Margaret tugged and twisted mercilessly at her hair.
"By the gods, child, when was the last time you took a brush to this?"
"Just before breakfast."
She received a sharp rap on he shoulder with the back of the brush for that, and mumbled something grumpily. Margaret was a reasonable woman for the most part, but the way she yanked at the girls auburn knots brought tears to her eyes.
"Just put it in a braid, please!" She begged at last, unable to take this assault any longer.
"That will not do, I told you that four times already!" The older lady snapped back, brandishing the brush menacingly. "I want the queen to see you today, and you must look presentable!"
"I am a kitchen wench." The girl retorted. "I doubt she expects very much."
Another blow, on her arm this time, and she winced. "And watch your mouth, as well! ...In fact I think it best if you'll refrain from speaking!"
"Afraid I'll make a show of you?"
Primed and polished, she was lead, heavy tray in hand, to her task. Suzana, another new servant, was practically bouncing with excitement by her side. Ahead, Margaret's face had all but drained of colour as she imagined all of the wonderful ways she might be relieved of her duties should either of them slip up. Of the three of them, she was by far the calmest. She had served lords and ladies before, all with a certain measure of success. She might be brash and direct at times, but it was something her former employers had learned to appreciate of her. Either this kind and queen would do the same, or she would go elsewhere. No reason to panic.
Queen Cersei was in her public chambers, seated at a long table with her children and brothers. They had already finished the first miniscule course of their meal and were now waiting their main. When the three of them entered, food in hand, the children looked up hungrily, and the girl had to quietly tell her brothers to sit, which the older one - Jofferey, if she was not mistaken - clearly did not like. He forgot his gripes, however, once his plate was set before him, and proceeded to tear into his chicken like an animal.
"Careful, darling." His mother warned, sipping at her wine. "Mind you don't choke."
"I won't!" He shot back, glaring.
The queen only rolled her eyes and proceeded to cut her own meat. Margaret nudged her elbow and led her and Suzana over to the far wall, where they were to wait, out of the way, until called upon. She tried to look about, to take in the elaborate hangings and expensive furniture, but Margaret prodded her in the ribs.
"Stand still!" She hissed. "The Hound is watching!"
Ah yes, The Hound. She had been warned about him. The servants were all afraid of him, for they told her he was big, and hideous, with a temper to match. They said he would kill her for looking at him.
So she looked. Indeed she could not help being struck by how huge he was; taller than the average man by far, and broad, too. Even under all of that armour, she reckoned, he was a beast of a man. As for his face - well, that was concealed at present under the helm for which he had gotten his name. A snarling metal dog. He cut an impressive figure, she thought, and not one to cross. In fact, between the helm's jaws she fancied she could see two sharp silver eyes, scrutinizing her from across the room. She was sure she was supposed to be intimidated, so she smiled.
"Don't be afraid of my sister's pet, my dear." A voice drifted over from the table, laced with salt and sarcasm. It sounded like a man's voice, but it came from a figure she had at first mistaken for a fourth child. Tyrion Lannister, the queen's younger brother. An imp, or so they called him. "I would tell you that his bark is worse than his bite, but the truth is that both are equally unpleasant. Fortunately for you, he's well trained."
The Hound's gaze flickered down the the Imp, and narrowed. The Imp did not notice. Instead he gestured to her.
"Follow your friend's example, she even has the gall to smile at him. No doubt she knows he won't attack unless my sister says. And I don't think she's in the mood for killing servants at present, are you?"
He turned to the queen, who was watching this exchange with a scowl, and she took the opportunity to glance at Suzana, who was still staring at the Hound like a trapped deer. A swift elbow brought an end to that.
"Smile!" She whispered. Suzana obeyed, managing a strained grin. The Hound now watched them both.
"Come here, both of you."
She jumped, looking over to she queen, who had turned her attention to them. Calmly striding forward, she dragged the other girl with her, pulling her down as she bowed. She heard Margaret shuffle up alongside her.
"What is your name?" The queen demanded.
Before she could respond, Margaret spoke: "This is Rowan, your grace. And the blonde one there is Suzana."
The queen looked at her a long moment before saying: "Did I ask you?"
"N-no Your Grace."
"Then you shall keep quiet until I address you."
"O-of course, Your Grace, I apologize."
The queen looked back to them, and Margaret seemed to disappear into the shadows of the wall. Suzana squeezed Rowan's hand painfull painfully.
"Suzana, was it?"
"Yes, Your Grace!" The girl squeaked, palm immediately turning clammy. Rowan resisted the urge to shake her off.
"You're rather a plain thing, aren't you." The queen looked her up and down. "Still, you're young. Mind you keep an eye on the guards. Even Lord Clegane here -" She tilted her cup at the Hound, who bowed. "Has been known to taste some of the servants. Do be careful, won't you?"
Suzana glanced at the Hound once more and began to tremble. But the queen was not done.
"And you," she said to Rowan. "My, you are a pretty one. Even with that mark on your face. Do tell me how you got that?"
Rowan traced the line running across her nose. Her father had stitched it, so it hadn't scarred as badly as it might have, still there was a distinctive white mark. "I, uh… fought with one of the clansman's girls, Your Grace."
It took a while for everyone to process this. During which the atmosphere in the room changed considerably.
"You're from north of the Wall?" The queen's other brother cut in. "You're a Wildling?"
"And how did you come to work here?" The queen queried.
"Well, I worked for the Mormonts first. Then they sent me to the Tarleys, who sold me to the Tyrells. After that I spent two years with the Martells, but it was much too hot for me down there, so I decided to try for King's Landing, Your Grace." She explained.
"My, but you have been all over the Seven Kingdoms." The queen remarked. "And yet you still allow this one to speak for you?"
Rowan looked to Margaret, who was too busy bowing at the queen to see her. "Well, I've never worked for royalty, Your Grace. And every household works differently. It would be foolish of me not to follow Margaret's example…. Your Grace."
"I don't think you need to." The corner of the queen's mouth quirked up in a smile that Rowan immediately disliked. Nonetheless, she smiled back. "And I don't think I need to warn you about the guards. Do I?"
"No, Your Grace." She agreed.
"Still, I expect, given your upbringing, that their attentions don't much startle you, do they?"
Rowan smiled again, and this time the queen looked puzzled. "Not at all, Your Grace."
"What in Seven Hells are you going on about mother?" Prince Jofferey finally interrupted.
The queen smiled at him, and then back at her servants. "Oh, but I have gone on, haven't I? Clear the table, dear Rowan, dear Suzana. I do hope I did not frighten you too much."
"You don't think she was serious, do you?" Suzana's hands were still shaking as she wiped a damp cloth across the plates. "About the guards?"
Rowan took her measure of the girl. No more than two years younger than her, but it felt like a decade when she spoke sometimes. This was probably her first post, her first time away from the safety of her family. She still had no idea how the world worked. Enough full grown southern women were no better. She was probably still a maid and everything.
"Yes, she was. You need to be careful."
Suzana gaped at her once more. "Careful, how?"
Rowan sighed. "Walk straight. Dont look meek. When they try to get your attention, just smile and keep walking. Pretend to be dumb if you have to. When the men ask for meals to be brought to their rooms -"
Susana's eyes were widening all the while.
"- don't linger, just drop off the food and go. Certainly keep the door to your back."
"But if they catch me. If I can't get away -"
"There's no point in fighting."
The poor girl looked as though she would be sick. Rowan put down her cloth and laid a hand at her back."
"Do you want to know how I do it? How I've survived this long?"
"Find one. One that's not so bad as the rest. Not just anyone, mind you, a big strong one. Make him feel like he doesn't want anyone else to have you. And he'll do the rest."
Suzana flushed, scandalized. "But we'd not be wed -"
"No, you wouldn't. If you do it right, who knows, though."
"My father would never approve -"
"Fuck that!" Rowan exclaimed. "Your father's not here. You are! ... You're a maid, aren't you?"
"Would you rather give it to someone, or have them take it?"
The younger girl turned her eyes back to the plate. "...give it."
"Too right." Rowan agreed. Silence stretched out between them. "Listen, I can help you pick one, if you -"
"I don't think that's quite necessary!"
"Fine, fine. Suit yourself."