By Charles Matthews

Friday, November 11, 2011

15. A Feast for Crows, by George R.R. Martin, pp. 410-444


Her paranoia and megalomania are abuzz as she rides to a meeting with the new High Septon, accompanied by her spy, Taena Merryweather. Lady Taena has just let her know that Margaery has a particular favorite among the singers, one known as the Blue Bard. Cersei remembers him from Tommen's wedding: "Young, and fair to look upon. Could there be something there?" She asks Taena if she thinks Margaery is still a virgin, and is told that at her marriage to Renly, Taena "helped disrobe him for the bedding" and had ocular proof of his virility. She does note that it was Ser Loras who had carried Margaery to the bridal chamber, and admits that there no bloody sheet was displayed the next morning.

Cersei presses further on the men who visit Margaery, and Taena provides quite a few names, including Pycelle's, irritating Cersei, who has come to doubt the grand maester's loyalty. She asks Taena about Ser Loras, and is told that he visits Margaery, who is his sister, more than anyone. Taena then says she has "had a most wicked thought," but Cersei tells her to hold on to it: There are too many sparrows, the unwashed clerical pilgrims, flocking around the coach as it nears the sept.

She is irritated not only by the sparrows, but by the fact that the new High Septon seems to be in league with them. "This is what comes of letting fools and cowards rule themselves. Next time, I will choose their master for them. And the next time might not be long in coming if the new High Septon continued to annoy her." The crowd of sparrows grows so thick that the litter comes to a halt.

Adding to Cersei's irritation is that the High Septon has withheld his blessing of King Tommen because the crown has not resumed its payments to the church. That and the demands of the Braavosi for repayment have sent the lord treasurer, Gyles, to bed, where he is coughing up blood. But Cersei is insistent on rebuilding the navy, which now includes a ship named Sweet Cersei.

Ser Osmund comes up to say that the gold cloaks have been summoned to clear the way to the Great Sept, but Cersei decides to walk, soothing Taena's apprehensions by kissing her cheek and saying, "The lion does not fear the sparrow." The white gown she is wearing is not the best dress for walking through a throng. "It had been several years since the last time she had donned it, and the queen found it uncomfortably tight about the middle." She recalls the crowd that cheered her when she walked to her wedding with Robert Baratheon, and compares this "sullen, hostile" crowd to it. She also thinks of how once again she has failed to measure up to -- or outdo -- her father: "He would have ridden over them instead of walking through."

Then she is shocked by the sight of the statue of Baelor the Beloved, which is "waist-deep in a heap of bones and skulls. Some of the skulls had scraps of flesh still clinging to them." When she protests about this to the crowd, a one-legged man comes forth to tell her that the bones are those of septons and septas who were "murdered for their faith." She proclaims, "This is the work of Stannis and his red witch, and the savage northmen who worship trees and wolves," and vows vengeance for the dead. But the one-legged man says they want protection, not vengeance, and the crowd begins to grumble about the lack of support from the Iron Throne.

Cersei senses the making of a riot, and restrains Ser Meryn Trant, who starts to draw his sword. She continues on her way to the sept, but is surprised there by a force of armed men who block her way. One of them tells her she is welcome, but her men must leave their arms behind. "No weapons are allowed within, by command of the High Septon." She is incensed by this unprecedented defiance, but tells the Kingsguard to wait outside and goes in alone.

Inside, she is astonished to find the septons scrubbing the floor. She recognizes one of them as Septon Raynard, who had always fawned on her during her visits, and asks what he is doing. Another man answers, "He is cleaning the floor," and welcomes her. She realizes that this thin man with the bare, hard, callused feet is the High Septon. "The queen knew that she should kneel, but the floor was wet with soap and dirty water and she did not wish to ruin her gown."

Finally, she decides to show her anger: "Is this how you greet me? With a scrub brush in your hand, dripping water? ... By rights you should have met me on the steps in your finest robes, with the crystal crown upon your head." He tells her he sold the crown to feed the poor, and she realizes that what Qyburn's spies had reported was true: "Septon Luceon had been nine votes away from elevation when those doors had given way, and the sparrows came pouring into the Great Sept with their leader on their shoulders and their axes in their hands."

Icily, she asks the High Septon if they can meet somewhere more private. He leads her to the altar for the Crone, where they kneel. After he finishes praying, she realizes that this is where they are to confer. She tells him she wants the sparrows gone because they "are frightening the city," but he replies that they have no place to go. She protests that they are befouling the plaza, and he replies, "Night soil can be washed away more easily than blood, Your Grace. If the plaza was befouled, it was befouled by the execution that was done here." Exasperated by the reminder of Ned Stark's execution, she admits that it was a mistake, "but the man was a traitor, let us not forget."

Unswayed by her argument, he proceeds to talk about the devastation of the countryside. "War is a dreadful thing," she replies. "These atrocities are the work of the northmen, and of Lord Stannis and his demon-worshipers." But he attributes them to "bands of lions" as well, and to "the Hound, who was your own sworn man," recounting a gruesome atrocity attributed to Clegane at Saltpans. And when she says that Sandor Clegane had been dismissed, and that he fights for Beric Dondarrion now, he points out that the king's knights did nothing to stop Clegane or the outlaws.

She asks why he has not blessed King Tommen yet, and he says, "The realm is full of kings. For the Faith to exalt one above the rest we must be certain." He needs to pray and fast until he is sure. She seethes inwardly, "I could help you fast.... I could shut you up in some tower and see that no one brings you food until the gods have spoken." But she says if he blesses Tommen he will put an end to the outrages, but the High Septon quite sensibly asks how. Not wanting to commit her forces, she suggests that the sparrows can defend themselves with their clubs and axes.

"King Maegor's laws prohibit that, as Your Grace must know. It was by his decree that the Faith laid down its swords." Cersei doesn't care about King Maegor -- that was three hundred years ago. If she can get rid of the sparrows by letting them arm themselves, she can always change the law. And she hints as much.
He did not disappoint her. "The Faith Militant reborn ... that would be the answer to three hundred years of prayer, Your Grace. The Warrior could lift his shining sword again and cleanse this sinful realm of all its evil. If His Grace were to allow me to restore the ancient blessed orders of the Sword and Star, every godly man in the Seven Kingdoms would know him to be our true and rightful lord."
Music to Cersei's ears. But she wants a quid pro quo: forgiveness of the debt. And it's a deal.

Cersei is jubilant. She has even outdone her father, she thinks. "At a stroke, she had rid King's Landing of the plague of sparrows, secured Tommen's blessing, and lessened the crown's debt by close to a million dragons." She has also unleashed a force beyond her control, one that, as she tells Lady Taena, was "implacable in their hatred for all enemies of the Holy Faith." She doesn't question or even seem to care why it was that King Maegor saw fit to disarm the forces of the Faith. She only assumes that these force will be directed against, as Taena suggests, "Enemies such as Lord Stannis and his red sorceress, perhaps?" Giddily, Cersei suggests that she and Taena open a bottle and drink to the fervor of the Warrior's Sons on our way home."

On their way, she sees Margaery accompanied by her retinue, including the Redwyne twins, Jalabhar Xho, and the Blue Bard. "Wherever she went, the smallfolk fawned on her, and Lady Margaery did all she could to fan their ardor. She was forever giving alms to beggars, buying hot pies off bakers' carts, and reining up to speak to common tradesmen." And if Cersei hadn't been able to stop it, she would have had King Tommen accompany her on these excursions. Her suspicions of the Tyrells only increase, and she imagines: "The Tyrells bribed the gaolers to free Tryion, and whisked him down the roseroad to join his vile bride. By now the both of them are safe in Highgarden, hidden away behind a wall of roses."

Margaery says Cersei should join them on their excursions, and Cersei says, "My late husband loved the forest too." While he was off hunting, she and Jaime would have their time together. She warns Margaery, however, "Robert lost his life in the woods." Margaery dismisses this warning: Her brother, Ser Loras, will keep them safe.

The Reaver

A bloody sea battle is taking place, and when it is over, Victarion Greyjoy and his ironborn have defeated the forces of Highgarden. The thing is, Victarion isn't entirely delighted, because it is, he thinks, "a great victory for the Crow's Eye and his wizards." It would be hailed as Euron's triumph, even though he is safe on land. Since the kingsmoot, "Victarion could not call Euron 'king' without tasting bile in his throat."

Euron's forces have taken the Shield Islands at the mouth of the Mander, "a lazy river, wide and slow and treacherous with snags and sandbars. Most seagoing vessels dared not sail beyond Highgarden, but longships with their shallow draughts could navigate as far upstream as Bitterbridge." Euron had sent a dozen ships up the Mander, and the fleets of the Shield Islands had pursued them, leaving the islands mostly undefended, easy prey for the ships that came in on the evening tide, with the setting sun behind them, blinding the men in the watchtowers. Three of the islands fell before the sun rose again, and the last, Oakenshield, held out half a day longer.

Victarion had hashed over the results of the kingsmoot with his brother, Aeron, who still wants to crown him. Aeron blames "wizards and foul sorcerers" for Euron's victory, and is determined to preach rebellion. Victarion had stayed on, however, and had been rewarded for his loyalty by the gift of a "dusky woman, taken off some slaver bound for Lys," whose "tongue had been torn out, but elsewise she was undamaged, and beautiful besides, with skin as brown as oiled teak." Asha and her followers had left after the driftwood crown was placed on Euron's head.

As he sails back to Oakenshield, Victarion sees a group of women and children on the deck of one ship, and is told that they are to be sold into slavery by Euron's decree. He is bothered by this, but is in no position to do anything about it. As it turns out, Victarion isn't the only one dissatisfied with the victory. At the castle of Lord Hewett on the island, he meets Rodrik Harlaw, who says, "We have won some stones and trees and trinkets, and the enmity of House Tyrell." He predicts that "all the power of the Reach will be marshaled against us."

But there is a feast in progress and Victarion is hungry. While he eats, he learns that Euron is naming various men lords of the islands, and thinks, "Lord Victarion. Aye, and why not? It might not be the Seastone Chair, but it would be something." The lord of the castle is tied up in a chair on the dais, with a radish stuffed in his mouth so he can't speak, but he can watch as his wife and daughters and the ladies of the court are made to wait on the tables. Euron decides that he doesn't want the gowns the ladies are wearing to be soiled, so he makes them strip naked. Victarion is reminded of how he had been shamed through Euron's seduction of his wife.

Euron then rises to proclaim four men lords of the islands, making Victarion's mate, Nute the Barber, Lord of Oakenshield. Suddenly, Victarion sees what Euron has done: He has named the heirs or the strongest supporters of various rivals to the lordships, and he urges Nute to reject the offer. But Nute is too taken with the idea of being a lord, and accepts. "And now he steals my men away, Victarion thought."

Then Euron proclaims that they should gather up lots of provisions, because tomorrow they are sailing eastward: "Our decks will stink of pigs and chickens on the voyage east, but we'll return with dragons." Lord Rodrik rises to protest that it is autumn and the weather will only get worse, but Euron smiles at the caution and says, "I have taken the Silence on longer voyages than this, and ones far more hazardous." When Rodrik expresses some skepticism, Euron meets it with an air of quiet menace.

Victarion decides to support Rodrik, and repeats his objection that they will not be welcomed in Lys and Volantis. Euron says they will sell their slaves in those places, and along with the plunder from the Shield Islands, they will have the gold they need for their voyage. Rodrik dislikes being a slaver, "And for what? Dragons that no man here has seen? Shall we chase some drunken sailor's fancy to the far ends of the earth?" He begins to pick up more support, and there are voice suggesting  that they should attack Oldtown and the Arbor next. Euron listens for a bit, then leaves.

The feast goes on without him, but later Euron sends for Victarion. "I had forgotten what a small and noisy folk they are, my ironborn," Euron says. "I would  bring them dragons, and they shout out for grapes." But he admits that Rodrik was right: The fleet is too large for such a long voyage. "Only our finest ships and crews could hope to sail to Slaver's Bay and back. The Iron Fleet." He proposes to send Victarion on this mission: "A king must have a wife, to give him heirs." He is to go to Slaver's Bay and bring her back. He doesn't mention the name Daenerys Targaryen, but says, "When the kraken weds the dragon, brother, let all the world beware."

Victarion is still unsure what he's talking about, but Euron goes on:
"The last of her line. They say she is the fairest woman in the world. Her hair is silver-gold, and her eyes are amethysts ... but you need not take my word for it, brother. Go to Slaver's Bay, behold her beauty, and bring her back to me." 
Once he does that, Euron says, Victarion can take the Seastone Chair, while Euron ascends to the Iron Throne.

Victarion reminds himself, "Euron's gifts are poisoned." Nevertheless, he agrees. He will "find this dragon woman" and he will bring her back. But he thinks, "But not for you. You stole my wife and despoiled her, so I'll have yours. The fairest woman in the world, for me."

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