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CERSEI
On the last night of her imprisonment, the queen could not sleep. Each time she closed her eyes, her head filled with forebodings and fantasies of the morrow. I will have guards, she told herself. They will keep the crowds away. No one will be allowed to touch me. The High Sparrow had promised her that much.

Even so, she was afraid. On the day Myrcella sailed for Dorne, the day of the bread riots, gold cloaks had been posted all along the route of the procession, but the mob had broken through their lines to tear the old fat High Septon into pieces and rape Lollys Stokeworth half a hundred times. And if that pale soft stupid creature could incite the animals when fully clothed, how much more lust would a queen inspire?

Cersei paced her cell, restless as the caged lions that had lived in the bowels of Casterly Rock when she was a girl, a legacy of her grandfather’s time. She and Jaime used to dare each other to climb into their cage, and once she worked up enough courage to slip her hand between two bars and touch one of the great tawny beasts. She was always bolder than her brother. The lion had turned his head to stare at her with huge golden eyes. Then he licked her fingers. His tongue was as rough as a rasp, but even so she would not pull her hand back, not until Jaime took her by the shoulders and yanked her away from the cage.

“Your turn,” she told him afterward. “Pull his mane, I dare you.” He never did. I should have had the sword, not him.

Barefoot and shivering she paced, a thin blanket draped about her shoulders. She was anxious for the day to come. By evening it would all be done. A little walk and I’ll be home, I’ll be back with Tommen, in my own chambers inside Maegor’s Holdfast. Her uncle said it was the only way to save herself. Was it, though? She could not trust her uncle, no more than she trusted this High Septon. I could still refuse. I could still insist upon my innocence and hazard all upon a trial.

But she dare not let the Faith sit in judgment on her, as that Margaery Tyrell meant to do. That might serve the little rose well enough, but Cersei had few friends amongst the septas and sparrows around this new High Septon. Her only hope was trial by battle, and for that she must needs have a champion.

If Jaime had not lost his hand …

That road led nowhere, though. Jaime’s sword hand was gone, and so was he, vanished with the woman Brienne somewhere in the riverlands. The queen had to find another defender or today’s ordeal would be the least of her travails. Her enemies were accusing her of treason. She had to reach Tommen, no matter the costs. He loves me. He will not refuse his own mother. Joff was stubborn and unpredictable, but Tommen is a good little boy, a good little king. He will do as he is told. If she stayed here, she was doomed, and the only way she would return to the Red Keep was by walking. The High Sparrow had been adamant, and Ser Kevan refused to lift a finger against him.

“No harm will come to me today,” Cersei said when the day’s first light brushed her window. “Only my pride will suffer.” The words rang hollow in her ears. Jaime may yet come. She pictured him riding through the morning mists, his golden armor bright in the light of the rising sun. Jaime, if you ever loved me …

When her gaolers came for her, Septa Unella, Septa Moelle, and Septa Scolera led the procession. With them were four novices and two of the silent sisters. The sight of the silent sisters in their grey robes filled the queen with sudden terrors. Why are they here? Am I to die? The silent sisters attended to the dead. “The High Septon promised that no harm would come to me.”

“Nor will it.” Septa Unella beckoned to the novices. They brought lye soap, a basin of warm water, a pair of shears, and a long straightrazor. The sight of the steel sent a shiver through her. They mean to shave me. A little more humiliation, a raisin for my porridge. She would not give them the pleasure of hearing her beg. I am Cersei of House Lannister, a lion of the Rock, the rightful queen of these Seven Kingdoms, trueborn daughter of Tywin Lannister. And hair grows back. “Get on with it,” she said.

The elder of the two silent sisters took up the shears. A practiced barber, no doubt; her order often cleaned the corpses of the noble slain before returning them to their kin, and trimming beards and cutting hair was part of that. The woman bared the queen’s head first. Cersei sat as still as a stone statue as the shears clicked. Drifts of golden hair fell to the floor. She had not been allowed to tend it properly penned up in this cell, but even unwashed and tangled it shone where the sun touched it. My crown, the queen thought. They took the other crown away from me, and now they are stealing this one as well. When her locks and curls were piled up around her feet, one of the novices soaped her head and the silent sister scraped away the stubble with a razor.

Cersei hoped that would be the end of it, but no. “Remove your shift, Your Grace,” Septa Unella commanded.

“Here?” the queen asked. “Why?”

“You must be shorn.”

Shorn, she thought, like a sheep. She yanked the shift over her head and tossed it to the floor. “Do what you will.”

Then it was the soap again, the warm water, and the razor. The hair beneath her arms went next, then her legs, and last of all the fine golden down that covered her mound. When the silent sister crept between her legs with the razor, Cersei found herself remembering all the times that Jaime had knelt where she was kneeling now, planting kisses on the inside of her thighs, making her wet. His kisses were always warm. The razor was ice-cold.

When the deed was done she was as naked and vulnerable as a woman could be. Not even a hair to hide behind. A little laugh burst from her lips, bleak and bitter.

“Does Your Grace find this amusing?” said Septa Scolera.

“No, septa,” said Cersei. But one day I will have your tongue ripped out with hot pincers, and that will be hilarious.

One of the novices had brought a robe for her, a soft white septa’s robe to cover her as she made her way down the tower steps and through the sept, so any worshipers they met along the way might be spared the sight of naked flesh. Seven save us all, what hypocrites they are. “Will I be permitted a pair of sandals?” she asked. “The streets are filthy.”

“Not so filthy as your sins,” said Septa Moelle. “His High Holiness has commanded that you present yourself as the gods made you. Did you have sandals on your feet when you came forth from your lady mother’s womb?”

“No, septa,” the queen was forced to say.

“Then you have your answer.”

A bell began to toll. The queen’s long imprisonment was at an end. Cersei pulled the robe tighter, grateful for its warmth, and said, “Let us go.” Her son awaited her across the city. The sooner she set out, the sooner she would see him.

The rough stone of the steps scraped her soles as Cersei Lannister made her descent. She had come to Baelor’s Sept a queen, riding in a litter. She was leaving bald and barefoot. But I am leaving. That is all that matters.

The tower bells were singing, summoning the city to bear witness to her shame. The Great Sept of Baelor was crowded with faithful come for the dawn service, the sound of their prayers echoing off the dome overhead, but when the queen’s procession made its appearance a sudden silence fell and a thousand eyes turned to follow her as she made her way down the aisle, past the place where her lord father had lain in state after his murder. Cersei swept by them, looking neither right nor left. Her bare feet slapped against the cold marble floor. She could feel the eyes. Behind their altars, the Seven seemed to watch as well.

In the Hall of Lamps, a dozen Warrior’s Sons awaited her coming. Rainbow cloaks hung down their backs, and the crystals that crested their greathelms glittered in the lamplight. Their armor was silver plate polished to a mirror sheen, but underneath, she knew, every man of them wore a hair shirt. Their kite shields all bore the same device: a crystal sword shining in the darkness, the ancient badge of those the smallfolk called Swords.

Their captain knelt before her. “Perhaps Your Grace will recall me. I am Ser Theodan the True, and His High Holiness has given me command of your escort. My brothers and I will see you safely through the city.”

Cersei’s gaze swept across the faces of the men behind him. And there he was: Lancel, her cousin, Ser Kevan’s son, who had once professed to love her, before he decided that he loved the gods more. My blood and my betrayer. She would not forget him. “You may rise, Ser Theodan. I am ready.”

The knight stood, turned, raised a hand. Two of his men stepped to the towering doors and pushed them open, and Cersei walked through them into the open air, blinking at the sunlight like a mole roused from its burrow.

A gusty wind was blowing, and it set the bottom of her robe snapping and flapping at her legs. The morning air was thick with the old familiar stinks of King’s Landing. She breathed in the scents of sour wine, bread baking, rotting fish and nightsoil, smoke and sweat and horse piss. No flower had ever smelled so sweet. Huddled in her robe, Cersei paused atop the marble steps as the Warrior’s Sons formed up around her.

It came to her suddenly that she had stood in this very spot before, on the day Lord Eddard Stark had lost his head. That was not supposed to happen. Joff was supposed to spare his life and send him to the Wall. Stark’s eldest son would have followed him as Lord of Winterfell, but Sansa would have stayed at court, a hostage. Varys and Littlefinger had worked out the terms, and Ned Stark had swallowed his precious honor and confessed his treason to save his daughter’s empty little head. I would have made Sansa a good marriage. A Lannister marriage. Not Joff, of course, but Lancel might have suited, or one of his younger brothers. Petyr Baelish had offered to wed the girl himself, she recalled, but of course that was impossible; he was much too lowborn. If Joff had only done as he was told, Winterfell would never have gone to war, and Father would have dealt with Robert’s brothers.

Instead Joff had commanded that Stark’s head be struck off, and Lord Slynt and Ser Ilyn Payne had hastened to obey. It was just there, the queen recalled, gazing at the spot. Janos Slynt had lifted Ned Stark’s head by the hair as his life’s blood flowed down the steps, and after that there was no turning back.

The memories seemed so distant. Joffrey was dead, and all Stark’s sons as well. Even her father had perished. And here she stood on the steps of the Great Sept again, only this time it was her the mob was staring at, not Eddard Stark.

The wide marble plaza below was as crowded as it had been on the day that Stark had died. Everywhere she looked the queen saw eyes. The mob seemed to be equal parts men and women. Some had children on their shoulders. Beggars and thieves, taverners and tradesfolk, tanners and stableboys and mummers, the poorer sort of whore, all the scum had come out to see a queen brought low. And mingled in with them were the Poor Fellows, filthy, unshaven creatures armed with spears and axes and clad in bits of dinted plate, rusted mail, and cracked leather, under roughspun surcoats bleached white and blazoned with the seven-pointed star of the Faith. The High Sparrow’s ragged army.

Part of her still yearned for Jaime to appear and rescue her from this humiliation, but her twin was nowhere to be seen. Nor was her uncle present. That did not surprise her. Ser Kevan had made his views plain during his last visit; her shame must not be allowed to tarnish the honor of Casterly Rock. No lions would walk with her today. This ordeal was hers and hers alone.

Septa Unella stood to her right, Septa Moelle to her left, Septa Scolera behind her. If the queen should bolt or balk, the three hags would drag her back inside, and this time they would see to it that she never left her cell.

Cersei raised her head. Beyond the plaza, beyond the sea of hungry eyes and gaping mouths and dirty faces, across the city, Aegon’s High Hill rose in the distance, the towers and battlements of the Red Keep blushing pink in the light of the rising sun. It is not so far. Once she reached its gates, the worst of her travails would be over. She would have her son again. She would have her champion. Her uncle had promised her. Tommen is waiting for me. My little king. I can do this. I must.

Septa Unella stepped forward. “A sinner comes before you,” she declared. “She is Cersei of House Lannister, queen dowager, mother to His Grace King Tommen, widow of His Grace King Robert, and she has committed grievous falsehoods and fornications.”

Septa Moelle moved up on the queen’s right. “This sinner has confessed her sins and begged for absolution and forgiveness. His High Holiness has commanded her to demonstrate her repentance by putting aside all pride and artifice and presenting herself as the gods made her before the good people of the city.”

Septa Scolera finished. “So now this sinner comes before you with a humble heart, shorn of secrets and concealments, naked before the eyes of gods and men, to make her walk of atonement.”

Cersei had been a year old when her grandfather died. The first thing her father had done on his ascension was to expel his own father’s grasping, lowborn mistress from Casterly Rock. The silks and velvets Lord Tytos had lavished on her and the jewelry she had taken for herself had been stripped from her, and she had been sent forth naked to walk through the streets of Lannisport, so the west could see her for what she was.

Though she had been too young to witness the spectacle herself, Cersei had heard the stories growing up from the mouths of washerwomen and guardsmen who had been there. They spoke of how the woman had wept and begged, of the desperate way she clung to her garments when she was commanded to disrobe, of her futile efforts to cover her breasts and her sex with her hands as she hobbled barefoot and naked through the streets to exile. “Vain and proud she was, before,” she remembered one guard saying, “so haughty you’d think she’d forgot she come from dirt. Once we got her clothes off her, though, she was just another whore.”

If Ser Kevan and the High Sparrow thought that it would be the same with her, they were very much mistaken. Lord Tywin’s blood was in her. I am a lioness. I will not cringe for them.

The queen shrugged off her robe.

She bared herself in one smooth, unhurried motion, as if she were back in her own chambers disrobing for her bath with no one but her bedmaids looking on. When the cold wind touched her skin, she shivered violently. It took all her strength of will not to try and hide herself with her hands, as her grandfather’s whore had done. Her fingers tightened into fists, her nails digging into her palms. They were looking at her, all the hungry eyes. But what were they seeing? I am beautiful, she reminded himself. How many times had Jaime told her that? Even Robert had given her that much, when he came to her bed in his cups to pay her drunken homage with his cock.

They looked at Ned Stark the same way, though.

She had to move. Naked, shorn, barefoot, Cersei made a slow descent down the broad marble steps. Gooseprickles rose on her arms and legs. She held her chin high, as a queen should, and her............
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