“What do you know about poison?” Cersei asked, her fingers tight around the stem of the goblet of Arbor gold she kept within arm’s reach at all times. The fine metalwork had long since grown warm beneath her touch, her body heat mingling with its unyielding, twining surface. Her eyes cut down to her loyal Hand’s face, the question directed toward him and him alone. She watched him closely, taking in the there-and-gone twitch of his lips, the brief flash of greed in his eye, and knew the answer even before he spoke.
“Far more than the maesters of the Citadel wished for me to learn.” Qyburn bowed his head, deferential. Unlike Maester Pycelle, no chains clacked and clattered around his neck. His obedience came with no squawking proclamation of it; it didn’t demand anyone’s attention. It simply was. “Your Grace.”
Cersei smiled, an awkward, creaking thing. When she was very young, smiling came easy to her.
She was no longer very young and nothing was easy any longer. “Good.” The word sat, clipped, on her tongue, pleased, like a bird preparing for quick flight. “Invent a poison.”
Qyburn was too outwardly genteel to do more than offer a slight upward cant of his mouth to convey his pleasure at the task. His reputation preceded him, sometimes literally, when Cersei ordered Ser Gregor to accompany him somewhere, but he refused to become the monster the maesters painted him as when they expelled him. Why that was so, Cersei couldn’t say, but so long as he did her bidding, she didn’t care how he chose to see himself and justify his activities. It was enough knowing he would happily take every inch of slack she gave him and run with it.
If science, medicine, knowledge were his great loves, she would indulge him in it.
The Mountain had been a triumph after all.
This would be something else.
This would be personal.
She needed a poison fit for the man who might have been king.
Cersei rarely made her way to Qyburn’s laboratories these days; the compound now stretched through so many rooms of the Keep it was hard to keep track. Frankly, the less she knew about his projects the better as far as she was concerned. So long as he was content, she did not concern herself much about what he did. “One of your little wraiths brought me a message,” she said, voice cool with displeasure. She would rather be anywhere than here, surrounded by his creeping experiments. A mass of worms moved about in a dirt-filled jar. At least she hoped they were merely worms. It turned her stomach to think what else might be involved. “Why am I here, Qyburn?”
Though graveled as always, Qyburn’s voice retained a pleasant lightness as he wound his way through the spaces left between the several tables that separated them. “Come,” he said. “Allow me to show you.”
“Bring it to me,” she replied, beckoning him forward, weary. How could he stand it down here, she wondered to herself. It was so dank down here and dark; the only light came from the flickering candles that hung, encased in steel cages, above his tables. Wax hadn’t yet overflowed from the bottom of each, but it was only a matter of time.
She imagined him standing on a stool, scraping away the melted wax in the dark.
“I would, Your Grace.” He had the good sense to be chagrined, she supposed. “Unfortunately, it would be unwise to move it now.”
She fought the urge to roll her eyes, reminding herself she’d asked him to start this project in the first place. “Fine,” she said, sighing. Gathering the skirt of her heavy black dress between her fists, she strode forward. All the while, she fought the sneer that threatened to form on her mouth. “Lead the way.”
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Qyburn said, demur. Under different circumstances, he might have been considered a gallant man. Spreading his arms, he gestured her toward their destination. “It’s not far.”
Just, as it turned out, into the next room, more compact than his main work space. It still took her by surprise. This room was well-lit, lined nearly all the way around with candles. It was somehow warmer in here, too, though she couldn’t see any mechanisms that could have made it so. It was practically welcoming.
He was truly an inventive man.
A table took up the middle, small, leaving little room to move about. And in the middle of the table stood a large pot. Vines spilled over the edges, so many that she couldn’t really tell what color the pot was. They curved toward the edges of the table and wrapped around the legs. Copious, curling leaves poked out from each vine. Flowers, pale blue and haunting, dotted the foliage. Green as it was, dark and pale and every shade in-between, it struck Cersei as monumentally alive. It almost seemed to breathe even.
When one of the vines shook, Cersei nearly jumped in surprise. For a moment, she couldn’t believe it had moved, but the rasping of the leaves… perhaps it was merely a draft? She hoped it was a draft. “Is it supposed to do that?” she asked, hating the slight shift in the pitch of her voice. She hoped he didn’t notice, but if he did, he didn’t indicate as much. “What is it?”
The fondness of his smile softened his features, made him seem kindly instead of dangerous. “Winter’s Bell.”
Her slippers scuffed against the cold, hard stone beneath her feet. Perhaps she shouldn’t have moved so near to it, but Qyburn didn’t stop her and she didn’t think there was any inherent harm in her proximity to it. “I’ve never heard of it.” She reached out to touch, but Qyburn grasped her quickly by the hand. Too startled to reprimand him, she yanked her wrist from beneath his cool, dry fingers. Only Jaime touched her and Jaime had fled from her already.
Her blood pounded in her ears and her heart—her heart fluttered with unease.
“Pardon me for the intrusion,” he said, stepping back, bowing his head. “But please don’t touch it.”
That was interesting. She wasn’t used to him saying no to her. With anyone else, she would have been furious. With him, mere curiosity troubled her. “Why not?”
His hand sketched an arc that was meant to encompass the entirety of the plant—or so she assumed. “Exposure to the skin can cause… deleterious effects.”
Impatience plucked at the heart of her. “Speak plainly, Hand.”
He conceded with a tilt of his head. “It will poison you, Your Grace.”
“From one touch?” Why was she so damned determined to caress the sleek, wide pads of its leaves, the sheened velvet of its flowers’ petals? But being told she couldn’t only made her want it more. “How did you get it here if that’s true?”
His lips pressed together in a grim, thin line. “Very carefully, of course.” He said the words mournfully, making Cersei wonder at the sacrifices he’d made in getting it here. Cersei cared little for the cost regardless, but it was curious that Qyburn would be so affected. “No one has ever managed to properly harness its particular qualities into a safely transportable form before. As soon as it is removed from the plant, it becomes harmless. It would be an honor to do so for you.”
“Thank you, Qyburn,” she answered, feigning more appreciation than she felt. In all honesty, she wanted to tell him to go away so that she might study it herself. A ridiculous notion, of course, Though many ladies of the court had studied botany in some form or another—mostly to better cultivate a pretty, pointless garden on their ancestral grounds—Cersei had never been one of them. Her interests fell along the same lines as her father’s, generally speaking. Finance, power, family.
She had neither the time nor the temperament to care for plants.
“Tell me more about it,” she said. She didn’t reach out again, but her fingertips itched to touch, to grasp, to understand. “This Winter’s Bell.”
Pleased with her interest, perhaps, Qyburn did just that, rattling off the details of its native climate, its growth cycle, the peculiarities of its poison. “It’s not a Northern plant despite the name,” he said, and, “takes approximately three months to reach maturity,” and, “the symptoms change from person to person. It’s rather extraordinary. And it would make an undetectable weapon should I succeed.”
“Mmm,” she replied throughout his recitation, but though she only paid half a mind to Qyburn, she gave her full attention to the Winter’s Bell.
Her Winter’s Bell.
Moonlight streamed across the courtyard, crisp as the chill air. This late in the night, the only sound was her own footsteps striking the stone. A few of her most loyal soldiers stood sentry nearby, silent and still and easily ignored. Cersei’s nerves twisted inside of her. Normally, she brought Ser Gregor with her. She’d chosen not to do so tonight.
She drew enough attention to herself right now as it was. Even the darkest clothing could not hide her presence from them, especially not considering the lamp she carried in her hands. No doubt, those same loyal soldiers would be chattering at one another as soon as the first of them got off shift and had the chance to tell his brethren of her wanderings. Her Mountain would only add more grist to that particular mill.
But it was come now or risk discovery by Qyburn. And that, she found she did not want.
Down she went into his territory, the long, curious gazes of the soldiers able to be forgotten without the heavy weight of their stares on the back of her neck.
Every minute sound she made echoed as she slipped down the stairs, every breath, every click of every pebble kicked, reflected back at her. Her shadow flickered and danced along the walls.
She was alone here and as she picked her way into the darkness of Qyburn’s labs, she allowed herself to relax into it. Or tried to.
No one could harm her here; she reminded herself over and over.
An oppressive hush hung over the place, giving it a far more menacing air than when he was here, too, every candle accounted for and lit. It might have been dreary, but it hadn’t send a thrill of worry through her like it did now. She was the queen though; she didn’t answer to anyone. And yet, a sense of wrongdoing permeated this excursion.
She shouldn’t have come, the room seemed to say.
It didn’t stop her. Nothing stopped her. But where before her certainty and entitlement guided her, now caution did.
This is my property, she thought, drawing her shoulders back and tipping her chin up. I will do with it as I will.
The room with the plant was still warmer than the rest of Qyburn’s subterranean lair, noticeably so as she stepped inside. With nothing but her own lamp to light the room, she could barely see the plant. In a way, that hardly mattered. It was almost as though she could feel it moving, growing, living. It spoke to her—not in words, not in anything she could recognize as communication at all. And yet…
She stepped toward it, leaning in, leaning close. When she had been here with Qyburn, she hadn’t noticed the texture of the vines. They were smooth save for the spines that laid flat around their length. She, too, hadn’t noticed the scent, somewhere between sweet and spicy, green and dark. Closing her eyes, she breathed in deeply. It reminded her of nothing so much as it reminded her of home. Safety and security and recompense, that was what it whispered in her ear.
A leaf rustled as she exhaled.
Surely it couldn’t hurt to touch it? Just briefly? She had heard of rulers giving themselves tiny doses of poison to make themselves immune to it. Was this so different? No, she decided, it was not.
And so with one fingertip, she tapped the velvet smooth surface of the vine closest to her. It came away slick with a not-quite-thin, glossy liquid that made her skin tingle. Fearful, heart thudding, she brushed her hand across her stomach, wiping free the poison or—whatever it was. It hadn’t been there before, had it? Was that what Qyburn had meant?
She held up the lamp as close to the plant as she dared. Light glinted off of it, but already it was returning to its duller appearance of earlier. She exposed her hand, turned it this way and that under the reddish glow of the candle’s flame. It looked fine. She was fine. The tingling was already fading, replaced briefly with a warm, pleasant hum.
She didn’t feel ill. In fact…
But no, she didn’t let herself reach back out, didn’t touch it again.
Turning swiftly, her skirts brushed across the floor. She didn’t look back at the plant, not once, though the urge to do so throbbed inside of her. Longing tugged beneath her breastbone. It would have been inescapable if she hadn’t learned long ago how to push down her impulses. She hadn’t had to do so lately, but the skill was still there.
She did not look back.
Sitting at the head of the small council, she leaned against the hard, wooden armrest. Staring back at her were Qyburn and Tycho and Bronn, whom she still despised, but who, at the moment, remained the most capable military leader still in the capital. That he’d been Jaime’s confidant didn’t register. That she could only trust him as far as she could pay him did.
It was easy when you knew what you were paying for.
“Am I boring you,” he asked, pausing briefly, “Your Grace?” The words tripped awkwardly off his tongue, ill-suited to be spoken in his rough accent. His features took on a constipated aspect, too. She knew he didn’t like speaking to her with anything approaching respect. And he knew that she knew and hated that, too.
“Excuse me.” Her head turned sharply in his direction. She smiled, grim, and bared her teeth. Beneath the table, she rubbed her fingertips together. They were warm; they still tingled; a callous was forming where she’d touched the Winter’s Bell.
Perhaps she should have worried.
Bronn shrugged and shifted in his seat. A grimace fixed itself across his mouth. “All you need to do is say so. I know fuck-all about briefing queens on her troop movements anyway. Just tell me what you want, pay me, and it’ll be done.”
“Right now,” she answered, cold, “all I want from you is a report.”
His lip twitched and one eyebrow rose in a way that Cersei could have described as flippant. “Aye, Your Grace.” His voice was dry.
And though he began his recitation anew, her attention could only remain on him for so long before it drifted.
There was the plant to think of. It pulsed in the floors, speaking to her in an ancient, creaking tongue that only she could hear. No one else seemed to notice anything different anyway. It didn’t bother her, not really. With all that she had seen, this was nothing.
Once Bronn finally reached his halting, awkward conclusion, she looked at each of her advisors. They grew more haggard by the day, Tycho and Bronn anyway, and looked back at her now with cow-wide eyes, innocent eyes, expectant eyes. Qyburn was merely disinterested; if he wasn’t discoursing on his latest experiments or his little birds’s wanderings, he cared little for Bronn’s prattling or Tycho’s intense infatuation with debt and defrayment.
She was to do everything. Not so different from before.
“If that is all,” she said, wrapping her hands about the rounded edges of her chair. Her nails dug into the wood, soft and smooth beneath her fingers. Pushing herself to her feet, she arched an eyebrow. Thinning her lips, she turned away.
Qyburn followed immediately. The others waited, not so unusual for them.
“Your Grace,” Qyburn said, matching step with her, “if I could have a moment of your time?”
Annoyance throbbed just behind her eyes while every ounce of her self-control devoted itself to not snapping at Qyburn for his interruption. “Yes, what is it?”
He drew in a breath, his gait hitching for one moment. Perhaps she hadn’t curtailed her distaste for this disruption quite as well as she’d thought. Oh, well. It mattered little. He would speak or he would not. She left it up to him.
Meanwhile, she continued on her way to her rooms, as sure a sign that she didn’t want to be disturbed as she could offer without saying as much.
He remained silent for a time, longer than Cersei cared to grant him and long enough that she finally stopped and turned toward him, arms crossing.
“It’s about the Winter’s Bell,” he answered, quiet, his gaze turning left and right quickly. Apparently satisfied by his brief glance about the area, he added, “It’s growing.”
Cersei’s eyebrows knit together. “It’s a plant.”
Qyburn considered her with what might have been pity. “Winter’s Bell doesn’t grow well out of its native environment. It… doesn’t die exactly. But it doesn’t grow. And it certainly doesn’t flourish.”
“So we can add skilled cultivator to your already considerable list of scientific accomplishments,” she said, not bothering to hide her impatience now. She already knew the plant was doing well. She just didn’t know how she knew that. “I don’t see the problem.”
He looked away. His hand rasped against the stubbled growth on his cheeks and jaw. White teeth glinted as they bit at his lower lip. “Perhaps there is none, Your Grace.” He opened his mouth, but no other words were forthcoming.
“What would you have me do?”
The longish strands of his hair dislodged themselves and fell across his forehead as he shook his head. “Nothing, of course. I was merely hoping to keep you informed.” He tilted his head and peered up at her with narrowed eyes. “Are you well, Your Grace?”
A hot flare of anger flashed inside of her and smoldered like coals in her chest. How dare he. How dare he. “You overstep.” Though she felt warm all over, her words were cold, frosted in ice. It was not his place to question her.
“My apologies.” He bowed as deeply as he ever did, but he did not sound cowed. At least, not cowed enough for her tastes.
In fact, it only made her angrier. The only thing that stopped her from loosing words of deprecation upon him was a sudden lurch in her gut, the sure knowledge that she needn’t bother. He was not her enemy. He’d brought the Winter’s Bell to King’s Landing, after all. He tended to it, kept it safe. Could she do the same for it and protect her place on the throne?
Perhaps not. There were only so many hours in the day and Qyburn was useful.
Her fingernails dug into the bridge of her nose, sharply pinching the skin as she sighed. “I’m perfectly well,” she said. “Just—what’s wrong? With the Winter’s Bell? You say it shouldn’t be growing as well as it is. That seems a cause for celebration rather than concern.” Tight fingers curled around her heart and squeezed. What if there was something wrong with the plant? What if Cersei had caused it? Her hand curled into a fist at her side. She released it and lifted it up to examine her palm.
It was every bit the pale pink it always was. Rubbing her thumb across the back of each finger, she dropped her hand. Qyburn’s gaze followed the motion, but he remained silent.
“Will you be able to extract its poison?” she asked, discomfited by the idea that he would not succeed. She had plans for that poison. And though she hadn’t needed it to be the Winter’s Bell’s poison until Qyburn brought the plant here, she couldn’t lie to herself and say it wasn’t exactly what she needed and wanted.
“Without a doubt,” he said after only a moment’s delay. He nodded twice and folded his hands behind his back. “I should get back to doing just that.”
She wanted to call after him, ensure that he hadn’t reached any conclusions she didn’t want him to. It would be a shame if he were to misunderstand after all.
Drawing in a deep breath, she shook her head and turned away, walking toward her destination. Qyburn was a discreet man and, even better, he wasn’t a foolish one.
He would do what she asked and then some and that was all.
She told herself that several more times, even once she was safely in her rooms, locked away from the rest of the Red Keep. Here, she didn’t allow herself to think of the person who should have been there, nor even why she was so concerned about Qyburn’s task. In this one place, she didn’t have to worry.
Instead, she removed her clothing and replaced it with a cool, lightweight robe, red with glinting gold thread whirling and billowing across the sleeves and body. Climbing into bed, she let her hand trail toward the floor, the tips of her fingers barely grazing it. It made her feel closer to the Winter’s Bell even despite the distance between them.
She fell asleep that way, just that little bit more at ease than she usually was, lulled by the creeping sense of movement from far, far deeper in the Keep.
Startled, Cersei struggled upward, her body caught in the tangle of her clothes. Her breaths came in panting gasps. The sound of her heaving echoed throughout the room. Blood pounded in her ears as, her heart throbbed against her chest, heavy and rhythmic. “Gods,” she said, her voice hoarse, a bare whisper at best.
The silken fabric of her robe slipped between her fingers as she clutched at it, pulling it tight across her chest. Her gaze caught on the back of her hand which caught the light that streamed in through the window. The skin there, already pale, had taken on a muddled, mottled shade of grayish-green. It was rough to the touch, if still pliant.
It wasn’t, she thought, greyscale. She’d heard enough tales about it to know better.
But, haloed in a hint of red, it itched.
Fear lodged itself in her throat. It didn’t pain her, but this wasn’t right. She ought to have immediately roused herself and found Qyburn, but reluctance held her in place.
Turning her palm, she noted the deeper green that stained her fingertips, one in particular. But each digit rasped when she pressed them together. Clenching her hand into a fist, she rose to her feet. It wasn’t Qyburn she needed.
It was the Winter’s Bell.
Of course, where the Winter Bell sat, so, too, did Qyburn. He didn’t startle at her approach, merely lifted his head and smiled at her, beckoning her forward. “Magnificent, isn’t it?” he asked, though the question was spoken in such a way that it required no response.
Where before, the table could be seen beneath the plant, now stood a cascade of vines, thick, falling over the edges to pool on the floor. No trace of the table remained visible at all. Qyburn wore gloves, thin enough that he was still able to work, yet thick enough that he didn’t have to worry about coming into contact with the poisonous substance the Winter’s Bell secreted.
A chattering squeal came from one corner of the room. Cersei’s gaze slid over a cage of rusting iron. Inside, a mouse scrambled and scratched about. Qyburn’s attention followed hers.
“The poison remains inert,” he said unnecessarily. “But I’m on the right track, I believe.” He squinted a little in thought.
The plant shivered. It was a plea for attention, something Cersei could understand and feel deep inside of her. Almost unconsciously, she stepped forward. “Has anyone ever survived an encounter with the Winter’s Bell?” She hoped the question sounded like an idle one. Probably it didn’t.
“Anything is possible.” He caressed one of the vines, picking it up between two fingers. A small, exquisitely made glass jar was held in his other hand, positioned beneath the vine to collect more of its thin, viscous poison. “I know of no one who has survived though.”
Cersei nodded. That wasn’t the answer she wanted, but it looked like the only one she would get. It wasn’t like she could send Qyburn off to Oldtown to investigate. “And how long does it normally take?” Despite the danger, she longed to hold her hand out and touch the thing again.
“Not more than a few hours in most cases, but as I said, the actions of the poison are unique to each individual.” He laid the vine back down and tapped at the side of the glass jar. “Why?”
Bristling, she stared him down. “Am I not allowed to be curious, Qyburn?”
Ducking his head, he nodded. “You’re entirely correct, Your Grace. My apologies.”
It did little to assuage her, but she chose to let it go in the hopes that he wouldn’t think too much about what she asked and why she might have done so.
“Would you—” He cleared his throat. “I have an extra pair of gloves if you would like to…”
“Like to what?” she snapped.
“You seem very interested in it. I merely thought you might want to… but it was a foolish notion.”
“It was.” She sniffed and turned her face away to hide her scowl. Had he seen something? Been able to tell the truth she refused to acknowledge? By rights, she should have stormed out of her. And yet her feet remained firmly in place.
She knew better than to allow herself to stay in a place like this. Staying in one place was dangerous. Letting herself be cornered was dangerous. She had never in her life stilled for any man, woman, or creature. And yet, this Winter’s Bell had managed to do so much to her already. This was just the start of it, she feared. Or perhaps she didn’t fear it, no. Perhaps she relished the thought of giving in to this thing.
It had already gotten so much out of her. What was a little more?
“Where are the gloves?” she asked. What was the harm in it? Qyburn had asked after all. He had suggested it. She was merely acquiescing.
The thought that she never acquiesced to anyone crossed her mind, but she let it lie. It was neither here nor there, not the plant nor Qyburn’s place to question her. It was her business what she did and hers alone.
She wanted to get at the heart of this thing. She wanted a poison that only she could use, that only she and her most loyal subject knew the secrets of. She wanted this more than she wanted anything except perhaps Jaime’s return or, even more absurd, Jaime having never gone at all.
In a way, it was for him she did this. There was nothing in her heart left save this need. She had power. She had wealth. Now she could have security. True security. And she could address her grievances.
All thanks to this plant.
Of course she wanted to touch it. Why else would she have done so in the first place?
“I’ll get them for you, Your Grace,” Qyburn said, as kindly as ever.
While he was gone, she opened her palm, brushed her fingertips against the nearest leaf. The same warmth spread through her as before, the same pleasant tingling sensation. She needn’t worry, the plant seemed to tell her. They were of a sympathy. It wouldn’t harm her. And Cersei wouldn’t harm it. They knew each other too well for that. They were too alike.
She drew her hand back as though scalded when she heard Qyburn’s shuffling step against the stone. The plant rustled, disturbed, perhaps annoyed with her at the sudden departure. She apologized to it, silent, somehow certain that the plant would know. As though it did, the plant resettled itself.
“Here we are,” he said, handing over the gloves. They were softer than she expected, supple, and a beautiful shade of tan. She wondered where he’d gotten them and whether he could find her a pair more suitable for the cold. More important things, she thought.
The flash of another glass jar lit in his other hand.
Donning the gloves, she said, “What do I do,” even though she already knew the answer to that.
He handed her one of the jars. “Lift the vine gently. The poison should run into the glass easily enough.”
Nodding, she made an attempt to look more concerned than she was. It was trickier than she expected. She hadn’t actually lifted the vines before, after all. Even one vine was heavier than she might have thought, though it moved with her easily enough. Practically vibrating, she felt its warmth through the glove. She knew better than to ask Qyburn if it was the same for him, but she was curious regardless.
His brow arched as she completed the action. “What?” she asked as the transparent, glossy substance dripped into the glass.
“I’m merely thinking I should have asked you to harvest the poison,” he said, musing. “You’re able to get far more from it than I have.”
A snide thought came to mind, one she held back out of decorum. Instead, she said nothing and continued the task at hand. She only stopped once he told her that that was enough. He didn’t want the poison to go to waste.
It wouldn’t, she wanted to say, but she didn’t know how she knew that. And she didn’t want to have to explain to Qyburn why she was so certain. “Very well,” she said, handing over the jar. It ached to let it go, but there were more important matters here. The plant understood. It was important that they were in this together.
Though the plant couldn’t speak, Cersei was almost certain she could sense its pleasure at having been so appreciated.
More of her arm was covered in green, now prominent enough to show as swirling, unfocused leaves and vines. Her skin was raised around the edges.
It no longer itched.
She no longer cared one way or the other.
When she made her way down to the room where Qyburn kept the Winter’s Bell, she no longer worried that he would notice anything amiss. It hardly mattered when everything of importance had been accomplished, was it not so? The plant thrived and Cersei was certain that it would give Qyburn the secrets she so desperately wanted pried from it. Even its mere scent was enough to soothe her worries. Her kingdom would be stronger for the Winter’s Bell’s presence in the Keep. Cersei would be stronger.
As would the Winter’s Bell.
“How goes it?” She didn’t fear stepping into Qyburn’s laboratory and she didn’t worry about what he might think of her. “Are we any closer to a poison?”
He needn’t have answered. The cage in the corner no longer contained a squeaking, scrabbling little creature. And yet, he nodded. “I believe so, Your Grace, but it’s strange.” Frowning, he demonstrated by picking up one of the vines. It seemed to have grown again. Its color was emerald deep and almost shining. If it had been beautiful before, it was stunning now. Its poison flowed freely, coating his glove wherever he touched it. When he placed a jar beneath it, the liquid was every bit as translucent as it had been the last time Cersei had come down here.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“It looks the same.” The admission was unnecessary. Cersei could see that without his astute observation.
“And yet it did that.” He gestured to the cage. “I’ve done nothing different to these last few batches of secretions. And yet they have changed somehow.”
“Strange indeed.” She thought to wonder at that, but found it truly didn’t matter, did it? “Regardless, congratulations on succeeding. I knew you would be able to do as I’d asked.”
Qyburn’s brows wrinkled and his frown grew more pronounced. “I did nothing, Your Grace. I can’t even guarantee that the plant will continue to do this. I don’t know why it happened at all.”
“Then gather as much of the poison as you can while you know it works.” Shrugging, she plucked absently at one of the vines. It curled toward her and nothing seemed to be wrong until Qyburn’s stool clattered to the ground.
“Your Grace!” he nearly shouted, a sound Cersei had never heard from him before. He hesitated only the barest of moments before he pushed her back. The quick severing of her connection with the plant left Cersei cold and furious. She opened her mouth to berate him, but he beat her to it. “I have no antidote for this. How could you be so careless?” Grabbing her roughly, he pushed her toward the door.
“Unhand me,” she said, ripping herself free of his grasp.
“There’s not much time.”
“There’s plenty of time.” She scoffed and rubbed at the rough skin of her arm. “I touched it before. Nothing happened.”
His eyes honed in on her action. “Nothing, you say?” Heedless of her command, he grabbed her again and tugged the sleeve of her dress up.
His eyes cast over the expanse of her forearm. The fabric strangled itself around her elbow, tight and uncomfortable with how unforgiving it was. “You will stop this at once.” Anger flooded her voice. She had cowed people with it, frightened them. Her army marched for her according to the whims of it. He was immovable, immobile, determined.
“Not now,” he said, a hint of anger in his own voice. It struck Cersei that she had never seen him this way before and now only because he thought her in danger or worse. “Your Grace, this was foolish. You could be—”
“I’m not.” She managed to wrench herself free of his probing touch. “I’m fine. Everything is fine. Nothing has changed.”
He pointed to the arm in question. “You don’t consider that a change? What if it worsens?”
“Is it greyscale?”
“No.” He crossed his arms. “But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be just as harmful.” His eyes narrowed. “I’m surprised you’re not more worried.”
She didn’t know how to explain to him that she knew the plant didn’t mean her harm. “If I was going to die of poison, it would have happened by now, don’t you think?”
He chewed his lip. “How long ago did you first touch it?”
Thinking, she glanced past Qyburn to the room. The Winter’s Bell looked so very alone in there. “Days ago,” she replied. “More, maybe.” She didn’t actually know how long it had been now. It seemed like the plant had been there forever. “I don’t know. Just after it arrived. When did you bring it here?”
His eyes took on a troubled cast. “Weeks, Your Grace.”
“Weeks?” It hadn’t been weeks, surely? Qyburn must be lying or mistaken. What had she been doing all this time if he spoke truthfully. “That…”
“I have my logs,” he said, too gentle even for him, “if that would assuage you.”
“No, I—” She narrowed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. Her head ached as did her chest. His assertion left her feeling hollow, cold. She remembered nothing of the time passing. All was the Winter’s Bell.
As it should be.
“You’re right,” she answered, forcing a relief into her tone that she did not truly feel. “It has been weeks, hasn’t it?”
From the look on his face, he wasn’t buying it. “Your Grace, would you mind if I conducted a few tests?”
Her eyes drifted to the plant again. Its leaves shivered and shook. She nodded, knowing exactly what it meant. “Yes.” He wouldn’t find anything wrong with her. She would be better, act better. “It was foolish of me to touch it.”
“Mmm.” Now that he had accustomed himself to this revelation and she was allowing him to do what he did best, he was back to his old self, taking her words in stride. “If true, it’s remarkable. I suppose it’s not impossible however. Come.” He gestured toward one of the empty stools that littered his rooms. She followed him and sat and waited for him to begin conducting his experiments on her. “I’ve known people to expose themselves to poisons in small enough doses over long enough spans of time to render themselves immune.”
She latched onto that. “Yes,” she said, deliberate. She needed him to understand, to believe. “I thought the same.”
His gloved fingers pushed and prodded at her arm. “How long have you had this?”
About two weeks. “About two weeks.”
“And where did it start?”
My fingertip. She raised her hand and tapped the digit against her thumb. “My fingertip.”
He took her hand in his, peered down at it before dropping it and turning away. When he returned, he’d donned a pair of lenses that seemed to magnify his eyes. Where he’d picked up the technology, she couldn’t say, but it was inherently ridiculous. Taking up her hand again, he muttered to himself. Then, to her: “Does it hurt?”
“It itched for a while.”
He nodded. “Is it getting worse or better?”
“Wo—” Better. “Better.”
He turned away again and removed the goggles. Humming, again to himself, he picked his way across the room, dodging tables and equipment, to retrieve one of the mice he kept caged here. She considered asking him where he got them from, but she found she didn’t particularly want to know. It squirmed in his hands, made trilling, fearful sounds as it tried valiantly to wriggle out of his grasp.
“Would you hold this?” he asked.
“No!” But too late, he shoved it into her hands and it was hold it or allow the thing to run about the Keep. It squealed all the louder and bucked against her touch. For a few scant moments anyway. After that, it settled. Or rather, it seemed to lose energy. The longer she held it, the more lethargic it grew. Even its fur seemed to lose its sheen, the color leeching from it. Its squeals turned into low keening noises. Sneering, Cersei wanted to crush it just to stop the sound. Instead, she handed it back to Qyburn, sniffing. “Disgusting creature.”
It didn’t improve once outside of her grasp. Later, she would learn it had died, but at this moment, she expected it would go back to its scuttling, energetic self in short order.
Qyburn would be more intrigued than terrified. That had always been his way; it was how he and Cersei worked so well together. She wanted heinous things from him. And he wanted to give her heinous things in return.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” he said, stowing the creature in its cage. Lower, not for her ears, he added, “Most fascinating.” Still, she heard him.
“I’m glad you think so,” she said, snappish with uneasiness. Brushing her hands together, she then scrubbed them against her dress. Holding a mouse hadn’t been on her agenda this morning. “Are you done with me?”
He opened and closed his mouth, perhaps thinking better of his first, instinctual response. She could only imagine what it was. Probably something like, no, I still have experiments to conduct. Stay down here. “I’m done, Your Grace. Thank you for your indulgence.”
She nodded, crisp, and left him to his devices.
She was certain that very soon she would have what she sought and more.
Qyburn carried several glass containers held on a tray. They glinted and gleamed in the flickering light emitted from the wall sconces that lined the throne room. She was alone here, contemplating her next step. She smiled at him. Plans, certainty, they have always soothed her. “Qyburn.” She gestured him forward. “What have you brought me?”
“That which you wished for,” he replied, bowing his head. “Poison, Your Grace. Potent at that. Easily transported in a variety of forms.”
He brought forward the tray. Upon it, there was one jar with the now familiar liquid version of the poison. Another contained a powder. And the third contained a nearly solid wax. She wasn’t sure what she might do with that one, but, as always, she applauded Qyburn’s inventiveness. Perhaps it could be formed into a candle and transported through the air? She would have to ask, but at another time. “Thank you, Qyburn. I knew you could do it.”
“It was an interesting challenge, Your Grace. I appreciated the chance to work on this for you.”
There was so much she could do with this now. And all thanks to the Winter’s Bell.
Qyburn truly was a genius.
Fingers brushing over the green that spread up her arms—she had kept it hidden ever since she first showed Qyburn; she didn’t want to worry him—she smiled all the more.
Cersei’s hand trailed over the Winter’s Bell’s ever growing vines. They were more lush every time she looked at them, every time she touched them. Soon, they would take over the room and likely more than that. She’d taken to watering it herself, having become the only one who could stand the scent of it, all the more overpowering as it got bigger and bigger. Some part of Cersei hoped it would take over the entire Keep, spread its tireless, dangerous vines across every inch of the dungeons and beyond.
So long as she was safe, she didn’t care what happened to the people around her.
The Winter’s Bell was the only thing she had left. And unlike Jaime or Tommen or Joffrey or Myrcella, it couldn’t, wouldn’t leave her. And unlike Margaery or Olenna or Oberyn or Robert, she couldn’t kill it either. It was too much a part of her and she too much a part of it.
The lords and ladies of her court kept a fairer distance from her, somehow knowing that something about her had changed. They whispered behind their hands inside and out of her presence. Qyburn reported on many things, his birds catching whispers from the air with near constancy. Most of them came down to this:
Cersei was a witch. Everything she touched died. She wore sleek-black gloves to stop from accidentally killing everyone. Cersei would destroy the North the same way she destroyed her brother and rain down the gods’ wrath upon all who opposed her.
They weren’t wrong. Not entirely. Not even as much as she might have liked. No, she did wear gloves, but she did not do so to protect them. She would carelessly caress them whenever she pleased and she would gladly hope they dropped in her presence, tortured and anguished and murdered through her touch alone. The gloves she wore were to better maintain their fear and keep her secrets secret for the time being.
Rumors of the Winter’s Bell spread.
Rumors of Cersei’s treachery spread.
She could not be more glad of anything in her life.