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Return to the Breoch Cycle
The bow was light in her hands as she held it close to her body. One eye was closed, an arrow holding back a bowstring, when she felt Stannis shift behind her. “Chin up. Elbow tilted. Bowstring a little tighter.” He felt it. “Good.” His hands shivered on her hips as he turned them. “See your target and then—“
She let go. Breoch did not hit her mark, but she did not miss the target either.
Joffrey, who usually stayed for the first few minutes of her daily lessons, clapped enthusiastically. She had greatly improved over the last week. Breoch was still borrowing Joffrey’s bow, but Stannis promised her he had it all in hand.
“You should rest. It’s been half an hour,” he stated, gesturing to a blanket on the other side of the fence.”
“My arm is tired,” she admitted.
Joffrey was ready with grapes. “If you marry,” he asked. “Will you be more of my uncle and aunt than any of the others?”
“What an odd question,” Stannis admitted. “Yes, I’d be more of your uncle than Renly, and Lady Bree more of your aunt than your uncles Jaime and Tyrion.”
Breoch stared at him but then looked at her nephew. “Really, Joff, where did you get such a notion?”
“Grandfather Tywin wrote to Mother and Father.”
She paused, moving a grape between her thumb and forefinger. “I did not know that. He hasn’t sent me a raven since I arrived.” She looked at neither of them before she ate the grape and glanced across the field to see Willas in his chair, turned distinctly away from the archery field.
He had barely spoken to her since the evening of the Tourney dance. Good riddance to him. She had half a mind to send back the scent.
“I suppose I should try to read it,” she decided, standing. “Til tomorrow,” she said vaguely, picking her way between the fields, even coming close to Willas but not acknowledging him.
It was later when she was in the gardens that she stumbled across Willas.
I hear there is nonsense with both Lord Willas and Lord Stannis. Lord Willas is a cripple and the South is not worth my daughter living a marriage without the joy children can bring. Even the most loving of marriages have times of upheaval and it is then when a mother finds comfort in her offspring.
Lord Stannis brings different concerns. He jilted one maiden. I will not see Breoch in a similar position, even if the maid was left at the bondler for Ilse Breoch. I demand that he be given his birthright of Storm’s End, which I hear Lord Renly has no interest in. As Lord Arryn has done little to fulfill his responsibilities of Warden of the East since before he became Hand of the King, the title should be given to the King’s next eldest brother. Nothing less will do for my youngest child, who is dear to my heart.
“Do you often walk in the gardens, reading your letters?” Willas asked. “I thought you did not care for flowers. You certainly do not wear the scent I sent you.”
“Why would I smell of anything but the deepest gold?” she asked. “We have already discussed this, Lord Willas. I am glad to see that you are well. We have not spoken for near a week.”
He looked at her for a long moment. “Why black?”
“The seal is red,” she answered in evasion.
“You know I speak not of the seal.”
“Then speak plainer,” she demanded. Her blue eyes flashed danger. “I will not play these games with you, Lord Willas. You have been angry with me since the tournament.”
“You gave another your favor.”
“We’ve discussed this.”
“If you had given it to Loras—“
She held in a breath and let it out slowly. “That was ridiculous. Why would you even wish to involve your brother in such schemes? Perhaps he desires the favor of another maiden at court? He could not even give her roses because you overruled him as his brother. I do not like these false games.”
“No, you like other ones, such as keeping your very name a secret,” he stated angrily.
“I was teasing you,” she stated flatly. “You may be a man of more than seventeen years who has traveled from Highgarden before, with admirers, but I am not in your position. It was also quite refreshing to not be Lord Tywin’s daughter for just a few days.”
“You are his daughter if you play politics.”
“If you wish to be offended, then I shall no longer dissuade you from such an idea. However, it is pointless. My father is critical of any friendship between us.”
“Of course he is. I am a cripple,” he stated bitterly.
“Those are your words, not mine. You have also given me absolutely no reason to fight for you.”
She heard a rustle through the hedges and knew that they had been overheard. Breoch paused for several moments until the interloper made himself known and, as providence would have it, it was Lord Stannis.
“May I see your father’s offending letter?” he held out his hand.
“Hardly. They are a list of demands to your brother and instructions to my sister.”
“Robert told me. I want to see if he was lying. He was quite colorful in his language and I made to look for you and the letter immediately, Lady Bree.”
Breoch looked at him and just turned to leave the two men. She could sense that Stannis was following her. “There are spies,” she told him.
“Of course there are. That’s why I wish to read the letter. I want to know what I must do.”
“You must take this lioness on a hunt.” She smiled at him and dashed away, but she heard his long strides behind her. Startled, she ran faster and then stopped suddenly when she was in front of Willas again. Uncharacteristically, he grabbed the letter and skimmed it.
“Storm’s End and Warden of the East,” he read. “And you may not jilt her unlike your last bride. I am also a cripple who cannot father children.” He passed back the letter. “How charming of Lord Tywin as I have two children, born years after my fall, both living in Highgarden.”
The letter fell from her hand as she realized what he said. “Did Cersei know?—No, of course she did.” She turned and wandered further into the garden. Stannis, she could feel, was behind her. His arm came around her as she tried to choke back a sob. Carefully, he led her to a copse of trees and hid her within them, pressing the letter back in her hand.
“I heard the rumor that the Tourney was thrown specifically because Cersei had a match in mind. It was Lord Willas, wasn’t it?”
She did not answer, just looked at the ground. He sighed, pulling her close and letting her rest her head against his shoulder.
“The first disappointment is always the most difficult. But I do not believe you loved Lord Willas. In a week, we will go hunting and you and Ser Jaime can ignore me as much as you please.”
She pulled back and looked at him. “Are you like Tyrion? Like the King?”
“Both enjoy the company of other women from—places ladies do not go.”
“I shall leave those questions to your brother, who knows my reputation. I do not want to give you reason to doubt my word. I can assure you I am not like Lord Willas, however. I will commend him, though, for raising his own illegitimate children. Lord Stark does the same. Few others can claim the same distinction.”
“I would not want to see them,” she decided.
“You have nothing to see if you claim to hunt this stag,” he promised, “but once again, I defer to Ser Jaime.”
It seemed, according to Jaime, that Stannis had only twice associated with women as far as anyone at King’s Landing knew. The first time was when he decided to marry and then did not. No one knew if he had even met his future bride. The second time was when he received a raven and rode nearly a week through the night for the chance of winning her favor. There were no bastards. There was one at Storm’s End, the child of Robert and some well born lady who would be taken on by them if they married according to Lord Tywin’s demands, but that was the extent of any scandal in that direction.
King Robert called her in, without Cersei or either of her brothers. Then again Tyrion had disappeared before the Tourney though Cersei had said snidely he was still in the Capital.
“You are prettier than Cersei,” he remarked. “I didn’t think so, at first, but your eyes.” He leaned forward. “They are more piercing. They speak of the Western Ocean. The green, while capturing, speaks of grass, which is common enough.”
“I thank your Grace,” she stated simply, standing there in her blue gown in the style of the Capital.
He sat back and looked at her. “I never had love for Stannis.”
She didn’t say anything.
The king laughed. “You won’t say if you love him.”
“You haven’t asked, and I don’t think I give my heart easily. I love my father. I love my sister and brothers. I cannot profess any other attachments at present.”
“But you like him,” the king pressed.
“I would not go through the effort of learning how to shoot if I did not,” she answered. “I must thank his Grace for the permission he has given my brother, Ser Jaime, in accompanying myself and Lord Stannis on our hunt next week.”
He flicked off the thanks. “Cersei would have it no other way. She wanted you for the South, but now that the East is within her grasp—“ He sighed. “She does not like it as well as the Old Lion, but she has accepted it as a possibility. Tell me, girl, are you worth the East?”
“My sister is worth the Seven Kingdoms,” she answered. “Am I not worth just one?”
He laughed and had his aid, a Lannister cousin, fill his cup. The king drank fully and the wine dripped down his beard. “Who is your mother? Your father’s first wife was a Lannister and a lady-in-waiting to Queen Rhaella, my kinswoman. Can your mother claim such an ancestry and distinction?”
“No,” she answered. “She is gone, however. She is never mentioned. I am not certain I have ever heard her name. She was not loved or treasured unlike the Lady Joanna, although I am deeply treasured.”
“Did she give you your singular eyes?”
“I believe so.”
“I’ve only seen the like in my brother Stannis and his are not as bright as yours. Your mother is not a Baratheon or Estermont?”
“I would have heard if she were a Baratheon, your Grace,” she answered truthfully. She only knew that her mother’s name was Isla. Beyond the fact that she was a lying Septa, she knew nothing. Breoch assumed that she was from the West, however, and not the East.
“The East,” he said again. “A fine dowry, along with Storm’s End. Renly does not want it. He’ll trade it for a place on the Small Council and more lavish rooms in a certain part of the castle. The placement I cannot fathom. Your father will pay handsomely.”
He drank again; his eyes never left her.
“Well, I suppose I have Lord Renly’s consent then. However, I have not asked the groom, and Lord Stannis has not accepted.”
The king laughed at that. “Should it not be the other way, Lady Ilse Breoch?”
“Your brother and I have both acknowledged that I am a lioness and he a stag. If I wish to marry him, then I shall inform him in due time, and I would never do it without my father’s written consent.” She curtseyed. “Is that all, your grace?”
“You are not a shrew like the Queen,” he decided. “You have more pluck than that, though I believe my brother does not know what he has bargained for. It is yours, this dowry, to be signed over in the wedding contract. You better be fertile, girl.”
“Yes, your grace.”
She turned and left the throne room. Breoch found her sister waiting just outside the door. The two sisters left together until they were in Cersei’s boudoir. A quill and parchment were waiting for her. “I do not know your thoughts. You hid them well from Robert,” she said. “I would ask for them, but courtship is difficult. Emotions are difficult. I truly thought you favored Lord Willas.”
“I did,” she answered, “until the moment I could not look when Stannis faced Jaime. It was a horrifying moment for me. I realized I wanted neither to hurt the other and neither to lose, though only one could win.”
Breoch sat. She carefully formed the letters, writing of the impending hunt, and the King’s capitulations to his demands. I have not decided, however. She bit her lip. It is too soon. I would ask a lengthier courtship. I do not wish to be away from Casterly Rock. Is that so wrong of me?
Two days later, she was sitting at her vanity, her hair being brushed back and braided for her morning practice with Joffrey. She had had a simple dress of brown and blue made by the Capital dressmakers, and she found it rather flattering despite its narrow sleeves. The high collar came up to her jawline, brown and gaunt with blue lace on the inside.
There was a knock on the door and Avlinda went and opened it for her. There, wrapped in a piece of black silk, was a hunting bow made of green with blue leaves, a quiver of arrows following as soon as she gasped. The arrows were sharp and black, including the feathers, the packet which slung over her arm brown with the same blue flowers along the straps.
The valet who came with the gift bowed to her. “With the compliments of Lord Stannis. He asks that you bring them to practice so you feel the bow and its weight beneath your capable fingers.”
“I thank you,” she stated. “Tell Lord Stannis that I will see him within the next two hours.”
As soon as the door closed, she counted silently to ten before she squealed. “He must love me,” she stated. “Just a little.”
She stepped out of her rooms as light as air, and could not help the smile on her face. Trying to remain stoic around her suitor, she held almost a perfect stance as he showed her how to hold the larger bow that had been calculated to her described height and build, and she hit the target with more accuracy.
“I must thank you for the gift,” she stated as they sat in the gardens at a tea table, drinking lemonade. “It is truly beautiful. I am sad that my riding habit does not match.”
“What color is it, Lady Bree?”
She laughed at the thought. “Black. I am said to cut quite a figure as I ride astride my horse. I brought him from Westron.”
“Is he as black as your costume?” Stannis asked carefully.
“Dorne inspired it,” she laughed. “I know I should not have named him thus, but Cersei wrote me when I was a young girl of Dornishmen’s black eyes and the black paint they wear around them in a thick line.”
“The Queen has a flare for description.”
“She does.” Breoch took another sip of her lemonade. “We will match. Poor Jaime’s riding habit is dark brown and crimson, I believe. Then again, he may blend in a bit better.”
“If the crimson were green, I might agree,” Stannis stated. “In the deep underbrush, the black will be of advantage.”
“My hair will not.”
There was nothing to refute that.
It was the third day in a row that Breoch could not find Avlinda when she came back from the practice fields. She thought it strange, but allowed Lalie to sponge her down, brush out her hair, and prepare her for her day.
When she was almost finished, she caught Lalie’s eyes. “Is Avlinda sweet on some valet?”
“She has not told me,” she answered. “Perhaps.”
“I need her for my bath tomorrow,” she stated. “It will be my last before the hunt. I need two of you to freshen my hair and I simply must smell my best.”
Of course, that was a mistake. Breoch was not practicing that morning and she did not notice the subtle change in scent. She changed into her bathing shift and fell into the water. Dipping her head into the water, she came up for air and then she realized it. Her skin was on fire. And she smelled the difference. Falling out of the bath, she clawed at her hair and her neck and upper chest, trying to get the piece of cloth off of her.
Lalie was shouting as she stripped off the piece of cotton and draped her in towels, Avlinda just looking on as she held the bottle. The wrong bottle.
Breoch kept on ripping at her skin and Lalie grabbed her hands. She shoved Breoch’s hands to hold the towel in place and then ran her to the Queen. Breoch couldn’t hear but she was soon in another bath, freezing cold, her skin being rubbed and then she noticed that the water was red as were her fingernails.
“Cersei?” she begged.
“You’ve been poisoned,” she told her, coming and touching her cheek. “We’ll have you to rights.”
“Did Avlinda destroy my beauty?”
Cersei bit her lip. “Only for a little while,” she promised. “The scratches will fade and the Maester is coming.”
Smelling of vanilla, Breoch was laid on the Queen’s bed and strips with a freezing cold green paste were placed on her arms, chest and around her hair. She didn’t even realize she was crying until Jaime came in (she had been placed in a shift), and held her hand, kissing it.
“Avlinda has been arrested,” he told her. “It is said she may be with child.”
“Whose child?” she demanded.
Jaime glanced away. “Lord Willas.”
Breoch stared at him. “She’s only been mysteriously missing for three days.”
“The affair may have been going on since the beginning. He was getting information about you and playing with you when you were withholding your name and the like. He learned of Lord Stannis too late to stop it, according to Avlinda’s confession. One of the best guards is on it. I wanted to interrogate him, but Cersei said you’d been crying for hours and she could do nothing.” Jaime kissed her cheek.
She swallowed. “Am I hideous?”
“No,” he stated. “Battle-weary. If you feel up to it, Cersei will dress you in red and gold tonight and parade you into dinner. Your scratches will be cleaned and you will show how strong you are, lioness.”
Staring at the ceiling, she wondered. “How much does Stannis know?”
“As much as the court: that you were attacked. If he knows more, it’s only because the King or one of the guards told him. He—sent you a gift.”
Jaime kissed her hand. “A moment.” He withdrew and Cersei came in and took her hand, kissing her cheek. “Stannis is very worried. His gift is peculiar.”
It was a gold piece of cloth, meant to be worn around the arm or about a lance. It made her laugh. “It’s his favor. Gold for both our houses. I must wear it tonight.”
“If you wish, dearest. You do realize you are declaring your intentions, however privately. A hunt can be explained away as you are related and Jaime would be there.”
The scratches were difficult to look at and were in full display in the dress. She hadn’t realized she had scratched her breasts or her sides. The dress was gold and she tied the favor about her neck although it was unmarked. Her face was truly atrocious as her hairline was red. Fortunately her hair was not caked with blood. She asked Cersei’s maid Granna for the most complicated style, and it took an hour and a half, but she felt encouraged at the end. The favor was even removed and placed at the center of her forehead, held there with a red jewel, and then brought back in a “v” to the back of her head. The gold shone differently from her hair so to create an interesting contrast.
Cersei entered the Hall first and then Jaime walked in with Breoch on his arm. She held her head high, not looking about her although she could hear the room go silent. When she was led to the royal table, she was startled to find Stannis’s arm offered to her and, looking at Jaime for permission, she released her brother’s arm for her suitor’s.
“You look, my dear Lady Bree,” he told her as he lowered her into a chair beside her sister, “as if you have been stalking a boar for several days.”
“Really, Stannis? I had not realized.”
He sat down and poured her a glass of wine before filling his own cup. “Indeed. I often crawl on my stomach under brush so as not to be detected. One time my right eye was swollen shut for weeks. It was well worth the effort. We hunters, well, we must make sacrifices.”
“You think this is a hunting sacrifice?” she asked in incredulity.
“I think it an attack against a beautiful lady,” he answered, “from a jealous man. They took Lord Willas away an hour ago—without his chair.”
“Poor Lord Willas. I know how fond he is of it.”
“I can ask the king to chop it up for firewood.”
Breoch laughed despite herself. “How fitting. I cannot believe one of my ladies would betray me in such a way. I had thought them more loyal. The thought that since the beginning—“ She closed her eyes in pain.
He carefully placed his hand over hers.
“Men and women, at times, are weak. I am certain we could find many in this hall, perhaps at this table. I cannot explain it. There are temptations in life, but I have never personally given in. I do not believe you have either, lioness.”
“I am too young for temptation,” she offered.
“If you claim it thus.” He clearly didn’t believe it.
“What of your temptation? Your family seat, Warden of the East, fifty thousand gold dragons for yourself, ten thousand for the king—“
“Those are inducements that entered the possibility of the match after I had decided for it,” he told her clearly. “I rode through rain, hunger, and sleep deprivation for you.”
“For the idea of me,” she argued. “Not for me. Never for me.”
He leaned in. “I will shock you, but if you were a maid of nothing, I think I would take you to my bed until you were with child and had no choice but to marry me, hard and stern though I am. I would give you a name, a royal name, though you had none.”
She paused. “Swear that is the truth and I will marry you. We will announce after I send a raven to father and we return from the hunt.”
Stannis looked into her eyes, blue to blue. “I hate that you are a Lannister. Robert will forever hold it against me. I do not and have never regretted my wealth, but I regret yours, Lady Ilse Breoch Lannister. Lady Selyse Florent barely had any, had no name, and her anonymity suited me better.”
“Then why not marry her?”
“Because her eyes are not the eyes of a Septa, a woman fallen who dared to represent one of the Seven. She is not perhaps the granddaughter of a god herself.”
Her breath was taken away from her, their eyes holding. “You would prefer that she take me to the East where you could pluck me from the sea?” she clarified.
“I would have married you within minutes of seeing those eyes, Breoch. Rumors of your eyes, coupled with your name, were enough to draw me across Blackwater Bay, to find the only child of such singular birth, the only woman of true worth in the Seven Kingdoms—I loved you before I saw you, and I love you more now, and I expect I will love you even more on our wedding day, and more on the harrowing night you give me my first heir, and then my heart will break when one of us leaves this world before the other.”
“Then will you marry me, Stannis Baratheon?”
“Although a lowly mortal, I will.”