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Of Women Flower Of All

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LADY OF SOROWES

Late May, 1483

 

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Sansa knelt on the floor of the chapel, her rosary beads clicking quietly between her fingers. Although there was a cushion between her knees and the stone floor, it was cold enough in St Mary Undercroft for the chill in the stone to seep up through the padded velvet, and so even in her linen undergown and rose wool houppelande Sansa shivered. In the coldest months the chapel was bearable only if the whole royal household crushed into the pews; but Sansa, of course, was praying that she would not spend another winter here. She fixed her gaze again on the statue of the Virgin, the auburn ripple of her carved hair that reminded Sansa of her own mother, and murmured the words of her next Ave Maria. She had said these words so many times before it was easy to recite them by rote while letting herself think of her true prayers. May Father rest in peace. Let Mother be safe. Let Arya be safe. Let Bran be safe. Let Rickon be safe. Let Robb be safe, and one day kill Joffrey. She still glanced aside, anxiously, as she thought this last, in case somehow someone could hear her. “Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.” Please let Joffrey forget me. I’ll be good forever, I promise. Please, Holy Virgin, don’t let him want me anymore. I’ll be good. I swear. I swear.

Mass ended, and the congregation trickled out, but Sansa stayed on her knees to finish the last decade of her rosary. As she got stiffly to her feet at last, a hand reached out to steady her. It belonged to Father Pycelle, who had been saying the mass.

“You have been here a great deal of late, Lady Sansa,” he said. “Your piety is to be applauded, but I wonder what has brought on this fervour. Praying for your father’s soul? You must grieve for his loss.”

Sansa’s fingers clutched hard around her beads.

“I pray for King Joffrey, and that my traitor brother will realise the error of his ways,” she said automatically. Sansa was not accustomed to lying, but she was not stupid, either. Before her father’s execution, she had been genuinely confused, thinking her father had betrayed their king. She had begged for his life, and Joffrey had killed him anyway. She would never show Joffrey her true feelings again. “And you need not call me Lady. I have no title now.” Eddard Percy was attainted, his lands and titles lost.

“Your brother is using your father’s title, I hear,” said Pycelle. Sansa once trusted his quavery old man’s voice, his kindly face. Now she simply replied:

“My brother has no right to it.” She smoothed out the creases in her skirt. “I am just His Majesty’s humble servant, and I am happiest when I spend my days in prayer.” She hoped that other people were taking note of her piety. Put the Percy girl in a convent, she had overheard Cersei say to her father Tywin, and Sansa had felt hope blaze up in her heart. A convent! One of Mother’s cousins lived in one. Sansa remembered visiting her on the long journey south last year. Sister Elizabeth’s life had seemed very dull and drab to Sansa, who longed for the excitement of London, but now she daydreamed about her cousin’s plain clean cell, the fat little lapdog Elizabeth was allowed to keep because of her high status, the simple but expensive fabric of her habit. There would be no bold knights, and probably no lemon cakes. But there would be no Joffrey, either. No Joffrey who liked to remind her that although he could not possibly marry her now her father was a traitor, that didn’t mean he couldn’t have her some other way. Sansa was quite sure it was only the Earl of Warwick who kept his grandson in check. But Joffrey would come of age, and govern for himself… Sansa realised Father Pycelle was looking at her expectantly.

“I’m sorry, Father. I was thinking of the Virgin, and how I would like to follow her example,” she said piously. He repeated his question, and she replied that yes, she would be glad if he would pray for her, and made her farewells as quickly as possible.

The corridors of the palace were thronging with even more people than usual, and all of them moved with purpose. Sansa managed to ask a rushing servant what was going on, and learned that Lady Margaery was at last due to arrive this very day! Bad weather had delayed her voyage by more than a week, but finally she was only hours from Westminster, and the palace was in uproar as it prepared for the arrival of its soon-to-be-queen. Sansa rushed back to her room and asked her maid Shae to help her change into one of her best dresses, her fretful thoughts of convents and Joffrey pushed aside for now by her excitement over seeing one of Europe’s most eligible and fashionable noblewomen.

“Do you suppose she’ll speak English? For none of us have any Breton. Except maybe Tyrion Neville,” Sansa chattered as Shae laced her dress. “But of course she’ll speak French, and I have excellent French, Sister Mordane always said so.” At that Sansa’s smile faltered, because Mordane was dead now, and would never teach her needlework or praise her French again. But Sansa lifted her chin, refusing to let herself be defeated by such thoughts. “I hear she’s very beautiful. Margaery, I mean. Do you think Joffrey will like her?”

“For your sake I hope so, my lady,” said Shae, and with that Sansa wholeheartedly agreed.

In the mid-afternoon there was a great commotion as the lady and her escort arrived, but they were whisked away to their chambers before anyone could get a real look at them. As the sun dipped lower in the sky, the court assembled in the Great Hall. Joffrey sat on his throne, golden and elegant, sunlight gleaming on his hair and the gilt thread in his coat. Sansa looked at the sulky line of his mouth and wondered how she had ever thought him handsome, and then looked away before he could catch her eye. At that moment the doors to the hall were swung open, and the Lady Margaery de Dreux and her brother the Count of Montfort were announced. Sansa had seen the handsome Loras before, in the first glorious months she had spent in London. The young Breton had been the hero of the tilt-yards, and on one bright autumn day had given her a windblown rose that Sansa had pressed carefully between the pages of her book of hours. Loras looked older now, and more worn; Sansa had heard he had taken the death of the Duke of Clarence very hard. The Lady Margaery, meanwhile, did not look worn or sad at all, though Renly had been her husband. She was simply lovely, in a fashionable dress that made every other woman at court look dowdy. Sansa saw the curl of disdain in the Queen Regent’s lip as she greeted her future daughter-in-law, and felt a little thrill of satisfaction at Cersei’s discomfort. It was an unfamiliar feeling, and a heady one, and it made Sansa disposed at once to like the future queen.

From Sansa’s position far back in the hall it was difficult to hear what was being said, but it seemed that Margaery was insisting that the members of the court be presented to her. It took a very long time, but Margaery’s sweet smile never wavered. Joffrey was clearly bored, but something about the serene sweetness of the lady now sitting at his side seemed to discomfit him into silence. Sansa was one of the last to be presented; once she would have been one of the first, but her lost status had put paid to that. Sansa curtesyed deeply.

“Bienvenue en Angleterre, madame,” she said.

“Votre accent est charmant,” replied Margaery, and Sansa looked up, surprised. “But we must speak in English, now I am in England.” There was only a trace of Breton in Margaery’s perfect English, but what there was gave a lovely singsong cadence to her words. Margaery held out her hand to help Sansa rise; her fingers were cool and soft between Sansa’s own. “I know you came to court only recently yourself,” Margaery continued, “and so you will know how it feels to be far from home… I hope that we may be good friends.”

“Yes, my lady,” said Sansa, startled by this show of kindness, because why should Joffrey’s bride-to-be care to be pleasant to the girl she had replaced? The late afternoon sun haloed behind Margaery’s head, and in her blue gown she could have been the model for the Virgin in the altarpiece of the royal chapel. Dazzled, Sansa moved on to let the next person in line greet the queen-to-be, still feeling the gentle pressure of Margaery’s fingers on her hot palm.

 

 

ROSE OF SUCHE VERTUE

This rose, of flourys she is flour,
She ne wole fade for no shour,
To synful men she sent socour,
Mira plenitudine.

In the sunlit solar, Margaery bent over her embroidery as Leonette warbled another pretty English song that she had learned in preparation for the move to England. Leonette had the sense of a pigeon but the voice of a dove; and more important besides, she was family – widow of Margaery’s dead brother – and so could be trusted. It was important to have allies in this new country. Loras would not be able to stay here forever, after all. Luckily Grand-mère had promised to stay with Margaery for as long as she might be needed. Papa called her the shrewdest woman he knew, but that was because Papa was not as clever as he thought; Margaery would much rather have Grand-mère’s guidance than that of any number of important men. A soft snore came from Olenna’s chair, and Margaery smiled fondly, then turned her attention to Sansa.

“That’s beautiful,” she said, looking at Sansa’s embroidery. It was; the stitchwork was very fine. Margaery’s own work was neat, but she had made little progress. She mostly practised embroidery to give an impression of feminine productivity, and so this whole morning she had stitched barely a leaf. She was, like the rest of her ladies-in-waiting, embroidering roses – gold roses for her own house, and white for the house of York. These pieces were part of her trousseau, though her wedding clothes were being worked by professional embroiderers in Brittany. Margaery would accept nothing less than perfection for her wedding dress. She smiled as Sansa flushed with pleasure at the compliment. The Percy girl was very sweet. Joffrey had been reluctant to let Margaery have her as a lady-in-waiting, but Margaery had coaxed him. It would show his generosity of spirit, she had pointed out, if his former fiancée was accepted into the household of his future wife. Margaery, for her own part, had wanted to keep an eye on Sansa, since her brother Robb had allied with the Scots. They were calling him King in the North now, and if Joffrey were to fall, it would be a good idea to have friends in the Percy family. Keep your enemies closer than your friends, Olenna always counselled, and so Sansa had earned the jealousy of a good many ladies of the court by being specially selected to serve Margaery.

“Thank you, my lady,” said Sansa.

“Do you sing as prettily as you sew?” asked Margaery. “I’m sure Leonette would like to rest her voice, and perhaps you can teach us some more English songs.”

“As long as they are not about roses,” said Olenna, playing her usual trick of going from deep sleep to alert wakefulness in seconds. “After a lifetime, my dear, one gets heartily sick of damned roses.”

Sansa looked startled by Olenna’s candour, and Margaery laughed.

“You mustn’t mind Mémère. I’m sure anything you sang would be perfectly lovely.”

“Oh – I don’t sing as well as Lady Leonette –” Sansa stammered.

“Come, it’s just us ladies here,” Margaery said coaxingly with a smile. “I would love to hear something. Wouldn’t you, Leonette?” Leonette nodded obediently. “Perhaps something you used to sing as a child? If it would not make you too homesick,” she added, and pressed a hand against Sansa’s knee. Sansa flushed again, and said:

“If it pleases you, my lady, there’s a song my mother used to sing us to sleep.” Margaery nodded encouragingly, and Sansa put aside her sewing and stood, hands neatly folded in front of her, and sang.

“Oh hush thee my dove, oh hush thee my rowan,
Oh hush thee my lapwing, my little brown bird.
Oh fold thy wings and seek thy nest now,
Oh shine the berry on the bright tree,
The bird is home from the mountain and valley.”

Sansa’s voice was pretty, but not strong; and yet Margaery found herself moved by the melancholy melody and the feeling in Sansa’s voice. The girl’s voice cracked on the last line, and as she sat down again Margaery saw that her eyes were shining with unshed tears.

“You miss your mother a great deal, don’t you?” she said gently, and Sansa nodded tightly once, looking down into her lap. “I miss mine, too. I’m not sure when I’ll see her again.”

“Though –” started Sansa, and then stopped herself.

“Tell me,” said Margaery.

“You’ll think I’m impertinent, my lady,” said Sansa.

“I shall do no such thing,” said Margaery, curious now. “I know you never mean me ill, Sansa! Now tell me.”

“I just – At least you may invite your mother here,” said Sansa, in a rush, and her pale cheeks pinked.

“And you may not,” said Margaery. “Forgive me, Sansa! That was careless of me.”

“Oh – oh no,” replied Sansa, blush deepening, “I didn’t mean – I’m sorry, my lady.”

“Hush,” said Margaery, taking Sansa’s hand and squeezing it. “You were honest. And in these rooms you may call me Margaery.”

She found herself thinking about it in the days that followed: that a girl could dare to speak her mind to someone who outranked her, and yet blush as she did it, was unusual in Margaery’s experience. She wondered at first if it was an act; but a little more acquaintance with Sansa convinced her that the maiden was truly guileless. Margaery, brought up to believe that knowledge was power, had tended to equate innocence with stupidity. She found herself reconsidering that opinion as she talked with Sansa, who despite the cruelties she had experienced over the weeks since King Robert had died, retained a gentle sweetness that Margaery found soothing. She liked to spend time with her new friend after a long day of charming Joffrey and sidestepping traps left by Cersei, who was constantly waiting for Margaery to make a mistake that she could use to claw back influence over her son. The nobles of the court, too, spent time jostling for her attention. Everyone wanted something from her: that she speak a word in the king’s ear, that she give a favoured daughter a place in her service… But Sansa never asked for so much as a ribbon.

One warm June day Margaery was walking in the cloisters when she came upon her betrothed speaking with Sansa. Their voices were too low for Margaery to hear what they were discussing, but she could see that Joffrey had his fingers wrapped around Sansa’s wrist. When he saw her, Joffrey dropped his hand. Margaery could see livid red fingermarks on Sansa’s skin, and felt a sudden flash of protective fury. Margaery detested cruelty, but even so, the strength of her feeling surprised her, and it took a good deal for her to smile warmly at Joffrey and curtesy as if she had seen nothing amiss.

Later on Margaery sought out Sansa, and eventually found her in the chapel – not the one used by the king, but the chapel of the court. She was kneeling in front of the statue of the Virgin, and Margaery knelt down beside her and drew out her rosary beads.

“Are you well, my dear?” she asked Sansa.

“I’m quite well, my lady,” said Sansa, but her red-rimmed eyes gave the lie of that. Margaery shifted so that her side brushed Sansa’s.

“I hope the king said nothing to upset you,” she murmured. Sansa looked around quickly, like a frightened rabbit, and then went back to clacking her own rosary beads.

“I am honoured by the king’s attention,” she said dully. Margaery looked at her pale face and felt her heart swell with sympathy. She found Joffrey tiresome at best, repulsive at worst, but years at her father’s court had taught her how to charm unpleasant but important men. Sansa had learned nothing of the sort, Margaery suspected, and now she had no social connections to protect her.

“Men always want,” she said softly, “what they are not supposed to have… They are like greedy children, clamouring after sweetmeats.” That startled a soft laugh out of Sansa, and Margaery smiled. “You need to find a reason for them to think you are not as sweet as they hope.” She stopped herself before she gave Sansa any more specific advice about avoiding Joffrey’s attention, because she had said too much already; a more prudent course of action would be to let Joffrey do what he liked. But it was hard to not want to take this little bird under her wing, and so she stayed by Sansa’s side, both of them murmuring soft Ave Marias as the sunlight streaming through the window shifted from gold to rose to red.

 

FULL OF GRACE

Ich libbe in love-longinge
For semlokest of alle thinge.
Heo may me blisse bringe:
Ich am in hire baundoun.

Margaery’s kindness had been unfailing, and her presence changed everything. Sansa no longer woke sweating from nightmares, and dreading the day ahead. Today, like most days now, she arose smiling, and hummed a pretty tune that a musician had sung for Margaery’s entertainment the day before. I lie in love longing / For the fairest of all things. It was her favourite kind of morning, one where she awoke in Margaery’s chamber, for the ladies-in-waiting took it in turns to sleep at the foot of her bed and to help Margaery with her toilette. Sansa liked to think that Margaery asked for her more often than she requested the other ladies; certainly she told Sansa that no one brushed her hair better. Sansa might have found it demeaning to do that for anyone else, but brushing Margaery’s curls was a pleasure; they were so soft under her hands, and smelled of rosewater.

“You are so gentle with me,” said Margaery, after Sansa had carefully coaxed out a tangle. “Thank you.” Margaery’s robe had slipped off one white shoulder; Sansa’s fingers brushed it as she smoothed down a lock of Margaery’s hair, and she felt herself shiver.

“I’m glad to help, my lady,” said Sansa.

“Margaery,” she was reminded, with a smile, and she nodded and flushed.

“Margaery.” She had been delighted at first when Margaery invited her to use her name in private, because it seemed so intimate; but now that intimacy had a strange quality that made Sansa feel a queer prickling when she thought about it. Margaery. Sometimes she said the name into her pillow at night, and felt herself shiver. It was silly, Sansa knew.

“Why didn’t you tell me,” said Margaery, “that you fainted in the chapel yesterday?”

“I – didn’t want to worry you, my – Margaery,” said Sansa, drawing the brush through the next lock of hair. “It was nothing. I was just tired, and my dress was laced too tightly.”

“But Leonette told me that you said you had a vision,” Margaery persisted.

“I – yes. I did. The Virgin came to me when I fainted, and – and showed me that if a man goes to bed with me, he will die soon after, because God means me to be a virgin,” said Sansa. It sounded less convincing than it had done in the chapel yesterday, when nervous excitement had given the lie a breathless sound of authenticity.

“I see,” said Margaery. “How blessed you are, to be visited by the Virgin!”

“Do you suppose,” said Sansa, setting the hairbrush down, “that – that the king has heard yet?”

Margaery turned her head to look at Sansa then, and gave her a look that was very kind, but seemed to pass straight through her, like a sunbeam through a pane of glass. Sansa felt her face redden, and she looked away. Margaery reached out and caught at her hand, drew her down onto the seat with her.

“I’m sure the news will reach him soon,” she said gently. “You know how quickly gossip spreads at Westminster! But Sansa,” she added, after a pause, “if this is widely known, then no man will want to marry you.”

“I would rather no man did than –” Sansa began, but could not finish. She knew that Margaery would understand what she meant. Better to die a virgin than have Joffrey take her to his bed. And then she flushed again, because of course Margaery would have to endure that soon, and in her embarrassment blurted out – “and besides, I would rather stay in your service than marry any man.”

“With me?” said Margaery, very softly – and then suddenly her mouth was on Sansa’s. The kiss was gentle, but it was not the swift buss of a friend. Her mouth was warm and insistent, and Sansa felt her lips part. She raised a tentative hand to Margaery’s shoulder… And then Margaery was drawing back, her eyes wide.

“Oh, Sansa – I am sorry –” she said, and for the first time she looked like the girl she was.

“Don’t be,” said Sansa, “oh, please, don’t be,” and Margaery smiled, a bright quick smile Sansa had never seen before and that made her feel hot all over. Sansa had never heard of women kissing each other like this, but she was suddenly quite certain that she wanted to do it again, and often. Margaery put her arm around Sansa’s waist, and after a moment Sansa dared to rest her head against Margaery’s shoulder.

“I’m not sorry,” said Margaery after a moment, “not at all,” and Sansa closed her eyes and smiled, feeling for the first time in months perfectly and entirely content.