Cassana was going to strangle the stupid cow, she decided, fingers tightening around the rim of the ewer. "I do beg you would put yourself out of my way," she groused towards her aunt. The Florent ears twitching might have amused her were they not in the birthing chamber. She looked towards the prone form of her mother and cursed inwardly in foul language she'd learned at her father's knee.
"I know you mean well," her aunt said, "but your mother shan't be helped any by that wiping you're doing. She's been too long insensible for it to matter."
The midwife's bloodstained hands came into view. "Begging yer pardon, but m'lady needs no noise." Cassana nodded her head enthusiastically. "Le' m'lady wipe her mam's brow if 'twill make her feel better, m'lady. There is no ill she can do."
"A well-bred maiden should not even be in the vicinity of the birthing chamber, let alone used as a body servant," Selyse argued haughtily. "Your girl should have been more than capable of aiding you."
"The poor thing took ill," Cassana argued back, raising her voice over her kin's, "and I am perfectly capable of taking her place. If my lady finds this so distasteful, might be you could be persuaded to wait without." She scowled at the sow and barely held back from emptying the contents of the ewer on her. "This is my mother lying abed and I mean to sit with her come hell or high water."
She'd known it wasn't mother's lungs. The woman had not been ill a day in her life. Stupid maester had been leeching her blood like the fool he was for naught. She might have whooped for joy when they finally understood their mother's ailment was not an ailment at all, except that their sour faced aunt had expressly forbidden all unladylike behaviour and mother, exhausted from her bloodlettings had given the creature free reign.
In the face of her niece's defiance, Selyse sniffled. "I will remind you that I've seen the inside of the birthing chamber when you were still in leading strings, girl. Do not be fresh with me."
"And I will remind you I'm sister to the lord of the manor and may toss you out on your ear when it please me, should you get fresh with me." Mouth gaping, her aunt stared at her. "Either you sit there by mother and do your best to ease her pain, or you will find yourself some other occupation until this is done with."
Apparently cowed by harsh speech, or simply shamed into obedience, her aunt dropped down in a chair and began wetting linens. Cassana did not allow her off without a cold stare. Mother's illness had taught her that there was no place for softness in young ladies, lest unscrupulous kin attempt an insurrection. Jon might attest to that after all the misadventures Storm's End had yielded to him.
"I can see the head," cried the midwife, holding up the sheets. Cassana walked around, careful to avoid the sight. She washed sweat from her mother's brow. A whimper rose from her parent's lips. "Just a little more. Never seen an insensible woman do so well in me life, I swear."
Neither had Cassana. The ordeal tormented her mother in spite of the fact that she'd fallen into her swoon almost as soon as the sun dipped into the sea. Leaving her aunt to mind the moist linens, she dried her hands on her skirts and grabbed for the freshly laundered cloth they'd prepared for the babe. Her mother's cry deterred her none, nor did the strange squelching sounds when she approached.
"What is the matter?" She'd heard that after the babe crowned it would not take long for the rest to follow.
"Poor thing is stuck." For a brief moment she froze, not believing her ears. Terror struck almost immediately. Stuck babes killed their mothers. She'd heard enough stories about court. "Nay, do not fret, m'lady. 'Tis not dire, 'tis not. I can pull out the babe."
As good as her word, the midwife moved between her mother's legs. Cassana was glad for the linens blocking her view, for she saw blood seeping onto the floors and grew faint. But then, before she could follow that fool of a girl who'd dropped at the sight of a birthing woman, the midwife crowed in triumph, holding a squealing, flailing bit of flesh. Gore dripped from the reddened skin.
But it did have a pair of lungs. Cassana balked. She faltered and then she recalled the linens were in her hands. The midwife grinned at her, ruddy cheeks aglow. "'Ere we are." She stepped towards the two, her feet not nearly as sure as she wished them, but the midwife, to her credit, acted quickly, wrapping the babe, leaving only the hands to kick about.
The water-filled ewer with its wet cloths was used to cleanse the babe, gently, ever so gently, but efficiently and quickly. Cassana had never seen such a thing. To think she might one day live through a like experience. Her insides shuddered. Might be 'twas just as well that Jon insisted she remain at home for the time being. Sansa would doubtlessly benefit from the information as well.
Angered at the treatment, the newborn howled in indignation. Soon enough though the skin was clean, blood soaked into what had once been pristine linen. Another sheet was wrapped around the child, leaving the babe a small bundle to be admired.
And it was at that point that Cassana truly looked at her. And gasped. She heard another voice answer in kind and realised her aunt had not stepped without. "Give me the child," she rushed the midwife, suddenly anxious. If the woman thought it strange, she kept her counsel and delivered the babe to her sister, saying that the mother ought to have her rest.
"The good that comes out of blunders," murmured the woman, referring to Maekar's comical slip of giving mother strong spirits to calm her down. Her brother should be horsewhipped. Another time. "Poor lass will have to wait for her mam's milk."
"Show me the babe." Her aunt's voice cracked splitting open the silence into a raw wound. The child wept bitter tears ad Cassana gripped her tight. Selyse had seen it as well. "Show me the babe now, you little wretch." Something in her, the child that she'd thought buried away, responded to that tone of voice. The babe cried harder. Her aunt said nothing. Her beady eyes lingered upon the red-faced, mewling creature and then a soft rush of air left her lips.
"She looks like our great-grandmother," Cassana declared, trying to keep the fear from her voice.
"She looks like a cuckoo in the nest," her aunt returned unfeelingly. "Shan't this be an interesting greeting after all?"
Recalling herself, Cassana sneered. She looked towards the midwife but the woman scrupulously avoided breaking her task. She'd heard. It was impossible for her not to have. But then midwives, Cassana suspected, knew ever so more than they let on. Her gaze turned hard upon her aunt. "Get out." Her sister shrieked when the other woman reached for her. Cassana drew back, but she yelled another thing altogether. "Jon!"
Her brother, who by habit had waited without, threw open the door. Their aunt was so surprised by the prompt answer, that she actually turned to look at him, thus giving Cassana time to move away. But the troubles were far from over. Jon was not alone. Their uncle's form followed, and that was all his wife needed to sling her accusations.
"That is not my good-brother's seed!" With the words out in the open a hush fell over them all. Cassana, whose heart hammered in her chest, tried not to allow the slight, warm weight in her arms distract her. She eyed their uncle, trying her best to appear menacing. But she trembled in her slippers, half afraid he would rip the babe from her arms and fling her to the ground when he saw her.
Like a wounded animal she drew back when he advanced. It was not their father's seed. That much she knew. She'd seen mother with her own eyes. But this was her sister. Hadn't she a duty to the mite? And surely her mother was not the only woman to have found herself in such a situation. Her sister had fallen quiet as well, little whimpers drawing forth from her lips but infrequently as though she sensed the danger she was in.
"The child," their uncle demanded. She looked over his shoulder at her brother, waiting upon a sign, but Jon gave a shallow nod, his face the colour of milk. She herself blanched, throat constricting painfully.
She allowed the man to look, but only that for when he attempted to steal the girl from her arms she flinched. "She is fragile."
"The whelp is not my brother's; a blind man might see that." He was not angry. He was livid.
He raised his hand. At her? At the babe? But it never came down, for even as Cassana closed her eyes she heard the grunts of scuffle and when she dared look, she saw her brother had moved to restrain their uncle and that Maekar was finally within as well, gripping their aunt by the arm.
"I said," she heard her brother over the din and the babe's crying which had started again, "this matter is mine to deal with. You will not lie one hand upon my sister."
"She is a bastard!" Turning towards the bed where a now roused Lyanna lay, their uncle faced a frightened woman apparently just then recognising what went on before her. "You, lady, have much answering to do."
"Be that as it may, she answers me, for I am her lord and keeper," Jon spoke. His voice was more than enough to soothe the worst of her fears. He would not, it seemed, allow their uncle an easy victory. "Return to your chambers, uncle and aunt. I shall speak to my mother. Alone."
"So you might find excuses for her?" Selyse taunted, might be not realising how close Cassana was to leaping upon her. "She ought to be put in the stocks."
"She is our true sister and has the look of our great-grandmother to her. To accuse my mother of unfaithfulness with such impunity is deserving of its own harsh punishment. Tell them, Jon," she managed.
"She looks like the King if she looks like anyone," Uncle Stannis sneered.
Sweat trickled down her nape. She might say the girl looked like great-grandmother all she would. 'Twould be lost on them and might be with good reason. She wanted Aunt Janei and Uncle Ned. They would keep the peace. They would protect the child. Wouldn't they?
But then, like a prayer answered, Jon once more took the reins. "Here is what will happen, you and aunt shall return to your chambers," the two started to protest but Jon help up a hand, "meantime, my lady mother shall care for the babe in these chambers. I shall write to the King."
"If our esteemed uncle wishes to consult the monarch upon the matter, then I can but oblige." Their uncle did not look pleased, but he nodded his head and, taking his woman by the arm, left the chamber with one last insulting glance to their mother. The midwife became the focus of Jon's attention. "You, take this here coin," he threw her silver pieces, "you have seen and heard nothing. Else I will cut your tongue from your mouth." He seemed harder than she'd ever seen him before. Cassana shuddered, gingerly holding her sister.
"Servants talk. Shall you cut out their tongues as well?" the woman asked, hiding the coin in her bosom.
"If needs must." Come morning they would all know of the threat, she did not doubt. "An insult against my sister is an insult against me." The midwife shrugged.
"She came too early. That might have leeched the colour from her. Or the maester's draughts and leeches otherwise." Cassana knew how foolish she sounded even as she spoke.
Her words were in vain. Their mother looked from one child to the other as though asking for their help. Only Jon spoke, "Maekar, have guards posted at the doors of our uncle and aunt's chambers." Their brother made himself scarce with nary a word. "Cassana, hand the child over to Meg." The wetnurse, who had until that point stood without, entered. She held out her arms and took the child to her bosom, quietening the whimpering babe with succour for her hunger. "Meg, I am counting on you to care for her."
"Aye, m'lord. I'll look after her as if she were me own, I will." She cooed at the babe and made for the nursery upon her brother's nod. "Come, sweet gel; let us feed ye."
Left only them three in the chambers, Cassana looked to her brother for further guidance. But he was busy closing the door. And putting up the bar. Cassana dropped into a chair, raising a fist to her pounding heart. Without meaning to she let out a distressed moan.
"Help mother up, Cass," Jon instructed, moving to mother's writing desk. He pulled out parchment, quills and an inkbottle. She moved out of her seat and did as he bade. Her hand remained on mother's. Uncle Stannis was not the only man who was livid. Meantime, her brother dipped the quill in the unstopped inkwell. They both, women, watched him warily. "You are weak, the birthing process has taken its toll on you, mother. I shall write for you and you may sign after we are done."
"What are you about, Jon?" mother asked, her voice faint.
"But I have already explained," he enunciated with deadly calm, "we are writing to the King. You shall tell him you were delivered of a daughter and that he is to come greet her, as a good sire would. I would appreciate it your putting it delicately, mother, but I will write as you speak."
"Jon, I am begging you, won't you listen to me for a moment?" He turned to watch her, placing the quill comfortably into the well. That was even worse. "I did not mean for this to happen. It just came about."
"Aye; mother. It simply came about. I presume you were lying on your back and the King happened to drop between your splayed legs, is it?" A small hiccough-like sound tore itself from mother's throat. Cassana did not dare look into her face. She kept her gaze on Jon. "Nay? Might be I am being unfair and he forced your hand. Father was an expensive man to keep. Is that it then? He paid for the whores and wine and you serviced him?"
"Jon," Cassana protested softly. "This is too much."
He ignored her, as he was wont to do. "I can see from your face that that is not it either. I do not know; all that remains to me is this; you were willing, he was willing and damn the consequences."
"It was not like that, Jon." But her brother was beyond listening.
"Oh, I know, mother. He loved you and you really, really loved him. You could not help it." Mother flinched, no doubt cut to the core. "You have shamed me for the last time, lady mother. I endured to my limit. I thought, might be, your husband's death might wake you up."
"What was I to do, son? Drive the child out from my womb?" Ill-handled but not stripped of her pride, their mother refused to retreat.
"You might have considered us," Jon replied, "your children, children that have come to live with certain expectations. We all stand to lose everything we have. Do you not understand that our uncle might do much worse than put you in the stocks? And for what?" The frightening thing was that his icy calm was not dispelled at all. "Be glad, mother. Now you shall learn your worth at long last."
"What are you about?" Cassana stood, walking away from mother. She looked without, to the sea, wishing she might drown herself in the sight and just forget. "Jon, please, we could speak to uncle. Surely there is something we could do."
"Much as I should love to do so, sister, the fact of the matter is that our dear mother is an old hand at this game. If we talk, try to bargain, he will shred us. Nay; our future rests in the King's hands. You are not dim," he continued addressing her, "look at yourself, and then to your sister Mya."
"Jon! That is enough."
"Be silent!" he turned upon their mother. "Or do you wish to explain to us why no child of yours looks quite like one might expect of such a union as you contracted?"
Cassana whirled around, whipping tears from her face as she clambered to her mother's side. Jon spoke in anger. She ought to be a shield, meagre as her protection was. "Jon is right, mother. Let us write to the King. It falls to him to unweave such tangles, does it not, since he contributed to making the knots in the first place?" Aegon, she thought with a hint of repressed despair, was a dream she more than lost; she'd never had him in the first place. Jon had been kind to shield her as he had. She would be kind to mother in turn.
Mother began crying in earnest then. Jon seemed to take pity. He did not press for words, but clasped his hands in his lap and waited, gaze fixed upon the ground. "You'll have your letter to send," mother finally managed, "but you must swear you'll protect your sister. Promise me, Jon."
"Against the Mountain if I had to." Cassana thought she might start crying as well. For mother, who though thoughtless in this had not been a poor mother to them, for herself and her poor sister and for Jon whose kindness, for what else could it be when he refused to betray the helpless child even though he might easily save himself, finally saw him trapped.
"No one will harm her, mamma," she found herself promising as well, reverting to that old manner of addressing the woman. "I will gouge their eyes out if they so much as look crossly at her."
She'd held the poor, innocent thing in her arms.
Uncle Stannis and his sow of a wife did not cow her.