Brienne took a sip of the rapidly cooling cup of coffee at her elbow, grimaced at the sharp prickle of it on her tongue, and replaced it on the saucer. No amount of sugar and cream could improve that taste. She preferred tea, but the Dornish were wild for coffee and she'd only garnered odd looks when requesting it, so had given up. She pushed the cup to the side and flattened one hand on each of the sheets of paper spread before her on the table. On the left, a list of male names. On the right, the letter from her oldest and dearest friend that had necessitated the creation of said list, received three weeks ago.
Dearest Brienne, read the letter, I am delighted to share that I am expecting a child. Sandor has declared a wish for his heir to be born at Clegane Keep. He has not been there in decades but the arrival of his first child has instilled in him a nostalgia for his home, his birthright. Now that his brother has passed on, he can enjoy it without having to engage in any altercations. We shall be sailing past Tarth from White Harbor to Lannisport and intend to stop there for at least several days' visit.
A friend will be accompanying us, a fellow from beyond the wall by the name of Tormund Giantsbane. A fearsome name, I know, but for all his brash exterior, he is the finest of men and I am confident you will find his company as pleasant as we do.
Expect us within a month of this letter, my dear friend.
Brienne sighed. She knew what Sansa meant; it had meant the same every other time she'd taken it upon herself to introduce Brienne to a man. For Sansa, hope sprang eternal that her closest friend would make as brilliant and successful a match as she herself had with her beloved Sandor. Undeterred in spite of two previous catastrophes, Sansa was clearly going to try again, this time with a man from so far afield, so wild-sounding, that even Brienne would seem a sound alternative to whatever might be available to him in his own primitive home.
"His choices up there are between bears and Thenns," she muttered. "Even I compare favorably to bears and Thenns."
"Sorry, ser?" inquired the harried waitress as she threaded a path between the tables.
Brienne sighed again. "Nothing," she said. "Do you have some tea, instead?"
The girl blinked, realizing that was no ser she spoke to. After her surprise faded, she grimaced. "No... miss, sorry. Haven't had tea come through Hellholt in months."
"Then this will be fine," said Brienne politely, and the waitress went off with a nod.
Brienne bent over the other sheet of paper, carefully compiled after conversing with a variety of fancy ladies plying their wares, not only those in Tarth's single pillow house but several others she'd gone to, as well, in Storm's End.
Her mouth quirked in a smile, quickly repressed, at the reaction her arrival had provoked. Not at Tarth's brothel, no, because she was related to half the girls working there, and known by all of them, and it was nothing for her to pop in to speak to one or another of them of a day. Muriel, how's your mother? Her gout any better? Patrice, your father left his hammer at the Hall, yesterday, bring it home to him? There's a dear.
But the pillow house in Storm's End? She'd caused quite an uproar as the girls clamored to be her particular friend for the evening一 it seemed some women preferred being with other females in an intimate fashion, something Brienne had not even realized was possible. And apparently Brienne's particular charms were very much in demand by various of these women.
She'd refused, of course, to the disappointment of several, but remained to plumb their opinions for who they thought the most dashing, romantic, exciting man in Westeros might be. The consensus was that it should be a bounty hunter, one of those brave stalwarts roaming the continent's last unpoliced regions for outlaws and hoodlums.
Serial stories about them were fixtures in all the major newspapers, and one bounty hunter in particular had caught the minds and hearts of many... or at least many in Storm's End's most popular fancy house. He had no fewer than three two-stag novels written about his exploits, all of them dog-eared and worn after being traded about by the girls so avidly.
But there were others, as well, which Brienne counted as fortunate, because what if her first pick refused? And so she compiled a list. It started out strong, she felt, and weakened as it went along. The first gentleman named was her preference, to be sure; she'd heard surprising things about him, such as how, for all his immense talent with a gun, he seemed to hate to actually use one, preferring to solve the disputes for which he was hired by talking instead of shooting.
He was also said to be impossibly charming with the ladies and kind even to children and animals. Brienne had wondered, as she made the list, why he'd go into the gunslinging business at all, with such talents at his fingertips. If he were as handsome as they said, he could have the world on its knees before him. Why slum around Dorne earning bounties?
A clatter of hooves outside drew her attention; Brienne peered through the smudged window to see two horses trotting past the hotel, one with a man riding normally and the other bearing a fellow slung over its back, trussed up like a Sevenmas goose. Upon her arrival in Hellholt, Brienne had made the acquaintance of the nice ladies at the saloon down the street, just to see what their opinion might be of her prime candidate, since they actually had first-person knowledge of him.
To a one, they'd all said Mr. Jaime Lannister was a fine figure of a man. One named Ros had looked especially appreciative, if her slow, heavy-lidded smile was anything to judge by. Ros said that Mr. Lannister had ridden out a few days earlier intent on yet another bounty, so this must have been him returning.
Brienne's palms dampened in anxiety over what she was about to do. She dried them against the cloth of her split skirt, her one concession to feminine attire, feeling she should at least make a nominal effort if she were to accomplish what she hoped.
She waited until she saw his distinctive dark green jacket again, this time leaving the jail一 where presumably he'd left his criminal一 to amble across the dusty street toward the boarding house. She stood, settled her bill with the waitress, and followed.
A rusty bell tinkled overhead as she entered the boarding house. Brienne stood in the threshold uncertainly, not sure what she was waiting for, when an older woman appeared at the end of the long hallway stretching before her, drying her hands on her apron.
"Yes?" the woman said, brisk but not unkind.
"I'd like to speak with Mr. Lannister," said Brienne. When the woman's eyebrows lifted, Brienne hurried to add, "On a matter of business."
The woman in no way looked convinced, but she nodded toward a doorway, saying, "Have a seat in the parlor. I'll get him."
Brienne entered the parlor but was too jittery to sit, instead running her fingertips over the fussy lace-edged doilies under the lamps and vases and studying the porcelain figurines strewn about in an attempt to bring a homey atmosphere to the dingy surroundings.
"Ah, so that's what she meant," said a male voice from behind her, and Brienne spun around to face the speaker.
Then she had her first close-up glimpse of his face, and dropped the figurine she'd been fondling.
Jaime was feeling pleased with himself; another successful bounty hauled in, and not a bullet spent on it. He stripped off, then dipped a washcloth in the basin and had a good scrub-down to refresh himself after a long, dusty ride back to town. He splashed water on his face and ran his wet hands through his hair, his mind on the fat stack of bills to be provided by Sheriff Bronn in payment for bringing in Rorge.
Not for the first time, he considered saving it, living frugally, getting himself a place he could live permanently. It was hard, living on the road, and not getting easier as the days kept passing. More often than he'd like, when sleeping rough on the trail of a bounty, he woke from his bedroll out in the bush and found a twinge in his back or a crick in his neck that no amount of stretching could ease, leaving him sore the rest of the day. And what he'd been finding in his beard, of late, had passed the point of being 'light blond', as he'd been telling himself for a year or two; it was now undeniably, unavoidably gray.
But his reflexes were as sharp, and his senses as acute, as they'd always been, and that was the important thing. No one could sneak up on him; no one could out-draw him. The day he felt he might actually lose a gunfight was the day he got out of the business; he liked the excitement of his life, but he liked his skin nice and whole and free of bullet holes even more.
So Jaime had a few more years of slinging his gun, at least. He'd worry about what came after, after.
He pulled on fresh clothes, making a mental note to tell Miz Uller, proprietress of the establishment, that he'd need her to do laundry soon. He was just tugging his jacket back on, intent on a trip to the saloon to see what company could be found for the night, when a knock came at the door. He tugged it open to find her standing there, as if she'd read his mind.
"You've got a visitor," she said without preamble.
He quirked a brow. "Who?"
"A woman," she replied. "I think."
"You'll see what I mean." She shrugged. "And give me them dirty clothes. I can smell 'em all the way out in the hall."
Jaime grinned. "I don't doubt it," he said. "I wore 'em since I left town three days ago."
She only rolled her eyes, well-accustomed to the hard ways of men when they lived rough, and accepted the filthy bundle he handed her. She turned left and he turned right, making his way to the parlor, eager to make the acquaintance of the woman一 or not一 who had come to see him. If it was a woman, he was very intrigued; Miz Uller wouldn't have let her in if she were one of the saloon girls, and she'd have said if it were one of the respectable ladies of Hellholt, so it must be a stranger.
He stopped in the doorway to the parlor and there she... he?... was. Tall as Jaime was, and built sturdy, dressed in a man's jacket and with a man's hat in the hand not holding Miz Uller's little china shepherdess. When she took a step to replace the figurine and pick up another, he realized she wasn't even wearing a skirt, but very full trousers. She turned and he took note of her rather battered profile, boasting a nose that had seen more than one break, a deep brow, full lips, and a strong chin. Ugly she was, but in spite of it, still recognizably feminine. Or at least female.
"Ah, so that's what she meant," he murmured.
The woman spun around, her eyes rounding in shock, and the shepherdess dropped from her grip.
Jaime employed his famously speedy reflexes and was across the room, figurine in hand, before it was even halfway to the floor.
"Ah," she said faintly, "thank you."
"Miz Uller'd hate to lose her favorite shepherdess," he quipped, replacing it on the fireplace mantle where it belonged. "Who do I have the honor of addressing, ma'am?"
She straightened and threw her shoulders back as if expecting a regimental inspection or steeling herself for leaping into the breach, and Jaime had to work at keeping his lips in a straight line. She struck him as the kind to get tetchy if she felt made fun of.
"My name is Brienne Duncan," she said, putting out her hand to shake as a man would.
Jaime could have just shaken it, but when did he ever take the easy or simple path? He reached out his own hand, but instead of giving hers a firm-and-brief grip as this Brienne Duncan intended, he lifted it to his lips and brushed them over the rough, reddened knuckles. She gasped and snatched her hand back like he'd set it on fire.
Now he couldn't help but grin. "And what can I do for you, Miss Duncan?"
She eyed him warily, cupping the kissed hand in the other as if nursing a wound. "I would like to hire you."
"Oh?" Rather what he'd expected, then. "Got outlaws needing rousting from your land? A dispute over water rights?"
A tide of pink rose in her face, making her glow like a peony. It made the blue of her eyes stand out vividly, and he entertained a moment's wonder that a face like that could hold eyes which, he suspected, might be the prettiest he'd ever seen.
"I would like to hire you," she repeated, then gulped as she fortified her strength to say something apparently very daring, "to be my husband."