AN: Sorry it took so long. This is part one of Margaery's interlude; it is largely a set up for next chapter. Wish her luck.
Margaery stood at the great bay window in the Prince's Tower, watching Harrold ride quintain in the dusty yard below. Marwyn's book of nearly incomprehensible gibberish lay open on the table, pages dog-eared and faded. She had given up on trying to decipher the text hours ago, for the words and phrases were too far removed from the rudimentary Valyrian she had learned as a child. Willas could decipher the code. Her brother had always been the scholarly sort, even before he was crippled in the lists.
Voices drifted up from the yard, and the staccato clatter of hooves on hard earth. Harrold had been pushing the horses hard, and was calling now for a new mount to make his thirteenth pass at the quintain, a straw dummy hanging from a post with a red target painted on its chest. Red Walder brought him a stallion from Willas' stock, a young destrier barded in black mail and cloth-of-gold, red streamers dangling from its helm. Harrold mounted; the horse snorted, kicked at the earth, and then took off at a gallop, with no visible sign or audible sound from the prince.
It was almost as if the horse knew what Harrold was thinking, knew what he wanted, when he wanted it. It was even more obvious when he was riding Flatfoot; he and the horse seemed to share one mind, if that were possible. But then she recalled the Isle of Faces and the whispering trees, and Mad Malora and her whispering shadows. If darkness could speak, then why not a horse? Or the wind, or a bird; there was one fluttering outside the window just now, chirping madly. Could Harrold understand them as well?
"Hello, little bird. Have you come to watch the prince as well? Sorry… I have no food for you. But perhaps I might sing you a song?"
How strange her life had become since she met the prince. Strange and wondrous and oh so terrifying. As she parted her lips to sing, the bird flew away, wings snapping. Had she her hawk with her, she might have set him lose to catch it, but he was leagues away, caged in her quarters at Highgarden. She would have to write her mother, remind her to let him loose to stretch his wings.
Her gaze was drawn back to the prince. He lowered his lance - twelve feet of weighted fir - and cradled the long handle between his arm and ribs; as the steed reached full speed, thighs rippling with each gallop, the prince thrust out with his lance, as if jabbing with a sword. The dummy burst open, spilling straw all over the yard. That had been his thirteenth pass. He reined up, tossed his lance to Red Walder, and prepared to make another.
She could scarce believe Harrold had been near death only a moon ago. He had always seemed indomitable to her, since that misty morn she met him on the road to the Thorns. His presence had been so large as to be physically imposing, even dirty and worn, face a mask of blood and muck. But he had not seemed so great, so larger than life, when saw him swaddled beneath thick white quilts, skin slick with sweat and pale as bone.
"Be strong for him," Rhonda Rowan had said. They had been sitting in a sewing circle, waiting for the maesters to finish their work, but Rhonda had been the only one sewing. Margaery had been too worried to bother with needles. The Archmaester of medicine himself had been called down from the Citadel, and with him had come a team of men, chained maesters and even acolytes. The first night had been the worst, for no one had told her anything, not even Marvell.
Be strong, Margaery thought again, brow furrowing. As if it were that easy. Not when Harrold's enemies were whispers and shadows and magic. She could work against lords and men, ply her wit, her family's name and resources, but these warlocks were something else, something other, and they did not play by the usual rules, nor did they even deign to play the same game.
She heard Harrold calling for another dummy. The day was young, the sun just cresting the horizon in the east, slashed with thin white clouds like a torn gown. Its light gleamed off the emerald about her neck – a gift from Harrold, imbued with whatever mystical power he possessed, so that he might find her wherever she was.
He had been feverish when he gave it to her, still at death's door, knocking. Only Malora had been certain he would survive; Malora and her shadows. Marvell had been inconsolable, sure that he had failed his duty. Mad though Malora was, her faith had given Margaery the strength to ignore her apprehension, her fear.
"They will take her," Harrold had rasped. She remembered how dim his eyes had looked, how weak his voice had been. "Or you. Or both. Everything. Everyone. They know me, watched me… all my life. They won't stop until they have me. They won't stop…"
He had been almost a fortnight recovering, and never so weak and helpless as that first night. As soon as he was able, he had sailed for Lannisport. He had told her nothing; Nothing more than she already knew – that men a world away wanted him, desired his power, and they would stop at nothing to have it. But he had apologized for making her a target, for dragging her into his problems, and promised to keep her safe.
She had wanted to slap him. Nearly had, brush with death be damned. Still did. How could he keep her safe if he couldn't even keep himself safe?
Lady Rhonda had told her to be strong, and her grandmother too, but Margaery was beginning to feel overwhelmed. The Isle of Faces had been bearable, if unbelievable, but this? This was madness. Even now there were half a dozen men in the hall outside, and more in the stairwell, lions and flowers both, and Merry and Megga and all the rest had taken to hiding daggers in their skirts.
As had she. The blade was short and slim, double edged and wicked sharp, hardly any longer than her middle finger. But long enough, Harrold had said, to pierce a man's brain through his eye, and sharp enough to open his throat. The slight weight of it, strapped to her arm beneath the sleeves of her gown, the chill of the blade against her flesh, were surprisingly comforting. And that startled her, her own casual acceptance of the promise of violence. But she had to be strong. For him. For herself.
For the future her father wanted. That she wanted. A Tyrell queen, to birth a Tyrell king.
Husky voices tickled at the edge of her hearing, like a distant chorus. Malora's whispers had followed her, like mud stuck to the bottom of her shoe. The more she tried to listen, to understand, the harder they were to hear. Damn you, Merry. It had been her idea to follow Harrold, to see what Lord Leyton had deigned so important in the bowels of the castle. That was when she first heard the voices. She could recall the strange symbols with perfect clarity, could almost see them hanging in the air now, each jagged mark, each looping pattern.
Harrold had his secrets, and now so did she.
She closed her eyes, breathed deep, let the quiet sounds drift over her. She could just almost understand the whispers, but they kept slipping away, like wind in her fingers. Each whisper was wrapped in another and threaded through a third, all spiraled together, a constant twist of feather-light sound. Wait, there, there was something –
The heavy oaken door swung open with a loud creaking groan and she near jumped out of her skin. She whirled around, hand over her heart as if to still its rapid beating.
"Apologies, milady," said Aeryn. Her silvery-gold hair was drawn back in a tight braid that fell to her hips, and about her neck was a jewel much like Margaery's, save it was a ruby instead, and smaller, set into a black leather choker. "I didn't think anyone would be here. The guards didn't mention you." She was already backing through the open door before Margaery recovered from her fright.
"Don't go," Margaery said.
Aeryn paused, glanced longingly through the open door to the hall beyond, then back to Margaery. With a heavy sigh, she shut the door behind her and stepped further into the room.
"We never talk, you and I," Margaery said, a wry smile curling at the edge of her lips. "It is almost as if outside forces conspire to keep us separate."
Aeryn returned her smile, but it was too bright, too empty. "If you say so." She curtsied. "Milady."
Margaery didn't know what to make of Aeryn, and not for lack of trying. Harrold hardly spoke of her, but Margaery knew he would watch her sometimes, in the eerie light of his glass candle. He had done it almost every other night when they were on the road together, and perhaps even at Oldtown. Margaery wondered if he had ever watched her, but was too afraid that he might say no. Even though he seems to love me. Or wants to love me.
Celina Serrett didn't care for Aeryn, but Celina was sour as a lemon and prickly as a porcupine – she didn't care for anyone, save Myrielle and Harrold; sweet Alys Ferren was too kind to voice a negative opinion other than an apparent lack of piety; Myrielle considered her a clever whore.
"Will you sit with me?" Margaery asked.
Aeryn smiled again, and Margaery thought she saw a hint of cruelty in the curve of her rouged lips. "I would rather not. Milady."
There was that pause again. Margaery wondered if Aeryn thought it would offend her, and resisted the urge to laugh. "Shall I order you, then?" She gestured to the table below the window, and the two chairs pushed beneath it.
Aeryn frowned, eyes looking off into the distance, as if in deep thought. Margaery studied her face. She had never seen a Targaryen before, but she imagined their women might've looked a lot like this. Aeryn was a head taller than her and slim as a willow, with a long face and sharp lips; lips that were now twisting into a grimace as her simpering mask began to crack. But then she sighed again, her expression flattened, and she came to join Margaery at the table.
She claimed the chair nearest the window. Margaery watched her as a hawk might watch a rabbit, hands folded across her lap. She felt the cold press of the knife against her arm.
Aeryn sat silently, eyes on the yard below. Margaery realized the exact moment she caught sight of Harrold; her eyes softened, and a hint of a smile crept over her face. There was something vulnerable in her expression…something vulnerable, and something impossibly strong.
"You love him, don't you?" Margaery asked after a long silence.
"With all my heart." Aeryn glanced at her. "Don't you?"
Her cousins didn't understand Harrold, couldn't relate. But perhaps… "Yes. No… I don't know. Sometimes I -" She paused, looked away, sighed. "I want to love him. I will love him."
"Hmph. At least you're honest." Aeryn smiled almost tiredly. "It is easy to love him. As easy as falling. But I don't think you wanted discuss my feelings for Harry."
"On the contrary. That is precisely what I wanted to discuss. Your feelings for Harrold…and our future, together."
"Our future," Margaery repeated. "Harrold –"
"He hates that name, you know."
Margaery smiled. "I do know. That's why I use it." She ran a finger along the knife through her sleeve. "Harrold keeps you close. He trusts you; perhaps he even loves you as well. Has he told you about…the warlocks?"
"After he returned from the Thorns. They want him, for his –"
Aeryn nodded. "Yes. That."
"Have you seen him use it?"
"Many a time. The first was…when I was raped."
Margaery felt a wave of sadness wash over her. She reached out to grasp Aeryn's hand, but the girl pulled it out of reach.
"Don't," she said, frowning. "I don't want your sympathy. It's too often paired with pity." She looked away, cleared her throat. "He did something to Allar Deem. Something that caused him great pain. And the flames… they climbed so high, as if fueled by his rage. He did something to that giant butcher, too. Stared him down to his knees, with nary a word."
"He showed me lights and fire on the way to the Isle of Faces… and on the isle… he spoke with the trees. I could hear them myself, just as I can hear you now. It was as if the wind had been given a voice, but could only speak through rustling leaves."
"That was almost poetic, milady."
"It didn't seem so at the time." But she had fallen asleep, hadn't she? As the leaves had talked and talked and talked, the gentle sounds of the forest had lulled her to slumber. Or had Harrold used his power on her? Could he even do that?"
"You mentioned our future?" Aeryn said.
"Yes. Of course. Our future." It was her turn to clear her throat. "Harrold and I spoke, briefly, about the possibility of bastards. Your bastards. When I am the Lady of Casterly Rock I will allow you to stay, but your bastards shall not be raised in these halls."
"Allow me to stay? When you become the Lady of the Rock, Harry will be its lord. He would never send me away."
"If I asked him to, he would."
Aeryn glowered, but made no rebuttal. Then, "He doesn't love you."
"Harrold told you this himself, did he?"
"No. He didn't have to. But I know him. Better than you ever will."
Courtesy is a woman's best weapon, her shield and sword both. Margaery had read that somewhere. "I am sorry you feel that way, Aeryn."
"No you aren't. You don't care. You're just so good at pretending you've even fooled yourself.
"It hurts, doesn't it," Margaery began, "coming to the bitter realization that you will never have what you desire most?"
Aeryn bared her teeth as if to bite. "He is in love with the idea of loving you. Of having a lady he can wholly share himself with. But you…" she shook her head. "There's too much fear in you."
Margaery crooked a brow. "But not in you, I imagine."
Aeryn shrugged. "It is a different sort of fear. You are afraid of what he might become, what he might do."
Margaery shook her head. I could never fear Harrold. Merely those that hunt him. And the shadows. Even now, still, I hear them. "And you?"
Her smiled was wicked and sharp. "I welcome it."
"You dislike me, perhaps even hate me. I would like us to be friends, but truth be told, you are right… I don't care how you feel."
"I don't hate you," Aeryn said, standing. "I don't dislike you. I think nothing of you. You are no different from all the other ladies." She turned to leave, striding purposefully for the door.
"That is a lie," Margaery called out. "You think of me often. You might even wish you were me." Aeryn paused by the door. Margaery smiled her wry smile, a twist of her lips at the corner of her mouth. Her gentle voice did nothing to lessen the sting of her words. "Harrold told me you placed that portrait of me there, by his bedside. You knew your lot in life, had come to terms with what it means to love a man far above your station… trusted that he would always have a place for you in his life, that you would be cherished.
But now you know the truth. You will always be second to me, and he will never love you as you love him. And it's frightening, isn't it? Heartbreaking." She stood, sauntered over to curl an arm around Aeryn's shaking shoulders. "Harrold is fond of you, that I cannot deny… but would he keep you around if I asked him to send you away? Would Lord Tywin? I have no quarrel with you, Aeryn, as you should have none with me. You can learn to like me… and I can learn to care about you. Like I said, I would very much like us to be friends, Aeryn. Sisters. Will you –"
Aeryn yanked herself from Margaery's embrace and stormed from the room, Valyrian curses flying from her lips. Margaery even recognized a few of them. She hadn't expected to feel satisfaction for pushing Aeryn to anger, but she hadn't expected to feel shame either; it coiled in her gut, a sour meal of regret and disappointment. I am better than that.
She drifted back to the window, skirts dragging against the floor. Loras had joined Harrold in the yard, and now he was making a pass at the quintain, golden flowers streaming from his bright green cloak. She would have to speak with Aeryn again. Try to reach a common ground. The girl would never come to her, and if the resentment was left to fester, there was no telling what she might do; or Margaery herself, for that matter. Even the most beautiful rose had thorns.
Harrold looked up at the window then, sweat streaming down his handsome face. He smiled at her, and she smiled back. She and Harrold would be wed soon, for neither Lord Tywin nor her father cared to wait any longer. He would be five and ten in another fortnight, almost a man grown; she reckoned they would be married shortly after.
And then there would be no running. Her life would become a storm as well, and she a piece of driftwood to be tossed and thrown, dashed against some stony shore. Unless she too became like stone, hard and unyielding. A true equal to her prince.
There was a knock at the door. It creaked open, and Merry popped her head in. "Has that awful servant girl been bothering you? I just passed her racing down the steps."
"No, Merry. We had a… much needed conversation. I might have been a touch too… harsh."
Meredyth Crane stepped into the room and shut the heavy door behind her with a loud thud. "Not harsh enough, most like. The cunt's a witch, I tell you. As vile as they come."
"Well, it's true. The way she smiles at you…" Merry shivered. "Are you going to sit in here all day and read Prince Harrold's dusty old books? We still haven't seen all of Casterly Rock. Myrielle promised to show us the caves beneath the castle. Megga and Elinor are already with her."
"I would much rather visit the city. If you've seen one cave, you've seen them all."
"But these are caves of gold!"
"I've seen gold, and I've seen caves. It is easy enough combining the two in my mind."
"Oh, alright," Merry said, pouting.
The sun was plump and red by the time Margaery and Merry convened with the others. They took the winch down to the Lion's Maw instead of braving the thousand stairs; the Maw, a golden gate shaped to resemble a lion's open mouth, opened to a vast bridge that crossed over a gaping chasm to the smaller arm of the mountain that comprised the rock. The sound of waves crashing against rock rose around them, echoing up from the seas below, a rumbling drone that washed out the whispers. The creaking iron cage reminded her of the winch that had carried her down into the bowels of the Hightower; from the mischievous grin on Merry's face, she was doubtless thinking of the same thing.
There were thirty guards, half in red, half in black, and another two dozen men in Tyrell livery standing waiting for them at the gatehouse on the other end of the bridge, in the shadow of the raised portcullis. Her father had insisted on bringing a full retinue, a hundred and a half men; they had made camps on the surface slopes of the Rock, and in the towers that crowned the mountain.
Her eyes slide to the palanquin behind them, rigged up to be drawn by a team of a dozen horses, six in front, six in back. It nearly rivaled her grandmother's wheel house in size, if not opulence. There were rubies embedded in the goldwork that twisted across the lacquered cherry wood. Myrielle and all the rest were already inside, peeking out through the latticed windows. Margaery climbed in first, then Merry. She claimed the open seat near the window and slid the shutter back.
"My father is in talks with Lord Banefort now," Myrielle was saying. She was a pretty girl, if cruel and unfeeling. Her golden samite gown was lovely, and her silver cloak was trimmed in sable fur, to contrast the shining pearls about her neck. "Lucky for me, I suppose, seeing as how I've already given myself to Quenten."
"I will be sure to pray to the seven to redeem your whore soul," joked Celina Serrett. Everyone called her Sour Celina, though never to her face.
"You will be next," Myrielle said. "I'm sure your father wanted you to woo Harry –"
"All our fathers wanted us to woo Harry," Celina cut in.
"- but fret not. Our dear prince will see to it that you receive a suitable husband."
"Some father I have," Celina said, scowling. "It is his responsibility to arrange a suitable match."
"If you should want to look beyond the Westerlands," said Margaery, "the Roxton heir is of marriageable age, and he is comely enough."
"As comely as Prince Harrold?" Merry asked with a grin.
"Even with his scar," said Myrielle, grinning, "Harry looks half a girl."
"So we've heard," said Celina, pursing her lips. "You have my thanks, Lady Margaery. I've no idea what my father's plans for me are, but he would defer to Prince Harry, if it benefited him."
"Lord Alton should have an heir soon, shouldn't he?" asked Myrielle. "Cerenna writes often enough about the whelp in her belly."
Celina scoffed. "Hopefully her womb will dry up before the babe comes."
Alys Ferren flinched and frowned at the floor. When she noticed Margaery's eyes on her, a blush crept up her cheeks and she looked away. Alys was a nice girl, Margaery thought. Perhaps too nice. She dressed plainly, and wore no jewelry of any sort, not even earrings.
The muted light and gentle sounds of the mountain road gave way to the warm glow of the afternoon sun, to the raucous murmur of a port city on the cusp of noon; ships bells ringing from the harbor, and voices, so many voices, as the forests of white oak and pine transformed, gradually, into towers and warehouses and market squares.
The wind started up, crisp and salty, tangy on her tongue. She felt herself longing for the earthy air of Highgarden, for the colorful fields and open verandas and the sweet scents of summer flowers.
"You could just hope Lady Cerenna births a girl, you know, as opposed to wishing for the death of an innocent babe," said Elinor.
Celina scoffed. "That babe, if it's a boy, will be stealing my inheritance. There is nothing innocent about that."
"The babe cannot help the laws of men," said Alys, in her quiet, mousy voice.
"The ferret speaks!" exclaimed Celina. "And here I thought you were a mute."
"I just thought you had lettuce for brains," said Myrielle.
"I am not a mute, nor are my brains made of lettuce," said Alys, somewhat angrily, but her words, near a whisper, were lost in the sounds seeping through the open windows.
Margaery reached out to grab her hand, a soft smile alighting her lips. "Fret not, sweet Alys. Words only have the power you give them." Tentatively, Alys returned her smile. They joined each other in watching the city pass by. There were golden archways and bronze archways, stone manses and timber warehouses, a fifteen-foot-tall statue of a roaring lion wrought of gold and rubies in the district where the Lannister cousins had built their manse.
"I had forgotten how… spirited they both were," Margaery heard Megga whisper.
"Mental, I think you mean," Merry muttered backed. Elinor giggle beside her.
Lannisport was a city of autumn, all done in swaths of red and gold, sandstone walls and copper roofs. The city was smaller than Oldtown, less opulent, with a much warmer ascetic, but just as the Hightower had cloaked Oldtown in its shadow, so too did Casterly Rock loom over Lannisport, dominating the skies. Its shadow touched the entire city.
The markets were full to bursting. Purveyors tried to creep up to the windows, showcasing their wares, bolts of cloth and fruits and jams, jewels and jewelry; but the guards would not allow anyone within ten paces of the palanquin, and any who dared venture to close were met with a wall of steel-tipped spears.
"So will we be cooped up in this litter the whole time, or shall we actually explore the city?" asked Merry.
"There is nothing to explore," said Myrielle. "A city is a city is a city. There are buildings and people and pigeons shitting on everything. I will take you to meet my favorite gold worker, though. His family has made Lannister jewelry for decades. My brother said his father used to live in the castle, before Lord Tywin threw him out."
The store was on the waterfront, along a row of near identical structures. It was an innocuous building, and two-storied, one of salt-slick stone and one of timber. The motif was matched down to the end of the lane, where the harbor road turned into stone quays and winesinks and gambling dens. There, just at the bend in the road, atop a jagged spur of rock, stood a quaint, slope-roofed building whose stone face was green with lichen. Margaery saw a face in the open window, a dusky woman with dingy yellow eyes and thin, blue-tinted lips.
The palanquin came to a stop. Margaery could not bring herself to look away from the woman, fascination and suspicion warring inside of her. Such strange eyes, she thought. And those lips…
"Are you coming, Margeary?" asked Merry. She stood at the open door of the litter, Alys and Elinor crowded behind her; beyond them were sparse crowds of curious passerbys walking the thoroughfare. Margaery could hear the sea sloshing up against the quays, the creak of swaying boats. The other girls had already halfway up the steps to the goldworker's shop.
"In a moment," Margaery said. "But first, I shall discover what wares that woman has to offer."
"What woman?" said Elinor, craning her neck to see what Margeary had been staring at.
"In that window, there." But when she looked back, the woman was gone, as if she had never been there at all. There was only the still curtain.
"Shall we accompany you?" said Alys.
Margaery shook her head. "No, no. Go and see Myrielle's gold worker. Treat yourself."
"Take a few of the men, at least," said Merry. "With all that has happened…"
"Of course," Margaery said, climbing out of the palanquin, even as her thoughts ran the opposite. What use are a few men, she wanted to say. Harrold had nearly been killed with one just outside the door. If it should be her time to die on this day, a few men could do little to stop it. This and more she wanted to say, to share, for Merry was perhaps her best, truest friend.
But she kept her mouth closed, and her thoughts remained thoughts, silent and unspoken.
Inside the shop was warm and stuffy. Dust motes danced in the waning light that slanted through the window, and a fire crackled and spit in the hearth. The smell of spices and herbs were thick in the air; gloves of garlic and garlands of mint hung from the rafters, but beneath it, faint and fleeting, was the sour, solemn smell of death.
"A new face!" a voice rang out, husky and strangely melodic. Foreign. "A woman is pleased to meet you, Lady Margaery of House Tyrell."
"How do you know who I am?" Margaery stepped further into the shop, past the shelves spaced haphazardly about the store. There were jars of eyes and tongues swimming in green liquid, and satchels of powders; on one shelf lay the skeleton of a lizard-lion, perfectly preserved, the bones inscribed with wicked black symbols. Her guards hurried to follow her, booted steps heavy and loud against the creaking wooden floor.
"Everyone knows who you are, my lady. You are the betrothed of our beloved prince…" she trailed off, pointed a ring laden finger at Margaery's gown, at the golden roses sewn into the emerald fabric. "And a woman recognizes the golden flower." She was sat at a table off to the side of the room, beyond the shelves. She wore bright robes of yellow silk, with green and blue swaths of cloth wrapped about her neck, her arms bare.
Margaery stepped a little closer. "Are you one of them?"
The woman smiled, revealing a mouth of yellow, gold-capped teeth. "So bold and brash, my lady. Our prince has rubbed off on you."
"Do not make me ask again."
The woman shrugged. "It depends on the them to which you refer." At Margaery's frown, she laughed, a sharp, grating cackle. "A woman is only a woman. She serves the gods, and only them. But I know of whom you speak; Those decrepit creatures who seek the Prince."
"My lady," said Ser Pate of Oakenshield, one of the men who accompanied her, "I do not like the look of this place. Nor the smell of it. And this woman…"
"Wait outside, then," Margaery said without turning.
"My lady –"
"Go." She had learned early on how to use her authority. Harrold's men would have ignored her demand, regardless of her orders, but her father's men?
Reluctantly, grumbling all the while, they left. "We will be just outside the door, my lady. Should you have need of us –"
"I will call for you. Now go." And they went. Alone now, Margaery asked, "Who are you?" She folded her arms across her stomach, fingers reaching for the knife up her sleeve. She didn't need guards to help her feel safe. Thrust quickly, Harry had said. When the time comes, don't hesitate. Thrust, twist, and pull.
"A woman is called Raylene."
"What are you. Your lips…"
Raylene smiled again, wide and toothy. The gold caps on her teeth glinted in the meager light. "A much better question, my lady. A woman practices the Art, it is true, and a woman drinks the Shade…but as was said, a woman is a servant. Not a warlock. They believe themselves Gods, give praise to false idols…it is the ultimate sin." She leaned closer, and Margaery thought she smelled blood. "I have seen their servants sniffing around the city. Sniffing around your prince."
Margaery swallowed her fear, fingers clasped tight around the knife handle. "But your lips are blue."
She shrugged. "That is what the Shade does."
"Shade of the Evening?" Harrold had spoken of it before, on the road to Willow Wood. She hadn't realized then what it was, but he and Maester Wulfric had spoken of it so often, the name stuck in her head. "Does the prince know about you?"
"I have not spoken with the prince… but the girl and her Maester come here often enough."
The girl? "Ah. You mean Aeryn." Merry had mentioned that, hadn't she? And Harrold too. Margaery had never known of a Maester to take a female student, even unofficially. It could only be Aeryn.
"She procured a batch," the woman went on, "and I even showed her how to brew it… but my draught was insufficient. The formula has changed, in recent times. I lack the godsblood, as the Warlocks have such ready access to now."
Margaery had no idea what the meant, and already out of her element, she didn't want to compound her confusion by asking for clarification. She went for a simpler question. "What does it do?"
Raylene was fond of smiling, no doubt to show off the wealth of her teeth. "It unstoppers the mind and opens the soul. Offers a unique perspective. This was not enough for your prince, for he already has these things, but for you? A woman hazards this is precisely what you need."
I could understand the voices if I drank it. The thought came suddenly and powerfully, and without knowing how, she was sure of its truth. Already, the decision was made. "What do you sell it by? The flagon?"
"A flute will do for you." When Margaery went to hand over a few silvers, the woman pushed her hand away. "Keep your coin, child. A woman knows what your prince must face. He will need help. A flute, and a full skin for later."
Raylene disappeared into the back of the shop and returned with two crystal glasses and a bloated wine skin. To show that it wasn't poison, Raylene drank first, before filling the second cup and passing it to Margaery.
She swirled it around in the flute, watched the dregs run down the crystal. The liquid was thick, like honey; she doubted it tasted like honey though. She whispered a prayer to the Seven, put the cup to her lips, and drank.
The Shade was heavy in her mouth, and sour and rotten, like old meat left to spoil. She gagged, but somehow managed to hold it in. She forced down the first swallow; as the oily wine cascaded down her tongue, the flavor changed, subtle at first, but then it burst to life, like fingers of fire curling down her throat and through her chest, gentle and probing and warm.
She tasted honey milk and arbor gold and apple cakes, sweat and tears and Harrold's lips, suspicion, regret, hope. Everything and nothing she tasted, bitter heat and sweet cold, until the flute was empty and the last of the wine was spilling over her lips. She returned the flute to the tray, wiped her mouth with her sleeve.
The air was sharp in her nose, tart, and she could taste the mold in the air.
Then came the whispers, a sibilant chorus of sound, louder and clearer than ever before; to her mounting shock and delight, she could understand them, feel the breath of their words on her neck, on her ear. The sound was beautiful. Tears came to her eyes, slipped down her cheeks to fall to the floor. She understood, now. She knew.