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Down a Rabbit Hole to Westeros

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Lady Olenna Tyrell was not vexed. She certainly was not. Knowing her varying shades of ill temper, she could categorically say she was simply annoyed. Which was a shade more emotion than her general disapproval and contempt in regards to her son. Thankfully Maester Lomys knew what was what, and kept her apprised of raven messages instead of merely dropping off his summaries in Mace’s solar, where it would disappear into a ridiculous disorganized pile in a basket and then summarily emptied into the hearth fire at the end of a sevenday. He claimed it was to prevent spies from getting the messages. She knew it was because he was lazy and didn’t want to bother sending for Maester Lomys. Oaf!

Obviously once she found out Mace’s habits she had Maester Lomys hire scribes to have the messages transcribed a second time prior to giving over to Mace so that she could read them at her leisure. The last batch contained a Royal announcement regarding the business with the Ironborn. Some sort of scheme involving sharing of costs of building out trade ships. She had heard of such arrangements among groups of Braavosi merchants. Now she had no notion of why any Westerosi noble should follow in the practices of foreigners, but it was a fact that Braavos were a force to be reckoned with when it came to maritime concerns and she wouldn’t be a Redwyne, a mere woman or not, if she was not aware of the power that came from controlling sea trade.

At the beginning, she wrote to her nephew Paxter Redwyne about his thoughts on the business. The prideful man wrote back that he would put no money of his towards bettering the fortunes of Ironmen cunts and that he was glad that Lord Lannister would be the one to keep garrisons of men-at-arms on the Iron Islands so that he and other coastal Reacher lords could have peace without having to lend any effort. He said he thought that of course Lord Lannister was canny enough to perhaps attempt defraying his costs of dealing with the backwards pirates by having others buying in this so called investment scheme. Casterly Rock could do what was needed all on their own, with their own treasuries, of course. Nobody doubted it was so. But Tywin was a cannier man about gold than his fool of a father. He wasn’t just going to spend and spend when others could be induced to spend too. No doubt some Ironmen Houses went behind the late Lord Greyjoy’s back and saw the sense in trade; certainly the latest Lord Harlaw was near civilized, what with being known as ‘the Reader’. Which was a far sight better than the usual nonsense men named each other; the Bloody, the Fearsome, the Wrathful, the Horsecock and the rest. Idiots.

Given her nephew’s influence, which she thought showed only common sense, it was no trouble at all to let it be known generally that House Tyrell would not be joining in on Lord Tywin’s scheme. It wasn’t as if it was some great insult that would be given with their polite refusal. It was entirely believable that Mace had not the stomach for so called investments; of all the faults her son possessed, being a fool gambler was not one of them. She did manage to raise him right in that instance.

But. But then, because her instincts were so finely honed, she inquired amongst the persons she maintained on the behalf of Luthor when he was alive, the useful persons who would plausibly have reason to be at the Royal Court and were able to pass on different information. More useful than gossip, at least. And she had the displeasure of finding out the notable noble persons who threw in with Lord Tywin Lannister.

Jon Arryn.
Eddard Stark.
Robert Baratheon.
Stannis Baratheon.
Renly Baratheon.
Hoster Tully.

These names all in themselves were worrying. Royal patronage she could excuse because King Robert was goodson to Lord Tywin of course; king or not, Tywin was previously Lord Hand. Why shouldn’t the Old Lion have the power to sway a less than clever young man? He knew how to handle royal tempers. And where one brother went, apparently so the others. Made sense. And then, his allies from the Rebellion. Why not? Everybody said Lord Stark was like a brother to him. The fostering bore fruit exactly as could be hoped. She was surprised about Jon Arryn, Arryns being so high and mighty, more unbearable than the Hightowers. But where a king went, so did his Hand if they wanted to be sure to let the realm know that there were no cracks to be exploited, no differences in opinion, no ill feelings. Unlike the rift between Lord Tywin and King Aerys. Dreadful business. Hoster Tully was also a surprise, but then, he did have two daughters married to Stark and Arryn, so again, the Rebellion made everything make sense. And she further heard that it was a begrudging, paltry amount, enough for symbolic alliance purposes and nothing so substantial.

Practically all of the Iron Islands Houses, the ones that had any money to spare after their fleet was sunk into the sea. Obviously the thing to do. Very well.

Alester Florent.
Randyll Tarly.
Yohn Royce.
Gwayne Oldflowers.
Derrick Crane.
Alyn Varner.

And various other masterly and even knightly houses of the Reach, that past married Florents going back nigh four or five generations. Some so poor that they could only throw in for one or two shares.

Well. WELL. Olenna could swear she felt a pricking of her thumbs, no matter that she didn’t believe in superstitious rot. Lord Tywin did not bother to muster any Westerland Houses. Or perhaps they did not want to be seen as grasping like the Reynes and Tarbecks; leave Casterly Rock business to Casterly Rock.

But Alester Florent. That smiling, duplicitous scoundrel! He was not so rich or fearsome as Lord Lannister, not so rich as the Tyrells, but his family connections were wide and all too willing to follow his lead.

All together, not as influential as the secure Tyrell, Redwyne, Hightower alliance by marriages, but a not insignificant partitioning of the Reach.

And say his gamble paid off. Say that a scheme by Lord Tywin Lannister succeeded, say the Old Lion did shit gold- then all the Houses that followed after Florent’s lead would be enriched and beholden to his foresight! At no risk of life and limb, of no need to pay them himself! And if they should fail, well, it was all a gamble, so nobody could blame anybody but themselves for gambling in the first place!

It was beautiful. Wonderful. Awful. TERRIBLE.

It was not enough that Florent secured a royal marriage for that ugly niece of his. It was not enough that Florent secured a royal patronage with the supplying of Royal Navy rations. That man was bound and determined to maneuver in quiet underhanded paths towards influence and power. Why, his heir was still unmarried, to say nothing of his nephews, any of them! And he even had a spare brother to marry off as well (Though that one was ugly too. Axell, wasn’t it? Dumpy, with a lumpy nose and a voice like a goose being strangled to death)!

Olenna jabbed her needle into her embroidery.

And Mace could not see it! Her nephew Paxter saw naught, useless Leyton in his stupid tower ignored everything not directly having to do with Oldtown and the Citadel.

If it had nothing to do with knocking other men about with sticks and swords, they were useless!

A marriage, could they broker a marriage? Who could she pluck from her garden of roses to offer to young Alekyne? What was his taste? His father had sent him off to King’s Landing, oh, how clever, keep him out of the sight and gossip of Reach ladies unrelated to him, while putting him in the view of Houses with cause to go to King Landing’s court, Olenna could see through that stratagem!

And if Florent should aim for a richly doweried Lannister maiden! Gods!

Oh, but of course if she should offer a Tyrell maiden for marriage, Florent would oh so politely decline. She knew it. He knew it. She knew that he knew that they both would do as she thought. He wasn’t such a lump as her son. Why else would he have married off his daughters and saved his son? Hoster Tully was doing the same.

She then ordered to have the tax rolls concerning House Florent brought to her for examination. It was too much to hope that Lord Florent was greedy enough to do something obviously unsavory regarding paying his taxes.

He’s paid more than the years before.

Olenna pored over the parchments, suspicious.

Was he shielding profits under the Royal Navy expenditures? Services to the Crown direct were not taxable; who had ever heard of a government taxing those that provided services directly to it? But no, there was a writ with signature and seal indicating that all crops, tins, cork, wax, salt for brining, and sundry other materials and wages were accounted for by Royal auditors and costs were deemed acceptable to the Crown and paid for in specie. (That was true enough. It was no secret that iron barred carts pulled by teams of six or even eight draft horses and surrounded by a veritable small army of Baratheon liveried knights and men-at-arms were seen going to and fro on the Roseroad towards Brightwater Keep. Chests and chests of gold were being swallowed up into that hold!) Any inquiries as to obtaining copies of these official documents were to be directed to the Master of Coin. There was even a separate stack of parchments noting purchases of different crops for tin canning provided by other Houses with copies of writs of receipt to those Houses such that those Houses would not need to pay tax either. Olenna snorted. Oldflowers, Varner, and Tarly high among them. So Florent provided access to royal subsidies! What largesse!

His wheat yields were better than previous years and he had increased the amount of root vegetables; turnips, carrots, radishes, and bulbs such as onions and garlic. These could keep well for long distances and he was selling them onwards outside of his holdings. She could speculate that they were being sold to King’s Landing or even as far away as the Iron Islands. He had the usual heads of beef cattle and pigs, but of the individual animals he sent to market, they were bigger, heavier and he was paid good price per head. He greatly increased his sheep herds and cotton fields.

And here the tax revenue jumped. An entire new category covering wool and cotton, in huge excess to the personal household needs of Brightwater Keep and his people. Spools of thread, cordage, and ribbons, bolts of cloth in various qualities and all the colors of the rainbow. What was going on? Where did this come from? How!?

This was truly dangerous, Olenna thought. Every Reacher knew that their wealth was in their crop and that to get crop to market was the greatest concern; everything goes to rot if you tarried. But thread and cloth? They could afford to wait, to sell on afar and to be sure of somebody needing it. After all, the even poorest smallfolk had their dignities and to cover one’s nakedness was necessary. There were entire motherhouses dedicated to sewing garments for the poor and indigent and low indeed was a beggar who could not get their hands on a single rag to at least tie about their waist to hide their privy parts.

She drummed her fingers.

What was Florent doing with all that money? What men were he bribing, who was he ordering assassins after, what knights were being enticed by higher pay and better armor and horses? Was he raising an army? Was he besmirching the Tyrell name at the Royal Court? What honors and favors were being paid for with that lucre?

She tried to find out. Oh, yes, she learned well from her own grandmother. She tried to have people in place at Brightwater Keep, tried to find servants who would be suitably grateful for not too many silvers in a purse in exchange for gossip and observations. It didn’t happen. It was unprecedented; Lord Florent ran his keep kindly and suspiciously. Silvers would not do for he was paying them well and even had healers to look after their health, had improved the food quality for all servants, had decreed that his family would not require the services of all servants every sevenday (They would eat of cold cuts and day old bread! Or even cook for themselves! Dress themselves! Stayed indoors and entertained themselves! If they had to travel, they would harness and saddle the horses themselves! Absurd!). When higher offers for information were made, her proxies were being reported, hunted down and… well. Disposed of. He was probably canny and rich enough to offer a reward for reporting bribe attempts! She even heard that he was allowing even the lowest servant to learn how to read if they wished! What nonsense!

Of course, she considered if Lady Melara Crane was somehow truly behind all this. She hadn’t thought that prim, proper, round cheeked little Melara had that sort of proper steel in her spine. But a few years, a few children and a woman might change her priorities, might start getting ambitious on their behalf if they weren’t for themselves. House Crane was safe, until it wasn’t. One of them was Highgarden’s master-at-arms! They were reliable, quiet, produced perfectly suitable knights of good doughty skill. And now they’ve not quite betrayed the trust House Tyrell placed upon them in favor of the Florents.

Olenna inquired and found out, oh yes she did, that Lady Melara was headmistress of a number of schools for the smallfolk at Brightwater Keep and Horn Hill and more besides, outside of the Reach somehow. That was in addition to fostering goodkin and young cousins from Houses that past married the Florents.

This had to be a scheme! They didn’t even bother to hide the fact that various of the tougher knights of Horn Hill, for Tarly took his House words seriously; they were First in Battle, were traveling to Brightwater Keep and staying for long intervals, enough to be training, enough to be bettering the Florent knights and men-at-arms. They were the whetstones and the formerly merely serviceable Florent forces were the steel.

What was Melara teaching? What was she making young, unmoulded children believe about House Tyrell? What bargains was she brokering with the parents?

Olenna set to rounds of teas, summoning the women, inquiring oh so nicely about their children, wondering on why Brightwater Keep was to be preferred over Highgarden. Those mothers didn’t even try writing first, asking about fostering, they didn’t try to haggle against the Florents. The signs were there that Florents offered to foster and the parents just… agreed! The ladies were quietly apologetic and gave excuses; that the young Florents at King’s Landing were in contact with all sorts of important persons at court, that all the new songs and dances popular at court were first learned by the Florents and passed on, that new manners and etiquette were becoming the thing to learn for court.

The implication was clear. Nobody needed to say it; the Florents were opening doors for their fosters, were preparing them for the eyes of the Red Keep, were making possible lucrative marriages with the Houses from other kingdoms possible by refining their fosters. The Florents, and not the Tyrells, because Selyse Florent was beloved of the King’s brother and because the Florents were fostering Renly Baratheon, future Lord Paramount of the Stormlands. And because at the root of it all, Baratheon fury came in different flavors and while the King’s was howling and loud, blustery and powerful, he forgave and forgot, but Stannis Baratheon’s was quiet and deadly, deep and still, unforgetting, unforgiving, and her idiot son had forced a lord’s son to STARVE. Oh, how he would remember who was at fault, when his stomach cried out to him and he was forced to feed it nothing but his anger. Once you’ve made a man eat his own boot leather, there were no pretty words to get him to forgive, even if he was of good humor to start out and nobody, not anybody, would say that Stannis Baratheon was good humored as a boy, let alone a man.

Olenna could despair, except she was determined not to waste time over wallowing.

Olenna thought of bringing up charges against Florent. She could bribe and have witness statements made, she could bribe over knights, though they bragged of honor, so long as she found the ones with gambling debts, fond of drink, or weak for whores. But. But, for every move she might make, Florent would have some ready excuse or another. She knew it. He was too careful, he wasn’t some arrogant fool like Roger Reyne. One could see it in the way the tax rolls were scrupulously reported; they were expecting her to go over their taxes and not Mace, who would’ve left it to Maester Lomys or Garth as Lord Seneschal, and they would not be suspicious. Alester Florent made sure that House Florent owed nothing to the Tyrells, they wanted nothing from the Tyrells. It was not against the law to host visiting knights from another lord. It was not against the law to foster much too many children all at once. It was not against the law to make a lot of money! That was not even taking into account though he was outnumbered in terms of army size, Tarly was by his side and the King, too, with that Royal patronage. He had allies, oh yes, allies who knew how to properly fight and strong too, veterans. Not like her son’s allies who sat on their arses and feasted. If she were to contemplate any action against Florent, she must needs then account for Tarly, who was simply dangerous. It would not do and it chafed her to know that it was so!

In the meantime, she wrote letters to Paxter, letters to Leyton Hightower, warning them to be wary, warning them to not fall for any offers or deals. Paxter wrote back and pointed out that Leyton had told him that he was planning to throw some daughters and nieces in Alekyne’s way again if Olenna had not the stomach for it and Paxter was thinking of trying again as well. Olenna thought on it. It probably won’t work, not unless one of the girls was smart enough to actually get caught with Alekyne betwixt her legs by at least two witnesses, because he had to be staying in King’s Landing for a reason. She hadn’t heard from gossip that he was one for whores nor did he have a mistress. She’d wonder if he was a sword-swallower if it weren’t for the fact that he was a noted flirt from the accounts of Paxter from the Lannisport feast after the Greyjoy Rebellion. He observed that Alekyne looked like he had an appetite as expected from a man regarding women while he danced and kissed hands but there was marvelous self control for one so young. Self control that came not from religion, but duty, perhaps.

When Olenna tested Lord Alester’s patience by issuing invitations to him for various feasts and tourneys, obviously to draw him out with conversation, she of course tried to play on his vanity by inquiring after his son. He was as proud of his heir as he ought to be and he did say that he was gladdened by the improvements to Brightwater Keep that Alekyne was suggesting and the successes from thereof. Something about enterprise. Just her luck, his heir wasn’t a wastrel that could be led around by his cock! He was one who could be depended upon. He was one who knew a thing or two about how to seem and how to behave!

She went about finding out if there was some division that could be sown with the cousins, if there was some way to widen a crack there.

Imry and Erren Florent were not in the Reach. Oh, how Florent outmaneuvered her again! Dastardly! Perfidious! Ser Imry showed up every so often at Highgarden’s tourneys, made respectable showing at the jousts and melee, but never broke top three into champion’s position. He was just… a comfortable second or third most of the time. The men’s gossip said that he was merry and smiling and game for a round of drinks. But it was noted that he was never, ever, seen properly drunk. He never flaunted his status as a veteran of the Greyjoy Rebellion, but she heard, not that she could tell because she never cared to know, that his skills at fighting were battle-hardened, quick of movement, sure and accurate from experience. He was nearly a hedge knight, for his armor was unadorned grey, only the helmet embellished by being forged to resemble a fox’s head, with the ears turned back aggressively. He didn’t even have a squire! He was always needing to borrow one or another at whatever host he ended up at. Olenna tried to gain audience to one or other of these squires for this was an opening, but they couldn’t say anything at all. No whores for this one, though he did gamble, but only for the amusement of it, not at all putting in high stakes (could not be coaxed or bullied into putting down higher stakes, he was of firm character), and he kept his own armor in good condition, kept his horse in good health himself.

He was questioned about it, and he had said in a jesting tone (but much truth can be revealed in jest, she knew) that he was not rich, it was his uncle that was rich. He fought hard during tourneys because there was a real chance that he might lose his armor and horse if the winner was not rich or gracious enough to allow him to keep them should he lose. Of course his Lord uncle would never allow him to permanently be without horse or armor, but it was the principle of the thing; it was easily found out that he kept his winnings aside for uncertain future needs, perhaps to buy a new set if necessary.

One could assume this was a resentment that could be exploited, except that nobody could ever get Ser Imry to say one thing in opposition to Alekyne. Olenna could admire such staunch familial loyalty, if it weren’t inconveniencing her.

And much less could be found out about Ser Erren. After the Greyjoy Rebellion, that one disappeared completely out of the Reach; in King’s Landing, or who knows where. For all she knew he was in Essos, joined up with a sellword company like the Second Sons to make his fortune, as so many younger sons did.

The youngest nephews were out of the question and it seemed like they would be finding their places in Lord Renly’s coterie in the Stormlands when the time came.

Mace had brought up last dinner that he was planning to go to King’s Landing for the ship launch, not because he cared about Lord Tywin’s scheme or some new ship, but because it was the first and only Royal invitation to court House Tyrell had received since that wedding between Lord Stannis and Lady Selyse. He nattered on about what they might eat at the feast. The FEAST, oh why did she have to have a son who thought more about his belly than his family! It was as if he wanted to give her nightmares of growing ever more sideways and becoming as heavy and flatulent as her goodbrother Garth the Gross!

She would simply have to show up herself, if anything was to be done at King’s Landing. She would have to find out what’s what because her son was incapable and there was only so much that could be depended upon with her nephew Paxter; she had to think of her grandchildren. Willas could not be seen in public, the poor boy. Garlan would do. Thirteen and fully able to sit still, dance a few dances, too young to get sick by drinking too much and otherwise make a disgrace of the Tyrell name.

She made it known that she was going too and there was a tiresome amount of whining. Whining, Mace was a grown man, how could he shame her so!?

She hit his shin with her cane and ordered the maidservants to begin the packing. She made sure to order extra sachets made up stuffed with rosemary, lavender, and thyme as well as new bottles of perfume. She wasn’t going to be weakened by King Landing’s stench if she could help it.

The Roseroad was much improved. The King had ordered that it should be so, that for their service to the crown, for the benefit of House Florent, that it be made easy for their trade goods to make their way to King’s Landing. And then he made House Tyrell pay for most of the improvements, as Lord Paramount. Oh, that was definitely Florent’s idea, Olenna could stew all day on all the moves he’s made and that Mace was unequipped to counter. Same for the semaphore towers lining the coast, mostly paid for by House Tyrell. Granted, it really was a sensible measure and Olenna wondered to herself why nobody had thought of that before. Travel went along faster than before so that was worth it, though the jostling of the wheelhouse bothered her old joints.

They were of course given apartments at the Red Keep suitable for a Great House when they arrived. As Mace went off to do some fool thing or other to bring attention to himself from the King (it had better not be jousting, not after what happened to Willas, or she’ll hit him with more than her cane, so she vowed), she set out to do what women do.

Gossip.

Queen Cersei extended an invitation to tea, which of course Olenna attended. She would take her measure of the queen and find out how much of Tywin’s influence was forwarded by his daughter. The usual questions about how she felt traveling and how she thought King’s Landing had changed since she was last there, and the weather. Olenna had no patience for this, so she inquired as to the other principal ladies of court; wife of the Lord Hand and Master of Ships.

Cersei’s lip curled in a way that did not mar her beautiful face.

“Oh, why should you ask after them? They are such uninteresting persons. I surely do not care for them.”

“Come now, at the least tell me why you do not care for them. Warn a poor old woman. I’ve heard such things about court…”

Her vague insinuation was enough.

Cersei launched into a scornful reporting of how Lord Stannis Baratheon saw no shame in flaunting his sexual appetite during the daylight hours and that his wife was so depraved that she acquiesced by showing up at his office during lunch, where they could be heard making all sorts of barnyard animal noises behind his closed door.

Now this, Olenna actually knew about; it was too humorous to not be shared. Persons employed by her nephew Paxter had reason enough to pay attention to the policies of the Royal Navy on her nephew’s behalf and to report to him. And of course, he summarized such reports to her. They thought it worth warning him that if he were interested in making any maritime trade related requests in person with the Master of Ships to avoid attempting to meet with him at high noon, as he was indisposed. As in, busy fucking his wife. Loudly.

Olenna had not needed to work the art of womanly wiles in decades. But she did not forget how Lady Selyse did not quail at her baldfaced insult about her looks at her wedding, instead choosing to assert with pride that Lord Stannis was ‘well handled’. Handled. With her hand, like as not. Or her mouth. Olenna knew what was what. Luthor once upon a time was well satisfied and then left her alone when she lied about how long exactly her moonbleeding lasted. His solicitousness made her far more willing than she might have been to engaging in marital duties. He was affectionate, her poor fool Luthor. Needed protecting and watching over and nobody listened to her, did they, left him alone to ride off a cliff. If she thought too long on it, it always upset her, even now.

So.

They must have taught that girl, Selyse, well if she kept her husband hungry enough for more every day. And he at the least had to be genuinely more skilled at the work than Luthor for no lady with the wherewithal to engage with Lord Tywin alone in conversation should be a fainting, delicate flower unable to avoid it if she didn’t want it. No, not that one. Not the current crop of Florent daughters. She remembered how Randyll Tarly of all people was made to dance to the tune of his wife at Lady Selyse’s wedding. That man was one of the more stubborn, unpleasant louts she had the displeasure of knowing. A wise woman could be compliant and gracious, making suggestions and implications delicately so that the man would think that the matters he was doing by her direction was his idea. Olenna knew that trick too, but she loathed having to do so. So annoying when forthrightly stating demands worked just as well. There was no maidenly shyness with the looks Lord Stannis’ bride was giving him and the way she kissed him after their vows.

Olenna wondered for a moment if Queen Cersei was some sort of prude. Or was it the lack of discretion that upset her?

It took more rounds of cake and pretending to be dotty, but it finally came out that Cersei was some bizarre sort of resentful. King Robert apparently did not want to be seen as any less virile than his brother and she was not left alone either, though he did keep to evenings as was seemly. Olenna felt no shame with inquiring if Cersei was not being satisfied and if the King’s visits were too much of a bother. That resulted in another scoff and feigned shock over Olenna’s bluntness, but the freedoms of age were hers and Cersei was easily cajoled into bragging about the King’s performance. So that was not it; it was that Cersei was made to be part of some foolish competition between two stubborn men. Olenna could understand that.

But if the King was as good as to compete with a brother capable of making a woman mindlessly howl during the day, Olenna did not understand what Cersei was complaining about.

She was old, not dead.

She found Cersei as prideful as one could expect from a Lannister, the sort of prideful that one gets from being born beautiful from childhood. There was the usual charm and polish of court, but Olenna found no great depth. Repeating something as obvious as a regular afternoon sexual appointment wasn’t anything special.

Frankly, Olenna found that the great surprise everybody had about a man as Stannis Baratheon knowing what to do with his privy parts or that he did so often with his own wife was faintly ridiculous. So what if Selyse Baratheon was ugly? Comeliness hardly mattered if a woman knew her way with a man’s tool. And if he did yell and howl while it happened, well congratulations to them and all that. Might as well do it often and well while he could still get that thing to work. All anybody could look forward to with age was flaccidity and disappointment.

Cersei did not have interesting things to say about Lady Lysa Arryn.

Apparently the lady was a giggler (Olenna detested gigglers herself and so had some sympathy). She was always playing at a Florent card game and going about with the Florent ladies trailing her and they were quite the little group, Cersei sneered, holding teas and sewing circles and visiting orphanages and public schools (public schools? Here, in King’s Landing? What manner of oddness was this?) and singing and playing instruments and being tiresomely like mummers instead of proper ladies. Why, they even invited Essosi visitors to court or even, horrors, merchants to attend dinners with their husbands. Can you imagine? Merchants!

Oh really, Olenna feigned consternation, how dreadful. Common.

Yes it was so, Cersei crowed, they weren’t so fine as to have as many proper lords, ladies, and knights to invite to any such entertainments as her, the Queen!

Truly, the Queen was a foolish piece, Olenna thought, sipping her tea. If at the minimum said merchants were drapers, haberdashers, and dyers, then King’s Landing was set to become a prime holder of wealth by all things textile. It stood to reason that the ladies should wine and dine the trade guilds and to have them well disposed to the policies set by the Lord Hand and the King, or even to perhaps smooth the way to any raised taxes, for if they were becoming so profitable in tandem with Lord Florent’s mysteriously over productive spinners and weavers, the Crown stood to gain much in revenue from business conducted within the walls of King’s Landing.

Things were different in a big city, Olenna knew. At the Arbor, the merchants of concern were of course those having to do with ships and everything to do with their building and maintenance and then the ones having anything to do with winemaking. The coopers, the cork cutters, the glassblowers. Their concerns were the concerns of the Lord. It was vital that supply lines remained open, that the seas surrounding the Arbor were kept well patrolled and free of pirates and there was a never ending negotiation over taxes and harbor and gate fees. The men may sit and bellow at each other over such matters, but the women sat and sewed and chatted, quietly hammering deals and letting their husbands know how things really were, because sticks and swords were not the only, best, tools for haggling.

Typical Westerman, Casterly Rock Lannister arrogance, Olenna snorted to herself. It took far less cooperation and delicacy when it came to dealing with miners. The Lannisters always had so much power over their laborers; why, it would only take the threat of having the families of miners killed while said men were in the tunnels or dropping a few rebellious ones into oubliettes to have cooperation and acceptance of laughably low wages and high production. It also took less skill than a well-trained grapevine pruner to hit rocks with a pickaxe to get gold. They could afford to kill a few to maintain peace. Pruners, skilled ones that would not set you back a harvest, they were valuable and knew it. One had to have some modicum of delicacy when negotiating their concerns over wages. She would expect a Lannisport Lannister to be more useful when it came to dealing with wealth gained from a port city’s trade.

The Queen did not know her business and with only one son so far, far too comfortable.

Though, Olenna narrowed her eyes, surreptitiously looking at Cersei’s midsection. Perhaps there would be a spare, soon enough. Yes. Still early, yet, not worth announcing. Pregnancies were such drattedly mysterious things.

She ended their tea drinking with complaints about aches and pains and purposefully lectured overlong on the best sorts of poultices and tinctures to use, which youth must needs abhor for it reminded them of their own mortality. Satisfactorily disentangled from this most tedious of social engagements, Olenna made a show of limping off, thumping her cane as she went.

She wasn’t entirely fatigued by annoyance, but she had to rest a while in the apartments while she had her handmaids find out where the other principal ladies of court were. She found that as luck would have it, Lady Lysa was holding a sewing session in her own chambers. Olenna had her sewing basket brought out and set forth, sending off a messenger and inviting herself in.

She timed it so that the ladies inside would receive the messenger not five minutes before she herself showed up.

Saved so much bother that way and nobody could effectively refuse and leave an old lady standing. Oho!

She entered and was greeted very prettily with curtsies. She looked around and saw that the chamber was less a place to leisurely embroider in a manner where nothing would be completed because it didn’t matter for highborn ladies, really, but a workshop-like arrangement. Here, Olenna can see that unlike Cersei surrounding herself with her Westermen ladies, there are Crownsland ladies present and they are all dressed in the way that Lady Lysa and Lady Selyse are. At the least, their narrow sleeves allow for the more serious sewing that Olenna can see. They were both dressed in blue, with Lady Selyse wearing the blue of bluebell flowers with a crisp white jacket accented with black and yellow braided trim. The seams of her dress had white contrast piping, adroitly curving and bringing attention to her figure. Lady Lysa’s blue was a clear sky blue, suiting to a Falcon’s wife. Her narrow sleeves were embroidered in the fashion favored by the Tullys, a fish scale pattern. Instead of a jacket she was wearing a short Vale style winged capelet, the floaty light fabric falling gracefully down her back and looping back up, fastened to cuffs secured at her elbows.

Olenna was seated and yet more tea and a selection of cheeses, breads, and fruits set by her side.

She did not wish to engage immediately in conversation and took out her embroidery. With this wordless signal of intent, the other ladies returned to their left off work.

The Stokeworths seemed to be working on little shirts, trousers, and dresses fit for children; Olenna inquired and Lady Falyse shook her head, admitting that her husband was not often a visitor to her bed. Lady Tanda explained that they have sponsored a number of orphanages and public childrens’ schools in their holdings and in King’s Landing and they are making clothes for the most needy in addition to their patronage. Ah. Goodwill and popularity through charitable work. Sensible.

Other ladies seemed to be making childrens’ clothes also. They were sensible undyed cottons, with contrasting bands of ribbon of different colors sewn at the sleeve cuffs or hems, much faster than embroidering and a way to give the orphans something cheerful and their own. Olenna shrugged to herself about this; the costs of ribbons were also very cheap in King’s Landing.

Most interesting were the ladies Lysa and Selyse, who were circling what looked like a headless and armless cloth statue, which was covered with finely woven cotton fabric in blue yet again, which Olenna could see was pinned into a gown-like shape. Now this was interesting, and Olenna watched closely. What an idea, making a life-size torso for fittings and tailoring! Why, it would save so much time!

Selyse was taking the fabric and making folds just below the waist, allowing an excess of fabric to drape over the hip. She stuck pins in to hold the draping into position and they took a few steps back to judge the effect.

“There,” Selyse nodded to herself. “Balance out what I’ve got in the back.”

“Yes,” Lysa said. “Just right. You won’t do the same on the other side?”

“Asymmetry’s more interesting,” Selyse said decidedly.

They then stretched the skirt out, and Selyse began making vertical cuts. Her movements were confident and quick, which showed much experience with sewing. She handled the scissors without fear. The cuts were made in order to accommodate godets in contrasting panels of orange and yellow cloth, which were pinned in, starting just above the knee, causing the skirt to have a goodly wide flare if Selyse were to spin. It was just the sort of gown for dancing in, Olenna judged. Tightness was the impression, and this was a clear contrast to the volume preferred by the Queen with her own gowns.

Trust in Florent contrariness, Olenna snorted to herself. Though, the Westermen ladies did make comments about Lord Stannis’ tastes, encouraged by the Queen’s complaints. They laughed to themselves about how of course he wouldn’t mind Lady Selyse’s big nose, not when he loved her big haunches. Some men were like that, and Selyse didn’t even have respectable bosums either. That woman knew what was what by making her dresses stretch tight over her backside. She would need all the help in keeping her husband pleased considering what a scowling lump he seemed to be, and one who hated Reachers at that. One would have expected that marriage bed to be cold and him stubborn enough to avoid her out of spite and pride, but this Selyse was a canny one, Olenna grudgingly thought, able to work the hardest target under her thumb.

Olenna would have thought that the draping and pleating would seem messy, but she could admit that this new style of not leaving fabric alone made for an interesting, attractive effect.

Olenna did notice that Selyse would give her brief, assessing looks. So Selyse thought her a suspicious person in the room, eh? Good for her. Not a complete fool.

They worked efficiently at the gown, putting in basting stitches to keep the draping in place until Selyse summoned for some seamstresses and embroiderers. She directed them as to what she intended and the cloth torso and gown was whisked away for them to finish the tedious work of finish stitching, hemming, and putting in hooks and fasteners and inner lining. The embroiderers were given a drawn design to follow; this gown would have beaded work for embellishment at the neckline and the apex of the inset skirt godets.

They then next began a gown for Lysa. No sewing; they were looking through fabric swatches, which all the ladies in the chamber were keen to participate with and possibly purchase some yards for their own use. Olenna put down her embroidery for this, a little interested in seeing what was on offer from the Red Keep’s own drapers.

It was then that Olenna noticed Delena Florent, who moved with a languid sort of grace, not like the more athletic movements of Selyse. Selyse you could see riding out with deer hunting parties, not just hawking. Delena seemed one more prone to sitting still, her eyes watchful. She was a pretty one, this Delena Florent. She had not been sewing in the room. She had been almost out of sight behind a wooden screen, taking a spot of sunlight by a window, painting. She emerged, taking off a painter’s smock to reveal a tight dress like Selyse’s and showing off a better balanced figure, her hair piled up high in that same deceptively casual arrangement of waved twists.

She ought to be married, Olenna thought. It was well past time. But once again, Alester was holding onto her, and she could not yet fathom which House he was trying to tempt with the last beauty from his family. From the Westerman ladies she heard that Delena was a smoky-voiced singer, a reciter of poetry and stories, a dancer, an artist, who was indulged by her Lord uncle with lessons on painting. She actually accepted paid commissions to make portraits and the King had even sat for her! The Queen allowed that her own portrait was a good likeness. Knights in court vied for her favor, but no one yet rode forth at any tourney with that coveted scrap of ribbon embroidered with foxes gamboling amongst blue flowers. Whereas the Westermen ladies found Selyse inscrutable and her raised eyebrow a silent mockery that they did not know how to counter, they were jealous of Delena in various ways. She was well doweried as a Florent maiden, that was obvious. She was pretty and hid her ears with her hairstyle. She was more friendly and flirtatious than Selyse Baratheon, certainly. But these contrasts with her cousin were the least of it.

Apparently, besides the big joke that was the Dragonstone Baratheons’ loud sex in the Red Keep, the thing most whispered about was the fact that Prince Oberyn Martell was seen by many obviously lusting after the both of them. A libertine as the Red Viper wanted those two! Imagine that! And speculation naturally followed in Delena’s wake; was she hiding talents as well? All of a sudden there were ideas about how things were in Brightwater Keep and the gossip was such that Olenna scoffed. Florents some sort of secretive libertine family, as seductive as the more beautiful among the nobles of Dorne? Preposterous! Arrogant, humorless, big-eared, whiny, no-good pests, that’s what they were and always shall be!

This Delena was no flighty fool either; she was a delight at court events that had any dancing at all and if she did admire any man, nobody knew precisely. She was circumspect with her true opinion; her smiles were gracious and her face more mobile than the remote serenity of Lady Selyse yet no less mysterious. It took more than knocking other men off of horses well to impress her. It took conversation and in this the men made their attempts at amusing her. And perhaps some men tried her patience, only to have tall Alekyne looming over their shoulders like a vengeful spirit, pale eyes gleaming with mischief and violence. And once, he was across a ballroom and unable to get to her for one particularly boorish specimen and it was Stannis Baratheon instead standing there, glaring. Terrifying. The more observant ladies whispered that even the King took a kind interest in her well-being, as he was very fond of the Florents and trusted them with the fostering of his youngest brother after all.

Pretty, accomplished, well-bred, with a rich dowry, possessed of caring men in her family, able to defend her honor, with royal good-kin! Fortunate indeed was Delena Florent and they stewed with envy over it.

Olenna watched and listened as they discussed the merits of this or that sample of cloth. Selyse was decisive, which Olenna liked. She’d hold one up, watching for Lysa’s response. She would just as quickly put it aside when Lysa hesitated, taking too long to touch and consider.

“You must love it, Lysa, it must immediately spark joy.”

Lysa giggled, Olenna rolled her eyes to herself.

And then Lysa’s eyes lit up upon seeing a shade of pink and Selyse declared that her next dress would have it.

“Pink? Oh, oh no, no, Selyse,” Lysa quickly demurred. “Redheads mustn’t, you see, we mustn’t-”

“Well, not right up next to your neck and face,” Selyse made an insouciant shrug while holding it up next to Lysa. “It’s doing something odd with your complexion. But you love this color and we will make it work. I’ll just have to find colors for the trimming, where it sits next to your skin.”

Lysa did speak true. Her natural paleness had the pink undertone common to redheads and the fabric was bringing it out, causing her to look almost sweaty. Selyse quickly gathered together different creams and browns (brown!) to go through and soon there was a trio of pink, brown, and cream lengths of cloth that Lysa purchased that Olenna would not have thought comely together, but somehow appealing. Delena immediately sat and began sketching and Olenna was given to understand that she was a principal designer of dresses for ladies in her favor at court.

The Florent style of dressing favored the young, Olenna thought, with healthy buttocks. There were plenty of ladies that would not be flattered by such narrow, tight, skirts, but she did note that the women with concerns over the lower half of their bodies did the best they could by having the skirts be narrower than what Olenna remembered was fashionable years past (and daring to clearly contrast with the Queen) and had already moved to narrow sleeves, which allowed for bracelets and bangles to be stacked and shown off, allowing one to gesture with the hands the way the Florent ladies did and to imitate how they flashed their rings about for emphasis.

Selyse had stepped away, as Lysa and Delena conversed, and that was the opening Olenna needed.

“Selyse, come sit by me,” Olenna commanded. “Things have changed so much since I was last at King’s Landing. I want to hear all about it!”

Selyse strode over without hesitation and sat, meeting her eyes boldly, with that partially raised eyebrow that was silently challenging.

“Noticed the reduced stink, I take it,” Selyse said.

“Yes, yes,” Olenna picked up her needle and resumed stitching. “Tell me, is it a permanent improvement, or did the King order the muck and dung removed for the duration of the Ship Launch?”

“Oh, quite permanent,” Selyse replied. “An entire separate municipal department of sanitation was established and with the proper budget for dung carters.”

“Quite the large long term expense, though?”

“Not when the dung and other offal is turned over to the municipal composting fields and the resulting compost sold on to Crownlands holdings to improve crop yields, which is then sold right back to King’s Landing.”

“Is that safe?” Olenna pursed her lips. “Eating that stuff?”

“Perfectly. Especially if one washes vegetables with clean water first.”

Olenna paused, stitching. Selyse sat, watching her with an impassive gaze, completely silent and comfortable in that silence, unlike ladies that needed to chatter. Not like Queen Cersei, who needed to hear her own voice. Hmm.

“What a lovely amethyst ring,” Olenna said honestly. It served her well to give compliments, as she so rarely gave them.

Selyse obligingly extended her hand. It was an intriguing gem. The amethyst was large, as large as a thumbnail and formed into a severe rectangle, with a flat topside. However, the gem cutters were artful, for it had many rectangular facets in the underside and was affixed to the ring with prongs, allowing for the light to shine through with a richness; the purple of that gem was very fine indeed. Possibly the deepest purple amethyst she had ever seen and Redwynes knew purple gems.

“It was a gift from Stannis,” Selyse smiled softly. “To celebrate the victory over a hard labor with Armand.”

Olenna raised her eyebrows at this. Well. How… sentimental.

She took another once over of Selyse. There was a golden brooch pinned to her jacket just above her heart and it was a fine work, almost certainly Red Keep jewelers’ work, depicting a fox and stag touching noses. About her neck was a three-strand pearl necklace, the soft luster subtle and not at all competitive to the brooch and ring. It was almost too simple, but the ring and brooch were tokens of Lord Stannis’ esteem and hard won at that. The scarcity made a message of its preciousness.

Olenna took stock of the other ladies in the room and noticed that they were sporting various other new jewelry in that rectangular faceted cut that enhanced the color of the stones so much. Why, nobody was wearing the heavy gold favored by Cersei and the Westermen ladies. Well. Queen Cersei was rumored to favor emeralds; went so well with her green eyes. Nobody else could really do what the richer Westermen Houses did with gold; sculpting it, letting the metal speak for itself and dolloping it with big gems. Might as well be wearing doorknobs around your neck. Reachers favored delicacy, more finely wrought metalwork and a quantity of smaller stones in the cabochon cut, like spiderwebs laden with dewdrops.

Selyse had that Reacher sensibility, only perhaps more so, with that single stone worked to the best of its potential. The severity, the say, mathematical precision of that single stone was new. And perhaps it spoke more to Lord Stannis’ taste if it was him who chose the jewel. But the severity did not look out of place; certainly the hard, big-nosed lines of Selyse’s face suited the sparse, solitaire gem.

“My congratulations. He is healthy, then?”

“He’s crawling already,” Selyse smiled. “And he’ll be the kind to want to run before learning how to walk properly.”

“Mind that he doesn’t get a flat face from falling on it too often.”

“Oh, yes,” Selyse easily agreed. “You may see for yourself.”

The boy is here? Now? Instead of in the nursery? Odd!

Selyse caught her handmaid’s eye and gave a gesture. The handmaid left and in less than five minutes, a baby was brought in. The head was bald, though wisps of black hair were coming in, the big eyes very blue and staring, the ears oversized, and the expression of disapproval. This changed when he noticed his mother; a smile broke out and he began kicking in midair, almost twisting himself out of the handmaid’s arms.

“Ooh! Steady there, my little man,” Selyse rose to receive the baby. “Here he is, Lady Olenna. Armand Baratheon.”

Olenna carefully looked, accustomed to babies that would begin to cry for any reason at all.

This one stared back, and stuck his fist into his mouth.

Well. There really wasn’t anything to know about babies, Olenna thought. Hope they are born healthy, manage not to die from sickness and hope it was born with a sound mind. You can’t even tell until they start talking.

“He does look healthy,” Olenna allowed. She wasn’t one of those people that overreacted around babies.

“He’s a cautious person,” Selyse was saying. “See?”

She put Armand down and he immediately crawled over to Selyse’s chair, grabbing hold of it and using it to stand upright. He stood there, turning his head and observing the room. He grunted.

“Ughhh, ughhh, ughhh.”

“Yes, you are seeing all sorts of things, aren’t you?” Selyse spoke to the baby as if he were a thinking person.

“Ughhh. Ughhh. Umm-Umm-Umm!”

He bounced in place and took to stomping one foot.

“Not walking yet?” Selyse asked.

The baby stayed in place, stomped his foot some more and making louder grumbles to himself, before huffing and kneeling back down into crawling position.

“He’s been practicing standing. And even better, he doesn’t start crying when he does get tired. Nor does he simply let go and fall. He’s got quite the control over his limbs. I’m pleased at his progress,” Selyse said, as Armand crawled past her and started making a dangerous beeline towards the sewing area, where there were dropped pins on the floor.

“Armand,” Selyse called out, getting up and walking beside the baby. “I’m going to get you!”

The baby gave out a terrible squeal and began crawling faster. Lady Lysa put her hand to her mouth, giggling, and the other ladies in the room were also similarly amused.

“Gonna get you!”

“EEEEAAAH! Ugh-Ugh-Ugh!”

Selyse snatched him up by the armpits and Armand kicked the air in response. She repeated this, bringing him over to her chair where he promptly began the journey back towards danger, protesting with piercing squeals when Selyse got up to pick him up. He demonstrated classic Baratheon stubbornness, undeterred, even as Selyse attempted to distract him by swaying him about by the armpits or tickling him. He was just bound to finish his journey to that side of the room.

Finally, he exhausted himself, putting his head down onto the floor with his bottom in the air and his fists clenched to his eyes, letting out a despondent, defiant sort of grunt.

“All tired out, then?” Selyse inquired, reaching down to pat his bottom.

“Whew!”

Selyse smiled and picked him up and he blinked blearily at her. The amusement done with, Selyse passed him to her handmaid after kissing him on the cheek, who left the room, presumably to hand him off to a nurse.

Well, Olenna thought. A strangely attentive attitude. Granted, this was the first born; everybody cares so much more about a new heir and new mothers were most nervous.

Selyse returned and poured herself a cup of tea.

“What do you think of the Queen?” Olenna asked.

“I think that she is beautiful in appearance,” Selyse replied and wasn’t that just a laugh.

“Everybody knows that,” Olenna kept her tone patient. “But what do you think?”

“She’s idle and bored. It’s unfortunate.”

“A Lannister, unfortunate? What a thought,” Olenna looked up.

“Oh, it has nothing to do with wealth,” Selyse made a shrug with studied grace. “And everything to do with the long stretch of hours in a day. Every day.”

“The King doesn’t allow for as many balls and feasts as Casterly Rock?”

“I can’t imagine that Lord Tywin was much for entertainments. Was Casterly Rock a merry place in Lady Joanna’s day?” Selyse parried.

“Merry enough. And there are balls enough here, I heard that you are quite a sight on the dance floor.”

“Thank you,” Selyse said, apparently not one for false modesty. “The Red Keep staff are very efficient in that regard. The Queen entertains well.”

“But idle.”

“But idle.”

“And you… are not?”

“My husband is quite occupied by his duty as Master of Ships and advisor to his brother. We are occupied with the commonplace duties of lordship on Dragonstone. I have duties.”

“Does not a Queen merit more duties than the Lady of Dragonstone?”

“One expects so, don’t they?” Selyse’s eyes smiled while her mouth remained placid.

Olenna could not get her to say one clear cross word about the Queen. Oh, there were supposedly sympathetic statements full of concern about the Queen’s supposed discontent, but this Selyse was wise enough to be noncommittal, not at all like the Queen, who thought nothing of passing on salacious gossip. As it was, Selyse was impressing Olenna more than Cersei, and wasn’t that bad a turn of events.

Even the giggly Lady Lysa had more sense than to say anything directly about the Queen. In fact, she played for sympathy; her big blue eyes going sad while she softly recounted all the ways that Queen Cersei snubbed her and delighted in summoning drapers or seamstresses or other ladies away from her, refusing to issue any but the most expected of invitations to court functions and other such obvious tricks. She found solace in the company of the Florent ladies and in entertaining the different Vale ladies who made the trip to King’s Landing on her husband’s request along with their husbands to keep him apprised of matters in the Vale. There was always one Royce or another about, as they were very good friends to her indeed. And then there were the Crownsland houses with ladies, who were invited. They were a boring bunch, but as a duty went, being bored was not so bad.

They confirmed and added to the picture that Olenna was forming in her mind; that Cersei was full of petty cruelties, her arrogance barely checked by the work of the King or the Hand, unable to see the worth of the lady’s duties of smoothing the way for her lord husband’s aims. Perhaps she was too influenced by the decisive brutality of Lord Tywin; perhaps she thought Robert Baratheon just the sort of warring king to keep his lords in line by threats of violence. If that was so, why should she do what the Reach ladies were taught to do, to practice dinner and feast diplomacies? If King Robert favored the Ladies Arryn and Baratheon, it was because these two were more useful to him. Policy was established in the Council and these two were useful enough with the courtesies and maneuvering that came with teas and dinners and all the little entertainments that too few men understood was vital to their business. It was from Lady Lysa and Lady Selyse that Olenna was apprised of the current crop of Essosi envoys, their names, the various Essosi noble houses represented by them, and the various mercantile interests vying for influence and profits at King’s Landing from Essos and Westeros making themselves known at court. “I’ll let my lord husband know” was the coveted phrase these guests wanted from these two ladies and they did not say it lightly.

Olenna thanked them for their company and put her embroidery hoop away and got up to go back to her apartments. She rested, found out that Mace had not made a fool of himself so far, and readied herself for a dinner with court.

She’ll observe and wait. It always pays to be patient.