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Saepe creat asperas mollis rosa spinas.

-- Ovid

 

Her granddaughter was born a week after word reached Highgarden of the Battle of the Trident and the death of Rhaegar Targaryen. Olenna Tyrell barely paused to read the message before sending it on to her son and nephew who waited in vain to starve Stannis Baratheon out of impregnable Storm's End. The death of King Aerys followed on its heels, with tales creeping out of King's Landing of a little princess bleeding from a hundred wounds and a baby whose head had been dashed against the Red Keep's walls. Olenna kept those from her daughter-in-law, Alerie having just gone into confinement.

 

She took one look into baby Margaery's liquid, dark eyes and knew she would fight to her last breath to keep such a fate from overtaking her grandchildren.

 

Olenna later discovered that when Mace knelt before Eddard Stark to surrender, he had--in a hitherto unprecedented stroke of brilliance--reminded the Lord of Winterfell that they were both fathers, and that surely the realm had seen enough orphans in these past few years. She doubted that that was what had prompted Stark to show mercy, but it certainly hadn't hurt.

 

It was Mace, too, who suggested fostering young Loras at Storm's End when he was old enough, Garlan having already been promised to the Fossoways. They had hoped, before, to find Willas a place in the royal household at King's Landing, but it seemed more prudent now to keep him in Highgarden.

 

"You did well," Olenna told him as the wheelhouse passed beneath the gates of King's Landing and a great weight seemed to lift. "They will watch us, of course, but that is to be expected."

 

Mace leant back against the cushions and closed his eyes. "At least the war's over now."

 

Olenna did not have the heart to point out that in her experience, wars never truly ended.

 

***

 

Of course, in place of war, one always had tournaments. Olenna found them tedious but the new king's especial love of mock combat--no doubt owing to the Baratheon predilection for bloodshed in any form--meant a steady stream of invitations, challenges, and other nonsense pouring into Highgarden.

 

Mace, desperate to impress his loyalty and importance upon the new king, decided that Highgarden ought to live up to its reputation as the heart of knightly chivalry in the Seven Kingdoms. Naturally, he expected his sons to be exemplars to the realm, in particular his heir.

 

Willas would never have sought her out himself so Olenna found him in the library on a rainy morning when the tiltyard was too flooded to train. He was in his favourite haunt, a secluded window seat overlooking the Mander, engrossed in a dust-covered book whose title she could not make out. It took him nearly five minutes to notice her, but when he did, he nearly dropped the book as he jumped to his feet.

 

"Now, now, Maester Ulfin's heart would stop if you dropped that," she reminded him, unable to quite keep from smiling. "Of course, I daresay his heart would stop on the slightest notice so perhaps we shall keep this between ourselves."

 

"I beg your pardon, Grandmother, I did not see you," mumbled Willas, staring at the floor. He was nearing his twelfth name day and already taller than her--not that this was terribly difficult. "I was just..."

 

"My dear boy, you needn't explain yourself to me. I'd far rather see you here than having your brains scrambled in the tiltyard." It was a great pity, Olenna thought to herself, that Mace could not be made to see reason on the subject of Willas. The boy would make an excellent Lord of Highgarden without being champion in the lists; that, she had always assumed, was where younger sons went to prove their worth. What need had the heir to Highgarden to prove himself in mock combat in a time of peace?

 

For that, she supposed she could thank Robert Baratheon.

 

"Grandmother?" Willas' voice drew her out of her brown study and she cursed inwardly that it was becoming more and more common these days. "Are you well?"

 

"Of course I'm well, silly boy. When you're as old as I am, you need more time to think." Reaching out, she ruffled his hair. "What is it you're reading?"

 

Flipping back in the book, he pointed to the first page. From before the Conqueror's days, she guessed, based on the rounded letters and rough illustrations. "It's about the Gardeners, Grandmother, and their rule of the Reach before the Targaryens came. Maester Ulfin told me a wise lord knows the full history of his house."

 

"Maester Ulfin is quite right, although goodness knows he didn't succeed with your father." It was perhaps unwise of her to belittle Mace so brusquely in front of his son, but he made far too easy a target and the sooner the boy learnt his father was not infallible, the better it would be for all of Highgarden. "Shall I talk to him, Willas? This nonsense about tournaments really must stop."

 

Willas shook his head, his chin set in a distinctly familiar manner. "I won't have all of the Reach thinking the heir to Highgarden is a weakling, Grandmother. That won't help us at all." He placed his hand over hers. "Just a few tournaments, enough to show them I can sit a horse competently. So long as I'm not riding against Loras; he already rides circles round me at the quintain and he's not even six."

 

At Loras' name, Olenna could not deny that her heart lurched. Another Loras, another warrior. She would not have predicted that from the pretty little boy who looked so like her dear Margaery. Perhaps it was the name--Mace had never known his elder brother but had brought unexpected tears to Olenna's eyes by offering to name his younger son after the Loras who had died fighting Maelys the Monstrous on the Stepstones. But she would be damned to all seven hells if she allowed her grandson to die like his namesake.

 

***

 

She should have guessed it would be the Dornishman. Their paths seemed doomed to cross, hers and the thrice-cursed Dornish prince named after a snake, whose seemingly delicate spear took Willas square in the chest. He ought to have fallen, trapped like a tortoise as they all were when they fell, sweating in his armour and desperately humiliated.

 

Instead, his ankle caught in the stirrup.

 

The horse dragged her boy nearly fifty feet before one of the grooms calmed it. Willas' knee was a mangled mess, his face all but drained of blood. Loras reached his side first, resplendent in their family's green-and-gold livery, with Garlan quick on his heels. Olenna gritted her teeth and waited, squeezing Alerie's hand to keep her from running to her son where she'd be of no use whatsoever but would still be in the way.

 

The Dornishman had the temerity to wheel his copper-coloured horse round to stand beside the wooden dais where they waited. "Lady Olenna, I pray you, let my maester examine your son. He has travelled to Asshai and is practiced in the healing arts."

 

A maegi, Olenna would have staked her life on it. It was said they could raise the dead. Willas lay cold and motionless in his brothers' arms. Beside Olenna, Alerie was keening under her breath, murmuring prayers to the Mother for mercy.

 

"You have my thanks for your generosity, Prince Oberyn," Olenna finally said. He was a few years younger than Mace but in temperament as removed as a snake from a spaniel. That should not have surprised her, given what she recalled of him so many years ago, coining her most popular sobriquet, Queen of Thorns.

 

"I swear to you, my lady, I meant him no harm."

 

They called him the Red Viper. If he'd meant harm to Willas, it would have been a very different sort of death. What would Oberyn Martell have to gain by starting a war with Highgarden? They'd had nothing to do with the death of his favourite sister; it was Tywin Lannister who was to blame for that atrocity. Olenna nodded tightly. "I trust you do not, Prince Oberyn. We have done you no harm in Highgarden."

 

Mace would be displeased, no doubt, but she had no interest in placating her son. Not now, not after he'd all but killed Willas himself by pitting him against the Red Viper of Dorne. Oh, it was the ill-luck of the lists that had chosen Willas' opponent, but the boy shouldn't have been in the lists at all. One look at the Dornishman's face told Olenna that he knew it too. "You could have offered him the chance to forfeit."

 

"He would never have taken it. Not being his father's son."

 

Of course he wouldn't have taken it. She knew well she had little cause to wish the Dornishman ill. Knew just as well that she did not care. When Willas awakened several days later, she pretended not to see the relief on his face when the Dornish maester told him he would never joust again, that his knee had been too badly damaged.

 

Outraged letters flew back and forth between Highgarden and Sunspear but it never came to blows. Prince Doran was too phlegmatic and Olenna too cautious to allow their hotheaded relations to go to war over a fourteen-year-old boy's leg. Willas quietly returned to his studies and Mace pinned his dreams of martial glory on the sons who could better withstand it.

 

Neither Garlan nor Loras had jousted that day, being unquestionably too young, but it would not be long before they would be sent off--Garlan to New Barrel and the green-apple Fossoways and Loras to Storm's End to squire for Renly Baratheon, barely five years his senior. On the day that Loras was to depart, Olenna watched as he knelt before the much-shorter Margaery and whisper something that made her smile for the first time since she'd heard about his departure.

 

"What did you tell your sister, Loras?" Olenna asked him as he leant forward to kiss her--he already overtopped her by several inches, though he was a tiny thing otherwise. "She's been inconsolable."

 

"I promised her that I would tell Prince Renly of her beauty and make her a queen someday. Just like Prince Aemon the Dragonknight." He spoke with a perfectly straight face, beautiful, long-lashed eyes staring calmly into hers.

 

"My dear boy, our good King Robert has a son and heir and he is young himself. Prince Renly shall remain Lord of Storm's End, and that alone is quite sufficient for your sister." Olenna studied him through narrowed eyes. "The Dragonknight, you say?" A renowned fighter, to be certain, but doomed to tragedy for loving his sister too much. "You think too much of stories, Loras. You're to serve Renly Baratheon as his squire and bind House Tyrell to the Iron Throne. But you must always be watchful, you hear?"

 

Loras smiled lazily. "I'm not an idiot, Grandmother. I'll do you proud."

 

He was an infuriating little thing, just as his namesake had been. Too overconfident by half in the way only single children and little brothers could be. A few years with the bigger boys at Storm's End would sort him out.

 

When next she saw him, it was at a tournament held in the verdant fields in the shadow of Storm's End. Even Olenna started at the sight of him in armour composed of hundreds of jewelled flowers that glittered beneath the summer sun. "The Knight of the Flowers," said Margaery beside her, as radiant in green as her brother was in blue. "That's what he's calling himself."

 

"Flowers are not very threatening, Margaery."

 

"They are if they have thorns, Grandmother." Margaery turned back to the lists as a knight in dark green armour--it must have cost a pretty penny, though a pittance compared to Loras' extravagance--came to a stop below where she sat.

 

"My lady Margaery, I beg the honour of carrying your favour." He lifted the grille on the antlered helm to reveal eyes blue as the waves in Shipbreaker Bay. "If you would smile upon my suit, I would win this tournament in your name."

 

"You do me great honour, Lord Renly, but I would not presume to wager against my brother." Margaery's smile revealed dimples in her cheeks. "I do not think you would either."

 

"As clever as you are beautiful, Lady Margaery." With another dazzling smile, he urged his horse back to the lists. Margaery leant back in her seat and a small sigh escaped her.

 

"And what, pray, was that?" Olenna enquired after several seconds. "Have you some sort of understanding with Renly Baratheon?"

 

"Of course not, Grandmother. I barely know him." Margaery opened her eyes and smiled at Olenna. "But Loras writes about him in his letters and I think he is the very image of what a knight ought to be. Don't you, Grandmother?"

 

"He and your brother have a taste for finery beyond any lady in your mother's household. I would expect a knight to have more important concerns," Olenna remarked.

 

"But this is peacetime, Grandmother. A knight needs the love of the people and the people want a champion they can be proud of. Who would not love the Knight of the Flowers and the Antlered Prince? You told me stories of Ser Duncan the Tall and the Prince of Dragonflies, Grandmother."

 

She had not thought of Duncan Targaryen in years, though she still remembered his brother Daeron in her prayers. Such a waste. Nor did she point out that the tale of Jenny of Oldstones and the Prince of Dragonflies was a tragic one of love thwarted by misfortune.

 

It was, that aside, a remarkably astute observation and equally remarkable on her grandson's part if he was aware of it. Loras was maddeningly single-minded sometimes. He could not forget that Jaime Lannister was named to the Kingsguard at the age of fifteen--"The Kingslayer, Grandmother. It must be bettered, for the honour of the Kingsguard."

 

Of course, in order to join the Kingsguard, he would need to leave Storm's End and that, it seemed, was the sticking point. It was Margaery, perhaps not so surprisingly, who informed Olenna of why. "Because Renly is his lord, Grandmother."

 

"And his elder brother Robert is our King. Loras' too, if I'm not mistaken."

 

Margaery set down her embroidery with a sigh. "Loras will not leave Renly, not for a thousand golden dragons. The Kingsguard can have no outside loyalties. It would be a lie and Loras could not abide it."

 

Olenna had met enough sailors in her youth that she knew the pleasure-houses of Lys catered to men and women of all tastes. She supposed she should count it a relief that it was her youngest grandson and not her eldest whose preferences were so unorthodox. Willas appeared to be perfectly normal and it was high time Mace found him a wife.

 

"And what of you, my dear?" Margaery looked at her questioningly and Olenna added, "What of you and Renly?"

 

Margaery shrugged. "What of us? In Dorne, there is no shame--"

 

"Why do you speak of Dorne, you foolish girl?" The words were harsher than Olenna's tone, which emerged more in resignation than in reprimand. "You are of Highgarden, not Dorne."

 

"Willas told me. He has been writing to Prince Oberyn regarding some horses. If winter is coming, even Dorne may feel it. I cannot imagine their horses do well in the snow, if away from the desert at all."

 

It was Olenna's turn to sigh. "Mother, give me patience. Writing to the man who crippled him."

 

"I don't think Willas sees it that way, Grandmother."

 

"Perhaps he ought to speak to your esteemed father, then. It's high time we found Willas a wife and he could do worse than Arianne Martell. Dornishmen may be sun-mad by nature but they have a queer sort of honour about them." Olenna frowned as she considered this further. "And we shall need to think about a marriage for you."

 

The look Margaery shot Olenna at that moment nearly cracked her composure. "I shall be the greatest lady Storm's End has ever seen, and Loras will be the greatest knight in the Seven Kingdoms. They will go to King's Landing for duty, but will come to us of their own accord. They shall write stories of our court, Grandmother. My court."

 

Olenna's lips twitched. "You should take care the Lannister Queen never hears of your plan. She will take it amiss."

 

"I care nothing for Lannisters. They are without honour." Delicately, Margaery added a final stitch to the flower she had just finished embroidering and snapped the thread with one deft movement of her fingers. "It may be the way the world is, but sometimes it is better to imagine otherwise. Why else would we have songs?"

 

Why, indeed. In the end, Loras followed his lord to King's Landing when Renly took his place on his brother's Council as Master of Laws. He wrote weekly to Margaery and half as often to Olenna, his letters filled with minute details of court scandals. Olenna knew of the death of Jon Arryn the King's Hand before the official raven arrived in Highgarden, along with some of the peculiarities attending upon it.

 

It would not have been unreasonable to name either of his brothers the Hand of the King in place of Lord Arryn, but the King turned instead to his foster brother, Lord Stark of Winterfell. Loras wrote to her of Stark's arrival in King's Landing without his wife or any of his sons, but with two of his daughters. It seemed there had been an accident at Winterfell, a dreadful accident, involving Stark's younger son, and the Starks and Lannisters were already at one another's throats.

 

Lord Stark blunders through the court like an aurochs. He understands nothing of courtesy nor ceremony and if he were not Hand of the King, I do not doubt he would return to his northern wasteland and never look back. We are all insects to him, scurrying about in our petty rivalries and plots. My lord thinks his heart is in the right place, but that he is too little, too late. Our great King Robert pisses away the treasury in wine and women and his son is raised by women.

 

"Do not forget, my boy, that you were raised by women," Olenna muttered. She did not know the present Lord Stark well at all, though she recalled his father, a thin-faced man who rarely smiled and always seemed out of place in the Red Keep. Olenna had never travelled further north than Harrenhal and did not intend to change that fact. Summer snows were better left to wildlings and the Black Brothers.

 

As per my lord father's wishes, I have broached the subject of Lord Renly's marriage to my sister and he seems pleased with the notion. You should perhaps urge Father to invite Lord Renly to Highgarden so he might see Margaery again--it has been some years now since last he saw her, and though I showed him the portrait you sent me, he wavers yet.

 

That was Loras' one great failing--her grandson was hopelessly lacking in patience.

 

There is one matter I feel compelled to make known to you. There are rumours in the capital that the former Hand Lord Arryn may have been murdered. My lord does not yet know their full extent, nor, I will wager anything, does the king. If he did, I assure you his Queen would be on trial for adultery and treason before gods and men, and the Kingslayer struck down by the Warrior himself for dishonour.

 

It would seem the three children purportedly born of King Robert and Queen Cersei were in fact that same Queen's children by her twin brother the Kingslayer. Or so Varys the whisperer told her grandson, hoping--he claimed--that Loras might convince Lord Renly to intervene to spare his brother the shame. Loras, after all, had Renly's ear and so very much else.

 

Loras went on to remark upon what a shame it was that Robert's next brother--now heir presumptive to the Iron Throne--was not his adored Renly but dour, brittle Stannis who had spent the years of peace fuming on haunted Dragonstone while Renly played the great lord of the far grander Storm's End. Unless, of course, one were to look at the unfortunate affair in a more pragmatic manner.

 

Stannis Baratheon is little loved in the Seven Kingdoms. My lord is favoured by all who know him. Who better to succeed King Robert than a man noted for honour, chivalry, and compassion, all things that mark a true knight?

 

"Oh, Loras, Loras, you foolish boy." Olenna couldn't help but laugh. "Knights do not play the game of thrones, even for those they love."

 

She did not laugh, however, when Loras and Lord Renly rode pell-mell into Highgarden with news of the King's death and the fall of Lord Eddard Stark. "I offered him a hundred swords if he would only take the boy into his custody, but he wouldn't do it. Stubborn Northern fool!" Renly pressed his fingers to his temples; Olenna almost believed he was genuinely upset. "My brother Robert loved him more than his brothers-by-blood, and he's going to deliver the Seven Kingdoms right into the hands of the Kingslayer and his whore queen."

 

"Is it true, then? The rumours?" Renly looked up at Olenna in surprise and she added, "You do not think us entirely free of spies in the Red Keep, my lord. I should hope not."

 

"I wouldn't dream of it, Lady Olenna." Renly glanced at Loras as if for confirmation before continuing, "I didn't want to believe it. Gods, it's monstrous, and to think of it happening to my brother...but it occurred to me as soon as Ser Loras told me. There was a bastard boy of Robert's in my household at Storm's End--Loras, you know the boy I mean--"

 

"Edric Storm, Grandmother. He's the very image of my lord Renly. As for Pr--Lord Joffrey and his brother and sister, anyone with eyes can see they're Lannister to the core." Loras met her eyes coolly, as if all this had been rehearsed far in advance. "He is not the King's heir."

 

"And what of your elder brother, Lord Renly? What says Lord Stannis from Dragonstone?"

 

"Nothing. Stannis says nothing." Renly looked first at her, and then to Mace, seated beside her. "Lord Tyrell, would you like to see your daughter become Queen of the Seven Kingdoms?"

 

Ignoring Olenna's hand on his arm, Mace smiled. "Nothing would please me more, Lord Renly."

 

She found Loras later that evening, standing in the tiltyard. "Are you willing to share him, Loras? If this great farce is to work, your sister must be free from any hint of scandal."

 

"I understand discretion, Grandmother," Loras retorted, hurt flitting across his face. "And I would never hurt Margaery like that, not in a thousand years."

 

"And yet nightfall will find you in her prospective husband's bed." Olenna stepped forward and rested one hand on Loras' arm. She would have sought his cheek, but he was well over a head taller than her now. "If his brother still lived, perhaps you and he could have wandered from tourney to tourney, the Antlered Prince and the Knight of the Flowers, stealing ladies' hearts but never their virtue. Pictures of perfect knighthood." Loras sank to his knees and Olenna hugged him close. "If Renly is to be a King, he must have an heir. And it will be your charge to protect your sister, and any children of hers. If the Red Viper had been in King's Landing, perhaps Elia of Dorne and her babes may have lived."

 

"You know I will protect her with my own life. Margaery and my lord king."

 

"There is more to it than that, Loras. Keep your sword sharp by all means--"

 

"--but keep your wits sharper?" Her grandson did have a terribly sweet smile. More than a few ladies of the Seven Kingdoms would waste away for it and Olenna pitied them, whoever they were. "You may not think I listen but I do. Margaery makes certain of it."

 

"Then you are lucky to have a sister who cares so deeply for your happiness." To his credit, he lowered his eyes, colour rising in his cheeks. "Make sure she does not do so in vain."

 

The betrothal of Lady Margaery Tyrell of Highgarden to Renly Baratheon of Storm's End was announced the next evening with the promise of a great tournament to be held in celebration a fortnight later. It was at that tournament, she suspected, that Renly's claim to the Iron Throne would be announced to all the flower of Reach chivalry.

 

Some three or four days before the tournament, she found Margaery surrounded by seamstresses and swathed in yards of Myrish lace. Her granddaughter's happiness seemed to light the very air around her. "A Queen of hearts indeed," Olenna announced, holding out her arms to Margaery. "I would speak to you, my dear."

 

After divesting her of the half-pinned gown, Margaery's ladies wrapped her in a silk robe and left her with Olenna. "You are happy, Margaery?"

 

"All brides are happy, are they not, Grandmother?" Had it been anybody but Olenna, the lie would have passed unnoticed. "I am well, I promise."

 

"Well is not happy." There it was, the flicker of uncertainty across the perfect lady's smile. "Tell me, Margaery. I can call off this marriage if you wish--"

 

"Can you, truly?" Margaery's laughter was an odd, lonely sound. "No, Grandmother, it is not the husband who displeases me." Olenna bit her tongue to keep from demanding who had displeased her; the girl would tell in her own time. "No, he pleases me all too well, I fear." Between her fingers, Olenna could see the brooch Renly had presented to her on the night of their betrothal, a stag rampant crowned with roses.

 

Of course. Of course, that would be the way of it. Olenna consigned Renly Baratheon to the coldest of the seven hells.

 

"And I know it hurts Loras to see us but I cannot think what else to do. He's to be my husband, Grandmother, and I want..." She trailed off, biting her lip. "He will be a good husband to me. I know that. And the last thing I want is to take him away from Loras, I promise!"

 

"My dear girl, of course you don't." Olenna squeezed Margaery's shoulders. "You must think of yourself now. Loras has a part to play in this and he will play it. And if your husband treats you well, does it matter that he does so out of liking and not love? For certain, Renly is fond of you, and he may even come to love you in time." 

 

"But Loras--"

 

"Loras is a man grown. The Gods have not made his path an easy one but he will tread it all the same. I do think he loves no one better than he loves winning tourneys, which I would call an advantage." Margaery choked on a watery giggle. "There, that's better. Renly Baratheon is a fool if he does not love you."

 

She could not blame Margaery. The Baratheon charm was in full evidence and damned if Renly wasn't playing the role of royal suitor perfectly. If Loras objected he did so discreetly, for no sign of friction ever appeared between the two. As the days slipped by, Highgarden seemed in full flower, poised on the edge of the unknown as they watched the ravens fly forth to King's Landing and Sunspear.

 

Her son was studiously avoiding her but Olenna knew well how to catch Mace off-guard when he was being foolish. She found him at the workshop of Highgarden's most skilled carpenter, commissioning a great chair of rosewood inlaid with gold and gems. Fit for a king, one might say.

 

"Have you lost your senses, Mace?" she demanded, albeit under her breath so the carpenter and his apprentices would not hear. "What are you thinking, to place a younger son on the Iron Throne?"

 

"I am thinking of peace in the realm, Mother."

 

"You are thinking of being a kingmaker, my foolish boy." The telltale flush crept along his ruffled collar. "I thought Maester Ulfin and I had taught you better than that. Kingmakers rarely live long enough to enjoy the fruits of their plots."

 

"Who would you choose, given the choice between Renly and Stannis?"

 

"Why talk you of choices, Mace?" But she knew already that this was a losing argument. In a world where Robert Baratheon could rebel against his anointed King, of course there was a choice. How different did the Iron Throne need be from the Triarchs of Volantis, elected and re-elected to their positions? "We don't even have proof that the rumours are true--"

 

"His Grace spoke true--one need only look at the children. Lannister brats, through and through. Joffrey Baratheon, indeed!" Olenna saw the carpenter wince and gave her son a prod with her stick that prompted an undignified yelp. "Mother!"

 

"It's still treason, Mace." She led him from the shop and back to the coach where they could talk in private.

 

Of course, treason was fashionable these days. The only person who hadn't, as far as Olenna could tell, was Lord Stark himself, who had committed the far graver sin of being a simple man with simple morals. "It is possible to do nothing in these situations. We watch, and we wait. Perhaps Stannis will make his claim for the throne; perhaps he will hold out until the Starks and Lannisters finish one another. Renly Baratheon makes a far better lord than he would a King." And an even better hedge knight, she added silently, without lands and smallfolk to depend on him.

 

"Stannis Baratheon has not forgotten Storm's End, Mother," Mace told her wearily. "Rest assured, he never will."

 

"Then we throw in our lot with the Lannisters. Why shouldn't we? They hold the Iron Throne and King's Landing and it's only a matter of time before Lord Tywin and the Kingslayer send the northmen back the way they came. Why bring Renly into it at all? Things can stay as they are. At peace." Even as Olenna said it, she recalled the flaw in that plan. "What of Dorne?"

 

"What of Dorne?" her son echoed. "Doran sits and Doran waits, so was it ever and so shall it be till he waits himself into his grave."

 

"It's kept him alive so far, hasn't it?" Olenna sighed. "We do not know enough, Mace. We need to find out what is happening inside the Red Keep before we can make a decision of this magnitude. Loras was the best spy we had there and we've lost him. Varys will sell us only what suits him and I will not be beholden a eunuch's whims."

 

"You think we should wait." As ever, Mace was all bluster and little conviction. That much was a relief. "Until when?"

 

"Until someone makes a mistake."

 

***

 

On the day a raven brought word of Ned Stark's execution for treason, Olenna could have sworn she awakened before dawn to find frost on her window. She held her granddaughter's hand outside the doors of the sept and asked her one final time if this was what she wanted.

 

"It has been too long since this realm had a Queen to delight in," Margaery had told her, a tremulous smile on her rouged lips. "I will be that Queen, Grandmother, for them and for myself."

 

For a moment--nay, for many moments through the next few months--it seemed as though she would. The Reach rallied behind one of their own as they never could behind a Lannister or a Stark. Even Doran Martell received one of Renly's messengers and sent a vague but encouraging response to the offer of Willas for his daughter Arianne. No more, Olenna supposed, than what the notoriously picky Dornish princess had offered any other man seeking her hand in marriage, but it would at least keep the ambassadors busy.

 

Unfortunately, Stannis knew his brother's character too well, knew the combination of his vanity, Loras' impatience, and her own dear son's misplaced ambition needed little more than a spark to set the Reach aflame just like the Riverlands. Renly bid Margaery farewell on the steps leading to the knot garden and Olenna caught sight of one of the court painters sketching furiously on a nearby balcony. The king and queen of songs and stories.

 

They had forgotten that most of those stories ended badly.

 

***

 

It was a talent of her granddaughter's that even when sobbing her eyes out over her royal husband's corpse, she looked every inch the fair maiden of songs. How her son and her decidedly ordinary-looking niece twice removed had managed to produce such a lovely child--two, really, counting Loras--was beyond Olenna's knowledge, but thankfully Margaery had at least an ounce of sense inside that pretty head. All of it, no doubt, learnt at her own knee.

 

When she entered Margaery's chambers, she found all the bright hangings replaced with black and a crowd of chattering cousins preparing to douse all of Margaery's clothing in black dye appropriate for mourning. With one imperious hand, she waved them out. "It can wait, it can all wait. I wish to speak to my granddaughter alone, if you please."

 

It was to Margaery's credit that all the girls waited for her nod before departing and she said as much as soon as the door closed behind Alla. "You've trained them well, my dear."

 

Margaery's smile was a fleeting thing. "Of course I did, Grandmother. I've always taken your advice to heart. You know that." She looked down at her left hand, where she still wore Renly's ring. "I know you never wished me to marry him--"

 

"It was a particularly stupid idea of your father's, yes." Olenna sat down on the bed and Margaery shifted to lay her head in Olenna's lap. "You cared for him."

 

She nodded, sniffling. "It was Loras' letters, really. And he was ever so charming."

 

"That, my dear, is the Baratheon way. You never knew his brother when he was Renly's age. That Robert could have charmed the birds from the trees--and did, like as not, from the number of bastards he's left scattered about." Olenna brushed the hair back from Margaery's face to reveal red-rimmed eyes. "Renly is the past; I'm afraid we must think of the future."

 

"Loras wants to track down the Maid of Tarth and avenge Renly." She smiled. "I suppose he would see it that way."

 

"You don't agree?"

 

"I saw the way she looked at my husband, Grandmother. Brienne of Tarth would no sooner have killed Renly than I would."

 

"And Catelyn Stark?"

 

Margaery waved one hand vaguely. "What would she have to gain by it?"

 

"A very good point," Olenna said with a smile of her own. Margaery truly was wasted on any man less than a king. "The best strategy for her son would be to hold back in the riverlands until Stannis, Joffrey, and Renly had fought themselves to pieces. Joffrey was hundreds of leagues away in King's Landing, which leaves your esteemed brother-in-law and that red witch of his."

 

She could feel Margaery shudder. "You needn't worry, Margaery. Stannis Baratheon is many things, but a despoiler of women is not one of them."

 

"You said we needed to think of the future. Isn't he the future?"

 

"Perhaps. Perhaps not." Olenna twirled a lock of her granddaughter's hair around her finger. "It seems to me that we already have a king who has been crowned in the High Sept of Baelor itself."

 

"But he's a Lannister!" Margaery jerked upward and stared at her in horror. "He's the Kingslayer's son, by his sister! Renly said there was proof."

 

"Would you have been so troubled if he were a Targaryen?" snapped Olenna. "I have my own concerns about Joffrey, but it seems his mother has wit enough to send an envoy on his behalf and we will at least hear him out."

 

"But, Grandmother--"

 

"That's enough, Margaery. You must understand that we cannot afford to wait. The war will only pause so long for Highgarden to make up its mind, and we must make a decision, like it or not. If we should decide to ally with the Lannisters, do you honestly believe I would send you to King's Landing without protection?" She tilted Margaery's chin until the deep brown eyes were looking into hers. "Roses have thorns for a reason, sweetling. I will never let them hurt you."

 

***

 

Olenna had not returned to King's Landing since accompanying her son to bend the knee to Robert Baratheon nearly sixteen years before. As such, all she knew of Petyr Baelish came from first Loras and later Renly. He was not nearly as little as she had been led to believe, although Olenna fully admitted that her perspective was quite different from her grandson's.

 

"Lord Baelish," Olenna's son intoned from his seat on the dais that had until recently been occupied by the King in the Reach, "be welcome to Bitterbridge."

 

"Lord Tyrell," was the response, smooth as watered silk and accompanied by a court bow. "My condolences for your loss. Please do deliver them to the Lady Margaery as well."

 

There was, perhaps, the slightest emphasis on the word lady, but if Lord Baelish--and by extension King Joffrey--was willing to overlook the Reach's rebellion that easily, Olenna would eat Renly's pretty rose crown and Loras' armour to boot. As for her son, the great lord of Highgarden, he merely cleared his throat and gestured for Littlefinger to rise. "Of course, my lord. I'm afraid my daughter is indisposed, but you will see her tonight at dinner. You must be wearied from your journey."

 

"The Roseroad was surprisingly empty. So are the larders in King's Landing, I fear. That is one of the many matters I have been deputed to discuss with you, my lord, if it please you. But," he held up one gloved hand and Olenna was absolutely certain he'd just winked at her, "I would indeed appreciate the chance to rest beforehand."

 

When Littlefinger had left the hall, Olenna motioned to her son. As ever, Mace waited the requisite several minutes to conclude any other unfinished business before joining her--he'd learnt that much, at least, though precious little else. "Let me deal with Littlefinger. You would do well to calm your son in the meantime. I will speak to him once we've made a decision regarding King's Landing but he will first need to be persuaded that his honour is not served by killing the Tarth girl."

 

"I don't see why not. She's been an embarrassment to the Evenstar for years. He might appreciate being rid of her." At her glare, Mace shuffled his feet in a very un-lordly fashion. "She killed the King, Mother."

 

"We do not know that for certain. All I know is that any time Loras spends chasing after her is of no use to us. We need to convince Littlefinger that Highgarden can be bought and that he simply needs to offer the right price. That is far more difficult when the Knight of the Flowers is rampaging through the countryside to avenge his lover."

 

Mace's cheeks became as red as his doublet. "Mother, really."

 

"Oh, don't you tell me you didn't know," she retorted. "Just find him and remind him of his filial duties, will you?"

 

As promised, Margaery made her appearance at dinner, wearing the one gown Olenna had permitted her to dye black for propriety's sake--albeit with the addition of a shawl of cream Myrish lace at Alerie's suggestion so she did not look so pale. The slight tremble in her hand as she held it out for Littlefinger to kiss was a masterstroke. She could not have looked more like a bereaved Queen had she been wearing the tiara of woven gold roses now safely stowed in her bedchamber. And, just as a Queen ought, she smiled weakly, listened to Littlefinger's assurances on King Joffrey's behalf, and made no promises.

 

Littlefinger, unsurprisingly, sought Olenna out in her presence chamber immediately after the banquet. "I do hope, my lady, that we may speak frankly."

 

Olenna smiled. "I prefer it, Lord Baelish. As I assume you prefer that to Littlefinger."

 

"My preference rarely matters, I've found. However, if you're willing to defer to it, yes, I do." He sat down at the small table and gestured toward the decanter. "I hope you don't object. Decent wine has been scarce in King's Landing these days."

 

"Even for you?" Word of the quality of vintage at the finest brothels in King's Landing--those owned by the Master of Coin--had reached as far as Highgarden and Olenna knew for a fact that at least two tuns of Arbor gold were routinely set aside for Littlefinger's personal use each year. "I find that doubtful."

 

"I am only a man, Lady Olenna, despite what they might say about me." He served her first as befitted a gentleman dining with a lady of higher rank. He knew his courtesies, certainly. "You must be wondering why they sent me."

 

"A man of middling rank sent to deal with traitors to the crown?" Olenna raised her eyebrows. "Hardly a surprise. Besides, who else could they possibly have sent? The eunuch? The Imp?"

 

"Point taken." He took a sip of wine and, for a moment, bliss smoothed out his features so he looked considerably younger. Of course, everybody looked young to Olenna these days. "You grew up in the Arbor, didn't you?"

 

"You know your houses, Lord Baelish."

 

"It's my job to know things."

 

"I thought that was Lord Varys?" Olenna settled back in her chair as she swirled the Arbor gold in her mouth for a moment before swallowing. "Although I imagine it is more dangerous in the Red Keep than it was in my day."

 

That was not wholly untrue. Olenna had spent much of her life assiduously avoiding King's Landing but every now and again her late husband's affairs--and those of Highgarden after his death--had brought her to court. Of course, they had not known then that King Aerys was mad--he had been no more erratic than any other Targaryen and as charming as his grandfather had been in his youth.

 

"More dangerous than the Mad King?" Littlefinger chuckled. "I can't imagine. Joffrey is no Aerys. Well..." his lips pursed, "not exactly, at any rate."

 

"Not exactly?" she echoed, fingers tightening on the stem of the glass. "I should certainly hope not if he is to marry my granddaughter."

 

"I misspoke, Lady Olenna, please forgive me. I'm afraid the relative lack of Arbor gold in the capital has made me all the more susceptible to its...charms."

 

"Then by all means have some more and tell me about Joffrey Baratheon."

 

***

 

"I won't marry him."

 

"Margaery--"

 

"You said it yourself: he's a monster." In a whirl of brown curls and black brocade, Margaery sank to her knees beside Olenna's chair. "Why not Robb Stark?"

 

"By the Mother, child! What madness is this?"

 

"Why not? One king is as good as another, and nobody's ever claimed he was mad."

 

"Lord Baelish didn't say King Joffrey was mad either," Olenna said, inwardly cursing that Stark hadn't occurred to her beforehand. Of course, it was quite impossible. All other concerns aside, Tywin Lannister's army sat between the Reach and the Stark host at Riverrun.

 

Margaery was saying something about Catelyn Stark--Olenna had forgotten, momentarily, that her granddaughter had met Robb Stark's mother, if not the King in the North himself. Renly, it seemed, had found her a potential ally worth cultivating. "Not Joffrey, Grandmother. Never Joffrey."

 

"Margaery, I need you to listen to me. Robb Stark...it cannot happen, my dear. It's quite impossible. If we take the Lannisters' offer, you will be Queen of the Seven Kingdoms and the Lannisters will have no choice but to accede to everything we ask. Your brother will be a member of the Kingsguard sworn to protect you at all costs. I will make certain of that. And you," she said, taking Margaery's hands in hers, "will be the most beloved Queen since Alysanne herself. He will never be able to hurt you because his very own people will rise against him if he does."

 

Margaery swallowed and looked at her. "Will you promise me that, Grandmother?"

 

"With all my heart, sweetling."

 

That night, she summoned Littlefinger again. "You understand, I am sure, that my granddaughter's safety is my greatest concern."

 

"My dear lady Olenna, of course I do, and I cannot blame you one bit if you should take...precautions."

 

"Precautions, Lord Baelish?" she echoed, after the words had hung in the air for several moments. "I have already taken several, but I should be curious to hear what you might suggest. You are, after all, acquainted with the day-to-day happenings in King's Landing."

 

"They change from day to day, I fear, so I cannot speak for what might have happened in my absence. However," he said, "I am not certain that her brother will be sufficient protection. Not to impugn Ser Loras, but he is a tourney knight who plays by tourney rules."

 

"What of the Queen Regent? She has some control over that little princeling of hers, hasn't she?"

 

"Not as much as she likes to think. She's raised him to think of nothing beyond his own pleasure and now she pays the price, same as the rest of us. No," he paused to take a sip of wine, "if you wish to absolutely guarantee your granddaughter's safety, I fear nothing but another unfortunate bereavement will do."

 

Olenna's eyebrows rose. "Are you proposing regicide, Lord Baelish? That is a bolder plan than I might have suspected. If Joffrey is truly that objectionable, I'm not certain I want my granddaughter anywhere near him."

 

"Not even for a crown?"

 

"Crowns are dangerous things these days." Olenna pondered these developments for a few moments. "You seem the sort of man who plans contingencies upon contingencies. I can only imagine this case is no different."

 

Littlefinger smiled. "How well are you acquainted with Sansa Stark?"

 

"Joffrey's betrothed. For the nonce, at least, until this treaty is signed." She had never met the girl, though she recalled Catelyn Tully from before her marriage--having been at Highgarden when that lady came to Bitterbridge--and like as not Margaery would insist upon befriending the girl as a poor substitute for marriage to Joffrey's rival. "I should like to be better acquainted with her, I think. It seems a young man's betrothed might provide a better glimpse into his character. It is not that I distrust your judgement, Lord Baelish, but you do understand that I must confirm what you have told me."

 

"As any careful parent must, of course." Littlefinger drained his glass. "It so happens that I have a man in my employ whom she trusts fully."

 

"How foolish of her."

 

"She is young, my lady, and very alone. You would do better to pity her."

 

Olenna sniffed. "Pity is a waste of time, Lord Baelish. What is it that you propose to do with Sansa Stark?"

 

"You are acquainted, I believe, with black amethysts of Asshai."

 

She became very still, her eyes fixed on his face. "Go on, Lord Baelish. You have my full and undivided attention."

 

***

 

In the end, it seemed Littlefinger was right all along, at least if Joffrey's previous betrothed spoke truth. She did not seem a liar--quite the opposite, in fact. A bit foolish, yes--how else could she possibly have imagined Loras as a prospective husband?--but that was hardly a crime in a young girl. Had it not been for Olenna's influence, Margaery would no doubt have turned out much the same. In the end, Willas could do far worse and an alliance with the King in the North might be precisely what they needed to keep the Lannisters in check.

 

She had told both Margaery and Willas as much before they departed for King's Landing. It had, after all, been Margaery's impulsive invocation of Robb Stark that had given Olenna the idea in the first place, and Willas at least deserved to know in advance that a marriage was being considered for him. He'd taken the news with predictable equanimity, as he had taken all things since that dreadful tournament where he'd lost the use of his leg.

 

It did not surprise Olenna one bit that, upon their arrival in King's Landing, Margaery had adopted Sansa Stark without hesitation, as she did so many pretty, broken creatures. It was her one weakness: a not insurmountable one, certainly, but worth watching.

 

"Oh, Grandmother, we must help her!" Margaery cried out as the door closed behind the Stark girl. "Did you see her?"

 

Olenna nodded grimly. The girl was the very image of her mother but brittle like dragonglass, as one would expect from a Stark of Winterfell. Not like her Margaery, thank the Gods. "We'll help her, my dear, but you must concern yourself with your husband-to-be, not the girl he jilted for you."

 

"He's clearly as mad as Aerys Targaryen," said Margaery, mouth twisting. "Not like my Renly."

 

"Dead men belong to no-one. Do you honestly think I will ever let you bed that creature?" Reaching out, she patted her granddaughter's soft brown hair. "Never you mind. Charm him, Margaery. Unlike your dear Renly, you'll find Joffrey isn't immune to it. Keep Loras close in case he gets any ideas, but leave the rest to me."

 

Littlefinger was far less obsequious in King's Landing than he had been at Bitterbridge, but that was to be expected. Olenna had to wait more than a week before he came to her, and his only excuse was that he had been unavoidably detained on Crown business.

 

"Well, of course, a wedding must be a great undertaking for the Master of Coin. I do hope the wine is satisfactory, at least," she added as he took a sip of Arbor gold, the same vintage she had served him at their last meeting. "There's more yet on its way from Highgarden."

 

"You have been most generous, Lady Olenna. I must admit, I am glad your misgivings did not get the better of you. I assure you His Highness will make Lady Margaery the happiest of wives."

 

"As happy as he made Sansa Stark?" After pausing just long enough for emphasis, she added, "Do not play me for a fool, Lord Baelish. You should have known I'd get the truth from her."

 

"I counted on it, milady." Littlefinger grinned. "Your son may be willing to stomach anything to make his daughter a queen, but I know well who makes the decisions in Highgarden."

 

"Flattery will get you nowhere, my lord. From what the Stark girl told me, it seems as though the entire court was well aware of that boy's treatment of her and yet nobody lifted a finger. Not even you." At that last, she was satisfied to see his smile fade just a little. "Will you deny that?"

 

"He is the King."

 

"He is a bastard born of incest. He has no claim to the Iron Throne and we both know that."

 

"Please don't tell me you've changed your mind now," said Littlefinger, sighing. "That would make things terribly awkward for everybody."

 

It was Olenna's turn to smile. "Oh, I've not changed my mind, Lord Baelish. The wedding will go ahead as planned. I just wished your little birds to tell Varys' little birds that any ill-treatment of my granddaughter will not be countenanced."

 

"So many birds singing so many songs. It does get confusing very quickly. A clever trick, by the way, having your fool sing so...enthusiastically for dear Sansa."

 

"The poor thing looked like she needed a laugh," Olenna replied with a shrug. "You do realise that Tommen is no less a bastard than his brother."

 

"Well, of course he is. But Tommen has the wonderful advantage of being young, pliable, and mostly ignored by his mother. Your Margaery already has him wrapped round her little finger just by singing for him." He leant back in his chair. "The smallfolk too, from the sounds of it. They adore their queen of the roses."

 

"Who wouldn't adore Margaery? Even Joffrey might, given the chance."

 

"Are you willing to take that risk, Lady Olenna?"

 

"Why, Lord Baelish," Olenna said, "anybody would think you wanted King Joffrey dead." Black amethysts from Asshai had a more common name in the Citadel: The Strangler. It was a quick but terrifying death they brought, closing the victim's throat like a hangman's noose. She could not dispute its effectiveness but Littlefinger had remained reticent about a number of other details, enough to make Olenna wary.

 

"Why should I not, after what he's done to the Lady Sansa?" The smile disappeared from Littlefinger's face. "Ned Stark was nothing to me, but perhaps you are aware that I was fostered alongside his widow, the Lady Catelyn, at Riverrun. We've known one another since we were children."

 

"How sweet of you to plot such intricate revenge against the man who beat her daughter." She considered leaving it at that, but somehow found herself asking instead, "Why not just spirit her away, get her back to her mother where she belongs?"

 

That had been her initial assumption when he first suggested Sansa's role in this escapade. She would not go so far as to declare the man besotted, but that he had an interest in the girl was patently clear. Now, having seen her--and her striking resemblance to her mother, more importantly--Olenna had more than a few suspicions of her own.

 

"And end up with my head on a spike for my troubles? I am no warrior, Lady Olenna, and you know as well as I do that my life is worth nothing if the Lannisters were to discover any such plan. If I could find some way to free her, I assure you I would, but it is far too risky."

 

"It is a great pity that such a fair young lady should be without a champion in this wicked world." Olenna shook her head. "Loras is spoken for, else I should offer him."

 

"He has brothers, does he not? Two, if I recall correctly. One is even heir to Highgarden. An appropriate match for someone of Lady Sansa's stature, if I may say so myself."

 

He was baiting her; he had to be. Perhaps there were ears in these walls that she hadn't stopped. It was the only explanation. The Stark girl certainly wouldn't have said anything if she had half a grain of sense in that pretty head of hers, and as for Margaery's ladies, they were silly things, but their loyalty was beyond question. No, it had to be some spy she'd missed.

 

"I may beg your leave to retire, my lord," Olenna finally said, holding out her hand for him to kiss. "I'm afraid treason sits uncomfortably after a large meal. It requires further digestion."

 

"Of course, Lady Olenna. I trust we may speak again soon."

 

"I believe we shall, Lord Baelish. I find I quite enjoy your company." Rather to her surprise, it was true.

 

***

 

Olenna had not played cyvasse in years, but even she knew when she was outmanoeuvred. A few short days later saw an invitation from the Hand of the King to join him and his family in celebrating the marriage of his youngest son Tyrion Lannister to the Lady Sansa Stark of Winterfell, delivered oh-so-conveniently after the bride and groom had already departed for Baelor's Sept. Margaery had thrown a fit when she found out, and it was all Olenna could do to keep her from marching halfway across King's Landing with Loras in tow to defend the Lady Sansa from the Imp.

 

"You must look out for yourself," she'd told her granddaughter. "This should teach you a lesson about caution, my dear. Trust nobody in this court. Even your ladies must not know all your secrets. They are loyal, yes, but would never survive the black cells if it came to that."

 

Margaery paled. "Do you think that's how they found out about Willas?"

 

"I am not certain, child," Olenna was forced to admit. "That is why we must be extra careful in future."

 

The question gnawed at her, though, and not just for Margaery's sake. You are very clever, my dear, but there will always be those who are cleverer. The skill lies in knowing who they are. And in remembering their weaknesses .So her mother had warned her lifetimes ago. I have a man in my employ whom she trusts fully. Littlefinger's message from their last conversation was now clear and she had no doubt who had informed Lord Tywin of their plot.

 

"Your man may have lost Lady Sansa's trust," she told Littlefinger when he joined her by the window overlooking the Red Keep's main courtyard. Below, the procession from the sept was beginning to enter, the bride's auburn hair muted against the Lannister red of her new cloak. "Is this how you protect her? By marrying her to the Imp?"

 

Littlefinger lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. "How was I to know what the Hand would do? I merely informed him that there was a plot afoot to ally Highgarden with the King in the North. We must all do our duty and I am a member of the King's Council. I could not allow a valuable hostage to disappear beneath Lord Tywin's nose."

 

"My sympathies," sniffed Olenna. "I don't suppose you can suggest any appropriate girls for my grandson? There seem to be fewer and fewer of them these days." Lord Tywin had had the temerity to put forward his daughter, the Queen Regent, and Olenna's fool of a son had nearly acquiesced. Thank the Seven she'd caught him in time, else it would have given Highgarden to yet more Lannister bastards and may well have brought the Kingslayer's wrath down on her dear Willas. How she had managed to produce such a dull-witted child was beyond her.

 

"If any cross my path, I will be certain to send them to you," Littlefinger replied, his eyes firmly focused on Sansa as she crossed the cobbled courtyard, her new husband struggling to keep up on his stunted legs. "I did not know, Lady Olenna."

 

"You sound almost convincing, Lord Baelish. Perhaps you ought to be the one to inform my granddaughter of these developments; she did take such a liking to Lady Sansa and was quite thrilled at the prospect of having her as a sister."

 

"Surely she has enough to think about with her own wedding?" After a moment, Littlefinger added, "As, I am certain, do you."

 

"You have indeed given me a great deal to think about." Turning to him, Olenna inclined her head. "Would you be so kind as to escort me back to my chambers? I believe there is to be a banquet in short order, and I should hate to turn up underdressed."

 

She was certain she had never seen an unhappier bride than Sansa Stark--not, of course, that Olenna could blame her one bit. Battle scars were an unfortunate distraction on the comeliest of men, let alone on a grotesque like Tyrion Lannister. Margaery kept casting glances their way, her pretty brow furrowed in disapproval, and Olenna was forced to reprimand her in a sharp hiss only to regret it when Margaery's lip gave a visible wobble. "She is beyond our help, my dear," Olenna added, sotto voce. "She is a Lannister now. We can no longer trust her."

 

"She would never help them. Never. If we could only help her escape, find a ship to take her north..."

 

"Our position is precarious enough as it is. We cannot aid traitors to the crown, else we risk sharing their fate. The girl is a Stark. I'm certain she's stronger than she looks." That was a bald-faced lie, but from what Olenna recalled of Catelyn Tully, it might prove a prophetic one. "Now, dance with your betrothed and for all our sakes, smile."

 

To Margaery's credit, she did just that, floating across the hall on Joffrey's arm and looking for all the world as though she belonged there. The bride and groom, contrary to tradition but no doubt for the best, did not dance at all. Instead, as the evening wore on--almost certainly at Margaery's request--Garlan led Sansa to the floor for the first time. Olenna watched as she moved from partner to partner, her face a perfect lady's mask. Perhaps she had underestimated the girl; it was, after all, the first lesson any lady learnt in the Seven Kingdoms--how to smile, simper, and lie.

 

Petyr Baelish was absent, rather to her surprise. He'd led her back to her rooms and promptly disappeared. She beckoned to Mace now, who had just finished dancing with the bride, and he excused himself as soon as was polite. When he heard her question, he did not hide his annoyance. "Gone to the Eyrie, Mother. He claims he can bed Lysa Arryn and bring her to heel, this jumped-up Lord of Harrenhal."

 

She knew of that title already; it was Littlefinger's price for having won Highgarden's allegiance to the Iron Throne. It was also surprisingly risky on Tywin Lannister's part--for her part, she would not let Petyr Baelish out of her sight, let alone send him into the one part of the Seven Kingdoms that was nearly impossible to reach.

 

"It's an empty title, Mace, you needn't be concerned with Littlefinger ever holding Harrenhal. Not that anybody would want to," she said, unable to suppress a shudder. The last time she had seen the black-towered castle was the day that Rhaegar Targaryen gave Lyanna Stark a crown of winter roses and started a war that had never truly ended. "It's what he'll do in the Vale that concerns me."

 

Of course, with Littlefinger gone and unlikely to return in time for Joffrey's wedding, that did make things rather more complicated. The arrival of the Dornish party--late as always--was not poised to be in any way helpful. At least it wasn't until Olenna realised precisely who comprised the Dornish party.

 

Her grandson may have been content to forgive and forget--Willas had always hated jousting and even confessed to her that he didn't mind a bad leg if it meant he never needed to pick up another lance--but the memories of Highgarden and Sunspear stretched too far back for that. Mace was jumpy as a cat already and would be until Margaery was wedded and bedded, and this could only make things worse.

 

Of course, that was before word reached the court of another wedding, one that had sent Margaery to the sept in the dead of night to pray for dead and living alike while the Lannisters feasted their final triumph over the late King in the North. Even Mace had looked greensick when Olenna enquired after what he had heard.

 

"The gods frown on those who break the laws of table and hearth," her son said, making a brief sign against evil that Olenna had not seen him do in years. Not that she could blame him. It was rumoured that Lord Frey's men had sewn the head of Robb Stark's direwolf onto his shoulders and crowned it; that the Lady Catelyn's throat had been slit and her body dumped in the river. "Lord Frey would do well to live as long as he can."

 

"He's certainly managed it thus far," Olenna replied, shuddering. "These are our allies, Mace. This is the price for Margaery's crown."

 

"I had nothing to do with--"

 

"Of course you didn't," she cut him off. "I don't doubt the grander scheme was Lord Tywin's, but this stinks of Frey mischief. Thank the gods we needn't deal with him." Of course, there was still Joffrey, whose gleeful reception of the news had nearly driven Margaery to call off the wedding then and there when she heard of it. It had taken all of Alerie's patience and Olenna's threats to forestall her, and even when she sullenly agreed to say nothing, Margaery had looked at her with such disgust that Olenna felt the sharp stab of guilt.

 

Even their promises of protection seemed feeble, fragile as a rose in winter. The talisman to which she clung was the knowledge that, hidden in the Imp's chambers was their salvation. Black amethysts from Asshai. She would not fail Margaery, not now.

 

***

 

There had been a wedding breakfast in the Queen's Ballroom--as one might have expected--while she and Margaery dined with the rest of her ladies in their chambers, and she returned to her own room to find the Dornish prince had already been admitted.

 

"I can't stay long, as I'm sure you understand. How would I possibly explain it to Ellaria that I was seen leaving the rooms of a lady three times her age?"

 

"I believe you underestimate how much whores understand," Olenna riposted. "What exactly are you doing here, Prince Oberyn?"

 

"Informing you that you've made a grave mistake."

 

Olenna seated herself. "Oh? Have I?"

 

"Your grandson made a request of me when he discovered I was amongst the wedding guests. He wished me to give my honest opinion of Joffrey Baratheon and he told me I ought to give it to you, and not to His Lordship of Highgarden." The last with a mocking twist of his lips. "I cannot fathom why."

 

"Don't be coy, young man. What is your honest opinion, if you've got any honesty in you?" Willas had not mentioned this but Olenna had noticed over the past year or so that Willas had stopped telling her everything--just as she had once begun to keep her own counsel instead of asking her mother's advice. It was a rite of passage, of sorts. "Did something happen?"

 

"You might say that. Do say a prayer, will you, for a glorious book gone to the gods." He shook his head, brow furrowed in disappointment. "I can't say I trust a king who won't read."

 

"That, I am assured, is the least of Joffrey's failings. And besides, he has the Imp to read for him, doesn't he?"

 

"Not if he persists in making him an enemy. He hasn't even wedded your granddaughter and already he plans to bed Sansa Stark and call it charity if he gets her with child. Another Aegon the Unworthy." Again, he shook his head. "Such a pity."

 

"My son?"

 

"Did nothing, said nothing. He may not even have heard, but I will wager you--"

 

The door flew open to admit her second grandson with a half-dressed Margaery in tow. Garlan stopped short at the sight of the Dornish prince. "Am I interrupting?"

 

"Not at all," replied Prince Oberyn, smooth as sandsilk though his eyes took Margaery in appreciatively and set Olenna's teeth on edge. "I believe you're here to inform the Lady Olenna of what occurred in the Queen's Ballroom. My lady Margaery. Or ought I call you Your Grace?"

 

As though she were wearing her wedding gown rather than a robe over petticoats, Margaery held out her hand. "Prince Oberyn, an unexpected pleasure."

 

"I assure you, Your Grace, the pleasure is all mine."

 

Garlan rolled his eyes and ignored this to kneel beside Olenna. "Father won't listen to me--he says that Margaery being Queen is worth all this, but it isn't, Grandmother, it damned well isn't!"

 

"Did he tell you?" Olenna addressed the question to Margaery. At her granddaughter's near-imperceptible nod, she leant back in the chair. "We cannot back out now. Your father's word is, unfortunately, law. Garlan," she turned back to him, "I want you to make certain that Loras hears nothing of this. We cannot have another Kingslayer on our hands."

 

Obedient as ever, Garlan paused only to hug Margaery close and whisper something to her that Olenna did not hear. Prince Oberyn, he eyed warily as he left. When the door had closed behind him, she beckoned them both forward. "I thank you for this information, Prince Oberyn. You have done Highgarden an unexpected service."

 

"Not Highgarden, my lady. Its heir. And," he added, bowing to Margaery, "the Queen. You will not forget Dorne, will you, Your Grace?"

 

"I should not dream of it, my lord."

 

When she and Margaery were alone, Olenna clasped her granddaughter's hands. "You must be brave, sweetling, just a little longer. Do you know the chalice that your father presented to your husband-to-be?"

 

"I do." Her face was still as stone. "He showed it to me."

 

"You must slip something into it and be certain that nobody sees you. You are the only one who will be close enough to Joffrey to do it." She met Margaery's eyes. "If you do not wish to go through with it, just tell me. We will find another way, I swear to you."

 

Margaery's fingers tightened on her hand. "He deserves to die, Grandmother. The Maiden will forgive me this."

 

***

 

The tiny purple gems glittered like deadly stars against the girl's russet curls. Olenna wondered for a moment what might happen if she did not reach out, if she simply walked past Sansa as she had ever since her marriage to the Imp. It was cruel but necessary--her new husband was no more a fool than Olenna was an old biddy and the girl had already proven she couldn't be trusted with secrets. From beyond Sansa's silver-clad shoulders, she could see the massive chalice her son had presented to the King as a wedding gift. Someone--the Hand, no doubt--had turned it such that the Lannister lion and the Tyrell rose faced the guests in the hall, a pretty gesture to be sure, but no more than that.

 

Reaching out, she brushed her fingers across the hairnet. "You do look quite exquisite, child," she said, truthfully. Sansa would have rivalled Margaery this night but for the dark circles beneath her eyes and the grief beginning to write itself in feathery lines across her face. "The wind has been at your hair, though." One of the stones slipped free as she adjusted the net.

 

"I was very sorry to hear about your losses." Oddly enough, that too was true, although the full truth of the matter was not one Olenna could speak aloud in this company. Instead, she patted the girl's shoulder and remarked, "Your brother was a terrible traitor, I know, but if we start killing men at weddings they'll be even more frightened of marriage than they are presently." Stepping back, she admired her handiwork, the stone pressed into the soft skin between her thumb and forefinger. "There, that's better."

 

She spoke of her departure then, of Highgarden and other silly, meaningless things, and offered the hospitality she knew would be refused out of hand. There wasn't a chance in all seven hells that Tywin Lannister would let his daughter-in-law out of his sight when all the world knew the Imp had yet to consummate his marriage. It was, however, worth a try for Margaery's sake. And Willas', she admitted to herself. All other things aside, Sansa Stark would have made an entirely suitable lady of Highgarden.

 

The Imp's expression had grown progressively more thunderous until he excused himself and his wife, leaving Olenna to demand that Left and Right escort her to her place. She had barely managed to seat herself before the new King and Queen rode into the hall, Margaery a vision in pale green samite.

 

Seventy-seven courses were planned for the banquet and Olenna lost track after a dozen. The singers were forgettable, save the Tyroshi who was a favourite of Willas' for precisely his tendency to sing in High Valyrian.  It was only after that regrettable incident with the dancing dwarfs that Olenna began to fiddle with the stone in her hand, its edges sharp against her skin.

 

Her eyes met Margaery's as the newly-married Queen of the Seven Kingdoms stepped down from the dais. Olenna followed, motioning for her guards to stay by her chair. She pressed the stone into her granddaughter's hand, the movement hidden by Margaery's elaborate sleeves. Margaery's smile in response made Olenna shiver.

 

It was done.

 

Finis.