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I am no traitor,” the Knight of Griffin’s Roost declared. “I am King Tommen’s man, and yours.”

A steady drip-drip-drip punctuated his words, as snowmelt ran off his cloak to puddle on the floor. The snow had been falling on King’s Landing most of the night; outside the drifts were ankle deep. Ser Kevan Lannister pulled his cloak about himself more closely. “So you say, ser. Words are wind.”

“Then let me prove the truth of them with my sword.” The light of the torches made a fiery blaze of Ronnet Connington’s long red hair and beard. “Send me against my uncle, and I will bring you back his head, and the head of this false dragon too.”

Lannister spearmen in crimson cloaks and lion-crested halfhelms stood along the west wall of the throne room. Tyrell guards in green cloaks faced them from the opposite wall. The chill in the throne room was palpable. Though neither Queen Cersei nor Queen Margaery was amongst them, their presence could be felt poisoning the air, like ghosts at a feast.

Behind the table where the five members of the king’s small council were seated, the Iron Throne crouched like some great black beast, its barbs and claws and blades half-shrouded in shadow. Kevan Lannister could feel it at his back, an itch between the shoulder blades. It was easy to imagine old King Aerys perched up there, bleeding from some fresh cut, glowering down. But today the throne was empty. He had seen no reason for Tommen to join them. Kinder to let the boy remain with his mother. The Seven only knew how long mother and son might have together before Cersei’s trial … and possibly her execution.

Mace Tyrell was speaking. “We shall deal with your uncle and his feigned boy in due time.” The new King’s Hand was seated on an oaken throne carved in the shape of a hand, an absurd vanity his lordship had produced the day Ser Kevan agreed to grant him the office he coveted. “You will bide here until we are ready to march. Then you shall have the chance to prove your loyalty.”

Ser Kevan took no issue with that. “Escort Ser Ronnet back to his chambers,” he said. And see that he remains there went unspoken. However loud his protestations, the Knight of Griffin’s Roost remained suspect. Supposedly the sellswords who had landed in the south were being led by one of his own blood.

As the echoes of Connington’s footsteps faded away, Grand Maester Pycelle gave a ponderous shake of his head. “His uncle once stood just where the boy was standing now and told King Aerys how he would deliver him the head of Robert Baratheon.”

That is how it is when a man grows as old as Pycelle. Everything you see or hear reminds you of something you saw or heard when you were young. “How many men-at-arms accompanied Ser Ronnet to the city?” Ser Kevan asked.

“Twenty,” said Lord Randyll Tarly, “and most of them Gregor Clegane’s old lot. Your nephew Jaime gave them to Connington. To rid himself of them, I’d wager. They had not been in Maidenpool a day before one killed a man and another was accused of rape. I had to hang the one and geld the other. If it were up to me, I would send them all to the Night’s Watch, and Connington with them. The Wall is where such scum belong.”

“A dog takes after its master,” declared Mace Tyrell. “Black cloaks would suit them, I agree. I will not suffer such men in the city watch.” A hundred of his own Highgarden men had been added to the gold cloaks, yet plainly his lordship meant to resist any balancing infusion of westermen.

The more I give him, the more he wants. Kevan Lannister was beginning to understand why Cersei had grown so resentful of the Tyrells. But this was not the moment to provoke an open quarrel. Randyll Tarly and Mace Tyrell had both brought armies to King’s Landing, whilst the best part of the strength of House Lannister remained in the riverlands, fast melting away. “The Mountain’s men were always fighters,” he said in a conciliatory tone, “and we may have need of every sword against these sellswords. If this truly is the Golden Company, as Qyburn’s whisperers insist—”

“Call them what you will,” said Randyll Tarly. “They are still no more than adventurers.”

“Perhaps,” Ser Kevan said. “But the longer we ignore these adventurers, the stronger they grow. We have had a map prepared, a map of the incursions. Grand Maester?”

The map was beautiful, painted by a master’s hand on a sheet of the finest vellum, so large it covered the table. “Here.” Pycelle pointed with a spotted hand. Where the sleeve of his robe rode up, a flap of pale flesh could be seen dangling beneath his forearm. “Here and here. All along the coast, and on the islands. Tarth, the Stepstones, even Estermont. And now we have reports that Connington is moving on Storm’s End.”

“If it is Jon Connington,” said Randyll Tarly.

“Storm’s End.” Lord Mace Tyrell grunted the words. “He cannot take Storm’s End. Not if he were Aegon the Conqueror. And if he does, what of it? Stannis holds it now. Let the castle pass from one pretender to another, why should that trouble us? I shall recapture it after my daughter’s innocence is proved.”

How can you recapture it when you have never captured it to begin with? “I understand, my lord, but—”

Tyrell did not let him finish. “These charges against my daughter are filthy lies. I ask again, why must we play out this mummer’s farce? Have King Tommen declare my daughter innocent, ser, and put an end to the foolishness here and now.”

Do that, and the whispers will follow Margaery the rest of her life. “No man doubts your daughter’s innocence, my lord,” Ser Kevan lied, “but His High Holiness insists upon a trial.”

Lord Randyll snorted. “What have we become, when kings and high lords must dance to the twittering of sparrows?”

“We have foes on every hand, Lord Tarly,” Ser Kevan reminded him. “Stannis in the north, ironmen in the west, sellswords in the south. Defy the High Septon, and we will have blood running in the gutters of King’s Landing as well. If we are seen to be going against the gods, it will only drive the pious into the arms of one or the other of these would-be usurpers.”

Mace Tyrell remained unmoved. “Once Paxter Redwyne sweeps the ironmen from the seas, my sons will retake the Shields. The snows will do for Stannis, or Bolton will. As for Connington …”

“If it is him,” Lord Randyll said.

“… as for Connington,” Tyrell repeated, “what victories has he ever won that we should fear him? He could have ended Robert’s Rebellion at Stoney Sept. He failed. Just as the Golden Company has always failed. Some may rush to join them, aye. The realm is well rid of such fools.”

Ser Kevan wished that he could share his certainty. He had known Jon Connington, slightly—a proud youth, the most headstrong of the gaggle of young lordlings who had gathered around Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, competing for his royal favor. Arrogant, but able and energetic. That, and his skill at arms, was why Mad King Aerys had named him Hand. Old Lord Merryweather’s inaction had allowed the rebellion to take root and spread, and Aerys wanted someone young and vigorous to match Robert’s own youth and vigor. “Too soon,” Lord Tywin Lannister had declared when word of the king’s choice had reached Casterly Rock. “Connington is too young, too bold, too eager for glory.”

The Battle of the Bells had proved the truth of that. Ser Kevan had expected that afterward Aerys would have no choice but to summon Tywin once more … but the Mad King had turned to the Lords Chelsted and Rossart instead, and paid for it with life and crown. That was all so long ago, though. If this is indeed Jon Connington, he will be a different man. Older, harder, more seasoned … more dangerous. “Connington may have more than the Golden Company. It is said he has a Targaryen pretender.”

“A feigned boy is what he has,” said Randyll Tarly.

“That may be. Or not.” Kevan Lannister had been here, in this very hall when Tywin had laid the bodies of Prince Rhaegar’s children at the foot of the Iron Throne, wrapped up in crimson cloaks. The girl had been recognizably the Princess Rhaenys, but the boy … a faceless horror of bone and brain and gore, a few hanks of fair hair. None of us looked long. Tywin said that it was Prince Aegon, and we took him at his word. “We have these tales coming from the east as well. A second Targaryen, and one whose blood no man can question. Daenerys Stormborn.”

“As mad as her father,” declared Lord Mace Tyrell.

That would be the same father that Highgarden and House Tyrell supported to the bitter end and well beyond. “Mad she may be,” Ser Kevan said, “but with so much smoke drifting west, surely there must be some fire burning in the east.”

Grand Maester Pycelle bobbed his head. “Dragons. These same stories have reached Oldtown. Too many to discount. A silver-haired queen with three dragons.”

“At the far end of the world,” said Mace Tyrell. “Queen of Slaver’s Bay, aye. She is welcome to it.”

“On that we can agree,” Ser Kevan said, “but the girl is of the blood of Aegon the Conqueror, and I do not think she will be content to remain in Meereen forever. If she should reach these shores and join her strength to Lord Connington and this prince of his, feigned or no … we must destroy Connington and his pretender now, before Daenerys Stormborn can come west.”

Mace Tyrell crossed his arms. “I mean to do just that, ser. After the trials.”

“Sellswords fight for coin,” declared Grand Maester Pycelle. “With enough gold, we might persuade the Golden Company to hand over Lord Connington and the pretender.”

“Aye, if we had gold,” Ser Harys Swyft said. “Alas, my lords, our vaults contain only rats and roaches. I have written again to the Myrish bankers. If they will agree to make good the crown’s debt to the Braavosi and extend us a new loan, mayhaps we will not have to raise the taxes. Elsewise—”

“The magisters of Pentos have been known to lend money as well,” said Ser Kevan. “Try them.” The Pentoshi were even less like to be of help than the Myrish money changers, but the effort must be made. Unless a new source of coin could be found, or the Iron Bank persuaded to relent, he would have no choice but to pay the crown’s debts with Lannister gold. He dare not resort to new taxes, not with the Seven Kingdoms crawling with rebellion. Half the lords in the realm could not tell taxation from tyranny, and would bolt to the nearest usurper in a heartbeat if it would save them a clipped copper. “If that fails, you may well need to go to Braavos, to treat with the Iron Bank yourself.”

Ser Harys quailed. “Must I?”

“You are the master of coin,” Lord Randyll said sharply.

“I am.” The puff of white hair at the end of Swyft’s chin quivered in outrage. “Must I remind my lord, this trouble is not of my doing? And not all of us have had the opportunity to refill our coffers with the plunder of Maidenpool and Dragonstone.”

“I resent your implication, Swyft,” Mace Tyrell said, bristling. “No wealth was found on Dragonstone, I promise you. My son’s men have searched every inch of that damp and dreary island and turned up not so much as a single gemstone or speck of gold. Nor any sign of this fabled hoard of dragon eggs.”

Kevan Lannister had seen Dragonstone with his own eyes. He doubted very much that Loras Tyrell had searched every inch of that ancient stronghold. The Valyrians had raised it, after all, and all their works stank of sorcery. And Ser Loras was young, prone to all the rash judgments of youth, and had been grievously wounded storming the castle besides. But it would not do to remind Tyrell that his favorite son was fallible. “If there was wealth on Dragonstone, Stannis would have found it,” he declared. “Let us move along, my lords. We have two queens to try for high treason, you may recall. My niece has elected trial by battle, she informs me. Ser Robert Strong will champion her.”

“The silent giant.” Lord Randyll grimaced.

“Tell me, ser, where did this man come from?” demanded Mace Tyrell. “Why have we never heard his name before? He does not speak, he will not show his face, he is never seen without his armor. Do we know for a certainty that he is even a knight?”

We do not even know if he’s alive. Meryn Trant claimed that Strong took neither food nor drink, and Boros Blount went so far as to say he had never seen the man use the privy. Why should he? Dead men do not shit. Kevan Lannister had a strong suspicion of just who this Ser Robert really was beneath that gleaming white armor. A suspicion that Mace Tyrell and Randyll Tarly no doubt shared. Whatever the face hidden behind Strong’s helm, it must remain hidden for now. The silent giant was his niece’s only hope. And pray that he is as formidable as he appears.

But Mace Tyrell could not seem to see beyond the threat to his own daughter. “His Grace named Ser Robert to the Kingsguard,” Ser Kevan reminded him, “and Qyburn vouches for the man as well. Be that as it may, we need Ser Robert to prevail, my lords. If my niece is proved guilty of these treasons, the legitimacy of her children will be called into question. If Tommen ceases to be a king, Margaery will cease to be a queen.” He let Tyrell chew on that a moment. “Whatever Cersei may have done, she is still a daughter of the Rock, of mine own blood. I will not let her die a traitor’s death, but I have made sure to draw her fangs. All her guards have been dismissed and replaced with my own men. In place of her former ladies-in-waiting, she will henceforth be attended by a septa and three novices selected by the High Septon. She is to have no further voice in the governance of the realm, nor in Tommen’s education. I mean to return her to Casterly Rock after the trial and see that she remains there. Let that suffice.”

The rest he left unsaid. Cersei was soiled goods now, her power at an end. Every baker’s boy and beggar in the city had seen her in her shame and every tart and tanner from Flea Bottom to Pisswater Bend had gazed upon her nakedness, their eager eyes crawling over her breasts and belly and woman’s parts. No queen could expect to rule again after that. In gold and silk and emeralds Cersei had been a queen, the next thing to a goddess; naked, she was only human, an aging woman with stretch marks on her belly and teats that had begun to sag … as the shrews in the crowds had been glad to point out to their husbands and lovers. Better to live shamed than die proud, Ser Kevan told himself. “My niece will make no further mischief,” he promised Mace Tyrell. “You have my word on that, my lord.”

Tyrell gave a grudging nod. “As you say. My Margaery prefers to be tried by the Faith, so the whole realm can bear witness to her innocence.”

If your daughter is as innocent as you’d have us believe, why must you have your army present when she faces her accusers? Ser Kevan might have asked. “Soon, I hope,” he said instead, before turning to Grand Maester Pycelle. “Is there aught else?”

The Grand Maester consulted his papers. “We should address the Rosby inheritance. Six claims have been put forth—”

“We can settle Rosby at some later date. What else?”

“Preparations should be made for Princess Myrcella.”

“This is what comes of dealing with the Dornish,” Mace Tyrell said. “Surely a better match can be found for the girl?”

Such as your own son Willas, perhaps? Her disfigured by one Dornishman, him crippled by another? “No doubt,” Ser Kevan said, “but we have enemies enough without offending Dorne. If Doran Martell were to join his strength to Connington’s in support of this feigned dragon, things could go very ill for all of us.”

“Mayhaps we can persuade our Dornish friends to deal with Lord Connington,” Ser Harys Swyft said with an irritating titter. “That would save a deal of blood and trouble.”

“It would,” Ser Kevan said wearily. Time to put an end to this. “Thank you, my lords. Let us convene again five days hence. After Cersei’s trial.”

“As you say. May the Warrior lend strength to Ser Robert’s arms.” The words were grudging, the dip of the chin Mace Tyrell gave the Lord Regent the most cursory of bows. But it was something, and for that much Ser Kevan Lannister was grateful.

Randyll Tarly left the hall with his liege lord, their green-cloaked spearmen right behind them. Tarly is the real danger, Ser Kevan reflected as he watched their departure. A narrow man, but iron-willed and shrewd, and as good a soldier as the Reach could boast. But how do I win him to our side?

“Lord Tyrell loves me not,” Grand Maester Pycelle said in gloomy tones when the Hand had departed. “This matter of the moon tea … I would never have spoken of such, but the Queen Dowager commanded me! If it please the Lord Regent, I would sleep more soundly if you could lend me some of your guards.”

“Lord Tyrell might take that amiss.”

Ser Harys Swyft tugged at his chin beard. “I am in need of guards myself. These are perilous times.”

Aye, thought Kevan Lannister, and Pycelle is not the only council member our Hand would like to replace. Mace Tyrell had his own candidate for lord treasurer: his uncle, Lord Seneschal of Highgarden, whom men called Garth the Gross. The last thing I need is another Tyrell on the small council. He was already outnumbered. Ser Harys was his wife’s father, and Pycelle could be counted upon as well. But Tarly was sworn to Highgarden, as was Paxter Redwyne, lord admiral and master of ships, presently sailing his fleet around Dorne to deal with Euron Greyjoy’s ironmen. Once Redwyne returned to King’s Landing, the council would stand at three and three, Lannister and Tyrell.

The seventh voice would be the Dornishwoman now escorting Myrcella home. The Lady Nym. But no lady, if even half of what Qyburn reports is true. A bastard daughter of the Red Viper, near as notorious as her father and intent on claiming the council seat that Prince Oberyn himself had occupied so briefly. Ser Kevan had not yet seen fit to inform Mace Tyrell of her coming. The Hand, he knew, would not be pleased. The man we need is Littlefinger. Petyr Baelish had a gift for conjuring dragons from the air.

“Hire the Mountain’s men,” Ser Kevan suggested. “Red Ronnet will have no further use for them.” He did not think that Mace Tyrell would be so clumsy as to try to murder either Pycelle or Swyft, but if guards made them feel safer, let them have guards.

The three men walked together from the throne room. Outside the snow was swirling round the outer ward, a caged beast howling to be free. “Have you ever felt such cold?” asked Ser Harys.

“The time to speak of the cold,” said Grand Maester Pycelle, “is not when we are standing out in it.” He made his slow way across the outer ward, back to his chambers.

The others lingered for a moment on the throne room steps. “I put no faith in these Myrish bankers,” Ser Kevan told his good-father. “You had best prepare to go to Braavos.”

Ser Harys d............
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