It was a gloomy day. The fog was so thick that she could see nothing but white against the window; a mizzling rain spotted the glass, ran in glum rivulets down the pane. Brienne dipped her pen, again, and looked for a long moment into the vacant whiteness of the fog. Somehow the paleness and the sombre light and the biting chill of the air chimed perfectly with her mood, with her sharp, simple, satisfying anger. The stupid iniquities of the Act, the contemptible lethargy that left it untouched while barbarism throve and the meanest motives had their free rein, the combination of lies and laziness that kept the whole workhouse machine going - all of it ran hot in her blood and the words came swift and clear from her pen. It was a good article, a good morning's work. Renly took it eagerly from her when he came, read it over with an appreciative attention that made her face warm with awkward pleasure.
"This is splendid," he said at last, folding the manuscript with care and tucking it into his breast pocket. "I'll have the proofs to you by the end of the week."
"I'm glad," she said and then could think of nothing more to say. The fog had cleared and a little gleam of light had come into the room. The brightness fell on Renly's open handsome countenance and she had a nervous apprehension that he could see the unflattering colour blotching her cheeks and neck with heat.
"Do you think," she said, for something to say, and paused. "Will it make any difference?"
Renly's brightness dimmed a little.
"It could," he said doubtfully. "The King does read the Review, I know. Perhaps he'll draw it to Lannister's attention."
She thought of Tywin Lannister's sardonic face and wished her article unwritten. It would make no difference at all, not with Lannister as Prime Minister; he would sneer at her indignation, call it sentimental nonsense and toss it aside, and public outcry could not be counted on to change his mind. The men and women she had interviewed for the article were, none of them, calculated to appeal to the public's sentimental heart any more than to Lannister's cool mind. They were too rough and shadowed, too worn; none of them had made any affecting speeches and she was not the sort who could invent such stuff.
Renly smiled at her.
"Don't look so downcast, Miss Tarth," he said. "You do better work than any other man on the Review. If anyone could make a difference, it would be you."
"Thank you," she said and tried to return the smile. The clear certainty that always possessed her when she wrote had left her. She felt uncomfortably aware of her body, the half-head of height she had over him, the ungainly bulk of her shoulders and arms in the simple grey dress that had looked so promisingly invisible when she had purchased it. Renly kept his gaze politely focused on her face but her miserable awareness of the rest would obtrude.
"Will you take a little tea?" she asked. To her relief, he demurred, pleading another engagement, and left her. It was always a painful pleasure to see him but to be seen by him, in circumstances such as these when there was no one else present to divert his attention and the work was completed so that he had nothing to look at but her face, was acutely unpleasant.
She shook her head at herself and sat down to begin work on her correspondence. Some part of it was merely vulgar - the kind of thing any woman who dared to go into print under her own name might expect to receive - but some of it called for reply. There was a woman who had a cruel husband, who wrote to approve her article on the divorce law. There was a septon who wrote to condemn the same article. There was-
She stared blankly at the letter in her hand. That was the Lannister seal, quite unmistakable. The lion stared boldly up at her, the yellow wax as rich as gold. She could not think which of that family could be writing to her, or which would be most alarming. She broke the seal.
Ser Jaime Lannister presents his compliments to Miss Brienne Tarth of the King's Landing Review and will do himself the honour of calling on her on Thursday next at ten o'clock.
That was all. She stared in perplexity at the note. She had been introduced to Jaime Lannister once, two years ago, when she had just arrived in King's Landing. He had looked at her as men like him always did, had exchanged a few ironic words with her - amusing himself at her expense and fancying she was too stupid to see it - and then had turned away to someone more important. She could not believe he remembered her. Why, then, did he wish to see her?
She thought back over the last six months of work. She had avoided any direct criticism of the Lannisters themselves, keeping her attention on the social ills that they ignored and leaving her criticisms of the Government implicit. But perhaps they were more sensitive to even such indirect attack than she had suspected? She felt her back stiffen a little. If the Lannisters were sending Ser Jaime to intimidate her, they would find they were mistaken. She took up her pen and replied, briefly, that she would be at home on Thursday morning and that it would give her great pleasure to receive Ser Jaime.
Some of her resolve had faded by the time Thursday morning came around. She remembered that first meeting more and more vividly. He had looked at her with the beginnings of an astonished smile and said, "Miss Tarth?" with an intonation that left her no doubt of his meaning. Some men, like Renly, treated the ugliness of a woman as an occasion for tactful sympathy, like a suicide in the family. She knew how to manage that, the polite aversion of the eyes, the careful avoidance of any remark that might imply she was a woman. But Lannister was not one of those men.
She was disgusted to realise that she was a little afraid to meet him again. She could reply to any verbal attack, or any attempt to intimidate. It was the remembered look in his eyes she dreaded; the derisive unspoken comment that she could not deny the truth of in her own mind. She told herself it didn't matter and dressed with her usual care, combing out her thin straw-coloured hair and pinning it into a small flat coil and choosing the high-necked black dress that made her look a little older than her twenty-two years. She did her best to dress like a woman who understood her own position and made no attempt to conceal it. She strove to maintain her air of indifferent acceptance, but felt her colour rise when Lannister entered the room and faintly started at the sight of her, the corner of his mouth curling a little as he bowed.
"Miss Tarth," he said. "Thank you for agreeing to see me."
The words were polite, formal, but she sensed mockery underneath them and anger came to her aid. She did not invite him to sit down, and remained standing by her writing desk.
"Ser Jaime," she said curtly. "What can I do for you?"
His eyebrows rose a little at her rudeness, and then he smiled. It was a startlingly attractive smile, and rather unexpected; she had not seen him smile before. She felt a momentary stupid impulse to grip the chair beside her.
"Quite right," he said. "Why waste time on empty compliments? The fact is I have a commission for you."
"A commission," she repeated frowningly, and shook her head. "I don't work to commission, Ser Jaime. And particularly not government commission."
His face turned grim.
"It is not," he said. "I'm not here on behalf of the government." He hesitated. "In fact, I'm not here at all."
She drew a breath, all thought of herself forgotten in the sudden excitement of the moment. She was no longer in a room with infamous, insolent Jaime Lannister; this was a source.
"Sit down," she said, and he did. She took her own chair, and nodded to him to continue.
"I came to you because I thought you could be trusted," he said, after a moment of deliberation. "I will need to be wholly anonymous. Any hint of my identity would be fatal."
She nodded impatiently. He looked at her with a little curiosity.
"You understand?" he said. "This isn't a Lannister story. None of our names should appear."
"I don't write gossip," she said and he smiled again, faintly.
"No," he said. "I thought not." He hesitated again and this time she knew she must wait, must give him the space he needed to gather himself for the disclosure. The clock ticked loudly in the silence between them. He looked at her intently, searchingly, and she met his eyes with equal intensity, holding herself very still. She knew how to manage a source.
He made a sound like a sigh.
"Miss Tarth," he said. "Do you know of - have you heard of a substance called wildfire?"
She did not, at first, believe him. It sounded like nonsense. The substance itself was the stuff of legend, something out of the medieval past. He may as well have told her there were dragons now in Westeros. And she disliked and mistrusted the Targaryen general as much as any Lannister could, but she could not bring herself to think that anyone, even Mad Aerys, would seriously intend to burn down the mill towns in response to a few riots.
For a moment, she wondered if Lannister was quite in his senses. But his smile turned rueful as that thought crossed her mind, his sharp green eyes never wavering from her face, and she could not believe him mad or deluded. She swallowed. Her throat was very dry.
"It seems rather incredible," she said as calmly as she could. "Have you any evidence of this? I mean, anything besides-"
"The evidence of my own eyes?" Lannister said dryly. "None."
She stared at him.
"I cannot," she said. "No editor would print such a story, Ser Jaime. It would be irresponsible to write it. Not on the word of a single anonymous source, and nothing more. Is there anyone to corroborate-"
"No," he said flatly. "I do see that it wouldn't do as it stands. But you could look for evidence, couldn't you? That is what you do?"
"Yes," she said. "If - where a story is credible. That's what I would do."
"Ah," he said. There was a moment of fraught silence. His face was quite expressionless. She exhaled. It was folly, but she had trusted her instincts on a story before: it had never been such an impossible story, but she had never felt so powerful an instinct either.
"All right," she said at last. "Let's say I believe you. When is this to take place? And where?"
"Winterfell," Lannister said promptly. "In six weeks' time. Do you believe me?"
She nodded reluctantly. She didn't like the man and couldn't trust him but she couldn't bring herself to disbelieve him. It was something about his face. He looked as handsome and careless as when she had first met him, but his eyes were changed; he had the look of a haunted man, a man carrying a weight of responsibility so great that it might break him. Wildfire.
"I believe you," she said. "Where is it stored? And how? Does it require any special care?"
Lannister closed his eyes. He said nothing and she saw that there was a faint tremor about his mouth. It took people like that sometimes, the surrender of a story they had carried in secrecy and doubt for a long time. She gave him a moment to pull himself together.
"Where is it stored," she said promptingly, when he opened his eyes and looked at her again. He gave a short laugh.
"You're a strange creature," he commented and, to her irritation, she felt herself flush a little. Not now, she told herself sharply. Now was not the time to care about being scrutinised by a man.
"Where," she said again, patiently, and he grinned briefly and then began to talk.
She crossed six sheets of paper with what he told her. He knew a great deal about the nature of wildfire, its discovery, its concealment, its use in the war in Essos that had made Targaryen's military reputation and given him his sobriquet. Then he began to speak of himself, of the slow growth of his suspicions, his horror, his sister's indifference - he stopped abruptly, looking at her. She showed him her empty hands and the papers lying flat on her knee.
"I don't write gossip," she reminded him and he exhaled and nodded. He was very pale now, drained and exhausted. She didn't like the look of that pallor.
"Will you take some refreshment?" she asked gently. "Some brandy?"
The ashen look faded a little, to be replaced by a hint of amusement. He nodded, and watched her as she crossed the room to pour out a glass of brandy for him and madeira for herself.
"You're very solicitous," he remarked, taking the brandy from her. Then he swallowed it down in a single gulp and the laughter deepened around his eyes at her startled expression. "And now I've shocked you. Tell me, Miss Tarth, how old are you?"
"Twenty-two," she said stiffly, disliking the turn of the conversation but unwilling to drag him back to the horrors just yet. His eyebrows lifted.
"Twenty-two," he said. "Where are your parents?"
She gritted her teeth.
"My father lives on Tarth," she said shortly. "He has an estate there."
"Selwyn Tarth," Lannister said at once, in a tone of discovery. "A very respectable man. And he lets you gad about town alone in this way?"
"Yes," she said uncommunicatively and took a sip of her own wine. He looked better, she thought, colour in his face and a teasing smile lilting over his mouth. She drew a deep steadying breath. "I must ask you about your father now."
All the laughter died out of his face. He set the empty brandy glass down beside his chair.
"Go on," he said grimly.
"How much does he know?" she said in her quietest voice. He said nothing, rigid in his chair. She studied him a moment and then tried again.
"I swore to keep your names out of print," she said. "Including his. Anything you tell me now will be in the strictest confidence."
He sat very still, looking at her, and then his gaze dropped to the carpet.
"All of it," he said tonelessly. "I told him. He said he would do his best to prevent it. I told him Targaryen was mad, that he had to be removed, but he wouldn't countenance that. He's too useful an ally."
"I see," Brienne said, musing over it. A thought struck her.
"What if your father knew of this interview?" she asked and could have bitten her tongue out at the look on his face.
"Not your part in it," she clarified hastily. "But that such an interview had taken place. That there were rumours and I was intending to go into print in a matter of weeks. Would that make a difference?"
He was staring at her, an arrested look in his eyes.
"Yes," he said slowly. "But - you wouldn't get the story. My father would scotch it."
"But would he remove Targaryen?" she asked and he nodded slowly.
"Yes," he said. "That would do it. No more wildfire."
"Well, then," she said. "That seems by far the safest course. Certainly safer than waiting to write the story - I'd need to investigate, you know, and six weeks is hardly any time."
"Yes," he said. "I mean - that's what I had intended. I meant to see my father after this interview."
She nodded approval.
"Good," she said. "Do. Tell him that I mean to look into the causes of any accidental fire while Targaryen remains in office. And - what of the wildfire itself? Can it be destroyed?"
"Yes," he said. "I know a way."
"Good," she said again. "Bring me evidence that it has been destroyed and I'll destroy my notes of this interview. I shall expect you again before the six weeks are up."
"It will be my pleasure," he said, rising and coming towards her. There was an odd expression in his eyes, a serious warmth that disconcerted her even more than the derision of their first meeting. She rose quickly from her chair and almost upset the glass of madeira at her elbow. To her vexation, she felt the familiar blush of mortification creep over her cheekbones.
"Good," she said again, a little too heartily, and winced inwardly. She held out her hand for him to shake. "Goodbye, Ser Jaime."
He took her hand but, instead of shaking it, held it in a warm clasp.
"I owe you a debt, Miss Tarth," he said. "I won't forget it."
"I have an article in the Review next month," she said promptly. "On the Poor Relief Act. Will you look into the abuses I have found?"
"Certainly I will," he said, smiling, and then, to her alarmed surprise, he lifted her hand to his lips. A shock ran through her at the touch, the dry brush of his lips, but he seemed not to notice. He let her go and bowed his goodbye and she sat down heavily in the nearest chair as soon as he was gone.
Lannister had been with her nearly four hours and she felt rather light-headed. She was hungry and tired and her head was spinning. Wildfire, of all things. And he had kissed her hand. No one kissed hands now, except the very elderly and the very formal, and Lannister was neither. She wished that he had found some other way of expressing his gratitude.
The next three weeks passed in a kind of suspended calm. She might have dreamt the whole: Lannister's visit, Targaryen's madness, wildfire. Renly sent her an invitation to an evening party, which she declined. Her father sent her a short letter in his awkward hand, enclosing five guineas under the seal and including a postscript from the village septon in praise of her article about the beauty of the chivalric myths of the Seven Kingdoms. She disliked that article - she had written it as a girl, long before she came to King's Landing, and its naivety embarrassed her now - but the note was very kind and she valued its kindness. She reviewed a new novel, for want of other employment, and had the review rejected by the Ladies Quarterly as too caustic. Nothing else happened. A few times she sat down to scribble a note to Lannister but it came to nothing. She could not write to him merely to communicate her own anxiety. If there was anything to know, he would tell her.
In fact, it was Renly, not Lannister, who brought her the news. He burst in on her when she was breakfasting, his eyes bright, stuttering in his excitement, and would not even sit down before rushing out the news. Had she heard? General Targaryen was dead. Suicide.
"Suicide?" she repeated, horrified, and Renly nodded. The hero of Essos was gone. And there was some mystery over it. Something unsavoury. A Lannister connection.
"What do you mean?" she said, her stomach dropping, and Renly sat down at last and accepted a cup of coffee. Jaime Lannister had dined with Targaryen on the night of the suicide. Alone. There were rumours of something ugly that the servants had overheard. Something very like blackmail.
"I don't believe it," Brienne said firmly, clenching her hands in her lap. "Ser Jaime - what could he want from Targaryen? He wouldn't need to blackmail him."
Renly looked up at her, faintly puzzled.
"You sound very sure," he said. "Of course it does you credit - I don't care to judge a man on servants' gossip myself. But I daresay you don't know Lannister, Miss Tarth. He's a nasty piece of work if ever there was one. I wouldn't put anything past him."
I do know him, she thought, with startling vehemence. She checked herself. She had had exactly one conversation with Lannister. He might have had any motive for wishing to be rid of Targaryen, besides his professed one. Perhaps the story of the wildfire had been a mere pretext to attack him. She remembered the look of horror in Lannister's eyes and dismissed that idea. No. The wildfire was real. But to drive a man to suicide - she swallowed and set down her own coffee cup, forced her attention back to Renly, who was still speaking.
"In a way it doesn't matter if the Lannisters had a direct hand in it," he was saying. "It's damned convenient for the Government all the same. Targaryen was always a thorn in Tywin Lannister's side. Now there's no one to oppose him in cabinet."
"I thought Targaryen was a useful ally," Brienne said and Renly shrugged.
"In a way, I suppose," he said. "But he's even more useful dead. Now Lannister's rid of him and he hasn't had to offend the army. It's a dirty business."
"Yes," Brienne agreed. That much, at least, was true. She thought with a certain nausea that perhaps she herself, with her threatened story, might be in some sense responsible for the death. Perhaps she had connived in a kind of blackmail. It was a frightening thought and she brooded over it for the rest of the day, after Renly had left her. Surely there might have been some other way? But what other way? Lannister had left her with a vivid picture of what wildfire could do, what it could have done. But still. Surely there might have been some other way.
That afternoon brought a note from Ser Jaime. He wished to call on her that night, after ten o'clock. He apologised for the late hour, but he had a dinner engagement. She must send the servant back with a note before six if she wished him not to come. Her curiosity prevented her from doing this - she must know what had happened and what had been done about the wildfire - but some well-trained part of her mind was scandalised by the idea of receiving a gentleman, alone, at that hour. Her old governess would have been horrified. But that was nonsense, of course, she told herself as she waited for Ser Jaime in her narrow little sitting-room, listening to the dwindling sounds of the street and watching the candles in the room burn low. She was doing her job, that was all. She was past the stage of missish fears and airs.
The hour turned from ten to eleven and then to past midnight. The night was very silent. She felt a little flutter of nerves as the clock chimed the half-hour. Her book could not hold her attention. Perhaps he would not come. She lit new candles anyway, just in case, and heard the creak of a step on the stair just as she was putting down the taper. Pod had gone to bed, of course, as she had instructed, so she opened the front door herself, just as Ser Jaime was lifting his hand to knock.
He looked ill, she thought in alarm; he was swaying a little. Then he smiled at her and she saw, with disgust, that he was quite drunk. He opened his mouth to speak and she hastily gripped the lapel of his coat and pulled him into the front hall of her apartment, before the neighbours could hear a man's voice in the corridor. These apartments were a rabbit-warren of ill-ventilated but cavernous stairs and corners, and sounds echoed unpredictably through the building; the walls were very thin.
"Quiet," she said, bolting the doors, as Lannister opened his mouth to speak. "Come into the sitting-room."
He gave an exaggerated little bow of compliance, putting his hand on his heart, and followed her obediently into the sitting-room. She could smell the fumes of brandy and something sharper, thinner, which she had encountered before only in the slums of the city. Gin. She grimaced.
"I know," he said. "Disgusting, isn't it? But what can you expect, Miss Tarth, if you let a murderer into your home at this hour of night?"
"You're not a murderer," she said sharply, startled by her own conviction. She had been worrying over the question all day but now, somehow, looking at him, she was sure. "Sit down. Did you bring me the evidence you promised?"
He handed her a crumpled scrap of paper, from somewhere in the recesses of his coat. It was dirty, thumb-marked and creased. A receipt for fifty tons of sand. She gave him a perplexed look.
"That's how," he said. "Sand. The only way to put it out."
She looked again at the creased, filthy paper. It was no evidence at all. But then she had not had real evidence for any of this. Only Ser Jaime's word. She put the paper in her pocket, unlocked her desk and handed him her notes.
"Destroy them here if you like," she said, nodding to the low fire in the grate, but he didn't. He turned them over in his hands instead, squinting down at them with an air of detached interest.
"You write a peculiar hand, Miss Tarth," he said. "Very - large. Very clear. I've never seen a woman's hand like it."
"Thank you," she said and he smiled, cramming the papers into his coat pocket. Then he dropped suddenly into an armchair as if his strings had been cut. He put his hand over his face.
"You've heard, I take it," he said and she nodded silently.
"My father wouldn't," he said to his boots. "He said I could take my threats to Targaryen if I wanted to threaten anyone. I had no choice."
"I know," she said and he lifted his head to stare at her.
"You don't know," he said with painstaking emphasis. "You're - you just - you're taking my word, again. I don't know why."
She frowned at him.
"I know when I'm being lied to," she said. "That's my job."
He made a sound that could have been a laugh.
"You're a child," he said in a defeated voice. "You don't know - do you really think I wouldn't lie?"
"I'm sure you would," she said steadily. "But at the moment you aren't."
"Seven spare us," he said under his breath and then, in a quite different voice, as if the words were wrenched out of him, "she doesn't. Believe me. She thinks I killed him for us. Because he found out about us."
The words hung in the air. Brienne swallowed and held her tongue. She did not wish to know any more about that. He had said enough of his sister, last time, that she could easily make a very ugly guess and she did not at all wish to have it confirmed. He looked at her for a long moment and then his gaze grew hazy, unfocused, slipping over her shoulder. He was half-asleep in her best armchair and it was past one in the morning. She stood quickly and his head jerked up obediently to follow the motion.
"You must go now," she said. He grinned vaguely.
"Of course," he said and rose unsteadily. "Wouldn't want to. Besmirch your reputation. I'm sure it's quite impeccable."
She said nothing, waiting for him to go, and he put his hand in his pocket, feeling for her notes, as if to be sure he had what he had come for. Then he made a very creditable bow, only wavering a little as he straightened.
"Thank you, Miss Tarth," he said. "You've been really very kind."
Kind, in his voice, sounded like an insult and she had to hold herself steady to keep from flinching. He was such an unpleasant man, she thought, feeling her heart begin to hammer as he approached and then she couldn't help herself, she took a jerky step back as he reached for her hand. His face seemed to sharpen at that, his eyes suddenly piercing, the drunken haze lifting, and for a trapped moment she thought he would say something more, something worse. But he only let his hand drop again and left the room. She heard the door bang shut behind him and closed her eyes. She hoped desperately that she would never see him again.
Of course it was unrealistic to expect never to see Ser Jaime again. She saw him a week after the incident in her rooms, at court, bending slightly so that his sister could whisper in his ear. He was smiling a little, faintly, and the Queen's hand was on his sleeve, her lips almost brushing his jaw. Brienne looked swiftly away, by instinct, and almost fled the room. Then she stopped herself. She didn't think he had even seen her, and this gauche panic was foolish, childish. She held her ground.
As she ought to have expected, nothing happened. He glanced her way once, met her eyes, and gave so slight a nod that she might have imagined it. She nodded too and that was all. He didn't approach her, or speak to her, and she spent the evening as usual, in conversation with Renly, who was always courteous and forced Loras Tyrell, who was perpetually at his elbow, to be the same.
After that, she glimpsed Ser Jaime once in the park and many times in Parliament, as she sat scribbling in the visitors' gallery and he lounged beside his father or rose to roar mockery at the Starks on the Opposition benches. He never looked up at her, except once. When he rose to introduce the repeal and replacement of the Poor Relief Act, his eyes grazed the visitors' gallery and found her for an instant; she wasn't sure what expression was on her face but it made him smile a little before he returned to his speech. Tywin Lannister glanced up at her too, very briefly, his face expressionless. She wanted to shiver and held herself still. A little smile passed over Tywin Lannister's mouth and then faded. Neither of them looked at her again, but those two moments of fleeting attention left her feeling faintly scalded for the rest of the morning. She had never before fully grasped why everyone thought the Lannisters so terrifying.
The Bill passed with very little opposition. She wrote a short piece extolling its improvements and noting the many remaining flaws in the new Act. That brought her a note, in the familiar bold hand under the lion seal. She held her breath before breaking the seal but it was only a single line. Not before next Parliament, Miss Tarth, it said. Strive for a little patience. And that was all, for the rest of the year.
The whole affair began, to her relief, to fade in her memory. She became interested in prison reform, and interviewed Lady Catelyn Stark on the question. That drew her deeper into Opposition circles and she found herself dining with the Starks and the Greyjoys, arguing the wrongs of capital punishment with Ned Stark and listening to invective against the Lannister stranglehold on the King and so on government. It was easy to talk about the Lannisters as a whole, their endless and intricate alliances, their carefully cultivated control of all the rotten boroughs in the country, their unfair access to the King's ear. It became more natural not to remember Ser Jaime Lannister standing in her drawing-room, faintly swaying, not to remember the particular warmth of his grip of her hand.
The Review became, under Renly's guidance, more and more openly loyal to the Opposition. Brienne became busier and busier, as her influence grew and Loyalist papers took enough notice of her to begin on a few slanderous rumours and she almost forgot how unsettling the Lannisters could be in person. Then she received another note. No, not a note. A letter.
It crossed four sheets, and seemed not to be about anything in particular. Ser Jaime commented lightly and mockingly on her passion for Starks but he also told her a good deal about what was going on in government, about his brother's quarrels with his sister, about his half-remembered mother, about the hunting party that he had just returned from. It was inexplicable, baffling. More than seven months had passed since they had last spoken. She thought, by the tone of the letter, that he might be drunk again but that hardly explained why he should be writing to her. The letter was very indiscreet. She could not imagine that, when he was sober, he would want to leave it in her possession.
That left her with a dilemma. She ought to write and inform him that he could recover his letter when he wished to do so, and obliquely assure him that she wouldn't do anything dishonourable with it. But she didn't wish to write to him. She disliked the idea of even addressing an envelope with his name. But that wasn't all. She realised slowly, with some dismay, that she didn't wish to part with the letter. She had read it only once, but she already seemed to have it by heart. She had not forgotten the tone and cadence of his voice at all; he might have been in the room with her as she read the letter and heard his jeering half-defeated, half-stubborn idealism ring through every line.
She couldn't bring herself to write. She kept the letter in her desk, and told her conscience that he would surely write to ask her to destroy it if he was concerned. He didn't. Instead, a few weeks later, another letter arrived. And then another. He was not drunk, she realised, but only rather desperate. Matters with his sister seemed to have deteriorated unpleasantly; his references to her were oblique but plain enough to Brienne's ear. He seemed to be writing to her merely to confide in someone, anyone. Why he thought he could trust her to this extent was a mystery. She had told him she didn't write gossip but the thing was still an insane gamble.
She read every letter only once - she made that a rule - but each one unsettled her for days. She never knew what to make of them. He still never looked at her in the House, as she sat in the visitors' gallery. But she knew he saw her because he wrote of it. The bluest eyes in the world, he wrote, and she felt herself blush so hotly that she almost destroyed that letter.
It was like living two lives. There was the Brienne who read the letters, privately, by candlelight, flushed and unsettled and somehow, unreasonably, racked with longing. Then there was the Brienne who wrote publicly and with assurance in the Review to castigate the Lannisters for their folly and cruelty in the matter of prisons. The two lives had nothing to do with each other, and both grew to feel curiously unreal. You are better at silence than any other creature, he wrote. But don't you ever tire of it? She didn't reply. That was the last letter she had from him, before the Government fell.
Later, Brienne thought of those few months with utter bewilderment. Events happened so swiftly that they all seemed to be happening at once; her memory presented her with only a confused chaos of images, a clamour of shocked voices and shouting headlines all jumbled together. The death of the king. The vote of no confidence, led by Ned Stark. The young king's sullen handsome face, as he listened to the speeches in the upper House and saw his grandfather briefly ousted. And then, with the swiftness of a kaleidoscope, everything turning again. Ned Stark disgraced, resigned, dead. Robb Stark's brief rise, the scandal of his illegal marriage, his disappearance. The Lannister restoration. The rumour of illegitimacy, the news that Lord Stannis was contemplating a legal challenge. Every article in the Review went out of date before it was printed. And then Renly came to her house, his face white and his lips trembling, to tell her it was over. He had to give up the Review.
"But," she said, so amazed she could not say more. The old King had tried to bully his brother out of his journalism for years, under Lannister influence, and Renly had always laughed every attempt off.
"They know," he said thinly. "About. About Loras."
He met her blank gaze and flinched.
"I thought," he said, with jagged reluctance. "I thought you might have guessed. Loras and I, we. We are."
"I know," Brienne heard herself say, wanting to spare him, and faintly surprised by her own calm certain voice. Her ears were ringing a little. Loras. Loras and Renly. She ought to be astonished but she could only think of course. "Who - what has happened?"
"I don't know," he said. "I don't know who. I had a letter. It was not a bluff. They have one of my letters. To him. It quotes-"
His voice broke and Brienne found that she had one hand on his arm and the other on his shoulder, that she was pulling him closer, almost embracing him. He put his head on her shoulder, the familiar curls brushing her cheek, and she held him silently and listened to her own heart beating very slowly, distinctly, in her ears. She was holding Renly in her arms, a thought that would have scalded her imagination only an hour ago, and yet she felt no shock, no longing, no terror. She was barely even aware of her body. She could only think of Renly.
It was as though she was seeing him for the first time, as he was, free of her own frustrated, ignorant desire. Renly. He loved Loras, and he loved the Review, and his cheerful wholeness, his happiness in loving and having what he loved, had been torn apart.
"I'm sorry," she said, low-voiced, and he pulled away and wiped his face and tried to smile.
"I apologise," he said. "I didn't come here to make a scene. I merely needed to tell you - I felt I owed you the truth, after all you have given to me and to the Review. I am truly sorry, Miss Tarth -"
"Brienne," she said and she saw a flicker of pleasure cross his face.
"Thank you," he said. "I - it means a good deal to have your friendship, still."
He took her hand and she gripped back tightly. It had never occurred to her that she might be the one who could close the distance between them; that Renly might feel a reason for reserve that was nothing to do with her ugliness and her desire.
"You will always have it," she said and he smiled wanly.
"What will you do?" she asked, after a moment's long silence.
"I don't know," he said dully. "My brother wants me to return to the country. To manage the land, you know. I suppose I could do that. He forbids Loras to accompany me."
The cruelty of it took her breath away.
"Don't," she said fiercely. "Stay. Fight."
He shook his head.
"I can't," he said. "I've nothing to live on without the Review, you know. No income. And my brother holds the purse strings."
She couldn't think what to say. This passivity and resignation on his part seemed horrible to her, deeply unlike him. It was like a kind of death. But what else could he do?
"There must be a way," she said at last. "Can't we - if we knew who sent the letter. We could find a way."
"There is no way," he said dully, and she almost shook him.
"Let me try," she said. "Will you show me the letter at least?"
It was a nondescript thing, the hand obviously disguised, the paper cheap and unmarked. She looked at it for a long time. The hand was disguised but it was familiar too. She know that looping l and the odd forward slant of the vowels. Her stomach went cold.
"Do you know it?" Renly asked, studying her face keenly, a remote gleam of hope coming into his eye, and she shook her head.
"I'm not sure," she said slowly. It was a lie. She was horribly sure. "Let me - will you give me a few days? I have some ideas."
She wrote a short note, after three attempts at a longer letter that hinted at her reason. She simply requested the favour of a visit from him, without more, and hoped that their strange almost-acquaintance would persuade him to come.
It did. He looked older than when she had last seen him, his face a little worn, but he seemed dismayingly pleased to see her. She had involuntarily held out her hand to shake, an ingrained habit now, and he took it at once and clasped it in both his own, held it almost at his heart.
"Miss Tarth," he said, faint laughter in his eyes, and she felt colour suffuse her face, remembering how she had lingered over his letters, almost lived on them for a period of several foolish weeks. She had forgotten how sharp and direct his gaze could be.
"Thank you for coming," she said stiffly, twisting her hand a little until his grip slackened and she could take it back. "I needed to speak with you."
"Yes," he said, still smiling. "I thought you might. Have you taken an interest in gossip at last, Miss Tarth?"
She paused. The smile was gleaming, friendly, but she was suddenly sure that all his show of pleasure at the sight of her concealed something else, some anger or apprehension. Perhaps he had guessed that Renly would bring her the letter. Anger surged up in her, and she felt her jaw tighten. She had not truly believed, until this moment, that it could be him.
"In a manner of speaking," she said curtly and took the letter from her pocket. He gave her a quick puzzled look and took it, handling it as if he had never seen it before.
His face changed as he read. All the humour left it and all the well-concealed anger and wariness. He was quite still, and the expression in his eyes was bleak.
"You want to know who wrote this," he said, after a long leaden moment. "Or perhaps you have a guess."
Her guess, which had briefly risen to a certainty, died as she watched him and saw the unhappy searching look in his eyes as he studied her. She shook her head faintly.
"I don't know," she said. "I thought I knew - I recognised the hand."
"Yes," he said. "So do I. My sister and I - we are twins, you know."
"Oh," she said, her voice a whisper and he thrust the note in his pocket, crumpling it as he did so.
"I'll deal with it," he said shortly. "Tell Baratheon that. It won't come to anything."
"But," Brienne said. The sense of irrational trust that descended on her whenever he was actually in the room with her was very strong, but she had to ignore it now for Renly's sake. "How can I know that you had no part in this? Why your sister and not you? What does she hope to gain by it?"
"She thinks he knows something," he replied. "And she thinks he means to help his brother. I know better, on both counts."
"I see," she said slowly, and he looked at her with a sudden viciousness.
"That's the only difference," he said sharply, as if she had contradicted him. "If I believed your Renly to be any threat to us, I'd have done the same."
"I can't believe that," she said and he smiled then, an unpleasant smile that made her stomach clench with dread.
"I know you don't," he said. He came towards her and she flinched involuntarily back. He ignored the flinch, this time, and touched her. Only a hand at her waist but the stroke of his thumb made the gesture seem obscene. She couldn't move. He brought his face even closer, so that his lips were almost touching hers.
"My sister and I," he said, in a voice so soft that it could have been mistaken for tender. "Are the same, do you understand? We defend what's ours." His gaze flickered to her mouth. She became aware that she was trembling, almost shivering in his grip, and that he could feel it. She still couldn't make herself move.
"You like me," he went on, still in that gentle inexorable voice. "I don't know if you're truly too ignorant to know why." His thumb touched her lower lip and she had to shut her eyes, dizzy. His voice, in the dark behind her eyes, seemed like the only sound in the world besides the rapid hammer of her own heart. "But it has nothing to do with my superior virtue, I promise you."
The kiss, when it came, was incongrously soft at first, a delicate brush of his mouth over hers. She heard herself gasp and then his hand took her jaw and held her still for a deeper kiss. She meant to tear away from him, order him out of her house, perhaps strike him, but she did none of these things. She let him kiss her and, when he pushed a little, she opened her mouth to him and kissed him back. His other hand moved from her waist to the small of her back, pressing her close to him, forcing her to feel what they were doing, the stir of his body against hers. Then he let her go and stepped back, a wash of cold air coming in his wake.
She opened her eyes, after a moment. She would not be a coward. He was studying her dispassionately from a few feet away.
"I'll deal with the situation regarding Baratheon," he said coolly. She nodded dumbly and he paused and sighed.
"Don't look like that about it," he said, more gently. "We can't help these things, you know, most of us. It doesn't mean - it only makes you human."
"Just go," she said, in a raw voice she hardly recognised, and he only hesitated briefly, half-raising a hand and letting it drop, before he did.
Renly had his stolen letter returned to him, anonymously, three weeks later. After that, Brienne took her packet of Lannister's letters and put them in the fire. Or rather she meant to do so. She found that, when it came to it, she could not. Her hands refused. It made her very angry, as she thrust the letters back in their drawer and turned the key and hid the key in the back of a closet, but it couldn't be helped.
None of it could be helped. Renly loved Loras, and Jaime Lannister was like his sister, and she. She liked him, he had said, but he had meant it as a euphemism. She decided, after some weeks, that could do without the euphemism. She was, she supposed, infatuated in some way. But it didn't matter. It didn't mean anything, beyond itself. She would go on with her work, with her new friendship with Renly and Loras, with the child labour article that Catelyn Stark had spoken about. She would not read the scandal sheets that circulated about him and his sister, would not follow the legal proceedings, would not listen to the buzz of court rumours. Politics had become gossip and she meant to steer clear of it for a time, she told Renly, and he believed her and let her get on with child labour. There, at least, she had a hope that she could help.
She did her best to avoid political gossip, but the broad strokes were unavoidable in the circles in which she moved. Stannis Baratheon's sudden bankruptcy, halfway through his lawsuit concerning the succession, didn't surprise her. She felt very little regret, considering what he had been to his brother, but the swiftness and thoroughness of his destruction did send a twinge through her. My sister and I, she remembered. We defend what's ours.
The world seemed, after that, almost to stabilise. The rumours about the succession faded to nothing, a salacious tale that no one expected to change anything. King Joffrey was on the throne and Tywin Lannister was back on the front benches, his fine blade of a face utterly unchanged by the changing fortunes of the last year. It seemed like the restoration of a permanent order.
And then something happened, no one knew precisely what. All that the public knew was that, one morning, a story of appalling corruption in Tywin's private life emerged in the press and then another and then another, for six weeks, every week, like clockwork. Members of Cabinet began to resign daily. And in the inevitable vote of no confidence, Tywin Lannister lost every supporter, including his two sons; both abstained.
Brienne was in the gallery, and she had never seen anything so ruthless done so calmly. Tywin Lannister's face was utterly still, cool, almost absent. He made a short speech of resignation and then walked out of the chamber immediately -- walked, rumour said, straight into the river. Tyrion Lannister was Prime Minister. Ser Jaime looked very pale, to Brienne's eye, but no one else seemed to notice that. Patricide, the papers called it, and the cartoons showed Tyrion wielding the knife and Ser Jaime knocking his father to his knees so that his brother could get at his back.
It was shocking, from one perspective, but unsurprising from another. Lannisters were like that, everyone knew, and Tyrion Lannister was famously the most sinister of Lannisters. One killed his father and the other fucked his sister, the worst of the anonymous gutter press sniggered, and both were sound Lannister traditions. Brienne kept her eyes, mostly, averted. She could not help realising, however, that the new Government was very different from the old.
There was a commission into poverty. A commission into the state of the countryside. Into factory conditions for children. She appeared before all of them and saw, like a miracle, her words appear in ministerial speeches and her arguments behind Bill after Bill in the new House. The conservative faction fought and fought hard, defeated the new poor relief law entirely and forced down the age in the child labour proposals from sixteen to twelve, but it was something to have the Government on the right side for once.
Lady Catelyn would never forgive any Lannister for their personal betrayal of her husband, but Lady Sansa was more pragmatic and lent her support to some of the new causes. Brienne accompanied her to committee meetings and published accounts of the new laws and found herself, somehow, in a sporadic correspondence with the new Prime Minister. And so she ought not to have been surprised to receive an invitation to dine at the palace; she knew such invitations were common, among those the Government considered friendly, and it should have occurred to her that she was now important in the new order. Still, it surprised her, and she had a cowardly impulse to decline.
"Why?" Lady Sansa said. "It isn't only dinner, you know. These things matter."
They did, Brienne knew, so she grimly got herself into satin - the only evening gown she possessed, pearl-grey and square-necked and long-sleeved and yet somehow, still, obtrusively drawing attention to her thick arms and big shoulders and flat chest - and took a hackney cab to the palace. Lady Sansa met her on the stairs and politely said nothing about the dress, only taking her elbow in a friendly gesture that made Brienne feel, for the moment, that the evening might be quite pleasant. But she had forgotten that the seating arrangements would not have been made for her personal comfort. They were the worst imaginable. Lady Sansa was far away, at another table entirely, and she was given a place of honour at the Queen Mother's elbow. Ser Jaime was directly opposite.
They were, she saw, truly very alike. Green eyes and golden hair and almost the same curl of the mouth when amused or contemptuous. She nodded politely and Ser Jaime nodded back, his face unreadable in the low candlelight. Cersei Lannister smiled thinly at her, once, and did not address her at all. Tyrion, diagonally opposite, waved to her cheerfully and leaned across his brother to welcome her.
"It's a very great pleasure to see you here," he said. "I shall want your opinion on everything."
She laughed and he grinned and turned his attention back to his neighbour, Baroness Targaryen, rumoured to be his patron and the most powerful woman in the country. Brienne's neighbour to the left was an inoffensive thin-faced lady, very rich, who had read an article about the marriage laws and wanted to tell Brienne every iniquitous story she knew about them. So the first part of the dinner passed off pleasantly enough. She avoided Ser Jaime's eye. Conversation became general. Tyrion was talking in a swift rattling style, but she was aware of the current of attention in him, his awareness of how everything he said was heard.
"It's the greatest challenge of our time," a stout man was saying to him, about the national debt, and Tyrion's mouth quirked.
"There are an awful lot of challenges," he said mildly and then he caught her eye.
"What is your view, Miss Tarth? What is the most important thing you would see done?"
"There's a good deal to do," Brienne said deliberately, ignoring the outraged stare of the stout man at having his words referred to her. "In the long term: women's suffrage, I think. No just society is possible without it."
Of course, that sparked controversy, as she had expected. She listened to the usual arguments, listened to Baroness Targaryen answer the silliest ones and was about to open her mouth to speak again when the Queen Mother spoke instead.
"Most women," she said, her clear distinct voice rising above the general babble of the table. "Value influence far more than political power. A woman's influence can be infinite, if she knows herself and," her eyes grazed over Brienne's face and paused there, "is not a positive freak in appearance. The vast majority of us have all the power we could desire. All it requires is a little tact."
There was a little intake of breath, a moment of almost utter silence as heads turned towards Brienne. The pointed remark would have moved her almost to tears some years ago, at eighteen or even at twenty. Now it stung, of course, but she could make herself smile ruefully and almost mean it.
"Of course, Your Grace," she said. "Some women have always had such power. But it isn't power I'm thinking of but justice. We have a right to speak, as men do. However hideous we might be."
She said the last with a little acknowledging smile, and Cersei smiled back, equally falsely. Baroness Targaryen took up the thread and Brienne felt the scorching attention of the table pass away from her and let the smile fade on her lips, let her hands clutch at each other under the table. She felt miserable, childishly miserable, though she knew how little these things mattered now. She was telling herself again how little it mattered when she felt, sudden and startling under the table, a hand close over her knee.
Her gaze jerked up. Ser Jaime was not looking at her; he was ducking his head to listen to his neighbour talk about her daughter's presentation at court next season. But the hand on her knee was his. She couldn't move. Was he trying to be kind, to somehow make up for his sister's rudeness? His hand moved to her thigh. Her eyes dropped to her plate. She could hardly breathe.
"Miss Tarth," he said, and she made herself meet his eyes, acutely aware of his sister's intense attention. "I meant to ask you a question about the education bill. My brother is convinced that nothing can be done for the city children and we had much better begin with the village schools. What is your opinion?"
"I," she said, and then pulled herself together before everyone heard her stammer. "It's difficult, Ser Jaime. No one even knows how many children wander the streets of our cities. Many have no homes, even. But I do believe something can be done for them. A school that supplied meals could do much."
"Well," he said, smiling. "If anyone can change my brother's mind, I'm sure you can."
She didn't know what to say to that and smiled foolishly in reply. The heat of his hand on her thigh was distracting her unbearably and she knew, from the little curve of his lips as he turned back to ask his neighbour what she thought could be done for the children, that he knew it. She felt hot and uncomfortable, and a little angry, but no longer miserable. She turned to speak again to her own neighbour, and the hand squeezed once and was withdrawn.
She glanced across the table and saw that Tyrion was watching his brother intently, a little furrow between his brows; as she looked at him, his gaze shifted to her face and she felt herself blush fiercely, incriminatingly scarlet, she was sure, even in the dim candlelight. He smiled faintly and raised his glass to her, politely, before turning away.
The interminable dinner was, finally, coming to its close. People were beginning to drift away. She reached for her own shawl, and then saw that Baroness Targaryen was leaning towards her, speaking, and that she had no idea what had been said.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't quite catch-"
"Suffrage," Baroness Targaryen said. "You have never written on the subject, I think."
"No," Brienne agreed. "I don't believe it can happen, my lady, not in our lifetimes. I have written about matters I have some hope of changing."
Ser Jaime was looking at her again, his gaze so intent that she could feel it burning in her peripheral vision. She avoided turning her head with an effort.
"Oh," Baroness Targaryen said with a smile, glancing at Tyrion. "Very little is impossible, I find. I've never regretted an attempt."
She was beautiful in an unearthly way, Brienne thought, with her flawless pale skin and her shining hair. Not only a lovely woman, like Cersei, golden and warm-skinned, but like some other kind of creature altogether. It was unsurprising that she had not feared to be daring.
"I'm sure you are right," Brienne said politely, and lifted her shawl. Ser Jaime unexpectedly rose as she did, and she felt rather than saw the quick dart of Cersei's eyes towards him.
"I'll see you home, Miss Tarth," he said, not looking at his sister, and she wanted to object but found that she couldn't speak. He waited for her as she fumbled the shawl over her arms, and then gave her his arm as she passed him. It was absurd, and she was conscious that her height made her ridiculous as she put her hand in the crook of his elbow, but there was no way to avoid any of it without making a scene.
"You look well," he said. "Are you still very angry?"
"No," she said, realising it was true as she said it. Even his conduct tonight, improper as it had been, could not rouse much fury in her. She was only very tired. She wanted to go home. He gave her a swift look, but said nothing in reply. They passed between the footmen and out of the great hall.
"I can take a cab," she said, when she saw that he was leading her towards the stables, and he shook his head.
"I want to speak to you," he said. "Will you let me escort you?"
"What is there to say?"
He glanced at her, sidelong.
"My sister," he said, and she almost groaned. Of course. His sister, his sister, his sister. Would he ever speak of anything else? He saw her jaw tighten and spoke again, more quickly than she had ever heard him speak before. "She was unspeakably rude, I know, but it was my fault. I was indiscreet. I said - I told her -"
She stared in dawning horror and he shook his head.
"Nothing to your discredit," he said. "Only that I - about myself. She dislikes your influence over me."
"My influence," she said flatly, disbelieving, and he turned her to face him.
"Yes," he said. "I think about you. Whenever I act. I think of your eyes."
Her breath caught in her throat. There was the anger she had thought she was too tired to feel.
"Stop," she said. "I will not listen to this."
"I'm telling you why my sister is angry," he said. "I'm telling you not to pay any heed to her - to what she said tonight. You are-"
"I don't pay any heed to it," she said, her anger sparking suddenly to a blaze. "I don't pay any heed - I don't care. About the reasons for her spite or your - my supposed influence over you. It's nothing to me."
There was a long silence. She couldn't read his expression at all. After a moment, she took her arm from his.
"I can take a cab," she said. "Thank you."
He nodded, and turned his head to whistle for a groom. His profile was shadowy, beneath the flickering yellow lamps, but she thought uncomfortably that he looked rather shaken. She would not let him manipulate her again, she told herself.
"I've never wished for influence," she said in a quieter voice, as they waited for the groom to return with the hackney. He turned his eyes back to her, attentive. "Not that kind, I mean. I don't - if you tell me that I, that my eyes have some, some influence on you I don't understand that. I don't believe in such things."
"Of course you don't," he said. "Why should you? I don't believe you've ever changed your mind in your life."
"Of course I have," she said, stung by the unreasonableness of this assessment and he shook his head.
"You don't know what I mean," he said. "You haven't changed yourself. Have you?"
She shook her head.
"I wouldn't know how," she admitted, and he smiled as he helped her up into the cab.
"I know," he said. "Good night," and his lips brushed her cheek just before he shut the cab door on her. He stayed in the courtyard, standing perfectly still, and watched the cab all the way up the avenue until it turned a corner and she lost sight of him.
There was a note early the next morning, which arrived with the first post. He would call on her in the afternoon, if convenient. For a moment, she knew a panicky impulse to go out, to refuse, to reply with her regrets that she was otherwise engaged. She squashed that impulse. It was cowardice. If last night was any indication, he wished to apologise for the last time. If she let him, perhaps they might become friends, of sorts.
She thought of what a friendship with him might mean and felt an odd lightness fill her chest. He might begin to write to her again. Perhaps she might write to him. He might begin to drop by, often, perhaps every few weeks. They might talk. She had hardly spoken to him, really, but she knew instinctively that he would understand whatever she had to say and the idea of such a friend was warming. The rest - the feverish element in her response to him, the particular nervousness that seized her when he looked at her - all that would fade, in time. Renly had taught her that. If he would only ignore it, she knew now that she could make it fade.
He had touched her mouth with his thumb, she remembered, after he had kissed her. He had not chosen to ignore it then. But he had been angry, she reminded herself. It had been a difficult time for him, and he had felt he was defending his sister. All that was over, surely.
She rubbed her damp palms on her dress and wished she had told him she would be out. The knock on the door felt loud, echoing in the pit of her stomach, and she knew her feeble attempt at a smile was a failure as the door swung open and he stood there, looking at her across the room.
"Tyrion thinks we should marry," he said, without preamble, as he came in. It was so unexpected that it shocked a startled laugh out of her and he smiled too, a grim little curl of his mouth.
"I know," he said. "Ridiculous. You won't, then?"
"What?" she said incredulously. "Marry you?"
He nodded soberly. She stared, unable to form words.
"What do you mean?" she said, at last. "Is this a joke?"
"No," he said. "Tyrion noticed, you see, last night. He told me I should at least ask."
"Ask," she repeatedly blankly and stopped. He said nothing, waiting. He had asked her to marry him. She sat down, heavily.
"I don't understand," she said. "Why?"
"I like you," he said. "I want - I've become rather obsessed, to tell you the truth. I'd like to have you with me."
She could only think that he was joking, that this was some piece of mad Lannister cruelty beyond any she had ever heard of, but his face was serious and she couldn't quite believe it was an elaborate practical joke either.
"I don't think you should marry me," he said abruptly, into the lengthening silence. She opened her hands in a gesture of incredulity - what was the matter with him - and he came closer, knelt by her chair so that she could feel his breath by her cheek and the heat of him close against her thigh and breast.
"I mean," he said, watching her. "If I were - oh, your brother or your father. I'd tell you not to." He touched her cheek lightly, ran his thumb along the line of her brow and a shivering sort of heat took posession of her. She could hardly breathe. "Will you?"
"I wanted," she said, hearing her voice thin and distant in her own ears. "I hoped we might be friends."
"Ah," he said, and touched her jaw. "No."
He kissed her again, then, as she had feared and hoped he would. He had a hand in her hair. She half-slipped from the chair, somehow, and then she was on the floor with him on top of her. His knee pressed into her skirts, parting her legs a little, and she put her hands on his shoulders to push him away and found herself clutching instead. Her eyes were shut. Darkess and heat, and the scrape of his stubble across her cheek. Then he touched her breast, and she felt her breath stop in her throat.
"I'm not your friend," he said in her ear. "I could -" he stopped and caught his breath. "Marry me, Brienne. I'll be - I'll do my best."
"I don't think," she said, hardly knowing what she said or meant. It was like a dream or a nightmare, utterly foreign to her experience. His thumb moved, a slow stroke over her nipple, and she heard herself moan aloud, a noise that she could hardly believe had come out of her own throat.
"Will you stop me?" he asked softly, and she opened her eyes because the darkness had become unbearable, frightening. He was so close she could see the faint gold of his incipient stubble and the deep lines at the corners of his eyes. He was more flushed than the level tone of his voice might have suggested, and she could see how his eyes had darkened.
"I don't know," she said, hearing her voice shake. He was on top of her and she was strong enough to shove him away but her hands wouldn't let go of his shoulders. It was very hard to think.
"I don't think I could stop myself again," he said. "Last night, I wanted - do you know how you looked in that dress?"
She gave him a blank look and he smiled a little and shook his head.
"This can't go on," he said. "I want you. You want me. Will you marry me?"
She shook her head automatically, still incredulous, and he sighed and dropped his head to her shoulder. His hand lifted from her breast at last. He sat up, and gave her his hand to help her up. She was flushed and shaky, but she managed to shove her skirts down and stand upright and that was the best she could do.
"You're difficult to bully," he said, smiling at her, still clasping her hand. "All right. Think about it, then. I know I'm not anyone's notion of an ideal husband. But I would do my best to be - I would try, Brienne."
"I don't," she said. "It isn't that I don't-" she stopped, aware of the sudden gleam in his eyes and the fresh flush of heat prickling under her skin. "I've never wished to marry."
"Yes," he said. "I guessed that. Your independence is very precious to you."
She nodded, grateful to him for the words.
"I wouldn't intefere," he said. "With your work, I mean. I wouldn't stop you living in a coal mine for six months, if that's where you choose to find your next story."
"But," she said and he nodded.
"I'd interfere with your life," he agreed. "I'd want -" he glanced around the small ordered room, with its neat frugality. "I'd want you to live with me. I'd want to touch you. It wouldn't only be letters."
"My name," she said, and his eyes lit.
"Keep it," he said at once. "You can tie up your property too, if you like, away from me. The lawyers will do all that."
She knew full well how little that meant. She thought back to her memories of the divorce courts. All those desperate, dependent women. Law and society joined hands to trap them, and as for the ones with children -
"I," she said. "Will you tell me the truth about why? Before I answer?"
"I've told you," he said. "I want you."
"But," she said and hesitated. The silence was suddenly threatening. She didn't want to say it. But it was necessary. "Your sister?"
"Doesn't want you," he said, smiling thinly, the smile of his that she hated most. "She's jealous as a fiend, in fact. But that doesn't matter. She won't hurt you."
"Oh," she said uncertainly. He sighed.
"My sister and I," he said, and stopped. "We aren't - she needn't concern you, Brienne. In any way."
The old irrational trust in him was still strong. She nodded. He took a breath, and drew one step closer to her, put his hand very lightly on her elbow.
"Yes," she said, and the word in her own voice sent panic through her thoughts like a stone scattering a flock of birds. She couldn't believe what she was doing, what she had done. Jaime was smiling, the warmth in him so bright that she was almost dazzled with it. She smiled helplessly back and that, somehow, was that. She was engaged to be married to Ser Jaime Lannister, because he liked her and wanted her and knew she wanted him. She tried for a moment to think what the headlines would say - what Lady Catelyn would say - Renly - her father - but then he was touching her again, kissing her, and the thoughts scattered again. It would be all right, she thought dizzily. How bad could marriage truly be?
Her mind filled instantly with the answers - the property laws, reasonable chastisement, the power she would be giving him - but she pushed them away. It was a matter of trust, she told herself. You shouldn't marry me, he had said, but then he had touched her and kissed her and promised to do his best and she, as always, for the same inscrutable reason, had believed him. You're a child, he had said once, when she had sworn she believed him, but that had been a long time ago. She was different now. She understood him better now.
"This is madness," Loras said, and Renly flicked him a disapproving look that did nothing to conceal his agreement. "You're marrying a Lannister."
"I'm marrying Ser Jaime," she corrected, and saw them exchange looks. They thought her infatuated, blinded. Perhaps she was. There was very little that could be done about that now.
"It needn't make a difference," she said. "To my work, I mean. I can still-"
She saw Renly flinch and paused, dread gripping her.
"There might," he said reluctantly. "Be an appearance of conflict, Brienne. You would almost be one of them."
"I know," she said, hoping against hope. "But I don't write political stories, not really. The article on prisons-"
"And what if your husband's next Cabinet appointment is prisons?" Loras demanded. "How are we supposed to know how much is you and how much is what the Government wants us to think?"
It was unanswerable. It was the argument she herself would have made, in the circumstances. Brienne shut her lips tight, feeling the ground sink beneath her feet, and nodded.
"I will need some time," she said. "To think what else I can do."
"You know the Review is always open to you," Renly said eagerly. "And there are still safe topics. Books. You used to review books, I remember."
"Yes," she said thinly and Loras startled her by putting his hand clumsily on hers.
"Sorry," he said shortly, and Renly gave him a glowing look that made Brienne smile, despite herself, through her misery.
She went home, trying to think and aware only of the cloud of anxiety and uncertainty that now surrounded the future. She found Jaime waiting for her, lounging in his favourite armchair. For a moment, looking at him, she couldn't understand what she was doing. Was she truly going to disrupt all the meaning in her life, everything she had built over five painstaking years, for the sake of a handsome face, a touch and a tone of voice? Then his eyes met hers, and she saw him take in her expression with lightning swiftness, saw his eyes sharpen with concern, and the alternative seemed impossible too.
"What is it?" he asked, looking up at her and holding out his hand.
"Renly," she said, taking the outstretched hand awkwardly and letting him turn it to clasp hers, lacing their fingers together. "He thinks there would be a conflict. He doesn't wish me to - he won't publish my work."
His eyebrows drew together.
"That's nonsense," he said. "You, of all people. He ought to know better."
"He doesn't mean me," Brienne said tiredly. "He means how it would look. He's quite right. I shall have to find some other way."
"He isn't 'quite right'," Jaime said vehemently, frowning at her. "You're the best he has and he knows it. You made his piddling Review what it is now. Why don't you fight?"
"I'd lose," she said. He stared, incredulous, and she amended. "I'd deserve to lose. I wouldn't be credible, writing about politics as your - wife." The word was still strange to say, catching oddly in her throat. "I shall have to think of something else."
"The truth is you ought to be in Parliament in your own right," Jaime said musingly. "That's where you belong."
He said it quite calmly, not a hint of derision or indulgence in his voice, and it took her a long moment to collect her voice and respond. The image of it flashed before her with painful clarity. Those benches. Standing up for people directly - having constituents to speak for - taking the conservative faction on herself - introducing her own bills -
She almost shut her eyes against the longing that gripped her, the long-faded adolescent fantasy that had been revived by Jaime's calm voice.
"That's impossible," she said huskily. Jaime narrowed his eyes a little, considering.
"Difficult," he conceded. "It would have to be suffrage first, of course. And it would take time. What will you do in the meanwhile?"
She almost laughed, dizzy with the absurdity of it and the cool matter-of-fact calculation in Jaime's voice.
"I don't know," she said. "Renly suggested book reviews."
Jaime gave a contemptuous bark of laughter and she smiled helplessly. She could not herself have laughed in Renly's face, of course, but it was so pleasant to hear him do it.
"I suppose a book," she said, after a while. "I was going to publish a series of articles on prisons. I could make it a book."
"Yes," he said. "You could."
He hesitated over his next words, studying her with troubled eyes, and she shook her head.
"No," she said. "I don't - I want to marry you."
He smiled, his hand relaxing in hers, and tugged her closer so that she was almost on top of him, almost seated on his knees. She was too large for this to really work - she was more sprawled than sitting and her face was too close to his, she was close to losing her balance altogether - but he seemed not to mind the clumsiness of it. She could feel the stir of his breath as he spoke.
"Lannisters are selfish bastards," he said. "I wasn't going to warn you not to marry me. Once was enough. Do you mind if I get rid of this?"
"What?" she said and he tugged gently at the thin coil of her hair.
"This," he said. "Can I take it down?"
Dismay seized her. What was he imagining? Her hair was thin and flat as straw. It would hang limply between his fingers if he undid it. He would be disappointed.
"If you like," she said stiffly and he grinned.
"I do like," he said, and pulled. Her hair fell limply about her shoulders, thin and bedraggled as ever. Jaime's fingers swept it back from her face, his eyes suddenly darker.
"Yes," he said. "That's as I pictured it. I suppose it would be too much to unbutton your dress?"
She flushed and tried to pull back a little and he let her, smiling faintly.
"You always wear these damned high-collared dresses," he said. "I only want to see the freckles again."
"What?" she said, and he pressed his palm flat over her upper chest.
"Here," he said. "You wore that grey thing to dinner, remember? It had a square neck, for once. There were freckles."
"Oh," she said stupidly. "Yes. Tarth can be - the summers are hot." He touched the top button of her collar and paused, watching her. She nodded, her face flaming, and he undid the button. Another. Another.
She realised abruptly that there was lace at the top of her chemise, finely embroidered; it was the sort of thing she was careful to avoid in clothes anyone might see, but she bought everything else without really looking at it and it appeared this chemise had a sheer lace border to it. Jaime ran his thumb across the latticework and then, abruptly, pushed her away and stood up.
There was visible colour in his face. He looked almost annoyed, his mouth thin and tight, and she wanted for a moment, idiotically, to apologise. Instead she began to button the dress again, hastily, her fingers faintly trembling, and it was exactly as she reached the top button that the door swung open and her father was announced.
She dropped her hands quickly but there was nothing she could do about her loose hair and the hectic flush she could feel on her cheeks. Jaime was a little flushed too, but he managed better, shaking hands and thanking her father for his kind letter.
He looked older than when she had last seen him, more worn, but his face was as kind and blunt and worried as ever. He put his hands clumsily on her shoulders, kissed her forehead very lightly and then sat down.
"I must admit it was a surprise to me," he said. "Brienne never said a word about anything of the kind."
"No," Brienne said. "It was a little sudden. I mean," she said hastily, seeing his brow wrinkle in worry, "I've known Ser Jaime a long time. Some years. But we - we only recently thought to marry."
"I see," he said, his brow still clouded. "When do you think to make the wedding, then?"
"In a month's time," Jaime said easily. "If that meets with your approval, sir."
Brienne couldn't help her wry smile as her father's eyebrows lifted. Jaime was overdoing it. Underestimating her father, as he had once underestimated her.
"A month's time," her father said, and looked at Brienne. "You don't think it's too soon?"
Brienne shook her head silently and her father nodded.
"All right," he said. "And will you be wanting to marry from home? From Tarth?"
She shook her head again.
"King's Landing would be easier," she said. "If you can stay long enough to give me away."
He nodded, and that was all. Her father would never take her aside and ask her if she knew she was doing, as Renly and Loras had and as Lady Sansa had. He had never understood anything she chose to do, but he had always accepted that she knew best what would suit her. Even when she had left for King's Landing, all those years ago, in pursuit of who-knew-what, he had only kissed her goodbye and made her promise to write if she needed anything.
He came to the wedding as promised, in his old-fashioned morning dress, leaning on his thick cane, and gave her into Jaime's hands without another word. Afterwards, she saw him bending his head to listen to Cersei murmur in his ear, his expression polite and impassive. She knew that, whatever Cersei said or implied, it would fail against his massive, uncomprehending trust in her. She wished for a moment that she could have half so much trust in herself.
The cloak was heavy on her shoulders, hot; she was sweating a little, under it and the heavy boned corsets of the wedding dress. Jaime had a hand on her hip, holding her a little closer to him than was quite comfortable, as they stood and smiled and smiled at guest after guest.
She glanced across at him and saw that he, too, was looking at Cersei, who was smiling glowingly as she introduced Brienne's father to another man. She couldn't read his face at all. Husband, she thought, trying out the word, and felt the dizzying improbability of it all over again.
"Jaime," she said, low-voiced, trying for his attention, but he didn't hear her, still looking at Cersei. Then he was shaking hands with a thin fox-faced man she knew by sight, a member of the Bolton faction in the House.
"May I congratulate you," the man was saying. "A delightful wedding and, of course, a very wise choice." He glanced at Brienne, smiled a thin false smile. "And you too, of course, Lady Lannister."
My name is Tarth, she wanted to say. It was. The lawyers had been perplexed by the request but it had been an easy enough matter to arrange. But that wouldn't matter to this man. She was an adjunct to Jaime now, that was all, in his eyes and in the eyes of everyone like him. She bit the inside of her cheek and her eyes found her father again.
He was sitting down now, his head bent a little forward, listening to a younger man in a military coat who was plainly also from the country. She knew that he was only enduring all this, that he would be longing to get away, back to the peace and stillness of the estate on Tarth. She had not thought of the estate in some years, but the memory of it swept into her abruptly, tightening her throat suddenly. The green shadows of the trees, the long barley, running through a field with her dogs, shouting, pretending to be a knight with a stick for a sword.
"We can visit," Jaime said in her ear, quietly, and she saw that the Bolton man was gone and there were no more guests to greet in person. Jaime had been watching her look at her father for a few minutes, that much was clear from his expression. "We can go to Tarth in the summer recess."
"Yes," she said, knowing that they were unlikely to do anything of the kind but grateful to him for thinking of it. Cersei was advancing on them now, a fixed glittering smile on her face. Brienne put her hand on Jaime's arm, in the crook of his elbow, and let him lead her towards Cersei and the head table, where the King sat sneering at his uncle Tyrion. Tarth was very far away now, and always would be.
Jaime had a town house. Until two years ago, she gathered, he had lived in the palace with his sister and her husband and the children; after that, he had lived with his brother in the ministerial residence; and now he had a town house of his own.
"Tyrion thought we might prefer the privacy," he said to Brienne, as the coach bumped down the cobblestones through the dark streets, and she nodded silently. She was grateful for the dark and quiet, for the empty house they were travelling towards. The wedding had been all faces, voices, noise and heat. Cersei and Jaime had spoken to each other in a barbed allusive style that she couldn't quite follow but that made her acutely uncomfortable. The King had been flatly insulting and Tyrion had been polite and watchful and quite unreadable. Her head still spun with all the words and sneers and smiles and touches. She wanted only quiet now, and to be alone. But of course she wasn't alone.
"Tired?" Jaime asked, and took her hand.
"A little," she said, and felt the brush of his lips over her fingertips.
"We have no engagements tomorrow," he said. "We'll have the day to ourselves."
"Good," she said, and winced. There was no conviction in her voice, which had sounded too high and thin. Nerves, she told herself. Just nerves. She knew Jaime. It was only nerves making him seem a stranger. He was still holding her hand, his thumb caressing her palm over and over. Gooseflesh ran up the back of her neck.
"Jaime," she said tentatively. "I really am quite tired."
"I know," he said. "Don't worry," and then the door opened and the grooms let down the stairs and they were in the dark hall of his house, lit by only one taper.
"I told the servants to go to bed," he said. "I didn't think you'd care for the grand welcome tonight."
"No," she agreed and he picked up the taper. Long shadows washed across his face, ran into the corners of the room.
"Come on," he said, drawing her upstairs. "The men will bring your things up."
He brought her into a large room, containing a desk and a bed and enormous windows, all shadowed now.
"Your room," he said. "Mine is next door."
"Oh," she said and he put the taper down on a chest of drawers and came towards her. She was still wearing the heavy uncomfortable cloak; his hands found the clasp and took the weight of it from her with the same ease with which he had put it on her. She felt suddenly lightened with it gone, less tired and more alert.
"Do you wish to sleep?" Jaime said. "I know you're tired."
"No," she said and heard him inhale in the dark. "Unless - aren't you tired?"
"No," he said. "Tired isn't the word."
After that, her memories of the night became disjointed. She remembered, very clearly, the relief of getting out of the corset and the shock of his hands on bare skin. She remembered a moment, after, when she had pushed her face blindly into his shoulder and found a scar there, a little bump of raised skin. She remembered that Jaime had laughed breathlessly, once or twice, and that she had been profoundly grateful for the dark. The rest was a blur of sensation, pleasure and surprise and warmth. It was only when she woke in the morning, when broad light had flooded the room, that she felt any of the embarrassment that she had anticipated.
Jaime was asleep, his face smashed sideways into a pillow. It looked uncomfortable but he seemed to be deeply asleep so it couldn't be as bad as it looked. She was naked. So was he. She took a shallow breath, trying to avoid waking him, but he turned towards her at once as if it had been a shout. One eye opened.
"Brienne," he said sleepily. "Morning."
"Yes," she said, and stuck. She couldn't think of anything to say. He blinked a few times and she saw awareness and amusement come into his face. He put out a hand and touched her hip.
"All right?" he said, and she nodded stiffly. He grinned and then sat up and stretched. She could see the little silvery mark of the scar she had kissed last night, faint but visible on his shoulder.
"There's a privy next to this room," he said. "If you want to go."
"Thank you," she said, and he lay back on the pillows and watched as she clambered out of the bed and picked up her chemise and fumbled it over her head. She would get used to this kind of thing, she told herself firmly, and the odd thing, after the first few weeks of the marriage, was that she did.
Jaime was affectionate, and he looked at her body with an open pleasure that made it difficult to remember that she had once feared his scathing, mocking glance. She was never quite comfortable in certain moments - his desire to make love in the daylight was always difficult - but the acuteness of the discomfort faded. She found that she could laugh herself, and pull him back to bed, and let herself touch him without the dread of mockery or disgust. He was so transparently pleased to be admired, grinning up at her as she stared down at him, that it became almost easy to touch him as she wanted, simple, even in daylight as he watched her face.
Other things were less simple. She could not, now, get away from the Lannisters. Cersei's smiles made her uneasy and the King was an appalling presence, rude and overbearing and shockingly petulant. She didn't have to go with Jaime to every dinner and luncheon and ball - she spent several long afternoons in the pleasant study of the town house, working on her book - but there was one she had to attend every few days and they always left her shaken and unhappy and oddly lonely.
It wasn't only Cersei's malicious friendliness and the King's open contempt that she hated, she realised after the first few occasions. It was Jaime himself. He changed when he was with them, in a manner that seemed almost involuntary. He became derisive, cynical, cold. It was hard to believe that she had ever touched him, when she saw him in that mood. Once, Cersei made some remark that made him smile unpleasantly - an allusion to the past, which Brienne couldn't follow - and she looked at Brienne afterwards with such obvious malice that Jaime looked too, his eyebrows rising but the smile still lingering on his lips.
"You shouldn't let her upset you," he said to her in the carriage afterwards. "That's just what she wants."
"Why does she want it?" Brienne demanded and he glanced at her, an opaque look that made her suddenly uneasy.
"We can't all be saints," he said. "Cersei's always been a spiteful creature."
He said it with a kind of warmth, an admiration, that made her stomach turn. She turned her face away, towards the window, and he sighed.
"All I'm saying," he said. "Is that you could stand up for yourself a little more. You can't let her trample all over you."
"I'll try," she said tightly and saw a flicker of something like a sneer pass over his features. It was gone in an instant, but the impression of it lingered.
When he touched her that night, she was stiff and awkward again, as she had not been for many weeks, and he seemed not to notice - he smiled and coaxed and dragged her to pleasure, as always - but she couldn't help imagining the comparison he might be making. He had all but told her of his affair with Cersei. He would have held her like this too, slipped his hands into her rich hair and pressed into her body with the same little gasp of pleasure. But Cersei would not have been stiff and shy. She would have met him with his own confidence and eagerness, his own strength.
Brienne shut her eyes and told herself not to be a fool. She had striven so hard to avoid this comparison in her own mind, before the wedding. But now she knew what the comparison meant, as she could not have known it before. Beauty was a superficial thing, a thing to look at, she had thought then. It meant nothing. But Cersei's beauty was a transforming influence. It made spiteful into a compliment. It made Jaime into someone else, for a time, someone he liked being sometimes. It made him - he gasped again, against Brienne's shoulder, and was quiescent. Brienne lay carefully still, waiting for him to pull away. He propped himself up on his elbows and looked at her.
"What is it?" he said, and she shook her head.
"Nothing," she said. "I was only thinking."
He smiled, ruefully.
"Well," he said. "I think I can do something about that."
She smiled back, as he wanted her to, and shut her eyes and let him. She remembered, afterwards, when he was asleep, the time he had called her a child for believing him. That, at least, was no longer true. He had told her, also, not to marry him and she had taken that as a piece of unselfish over-cautiousness on her behalf. She thought now that she could see what he had meant. She looked at him, asleep in her arms with his mouth a little open, and shook her head. She had been a child and a fool, she thought, but she was glad to have married him all the same.
The book was not, in the end, about prisons. She did write about the prisons, about the men and women she had seen there, the children. She told the stories that had been entrusted to her. But she wrote, also, about Lady Sansa and Lady Catelyn, about the women she had met in the clothing factories and the mill towns; she wrote about the past of Westeros, the slow crawl from the medieval tyrannies to the semblance of democracy, the ideals of chivalry and honour and defence of the weak shaking off their old distortions and coming into the light. It was only after she had finished it, reading it over in the bitter light of early morning, that she realised that it was about suffrage.
She wrote the new introduction then, making the plain case for universal suffrage and its extension to women, and sent it off to Renly to ask his advice about a publisher. She had not shown it to Jaime. She kept meaning to - he asked after the book, often - but she somehow couldn't put it into his hands. It was too close to her heart, too fragile; she would not be able to bear it if he smirked over it as he and Cersei smirked over so many things.
"It isn't ready," she said, each time he asked, and he nodded and said nothing even though he must have known that she had sent it off to Renly, to Lady Sansa, to Lady Catelyn, even to her father.
It was only after she had the proofs from the publisher, together with Renly's ecstatic foreword, that she could harden herself to give it to him. She couldn't stay in the room and watch as he read. She left the proofs with him, and went for a long walk in the park, staring up into the trees and imagining she was in the country. These were plane trees, pale, not the willows and tall oaks of Tarth, but they were green against a blue summer sky and they refreshed and calmed her as nothing else in the city could.
When she came home in the deepening twilight, Jaime was still reading. His face was sober, unreadable; he was reading the introduction, she saw, presumably for the second time. She took a nervous breath, watching his face, and then he looked up and saw her. She couldn't speak. He drew a long breath and put the proofs down on the low couch beside him, with care. But he said nothing, still, and she couldn't read his expression at all. He wasn't smiling - thank the Seven, there was no smirk - but she didn't know what to make of that sombre expression.
"Did you," she said at last, driven to speak. "Do you like it?"
Jaime gave her an incredulous look.
"Like it," he said. "Brienne. How can you write like that and give a damn if I like it or not?"
She smiled uncertainly and he came across the room and put his hands on her shoulders.
"Send it to Tyrion," he said. "Your Renly's written a very pretty foreword, but it's Tyrion you want."
"He wouldn't -"
"Of course he would," Jaime said, his eyes blazing. "It's what he longs for. It'll be the fight of the century. It'll make his name in history. And it'll be a spit in the eye for our beloved father. You might have written it for him."
"Oh," she said blankly, and he grinned and touched her cheek.
"I know," he said. "Lannisters and their feuds. But it'll be your victory in the end, Brienne. Even if you need a bastard or two to get it done."
"You're not," she said and he quirked an eyebrow at her. She felt herself flush but pressed on. "You agree with me, don't you? It isn't only - politics."
"No," he said after a long moment. "I - it isn't only politics to me."
She wanted to kiss him for that, and did. He grinned into the kiss, letting her push him back onto the couch and climb over him, and it was a glorious moment. Jaime seemed, in that moment, to be wholly perfect, wholly hers.
But, of course, the moment passed. Tyrion wrote his foreword, as predicted, and the book became a sensation and a scandal and a political explosion -- Jaime said my wife in the House with a grin so savagely possessive that it made Lady Sansa nudge Brienne meaningfully and made Brienne herself blush with embarrassment -- but there was still, always, Cersei. Cersei had not herself read the book but she congratulated Brienne on making such a stir and remarked, to Jaime, that she was sure she herself would be better able to sleep once all the poor little vagabonds and pickpockets of the country had their representation in Government. Jaime glanced at Brienne and then shook his head reprovingly at Cersei but the little curl of a smirk at the corner of his mouth didn't escape her. Some part of him simply belonged to Cersei. It was inescapable. He tried to say something to her about it in the carriage, afterwards, but she shook her head and reached for him instead, wanting his touch rather than his words.
It wasn't like the fevered foolishness of her old infatuation for him, the desire that had made it impossible to think or judge or even see him clearly. She knew him, now, better than she had ever known anyone. She knew how his moods of elation and passion alternated with moods of a kind of melancholy cynicism; she knew his self-loathing with an intimacy that felt almost more delicate and dangerous than her knowledge of his body. Cersei was woven into every thread of who he was. She still wanted his touch, blindly, always.
"There was a boy, once," he told her, a few nights later, in the small hours of the morning, his head pillowed on her arm, his face turned away from her. "He saw us. Cersei and me."
"Yes?" she said, into the long silence that followed, and he shuddered hard and said no more. She didn't ask, only kissed his shoulder - that scar, the product of a fall from a horse into brambles as a boy - and listened to his breathing deepen and slow as he fell asleep. At such moments, she could hardly believe the recklessness of her decision to marry him two years ago, the ignorance of it. She would probably have admitted to herself, then, that she believed herself to be in love with him but it had been folly. She hadn't had any idea, then, what it meant to love him.
A month or so after that, he came unexpectedly into the room when she had thought he was out and found her with her little packet of letters, rereading the third one he had sent, the one about her eyes. He looked puzzled at first, as she dropped the letter in a foolish panic and fumbled to pick it up, but then he saw what it was. She had expected him to laugh at her embarrassment, but he didn't. He looked embarrassed himself, almost guilty.
"You still have them," he said. "I thought you would have burned them. I didn't - it never occurred to me you might keep them."
"I meant to burn them," she admitted. "I couldn't."
He said nothing for a long moment, studying his boots. Then he looked up at her under his brows.
"Do you wish you had?" he asked and she shook her head vehemently.
"No," she said. "Of course not." I love you. The words came so naturally to the tip of her tongue that she had to stop herself uttering them.
"I shouldn't have sent them," he said. "Cersei-" he stopped. She felt her heart stop, and then start again, heavy and slow.
"Tell me," she said, and he sat down heavily beside her and looked at the little heap of letters on her lap.
"She always thought I should marry," he said in a low monotone. He still wasn't looking at her. "She thought I should - have someone. A possibility. In case the rumours became dangerous."
"Is that why you sent them?" she asked, astonished at the calm stillness of her own voice.
"No," he said quickly. "No. But I - I told her that was why."
Of course. She shut her eyes. He was looking at her now, she could feel it, but she couldn't look back at him.
"I told you not to," he said abruptly, his voice harsh and sounding like it was wrenched out of his throat. "You seemed so - I didn't think you would really -"
"Fall in love with you," she finished for him, as he halted lamely. "Well. I see."
"You don't," he said sharply, something like desperation in his voice. "I love you. I swear it. It was only what I told her."
"I see," she said again, and stood up swiftly as he reached for her, avoiding his touch. She felt sick, physically nauseous. She put her hand over her mouth.
"Brienne," he said, as she found a basin and retched dryly into it. He sounded agonised, horrified. "Don't - it doesn't mean -"
"It means you love her," she said. Her voice sounded strange to her own ears, loud and harsh. "It means she - she owns you. How could you marry me when -" she retched again, and jerked away when he tried, idiotically, to touch her again. His face was very white.
"We had better begin to think of divorce," she said, when she could speak again. "Speak to Tyrion. We will need someone to introduce the bill."
He said nothing, staring at her with a look of horror in his eyes that made her wonder if she sounded mad. Her voice had sounded quite calm in her own ears, but faraway and a little distorted; perhaps she had been shrieking. She tried to think it out more rationally.
"There will be something of a scandal," she said. "But Tyrion can weather it, I'm sure of that."
"I can't," he said thinly, his voice almost a whisper, and she frowned across at him, wondering if he thought her so spiteful that she would set out to ruin him.
"It won't be like that," she said. "I won't cite - her. We could say - oh, anything. Non-consummation. Plenty of people would believe that."
"I didn't mean the scandal," he said, still in that shattered whisper of a voice. "I meant you. I can't do without you."
"You have to," she said. Her voice wavered, and tears came. She ignored them. They didn't matter. "You have to do without one of us, Jaime. You have to choose."
He said nothing, staring at her with that pale sickened face, and she nodded and turned away.
"I'll go to my father's," she said. "For a few days. You can write, after you've spoken to Tyrion."
He didn't stop her as she left the room, packed a trunk with trembling hands and called out the carriage. She hadn't expected him to. She saw the house recede behind her, through the carriage windows, and then saw King's Landing recede and green country rise up around her, the smell of salt fresh on the air as they neared the coast. She wondered, dully, what lie he would find to explain the divorce to Cersei. Tears came again, with that thought, and she knew that men were staring at her as she bought her ticket and boarded the next ship to Tarth.
It didn't matter. The waters ran swiftly by, as the hours passed, and she slept a little in the cramped cabin they gave her, and then hired the old gig and pony to carry her home from the tiny quay on Tarth. The old butler looked at her swollen tearstained face as he had looked at her after a fall from a tree, and her father looked at her in the same way, touching her head with his big awkward hands and leading her to a chair and making her eat. Tarth was the only place where she could stand to wait for Jaime's letter. Perhaps she would never return to King's Landing, she thought. She could write and correspond and publish from here, weather out the scandal of the divorce in the peace of this room. Home. She had been mad to believe she could ever belong anywhere else.
Sorry, my hopes of wrapping this up in ten chapters were wildly optimistic. I apologise for everything.
Tarth was quite unchanged. She slept in her old bed, in her old room, in its maze of piled-high books and with the little dark portrait of her mother in a corner. She walked in the gardens of the estate and through the fields. She went fishing and riding with her father. She slept long hours, read the books she had loved as a child, sat in her father's silent restful presence and stared out of the window for hours.
She could still recall the intense misery of the adolescent years she had spent here - that anguished sense of being left out, irrelevant, wrong, trapped - but it was the peace of her childhood that really came alive in her memory as she walked down the familiar lanes and saw the glitter of the sea at the horizon. The whole of the last decade seemed to have been a frantic dream, feverish, foolish, a chasing after nothing and no one. No letter came, from Jaime or anyone else, for weeks. She might have dreamt it all. King's Landing itself might have been a mirage.
"Are you," her father said one night, as they sat down to dine after a long day spent on the river. "Will you be staying, then?"
"I don't know," she said. "I think so."
He nodded, cutting a thick loaf of bread for her plate.
"You're welcome," he said, as he handed it to her. "Very welcome."
Her eyes stung. Why had she ever believed anyone else, anywhere else, could have made room for her? She put her hand on his, briefly, and he covered it with his own. Then they ate the bread and the fish they had caught on the river that morning, and drank half a bottle of the rust-red local wine that he always bought from his tenants, a little vinegary but perfect in its familiarity.
"Lannister," her father said, as they sat over the wine. "He - you weren't happy?"
Her throat tightened. She thought of Jaime's sharp handsome face, his smile, the hollow defeated look in his eyes the last time she had seen him.
"No," she said, after a long moment. "Not - happy."
He nodded, and said no more. That night, as she was going up to bed, she paused before the spotty hallway mirror that had constituted half the misery of her adolescence. Her face was as hideous as ever: still dominated by those big clumsy lips, that heavy jaw, the absence of any elegance of feature. But she no longer felt any hatred for it. She could look at it dispassionately now. It was only a face. Even if she had been exactly the creature she had longed to be at fifteen - a somewhat pretty girl of moderate height, an attractive girl, perhaps even a lovely one - it would have meant nothing, in the end. Jaime would always have chosen Cersei. Her eyes, in the mirror, were desolate. There was no particular consolation, it seemed, in outgrowing one's adolescent illusions.
There was a letter the next morning, from Renly. Tyrion, it appeared, had introduced the first of his Reform Bills. It wasn't perfect - universal manhood suffrage at twenty-one, suffrage for all married women and for single women over twenty-five - but it was still remarkable, revolutionary. When do you return home? Renly wrote. We shall need your voice in this fight.
She gave the letter into her father's hands. He read slowly, tracing the words with his heavy forefinger, his grey brows drawing together, the lines in his forehead deepening. He looked at her over the top of the letter.
"Ought you to go?" he asked in his deep placid voice, and she nodded numbly. She could not hide in Tarth forever, pretending to be a child once more. There was a battle coming, she knew, and it was her battle to fight. She could not evade it because she could not bear to face Jaime or Cersei or hear the name Lannister dinned in her ears again and again. She would need to be present in King's Landing to lend her voice to the side of reform, to speak to the men she knew in the House, to campaign. She had hoped, idiotically, that a divorce might be quick, that Jaime and Tyrion might have managed it between them while she hid here in Tarth and put herself back together again. But divorces never were quick. She would have to be in the city when it happened.
She pictured that, then, campaigning for the Reform Bill while her bill of divorcement went through the upper House and her heart sank. It was impossible. The cause of reform was too closely associated with her name, thanks to her book. And the scandal of divorce would chime so perfectly with everything the enemy would want to say. The collapse of the family. The collapse of stability. A few malcontent spinsters, or worse, setting out to destroy the foundations of stable political and social life out of spite. No. The divorce would have to wait until after reform.
She took her lower lip between her teeth at that thought. She could not do it, she thought. Live with Jaime, or pretend to live with him, for the year or more it would take to get the Act passed? Perhaps meet Cersei every few days and speak to Tyrion as if nothing had changed? It was unimaginable. She had better keep out of it altogether. Tyrion could get the votes he needed without her. He had Renly, and Lady Sansa, and Baroness Targaryen, and Jaime himself. Her voice was hardly indispensible.
Her father was watching her, still, with his usual quiet attention.
"No?" he said and she shook her head and then put her face in her hands.
"I must go back," she said, and he sighed and put a hand on her shoulder and said nothing more. She went upstairs to pack and then wrote a letter to Jaime. She said, only, that she meant to return to King's Landing by the twelfth of next month, when she understood that the new Bill would be debated in the House, and that she hoped they might reach an agreement on the best way to proceed with the other matter on her return.
No reply came. When she arrived at the house, her heart hammering painfully as she entered the familiar hall, he was not there. When she went upstairs, she found that all his things were gone. He had taken the letters she had left scattered on the couch of her sitting-room and left them in a neat bundle on her desk; her room was otherwise exactly as she had left it, down to the withered remnant of a daffodil in the vase by the window. He had brought her the daffodil, she remembered, for no particular reason except that he had thought she might like it. It's such a very tall flower, he had said, teasing, touching it lightly to her cheek. The servants had aired out the room, dusted the furniture and put in fresh candles, but they had left the brown remains of the daffodil to greet her on her return. Perhaps they simply hadn't seen it, she told herself, as she washed her face. It didn't matter. She would make herself throw it away soon. Not yet. Soon.
She could not bear to ask the servants about his absence, but Pod brought in her supper on a tray and told her, without her needing to ask, that Ser Jaime had left for the country on the same day that she had. Later in the afternoon, wandering involuntarily through his stripped and empty room, she found her own letter telling him of her return lying unopened on his bedside table, where a footman must have left it. She left it too. He was gone without a trace, like a ghost, and the house felt haunted; she felt superstitiously unwilling to touch anything.
Tyrion called on her in the evening.
"I'm delighted that you're back," he said. He looked well, bright and energetic, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. As Jaime had predicted, he was clearly looking forward to the fight over the Bill. "We need your help desperately, Brienne. The men of the North don't trust me, they're suspicious of my motives. But you're known as a Stark loyalist. You can persuade them it's all a question of principle to me. Nothing to do with votes."
She smiled, despite herself.
"Not only to do with votes," she amended. "I'll tell them." She hesitated, and then drove on. "Did Jaime speak with you?"
The cheerful grin left his face. He nodded slightly.
"He said very little," he said, watching her keenly. "Something about a divorce. He's at the Rock, you know. Told me not to ask him any more and ran away to the Rock."
"Has her Grace left for Casterly Rock too?" Brienne asked and saw Tyrion's sharp eyes darken, flicker. He understood, then. Perhaps he always had. Perhaps he too had suggested the marriage as an antidote to the rumours.
"No," he said. "My sister is still in town."
"I see," she said. She felt a little numb, to be back in this house, talking in such matter of fact tones about Jaime and Cersei. "Well. The divorce - I thought we might wait. Until after the Bill."
Tyrion nodded, looking relieved.
"Thank you," he said. She nodded stiffly and there was a long silence. Tyrion looked at her as if he was trying to make up his mind whether to speak. She waited, dully. It mattered so little now, what any of them said. It seemed incredible, in retrospect, that she had ever cared about Cersei's unpleasant little asides, or the King's crude nonsense. Jaime was gone. There was no reason for her to care about any of them any more.
"Jaime," Tyrion said at last, in an oddly tentative voice that seemed to belong to a much younger man. "He - it's none of my business, I know. But he seemed very, ah, unhappy. About the divorce."
"Oh," she said distantly. "Yes. He feels - sorry for me, I think. Guilty."
Tyrion looked startled.
"Guilty?" he repeated, looking puzzled. "Jaime?"
She shrugged. Her throat was beginning to tighten warningly. She would not weep in front of Tyrion Lannister.
"My sister," Tyrion said, after a long pause in which she struggled for control and won it. "Is very angry with him. She wished him to stay in town over some matter. Something to do with the King. He refused."
"Oh," she said, trying to keep her voice steady, and he looked at her for another long unsettling moment and then rose to take his leave.
"Goodbye," she said and then, impelled, "did he - do you know when he means to return?"
"I don't," Tyrion said. "I'm not sure he does mean to return."
"What do you mean?" she said. "He can't leave King's Landing for good."
"I used to think that," Tyrion said, watching her intently. "I never thought he would get away."
"But?" she demanded, and he smiled, a rueful half-smile with no amusement in it.
"But," he repeated. "He's gone. He isn't replying to her letters. He isn't replying to my letters. He seems to have just - stopped. Your doing, I take it."
She said nothing. She could barely make sense of what he was telling her, what he was trying to say. She had known that Jaime would be sorry to lose her, sorry to have hurt her. She had often pictured his life after her, his temporary unhappiness, his drinking spells, Cersei's consolations. She had not ever imagined that he could leave King's Landing.
"What is it like?" she asked abruptly. "Casterly Rock?"
"Ghastly," Tyrion said promptly, as if he'd been waiting to be asked. "A monstrous, hollow shell of a place. A graveyard. My father adored it. We all swore never to go back."
"I see," she said. "And how does one - is it very far from King's Landing?"
It was more than a two days' journey. She pressed the horses, but it still took her a day and a half, and she was obliged to break her journey in an inn. She ate an indifferent meal in a private parlour in the inn, ignoring the stares of the maid and the boy who waited on her, and trying not to think too deeply about what she was doing. She was going to see Jaime, that was all. She wanted to see him. Tyrion's account of him had been so strange and unexpected that she had to see him. That was all. She looked at herself in the dim spotted mirror of the bedchamber they had given her and saw the excited colour in her face, the anxiety in her eyes. She was being an utter fool. But she couldn't crush the feeling, the stupid irrepressible spring of hope. He wasn't replying to Cersei's letters.
The Rock was a strange place, most of it a picturesque medieval ruin, the modern house built in an opulent style that sat oddly against the bleak stone of the ruined castle. Foolishly, she had prepared nothing to say when a sullen-faced man opened the door of the house and stared uncomprehendingly at her. She could think of nothing to do except to give him her card. Brienne Tarth, it said, and the address of Jaime's town house and the address of her publisher, and nothing further. She could not imagine how he would respond, but it was impossible to tell this man that she was Jaime's wife or to write anything on the card to explain her presence.
"You're to come in," the man said, after a few minutes of waiting, and brought her into an chilly hall. Jaime was standing at the foot of a stone staircase, staring at her. He looked thinner, she thought, and paler. His face was unshaven; his hand, alarmingly, was clumsily bandaged and held in a sling. There was something hazy and uncertain about his expression.
"What," he said. "Brienne. Is anything wrong? Your father?"
"No," she said, putting her dressing case down beside her. "What happened to your hand?"
"I broke some-" his voice cut off. He was still staring, as if uncertain she was really there. "Some glass. Why are you here?"
"Because you are," she said and took a few steps closer, watching him watch her with that air of half-disbelieving amazement. "What are you doing, Jaime? Why did you come here?"
"You left," he said uncertainly, watching her approach him, and then she was close enough to touch him and he was blinking rapidly, still staring in confusion. She had forgotten how green his eyes were.
"I came back," she said. "Tyrion told me - why did you come here?"
"I," Jaime said, his voice wavering. "You're here."
"Yes," she said, her voice shaking a little, and Jaime put his hand tentatively on her arm. He seemed surprised to find it there, solid, but then he pushed forward and kissed her. It was an awkward kiss, rushed and off-centre, but it woke a flood of longing in her. She turned her head to kiss him back, tasting brandy and the sour taste of some rougher liquor, and for a moment lost her head entirely, let him drag her nearer, put her own hands on his shoulders and pressed close to feel the familiar lines of his body against hers. Then she came to her senses and pulled away.
"You're drunk," she said breathlessly. "We'll -" she caught his one good hand and held it away from her. "Tell me where I can sleep. We can talk in the morning."
"I'm not," Jaime said. "I'm not that drunk. I mean, I can. Why are you here, Brienne?"
"Tyrion," Brienne said. "He said you left King's Landing."
"You left," Jaime said, in a tone of explanation, and she felt her eyes sting. She wiped at them impatiently.
"We can talk in the morning," she said. "Show me where I can sleep."
Jaime led her up a deserted corridor, past a series of dusty portraits, and into a small room that looked like a study converted to a makeshift bedroom. There was a pile of bedding on the floor, surrounded by books and bottles and scraps of paper. There was a portrait on the wall. Jaime. Jaime at twenty or so, she guessed, his chin lifted arrogantly, a gleam of unfriendly laughter in his eyes. She sat down on the heap of bedding and looked up at this older worn-looking Jaime, who looked back down at her, his eyes still perplexed.
"Show me your hand," she said, and winced when he proffered it and she had stripped the clumsy dirty bandages from it. There was a jagged ugly cut across the palm, mostly healed but still showing a few raw patches. It was likely to scar badly, she thought. She took a clean handkerchief from the pocket at her waist and bandaged it again, Jaime watching her with puzzled, passive eyes. When she lay down, he lay down beside her, and somehow, strangely, she fell almost immediately asleep.
When she woke, Jaime was sober. He was lying beside her, his hand very gentle in her hair, and his eyes dark and sombre on her face.
"You shouldn't have come," he said quietly, drawing his hand away from her hair, and her stomach dropped. He saw her expression change and his voice became even lower, gentler. "Not - I don't mean I'm not pleased." He grimaced. "Pleased. Overjoyed to see you. I didn't think I would again."
"But?" she whispered.
"But," he said, smiling painfully. "I'm still the bastard you left, Brienne. I'm not - I'll never be -"
"Do you mean you still love her?" she said, the strain in her voice hurting her throat, and he gave her a startled look.
"No," he said. "I don't. I - all that is over. But I'm not - there's nothing else to me, Brienne. I was always her creature."
There was something like a stone in her throat, choking her speech. She put her hand on his cheek.
"I thought," she said at last. "When we - you were sometimes -" She drew a difficult breath. The words sounded presumptuous, awful. He would laugh if she said them. "Mine."
He didn't laugh. He shut his eyes, put his hand over hers and drew it away.
"I love you," he said in an exhausted, defeated voice. "I tricked you into - you think you love me. But it's a lie, Brienne. There isn't anything there. There never was. Only tricks and lies and misdirection. We're good at that, Lannisters."
"You aren't," Brienne snapped, suddenly furious. "Name a single occasion when you lied to me and I believed you. One occasion. Ever."
He opened his eyes and blinked at her, looking faintly puzzled.
"You lied to her," she said, her heart pounding, the truth of it coming to her with the words. "Not to me. You were always - you told me the truth. About the wildfire. About Renly. About wanting," she stopped abruptly, suddenly unsure. That had always been the most unbelievable thing, his desire, the one thing she had never fully convinced herself of.
"Don't be a fool," he said roughly. "Of course I bloody wanted you."
"Well," she said breathlessly. "Then - it's - you -" He smiled faintly at the disjointed words, and she caught his face between her hands and held him still. "You're mine," she said with a firmness that astonished and appalled her. "Not hers. That's all I wanted. All I want."
"You can do better," he said dryly, but there was the beginning of a real smile at the corner of his mouth and, when she kissed him there, he rolled her over on her back and kissed her fiercely in reply.
Afterwards, Jaime brought her out into the desolate weedy gardens of the great house, showed her a peach tree that grew against a crumbling wall. The fruit lay, overripe and stinking, in the long grass and small flies buzzed all about the tree.
"We used to come here," he said, looking distantly at the tree. "Cersei and I, for the peaches. And." He swallowed, and then sighed deeply. "We were children."
He took Brienne's hand, gripping it hard.
"What do you want to do?" he said. "I can't live here, and King's Landing-" he hesitated, swallowing. "I don't care to live there. Now."
"There's the Reform Bill," she said reluctantly and he nodded.
"I don't mind that," he said. "A house in town for when Parliament is in session." He glanced sidelong at her and smiled. "I'd like to see you take your seat." She laughed, flushing, and he grew serious again. "But I should like a place in the country, at least in the summers. I'd like our children to be born in the country."
"Yes," she said, shocked by the longing that shook her at those words. Our children. And a place in the country. She drew a deep breath.
"After the Bill passes," she said, and drew her arm through his. They went through a small gate out of the ruined garden and into open countryside, following a narrow country lane. "Let's go to Tarth. I'd like to show you Tarth."