Queen Cersei the Patient

Chapter Two


A/N: I decided to have Cersei show some teeth. Not quite to the extent she did in the last episode of this season's television show. This version remains smart and ruthless, though the world around her is unpredictable.


Cersei felt a hand gently wake her. She blinked and sat up. "Aluvin?"

"Your Grace, I am sorry for waking you."

Why, what late night disaster? Fear strangled at her neck. Fear for her children. "The triplets?"

"No, your Grace."

Not her youngest, then. They were but a few turns of the moon old. "One of the twins?"

Or one of her other children?

"No, your Grace. I just learned that Jon Arryn has died this past hour."

She pushed herself up in the bed. Her mind was slow to switch topics. There were rumors of fevers in the city. Her newest children were still small and a little sickly. Twins, then triplets. She had been one of a pair of twins so such a pregnancy hadn't been impossible. But triplets... Her own body was still recovering.

The trouble wasn't her family. Good.

The trouble was the Kingdoms. Which was bad.

"Jon Arryn. Lord Arryn, the Hand of the King?" she confirmed.

"Yes, Your Grace."

She nodded away her lack of sleep.

"This is no rumor? You saw the body yourself?"

"I went to the Tower of the Hand first."


She would need to get involved now. She would need to set her true skill to work. There was no more Hand on whom to drop hints and suggestions.

"Retire to my solar, Aluvin, so I can dress. Get someone to start a fire. Take some care not to wake the children."

Her children were in rooms very close to her own.

"As you say, your Grace."

"Get some food sent up, enough for everyone who we'll be waking early. Alert men you trust."

"I've set extra guards and men."

Disordered moments were always dangerous. Plotters liked to enact their plans in moments like these. Plotters very much like herself, in fact. So she knew enough to be nervous.

"Double the guard around my children. But try not to be obvious about it," Cersei said.

He nodded and left.

She rose after Aluvin left and set to dressing herself in something quick, appropriate for her private rooms. She had trouble doing this by herself for her mind was on other matters.

Jon Arryn, old but not that old, had been handling everything of the kingdoms. Robert bedded any woman he laid eyes on and sniffed out flagons of expensive wine. That had been the division of efforts. They each did what they were best at. The Hand and the Whoremaster.

Now, with Lord Arryn dead... Trade matters, keeping tensions between lords in check, keeping the taxes flowing, getting the summer harvests in. There were ten thousand things that the Hand had overseen in some way.

Robert wouldn't do the work himself. He probably couldn't do it.

He'd been king more than fifteen years and knew so little about governing there were girls in the kitchens who would be better fit to sit on the Iron Throne.

So, Robert would flail around and seek for a new Hand. Better than him to govern for himself for a time.

The problem was this: there was no second John Arryn.

There was no one on the Small Council obviously ready to step into the role. Certainly not the present Master of Laws, Renly Baratheon. There were few enough former Hands available to tap, most of those had died in the Rebellion or been murdered by the Mad King's order. There was one, though, but she did not want her Father back in King's Landing.

Compared to the alternative brooding back at Casterly Rock, Cersei had come to appreciate Jon Arryn's skills. They had not liked each other, not at all, but she had figured out how to work with him.

She wasn't stupid in political matters or matters of appearance. First, she didn't make demands in public. She worked through friends. At one point, one of Jon's relations had been among Cersei's ladies-in-waiting, before the girl was married off. Now she used others. Jon had had his people respond to her.

Second, they both kept this little dance to themselves. Robert never knew he was agreeing to her proposals because she never spoke them to him, just to others. In this manner, she and Jon had forged a working relationship, totally dysfunctional in theory, but not bad in reality.

Now she needed to set someone into office who she could work with – or, at least, not find herself working against. Father, for all his virtues, was not this person. He was not and would not be an even-handed Hand.

Her search through the records proved that. When he had ruled for Aerys, Father had worked the details so that the West had prospered at the expense, or at least neglect, of the other Kingdoms. No wonder Aerys and Father had eventually parted ways.

Father had actually been robbing the King blind with various of his proposals. That fact did not appear in any history of the Mad King's reign, save for certain documents residing in the treasury, but it was the truth.

She gave up on her grooming and moved quietly to her solar. It was cool and the fire wasn't yet very warm.

"Thank you for waking me, Aluvin. This disaster could not wait," she said.

Aluvin nodded.

"I hadn't even heard he was sick. He was hale at that feast a week ago."

"I had heard nothing," Aluvin said.

Jon Arryn was good at keeping information to himself, but illness was impossible to hide in a place like this for a man as prominent as the Hand.

So something rapid...

"Who attended him?" she asked.

"The Grandmaester..."

"He couldn't have always been such a bungler," Cersei said. "But you master what you practice. A pretend fool for forty years becomes a real one."

It was an answer, but not one that she liked.

"I looked at him, briefly."

"Insist upon examining himself yourself," Cersei said. "To ensure there is no disease that might affect the Royal Family, assuming anyone asks you for a reason."

"You suspect something?"

Cersei didn't, but she coming around to the idea. "A fever strikes one and no other?"

"So far."

"Check the Tower of the Hand for other cases. The wife, the son, his close servants, his assistants. Be sure to look at Lord Arryn. Do what you can to investigate maladies other than fever, especially ones that can be tipped into a goblet."

By that she meant poisons.

"A powerful man...with ruthless enemies," Aluvin said, seeing her meaning.

"The Dornish? They are known poisoners."

She agreed, but decided it didn't feel right. The Dornish had no known ambassadors in the court. They could have hired someone, but they were usually more direct. They liked earning their vengeance themselves. In any case, they would have been more likely to poison Robert than his Hand.

"Investigate and set your men to snooping," she said.

"I shall, your Grace."

After Aluvin left, Cersei poured some watered wine and ate some cheese. It was going to be a long day and she'd not have half the Hold up waking her children.

Gods, she was the mother of nine. She had not miscarried once. She had had the Mother's Blessing in all her efforts. So she would continue in her work to keep them safe.

This disaster was the first one that scared her. The Greyjoy mess years ago had been stupidity. There had been fevers and the like. But this... This was a time of danger because it was a time for opportunists.

She was confusing the issues. It was time to simplify. She would wait to figure out the Jon Arryn part of this trouble until she had more information from Aluvin.

The Robert Baratheon part was easier. What would Robert would want to do – and did it have a lick of sense?

She moved to her desk and began to write down all the names for a new Hand that might occur to Robert. Stannis, his brother. Renly, his younger brother. Eddard Stark, who had stuck to the North except for that Greyjoy mess. Hoster Tully, Robert's old (and ailing) ally during the Rebellion. The names of some of the principal lords of the Stormlands. A few others from the Vale, like Royce and Redfort.

Who else?

Here she paused. Robert really had a narrow circle of allies.

She wrote down Ser Barristan's name. In a pinch, he could move from heading the Kingsguard to being the Hand of the King.

She wrote down Jaime's name – and Father's, with great reluctance. Jaime had recovered from his fall all those years ago, but he wasn't the same warrior he had been. He also bristled under being Father's heir.

Father had served twenty years as Hand and enriched the West during that time. Robert and Father hated each other, though. Father was unbearable even to her, she found.

She wrote down Pycelle's name. That one she would have to actively oppose. She wrote down a few other educated figures from the periphery of the court.

She was lying to herself now. It would be Renly or Eddard Stark.

Damn Robert.

He hated most of the lords of the Crownlands. 'Secret Dragon Lovers.'

He had no strong ties into the Riverlands other than through its (now dying) Lord Paramount.

Another from the Vale after Lord Arryn's passing? Someone from the Iron Islands?

Robert didn't know many of the Lords of the North. He hated the Westerlands, even some of Father's quiet rivals, which was foolish.

The Reach seemed to hate Robert as much as he hated them. And the Dornish... If they could light Robert on fire, they would complain that he perished too quickly and without screaming loud enough.

Jon had brought it all off, all the work. He had had all the connections and kept the lords appeased.

She had to tell the truth now of how Robert might handle this. She crossed out Stannis. She crossed out all the names save for Lord Stark's and Renly's. And even Robert had to know that Renly was unserious about this kind of work.

What a disaster: just one name.

Who else had a steady mind? She wrote down a few new names. Hightower. Manderly. Frey, though that hurt to put on parchment. So many lords and almost all of them unsuited to purpose.

She needed to magic up a new Hand and quickly before Robert settled on Ned Stark and dragged the man down here. He was good in the North, by all reports. But what kind of a disaster would he be in the South, among all the cheaters and liars?

In the North, he was Lord of All. Down here, he was merely the King's chief cajoler and beggar. It wasn't power that a Hand used. It was rewards and threats, punishing some and begifting others. It was keeping certain lords at each other's throats in order to keep them away from the King's.

What Jon had managed was dazzling for someone regarded by many as The Usurper.

Ned Stark was not the man to carry this work off. Best to leave him where he could settle troubles, not start new ones. His northern lords respected his family name and him. Down south, it mean nothing.

A knock on her door startled Cersei. She had spent far too long on her parchment endeavor. She knew what it meant. One name, only one name for Robert to latch onto.

"Come," she intoned.

Aluvin stepped inside, puffing as if he had run a considerable distance. "Lysa Arryn wasn't in the Tower of the Hand."

"Not in... Where was she?"

"The gossips around the Red Keep pointed me to her quickly. She was in a wheelhouse with Jon Arryn's heir making her way from King's Landing. I arranged for her to be stopped."

By the Seven... "Fleeing..."

"Yes, your Grace."

So an unhappy marriage had ended with the death of one? Or was this something else? "That's not troubling at all... I think you should have someone speak with her."

"That was also my thought, just as soon as the guards return her here."

"Someone gentle for the first conversation."

"I shall do it myself."

Aluvin had proven he could follow orders. Even difficult ones.

"Does my husband know yet, about Jon Arryn?"

"Pycelle had said the King was exhausted."

Which Cersei knew to mean drunk or otherwise entertained.

"Keep anyone from waking him. I shall tell him myself. I intend to mention that Lysa Arryn has been acting very strangely."

"That she was, your Grace."

Cersei gave Aluvin some instructions and returned to her thinking. She reached for more parchment and began to put down her thoughts.

She didn't make one plan. She made several depending upon what Robert said or did. He was so damned unpredictable on some things. Years as his wife hadn't completely made him plain to her.

She bathed and redressed. Then she walked to Robert's suite of rooms which was a good distance from her own and from the children's. If he was going to root around with loud women, he could do it far away from her and his progeny.


"Hells, woman. Leave me be," he grumbled.

"Robert, wake up. You'll need to know this."

"Buy a new dress?"

"Robert, Jon Arryn died overnight."

"What..." He burst up out of his bed and flopped what seemed to be a naked girl onto the hard stone floor.

"Say that again!"

"Jon Arryn died..."

"No. Impossible."

He ran out wearing little more than his small clothes. Cersei grabbed a robe for him, but instructed a Kingsguard to get rid of the girl, pay her off.

She found Robert in the Tower of the Hand and made him wear his robe. Robert was weeping over Jon. Weeping.

At least there was something he genuinely loved. She almost had forgotten him capable. He barely thought about his children, even though he now had nine.

"I'd pay my respects to his wife. Where is she?" Robert asked some time later.

"She was in a wheelhouse on her way out of King's Landing when I heard Jon was dead..."

"She just left?"

"Before almost anyone knew he was dead..."

Robert scowled. "I'll want to speak to that woman."

"I have a maester looking after her. I'll see her myself."

"Fine. You're good at pulling people apart, even if they don't deserve it," Robert said. "Didn't like the woman."

Yet Jon Arryn had married her so that Robert could have the Riverland levies during the Rebellion... Honesty always came too late with Robert. If Cersei had only known what being his queen meant...

"If she knows something or had a hand in this, leave some of her for me."

Cersei left Robert to his weeping and his renewed drinking. She wondered if he would have sobbed if he wasn't still drunk.

He hadn't mentioned replacing Jon yet. That would come soon.


Cersei made it a point not to interrupt her family routines. She joined her children while they broke their fasts. It was the third time she'd eaten since she woke, but she was hungry again.

She tried to be gentle as she told Steffon, Cassana, Lyonel, and Raymont what had happened to their Uncle Jon.

The twins and the triplets were far too young to understand.

Twins and triplets... She needed to get used to using their names. Her twins were Myrcella and Alyce. The triplets were Joffrey, Joanna, and Jillyan.

She spent some time comforting Cassana and Lyonel. Steffon and Raymont didn't seem confused yet. Maybe they'd have questions later?

She knew the tutors and minders would have a tough time with them today. But life wasn't always predictable.

That was the last normal thing to happen as she ushered her older children to their lessons and her younger back to the nursery.

For Cersei, the day became confusing. No, outrageous, even for a woman used to the oddities of King's Landing.

She walked to Aluvin's rooms which had been hollowed out by closing off certain secret tunnels.

He had had a hand in their construction. Some of the rooms retained secret observation nooks, like the room that Lysa Arryn was in now. Cersei stood in one, peering out through a spy hole as she looked at the widow. The odd, nervous bit of woman couldn't see Cersei in return.

The Lady Arryn refused to speak about what she'd seen or what had caused her to attempt to flee King's Landing. She demanded this, then demanded something else.

Cersei didn't care what she wanted. Lysa Arryn had held a little power in King's Landing because her husband had been Hand.

With Lord Arryn dead, she was just another crazy woman who might also be a criminal.

Cersei only had to wait for twenty minutes before the Lady Arryn said something of interest, another of her demands. "Let me speak with Petyr."

"Petyr?" Aluvin asked her.

"Lord Baelish. The Master of Coin."

"And why would you wish to speak with him?" Aluvin asked.

That was exactly what Cersei wanted to know. She had been the wife of the Hand, but she decided to invoke the Master of Coin as her protector? Shouldn't she have demanded to speak with the King, trading on Robert's love for Jon?

Lysa Arryn and this Littlefinger... Cersei remembered that this woman had had something to do with getting him the appointment, hadn't she?

Could she have been that dull a wench? Inviting her lover to court, getting him a position... Doing more?

Cersei began to dislike this woman even more. Jon Arryn had been very useful to Cersei. A fine 'uncle' to her children, a fine check on some of Robert's impulses, though not all. Someone who tried to make the Kingdoms run in the face of stubbornness and rivalries.

This woman and this jumped up minor lord...

If they had done this, Cersei would see them torn to pieces. This she vowed by the old gods and the new.

The Lady Arryn flushed eventually and went silent. She realized she had talked herself into trouble.

Cersei walked outside the rooms. She checked in on Lord Arryn's son, a pitiful, twtiching thing mewling for his mother. Perfectly vile.

She summoned one of Aluvin's men, Garen Hill. "You have some men?" she asked.

"Plenty, your Grace."

"Let's get them to clap hands on Baelish."

"The Master of Coin?"

"And the possible lover of the wife of the late Lord Arryn."

Garen's eyes widened, though he said nothing.

"Let's start a search among his properties."

"Yes, your Grace. What are we looking for?"

"I want his papers. His ledgers. He's a sneak, so I want his secrets. He's the kind who writes them down."

"He is?"

"Too many to keep in his head. He'll write them down."

Aluvin's man looked overwhelmed at the task. Baelish hadn't been long resident in King's Landing, a few years, but he had already dug himself deep. Which should have been a clear enough sign, Cersei thought, unhappy with even herself over this.

"I'll give you Lannister men to hold his properties, but you were picked by my maester. You will do the searching."

"Yes, your Grace."

"Good man, Hill."

Cersei set another to searching the Tower of the Hand. She tried to think of other places. No, they'd have to unravel whatever Baelish had to find the rest. He and his smile. Yes, he kept secrets.

Cersei returned to the observation room. The lady was speaking again. Hesitant and halting. Aluvin said calming words to her, becoming her greatest friend.

Aluvin was clever in his approach. Cersei listened to everything he said.

He was praising Baelish and Lysa Arryn was lapping it up. It was clear enough what was what now.

Lysa began to speak of her childhood at Riverrun. With Baelish in fosterage. Great friends, and more.

Aluvin even got her to admit to a romance with Baelish even after she was married to Jon Arryn. Foolish woman.

She was damned.

Cersei went to observe the other happenings for a time. Baelish had been confined to a cell by himself. He was smiling even though he couldn't see anyone in the room with him. That smile faltered a bit, then returned.

Yes, this was the way. Allow time and fear to break him. Garen Hill had set this up well so far. Aluvin would do well with Baelish now.

"I know you're out there, Varys. What did you do? What did you say?" Baelish asked. "How will you turn this to your advantage, old friend?"

Interesting. Cersei learned several things.

First, Cersei wasn't as quiet as she thought. Second, Baelish might really mean it. Or he might be attempting to dump Varys into the same stewpot he was sitting in.

Third, didn't matter, did it? Cersei hadn't much trusted Arryn's appointment for the Master of Coin, especially because Jon Arryn hadn't even considered the handful of candidates she'd suggested through intermediaries. None had been Lannisters, just reasonably honest sorts.

Last, even before Baelish's accusation, she hadn't trusted Varys, who had come to King's Landing at the Mad King's invitation. Varys cozied up to her from time to time to grace her with a tidbit she'd already worked out elsewhere. His news was never completely fresh, like a fish dead two or three days. Something not so pleasant to feast upon.

What did Varys know? She would have to find out...

For a little while longer, she stood and watched Baelish waver between firmness and doubt. He had played a deep game. With what it seemed he had done, he could have thrown the Seven Kingdoms into unimaginable turmoil. Had he been talked into helping to murder a Hand? Or did he suggest the idea himself? Either way, he was in it.

She was surprised he hadn't aimed higher. Why not murder a King? What was his game?

Aluvin arrived to begin on Baelish quite some time later. Cersei wished he'd left Baelish longer, but he must have been truly startled by the things Lysa had said or that Garen Hill had found.

"My men found the poison," Aluvin said.

Cersei smiled. So it was poison.

Littlefinger stared ahead. He didn't ask which poison or why it was important or anything else. He knew. His silence showed that he knew.

"We found Lysa Arryn's letters to you. Foolish to keep them. She burned the ones you sent her – or perhaps you never sent a one."

Littlefinger's throat looked like it was tightening.

"Who are you to question me?" the Master of Coin asked.

Yes, attack the inquisitor. He had survived in the shadows and didn't like sitting alone at a table, being set upon with questions.

"Was it just the five pillow houses you 'own' in King's Landing? I have spared as many men as I could for your records. You learned a neat hand for the ledger books, my Lord."

Baelish had resumed his sullen stare.

"I've never been one for the wenches. I'm not at all clear on why you took the Lady Arryn for your mistress. You have many more attractive, even more intelligent women, at your disposal."

Baelish looked to the door. He looked up. He was sweating now.

"We are beginning to run down your finances. Like a Braavosi trader, aren't you? Lies everywhere, little deals. Though it seems, upon review, that the King's Coin paid for all your enterprises here and elsewhere."

Cersei was surprised at that. Not that a Master of Coin would divert a little, but that he dared to divert enough to buy five prominent, disgusting establishments. The irony: it seemed that Robert had purchased, and therefore owned, all of Baelish's brothels.

Wouldn't he be glad to know? Maybe he'd get a discount from now on?

Cersei stood and watched and listened. Baelish twitched but said little. He was a reasonably cool one, like a brick of river ice slowly melting at that table.

Aluvin laid it all out with care after he had dropped a few highlights from the evidence. Cersei pieced it all together. It was worrying how long this plot had taken to hatch, and how many had been involved, without Cersei hearing even a word of it.

Aluvin, for his part, was enraged and not a little embarrassed sitting in the other room.

"We have several drafts of a letter from the Lady Arryn to her sister, the Lady Stark, in which she accused, 'The Lannisters,' of poisoning Lord Arryn. Sounds like she was taking dictation. Your words, my Lord?"

Ah, Cersei thought.

"There were attempts to translate the message into some unknown code as well. Why encypher it when you keep around the plain message? Foolishness."

Baelish had gone red in the face. So he had been the leader. Lysa Arryn the follower, as slow witted as she looked.

What did that say about Baelish? A troublemaker who would use old suspicions between Stark and Lannister to cause greater strife...

Cersei worked it through. The plan was clever. Kill a man, blame an obvious other suspect, sit back as great houses tore at each other.

Baelish had planned to do more damage than just killing a King. By killing the Hand, with certain accusations to follow, he not only meant to weaken the King, but plunge many Great Houses into strife against each other. Stark and his wife, a Tully, versus Lannister. Plus the Arryns who were the injured party. All set in motion by a Tully and one of the Arryn lords.

It was simple and clever, like the very best sort of lie.

Cersei had thought she kept up on the details of this crazy city, but she learned she was wrong. The games were much deeper and quieter than she had expected. This Baelish wasn't overt and stupid like the Reynes and Tarbecks who Father had destroyed. The hatred simmered for far longer and his actions had a whiff of brilliance about them.

This man would die.

What had her concerned now was where would the next Littlefinger come from? The next schemer who started his plan with a great push...

She left Aluvin to his work. He and his people were good at many kinds of tasks. This was new for them, this kind of overt work, but they did not disappoint.

Cersei walked to another of Aluvin's rooms and reviewed some of the documents Aluvin had referenced, but stopped with the letter in Lysa Arryn's hand accusing 'Lannisters' of killing Jon Arryn. It was a cold plot. One that she should have heard about.

Cersei took Ser Barristan with her as she made her way through the Red Keep. There. There was the one she wished to speak with.

"Varys?" she asked.

The plump brain on wobbly legs paused. His eyes opened wide. "Your Grace?"

"I think we should speak."

"It would be my pleasure. Shall we?" He gestured to somewhere. The slippery man was probably looking for an escape.

"Here is fine."

His face twitched ever so slightly. "I see. Well, it is a shame about Lord Arryn's fever..."


"Of course it was a fever..."

"Everyone will know better than that soon enough," Cersei said. Why had she ever been impressed by the secrets this man could collect? He was a poor liar.

"My concern is that you did not warn anybody about what Baelish planned. You could hardly miss it. What with your obsessive rivalry with the Master of Coin. You had to know..."

He smiled like he had a great gift to present to someone.

He must be disappointed right now. For so many years Jon Arryn had presided over these men, only for his death to topple all of them off a great wall on the same day. Jon's need for them had protected them and their games. She had other needs at present and was willing to get a little bloody.

"They were poisoners, Varys. Poisoners!"

"Your Grace..."

"Lysa Arryn and Petyr Baelish have dined with my husband, with me, with my children. That bit of poison work could have killed my children, Varys. Bad enough it robbed us of a good Hand. You know how hard it is to find a new one."

"I can imagine."

"And there is the reason I think you did not warn anyone. Lord Arryn's death was to your benefit somehow."

"Your Grace, I have been loyal these many years."

Loyal? But to whom. "We shall see. Ser Barristan, please escort this man to the suite of rooms we just left."

"Yes, your Grace," the aging knight said.

Varys did not protest. He had to be planning on how to weasel his way free. He would not.

Cersei watched Ser Barristan take him away. The knight seemed quite pleased, actually. He seemed not to have opinions, but perhaps he really did. What had the man learned by observing Jon Arryn and the last few Hands of the Mad King, in addition to the other members of the various Small Councils?

Perhaps he was suitable for a promotion? She had written his name down, but it might be worthwhile to push for him.


She decided to continue her cleaning. Cersei selected some Lannister men-at-arms and went hunting for her last target, Pycelle the fraud.

The man was undressing a prostitute when she found him. There was the vigor he pretended not to have, all lavished on a girl he had sworn great oaths to no longer desire.

Cersei said not a word to him. He protested his innocence, of course. It was an examination of a woman by a healer, nothing more.

Anyone who had rights to consult with the Grandmaester was known to Cersei by sight. This was an unknown woman and looked like she was terrified upon clapping eyes on the Queen. Yeah... She was probably one of Robert's leftovers.

It had been a busy day undoing Robert's Small Council. Then she realized she was late for her meeting with her ladies-in-waiting.

She considered begging off... But there was decorum involved. Dorne was spying on her. The Reach. The Vale no longer mattered much after Lord Arryn's death. The little girl from the Riverlands was terribly timid and the people to whom she reported were fading, particularly after one of the daughters of House Tully was executed for treason.

When Cersei arrived, none of them were stitching anything. It was talk, talk, talk. She sat and didn't even bother to pick up the piece she had been working.

She knew more than her ladies about the plot itself. She learned from them about her husband's reaction to Lord Arryn's death. Without telling her, Robert had already ordered the court to begin packing for a trip north, far north.

Damnation. She had wanted to know why and how. Robert had just wanted to know, what next? The cold asshole. Shed a few tears and sweep it off the ramparts.

Still, she sat and listened to her ladies until it was time for the evening meal with her children. Robert turned up to this one to instruct them all that they were taking a trip north.

"We will discuss that later," Cersei said. She gave him the stare she said, daring him to gainsay her.

He did not, the coward.

Her four oldest children were divided in their reactions to the promise of a trip. Steffon and Lyonel were excited, but attended to their suppers. Cassana and Raymont smiled, but were clearly less entranced by the idea.

Robert was chomping at the bit to argue with her, but she conducted her usual rituals. She talked to each of her four oldest. She dragged Robert into the conversation as much as she could. He was their Father. He was an example to them all, even if it was a poor one. But they should know that for themselves. His attendance at a non-feast meal with them was rare enough.

Cersei had finally allowed nannies to help with the children after she fell pregnant with what would turn out to be triplets. So now she did what she could to feed everyone and had to keep from looking at Robert's attack on his platter, not plate, of food.

Cersei did not cut short her usual evening chat with her children so that she could speak with Robert. Though she had to promise to take the four oldest on a walk in the 'Godswood' the next afternoon. Smart children, negotiating already.

These days, she did not normally join them for their noon-time meal because of the swordsmanship lessons the boys had. Sometimes they ran long. Sometimes the boys were awfully dirty. So it had been easier to change the schedule a little. Now they wanted their mother at the old time, too.

"Off you go," she said.

She had raised them with manners, but she got a few objections and whines.

She graced her four oldest with her blank stare – and the resistance crumbled.

She gave each a kiss, even the twins and triplets... She needed to start using their names. They wouldn't appreciate being known as Twins and Triplets...

She sat back down at the table once the door was closed and secure.

"Thank you for not arguing in front of the children," Cersei said.

Robert grunted. "What do you mean saying no?"

"I cannot take the twins or the triplets on a trip of that length..."

"Of course not. I meant Steff, Cass, Lyo, and Ray."

He shortened about every name he came across if he didn't mangle it outright. Ray was a ridiculous name for the child. He was Raymont for sure, not Ray. (Though Lyonel fit the shortened name well enough, Lyo like a lion.)

Two months or longer to arrive in the north, just as long to return? Cersei was not amused. "Take a ship, then."

"Steff, at the least, will rule these Kingdoms. He should see it, Cersei. Cass will be a great lady someplace. Perhaps at the place I mean to visit."

Robert's plans were never complex. Fun for himself, punishments for his enemies or 'rewards' for his friends. This plan involved being absent from King's Landing for perhaps half a year, his great adventure to the north along handing out a 'reward.' "A betrothal with the Starks?"

"We have nine children," Robert said.

And she had bore them for great purpose. Not to gift them to people who were already strongly bound to the Iron Throne. The North was content with its lot.

"Robert, do you consider Lord Stark still to be your friend?" Cersei asked.

"What? Of course."

"You wish him well..."

"I wish to honor him."

No. He wished to give him gifts that were traps...and lay burdens on the man.

"What have you heard about Jon Arryn's death?" Cersei asked.

He became wary at that. "I was told fever."

"No. Poison..."

His face went still and stony. "His wife? You said something about her acting oddly. Perhaps."

It was amazing Robert remembered that much considered how he was drinking and crying.

"She and your Master of Coin did it."

"Littlefinger?" Robert grumbled.

"My men are talking with him now. And her."

"Varys did not tell me. Haven't had any news from him since this morning, either."

"He's also under close arrest. He knew and did not interrupt the plot. Pycelle, as well. He could have cured the poison and chose not to do so."

That last bit she wasn't sure of, of course. But she would make the accusation and no one would be able to refute it.

"My whole Small Council!" Robert roared.

"Not Ser Barristan or your brothers."

Stannis wouldn't plot like that. The younger boy seemed more interested in his luxuries, and in the many temptations of Highgarden, than in plotting against Jon Arryn.

"Little comfort that. Now you see why I need Ned."

"Robert, it was a plot none of us saw hatching."

"True." He was angry at that.

"Do you wish for your friend, Lord Stark, to stumble into something else like it? Lord Arryn had five and ten years as Hand and he didn't see it coming."

"So you're telling me I'd protect Ned by not dragging him here?" Robert asked with a sullen voice.

Once he cast his mind to a thing it was the Smith's own toil to unfix it.

"You know it's true."

"Then who protects me?" Robert asked.

Always the selfish question with him. Not helps me. Not protects the Kingdoms. 'Who protects me?' Like a massive child never weaned.

"There are many good candidates," Cersei said.

"Name them."

Here it was time to see how the fortune of the world would shift. "Appoint Ser Barristan as your Hand."


It wasn't. Robert wasn't listening or thinking.

"He has watched every action of your reign and the one before yours. He is a strong man, one of honor."

"It's impossible. He doesn't have a lord's training or mind."

Such a weak reason. "Then Lord Selmy, his nephew? Any of the Marcher Lords? Any of the Stormlords? Lords Royce or Redfort?"

"I want Ned."

"Stannis," she said.

Robert laughed. "I want Ned."

"He won't say no to you."

"I should hope not."

"He'll be miserable here."

Robert agreed. It didn't dissuade him. "He is my oldest surviving friend, not that you understand friendship." He looked at her. "I suppose you really want your Father?" Robert asked.

"No. I'm happy with him at Casterly Rock," Cersei said. She had learned from him over her many name days, but had come to reject several of the things he treasured. He wanted a bright and golden name. She wanted, above all, happy and talented children in her family. She had done her best to guide them all and teach them and prepare them.

"I want Ned Stark," Robert said once more.

"He is Warden of the North. He is a stern figure in war. But would he want to come south and battle with parchments and coin counters in the Treasury? People as duplicitous as Littlefinger?"

"He is an honorable and a strong man."

Which was why he would fair poorly in this swamp. "He is your friend. Do him a good service, Robert."

"But I need him."

Her children didn't whine this much. "So invite him to court, have him advise you. Do not expect him to be happy sitting for you in a throne room where his brother and father were murdered."

Ah, that struck Robert for the first time. He paused. "Ah, yes. Bad business... I hadn't thought... I won't have your father."

"No, not my father," Cersei agreed.

"Well, who?"

She had given him several good names. He hadn't listened to a one. Now he might, maybe.

"What is it you want?" Cersei asked.

"Ten years free from your father's plots."

"He breathes, he plots. No man alive or dead will stop him," Cersei said.

Robert laughed. "I'll remember that. I want peace."

He says he wants peace. He's bored. He wants conflict.

"Did you have peace under Jon Arryn?"

"Peace enough."

"Dorne seethes."

"But they always seethe," Robert countered. "The Tyrells are half-dangerous and half-fools. Too many swords, too few brains to swing them well. Hoster Tully is dying. And that leaves Ned...who, all right, needs another few years to get his own heirs to the proper age. I need to remind him to train them well."

"You could placate Dorne with an appointment," Cersei said, grimacing. "Maybe not Hand. Maybe Master of Whispers..."

"Varys... So you're sure he's guilty?"

"I will be. He could have prevented Lord Arryn's death."

"Then he dies. I still need a new Hand."

"You have lords of major cities who could help you as Hand. The North had the Manderlys, they are very loyal to the Starks."

"Aye. I've known a few. But the current lord is rather huge..."

"Skipping Gulltown..."

"Why skip it?"

"Two appointments as Hand from the Vale?"

"Continue," Robert said.

"We'd have Oldtown, Lannisport..."

Robert grimaced at the last, as she'd intended. "Oldtown? A Hightower, interesting."

"Or decorated knights and fighting men. Throw the Riverlands a sop and give a post to the Blackfish. Randyll Tarly from the Reach. The list isn't a short one..."

Robert shook his head. "Stop talking, woman. Just tell me who it is you want as Hand."

"Ser Barristan or your brother Stannis."

"Gods, why? To plague me? Ser Barristan would stare at me with his disappointed expression. I know it well. His is better than yours."

It still didn't work on Robert.

"If it's Stannis, he'll want Storm's End. Then what do I do with Renly, the brother I actually like?"

Stannis had one quality that Cersei prized. Robert so mistrusted his younger brother that he wouldn't be hunting and drinking every moment of the day. It wouldn't be pleasant for Stannis, but the Kingdoms might be better for it. Perhaps.

Then Robert might just demonstrate exactly how little of the job he could do.

"No," he said. "It'll be Ned."

And those four words changed it all for her. "I see," she said.

She had spent the day playing Hand of the King – and she wasn't bad at it. Though the crisis had been a bit wearing. What did she need Robert for? Organizing tourneys or trips to the distant north; keeping the pillow houses in coin; sowing the vineyards of Dorne with plenty of golden coins?

He had just become a problem. Her only concern was that Steffon was a little young to take over as King.

That wasn't an impossible problem, though. A Regent? Everyone would expect her to put her name forward... So she would do otherwise. She could have Stannis named Regent, ensure he kept to Dragonstone for the most part, and do as she wished.

Her son was going to be an excellent king. He knew how to rule, not as Robert would or as Tywin Lannister would or Aerys Targaryen. He knew his own mind. He could be firm. He could also be kind. He cared about the details and the effects of his choices.

He lost his temper sometimes, but he didn't make irreversible choices yet. He could be cautious; he could also be bold. All of these in combination could be problematic. But he did take counsel. He could think.

"I'm going to fetch down Ned."

"As you wish. The children shall not accompany you."

"I want them to see the North."

"You may have Eddard Stark down here if you wish. I will not have all my children travel north without me."


"Do not test me. Anyway, you'll make better time without a wheelhouse."

"Well, you aren't wrong about that," Robert said, pleased to have his choice. Not caring about the children any longer. Like a boy chasing after a shiny bit of bronze.

"When do you leave?" she asked.


"Before the funeral? Before the trials of Lysa Arryn, Petyr Baelish..."

"Take their damned heads."

She nodded. She would.

She would also have Robert's. His time was done. She breathed easier and felt her shoulders lighten. For so long she had wished... She only hoped Steffon would be ready.

It seemed just a little petty to kill a man over this. But this was a crisis and he was completely useless. He had driven the Kingdoms deep into debt and would not mend his ways. He was going to hand a wreck to Steffon if he lived another three or five years. The Iron Bank of Braavos might just begin backing that Beggar King in Essos and pay for sellswords.

No. Robert did not want to rule. He did not want to do anything of value. He had been a poor caretaker for Steffon, but now his time was ended. Poor stupid Robert.

She regretted it, of course. He had given her nine children. But he could not see the danger of the moment – which made him the new danger of the moment. Baelish and the other would spill their secrets, by word or written secrets left unhidden or by deed. They were ended. Robert wasn't one who could be put in a cell. That was the bad thing about becoming a King. When it was time to leave, there was only one way to do it.

Cersei left without another word. She sought out Aluvin and caught up on the most recent developments in these plots, which were considerable. His men had discovered purloined coinage, secret bank accounts in Essos, ledgers containing the bribes Baelish paid and who had taken them. Aluvin had also begun unraveling Varys' network of spies, tongueless children he imported from Essos... It was all perfectly vile.

"Give the prisoners food and drink and keep them here. The Black Cells are surrounded by every kind of secret passage."

"Yes, Your Grace."

"We should speak further in my solar."

Aluvin came along silently.

She saw that a Kingsguard, Ser Meron Flowers, was stationed in front of her door. She nodded at him. Ser Meron opened her door. She bolted it from the inside.

"My husband leaves tomorrow for Winterfell," she told Aluvin.

"Before Lord Arryn's funeral? Before the trials? While it's all so unsettled."

There couldn't be a single person in King's Landing who wouldn't think Robert's behavior incomprehensible.

"He's given me a free hand to settle things," Cersei said.

"But who will front the trials?"

"We'll find someone. We'll also need to make nice with the Citadel after chopping off Pycelle's head."

"I can help with that," Aluvin said. He kept his contacts in Oldtown.


Cersei pulled out quill and parchment.

My husband will suffer a calamity on his way north. Perhaps in the Riverlands.

Aluvin stared at the words a moment. Unpleasant or fatal?

Not accident or poison, disease if possible. And a condition that will become fatal.

Aluvin nodded. A whorehouse special?

That would suit Robert well. You have understood my intentions precisely.

He will never arrive in Winterfell.

I want a long illness, but no raving or madness.

It will be so, Aluvin wrote.

Cersei burned the parchment and stirred the ashes. Steffon would get to be king for a time without the pressure of the crown, for his father would be incapacitated, not dead.

"I wonder if we dare risk sending Raymont to Oldtown now," Cersei said. Damn Pycelle...

"I shouldn't think it a safe plan, your Grace."

Cersei frowned. "No."

She would have to rethink what to do with her smartest boy. Tutors? She would have to be more careful of maesters now. Aluvin was safe, long proved reliable, but anyone new... Perhaps schooling in Essos? Was that a possibility?

"Begin again with the prisoners early on the morrow."

"It shall be so."

Aluvin was going to have a sleepless night, she knew. He had a difficult thing to arrange, the incapacitation of a King.


Cersei went to Steffon's room shortly before he was expected to be abed. He was barely less tall than his father, thought far less stout. He was shaving already and liked to keep a clean face.

"Do I get to go with Father? I've always wanted to see the place Father loves so much."

He said the right words, but Cersei wasn't sure if her oldest child meant them. She wondered if Steffon just wanted to know his father better, whatever the conditions attached.

When Robert remembered he had children, he told them stories about the Vale or the North. Rarely about the Stormlands where he had come from. It was always the Arryns or the Valelords or the Starks. He was a good storyteller, but poor as a father and a ruler.

Still, Steffon and Cassana and the others tried to gain his attention.

"No. No, I told him that your youngest siblings are too little to travel. I would not have you away for so long without me."

Steffon just nodded. Had he set his heart on the trip, he would have protested. He had been interested because it would have been time with his Father. Perhaps. The boy had no love for what he saw of Robert, but he still had hope for better days.

King's Landing hadn't ground the elemental hope out of him, thankfully.

"I'll miss Uncle Jon," Steffon said.

"I find I will, too." The funny part was that she meant it. Jon had been calm, a bit of a schemer, of course, but calming to Robert. He had made countless mistakes, some that had gotten him killed, but he had been a good man. He had tried his hardest – and there was little more important to a man's legacy than that. Better to succeed, of course, but there was no success without the hundreds or thousands of attempts.

"I don't understand Father wanting to go north for his Hand. I would have Uncle Stannis help more."

Steffon was careful of criticizing Robert, but he always said enough to let Cersei know what he thought.

"Well, your Father is thinking of when he was young. He and Lord Stark became good friends."

And that made Steffon sad. "I'm too old to foster."

No sense lying to him. He had stayed here because of how unsettled the realm was, to be true. "Yes."

"I wish I had a friend like Father had."

Yes, Steffon's life in court had been a lonely one. Just younger siblings and the occasional child of a visiting lord. Robert had kept him from befriending the children of the servants – and, to be true, Cersei had as well. He was to be a King.

"My best friend is Cassana most days, when she's being nice. Is it wrong that I wished I had more friends?"

"No. We all do."

"Did you have a lot of friends?"

Ah, now he was trying to figure her out. "A few close ones. Unfortunately, they suffered before the war and none of them are alive today," Cersei said.

"I'm sorry."

"Thank you."

Steffon really was troubled. "Father's face looks redder and he's gained weight again."

"I've noticed."

"The worst thing I can say is that I don't respect my own father. But it's true. I tried to be excited for the trip. I was when he first announced it, but..."

He knew what the trip would have been like. Months on the road, months of being ignored. "And you should never say it to anyone you don't absolutely trust."

"Raymont feels the same. I've never said it to Lyonel or Cass..."

"Cassana. Don't shorten names unless you're invited."

Steffon rolled his eyes.

"He's not going to last much longer, is he? He was sweating just from walking up the stairs earlier."

"I don't know."

"I do. I'm not ready, Mother."

And her heart broke from those few words.

"We're never ready," Cersei said.

"I know." He seemed sorry to have brought the topic up.

"I'll speak truly. I thought I was ready for you, but I wasn't. You were an easy baby, thankfully, but I wasn't ready. I learned from you. I was better for Cassana and Lyonel. Raymont was easy. Then I had twins and triplets. I'm learning it all over again, my son. We're never ready for any opportunity."

"You mean trouble?"

She smiled. "Perhaps. Could you tell me why you're nervous?"

"As a future King?"


"I'm nervous about leading men in battle."

Steffon really could already foresee unrest when Robert died. He had paid close attention and learned. "So add more lessons with Ser Barristan. He's about as fine a man at war as there is."

"Practice in the yard isn't battle."

"But it makes it easier."

"Yes." He nodded. "I'm nervous about Grandfather."

Smart boy. "Why?" she asked, so he would lay his thoughts in front of her.

"I don't understand him."

"I don't either," she admitted.

Steffon grinned a little. "He says he's about family, your family, the Lannisters."


"I don't think he is. But he believes what he says. He just doesn't do it."

"And why do you think that is?"

"Don't be mad?"

"Of course not."

"You look at Uncle Tyrion the same way that Grandfather does."

Cersei nodded. Her son was already a better person, more observant and honest, than she was.

Yes, Tyrion was someone who could drive her mad. Worse than Robert. It was completely an unreasonable hatred, but it was there. Every time he did something foolish or got into trouble. Which wasn't infrequently.

"You're right."

"I know." He was sad now.

He was so perceptive. She just needed to make sure he found people, advisors, he could trust. She might hate them, but so long as they served her son well, she would make peace with them. Even including Stannis Baratheon, who Steffon actually liked.

"We all have our faults. You quarrel with Cassana some times..."

"I do. I admit it. But some of the things she says..."

Cersei's two oldest were very different people. Friends some days, competitors on the others. Lately Cassana liked to play word games and flirt with visiting young men. In another year or two, it might be a little scandalous, but it was also a way for her to deal with the frustrations of court life.

For Cassana did not enjoy dressing in gowns. She had never expressed an interest in learning the sword, but she had no love for being paraded around at feasts. She told stupid people, especially stupid suitors, when they were being stupid.

She wore her honesty a little too freely. She was a daughter of a King so it might never cost her. Then again, it might...

"My boy, you will be the best of kings because you care, you learn, and you wish to improve. You listen to all sides and figure out which is the good advice, and which is not. You look at what men do, not just what they say. That will serve you well."

"Is that all being a King is? Listening to liars and finding out the truth?"

"Often, yes. That is what being a King normally is."

Steffon sighed.

"There are crises, too. That is when one is made or broken. But will you know a crisis when you first see it? Or will it look like every other matter? If you are careful and respectful of the little things..."

"Then I will be prepared when they really matter," he said.

"See? Sitting in for your Father on the Iron Throne has taught you some things." Even if Steffon had only handled small disputes and received gifts on his father's behalf.

"I'm going to make Lyonel and Raymont and eventually Joffrey do that, too."

Cersei had never even considered that. She should have, though. It was good that Steffon loved his family. "They should all be trained that way. They will hold keeps for you some day, perhaps important ones."

Steffon seemed to have already given that some thought. "Do you know Lord Stark?"

That was an unexpected topic. "Not well."

"You don't like him."

She didn't like Robert – and, by extension, cared little for the things, or people, Robert valued. "I don't know him. He's a good man in a fight, that is true. But I do not know how he will like our city and our brand of liars."

"But Father likes him."

"As I said, your Father likes to think of the past. His memories of 'Ned Stark' help him do that. Who knows what the man is like now."

"I would like to meet him."

Perhaps Steffon would some day. But not a Ned Stark playing Hand to the Whoremaster. "Good," Cersei said. "You should always see for yourself."

"And I will travel to every one of the Kingdoms."

Cersei smiled. "As you wish."


Robert rode out early the next morning, before Maester Aluvin resumed his questioning of Lysa Arryn.

The questioning of the many guilty continued through the day, but Cersei spared only a little time for it. She did collect summaries as news broke. She spent several hours with her children in the Godswood, as she promised.

It was at supper when she ordered in the desert, honeyed spice cakes, when a messenger interrupted. King Robert had returned.

Cersei tore threw the Red Keep toward the rooms where her husband was now supposed to be.

Robert was on a bed, insensate and covered in dry blood. Had Aluvin's man been too early and far too clumsy?

"What in the Faith of the Seven happened to him?" Cersei asked.

Ser Barristan looked ashamed. "He was speaking with one of the knights who was riding along and retelling a story."

"Which knight?" Cersei asked.

Ser Barristan named someone. No one. A hedge knight. Figures Robert would waste the hours on a nobody.


"He got into his story. His arms were in the air waving...and he unseated himself. He bashed his skull into a rock," Ser Barristan whispered.

"Had he much to drink?" Cersei demanded.

Ser Barristan frowned. Yes.

She pulled everyone away once the healers and maesters arrived. "Let them work. Has he spoken since this happened?" Cersei asked.

"Not intelligibly."

"This is a fine crisis, then. My husband pummels himself insensate. The Small Council is largely dead or under close arrest. Get someone to find Stannis. Someone else find Renly. We'll need to have a regent for the time being, until Robert wakes...or doesn't."

"But Steffon is the heir," Ser Barristan said.

"He is the heir. He has not yet seen fifteen name days and his father still lives. This is too heavy a weight for him now."

Ser Barristan approved. "Yes, I can help with his training."

There would be many offers like that beginning soon. She would accept Ser Barristan's and few others. She nodded.

For a man who should have been devastated, Barristan the Bold seemed happy. Had he tired of Robert, too? Was he looking forward to a young king, one who might do other than hold tourneys and avoid sitting on the Iron Throne? Become so drunk he murdered himself upon a rock? The Kingsguard would be feeling that one for a long, long time.

Cersei hoped the gambit would play as well to others as it had to Ser Barristan. A Lannister giving up power, temporarily, to the King's brother so that the Heir could be better prepared in case he needed to ascend to the throne?

Father would be furious, of course. But Cersei had already worked all of this out. She had just expected an additional week or ten days before it started.

All the confusion from this time would cling to Stannis. And none would taint Steffon's legacy.

"Your Grace," one of the minor maesters said, with fear in his voice. He had least had several links in his chain for healing and herb lore.

"Tell me about his condition."

"We have cleaned and dressed the wound on his head. It will heal well."

"Will he wake?"

"I do not know. Even if it does..."

"Out with it."

"He has a pox, an advanced one."

Cersei went furious. It had been just under a year since she lay with her husband... If he had given her this pox.

"So he was sick before he left on his journey? Then he drank too much. You hold out no hope?" she asked.

"He might wake."

"But will he live?"

"I've little hope he will live for long, your Grace. I have seen this pox before. It normally afflicts those much older, but King Robert has...enjoyed his wine for many years. He perhaps has an old man's body already."

So she might have been exposed, but she was of reasonable health.

She made some more noises over her husband's care, when she found she couldn't care at all, then went to find Aluvin. She wanted an examination of her body for this pox. Then Aluvin needed to clear out any possible traces of whatever his actual plan for Robert's incapacitation had been. Robert had made all the strikes in ending his own life. Him, an unclean whore, and whatever flagon of wine he'd had in his hand earlier today.

She decided to let this bit of gossip circulate. He would die as he had lived, mocked for his excesses.

It was late, well past dark, when Stannis came to her solar. "Have you seen your brother?" she asked.

"I made them clean the dried blood off him."

"Please sit," Cersei said. "Has anyone found Renly?"

"I am told he returned to Storm's End." Stannis remained standing.

As for Renly, it was convenient. Another one in the know? Even Robert's brothers had conspired to murder Lord Arryn?

"I sent him a raven to return," Stannis said.

Cersei added nothing of her thoughts. Let these two petty brothers squabble. But if Renly had had a hand in this...

She turned herself to business. "While Robert is ill, you will serve as Regent."

"To Steffon?"

"No, to your brother."

"He is dying. You heard about the pox?"

"And, to my shame, had myself examined. I have ever been a pure and faithful wife to him. I avoided whatever it is he caught."

Stannis nodded. He had probably been keeping an eye on her fidelity. "Robert is as good as dead. In such a stupid way."

"Yet he may well wake up tomorrow, bellowing orders," Cersei says. "The pox, I am told, is not a quick death."

"Regent? Me? I suppose this was his idea?"

He was daring her to lie to him, to tell him some sweetness when the truth was all bitter. He wanted truth?

"No. When I proposed your name for Hand, Robert laughed. This is my idea."

Stannis nodded at that. "Why not have Steffon act as 'Regent?'"

He was such a prickly thing. But best to do all this at the start. Cersei knew she couldn't lie or shade the truth with him. Stannis knew what Robert thought of him. Stannis possessed grudge after grudge, but it did not make him a foolish man, just unbearable.

"Steffon needs to complete his education before the scum of this court set upon him. His father's incapacity will be bad enough for lickspittles trying to become his friend. Him as Regent or King will be even worse. You, and I to a lesser extent, must shield Steffon until he is fully ready for the work."

Stannis judged her words true. "Who will be Hand? Will you summon Lord Stark?"

"Ser Barristan will act as Hand, but I will suggest that Lord Stark make the journey south, quickly, to see his old friend."

"The Lord Commander of the Kingsguard?"

"Can you think of anyone who has seen as much as him? Or one as loyal? Or as fine a mind in a turbulent time? He is not a peacetime appointment, not really."

Stannis fixed his face. He was displeased but unable to say why that was. "It's unconventional."

What it was was convenient. It kept a new face from appearing in King's Landing for now. There would already be enough new faces what with the troubles in the Small Council. This had started as Lord Arryn dying, now the King was almost dead and most of his advisors were under arrest for culpability in the last Hand's death.

"And I do not know whether I want Lord Stark to come or not," Stannis said.

"You dislike him?"

"Robert's view of him has colored over whatever he really is. I do not have a true notion of the man. Perhaps it is useful to gain one."

He expected honesty from others. So he was brutal with his own honesty. Yes, prickly, but not impossible to manage.

"I want Storm's End," Stannis said. "It's my right."

Soon enough it would be Steffon's right to settle it. "And what will you do with your younger brother who now holds it? Or Robert, if he does wake up?"

"Upon Robert's death, then."

Cersei was a little surprised that Stannis was willing to make a deal of any sort. Perhaps his years of frustration had taught him a little bit of flexibility. "I will speak to Steffon on this matter. I think I can bring him around. You will need to find something for Renly."

"Send him to the Wall. Make him useful at least."

The hatred ran deeper there than Cersei had ever dared to plumb. She had not known. Another thing she hadn't bothered to look into. She, too, had sheltered behind Jon Arryn's mastery of his realm. Yes, he had had Seven Kingdoms to manage, but even before that, he had been playing three brothers off of each other.

"One thing I must know. Why me, Queen Cersei?"

"For all your sternness, you do like your nephews and nieces. I've watched you with them. You would do the right things by Steffon."


"You like your future king, I dare say, better than you like Robert or Renly."

"I like most stones in the road better than Robert. They're more useful."

Cersei laughed.

"So you will serve?"

"I will do as the Kingdoms require, your Grace, as I ever have. I am just surprised you have not called your Father to this work. I expect his grim visage to arrive at some point."

She had to be honest even on this point. Whether Stannis would accept her honesty, she couldn't say. "I am my Father's daughter, it is true. But we have a complicated relationship. I am well pleased with him staying in the Westerlands."

"He would try to take over here, if he were Regent or Hand?"

"Now you see why I prefer him keeping a stern eye over the Westerlands. Those Ironborn are ever plotting."

"Yes," Stannis said, referring to one or many things. Who knew with him?