Chapter 2 - Blood of my kin
The scent of roses filled the air; a pungent and sensuous smell that permeated everything in the gardens of Highgarden. I kept my eyes closed; feigning sleep, but a small smirk belied my consciousness. My head rested comfortably on my arms as I lay among the flowers. The bright yellow sun warmed my face, drawing my smile further across my face.
"There you are." A light, musical voice rang through the air.
I heard a dull thud before a warm weight rested against my torso. Wrapping my arm around the weight, I pulled it closer in to my body.
"Don't you think your brothers will be looking for us?"
"Scared of an invalid and a dandy?"
I snorted, opening my eyes to see her own hovering not six inches above my face. "The 'invalid' is probably smarter than half the Maesters in the Citadel, not to mention heir to the second strongest region in Westeros."
Her eyes twinkled mischievously. "Second strongest?"
"'Twould be a lie to say otherwise, would it not?"
"I'll not contest the matter with you again. But what of the dandy?"
"Hmm?" I asked lazily.
"You spoke of Willas, now what of Loras?"
"That 'dandy' would open me up from sternum to sacrum if he heard me call him so."
She wrinkled her nose, before shifting her position so that she now lay on me rather than next to me. "Must you be so vulgar?"
"More concerned with vulgarity than with impropriety then?"
She laughed again, a melodious tinkling kind of sound. "Improper? Me? Lies do not become you, Lord Lion."
"I do not lie, Lady Margaery. I may choose to engage in minor deceptions from time to time, but no falsehood has ever crossed these lips."
She regarded me with a haughty expression as I struggled to keep a serious face.
"What about that time you lied to mother and told her that you, me, and Willas were going to Bitterbridge for the week, when actually we were sunning ourselves on the beaches of Southshield?"
"And that time when you lied to Lord Lother and told him that the reason that your own father couldn't join them in a feast, which was in his honour, was that he was giving alms to the poor in Oldtown, rather than that he was making his rounds of the whorehouses."
"And what about…"
"I think you've made your point, Margaery, quite clearly. Maybe I have spoken a few mis-truths in my time."
She rested her head against my shoulder lightly, her hair whipping against my face in the light breeze. We fell back into a companionable silence that lasted for a few minutes until Margaery began to speak once more. "I have a question for you, Harry."
"Ask and you shall receive, my lady."
She shifted her position once more so that she could look me in the eye again. "Why is it that we only met when we were already partly grown? My father was introduced to your grandfather shortly after he could form whole words. I've met many a Lannister boy when I was younger, and none of them ever mentioned you. It's like you came out of nowhere."
"You know of my mother? The commoner?"
She frowned lightly, but nodded to say that she did.
"The child of a commoner rarely becomes a part of a Great House of Westeros. Upon my birth, grandfather made father swear that I would uphold the Lannister name, and if I proved myself to be worthy I might one day join the family properly, possibly as the heir to Casterly Rock."
She perked up as her eyes flashed dangerously. "Heir to the West, huh?"
"Down girl." I grinned sharply as she deflated a little. I was well aware that Margaery was by far one of the most ambitious creatures in Westeros. She swatted me playfully on the shoulder, but waved for me to continue. "Anyhow until I was eight, and the Greyjoys attacked Lannisport, I was pretty isolated. Grandfather would be the only member of the family that I was allowed to see, save for those few occasions when I saw my father."
"That must've been hard."
"Not really, I hardly knew the man then." I shrugged. "But after the Ironborn rebelled, my grandfather decided that I had proved my worth as a member of House Lannister, and as such, I had earned the right to join the family properly."
"And now look at you; trained in combat by the great Tywin Lannister, groomed from childhood to be the next Warden of the West."
"It may seem like a sure thing to you, but I am by no means the first choice to succeed grandfather."
She huffed with displeasure. "Your grandfather has three children. From those three, he has four grand-children and three of those were born Baratheons. You are the only choice, Harry."
I smiled. "Ah, so the reason for our friendship becomes clear!" She looked at me with a confused expression. "You wish to ensnare the future Lord of Casterly Rock!" I swooned melodramatically. "That villainous flower who seeks to snatch up the lion cub. Oh ye gods be fickl-"
She interrupted me midway through my Shakespearean soliloquy by stuffing a pretty, honey-coloured rose, which she had plucked off a bush, into my mouth. I sat upright, spewing bright petals, picking the sharp thorns out of my teeth.
"That had thorns!" I moaned, as I struggled to get the taste of flowers from my mouth.
She just grinned at my discomfort, winking impishly at me before she dropped her head back into my lap.
"Just get on with the story."
"For the last six years I've been treated like a real Lannister; trained, as you said, by my lord grandfather in both the greater and lesser arts of ruling."
"Ah, you mean grooming? So they are preparing you to become head of the House."
I shook my head. "Think of it as a contingency plan. My lord grandfather has plans for most every eventuality. In reality I'm probably third or fourth in line, after Uncle Jaime and Great-Uncle Kevan."
Margaery actually looked surprised at that. It had initially taken me a while to learn the difference between her true expressions and her acting, but by now I had it down to an art form. "The Kingslayer? He's part of the Kingsguard, he can't inherit."
I chuckled heavily. "Margaery, King Robert owes my family over three-million gold dragons. Do you really think that if Lord Tywin demands that his son is released from his oaths, the King would refuse him just to keep one of his guards?"
"A fair point." I relaxed on the ground, feeling the soothing warmth of the Highgarden sun seep into my bones. Margaery lay still against me, her head resting on my shoulder.
Despite her quirks; her penchant for misdirection, her ever-growing ambition, her insatiable thirst for power, she would always remain my first friend in this world. She was the most interesting person I had met in Westeros, one of the only people that could play power games as well as my grandfather could. She was capable of spinning half-truths around those next to her with great skill, ensnaring others with her image of innocent youth and beauty.
She nudged me gently.
"There's a page waiting with a message for you."
She moved away from me, allowing me to clamber to my feet, brushing my tunic clean of grass.
"What?" I asked shortly. I wasn't all too happy with being interrupted. I tended to be slightly softer when treating with Margaery than when treating with others, but I didn't like others knowing or expecting such treatment off me.
"A raven, my lord, from Lord Tywin at Casterly Rock." He handed me a message, before bowing low and scurrying off.
"You scared the poor devil."
"Come now, I barely said anything."
I unwrapped the message, tracing the flowing script that was scrawled across the page. My eyebrows raised in a show of slight incredulity.
"What is it? What does it say?"
"Robert Baratheon is to visit the Rock."
"It says that he plans to leave King's Landing by the end of the month. I am summoned to return to the Rock post haste."
"Did he say what he wants you for?"
"Apparently to organise welcoming, accommodations, and a great Tourney for the royal party."
She hummed softly. "He's given you the bulk of the work then."
"Not really. I just need to spruce up some of our finest rooms, send invitations to all the knights of note in the area, and make sure that we've stocked up on enough food and wine to last us for a hundred-hundred feasts."
"That's easier said than it is done."
"True, but it still shouldn't be too taxing. Would you mind sending me a list of the more worthy knights of the Reach? It would make my task just a bit easier."
She stood up, linking arms with me before she dragged me towards the castle. "Of course I will. I trust that Loras and Garlan will feature on your invitations?"
I grimaced good-naturedly. "Leave some competition for the other knights."
She snorted. "My brothers have never beaten your uncle in a tilt, and I doubt they will start now."
"There's a first for everything."
"So when do you leave?"
I rubbed my neck a little sheepishly. "Erm… now I guess. I'm sorry that I can't stay longer."
She shook her head. "No matter. We'll see you again soon enough."
"So that's where you two went!" Loras Tyrell's rather loud voice cut through the still air. "We were about to send a search party."
Loras wasn't my favourite person, but he was a decent enough man that I didn't really have any problems in being friends with him. He didn't have his eldest brother's intellect, nor his sister's cunning but he was sharp enough, albeit a little hot-headed.
"My apologies Lord Loras, for taking up so much of your sister's time. You will be relieved, I'm sure, to know that I must soon take my leave of Highgarden." I teased gently.
"So soon? You've just got here!"
"I'm afraid that duty calls me back to the Westerlands." It pleased me that he wore an aggrieved expression on his face. It was always nice to know that people will miss you when you leave. "Fret not Loras. We'll see each other again, sooner than you think."
I shook his hand warmly, before pressing a kiss against Margaery's cheek and bidding them to extend my goodbyes to their other siblings. I didn't have time to scurry around Highgarden to tell everyone that I was leaving; grandfather had called me back home and there was no time to waste.
The journey from the Reach to the Westerlands was uneventful as always. The Oceanroad always was one of the best maintained and best policed of the King's roads. Every day I would see either Tyrell or Lannister bannermen ride up and down the road, patrolling it to ensure that no bandits or thieves could prey on the merchants and farmers that made their way between Highgarden and Lannisport.
I reached the Rock a little under a week after I left Highgarden. As soon as I was off my horse, a messenger handed me a summons from grandfather, calling me to a meeting.
I knocked sharply on the door to grandfather's study.
"Enter." I heard a gruff voice shout. Grandfather must've been in a bad mood to sound so curt. "Ah, Harry. Good of you to come so quickly."
I'd like to think that he was actually glad to see me rather than being sarcastic, but with grandfather you could never tell.
"Grandfather, it's good to see you."
Uncle Kevan nodded at me from the other side of the grand oak table.
"Uncle." I nodded back as a greeting. "It's been a while." I hadn't seen him in around a month or so.
He nodded again, not venturing his words to speak his mind. Heavy bags hung under his eyes as he slumped slightly over the desk. I could tell that he had been there all night, maybe longer, making plans to prepare for the King's visit. Uncle Kevan was that sort of person; loyal to a fault, and more hard-working than almost anyone else despite the fact that his hard work didn't benefit anyone, let alone himself.
"Harry my son!" I heard a voice cry out with earnest emotion. "Where have you been?"
All too quickly the reason for grandfather's ire became clear.
I struggled to hold my expression steady, holding back the tiny smile that tried to break out across my face. Grandfather may have been the father-figure in my life, but I truly did enjoy spending some time, however short, with my real father. He cared for me dearly and I couldn't help but love him for that, if just a little.
"Father." I said a little coldly. I could see the hurt on his face, but I knew that if I was too warm with him, grandfather would send him out. He despised the notion of us bonding. "I haven't seen you in far too long."
"Aye, my son." He spoke quietly, a little cowed.
"To business now, if you please." Grandfather was getting fed up and that was never a good thing. I slipped into my seat as he began to speak. "We have a little under four weeks left until Robert Baratheon comes to the Westerlands. Our priority should be to improve our standing with the King while we have the opportunity."
"We have a solid footing in that respect. It shouldn't be too difficult to keep the King happy with us. If all goes well we might even have a few more offerings of position in the capital, like Lancel being the King's squire." Uncle Kevan was awfully proud of his eldest son, despite the fact that the boy was a clot who spent his days being harangued by a fat drunkard.
"Might I suggest that flooding the capital with members of our family might not be the best idea?" I ventured, almost tentatively.
"Reports from King's Landing make it clear that members of the royal court, the King in particular, are slightly unnerved by the prominence of our family in the capital." Grandfather looked intrigued, but not entirely happy while father merely wore a proud expression on his face. He always seemed proud whenever I spoke my mind or asserted my position within the family. "In messages from Her Grace the Queen, and Cousin Lancel, it appears that this uneasiness has begat some hostility towards us."
"So you would have us bury our heads in the sand while some other House reaps our rewards?" Gods did I hate debating with grandfather when he was angry.
"I never said that!" I protested. "I'm merely proposing that we use our closeness with the King to our benefit without souring the relationship we have with him. The other Houses grow jealous of our favour with the royal household. Antagonising them serves no pur-"
"Enough." He stated quietly. "I agree that your points make sense, but that is not enough. Our position in the capital is not nearly strong enough for us to throw away advancements that are given to us." Grandfather stood from the desk, his hands gripping the warm wood tightly, his nails drumming a staccato beat against the surface. His terse form oozed tension. "Robert Baratheon is not long for this world."
My jaw dropped. "You mean to kill him?"
Grandfather looked at me, shock on his face. "No, no. Nothing of the sort. Grand Maester Pycelle has been keeping me abreast of His Grace's health, and he appears none too pleased about his physical condition. Ulcers, gout, liver problems, stomach issues. The King is not as hale and hearty as he would like the Kingdoms to believe."
"So what does this mean for us?"
Grandfather sighed heavily, his eyes meeting mine for only the briefest of moments. "It means that we are not as secure as we once thought. Should Robert die before Joff comes of age, both Joffrey and Tommen become targets for the Baratheon brothers, should either wish to take the throne. Renly is much loved and will have the support of many outside the Stormlands, while Stannis is a proven commander. Without a legitimate king behind us, it would be a tough fight."
I sucked in a sharp breath. "That's why this trip is so important for us. We need to secure enough men in enough positions to protect our interests."
He nodded curtly. "By linking our House with the throne we have gained much, and we stand to gain even more, but it also means that our fate will remain intertwined with that of the royal family. We cannot afford to let another House encroach upon what is ours. Not now, of all times."
"So what do we do?" It was my father's first contribution to the conversation, but instead of answering him, grandfather kept on addressing me as if I had been the one to ask the question.
"We keep the whole court entertained, especially Robert. We wine them and dine them until they can feast no more, while they sup their fancies on the finest tourney that the Westerlands can offer. Then, when they have sated their lusts, we shall enjoy the fruits of our labours."
"What would you have us do, grandfather?"
"Harry, you are to organise the tournament. Have the carpenters set to work on building a great pavilion by the tourney field."
"I will, my lord."
"Also, remember to send invitations out to all the knights who can travel to Lannisport in time."
"They have already been sent; I gave the order for the ravens to be sent while I was on the Oceanroad."
"Excellent." He bared his teeth in a taut smile. "The first piece of good news I've had all day. There's no need to go through the other tasks, they have already been assigned to others."
"I thought you were tasking me with the welcoming feast as well?" I asked, puzzled.
"I changed my mind." He said bluntly. "Providing food and drink and whores seemed like the perfect job for Tyrion. I hope you don't mind?" He finished with a dangerously sarcastic tone.
Father didn't say anything. Over the years he had become quite accustomed to taking jibes and insults with a measured composure.
I shook my head shortly. "Not at all. Have you drawn up a budget for this trip?"
"We're here to put on a show of wealth. We can't exactly do that without spending some gold. Don't be wasteful, but don't be thrifty either."
Again I nodded my head to indicate my assent.
"Good." He stood from his chair, flexing his shoulders as he moved. "If you would excuse me, Genna has been hounding me for a meeting. Apparently she's having trouble finding suitable lodgings for the royal entourage."
I didn't envy grandfather, and I'm sure that no one else in the room did either. Aunt Genna was a … personality, and could be hard to deal with if she wasn't treated carefully. Still, she did make good company once she's had a few drinks in her belly.
Grandfather left swiftly with Uncle Kevan following him afterwards like a tail.
"Father." I greeted him more warmly, throwing myself into the chair next to his. "Where've you been?" We hadn't seen each other in more than a month.
"Where have I been?" He sounded a little scandalised and more than a little drunk. "You're the one who went gallivanting off to Highgarden on a whim."
I knew he'd bring that up. "It wasn't on a whim. I requested permission to go, and I made sure to keep up with my studies and my training while away." It wasn't exactly a lie; I had sparred every morning with Loras, and spent my nights poring over the largest library in the Reach.
He took a deep drink from his goblet. "It just seems like I hardly get to see you. One moment you're eight years old and I'm being told that my son has saved Lannisport, and the next you're fourteen and already acting like a true lord of Westeros."
"No, you're right. We hardly ever see each other. I'd be lucky to talk to you once in a week!"
He wore a pained expression on his face. I felt a pang of guilt as I realised that I was quite glad that he felt hurt. He was the only parent out of four that I could remember, and I still knew less about him than I do about my first set of parents.
"You weren't there for me. You were always disappearing to some brothel or another for days on end!" I sounded like a petulant child, but I didn't care. This was the most open that I had been with someone since I was born. "You were never there."
"I tried." He whispered hoarsely. "Believe me how I tried."
"I know father, and I love you for it, but it wasn't enough."
"My father doesn't exactly make it easy to spend time with you."
I laughed humourlessly. "A weak excuse. I never knew you to be weak, not once. Try again."
He smiled sadly at me, an unusually haunted look in his eyes. "You know, you may look like your mother, but you have my eyes. Lannister eyes."
It would have been a touching sentiment, had I not been told a version of it repeatedly when I first grew up. He must have seen my unhappiness with his answer in the lines of my face, his face contorting as though I just struck him.
"What would you have me say? I wasn't there because I was too busy drinking and whoring and wallowing away in my own pain."
I took one of his hands in my own, reassuring him through the physical contact.
"I'm not saying that you shouldn't whore around when you feel like it. It'd be fairly hypocritical of me to say that."
He gave me a watery smile, all filled with emotion. "You're getting a reputation for it."
I had the decency to blush a little. I still had some of the more prudish aspects of wizarding culture ingrained in my psyche, and for me sex, even with whores, was still a very 'behind closed doors' affair.
"Exactly. I'm not saying don't, I'm just saying that you should exercise some restraint. Lord Tywin doesn't mind me drinking or bedding women because he knows that that's not all there is in my life. He knows that I'll still be up the next morning with the dawn, practicing in the ring or in the field."
"Ah, but we indulge our vices for different reasons. I drink to preserve my mind in the memories of a better time. The memories of the year when I was truly happy." He wiped his eyes with the cuff of his sleeve.
"Alcohol may preserve many things, but dignity is not one of them. We are Lannisters, father! We cannot afford to slip, not once!"
"I have been a Lannister for far longer than you have little lion." He fixed me with a pointed stare, but he relented as I matched his gaze. "But you are right, as usual. For you, I will try to be here more often."
"That is all I ask, father. It's shameful that this has been the most we've talked in years!"
He nodded, his head bobbing furiously. "It's not easy for me to spend much time with our family, but I will make an effort if it means that I may see you."
"I'm to blame as well. I should've defended you in front of grandfather. They all speak ill of you, yet I never do anything to stop them!" It irked me beyond belief that people treated my father this way. It was never anything much from grandfather or Kevan, they were far too sly for that, but others oft took to lashing out against the 'Imp' whenever they could.
"No!" He barked, his eyes burning with a passion that few saw from father. "You must agree with my father! Just as he plans to do with King Robert, you must do with him. Keep him happy, and content with your character."
"You have a plan?"
He shrugged noncommittally. "Less of a plan, more of an idea that my father put in my head at your birth. Impress your skills upon my father and he may, in time, grant you the Lordship of our House."
I laughed dismissively. "You're beginning to sound like Margaery, now."
"She likes to think so. I tend to agree."
"It matters not. If you become head of our House, we can deal back the insults against us, with interest. As the Targaryens did, we will greet our foes with fire and blood and little else besides."
I grinned, a bloodthirsty, feral sneer. His words had stoked the fires in my blood. How dare the Lords and Ladies of this land insult my father, my real family. I had never been affronted in the same way that father had but, as grandfather was wont to say, family comes first. An insult upon him was upon all who call him kin. Our house seemed to have forgotten that fact, something that I believed required remedying.
"I never thought you to be such a Lannister."
His eyes sparkled with mirth and anger and hope.
"No one ever does."
The weeks till the royal visit passed quickly in a frenzy of building, clearing, haggling and bartering, but by the end, our tournament promised to be the largest such gathering of knights since the days of Mad King Aerys and the Tourney at Harrenhal. On the day of their arrival, the entirety of Casterly Rock was garbed in the finest silks, most wearing red and gold, but a few daring yellow and black to honour the house of the king.
We lined up in front of the great keep, standing on the steps that led down to the courtyard. Lord Tywin, as was expected, stood first with Uncle Kevan next to him and so on in terms of importance. With both Lancel and Tyrek, my father's cousins, squiring for the king, I stood next to Aunt Genna who remained noticeably distant from her husband. It wasn't the most prized place, but it beat where my father stood; two paces behind the rest of the family, among lesser Lannisters like Daven and Myrielle and Cerenna. He was long used to the insult though, and it bothered him less than it bothered me.
Soon after we had arranged ourselves, the royal entourage burst into the courtyard with all the usual pomp and circumstance. Two members of the Kingsguard, mounted on the backs of a pair of beautiful palfreys, one roan and the other a sort of speckled chestnut, trotted in first, streaming the Baratheon banner at the ends of their upheld lances. Their white armour shone in the noonday sun, the gold glinting brightly against the pale enamel designs etched in the steel of their breastplates.
Flanked by another pair of Kingsguard, the King rode slowly into the courtyard on a short, squat mare. Without a signal, the entire family dropped to its knees, each person bowing their heads in a show of reverence. He had gotten fatter since last I saw him, rounder around the belly and shorter in height, but he still carried himself in a way that just screamed of the muscles that lay buried beneath all that fat. Small beady eyes, set deep in a ruddy bearded face may have suggested a likeness to one former gamekeeper of Hogwarts, but he was still one of the most fearsome men in the country. His arm was still strong; I had heard tell of a rumour that he had split the skull of a boar he was hunting, with one blow from his hammer. Rumours they may have been, yet I could see the truth that they had sprung from.
Behind the King came a wagon made of the finest mahogany that could be imported from Essos. Four stout work-houses pulled the wheel-house along swiftly, the wheels clattering noisily against the cobblestones of the courtyard until at last it came to a rest before our feet. I could just catch glimpses of bright blonde hair from through the vents in the carriage before the door was thrown open violently.
Queen Cersei stepped daintily out of the carriage, her long legs covered by a gown that just traced along the floor. She moved carefully towards her father, her dress masking her smooth steps from sight, giving the appearance that she was gliding across the courtyard. She looked like an angel draped in crimson, and I'm sure that she knew it. She was not renowned as the most beautiful woman in the Seven Kingdoms without reason.
She kissed her stoic father on each cheek as we waited for the King to dismount. She pulled her children along with her; holding the little five year old Tommen to her bosom, while her other hand held Myrcella tight. The eldest child, the eleven year old Joffrey, stood a few paces behind them, an attempt at a nonchalant expression on his face. They paused in front of her father as Robert ambled towards us, Uncle Jaime in tow.
And that was it. No great speeches or words of welcome were exchanged. Robert brushed past the rest of the family, paying no heed to anyone as he quickly disappeared into the castle with two of his guards. No more words of platitude or of gratitude were given by the king, nor were they expected by Lord Tywin.
"Father. I'm glad to be home."
Grandfather managed to tilt one corner of his mouth in the barest hint of a smile for his first born son.
"Jaime." They clasped hands briefly, but Uncle Jaime knew not to linger too long with his father. He moved down the line swiftly, greeting his family in turn.
"Lookie here, the runts all grown up!"
I grinned widely. "The runt could beat you up and down the training field now."
I had always enjoyed a light hearted repartee with Uncle Jaime. In my mind he was always one part doting uncle, one part vicious fighter and one part utter bastard. He kind of reminded me of a slightly younger Sirius Black; world weary and tired, but his true face hidden well under the façade of a quick wit and a quicker sword.
"Bah, the training field. Father tells me that you're the finest lance in the Westerlands. Will you join the joust?"
I glanced briefly at grandfather, but Uncle Jaime caught the look. "I will join if my Lord Tywin allows it."
A feral grin was back on Jaime's face. "Excellent, I relish the thought of a good fight. I haven't had one in years."
"That's because you've killed everyone worth fighting, sweet brother."
"Your Grace." I greeted Aunt Cersei, one hand clasped to my chest as I dropped my head in a respectful bow.
"Rise, rise my nephew. There's no need to bow so low, we are family of course." She was lovely; beautiful and charming, but father had warned me of the bitter fruit that lay underneath her sweet veneer. "I haven't seen you since you were much younger."
"It is a crime, your Grace, that I have not laid eyes on you in such a long time. I never should have let such a travesty pass." I was laying the flattery on a little thick, but if she was as conceited as father said, she wouldn't mind.
Her eyes seemed to twinkle at my compliment, but she wore an almost hungry expression on her face as she regarded me carefully. "There's no need to call me 'your Grace' anymore, just call me Aunt Cersei, or Aunt even if that's easier for you."
I thanked her for her kindness before continuing with the small talk. She latched on to my every word, laughing brightly at my polite platitudes. The hungry expression never left her face as we talked, her eyes flitting over my body, lingering longest on my messy black hair and Lannister green eyes.
It was unnerving to say the least. I looked briefly towards Uncle Jaime for support, but he was long gone. I could see him from the corner of my eye, ruffling the hair of his youngest sibling.
"And who's this?" I cooed to the young child in Aunt Cersei's arms, searching for any way to extricate myself from speaking to the woman alone.
"Where are my manners? Harry this is Tommen." The little boy buried his head in his mother's clothes, not daring to look at me. "And the one behind me is Myrcella."
Like her brother, Myrcella hid herself behind her mother's skirts, a fiery red blush blooming across her face.
"I'm afraid that my eldest, Joffrey, must have disappeared after his father, but I'm sure that he would be delighted to meet you."
"It would be my pleasure, Aunt. Perhaps later. Now, if you don't mind, I can escort you to your quarters where you can freshen up before the feast."
"You are most gracious."
I led the Queen and her brood to their accommodations, before I excused myself and retired to my room. In my own chamber, I splashed my face with cold water from a basin that a servant had left out for me. Outside the window, I could see the warm orange of the summer sun give way to pink and purple as it began to dip below the horizon. I rested for a time within my rooms until a servant knocked on the door to fetch me for the feast. By the time I made my way to the great hall, music was already being played, great barrels of wine were being rolled into the hall and the delicious smells of roasting meats filled the room.
I took my place on the King's table, next to a rather bored looking Uncle Jaime. On my other side was the eight year old Princess Myrcella. I flashed her a winning smile as I sat down and was rewarded with another bright blush.
"Now that we have all gathered." Grandfather spoke loudly, his gaze lingering over me in an almost accusatory fashion. "I would like to welcome His Grace King Robert Baratheon to Casterly Rock. May the whole realm blossom under the auspices of our great Houses." He raised a heavily decorated goblet into the air. "To the King."
"To the King!" We toasted, drinking deeply from our cups. It was a Red from the Arbor; a fine wine, fruity and rich, as you would expect from the royal table. Naturally the lesser lords on the tables below would drink a lesser vintage.
'No use wasting good wine on bad company, is there?' I thought to myself.
"Bring in the food!" Father roared. He had planned the feast to the last detail, all to impress Robert.
Servants laden with heavy platters streamed into the room, moving in time with one another, as though their movements had been choreographed. I could see a large pike, baked with a herb crumb, whole roast fowl stuffed with sausage and other meats, a gargantuan suckling pig, spit roasted and served with a sweet honey glaze. It was enough to make my mouth water.
One particular plate caught my attention; it was filled with tiny little birds, roasted in the fire and glistening with juice. A servant stood next to the plate, holding a stack of crisp white linens which she placed in front of each person on the royal table.
"A Westerlands speciality, just for the King!" Father bellowed brightly. "Ortolan!"
"Tyrion's outdone himself." Jaime murmured to me quietly. "This must have been weeks in preparation."
"Father's full of surprises." I whispered back.
A gentle tugging at my sleeve pulled me away from Uncle Jaime. "What is that?" Myrcella pointed at the small birds that were being placed on each plate.
"That, sweet cousin, is ortolan. It's a little bird, a bit like a lark. You've tried lark before I trust?"
Myrcella nodded her head furiously. She looked so sweet and innocent, that I didn't have the heart to tell her what we were eating. An ortolan was a tiny little songbird that was caught and kept in a darkened cage for a fortnight, being fed constantly on a diet of millet and fresh berries. Then, it was drowned in a glass of the finest Volantine amber wine before being carefully plucked of its feathers and roasted in the fire for eight minutes. The fortified wine in its lungs would bubble and broil, imparting a unique flavour to the meat.
"I haven't had this since my sister's wedding feast." Uncle Jaime said as the servant placed an ortolan on his plate. "Once in a decade is often enough, methinks."
"Cousin," I said to Myrcella. "These birds have to be eaten in a special way. It's tradition."
Myrcella scrunched her eyebrows into a tight frown as she concentrated on what I had to say.
"First, you take the linen and you cover your head with it." I draped the material over Uncle Jaime's head to show Myrcella how it was done.
She giggled. "But why?"
"It's to hide you from the gods, little one. If the Seven ever saw that man had become so greedy, so decadent, they would strike us down in an instant." Spoke Jaime from underneath his new hood.
"He's joking, cousin." I reassured her. He wasn't, but there was no need to scare her with an old Westerlands tradition. "For the next step, you take the ortolan by the head and place it whole in your mouth, feet first. Then, you bite through it, eating everything."
I covered Myrcella's head for her, before doing the same for myself. Underneath the cloth it was dark and quiet. I could only hear the sounds of crunching and slurping from all around me. I popped the bird in my mouth, the piping hot meat burning the roof of my mouth a little. I bit down into the meat, relishing the bite of the crisp skin followed by the rush of hot fat and innards that flood my mouth. The little bones pricked my mouth sharply, mixing pain and pleasure in a rare combination. I promptly munch through the rest of the poor little bird, savouring every bite.
"Good isn't it?" I heard Uncle Jaime ask.
I pulled the cloth back to see my little cousin nodding her little head. "Delicious!"
"Still, probably best to keep it for special occasions."
"Oh definitely." She said brightly. "Cousin could you-"
"Excellent!" Robert bellowed, accidently cutting his daughter off mid-sentence. "A fine spread you've laid out for us, Lord Tywin." He beckoned for a servant girl to refill his wine goblet. His cheeks were already flushed from the alcohol but he guzzled down his wine faster than the poor girl could pour it.
Grandfather smiled thinly in a polite manner. "Thank you, your Grace." He waved for the servers to bring on the next course of food to the table, all the while eying the amount of wine that remained in the King's cup.
The feast continued in this manner for quite a while. I whittled away at the time by making polite conversation with Myrcella and Jaime until my young cousin excused herself from the table.
"You should be careful."
"Hmm?" I asked lazily. The copious amounts of wine that I had imbibed over the course of the meal made me feel heavy and dozy.
"You made quite the impression on Cersei this morning. Apparently she's quite taken with you."
I waved him away obnoxiously. "Don't you find me charming as well, Uncle?"
He chortled. "You're not half as appealing as you think you are."
"Still makes me twice as appealing as you, Uncle." I shot back quickly.
He snorted into his cup of wine. "I'm serious Harry. She's pushing to have you brought back to King's Landing with us."
"Truly?" I asked nonchalantly. Mentally, I was crowing with joy. 'Grandfather will be pleased. I didn't think my job would be this easy.'
"Truly. Naturally, the King's against surrounding himself with any more of our brood, but my sister can be very persuasive when she wants to be."
I laughed. "I thought you said I should be careful, this sounds like good news!"
"She's thinking of pushing you and Myrcella together." He said bluntly.
I paled noticeably, eliciting a laugh from Uncle Jaime.
"No. Never. She's my cousin."
"Father and mother were cousins and they were perfectly happy together."
A look of revulsion flashed across my face briefly. I had never understood the pureblood fascination with incest, and even now I found the idea repulsive. "But she's eight years old!"
He waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "She'll get older."
"You're a sick bastard, you know that?"
"You don't know the half of it, nephew."
I grinned toothily at him. "Incestuous betrothals aside, why wouldn't the king want me around? I'm wonderful company."
"Whilst my siblings and I might agree, Robert is tired of Lannisters. He's bored of us. He's bored of his life really."
My eyes twinkled in a manner once favoured by my dear departed Headmaster.
"You've thought of something, haven't you?"
Uncle's question dragged me from my reverie. "What do you mean?"
"Tyrion always got that very same look in his eye when he'd thought of something terribly clever."
"I may have… but I'll need your help, and you may not like it."
Splinters of wood showered around me as I broke my second lance on my opponent's breastplate. He reeled backwards, but his heels dug into the stirrups and he just managed to stay on his horse. Cedric Payne wasn't much of a jouster, fine rider though he was. His technique was a little stilted; he rolled his shoulder back when he slipped his lance into the cradle. It left him leaning and slightly off-balance, making him easy to topple.
The crowd roared in approval as I tossed my broken lance to the floor. I had fought four men before Payne and each had fallen within three tilts. I was good with a lance, and I knew it. It wasn't arrogance… well, it wasn't all arrogance. I had a good eye, a strong arm and had excellent form and posture in the saddle.
Above all, I would cheat.
I wouldn't cheat flagrantly, nor would I do it often. Only when I faced an opponent that I couldn't defeat, would I use what little magic I could. Nothing much, just an attempted cushioning charm on my armour, or an impromptu banishing charm to move my opponent's lance a few inches off target. It was just little things that made a difference.
The small amount of magic that I was capable of wasn't always enough. A few inches could mean the difference between a clean strike and a blow that rolled off my armour, but it wasn't all that far. To think that at one time my banisher could throw a troll thirty feet off the Hogwarts battlements, and now it could hardly move a stick. Maester Creylen had told me that magic had disappeared from Westeros with the death of the last dragons, but I knew he was wrong. I could feel the magic still inside me, I knew that it still existed but I just couldn't draw it out.
A herald hurried from Payne's end of the field, scurrying over to the lists where he struck the colours of House Payne in a symbol of submission.
"What happened?" I asked.
"You broke his collar bone. He's withdrawn." Ser Harwyn answered. The man had offered to squire for me for the duration of the tournament. He was one of those people who just didn't mind if a task was 'below him'; he would just do it anyway. He made for an able lieutenant, albeit lacking in imagination. "May I offer your commiserations to Payne?"
I waved him on. "If you don't mind."
"He fought well."
"Not well enough, evidently."
Harwyn disappeared for a second before reappearing again at my side.
There was only one more joust that stood between me and the final, one more man to fell afore I faced my uncle. There was no way that Uncle Jaime wouldn't reach the final. He had burned his way through the competition, unhorsing Ser Loras, a tournament favourite, in only one tilt.
"Have they announced my next opponent?"
"Garlan Tyrell." He rumbled bluntly.
"Fuck." I swore under my breath. It was probably the worst possible draw. Garlan was like a stronger, heavier version of his younger brother. He was exceptional with a sword and no slouch with a lance either.
"'Bout ten minutes."
I grunted. "Enough time to refit my armour; my left pauldron's not sitting right."
By the time Harwyn had unstrapped and refitted the armour on my left shoulder so that the metal didn't dig into the muscle, a page had run over to declare the start of my next match.
"Luck." He wished me as I rode swiftly to my end of the tourney field.
"Shield!" I barked. Another page handed me an oaken shield, emblazoned with the red and gold lion of my House. The boy scrambled to fetch my lance as well. I held the long, blunted spear upright, resting it in the small cup that hung below my saddle.
Trumpets blared crisply to proclaim the start of the bout.
I raised my lance up in a friendly salute to my opponent, as the trumpets rung out a second time. I dug my heels into my horse, forcing it into a swift gallop. I lowered my lance, whispering an aiming charm to myself as I rode. I held my shield firmly with my left hand, tilting it so that Garlan's blow might roll off.
My lance landed first, but only by a split second.
My head was thrown back as I was struck hard in the neck. Merlin did that man hit hard! I leaned back on the saddle, struggling to suck in a few short breaths. I wheezed uncontrollably as I pulled my helmet off in an attempt to gulp down more air. Through the pain my only comfort was the fact that my hit had affected Garlan just as badly as his had me. He had mirrored my actions, leaning listlessly back on his horse as he struggled to find the reins again. I was quite sure that my armour had dented from the tilt. It was incredible that he could do so much damage with naught but a blunted spear.
All too soon, Harwyn was leading my horse back to its starting position. I pulled my helmet on just as the horns sounded again. I dug into the horse, slipping my lance into the cradle, this time murmuring the incantation of a banisher in the direction of Garlan's spear. The moment before we collided, his lance jerked upwards, grazing off my helm without breaking. Mine took him straight in the chest, knocking him back sharply. Despite the hit the man still stood on his horse, looking a little worse for wear but still remaining strong.
I raised the broken spear to the crowd in celebration.
"Well struck, m'lud."
I grimaced. Underneath the plate and mail armour my neck still smarted from the previous tilt.
"Not well enough." I said again. "Garlan can take hits like that all day long."
"Hit harder." Harwyn grunted simply.
I laughed throatily. "Now why the fuck hadn't I thought of that?" I drawled sarcastically.
The barest hint of a smirk tugged at his face. "Too long in the joust, m'lud. All those broken lances have addled your brain."
"Egads! A joke from the stoic son of Plumm! Maybe I have hit my head a little hard." I teased gently, making Harwyn clam up immediately, his smile disappearing. He didn't usually like sacrificing his emotionless countenance for the sake of cheap humour. "You're no fun."
He led me once again to the stalls to face my opponent.
"Try not to die." He wished me, slapping the horse on the rump for good measure.
"I'll do my best." I called back to him.
This time I decided to go a little darker with my choice of spell. Again the heralds sounded the bout and again I kicked my horse into a gallop.
"Morsus." I whispered just before we crashed. A flash of light, easily mistaken for the glint of the sun off my burnished breastplate, and he was down. The weakened pain hex softened his defences before my lance drove him cleanly from the saddle. If I had timed it correctly; he would have felt the curse and the lance as one strike.
I rode round to the fallen combatant, dismounting swiftly before him. We embraced in a stilted manner, our armour getting in the way.
"A good fight." I shouted to the crowd. Garlan, good sport that he is, raised my arm in victory as he thumped me thoroughly on the back.
"I look forward to our next encounter, Harry." Garlan said to me, showing no pain over his abrupt loss. "Mayhaps we can joust again the next time you visit us at Highgarden?"
I rubbed my slightly battered breastplate sheepishly. "Not for a long while yet. Your lance will be haunting my nightmares for weeks to come."
He laughed brightly, thumping me again on the back before sending me on my way.
I mounted my destrier, allowing Garlan to lead me back to the paddock. By this point I was breathing quite heavily; I hadn't had a break in between my previous three fights and it had started to take its toll on me.
"Well struck indeed!" Roared one of the heralds from in front of the royal box. "Now, it is my great honour to announce the final joust. Ser Jaime Lannister of the Kingsguard will face his own nephew, Harry Lannister, in the last bout of this great tourney."
The crowd were screaming so loudly that I almost felt bad for disappointing them.
'Never mind. They'll soon have a spectacle that they'll never forget.'
As soon as the herald finished speaking, Uncle Jaime and I were off. We cantered to the centre of the field, stopping next to each other and in front of the King. Dipping his head in a slight bow, Uncle Jaime threw his lance, still whole, to the floor.
"I forfeit." He barked, almost cheerily.
"What is the meaning of this?" Robert asked heavily. All around us the throng of spectators began to hiss and boo.
"It would be wrong of me to spill the blood of my family. Kingslayer I may be, but kinslayer? Never."
Uncle had to speak strongly to be heard over all the jeers and cat-calls. Uncomfortable titters ran through the royal box at his words.
"Very well." Said Robert, evidently unhappy with how events had turned out. "Step forward, Harry of the House Lannister, tournament champion!"
I slid smoothly off the horse before kneeling in the dust of the tourney field. I flashed a confident smirk at Uncle Jaime and he winked roguishly back at me.
"So what boon do you ask from your King, young lion? As champion of the tourney you have the right to ask for anything that lies within my power to give." A weighty scowl sat heavily on Robert's face. The closest thing he had to battles these days was the tourney, and he much misliked that Uncle had robbed him of a thrilling finale.
The King wanted action.
He wanted thrills.
He wanted blood and it was my task to give it to him.
"I challenge Robert of the House Baratheon to single combat."
My one sentence silenced the once riotous crowd. The nobles in the box before me all bore expressions ranging from shock to fear to downright anger, but I only had eyes for the King's reaction.
Slowly, surely, a bloodthirsty grin, one that hadn't been seen since the day that Robert knocked down the walls of Pyke and last had an opponent after his blood, spread across his face.
When he spoke, his voice thrummed with power, as if the mere thought of a real fight was enough to get his blood boiling.