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Romancing the Wench

Chapter Text

He was coming for her. Rose scrabbled up the river bank, her skirts hiked up around her pale thighs. Her feet were bare, and small rocks and twigs ground into her heels. She didn’t care. She had to make it to the tower to light the signal fire. If she didn’t…

Rose let out a frustrated cry as her dress caught on roots and shrubs as she ran. She refused to think of what might happen if she didn’t make it to the tower in time. Renly was depending on her; he needed her to survive! Her heart gave an awful lurch. She needed Renly, too, in all the places that ached for him—her heart, her mind, and her body.

The forest trees grew thinner the farther she ran, and Rose suddenly sighed with relief. There, between two tall birch trees, stood the tower. It was as big and imposing as she remembered it, though it had aged over the years. Its stone face crumbled around the doorway and the wind had eaten along the ramparts at the top. Rose stripped vines from the heavy wooden door and shoved it open, ramming her shoulder against the rotten wood until it heaved inward.

The tower was dark and dusty inside. Shafts of light dropped down from holes in the ceiling. Rose took a tentative step inside, wondering how long she had left. Suddenly, there was great racket as dust and debris fell from the ceiling. Rose shrieked and covered her head with her hands. A cacophony of small bodies hurtled through the air above her, flapping their wings until the air was thick with feathers and motes.

Rose gasped and clutched at her chest. Birds. It was only birds.

Without another thought for them, Rose turned and dashed up the rickety tower stairs, praying to the old gods and the new that they would hold her. She scrambled to the top, the cold sea air hitting her in the face and knocking her breath away. How would she keep a fire lit in this wind?

She ran to the ramparts and leaned over the edge. The ground was so far down; she was so high up. No further than a stone’s throw, the earth dropped away at the edge of the black cliffs. The sea crashed against the rocks far below. She followed the frothy line of waves toward the beach, and her breath caught. A ship was already anchored off shore!

Rose’s heart leapt. It was Renly! She could see his house sigil on the ship’s snapping sails—a proud Baratheon stag, golden on a field of black. He had come for her!

Rose turned to hurry back down the stairs—there was no need for a fire if he already made it safe to shore—but a figure suddenly blocked her path.

Robert, Renly’s debauched older brother, was back from the grave.

The man stunk of wine, and he leered across the roof at her. There was no sign of the blade Rose had stuck in his side back in Summerhall, the sticky blood from that wound replaced with a velvet doublet stretched tight around his bulk. Robert had tracked her across the entirety of the Stormlands with his evil men. Now his eyes raked up her legs and settled on her bare thigh exposed between the gashes in her skirt. He licked his lips and moved toward her.

“So close, my little flower, but not close enough.”

He pulled a dagger from beneath his cloak and lunged at her. Rose screamed and ran to the other side of the roof. If she could only find a weapon! She dodged Robert as he grabbed for her, his hand closing on air. He grunted with exertion, his face marbled with sweat and lust.

Rose nearly tripped over a long, thin piece of iron, rusted from the salty air. She picked it up and jumped away from Robert. The iron was a long rod with a spike on one end; perhaps it had held a flying standard once or the head of a distant Baratheon enemy. Either way, Rose didn’t care. She gripped the rod in her hands, rust flaking between her fingertips.

Robert bore down on her. He licked his lips again. “Just wait until I get a taste of you, little flower,” he wheezed. “I’ll take pleasure in making you really scream.”

Rose snarled and thrust the rod at him. Robert jerked away just in time, slashing his dagger before him. They circled on the rooftop, watching each other like cornered animals. If Rose could just make it to the stairwell, perhaps she could escape…

Robert lunged again and Rose gritted her teeth. Robert tried to dodge her makeshift weapon, but Rose was too fast. She thought of Renly and jabbed the rod into Robert’s belly with all her strength. The fat man gurgled and cried out. His dagger clattered to the rooftop stones. Blood welled at his wound and drained from his stricken face. Rose tugged at the rod, seeking to free it and stab him again, but it would not come. Robert suddenly smiled a sickly, menacing grimace that twisted his face into pure evil. He grasped his hands on the rod and then, to Rose’s horror, yanked it further into his body.

The sharp end of the rod erupted from his back in a spray of blood and rent flesh. Rose screamed; so did Robert. But he did not let go. She was frozen, her hands still grasping the rod, as she realized that Robert was pulling her along with it! Drawing her closer towards him, towards his gaping mouth and that awful wound. She thought to let go, but something stopped her. If she did not end him, Robert would find a way to come after her again.

She had to end this, to save her life and Renly’s. To save her future with him.

Rose gripped the rod with renewed strength, her face a fearsome snarl. Robert’s eyes widened, spittle flew from his grotesque lips. He shook his head wildly as it dawned on him what she meant to do. Rose howled the cry of her warrior ancestors, the one she’d read about in books in her father’s library, the howl that Renly used to tease her about when they were only children playing beside the keep. The rod twisted under hands. Robert groaned. He was so heavy. His boots dragged along the crumbling roof, his heels catching on the edge of the stones. In the end, that only helped to seal Robert’s fate.

With a great shove and another guttural howl, Rose pushed Robert over the battlements with all her might, and he went over the edge with a shout, blood flying from his wound only to be whipped away in the fierce sea wind.

Rose did not stay long enough to peer over the edge; she knew his body would be broken on the rocks below. She snatched Robert’s abandoned dagger in trembling hands and dashed for the door in the roof.

She was already half-way down the tower stairs when she heard hoof beats pounding against the forest road. Someone new was riding toward her, and Rose decided she would destroy them, too.

But when she burst from the tower, he was there, waiting for her atop his white steed: Renly had come for her at last!  

He was as beautiful as she remembered, and she stifled a sob as he swung from the shining saddle of his horse and crossed the brief field to meet her. His hair was black as night, his eyes the same tumultuous blue of the ocean. Had his jaw always been so strong, his mouth so fair? Renly strode toward her and scooped her up in his arms. The dagger fell from her hands, her eyes closed at his touch.  

“My love,” his voice was so sweet, “am I too late? Are you a ghost or a dream?”

Rose could not answer, for Renly dropped his lips to hers and stole her breath away. He kissed her fiercely, without restraint, without thought for time or space. He was here, her Renly. She stroked her fingers across his perfect brow, over his sharp cheekbones, along the soft nape of his neck. He groaned into her mouth, and she answered him with a moan of her own, so wanton she was almost ashamed.

They had been through so much together. She had been through so much! Rose was not the girl he’d left all those months ago. She was a woman now, and he was a man, and they would take their time exploring one another. They would take their time discovering their future, too, bringing peace to a land that had, for so many years, known only strife.

“I love you,” Renly breathed into her hair.

Rose smiled up at him and swept her arms around his neck. “I love you, too,” she whispered.    

She looked out past the tower and the cliffs, across the sea and all that waited for them there, and then she tucked her head against Renly’s chest and said, “Let’s go home.”  

*

A yowl broke the triumphant silence.

Brienne jerked in her seat. The cursor blinked on the computer screen, hanging on the edge of the final line. Another yowl, and Brienne glared down at her feet.

“Can’t you wait five more minutes?”

Her portly cat, Goodwin, wound around her legs and gazed up at her. He yowled again, once more, for good measure, and Brienne dropped her head back and sighed. “Fine, you win, Goodwin. You win.”

She pushed her office chair away from the desk and stood, rolling her shoulders and cracking her neck. Goodwin pressed against her shins, positively shivering at the prospect of being fed.

The cursor still blinked tantalizingly on the screen in front of her, so she bent quickly at the waist and typed out two more words on the keyboard: The End.

She punched the keys to save the document and turned away from the computer before she could change her mind. Her editor Catelyn would be thrilled that it was finished. Brienne didn’t feel quite as confident, but then, she never did. She hated writing, and she loved it. It was like fighting her own personal dragon all the time, and in that moment of striking the last period on the last line, she always felt a little bit like a knight.

Goodwin danced and tripped around her legs as she made her way into the kitchen and picked up his empty dish in one corner. The ceramic bowl rang against the countertop and Goodwin chirruped. She opened a fresh can of cat food—smoked salmon and asparagus, though it looked and smelled like dog sick—and spooned it into the bowl. Goodwin stretched his feet against the lower cupboards and strained for the bowl. The look of pleasure on his face was enough to make Brienne coo.

Yep, she was a sucker.

By the time she made it back to her computer, the afterglow of finishing her latest novel had already worn off. It was a first draft and it still needed a lot of work. They always did. She sat back down at her desk and closed the document. She would email it to Catelyn Stark straightaway, before Brienne had time to second guess herself. It was always easier to let her editor read the first draft without preamble and then go from there.

When the email was sent, Brienne turned off the lights in the second bedroom that served as her office and made her way back to the kitchen. She had a half-drunk bottle of Arbor gold in her fridge that she’d been saving for just such an occasion. She grabbed a glass and went into the living room, setting the wine on the coffee table.

Her apartment was small, but it was perfect for her and Goodwin. It had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a large living room. Her furniture was old and well-loved, and she sunk into the middle of the couch in a way that spoke of too many nights curled up with a good book. She didn’t care, her single life suited her just fine. It gave her time to write, to focus on love stories that were infinitely more interesting than anything she could find out there on the streets of King’s Landing. And if anyone had experience with disappointing forays in love, it was Brienne.

Goodwin jumped up beside her on the sofa and licked his paws, clearly sated with his smoked salmon dinner-for-one. Brienne filled her wineglass to the brim and raised it in his direction. “To Rose and Renly,” she toasted. “May they live happily ever after.”

Goodwin only blinked at her and returned to licking himself. Brienne rolled her eyes and took a long draught of wine. She spat it out immediately—all over her sofa, her lap, and her cat.

Goodwin hissed and dashed away into her dark bedroom. So much for that celebration, she thought, wiping a hand across her mouth.  

Apparently, wine didn’t keep. 

Chapter Text

Winterfell Publishing occupied the top seven floors of a twenty-story glass behemoth in downtown King’s Landing. Catelyn’s husband, Ned Stark, had purchased the space for the view looking out over the ruins of the Sept of Baelor—a massive stone church destroyed by wildfire a thousand years ago. It was a tourist destination now, and Brienne never tired of watching miniature crowds mill about the giant blocks of stone, ancient ruins, and archeological exhibits far below. Catelyn’s corner office had a prime view of the site, and Brienne waited happily for her to finish up a conference meeting while standing with her arms crossed, peering down at the lines around the Sept.

She’d printed her manuscript before she left the house that morning and it now sat wrapped and waiting on Catelyn’s desk. Of course, Brienne had already emailed it to Catelyn, but she liked to be thorough and it gave her an excuse to fire the printer up once every few months.

Catelyn’s smooth, confident voice drifted through the door at Brienne’s back. “Well, tell Mr. Reed that I’ll call him back. I’m sure his book on metaphysical ass-somethings—”

“Aspects,” broke in the deeper voice of Catelyn’s assistant, Rory Castle.

“Yes, aspects—is very interesting, but I simply don’t have the time today.”

The office door swung open and Catelyn marched in, Rory following closely in her steps. “Brienne,” she exclaimed, “I’m so sorry I’m late! You know how those marketing meetings go.”

“And go,” Brienne smiled, turning to greet her long-time friend and mentor.

Catelyn set a stack of papers and notepads down on her desk and then leaned against it with both hands, fingers splayed. She gave Brienne a harried look and blew a lock of dark auburn hair away from her face. Her blue eyes, framed behind a pair of silver spectacles, flicked to Rory and she said, “If Howland calls again, just tell him I’ll punt his book over to that niche publishing group, Quiet Isle, and that will be the last he’ll hear of it going to print.”

Rory gulped and jerked his head. “Right away,” he said, turning and winking at Brienne. He stopped in the doorway. “Do you have everything you need in here?”

Catelyn nodded absentmindedly, so Brienne answered for them both. “We’re fine, Rory, thank you.”

Catelyn flopped into her leather desk chair and blew at her hair again. Brienne took that as leave to sit down as well, and she pulled out one of the rich upholstered chairs in front of the desk and crossed her ankles.

“If it’s not one thing,” Catelyn sighed, “it’s something else.”

“If it’s not a good time, we can move this meeting back,” Brienne offered. The last thing she to be was a burden.

Catelyn shook her head emphatically. “No, no, I didn’t mean you, Brienne. Of course not! You’re one of my most prolific authors. You’re like a machine.”

Brienne frowned at that, and Catelyn waved a hand. “Oh, you know what I mean.”

Catelyn sighed again, a hefty, weighty thing. “It’s not just work. The kids are off in all directions these days, what with Robb at university in Old town, and Arya still at school in the North. Bran’s obsessed with birds this year, and Rickon runs around like a wild animal. He’s six, I know, and they’re simply monsters at that age, but sometimes—” she paused, “—sometimes I wish Ned were still here.”

Brienne twisted her fingers awkwardly, never good with grief. Her own father had died just a few years ago, her mother when Brienne was only three, and her brother five years after that. She sympathized with the Stark children, who seemed to be untethered balloons in a world full of wind. Catelyn held herself together for the sake of her family and the company she’d helped Ned Stark build.

Brienne could only imagine what kind of pain she dealt with daily. There were constant reminders of Mr. Stark in every hall and room of this building, from his prized collection of rare books that lined the hallways to his darkened office, kept as pristine and shuttered as a mausoleum. Even Rory Castle had served as Ned’s right-hand man before he’d transferred his services over to Catelyn.  

“I’m sorry to burden you, Brienne,” said Catelyn, her eyes sorrowful. “In truth, I miss Sansa, too. She’s been gone on holiday a week now, and I didn’t realize how much I relied on her to manage the household until she’d flown off to Dorne.”

“How is she liking it?”

Brienne was fond of Sansa. The eldest Stark daughter shared her romanticism and love for Old World stories. They’d bonded over the classic romances of ages past and even joked about men—or at least, Sansa joked about men. Brienne nodded along and filed tidbits away for use in her stories. Sansa was younger than Brienne by several years and infinitely better looking. Much to Catelyn’s dismay, Sansa had decided to go on spring break with some of her friends in Dorne. It was just the kind of think a mother might worry about, but Brienne thought it was good for young women to have adventures.

“Oh, she loves it,” Catelyn grumbled. “Having the time of her life, last I heard. But you know how girls are. They don’t want to tell their mothers everything.” Brienne did indeed know that well, if only for her friendship with Sansa. Some of her stories had made Brienne blush just to hear them.

“I’m sure she’s having fun,” Catelyn said, “she hasn’t called in days, after all. Probably busy lying out by the pool and flirting with beautiful Dornish boys.”

“They are something to look at,” Brienne allowed.

She’d written a book set in Dorne just a few years ago and had spent a whole month touring the kingdom. While the men were striking, and the women intimidating, she’d spent most her time touring museums and archeological sites instead of interacting with the locals. The desert held a wealth of information, and her book certainly hadn’t suffered for it. Oberyn Martell cast a dashing figure as a rogue redeemed, sweeping a Dornish princess of her feet in the process; but, by the end, he'd devoted himself to a good woman from a low family. Sand Snake was one of Brienne’s bestsellers.

She considered Catelyn a moment longer, her mentor’s usually bright expression dulled as she stared out the suite of massive windows. “I’m sure Sansa is missing you, too.”

Catelyn gave her a grateful smile. “There’s nothing worse than being parted from your children, Brienne,” she said. Brienne could only nod, awed, as usual, by Catelyn’s ready vulnerability and steely courage. Motherhood wasn’t something Brienne thought of often, but if she did ever have the chance, she hoped Catelyn would be her mentor in that, too.

“Anyway,” Catelyn waved her hands in front of her face, “enough about my problems. What about Rose and Renly?”

Brienne sat up as Catelyn pulled the printed manuscript across the desk. “I read your email, though I admit, I haven’t had a chance until now to look at the final product. But I’m sure it’s wonderful.”

Brienne blushed at the kind words. “Well, it’s still rough around the edges. There are a few places I noted in the email where I think the draft could use some real work. As always, I do appreciate any feedback you have for me.”

Catelyn’s glasses had slipped down on her nose and she was already thumbing through the manuscript. She read a line every few pages, a smile dangling on her lips. “Mmm, you know, this could be just the thing I need to escape from the craziness around here.” 

She slapped her hand down on the front page, and Brienne jumped. “Give me the weekend to get through it—first round, no markups yet, and we’ll talk again on Monday. First thoughts. Yes?”

Brienne nodded eagerly, still amazed that a woman with Catelyn’s prestige and experience was willing to read her work at all. “Of course,” she said, “Monday would be perfect. But if you need more time…”

“Nonsense, Brienne,” said Catelyn seriously. “What I need is a distraction. And I can think of nothing better than to escape into the romantic world of Brienne Tarth’s heart.” 

*

Goodwin was waiting for Brienne when she pushed open the door to her apartment, two stuffed paper bags balancing precariously in her arms. He meowed and tried to trip her up, but Brienne shoved him away with her shoe and slammed the door behind her. She set the bags on the kitchen counter and began to unload groceries, stopping only when Goodwin grew too insistent.

“You’re a pest,” she hissed, but Goodwin only blinked owlishly up at her and nudged his food dish.

She was halfway through unloading the second bag when her cell phone rang. She dug through the pockets of her light canvas jacket to find it. Perhaps it was Catelyn calling to tell her they needed to postpone their meeting after all.

Rory had been surprised to pencil Brienne in for eight o'clock on Monday. “She’s been a little scattered,” he whispered to her as he typed the appointment into Catelyn’s calendar. “Some days she doesn’t even come in until after lunch. But with Mr. Stark gone, who can blame her?” Brienne had only smiled and nodded; Rory Castle was a well-known gossip.

The ringtone erupting from Brienne’s cell was an old ballad about a maid falling in love; wistful and sweet, it never failed to put Brienne in a good mood. Bad news didn’t come with lilting tones like that, she assured herself as she tugged the phone free.

It was a foreign number calling, not Catelyn’s cell or office, and Brienne didn’t recognize the kingdom code. She hit the green button to accept the call. “Hello?” she answered hesitantly.

There was static, then a series of clicks, and then more static. Brienne said ‘hello’ again. She was about to give up when someone on the other end of the line sniffled, hiccupped, and then wailed suddenly. “Brienne?”

Brienne could tell it was a woman, but beyond that the connection was too poor to identify the caller. “Yes, this is Brienne Tarth,” she said loudly into the phone to make sure she could be heard across the line. “Who is this?”

There was more sobbing and muffled voices. It sounded like another person was in the room with the caller—a man perhaps.

“Hello?” Brienne asked again. “Do you need help?”

The woman on the line sniffed. “Brienne,” she choked, her voice shaking across the line. “It’s Sansa Stark.”

Brienne jerked against the counter and stumbled into her living room. She pressed against one of her narrow windows, hoping the connection might improve. Damn the cell service in busy urban areas! She pried the window open with one hand and leaned as far out as she dared; traffic roared on the street below. Sansa’s weeping on the other end of the line grew gradually clearer.

“Sansa!” Brienne exclaimed. “Sansa, it’s Brienne, can you hear me? What’s happened? Are you alright?”

The male voice in the room muttered something inaudible and then there was the distinct slam of a door. Sansa let out another distressed wail, so loud that Brienne had to hold the phone away from her face. She brought it back to her ear as soon as the tinny sobbing resumed.

“Brienne,” Sansa cried, “I’m in so much trouble.” 

*

Brienne was still sitting on her sofa in shock when the door buzzed. She stared at her phone blankly, not sure she’d really heard the door go, too many thoughts flying frantically through her mind. The bell buzzed again, this time in a long, irritated whine. Then her phone started to ring. Margaery Tyrell’s name popped up on the screen. Brienne scrambled to answer.

“Margaery?” she whispered hoarsely.

“Brienne?” Margaery chirped back, her voice relentlessly bright. “Let me in! I’ve brought boxed wine and takeout!”

Brienne moved as if she were swimming through molasses. It seemed to take ages to get to the door, push the intercom, and buzz Margaery up.

Too quickly, there was a knock on the door, and Brienne opened it to let the pretty brunette waltz in. The scent of spicy Dornish takeout followed Margaery into the kitchen, where she set down a large box of Butterwell wine and greeted Goodwin at her feet. When Margaery stood back up, she took one look at Brienne’s dazed face and frowned.

“Oh gods,” she asked, “who died?”

Brienne put a hand over her eyes and took a deep breath. She wasn’t prepared for this. She wasn’t prepared for any of this! She was a novelist not a—not an adventurer. No, adventurer wasn’t the right word. Rescuer. Hero. None of those words fit Brienne. She was plain, not very clever, and her life was far, far too quiet. This wasn't her place. She should call the police. She should call Catelyn. She should...

“I think I need a drink,” she groaned and shuffled back to the living room.

Margaery had been over to Brienne’s apartment countless times. They’d made it a habit to drink too much wine and marathon romantic comedies every Thursday night. Close since college, Margaery was perhaps the only woman Brienne could truly call a best friend. She shared everything with Margaery, from terrible dates to possible book plots to what she’d ordered at that hot new restaurant in Fleabottom for a business dinner.

Margaery didn’t hold back, either. She was the primary resource for Brienne’s promiscuous characters, more descriptive and informational than porn, and definitely more realistic than the romance novels Brienne surrounded herself with. If she ever needed inspiration for a particularly wild escapade, Margaery was the person to turn to.

In fact, Margaery was the type of person one could turn to for advice about pretty much anything. She was invaluable in that way, and Brienne looked up at her with gratitude when she pressed a glass of red wine into her hands and sat on the couch beside her.

“Talk,” Margaery demanded, clinking her wineglass unceremoniously against Brienne’s before taking a sip. She was dressed in a silky white blouse and impossibly chic grey slacks, looking cool and collected and the exact opposite of how Brienne felt.

Brienne took a gulp of wine and let it coat her throat. “Sansa Stark called me. She’s my—my editor’s daughter. She’s in trouble.” 

Margaery frowned. “What kind of trouble? Is it a man? Did she call the police? Does she need a ride? I have my car downstairs.”

“Sansa isn’t in town,” said Brienne, shaking her head slowly. “She’s not even in this kingdom. She’s in—she was in Dorne.”

Margaery sat back and pushed her long brown hair over one shoulder, looking concerned. “And where is she now?”

Brienne took another mouthful of wine and stared at her friend. It had taken her a moment to locate it on a map after hanging up with Sansa, and the name felt wild and strange on her tongue.

“She's in Sothoryos,” she answered, "being held hostage."

Chapter Text

Brienne had presented all of the logical options she could think of to Sansa over the phone. Call the cops. Signal the authorities. Send a letter. Get help from one of the neighbors—there had to be neighbors, even in a coastal compound. Or, for the Seven Gods, let Brienne tell Catelyn so she could call the authorities.

But Sansa only sobbed that it was impossible. It would never work. He wouldn’t let her out of his sight. Just who he was, Brienne didn’t know. Sansa had choked and stuttered when Brienne asked her anything too detailed, as if someone held a knife to her throat. So she hadn’t asked for more details other than the very basics of Sansa’s situation: She had been abducted in Sunspear and flown across the Narrow Sea to somewhere in Sothoryos called the Basilisk Point. The compound was on the coast and there were no lights from towns nearby. There were a lot of men with machetes and guns. She hadn’t been hurt—yet. And the man behind it all, the man who had taken Sansa in the first place, wanted something from Brienne. 

Brienne had spluttered at that. What could a man half-way across the known world possibly want from her?

Sansa had clarified that at least, if only slightly. He wasn’t interested in Brienne, but in what Brienne had access to.

“He wants you to what!?” Margaery hadn’t stopped pacing Brienne’s living room for the past half hour. She tugged at the bottom of her hair and tossed it over her shoulder in what Brienne was fast coming to recognize as a new anxious tic.

“Margaery, calm down,” she said, taking another sip of wine. Butterwell was known to be sweet, cheap and potent, but Brienne couldn’t fault the wine for that. She was on her fourth glass now and it was doing wonderful things to her nerves. She barely felt any trepidation at all—Sansa would be fine.

“We have to report this to the authorities, obviously,” she said. It was so simple in her wine-addled mind, and she wondered why Margaery was even fretting over it at all. “They’ll trace the next call from Sansa and then send out a team to get her.”

Margaery spun on her heel to stare incredulously at Brienne. “And if those guys who have her get wind of it? Sansa is in real danger!”

Brienne gulped, her mouth going dry. “Yes, yeah, you’re right.” Was she slurring? “The thing is, I can’t possibly do what he’s asking. It’s illegal.”

Margaery leaned over Brienne and plucked the glass of wine from her hand. “Hey!” Brienne exclaimed, but Margaery had already set it down on a side table out of her reach.

“No,” she said, putting both hands on Brienne’s wide shoulders. “You are drunk and not thinking clearly. When have you ever backed down from a challenge, Brienne Tarth? It’s not like you to be a coward. You’re all about rescuing the fair maiden!”

Brienne shook her head and the room spun. She put a hand on the sofa cushion beside her to steady herself. “I’m all about the fair maiden rescuing herself,” she insisted. “And besides, those are books—fiction! It’s not real!”

Margaery sat down next to Brienne and grasped her hands. “Don’t sell yourself short, Brienne. You know more about knives and guns and medieval torture devices than anyone else I know. And this is very real. It sounds like Sansa’s in real trouble, and you’re in the best position to help her.”

Brienne swallowed and looked down. She didn’t like to think she was craven, no one did. And her father had raised her to always look out for those who couldn’t help themselves, to stand up for the little guy, to rescue the fair maiden. Fuck.

“Alright,” Brienne whispered, tugging her hands from Margaery’s grasp. She dropped her head onto her knees and covered her head. The world felt better when it was covered in darkness, safer and smaller and less… woozy. “I’ll do it.”

Margaery patted her shoulder. “I knew you would. I didn’t doubt you for a second.”

Brienne sat up suddenly. “Margaery,” she said, trying really hard not to puke, “how the hell do I get to Sothoryos?”

Her friend beamed at her and squeezed her shoulder. Then she stood and gathered her bag. “Don’t you worry about that,” she said cheerfully. “I already have a plan.” She fished a pen out of her bag and scrawled something on the back of a receipt. “Just show up at this address tomorrow afternoon, ok?”

Brienne could only nod as Margaery slapped the receipt on the coffee table and went to open the door. She paused in the doorway, a curious gleam in eyes. “And wear something short.”

*

Brienne usually ignored Margaery’s advice, especially when it came to fashion. But she was desperate, and so was Sansa. So she teetered down the street on her only pair of heels and tried not to tug on the hem of her corduroy skirt. It felt like an ungodly amount of her pale thighs were on display, but any extra movement only drew more attention from the strangers on the street. She checked the slip of paper with the address Margaery had written down for her, then glanced up at the row of office buildings in front of her.

“Number 47, floor 47,” she mumbled, dodging passersby on the sidewalk and ignoring the honking of traffic. She halted in front of a tall glass building with a façade of inlaid gold lions. Each one wore a fierce expression, their tiny mouths open in an eternal roar, their tails flicking aggressively. A little gaudy, if anyone cared to ask Brienne’s opinion. But they had not. She swung a heavy glass door open and a blast of air-conditioned coolness hit her in the face.

Her shoes clacked along the tile floor, the Spartan lobby completely empty. A bank of elevators lined the wall to her right, and a little sign provided helpful information about  the building’s apparently single occupant. “Lion Travel Agency,” the building directory proclaimed, “Floor 47.”

Weird, thought Brienne, staring at the blank slates on the sign where other companies ought to be. Very weird.

The elevator delivered her to a long hallway decked out in gold and red. The carpet was resplendent, and Brienne’s heels sunk into the thick weave. The carpet ended abruptly at mahogany reception desk that was, unfortunately, empty. A wall of mahogany paneling stretched behind the desk, blocking Brienne’s view into the maw of the office space. In the center of the wall, another gaudy lion in bas relief peered down at her.

Brienne pursed her lips. She looked around. The office was completely silent. She peered over the edge of the desk, hoping at least for a silver bell or a telephone that might summon somebody—anybody—who could assist her. But the desk was a desolate expanse with nary a Post-It or a pen. Feeling supremely suspicious, and frankly a little miffed, she threw back her head and hollered. “HELLO?”

The sound of answering heels clacking on tile echoed from somewhere in the office behind the reception desk. Brienne waited. 

A petite woman with long red hair and a short black skirt peered around one end of the reception wall. “Yes?”

Brienne tried to control her temper. It wouldn’t do to be impolite; she needed help. “My name is Brienne Tarth. I’m here to see—” she glanced down at the paper in her hand, “a Mr. Lannister.”

The young woman perked up and approached Brienne with her hand held out. Brienne shook it awkwardly. “Of course, Ms. Tarth, we’ve been expecting you. Mr. Lannister is in the large board room, he’ll see you there.” She led Brienne around the wall and down another long hallway, tastefully decorated with draped crimson velvet and gold wall sconces lining the paneling. “Can I interest you in some sparkling water or a glass of champagne?”

Brienne stopped. Her heels dug into the flooring. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m confused. Who are you? What is this place? And who is Mr. Lannister?”

Before the young woman could answer, a man’s voice interrupted them from further down the hallway. “I’m Mr. Lannister,” said a small man, barely the height of Brienne’s naval. “And she’s Ros. And you’re Brienne Tarth. Sent here, I believe, by that delicious minx Margaery Tyrell. Who for some reason won’t answer my calls but will send me clients.”

Mr. Lannister waddled up to them and held out a short arm and a well-shaped hand for her to shake. Brienne took it politely, trying not to be unnerved by his eyes, one the bright green flash of an emerald and the other black as night. Mr. Lannister tugged on her hand and leaned in as if they were old pals. “Perhaps, after we’ve addressed your small problem, you can help me unravel the mystery of Margaery Tyrell?” He winked, and Brienne felt an odd mixture of being both charmed and annoyed.

She coughed. “Perhaps.”

Mr. Lannister gestured for her to join him in a board room off to their right. It was overly large for anything other than a corporate takeover or a high-profile divorce deposition, but the small man didn’t seem to mind, casually pulling out a deep red leather chair for her to sit in before hopping into its neighbor. He folded his hands in his lap and simply waited for her to talk. 

Ros hovered behind him, asking about beverages again. Brienne shook her head and Mr. Lannister waved her off. “I’ll call for you when we’re done, dear,” he said, though Brienne made note of no kind of intercom or paging system anywhere in the room.

“Now,” said Mr. Lannister, “tell me everything.”

Brienne didn't know where to start or if she even should. She wondered how much Margaery had already told him about Sansa. “Mr. Lannister,” she began, but he held up a hand.

“Tyrion,” he insisted. “Only strangers call me Mr. Lannister, and I have a feeling that you and I are about to become great friends.”

In any normal situation—hell, in any fictional situation—Brienne or her female heroines would be on high alert for what Margaery fondly called creep mode.  That was, a strange man who was overly familiar and who didn’t seem to understand that a woman, alone, was vulnerable and dangerous when cornered. And so Brienne really didn’t feel bad when she stood up suddenly to her towering height and clearly caught Tyrion Lannister off guard. He stared up at her and, amazingly, seemed to shrink in his seat. Brienne was pretty sure she even heard him audibly swallow.

It was kind of empowering.

“Mr. Lannister,” she said, ignoring his request to address him by his first name, “I don’t know what Margaery told you about me or why I’m here, but I was under the impression that this was a travel agency and you were a travel agent. I was clearly mistaken. I promise you, I don’t want any of whatever this—” she waved her hand between the two of them, “is.”

She turned to leave, but Tyrion scrambled down from his chair and blocked her exit. “Ms. Tarth,” he said, “allow me to apologize. Profusely.” She paused and he gestured toward the table again. Brienne ignored him and he sighed. “Clearly I misread you, and for that I am profoundly embarrassed and a little chagrined. Margaery usually sends me debutantes and other young women looking for a particular kind of get-away. One I’m happy to oblige in, but I promise you, it’s Margaery who I want at the end of the day.” He looked pointedly at Brienne’s expanse of bare leg. “I misread the situation. It was inexcusable, but I hope you’ll stay and let me help you if I can.”

Brienne studied him for a moment, looking for any kind of sign that he was mocking her or baiting her into a well-laid trap. Instead, she found that he really did look a little shaken, the color high in his cheeks and his brow furrowed worriedly. She followed him cautiously back to the table and took her chair. Tyrion climbed back into his own and folded his hands on the table before him.

“Shall we try again?” he asked. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Tyrion Lannister, owner of this company, and, as you can probably guess, this building. We are not a travel agency, though I do dabble in international relations and entertainment. But only for exorbitant amounts of money or access… and sometimes for particular family friends.”

Brienne opened her mouth to say something, but Tyrion continued on, “Clearly you are not my usual clientele. Margaery tells me you’ve recently run into a logistics issue with a close friend and you’d like some help planning an emergency trip to Sothoryos. I just so happen to excel at logistics.” He opened his hands on the table between them. “Consider me your man.”

*

Two hours later and many travel details later, Brienne was still in Tyrion Lannister’s board room. She had accepted two glasses of water delivered over ice in crystal tumblers and absolutely nothing else. Even after Tyrion gave a rousing lecture on the quality of northern whisky and offered her a sample from a particularly rare bottle he’d recently acquired from the Greyjoy family. Brienne declined, and Tyrion launched into the historical and genealogical background of the Greyjoys in some kind of misdirected attempt to sway her.

Brienne didn’t know the Greyjoy family at all, but she assured Tyrion that they sounded very nice. He responded with a disapproving frown.

Ros strode into the room with a manila folder and thankfully interrupted whatever tirade Tyrion was about to embark on next. She slid the folder over to Tyrion who glanced at the contents and then slid it over to Brienne. He waved Ros away, and she closed the board room door with a barely-audible click. It was very clandestine for a meeting in broad daylight in an otherwise empty office building.

Brienne opened the folder as Tyrion said, “I’d be remiss if I didn’t warn you away from what you’re about to do, Ms. Tarth.”

“Brienne,” she insisted for what felt like the seventeenth time. Tyrion Lannister was all at once overly formal and overly friendly; a confusing mix that Brienne couldn’t get used to.

“Sothoryos is a place steeped in legend, said to be full of monsters and plagues and all manner of things that can kill you.” He gave her an appraising look. “While you certainly look like you’re born from hearty stock, surely the middle of the jungle is no place for a young woman to wander around alone?”

Brienne ignored the dig. “I’ll manage just fine. I’m no stranger to self-defense.”

“Hm,” Tyrion leaned back in his seat.

“I’m a writer,” stated Brienne, examining the maps Ros had pulled for her with transit points marked in red. “Research is part of the job, and I just so happen to write quite a few novels that require in-depth knowledge of weaponry and fighting techniques. I’m not afraid, Mr. Lannister.”

Sothoryos was a vast continent, and the delta at its northernmost tip was, as far as Brienne knew, the only part that had really been settled. The rest of the continent was said to be dense jungle and nearly impassable. It was true that rumors persisted even in the modern day of ancient monsters and fierce tribespeople deep in the interior. But plague sounded a bit much—sure, there could be disease and poisonous plants, predators that had no place in the cooler climates of Westeros or the ambling deserts of Essos...

Brienne recalled a picture she had stumbled across once in an geography book in the library: It was a cross-section of the jungle outside the ruined city of Yeen, tall trees stretching up from a dark forest floor covered in ferns and shrubs with large, fan-like leaves. Vines dripped from the canopy overhead and a flash of sunlight just barely managed to eek it’s way through to the forest below. A mist clung to the bases of the trees; off to one side, stretched across a fallen, moss-covered log, was a long, sleek wildcat with gold eyes and claws as long as Brienne’s first finger. She gulped.

“Thank you for your concern, Mr. Lannister, but I just need to find a water taxi from the Summer Isles to Zamettar and then a bus over to the Basilisk Point. I shouldn’t even see the jungle, if your service is as good as you say it is…”

Tyrion looked mildly offended but smiled nonetheless. “As you say, Ms. Tarth, I only speak out of concern. Many a tourist has gone missing in Sothoryos, you know. In fact, why don’t I set you up with a contact I know down there—someone who’s been with my family for years and can help keep an eye out for any trouble? His name is Bronn. He’s a fixer… among other things. You’ll like him.”

Brienne hesitated. The last thing she needed was an added complication. Tyrion spread his hands out across the table in another peace offering. “Bronn’s employment as your bodyguard is entirely on my dime, Ms. Tarth. It’s the least I can do for our little misunderstanding.”

Sighing, Brienne closed the folder and shrugged. “I could use help translating, at least.”

Tyrion grinned. “Excellent. You and Bronn will get on famously. I daresay he can give you some pointers on hand-to-hand combat for your next book. He might even inspire a dashing sellsword to seduce Rose’s heart away from her beloved Renly.”

Brienne’s jaw dropped. “But that book’s not even out yet.”

Tyrion winked. “I really am that good, Ms. Tarth.”

 

Chapter Text

“He didn’t.”

“He did.”

“That little shit.”

“That’s a bit harsh.”

“Oh no, trust me, Brienne. He deserves the moniker twice over.”

Brienne regaled Margaery with her adventure to the offices of the Lion Travel Agency while they packed her clothes into a nondescript black roller bag. The contents of her closet were strewn about her tiny bedroom, and her bathroom looked much the same. Despite visiting her father on the Isle of Tarth twice a year, her suitcase was covered in dust and hidden away in the back of her closet. She didn’t own a single travel size product—not that it mattered much, as Brienne’s beauty routine consisted of nothing but shampoo and sun lotion. She tossed a grey exercise tank to Margaery, who wrinkled her nose in distaste but packed it away nonetheless.

“How do you know such an odd man anyway?”

Margaery waved her hand . “You know how the old families are. Everyone knows everyone somehow. Lannisters, Tyrells, Baratheons, Martells. We’re a nest of tangled, incestuous old vipers.” Brienne raised her eyebrow and Margaery, to her surprise, actually blushed. “And we have a bit of history, it’s true. Tyrion is very talented with his tongue, you know.”

Brienne made a gagging face. “I don’t need to know, thanks.”

“Really, Brienne, how can you write such wonderful romances and still be such a prude? You don’t need an extensive list of partners to appreciate good sex.”

Brienne heaved a sigh. She tried not to feel the weight of her friend’s well-intended but still insensitive words settle on her shoulders. Of course she knew that. It wasn’t a new conversation between Margaery and herself. Her friend was keen enough to help Brienne develop scenes for some of her novels, and she’d heard plenty of stories about Margaery’s shenanigans with the men of King’s Landing to fill in any blanks. But Brienne couldn’t fill all her novels with details about Margaery’s sex life. At some point, she’d have to go out there and do the research herself.

Not that she had any offers. Brienne ducked her head and tried not to make eye contact with her reflection in her dresser mirror. She was as homely as they came, with shoulder-length hair the texture of straw and facial features that didn’t seem to fit on her face. Her shoulders were as broad as any man’s and she had no real womanly shape to speak of. She was strong, yes. The kind of strong that came from years of sports and nights spent lifting weights at her local gym. Something about the physical exertion helped her focus when writing became especially tough. Makeup never seemed to help, either, as anything more than a layer of mascara or some chap stick just made her look like she was trying too hard.

She beat back the unwelcome memories from high school, the last time she’d let herself actually hope. Since then, she’d been on a couple of dates with lackluster men, and every time she’d felt like she was settling. Brienne may not be much to look at, but she had enough self respect to realize that she’d be better off alone than with someone whom she could never love. It left her with few prospects, a whole heap of romantic ideals to work through, and a sex manual with a page count of approximately two.

Margaery must have seen her expression because she lowered the pair of jeans she was folding and said, “I’m sorry, Brienne. I didn’t mean to be so cruel.”

Brienne shrugged and smiled thinly at her, hoping her blush wasn’t as hot as it felt. “It’s not your fault, Marg. I’m just stupidly holding out for my Renly, I guess.” 

Now it was Margaery’s turn to cock an eyebrow. “A tall, dark and handsome hero with a heart of gold? Aren’t we all waiting for a Renly?”

They continued on in silence, Brienne’s bag growing ever fuller with exercise shorts and khakis and tank tops. Goodwin had fallen asleep in the middle of a pile of clothes, and he gave a long, sleepy yawn when Brienne tried to tug a raincoat out from beneath him. Suddenly, Margaery giggled from across the room.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” she said, holding up a scrap of fabric, “you’re way more likely to find a Renly if you pack a few more things like this.”

Brienne yelped and dove across the bed to grab at the article in Margaery’s hands. Goodwin pelted off the bed with an angry yowl before Brienne could land on top of him. Margaery snatched her hands away just in time. She twisted and held up a bright red bikini top.

“Brienne Tarth, you’ve been holding out on me!”

Brienne groaned into her mattress. “It’s not what you think.”

“No? Because I think it’s a sexy red bikini top with what must be a matching bottom somewhere around here.” Margaery turned and rooted around in the piles of clothes at her feet. When she came up empty, she moved on to Brienne’s dresser drawers. “Ah ha!” She flung her arms up triumphantly with the bikini set clutched in each hand. Brienne stared at the red ties that dangled down in front of Margaery’s face.

“There is no way I am bringing that to Sothoryos.” 

“What! Why not?” Margaery held the top up against her much fuller chest and spun to peer at herself in the mirror. “It’s nothing. It won’t weigh a thing in your bag, and the color is so… fierce.” 

“It brings out every red blotch on my body,” Brienne mumbled in response.

“You’ve worn it before then!”

“Once, in a weightlifting competition as part of an early writing project in college. The only weightlifting competition I ever entered.” 

Brienne left out the fact that she’d actually won the weightlifting competition. She also left out the unspoken fact that she’d doused herself in orange self-tanner the night before, oiled up the morning of, and stomped out on the stage in front of five judges in absolute abject humiliation. It was the last time she’d attempted to write memoir.

“Well,” said Margaery, balling it up and shoving it into a corner of Brienne’s roller bag, “I think it’s fabulous and you have to take it. You’re in a tropical paradise—bikinis are practically required.”

Brienne dug the bikini out of the bag as soon as Margaery had covered it up with a cotton tee. “It’s not like I’m going to be lounging around on a pool in the Summer Islands. I’ll be bushwhacking through the jungle and negotiating with hostage takers!”

Margaery and Brienne stared at one another across the bed. “So,” said Margaery blandly, “bikini optional then?”

The red bikini slipped out of Brienne’s hands and flopped to the floor. “Marg,” she whispered, “what on earth am I going to do?”

It wasn’t even as bad as bushwhacking through the jungle and negotiating with hostage takers, though. Because Brienne had left out one key piece of information when she’d told the story to Margaery and then to Tyrion and then to her father, whom she’d had to tell in case anything happened to her. He was less than pleased, and she’d spent a full hour on the phone reassuring him and promising to be careful and call every day. He didn’t understand why she wouldn’t report it to the police, but then, her father didn’t understand how very dangerous this was for more than just Brienne. How scared Sansa had sounded on the phone. Brienne found herself stopping every hour or so to wonder again what she was even doing.

The morning after packing her bags—the red bikini tucked in a dresser drawer and Goodwin trundled away to stay at Margaery’s—Brienne took a taxi from her apartment to the offices of Winterfell Publishing. She paused outside the massive skyscraper, peering up at the sheer glass front. She wore a simple leather messenger bag slung across her chest, and she patted it in some bizarre form of self-soothing. It felt normal, like she was delivering another manuscript to her publisher. But the papers in Brienne’s bag were blank.

She took the elevator up to Catelyn Stark’s office as she always did. She checked in at the front desk and said hello to Jory when he collected her and deposited her in Catelyn’s office. She accepted bottle of water that he brought her with apologies for Catelyn’s delay—another board meeting gone long. Brienne nodded like she always did and smiled politely. She was always bad at small talk, and Jory left her to her own devices after only a minute of pleasantries and the promise to go find Catelyn himself. Brienne took another sip of water, secured the bottle cap tightly, and then hefted her bag onto her shoulder and took off down the hallway.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she panted silently the whole way across the office. She kept her head down as she passed a row of low cubicles, desperately hoping no one would stand up and question who she was and what she was doing. But the office was abuzz with phone calls and clacking keyboards and no one paid her any attention. She knew exactly which conference room she needed and luck was on her side that it was completely empty. She stole inside and closed the door with a soft click.

The walls in this conference room were lined with old relics from the Stark family. Swords and cudgels loomed ominously over the sleek mahogany table. A line of windows lit the room, and it didn’t take Brienne long to find what she was looking for. There at the back, hanging above an antique credenza, just as Sansa had said, was an ancient map of Sothoryos.

Brienne hadn’t seen many maps of Sothoryos before. Even today the continent was largely unchartered. This map showed more than Brienne was used to, with a river running south out of the Zamettar delta and down through Yeen. It disappeared at a line of mountains labeled on the map as “The Unscaled Heights.” Brienne didn’t know there was a mountain range on Sothoryos or a desolate wasteland to the south that it labeled “The Scorched Barrens.”

Before she could get lost in the details of the ancient map, with it’s tattered edges the color of milk tea, she pulled her bag over her head and set it on the table. The map was housed in a large glass and gold gilt frame, but Brienne had little trouble pulling it down from the wall. She’d had nightmares the night before that the map lasers and rabid dogs protected the map. But Sansa hadn’t alluded to anything when she’d said hurriedly that they wanted the map in her mom’s conference room.

Brienne tugged the sheaf of papers out of her bag and let them spill across the table and onto the floor. She whispered another apology to no one and then pried the back of the frame away, revealing the back of the map. Except it wasn’t blank as Brienne had expected. It an identical copy of Sothoryos crisscorssed in watery black lines and chicken-scratch symbols. Brienne’s heart stuttered as she followed that same squiggle of river. This time, it paused at a massive waterfall on the edge of jagged mountains. A deluge of water poured down into what the map called “Lake Nyw.”

She ran her hand over the paper, her fingertips catching on the ridges of ink. It was soft vellum, not crisping paper, and it moved at her touch. She pried it up then held her breath as she folded it into a neat rectangle no larger than a notebook. Hurriedly, Brienne spun to pull out a folded sheet of paper from her bag; on it was a map of Sothoryos. This was the kind of map one would find in a school room, and it wouldn’t be long before someone noticed the switch. It paled in comparison to the intricate detailing on the Stark copy. Still, it would buy Brienne time, and that’s all she needed. She shoved it into the frame and hung it back onto the wall, preying to the Seven gods that luck was still on her side.

The office hummed on outside the conference room doors. Brienne slipped the ancient map into her bag, then gathered up the blank pages of her blank manuscript and shoved them in after it. The weight felt right. She took one last look back at her handy work. A gaudy map in shades of bright blue and green stared back at her. The edges of the Sothoryos jungle blurred into a smudge of paint as the artist gave up trying to guess at what the cartographers never finished.

*

Almost no one glanced up as Brienne exited the conference room, but a voice to her right made her jump.

“Brienne?”

She shoved her hands in her pocket and willed her heart to stop pounding. “Catelyn, there you are.”

Catelyn Stark was dressed in a chic navy slip dress that ended just below her knees. Her red hair was a wild, tangled bun on the top of her head, and yet she somehow looked professional and sharp. Brienne cursed her own lumbering physique and hunched to make herself appear a little smaller. “Jory told me you were here. What are you doing wandering the halls?” Catelyn glanced at the door to the conference room, then gave Brienne a quizzical look. Brienne had the distinct sensation of being scolded by a disapproving parent.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “Jory mentioned you were just finishing up a board meeting. I thought maybe I could meet you outside the conference room. I’m in a little bit of a hurry, you see.”

Catelyn arched a brow. “Oh? Well, let’s walk and talk—I’m just headed back to my office now. You know how those board meetings go. Such a chore. I could have finished Walder Frey’s latest crime thriller in the time.” She marched down the hallway away from the conference room, Brienne following quickly in her wake. Catelyn cast a wry glance over her shoulder. “Though between you and me, Brienne, I’m equally bored with both.”

Brienne tried to smile—Walder Frey had been publishing the same story for the last forty years—but she only managed a grimace. Her hands had grown clammy and her joints were started to get tight. Stupid, stupid, stupid. She hadn’t thought past getting that damn map into her bag. Now she was here with Catelyn and her story didn’t have a satisfying ending. Why was she in Catelyn’s office? She didn’t actually have a manuscript to hand off like she’d told Jory over the phone.

Catelyn led Brienne into her office and gestured to the same chair Brienne had sat in earlier. Her water bottle was waiting on the side table, and Brienne picked up to give her hands something to do.

“Well, Brienne, what can I do for you?” Asked Catelyn. “You mentioned you were in a hurry? I’m sorry to say I don’t have your edits for you yet—give me another day and I’ll have them right to you. I dare say you already know I love the book.” She smiled warmly and Brienne felt her stomach drop guiltily.

“Oh,” she breathed. “Well, that’s ok. I don’t want to rush you. It’s just…” she trialed off. She just what? She took a swig of water to buy time. Catelyn watched her with a worried expression.

“Are you alright? I haven’t seen you this flustered since your first book.”

Brienne sat up with a jolt as a spark of an idea shot from forehead to foot. She set the water bottle back down and leaned forward, her hand resting meaningfully against her bag. “I feel a little guilty, Catelyn,” she confessed. “I know I just delivered that manuscript last week, but I—well I seem to have been hit by a muse, I guess.”

“A muse?” Catelyn echoed. Brienne had never been hit by a muse before. She was a diligent worker with an immense amount of willpower and a lot of time on her hands. She didn’t need a muse.

Brienne twisted her hands together. She may as well dive right in. “I’m going to the Summer Isles,” she said, watching surprise sweep across Catelyn’s expression. “For a new novel. With a new hero and a new heroine. I just had the thought this weekend, and I booked a ticket to Lotus Point before I could second guess it.”

“Well,” said Catelyn. She sat back in her chair and clapped her hands together. “A new series?”

Brienne nodded, wondering if she’d be alive at the end of this to actually deliver it. “New characters, a new romance. Everything. It’s time.”

“But Renly and Rose are still unfinished, are they not? There’s so much room left in their story.”

“And I plan to finish it,” Brienne vowed. “But right now, I have to see where this one takes me. Strike while the iron’s hot and all that.”

Catelyn crossed her arms and gave Brienne a serious look. “You know, I’m very proud of you, Brienne. It takes guts to go out on a limb like that. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought you had it in you, but you’ve grown so much as a writer and a woman. I’m honored that you’ve chosen Winterfell as your second family." 

Tears gathered in Brienne’s eyes and she swallowed thickly. She thought of Catelyn as a mentor, if not something like a second mother. To hear that praise after she’d just stolen a priceless object from Catelyn’s own office—after she’d just liedto her, made Brienne feel ashamed. It would be so easy, wouldn’t it, to tell Catelyn everything? Maybe she could help. But instead she forced herself to think of Sansa and the promise she’d made. She couldn’t go back on her word.

“Thank you, Catelyn,” was all she said. “I’ve arranged travel and lodging already. I’ll be gone about a week for research.”

“Well, I’d love to see the outline when you’re ready. Will we set up some time for coffee when you get back? See what you have to pitch?”

Brienne nodded. No one had ever done as much for her as Catelyn Stark. She’d taken an ugly, insecure young girl right out of college and turned her into a bestselling author. Brienne had never felt so low. She stood, holding her bag close to her side.

“Thanks Catelyn, I’ll see you soon.”

Just as she turned to open the office door, Catelyn called her back. “Be careful, Brienne,” she said, smiling. “And have some fun.” 

Brienne had all but run out of Winterfell Publishing, her bag thwapping against her hip like the telltale heart. She grabbed the first taxi she could find and made a mental list of all the things she still had to do before her flight that afternoon. She still had to stop her mail and let her landlord know she’d be out of town for more than ten days (Would she? Gods, who even knew!). She should turn off the water, but it was midsummer and the likelihood of a frozen pipe was extremely rare.

She silently ticked items off her to do list as she made her way into her building and up the stairs. A man in a heavy coat jostled down past her in a rush, and Brienne gripped the bannister tightly so she didn’t stumble and fall. She opened her mouth to shout down at him, but he had already rounded the corner of stairs and all she heard of him was a frenzy of footsteps. It was just as well since Brienne had larger fish to fry.

She could feel something was off as soon as she stepped into her hall. With her hands over her mouth, she approached the shattered door jam that led into her apartment, her front door hanging on a single hinge. Someone had knocked her door in. Brienne adopted a fighting stance by instinct, squaring her feet and raising her arms in front of her as she entered.

The apartment was chaos. Her furniture was upended, the pictures on her walls pulled down and slashed open. Clothes spilled from her bedroom and out into the living room, where her wooden coffee table had been smashed to a pile of splintered wood. Even her television was on it’s side with the back ripped out. Brienne examined the apartment for invaders but found no one. Her heart pounded with every corner she peered around and door she flung open. She remembered the man on the stair and cursed herself for not getting a good look at him.

With shaking hands, she picked up the receiver of her phone and dialed the only person who could help. Tyrion’s voice was chipper and professional on the other end of the line. “Lion Travel Agency at your service.”

“Tyrion,” she hissed. “It’s Brienne. I need your help again.”