Fandom: A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones
Prompt: 138) The more hidden the venom, the more dangerous it is. -- Marguerite de Valois (1553-1615), queen of Navarre and of France, and author of scandalous memoirs.
Summary: The game of thrones is not the only game in Westeros.
Warnings: Character death, moral relativism, deeply dodgy politics, references to canonical underage sex, references to canonical incest, emphasizin ur wimminz, royalty in compromising positions, POV minor character, court factionalism, uncivil war
NB: Spoilers for all books (ASOIAF and the Dunk and Egg trilogy) and all episodes of the HBO series. There are more detailed notes at the end. Many, many thanks to rosamund and winter_hermit for beta-reading and hand-holding, and to fallingtowers for offering even though my epic deadline fail prevented me from taking her up on it.
Title translates to 'Under the Rose' but is also an idiom meaning 'In secret'. The epigraph is, more accurately, a misquote from Ovid that translates to: 'Often the tender rose produces prickly thorns.' The original is Saepe creat molles aspera spina rosas ('Often the prickly thorn produces tender roses'). Thanks to angevin2 for Latin assistance.
Cross-posted to Archive of our Own.
Saepe creat asperas mollis rosa spinas.
Her granddaughter was born a week after word reached Highgarden of the Battle of the Trident and the death of Rhaegar Targaryen. Olenna Tyrell barely paused to read the message before sending it on to her son and nephew who waited in vain to starve Stannis Baratheon out of impregnable Storm's End. The death of King Aerys followed on its heels, with tales creeping out of King's Landing of a little princess bleeding from a hundred wounds and a baby whose head had been dashed against the Red Keep's walls. Olenna kept those from her daughter-in-law, Alerie having just gone into confinement.
She took one look into baby Margaery's liquid, dark eyes and knew she would fight to her last breath to keep such a fate from overtaking her grandchildren.
Olenna later discovered that when Mace knelt before Eddard Stark to surrender, he had--in a hitherto unprecedented stroke of brilliance--reminded the Lord of Winterfell that they were both fathers, and that surely the realm had seen enough orphans in these past few years. She doubted that that was what had prompted Stark to show mercy, but it certainly hadn't hurt.
It was Mace, too, who suggested fostering young Loras at Storm's End when he was old enough, Garlan having already been promised to the Fossoways. They had hoped, before, to find Willas a place in the royal household at King's Landing, but it seemed more prudent now to keep him in Highgarden.
"You did well," Olenna told him as the wheelhouse passed beneath the gates of King's Landing and a great weight seemed to lift. "They will watch us, of course, but that is to be expected."
Mace leant back against the cushions and closed his eyes. "At least the war's over now."
Olenna did not have the heart to point out that in her experience, wars never truly ended.
Of course, in place of war, one always had tournaments. Olenna found them tedious but the new king's especial love of mock combat--no doubt owing to the Baratheon predilection for bloodshed in any form--meant a steady stream of invitations, challenges, and other nonsense pouring into Highgarden.
Mace, desperate to impress his loyalty and importance upon the new king, decided that Highgarden ought to live up to its reputation as the heart of knightly chivalry in the Seven Kingdoms. Naturally, he expected his sons to be exemplars to the realm, in particular his heir.
Willas would never have sought her out himself so Olenna found him in the library on a rainy morning when the tiltyard was too flooded to train. He was in his favourite haunt, a secluded window seat overlooking the Mander, engrossed in a dust-covered book whose title she could not make out. It took him nearly five minutes to notice her, but when he did, he nearly dropped the book as he jumped to his feet.
"Now, now, Maester Ulfin's heart would stop if you dropped that," she reminded him, unable to quite keep from smiling. "Of course, I daresay his heart would stop on the slightest notice so perhaps we shall keep this between ourselves."
"I beg your pardon, Grandmother, I did not see you," mumbled Willas, staring at the floor. He was nearing his twelfth name day and already taller than her--not that this was terribly difficult. "I was just..."
"My dear boy, you needn't explain yourself to me. I'd far rather see you here than having your brains scrambled in the tiltyard." It was a great pity, Olenna thought to herself, that Mace could not be made to see reason on the subject of Willas. The boy would make an excellent Lord of Highgarden without being champion in the lists; that, she had always assumed, was where younger sons went to prove their worth. What need had the heir to Highgarden to prove himself in mock combat in a time of peace?
For that, she supposed she could thank Robert Baratheon.
"Grandmother?" Willas' voice drew her out of her brown study and she cursed inwardly that it was becoming more and more common these days. "Are you well?"
"Of course I'm well, silly boy. When you're as old as I am, you need more time to think." Reaching out, she ruffled his hair. "What is it you're reading?"
Flipping back in the book, he pointed to the first page. From before the Conqueror's days, she guessed, based on the rounded letters and rough illustrations. "It's about the Gardeners, Grandmother, and their rule of the Reach before the Targaryens came. Maester Ulfin told me a wise lord knows the full history of his house."
"Maester Ulfin is quite right, although goodness knows he didn't succeed with your father." It was perhaps unwise of her to belittle Mace so brusquely in front of his son, but he made far too easy a target and the sooner the boy learnt his father was not infallible, the better it would be for all of Highgarden. "Shall I talk to him, Willas? This nonsense about tournaments really must stop."
Willas shook his head, his chin set in a distinctly familiar manner. "I won't have all of the Reach thinking the heir to Highgarden is a weakling, Grandmother. That won't help us at all." He placed his hand over hers. "Just a few tournaments, enough to show them I can sit a horse competently. So long as I'm not riding against Loras; he already rides circles round me at the quintain and he's not even six."
At Loras' name, Olenna could not deny that her heart lurched. Another Loras, another warrior. She would not have predicted that from the pretty little boy who looked so like her dear Margaery. Perhaps it was the name--Mace had never known his elder brother but had brought unexpected tears to Olenna's eyes by offering to name his younger son after the Loras who had died fighting Maelys the Monstrous on the Stepstones. But she would be damned to all seven hells if she allowed her grandson to die like his namesake.
She should have guessed it would be the Dornishman. Their paths seemed doomed to cross, hers and the thrice-cursed Dornish prince named after a snake, whose seemingly delicate spear took Willas square in the chest. He ought to have fallen, trapped like a tortoise as they all were when they fell, sweating in his armour and desperately humiliated.
Instead, his ankle caught in the stirrup.
The horse dragged her boy nearly fifty feet before one of the grooms calmed it. Willas' knee was a mangled mess, his face all but drained of blood. Loras reached his side first, resplendent in their family's green-and-gold livery, with Garlan quick on his heels. Olenna gritted her teeth and waited, squeezing Alerie's hand to keep her from running to her son where she'd be of no use whatsoever but would still be in the way.
The Dornishman had the temerity to wheel his copper-coloured horse round to stand beside the wooden dais where they waited. "Lady Olenna, I pray you, let my maester examine your son. He has travelled to Asshai and is practiced in the healing arts."
A maegi, Olenna would have staked her life on it. It was said they could raise the dead. Willas lay cold and motionless in his brothers' arms. Beside Olenna, Alerie was keening under her breath, murmuring prayers to the Mother for mercy.
"You have my thanks for your generosity, Prince Oberyn," Olenna finally said. He was a few years younger than Mace but in temperament as removed as a snake from a spaniel. That should not have surprised her, given what she recalled of him so many years ago, coining her most popular sobriquet, Queen of Thorns.
"I swear to you, my lady, I meant him no harm."
They called him the Red Viper. If he'd meant harm to Willas, it would have been a very different sort of death. What would Oberyn Martell have to gain by starting a war with Highgarden? They'd had nothing to do with the death of his favourite sister; it was Tywin Lannister who was to blame for that atrocity. Olenna nodded tightly. "I trust you do not, Prince Oberyn. We have done you no harm in Highgarden."
Mace would be displeased, no doubt, but she had no interest in placating her son. Not now, not after he'd all but killed Willas himself by pitting him against the Red Viper of Dorne. Oh, it was the ill-luck of the lists that had chosen Willas' opponent, but the boy shouldn't have been in the lists at all. One look at the Dornishman's face told Olenna that he knew it too. "You could have offered him the chance to forfeit."
"He would never have taken it. Not being his father's son."
Of course he wouldn't have taken it. She knew well she had little cause to wish the Dornishman ill. Knew just as well that she did not care. When Willas awakened several days later, she pretended not to see the relief on his face when the Dornish maester told him he would never joust again, that his knee had been too badly damaged.
Outraged letters flew back and forth between Highgarden and Sunspear but it never came to blows. Prince Doran was too phlegmatic and Olenna too cautious to allow their hotheaded relations to go to war over a fourteen-year-old boy's leg. Willas quietly returned to his studies and Mace pinned his dreams of martial glory on the sons who could better withstand it.
Neither Garlan nor Loras had jousted that day, being unquestionably too young, but it would not be long before they would be sent off--Garlan to New Barrel and the green-apple Fossoways and Loras to Storm's End to squire for Renly Baratheon, barely five years his senior. On the day that Loras was to depart, Olenna watched as he knelt before the much-shorter Margaery and whisper something that made her smile for the first time since she'd heard about his departure.
"What did you tell your sister, Loras?" Olenna asked him as he leant forward to kiss her--he already overtopped her by several inches, though he was a tiny thing otherwise. "She's been inconsolable."
"I promised her that I would tell Prince Renly of her beauty and make her a queen someday. Just like Prince Aemon the Dragonknight." He spoke with a perfectly straight face, beautiful, long-lashed eyes staring calmly into hers.
"My dear boy, our good King Robert has a son and heir and he is young himself. Prince Renly shall remain Lord of Storm's End, and that alone is quite sufficient for your sister." Olenna studied him through narrowed eyes. "The Dragonknight, you say?" A renowned fighter, to be certain, but doomed to tragedy for loving his sister too much. "You think too much of stories, Loras. You're to serve Renly Baratheon as his squire and bind House Tyrell to the Iron Throne. But you must always be watchful, you hear?"
Loras smiled lazily. "I'm not an idiot, Grandmother. I'll do you proud."
He was an infuriating little thing, just as his namesake had been. Too overconfident by half in the way only single children and little brothers could be. A few years with the bigger boys at Storm's End would sort him out.
When next she saw him, it was at a tournament held in the verdant fields in the shadow of Storm's End. Even Olenna started at the sight of him in armour composed of hundreds of jewelled flowers that glittered beneath the summer sun. "The Knight of the Flowers," said Margaery beside her, as radiant in green as her brother was in blue. "That's what he's calling himself."
"Flowers are not very threatening, Margaery."
"They are if they have thorns, Grandmother." Margaery turned back to the lists as a knight in dark green armour--it must have cost a pretty penny, though a pittance compared to Loras' extravagance--came to a stop below where she sat.
"My lady Margaery, I beg the honour of carrying your favour." He lifted the grille on the antlered helm to reveal eyes blue as the waves in Shipbreaker Bay. "If you would smile upon my suit, I would win this tournament in your name."
"You do me great honour, Lord Renly, but I would not presume to wager against my brother." Margaery's smile revealed dimples in her cheeks. "I do not think you would either."
"As clever as you are beautiful, Lady Margaery." With another dazzling smile, he urged his horse back to the lists. Margaery leant back in her seat and a small sigh escaped her.
"And what, pray, was that?" Olenna enquired after several seconds. "Have you some sort of understanding with Renly Baratheon?"
"Of course not, Grandmother. I barely know him." Margaery opened her eyes and smiled at Olenna. "But Loras writes about him in his letters and I think he is the very image of what a knight ought to be. Don't you, Grandmother?"
"He and your brother have a taste for finery beyond any lady in your mother's household. I would expect a knight to have more important concerns," Olenna remarked.
"But this is peacetime, Grandmother. A knight needs the love of the people and the people want a champion they can be proud of. Who would not love the Knight of the Flowers and the Antlered Prince? You told me stories of the Prince of Dragonflies, Grandmother."
She had not thought of Duncan Targaryen in many long years, the man briefly considered for her husband, who had perished on the night they said the gods themselves had set Summerhall ablaze. Olenna did not point out that the tale of Jenny of Oldstones and the Prince of Dragonflies was a tragic one of love thwarted by misfortune.
It was, that aside, a remarkably astute observation and equally remarkable on her grandson's part if he was aware of it. Loras was maddeningly single-minded sometimes. He could not forget that Jaime Lannister was named to the Kingsguard at the age of fifteen--"The Kingslayer, Grandmother. It must be bettered, for the honour of the Kingsguard."
Of course, in order to join the Kingsguard, he would need to leave Storm's End and that, it seemed, was the sticking point. It was Margaery, perhaps not so surprisingly, who informed Olenna of why. "Because Renly is his lord, Grandmother."
"And his elder brother Robert is our King. Loras' too, if I'm not mistaken."
Margaery set down her embroidery with a sigh. "Loras will not leave Renly, not for a thousand golden dragons. The Kingsguard can have no outside loyalties. It would be a lie and Loras could not abide it."
Olenna had met enough sailors in her youth that she knew the pleasure-houses of Lys catered to men and women of all tastes. She supposed she should count it a relief that it was her youngest grandson and not her eldest whose preferences were so unorthodox. Willas appeared to be perfectly normal and it was high time Mace found him a wife.
"And what of you, my dear?" Margaery looked at her questioningly and Olenna added, "What of you and Renly?"
Margaery shrugged. "What of us? In Dorne, there is no shame--"
"Why do you speak of Dorne, you foolish girl?" The words were harsher than Olenna's tone, which emerged more in resignation than in reprimand. "You are of Highgarden, not Dorne."
"Willas told me. He has been writing to Prince Oberyn regarding some horses. If winter is coming, even Dorne may feel it. I cannot imagine their horses do well in the snow, if away from the desert at all."
It was Olenna's turn to sigh. "Mother, give me patience. Writing to the man who crippled him."
"I don't think Willas sees it that way, Grandmother."
"Perhaps he ought to speak to your esteemed father, then. It's high time we found Willas a wife and he could do worse than Arianne Martell. Dornishmen may be sun-mad by nature but they have a queer sort of honour about them." Olenna frowned as she considered this further. "And we shall need to think about a marriage for you."
The look Margaery shot Olenna at that moment nearly cracked her composure. "I shall be the greatest lady Storm's End has ever seen, and Loras will be the greatest knight in the Seven Kingdoms. They will go to King's Landing for duty, but will come to us of their own accord. They shall write stories of our court, Grandmother. My court."
Olenna's lips twitched. "You should take care the Lannister Queen never hears of your plan. She will take it amiss."
"I care nothing for Lannisters. They are without honour." Delicately, Margaery added a final stitch to the flower she had just finished embroidering and snapped the thread with one deft movement of her fingers. "It may be the way the world is, but sometimes it is better to imagine otherwise. Why else would we have songs?"
Why, indeed. In the end, Loras followed his lord to King's Landing when Renly took his place on his brother's Council as Master of Laws. He wrote weekly to Margaery and half as often to Olenna, his letters filled with minute details of court scandals. Olenna knew of the death of Jon Arryn the King's Hand before the official raven arrived in Highgarden, along with some of the peculiarities attending upon it.
It would not have been unreasonable to name either of his brothers the Hand of the King in place of Lord Arryn, but the King turned instead to his foster brother, Lord Stark of Winterfell. Loras wrote to her of Stark's arrival in King's Landing without his wife or any of his sons, but with two of his daughters. It seemed there had been an accident at Winterfell, a dreadful accident, involving Stark's younger son, and the Starks and Lannisters were already at one another's throats.
Lord Stark blunders through the court like an aurochs. He understands nothing of courtesy nor ceremony and if he were not Hand of the King, I do not doubt he would return to his northern wasteland and never look back. We are all insects to him, scurrying about in our petty rivalries and plots. My lord thinks his heart is in the right place, but that he is too little, too late. Our great King Robert pisses away the treasury in wine and women and his son is raised by women.
"Do not forget, my boy, that you were raised by women," Olenna muttered. She did not know the present Lord Stark well at all, though she recalled his father, a thin-faced man who rarely smiled and always seemed out of place in the Red Keep. Olenna had never travelled further north than Harrenhal and did not intend to change that fact. Summer snows were better left to wildlings and the Black Brothers.
As per my lord father's wishes, I have broached the subject of Lord Renly's marriage to my sister and he seems pleased with the notion. You should perhaps urge Father to invite Lord Renly to Highgarden so he might see Margaery again--it has been some years now since last he saw her, and though I showed him the portrait you sent me, he wavers yet.
That was Loras' one great failing--her grandson was hopelessly lacking in patience.
There is one matter I feel compelled to make known to you. There are rumours in the capital that the former Hand Lord Arryn may have been murdered. My lord does not yet know their full extent, nor, I will wager anything, does the king. If he did, I assure you his Queen would be on trial for adultery and treason before gods and men, and the Kingslayer struck down by the Warrior himself for dishonour.
It would seem the three children purportedly born of King Robert and Queen Cersei were in fact that same Queen's children by her twin brother the Kingslayer. Or so Varys the whisperer told her grandson, hoping--he claimed--that Loras might convince Lord Renly to intervene to spare his brother the shame. Loras, after all, had Renly's ear and so very much else.
Loras went on to remark upon what a shame it was that Robert's next brother--now heir presumptive to the Iron Throne--was not his adored Renly but dour, brittle Stannis who had spent the years of peace fuming on haunted Dragonstone while Renly played the great lord of the far grander Storm's End. Unless, of course, one were to look at the unfortunate affair in a more pragmatic manner.
Stannis Baratheon is little loved in the Seven Kingdoms. My lord is favoured by all who know him. Who better to succeed King Robert than a man noted for honour, chivalry, and compassion, all things that mark a true knight?
"Oh, Loras, Loras, you foolish boy." Olenna couldn't help but laugh. "Knights do not play the game of thrones, even for those they love."
She did not laugh, however, when Loras and Lord Renly rode pell-mell into Highgarden with news of the King's death and the fall of Lord Eddard Stark. "I offered him a hundred swords if he would only take the boy into his custody, but he wouldn't do it. Stubborn Northern fool!" Renly pressed his fingers to his temples; Olenna almost believed he was genuinely upset. "My brother Robert loved him more than his brothers-by-blood, and he's going to deliver the Seven Kingdoms right into the hands of the Kingslayer and his whore queen."
"Is it true, then? The rumours?" Renly looked up at Olenna in surprise and she added, "You do not think us entirely free of spies in the Red Keep, my lord. I should hope not."
"I wouldn't dream of it, Lady Olenna." Renly glanced at Loras as if for confirmation before continuing, "I didn't want to believe it. Gods, it's monstrous, and to think of it happening to my brother...but it occurred to me as soon as Ser Loras told me. There was a bastard boy of Robert's in my household at Storm's End--Loras, you know the boy I mean--"
"Edric Storm, Grandmother. He's the very image of my lord Renly. As for Pr--Lord Joffrey and his brother and sister, anyone with eyes can see they're Lannister to the core." Loras met her eyes coolly, as if all this had been rehearsed far in advance. "He is not the King's heir."
"And what of your elder brother, Lord Renly? What says Lord Stannis from Dragonstone?"
"Nothing. Stannis says nothing." Renly looked first at her, and then to Mace, seated beside her. "Lord Tyrell, would you like to see your daughter become Queen of the Seven Kingdoms?"
Ignoring Olenna's hand on his arm, Mace smiled. "Nothing would please me more, Lord Renly."
She found Loras later that evening, standing in the tiltyard. "Are you willing to share him, Loras? If this great farce is to work, your sister must be free from any hint of scandal."
"I understand discretion, Grandmother," Loras retorted, hurt flitting across his face. "And I would never hurt Margaery like that, not in a thousand years."
"And yet nightfall will find you in her prospective husband's bed." Olenna stepped forward and rested one hand on Loras' arm. She would have sought his cheek, but he was well over a head taller than her now. "If his brother still lived, perhaps you and he could have wandered from tourney to tourney, the Antlered Prince and the Knight of the Flowers, stealing ladies' hearts but never their virtue. Pictures of perfect knighthood." Loras sank to his knees and Olenna hugged him close. "If Renly is to be a King, he must have an heir. And it will be your charge to protect your sister, and any children of hers. If the Red Viper had been in King's Landing, perhaps Elia of Dorne and her babes may have lived."
"You know I will protect her with my own life. Margaery and my lord king."
"There is more to it than that, Loras. Keep your sword sharp by all means--"
"--but keep your wits sharper?" Her grandson did have a terribly sweet smile. More than a few ladies of the Seven Kingdoms would waste away for it and Olenna pitied them, whoever they were. "You may not think I listen but I do. Margaery makes certain of it."
"Then you are lucky to have a sister who cares so deeply for your happiness." To his credit, he lowered his eyes, colour rising in his cheeks. "Make sure she does not do so in vain."
The betrothal of Lady Margaery Tyrell of Highgarden to Renly Baratheon of Storm's End was announced the next evening with the promise of a great tournament to be held in celebration a fortnight later. It was at that tournament, she suspected, that Renly's claim to the Iron Throne would be announced to all the flower of Reach chivalry.
Some three or four days before the tournament, she found Margaery surrounded by seamstresses and swathed in yards of Myrish lace. Her granddaughter's happiness seemed to light the very air around her. "A Queen of hearts indeed," Olenna announced, holding out her arms to Margaery. "I would speak to you, my dear."
After divesting her of the half-pinned gown, Margaery's ladies wrapped her in a silk robe and left her with Olenna. "You are happy, Margaery?"
"All brides are happy, are they not, Grandmother?" Had it been anybody but Olenna, the lie would have passed unnoticed. "I am well, I promise."
"Well is not happy." There it was, the flicker of uncertainty across the perfect lady's smile. "Tell me, Margaery. I can call off this marriage if you wish--"
"Can you, truly?" Margaery's laughter was an odd, lonely sound. "No, Grandmother, it is not the husband who displeases me." Olenna bit her tongue to keep from demanding who had displeased her; the girl would tell in her own time. "No, he pleases me all too well, I fear." Between her fingers, Olenna could see the brooch Renly had presented to her on the night of their betrothal, a stag rampant crowned with roses.
Of course. Of course, that would be the way of it. Olenna consigned Renly Baratheon to the coldest of the seven hells.
"And I know it hurts Loras to see us but I cannot think what else to do. He's to be my husband, Grandmother, and I want..." She trailed off, biting her lip. "He will be a good husband to me. I know that. And the last thing I want is to take him away from Loras, I promise!"
"My dear girl, of course you don't." Olenna squeezed Margaery's shoulders. "You must think of yourself now. Loras has a part to play in this and he will play it. And if your husband treats you well, does it matter that he does so out of liking and not love? For certain, Renly is fond of you, and he may even come to love you in time."
"Loras is a man grown. The Gods have not made his path an easy one but he will tread it all the same. I do think he loves no one better than he loves winning tourneys, which I would call an advantage." Margaery choked on a watery giggle. "There, that's better. Renly Baratheon is a fool if he does not love you."
She could not blame Margaery. The Baratheon charm was in full evidence and damned if Renly wasn't playing the role of royal suitor perfectly. If Loras objected he did so discreetly, for no sign of friction ever appeared between the two. As the days slipped by, Highgarden seemed in full flower, poised on the edge of the unknown as they watched the ravens fly forth to King's Landing and Sunspear.
Her son was studiously avoiding her but Olenna knew well how to catch Mace off-guard when he was being foolish. She found him at the workshop of Highgarden's most skilled carpenter, commissioning a great chair of rosewood inlaid with gold and gems. Fit for a king, one might say.
"Have you lost your senses, Mace?" she demanded, albeit under her breath so the carpenter and his apprentices would not hear. "What are you thinking, to place a younger son on the Iron Throne?"
"I am thinking of peace in the realm, Mother."
"You are thinking of being a kingmaker, my foolish boy." The telltale flush crept along his ruffled collar. "I thought Maester Ulfin and I had taught you better than that. Kingmakers rarely live long enough to enjoy the fruits of their plots."
"Who would you choose, given the choice between Renly and Stannis?"
"Why talk you of choices, Mace?" But she knew already that this was a losing argument. In a world where Robert Baratheon could rebel against his anointed King, of course there was a choice. How different did the Iron Throne need be from the Triarchs of Volantis, elected and re-elected to their positions? "We don't even have proof that the rumours are true--"
"His Grace spoke true--one need only look at the children. Lannister brats, through and through. Joffrey Baratheon, indeed!" Olenna saw the carpenter wince and gave her son a prod with her stick that prompted an undignified yelp. "Mother!"
"It's still treason, Mace." She led him from the shop and back to the coach where they could talk in private.
Of course, treason was fashionable these days. The only person who hadn't, as far as Olenna could tell, was Lord Stark himself, who had committed the far graver sin of being a simple man with simple morals. "It is possible to do nothing in these situations. We watch, and we wait. Perhaps Stannis will make his claim for the throne; perhaps he will hold out until the Starks and Lannisters finish one another. Renly Baratheon makes a far better lord than he would a King." And an even better hedge knight, she added silently, without lands and smallfolk to depend on him.
"Stannis Baratheon has not forgotten Storm's End, Mother," Mace told her wearily. "Rest assured, he never will."
"Then we throw in our lot with the Lannisters. Why shouldn't we? They hold the Iron Throne and King's Landing and it's only a matter of time before Lord Tywin and the Kingslayer send the northmen back the way they came. Why bring Renly into it at all? Things can stay as they are. At peace." Even as Olenna said it, she recalled the flaw in that plan. "What of Dorne?"
"What of Dorne?" her son echoed. "Doran sits and Doran waits, so was it ever and so shall it be till he waits himself into his grave."
"It's kept him alive so far, hasn't it?" Olenna sighed. "We do not know enough, Mace. We need to find out what is happening inside the Red Keep before we can make a decision of this magnitude. Loras was the best spy we had there and we've lost him. Varys will sell us only what suits him and I will not be beholden a eunuch's whims."
"You think we should wait." As ever, Mace was all bluster and little conviction. That much was a relief. "Until when?"
"Until someone makes a mistake."
On the day a raven brought word of Ned Stark's execution for treason, Olenna could have sworn she awakened before dawn to find frost on her window. She held her granddaughter's hand outside the doors of the sept and asked her one final time if this was what she wanted.
"It has been too long since this realm had a Queen to delight in," Margaery had told her, a tremulous smile on her rouged lips. "I will be that Queen, Grandmother, for them and for myself."
For a moment--nay, for many moments through the next few months--it seemed as though she would. The Reach rallied behind one of their own as they never could behind a Lannister or a Stark. Even Doran Martell received one of Renly's messengers and sent a vague but encouraging response to the offer of Willas for his daughter Arianne. No more, Olenna supposed, than what the notoriously picky Dornish princess had offered any other man seeking her hand in marriage, but it would at least keep the ambassadors busy.
Unfortunately, Stannis knew his brother's character too well, knew the combination of his vanity, Loras' impatience, and her own dear son's misplaced ambition needed little more than a spark to set the Reach aflame just like the Riverlands. Renly bid Margaery farewell on the steps leading to the knot garden and Olenna caught sight of one of the court painters sketching furiously on a nearby balcony. The king and queen of songs and stories.
They had forgotten that most of those stories ended badly.
It was a talent of her granddaughter's that even when sobbing her eyes out over her royal husband's corpse, she looked every inch the fair maiden of songs. How her son and her decidedly ordinary-looking niece twice removed had managed to produce such a lovely child--two, really, counting Loras--was beyond Olenna's knowledge, but thankfully Margaery had at least an ounce of sense inside that pretty head. All of it, no doubt, learnt at her own knee.
When she entered Margaery's chambers, she found all the bright hangings replaced with black and a crowd of chattering cousins preparing to douse all of Margaery's clothing in black dye appropriate for mourning. With one imperious hand, she waved them out. "It can wait, it can all wait. I wish to speak to my granddaughter alone, if you please."
It was to Margaery's credit that all the girls waited for her nod before departing and she said as much as soon as the door closed behind Alla. "You've trained them well, my dear."
Margaery's smile was a fleeting thing. "Of course I did, Grandmother. I've always taken your advice to heart. You know that." She looked down at her left hand, where she still wore Renly's ring. "I know you never wished me to marry him--"
"It was a particularly stupid idea of your father's, yes." Olenna sat down on the bed and Margaery shifted to lay her head in Olenna's lap. "You cared for him."
She nodded, sniffling. "It was Loras' letters, really. And he was ever so charming."
"That, my dear, is the Baratheon way. You never knew his brother when he was Renly's age. That Robert could have charmed the birds from the trees--and did, like as not, from the number of bastards he's left scattered about." Olenna brushed the hair back from Margaery's face to reveal red-rimmed eyes. "Renly is the past; I'm afraid we must think of the future."
"Loras wants to track down the Maid of Tarth and avenge Renly." She smiled. "I suppose he would see it that way."
"You don't agree?"
"I saw the way she looked at my husband, Grandmother. Brienne of Tarth would no sooner have killed Renly than I would."
"And Catelyn Stark?"
Margaery waved one hand vaguely. "What would she have to gain by it?"
"A very good point," Olenna said with a smile of her own. Margaery truly was wasted on any man less than a king. "The best strategy for her son would be to hold back in the riverlands until Stannis, Joffrey, and Renly had fought themselves to pieces. Joffrey was hundreds of leagues away in King's Landing, which leaves your esteemed brother-in-law and that red witch of his."
She could feel Margaery shudder. "You needn't worry, Margaery. Stannis Baratheon is many things, but a despoiler of women is not one of them."
"You said we needed to think of the future. Isn't he the future?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps not." Olenna twirled a lock of her granddaughter's hair around her finger. "It seems to me that we already have a king who has been crowned in the High Sept of Baelor itself."
"But he's a Lannister!" Margaery jerked upward and stared at her in horror. "He's the Kingslayer's son, by his sister! Renly said there was proof."
"Would you have been so troubled if he were a Targaryen?" snapped Olenna. "I have my own concerns about Joffrey, but it seems his mother has wit enough to send an envoy on his behalf and we will at least hear him out."
"That's enough, Margaery. You must understand that we cannot afford to wait. The war will only pause so long for Highgarden to make up its mind, and we must make a decision, like it or not. If we should decide to ally with the Lannisters, do you honestly believe I would send you to King's Landing without protection?" She tilted Margaery's chin until the deep brown eyes were looking into hers. "Roses have thorns for a reason, sweetling. I will never let them hurt you."
Olenna had not returned to King's Landing since accompanying her son to bend the knee to Robert Baratheon nearly sixteen years before. As such, all she knew of Petyr Baelish came from first Loras and later Renly. He was not nearly as little as she had been led to believe, although Olenna fully admitted that her perspective was quite different from her grandson's.
"Lord Baelish," Olenna's son intoned from his seat on the dais that had until recently been occupied by the King in the Reach, "be welcome to Bitterbridge."
"Lord Tyrell," was the response, smooth as watered silk and accompanied by a court bow. "My condolences for your loss. Please do deliver them to the Lady Margaery as well."
There was, perhaps, the slightest emphasis on the word lady, but if Lord Baelish--and by extension King Joffrey--was willing to overlook the Reach's rebellion that easily, Olenna would eat Renly's pretty rose crown and Loras' armour to boot. As for her son, the great lord of Highgarden, he merely cleared his throat and gestured for Littlefinger to rise. "Of course, my lord. I'm afraid my daughter is indisposed, but you will see her tonight at dinner. You must be wearied from your journey."
"The Roseroad was surprisingly empty. So are the larders in King's Landing, I fear. That is one of the many matters I have been deputed to discuss with you, my lord, if it please you. But," he held up one gloved hand and Olenna was absolutely certain he'd just winked at her, "I would indeed appreciate the chance to rest beforehand."
When Littlefinger had left the hall, Olenna motioned to her son. As ever, Mace waited the requisite several minutes to conclude any other unfinished business before joining her--he'd learnt that much, at least, though precious little else. "Let me deal with Littlefinger. You would do well to calm your son in the meantime. I will speak to him once we've made a decision regarding King's Landing but he will first need to be persuaded that his honour is not served by killing the Tarth girl."
"I don't see why not. She's been an embarrassment to the Evenstar for years. He might appreciate being rid of her." At her glare, Mace shuffled his feet in a very un-lordly fashion. "She killed the King, Mother."
"We do not know that for certain. All I know is that any time Loras spends chasing after her is of no use to us. We need to convince Littlefinger that Highgarden can be bought and that he simply needs to offer the right price. That is far more difficult when the Knight of the Flowers is rampaging through the countryside to avenge his lover."
Mace's cheeks became as red as his doublet. "Mother, really."
"Oh, don't you tell me you didn't know," she retorted. "Just find him and remind him of his filial duties, will you?"
As promised, Margaery made her appearance at dinner, wearing the one gown Olenna had permitted her to dye black for propriety's sake--albeit with the addition of a shawl of cream Myrish lace at Alerie's suggestion so she did not look so pale. The slight tremble in her hand as she held it out for Littlefinger to kiss was a masterstroke. She could not have looked more like a bereaved Queen had she been wearing the tiara of woven gold roses now safely stowed in her bedchamber. And, just as a Queen ought, she smiled weakly, listened to Littlefinger's assurances on King Joffrey's behalf, and made no promises.
Littlefinger, unsurprisingly, sought Olenna out in her presence chamber immediately after the banquet. "I do hope, my lady, that we may speak frankly."
Olenna smiled. "I prefer it, Lord Baelish. As I assume you prefer that to Littlefinger."
"My preference rarely matters, I've found. However, if you're willing to defer to it, yes, I do." He sat down at the small table and gestured toward the decanter. "I hope you don't object. Decent wine has been scarce in King's Landing these days."
"Even for you?" Word of the quality of vintage at the finest brothels in King's Landing--those owned by the Master of Coin--had reached as far as Highgarden and Olenna knew for a fact that at least two tuns of Arbor gold were routinely set aside for Littlefinger's personal use each year. "I find that doubtful."
"I am only a man, Lady Olenna, despite what they might say about me." He served her first as befitted a gentleman dining with a lady of higher rank. He knew his courtesies, certainly. "You must be wondering why they sent me."
"A man of middling rank sent to deal with traitors to the crown?" Olenna raised her eyebrows. "Hardly a surprise. Besides, who else could they possibly have sent? The eunuch? The Imp?"
"Point taken." He took a sip of wine and, for a moment, bliss smoothed out his features so he looked considerably younger. Of course, everybody looked young to Olenna these days. "You grew up in the Arbor, didn't you?"
"You know your houses, Lord Baelish."
"It's my job to know things."
"I thought that was Lord Varys?" Olenna settled back in her chair as she swirled the Arbor gold in her mouth for a moment before swallowing. "Although I imagine it is more dangerous in the Red Keep than it was in my day."
That was not wholly untrue. Olenna had spent much of her life assiduously avoiding King's Landing but every now and again her late husband's affairs--and those of Highgarden after his death--had brought her to court. Of course, they had not known then that King Aerys was mad--he had been no more erratic than any other Targaryen and as charming as his grandfather had been in his youth.
"More dangerous than the Mad King?" Littlefinger chuckled. "I can't imagine. Joffrey is no Aerys. Well..." his lips pursed, "not exactly, at any rate."
"Not exactly?" she echoed, fingers tightening on the stem of the glass. "I should certainly hope not if he is to marry my granddaughter."
"I misspoke, Lady Olenna, please forgive me. I'm afraid the relative lack of Arbor gold in the capital has made me all the more susceptible to its...charms."
"Then by all means have some more and tell me about Joffrey Baratheon."