer storms in winter, but fog is more likely, so it is as much of a problem, no matter what.”

“What would it cost to repair?” Jaime asked, glancing back up at the watchtower. The sunlight reflected off a glint of bronze at the top, but still, it was just beyond his sight.

Lady Brienne shrugged, and began leading him along a path that hugged the outer wall of the keep. “Hard to say— it is the reflecting glass that is expensive. We need to get it shipped from Dorne, and it will take several weeks to install and balance. The floorboards and stairs we could fix tomorrow, but it is hard to justify repairing a watch house used perhaps ten times a year when firewood is scarce and winter is coming.”

Jaime frowned, considering the dilemma as they walked. “If there is a storm, and the beacon has not been repaired…” he trailed off, leaving the rest of the question unasked. How many would die?

“The worst year for Shipbreaker Bay saw ten vessels sink, taking well over five hundred souls. Four of those ships ran aground upon the rocks of Tarth, one at the base of this very cliff, just down there.” She pointed at the jagged rocks that could be seen, scattered throughout the water. Then she turned her gaze back to the port. “For weeks afterwards, we collected bodies that washed up there on the shores and buried them. The Evenstar decided that we had a responsibility to do whatever we could to prevent a tragedy on that scale from happening again. This was the result.”

“Was that your father?” he asked.

She chuckled, a surprisingly melodic thing that had him smiling a little to hear. “No. My great-grandfather. He commissioned this watchtower, and two others at other problem spots. But they have worked. We have not had a shipwreck at Evenfall since.”

“So why not repair it now? If it will save lives.” Surely that would be the honourable thing to do.

“If we spend the money buying the glass, and bringing the glasswrights here. We will not…” She hesitated, smile gone from her face as she swallowed, looking him in the eye. “Many will starve.”

I fear that without the crown’s assistance, I will not be able to feed my smallfolk through the coming winter, the letter had said. Jaime had only just begun to recognise the reality of that situation. It was a difficult choice: repair the tower and prevent the deaths of many come storm season, but condemn thousands of innocent people to a slow, agonising death by starvation.

Jaime remembered the way that Lady Brienne had spoken to the people in town on their way from the docks. “How is your mother? Is she doing better?” she had asked a seamstress, and listened intently to the answer. She had offered to send a runner with some firewood to a hunchbacked man who’d mentioned his arthritis was flaring up. Her patience, her kindness-- it seemed to be instinctive for her. The dilemma she faced, to choose between the deaths of innocents, must be agonising.

He searched around for a solution, trying his best to think of what advice his brother or father would give. “Can you not raise taxes?”

Lady Brienne shrugged her wide shoulders in a tired way. It was the most despairing gesture he’d yet seen from her and he watched her closely, trying to puzzle out precisely what she was feeling. “We haven’t collected taxes in two years. It is not right to demand money from people who do not have it. The closing of the mine affected the rest of the island in ways we never expected, and none of our people should die because ... So my father and I… It is just the two of us. I will have no need of a dowry, and that money can buy food for Evenfall. I have already spent most of our fortune to ship grain from Pentos.”

It was guilt. She was guilty. He looked on the enigmatic woman before him, and the realisation unfolded before him in the tension in her shoulders, in the taught lines near her lips, in her watery deep eyes. She had a responsibility to her people, and she had failed them. If she could marry, and marry well, she could have eased the island’s troubles years ago.

But who would marry her? There were few houses in Westeros with fortunes easy enough to spare for a failing house, and fewer still with eligible men to marry. And Jaime knew full well exactly how likely those men would be to choose to marry this behemoth of a woman when there were prettier, more agreeable ladies out there for them to take their pick of. Tyrion had fallen prey to that exact same shallow pratfall for years. He had been the heir to Casterly Rock while Jaime had been in the Kingsguard, heir to the richest house in Westeros, but no noblewomen had thrown herself at his feet. Instead he had been the benefactor of most of the Street of Silk for a decade. And now Tyrion had been disinherited again, and was married to Sansa Stark, all because Jaime’d lost his hand.

It struck him as extremely unfair. Tyrion was one of the brightest minds in the seven kingdoms, but no one but his maimed brother had space in their heart for him. And here was this obstinate, compassionate woman, who would never find herself a husband simply because she was plain.

“It is a risk, to ask my father for money,” he said, cautiously. She had been honest, scrupulously so, and he wanted to warn her. Honest people often did not expect dishonesty in others.

“I am aware.” She sighed. “But I am not sure I see another solution… And I could not live with myself if I did not try everything I could, if it meant keeping my people alive.”

To put yourself in harm’s way for the greater good of many was a hard thing to do. Arthur Dane’s voice bubbled up in his memory. In the name of the Warrior, I charge you to be brave. In the name of the Father, I charge to you to be just. In the name of the Mother, I charge you to defend the innocent.

And then just as suddenly, came the whisper. Burn them all.

They rounded the corner and stood once more at the main entrance of the keep. She turned and faced him. He was struck, once more, that she was the right height to look him in the eye, as an equal… Almost a knight.

He shook off the memory. “Thank you for the tour, my lady,” he said, with a little bow. “Evenfall Hall is very impressive.”

She bowed her head in return. “I know it is not much, but we are proud of it.”

“As you have every right to be,” he said, and they made their way together inside.

“I’m afraid that I cannot join you for dinner tonight. I must attend to something down at the docks in person, but if it pleases you, we’ll leave tomorrow morning for the mines,” Lady Brienne said once they reached the keep inside.

“That suits me well enough,” Jaime agreed, surprised to find that he looked forward to spending a little more time in the company of the Lady of Tarth. “I’m sure I can look after myself for one night.”

“Then I will make all the necessary arrangements and let your squire know the details.” She paused in the entrance way, grasping her hands behind her back, standing straighter. Then she said, “Do you need me to escort you back to your rooms?”

Jaime shook his head. “I will muddle my way back, perhaps via the library. My brother would not be happy with me if I couldn’t give him a proper overview of your collection when I return home.”

“Very well,” she said. “Enjoy the rest of your day, and let the servants know if there is anything you need. We’ll do our best to accommodate you.”

Lady Brienne took her leave of him then, and he watched her walk away. It is a good thing she is so tall, he thought, and her shoulders so broad. She carries the weight of Tarth on them.

Jaime cast his eye at the marble keep, and at the tall watchtower beyond, an odd softness pressing in his throat. Perhaps he could help shoulder that burden.

It was what she would do.

Chapter Text

They left early the next morning. Jaime had expected a small party, but was somewhat surprised to see just three horses prepared by the stable boys when he came down from his breakfast. Lady Brienne would be coming, of course, and Peck too, to help him, but no one else. It was not usual for an unmarried woman to travel unchaperoned anywhere in Westeros.

But then on reflection, Jaime realised that he should have expected this. Lady Brienne was hardly an average woman; she was clearly able to look after herself, and was very much at home on her own island. Unflappable. Of course she would travel unassisted.

Each of their horses had been laden with supplies, the saddlebags packed to the brim with food, clothes and a few little luxuries that would make the week-long journey to the marble mine bearable.

Peck had packed his clothes the night before, and when the boy had been looking the other way, Jaime had slipped his little vial of milk of the poppy into the saddlebag so that he would have it on hand in case he needed it. He did not know why he kept it secret from the boy; Peck was not likely to interrogate him about it. But it had become a habit to hide it, from his father, Cersei, Tyrion… They would all have something to say about it, and Jaime did not care to listen to it when they all had their own, far more debilitating vices they refused to curb.

It was easier to keep it a secret from everybody, and he would need it on the journey. The large bathtub in Lord Selwyn’s chamber had eased his sore legs, but they could hardly bring that with them. He would need to find other ways to stay comfortable as they travelled.

He and Peck arrived before Lady Brienne. Jaime felt awkward, waiting around. He was used to having the command of journeys such as this. He would be the one to arrive last, and then they would all be on their mounts and on their way. People waited on him, not the other way around. All this hurrying about to wait business suited him ill. To distract himself from the awkwardness, he set Peck and the other stable boys any number of little, unnecessary tasks, so that he felt that he had something to do.

Finally, about a quarter of an hour after their agreed upon meeting time, Lady Brienne arrived. She was walking quickly, with her head down, tugging on her riding gloves. She was dressed much the same as she usually was, in men’s attire, but had added knee-high riding boots and a sword. Jaime thought her outfit suited her well; she looked every bit the lord.

She gathered the reins of her mount, then muttered, “My apologies, Ser Jaime.” She sounded tired, but then it was rather early in the morning.

“I thought perhaps Peck had got the time wrong,” he said with a smile, as the stable boy led his horse, the same dappled grey from the other day, to the mounting block. “‘The Lady of Tarth would not be so tardy, Peck,’ I said. ‘You should have spent less time trying to spot merlings in the harbour and paid more attention to the message!’”

But his lighthearted tone did not get so much as an eye roll, let alone a laugh from Lady Brienne. Jaime hoisted himself into the saddle, then looked back at her. She mounted her own horse quickly, and drew it around to face the gates and not him. Did she not want him to see her face? Did she not want him to see the flush of embarrassment on her features once more? Surely it was not that shameful to be a little late. They would be able to make up the time, so it would hardly be much of an inconvenience down the line.

Peck was helped into his saddle and they set off. Lady Brienne turned, to check everyone was ready, then led the way out of the keep.

Jaime was troubled. He had only seen her face for a moment, but…

He could have sworn she was crying.


The first few hours of the ride were quiet. It was easier going than it had been the other day, in part because he was better rested than he had been then, but the road was level and his horse trained well enough that she followed behind the lady on her horse with little guidance from himself. He spent most of the first hour or two calling tips over his shoulder at Peck, who clearly had never ridden before, or at least not for such a sustained period of time.

Lady Brienne remained at the front of their little convoy, and between offering instructions to Peck about how to hold the reins or what to do with his feet in the stirrups, he watched her closely, trying to puzzle out her mood. She had seemed well enough yesterday, as she’d shown him around Evenfall Hall. But her back and shoulders told him nothing other than confirming that she sat her horse as well as any seasoned soldier.

After a while, they stopped at a little wooden bridge that crossed a narrow creek so the horses could rest a little and drink from the crystal clear water that bubbled along. They sat on a few conveniently placed logs just off the path while they ate their lunch of bread, cheese and plump dates. Peck could not be tempted to eat much, feeling somewhat queasy from the rocking of the horse, but Jaime was satisfied he’d have his appetite back by the time they reached their destination later that day.

The break also gave him an opportunity to study the lady a little better. If she had been crying, there was no sign of it after several hours’ riding. She still looked tired, and perhaps a little worried, but there were many reasons he could think of that would justify her anxiety, not least amongst them the very reason he was here with her at all. Her cheeks were flushed, but it was the healthy flush of exercise, not the telling blush of overwrought feelings.

“How far to Pelican Bay?” he asked her, handing his waterskin to Peck so that he could drink.

Lady Brienne tilted her head and considered. He could see her calculating the distance in her head. For a moment the distracted expression cleared from her face, and she said, “Perhaps another four hours’ ride? There is another stopping point about halfway there.”

“And we’ll be staying there the night, then?”

She nodded. “There is an inn, with several comfortable rooms. I’ve stayed there many times before, but it is the last reliable accommodation on our trip. We will most likely have to camp the rest of the way to the mine, unless one of the farmers offers us their hospitality.”

“I don’t mind camping,” Jaime said, before taking a long drink. The cool water was refreshing now the sun was out.

“I made sure they packed everything we’d need to make it as comfortable as possible,” she explained, before adding earnestly, “There are bed rolls, a tent for each of us, and it is not the right time of year for storms, so we are not likely to face any lightning or squalls.”

“I have nothing but confidence in your ability to organise a camping trip, Lady Brienne,” he said, feeling absurdly, the need to tease her. But he repressed the urge, somewhat worried that if she had been crying earlier, his lighthearted mocking would reopen the wound. It was not his desire to hurt her, and so he added, tentatively, “It seems you and your father run a tight ship, here on Tarth. I have seen many keeps run only half so well as Evenfall.”

But even the compliment, which he had offered sincerely, did not seem to lift her spirits. Her expression remained distant, though tight little creases appeared at the edges of her wide lips as though she was pressing them together. Jaime could not figure out how such a comment could be considered so unsatisfactory, and decided that he would leave her to her mood. Sometimes Cersei could be like that, though her moods were far darker and his sister was far more likely to lash out at anyone who crossed her path. When she was like that there was nothing for it. It was not worth trying to help her feel better, or solve her problem, or even distract her from whatever it was that bothered her. Better to stay out of her way.

Lady Brienne clearly did the opposite, which suited her introverted nature. She turned in on herself, putting her back to others, curling around her feelings like a man wounded, fearful of further attention.

He left her alone, as best he could, for the rest of the ride to Pelican Bay. Normally he would’ve peppered her with questions to pass the time: What sort of game is found on the island? Did your father teach you to hunt? Did I see you sparring yesterday morning? Did your father teach you that too? How long have you been riding astride rather than side saddle? Does it not hurt?

But he didn’t ask a single one. He let her ride ahead, giving her the peace and quiet it seemed to him she needed. Instead he made a study of her. Something odd about the heir of Tarth did not come close to describing the woman, and he wondered whether he would ever truly get to meet the person hidden so carefully behind her silences.

His inspection of her was cut short, with about an hour’s riding left, when Peck groaned his name from behind.

“Ser Jaime,” he moaned, a pitiful sound which made Jaime chuckle. He remembered the pain of saddle sores all too well.

“We will be there soon, boy,” he said as cheerfully as he could, while trying to hold back the worst of his laughter. “There will be ale and a bath and most importantly a bed. I’d suggest you sleep on your stomach tonight though. Your backside will thank you for it.”

But Peck did not respond, or at least not in words. There was a brief sound of leather and stirrups, and something of a struggle. Jaime looked over his shoulder to see the boy listing dangerously to the side, curled over and holding his stomach.

Jaime turned his horse around at once. Lady Brienne, who had clearly been listening, even if she had not said a word for an hour or so, followed suit. Jaime reached out and snatched the reins of Peck’s horse with his good hand, holding his own mount steady with his golden one and brought them all to a halt. Lady Brienne pulled up on the other side and steadied the boy in his saddle.

“What’s the matter, boy?” he asked, a little gruffly.

Peck looked up at him, pain clear in every twitch of his expression, before he was hit with a powerful cramp that had him doubled over again.

“He wasn’t feeling well at lunch,” Lady Brienne muttered across the horse. “When did he last eat?”

“Breakfast?” Jaime suggested, though he could not say for certain. He had certainly had breakfast, and Peck had been the one to bring it up on the tray though the boy hadn’t eaten with him. Jaime assumed that the boy had eaten his meal in the kitchens before delivering his breakfast; it was what most servants did, as they woke up so much earlier than most of the men they served.

"My... stomach..." Peck groaned from beside him. Jaime locked eyes across the horse with the lady. For a moment, a conversation took place in the silence of their eyes alone. Later, much later, he would wonder whether he had ever experienced that sort of easy meeting of the minds with anyone other than a fellow soldier on the battlefield. And even then...

At once Jaime hooked the boy's reins with his own and Lady Brienne dismounted quickly. She hobbled her horse to Peck's, where it obediently waited, then she turned and hoisted the boy from the saddle. Peck was perhaps ten or eleven, and though he was small for his age, he was wiry from years of hard labour aboard a ship. But she lifted him as though he weighed no more than a toddler, and just as gently. She carried him off the road and set him down on the grassy verge.

Jaime dismounted, happy to note that this time he performed the action with a little more grace. He looped his reins through the other two and guided the horses to a nearby tree, fashioning a makeshift tether around a branch with a combination of his good hand and his teeth. It was hardly a sleek knot, but it would serve for now.

"Bring the waterskin," the lady called. "And a cloth."

He unbuckled the first saddlebag on his horse. Peck had been the one to pack the horse, and had been the one to fetch them lunch, so it took him a little while to find what she needed. He tucked the waterskin under his arm and, failing to find a suitable cloth, decided to sacrifice one of his shirts. He could easily have another made.

Lady Brienne had the boy kneeling on the grass, using one arm to hold him by the shoulder and the other hand to rub gentle circles on the small of his back. There were tears on the poor boy’s cheeks and vomit dribbling down his chin.

“It’s all right,” Lady Brienne said, in a low, soothing murmur. “Get it all out.”

A powerful cramp gripped the boy— every muscle tightened, tendons cording his neck, before he leaned forward to retch again. Jaime stepped back to avoid the backsplash.

When the next bout was over, Jaime passed the shirt to Lady Brienne. She raised an eyebrow. It was a very fine tunic, luxurious and soft and to use it for this? But she did not hesitate, and gently wiped the vomit from Peck’s face.

The boy was looking slightly better now. He was still pale, but he sat back on his haunches, and seemed somewhat calmer. Brienne held out a hand and Jaime passed her the waterskin. She removed the stopper and helped the boy take a sip.

“Swill then spit,” she commanded.

“How long have you been feeling sick?” Jaime asked, doing his best to keep the lordly imperiousness from his voice.

Still, Peck looked away as though ashamed, mumbling something under his breath that Jaime couldn’t quite hear. He looked to Brienne to translate.

“Since this morning,” she said with a sigh, setting the waterskin aside. “There has been a flux going about the servants the last few weeks. Wouldn’t surprise me if he picked it up. Especially if he’s been spending time with the younger ones.”

“Is it contagious?”

“I have had it before. People do not often get it twice.” She helped Peck sit back properly, and once the boy was settled, eyes closed and holding his head — Jaime recognised a pounding headache when he saw one — she carefully folded up the soiled shirt and set that aside too. Jaime did not particularly want it back. “Chances are you’ve had it too, if you’ve spent any amount of time in an army camp.”

It was impossible not to think of the last army camp he had been in. Tied to a post, sleeping in squelching mud, covered head to toe in all sorts of unspeakable things that the Stark soldiers had thrown through the bars of his cage. Many times he had been sick, purging from one end or the other, but he usually put it down to the putrid food he was fed at times. But perhaps it was a flux. What did it matter anymore? If Peck was contagious, likely Jaime had already been infected. If he wasn’t, thinking on the Stark camp would not do anyone any help. He forced it from his thoughts to focus on the journey ahead instead.

“Will he be all right to travel?”

“I’ll put him in front of me and tie his horse to yours. There is a healer in the town who might have something to help him, but if it continues tomorrow we can leave him in the care of the innkeeper and journey on without him.”

It was a solid enough plan, but still it struck him as exceedingly odd that she was unbothered by the prospect of a week alone with him. The only woman he’d ever been alone with was his sister.

But then that wasn’t quite true either. He had been alone with Princess Elia once or twice. Queen Rhaella as well, and most recently Lady Catelyn Stark, though each encounter was markedly different to his hours alone with Cersei. When he had first worn the white cloak, he had been bestowed with the trust of the king, as though the cloak were a shield to prevent him from acting on all of his most base urges. But then he had killed Aerys, slit his throat and watched his blood stain the floor of the throne room. The illusion that he was honourable, that he could be trusted, was shattered. The white cloak no longer brought him honour, faith, belief. Every noble woman had shied away from his company after that, openly afraid of what he might be willing to do. And even those who had dared to look him in the eye, now they too stayed away since he had returned to court in his… reduced state.

“Could we not wait until the boy is recovered? Surely it is not right that we leave him alone to travel on. He does not know anyone on this island bar myself, and I’ve only known Peck a week.” Agitation flushed through him, manifesting, as it often did, as arrogance.

“He could be recovered in three days or as many as ten, and I can personally guarantee he will be cared for as well as any child on Tarth who falls ill. There is no reason for us to delay,” Lady Brienne replied, her voice tinged with unexpected steel. Was she… angry?

Jaime met her gaze, with a challenge of his own. “Do you have no care for what people will say? To travel a week alone with any man, let alone me…”

“It would make no difference to my reputation if I travelled alone with the King or the Kingslayer. And I would not care if it did. I cannot be away from Evenfall that long,” Lady Brienne said, blue eyes flashing so violently he could not help but recoil, physically taking a step back.

The reply Jaime had been preparing dried on his tongue, and it felt as though a jagged metal snare had snapped shut around his throat. There had been a time when people had been so scared and terrified of him that no one dared whisper that name within his hearing, but now anyone, even one such as this woman had the gall to say it to his face. She feared no backlash from him, for what kind of damage could he do to anyone anymore? He was declawed. Useless. Nothing more than a poorly trained apprentice to his father, and it was all he could ever be.

He turned and walked away, back to where the horses were calmly grazing the available grass while they awaited their riders. Jaime untied them and led them back over to the others. He held the biggest horse steady while Lady Brienne lifted Peck into the saddle, and passed her the reins when she mounted, but he did not address her directly, or even look her in the eye.

After he was sure that Peck’s horse was hitched safely to his own mare, he mounted and let Lady Brienne take the lead once more.

It was refreshing — almost a comfort to know that despite the upheaval of losing his hand, there were some things that would never change. He had been on his best behaviour, he had said all the right things, he had listened carefully to her and every one of her advisors who had outlined Tarth’s troubles. He had been polite and courteous— every bit the lord that his father had always wanted him to be. But of course, that would never matter. Lady Brienne, like every other person he’d met in the past twenty years, had already decided who he was. A man without honour, a hand, or any hope of ever being accepted at face value.

He would always be the Kingslayer. He would always be an oathbreaker.

He would always be found wanting.

Chapter Text

Peck was still unwell, by the time they were to leave Pelican Bay, and so they left him in the care of the innkeeper’s kindly wife. She promised that she would look after the boy as though he were her own son, before proceeding to box her own son about the ears for being a little too slow bringing Jaime’s saddlebag down from the room.

Nevertheless, Jaime had faith that Peck would be fine. Relatively. He promised the boy he’d collect him when they rode back through the town the next week.

So Lady Brienne and Jaime journeyed on together, alone. They left Peck’s horse behind as well so it took some rearranging of saddlebags to ensure they had all the essential supplies still on them. Jaime still had far more clothing than he really needed, despite having already sacrificed one of his shirts to Peck, so it was no great hardship to leave behind another saddlebag filled with clothes. He wasn’t sure why the boy had packed so many to begin with.

Jaime was sore after a full day’s riding, but it was a pleasant sort of discomfort— the kind that meant that he had worked hard, that he had earned the pain by choice. He also knew from experience that the best thing to do for this pain was to continue riding, continue exercising. It was the kind of pain that rebuilt muscle, muscle that he had lost alongside his hand. In any case, the pain in his legs and backside helped give him something to focus on rather than his remaining travelling companion.

After their confrontation the day before, they had shared very few words, and all of those few words had concerned Peck or essential details about the journey. Nothing else. Whatever had disrupted Lady Brienne’s spirits continued through to the next day and she led the way southward to Morne in silence.

Jaime was content to leave her to her silence as it served him as well. He had no desire to speak to someone who had no desire to speak with him. Kingslayer. She had spat the name at him so easily, without thinking. It was grounding. A comfort. He felt as though he were seeing everything more clearly, that a veil had been lifted. She had treated him with deference and respect and kindness for the same reasons everyone else had ever been good to him: because she needed something from him. He was her only chance to save her island, and so she must suffer his presence, soothe his ego. He was something she needed to suffer through so that she could be paid. He was a duty.

Duty he understood. Service. Responsibility.

He was here to do his duty too. The duty to his family, to his father. He had lost sight of that purpose, in his relief to be on dry land, and surrounded by an island of such objective beauty. But this island was just like any island, filled with people who were like people everywhere and led by a woman who was no better or worse than every other noblewoman he’d ever met. She had judged him on his reputation and found him wanting. And so now he knew he had no obligation to be any more than what she expected.

She had asked for help from the Crown, and had been sent the maimed Kingslayer. It was obvious, now that he could see it plainly, just what that message would have told her. What his father meant to do for her island.

Nothing.

Or nothing good, at least.

It was amazing, then, that he had been offered the hospitality he had. To be given the lord’s chambers, to be escorted about the island by the lady herself. The only reason he could see for such a reception was that she was desperate, and clinging to any kind of hope that Tywin Lannister would be generous.

Jaime scoffed, darkly. Clearly she had never met his father.

They travelled most of the day in the same silence. They stopped for lunch on a rocky headland that overlooked an array of black volcanic rock outcroppings scattered throughout the blue sea. A cold wind blew in gusts, whisking the water around the base of the rocks into a rolling white foamy mess. It was dangerous and beautiful and yet oddly peaceful to watch as he chewed his dried fish in silence. Lady Brienne had wandered off somewhere, to make water, to have a moment away from him, he didn’t know or care.

Jaime wondered what would happen if he took a running leap off the cliff, into the waters below, as he and Cersei had done as children from the cliffs by Casterly Rock. Would he smash his head against the rocks and drown? Would it feel as magical and as exhilarating as it had when he was a child? Would he plunge deep into the roiling depths, only to emerge, refreshed and alive and breathing and reborn in the salt water below?

Lady Brienne returned from wherever she had been and set about readying her horse to continue onwards. Still she did not speak to him, and if she was avoiding his gaze he could not tell, because he was certainly avoiding hers.

He pushed himself up from the comfortable patch of grass he’d whiled away an hour on, and dusted himself off. Then, mostly to annoy Lady Brienne, he took his time checking Capricornia’s saddle, finding his waterskin, struggling to get the stopper out with his teeth, since Peck was no longer there to do that for him, and taking several long, deep swallows. There was a slight twinge of a headache developing somewhere behind his left temple, and it wouldn’t do to let dehydration set in on top of everything else he’d put his body through.

The rest of the afternoon continued on in much the same fashion. The lady stoically led the way, and he followed sullenly behind.

They made camp further inland, in the wide mouth of a cavern that stretched deep and dark back into the mountain. Lady Brienne hobbled her horse to a tree near the entrance and muttered something about going to fetch them some dinner and she forged ahead into the forest alone, not bothering to look back at him.

Jaime figured that meant that he was to set up the camp in her absence. Again, here he was, being forced to do a job that he so often assigned to others. It would take him twice as long without two working hands, but he would not have her return and say that he had lazed around, arrogantly expecting her to do everything.

Capricornia was happy to graze alongside Basil, the other mare, and he set about clearing the mouth of the cave of excess leaf litter and bracken that had been blown in. In doing so, he quickly found a precise ring of rocks encircling crusty ash - the remains of a campfire. Lady Brienne had brought them here on purpose, then. She must have known of this place.

Jaime wandered into the forest to collect suitable firewood. It was a difficult task for a one-handed man, to collect and carry enough dry branches back to the cave mouth, and it took him several trips before he had assembled a large enough woodpile to keep the fire going throughout the night.

He carefully stacked the kindling and branches in the circle of rocks, using his golden hand to steady the little pyre, but could not figure out a way to hold the flint steady against his golden hand. Nor did his left hand have enough dexterity to strike at the right angle to produce the required spark. He struggled at it for a little while, growing steadily more frustrated with his disability. Finally he gave up, and tossed the thing aside, huffing in irritation, and found something else to do instead.

Soon, his bedroll was laid out a reasonable distance from the fire, with Lady Brienne’s laid out on the opposite side. There seemed no need, in Jaime’s eyes, for him to bother setting up the tents, since the cave gave them ample protection from the elements. The only purpose the tents would serve at present would be to create a veil of propriety, but as she had so eloquently stated the previous day, she clearly did not care what people thought of her journeying alone with him, so he did not find he cared to preserve any kind of polite facade. He had no intention of taking advantage of her in any case. He only intended to sleep, so as to get this journey on its way as quickly as he could.

Finally, he returned to Capricornia and began the long, laborious task of removing her saddle and gear so that she too could get some rest that evening. Removing the saddle was a struggle, first to unhitch the girth with his weak left hand, which he eventually managed, then he had to lift the heavy thing off the girl’s back, all while trying to avoid knocking his tender right arm against anything. He considered whether it would be easier to remove the saddlebags first— that would make it lighter.

The mare tolerated his fumbling as well as could be expected, but he could tell she was getting cranky at his clumsiness. If he could just get the right leverage, get his shoulder under it just so, then—

Strong hands lifted the saddle away with ease, and frustration churned anew.

“I could have done that myself,” he grumbled under his breath, watching as Lady Brienne draped the saddle, bags and all over a nearby tree branch.

“Quicker if I do it,” she replied, already removing Basil’s saddle far more efficiently than he would ever be able to replicate.

Jaime snatched up his empty waterskin and wandered away, back down the path they’d come from, looking for the little brook he’d seen. It wasn’t much of a walk, but he took his time, finding that even after a day of silence between them, he still wanted to be alone.

By the time he returned, he was feeling a little calmer, with his waterskin filled and tucked underneath his armpit. In the meantime Lady Brienne had lit the fire he’d built, and skinned and prepared a rabbit on a spit she’d constructed to sit above the flame. The smoky smell of roasting meat made his mouth water traitorously. He had been half ready to refuse any dinner that night on principle.

The rabbit was ready by the time the sun finally set, plunging the cave into smoky darkness. Lady Brienne retrieved a little pouch of herbs that she seasoned the meat with after removing it from the fire. She had tossed a few potatoes into the fire, which she retrieved with a stick, rolling them onto a nearby rock. They were roasted perfectly. It was a respectable campfire meal, and tasted just as delicious as it smelled. The only thing missing was wine.

When Jaime finished eating, and he had set aside his plate to wash the following morning in the brook, he worked at the straps of his golden hand. Normally he did not like to go without it when he was around anyone, but he had already worn it for longer than he usually did, and the way it rubbed against the scar tissue was acutely uncomfortable. He dropped the thing with a thunk beside his feet with relief, and inspected the bandaged appendage carefully. He had not bled through the layers of cloth, but suspected he would find some blood or such had been absorbed by the inner dressing.

Jaime glanced up to see that the lady was not eating her dinner, as he had expected, but was watching him with… it wasn’t curiosity. What was it?

But he could see the question before she asked it. He saved her the trouble.

“A Stark bannerman cut it off while I was in captivity. I had killed his sons in the Battle of the Whispering Wood, you see, but the good King Robb refused to let Lord Karstark claim my head as justice, so he came to my cage under the cover of darkness and took my hand instead.” He waved his bandaged wrist in her general direction for effect. She stared at him, mouth open a little in shock.

“But…” she breathed, “you killed them in battle, that was not a dishonourable death.”

He chuckled darkly at her naiveté. “I robbed him of his heirs. He did not see the honour in that.”

An odd, morbid feeling struck him, and he began to unwrap the dressing, unwinding the cloth from around the stump of his wrist until the raw, healing wound was revealed for her to see. He wanted her to see what honour had won him.

The stump was an angry red, though a dark blueish purple in places from where the prosthetic had pressed a bruise. The very end was puckered in a hash of scar tissue that had been drawn together in a messy, fleshy starburst. Catelyn Stark could work wonders with a needle and thread, but even she could not reattach the limb. She could only tidy the end up cleanly.

Brienne stared at the wound, mesmerised and horrified in equal parts. It was a look that he had become familiar with, having seen it on the face of everyone except his father, who had only seemed, at most, displeased, before he had ordered Jaime to get himself to the smithy for a new hand at once.

“That is…” She trailed off, and he waited for her to finish and say the same words everyone had. Horrific. Disgusting. Shameful.

He beat her to the point, not wanting to hear the pity, or the revulsion, not from another voice, all over again. Jaime prodded gently at the stump— it was bleeding a little. “It was the hand I killed Aerys with, so perhaps this was justice. They take the hands of those who steal, and they kill those who take a life. My sword hand was my life, and I will never have another, so this is the long-awaited execution that so many people think I deserve.”

She opened her mouth to reply, but Jaime had no desire to hear it. Instead he stood. “I need to piss.”

He traipsed away from the cave, out into the darkness. His heart was pounding, pulsing painfully in his chest. He felt oddly woozy, as though he were drunk, but the air was clearer out here, so he forced himself to take a long, steadying breath: in through the nose and out through the mouth. It worked, somewhat, but still he felt trapped. By what, he wasn’t sure, but he could not shake the feeling.

Jaime walked a little, and it helped ease the tension in his chest and head. He was tired, that much was clear, and his muscles ached in much the same way they had the night before, but it was more than just a physical feeling. He was weary in a deeper way, as though his soul had been forced to live fifty lives without being given the gift of darkness and rest.

It was difficult to measure exactly how long he walked about. He never strayed far from the mouth of the cave, always keeping the glowing light of the fire in his periphery, but after some time he decided it was probably time to retire. He changed directions and slowly made his way back to where Capricornia and Basil were resting. He greeted the beasts with a low murmur, so they wouldn’t be too startled by his presence, but both were placid things, not easily spooked. That suited him. He turned to where Lady Brienne had stowed the saddles and began searching through his saddlebags for the vial of milk of the poppy.

It was not there.

Jaime frowned, and searched again, wondering if it had been jostled to the bottom after the day’s vigorous ride. But it was in vain. He could not find it. He leaned his head against the soft leather of the saddle, taking another deep breath in to quell the rising tightness.

They had left some saddlebags behind with Peck, which had been swapped about and repacked a number of times that morning. The milk of the poppy was probably sitting amongst the things he’d left behind at the inn with Peck.

Fuck.


By the time he made his way back into the cave mouth, Lady Brienne was already curled up in her own bedroll, wrapped tightly in her blankets. She roused a little, as he settled in, but once she saw it was him she closed her eyes and was asleep within moments.

But sleep did not come so easily for Jaime. The pain of his muscles and of his stump was beyond distracting, and as well-made as his bedroll was, there was no position comfortable enough for him to drift off. Instead he focussed on the the blood pulsing beneath the skin of his scars, radiating misery and hurt up what was left of his arm where it rested across his stomach. He did not want to, but it was hard to think of anything else. It was not the pain of the fresh wound, blinding and hot and all consuming— he had fainted when Catelyn had cleared away some of the corrupted flesh so that she could do what she could to sew his remaining skin across the bone.

“Think of your sister,” she had said while she gently cleaned the wound. At first he thought she had meant to offer him comfort, to encourage him to think of something pleasant, to go away inside.

But she’d set aside the bloody cloth and retrieved a paring knife from the tray of equipment she’d brought with her into her tent. In his fever, he had expected that she was finally going to do what her son had forbidden and plunge the blade straight through his heart, or perhaps slash his throat. He welcomed either. He thought of Cersei’s soft golden hair, the shy smile of their early years, the Stranger come to finally envelop him and take him away.

“Think of her, she is the reason this happened,” and without warning or mercy, she began to peel and cut the black flesh away. He watched her drop the dead skin on the floor. It smelled of meat, rotted meat.

He had screamed then, and retched, and cried and cried and cried, more tears than he had ever cried for his mother when she died, for Elia’s raped and broken body, for Aerys and everything that came after.

A hand grasped his shoulder, wrenching him firmly from the dream. He froze, terrified, confused by the dark, the smell of the cave…

“Ser Jaime,” Lady Brienne’s voice broke through the panic. She didn’t remove her hand. “You were dreaming.”

He attempted to sit, nausea bubbling dangerously, but he was still foggy with the haze of sleep, and felt weaker than he had in months. Seeing what he was trying to do, she grasped him by the elbow and propped him up with her other hand in the small of his back. She watched him for a moment, as though checking he could hold himself up, and when she seemed confident that he would not fall back over she stepped away. He was oddly bereft, without her hand on him, even if the touch was still impersonal; she was strong, and capable, and he felt… he felt…

But she returned, holding him the waterskin, and a small cloth.

He frowned at the cloth, confused.

Even in the darkness, he could see the flush on her cheeks. “…you’re crying.”

Jaime touched his eyes, and found them wet. Found he was still crying. He snatched the cloth and turned away from her so that he could press it against his eyes.

After a moment, when he could feel the fog of the dream easing a little, he pulled the cloth away from his eyes, wiped under his nose, and looked back towards her, though he avoided looking her in the eye. He was sure that her impossibly blue eyes would see more than he cared for her to see. It was already agonising enough that she had woken him. No one else knew how these dreams plagued him, not Cersei, not Tyrion, and certainly not his father.

She took the cloth from him and tossed it aside, then held out the waterskin. The stopper had already been removed. He did not take it.

“I saw my brother die, when I was very young,” she said, low and unexpected. “We were swimming together, at a little cove just north of Evenfall Hall. It was our favourite place to go— there is this beautiful little patch of coral a few minutes swim from the shore and he would help me dive for magnificent coloured star creatures. I saw a purple one, that day, but it was too deep for me to reach, so Galladon dived down to get it for me instead. But while he was down there, the current changed direction and pushed him into the coral. He was disoriented and bleeding, and his swimming breeches became tangled in the coral, and I watched him struggle and struggle but he could not free himself. I swam down and I was able to tug him loose, but by the time I dragged him to the surface, and then to the shore he was gone.”

The fire had burned down to embers, and cast only a faint glow through the cave, catching on her pale hands and the skin of her neck. He found it helped to concentrate on the smooth timbre of her voice, which felt steeped with an odd serenity despite the heartbreaking story she told.

“How old?” he asked, voice croaking. Imagining what it would do to him to see Tyrion die. Or Cersei.

“Seven. He was eleven,” she replied, then she reshuffled so that she was no longer crouching beside him, but sitting instead. Her thigh touching his through the mussed blankets. “For months afterwards, I was plagued by dreams of his death. Every night when I would close my eyes, I saw him dying again and again and again. It got so bad that my father brought me in to sleep in his room, so that someone would be there when I woke screaming. He would hold me tight to his chest, and he would kiss my head and tell me it was not my fault. ‘Brienne, it’s not your fault. I do not blame you. You did everything you could.’ His words did not help because I did not believe them— still don’t really believe them. But his presence did. I never believed, not once throughout that whole ordeal, that he did not love me. He would make me drink a big glass of cool water before I would try to fall asleep again, and then he would lie with me on his chest and stroke my hair until I fell asleep.”

Jaime could count on his one remaining hand how many times his father had ever hugged him, and even then to call them hugs was very generous. His father would pull Jaime’s head towards his own, hand on the back of his neck, until they almost touched foreheads, but it was a possessive gesture, full of ownership and authority, not comfort. He certainly would not have spent months with any of his children in his bed. He had fading memories of a kind woman drawing him into a hug— it was probably his mother. The last person who had held him tight, hugged him as though he had been genuinely missed, was Tyrion. When the Bolton escort had finally delivered him to the Red Keep, Tyrion and his pretty new wife were the only two waiting. Tyrion had rushed to him as quickly as his stunted legs allowed, and had wrapped his short arms around Jaime’s chest as far as they could. Jaime had never wanted to let go.

He could feel tears welling again. Brienne passed him the cloth, then without his leave she buried her hand in his long hair, carding her fingers across his scalp before they came to rest on the tight muscle that connected his neck to his shoulder. He could not possibly object, did not have the strength not to lean into the touch, the most gentle touch he’d felt in months, years perhaps. His eyes closed. It was soothing, and calming, and he felt stable and connected and he wanted more. More.

As if sensing his need, she gently, softly, tugged his head until it was resting in the crook of her shoulder. She lowered her hand from his neck to between his shoulder blades, and she began to lightly stroke upwards and downwards, following the length of his spine and the cadence of his breath. The tears spilled anew, but they were caught by the fabric of her tunic, where no one could see them, so they did not matter. He clutched her shoulder with his hand and held her tightly too.

They stayed that way for some time, until they were breathing in time together. His heart had calmed, and he felt bone-weary, but it was a more peaceful tiredness. He felt that now he would be able to rest.

Eventually they drew apart, hands released, dropped away. Jaime wiped his nose on his sleeve.

“I am sorry for the way I spoke to you yesterday,” Brienne said softly. “You did not deserve my harsh words. I know you were only concerned for my honour, and it was not right for me to take my bad mood out on you.”

Jaime shook his head. She should not apologise for that. What she had said was no worse than the many hundreds of things he had heard said over the years. “It is no matter,” he murmured.

But she did not accept his absolution. Her eyes shone, sapphire bright in the moonlight. “You have been fair to me and my people since you arrived. I have seen nothing but honour and kindness in your actions, even though I can see that you have not been well, and this trip has taken a toll on you. I was wrong. I am sorry.”

He wanted to reject it. He was not kind, nor honourable. She was mistaken, and he should correct her. But her sincerity caught him by surprise. He had watched her wield it, this sincerity, in her love for her people, her island, and in every honest action he had witnessed. He had never expected it would be directed so guilelessly, so earnestly at him. So he swallowed the objection down, and acknowledged her apology with a nod, a little gratified to see her relief at his acceptance.

Once more, she held out the waterskin. This time he took it, and gulped down mouthfuls of the cool water, relishing the feeling of it filling his chest. When he was done, she replaced the stopper and set it aside, then without any fanfare, she dragged her bed roll across and set it up alongside his. She slipped under her blankets and he lay back down, stretched out beside her.

Perhaps it was a minute later, or an hour, it did not matter. He drifted off to sleep, calm and peaceful, listening to the steady whisper of her breath beside him.

Chapter Text

The next morning Jaime was woken by the soft, peaceful sounds of nature. Somewhere outside the cave a bird was calling, a musical hail to his mate, or perhaps a mother to her fledglings. There was a breeze too, that rustled the leaves and whistled into the cavernous depths they had not explored the previous night. He listened to all of this for some time, relishing the moist, fragrant air before he finally opened his eyes.

Brienne was beside him, still asleep. She was lying on her back, but her head was tilted and faced towards him. She looked younger, like this. Peaceful. It occurred to him that he was not entirely sure how old she was. Younger than Tyrion, probably, though old enough to have passed beyond an age that potential suitors would find appealing.

She had a scar on her top lip. He had not noticed it before; he had not been close enough to see. He wondered how she had received it, whether it was an injury sustained while she practised with her sword, or some childhood mishap.

Soon, her breathing began to shift, and the muscles in her face began to twitch, slowly, faintly, then all at once she came alive with a deep, heady sigh. Her blue eyes opened, blinked, locked on his. She had astonishing eyes.

“Good morning,” she said, and that enticing red bloomed in her neck, her cheeks.

“Good morning,” he said, and smiled.

For a moment there was nothing but the sweet air between them, fresh and light and calm. But it could not last. Brienne pulled herself up first, and after a moment, Jaime followed, stretching his arms until his elbows cracked, flexing and rolling his shoulders forward. The bedroll was comfortable, but sleeping on the ground would never be as luxurious as a feather bed and he would have to deal with his protesting bones.

She had already begun prodding the fire back to life, presumably so they could prepare a light breakfast before they departed. Jaime crouched back down to roll his bedroll back up— a habit born of many years as a soldier — but his foot knocked against something solid that drew his attention. The golden hand.

He picked it up, and held the heavy thing for a moment, feeling the onerous weight of expectations in every ounce of metal. His short wrist ached still, a dull pain, and he found the very last thing he wanted to do was strap this bulky thing back to his arm and heft it around the place. Especially as he had no milk of the poppy or wine on him to take the edge off the pain.

As if reading his mind, Brienne called out, “There is space in one of my saddlebags for you to put that, if you don’t have space in your own.”

You are to wear it at all times, his father’s voice whispered, sinister and cold and commanding. No son of mine shall be a cripple.

Both of your sons are cripples, Jaime had wanted to say in response, but he hadn’t. Still, after all these years, he feared speaking out against his father. He had wanted to, many times, for the way that the man treated his brother, his sister… even the way he had been treated. But not once had he said anything. He had acquiesced.

Brienne relit the fire, smoke surging around her into the cave’s fresh air. She stood, and for a moment, she seemed to emerge from the thickening cloud, appearing like a vision before him. Without asking, she took the hand from him.

She blew out a breath, surprised. “This is heavy,” she said, testing the weight of it in her hands.

“It is solid iron, plated in gold,” he said, feeling, oddly, as though his father was looming over his shoulder. He began to sweat, wondered what she would do.

“Does it not hurt?” she asked, dragging her eyes away from the gold filigree to his stump, and then to meet his own. It was not pity he saw reflected in the blue, but something else he did not recognise.

He puzzled it out for a moment, in the lines on her forehead, and the neat way her pale eyebrows drew together, then glanced down at his wrist.

Brienne tucked the false hand under her armpit and stretched her hands out, taking his forearm, carefully avoiding the swollen tender end. It was an impertinent gesture, but he found he did not mind. Her touch was light, mindful of causing him further pain. She inspected the wound, and frowned when she saw that at the very end, where Catelyn Stark had embroidered together the mess of rotted flesh, it was weeping. She said uneasily, “It has not finished healing.”

He worked his mouth, wanting to disagree, wanting to say that he was fine. Insist that he was as well as could be expected, that there was absolutely nothing wrong with him. But he found he could not, did not want to. Instead he said, “I have been told it will heal, with time.”

“How long has it been?” With her long gentle fingers, she pressed into the wasted muscle of his forearm, kneading the flesh a little. He’d expected it to feel unpleasant, but instead it was soothing. Relaxing.

“Three months.”

“Three months? And still not healed?” She was angry, no, outraged. Jaime’s first instinctive response was a defensive one: to lash out, insult her in some way. Could she heal any quicker after such an injury as this? He would like to see her try!

But she took no notice of his defensiveness and continued on, “I haven’t spoken with him of it, but I doubt Maester Craiso would advise you smother a wound like that with something so heavy. If for no other reason than it has caused you to bruise.” She lifted his arm slightly, twisting it so that the bluish discolouration caught the light a little better.

He felt untethered, as though she had come across his mooring, only to unhitch him from it, setting him free to be dragged out by a relentless tide. What was he to say to this?

“My father… he wants me to wear it. I am not to be without it,” he muttered.

“And is your father here to see?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.

“…No.”

“Well I don’t plan on telling him you left it in your saddlebag once or twice.” Finally she dropped his wrist, then pointed at it with a decisive finger. “You should let that heal.”

Then she held out the golden hand to him, in an absurd parody of a handshake. He felt the urge to laugh, to take the hand and throw it behind them, deep into the depths of the cave. But as much as he wished he could lose the thing, it would not be possible. Instead, he said, “Could… could you look after it? Put it in your saddlebag?” It felt dangerously taboo. She might not ever tell his father, but surely he would just… know, somehow. Have a sense for it.

And yet, Brienne smiled and kept the hand. It was the first smile he’d seen on her face, and it transformed her features. Her already remarkable eyes became tantalisingly bright. He felt lighter than air. He had done that. “All right,” she said, and took the hand with her when she went to tend the horses and retrieve some food for their breakfast. Jaime did not see it again.

After that, they prepared their light meal, and packed up the camp as efficiently as they could. He was slow about his tasks; his interrupted sleep had left him a little lethargic, no matter how restorative it had been once she had moved her bedroll beside his own. He was still a little sleep deprived: eyes sore, with a mild headache.

But it was no big problem. He helped where he could and allowed Brienne to take the lead when he couldn’t. It felt less shameful today, to allow her assistance, when it was so clearly motivated by practicality and kindness. Brienne lifted the saddles onto both horses, as they were too heavy and difficult for him to grab a hold of, but she held Capricornia’s saddle steady while Jaime tightened the girth. It felt good to test his strength once more, even if his left hand still felt more clumsy at the task than he’d like.

Within an hour they were back on the road. It was still a quiet ride, but it was companionable today, not tense. If a question occurred to him, about the landscape, the destination, a plant or flower or animal that caught his eye, he asked it, but he also endeavoured to let the peaceful accord flourish between them. He understood her reserved nature a little better now and tried his best to respect her wishes.

But every now and then she would ask questions of her own. Perhaps it was to pass the time, but it was nice to be the object of curiosity for once. She stayed on mostly safe topics - asking after his childhood when she talked about her own.

It seemed her father had allowed her much more freedom than any young lady Jaime had ever met before, even after her brother’s death. Cersei had wanted nothing more than to learn to fight with swords when he had first started, but had been forced into the Septa’s chamber instead, the first of many disappointments in his sister’s life. He had no doubt she would’ve rankled with jealousy upon finding out that Lord Selwyn had taught Brienne the basic principles himself, before hiring a master-at-arms to take over her lessons properly when she showed some skill.

She enjoyed hearing about his exploits in tourneys, and finding out a bit more about some of the famous warriors with whom he had shared the white cloak. Her questions should have grated, being so close to the raw, bleeding wound of his dismissal from the Kingsguard, but she asked them so innocently, so sincerely, and yet so eagerly. His story of Arthur Dane’s fight against the Smiling Knight had her smiling for the second time that day, and it felt just as sweet to have his story be the reason she wore it.

But the headache he had awoken to lingered throughout the day. The water he sipped did not ease it, nor was it abated by food. If anything, it began to intensify as the sun rose in the sky, and in the warm light of midday it began to pound behind his temples.

Soon enough, he asked for a rest, and Brienne led them to a shaded little copse of trees. He dismounted and with closed eyes relished the cooler air, out of the direct sunlight. Brienne pressed the waterskin back into his hand once more, but his fingers did not close around the neck, and would’ve dropped it, if Brienne’s reaction had been any slower.

He was confused for a moment, and tried to take it again, but again his hand would not cooperate. A sharp stab of panic shot through him. He only had the one hand left. If it was to go lame too he had no idea what he would do.

His hand was shaking. How long had it been doing that? He clenched his fingers into a fist, squeezing it tightly before he released it. The tremors didn’t stop. For a split second his world narrowed, all sound dulled except for the thunderous beat of blood in his ears. His head, already tender, began to pound anew. He wished he still had the vial of milk of the poppy.

But Brienne took his hand in hers, and stilled it with her firm grip. Feeling the panic growing, he looked up at her. What was this? Why was this happening? He searched the depths of her ocean eyes for reassurance, clinging to the only support he had here.

“Is this… what Peck had?” he asked, hoping desperately that it would be just that.

She frowned, and a delicate little wrinkle appeared between her brows. She kept a hold of his tremulous hand and lifted the other to his forehead in an inspection he had endured from many a septa or maester throughout the years.

“Hmm,” she murmured, lips twisting into a determined sort of expression. “I don’t think you have a fever, and that is usually the first symptom. You are a little sweaty.”

“It is a hot day,” he said, glancing at the bright sun high in the sky. Then he winced - the sun pierced through his eyes straight into the pulsing headache.

“It is,” she agreed, and turned his shaking hand over in her own. “Do you feel at all sick?”

“A headache. I have had it since this morning.”

“Nauseous?”

He took stock of his body, sorted through all the various sensations. He was tired, bone-weary and sore from several days riding. There was the headache and the tremors. But no, no nausea. “No. I just feel exhausted. As if my bones are aching.”

“I don’t think it is the flux. Other than the headache, the symptoms do not match. And I doubt it is the food- I have eaten everything you have, and I am fine,” she said, and he appreciated that she was laying bare her thoughts for him to follow. Then she hesitated, went to open her mouth, closed it, eyes darted to his missing hand. “Sometimes corrupted wounds can spread throughout the body… Your wrist did not look so, but I did not look closely…”

She was being careful with him, protecting him from the implications of the question she was not asking. It felt strange to be protected so, for her to consider the impact her words may have on him. Without thinking too much of it, because to think on it would invite those feelings of shame and guilt, he held his short arm out to her.

He had clumsily retied the dressing that morning with the same bandage he had removed the evening before. It was not as neat a job as Peck had done for him several days before, but it had served perfectly well to protect the tender end. Brienne gently untucked the linen and unwound it, finally baring the wound in sunlight for the first time.

It did not look so bad, in this light. His skin was bruised, yes, but there was also a healthy flush there. The scars too, while still horrific, blended a little more naturally into his pale forearm. If he let it see the sun a little more, let his skin regain the healthy bronze he had worn for years of working outside, perhaps the new skin would melt completely into the old.

Her inspection was careful, pressing at the skin near where the blood had formed a bit of a scab. It hurt a little, but it was not the sharp pain he always feared, but the oddly satisfying pain of pressing against a well-earned bruise. Only two other people had touched his stump at all: Catelyn Stark and the maester in King’s Landing. And neither of them had been as tender with him as this. Lady Stark had not cared at all for his discomfort, and had taken perverse pleasure in seeing him writhe in pain. The maester was practical and dispassionate - there to do his job, no more, no less. Lady Brienne had both of her hands on him: the one inspecting the damage ever so carefully, but the other held his wrist a little further down. She was brushing her thumb back and forth across his forearm.

“It is healing, yes, but I do not think it is corrupted,” she said finally, looking up with confusion, before taking his other hand back up. It was still shaking. “I do not know what could cause this.”

“Well… there is nothing for it at the moment,” he said, to her but more to himself, to try and keep calm. “Let’s hope it does not get worse.”

“We should turn back to Evenfall,” Brienne said, “if it does get worse, Maester Craiso could care for you far better than I could.”

“We have come this far. We are, what, a day away from the mines?” It seemed like a waste to travel so far, to get so close to their destination only to turn back because of something so minor as this. And before he realised he had even thought it, that it was true, he said, “I trust you.”

For a moment, the admission lay between them, charged and expectant and… peaceful. Outside of his family, she was the first he could ever say that of, and he had known her less than a week. And yet it felt right. It should be terrifying, but looking into her sapphire eyes, he saw nothing but understanding reflected back. Empathy, even.

“You will tell me, if you feel any worse?” she asked, tentatively, with concern. It made him feel lighter than air, and the pulsing, throbbing ache in his head felt easier to bear.

“I will,” he said.

She swallowed something stuck in her throat, then nodded at his acknowledgement of her terms. Her magnificent eyes shined oddly in the light, which in turn made his chest tighten warmly.

They stayed a little longer to rest beneath the shade of the trees. He was able to drink some water after Brienne helped steady the waterskin as he tipped it back. Their lunch was all easily eaten with fingers— a mealy biscuit, a pleasantly tangy hard cheese and dried fruit and nuts — so he did not need to suffer the indignity of her feeding him. But she was one of the most strangely courteous women he had ever met. She would find a way to feed him by hand that made it seem practical, not humiliating.

For the rest of the day’s journey, Brienne drew back and rode beside him instead of forging their way. His trembling hand seemed to go through waves - sometimes it would be as normal, and he was in full command of each finger to the nail, then perhaps half an hour later he would be struck by an almost painfully violent spasm that shook up his arm. Those did not last long though, and as she was riding beside him, Brienne could take his reins and steady Capricornia until he had control once more.

They settled back into the easy companionship from the morning, though this time Brienne led the conversation. But as the day wore on Jaime found himself growing steadily more and more tired, and he found it harder and harder to answer her questions while focussing on the ride.

By the time the sun was setting across the water to the west, Jaime was struggling to keep his eyes open. Any other day and he would’ve cherished the enchanting way the colours dyed the clouds a myriad of unpredictable oranges and purples and pinks and even a deep deep red, all while reflecting off the dark, sapphire waters of the bay. But he felt truly exhausted.

Brienne noticed, and without making a fuss she took his reins and hitched his horse to hers so that he did not have to worry about directing the beast at all.

“This tiredness feels unnatural,” he muttered quietly. “I should not be this weary.

“If you can keep on the horse another half hour, ‘til we reach that crest.” She pointed to a headland perhaps a mile away. “It is where the ruins of the castle of Morne are; there are several sheltered places we could make camp. If we stop here, it will be a cold night.”

He nodded. He could last another half hour.

And he did. They reached the crest and, as promised, at the top of the headland stretched the decayed stone footprint of a keep long lost to time. Here and there the remains of a wall jutted up a little higher, perhaps three or four foot high, but most had crumbled to rubble.

Jaime dismounted, tired enough that it was more of a controlled fall from the horse than anything more graceful.

“Sit over there. I’ll get us set up.” Brienne said, leading the two horses ‘outside’ the walls to where there was a lush patch of grass for them to feast on.

Within twenty minutes she had started a fire, unsaddled the horses and was preparing their dinner. Jaime watched her go about the various tasks, valiantly trying to keep his sluggish eyes open. He must’ve failed a little at that task, because he felt a gentle touch to his shoulder, shaking him awake. “I know you’re tired, but you should eat before you sleep.”

“All right,” he said, stretching out. He sat up a little straighter, trying every trick in the book to fight off this unnatural exhaustion. He rubbed at his face with his hand, pressing his eyes to open a little more, willing himself to keep awake just one more hour before he succumbed to his dreams. He even slapped his cheeks lightly, hoping the blood flow would energise him somehow.

It was then he saw she had already set up the bed rolls. He hadn’t heard her. Perhaps he had fallen asleep. Because if he had been awake, he would’ve noticed at once that she had set her bed roll up alongside his, a healthy distance from the fire.

His stomach clenched, and he felt a strange yearning for something. He supposed he was hungry, but it was more of a craving. He itched for the lemony flavour of the milk of the poppy— it dulled everything so beautifully, so even if he was ill, he would not be able to feel anything and it would not matter.

Brienne was a little way to his left, using one of the more solid walls as an anchor to attach some of the tent canvas above the bed rolls, to give them a little more shelter from the elements.

The thought of sleeping out in the open sent a chill down his spine and he was glad to see the extra protection. After months and months of sleeping in an open cage in the Stark camp, followed by the laborious, awful journey with the Boltons back to King’s Landing, he did not realise how much he dreaded the prospect. The previous night had not triggered this response because the cave had been enclosed and sheltered. He thought he could bear it if he had the milk of the poppy to...

The milk of the poppy.

He felt his skin bubble anew with sweat, and his heart clenched. Now that he named it in his mind, it seemed right. The headache, the tiredness, and even the uncounted aches and pains his body had protested throughout the day. The tremors too.

He knew he needed to tell Brienne what he had realised, but he dreaded her judgement. Everyone knew it was a dangerous substance when administered too liberally - it was a common method to ease fatally wounded soldiers into their final rest, and even Jaime had heard stories of people who’d become dependent on the stuff. Was he one of them? What would she think of his weakness? This incredibly idiotic lapse in judgement? She may pity him for his wound, but this illness was self-inflicted. He should have known better.

But there was nothing for it. They were alone out here together. She deserved to know.

He breathed, “Brienne.”

But he spoke too softly in his shame, and she was too focussed on getting the canvas to attach properly to the wall, so she did not hear.

“Brienne,” he called, a little louder. She heard then, and looked over at him with concern writ clear on her face.

“What is it?” she called back, but didn’t wait for his response. She left the rope she had been tugging hanging against the wall and came over to him. “Are you all right?”

His throat tightened painfully, his body resistant to share yet another weakness with this woman. She already knew too much. He closed his eyes; he could not look into those sapphires and confess this. He was not that strong.

“It is milk of the poppy,” he gritted out. “I have not had any since we left Peck and I think I accidentally left it behind with the other saddlebags.”

“Oh,” she said. He could not decipher her tone, but still he did not open his eyes to search her face for her true thoughts. Then she asked, “Are you in a lot of pain?”

Jaime took stock of his body, before finally looking up at her. She looked concerned. “My head hurts, and my bones ache - but that could be the riding.”

“No— I meant, your arm. Does it still pain you so? Is that why you have been taking it?”

He shook his head.“At times, but that is manageable. But every so often it feels as though my hand is still there, clenched into a fist so tight that if I had knuckles anymore they would shatter from the force of it… and there are the dreams.” He felt his cheeks flush deeply at the shame of it. He forced the rest out, feeling his throat tighten again with what he feared would be a sob. He was sick of crying. “… Well you saw the one last night… I do not sleep… easily without it.”

“I see,” she said, then she sat down beside him, surprising him once more. He waited for her to speak, to chastise him for his stupidity, for allowing such a weakness. Instead, she took his whole, shaking hand and held it steady between both of hers. “This should pass then.”

He frowned again, and perhaps it was because he was tired, or because of the headache, or simply because he could no longer stand to be confounded by her every soft gesture. He said, flustered, “I don’t understand.”

“The symptoms, they will ease when your body adjusts to—”

“No, not that,” he snapped.

It was her turn to be confused. Brienne cocked her head ever so slightly to the side, and that little wrinkle appeared between her eyes again. “What then?”

“Why are you so… tolerant of me? Is it because you need my money?”

He knew the moment the words left his mouth that it was the wrong thing to say. Hurt bloomed in her face immediately. The blush returned too, but this time it was splotchy. She turned her beautiful eyes away from him and let go of his hand. No. He wished he could take the words back, so that she would look on him again.

She stood, and turned from him. “I need to finish setting up. You need to rest.”

“Brienne,” he said and stood, quickly, too quickly. He felt dizzy, but he did not pay it any mind. Instead, he grabbed her elbow before she could walk away. “Brienne, I’m sorry. I did not mean that.”

She looked down to where he had grabbed her, tried to pull away, but he tightened his hold. “Let go,” she said. There was ice in her voice.

He did as she commanded, but stayed close to her. “I am sorry. I can see how much this island means to you, and how hard it must have been to ask for my family’s help. I am tired. I would not have said that if I wasn’t.”

“But you would have thought it. Why else would I want to be kind to you?” she said, angry and bitter.

“I am not used to this,” he said, waving between them.

“What, someone being kind because it is the right thing to do?”

“YES!” he cried, and it felt like the words had been ripped straight from his chest, like he was baring his beating, pulsing heart to her. “No one has ever treated me like this. They always want something. My sister, brother. Everyone.”

Brienne turned back to him, and looked at him with such fierceness he was sure she could see right through him, into his very soul. And all at once, that look softened, and he wanted to curl up in a ball, or throw himself off the nearby cliffs, or anything but be looked at like that for a moment longer.

“Your father… why does he make you wear the golden hand?” she asked, and the question pierced him like a knife to the gut. He should not have said anything. Not only had he revealed himself, but he had betrayed his family too.

He turned his eyes skyward, searching the heavens for a way to answer, but as always the gods ignored his pleas. Only the twilight sky stared back— a few twinkling stars looked down on him, steadfast and silent.

There was nothing for it but the truth. “He does not want people to see me unwhole.”

“Unwhole,” she repeated. That godsforsaken wrinkle between her eyes was there again.

“Crippled. Broken. Lame. It is not what Tywin Lannister’s heir should be.” He said it wearily, feeling the ache of exhaustion acutely in every fibre of his being. It was one thing to think those things, but to say it out loud to another person filled him with such finality and despair.

Silence stretched between them, fraught with her thoughts and his emotions. He could not tell what she was thinking, nor define what he felt. He was in uncharted waters.

The sky finally darkened to black, leaving only the half moon and various constellations providing any light. Brienne moved in the darkness, shifted closer to him, and behind her shoulder he saw the eastern lodestar, the evenstar, glowing in brilliantly in the heavens.

She took his arm, his short arm, and ran her hand gently down ‘til she held his bandaged stump. “You’re not broken. And I am being nice to you because even if you were broken, that does not mean you’re not entitled to some basic human decency… I am not doing it to be guaranteed your support. If you decided not to help me and my people, I would be disappointed, bitterly so, but I would not regret helping a man who needed help, waking you from a nightmare, or anything else you may need while we travel together.”

Jaime stared at her a moment, completely confounded by this impossible woman before him. How could he not help her, after all of this?

“I will help you,” he promised, meaning it from the very bottom of his exposed heart. “In any way I can.”

Jaime leaned down and took her free hand in his own, which was not shaking so much anymore. A gentle vow, honestly meant.

A vow he would fight to keep, even if it meant going against his father.

This was a vow he would keep.

Chapter Text

Jaime’s sleep that night was restless and unsettled, but when he awoke the pounding headache was gone, as were the aching bones and the exhaustion that had beset him since midday the previous day. After their talk, Brienne had made him eat a little bread and dried fish, and drink a little more water while she finished assembling the tent. Then he had curled up in his bedroll and gone to sleep. He had woken up several times during the night, haunted by ghastly memories, but each time he had wrenched his eyes open, he had seen Brienne lying there asleep beside him. She had seemed so calm, and peaceful he found it easy enough to close his eyes and drift back off into the darkness.

Unlike the previous day, however, she awoke before him and had managed to leave the tent without disrupting him, because the bedroll beside his was empty.

He lay there for some time, taking stock of his body, and of his mind, and of the vow he had made to her the night before. His father, his brother-- both would say that he had been rash to make such a promise without having even seen the mines they were to visit later that day. For all they were abandoned for the war, that hardly meant they would be a good investment for Lannister gold, and he would have to argue her case well to ensure they could be reopened. He had never been the smart one in the family; he would need Tyrion to help argue his side to their father.

Getting Tyrion to help him would be hard enough. He would want to know his reasons, both the acceptable reasons he could twist and manipulate and take to their father, such as the value of marble, the future productivity of the mine and the military value of the island. But Tyrion would also demand to know the other reasons. The unacceptable reasons. The reasons that were more important than anything, but the ones that Tywin Lannister would never consider sufficient. She is… good, he would say, and then his voice would fail him. Because for all the fancy words his father forced him to learn, Jaime did not know of a single would that could encompass… her.

He swallowed.

He would have to think of something before he returned to King’s Landing. There was still some time to mull it over, and he would make sure to pay attention when they finally made it to the mine later that day. He would ask intelligent questions, and he would listen intently to her answers.

Eventually he pushed himself up from the bedroll and left the tent, and was surprised immediately by what he saw. A heavy fog had settled over the ruins, blanketing the world in an opaque cloud. It made him feel small, and insignificant, but also oddly protected. Everything seemed quieter. He felt he could be the only man alive.

But he wasn’t, because only a few steps away, tending the fire, was Brienne.

Her hair was a little messy at the back, where soft little curls tickled at the base of her neck. Her clothes too were still the comfortable clothes she had slept in, wrinkled from wear.

“‘Morning,” he said, voice husky and gravelly. He cleared it and tried again, pointing at the hazy air between them, “I see you have organised another glorious day for us.”

She looked up at the sky above, which felt close enough to reach up and touch, “The fog should clear in an hour or so. It will not delay our journey.”

“Oh, I am not worried,” he said, looking about for where the waterskin had ended up. It was resting against one of the crumbled walls. “I meant to say it’s very beautiful. It really adds to the atmosphere. We slept amongst the ruins of an Andal keep. The perfect knight Ser Galladon of Morne perhaps stood right here, where you and I stand. It seems easier to imagine when it looks as it does now.”

He waved his hand at the cloudy air above their heads, still holding the waterskin. It sloshed audibly in the quiet.

Brienne sat back on her haunches and glanced about at the rubble and stones, looking pensive. “Maybe,” she conceded, before adding, “I never much liked staying here when I was younger.”

“Oh?”

“Fog is common here — if we had the money we would build another beacon on the headland — but I would often see the shadows of people in the shifting air. Even now. See the hairs on the back of my neck?” She jutted a finger at the pale stretch of skin not covered by the loose neck of her tunic. He leaned a little closer, saw her skin prickled by gooseflesh and was struck by the impulse to caress her there, to warm the skin, to calm her hackles. She continued on, unaware of the way his eyes lingered on her, “There is something… unsatisfied about this place. I cannot explain it.”

“I think I understand,” he said, fidgeting with the stopper of the waterskin. “A place like this… It was once a grand and imposing place, the seat of a king. And now it is reduced to this… and here you and I are making camp in the remains.”

Jaime took a moment to imagine this place when it had been a grand keep for a Stormlands King. The thick walls would have reached high, though not as high as the watchtower at Evenfall, and the floor would have been hard stone pavers; now it was overgrown with lush grass. Very few Andal keeps still stood across Westeros— time had treated them all the same, levelling them back to the ground they’d been built on.

“It makes you feel small, doesn’t it, thinking on it too long,” he said, realising that she had been watching him, waiting for him to speak.

“It makes me worry,” Brienne said, so quietly at first he wasn’t sure he’d heard her properly. She was prodding at the fire with her stick, though now he was watching her more carefully, he could see the tension in her shoulders. He sat down beside her.

“About Evenfall?” he asked, gently. She nodded in reply and looked away, off into the mist. He felt the impulse to put his hand on her shoulder, or her back— to comfort her the way she had comforted him. Instead he said, “I said I would help. I mean to.”

“It’s not that,” she said, shaking her head slightly. “I believe you’ll help, but… This will all be my responsibility… one day, and … if I make the wrong decision, people will suffer.”

He acknowledged her words with a tilt of his head, “It is always difficult to hold other people’s lives in your hands. We glorify knights as honourable protectors, but forget that most knights we idolise have murdered others. There are some who steal, and who rape. But still we trust them to use that power, that skill, to protect the vulnerable and the weak. Vows are only as good as the people who make them. ”

“Is that why you did what you did?” she asked, so quietly he almost missed it, looking at his feet. There could be only one thing she was referring to. Aerys. He considered her— the slump of her shoulders, the tension in her hand, still holding the stick and poking at embers in the fire. She was barely looking at him, only just through her eyelashes, as though afraid to look at him any more directly. Whatever it was that was on her mind, he could not say.

“You know you’re the first person to ask me why I did it?” Jaime said, and he was gratified when she finally glanced up, looking him in the eye. “Everyone just assumed they knew the reason. Robert Baratheon. Ned Stark. My father. Even you. You judged me by my reputation, though I don’t blame you. You are too young to have been there yourself, and many of the things you would’ve heard about me are likely true. But those men. They saw Aerys’s blood on my sword, and me sitting on that godsforsaken throne, and they made up their minds, certain they all knew why I had done it. I did it because I was a Lannister. Power hungry and craven, too afraid to be caught on the losing side. Not one of them bothered to ask. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have gone if one of them had.

He knew he sounded bitter. It was impossible not to, after all these years, but Brienne did not seem offended, even at his mention of her name. If anything, she looked concerned. “Who were you protecting?”

Everyone. The population of King’s Landing, his voice whispered in his head. It should be so simple, to just open his mouth and do what he did best and talk. Tell her everything.

But he could not answer her. He took a steadying breath in, drawing the cold misty air deep into his lungs, and willed the words to come. He could tell her of the wildfyre. Of Aerys’s madness. Of everything he had suffered in the decades following his one, decent act. But no. He would not burden her with that story today, not when she was so clearly burdened by her own problems.

So he shook his head, “It does not matter. Suffice to say that I had a good reason for doing what I did. I…” and he searched about, looking for the best way to summarise what he felt, “I…regret many things, but that is not one. If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

That felt right enough, though he hadn’t really considered it much in years; it was easier to think on other things than to allow himself to grow bitter and jaded and angry about the way his life had turned out.

Brienne was looking at him. Yet again, she had a queer expression on her face. He wondered if there was a guide back in Evenfall Hall that would help him read her, to know what she was thinking. There was some part of him, not so small anymore, that desperately wished for her to think well of him.

“It is a great honour, and a great responsibility, as you said, to be the lord or the lady to many, to hold their lives in your hands. I have known many— too many — who did not appreciate that responsibility and their people suffered for it. But you are willing to work for your people, and they will love you for it. My father may be rich, but I doubt anyone in the westerlands loves him.”

Her sapphire eyes shimmered, and her lower lip quivered. Again, Jaime felt an almost magnetic need to reach out to her and give her comfort. He had not wanted to upset her. He had wanted to ease her fears, and he worried that he had only made things worse. She tore her gaze away from his, dropped her stick into the crackling fire and stood.

“I will go find us something for breakfast,” she said, voice sounding weak in the foggy air. But then, it was not the foggy air that had truly bothered her. Something tightened in his stomach, painful and disappointed as he watched her disappear into the ruins and the clouds. Could he do nothing right?


By the time Brienne returned, some time later, Jaime had washed himself with a rag and his waterskin, redressed in fresh clothes, and had given both Capricornia and Basil a thorough brush down. It was vigorous work, but he felt much better today than he had the day before. His hand had not started trembling again, and there was no headache. His wrist still pained him some, but it was manageable, and the bruising caused by the prosthetic had started to fade to a greenish yellow.

She had two small fish in her hands, though Jaime did not see a net or a rod or anything he would have needed to catch them himself. He was faintly amazed. Was there nothing she couldn’t do? She had already cleaned them, so it was only the work of a minute to string them up above the warm embers to roast.

Once they were cooking, she fetched a change of clothes for herself and again wandered away from the campsite, back into the fog. It had started to clear some, but it was still fairly thick in places. If she wanted privacy, he would do what he could to give it to her. Instead he kept an eye on the fish, turning them on the makeshift spit so they wouldn’t burn.

When she returned, in a new blue tunic, fresh doe’s leather breeches, and her short blonde hair slicked back instead of curling limply around her face, the fish were ready to eat.

“It is not a long ride to the mines. We could leave most of our things here and return here to camp tonight,” she said, as he handed her the wooden spit, which she snapped in half and returned his portion to him.

“Will everything be safe?” he asked, before taking a bite. The fish were small enough to eat bones and all— fresh, smokey and crunchy.

She shrugged her large shoulders, “I doubt there is anyone around for miles. There is no reason to come here, while the mine is closed.”

Jaime decided to trust in her judgement, and left all but one of his saddlebags behind. Brienne had left the tent where it was, so he placed his bags under the covers, where they would be protected if it were to rain.

The ride to the mines was easy, though once they left the ruins it was mostly an uphill journey. It only took them a little over an hour to get there, and he could tell once they were close.

The roads they had travelled the past few days had mostly been of the hard-packed dirt type, developed over the years by many people travelling the same routes, interspersed with well-made bridges wide enough for a carriage or two-horses travelling astride. Here though, they were wider still, and it was though they had been subtly dyed with white powder that became more concentrated as they drew nearer.

And the nearer they drew, the queerer Brienne seemed. He doubted she had ever been called noisy in her life, but he watched her face draw tight, and her eyes become cold and distant. She seemed unsettled. It was another half hour or so of riding before they reached the top of the peak. By then there were no trees in sight, only hard, unhewn white rock in every direction, except for directly ahead, where the sprawling southern end of Shipbreaker Bay stretched sapphire dark and clear for miles.

It was a magnificent sight. The mountain peak they stood on dropped sharply away in front of them. Jaime carefully approached the edge and looked down. It was as though the Smith had carved steps large enough for giants into the very rock. It levelled out at the bottom where the pure white rock met the water.

“I had not expected it to be so…” he said, searching his mind for the right word to convey what he could see.

“Deep?” Brienne supplied.

“No. Well yes—” they were quite high up. It was quite a vertiginous feeling. “— But I meant… It’s spectacular.”

“It’s just a mine. You have mines in the westerlands.”

“Not like this. Those are all deep underground, claustrophobic small things that collapse at a moments notice. This… This could make a man feel his insignificance.”

Brienne seemed a little amused by his response. Her lip twitched up at the corner, which he had come to feel was almost better than her true smile. It was gone in a heartbeat, and she asked, “Should I give you the official tour?”

He nodded, and followed her down. To their left there was a pathway, carved neatly along the precipice until it slowly sloped down. She led them slowly; it was a very steep track and to fall would mean certain death. He traced the path as far as he could with his eyes, and though it dropped out of sight he could see in the distance a collection of dwellings. That was probably the mining village.

“How many years has the mine been operational?” he asked, once it levelled out to a flatter section and he felt he could safely talk without worrying about distracting her much.

“Since Andal times,” she said, eyes locked on the village that seemed to be their destination, “Tarth marble was used in the construction of the Eyrie. Morne too, though after it was abandoned the marble was looted by pirates and scavengers.”

Now he could see the extent of the mine, it made sense that it had been operating for centuries. Surely a whole mountain’s worth of marble had been carved away and carried across the waters to wherever it was needed. It was easy to imagine the place teeming with workers. Tall men, as tall as Brienne, because that seemed to be the way of people on this island, carrying giant saws, pickaxes, mallets, and all the other such mining equipment, carving massive blocks as easily as slicing a cake.

“How many workers do you need?” he asked, but she seemed far away somewhere, distracted. Her hands only loosely held Basil’s reins. She looked pale, and he worried for her. “Brienne?”

Her name pulled her out of whatever trance she had fallen into. She blinked rapidly, her eyes pearlescent in the sunlight. “Sorry?” she asked, “I missed your question.”

He paused, concern fluttering in his belly, but he repeated his question anyway, eyes intent on her, looking for the source of her troubles. “How many workers do you need?”

“There were fifty men working on the mine before it closed—” her eyes darted to the village impulsively, and though she dragged them away, she looked out at the ocean rather than back at him. “—though our records show we once employed three hundred.”

“But they were skilled workers, yes? You would need someone trained to be the foreman. It would not be enough to bring fifty able men across the straits.” Otherwise there would be accidents. Deadly accidents. He knew that much. He had been forced to listen to more than enough conversations between his father or Tyrion and his Uncle Kevan about the gold mines at Casterly Rock to have picked up on a little of the profession. He supposed now that he was heir to the Rock again, he would have to brush up on this topic, along with many others. Preparing to be Lord Lannister was a heavy responsibility he did not much relish.

“I worked here for a time, when I was younger…” she said, still so soft that he would not have heard her if he wasn’t intently focused on her every word.

“Oh?” He had not expected that. He didn’t doubt she had the muscles for it.

She flushed red, though he could only see it in her neck, as she had turned Basil to continue down the path. “My master-at-arms wanted me to build strength and discipline, so when I was six and ten I lived and worked here for half a year.”

The path was precarious, but the horses were sure footed and true. Jaime only needed to focus on keeping his balance on Capricornia, because she followed Basil faithfully.

“I saw you, the first day I was here, practising with some of the men in the keep,” he said. “You are very good.”

It was faint praise. She was better than very good, but he did not have the words to better convey what he thought.

She did not look back at him, but her spine had stiffened so he was sure she had heard him. He continued on, eager to ensure he meant to compliment her. “If… If I still had my sword hand you would have been an intriguing challenger I think.”

But she did not take the bait. They reached a section of the path that narrowed, and for a while after there was no opportunity to talk. It took some time, but soon they reached the bottom of the quarry, and once there Jaime turned Capricornia around to look back up the escarpment to see how far they’d travelled. It was even more impressive from this angle; a wall of white that stretched hundreds of feet into the air, immaculate and vast. Here the marble was rough and unpolished, but it was just as remarkable in its raw state as it was polished and erected as the walls of Evenfall Hall.

He turned to Brienne to say this— perhaps this compliment would land a little better— but she was no longer beside him. For a moment, he was struck with something like fear. Where was she? He had only turned from her a moment, but…

The blue of her tunic caught his eye, far off in the distance, approaching the buildings. He was confused. She had just been there beside him. Obviously when he had turned right to look up at the vast quarry to admire its sheer magnitude, she had turned left and had made her way directly to the abandoned village.

He watched her dismount and leave Basil standing outside one of the larger buildings— from this distance he could not quite tell what it was, but from its size it was likely a bunkhouse or a house for equipment or the like. He pulled Capricornia around and directed her towards the dilapidated wooden shack, just as Brienne disappeared inside.

It was a minute or two before he reached Basil and dismounting still took more concentration than he wished it to. By the time he entered the building after her, a growing sense of dread had filled his stomach, resting uncomfortably like a solid mass inside him.

The building was a bunkhouse. Beds lined the walls, framed by a little shelf above each one. Some were stocked well with possessions and keepsakes, though others seemed to have been packed up. It had clearly sat here for a long time, unoccupied. A thin layer of marble dust covered every flat surface, and what had been disturbed by their entrance drifted in the air, catching the sunlight filtering in through the windows on the sides of the building. Brienne was sitting facing away from him on a bed frame halfway down. It had been made, neat as a pin before it had been left to gather dust.

It was quiet. Jaime could only barely hear the sound of water sloshing against the marble waterfront a little ways away. He approached the lady cautiously, acutely aware of the strangeness of this situation. She was disturbed, clearly, and he had no desire to make it any worse.

She was slumped down, resigned in a way he did not think she could ever be. In her hands she was holding a necklace made of shells— a rough, handmade thing, strung through with twine, but still pretty in a rustic way. It was the sort of thing you could buy from a market stall in Lannisport. Young men gave the trinkets to girls that caught their eye; an innocent gift for innocent love.

She twisted the creamy shells between her fingers, carefully examining each one in turn, absorbed in the act as though a septa in prayer. She had been acting strangely all day, and he had been content to leave her to it, but it was obvious now that she was upset and disturbed. Coming here, to the mine, pained her, and it was unsettling for him, in turn, to see her so unnerved.

He sat down on the bed across from her. She barely looked up at him; a flicker of wet, sapphire eyes was all she spared him. She was crying. This glorious, stoic, indomitable woman was crying.

Jaime’s mind was whirring, thoughts coming faster than he had the ability to process. He wanted to ask her what was wrong, wanted to take her in his arms and hold him the way she had held him, wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her.

He did none of those things. None of them seemed quite right. But he stayed close, and he waited. For this, he felt he could wait all day.

After a while, she sniffled wetly and wiped her eyes and nose with her sleeve. Jaime felt absurdly protective of her, in that moment, and wanted to offer her the tenderness he had craved so much and received from her, days before.

“I’m sorry,” she muttered, nose still dripping.

“Don’t be,” he said, quickly, too quickly, reaching out to lightly touch the closest part of her— her knee. “What kind of man would I be, to judge you for this after what you have seen of me?”

She looked up from the shells she still held to his hand where it was touching her knee, and then up further again to lock her dark eyes on his. Her brows drew tight in confusion.

“Who was he?” he asked, kindly.

“He?” Her confusion intensified. He wanted to gentle the wrinkles away with the pad of his thumb. Instead, he nodded at the necklace.

“Was he someone… special to you?”

Understanding brightened her face, followed immediately by the now familiar flush of embarrassment. She shook her head. “No. It was nothing like that.”

He waited again, willing to be patient. He felt a little like one of his father’s horse trainers, trying to ease a skittish horse into a bridle. It took restraint, a calm demeanour and more than a little compassion. Jaime found he had patience in abundance, for this. For her.

“His name was Art,” she said, eventually, fingering the soft grooves of the shells in her hand. “He was the foreman here for many years. Older than my father, I think. He was the one who took me in when I came here, demanding I was to be treated the same as everyone else.”

Jaime could easily imagine it. Brienne, as a girl. Tall and gangly and not yet grown into her confidence, lacking the muscle that lent her such a commanding presence now. He was sure she had been stubborn then, too. She had probably been a stubborn baby, from her very first scream.

“He had every right to turn me away. This is a dangerous place at the best of times, and more dangerous when there are over-eager green boys getting in everyone’s way. I know some of the other men told him to send me back to Evenfall, I saw it in their looks. But he ignored them, and put me to work as I wanted. And he did not give me easy work. He treated me no differently to any other person here. I started out clearing the muck and overburden—” and she paused. He must have looked somewhat bewildered by the unfamiliar terms, so she added, “—the rock and rubble. It needs to be cleared away from the walls for safety, but also so that the veins are visible. It is backbreaking work, but I did it without complaint, even when my hands blistered and cracked and peeled.”

She held her palms out then, and he saw the callouses there. His right hand had looked much the same, before he had left it behind in the Riverlands. Dry and cracked, yes, but firm from hard work.

“Eventually he let me learn to cut the marble, let me help transport it into the ships where we would send it to the Vale, to Essos, wherever it was wanted. He… he treated me with respect, and it was not because I was the heir to Tarth, or because he thought he could benefit from friendship with me…”

Jaime squeezed her knee faintly when she paused, overwhelmed once more with the impulse to gather her into his arms. She sniffed sharply, and gripped the necklace again.

“Was he… Was he your…?” He raised an eyebrow, unable to say the words.

“Oh, gods no.” Brienne said, truly, honestly appalled at the notion. “He had a wife he loved, and many children grown. He was… he was an uncle to me.”

He nodded, encouragingly.

“I worked here the six months Ser Goodwin prescribed, before I had to return home to meet the man my father wanted me to marry, and in that time these men became like family to me. They were protective of me… Told me that if my betrothed ever did anything I did not like, that I should send for them and they would come to Evenfall with their mallets… I never sent for them, by then I was strong enough to stand up to that horrid man myself, but it felt nice to know they had my back.”

No betrothal. Jaime flushed with relief and sat back, taking his hand with him. A woman such as her would be stifled in a conventional marriage, subservient to some odious man.

Brienne paused again, and looked out the window as though searching for something. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve. Took another deep breath.

“When Tarth declared for Renly, I told my father I wanted to fight for him. He did not want to let me go alone, but somehow these men heard of what I intended. They left the mine and joined me. I think I told you some of what happened after…”

She had told him of it, his very first night on Tarth. He searched his memory. “They were killed, yes? ‘In the confusion following Renly’s death’ you said.”

“Yes. And they were only there because they were keeping their promise to me. They wanted to protect me. And they died for it.”

“Men die in war,” Jaime said gently. “It is an inevitability. They chose to fight with you, yes, but that does not make their deaths your fault.”

The tears brewed in her eyes again, and he cursed himself for saying the wrong thing. He had meant it as a comfort, not a cruelty. It felt horrible.

“If they had not come with me, they would be alive and this mine would still be running,” she insisted, bitterly. “The island would not be in so much debt, we would not need to ask your father for his help.”

“Perhaps,” he acknowledged with a tilt of his head. “But you said that a storm destroyed the dock here too. It must have been a violent storm to cause that much damage. If the miners stayed, maybe they would’ve been swept out to sea with the wharf. Take it from me, any thought that begins with the words ‘what if’ leads to a torturous place. It is better not to speculate on what might have happened. You can only learn from your mistakes and try your best not to repeat them in the future.”

He could not tell if his words offered her the comfort he intended. Her skin was still flushed with embarrassment, and regret, and the heavy weight of guilt. But either way she seemed to be building her walls back up before his eyes, brick by marble brick and he wanted to stay her hands and take them into his own, and let her know that this vulnerability was nothing she should be ashamed of.

“You said it this morning. It is a hard thing to hold other people’s lives in your hands, to be responsible for others. I am no leader. They deserve better than me.”

Jaime scoffed. That was nonsense.“You are a natural leader.” She opened her mouth to protest, but he cut her off with a wave of his hand. “You are humble, to be sure, but a leader does not need to be gregarious to command respect. Every single man, woman and child I have met on this island respects you. I respect you. They trust you will do your best for them, and I have seen nothing in you that makes me think you have any intention of betraying that trust. I do not think you are capable of it.

“What happened with the miners was regrettable, but they made their choice to support you, and their faith in you is something to be honoured, not mourned. When this mine reopens, it will be because of you, and I doubt you will forget their sacrifice so easily.”

Her eyes welled again. This time, he raised his hand and brushed the tears away with his thumb before she could clear them herself. And if he let his hand linger there for a moment longer than necessary, relishing the feel of his warm cheek against his palm, then there was no one around to prove it.

“Now, if we are to convince my father to open his purse strings you are going to have to bore me with all the gritty details. What is your output like, how much you charge per … block. How do you even measure marble? Slab? Tile? Statue?”

Brienne chuckled. “Cubic feet, is the usual measure.”

“Yes, yes, those boring details are exactly the type he will want. Tell me more,” he said, smiling in return, and stood, holding out his hand to her.

She took it, and allowed him to help her up, before tucking the necklace into her belt. “Should I tell you the difference between cutting marble with the grain, or in a cross-section?”

“Sounds very boring. I need to know everything,” he said, and followed her back into the open, out into the light.

Chapter Text

The return journey was easier, in more ways than one. Jaime felt better. Stronger. His head was clearer, both from the aftereffects of the milk of the poppy and of the pain. It had surprised him somewhat that the ache in his wrist had eased, despite not having anything to help dull the sensation. But perhaps that was just what fresh air, food and exercise did for the body.

Because it wasn’t just his body that felt better. His mind was more at ease. His sleep was still restless at times, but his dreams were less intense. He woke once or twice a night, sometimes because a dream had disturbed him, but more often than not it was for something more mundane: a green log bursting in the fire or an animal calling its mate. Each time he came awake there would be a second or two of confusion, of disorientation, before he would turn to see Brienne sleeping peacefully in her bedroll beside him. Most of the time she slept on unaware. But once or twice he had started awake to see her dark blue eyes blinking back at him. Each time, without artifice, she simply reached out and grasped his hand in her own, closed her eyes and went back to sleep.

His improved health made the rest of the expedition smoother in turn. After three days of travelling together, they had already established a workable routine, but three more days had it down to a fine art. Brienne still had the lion’s share of the work to do, particularly when it came to hunting for their food. Her knowledge of the island, combined with the advantage in dexterity that two hands afforded over one meant that she came back each night with a hare or a plover, or a large grouper, which they roasted by packing in clay and baking it in the coals. He’d been sceptical, and had expected the fish to taste like dirt, but it had been light and juicy and she had packed it with some nuts and fruits she had bought from a passing villager which flavoured the meat beautifully. He had never eaten so well while he travelled, even including his trips around the country with Robert and his entourage, who never denied themselves a luxury.

Jaime, for his part, cared for the horses. After some trial and error he managed to devise a way to remove their saddles, which although more awkward and time consuming than it would’ve been for Brienne or anyone else with two hands and a modicum of strength, still worked well enough for him. The horses didn’t seem to mind either. He brushed them down, led them to drink and hobbled them near fresh grass each night.

They set up the camp together. He laid the fire, which she lit. He spread out their blankets and she erected the tent. In the mornings, she rolled their bedrolls up tightly, and he strapped them back onto the saddles and he packed the rest of their saddlebags, while she hoisted the gear back onto the horses.

It felt good to pull his weight, to be allowed time to work out a way for him to complete a task. And he felt safe knowing, for the first time in a long, long time that if he could not do something, he could ask for assistance that would be freely given, without fear that he would be judged for his weakness.

For all the journey was easy, he did look forward to finally returning to Evenfall. For one, he was too old to truly enjoy a week of sleeping on the ground; each time he rolled and caught a rock in his back, he fondly remembered how comfortable Lord Selwyn’s large bed had been. But he also looked forward to getting his hands on a quill and a scroll of paper. He wanted to send word to Tyrion as soon as he was able, so that his brother could start planning how best to convince their father. Oathkeeper, he whispered to himself at night, a sort of lullaby to ease himself into sleep.

All too soon, they were collecting Peck and the extra horse and saddlebags from the inn in Pelican Bay. The boy looked much better, no longer pale and sweaty, but lively and tanned. It seemed that he had only been a day or so abed before bouncing right back, and had spent the rest of his time outside playing with the other boys in the village.

He regaled Jaime and Brienne with tales of his adventures with his new friends. The boy’s enthusiasm and joy was pure in a way that Jaime hadn’t seen in anyone in years. Perhaps Tyrion had once been like that, probably about some new book he’d found in the library. Maybe he himself had once been that happy, though he could not remember it.

But he did not allow himself to feel bitter; Peck’s stories were far too funny for Jaime to feel anything other than satisfied, and perhaps a little jealous, that the boy had been as well-cared for as Brienne had promised.

Peck was in the middle of telling a very funny story about the innkeeper’s wife, a pregnant nanny goat and a broken embroidery hoop as they finally pulled into the gates of Evenfall.

Capricornia recognised where they were without prompting, and turned to the right, where Jaime remembered the stables to be.

“-- and then she screamed ‘You did what?’, and used the hoop to hook him round the neck and--” Peck said, but Jaime was no longer listening. He’d expected Brienne to follow on Basil, but she had suddenly stopped beside him. Something had caught her eye, and she turned such a pale shade of white that he worried she worried she was about to faint, or fall.

He followed her gaze and saw the maester running, running towards the returned party.

She dismounted, and dropped Basil’s reins in her haste. A passing groom snatched them up hurriedly, but she was already running towards the maester herself.

Jaime glanced at Peck, who seemed just as confused and was no longer telling his story. Jaime dismounted from Capricornia as fast as he was able, handed her reins to the groom, and followed after the lady.

Brienne was moving through the keep quickly. Already she had made it to Maester Craiso, spoken a few brief words with the man, and then she had left him behind to sprint, as though her life depended on it.

Dread filled Jaime’s stomach, as he trailed her around the corner and saw her destination. The watchtower.

She was well ahead of him now, had reached the heavy wooden door which she pushed with such reckless abandon that he was sure she just about knocked it from its hinges.

Jaime was panting now, but followed her into the tower as quickly as he could. It was not at all as she had said: dangerous and in disrepair. It looked as well-maintained as every other room in the keep, and the wooden stairs held up perfectly as she took them two at a time, racing to her destination higher in the tower.

He almost lost sight of her as she climbed, outpacing him in her distress, but she reached a door halfway and slammed it open. A few seconds later, and he too was in the room.

It took him a moment to process what he saw. It was a bedroom, probably the guest room that he should have been installed in. Lying in the middle of the great four-poster bed was a man.

Even in his sick bed, Selwyn Tarth was large. If he were healthy and able to stand, he would have been imposing, taller than his daughter, but the man who lay in the bed was as close to death as any poor soul Jaime had ever seen. He had clearly lost a lot of weight very quickly. His skin seemed to hang off his bones, all of which were plain to see as though his skeleton would soon be all that was left of him.

His breathing was laboured. Each breath a guttural, painful thing that took more effort than it was worth.

Brienne had taken her father’s hand in hers and was holding it pressed to her cheek, crying in silent agony as she watched him struggle for breath.

“What is wrong with him?” he quietly asked the maester, who had arrived a moment after Jaime.

“Corruption of the lungs, my lord,” Craiso muttered just as quietly. Then he surprised Jaime by taking him by the elbow to pointedly pull him from the room. “She deserves a moment alone with him. Before the end…”

Jaime swallowed his shock and stepped back. The maester closed the door, giving the Evenstar and his daughter their privacy. Jaime stared at the wooden grain of the door for a heartbeat, then he turned to face the maester, wanting answers to questions he had not even had time to think of. Instead, all he felt was an odd sense of betrayal. He had been lied to. Lied to by everyone on this island, deceived by one of the most honest women he’d ever met.

But had she? My father is indisposed, was all she had said. It was others, like the man standing in front of him, who had fleshed out the lie.

“Come with me, my lord,” the maester said, and began to climb the spiralling stairs. Jaime followed behind, confusion battling with a lingering tenderness that he could not quite shake, even as the feeling of betrayal intensified and he struggled to process what he had seen.

Within a minute of climbing the relentless stairs, they reached a landing that stretched out into a wide, circular room, every wall winged top to bottom with brilliant, clear windows. In the centre of the room, hanging from the bronze dome ceiling was a giant egg-shaped thing, much taller than he was, made of crystal and glass and metal that hatched and crossed in such an intricate and deliberate pattern that he immediately understood why it would be so expensive and time-consuming to repair. Tyrion would be fascinated with the engineering of it all, he would want to pull it apart to see how it worked, read up on the theoretical knowledge behind it… Understand it in every way.

But Jaime could not think of that. He could not think of anything but that she had fooled him.

That the most honourable, kind, sincere, honest woman he had ever met... had lied. Even if she hadn’t done the deed herself, she had allowed the lie to flourish. She had lied by omission. She had been in on the scheme, and he had been duped.

He felt ill, stomach roiling and churning, a physical manifestation of the sense of betrayal that coursed through his system.

Maester Craiso hovered at his elbow, just far enough away to give Jaime space and to be polite, but close enough to make him feel anxious. Because this man had been complicit in her lies. We had a raven from him this morning. There have been several pirate bands.

But there had been no ravens, nor any pirate bands, or any true reason for Lord Selwyn’s absence. They had tricked him. These provincial folk had tricked him. And what a mark he had been. So easily distracted by a stunning keep, a beautiful island and a remarkable lady, he had not seen what had been right under his nose from the beginning.

He turned to the maester. “How long has he been like this?” he demanded, anger strangling something deep and vital in his chest.

Maester Craiso did not flinch. He was made of the same steely stuff as his lady and all the rest of the people of this island. “Lord Selwyn has been sick for some time. His symptoms began to appear about a year ago, but two months past he began to decline rapidly and it became obvious what would happen.”

“So he was sick when he wrote the letter to my father?”

The maester shook his head sadly. “He wrote no letter.”

Then she had been the one to write it. A grim black thing settled around his heart and tightened.

“Was there ever a plan to tell me? My father?” he asked, finding it more difficult now that his mouth was sticky and dry.

Maester Craiso hesitated, lips drawing tightly together. Jaime flushed with anger. They had probably celebrated to see that he was the Lannister who had been sent. The Stupidest Lannister. The rest of his family would’ve seen through this scheme in a heartbeat, but he had been fooled.

“Lady Brienne did not make this decision lightly, ser. I have known her all her life, I have watched her grow into the young woman you spent a week with and I helped give her guidance when she asked. Knowing what I know of your father, and of you, and of all the men of Westeros, I advised her in this scheme, and perhaps that was wrong of me. Perhaps we should have been more open with you and your family, but tell me true: would you have shown her respect, or ridicule, if she had asked you for your help honestly?”

Jaime did not answer, but the question itself was damning enough. The maester gestured to the crystal and glass lantern that stood between them. “She did not lie about our need, I promise you.” He pointed to a series of panes, some violently cracked through the middle, others shattered, the shards pooled at the bottom of the egg. “It is broken, at the core. We could light the beacon, but its light would not shine out past the walls of this room. It would not warn sailors of the proximity of the land, of the imminent danger they are in. They would travel onwards, and crash into the rocks below, and every single one of those deaths would weigh on her shoulders. As would the deaths of every man, woman and child who will starve this winter unless you grant her request for aid.”

His gut churned, his heart ached, his body a battleground for many emotions he could not even hope to name. He knew, knew that he should help her. He had made a vow. He wanted to keep that vow. But now it felt hollow.

“I must go see to Lord Selwyn,” Maester Craiso said. “Please consider everything you have learned about this island and Lady Brienne this past week. We... She still needs you.”

The maester retreated back down the stairs, leaving Jaime alone in the tower with his thoughts. He had bared his soul to her, had shared some of his deepest, darkest secrets, and she had shared hers too. Or so he had thought. He had made his vow to her, upon seeing her honour and her courage and her openness. But she had lied, she had concealed, she had cowered from his judgement.

His eyes drifted as his thoughts wandered, from the crystal beacon to the heavy bronze stand it sat upon. There was something etched into the metal. The small writing was difficult to read, the calligraphy loopy and decorative, but he puzzled it out. First Light in the Dark.

Tarth’s house words. He traced the letters with a fingernail, thinking of the lessons he’d spent with his father, wondering why he had not recalled the words ‘til now. He could remember learning the house crest: Quartered yellow suns on a rose field, white crescents on an azure field. It seemed like a strange thing to forget, when he had spent a week here with the lady.

Her odd moods made sense now. She had left on the journey to the mine with him knowing that she risked missing her father’s final hours escorting the honourless Kingslayer around her island. He remembered her watery eyes, as they had left the keep the first day, and the way that she had snapped that name at him, when he had suggested taking their time. He remembered the way her voice had broken a little, as she had described watching her brother die, and the story of how her father had cared for her in the months after, even when he had most likely been grief-stricken himself. And yet, despite all of that, she still had compassion for him, and for his pain. She had been gentle, and kind, and open. If the situation were reversed, he knew he would not have been so understanding. She was a better person than him in every way that mattered. So she had lied. He most likely would have lied too.

And now he was still here, interrupting their last moments together. If Lord Selwyn died tonight, she would not be able to grieve as she would want. She would need to entertain him still, play the courteous host so as not to offend him, or his family. It was too much to bear. He could not do that to her.

He turned away from her words, to the view of Shipbreaker Bay. The view was quite magnificent. She had said as much and she was right. The sun was setting in the west, and perhaps on a clearer day he would have been able to see the shores of the mainland in the distance. Instead all he could see was the sapphire water, streaked with deep pinks and oranges reflected from the sky. There were still ships moving carefully in the harbour below. The ship he had arrived on, the Pride, was still moored in place, not far from the dock. Soon it would be dark, and there would be nothing that could not be seen by the light of the moon and the stars.

But there would be a new Evenstar in the morning. She would need to light the way from now on.


Jaime left without fanfare. The servants of the castle had by now heard of what was happening, and had gathered in a vigil near the base of the tower. When he descended the stairs and stepped back out into the courtyard, they spared him only a momentary glance before moving aside to let him through. No one asked where he was going. He did not tell them.

He found Peck in the crowd, looking anxious and out of place. The boy was grateful enough when Jaime told him to follow. Together they returned to the stables and found that all their things were still packed in his saddlebags. They resaddled the horses and left the keep quietly. No one marked their departure, but that was what Jaime wanted. It was only a short ride through Evenfall town, back to the docks.

If the dock master was confused by Jaime’s command to notify the crew of the Pride that they were to depart immediately, he did not let it show. He left Jaime to sit alone in the same room he had waited in on his first day, and sent Peck to the few taverns and alehouses of Evenfall to gather the sailors back to their posts.

Within the hour, he was back on deck of the ship, sailors around him hoisting anchors and turning the vessel about. It was only then that he let himself acknowledge the grim black wrapped around his heart. He had tried his best to ignore it, and that was an easy enough thing to do when he had things to do: find Peck, saddle his horse, remember the way to the docks. The dark thing ebbed and flowed, telling him he had done the right thing, before swinging the other way, to regret and dread.

It was a tide, pulling him in. He had been drawn to Tarth, and to Brienne, pulled in closely, tightly, until he felt human once again. But now the tide was going out. It was not his place to stay beside her, and he must go home, back to the rest of his family. It was inevitable. It was the natural way of things. The twilight darkened as the Pride finally pulled out of the harbour and into the bay, leaving Evenfall and the new Evenstar behind.

 

Chapter Text

The ship pitched awkwardly from side-to-side as they lurched into the Blackwater. The captain had ordered the mainsail lowered as they entered the bay in order to slow their approach. The harbour here was already busy, far busier than it ever was at Evenfall, and the last thing they needed to do was to run down some little skiff or fishing vessel because they were going too fast. It would hardly be diplomatic.

Brienne had left these decisions to the experts, waving them away when they had asked her what she wanted to do. She had been preoccupied for days, finding it harder and harder to concentrate the closer they got to King’s Landing. And now here she was, gripping the rails of her modest vessel, half the size of some of the other ships moored around them, staring up at the Red Keep in all its grandeur. She had always thought Evenfall Hall was beautiful, but it was clear that it paled in comparison to the royal palace.

She felt small. Ridiculous. This was a mistake.

Her stomach twisted in knots, cramping almost painfully. If she’d been able to stomach anything that morning, she would’ve already pitched it over the side, into the murky water below. The captain had offered her ginger root, for seasickness, and she had accepted it to be polite— he was only trying to be kind— but she knew it would not help her.

This wasn’t seasickness.

This was dread.

He had left without saying goodbye, without giving her the chance to explain or to apologise, or even just to talk. After keeping her father company in his final moments, whispering to him how much she loved him, how much she would miss him, how she didn’t want him to die, she hadn’t thought it possible to feel any worse. This could not be real. Surely it was some nightmare instead.

Renly’s death had affected her deeply; the ghostly shadow and its sword had run her innocence through when they pierced his heart. She had howled in anguish and blacked out with rage. Only later when she returned to her senses, with drying blood on her shirt, her sword, her hands and Catelyn Stark pushing her to keep running, go. We must go faster that she realised just what she had done. Emmon Cuy and Robar Royce were dead by her hand. She had killed them. Her first deaths, and she didn’t even remember them.

But this grief was worse. There was no forgiving blackness, just unrelenting consciousness. Her every memory had a sharp, painful quality. Her father’s last breaths were still so loud in her ear, along with the realisation that he was gone and he would never be able to hold and comfort her ever again. By the time she pulled herself away from the body, to remember that Jaime had followed her in to the tower, they told her he had gone. Gone without leaving a note. A more brutal blow than a morningstar to the chest.

She had hurt him, with her secret. That much was clear. There had been no other way. She had thought that Tywin Lannister would not give Tarth money if she was the Evenstar. Not without insisting she take a husband. Tarth had always belonged to her family, and by the time… by the time…

But it was too late now. The time had passed her by.

Since then, Brienne had received just one letter from the capital. It bore the Lannister seal, and when Maester Craiso had presented it to her, her chest tightened so painfully that she was unable to breathe for several long, harrowing moments. All the blood in her body had rushed to her face, and she struggled to make her fingers cooperate to break the wax and roll out the scroll.

It was a shorter missive than she expected, only a few lines. Her eyes impatiently darted to the name signed at the bottom, and she was bitterly disappointed to read Warmest regards, Tyrion Lannister there instead.

To The Evenstar, the Lady Brienne of Tarth,

Please accept the deepest condolences from the entire Lannister family on the death of your esteemed father, Lord Selwyn Tarth. He served the realm faithfully for many years and his light will be missed in the east.

With regard to your family’s recent request for assistance, and as a reward for your family’s tireless support of King Joffrey, the Crown wishes to offer you the title of Warden of the East, and as such you are invited to witness his marriage to Lady Margaery of House Tyrell. In addition, the King has signed a decree promising 20,000 gold dragons in aid to House Tarth to ensure your prosperity in years to come.

Enclosed in the letter had been a small brooch in the shape of the seven pointed star, with a sizeable sapphire placed in the middle. Warden of the East. It was too much. To go from being responsible for her island, to the Stormlands, Riverlands and the Vale, when she had almost let Tarth fall to ruin was too much. Surely she was just now to be a political figurehead. Far enough removed from the Lannisters to seem neutral to the other lords of Westeros, while privately beholden and indebted to them for life.

The brooch was pinned to her tunic, a newly made outfit that would better suit her new position than her old, well-worn clothes. It felt heavy and out of place, but if this was the burden she was to bear for saving her people, then she would do it.

There were so many ships arriving for the royal wedding that they were forced into a makeshift queue until space opened up along the docks for her ship to make berth. The rose and azure flag they flew was not so recognisable amongst the many ships bearing the Tyrell rose, the red and gold of House Lannister, or the black stag of the Crown.

Eventually, they docked. The pier was abuzz with people; servants running back and forth, some working in tandem with the sailors of the Constellation to tether the vessel in place. Others carried packages and trunks from the pier up the sandstone steps to the castle. Waiting a little further away was a small party. They would have gone unnoticed by her if it wasn’t for the rather large standard that waved above them. The gold lion rampant on a crimson field. House Lannister. Brienne forced herself to remain calm as she disembarked. The party was not waiting for her. After all there was a Redwyne vessel in line behind them that was surely more important.

But the moment she set foot on the docks, a young man in Lannister crimson approached her, bowing deeply.

“L-lady Brienne?” he asked, clearly nervous. So the party was here for her then. Her heart fluttered.

“Yes?” she said, proud that her voice did not waver, though it was a near thing.

The boy looked relieved. “Come with me, m’lady. M’lord will be escorting you to the palace.”

He led her up the stairs towards the rest of the Lannister party. Blood pounded in her ears, but she knew it was not the result of the exertion. Was he here? But it became clear very quickly that he had not come. There were only two others there. One was an average sort of fellow, clearly a sellsword or some such. He was not so much holding the standard upright as he was using it as a prop to lean on, as if the act of keeping himself upright was too much of a challenge. The other man was a dwarf, ugly and scarred, but he had the same burnished curls as his brother. He was dressed in a red tunic the same shade that Jaime had worn when he had first arrived on Tarth. This must be Tyrion Lannister.

He was the one to speak first, saying politely, “Lady Brienne, well met.” He bowed his head, and reached his hand up high to take her own.

She took it, leaning down so that her cumbersome height was not such a burden to be overcome. “Lord Tyrion?”

He smiled, the same sarcastic smile as his brother, and kissed her hand. “Is there another Lannister dwarf I ought to know about?”

She did not know how to respond. Had she said the wrong thing? They had not been formally introduced, to be sure, but his reputation preceded him. She felt her skin flush, and hoped that it simply looked as though she was red from exertion, or the heat of the sun. But luck did not seem to be on her side, today. The man leaning against the standard snorted and gave Tyrion a strangely impertinent look, which just confused Brienne further.

You are Warden of the East, now. Stand firm. Do not be intimidated, a voice not her own whispered behind her ear. She straightened, looked both men in the eye and fell back upon her courtesies. “Thank you for welcoming me to the capital, Lord Tyrion,” she said, and glanced up at the towers of the Red Keep. “It is not at all what I expected it to be.”

“Just you wait ’til we get inside the walls. No one expects that smell,” the sell-sword said, snorting at his own joke. Lord Tyrion looked up at him, faintly exasperated.

“Enough, Ser Bronn,” he said, with just enough of a hint of authority to make it clear who held the power between the two. Or the purse strings. He turned back to Brienne. “My apologies, my lady. Bronn… sometimes forgets his courtesies.”

Brienne had met enough men like this Ser Bronn to know that he likely didn’t have a single courteous bone in his body. There had been many men like him in Renly’s camp. She let her eyes slide from him, back to Lord Tyrion. Men like Bronn thrived on attention, and she would not reward him.

“If you would follow me? I know a more secluded way into the keep, which should keep us mostly away from the smell.” Lord Tyrion waved his hand, and Ser Bronn led the way.

They entered the city through the same entrance used by the servants and other arrivals, but soon they reached a street crowded with houses. Moving unexpectedly swiftly, Ser Bronn slipped through a slim gap between two buildings, and Lord Tyrion and his squire followed quickly after.

Bronn fitted easily, for he was a wiry man. The squire squeezed through too, being smaller than average. Lord Tyrion, of course, had no trouble, but Brienne found she had to walk through the passageway at an odd diagonal. Her shoulders were too broad to fit through without standing side face. It felt claustrophobic, and she wanted to back out, to go back the way she’d come, but all at once they emerged back out into the open, once again outside the walls. They were standing on a ledge that lined the keep, but which was protected from sight from the water by the angle of the rocks and the trees growing here. She took a deep breath in, hoping her companions had not noticed her discomfort.

Lord Tyrion looked up at her, somewhat apprehensively. Possibly even apologetically. “I know this is hardly… conventional, Lady Brienne, but I wanted to speak with you in private. There are some things you should know about King’s Landing. The first of which is that you are never alone.”

It was impossible not to feel nervous. What secrets could this man have to share with her? She had no secrets anymore, or none that anyone cared to hear.

“I do not mind company, Lord Tyrion,” she said.

His mouth twisted. It made the scar that crossed his nose look all the more jarring. Brienne wondered how he’d got it. “I mean to say I wish to talk of matters that I don’t want others to hear. And I think it will be best for you as well that this conversation stays between us.”

“What matters?” she asked, a fist clenching around her stomach. She eyed the three men. Men she had never met, and had no reason to trust.

“My brother. My father.”

Brienne felt her heart clench uncomfortably in her chest, a sharp pain, brief and powerful. Jaime.

“I hope Ser Jaime is faring well, now he has returned home,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “He left some of his things behind on Tarth, which I have brought with me to return to him.”

Lord Tyrion was silent for a second, and Brienne was uneasy when his face curled with a frown of confusion. He turned to the two other men and pointed up the path. “Bronn. Pod. Walk ahead.”

Ser Bronn, who had been watching her with open, mocking delight, gave Lord Tyrion a downright insolent pout. A child whose latest toy had been taken from him. The boy, Pod, moved away more reluctantly still, though it seemed to Brienne a more protective, awkward sort of hesitance. He did not want to leave his master alone with her. But Bronn grabbed him by the shoulder and dragged him bodily away. “Come, Pod. Let the ladies gossip about the miserable cunt. You can tell me more about what you said to those girls at Chataya’s.”

Lord Tyrion watched them until they were a fair way up the path, and when he decided they were well out of earshot he turned to Brienne once more. “I want to speak honestly about Jaime, Lady Brienne, and I want you to speak honestly about him as well, as best you can… I… I am worried about him.”

She pursed her lips, willing the vice of unease clenched around her to release some. “Is Ser Jaime well?” she asked, as calmly as she could.

“Physically? He is much recovered. His wound has finally healed and he has begun to gain some weight. I had been worried about that. And some weeks ago I convinced him to spar with Bronn, to try and learn to use his off hand to fight, and that has helped as well, I think.”

Jaime had looked quite frail while on Tarth. When Brienne had first met him at the docks, she had been frankly shocked that a man as unwell as he was had been sent on such an important errand. The dark shadows beneath his eyes spoke of exhaustion and illness, and he carried himself in a tellingly careful way, cautious of causing himself pain. But as she had become acquainted with him over the week of travelling, she had come to suspect that perhaps his family had just not noticed how unwell he was. After all, his father had insisted he wear the heavy gold hand that bruised him and prevented his wound from healing properly, and they had either not noticed or cared that he had become worryingly dependent on the milk of the poppy. It had hurt her heart to think of it. To think of how lonely he must have been.

And yet here his brother was, sharing his worries with her, a stranger. A stranger who had only spent a brief time with Jaime, who barely knew him. Lord Tyrion must be desperate, if he thought that she could offer him any information about the brother he loved. Clearly she knew nothing of the real Jaime. She had thought that… Perhaps they were…

But no. She had hurt him and he had left. He had been right to leave.

“I am glad to hear he is feeling better,” she said finally, swallowing hard against the anguish in her throat, by focussing on the good news Lord Tyrion offered. Ser Jaime was recovered. He was better, now. Healthier. Able to exercise once more, gaining back the skill and strength that even she had only seen ghostly shadows of. That was good news.

Tyrion shook his head, “Physically, he is fine, yes, but he is not… I worry…”

He paused, and squinted out across the bay, searching for words. She had always heard tell of his quick wit, his sharp tongue, and it left her uneasy to see him stumble for what to say.

“When he returned from the Riverlands without his hand, I thought he would never recover. For many, many years he was defined, by himself and others, by what he could do with a sword. What he had done with it. Kingslayer. It became his identity.”

They walked slowly along the path as he talked, making an odd pair. Brienne bowed her head low to listen carefully to what he shared, eager to know more of the man who had puzzled her so in the short time she had known him. She had known of him as the Kingslayer. His reputation as a man who feared nothing, a man without honour. But that hadn’t been the man she had met, not at all.

That man had been attentive, kind and strangely nervous at times. She had expected him to mock her, the way that all men mocked her, but he hadn’t. He had listened. He had promised to help, and he had kept that promise, all while he had been hurting himself. His dreams had been traumatic for her to witness, safely wrapped in her own bedroll. She could not fathom just how terrifying they must have been for him to live, night after night after night. He had not told her of their contents, but she had seen the way he gripped his forearm tightly after each one, how he had trembled, and how desperately he had leaned into her touch. A man broken. A man starved.

Heat bloomed in her neck, her cheeks. She dragged her attention back to the conversation at hand and was a little embarrassed to find that Lord Tyrion was looking up at her. His disconcerting eyes, one green, one black, scrutinised her with obvious interest.

“Father sent him to Tarth to cement his place as his heir once more, but also to expand the Lannisters’ power into the Stormlands. He wishes to shore up support there while Stannis licks his wounds in the North. Jaime may not have known that was the reason he was sent, but when he came back he argued passionately that we should accede to your request for aid, and when he found out what Father intended your role to be, he begged me to ensure it was the Crown that gave you the money, not Casterly Rock lending you the money.”

She paused. They had reached a rather long set of stairs. Ser Bronn and Pod were both waiting at the top. Pod held the standard now; the Lannister lion was fluttering in the wind. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Jaime is the heir now,” he said, somewhat urgently. He walked a few steps up and then turned back so that they were face to face for the first time. “Father has no interest in helping Jaime recover any further. In his eyes, my brother is well enough now to be a piece on his cyvass board once more. He does not care that Jaime has been suffering. When he joined the Kingsguard he gave up his lands, his titles, everything. Father will want to ensure, quickly, that Jaime does his duty as heir, and that includes marriage.”

He said the final word in such a weighty, pointed way, Brienne knew he was trying to tell her something important. But she could not see what it was. She was not used to this way of speaking, around the substance of the conversation, instead of directly stating it. It made her feel slow and stupid.

“I don’t understand,” she said. Her heart was hammering painfully.

Lord Tyrion looked at her with something like pity. She felt small under his gaze. Whatever it was he saw in her, she could not tell, but after an agonising second, she could not bear it anymore, and she looked away, out across the murky green of the Blackwater. He sighed in frustration.

“My brother’s position here is very precarious at the moment. He knows it, I know it, Father knows it. And yet he risked that to protect you. To help you,” he said, so quietly it was almost a whisper, though there wasn’t a soul around them to hear. “I love him. He is the best brother I could have ever had. It has hurt me greatly to see him suffering these last few months and I would do anything I could to prevent him any further pain.”

The implication was clear. It had been as she had suspected; she had hurt him with her lie and this was a warning: Do not hurt him again.

She wet her lips, tongue suddenly feeling very heavy. “I do not wish to cause him any,” she said, softly, honestly.

Lord Tyrion watched her a moment longer. It would have been less agonising to be judged by the gods. Finally, he nodded a little, and said, “He was right, you know. You do have very blue eyes.” Then he turned back to climb the rest of the stairs. Brienne, bewildered, followed behind.


The walk the rest of the way to the Red Keep went quickly, though Brienne was sceptical as to whether it was truly the shortcut that Lord Tyrion had promised. By the time she was shown into her rooms by his shy squire, her things had arrived before her.

Lord Tyrion had apologised for not escorting her all the way to her room, and for the lack of a proper, formal welcome from the Crown. As the new Warden of the East, it was her right, but with King Joffrey’s wedding to Margaery Tyrell looming in just two days, everyone of importance, the King, Lord Tywin, Queen Cersei, Ser Jaime and himself, were otherwise occupied with preparations. Instead she was to be introduced to court at the wedding reception, as part of the celebrations.

It made her anxious, to think of being the centre of attention at an event such as the royal wedding. The thought of hundreds of eyes on her, taking the measure of her, and her unearned new title, wondering what she must have done to be awarded it, was painful to think on. She wished she could decline the title and return to Tarth to be Evenstar for the rest of her days, but it was impossible. The title and the money were inextricably linked, even if Ser Jaime had found a way to give it to her that did not make her directly beholden to the Lannisters.

“Would you like me to call for a maid, m’lady?” Pod asked, interrupting her uneasy thoughts. “I could have them draw a bath, or send for some refreshments, whatever you might need.” He said it as though he were listing a series of options that had been drummed into him through training and he was worried he had forgotten the most important service.

“I will be fine,” she said, wanting, more than anything else, some time to herself. It had been an exhausting day.

“Lord Tyrion will send someone to bring you to his rooms when it is time for dinner, but if you need anything in the meantime, feel free to call,” he said, pointing to a thick rope near the fireplace.

She nodded her understanding, and satisfied that he had performed his duties as best he could, Pod left her, shutting the door behind him.

It was only once she was alone, that she allowed the panic she had been feeling for most of the day to bubble up. For a moment, she stood still in the centre of the room, fists clenched at her sides, neck tense. She allowed the dread its moment, let it uncoil and spread from deep within her body to the tips of her fingers, a cool, numb thing. But the moment she felt it reach her eyes, threatening tears, she forced herself to draw in air steadily. Forced herself to relax, to release her tense neck and shoulders.

She would survive this. This too would pass.

In times like these, it was best to stay occupied, or else she risked being overwhelmed. So she busied herself with unpacking. Her clothes were simple enough, probably too simple for King’s Landing and the new Warden of the East, but they were familiar, and she needed that. It was soothing, moving her clothes from her trunks to the cupboard in the room, and it made this strange room seem a little more familiar.

The saddlebag she left ’til last, after she hung all her tunics and trousers, and had folded and stowed her smallclothes away in a drawer. At first, she let her eyes slide off it, as though it were not there at all, but when it was the only thing left to unpack, she could not push it to the side any longer.

Brienne locked the door and sat on the end of the bed, feeling the soft leather and the weight of its contents for a moment, before she flipped it open. At first, as they travelled, she and Jaime had kept their things to themselves, fastidiously packing their own belongings into separate saddlebags, but as they had eaten through their supplies, and more space had appeared, it had been easier to just shove things into the nearest bag with space.

She lifted out a red shirt, now a little musty— she had not had any of his things washed— and in a fit of weakness she closed her eyes and brought it to her face, breathing in the scent. It was a sourish smell, musky and warm and familiar. She had not realised she’d even known his smell until, several days after he had departed, she had gone through his things and had been transported, wistful and melancholic, back to the cave where she had held him so close. The tears had come swiftly then, and she had smothered them in the worn fabric, reminded painfully that he had left.

The smell had faded, somewhat, but it was still there, and it was more of a comfort now. She allowed herself one final, deep breath in, savouring it for a moment, before she set it aside, folding it neatly, along with the other clothes he had left behind. She forced herself to reach into the bag one last time. Right at the bottom was the golden hand. Jaime had been so reluctant at first to go without it. His fear at being discovered disobeying his father palpable even to her. She wondered how he had explained its absence to his father when he had arrived back here. There was no way it had gone unnoticed by a man such as Tywin Lannister. Likely he had already had another one made for his son, and Jaime was wearing the second about the castle as he did his part in organising his nephew’s wedding.

She felt the weight of his hand in her own and fingered the finely wrought golden filigree, thinking of the father who had had this made, and for a son who had not wanted to wear it, but had not been able to refuse it.

What would her father have done in that situation? The answer came to her easily: he would not have made her wear it if she did not want to. He hadn’t forced her into dresses, hadn’t forced her to abandon the sword and take up the needle. He had taken the far harder route as a parent, and allowed her to grow and do as she wished. But perhaps he had been wrong. She could have saved her island years ago, if someone had agreed to marry her, and perhaps that would have happened if her father had insisted she be the dutiful, obedient daughter he deserved. A daughter who wore dresses, who knew her courtesies, who did not play at war because it came more easily than playing at being a woman.

And now she was here, in the capital, playing at Warden of the East. Nothing more than a pawn to be used by others.

The knock at the door came so suddenly she jumped and almost dropped the hand, but caught it, then panicked at the thought someone would see her holding it. She thrust it beneath one of the many cushions on the bed, and stood, nervously smoothing her damp hands along her thighs.

“Come in,” she called, voice breaking, but when the door rattled tellingly, she remembered she had locked it. She flushed, embarrassed, and went to open it instead.

The door swung open. “Sorry--” she said, before the word caught tightly in her throat.

Jaime.

He did look better. Healthier. He had gained a little flesh, and a little colour, and it made him all the more desperately beautiful. Her heart raced.

“Lady Brienne,” he said, softly. He stepped inside, brought his hand up to cup her face, and kissed her.

Chapter Text

Brienne leaned into Jaime, into his lips. As he kissed her he drew her closer still, his hand now buried in her hair, his stump pressing gently against her waist. She felt as though she were ablaze from somewhere deep within, and there would never be a hope of dousing it. He stepped closer, lightly pressing his body flush against hers and she blushed warmer still, until she was forced to take a step back.

He pulled away then, just for a moment, to close the door behind them, all the while keeping his stump pressed to her side. With some urgency, he said, “I cannot stay long.”

“Jaime,” she whispered, grasping his elbow with one hand, laying the other on his chest, above his heart. She could feel it thumping wildly beneath her fingers, in time with her own. It made her feel absurdly delicate. Brittle like glass.

He twisted the lock, and slipped his hand back into her hair, pulling her close again, his green eyes bright and clear. “Brienne,” he breathed, and it felt as gentle and reverential as a prayer. His thumb brushed the soft skin near her ear, her cheek. A soothing movement. It was too much.

Tears welled in her eyes, a sudden and unexpected surge. Jaime saw. They spilled over, wet and hot and inexorable. A dam breached. “You left,” she whispered in explanation.

He frowned, and drew her head into the crook of his shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said, voice cracking. His other arm wrapped around her, encircling her in a way that felt safe. Her father’s hugs had made her feel safe, too.

“You did not—”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He hugged her more tightly still, the words a low chant in her ear. His short arm rubbed gently up and down her spine.

She brought her hands up, to clutch at his shoulder blades, face buried in the very scent and breath of him.

“I should not have gone,” he said, his voice deep and husky. “I should have stayed, I wasn’t thinking, I didn’t mean to— I didn’t… and then your father… After all you did for me…”

His voice broke then too, and she should have felt angry. What did he have to be upset about? She had been the one whose father had died, and she had been the one left behind, without a word of explanation. When she had first discovered he was missing, she had been struck with terror. Had some accident befallen him? How could she possibly explain that to Tywin Lannister?

But his ship had, quite literally, sailed off into the sunset, and it had been seen by many. The dock master confirmed it, when she had called upon him the next day. He had seen Jaime safely on board The Pride at m’lord’s request.

So she should have been angry.

But she wasn’t. She had no words to describe what she felt, except the deep and undoubtable knowledge that being here, in his embrace, with her own arms wrapped tightly around him, was where she wanted to be. It’s where she’d wanted to be when the Stranger had finally taken her father and left her alone in the world.

They held each other close for some time. How much time, exactly, Brienne would never be sure of. But like all things, it had to end. Slowly, cautiously, they pulled away, like an outward, calming breath. Jaime kept his hand on her neck. She kept hers on his hip.

“This did not go as I planned,” he said, his cheeks pinking strangely above the scruff of his beard. “I did not mean to…”

And he glanced at her lips. A heady look, that spoke a language she never thought she would learn, and yet one that she was just now, tentatively, hoping to speak.

“I meant to apologise. I meant to explain myself.”

“Why did you leave?” she asked, unable to keep the edge of hurt from her tone. His fingers tightened ever so carefully in her hair, and he closed his eyes for just a moment.

“I thought you would not want me around to be a burden, when you… after I saw your father… I did not want to be another thing for you to worry about,” he said, with such quiet, intense acceptance that tears threatened her composure once more. How could he value himself so little? He had done that at the ruins, assumed that she was only tolerating him for his money, that she only was being kind so that he would return the kindness. A contract. A service rendered for hope of repayment later.

“I wanted—” her voice hitched, a telling rattle of nerves and anxiety and an aching, aching... She raised her hand and touched his bearded jaw. Steeled herself. “I wanted you there. I don’t know why, we have not known one another long, we are almost strangers, we—”

But he cut her off, first with a finger pressed to her lips, which he replaced soon with his own. Just as soft and gentle and tender, and she melted against him, seeking his nearness and his comfort. This time he deepened the kiss, tongue lightly pressing, and she yielded, to his mouth, to his affection. To him.

It was he who eventually pulled back, panting, passionate, green eyes alight, brighter than she had ever seen them. He rested her forehead against her own, a hopeful, light gesture. “We are not strangers, Brienne,” he said. “We could never be strangers. You know me.”

“You know me too.” It was a whisper, and a promise.

He took another deep breath in, and pulled away. “Coming to Tarth, meeting you, was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

She flushed, this time from somewhere deep within her chest, radiating through her every limb, her every finger, every toe. She would have felt embarrassed, but for the flush that she saw in his own skin. She smiled, dizzy. He returned it.

“I must go. I will be noticed. But we will talk again soon, I promise.”

She ran a hand down his arm, squeezed his stump, then released him. He unlocked the door, and left as quickly as he’d come, but for the warmth in her he’d left behind.


The wedding truly was an irresponsible extravagance. Seventy-seven dishes prepared for thousands of guests. Arbour gold and Dornish red flowed freely and the majority of the guests were doing as they were bid: they ate, they drank, and they were merry.

Tyrion wasn’t merry. He’d eaten some, but travesty of all travesties, he’d had barely a cup of wine. It wasn’t sitting well in his stomach, and frankly it had been clear since the morning that he would need his wits about him.

His despicable nephew’s wedding celebrations had so far gone to plan. He found it somewhat of a comfort to know that the money wasted on this ridiculous monstrosity of a celebration was well organised at least. But the Tyrells had insisted on a lavish feast, and had ponied up the money to pay for it. Perhaps it would’ve been better to use that money to pay for grain, or for repairing the broken sewers or cracked roads, on something that would have benefitted people not wrapped in silk and velvet and ridiculous jewels, but no.

No, they were to have a party.

And Joffrey was getting quite drunk.

So Tyrion did not.

He hardly felt like drinking in any case. Or rather, he felt like drinking himself into a brainless stupor, but he wanted to be alone while he did it, because he suspected that he would be quite melancholy and wretched, and did not particularly want anyone around to witness it. He was likely to talk about Shae if he drank. And if he talked about her, then perhaps he would do something disgusting like cry about her, and he was not about to do that. Not while his cheek still smarted from her slap, and while he was surrounded by the very worst people in the world— his family.

Except he wasn’t surrounded by them. Sansa was to his left, her demure mask carefully in place, and Tommen was to his right, enjoying a glass of spiced milk while he clapped and hooted delightedly as the many jugglers and acrobats performed for the royal family. And Jaime was here somewhere too. He had been sitting at the high table beside Tywin, looking just as enthusiastic about having to sit through the festivities as his good wife. At one point during one of Mace Tyrell’s very long speeches about the beautiful love he had watched blossom between his daughter and the king, and how it would unite the kingdom, or some other soporific, nonsense thing, he had locked eyes with Jaime and it had been very, very trying to keep his laughter contained.

But his brother had wandered away to use the privy some time ago, and it only now occurred to him that he had been gone for quite a bit longer than it usually took to take a shit.

He leaned towards Sansa and asked in a low voice, “Have you seen Jaime?” She was taller than Tyrion, and it was not beneath him to use her superior height to his advantage. It wasn’t like the marriage itself was providing him with any of the usual matrimonial conveniences, but he did try his best to see the brighter side of things.

Sansa blinked, and sat up a little straighter in her seat. Tyrion found it fascinating to watch the various layers of her camouflage at work. Perhaps one day he would get to truly meet his wife. Still, she was looking around the crowd, looking for his brother as he’d asked. After a moment, she shook her head, “I cannot see him, my lord.”

His stomach clenched in apprehension, and he swilled his wine around to take just a small, fortifying sip.

Sansa usually only spoke when answering direct questions, so it was somewhat surprising when she continued on, in a distinctly pointed tone, “but… he left something behind on his seat.”

Perhaps he had drunk a little more than he’d intended, because that was even more confusing. He restrained the instinct to stand up on his chair to peer over Tommen to Jaime’s empty seat, because that would be far too conspicuous. He considered, for a moment, asking Tommen to pass whatever it was his way; the lovely boy would do it for his beloved uncle and forget about it the moment the fire-breathers or the sword-swallowers took the stage, but again, it ran the risk of being noticed by his sister or father or, worst of all, Joffrey.

At that moment, his odious nephew was downing another glass of Dornish, then he laughed at some ridiculous thing one of the jesters said and belched wetly. He truly was Robert’s son in all the ways that mattered. A bolt of inspiration struck Tyrion.

“Should we go for a walk through the gardens, my lady?” he said, just loudly enough for Tommen to hear. He held out his hand to her and patted his stomach genially. “I have eaten far too much and need some exercise to help me digest.”

Sansa bowed her head and accepted his hand to stand, though it was an entirely unnecessary and ridiculous gesture. She waited patiently for him to dismount his own chair before walking down the steps with enviable grace. She paused at the bottom of the dais. He took the opportunity to turn back to look at Jaime’s vacant chair.

His golden hand, the one he had not worn for a month, not since returning from his mission to Tarth, was sitting on the plump red cushion.

“There is a fresh breeze coming off the Blackwater,” Sansa said, demurely, and her mask was back in place. “Perhaps we could walk along the mezzanine?”

“Whatever my lady commands,” Tyrion said, and followed her through the crowd. He did not want to be anywhere near the high table when Cersei or his father noticed that damned golden hand.

In fact, perhaps it might be better to call in that favour from Varys.


It had been a challenge for Jaime to escape the wedding, but he also had years of experience around his family and used every advantage he could. He’d kept Cersei’s goblet full and he wore the crimson and gold of House Lannister with pride, with the brand new Valyrian steel blade on his hip. He had been everything his father had wanted to see.

Eventually he found his opportunity during one of the bawdier performances of the day: a rather on-the-nose rendition of The Bear and the Maiden Fair. The singers were accompanied by dancers, and the one who played the maiden in the song was quite adept at the Meereenese knot. Not a single eye was on him when he told his brother he was stepping away. He’d detached the golden hand, left it on the seat and walked away without a second glance back.

The Constellation was ready to set sail when he reached the docks himself, which meant that Brienne’s part in the scheme had played out according to plan as well.

She’d endured her introduction to court as Warden of the East and had been rewarded with the money the crown had promised her and her people. But as she had been one of the more boring parts of the festivities, Joffrey had insisted they hurry it along so that the snake charmer could take the stage. While Joffrey had been egging on the viper to bite some poor lord, Brienne was to slip back into the crowd, then out of the Red Keep entirely, and had to find her way back to the docks using the same route Tyrion had shown her the previous day.

She was waiting for him, watching for him from the stern of the ship. Even from this distance, he could see the tight line of her neck and shoulders, and he could tell the moment she spotted him. Had anyone else in his life ever been so visibly relieved and happy to see him?

He climbed aboard, a difficult challenge for a one-handed man, but as soon as he was within reach, she was steadying him on to the deck.

They shared a grin. An open, happy, delighted thing, giddy that their plan had worked. That they had done this.

All about them, her crew bustled about their business, unmooring the ship from the dock, hoisting the sails to catch the fresh gusts of the afternoon air.

Jaime pulled her closer, heedless of the many eyes that could see them. These were men of Tarth. He had nothing to fear from them.

“We made it,” she said, laughter bubbling up from deep within her chest, melodious and pure.

“Take me home,” he whispered, into the shell of her ear.

She calmed, and shivered in a delightful way beneath his touch, but he felt her nod. “Alright,” she said, before she turned in his arms and kissed him. It was a more serene, free thing, than his hurried kiss the previous day, suffused with understanding and affection.

“Let’s go home.”

The journey would take some time, but so far luck was on their side. They sailed from the inky waters of Blackwater Bay, turning south into the Narrow Sea, borne home by the outgoing tide.