“You put your foot here,” said Bran, tapping the piece of stone jutting out from the Broken Tower. “See how the stones have crumbled just there? You can use that for a handhold.”
Tommen nodded eagerly, inspecting the side of the Broken Tower. “How far should I go up?”
“I’ve gotten up to the third level before,” said Bran. “But you probably shouldn’t go that far. You haven’t been doing this long.”
Tommen pouted, but nodded anyway. “Mother would never have let us do this back home.”
Bran leaned in and lowered his voice. “My mother doesn’t really let me do it, either.” He and Tommen shared a conspiratorial grin before Tommen dug his fingers into the cracks in the tower wall and pulled himself up. Tommen felt around for another handhold to hoist him higher up, Bran calling out suggestions. “Little higher! Just to your left!”
“Brandon Stark.” Catelyn’s voice rang out across the courtyard and Bran winced. Tommen, knowing the game was up, quickly jumped back to the ground, trying to look innocent. “I should hope that you’re not encouraging Prince Tommen to do anything dangerous.”
“Of course not!” exclaimed Bran. “We were just -”
“We thought we saw -” started Tommen, at the same time.
“You thought you saw a bit of mischief to get into,” finished Catelyn. “I have raised your brother and sisters, and was once a child myself. Do you think there is any excuse you can make that I haven’t already heard before from Arya?”
Bran hung his head. “No.”
“Come,” said Catelyn. “You will both be lords one day, with castles of your own. Many lords find themselves thrown into it before they are truly prepared when their father dies. With your lord father in the south and Robb gone, you can experience some of a lord’s duties without the pressure.”
“I thought you were regent while Robb is away,” protested Bran.
“Where is Robb, anyway?” asked Tommen.
“He and Theon had urgent word from White Harbour,” said Catelyn. “It shouldn’t take long. But you can learn a great deal from simply watching, and that is what you’ll be doing today.” She rubbed her hands together and added, “Go get yourselves cleaned up. We don’t want our men to think that we run around in muddy rags, do we?”
“They’re not rags,” argued Bran, as Tommen took off for the Keep. Catelyn grabbed his arm before he could follow.
“Bran,” she said. “You know what happened to your sisters. If there’s anything to learn from it, it’s that our fortunes can change with the wind. I hope that you won’t ever need to be the Lord of Winterfell, regent or otherwise, but -”
“I did in the other time,” realised Bran. He hadn’t ever thought of it before, but with his father dead and his mother and older brother fighting in the south, Bran would have been the Stark in Winterfell.
Catelyn looked pained. “Yes,” she said. “Your sisters will do everything they can to keep your father safe and the realm peaceful, but they are only two people. We need to be prepared for the worst, you and me.”
“Is that why Robb and Theon are gone?” asked Bran.
Bran saw the indecision in Catelyn’s eyes, torn between letting him stay the baby or preparing him for the worst. Bran knew that he didn’t know everything about the other time – he knew more than Rickon, which was something, but he had never been let in on the councils the others all held. How was Bran meant to prepare for the worst if he didn’t know what the worst was? Finally, Catelyn pursed her lips then said, “Yes, Bran. Theon thinks that his sister will be more amenable to us than his father and they have gone to seek an alliance.”
“So that Theon can take the Iron Islands from his father?” asked Bran, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet. He imagined Theon taking the Iron Islands, Sansa and Robb at his side, a kraken banner in one hand a dire wolf in the other. He wasn’t sure he liked the idea of Sansa living on the Iron Islands for the rest of her life – he hadn’t heard many good things about them, and it was so far away – but he supposed it was better to be in a strange place with someone she loved than at home with a monster.
Catelyn shook her head. “No. So Yara can take the Iron Islands, one day.”
“Like the Dornish?” said Bran, his eyebrows creasing in confusion.
“I suppose, yes,” said Catelyn. There was a hint of reluctant approval in her voice as she added, “Theon believes his sister would make a better ruler than him, and he would prefer to live a quiet life with Sansa rather than drag her into Ironborn politics.”
“I think Theon will be good for Sansa,” decided Bran. Sansa – and Arya – always seemed to have a tired look in her eyes, and Theon was one of the only people who could make her laugh. And Theon was always good to Bran, especially over the past few months, since the world had shifted – he was someone that Bran could trust with his sister.
There was something stony about Catelyn’s gaze, but she nodded sharply. “Go get dressed,” she told him. “I’ll see you in the Great Hall soon.”
Ned wished that he could bring Sansa with him to the Small Council meetings. It was precisely the kind of place she would thrive: flattering one lord, deflating another, twisting them all around her finger so deftly they would think her ideas were theirs. She was certainly better suited to it than Ned, who sat in in the Small Council chamber and longed for Winterfell and home.
“Are you telling me the Crown is three million in debt?” asked Ned, aghast.
“I’m telling you the Crown is six million in debt,” corrected Littlefinger.
He controls the economy of the Seven Kingdoms, Sansa had said. If you kill him, you will bring economy ruin on all of us. Was this what she had meant? Was this how Littlefinger had operated all along, building the treasury into a house of cards that would crumble the moment he was no longer there to maintain it? Ned had never known Jon Arryn to be a fool, but Littlefinger had seduced his wife under Jon’s nose and had placed the realm on the precipice of a knife’s edge. Glancing around the rest of the chamber, he could almost hear what the others must have thought of Littlefinger: a jumped-up lord from the edges of the Vale, a nobody who they barely needed to account for in their own plans. Littlefinger had them all dancing on his strings.
Not Sansa, Ned reminded himself, remembering the icy blankness on his daughter’s face as she had spoken of Petyr Baelish for the first time. His grip on the parchment tightened.
“We can’t afford this,” said Ned, slamming the order on to the table. “Not when war is coming.”
Glances were exchanged around the room. “Lord Stark,” began Varys delicately.
“The Citadel simply can’t abide by this,” interrupted Pycelle. “The Others are no more than a story -”
“I have seen the evidence with my own eyes, Maester,” said Ned, his voice low. “As has the King. Are you calling us both fools?” Pycelle shrunk in his chair. “Or mad, perhaps?”
“Of course not,” said Pycelle. “I simply meant that -”
“I’m well aware of what you meant, Maester,” said Ned. “You may open up communications with Maester Luwin of Winterfell or Maester Aemon of Castle Black if you wish for more information. The assistance of the Citadel will be invaluable as we research the coming threat.”
Littlefinger cleared his throat. “Forgive me, Lord Stark,” he said. He gestured at the table at large and continued, “Forgive all of us. You must understand that it is hard to fathom, that the stories we were told as children have turned out to be real after all.”
“All too well, Lord Baelish,” said Ned. “But that doesn’t change the reality. I will speak with the King. He will understand the need to save all that we can.”
“My latest report from Essos says that the Dothraki have turned on each other,” said Varys. “As they are wont to do. Khal Drogo is not yet dead, but he has not stirred since the fight, and it seems increasingly unlikely that he will ever wake. Once Drogo is dead, Daenerys Stormborn will be taken to live out her days with the Dosh Khaleen, and the Targaryen cause will die in Vaes Dothrak with her.”
“Good,” said Ned. He didn’t know what had changed for Daenerys Targaryen in this time – perhaps there was somebody out there in Essos who also remembered. Ned made a note to mention it to Sansa and Arya before he returned his attention to the Council. “Are there any other urgent matters to inform me of, Lord Varys?”
Varys shook his head. “My little birds have told me little else of interest, Lord Stark.”
When the meeting ended, Littlefinger fell into step with him in the corridors. As the rest of the Small Council went their separate ways – Ned’s eyes followed Varys out, wondering when exactly Varys had thrown his lot in with Daenerys in the other time – Littlefinger said, “How much have you heard about Lord Arryn’s exile, Lord Stark?”
“I know that Lysa Arryn was the one to throw him the dogs,” said Ned, turning to look at Littlefinger. “I know that you were the one to carry the message. I assume that’s what you want to know.”
“It is, yes,” said Littlefinger. “You know that I grew up with Lysa, of course. She has never been one for Court life, not truly. I am one of the few people she trusted here.”
“I’m sure Cat will be glad to hear it,” said Ned. They fell silent as they went past a guard, and once he was safely out of earshot, Ned continued, “What is it that you want, Lord Baelish?” What did you do to my daughter? he thought, and caught himself as his fists started to clench. He straightened his fingers back out into a neutral position.
“I wanted to ask you not to judge Lysa too harshly,” said Littlefinger. “It was not an easy decision for her to make. If you’ve heard why Lord Arryn was exiled -”
“The bastards?” asked Ned.
“Yes,” said Littlefinger. “The queen has wanted Jon Arryn gone for a long time – she has always wanted her father as the Hand. But when Lord Arryn began investigating the King’s bastards, she had more urgent reasons to get rid of him, and she turned to some – less than honourable methods, we might say.”
“Are you saying that Cersei blackmailed Lysa?” asked Ned, stopping in his tracks.
“I’m saying that Lysa loves her son very much, Lord Stark,” said Littlefinger. “I have no doubt that you and Cat would make the same decisions for your own children.”
Ned pursed his lips. “Perhaps.”
They came to the throne room, and there, sitting on the steps to the Iron Throne, was Jaime Lannister. Littlefinger cast a glance between the two of them and said, “I’ll leave you to it, Lord Stark. Ser Jaime.” He gave Jaime a quick nod of acknowledgement, which Jaime did not bother to return, and left the room.
Jaime waited for the footsteps to fade before he said, “You know that Littlefinger was the one who got Jon Arryn killed, don’t you?”
“I have been informed, yes,” said Ned. He nodded at where Jaime was slouching on the steps and added, “Defending the throne well.”
Lithe as a cat even in his armour, Jaime got to his feet. “It’s a sturdy old thing. Trust me, Lord Stark, I know the threats of the Red Keep far better than you do.”
The reminder of the other time brought Ned up short. “You hurt my son.”
Jaime looked him straight in the eye. “Yes.”
“Do you have a reason I shouldn’t kill you where you stand?” asked Ned, his back straightening.
“I imagine it’s much the same reason you haven’t executed Theon Greyjoy yet,” said Jaime. “Whatever you may think of us and what we did, whether we deserve it or not – your son thought that we were worth saving, and able to help.”
“The Three-Eyed Raven also thought that Ramsay Snow was worth sending back,” said Ned. “Tell me, Ser Jaime. Lady Brienne trusts you, and my girls trust her. What have you done to win the respect of a woman of unimpeachable honour?”
“I saved her life,” said Jaime. “And she saved mine, more than once.” His voice dropped, and Ned was surprised at the amount of reverence in his next words. “She is a good woman and a good knight, Lord Stark. Your daughters are lucky to have her.”
“She said that you knighted her,” remembered Ned.
Jaime cleared his throat. “Any knight can knight another.”
Not any knight would have knighted Brienne, thought Ned. He hadn’t seen much of the two interacting, but the way they spoke about each other and around each other suggested something far deeper than Ned would have thought the Kingslayer capable.
“Knighthoods aren’t common in the North,” said Ned, “but I was fostered in the Vale, where every other man I met had taken the vows. Brienne is more worthy than most.”
“I can’t argue with that, Lord Stark,” said Jaime.
Most of the North’s sea trade went through White Harbour, but the people of Flint’s Finger still saw some trade. The tavern was doing a roaring trade as Theon and Robb approached, handing their horses off to stable hands.
“Are you sure about this?” asked Robb.
“As I am about anything,” said Theon.
Yara didn’t look up as they entered. She was alone at a table, nursing a jug of ale. She was an easy target for any man to try his luck, but Theon knew she was well aware of that. She knew he was due to arrive today, and just like last time, she wanted to find out what kind of man he was.
He hoped he would make a better first impression this time round.
“That’s her,” he said to Robb, heading straight for her. She looked up only when his shadow fell over her, her face blank and uninterested.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
Theon swallowed a wave of disappointment. His Yara would have been happy to see him. His Yara would have embraced him, or at least clapped him on the shoulder and smiled.
“Yara,” he said. “It’s me. It’s Theon.”
There was a stirring of surprise in her eyes, but she simply gestured to the chair across from her. “Have a seat, little brother.”
Robb pulled up a chair from a neighbouring table. “Robb Stark,” he said, holding out his hand. Yara stared at it with barely masked contempt until he dropped it.
“I was surprised to get your letter,” said Yara. “I didn’t realise Lord Stark was letting you send letters.”
“It’s a recent development,” said Theon.
“Ah, yes,” said Yara, her face screwing up in displeasure. “The betrothal. Father isn’t pleased, you know.”
“I’m not surprised,” muttered Theon. “But he wouldn’t have been pleased with anything I did, would he?”
Yara studied him. “No,” she agreed. “He wouldn’t be.” She leaned back in her chair, her eyes moving lazily from Theon to Robb and back to Theon. “What is it you wanted from me, little brother? Why have you brought the heir to the family that stole you?”
Robb bristled, and Theon shook his head. Turning back to Yara, he said, “I need your help. We all need your help.”
“The Starks need help from a Greyjoy?” crowed Yara.
“The entire realm needs your help,” said Robb. “The Iron Islands included.”
“It’s a long story, Yara,” said Theon. “One best not told in a crowded inn for anyone to overhear. We’ll need a room.”
“I’ve got one already,” said Yara. “You can come to it. Not him.” She didn’t so much as bother to look at Robb as she dismissed him. “I want to hear what my brother has to say without his captor hanging over his shoulder.”
Theon hesitated, not looking at Robb. He didn’t want to risk seeing the distrust in Robb’s eyes. “Done,” he said.
“We do what we have to do,” he said to Robb. “I know better than anyone what’s at stake, Robb.”
Robb stared at Theon for a long moment, his eyes steely and his jaw set. Yara leaned forwards and said, “If I don’t get to speak to my brother alone, I won’t believe a word out of either of your mouths. If you truly want my help, this is your only chance, Stark.”
“You know this is what Sansa would want,” said Theon.
Robb looked away. “Go.”
Yara’s room was small and sparse: the tavern wasn’t large enough for anything bigger. There were two chairs and a table crammed into the corner, where Yara gestured for him to sit. The table was small enough his knees knocked against it as he sat.
“How poorly have they treated you?” asked Yara, pouring out another jug of mead. “Robb Stark doesn’t trust you, and his father betrothed you to his daughter only when her prospects were ruined elsewhere – is that the worst of it or is there more to know?”
“Ruined?” spluttered Theon. “That’s not what happened. My betrothal to Sansa is not an insult, and you had best tell Father that.”
Yara raised her eyebrows and said, “So you’re expecting me to tell Father that Lord Stark didn’t only betroth his daughter to you the moment that her maidenhead was taken?”
Theon gritted his teeth. The way she said it, like it was just some casual thing and not something that had seen Sansa jumping from the walls of Winterfell, unsure if she would survive, made every part of him feel ill. “It wasn’t Lord Stark that chose me,” said Theon. “It was Sansa. Sansa chose to marry me. No one else had any say in it.”
“Not even you?” asked Yara.
“Sansa is…” He thought of her in the hours before it all ended, eating her last meal surrounded by her people, the fire catching on the copper of her hair. Your name is Theon Greyjoy, last surviving son of Balon Greyjoy, lord of the Iron Islands. Do you hear me? “She’s my north star, always there to guide me home.”
“Pretty words,” said Yara. She took a long drink from her mead then said, “What is it you want to tell me, Theon? You didn’t risk sending that letter to tell me what a beautiful maiden your betrothed is.”
“It’s an unbelievable story,” warned Theon. “I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t lived it.”
“Can’t be any more unbelievable than the one you’re expecting me to take to Father,” said Yara. She took her seat on the opposite side of the table, narrowing her eyes at him and inspecting his expression. “Try me, Theon.”
The secret paths of the Red Keep were a labyrinth. Arya returned to them every day, but she was still learning her way around them. It would be easier if she was the only one using them, but there were children roaming the halls. Arya had had to double back more than once to keep out of sight.
So these are Varys’ little birds, mused Arya as she ducked around a corner. Tiny, dirty and wild, they reminded Arya painfully of the past. They deserved better than skulking around in the dark, but what could she do for them?
She remembered Missendei and Grey Worm. She hadn’t known them well, always only ever a step away from Daenerys, but she had known enough: freed slaves risen to the Dragon Queen’s closest advisors. They had loved their queen for freeing them. There had been no slavery in Bravos; the closest she had ever come to the practice had been meeting Daenerys’ followers. But the choice of these children, these little birds, couldn’t be much more of one than the slaves of Essos had: to spy or starve, to deceive or die. Arya wondered if Daenerys would do anything for Westeros’ poor.
Arya shook her head. Daenerys had had Varys as an advisor, too, and had relied on his spy network in Westeros. No matter the pretty words he had spoken to Daenerys, he used these children, and her failure to take him to task for it made her either a hypocrite or a fool.
We need to do better, thought Arya, casting her thoughts northwards. They had discussed the best ways to integrate the Wildlings into the North, but there were things that the North could learn from the Wildlings, too.
Arya carefully peaked around the corner. The hallway was clear, and she slipped back out. She wanted to find a path into the royal apartments. They said that Maegor the Cruel hadn’t allowed any secret passages around the royal apartments, but Arya didn’t believe it. Secret passages were built to get people out safely in the event of a siege: even the Targaryens at the height of their power wouldn’t have risked passing that up.
She came to a fork in the path. Yesterday, she’d gone left, and had found an escape route to Blackwater Bay, a set of stairs cut into the cliff face. Today, she turned right, and followed the hallways up a slight incline. These halls were decorated, like the secret stairs creeping from the Tower of the Hand, a grimy mosaic of red and black tiles. It was a better sign than she had seen in days.
She came to a set of stairs, cramped, steep, and spiralling. They were wide enough for a grown man to climb, but it would have been a tight fit. There were steel fittings cut into the stone walls, but any rope they had once held had long since rotted away. Arya braced herself against the wall as she climbed, keeping her balance on the steep stairs more of a challenge than she wanted to admit.
The stairs ended at a door, larger than in the Tower of the Hand. Arya bit her lip as she examined it. It was cut into a wall, not the floor, but was over a foot off the floor, meaning getting through it would be a bit of a scramble at Arya’s height. More than that, it meant it was hidden behind something placed on the wall – and that meant the room had to be rich enough for wall decorations.
She leant against the door, not putting any weight on it, trying to hear through it. Generally, you could hear movement inside, but silence didn’t necessarily meant the room was empty. It was the middle of the day, meaning bed chambers were likely to be empty – but that assumed that Arya had found somebody’s chambers. Entering the room was always the biggest risk.
There was a gasp behind her.
Arya turned, dread settling in the pit of her stomach. Her knife was in her hand before she even saw the boy. He had to be even younger than Arya was physically, dirty and hunger hanging from every part of his body.
Arya faltered. He was a child. She had never signed up to kill children.
Her grip tightened on the knife. He’s one of Varys’. The Spider can’t know.
A million faces flooded through her mind: Sansa, the morning everything changed; Jon, telling her she didn’t have to be just a killer; Petyr Baelish on his knees the heartbeat before she slit his throat; teary-eyed Catelyn; the Waif, her face still dripping blood in the Hall of Faces.
Before Arya could make the decision on whose face she would listen to, whether to threaten or end the problem entirely, the boy turned and ran, taking the stairs two steps at a time. Arya jammed her knife back into its scabbard and followed.
She didn’t know whether she reached out to grab him or to push. It didn’t matter what her intentions were: what mattered was that the movement unbalanced him, and he tripped, falling hard head-first into the curled stonewall. There was a terrible cracking noise.
Arya had seen many things that gave her nightmares. This was the first from this life.
She tried to carry him down the stairs, but he was almost as large as she was and she could only hold half of him up. She winced with each stair as his legs hit one after another. She dragged him down the secret halls and out to the stairs overlooking the sea, where she set his head down carefully and sat down beside him.
“Everyone I’ve ever killed deserved it,” whispered Arya, to the salty sea air. Her old list cycled through her head: Joffrey, Cersei, Walder Frey, Meryn Trant, Tywin Lannister, The Red Woman, Beric Dondarrion, Thoros Of Myr, Illyn Paine, The Mountain. The boy next to her had done nothing other than get trapped in a spider’s web.
Except even that was a lie. Arya had not taken her time in the Twins. She had not taken the care to approach each of the Frey men, to determine if each and every one of them had been party to the Red Wedding. Some of the men she had killed in the Twins that night could have been as innocent as the boy next to her now. No matter what Jon had told her, she was a killer, and she hated herself for it.
Varys would notice the boy was gone, but he would assume that the boy had disappeared into the streets of King’s Landing, dead or worse. It had to happen all the time. Varys wouldn’t suspect anything was amiss unless there was a body to be found.
Bile roiled in her stomach. This wasn’t who she was supposed to be. This wasn’t what Ned and Catelyn wanted for her. It had been one thing when it was the only way to survive, but now?
No, she corrected herself. They wouldn’t have understood her doing it in the last life, either. There was a reason only Sansa knew about the faces. There was a reason even Sansa had been terrified of her. If even Sansa couldn’t understand, then there was no one she could tell.
Arya wasn’t sure who she was praying to when she unsheathed her knife: the Seven or the Old Gods or the Many-Faced God. She didn’t know if she was begging the gods or the boy himself for forgiveness as she pushed his body off the cliff. She climbed to the beach below and washed the blood from her hands and the tears from her face before she took the face in her hand and began the long climb back to the Tower of the Hand.