(121-07-19) On Tidying
On Tidying
Summary: A conversation late in the evening between Cora Baratheon and her new personal maester: cherries, ciphers, copper, and an intention to clean up.
Date: 12/07/121
Related: None specifically.

Cora Baratheon's Chambers

In the handful of weeks during which Maester Jacsen has resided in the Lion Door Manse, in daily attendance upon Cora, Lady Baratheon — ordering her correspondence, much of which is protected by ciphers as yet unconfided to him; bringing her the gossip of the city and his own pithy commentary thereupon; seeing that she always has a good book or two by her bed, or being summoned from his own for early-morning interrogations when she can't sleep; brewing the potion she takes, in doses so meagre they're surely inadequate, for the pain in her bones — he has observed, and come to understand, a great deal of the running of her household. Still. It might give him a moment's pause, or an instant's, when he enters her chambers one evening with a message lately arrived by raven, and finds this elderly invalid who is carried everywhere in the arms of her steward, standing on her own two feet at a table in the middle of her solar and munching a green apple she has lately plucked from a bowl.

Displaying not the least unconcern at being caught out in a lie she has maintained before the greatest nobles of the Seven Kingdoms, and before her own maester during his deferentially thorough examinations, she chews and swallows her present bite of apple and raises an eyebrow at him. "You have my letter?"

Indeed, some people actually need their walking aids. As a thumping cane-tip echoes against the ground, Maester Jacsen, of late, in service to Lady Cora Baratheon enters, with a basket under his arm and a cruel-tinged smile upon his lips. This isn't actually directed towards her, though. Oh no. Tap, tap, tap. Which each series of steps, the iron-shot cane hits the ground and he comes forth, the chains around his neck jingling.

If Cora's stance has taken him by surprise, he's gracious enough not to make a point of it. Indeed, the grin only turns a bit softer as he looks upon his patron and he bows his head lightly with a jingle of chains. "Indeed I did, Lady Baratheon. I see this warm evening finds you well, mmm?" There's a hint of a laugh in his words but he's tactful enough to rein it in.

"Tolerably well, Jacsen," the lady grants; and, apple in hand, she ambulates with small, slow, precise steps (such an upright little figure, in a lion-embroidered red robe over her snow-white nightgown, yards and yards of fabric trailing about her feet) to her favourite chair by the fire. The latter is blazing bright, as ever. "Well, you'd best sit down," she suggests charitably, sinking down with a sigh and arranging her skirts over legs not quite so useless as she would have the world believe, "and let me have it." She points to the smaller chair opposite her; untenanted, as are all the others. They are quite alone this evening, though no doubt one of her maids is within call. Vika, or Maris. Oddly educated, those two, for serving wenches of even a house so august, and apt to betray it without realising.

Tap, tap, tap. Each step is accompanied by a drag of the cane as Jacsen settles in, ambling his way towards a chair and setting the basket down next to the seat before gingerly accepting a seat himself and planting his rear end square against the cushion, lifting the lid and pulling out a sealed parchment. He hands it over towards Cora without hesitation and looks down into the basket again, which raises a question — what else is in there? His lean features carry an air of bemusement. He is in high spirits. "Is the heat here such a thing that you would notice, compared to where you have lived?" He asks. Yes, he's asking about the weather.

Lady Baratheon breaks the unmarked wax seal upon the scrap of parchment with a neat movement of one long, shapely, well-tended fingernail; and then unfolds it, though her cool blue eyes linger for the nonce upon Jacsen, rather than whatever tidings he has brought her. "Oldtown in this season is warmer," she answers, "than the summers at Casterly Rock, Storm's End, King's Landing, or anywhere I have sojourned long… save the time I spent in Dorne," of which her maester has never yet heard a whisper. "I do appreciate," she concedes, "feeling warm again." Sitting here, by her bright and cheerful fire, in at least two voluminous layers of cloth: silk, over linen. Still, she's practically a fossil, isn't she, and a skinny one at that. Her steward, Elfrid Hill, whose duty it is to carry her hither and yon, up untold flights of stairs, never seems to feel her weight, and her maester knows better than most men the fragility of the body beneath her inevitable rich draperies.

A moment more; and her gaze drops to the parchment. Inscribed upon it is the usual series of numerals, meaning nothing to Jacsen and possibly a great deal to his lady patroness, who usually closets herself alone to read these things.

"You know, Lady Baratheon — I grew up in a hold of a very small, very knightly Keep within the lands sworn to our Royal Graces. The breeze tends to take away the heat. I understand how some do not respond well to the Reach." Jacsen offers, in a tone that is diplomatic enough. More rumbling in the basket and he produces a cloth-wrapped bundle. And being the gracious sort that he is, he lays it out upon the edge of the chair.

Cherries. Red-and-white cherries at that. They are left out for the taking. He does in fact gesture towards them but reaches for one himself, undoubtably aware of what it takes to be a food taster.

"It is summer. And what a summer it has been!"

Having taken perhaps three bites of her apple, and kept it this long in her lap with her letter — Cora Baratheon quite deliberately sets it aside, and plucks a cherry from the white cloth laid out on the chair between them. She tosses the stem into the fire and chews thoughtfully. "Very good," she says at last. "Thank you, Jacsen; I am fond of cherries. I don't know," and here again is that frankness she sometimes shows him, "whether I shall see another summer after this one, and I am eager to enjoy its fruits… all its fruits." She pops another cherry between her unpainted lips, discards another stem, and smooths out the parchment, lifting it and regarding it with a calculating eye, as though by some effort of the mind she might render those numbers, inscribed in groups of five, meaningful.

Well, the cherry is out of the bag, and there is no point at pretending not to be eating them. Or maybe the wolfish-grinned Maester has been eating them all afternoon, and from the same barrel. In any case, he looks towards his patron and pops one in his mouth, indicating that if there's poison in the batch, it's time for him to go as well as anyone else.

Spoiler: There is no poison. "I feel as though, Lady Baratheon, you sell yourself and your own health a bit short. If there is any justice in this place, you will outlive Old Man Hightower at least." Wouldn't that be a thing?

"I take it the letter is what you expected, hmm?" He leans forward now, his open palm cupped on the handle of his cane.

And Lady Baratheon lifts an eyebrow at him. "Perhaps it is — the timing is right, the hand is right. I hardly know whether to ask you to bring me what I'll require to decipher it, given that within these walls…" Her thin shoulders shift in a shrug, acknowledging his recent receipt of one of her secrets. She lifts her voice, then, from the soft, pleasant, confidential drawl she has till now affected: "Vika!" … Seconds later a door opens and the plainer of her two maidservants steps into the solar. "My lap desk, child," Lady Baratheon directs her, blue eyes regarding her keenly where she stands in the shadows in the far corner, "and the Qartheen deck."

The maid Vika crosses light-footed to the table in the corner where her mistress likes to work in the mornings, by the light from windows at either side: she brings across the lap desk, with its quills and ink-pots and plentiful supply of clean, well-scraped parchment, and then disappears into an inner room.

Well, then! That made Jacsen's job easier. He rises forward in his chair a bit, calling towards the nearest servant. "And a bottle of Arbor Gold. Two glasses. Make them clean this time, and be sure that none of those beardless children touched them." He rumbles a bit, but all the while looking upon Cora as she calls for, well, what she asked for. "Qartheen, Lady Baratheon? Those cards are — irregular, after all. As are the people that made them. If you can call them people."

Lady Baratheon reaches for another cherry. "I don't call them anything," she murmurs absently; and nips the cherry off its stem. More fuel for the fire which heats her chambers to such a temperature that her serving maid is wearing, tonight, only a dress of the thinnest grey linen. And anyone who has been inclined to dismiss Vika as a woman on the basis of her long face, her brown hair, her drab taste in clothes, her age (thirtyish), would be obliged to revise his opinion if, aided by the firelight, he saw her true silhouette through that fabric whilst she bent over to offer her mistress an ebony casket, its lid open.

From the casket Lady Baratheon extracts a deck of cards, which she sets down on the top level of her lap desk, next to the inkwell. This latter accoutrement is, naturally, solid gold, in the shape of a lion's head into the gaping maw of which its owner may dip her quill. First, though, she arranges a sheet of parchment on the slanting surface before her, and inspects the quill, to ensure it'll do. Vika has since receded, no doubt to fetch the wine. "You were served wine in a glass which wasn't clean?" she inquires quietly, gathering the deck — thick, heavy cards, each painted by hand and speckled with gold leaf — into her hands and simply holding rather than shuffling them. "The name of the servant…?"

Well? The silver-haired Maester is probably not dismissing anyone, and the names that would be named in a bad service review are actually not here. "Mmmm Lady Baratheon. Let ie be known that was a cautionary thing." He tilts his head to watch Vika move and it's also clear that he's likely not the rudest dismisser of one grey-clad serving maid. The teeth in his mouth are flashed, slightly discolored with age, but still an original set, it would appear, and a vulpine green to accompany them.

One more cherry is chomped upon as he turns to study the deck of cards that Cora produces, fingertips drumming idly upon the surface of the chair he is lounging in. "Not calling them is likely the best course of action, My Lady."

With her writing things and her enciphered message arrayed before her, Lady Baratheon sifts through her thick stack of extravagantly foreign playing cards, pulling one out here, cutting the deck there, according to some system of her own which must needs remain opaque to Jacsen, for he only ever sees the backs of the cards. (They're gaily painted with a scene which might be religious, in a foreign sort of way, or might be very profoundly not.) "You have had dealings with Qarth, Jacsen, with Qartheen in exile?" she inquires idly. "Or do you know the natives of that place only by repute? I must confess, most of my knowledge is second-hand, or third…" Most. "They would no doubt find our Oldtown summer inhospitably chilly," she observes, transferring all the cards to her left hand and making a quick mark upon the parchment before her with a quill suddenly seized in her right. "Curious how climate dictates fashion."

"Only in the most — mm, academic of senses. Which is what one would expect from the Citadel, Lady Baratheon. Unfortunately the wretches of Qarth have taken a great interest in this continent. An interest that is likely to cost them, and their purple-painted elites in particular." He doesn't elaborate specifically, but the venom in Jacsen's voice is fairly clear on the matter. Anyway, Qarth is largely full of scum as far as he is concerned.

"Hmm. Their whole livelihood is based on theft. I wonder if some Houses here might not find it admirable in some way, if you think about it?" He doesn't pry into the enciphered message at all, merely waiting for his wine.

Which isn't long in coming; the servants in Cora Baratheon's own suite, as opposed to the permanent caretakers of this manse, and certain of the lackeys in the trains of her younger relations, are up to the mark and no doubt about it. Soon Vika is bending low again to present her mistress and the latter's maester with suitably jewel-encrusted goblets, and then to fill each from a bottle which she leaves within Jacsen's reach: it's for him to do the honours, henceforth, for goodness knows Lady Baratheon doesn't bestir herself in the presence of hired hands. Another log on the fire, a curtsey, and Vika is away; but throughout her brief venture into the solar, Lady Baratheon re-orders her playing cards and speaks idly and even puts quill to parchment once more.

"Blue-painted," she murmurs first, a stickler for detail, even amongst masculine creatures who hardly know one colour from the next. "I wonder whether there is a single house in these Seven Kingdoms which owes not its high place to theft, of one kind or another — by force of arms, in war, by the slow and peaceful conquest of an advantageous marriage, by currying favour at court till what is taken, justly or otherwise, from one, is given by royal decree to another… We are none of us so scrupulous, so lily-white. I see copper upon your collar, Jacsen, you have studied history — as well as seeing it for yourself." Again her cards are gathered into her left hand, and she takes up her quill to write, perhaps, a single letter. Certainly not much more.

To his credit, Jacsen probably did get an eyeful of the hired help. Pouring the wine into cups, he passes one over towards Cora thoughtlessly and then takes ahold of his own, swirling it and eyeing its glittering depths. This done, he sits upright in his chair and lays his cane about his lap, horizontally. "Blue-painted." He responds to Cora now, tapping his foot in a gesture which might be mistaken for tension or impatience. "But yes. I bear the copper link. I've seen some that prefer more — detached mysteries. I wouldn't agree. Life itself is a mystery that unfolds around us, and understanding the nonsense of yesteryear that fed into the nonsense of today is worth a shocking amount of gold, I'd say." He tilts his head to spy the cards.

The cards are fanned out slowly in Cora Baratheon's hands; then cut, and brought together again; and soon there's another letter? — number? — some more arcane symbol? — inscribed upon the sheet of parchment before her. She doesn't seem to be taking particular care to keep the faces of the cards from Jacsen's eyes, but what with the interference of the lap desk he can catch only the occasional, unhelpful glimpse. "Nonsense," she observes, "comes round in cycles. Understanding the patterns of the past is indeed of use if one should wish to interpret the patterns of the present… or the future. Copper, assuredly, is a more practical metal than Valyrian steel; it is not without its own appeal. Why, a young man once gave me a copper hair-pin I found so beguiling I kept it even amidst all my gold." And with her bony white fingers spanning the full deck she reaches out and helps herself to another cherry.

"I imagine that young man didn't have any Valyrian Steel to hand out either." Jacsen observes, neutrally, still taking in Cora's words with a bemused look upon his face, tapping his foot as he does — in a pattern that he has a hard time reconciling with anything normal. This done, he peers at the cards, spread out and he spends more time looking at them than at the letter, one might note. For now, at least. "Nonsense comes in a steady stream, My Lady. It was mankind's first impulse to contain it."

Still, the cards are all close together in Lady Baratheon's left hand, only the edges of the symbols upon them visible, and then only when, as she leans over to help herself to another cherry, they are tilted fractionally towards Jacsen — it's no wonder he can't get a good look at any of them but the one on top, a garish figure with a pointed beard and more horns than can be good for him. Then the cards are tilted up again, and, chewing her cherry, Lady Baratheon resumes her patient reordering of these small painted rectangles. When she has finished her cherry she says, "Now, that truly is nonsense, Jacsen. Mankind's first, desperate, passionate impulse was to engender more nonsense, for the sake of certain baser appetites. Can you," her gaze flicks up to him, "doubt it?"

Leaning over a bit, the grey-haired, long-featured Maester squints some. Probably to look at the cards. And then he clicks his tongue, reaching for that cane of his to fiddle with again in one of his usual idle gestures. "Maybe I am be overly charitable then. My guardian when I was a boy ventured a theory that there were in fact two types of people." A pause. "Not in so many words, but those that engender nonsense and those that take it upon themselves to clean up the messes it makes." Right, he is being charitable.

The lady considers this whilst taking up her quill — she opens her mouth to speak, and, as though on cue, there's a complicated crashing sound elsewhere in the manse and at least three different voices raised in a cacophony of blame, protest, minor panic. Her mouth closes, twisting into a sardonic expression unusual for her, and she makes a very fierce little mark upon the parchment before her. "I have given thought," she murmurs, "to locking those children in their rooms until they learn to behave; but I am not certain I shall be here long enough." And, as Jacsen knows well, she has formed the intention to remain in Oldtown, enjoying the heat, for at least a year. "I have at any rate locked the chambers below my own; I'll not have them waking me."

The sound and fury of the evildoers from within the manse is not lost on Jacsen, who merely narrows his eyes in an annoyed wince and clenches his jaw, and eventually grits his teeth. With a deep, put-upon sounding sigh, he looks towards the Lady Baratheon and merely taps his cane once upon the floor's surface.

"Well." He begins. "In the spirit of cleaning up messes, I suppose we can work on getting them shuffled off somewhere, married, and out-of-sight?" He gives the words a certain sinister cast, but the intent is probably genuine. After all, it's the next best thing to arranging a fatal accident. Something he knows nothing about, of course. "And yes. That was probably wise."

Ah, how perfectly they are in accord. Lady Baratheon reaches out for another cherry and then settles back in her high, comfortably-cushioned chair. "Yes," she declares, quietly, with steel in her voice, "when I've tidied the garden I shall certainly move on to the House. I foresee, Jacsen, a brace of marriages."

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