Brienne surveyed herself in the mirror and frowned at her cravat. "It's not quite right, is it?" she asked Sansa as she attempted to smooth the cloth over her shirt.
"You look wonderful, Brienne," Sansa replied. "All it needs is--here, turn around."
Brienne obeyed, and felt Sansa's fingers working just below her neck, making adjustments while she narrowed her large blue eyes in concentration. Over time, Brienne was slowly becoming accustomed to seeing her lithe and laughing friend so solemn and swathed in black. Six months had passed, now, since Sansa and Arya had lost their parents and brothers to a fever; five months since they had arrived at the Tarth estate with pale faces and red-rimmed eyes. Their Uncle Brynden had wanted them, too, but the girls had been heart-weary and longing for the quiet and solitude of Tarth. Having lost their own father two years before, Brienne and her brother Galladon had been more than willing to gather them under their collective wing .
"There," Sansa said, giving Brienne's cravat a final pat. "Every inch the gentleman, my lord." She gave Brienne a smile that only just trembled at the corners.
The chasm of grief threatened to unfold itself in Brienne's chest; this, too, she had hoped would grow easier with time, but it had not. Not long after the Stark girls' arrival, Galladon had quietly left on a voyage to Essos--ostensibly to explore possible new markets for Tarth's marble, though Brienne knew the truth to be that he'd always longed for the sea. As the heir, he'd been kept close to home by their father, and after Selwyn's death, he'd stayed for Brienne, no matter her insistence that she was perfectly capable of looking out for herself. With the Starks in residence, he'd finally felt that leaving did not mean abandoning. Before he'd gone, he'd hugged Brienne hard and told her fondly that she was the man of the house now, and she should comport herself as such.
A few sennights later, a letter had arrived, announcing that his ship had been reported lost at sea, with all hands likely lost with it.
With that revelation, Galladon's departing joke had become reality. As an unmarried woman, Brienne was not permitted to act as sole guardian for the Stark girls, nor was she allowed to maintain control of her own estate. In her grief and desperation, she'd seized on a dangerous plan: with the help of her household staff and her friends, she would dress and act as Galladon whenever the occasion required it, until she could see Sansa safely married and able to take charge of her own affairs.
What that would leave of Brienne's affairs after, she had yet to determine. But at any rate, one goal must be accomplished before moving on to the rest.
"I still don't see why Sansa has to marry anyone. We're very well as we are." That was Arya, who at eighteen was two years younger than her sister, and sprawled out with her legs dangling over the side of one of the chairs. She'd mostly abandoned dresses in favor of trousers since she'd come to Tarth, and Brienne had had neither the desire nor the hypocrisy to chide her for it. Arya had also been insisting upon this exact point for more than a fortnight now, ever since the news had come that the Marquess of Crownlands, Aerys Targaryen, desired to marry Sansa, and was sending his former lieutenant general, Lord Casterly, as emissary to arrange it.
Hardly a romantic gesture, but then, what was romance compared to a stronghold at Winterfell?
"I certainly agree, as you very well know," Brienne told Arya. "But society does not, as you also very well know. So here we are."
"We appreciate all that you're doing for us, Brienne." Sansa's tone was pointed, and as clearly directed at her sister as if she'd thrown something. "In any case, I'm told that Lord Casterly is very handsome, and my own memory from childhood serves, the reports are accurate," she offered to Brienne, clearly having taken it upon herself to lighten the tone of their conversation. "So perhaps you'll have a pleasant landscape to look on during your hunt."
Brienne sighed. "I'm not interested in any landscapes," she said firmly. She'd initially thought to receive him in the drawing room, but Lord Casterly's answering note had insisted that they go hunting instead. As much as I relish the thought of a stuffy room, he'd written, I prefer to be outside as much as possible, and I'm told you have tolerable pheasants on your grounds. Meet me at 7 o'clock, and bring a gun for me. And that had been the entirety of his missive, save for a looping shape at the bottom that might have involved a C. "And if Lord Casterly's tone is any indication--not to mention his infamous reputation--it's fortunate that he isn't the one intending to marry you, or we'd have to send him packing immediately."
Sansa laughed at that, then reached out to smooth the shoulders of Brienne's--Galladon's--coat. "You do look very like him," she said softly. "He'd be so proud of you. I'm so proud of you. And so grateful, truly."
Brienne blinked hard against a sudden rush of tears. There were times she envied Sansa and Arya their outward expression of grief. When she stopped to think on it, which she preferred not to, the fact that her own mourning weeds must be the clothes of the very man she was mourning felt macabre in the extreme. But there was nothing for it. The girls were depending on her. For the time being, she could only honor her brother's memory by protecting those he would have protected.
She hoped it was enough.
She squared her shoulders. "Stay out of sight for now. I'll tell you all once I've taken Lord Casterly's measure."
"If he's rude to you, you must shoot him--Sansa and I won't tell," was Arya's helpful advice as Brienne strode determinedly from the room.
* * * * *
Instead, she gripped the rifles more tightly and bowed as well as she could manage with her hands so occupied. "Lord Casterly. You are very welcome to Tarth, ser."
"It's about time, Tarth--I've been waiting," he replied, with a motion that seemed more the distant suggestion of a bow than the thing itself, much like the careless scrawl of his initials had been at the bottom of his note.
Brienne straightened, taken aback by his brusque manner. Lord Casterly made a show of checking his pocketwatch, a few loose golden curls falling over his forehead when he tipped his head down. Given that Brienne's own cropped hair seemed determined to make its way out from her head with no regard to order or propriety, she found herself envious to the point of indignation. More indignation, at any rate. "I heard the clock chiming as I was leaving the house, my lord."
"And now you're arguing with a guest; is that really the foot you wish to start out on?" he asked. "Not much of a matchmaker, are you?"
"I--" Brienne started, nonplussed, then swallowed hard and lifted her chin. She would not taint the honor of her house by stooping to such barbs. "I apologize if you were left waiting, Lord Casterly." With some effort, she forced herself to keep the emphasis from the if. "Would you care for any refreshment before we begin?" She prayed that he would decline; already, she feared being too far from her rifle lest she be unable to act on Arya's suggestion, the appeal of which increased with every word out of Lord Casterly's mouth.
"I'd like you to hand me that rifle and show me where to use it," he said, and held out his hand.
Indulging herself in the brief and vivid fantasy of showing him precisely where he could use it, she presented the rifle to him. She was about to call for her horse when she realized he had none of his own.
"Did you walk here, my lord?" It was over two miles from the town to Evenfall Hall. Now that she noticed, his boots looked well-used, for all they'd obviously been polished that morning. Given his demeanor thus far, she would have expected him to demand a chaise-and-four to cross the street.
"I did." He was inspecting the rifle with a degree of care that she would have found insulting had she not recalled that he was a military man, and most likely would have done the same with any weapon he intended to make use of. "Seeing as the scenery is one of the only things worth noting about this place, I thought I might as well enjoy it, and I welcome the exercise. And the less time I spend in that shoddy excuse for a town, the better." While Brienne cast about for a polite response to such a statement, he finished inspecting the rifle and looked up at her. "Well? Are you going to stand there gaping all day?"
Brienne snapped her jaw shut--it had not been open so much--and then whistled as loudly as she could, viciously amused when Lord Casterly winced. That was one of the advantages of being thought a man: she could be as loud as ever she pleased, and it was deemed merely high spirits.
In short order, her hound, Willow, came galloping around the corner of the house and nearly barrelled right over Brienne in her enthusiasm. "Down, Willow," Brienne hissed as the dog leapt about her feet in unbridled glee, tongue lolling and occasionally slurping at her hands. She'd made an honest effort at training the young pup, but she hadn't had the heart to try to quell her spirit entirely--a state of affairs for which she was now experiencing some regret.
"What a well-trained dog," Lord Casterly observed in a bored tone, though when she glanced over at him, she almost thought she saw the corners of his mouth twitching. Mocking her in his mind, no doubt, though so far he hadn't scrupled to do it to her face.
"Willow!" she commanded. "Sit!" Miraculously, the pup obeyed, plopping herself at Brienne's feet with her tail swishing back and forth so quickly that it raised a small cloud of dust from the carriageway. Brienne sighed inwardly. It would have to do. "Shall we?" she asked Lord Casterly, extending her arm out to the side.
"With all possible haste," he answered, and Brienne gritted her teeth as she led the way out to the fields.
* * * * *
"You mean the journey we spoke of half an hour ago?" Lord Casterly drawled now, underscoring her point.
It was Brienne's turn to wince, though it was only inwardly. She had no talent for pretty, meaningless chatter with strangers, whether in the drawing room or on the hunting ground. Having asked after his journey and his family--regarding whom he'd proven taciturn, to say the least--and provided a few remarks on the weather and the quality of the hunting, she had exhausted her small store. "I meant your journey from town, my lord. I believe you've taken rooms there?"
"I have." His green eyes scanned the tall grass where Willow was tromping through it. "Along with my companion, of course."
"Ah. Yes," Brienne said as delicately as possible. Ordinarily, she would have dismissed it as scandalous rumor that Lord Casterly had taken his former general's wife (and cousin), Lady Rhaella, as his lover. In this case, however, the two were quite open about their arrangement, and even on as remote an island as Tarth, Brienne had heard of it from enough credible sources to name it as undeniable fact. Still, she felt it inappropriate to discuss it in any detail, especially with the man himself.
"Ah," Lord Casterly mocked. "Come now, Tarth, surely you know how it is--you see a woman and simply must have her." His smile was crooked at one end, like wrought iron brought one twist too far.
"I will take your lordship's word on it," Brienne answered.
"So you have not brought Lady Sansa here with the intention of wooing her yourself?" he asked with a mildness that Brienne did not trust one jot.
"No!" The word emerged at a significantly higher volume than she'd intended, and Lord Casterly laughed.
"So quick to deny it." He leaned closer, his voice going conspiratorial. "Why? Is she hideous? Be honest with me; your honor as a gentleman demands it."
Ordinarily, Brienne would have leaned back out of range of his insinuating eyes and his wicked grin, but she held her spine as rigid as the rifle in her hand. "Lady Sansa is renowned for her beauty, as I would expect that you and Lord Crownlands both know. But she is under my protection, nothing more."
"I see." Of a sudden, there was a rustling in the grass, off where Willow had disappeared to, and a pheasant winged up into the sky. Lord Casterly had his rifle at his shoulder and was firing before Brienne had even fully registered the sound, distracted as she was by his implication. Once again, his aim was true. "Well," he said. "I remember Lady Sansa from when I was younger; she seemed a sweet enough little chit, for all her mother was as much wolf as fish, in the end." Brienne thought for the briefest of moments that his tone might have warmed slightly when he spoke of Catelyn--perhaps they had all been at court at the same time--but he moved on too swiftly for her to be sure. "And Aerys Targaryen is one of the wealthiest men in Westeros, with his position in line for the throne being nothing that a few well-placed murders wouldn't improve. It seems a very advantageous match for her."
Brienne gave him a level look. "There are all kinds of advantages to be considered in a match, Lord Casterly. Such as the lady's wishes, among other things." At least as a man, she could make such statements and be heard, if only to be clapped indulgently on the shoulder. As a woman, she'd been laughed at or ignored--or pitied, which was worse. At five-and-twenty, her meager marital prospects were already dwindling.
His eyebrow raised. "How very unconventional of you to think so."
Insufferable man. Just then, Willow came bounding back with the pheasant, and dropped it at Brienne's feet with a canine grin. When Brienne bent to put it in her bag, she could see her dog--her dog--nose at Lord Casterly's hand before giving it an enthusiastic lick. In return, he gave her a rub on the head, which sent her tail wagging in such an ecstasy that it took most of her hind end with it.
Brienne whistled sharply, sending Willow charging back off into the brush. Lord Casterly was smirking at her. Brienne peered out toward the far edge of the clearing; the pheasants liked to hide there sometimes. "In any case," she said, sufficiently provoked to indulge in some provoking of her own, "I can hardly take your word in expounding upon Lord Crownlands' virtues, since clearly, you have a personal stake in the matter."
"Why?" Lord Casterly asked, as cool as the mist of dawn. "Because I'm fucking his wife?"
There was nothing for it; her jaw dropped nearly to her breastbone. "This is hardly gentlemanly, ser."
He laughed, long and low and hushed, to avoid disturbing their quarry. "Oh, Tarth. Now I know that you're not much in town, or you'd know that fucking each other's wives is terribly gentlemanly. The primary sin is speaking of it aloud to the wrong person."
"In that case, please consider me to be firmly in that category." In the distance, a pheasant winged up clumsily from the brush with an offended squawk. Quickly, Brienne raised the gun to her shoulder and fired. The pheasant fell to the ground. "I was speaking of the fact that it was Lord Crownlands who sent you here."
"Ah." Lord Casterly shrugged. "Well, if we mean to be precise, my father sent me here on Lord Crownlands' behalf, so that's another step further removed, I'm afraid."
She cocked her head at him. "You have a very strange manner of pursuing a suit, my lord."
For some reason, that seemed to dislodge a bit of his self-assurance, the first thing she'd said this entire morning to have done so. "How did Lady Sansa come to be under your protection?" he asked.
"I--" Brienne started, then hastily corrected herself, "My sister was sent to Winterfell for her education; our father thought it would be good for her to experience life outside of the island, and Winterfell was a place mutually agreed-upon as neither too small nor too large. While she was there, Lady Stark took an interest in her. Our mother died when we were very young, and Lady Stark was compelled to take a lonely young girl under her wing." An image of Catelyn's smile swam into Brienne's memory, and the warmth of her relatively rare hugs; she had to turn her head away and stare very hard at the horizon.
"I also lost my mother when I was very young, and it sounds as though your sister may have lost one twice, now; my condolences," she heard Lord Casterly say.
Brienne didn't trust her voice just then, and only nodded, stunned by how easily he'd perceived the truth of the matter. Clearing her throat, she went on, "For her part, my sister was an older playfellow to Lady Stark's daughters. When the fever took the rest of the Stark family, it fell to my sister and me to see that the girls were well cared for."
As she turned back to him, Lord Casterly tapped a finger against his chin. "A sister, hmm? I can picture her now: some willowy thing, perhaps, with the Tarth family blue eyes and obstinacy, but with an added gift for the pianoforte. Is she in need of a husband? Because I could perhaps be persuaded; the marble here is very fine, I'm told." He gave her a leer that seemed as elaborately constructed as an edifice.
Well. So much for any felicity between them. "My sister is not in need of anything that you can offer, Lord Casterly," she told him sharply. And you seem to have more than enough women in your life already, she did not add, in the name of politeness. Not that he'd earned it, but just because he insisted on breaching decorum at every turn didn't mean that she had to. Learning how men spoke among themselves had almost made her long for her quiet needlework by the fire. . But if rumor held true, he had some sort of attachment to his father's ward--now wed to Robert Baratheon these four years hence--as well as to his former general's wife, which would have rendered him impossible as a match even if so many other aspects of his personality hadn't already done so.
"A great pity, I'm sure," he said, with a disappointed moue. He drew his hand across his brow, which was starting to glisten with sweat as the sun climbed higher. "Well. It's getting to be too warm for the pheasants, and our count is tied. We can't have that--I must defeat the dragon guarding the fair maiden. Do you fence?"
Brienne blinked, startled by the change in topic as well as by his colorful description. "I do, my lord."
"Very good. Let's have an assault, then, before I go, and"--he grinned as inspiration seemed to strike him--"the winner may lay claim to Lady Sansa's hand."
"The Lady Sansa," Brienne said tightly, "will choose for herself whom she will marry. I will not tie her fate and her happiness to the outcome of a game."
He nodded, brow creased with transparently false concern and understanding. "So you expect to lose, then. A very reasonable expectation, Tarth--self-knowledge is a virtue, after all."
"I expect that I will very much enjoy"--beating you, she nearly said, and then forced out instead--"facing you, my lord." She fervently hoped he took her meaning anyway.
* * * * *
True to what she was beginning to learn of his character, Lord Casterly surveyed the space with a disdainful sniff. "Awfully small, isn't it? If I lose an eye in here, Tarth, you'll answer for it," he said.
"Does my lord anticipate that I will land a hit on such a vulnerable area so easily?" she asked, unable to resist. "I appreciate the warning to take extra care; self-knowledge is a virtue, after all."
His glass-green eyes seemed to flash at that, and Brienne found herself reflecting that the loss of one of them would be a pity, for all that she longed to knock him off his self-designated pedestal. Now that she had had a few moments to adjust to the idea, she was growing eager to test her skill against him--so eager that she could feel it winging throughout her body like a flock of birds stretching out into the sky.
"I simply prefer to fence outside," he said, taking the jacket she offered him and shrugging into it. It was hers, but it appeared to fit him well, save for being a bit too broad at the shoulders. "I'll happily thrash you in whatever space you choose."
Brienne buttoned up her own spare jacket and watched as he selected a smallsword from the rack against the wall.
She held a mask out to him. "To protect your eyes, my lord."
He took it and cast it into a corner. "Just a friendly assault. Never fear, you won't come near me."
Brienne hesitated, already regretting having twitted him. She and Galladon had fought without masks from time to time, but they had known each other well. "I do not think it wise to--"
"I won't fight with a bucket over my head. Just guard yourself, Tarth," he said impatiently, and strode to the far end of the piste.
Despite her misgivings, Brienne took up her place across from him; if he was bare-headed, then honor dictated that she should remain so as well. She swallowed down a fresh wave of excitement and nerves as she surveyed him. Aside from her brother, she had never fenced any man before. And now she was about to fight the infamous Jaime Lannister, whose skill in battle was so great that he'd been knighted for it by his general. She held her weapon straight up in front of her, the tip nearly touching her forehead in a salute. He gave her the same courtesy.
"Begin," she heard him say, and then the battle was on.
Be calm, she told herself, indulging only a flick or two of her blade at first to test his reactions. He was even faster with the sword than he had been with the rifle, following each of her movements with a shift of his feet, a slight change in angle of his weapon. He is good, she thought, with something between trepidation and joy. She was suddenly very glad she had not agreed to tether Sansa's fate to this match. He was also a far more disciplined fencer than he was a speaker, for they'd gauged each other's measure a handful of times before Brienne grew impatient and lunged for him when his shoulder dropped ever so slightly.
His blade met hers and the two slid together with the sweet ring of steel on steel, a greeting that Brienne felt from her palm to her elbow. It fell out to be as rude a greeting as his morning demands had been, too--he parried and stepped immediately into a counter-attack, and Brienne tottered back a step, parrying as she did, the blunted tip of his blade slipping just past her shoulder. He clucked his tongue. "I thought you island people liked to fish, Tarth; you should recognize bait when you see it."
She would not let him distract her; she kept a wary eye on him as they circled, circled. He had been right about the room being small, and with him in it, it felt smaller still. He seemed to loom in front of her, with his sharp eyes and the deceptively lazy way he stalked her like a cat hunting its prey. He lunged, whip-quick, and she parried and kept her feet this time, and that somehow felt like victory.
"Good," he said approvingly, which was more irritating than his teasing had been; she was not a child, nor his student, to hang on his praise. "You move well, for a giant."
Forgetting for a moment that she was meant to keep peace with him for Sansa's sake, she gritted her teeth and attacked again. He met her again, counter-thrust again, and she parried and slid into an attack of her own--they were beginning to speak each other's language, now, and test the limits of each other's vocabulary. It went on like that for a few suspended, heady seconds before he scored a hit on her and they broke apart, barely pausing long enough to acknowledge the point before their swords were hovering near each other again. His face was flushed, his perfect cravat slightly askew, and Brienne could feel her own breath coming faster.
Her world narrowed to him and the shining line of metal he held, her every sense alive to his slightest movement, her every muscle tensed to respond. Their measure stretched and contracted between them as though a rope bound them together, and the thrum of their tempo thudded through her like a drumbeat. She was fully aware, somewhere in her mind, that his blade was blunted, but every time the point landed against her--shoulder, chest, once in her upper thigh--she felt it as deeply as a wound. But his defenses were not impregnable, either, and she began to accumulate a store of her own points, each one racing through her veins and gathered to her as jealously as the hoard of the dragon he'd called her. He scarcely ceased speaking the entire time, too, offering her mockery and praise and observations that became a weapon on their own as she blinked the sweat out of her eyes and answered him with grunts and the relentless vigilance of her body.
Rounds were forgotten. Pauses were forgotten. There was only the two of them, and this contest. And the longer it went on, the more she watched a slow smile creep across his face like a flag being gradually unfurled, fierce and proud and unfettered. She could not have said what her own expression might be, only that she felt an answering fire deep within her breast, a beam of light focused through glass until it burned.
She had no idea how long they had been at each other when she saw an opening and lunged, and when he parried, he stepped in to grasp her wrist with his off hand. Before she could credit what was happening, he had his sword hand tucked against the small of his back, the blade slicing toward her stomach. Shocked at both the fluidity of the maneuver and the heat of his skin on hers, she jerked her wrist out of his grip. As she stepped backward, her feet tangled together; his left hand shot out and closed tightly around her upper arm, preventing her headlong fall.
He held on to her like that for a moment, his eyes bright and burning, his color high on his cheeks, his breath rushing in and out of his lungs like a bellows. She could feel each of the points of his fingers. Her own fingers flexed in response.
A clock chimed in the adjoining room.
The sound seemed to recall Lord Casterly to himself, and he released her. She straightened, a quicksilver thrill still spiraling through her.
He began to unbutton the jacket she'd lent him. "You fought well today, Tarth. Not well enough, of course, but well." His grin was like the slash of his blade.
She would have argued with him, had she not had their scores engraved in her brain, as he no doubt did as well. "Lord Casterly," she began, hardly knowing what she was meant to say.
"Ser Jaime," he interrupted.
"I beg your pardon, my lord?"
"I was given the title of Ser Jaime, in the war," he informed her. "You may call me so if you like, since we've now faced each other on a battlefield."
She tilted her head, reminding herself that they had only met a few hours before, and she was as yet unsure of his motivations. "Since you are here to seek her, Lord Casterly," she said carefully, "shall I arrange an introduction to Lady Sansa?" He had removed the jacket entirely now, and as he turned to place it on its hook, she could see the sweat gathered in the curls at the back of his neck.
When he turned to face her, it was as though a set of shutters had closed over his expression. "Perhaps," was all he said. "Good afternoon, Lord Tarth." And he left with only a cursory bow, and without another word.
After his unexpectedly intriguing experience on his first foray, Jaime managed to wait the entirety of a day and night before setting out once again for stately Evenfall Hall.
Though he could have taken the curricle that the inkeep was anxious for him to let, the walk allowed him an attempt to extract the rambling from his thoughts by translating it to his legs. He had come to this island already in conflict: sent by his father--with whom, thanks to the scandal attached to his name, Jaime seemed to start every race ten paces behind--to secure the hand of a Stark, all on behalf of a man whom Jaime hated more than anyone else living. So it was already a delicate situation, and now he'd found the Tarth heir to be an unanticipated complication, a blade tossed into a fragile machine.
Jaime had been surprised and somewhere between amused and annoyed at his own reaction to the man. His attractions were rare enough to be notable: for most of his life, it had been Cersei, always Cersei, golden and fierce and as jagged as the rocks that surrounded them. There had been a secret flare of heat to his youthful fascination with Arthur Dayne and Brynden Tully that he now recognized as something a step beyond hero worship. Neither Lord nor Lady Stark had entirely escaped his notice. And now Lord Galladon Tarth, apparently. Jaime had always been intending to provoke the man, to test his mettle and see what kind of protector Sansa Stark had found for herself. And then he'd discovered all of that raw power and skill, all woven around the kind of unflappable stubbornness that made Jaime want very badly to flap it.
It was a laughable irony that despite her beauty and the fiction they'd created, he'd never felt any desire for Rhaella. It had started with concern, and a creeping guilt from witnessing his general's atrocities during the war that had driven Jaime to recklessness when he'd seen the hunted look in Rhaella's eyes every time her cousin and husband was near. When Jaime had offered his aid four years prior, posing as Rhaella's lover had seemed the quickest--and, he'd thought, the most decisive--way to separate her from her husband. Neither one of them had expected the arrangement to last long, there being many wealthy mothers who would doubtless be pleased to dangle their daughters in front of a marquess.
Until recently, though, Crownlands' sadism had exceeded his greed, and he had refused a divorce no matter how many eligible ladies were flung at him. So he'd kept Rhaella tethered to him, and Jaime and Rhaella tethered to each other by extension. Jaime was embarrassed, now, at his own naivete in thinking that his previously spotless reputation, his heartfelt service, would have earned him some grace despite outward appearances. All but a few of his former friends and acquaintances had been all too happy to turn on him, to snicker openly at seeing the Golden Lion so tarnished. Meanwhile, he'd watched Rhaella disappear further and further into herself, the charming and carefree girl he remembered from court in his youth replaced by a walking shadow that grew thinner by the day until he feared she would disappear entirely.
So no. There was nothing between them besides a resigned and fragile warmth, the bond of two prisoners who peered through the same high window to watch the outside world flow by without them.
Which was why, when Crownlands had expressed a determination to marry the suddenly-vulnerable-seeming Sansa Stark, it had felt like one of their jailors had left the key within reach. Here, finally, was a chance to free Rhaella--she was only four-and-thirty, a few years his senior, yet still more than youthful enough to have a full life ahead of her if her marriage was dissolved now. And to accomplish it, all Jaime had to do was sacrifice another young woman to the same fate he'd tried to help Rhaella escape. Though, he'd argued to himself a thousand times, if it was not Sansa Stark, it would be someone else who would fall victim to Crownlands' rage eventually, and perhaps someone not fortunate enough to be possessed of such an intimidating uncle. And if it was neither Sansa nor someone else, it would continue to be Rhaella. And so his thoughts and his discussions with Rhaella had gone, all the long journey from Casterly Rock: running in circles like a dog chasing a rabbit, and Jaime not knowing which one he was.
Under such circumstances, he could scarcely breathe in their small rooms, and unexpectedly, he'd found himself grateful for the salt air and untamed fields and crags of Tarth. It felt tangible. Straightforward. Solid stone and steep inclines to test his strength, each new rise a victory and each valley a respite. Part of him wished that he was here for just this, just open spaces and the expansion of air in his lungs for what felt like the first time in years.
And it seemed he was not the only one enjoying the offerings of the island's natural beauty: as he approached the latest rise, he could hear splashing sounds beyond, and humming in a range that was already vaguely familiar. Before he knew it, his steps had quickened; it was a warm day, and perhaps he'd persuade Lord Tarth--or whoever it is, he reminded himself hastily--to let him avail himself of whatever glorified puddle was about to greet him.
He came over the rise to find a meadow, and discovered that the glorified puddle was in fact a pond, and a rather lovely one, though it amused Jaime to consider how he would deny that to his oh-so-reluctant host. In the privacy of his own mind, he could admit that it nearly aspired to be a lake. The water was clear and the sun glittered off of it like someone had buried a hoard of sapphires amidst the grass. And there was indeed a figure splashing there, and as Jaime watched, that figure rose up and began to make its way toward shore. His first impression was of muscle: long, corded lines of it, moving smoothly beneath pale skin that was blotchy with the coolness of the water. Jaime was seized with the idea that he was watching some sort of water elemental emerge from its home.
Then his gaze settled lower, and he realized that his elemental had breasts. Small ones, but fascinating, with rosy peaks that drew the eye to the slightly deeper pink nipples standing out in the cold. A profusion of freckles was the only covering for all that skin, and his eyes traced one to the other like a map of the night sky.
The sister, he thought, with some astonishment, this must be the sister. Brienne Tarth, if his memory of the hastily-studied Tarth family tree served him correctly. Then she turned to disentangle a reed from her leg, and he saw it: dotted across her upper arm were the purpling imprints of what he immediately knew to be his own fingers--it had taken him hours, that first night, to rid himself of the feeling of Lord Tarth's muscles like steel beneath them.
"Gods be good," he said aloud. When she turned her head, her expression startled, he was certain. Family resemblance was one thing, but he could not credit the idea that there was more than one person in the world who had eyes quite like that.
Upon seeing him, she made a sound somewhere between a growl and a squawk, glanced toward a pile of cloth sitting in the grass several yards away, and then simply dove back into the water. She came up dripping some short distance off. All he could see was her mutinous face above the waterline, and a compelling flesh-colored blur below. Her hair was stuck to the sides of her head and neck like so many wet weeds. She was blushing so brightly he was surprised there wasn't steam coming off the water around her.
"Turn your back, ser, if you are a proper gentleman," she commanded, and he laughed.
"That's the beauty of my reputation: no one ever mistakes me for one of those." He kept his distance, though, affording her the little modesty she'd managed to seize. Truth be told, he knew that he should back away and let her finish her swim in peace, but if he'd been intrigued before, he was now fascinated, and thoroughly disinclined to let her slip from his grasp. Metaphorically speaking, at least. He examined her face, re-shuffling her features in his head like a deck of cards, bending them around this new knowledge. She made a likelier man than a woman, he would grant her that.
"Who are you?" she demanded, belatedly, and oh, now that her careful facade had been scratched, she was quite terrible at this. It was oddly endearing.
"You would ask me that when you still bear my tokens from yesterday, my lord?" he asked pointedly, nodding toward her arm.
Impossibly, she flushed even darker. "I cannot imagine what you are speaking of."
Jaime clucked his tongue against his teeth. "Please. The game is up, and you insult both of us to pretend otherwise." He shifted his weight to one hip, and crossed his arms over his chest. "My question now is: why, Tarth? Why go to all this trouble?" Given that his life was woven all through with deception, he could hardly judge her for doing the same; still, he was curious. More than curious, if he was honest; his tall complication just kept growing more complex, it appeared.
"My name," she spat, "is Lady Brienne."
"Honored to make your acquaintance," he said, with his most elaborate bow. When he came back up, she was glaring at him so furiously that he felt the impact in almost the same delicious way as when she'd scored a solid point on him during their bout. "You've still failed to answer my question, though. Was there ever a Galladon Tarth, or has he always been some figment of your imagination? Or is he some sort of wastrel, having abandoned your family and left you to--"
At that, she rose up again to her full height, dripping water and righteous fury. He could see her muscles bunch beneath her skin, preparing for action. Jaime's foot twitched, wanting to drop back into a defensive stance. His cock twitched, too, which was… inconvenient, to say the least.
Fortunately, she seemed unaware of his predicament, her words piercing the space between them as if they'd been shot from a bow. "My brother was the soul of honor, ser, and now he is gone, lost to the sea. I am the only living member of my family, and I am the only one left to care for the Starks. And I will do so even if it drives me to my grave as well." Given the distance, he wasn't sure at first if the sheen in her eyes was rage or tears; then, as he watched, her chin trembled ever so slightly. He ducked his head, his delight in the game gone sour.
"My apologies, my lady. I did not know."
"You certainly did not." He heard splashing noises, and glanced up enough to see that she was striding doggedly toward the shore again. This time, he kept his eyes mostly averted, as his penance for having cut closer to the bone than he'd intended. He was unused to having people in his life who truly cared for much, aside from the brief glimpses of it he still caught sometimes in Rhaella. This woman, though, was all caring; it fairly blazed out of her.
He looked up again when he heard her stomping through the long grass toward him. She'd haphazardly donned a white shirt and loose trousers, and the blue waistcoat she'd thrown over the top of it all was barely enough to satisfy modesty; he could still see the faint blush of her skin where the water had rendered the linen of her shirt translucent. There were more of those freckles, too, clustering all along the expanse left visible by her open collar.
"You will not speak to anyone of what you've seen here," she told him firmly.
Because she seemed to have recovered herself somewhat, he allowed himself a slow grin. "Which part, Lady Brienne?"
He had the satisfaction of watching her splutter in response, her eyes flashing; truly, she was a sight to see when her blood was up. He even thought she might strike him. "This may be a lark to you, Lord Casterly, but there would be dire consequences for me if my secret was discovered. My brother's death was unexpected, and as an unmarried woman, I have no legal right to be Sansa's protector, nor indeed to do much of anything useful. And though I know your reputation, I also know that you were commended and knighted for your heroic feats in battle--surely there must be something left of the man who was determined not to let the innocent suffer at Riverrun."
That slipped under his guard, and suddenly he was enjoying the situation considerably less. "'Something left'?" he repeated. "Please, such effusions are embarrassing." The words tasted like acid in his mouth.
She set her chin. "I have no gift for flattery, my lord."
"So I see." In a way, it was refreshing, or would have been, had it been directed at someone else.
She made an impatient huffing noise, and squared her shoulders. "We are a small island, my lord. I know that I have little to offer you as enticement. All I may do is ask for your word as a gentleman that you will not betray my secret."
"And if I don't acquiesce?" He intended to, honestly--he had no reason not to, and seeing her jailed would be like watching a wild animal sealed in a cage. But he wanted to see what she would do if he pushed her just a little further.
Her jaw clenched. "Then I will be forced to demand satisfaction."
The laugh burst out of him before he could help it. "You'll be forced to what?" Given the ferocity with which she'd fought the day before, he gave her the benefit of not suggesting any alternative ways to interpret that statement. Though he found certain images flickering through his mind, entirely without his say-so: he could see her flushed face, hear her panting breath loud in his ears.
Her eyes flickered nervously to his hands and back to his face, as if she, too, was remembering their assault, but she didn't back down in the slightest. "I will do what I must to defend those I love, ser."
A thought flitted into Jaime's head that it would be quite a thing, to be in the circle of her protection. "All right, Tarth," he said. He watched her struggle to marshal her reaction to his impertinence. "I'll keep your secret."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "I have your word as a gentleman?"
"Yes, yes. My word as a gentleman." It had been so long since anyone had said those words to him and meant anything beyond rote recitation that his own response felt almost strange in his mouth. He extended his hand to her. "I'll even shake on it, if you like."
She looked down at his hand, then back up at him. After a moment, she reached out and took hold of him, gripping firmly. He could feel the callouses from a sword's hilt, scraping against his own. Those were not the work of a few weeks, surely, nor was her skill the previous day.
What a match that had been.
"I have a condition, though," he told her.
She yanked her hand away. "You cannot name conditions after the bargain is struck," she said, outraged.
"Seeing as I have you at a disadvantage, I can do what I like," he pointed out. "But not to worry; this condition won't be difficult to meet."
She made a noise that was perilously close to a snort. "What is it, then?"
"I must stay here on Tarth for a while, as we discuss Lady Sansa's future."
"I told you--"
He held up a hand. "These things take time, Lady Brienne. And during that time, you will grant me the use of your grounds, as I need them. The rooms we've taken in town are small, and I have a great love of the outdoors." The truth was that those rooms were haunted by his rumored lover, and they were unaccustomed to spending more than a few days together. Certainly not in such close quarters. She hadn't complained, only smiled wanly at him after he'd returned from his previous day at the Tarth estate, but their meal together had been a subdued affair, their attempts at light conversation weighed down by everything they'd discussed nearly to distraction on their journey there. He suspected she was feeling as stifled and breathless as he was.
Lady Brienne was glaring at him. Again. "You will not kill all my pheasants, ser."
He laughed. "Your pheasants are safe from me, my lady; I take no particular joy in killing defenseless animals. I prefer sport that gets the blood pumping more vigorously than that." He truly hadn't planned the innuendo, but damned if it didn't come out of his mouth anyway.
He watched her, ready for her to take offense, but she only tilted her head, then nodded slowly. He wondered if that meant that she preferred the same. She hadn't seemed to relish their hunt the way he'd seen some other gentlemen do, crowing over their kills. Maidenly soft-heartedness, probably, but after what he'd seen in the war, he could no longer exult over death, either, necessary though it might be at times. Something sharpened inside him at the thought, the edge of it flashing out in his words. "I would ask for the use of a horse, if you can spare one from tending the fields, or whatever it is that you do here." He had left his father's horses waiting on the mainland, unwilling to risk them on the sea crossing.
She drew up to her full height again, so that she could look down her nose at him. It was a bit crooked, as if maybe it had been broken before. Given her unusual choices in pastimes, he could hazard a guess at how. "You know perfectly well that I count as many miners as farmers among my tenants," she snapped. "As do you, Lord Casterly."
"Indeed," he conceded. "Well, then. A horse, and leave to ride it where I will. Those are my conditions."
She nodded. "You are welcome to explore the grounds and the countryside, my lord."
"Good. And I might require your company as well, Tarth," he said.
Shock spread over her face. Jaime knew how she felt; he hadn't strictly intended to ask her any such thing. "My what?"
"We both know that you can only maintain this fiction for so long, my lady," he told her, the words seeming to come to his tongue without first spending even a second in his brain. "I have never seen you ride, but I've seen you hunt and I've seen you fight, and even after a single morning in your company, I already know that you are no more meant for a drawing room than I am. You have years' worth of embroidery and side-saddle in your future, and maybe an ancient wealthy husband who'll fill your belly with babies. When I return to the Rock, I'll be drawn into endless discussions and machinations and cousins. Let us both hold off our drudgery for a little while longer, and test our skills against one another while we can."
"My lord," she protested, "I cannot--"
"Afraid that I'll thrash you again?" he asked, and that did the trick. It was fortunate for her that her footwork was less predictable than her emotions.
"Fine," she snapped. "I'll ride with you. Tomorrow. Just after dawn, before the day gets too warm."
She gave him a curt bow--somewhat undermined by her bedraggled appearance, but a noble attempt nonetheless--and turned on her heel, setting off in the direction of the house.
"My lady," he called after her.
She paused, as though she was considering ignoring him, then turned back. "Yes?"
"If, in the future, you need someone to wash your back--"
"Good afternoon, my lord," she told him, and he found himself laughing again as she stalked away.
* * * * *
As much as he appreciated the bosom-enhancing qualities of a ballgown, he had to admit that she looked very well in all of it, in its promise of vigorous action. The tall riding boots suited her especially, stretching up the truly impressive length of her calves.
"Good morning, my lord," she said, the words as starched as the collar of his best shirt.
"My--" he started, then raised an eyebrow at her.
"'My lord' will do," she informed him. He inclined his head, delighted by her already; she was so refreshingly odd, when everyone else in his life was more and more of the same.
She offered him the reins of one horse, a midnight-colored stallion. "This is Honor. I hope he meets your conditions, ser."
"He's a very handsome horse." Jaime stroked a hand down the beast's nose, and it whickered and tossed its head. When he looked back up at Lady Brienne, she looked surprised, as if she'd half-expected him to want to be served the horse for breakfast. "What? Do I have you at sixes and sevens already, and it barely past dawn?"
"I simply..." She swallowed, then shook her head. "Are you ready, my lord?"
He inclined his head again. "Ladies first. My lord," he added, simply for the expression on her face. She did not disappoint him. With another of those annoyed huffing noises--oddly reminiscent of the horses, now he thought of it--she swung herself up into the saddle. He was immediately punished for teasing her: his throat went dry at the flex of her shoulders beneath her coat, followed by the sight of her trousers stretched over her powerful thighs. He gritted his teeth and tried to muster enough saliva to swallow.
"Are you well, my lord?" she asked him. "Do you need assistance in mounting?"
Mounting. Gods. Jaime gripped the saddle and swung himself up, then urged the horse forward with his knees so that it sprang into a quick trot. He heard her outraged exclamation behind him as she followed after.
For a while, he applied himself to drawing her out through a series of quips and barbs, that he might better take her measure now that he knew her secret. But it was as though she'd decided--given that he'd already breached her most crucial line of defense without intending to--that she must fortify the rest all the more, so she only answered him in tight-lipped monosyllables that were approximately as satisfying as lukewarm gruel.
Eventually, he decided to serve her some gruel of his own and kept his mouth clamped shut, determined not to break first. Though it was far from his natural inclination, he'd learned the trick of quiet during his days as a soldier, and had sometimes found it even more effective than speech at encouraging an enemy to show their weaknesses. But Lady Brienne seemed more relieved than anything, which produced even more irritation in Jaime. Still, he found the fresh air working on him despite himself, such that at length, they settled into a sort of fragile peace, roaming the meadows in a silence that was, if not companionable, at least on the near side of hostile.
When they returned to the main house, she looked up at him after she dismounted and, by some miracle, actually spoke of her own volition. "Would you like to meet Lady Sansa, my lord? I think you'll find her unlike what you expect."
He laughed a bit. He should have known she would only speak to him to rush him on his errand as quickly as possible. "I told you, I met her when she was a child. And I've met her parents, too; I can conceive of what kind of daughter they'd raise." That had been one of his hopes for this arrangement, in truth, that a Stark daughter strong enough to withstand a fever that had felled her formidable family would somehow prove immune to Crownlands' rage as well.
"I suspect that at least Lady Arya would surprise you." Her mouth quirked up at the corner, though it turned the jest on him rather than inviting him into it. He felt slightly cold, and disliked the sensation.
"I'll return tomorrow," he said shortly. "We'll ride first, and have an assault after."
That stubborn wrinkle appeared between her brows, but he knew she could hardly refuse him, not when Sansa's future might hang in the balance. She inclined her head. "Tomorrow, then, my lord."
* * * * *
Upon his arrival, Lady Brienne was waiting for him again, true to her word. He gave her a curt greeting before swinging himself up on his horse, leaving her to hurry to do the same. As the house receded behind them and the meadows beckoned, he found himself squeezing his knees against Honor's side as though he could leave his heavy thoughts behind him in the dust of the carriageway.
Honor trotted faster, and at Jaime's side, he could feel Lady Brienne urging her own bay stallion forward, keeping pace with him. Curious, Jaime nudged his horse again; Lady Brienne followed suit again. A third time, and now it was unmistakable, the proud tilt of her chin when she stole a sideways glance at him as her mount nosed just past his. That was all Jaime needed to open the floodgates. He leaned forward, took hold of the reins, and whispered in Honor's ear, and then they were off: fairly flying over the fields, leaping fences and dodging hillocks, with Lady Brienne and her bay pounding along next to them as though they dragged an invisible carriage behind.
A large oak tree came into view some distance off, and Jaime only had to flicker a look to Lady Brienne to know she had likewise marked it as her goal. He urged Honor faster still, promising him oats and carrots and apples and songs to be sung of him. He could feel victory, he could taste it, and it was almost, almost enough--until Lady Brienne's stallion streaked past the tree half a nose in front of them, leaving Jaime and Honor both sweating and panting in her wake.
The race concluded, Jaime slowed Honor to a walk, then a stop. Lady Brienne wheeled her own mount around to return to them. Her expression was mild, but he knew what the fierce light of victory looked like in someone's eyes--he'd felt it in his own often enough--and the corners of her mouth kept trying to tug themselves up. He'd lost, but he wanted to laugh anyway.
"You had the advantage of knowing horse and terrain," he told her as she pulled up in front of him. "Another month here and I'd have you beat."
"Is that your usual response to losing a contest, my lord? To inform your opponent of how, from a certain perspective, in some flight of fancy, you actually won?" Her very consonants seemed to taunt him, despite their armor of stiff formality, and he only liked her better for it.
"I bested you on our first meeting," he reminded her. "I simply wanted you to keep you from despair, as I know how vulnerable delicate women are to that sort of thing."
"Your concern for my well-being is kind, my lord, but I assure you, it's entirely unnecessary. In fact, I'm feeling very well at the moment." A small smile escaped her fortifications. Given the size of her mouth, he wondered what it would be like to see that smile stretched out to its full wingspan. Her hair was very bright in the sunlight, nearly blinding.
For a breath, Jaime was tempted to open his mouth and let all the shameful truth tumble out of it.
"How is it, my lady," he asked instead, "that you are permitted to ride with me unchaperoned? Do you not have some severe septa holding your reins to ensure proper conduct?"
That made quick work of the smile. "I am not a horse, ser," she said, and even the vowels seemed razor-edged this time, "and I'll thank you not to refer to me as such." Then it seemed to occur to her that she was meant to be making herself agreeable on behalf of her friend and ward--perhaps she and Lady Sansa had discussed the matter the night before, as he and Rhaella had--and she went on in a tone that sounded like it had been modulated with some difficulty, "I did have a septa, when I was younger. She was… quite strict. When I came of age, my brother confronted my father and insisted that she be dismissed." She sat straighter in her saddle. "In any case, ser, it has become clear to me that such rules and expectations primarily serve to restrict women's abilities, rather than to protect them. I felt no safer when I was under my septa's thumb, and I certainly feel much safer now, with a knife at my side and the training to use it."
Particularly given his intimate view of Rhaella's experience, and their futile attempts to withdraw her from her marriage in a way that left her honor and dowry intact, Jaime could not but agree. Safety and propriety seemed little concerned with one another, when the trappings were stripped aside.
"So for now," Lady Brienne went on, "as long as those outside my household think me my brother, I am permitted to do what I like, as most men are. And those inside my household trust my judgment and my ability to safeguard my own honor."
Honor, she'd said, with a glow of pride bathing her broad face. He remembered what that felt like, remembered carrying it in front of him like a banner when he'd gone to war. He thought of everything he'd seen, and everything he was here to do, and suddenly even the open sky and open air were not sufficient to draw enough breath into his lungs. "I have business to attend to in town," he said, knowing it was abrupt but unable to smooth it, "and I will reach it more quickly with the aid of a mount." He stroked the horse's neck, and did not think of its name. "Is he needed for anything today?"
"No, my lord," she said, startled and hiding it poorly.
He nodded. "Very good. Then I will return him to you tomorrow morning, no worse for the wear. You have my word."
Her brow furrowed, and he could see a retort forming behind her lips. When she opened them, all that came out was, "You do not care to fence today, my lord? Lady Sansa is prepared to receive you either before or after."
Lady Sansa. By the Warrior, she was the last person by whom he wanted to be received at this particular time. "I'll return the horse tomorrow," he said, and spurred poor tired Honor into a gallop.
* * * * *
The horse's mistress, of course, would be a different sort of project entirely. The next morning when Jaime rode back to Evenfall Hall, arriving just before 8 o'clock, Lady Brienne emerged through the front door as he approached, as if she'd been watching for him through the window.
"Good morning, my lord." There was no trace of welcome in it.
"Good morning, Sixes," he greeted her.
Her eyes narrowed to something reminiscent of the arrow-slits in a medieval fortress.
"Since I so often seem to have you at sixes and sevens," he explained, "only you don't even let me get to the sevens bit before you're arguing with me." He grinned at her. He'd come up with the idea while dressing for bed the night before, and he had been anxious to deploy it on her ever since. With any luck, she'd be so irritated at him for that that she would forget to be irritated at him for his previous conduct.
Her brows drew together, somehow stormcloud-like despite their pale hue, and she glowered at him, giving him the same sense of satisfaction that he always felt at having earned the ire of a formidable opponent. She reached out and stroked a hand down Honor's nose; he whickered and pushed against her hand.
"He seems well enough," she said begrudgingly, inspecting him.
"I was true to my word, Sixes," he told her. Her face grew redder. "Shall we fence today?" he asked pleasantly.
"With pleasure," she gritted out.
He bested her once again, though she nearly had him multiple times, and he knew she knew it--the awareness of it shone in her when they finished at last, panting, her entire bearing promising that his day was coming.
As one last unspoken penance for his earlier rudeness, he invited her to choose the next day's activity. With an alacrity that suggested she'd only been waiting on the opportunity, the following morning she took him to a lake with two battered-looking boats tethered at its shore and proceeded to row him into exhaustion, her strong arms stroking in the same unrelenting rhythm as the pendulum of a clock as she beat him five times out of five.
The day after that, his arms aching, he suggested another ride, and felt a thrill of victory when it occurred to him to ask her about the history of the house and she filled nearly half an hour with discourse on the subject in a tone that could almost have been called animated.
The day after that, it was pugilism, where she ended their bout with a blow so delightfully devastating that he could only admire it.
After years of greeting every day expecting more of a life indelibly marked by his own failures and inadequacies, it was a novelty to wake and anticipate something, like the summer holidays he'd heard his schoolmates speak of while he was kept occupied with Lannister family business.
Each day when they were done with their morning's tilt, she asked if he'd like to meet with Lady Sansa. Each day, he demurred.
By their fourteenth day, there were still long stretches of silence during their ride, but the animosity had slowly bled out of them until what remained was something within a stone's throw of companionship. Jaime was contented by the feel of the wind in his hair, the smell of crushed grass under the horses' hooves as they loped through the meadows. Lady Brienne's pride in her home had been justified; there was an openness and a wildness to it, a sense of potential, that caught at Jaime's soul. As a child, he'd loved Casterly Rock, loved exploring its winding paths and its sandy beaches. He'd loved diving off the cliffs, too, that endless exhilarating stretch between his feet leaving the ground and the cool shock of the water. Now he had no time for such things, and less appetite for it, too; even the views were weighted with his obligations, and his continual failure to meet his father's ruthless expectations. The familiar stone walls that had filled him with such pride in his youth, such confidence at their impenetrability, had proven to be just as reluctant to let him out as anyone else in.
Tarth seemed to have its share of cliffs; he wondered if Lady Brienne had ever flung herself off of them.
He pulled his horse closer to hers. "Are there any views of the water near here, my lady?"
She startled a bit at the sound of his voice, then looked at him suspiciously. "Yes." What, did she think he was going to sully the views somehow? Sully her, perhaps?
"Don't worry, I have no intention of seducing you," he told her, and there was that testy exhalation he enjoyed so much, and the back of her head as she turned away from him. Her hair was sticking to her neck, curling a bit in the heat and damp. "I grew up near the water," he said, by way of explanation. "When I go too long without seeing it, I feel…" He rolled his shoulders, searching for the right word. "Unsettled," he decided finally.
That got her attention, a quick twist of her head. "I… I understand that, my lord."
He grinned at her. "Is that the first time in our acquaintance that we are in accord on something? That is news, my lady."
She turned away from him again. He could see the blush at the back of her neck. He couldn't decide which he enjoyed more: her disdain or her reluctant realization that she might have something in common with the dreaded Kingslayer.
"Shall we race?" he asked, pressing his advantage.
Her jaw clenched. He knew she wanted to; he could see it in the way her gloved hands tightened on the reins. She pretended a great fascination with the horizon. "You do not know the way, my lord."
"Well, that's to your advantage, then, isn't it? I'll just follow you until I smell the sea," he returned.
She snorted. "And have you tell me afterward that I only beat you because you were unfamiliar with the terrain? Thank you, no."
"You think too much," he told her, laughing.
"And you appear to think a great deal too little," she said, as he had anticipated--but it was a victory anyway, drawing that wry and withering humor out of her.
"Then you forfeit?" he asked. He'd barely touched his knees to Honor's flank before he began to trot; they knew each other well, now, and Jaime could feel the horse gathering himself for a good gallop. He could also hear Lady Brienne's horse trotting up behind him, right on cue.
"I forfeit nothing," she said crisply. She was already leaning forward.
"Then you had best ride," he said--the last word torn out of him by the wind as Honor leapt ahead.
True to his strategy, he let Lady Brienne lead until he could see the gulls winging in the distance, then gave Honor his head and let him devour the ground beneath them. It was to no avail this time, as Lady Brienne had clearly bribed her own mount with the promise of some superior foodstuffs and wheeled to a stop just past a stand of boulders, where the grass started to fade into rock.
"I was unfamiliar with the terrain," he called out as he rode up to her, taking care to choose her exact phrasing.
She replied with what was not so much a speaking look as a shouting one. He grinned and dismounted, leaving Honor to graze while Jaime made his way out toward the cliff's edge. Lady Brienne trailed behind him with her now-typical air of mildly aggrieved duty.
As he came to the edge of the cliff, he could feel something inside his chest unlock and fling itself open. The sea stretched wide and wild out to the horizon, the sun glimmering off depthless blue and waves that slowly gathered in groups like a flock of gulls as they approached the shore, crashing against the rocks and sending up great sprays. "This is a spectacular view, Sixes."
"My name," she ground out, and it was not any less amusing the dozenth time than it had been on the first, "is Lady Brienne."
"Mmm," he said noncommittally. "In any case, Sixes, it's a cracking good coastline you have here. Despite the name, the Rock doesn't have quite so many… well, rocks. Not so dramatic."
She didn't answer at first, clearly caught between pride in her home and annoyance at the nickname. Which only proved the truth of its origin, ultimately. "My brother and I used to come here on warm summer days. It was his favorite view on the island." Her eyes went distant, searching the endless blue in front of them.
"Ah." It had become clear that she preferred a stand-up fight to a sly one, but had she devised it as a strategy, she could hardly have chosen better. No matter how much joy he derived from poking at her, there were a few lines yet that he would not cross. He wondered at it sometimes, what it must be like for her to cloak herself in her dead brother's name and clothing. He'd seen her face on the few occasions she'd spoken of him, the slight softening of the rough edges she usually scraped against Jaime, and he'd found himself envious of such uncomplicated love. In his family, affection tended to be viewed as both highly conditional and moderately embarrassing, at the least. "You must miss him," he said quietly.
"Very much." There was a ragged edge to the words, like a frayed seam.
"I suppose he must have encouraged all of your terribly unladylike impulses," he went on--perhaps a bit more warmly than was appropriate for the duration and nature of their acquaintance. Her finding him over-familiar seemed a smaller risk at the moment, though, than her thinking he would taunt her about such a thing.
Her mouth tipped upward at the corners. "He did," she said. "He taught me to ride, to shoot, to fence. Every lesson he was given that I was denied, he passed along to me as soon as he could. We used to jump off the cliffs here, as a matter of fact."
"These cliffs?" He peered down below, disbelieving. He did not know her for someone given to empty boasts, but surely even stone giants like the Tarth siblings would have shattered to pieces on that shoreline.
She nodded toward her right. "There's a cove over there. It's sheltered enough that the water is calmer. We used to dare each other: who could jump higher, swim further."
He nodded, too. "Cersei--my father's ward--and I used to do the same thing." He could still hear the echo in his ears: the long, winding, untamed tail of her cries as she'd plunged down to the water. At the time, he'd thought he'd heard joy in them; now, he wasn't so sure. There had been hunger, at least, in the way she'd devoured him afterward in the shelter of the rocks, her hot mouth contrast to the cool water. She'd made him promise to carry her away, spinning fantasies of piracy and royalty with equal fervor.
Robert Baratheon had offered her something closer to the latter, it seemed.
"You have a brother, too, do you not, my lord?" Lady Brienne asked.
"I do." Jaime took his own turn at searching the horizon, watching blue fade into blue. "He was always more given to books than the outdoors, though." Still, they had been close enough as children, with Jaime using his fists and Tyrion his words to protect each other as best they could. By the time Jaime had returned from the war, he'd seemed almost a stranger, Jaime's wickedly clever little brother become a wickedly clever man, and one far too similar to their father for anyone's liking--Tyrion's included.
"Do you miss them?" she said then.
Jaime could hear the gulls, their piercing calls. "A great deal more than they miss me, I suspect." When he chanced a look at Lady Brienne, she was watching him with something perilously close to sympathy in her eyes. He knew he should smile for her, rearrange his expression, but the idea of it felt as heavy as a boulder in his mind; he couldn't heft it. "It seems as though we have a contest for another day, hmm?" he asked with a tilt of his head toward the cove, attempting to lighten the mood with his words instead.
She let her eyes drag over him slowly, appraising, and he felt his own spine straightening. For that matter, he fervently hoped that nothing else was straightening at the moment. "You might be able to manage it, Westerlander."
He threw back his head and laughed.
After he'd somewhat recovered himself, she said, "Speaking of another day, my lord--I cannot help but notice that you've been here a full fortnight, and you've yet to even set eyes on the lady you were sent here to find. Will you not meet with her?"
He felt as though he'd gotten a face full of salt spray. Here he'd been enjoying her company, enjoying her damned island, and the entire time, she'd been counting the hours and wondering at his failure to deliver on his duty. "So anxious to be rid of me, are you?" he snapped, then regretted it. Any halfway competent adversary would slip swiftly through the crack in his guard and eviscerate him.
Her mouth worked, and he thought, viciously, of a cow chewing its cud. "I simply thought that Lord Crownlands might be expecting--"
"Yes," he interrupted. Hang Lord Lady Galladon Brienne of Tarth, and hang Sansa Stark too. Jaime's responsibility was to Rhaella, and the sooner they all remembered that, the better. "Yes, Lord Crownlands will be waiting anxiously for news, and I've wasted far too much time already on this backward little rock. I will be at Evenfall Hall tomorrow morning at ten o'clock. See that Lady Sansa is ready." Turning sharply on his heel, he stalked off toward his horse, and did not look back to see if she was following.
"Brienne." Sansa's voice cut into Brienne's reverie.
"Yes?" Brienne was only half-listening.
"Do sit down," Sansa pleaded. "You'll wear a hole in the rug at this rate, and then what will Lord Casterly think?"
Brienne stopped in her--well-worn, she now realized--tracks, and straightened the ends of her sleeves with a furious set of yanks. "I cannot imagine anything I care about less than what Lord Casterly thinks." He'd been almost kind to her the previous day, almost as though he'd begun to see her as a living, breathing being, and not merely a fencing dummy. Almost as though he'd grown to anticipate their daily contests as much as she had. And then as soon as she'd tried to respond in kind by attempting to aid him in the mission that he seemed so uncertain how to attempt, he'd repaid her with an attack that had left her reeling.
She saw the look that Sansa exchanged with Margaery Tyrell--who had joined them from Highgarden at nearly the same time that Lord Casterly had arrived--and it did not improve her mood in the slightest. "I can't!" she insisted.
"Well, I look forward to finally setting eyes on him," Margaery said from her seat next to Sansa, smoothing the skirt of her sprigged muslin over her knees.
"So do I," Arya added from where she was leaning in the doorway to the next room. "I'd like to meet anyone who can best Brienne at fencing four times out of five."
"Three times out of five," Brienne corrected.
Arya only shrugged and grinned.
"Brienne." Sansa rose from the settee and came to kiss her on the cheek. She left her hands on Brienne's shoulders afterward, the effect surprisingly steadying given her slender frame. "All will be well."
"I am simply--" Brienne paused long enough to inhale and exhale deeply, feeling the walls of the room very close. She longed for the open expanse of the sky above her. "This meeting could determine the course of your future, Sansa. I want us all to be on our best behavior, and alert to anything amiss, as well." Despite their largely lopsided conversations over the past fortnight, Lord Casterly had remained curiously silent on the topic of Lord Crownlands' virtues, save that he was wealthy and a marquess, which was what everyone knew already. Something was strange about this arrangement, and she was annoyed at herself for having lacked the subtlety to determine it. For having let Lord Casterly bait her into distraction with his flashing blade and his infuriating chatter.
"None of us will let any harm come to Sansa," Margaery said firmly. "Nor to you, Brienne."
"See?" Sansa smiled at her. "We will manage this together, all of us."
One of the coils of hair at the side of Sansa's head had caught itself behind her ear. Brienne freed it, and it popped back to dangle prettily alongside its fellows. "I--"
"My ladies," Peck said from the doorway. "Lord Casterly has arrived."
Brienne pressed her cravat over her thundering heart and turned to face the doorway in question. There was a rustle of cloth as Margaery rose to her feet. Presently, Lord Casterly appeared with his hat already doffed, his hair falling over his forehead as though he'd been running his hands through it. His coat was crisp, his cravat snowy, and his boots freshly polished, though Brienne could see the telltale curl of mud at the bottoms. Even standing still, something about him seemed to strain at the limits of the drawing room, like attempting to squeeze the sun into a fireplace. He seemed not quite able to meet her gaze, focusing instead on some point just beyond her.
She imagined her spine as tall and proud and unyielding as the cliffs they'd visited, and stepped forward. "Lord Casterly, may I present to you Lady Sansa, and our very good friend, Lady Margaery Tyrell of Highgarden. And we are fortunate to have Lady Arya join us this morning as well." As she made the introductions, she was astonished to realize that she wanted her friends to like him. Which she could not credit for the life of her, especially when she was so far from certain as to whether she liked him, herself.
Lord Casterly bowed. Sansa and Margery curtsied. Arya made some sort of brief head movement that could have been nearly anything. Brienne nearly curtsied out of sheer anxious habit before contorting it into a half-bow at the last minute; fortunately, no one was paying her any mind, especially not with such an interesting new arrival.
For a long moment, silence reigned, marked only by the sound of Arya worrying at her fingernails. Lord Casterly was looking at Sansa as though transfixed.
At some length, he said, "You look very like your mother, Lady Sansa." His voice was soft, its usual serrated edge folded over into something nearly courteous.
Sansa's smile bloomed, sweet and a little melancholy, as it often was when someone spoke of her mother. "Did you know her, my lord?"
"Indeed," Lord Casterly told her, his own mouth curving a bit in response. "I knew your mother and your father. A little, anyway. I was at court more often as a boy." He gave a brief huff of laughter. "I'm fairly certain that I liked them better than they liked me. Not that that's saying much."
Sansa regarded him evenly, with her hands clasped in front of her. "I know that our families have not always been in perfect accord, Lord Casterly. But we are not our parents--much as we may love and respect them--and I am more than willing to meet you on your own merits, if you are willing to meet me on mine."
Lord Casterly's smile widened, and he inclined his head again. "I am, my lady, though I think yours must be the far greater number." He turned his attention to Margaery. "It's good to see you again, Lady Margaery. I know your grandmother, and she, I can say with great confidence, bears me no affection whatsoever."
"My grandmother is a woman of very particular tastes," Margaery said delicately, which left little doubt that Lord Casterly was exactly correct in his estimation. Brienne thought she would have liked to have seen those confrontations, in their day.
Lord Casterly nodded, still smiling, and then--the initial introductions concluded--his smile began to falter like a sputtering candle. The clock ticked. Lord Casterly passed the brim of his hat in a circle through his hands. Brienne wanted to ask him if he was ill, that he had no ready quip at hand, no mocking observation.
Margaery finally stepped into the breach with her usual fluid grace; at Highgarden, she charmed more reluctant and tongue-tied guests than Lord Casterly at least three times a week. "How was your walk this morning, my lord? Lady Brienne tells us that you're quite devoted to the exercise."
"Oh, I am," Lord Casterly said. "It's very important, you know, to take some exercise every day." His voice was distant, as though the real Lord Casterly was elsewhere and he'd sent a simulacrum in his place. Yet there was a crease between his brows, the same one she'd seen when they'd been fencing and she'd pressed him hard.
After waiting a moment to see if he had anything else to offer, Brienne asked him, "Will you sit, my lord?" Perhaps that would make him more comfortable. Despite her annoyance with him, she was growing concerned.
"Ah, yes." Lord Casterly looked at the chair nearest to him as though it had appeared out of thin air. "Yes, I will." He sat--or rather perched--toward the outer edge of the seat, his hat still turning, turning in his hands.
"Peck, will you have Pia bring the tea, please?" Margaery asked. Brienne inwardly blanched, but Lord Casterly made no comment on her lapse in hostess duties. That worried her more than anything else.
Peck bowed and left. Brienne took a seat near the settee, so that she and Sansa and Margaery were all arrayed facing Lord Casterly.
"How are you finding life on our island, my lord?" Sansa asked; no matter the distraction of the moment, Brienne felt a glow in her chest at that our. It had been vital to her to do her best to make a home for Sansa in her grief.
"I know that for a man of action and a soldier such as yourself, it must be a great change," put in Margaery.
Clever girl, Brienne thought, to hint at Lord Casterly's military past and thus perhaps spark a mention or two of his general. Notwithstanding her own preference for a stand-up fight, she could still admire subtler tactics when she saw them deployed.
"I've--" Lord Casterly's eyes flickered to Brienne, and she dropped her own gaze to her knees before she could stop herself. She could not look him in the face while he disparaged her home, not this morning. "It's a remarkable place," she heard him say. "I am not much for town life these days, and Casterly Rock will always be my home, but. I can see why you've settled so comfortably here, Lady Sansa."
Brienne clasped her hands very tightly together in her lap.
"Tarth is exceptional," Sansa agreed. "And Lady Brienne has been an unfailingly kind and generous hostess."
Brienne found herself rather interested in Lord Casterly's response to that. However, just then, Pia arrived with the tea and there passed a few moments filled with nothing but the fragile clinking of china and requests for sugar and milk.
By the time they were all re-settled, the carriage of their conversation had changed horses in the interval, and the new ones had to be coaxed into motion all over again. Arya inquired if he'd found good hunting on the grounds; Lord Casterly allowed that he had. He asked after Margaery's brother Loras, who had been just entering the army as Lord Casterly had come out of it; she said that he was well and content, and able to spend much of his time at Highgarden. Sansa offered that she would very much like to see Highgarden in the autumn, as it had been far too long, and Margaery told her warmly that she was welcome at any time. It was all very polite and very bland and very tenuous, like a sheet of ice barely formed over the surface of a lake, and Brienne was in the process of opening her mouth to make an inane observation on the fine weather when Lord Casterly spoke.
"Lady Sansa. You know that I was sent here on a particular errand." He sounded as though the words had burst from behind a sturdy gate.
Lady Sansa met his gaze. "I do, my lord."
"And," he went on doggedly, "if you'll permit me to speak plainly: you know that I have an… arrangement with Lady Crownlands that would benefit greatly from your accepting Lord Crownlands' offer."
"I do," Sansa said with the same still coolness that Catelyn had perfected.
Lord Casterly hesitated once more, then set his teacup aside with the air of a man about to face a ravening beast. "Then I hope you will believe that I must be in earnest when I tell you that you cannot, under any circumstances, accept Lord Crownlands' offer."
Brienne felt her mouth drop open. "Why not?" she demanded. "Do you think Lady Sansa unworthy? She--"
He held up a hand. There was a rigid line of tension that ran the entirety of his back, but his voice was firmer and fuller than it had been since he'd entered the room. "There's no need to defend your charge, Lady Brienne, not when I only seek to do the same. I was Lord Crownlands' right-hand man during the war. I have seen what he is capable of, both on the battlefield and off of it, and Lady Crownlands has told me more tales still. I know him to be vicious when the mood strikes him, and vengeful toward anyone who dares defy him in any way." He had been looking at Brienne, but now he turned his full attention to Sansa. "Believe me, Lady Sansa--if you accept his suit, you will regret it every day for the rest of your life."
There was a silence again, this one filled with shock. Until suddenly, Arya levered herself off the doorframe where she'd been leaning.
"Do you mean to tell us," she said, advancing slowly in Lord Casterly's direction, "that all this time, you've been coming here every day, taking up Brienne's time, pretending all is well, and meanwhile intending to convince my sister to--"
"Arya," Sansa said quietly. Lord Casterly ducked his head, so that all Brienne could see were the loose curls at the top of it. Arya gave her sister a fierce look, but subsided. Brienne couldn't help but notice that Sansa seemed entirely unperturbed by the sudden change in her marital prospects.
Lord Casterly raised his head again with what looked like some effort, and met Arya's eyes. "I am here because my father commanded me, and I am far enough out of his good grace as it is," he said, bitterness lacing the words. "And having met your uncle the Blackfish, Lady Sansa, I had fancied to myself that he would be protection enough for you, had you needed it in the future. The gods know that if there is such a thing as a one-man army, he is that man. But." His teeth caught his lower lip momentarily, then released it. "I cannot and I will not deny that I desired freedom for Lady Rhaella, and for myself, and that I came here with the hope of securing it, despite what I know of Crownlands' true nature. And you must judge me accordingly." His gaze flickered toward Brienne on that last, and though it was a glancing blow, she felt it as if he'd rushed headlong into her.
"Lord Casterly, you can see that we are all astonishment," Margaery said after a moment, though there was steel beneath the typical silk of her voice that reminded Brienne very much of Olenna. "Outside in the hall, you'll find some lovely busts made of the finest Tarth marble. Perhaps you'd like to take a few moments to enjoy them while we digest your news."
"Of course." Lord Casterly rose, bowed deeply, then left them to themselves. After he had gone, Brienne found her gaze arrested by his hat, left waiting on the small end-table next to where he'd been sitting.
"How do we know he's telling the truth, and not just preventing a Stark from making a powerful match?" Sansa asked when he'd disappeared from view.
"As he said, it would seem that there's more advantage to him to have you married to Lord Crownlands, and to be free to marry his mistress," Margaery pointed out.
"And I never liked the idea in the first place," Arya put in, now stationed near the arm of the settee.
"What do you think, Brienne?" Sansa asked. "You've spent the most time with him."
Brienne's mind was racing. On the one hand, she wanted to believe that there was a reason for Lord Casterly's odd behavior; she wanted to believe that the man who had so invigorated her quiet existence would act honorably, in the end, no matter his intentions on his arrival. On the other hand, she was acutely aware of how much she wanted to believe that.
"A fortnight's acquaintance is hardly sufficient for certainty," she said carefully. She desired to give Sansa honest counsel, and not sway her unduly with Brienne's own temptations. "But Lord Casterly has certainly seemed reluctant to take any steps toward securing your hand for Lord Crownlands."
Sansa considered it a moment more, then nodded, looking at each of them in turn. "We're all in agreement, then. I will not marry Aerys Targaryen."
Brienne went to her then, and knelt in front of her. "Are you quite certain?" She couldn't bear for Sansa's hopes to be disappointed so soon after the loss of her family.
Sansa gave her a soft smile. "I'm perfectly well, Brienne. Truly, I'm relieved--the life of a marchioness isn't the life I'd choose. I only thought I should hear him out because of what it might do to preserve the legacy of our family, and to improve Arya's prospects."
"Arya would be just as happy for you to keep your prospects," said the girl in question, and Sansa smiled up at her, too.
"Very well," she said, "we will both remain unmarried for now." She ran steady hands over the skirt of her dress, and adjusted the bracelet her mother had given her for her coming-out. "Lord Casterly!" she called. "You may return."
He did, his hands clasped behind him and looking as though none of his joints were bending properly. "My lady."
"Thank you for your honesty, Lord Casterly--belated though it might have been," Sansa said. There was a flicker of reaction in Lord Casterly's face, a slight wince at the corners of his eyes, but he bore the barb without complaint. "You know Lord Crownlands far better than we," she went on. "How do you recommend we proceed?"
Lord Casterly's expression turned relieved in a way that thrummed softly in a corner of Brienne's chest--she knew what it was to find respite in being able to take action. "With your permission, I will write to him," he said immediately. "I will tell him that you are grateful for his proposal and very sensible of the honor he does you, but you are still in mourning and cannot possibly consider marriage at this time."
"That won't put him off forever," Margaery observed.
"No," Lord Casterly agreed, "but it will provide some time to devise a future strategy. Or," and he lifted a shoulder, "perhaps a future husband."
"Perhaps," was all Sansa replied. "Very well. Write your letter, Lord Casterly, if you please, and keep us apprised of the response."
"I will, my lady."
When the silence stretched and lengthened again, Lord Casterly moved abruptly to retrieve his discarded hat. "Well. I will not trouble you further. When I have Lord Crownlands' response, I will make certain to send it along to you as soon as possible, and I am at your service for any future arrangements needed. I know that I came here under false pretenses, and that I have no reason to expect your forgiveness--any of you," he added, his gaze flickering over Brienne again, then seeming to get caught on her as surely as a fish in a net; she realized that she was still kneeling on the floor, but it was too late now for a more decorous posture. "Nonetheless, it has been my honor to meet you. I wish--" He paused, closed his mouth as if he were biting down on something, then spoke again. "I wish you every happiness."
He turned his eyes once more on Brienne, full of some emotion she knew not how to read. He bowed again, placed his hat on his head with a crisp, decisive air. And then, without another word, he turned on his heel and left the room.
Forever, whispered a small voice in Brienne's mind, he's leaving forever, and she tried to ignore the part of her that stretched after him as he went, like honey spilled on a hot day.
Resolute, she turned to Sansa. "Are sure you're quite well?"
"Perfectly well, Brienne, I give you my word," she assured her, with another one of those gentle smiles. As Brienne watched, the smile crept up into Sansa's eyes and turned mischievous. "Now go."
Brienne blinked. Sansa nodded very deliberately in the direction of the doorway.
Brienne held her gaze for a moment longer, then gave a jerky nod and hurried after Lord Casterly.
She caught up with him just outside the main entrance. "Lord Casterly."
He whirled to face her, muscles coiled in a manner she recognized well by now. But they had no swords to hand. "Have you come to chastise me?"
"No!" she exclaimed, so vehemently that she surprised herself.
It surprised him, too; he stared openly at her for a breath, then held his arms out at his sides. "Why not? Didn't you hear what I came here for, Sixes?" His eyes were hot and his lip curled in disgust, though--being very familiar with the sensation from other men---Brienne did not think it was directed at her. "Lady Arya was correct--I came here to see if I could convince that innocent girl in there to marry a man I know to be a monster, so as to benefit myself and Lady Rhaella."
Brienne felt that revelation settle into her bones; it was no more than she'd suspected from the start. No more than what he'd tacitly admitted to in her drawing room. Yet, as she'd told Sansa, something about his depiction of the situation did not quite ring true.
"You came here for that, yes," she said, considering. "And you were so eager to discharge your duty and aid yourself that you refused to meet with Lady Sansa for a solid fortnight, and you only agreed to it in the end because I provoked you into a temper." The more she spoke, the more right it felt. After all this time, she'd become sharply attuned to when a man was lying to her. She knew.
Lord Casterly's eyebrow arched infinitesimally, though his expression on the whole remained as stormy as ever. "You are enormously provoking."
"Thank you," Brienne answered, warming now to her theme. "And upon meeting with Lady Sansa, you managed to maintain the fiction for nearly half an hour before you confessed to her--to us all--that the marquess is not what he claims. Quite dastardly of you, really."
He scowled at her. "I just confessed that I intended to pack your friend off to a fate worse than death. Why aren't you angry at me?"
She nearly laughed. "Lord Casterly, you have made me angry at you half a dozen times a day for the past fourteen days, so believe me, I'm well-acquainted with the experience. But as to Lady Sansa… I'm simply saying that I'm not certain that you actually tried. And if that truly was your best attempt, then you're not near the strategist I've heard you famed to be."
Unexpectedly, she had to hold in a snort of amusement when he tilted his head to look at her much like Willow did when Brienne gave her a command that she didn't understand. "I'm not certain if I should be flattered or insulted."
"What in our acquaintance would lead you to believe that I am given to empty flattery, my lord?" she inquired blandly.
He barked a short laugh. "A fair point."
Brienne paused for a moment, rolling the words around in her mind before she said them. "You were given the title of Ser, were you not? For your heroism in battle."
A wary look crept into his eyes. "I was."
"Well, then, Ser Jaime." She lifted a shoulder. "It seems to me that today, at any rate, you acted with the honor befitting that title."
There it was, that tilted head again, as well as a sort of incredulity dawning in his eyes like the sun peeking over the horizon. As though he actually cared for her good opinion. "Does it seem so?"
"It does," she said firmly. "And you have conducted yourself honorably, as well, in not disclosing my secret to anyone--at least not so far as I'm aware--nor holding it over my head as a spur to convince me to sell Sansa off like a prize horse."
He looked at her for another moment, then huffed out a breath. "I dislike it when you aren't arguing with me, Six. I feel as though I'm wearing the wrong-sized coat."
"My deepest apologies, my lord." She sketched him a bow.
His expression was wry. "I should say."
"Ser Jaime," she repeated, and if the words felt pleasant in her mouth, it was simply that she'd never met a knight before who seemed to give more than passing consideration to the ideals that formed the foundation of the title. "Whatever sins may be in your past, you have acted honorably today. Do you intend to act honorably tomorrow?"
He opened his mouth, then closed it. Then, "I do."
She spread her hands at her sides. "Then surely is as much as can be asked of any man."
"Or woman," he added, and she felt her cheeks flush.
"Just so, ser."
She couldn't seem to look away from his face, and he seemed disinclined to look away from hers.
"Well," he said after some period of time. "I should go. I have a letter to write."
"You do," she agreed.
He half-turned as if to go, then turned back to her. "I was wondering if you might also permit…" He cleared his throat. "Crownlands is unpredictable, and even knowing him as well as I did once, I am unsure what form his response will take. So though I have no doubt of your ability to protect your own, I would--offer my services. To look in from time to time, in case you have need of another pair of hands."
Glancing down at said hands, even encased as they were in gloves, Brienne could feel heat rush from the top of her head all the way down to the ends of her toes. "I do not require any assistance, my lord," she told him, as it was a point of honor, and might as well have been the Tarth ancestral motto that had been lost to time and floods, besides. He looked shocked, and then resigned, and she hurried to clarify. "I do not require it, but I would welcome it nonetheless. If you are offering."
His throat moved again. "I am."
She inclined her head. "Then I thank you. Please feel welcome to return at your convenience."
His smile slid from one side of his face to the other, growing in strength as it did, until it was even more obnoxious than ever, if such a thing were possible. "You should know by now--I only do things according to my own convenience; in fact, I insist upon it." He swept her a ridiculous bow, his hat nearly touching the tops of his shoes. "Good day, my lady."
Brienne kept her own mouth tight over what she thought might be a laugh. "Good day."
* * * * *
As for Ser Jaime, he returned to the Hall daily, as faithful as a soldier to his post. Brienne could only wonder at the change in him; each morning, he seemed to arrive with another piece of armor left behind him. He was as eager to test his skills against Brienne as ever, but sometimes, too, she would find him sharing reminiscences of Cat and Ned with Sansa, or instructing Arya on her aim with a pistol, or snickering with Margaery over a mutual detested acquaintance at court. He, too, became quicker to laugh, wth a sense of boyish mischief hanging about him that drew much of the sting from his still-relentless teasing.
All of their party having been recently mired in grief and turmoil, there was a feeling about their present state of existing outside of time, outside of obligation. In her youth, Brienne would never have dreamed of giving in to the temptation to escape her lessons and spend the day chasing her fancy from one hill to the next, but if she had, she imagined it would have felt very much like this.
A sennight or so after the messenger's departure, they passed a pleasant morning in the music room, listening to a series of duets from Sansa and Margaery. Ser Jaime and Arya proved a rather disrespectful audience, what with how she had peppered him throughout with questions about the fencing style he'd learned in the Westerlands, but it was a merry gathering nonetheless.
After a selection of songs--wholeheartedly applauded--the girls pleaded tired voices, and Arya skipped off to visit the stables. Brienne promised to see Ser Jaime out, but he seemed to be dragging his feet as they walked, and he stopped her whenever he might, asking her about this painting or that statue. She could not help but wonder if something slowed his steps besides a reluctance to leave the embrace of her country hospitality.
"You know, Ser Jaime," she said, when he had inquired about a well-used rug that was so faded as to render its pattern barely perceptible, "I do wonder that in all your time here, we have yet to meet Lady Crownlands. Now that she and Lady Sansa are unquestionably allied against Lord Crownlands, she would be very welcome to join us, if she likes." Given that she had no idea of her true target, it was a test of his reaction--perhaps there was some sort of trouble between the lovers. And even if there was not, it had begun to weigh on her mind, the thought of Lady Crownlands all alone at the inn while the rest of them made merry.
He blinked at her, and then one corner of his mouth curved. "Do you know how odd you are, Six?"
She blinked in her turn, hard, feeling as though she'd missed a step on a staircase. "I--have been often reminded of that, my lord, yes."
"No, no, that isn't what I meant," he scoffed with that wave of his hand that he used to dismiss everything from flies to his father's disapproval. "I meant that there are not many who would welcome someone whose position in society is as... complex as Lady Rhaella's."
Brienne lifted a shoulder. "You have made it quite clear that Lord Crownlands is the one who has caused the complexity; why would I hold Lady Rhaella responsible for wanting to protect herself? Not to mention for following her--" she stumbled a bit on the word--"heart?" It occurred to her that she would be a firsthand witness to such devotion, if Lady Crownlands and Ser Jaime ever chose to visit together. She found that she did not relish the thought.
Don't be foolish, she told herself sternly. Ser Jaime's affairs couldn't possibly pertain to her life in any way.
Unaware of her inner chastisement, Ser Jaime's jaw slackened a bit, and his smile widened. "Following her heart, hmm? Lady Brienne, I would not have expected you to be so susceptible to sentimentality."
Oh, yes, she regretted this line of inquiry now. "I, too, have a heart as well as a mind, my lord," she told him, more stung than she wanted him to see. "And I do not always let the latter rule the former."
"This is very intriguing. Do you mean to indicate that there's a secret romance in your past, my lady? Or perhaps your present?" He paused and clapped a hand to his chest as if scandalized. "Have I been keeping some suitor from your doorstep when I've plagued you with my visits?"
"Don't be ridiculous. For the time being, you know that I am only the Lady Brienne inside these walls, to those few whom I can most trust," she snapped. "And to you," she added, because she was feeling out of sorts with him, and he laughed.
"Oh, if you're stooping to my level of petty insults, there must be something to know. Let's have it out, Six, and you'll feel better for it," he pressed.
"I have no secret beyond the one that you are already privy to, Lord Casterly," she said, though some part of her wished that she did, just to lord it over him. "I simply do not like to think of Lady Rhaella whiling away the days in solitude if she does not choose to, and wanted you to extend an invitation to her on my behalf, if you thought it appropriate. That is all."
He inclined his head, with an indulgent smile that made her want to drag him down to the fencing salle. "That's very kind of you, and I'll let her know."
She made a weapon of her words instead. "Please do."
Their exchange concluded with no blood drawn, they made it another few paces down the hall before Brienne stopped suddenly. "Damn," she hissed beneath her breath.
Lord Casterly clucked his tongue. "Such language, my lady! What will your poor beleaguered suitor think?"
Brienne made a noise that, she was forced to admit, was very nearly a growl. "I left my pocketwatch back in the music room," she told him. "I hope you can find your way own out, Ser Jaime."
"Nonsense," he said. "Everyone knows that all manner of wildlife roam the halls of these country estates at will. I must escort you for your safety, and then you must escort me for mine." He smiled at her, clearly well-pleased with himself.
"Come along then," Brienne sighed, resigned to her fate; though she'd first met him less than a month ago, already she knew that there was no arguing with him when he was in such a mood. She hurried back toward the music room, taking a perverse pleasure in making him trot a bit to keep up with her, and when Brienne swung the door open, she saw--
Sansa and Margaery had relocated themselves to the divan near the window, and they were wrapped in each other's arms, bathed in sunlight as they kissed each other with what appeared to be much more than friendly feeling.
Brienne's feet felt frozen to the ground, her heart trying to squeeze its way up into her throat. She cast a quick glance to the side, fearing Ser Jaime's reaction, but he only looked stunned and vaguely fond--much as she felt, herself, come to that.
She shifted her weight, intending to steal away unnoticed. Before she could move, though, Ser Jaime clasped his hands behind his back and cleared his throat pointedly.
Sansa and Margaery leapt apart, their eyes and cheeks equally bright.
"Forgive us for disturbing you," said Brienne, cursing Ser Jaime's capricious humor. "I merely returned to retrieve my pocketwatch." She bent to retrieve it from its place on her chair, felt it dangling from her hands.
"Forgive us," Margaery answered. She smoothed her pretty brown curls, which had been disarranged by Sansa's fingers.
"How long?" was all Brienne could think of to say, still lost in wonder.
Sansa flushed even more, and that was answer in itself--at least since Margaery had come to Evenfall, then, and quite possibly before.
"We wanted to tell you, Brienne." Sansa's eyes were pleading. "We simply didn't know how." She ducked her head. "Are you very angry at me for keeping this from you?"
"Angry?" Brienne had not thought that anything could surpass her first astonishment on finding them together, but that single word did. Did Sansa think she was such a monster, that she would hate their happiness because she herself was alone? "Why in the world would I be angry with you?"
"It is somewhat…" Margaery folded her hands neatly in front of her. "Irregular," she finished, though she met Brienne's eyes with a serene stare that clearly stated that she regretted nothing.
Good, Brienne thought fiercely; no more she should. "I would be a fine one to talk about irregular, wouldn't I?" she answered, before turning her attention to Sansa. "Sansa, all I want for you--all I have wanted for you since you arrived here--is your happiness. If you have found it with Lady Margaery, how could I possibly be angry at that?"
At her side, Ser Jaime ducked his head. "Ladies, I fear I am intruding on a private family moment. I--"
"Wait." Sansa held up her hand, with an imperious tilt to her chin that reminded Brienne so much of Catelyn that tears stung the backs of her eyes. It broke Brienne's heart that Sansa's mother was denied the chance to see her daughter like this: glowing from within, her face set with determination. "This concerns you as well, Ser Jaime."
His eyebrow climbed partway up his forehead. "It does?" he asked, as though fearing he'd be asked to play a part.
Wretched man. Brienne turned to him. She had no expectation whatsoever of what Sansa was about to say, but whatever it was, Brienne needed them all to hear from Ser Jaime first. "Ser Jaime. Do you give us your word as a gentleman that you will speak to no one of what you see and hear in this room today?" It was more a formality than anything else; he had already kept her secret, so far as she knew, and disclosed his own. Surely Sansa could trust him with one more. Though if she couldn't, then they were already lost, but still--Brienne could not bring herself to believe that Ser Jaime would outright lie to them, when he'd already failed to do so despite many opportunities.
Ser Jaime nodded solemnly, no trace of his typical irony. "You have my word," he told her, quiet and intent, and then turned to give Sansa and Margaery a brief bow. "My word, Lady Sansa, Lady Margaery. No one outside this room will hear a word of this from me."
"Thank you," Sansa said calmly.
"So what do you have to tell us?" Brienne asked, her concern assuaged.
"Lady Margaery and I have devised a plan," Sansa began. She reached for Margaery's hand and wove their fingers together. "Her brother, Loras, is in love with.. well. Someone who would make for a similarly unconventional match."
"Renly Baratheon," Ser Jaime supplied smoothly. When Brienne turned to gape at him, he lifted a shoulder. "We scandalous rakes are all of a feather, Lady Brienne; gossip about one flows easily into gossip about another, and I've endured more than my share of wagging tongues over the past few years."
Brienne herself had long been aware of the rumor, and though the confirmation of it dealt a glancing blow to her heart, it was more a bump against an old scar than anything else.
Sansa inclined her head. "You are correct, my lord, and I would once again remind you of the vow you spoke just now."
Ser Jaime nodded, and Margaery took up the thread. "Sansa has agreed to marry Loras, that she might come to live with us at Highgarden. With such a beautiful wife to attend him, Loras may spend as much time as he likes with Renly. Most will look no closer, and for those who do, he will have a strong argument to deny them."
Brienne glanced again at Ser Jaime to gauge his reaction; he had spent more time in the midst of the ton than she had, and might better judge the wisdom or folly of this scheme. He crossed his arms in front of him, one finger tapping thoughtfully against his forearm.
"It's a risk," he said, "but the ton do love a lavish wedding, and will forgive much so long as it comes papered over with their version of propriety."
It was much the same assessment that Brienne had made, herself. Reassured, she nodded firmly at the girls. "As I said, your happiness--both of you--is my chief desire. If this is how you'll find it, then I'll support you in whatever way I can."
"I cannot help but notice, though," Ser Jaime added, "that you have not yet enlightened me as to my role in this."
"I suspect that Lord Crownlands may respond even more strongly to this news than the previous missive," Sansa said. "We intended to inform you before you departed the island, though not quite like this--" and color bloomed on her cheeks again--"that you might assist in preparing us for his response."
Brienne found that she very much disliked the words departed the island, but forced her mind back to the matter at hand.
"Ah." Ser Jaime nodded thoughtfully. "Well. As I've detailed to Lady Brienne, Crownlands is unpredictable--it made him an effective general for a while, though it was nearly all of our undoing, in the end." His expression was grim. "All I can suggest, my lady, is to guard yourselves carefully. You are fortunate in having beauty, and a family name that--though you must never tell my father I said this--speaks honor and valor to all who hear it."
Brienne knew better than most how fragile a lady's honor could be, but she held her tongue, unwilling to pop the lovely soap bubble of Sansa and Margaery's happiness.
"There will be time yet for devising strategies," she said, catching Ser Jaime's eye, and he gave a barely perceptible nod. They would discuss this further in another venue.
"I'm not a child, Brienne," Sansa said, plainly exasperated. "You don't have to shield me from this. I know what forces are arrayed against us, and I'm willing to meet them."
"We are," added Margaery, reaching over to entwine her fingers in Sansa's.
"All I meant," Brienne said, soothing, "was that we don't need to announce anything yet--you can just be happy for a time, here, together. But I give you my word that I will take no further action on the matter of Lord Crownlands without consulting you."
"We will take no further action," put in Ser Jaime. Brienne felt a smile tilt the edge of her mouth. Ser Jaime had taken his role as Sansa's protector quite seriously--likely, Brienne assumed, in atonement for his initial deception.
Sansa looked back and forth between them, narrow-eyed, then sighed. "Fine. As long as I have your word."
"You do," Brienne told her firmly.
"Sansa." Margaery was looking up from beneath her eyelashes with an expression that Brienne was not certain was appropriate for company. "Brienne is right. Perhaps we should take this opportunity to celebrate."
"Celebrate how?" Sansa asked, her voice low, and Brienne could feel her own cheeks heat. She looked sideways at Ser Jaime; he was watching the two lovers indulgently, though with a faint trace of trepidation to it, as though he might need to cover his eyes at any moment.
Margaery laughed, a bright, pealing sound that seemed to frolic through the room. "A dance, perhaps?" She turned to Brienne. "Not a ball, exactly, but a small gathering, with dancing. We could ask Loras and Renly to join us, and whoever else you'd like to invite. Just enough to form a few proper sets."
Sansa didn't say a word, but her eyes shone and she clasped her hands--one still tangled in Margaery's--together in her lap like a child anticipating Sevenmas.
Brienne let the idea run through her mind, considering. It would require her maintaining her disguise more strictly than she'd become accustomed to of late, but she herself had been the one to suggest that Sansa and Margaery extract every drop of joy they could from this brief span of time. She could hardly be so churlish as to deny them this small thing.
"You shall name the date," she told them, "and we'll celebrate your happiness."
Sansa flew up from the couch and flung her arms around Brienne. "Thank you, Brienne." She clung tight, and Brienne suspected that her gratitude was for more than just the promised dance.
Brienne patted her on the back, conscious of Ser Jaime's eyes on her, and the likelihood of more forthcoming torment regarding her alleged sentimentality. "Of course." Despite herself, she felt the backs of her eyes burning again. "It will be a relief to see you married off at last, after such dramatic proposals as you've had," she said fondly, and Sansa gave a watery laugh and released her.
"Aren't you going to thank me?" Ser Jaime asked as he and Brienne made their way through the hallways again after having left the two turtledoves awash in excited plans.
"For what?" she asked. For a moment, she feared he was going to expect her gratitude for his acceptance of the unlikely arrangement, but he only grinned.
"For distracting you into forgetting your pocketwatch so that we stumbled upon that sweet little scene."
Brienne let her eyes drift toward the ceiling and back. Some days she was surprised that Ser Jaime did not take credit for the sun rising. "I am happy for them, and for Loras and Renly as well. Some people should be able to marry for love, even if who they love isn't the person they're marrying."
"See?" said Ser Jaime, beaming slyly at her. "A secret romantic, I knew it."
She gifted him with her longest-suffering sigh.
He laughed. "Shall we leave the lovebirds to themselves for a bit? Come for a drive with me, Lady Brienne--I've finally given in to the innkeep's demands that I give him my hard-carried coin in exchange for the opportunity to break my neck in the curricle he's so proud of. Let me have the chance to break yours as well."
She snorted. "As ever, my lord, you have quite a way with an invitation."
"Come," he said. "Unless you're too concerned for your own safety?"
He was so transparent with his feints and attempts to irk her, and yet, she felt herself unable to resist rising to the bait every time. "I'm going to drive," she said firmly.
His laugh was long and so self-satisfied that she nearly regretted acquiescing.
Despite her clearly-stated condition for the journey, he argued insupportably with her over who would hold the reins, until she solved the matter by nearly shoving him off the side of the bench and seizing them for herself. Ser Jaime lost his hat in the struggle, and it rolled away into the dust as the horses leapt at the flick of her wrists.
"It didn't suit you anyway," she informed Ser Jaime loftily when he clutched a hand, too late, to his bare head. It was a lie, of course; everything suited him, which was maddening. She did feel badly enough to hope that someone from the household would retrieve the poor thing, but not badly enough to go back, not when the horses were beginning to truly find their pace.
Brienne had left her own hat behind on purpose, and now she could feel the wind in her hair and whipping against her cheeks with delicious fervor. She'd been told that curricles were death-traps, but she felt in perfect control, the innkeep's horses responding to her slightest twitch of the reins, the road rushing by beneath them. Ser Jaime laughed, next to her, and there was nothing of mockery in it this time, nothing of sarcasm or irony, just a sheer, long, loud whoop of joy. She could not help grinning at him in response.
In fact, she found herself so distracted by his fiercely carefree expression that she didn't notice the men on horseback emerging from the trees that lined the road until they were nearly upon them.
As soon as she caught sight of them, Brienne hauled back on the reins. The horses reared and neighed, and the curricle tipped dangerously to the side. Brienne clutched at the edge of the carriage, and out of the corner of her eye, she could see Ser Jaime doing the same. By some gift of the Seven, the curricle settled itself upright, and Brienne was able to see the men who stood before them.
The men who had their guns drawn, and whose eyes were full of malice.
There were six of them, all told, and they all appeared to be armed and somewhere between desperate and cruel. "Nice afternoon for a ride, innit?" asked the one in front with a crooked grin. "I bet that fancy carriage could fetch a lot of coin. Horses could, too."
"You're welcome to it, gentlemen," said Ser Jaime with deceptive good cheer. Brienne could feel the iron tension in his thigh, where it had ended pressed up against hers after they'd nearly overturned. "We'll just get out of your way. If you'd care to climb out this side, my friend?" That last was to Brienne, and he angled his knees to the side, clearly expecting her to clamber over him and leave him the sole target perched up high on the bench seat.
"Oh, no, you first. I insist," she gritted out. Misguided attempts at chivalry notwithstanding, she could not dismount without either sliding over Ser Jaime's lap, or turning her back on one or more of the brigands.
"Don't move," said the leader, pointing with his gun.
Brienne held up her hands. "We will follow your lead, good ser. How would you have us dismount?" Her heart was thundering against her breastbone. She had a knife in one of her boots, but she saw no way to reach for it without arousing their suspicion.
The man seemed to consider her question. Then a malevolent grin slithered across his face, and he cocked his pistol, clearly indicating that he thought it just as well if they vacated this life as well as the carriage.
"Wait," Ser Jaime said hurriedly. "The curricle will be much less valuable with blood all over it." He gestured slightly with one hand, a minute wave of fingers. "All that cleaning, you know. So much bother."
The head brigand frowned. "Get out, then. You first. Slow." That was to Jaime, who looked somehow both alert and peevish around his eyes as he edged off the side of the curricle and down to the ground. Keeping her eyes level, Brienne slowly extended the lower half of her left leg toward him, hoping he would see the slight bulge of the knife tucked into her boot, along her calf. Said distortion was terribly unfashionable, but she was grateful for it now.
"Now you." The leader gestured at Brienne with his gun. Ser Jaime had arranged himself so that the front of the curricle was blocking the brigands' view of him, and was moving his hand slowly up the side of her calf.
"My friend here has a bad ankle," Ser Jaime explained, as she slid sideways on the seat.
"Yes," Brienne agreed, though some irrational part of her resented that she would be the one with the weakness. "Turned it fishing this one out of the lake earlier," she added.
"Mm, yes. Water everywhere," said Ser Jaime. "Not to worry, though, he'll just be a moment." The tips of his fingers curled into the top of her boot.
"Hurry up," the man growled, waving the gun again, "or I'll be selling this bloodstains and all."
"Now, now," said Ser Jaime, "there's no need to jump to conclusions--"
He placed a slight emphasis on the word jump; as soon as Brienne heard it, she tensed her leg muscles. Which was fortunate, because in the next instant, Ser Jaime had wrenched the knife out of her boot and tugged her halfway out of the curricle with his other hand, leaving her to do her best to land without turning an ankle for true while he sent the knife singing toward the nearest brigand.
The leader fired off a shot, but it went over Brienne's head, collapsed as she was on the ground. The horses whinnied and reared.
"Get behind me," Ser Jaime told her when he leaned down to pull another knife from his own boot. His, of course, was perfectly concealed.
"No," Brienne hissed back. The curricle swayed crazily, but didn't move forward; someone must have caught hold of the horses. Brienne rolled sideways, chose the nearest pair of legs that didn't belong to Ser Jaime, and swept her own out in a vicious arc, bringing the man tumbling to the ground. She had his pistol out of his belt in a second and knocked him over the head with it as hard as she could. His eyes rolled back into his head; he lay prone on the ground.
Another shot rang out; she scrambled halfway upright to find Ser Jaime still standing--positioned between her and the ruffians, damn him--having just slashed a long line along the chest of one of the men. Two of the brigands were clinging to the frightened horses, and Brienne felt a pang of worry for what would happen to the poor beasts. Another man was edging toward Ser Jaime from behind, knife drawn, and Brienne barreled into him with all her strength, knocking him to the ground.
She had wrestled with Galladon before, but it had been nothing like this: desperate, gouging, scratching, all grunts and growls and foul breath. The man's fist rammed into the side of her head and Brienne saw stars, the world tilting and the wind rushing out of her as her back hit the ground. She scrabbled to the side with one hand and threw a clump of dirt toward her assailant's eyes. He cursed her and fell back, clawing at his own face. His knife flashed out. Brienne barely managed to shove his knee off of her and roll out of the way before the blade slashed across her cheek.
Another gunshot, and to her right, she saw Ser Jaime's knees buckle. He sank to the ground, one hand clutching--his chest or his shoulder, she couldn't tell. The man who'd shot him kicked the gun out of his hand, then stomped downward. Ser Jaime cried out as the man's heeled boot landed on his fingers.
A sort of frantic rage overtook Brienne, a hazy wave of red that swamped her and made everything seem simultaneously slower and impossibly fast. She struggled for a moment to bring her pistol to bear before firing it at the man who'd attacked her. Blood bloomed in the center of his chest. He slumped into a heap. She rose to her feet, teeth bared, and charged the man who'd shot Ser Jaime.
"This ain't worth what Crownlands is paying us!" Brienne heard the leader yell as she struggled with the man, her muscles straining as she tried to bear him down to the ground. His fists beat at her back. "Get in the fuckin' thing and let's get out of here."
The man she was fighting twisted and rammed his knee into her stomach, then shoved her backward, hard enough that she stumbled and nearly went down. Behind her, the horses were neighing again. The leader of the brigands was seated atop the curricle, his remaining fellows clinging to the seat next to him. The horses jolted forward--right toward her and Ser Jaime.
Brienne hooked her hands beneath Ser Jaime's arms and pulled. The whirlwind of the careening curricle blew dust into her face as it rushed past them and was on its way, rattling down the road.
Immediately, Brienne turned her attention to Ser Jaime. There was blood on the right side of his coat, a growing dark patch of it. His right hand was swelling, too, the fingers crooked at angles that made her blanch and look away. She knelt in the grass by the road and bundled up her own coat for a pillow before unbuttoning Ser Jaime's. "Ser Jaime. Can you hear me?"
He coughed. "I've been shot in the shoulder, not the ear." His voice sounded thready, as pale as the first rays of dawn.
"Insufferable," she muttered. She pulled his coat aside. There was more blood. So much blood. She couldn't seem to swallow past where her heart had lodged itself in her throat. "You're going to be all right." Of course he was--he was under her protection. He had no choice.
"Of course I am, if you command it." He gave her a shadow of his normal rakish smile. "I find that I'm determined to fight your suitors for your hand after all, Sixes--you're so good at nagging me already, you may as well do it as a profession. What do you think?"
She made a noise that wanted to be a laugh, but it scraped everything it touched on its way out. "I have loftier goals than that."
He smiled wider, despite the effort it seemed to cost him. "I know you do." He coughed again. "I--" His eyelids were fluttering. As she watched, they drifted closed entirely, and didn't rise again.
"Ser Jaime." She didn't want to shake him, injured as he was. "Jaime." He made no answer, though when she leaned down to place her cheek close to his mouth, she could feel his breath.
Quickly, she made her way over to one of the fallen brigands--the one she'd shot--and worked his knife out of the belt at his side. The ruin of his chest made her gorge rise. She'd never shot anyone before. She'd only rarely struck anyone before. She was--
Concentrate, Brienne. She staggered back to Jaime and used the knife to slice the sleeve from his uninjured arm. Bundling his waistcoat over the wound--thank the gods his things were kept scrupulously clean--she tied the sleeve around the whole of it, as tightly as she could. It was only when she saw droplets fall on the makeshift bandage that she realized she was crying.
She dashed the tears away with a swipe of her sleeve, sucked in a breath, and took stock of their surroundings. The road they'd taken was half-overgrown with disuse, which is probably why the brigands had been lurking on it. Lord Crownlands paid them, she remembered suddenly. Well. That was a problem for the future. First, she and Jaime both had to survive today.
She looked around one more time at the empty road, at the looming trees. Then she heaved Jaime up in her arms as carefully as she could, and began to walk.
A bit of a shorter chapter this time. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing but it is a thing. 😁 And despite the chapter count, this should put us over halfway in the overall word count, so hang on, we're getting there!!
Jaime was swimming. He'd always loved swimming, always loved the feeling of freedom, of weightlessness, and the way the water responded to each flex of muscle and provided just enough resistance for him to test his strength against. But these--these were not familiar waters. They were as dark as ink, and cold, and no matter how hard he pulled himself toward the surface, he couldn't seem to break it.
Ghostly figures floated past him in the gloom. Aerys, knighting him, asking him afterward to keep silent about the dead villagers. They would have given away our position, Ser Jaime. I know you're not terribly clever, but surely you can understand that. Cersei, laughing, until her mouth twisted into a silent cry. Tyrion, reaching for Jaime and then turning his back. Their father, his brow furrowed with that all-too-familiar withering disappointment.
I'm sorry, Father, Jaime tried to say, not knowing for what he was apologizing. The water nearly flooded his mouth and he had to clamp it shut.
Rhaella floated by him, too. Shackles bound her wrists and ankles, and her hair twisted around her head like snakes. Help me, she mouthed to him. He fought his way toward her, wrapped his arm around her waist and kicked as hard as he could for the surface.
He came up gasping, and saw a golden head hovering above him. "Brienne." He wanted to weep at the sight of her face: so concerned, so gravely stubborn. "I--"
"Shhh." There was a gentle hand in his hair. Long fingers. "You need to rest."
His arm was on fire. "My arm--"
"The maester is here. Don't worry." She seemed wholly incapable of taking her own advice, judging by the tremble in her voice.
He reached out with his left hand and grabbed a fistful of her sleeve. "Stay." He didn't care that he was half-begging. He only cared that she'd let no harm come to him, he knew it.
She gave him a soft smile, the softest he'd ever seen on her face. He wanted to tease her for it, but the waters were rising around him again. He held on to her like she was the mast of a ship, tall and steady and unbowed. "I will," she promised. "Sleep now, Jaime."
The sight of her eyes--the color of the sky--followed him back down into sleep, and he dreamed no more.
* * * * *
Seven days of poppy-sleep, the maester had said. Seven days to allow Jaime's body to rest and begin to knit itself back together. Seven days of him lying there with his skin pallid under the golden cast that the sun had given him, seven days of him startling out of nightmares and soothed only by Brienne's touch, seven days of him so still and silent that she had to lean close to make sure he still breathed.
They were only on the third day, and already Brienne could hardly stand it.
There was a quiet knock at the door. Brienne startled, and looked up to see Pia, twisting one of her apron ties around her finger. "So sorry to disturb, but there's someone here to see you, ma'am. Well, you and Lord Casterly, I expect."
"Who is it, Pia?" Brienne shook her head a bit, trying to clear it.
Pia's teeth sank into the corner of her bottom lip. "It's… it's Lady Crownlands, ma'am."
Brienne jolted in her chair. "Lady Rhaella, the Marchioness of the Crownlands? Is here to see me?"
"Yes, ma'am." Pia's expressive, regretful face illustrated only too clearly that she was well aware of Brienne's degree of preparedness for such a visit.
Brienne cobbled together a smile for her. "Well, then. Show her to the drawing room, please, Pia, and tell her I'll be with her momentarily."
After Pia had bobbed a curtsey and left, Brienne allowed herself the brief indulgence of looking in the mirror over the washstand. She looked… well. She looked like someone who had been attacked and then had spent several nights at a sickbed. Her hair was in a tumble around her face, with more than a few strands seemingly attempting to escape her head entirely, and at the most unpredictable angles. Her shirt was impossibly wrinkled. Her eyes were as shadowed as midday, and one was ringed in sickly green besides. But there was nothing for it; Lady Crownlands could not have been put off in any case, but especially not when she had every right to see her lover. More right than Brienne herself had, certainly.
She buttoned her waistcoat and tied her cravat as best she could, and liberated a small amount of water from the bedside ewer to attempt to school her hair into obedience. As usual, it refused. She permitted herself one last, long look at Jaime's sleeping face--for all she knew, the last time she would ever be permitted to see him so--and then forced herself to descend the stairs to the drawing room.
Rhaella Targaryen was a famed beauty, and she more than lived up to her reputation: her violet eyes and silvery-blonde hair made even Brienne's finest furnishings seem shabby in comparison. Her gown was perfectly a la mode, a deep purple that accentuated her eyes as well as her bosom. She held her hand out to Brienne.
Brienne accepted the proffered hand and bent politely over it. It carried a faint waft of perfume, something deep and well-spiced. "Lady Crownlands. We're so honored to have you visit. I wish it were under happier circumstances."
"As do I," Lady Crownlands agreed. "I have every day intended to make my way here, and yet every day somehow seems to end without my having done so."
Brienne forced a smile. "I understand, my lady; you must have much to occupy you."
Lady Crownlands laughed--a fragile-sounding, tinkling thing, like a fine piece of crystal dropped on a marble floor. "Not at all, actually."
"I… I would imagine you are here to inquire after Ja--after Lord Casterly's welfare." Brienne had sent a note to the inn each morning so far, but in her worry and distraction, she had kept them brief and to the point. "As I hope you heard, his injuries are serious, but the maester has done what he can and he is resting comfortably for now."
"Will he recover fully, do you think, Lord Tarth?" Lady Crownlands asked.
Brienne spread her hands in front of her. "I wish I knew, my lady. I do not believe there is danger for his life, so you can set your mind at ease on that score at least--he was shot in the shoulder, but the maester was able to extract the bullet cleanly and believes that the danger of infection is minimal. As for the rest…" She hesitated, then steeled herself. Jaime would want this news delivered forthrightly and as gently as possible. "His hand has been badly broken, my lady. The maester set it, but Ser Jaime may not ever regain full use of it." And it's my fault, she wanted to say, but held it back behind her teeth; it would be a confession more to ease the ache of her own conscience than to benefit Lady Crownlands. When Jaime woke, she would bear his judgment, but in the meantime, she would keep her own counsel.
Lady Crownlands' large eyes had gone sad. "May I.. would it be all right if I saw him, Lord Tarth?"
"Of course. I'll take you to him immediately."
After she'd escorted Lady Crownlands to Jaime's room, Brienne found herself hovering awkwardly, halfway between the bed and the door. Lady Crownlands seemed to feel no such hesitation, approaching the bed with steady steps. As if it was the most natural thing in the world, she reached out to brush Jaime's hair away from his forehead, the same motion that had required Brienne to screw up her courage for several moments prior to the attempt. Brienne ducked her head. She had no place here, aside from as Jaime's host, and she was a fool.
"He looks well, under the circumstances," Lady Crownlands said softly, looking over her shoulder to meet Brienne's eyes. "You've taken very good care of him, my lord."
Brienne swallowed hard. "He fought very bravely, my lady. I've simply sought to repay his sacrifice."
Lady Crownlands made a small noise, and her mouth twisted. "Sacrifice. Yes. He is very good at that."
Unsure, Brienne ducked her head. "I will leave you to your time with him, my lady. Please feel free to stay as long as you like; if you require refreshment, one of the--"
Brienne felt herself go cold all over, then hot, then cold again. Her head was crowded with a sort of whining noise; she felt dizzy. "I--"
"It's all right," Lady Crownlands said gently. "Your secret is safe with me. But join me. Please?" She sank into the chair on the nearer side of Jaime's bed.
Brienne eyed her warily for a few breaths. She could perceive nothing of threat or cunning in Lady Crownlands' tone or bearing, so Brienne allowed herself to walk slowly to the far side of the bed, and resume her place beneath the window.
"He told you," she said after a moment, unable to bear the silence.
Lady Crownlands nodded, her eyes fixed on Jaime's face. "He's told me a great deal about you, in fact, relatively speaking. You don't know what a change it's made; he's often so quiet when we are together."
"Ja--" Brienne caught herself once again. "Lord Casterly? Quiet?"
Lady Crownlands glanced up at her then, with a quick smile that burst across her face like the flare of lightning. "Difficult to imagine, isn't it? When first we met, it seemed as though he spoke more than he breathed. Always something quick and clever. Something sharp. I've often wondered if the sharpness came from the war, but I've never been sure; I did not know him well before."
It was an image to contemplate: a young Jaime, golden and laughing and unfettered, with no shadows at the edges of his eyes. A knot formed in Brienne's chest, curling tight as a fist. "I cannot imagine but war changes a man."
"Indeed," Lady Crownlands agreed. "And we women have our own own battles, do we not?"
Cautiously, Brienne nodded. "I… as Lord Casterly likely told you, my situation here is precarious, and it is not only my happiness and security that depends upon this deception."
"I understand you better than you know," Lady Crownlands told her. "Has Jaime discussed the…" She paused, then went on, "Has Jaime discussed the nature of our arrangement with you?"
There was no cold in Brienne now, only blazing heat. "My lady, surely it's none of my--"
"But this is exactly what I'm trying to communicate to you, Lady Brienne," Lady Crownlands interrupted. "Jaime and I… we are not what you think."
Brienne could not reply to that, merely watched with her breath tangled in her vocal cords until Lady Crownlands went on.
"Aerys was always cruel, you know. The war may have changed him, but the cruelty had always been there, beneath the veneer of charm. But when I was told I was to marry him--to keep Targaryen lands in Targaryen hands, they said--I hoped that he might gentle over time." She looked away, and shook her head. "He did not. I feel so foolish about that, looking back; how could I have been so foolish?"
"We have many of us believed what we wanted to believe, my lady, when faced with limited alternatives," Brienne said.
Lady Crownlands raised an eyebrow, then took a steadying breath. "Just so," she agreed. "In any case, Jaime knew Aerys' proclivities better than most, so when I met him, he saw almost immediately that I required aid, and offered it."
Brienne found that she did not particularly want to hear about the sweet words and fervent promises that Jaime might have whispered in the ear of this beautiful woman.
"The agreement," Lady Crownlands went on, "was that we would have it put about that he was my lover, and I would go to live with him and be under his protection. Aerys was--is--so proud, we both assumed that he would divorce me immediately. But the terms of our marriage dictated that my dowry was forfeit if he did, and so for the past three years, we have lived like this, Jaime and I: at the outskirts of polite society, trapped in a fiction of our own making. Aerys even altered his will to exclude me from it, and still he will not release us."
For a long moment, Brienne turned the words around in her mind, searching for a way to fit them that made any sense. "So… you are not…"
Lady Crownlands smiled. "We are not, Lady Brienne, and we never have been. We are… friends, I suppose you could say. Companions on a journey that neither of us expected to extend for so long."
"I see," said Brienne, though if she was honest, she could not, quite. The idea that Jaime--that both of them--had spent all of this time being censured and whispered about, when the truth was that they were both victims… It made Brienne's heart ache even as her hands itched to exact retribution on Crownlands, on Lady Crownlands' family who had allowed this, on everyone who had seen only what they wanted to see. Herself included, as she remembered one or two cutting remarks of her own on the topic. "He told me none of this," she said finally, and that ached, too, that he would not have trusted her with it.
"I suppose he would not have," said Lady Rhaella. "I suspect he considers it mine to disclose or not, as I choose."
"And yet he told you of my secret." Brienne was not entirely pleased about that, either.
At that, Lady Rhaella's bow-shaped mouth curved upward at the edges. "He did not intend to, Lady Brienne. It was only that after enough days that Jaime returned to our rooms with a light in his eyes that I hadn't seen in years, I rather forced him to tell me all about you. At first, he thought he was furious with you, but I could tell straight away that he liked you. And that, for Jaime, is a rare enough thing. In any case, in his enthusiasm, he referred to you as 'she' one too many times, and I demanded that he tell me all."
Brienne couldn't help looking at Jaime: it was so odd to see his ever-occupied mouth slack, his lively eyes hidden. His beard was starting to come in a bit, reminding her of how long he had been insensible and unable to attend to it.
She wished he would wake, even if it was only to tease her until she wanted to crack him over the head herself. Anything but this sleep that too closely resembled death.
"Why are you telling me this?" Brienne asked Lady Rhaella, meeting those pale violet eyes. "Any of this?"
"Because I have seen you through Jaime's eyes, and so I like you too," Lady Rhaella answered simply. "And I wanted you to know the truth, because Aerys does not easily forget those who cross him." She hesitated, then went on, "And because I thought you might like to know that Jaime's heart is... unencumbered. Or at least it was when he arrived here." That last was warm and rich with suggestion, and Brienne dropped her eyes to her suddenly-twisting fingers, her cheeks heating.
"I wish him joy of it, then," was all she could say in response, and Lady Rhaella laughed.
"I will not keep you longer from your duties, Lady Brienne. I knew that you would care for Jaime well, I merely wanted to see his face for myself--sometimes the mind plays rather cruel tricks, you know, in solitude."
"I know," Brienne said, thinking of her own long and lonely days when Galladon had been away on some trip or another, and the Starks had not yet come.
Lady Rhaella rose smoothly from her chair. "Thank you for receiving me today."
"Wait," Brienne said, rising as well. "We may not know each other well, but we both know well enough what it means to be a woman in our world, expected to strike the center of every target yet only permitted a few half-fletched arrows. I would not… I would not leave you to wait out Ser Jaime's recovery alone. We would be honored to keep you as our guest, if you would like to stay."
Lady Rhaella's eyebrows rose, and for a moment Brienne feared she had given offense. Then Lady Rhaella asked, "Do you mean to acquire a harem, Lord Tarth?"
Brienne found herself startled into laughter. "It must seem so, mustn't it, my lady? Well. I am certain that my brother is watching with great amusement from the heavens. And fortunately you have several ladies already present here to guard your virtue and your reputation."
Lady Rhaella smiled warmly. "I have no doubt that they will do just that. And thank you. I would love to remain here, and come to know you all better."
Brienne smiled back. "I'll have Pia send out to fetch your things."
* * * * *
He turned his head to see who it was, and almost immediately, he was subjected to a cacophony inside his skull, as if he'd downed several decanters of claret and chased them with half a bottle of whiskey. To add to that, his right arm was throbbing with pain.
The pain lessened momentarily, though, when he saw Brienne sprawled out in the chair next to his bed--a chair which was entirely insufficient to contain her extravagant limbs. Her cravat hung loose around her neck, and her jacket was tossed over a table nearby; her head was tipped back, and her hair spread around her face like a nest of straw. Her mouth was halfway open.
She was utterly discomposed and disheveled, and for all that, his chest felt exactly as it had when he'd found himself arrested by a very fine marble sculpture in a museum, years ago: she had seemed to call out to him, all of her smooth pale lines whispering of how they could meet and match his. Only this sculpture breathed--a bit loudly, come to that--and her cheek was flushed where it rested against the angled wing of the chair. Perhaps she was his water elemental after all, having abandoned her lake and decided to wait on a poor mortal such as he.
He remembered little of what had brought him here, beyond that there had been an attack, and then a fight, and then a long murky period afterward filled with pain and the soothing rumble of Brienne's voice. But she was whole, and alive, and here, and for the moment, that was all that mattered.
"Brienne," he said, and was mildly horrified at the croak in it, as though a bullfrog had taken up residence in his throat while he slept.
She jolted awake immediately, with something like a soldier's instinct. As he watched, the sleep haze cleared quickly from her eyes, replacing confusion with something incandescent, and she smiled as widely as only she could. Wide enough to make him forget his headache.
"Jaime!" she exclaimed joyfully, and leaned forward to place her hand on his upper arm. "You're awake, I'm so--" He could see her remember herself, then, see the brief flare of panic at offended propriety, followed swiftly by the polite mask he'd so often succeeded in dislodging despite her best efforts. "It is very good to see you awake, Ser Jaime. Are you in much pain?"
"Enough," he said, wincing as he tried to shift his arm. He felt as though it was one long bruise, and his hand was aching.
"Do you remember what happened?" she asked.
"I remember we were attacked on the road," he said. "You took on two of them, I was facing three, and I was… oh." The memories were starting to creep back in now. "I was shot, wasn't I?"
"You were. And…" Her gaze flickered down, then back up. "I'm so sorry, Ser Jaime, but your right hand was badly broken. The maester has set it as best he could, but I do not know whether you will ever regain the full use of it." Her face was solemn.
He had spent years of his life in battle, and each time had waded into the thick of it knowing that he might never emerge. He'd seen limbs amputated and heard the screams of dying men. Each night that he'd gone to sleep with life and extremities intact, he'd thanked the gods he hardly believed in for keeping him safe.
He looked down at his right hand, splinted and bandaged. Perhaps the gods had become distracted, or perhaps his luck had caught up to him at last--or perhaps there was some miracle left, and in years he would look back on this as he looked on the rest of his scars.
Regardless, "It seems that you have saved our lives," he told Brienne. "I am in your debt."
"I killed him," she said quietly.
His eyes snapped up to her face. "Who?"
"One of the men who attacked us. You were injured, and there were so many of them, and--I killed him." Her voice sounded almost small, which Jaime could never have conceived of.
He wanted to reach out, take her hand, but it was curled tight into a fist on her knee. "It grows easier," he told her instead. "It shouldn't. But it does." He did reach for her, then, as much as he dared, his left hand stretching across his body until he could rest it on the bed, his fingers scant centimeters from her knee. "You did what you needed to do. Any one of those men would have killed us and never given us a second thought."
That seemed to rouse her a bit. "That's another thing--Lord Crownlands sent them. I heard them say it."
Jaime felt his stomach twist itself together like a tangled rope. Of course. Gossip had it that Crownlands' paranoia had grown over the past years such that he rarely left his estate, and at least when it came to society, the marquess had always been viciously aware that there were far worse things than death; all in all, then, Jaime had not anticipated so direct and brutal an attack. It seemed his former general had fallen even farther than Jaime had realized, hiring outlaws to carry out his brutal whims. Still, Jaime knew of Crownlands' unpredictability better than most, and he cursed himself for not having been more on his guard. He should have--
"We had no way of knowing," Brienne told him, low and firm, and ah--there was the steel Jaime had become accustomed to. "We weren't even sure he had received your letter regarding Sansa."
"I will write to my brother next," said Jaime, shoving his self-recrimination into a corner to pore over at a future date. "He has spies everywhere; he might be better equipped to keep us apprised of Crownlands' movements." He was not entirely sure that Tyrion would tell him the truth, but with Addam Marbrand immersed in wedded bliss at Bear Island for the foreseeable future, Tyrion was the only option. Better the man Jaime trusted only partially than the many men he trusted not at all.
Brienne nodded. As she was about to speak again, the sound of laughter erupted from a few rooms away. Jaime remembered having heard it in his dreams, and having been comforted by the warmth of it. Now that he was awake enough to credit it, though, one note in it sounded as familiar as it was surprising. "Is that… Rhaella?"
"It is," Brienne answered, smiling a bit. "She came to see you while you were still deep in poppy-sleep, and I offered to let her stay here, to save her the journey between here and the town while you were recovering."
He could only stare, his mind suddenly racing--or rather stumbling as swiftly as it could through the lingering poppy-fog. He could not help but wonder as to the chief interests of their conversations. "That's... very kind of you."
Her cheeks went red. After a moment, she continued, seeming to hold the words fragile in her mouth, "She also told me the truth of your… predicament, Ser Jaime."
"Ah." That answered that question, then. He felt himself go a bit light-headed, as though he'd been tethered to a stake and had been suddenly cut free, with very little idea of where to go next. He made his best attempt at a devilish smile, though he almost thought he heard it creak as it stretched across his face. "Well. I hope you're not disappointed, that I'm not truly the rake you thought me. I know how many women love a dashing rake."
She didn't roll her eyes as she was accustomed to, only dropped her gaze to her knee again, where her fingers were worrying at a small hole that was starting in her trousers. "It was good of you to help her, Ser Jaime. Very good. You have both sacrificed a great deal."
He could not deny that. "I would have told you," he said, unaccountably driven to confess, "but it was not mine to tell." Very good was still rolling around in his mind, echoing in the hollow of his chest where that secret had lived for so long. And creeping into that same space, whether he willed it or no, was the whisper of what it might mean for her to know that when it came to matters of the heart, he was quite at liberty.
"I understand," she was saying, oblivious--he could only assume--to the direction his thoughts were tending.
Enough, he told himself; those thoughts were for another day. "Is there anything else that happened while I slept?" he asked, drawing wry good cheer around him like a cloak. "Is the sky still blue? And are you still tall enough to knock your head on it?"
He just caught the curve of her smile before she turned away to hide it.
By late afternoon on the day of Brienne's first ball as mistress (and master) of Evenfall Hall, she was thoroughly regretting having agreed to anything even resembling such an enterprise. She'd always thought it a large house, built for large people, but it seemed overflowing now with extra cooks and flowers and chairs and an endless list of tasks to accomplish. And on top of everything, there were periodic gunshots occurring in the distance, as Arya had taken charge of instructing Lady Rhaella in the art of shooting and had apparently deemed this the ideal day for a lesson.
"Brienne!" Margaery called when she caught sight of Brienne in the front hall.
Brienne started, having been seriously considering dunking herself in the lake until it was all over. "Yes?"
"Ser Jaime has bid me tell you that he'd like to see you at your earliest convenience."
"Is he well?" Brienne frowned. She'd played chess with him in his room just two hours ago, as was becoming their midday custom; her victory had put her over the top in their running list of contests, and he'd melodramatically claimed that she was abusing a wounded man.
In other words, he'd seemed to be recovering very well.
Margaery waved an elegant hand. "He seemed to be. But he was as insistent as ever--you know his distinctive manner."
Brienne could feel a flush creeping up her neck at the tone of it, the implied domesticity. "Indeed. I---" She looked at the chaos surrounding her, feeling like a leaf eddying about in a whirlpool.
"Brienne." Margaery laid a hand on her arm. "Sansa and I are so grateful that you've insisted on granting our foolish little request despite everything that's happened. Won't you let us assist in the preparations? I've held many a ball at Highgarden--I think you'll find that I'm quite the expert."
Brienne hesitated. Margaery was a guest, and thus should concern herself with nothing but how to arrange her hair for the evening. No matter how regimented Brienne's list of tasks, though, so many of them had seemed to either go awry or sprout a forest of new ones that she could no more refuse Margaery's offer than she would refuse a cork vest thrown to her in a maelstrom.
"Thank you," she said gratefully, grasping Margaery's hand. Margaery bounced up on her toes to kiss Brienne on the cheek.
"It will be my pleasure," she said. "Now, go to Ser Jaime--and I don't envy you the task." She tipped Brienne a wink.
Brienne laughed, and made her way to his room.
"Ser Jaime?" she called, knocking smartly on the familiar wooden frame. "It's Lady Brienne. May I enter?"
"Come ahead," he answered, and she opened the door.
She was pleased to see him sitting on the bed instead of in it, and at least half-dressed, though his shirt hung open at the collar, and his waistcoat was unbuttoned. Brienne's face went hot. She'd seen him bare-chested when he'd been wounded, but she had thought of little at the time besides worry for his health. Now, looking at the slice of skin arrowing downward from his neck, her mind was overwhelmed with the awareness that she knew what lay beyond it.
"Have I shocked you, Lady Brienne?" he asked, watching her reaction with a smile playing at the edges of his mouth. "I thought you had likely seen me in a far more disreputable state."
It seemed his incessant teasing was recovering itself, as well. She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. "I was told earlier that you've refused Peck's services."
"I did," he said. "I can dress myself better than that poor boy can. He looks as though he doesn't know a watch from a waistcoat."
"He has not been trained as a valet, my lord," she said, defensive. "Our staff here is limited, as you know, but he means well."
"Don't get your feathers ruffled, Six, I know he's doing his best. I simply didn't require his assistance." He scrubbed his fingers across his chin. "I could use a shave, though. And this--" he held up his bandaged hand--"is likely to do me as much good as a wooden block."
Brienne could hardly bear the expression on his face: mostly rueful, but with a keen edge of bitterness. They'd established their own routine, these past few sennights while he'd been beginning to mend: his food arrived already cut, he had little need for buttons, and he only required one hand for chess. And the maester had made clear that it was far too soon to say with any clarity to what extent his hand would plague him once it had healed. Being reminded of how his life might never be the same, though, when she knew he valued his independence as she did her own, and when she was all too aware of the angry red scar beginning to form near his shoulder as well--it swamped her with guilt. "My apologies, Ser Jaime."
"There's not much for it," he answered, "unless you mean to teach Peck--"
"I am not speaking of Peck," she said. She had been waiting for a time that felt ripe for such a discussion, and this was hardly that. But the words had been dammed up behind her tongue throughout his convalescence, and now that he was nearly on his feet again, it seemed that she could not stop them from flowing freely. "Ser Jaime, if I had been quicker, that day, or--"
"Gods be good," he said, recoiling as though she'd struck him. "Is that what you think?"
"You are my guest," she continued, determined to have it out now that she'd started. "You were under my protection. I should have--"
"Brienne," he said, and that stopped her short. She should have reprimanded him for using her given name without her leave. Gods forgive her, though, she liked the sound of it too much. "Even you cannot mean to take responsibility for every brigand on the side of every road. And if memory serves, you rendered at least one of them unconscious, and were well on your way to another one, before… this." He waved his bandaged hand.
"Yes, but I--" Some nights when she closed her eyes, all she could see was him lying there, covered in blood.
"I will hear no more of this from you," he said sharply. "We were outnumbered. We escaped with our lives, thanks to you. In battle, there are times when the victory is simply to walk away still breathing."
She looked at him, feeling as though there were stones being steadily added to the pressure just above her breastbone. She could not disagree with him without coming too near the same false argument he'd made to her more than once: that he was somehow diminished without the use of his hand. That was not what she believed. It was only that there he was in her mind, sprawled in the dust of the road, insensible.
And yet here he was in reality, right in front of her. Eyes open, head high. Breathing.
She let out her own breath in a long sigh. "I would not have had you injured, is all," she told him.
"Nor I," he said. "I would I had raced you to the cliffs instead, that day, and beaten you soundly, too. But we cannot always choose our fates." He tilted his head, seeming to realize something, and gave a small laugh. "Isn't this argument usually the other way 'round?"
She did not bother to contain a snort. "I should have known that the only person who could convince you was yourself."
"I am very persuasive," he preened, his good humor apparently restored, and she rolled her eyes.
"I cannot say I've ever had a champion before," he mused, tapping his finger against his thigh. "What a curious sensation." He regarded her, and tilted his head. "Would you take up a blade to avenge me, Lady Brienne?"
"I would," she said, without requiring even an instant of consideration.
"Excellent." He reached toward the small pile of clothes he had laid out, and proceeded to pluck his razor blade off the top and toss it on the bed. "There you have it. Now put it to use."
She could feel her own eyes growing rounder the longer she stared at it. "I cannot--"
"Are you telling me that there's a weapon you can't master?" He shook his head. "I'm terribly disappointed."
"The problem is precisely that it is not meant to be a weapon," she retorted, "though you are certainly making me wish to change that."
He only laughed. "Come, now--chivalry demands that, as my comrade-in-arms, you must see to my comfort as best you can. And the gods know there's no one else on this damned island I'd trust to hold a blade to my throat." He scratched at his chin again, his nose wrinkling. "Take pity on an injured man, won't you?"
Injured or not, he was hardly helpless so long as he could level that too-sincere, wheedling look at someone. Brienne knew it for a tactic, yet she was drawn in by it anyway. And with no time for him to return to the town for a shave, and the only other men in the vicinity being the visiting Renly and Loras and their valets--none of whom Brienne entirely trusted to resist the temptation of Jaime Lannister in such a vulnerable position--she supposed she was the logical choice. And she knew that Jaime would want to look his best in company, just as they all did.
"Fine," she snapped, and snatched up the razor. "But you will have to instruct me."
"I'm to have you serve me and give you orders? Why, this is a magical evening already," he said with a grin.
She made as if to throw the razor back. "I could leave you to fend for yourself, if you're going to insist on being so impertinent."
"No, no." He flung himself into the chair by the bed, with an attempt at meekness that was frankly embarrassing to both of them. "I'll be a model patient, I promise you."
"Ha," she muttered under her breath, and busied herself with the preparations.
She'd seen her father and Galladon being shaved often enough that she could guess what she needed to begin: she pulled the wash-stand a bit closer, and laid a cloth around Jaime's chest and neck to catch any drips. His lip caught briefly against her sleeve as she tied the cloth behind his neck, more gently than he deserved. Then she turned to retrieve the shaving soap while he used his uninjured hand to splash a bit of water on his face.
"You'll want to roll up your sleeves," he said, clearing his throat a bit.
"Pardon?" She had not been prepared for instruction so early in the process.
"Your sleeves." He nodded in the direction of her wrists. "They'll get wet if you don't."
"Ah." Feeling foolish, she worked hastily at the buttons until they were free, and she could fold the cloth back over itself, until she was halfway up her forearm. "Better?" she asked him.
She saw his throat move as he swallowed. "A bit more," he answered. "Best up to the elbow, to be safe."
She nodded, and did as he bid her, oddly conscious of his eyes on her as she did. He had seen her arms before--he had seen all of her before, come to that, though she preferred not to dwell on the thought--but something about him watching as she exposed length after length of bare skin felt like… well. Like something her septa would have thoroughly disapproved of.
"Jaime and I are not what you think," she heard Lady Rhaella say in her mind. The words had insisted on bobbing up in her memory at the most inconvenient times.
No, she thought firmly, before she blushed even more.
Her sleeves being tucked away according to Jaime's specifications, she reached for the soap again, one eyebrow raised as she did. Jaime nodded back, his movements jerky.
Relieved for a reason to look away from his face, she spent rather longer than she needed to working the soap into a lather between her hands. Too late, she noticed the shaving brush that stood at the edge of the wash stand.
"Never mind," Jaime told her, seeing where she was looking. "The brush tickles anyway--it will do just as you have it."
She nodded and kept lathering, though she felt even more of a fool for having missed such an obvious step. When she had delayed as much as she could, she finally turned to him and, in a moment of panic, smeared the soap too close to his mouth.
He spluttered, sending bits of foam flying. "Father's balls, you're meant to be shaving me, not poisoning me."
"I'm sorry," she said, though his expression was so affronted that she felt a giggle rising up in the back of her throat. "I'm sorry, I--" The giggle slipped out, which only made him growl.
"Heartless woman," he muttered, and she laughed harder, convulsing forward, soap dripping from her fingers. He reached up to wipe the foam from his lips and--she thought she could see the flash of it--tongue. He settled himself more thoroughly in the chair and tipped his head back. "Around the mouth this time, if you please, unless you like to be served soap for supper."
The laughter having drawn some of the tension out of her, she nodded, and went more carefully this time, smoothing the lather first over one cheek, then the other. His whiskers prickled at her fingers, soft and then rough, depending on the direction in which she stroked. The only men whose faces she'd touched had been her father and brother; even while Jaime had been deep in poppy-sleep, she'd only dared to whisper her fingers through his hair. She could feel the warmth of his skin underneath her hands now, and he looked up at her with eyes that had gone the color of the forest at dusk.
"Good," he said hoarsely, when she'd covered his neck as well. "Now the blade."
She picked it up and hefted it in her hand, then eyed him, dubious. "Are you certain this is wise?"
"For once in your life, Six, quit arguing. Just go slowly, and in the direction that the hair grows, if you can."
"You might have mentioned that while I could still see it," she pointed out.
He gave a low laugh, his lips barely moving as he spoke, no doubt to avoid another mouthful of foam. "A fair point. Start from the ear to the chin, and we'll go from there."
She stepped close to him, angling her arm this way and that to try to find the best position. She brought the razor close to his skin, and found herself unable to close the last tiny bit of distance.
"It will be well," he said, in the same tone she'd heard him use on her chestnut bay when it had been startled by a bird bursting out of the trees. "I trust you."
He trusted her, and as silly as it was, she could not help but think that here was some small way to repay her debt for having allowed him to be injured; she could not heal him, but she could make him more comfortable, at least. She laid the blade against the wall of foam and drew it slowly down until she could see a rectangle of skin about half the length of her finger, and a mixed pile of whiskers and soap at the bottom of the blade. She grinned without meaning to, pleased at her success.
"Yes, yes, very good," he grumbled, but she could see a smile hovering at the edges of his mouth. "Now get on with it before I lose all my hair to aging and spare you the trouble."
She resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at him, schooled her face into seriousness again, and wiped the razor off on a towel so that she could continue her work. She found the rhythm of it easily enough, with the occasional murmured instruction from him; there was something fascinating about the repeated slide of the razor and the pink, damp, clean skin it revealed with each stroke. She leaned closer and tipped his chin up, intending to begin on his neck. He sucked in a breath as she did, and she stopped immediately.
"Oh--did I cut you?" Which was a ridiculous question, as the blade was nowhere near him at the moment.
"No," he grated out, and she was shocked at how his voice sounded--as if it had been rolling around in the jagged rocks at the bottom of a quarry. "Just--keep going." She could see his uninjured arm move slightly, and when she looked down, she saw that he was gripping the arm of the chair so tightly that his knuckles had turned white.
Oh, she thought. She was abruptly, almost unbearably aware of how close their faces were. So close that she could feel his breath stirring her hair. And he was so warm, with heat radiating off him in waves she could nearly see.
"Keep going," he repeated, and so she did. The neck was more complex than the cheeks had been, and involved more directions; she listened intently to each one, forcing herself to glance only occasionally at the pulse beating rapidly at the bottom of his neck. The topography of his throat revealed itself to her slowly: the corded lines of muscle and tendon, the hollows where the soap gathered and turned gradually liquid, running down into the towel in rivulets. At the end of his arm, she could see the skin of his wrist where his cuff was unbuttoned.
It seemed a moment out of time, from another person's life. She had never touched a man like this. And certainly not a man such as he was, a man who had weathered injuries to body and spirit and emerged with the flame of honor still burning brightly in him, much as he strove to pretend otherwise. A man who had kept her secrets, who valued her for her strength and delighted in matching his own against it. A man who was garment-rendingly beautiful, and so near that the space between their skin seemed no more than the width of her razor.
When she completed the last stroke, she held her breath, loath to break the spell, loath to remove her fingers from where they were gently braced on the far side of his chin. Her long bedside vigil had acquainted her well with his breathing, and it was more rapid than usual now; she dared not meet his eyes. His lips were parted; his tongue slid out to wet them.
"Have you finished?" he asked, and the words sounded dragged from the depths of him.
No, she wanted to say, no, I have not nearly finished with you, but then she remembered herself and straightened. "I have." She turned to rinse the razor one final time in the bowl. Her own pulse was thundering in her ears.
When she turned back to him, he had his face half-buried in the towel she'd wrapped around his neck. When he'd wiped away the last of the shaving soap, he ran his fingers over his own chin.
"Much better," he said. "But remind me to procure myself a barber for the next time."
"You are clean-shaven, ser, and I did not cut you," she said, stung and unaccountably disappointed.
"You did an excellent job, Six," he answered, "but nonetheless, this was far too dangerous." He said it lightly enough, but his eyes--dark and hot--left a significant degree of doubt that he was speaking of the razor.
Temptation and emotion seemed to suffuse Brienne's entire body. She busied herself with drying the razor before placing it carefully next to the basin.
"I have something for you," he said, and for a moment, she had the wild thought that she should run from the room; she was too much of a mind to take anything he might offer her.
Instead, she turned to face him. "Yes, Ser Jaime?"
"Here." He retrieved a paper-wrapped packet from the floor next to his chair, and held it out to her.
She eyed him, wary, and slowly slipped free the ribbon that kept the bundle tied. There was cloth inside, and she had a moment of terror that he'd procured her a new dress that he would try to persuade her to wear despite the need for her disguise--but no. It was a set of trousers the color of rich cream, and a deep gold waistcoat with alternating stripes, so near to each other in color as to render the pattern almost imperceptible except on close examination. There was a tailcoat, as well, in a deep blue, with two gold buttons that had been fashioned to look like suns, and two that resembled lions' heads.
"I hope I was correct in your measurements, Lady Brienne," he said, and the gravel was gone from his voice now, replaced by velvet. She could not look at him, only stared at the fine cloth, the stylish-yet-classic cut. She'd never owned anything like it. And it was hers, not Galladon's, something she could wear for the dance without feeling her brother's ghost wrapped around her.
"I'm sure they'll do wonderfully," she murmured. "This was not necessary, Ser Jaime."
"You saved my life," he told her simply. "It seemed the least I could do." When she did not reply, he modulated his voice a bit. "Besides, you've been saving me a fortune on lodging."
She laughed at that, through a tight throat, and so did he. "Thank you," she said. "That's very--that's very kind of you." Her fingers traced the stripes on the waistcoat, but instead of the cloth, she imagined she could still feel the heat of his skin. "I should go," she said, looking up at him, quickly enough that he could not quite mask the expression on his face.
It looked like hunger. She shivered.
"You should go," he agreed, and she gathered up the clothes and fled.
* * * * *
The guest list had been winnowed to only their most trusted neighbors, and Brienne had hired Sandor Clegane to stand guard at the door lest any more of Crownlands' men attempt to catch them unawares. As to the dance itself, Sansa and Margaery had helped enormously--not only had they advised on the food and the arrangement of the furniture, but they had also provided their guidance to the quartet of musicians that Brienne had hired.
And, most importantly of all, the two turtledoves--as Jaime persisted in calling them--had danced every dance with light feet and shining faces, enlivening the entire room with their beauty and their happiness. They each had the gentlemen in attendance tripping over themselves for the chance to wait on them, and of course Sansa danced the majority of the evening with her intended. But as the night wore on and the number of gentlemen began to dwindle, Renly and Loras mysteriously disappeared, giving Sansa and Margaery the excuse to dance together as two beloved friends might when partners were scarce.
Beloved indeed, Brienne thought, smiling fondly as she watched them. Sansa had laid aside her mourning weeds in favor of an emerald green gown that set off her auburn hair to its greatest advantage, and Margaery's soft curls swung about the shoulders of her pretty blue silk, which was split down the front to reveal a creamy underdress. Both of them looked the very height of grace and fashion, and they laughed and twirled each other, their hands drifting apart only to meet again the very instant the dance allowed it.
"Good evening, my lord." That was Arya, appearing suddenly at Brienne's side. Brienne had given her leave to dress however she liked, and she'd chosen a white shirt with a silvery-grey waistcoat, a divided riding skirt, and leather boots to match. Her hair was drawn into a simple chignon, and her face was a bit wistful as she watched her sister. "She looks so happy."
"She does," Brienne agreed.
"And you've thrown a cracking good ball, Lord Tarth," Arya went on, sketching her a bow. Brienne grinned, and inclined her head in acknowledgment. "I don't think things will be quite the same at Highgarden," Arya went on, her eyes on the dancers again.
Brienne tilted her head a bit. "I suppose not. Are… do you have misgivings, Arya? About going to Highgarden?"
"Of course," said Arya, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "Here, I can do what I like. There, I'll have to be a lady, and sip tea and receive callers and write kind yet distant notes. And if I'm quite lucky, perhaps one day I'll be plucked out of a group of eligible ladies and married to a wealthy stranger."
Brienne struggled to maintain a neutral expression, caught between her own fears for her future and her hopes for her friends'. "Sansa and Margaery care deeply for your happiness," she said, "and they will have considerable influence over the character of their house. You may yet have your freedom. And if nothing else, I am entirely certain they will not force you to marry anyone you do not wish to."
Arya snorted. "Cold comfort, though, isn't it?" She peered at Brienne with eyes that were entirely too knowing.
"All will be well, Arya," she answered, and she honestly believed it, though she did not know how it would be accomplished, exactly. But it must be. Sansa and Arya had lost too much already. "And for what it's worth," she added, "you may return here anytime you like, and ride and shoot and scramble to your heart's content, and send only the most dire and threatening notes."
That earned her a smile--a true one. "Do you give me your word?" Arya held up her hand, pinky extended.
Brienne clasped her own pinky around Arya's. "I do."
"Good," Arya said firmly. Then she tilted her head. "And what does the future hold for you, Lord Tarth, when we've gone?"
Brienne blinked. She was meant to be caring for Arya, not the other way around. "I will be well, too," she answered, and tried with all her might to believe it. She had spent the last months focused on maintaining her ruse long enough to see Sansa married, and now that that task looked to be all but accomplished, she found herself unsure of what direction she ought to set out on next.
She supposed she ought to attempt to marry; the estate was a ripe enough plum for someone, despite Brienne's eccentricities and her father's remaining debts, and perhaps she could persuade an amiably detached husband to let her stay here and have the run of the place while he lounged about on the mainland and took discreet mistresses. She'd never thought to marry for love, not since her disastrous coming-out. She had dared, at times, to hope for companionship, but even that seemed further and further from her grasp the older she grew, and the more she flourished in the space left free by the absence of the many rules and strictures of formal society. She no more wanted to spend her life sipping tea and riding side-saddle than Arya did, and she did not have a soon-to-be-even-wealthier sister as a bright distraction from her oddities. She had only herself.
"Lord Casterly seems to be recovering from his injuries very well," said Arya, nodding toward where Jaime was leading Lady Rhaella through a reel, both of them laughing as they stumbled a bit through a turn. It was good to see Lady Rhaella laugh; she seemed to have begun to do more of that, the longer she stayed. And if it was less good to see Jaime's hand in hers, to see the way the pair of them seemed a painting come to life, well. There was no purpose in dwelling on that, no matter what Brienne had thought she'd seen in his eyes earlier.
"His health seems to be much improved," Brienne agreed, though the words sounded pinched even to her. She fancied that she could still feel the texture of his damp skin against her fingertips, hear the soft rasp of the blade that bared him slowly to her eyes.
"Strange, then, that he would continue to stay here, when he has perfectly good rooms in the village. Come to that, he has a perfectly good estate at Casterly Rock, probably with a full house staff just trembling to wait on his every need. Odd that he wouldn't want to round out his recovery there. Do you think he's developed a fear of traveling, after your incident?" Arya's tone was all false innocence, and Brienne fixed her with as steely a stare as she could muster.
"Lord Casterly and Lady Crownlands are welcome here as long as they like, just as I promised you would be," she said.
"That's the trouble with feeding strays, Lord Tarth--sometimes they become yours without you realizing it," Arya said airily. When Brienne frowned at her, she only raised the glass she had in her hand; Brienne observed the liquid in it to be more the color of port than of punch. "Enjoy your evening, my lord," was Arya's parting shot as she sauntered away.
Brienne stared after her, wishing her gaze could incinerate every impertinent insinuation that seemed to hang in the air between them. Jaime was not a stray cat, and he most certainly was not Brienne's, not in any sense of the word. How could Arya possibly have suggested any such thing?
Seeking distraction, she forced herself to focus on Sansa and Margaery again. They were dancing together still, their heads bent close to each other as they stepped into a turn. They were so incandescent, so full of love and promise, that it almost hurt Brienne's eyes. She found herself slipping from the room, out through the glass doors and into the gardens beyond.
Her mother had loved these gardens. Brienne barely remembered that, but her father had told her often enough, as they'd walked together. He would point out each favorite flower, each beloved hedge, until Brienne could recite them by heart. She let her fingers drift along them now, trying to find the quiet foundation that had always existed at the core of her like a marble plinth.
It was a clear night, and the stars were bright and innumerable in the sky above her. When she had been a child, her father had explained to her that their ancestors had once been called Evenstar. It had led Brienne to expect that all the stars would be her friends, and they had felt that way often as she grew, tiny bits of promise out there in the distance. Now they seemed further away than ever, and her left here on the island she loved, so full of jagged cliffs and mismatched promontories that being detached from the mainland was the only possible option.
She took a deep draught of the night air. As the light and sound of the house receded further behind her, she felt the pressure in her chest begin to ease somewhat; it was some relief, even if melancholy began to seep like spilled molasses into the space left behind.
"You didn't dance tonight. Not very gentlemanly of you."
She turned, her heart leaping into her throat, and there--of course--was Jaime. Even when he'd been was largely bedridden, it seemed somehow that she could hardly escape him, especially when she least wanted to see him. Though she had to admit that he was not a difficult sight, with the muscular curve of his calf rounding the line of his trousers, and his burnished gold tailcoat closed neatly over his deep red waistcoat. Lannister red, which only reminded her of how far removed from her he truly was, in the world outside the haven of her estate.
She ducked her head and resumed her steps along the stone path. "I have danced the lady's part often enough in recent years that I do not trust myself."
"So often, hmm?" he asked as he fell into step beside her. "You must have enjoyed a great many dances, then."
She sighed a bit, inwardly. "In fact, I have never much cared for a ball."
"Have you not?" Jaime said, sounding surprised. "But I would think that dancing would suit you, vigorous as you are. You must have had a coming-out. I imagine you disliked being the center of attention--you are too modest to feel otherwise, despite what you may deserve--but surely you must have enjoyed some aspect of it. All of those eligible men vying for your affections." He nudged her elbow with a grin.
Brienne smiled for him, though it was painful. Of course he would not understand, being not only beautiful and honorable and charming, but also so wealthy as to render the first three qualities very nearly redundant. "At first, it was rather wonderful," she admitted. She should not speak of such things to him, but it was dark and his voice had been so warm and she felt as though they might be in one of the caves she'd used to hide in, speaking truths to hear them echo back to her. "We had a place in town at the time, and it had a lovely ballroom. Catelyn had helped me choose a new dress, and we had so many candles in the hall that they reminded me of twinkling stars." As she spoke, she let her eyes drift up to the sky, and wondered that she could ever have thought it would be wrestled under a roof just for her. "The men were all grace and charm to begin--my dance card was full from the start, and they whirled me around the room until I could scarcely breathe, whispering in my ear about how they wanted to marry me and take me away with them." She trailed off, wanting to let him fill the silence as he would. Jaime had a great talent for that.
"But it did not end as it began," he said finally, sounding like he dreaded the conclusion. She did, too, though she had had years for the searing humiliation of it to fade to a dull ache that gnawed at her whenever she was in the midst of a large company.
When she laughed, there wasn't much mirth in it. "No. It did not. It fell out that they had a wager: whoever could steal a kiss from me--or better yet, more--would win the pot. And if he could steel himself to ruin me, it would mean my dowry besides, and no one would blame him for spending our marriage searching out more attractive women to fill his bed." It felt strange and scandalous to speak of such things to a man; it was Jaime, though, and they knew so many of each other's secrets already that she thought he may as well know this one too.
In any case, the tale wasn't all sadness. "Renly was there, though," she went on, her lips curving at the memory. They had come near to a low stone wall, and she stopped to lean against it, willing to let herself be lost in the recollection.
He mirrored her posture. "He was, was he?" he asked, with something more than casual interest.
"Yes. And he asked me to dance. He was the highest-ranking gentleman there, and he danced with me; none of the rest of them dared laugh at me after that. At least not that night." Despite her youthful tendre, she knew now that he had only been being kind to her, and she'd had reason to learn since that Renly's kindness was like the attention of a butterfly: quick and beautiful and on to another pasture a moment later. Still, it had buoyed her when she'd most needed it, and she would always have a fondness for him for that.
When Jaime spoke, his voice was low. "I was not invited to this coming-out ball of yours."
She glanced at him, shocked into a laugh. "Of course not; we were far beneath your notice, and far outside your sphere as well. And you would not have me believe that you would have come if you had been. For an island full of marble, and a marriage to the friend of your family's enemy? No."
There was a long pause. "No," he confessed eventually. "I likely would not have."
It was only the truth, but it hurt nonetheless, like a knitting needle piercing her chest just under her breastbone. "Of course not," she repeated.
All of a sudden, he stood, and arranged himself in front of her. He bowed deeply, then offered her his hand--his left one, as his right was angled behind his back. "Will you allow me to rectify that mistake now, my lady?"
She looked around as though her old septa was about to emerge from the bushes. "Ser Jaime. We cannot." It was her first thought, even before she realized that she had a better excuse for it than her usual instinctive refusal of such things when it came to Jaime. She gestured at the lovely waistcoat he'd given her. "I'm…"
"Nonsense," he scoffed. "The gossips inside have plenty with which to occupy themselves, given the way those poor besotted fools are cavorting about with each other. And you're quite dashing in that new ensemble, Lady Brienne." His eyes still sparkled green even in the moonlight. And something about his turn of phrase--dashing all butted up against lady--had her standing and taking his hand almost before she realized what she was doing.
He raised an eyebrow, as if he hadn't fully expected her to accept. Quickly enough, though, he walked backward a few steps into the center of the clearing, then drew her into his arms. Her heart was racing, her mind whirling, but her body seemed to know exactly what to do, slotting itself to his as though their earlier intimacy had created an impression on her that was just waiting for its match in him. His hands--the bandaged one tucked snugly against the small of her back, the uninjured, gloved one resting in hers--were warm and wonderful, fending off the beginning of chill in the air. The faint strains of the orchestra proved more than enough to keep them in time with each other, drifting into her ears along with the sound of his breath and the soft noise of the grass beneath their feet. The song was a waltz. Brienne had always secretly loved a waltz.
"I was right: you move with as much grace in a dance as you do on the piste, my lady," he said after a moment. His voice was a low rumble that she could nearly feel in the air between their chests.
She laughed softly. "I believe that you're the first to ever call me so." The thought should have pained her. Instead, she felt only grateful, that he was alive, and that they were here together, dancing.
"Contrary as ever." He shook his head, his tone rich with something that sounded a great deal like affection. "And yet I'll brook no argument on this. You are graceful. Though I suppose that's to be expected, since ladies are taught the skill from a young age."
She snorted--rather ungracefully and rather on purpose. "You do have a gift for flattery, my lord."
"Hush, I wasn't finished. You are graceful, but what's more than that, you have strength to go along with it. I can feel muscle moving under my hands, even now. You can fight me to a draw just as easily as waltz with me in the moonlight." As he guided her in a slow revolution beneath his upstretched arm, she could see that there was a crease between his eyebrows. "I cannot for the life of me figure how you manage that."
Brienne did not know how to answer that. "I have always been an anomaly, my lord." Then a thought occurred to her. "Though if I manage it, I suppose I do so the same way you do: do you not also have grace as well as strength? Do you only find it remarkable in me because of my sex?"
He hesitated for a breath, then laughed, a great peal of it up into the night sky that Brienne worried briefly would call attention to them, before she decided not to care. "A palpable hit, Six, I'll grant you that. Despite it, though, you will not argue me out of considering you singular in my acquaintance, and you shall just have to make your peace with that. I might have ignored your invitation, years ago, if it had arrived as a simple piece of paper, but if you had delivered it yourself? An entire battalion would have been insufficient to prevent my attendance."
At that, Brienne's skin seemed to hum in the same way that the bees did as they buzzed around the flowers in the afternoons. "Hmm," was all she could muster in reply. They danced in silence for another moment. A soft breeze brought the scent of dianthus with it, and ruffled Jaime's curls so that the ends of them tickled Brienne's cheek. He smelled like fresh-cut wood and something deep and rich that she couldn't identify. They should have turned by now, changed positions in the dance, but they hadn't. She could feel his chest rise and fall, scant inches from hers.
"Did you hope for a kiss from Renly Baratheon when he danced with you, Lady Brienne?" he asked.
She stiffened a bit; she had no ready answer to that, either. Of course she had hoped for it--she'd been barely eighteen and only had a vague idea of what kissing was, but she'd known that the handsome suitor always kissed the lady in the end. After a proposal and a respectful period of time, of course. The memory seemed a distant relation to this moment, though, and to the things that the slightest pressure of Jaime's hand made her want. Inchoate things, borne more out of the clamor of her own body than the ribald chatter that she'd overheard in pubs while dressed as her brother. Something in the feel of him against her called to her like a dropped guard during a fencing match, an opening that made her ache to fill it.
"Cersei told me that every girl secretly hoped for a kiss at her coming-out ball," he mused. "I claimed the first dance from her, and I wanted to kiss her, right there in front of everyone. But she wouldn't allow it, and danced next with Robert Baratheon instead. Strange that we have both been plagued with Baratheons, though I grant I'm reluctantly glad that yours was there." The sardonic twist to his voice felt as though it had curled around her spine. She wondered a bit that he would choose this specific moment to discuss his former love, though she supposed she'd done the same. Even so, it was not Renly that she was thinking of now.
"Brienne." His mouth had drifted very close to her ear. "You have not answered my question."
In deference to his wounded shoulder, she'd placed her hand a bit closer to his neck than was strictly proper; she could feel the pulse there. Her own pulse seemed so loud in her ears that she thought he must be able to hear it. "What was the question, my lord?" She truly could not recall.
He laughed a little, and pulled back so he could meet her eyes. "I asked: did you dream of a kiss after your dance?"
Brienne swallowed. All she knew of the ways of romance and flirtation had come from tales that Sansa and Margaery had regaled her with, but even she was aware that he was not speaking purely hypothetically. They were dancing, and for some reason that she could scarcely fathom, he was asking her if she wanted to be kissed.
He had declared no intentions to her. He was entangled in a rather complex way with another woman. There was no understanding between them.
And yet, what was the fact that she knew that he preferred his tea with half a lump of sugar? Or that he knew her thrust was weaker on the left side, or that she knew how he sounded when he woke from a nightmare and he knew how the sea settled and calmed her despite what it had taken from her? Not to mention that he'd let her hold a blade to his throat, and never flinched. What were all those things, if not understanding?
She let her feet stop moving, and he stumbled a little, his body falling against her. His eyes, tipped up toward her as they were, looked as warm and as dark as the space beneath her bedcovers.
"Come now, you've established your skill at pretending," he said, as though he hadn't twitted her often enough about her failure to keep up her disguise. There was something about the forced cheer in his expression, the quirk of self-mocking at the edges of his mouth, that made her long to soothe it away. "Shall we do that, and amend the lack of sins of your past? I am no Renly Baratheon, thank the gods, but with enough darkness and imagination, I could--"
"I don't wish to pretend," she said, and leaned down to press her lips to his.
The simple touch of lips on lips was the sum total of her knowledge of kissing. As a young girl attending her relatives' weddings, it had struck her as confusing and likely ungratifying--it had seemed so stagnant, just standing there. Now, she began immediately to see what the fuss was about: Jaime's mouth was gentle and sure, and for all that they were not moving, she still felt her heart hammering as if she'd run all the way to the seashore. Then he did move, the arm at her back pulling her closer, until she could feel the solid heat of him from her hip to her shoulder; his mouth found a different angle against hers and she felt even that small adjustment like the shock when she touched metal after padding across a rug.
She sighed a little against his mouth and let her fingers drift up to his cravat, wishing she had removed her gloves so she could feel the soft silk; she could feel his throat move beneath her touch, and after tending to it earlier, her fingers still retained the memory of its smooth surface, as well as the slightest prickle of whiskers just beneath the skin. He made a low sound, and she could feel that, too. He kissed each corner of her mouth, and when she parted her lips slightly, he made an approving noise and caught her lower one between both of his. The hint of the inside of his mouth was deliciously warm and wet, and she opened her own to taste more of it.
That drew out a noise closer to a growl; his tongue slid into the space she'd made for him, and oh. That was good. Though the sensation was foreign and wonderful, the rhythm itself was familiar: an advance and retreat, the waves crawling up the shoreline and then receding. He teased her, delving deep before withdrawing far enough to trace her upper lip with his tongue. She heard a frustrated noise come out of her own throat as she grasped a fistful of his coat and chased after him, mounting an attack of her own.
After a moment of that, he tore his mouth away, though he kept his forehead pressed tightly to hers and his hands were gripping her hips like they were his only anchor in a storm. "You're too quick of a study, Six, as ever. If I don't stop now, I never will."
Then never stop she wanted to tell him, as wanton as any Cyprian. His harsh breaths were more seductive to her ears than any waltz ever wrung out of strings. But they were not so far from the house and no small number of the people within thought she was her brother. So instead of speaking, she nodded, and settled his cravat with trembling fingers.
He did the same for her, then put a pace between them and ran his hands over the line of her shoulders, tugging at her sleeves near her elbows. "Well, my lady," he said, giving her one of his lazy grins. "Would you like to name the date or shall I?"
She was still having difficulty focusing on anything besides the sparks of heat thrown off by his barest touch. "What?"
He lifted a shoulder. "The date of our marriage. Is that not what your septa would say? I've taken liberties with you, and now we must marry."
Brienne blinked, her pleasant reverie broken as entirely as a glass flung against a wall. Despite his delight in tormenting her, he had never been cruel. "I took as many liberties with you as you did with me. And you must not jest about such things, Ser Jaime."
His eyebrows raised in surprise, and then he gave her a cajoling smile, though it looked unsteady at the edges. "Come now, Six, you know I have no more respect for such foolish restrictions than you do. I only meant--"
"I know precisely what you did and did not mean," she snapped, and with her tongue still tingling from his kiss, the words tasted like vinegar in her mouth. Of course he had meant nothing by it, no more than he had when he'd been bleeding on the side of the road. He could kiss her in the darkness of the garden, but she had spent enough time in the company of men to know just how broad a chasm there was between wanting to kiss a woman and wanting to marry her.
His smile had faded almost entirely now. His eyes flashed. "Do you know me so well, then?"
"I know you well enough," she returned. "I know the world well enough." The longer she stood there looking at him, the more it hurt, to have tasted him and then to have the truth of things dashed in her face so soon after. She couldn't stand it. She couldn't stay. "Good night, my lord," she told him, and she turned and started down the path again, back toward the house.
"Brienne!" she heard him call after her. She kept walking, and he did not follow.
Jaime woke early, having passed a near-sleepless night filled with thoughts of Brienne: both the addicting sensation of all the leashed power of her body molding to his, and the pain in her eyes--a bonfire of it that was already beyond control before he'd realized it was building--before she'd left him.
He hardly knew why he'd said what he had. Touching her had been like tossing back a strong drink after months of only water, and even more so after he'd spent the entire shaving episode nearly crawling out of his skin with the desire to tumble her down onto the bed and put his mouth on every part of her that she'd allow. He'd been muzzy-brained with it, and certainly he had not planned to propose anything to her beyond that they should go their separate ways before he lost his head--or she lost more than that. Yet her instant rejection of the idea, her disbelief that he could possibly be in earnest, had plagued him the rest of the long night. An hour or two before dawn, his twin torments had coalesced into a vivid fantasy of easing Brienne's hurts with every effort of his body, which had finally driven him to quickly, harshly, shamefully test the dexterity of his left hand before falling into an exhausted and guilt-ridden sleep.
But this morning was a new day, and he could cower in the dark no longer. He splashed water on his face--the cold shock of it no more than he deserved--and dressed himself with haste, then set out to find Brienne and make what amends he could. He had visited the stables, the kennels, the shoreline, and the pond, before finally finding her in the library, her fingers tracing the spines of a line of books where they sat neatly regimented on the shelf.
Fortunate books, came the thought, unbidden, and Jaime sighed and hauled on the reins of his unruly mind. That was not the way to begin his apology.
He cleared his throat, and she jumped a bit before whirling to face him. Her eyes were wide and startled at first, then went wary. He hadn't realized how much he'd been basking in their light when she saw him of late, until he was deprived of it now. She raised one foot slightly as if to move backward, then set it back down.
He stepped just inside the room, attempting to find the balance between discretion and her obvious desire to keep some distance between them. "Lady Brienne," he said, with a small bow. "I would like to offer you my apology for--"
"As I said, I know you did not mean anything by it," she interrupted. Her mouth curved, but it was an awkward thing, a set of clothes that didn't fit. "The truth is, I had been feeling somewhat melancholy when you found me, thinking about the girls leaving, and I was in no mood to be teased. Think nothing of it, please." Please, her eyes added silently.
Think nothing of it? He could think of nothing else. As much as he regretted having hurt her, and as much as the forlorn look on her face when he'd come to her had gone straight to his heart, the idea that he must pass off what had happened between them as nothing was so insupportable that he could feel something like betrayal starting to snake through his veins. He stepped closer to her, his jaw clenched and his voice gone even lower. "I believe there was a state in between the melancholy and the anger," he said. "Or was I the only one who felt that?"
Her eyes darted to the side. "It is not--I cannot--"
But before she could continue, the sound of footsteps clattered down the hallway outside, and soon enough, Pia appeared, her bonnet askew and her face red with exertion. "My lord, my lady. Someone's coming up the drive. Quickly."
Brienne's brow creased, though she was no doubt glad of the excuse to escape their conversation. "Who? I'm not expecting anyone this morning."
"I don't know, but it's an awfully big carriage," Pia answered.
Brienne made haste for the window at the far side of the room, Jaime half a step behind her. Without any conscious effort on his part, he found his body swaying toward her, seeking her heat. He forced his attention out the window instead. When he saw the coat of arms that was flapping ostentatiously from the side of the carriage, he felt as though he'd broken through the icy surface of a lake and been plunged into the depths below.
"Crownlands," he said darkly.
"Are you certain?" Brienne turned her head, and seemed startled to find him so near, but she didn't move away.
"You know that I am." He would have cursed Tyrion, but his letter was likely only just reaching Casterly Rock; he should have written sooner. Would have, had he not been occupied with his recovery.
Brienne nodded, and spun to face him. "Lady Rhaella," she said quietly. "She should--"
"I'll inform her immediately," Jaime promised. "I doubt she'll want to see him, but if she does, I'll send Arya with a signal before she comes down."
Brienne nodded again. "Tell Sansa, too, will you? Have her keep away for now, if she's willing. I must go. He'll be angry if the master of the house isn't there to receive him."
"Trust me, he's angry already," Jaime warned. With Crownlands, it simmered always just beneath the surface, wanting nothing more than the slightest increase in temperature before it boiled over and scalded anyone within range. "But you're correct, and you're correct that seeing Lady Sansa will likely only make him angrier. I'll warn her, and then I'll come join you as quickly as I may."
"Ser Jaime." She placed her hand on his forearm. "Do you think the sight of you will do anything besides incite him further?"
He cursed under his breath. He hadn't considered that. "I won't leave you alone with him, Bri--" He caught himself, aware of Pia still hovering in the doorway. "My lady," he corrected.
"As I keep telling you, ser: I have been seeing to my own protection for quite some time now, and I've grown quite adept at it." She lifted her chin as she said it, and there it was again, the flicker of pain, the shadow that hinted at the great valley of it that he'd seen the night before.
It made his heart ache to see it, but there was no time now for soft and comforting words. "I know you to be fully capable of your own protection," he said instead. "But as long as I'm in this house, I'll be guarding your flank, and even you can't argue me out of it."
She narrowed her eyes at him. Her jaw was tight.
"My lady," said Pia from the doorway, her voice gone high with urgency.
"My lady," Jaime echoed, quiet but firm. "I will not be dissuaded."
"Very well," she answered, and he nodded, and made to leave before she could change her mind. "Ser Jaime!" she called after him.
"Do not forget that I'll be guarding your flank, as well."
He simply stared at her for a moment, her silhouette straight and proud against the light coming through the window. For a change, he couldn't speak. He simply nodded his head--once, twice--then made her a short bow, and went to go find Rhaella.
* * * * *
"As much as I dislike it, I agree that it's wise for us to remain here for the time being, Lord Casterly. Now go see to Brienne, please, as quick as you can--if he is as cruel and manipulative as you say, I would not have her receive him alone."
Jaime did not need to be told twice, and hurried down to the drawing room as swiftly as his legs would carry him, his heart hammering with more than just the exercise. Fortunately, when he arrived, it looked as if Crownlands had only recently been announced; Pia was still darting about serving tea. Brienne was seated on the settee, with Crownlands having deigned to sit in a chair across from her.
"Forgive my tardiness, my lords, I was unavoidably detained," Jaime said as he swept into the room with as much presence as he could muster. He came to a halt next to the settee. "What a surprise to see you, Lord Crownlands."
Crownlands was thinner than Jaime recalled, his hair hanging lank over his shoulders and the lines of his cheeks standing out like bleached whalebones. From time to time, his eyes darted to the side, seeking hidden enemies.
"Ah, Ser Jaime." Crownlands contrived to make the title sound like an insult, though he'd conferred it himself. Jaime gritted his teeth. After he'd brought Rhaella away, he'd spent a solid year, at least, convincing himself that the honor still meant something--that he could make it mean something--even if the man who had bestowed it was… well, was this. Now, looking at Crownlands, he could feel all of his own self-serving arguments draining away from him like water through a sieve. Still, Brienne's voice rang in his mind: You have acted honorably today. Do you intend to act honorably tomorrow? "It's been far too long," Crownlands went on.
A century would not be long enough, Jaime did not say, though he could not prevent the edge of it from sharpening his smile. "My lord. What brings you here to Tarth on this lovely day?"
"Why, my future bride, of course." Crownlands' eyes glinted. "Tarth here was just telling me that she is unwell today. Such a pity. I will have to return tomorrow, of course."
Brienne cleared her throat. "I regret, Lord Crownlands, that her illness may linger for some time. As you likely know, her family was taken by a fever, and so we all take extra care with her and Lady Arya when their health is in question." Her face was calm, but Jaime could see the rigid tension in the line of her shoulders.
"I was told in the village that there was a ball here just last night, and that Lady Sansa was the jewel of it. This illness must have come on very suddenly." Crownlands tilted his head, feigning confusion.
Brienne's eyes skipped quickly to Jaime; she was unaccustomed to lying. Fortunately, he'd gained ever more experience at it over the years, in addition to whatever predisposition came from his Lannister blood. "She enjoyed the ball so much that she insisted on bidding all the guests farewell as they left, and left her shawl behind while she did so. We can only assume she must have taken a chill." He put that same chill into his voice, though he knew it was futile. Crownlands had not come all this way to be turned away by the pretense of a sniffle.
"Then I shall simply have to return until she is well. Each day." Crownlands' smile was as sinuous as a snake, the threat impossible to miss.
"Lord Crownlands." Brienne's voice may as well have been made of the finest Tarth marble. "We are honored by your presence, but truly, such attentiveness is unnecessary. Lady Sansa is being well cared for, and her new husband-to-be, Loras Tyrell, will visit us often, as well."
Despite the tension, Jaime had to hold in a smile; Brienne was blunt with him so often that he had forgotten she could strike just as hard with a veneer of politeness as she could with pure force.
Crownlands nodded thoughtfully, and a cruel tilt appeared in his mouth. "Ah, yes, I'd heard about that. A pity, that Casterly here couldn't secure her for me in the time he was here." He waved a hand in Jaime's direction. "I thought at least he'd proven himself to be capable of persuading beautiful women."
Jaime's uninjured hand clenched into a fist at his side.
"Lord Casterly has conducted himself here honorably and well," Brienne said sharply. So much for the veneer, Jaime thought, moving casually along the back of the settee until he could place his hand on Brienne's shoulder, just in case she thought of leaving her seat. Nevertheless, her defense of him had warmth spreading through his chest for the first time since she'd walked away from him the previous evening. "Lady Sansa was, of course, very honored by your proposal. However, her friendship with the Tyrells has had a long history and Lord Highgarden was simply first in her affections."
"She might find that my friendship is equally valuable." Crownlands raised the teacup to his mouth; steam wreathed his face like he was exhaling it. "Speaking of value, Lord Tarth, I understand that you have several productive quarries on this little island of yours."
"We do," she answered. Jaime nearly regretted his decision to move behind Brienne, given that it rendered her expressions invisible to him. With his hand on her shoulder, though, at least he could feel the minute shift of muscle, the gathered wariness. "If your lordship is interested in seeing their workings, I'm sure that a tour could be arranged."
"No," Crownlands answered, his face contorting briefly as if he'd tasted something awful. "No, I was simply wondering how one man is master of this island by himself. Your father died these two years past, did he not?"
The muscle beneath Jaime's hand grew tighter. "He did. But I prefer to consider each person on this island their own master, and my family the stewards of their care. It is a great responsibility, but one I'm proud to bear."
"How very enlightened of you," Crownlands said in a detached tone. "If you feel so, it would be a great pity if you were no longer in a position to protect them, wouldn't it?"
Brienne's back somehow straightened even more. "It would. Fortunately, my lord, I have no reason to anticipate such an event occurring."
"Fortunate indeed," Crownlands agreed. He traced a finger around the rim of his teacup. "So there were no mistakes in your father's past? No tragically misguided investments that might have ended badly? No lingering debt that could be purchased by someone unscrupulous and used as a lever to gain your cooperation in some venture or other?"
Brienne made no immediate answer, and Jaime's blood ran cold. He sent up a brief prayer to the gods that Crownlands was merely blustering to see if he could intimidate a newly-minted lord. But when Brienne spoke again, her voice was sufficiently strained that it snapped the slender thread of Jaime's hope like an overstretched fishing line. "I'm sure that I do not know what you could possibly be referring to, Lord Crownlands."
"I'm sure you do not. Such a predicament is too unpleasant to even contemplate." Setting his tea aside, Crownlands rose and straightened his coat. "Well. As diverting as this has been, I have other matters to attend to. But I have taken the liberty of letting a house nearby, along with no small number of my men, so that I may return here as often as possible to look in on dear Lady Sansa."
"As I said, my lord," Brienne protested, "that really is not--"
"I shall return to dine with you tomorrow evening," he interrupted flatly. "I have brought my own cook with me, whom I will send to prepare it. Have veal chops ready for his use. I strongly believe they will prove a curative for Lady Sansa as well, so I must insist that she join us."
Brienne stood as well, and bowed as if it cost her a great deal of effort. "We all pray that she will be recovered enough to do so, my lord."
"As well you should," Crownlands answered. He fixed his gaze on Jaime again, his lip curling into a sneer. "You're welcome as well, Casterly. I'm sure Lord Tarth can arrange to have your food cut for you."
Jaime still couldn't see Brienne's face, but he could see her back move as she drew in breath.
"I thank you for the suggestion, Lord Crownlands," he said quickly, before Brienne could speak. "Lord Tarth has been all courtesy during my convalescence."
"Quite a felicitous little party, aren't you?" Crownlands mused as he put on his hat. "Tomorrow evening, Casterly. Tarth." The threat was heavy in every syllable. And with that, he swept from the room.
* * * * *
"My father made a handful of unwise decisions when he was younger," Brienne said quietly from her seat in front of her dressing table. "We are still indebted to those decisions, yes."
"We cannot--" Jaime started. "I will not allow him to--"
"This is not your concern, Ser Jaime," she told him, and the title made him unaccountably angry. Here he was just outside her bedchamber, for Maiden's sake, and she was still holding him at arm's length with that one prim little word.
"Not my concern?" he repeated, incredulous. "Not my concern that a man who I know to be capable of great harm is now threatening your household, and in part because of me? Not my concern?"
"If you had not been sent to press his suit, it would have been someone else," she said, only a bit unevenly. "And at least with you here, we were warned as to his true nature before anyone tried to commit Sansa to anything we would have regretted. This is Sansa's difficulty, and mine by extension; you need have no part in it."
"I see," he said. He began to pace the room. He knew from the outside of the house that her bedchamber had a window that faced the sea, but if it was open, he could feel no breath of air now. "So I am to merely stand by while my--" He found that he did not know what to call her. "My host, and I had hoped to say my friend, is threatened and abused? It's none of my affair, so I'm to wish you all luck and wash my hands of it?"
"He has taken enough from you," she insisted, louder now. "You and Lady Rhaella both. I would not have him take more."
"I would not have him breathing the same air as you," he growled, "and yet he does." He ceased his restless steps long enough to pin her with his gaze. "He will destroy you, Brienne. He will not hesitate. Even if he knows he will not sway you, he'll do it just for the sake of revenge at being refused."
"We will manage," she told him, though both her tone and her posture were unsteady, lacking her usual conviction. "You have done all that a friend might, Ser Jaime. As for the rest, we will manage ourselves."
Friendship. If such were the limits of friendship, what good was it? "Marry me, then," he said suddenly, the words seeming to tumble out of his mouth as easily as dice in a gaming hell. "Marry me, and your debt will be paid, and he will hold no sway over you, nor Lady Sansa."
"Damn you!" she exclaimed. She stood abruptly, her closed fist striking the arm of the chair as if to propel her upward. "I have asked you repeatedly not to jest about this, and it is cruel of you to insist upon it, especially at such a time." Her voice was bright with pain and deep with betrayal.
"I assure you, I am in earnest," he told her, though it was only as he spoke that he became aware of how earnest he truly was. In fact, the images that were suddenly filling his mind--Brienne laughing on a sun-soaked beach on their wedding trip, Brienne facing him across a fencing salle in their own home, Brienne bringing her warmth and her light to the cold halls of Casterly Rock--filled him with a joy so fierce it nearly took his breath away. He was a fool for not seeing it before. He stepped forward, and took her hand in his clumsier left one. "Marry me, Brienne, and all will be well."
When she yanked her hand away, he felt it as though it had carved a slice from his flesh. She turned her back on him and was halfway across the room before she stopped. "I will not be married for pity," she spat, with such force he was almost surprised to see that the wall itself remained standing.
Gods. "Pity is not what I feel for you, Brienne."
"Then what is it?" she asked. She crossed her arms, the shift of muscle in her broad back taunting him. Her hair was curling softly against the back of her neck; he knew what that curl felt like under his fingers, now. "What do you feel for me?" she demanded, when he did not immediately answer, and he could hear the tremor in it under the bravado.
He went to her then, and placed a hand at her waist. "I…" He didn't know what name to put to the emotion swirling in his chest, seeming to tangle all his insides with it. It was not what he had felt for Cersei, not that all-consuming, desperate thing that had made him hers to command. It was something steadier and more sure, a fire burning in the hearth after a long day. "I care for you," he said, and even as his mouth shaped the words, he knew that they were pale and inadequate.
Given that, he could hardly be surprised when she moved away from him, hands clenched tightly around her elbows.. "I... I value your friendship, Ser Jaime." The words sounded like they were being pulled out of her, like a rope struggling to haul a man out of the ocean. "But I will not marry you for that."
It was a blow, harsher than he'd expected. "Obstinate woman!" he exclaimed, abruptly furious with both of them. "Why won't you let me offer you my assistance?"
She rounded on him. "Because I will not be added to your list of obligations! And because you have already bound yourself to one woman--one friend," and she almost sneered on the word. "So I can hardly ask you to bind yourself even more firmly to another. And come to that," she went on, over the beginning of his objection, "what would become of Rhaella if you married me? Would the three of us live together in a happy home, and I the laughingstock of all our neighbors for sharing my table with your mistress? Not that anyone would blame you for having one," she added bitterly. Her face had gone bright red beneath her freckles, her skin betraying her feelings as easily as ever. He'd hurt her again, and he couldn't stand it, any more than he could stand the thought of leaving this house, waking up every morning and knowing she was nowhere within reach.
He could feel this spiraling beyond his control, like he'd dived off a cliff and could only watch the rocks rushing up to meet him. "We could go somewhere," he said desperately. "Essos, Southros, wherever you want to go. We could start a new life, and Rhaella would be free to start hers."
She spread her arms out at her sides. "I do not make friends so easily, Ser Jaime, that I have the luxury of leaving those I have behind. To say nothing of the tenants who depend on me. And you--you would leave your family?" She shook her head. "I have no family left, and I know the pain of it. I cannot ask you to orphan yourself as well."
He saw the truth in it, and it made him want to fight all the harder. "Since when have you met an obstacle that you cannot overcome?" he challenged. He could feel his own argument tearing between his fingers like wet paper. "Just marry me, and we'll work out the rest together. Why must you insist on doing everything on your own terms or nothing?"
"I do not wish to be always alone!" she burst out, and Jaime had been a soldier long enough to recognize an open wound when he saw one. "But I wish to be myself, and the one seems a necessary consequence of the other!"
Before he could think, he was moving toward her. Stepping into her. His words had often deserted him when he needed them most, but even since that first day they'd fenced, their bodies had always understood each other. He hooked his arm around her waist and pulled her to him, hard, his lips crashing against hers. She made a frustrated, anguished noise and gave the kiss right back to him in equal measure; he could feel temper and want and something more in the hungry, if inexperienced, slide of her tongue. That something more terrified him in her as much as it did in himself, but he craved it, too, and he pressed his mouth to her cheekbone, the lobe of her ear.
"Let me--" he gasped, ragged. He wanted to show her. He wanted to feel her.
"Let you what?" she panted. And yet she didn't draw back from him; on the contrary, she pulled him into her, fingers winding around the buttons of his coat. "I cannot--we cannot--"
"I know," he soothed. As much as he was aching to bear her through the doorway and onto her bed so that he could sink into her until they both forgot everything but their pleasure, he would not ruin her. Shameful enough that he would kiss her, touch her like this without even being able to name what he felt for her. "Only let me touch you. Just with my hands. Well, hand." He laughed a bit, his mind and body so full of her that even the thought of his injury didn't pain him as much as it normally did. He wasn't as dexterous with his left hand yet as he wanted to be, but he'd wager he could still make her murmur his name in the same throaty voice she'd gifted him with when she'd first awakened next to his bed, these few sennights past. "Will you let me, Brienne?"
She hesitated, and he forced himself to pause, nuzzling gently at the warmth of her neck. Breathing in her scent: the simple soap she favored, the lingering memory of fresh air and leather and sweat that he could imagine remained from their previous morning's ride.
Then, "Yes," she whispered, "yes, I want to know what it's like," and he could think of nothing but making good on his intentions without delay.
As much as her men's attire suited her, he was even gladder of it for its ease of access, an outright gift compared to layers of overdress and underdress and corsetry. He kissed her again as he propelled her to walk backward toward the outer door, tugging at her cravat as he went. "Will you unbutton your waistcoat for me?" he asked. He wanted to do it himself, but he only had one hand, and it was currently very well-occupied. He also wanted to see her do it, though that regrettably required releasing her mouth long enough to permit it.
It was worth it, though, to watch her surprisingly graceful fingers working, watch the front of her waistcoat separate slowly, watch her slide her braces out of the way, until it was only thin linen separating him from the peaks of her breasts. He leaned down to close his mouth over one, and relished her quick indrawn breath. Her nipple grew stiff beneath his attentions. He gloried in the thought that if anyone walked in on them just now, they would see the evidence of his ardor in the translucent cloth of her shirt.
Her thoughts seemed to be running along the same line, given that she fumbled behind her and slowly walked the door shut until she was leaning against it. He followed her, his mouth never relinquishing contact. Without her cravat, her collar hung open, tempting him, but he wanted to savor just this, the scrape of linen against his tongue and her flesh, teasing them both.
Meanwhile, she had sunk her fingers into his hair and arched her back, pressing herself toward him. "Jaime," she breathed, thrilling him. "Gods, Jaime." He felt a surge of pride that he was the one pleasuring her, discovering this with her.
His mouth still busy, he let his fingers manage the buttons below her waist until the fall at the front of her trousers lived up to its name. As he'd hoped, she wore only short drawers beneath. He could feel the heat of her already.
He straightened long enough to meet her eyes. Her pupils were wide and dark, like a roiling sky reflected in a stormy sea, and he found that he had to kiss her once more before he could speak. "I have one condition: you must promise me to tell me if I do anything you dislike," he said firmly when he was done.
She nodded, her cheeks flushed almost as red as her kiss-swollen mouth. "I will not hesitate to make any objections known to you, ser," she informed him. He could hear the lilt of humor in her voice, like a silken ribbon woven through the desire. Both were equally gratifying, and both only made him want her the more.
"I know you won't, Six," he told her, grinning. He caught his glove between his teeth, heedless of the damage to the delicate kid, and pulled it off one finger at a time. She watched his progress with avid eyes, until he let the glove drop to the floor and lifted up to kiss her again, wondering if she could taste the leather on his tongue.
He went slowly with his newly-bare hand, down between her legs; the prickle of her coarse hair against his fingers was like tiny shocks of pleasure as he dipped inside her smallclothes. She angled her hips toward him, her head thrown back against the door.
"Jaime." Her hands roamed over him restlessly, across his shoulders, over his chest, down his back. "I want--"
"What?" he whispered. "Tell me." He thought he knew, but he needed to be sure.
"Touch me," she moaned. "Touch me, damn you."
"I will," he promised, laughing low, and slid his fingers down between her thighs, down into the wet heat that awaited him. Gods, she was as glorious as he'd imagined, and more ready for him than he could have dreamed. She gasped as soon as his fingers met flesh, and clutched at his forearm.
He spared a moment to regret the clumsiness of his fingers--he wanted to play her like the finest instrument, wring every cry out of her like music--but they slipped easily along the seam of her, and she shivered. He leaned close to taste her pulse where it was beating so strongly in her neck.
"Have you touched yourself like this before?" he asked her.
"Yes," she told him, a bit defiant, as though she thought he might judge her a wanton for it. On the contrary, his cock surged at the thought: Brienne sprawled out among the bedclothes, her mouth open and her endless legs splayed and her clever fingers busy between them. It was a mighty effort to keep himself from rutting against the unyielding muscle of her thigh, so tantalizingly close. His fingers found the spot that made her whole torso convulse for a moment, as though she was a marionette and someone had jerked her strings.
"I'm glad," he said, half a growl. "Tell me how you like it."
"I--I can't think, Jaime, please, just--"
"Like this?" He drew slow circles over that little spot of pleasure, and she made a humming noise. "Is that good?"
"Yes. But--a little faster, please?"
Please. Leave it to Brienne to hold fast to courtesy even in a moment like this. "As you command, my lady," he murmured. She shuddered. He increased his speed, and her breathing increased along with it. Small sounds began to escape her throat: a moan here, a gasp there.
"Jaime." She spread her legs a little further and tilted her hips toward his fingers, demanding more. Her own fingers tangled in the cloth at his shoulder and twisted until he could hear threads pop. He was wearing one of his favorite waistcoats, and if this was to be its last day of service, he couldn't think of a death more devoutly to be wished.
"Yes, Six. Good. Gods, you feel incredible."
"Don't call me that," she gasped out, but it was on a half-laugh, and fond, and Jaime's heart felt as though it was straining the limits of his chest. She was like a flood against his hand. She snaked a hand up between them to pinch her own nipple through the still-damp fabric, shameless now; he groaned at the sight of her long fingers caressing the pale pink bud.
"You must know," he told her, visions unfurling in his mind, "that I would be a most devoted husband. I would spend hours between your thighs. I would let you take your morning's ride on my cock any day that you wished. I would have you against the wall of the fencing salle with the salt of your sweat beneath my tongue." She would at least know how badly he wanted her. He could at least give her that, if she would take nothing else from him.
She moaned, loudly enough that he hoped it could be heard through the solid wooden door, and pulled him closer. Her mouth was open, her thighs trembling with the tension of her muscles. Her cheeks were no delicate pink but a fiery red, as fierce and honest as everything else about her, and he drank in the sight of it greedily, having imagined it more times than he wanted to admit. The tension had worked its way throughout her body until she was drawn tight as a bowstring, nearly ready to release.
He worked his fingers faster, pressing himself against every magnificent inch of her in the same way he'd used to splay himself over the sun-warmed rocks. "Brienne," he murmured. "Believe me when I say: I would not have you be anything other than what you are."
In that moment, it was enough: she clutched him hard and he could feel her shaking, feel her pleasure wracking her body almost as if it were his own. She called his name throughout, "Jaime, Jaime, Jaime," and he held her as close as he could while she tumbled over the edge.
When she was slumped against him, still quaking, he set himself to kissing every freckle he could see. He imagined he could be at it for quite a while. "Do you?" he asked between kisses. The spot just beneath her ear was so temptingly soft.
Her fingers trailed down the back of his neck. "Do I what?"
There was a pause. Then, "Yes," she whispered. She sought his mouth with hers, kissed him with a kind of desperate fervor that he'd had yet to feel from her. He kissed her back eagerly, searching for promises in the recesses of her mouth.Then she slowed, cupped his face in her hand, and pulled back. "And so you know: aside from your fondness for tormenting me, I could say the same to you."
She was so wry and affectionate that he laughed, though he knew the pain was coming. He had fenced her often enough now to sense when she had a second intention waiting.
Within a breath, there it was: the sorrow seeping into her expression until he thought it would break his heart. "But our duties, our responsibilities--once we leave this island, they cannot coexist." She lifted a shoulder. "You know it."
He leaned heavily against the door, weary with the sudden weight of it. She was right; he could not abandon Rhaella. And yet, no more could he now imagine leaving Brienne. And yet, both of them deserved far better than to be thought merely his light-skirts.
It seemed he had escaped one conundrum only to run headlong into a second. He let his head sink down until it was resting against the curve of her neck, where it met her shoulder. The echo of her peak still lingered in the air.
"Jaime," she murmured, "can I--" She reached for him, questing fingers over the front of his trousers.
He wanted her, desperately.
He couldn't have her.
He tangled his still-damp fingers with hers, and brought them to his lips. "You have no idea of how badly I want to say yes. But we have been too long already, and we have plans to make." He kissed her hand again. Her cheek. Her temple. Her mouth, until he could feel himself beginning to slide beneath the water. Then he pulled himself away, and let her go.
Sansa was determined to join them for dinner, though Brienne had attempted to persuade her otherwise. "I will not hide in my room like a child sent to bed without supper," she insisted. "From what you reported, Lord Crownlands made it very clear that he will continue to return here daily until he is permitted to see me. Well, let him see me, then, and let him see that my mind is unchanged."
Brienne had wanted to argue with her, but she could not but admit that Sansa was probably correct. It was possible that her meeting with Crownlands would bring them some useful information, or at least mollify him temporarily. And truth be told, there was some comfort in being able to keep her eye on Sansa herself, and to have Jaime there to do so as well.
Jaime. Even the thought of his name made her shiver, now, remembering. She had experienced pleasure at her own hand before, but experiencing it at someone else's--at Jaime's--had been something of a revelation. She had craved more, craved everything, and then he had left her, her body growing cold everywhere he'd been.
It was for the best, she told herself firmly. Rare as it was for Jaime's reason to prevail over hers, she knew what she wanted, and she knew it was impossible, and no number of stolen moments in her dressing room were going to change that.
Despite her attempts to dislodge it, though, the thought persisted that she would have liked to have had those moments anyway.
If Sansa was dining, then of course so was Margaery. Rhaella had chosen to remain in her room; she had looked unnaturally pale ever since Lord Crownlands' arrival, and Brienne's worry over her was beginning to grow. She had sent Arya to keep company with her, and prayed that simple companionship would be enough to hold off whatever demons Rhaella was wrestling until Brienne or Jaime could speak to her at greater length.
Crownlands arrived precisely on time, having sent his cook ahead of him as promised. Brienne had resented the intrusion, and her beloved cook Sam had resented it even more, but they were attempting to keep peace as best they could, and so allowed Crownlands' chef free rein in the kitchen. Crownlands had also brought a guest with him, a rodent-faced man who appeared to know Jaime, if his sneer upon seeing him was any indication.
"Ser Jaime," he said, in a tone that was in itself sufficient to make Brienne want to toss him out on his arse.
"Rossart," Jaime said shortly.
"Casterly and Rossart both served under me in the war," Crownlands said smoothly. "I thought a reunion would be welcome."
"Yes. Rossart devoted himself to the study of a particular type of mortar called wildfire," Jaime explained, never taking his eyes off the man. "He trained his men to be very effective with it."
Brienne blanched. She had heard of the horrors of wildfire; just a few of the mortars were capable of leveling an entire town. They were a cruel and ruthless weapon, and even in war, many generals refused to use them.
"Isn't that very dangerous?" Sansa asked.
Rossart gave her a grin that was reminiscent of a skull. "Yes," he said. "For our enemies."
Tension simmered in the air. Margaery cleared her throat delicately. "Shall we go in to dinner, then?"
They seated themselves: Brienne at the head of the table, Jaime at her right, and Sansa at her left with Margaery beside her. Rossart selected the chair next to Jaime--there was some risk there, Brienne thought, but not as much as if it had been Crownlands--while the marquess sat at the opposite end. The veal was served, along with small white potatoes and long green beans. Brienne observed that Crownlands ate little, despite having had it prepared to his precise specifications. Brienne had had minimal appetite coming into this meal, and watching Crownlands ignore his own food gave her a creeping sense of dread that had her searching for the lingering taste of anything unusual. She could see the same effect working on the others, as well, as though the meat had been seasoned with suspicion as well as with mint.
The conversation was equally stingy and stilted, no matter Margaery's heroic efforts, until Crownlands interrupted her in the midst of a recounting of a particularly fine feast at Highgarden.
"Lady Sansa," he said. "I will delay no more with idle chatter. I have come here to receive your acceptance of my proposal and bring you with me back to King's Landing. I am very confident you'll find the arrangements to your liking."
Sansa's cheeks colored, and she sent a glance toward Margaery before she took a small sip of her wine. "I am deeply honored, my lord, of course, but I have already accepted Lord Highgarden's proposal."
"So I was told. But young ladies often change their minds, do they not?" He turned his reptilian smile toward Jaime. "Our dear Lady Rhaella is proof of that."
Jaime's left hand clenched into a fist. Brienne deeply understood his feelings, but she slid her foot toward him unobtrusively until the toe of her boot touched his. She watched his shoulders move as he inhaled and exhaled slowly.
"Come, Lady Sansa," Crownlands continued. "I think you'll find that I can be quite persuasive."
"I'm not sure I take your meaning, my lord," Sansa answered.
"Your obvious attachment to Lord and Lady Tarth is touching, my lady," said Crownlands, "and please believe me when I tell you that I long for the opportunity to assist them as well. As loath as I am to speak of such an indelicate matter, I feel it only fair to disclose to you that some financial questions have come to my attention regarding this estate. Financial questions which, of course, would be entirely resolved when you become my wife. I would be so grateful to Lord and Lady Tarth for keeping you safe for me, all this time."
"I do not require--" Brienne began, but Crownlands rode over her, pinning Sansa with his gaze.
"I think you'll find that it's crucial for matters such as these to be attended to as quickly as possible. Otherwise some unscrupulous sorts might swoop in and take advantage of a vulnerable estate." Now, finally, he turned his attention to Brienne. "Wouldn't you agree, Lord Tarth?"
She drew herself up to her full height and rolled her shoulders slightly. "Fortunately, Lord Crownlands, I think you'll find Evenfall Hall quite well-fortified." But she could see that his insinuations had done their work; Sansa was looking at her with concern.
"I'm sure that's very comforting. Is that your family portrait, Lord Tarth?" Crownlands asked then, nodding to the spot above the fireplace.
"It is," Brienne answered. She tensed in her chair; politeness and caution were all very well, but she would not stand for an insult to anyone she had lost. Beneath the table, Jaime reached over and rested a hand on her leg, just above her knee.
"Your sister is terribly ugly, isn't she? And hideously tall. How embarrassing for all of you. Are you certain that she's a woman at all?"
A rumbling noise emerged from Jaime's chest. Brienne touched her smallest finger to his. But he would not be dissuaded this time. "You will not speak so about a lady in her own house, Lord Crownlands."
Crownlands blinked at him in transparently false shock. "Shall I speak of her elsewhere, then? Perhaps her fellow cattle know her."
"Enough!" Jaime fairly roared it, rising from his chair so quickly that it crashed to the ground behind him. "You have insulted a woman who is worth a thousand of you, and you will answer for it." His fist thudded down on the table, making the china and silverware jump. "Tomorrow morning. Pistols."
Brienne's pulse had leapt from an uneasy canter to a full-out gallop as she looked back and forth between Jaime and Crownlands, searching desperately for another way to end this and still leave honor satisfied. She had gone so far as to forbid Galladon to partake in any duels, considering them an abhorrent waste that too often concerned itself more with the shell of honor than the spirit of it. It appeared she should have had the same conversation with Jaime. Though his full-throated defense of her made warmth bloom in her chest, she would not have him risk his life for the sake of a few words. But she could hardly say so in front of Crownlands, and so she was trapped, only able to watch the scene unfold.
Crownlands smiled. "Very well, Casterly. I believe you and I have had this reckoning before us for some time, now. Name your second."
"I will be his second." Brienne rose from her chair, as well. Jaime turned his glare on her, and she glowered right back at him. If he insisted on engaging in this dangerous foolishness, he was damn well going to do it with her at his side.
"Excellent." Crownlands tossed his napkin on the ground and stood. "Tarth, notify Rossart of the time and place. It matters not to me." He began pulling on his gloves with swift, sharp movements. "I'm very much looking forward to killing you tomorrow, Casterly. And to marrying Lady Sansa thereafter."
"And I look forward to you leaving this house immediately," Brienne told him--unfettered, at least, from the need for propriety. He gave her a final sneer before stalking out of the room, with Rossart trailing behind him.
As soon as they heard the main door thump closed, Jaime rounded on Brienne. "What were you thinking of?" he demanded.
"What was I thinking of?" She was precariously near to challenging him. "I did not ask you to--"
"Brienne," Margaery cut in, her tone calm but brooking no argument. "Ser Jaime. This is no time for squabbling amongst ourselves."
"I agree." Sansa's face was resolute. "What preparations can be made? How may we assist you?"
"I have never witnessed a duel." Brienne's mind was still reeling; it had all happened so quickly. That Sansa and Margaery so readily accepted the situation had her despairing, too, of persuading Jaime from this course. But she would bide her time.
"My brother has," Margaery put in. Jaime snorted. Margaery gave him an arch look, and he subsided. "Brienne must send to Rossart with the time and place. The maester must be present as well."
"I'll send for the maester," Sansa offered. "Ser Jaime, is there a time or location that you would prefer?"
Brienne looked to Jaime, and he looked back at her with his eyes full of feeling that she couldn't quite parse. His left hand clenched and then unclenched. "I will leave that to Lady Brienne," he said, then gave them a short bow and left the room.
In his wake, Margaery sighed. "Well," she said. "That was certainly one way to avoid the veal."
* * * * *
"Ser Jaime," she said. As touched as he had been when she had referred to him so for the first time, he very nearly hated it just now, that title held between them like a screen in front of a roaring fire. It was meant to keep them safe, but he was not in a mood for safety.
He made to reload the pistol, clumsy with his injured hand and the persistent ache in his wounded shoulder, and after watching him struggle with it for a few breaths, she gave that little huff and took it from him. She reloaded it expertly and efficiently before handing it back. He took aim and fired, the shot landing wide of center. He bit back a curse. He had trained with both hands, in his day, but it had been a long time since either had been pressed into service against anything more than wildfowl.
"Did you settle things with Rossart?" he asked, as brusque and businesslike as he could manage.
"I sent a note, and received his confirmation in return. We will meet at seven o'clock," she said. "The place is near a grove, half an hour's ride away."
"Very good." He stared determinedly at the target as though he could somehow move the bullet-holes toward the center of it by sheer force of will.
"Ser Jaime," she repeated. She placed her hand on his arm. "You need not do this."
"There is no other way, and you know it as well as I do," he said grimly. "I challenged him, and he accepted. The course is set."
"You challenged him because he insulted me. What do I care for that? What is the judgment of a cruel and petty tyrant, compared to your life?" she exclaimed.
"Make no mistake that I would kill him for daring to speak of you so," he agreed, low and vehement. "As if there isn't more honor and integrity in your smallest toe than in the entirety of his existence. But also--" He held up his right hand to forestall her interruption. "Also, he has already tried to have us killed once. He made sure that we knew that he's brought even more men with him this time. He can't be reasoned with or bargained with--he desires revenge, and as long as he still lives, he might have it."
She paused, and he could see the wheels of her mind turning, grinding that information into a fine powder that could be used to fire her argument. "As your second, I cannot allow this," was her next salvo. She snatched up his other pistol, hardly seeming aware of what she was doing, and began loading it.
The laugh that slipped from his mouth was brief and bitter. "It's not yours to allow or to disallow, and come to that, I'm barely allowing you to be my second, so do not press me."
"I should like to see you try to disallow me from anything," she retorted. Then, in a more conciliatory tone, "You are still healing. You cannot--"
"Do you think I don't know that?" he gritted out. It tasted like ashes in his mouth. "Do you think it does not reverberate in my mind with every heartbeat, that I am not the man I was? But the only other course is to either apologize and leave ourselves and everyone we love vulnerable to whatever retribution he chooses, or to murder him in his bed tonight. Do you have the stomach for either? Which of those satisfies honor--or, for that matter, justice?"
She watched him, rebelliousness written in every line of her face, but he could see that she had no argument against him.
"I thought not," he said when she didn't answer. "Even you must give way from time to time, Six." He retrieved the loaded pistol from her and aimed again. Fired. This time he landed somewhat closer to the center.
"You are every inch the man you were," she said after a moment, with the same implacable force she applied to every ridiculous statement she made about the world--as if she could command it, and make it so, no matter how far-fetched. Even now, he couldn't bring himself to reject her faith, despite everything in him shouting disbelief. "But you can shoot him in the heart," she went on, her voice rising in volume, "and still end with a bullet in yours. This is not fists or swords, where your skill can outlast his. This is the work of a moment, and in that moment, anything could happen."
She was right, of course, but he no more wanted to dwell on it than on his mangled hand, or that even if he won, it would mean slinking back to Casterly Rock alone. If Tywin had been ill-pleased at his son baiting a marquess by stealing his marchioness from under his nose, he would no doubt discover an entirely new level of paternal disappointment when Jaime returned home with a dead marquess in his wake and no advantage to show for it. "Is this meant to be bolstering my courage?" he said, and he could feel the razor edge to it, the words slicing the inside of his throat on their way out. "Because if so, you're doing a piss-poor job of it."
She made a growling noise low in her chest. "It's meant to drive it into your thick skull that you could die tomorrow, you fool!"
"I know it!" he shouted. He put the pistol down, because it was either that or hurl it into the sea. He turned to face her fully, arms spread at his sides. "He can't be allowed to go on like this, you know it as well as I do! So what do you want from me, Brienne? What would you have me do?"
"I would have you live!" she shouted back, and now that he could see her eyes, he could see almost nothing else. "I have lost my father, I have lost my brother, and soon Sansa and Arya and Margaery will be gone, and I cannot, I will not lose you too!"
He simply stared at her for a moment, watching her shoulders heave, and then she reached out and grasped his face between her hands and hauled his mouth to hers.
Warm, was his first thought as her tongue slid impatiently against his. Warm and wet, and she tasted of the salt air around them. When he slipped his own hand up to thumb the line of her cheekbone, he realized that the salt was not entirely from the sea.
"Brienne," he said against her mouth, desperate to comfort her even as he was desperate for her comfort, "don't cry, please, I'll--"
"Hush," she told him. "No more talking--" and she promptly silenced him with her tongue. He wasn't sure if he had taught her too well or exactly well enough; either way, he gave himself over to it, let his hand drag down her back to her arse so that he could press her against him and ease some of the brilliant ache in his cock. He was so hard he felt light-headed with it, all the heat of his agitation rushing into desire like a flame along a pool of oil. He managed to insinuate a thigh between her legs, and she moaned and began to rock against him.
"Yes," he whispered, "yes, sweet, let me give you this." He couldn't guarantee her his life, but he could give her this.
When she shook her head, it was as if she'd struck him behind the knees; he thought that if he let her go now, she'd surely take a piece of him with her that could never be replaced. But he steeled himself, and forced the arm he'd banded around her to relax, preparing to withdraw.
She shook her head more firmly. "No, I don't mean--I mean, yes, but not like this."
Given that she was still pressing the heat of her cunt against him, he hoped he had leave to mouth the tendon that ran the glorious length of her neck. "How, then, my lady?" he asked. He was prepared to acquiesce to any position, any location, as long as he could watch her come apart for him again. In truth, in the moments when he hadn't been preoccupied with their unwelcome guest, he'd been able to think of little else since their interlude in her dressing room.
She gripped his shoulders, so tightly he could feel the cloth straining. "I want us to go back to Evenfall, and I want to go to your room, and I want to--be with you. Tonight." Her throat moved under his lips as she swallowed.
He raised his head at that--he had to see her eyes for this. "Brienne." He considered his words carefully, hardly daring to breathe lest he disturb the delicate balance between his desire and his honor. "There is nothing--nothing in this world--I want more than to do exactly that. But you've already refused to marry me, and I refuse to ruin you."
"Ruin me," she scoffed. "I've considered this at some length. Does it follow for you, Ser Jaime, that my undertaking this act with someone I care for, who cares for me, would ruin me, but being bedded on the night of my wedding to a stranger would not? Is there logic in that to you?"
He suppressed a surge of jealousy at the thought of such a stranger; she was with him now, choosing him, and that had to mean something. "No," he admitted, unaccountably aroused by the way she said undertaking this act.
"And will you take care that no child results?" she asked him.
"Yes, of course," he agreed, though she'd said it like someone who already knew the answer. It was as though she'd pulled a single thread from a seam, and now they were both watching the entirety of it unravel as she spoke.
"As will I. And if a child results despite our precautions, I have full faith that you will make sure they are well-cared-for," she went on.
He nodded, momentarily distracted by the thought of a child in his arms, with golden curls and depthless blue eyes. "Yes. I will."
She lifted a shoulder. "Then. Logic would dictate that we should take our pleasure together while we can."
His stomach clenched at that take our pleasure--she had no idea of the pleasure he wanted to give her, of that he was certain, too--but he nodded. "Very well-reasoned. Just one more thing, Six."
She blinked at him. Having made her argument so neatly, she was plainly uninterested in additional commentary. "And what is that?"
He leaned in to kiss her again, as thoroughly and as long and as passionately as he could. "Does that feel like logic?" he asked when he was done, taking in her dazed expression with no small amount of satisfaction.
"No," she said after a moment, "no, it doesn't," and flung her arms around him and kissed him with such artless enthusiasm that he seriously considered tackling her down onto the grass and having her right there.
But no, she deserved a bed for her first time, and after he'd kissed her until they were both swaying on their feet, they began to make their way back toward the house. It was a meandering journey, for he needed to taste her mouth again under the growing moonlight, and feel the scrape of bark against his fingers as he pressed her up against a tree to sample the shadow where her neck met her shoulder. In every case, she responded to him eagerly, her strong hands busy, her tongue growing increasingly wicked. They managed to comport themselves with some dignity once they were in sight of the house, but after they were inside, in the dark hallways, it was she who shepherded him into a secluded corner so that she could tongue at his neck until he could barely breathe.
When she pushed him through a doorway, he could not have said where they were until he registered his own coat hanging on the rack, the now-familiar porcelain of the ewer of water that waited by the fireplace. Almost as soon as the door was closed behind them, he found his own hand sliding her loosened cravat away from her neck, just as she was doing the same for him. He toed off his boots, kicking them to the side.
"Once again," he said, "you must promise me to tell me if I do anything you don't like," and she nodded, and he saw that her waistcoat was already half-unbuttoned. When she shrugged out of it and hooked her braces off her shoulders to dangle around her hips, he grasped the loose fabric of her shirt in one hand and tugged it free of her trousers.
"Brienne," he said. His fingers came to rest on the bare skin of her waist. The muscles jumped beneath his touch. "May I see you?" he asked.
In response, her hands came down to grasp the ends of her shirt and pull it off over her head. It settled to the floor like a cloud, but Jaime barely noticed, entranced by the sight of her small breasts, nipples pointed toward him as though in invitation. He leaned in and accepted, laving one with his tongue, and relishing the way she trembled against him.
"Not Ser now?" he teased, giving her nipple another slow lick. She tasted delicious, like sweat and determination and transgression. Like the water's edge on a warm day, like an unexpected riposte. Her soft sighs slid into his ears, a siren's song that made him crave more.
Her fingers slid along the line of his bent neck, beneath the collar of his shirt, to splay between his shoulders. "What would you have me call you?"
"Call me by my name again," he murmured. He was surprised by how much it meant to him, to hear her say it with such desire. Such longing.
"Jaime," she said. Indulgently, fondly. He took her nipple between his lips again, then between his teeth. "Jaime." That one was half-groan, and he liked it best of all.
She began walking backward toward the bed, drawing him with her as if she had him tethered. When she reached it, she pulled back from him and looked at him with an expression that reminded him that for all her bravado, her experience with a partner was limited to what he'd discovered with her in the garden and her dressing room.
"Will you sit, my lady?" he asked her. He wanted to put her at ease, to remind her of his esteem for her. But her nose wrinkled.
"I am to call you by your name, but you will not call me by mine?" she asked. "If you are not careful, ser, I'll think you wish I were someone other than I am."
"No," he said immediately, vehemently. "No, never. Brienne." He pressed on her shoulders gently, until she was seated at the foot of the bed. He knelt before her and placed a hand on her knee. "Brienne. I would never--despite what the rumors would say, I swear to you that this is nearly as new to me as it is to you. I do not--" he chose her word--"I do not undertake this lightly, either in general or in this specific case. I'm honored that you would trust me to be with you like this. Stubborn chit though you are." She rolled her eyes at that, and he grinned. Then he ran his hand slowly up her thigh and watched her eyelashes flutter, mere hints in the near-dark. "May I light the candles?" he asked.
She ducked her head. "Is that really--is that how it's--"
He gritted his teeth, cursing her septa for having prepared her so ill for anything but pain and duty. "I want to see you," he told her. "If you like. And if you want to see me."
"Jaime." She said it in that low, scathing tone that he adored. "Of course I want to see you."
"Well, then." Feeling foolishly pleased, he leaned forward to kiss her on the tip of her nose. "Wait here."
He tore himself away from her with some effort, then fumbled with the flint until he had as many candles lit as he could stand to spare the time for. When he returned to her, she had not moved, and the light behind her made a halo of her pale hair. "Brienne," he murmured, suddenly overcome. He knelt again in front of her. "Brienne." He took her face between his hands--bandaged and bare alike--and leaned in to kiss her.
He lingered over it, taking special care to appreciate the softness of her full lips, the warm and welcoming depths of her mouth, the way she met his every advance. He thought he could kiss her a thousand times and never tire of it; he wanted to kiss her in the study, in the back parlor after they fenced, in the orchard while her friends picnicked nearby. He wanted most of all to kiss her by the sea again, to chase her along the waterline until they were both breathless with laughter, to fling himself off a cliff after her and know that she was waiting at the bottom.
Brienne, though, grew impatient after a time, her kisses deeper, her large hands slipping his braces down over his shoulders, then pulling at his shirt until he lifted his arms so she could draw it over his head. The motion tugged at the still-healing scar that had curled itself like a fist beneath his shoulder, vivid red lines spidering toward a knot at the center. She trailed her fingers around it, whisper-light. There was a crease between her brows.
"Does it still pain you?" she asked.
"I assure you, I feel nothing resembling pain right now," he told her honestly. Still, he could not help but think of what might await him in several hours. "Brienne, if tomorrow I--"
"No." She shook her head determinedly. "Crownlands may have us tomorrow, if he must. But tonight is ours, and I will not share it."
The conviction in her words--as though she would persuade them both--seemed to make a fortress of the room, and in spite of everything, he found the ache easing from between his shoulderblades. He smiled. "Very well." He sat back on his heels a bit. "Where would you like to begin?"
She returned the smile, and then let her fingers wander further, trailing through the springy hair on his chest. One blunt nail scraped lightly over his nipple, and he hissed in a breath between his teeth.
"Does that feel good to you?" she asked. "Like it does for me?"
"And this?" she asked, leaning forward to--oh, gods--replace her fingers with her mouth. Her tongue was all wet and heat, inevitably leading him to wonder if her cunt was the same. He'd fancied that her scent had still lingered on him for hours after he'd left her in her dressing room.
"Yes," he breathed out, as her mouth caressed him, first one nipple and then the other. "Yes."
When she straightened again, her eyes had gone dark and simmering hot. "When I was shaving you," she told him, "all I could think about was how much I wanted to touch you. Everywhere."
He made a low sound in his throat. "When you were shaving me, I would have let you."
"Only then?" she asked, her full lower lip caught between her teeth.
He gave her a slow grin. "My lady, if you would have the truth, I have been very much at your service since the day we met. Shall I show you how?"
"Yes," she answered eagerly, and he kissed her mouth again, then kissed his way down her throat, down the line that stretched from the hollow between her breasts all the way to the waistband of her trousers, just above her navel.
"Brienne," he said, "will you remove your trousers for me?"
She responded with highly satisfying alacrity. In short order, she had her trousers halfway down her legs, whereupon they promptly became tangled in her boots.
"Oh," she said. "I suppose I should have taken those off, shouldn't I?"
He couldn't help it--she sounded so chagrined that he laughed, and she looked more chagrined for a moment before she began laughing, too, and muttering curses as she tugged off her boots and tossed them into a corner with a pair of heavy thuds. He helped her wrestle her trousers off afterward, and then, when she was entirely bared to him, he skimmed his hands up the length of her muscular calves, up over her knees.
"Do you know what I intend to do?" he asked her as he leaned in to nuzzle the coils of hair at her center.
"Are you going to put your mouth on me?" she asked. She sounded more curious than shocked, and his cock grew harder in response to hearing such words in her mouth.
"Mmmm." He kissed the seam where her thigh met her pelvis. "You have heard of such things, then? I believe I'm scandalized, Lady Brienne."
She snorted. "I have been thought a man in the company of men before, remember? Though most of them didn't seem to like it much. On the other hand, Sansa and Margaery have insisted that--" She seemed to recall herself, and subsided, her blush spreading over her face and down across her chest. He wanted to know the taste of all of it. There was so much of her, a lifetime would not be enough.
"I like it," he vowed. "I like it very much indeed. Let me show you the difference between hearing and experiencing." So saying, he spread her thighs with his wrists, hooked her knees over his shoulders, and leaned in to set his tongue to her.
She tasted every bit as intoxicating as he'd imagined, salt like her sweat and like the sea, and musk, too, the undeniable evidence of her desire for him. As soon as he touched her, she shuddered and cried out, thighs flexing around his head. I have so much more for you, he thought, setting himself to his task with dedication. He explored every nuance, every texture, drank in every sigh and moan and curse.
He had only ever been with one woman, and it had been years, but he prided himself on being a quick study, on listening to her as intently as he ever had to any instructor in his life, with far greater reward. In a gratifyingly short time, she was tilting her hips to fit herself more closely around his face, heels pressed hard into the backs of his shoulders, and his mouth and nose were full of her, his mind and heart were full of her, and when she clutched the back of his head and moaned her release, shuddering against him, it was sweet victory, the peerless satisfaction of the noblest duty honorably discharged.
He lingered afterward, reluctant to release her until he felt her slump back on the bed, her thighs still trembling. When he looked up after one final, purposeful lick, she was splayed out with one forearm stretched across her forehead, panting up at the ceiling.
"Well?" he asked. "Was it as you anticipated?"
"I could not have anticipated that," she said, and he could not resist peering up the long path of her torso, between the peaks of her breasts, to her face.
"What? No commentary, no helpful suggestions on how I might improve myself? Not even a bit of healthy disdain?" he asked, inordinately pleased. "Why, Sixes, have I ruined you after all?"
She knocked one of her bare heels against his back. "Do you see why I've been reluctant to praise you?" she said, though her smile was tugging at her mouth, and she seemed to be letting it go where it would. "You do it yourself so thoroughly that you leave no opportunity for others."
"Allow me to attempt another task to earn your approbation, then." He stood, and began divesting himself of his trousers--slowly, his eyes alert to her every shift in expression, waiting for anything that might seem like discomfort or regret. But she only lay on her side and watched him with sated, heavy-lidded eyes. Reassured, he hastened to speed the process as much as he could, not least because she'd let one of her arms cover her breasts, which was a less than ideal state of affairs.
"Was that your task?" she asked after he had tossed his trousers over the back of a nearby chair. When he turned back to her, she was watching him, avid eyes belying the bored tone in her voice. "Taking off your clothes? Because I do the same myself every evening, and would hardly call it a challenge."
There was a mental image. "You," he said, "are tremendously challenging," and he eased one knee onto the bed. A slight tension came into her then, her body curling a bit, and he stopped immediately. "Brienne. We don't have to do anything beyond what we've already done." Though, gods, he wanted to; he wanted to be inside her almost more than he wanted his next breath. Particularly given that he had no idea how many of those breaths he had remaining to him.
No, he reminded himself firmly, tonight is ours. Tonight he had Brienne in his bed, and the taste of her still on his tongue, and that was all he would allow to matter.
"I want to," she said. "More than I can say. I just… it occurs to me that perhaps drunken boasting in the common room of an inn is not the best way to learn about such things, and I am..." She lifted a shoulder. "At a disadvantage."
He nodded, his mouth curved up ruefully. "I told you, my experience in this arena is limited to one woman, and given that you and she are much more different than alike in many other ways, I cannot imagine that my experience with her is especially relevant here. So you see, we are both discovering."
She tilted her head, considering, and he saw her body unfurl a little.
"Do you know..." he said, the idea coalescing as he spoke. "Well. You do know, I'm well aware, how it feels to fence with a well-matched opponent."
She raised an eyebrow. "The gifted opponent in this case being you, of course."
He shrugged. "I said well-matched, not gifted, though if you cannot keep yourself from praising me, I understand. But what I mean is, when you fence an opponent for the first time, you test each other's measure. Test each other's tempo. Do you not?"
"Yes," she agreed, the beginnings of a smile starting again at the corners of her mouth. She reached out toward him, where his knee was still resting on the bed, her fingers skating up his thigh. They raised goosebumps in their wake, and his cock twitched. She saw it all. Her smile bloomed.
"And then," he went on, unable to contain his own smile, his pulse starting to thud heavily in his veins, "when the blades connect, and discover how to move together, how to anticipate each other--"
"Yes," she said, her grin gone fond now, "yes, I understand, come here," and she sat up to tug him down next to her on the bed.
For a long time, they simply luxuriated in each other, in the freedom to kiss and touch and explore at last. He scraped his teeth along the curve on the underside of her breast, examined the way her hipbone fit into his palm. He relished the tender caress of her mouth near his collarbone, at the far perimeter of his injury. His metaphor seemed to have been more effective than he could have dreamed, since she was as methodical and devastating in all of it as she was on the piste: challenging him, surprising him, attuned to even his smallest reaction and fully prepared to make use of her newfound information in the most delicious ways. He missed the use of his right hand, but then, even five hands would not have been enough, so he applied himself with fervor with every resource at his disposal, and let her answering moans bathe him like rain.
At length, she grew bold enough to slide down and regard his cock as if it were a new weapon for her to master. "Tell me what you like," she said. Her skin was gilded in the candlelight, her eyes like the sky at dusk.
"Well," he said. As much as he had teased her for her many blushes, he felt one of his own heating his face now; he had been rock hard and aching for what seemed like a lifetime, and hearing her ask him that, with such an expression on her face, brought him one degree harder still. "You can touch it, to begin with. As though you were gripping a hilt, perhaps."
"Ah," she said, understanding. She wrapped long fingers around him, callouses adding the perfect punctuation, and his eyes nearly rolled back into his head. "Are you well?" he heard her ask, somewhere beyond the flood that had overwhelmed his senses.
"Very well," he managed. Gods, if he felt like this at the touch of her hand, he could scarcely imagine what it would feel like to be inside her.
"And I can use my mouth as well, yes? I'm told that men like that," she went on.
She would be the death of him. She would be the death of him, and leave no one but herself to shoot Crownlands in the morning. "Yes. Yes, I like that, so long as there are no teeth involved. But wait," he said, as she began to lean closer, her lips parted. She glanced up at him.
To prevent himself from exploding as soon as she put her mouth on him, he had thought a bit of distraction might be welcome. "Come up here first," he said. She tilted her head at him, quizzical. "Kneel," he clarified. "With your knees on either side of my head, and your head facing that way." He indicated with his hand.
Interest flared in her eyes. She obliged him, arranging herself so that he was looking up into the inviting, flushed wetness of her cunt lips where they peeked out from the spirals of hair. He could feel her breath on his cock. Yes. Yes, this was distracting indeed.
"I definitely think my septa would not approve of this," she commented, and he could hear the amusement in it.
"Is that… a problem?" His mouth was watering for the taste of her, but there were other ways to accomplish that, if she was shy.
"No," she answered, "I like it even better for that," and ducked down to take him in her mouth.
Her sense of adventure more than made up for her inexperience, and the slick slide of her tongue all along him was nearly enough to bring him off right then and there. He buried his face in her cunt almost as a parry in itself, redirecting her energy into something that hummed through both of them as they savored each other. Every time he did something that she particularly liked, he could feel it in the vibration that carried through her mouth as she groaned against him. Despite the division in his concentration, he seemed to have doubled his arousal at least, and thus he found himself racing ever more quickly toward the end. When he could stand it no longer, he pulled his mouth away from her, gasping.
She raised her head. "Am I doing it wrong?" she asked.
"No, gods no. I just--I want to be inside you, and if we go on like this, I will not be able to."
"Oh," she answered. "Well." She swirled her tongue once more around his cock, then crawled around until she was straddling him, looking down at him expectantly. "I--the woman can be astride, can she not? I thought it might be best; I would not have you aggravate your injury."
All he could do was look up at her in astonishment. "We spoke before of ruin--you have ruined me already, you know," he informed her. "Ruined me in that everyone I meet for the rest of my life, I will compare them to you."
She went fiery red at that, in a way she had not even when he'd suggested their recent septa-defying depravity. "You must know that you are insupportably handsome," she told him, eyes and fingers tracing over him laid out beneath her. He supposed it was an evasion of sorts, but under the circumstances, he could hardly object. "It has plagued me."
He laughed, delighted, a low, rolling thing. "I cannot apologize for that. But if it's any consolation, thoughts of your eyes, and your breasts, and your thighs, and your lips, and all those damned freckles, have likewise plagued me for quite some time now."
"That is a great consolation." She raised herself up on her knees, poised herself over him.
"One thing," he said. "When I tell you to, you must…" He searched for a word. "Dismount," he said. "You must dismount immediately."
She nodded, and lifted up again, and grasped him in her hand to steady him. And then slowly, agonizingly slowly, in fits and starts, lowered herself down until he was sheathed in her.
"Are you well?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered, more breath in the sound than he was accustomed to. "Yes." She raised herself, then sank back down, and pleasure curled inside him from the place they were joined, twisting all the way up his spine.
"Yes," he agreed, and then, suddenly, needing to know, "Do you feel ruined?"
She considered it, then a slow smile spread across her face. "Yes," she said. She leaned down to kiss him, and spoke against his lips. "Yes, and I will thank the gods that it was with you."
He ran his hand up the column of her spine, glorying in the shift of muscle beneath skin as she began to move in earnest. He had known her to be an excellent rider, and certainly now was no exception; as she found her tempo with an unerring instinct, her strength more than equal to whatever they both required. Too soon, he could feel himself hurtling toward the edge again; he fought desperately to forestall it, because she had asked him for one night, and no more, and he wanted to stretch the time as long as possible. He did his best to memorize each noise she made, each shift in her expression as she discovered a new angle or new sensation; he wanted to feel the slick heat of her against his fingers always, as he slid his left hand down to caress her as she moved.
But it had been too long, and he wanted her too much, so that it was still too soon, too soon when he gasped, "Now, Brienne, now, please--" and she responded immediately, lifting herself off of him while he curled on his side and emptied himself onto the bedclothes.
As he drifted back into awareness, he realized that she was on one elbow behind him, stroking him gently from one end of his spine to the other. He felt her mouth on his neck.
"Was that all right?" she asked, and he could only laugh, and roll her over, and show her with his lips and tongue between her legs just how thoroughly she had defeated him.
After that, having rid themselves of the soiled counterpane and doused the candles, they collapsed together, her leg thrown over one of his and her chin pressed to the top of his shoulder.
"I love you, you know," he said suddenly, into the velvet dark. If he was going to have one night with her, he would leave nothing for regret. He could feel her stiffen next to him, but he pressed on, pulling her tighter against him. "Marry me, Brienne. If I survive tomorrow, marry me. Not for debt. Not for obligation. Not for anyone else. Just for you, and for me."
She shifted, and he could just see the glint of her eyes as she leaned in to give him a long, lingering kiss. It was too hungry to be acceptance, and he felt something crack open inside his chest. "You will live," she said fiercely. "You must live, because I love you, Jaime Lannister, as I have loved no man in my life. But I cannot be Lady of Casterly Rock, not and remain myself. And you know it as well as I do."
He let his head thump back against the pillow. "You keep saying that, but I know no such thing. I would change nothing about you, Brienne, nothing, aside from your stubborn refusal to allow me to make you happy."
"You would not change me, no," she agreed. "But you heard what Crownlands said tonight. I've heard those things and worse every time I've ventured into anything resembling society. And if you intend to duel everyone who speaks them, half the peerage will be dead within six months."
"At least in this scenario of yours, I survive the duels," he said dryly.
"I told you, you have no choice." She stroked the side of his face. "If we were…" She paused for a moment, considering, then gave him a crooked smile. "If we were rival captains who had met on the high seas, I would marry you in an instant." Her smile faded, leaving only sorrow. "But we are not. And I can no more abandon my home than you can."
He wanted to rail against it. He wanted to dismantle her argument piece by piece like a barrister, until she was forced to see the right of things. More than anything, he wanted to be able to think of her at Casterly Rock and imagine that he would be doing anything other than trading one imprisoned lover for another.
But he could do none of those things.
"We have tonight, though," she whispered, her leg sliding along his.
"Yes," she said, "we have tonight." He reached for her, and kissed her until he could think of nothing else.
* * * * *
Jaime clawed his way out of sleep to find Rhaella standing next to his bed, wrapped in a dressing gown. Her face was grave and her hair was wild. Panic surging through him, he looked to the window, but it seemed to be barely past dawn--he still had time left. His bed was empty. "What is it?" he asked, scrubbing his hand over his face.
"It's Brienne," Rhaella said urgently. "Peck told me she left just recently. She said she wanted to make sure all was well at the duelling ground."
Jaime frowned. He had assumed they would leave together. "That's odd, but you know how precise she is, she's probably just--"
Her fingers dug into his shoulder. "Peck said she asked for her pistols. Her pistols, and not yours. Jaime, I think she's going to--"
"Fuck," Jaime exclaimed, and threw the bedcovers off.
I did up the chapter count, but it's only for a quick little epilogue, so don't worry. I know this story is long enough as it is. :D
Brienne had had the entirety of her half-hour ride to consider what a deeply, deeply foolish idea this was. Not least for the fact that she'd left behind a handsome man in a warm bed--a handsome man who somehow, impossibly, loved her (and loved her, and loved her). She knew that Jaime would be furious with her for having lied to him about the time of the duel and then crept out while he was sleeping, and she knew that she likely deserved it. But she had had no choice. She could not but agree that Crownlands needed to be stopped, but she would not allow Jaime to take the chance of dying for her. She would not.
In any case, it was entirely possible that within the next quarter hour, she'd be assessing his anger from the cool and peaceful detachment of whatever heaven or hell awaited her.
When she reached the location she'd established with Rossart, she dismounted and tethered Honor loosely to a nearby tree. If she could not have Jaime with her, she had at least wanted the comfort of the horse he'd claimed as his. "If I don't make it out of this, take good care of him, will you?" she whispered, running her hand down the length of his nose. Honor nudged her in the center of the chest, hard enough that she would have laughed had she been in any other circumstance.
On the far side of the clearing, Crownlands was waiting. His grin was wide and malevolent in the early morning light, his hair nearly the color of the lingering fog. The bite of autumn chill was in the air.
"Lord Tarth," he greeted her. "Or should I say, Lady Tarth."
Brienne's already thundering heart seemed to pick up speed inside her chest like a rockslide. How had he--it doesn't matter, she reminded herself, scrabbling for calm. Either he'll be dead after this, or I will.
"Ser Jaime took ill with a fever overnight, and is in no condition to meet you this morning," she informed him coolly.
"Your house seems rife with all manner of contagion, does it not, my lady?" he asked. Then he threw back his head and laughed, trembling on the edge of hysteria. "Oh, this is rich. Ser Jaime Lannister, the great Golden Lion, too cowardly to fight me himself, and sending a hideous beast of a woman to tell me so."
Brienne squared her shoulders. "As Ser Jaime's second, Lord Crownlands, I am fully prepared to take his place in the duel."
"A woman." He might as well have said a dog. "Duel me."
"As you see, my lord," Brienne gritted out.
Crownlands looked at her for a long moment, then lifted a shoulder. "Very well. I'm just as happy to kill you, too."
Brienne, attempting to bring some of Jaime's demeanor to the fight in the absence of his person, gave Crownlands a mocking inclination of the head. "My sentiments, exactly, my lord."
Crownlands narrowed his eyes. "Then we begin."
Having spent an hour the evening before absorbing all the knowledge she could from Margaery, Brienne was acquainted now with the basic motions of it all. She presented her pistol to the maester for inspection, and was relieved that Crownlands did the same without complaint. Her back felt horribly exposed, especially under Rossart's glare, but there was nothing for it. There was a kind of hideous slowness to it all; Brienne normally found comfort in ceremony and routine, but this felt like being tethered to a post in a room that was slowly filling with water.
After a period of time that felt like both an eternity and an eyeblink, she and Crownlands stood back to back in the center of the clearing, though Brienne took care that not the smallest thread from his fine jacket should come in contact with hers. The maester began counting out paces; Brienne heard each one like the dolorous sound of a funeral bell.
Her heart felt as though it was hammering at least a dozen times for each number spoken. For the first time, the awareness settled in that in a moment, she could truly be dead.
Suddenly, there was the sound of thundering hooves approaching. The count continued, inexorable. But as Brienne watched, a horse galloped over the rise--her horse, as it happened--with Jaime astride it.
"Brienne!" he yelled to her. "Get down!" and something about the urgency of it made her obedient for once. She threw herself to the ground, just as she heard the telltale crack of a gun going off and the faint whistle of a bullet, just where her head had been an instant before.
She rolled over; Crownlands' face was a mask of fury, and the still-smoking pistol dangled from his hand. "Damn you," he snarled at Jaime before hurling the spent pistol aside and drawing his sword instead. Brienne scrambled to her feet.
"Brienne!" Jaime called again, very near her now. As he rode by, he tossed her a sword by the hilt, and she caught it as if it were an extension of her own hand. Jaime kept riding, directly at Crownlands, until the other man had to curse and dive out of the way.
Brienne advanced on him immediately--Crownlands had already abandoned all pretense of honor when he'd attempted to shoot her while her back was turned, and this was about survival, now. He managed to regain his feet and block her furious swing, though she could see by his face that he was surprised at her strength. Well, good.
At the edge of her vision, she was aware of Jaime wheeling his horse around and throwing himself, left-handed, at Rossart. She didn't have time for more than a cursory glance, though, as Crownlands was on her again, launching attack after brutal attack. It was as similar to being in a fencing salle as a spring rain was to a roaring flood. But Brienne had been training with Jaime, for combat as well as for sport, and though her mind was overwhelmed, her muscles remembered--at least enough to keep the furious assault at bay.
Crownlands growled at her. "You would dare," he said, "face me," and he swung at her again, a particularly vicious slash that she felt part the air next to her ear as she ducked out of the way. "A woman."
"I thought I was a hideous beast." She gifted him with an attack of her own, feeling a brief surge of hope as she very nearly tore through his guard to the vulnerable flesh below. She was nowhere near his equal in experience, undoubtedly, but he was older, and thinner, to boot, thanks to the prison his own mind had made for him. Perhaps she could tire him out.
She pressed her advantage, a relentless barrage of cuts and thrusts. He held her off for a time, but eventually, he began stumbling backward, giving ground. She gave chase. She could feel the small seed of hope beginning to blossom. And yes, there it was, her opening, his weary arm falling, and she had him--or she might have done, had she not drawn back just slightly too far for a cut at precisely the time that her foot slipped on a wet rock.
She went down hard on her back. Immediately, he was on top of her, grabbing a fistful of her hair and knocking her head back against the stone. With her struggling, he could not marshal all his force behind the blow, but it was still more than enough to make her head ring and her vision go white. When it cleared again, he was rising over her, knife drawn and glinting in the morning light as he raised it to strike a killing blow. Brienne thought she could hear hoofbeats, though maybe it was just the pounding of her heart.
Another gunshot split the air like lightning.
For an instant, Brienne was certain that she was even now taking her last breaths. But she felt no new pain, could see no new blood. She tilted her still-spinning head frantically, trying to see where the shot had come from, and who it might have struck. She saw Jaime, clambering up from the motionless heap that was Rossart. She saw a horse from her own stables, a gelding, standing riderless at the edge of the clearing. Then Crownlands moved, drawing her attention back: his hands, still holding the knife, slumped toward his stomach, and she saw him look down at his own chest in disbelief. She saw his blood spreading. She saw his mouth working, and his eyes fixed on some point behind Brienne.
She shoved him off of her as he toppled, then rolled to the side and came to her feet in a crouch, alert to the next danger. And that was when she saw Lady Rhaella, still in her nightrail and wrap, holding a pistol extended in her shaking hand.
* * * * *
"Are you well?" he asked when he came near enough to touch her, fingers probing with infinite gentleness at the back of her head. Her aching, throbbing head.
"My head hurts," she admitted. She drank in the sight of him, great draughts that seemed like they would never be enough. He had blood smeared on his neck, and a jagged slash hanging open across the front of his tear-soaked shirt. There was a bruise purpling around one of his eyes. He was holding his right arm protectively near his chest.
He was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.
"I should be furious at you," he whispered. He moved his fingers to stroke down the side of her ear, his thumb swiping away something wet from her cheek. Tears or blood, probably, and Brienne did not think she was crying. "I will be furious at you later."
"I'm sorry," she said by reflex, and then, so fiercely it made the pain in her head leap up like a candle when a door opened, "but I'm not. I couldn't let you--I couldn't take the chance--"
"And I was meant to just sleep soundly while you risked your life?" he asked, his voice still quiet, but simmering with intensity. "I thought we guarded each other's flanks, Brienne. I thought--"
"And I told you I couldn't lose you," she returned. "And come to that, you did guard my flank. If it were not for you warning me, Crownlands would have shot me in the back." As the words came out of her mouth, she felt the truth of them. Felt herself begin to shake. Jaime reached for her, and pulled her to him tightly, heedless of both their wounds. She banded her arms around him like a vise. She could feel him shaking, as well.
"You stole my horse," he murmured after a moment, his mouth against the side of her neck.
She buried her nose in his shoulder and laughed.
* * * * *
After a time, however, there was nothing left to do that bore even a passing resemblance to necessity. Rhaella had departed three days earlier, with warm embraces for all the women, and with a warm hand lingering on Jaime's face as she bid him goodbye. She still seemed not entirely sensible of her freedom, and Jaime understood the feeling; it was as though they had been living their lives with a boulder balanced high above their heads, and its sudden absence provided an unfiltered view of a sky that was beautiful, but a bit blinding. He had insisted she put about that she had thrown him over in a fit of pique at his impertinence, and they had all added their own twists to the tale, round-robin, one evening in Brienne's drawing room.
In any case, despite his best attempts to draw things out, eventually he found himself traveling to Evenfall Hall once again, as he had so many mornings. Only this time, he was keenly aware, was the last for he knew not how long.
As he made his farewells, there were tears in Sansa's case, and--shockingly--in Arya's. Margaery kissed him on the cheek and told him that she expected him at Highgarden for the wedding in the spring, without fail. Jaime promised, and wondered inwardly at how long it had been since he'd received such an invitation that he was actually eager to accept. Jaime also said farewell to Pia, and to Peck, and even to Willow--his first friend at Evenfall--who pressed against his leg and licked his hand anxiously, as though she could sense the sorrow that was bleeding through him like a slowly-spreading wound. He said silent farewells to each stone under his foot, each statue, each painting of some ludicrously tall Tarth ancestor fending off pirates.
All too soon, there was only one farewell left. Well, two, technically speaking, as he was being given the loan of Honor for his return journey to town, and though he had walked that distance dozens of times by now, he was pathetically glad of one last tie that he could hold on to just a little bit longer.
He stood with Brienne in the sunlight, on the carriageway. If she had been standing for a painting, she could not have looked more stunning to him: her eyes like the ocean, her back ramrod straight, her freckles crowding to the forefront as though they were sunning themselves. He knew what each of those freckles tasted like, now--knew what the long line of her back tasted like, too, for that matter, and he knew what sound she would make if he unbuttoned her falls and tucked his hand inside, one final time.
But it would only delay the inevitable.
He hadn't asked her to marry him again. She'd made her answer already, and he would respect it. He'd had his holiday, his glimpse of color and life after years of endless winter, and he would take that knowledge forward with him. He would return to Casterly Rock, and he would face his father, and he would do his best to find some meaningful occupation for himself. He would draw breath in, and he would draw breath out, and he would miss Brienne with every one.
"You will write," she said. A command, not a question.
In spite of everything, his mouth curved. She was so very much herself. He nodded. "And if you ever feel the need to throw yourself off a different set of cliffs, I can recommend some excellent ones." He might return here again someday--he hoped to--but it would not be the same. For all he knew, when he returned, Brienne would be married.
She nodded, too. "I want…" She swallowed hard. "I want you to take Honor with you. If you'd like."
"What?" She could hardly have astonished him more if she'd suggested he tuck the house into his valise. "Brienne, I--"
"We both know that he's been more yours than mine since the day you met," she said. "Take him with you. Show him those cliffs of yours."
He considered it. If he could not have her companionship on his morning rides, the company of a mutual friend was at least some consolation, minor though it might be. "Thank you. I will ensure that he writes weekly, as well, to assure you that I'm keeping him in good health."
She kept her face solemn, but her eyes laughed. "Please do."
"I have something for you as well." He held out the roll of leather that he had retrieved from Honor's saddlebag.
She took it from him, and slowly unwrapped it until she revealed its contents.
Upon seeing what was inside, she looked up at Jaime, then back down.
"I thought you might require a replacement," he explained. "For the dagger that I so irresponsibly flung into someone's chest when we were attacked by Crownlands' men." He'd commissioned it from an artisan in the town, and it bore a wave-like pattern that had been coaxed out of many folds of steel. The handle was made of horn, and inlaid with stripes of abalone so that the colors shifted and swam as it caught the light. The guard and pommel were gold, and the latter was worked into the shape of a lion's head, roaring a challenge.
She traced her fingers over it. "It's incredible, Jaime. Thank you."
"I know that you are very capable of ensuring your own safety," he told her. "But I found that I preferred to think that I might still play some role in guarding your back, if you will indulge me--even if just for the sake of memory."
She met his eyes then, her head held high. "I thank you for the kind and beautiful gift, and I will bear it with honor. But as to reminding me of you…" Her chin trembled just the slightest bit. "I hardly need a gift to do that."
He wanted to take her in his arms. He wanted to beg her to reconsider. He wanted to wake up tomorrow a pair of sea captains, with nothing but the ocean before them.
Instead, he held out a hand. "Goodbye, Brienne."
She took it. "Goodbye, Jaime."
With nothing left to say, he mounted and nudged Honor into a walk along the drive. He did not trust himself to look back, but he imagined that he could feel Brienne's eyes on him, all the long way down the rock-strewn path, until at last he disappeared over the hill.
* * * * *
Jaime wanted to smile at him--the man had to make his living, after all, and his ceaseless attempts to part Jaime from his coin had been amusing, in happier times--but found that he could not. "No. I appreciate your hospitality, but I must go."
The innkeep nodded sadly. "I see. Well, before you go, there's a letter here for you."
"Is there?" Jaime sighed. Likely his father, wondering why he hadn't left for home yet, like he was a small boy caught playing outside after dark. But when the inkeep handed him the letter, it was not his father's handwriting he saw on the envelope.
It was Rhaella's.
Hastily, fearing trouble, he tore into the envelope and drew out the letter. He read its contents with an increasing sense of disbelief. And then, shoving the paper into his pocket, he strode immediately back outside, calling for his horse.
* * * * *
They slowed as they approached each other, and met in the shade of an oak tree just off the road. The horses whickered greetings to each other.
"Lady Brienne," Jaime said, when it became apparent that she was not going to speak first. Though he dared hope he could read a great deal in her eyes, in the defiance in them. "Did I leave a pair of gloves behind? A stocking, perhaps?"
Her gaze seemed to devour the sight of him as though they'd been separated for years and not for less than an hour. "As though anything could part you from your wardrobe."
He arched an eyebrow. She was off her game, to leave him an opening like that. "Anything besides you, do you mean?"
She blushed, as he'd been certain she would, and smiled, as he'd been less certain she would. But still she didn't speak. The suspense was agony.
"Why were you coming after me, Brienne?" he asked softly.
"I thought--I just--" She gritted her teeth, huffed out a breath through her nose, and started over. "I said that I could never marry you because I wished to remain myself. But watching you ride away, I realized…" She gripped the reins more tightly. "I could not help but feel that you were taking a piece of me with you. A piece that I could, perhaps, survive without, but that I have no desire to. And it occurred to me that if we have overcome so much together, perhaps we can overcome this, too."
"Overcome what?" he asked.
"Oh, don't be a fool," she spat, and he laughed.
"I never claimed to be otherwise, my lady. But tell me, as I am such a fool--what exactly is it that you mean to ask me?" Gods forgive him, but when a man had proposed multiple times and received nothing but rejection, he started to feel as though he was being sent a message. So he simply wanted to be entirely certain.
She narrowed her eyes, and his heart seemed to expand in equal proportion. But she faced him with all the stubbornness and all the courage he knew her to possess.
"Marry me," she said, her voice carrying clear in the fresh air. "Marry me, and I will be the strangest mistress that Casterly Rock has ever seen. Marry me, and help me come to love your home as you've come to love mine. Marry me, and never make me say goodbye to you again."
Giddy joy bubbled up from his stomach, tickling the back of his throat. But he could not let it out just yet. "That is an extraordinarily tempting proposition, my lady," he said, "except for just one thing."
Her brow furrowed. "And what is that?"
"I've just received a letter from Lady Rhaella this morning," he explained. "It seems that when Crownlands altered his will, his suspicious nature led him to do it with only two of his servants as his witnesses. Two servants who, not being tremendously fond of the departed marquess, are now claiming to have no knowledge of any such event, and the will itself has mysteriously disappeared."
"What does this mean for Rhaella?" Brienne asked.
"It means that, according to the last known version of Crownlands' will, she will be mistress of all his estate."
Brienne blinked. "Why, that's wonderful. I cannot think of anyone who more deserves her independence." She hesitated, and he watched with delighted anticipation. Soon enough, she continued, "But I also cannot think what this could possibly have to do with my proposal to you just now."
"Well," he said, "it seems that she has set aside a not-insignificant sum to offer my father in exchange for him naming Tyrion as the heir to Casterly Rock, rather than me, if I so choose."
Her mouth dropped open. "Jaime. You said yourself that Casterly Rock has always been your home. You cannot mean to give that up."
He shrugged. "Did you not just recently state your intention to give up your home for my sake? I seem to recall an implication--not strictly stated, mind you, which by the way, you might have done--that as long as we were together, wherever we chose to reside would be home."
"Jaime," she said, exasperated and fond, and gods, but he loved her.
"Brienne," he echoed, teasing. "I will no longer be the heir, but it's not as though I'll be barred from entry. It has long been apparent that Tyrion is far better suited to be master of the Rock than I am. And while my father will be most pleased with Rhaella's coin, he'll be pleased enough to have Tarth added to the family ledger, too. Particularly if it means I will finally take a noble wife and cease bringing shame upon the family by conducting my scandals in the open, rather than in secret as generations of Lannisters have done."
"Are you certain that this is what you truly want?" But she was sliding from her horse as she said it, hardly seeming aware of what she was doing. He followed suit, feeling the ground firm under his feet.
"I want you," he said. "But even were it not for that, I have been more at peace here than anywhere I have been in a decade. I promise you, I could stay here the rest of my days without a shred of regret."
Tears shone in her eyes, as brilliant as the sun on the wide blue sea.
"So you see," he went on, taking a step nearer, "I have been purchased and delivered for you, Lady Brienne, if you will accept me."
"If you will accept me," she corrected him crisply, though there was a bit of huskiness, there, at the back. "I proposed to you, Jaime Lannister, and I will not have you taking all the glory for yourself."
He clasped a hand to his heart. "I would never dream of such a thing."
"So what is your answer, then, ser?" she asked, with a toss of her head.
"Hmm," he said, tapping one finger against his bottom lip. "Are you going to go down upon one knee?"
"What?" she replied, incredulous.
He shrugged. "It's only that when one person is proposing to another, it's customary to--"
Her eyes rolled skyward, but he knew her--he knew that there was a laugh waiting there, just behind her teeth. He just had to find it. "Oh, never mind, I take it back. I take everything back."
"Too late, Six," he said, "I accept," and he pulled her in for as thorough a kiss as he could devise.
Brienne's wedding was in a sennight, and she had just come perilously close to punching her husband-to-be in the face.
"Pay attention, Jaime," she told him sharply, raising her fists before her again.
"I am," he returned, with a leer that made it quite clear exactly what he was paying attention to. It had been his idea to have a quick bout of fisticuffs after their morning dive at the cliffs, and though he had not managed to persuade Brienne to do it bare-chested, as was the tradition, she had consented to wearing only her breeches and her now-damp shift. In truth, she could have agreed to his proposal and been no more exposed; the cloth was thin enough to be mostly translucent thanks to the water, and if she looked down, she could see… well. Enough to render the shift more of a principle than a practical matter.
She assumed that that was where Jaime's gaze was tending, too, and so--to tease him--she closed her arms a bit further in front of her chest. His gaze only grew more avid.
"Do that again," he urged.
"With your arms," he explained. "With the--" He gestured with his own, and she could see the long, lean lines of muscle stretch and flex beneath his skin.
"Mmm," she answered, considering the drop of water that lingered near the crook of his elbow. "Like this, do you mean?" She rolled her shoulders, and stretched her neck from side to side in the way that never failed to make his eyes go glassy.
It did not fail now. "Are you quite certain, my future wife, that you are flesh and blood, and not some sort of divine sculpture that's been animated to torment me in punishment for the sins of a past life?"
"Your sins accumulate daily, ser," she sniffed. "But in any case, when one wishes to discover the material that a thing is made from, it helps greatly to inspect it from a close vantage, does it not?"
His grin widened. "I have heard that, yes." He started for her, and she shook her head--it really was far too easy to bait him sometimes--and treated him to a rounding blow. He ducked out of the way, laughing.
"Oh-ho. I've taught you too well, Sixes."
"If you wish to perform your inspection, you must earn the right by combat," she told him.
"I would not have it any other way," he said, with the wild and wicked grin that made heat pool between her legs, and the battle was on.
As it fell out, he did manage to perform quite a thorough inspection, in the end.
Afterward, with irrepressible smiles and haphazardly-restored clothes and with sand in places that did not bear considering, they made their way up the path to the top of the cliffs. Sansa and Margaery--having arrived the sennight before so as to make the most of their visit--had promised them a lavish lunch when they returned. Arya intended to regale them with the latest knowledge in poisons that she'd gleaned from Lady Olenna; the dowager had taken the young girl under her wing not long after she had settled in at Highgarden, and together they made a for a pair that delighted the two of them nearly as much as it terrified everyone else. Brienne was happily anticipating both the lunch and the regaling, and she and Jaime were meandering back toward Evenfall, hand in hand and laughing too loudly, when they came over a rise and saw--
Brienne's chest constricted so hard and so quickly that she thought there must be no more room for her heartbeat. In fact, she felt more than a bit light-headed, and everything around her seemed to go vague and soft-edged, wavering in and out.
Everything, that was, aside from the tall, broad figure walking up the path toward them.
Next to her, Jaime clasped her hand more tightly. "Brienne? Are you all right? I'm sorry, you weren't supposed to--"
She looked at him; he was clear to her eyes, too, the only other thing that was. His expression was a riot of hope, concern, and a kind of banked joy. It told her everything she needed to know. She squeezed his hand once, hard, then released him and found herself hurtling down the path, flying as fast as her shaking legs could carry her, until she could throw herself into her brother's arms.
"Gal," she murmured over and over again as she pressed her face into his shoulder, "Gal, Gal, Gal." He was leaner than she remembered, more muscle and less meat, but he still smelled like he always had, like crushed grass and the tobacco he favored and her happiest childhood memories. She clung to him, a sob tearing out of her as she did.
"Brienne," he said, clinging right back, "I'm so sorry. I'm so terribly, terribly sorry."
"You should be." She sniffled and laughed and pulled back long enough to look at him, her hands braced on his shoulders. His eyes were the same, though there were a few wrinkles at the corners that had not been there when he'd left, and his face was a deep gold color under his freckles that spoke of long hours in the sun. There was also a scar running all along his cheek, still faintly pink and angled at one end. She traced it carefully with a finger. "Gal, what happened?"
"I will tell you all when we are at home--Sansa and Arya made me give my word," he said. "But for now, I will only tell you that after my ship sank, I washed up on the shore in Braavos, and I found myself quite unable to return here since--that is, until your husband-to-be sent his former lover looking for me."
"Purported lover," said Jaime, coming up to meet them. He was smiling pleasantly, but Brienne knew him well enough to know that there was uncertainty hovering around the edges of it, and an eagerness to please that he kept hidden far beneath his charming veneer.
"Galladon Tarth." Keeping one arm around Brienne, Galladon reached out his left hand.
Jaime took it, inclining his head. "Jaime Lannister. I did not expect you until tomorrow, my lord--I hope that means that your voyage here was a good deal more pleasant than your voyage away."
Galladon laughed. "It certainly was, thanks to Lady Rhaella. She provided us both with quite luxurious accommodations, in fact." He looked slightly abashed, and he glanced at Brienne. "Father would likely not have approved of the excess, but Lady Rhaella insisted that it was Crownlands' money and that he owed both of us a debt, so." He lifted a shoulder. "I have not eaten nor slept so well in a year."
"Very good," said Jaime. Brienne found herself looking back and forth between the two tall golden men, attempting to credit the fact that they were both here, within her arm's reach. She was not, as a point of honor, given to swooning, but the sheer joy racing through her veins was proving a mighty test of her resolve.
"Speaking of debts, I am very much in yours, my lord," Galladon went on. "It is thanks to you and Lady Rhaella that I am here, and I will not forget it."
The tension drained from Jaime's shoulders. "Your safe return and the expression on Brienne's face when she saw you was all the reward I looked for," he answered. "Well, that and your leave to marry her, of course."
"His leave?" Brienne put in, elaborately indignant; after what he had done for her, she thought he deserved to have her play along. "I have been both master and mistress of this place since you arrived here, ser, and you will remain here under my indulgence or not at all."
"As you remind me every day," Jaime answered, and took her hand to kiss it, his eyes glinting green and warm and amused as he raised them to hers.
Galladon was watching their little performance with a half-smile on his face, and oh, Brienne's heart had not been built to withstand such happiness. "Speaking of masters and mistresses," Galladon said to them both after he'd cleared his throat a bit, "I haven't come to displace you, by the way. I know that you gave up your claim to your own family estate, Casterly, and I know how much Evenfall means to my sister." He turned to Brienne. "I would not have you be anywhere else."
"Are you leaving again?" Brienne asked, reaching out to grasp his hand with her free one. She had a sudden vision of being a child and stubbornly clinging to his leg when he tried to escape her to go to his lessons.
"I hope to conduct business still in Essos," he said, "under slightly more voluntary circumstances this time. So I expect to travel there often. But if you will allow me the lodge at Morne, I would happily make that my home whenever I am here, if that suits."
"Of course," she said. "You shall have whatever you like. But…" She could hardly credit such a thing. "Are you certain?"
"Entirely," he assured her. "You have always been suited to this place, Brienne, and to its people. I should like very much for you to have it, if that is what you want."
She searched his face. When he only continued smiling at her, serene and warm and reassuring as ever, she nodded slowly. "It is."
He leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. "Then consider it a wedding gift."
"Oh! You will stay for the wedding," she informed him firmly. She would not have him haring off even so far as Morne without that much at least.
He laughed. "Of course--I know that I am only here under your indulgence as well. Now." He squeezed her hand. "I hear you have a tale of your own to tell--why don't you share it with me on our way back? Sansa and her secret wife are occupied with their preparations and refused to give me more than the barest details."
And so they set off, with Brienne providing her unvarnished version of events and Jaime varnishing for all he was worth. Galladon looked admiring when Brienne told him that she'd determined to take his place, and amused when she spoke of all the contests that she and Jaime had embarked upon in the first days of their acquaintance. His expression darkened, though, when she described the arrival of Crownlands, and went outright scolding when Brienne told him about the duel.
"She fought in a duel?" he asked Jaime. "I wasn't allowed to fight in duels."
Jaime gave a put-upon sigh. "My lord, have you ever attempted to prevent Brienne from doing something she truly wanted to do?"
"A fair point," Galladon conceded. Brienne dismissed them both with a roll of her eyes, and continued her tale rather louder than before.
It went like that until they had reached the house; Galladon ducked inside ahead of them, eager to see if he could be of some assistance to the rest of their guests and equally eager, Brienne would have bet her hat, for lunch. She observed the familiar shape that his back made in the doorway and she could feel tears threatening again, an ache in her chest so sweet she could scarcely breathe.
Jaime caught her hand, and when she turned to him, he was beaming like he'd invented the sun. "I hope you enjoy your wedding present, my lady. Don't fret that you won't be able to match it; your mere presence is enough, of course."
She took his face between her hands and kissed him. "I do thank you for my present. It's the best I'll ever receive. More than I could have ever hoped for, and I will never be able to thank you enough."
The smug veneer faded away from his smile, leaving only brilliance. "I'm glad, Brienne. I'm so glad."
"So am I." She embraced him, feeling the length of his body all along hers. Wondering if she ought not to do such things now that her older brother had returned to be scandalized, then realizing that she was likely to keep doing it anyway. In that spirit, she murmured in Jaime's ear, "But as to gifts and whose will be best liked, you do not yet know what I have planned for the wedding night."
For once, she seemed to have rendered him speechless; his expression when she pulled away was caught between delight and dumbfounded arousal. She laughed, and kissed him again, and dragged him through the doorway to join her family.
And that, FINALLY, is it! I just want to reiterate my thanks to nire and slipsthrufingers and Roccolinde for this incredibly fun challenge, and to nire for the exceptional prompt, and to SD Wolfpup for being amazing in about two dozen different ways, and to all my friends who helped and encouraged me during this process. I also wanted to give a huge shout-out to those of you who've been reading and kudos'ing and especially commenting along the way--I know that this exchange has been a deluge of amazing fics, and that this one has been a time commitment to say the least, so while I always appreciate all of the lovely generous things that readers bring to writers, I appreciate them even more this time around knowing that you had to work extra hard to make them happen. THANK YOU. (And special thanks to nire, whose delightfully feral comments absolutely kept me going on this. NIRE, YOU ARE THE BEST RECIPIENT EVER. Pugilism included in this epilogue at your request. :D)
Thank you again for reading! I hope you enjoyed!