Cassana traced the pattern on the silk spread with the tip of her finger, pretending in her mind that she was not about to embark on a foolish adventure. To be clear it was not even the true adventure as the songs defined it but rather an attempt on her part to catch a glimpse of a half-murmured plan she’d heard. With that in mind, her heels did not drag at the prospect of weeding out her mother’s location.
“You know mother enjoys her solitary rides,” Maekar warned, shoving an entire lemon cake in his mouth with all the finesse of a stampeding auroch heard. Crumbs fell against his cheeks and onto the front of his tunic. The one mother had made for him with her own two hands. Cassana herself had sewn in the bone buttons. She scowled at his careless treatment of the garment and at his audacity.
“When I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.” Maekar shrugged at the outburst and continued laying siege to the plate of sweets. “Just because you are lazy and careless and would not take it upon yourself to find out what mother plans for Jon, it does not mean I am equally defective.”
At that point, Maekar put his treat away and frowned at her. :”I do not expect you to understand, Cass, but I promise you this, if Jon should wish out aid, he would ask it. If he does not, it means he knows what goes on and sees no need to intervene.”
“He does not know everything under the sun.”Her statement was met with mild agreement. “And this thing that they are planning is newly hatched. A scheme meant to draw coin into our coffers, presumably.”
“Presumably? And that’s a bad thing? I should think the prospect of coin an endearing one. Besides, if they are selling Jon into some sort of bondage, at least you and I will be safe.” He chuckled at his own jest, leaving her to bristle. “My point is, if Jon wants to avoid whatever they have cooked up in their heads, you’ll know it.”
“Of course I will, because I am going to find out exactly what they plan. Now, Maekar, I shall be going. Should the septa ask, I have decided to take a stroll with Sansa. Remember that.” He nodded unenthusiastically. The fiend, he would be glad to see her fail, if only to have a good laugh at her expense. It would serve him well if she put it to mother that he should be the one sold into whatever sort of bondage they had planned for Jon.
In fact, it did not take much of a genius to figure out what mother wished to do.. Her questions related more to the whens and the with whoms of the matter. And if she did not approve, or found fault, she would yell it from atop Baelor’s Sept. No one was allowed to make her siblings unhappy. Lest of all the woman who had birthed them.
“Well then, I take it you won’t be changing your mind?”She shook her head. “In that case, take Jon’s gelding. I’ll let him know where the horse is when I see him, aye?”
“Thank you, Maekar. You are not such a bad brother, after all.”He grinned from ear to ear, revealing a row of straight teeth, along with a small gap. A feature they shared. “I will let you know what I find out.”
“Seems fair enough to me. Just be careful not to bother mother too much.” As though mother would ever possibly consider her presence a bother. Cassana rolled her eyes at her brother and resisted the urge to further provoke him. Maekar was the sort of boy who lived to be riled up. She would not give him the pleasure.
The matter solved for the time being, she grabbed her cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders, Maekar watched her silently, his mind having no doubt wandered away. She could not blame him for that though. Hers would too with the lack of a clear goal in mind. Her mouth opened for a parting shot, her brain momentarily forgetting that she was not going to give her sibling any opportunity to needle her. Thus her lips snapped shut.
The fabric of her skirts rustled as she made her way without. In the hallway, a similarly clad Sansa awaited her. Her cousin gave a wane smile, worry shining in her eyes. Her agreement to come hinged on a sense of propriety, if anything, rather than a sense of duty. But then Sansa was not expected to mend the financial situation of a spendthrift. “All set?” her cousin questioned.
”Aye, I believe so.” She glanced about. “Are you certain you shan’t be missed?” Sansa nodded. “Good then. We shouldn’t be very long. I know where mother likes to ride.” Or at the very least she had some idea.
“I will help you whichever way I can,” Sansa allowed, clasping her hands in front of her. She gazed shyly at the ground. “Only that you must promise we shan’t end up in trouble.” That much she could and did promise. After all, they were simply going to impose upon mother and ask a few questions. After they would return. And all would be well. At least that was the plan Cassana had approved in her mind.
“Worry not. I plan to lead us to safety no matter the circumstances.” Taking Sansa by the hand, she dragged the girl after her with quite the force. Even though the other stood taller, by nearly a head, her gait was slower, might be because of the narrower kirtle. She’d insisted upon it, so Cassana saw no reason to be merciful. If the dress was so very important, more important than her comfort than so be it. For she would not have to endure much of it anyway. Just a little while atop a horse. A small price to pay. And Cassana would pay the debt someday, somehow.
What her cousin lacked in enthusiasm, she made up for in conversation skill. “I forgot to tell you. After you left the other day, my sister threw a tantrum about having to do needlework.”
“Again? Didn’t she learn from her last attempt?” Cassana laughed. That girl was truly something else. “I suppose she wanted all of you to know that needlework was stupid and only stupid ladies did it.” Sansa nodded, laughing along with her.
“But that’s not even the best part. It was one of the twins that set her down. I haven’t laughed so hard since that time Robb fell head[-first in the briar bush.” To be perfectly honest, she could see that in her mind’s eye. It was a pity Sansa couldn’t tell the twins apart.
“If I were mother, I would take her over the knee and give her a lesson she would never forget. At times I fell as though I am the only sane member of my family. Father is allowing her to run wild, completely oblivious to the fact that she will gain quite the reputation before long and I shall have to partake in whatever shame she heaps upon us.” Cassana nodded her understanding. The sad truth was that Arya Stark would mayhap never learn that certain boundaries were useful.
“Still, let us not consider the very worst. We may well presume that age will bestow wisdom upon your sister and she will see the error of her ways.” Sansa snorted. “Come, say may prove to be sensible.”
“The only thing Arya knows about the word is how to spell it.” Bleak prospects aside, Cassana did not truly care about what Arya Stark decided to do or not do. In fact, the less she knew, the better.
“Any man who would associate you with your sister’s behaviour is a blind fool who does not merit an ounce of attention. You are Sansa Stark, and that is the only thing that matters.,”
“You always know what to say. I wish I knew what to say. It would certainly make life easier.”Cassana shook her head. “Nay, I mean it. You always know the right words.”
“’Tis all in your head, cousin.” Had she truly any knowledge of what to say, there would be a scad of things she could righten. As matters stood, she could simply throw her opinions into her mother’s face and hope they would elicit a favourable outcome. Her father she had learned, long ago, not to bother with. He could retain one thing and one thing only, wine. And sometimes ale. But mostly wine. As such. She kept away when she could and when she could not she kept a stiff upper lip and endured his presence with feigned cheer. In fact, if she were completely honest with herself, she would admit, to herself, and possibly to Sansa, that she envied her cousin for the fine family the gods had bestowed upon her. Just once she wished she could be as proud of her father as Sansa was of hers.
Alas, there were times when wishes were futile. Thus Cassana would have to keep smiling and tell herself that someday, a long time off, of course, she would be out of her father’s reach, married with an upright man and a brood of her own to mother and pamper. And she would not have to pay any mind to cruel whispers, be reminded that her father was little better than a drunken fool and had naught else to do but go about siring babes on whores. Uncle Ned seemed capable of keeping to one woman. And most man, if they did keep a mistress were still well below her father’s number of lovers, for their mistresses were a constant comfort. She would have understood a mistress for she was not blind to the nature of the transaction they called marriage. She would have grudgingly accepted the woman’s presence. She would not have liked it. But she was very certain she would have been more in charity with her father were his liaisons of such a nature. A small sigh escaped her compressed lips.
“Nay, I am sure ‘tis not,” Sansa offered, her smile bright. “But I can see you do not wish to discuss this. No matter, I am very glad to have you so close at hand. For even if I do not know what to say, I can ask you. And reliable cousin that you are, you will aid me.”
“I will certainly try,” Cassana promised. “Have you hear anything yet of you father’s grand plans to wed you?” At least that they could speak of without the subject of her own father coming anywhere near the matter.
“To be honest, I have not. I was hoping mother might tell me aught. But she had kept silent upon the matter. I think they are considering Ser Arryn’s son, or possibly Lord Tully’s grandson.” Sansa made a soft sound in the back of throat.
“Am I to understand you are not pleased with any of these two options?” Her cousin shrugged. “Tully’s grandson is a bit young though, is he not? I doubt anyone is consider that match. Not that it matters though; I doubt you would have accepted that as a match.”
“I can certainly hope whomever they are thinking of, he will be fair and capable and kind.” One could certainly hope. “I should like to meet my prospective husband before saying my vows though. I mean, have you heard even as much as a couple of words about Ser Arryn’s son? Nay; because no one speaks of him.”
“His mother is Lady Cersei, as far as I know. At the very least the boy will be handsome lad. We can rely on good Lannister genes for that.”Sansa gave her a doubtful look. “Have you seen Jaime Lannister?”
“Have you seen Lord Arryn?”she retorted, laughter breaking forth past her lips. Seeing no recourse, Cassana followed suit until they voices rang out, causing one of the horses to spook and become jumpy.
“I confess, the prospect of the child inheriting Lord Arryn’s looks is rather daunting. But then. My mother told me Lord Arryn’s heir was quite the charmer in his youth and had more than a few maidens swooning in his presence. I’d gathered the swooning was a becoming reaction. And to be fair, there are plenty of men who retain their good looks throughout their ageing. Let us but consider the possibility of his son having inherited the best from both sides.” Sansa gave her a dry look. “It is very much possible, I assure you. Just look at Ser Baelor Hightower and tell me you would not be willing to take the man for a husband.”
“A pity there are no sons. Can you imagine a younger Ser Baelor. That would cause quite the fuss, wouldn’t it?” Once more they giggled. “Would that it were possible to get a man like that. Have you seen how careful he is with his lady wife?”
Anyone with eyes could see that man and wife had a special bond. Cassana nodded, privately agreeing with her cousin. “There is only one Ser Baelor in this world, though, and I fear Lady Rhonda is not that willing to share him with us.”
“Might be if we asked her very nice she might consider it. Failing that, however, there must be some worthy men in the kingdoms. I hear knights of the Reach are courteous. There are a few worthy houses to consider there. For instance, Lord Tyrell’s eldest is not yet wedded.”
Lord Tyrell’s oldest was a cripple. But then that did mean he could not go off gallivanting. She could live with that. Shaking the thought loose, Cassana spied from the corner of her eye another rider upon the road.She drew her horse to the side, leading him out of the way, allowing the man passage. He sped past her and Sansa. Her cousin’s shoulder lifted in a shrug. “Some people are just in a frightful hurry.”
“We’ll leave them to it,” she answered. “We are not that far off ourselves.”Which was true. They had neared the riding grounds. If anything, she should be within her mother’s presence within moments. Sansa nodded her head and steered her horse as she instructed. “I do so love the smell of grass; do you not?”
“Indeed. ‘Tis most becoming. I was growing tired of the smell of cloying perfumes.”Which the court had more than enough of were anyone to ask them. Yet no one had until that point, so Cassana doubted anyone ever would. “Did you not say your mother was likely to keep to the outer ring?”
What she often thought of as a riding ground was in fact a small portion of wilderness which was used infrequently for taking one’s horse galloping. Infrequently, because as some would have it, the grounds were haunted. What if the ghost should trip their horse? Her mother though had made a point to go there every so often. It was a miracle she was still alive.
Sansa pulled her horse to a halt. “Would you mind terribly if I remained here to keep watch?”
“Craven,” Cassana clucked her tongue. “Fine, stay here. I won’t be long.” Sansa breathed out in visible relief. “If I should meet the ghost, I’ll let it know you refused to join me.I am certain it will find such information to be most interesting.” Her cousin’s face scrunched up, but before she could protest she dug her heels into the horse’s flanks and set the poor beast off into a speedy trot.
Once beneath the shade of the trees, she advanced with more care. The ground was solid, but there were a lot of roots protruding from the ground and she was not prepared to sacrifice the gelding’s well-being. Cassana did not look over her shoulder. Sansa would be watching her, but she did not need the distraction. After a fair few steps she dismounted and elected to lead her horse about. She could see that in the distance there were no more roots. Almost as though a path had been cleared.
She made her way forth with care, soothing the horse with small talk. “It’s just for a little while.” Cassana didn’t precisely believe in ghosts. They were figments of one’s imagination. Still, the trees and lack of sunlight made for a convincing eerie atmosphere. “We’ll be out of here before you know it.”
It was at that point that she heard something. Cassana caught sight of a large earth formation. Looking about, she searched for a sturdy branch to tether her horse to. It took a few moments to find it but once she had, it was fairly easy to accomplish. She would have to thank Jon for training the horse so marvellously.
Leaving the beast be for the time being she reached the strange lump protruding out of the ground. Down below was a steep incline. But beyond that she could see fairly well into a clearing. Not only that, but she could make out the presence of a couple. Eyes wide, frozen in her spot, she continued to watch.
For a brief moment, she considered that her eyes might be playing tricks on her. Any yet why would they? Never before had anything of that manner happened. Lips curled downwards. Her breath was drawn in short gasps. If only the sight were not so clear. If only she did not see her mother’s form down there, and her mare tethered a little ways away. She might have been able to pretend the scene was not playing out before her very sight. Something within her urged Cassana to turn back. To run. To forget.
But that would not help wash the reality away. It seared itself in her brain, the image of her mother, locked in such a passionate embrace, as though naught in the world existed, except for her and, dare she consider it, her lover.
Jon approached his brother’s crib and picked the boy up. Steffon let out a delighted squeal, promptly grasping a lock of hair in his fist and pulling hard. A wince made its way upon his face. Jon pushed back against the pain and allowed his brother to squirm in his hold. The child proceeded to coo, trying, in his own convoluted tongue, to let him know some manner of information. He was quite certain that among the babbling there were even a few intelligible words. Steffon pointed to the wall and an inarticulate shout left his lips.
With a chuckle, Jon moved the both of them to a spot nearer. Without a second thought the babe proceeded to touch the wall, fingers brushing the surface with undisturbed curiosity. “What’s there?” he asked, causing Steffon to look up at him. “Is it a wall? Wall?” The boy gurgled and tugged on the lock he was still holding. “It’ll that that as agreement.”
Turning towards the wetnurse, who was clinging to her small corner of the chamber, working of some mending, he cleared his throat, hoping not to startle her too much. She jumped, gazing up. “Isn’t he a tad too quiet?” he questioned, motioning his head towards Steffon.
“Some days they are quieter,” the woman replied, her attention falling back to her task.
He, on the other hand, regarded his brother’s face with renewed interest. It would be a lie to say he knew much about babes. In fact, Jon would not say he knew anywhere near enough. Still, to his mind, the tiny face staring up at him was much too pale. Should he request it of mother to look at him? Might be he was exaggerating. It could just be that his brother was just quieter on this day.
Steffon, having finally grown bored of staring at him, settled his gaze upon the wall behind Jon and lofted a finger in that direction. “Want to inspect that one as well?” he asked quietly, having already begun to move. Steffon repeated his earlier actions, only this time he slapped his palm along the stones. There must not have been much force behind it for nary a whimper left the child’s lips. “You like walls an awful lot,” Jon noted, switching the babe’s weight from one shoulder to the other. There were no forthcoming protests from his brother. If anything, Steffon settled on his other shoulder and began plucking at the threads he could find. “That’s a good lad.”
Steffon’s head nestled somewhere in the hollow of his throat. Hot breath spilled over his skin uncomfortably. He bounced the babe lightly, not entirely sure why he’d adopted the meek behaviour all of a sudden. “We’re bored with the walls now?” No reply met his query. “Let us see what else there is to tie us over until Ned returns, aye?” He returned Steffon to the crib and the child grabbed onto the edge, fingers digging to keep him steady on his feet. Jon sat down on the ground, even though there was another chair to the crib’s left for him to sit upon. Yet being on the ground brought him to a level with his brother.
The babe watched him carefully, eyes trained on his face. Jon mustered a smile for the obvious seriousness. He’d not yet spoken to Maekar. And he could no longer put it off indefinitely. Best to have an understanding between the two of them. Planting his elbows on his knees, he watched the babe back, resting his chin upon a loose fist. “When you’re my age, brother, you will have a lot to do. I promise you that. Until then though, there is no need to frown quite so determinately. You have no worries in your life.”
A grunt met his statement. Steffon dropped down upon his bottom and reached for his toes. Jon chuckled at his brother’s showing off. “If anything should happen to him, I want to know,” he told the wetnurse who had once more interrupted her work. A very convincing look of vexation crossed her features.
“I wouldn’t not let anything happen to the babe.” Sometimes he wanted to warn mother against giving the servants too much freedom. Some of them thought it their due. He glared at the woman.
“No one was casting aspersion upon your good name, wench,” he replied harshly, standing to his feet. “I suggest you measure your words.” Between the drunken Lord Baratheon and the lenient lady of the house, he was going to be left with a bunch of yammering servants and the gods knew what he’d have to do then.
Flustered, the woman stammered out an apology. Jon waved his hand dismissively. For a brief moment he thought he saw terror in her gaze. Softening his countenance, he answered her in words, “All is well, just remember your place before you speak.” She nodded, apparently unable to offer aught else. “Where is the septa?”
“She took the girls to their newest manner of lessons.” Aye, he must have forgotten. Jon swallowed the question poised upon the tip of his tongue. Swordsmanship, of course, was not something would hold the twins’ interest for long. If anything, it was good of mother to have arranged it. Better the devil one knew.
“Jon? You’ve returned!” He turned at the sound of his brother’s voice. Maekar, just the person he wanted to see. Jon gaze kept the younger brother’s. Muscles pulled taut. Aught was amiss. Maekar was giving him that smile, a clearly contrived sign of joy. Signalling, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that all was not well. “I was wondering if you had a few moments.”
“I do. In fact, I was just about to send for you myself.” He offered only a brief nod to the wetnurse and patted the infant’s head before making his way without, closing the door to the nursery behind him. Maekar’s smile fell as soon as they were out of sight. “Go on then.”
From around the corner, the familiar face of Sansa popped out. “Have you found him?” Her eyes moved from Maekar to Jon in the split second between beginning her question and finishing it. “Merciful Mother, you cannot fathom how glad I am Maekar finally found you.” He blinked. Undeterred, she went on. “I cannot convince Cassana to come out of her bedchamber. She won’t even let her servant girl in.”
“What exactly is she doing in there?” His first instinct had been to march to his sister’s chamber and lay waste to the door. But not knowing what he would find behind it stopped him short, almost before his feet had had time to move.
“Crying. I believe.” That had been Maekar. “It sounds as though she is crying. But since she won’t speak and the sounds are muffled, I cannot be certain. Sansa already explained to Septa Romilda that Cassana was unwell and wished to stay abed for the time being.”
That did not sound like Cassana. Certainly, she often stomped off in a huff and spent her tears away from sight, but the door was open. If he opted to go in and comfort her, je could do that. “Are you quite certain the door is barred from within?” Volatile as his sister was at times, she would not persist without good reason.
“Aye. It won’t budge. I reckon my shoulder is all bruised from trying to smash it open.” Maekar rubbed the presumably abused shoulder. “She wanted to see mother about something. I told her not to go, that mother would not take too kindly to having her ride interrupted. She wouldn’t listen. Came back in tears.”
Alarmed, Jon shifted his weight from one foot to the other, forcing his body into slow relaxation. “She went after mother?” Sansa nodded. “Am I right in presuming you joined her, cousin?” Blushing, the girl gave a second nod.
“Not all the way though. She went towards the clearing alone.” Her shoulder dropped. “I do not understand it. She wouldn’t tell me a single thing, except that she did not wish to speak of it. I thought Aunt Lya had might be refused to share the plans with her. But then Cassana would have been sullen, not in tears.”
“Cassana thinks mother and father have begun planning for our future.” And she simply could not contain herself. Far from being a seer, Jon could still imagine a thousand and one ways in which her little adventure could end in tragedy. And all of it for a matter so insignificant.
“Are you positive there was naught on the road that happened to upset her?” Let the gods be merciful and have it be a simple matter of his sister having misplaced a brooch or aught of the manner.
His hope was dashed into a myriad of pieces by his cousin’s denial. “One moment she was laughing, going about her way and the next she ran back out in tears. And I cannot understand a thing because she won’t say a word beside that she won’t speak of the matter.”
“I will see to Cassana. Should anyone ask, continue reporting that she is mildly indisposed.” Sansa caught him by the sleeve. Jon had the strangest urge to pat her head as he had Steffon’s, there was such a childish note to her reaction. “All will be well. Maekar, if mother asks to see Cassana upon her return, keep her away. I will bring our sister to supper.”
“You’d have more luck drawing water out of stone,” his brother opinionated, offering Sansa his arm. “Come along, cousin, your dragon of a septa is bound to be displeased by such a long absence.”
Satisfied that their absence would commence without any other protest, Jon made for Cassana’s bedchamber. He knocked on the door softly, tapping rhythmically. “Cass, I wish to speak to you.” Naught could be heard other than soft rustling. He made another attempt, knocking a bit harder.” Footfalls came from within.
“Jon?” The high-pitched voice left little doubt that she had been indeed weeping. He could only imagine what had brought her in such a state.
“Aye. Open the door.” He heard wood scraping against wood and metal. And the door did open. Jon did not move an inch. He stood perfectly still as the obstruction between himself and his sister disappeared in one flowing move. Wet-eyed, Cassana frowned. “May I come in?” Ever so slowly, she nodded and dragged herself out of the way. He slipped in past her and closed the door, sliding the bar back in place. “If you do not wish it, I shan’t make you speak.”
Tears welled up and her face reddened. Cassana’s hand shot out, gripping a fistful of his tunic. She must have been aiming for his shoulder. Jon touched his own hand to her shoulder. “I saw mother,” she whispered. “I saw her there. With–“ As though to remove a lump that had formed in her throat, she coughed.
“I know.” Her eyes jumped to his, holding his gaze fixedly. “I have known for some time now.” Drawing her nearer, as one might with a spooked colt, he eased his other arms around her waist. “I am so very sorry you had to find out like that. It must have shaken you quite badly.”
Her breath hitched, her fingers dug deeper until they pressed painfully into his flesh. “You knew?” Seeing no sense in retracting and hiding behind a lie, he confirmed it. “How? When?” The rest he could piece together from the way her jaw tightened.
“I suspected it. If one does pay attention, it becomes easier to spot. The rest does not matter.” Cassana was shaking her head.
“She lied to us. She lied to father.” Jon’s lips pulled downwards. “Why must I be cursed with such parents?”
“Nay; do not speak such words. Whatever she does is her own burden, not yours.” That was not quite true though. Jon was willing to let it slide for the moment. “Listen to me, I know not why she does what she does, and I know how you feel right now. Trust in me, won’t you?”