It was the hour of evensong. The Sunset Sea was gilded in the colors of House Lannister, crimson and gold. The western hills were aflame, scarlet and vermillion in the falling light, the sky above them was a swirl of copper and rose. On the eastern harbor, the moored ships and skiffs sailing home were like children's toys, carved of jet-black wood. Stars blossomed over them, jeweled flowers in a field the soft, lush purple of a king's robe.
The Prince stood in the stone gallery and listened to the roar of the incoming tide as the sea kissed the shore.
"It sounds like a lion," his little brother said solemnly. "A hungry lion."
So it did, Prince Harrold of the Houses Baratheon and Lannister thought. "Do you like it?"
Tommen was all of nine, a sweet child but a timid one. He shook his head. "It frightens me," he confessed.
Harry laughed and ruffled his brother's curly head. "Don't let Mother hear that. We're supposed to be lions."
"No we're not," Tommen said. "That's Mother. We're supposed to be stags like Father."
Quartered on his doublet, Harry wore the crowned stag of House Baratheon as well as the lion of House Lannister. Where a lesser woman would have deferred to her lord husband's line, his lady mother, proud as she was, had raised her children to think of her house as equal to their father's. Your father might tell you that it was his warhammer that won you your birthright, she liked to say, but make no mistake it was my father's gold and cunning that won the war at the last moment. But for Tywin Lannister, your father would be but an usurper and no true king.
He liked to think of himself as his father's heir, the crowned stag. But he also liked to think of himself as his mother's son, a lion brave and proud and fierce.
"Well, don't let Mother hear that either," Harry said absently. The stone ledge was warm to the touch, mellow pink and buttery gold in the light. Something about the richly-tinted sky reminded him of the red priestess, the Lady Melisandre. Fire and blood, he thought, thinking of her scarlet eyes and the ember that burned hot and fierce in the white hollow of her throat.
She was silk and velvet, a soft voice flavored with the rich accents of the east and a waterfall of bright hair that smelt of roses.
"Where is Mother?" he asked Tommen.
"With Uncle Jaime, I guess," Tommen said, shrugging. He pouted a little and said plaintively, "I've been left alone all day long. Myrcella's been playing at cyvasse with her friends and she said she didn't want a little baby like me bothering her, Mother and Uncle Jaime have been away, Uncle Tyrion's been reading and you, where have you been, Harry?"
Harry colored and looked away. "Busy," he said gruffly. "But you still had Joff, Tommen."
Tommen screwed up his face like a gargoyle. "He made me go to the menagerie with his dog," he said sulkily. "He said it would toughen me up and then he said he'd fed me to the lions. He even touched them through the bars of the cage, even when the keeper swore he'd lose a hand. And then I was so scared, I thought he might actually open the cage, so I run and then I had to hide from him all day long." His face was full of hurt.
It was true. Harry had found his youngest brother curled up under a windowseat in the gallery and it was only after he'd sworn to protect his brother from his other brother that Tommen had come out. He sighed. "Joffrey shouldn't have done that," he said patiently. "But you should be braver, Tommen. You're a prince of the blood and one day you'll have to be a knight. Knights must be strong and brave."
"Then I won't be a knight," Tommen said decisively. "I'll be a maester and read all day like Uncle Tyrion. Or I'll be a septon and eat all day long like the High Septon." He seemed to like the idea.
"Grandfather Tywin should be pleased to hear that," Harry said, choking back a laugh. "It's bad enough that Uncle Tyrion can't-"
"You've been with a girl," Tommen said suddenly. He grinned up at his eldest brother. "That's why you're blushing."
"I have-" Harry started to say and then stopped. He was four-and-ten, almost a man grown really. It would not hurt to remind his brother of the fact. He puffed out his chest a little. "And if I have, Tommen? Do you want to go tattling to Mother?"
"She won't care," Tommen said. "She'll just say you've turned out like Father, is all." He waggled his eyebrows. "Your girl, was she pretty?"
"As beautiful as a sunset," Harry said, remembering her. The wind ruffled his hair, jet black like his father's. He clapped his brother on the shoulder. "Come, you should be dressing for the feast now. Grandfather won't send us off without something truly grand." It was their last day at Casterly Rock. On the morrow they would take the Kingsroad until they met up with Father's retinue. From thence it was north to Winterfell, to see Father's old friend, Lord Stark.
And your queen, he thought. Lady Melisandre had warned him of that. Lord Stark had two daughters, fair young maids of an age with him. Every king must have a queen, she had said, even as she cupped his cheek. She had tasted of something sharp and queerly bitter, but her lips were soft and as red as cherries.
"I'll eat like a boar," Tommen avowed.
Harry laughed and patted his little brother's plump stomach. "How much more of a ball do you want to look like? It's no wonder Joff's always picking on you, you're too easy not to, Tommen."
"Joff picks on everyone," Tommen said sullenly. "He's Mother's favorite - she lets him do anything he pleases."
"Mother loves all of us the same," Harry said, though he knew it for a lie. Joffrey, who looked so like Uncle Jaime, was her favorite and then sweet Myrcella and little Tommen. He was the least loved of her cubs, of late whenever she looked at him he could see the distaste in her face.
He was the only one of the royal children who took after their father, and for that, he thought, she could not forgive him.
Small wonder, he thought, remembering how his father would shame her, with his whores and byblows. He had struck her, more than once, and in his drunken rages he was cruel to her. I'm not like him, he always wanted to tell her. He wanted to make her beautiful green eyes light up when she saw him, to smile and laugh, to ruffle his hair and kiss his cheek as she did his younger brothers and sister. He wanted his mother to love him.
The emeralds at her throat glowed like lion's eyes.
The Queen sat at her window, with but one candle on the ledge. The shadows played queer tricks on her face, cutting lines that were not there on her smooth white skin, writhing and twisting so that her lovely features were twisted into something cruel and monstrous. Her hair was piled high and on her head there was a crown of lacy spun gold and emeralds, but her back was bared, from shoulder to hip.
"Lace me up," she bid her brother.
With a cat's grace, he rose from her bed to comply. He trailed slow kisses down her back as he hooked the clasps, she could feel the heat of his lips through the velvet and she yearned for nothing but to give in to his touch. But she had not been Queen of the Seven Kingdoms for fifteen years by giving in to all her impulses, so she forbore and sat, cold and correct, while he bent to his work.
"What are you looking at, sister?" he asked her lazily. He rested his chin on her shoulder and peered out through the window. She was not looking up at the burnt wilderness of the sky at sundown, but down at the stone gallery where her boys stood.
"I should have had him killed when he was a babe," she had mechanically.
"You should have," he agreed. "The tears were there, sweet and clear as springwater. I brought you them myself, you could have tipped it into his milk and none would have been the wiser. Children die of sickness all the time. Pycelle is your creature, he would have sworn that the boy died of fever. A mother's mercy, a mother's madness I suppose that stopped your hand - women, birthing does something to your heads."
She shook her head. "I would have gone through with it," she said, her voice hard. "I had felt Joffrey quicken in my womb that day, your seed. With Robert's son born before him, he would never have been king. I was ready but-"
"But?" he prompted, when she said nothing.
"He had my eyes." Her voice was curiously calm, almost indifferent really. "He opened his eyes, just as I was about to do it, and he smiled at me. Green eyes, just like yours and mine, for all that he was the very image of his father. I was younger then, and more foolish and he was my firstborn after all. I could not do it." She rose. "He was an innocent babe, mine own sweet son, but he is four-and-ten now. He has served his purpose."
Jaime arched an eyebrow. "Oh? What purpose was that?"
"He looks like his father," she said quietly. "He is our decoy. Joff and Myrcella and Tommen, they all look too much like you. But Harrold is Robert's, even a man half-blind could see that. Such a noble lad. But noble lads..." she sighed, "...they can die. In the melee, in pitched battle, in the hunt... it is so very sad. Their mothers grow crazed with grief, their fathers rage against the gods but life carries on. And Harrold has two brothers to inherit."
Her brother was looking at her with a queer mixture of amusement and respect in his eyes. "I pray I never cross you, sweet sister," he avowed, kissing her. "You are terrible when roused."
I am a lioness of the Rock, she thought. And all I do, I do for my cubs. She had borne Harrold in blood and pain, but she never thought of him as hers, Robert's features were stamped too well on his face. Don't think of him as yours, it will only make it harder. Think of him as a tool, as Father says, there is a task for every tool and a tool for every task. You must do what you must with what you were given. For your children.
"Any mother would do the same to protect her children," Cersei said. She offered her arm to her brother. "Come. It is time you dressed for supper."
He was waiting for her.
"You should not be here," she chastised him. Mildly though, he was but a boy with a boy's quickness to take insult.
He had been sitting on her table, swinging his long legs, but he rose when she entered. "Forgive me," he said, very contrite and humble. "I wanted to see you again. I knew I would not be able to look at you at the feast and so I thought..."
She sighed. "As long as you were not seen."
It would not look well for the young prince to be seen entering the red priestess's chamber. Of course she could weather the waves of scandal, it was naught to her what lesser men whispered of her doings. Already they called her the Scarlet Woman and made mock of her, calling her a false priestess just as they called Thoros of Myr a false priest. Thoros was the King's companion in drinking and wenching and they said she was their pet whore, a witch who used queer eastern spells and powders and could drive men mad with lust and leave them withered as husk when she was done with them. She did not care what they said, so long as they did not suspect her.
But the boy... Lord Stark would look askance at the merest hint of debauchery and to lie with a priestess, a woman sworn to the red god of the east, well. The boy would need to wed one of his daughters in time, better that she come to his bed loyal and loving. He would need a strong queen by his side when the time came.
"Where were you?" he asked her curiously. "I haven't seen you since we last parted."
"You must not have been looking in the right places then," she told him. "I was gathering herbs." Cloves and basil and caraway to brew a love philtre so strong it could reduce hardened men to water, belladonna called the enchanter's nightshade for good reason, cowbane to kill, nettle and mugwort to cure.
She set aside her cloak and began to arrange the contents of the sachets she had taken with her in her chest of powders. Powders to turn fire green or blue or silver, powders to make a flame roar and hiss and leap up higher than a man is tall, powders to make smoke. A smoke for truth, a smoke for lust, a smoke for fear, and the thick black smoke that could kill a man outright. She had replenished the carved chest she had brought from across the narrow sea in the westernlands, she would not need more for a long time.
All for the best, she thought. We might need to linger in the North and it is a hard, barren land. She wondered how she would like it up there, the North where her prince would meet his fate. Not a prince, she thought. He will be a king then, R'hllor's instrument. Not a boy but a man.
He was looking at her, taut with a boy's lust. "Will you look into the fire before supper?" he asked her.
She had thought to, but his voice alerted her. "If it please you, I will not," she told him, making her voice pleasant. She would need to work carefully on him, he was a boy, easy to work upon, but boys were notoriously fickle. For now, she seemed fair to him but who could tell when his fancy would turn to a maiden, lush and ripe for the picking?
He needed no second urging. He was upon her before she could slip out of her gown, his mouth hungry and demanding on hers. Truly his father's son, she thought. She stroked his dark hair as he mounted her upon the table, filling her mind with thoughts of salt and smoke and snow. When he was done, he rolled over and lay down next to her. For a moment, they lay still upon the wood, looking up at the painted ceiling and lost in their own thoughts.
Then she pulled down her skirts and stood up. She must needs work upon her hair before the feasting and on his face too... he could not be permitted to leave with such a look of such longing and desire on his face. If she could, she would have excused herself from the feast - she did not want him looking at her with desire in his eyes, not in front of them all - but she knew he would only follow her if she did not attend. Too many questions would be asked.
"Wash yourself," she bid him, sounding more like his mother than his lover. "I hope you will not look at me during the feasting." It was a vain hope, boys being as they were, but she could try.
"I won't," he said, sounding guilty. "And I'm sorry, my lady. Truly. I had no need what came over me, I..."
She gentled him as she would a nervous colt. He must never look upon what he did with her with shame, only with pleasure. "R'hllor made our bodies as well as our souls. He gave us voices, so we might worship Him with song. He gave us hands, so we might build Him temples. And He gave us desire, so we might mate and worship Him in that way."
He drifted over to her, wrapping his arms around her waist and resting his chin on her shoulder. "It seems wrong though," he said mutinously. "I want to show everyone how much I love you, how much I want you. I wish you could be my Queen, to rule by my side as you side. What do I need of some sickly northern girl, whom I must wed to please my father and hers? My father doesn't care about me and-"
R'hllor save me, she thought, gritting her teeth. "Hush," she said, stroking his cheek. "This is folly and you know it. Your path is marked for you as mine is for me. You are a prince of the blood and your duty is to the realm, to bear sons with a noble maiden. And..." Her voice trailed off and she let her fingers linger on his jaw. "You know I have seen things in the flames."
"You've never told me what," he pointed out. "Just things, you say, things about me." He trailed soft, slow kisses on her shoulder, his fingers fumbling at her bodice.
She stopped him. "Not now," she murmured, pressing a finger to his lips. "But if you are good, if you can prove yourself to be a man..." She smiled at him, a smile full of promises. "Can you?"
"Yes," he swore, very earnestly. "I can be a man. I'm almost one, you know."
No. You are little more than a child in truth. "I will hold you to that," she said solemnly. "Perhaps I can share my secrets, what I have seen in the flames with you."
"Someday?" he prompted her.
"Soon," she said, turning around so that she stood in his arms and kissing him full on the lips. "Soon, my sweet prince."
It was the hour of moonrise. A fey palace shimmered in the glassy waters of the Sunset Sea, wrought all of silver and pearl. Its spires and airy turrets were spun of moonshine and dreams, its proud walls of alabaster. Limned in silver, the surf reached for the inky shore and from their casements, two women, both clad in red, looked down upon it.
The priestess rose and knelt before her flames, to dream sweeter dreams than those sleep could offer her.
The Queen rose and left her bed. She passed from her chamber, her footsteps echoing queerly in the silent stone corridors. There was a guard at the crown prince's door, a whitecloak sworn to protect him. He let her by without a word, she was his mother. What mother would wish her child ill?
I might have had a wise woman cleanse my womb, she thought. Tansy tea to flush out the parasite. But I thought the babe was Jaime's. She had been younger then, less cautious. When Robert Baratheon's son spilled forth, bawling, all the world had rejoiced that there was a prince in the cradle. Only his mother had grieved as for a child lost, for the son she had thought she had made with her brother. She had been more careful then and when she was certain that she was with child again, she had asked Jaime to bring her the tears of Lys.
But then her baby had looked up at her with Jaime's eyes, and smiled. Such a little thing. A little bird without feathers. She could not do it then, she had held him close to her and kissed him. She had thought she loved him but then Joffrey was born, her golden boy, and she knew that what she had felt for Robert's boy had been nothing. No man had ever made her feel as good as she had felt when Joff took her nipple in his mouth to nurse.
The boy was in his bed when she entered. She thought how easy it would be kill him in his sleep, to plunge a dagger straight through his heart. A clean death and quick. It would be a mercy, she thought, her throat dry. She knew she could never do it herself but Jaime...
We will have to plan this most carefully, she thought, pondering how it might be done. Any false step and they will ask questions. Questions she could not answer with her three golden babes. The wolfswood can be treacherous...
"Mother," he mumbled sleepily. He opened his eyes and gave her a drowsy little smile. The curve of his cheek was silver in the moonlight and his emerald-green eyes pale and gold-flecked. "I dreamed of you."
"As I did of you," she lied. She caressed his cheek. "I had to see my baby."
Childishly, he flung his arms around her. "You've never come to see me when I was asleep, not since I was a baby," he told her. "Not like you go to Joff."
That was true. She would often sit by Joffrey and watch him fall asleep. It was pleasant for her, to sit in the darkness and look down upon his beautiful face, so peaceful and innocent as he slept. "I have," she lied, "but you have always been asleep, sweetling. And a king must be strong, he cannot cleave to his mother."
He acknowledged the truth of that in silence. "You're beautiful, mother," he said softly. And then, just like a little boy, "I've missed you."
So like a little boy that for a moment she felt the pang of guilt. But she buried that quickly under a laugh like the shattering of glass. Laughter was poison to guilt and guilt she could not afford to feel, she must not feel. What is Robert Baratheon's heir to you? she told herself. You have killed hundreds of them, what does it matter that you have let this one grow to manhood? You must be strong for Joffrey.
"You've missed me since I don't coddle you?" she said lightly, mockingly. "What an infant you are. Tommen is nine and Myrcella ten, of course I pet them and spoil them like children."
"And Joffrey is fourteen," Harry said mildly. "And you pet him still." He sat up, resting on his elbow, fully awake now. His voice was troubled as he said, "Mother you have to curb him. He's wild and willful and the things I hear he's up to-"
"Enough," Cersei said, her voice hard. Harry, meek as he was where his mother was concerned, quailed. "I will not have bad blood between my sons. It is unjust of you to say such things of your brother, Harrold. You are his elder and it is your place to love and cherish him."
"Just as Joffrey's place is to love and cherish Tommen," Harry said acidly. "He's been frightening him, Mother."
"Tommen must have done something to upset Joff then," Cersei said, quite certain that he was making it all up. They are full brothers, why would Joff wish any ill upon Tommen? Likely it was Harry who did something to the boy and he lies to cover it up. "I will speak to them. But it is not your place to interfere, I am their mother and I will see to them."
"And I am their brother," Harry said, for once standing up to her. "Their elder brother. Their king someday."
Cersei rose. She had heard enough. "As Your Highness wills it," she said icily.
At once, Harry was contrite. "Oh Mother," he said, reaching out for her, "I didn't mean to say that, not to you. I'm sorry, I spoke out of turn. Please-"
"Not at all," she said coolly. "You will be king someday, Your Highness. And I am only your mother, an old, washed-up woman. You reminded me quite rightly of that."
"Please Mother, I'm sorry," he said, sitting up. "Forgive me."
She relished that, to hear him beg like a dog. She would forgive him, in time - after he had learned his lesson. "There is nothing to forgive. Perhaps now you see why I do not like to linger at your bedside, when I will hear such harsh words, so undutifully spoken. You are more like your father than you think, Harrold." She curtseyed. "I will take your leave now, Your Highness." She swept away, her skirts flaring around her.
He had climbed out of bed, but he stood helplessly and watched her, not daring to run after her. At the door, he said softly, pleadingly, "Mother. Please stay."
She looked at him, one long, hard look and when it seemed that she would relent and go back to tell him that all was forgiven, she turned her face away. The door closed behind her with a soft click.