He’d made this trip several times before, but rarely with anyone else. Shireen, perhaps, as well as Selyse in the handful Christmases Stannis had had the time out of work for a proper visit, but more often than not, Stannis went up to the Cotswolds alone. Once a month if he could help it, a few times a year otherwise.

There was nothing comforting about the place, even though his mother’s gardens had been properly maintained, and the stables were kept clean even though there were fewer horses that remained than when his father, before he’d married (and even well after), had kept half a herd of Swedish purebreds. 

Cressen met him at the courtyard. At every visit, their childhood butler would look ever older in spite of his dignified bearing. He was older now than either Steffon or, before him, grandfather Orys, had ever been. He’d glanced over Stannis’ shoulder, expecting Shireen (with admirably restrained excitement, having taken warmly to her), only to find Melisandre. 

My employee, he’d said, and Cressen at once looked both disappointed and surprised. I’m here on business, Stannis reminded Cressen, and he was appropriately chided, but the warmth there had diminished noticeably.

Renly hadn’t arrived yet. Typical, Stannis thought, but he didn’t complain. He hadn’t succeeded in luring Renly out of whatever foxhole he’d burrowed since he’d returned from Paris. He could wait.

Cressen had prepared tea, and went on to start a conversation about the gardens, or the tennis court (The lines need a proper repainting, and the net’s rather worn). Stannis dismissed both and headed straight to his father’s study, and Cressen retreated with a slight murmur of assent. I’ll bring in the tea, then, Stannis heard him say.

Steffon’s old study was on the first floor, somewhere to the very back of the manor. It had a clear view of the gardens in the east, the stables to the west, and beyond that, past the undulating hills, the sparse forest that bordered off their property.

He opened the door and found it unchanged (as it had been for the last thirty years). It was large. Spacious, with bookshelves filled with his father’s old books that rivaled the library across the hall (his mother’s territory); picturesque, straight off the pages of a magazine if it weren’t so littered with souvenirs and personal effects.

On the bureau that separated the oak desk and the sitting area: framed pictures of Cassana over a backdrop of Brussels, Steffon in Rome, the both of them in Gdansk; one of the cheap souvenir photos from Disneyland, with Robert and Stannis, their parents caught mid-laughter at something Stannis could barely remember; Renly sat in his crib with bits of tinsel in his fists; hand-painted lacquer boxes from Moscow; miniature porcelain teacups from Copenhagen (The porcelain’s for the dining room, my dear, Steffon had said, to which Cassan replied, primly, We’re hardly drinking tea from souvenirs, darling); and the teacups stayed, next to other bits and baubles that had been there since before Robert was born.

On the wall, behind Steffon’s great old armchair (broadbacked, with darkened wood and even darker leather, that for all of its size would be eclipsed by his father’s taller, broader frame when he sat), a family portrait. It was smaller than the one hanging in the formal sitting room, where the windows were much larger, the curtains dark in the evenings, drawn in the mornings when Cassana would click her tongue and have the maids atwitter in sudden activity. Dust this, dust that, Renly ought to be soaking up the sun not hiding from it.

Stannis passed it by without a glance, parting the curtains briefly to find the afternoon setting deeply in the horizon. He checked his watch, and the grandfather clock off to one side of the room. He expelled a breath through his nose, patience wearing thin.

Cressen cleared his throat from the doorway, and Stannis turned slightly without turning his eyes away from the view.

“Renly’s coming with that friend of his.”

Stannis frowned. That Tyrell boy, no doubt. He grunted, showing much of what he thought of the prospect of finally meeting him.

“I’ll have supper prepared if—“

“That’s not necessary,” Stannis interrupted. “I’m sure we’ll not be here long.”

Silence, on Cressen’s end, and Stannis could hear everything he wanted to say and, as was the man’s wont, was perhaps gearing up to say out loud.

Stannis beat him to it. He didn’t need Cressen’s wisdom right now; if he did (and he certainly had, countless times over the years, both unsolicited and otherwise), he’d ask for it. But he wasn’t a boy anymore, and his need for Cressen’s guidance had already waned.

“When Renly arrives, tell him I’m waiting.” Stannis turned his eyes on Cressen, all seriousness against the old man’s attempts to warm him to idle conversation. “Better to conduct business as soon as possible.”