There was something about the way she moved that drew his eye, weaving though the revellers with a grace that belied the thick material of her ballgown and the volume of wine she’d put away. A full skirt of black-and-silver damask flared below one of those torturous corset bodice things, and the silver feathers edging her beaked mask suggested she was meant to be a bird.
It wasn’t a bad choice. She moved like a bird in flight when walking or dancing, smooth and elegant as any high-society trophy he’d seen. But she bobbed nervously like a sparrow on a bird-table anytime one of the bigwigs hailed her for small talk, and that was happening quite a lot. Often enough, in fact, that for the first time Sandor wondered if the face under that mask was one that he should recognise. Surely an imposter would have been keeping a low profile, not giggling with Petyr Baelish and Senator Baratheon and various senior figures in the King’s Landing financial services industry.
A lock of wavy black hair escaped her updo as she knocked back her latest glass of champagne, and he watched her cross back towards the dancefloor. From his vantage point in the upper gallery, he spotted Blount and Greenfield helping themselves to the refreshments; their lack of professionalism annoyed him only slightly more than the fact he couldn’t partake himself.
Seven hells, oblivion – even if said oblivion was followed by an apocalyptic hangover – was a far more enticing prospect than what likely lay ahead. He suspected he’d end up with a gods-awful headache in any case.
When he found the little bird in the crowd again, she was prying Joff’s hand off her pert round arse. A relentless capacity for skirt-chasing seemed like the only thing Cersei’s idiot son had inherited from Cersei’s idiot husband. Joffrey certainly had none of Robert’s charisma, none of the geniality that got Robert into clubs, chequebooks and ballot-slips year after year despite his demonstrable lack of competence or even common sense. And it was the same charm that got him into panties, too, for all that his starry athleticism had long since given way to corpulence and broken veins.
Cersei was in the crowd, too, drinking like a fish and bullying the waiting staff – especially any she deemed younger and prettier than herself. Delightful woman.
The bird-girl set down yet another champagne flute and glided towards the restrooms. At the last second, however, she peeled off to the left and pushed through the door to the staff staircase.
It was the moment he’d been watching for, because he had a fair idea of where she was going.
Flowing noiselessly up the stairs, Sansa wondered which god she should thank for her slippers, because they seemed so much closer to the Maiden’s oeuvre than the Smith’s. Maybe it was sacrilegious to even think of thanking other gods when it was Stranger’s Eve that had afforded her this opportunity. And obviously she was seeking justice, which was definitely the Father’s territory. But then again, it was information she was looking for, so maybe the Crone was in there somewhere?
Sansa was a bit drunk.
Drunk enough that her mind was wandering a little. Hopefully drunk enough that it would be plausible she’d been looking for the twelfth-floor observatory when she got “lost”.
If everything went according to plan, maybe she could even make her peace with those two miserable years on Joffrey’s arm.
On his arm, in his shadow, and under his thumb.
Even tonight he though he had the right to paw at her. Sansa’s lip curled in revulsion, remembering his bony fingers clutching at the meat of her backside. She dusted the area absent-mindedly with the back of her hand as though brushing off a visible stain. It seemed wrong that her abuser wore the same handsome smile that had once won her heart in college. It sparked nothing in her now but disgust.
The relationship had long since cooled into spite and manipulation by the time of her father’s disgrace, and by the time the whole debacle had played out in the headlines, Joffrey had managed to convince Sansa that he was her only advocate in polite society. It was straight out of Cersei Lannister’s playbook, Sansa now knew, but as a girl she’d thought her professional future in cronyist King’s Landing business relied almost wholly on Joffrey’s goodwill.
Her only regret now was that Joffrey had abandoned the game so early. How many other Lannister secrets might have dropped from those wormy lips, if she’d only played along longer? It seemed so wasteful that someone like Margaery Tyrell was privy to Joffrey’s careless bragging now – someone who wouldn’t even be looking for ways to undermine the Lannisters. The Tyrells had achieved everything they wanted in Casterly Rock’s merger with Greenhand Bank, and it would hardly speak well of their due diligence when Sansa uncovered the full extent of Lannister corruption.
Alleged Lannister corruption, she corrected internally. Law school had beaten that distinction into her, as hard as PB Partners had tried to stamp it right back out.
Sansa hated it there. It had been her only job offer after graduation, for a second time, and Petyr wasted no opportunities – in public or in private – to insinuate that Sansa owed her position to his long friendship with the Tullys. Still, Sansa had spent her whole life being dismissed professionally: no matter how much hard work she put in, there was always a detractor ready to suggest that she’d been given an easy ride because of her connections or her looks. The fact was, Sansa was an almost abnormally good negotiator, and she’d be a great lawyer long after Petyr Baelish retired. She had decades to prove herself, provided she didn’t find herself dead in an alley or shoved behind bars for tangling with the Lannisters.
Since starting her little crusade all those years before, Sansa had only ever broken one law. That little brainwave was the lynchpin of this whole plan: the only physical souvenir from her time with Joffrey, unless the healed fractures in her ribs counted.
Sansa pulled a circle of blue plastic from a hidden pocket in her bodice and passed it swiftly in front of the door-sensor. A tumbler clunked. Once, three years ago, Joffrey had left his keys at her apartment; seized by uncharacteristic daring, Sansa had swept the whole set into her handbag and had replicas cut. Six locksmiths in a morning, leaving her with five fresh keys she’d never used, and a cloned keyfob that she later learned to be even more powerful than she hoped. It looked like a piece of garbage compared to the smooth, convex golden pebble Joffrey carried around with him, emblazoned with CR’s blood-red lion – but here it was, three years later, baring the executive suite to her just the same.
Sansa released a breath she hadn’t realised she was holding, and tried the handle. The heavy door swung smoothly inwards on oiled hinges, revealing Cersei Lannister’s study. She strained her ears for any distant alarm, but heard nothing. Relief, pride, and apprehension rolled through Sansa in a confused wave, then she crossed the threshold, remembering to keep the tipsy swagger in her gait just in case.
If someone finds me elbow-deep in a Lannister safe, I’ll have trouble pretending I wanted to see the city lights.
This was the part Sansa had not been able to rehearse by day. The deep pile carpet would frame her stilettoed footprints as sure as fresh snow, so she crossed to the desk on tiptoe. The desk faced double doors, and it knotted Sansa’s stomach to imagine more rooms to search.
Four desk drawers, with a keyhole next to the deep bottom drawer. Sansa tasted bile as she reached for the handle: all this anxiety, all these weeks of planning, only to be foiled by a lock the size of a fingernail.
She had to stifle a hysterical giggle when the drawer glided towards her. It castors rolled like thunder to her oversensitised ears.
Now to find the false bottom.
The envelopes and files were slippery in Sansa’s opera gloves; receipts, bills, invoices, cigarettes, copies of contracts and even a pet licence were all deposited softly on the floor by her knee. At the back, a bottle of cognac – possibly the same one Joffrey had been prattling about the day he boasted about his “access” at Casterly Rock’s offices.
The next item-
Sansa yelped, probably not as loudly it seemed, and the offending article rolled off into the shadows of the footwell. Sansa left it while she prodded the floor of the drawer for the recess… there. The whole base lifted away, revealing another inch-high stack of papers. There wasn’t time to go through them all here – whether they pertained to the Stark conspiracy or not, the very fact that Cersei wanted to hide these documents was reason enough for Sansa to want a look. Folded in half, they only barely fit into her handbag.
Working quickly, Sansa fitted the false bottom back into the drawer, placed the cognac where she’d found it, and quietly lifted the whole pile of folders back into place almost undisturbed. That just left the other thing. Revolted by the very idea of Lannister sexuality for the second time in just a few minutes, Sansa found herself crawling under the vast mahogany desk, padding in the darkness in pursuit of Cersei Lannister’s vibrator.
Gods, why does she need to keep one at work? Who does that?
Then a deep voice rumbled over her head, harsh as steel on stone. “Third time lucky, girl?”