Shae isn’t like a proper handmaiden. She stands up tall when she ought to shrink gracefully into corners or out of the way. When given a command, she obeys a few seconds too late, and with an air that suggests she is only just able to refrain from rolling her eyes.
If she were a spy – if she were the Queen’s – then surely she wouldn’t stand out so.
But maybe that’s the trick.
Still, Sansa rests under the too-firm tugs of the hairbrush.
“Remind me,” Sansa says, “who was it you served?”
“You,” Shae says. “My lady.” Her tone makes Sansa think of Arya. Arya, sticking out her tongue.
“I meant before me.”
“Lady Zuriff. You are a bit young to be dwelling on the past, aren’t you?” And then, as if she’s just remembered it: “My lady.”
“You’re tugging too hard.”
“I’m sorry,” Shae says; she does not sound it, but instantly the brush strokes turn soothing and almost kind.
Sansa closes her eyes, and it is not hard to pretend her lady mother is the one standing behind her.
She returns to her chamber, all faraway aches and a dull dead calm. She keeps her head held high as a queen’s, until the door is shut behind her. Shae is there already, making up the bed; at the sight of Sansa, she drops the last pillow to the floor and does not seem to notice.
“My love wished to send a message to my brother,” Sansa reports, her voice very flat, “but the Hand cut him short. What’s the best thing to do with bruises?”
“Keep them cold.” Shae comes to her. “Is it bad?”
“Nothing anyone will be able to see,” Sansa replies. “He likes me pretty.”
Disgust fills Shae’s face. It feels so good to see it. But strange as she is, the woman’s not an idiot, and she says nothing that could see her beheaded or hanged. (Not that Sansa would ever tell.) She does lift her hand, and for a moment Sansa thinks it is to touch her face, but then—
“Nice cloak,” Shae says, fingering the fabric.
“The Hound gave it to me,” Sansa says.
“What a gentleman,” Shae snorts.
“Perhaps he is,” Sansa says, a little defensively. She does not know why she feels she ought to defend such a small gesture; a true knight would have slain everyone in the room to keep her safe.
She wonders if a true knight has ever existed.
“Perhaps,” Shae agrees gently, steering Sansa to the bed. She tugs lightly on her skirts. “Now, let me see.”
“I know women have legs, my lady,” Shae says. “I promise, you won’t shock me.” She tickles Sansa’s ribs; it shocks a laugh out of her. She can’t remember the last time she laughed at a touch. Right away, it makes her want to cry. It makes her want her family.
“You needn’t be so loyal,” Sansa tells her. She feels guilty and doesn’t know quite why. “Your job is just to clean up around here, not to—”
“Nonsense,” Shae interrupts firmly. A handmaiden ought never to interrupt a lady. “What else have I got to do, hmm?”
And though perhaps she should, Sansa doesn’t argue.
It circles through the castle that the king sent a pair of girls from his chambers bruised, bloodied, and weeping. Sansa overhears it – she has become a very good listener – and feeling lurches inside of her. She fights it off her face the best she can, but the thought eats her up. She is Joffrey’s betrothed. Whatever he did to those girls was meant for her. She is not his wife yet, and cannot be in his bedchamber, and that’s the only thing that saved her. But soon—
The feeling tries to claw its way out like some trapped wild thing. She fights it back. Her hands shake, threatening her embroidery. It won’t do. She’s always been so proud of her tiny stitches.
She must stitch herself up just as finely. Allow nothing out.
She wonders if those poor weeping, bleeding girls needed to be stitched up.
When I am queen, she thinks, I will reward them with jewels. With banquets in their honor.
Of course Joffrey will be there – hacking their heads off for sport, no doubt, if Sansa lets on that she even knows they exist. But she likes to imagine it, a future without Joffrey in it. King’s Landing with only a queen.
It steadies her hands to think that way.
“You heard,” Sansa says when Shae comes in that night, “about – about the girls in His Grace’s room.”
She does not mean to ask it – only the thought haunts her so.
Shae looks at her a long time. Sansa’s heart flutters.
“I heard,” Shae says at last.
“Do you – do you know how they are?”
Shae’s mouth twists in a way that’s rather pretty, even though Sansa can tell it’s meant to tease her. “Why? Do you think I chat often with whores?”
“Of course not,” Sansa says, flushing. Whores. It seems so cruel a word to force upon girls who’ve suffered so already, though of course Shae is right. “I only wanted …”
“What?” Shae asks, growing tired of silence.
“—I wanted to know if they’re all right. After.”
Shae’s mouth does something else, something sad that makes Sansa want, suddenly, to cry. “I’m sure they’ll live, my lady.”
One can hope for nothing more than that. No matter who you are.
“Sit,” Shae says, her hand steady on Sansa’s shoulder, steady as a promise in a song. “I’ll brush your hair.”
“Make sure you don’t tug too hard,” Sansa orders, once she’s seated and once she’s swiped at her eye swiftly with her sleeve. Shae, considering the items lined on the vanity, had been careful not to notice.
“Don’t worry,” Shae says, her voice soft as a warm bath. How does she do that? Turn so suddenly into just what Sansa needs her to be? Sansa feels a flicker of envy. The stupid impulse to beg, Teach me, please. “I won’t hurt you.”
“Thank you,” Sansa says. For once, courtesy doesn’t feel like a mask.
She meets Shae’s dark eyes in the mirror, and is disoriented by the surprise in them. Servant girls, Sansa realizes, must not receive too many thank yous.
It seems unfair. They work so hard, and can never have hopes of rising up, or being fine ladies, or marrying princes. Most of the time, Sansa doesn’t even think to notice them, and Sansa knows herself to be a kind person. If being trapped here has taught her nothing else, it has taught her that. No one deserves suffering but those who inflict it.
Perhaps it’s best to be a servant. To keep to the shadows.
But that’s what those girls were. That’s what whores are. And the shadows did nothing for them.
“Thank you,” Sansa says again, with too much feeling. She tries to breathe it back in.
“You’re welcome,” Shae says, like she’s not sure if she’s dreaming. All the Aryaish mischief is gone from her face. After a moment she adds, so awkwardly that Sansa knows she must mean it, “You are a good girl.”
They’re the sort of words her mother would have given her. (Or her father.) Sansa would have balked at them. I’m not a child, she would have said, not so very long ago. I’m a lady now. I shall marry a prince, and become a queen. You would never talk to a queen like that.
Now she would give anything – anything to hear those same words in her mother’s voice. Her father’s.
But they are sweet enough in Shae’s, and for the first time in so long, Sansa feels lucky. She had nothing in these walls, in this world, but now she has Shae – Shae, who snacks on fruit from the platters as she clears them, and does not even bother to pretend she’s not doing it. The rules of King’s Landing mean nothing to her. Surely she could run away any time she liked, and take Sansa with her when she went.
What a laughable song it would make: a lady saved by her handmaiden. But perhaps it is not so unlike Florian and Jonquil. Perhaps the rescuing is the important thing (Sansa thinks, recalling the Imp’s hand as he helped her from the floor with more gallantry in that one touch than Joffrey will ever give her, the Hound’s cloak heavy as an embrace around her shoulders). Not who’s doing it.
“You can have some of the grapes after this, if you like,” she offers, nodding to the trays. A lady’s generosity is boundless. Sansa thinks that just now she would give Shae the sky and all its stars, if she could.
“I imagine they’ll taste much less sweet now that I’ve got permission,” Shae teases. Then her expression softens. “Thank you.”
It is the strangest thing, to look into the mirror and see someone behind her now. Sansa had grown so accustomed to the sight of her own face.