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The king is dead, they told him, never knowing that Joffrey was his son as well as his sovereign.  “The Imp opened his throat with a dagger,” a costermonger declared at the roadside inn where they spent the night. “He drank his blood from a big gold chalice.” The man did not recognize the bearded one-handed knight with the big bat on his shield, no more than any of them, so he said things he might otherwise have swallowed, had he known who was listening.  “It was poison did the deed,” the innkeep insisted. “The boy’s face turned black as a plum.”  “May the Father judge him justly,” murmured a septon.  “The dwarf’s wife did the murder with him,” swore an archer in Lord Rowan’s livery. “Afterward, she vanished from the hall in a puff of brimstone, and a ghostly direwolf was seen prowling the Red Keep, blood dripping from his jaws.”  Jaime sat silent through it all, letting the words wash over him, a horn of ale forgotten in his one good hand. Joffrey. My blood. My firstborn. My son. He tried to bring the boy’s face to mind, but his features kept turning into Cersei’s. She will be in mourning, her hair in disarray and her eyes red from crying, her mouth trembling as she tries to speak. She will cry again when she sees me, though she’ll fight the tears. His sister seldom wept but when she was with him. She could not stand for others to think her weak. Only to her twin did she show her wounds. She will look to me for comfort and revenge.  They rode hard the next day, at Jaime’s insistence. His son was dead, and his sister needed him. When he saw the city before him, its watchtowers dark against the gathering dusk, Jaime Lannister cantered up to Steelshanks Walton, behind Nage with the peace banner.  “What’s that awful stink?” the northman complained.  Death, thought Jaime, but he said, “Smoke, sweat, and shit. King’s Landing, in short. If you have a good nose you can smell the treachery too. You’ve never smelled a city before?”  “I smelled White Harbor. It never stank like this.”  “White Harbor is to King’s Landing as my brother Tyrion is to Ser Gregor Clegane.”  Nage led them up a low hill, the seven-tailed peace banner lifting and turning in the wind, the polished seven-pointed star shining bright upon its staff. He would see Cersei soon, and Tyrion, and their father. Could my brother truly have killed the boy? Jaime found that hard to believe.  He was curiously calm. Men were supposed to go mad with grief when their children died, he knew. They were supposed to tear their hair out by the roots, to curse the gods and swear red vengeance. So why was it that he felt so little? The boy lived and died believing Robert Baratheon his sire.  Jaime had seen him born, that was true, though more for Cersei than the child. But he had never held him. “How would it look?” his sister warned him when the women finally left them. “Bad enough Joff looks like you without you mooning over him.” Jaime yielded with hardly a fight. The boy had been a squalling pink thing who demanded too much of Cersei’s time, Cersei’s love, and Cersei’s breasts. Robert was welcome to him.  And now he’s dead. He pictured Joff lying still and cold with a face black from poison, and still felt nothing. Perhaps he was the monster they claimed. If the Father Above came down to offer him back his son or his hand, Jaime knew which he would choose. He had a second son, after all, and seed enough for many more. If Cersei wants another child I’ll give her one... and this time I’ll hold him, and the Others take those who do not like it. Robert was rotting in his grave, and Jaime was sick of lies.  He turned abruptly and galloped back to find Brienne. Gods know why I bother. She is the least companionable creature I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. The wench rode well behind and a few feet off to the side, as if to proclaim that she was no part of them. They had found men’s garb for her along the way; a tunic here, a mantle there, a pair of breeches and a cowled cloak, even an old iron breastplate. She looked more comfortable dressed as a man, but nothing would ever make her look handsome. Nor happy. Once out of Harrenhal, her usual pighead stubbornness had soon reasserted itself. “I want my arms and armor back,” she had insisted. “Oh, by all means, let us have you back in steel,” Jaime replied. “A helm, especially. We’ll all be happier if you keep your mouth shut and your visor down.”  That much Brienne could do, but her sullen silences soon began to fray his good humor almost as much as Qyburn’s endless attempts to be ingratiating. I never thought I would find myself missing the company of Cleos Frey, gods help me. He was beginning to wish he had left her for the bear after all.  “King’s Landing,” Jaime announced when he found her. “Our journey’s done, my lady. You’ve kept your vow, and delivered me to King’s Landing. All but a few fingers and a hand.” Brienne’s eyes were listless. “That was only half my vow. I told Lady Catelyn I would bring her back her daughters. Or Sansa, at the least. And now...”  She never met Robb Stark, yet her grief for him runs deeper than mine for Joff. Or perhaps it was Lady Catelyn she mourned. They had been at Brindlewood when they had that news, from a red-faced tub of a knight named Ser Bertram Beesbury, whose arms were three beehives on a field striped black and yellow. A troop of Lord Piper’s men had passed through Brindlewood only yesterday, Beesbury told them, rushing to King’s Landing beneath a peace banner of their own. “With the Young Wolf dead Piper saw no point to fighting on. His son is captive at the Twins.” Brienne gaped like a cow about to choke on her cud, so it fell to Jaime to draw out the tale of the Red Wedding.  “Every great lord has unruly bannermen who envy him his place,” he told her afterward. “My father had the Reynes and Tarbecks, the Tyrells have the Florents, Hoster Tully had Walder Frey. Only strength keeps such men in their place. The moment they smell weakness... during the Age of Heroes, the Boltons used to flay the Starks and wear their skins as cloaks.” She looked so miserable that Jaime almost found himself wanting to comfort her.  Since that day Brienne had been like one half-dead. Even calling her “wench” failed to provoke any response. The strength is gone from her. The woman had dropped a rock on Robin Ryger, battled a bear with a tourney sword, bitten off Vargo Float’s ear, and fought Jaime to exhaustion... but she was broken now, done. “I’ll speak to my father about returning you to Tarth, if it please you,” he told her. “Or if you would rather stay, I could perchance find some place for you at court.”  “As a lady companion to the queen?” she said dully.  Jaime remembered the sight of her in that pink satin gown, and tried not to imagine what his sister might say of such a companion. “Perhaps a post with the City Watch...”  “I will not serve with oathbreakers and murderers.”  Then why did you ever bother putting on a sword? he might have said, but he bit back the words. “As you will, Brienne.” One-handed, he wheeled his horse about and left her.  The Gate of the Gods was open when they reached it, but two dozen wayns were lined up along the roadside, loaded with casks of cider, barrels of apples, bales of hay, and some of the biggest pumpkins Jaime had ever seen. Almost every wagon had its guards; men-at-arms wearing the badges of small lordlings, sellswords in mail and boiled leather, sometimes only a pink-cheeked farmer’s son clutching a homemade spear with a firehardened point. Jaime smiled at them all as he trotted past. At the gate, the gold cloaks were collecting coin from each driver before waving the wagons through. “What’s this?” Steelshanks demanded.  “They got to pay for the right to sell inside the city. By command of the King’s Hand and the master of coin.”  Jaime looked at the long line of wayns, carts, and laden horses. “Yet they still line up to pay?”  “There’s good coin to be made here now that the fighting’s done,” the miller in the nearest wagon told them cheerfully. “It’s the Lannisters hold the city now, old Lord Tywin of the Rock. They say he shits silver.”  “Gold,” Jaime corrected dryly. “And Littlefinger mints the stuff from goldenrod, I vow.”  “The Imp is master of coin now,” said the captain of the gate. “Or was, till they arrested him for murdering the king.” The man looked the northmen over suspiciously. “Who are you lot?”  “Lord Bolton’s men, come to see the King’s Hand.”  The captain glanced at Nage with his peace banner. “Come to bend the knee, you mean. You’re not the first. Go straight up to the castle, and see you make no trouble.” He waved them through and turned back to the wagons.  If King’s Landing mourned its dead boy king, Jaime would never have known it. On the Street of Seeds a begging brother in threadbare robes was praying loudly for Joffrey’s soul, but the passersby paid him no more heed than they would a loose shutter banging in the wind. Elsewhere milled the usual crowds; gold cloaks in their black mail, bakers’ boys selling tarts and breads and hot pies, whores leaning out of windows with their bodices half unlaced, gutters redolent of nightsoil. They passed five men trying to drag a dead horse from the mouth of an alley, and elsewhere a juggler spinning knives through the air to delight a throng of drunken Tyrell soldiers and small children.  Riding down familiar streets with two hundred northmen, a chainless maester, and an ugly freak of a woman at his side, Jaime found he scarcely drew a second look. He did not know whether he ought to be amused or annoyed. “They do not know me,” he said to Steelshanks as they rode through Cobbler’s Square.  “Your face is changed, and your arms as well,” the northman said, “and they have a new Kingslayer now.”  The gates to the Red Keep were open, but a dozen gold cloaks armed with pikes barred the way. They lowered their points as Steelshanks came trotting up, but Jaime recognized the white knight commanding them. “Ser Meryn.”  Ser Meryn Trant’s droopy eyes went wide. “Ser Jaime?”  “How nice to be remembered. Move these men aside.”  It had been a long time since anyone had leapt to obey him quite so fast. Jaime had forgotten how well he liked it.  They found two more Kingsguard in the outer ward; two who had not worn white cloaks when Jaime last served here. How like Cersei to name me Lord Commander and then choose my colleagues without consulting me. “Someone has given me two new brothers, I see,” he said as he dismounted.  “We have that honor, ser.” The Knight of Flowers shone so fine and pure in his white scales and silk that Jaime felt a tattered and tawdry thing by contrast.  Jaime turned to Meryn Trant. “Ser, you’ve been remiss in teaching our new brothers their duties.”  “What duties?” said Meryn Trant defensively.  “Keeping the king alive. How many monarchs have you lost since I left the city? Two, is it?” Then Ser Balon saw the stump. “Your hand...”  Jaime made himself smile. “I fight with my left now. It makes for more of a contest. Where will I find my lord father?”  “In the solar with Lord Tyrell and Prince Oberyn.”  Mace Tyrell and the Red Viper breaking bread together? Strange and stranger. “Is the queen with them as well?”  “No, my lord,” Ser Balon answered. “You’ll find her in the sept, praying over King Joff -  “You!”  The last of the northmen had dismounted, Jaime saw, and now Loras Tyrell had seen Brienne.  “Ser Loras.” She stood stupidly, holding her bridle.  Loras Tyrell strode toward her. “Why?” he said. “You will tell me why. He treated you kindly, gave you a rainbow cloak. Why would you kill him?”  “I never did. I would have died for him.”  “You will.” Ser Loras drew his longsword.  “It was not me.”  “Emmon Cuy swore it was, with his dying breath.”  “He was outside the tent, he never saw -”  “There was no one in the tent but you and Lady Stark. Do you claim that old woman could cut through hardened steel?”  “There was a shadow I know how mad it sounds, but... I was helping Renly into his armor, and the candles blew out and there was blood everywhere. It was Stannis, Lady Catelyn said. His... his shadow. I had no part in it, on my honor...”  “You have no honor. Draw your sword. I won’t have it said that I slew you while your hand was empty.”  Jaime stepped between them. “Put the sword away, ser.”  Ser Loras edged around him. “Are you a craven as well as a killer, Brienne? Is that why you ran, with his blood on your hands? Draw your sword, woman!”  “Best hope she doesn’t.” Jaime blocked his path again. “Or it’s like to be your corpse we carry out. The wench is as strong as Gregor Clegane, though not so pretty.”  “This is no concern of yours.” Ser Loras shoved him aside.  Jaime grabbed the boy with his good hand and yanked him around. “I am the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, you arrogant pup. Your commander, so long as you wear that white cloak. Now sheathe your bloody sword, or I’ll take it from you and shove it up some place even Renly never found.”  The boy hesitated half a heartbeat, long enough for Ser Balon Swann to say, “Do as the Lord Commander says, Loras.” Some of the gold cloaks drew their steel then, and that made some Dreadfort men do the same. Splendid, thought Jaime, no sooner do I climb down off my horse than we have a bloodbath in the yard.  Ser Loras Tyrell slammed his sword back into its sheath.  “That wasn’t so difficult, was it?”  “I want her arrested.” Ser Loras pointed. “Lady Brienne, I charge you with the murder of Lord Renly Baratheon.”  “For what it’s worth,” said Jaime, “the wench does have honor. More than I have seen from you. And it may even be she’s telling it true. I’ll grant you, she’s not what you’d call clever, but even my horse could come up with a better lie, if it was a lie she meant to tell. As you insist, however... Ser Balon, escort Lady Brienne to a tower cell and hold her there under guard. And find some suitable quarters for Steelshanks and his men, until such time as my father can see them.”  “Yes, my lord.”  Brienne’s big blue eyes were full of hurt as Balon Swann and a dozen gold cloaks led her away. You ought to be blowing me kisses, wench, he wanted to tell her. Why must they misunderstand every bloody thing he did? Aerys. It all grows from Aerys. Jaime turned his back on the wench and strode across the yard.  Another knight in white armor was guarding the doors of the royal sept; a tall man with a black beard, broad shoulders, and a hooked nos............
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