The morning is glorious, but a shimmering haze on the horizon promises another hot day. Here, in the finest neighborhood of the finest quarter in the Seven Kingdoms’ seat of power, knights and soldiers are not out-of-place; yet the group of hard-eyed, black-clad men who are gathered outside the manse of House Lannister of Casterly Rock stand out somehow. There are a half-dozen of them, each armed with sword, axe and mail, and a few with bows, and each bears an odd badge on their breast: a black Griffin, rearing in defiance.
At their head is grey-eyed Ser Almer Connington, taller than the rest and dressed only in plain black linens and leather. There is a sword at his side, but he is elsewise unarmed. Beside him is a thin boy of twelve years; his squire and goodbrother, Rease Trant. After an encouraging nod from the knight, young Rease steps forward to the door of the manse and knocks once, twice.
“Ser Almer Connington, to see Ser Jaesin Lannister!” he formally announces, and surprisingly, his voice neither cracks nor quavers. The men keep watchful eyes upon the streets and alleyways, but their captain merely waits patiently for admittance.
There is a space of moments before the herald-cry is answered, a silence of some length before the gate swings inward on well-oiled hinges. Before it is neither a servant nor a guardsman, but a golden-haired boy of perhaps a year more than young Rease, at most.
Clad in a plain black jerkin and hose, the youth now standing within the gateway regards the group before him with a gravity, a sense of self exceedingly rare among boys his age. His emerald eyes are cool and dismissive, his bearing lordly as he regards Rease Trant—only half a breath passes before he looks past the squire and to the knight behind him.
“You may enter, Almer Connington,” says Mathin Lannister, “and your men with you. I will take you to my brother.”
Without waiting for reply, the boy—apparently excused from the Dragonknight’s service this morning—turns on a heel. He strides across the courtyard with that same proud confidence, receiving a salute from Ser Bryon Lantell and the group of crimson-clad guardsmen that await before the manse proper. No other servants haunt the empty courtyard.
The subtlest specter of a smile appears on Almer’s brooding features, quickly schooled into sobriety for courtesy’s sake. “/Ser/ Almer,” he directs toward the back of departing Mathin’s head. “And thank you, squire.” He motions to his comrades to accompany him into the courtyard; they do so uneasily, most of them apparently unused to such elegant surroundings.
Not so Ser Almer, who nods courteously to Ser Bryan as he approaches. “Wait here, gentlemen,” the knight tells his men. “And try not to embarrass me while I’m inside, will you?” That elicits a few grumbling smiles from the rough-looking soldiers; but they obey, taking up awkward stations near the Lannister householders. “You too, Rease. If I need you I’ll send for you.”
He continues following Mathin to wherever the youth is going, one palm resting lightly on the sword at his hip and the other clutching a thin glove of black calfskin.
Young Mathin speaks no further, instead electing for silence as he leads the accomplished grffin knight through the grand entry doors of House Lannister’s temporary home. Through a spacious and subtly appointed foyer, down tiled halls where their boots echo and clatter past nondescript tapestries and chambers all empty of servants or household. In truth, the entire place, clean and well-kept as it is, feels nearly devoid of habitation.
At length the squire leads Connington up a switchback flight of stairs, and around a corner; an open set of doors is louvred open before them, and beyond that are windows, windows from floor to ceiling look out toward the slopes of Aegon’s High Hill and its brooding crown, the Red Keep, in the distance.
In the foreground of this scene, back turned with his hands clasped behind him, a familiar figure of crimson and gold stands gazing out into the distance. When footfalls sound on the threshold, he turns, smiling unhappily.
“Ser Almer,” greets Ser Jaesin Lannister, with a pointed glance for the black glove held by his opposite. “I hope that thing isn’t for me. I’ve spent a sleepless night and morning, and I’ve yet to shave.”
That elicits a brittle laugh from Almer, and he tucks the black glove into his sword-belt absently. “Hardly, Jaesin,” he replies, dispensing with formality immediately. “My glover might approve, but I would not; my quarrel lies elsewhere. A glover could make a tidy profit in this city, I think, thanks to your brother.”
Connington heaves a sigh; the signs of weariness are on him as well, for he is pale and drawn, his eyes faintly bloodshot. “Quite a view you’ve got here,” he comments offhandedly. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in this room.”
He crosses his arms and half-smiles. “I have to assume you’ve heard the tidings by now,” Almer says. “I regret you had to find out about my challenge after the fact, but I felt the matter could suffer no delay.”
Jaesin smiles a tight, weary smile and motions absently to a brace of chairs. “Then sit with me and delay for a moment,” he says tiredly, not waiting on his guest to take up the offer before collapsing with a lazy grace into the seat himself. “Because I cannot see how anyone can profit from furthering this business.”
“Two mornings past, Reyna Tyrell told me that my brother had threatened her. That they had been… coupling,” the golden knight says with distaste, “I had already guessed. Jonn likes to think himself subtle, but in some things he is glaringly obvious as the sun over Dorne.”
“I had thought to tell you, in truth,” Jaesin admits, “for the sake of honor. But I am bound to my brother by honor as well. A fine dilemma, was it not? I had thought to take some time and judge for myself how best to proceed… but I see now that events have outpaced me. You are here upon my doorstep, after all.”
“Yes. I admit to a certain anger when I heard you knew of this. I wish you had come to me straightaway,” Almer replies, sitting stiffly in counterpoint to Jaesin’s easy manner. “But I understand your reasons. He is your brother, after all.”
“My grandmother was a Lannister, Jaesin; I am not. It is not a matter of profit or loss to me.” Almer’s voice is cool and quiet, the very heart of reason. “Make no mistake; it is not blind rage or vengeance that drives me. This is a matter of honor, and I am here for honor’s sake, and for the love I bear my family, and for you, cousin. I owe you my life and reputation, and so I am obliged to do at least that much.”
“You do know that he threatened to kill Lady Reyna if she spoke of this? That only last night he nearly broke her jaw when she dared defy him? And that he refused my challenge with mockery and laughter, before stripping off his spurs?” The disbelief in Connington’s eyes is only rivalled by the distaste therein. “Is he to add craven coward to his list of outrages?”
“No, Jaesin. I am truly sorry, but I cannot suffer him to survive this. It gives me no pleasure, but I am bound by my honor.”
And to the tale related in righteous anger, the son and heir of Lord Loren Lannister—a man noted since the Dance of Dragons for his cool, aloof manner and ruthless reasoning—listens silently. In these lengthy moments he seems more like his father than ever before. Thoughtful, quiet, fingers steepling idly together as Almer speaks.
Only at his cousin’s declaration does Jaesin finally betray some reaction. A thin frown bends his lips—and that is all.
“From you, I doubt none of these things,” Ser Jaesin admits, “though this last I had not heard. I cannot say it surprises me,” he sighs. “As I told Jyana Arryn not two hours agone, we did not name him ‘Black Jonn’ because he cheated at dice.” Another mirthless smile twists his face.
“Almer, I cannot dissuade you from your vengeance, nor would I if I had that power,” Lannister muses. “But this quarrel is yours and yours alone, as Reyna’s kinsman and sometime protector. It must remain thus. Even my father will agree to that. But if that wretched sellsword Saltcliffe lays a finger on my brother—and Jyana tells me he is involved in some fashion that we cannot comprehend—I promise you, once the raven lands at Casterly Rock the ironman will not live to see the seas again.”
“He won’t.” There is a measure of relief in Almer’s voice, but also a strange sadness that tempers his wrath. “Ser Dagur is no friend of mine, nor of yours. But for all his faults, I trust him not to sell me. That is why he is my second. More fool me, perhaps, but he will not touch your brother before this thing is done.”
“I am sorry, Jaesin.” Connington leans forward in his chair. “Our families are intertwined, for good or for ill, and while some speak against Lannister, I have always esteemed Casterly Rock and your lord father.” He seems anxious to make his cousin understand.
“I desire no enemies among the lions. But I know that is a hazard of this enterprise. May the gods, if they even care about such things, forfend it.” He rises, still stiff, but now with a strange dark peace in his manner. “Do not be concerned over Saltcliffe. He has his own strange sense of honor, and can govern himself at need.”
“It is not my concern that should worry him,” answers Ser Jaesin, spreading his hands in a rare, helpless gesture. “You are an anointed knight, a kinsman, and a man of honor. If my brother has done you wrong—and dishonored the Rock in doing so—we can only urge you to be merciful in your retribution. And careful, I would add myself! My father has a long arm and a great deal of gold. If you deal with his son too harshly….”
Jaesin leaves the thought hanging.
“Well. I do not think you will kill him,” he says after a moment. “Remember for whose sake you take up this burden, Almer. I know she is dear to you, but ask yourself: After all that has passed, is she worth a man’s death? Or will she turn around and betray you again? Think deeply on that, cousin.”
“Mercy and wisdom. That is all I will ask for my brother. It is better than he deserves.”
It is a day of rarities, it seems. Almer answers Jaesin’s candor with a revelation of his own doubt and fear. “Were it anyone else, I would brush such an appeal aside as self-serving sophistry, or worse,” he tells the Young Lion. “But I made a promise to the Lady Kellyn, and I will likewise make such a vow to you.”
“If there is a solution that satisfies honor and spares Jonn Lannister’s life,” he says with measured deliberation, “then I will at least consider it.” His brow furrows. “Yet I fear that door is closed to me now, bricked up with your brother’s hatred and mortared with Lady Reyna’s blood.”
Almer listens to Jaesin’s advice about that selfsame lady with an unreadable expression. When the Lannister heir has finished, Connington nods heavily. “I am aware of Reyna’s faults,” he replies quietly. “But I also know her virtues. I still believe she is worth saving from herself. Though I may come to regret such faith.”
To all of this, Jaesin nods sagely—again, a gesture far more like Lord Loren than the young gloryhound he himself plays so well for the public—and smiles a sad smile. “And how will you do that, Almer? Marry her at long last? Cast aside her protestations of not deserving you—oh yes, I’m quite sure she makes that claim exactly—and take her to wife? Bend her to your will as once you told me we should all bend our women?”
The questions are far, far from antagonistic; they are voiced with a hint of sorrow, and an equal measure of disbelief.
“A champion will not save Reyna Tyrell,” states Jaesin Lannister, and in this much he speaks with clear certainty. “But I am straying from my mandate. That is not my affair. My only concern is for my brother, and the honor of House Lannister. I will take your promises as solemn vows. But now you should go, before Kellyn returns, and troubles the house anew with her sorrow. Did you know I have sent the servants away?” he asks as he rises. “We shall doubtless need new ones—loyal Lannisport folk—sent from home.”
A troubled scowl is Almer’s instinctive response. “I don’t know, Jaesin. I know that is her desire, but I would be a poor husband for her. Yet that is what she truly wants; a man who will cherish her, but who will also take her in hand. Someone strong enough to break her when necessary, but gentle enough to pick up the pieces and put her back together again.”
Connington now looks long and hard upon his cousin. “Do you know such a man?” he asks cryptically.
The knight of griffins does not linger for a reply, however; tugging out his black glove, he slips it on his bare left hand. “My regrets. May our next meeting be in happier circumstances, ser. I can find my way out. Farewell.”
Almer turns and departs, sorrowful yet resolved, and in a moment he is gone.
As Connington’s footsteps on the tiled hallway floors fade into the distance, Ser Jaesin allows himself a measured sigh and glances grudgingly toward the window. He glares at the Red Keep for a long moment, then rises and moves to his writing desk. Reluctantly he removes a jar of ink from its lacuqered case, sits down at the desk, and takes up a quill.