The air at Harrenhal was damp, muggy and rank with the stench of rotting corpses. The closer one drew to Father's solar, the worse the smell became, and when Jaime pushed open the door and entered the room, the wood groaning beneath his dirty fingers, he smirked at how little the world had changed.
Father was standing at the window; tall, proud and silent as the screams of tortured men rose out of the mist that was pouring into the room like incense. He looked up as Jaime entered, came forward when he approached, but still he did not speak; nothing so small as a flicker of his eyes or an intake of his breath implying that he was surprised or relieved to see his son.
What did you expect? Jaime sneered to himself, that he'd burst into tears, embrace you and praise all the gods that you're alive?
You fool. You never learn.
Father grasped his shoulder.
'I am pleased to see you alive, Jaime.'
'I am equally pleased to see that you haven't keeled over yet, dear father. Got any wine?'
They stood together in the shadows by the window, goblets clutched in their hands; Jaime relishing the feeling of heat and spice on his tongue as his father remained silent, saying nothing for a long while.
Father hadn't aged a day. No more lines on his face, no more white in his hair than the previous time Jaime had seen him; and as usual, only his ice-blue eyes seemed alive – well, half-alive – something mighty slumbering in their depths that would awaken only when threatened.
'We received word of your escape three weeks ago,' Father ventured, 'I have had my men searching for you since then.'
'An excellent idea,' Jaime conceded, flippantly raising his goblet, 'I wonder you didn't think of it before.'
'Your common sense will answer that question –'
'– and there will be no more discussion on the matter.'
Father's hand was perfectly steady as he raised his goblet to his lips, but his eyes flickered away from Jaime and outwards into the mist; intently studying the white and the grey that concealed leagues of melted stone and misery beneath them.
He feels guilty, Jaime realised, as he should do, the old bastard. He allowed me to rot away, wrapped in chains and covered in my own shit, for four years. And not so much as a rescue attempt or an offer of ransom.
Caution, probably. Caution against recklessness; against doing something rash that would cost too many men.
Bullshit. If Father had been the Starks' prisoner, I would have sacrificed every last one of my men to get him back, the gods take the consequences. I would not have let six months pass, let alone four years.
Father's face had softened slightly, and for a moment, Jaime saw the flecks of gold in his eyes burn bright with life; with something like understanding of what his son had thought and felt in that moment; with something like…love.
But then a freezing gust of wind swept mercilessly into the room, restoring the gold to a pale, infernal flame, and Father looked away from him as a servant girl of perhaps four or five-and-ten entered without knocking, a pile of scrolls nestled in the crook of her arm, a heap of letters clutched in her hand.
'What took you so long?' Father demanded.
'The stupid steward kept saying he'd only give me your letters in exchange for a kiss,' the girl replied angrily, 'when I refused, he squealed so loud that Qyburn had to be called.'
Father glared at her.
'We have spoken of this, girl. Only peasants settle their disputes by brawling.'
The girl glared back at him.
'Forgive me, my lord. I'd forgotten that we only resort to rape and murder in this castle.'
As they continued to argue about the steward, Jaime almost laughed aloud in disbelief; both at the girl's impertinence, and at his Father's evident unwillingness to punish it with his usual enthusiasm. He could not think why. Her lack of refinement and docility aside, the girl was the most extraordinary-looking creature Jaime had ever seen; her hair cut short like a boy's, her gangly limbs well-hidden in a nondescript jerkin and breeches; and he sighed at how typical it was of Father to employ his first female servant in forty years and not even be capable of finding a pretty one. You'd think the old bastard would welcome some amusement in his twilight years.
'Are there any letters of importance?' Father asked imperiously.
'Yes, my lord,' the girl replied, her eyes shifting away from him and falling on Jaime for the first time, 'there are two from –'
Jaime's heart was mauled in his chest as the girl's eyes met his, her face becoming the colour of the mist. Silence rushed into the gap left by her words like a sword amputating a limb, before resonance, vibration and noise returned, vaster and harsher than they had been before. The sound the parchment made as it fell from her arms to the floor was like the sound of a mountain range crumbling to dust, and Jaime gasped aloud as the girl's gaze impaled and suffocated him, the ashen northern mist of her grey eyes filling his lungs with poison and screaming out at him in pain and hatred and disgust.
She stood like a wild animal in the path of a crossbow; her teeth bared, her muscles taunt; knowing that she should run, realising that it was too late.
And suddenly he was remembering Ned Stark on the day King's Landing fell; the expression in his eyes identical, his lip curling in just the same way as he beheld the body of the Mad King, and Jaime sitting silent on the Iron Throne, wearing his red cloak. His white cloak. His red.
Winterfell. Of course. Winterfell.
He remembered her being shorter and uglier. But then he hadn't really being paying attention at the time.
'Father,' Jaime said, 'what in seven hells are you doing with Arya Stark?'