ACT III: THE LITTLE PRINCE
She holds the boy in her arms and stares at the small wriggling creature. He is a Stark, that is plain to see. His hair is a dark red, but his eyes a bright green, much like her own. She looks at the child, and the lack of revulsion she feels surprises her.
She wanted this boy to be Jaime’s. She had wanted that more than anything. They had always shared everything, always, the two of them as one, and why should her children be any different? If she needed Jaime in order to feel whole, they would need the same as well. And besides, the heir to the throne should be a Lannister through and through, even if only she and Jaime were the wiser for it.
But this boy is Ned’s. This boy belongs to the both of them, they both together are inside this boy -- a prince, heir to the throne -- and the way her heart seems to clench and twist inside her chest she chooses to blame on the exertions of labor and childbirth.
Ned asks to name the boy. He asks, he does not tell.
Maybe that is why Cersei concedes.
There will be four children in total: the eldest Brandon, her daughter Myranda, son Terrence, and their youngest, Elaena.
Their first child changes some things for Ned and Cersei, but not enough.
She continues to slip out to Jaime. Lord Varys tells her of the rumblings of the court, the curiosity most possess as to why her brother lingers in King’s Landing.
“He is here for me,” she says, authority ringing in her voice and she levels Lord Varys with a stare much as her father would do.
“Does our queen need protection from her good wolf, the king?” he simpers.
Cersei cannot help but scowl. Not once has Ned raised a hand against her, and she is sure this spider knows as much. His whispers fill the castle, and as oft as he reports back to her, she knows there are other ears he fills with his secrets, his findings. Cersei knows that every ally inside these walls comes with an attached risk, that there will be a future penalty incurred for trusting this man or any other, but the other end of that particular blade is that she needs him.
“Do not play dumb with me, Varys. We both know your mummer’s talents only extend so far.”
“My lovely queen, I could never wish to impart offense. A thousand apologies, Your Grace. I should not have pressed.”
His earnest yet empty apology only stokes her ire, and her scowl deepens. “You and I both know my lord husband, your king, would never so much as bare his teeth at me. I will not permit such talk or even idle gossip in my court.”
Talk of her husband is hardly limited to Lord Varys and the court. Jaime loves to mock him in private, his body wrapped tight around hers, his mouth ghosting over hers as he speaks, his words as hers, and Cersei will feel each word rumble through him as he speaks.
“How is your Northern man?” Jaime asks on a yawn. “I keep meaning to ask -- is it true? Has he honestly an icicle for a cock?”
In the beginning she laughed, each barb against her husband uttered by her brother a quiet unknown rebellion and triumph. But Jaime does not tire of mockery, and even as her responses wane from first laughter to an annoyed roll of her eyes, he does not stop.
Cersei does not bother to analyze where her lack of amusement originates. She tells herself that when she is with Jaime, she wants it to be about him, not about Ned. Ned has no place there. There is no room for it, no room for him.
There is hardly enough room for Ned inside her as it is.
After Brandon’s birth, Ned comes to her more often. There is always an unspoken question in his eye each time he touches her, as though he is giving her an out, a chance to tell him no. But she never resists. She lives in fear of suspicion, fear that if she says no he will begin to wonder why. The spider is not the only one who whispers through the castle, and she cannot even begin to fathom how Ned would react to her infidelity.
She often thinks of his greatsword. She thinks often of each traitor he has beheaded, how the blood stained and dirtied his blade.
He comes to her, and she thinks of her son. She thinks of clean bloodlines, the Targaryens of all families, and in her heart she knows should any inherit the throne it should be a Lannister. Solely a Lannister, no northern blood. She finds other ways to sate him on occasion. He likes her mouth. He likes to grab and pull at her hair as she swallows down around him, as she swallows him.
The first time she did it, he came noisy and panting as she choked.
He opened her legs after and licked at her, made her come and for the first time she called his name. She fisted a hand in his hair and held him tight against her.
She often wonders how Lord Varys knows which secrets to keep from whom, how one person could ever keep it all straight.
When Brandon was born, they said winter is coming, and sure enough, it does. The autumn season stretches on twice as long as the winter that accompanies it. The winter in King’s Landing is mild, and when the first snow comes, Ned welcomes it.
The winter arrives with her daughter.
Her first daughter is Jaime’s. The girl is Cersei in miniature, all blonde curls and her mother’s gravitas.
“They say she is Lord Tywin in a little girl’s body,” Ned tells Robert. Robert spits his wine out as he crows and laughs.
“That old lion hasn’t been inside a girl for ages!”
The son that follows is also Jaime’s, a similar mirror image to the girl that came before. They could be twins had it not been for the year that came between. But it is not her true brother Myranda attaches herself to, but Brandon.
Together they make a pretty contrasting picture: his dark straight hair and ruddy complexion against her porcelain pale skin and length of blonde hair. The two keep to each other, full of young secrets and equally grand adventures throughout the castle, and if they remind Cersei of herself and her brother then it is a thought she suppresses deep inside herself.
Her son Terrence is a sickly boy. He keeps company with the maesters, poring himself over maps, drawing his finger down long lost trade routes and all that rests on the other side of the Narrow Sea. He tells his mother he wishes to travel there, that he will be a grand pirate, as in the books his nursemaid reads him, and Cersei can only stare at her son. Stare and wonder how it is possible he came from her at all.
Their youngest daughter is Ned’s. As she grows, Cersei finds her heart aching for the child. She wants to cup the girl’s face in her hands and tell her, I know.
I know what it’s like to be born and know you should have been a man.
She silently chides herself for such a reaction to the girl, and instead adopts an air of extreme annoyance at their daughter’s spells of nonconformity.
The girl finds trouble around every bend, sneaking about, following her brothers as they attend archery and sword lessons, lessons Elaena is infinitely more interested in than her brother Terrence. She is a bright girl, quick on her feet with a smart mouth to match, and Ned humors her.
“Your daughter is most cross with you,” Cersei tells him that night, the two long married now. Ned is tired, she can see it. But he arches a brow, a trait she likes to think he adopted from her, and in good humor grumbles, “which one?”
“Your youngest,” she says. “She wants sword lessons of her own.”
“Does she now.”
“Yes. And I told her you would not allow that. That a princess has certain expectations, and fighting amongst boys in the yard is certainly not one of them.”
“I imagine she took that well.”
“She’s just a girl.”
“Funny you say that,” he says quietly, and his point is well taken.
If Ned notices two of his children possess no passing resemblance to him, their father, the king, he does not mention it.
He loves all four the same.
She does not know when they began to change, when they evolved into something closer to what a marriage is meant to resemble. Jaime returns to Casterly Rock for an extended spell following Terrence’s birth. When he returns it is with her father and younger brother in tow and Elaena is already past her fifth name day.
She remembers a night, winter, she thinks.
She rested in bed with him, naked. For the past several days all anyone would discuss was the Targaryen children, young Viserys and his sister. They say they are lost in exile beyond the Narrow Sea, yet still a threat if Ned’s council is to have any say in the matter.
“You do not fear them?” she asked.
“They are children,” he replied, brusque and almost dismissive, yet his fingers brushed down the length of her arm, his gaze watchful as he looked down at her.
“There are those in the realm who would still call you The Usurper,” she said to him, and his hand stilled against her arm.
“They are not wrong,” he said. “That is what I am.”
Cersei snorted inelegantly. “You say it as though with pride,” she said.
“With honesty,” Ned said.
His hand slid down her arm over her ribs to her bare breast. She arched into the touch without thought, her mouth opening eagerly to his.
That night she dreamt of the two Targaryen children, but in her dream their faces shifted and changed, they aged, grew, and they were no longer children but instead Cersei and Jaime. They stood first together barefoot in a desert landscape, and then she stood alone, everything fire-scorched and destroyed, and she thirsted. She fell to her knees, and when she looked up, King Eddard Stark stood before her backlit by a bleeding sun, his greatsword Ice in hand.
She woke sweating. Her throat was parched, her body was wound tight around her husband’s.
It was soon after that Ned placed Cersei on his innermost council. From there on, she sits to his right when they meet. At first she had been categorically dismissed by the other lords in attendance. But Ned let her speak. Ned listened to her. Slowly, that had been what she came to know of him: regardless of what she said, regardless of how accusatory or off-base, how against his own principles her own ideas might run, he would hear her out. He’d argue back in kind, at times thunderously angry and others resigned yet still indignant, near child-like in his refusal to cave, to settle, to sacrifice any shred of honor. But he would listen to her. His face would be deadly serious, betraying nothing of his personal thoughts, and he would be patient. He would listen.
She will insist her father can help pay the crown’s debts. Ned will refuse in earnest, refusing to become a debtor king, refusing to allow Lord Tywin to infiltrate his court that much further.
“He will expect repayment,” he says, the tone of his voice closing the subject, yet Cersei presses on.
“Of course he would. He would not be offering out of charity,” she snipes.
“I don’t mean in coin,” Ned bites back. And that will make Cersei laugh. There are few things Good King Ned hates more than political favors, except for perhaps bribery and her father.
Her father, her family -- two things Ned makes no effort to disguise his distaste for. Ned is too open with everything he feels -- his contempt, his anger, disgust, desire, all his little guilts and hurts. Cersei could not be more different, and as the years pass, as their children grow, her guilt swells. It surprises her. Of all things, she never expected to feel guilt for her own ambition.
But perhaps it is not ambition she should feel guilty for. It is Jaime, it is her children and the daily charade she passes, masking them as Ned’s and not her brother’s.
It is more than that, she knows. It is being torn between two men, the one she needs as a part of herself, and the other, her husband.
It is strange to witness a man learn your own body. With Jaime, he always knew her, knew everything about her. The things she felt and the things she desired stemmed straight from him. They were never strangers, never a mystery to the other.
With Ned it is different.
She goes to Jaime, and she thinks of Ned. She takes Ned inside of her, and she will think of her brother. She is no longer sure who owes her what and what she may owe in return. She knows the scars that map Ned’s chest and back as well as if they were her own. She knows that if she runs her mouth over the jagged, crooked scar that arcs along his ribcage he will shudder under her, grab at her hair and say her name.
She knows she has come to need him in a way she cannot bring herself to articulate, that she never tells him that she loves him and he never offers the words in exchange, but Ned is too open with her. He will come to her, and he will lose himself in her -- Cersei’s hand sliding over his back, feeling the way his muscles tremble and shift, the sharp cut of his shoulder blades, they way they valley and dip in the middle, his backbone, the solid lean cut of him, the arrhythmic juddering of his hips against hers, the animal noises he makes, less a wolf and more the wounded prey. He will not say, I need you, but she’ll feel it, desperation bleeding off of him and into her.
She knows what it means to need someone else.
She just always thought there could be only one.
Myranda is a girl of fifteen. A woman, by most standards. She is to be married to the Tyrell boy, Garlan, his name.
“I’ll have to leave?” Myranda says, the answer already known to her. Cersei nods. “What about Brandon? Will he ever leave?”
“Your brother is to be king,” Cersei tells her. “His place is here.”
“And mine is not?” Cersei ducks her head, the girl’s indignation all too familiar. Cersei feels her worst suspicions are being realized in this moment -- she believes her place is here if her brother’s place is here, she has brought more of the same into this world. But they are not two halves of a whole. They were not created at the same moment in time, they did not enter the world together, bound, together. This is paranoia, she thinks.
“Your place,” she says, “will be with your lord husband, wherever he may be. Be it Highgarden or elsewhere.”
“If Brandon gets to be king, then why don’t I get to be queen?”
“It does not work that way, pet.”
“I never get to be queen?”
“You will be a princess, my darling. Always and forever a princess.”
“But never queen. I’ll never be like you.” The gods willing, Cersei thinks. Instead she merely shakes her head and tells her daughter, no.
Myranda attempts a new tactic, a new angle, perhaps a new fear. “What if I don’t love my lord husband?” she asks, her voice small, and Cersei is reminded of how young she really is. Cersei was older than fifteen years when she married Ned Stark, though not by much. She looks at Myranda, almost surprised by the question. When Cersei was told by her father she was to marry Ned, the question never crossed her mind. She assumed their marriage would be much the same as the bartering of any good -- her body exchanged for his power. She would not need him to love her, and she would not need to love him in return; she had Jaime for that. Ned had his dead wife for that. Their need for each other would be purely economical, her bed for his sword. Her bed for the name queen.
Perhaps it is not the question that catches Cersei by surprise, but the immediate answer that springs to her tongue.
“You will learn to,” she tells Myranda. She takes a sip of the tea before her and it is too honeyed, too sweet.
“Did you love Father when you wed him?” Myranda asks, her face stubborn and curious.
The answer is no, but Cersei sees no point in admitting it. Instead she repeats herself. Instead she says, “You will learn to.”
ACT IV: NEW BLOOD SPILLED AS OLD
The realm sours, an overripe fruit past the point of plucking. Ned’s friendship with Robert has begun to wane following Ned’s visit six months past to Storm’s End. Cersei had accompanied him (begrudging as she might have been) as had their children. What they found was a Lyanna much changed from the last they saw her. Ned fretted in private after his sister, and Cersei had not the heart nor the patience to explain that even marriages built on choice, or even love, were not always destined for great success.
She didn’t know how to tell a man like Ned that some men are always hungry for more.
Some women, too.
Their journey to Storm’s End left a bad taste in Ned’s mouth, and slowly but surely, his relationship with Robert began to fissure. Talk ripples through the castle that Robert Baratheon was robbed of a throne that by rights -- or by conquest -- should have been his.
The talk irritates Ned more than it worries him.
“That man was more content with a wineskin in his hand and a bed in a brothel under him rather than a throne.”
Cersei could not argue, but someone was whispering in Robert’s ear, and while it might not worry Ned, it worried her.
Add to Robert his brother Stannis and the rumors of a red priestess amassing power out at Dragonstone. A false king will crumble in ash, they say she says.
Add to the Baratheons the Greyjoys of the Iron Islands with their own ambitions, the taste of spilled blood near twenty years past still filling their mouths, leaving in its wake a thirst for vengeance.
Add to the entire kingdom word from The Wall -- wildlings, they say. The Others, they fear to say.
Benjen simply says, “Winter is coming.”
And Ned. Ned, The Good King, they call him, but the epithet takes on a dark, sardonic tone.
Cersei has always told him the way to rule is with a closed fist; the smallfolk abide by fear rather than geniality. But Ned would never heed her. He would say The Mad King’s name, the question left hanging in the air, his scorn still deeply personal -- there’s your fear, he did not say.
“There are times,” he confides to her, “that I worry seven kingdoms were never meant to live as one.”
“You would allow secession?” she asks. Her heart sinks at the prospect. A kingdom divided is worth less than a kingdom whole. She did not work this hard, she did not marry him, bear his children, to rule a single pocket of Westeros.
But it is more than that, she realizes as she waits for his response. There is no question of her own ambition, there never has been, but it is not just a kingdom she fears to lose.
“No,” he says with that unyielding obstinacy she likes to draw from him. “I could never.”
That night she will hear herself speak, quiet, in whisper, as though the voice is not her own. Her hair will spill over his chest as she whispers just under his jaw. As she tells him he is a good king, that the smallfolk trust him. “You are a good king,” she will say. The realm will hold.
She will say it again.
The realm will hold.
The first blood in what will become known as The War of Three Kings is spilt inside the castle walls.
Brandon Stark is the war’s first casualty, his throat slit while he slept in his own bed.
The injustice of it all is the mystery that surrounds the boy’s (no, Cersei reminds herself, man’s) death. No one and everyone claims responsibility for the deed.
It was a Faceless Man hired by the Targaryen exiles beyond the Narrow Sea. It was an Iron urchin sent by boat and then over land, a small and nimble brat who scurried his way first inside the castle and then into Brandon Stark’s bed chamber, dagger in hand. It was the red priestess herself, in two places at once as though a ghost, and it was her bloody blade -- red as the robes she donned and the hair that spilled down her back -- that did the deed.
It was the Red Viper, come north from Dorne to avenge Brandon’s rejection of any of his daughters as wife and queen.
It was a handmaid Robert had been fucking.
It was his own sister.
It was his Uncle Jaime.
It was everyone, yet no one.
(They wake her in the night to tell her. They wake the both of them, Ser Barristan Selmy the one to tell them, and the first words he utters are, “The gods be good,” as though he might begin to cry.
And then he says it.
She hears a wild shriek and as the floor meets her knees and she feels her husband’s hands strong under her arms holding her up, she realizes it was her).
When she wakes, she is alone.
She steps out of her bed chamber to find double the guard usually present at her door.
She goes to Ned in the godswood, each step slow and precise, painful in a way she never knew before. Their eldest son is dead, just a boy, she thinks, but was he? He was near seventeen, a man grown. A king in the making.
Now her son will inherit, her son not Ned’s, and is that not what she always wanted?
(“Tell me you did not do this,” she will later beg of Jaime.
He will frown but his eyes will be mocking. “No, dear sister, I did not murder your darling boy.”
She will believe him, though she will not be able to decide if what she feels is relief. If not Jaime, she will think, then who.
Her father will decide the answer to both questions, fabricated to fit his own agenda, and if Cersei goes to her grave never learning her son’s murderer’s identity, then she goes to her grave unaware).
Ned will not weep, but Cersei does. She cries loudly, her face buried in his shoulder, and Myranda will weep later too, and like a good father, Ned will take her in his arms as well.
Her family came back to King’s Landing for a reason.
An undercurrent of dread fills the castle. Rebellion is brewing yet again, fears reach from beyond The Wall, and the threat of the last Targaryens lingers on as the two children have grown to adulthood.
There is a greater threat still, one perhaps Ned is not even aware of:
The Lannisters. Tywin Lannister bought a crown with his daughter and the promise of gold.
“Forgive me,” Lord Tywin says unapologetically, “but the boy’s death opens a great many doors of potential.”
Jaime suggests killing Ned, portraying him as breaking his vows as king, that he has murdered his own son and has gone against the gods, a traitor who intends to ruin his own realm. The implications of Ned’s death are obvious: with Brandon dead, her younger son would take the throne, yet still be too young to rule, so Cersei and their father could step in and assume the authority for him.
Cersei’s face is unreadable as she listens. “No,” is all she says at first.
“No?” Jaime mocks. “I thought you wanted a throne.”
Cersei sighs. “We wait for rebellion. The Seven Kingdoms are itching for war, so we let them have war. Knowing Ned, he’s never seen a battle he has not wanted to run and join. He’s a soldier first. If there is war, he will raise his sword, and no councillor could tell him otherwise. We let him go to war. He leaves, yet we remain. The war may take him, but regardless, we can undo his mandate while he is afield.”
“Your husband has too many allies,” Lord Tywin says.
“Death won’t undo that,” she argues.
“It certainly helps.”
“Why now?” she asks then. She can hear the anger in her own tone, the raw emotion, and she hates herself for it. Hates herself all the more because she knows her father heard it. He looks at her curiously, her brothers, too. “You’ve had seventeen years. Why now. Why not later.”
“Why, dear sister,” Tyrion says, “can it be that you’re in your husband’s corner after all?”
She glares at him.
Lord Tywin ignores the both of them. “Your husband’s friendship and alliance with Robert Baratheon has begun to sour, much thanks to Lady Lyanna once again. The Greyjoys of the Iron Islands want King Ned’s blood for their own past misery. Stannis Baratheon out on his spit of rock is rumored to have a red priestess in his employ who calls Ned a false king. The heir to the throne has been murdered.”
“In other words,” Jaime drawls, “as Balon Greyjoy might say, had the salty bastard a lick of humor, best to strike while the iron is hot?”
For all her planning and for all her family’s own cunning, there is a single point Cersei never considered:
She does not know how, but Jon Arryn learned the true parentage of Jaime’s children. He learned they do not belong to Ned.
Another thing she will never know is what Jon Arryn said to Ned. She will never know what words were exchanged between the two men, but merely that they met. What she does know is what Lord Varys told her, that Jon Arryn had begun asking questions. That he was curious about Myranda and Terrence. That he wanted to know why Jaime Lannister spent so much time in King’s Landing when his place was at the Rock.
(A final thing Cersei will never know of Jon Arryn is how ardently Ned rose to her defense.
“I suggest you stop right there and consider carefully what you will say next,” Ned said. Jon Arryn ducked his head and then raised it, looking straight back at Ned.
“Your Grace,” was all he said, but it was enough. He said it the same way a man would offer a plea, not for forgiveness, but to believe him.
“What you are suggesting is high treason. What you are suggesting . . . is unfathomable.”
“I understand that, Your Grace. Truly. But with your Brandon dead, it is Terrence who stands to gain the throne should you pass.”
“Terrence is my son,” Ned said.
“Your Grace . . . ”
“He is my son,” he repeated, louder this time. “These are my children. They are mine. I will -- I will hear no more of this foolishness.”
Ned paused and looked at Jon Arryn. “This is my wife you speak of,” he said angrily, his face ruddy with his own fury. “My children.”
“Begging your pardon, Your Grace, that is merely the thrust of it. For I fear they are not -- ”
“They are my children. I will hear no more on the matter. Cersei -- my wife. No. They are my children.”)
What Cersei does know is the strength of the tears of lys. She knows that this is a secret she will kill for, and she does. When she sends the young squire away to Jon Arryn she understands why Ned insists himself on slaying each and every man he condemns to death.
Any other way is too easy.
(“Jon Arryn is dead,” Ned says roughly.
Cersei keeps her face still, her body tight and tense even though she leans back against the pillows. He turns to her and she frowns, bypasses surprise and attempts to look concerned. It is unexpected, however, how natural the emotion comes to her. Perhaps she is concerned, though not for Jon Arryn -- but her husband.
“What happened?” she asks quietly. She listens as Ned explains what she already knows, as he omits the parts only she could know, only Jaime, and the frown on her face deepens. He disrobes in silence, his back to her, and it’s then that she hears him mumble, “he was like a father to me.”
“I know,” she murmurs, her voice almost accusatory. She clears her throat when he turns to her and she offers him a smile -- small, sad, her lips pressed tight together; she says, “I know, my love.”
He comes to her, lowers his head into her lap and Cersei’s fingers brush against his temple and then drag through his hair. His hand covers her knee, his skin hot as always. She leans over and kisses the top of his head. “I am so sorry,” she whispers. His grip tightens on her knee, but he cranes his neck to look up at her, her hair falling over her shoulder and drifting into his face. He winds a strand around his finger, and Cersei leans in again. “I am so sorry,” she whispers again, then presses her lips first one closed eyelid and then another. “I am so sorry.” She kiss his lips then, softly, and he kisses her back. She sighs his name and he rises to her, takes her in his arms and kisses her hard.
She thinks she means each apology she has offered him).
Ned never confronts her about what Jon Arryn said.
The City Watch and the Kingsguard alike turn on Ned under her father’s command. They arrest him. They arrest him and they charge him with his own son’s murder. With Jon Arryn dead and Ned, their king, in the dungeon, Cersei as queen regent allows her father to fill the role of Hand of the King once more.
“Will the smallfolk accept Terrence as king?” she asks.
“We will make them,” is her father’s swift response.
“They will not consider him of the same blood of his father? They will not call him craven, a traitor as well?”
“We will not let them.” A thick silence fills the room, and Cersei looks down at her hands knotted in her lap.
“And Ned?” The question is soft and she looks to her hands when she asks it. When she looks up her father is studying her mercilessly.
“Do not tell me you have let yourself go weak-hearted here in the east. King-making has always been a bloody business. Do not tell me you are surprised now, child. Blood delivered Ned Stark to a throne he had no right to take. And blood will take it from him, sure as his damned winter will come, and blood will bring a new king to that same throne he left behind.”
Blood, she thinks. Always blood. She will draw it as she can, as a woman can and does, and she thinks the word for that is betrayal.
“He need not die. He could take the black,” she says. “Those crows always come calling, requesting more men to guard against the far north. What better man than Ned.”
“What better man, you say.” For a moment, her father almost sounds sympathetic. She thinks of her mother, and she is sure her father is thinking of her, too.
“He will be arrested come morning,” her father says.
That night there is no moon and their bed chamber is too dark, she cannot see. But she knows him by touch, she can feel him beside her. She would close her eyes against him anyway, not guilt, she thinks, but fear.
She tells him she loves him, her face buried in the crook of his neck, her mouth muffled against his skin.
She says, “I love you.”
ACT V: A THRONE IS SEIZED
At end, we go back --
Ned Stark took the throne. Perhaps he was the first to emerge from the melee. Perhaps he had been hungry for more than blood, more than the bitter, metallic taste of revenge, and this was planned from the start, planned outside the gates, or no.
The Mad King’s death had been a surprise to him. Not unwanted, but a surprise. Or, no.
He knew he would find King Aerys dead, knew it the same way he had known when those ravens came calling at Winterfell that his father and his brother were dead. He just knew not whose hand slew him. He did not expect Jaime Lannister, and maybe the point of this is: he should have.
He should have expected the Lannisters.
He studied the Iron Throne for a moment. Jaime would want to call it hesitation, but even he knew that was the wrong word for it. Jaime watched at the foot of the stairs as Eddard Stark, the first of his name, Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North, stared at that barbed chair with reverence, and perhaps regret.
And then he sat.
It is a clear morning.
The mob will not stop chanting Ned’s name. They call him The Good King. They call for Good King Ned. “Serendipitous his name rhymes with ‘head,’” Jaime had drawled earlier, and Cersei had not responded. He kissed her then, and she kissed him back.
She stands alone with Terrence at the Great Sept of Baelor. Cersei would not allow Elaena to attend, and Myranda elected to stay back with her sister.
“He would never,” she said to her mother. “Father would never.”
Terrence tries to stand tall beside her, but he fidgets, his crown heavy on his head, his cloak too heavy for the heat of the day, more boy than king.
Ned’s hands are bound when he speaks his last words to her.
“Perhaps it is you who should hold the sword,” he says.
His eyes do not leave hers until they pull him away and make him kneel.
The crowd roars when the blade comes down.
In this story, everyone gets what they wanted.
Robert takes Lyanna and weds her. In this story Lyanna does not die, and Robert is not crowned.
Everyone gets what they thought they wanted, but the taste of it is hardly as sweet as imagined. Ned gets a kingdom to shape and bend to his will, he can make Westeros good, he can bring it back to glory. Cersei gets her throne, she gets the power she has always thirsted for. Westeros gets its Good King.
But it all ends in blood. It all ends in war. Ned loses his head, Cersei loses her husband and her son, and Westeros, Westeros is always losing.
Ned is beheaded at the Great Sept of Baelor for the crime of filicide and treason against the Seven Kingdoms. Cersei’s efforts to allow Ned to take the black had gone mostly ignored, and Ser Ilyn Payne is ordered to behead Ned all the same. In the absence of a king to judiciously decide, the Hand shall take that role, her father tells her.
And then he takes his head.
“Was the cost steeper than you imagined, dear sister?” Tyrion asks, too mirthful for her tastes, so she scowls. “Or was it the iceman, ironic as it is, who managed to first thaw and then crack open your metal heart? And here I thought you only had love for your own blood -- save for mine, of course.”
“Silence,” she hisses. She will give him no more than that. He does not deserve it.
“Well,” Tyrion says. “There is your throne, your seat of power. Go and sit upon it.”
Terrence takes the throne, and Cersei sits to the right of him. Her hands barely shake. Benjen Stark is said to be marching from the North; vengeance for his brother, he says, and it is almost enough to make Cersei want to laugh. Near twenty years before Ned Stark marched south with the same purpose pounding in his heart.
Before she entered the hall, she went to her daughter’s chambers first. She found the girl curled in the corner of her room, her wooden practice sword clutched tight in hand. Cersei stepped to her, each step too loud in the girl’s room and young Elaena blinked her eyes at her mother.
“What did Father do?” she asked, voice as steely as a child’s could be. “What did he do wrong?” she asked.
Cersei did not trust her own voice to answer, so she did not say anything. Instead, she knelt. She ran her fingers through Elaena’s dark and tangled hair, wiped at the girl’s tears. Cersei cupped her face in her hands, and when she finally spoke she said, “now, now.”
“Now, now,” she said, as a nursemaid calms a squalling child. Nothing of Elaena’s face belonged to Cersei, and when her features began to blur before her, Cersei blinked rapidly and whispered again, “now, now.”
Beside her, Tyrion asks, “Are you well, sister?”
She had been unsure who she had been hoping to comfort.
Cersei nods. “I just . . . ” She pauses. “I forgot myself for a moment is all,” she says, voice as stiff as her posture.
Her son stands, the crown on his head too large. Her father sits on the other side of him. The men who enter the hall take to their knee and to her boy, to her family, to her, they pledge their fealty.
Everything in its right place, she thinks.
The realm will hold, she promised him. She does not know now who she was hoping to convince more: her or him.
The same old men of seasons past fear the winter again, they say it is coming.
She thinks it is already here.