Time loses its meaning here. There is no sun to mark the days, and no moon to mark the nights. The spirit does not tire; it needs no rest. There is certainly no rest for the wicked.
The spirit has no form and it should feel no pain, but Cat always finds a way. Her fury has edges; her anger is heavy and blunt. Her pain is loud; her disgust is icy. Her vengeance is sharp. And it cuts her charges to the bone.
She patrols the space set aside for her work. The only forms here are those she has selected: her assistants, and her prisoners. Occasionally, she is drawn from this space by the sounds from outside: her husband, her family, her friends, a handful of enemies she has reluctantly forgiven. Beyond the gathered spirits there is a veil that few have passed through since she arrived, catatonic, empty, her final anguished scream still echoing across the ether.
You arrive in the afterlife as you leave the world of the living. Stannis sulked. Olenna was triumphant. Margaery was furious. Robert told her long ago that Ned’s arrival had been calm and full of acceptance. He saw that his daughters were safe, and he made his peace with the world, just as the blade fell on his neck. Robert’s own arrival had been like waking with a terrible hangover, he said: full of groans and a dawning sense of regret. Not so for Cat.
She has seen spirits try to transcend their dying moments. She has seen a few succeed. Those at peace passed beyond the veil and were not seen again. She saw Maester Aemon, looking decades younger since shaking off his aging body, grinning widely, his sight restored, calling for Egg, and presumably finding him beyond the veil. And now his watch is ended.
Others will pass too, in time. For now, they are waiting for loved ones, or unable to look away from the world below. Some are making plans to cross together already. Renly and Loras won’t stay for much longer, and they plan to take their adopted Baratheon princess Shireen with them. Robb and Talisa are planning something similar with Rickon. Rickon has other guardians too, fierce and loyal: the wildling woman and the wolf, both of whom rarely leave his side. Her wildest child has made a new family for himself. This should pain Cat, but her post-mortal emptiness has dulled the heartache.
The only thing that fills the emptiness is hate. Her hatred is useful. There are so many here who deserve it. So many who need to be shown how it feels to lose what they love.
She can hear the familiar wail of the tyrant boy-king as she passes him. His torturer, the whore who was given to him for target practice, is humiliating him again. She smiles.
“You’re not the king any more,” Ros says.
She hears a whimper in response.
“This is fair. You did worse to others, didn’t you? You deserve this. You are a bastard. King Robert has disowned you. He is ashamed of you. Your mother never loved you. Everyone knows you’re a coward.”
She can hear Joffrey weeping. It is like a salve.
“I do deserve it. You’re right”.
Ros stands. “Very good, Joffrey. We have made some progress at last.”
Moments later, the wailing starts again.
“But I confessed! Why are you still hurting me?”
“Because I can,” she says. “And because confession isn’t the same as absolution.”
Leaving him to his pain, Ros joins Cat in her patrol.
“For all her faults, his mother did love him,” says Cat.
Ros smiles. “I know. But there are so many forms of pain, my lady.”
Cat nods, and the women walk in silence. They pass the cowering Freys, and their lord, a man who doomed them forever when he broke the sacred law of guest right. They pass Cat’s sister; Lysa is insane and rambling, begging her sister for a mercy she will never receive. Cat shakes her head. She will not engage with Lysa today. They pass Roose Bolton, who averts his pale eyes. He is safe for now. There are two spirits who interest her today: the bastard and the mockingbird.
He can feel her coming closer. There are no footsteps, and no voices, but he feels her presence and he tenses. He feels raw, exposed, vulnerable, like an open wound. He can feel the panic rising in his chest, and the ghost of the knife at his throat again. Choking back the fear, he tries to speak.
It will do him no good. He can’t decide whether it is worse when she refuses to look at him or when she meets his gaze. Her expression is hard and full of hatred, so far from the girl he once knew, whom he bled for as a boy and who he wanted to be his.
“I loved you,” he whispers.
Cat looks disgusted. “No, you didn’t. You wanted to own me, and when you couldn’t, you destroyed everything I held dear. That isn’t love.”
He has no answer for this.
“I thought you were my friend. I was only ever kind to you. And you betrayed me.”
“I never betrayed you.”
“You manipulated me. You started a war. You betrayed my husband. You plotted with my enemies. You sold my daughter to a monster.”
“I protected her!”
Suddenly, there is an explosion of pain, and he screams. It feels as though an icy hand has reached into his guts and is pulling at the threads that hold his spirit together. There is a rushing in his ears and black spots obscure his vision.
“You have made a fortune out of the suffering of women. Scream all you like. No-one here will help you.”
He weeps ghostly tears, and the pain subsides.
“You sold my daughter to a monster.”
“I did,” he sobs.
He sees Cat nod at Ros, and his former employee moves to stand behind him. He feels the panic start to rise again.
“What are you doing?”
“You are admitting to your crimes. That is a good start. But it is only fair you feel the damage you caused.”
He remembers what Sansa told him about Ramsay and is suddenly filled with terror. He can feel Ros moving closer behind him.
“You sold me to a monster, too,” she breathes into his ear.
He has no answer to that; no squirming half-truth will save him. He looks up at Cat and she raises an eyebrow. He sees her fist clench, and knows what will happen if he denies it.
“You are a fast learner.”
Slowly, she approaches him again. He tries to back away, but Ros is still behind him. He can feel that panic rising again.
“What did Joffrey do to Ros?”
“Because he wanted to try something new.”
He knows he has not answered fully, and as he sees her eyes darken, he continues. “Because I wanted her dead!”
“Because she betrayed me. She shared my secrets with Varys.”
“Which secret in particular?
Petyr panics. Lying will hurt, he knows that. But the truth threatens to stick in his mouth. She won’t like it.
“My secret plan to take Sansa.”
She is staring at him, unblinking. “Go on.”
“I told her I would protect her. But I wanted her for myself. I would have been a good husband to her, Cat.”
“As you were to my sister?”
She knows everything, he realises. She sees all. She knows every awful thing he has ever done. The shame is heavy and rank.
“I think that’s enough talking for now.”
For a moment, Petyr looks relieved. But neither woman has moved away.
“Ros, show me where the crossbow bolts hit you. I think it’s time for him to feel.”
His ghostly flesh burns, and his screams ring out through the darkness.
He hides his weaknesses better than most. But he could always feel them there, deep inside. So many layers have been stripped away since he got here, that they are barely beneath the surface now. The women pick at them like scabs, and they sting.
He remembers the first time he flinched when Cat called him a bastard. He is furious with himself for showing that vulnerability; now it is all they call him. They think they can break him. But he is the master of torture. What possible punishment can they conjure for him that he hasn’t already imagined?
He twitches as he remembers the hot breath of his dog on his face. No. He must forget that.
The wildling woman has been taunting him for what seems like hours. She is hard and unyielding, like the other Northern women who visit him. Her weapon is scorn, and she wields it with ease. He wishes he had known her when they were alive. She would have provided him with great sport.
She thinks she is cruel, but she is an amateur. He has had enough of her.
“Why are you here?” He has been silent for so long that his voice sounds like it belongs to another.
She repeats his words, mocking him. She smiles. She thinks she is winning.
“It is strange to see a free woman following orders, that’s all.” He blinks, his face impassive.
She frowns, and he notes the reaction. He can find scabs too.
“Such a disappointment. You free folk always say you’ll never bend the knee, but it comes so naturally to you. The bastard of Winterfell had an army of your people, all falling in line. It it fear? Are you just cowards? Or do you all secretly love serving your betters?”
She looks furious.
“That’s it, isn’t it? I knew it. You’ve always been a kneeler.”
Suddenly she leaps forward. She is barely an inch from his face and when she speaks, her teeth are bared. She sounds like she is hissing.
“You know nothing, Ramsay Snow.”
For a moment, Ramsay savours his small victory. But then he hears another voice. It’s the Stark woman.
The wilding turns, and rises. Ramsay has a few seconds to decide how to play this; he weighs his options. Whose scab does he pick at?
“Lady Stark, what a lovely surprise.”
He sees Cat’s expression harden, and it amuses him.
“I’ve been thinking, Lady Stark.”
“Have you indeed?”
“Oh yes. I’ve been thinking about what a terrible thing it is to torture, to avenge all the wrongs against my honour and my family name…”
“You have no honour or family name, bastard.”
He lets this one go. He can see that he is drawing blood.
“…how awful it is to take pleasure in the pain of others. I am a monster. I deserve to suffer. The thing is, Lady Stark, I caused pain because I felt I deserved to feel it. I think that’s something you can understand. You’re just like me. We’re all monsters here. We all want to be punished. We all deserve to be punished.”
He pauses. She is trying to hide it, but she is shocked. He has always had good aim. He only misses when he chooses to, when it amuses him. Like with that brat Rickon. Too easy, too easy.
“You murdered my son. You raped my daughter.”
“Yes, I did. And I enjoyed it. Answer me this: do you enjoy your work?”
Excruciating pain hits him like a wave, and he contorts in agony. It feels as if another layer of his form is being torn off. Gradually, the pain ebbs away, and he can move again. He looks up; Cat has gone.
He has won this round. His laughter fills the air.
She has to get out. She runs from the sound of the bastard’s laughter, knowing that he saw her weakness and hating him even more as a result.
Tears threaten to choke her, and it is all she can do to keep from screaming. He can’t be right. But he is, and she knows it.
“Ned!” She calls desperately for her husband, who she suspects has known it for a long time.
Can she bear to tell him her shame? Does she need to? The weight of it threatens to suffocate her.
Ned hears her before he sees her. They have barely spoken for some time, and he reacts with surprise. Without a word to his friends, he runs towards his wife. She looks haunted, devastated, and once again Ned wishes he could hold her in his arms.
“Gods save me, Ned!”
“Hush now, what’s the matter?”
“It’s all my fault. I couldn’t protect my children. I trusted Petyr and my sister, and that started a war. You were arrested because I took Tyrion prisoner. I made an oath to the Freys that I couldn’t keep. I freed the Kingslayer. It’s my fault. It’s my fault…”
“And now I hurt people and I enjoy it. My children can’t look me in the eye. I am a monster…”
Robert can see Ned and Cat deep in conversation; for a moment, he considers joining them, but it looks pretty serious from here, and so he wisely decides against it. He’s always tried to avoid women who were crying, and doesn’t intend to change that habit now. Besides, he’s in the middle of re-telling the story of the Battle of the Trident, and just getting to the good bit when he hits Prince Rhaegar so hard that the rubies from his armour disappear into the flowing water.
How many times has he told this story? He can’t remember any more. But the lad with the funny name hasn’t heard him tell it before, and the Tyrell girl always smiles encouragingly, so he keeps going.
As he mimes swinging his warhammer, he wonders what waits for him on the other side. Not Lyanna. It pains him to admit it to himself, but she will not be greeting him with open arms.
What will paradise look like for him? He may have abused his body when he was alive, but he misses it dearly now. Is that it? Will he hunt, drink and whore his way to happiness on the other side? It never really worked for him when he was alive. There was no true happiness without Lyanna. A golden crown and an iron throne were poor compensation. If all that awaits him is an eternity of hollow pleasure, he is not impatient to find out. Not when he can hold court here, with his oldest and dearest friend, and watch the wars that befall his former kingdom. Maybe someday there will be something else to hope for.
He finishes his story more briskly than usual as he sees Ned and Cat approaching. There is something different about Cat; she looks lighter, less frightening. He opens his mouth as if to ask a question, but sees Ned shake his head slightly. Very well, then. He won’t ask. He turns back to his audience.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I defeated Ser Richard Lonmouth in a drinking contest at Harrenhal? Oh gods, that’s a good one! It was at the tourney, you know the one…”
“I will return soon,” she tells her husband.
“You’re going back in there?”
“To let them know they are in charge now. I won’t be going back again.”
“I can’t promise that.” She smiles. But it’s a warm smile that he hasn’t seen for a while.
As she walks to the place she can no longer call her dungeon, she hears a faint whispering. It is coming from the veil.
“Cat,” she hears. “Little Cat. I’m waiting for you.”
A sudden lump forms in her throat. It’s right where the knife cut her all those years ago, and for a second, the hate bubbles up again. But she swallows it.
“Father?” she whispers back.
There are flashes of memories: children laughing, the grief when her mother died, the heavy weight in her stomach when she waved her father off to war.
She reaches out to touch the veil, but it’s solid. It’s not time for her yet. But someday, she will be at peace.