That night, after making love to her husband and humming sweetly in his arms until she was sure that he would soon be out cold, Brienne extracted herself from his embrace. Sitting at the edge of the bed, she muttered that she was still quite awake and itching to move, so she would go outside and join Davos on watch for a spell. She donned breeches, a shirt, and her grey cloak. She needed nothing else, for Podrick already had possession of her armor and sword. She splashed some cool water from the basin onto her face, pinned her lengthening hair to the back of her neck, and stepped outside after one final glance at Jaime dozing peacefully.
And when the lights come on
Jaime listened for her footfalls moving away down the hallway. He opened one eye, and waited a minute, trying to visualize Brienne's path. She would go left, then up the stairs, then across the long corridor to where one could access the battlements facing the water. A letter from Gendry had finally arrived that morning announcing that a hundred men would march north through the Kingswood for the attack.
In their discussions with the king and Davos after receiving that news, the decision had been made to focus their efforts on destroying the rest of Cersei's naval support. By creating turmoil for the remaining ships, the members of the Golden Company in the Kingswood would be without refuge when the few available Stormlanders arrived.
But Jaime had already made his plans with Podrick - they would set out for King's Landing tonight, skirting the Iron Gate and making their way to the unguarded tunnels beneath the Red Keep. It was a rescue mission only. If Tyrion were no longer living then they would at least determine whether there were other prisoners to be rescued - soldiers from the North, Unsullied or even, if they were very lucky, a living Selwyn Tarth - anyone that they wouldn't wish to see buried at the base of the keep whenever Cersei decided to destroy it. But in truth Jaime thought the best they could hope for would be successfully returning in the morning and being berated by his wife. He had to come back.
You see me as I am
When he was certain that she was well away, he dragged himself from the bed. He pulled his clothes on and strapped his cloak across his shoulders. He needed nothing else for Podrick was already in possession of his armor and sword. He peeked out the door and down the hall, and then closed the door quietly behind him.
When Brienne arrived at the meeting spot just outside the camp, Podrick was already pacing. It was not yet midnight, yet the young man seemed frantic. When she said his name, he nearly jumped out of his skin. He nodded in greeting and then looked behind her as if expecting another person. She approached her horse and checked the straps on the saddle. "Are you alright, Pod?"
"My lady, it's just-"
"I- I believe there's been some confusion, my lady ser."
Brienne drew her brows together. "What do you mean?"
"Well you see… you approached me this morning about riding to King's Landing. And when Arya came down not long after you-"
Brienne's head snapped up, "What?" Brienne looked about but didn't see the girl, and then she saw that there were not two, but three horses hitched to the tree.
"-I thought it was all the same mission. She knew what you were planning, and then when Ser-"
"-Is that who the third horse is for? What did Arya say?"
"She was to meet us but when I went for the horses this evening, one of them was missing and," he pulled parchment out of his cloak, "she'd left a note for you."
Brienne took the paper from Podrick. The letter was still sealed. She patted her horse's neck and sat at the base of the tree, tearing open the letter, but then she paused looking up at her former squire. "You said a horse was missing?"
"Yes, and the letter was in the stall instead."
Brienne looked at the horses. "But then why did you still collect three horses?"
"Pod. Who is the third horse for?"
At that moment, a low shout of greeting was raised up a few feet away. "Podrick! Are you ready? Wait, why did you bring a third horse?"
Brienne rolled her eyes with a groan and pushed herself up off the ground, her head and shoulders becoming visible over the back of her pale mare, and glared at her husband.
You're still inside me
Jaime froze, and then glared at Podrick. The night erupted in shouting.
After a few minutes, husband and wife had ceased their yelling and were poring over Arya's letter together hand-in-hand in the dim moonlight while Podrick sat sulking a few feet away, wishing he had simply remained abed that day. From their remarks, it seemed like it was about to be a very long night.
Arya had left the note and departed the camp following the mid-day meal with her companion. She would have gone alone, but she'd seen Sandor the day before and his impatience had been obvious. He'd ridden south with the army believing he'd have a chance to actually go to King's Landing but so far the troops had been relegated to waiting. So when she invited him along, she knew he would jump at the chance. She could technically carry out the plan alone, but having an ally was never a bad thing. And neither Brienne nor Jaime nor Podrick would be willing to go as far as she was hoping to go.
She parted with Clegane at the bottom of the Rosby Road. He continued south to skirt the walls of the keep until he reached the tunnels while she made her way to the Iron Gate. She had no problem at the gate, and her arrival was even announced at the Red Keep. The Queen was indisposed, but it mattered not - the Queen's Hand was more than happy to welcome Lord Petyr Baelish back to King's Landing in her stead with Ser Gregor at his side, exactly as Arya had hoped he would.
The stairs down to the dungeons below the Red Keep were dark but dry at least - better than Arya could have said for those at Riverrun, where all the stones had seemed slick. But not here, here her only concern was the giant looming presence of the Mountain following her as they descended.
When Qyburn had greeted her above, she played her part trying not to roll her eyes as she did, telling him the tragic tale of Baelish's imprisonment by the Starks, even after all he'd done to help fight back against the wights in the Long Night. The Targaryen usurper, Baelish said, was keeping him alive because of his connection to the Vale, but he was in chains every day. Only Ser Jaime had managed to see him as an ally, and had released him this very day on the condition that he risk his person to come here as an emissary on his behalf.
"The others don't know I've been released. Every moment I'm here is a risk to Ser Jaime." Ser Jaime, he explained, couldn't come himself because of his lover - if he tried to, the Maid of Tarth would follow him and likely cause trouble. He could only come once he knew that Cersei's men would put the beast down. When Qyburn questioned what kind of ally Ser Jaime was to not care for his ally's safety, Baelish assured him that it was the best he could hope for given the circumstances. Ser Jaime, he told Qyburn, sought two pieces of information - one, would the queen take him back and use her forces to fight back against his enemies? And two, did his brother yet live?
"Oh the imp is still alive. Barely, but alive. I've seen to that."
Thus it was that Arya found herself following Qyburn down the steps to the dungeons, with the Mountain not quite breathing down the back of Baelish's neck.
When they reached the bottom, it was dark, the only light coming from an open door down the long unguarded corridor of cells.
"No guards? That's odd, isn't it?"
"Not these days," chuckled Qyburn, "don't have much need for them. Prisoners rarely live long, and we have Ser Gregor to curb any undesirable activities." He paused at the second door. "The imp is here, we'll just need to retrieve the right key." He made his way to the open room with Baelish and Ser Gregor in tow, stopping halfway across the room. There were three bright candles burning in the corner, casting amber light across the rest of the room, but no warmth. Neither did the presence of Ser Gregor at her back, blocking the doorway, offer any warmth.
"I know," said Qyburn in a queer, exacting voice, "that Petyr Baelish is dead." Arya raised an eyebrow but did not move otherwise, her heart rate unchanged. Qyburn spun around. "This is some sort of glamour. Magic, my friend, is valuable. I do not know for what purpose you have truly come but, if you will share the secret of this trick with me, I shall see you escorted safely from the keep."
Baelish nodded, palms out. I will show you how the magic works but I warn you - when you use it yourself as you must when I show you, you will not appear as yourself - your voice, your height even will change. I recommend that you confine your friend," he said, gesturing behind to Ser Gregor, "else you may never return to yourself."
Qyburn's eyes widened in delight. The man seemed almost giddy as he nodded, "Yes, yes!" and pushed past Baelish, digging into his robe pockets for the keys which he'd already had on his person. Across the hall he opened the door to an empty cell and instructed Ser Gregor to enter. Once the beast was inside, Qyburn turned the lock and pocketed the keys again.
With little ceremony, Arya removed Baelish's face. Qyburn stood agape looking her up and down, and reaching out a hand for the face so that he could touch it and feel its magic. He looked over the edge of it, still astonished at the sight of the young woman. "Who are you?"
"I am no one, Lord Hand."
Qyburn smirked. "Do I just-"
Arya instructed him on the best way to hold the face in order to apply it, and watched as he pressed Petyr Baelish's skin to his own. She observed as his panic became obvious. The mask must have irritated him somehow for Qyburn began to poke at it to assess the source of an itch he couldn't identify. And then she saw that panic turn to terror when he realized he was completely blind, and she cut his shouts short, flicking the mask from his face and running his neck through with Needle before quickly removing his own face.
After the necessary cleansing was completed, she affixed Qyburn's face to her own and approached the cell across the hall.
The dead man looked up.
The dead man stood.
"...on one foot."
The dead man lifted his left foot, and kept still.
"Excellent. Put your foot back down."
"Henceforth, you only obey me. You no longer obey the queen. Nod if you understand me."
The dead man nodded.
"Very good. You may sit again."
Arya removed the mask and went back to Qyburn's body. She removed his robe and shook out the keys, and made her way to Tyrion's cell. She turned the lock and opened the door. Tyrion opened one eye but barely moved at the sight of her.
"Can you walk?"
His eye roved down to his legs which appeared sore at best. "Nnnneh."
"Alright. You may need to wait, then. I can't carry you but Sandor could."
His eye looked as far to his left as he could, and he weaky raised his hand to point in the direction of the wall to that side. "Terrrt," he tried to say more emphatically.
She looked at the wall and took a step back, realizing it was the one separating Tyrion's cell from the first one off the corridor. She narrowed her eyes at Tyrion, then moved to the first cell and opened the shutter on the door. "Oh. Maybe we needn't wait then." She found the right key and threw open the door.
Sandor Clegane was in a very special kind of hell. Three empty caches under the keep alone, he'd counted. That meant the stores had been moved elsewhere - likely other, hidden parts of the city. Finding it would take time they didn't have. Fire was bad enough, but the idea of green flame ready to burst under the streets at any moment was enough to make him run for the hills. Yet he didn't.
He'd been promised some level of revenge on this venture, and he meant to have it. Climbing up from the lower reaches of the Keep, he found himself somewhere just adjacent to the Tower of the Hand. There didn't seem to be many guards about, certainly different than it had been under Joffrey's reign. He silently crossed to the opposite hallway where he knew the steps to the dungeon lay. He heard one set of footsteps approaching and sank into the shadows to wait.
When Qyburn emerged, Sandor didn't move. The Hand looked from one end of the hall to the other, finally spotting Sandor, and raising an eyebrow. "Well?"
Sandor smirked. "Three, but empty."
Qyburn nodded again. "Knew of a trap door I didn't. Apparently had a boat planted in the tunnels before he was captured." She shrugged. "Setting off at nightfall."
"And my brother?"
Sandor grunted. "Let's get this over with then."
Qyburn nodded and turned to lead the way.
Euron Greyjoy did not react well to the news that his fleet had been destroyed. Or at least he wouldn't have if he'd lived long enough to hear that news. When Qyburn had entered the empty gallery of the throne room, Greyjoy had immediately sat up in his seat alongside the Iron Throne where the queen sat perched. Cersei's paranoia about usurpers had kept supplicants and sycophants alike out of the throne room for weeks. More often than not it was just the two of them and, sometimes, Ser Gregor or another guard.
"My Lord Hand!" Cersei shouted from the throne. She wore a black dress with a cinched red velvet overdress. Her hair was unbecomingly short, and she was propped languidly on the throne as if the blades embedded in it could do her no harm.
Qyburn stopped at the base of the dais and bowed. "My Queen. I'm afraid I bring distressing news."
Euron Greyjoy sat forward but Cersei simply blinked. "Lord Hand, where is Ser Gregor? We have been quite," she cast a sidelong glance at Euron, her face turning sour when she looked away from him, "unaccompanied today."
"He is in my lab, your highness. He required some additional…stitching."
Greyjoy sneered, "Never mind that, what news?"
"My lord, one of your men is at the gate. He indicated that there have been quite a few casualties. Your ships-"
Greyjoy stood and turned to Cersei. "I will see to this matter." She nodded. He bowed and made his way down the steps. "Take me to him then."
Qyburn looked to Cersei for approval, hesitation in his eyes. Cersei, through her wine-laden haze, managed to pick up on it.
"No. I have need of my Hand. Surely you can find the gate."
Euron grunted and sped to the rear of the chamber, pushing both doors open ahead of him so that they slammed closed behind him, leaving the queen with Qyburn. She leaned over to the small table to her left and refilled her goblet and, holding it to her lips, raised an eyebrow at the ex-maester. "Well?"
"My queen… the Golden Company has turned on us. They've burnt many of the Iron Fleet's ships."
"I don't understand. They were paid for."
"Yes, your grace. I believe they do not feel adequately compensated for the amount of time they've spent in our cause." Cersei downed her wine, her throat undulating with each gulp. "Your grace, if they join the northern and unsullied forces, they will outnumber the Lannister forces here in the capital."
The queen smirked. "That won't be a problem. Jaime will return. He will lead our forces to victory."
Qyburn moved up two steps, conspiratorially, "Your brother, your grace? Will the Lannister armies still obey him now that he betrayed you?"
Cersei let out a patient chuckle that grew into an open-mouthed cackle before beckoning Qyburn closer. "Jaime never betrayed me, you fool. He was scared. Weak. But the Lannister name is everything. They will always obey him. And he will always come back to me."
The doors at the end of the gallery opened again, and Cersei squinted at the figure who was lumbering very slowly. A grin crossed her face, "Ah Ser Gregor. Excellent."
"Will he always come back, your grace?"
Cersei looked up to see that Qyburn had moved up the final step to stand beside her. "Jaime? Yes of course." She caught a movement out of the corner of her eye and looked back toward the approaching figure, and squinted again, her empty goblet clattering against the stone. "No."
She had already somehow turned paler than she already was from locking herself away indoors for so long. But now her hair seemed to stand on end, and then her mouth contorted in terror as Arya removed Qyburn's face.
Cersei sneers in recognition. "You."
Arya threw the face to the ground and removed Needle from the deep pocket of Qyburn's robe, watching Cersei's eyes dart between her and Hound.
"This is for my father."
Arya flicked the sword across Cersei's shoulder, drawing a dripping scarlet line across her skin. The queen cried out and reached for the nearly empty wine flagon and threw it at Arya's head. Arya dodged as Cersei stood and tried to move back behind the throne. But Arya followed her, sword arm calmly outstretched.
"This is for my mother."
She flicked the sword across the opposite shoulder. Cersei grabbed for the table that had been next to the throne and knocked it over in an attempt to trip the girl who stepped over it easily in pursuit of her as she moved down the stairs.
"This is for my brother!"
Arya shouted, swiping the blade across the top of Cersei's back, rending the fabric.
The queen gasped, arching her back and spun around panting, growling at the girl. "Jaime will come. He'll kill you and the rest of you pathetic family for touching me."
Arya twirled her weapon. "I don't think so."
"He loves me!" Cersei bellowed.
Still calm, Arya lowered her weapon slightly. "He'll have no time to avenge you, Cersei." Arya looked on the queen pitiably. "He'll be much too busy fucking his wife."
The queen screamed and lunged for the girl. Arya stepped back, misjudging her proximity to the bottom step. Her weapon flew from her hand with a clatter and Arya caught herself painfully on her elbows, just saving her head from striking the stone. But the queen was on her, clawing at her face. Arya could barely get one of her arms up to block the rest of her exposed skin, struggling to kick out, not finding solid purchase on any part of Cersei's person. She felt the desperate woman's hand in her hair, tugging her head forward. Arya jerked her knee up into the queen's stomach, but the woman was crazed, unrelenting, scoring Arya's cheek.
And then suddenly the attack halted and Arya was on her back against the steps. She must have hit her head a little bit when Cersei had released her, for the earth spun a bit, but when the images finally condensed into one she saw why the onslaught had stopped. The queen's face was turning blue, and two powerful hands were wrapped around her neck, squeezing the life out of her.
You are the only one
"And this," Sandor said, "this is for her." He looked past the dying queen's head to focus on Arya. She nodded weakly. He squeezed harder.
When the sun had begun to go down, the queen made her way toward the main gate. She told the first guard she saw to summon any of her commanders who were within the walls of King's Landing to meet her in the central courtyard - the one that had been converted to a map of Westeros.
When the commanders arrived, the queen was wrapped in a black robe on the dais adjacent to the courtyard. There she remained while the three men bowed. Somewhere behind her, a figure in full armor stood perfectly still.
"My Lords," she greeted them, "we have received word that the Golden Company is no longer friendly to our cause. Any and all members are to be killed on sight. I want all of your men enlisted in this effort." Each of the men nodded as if they'd known all along that this was the way it would go.
"And one more thing - I have been rather ill of late. My brother Jaime will be returning to the capital soon. When he arrives, all direction will come from him. He will always do what is best for the Lannister cause. Do not question him."
The men bowed in acknowledgement and were dismissed. Once they'd gone, the Hound stepped forward, removing his helm. Arya removed the face of the dead queen, hissing in pain. "I can't tell if the pain is from the cuts on my face, or from this particular face being toxic. I'm not sure any amount of cleansing will make that one usable." She dipped her hands in the basin on the sideboard and patted her face, attempting to cool it. "I really don't want to put that one back on ever again."
"We've done everything we can."
"I certainly hope so." She removed her robes and sighed, dropping Cersei's face into her bag. "I'll meet you outside the Iron Gate."
"Nah, I'll meet you back at camp. Something I still have to do."
Arya looked up at him, uncertain. "He won't listen to you, you know. If you open that door-"
"I'll sort him out."
The only one that sees me
That trusts me and believes me
Arya bit her lip, but pulled Baelish's visage back out of the bag. "Good luck, Sandor." She slipped the mask on and made for the stables.