The Lannister woman came to his cell just as Varys had said she would. Two men at arms bearing torches preceded her, and the sudden light blazing into the blackness blinded him. Ned could not see her clearly as she entered, but he knew her voice at once. “My Lord Hand, it would seem you are somewhat indisposed. I have rarely seen or smelled such filth outside Flea Bottom.”
She stood over him, and he struggled to rise, pulling himself up against the wall as he attempted to ignore the knifing pain in his leg and the sick, swimming sensation in his head. He managed to get himself more or less upright. He wasn’t about to lie prostrate before this woman. “Your Grace,” he replied in a voice like thick sawdust, “Did you come to discuss my execution or merely to view the results of your handiwork?”
His vision had cleared enough now that he saw the flash of anger in her green eyes at that, and he silently cursed himself. He had to think more clearly and not simply speak to her as she deserved. Sansa, he thought, think of Sansa, who is worth far more than your pride! Remember what the eunuch said. Remembering was as difficult as clear thought, though, as his head swam, his leg throbbed, and his fever burned. Gods, help me do this.
“Set the torches in the wall and go outside,” she ordered her men. “I would speak to Lord Stark in private.”
“Your Grace, we should not leave you alone with the traitor. He is not chained,” one of them replied.
She laughed at that, eyeing him derisively as he leaned against the wall, unwilling to fall back down, but unable to stand unsupported. “Lord Stark is known to be an honorable man,” she said, her voice dripping acid. “My Lord, do you give me your word you shall not accost me if my men leave us in your cell?”
Ned had never despised a woman as truly as he despised Cersei Lannister in that moment, but he replied simply, “You have my word, Your Grace. I shall do you no harm.”
She turned to her men with a charming smile. “There. The honorable Lord Stark assures us I will come to no harm. Now wait outside, and close the door.”
Grudgingly, the men did as she requested. The two torches lit the cell quite well as it was a small space, and Ned found that his vision was now surprisingly clear in spite of the persistent fog in his head. He leveled his gaze at her and asked directly, “What do you want, Cersei?”
“What, no courtesies? That isn’t like you, Lord Stark.”
“No games. No plots. Look at me, Your Grace--I am a dead man. Just tell me what you want and then let me be.”
“I’m here to talk about what you want. Do you wish to live or die, Lord Stark? I have the power to make either happen.”
“If you think my life is so precious to me that I would bargain with the woman who cuckolded and murdered my king and crippled my own son, you have mistaken me for someone else, Your Grace,” he said quietly. And yet I will do what you ask, Gods forgive me. I will do it, but not for my life, never for that. The gods know my life is not worth it.
She gave him a small smile. “Sansa looks very like your wife, you know. Yet her face, I think, is somewhat longer. I suppose that’s from you. Odd. On your younger daughter with your plain face the length looks rather horsey, but on Sansa it somehow makes her even prettier. She will likely outshine your Tully bride when she weds Joffrey. Tis a shame you won’t be there to see it.”
“You will never marry Sansa to your Joffrey now. Let her go home. She is guilty of nothing.”
At that, Cersei actually laughed. “And what has guilt to do with it? Do you consider yourself guilty of treason, my lord? I’ll wager you feel certain you are guilty of nothing, and yet here you are. Why should innocence protect Sansa any better?”
Ned was silent for a moment and then replied, “I am guilty of a great many things, Your Grace. But, no, treason in this matter is not one of them.” His leg was shaking visibly now, and he was unsure how long he could remain in his almost standing position. He had to get her to come to the point and be finished with this, so he forced the next word through clenched teeth. “Please. Just tell me what it is you want from me. What do you want for my daughter?”
“Daughter? Have you forgotten I have both your daughters, my lord? Or do you simply not care about the fate of the tiresome one?”
Daughters? But Arya fled. Varys said that . . .Oh! Ned’s mind slowly grasped the meaning of the queen’s words. She doesn’t know Varys was here. “Of course, I want both my daughters alive and well,” Ned snapped. “We were discussing freeing Sansa from her betrothal to your monstrous son.”
“Monstrous? How dare you!” She slapped him across the face, and as he leaned harder against the wall to keep from losing his balance, he remembered the last time she slapped him.
“Another badge of honor, Your Grace,” he told her, looking directly into her eyes. “I know you love your son, but I love him not. Joffrey is a cruel and selfish boy, and I will not let him have my daughter.”
The green eyes still blazed with fury, but Ned could see her letting his words sink in. She knows she has me now. She knows I will do what she asks.
Slowly, Cersei drew in a deep breath, visibly attempting to calm her rage. After a moment, she spoke softly, “Lord Stark, I asked you once if you loved your children, and you assured me you loved them with all your heart. You have now told me yourself that you have no love for mine, and yet you risked much to keep them from harm when you came to me with your knowledge of things best left unknown.” She laughed again, then, a hard and bitter sound. “I suppose you now realize how stupid that was.”
“I told you I do not kill children, Your Grace.”
She sighed. “No, you do not. But you also know perfectly well that I will not hesitate to protect my own son at any cost, regardless of the ages or innocence of the people involved. I will do anything to eliminate threats to his throne. A mother’s devotion is quite fierce. You know that, don’t you, Lord Stark. And if you risked this to protect my children, how much more would you do to protect your own?”
He regarded her carefully. Yes, he knew she meant every word she said. Undoubtedly, she loved her golden son, although it seemed more obsessive than affectionate. She was certainly willing to sacrifice any number of other people for him. Unbidden, an image of soft white palms cut almost to the bone and a beautiful face with anguish in her blue eyes came to his mind. Cat, oh Cat, how fierce you were for our boy. He wondered if the woman standing in front of him would as willingly sacrifice herself as she would so many others. “What would you have me do? And what will you do for my daughters?”
“Confess your treason. Confirm my son Joffrey as Robert’s rightful heir. Order your son to lay down his arms and return to Winterfell. Do this publicly and Joffrey shall allow you to take the black. You shall leave for the Wall immediately in the company of a Black Brother who has been here recruiting. I believe you know him.”
“Yes, I think that’s his name. When word is sent to King’s Landing that you have reached the Wall and taken your vows to the Night’s Watch, and that both your son and his mother have declared loyalty to Joffrey and returned to Winterfell, the king will confirm Robb Stark as the Lord of Winterfell and we will announce the dissolution of Sansa’s betrothal to Joffrey. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. It would hardly do to have the king wed the daughter of a disgraced traitor.”
She paused then, apparently waiting for Ned to give some reaction to this description of his character. He wouldn’t give her the satisfaction, freezing his expression and simply waiting for her to continue.
“We shall then send Sansa north,” she continued, “with a company of our men to see her safe to her mother at Winterfell.”
“And Arya?” Ned asked, wondering how the woman intended to use the girl she did not actually have.
“She will remain a hostage in King’s Landing. Of course, I know your honor would never permit you to break your vows to the Night’s Watch, Lord Stark, but most on the council require a more tangible method of assuring your cooperation.”
The ironic emphasis she placed on the word honor was not lost on Ned, but in truth he wouldn’t have argued with her even if he‘d had the strength or position. Once he said the lies she asked of him, he would have very little honor left. Still, he pushed her on the subject of his missing daughter. “Arya is just a child. Send her with her sister. What good is she to you?”
Again, the bitter laugh. “What good is she? Why, you love her with all your heart, Lord Stark. I have the word of an honorable man on that. As long as we hold her, you’ll do nothing that would lead her to harm. As my son quite understandably cannot stand her, you need not fear a betrothal to a “monster” either. Terms of her eventual release will be negotiated with the Lord of Winterfell. I’m sure her brother will be a good boy and do nothing to delay her return to him.”
She is not going to admit to having lost her. Be safe, Arya. Keep hidden. Gods protect you, and I shall try to protect your sister. “I have your word on all this, Your Grace? If I do as you ask, you will do as you have said regarding my girls?”
She looked at him as if she couldn’t quite comprehend what he had just said. “My word of honor? You consider my word of honor something of value, Lord Stark?”
“I consider it to be all that I have. As I told you at the start of this conversation, I am a dead man, Your Grace.”
“Well, you have my word. Confess your treason, take the black, and Sansa will go home. A Lannister always pays her debts.”
She turned then with a swirl of skirts that seemed oddly out of place above the filthy straw of the cell and rapped firmly on the door. “Guards!” They entered almost instantly and Ned wondered if they’d had their ears pressed to the door. They grabbed the torches and the three left without another word, closing the door and consigning him once again to the blackness.
He sank to the floor and clutched at his injured leg. The pain had increased dramatically during the time he’d been up in spite of bearing his weight almost entirely on the wall and the other leg. It was hot to the touch far up his thigh now and it stank. The plaster cast dug into his flesh almost unbearably. The leg must be swollen. Now that he had made this bargain, he feared he may not live to see it through. He was terribly thirsty. He’d had nothing since Varys’s wine. Was that yesterday? The Lannister woman had brought neither food nor drink.
He lay in the filthy straw and tried to think of anything other than his leg. He imagined himself at the Wall. He would be with Jon. There was much he needed to tell him. He would have the chance now, and he vowed to himself not to waste it. He had to tell Jon. And Cat. Yes, Gods knew she deserved to know the truth. He would tell his wife all that he . . . his wife. . . but she wouldn't be his wife. Oh gods help me. Catelyn can no longer be my wife! He had known it, of course. He was a Stark of Winterfell, a man of the North. He knew the words of the Night's Watch vow as well as any Black Brother. Take no wife. Father no children. He had known it, but now, alone in the dark, having made his bargain with the devil, he truly felt it. He just might get Sansa out of King's Landing alive, but he would lose her all the same. He would lose them all.
He realized he was shivering and wondered hazily if it was fever, pain, grief, or rage that made him shake. He cried out in the dark, but didn't know why or to whom he called. He saw Lyanna with sunken, heartbroken eyes, and heard her begging him for his promise; then Sansa crying for Lady and looking at him with accusation in her blue eyes; then Bran, still and unmoving in his bed as Catelyn sat beside him, begging him to wake. "Cat," he said softly. She turned to face him, tears streaming down her face. "Don't leave us, Ned. Please." Her hair was in disarray, a riot of red around her face. He reached out to comfort her, to touch her hair. He closed his hand around a clump of straw.