Lady Sansa's expression was - odd. Brienne was accustomed to her by now, attuned to every flicker of an eyelid and curl of mouth, but this expression was wholly new. She seemed unsure how to begin. She opened her mouth and closed it again. Brienne was baffled by this hesitancy. Surely Lady Sansa knew, by now, that there was no order she would disobey.
"It's," Lady Sansa said at last, and stopped. Brienne waited. "Have you - Brienne. I've received a, a proposal. For you."
"Yes, my lady?" Brienne said politely, still waiting, wondering if she was to be sent on some errand from the King that Sansa herself doubted the wisdom of. A proposal was an odd way of putting it.
"A proposal," Lady Sansa went on, tightly. "Of marriage."
"What?" she said. "I mean - my lady?"
"Cersei Lannister," Lady Sansa said. "To cement our alliance. She has asked. She wants you."
"I don't understand," Brienne said blankly. Her heart had jumped guiltily at the name Lannister. Foolishness. Madness. But what could Lady Sansa mean? She wouldn't jest at a time like this, driven to this desperate alliance with a mad queen in the face of the nightmare of fire and ice engulfing the rest of Westeros, but there was no way to make sense of it.
"She wants you for a hostage," Lady Sansa said tiredly. "Married to her brother, trapped in King's Landing. She thinks to control me, through you."
"But," Brienne said, more astonished then ever, and Lady Sansa's expression changed strangely, her mouth softening and then hardening.
"She's right," she said. "You - I value you greatly, Brienne. She knows that. She knows I won't betray her with you in her hands."
Her head spun. Everything was shocking. Married. Hostage. The queen's brother. Her brother. Her brother. Ser Jaime. She was, she realised, shaking.
"It's your decision," Lady Sansa said softly. "She's as desperate as we are, she'll make the alliance eventually even if we say no. But I thought you should know."
Eventually. There was no time for eventually. And Cersei was truly mad. She might destroy them all in a fit of anger at having her will thwarted. She might do anything.
"What is your will, my lady?" Brienne said at last, after a long moment of groping uncertainty. "I'll do what you-"
"No," Lady Sansa said sharply. "No. I won't command you in this."
Of course. Marriage was a sore point with Lady Sansa, the focus of all nightmare and betrayal. It was not fair to ask her to choose. Brienne thought she might vomit. She had to look away for a moment, struggling for control. Ser Jaime's face floated in her mind's eye, quizzical, half-smiling, faintly mocking. What could he possibly have made of this plan of his sister's? Had he objected? Or was his love so great that he would give himself up to be used so? She had hated King's Landing: its poisonous politics, its double-tongued speech, its rotten glamour. She would choke on that air, even without the torment of the supposed marriage. The marriage -
"Can't I go as a prisoner?" she asked, at last. "A - simply as hostage? I would give my parole."
Lady Sansa shook her head.
"The pretence is alliance," she said quietly. "It has to be that, or nothing." She hesitated and then spoke again, now with vehemence. "I don't ask it of you."
"Yes," Brienne said. "Thank you, my lady. I accept."
Lady Sansa breath jerked, startled. She had not expected that answer. She leaned forward a little, her blue eyes intent.
"Brienne," she said. "I meant what I said. Your loyalty to me - is not in question. Whatever you choose to do."
"But the negotiations will be easier if I go," Brienne said. Lady Sansa's mouth twisted.
"Not for me," she said. "I'll worry for you."
Brienne's astonishment must have showed in her face. Lady Sansa gave a sigh that was half a sob.
"You don't know," she said. "The Lannisters - to send you among them -"
Brienne knelt. Something had changed in her at the open worry and affection in Lady Sansa's face. She felt suddenly stronger, her head clearer.
"There's very little they can do to me, my lady," she said in her calmest voice. "I am not - my father is dead. Lady Catelyn is dead. You are safe. They have nothing to threaten me with."
Ser Jaime's face flashed before her again, incredulous, his sharp eyes seeing straight through the lie. Idiot wench, he would have said. Lady Sansa was not Jaime. She was persuaded by the steadiness of Brienne's gaze, her faint smile, the confident set of her shoulders. She nodded slowly.
Brienne kept her face still all the way back to her quarters. It was only after she had latched the door and closed the windows that she let her knees give and covered her mouth with her hands. Her stomach heaved. Marriage. The one fate she had been sure she would be spared. Rape and torture and violent death might have come her way any time. But marriage - and to him. Cersei could not have devised a better torment if she had studied Brienne since her girlhood.
The wedding was to be at Winterfell. Cersei Lannister despatched her brother and a few men to fetch his bride; she herself, she wrote, was needed to command the fight against the dragon queen at King's Landing. It was utterly upside-down - if anyone was needed in that fight, it was Jaime - but Brienne saw that the message was as much for him as for the Starks. Cersei Lannister needed no one. Everyone was dispensable.
Jaime's face was a bland mask as he bowed to her, to Lady Sansa, to the King. His hand met hers for a brief instant. Even the light graze of his eyes over her face left her scorched. What had happened to him? He looked haunted. Broken.
"Ser Jaime," she murmured to him in a quiet moment, over supper. "If this is not your will-"
He smiled. It looked painful.
"Chivalrous, as ever," he murmured back. "It is my will, Lady Brienne. Is it yours?"
She nodded silently and his mouth curled in an uglier smile than she had ever seen on his face before.
"A toast then," he said, his voice still lowered so that only she could hear. "To free will."
He drank, watching her, and her worry for him bloomed into something like horror. She had never seen his smile look so bleak.
"What happened?" she asked, helplessly. To you. "After we met at Riverrun?"
"Are you so ignorant?" he said. "My sister has triumphed over our enemies and seized the throne that is rightly hers."
She was reminded suddenly of how he had looked in Harrenhal. Filthy, his beard and hair tangled in dirt, shaking with pain and rage - now he was clean and smiling, a goblet of wine in his hand, and yet the terror for him that seized her now was somehow worse. She couldn't speak.
"Brienne," Lady Sansa said, touching her shoulder and she startled. It was time.
It all happened very quickly. The cloak. The vows. Jaime's eyes held hers as she swore, solemn, something like grief in his face, and he studied his boots rather than her face when making his own vows. His sister was punishing him with this marriage, that much was clear. But why?
There was no bedding ceremony. Sansa would not permit it at Winterfell. Jaime locked the door of her room and sighed, rubbing his hand over his face.
"We have to," he said. "Eventually. My sister wants it consummated."
Brienne swallowed, her mouth very dry. He looked at her for a long moment in silence, his face unreadable. She could not bear him to think her a coward. She took a step towards him, her feet feeling heavy, her skin prickling, and he recoiled sharply, shaking his head.
"I can't," he said quickly. "Brienne. Not - I'm. I'm very tired. And you need time, I think."
It was a reprieve. She ought to be grateful. Her head was swimming. She saw in her mind's eye, very clearly, that instinctive step backwards of his. That recoil. She would remember it always, she already knew, like Renly's first smile at her, like the first touch of Oathkeeper, like Lady Sansa's face when she had told Brienne of her father's death. She dwelt on it for one sickening moment more and then put it away with the others. He did look very tired.
"Sleep," she said, turning her back to him to pull off her boots. "We can speak in the morning."
"Yes," he said. "Yes."
He made no move to the bed, watching her as she pulled her breeches off and drew her tunic over her head. The undershirt was very thin and the acute awareness of his eyes made her hands clumsy as she folded the breeches and put the tunic on its usual chair. He was still just standing there.
"Sleep," she said roughly, and he made a strange noise, a laugh that wasn't a laugh, and took her hand. Kissed it.
"I'm. I know the circumstances are -" he huffed another pained laugh. "Not ideal. But it's a joy to see you again, my lady. The one true thing in a changing world. I missed you."
Her show of brusqueness collapsed instantly. She felt her face twist as the tears came. He put his hand clumsily on her shoulder, pulled, and then he was holding her for a long sweet moment, his fingers stroking at the nape of her neck, his gold hand stiff against her hip.
"What happened?" she demanded, pulling back from him. "Your sister - why?"
"We had a disagreement," Jaime said tiredly. "Concerning wildfire."
Wildfire. Her mouth opened soundlessly. Jaime tried to smile, failed.
"Yes," he said. "She's been punishing me ever since. She can't kill me - I'm needed - but she can." He gestured. "Do this."
"I see," Brienne said and Jaime sighed and sat down on the bed, drawing her with him.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't think she'd - I spoke of you too often, before. She guessed what you meant to me. I didn't mean to bring this down on you."
What she meant to him. It was unutterably sweet to hear him say these things, even now. She was such a fool.
"Not your fault," she said. "Oathkeeper - everyone knows. I've been called your-" her face warmed. "Your creature by many men. She could have heard it anywhere."
"My creature," Jaime said and, miraculously, the old tone was in his voice. Honestly amused. Teasing. She made herself glare at him and he laughed and began to pull off his boots. He stood to remove his sword belt and she lay back, watching him, her eyelids growing heavy. The dread of leaving Lady Sansa, of travelling to King's Landing in the morning, still lay heavy on her, but Jaime's smile was his own smile, his warm weight beside her utterly familiar, and sleep overtook her almost as soon as his head touched the pillow beside her. Marriage was her nightmare but he'd walked through so many nightmares by her side. Perhaps this would only be another.
King's Landing was unrecognisable. It wasn't only the great shield that had been built over the city to ward off the fire, which cast a grey light over everything. The air smelt of ash and desolation. Rubble lay undisturbed in the streets. The people were worn and gaunt, creeping, without a trace of the careless, brutal cheerfulness she remembered from her last experience of them. The court was a frightened and subdued huddle. The only splendour was in these two.
Cersei was in red silk, woven with some intricate embroidery in gold. Her smile was narrow and thin, cold. Jaime was her mirror image, in his black and gold, his hand on Brienne's wrist and his eyes fixed on his sister. He was smiling too. Not one of the smiles he kept for Brienne - this was an edged self-mocking thing that pulled a kind of warmth out of Cersei, made her mouth curl differently, almost fondly. Brienne tried to be invisible. She didn't want either of them to look at her, didn't want to be caught in the strange electricity, like incipient lightning, that hung in the air between them. But of course that wasn't to be. Cersei looked at her.
Brienne had killed her enemies without hesitation, she reminded herself. She had fought and killed and been willing to die. There was nothing to fear in this woman's gaze. But a sick sort of horror came over her as Cersei's gaze swept her, lingering on Oathkeeper and the breastplate of her armour; there was nothing as clean as death in that look. She wanted to shiver, held herself still. Jaime's hand was tight on her wrist.
"You haven't fucked her," Cersei said in disappointed tones, her voice clear and loud enough for all the surrounding men to hear. Brienne's men, the army Lady Sansa had sent for the defence of King's Landing. Her face burned. "Really, brother. The whole point of this exercise was to get an heir for the Rock."
"There'll be an heir," Jaime said easily. He looked smilingly over at Brienne and it was like meeting the eyes of a stranger, except that no stranger had ever looked at her like that, all bold sexual appreciation. It sent an uneasy jolt through her. She knew that this fencing with Cersei was all above her head, that every tiny shift in Jaime's expression was calculated for his survival and hers, but it still felt like mockery. "You can count on an heir."
"Good," Cersei said. "Lady Brienne, welcome to King's Landing." She extended her hand. Brienne's jaw tightened involuntarily. A look of panic crossed Jaime's face, so briefly that Brienne saw it only as a flicker. She knelt stiffly, bent her head politely over Cersei's extended hand, told herself she was offering no fealty and making no vow. She was doing what one had to, in King's Landing, to survive. As Jaime was. Cersei's fingertips were ice cold. It was a beautiful hand, with its long tapering fingers and fine bones; Brienne's own calluses and square palm felt rougher and uglier than ever in that contact.
"I'm sorry," Jaime said later, when they were alone. His face was very weary. The gold hand with its buckles lay on the table by the bed - he had taken it off with something like a sigh of relief - and his shoulders were slumped. "She - I thought it was all to punish me. But she hates you too, for some reason."
"She doesn't hate you," Brienne said quietly, and Jaime looked up at her, his eyebrows rising. But he didn't argue the point. Brienne might not be able to follow the secret language of looks and half-sentences he shared with his twin but she wasn't blind. That brief exchange of hostilities bespoke an intimacy that went beyond love and hatred. She shook her head a little. It was none of her business. She focused on what was.
"Tell her," she said. "Make her see that she needs me to command the wildlings and the Stark bannermen. They won't take orders from anyone else. It may be her whim to make me merely a brood mare but it will cost her dearly in the war."
"You think I should tell her that," Jaime said dryly, and she shook her head.
"I don't know," she said. "Tell her whatever you need to. But it's the truth."
"Oh, the truth," Jaime said, sarcastic. She didn't answer. This side of him belonged to his sister. She didn't have the wit to meet it, the quicksilver tongue, the flippancy. Jaime took her hand, put it over his eyes.
"I'm sorry," he said again. She wanted suddenly to touch his hair. She pulled her hand away.
"I know," she said. "It's - will we need to -"
"Not tonight," Jaime said grimly. "She won't know."
Brienne gritted her teeth. This subject made her feel sick and shaky but it couldn't be evaded now.
"She seems to be able to tell," she said flatly. "She only had to look at me."
Jaime looked at her.
"The maid of Tarth," he said softly. "I can't, Brienne."
Her face went hot.
"You - I think you must," she said, unwillingly. "You could. You could pretend, if you wish."
He stared at her, looking honestly baffled.
"Pretend what?" he said.
She looked down at her chapped hands, with their rough knuckles and raw skin.
"You know," she said. "Some other - woman. A woman."
Silence fell. Jaime was staring at her but she couldn't look up now. She heard a little rustle of clothing as he moved and then his hand was on her arm, gripping fiercely, and his face was so close that she had to look at him.
"You're out of your mind," he said. "You think that I - I don't want to ruin you, my lady. More than I already have. And you think it's a matter of putting out the candles and picturing some other -" His hand was on her face, touching her cheek, the corner of her mouth. She could not remember him ever being so close.
"I'm not fit," he said steadily. "To touch you, do you understand? You don't know. I'm not going to - to force you, on her orders. I'm not so much of a monster yet."
"It wouldn't be force," Brienne said, grasping desperately at an idea she could understand, and Jaime made an exasperated noise.
"Really," he said. "If it wasn't for this damned marriage - if it wasn't for my sister - would you have come to my bed?"
She shook her head blindly, panicked and dizzy from his proximity and the warmth of his breath, and he let her go with a sigh.
"I've done enough damage," he said wearily. "Enough is enough. I won't be your trap."
She couldn't speak. She felt the imprint of his touch vividly, fingerprints on the skin of her upper arm. He hadn't gripped hard enough to bruise. She knew what bruising felt like. This feeling was something else.
"Sleep," he said gently, watching her. "It was a long ride, and we ride again in the morning. We must speak about the Stark men."
She licked her lips.
"Yes," she said. "We - tomorrow."
"I wouldn't have come to your bed," she heard herself say in the silence.
He laughed shortly.
"I know that," he said. "I just said that." Her heart was hammering very quickly, painfully. It was nothing like the slow loud pulse before battle, before the moment to raise her sword had come. This was rabbit-quick, panicky.
"I wouldn't have," she said again. "Even if I -" her breath came short. His eyebrows went up. The silence was very loud. "Even if I wanted to."
Jaime said nothing. The weary look had vanished from his face, but she couldn't read him now. He was very still.
"I wanted to," she made herself say and he took a single breath, deep, visible. The look on his face was something like pain. He took a step back from her.
"Go to sleep," he said. "Please, Brienne."
"Why?" she said. "We're married and I. I'm telling you it wouldn't be - force."
"Brienne," Jaime said in a goaded voice. "You don't know what you're saying."
That angered her. She was no longer the naive girl she had been when they first met; she was not even the wistful woman to whom he had given Oathkeeper. She would not be spoken to like a child.
"Don't presume you speak for me," she said, grimly, forcing the words out despite the twist in her stomach. "I'm not unwilling, and I - it wouldn't be ruin."
"It would destroy all hope of an annulment," Jaime said. "You'd be tied to me for life."
I'm already tied to you till I die, she wanted to say, but her nerve failed her. Jaime was already desperately torn between his protective friendship for her and these tricky, dangerous negotiations with his sister. To give him an added burden would be too much.
"I took vows," she said, instead.
"Under coercion," Jaime said and she scowled at him.
"I wasn't coerced," she said harshly. "I chose. None of us can afford for your sister to be - distracted. Or for her army to be divided. You're needed, Jaime, and to risk your freedom for the sake of this - this -"
"Chivalry?" Jaime supplied, dryly, and she felt another impulse to touch him. He tried so hard for honour, and the world gave him so little opportunity.
"It's foolish," she said but she couldn't keep up the harsh tone. Her voice had become tender, a little tremulous. He touched her again, his fingers just grazing her cheek, and she closed her eyes. She was so tired and the strangeness of the situation was overwhelming. In one light, it was almost as if she - she - was trying to seduce Jaime. It was so nonsensical.
"I wonder," Jaime said quietly. "If there's anything we can do about this maidenly air of yours. Short of - hm."
She opened her eyes, puzzled, and he kissed her. She didn't know what to do or how to respond. His lips were on hers and he was doing something complicated, odd, that made her stomach tighten in a completely new way, made her knees a little weak. When he stopped, she was flushed to her ears and speechless. He laughed, a helpless sort of sound.
"Apparently not," he said. "You look - open your mouth."
"What?" she said. Her voice sounded foreign to her own ears, breathless, too high.
He kissed her again in reply, differently, and she somehow understood what he meant. She opened her mouth and the feeling in her stomach flipped over and pierced between her legs. She gasped. Jaime's teeth grazed her lower lip as he grinned. His hand slid up her side.
"I think," he said, smiling into her dazed eyes. "We have a solution."
"I don't understand," she said. His hand was sliding up the meagre curve of her waist. She had taken off the armour in which she had travelled, already, and she could feel the heat of his touch even through the thick leather of her tunic.
"You look halfway to deflowered already," Jaime said cheerfully. His hand found her breast then, cupped it, thumbed. Her breath was gone. Jaime looked mischievous, suddenly younger and more like the arrogant boy who had taunted her years ago. I'm strong enough. It had irritated her then but it sent a thick wave of weakness through her now, when he was touching her in this new way. "We can - allay my sister's suspicions, without destroying our chance of an annulment. You'll still be the maid of Tarth in the morning."
"What about," she managed. "Blood? She may ask to see."
Jaime's mouth tightened and then relaxed again. His touch was still deliberate, maddening. It was very hard to think.
"We can spill a little blood," he said carelessly. "A cut on the thumb - mine, not yours -"
"But," she said and he pressed suddenly closer, somehow, so that his thigh was between her legs. Her voice died. He was watching her very intently. The pressure was gentle at first, then rough, and her vision blurred.
"Ah, you like that," he said softly. "I wondered."
"But," she said helplessly, and then his hand moved from her breast and slipped over her stomach, unlaced her breeches, and she forgot how to speak. The press of his fingers was shockingly blunt, lewd. She was liquid, shaking. Jaime was watching her avidly, his face a little flushed, his mouth almost open.
"Oh," she heard herself cry out, as the spasms shook her. "Oh, oh -Jaime."
"There," he said, breathlessly. "Half the castle will have heard that, I expect."
She couldn't speak, staring up at him. It was impossible to believe he had done that. She was fully clothed, only her breeches tugged down over her thighs and her tunic pulled up over her navel, but Jaime's expression made her feel utterly naked.
"What about," she said. She gestured vaguely towards his body. He kissed her again and the thought went out of her head like all the others. Then it came back as he shifted against her. Her hand fumbled between them, far more awkward and uncertain than his, and Jaime groaned into her throat and gripped her fingers.
"I'll show you," he said shakily. She couldn't stop staring. His eyes were still fixed on her face as he manipulated her hand around him, began a slow purposive movement that made her body suddenly clench with understanding. Her expression must have changed because he laughed again, throatily, and then pulled back so that the slickness spilled over her fingers and into his cupping hand instead of her skin and clothes.
"There," he said breathlessly. "You look ravished, my lady. But not ruined."
She couldn't move or speak. He grinned and turned away to wash his hand.
"I've always wanted to have you against a wall," he said, after a few more moments of silence and stillness. "Come on, wench. Lie down."
He helped her out of her tunic and breeches, since her fingers were still numb and clumsy, and laid her down, slid his arm around her waist.
"Your eyes," he said. She cleared her throat, swallowed. She could not simply lie here staring like a fool.
"An heir," she said. "What about -"
"Even Cersei can't expect an heir the week after a wedding," Jaime said. "Don't worry about that."
"But," she objected and he shook his head, smoothed his hand gently over her side.
"I won't risk that," he said quietly. "Brienne. You're very young. I expect you to outlive this, do you understand? To outlive all of this. To be free."
To outlive him, he meant. Her breath came hard, then, furious.
"I'm not that young," she said. "I've been as close to death as you have, Ser. I've never expected to live long."
"I expect it," Jaime said grimly. "If I have to - I'll make it so."
Freedom. Survival. It sounded desolate. His palm moved over her belly, pressing lightly down against the muscle there, and the idea of an heir suddenly turned into something visceral and alarming. Her body would cease to be the weapon she had made it. It would become something altogether different. She shivered, and Jaime kissed her ear and her shoulder and pushed her undershirt up over her breast. His hand on the naked skin there made her shake and Jaime turned her over on her back to watch, his eyes glittering.
He was trying to distract her, she thought vaguely, turning her face into the cool of the pillow, and then he put his mouth on her and she heard herself cry out again. The whole castle would hear, he had said. His hand pulled hers away from her mouth. Ravished but not ruined, he had said. But she felt ruined; everything was changed and shattered, her body suddenly new, unpredictable, weakened.
She couldn't exactly look him in the eye the next morning. Cersei studied her for a long moment when they met and then smiled unpleasantly. Jaime smiled back. For a vertiginous moment, Brienne felt as if they were sharing a joke at her expense - that it was Cersei and Jaime who were the conspirators and she the dupe. Then Jaime glanced at her and she saw the lines of weariness in his face again, the exhaustion, and was reassured. He still belonged to Cersei, in some sense, but he was her Jaime too.
"Really, brother," Cersei was saying. "What sort of general takes his wife into battle? Would you risk your future heirs?"
"I don't want her in battle," Jaime said easily. Brienne felt herself stiffen and had to force her shoulders down. "But Stark men won't take orders from me, sister. They need her as a figurehead."
Jaime lied so well, Brienne thought. Astonishingly well. The sapphires were nothing to it. He lied with the quirk of his mouth, the lift of his eyebrows, the cock of his head; every inch of him could lie. Brienne thought suddenly of the hungry look on his face as he had touched her. Your eyes, he had said and she had practically swooned. And now Cersei was smiling faintly, amused, and Jaime had won the right to have his lady wife in the field with him, commanding half the troops at his disposal.
She put her hand on Oathkeeper, obscurely anxious, needing the comfort of the hilt in her hand. Cersei's eyes followed the movement and her lips thinned.
"Sister," she said. "You are a lady, do you understand that? In my court, ladies do not carry swords. Take it away from her, Jaime, please. I don't wish to see it again."
"Of course," Jaime said pleasantly. She felt her eyes prickle, foolishly, as she unbuckled Oathkeeper and handed it to him. Cersei looked deeply satisfied. But Jaime's eyes met Brienne's for a fraction of a moment, reassuring, and she almost was reassured.
But she still felt ill-at-ease, off-balance. She was desperate, suddenly, for war; for the simple danger and simple losses of the battlefield. Not this slippery in-between game, half lie and half truth, and impossible to know at any moment whether one was winning or losing. Was she winning or was Cersei? What were the stakes here? Cersei, she understood, wanted to see Brienne humiliated, reduced, returned to her place as a woman. Jaime had given her that. All Brienne wanted, she told herself, was a chance to serve in the coming fight and her freedom and Jaime had given her that too.
So no one was winning. Or they both were. The odd feeling of desolation, as Jaime leaned close to Cersei and they laughed together, was only a distraction. Once they were out in the field, it would disappear. Her body would be simple again, her weapon, the instrument of her will.
Jaime was smiling up at Cersei, his tongue between his teeth. Cersei's breast just touched Jaime's arm, as she leaned over the map between them. Brienne concentrated hard on the map, on understanding the strategic position. Cersei was looking at her, again, and she felt a miserable blush sweep up over her shoulders, into her hairline. She was, she knew clearly, losing this particular fight. She didn't have the weapons for it. She could feel Jaime looking at her too - she could imagine, very clearly, the identical amusement in the two pairs of identical green eyes - and it was impossible to think of him as her Jaime just now. Her hands clenched in her lap. Those were the stakes, then. And Cersei had won.
"Brienne," Jaime said. "What do you think? East?"
"No," she said shortly, keeping her eyes on the map. "West. The wildlings can fight in mountain terrain. And it will give us some shielding against the dragons."
"West, then," Jaime said to Cersei and she nodded indifferently.
"Go, then," she said. "Destroy them."
He nodded, put his hand on Brienne's shoulder.
"Come," he said and Brienne stood to follow him. They bowed and turned to leave.
"Jaime," Cersei said, and he turned back. "Don't die."
All the humour left his face. He looked gentle, tender. Transfigured. Brienne's heart gave a terrible wrench.
"I won't," he said. He didn't look at Brienne or speak to her as they left. She went to address her army and he went to address his. But he handed Oathkeeper over without a word, as soon as they were out of the city walls, and that was something. Everything, she told herself fiercely, but her chest still ached with that new torn-open feeling. Ruined. She had never really understood the meaning of that word before.
The Dothraki were very strange fighters. It took everything Brienne had to understand how they moved, how they thought, the strategy woven into the apparently indisciplined straggle of horses and men. Fortunately the wildlings understood this kind of battle, and Jaime was the quickest and sharpest commander she had ever known. So they didn't all die. At a cost, they drove the Dothraki out of the mountains into the plains, where the sweeping dragons made them impossible to chase.
It was a small victory, almost meaningless, and bitter in the mouth when she thought of her dead, but it was victory in battle. She ached. Her thighs were sore, her back twinged when she moved, her shoulders throbbed with strain. It was wonderful. Simple. Jaime had fought at her back with the ease and confidence of a brother in arms, their bodies moving in easy unison, his sword always where she needed it to be. She might have imagined the look in his face on that unbelievable night, six weeks ago, when he had touched her - shown her - her mind wouldn't formulate a sentence about what he had done. Her body remembered, uneasily, a strange twang of nerves when Jaime glanced at her sometimes, but she ignored that. It was over. What mattered now was the war. They had driven the Dothraki back from the very gates of King's Landing but they could not simply hold them forever. Her mind fermented with ideas for driving them out.
"Our orders are to return to King's Landing," Jaime said and Brienne stared in astonishment.
"What?" she said. "But they'll simply retake the mountain. We have to-"
"It doesn't matter," Jaime said shortly. "The point was to make a show of force. We have no way to truly break the siege."
"Men are dead," Brienne said after one moment of speechless anger. "Did they die to make a show?"
"Yes," Jaime said curtly. "Those were their orders."
"She's mad," Brienne said involuntarily, and recoiled from the look on his face. Cold. Furious. She almost wanted to apologise, to soften the words, but it was true and men were dead. She stared back defiantly and the anger drained out of him, leaving only a bitter sort of blankness.
"I'm sorry," he said. "We have our orders. We ride tomorrow."
"Back to King's Landing," she said numbly, and Jaime looked at her for a long moment and then cupped her face in his hand. His thumb stroked over her cheekbone.
"Will you trust me?" he said and she nodded silently. What else could she do? He hesitated, still holding her, and then let her go. But the sense memory of the touch lingered. She felt an impulse to put her own hands up to her cheeks, to soothe the sudden warmth there, and clasped them behind her back instead. Jaime's face changed as he studied her. The somber look faded. A little smile curled the corner of his mouth.
"Your eyes are absurd," he said, and kissed her. It was soft, gentle, undemanding. It still made her feel as if she had a fever. She didn't know where to put her hands.
Jaime sighed warmly against her throat, ticklish, and she swayed a little and then heard Pod's voice, Pod saying, "oh! Sorry, I -"
She jerked back, horrified, but Jaime's hand at her waist only tightened.
"What do you want?" he said, glancing over his shoulder at Pod.
"It's - um," Pod said. "I usually - help Lady Brienne with her armour?"
"She doesn't need you tonight," Jaime said. "Do you, lady wife?"
He had never called her wife before. It sent a little shock through her, the word, the possessive tone in which it was spoken.
"I," she said. "No. Thank you, Pod. I can manage tonight."
"I'm sure," Pod said in a strangled voice. "I mean. Yes, of course. Good night, my lady. Ser Jaime."
He fled. The back of his neck was bright red. Jaime laughed and brushed his lips over Brienne's cheek.
"Poor lad," he said. "Do you need help with your armour?"
She didn't want to take it off, she realised. It felt like the only thing giving strength and definition to her body; she might melt or fade, fall apart somehow, if it was taken away from her now. The laughter faded from Jaime's eyes. He put his hand very gently, cautiously, on the belt that held Oathkeeper to her.
She nodded mutely and put her hand down to help him with the buckle. It felt more intimate than even the things they had done before. That was stupid, she thought. It was a practical necessity to remove her armour before she slept, and Pod had helped her with it a hundred times. This was no different.
The breastplate came away. Jaime knelt to help her with the leg greaves. It was difficult, one-handed, and she tried to help, but there was a foolish tremor in her fingers. Jaime ran his fingers slowly up her thigh, once the greave lay discarded on the floor, and she closed her eyes and let herself fall to pieces.
Afterwards, Jaime steered her towards her sleeping pallet and laid her down. Her body felt like a puppet in his grip, her limbs heavy and useless. He had stripped her entirely, she realised, while he was still mostly clothed. She shut her eyes, her face burning, and he kissed her collarbone.
"I thought," she said, when she could speak. He had pulled the furs over them both at least, so that she didn't feel as utterly exposed, but she still kept her eyes shut. "I didn't know we would, would do this again."
"I didn't mean to," Jaime said with a sigh. "I couldn't resist."
She opened her eyes at that and scowled.
"You couldn't resist me," she said flatly, hating the lie, the weakness in her that made him want to tell it.
"I couldn't resist you," Jaime agreed, not noticing or choosing to ignore her disbelieving tone. "My lady. Brienne. Wench. Wife."
"You resisted me well enough before," Brienne said sharply, swallowing against the weakness that threatened her at the fond sound of his voice, the look on his face. "Don't - I don't need lies."
"Ah," Jaime said, looking down at her. "All right." He pulled the furs back from her, suddenly, and the rush of cool air over her naked breasts made her flush and flinch.
"No," Jaime said. "Open your eyes."
She did, hardly able to breathe, and he ran his fingers over her nipple, watching her face.
"You're small here," he said softly. "Almost flat. You hardly look like a woman. That's what you want me to say?"
The pain was shocking, brutal, but clean. He was telling the truth. She nodded, and he pinched at her, made her gasp.
"You look like a woman when I'm fucking you," he said. "You look - just now - like you were made for it. For me."
It was a lie, she told herself, but his voice still had that brutal unkind tone that she couldn't help but associate with truth. She shook her head, and he grinned savagely.
"It's true," he said. "You can't hide it, Brienne. You love what I do to you." His hand tightened possessively over her. "That look on your face - it makes me -" he grabbed her hand and pulled it roughly over himself. "Am I lying?"
She shook her head dumbly. She couldn't move her hand or take it away. He stared down at her, challenging, almost angry.
"Am I lying?" he said again.
"No," she whispered and felt a tear slip out of the corner of her eye, into her hair. He sighed and pulled the furs back up, covering them both, and let her tremble against him for a long shaken moment. He kissed her forehead, and her jaw. A sob rose in her chest and she swallowed it fiercely.
"Trust me," Jaime said in her ear, and she clutched at him.
"I want," she said. "Will you -"
"What?" Jaime said. "Anything."
"I'm your wife," she said, unable to find other words, and he drew a deep unsteady breath, understanding her.
"No," he said. "It's too risky. You won't-"
"I'm willing," Brienne said. And. "I don't want an annulment."
"You're not thinking clearly," Jaime said, his voice tight. "You - in the morning -"
"I won't change my mind," Brienne said. It sounded like a vow. His sigh against her shoulder was shaky.
"I'm a selfish man," he said, sounding resigned, and then moved back from her to pull off his tunic.
It didn't really hurt, as her septa had promised it would. It was a small pain, hardly anything. But she understood why everyone said it hurt. The pleasure was like pain, an unbearable brightness. Jaime kept coming into and out of focus; his sharp eyes, the thin hair on his chest, the little lines at the corner of his eyes, his half-open mouth. She couldn't stop touching him.
In the morning, he looked anxious. She smiled at him, trying to be reassuring, but the worry in his brow only intensified. A horrible thought struck her.
"Jaime," she said quickly, grabbing his wrist. "Did I - did you want an annulment?"
He stared at her.
"No," he said slowly. "Of course that's what you would - no, Brienne. I don't want an annulment. You didn't force me to anything."
Her shoulders slackened with relief. She gave him a weak, relieved smile and he shook his head and smiled back. There was still worry in his face.
"We ride for King's Landing today," he reminded her and her stomach clenched. Cersei. Somehow, for the first time since the wedding, she had almost forgotten Cersei.
Jaime's face was taut and stern as he rode out beside her, at the head of their armies, and the odd warm feeling she had woken with, the sense of having shared a secret with him, faded. This marriage was a punishment. That he could make the best of it - that he could enjoy having Brienne in his bed - that he cared for her - none of that took away the naked fact that it was all Cersei's doing, one of Cersei's poisoned gifts.
The distance to King's Landing shrank with appalling speed as they rode. Only a day's journey now. A few miles from the city, he turned to her silently and she remembered and unbuckled Oathkeeper. Handing it over felt less important, now, than it had when they had left - when she had been unsure if she could ever fight again - but it was still painful. It was so much a part of her. And Jaime - Cersei was so much a part of him. She thought of what they had shared - the children - and the jealousy that tore at her was completely new, visceral. It was very difficult to meet Cersei's eyes and bow her head.
"Welcome home, brother," Cersei said and then she was taking Jaime's face in her long-fingered hands, kissing him softly on the cheek. Brienne tasted blood; she had bitten the inside of her cheek.
"Your wife looks ill," Cersei said. "Send her to bed. You and I must talk."
"Thank you, your grace," Brienne said, so that Jaime didn't have to speak. She went up to the same room that Cersei had given them last time and lay down. Her hand kept reaching for her side, for Oathkeeper, so she tucked it under the pillow and folded her other arm across her waist.
Jaime didn't come until long past midnight. He smelled of wine and, faintly, perfume.
"Have you changed your mind?" he said quietly, as the bed dipped under his weight.
"No," she said and he came into her arms and put his head down on her shoulder. She asked nothing about his long absence. She was afraid he wouldn't lie.
She had thought, before, that she understood despair. When Renly had died, when Lady Catelyn had died, when the world had been reduced to mud and stink and Jaime slumped on his horse ahead of her - she had said to herself, in those times, this is the worst. Survive this, and nothing will ever again be so bad. But the soft luxurious room with the lock on the door - Jaime's absences - the moments when Cersei glanced at her in passing, and murmured something about her dress and her hair and carrying herself like a lady - it was like going mad. She slept too much. She ate too little, nausea rising in her stomach at the sight of food. She felt her muscles softening, despite Jaime sparring with her, in secret, in the night.
Somewhere the world was at war and every precious thing was at risk - men were dying at the Wall, every day - Lady Sansa - and meanwhile Cersei sent a woman to her to teach her needlework. Rage grew in her, of a kind she had never known. It wasn't the clean killing rage that made her whole body a weapon with a single point; it was a sickening and aimless thing, helpless, choking. The sight of Jaime enraged her. The sight of the sky. Of men riding past the windows, uselessly, exercising their horses, as the siege lengthened and starvation set in and Cersei did nothing except sacrifice men to defend her walls, invent fantasies about soldiers riding to her defence from across the Seven Kingdoms, and needle at Brienne.
"She's mad," she said aloud, one night, and Jaime hushed her. He looked worn and terrible now, ten years older, but her pity for him was a distant thing. All she felt was terror for herself, at her own uselessness.
"I," she said, and Jaime waited, his forehead strained. "When will she - has Winterfell not sent for help yet? The Wall -"
"She won't let you go," Jaime said shortly, answering her real question, and she turned her face back into the pillow. Jaime's fingers brushed tentatively over her face, through her hair.
"Stop," she said, and he did. His breathing was uneven.
"Don't tell me you're sorry," she said between her teeth, into the dark, and he drew a breath and said nothing. The coward, she thought, the sick rage rising in her throat again. She put her hand on his shoulder and tugged and he turned to meet her.
It was fierce and awkward, an ugly struggle as she grabbed at him in the dark and pulled him into her and he gasped in her hair, but it was better than nothing. Sweat poured down her back and she felt the strain in her thighs and shoulders; she felt almost like herself again. Then morning came and Cersei's summons and more needlework and Jaime's grim face lighting up in a falsely brilliant smile that she wanted to claw at. They were talking, at last, about the Wall. Jaime was arguing pleasantly, easily, drawing a lazy finger across the map of Westeros as if he and his sister were playing a game. Brienne's knuckles hurt with the effort of clenching them in her lap. Cersei's eyes glittered down at her.
"Are you well, sister?" she asked and Brienne, looking up at her, saw, very clearly, for the first time, that there were only five men in the room. Five swords between them. Five men, counting Jaime, who carried Oathkeeper. Ser Robert Strong was on the walls and the other men were boys who had never seen battle. Jaime was the only true danger in the room.
"A little tired," she said to Cersei and saw Jaime's face change. He had seen her eyes go to Oathkeeper.
"Tired?" Cersei said in a marvelling tone. "Is needlepoint so exhausting? Or is my brother -"
Brienne stood and Jaime moved, a sharp revealing movement, interposing his body between her and Cersei. Brienne tasted blood. Cersei looked astonished.
"What?" she said to Jaime. "I won't hurt your beast, you know that. I know how fond you are of her."
"I know," Jaime said lightly. "I just - she's tired. Brienne, go to bed."
"You coward," Brienne said involuntarily. Cersei stared as if Brienne had grown an extra head. Jaime was very white.
"Go, Brienne," he said pleadingly.
"No," Cersei said. "Let her speak. I want to hear this."
"No," Jaime almost shouted, putting his hand out to Brienne. There was a ringing in her ears.
"You're unfit to rule," she said plainly to Cersei. "You don't know what you're doing. Your men are dying, and your throne is weak, and all you do is play spiteful games."
"Ah," Cersei said softly. Jaime's face was aghast.
"Take her," Cersei said mildly, and the men came forward and gripped her arms. Brienne shook them off, glad of the excuse, and fought until it was Oathkeeper at her throat and Jaime pressing her against the wall. He looked so horrified that she was almost sorry for him but the anger was too great for pity to take the upper hand. She wanted to dare him to kill her but he was using the sword simply as a ram, not a blade, and she couldn't escape with the two other men holding her arms.
"Your wife is mad," Cersei said softly. "So I forgive the treason. Keep her to her room from now on, brother. I don't wish to see her."
"Yes," Jaime said, his face agonised, and Brienne wanted to spit at him but did nothing. Coward, she thought, and knew he saw the thought in her face.
"You're as worthless as she is," she heard herself say, the words coming up like bile, like vomit, and Cersei smiled at his flinch as if at a gift.
"Mad," she said, still smiling, and Jaime nodded wordlessly and let them take her away.
She saw no one for four weeks. Servants brought her food and water and saw to her clothes. She realised, in the third week, that she was probably pregnant; her moon's blood, normally so regular, never came and she felt she was beginning to gain a little flesh. It didn't matter, she thought flatly. What mattered was getting a sword. What mattered was getting out.
"Brienne," Jaime said in her ear, and she jerked awake. There was a hilt in her hand. Oathkeeper. She stared up at him in the moonlight and saw that he was injured. Something - someone - had clawed at his face with long nails. He was bleeding.
"Jaime," she said.
"She's dead," he said flatly. "My brother is here. Will you come?"
She got up heavily, dazed, clutching at the sword. Jaime helped her up impersonally. His gaze kept sliding off her face, into the middle distance. She could see no way to reach him. She kept hold of Oathkeeper and went with him to meet Tyrion Lannister and the dragon queen, to negotiate the surrender of King's Landing.
The road north was slow and strangely tiring. She felt the strain of pregnancy, and of the long months of doing nothing at King's Landing. Her neck ached, and her back, and her shoulders, and there was a wearying cloud of depression over everything. Her army was moving at a trudge, rather than a march. Jaime, beside her, rode in silence, his shoulders rounded, his face expressionless.
Cersei's nails had left a faint pink trace on his cheek and over the bridge of his nose. That scar, Brienne thought, wouldn't last. Not physically. But Jaime's mind and will seemed almost gone. He had not fought at all for his freedom, in the face of the new Queen's formal accusation of regicide. It was Brienne and Tyrion who had managed it between them; Jaime had offered no cooperation, beyond a shrug of assent when she had spoken of the wildfire. But at least he had chosen to fight at the Wall, silently following her and standing at her shoulder as she rallied the men. Studying him now, she thought he might be hoping to die there.
His absent gaze grazed over her and she jerked her head away. She was so tired. There was so much to do. The Wall, she told herself. This was the war of wars, surely, the thing she was made for. But there was a pit of nausea in her stomach and all she could think of was Jaime. What exactly had he done? What had it cost him? What was he thinking now? Everything else seemed faded and faraway.
"We should," Jaime said, in his new rusty voice. "When do we halt?"
She looked at the horizon, at the bloody light of the setting sun. Jaime had ceded command to her from the moment they set out, deferring to her on every question, and the men followed his lead.
"Soon," she said, and raised her voice so that they could all hear. "In another half hour, when we come to the valley."
Jaime nodded and his eyes slid away again. In their tent that night, he sat very still as she undressed and scraped back her over-grown hair. His eyes were on his gold hand, resting heavy on his knee.
"You should sleep," she said.
"I can't sleep," he said flatly, still not looking at her.
"Lie down, at least," she said. He sat a moment or two longer, and then finally shuffled over obediently and sat down beside her on the bedroll.
"Can I," she said, touching the buckle that locked the false hand to his wrist, and he nodded. She had watched him do this a hundred times before, had helped a few times, and her fingers knew their way. He sat passive, letting her work.
Her throat felt tight and sore. Cersei was dead. She ought to be glad of it - she was glad - but it was as if some of Jaime's grief and loss had flowed into her. She too felt that something irreplaceable was lost.
She laid the false hand by and looked at the stump of his wrist, lying in her lap. Jaime still sat, silent and passive, his gaze unfocused, waiting for her to decide what he should do next. She touched the stump gently and then was overtaken by impulse. He started under the touch of her lips there, his eyes darting up to her face, and she realised with a shock that she was still capable of the hot ear-tingling embarrassment that had dominated her girlhood and followed her into adulthood. She had believed all that was dead and over, drained out of her by the months in King's Landing, leaving her grim and old and capable of no emotion but rage. But. She let his wrist go hastily, awkwardly, and lay down.
"Lie down," she said, when he still just sat there, and he lay down obediently beside her. That was familiar enough. He had been following her orders for weeks. Eat. Dress. Lie down. Get up. But now he was looking at her. He hadn't truly looked at her in all that time. The heat under her skin wouldn't recede.
"Brienne," he said at last, his voice a sigh, his tone one of surprised recognition. As if he truly hadn't seen her for a long time, and her presence in their bed was a surprise. She wasn't sure what to do or say. Perhaps he was in no mood to be reminded of the disaster of their marriage, or of any marriage - who knew what memories of Cersei haunted him. Then his hand touched her cheek. When she looked at him, he was looking back, his eyes sharp and focused, present. She nodded silently and he came to her.
It was quick and a little rough, not painful but barely pleasurable. Jaime shook in her arms in his release and then didn't stop shaking, his head on her breast, his face wet. She said nothing, hardly daring to breathe as his long shivering breaths steadied and quieted. Sleep, she murmured, but it was unnecessary. He was gone already. She closed her own eyes but sleep wouldn't come. She couldn't stop feeling the weight of him, his warm, living, breathing body. Not dead. Not lost. Not mad. Asleep. She drew a few shaky breaths of her own. Jaime mumbled and turned over in his sleep. He slept for seven hours, the weary lines on his face smoothed out, his mouth a little open. She almost couldn't bear to wake him, when morning came.
"Brienne," he groaned, half-awake, when she shook him. There was a moment when he looked annoyed and ordinary as he sat up, a little petulant at being woken. Then memory came back. All the light went out of him, again.
"We ride in another hour," she said in her steadiest voice and he nodded.
"Why," he said to her later, after he had dressed and shaved. She looked at him inquiringly and he bent over the map in front of her. "Why aren't we taking the road through Riverrun?"
She cleared her throat.
"This is quicker," she said. "Though the road is harder."
He nodded, frowning over the map, tracing their route with his finger, studying the terrain and calculating the days.
"Yes," he said. "All right." He glanced up at her.
"Will you fight? At the Wall?"
She stared, bewildered, and he gestured at her body.
"The child," he said, simply, and she felt her stomach drop. She had told no one. Did it show then, already?
"I don't know," she said slowly, trying to hide her dismay. "If I can, I will."
He nodded. She stared at him, and his eyes narrowed a little.
"You thought I didn't know," he said.
"I thought no one knew," she admitted. "Does it - am I -"
He shook his head.
"Only to me," he said. It was a dry statement of fact, but she felt her face warm a little. His mouth went up at the corner.
"Come here," he said and she went. He put his hand on her breast.
"Here," he said quietly. His hand ran down her side to her hip. "And here. You're rounder. Softer." Her belly. His palm pressed down. "Here."
"Oh," she said, soundlessly.
"It's subtle," he said, watching her face. His hand was still on her belly, his thumb stroking idly over her navel. "Even I can see it only when you aren't in armour."
"I should," she said quickly, reminded, and he nodded.
"In a minute," he said. She closed her eyes. He pressed closer, murmuring in her ear. Jaime. Alive. Touching her. If she kept her eyes shut and focused only on his voice, his touch, she could pretend it was six months ago and the first time; she could pretend everything was possible and that she could save him. When she opened her eyes, he was smiling at her. The mark on his face was fainter than ever. It would be so easy to pretend.
They won the war. Brienne was frozen, trembling, her shoulder in agony - broken, she thought - and it hurt every time she drew breath. But the battle was over and, against all expectation, she was alive. Every last one of the things were dead, the air stank of ash and blood and something acidic, and there was faint sunlight filtering through the clouds. Lady Sansa was there, in the dirt and blood of the battlefield, holding Brienne's hand.
"You're hurt," she was saying. "We must-"
"I'm," Brienne said dizzily. "My lady. Where - the king?"
"Alive," Lady Sansa said, her eyes glittering fiercely. "It's over. Come, Brienne. You need-"
"Ser Jaime?" Brienne croaked. "Is he-"
"Alive," Lady Sansa said again, and Brienne felt her knees give. There was blood in her hair, she realised, fresh blood, still wet and warm. Where else might she be injured? Her hand moved to her belly in a strange instinctive gesture, protective, and she saw a startled question leap in Lady Sansa's eyes.
"Come," she said again, even more gently, and Brienne went.
The child lived, the grim-faced maester told her. She had been very lucky. Her shoulder was only sprained, her ribs only bruised, and her head injury would heal. How she could have gone into the field in her condition - Brienne shut her eyes and let his voice fade. She was very tired, but it was more than that. She felt adrift. There was no war. There was peace. And she was alive. Oathkeeper lay quiescent by her side, dark and glittering with the strange blood of the creatures from over the Wall. She should clean it, she thought. She should. In a moment. Something twisted in her, a jerk deep in her body that made her eyes fly open. The child. Panic broke over her. She opened her eyes. The maester was still there, salving the wound on her forearm, his frown still heavy over his brow.
"What," she said, and he glanced up at her. "For the - the child. What should I do?"
"Rest," he said after a short pause. "Eat. Sleep. Don't -" He gestured at her body with his bloodied hands. The forearm wound was superficial, she knew, but such cuts always bled extravagantly. "No more of this."
Terror gripped her. No more of this. She looked down at herself, the familiar ugliness of her flat chest and heavy-muscled thighs. She couldn't rest. It would be intolerable. She put her hand out for Oathkeeper's hilt, desperate, and the maester sneered faintly and finished bandaging her arm in silence. She couldn't sit up, after he left, to clean the sword. Tears of frustration came into her eyes, weak and thin. She let her arm go slack. What did it matter? It was peacetime and the gods had cheated her of her last chance. There was no cause to die in now. She would sink back into a burden - Jaime Lannister's ugly wife. If it hadn't been for the child, she might have found a way to release him. But now he was trapped. She shut her eyes and let the stupid tears fall. What did it matter now?
"Brienne," Jaime said, and she woke. He was shaved, clean, his eyes weary but clear. She had last seen him covered in mud and filth, screaming, sword upraised. She had thought at the time that might be her last glimpse of him; the idea had given her a certain peace. But here he was. Her husband. The idea seemed more insane than ever.
"Jaime," she said, her voice still a croak, propping herself up on her good elbow, and he handed her a goblet without a word. Water, cold and delicious.
"Tyrion is here," he said, watching her as she drank. Her eyes still felt raw. She wondered if he could tell. "They're still arguing over some provinces but they've settled the question of Tarth and the Rock. We're to hold both, of the Queen in the South."
"Oh," she said. He hesitated, looking at her.
"Do you-" he said. "I - I'd like to go home, first. To Casterly Rock. Will you come?"
"Yes," she said tiredly, unable to think beyond that single syllable.
"You're sure?" he said. "I can take you to Tarth, if -"
She shook her head.
"It doesn't matter," she said, with an effort. That dead feeling of weariness was gripping at her again. Her father was dead. The villages had been torched. There was nothing in Tarth.
He bent over her, frowning a little. There was a little wound over his eyebrow, she saw, a nick. Cersei's scar was barely visible.
"You look terrible," he said. "When did you last eat?"
She shrugged, and then remembered the maester's words. The child. She struggled to sit up and Jaime gripped her arm, held her. He was warm and close. She felt a moment's weak longing to put her face into the crook of his shoulder.
"Bread," she said. "I'd like some bread."
He nodded, not letting go of her, and turned his head to call out.
"Payne," he said. "Bread for the lady," and she saw Pod's face over his shoulder, pink and beaming.
"Bread," he said. "I'm glad you - I'll get it, my lady."
Jaime smiled faintly.
"Nice lad," he said. "I'm glad you aren't dead too, wench. Despite your best efforts."
She tried to smile, and his gaze turned quizzical as her eyes welled up again.
"You're exhausted," he said, thumbing the tears away. "You'll feel better with some food in you."
She did. The bread was thick and soft, dipped in oil, and she felt herself regain control over the mad totter of her feelings as she ate. She would have to find some way to be of use in peacetime, that was all. She would find a way not to burden Jaime.
"When do we leave?" she asked, as she swept up the last of the oil.
"After you heal," Jaime replied. "The maester says six weeks."
"I won't need six weeks," she said. "The shoulder's not broken, he said, and the rest is only bruising."
Jaime's smile was twisted.
"I thought you might die," he said drily. "When you fell - it didn't look like it was only bruising."
"It's good armour," she said, and he made a helpless sort of noise. A laugh, she thought, but an oddly pained laugh.
"What?" she said, puzzled, and he shook his head.
"Nothing," he said. "Six weeks, Brienne. I don't care how good your armour is. I want you healed before we go."
She opened her mouth to argue and then closed it again. There was no urgency now. Nothing to be urgent about. She could sleep for six weeks if she chose. Jaime's eyes narrowed as he watched her, and she struggled for a smile.
"All right," she agreed. "Six weeks."
He nodded and touched her hair, ran his fingers through the thin straw-like strands. It was an absent gesture; he might have petted a dog or a horse so, thinking of other things. She felt her skin warm in response anyway and wanted to close her eyes.
"I should," she said. "Is Lady Sansa-"
He let her go.
"Yes," he said. "She wants to see you, when you're able."
"I'm able," she said shortly, and he smiled and gripped her elbow to help her stumble from her bed. Everything hurt, breathing especially, but sleep and the bread had made a difference. Jaime kept his hand at her elbow as they walked, and it felt natural, ordinary, until she entered the hall and saw Lady Sansa glance from the touch to Jaime's face and then hers. Her face heated. To her irritation, she saw that Jaime had caught the glance too; his grip tightened possessively and there was a faint challenge in the smirk with which he met Lady Sansa's gaze.
"Brienne," Lady Sansa said. "Are you well?"
"Yes," Brienne lied. "Thank you, my lady." She felt Jaime twitch beside her as Lady Sansa approached and then her own mouth fell open as she found herself in an embrace so fierce that it almost hurt.
"The gods be praised," Lady Sansa was saying. "I thought. I wasn't sure. There was so much blood."
It was difficult to speak. She touched Lady Sansa's shaking shoulder gently, feeling shockingly presumptuous but not knowing what else to do.
"She tells me it's mostly bruising," Jaime said dryly, as Lady Sansa pulled back and wiped her eyes. "The maester says she needs six weeks to recover. With your permission, lady, I'd prefer to remain at Winterfell until she heals."
Lady Sansa frowned faintly.
"Brienne may stay at Winterfell as long as she chooses," she said. "Six years, if she likes."
Jaime inhaled hard, but he said nothing. They both looked at her, and she stared blankly back, confused.
"Brienne," Lady Sansa said gently. "What is your will?"
"I," Brienne said, and stopped. Jaime's expression was cool, entirely unreadable. Her stomach dropped. She thought, again, of his freedom, of the trap she had become. But.
"There's a child," she said. "A Lannister should be born at Casterly Rock."
Lady Sansa flinched.
"I wondered," she said. "I wasn't sure. But if - Brienne, if you wish it, we can find a way."
Jaime's jaw tightened, and for a moment she feared he would insult Lady Sansa somehow. He would not want his child taken from him, Brienne thought, in the wreckage of all his other family, and he wouldn't understand the nature of Lady Sansa's fears for her. She put her hand hastily on his wrist and spoke as reassuringly as she could.
"Thank you," she said. "But it isn't necessary." There was only one thing she could say to dispel the worry on Lady Sansa's brow. "I want - I wish to go to Casterly Rock. With my husband."
That word felt foreign on her tongue and made her blush with embarrassment - like a foolish joke, like something out of a masquerade - but it worked. Lady Sansa's brow cleared and she smiled a little archly. Jaime's hand moved from Brienne's elbow to slip around her waist, possessive again. He looked surprisingly pleased when she glanced up at him, almost smug, and that lightened her heart a little. He wanted her loyalty, anyhow. Loyalty, at least, she knew she could offer.
The time at Winterfell passed quietly. She sat in the Great Hall and listened to Lady Sansa and the King do the painstaking work of creating peace - granting pardons, hearing promises, making settlements, agreeing boundaries - and her body did its own slow job of repair. She spoke very little. So did Jaime. They simply sat together, or walked through the godswood together, or watched the rebuilding go on. Jaime touched her often, her wrist or her waist or her hair, but never with desire. They slept side by side as they had done years ago, as prisoners and fellow-soldiers; the whole strange business of their marriage might have been a fever dream, except that she felt the child stir sometimes in the stillness.
As pain faded, other feelings came into focus. Her appetite changed. Her breasts ached at odd times, for reasons she couldn't understand. Her belly rounded so much that, after a week of discomfort, she asked Lady Sansa for a tailor to alter her clothes.
"I'll do it," Lady Sansa said at once. "Bring whatever needs altering to my room."
"I want to," Lady Sansa said, at the same moment as Brienne said, "you shouldn't-"
"I want to," Lady Sansa said again. "I like needlework, and I hardly see you now. You can sit with me as I work."
So Brienne fetched her pile of tunics and breeches, and sat in Lady Sansa's room, watching the deft work of her hands with something like wonder. Brienne herself had never been able to master the needle or follow a seam. But it was pleasant to watch, in the quiet warm room, the only sounds faraway murmurs and shouts from the courtyard and the occasional call of a bird or whicker of a horse.
"So," Lady Sansa said, after several minutes had passed in this stillness. "Tell me, Brienne. This marriage. He treats you well?"
"Very well," Brienne said, as reassuringly as she could, and Lady Sansa nodded and flipped the cloth over on her lap.
"Good," she said, on an exhale, seriously, and then her mouth curled. It was a surprisingly youthful expression, girlish, teasing, a little sly.
"He's very handsome, isn't he?" she said, darting a quick look up at Brienne. Brienne felt her skin flush predictably. Perhaps normal women often spoke so of men, confident in their own right to judge and desire. But it felt somehow secret or shameful in her. She wasn't sure how to answer.
"Yes," she said at last, but the monosyllable sounded ungracious and stiff. Lady Sansa was being kind; Brienne didn't want to return sullenness or coldness for her warmth. How might another woman respond to such praise of her husband?
"He is very -" she hesitated. Jaime's face flashed in her mind's eye. She saw the sharp cut of his mouth, the glitter of his eyes, the fine trace of golden stubble on his cheek.
"Yes," she heard herself say again, foolishly, and flinched. Her voice had come out wrong, shaky and too serious. Unladylike. Lady Sansa's hands stilled.
"You're in love with him," she said, in a tone of discovery, and Brienne opened her mouth to deny it and couldn't. When Cersei had accused her of the same feeling, her mind had rejected it as nonsensical. She couldn't have described, then, the exact feeling Jaime evoked in her - that mixture of exasperation and respect, trust and nervousness - but she had thought love was certainly the wrong word for it. She hadn't been foolish enough for that, then. Now - she stood abruptly, not wanting to see pity in Lady Sansa's face.
"I have to," she said. "Please excuse me, my lady."
"I'm glad we spoke," Lady Sansa said and Brienne nodded and rushed from the room. She wanted to get out, under the sky; she wanted the cool slap of the wind in her face. She strode swiftly through the corridors, seeking an entrance into the courtyard, and almost ran headlong into Jaime. He gripped her arm.
"Careful," he said and then, sharply, in a different tone, "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," she said, pulling her arm free. She couldn't make herself look at him just now. "I need air."
"Are you ill?" Jaime demanded, and the worry in his voice forced to meet his eyes.
"No," she said, as reassuringly as she could. His anxiety for her pierced her, unexpectedly. He was trying so hard. He had tried so hard from the beginning of the nightmare.
I love you, said the voice in her mind, and it felt so natural that she almost thought she had spoken the words aloud. She exhaled. All right. So it was true. It didn't make any difference. It didn't change the fact that she was bound to him, or change the nature of that bond.
"I'm fine," she said, more quietly. "Will you walk with me?"
He smiled and she wanted to look away, dazzled. She didn't; she made herself smile back. They walked sedately into the courtyard, and Jaime stared soberly up at the towers of the castle while she tilted her head back and let the chill wind blow through her hair. The child kicked, with unexpected strength, and she gave a little gasp. Jaime's head turned, and his gaze followed the instinctive movement of her hand.
"Ah," he said. "Active, is she?"
Brienne blinked at him.
"She?" she said, and he shrugged.
"Just a feeling," he said and smiled again. He looked - almost content, she thought. Almost happy.
"Are you," she said tentatively. "You're glad?"
He looked away, up at one of the towers again.
"I don't deserve to be," he said, his voice so low that she almost couldn't hear it. "But yes. I am."
"Good," she said, realising only as the weight of it left her how much she had feared his despondency, his resignation. He wanted the child. Was glad of the child. She shut her eyes.
"I'm glad too," she said and he exhaled deeply.
"Good," he said. "That's - good."
It was a lovely moment, then, there in the tranquility of the winter evening, in the deepening twilight. Peace. Contentment. The tightness that had caught at her throat when Lady Sansa had said in love began to ease. There was more to be glad of than to regret.
The feeling of ease held for another hour. Then they returned to the Hall to dine, and Lady Sansa smiled and held out her hand. There was a woman standing beside her, slender, grey-eyed, with exquisite gold ringlets framing her lovely face.
"This is Lady Ester, of House Forrester," Lady Sansa said. "Lady Ester, Brienne of Tarth and Ser Jaime Lannister. I know you wished to meet Brienne."
"Yes," Lady Ester said breathlessly, pink-cheeked. "You saved my brother's life on the Wall, Lady Brienne. I wanted to thank you."
"He fought bravely," Brienne said, trying to remember a Forrester she had encountered during the bloody defence of the Wall, and Lady Ester dimpled.
"He says he hid in your shadow for most of the battle, my lady," she said and Jaime huffed a short laugh that brought her attention to him. Brienne felt her breath catch as their eyes met. Lady Ester was truly nothing like Cersei, her face sweetly rounded and dimpled, but there was something about her colouring and the graceful moulding of her figure that reminded Brienne of her. A little shadow passed over Jaime's face, hardly visible. Brienne looked away.
Lady Ester was placed at Brienne's left at dinner. Jaime, on her right, listened with smiling attention to the girl's eager voice as she asked Brienne a thousand questions about the battle and her upbringing and her training. She seemed fascinated by the idea of a woman knight. Her brother had taught her to do a little - very little - with the sword, she confessed. Did Brienne have a brother? Oh, she was sorry. Was it frightening being a woman, all alone, among so many men? Did Lady Brienne think, perhaps, that the King in the North too might admit a woman to his Guard? Brienne couldn't help smiling, as she answered, but there was no mistaking the unhappy pang in her chest every time the girl shook her shining ringlets back and Jaime's eyes crinkled in a smile. So much for peace and contentment.
"You're very quiet," Jaime said to her in their room, afterwards.
"I'm tired," she answered. He nodded, turning away to unlace his shirt, and the question escaped her before she could stop it.
"What did you think of Lady Ester?"
He shrugged, his back still to her.
"Young," he said dismissively. "Nice enough."
"Oh," Brienne said and he turned at the sound of her voice, his gaze suddenly sharp on her face.
"Why?" he asked.
"I just wondered," she said. The sick miserable feeling at the pit of her stomach was still there and it drove her on. "She looked. To me, she looked a little like." She couldn't go on. The look on his face was terrible, and she was suddenly ashamed of the pettiness of her jealousy.
"I'm sorry," she said. He didn't answer, his face very still. She took a step closer, wanting him to see that she was sorry, and he stepped back, putting up his hand to ward her off. Her heart seemed to stop.
"She looks nothing like Cersei," Jaime said evenly, only the faintest hesitation behind his mention of the name. His eyes were cold. "She couldn't - you wouldn't even have noticed that nothing of a girl if Cersei had been there tonight."
Brienne nodded dumbly.
"I know," she whispered. "I remember."
"Do you," he said. She held very still. She knew that note in his voice, though it was months since she had heard it. He would say something terrible and unforgettable now, and it would be her fault for letting her childish jealousy intrude on his grief. She waited, her heart pounding, and Jaime pinched his lips together hard and then put his hand over his eyes.
"Gods," he said. His voice shook. "Brienne."
She went to him then and he let her, putting his head down on her shoulder and breathing her in.
"Why can't I," he said, in a shaking voice. "I should hate her."
Brienne didn't answer. There was nothing to say. She held him till his breathing calmed and he pulled back from her and then she let him go.
"I'm sorry," she said again. "I shouldn't have said that." She swallowed. They were standing very close, still, and he was looking at her with such weary openness that she couldn't lie. "I was jealous."
"Jealous," he repeated, as if he didn't understand the meaning of the word, and then his eyebrows shot up. "You were jealous."
She bit her lip. The pain in her chest felt like a physical tear, like something she might jar if she moved too quickly.
"Why were you jealous?" Jaime said softly, watching her intently, and she swallowed. He would make her spell it all out, then. He wouldn't be kind.
"She's beautiful," she said baldly, too tired for evasion. "And so are you. And I'm-" her mouth twisted, despite herself, and Jaime gripped the back of her neck and tugged her into him.
"You're mine," he said. "She isn't. What does it matter what she looks like?"
"Because," she said, on a difficult breath, and felt Jaime's smile against her ear.
"I love you," he said easily, as if it was obvious. "I've never known anyone like you. I've never wanted anyone more than you. It doesn't matter what they bloody look like."
The words seemed to go straight through her head, leaving it empty and ringing. She pulled back to stare but then he kissed her and she couldn't find her words for another long moment. When she got her breath back, she found they were on the bed and Jaime's mouth had moved to her throat.
"You're lying," she said to the ceiling, when she could speak. "You don't have to - just because I -"
She felt the graze of his teeth and her voice broke off.
"Brienne," Jaime murmured. "Tell me again. You were jealous?"
She tried to catch her breath. Jaime's thigh was slowly parting her legs.
"Yes," she said in a strangled voice. "I'm - I -"
"You don't want me looking at other women," Jaime prompted, tugging her hair back so that her face was inches from his and she had to meet his eyes. He was grinning, triumphant. "Yes?"
"I don't," she said. "Jaime -"
"Say it," he instructed, and she sucked in a difficult breath.
"I don't want you to," she said. "To look at other women."
The words, in her own voice, made her flinch - she sounded greedy, presumptuous - but they made Jaime's grin widen fiercely.
"Go on," he said. "You want me to look at you."
She felt her jaw tighten and she had to turn her face away. He was laughing at her now, she was sure of it. He kissed the cheek she had turned towards him.
"I promise," he said. "Look at me, Brienne. Wench. Come on."
She forced herself to meet his eyes. He was smiling brilliantly; she hadn't seen him look so light-hearted since. She couldn't remember when.
"Tell me," he said. "Tell me what you want."
"I don't," she said. "Jaime, I didn't mean-"
"Brienne," he said, exasperatedly. "Just tell me-"
"Lady Sansa says I'm in love with you," she blurted out and then shut her eyes in horror. That was not what she had meant to say. That was worse, even, than what he had wanted her to say.
"Oh," he said, after a long pause. She didn't dare open her eyes. "Lady Sansa says."
She took a breath, and another, and then made herself open her eyes, pulled herself together. Jaime was very still, watchful, leaning over her with intent eyes.
"I didn't mean to say that," she said.
"Yes," he said. "I noticed."
"It doesn't matter," she said quickly, impelled by the look on his face. "I won't -"
"Stop," Jaime said. He shut his eyes, as if praying for patience, and then opened them again. "Are you trying to promise that you don't love me? That you'll do your very best not to?"
"I'm trying to promise that you don't have to worry," Brienne gritted out. "I won't be - I'm saying you don't have to lie, or pretend, or - or anything. I don't need you to."
"Oh," Jaime said. "I see. I can do as I please, and fuck anyone I fancy, and you won't mind. Is that it?"
She swallowed, but couldn't speak. She couldn't say yes - the mere thought of it filled her with a frightening rage - but the no seemed equally impossible. She had promised herself she wouldn't be a burden and she was already making a scene over nothing, over his casual appreciation of a pretty girl.
"Just tell me the truth," Jaime said softly.
"I would mind," she said dully, looking away from him towards a wall. "I was. I was jealous of Cersei. I want you to." She swallowed. "To look at me."
Jaime exhaled deeply and moved towards her. It startled her into glancing up and she saw, with a shock of surprise, that he looked shaken, that there was a tremor in his hands and at the corners of his mouth.
"Oh gods," he said. "Brienne. I wasn't sure. I knew you never wished to marry. I thought -" He collapsed over her, kissed her neck and the side of her cheek, clumsily. "I wasn't sure."
"Of what?" she said, baffled.
"You're my wife," he said. "I want you to mind. Honestly, wench, sometimes -"
He pressed his face into her throat. She held very still, trying to understand, intensely aware of his warmth over her.
"I love you," he said, in a muffled indistinct voice. "I thought I'd trapped you. That you wanted your freedom back."
"No," she said slowly. "No."
A moment passed in silence. Jaime breathed and then pulled away from her, enough that he could see her face.
"You were jealous of Cersei?" he asked and she felt herself flush and nodded. He ran his hand gently through her hair.
"There was nothing to be jealous of," he said quietly. "She was mad, Brienne. Lost. I hated to look at her."
Brienne shook her head.
"You loved her," she said gently. "You miss her. I don't need you to lie, Jaime, truly."
"It isn't a lie," Jaime said. "I loved her, and I miss her, and I grew to hate the sight of her. It wasn't -" he gestured towards her. "It was nothing to be jealous of."
"And," she said, wanting to move away from Cersei, from the sombre look in his eyes. "Lady Ester?"
"To tell you the truth," he said. "I have no idea what she looks like. I was thinking of you."
She couldn't help her smile at that and Jaime leaned in and kissed the corner of her mouth.
"So," he said. "Lady Sansa says -"
She put her hand over her face and he kissed that too.
"What did you say to her?"
"Nothing," Brienne said vehemently, letting him take the hand away and stroke her palm. "She said you were handsome. I only agreed with her."
Jaime choked on a laugh and she smiled too, at the look on his face, overflowing delight. She couldn't disbelieve that expression.
"Jaime," she said, and leaned up to kiss him. He let her, a soft gleam in his eyes as she approached, and he smiled into the kiss when her hands slid into his hair and pulled him closer, pressing her into the bed. Trapped, he had said, worry in his voice. Ruined. She had never felt so free.