So everything is necessary. Every least thing. This is the hard lesson. Nothing can be dispensed with. Nothing despised. Because the seams are hid from us, you see. The joinery. The ways in which the world is made. We have no way to know what could be taken away. What omitted.
We have no way to tell what might stand and what might fall.
You should have taken the realm for yourself. It was there for the taking. Jaime told me how you found him on the Iron Throne the day King’s Landing fell, and made him yield it up. That was your moment. All you needed to do was climb those steps, and sit.
Such a sad mistake.
(GEORGE R.R. MARTIN)
i know that you’re dying
and i know i’m unwell
and together we sashay
through variations of hell.
(A SILVER MT. ZION)
PRELUDE: A WAR
After war come the spoils.
Land and a title. Gold, a woman, both. The spoils come solely to the victors while the vanquished are left to recover what little honor is left them, to bury their slain, to try and escape first the brand and then the noose attached to a single word: traitor.
This misleads: the task of burying the dead is not left to the losing side alone, but rather both. Victory does not equal invincibility, nor does it promise happiness. War is not won without a steep cost, and it is often times found that peace comes with a similarly expensive price.
In this story, everyone gets what they thought they wanted.
Land, a title; gold, a woman, both.
They all come with a price.
King Eddard, the first of his name, of the House Stark, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm.
This story opens with a different start though you shall find it ends the same -- the same song, a different singer.
(The start of a story is easy to change. It is easy to alter it, warp it, bend the first to your will. It is the end you cannot change. The ends we meet are decided by the gods. Our ends are their ends, and while the path may vary, the end shall not.
It is this end that cannot be changed).
King Eddard Stark altered the future of Westeros as only a king like him could do, and not a king such as Robert Baratheon would make.
Yet know this, the ending before the beginning:
Ned is beheaded at the Great Sept of Baelor. There will be a war after, a great war or as great a war as any war can be, and there shall come to be many a king to simultaneously occupy the same realm where once stood only one.
But Ned shall be king first. He will be a good king, The Good King in fact, but he will lose his head as Cersei Lannister stands off to his right.
He will lose his head and his wife will stand, to the right, and watch.
The end cannot be changed.
But first, the beginning --
ACT I: A THRONE, AND WIFE, ARE SEIZED
“When you least expect it,” Jaime muses, “you Starks can be full of surprises.”
And then, clad in full armor, a stained cloak, he stands.
Ned Stark had ridden in with Robert Baratheon’s van, finding King’s Landing already mid-sack, courtesy of the Lannisters. What Ned would later learn are the whys, why Jaime Lannister slew the king, why the king’s Hand, why he broke their vows. But this will be later, much later, as one king’s secrets becomes the next’s curse.
Jaime takes each step slow; the sound of his boots against the stone echo, the horses Ned and his men had ridden in on stand still. He meets Ned at the bottom of the stairs, and then Ned ascends.
The next men who enter the hall take the knee and say, Your Grace. Jaime merely laughs; he still wears the cloak of the Kingsguard. He still wears it when he exits.
King Aerys is still dead upon the floor.
When Ned Stark entered the hall, Jaime had called to him. “Ah, so it is to be King Robert Baratheon then?”
Ned dismounted from his horse, and then he replied, simply: “No.
Cersei weathered the war in relative peace at Casterly Rock. After the war, after the news of their new king reaches the Seven Kingdoms, it is a message from her father that beckons her to King’s Landing.
“You are to be wed to the new king,” is what her father writes her, and she laughs aloud.
“The new king already has a wife,” she says to Tyrion, open with her bitterness. She is thinking of Rhaegar Targaryen. She is thinking of Lyanna Stark, of Robert Baratheon. And she is thinking of her brother, Jaime. But not of Ned, never of Ned.
“You say wife as though such a thing exists for a man not only forever, but merely once.”
“And you would know,” she sneers.
Tyrion does not answer for a beat, choosing instead to sip at his wine, but he does smirk up at her.
“You know our father well, sweet sister. Never a deal his coin was unable to broker. I am sure he can purchase you a king for a husband and a comfortable throne to sit upon.”
Whether he believed them himself when he spoke, Tyrion’s words would become the truth. By month’s end Cersei travels The Goldroad towards Blackwater Rush, and then on, to King’s Landing.
King Eddard Stark has found himself a widower, and Cersei is to be his second wife.
Ned originally wed the Tully girl during one of his brief respites back North during the war. He was married when he came south, when he came and helped sack King’s Landing, when he took the throne. Later some will say it was the great lion himself, Tywin Lannister, who bought Ned out from under the girl.
Gold. Gold buys everything, even a crown.
Barring a crown, when a king will not budge, when he announces there is no price high enough to purchase his honor, gold can buy death as well.
Catelyn Tully is killed on The Kingsroad en route to King’s Landing. No one can tell a straight story of what had occurred -- some claim roving bandits, now rampant among the Seven Kingdoms: much as flies swarm a corpse, thievery and banditry had filled the power vacuum in the immediate wake of Robert’s Rebellion. The new king would find this new lawlessness a persistent pest, but this king, King Eddard, would find success. But not yet.
His lady wife was killed on The Kingsroad, and for every man who claimed it had been bandits, another wine sink would find another set of men who said it was the Bloody Mummers, Vargo Hoat and his men. That the bodies left behind were without hands or feet. That it was The Goat’s work, paid in Lannister coin to secure his daughter a spot on the throne and in Good King Ned’s bed.
These men would be right. Most of these men would be smart enough to know better than to run their mouths outside the doors of whatever tavern they had holed themselves into, those mouths sticky with the sour stock of whatever barrels left out back, because every man of the Seven Kingdoms knows a lion’s twin promise and a threat: a Lannister always pays his debts.
And others, others would merely chuckle, near marvel, at the neat outcome of the war.
Ned’s sister Lyanna -- the pretty face at the center of all that bloodshed -- had lived, and she married Robert as planned. Rhaegar perished. Ned took the throne.
His sister, the root of all this trouble, marries Ned’s best friend. Lyanna Baratheon. Everything in its right place.
Everything, Cersei would think, but the both of them.
She meets Ned Stark for the first time on the day of their wedding.
Her father wanted them to be wed at the Great Sept, but Ned refused, stubborn in his condition their marriage take place in the godswood. When the message was relayed to Cersei, she laughed, already sure in her estimation of her future husband.
He would never foreswear his beloved old gods to appease not only her father but the smallfolk of King’s Landing as well.
“More a boar than a wolf,” she had drawled, and her handmaiden had suppressed a laugh as she finished arranging the last of Cersei’s belongings to be taken with her to King’s Landing. Stubborn to a fault, was what she thought.
And she was right, for the most part. Ned Stark’s rigid nature was more derived from his view of personal honor, how he valued this above all, than arrogance. The honorable Starks of the North; before her arrival, she wondered how the capital might sully Ned Stark.
She realizes she was wrong the moment she meets him. There is nothing corruptible in this man, at least not in the easy way she initially imagined.
He had been described to her as a handsome, though cold, man. As she approaches, she can see this is a true assessment. He is clean-shaven for the wedding, his dark, reddish hair pushed back from his face, and as he stands there before the heart tree waiting for her he holds himself as though a sentry at his post. His face is drawn as seriously as his stance, his eyes seemingly critical and too aware as he watches her, nothing sexual in the way his eyes drag down over her body, the way her blonde hair spills long, woven through with small pearls, over the red cloak of House Lannister.
About her neck hangs a heavy golden lion pendant. She catches the way his eyes linger there, the dip of skin, the lion at her throat.
When his eyes meet hers, when she closes the distance between them with one final step, she can recognize the dark contempt he directs at her.
The cloak of House Stark is draped over her shoulders, and when he presses his lips quickly against hers -- his mouth dry, a breeze catches and strands of her hair cling to his cheek for just a moment -- she is sure she directs the same at him.
He takes her by the elbow and together they leave the godswood. His arm is warm against hers, but he remains stoic and silent.
It is not until they are seated at the reception does she realize the only words they have exchanged with each other have been their vows.
The wedding reception is a stolid, stilted affair. She drinks but one glass of the wine set out before her, and Ned does the same. He offers smiles to his bannermen, and he has the grace to look almost embarrassed when a drunk Robert Baratheon claps a large hand on his shoulder, calls him a lucky bastard, and all but waggles his eyebrows at Cersei. Jon Arryn, the newly appointed Hand of the King, offers his blessings to the both of them, but Cersei takes note of the way he looks at her, unable to disguise his doubt as merriment.
Jaime kisses her on the cheek, mockingly congratulatory, and Ned watches, his face unreadable. Cersei flushes when her brother pulls away.
She sits waiting. Waiting for the moment when these men (his men) will escort her to the king’s chambers, joking as they undress her, leaving her off as though she’s little more than a purchased whore. And in a way, she is, she thinks, her own disgust meeting her face. Ned -- King Ned -- has chosen this moment to look at her, and she watches as something close to genuine amusement crosses his face, if only for a flicker of a second.
And then he turns away.
The bed chamber is chilled, but a fire cracks and spits in the hearth across the room.
Ned stands before it, but he is looking at her as she sits perched on the side of the bed.
He looks at her like she is a curious creature, like he doesn’t know what to do with her, and it makes Cersei wonder how his first wife, the Tully girl, conducted herself during their first bedding. Had she been afraid? Did she tremble when he touched her? Play coy, shy, covered her breasts with her hands? No, Cersei thinks, she would not have played or pretended -- she would have been genuinely timid.
She knows this must be true when Ned moves to her and reaches a cautious hand to her. She doesn’t so much as flinch when his hand touches her shoulder, but merely looks up at him, her eyes boring into his. His expression darkens slightly, the challenge met from her own gaze, and Cersei pulls away from him, and nude, lays back against the pillows heaped on their bed.
Their wedding night is awkward and clumsy, though not unkind. There’s no route in to him though, his eyes narrowed in concentration, his face held equally tight, as he opens her thighs to him. Cersei curses herself silently, the slight tremble to the long length of her thighs under his hands, and he has to feel that. He has to see that she is blushing, that she’s breathing hard. She can’t discern if it is desire or nerves, and it strikes her as strange, near hysterical, that the two could be confused, that she could feel either for him.
She still has the pearls in her hair from the wedding, but the intricate coils her hair was knotted in have come down, her long hair pooling around her shoulders and against the pillows.
He’s too slow with her, too unsure. She wonders if he was the same way with his first lady wife, if he only bedded her the once to consummate their marriage before he left again, to return to war. The way he moves over her, jerky, his hands too rough and too gentle all at once, belies a lack of experience -- or perhaps, she thinks, a desperate attempt to deny any baser urges.
It burns as he pushes into her -- she’s not nearly wet enough -- and she holds her breath. He pushes that much harder, his teeth clenched and a grunt trapped behind them, to fill her, and Cersei’s eyes water as she feels him break her maidenhead. The pain is sharp, surprising in its ferocity, and she can’t keep a high gasp from escaping. Ned is still braced on his arms over her, the only place where they are touching is where they are joined, and he looks at her, the only emotion on his face a blend of scrutiny and curiosity. That makes her heart pound a little. That makes her think he wants to hurt her. That makes the pain, and what little she will show of it, something to cling to, a triumph to privately lord over him.
Later, she will think that Ned had not wanted to hurt her, that it wasn’t his primary goal, but rather he wanted to wrench a reaction from her. Something genuine, something she did not intend, that she couldn’t hide behind the veils of courtly courtesy she cloaked herself in -- that this was something she could not deny. She does not think even he was aware of it, that he is ever aware of it, that he does these things on purpose to hurt her, but she could be wrong.
Winter is the cruelest season. Winter is for the wolf.
After, he says, “I’m sorry.”
ACT II: TO FORM A MORE PERFECT UNION
The start of their marriage is overwhelmed by conflict and mutual distaste. He has dispatched her brother, a happy fact for Lord Twyin, as he installs his son at Casterly Rock, the one place he always wanted him.
His daughter does not share his enthusiasm.
As king, Ned must begin to address the traitors still left in King’s Landing and what must be done with them. He calls Jaime before the court, and Cersei sits beside her husband as her brother approaches the dais before taking the knee, a desultory smirk twisting his mouth.
Ned takes his cloak from him, ending his employ with the Kingsguard.
“You cannot do that,” Cersei hisses beside him. “The post is for life. You cannot do that.”
Ned does not answer her. He glances at her quickly, his mouth tight, his eyes bright but cold, and for the first time since she has met him she finds him dangerous. There is menace in that gaze, an icy fury foreign to her, but she glares back at him, her own venom and her own rage spilling from her.
He turns his head away from her, and over his opposite shoulder she can hear him mutter softly.
“Jory, if Queen Cersei cannot behave herself, please do escort her to her chambers.”
Her heart pounds, her rage amplified that much more (to be spoken of as though to a child, to be spoken of as though she was not seated right there, as though she did not matter -- it was insulting), and her jaw slackens as she gapes at Ned.
She does not utter another word, but her fingers tangle together in her lap as she curls both hands into fists. Jaime still stands before them, his expression murderous and directed solely at the king. She catches Jaime’s eye briefly and she shakes her head.
Not now, she thinks. Not yet.
She waits for Ned in his solar, uninvited to the small council convened after open court. Young Jory Cassel and Jon Arryn; slowly Cersei is trying to reintegrate Lord Varys in the higher echelons of power following King Aerys’s death. As she waits, her anger grows. She knows what removing Jaime from the Kingsguard means. She knows this means he will return to Casterly Rock, that he will be that much farther from her, and she will be that much more alone.
When he enters, he does not appear surprised to see her, and even says as much.
“You’re here to discuss your brother, I take it.”
“How dare you?” she snarls. The dispassionate way he looks at her pushes her that much more, and her temper flares.
She steps to him, and slaps him hard across the face. The crack of her hand against his cheek seems to echo in the room, and Ned’s head snaps back at the impact. When she raises her hand again, he grabs her by the wrist, his fingers too tight and she can feel the small bones of her wrist grind together painfully.
“Are you finished?” he asks evenly. His cheek has begun to redden where she slapped him, and his grip on her wrist slackens but he does not let her go. She takes a deep breath, her eyes still wild with her anger, Ned’s placidness only spurring her on rather than calming her.
“I am more than willing to discuss this matter with you, but not if you plan to behave as a child.”
“If you treat me like one, how do you expect me to act?” she spits at him, but her voice is quieter, she is no longer yelling.
“If you throw a tantrum each time you are dissatisfied with a decision of mine, how do you suggest I treat you.”
She wrenches her wrist from his grasp, and he lets her. Cersei is no fool -- she knows of the two of them he is the one with the brute physical strength, and if he wanted her immobile, if he wanted to keep her wrist in his hand, she’d have no chance against him.
She takes a step back from him, and he follows her with his eyes, body tense, and so is hers.
“Jaime told me what King Aerys did to your brother and father,” she says, each word drawn sibilant and taut. “He told me how they cooked your father alive while your brother strangled himself trying to rise and reach to the rescue. My brother did us all a favor, taking the king down when he could.” Ned does not flinch, but she watches the way he swallows hard, how the veins that line the backs of his hands bulge as his fingers curl and then flex. “How are you any different. You all but led the rebellion against the same man Jaime did you the pleasure of killing. Jaime gave you that throne by skewering The Mad King on his blade. And this is how you repay him?”
Ned’s glare is stony and impassive as he looks at her. She can see then that he will not yield to her, that mentioning his father and his brother was a misstep on her part.
“I broke no vows,” he says, quiet and low, a dangerous undercurrent beneath his words. “I swore no oaths and made no promises. I owed the king my allegiance as a man of the Seven Kingdoms, and nothing further. My loyalty did not extend to the crimes he and his son committed against the same kingdoms he was sworn to protect, or the crimes committed against my family. I took no pleasure in rebellion, I will have you know that. I did not set out from the North for a crown or a throne or for your brother to defy the very charge he was tasked with -- toprotect the king -- in order to get me there. Your brother was a sworn knight of the Kingsguard. And he broke that vow. There are consequences to every action. I was lenient by permitting him return to Casterly Rock. By right, I could have had his life.”
He walks over to his desk and braces his hands against it as he rounds his back. He looks back at her over his shoulder.
“I will not allow your brother a cloak nor have your brother for a guard. The decision is final.”
He does not wait for a reaction from her. He turns his head, dismissing her in a single gesture.
Cersei turns on her heel, and leaves.
That night she goes to Jaime in secret, his hands desperate against her body, and she curses them all -- she curses their father, she curses Rhaegar Targaryen for never loving her, she curses Lyanna for luring him away, Lyanna for starting this all; she curses Robert Baratheon for not taking the throne, for not taking her as a wife had he been king, but most of all she curses Ned, she curses her husband and king as her brother fills her.
Jaime is gone the following day, riding hard down the Goldroad, and for the better part of a week, Ned and Cersei enjoy their meals in silence, their bed cold even for the bodies beneath its covers.
The initial problems of their marriage are not dedicated solely to the Lannister side of their union, however, but dispersed between both.
It is not until after the wedding that Cersei is introduced to Ned’s bastard son, Jon.
The boy is but an infant, a tiny pink thing with a shock of black curling hair. Cersei stares down at the child, unsure what is expected of her. To keep the child would be shameful, would make the both of them a spectacle, and the thought of allowing Ned to house his own bastard within the castle walls, have her raise him as though he is her own blood, is enough to make her stomach turn.
But she is beginning to learn Ned. She is learning dramatic theatrics and attempts to shame him in public garner no sympathy, and worse still, no leniency for what she wants. So she keeps quiet. She keeps her face flat, as though a waiting serpent, and bides her time until they are alone.
She pulls Lord Varys aside, asks if it is known who the bastard’s mother is. Varys smiles as though he anticipated this line of inquiry and cocks his head to the side, his hands folded over his stomach.
“My queen,” he says, “it is a mystery, one as intractable and unsolvable as the fate of the last dragons and the origin of the Others.”
Cersei bites the inside of her cheek. “Speak plainly. Who was the whore?”
“My excellency, no one knows. Your kingly husband is well-adept at keeping his secrets safe.”
“So it would seem,” she says. She dismisses Varys, but she does not waste time. She has Lord Varys work quietly, she has him pick at the memory of the men Ned Stark served with during the rebellion, but he continues to come up blank.
“It is as though the lady never existed,” he tells Cersei, but that is not what she wishes to hear. This child has no place in her castle, and she finally tells Ned as much, their bed chamber one of the few places they are granted complete privacy.
“What will they say of a king who parades his bastard about as though it’s something he is proud of?” she asks him. She sits before the table mirror, a hairbrush in hand, watching his reflection behind her carefully.
“They may say as they wish,” he sighs.
“They will laugh at you. They will laugh at me. They will call me a fool to suffer you.” Her face is pale with anger, hatred even, but Ned offers her no concessions. He does not yield. She drags the brush through her length of hair once and then sets it down.
“You hate me that much you would make such a spectacle of me?”
Behind her, he freezes. Any other man and she might say he looks apologetic.
In the end, Ned hands off Jon to his younger brother Benjen, the new Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North. If it is because of the advice of his inner circle, Ned does not say.
If it is because of her, he does not admit that either.
I miss you, my brother. Please, please return to me. I need you here, I need you always. Please. Come.
I love you.
She sends the letter after the first month of their marriage.
Jaime responds not with raven nor ink, but rather his presence in King’s Landing. He comes at once. He comes for her, and Cersei decides in that moment (that first moment she sees him again, the first moment he touches her, defying the septons, their father, the smallfolk who call her queen, her husband, the king) that it is possible to craft and build your own future. That she will build hers, and both she and Jaime shall sit at the center.
Be careful, she hisses when she can feel his teeth against her skin. He might come for me and how could I explain that.
Let the Others take Ned Stark, Jaime growls, and Cersei suppresses a smile, her caution waning even now as he slips a hand beneath her small clothes. Seven hells, he tells her, his mouth pressed against her ear so she cannot see his face, I’ll take Ned Stark. According to him, and according to popular consent, you kill one king, you can kill them all.
Cersei’s heart pounds with the thought, pounds as her brother works his hand between her legs, and she thinks it is power she is tasting in her mouth. She could have the king’s head. She could have her brother. She could rule.
And I’d remain queen, she whispers, and she can feel Jaime smile against her neck.
I’d steal the throne back, just for you, he says.
Jaime returns to King’s Landing one month after exile.
She bleeds that month and she sighs in relief. Her shoulders slump for just that immediate minute, and then she holds herself straight again.
“Your brother has rejected every marriage prospect I have presented him with,” Lord Tywin tells her. They sit in the queen’s solar, alone, though Cersei has always known the walls listen in this castle and every other within the Seven Kingdoms.
“He still considers himself a member of the Kingsguard. He took those vows solemnly, and even now without the cloak he still takes them sincerely.”
Lord Tywin levels her with a glance, and she knows he does not believe her. She can scarcely blame him. The words sounded hollow even to her, a joke to presume Jaime ever took an obligation save those to her seriously.
“I’m not here to discuss your brother’s marital failings,” he says, then pauses. She can fill in the words for him, but she does not. You are here to discuss mine, she thinks.
Ned had not touched her since their marriage night. He would slip into his side of the bed late into the night, the sheets ruffling against her skin as he pulled them over his, and when she would chance a look at him in the dark, she was met with the muscled plane of his back, the long ridge of his spine, the way his shoulders bunched and rippled as he shifted slightly.
She would not touch him, but she would watch him -- his skin grey in the midnight light, his hair dark and untidy, his body hard and unyielding. In those moments she would feel a creeping fury, a sense of failure. He belonged to her as much as she belonged to him. She would wonder if he thought of the Tully girl, if he blamed her for her death and that was why he would not touch her. She wanted to know the root of his disinterest, his lack of desire to her offensive, and admittedly unexpected.
I saw the way you looked at me, that day you took that traitor’s head. The Starks insisted on delivering the death knell with their own swords, this she knew, and when he sentenced the first traitor to death it was he who raised his greatsword and brought it down upon the man’s neck.
Cersei had stood off to the right, and when it was over, when the assembled crowd cheered and called for more, Ned had looked not at the crowd nor the traitor, but at her.
It was bloodlust, plain and simple, a visceral thing, the body confused as to whether it wants more death or a good fuck. Jaime had told her of the sensation, overwhelming and heady, a battle high. She had wanted to tell Jaime that she did not think it was such a phenomenon devoted to his sex, but shared. She had tasted it before, tasted it in connection with power and its use. You take what you want. Isn’t that what a battle is after all? She did not need the blood on her hands to understand what war was, how a battle could be fought. How triumphant you feel when you emerge as victor, the sudden prideful surge accompanying success.
Whatever Ned had felt then had dissipated, dissolved in their shared bed chamber. He scarcely spoke to her. He went about his business, rebuilding the city, dredging the treasury for coin to spend, quelling the fear the last king had left behind, a terrible legacy to inherit. And she was left to her own devices, dividing her time among the various ladies of the court, similarly dividing her time between a disinterested husband and her twin brother.
“Is there to be an heir any time in the near future?” Lord Tywin asks. His eyes are dispassionate, and Cersei knows there is a lecture in the offing. Her future, her family’s future, is dependent on a male heir of her creation. After, she thinks, after she gives Ned a boy, after she gives her father this, Ned is no longer needed. Their infant son would be the new king, and she could rule, her father could rule. Everything in its right place, she thinks.
Cersei’s hand instinctively goes to her stomach and she holds it there.
“Not as of yet,” she tells her father, the same steely lack of emotion. She meets his eyes with resolve.
“Best amend that.”
Cersei waits for him that night. She sits, her posture ramrod straight, her legs under the covers, her nightclothes near transparent in the dim light of the room. She sends her maidservant away briskly, her cheeks warm though there is no fire burning in the room this night.
He enters their bed chamber quietly, a quick look of surprise as he realizes the candles are still lit.
“You are still awake at this late hour,” he says, but it is less a question and more an observation. Cersei watches the way his eyes linger on her, just a beat longer than he normally allows himself. She bites the inside of her lip to fight the smirk struggling to reach and twist her mouth.
“Do you fear me, Your Grace?” she calls to him across the room. His gaze returns to her, this time confused. He stands still, regal in such an understated fashion even here. His authority is not derived from gimmicks or tricks, the crown he dons begrudgingly, the sword he carries at his side. It is all of him, Ned Stark, the man, and Cersei can see that even here. She thinks that should excite her, that such a powerful man is her own.
“I am your husband,” he says stiffly. “There is no need for formalities.”
“Least of all here?” she drawls, arches an eyebrow; she can see the tic at his jaw even from this distance. She can see the way he clenches his teeth, grinds them together. “Then, Ned,” she says, “pray tell. Do you fear me?”
“I do not.” It is all he offers her, his earlier expression of confusion muted now, guarded, as though he is wary of a trap she may be setting. That makes her want to smile too. There is still so much to learn of each other, especially him of her. She is always laying a trap. She is always holding the next card and waiting for him to step.
“Is it that you find me undesirable?” She does not ask the question coyly, but with ice, something his hard northern bones should know well, she silently mocks.
“I do not,” he repeats, the words as clipped and vacant of emotion as before, but this time they are a touch more earnest. He almost looks ashamed after he says, as though realizing what he just confessed; he finds me desirable, Cersei thinks ruefully, and that gives him shame.
“Then what is it?” She pauses, and Ned has not moved a muscle, his body poised as though ready for attack, ready to defend himself. She looks him in the eye and he gives her nothing. “You are aware you need an heir, I imagine. I’m sure among the duties and responsibilities on your heavy, heavy plate you have not forgotten that one. And just as sure, I imagine you know where little heirs come from and how one is created. I’m sure your bastard’s mother could verify that for me.” She doesn’t mean to scowl, but she can’t hide it. She had not meant to say that much, had not meant to goad him, whatever stage show coquetry set by the low candlelight, her long blonde hair loose about her bared shoulders, the sheer nightdress clinging to her body, ruined by her mouth.
He finally turns from her, continues to undress, his hands rough with his clothing. He strips down in silence, and Cersei watches. Her eyes dart over the healed scars at his back, scars that appear in shadow in the dark when he sleeps beside her, but here they are pink and puckered. When he faces her, his chest bare, there is more of the same -- scars left from the blades that tried to cross him, his torso covered in their previous etchings. She does not remember them from their wedding night. She does not remember seeing him like this before.
“I have no wish to bed a woman against her will,” he says harshly.
He slides into bed next to her, and Cersei can feel her own rage beginning to bubble within her. He thinks he is being the noble one, he thinks that’s what this is. His eyes are still on her as he settles back against the pillows beside her, and Cersei raises herself on her elbow, bent to face him. She is well aware the portrait she creates -- the open nightdress, the visible bare curve of her breast, her hair falling across her face -- and Ned exhales audibly. She studies him in turn, and he is a handsome man. He refuses to follow the customs and the fashions of the South, and he still wears his hair too long and too messy. He does not shave his face often enough, his growth of beard extending down under his chin, stubbled, and she imagines it would scratch at her face if he was ever to kiss her. But there is something masculine in his refusal to worry over his appearance, or perhaps just another manifestation of his innate stubbornness.
His eyes remain on her, and she knows he will not make the first move, not after what he has said. So, determined, she leans in that much more. Her hair brushes against his bare shoulder, and her pulse quickens as she asks, “But what of your will?”
His eyes have darkened, and she knows she has him.
She straddles his lap, and she watches as his eyes catch on first her breasts and then climb higher, the long pale column of her throat, up to her face. She gathers her nightdress up over her hips and easily pulls it over her head. He has not touched her yet, but she can feel it, hear it, his breath quickening, the way his fingers twitch alongside his body.
She makes quick work of his small clothes, and doesn’t hide the cruel smile that twists her mouth when she sees he is half-hard. She takes him in hand, and his abdomen hollows and then fills as he takes a deep breath. “Do you take this to bed every night?” she asks, a feigned courtly simper, but he does not answer. He grunts when she twists her hand, and his fingers brush against the delicate skin behind her knee.
She strokes him as she might Jaime, but she finds Ned is different, that he likes a harsher grip, that he does not like a set rhythm but rather the inconsistency of first slow and then fast. It does not take long -- he wants this, she thinks, he wants this and is too proud to admit it -- and she spreads her legs over him, his cock hot in her hand, hot against her cunt, and she finds herself sucking in a noisy breath despite herself.
She moves to lower herself, but it is then he speaks. His hand latches onto her wrist, and he says, wait, his voice low and out of breath. She can feel her anger begin to crest again, but in that same beat, his hand slides between her legs.
He touches her, lightly at first, and then more forcefully, his fingers pressing first against her, and then in, and her hips jerk. He touches her the way Jaime touches her, the way Jaime has always touched her, but Ned is rougher with her. Ned doesn’t know what to do with her, not at first, each touch an experiment, and when he slides a second finger inside of her, when his thumb brushes against her clit, she can’t help but clench around him, gasp as her head drops forward, her hair a perfumed veil around the both of them. When she starts to rock against his hand, her fingers curling on either side into the jut of muscle at his shoulders, he pulls away.
In the dim light she can see how wet his fingers are; she can feel it when he grabs at her thigh, spreading her legs wider over him, feel herself, wet and swollen between her legs, wanting more. Her mouth gapes open as she presses her hands flat against her chest for leverage, as he fists his own cock, his knuckles and his flesh brushing against her cunt. She can feel his scars under her hands, she can feel him, feel his breath against her chin as her body lowers of its own demands closer to his. He presses the head of his cock against her, his hips raising slightly to push inside her, and she moans low.
Without warning, she slams her hips down, and he fills her completely, the sensation, the pressure of it all, both bizarre and overwhelming. His hands are tight on her hips, holding her in place, but she can’t stop moving, small rolls of her hips against his. His chest is damp with sweat -- she can feel sweat pooling between her breasts, dampening at the nape of her neck, her hair heavy, her entire body heavy and wanting -- and her hands skid over his skin, her fingers digging into his hair, almost cradling his skull. He begins to thrust in time with her. One hand remains low on her hip, almost grabbing at her ass, but the other drags over her skin up to her rib cage, and she starts to tremble.
She comes before he does -- silent, her bottom lip caught between her teeth, her entire body arched away from him, back bowed and head dipped back, but she shakes with the force of it.
He sits up as she comes down, his forehead pressed against her collarbone, his mouth wet and open at her breast, and Cersei drapes her arms over his shoulders, her chin bumping against the top of his head. Soft little moans leave her mouth as he holds her steady, his fingers digging into her hips, and thrusts hard up into her. She finds herself clinging to him, her skin slicking over his, the both of them covered in each other’s sweat, and he comes gasping against her skin.
After, he does not pull away from her. Rather he tips his head up to hers, knots a hand in her already tangled hair and drags her mouth down to his. There is nothing innocent about the way he kisses her, nothing like the chaste kiss he offered her in the godswood before their wedding guests. This is his open mouth against hers, both of them still fighting to catch their breath, his teeth knocking against hers, his tongue hot and thick pushing alongside hers. It feels as though he is trying to eat her alive, so she bites back, kissing him as eagerly and hungrily in return.
Kissing him makes her want to come again. She can feel it, that tight almost nervous clench low in her belly, the way her knees squeeze against his thighs, his hand, rough and callused, palming at her breast. It is strange, how this minute alone feels more intimate than when he fucked her -- either the first time or on this occasion. He is still inside her, though softened, and she doesn’t stop herself from grinding against him, desperate for friction, desperate to be touched, and she realizes with almost a start, she means by him.
Her teeth nick against his bottom lip and the taste of his blood spills onto her tongue. He groans, near growls, and flips them suddenly, their sheets sticking to her sweaty back. Ned’s cock slips from inside her and Cersei whimpers, empty and clenching around nothing.
He says her name against her ear, just once, and then again, as he eases two fingers inside of her. She will not say her name. She tells herself this. She will not say his name.
I will not say his name, she thinks, even as he murmurs hers against her ear, along her jaw, as his fingers ply her open, twist too deep, slick with both their come.
She comes again. She does not say his name.
In the days after, he does not touch her again, but he does not shrink from her either. In sleep he does not hold his body against her, his back to her, but there are nights where she wakes and he is facing her, his hand reaching on the sheet next to her hip.
Cersei continues to go to Jaime, reveling in the feel of his arms wrapped around her, his golden hair under her fingers, how he knows exactly what she needs from him, and what she wants.
They meet in secret, but then they always have. Cersei can only understand love in the context of subterfuge, hiding the truth of what she wants from everyone but him. So she goes to him in secret. She does not bother to try and initiate anything with her husband, and neither does he. They coexist. He is king, and she his queen.
But he looks at her differently now. Still guarded, always guarded, but he no longer disguises his lust from her. He no longer feels the need to hide, but he does not act on it. They remain strangers to each other until a cool summer night. He gets into bed beside her, the hour early for him. They rest in silence beside each other until he speaks quietly, the sound of his voice almost drowned out by the wind and the rain beating down on the castle.
“How did you pass your day?” he asks, his voice already gravel-thick with sleep, and Cersei rolls slightly to face him.
“Easily enough,” she answers, her own voice pitched as quiet as his. “Uneventfully.” She pauses, considers the day that had passed before. “I sat with that horrid Redwyne woman and Lord Cerwyn’s young lady wife, and Jon Arryn’s Lysa. We sewed for quite awhile.”
“Do you enjoy that?” he asks. He sounds half-asleep, she thinks, what is he getting at? “Sewing, I mean.”
“No,” she answers. “Not particularly. The sewing nor the company.”
He laughs then, and her lips curl over her teeth into a smile. His amusement fades quickly, and his face is drawn and serious once more.
“Your father’s bannermen grow restless.”
“They are thirsty for vengeance,” she replies. It is not a lie -- pockets of the realm still longed for their due be repaid, the debt owed by Aerys’s court, not solely in coin but human life as well. Lord Varys had found her earlier in the day and told her as much, but also that similar grumblings were growing in Dorne as well.
“For blood,” he amends, as though there is a difference. He sounds tired, and Cersei cranes her neck to get a better look at him. His eyes have a faraway look to them and faint lines surround his mouth. He looks aged, even in the short time she has known him.
She brushes the back of her hand against his bare shoulder. “For blood,” she echoes. He reaches across his body, his hand finding hers; he brings it to his mouth and presses his lips against the curve of her bent fingers.
Her eyelashes dust against her skin as she looks up at him, half-lidded. She uncurls her fingers and he sucks one into his mouth.
It surprises her, but it also makes her inhale sharply.
ACT III: THE LITTLE PRINCE
She holds the boy in her arms and stares at the small wriggling creature. He is a Stark, that is plain to see. His hair is a dark red, but his eyes a bright green, much like her own. She looks at the child, and the lack of revulsion she feels surprises her.
She wanted this boy to be Jaime’s. She had wanted that more than anything. They had always shared everything, always, the two of them as one, and why should her children be any different? If she needed Jaime in order to feel whole, they would need the same as well. And besides, the heir to the throne should be a Lannister through and through, even if only she and Jaime were the wiser for it.
But this boy is Ned’s. This boy belongs to the both of them, they both together are inside this boy -- a prince, heir to the throne -- and the way her heart seems to clench and twist inside her chest she chooses to blame on the exertions of labor and childbirth.
Ned asks to name the boy. He asks, he does not tell.
Maybe that is why Cersei concedes.
There will be four children in total: the eldest Brandon, her daughter Myranda, son Terrence, and their youngest, Elaena.
Their first child changes some things for Ned and Cersei, but not enough.
She continues to slip out to Jaime. Lord Varys tells her of the rumblings of the court, the curiosity most possess as to why her brother lingers in King’s Landing.
“He is here for me,” she says, authority ringing in her voice and she levels Lord Varys with a stare much as her father would do.
“Does our queen need protection from her good wolf, the king?” he simpers.
Cersei cannot help but scowl. Not once has Ned raised a hand against her, and she is sure this spider knows as much. His whispers fill the castle, and as oft as he reports back to her, she knows there are other ears he fills with his secrets, his findings. Cersei knows that every ally inside these walls comes with an attached risk, that there will be a future penalty incurred for trusting this man or any other, but the other end of that particular blade is that she needs him.
“Do not play dumb with me, Varys. We both know your mummer’s talents only extend so far.”
“My lovely queen, I could never wish to impart offense. A thousand apologies, Your Grace. I should not have pressed.”
His earnest yet empty apology only stokes her ire, and her scowl deepens. “You and I both know my lord husband, your king, would never so much as bare his teeth at me. I will not permit such talk or even idle gossip in my court.”
Talk of her husband is hardly limited to Lord Varys and the court. Jaime loves to mock him in private, his body wrapped tight around hers, his mouth ghosting over hers as he speaks, his words as hers, and Cersei will feel each word rumble through him as he speaks.
“How is your Northern man?” Jaime asks on a yawn. “I keep meaning to ask -- is it true? Has he honestly an icicle for a cock?”
In the beginning she laughed, each barb against her husband uttered by her brother a quiet unknown rebellion and triumph. But Jaime does not tire of mockery, and even as her responses wane from first laughter to an annoyed roll of her eyes, he does not stop.
Cersei does not bother to analyze where her lack of amusement originates. She tells herself that when she is with Jaime, she wants it to be about him, not about Ned. Ned has no place there. There is no room for it, no room for him.
There is hardly enough room for Ned inside her as it is.
After Brandon’s birth, Ned comes to her more often. There is always an unspoken question in his eye each time he touches her, as though he is giving her an out, a chance to tell him no. But she never resists. She lives in fear of suspicion, fear that if she says no he will begin to wonder why. The spider is not the only one who whispers through the castle, and she cannot even begin to fathom how Ned would react to her infidelity.
She often thinks of his greatsword. She thinks often of each traitor he has beheaded, how the blood stained and dirtied his blade.
He comes to her, and she thinks of her son. She thinks of clean bloodlines, the Targaryens of all families, and in her heart she knows should any inherit the throne it should be a Lannister. Solely a Lannister, no northern blood. She finds other ways to sate him on occasion. He likes her mouth. He likes to grab and pull at her hair as she swallows down around him, as she swallows him.
The first time she did it, he came noisy and panting as she choked.
He opened her legs after and licked at her, made her come and for the first time she called his name. She fisted a hand in his hair and held him tight against her.
She often wonders how Lord Varys knows which secrets to keep from whom, how one person could ever keep it all straight.
When Brandon was born, they said winter is coming, and sure enough, it does. The autumn season stretches on twice as long as the winter that accompanies it. The winter in King’s Landing is mild, and when the first snow comes, Ned welcomes it.
The winter arrives with her daughter.
Her first daughter is Jaime’s. The girl is Cersei in miniature, all blonde curls and her mother’s gravitas.
“They say she is Lord Tywin in a little girl’s body,” Ned tells Robert. Robert spits his wine out as he crows and laughs.
“That old lion hasn’t been inside a girl for ages!”
The son that follows is also Jaime’s, a similar mirror image to the girl that came before. They could be twins had it not been for the year that came between. But it is not her true brother Myranda attaches herself to, but Brandon.
Together they make a pretty contrasting picture: his dark straight hair and ruddy complexion against her porcelain pale skin and length of blonde hair. The two keep to each other, full of young secrets and equally grand adventures throughout the castle, and if they remind Cersei of herself and her brother then it is a thought she suppresses deep inside herself.
Her son Terrence is a sickly boy. He keeps company with the maesters, poring himself over maps, drawing his finger down long lost trade routes and all that rests on the other side of the Narrow Sea. He tells his mother he wishes to travel there, that he will be a grand pirate, as in the books his nursemaid reads him, and Cersei can only stare at her son. Stare and wonder how it is possible he came from her at all.
Their youngest daughter is Ned’s. As she grows, Cersei finds her heart aching for the child. She wants to cup the girl’s face in her hands and tell her, I know.
I know what it’s like to be born and know you should have been a man.
She silently chides herself for such a reaction to the girl, and instead adopts an air of extreme annoyance at their daughter’s spells of nonconformity.
The girl finds trouble around every bend, sneaking about, following her brothers as they attend archery and sword lessons, lessons Elaena is infinitely more interested in than her brother Terrence. She is a bright girl, quick on her feet with a smart mouth to match, and Ned humors her.
“Your daughter is most cross with you,” Cersei tells him that night, the two long married now. Ned is tired, she can see it. But he arches a brow, a trait she likes to think he adopted from her, and in good humor grumbles, “which one?”
“Your youngest,” she says. “She wants sword lessons of her own.”
“Does she now.”
“Yes. And I told her you would not allow that. That a princess has certain expectations, and fighting amongst boys in the yard is certainly not one of them.”
“I imagine she took that well.”
“She’s just a girl.”
“Funny you say that,” he says quietly, and his point is well taken.
If Ned notices two of his children possess no passing resemblance to him, their father, the king, he does not mention it.
He loves all four the same.
She does not know when they began to change, when they evolved into something closer to what a marriage is meant to resemble. Jaime returns to Casterly Rock for an extended spell following Terrence’s birth. When he returns it is with her father and younger brother in tow and Elaena is already past her fifth name day.
She remembers a night, winter, she thinks.
She rested in bed with him, naked. For the past several days all anyone would discuss was the Targaryen children, young Viserys and his sister. They say they are lost in exile beyond the Narrow Sea, yet still a threat if Ned’s council is to have any say in the matter.
“You do not fear them?” she asked.
“They are children,” he replied, brusque and almost dismissive, yet his fingers brushed down the length of her arm, his gaze watchful as he looked down at her.
“There are those in the realm who would still call you The Usurper,” she said to him, and his hand stilled against her arm.
“They are not wrong,” he said. “That is what I am.”
Cersei snorted inelegantly. “You say it as though with pride,” she said.
“With honesty,” Ned said.
His hand slid down her arm over her ribs to her bare breast. She arched into the touch without thought, her mouth opening eagerly to his.
That night she dreamt of the two Targaryen children, but in her dream their faces shifted and changed, they aged, grew, and they were no longer children but instead Cersei and Jaime. They stood first together barefoot in a desert landscape, and then she stood alone, everything fire-scorched and destroyed, and she thirsted. She fell to her knees, and when she looked up, King Eddard Stark stood before her backlit by a bleeding sun, his greatsword Ice in hand.
She woke sweating. Her throat was parched, her body was wound tight around her husband’s.
It was soon after that Ned placed Cersei on his innermost council. From there on, she sits to his right when they meet. At first she had been categorically dismissed by the other lords in attendance. But Ned let her speak. Ned listened to her. Slowly, that had been what she came to know of him: regardless of what she said, regardless of how accusatory or off-base, how against his own principles her own ideas might run, he would hear her out. He’d argue back in kind, at times thunderously angry and others resigned yet still indignant, near child-like in his refusal to cave, to settle, to sacrifice any shred of honor. But he would listen to her. His face would be deadly serious, betraying nothing of his personal thoughts, and he would be patient. He would listen.
She will insist her father can help pay the crown’s debts. Ned will refuse in earnest, refusing to become a debtor king, refusing to allow Lord Tywin to infiltrate his court that much further.
“He will expect repayment,” he says, the tone of his voice closing the subject, yet Cersei presses on.
“Of course he would. He would not be offering out of charity,” she snipes.
“I don’t mean in coin,” Ned bites back. And that will make Cersei laugh. There are few things Good King Ned hates more than political favors, except for perhaps bribery and her father.
Her father, her family -- two things Ned makes no effort to disguise his distaste for. Ned is too open with everything he feels -- his contempt, his anger, disgust, desire, all his little guilts and hurts. Cersei could not be more different, and as the years pass, as their children grow, her guilt swells. It surprises her. Of all things, she never expected to feel guilt for her own ambition.
But perhaps it is not ambition she should feel guilty for. It is Jaime, it is her children and the daily charade she passes, masking them as Ned’s and not her brother’s.
It is more than that, she knows. It is being torn between two men, the one she needs as a part of herself, and the other, her husband.
It is strange to witness a man learn your own body. With Jaime, he always knew her, knew everything about her. The things she felt and the things she desired stemmed straight from him. They were never strangers, never a mystery to the other.
With Ned it is different.
She goes to Jaime, and she thinks of Ned. She takes Ned inside of her, and she will think of her brother. She is no longer sure who owes her what and what she may owe in return. She knows the scars that map Ned’s chest and back as well as if they were her own. She knows that if she runs her mouth over the jagged, crooked scar that arcs along his ribcage he will shudder under her, grab at her hair and say her name.
She knows she has come to need him in a way she cannot bring herself to articulate, that she never tells him that she loves him and he never offers the words in exchange, but Ned is too open with her. He will come to her, and he will lose himself in her -- Cersei’s hand sliding over his back, feeling the way his muscles tremble and shift, the sharp cut of his shoulder blades, they way they valley and dip in the middle, his backbone, the solid lean cut of him, the arrhythmic juddering of his hips against hers, the animal noises he makes, less a wolf and more the wounded prey. He will not say, I need you, but she’ll feel it, desperation bleeding off of him and into her.
She knows what it means to need someone else.
She just always thought there could be only one.
Myranda is a girl of fifteen. A woman, by most standards. She is to be married to the Tyrell boy, Garlan, his name.
“I’ll have to leave?” Myranda says, the answer already known to her. Cersei nods. “What about Brandon? Will he ever leave?”
“Your brother is to be king,” Cersei tells her. “His place is here.”
“And mine is not?” Cersei ducks her head, the girl’s indignation all too familiar. Cersei feels her worst suspicions are being realized in this moment -- she believes her place is here if her brother’s place is here, she has brought more of the same into this world. But they are not two halves of a whole. They were not created at the same moment in time, they did not enter the world together, bound, together. This is paranoia, she thinks.
“Your place,” she says, “will be with your lord husband, wherever he may be. Be it Highgarden or elsewhere.”
“If Brandon gets to be king, then why don’t I get to be queen?”
“It does not work that way, pet.”
“I never get to be queen?”
“You will be a princess, my darling. Always and forever a princess.”
“But never queen. I’ll never be like you.” The gods willing, Cersei thinks. Instead she merely shakes her head and tells her daughter, no.
Myranda attempts a new tactic, a new angle, perhaps a new fear. “What if I don’t love my lord husband?” she asks, her voice small, and Cersei is reminded of how young she really is. Cersei was older than fifteen years when she married Ned Stark, though not by much. She looks at Myranda, almost surprised by the question. When Cersei was told by her father she was to marry Ned, the question never crossed her mind. She assumed their marriage would be much the same as the bartering of any good -- her body exchanged for his power. She would not need him to love her, and she would not need to love him in return; she had Jaime for that. Ned had his dead wife for that. Their need for each other would be purely economical, her bed for his sword. Her bed for the name queen.
Perhaps it is not the question that catches Cersei by surprise, but the immediate answer that springs to her tongue.
“You will learn to,” she tells Myranda. She takes a sip of the tea before her and it is too honeyed, too sweet.
“Did you love Father when you wed him?” Myranda asks, her face stubborn and curious.
The answer is no, but Cersei sees no point in admitting it. Instead she repeats herself. Instead she says, “You will learn to.”
ACT IV: NEW BLOOD SPILLED AS OLD
The realm sours, an overripe fruit past the point of plucking. Ned’s friendship with Robert has begun to wane following Ned’s visit six months past to Storm’s End. Cersei had accompanied him (begrudging as she might have been) as had their children. What they found was a Lyanna much changed from the last they saw her. Ned fretted in private after his sister, and Cersei had not the heart nor the patience to explain that even marriages built on choice, or even love, were not always destined for great success.
She didn’t know how to tell a man like Ned that some men are always hungry for more.
Some women, too.
Their journey to Storm’s End left a bad taste in Ned’s mouth, and slowly but surely, his relationship with Robert began to fissure. Talk ripples through the castle that Robert Baratheon was robbed of a throne that by rights -- or by conquest -- should have been his.
The talk irritates Ned more than it worries him.
“That man was more content with a wineskin in his hand and a bed in a brothel under him rather than a throne.”
Cersei could not argue, but someone was whispering in Robert’s ear, and while it might not worry Ned, it worried her.
Add to Robert his brother Stannis and the rumors of a red priestess amassing power out at Dragonstone. A false king will crumble in ash, they say she says.
Add to the Baratheons the Greyjoys of the Iron Islands with their own ambitions, the taste of spilled blood near twenty years past still filling their mouths, leaving in its wake a thirst for vengeance.
Add to the entire kingdom word from The Wall -- wildlings, they say. The Others, they fear to say.
Benjen simply says, “Winter is coming.”
And Ned. Ned, The Good King, they call him, but the epithet takes on a dark, sardonic tone.
Cersei has always told him the way to rule is with a closed fist; the smallfolk abide by fear rather than geniality. But Ned would never heed her. He would say The Mad King’s name, the question left hanging in the air, his scorn still deeply personal -- there’s your fear, he did not say.
“There are times,” he confides to her, “that I worry seven kingdoms were never meant to live as one.”
“You would allow secession?” she asks. Her heart sinks at the prospect. A kingdom divided is worth less than a kingdom whole. She did not work this hard, she did not marry him, bear his children, to rule a single pocket of Westeros.
But it is more than that, she realizes as she waits for his response. There is no question of her own ambition, there never has been, but it is not just a kingdom she fears to lose.
“No,” he says with that unyielding obstinacy she likes to draw from him. “I could never.”
That night she will hear herself speak, quiet, in whisper, as though the voice is not her own. Her hair will spill over his chest as she whispers just under his jaw. As she tells him he is a good king, that the smallfolk trust him. “You are a good king,” she will say. The realm will hold.
She will say it again.
The realm will hold.
The first blood in what will become known as The War of Three Kings is spilt inside the castle walls.
Brandon Stark is the war’s first casualty, his throat slit while he slept in his own bed.
The injustice of it all is the mystery that surrounds the boy’s (no, Cersei reminds herself, man’s) death. No one and everyone claims responsibility for the deed.
It was a Faceless Man hired by the Targaryen exiles beyond the Narrow Sea. It was an Iron urchin sent by boat and then over land, a small and nimble brat who scurried his way first inside the castle and then into Brandon Stark’s bed chamber, dagger in hand. It was the red priestess herself, in two places at once as though a ghost, and it was her bloody blade -- red as the robes she donned and the hair that spilled down her back -- that did the deed.
It was the Red Viper, come north from Dorne to avenge Brandon’s rejection of any of his daughters as wife and queen.
It was a handmaid Robert had been fucking.
It was his own sister.
It was his Uncle Jaime.
It was everyone, yet no one.
(They wake her in the night to tell her. They wake the both of them, Ser Barristan Selmy the one to tell them, and the first words he utters are, “The gods be good,” as though he might begin to cry.
And then he says it.
She hears a wild shriek and as the floor meets her knees and she feels her husband’s hands strong under her arms holding her up, she realizes it was her).
When she wakes, she is alone.
She steps out of her bed chamber to find double the guard usually present at her door.
She goes to Ned in the godswood, each step slow and precise, painful in a way she never knew before. Their eldest son is dead, just a boy, she thinks, but was he? He was near seventeen, a man grown. A king in the making.
Now her son will inherit, her son not Ned’s, and is that not what she always wanted?
(“Tell me you did not do this,” she will later beg of Jaime.
He will frown but his eyes will be mocking. “No, dear sister, I did not murder your darling boy.”
She will believe him, though she will not be able to decide if what she feels is relief. If not Jaime, she will think, then who.
Her father will decide the answer to both questions, fabricated to fit his own agenda, and if Cersei goes to her grave never learning her son’s murderer’s identity, then she goes to her grave unaware).
Ned will not weep, but Cersei does. She cries loudly, her face buried in his shoulder, and Myranda will weep later too, and like a good father, Ned will take her in his arms as well.
Her family came back to King’s Landing for a reason.
An undercurrent of dread fills the castle. Rebellion is brewing yet again, fears reach from beyond The Wall, and the threat of the last Targaryens lingers on as the two children have grown to adulthood.
There is a greater threat still, one perhaps Ned is not even aware of:
The Lannisters. Tywin Lannister bought a crown with his daughter and the promise of gold.
“Forgive me,” Lord Tywin says unapologetically, “but the boy’s death opens a great many doors of potential.”
Jaime suggests killing Ned, portraying him as breaking his vows as king, that he has murdered his own son and has gone against the gods, a traitor who intends to ruin his own realm. The implications of Ned’s death are obvious: with Brandon dead, her younger son would take the throne, yet still be too young to rule, so Cersei and their father could step in and assume the authority for him.
Cersei’s face is unreadable as she listens. “No,” is all she says at first.
“No?” Jaime mocks. “I thought you wanted a throne.”
Cersei sighs. “We wait for rebellion. The Seven Kingdoms are itching for war, so we let them have war. Knowing Ned, he’s never seen a battle he has not wanted to run and join. He’s a soldier first. If there is war, he will raise his sword, and no councillor could tell him otherwise. We let him go to war. He leaves, yet we remain. The war may take him, but regardless, we can undo his mandate while he is afield.”
“Your husband has too many allies,” Lord Tywin says.
“Death won’t undo that,” she argues.
“It certainly helps.”
“Why now?” she asks then. She can hear the anger in her own tone, the raw emotion, and she hates herself for it. Hates herself all the more because she knows her father heard it. He looks at her curiously, her brothers, too. “You’ve had seventeen years. Why now. Why not later.”
“Why, dear sister,” Tyrion says, “can it be that you’re in your husband’s corner after all?”
She glares at him.
Lord Tywin ignores the both of them. “Your husband’s friendship and alliance with Robert Baratheon has begun to sour, much thanks to Lady Lyanna once again. The Greyjoys of the Iron Islands want King Ned’s blood for their own past misery. Stannis Baratheon out on his spit of rock is rumored to have a red priestess in his employ who calls Ned a false king. The heir to the throne has been murdered.”
“In other words,” Jaime drawls, “as Balon Greyjoy might say, had the salty bastard a lick of humor, best to strike while the iron is hot?”
For all her planning and for all her family’s own cunning, there is a single point Cersei never considered:
She does not know how, but Jon Arryn learned the true parentage of Jaime’s children. He learned they do not belong to Ned.
Another thing she will never know is what Jon Arryn said to Ned. She will never know what words were exchanged between the two men, but merely that they met. What she does know is what Lord Varys told her, that Jon Arryn had begun asking questions. That he was curious about Myranda and Terrence. That he wanted to know why Jaime Lannister spent so much time in King’s Landing when his place was at the Rock.
(A final thing Cersei will never know of Jon Arryn is how ardently Ned rose to her defense.
“I suggest you stop right there and consider carefully what you will say next,” Ned said. Jon Arryn ducked his head and then raised it, looking straight back at Ned.
“Your Grace,” was all he said, but it was enough. He said it the same way a man would offer a plea, not for forgiveness, but to believe him.
“What you are suggesting is high treason. What you are suggesting . . . is unfathomable.”
“I understand that, Your Grace. Truly. But with your Brandon dead, it is Terrence who stands to gain the throne should you pass.”
“Terrence is my son,” Ned said.
“Your Grace . . . ”
“He is my son,” he repeated, louder this time. “These are my children. They are mine. I will -- I will hear no more of this foolishness.”
Ned paused and looked at Jon Arryn. “This is my wife you speak of,” he said angrily, his face ruddy with his own fury. “My children.”
“Begging your pardon, Your Grace, that is merely the thrust of it. For I fear they are not -- ”
“They are my children. I will hear no more on the matter. Cersei -- my wife. No. They are my children.”)
What Cersei does know is the strength of the tears of lys. She knows that this is a secret she will kill for, and she does. When she sends the young squire away to Jon Arryn she understands why Ned insists himself on slaying each and every man he condemns to death.
Any other way is too easy.
(“Jon Arryn is dead,” Ned says roughly.
Cersei keeps her face still, her body tight and tense even though she leans back against the pillows. He turns to her and she frowns, bypasses surprise and attempts to look concerned. It is unexpected, however, how natural the emotion comes to her. Perhaps she is concerned, though not for Jon Arryn -- but her husband.
“What happened?” she asks quietly. She listens as Ned explains what she already knows, as he omits the parts only she could know, only Jaime, and the frown on her face deepens. He disrobes in silence, his back to her, and it’s then that she hears him mumble, “he was like a father to me.”
“I know,” she murmurs, her voice almost accusatory. She clears her throat when he turns to her and she offers him a smile -- small, sad, her lips pressed tight together; she says, “I know, my love.”
He comes to her, lowers his head into her lap and Cersei’s fingers brush against his temple and then drag through his hair. His hand covers her knee, his skin hot as always. She leans over and kisses the top of his head. “I am so sorry,” she whispers. His grip tightens on her knee, but he cranes his neck to look up at her, her hair falling over her shoulder and drifting into his face. He winds a strand around his finger, and Cersei leans in again. “I am so sorry,” she whispers again, then presses her lips first one closed eyelid and then another. “I am so sorry.” She kiss his lips then, softly, and he kisses her back. She sighs his name and he rises to her, takes her in his arms and kisses her hard.
She thinks she means each apology she has offered him).
Ned never confronts her about what Jon Arryn said.
The City Watch and the Kingsguard alike turn on Ned under her father’s command. They arrest him. They arrest him and they charge him with his own son’s murder. With Jon Arryn dead and Ned, their king, in the dungeon, Cersei as queen regent allows her father to fill the role of Hand of the King once more.
“Will the smallfolk accept Terrence as king?” she asks.
“We will make them,” is her father’s swift response.
“They will not consider him of the same blood of his father? They will not call him craven, a traitor as well?”
“We will not let them.” A thick silence fills the room, and Cersei looks down at her hands knotted in her lap.
“And Ned?” The question is soft and she looks to her hands when she asks it. When she looks up her father is studying her mercilessly.
“Do not tell me you have let yourself go weak-hearted here in the east. King-making has always been a bloody business. Do not tell me you are surprised now, child. Blood delivered Ned Stark to a throne he had no right to take. And blood will take it from him, sure as his damned winter will come, and blood will bring a new king to that same throne he left behind.”
Blood, she thinks. Always blood. She will draw it as she can, as a woman can and does, and she thinks the word for that is betrayal.
“He need not die. He could take the black,” she says. “Those crows always come calling, requesting more men to guard against the far north. What better man than Ned.”
“What better man, you say.” For a moment, her father almost sounds sympathetic. She thinks of her mother, and she is sure her father is thinking of her, too.
“He will be arrested come morning,” her father says.
That night there is no moon and their bed chamber is too dark, she cannot see. But she knows him by touch, she can feel him beside her. She would close her eyes against him anyway, not guilt, she thinks, but fear.
She tells him she loves him, her face buried in the crook of his neck, her mouth muffled against his skin.
She says, “I love you.”
ACT V: A THRONE IS SEIZED
At end, we go back --
Ned Stark took the throne. Perhaps he was the first to emerge from the melee. Perhaps he had been hungry for more than blood, more than the bitter, metallic taste of revenge, and this was planned from the start, planned outside the gates, or no.
The Mad King’s death had been a surprise to him. Not unwanted, but a surprise. Or, no.
He knew he would find King Aerys dead, knew it the same way he had known when those ravens came calling at Winterfell that his father and his brother were dead. He just knew not whose hand slew him. He did not expect Jaime Lannister, and maybe the point of this is: he should have.
He should have expected the Lannisters.
He studied the Iron Throne for a moment. Jaime would want to call it hesitation, but even he knew that was the wrong word for it. Jaime watched at the foot of the stairs as Eddard Stark, the first of his name, Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North, stared at that barbed chair with reverence, and perhaps regret.
And then he sat.
It is a clear morning.
The mob will not stop chanting Ned’s name. They call him The Good King. They call for Good King Ned. “Serendipitous his name rhymes with ‘head,’” Jaime had drawled earlier, and Cersei had not responded. He kissed her then, and she kissed him back.
She stands alone with Terrence at the Great Sept of Baelor. Cersei would not allow Elaena to attend, and Myranda elected to stay back with her sister.
“He would never,” she said to her mother. “Father would never.”
Terrence tries to stand tall beside her, but he fidgets, his crown heavy on his head, his cloak too heavy for the heat of the day, more boy than king.
Ned’s hands are bound when he speaks his last words to her.
“Perhaps it is you who should hold the sword,” he says.
His eyes do not leave hers until they pull him away and make him kneel.
The crowd roars when the blade comes down.
In this story, everyone gets what they wanted.
Robert takes Lyanna and weds her. In this story Lyanna does not die, and Robert is not crowned.
Everyone gets what they thought they wanted, but the taste of it is hardly as sweet as imagined. Ned gets a kingdom to shape and bend to his will, he can make Westeros good, he can bring it back to glory. Cersei gets her throne, she gets the power she has always thirsted for. Westeros gets its Good King.
But it all ends in blood. It all ends in war. Ned loses his head, Cersei loses her husband and her son, and Westeros, Westeros is always losing.
Ned is beheaded at the Great Sept of Baelor for the crime of filicide and treason against the Seven Kingdoms. Cersei’s efforts to allow Ned to take the black had gone mostly ignored, and Ser Ilyn Payne is ordered to behead Ned all the same. In the absence of a king to judiciously decide, the Hand shall take that role, her father tells her.
And then he takes his head.
“Was the cost steeper than you imagined, dear sister?” Tyrion asks, too mirthful for her tastes, so she scowls. “Or was it the iceman, ironic as it is, who managed to first thaw and then crack open your metal heart? And here I thought you only had love for your own blood -- save for mine, of course.”
“Silence,” she hisses. She will give him no more than that. He does not deserve it.
“Well,” Tyrion says. “There is your throne, your seat of power. Go and sit upon it.”
Terrence takes the throne, and Cersei sits to the right of him. Her hands barely shake. Benjen Stark is said to be marching from the North; vengeance for his brother, he says, and it is almost enough to make Cersei want to laugh. Near twenty years before Ned Stark marched south with the same purpose pounding in his heart.
Before she entered the hall, she went to her daughter’s chambers first. She found the girl curled in the corner of her room, her wooden practice sword clutched tight in hand. Cersei stepped to her, each step too loud in the girl’s room and young Elaena blinked her eyes at her mother.
“What did Father do?” she asked, voice as steely as a child’s could be. “What did he do wrong?” she asked.
Cersei did not trust her own voice to answer, so she did not say anything. Instead, she knelt. She ran her fingers through Elaena’s dark and tangled hair, wiped at the girl’s tears. Cersei cupped her face in her hands, and when she finally spoke she said, “now, now.”
“Now, now,” she said, as a nursemaid calms a squalling child. Nothing of Elaena’s face belonged to Cersei, and when her features began to blur before her, Cersei blinked rapidly and whispered again, “now, now.”
Beside her, Tyrion asks, “Are you well, sister?”
She had been unsure who she had been hoping to comfort.
Cersei nods. “I just . . . ” She pauses. “I forgot myself for a moment is all,” she says, voice as stiff as her posture.
Her son stands, the crown on his head too large. Her father sits on the other side of him. The men who enter the hall take to their knee and to her boy, to her family, to her, they pledge their fealty.
Everything in its right place, she thinks.
The realm will hold, she promised him. She does not know now who she was hoping to convince more: her or him.
The same old men of seasons past fear the winter again, they say it is coming.
She thinks it is already here.