Cersei awakened to find a hand over her mouth, stifling her kneejerk scream. "Your Grace, please, you are in grave danger. You and the king both." The hand lifted and Cersei sat up. The voice was a woman's, the speaker a slender figure in a novice's robe. One of the girls the High Sparrow had sent to wait on her.
"The Lord Regent, Your Grace. He's..." she lowered her eyes, "they're saying he's dead."
Uncle Kevan. Cersei closed her eyes briefly, remembering the uncle she'd loved as a child rather than the cold-eyed man who had betrayed her. "Do you trust them, whoever they are?"
"I do, Your Grace. Grand Maester Pycelle is dead too. Crossbows, they say."
At that, her eyes flew open. "Crossbows. You don't think--" Tyrion. But how? Had he been here all along, hiding in plain sight? The Red Keep was full of secrets and Tyrion hoarded secrets as other dwarfs hoarded gold. "Where's To---His Grace?"
"On his way with his nurse." She lowered her eyes with a rueful smile. "They had to find all the kittens, you see."
The kittens. A nervous quaver of laughter bubbled to Cersei's lips. What would happen to her sweet Tommen if he fell into the Tyrells' hands? "Who are you?"
The girl raised her head, giving Cersei a glimpse of pale hair and blue eyes. A pretty girl--remarkably so, in fact. "One who does not condemn you for seeking companionship. But we must hurry. There are passages between here and the Great Sept of Baelor--"
"No!" The word tore itself free of Cersei's own volition and on reflex her hand went to her shorn head. "Not there. Why there?"
"Sanctuary, Your Grace." The girl took her hand. She had cool, smooth fingers--a lady's hands, Cersei could tell, and odd for a novice of the Seven. "You and the king must claim sanctuary. The Tyrells will not threaten the Seven--they dare not."
"The High Sp--Septon is no friend of mine," Cersei said acidly, stumbling over the sobriquet she'd so often used. "After all, I'm to stand trial before him today for treason and fornication, am I not?"
"I cannot speak to that, Your Grace, not after what happened in the night. But we must hurry before someone else thinks to secure the King." She didn’t need to say who. Once again, Cersei wondered at this girl-woman with the speech and bearing of a lady who hid beneath a novice's robes. Who was she to risk so much?
Still, there was no time. If the girl's news of Uncle Kevan was true, she had already wasted too much time dithering. Cersei threw aside the coverlet and the girl helped her dress. Sewn into the layers of her clothing were as many of her jewels as she could fit. She was invisible now, a shame and an embarrassment to Baratheon and Lannister alike, or so they termed her, and she used that invisibility to her advantage. She covered her now-unmistakeable head with a septa's veil and wimple. A glance at the looking-glass revealed a face she did not recognise--deprivation had carved away the flesh from her cheeks and painted dark smudges beneath her eyes. A septa looked back at her, aged by cares as well as years.
"Well, so be it," she murmured, meeting her own eyes. They, at least, had not changed. There would be time enough for vanity later. It did occur to her to wonder, as she followed the novice from the room, why she'd chosen to trust her. It was something in the set of her face, the restlessness in her eyes that mirrored Cersei's own.
She could not deny the relief she felt when Tommen and his nurse met them at the foot of the tower. Her son's eyes were red from crying and he threw his arms around her with a sob. "Why do they always go away? My uncles and my grandfather and Margaery--I want them back! I want my father!"
Oh, child, I want your father too. Cersei cradled him close, burying her face briefly in his golden curls, once so like her own--like Jaime's. She could wait for Jaime no longer. If he and that Tarth creature had abandoned Cersei to her fate, so be it. She would show him which of them was true heir to Tywin Lannister.
"Come, Tommen. We must go."
"I want to go back to bed. I want Ser Pounce. Where is Ser Pounce?" He started pulling on Cersei's hand, drawing her toward the basket his nurse carried, from which she could hear a piteous feline chorus. "I want my kitten!"
"Sweetling, come here. Ser Pounce must travel with us and we must be very quiet, you see? It's an adventure. Just like your Uncle Jaime, you're going on an adventure."
That seemed to mollify him, thankfully. The young woman in septa's robes betrayed not a hint of impatience at Tommen's antics--no doubt patience was one of the first things a novice in Oldtown learnt. It had never occurred to Cersei to wonder about that before. Perhaps her keepers were having an effect. As they set off down one of the hundreds of passageways that wormed their way through the Red Keep, she asked, "What is your name, Sister?"
"Tyene, if it please Your Grace."
There was something about the name that jogged her memory but she could not quite pin down what it was. "That is a pretty name."
"You're kind to say so, Your Grace."
"Where do you come from, Sister Tyene?" Perhaps that might help her remember. "It's an unusual name."
"Oldtown, Your Grace. I was born there." With a smile, she added, "Not quite on the right side of the blanket, I fear. My mother was a septa and my father was a very wicked man."
Cersei laughed, despite herself. "I assume it was not he, then, who gave you to the Faith."
"No, indeed, Your Grace," the girl replied drily. "Both of my parents are dead and I had nowhere else to go--had I my choice in the matter, I would have taken another path. I've had a taste of the world, you see, and it is far easier to give up something you do not know."
As Cersei knew better than anyone. She looked at her again, wondering how old she was and deciding not to ask. Tyene the novice could, to Cersei's eye, be anywhere from ten and five to thirty and did not seem especially forthcoming.
They came to a low, wooden door and Tyene tapped what must have been an arranged signal before it opened to reveal a septon with a torch.
"Who goes there?"
"I have brought His Grace and the Queen Regent. It is their desire to claim the sanctuary of the Seven in these dark days."
The sound of Cersei's former title was strangely jarring. She could not even say for certain how long it had been since she'd held it.
The septon looked distinctly disapproving but made a sign over Cersei's head. "Sanctuary is always provided to those who seek it in right." It seemed to Cersei that his eyes lingered on her at those last two words.
"I assure you, Brother," she said, keeping her eyes on the flagstones, "that the preservation of my son's life--the life of the anointed ruler of the Seven Kingdoms--is reason enough."
With visible reluctance, the septon allowed them to enter. "The High Septon must be informed," Cersei heard him tell Tyene, though she did not hear the girl's murmured reply.
Tommen, in the meantime, had begun to pull at the straps of the travelling basket. "I want my kittens."
"Not yet, sweetling," said Cersei automatically, wishing she were close enough to hear the whispered argument that had apparently begun between Tyene and the sceptical septon. "Brother, would it be too much of an imposition to find a room for His Grace?" she asked, careful not to look at him directly and to keep her voice low.
"Of course not," the septon finally allowed. "Sister Tyene will show you to your chambers, Your Grace. I hope you will excuse the poor comfort--we have had many mouths to feed and bodies to shelter since the snows began."
The snows. May the Seven have mercy on us all.
"As for you, my lady," the septon held out his hand to stop her from following Tommen, "You must go to the High Septon."
"But my son--"
"His Grace will be cared for, you may rest assured of that." Any warmth that had briefly surfaced as he spoke to Tommen had frozen solid, and the dark eyes showed nothing but suspicion. "As for you, my lady, remember you are to be judged today for your sins against the Faith and against the Crown."
Cersei almost protested but bit her tongue. The High Septon surely wouldn't insist upon a trial today--not with the Lord Regent and the Grand Maester dead, not with King's Landing on the brink of chaos and the fears of rebellion in the south. Not when snow covered the streets of the capital city and they had barely enough food to get them through the next weeks, let alone a great winter. One look at the septon's set face convinced her that her words would be wasted here. She would save them for the greatest of the sparrows, the man she'd raised to the highest office of the Faith for a promise he broke within weeks.
The rooms allotted to the High Septon had once been amongst the grandest in King's Landing. Most of that furniture had been chopped up for fuel as the nights grew colder and the thousands of faithful huddled within the Great Sept of Baelor. The High Septon frowned when he saw her and Cersei immediately remembered her disguise.
She sank to her knees in a reflexive court curtsey, the heavy skirts settling gracefully around her. That much dignity, she still possessed even now. "I did not wish us to be recognised, Your Holiness. I pray you will forgive my disguise as having been undertaken for a good cause."
He made a noncommittal noise. "What troubles me more is the news I hear. Is it true that the Lord Regent and Grand Maester Pycelle have been called to the gods?"
That was one way of putting it, certainly. Cersei stifled her snort of laughter. "If the Seven do their work with crossbows, Your Holiness, indeed they were called. We do not know who did the deed. I myself have not seen them--it was deemed unwise to waste time." The cold was seeping through the layers of clothing she wore, wrapping icy tendrils round her knees. She shifted her weight as discreetly as she could. "I take it Lord Tyrell has not seen fit to inform you?"
"His messenger waits below. It seemed...prudent...however, to see you first." Cersei could feel those eyes on her now, like a sharp lash. "Why do you bring war to our doors, my lady?"
"War?" Cersei sputtered, jerking her chin upward so she looked him in the face. "Is the preservation of my son's life an act of war?"
"Your son, our king, is married to the Hand's only daughter." Cersei had to fight not to point out that, much as the city of King's Landing might have chosen to ignore that fact Queen Margaery too was on trial for treason and fornication. The High Septon sighed. "But it is not for any member of the Faith to deny a plea for sanctuary. You shall have it, my lady, and I shall inform the Hand's messenger accordingly."
The relief coursing through Cersei's veins was enough to make her nearly stumble as she rose to her feet--though that might well have been the pins and needles in her legs. "Your generosity is as great as your piety, Your Holiness."
She had predicted that he would stop her before she departed, so it came as no surprise when he did so. "Your trial will go on, my lady. The Faith does not interfere with worldly disputes."
"I assumed so, Your Holiness," said Cersei, bobbing another curtsey. "And I assume too that the Lady Margaery's will similarly proceed."
"Queen Margaery's trial will indeed go on as planned. That is none of your concern. If I were you, my lady, I would look to my own soul."
Cersei inclined her head. Not to my soul, Your Holiness. To my champion.
There were no cheers for Ser Robert Strong. The silent giant did his work in peace, cutting down the unlucky Highgarden knight chosen to fight him with dispassionate strokes. It was a pity, Cersei thought as she watched, that Loras Tyrell hadn't recovered from the wounds he'd sustained at Dragonstone. At least with Ser Robert involved, his death would be incontrovertible.
The rumour was he'd sworn a holy vow of silence until Cersei's innocence was proven and the realm was purged of evil. A conveniently amorphous vow, for which she suspected she had Qyburn to thank. How ironic that he was the only one of her erstwhile friends who had come to her aid. He and his monster, formerly her father's monster.
They all know. They must know.
It did not matter. Robert Strong was her champion and he had prevailed. None of Lord Tyrell's knights would face him--no one would dare. Not even Jaime, not now. Once upon a time, he would have championed her, wearing her favour (only ever hers), and bringing it to her later that night, stained from battle. To this day, she was certain Myrcella had been conceived after a tournament.
Myrcella. Cersei's sudden gasp prompted the High Septon to glance her way. "My lady?"
"Is it over, Your Holiness?" Gods above, she'd forgotten Myrcella. When had she last heard word of the Dornish contingent? Her daughter could have been anywhere between Sunspear and King's Landing and nobody had had the decency to tell Cersei where she might be.
Ser Robert stood over his fallen opponent, greatsword in hand and his eyes--presumably--on the dais. Cersei shuddered at the thought of what might be beneath that helmet. They'd sent an enormous skull to Doran Martell in Sunspear that could have belonged to no one but Gregor Clegane. She did not want to think about it.
The High Septon rose. "The Seven have pronounced judgement. Her Grace, Queen Cersei of House Lannister, is hereby pronounced innocent by right of victory in combat."
Cersei closed her eyes. She would have said it was over, but no, it was a beginning.
There were no longer guards at her door when she returned to the tiny chamber that had been allotted to her in the sept. The High Sparrow had taken her hand as she departed and looked deep into her face for several moments before making a gesture of blessing over her head.
"Go with the grace of the gods, my lady."
Your Grace, she wanted to correct him. After all, she was Queen Regent once more now that the bells were ringing for Uncle Kevan. Unless, of course, the Hand had claimed that title too in her absence.
There had been no word from the Red Keep and this concerned her. Surely the Tyrells had noticed Tommen's absence by now--not that Tommen, for all his pride, had anything to do with the daily business of ruling the realm. It had always been a polite fallacy, never more so than when Cersei held the regency. Why should she expect any less from Mace Tyrell?
There were no looking-glasses in the sept but Cersei bent over the washbasin to catch a glimpse of her wavering reflection.
She looked like Jaime again.
The realisation hit her with a start. As children, they'd been practically indistinguishable, when Jaime's curls grew long and wild as Joffrey's had. He'd never cut it, not properly, because she could not have borne it.
Not until he returned to King's Landing a quiet, cold-eyed stranger, shorn of hair and hand. It was more than the loss of the hand--gods, that was what she wanted to tell him most of all, that she understood now. But Jaime was somewhere in the Riverlands still, playing the knight errant as, she was forced to confess, he always had somehow. It had always been Cersei who wanted to rule, who craved the cut-and-thrust of conspiracy and intrigue.
She was the elder, if only by a few breathless seconds. It was within her rights to raise the banners at Casterly Rock. But who will come? That was the question, the one she could not answer. For Jaime, they would have come in a heartbeat.
A thought came to Cersei so ridiculous, so utterly improbable, that she could not help but laugh. Great, gasping sobs of laughter rocked her as she sank to her knees. Her favourite song as a child had been the tale of a young woman whose lover had gone to the wars--except that instead of waiting and pining for him, she chopped off her hair and disguised herself as a squire to follow him.
The knock on the door startled her. She drew the mantle back over her head--no septa's veil anymore--and sat at the small table she had turned into a makeshift dressing table. "Who's there?"
"Sister Tyene, Your Grace."
"Come in." Cersei smiled as the young novice entered. "I was hoping to see you again, Sister Tyene. How is my son?"
"Well, Your Grace. He wishes to pray but I know you would rather he remain out of sight..."
Cersei rolled her eyes. "He can pray just as well up here as there. I won't have him anywhere near those filthy sparrows. What would happen if he fell ill?"
"You have a third child, Your Grace."
"Had. The gods alone know what they've done to Myrcella in Dorne." She pressed her fingers to her temples. "I've heard the most awful rumours. There was a knight who attacked her, they say. He calls himself Darkstar and he cut off her ear. Who would do that to a little girl?"
"It was an accident, perhaps." Was there hesitation before that last word? Cersei couldn't tell for certain. When she glanced at Tyene, the girl looked away quickly. "What were you doing, Your Grace, just now?"
She shrugged. "Nothing of consequence. Why would you say it was an accident?"
Cersei took pity on her. "Never mind. I suppose I was lamenting the lack of looking-glasses only to laugh at myself for wishing to look upon myself. I forget, sometimes, and see how I am chastised for my vanity."
"Vanity is not such a grave sin." Tyene paused beside the bed long enough for Cersei to nod before she sat. Cersei could not help but think she'd had to fight the impulse to sit unbidden. "I daresay other High Septons may have offered you more comfortable quarters."
"His High Holiness does not believe in such petty things, Tyene." Cersei retrieved a filmy pale green scarf from the haphazard pile of her belongings--the room contained a bed, the table, and a washbasin set on a shelf, which left her with little choice but to live in squalor. Fine place for the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.
With a considering frown, she shoved back the hood and held the scarf against her head, only to throw it aside in frustration. "Damn and blast it all!"
She'd been caught cursing in the sept when she was eight and the thrashing she'd received was one she had never forgotten. Raising her hand to her lips now, she laughed nervously. "I suppose one never quite grows out of that."
Tyene giggled. "Never, Your Grace. But, here, let me try something." She picked through the pile of clothing that Cersei had had time to snatch up less than a day earlier. It seemed far longer ago. Tyene had picked up a small piece of cloth--a sash, perhaps, and draped it over Cersei's head, tucking it behind her ears. Cersei groped for the scarf again and handed it back to Tyene. "Now I wish we did have a looking-glass, Your Grace. You might be surprised."
"Perhaps." Cersei held the two pieces of cloth together with her fingers as she set them down on the table to examine them more closely. Perhaps she could take apart one of her necklaces and brighten it up a little. Not that it mattered within the confines of sanctuary where nobody would look at her for fear of being tainted by her shame. "They wear veils a great deal in Dorne, do they not, Tyene?"
"I beg your pardon, Your Grace?"
"I simply thought you might know." If she'd had a looking-glass, it would have been the perfect moment to catch Tyene unguarded. Cersei kept her eyes on the table and heard the slight indrawn breath. "Your father was Dornish, wasn't he? Your wicked father."
"He was, Your Grace."
"Hm. I remember a rumour I heard once, about the Red Viper of Dorne seducing a septa." Quick as a cat, Cersei spun in the chair and snatched Tyene's wrist. "Who are you?"
"The rumour is true, Your Grace. I am Tyene Sand. Prince Oberyn Martell was my father." It was her eyes that Cersei now recognised--though blue as the summer sky, they were sharp and clever, snake's eyes.
"And you want revenge for your father's death."
"If it was your death I sought, Your Grace, you would be dead already." There was steel in the younger woman's voice and it never occurred to Cersei not to believe her. "The Viper taught his daughters well."
"So it would seem. The Lion of Lannister was not so kind to his daughter." Cersei realised that Tyene had not even bothered to free herself. "What do you want of me, then, Tyene Sand?"
"We have an enemy in common, Your Grace. We both seek the downfall of Highgarden, do we not?"
"How expedient of you. I had no hand in your father's death. He chose to champion my brother; nobody forced him. We all tried to dissuade him, rather, but he wouldn't hear of it."
"It is as I told you. Your Grace. My father was a wicked man." With a flick of one of her hands, Tyene had twisted herself free of Cersei's grip. "You didn't answer my question."
"I have no love for the Tyrells, least of all now. I should never have agreed to that accursed marriage." If she hadn't, Joff might still be alive. Of course, it was her father who had agreed to it, not Cersei. He'd even sought to marry her to Lord Mace's heir, to get rid of her. "Lord Tyrell thinks to rule my son through his daughter. I will not allow it."
Tyene opened her mouth but the door flew open instead to admit a panting septon. "Your Grace, the Hand of the King is here. He demands that King Tommen be released at once."
"He demands it, does he?" Cersei rose to her feet and swept her skirts behind her. "The nerve of the man! Where's the High Septon?"
"Gone down to speak to the Hand, Your Grace."
"He'll keep him occupied at least. I'll follow you." Cersei turned to Tyene. "I will not let him take my son."
The Dornishwoman grasped her arms. "Did you not hear what I said, Your Grace? You have a third child. Older than Tommen, and so clever. My little cousin Trystane adores her. Dorne would make your daughter a queen."
Queen Myrcella of the Seven Kingdoms. Cersei could not deny that her heart leapt a little at that, but just as quickly she caught her breath in terror. Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds. "Dorne would go to war to put my daughter on the Iron Throne?"
"We do things differently there."
"What of Tommen?"
"He will be heir to Casterly Rock. He is, after all, the next in line." She smiled. "We'll find him a new wife. A more suitable wife."
It was tempting--so very tempting. Tommen was too pliable to be a king, too much a child. He would be happier as Lord of the Rock. And Joff...gods, how had she misjudged him so sorely? Myrcella was the cleverest of her children by far. Why should she not be queen?
She placed her hand in Tyene Sand's. "When do we leave?"
"The sooner, the better."
Winter had not yet come to Dorne.
Cersei bloomed beneath the sun as did all children of the Long Summer. She scarcely recognised Myrcella, tanned and slender in sandsilks, her hair cunningly arranged to drape over her missing ear. Cersei's hair was short and spiky beneath an elaborate headdress that quickly became the rage in Sunspear but Myrcella still looked at her, head tilted to one side.
"You look different, Mama," she said.
When last she'd seen her daughter, Joff had been alive. Her father and Uncle Kevan. Tyrion had been a nuisance but not yet a traitor. Of course, his sending Myrcella off to Dorne had been the undoing of so many things--ironic that it should now be the hope to which she clung so desperately.
"So do you, sweetling." There was a lump in her throat as she embraced her daughter. Myrcella's arms wrapped round her and clung. "I'm so very happy to see you again."
"They took him from me, sweetling." Tears pooled at the corners of her eyes. "But we'll get him back, I promise."
Despite her colouring, Myrcella didn't quite look like Cersei or Jaime. When she smiled, Cersei was reminded unaccountably of her own mother. The first of Tyrion's victims. She looked far older than her ten years when Cersei told her later that night of what had happened since her departure from King's Landing.
Myrcella's head was bowed forward, tears dripping onto the silken bedcovers. "I don't want to go back there. I like it in Dorne. I like Trystane and Arianne and the Water Gardens."
"Do they tell you that you will be queen, Myrcella?"
"Arianne told me so but I didn't believe her." Myrcella stopped, one hand going to her carefully pinned hair. "It wasn't her fault, Mama. She didn't know what the Darkstar was planning."
"What happened, Myrcella? Will you tell me?"
"I don't want there to be a war!" Green eyes bright with fear gazed into Cersei's. "Promise me there won't be a war. I don't want one. I don't want people to fight and die for me. I want to stay here. Please let me stay."
Cersei stared for a second before enfolding her in her arms. "Oh, my sweet girl."
If it had been Tommen, she would have told him she knew best; only she was no longer certain of that. She just held Myrcella in silence as the sun set over the bay.