Return to the Breoch Cycle… or Variations on an Original Female Lannister
Title: The Septa’s Daughter & Oberyn’s Kiss
Fandom: Game of Thrones
Pairing(s): Edmure Tully/Ilse Lannister
Sequel Pairing(s): Oberyn/Ilse Lannister
Word Count: 20k
Summary: A darker look at the Breoch Cycle. Ilse is the daughter of Tywin Lannister and a Septa who kidnapped her from Casterley Rock when she was still a child. Now, desperate for freedom, she accepts the hand of Edmure Tully who is enamored of her at first sight, only to find herself in a hell of her own choosing. Takes place during Game of Thrones.
Warning(s): rape, marital rape, forced religious servitude, emotional infidelity, desecration of a shrine, secret identities, misdirections, politics of war
The Septa’s Daughter
Edmure had yet to agree. His sister Catelyn Stark was trying to convince him of the positives of the match that was being forced on him because his idiot of a nephew had proved an oath breaker.
Not wanting to hear anymore about the Frey girl, a House that held loyalty to his own and wasn’t even a decent match if he was looking for one, he looked about the courtyard. He saw a septa in her thick homespun yellow robe and a girl in the same worn blue material. She had the sharpest blue eyes and ash brown hair.
“Ashyr,” he called his manservant over. “Who are they?”
“I believe they came to help with the wedding.”
Edmure looked at him and then at Catelyn. “You brought a Septa and her—apprentice?”
Catelyn sighed. “Edmure. Who cares who is here for the preparation for the ceremony? What matters is that Walder Frey…”
He’d had enough. Edmure stood and walked out of the hall and toward the training grounds of the keep where he saw the Septa and the girl. It was clear that they were related and they stopped and curtseyed to him.
“Madam,” he greeted, addressing the Septa. “I understand you and your protégé are new to Riverrun. May I personally welcome you?”
“Thank you,” the Septa said. “We’re from further South, though my daughter has Lannisport blood in her. It is wonderful to return for such a joyous occasion.”
Edmure paused. It was anathema for a Septa to have a child unless he were the product of rape. “I am glad, then, that you and your daughter are here to see Riverrun itself. Have you been offered proper accommodations?”
“Not yet, young man,” the Septa told him. “The girl and I only require a small room, though Ilse has her studies, of course.”
He nodded at the girl and smiled, causing her to blush. Good, he had made a favorable impression on her then, and he hadn’t even addressed her.
“Right this way, Septa, Miss,” he said, showing them into the keep, grabbing a map from a guard. “You are Septa—“ He looked up in confusion. “Liese?” he guessed.
“That would be me, young man.”
He quickly showed them to what was indeed a small room before he dared asked, “Septa, would you mind if I took your daughter on a walk of the fort? While I would enjoy her company, I promise that it would be most edifying as a young woman rarely sees a fort as grand as Riverrun.”
The Septa looked between her daughter and Edmure for a moment before asking, “You are unwed?”
“I promise you, madam.”
“You are not promised.”
“To my sister’s horror, madam.”
“Then I do not see the harm of one walk. My daughter is Ilse Hill if that does not cause offense.”
“It does not,” Edmure said, keeping a calm voice as he showed how serious a situation he knew this was.
Septa Liese turned to her daughter. “Only you can say?”
“I have no objection as long as we are seen and the gentleman has no plans to dishonor me.” Her voice was hesitant, fearful, but Edmure smiled at her.
“I have no such plans, Ilse. I simply wish to know you better.” They stepped into the hall and Ilse carefully shut the door.
“What would you like to see?” he asked her. “I do not know if you have been in a keep before.”
“I’d like to see the feasting hall,” she told him shyly. “We’re never allowed in there. I’m usually not allowed out of the kitchens or the sept.”
He gave her a half smile. “I should warn you that Lady Stark has ordered it cleaned.”
“For the wedding, I imagine. Some of the septs are saying that there may not be a wedding. Do you know anything, ser?” Her bright blue eyes looked at him and he wished he could take his knuckles and pass them down her cheek. He’d thought Lysa silly in their childhoods when she had read tales of knights and maidens falling instantly in love, but this strange emotion that overcame him now—well, he couldn’t really explain it except for that elusive emotion.
“There is a law in the Riverlands,” he told her truthfully, “that no one can be compelled to marry. Lord Robb Stark proved an oath breaker when he did not marry a daughter of the House of Frey but another, a surgeon on his battlefield, so he is trying to mend the oath by having his uncle, Lord Edmure Tully, Heir to the Riverlands, marry into the House of Frey. Lord Edmure does not wish to and cites this law. It is proving a match of wills.”
“Will he marry her, though?” she asked, showing an innate curiosity. “We were already in the Riverlands, but marriages are different depending on the location and the identity of the people married.”
“I doubt he will marry the Frey girl,” he answered, leading her into the hall, where the chandeliers were all having new candles put in them. He spotted Catelyn across the room and she had spotted him with Ilse.
“How do you know?”
He leaned toward her. “Watch and listen, and forgive me if I used any subterfuge. It was only so that I might speak to you as an equal.”
“You left,” Catelyn accused, coming up to them. “I am your sister, I was laying down the arguments as to why you should marry the Frey girl…”
“And I refused, like I always do and always will. You cannot press me into a marriage. I did not make the oath—your son did. Find someone else’s head to place in this crown of thorns, Cat. I will not have Walder Frey as my goodfather, I will not have a Frey as my wife or in my bed. By the seven, you are practically begging me to lead a completely celibate life and to die without heirs because I highly doubt anything would induce me to conduct my marital duties, even on the wedding night.—Forgive me, Ilse, for being so blunt in front of you, especially given your upbringing as a future Septa.”
“I have heard worse, ser,” she answered. “I’m certain you’d be quite shocked to hear what men enjoy saying in front of the Seven’s servants just to denigrate piety.”
“You are a member of this family—“ Catelyn stated harshly, barely sparing the girl a glance.
Edmure looked at his sister angrily. “This is your son’s fault. He is King of the North. I am not of the North and certainly not one of his subjects to command. Excuse me. Ilse wanted to see a hall as she’s never had the privilege before.”
He placed his hand at the small of her back and led her to the head table and withdrew a seat for her. Looking at it hesitantly, she sat in it and then looked at the hall. Edmure pulled the more ornate seat to her left and sat down next to her. “It is your wedding,” she finally said, clearly in shock.
“It is my sister’s,” he argued. “She desires it; I have made no promises, I repudiate it at every turn.” He looked at her. “I have said nothing that was false.” Carefully, she nodded her head, and looked down at the table, not daring to look at him. He held back a sigh and then told her, “These were my father and mother’s seats. Mother died, of course, but I wanted you to see the hall from this perspective.”
“It’s so grand,” she murmured. “Where do people dance?”
He pointed toward the doors. “Down there. The musicians are set up and there can be dancing, but usually there is just feasting.”
“And I in your mother’s seat,” she murmured, letting her hands carefully rest at the table. “You sister glares at us so.”
“She’ll stop in a few years,” he promised. “Riverrun is just the only house equal to Winterfell where the Frey girl could marry. She doesn’t have another house like that in her pocket.”
“Perhaps this Frey girl marries to leave,” she suggested. “She certainly does not marry for love, it might be for something other than duty.”
Edmure looked at her suddenly. “Why do you say that?”
“I would marry nearly anyone tomorrow if it were to escape becoming a Septa next month,” she whispered and her startling blue eyes, running with unshed tears, looked up to his with shock when he took her hand. “There might be something she wishes to run from. What do you know about her?”
“I care not to know. I do not wish to wed a strange girl I do not know and whose family I disapprove of so completely.”
She looked at him for a second. “You do not wish to marry.”
“I did not say that,” he declared passionately. “I do not wish to marry her. My heart is already owned.—You said anyone.”
Her breath caught at the implication and she looked at him in shock. Pushing her ash-brown hair behind her ears, she glanced at him. “You should not tease me,” she stated. “I know how lords like to tease vulnerable young women. Goodness, if it were not so, I would not have been born.”
“I do not tease,” he said carefully. “But you said ‘Anyone.’ Not a man you respected or desired or loved?”
“Ideally I would love him,” she, of course, confessed. “What higher compliment to the gods can I give, but I am running out of time? I cannot wait for love. I can feel desire and respect—“
She didn’t finish her sentence when he stood with her hand in his and walked rather hurriedly out of the hall, as if he were trying to keep a normal pace but wished to break out into a run. Turning to the right to a smaller hall where no one was present, he carefully left the door open and murmured, “You blush when you look at me. Is that not desire?”
His hand came around her waist and, looking into her eyes, he carefully kissed her until her eyes fluttered closed. When he pulled away, her head followed him until both her hands were pressed against his chest and she was looking into his deep blue eyes. “Learn to love me, then,” he asked. “You’ve shown respect for me before you’ve known who I was. Marry me, Ilse Hill. We can have a feast prepared in a matter of hours.”
She touched his tunic carefully, not looking at him. “My mother would counsel against it. My father was a lord and he certainly did not practice fidelity. I assume he was married.”
“I am not your father,” he argued, taking her hand. “What is your full name? I know Septas. You would not simply be ‘Ilse.’”
“Ilse Breoch,” she answered. “After the Lannisters’ private Sept. It was where I was conceived. It was where I was born and secreted away at night so that the Lannisters couldn’t take me away for whatever they might have planned for me.”
“You’re a Lannister,” he wondered aloud. “This could make it interesting as I am uncle to the King of the North and to be married to a Lannister’s base born daughter. Then again, I could be married to ‘Ilse Breoch’ as you have no name, my darling.”
“You love me, then?” she questioned and he nodded gently.
“How could I not? I loved you the moment I saw you through the window. I would have loved you even if you were a Frey girl and would have gone along with Catelyn’s horrible plan just so I could have you.”
“Then you have me,” she answered carefully. “Please don’t forget that I am a child of the Sept and should be treated thus.” Turning toward the door, she smiled at him gratefully when he held it open to her and returned her to her mother.
“Tonight?” he asked.
“We can be ready for a marriage tonight, can we not, Mother?” She turned to the aging Septa. “Lord Edmure has asked for my hand in marriage and in lieu of a father, I have accepted.”
“Child,” she said, coming up, “Do not believe false words,” she counseled. “I was promised marriage.”
“I have done nothing,” she swore. “I gave nothing.”
The mother and daughter looked into each other’s eyes before the Septa nodded. “I need a brush and a bowl of flower water to prepare her,” she stated. “We have no marriage cloak.”
“It is not needed,” he promised. “And you shall have whatever you desire. During the feast, your belongings will be transferred to a larger room, Septa, as befits the mother to the lady of this house.”
She was just undoing the braids in her hair, when there was a knock on the door. A young woman stood on the other side and she smiled. “I’m Talisa Stark,” she introduced. “I am told you are to marry my husband’s uncle and I thought you would like a nice dress.” She held out a purple dress made of material that Ilse had never seen. She reached out to touch it but pulled back her hand.
“How kind,” the Septa remarked, but Ilse interrupted her.
“Forgive me,” she said. “I go to my husband as I am. I am simply Ilse Breoch. I am not whatever girl would be wearing that dress.”
Talisa looked at her and nodded. “I understand,” she answered. “I married my husband in a dress coated in blood as I was a surgeon on his battlefield. Perhaps you’ll want it tomorrow when you address your men? I shall leave it here whether you ever wear it or not, as a gift for your wedding.” She placed it over a chair and smiled. “I wish you the best of luck in your new life.” She kissed Ilse’s cheek and was gone.
“The dress is fine,” the Septa said, but Ilse wouldn’t listen. Instead, she wrapped a shawl around herself and left for the Sept, although she knew she was early. She sat in the seats as she watched the preparations around her. When Edmure finally came in, wearing a blue tunic, he came and sat by her.
“This was never for me,” she told him. “It seems so strange. I just wish we were married in a field with the flowers around us for company.”
“It’s all mud since the fighting began,” he told her honestly. “All I ever seem to do is lose whatever battle I captain.” He sighed. “You are not marrying a great commander.”
“What am I to do?” she wondered aloud. “I’ll take over your army lines, perhaps. I know strategy. It was taught me as was chess.”
He smiled a half smile at her. “What would my men do if they realized that I allowed my wife to command them?”
She leaned toward him and whispered, “It could be our secret.” Their noses touched and she gasped at the closeness.
“Kiss me, fair lady, and your wish is mine to command.”
“I think you must wait until we are pronounced wed. There are far too many witnesses.” She smiled as her fingers played with his in a small show of affection.
Edmure looked at her. “Let them watch. Within two hours we will be standing before witnesses declaring our honor and fidelity.” He leaned forward and their lips met, still soft and tentative, and she closed her eyes, only opening them several moments after he had drawn away.
It was a swirl of colors when they said their vows, Ilse barely believing it when a cloak was placed on her shoulders and then she was feasting. Of course, she was used to a life of deprivation, so she drank little wine and ate little meat. Edmure looked at her in confusion and she smiled back at him.
When a bedding was called for, she looked around in confusion, until someone tried to grab her, and she locked herself in a closet. Edmure’s voice rang out. “Guests, my bride was raised in the cloisters of a Sept. Please, halt your enthusiasm.”
She was finally coaxed out and was carried by a shirtless Edmure to a room where more rose petals covered a bed larger than she had already seen. He ran his hand down her hair and then kissed her softly again, her eyes closing in that wonderful feeling. He rolled to the side and brought her to him so they were lying on their sides, facing toward each other.
“Ilse,” he calmly asked, “what did your mother tell you?”
“She said Lord Tywin told her she was beautiful.”
“You are sister to the Queen,” he realized, trying not to be horrified that such a powerful man would seduce a Septa. “What else did she say?”
“Never to listen to a man’s word. They are always false.”
“If I ever prove false,” he told her, “I want you to take my blade and run me through. You have my permission. I pray that you ask me about it first, but run me through, Ilse. I would never have myself proven false to you.”
She nodded. “And it is painful, as a sword, and just rest back and pray to the gods until it ends.”
“We can’t have that,” he promised her, swiftly kissing the base of her throat before riding up her dress and pressing her knees apart.
His head reappeared. “I am your husband, Ilse Breoch. I am simply ‘Edmure’.”
Then she felt wetness and “By the Seven!” she cried out. When Edmure was lying beside her again, a kiss dropped in her hair lovingly and his hand on her cheek, she murmured, “I hadn’t realized it was so unseasonably warm until just now.”
Edmure laughed. “Perhaps I can aid you with that, Lady Ilse.”
“You say I should call you ‘Edmure’ and yet you—“
“I love that you now have the title you deserve,” he explained as he unstrung the sides of her gown to reveal the thinnest of shifts underneath. She made to cover herself, but he staid her hands. “Darling, you see me,” he told her. “Let me see you and love you.”
He kissed her once, then twice, and then long and slow and—she wasn’t certain how it happened but his mouth opened and somehow managed to open hers. His body came between her legs and he felt heavy against her so that she could hardly breathe. Still, she tried to please him, holding onto his shoulders, letting him ruck up her night shift.
She lay there, uncertain what to do, until he began to pull away, so she grabbed his shoulders harder and pulled him back again, thinking he would like it.
“Just a moment,” he promised, taking off his britches and leaving him bare to the air. She could not look, but he was then again in her arms, her hand finding its way into his hair, and the silkiness of it seemed strange to her when she grasped it when he whispered, “Just now and hold your breath if you need to, then let it out slowly.”
It was not like a sword, she realized, it was worse. She held her breath, counted to ten, then let it out, Edmure kissing her deeply when she was about to breathe in again. “Does it hurt, my darling?”
“No,” she shook her head, lying. “It doesn’t feel like a sword. It feels—full.” Full, yes. How fully wrong she had been. Being a Septa would have been a blessing compared to this.
“All right. I’ll go slowly for you.” He took one of her legs and placed it over his hip, making the sharp pressure feel worse, before he pulled out and entered her again, and she breathed deeply at the strange sensation. Again Edmure looked at her and she gave him a small smile, which she hoped wasn’t a grimace, until she tried to move with him, and he was kissing her breasts in a way that seemed savage like a dog, her hands moving down his back so that she could feel something other, and he called out. There was a rush of warmth, but Edmure merely surged up to kiss her as his body spasmed, and then it was done. They were lying in each other’s arms when she opened her eyes, the pain lessening. His hair stuck to his forehead, but he was looking at her with such devotion, that it almost confused her.
“You are more than I ever could have dreamed of,” he praised her, leaning in to kiss her lingeringly. She tried not to pull away. Ilse didn’t want him to touch her, didn’t want him to ever kiss her again, but she was a wife now. She must endure. She had heard such things before.
She looked at him. “I don’t understand.”
“You don’t need to, not yet,” he promised. “Only give me permission to have you again before we sleep.”
She tried not to stare at him in horror, but he caught something in her gaze, something that aroused him.
He laughed as he pushed her onto her back. “How I love you, Ilse Tully,” he swore as he kissed her and her hands traced the muscles down his chest before she turned him over and kissed his neck and shoulders, his hands moving into her ash brown hair. Perhaps if she was where he had been, it would be better for her.
“Adventurous,” he commented.
“Do not make me jealous,” she told him, thinking the more women he lay with instead of her would be a blessing. “I know you have many years on me, but I do not wish to think of other women in your bed.”
“I have been celibate since Ned Stark rode to Winterfell and brought his bastard for my sister to raise,” he told her honestly. “He is your age now, and I was a boy of fifteen when it occurred.” He kissed her to her total surprise. “Now, it seems you wish to make love to me, wife.” He pushed her hair completely behind her ears and then sat up, lifting her until she was in the right position. She gasped when they joined and he showed her the dance that he himself barely knew. It was better but when he lay sleeping, she looked at him and realized she might have made the worst miscalculation of her life.
He awoke first the next morning, and looked at her. She lay atop his chest, her hair trapped between them, her hands upon his chest. He couldn’t think of anything more perfect.
Carrying his wife to the bath, he washed her himself, dipping her head gently in the water and combing it when she sat at a vanity that had been placed in his chambers for the use of the Frey girl but now it belonged to her. He quickly cleaned himself in her cold water, readying himself for the day, knowing from the sun that it was nearing the midday meal.
Ilse had left her hair down, still in the same dress, and he was determined to get some fabrics for her. He took her hand, and led her out the door, turning so they could go down the staircase to the family hall.
Places of honor were left to them and he was surprised that, again, Ilse barely touched anything, especially after the night before. “Eat,” he told her. “You’ll need your strength.”
“I won’t need to eat until tomorrow’s breakfast,” she told him, taking sip of water. “Perhaps the midday meal.”
He looked at her sadly. “A bit of fish, just to make me happy,” he said. “We eat a lot of fish. I wonder if you will like it or would prefer it prepared another way.”
“I do not mind—“
“But it is your place to mind,” he reminded her. “You are now lady of the keep.” There was some consolation. Her father was a lord. Now she was a lady.
Edmure took a small bit of fish and placed it on her platter and she took a fork and ate it daintily before having a sip of ale.
“I like it sweeter,” she confessed. “In Lannisport they use this syrup. I don’t know what it was called.”
“Then we shall try to find out for you, Lady Ilse,” he promised, smiling that half smile that made her heart twinge in anticipation of the horrors of the night to come.
It was then that Ilse became still and her eyes were locked with someone’s. Edmure turned and saw that it was Catelyn, sitting beside her son and his lady. “Ignore her,” he said, bringing Ilse’s attention back to him. “My sister can do nothing to us.”
“Can she not?” Ilse asked, frightened. “She is a great lady.”
“You are a great lady,” Edmure reminded her. “You are the daughter, although unrecognized, of a great man. A man greater than her husband or her father ever were.”
“You speak of yourself in those words as you are her brother.” Her bright blue eyes flittered to him.
He took her hand and kissed it, knowing that was the only sign in public he could truly show of his devotion. “I am not a vain nor an ignorant man. I know that Lord Tywin Lannister is the richest man in the Seven Kingdoms.”
“He will never recognize me,” she stated flatly.
“Then why were you secreted away from him?” Edmure asked. “There must have been a reason, even if your mother never said.” He paused. “Honor dictates that I send a raven if he had some plan for you.”
“Edmure,” she begged. “I have never seen him. He has never seen me.”
“And I doubt that will ever change,” he told her.
He looked at her and then turned to Robb Stark. “Nephew,” he addressed him. “There’s a rather unfortunate connection I’ve made with my marriage. I need to inform Ilse Breoch’s father of our wedding, although he has no claim over her.”
“Who is he?” Catelyn asked in a dead voice, her blue eyes flashing.
“No one,” Ilse put in. “Absolutely no one. A grieving widower, that is all.”
“I think there are other ways to grieve than father children,” Edmure stated. “However, I am honor bound—“
“Not during a war,” she claimed. “My true born brother is said to be one of the best knights in the land. My sister—oh, good Lord, my sister and my nephew. How much more tangled can this get?” She had been looking earlier that morning while Edmure bathed at battle houses and alliances and had seen the Baratheon and Lannister charts. Sansa Stark was betrothed to Joffrey Baratheon. King Joffrey had cut off Ned Stark’s head. She had not thought of dynastic repercussions, given that she was a Hill, but now—in the light of day—
“I am honor bound,” Edmure tried to explain, but Ilse interrupted him.
“No, you’re not. He knew nothing of the pregnancy, of my birth. To him I’m just another Hill in the West.”
“You’re named after his mother.”
She was silent and thought over the charts. “A mere sentimentality on my mother’s part,” she stated. “He did promise to marry her.”
“A promise is a contract—“
They both glanced at Robb Stark.
“—not necessarily,” she argued, “as he didn’t marry her and to my knowledge has not remarried since his wife’s death.”
“Ilse,” he said, turning to her and taking her hand and kissing it. “I know it’s complicated.”
“What if he comes?” she asked. “I was hoping Mother would stay and we can’t have them in the same space? What are we going to do? Confine them to separate areas of Riverrun? What about your nephew! He will be fighting that horrible man’s army at some point. I hear they are very wealthy.”
“I’ll send it anonymously and not even mention your given name or who it is exactly you have married,” he told her. “Honor and your need for privacy will be satisfied.”
She sighed and, nodding her head, agreed.
“Who is your father, child?” Catelyn asked, dipping a piece of her bread into oil.
“An unpious man,” she told her. “He has no regard for the Seven.”
A piece of unleavened bread was put on her plate and a bowl of oil between her and her husband was nudged toward her. “Please, Ilse,” Edmure said quietly.
She tried to smile and took a small piece of bread and put it in the oil, but had no more, only a sip of wine. In the end, she was the one who sent the raven. Lord Lannister: I am the daughter of the Septa, and yesterday I was married in the lands North of you. I.
Then, they came. Ilse later found out that somehow the raven led them back, but the one they call the imp and two guards, with flags of peace, appeared at Riverrun three weeks later.
Ilse had finally learnt the castle and was making Edmure a few more tunics when they were announced. She came down into the hall and paused, having heard of the imp. “Forgive me,” she began. “I am startled to see a Lannister this far North.” She curtseyed. “Are your guards really necessary for polite pleasantries?”
“We have not been given an invitation to stay, my lady,” Tyrion responded.
Turning to her steward, Ilse responded, “Give these guards ale and some pie in the kitchens. They are our guests.” Turning back to her half-brother, she said. “I apologize for the oversight.” She indicated to a servant that she needed wine. “What brings you here?”
“My father, Lord Tywin Lannister, received a raven.”
“Your father, from what I know of him, is an important man. Surely he must receive several ravens?” She took a sip of her wine, just to put her guest at ease.
“This one appeared to be from a young lady, who eluded to a past lover of my father’s, as much as it pains me to admit it. She indicated that she had been recently married, as honor dictated she should contact her father, although usually the husband does. There may be factors we know nothing about. We examined the raven—we’ll spare you the details—and learnt it must have come from the Riverlands and then learned that there was a wedding at this very keep where a Septa’s daughter had been married quite advantageously to the heir to all the lands of the rivers. Such good news travels quickly like that, you see. Curiously, the bride was an Ilse Breoch. Ilse is the name of my grandmother and Breoch is the name of the Sept that my father’s lover, a Septa, lived. You can see why we concluded the raven must have come from you—that and the rumors of your mother’s flight after giving birth to a baby girl. Father never pursued her, deciding to give her what she wanted, her freedom, but you are his own flesh and blood. He will not ignore you any longer.”
“Your father—Lord Tywin,” she clarified.
“Yes. You also have that Lannister look about you. Your hair is dyed. Your shocking blue eyes are real but your mother apparently possessed them as well.—I can remove the dye from your hair, if you wish.”
“Darling?” Edmure said as he walked in, causing Ilse to tense minutely. The imp’s sharp eyes caught the movement. “What is Lord Tyrion talking about?”
“Nothing of import,” she responded, trying to keep her voice calm.
“Lady Ilse Lannister—yes, I have the papers to give you true born status—has been dying her hair. You can tell if you know what to look for. I offered to undo the process. She would look more like the rest of us apart from the eyes. Good heavens, if you saw my niece, the two look like sisters—twins, perhaps. They’re actually only a few years apart, to my knowledge.”
Ilse leaned toward her husband. “I don’t know what I’ll look like. What if you don’t find me beautiful?”—she could only hope—“You only noticed me because I was—beautiful but with plain hair.”
He ran his hand through her hair. “I would have loved you if you had hair that was like flames or hair like gold. You don’t need to hide.” Turning to Tyrion, he asked. “Who would perform this?”
“I have directions,” he told Edmure. “You can have a capable maid do it. Have Lady Ilse in a dress she doesn’t mind ruining.”
Edmure looked at him as he accepted the instructions and read them over. “You and your men may have rooms while this is taken care of. This gift only opens a parlay. I want to make certain of my wife’s wellbeing.”
Ilse sat in a chair for three hours as a handmaiden poured salt water, supplied by Lord Tyrion, over her head and used some strange soap on her hair. In the end Ilse dried her hair and after another four hours, she looked at herself in the mirror, her husband looking beside her. “I look—“
“Beautiful,” he murmured, turning her around and catching her in a kiss.
She kissed him back, used to such an attention, as his hand swept through her hair, both of them forgetting about Lord Tyrion, who didn’t mind one bit.
Edmure’s attentions lasted well into the night. He took her again and again. There was only discomfort instead of pain, and she knew how he liked to be touched, and now he would bury his face in her hair as he pushed into her again and again, and she could only be glad he wasn’t clawing at her breasts.
“Sister,” Tyrion greeted the next morning. “How well you look. You have a great resemblance to the Queen and to our niece, Cerzainya. You could be her exact likeness but for the eyes.”
“I now have golden hair, Lord Tyrion. Are you satisfied?”
“No,” he answered over his breakfast. She sat down, having left her husband up in bed. He claimed that she looked like an angel sent down from heaven and her beauty was only enhanced by the new color of her hair. “I have your proof of birth; they only need your mother’s signature.”
“You shall have it,” Ilse replied. “She’s at prayer. She’s a Septa, you must understand.”
“Yes,” he said carefully. “I was told.”
“I have never been well pleased with the man who made me a ‘Hill,’” she stated honestly. “For what he did to Mother, for our travelling lifestyle, for the fact that I bore the name of a bastard. I’ve been a lady for more than a fortnight and I’m still convinced I’m going to wake up and find that my husband is a figment of my imagination.”
Tyrion reached out and held her hand. “Sweet Sister,” he said. “This is not a dream. Father wants you very much. He would have me bring you back to King’s Landing as he’s the King’s Hand and cannot come up to you, but you are a lady wed now. He knows your husband cannot change allegiances in this war, and it saddens him that you are now caught up in this. But, sister—“ He held out a necklace. It seemed to be a simple gold coin. He turned it over and she saw the Lannister lion. “If you show this to any of our men, they will treat you well and take you back to a commanding officer. Please. For my peace of mind.”
Wondering if she should, she took it and slipped it over her head, showing only the coin. “Would you do something for me?” she asked. “As a brother who loves a sister who finds herself in a marriage—not to her liking?”
Tyrion looked at her for a moment before he gestured for her to continue.
“I have no access to moon tea. I could not bear it if his child—“ She let the notion hang between them. “You are a man. Perhaps you cannot understand.”
“I can very much understand,” he told her as he took her hand. “Does he beat you?” His mismatched eyes looked at her soulfully and she shook her head.
“No. At first there was such pain. Now there is only discomfort. I bear it because as a future Septa I was taught to bear the gods’ wishes, whatever they may be. I just cannot bear—I couldn’t—“
She began to eat a bit of porridge and drank some ale. Tyrion, like Edmure, noticed her lack of appetite.
“Septas live from hand to mouth,” he realized, after several moments.
She looked at him and he only nodded.
“I bring letters,” he said, fully changing the subject. “From Ser Jaime, our brother, the Queen, of course, and our dear nephew, Prince Joffrey. Father has read and approved all. His is last.”
He handed them over from a pile he had next to him.
Ilse looked at them before setting them aside. There was time enough for that later.
The moon tea arrived by the next raven. Her mother looked at her when she took her first cup and then left in the middle of the night, without saying her goodbyes. Edmure merely kissed her on the head and she explained, when he looked at it one day, six months into her marriage, that it was a gift from Lord Tyrion—a tea from the West.
The battles were failing. Edmure was often gone for weeks on end, but he would come back, battle weary, and would find her in bed, tearing off her shifts and taking her from behind, his face in her hair as he took her again and again before falling asleep, Ilse leaving the chamber to look out on the riverlands as she could find no rest beside him.
Then, it was all lost.
“Go,” Edmure demanded, putting the sigil of Lannister on her saddle along with the patents of her identity along with her correspondence along with her family. “I will find you.”
She looked at him in fear, kissing him just one last time to give him a happy memory, before she was sent into the darkness, uncertain where she should go.
Following the road, she saw the desiccation of battle, until she finally found a guard. “Are you for House Lannister?” she asked in hope and he bowed in mocking.
“I am your servant.”
“I am looking for my father,” she said with authority. “Lord Tywin, or my brother Ser Jaime. I don’t believe my sister, the Queen, is here or my nephew, the King.”
The man judged her and found her wanting, with her hair pulled back and in her tattered dress. She pulled off her necklace and dangled it in front of his face. “Is this proof enough, slave?” she asked. “Take me to my family!”
He looked frightened and began to lead her toward the trees where she could just see a camp. A woman coming toward the tents was a surprise and a man with blond hair was the first to notice her.
“Ilse,” a voice said in shock and she looked at a handsome man in armor. “I didn’t believe Tyrion when he said it, but you look just like my daughter.”
“Jaime,” she greeted with a small smile. “Riverrun was taken when Lord Robb fell. I—Edmure told me to come here.”
“He did right,” Jaime said, helping her off the horse and handing it to someone else.
“The saddlebag.” She grabbed at it in fear and Jaime quickly took it off the horse for her. “Forgive me, my patents are in there and my correspondence.”
Jaime gave her a tentative hug. “Sweet sister,” he said. “You have been much missed since we’ve learned of you. And I understand. You are not well known in the seven kingdoms.”
“No,” she agreed. “Is my nephew dead?”
She looked into green eyes and nodded when she saw Jaime’s relief.
“Is anyone else here? I’ve only met our brother. I realize it seems to be an inconvenient time…” She looked around at Lannister men who were killing the fallen off back into the trees. She stepped unconsciously toward Jaime who put a hand around her.
“Father’s here. We’ll have you taken to King’s Landing for your protection. Tyrion is there and Cersei, and your nephews and niece, of course.”
“Of course,” she replied absently. “Will someone send word if my husband is captured or killed in the line of duty? I should like to know if I’m a widow. I only have the one dress,” she realized.
“That can easily be put to rights,” Jaime told her, leading her toward a large tent. He didn’t bother to knock and Ilse saw a man with golden hair and a strong jaw at a desk, leaning over a map with battle figures. She instantly went forward and looked at the pieces.
“You’re red?” she asked and Lord Tywin looked at her in shock, but she instead was looking at the pieces.
She moved a few of the lines and then stepped back. “I’m excellent in chess. I can see six moves ahead. How do you think Edmure stayed ahead of you for over a year with his forces in pieces?”
“I have men searching for you, little lion. We killed your husband two days ago but there was no sign of you.”
“He sent me here three days ago,” she answered quietly, glad that she was free although not knowing her own father well enough to express such an emotion. “I haven’t eaten or slept. He said I had to get through the battle lines.”
“I would offer you my bed, daughter, but we have meetings here,” Tywin said, reaching out to touch her face and she forced herself to stay still. This was the man who had seduced her mother.
“She shall have mine,” Jaime said. “We’ll get her something to eat first and have a guard outside her tent for her protection.”
“Yes, Lady Lannister is quite precious.”
“Did you love her?” Ilse asked Lord Tywin. “My mother?”
“I loved her eyes,” he answered. “I’ve never seen the like but in you.”
She nodded distractedly and turned to follow her brother Jaime out of the tent. They only had a short distance to walk and a guard was immediately found.
“Now, you may go anywhere, see anything, talk to anyone,” Jaime said. “Georg will just follow you for your protection. You can ask him to stay outside of any tent.”
“Of course,” Ilse answered.
“I am so pleased you are safe, Sister,” Jaime murmured, hugging her again. “We’ll get you away from the front by tomorrow, I hope.”
“Will the Queen be glad to see me?” she asked as they entered a tent and Jaime set down her saddlebag. He motioned to a bed before he poured her some ale. “She is kind in her letters, but she is now no longer the only daughter.”
Jaime paused and then passed her a drink before motioning to a plate of fruit and a loaf of bread on a table where they sat down. “At first she was angry at Father,” he admitted, “for not being faithful to Mother’s memory. Then she thought of the possibilities of having a sister, albeit one so young. You could prove a confidante. Someone she could trust, more than a niece. She looks forward to making your better acquaintance.”
She looked into her ale. “I’m a widow.”
“A wealthy widow,” he answered. “Riverrun belongs to you.—and you’re aunt to the King.”
“I was aunt to another king a week ago,” she answered.
“Oh, he’s alive,” Jaime answered. “We have him locked up in a cage.”
“Don’t make me see him,” she begged. “He’ll think me a traitor even though this was Edmure’s idea for my safety. I probably would have come anyway. Robb knew, to some extent, that I was base born—“
“You are one of us,” Jaime said firmly. “He shan’t see you. I’ll point out where his prison is and you just won’t go near him. Now,” he said. “Sleep. I’ll wake you when you need to.”
And then, after taking off her shoes, she lay on the bed and, when she woke up, it was a day and a half later and Lord Tywin was sitting at her table. “You’re awake,” he said in his harsh voice, though his eyes were soft. “Jaime will take you to King’s Landing. I’ve sent a raven. You will be Lady Lannister of Riverrun.—or the Widow Lannister.”
“What about your granddaughter?”
“She’s Heiress Lannister of Casterly Rock,” he answered, looking at her. “Where’s your mother?”
“Mother left as soon as I began drinking moon tea. It’s her calling to be a wandering Septa.” She shrugged. “She did not even say goodbye. We had a Sept and she could have been one of our whispering sisters if she wanted, but she would not have it, I suppose, or she didn’t approve. I know not.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. It would have been—well, I would have liked to see Liese again.”
“She hated you,” Ilse told him. “She said you promised marriage.”
He looked up sharply. “I never did such a thing. I promised Joanna that she would be my only wife.”
“Well, then, somehow it went amiss,” Ilse granted him. “I have no mourning clothes.”
“We found a gray dress. It’s not black, but it’s as close as we could find. It’s a bit lighter than that one, but we hope it will fit.” He held it out and Ilse took it. Seeing a privacy screen, she went behind it and changed dresses. It was a little loose but not overly so. She came out and showed her father. “Perfect,” he said. “The mourning widow. Cersei knows to get black cloth for you and has a handmaiden making basic dresses that will be able to be resized. In the style of the Capital, of course. A maid bathed you, you might have noticed, earlier this morning. We knew you had to leave as soon as you awoke.”
“Thank you, Father,” she said quietly. “My hair is indeed wet, and fortunately braided.”
He looked away from her. “I would have taken you in,” he said gruffly. “Raised you with Cerzainya, your niece. You’re a few years older but you could have been like sisters. Perhaps I would have sent you to the Capital to be with your brothers and sister.” He ran his hands over his eyes. “I don’t know. There are so many lost years, Ilse.”
“You don’t like my name,” she realized.
“Tyrion said you were clever,” he joked, smiling up at her. “If your mother wanted it, I would have kept it. But, no. I would have named you Ysolde.”
She reached over and tentatively touched his hand. “Ilse is close enough,” she reasoned. “Perhaps, if I marry again, the name can be used. Then again, I am not that fond of marriage—then again, I never wanted Edmure. Never loved him. I was desperate not to become a Septa, and he married me anyway.”
“Your mother?” Tywin asked angrily.
“We all must have bread somehow, Father,” she answered self-consciously.
He got up and took her hand in a small sign of affection. “Look at me, Ilse.” Slowly her blue eyes looked at him. “You will never be forced into another marriage. This I swear to you. I also swear that a woman who loves and is loved in return finds great happiness in marriage. Joanna was very happy as was I.”
Jaime had entered the tent and was looking between the two. “I’m sorry, but the horses are ready,” he said. “We have a guard of six.” He picked up Ilse’s travel bag and put her old dress in it. It was the one she was married in, she realized.
She nodded to her father who touched her face again, holding her chin for a moment before letting her go. The ride was swift and within six days they were in King’s Landing.
She walked along the halls, holding the pin, and waited outside the small council. Ilse could hear the rumbling of her father’s voice and then the sliding of chairs as people left the room. The doors opened and she stepped back, finding her target. “Lord Baelish?” she asked, coming up to a man with a small beard and whiskers. “I believe you dropped this.”
She held out the pin of a mockingbird and he took it, smiling. “Indeed it seems I did, fair lady. I thank you for returning it to me.” He offered her a smile and she nodded to him before she turned back to her father.
“I need to speak to you,” she murmured, “about my husband’s niece.”
“I was afraid of that,” he told her, leading her out of the room. “It is all well and done.”
“Need it be?” she asked, stepping into the hall. “I do not wish for either to be unhappy. You do not wish for me to be unhappy. I believe my brother would be.”
It was then that Baelish came out. “If it pleases the Hand of the King,” he said, bowing, “may I offer a late tea to this lady for finding my sigil? I see that she is in mourning and I would not like to cause offense.”
Tywin made a motion that he should wait. “Has Tyrion sent you on his behalf?”
“Of course not,” she responded. “I simply wish for his happiness.”
“I wish for yours. Would you care for tea with the Lord of Harrenhal? I can send that peculiar handmaiden of Lord Tyrion’s to chaperone.”
Ilse looked at him. “I—I have never been to tea.”
Tywin sighed. “You are like a wraith beyond the wall. You shall to tea in my solar. You won’t need the silly maid, I’ll be somewhere about and I dare say one of your siblings shall come in complaining. Lord Baelish, does this suit?”
He bowed. “Now, if I may only have the lady’s name?”
“By the Seven!” Tywin murmured, walking off, leaving the two to follow at their own pace.
Ilse looked at Baelish for a moment before following her father. She lived in the Hand’s Tower along with Tyrion. She had seen him leave the small council meeting and assumed he had gone back there. “Lord Baelish,” she began. “I would not earn the ire of Lord Tywin on the mere technicality of a name,” she teased.
“I have seen you about court,” he answered. “You are always in black and always in the company of the Lannisters. I assume you are one yourself.”
“I am,” she answered. “It is not my married name, which my family has asked me to give up in deference to the Lannister name. Then again, one could argue that the name ‘Lannister’ is superior to almost any in the entire realm.”
Tea was laid out for them and the door to the private study left slightly open. Ilse offered Baelish a chair and sat herself, looking at the spread in confusion. A servant looked at her and she looked back, utterly lost.
The servant went into the study, coming out again, and returning with the familiar smell of moon tea, the only tea that she had ever drunk herself.
“A tea from the West?” Baelish asked. “It smells like a tea to be got everywhere throughout the kingdom.”
She paused. “I have heard of your line of business,” Ilse told him. “And I daresay you are familiar. However, the next time you are a woman married to a man who makes you sick at the very sight of him, and this is the only tea you have ever had, do not judge.”
“I am sorry for your marriage, Lady Lannister.”
“You lie,” she responded. “Please have something to eat. I am certain they are quite delicious. We Lannisters always eat well.”
He took a cake she did not recognize. “I have offended.”
“I thought that was your intention.”
“I am blunt,” he told her, “and I do not like not possessing information, such as your name. It is a simple enough thing.”
“Next time I think I shall not do a kindness. When I find a pretty broach I shall keep it and give it to the princess to play with. We play with her dolls most mornings.”
The door opened and Joffrey walked in, looking around. “There you are,” he said, sitting down and taking a cake. “Someone said you were at the small council meeting.—What’s Baelish doing here?”
“Thanking me for returning his sigil,” she replied, taking a sip of her tea. “Then again, your grandfather is providing the tea.”
“Well, Margaery wants you to have tea with her tomorrow. Well, no. I want you to have tea with her tomorrow. She’s inviting Sansa. I need you to find out what is being said. No one in the capital has any idea who you are. Most can’t even figure out that you’re a Lannister because you possess your mother’s eyes. I told my lovely bride you were Lady Breoch and in mourning, obviously. I said you were a pet of my cousin’s though you refuse to speak a word to her.”
“Which cousin?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Does it matter?” He took another cake and then pointed to Baelish. “Does he know who you are?”
“He knows I’m a Lannister and that Lord Tywin is fond of me.” She looked away from both men. “Margaery wishes to be queen. It doesn’t matter what Sansa tells her.”
“You’ll be my favorite,” he wheedled.
She laughed. “You do realize that Sansa is in exactly the same position as you are given my marriage. Not that she attended. She was here, with you. I don’t think she even knows who I am.”
“Then you’ll do it,” Joffrey exclaimed.
“I’ll do it,” she promised. “I shall speak of how felicity can be found in marriage if the participants truly care for one another, even though I doubt that is the truth. I’ll give my dearly departed husband a temper or something.”
Joffrey kissed her on the cheek and left.
Baelish watched him go. “There is much pleasure that can be found between a man and a woman,” he told her, “if both desire one another and care to bring joy to one another.”
“I don’t believe you,” she told him outright. “There is pleasure in the first kiss, in a wedding kiss, but afterwards there is only horror and dislike.”
“You, Lady Breoch, were not married to the right man,” he told her.
She looked at him. “I believe the entire Lannister clan would agree with you.” However, the words did not come from her, but from Tyrion. “I don’t care what this is, it is over. Out, Baelish.”
He nodded and stood, taking her hand and kissing it. “I look forward to the next time we meet.” He nodded to Tyrion and then left.
“My insufferable nephew was here.” Tyrion had a glass of wine and swilled it before taking a drink.
“He’s not insufferable. I’m quite fond of him.”
“You are about the only one apart from the Queen.”
Ilse went as Joffrey bade and sat near the Queen of Thorns. “Who are you to the Queen?” she asked.
“I’ve been getting that question a great deal since yesterday,” she commented. “Lord Baelish asked it when I returned his sigil to him. Apparently he desires information a great deal. Truth is, I barely know her.”
“And the prince?”
Sansa looked at her, meek and pale and frightened.
“I do not wish to give away confidences,” she replied meekly.
The Queen of Thorns looked angry. “Girl.”
“He is my king,” she responded. “But if you must know, he is interested in my marriage. I respond that I was not happy and that he should find a better source. He looks for the secret behind happiness so as to—apply it to his upcoming nuptials to your granddaughter. Still, he wishes to know everything that made me unhappy.”
“And what made you unhappy?”
She took a sip of tea, finding the taste vile. “Realizing I would have been happier as a Septa as was originally intended.”
Sansa, in the end, said nothing.
When the two girls left, Ilse quietly came up to her and linked arms. “Have you seen Robb?” she asked. “I know he’s in a cell somewhere, but no one has told me where. I suppose you would have less luck than I, though I am only related by marriage.”
“You are related to me by marriage, Lady Breoch?”
“Lady Breoch is not my name,” she chided. “I was born Ilse Breoch. Joffrey used it as a ploy. He used it once when we went hunting together. Widows, it seems, do not hunt.”
“I have not seen Robb. The Queen will not let me.”
“I am afraid of what he’ll say to me. He will call me a traitor. Truth is, my husband sent me to the Lannisters for safety when the battle had turned. He was killed in action a day later and I made it through the lines, praise be to the Seven. How is Cat?”
“Mother?” Sansa gasped. “You know Mother?”
“It appears the lady is full of surprises,” Baelish said, coming through the flowers. “You, too, know Lady Catelyn Stark.”
“She was at my wedding,” was all she said, “although she rather disapproved of me. I remember how she looked at me when we first met. I rather liked Lord Robb Stark, however. His wife was kind.”
She took back her arm and walked through the flowers, back to the Tower of the Hand and safety.
“This is ridiculous,” Tyrion announced as Jaime started again, Ilse as his partner. They were in the Tower of the Hand, practicing the most common dances in the realm, so that Ilse could join society at large as her two months of mourning were now concluding. Cersei had already had dresses made in the colors of House Lannister and all that was needed was a bit of polishing. She would dance her first dance at the Lannister-Stark wedding in two days’ time.
As she was swung into the air, she cried out “brother”, only to land and find that the one musician in the room had gone silent.
“Oh,” Lord Baelish said in greeting. “I am here to see the Hand. Do not let me interrupt, Ser Jaime, Lord Tyrion, Lady Lannister.”
Tyrion, drunk, didn’t seem to see anything amiss. “He got the age progression right,” he noted.
Jaime and Baelish looked at each other until Ilse called out, “Again. I don’t have it quite right. I spent my married years sewing tunics, not dancing.”
“And what a pretty castle is now yours.”
“It belongs to my dearly departed husband’s uncle,” she jested as the tune began again and she took several steps before Jaime smirked at her and flung her in the air before catching her.
Baelish watched for a moment before going toward the office of the Hand, Ilse completely ignoring him.
There were of course whispers when she appeared at the side of the Queen at the wedding and was one of the first to congratulate both her “brother” and her “niece.” Taking Tyrion’s hands, she murmured, “You know how unhappy I was. I could wish for nothing remotely like that in your union. I know not my niece, but I hope you will find felicity.”
She danced with Jaime first and then with Joffrey, only to find the hand of Lord Baelish extended. “Widow Lannister,” he greeted.
“Was the wait difficult?” she asked, knowing the Lannisters were putting about the title in order to keep her origins hidden.
He did not answer as he led her in the steps. “Aunt to the bride and the King of the North as well as the King of the Seven Kingdoms—and sister to the groom. You are the most well connected person in this room.”
“I am the former apprentice to a Septa,” she countered. “I am nothing.”
He took her hand and they spun slowly around each other. “You wish to be nothing. Those are two entirely different things, young widow.”
“Perhaps they are,” she agreed as the dance ended. “I suppose we’ll never know, however.” She turned from him, her hair out of braids in the style of the Riverlands and not of the Capital, leaving behind the scent of jasmine.
She danced so much that she became tired and she sat down for a long drink. It was then that Cersei found her with her own cup of wine. “Lady Breoch,” she teased.
“Joff does come to me for marriage advice,” she promised, “perhaps more often than he should. Then again, I am his only aunt.”
“You’re young enough to be his sister,” her own sister reminded.
“I speak more coherently than Princess Myrcella who still plays with dolls. Still, I go shooting with him.”
“True. You are most accomplished for a Septa’s daughter. Lord Baelish looks upon you,” Cersei murmured, leaning toward her.
“I know,” she sighed. “I find him rather insufferable.” Taking a sip of her wine, she stood and went to her nephew, who immediately danced with her again, forgetting Baelish and his long looks.
It was then that she noticed the man in the chair. The chair was made of carved wood, beautifully painted with flowers. He was dressed in green silks, a high collar on his robes, his hands bearing rings of gold. His long black hair fell to his shoulders and his eyes—as gray as a storm—haunted her. For a moment their gazes locked and she wished that she could go to him, that he would rise from that chair and take her hand and lead her to the dance, but someone walked between them and the connection was broken.
It was three days later that Ilse sought out Tyrion. “You do not have that look about you.”
“The look of horror at ruining a maid or of satisfaction for—ruining a maid. I know that look. It was plastered on my husband’s face for a full fortnight after our marriage.”
He glanced at her. “I do not take to ruining maids,” he answered her. “Now, stop with this questioning. It would disturb my sweet wife.”
“Sweet wife,” she answered before standing to leave. “I shall be in the garden, then, brother, if your sweet wife wishes a friend.”
However, it was Lord Baelish who found her in the garden. “Ah, the mockingbird,” she greeted. “What unlikely song shall you sing to me today?” She turned away from him and looked at the flowers, the names of which she did not know.
“I grew up at Riverrun,” he told her. “Lord Hoster fostered me.”
“You knew Lord Edmure then,” she supposed. “He was kind to his friends.” At least, she supposed he was. Still, Ilse would not look at him, but from what she could see of his movements and the softness of his voice, he seemed unperturbed.
“I am surprised Edmure married into your House. I am still more surprised that Lord Tywin allowed it given House Tully’s natural affiliation with House Stark.”
She leaned down and smelled a flower. “I am a woman, Lord Baelish. You speak of the affairs of men.”
“I believe I am speaking to a Septa’s daughter who married a Lord who bought her for some price that the entire kingdom desires to know—and that her father killed her husband in cold blood to get her back again.” He was now behind her, almost whispering in her ear, but she moved to the side.
“How intriguing. No one told me that Edmure was murdered in cold blood. I thank you for the information, Lord Baelish.”
Before she could leave, however, he spoke. “Then take tea with me. Something other than your usual blend.”
“I cannot be seen to have a preference, my lord. I am aunt to the king, and have no intention of remarrying.”
“You shall,” he declared. “If I can guess characters, it will be to a prince who is known for his prowess as a lover and as a fighter.”
“Is it?” she murmured as she left, but she could hear the man behind her. Not picking up her pace, she moved left into an unknown part of the garden, hoping he would assume that she had headed to the Tower of the Hand, but his steps showed that he followed her. A familiar piece of painted wood was up ahead and she saw the man. A moment later he turned to her, and she put her finger to her lips to beg his silence before climbing behind his chair and hiding there.
The chair was up against a hedge and though it was close, she knew the branches would hide her and the chair would further obscure her from view.
“Lord Baelish,” the man said. “I did not take you for the love of roses.”
“Milord, I see you cannot be without them, even though you venture from Highgarden for your sister’s wedding to the king.”
“It reminds me of happier times,” he conceded. “What brings you?”
“A widow,” Baelish answered. “A merry widow who gives flight and enjoys playing riddles with her past and her present.”
“A worthy mind, then,” the man suggested. “Are you certain she merely just wishes to be left alone? Perhaps her recent bereavement has left her quite reticent. She may wish to mourn her husband and not answer questions.”
“Then why is she out of mourning colors?” Baelish’s voice laughed.
“I could not say. I have not known many ‘merry widows’,” the man answered. “However, there may be other factors. Family, for instance. Perhaps she wishes to feel beautiful again or be as her husband saw her.”
“And you,” Baelish said. “Will you ever leave a widow to mourn you? Highgarden is in need of a lady.”
“Perhaps I leave that to my brother,” the man said lightly, but Ilse recognized that tone of voice. She used it almost every day at Riverrun. “For now I celebrate my sister’s good fortune and union with House Baratheon.”
“If you see a young widow in Lannister red—“
“Of course,” the man replied.
Ilse could hear Baelish leave and after ten minutes made to stand, but a hand appeared near her shoulder as if to stop her. Ten minutes later, a soft voice said, “You are safe now, Merry Widow.”
She crawled out and stood as gracefully as possible. “I thank you, kind ser. However, I must correct Lord Baelish. I am deeply religious and have never been merry. The man assumes that I have since he caught me learning how to dance.”
“I saw you at your kinsman’s wedding,” he admitted. “You did know well how to dance. You were well-taught.”
She curtsied. “You may thank Ser Jaime Lannister with Lord Tyrion’s advice and comments.”
He looked at her a moment. “I was correct then when I supposed you a Lannister. You do indeed have the look about you apart from your extraordinary eyes.”
She stood and said nothing for a moment. “You have a magnificent chair,” she finally offered. “I was admiring it briefly at the wedding. Do you carry it about because of its comfort or does it have a meaning for your house? My husband did not have a ‘throne’ but that was further north—“ She stopped when he laughed at her.
“My dear woman,” he said. “You know not who I am.” His gray eyes sparkled.
“You know not who I am and sadly Lord Baelish left so he cannot introduce us.”
“I know you are a Merry Lannister Widow,” he guessed.
“I know you are from the South and your sister is marrying the king—and you are not Ser Loras.—Nothing to be done.” She made an elaborate courtesy rarely used in the North. “The Widow Lannister, daughter of Lord Tywin and greatest friend and beloved aunt to King Joffrey, first of his name.”
He placed his hand across his chest and bowed. “Lord Willas Tyrell. Eldest of the three Tyrell siblings, Lord of Highgarden and—as you seem not to know—my horse fell on me at a tourney and I no longer have the ability to walk, which is why you will always find me in this chair.”
She looked at him compassionately. “I cannot know your pain, but I pray to the Seven that whatever help might be offered is granted to you now and in the years to come.”
Willas looked at her in shock. “That is the first true kindness anyone has offered me given my injury.”
“I hope it will not be the last.” She gave him a small smile. “Now, I have a niece who has refused to talk to me ever since she married my brother. I must see if I can cheer her somehow.”
He looked at her, confused.
“It is said I have the best connections at court given my marriage. Lord Willas. Thank you for helping a stranger.”
He took her hand and kissed it. “Thank you for speaking to me like a man and not an invalid.”
“You are a man,” she stated in confusion before she turned and left, Willas looking after her longingly.
Ilse and Joffrey were in his study coming up with a list of names. “No,” she told him. “This is perfect. Show her that you are accepting her into your world and that you are giving her a chance to prove herself. I’ll be the chaperone. Jaime can be our member of the kingsguard and can keep me company, and let’s just add Ser Loras so that it doesn’t seem like we Lannisters are trying to hide a seduction or something.”
She took the two invitations to the Tyrells and found the three siblings having tea together. She curtseyed and handed one to Margery before turning to the brother who wasn’t Lord Willas although she smiled at him. “Ser Loras?” she asked.
“An invitation from the king.”
“Ah, yes,” he said. “You’re the little pet of that Lannister cousin. Lady—“
“Breoch,” Margery answered. “My brothers, Lord Willas and Ser Loras.—It seems the king wishes to hunt. This shall be exciting.—What are you still doing here?”
“You haven’t given me your answer.” Ilse looked at her with a blank face.
Loras had passed the invitation to Willas. “Who is the Widow Lannister apart from the Chaperone?”
It was Willas who answered. “She’s the most eligible bride in the kingdom,” he answered. “She is the king’s aunt as well as his greatest friend. I would befriend her. One word from her and you could find yourself barred from court whether or not you are queen of the seven kingdoms.”
“She cannot have that much power,” Margaery gasped. “I haven’t even met her!”
“I believe you have,” Willas offered. “And I’ve made inquiries.” He turned to Ilse. “Fair lady, my siblings accept and will be ready in the courtyard tomorrow morning.—May I ask a question?”
“You may always ask.” Her eyes fluttered with laughter.
“It was the name of the Sept where I was born,” she offered. “I doubt many can claim such a distinction.”
“It’s a beautiful word,” Willas offered.
“My mother agreed. It is my second name. It’s why the king used it instead of Lannister when I took tea with your sister. My first name gives far too much away. Then again—“ She didn’t even look at the future queen “—the court knows me as the Widow Lannister. Now, my sister the Queen has allowed me the privilege of seeing my nephew, the King of the North, and I should go before I lose heart. His wife gave me the loveliest wedding present, but I understand she has left this world for the one beyond. Good day, Lord Willas.”
She didn’t say anything to his siblings but turned and walked away.
Quickly going behind the first hedge she listened to them.
“By the gods,” Margaery was saying. “She hates me. How does she like you so well, Willas?”
“I let her hide behind my chair when she was fleeing Littlefinger. Women remember such kindnesses. And she was merely putting you in your place. I spoke to some guards and it’s true: the king loves her before all relatives, including his mother. If you want to please the king, you’ll need her approval. The hunt, I hear, was her idea as a test.”
“You cannot make this king sing to your wishes,” Loras teased.
“I couldn’t the last,” she said angrily, “for which I blame you. And now I have this girl to get through. Willas—I saw how she looked at you. Woo her.”
“I haven’t wooed a lady in over a decade,” he replied. “What woman would want a cripple?”
“Try,” she demanded, “if you have any affection for me.”
Ilse smiled and whispered toward the dungeon. The next day she was wearing a black riding outfit and Jaime’s pale yellow coat. “How well you look, sister,” he complimented.
“You must thank the owner,” she told him as Joffrey came through, initially ignoring Margery and placing a kiss on Ilse’s cheek.
“Darling aunt. What is your pleasure? A fortnight ago I promised you a boar and all we found were stags.”
“Well, we need not introduce Lady Margery to boars as of yet, so let us stay with stags,” she suggested. “They will look well on our table until the wedding feast.”
“How clever,” he complimented. “And how well you look. The colors of the Baratheons suit you.—Now, my gift to you.”
“My gift?” she felt a little uncomfortable, but Jaime smiled at her encouragingly.
Joffrey snapped his fingers and a beautiful black horse was led out. “He is mild tempered but he is excellent at galloping for long amounts of time and jumping. Perfect for a lady hunting.”
“And his name, my king?”
He leaned forward and whispered something in her ear and she smiled despite herself. She curtseyed. “As your grace commands.”
Joffrey turned to Margaery, “You know my favorite aunt, I believe, the Widow Lannister.”
“I do,” she replied. “She is an elegant edition to House Lannister.”
“The fire of the gods runs through her,” Joffrey complimented before lifting Margaery into her saddle. Jaime need not help Ilse as she was well used to it, even with the strange edition of the coat.
“Lord Willas,” she greeted. “I had not expected you to see your sister off.”
“It is difficult being a guardian,” he answered.
“I imagine,” she replied, “as I take up the office as soon as you give it to me.”
He hesitated a second and then asked. “Widow, Margaery will hardly be able to tell me the blood flowing excitement of the hunt when she returns. She will tell me of the landscape but not of the pleasure of stalking an animal. Might you take tea with me so I might relive one of my favorite past time pleasures?”
“Do you ask, Lord Willas, or are you speaking words your sister would approve of?”
He looked down and smiled. “You heard us.”
“You yourself kept me hidden for longer than I thought necessary.”
“Both,” he told her plainly. “She merely confirmed what I was already wishing might take place if I could stand up from this chair.”
“Then I will to tea with you if only a chaperone of my choice is present.” Her eyes met Joffrey’s and then she saw the Queen looking on.
Cersei came over and petted her horse, Targaryen. “You seek Highgarden?” she asked. “Some say he cannot father children.”
“I never said I wanted to marry again. Edmure was—“ Her voice faltered. “I know that Robert—“
The two sisters looked at each other and Cersei took her hand and kissed it in sisterly affection. “You might take a lover.”
Knowledge passed between them. “I’m afraid you took the best,” she joked. “Then again, he did lend me—“ The two women started giggling and Jaime looked over.
“Mother,” Joffrey said in exasperation. “What are you talking about with Aunt Ilse this time? It cannot be about that horrible husband of hers otherwise you would not be smiling quite so much.”
“We were speaking of trying to skate on a pond in Westron,” Ilse said. “I fell in when I was about five, but as you can see I am quite all right.”
The party then made its way out of the city and Ilse did not look back, as she was unsure whether she would be looking back at her sister Cersei or Willas, the strange man with the gray eyes.
“Little sister,” Jaime warned the third day of the hunt. Ilse had been very firm about Joffrey spending most of his time with Margaery. “He has a son of three. Base born, but he has tutors as if he were not.”
“How do you?” she asked, turning her head slightly although not looking away from the fire.
“I held that fool Loras at knife point an hour past.—I want you happy and if a flirtation is what it takes, then that’s what it takes. If it is more serious…”
“I do not like the art of making love,” she spat.
“That is because Edmure Tully saw you as an object,” he told her. “A woman can love the art even if she does not initially desire her partner.”
The table was long, a single blue rose at her place when Ilse returned from the woods. Jaime sat down far from them so he would not hear their conversation directly while he still had a full tea in front of him.
“You are not listening,” she accused after she described a boar she had followed for a day before losing it. She’d left with Jaime before finding her nephew and Lord Willas’s siblings with three additional stags.
“I am,” he answered. “His hind legs were slightly darker and his eyes were bright blue and showed intelligence as if he knew you were after him.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Then why do you look at me thus?”
“I am wondering,” he answered honestly, “if your brother Ser Jaime acted on his own volition or on your orders when he took his knife to my brother’s throat and learned of Gregoren.”
She sat back. “What would it matter?”
“I am wondering at your intentions.” His dark gray eyes held hers.
“Shouldn’t I wonder at yours?”
“Are they not clear?”
“Your sister’s are, as are my brother’s, it would appear. We are pawns in their best intentions, Lord Willas.” She stood and offered her hand, which he took in his own and squeezed in a sign of filial friendship. “You should have brought him to the Capital. I love children. I would look after them during sermons.”
He looked confused, but she only smiled sadly. She nodded to her brother and walked away.
When Jaime joined her a moment later, she murmured, “He will never legitimize that boy.”
It seemed Jaime instantly understood her pain. He placed an arm around her and led her back to hand’s tower. Cersei was all sisterly affection and they shared stories of their husband’s horrible attempts at love making.
It was two days before the wedding that Ilse was accidentally in the courtyard and saw a foreign looking gentleman and his lady ride in. “King’s Landing!” the man announced. “I haven’t been here since my sister’s wedding.”
“Good day, ser,” she greeted. “I’m afraid there is no one here to meet you. There must have been an oversight.”
“Not at all,” he returned, looking confused at her eyes. “We arrived a day late.”
“Of course.” She gestured to a boy to take their horses and then told a servant boy to find the steward quickly.
Joffrey was the first to come. “Ilse, darling,” he said, coming up. “I do not know which sash to wear to my wedding!” He ignored the guests.
“I thought we decided that yesterday,” she told him. “We have guests. We probably shouldn’t discuss it as you will want to surprise them when you marry in a few days’ time.”
He didn’t pay attention. “It clashes with my eyes,” he complained. “I mean, if I had your eyes, it would go well, Aunt.”
“Yes,” she answered quietly, “well you have your grandmother’s eyes and I am not related to the lady as your grandfather is my father and he chose another woman to beget. Remember, her eyes were blue and not green. The color is suitable. It does not clash. You are simply nervous. It is usual. I sat for three hours in the sept before my wedding.—And as I said, we have guests.—Good ser, may I inquire as to your name?”
“Prince Oberyn Martell.”
“Prince,” she greeted. “The bridegroom and my nephew, King Joffrey Baratheon, first of his name. I am the Widow Lannister, as I am known at court.”
The steward then arrived with the location of their rooms. “I would be grateful if the Widow Lannister would show us. My paramour and I have had a tiring few days.”
“The Widow Lannister,” Joffrey said, “is deeply religious. She is unable to condone certain behavior and simply must see my mother.”
“Joffrey, I shall not be ruined—“
“I command it,” he declared. “I am not so liberal as your brother.”
Oberyn looked at Ilse with renewed interest and took her hand and kissed it before they parted ways in the keep.
The wedding was beautiful. Joffrey smiled and preened and dutifully attended his wife, and Ilse was the first to offer her gift. “We sing,” she told him, “in the Sept. I, of course, was willful and wrote a love song.” She took a breath and sang a sad song from a man to a woman where the man tried to convince the woman through her love of music that she should love him as well. The hall hushed to hear her and when she finished, she kneeled and dropped down her head, her hands out in supplication.
“My dear aunt,” Joffrey said, coming up to her and lifting her chin. “I have never heard such a beautiful song. I commend you.” He lifted her by the hand and kissed her cheek, the two smiling at each other.
Soon there was clapping and revelries and Ilse took her place at the high table. She saw Oberyn approach Tywin and a moment later Tywin spoke to her. “The Prince wishes to dance the first dance with you. His—mistress—did not attend the festivities on his request so as not to insult your religious sensibilities.”
“I understand extramarital affairs,” she murmured. “I only care about the children.”
“There is little to no stigma in Dorne.”
“I don’t believe a world like that can exist.—I want to hear of his children, but not before the dancing begins.”
Tywin looked down at her and traced her brow. “I meant you to be a Lannister, Ilse. It was your mother who chose for you to be a Hill.”
“Does he love his children?”
Looking at her, Tywin left and spoke briefly to the prince.
“Yes, all four of his daughters. They are raised in the palace and taught to be warriors. Although they are not officially princesses, they will be married into great houses of Dorne.”
“Then he shall have my dance,” she replied, “on the understanding that it is the only dance I shall give him this wedding.”
They stood up together and neither said a word. Their hands clasped above their heads and then they skipped away from each other, towards, around, his hand around her waist, and a whisper of her breath against his ear. When he twirled her away from him, he pulled her back by the hand so that they were looking into each other’s eyes. She startled. “There’s something black around your eyes,” she said despite herself.
He smiled. “It is the fashion of Dorne. It enhances our dark skin and our black eyes. I would love to see what it would do to your blue ones.”
“I doubt you’d be here long enough for me to procure the—pencil—and properly test it on myself before I was ready to wear it at court,” she told him. “You should see my needlework. I am a perfectionist.”
“No doubt your husband appreciated it.”
“He appreciated nothing but my hair,” she told him truthfully. “My face in the end couldn’t even gain a smile.”
They broke apart and she curtsied, leaving him alone on the dance floor.
“He looks at you and hasn’t danced since you left him,“ Sansa told her when they were watching the dancing two hours later. Sansa did not care to dance and Ilse wanted a respite.
“The prince has a paramour. He will forget by tonight.”
“There are rumors,” Sansa murmured. “Before they came to the keep, they spent days at Lord Baelish’s houses of pleasure. She has been since; he has refused to go. He has refused her his bed.”
Ilse paused. “Where do you get this information?”
“I overheard Tyrion.”
Tyrion was over in his cups, but it was Cersei who made the confession. “He was asking questions about court. Jaime merely installed a handmaiden who was loyal to me. Tyrion should not have been speaking about it in the hearing of his stupid little wife.—The mistress is even going home tomorrow. Oberyn remains.”
“He cannot,” she murmured.
“Of course he can. Poor Lord Willas. He looks like he wishes he could dance.”
A Ser Hayley Dane came up to her and asked for the next and Ilse, glancing at her sister, instantly accepted, throwing herself back into the music. She looked about for a friendly face for the last dance and found Oberyn offering his hand.
“I did not promise you another,” she told him.
“No,” he agreed in his charming accent, “but you have been interrogating your family for several dances about me. The least I could do would be to answer your questions myself.”
She carefully put her hand in his and allowed him to enclose her in a gentle embrace. Ilse didn’t look at him but instead at the other couples dancing. “You’re so much younger than your siblings. Were you even born when Robert Baratheon came to power?”
“I was. I was a small child and living in the North of Westron.”
“Why did Lord Tywin hide you there? It proved effective—“
She shifted uncomfortably. “Lord Oberyn, my childhood, in fact my life before I came here to the Capital with my family, is very painful for me to remember. I’d rather not think of it on such a joyous day as my nephew’s wedding.—I am, however, only a couple years older than both Joffrey and Ser Jaime’s daughter.”
“He has a daughter?”
“He was married before he became a member of the kingsguard,” she answered. “I never knew the lady and I’ve never met my niece although I am told we look alike. Do you look like your brother, the Prince of Dorne?”
“No,” he responded. “We couldn’t be more different.—I believe it is the custom to ask to take a lady to tea here in the Seven Kingdoms.”
She looked at him quickly in amazement. “But your sister, the princess. Her children.”
“You were a child in Westron. I do not hold you accountable. My guest will be gone. Come, Widow Lannister, though I think you are so much more than your title.”
The dancing came to an end, but he still held her.
“I shall think on it,” she promised, utterly confused.
He then let her go, smiling at her, and gave her hand to a waiting Jaime Lannister. “He wants to take tea with me,” she said confused, “and his guest is leaving?”
“She hasn’t spent a night in the keep,” he told her. “I think, sister, you have another suitor who is even more powerful than the new queen’s brother.”
“If only my husband could have loved me better,” she told him. “If only I might have felt what they call love and the war had not killed him.” Her eyes flashed between a satisfied Littlefinger, a resigned Lord Willas, and a smirking Prince Oberyn. No, she didn’t want this. And because of her father’s promise, she didn’t have to.
Sequel: Oberyn’s Kiss
It was not quite storming weather, but the sky was gray enough that Lord Willas would be out of the gardens. The ladies of the court were flocking to their new queen who, likewise, was indoors, and Ilse was all alone. Her hands traced the leaves of flowers, a thorn catching her skin, but she didn’t mind the pain or the prick of blood.
Her bright blue eyes looked up at the heavens and she wondered at them. They were so beautiful. As a child, the apprentice to a wandering Septa, her mother, Ilse had often looked to the skies and prayed to the Seven that her life of wandering and moving from place to place would end. She just wanted roots, a home, a father. Now the Seven had answered her prayers, first in the form of a husband who had been unintentionally hurtful, and now in the loving embrace of her father’s family.
She was the Widow Lannister when before she had been nothing more than a Hill.
“Some say your name is Ilse,” an accented voice began and she looked over her shoulder to see Prince Oberyn Martell looking at her with his dark eyes. “Others that it’s Breoch.” His attempt at a brogue was interesting with an accent. She liked it almost. He grimaced slightly at his inability to pronounce the word, but nonetheless looked at her again. “Who are you, Widow Lannister?”
She turned toward him. “Didn’t you just answer the question? I am the Widow Lannister.”
“Yes,” he agreed, approaching her carefully. “But who was your husband? You are aunt to the king and you look like his sister except for her eyes. You look Lannistser born—What did your husband call you?”
She felt a petal of a flower between her thumb and forefinger. “Oh, I disliked how he said it,” she admitted. “I prefer being my father’s daughter than my husband’s wife. I am my husband’s widow and my father, Lord Tywin’s, daughter. There. You have your answer.”
Her hair was falling out of its braids and clasping to her forehead in its wetness. This wonderful rain was so refreshing. Ilse didn’t care if her dress was being ruined.
Oberyn reached out and pulled the hair away from her forehead. It was an intimate gesture, more intimate than any Edmure had ever given her, which surprised her really. Her blue eyes must have shown this because he smiled at her sadly. “You deserve to be cherished.”
“But I am. I have a loving father and doting siblings. I have a nephew who adores me.”
He paused a moment, his hand still close to her forehead, when he admitted, “That is not what I meant.”
Her blue eyes, so different from any eyes seen in the seven kingdoms, flashed at him and she felt emboldened even though she was a girl from nothing and he was a prince brought up in full nobility. “You cherish nothing, I understand. Your mistress you send away. You don’t even marry her to make your children lawful. While you claim you love them and it is said to be different where you come from—it is never different. A bastard is still a bastard, unwanted and cast aside.”
“You speak as if you know,” he interrupted carefully, his accent thick with emotion.
Ilse paused, caught off guard, but she didn’t answer. “It is no secret that my marriage was not a happy one.”
Oberyn let it pass. “Perhaps that is why I sent my paramour away, because I have not married her or any of the others: our marriage would not be a happy one.”
The kohl around his eyes strangely did not run in the rain. It remained fixed around the eye, dark, impenetrable, utterly intoxicating, the rest of his face dripping with the sky’s tears. His black eyes held hers, and despite herself, she was entranced.
“If not happy,” she murmured, “then why love them at all?”
“Perhaps I thought I was waiting,” he suggested, coming closer to her and taking her hand in both of his own, “but thought there was no hope in waiting.”
Her blue eyes flicked down to his fingers that were playing with hers and then back up to him. Prince Oberyn was watching her carefully, a question on his face, and she was still uncertain how to answer it.
“What was your name before it was Lannister?” he whispered into the rain, the wind picking up the sound of his voice and carrying it to her ears.
The thought Tully came to mind, but she did not think he meant her husband. Still, the idea of Ser Edmure Tully made her miserable.
She pulled her hand away from his and glanced away.
“I have offended,” he apologized.
“Not at all,” she demurred, still not looking at him.
He tilted his head, trying to look into her eyes, but still Ilse looked away. “Then have tea with me, Widow Lannister. It is not a Dornish tradition. However, I understand it is a way to show respect and honor a woman of value in one’s life.”
Oberyn had made this request before. Ilse looked at him and nodded. “With Ser Jaime as chaperone.”
“With Ser Jaime as chaperone,” he agreed, although perhaps the thought did not please him.
Ilse swiped her hand across her brow, trying to remove the sticky hair from her forehead, but she only ended up making it worse. She curtseyed to Prince Oberyn and then left through the rain, hoping she would not dream of him. Ilse had never dreamed of a man, certainly not Edmure, but Oberyn’s voice haunted her mind.
A row away from where she had left the prince, she found Lord Petyr Baelish waiting. “You do not use your own spies, my lord,” she noted. “You prefer to listen yourself.”
“In the rain, perhaps,” he answered airily. “You are not yourself, I see.” His eyes roved over her from head to toe, the rain pouring down her neck in rivulets, down into the folds of her silk dress.
She did not like the feeling at all. It reminded her of Edmure who in the end saw her only as her hair as he fucked her into the mattress. “Do not presume,” she ordered him, before leaving him behind.
She didn’t go back to the Tower of the Hand. Instead, she went to the quarters of the kingsguard. She’d been to Jaime’s room once and she knocked on the door, knowing he was rarely there. However, his door opened and she saw his familiar face.
“You’ll catch your death, Ilse!” he greeted, ushering her in and finding a warm blanket to wrap around her. A smaller one was placed over her head and he undid her loosened braid before running her golden hair through the blanket. “Sweet sister, why are you here and not in your bath?”
“I wanted to ask you something,” she told him honestly. “How did you know—with Cersei?”
Jaime paused a moment and then continued his ministrations. “We were always two halves of one soul. It seemed the logical progression.”
The two turned to silence and Ilse wasn’t certain what to think. “I believe Oberyn Martell is a danger,” she began and Jaime tensed, “to my sanity.” She took the towel away from Jaime and placed it beside her roughly. “He looks at me—and he doesn’t seem to lie even if I don’t like what he’ll say.”
“Sweet sister,” Jaime murmured.
“He almost admitted he loved me,” she confessed. “When he didn’t say the words, I was disappointed. I was arguing with him, all we do is argue, but I was disappointed.” She began to play with her wet hair, which turned an even darker gold with all the water in it. Unable to look at her brother with her confession, she sighed. “I was so determined to dislike men, even through Joff’s wedding. Then I had to go interrogate him. I still told myself that I wanted nothing of them, of Baelish, of Willas, of Oberyn, and yet now I feel as if I am trapped in Oberyn’s clutches even if he is still unaware of it.”
Leaning forward, Jaime took one of her hands. “Perhaps this is a good thing, sweet sister. Everyone deserves to be loved.”
She rolled her eyes. “He’s loved so many. Edmure stopped—all that—when Ned Stark brought home his bastard son. At least he did me that one honor,” she mumbled.
“Prince Oberyn,” Jaime stated plainly, “has fucked many. He has not loved them. Think of it as—experience.”
“That would never hold,” she argued.
“It would for some women,” he told her quite plainly. “Not for Cersei when it came to Robert, but then again, he only took whores to his bed after Lady Lyanna Stark died, I understand, up through and after his marriage to our sister. What we have to determine is if Oberyn has stopped and will continue to stop as soon as he set his mind on you? We already know part of that answer.”
Looking at him openly, she asked, “Could I ever trust such a man?”
“Could you ever trust that Tully fellow even with his constancy?” Jaime parried back.
Ilse laughed a little and the two siblings smiled at each other.
The tea Oberyn ordered was elaborate and Ilse stood with Jaime, staring at it. “I hope you have a large appetite, your grace,” she greeted. “I fear I eat little.”
“A little of this, perhaps,” he suggested, pointing out a pastry she had never seen, “and then a bite of that?” This now was a bread that was tinted blue.
“I have never seen the like,” she admitted, taking a seat beside him while Jaime carefully sat a little bit away so as to give the couple their privacy. Picking up the tea, she became aware of the familiar scent. “Prince Oberyn—” she breathed.
“That handmaid of Lord Tyrion’s, while most likely loyal to a point, can be bought. I understand moon tea is a favorite from your marriage. I thought you might like it again, for the flavor if nothing else. The rest of my offering are delicacies from Dorne.” He stretched out his hands to indicate the spread before them, and she looked at it again.
“I shall certainly sample of a few,” she promised, taking a sip of her tea and sighing. “With such a spread, though, I could hardly do it justice.”
Oberyn glanced at Jaime. “How likely is he to draw his sword on my person if I were to touch your hand?” he inquired in his accented voice.
She looked the prince directly in the eyes. “He is the most feared knight in the seven kingdoms, and I am his beloved younger sister. I would not test him.”
He tilted his head in recognition. “To have such a protector must be welcome to a young woman in a city as dangerous as King’s Landing. It is wonderous,” he corrected, “but not all knights and lords would protect a lady’s virtue and then there are the people outside the walls of the keep.”
“I imagine,” she agreed. “However, I am the king’s favorite aunt. That is protection enough.”
“If I may,” he argued, “my sister was popular and the wife of the popular crown prince and she was not saved in the Rebellion. Please, try this bread. I would like to know what you think of it.”
She looked down and saw a hard thin wafer that seemed to be covered in a thick syrup and she carefully took a single bite and realized that it was terribly bitter. With all of her training as a future Septa, she did not make a face, but instead chewed the wafer, swallowed it, and took a sip of tea. She returned the delicacy to the plate and turned to Prince Oberyn. “A favorite of yours?”
“Of the Prince of Dorne,” he admitted.
Ilse was confused. “I beg your pardon. I thought you were a prince of Dorne. Have I been misinformed somehow?”
“Your Septa did not teach you of Dorne?” he asked her in confusion.
She looked at him again and then glanced at Jaime. Why would a Septa have taught her anything but the ways of the Seven? Ilse was utterly baffled and did not like being without knowledge. When she was living at Riverrun she studied a great deal, but this was beyond her purview. Taking a sip of her moon tea, she tried to form an answer that would not show her ignorance.
Fortunately, it was Jaime who answered. “The Widow Lannister was given a purely religious education by her Septa. Anything she knows of Dorne she has learned from King Joffrey’s wedding.”
Not once did Oberyn look at Jaime. Instead he continued to examine Ilse and her reactions. His eyes seemed darker with the kohl around them. “I see,” he murmured. “You must be the superior of us all in your devotion to the Seven.—Dorne has one prince who rules—the Prince of Dorne. There are other princes and princesses, but they are not the Prince of Dorne. I am the younger brother of the ruling prince. My brother is Prince Doran Martell. He has a son, also a prince.”
Ilse swallowed. “And your children—if you marry? Will they be princes and princesses?”
“They will be lords and ladies,” he answered her calmly. “However, they will still be of the Royal House of Martell.”
“Of course,” she replied. “And the Prince of Dorne likes that particular bread?”
“He does,” he responded definitively. “I’ve never found another living soul who does.”
“You must continue your search then, Prince Oberyn. You haven’t found one yet.” She gave him his first smile and he grinned at her.
Leaning in so that his mouth was near her ear, he whispered, “Are you flirting with me, Widow Lannister?” His breath tickled the hair above her ear and she breathed in. “Perhaps before the tea has finished you will give me your name, to be used only among your family, of course.”
“You presume,” she suggested, turning toward him.
He laughed a little. “I am a prince.” Although their eyes were locked, he reached out to a strange gelatinous honey and dipped his finger in it. “Try this, Widow Lannister. My sister Elia and I used to eat it when we were ill as a special treat.”
Glancing away from him, she picked up a spoon and dipped it in and waited until he licked his finger. He was still watching her avidly and she placed the spoon in her mouth and closed her eyes in heaven. It was sweet and yet had a tart after taste that was absolutely perfect. “Is this a dessert?”
“A breakfast,” he told her, taking the spoon from her and dipping it into the strange food again and handing it to her. “Here, have just one more bite. You can be decadent just this once.”
She accepted the spoon and ate the strange food again, humming, before setting the spoon down on the table. “Thank you, Prince Oberyn.”
“My pleasure,” he told her, his eyes resting on her lips.
Ilse turned her head. “You remind me of my husband, except he only saw my hair.”
His eyes turned to her hair, which was braided on top of her head and then fell down past the small of her back in golden elegance. “A man might easily be distracted,” he admitted. “However, it serves as a halo for your face.”
“No,” she murmured, “I was faceless to him.”
She hadn’t expected his tone to turn harsh: “Then he was a fool.”
Ilse looked at him suddenly and saw the earnestness in his eyes.
“It is your eyes, however. I noticed them when I first rode into King’s Landing. You were standing there in your elegance, your halo of hair, a face fairer than the most beautiful of courtesans, but your eyes spoke of a truth that not even the Seven could penetrate. It is brighter than the Dornish sea, deeper than the noon sky. Your eyes, Widow Lannister, enchant and destroy a man’s soul.”
“What do you want with me?” she whispered. “I have been known to enchant before.”
“I want to carry you across the sea,” he admitted. “I want to make you a Princess of the House of Martell, not a Widow of House Lannister.”
“Another face will enchant.”
“The thought of your eyes punishing me will be enough to keep me from straying if I ever have the inclination,” he promised. “You surely have the eyes of the gods, Widow. You meet out Divine Justice.”
Laughing out lowly, Ilse stood and held out her hand. He took it between his and kissed it lingeringly, but did not release it.
“You have my permission to approach me at tonight’s feast, but not while I’m with the king. I am his favorite aunt, if you remember.” She turned and looked at Jaime who was waiting. She removed her hand from Oberyn and took Jaime’s arm and let him lead her away. “Divine Justice,” she laughed.
“You are the daughter of a Septa,” he reminded her. “How do you like him?”
“I should send him on his way,” Ilse admitted. “It is the only sensible thing to do.”
“And yet,” she agreed. “Princess Ilse Breoch.” It was no more than a whisper, but she knew Jaime heard her when a smile curled his lips.
Tywin was not happy when she returned to the Tower of the Hand. “Oberyn Martell. I always thought he disliked the Lannisters because of our part in the Rebellion.” His words were drawled out, as if he didn’t care, but his green eyes were sharp as he looked up from the piece of parchment he was reading, a quill held between two fingers. “Well, Ilse?”
“I cannot explain it,” she murmured, “ever since the wedding—”
“Yes, the wedding. Your fact finding mission. We all want you to be a princess, but I don’t want you to be hurt by a philanderer.”
“He wants to marry me. He hasn’t said the words but he wants to make me a princess, Father. He has stated that my eyes bring Divine Justice and he would not cross them for a mere lover—” She rolled her bright blue eyes for effect. “But do I want another man in my bed?”
“Only you can answer that,” he replied, coming up to her and squeezing her shoulders.
She looked away from her father and moved away toward her room, debating whether or not she should pursue a match so soon after her husband had died.
Ilse tried not to think of Oberyn Martell over the next day. If she saw him and their eyes locked, she turned away from him. She danced with him that night, neither speaking, their hands touching slightly, their bodies moving to the same beat, swaying away from each other, a skip, a step, shoulders almost brushing, a turn.
Everyone who saw them thought there might be a princess in their midst. Joffrey remarked upon it to his new bride.
Margaery stepped up to Ilse later in the evening with a goblet of wine. “You were so graceful when dancing with the prince.”
“Was I?” Ilse asked. “The prince is a fine dancer, but I thought I danced just as well with others.” She took a long drink from her cup.
Margaery pushed her dark hair behind her ear. “No, the prince looked at you as if you were the only woman in the room. I would not be surprised if he sailed back to Dorne with you on his ship with every intention of making you his princess. I would be sure to go to the wedding, aunt.” Her eyebrows rose.
“You cannot be serious,” she stated, only half-meaning it. “I will be married at Casterly Rock.”
“Have you ever been to Casterly Rock?”
“No,” she admitted. “Still, it is the place of my birth—”
“Prince Doran will want you married at Sunspeare,” Margaery mused. “Think on it. An exotic Dornish wedding, a prince of your own. You will almost be equal in status to your dear nephew, to your sister, the dowager queen.” Margaery smirked. “You are the Widow Lannister. You must be ambitious. This marriage must surely be greater than your last.”
“You are wicked, child,” Ilse suggested.
Margaery smirked. “I am your age. I am older than the king.”
Ilse laughed. “I am still your aunt.”
Oberyn turned toward her and sent her a smoldering look. He began to traverse toward her, moving around others.
“He’s coming for you,” Margaery murmured, but then a representative of Highgarden was there.
“My lady,” he greeted, bowing to her and then to Queen Margaery. “The Lord of Highgarden begs your presence for the next dance.”
Looking between the servant and Oberyn who had not stopped his pathway toward her, she looked at the manservant. “I’m afraid I am already engaged for this dance,” she apologized. “You will send Lord Willas my regrets.”
“The next?” he tried.
“If my dance does not extend,” she promised, “or my nephew does not claim my attention.”
The servant bowed just as Oberyn came up to them. He did not bother to acknowledge Margaery. Merely holding out his hand to Ilse, he waited until she set down her cup and took it and he led her to the dance. He kissed the inside of her wrist as he led her to the line, but neither said a word. It was a silent exchange of almost acknowledged lovers. She turned to her right as he turned to his left, both looking toward the other, they moved to cross the other to the other side before clapping.
She skipped as she moved across the center again, and he caught her around the waist, spinning her around, their eyes lashing to one another. Ilse had to tilt her head up to him to catch his black gaze, the kohl lining his eyes again, making him more foreign, more exotic.
Her hand came up in the dance. It was meant to hover above his cheek, never touching, but instead she let it run against his skin in the caress of a lover and his eyes bored into hers. Ilse’s hand slipped down across his chin and she turned again, their hands catching when they should not.
When the dance ended, the entire room knew they were lovers, heads turned toward them as the couples in the row clapped.
Ilse still kept her promise to Lord Willas, but he was watching Prince Oberyn who was discussing matters with Lord Tywin. “You are to wed,” he suggested when she sat down.
“I decided when my husband died that I would never wed again,” she told him honestly.
“Then Prince Oberyn has decided for you,” Lord Willas quipped. “You danced like a maiden who has been flattered by a knight and thinks if she shows him that she is interested then all will be well even if she is from an inferior house. He takes her to his bed that night, of course, but nothing else comes of it.”
“Are you equating me to a whore?” she asked him simply. The top layer of her golden hair was braided and then placed on top of her head in row after row to create an elaborate hairstyle of row upon row, the rest of her hair left to hang down her back.
Lord Willas turned to her. “Never,” he told her honestly. “I merely warn you what others will think. They know Prince Oberyn. They know his behavior.”
“And they think he means to make me his whore—when he speaks to my father so clearly,” she spat. “I am pleased that you think so little of me, Lord Willas.”
His blue eyes, duller than hers, turned toward Ilse. “What else am I to think?”
“That I am a Lannister, and that in some things, Lannisters are honorable.”
“A Lannister always pays his debts,” he quoted. “Will you pay yours with your body?”
She slapped him so hard that his head turned to the side.
The hall became silent, the instruments even quieting. Ilse was aware of everyone looking at her and Lord Willas, but she kept her attention on him. “Hold your tongue,” she demanded in a harsh voice. “This Lannister keeps her word and is honorable in all things. I have self worth, which is more than I can say for you, Willas of the House of Tyrell.”
She stalked away from him toward her nephew, who immediately demanded a goblet of wine from his cup bearer and offered it to her when she arrived at the royal table.
“Dearest aunt,” he greeted, “are you well?”
She tried to smile at him. “I daresay all will be well in short order.” In a louder voice, she declared, “There shall be dancing and merriment. Do not stop on my account!” The instruments sounded again and the line was formed and she turned back to the king. “I want Lord Willas to be expelled from King’s Landing. I know he’s your good brother but—he suggested—” She turned her head in shade. “I am not a whore.”
He reached out to her and touched her arm. “No,” he agreed. “Whatever is happening between you and that Martell, you are not a whore. I look forward to attending your wedding, dear aunt. I will settle for nothing less. I may be King of Westeros, but I can spare a week or two for my dear Aunt Ilse.”
“Thank you, Joffrey,” she murmured, “but I have not decided to marry him yet.”
“He’s decided to marry you,” Joffrey told her plainly. “My marriages have been arranged, but I think I can recognize a man who wants a woman—and the only way he will get you is through marriage. You are too honorable for anything less.”
“Lord Willas called me a whore.”
“He will be gone,” Joffrey promised. “You are a rightful future Princess of Dorne. I expect an announcement soon, dear aunt. I suspect Grandfather Lannister does as well.”
Ilse looked at Oberyn who was speaking congenially with her father, Tywin Lannister. “Yes,” she agreed. “I expect so.”
That night, she thought that she had never met her father, had never met Joffrey Baratheon. Her hair had just been cleansed of its ash brown color to its glorious gold, and Edmure Tully called her an “Angel.”
“It’s just gold,” she murmured, running her hair through the strands. “Does it really change my face?”
“Ilse,” he stated, coming toward her. “You were beautiful before, but now—” He couldn’t finish his thought. Ilse expected him to kiss her and prepared herself for the onslaught, but instead, he picked her up in his arms and carried her to the nearest closet. It was dark and unclean, and she was stunned when he pushed her up against the wall and hiked up her dress.
“Edmure?” she asked in confusion, but all she could feel was his hands running through her golden hair and his bare skin pressing against her buttocks in the cold closet that she prayed no one would open.
The pain she always felt coursed through her and she felt like she was being split open. His face fell into her hair and she panted as she fell against the wall.
“Are you well, my darling?” he asked her solicitously, while he was still inside her.
Wanting to scream and wail at him, she instead tried to calm herself and answered, “Yes. I was merely startled.”
When Ilse awoke it was to find herself in King’s Landing, all alone in her bed. There was blood between her legs on the sheets and she knew that her time had come. The lancing pain spread across her stomach and she knew that Edmure Tully would never come and hurt her again.
Still, she groaned and lay back on her pillow. When her maid Lalie came to rouse her, she asked for cloth and bark tree tea, and was left to herself.
She hadn’t expected pastries to be delivered to her. Ilse looked at them and asked Lalie where they had come from.
“Prince Oberyn,” she answered quietly. “He’s down in the main entrance room to see if you require anything of him.”
Despite herself, Ilse smiled. “No,” she whispered. “Ask him if making love to a woman is always painful—I had a dream of my husband last night.”
Lalie bobbed a curtsey and left. Ilse looked at the tray and found the strange honey-like substance and took a spoon and ate some of it. It was still absolutely divine, and she sighed in contentment. As she was sampling the blue bread she had noticed during the tea, Lalie came back, blushing. “He said he would be happy to give you a demonstration.”
Ilse’s eyes widened. “What does he take me for?”
“A woman, obviously.” Tyrion walked into the room. “Sweet sister,” he greeted, “I heard you were unwell.” He waddled to her bed and came and sat on it, looking at her with mismatched eyes. “I think, when you are feeling better, you should take Prince Oberyn up on his offer.”
She gasped. “Tyrion! You don’t know what you’re saying!”
He took her hands in his and looked into her eyes. “I know exactly what I’m saying. I think you’ll never be easy in your mind accepting a proposal of marriage unless you know the man will be unlike your husband.”
“I am not—like that.”
“I do not believe that you are,” Tyrion answered. “I will go broach the subject with the prince. You have a right to happiness, and this is happiness.”
Before Ilse could dissuade him, she had briefly gone into shock, Tyrion had slid off the bed and gone off out of the room, to do his dastardly business, no doubt.
“A hunt!” the King declared happily when Ilse was better. “There is nothing for it but a hunt!” The two were taking tea in the garden with Lord Willas. Ilse suspected the Queen had asked Joffrey to further his suit in some way, and this is how he had decided to do it.
Lord Willas set down a cup. He and Ilse were not directly speaking to each but referring to one another while addressing the king. “The Widow Lannister looks magnificent in her riding habit. No doubt she is accomplished at the sport as well. I have heard it from her own lips how she has stalked a boar.”
“Lord Willas is too kind,” she responded, not looking at him. “Joff, who would you invite?”
“The Queen—The Red Viper—and Ser Jaime as chaperone, of course.”
A small smile couldn’t help but form on her lips at the matchmaking in reverse. “Of course, my king.”
She did not have to wait until the hunt to see Prince Oberyn. He found her at the Great Sept of Balor, praying for the soul of her mother. She imagined her wandering the Riverlands, lost and alone, wishing she would come to her in King’s Landing, despite the uncomfortable memories with her father. Ilse would keep her safe and warm. She would always keep her mother safe and warm. It had been one of the harshest moments of her life when her mother had left Riverrun after she had discovered Ilse was drinking moon tea.
“You are religious,” he murmured in his haunting accent, and she looked up to see that she was no long alone. Oberyn was dressed in a long robe of gold, carefully embroidered, which set off his dark hair beautifully.
She glanced at him once more before looking at him again. “If you love me, kiss me,” she ordered, her eyes a hard blue.
His gaze was unwavering, as he slipped his hand into her hair and drew her forward. When he undid the ties to her stays, she didn’t care that this was the house of the seven. All that mattered was that she needed to know what her brothers knew, what her sister was aware of, what her father felt when they all lay in the arms of their beloved—happiness.
Ilse couldn’t marry a man without know, so as he lay her on the floor of the Great Sept at Balor, his hand hovering over his face, she let him kiss her again, and thought perhaps she could live with this for the rest of her life—