"Do you have many friends across the water?"
"In Myr, many. In Lys as well, and Tyrosh. Men of power."
Cersei could well believe it. The Myrish woman was too beautiful by half; long-legged and full-breasted, with smooth olive skin, ripe lips, huge dark eyes, and thick black hair that always looked as if she'd just come from bed. She even smells of sin, like some exotic lotus. "Lord Merryweather and I wish only to serve Your Grace and the little king," the woman purred, with a look that was as pregnant as Lady Graceford.
This one is ambitious, and her lord is proud but poor. "We must speak again, my lady. Taena, is it? You are most kind. I know that we shall be great friends."
Then the Lord of Highgarden descended on her.
Mace Tyrell was no more than ten years older than Cersei, yet she thought of him as her father's age, not her own. He was not quite so tall as Lord Tywin had been, but elsewise he was bigger, with a thick chest and a gut grown even thicker. His hair was chestnut-colored, but there were specks of white and grey in his beard. His face was often red. "Lord Tywin was a great man, an extraordinary man," he declared ponderously after he had kissed both her cheeks. "We shall never see his like again, I fear."
You are looking at his like, fool, Cersei thought. It is his daughter standing here before you. But she needed Tyrell and the strength of Highgarden to keep Tommen on his throne, so all she said was, "He will be greatly missed."
Tyrell put a hand upon her shoulder. "No man alive is fit to don Lord Tywin's armor, that is plain. Still, the realm goes on, and must be ruled. If there is aught that I might do to serve in this dark hour, Your Grace need only ask."
If you want to be the King's Hand, my lord, have the courage to say it plainly. The queen smiled. Let him read into that as much as he likes. "Surely my lord is needed in the Reach?"
"My son Willas is an able lad," the man replied, refusing to take her perfectly good hint. "His leg may be twisted but he has no want of wits. And Garlan will soon take Brightwater. Between them the Reach will be in good hands, if it happens that I am needed elsewhere. The governance of the realm must come first, Lord Tywin often said. And I am pleased to bring Your Grace good tidings in that regard. My uncle Garth has agreed to serve as master of coin, as your lord father wished. He is making his way to Oldtown to take ship. His sons will accompany him. Lord Tywin mentioned something about finding places for the two of them as well. Perhaps in the City Watch."
The queen's smile had frozen so hard she feared her teeth might crack. Garth the Gross on the small council and his two bastards in the gold cloaks . . . do the Tyrells think I will just serve the realm up to them on a gilded platter? The arrogance of it took her breath away.
"Garth has served me well as Lord Seneschal, as he served my father before me," Tyrell was going on. "Littlefinger had a nose for gold, I grant you, but Garth - "
"My lord," Cersei broke in, "I fear there has been some misunderstanding. I have asked Lord Gyles Rosby to serve as our new master of coin, and he has done me the honor of accepting."
Mace gaped at her. "Rosby? That . . . cougher? But . . . the matter was agreed, Your Grace. Garth is on his way to Oldtown."
"Best send a raven to Lord Hightower and ask him to make certain your uncle does not take ship. We would hate for Garth to brave an autumn sea for nought." She smiled pleasantly.
A flush crept up Tyrell's thick neck. "This . . . your lord father assured me . . ." He began to sputter.
Then his mother appeared and slid her arm through his own. "It would seem that Lord Tywin did not share his plans with our regent, I can't imagine why. Still, there 'tis, no use hectoring Her Grace. She is quite right, you must write Lord Leyton before Garth boards a ship. You know the sea will sicken him and make his farting worse." Lady Olenna gave Cersei a toothless smile. "Your council chambers will smell sweeter with Lord Gyles, though I daresay that coughing would drive me to distraction. We all adore dear old uncle Garth, but the man is flatulent, that cannot be gainsaid. I do abhor foul smells." Her wrinkled face wrinkled up even more. "I caught a whiff of something unpleasant in the holy sept, in truth. Mayhaps you smelled it too?"
"No," Cersei said coldly. "A scent, you say?"
"More like a stink."
"Perhaps you miss your autumn roses. We have kept you here too long." The sooner she rid the court of Lady Olenna the better. Lord Tyrell would doubtless dispatch a goodly number of knights to see his mother safely home, and the fewer Tyrell swords in the city, the more soundly the queen would sleep.
"I do long for the fragrances of Highgarden, I confess it," said the old lady, "but of course I cannot leave until I have seen my sweet Margaery wed to your precious little Tommen."
"I await that day eagerly as well," Tyrell put in. "Lord Tywin and I were on the point of setting a date, as it happens. Perhaps you and I might take up that discussion, Your Grace."
"Soon will serve," said Lady Olenna with a sniff. "Now come along, Mace, let Her Grace get on with her . . . grief."
I will see you dead, old woman, Cersei promised herself as the Queen of Thorns tottered off between her towering guardsmen, a pair of seven-footers that it amused her to call Left and Right. We'll see how sweet a corpse you make. The old woman was twice as clever as her lord son, that was plain.
The queen rescued her son from Margaery and her cousins, and made for the doors. Outside, the rain had finally stopped. The autumn air smelled sweet and fresh. Tommen took his crown off. "Put that back on," Cersei commanded him.
"It makes my neck hurt," the boy said, but he did as he was bid. "Will I be married soon? Margaery says that as soon as we're wed we can go to Highgarden."
"You are not going to Highgarden, but you can ride back to the castle." Cersei beckoned to Ser Meryn Trant. "Bring His Grace a mount, and ask Lord Gyles if he would do me the honor of sharing my litter." Things were moving more quickly than she had anticipated; there was no time to be squandered.
Tommen was happy at the prospect of a ride, and of course Lord Gyles was honored by her invitation . . . though when she asked him to be her master of coin, he began coughing so violently that she feared he might die right then and there. But the Mother was merciful, and Gyles eventually recovered sufficiently to accept, and even began coughing out the names of men he wanted to replace, customs officers and wool factors appointed by Littlefinger, even one of the keepers of the keys.
"Name the cow what you will, so long as the milk flows. And should the question arise, you joined the council yesterday."
"Yester - " A fit of coughing bent him over. "Yesterday. To be sure." Lord Gyles coughed into a square of red silk, as if to hide the blood in his spittle. Cersei pretended not to notice.
When he dies I will find someone else. Perhaps she would recall Littlefinger. The queen could not imagine that Petyr Baelish would be allowed to remain Lord Protector of the Vale for very long, with Lysa Arryn dead. The Vale lords were already stirring, if what Pycelle said was true. Once they take that wretched boy away from him, Lord Petyr will come crawling back.
"Your Grace?" Lord Gyles coughed, and dabbed his mouth. "Might I . . ." He coughed again. ". . . ask who . . ." Another series of coughs racked him. ". . . who will be the King's Hand?"
"My uncle," she replied absently.
It was a relief to see the gates of the Red Keep looming large before her. She gave Tommen over to the charge of his squires and retired gratefully to her own chambers to rest.
No sooner had she eased off her shoes than Jocelyn entered timidly to say that Qyburn was without and craved audience. "Send him in," the queen commanded. A ruler gets no rest.
Qyburn was old, but his hair still had more ash than snow in it, and the laugh lines around his mouth made him look like some little girl's favorite grandfather. A rather shabby grandfather, though. The collar of his robe was frayed, and one sleeve had been torn and badly sewn. "I must beg Your Grace's pardon for my appearance," he said. "I have been down in the dungeons making inquiries into the Imp's escape, as you commanded."
"And what have you discovered?"
"The night that Lord Varys and your brother disappeared, a third man also vanished."
"Yes, the gaoler. What of him?"
"Rugen was the man's name. An undergaoler who had charge of the black cells. The chief undergaoler describes him as portly, unshaven, gruff of speech. He held his appointment of the old king, Aerys, and came and went as he pleased. The black cells have not oft been occupied in recent years. The other turnkeys were afraid of him, it seems, but none knew much about him. He had no friends, no kin. Nor did he drink or frequent brothels. His sleeping cell was damp and dreary, and the straw he slept upon was mildewed. His chamber pot was overflowing."
"I know all this." Jaime had examined Rugen's cell, and Ser Addam's gold cloaks had examined it again.
"Aye, Your Grace," said Qyburn, "but did you know that under that stinking chamber pot was a loose stone, which opened on a small hollow? The sort of place where a man might hide valuables that he did not wish to be discovered?"
"Valuables?" This was new. "Coin, you mean?" She had suspected all along that Tyrion had somehow bought this gaoler.
"Beyond a doubt. To be sure, the hole was empty when I found it. No doubt Rugen took his ill-gotten treasure with him when he fled. But as I crouched over the hole with my torch, I saw something glitter, so I scratched in the dirt until I dug it out." Qyburn opened his palm. "A gold coin."
Gold, yes, but the moment Cersei took it she could tell that it was wrong. Too small, she thought, too thin. The coin was old and worn. On one side was a king's face in profile, on the other side the imprint of a hand. "This is no dragon," she said.
"No," Qyburn agreed. "It dates from before the Conquest, Your Grace. The king is Garth the Twelfth, and the hand is the sigil of House Gardener."
Of Highgarden. Cersei closed her hand around the coin. What treachery is this? Mace Tyrell had been one of Tyrion's judges, and had called loudly for his death. Was that some ploy? Could he have been plotting with the Imp all the while, conspiring at Father's death? With Tywin Lannister in his grave, Lord Tyrell was an obvious choice to be King's Hand, but even so . . . "You will not speak of this with anyone," she commanded.
"Your Grace may trust in my discretion. Any man who rides with a sellsword company learns to hold his tongue, else he does not keep it long."
"In my company as well." The queen put the coin away. She would think about it later. "What of the other matter?"
"Ser Gregor." Qyburn shrugged. "I have examined him, as you commanded. The poison on the Viper's spear was manticore venom from the east, I would stake my life on that."
"Pycelle says no. He told my lord father that manticore venom kills the instant it reaches the heart."
"And so it does. But this venom has been thickened somehow, so as to draw out the Mountain's dying."