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CERSEI
Each night seemed colder than the last.

The cell had neither fireplace nor brazier. The only window was too high to allow her a view and too small to squeeze through, but more than large enough to let in the chill. Cersei had torn up the first shift they gave her, demanding the return of her own clothes, but that only left her naked and shivering. When they brought her another shift, she pulled it down over her head and thanked them, choking upon the words.

The window let in sounds as well. That was the only way the queen had to know what might be happening in the city. The septas who brought her food would tell her nothing.

She hated that. Jaime would be coming for her, but how would she know when he arrived? Cersei only hoped he was not so foolish as to go racing ahead of his army. He would need every sword to deal with the ragged horde of Poor Fellows surrounding the Great Sept. She asked about her twin often, but her gaolers gave no answer. She asked about Ser Loras too. At last report the Knight of Flowers had been dying on Dragonstone of wounds received whilst taking the castle. Let him die, Cersei thought, and let him be quick about it. The boy’s death would mean an empty place on the Kingsguard, and that might be her salvation. But the septas were as close-mouthed about Loras Tyrell as they were about Jaime.

Lord Qyburn had been her last and only visitor. Her world had a population of four: herself and her three gaolers, pious and unyielding. Septa Unella was big-boned and mannish, with callused hands and homely, scowling features. Septa Moelle had stiff white hair and small mean eyes perpetually crinkled in suspicion, peering out of a wrinkled face as sharp as the blade of an axe. Septa Scolera was thick-waisted and short, with heavy breasts, olive skin, and a sour smell to her, like milk on the verge of going bad. They brought her food and water, emptied her chamber pot, and took away her shift for washing every few days, leaving her to huddle naked under her blanket until it was returned to her. Sometimes Scolera would read to her from The Seven-Pointed Star or The Book of Holy Prayer, but elsewise none of them would speak with her or answer any of her questions.

She hated and despised all three of them, almost as much as she hated and despised the men who had betrayed her.

False friends, treacherous servants, men who had professed undying love, even her own blood … all of them had deserted her in her hour of need. Osney Kettleblack, that weakling, had broken beneath the lash, filling the High Sparrow’s ears with secrets he should have taken to his grave. His brothers, scum of the streets whom she had raised high, did no more than sit upon their hands. Aurane Waters, her admiral, had fled to sea with the dromonds she had built for him. Orton Merryweather had gone running back to Longtable, taking his wife, Taena, who had been the queen’s one true friend in these terrible times. Harys Swyft and Grand Maester Pycelle had abandoned her to captivity and offered the realm to the very men who had conspired against her. Meryn Trant and Boros Blount, the king’s sworn protectors, were nowhere to be found. Even her cousin Lancel, who once had claimed to love her, was one of her accusers. Her uncle had refused to help her rule when she would have made him the King’s Hand.

And Jaime …

No, that she could not believe, would not believe. Jaime would be here once he knew of her plight. “Come at once,” she had written to him. “Help me. Save me. I need you now as I have never needed you before. I love you. I love you. I love you. Come at once.” Qyburn had sworn that he would see that her letter reached her twin, off in the riverlands with his army. Qyburn had never returned, however. For all she knew, he might be dead, his head impaled upon a spike above the city Keep’s gates. Or perhaps he was languishing in one of the black cells beneath the Red Keep, her letter still unsent. The queen had asked after him a hundred times, but her captors would not speak of him. All she knew for certain was that Jaime had not come.

Not yet, she told herself. But soon. And once he comes the High Sparrow and his bitches will sing a different song.

She hated feeling helpless.

She had threatened, but her threats had been received with stony faces and deaf ears. She had commanded, but her commands had been ignored. She had invoked the Mother’s mercy, appealing to the natural sympathy of one woman for another, but the three shriveled septas must have put their womanhood aside when they spoke their vows. She had tried charm, speaking to them gently, accepting each new outrage meekly. They were not swayed. She had offered them rewards, promised leniency, honors, gold, positions at court. They treated her promises as they did her threats.

And she had prayed. Oh, how she had prayed. Prayer was what they wanted, so she served it to them, served it on her knees as if she were some common trollop of the streets and not a daughter of the Rock. She had prayed for relief, for deliverance, for Jaime. Loudly she asked the gods to defend her in her innocence; silently she prayed for her accusers to suffer sudden, painful deaths. She prayed until her knees were raw and bloody, until her tongue felt so thick and heavy that she was like to choke on it. All the prayers they had taught her as a girl came back to Cersei in her cell, and she made up new ones as needed, calling on the Mother and the Maiden, on the Father and the Warrior, on the Crone and the Smith. She had even prayed to the Stranger. Any god in a storm. The Seven proved as deaf as their earthly servants. Cersei gave them all the words that she had in her, gave them everything but tears. That they will never have, she told herself.

She hated feeling weak.

If the gods had given her the strength they gave Jaime and that swaggering oaf Robert, she could have made her own escape. Oh, for a sword and the skill to wield it. She had a warrior’s heart, but the gods in their blind malice had given her the feeble body of a woman. The queen had tried to fight them early on, but the septas had overwhelmed her. There were too many of them, and they were stronger than they looked. Ugly old women, every one of them, but all that praying and scrubbing and beating novices with sticks had left them tough as roots.

And they would not let her rest. Night or day, whenever the queen closed her eyes to sleep, one of her captors would appear to wake her and demand that she confess her sins. She stood accused of adultery, fornication, high treason, even murder, for Osney Kettleblack had confessed to smothering the last High Septon at her command. “I am come to hear you tell of all your murders and fornications,” Septa Unella would growl when she shook the queen awake. Septa Moelle would tell her that it was her sins that kept her sleepless. “Only the innocent know the peace of untroubled sleep. Confess your sins, and you will sleep like a newborn babe.”

Wake and sleep and wake again, every night was broken into pieces by the rough hands of her tormentors, and every night was colder and crueler than the night before. The hour of the owl, the hour of the wolf, the hour of the nightingale, moonrise and moonset, dusk and dawn, they staggered past like drunkards. What hour was it? What day was it? Where was she? Was this a dream, or had she woken? The little shards of sleep that they allowed her turned into razors, slicing at her wits. Each day found her duller than the day before, exhausted and feverish. She had lost all sense of how long she had been imprisoned in this cell, high up in one of the seven towers of the Great Sept of Baelor. I will grow old and die here, she thought, despairing.

Cersei could not allow that to happen. Her son had need of her. The realm had need of her. She had to free herself, no matter what the risk. Her world had shrunk to a cell six feet square, a chamber pot, a lumpy pallet, and a brown wool blanket thin as hope that made her skin itch, but she was still Lord Tywin’s heir, a daughter of the Rock.

Exhausted by her lack of sleep, shivering from the cold that stole into the tower cell each night, feverish and famished by turns, Cersei came at last to know she must confess.

That night, when Septa Unella came to wrench her out of sleep, she found the queen waiting on her knees. “I have sinned,” said Cersei. Her tongue was thick in her mouth, her lips raw and chapped. “I have sinned most grievously. I see that now. How could I have been so blind for so long? The Crone came to me with her lamp raised high, and by its holy light I saw the road that I must walk. I want to be clean again. I want only absolution. Please, good septa, I beg of you, take me to the High Septon so that I might confess my crimes and fornications.”

“I will tell him, Your Grace,” said Septa Unella. “His High Holiness will be most pleased. Only through confession and true repentance may our immortal souls be saved.”

And for the rest of that long night they let her sleep. Hours and hours of blessed sleep. The owl and the wolf and the nightingale slipped by for once with their passage unseen and unremarked, whilst Cersei dreamed a long sweet dream where Jaime was her husband and their son was still alive.

Come morning, the queen felt almost like herself again. When her captors came for her, she made pious noises at them again and told them how determined she was to confess her sins and be forgiven for all that she had done.

“We rejoice to hear it,” said Septa Moelle.

“It will be a great weight off your soul,” said Septa Scolera. “You will feel much better afterward, Your Grace.”

Your Grace. Those two simple words thrilled her. During her long captivity, her gaolers had not oft bothered with even that simple courtesy.

“His High Holiness awaits,” said Septa Unella.

Cersei lowered her head, humble and obedient. “Might I be allowed to bathe first? I am in no fit state to attend him.”

“You may wash later if His High Holiness allows,” said Septa Unella. “It is the cleanliness of your immortal soul that should concern you now, not such vanities of the flesh.”

The three septas led her down the tower stairs, with Septa Unella going before her and Septa Moelle and Septa Scolera at her heels, as if they were afraid that she might try to flee. “It has been so long since I have had a visitor,” Cersei murmured in a quiet voice as they made their descent. “Is the king well? I ask only as a mother, fearful for her child.”

“His Grace is in good health,” said Septa Scolera, “and well protected, day and night. The queen is with him, always.”

I am the queen! She swallowed, smiled, and said, “That is good to know. Tommen loves her so. I never believed those terrible things that were being said of her.” Had Margaery Tyrell somehow wriggled free of the accusations of fornication, adultery, and high treason? “Was there a trial?”

“Soon,” said Septa Scolera, “but her brother—”

“Hush.” Septa Unella turned to glare back over her shoulder at Scolera. “You chatter too much, you foolish old woman. It is not for us to speak of such things.”

Scolera lowered her head. “Pray forgive me.”

They made the rest of the descent in silence.

The High Sparrow received her in his sanctum, an austere seven-sided chamber where crudely carved faces of the Seven stared out from the stone walls with expressions almost as sour and disapproving as His High Holiness himself. When she entered, he was seated behind a rough-hewn table, writing. The High Septon had not changed since the last time she had been in his presence, the day he had her seized and imprisoned. He was still a scrawny grey-haired man with a lean, hard, half-starved look, his face sharp-featured, lined, his eyes suspicious. In place of the rich robes of his predecessors, he wore a shapeless tunic of undyed wool that fell down to his ankles. “Your Grace,” he said, by way of greeting. “I understand that you wish to make confession.”

Cersei dropped to her knees. “I do, High Holiness. The Crone came to me as I slept with her lamp held high—”

“To be sure. Unella, you will stay and make a record of Her Grace’s words. Scolera, Moelle, you have my leave to go.” He pressed the fingers of his hands together, the same gesture she had seen her father use a thousand times.

Septa Unella took a seat behind her, spread out a parchment, dipped a quill in maester’s ink. Cersei felt a stab of fright. “Once I have confessed, will I be permitted to—”

“Your Grace shall be dealt with according to your sins.”

This man is implacable, she realized once again. She gathered herself for a moment. “Mother have mercy on me, then. I have lain with men outside the bonds of marriage. I confess it.”

“Who?” The High Septon’s eyes were fixed on hers.

Cersei could hear Unella writing behind her. Her quill made a faint, soft scratching sound. “Lancel Lannister, my cousin. And Osney Kettleblack.” Both men had confessed to bedding her, it would do her no good to deny it. “His brothers too. Both of them.” She had no way of knowing what Osfryd and Osmund might say. Safer to confess too much than too little. “It does not excuse my sin, High Holiness, but I was lonely and afraid. The gods took King Robert from me, my love and my protector. I was alone, surrounded by schemers, false friends, and traitors who were conspiring at the death of my children. I did not know who to trust, so I … I used the only means that I had to bind the Kettleblacks to me.”

“By which you mean your female parts?”

“My flesh.” She pressed a hand to her face, shuddering. When she lowered it again, her eyes were wet with tears. “Yes. May the Maid forgive me. It was for my children, though, for the realm. I took no pleasure in it. The Kettleblacks … they are hard men, and cruel, and they used me roughly, but what else was I to do? Tommen needed men around him I could trust.”

“His Grace was protected by the Kingsguard.”

“The Kingsguard stood by useless as his brother Joffrey died, murdered at his own wedding feast. I watched one son die, I could not bear to lose another. I have sinned, I have committed wanton fornication, but I did it for Tommen. Forgive me, High Holiness, but I would open my legs for every man in King’s Landing if that was what I had to do to keep my children safe.”

“Forgiveness comes only from the gods. What of Ser Lancel, who was your cousin and your lord husband’s squire? Did you take him into your bed to win his loyalty as well?”

“Lancel.” Cersei hesitated. Careful, she told herself, Lancel will have told him everything. “Lancel loved me. He was half a boy, but I never doubted his devotion to me or my son.”

“And yet you still corrupted him.”

“I was lonely.” She choked back a sob. “I had lost my husband, my son, my lord father. I was regent, but a queen is still a woman, and women are weak vessels, easily tempted … Your High Holiness knows the truth of that. Even holy septas have been known to sin. I took comfort with Lancel. He was kind and gentle and I needed someone. It was wrong, I know, but I had no one else … a woman needs to be loved, she needs a man beside her, she … she …” She began to sob uncontrollably.

The High Septon made no move to comfort her. He sat there with his hard eyes fixed on her, watching her weep, as stony as the statues of the Seven in the sept above. Long moments passed, but finally her tears were all dried up. By then her eyes were red and raw from crying, and she felt as if she might faint.

The High Sparrow was not done with her, however. “These are common sins,” he said. “The wickedness of widows is well-known, and all women are wantons at heart, given to using their wiles and their beauty to work their wills on men. There is no treason here, so long as you did not stray from your marriage bed whilst His Grace King Robert was still alive.”

“Never,” she whispered, shivering. “Never, I swear it.”

He paid that no mind. “There are other charges laid against Your Grace, crimes far more grievous th............
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