"I won't marry him."
"You said it yourself: he's a monster." In a whirl of brown curls and black brocade, Margaery sank to her knees beside Olenna's chair. "Why not Robb Stark?"
"By the Mother, child! What madness is this?"
"Why not? One king is as good as another, and nobody's ever claimed he was mad."
"Lord Baelish didn't say King Joffrey was mad either," Olenna said, inwardly cursing that Stark hadn't occurred to her beforehand. Of course, it was quite impossible. All other concerns aside, Tywin Lannister's army sat between the Reach and the Stark host at Riverrun.
Margaery was saying something about Catelyn Stark--Olenna had forgotten, momentarily, that her granddaughter had met Robb Stark's mother, if not the King in the North himself. Renly, it seemed, had found her a potential ally worth cultivating. "Not Joffrey, Grandmother. Never Joffrey."
"Margaery, I need you to listen to me. Robb Stark...it cannot happen, my dear. It's quite impossible. If we take the Lannisters' offer, you will be Queen of the Seven Kingdoms and the Lannisters will have no choice but to accede to everything we ask. Your brother will be a member of the Kingsguard sworn to protect you at all costs. I will make certain of that. And you," she said, taking Margaery's hands in hers, "will be the most beloved Queen since Alysanne herself. He will never be able to hurt you because his very own people will rise against him if he does."
Margaery swallowed and looked at her. "Will you promise me that, Grandmother?"
"With all my heart, sweetling."
That night, she summoned Littlefinger again. "You understand, I am sure, that my granddaughter's safety is my greatest concern."
"My dear lady Olenna, of course I do, and I cannot blame you one bit if you should take...precautions."
"Precautions, Lord Baelish?" she echoed, after the words had hung in the air for several moments. "I have already taken several, but I should be curious to hear what you might suggest. You are, after all, acquainted with the day-to-day happenings in King's Landing."
"They change from day to day, I fear, so I cannot speak for what might have happened in my absence. However," he said, "I am not certain that her brother will be sufficient protection. Not to impugn Ser Loras, but he is a tourney knight who plays by tourney rules."
"What of the Queen Regent? She has some control over that little princeling of hers, hasn't she?"
"Not as much as she likes to think. She's raised him to think of nothing beyond his own pleasure and now she pays the price, same as the rest of us. No," he paused to take a sip of wine, "if you wish to absolutely guarantee your granddaughter's safety, I fear nothing but another unfortunate bereavement will do."
Olenna's eyebrows rose. "Are you proposing regicide, Lord Baelish? That is a bolder plan than I might have suspected. If Joffrey is truly that objectionable, I'm not certain I want my granddaughter anywhere near him."
"Not even for a crown?"
"Crowns are dangerous things these days." Olenna pondered these developments for a few moments. "You seem the sort of man who plans contingencies upon contingencies. I can only imagine this case is no different."
Littlefinger smiled. "How well are you acquainted with Sansa Stark?"
"Joffrey's betrothed. For the nonce, at least, until this treaty is signed." She had never met the girl, though she recalled Catelyn Tully from before her marriage--having been at Highgarden when that lady came to Bitterbridge--and like as not Margaery would insist upon befriending the girl as a poor substitute for marriage to Joffrey's rival. "I should like to be better acquainted with her, I think. It seems a young man's betrothed might provide a better glimpse into his character. It is not that I distrust your judgement, Lord Baelish, but you do understand that I must confirm what you have told me."
"As any careful parent must, of course." Littlefinger drained his glass. "It so happens that I have a man in my employ whom she trusts fully."
"How foolish of her."
"She is young, my lady, and very alone. You would do better to pity her."
Olenna sniffed. "Pity is a waste of time, Lord Baelish. What is it that you propose to do with Sansa Stark?"
"You are acquainted, I believe, with black amethysts of Asshai."
She became very still, her eyes fixed on his face. "Go on, Lord Baelish. You have my full and undivided attention."
In the end, it seemed Littlefinger was right all along, at least if Joffrey's previous betrothed spoke truth. She did not seem a liar--quite the opposite, in fact. A bit foolish, yes--how else could she possibly have imagined Loras as a prospective husband?--but that was hardly a crime in a young girl. Had it not been for Olenna's influence, Margaery would no doubt have turned out much the same. In the end, Willas could do far worse and an alliance with the King in the North might be precisely what they needed to keep the Lannisters in check.
She had told both Margaery and Willas as much before they departed for King's Landing. It had, after all, been Margaery's impulsive invocation of Robb Stark that had given Olenna the idea in the first place, and Willas at least deserved to know in advance that a marriage was being considered for him. He'd taken the news with predictable equanimity, as he had taken all things since that dreadful tournament where he'd lost the use of his leg.
It did not surprise Olenna one bit that, upon their arrival in King's Landing, Margaery had adopted Sansa Stark without hesitation, as she did so many pretty, broken creatures. It was her one weakness: a not insurmountable one, certainly, but worth watching.
"Oh, Grandmother, we must help her!" Margaery cried out as the door closed behind the Stark girl. "Did you see her?"
Olenna nodded grimly. The girl was the very image of her mother but brittle like dragonglass, as one would expect from a Stark of Winterfell. Not like her Margaery, thank the Gods. "We'll help her, my dear, but you must concern yourself with your husband-to-be, not the girl he jilted for you."
"He's clearly as mad as Aerys Targaryen," said Margaery, mouth twisting. "Not like my Renly."
"Dead men belong to no-one. Do you honestly think I will ever let you bed that creature?" Reaching out, she patted her granddaughter's soft brown hair. "Never you mind. Charm him, Margaery. Unlike your dear Renly, you'll find Joffrey isn't immune to it. Keep Loras close in case he gets any ideas, but leave the rest to me."
Littlefinger was far less obsequious in King's Landing than he had been at Bitterbridge, but that was to be expected. Olenna had to wait more than a week before he came to her, and his only excuse was that he had been unavoidably detained on Crown business.
"Well, of course, a wedding must be a great undertaking for the Master of Coin. I do hope the wine is satisfactory, at least," she added as he took a sip of Arbor gold, the same vintage she had served him at their last meeting. "There's more yet on its way from Highgarden."
"You have been most generous, Lady Olenna. I must admit, I am glad your misgivings did not get the better of you. I assure you His Highness will make Lady Margaery the happiest of wives."
"As happy as he made Sansa Stark?" After pausing just long enough for emphasis, she added, "Do not play me for a fool, Lord Baelish. You should have known I'd get the truth from her."
"I counted on it, milady." Littlefinger grinned. "Your son may be willing to stomach anything to make his daughter a queen, but I know well who makes the decisions in Highgarden."
"Flattery will get you nowhere, my lord. From what the Stark girl told me, it seems as though the entire court was well aware of that boy's treatment of her and yet nobody lifted a finger. Not even you." At that last, she was satisfied to see his smile fade just a little. "Will you deny that?"
"He is the King."
"He is a bastard born of incest. He has no claim to the Iron Throne and we both know that."
"Please don't tell me you've changed your mind now," said Littlefinger, sighing. "That would make things terribly awkward for everybody."
It was Olenna's turn to smile. "Oh, I've not changed my mind, Lord Baelish. The wedding will go ahead as planned. I just wished your little birds to tell Varys' little birds that any ill-treatment of my granddaughter will not be countenanced."
"So many birds singing so many songs. It does get confusing very quickly. A clever trick, by the way, having your fool sing so...enthusiastically for dear Sansa."
"The poor thing looked like she needed a laugh," Olenna replied with a shrug. "You do realise that Tommen is no less a bastard than his brother."
"Well, of course he is. But Tommen has the wonderful advantage of being young, pliable, and mostly ignored by his mother. Your Margaery already has him wrapped round her little finger just by singing for him." He leant back in his chair. "The smallfolk too, from the sounds of it. They adore their queen of the roses."
"Who wouldn't adore Margaery? Even Joffrey might, given the chance."
"Are you willing to take that risk, Lady Olenna?"
"Why, Lord Baelish," Olenna said, "anybody would think you wanted King Joffrey dead." Black amethysts from Asshai had a more common name in the Citadel: The Strangler. It was a quick but terrifying death they brought, closing the victim's throat like a hangman's noose. She could not dispute its effectiveness but Littlefinger had remained reticent about a number of other details, enough to make Olenna wary.
"Why should I not, after what he's done to the Lady Sansa?" The smile disappeared from Littlefinger's face. "Ned Stark was nothing to me, but perhaps you are aware that I was fostered alongside his widow, the Lady Catelyn, at Riverrun. We've known one another since we were children."
"How sweet of you to plot such intricate revenge against the man who beat her daughter." She considered leaving it at that, but somehow found herself asking instead, "Why not just spirit her away, get her back to her mother where she belongs?"
That had been her initial assumption when he first suggested Sansa's role in this escapade. She would not go so far as to declare the man besotted, but that he had an interest in the girl was patently clear. Now, having seen her--and her striking resemblance to her mother, more importantly--Olenna had more than a few suspicions of her own.
"And end up with my head on a spike for my troubles? I am no warrior, Lady Olenna, and you know as well as I do that my life is worth nothing if the Lannisters were to discover any such plan. If I could find some way to free her, I assure you I would, but it is far too risky."
"It is a great pity that such a fair young lady should be without a champion in this wicked world." Olenna shook her head. "Loras is spoken for, else I should offer him."
"He has brothers, does he not? Two, if I recall correctly. One is even heir to Highgarden. An appropriate match for someone of Lady Sansa's stature, if I may say so myself."
He was baiting her; he had to be. Perhaps there were ears in these walls that she hadn't stopped. It was the only explanation. The Stark girl certainly wouldn't have said anything if she had half a grain of sense in that pretty head of hers, and as for Margaery's ladies, they were silly things, but their loyalty was beyond question. No, it had to be some spy she'd missed.
"I may beg your leave to retire, my lord," Olenna finally said, holding out her hand for him to kiss. "I'm afraid treason sits uncomfortably after a large meal. It requires further digestion."
"Of course, Lady Olenna. I trust we may speak again soon."
"I believe we shall, Lord Baelish. I find I quite enjoy your company." Rather to her surprise, it was true.
Olenna had not played cyvasse in years, but even she knew when she was outmanoeuvred. A few short days later saw an invitation from the Hand of the King to join him and his family in celebrating the marriage of his youngest son Tyrion Lannister to the Lady Sansa Stark of Winterfell, delivered oh-so-conveniently after the bride and groom had already departed for Baelor's Sept. Margaery had thrown a fit when she found out, and it was all Olenna could do to keep her from marching halfway across King's Landing with Loras in tow to defend the Lady Sansa from the Imp.
"You must look out for yourself," she'd told her granddaughter. "This should teach you a lesson about caution, my dear. Trust nobody in this court. Even your ladies must not know all your secrets. They are loyal, yes, but would never survive the black cells if it came to that."
Margaery paled. "Do you think that's how they found out about Willas?"
"I am not certain, child," Olenna was forced to admit. "That is why we must be extra careful in future."
The question gnawed at her, though, and not just for Margaery's sake. You are very clever, my dear, but there will always be those who are cleverer. The skill lies in knowing who they are. And in remembering their weaknesses. So her mother had warned her lifetimes ago. I have a man in my employ whom she trusts fully. Littlefinger's message from their last conversation was now clear and she had no doubt who had informed Lord Tywin of their plot.
"Your man may have lost Lady Sansa's trust," she told Littlefinger when he joined her by the window overlooking the Red Keep's main courtyard. Below, the procession from the sept was beginning to enter, the bride's auburn hair muted against the Lannister red of her new cloak. "Is this how you protect her? By marrying her to the Imp?"
Littlefinger lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. "How was I to know what the Hand would do? I merely informed him that there was a plot afoot to ally Highgarden with the King in the North. We must all do our duty and I am a member of the King's Council. I could not allow a valuable hostage to disappear beneath Lord Tywin's nose."
"My sympathies," sniffed Olenna. "I don't suppose you can suggest any appropriate girls for my grandson? There seem to be fewer and fewer of them these days." Lord Tywin had had the temerity to put forward his daughter, the Queen Regent, and Olenna's fool of a son had nearly acquiesced. Thank the Seven she'd caught him in time, else it would have given Highgarden to yet more Lannister bastards and may well have brought the Kingslayer's wrath down on her dear Willas. How she had managed to produce such a dull-witted child was beyond her.
"If any cross my path, I will be certain to send them to you," Littlefinger replied, his eyes firmly focused on Sansa as she crossed the cobbled courtyard, her new husband struggling to keep up on his stunted legs. "I did not know, Lady Olenna."
"You sound almost convincing, Lord Baelish. Perhaps you ought to be the one to inform my granddaughter of these developments; she did take such a liking to Lady Sansa and was quite thrilled at the prospect of having her as a sister."
"Surely she has enough to think about with her own wedding?" After a moment, Littlefinger added, "As, I am certain, do you."
"You have indeed given me a great deal to think about." Turning to him, Olenna inclined her head. "Would you be so kind as to escort me back to my chambers? I believe there is to be a banquet in short order, and I should hate to turn up underdressed."
She was certain she had never seen an unhappier bride than Sansa Stark--not, of course, that Olenna could blame her one bit. Battle scars were an unfortunate distraction on the comeliest of men, let alone on a grotesque like Tyrion Lannister. Margaery kept casting glances their way, her pretty brow furrowed in disapproval, and Olenna was forced to reprimand her in a sharp hiss only to regret it when Margaery's lip gave a visible wobble. "She is beyond our help, my dear," Olenna added, sotto voce. "She is a Lannister now. We can no longer trust her."
"She would never help them. Never. If we could only help her escape, find a ship to take her north..."
"Our position is precarious enough as it is. We cannot aid traitors to the crown, else we risk sharing their fate. The girl is a Stark. I'm certain she's stronger than she looks." That was a bald-faced lie, but from what Olenna recalled of Catelyn Tully, it might prove a prophetic one. "Now, dance with your betrothed and for all our sakes, smile."
To Margaery's credit, she did just that, floating across the hall on Joffrey's arm and looking for all the world as though she belonged there. The bride and groom, contrary to tradition but no doubt for the best, did not dance at all. Instead, as the evening wore on--almost certainly at Margaery's request--Garlan led Sansa to the floor for the first time. Olenna watched as she moved from partner to partner, her face a perfect lady's mask. Perhaps she had underestimated the girl; it was, after all, the first lesson any lady learnt in the Seven Kingdoms--how to smile, simper, and lie.
Petyr Baelish was absent, rather to her surprise. He'd led her back to her rooms and promptly disappeared. She beckoned to Mace now, who had just finished dancing with the bride, and he excused himself as soon as was polite. When he heard her question, he did not hide his annoyance. "Gone to the Eyrie, Mother. He claims he can bed Lysa Arryn and bring her to heel, this jumped-up Lord of Harrenhal."
She knew of that title already; it was Littlefinger's price for having won Highgarden's allegiance to the Iron Throne. It was also surprisingly risky on Tywin Lannister's part--for her part, she would not let Petyr Baelish out of her sight, let alone send him into the one part of the Seven Kingdoms that was nearly impossible to reach.
"It's an empty title, Mace, you needn't be concerned with Littlefinger ever holding Harrenhal. Not that anybody would want to," she said, unable to suppress a shudder. The last time she had seen the black-towered castle was the day that Rhaegar Targaryen gave Lyanna Stark a crown of winter roses and started a war that had never truly ended. "It's what he'll do in the Vale that concerns me."
Of course, with Littlefinger gone and unlikely to return in time for Joffrey's wedding, that did make things rather more complicated. The arrival of the Dornish party--late as always--was not poised to be in any way helpful. At least it wasn't until Olenna realised precisely who comprised the Dornish party.
Her grandson may have been content to forgive and forget--Willas had always hated jousting and even confessed to her that he didn't mind a bad leg if it meant he never needed to pick up another lance--but the memories of Highgarden and Sunspear stretched too far back for that. Mace was jumpy as a cat already and would be until Margaery was wedded and bedded, and this could only make things worse.
Of course, that was before word reached the court of another wedding, one that had sent Margaery to the sept in the dead of night to pray for dead and living alike while the Lannisters feasted their final triumph over the late King in the North. Even Mace had looked greensick when Olenna enquired after what he had heard.
"The gods frown on those who break the laws of table and hearth," her son said, making a brief sign against evil that Olenna had not seen him do in years. Not that she could blame him. It was rumoured that Lord Frey's men had sewn the head of Robb Stark's direwolf onto his shoulders and crowned it; that the Lady Catelyn's throat had been slit and her body dumped in the river. "Lord Frey would do well to live as long as he can."
"He's certainly managed it thus far," Olenna replied, shuddering. "These are our allies, Mace. This is the price for Margaery's crown."
"I had nothing to do with--"
"Of course you didn't," she cut him off. "I don't doubt the grander scheme was Lord Tywin's, but this stinks of Frey mischief. Thank the gods we needn't deal with him." Of course, there was still Joffrey, whose gleeful reception of the news had nearly driven Margaery to call off the wedding then and there when she heard of it. It had taken all of Alerie's patience and Olenna's threats to forestall her, and even when she sullenly agreed to say nothing, Margaery had looked at her with such disgust that Olenna felt the sharp stab of guilt.
Even their promises of protection seemed feeble, fragile as a rose in winter. The talisman to which she clung was the knowledge that, hidden in the Imp's chambers was their salvation. Black amethysts from Asshai. She would not fail Margaery, not now.
There had been a wedding breakfast in the Queen's Ballroom--as one might have expected--while she and Margaery dined with the rest of her ladies in their chambers, and she returned to her own room to find the Dornish prince had already been admitted.
"I can't stay long, as I'm sure you understand. How would I possibly explain it to Ellaria that I was seen leaving the rooms of a lady three times her age?"
"I believe you underestimate how much whores understand," Olenna riposted. "What exactly are you doing here, Prince Oberyn?"
"Informing you that you've made a grave mistake."
Olenna seated herself. "Oh? Have I?"
"Your grandson made a request of me when he discovered I was amongst the wedding guests. He wished me to give my honest opinion of Joffrey Baratheon and he told me I ought to give it to you, and not to His Lordship of Highgarden." The last with a mocking twist of his lips. "I cannot fathom why."
"Don't be coy, young man. What is your honest opinion, if you've got any honesty in you?" Willas had not mentioned this but Olenna had noticed over the past year or so that Willas had stopped telling her everything--just as she had once begun to keep her own counsel instead of asking her mother's advice. It was a rite of passage, of sorts. "Did something happen?"
"You might say that. Do say a prayer, will you, for a glorious book gone to the gods." He shook his head, brow furrowed in disappointment. "I can't say I trust a king who won't read."
"That, I am assured, is the least of Joffrey's failings. And besides, he has the Imp to read for him, doesn't he?"
"Not if he persists in making him an enemy. He hasn't even wedded your granddaughter and already he plans to bed Sansa Stark and call it charity if he gets her with child. Another Aegon the Unworthy." Again, he shook his head. "Such a pity."
"Did nothing, said nothing. He may not even have heard, but I will wager you--"
The door flew open to admit her second grandson with a half-dressed Margaery in tow. Garlan stopped short at the sight of the Dornish prince. "Am I interrupting?"
"Not at all," replied Prince Oberyn, smooth as sandsilk though his eyes took Margaery in appreciatively and set Olenna's teeth on edge. "I believe you're here to inform the Lady Olenna of what occurred in the Queen's Ballroom. My lady Margaery. Or ought I call you Your Grace?"
As though she were wearing her wedding gown rather than a robe over petticoats, Margaery held out her hand. "Prince Oberyn, an unexpected pleasure."
"I assure you, Your Grace, the pleasure is all mine."
Garlan rolled his eyes and ignored this to kneel beside Olenna. "Father won't listen to me--he says that Margaery being Queen is worth all this, but it isn't, Grandmother, it damned well isn't!"
"Did he tell you?" Olenna addressed the question to Margaery. At her granddaughter's near-imperceptible nod, she leant back in the chair. "We cannot back out now. Your father's word is, unfortunately, law. Garlan," she turned back to him, "I want you to make certain that Loras hears nothing of this. We cannot have another Kingslayer on our hands."
Obedient as ever, Garlan paused only to hug Margaery close and whisper something to her that Olenna did not hear. Prince Oberyn, he eyed warily as he left. When the door had closed behind him, she beckoned them both forward. "I thank you for this information, Prince Oberyn. You have done Highgarden an unexpected service."
"Not Highgarden, my lady. Its heir. And," he added, bowing to Margaery, "the Queen. You will not forget Dorne, will you, Your Grace?"
"I should not dream of it, my lord."
When she and Margaery were alone, Olenna clasped her granddaughter's hands. "You must be brave, sweetling, just a little longer. Do you know the chalice that your father presented to your husband-to-be?"
"I do." Her face was still as stone. "He showed it to me."
"You must slip something into it and be certain that nobody sees you. You are the only one who will be close enough to Joffrey to do it." She met Margaery's eyes. "If you do not wish to go through with it, just tell me. We will find another way, I swear to you."
Margaery's fingers tightened on her hand. "He deserves to die, Grandmother. The Maiden will forgive me this."
The tiny purple gems glittered like deadly stars against the girl's russet curls. Olenna wondered for a moment what might happen if she did not reach out, if she simply walked past Sansa as she had ever since her marriage to the Imp. It was cruel but necessary--her new husband was no more a fool than Olenna was an old biddy and the girl had already proven she couldn't be trusted with secrets. From beyond Sansa's silver-clad shoulders, she could see the massive chalice her son had presented to the King as a wedding gift. Someone--the Hand, no doubt--had turned it such that the Lannister lion and the Tyrell rose faced the guests in the hall, a pretty gesture to be sure, but no more than that.
Reaching out, she brushed her fingers across the hairnet. "You do look quite exquisite, child," she said, truthfully. Sansa would have rivalled Margaery this night but for the dark circles beneath her eyes and the grief beginning to write itself in feathery lines across her face. "The wind has been at your hair, though." One of the stones slipped free as she adjusted the net.
"I was very sorry to hear about your losses." Oddly enough, that too was true, although the full truth of the matter was not one Olenna could speak aloud in this company. Instead, she patted the girl's shoulder and remarked, "Your brother was a terrible traitor, I know, but if we start killing men at weddings they'll be even more frightened of marriage than they are presently." Stepping back, she admired her handiwork, the stone pressed into the soft skin between her thumb and forefinger. "There, that's better."
She spoke of her departure then, of Highgarden and other silly, meaningless things, and offered the hospitality she knew would be refused out of hand. There wasn't a chance in all seven hells that Tywin Lannister would let his daughter-in-law out of his sight when all the world knew the Imp had yet to consummate his marriage. It was, however, worth a try for Margaery's sake. And Willas', she admitted to herself. All other things aside, Sansa Stark would have made an entirely suitable lady of Highgarden.
The Imp's expression had grown progressively more thunderous until he excused himself and his wife, leaving Olenna to demand that Left and Right escort her to her place. She had barely managed to seat herself before the new King and Queen rode into the hall, Margaery a vision in pale green samite.
Seventy-seven courses were planned for the banquet and Olenna lost track after a dozen. The singers were forgettable, save the Tyroshi who was a favourite of Willas' for precisely his tendency to sing in High Valyrian. It was only after that regrettable incident with the dancing dwarfs that Olenna began to fiddle with the stone in her hand, its edges sharp against her skin.
Her eyes met Margaery's as the newly-married Queen of the Seven Kingdoms stepped down from the dais. Olenna followed, motioning for her guards to stay by her chair. She pressed the stone into her granddaughter's hand, the movement hidden by Margaery's elaborate sleeves. Margaery's smile in response made Olenna shiver.
It was done.
I had very ambitious plans for this story but had to curtail them due to a lack of writing time in the past month or so. I apologise, therefore, if there seem to be references to events and people that aren't fully explained--I tried to clarify them as best I could but I may have missed some. I do plan to finish the earlier sections and post them but I don't know when that will happen.
We are never told how exactly Joffrey Baratheon was poisoned in A Storm of Swords so I am taking several liberties with the facts we are given. Olenna is the only person explicitly mentioned who had the chance to steal a stone from Sansa's hairnet, so I am following Occam's Razor in assuming that she did so. I did give Margaery a somewhat larger role in the plan but clearly she had to have known not to drink from Joffrey's cup in spite of the wedding traditions presented in the series so I don't believe this is an unreasonable liberty to take. Plus, she also had the perfect opportunity to drop the poison into Joffrey's cup undetected.
All the exchanges between Olenna and Littlefinger are my attempt to defer to the source text as much as possible--the series is unclear about the passage of time between different POV chapters and even less clear as to how much of the plots and machinations are in fact the brainchild of Littlefinger. If it seems as though I am giving Olenna more credit than she deserves, my only defence is that surely a woman nicknamed the Queen of Thorns and who everybody knows to be the brains of Highgarden would at least stand a chance against Littlefinger. ;)