Chapter 1: The Break-In
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?”
Chapter 2: The Standoff
To her credit, the girl didn't offer any flimsy excuses. She was trying and failing to look defiant - a fairly tall order for a girl crawling out from under the bureau in a voluminous ballgown.
"Third time? What are you talking about?"
"You don't have to play dumb," he rasped. "I saw you pacing out the hallway two weeks ago. Just because the lions take security for granted doesn't mean that I do; I actually watch the cams whenever I'm rostered for it. I've seen you."
Which is natural? he wondered. The blonde hair or the black? Those eyes weren't as noticeable with the blond hair.
"That's not all I've seen on the tapes. Quite the feat, taking down Moore and his boys single-handedly."
"Moore and his boys?"
Sandor grunted impatiently. "Come on, girl, give me some credit. Those stupid cunts upstairs were fooled by the clothes, but I know a woman when I see one fight. The intruder we've been calling 'The Bravo' is a woman, and unless you're telling me there are two girls out there breaking into Lannister property, cracking heads and robbing documents..."
The girl straightened up, and with the shift in the shadows he spotted the weapon in her hand. A lead weight dropped into his stomach, and every cell in his body shrieked into fight mode. He flipped out his nightstick, holding it ready at his side.
"You can drop the gun, for a start."
Anger spiked; inside his ski mask, Sandor set his jaw. "You going to do as you're told or just keep repeating everything I say?"
The girl made a series of faces in rapid succession: he thought he caught outrage and amusement there as she gaped, then surrendered. She cast it at his feet.
It bounced. That was odd.
"It's not a gun," said the thief shortly. Her voice was lower than he'd expected; musical and mellifluous. "Just something I found belonging to your boss."
"Hmph. Not the only thing you 'found' this evening, though, is it?"
No answer. A siren wailed beyond the window, cutting through the hum of traffic far below and drowning out the intermittent pop of Stranger's Eve fireworks.
"Are you going to have me arrested?" she asked.
For most of Sandor's life, that question would have had an easy answer. The conclusion he'd come to lately had been difficult for him to process. But he thought of those photos of Sherrer and Wendish-Town, the dead laid out in macabre rows. Gregor did that, on a Lannister expense account. He closed his eyes momentarily, purging the scene from his mind's eye.
"No, girl," he said, lowering the nightstick. "I'm going to help you."
Sansa blinked. The huge security guard - and he was huge, a good long way above six feet - glowered at her, seemingly annoyed at her lack of reaction. "Why?" she blurted out.
He shifted his weight from foot to foot. "I always knew they were rotten, but I've reached my limit. I have enough saved to retire early. Blood money, maybe, but... a man has to start somewhere."
It was a more personal admission than Sansa had expected. Her mind raced. Was it a trap? A bluff? Would he blackmail her, or just try to hurt her? What if she refused? She needed time to think about all of this.
"How do I know I can trust you?"
"I'm letting you go free, aren't I?"
"Fair point," Sansa conceded. "How do you know you can trust me not to rat you out?"
His chuckle was muffled by the ski mask. "Do you really think I'll be leaving any evidence of this little encounter? It'd be your word against mine. And I'd win."
"Okay," said Sansa, with a curt nod. "You could be very helpful. I'll reach out to you."
"Not going to tell me who you are or what you're after?"
"Gods, no. Not here; not now. I have a party to get back to."
"Good answer. Off you hop, little bird."
"Off I hop."
Behind her mask, Sansa frowned at the oddness of the whole situation, precious papers folded safely in her handbag. Beneath her skirts she tiptoed back towards the door.
"Oh!" she gasped at the threshold. "And don't forget to replace that implement I dropped. Cersei Lannister might have something to say if she finds it in the middle of the floor come Monday morning."
She whirled away back towards the elevator, listening hard for the giant's reaction over the pounding of her heart. She didn't catch it.
Chapter 3: The Aftershock
The trouble with eyeblack was that it was such a nightmare to scrub off. Yes, Sansa's eyes had stood out like sapphires, with no frame of porcelain skin visible under her domino mask that might distract the casual observer. The black wig had proven a hit, too, especially with Petyr. When he'd brought it up, she'd tittered, "I could be your daughter," in full awareness of the effect it would have on the creep.
He probably spent the rest of the night hiding a pole in his pants.
Not that Sansa had hung around to find out. Already she was dreading the office party for Father's Festival, just a few weeks away now that Stranger's Eve was over. She wasn't sure what was worse: enduring her boss' wandering gaze or his overbearing attempts to set Sansa up with one of his senior consultants. He seemed to have decided that she should pair up with a self-centred (but harmless) jock type called Harry, in whom she could not have been less interested.
Feet curled beneath her on the sofa, Sansa sighed.
How did I end up here?
Her successes were catalogued on the living room wall, but each and every one of them contained the seed of some later failing. There above the TV were her medals as Northern divisional champion in individual figure-skating, and a photograph of Sansa with her squadmates at the national finals. Her career had ended in a careless injury just hours after that picture was taken.
It had given her a huge amount of frustrated energy to channel into her final high school exams, and that had led to the next picture on the wall. Another group shot, this time with her fellow officers at the Student Union as an undergraduate. In the photo she was tanned golden, the result of a summer travelling in Essos at the end of her year studying in Braavos. The photo showed Sansa on her election as Secretary, giving her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to network with world-class leaders and thinkers. The Archmaestress of Oldtown University rested a congratulatory hand on Sansa's shoulder; the woman's other hand was shaking that of Sansa's then-boyfriend, Joffrey Baratheon, who’d been elected Chair ahead of her. He'd then used his position as Chair to undermine Sansa at every turn, and treated her like his personal assistant. And Joffrey was a bad boss.
Her first-class degree in Politics and Economics was back at Winterfell, but it appeared in a photo - held up by a gowned Sansa with her beaming parents. There was no corresponding photo for her law degree. Father was already dead by then: stabbed by another detainee while awaiting trial for corruption. Mother had still been alive, but couldn't attend the ceremony: she was stuck in the North under house arrest, along with Robb, charged with assisting Ned in his alleged fraud and bribery. Sansa had asked KLU to put her diploma in the post, and now it hung on her apartment wall in a cheap frame. There was no photo with her mother. There could never be a photo with her mother again.
Sansa doubted she would ever be able to prove that the Lannisters were behind the car accident. It seemed like too much of a coincidence that the reckless driver who'd crashed into them was a former Lannister employee. A witness had claimed the man - Frey, or something - was actually accelerating along the Twins Bridge when he hit Robb, knocking the car over the barrier and into the churning Trident below. Catelyn and Robb Stark's bodies weren't recovered for weeks. They never found Robb's dog.
The conspiracy that indicted Ned Stark, though - that must have left a paper trail.
And now she might well have an ally inside Casterly Rock itself. At first, Sansa had been excited to have someone who could help her ferret out evidence, but the more she thought about it, the more she questions it all raised. She couldn't assume he'd been telling the truth just because it was what she wanted to hear. The guy was a Lannister henchman. He could be waiting to maim, rape, or murder her. He could probably kill her with his bare hands, judging from his bear-shaped silhouette in Cersei Lannister's office.
He did release me, though. If I'm murdered in my sleep, at least I'll die knowing the answer.
Even if the guard was really interested in helping her, there was a pressing danger: he thought Sansa was someone else. What was it he'd said? The part about it being 'third time lucky' was true enough. On two occasions, she'd taken advantage of a meeting at CR to find her way to Cersei's office and loiter in the hall examining the security system. That was fair. She'd tucked her hair under a blond wig both times and pulled a hoody over her work blouse in case anyone was watching. In retrospect, it didn't seem tremendously subtle.
But the other part... His words kept echoing around her head.
'Those stupid cunts upstairs were fooled by the clothes, but I know a woman when I see one fight. The intruder we've been calling 'The Bravo' is a woman, and unless you're telling me there are two girls out there breaking into Lannister property, cracking heads and robbing documents..."
The guard thought she was capable of some sort of violence - demonstratedly capable. 'The Bravo'? Was their intruder attacking people with knives?
What would happen when he realised the only stiletto she knew how to handle was a shoe?
Sansa sighed, leafing through the documents. In the familiar safety of home, exhaustion was getting the better of her curiosity and she flipped on the TV. 'BREAKING NEWS' rolled across the screen, as it probably had been all evening in Sansa's experience, and she muted it. The light from the screen flickered and flared as the camera panned across flashing blue lights and paparazzi at work. She rubbed her eyes.
And then she caught it.
She skipped back to the previous page: "Petyr Baelish, for services rendered... Tyrell, Tarly, Fossoway, Oakheart, Merryweather, Connington, Rowan..." Something had been whited out at the bottom. Sansa scratched at it with a fingernail, to see another name hidden by Cersei. The name was Walder Frey.
Lifting her head, Sansa felt her heart melting. I'm on the trail. She let her eyes fill with tears and then blinked them away. The sooner she slept, the sooner she could attack her stolen papers afresh. Now, at least, she knew there might be something to find.
Reaching for the remote she let her gaze trail back to the TV screen. This time she read the bulletin.
BREAKING NEWS: Senator Robert Baratheon, dead at 52.