“...eyes greener than the sea
And darker than our cypresses”
— Anna Akhmatova, By The Seashore
Cersei had been married off here, to this land of endless winter and never spring, to foot a bill. Her lord father’s bill to be precise, even though he is now dead.
She’d vowed to herself, sitting in the carriage as they traveled all the way up north here, to this inhospitable land like a caged lioness, never again would she pay another’s debts.
But she’s seen what happens to caged lions, the way their spirits broke, the way every light in them died.
How long does she have before she turns into a hollowed out husk here where the sun rarely shines?
The picture of Southron beauty, wasted on people who would never understand anything about her.
She is not a queen, unlike what Maggy had foretold, unlike what her lord father had promised.
A pox on his promises.
He’d promised her a crown and then he’d gone and died.
In the aftermath, Uncle Kevan sold her like a broodmare because House Lannister had debts to repay.
So here she sits, still not quite comprehending, still not understanding how the entire world had ended and House Lannister — Lions, they were lions, it shouldn’t be this way — had been swept along for the ride like common peasants.
Her lord father, always calculating… Lord Tywin Lannister, always winning and ahead… had miscalculated and paid dearly for it.
He is gone.
As is Jaime, light of her life. Her other half.
And none of it seems real.
None of it seems real, but the cloak of House Stark around her shoulders and the weeping red faces of the Godswood does much to convince her.
Real enough, she supposes.
Real enough, but only just.
Her lord husband looks at her strangely, and more importantly, coldly.
Normally, she wouldn’t care, but with the armies of House Lannister gutted, and her lord father dead, she finds that it does more than rankle.
It makes her fear, because no matter how much she dislikes it here, Winterfell is where she will be consigned to for the rest of her life.
Remember Cersei, Uncle Kevan had said, this is the best match that I can make for you. Ned Stark is the new king’s bosom brother. Keep him happy, and we might make it through this storm yet.
She’d been about to tell him to—
To hang his opinions where she couldn’t see them. All that remains of their family are people she doesn’t care about — Tyrion, cousins, too many cousins for her to care about, Aunt Genna married to Emmon Frey — but try as she might, she still cares about the Lannister name.
She still cares about herself.
Failure to win over her husband and produce an heir will lead to her getting sent back to the Westerlands in shame, and she has long offended the Lannister bannermen.
Married here, into the north, far away, is still better than married to a vassal who’d crow over having taken the beauty of Casterly Rock to bed.
“Who are you planning for a match for your younger brother, my lord?” she asks one morning as they break their fast.
Benjen Stark does not like her, or perhaps he is shy. Either way, it matters not, for now that House Stark is down to just three — her lord husband, a second son, her good-brother, a third son, and Jon Snow, the Bastard — they are in danger of suddenly ceasing to be, and Cersei doesn’t like her odds of survival if the line did go extinct.
“No one.” Eddard Stark looks at her still coldly appraising. “For he is going to join the Night’s Watch on the Wall in less than half a moon’s turn.”
“Are you mad?” she asks, before remembering that “mad” is no longer a word one can use without thought anymore.
His face darkens. “No. And I trust you will hold your tongue.”
She will not. “There are three Starks left in all the world, husband. You’d be a fool to let him leave.”
“A fool,” he spits. “No, I’d be a fool to let him stay.”
“And what—” she should not, she sees the blackness of his temper, but how can she not? She has never really learned to hold her tongue. “What will you do should something befall you? Let an infant inherit the North?”
“Oh, I think something befalling me would be your greatest joy.” His face, normally so placid, is twisted, ugly.
She does not fear it. Perhaps she ought. “Do not put words in my mouth, Stark.”
He puts his hands on the table and rises to go, meal only half eaten. “I,” he says, through gritted teeth, “will be in the Godswood. And Benjen, will leave for the wall whenever he so chooses. Is that clear?”
“Clear as mud,” she hisses, her grip hard on her fork. If she were a man, she’d—
But she is not a man, no Jaime, no good with a sword. She is a woman, and women are sold to the highest bidder.
And the man she’d married is the Seven’s own fool.
She picks up the accounts in Winterfell, taking over managing the household. Her current project is comparing early years' expenditures to their current spending and income, having bullied Maester Luwin into giving her the account books.
He’d resisted, of course he had, but in the end, she was the one meant to manage them, and manage them she will unless someone can manage to prove that she cannot properly manage them.
Not out of any particular good will towards her new household, but more because if she has to sit here like a doll that her lord husband does not visit except at night in her bedchamber then she will go stark, raving mad.
It is not as if there is gossip here, or good conversation. The northern ladies sent to Winterfell to be her companions are all quiet people.
When they talk, it is of needlework and duty, household management and the weather.
Cersei does not care much for any of these except the third, and on that she keeps her own counsel and no one else’s.
The weather has been all the same since she arrived. The accounts are a mess, because House Stark has not had a proper lady since her husband’s mother died when he was but a boy, and in the absence of someone to keep a vengeful watch on every coin spent and repaid.
Her husband — cold, silent, always somber — had not mentioned any of this to her, either in approval or disapproval. It, however, is only a matter of time, for she has turned the household upside down to accommodate.
She drowns herself in accounts and numbers because wine is rarer here, and her position precarious enough that she cannot afford cultivating the reputation of a drunkard — and hadn’t it been strange when Uncle Kevan had warned her of how precarious this marriage is, how much it means to House Lannister, what they can and can no longer afford — so instead she cultivates the reputation of a woman possessed by household management instead.
The ache of Jaime, absent, like the hollow sorrowful emptiness in her chest doesn’t go away.
She misses her mother, who’d been the only one to soothe her tears when she was young.
She has no tears to cry.
And as she suspected, for the first time, when Eddard Stark visits her chambers after the wintry sun had given up, he sits down first.
She’d risen, for typically, they would then adjourn to bed, but sits down again, and folds her hands together in her lap. “You have words you must say to me, my lord?”
“Why?” Eddard Stark is a soft spoken man, with seemingly placid moods, but he also never said a word more than he needed to, and he rarely needed to say words to her.
She does not like him.
She does not care for Winterfell.
She shrugs, the furs wrapped around her shoulders rising and falling. “It needed doing, didn’t it?”
It is true that it did need doing — the accounts have been kept haphazardly, the writing barely above chicken scratch, and she’d discovered that they’d been short changed on flour and salt for roughly the past five or seven years (the accounts also did not agree on their dates either.) — but that doesn’t mean that Eddard Stark would appreciate it.
He would be a fool if he didn’t appreciate it, but that doesn’t mean much.
Most Northern men are fools.
“I see.” He seems to be considering something as he rises to go, but he keeps his own council on what it is.
They do not speak further on her newest project, but she is also not discouraged from continuing.
Between her account madness, and her oddly aching chest, she’d not given much thought to her husband’s bastard, though when she’d first heard that the somber, diligent Ned Stark had had a bastard, she’d laughed herself silly.
But that is long past, before she learned she would be Jon Snow's stepmother.
The wailing infant’s cries echoing up and down the stairwell and straight into her study is hard to ignore however.
She rises, skirts swishing and heads outwards, in search of the sounds and how to make them stop, make them end, she is bitter and tired and—
“‘Pologies milady—” A girl, dressed plainly, clearly not enough.
“Are you or are you not his wetnurse?” she snaps, still trying to fight her headache and her heartache and wishes she could somehow make the screaming stop. “What sort of pathetic excuse for a wetnurse are you?” She sweeps into the room, and glares angrily over the edge of the cradle at the bastard boy. “You can’t even keep an infant quiet?” Glaring had never stopped Tyrion from crying, but it’d silenced any number of weeping girls ever since she turned one and ten, plenty old enough that people feared the power of House Lannister. “Get out.”
Jon Snow has a soft, round face, and a messy riot of dark curls. If he wasn’t screaming all the air out of his tiny lungs, and also not her husband’s bastard, Cersei never would’ve paid him the slightest bit of attention.
She leans over, a strand of golden hair falling over the cradle as she thinks of what to do,
A small hand reaches up and grabs it and yanks.
“Why you little—”
Jon Snow burbles, looking up at her with a gummy smile, seemingly now perfectly content that he has her hair to play with.
And she should not feel any sympathy whatsoever for this bastard boy her husband sired on some woman — Ashara Dayne, some washerwoman who’d tended his wounds during the war, a whore, the speculation is endless and not remotely helpful — but…
“Well, you’re a motherless welp aren’t you.”
It’s not a question. Even if Jon Snow’s mother lived, she would never replace Cersei as Eddard Stark’s wife, and since Jon Snow is here, he is motherless.
Jon Snow does not respond, though he is still smiling rather guilelessly at her.
I could smother you with a pillow, and no one will ever know, she thinks, even though people would know, and she has no doubt that her life would be very short indeed.
Her attempt to remove the boy’s hands from her hair without damage appears futile.
Very reluctantly, she picks up Jon Snow and carries him away, back to her chambers.
She is halfway through another sheet of figures, Jon drooling on her lap, fast asleep when her lord husband comes to call.
Eddard Stark throws the door open as if he expects the worst. “Where—”
“I’ve only just gotten him to stop screaming, my lord.”
Jon stirs, but mercifully doesn’t wake. If he started screaming again, she would lose her temper.
“I’ll take him.” He moves forward.
“He’s still got a hold of my hair.” She sets her quill aside, careful to avoid smudging the ink on her newest sheet.
She’d done it once and nearly screamed herself.
Thrown off his guard and off his track, he sits, perched uncomfortably on one of her chairs.
“You don’t like your ladies very much do you.”
It’s not really a question.
In her lap, Jon shifts slightly and sighs. Like this, he doesn’t weigh more than a wet cat.
She has no idea what infants should weigh, but she’s pretty sure he’s the wrong weight.
“What makes you think that, my lord?”
She blinks. “Beg pardon?”
“Ned.” A corner of his mouth twists down. “You’ve never used my name.”
“To answer your question, Eddard,” for that is his name, and she has not unbent enough to call him Ned of all things. “I don’t much need them about distracting me with questions and getting underfoot when I am trying to get the accounts in order.”
He looks at her, as though trying to place a puzzle piece. “You do not act like what they told me of you,” he says at last as he rises to go. “And you act like the late Lord Tywin even less.”
And oh, how that rankles.
She could hiss at him. I am a lioness of the Rock. How dare you claim otherwise.
But if she raises her voice, then Jon will waken and scream his little lungs out and she will get nowhere.
She presses her lips tightly together. “Goodbye, Eddard,” she says instead. “I hope the day goes well.”
Each word barbed and dripping poison, but she hears him laughing, very quietly in the hall when he thinks the door has closed behind him.
She could rip out his throat.
Queen you shall be. Whispers.
She is six or seven years old again, and her lord father leans down to tell her a secret.
You will marry Prince Rhaegar Targaryen and be his queen. Would you like that, Cersei?
Queen you shall be.
And the city explodes in wildfire green, green, green, darkening to the color of Jaime’s eyes.
Sightless, staring at her still.
Forgotten me already, sweet sister? When it was supposed to be you and I in the end?
“You never even had a corpse.”
Queen you shall be.
Maggots. Melara’s body in the well, bloated from the water.
Maggots. Eating Lord Tywin’s eyes.
Jaime, coming towards her, dead, his long, white fingers coming for her throat.
His hands around your pale, white throat.
She wakes screaming.
“I have not been…” Her lord husband fiddles with his hands as he sits there, by the fire. “Kind, to you. And for that I am sorry.”
She shrugs. “I didn’t expect you to be, so nothing’s been lost.”
This is evidently not the right thing to say because he flinches as though he’s been struck.
If she were someone with more sympathy, she would’ve felt sympathy for him, but she is Cersei Lannister and her sympathy is in such short supply that she doesn’t feel much of anything except a vague ‘oh.’
“It isn’t right.”
Odd. She’d been trying to make sense of him for so long now, but here is what he is.
Someone who wants to do what is right, and who blames himself if he did not do so.
“People don’t do what is right, Eddard. They do what benefits them.”
Robert who now sits on the throne married Catelyn Tully for armies to win his war, no matter what he said when he started the Rebellion.
Maggy the Frog had told her she would be queen for the sake of Lannister gold.
Uncle Kevan all but told her she would marry Eddard Stark to secure the Lannisters to the new regime.
In all the world, there is not a single person who doesn’t do what benefits them.
“You have a mean view of the world then.”
She meets his eyes for the first time. “It is only the truth.”
Perhaps he is more of a fool than she thought, more fool than she thought possible for a man to be.
“I would like to do better by you,” after a moment of silence, “if you would let me.”
No one has ever said this to her either. She rises, suddenly wishing to be anywhere else but here. “I should go check on Jon. He has become afraid of the dark.”
“Why do you care for him?” She’s never seen Eddard Stark look so discombobulated and caught off guard.
Cersei isn’t sure she likes it.
His colder moods, she is used to. This mood, heavy but intent, she is not used to, and that sets her spine on edge. “Why not?”
Was he going to leave Jon’s raising to wet nurses and servants forever and try to keep him out of her sight?
“You have hated everything else here, from the servants to your ladies in waiting, to the weather, to me.” Eddard Stark toys with one of the lion figurines on her desk. “House Stark is not where your ambitions lie, Lady Cersei, so why take an interest in my baseborn son?”
Were she a simpering maid, or even a more layered woman of more guile and tact than viciousness and cunning, and therefore completely without spine, she would’ve said something like — “oh, but my lord, you wound me for I love you and would love all of your children regardless.”
But she is a Lannister of the Rock, so what she says is, “He’s motherless, Eddard.” She raises one perfectly sculpted eyebrow, and tries not to betray her nerves. “Would you have him raised by wet nurses and servants who barely know their letters and kept out of the way until he grows a resentment?”
“You needn’t concern yourself with—”
“I’m motherless.” And fatherless now that she thinks about it, though she feels Tywin Lannister’s eyes on her from beyond the grave anyhow. Do not disappoint me, Cersei.
She knows how it feels, even if that is not the primary reason she has taken an interest in Jon Snow. Her sons will all be younger than her husband’s bastard boy.
Bastard boys who are well provided for and treated well are less likely to make trouble for their trueborn younger brothers.
Jon Snow might make a pleasant castellan or start a Stark cadet branch yet — the Seven knows that the Starks are a dying breed.
“Aye,” her lord husband says, staring at his clasped hands. “I know that pain. And the pain of losing a father to the Mad King.”
Oh, yes, that is something they share as well, isn’t it.
They say Rickard Stark had been strung up in his own armor, for fire had been the Mad King’s champion.
“He was a fool,” she says, her hands clenched tightly on the back of her chair. “My father. All his life, he’d calculated, always calculating. He cast a deep shadow.” A shadow that even today, she stands in the darkness of. “But then what does he do? Goes and gets himself and twelve thousand men with him blown up.”
And Jaime. Jaime. Also a fool. Gone and gotten himself turned to so much ash and rubble.
Left her here all alone.
“You don’t really believe that.” There’s a note of pity in Eddard Stark’s voice, and she hates pity, hates it, hates— “You grieve them.”
“I don’t.” She grieves what she lost when King’s Landing burst, raining flames.
Who gave this Northern man the right to see her, in all her narrowness and spite, too clearly?
She unclenches her hands from her chair though they are red and raw and shake and makes her way towards the door.
“Will you call me Ned?”
There is darkness all around them, soft, if darkness can be soft.
“Only if you call me Cersei.” There is no one left to call her Cersei. Not here.
And let her rot, but she misses—
She does not want to be half a woman all her living days and waking nights.
“Aye, I can do that.”
Ned doesn’t follow her when she leaves to check on Jon in his little narrow room.
She has a daughter, golden haired, with stormy eyes, two years younger than Jon, that she names Joanna.
A year later, another daughter, still golden haired and green eyed, though with Ned’s long face and somber air, that she names Myrcella.
Ned leaves, for a time, for the fighting in the Iron Islands, and she does not quite realize that she has missed him until he returns.
By their third daughter — two years younger than Myrcella, all Stark except for her deep green eyes — she concedes that she will never have a son, and names the girl a properly northern name.
Arya, for her Flint great-grandmother.
“You seem to have had a change of heart,” Ned comments, sitting at her bedside, holding their youngest daughter.
“You,” she says, perhaps more archly than she might. “Seem quite comfortable for a lord without a trueborn son.”
House Stark is depleted, she half wants to say. You should not have sent Benjen away before he could at least sire a few children to make sure that this house does not depend upon your new wife or a little baseborn boy.
But they’d quarrelled over this before, and he had declined to comment, only protesting that he had not been the one to send Benjen away.
His brow furrows, but he smooths it away an instant later. “Why should I be worried? We are young yet.”
But Maggy the Frog, long long ago, had told her.
And three for you.
Gold shall be their crowns, and gold shall be their shrouds.
A pox, a pox on the fortune teller. She did not wed a king, and she is not a queen.
Her children will never wear crowns, and their shrouds, when they have them, many many years hence when she is already buried, will be the grey of House Stark.
“You look troubled,” Ned observes.
“They will talk.” And so the bannermen will, the great oaf Manderly most of all, even though she had all but promised that Joanna, at the very least among her girls, will have a proper, northern match, the likes of which has not been seen in the North two generations. “But let them talk.”
She will think of something.
She always has before.
“You are so good to him.” Ned has been deep in his cups this night, though Jon had only just gone off to bed.
It had his eighth name day, and she’d made the kitchen staff give him a feast.
Since he is Lord Stark’s only son, there had only been a very few grumbles about the impropriety of the business, giving a bastard boy a feast.
The Cersei of years ago would’ve laughed at the spectacle of her now, gone soft, somehow catering to a bastard.
But if Ned should die, which he might, for nothing is ever certain, she and the girls will live lives only as good as Jon’s goodwill.
“Not so good as all that,” she pulls the wine cup from Ned’s hands and sets it on the table beside him as she comes to sit next to him on the bench.
Her goodness towards Jon is born from selfishness, though he is a diligent, somber child.
Little boys of eight are rarely so well behaved as Jon.
“When I brought him here, and bastardized him, I knew…”
Ned continues speaking, but she only hears “and bastardized him.”
That must mean…
That must mean…
“Goodness, Ned," she says, voice light, though she can scarcely think what it might mean, "when you bedded the serving wench, don't tell me you married her too."
It would not be entirely beyond the pale, for the Honorable Ned Stark to have abruptly married the woman who was about to have his child for the sake of giving that child legitimacy, but—
No, what is beyond the pale for Ned Stark would be bastardizing his own son for the sake of marrying a Lannister.
Ned looks at her through clouded eyes. “What serving wench?”
No, he is far too drunk to get anything out of, and when he is sober again, he will surely wield his Northern man's silence that he so easily weaponizes to tell her nothing. If she means to find out the truth about Jon, she will have to ask someone else.
“Ashara Dayne, then?” she asks, still light. “Were you afraid I’d be offended that you’d wedded and bedded a Dornish woman?”
“No,” he shakes his head, still vaguely searching for more wine. “Never wedded. Only you.”
Well, that said both everything and nothing at all didn’t it.
If Jon isn’t Ned’s son, whose son is he?
Ned Stark had returned to Winterfell with a corpse and an infant. His sister’s corpse.
And perhaps, his sister’s son as well, that he’d claimed as his own.
Lyanna Stark had been taken by Rhaegar Targaryen. When she’d been found, she’d been in Dorne, wolf girl trapped in a tower, already dying of sickness.
She’d been there for over a year, and Rhaegar Targaryen had been there for months as well.
When she views it from these lenses, doesn’t everything become clear?
But these are merely guesses. Merely conjectures she draws in the air.
But these are conjectures she draws in the air, castles of clouds.
Her hands shake as she dips her quill in ink, thinking of words, how best to phrase them.
“Mother?” Jon peers at her from behind the door, all somber and serious.
Some years ago, she would’ve corrected him, but she’d stopped for a time, having…
She could laugh now, laugh hysterically. Rhaegar’s son, calling her ‘mother.’ Wasn’t that what she had always wanted?
“What is it, Jon?”
He ought to be with Maester Luwin at this moment, learning the northern bannermen and their family histories.
“Maester Luwin says he wants to see you about the matter you told him about.”
She’d been more tired lately, insistently tired, even though the winter sun has turned warmer than it ever had been since she’d arrived here.
Perhaps that was it. The heat is all; she’s grown unused to the heat.
She rises. “Yes, I would like to hear his thoughts about it. I’ll come with you then.” Her letter to Howland Reed will have to wait, but that does not mean she will not send it.
Jon slips a small hand in hers as they walk.
She does not pull her hand away.
Maester Luwin tells her she is with child again, for the fourth time, already some three months along and her heart leaps to her throat.
And three for you.
Has the Stranger had enough of her walking the earth and come to collect her already?
She has not had enough of life yet, her girls still young, Jon still too small to provide for them, she—
She has not had enough of living yet.
“You do not appear happy to hear this news, Lady Stark.”
She shakes herself, suddenly cold, though it’s been years since she felt the bite of the northern winter. “No, merely surprised.”
If she is to die soon, she must ask Howland Reed, and she must ask it now, else Ned would let the truth of Jon’s parentage die with him.
She writes to Howland Reed and begs the Father in her chambers that the truth will come on raven’s wings.
This child saps her of her waking hours and appetite, days spent lying in bed even though she’d spent her past three lying-ins pacing half the day like a caged lion.
Jon comes to read to her though being only eight, he doesn’t read anything of particular note, still so somber and serious. He rarely laughed or smiled but when he does, it lights up his whole face.
“Mother?” He closed the book a little bit ago, though he still sits by her bedside.
“Yes?” She almost feels guilty for why she has treated him thusly, though it is better than what he could have expected though never as well as he deserved.
There’s something wet on her hand.
He’s crying. Foolish boy, though he is just past his eighth nameday.
“I don’t want you to go.”
A memory springs, unbidden to mind — Jaime and her by their lady mother’s side, no, she had never known that would be the last time she saw Joanna Lannister.
“Don’t be foolish, Jon. If I go anywhere, who will make you scrub behind your ears before going to bed?”
He sniffs, rubbing at his eyes. “No one.”
“So you see? I won’t go.”
He sniffs again and nods, more to himself than to her before he rises and goes.
The day after, Howland Reed’s letter arrives for her, and confirms all of her worst fears.
Old Nan tells her later that Rickon is born at the hour of dawn, though no one could tell — a storm had stolen in during the night and swept Winterfell up in huge drifts of snow, sky an iron gray.
She could’ve told the old woman that. In the eight years she has been at Winterfell she can count on one hand the number of days she’s seen a blue sky, clear without a hint of cloud.
She does know that she drifts, unable to wake though able to hear people talking above her.
She’d done her duty it would seem, a trueborn son for House Stark, and now she will pay the price for it.
“What do you mean?”
Ned’s voice, with a touch of panic.
She’d never heard anyone except her mother and Jaime panic over her injuries and hurts before.
“Whether or not Lady Cersei will wake again depends on her.”
And Jon and the girls with questions, indistinct chatter she cannot hear.
She slips beneath the surface.
Again, she is ten, in that putrid tent filled with spices and the toothless fortune teller.
She’d given her blood.
Queen you shall be.
But she is not a queen.
His hands around your pale, white throat.
But her only living brother is in Casterly Rock, far to the south.
Gold will be their crowns, and gold will be their shrouds.
“No,” she says. “None of this is real.”
What is real in her life are the gray skies of winter.
The gray eyes of Jon Snow.
The gray walls of Winterfell.
The weeping red faces of the godswood where she was wed.
“No,” she says again and watches the whole scene crumble. “Give me back what is real.”
Or she will have claws. She will have teeth.
And she will wrest back what is real with her bare hands.
She has not had enough of living yet.
When she returns to the world of the living, Ned’s there, at her bedside, holding her hand. “I thought we’d lost you.”
She almost laughs, though what happens is more of a huff than a true laugh. “And that made you fearful?”
“Am I not allowed to be fearful?” he asks her, though he seems a touch more settled at hearing her barbed words.
How odd, that. She would call him foolish, but she has called him that often over the years to no avail.
He’d been a fool when they married and he’s still a fool now.
“You never fear what you’re supposed to fear.” But he had never feared the Seven Kingdoms scrutinizing his bastard son, for Jon is his son in all but blood — and there’s the terrible thing isn’t it, to have bastardized Jon when Ned could’ve called his banners and made the boy a king.
She does not know if she should tell him that she knows. She knows everything.
“We’ve a son now,” he says at last, after a silence where she says nothing.
“We’ve had a son for some time now,” she mutters tartly, not missing how his eyes widen for a moment before he agrees.
“Aye,” he whispers. “I suppose we have.”
“Have you named him?” She does not know how long she has been under. Perhaps the boy is named already.
“Not yet. I thought to wait for you.”
She thinks, briefly, of the night he’d asked her to call him Ned, “I’d thought, Rickon.” He’d named Jon after Jon Arryn, the man who raised him, but this son, this son she will have named for the father he lost to the Mad King’s mercies.
He nods. “Rickon, then.”
“I demand to see him.” She pauses. “And all of the children. To let them know I will not die.”
“So you shall.” He kisses her hand — the one he had been holding this whole time — and rises. “So you shall.”
Ned and Jon go out to execute the Night Watch deserter, and somehow, despite everything, return with a litter of direwolf puppies.
One more than the number of children.
“Well,” Ned says when she raises an eyebrow at the wolves who will now proceed to live inside — why had Ned allowed this? Or allowed the girls and Rickon to come out and meet them?
She’ll never be able to get rid of the wolves now.
“Well,” Ned says again, hoping to appease her. “Jon wanted them. They’d lost their mother.”
She nearly screams, for she knows, knows it was said to appeal to her and her heartlessness specifically.
Jon wanted them. (And you wouldn’t say no to him, would you? He never asks for much.)
They’d lost their mother. (And you know the sting of that, don’t you?)
No one had ever tried appealing to her as though she has a better nature before, and she finds that it makes her angry.
Her father had always ordered; he never assumed. Jaime always assumed or cajoled.
Uncle Kevan had merely told her, quite tonelessly, that she was to marry north.
What right did the Honorable Ned Stark have to assume she has a better nature and to appeal to her tenderness of all things?
“Jon is four and ten, my lord,” she hisses, angry, though she’s not sure why she’s angry. “Don’t tell me that if he wanted to run off to join the Night’s Watch, you’d let him do that too.”
She’d long burned about this, burned because Benjen Stark had been but five and ten when he left to join the Night’s Watch.
And Ned had let him.
On this, they could never see eye to eye.
“Somehow,” Ned says, eyes bleak, “I don’t believe this is about direwolves, is it, Cersei?”
It is on the tip of her tongue.
He ought to have been a king, Ned.
He could’ve been a king but you made him a bastard, do you not see how it pains him!
But she says nothing.
She holds her tongue. “Let them have their wolves then,” she mutters, “what good that does.”
Cersei, it must be said, does not often consider the goings on and affairs at the new capital — rebuilt after the Mad Aerys had blown King’s Landing to bits — having never been there, and never really inclined to visit.
She’d never been particularly faithful, but living in a city built on Jaime’s ashes…
That wakes an emotion in her that no god can touch.
“Jon Arryn is dead,” Ned tells her, one night, an arm thrown around her, face buried in the crook of her neck.
She’d wondered why he seemed more… subdued than normal. “I see,” she says, for there is no love lost between Jon Arryn and herself, but the man had raised Ned, and as such, she shouldn’t be rude.
“Robert wants to come visit.” The king…
And his Tully wife, whom he had married even before the war was won, and Lyanna lost.
“Did he say that, or did he tell you he was coming?” she asks, slightly sharply. Jon. Her mind thinks of Jon before she thinks of anything else.
Did Robert Baratheon suspect Jon’s parentage?
Did Robert Baratheon suspect Ned?
She had not, but she had not grown up with him, had not called him all but a brother.
“He told me he was coming north.” Ned sighs and shifts behind her. “I suspect he is looking for a Lord Hand.”
She relaxes, slightly, but only slightly.
Who knows what will happen, when the King finally arrives?
He’d agreed to the death of Viserys Targaryen before the boy had passed his ninth nameday.
Jon’s only a boy, she thinks. But Jon is four and ten now and nearly a man grown.
And even if he were a babe, King Robert wouldn’t spare him.
“I see.” They will brace that storm when they get there, Cersei supposes. No use in worrying over what might never be.
And if Robert Baratheon does not know, he must never be allowed to know, or on all their heads be it.
“I thought you liked being at court.”
“That was fourteen years ago.” She turns to face him. “And I was a child then.”
And she’d thought she might be queen one day, dazzled by all the thoughts of power more than thoughts of sense, for power dazzled more than gold.
Gold could buy power, but power is the infinitely more valuable of the two.
When had she stopped considering power as something to grab hold of?
Perhaps she has grown complacent here, in the North, where politics is not played with smiles and daggers and positions won and lost in the dark.
She does not want to contemplate what that means, so she does not, and elects to sleep instead.
A month later, the royal family arrives — from Robert Baratheon, gone fat in his age, and Queen Catelyn, her face drawn and pinched, to the three royal children, Prince Robb, of an age with Jon, Princess Sansa, a year younger than Joanna, and Princess Cassandra, a year older than Rickon.
King Robert stares at all of them for a long moment.
“You’ve gotten fat.”
Ned doesn’t speak a word, but his gaze says it all.
The two of them break into laughter and embrace, but Cersei is watching the other members of the royal family — Queen Catelyn’s gracious but unhappy face — and wonders indeed, if it was perhaps, a blessing to not have been queen.
If perhaps, that window slipping by her will mean that none of her children wear golden shrouds, that she will not die, cast down by another more beautiful than she.
“Your Grace,” she says, curtsying briefly. “It must’ve been a long journey north of the Neck.”
“What’s your name, lad?” King Robert is now standing before...Jon.
Ned had wanted to have him go off somewhere and only present the girls and Rickon. Knowing what she knows about Jon, she can see it now, all the little blatant ways Ned tried to protect him.
“Jon Snow, your grace.”
She’d argued otherwise — absence breeds more suspicion than presence does, and even in the capital, they would’ve heard that Jon is well loved by her — she’d argued otherwise, and she’d won.
But that does not mean that her heart doesn’t leap into her throat regardless.
“Ah, the bastard boy.”
Something in Jon’s face shutters closed, a little.
“And the oldest girl.” Robert nods to Joanna. To Myrcella he says, “and you’re the pretty one, like your mother.” At Arya, still wearing her helmet — where had Arya gotten that helmet anyway? — he laughs. “The feisty one, aren’t you.” Until at last, he comes to Rickon, barely five yet, with his golden curls and storm gray eyes. “Here he is! The trueborn heir of Winterfell.”
Ned coughs, briefly. “Perhaps we should go inside, your grace.”
That causes the King to remember something. “Take me to your crypt, Ned.”
She doesn’t miss how the corner of Prince Robb’s mouth turns downwards, or how Queen Catelyn’s smile flickers.
But she is more than thankful that the King has now suitably been distracted from Jon’s existence.
Hopefully, keeping the boy out of the King’s path in the coming weeks will keep any seeds of doubt from ever springing into being.
At the end of two weeks, Ned goes south alone.
He hugs each one of them in turn, promising the girls their share of pretty dresses and the newest fashions, clasps Jon’s shoulder, and ruffles Rickon’s hair.
He trusts her with her estimation of Joanna’s betrothal.
King Robert had wanted a daughter of Winterfell’s hand in marriage for Prince Robb, but she’d long persuaded Ned to marry Joanna to one of the Northern Bannermen — they cannot keep being jilted out of weddings Ned, else they’ll start thinking themselves more northern than Starks — and Myrcella and Arya both too young yet, to set a betrothal.
King Robert will have to satisfy himself with her lord husband as hand.
She is not sorry to see the royals go, standing there, on the parapet with Jon, though she wonders.
Wonders at Jon Arryn’s sudden death and the Queen’s unhappy face.
Wonders at King Robert’s drunken debauchery and the distance between him and Prince Robb.
Wonders, but asks no questions.
She turns to Jon, surprised. “You used to always call me mother.”
He looks down. “I lied to myself.”
Cersei had never been a simpering maid, and she’d never been soft, but she could give the boy this, at least. “You knew a long time ago I did not birth you.” She turns her face into the wind. Even up here, the flags and banners are gone, more or less, and Ned gone with them. She’d never lied to Jon about that, at the very least. “But what does that matter, in the end?”
Being the trueborn daughter — his only daughter — of Tywin Lannister had never won her the love or pride she had wanted from him.
So many unspoken words loom between Jon and herself — his parentage, his history, his bastard status, which these days, she rarely gave much thought to — but in the end she had been the one to raise him, not Lyanna Stark.
Dead, sainted Lyanna Stark, a wolf girl through and through.
In her place, Cersei Lannister, a lioness, a Lannister, Southron beauty born and raised, Stark only by marriage.
But what does it matter, in the end? When all things come from nothing and go back to being nothing more than ash and dirt?
She’s in the glass gardens with Joanna who likes to tend to the winter roses, when the ravens start arriving, wings dark against the sky.
Jon comes in, breathless as though he had been running, one of the letters in his hand. “King Robert is dead.” He gasps for breath, face streaked with tears. “Father, Father, they have him locked up in the Tower of the Hand—”
“What?” She takes the letter from him though her hands are streaked with dirt and sap, and scans it briefly.
Her heart ices over.
Treason for…killing King Robert?
For killing Jon Arryn.
For blaspheming against the Seven.
But not, as she had feared, for harboring Jon Snow, one Targaryen Princeling who ought to be a king.
But treason still, even if the accusations are false.
“Mother—” Both children begin at once, eyes wide and fearful.
She lifts her chin and holds both their arms as she marches back into the castle against the bitter wind. “Joanna, go fetch Maester Luwin and tell Ser Rodrick to find Rickon.” Her heart pounds, blood rushing in her ears louder than the wind.
Not dead, the letter had read, and his household detained, but not dead.
However, Vayon Poole, who writes to her, has not seen Ned, who apparently has barricaded himself in the Tower of the Hand, and she does not know if he is writing under duress from the Queen Regent, who now apparently holds power south of the Neck.
“And Jon,” she says, with a voice that sounds icy, even to her own ears. “Come with me. There’s something I must tell you.”
The truth Ned has hidden for fourteen years must come to light now.
“Mother, what are you looking for?”
She has found the locked box underneath her many many account books, and takes the key on her necklace to open it. In it, is the letter sent by Howland Reed.
“You’ve always wanted to know who your parents are, haven’t you?”
And Ned had always refused to tell him.
But he had never once asked her. Perhaps because he suspected she had no way of knowing, for Ned had never told anyone.
“Parents?” His brow furrows. “Mother, Father is locked up and accused of treason, why talk about who birthed me now?”
“Sit down, Jon. Your parents,” she says, very lucidly, for she sees the path forward now, “are the key to saving Ned Stark.”
He sits, obediently.
“Your mother,” she says, still looking at this old letter from Howland Reed that she’d preserved in part in fear of a day like this, where she might have to prove it all to him, “is Lyanna Stark, Ned Stark’s younger sister.”
Jon opens his mouth, but she shakes her head and it abruptly snaps closed again.
“Your father,” she continues, “was Rhaegar Targaryen, crown prince of the Seven Kingdoms before Robert’s Rebellion.”
Once, very long ago, my father promised me I would be his queen.
And here I am, having raised his son.
“You,” she continues, despite Jon’s slack jawed silence, “are not a bastard and never have been, for you, Jon Snow, are the rightful heir of these Seven Kingdoms.”
“I don’t understand.” Jon blinks at her, still gaping vaguely like a fish.
“We’ll need armies, if we are to get the Lord of Winterfell back.” If he is not dead already, and if they don’t kill him when word of this spreads south on ravens’ wings.
The Queen Regent has taken her husband from her, and after shaming Ned so thoroughly…
Who’s to say that her gaze will not turn north, towards Winterfell and Cersei’s children?
Catelyn Tully has taken something from her.
She will take something of equal value from Catelyn Tully — her son’s crown.
A Lannister always pays her debts.
It belongs to Jon, she thinks, it always did. It always will.
“More than Winterfell’s armies.” Jon fiddles with his clasped hands. “We’ll need more than Winterfell’s armies to storm south of the Neck.” He looks at her, gray eyes filled with tears. “Mother—”
He leans against her shoulder as he cries, but she sheds not a single tear.
“He’ll come back to us.”
Old capital or new, it makes no difference.
Old capital or new, it makes no difference. All the men she ever loved in her life go there to die.
She spends that night writing letters, Jon asleep by her side. They all say similar things, the story of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, the insult paid to the man who had raised the last, living dragon, that House Stark will once again, ride to war — let the whole world know, let no one ever be able to see Robb Baratheon as anything but a pretender — ink stained fingers, cramped hands, hollowed out chest, and her eyes, her eyes bloodshot and burning.
But dawn comes with her stack of letters sealed and stamped with the crest of Winterfell, one for each Lord Paramount, one for each castle of her husband’s bannermen.
War, for treason is no small insult.
And her heart will have blood.
Jon’s head does not have a crown on it when the siege on the rebuilt King’s Landing leads to a single man being wheeled out of Robert’s Castle, down to the gates, but the fighting isn’t over yet.
Catelyn Tully and her daughters are apparently no longer in the city, having fled to the Eyrie where Lysa Tully has been ever since Jon Arryn’s death.
The one who had made this decision to release Ned Stark had been Edmure Tully, holding the capital in Robb Baratheon’s absence as the boy battles the havoc in the Riverlands, the Blackfish having called for aid from Riverrun.
She and Jon had taken the King’s Road down south of the Neck into the Riverlands to wreak havoc and destruction there for a time before curving westward, through the Westerlands where Tyrion, while unwilling to lend her aid, had been more than happy to turn a blind eye to her plans, and they’d swept past Robb Baratheon’s armies and come upon King’s Landing rather quickly.
Jon does not wear a crown, but that doesn’t mean as much.
The fighting is not yet over.
The war not yet won.
But Edmure Tully had agreed to give back Ned Stark, though what he hopes to gain from this she does not know.
The world had broken open once again. Jon will never be able to quietly return to Winterfell.
So long as Jon lives, Catelyn Tully’s son will never be able to sit securely on the throne — she’d put paid to that with all those letters.
She watches, seated atop a palfrey, as a man in a cage is wheeled out.
Upon seeing him — gaunter, frailer, more listless when he left but still alive — for the first time since she’d married north, to Winterfell, Cersei bursts into tears in front of other people.
There will be time for reckonings, times for accounting their secret keeping and figuring out who owes who how much debt.
But for now, at least, the iron jaws of King’s Landing returns one man to her.
“Tell me, how does it feel with my teeth in your heart?”
— Euripides, Medea