Their table had been set up in the centre of the room, near to the front of the stage. A conspicuous ring had been left around them, marking them as separate from the other diners. The light was low, and coloured purple, violet and indigo – the colours of the night. Across the tables, tea lights shone in domes of stained glass, giving an ethereal appearance to an otherwise very earthy display of flesh.
The evening's entertainment had begun as a parade of silken-clad women took to the stage to dance. Soon, they were all but naked except for the jewels they wore across their breasts and necks. Under the light, their skins changed colour like a parade of chameleons. Cat was not a prude – she watched with faint curiosity as their lithe bodies twisted across one another, admiring them at times – but she could not help but feel that it was entirely inappropriate for a business meeting. She was beginning to understand that Robert's idea of business was not her own.
She was, it seemed, not alone. Around the circle table, her father had his back to the stage and had made no effort to turn. Jon had had turned his own chair towards Robert, so that he might better hear him she supposed, but also that the stage was now out of his eye line. The most comical reaction though had been from Stannis. He had had the unfortunate luck to have sat almost directly in front of the stage, and had stoically refused to move once the dance had started. He remained as a statue, still as stone, his eyes fixed resolutely on a point somewhere beyond the stage. Cat hardly saw him blink, but noted the slow grind of his jaw as he endured the spectacle. Only Edmure and Robert seemed to be enjoying the show for what it was. She laughed silently in to her wine at her brother's enraptured expression.
Any attempt at continuing discussions was apparently useless now. Robert had closed that portion of the evening, even as Jon and her father continued to try and pull him back to more important matters. Cat could have told them before they began that nothing productive was likely to be decided in a burlesque club, but Robert had insisted they all come to opening night. Still, she admired them for at least trying to persevere.
When one dance ended, and a fresh bout of women began, she made her excuses and slipped quietly away from the table. The club was decadently adorned, with velvet and silk hung across the walls and champagne flowing freely from behind the bar. Golden gilded statues stood in the corners and under arches, in shapes of naked women and savage beasts. The air was heavy under the heat of so many bodies. And as ever, in the shadows, moved the men in black. Watching.
Cat sought refuge from the sensual onslaught at the cocktail bar in the far corner, and ordered herself a drink. An hour or so more and she would take her leave. She would be in bed soon. She could feel the soft mattress calling her.
At her side, a man had taken a seat. She felt him glance at her but he didn't say anything and so she continued to sip her drink quietly. It was only when she happened to return the glance in his direction that she realised who he was. Why he hadn't said hello was a little baffling. He had obviously known it was her. She rectified his mistake.
'You look as out of place as I am' she said brightly. 'Can I buy you a drink?'
Eddard looked at her from only the corner of his eye, and did not linger. He shook his head and indicated the half drunk beer he had in his hand. She thought she saw the ghost of an apologetic smile brush his mouth. She didn't want to be deterred, but she could think of nothing to say. Awkwardly, they sat in silence for a few minutes more as she scrambled around for a word or two to string together for his benefit. All she could see though where the faces of his dead family, floating around between them like spectres. Eventually, after more agonising minutes of silence, she began to get annoyed at herself. She turned in her chair, her whole body towards him and ghosts. There was nowhere to hide.
'Do you want to get out of here?'
They walked for a while still in silence, but there was a different feel to it now they were outside, alone. It didn't seem as forced, as if they had somehow placed it there deliberately rather than by accident. Either one of them could break it whenever they felt like. Cat could still sense the ghosts though whenever she glanced towards him. They wreathed him like a shroud. He must have felt them too. How could he not?
'My brother talked about you once' he said abruptly, breaking their easy quiet. She looked at him but he had not turned to her. They kept walking.
She didn't mean it to come out that way. It sounded too eager. She wrinkled her nose in disgust.
'Yes. Only once, but that was more than most girls got.'
He smiled clumsily, but still could only glance at her.
'Well, I mean…. Not that there were a lot of girls…. I just….'
She watched him stumble for the right words for a moment, before offering him a lifeline.
'It's ok. I didn't know him long, but I was under no illusions.'
He looked at her properly then, and she smiled, eager to encourage him. He did not look away, but he didn't smile again either.
'But I knew him' he said. 'And he liked you. If things had been different…'
'We can't think like that' she said softly. 'That future is gone. We don't know how it would have ended.'
He bit his lip thoughtfully and turned away from her again. The silence fell back between them and they walked in it for a little longer.
'I'm sorry' she said, from nowhere. It was months too late, and she had seen him so many times in between, it seemed strange to say it now. But she had suddenly realised that she had never said it before, and that she needed to.
'I really am. I'm so sorry.'
He twisted his lips together as though he were trying to hold something in; some word, some thought. He stopped walking. She stopped too.
'It's not your fault' he said quietly. 'You have no reason to say sorry.'
He sniffed, took a breath and turned to her. Whatever he'd been battling, he'd won.
'Thank you anyway.'
She nodded in acknowledgement and they continued their walk in the stillness, a trail of ghosts following behind them.