Part the First
Sometimes she would dream. She would dream of the open sea in Lannisport and where she could sail away on it. Ilse knew it was fruitless. She would always be a handmaiden at Casterly Rock and she was treated well by Cerzainya, the Rock’s Heiress, who was her own cousin although Ilse was baseborn.
A delegation from Riverrun had arrived, and everyone was abuzz for the reason of the visit. Somehow, Charla, Heiress Cerzainya’s chief handmaiden was dismissed, and Lalie was put in her place. Lalie was a kind sweet girl, but she never dreamed, and she never told small tales of the people she served. Little things, like if they preferred marmalade that season or if the lady wanted blue dresses instead of crimson, or what her father, Ser Jaime, had sent her for her Namesday.
No one remembered who Cerzainya’s mother was. No one remembered a marriage or her being with child, only that Ser Jaime had come home from the Kingsguard to look at the tiny little girl with reverence, with Lord Tywin standing there, proclaiming the child, named for her aunt, was to be his heiress.
Lalie would not tell anyone if Cerzainya liked to dance with Ser Edmure Tully, if they spoke outside of dining, if she smiled or blushed at the mention of his name—or if he was even a member of the party. So Ilse dreamed of being a fine lady herself, and keeping secrets that everyone wanted to know, but then she realized that this dream was strange to her and she didn’t understand herself in it. She would rather swim in the waves of Lannisport, her pale brown hair floating in their habitual braids; her ice blue eyes piercing the very sky as she looked into their depths.
She was on the beach when she first saw him.
“Hello,” he greeted. “Forgive me, but I did not know this beach was occupied.”
Ilse looked up at him and smiled. She was dressed in a simple shift for swimming, her hair pulled back in so many braids, that she wondered if this foreigner knew of the common custom that she knew even Heiress Cerzainya followed.
He was dressed in a simple tunic with a crest on it and britches and boots. One really couldn’t determine what his placement in the household was. However, his voice was masculine and seductive and a chill ran up her spine.
“I do not mind,” she answered. “You’re from Riverrun? You deserve to look at our sea.”
“You are very kind,” he answered. “I’m surprised at how kind and accommodating everyone here is. One hears tales of the Lannisters, and I have found them to be unfounded, at least in this one day we have been here.”
She cocked her head and said nothing. “I was about to go swimming,” she informed him, instead. “Would you think me terribly rude if I abandoned you?”
“Not at all,” he said, gesturing toward the ocean.
“Thank you,” she said before running into the water like a common heathen, dipping her head beneath the water before coming back up for air. Turning around, she saw the man staring at her. She waved and he mimicked the motion and then, turning from him, she began to swim, thinking only about herself and the waves.
She was surprised that when she returned and the man was still waiting for her, this time with a sheet to towel her dry. It had the Tully sigil on it, so he must have gotten it from somewhere in his camp.
“I—thank you,” she said as he folded it over her shoulders. “I always seem to forget mine.”
He took her hair and placed it carefully over the sheet so that it wouldn’t completely soak through her shift.
The man chuckled. “I would always forget when I was a young man, wading into the river. My sister Cat would have to come over with a sheet. Of course, when she was wed, I had to begin remembering to bring towels for myself.”
Ilse looked at him with sympathy. “I have no brothers or sisters,” she confided. “My mother died giving birth to me and Father—well—he is disinclined to marry again.” The truth was he hated women. He preferred to bring other men home, strange men who took money to lie with him, which was why Ilse had taken work on the Rock. She couldn’t bear to see such peculiarities any longer.
The man nodded his head, accepting her story.
She looked at the sky to read the time. “If I have any hope of awakening at a decent hour, I fear I must go,” she said, rising from where she had perched on a rock. “May I keep the towel?” She looked into the man’s deep blue eyes and blushed a little.
“Bring it tomorrow so I do not have to fetch another after your swim,” he murmured quietly, adjusting it as if he felt affection toward her.
“I shall endeavor to remember, —“ She paused, waiting for him name.
“Are we for secrecies or truths?”
“Well, my daily rituals keep me away from the Tully party. Secrecy then.” She held out her hand and he kissed it much to her surprise.
“Goodnight, m’lady.” She almost started at the title.
“Goodnight, m’lord,” she whispered back, before taking the secret trail back up to the Castle, knowing that his eyes were on her.
She woke at the break of dawn, just as her duties permitted, and she quickly found Lalie. “Can you keep a secret?” she asked, and the other nodded. “I think a bannerman loaned this to me when I went swimming last night, and I need it dry so I can give it back to him.” She handed over the sigil. “Would you be so kind as to dry it as you dry our lady’s dresses? I will owe you a favor.”
Lalie smiled. “A favor is not owed, though I thank you for the compliment. Perhaps you will tell me if he is handsome.”
“Very,” Ilse assured her. “I do not know his name, however, nor he mine.”
“A secret romance—“
“Hardly that!” Ilse protested. “We’ve met once at a cove. He brought me a blanket to dry myself off.”
Lalie just looked at her. “Keep me informed. I take it back, I want that favor and information I shall have.”
“I would have given it to you anyway,” she told her friend, putting on a simple gown of gold.
It was just after lunch that Cerzainya chose to send a raven to her father, and Ilse was sent to the raven’s perch to dispatch it.
Ilse hadn’t expected to see anyone from the Tully party. However, she was surprised to find someone else already there, tying a message to a raven.
“Oh,” she said, startled. She hit her head and dropped her scroll.
The man from the beach gave her a smile of recognition before he leaned over and picked up the missive. “Ser Jaime Lannister,” he read. “Your mistress seems to have a great deal to say to the Queen’s brother.” The script was quite thick, belying the length of the message.
Momentarily confused from the headache now forming, Ilse looked at him. “And your missive goes back to Riverrun?” she asked politely.
“No,” he answered, going back to his raven as Ilse chose her favorite bird. “It goes to Winterfell. You are aware of the connection.”
“Yes,” she agreed, tying the message, and then letting the raven fly out through the window. “Ser Edmure is the brother of Lady Stark. I always forget how many children Winterfell boasts. Two daughters, I believe, and the firstborn is the heir. After that I cannot recall.”
“You recall more than most,” the man said in surprise.
She looked at him critically and saw his blue eyes and red hair.
“The Starks are famous through Lady Lyanna for their dark coloring and their gray eyes, but Lady Stark has hair and eyes like yours as do many of the Stark children. I did not know it was a trait of the people as well, though Lady Arryn, the other sister, carries that coloring, I hear.” She stared at him for a long moment before shaking herself. “Forgive me. My lady does not like me to linger and I should probably return.” She turned and began to flee down the stairs, wondering exactly what she had uncovered by accident.
Of course the Maester at that moment had to appear. “I had to send a missive to Ser Jaime,” she told him quickly. “I now return, as I promised.”
The middle-aged man looked at her. “Remember that whatever you are, you are still a Hill.”
“You forget, sir. My grandfather was sentimental. He bought my lady grandmother a husband so we would not be Hills and he bought me a position here with my mistress so that I would not be tainted by my father’s peculiarities. And now I must go. For this handmaiden is not a Hill.—Also, you must admit that I am more even-tempered than my cousin, the Queen, although I have yet to have the honor of meeting her.” Smiling, she slipped past him, unaware that the man from the cove was standing on the stairs, puzzling out the clues to her identity.
She was sitting on a rock overlooking the sea when he returned, walking on the sands.
“I must discover your secret passageway,” he told her as he sat down. “I see you remembered the sigil of Riverrun.”
Pushing back strands of hair that had gotten free of her many braids, she smiled although she was still looking out at the waves. “Few know the passage. I had to be shown when I was about nine years old and my uncle was here on one of his few visits to Lannisport. He does not much care for my father, or for me, most likely. He seems to like my aunt’s children, strangely enough. Then again, they were true born through her marriage.” She looked down at her hands and then picked up a pebble and threw it at the sea. “He even lives with them most of the time, come to think of it. Father remains here in Lannisport, however.” She turned and gave the man a sad smile. “What do you think of me now, good ser? Now that my name is ruined?”
“I thought as I did before,” he answered carefully and truthfully as he sat down beside her. “Your grandfather Lannister must have cared a great deal for your grandmother.”
Her smile twisted and she changed the subject. “I hope you love all of your nieces and nephews equally.”
It looked like he wanted to say more on her Lannister birth, but he let the moment pass. “I only have two siblings and I don’t know their children except through the ravens we send back and forth.”
“Remember their Namesdays,” she whispered. “It means the world to any child.”
“But you are not a child,” he reasoned. His dark eyes shifted as they flicked down to her lips and then further down to the shift that covered her body that was had bloomed into a woman’s form.
“I was,” she argued. “I can still remember every gift my uncle and my aunt sent when I came to the Rock, and every year my uncle who barely cares for me missed. Make a list if you have to. Do not forget a Namesday, m’lord.”
“I suspect you are wise beyond your years,” he murmured, moving closer to her so that their shoulders nearly brushed. He lifted up his hand and carefully touched her hand.
“Who do you think I am?” she asked suddenly. “Is this because I would have been a Hill if not for my grandfather?”
“No,” he whispered. “I would never take advantage of that.”
She turned away, his hand dropping. “It always matters. I’m still trying to figure out why the delegation from Riverrun is here. For some reason I ought not to be told, I don’t know if Heiress Cerzainya knows—so I will follow those wishes of the people who feed me and clothe me and I shan’t have you tell me. In fact, I ask you most kindly not to tell me. I’m still trying to figure out—” She looked back at him, her pale blue eyes flashing in the moonlight. His dark blue eyes shifted.
“Then I shall not tell you,” he said, his voice no more than a husky whisper. “I wish to the Seven that the reason were different, but I’m glad that it brought me to you.”
Ilse stared at him, but something in her did not want to break the tentative friendship they had gained in their anonymity. Protecting the heiress came with duties and with that people’s perception of Cerzainya changed. She must act a certain way, the way people expected, the way her grandfather deemed she should act, and she was viewed as above the common people. Yes, this man had the coloring of a Tully and had sent a raven to Winterfell, but what did that prove? He had the coloring that showed that he was either a lesser Tully cousin or a bastard and that he was sending a raven on behalf of Ser Edmure Tully if he was even a member of the party that had traveled all the way to Casterly Rock. He could never know the Heiress, and as such he should not know of Ilse’s connection to her.
“What else would you like to know?”
“It’s foolish,” she commented.
“It won’t be. At least to me,” he urged.
“My father,” she whispered, “Looks almost exactly like Ser Kevan Lannister, Lord Tywin’s brother, except for his blue eyes that are exactly like mine. Some have remarked how much I look like Cerzainya except for my hair.” She didn’t want an answer though. “Some say I look like her slightly northern twin or older sister.” She then stood and let his hand reclaim hers, pulling from it gently until their fingers entwined as she left and she further escaped into the waters.
She only swam for a short time before she quickly toweled and left, not looking at him, too embarrassed, before he grabbed her forearm and smiled at her.
“I don’t mind, although my father would lecture me. Why should I? You are a beautiful, intelligent woman, who is—in a mildly distorted way—a member of the house you were born into.”
“I don’t have the name Hill,” she promised him. “I would never speak to you if I did, for fear of punishment or the look of condescension in your eyes.”
Tears were running down her cheeks and he brushed one away with his thumb. “And you are possibly your own cousin’s handmaid. How cruel.”
She said nothing but wrapped the sigil around her and walked up the pathway, only looking back, near the top, seeing him gazing back up to her. Ilse was never sure of the ways of men, but somehow she knew this man was in love with her—and she wasn’t completely indifferent.
The next night the moon was high and she could see only the hints of the outline of the lord’s face and she wanted to show him how she was beginning to feel.
She stood from the stone where they were sitting quietly and without speaking Ilse walked carefully into the water. Aware that the man was watching her, she performed a water dance that all maidens knew, wanting freedom from this life, freedom to sail across the sea, freedom from the Lannisters, freedom from her father, freedom from home. A toe step here, a jump there, her arms, that should have held pieces of flowing fabric swaying from side to side and over her head and supposedly covering everything but her eyes until finally—finally—she was nothing more but a nose and eyes above the waves and she submerged herself.
Her eyes didn’t mind the salt and she swam back to shore before she pushed herself upward from the sandy underbeach and she gasped for air. The man was sitting entranced and she smiled at him before swimming back out to sea on her back. She must have been swimming for over an hour before she finally began swimming toward shore. When she walked up toward land, the man hurried toward her, holding out the sigil. Laughing, Ilse accepted it. “Did you like it?” she murmured. She had allowed him to rub her arms to get her warm, and she looked up into his dark blue eyes that were searching her own.
Ilse was a little uncertain why she had performed the Casterly Dance of Love, but she had nonetheless, due to these deep desires in her soul that she could not even voice. It had seemed right, needed even. Something within her was stirring and she was beginning to understand the late Lady Joanna a little bit, though she wasn’t certain how or why.
“The dance?” the man questioned.
“On Midsummer’s Eve we bring out pieces of cloth, so long that you can easily trip on them, and we dance it to remind our suitors that the sea is in our blood and that they will never have all of our hearts. I admit that it is not quite the same in the dark and without—“
Cold lips brushed over hers, and for a moment she was quiet.
“The river will never leave my blood,” he murmured after he breathed in her salty hair, the pale brown making it dark with water.
She stepped out of his grasp, confused and thinking. Then she quickly took off the sheet and handed it back to him. “If you will excuse me,” she said politely. “This was not sanctioned.” However, it was provoked. She had provoked it. What was she thinking? What would Heiress Cerzainya say? Her father, Jainan, she knew, would champion love given—everything. At least, she hoped he would. He did take men to his bed. That must be love or at least lust, wasn’t it?
Ilse glanced at the man and took his hand briefly, squeezing it before carefully making her way up the path.
The next day, she did everything she could think of so she would not dwell on the man, but it was maddening. Finally, she gave up. “Have you seen much of the guests?” Ilse asked Lalie while they both mending one of Heiress Cerzainya’s dresses, who was not looking up from the latest gift from her Uncle Tyrion, which had been given to her three years earlier. It was a book on the Northern Kingdom. “I’ve only seen one bannerman and that was when I was going to send a raven.”
“I’ve seen Ser Edmure,” Lalie confided and Cerzainya’s eyes flicked up in curiosity.
“He’s about twice your age with auburn hair clipped neatly to his head and dark blue eyes. It’s like a sunset, his hair and his eyes.” Her voice was quiet and yet so reverent.
Ilse paused as this seemed like the description of the man at the cove though she couldn’t be sure as colors were muted in the darkness. And when she saw him at the ravens’ perch, she had been in shock. “Interesting. I take it he’s handsome.”
Lalie nodded emphatically.
Cerzainya then entered the conversation. “I’m actually thinking of marrying him.”
“Another girl,” Lalie confided, “said that Ser Loras Tyrell might be coming from Highgarden later this year.”
“Not his elder brother,” Cerzainya confirmed. “The heir.”
“Will you wait to meet this other suitor?” Ilse asked carefully. “I’ve always heard that he is called ‘The Knight of Flowers’ and is very handsome indeed. He is said to be the intimate friend of Lord Renly Baratheon.”
“I want a man who understands what it means to live in a keep, not a palace with courtiers. Ser Loras wouldn’t be able to balance a budget or defend a castle for all his pretty words and handsome face.” Cerzainya’s face had gone cold, and Ilse dropped the subject.
She was late coming the next day. Cerzainya was unimpressed with her hair as she wanted a specific style she had seen in a sketch her aunt had sent her. Apparently, anyone who was anyone at the court was wearing it. It took both her and Lalie three hours to make it perfect, including the six ribbons in various colors that needed to be just so.
When Ilse was finally free from her duties a few hours later, she made her way down to the beach.
The man was there with his sigil laid out on a rock with a pitcher, two glasses, and a large pile of grapes. “You look exhausted,” he commented as he came over to her.
She gave him a small smile. “Life sometimes is a little trying,” she admitted. Looking over the small picnic, she smiled. “How did you know I’d skipped dinner?”
“I didn’t,” he admitted, taking her hand and setting her down on the sand. He poured her some sweet ale. “I thought you might enjoy something sweet at night. I never seem to be able to give you anything than a sigil to dry off, and I doubt the sigil was invented for such purposes.”
“Perhaps not,” she laughed, taking a drink. “However, the fish perhaps demands the idea of water at the very least.”
“You are wise beyond your years,” he teased, handing her a small branch of grapes.
“The question is, m’lord, are you wiser than yours?” Her eyes laughed at him as he stared at her in complete surprise.
“No one’s ever asked me that, my dear.” He slipped in the term of endearment and she caught it, but said nothing.
She took a grape and popped it in her mouth and he watched the movement avidly. Ilse noticed the attention, and she looked away in embarrassment. She wasn’t quite certain what to do. “I heard your cousin was here,” she finally mentioned. “Lady Cerzainya mentioned it. Has he danced with her much? Lady Cerzainya is an accomplished dancer.”
“My cousin?” he asked, suddenly looking at the sea.
“Ser Edmure,” she qualified. “He is your cousin, is he not? You’re too young to be an uncle. Forgive me, are you not related? I’ve never had the privilege of seeing him myself, so I only have reports from others.”
“No, we are related,” he finally said, although the words almost seemed to be choking him. “He has danced with Lady Cerzainya, but I say this in confidence and it must never reach the lady’s ears, he did not enjoy the experience.”
“Oh,” she murmured. “I am sorry to hear that. Perhaps it is only that they are not well acquainted.”
“Do you like to dance?” he suddenly asked, looking at her with his dark blue eyes. His eyes once again went to her lips as she was sipping the sweet ale.
“I—I’m not certain. I’ve never had a partner. I practice the steps with a friend when we are privileged enough to view a dance, but, as I said, I do not know.” His intense gaze caused a shiver to run up her spine and she desired to lean forward and reach for him, but she fought the impulse.
“Would you like to learn one now?” His voice was casual, but his body told a different story. As a handmaiden, she always read her lady’s mood by her body language. His was telling her that her answer was important. She popped another grape in her mouth and stood up.
He was instantly by her side and he murmured, “Trust me,” before he put his left hand on her left hip and then his right hand took hers. “Your free hand goes atop mine,” he told her and then he showed her the complicated steps that had her turning in a figure eight. After several times of practice, he began to hum a tune and by the end she was laughing in joy. Her face turned to his and they were so close that she could almost taste the ale on his lips, but she would not make that mistake again. Ilse stepped away from him and smoothed out her shift.
“Well, Cousin Tully,” she stated. “If I am ever in a hall and permitted to dance, I shall certainly save that dance for you, if you can bear to dance with one so low in a household.”
“You are not low,” he told her passionately, “I consider you a Lannister cousin.” He reached forward and his knuckles brushed her cheek. “Surely you have guessed how I feel.”
“I, m’lord,—surely this is not wise,” she told him before she sat down and grabbed some more grapes and partook of the meal as she was still hungry. “And, believe me when I tell you I am nothing to the Lannisters.—except, perhaps, Ser Kevan, when he bothers to think of me at all.”
He took his seat at the other end of the rock, looking at her with longing in his eyes. When she was finished, she thanked him with a curtsey and with a kiss to his hand, and he let her go up the secret path, and she swore he had whispered his name, but she could not quite make it out.
Ilse knew she shouldn’t do it, but she could not help herself. When she walked down to the cove the next night, she held her own towel in her hands. The man was waiting. “There is gossip in the keep that Ser Edmure might be here for a bride even though Lady Cerzainya is to be Lady Lannister upon her grandfather’s death.” Her voice was flat. She couldn’t put any emotion in it as she felt like this man, if he was who she thought he was, was being untrue to the idea of Lady Cerzainya Lannister with her own handmaiden and base born cousin.
“Yet you came back,” his answer was careful and simple. He extended his hand so she could more carefully step down from the end of her path without stumbling on some loose rocks.
“Perhaps it was curiosity. When I saw you with the ravens, you were dressed as elegantly as a lord, but you could be a lesser Tully and not Ser Edmure, whom I would assume would be here to negotiate for his own bride, especially one so young and wealthy.”
He looked down at their hands, her small one still in his. “What would you like me to say, lovely lady?”
“Do you often make love to women whom you perhaps should not make love to?” she asked forthrightly. “You know not who I am. It is rather dangerous for a lord to play such mischief in another lord’s castle as I know you heard the Maester on my station. Can you comprehend how I might be punished if you are indeed Ser Edmure?”
“I am not making sport,” he promised as he brought her hand up to his lips and kissed it reverently.
She made no reply as she took her hand back, but as she walked into the water, she called, “Are you coming? Take off those boots and I’d recommend not getting that tunic wet. The dye might run when you dry it.”
He looked at her calculatingly. “I can’t swim.”
“We’ll stay in the shallows,” she promised. Ilse watched him follow her directions and then he was standing next to her. Their eyes were almost level, and he reached out to touch her cheek, but she walked forward. When she noticed he was just standing there, she grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the water.
Then they were running as the waves splashed against them. When he was on sure footing past the waves, Ilse treading water, she told him, “See, not so bad, m’lord.”
“This is nothing like the river, m’lady,” he murmured in wonder. He ran a hand down one of her braids. “I’ve never seen a woman with hair such as yours.”
“You must have come upon ash brown,” she argued. “Gold and straw blonde are much more common but my mother was from further north. I still don’t know why my father wed her. I’ve never bothered to ask.”
“I meant the braids,” he murmured in wonder. “We have one long braid,” he told her. “However, not this many. You must have six or seven.”
“It is tradition for those of us near the ocean, in Lannisport and the surrounding area,” she told him as his wet hand stroked her bare arm, sending a shiver through her. “The many braids are tighter and don’t need to be tied. They are ideal for sea bathing.”
She looked away and swam deeper into the sea, knowing that he could follow given his height. Wading through the waters, she watched him come toward her, and then she felt him tentatively wrap his arm around her and pull her closer. “You can’t take this back,” she told him. “And there is my reputation to consider. My father is more than passable with a sword and has won many a joust.”
“Of course. Tell me your father’s name so I may go to him tomorrow and ask for your hand in marriage thereby I need not fall to his sword—nor he to mine.” Even in the darkness, she could see his blue eyes sparkle.
“My father does not care for me,” she laughed. “I’ve never been sent for. It was decided that it would be best if I stayed in Lord Tywin’s household. I don’t believe petitions for my hand are being considered.—We never should have met. I am too curious. Forgive me.” She began to swim back toward shore, and she could hear him move behind her, but there was nothing she could do. When and if Lord Tywin decided to entertain the idea of a match for her, it would be with a bannerman’s younger son or a wealthy tradesman if either could be managed. It would never be a lord, and certainly not Edmure Tully. She prayed to the Seven that this man was not playing her, the handmaid of the future Lady Lannister, for a fool.
She went to bed far too late and when Lalie came to wake her with breakfast she took one look at her fellow handmaiden and pointed at the sheet she had provided for herself and returned with as if it would explain everything, and fortunately it did.
“At least tell me, Ilse, that he is the same handsome Lord.”
“Very,” Ilse confided. “However, it is nothing but a flirtation. He is—nothing but a memory that I will think about when I am old. Can you cover for me for about half an hour? Do you think Lady Cerzainya can spare me that long?”
“Of course. However, Lord Tywin wants to see you after your morning meal,” Lalie blushed.
Ilse immediately sat up. “He does not,” she said in disbelief. She stared down the other handmaiden. “What time is it?”
“Half an hour since my interview with him ended.”
Reaching out for Lalie’s hand, Ilse squeezed it. “Did you lie? You never lie.”
She shook her head.
“Good. I’ll ready for the morning.” She got up and started getting ready for the day.
She was wearing Lannister red, simple and unadorned, her hair still in braids. She walked down the hall to the study and men she did not recognize, probably from House Tully, bowed to her, which she didn’t understand. It was clear that she was not a lady.
Lord Tywin was alone. “Swimming lessons with Ser Edmure,” was his greeting. “I didn’t even know your name, girl, until I brought my granddaughter’s chief handmaiden in here and cross examined her for two hours this morning before the sun even rose.”
Ilse paused. “I beg your pardon. Did you just say ‘Ser Edmure’? As in, the heir to Riverrun? I was still praying that he was some Tully relative that I happened to meet on the beach. I also never taught him how to swim. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
“No,” Tywin Lannister, a strong man with his graying golden hair and his piercing green eyes looked at her, “you merely let him watch you in the sea and then took him out into the waters last night. He at least was under the correct impression that you were a nameless handmaiden and is willing to forgo a highly desirable marriage contract for the honor of said handmaiden’s hand in marriage. What on earth were you thinking? Surely you were taught better than this, Ilse Hill. You have destroyed the possible wedding of your own mistress!”
“I was being polite when I met him,” she responded after a moment, choosing to tell Lord Tywin the truth. “I swear he did not have time to fall in love with me, Lord Lannister. I never made an advance toward him.” Her mind flitted to the water dance, but she would never admit to that. “I knew he thought me correctly to be a handmaiden and I thought that would protect me from any true vows of affection as I thought he was a lesser Lord or, dare I say it, a bastard of the House of Tully. I also only saw him as a fellow courtier to speak to—someone outside of Lannisport—since I was unable to attend the festivities.”
Tywin sighed. “I forbade the handmaidens because I did not know the true mettle of Ser Edmure. I also did not want the distraction before a marriage contract was signed, and that is exactly what happened, you insignificant, horrid wench.”
“Does he know?” she asked in a small voice. “Who I am?”
“Yes,” Tywin responded in a gruff voice. “He claims he’s in love with you. He wants to ask your father Jainon Ever for your hand immediately and then wed you on the morrow, although he does wish his favorite sister, Catelyn Stark, to be present. At least even he realizes this is unreasonable given how many weeks it would take for her to arrive from Winterfell. So now we have no consort for our future Lady. Highgarden is our next option.”
“My lady does not favor Highgarden.”
“Well, you leave her no choice.” His eyes flashed green and his voice was as deadly as a snake’s.
“What,” she asked carefully, licking her lips, “is your assessment, forgetting that I am a handmaiden?”
“I cannot lock you up and make him forget you. He’d merely remain in tents at Lannisport and wait until you are returned to him—and I do not fancy a war over such an insignificant little girl. You are to go to him and refuse his advances,” he admitted begrudgingly. “Lie if you must. May the gods help me, but you will be whipped if you do anything else to hinder this match.”
“Then I wish to speak with him,” Ilse declared as she knew she ought. However, she did not wish to do as was said. She couldn’t. Ilse had danced before him that night, just a few days ago, betraying her growing feelings that she must now admit were true.
Tywin obliged her. Ser Edmure was sitting by a window while many courtiers were whispering around him when she slipped into the room. “I hear you still wish to marry me,” she murmured. He immediately turned toward her and the room hushed. With a sign of his hand, they each stood and bowed to her and filed out, leaving them alone together. Gathering her resolve, she continued, “even though you are a fine Lord with your own keep and I am merely a nameless handmaiden.”
“Lady Ilse,” he began as he stood, but she wasn’t done speaking.
“This cannot be,” she stated. “I’ll be whipped if you do not give up this notion.” Her blue eyes shone with tears as she looked up imploringly. “Forget me,” her mouth said, when her eyes told a different story.
“I cannot give you up!” he promised. “I’ll take you away from here, at this very moment I will escort you with guards, my darling. Even if you walked away from me, I would never marry Lady Cerzainya.”
“I did not fall in love with you,” she admitted. “Do you still want a lowly bastard bride who can only claim attraction and affection? When you can have my lady with her beauty and her fortune?”
“Why would I want a girl of fourteen summer fields, who laughs when she would rather frown and makes love to a man she secretly detests? I’ve seen her ilk before, Ilse. I am not a fool in the game of love making and the search for a bride.—And I would do everything to make you happy,” Ser Edmure swore. “I know the woman you are. I know who you are among the waves, your home, and I am loathe to ask you to part form it. That is who I fell in love with. Can you argue that any other man you meet can say the same? That any butcher would worship your body and your mind and give you a river, although it can never be exactly the same?—And I know you feel something for me, Lady Ilse. You performed that dance in the water. You danced with me as an equal upon the sand and among the waves. I don’t care if your father might be a Lannister bastard. You’re his trueborn daughter. By the seven, you look like your mistress’s elder sister!”
She sucked in her breath. Taking a moment to pause, she moved toward the window and looked out at the sea. “I am no lady—“
“I have called you such since I first met you,” he murmured. “Why should it change now that I know your name? Marry me, Ilse,” he begged, turning her toward him as he slipped a ring with a black jewel on it onto her finger. “I leave in eight days to join the royal caravan to Winterfell so that I might see my sister, Lady Catelyn Stark. I know you deserve to see the keep—our home—first, but I beg you to forgive these plans if you promise to be my wife.” He stroked her cheek and ducked his head so that he could see into her ice blue eyes. “Marry me, sea nymph, and I will bring you to the sea every year. I know it has your heart, but I will do everything to make you happy. How many summer fields do you have, my darling?” He seemed perplexed.
“Seventeen,” she whispered.
“I bear thirty-nine summer fields,” he answered her silent question. “I hope that is not objectionable.”
“You were twenty-two when I was born. Do you have natural born children?” She glanced at him, her lips thinned into a straight line, showing that she was ill at ease.
He shook his head. “No. I promised myself never to dishonor my wife like that after my sister’s husband—well.” He carefully wrapped his arms around her and she rested her head against his shoulder. “I do not have a cloak for our wedding. Lord Lannister will never lend me the lion rampant. I assume we are to be married before we leave.”
“I ordered one of my men to sew one. You’re being given your own tent. Three days, my darling. Will you marry me, my love?” he asked in a murmur.
She paused before whispering, “Yes. And then let’s leave here. I don’t care about the eight days. Just get me away from this place. I do not want to be whipped and I know he’ll carry through.” Ilse was quietly crying now and he just held her to him.
“Then we’ll leave,” he promised, stroking her hair.
When she settled he went to the door and called the guards. “We leave for camp,” he told them. “Lady Ilse is to have a guard of four men at all times.” He stretched out his hand for her and she took it hesitantly before walking out the door. She held her head high as she walked hand in hand with the Heir to Riverrun, seeing the scowls of the Lannister servants as she passed out of the citadel, wondering how she would get her spare dress and her nightshift, though somehow she knew Lalie would get her things for her.