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Baiting the Beauty

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This manner of utterance, huffed out between clenched teeth, was not a common occurrence in the breakfast room of the Stark household. Indeed, it was not the sort of utterance normally to be heard from the Dowager Marchioness of Winterfell at all, regardless of setting.

“Mama!” exclaimed Lady Sansa, the dowager’s eldest daughter. She looked up from her poached egg, her pretty face twisted into an expression of dual shock and delight.

The Honorable Miss Brienne Tarth first studied Lady Winterfell to ensure that she was well, before relenting and smiling down into her cup of chocolate. The older woman was agitated, but not ill and Brienne, like Sansa, could not help the thrill of humor at the unfailingly well-mannered lady cursing.

“What is it, my lady?” Brienne asked mildly, having schooled her face back to its normal evenness.

Lady Winterfell scowled furiously down at the perfectly ironed newspaper clasped in her graceful hands.

“It’s unpleasant, is what it is,” the marchioness replied. She shook the paper sharply, as though the force could jar loose the words that had displeased her. “It seems the rumors about our neighbor were correct.”

At this, Sansa perked up again. She had spent the previous day reporting on the movements of the servants next door at hourly intervals and peering out the green sitting room’s windows at the carriages delivering trunks and bandboxes. Brienne had also taken the odd peek, but only, she convinced herself, because her own bedroom window faced a triangle of darkened windows in the other house. She was now quite familiar with the movement patterns of the upstairs maids as they aired out the rooms, but neither Brienne nor Sansa had gotten a peek at the master of the house.

“Really?! May I see?” Sansa asked, though the request was belied by her quick hands relieving her mother of the paper before a response could be made. Sansa scanned the society pages, smiling broadly.

“Jeyne said so! I told you she said so.” This was directed at Brienne, who only nodded. “Jeyne Poole, I mean. Not my sister Jeyne, of course.”

Considering that the current Marchioness of Winterfell was rusticating in the north at the family estate and had little interest in the latest on dits even when she was in Town, Brienne did not think this clarification necessary. She did not say so. Sansa was almost always the picture of quiet demureness, but when she was very excited her thoughts tended to bubble over like milk left too long on the boil.

“Certain gentleman Locked down by gambling debts… rout party at Tyrell House…” Sansa murmured as she scanned the small print. “Ah, here it is! An illustrious Personage will be making a stay in Grosvenor Square. Though this Golden Son rarely strays far from his family’s company or estates it is almost assured that Town will be graced with his presence for the whole of the Season and beyond.”

“Do you really believe it’s him?” Brienne asked Lady Winterfell.

The lady had returned to her breakfast as her daughter read, though her countenance was no less pained than it had been minutes before.

“I can’t imagine it could be anyone else,” she said.

“Jaime Lannister,” Sansa breathed with all the delighted awe with which a child speaks of a ghost in the attic or, perhaps, the old witch in the woods.

“Awful man,” Lady Winterfell declared. 

This was not a new position. In the years since she had first befriended the marchioness, Brienne had gleaned much about the lady’s opinions on the many great—and not-so-great—families of England. The Lannisters were no favorites hers. The Lions of Casterly were overwhelmingly wealthy and every bit as grasping and unscrupulous as they were rich. Though they’d had long relationships with most of the other old families—the Starks and Lady Winterfell’s own family, the Tullys, included—few were particularly good relationships.

Jaime Lannister, Earl of Westland and the future Lord Casterly, was especially infamous. Whether it was buying himself a commission straight out of Eton and thus incurring his father’s (quite understandable) wrath, overshadowing his military victories and legendary prowess with wanton dueling, or his purportedly numerous and uniformly salacious affaires, he was a scandalous figure from every angle.

Lady Winterfell held a particular grudge over a duel he’d engaged some years ago with her younger brother, now the Earl of Riverrun. The Earl—then simply Lord Edmure Tully—had been badly wounded, though he recovered with no permanent impairment. Lady Winterfell seemed to Brienne to most resent the frivolousness of the thing. It was said to have been over a game of chess, and Edmure had been little more than a boy at the time. Those without so personal a connection tended to find the whispered-about duel rumored to have resulted in the death of Aerys, Duke of Dragonstone, of slightly more interest. Not least because the entire affair had been so thoroughly hushed up by the Lannister bank accounts.

“He’s terribly handsome,” Sansa said. “Or he was last I saw him. You will invite him to my ball, won’t you, Mama?”

For all the scandals that trailed in his wake, Jaime Lannister was invited everywhere; his wealth and prestige mixed with the thrill of his infamy set the Ton aflutter without fail. Brienne would have found the eagerness on the girl’s face hard to deny. Lady Winterfell, it turned out, had no intention of doing so.

The marchioness sighed heavily and chewed one of her toast points before responding.

“I’ve little choice in the matter,” she allowed, “since the man didn’t have the decency to get into Town after we’d already sent out the invitations.”

Sansa clapped her hands in glee. Then, flushing prettily, bit her lip before speaking again.

“Do you think perhaps he has company-- that is, if he’s brought any of his family with him?”

“The paper would have mentioned it, I think,” Brienne offered slowly, knowing to what this line of questioning tended.

The marchioness was no more fooled than Brienne. She smiled, but it was a sad one, tightlipped and slight.

“I doubt it, my dear. If Joffrey had chosen to join his cousin I don’t see why they wouldn’t have opened up Baratheon House instead. I doubt he’ll be doing any traveling this Season at all. They are in mourning.” 

The last was said with an edge of sternness, and Sansa looked chagrined. It had not been so very long ago that her own father had passed on. A fact that could not be easily forgotten as the marchioness sat before them, a curl of her auburn hair bright against the shoulder of the dull grey morning dress she wore. For the sake of her children, she’d put off black, but when Lady Winterfell had gone, at last, into half-mourning, she stayed there and, by all appearances, intended to do so indefinitely.

“Of course,” Sansa said, significantly more subdued. “I only thought he might come down at the end of the term.”

Many marriageable young ladies—and their mamas—kept abreast of the university holidays so that they could know when eligible young men might be about and receiving invitations. Sansa was only concerned with one eligible young man. The fact that she hadn’t spent any significant amount of time with him since she was still in the schoolroom deterred her not at all. Her father, the Marquess of Winterfell, had been bosom bows with Robert Baratheon, Duke of Kingsland. Though the two men never made it official, they were not shy about the fact that they wished for a match between Eddard’s eldest daughter and Robert’s heir. Such an alliance between the families had been planned once before, until Eddard’s sister had eloped with the heir to Dragonstone instead of marrying Robert.

Brienne had never been able to glean with total certainty how likely Lady Winterfell felt this match to be with both men now in their graves, but based on unsavory rumors Brienne had heard about the young Duke’s rakish tendencies, the younger woman was not awash with confidence.

Sansa, however, was endlessly determined.

“Perhaps I shall ask when he calls.”

If he calls,” Lady Winterfell put in. Brienne’s eyebrows raised, and Lady Winterfell must have noticed because she added, quite knowingly, “And if you imagine that a gentleman of such consequence could not possibly be so rude, you would be wrong.”