It’s well past midnight when they bring her the news, but Sansa is awake. She finds she doesn’t need sleep as much as she used to; her mind is now always alert and the idea of resting seems almost foreign to her. She’s in her solar, papers strewn in front of her and a cup of Arbor Gold forgotten in her hand. Normally she would be irritated to be interrupted so, but the expression on the page’s face tells her that this is the news she had been longing to hear, had been expecting. Her sister had captured her, found her disguised in rags, and now she is entirely in Sansa’s power.
A small, lady-like smile is all that she lets reach her lips, while underneath the table she digs her nails into her hand. She thanks the boy for his service and lets him go. When the door closes softly behind him, she leans back in her chair and takes a long sip of her wine. It has never tasted sweeter to her, and she lets the flavors linger on her tongue.
She lets a fortnight pass before she visits her.
She makes the decision to see her in the morning, before the dawn breaks. But even with the days lengthened by spring it is long past dusk when she finally makes her descent. Not that the intervening time was wasted. There were letters and ledgers to go over, smiles to practice. She had to brush her auburn hair ‘til it shone against the grey of her wolf-skin cloak. The fur was not really necessary in the warmth, but she stood just a bit straighter with it wrapped around her shoulders. It helped her balance the weight of her crown of swords, donned specially for this occasion.
Sansa makes her descent flanked, at first, by her ladies—lovely, innocent girls that she alternatively dotes on and pities—but she waves them away before the last flight of stairs. The girls protest, their hushed speech fogging in the cold. It’s too damp, they claim, too dangerous, too narrow for their Queen to go alone. Sansa smiles serenely, inwardly laughing at the notion that some mud on her hem and soiled slippers would dissuade her from her task. She makes the rest of her way alone, her torch held high, her steps measured and mind focused.
The guard swings the heavy door open without a word, and Sansa favors him with a queenly glance, teeth hidden and eyes kind. The sudden light of the torch, the first that had entered the small cell in weeks, sends her captive to her feet, her chains rattling.
Sansa frowns as she enters, careful on the damp floor. The air is rank with the smells of mildew and woman and she knows most highborn ladies would run from the cell in a flash, their handkerchiefs held over their noses in an effort to keep from fainting. Sansa breathes it in deep, the familiar thrill of victory coursing through her. She doesn’t let it show though, her face a mask of feminine disappointment and disapproval. It was best not to let one’s pleasure show. “No need to rattle about, it echoes so.”
There is some remnant of beauty in the woman before her, as thin as she is, her hair dull and skin like parchment. Through the ragged yellow clumps of her hair her eyes still shine, cat-like and transfixing. Sansa is pleased to see that it’s not all gone. There’s still something of Cersei there; it simply wouldn’t do if she had embraced her piety and mended her ways, seeking forgiveness. It wouldn’t do at all.
If she had any doubts that something of Cersei still lingered under the filth, they would have shattered when the other woman’s cracked lips twisted in a sneer and her eyes gleamed with anger. Gathering a length of chain in her hands, she slams it against the wall so hard it sounds as if the stone nearly cracks.
“Bitch,” she spits out between clenched teeth. Everything about her seems to be clenched, twisted and clenched, as though she is just barely holding herself back. Sansa wonders if there will be blood on her hands when she finally releases the chain. Or if she ever would; she holds it as one would a weapon, as though that would protect her from what Sansa has planned.
Sansa regards the makeshift weapon with amusement, her delicate lady’s smile gaining a bit of cruelty around the edges. “I hardly think that is necessary,” she says, voice clipped and back straight. The torch weighs heavy in her hand, but her arm never wavers.
Cersei’s eyes widen. “You treat your true Queen in such a way and expect kindness? I’ll have you killed, I swear it…” Her voice is desperate—cruel and sharp as ever—but it falters a bit at the end, cracking, as though even she can realize how empty the threat is.
Sansa doesn’t let that pass; she presses on it like a bruise. “How? Your power rests in your son, and the roses have claimed it. And before long they will be gone, like so many before them. Winter is past, and the North flourished.” She pauses just a moment, letting the words rest in the cool air. “And the cold kills the vine.”
Cersei pulls herself up to her full height and meets Sansa’s eyes. Even broken, Sansa has to admit that she’s a more than impressive sight. Her eyes are a bit sunken but they can still pierce, and their gaze is even more unnerving now, thanks to the hunger that lives there. For a second she’s a girl again, resting among the lions of King’s Landing, her every movement watched. That memory thankfully passes before any of it is betrayed on her face, though the knots in her stomach take a bit longer to disappear. Too much has happened since then for her to feel the fears of that girl; she knows this, she will not forget this. She runs through every lesson she has learned in the intervening years, ever since she fled that wretched city never to return, and feels her blood sing in response.
“My brother…”Cersei starts, her voice not nearly as strong as her eyes. The rest of the sentence dies on her lips.
“Isn’t coming,” Sansa finishes, unnecessarily. “I do think you’ll have to get used to idea of remaining in the North.”
The other woman laughs, queerly, and the strange sound echoes off the cell walls, sending goosebumps down Sansa’s arms; the fur does nothing to stop the chill. “You really think you can keep me caged here, little one? Oh, you truly are your father’s daughter—foolish and simple.”
It’s Sansa’s turn to laugh, the sound breaking through all her carefully composed restraint, and she’s pleased to see the confusion on Cersei’s face. “Oh yes, I am my father’s daughter. I think you will discover that very soon.” She allows herself a small, personal smile before pressing on. “And no, I don’t plan on keeping you caged here. You will be given a cell as befits your birth. A pretty cage, with all the silks and velvets you require.” Another pause, carefully placed. “Just like old times, I think.”
Cersei rests one thin hand on the damp cell wall, but she remains upright. It takes her several moments to form words, the breath leaving her in little clouds. “So, this is your revenge? Very original. I suppose you’ll have my head soon, as payment for your father?”
“I’m sure my bannermen will insist, though I can promise you that is not my intent. You are lucky that you ended up in my care, on that regard.” She had practiced the words all day, taking care to adopt the right detached tone, letting none of her excitement rise to the surface. Now, in the moment, it proves more difficult than she had anticipated. I have her, I have her, I have her, runs through her mind, and a thousand revenge fantasies, the dreams of restless nights, accompany this line of thought.
Realistically, she knows it would not do to be so bloodthirsty, even though she dearly longs to drain the other woman’s life with her bare hands, payback for all that she had to suffer through to return home. It would be satisfying beyond measure, and she can almost taste how sweet it would be, but it simply would not do. That kind of base revenge only leaves you vulnerable to retaliation, and she had seen that happen too often in the North’s struggle to regain its kingdom. She is determined to do things right. She lets her fantasies fade, and returns to her practiced words.
“This is temporary,” she continues, gesturing at the stone walls. “Under my care, you will want for nothing. And no harm will come to you, as I suppose you can guess. You didn’t suffer any mistreatment during the capture. Faceless Men are a bit more subtle than that, aren’t they?” She waits for a response but none comes, and Sansa feels a swell of pride at how skilled her sister is, to have avoided any detection. She pushes it down before continuing, in her clipped Queen’s voice. “Any bruises that mark your skin after this will be your own doing, I assure you. I know how such imperfections affect a lady.” Cersei says nothing, does not even appear contrite, and Sansa grips the torch tighter in an effort to keep from slapping her.
After a lengthy pause the other woman laughs again, her tone icy and cruel, and Sansa is somewhat pleased that that hasn’t left her. It will be so much sweeter to break that herself. “That is your idea of punishment? This is how you treat your rivals? You are still as stupid as you are beautiful. A gilded cage is still gilded.”
“No harm will ever come to you,” Sansa continues, speaking over her as though she had not heard. “And there you will stay. You’ll see the seasons change from your window. What news we get of your son will come to you by messenger. The world will go on, and you will remain. And you’ll see that humans are so dreadfully fickle. What’s locked away is so soon forgotten.” She watches Cersei’s expression carefully, and bites her lip as she sees the horrible realization dawn on her face. “How does that fate suit you, my Queen?”
Cersei’s eyes cut into her and Sansa relishes in it. She does a little mock curtsey, then leaves the cell in a swirl of muddied skirts. She makes her way back to the surface in a haze, only barely aware of the orders she leaves her guards. When she finally reemerges into the light and the spring air, it’s like she has awoken from some glorious dream. She pauses for a moment to take it all in, to savor the exhilaration, as the chill from the cell leaves her. It’s almost overwhelming, and she finds to her dismay that she is crying.
Her ladies are there when she returns to her rooms, aghast at the mud on her dress and gloves. If her expression strikes them as odd, they say nothing, only focusing on her soiled state. A meaningless, forgotten life, she thinks to herself, smiling and pretending to listen to their reprimands. Oh, how you’ll hate every second of it!
She lets her ladies strip her of her garments but clings to her crown and furs. With the wolf-skin wrapped around her and her head still held high under the weight, Sansa takes a seat at her vanity.
She looks at her hands, reflected in her mirror. Pale, smooth, and delicate, they are truly a lady’s. Clean hands, Sansa. She supposes that it was not meant to be so literal, but the truth in the advice is still the same. Lady’s hands, lady’s work—none of the crass slash and spills of blood her bannermen would wish for, or that make up her sister’s trade. With a final smile, she lets her nails dig into her palm again, savoring the pain. Lady’s hands. Oh, but how they can damage!