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EDDARD
Eddard Stark rode through the towering bronze doors of the Red Keep sore, tired, hungry, andirritable. He was still ahorse, dreaming of a long hot soak, a roast fowl, and a featherbed, when theking’s steward told him that Grand Maester Pycelle had convened an urgent meeting of the smallcouncil. The honor of the Hand’s presence was requested as soon as it was convenient. “It will beconvenient on the morrow,” Ned snapped as he dismounted.

The steward bowed very low. “I shall give the councillors your regrets, my lord.”

“No, damn it,” Ned said. It would not do to offend the council before he had even begun. “I willsee them. Pray give me a few moments to change into something more presentable.”

“Yes, my lord,” the steward said. “We have given you Lord Arryn’s former chambers in theTower of the Hand, if it please you. I shall have your things taken there.”

“My thanks,” Ned said as he ripped off his riding gloves and tucked them into his belt. The rest ofhis household was coming through the gate behind him. Ned saw Vayon Poole, his own steward, andcalled out. “It seems the council has urgent need of me. See that my daughters find theirbedchambers, and tell Jory to keep them there. Arya is not to go exploring,” Poole bowed. Ned turnedback to the royal steward. “My wagons are still straggling through the city. I shall need appropriategarments.”

“It will be my great pleasure,” the steward said.

And so Ned had come striding into the council chambers, bone-tired and dressed in borrowedclothing, to find four members of the small council waiting for him.

The chamber was richly furnished. Myrish carpets covered the floor instead of rushes, and in onecorner a hundred fabulous beasts cavorted in bright paints on a carved screen from the Summer Isles.

The walls were hung with tapestries from Norvos and Qohor and Lys, and a pair of Valyrian sphinxesflanked the door, eyes of polished garnet smoldering in black marble faces.

The councillor Ned liked least, the eunuch Varys, accosted him the moment he entered. “LordStark, I was grievous sad to hear about your troubles on the kingsroad. We have all been visiting thesept to light candles for Prince Joffrey. I pray for his recovery.” His hand left powder stains on Ned’ssleeve, and he smelled as foul and sweet as flowers on a grave.

“Your gods have heard you,” Ned replied, cool yet polite. “The prince grows stronger every day.”

He disentangled himself from the eunuch’s grip and crossed the room to where Lord Renly stood bythe screen, talking quietly with a short man who could only be Littlefinger. Renly had been a boy ofeight when Robert won the throne, but he had grown into a man so like his brother that Ned found itdisconcerting. Whenever he saw him, it was as if the years had slipped away and Robert stood beforehim, fresh from his victory on the Trident.

“I see you have arrived safely, Lord Stark,” Renly said.

“And you as well,” Ned replied. “You must forgive me, but sometimes you look the very imageof your brother Robert.”

“A poor copy,” Renly said with a shrug.

“Though much better dressed,” Littlefinger quipped. “Lord Renly spends more on clothing thanhalf the ladies of the court.”

It was true enough. Lord Renly was in dark green velvet, with a dozen golden stags embroidered onhis doublet. A cloth-of-gold half cape was draped casually across one shoulder, fastened with an emerald brooch. “There are worse crimes,” Renly said with a laugh. “The way you dress, for one.” you dress, for one.”

Littlefinger ignored the jibe. He eyed Ned with a smile on his lips that bordered on insolence. “Ihave hoped to meet you for some years, Lord Stark. No doubt Lady Catelyn has mentioned me toyou.”

“She has,” Ned replied with a chill in his voice. The sly arrogance of the comment rankled him. “Iunderstand you knew my brother Brandon as well.”

Renly Baratheon laughed. Varys shuffled over to listen.

“Rather too well,” Littlefinger said. “I still carry a token of his esteem. Did Brandon speak of metoo?”

“Often, and with some heat,” Ned said, hoping that would end it. He had no patience with thisgame they played, this dueling with words.

“I should have thought that heat ill suits you Starks,” Littlefinger said. “Here in the south, theysay you are all made of ice, and melt when you ride below the Neck.”

“I do not plan on melting soon, Lord Baelish. You may count on it.” Ned moved to the counciltable and said, “Maester Pycelle, I trust you are well.”

The Grand Maester smiled gently from his tall chair at the foot of the table. “Well enough for aman of my years, my lord,” he replied, “yet I do tire easily, I fear.” Wispy strands of white hairfringed the broad bald dome of his forehead above a kindly face. His maester’s collar was no simplemetal choker such as Luwin wore, but two dozen heavy chains wound together into a ponderous metalnecklace that covered him from throat to breast. The links were forged of every metal known to man:

black iron and red gold, bright copper and dull lead, steel and tin and pale silver, brass and bronze andplatinum. Garnets and amethysts and black pearls adorned the metal-work, and here and there anemerald or ruby. “Perhaps we might begin soon,” the Grand Maester said, hands knitting togetheratop his broad stomach. “I fear I shall fall asleep if we wait much longer.”

“As you will.” The king’s seat sat empty at the head of the table, the crowned stag of Baratheonembroidered in gold thread on its pillows. Ned took the chair beside it, as the right hand of his king.

“My lords,” he said formally, “I am sorry to have kept you waiting.”

“You are the King’s Hand,” Varys said. “We serve at your pleasure, Lord Stark.”

As the others took their accustomed seats, it struck Eddard Stark forcefully that he did not belonghere, in this room, with these men. He remembered what Robert had told him in the crypts belowWinterfell. I am surrounded by flatterers and fools, the king had insisted. Ned looked down thecouncil table and wondered which were the flatterers and which the fools. He thought he knewalready. “We are but five,” he pointed out.

“Lord Stannis took himself to Dragonstone not long after the king went north,” Varys said, “andour gallant Ser Barristan no doubt rides beside the king as he makes his way through the city, as befitsthe Lord Commander of the Kingsguard.”

“Perhaps we had best wait for Ser Barristan and the king to join us,” Ned suggested.

Renly Baratheon laughed aloud. “If we wait for my brother to grace us with his royal presence, itcould be a long sit.”

“Our good King Robert has many cares,” Varys said. “He entrusts some small matters to us, tolighten his load.”

“What Lord Varys means is that all this business of coin and crops and justice bores my royalbrother to tears,” Lord Renly said, “so it falls to us to govern the realm. He does send us a commandfrom time to time.” He drew a tightly rolled paper from his sleeve and laid it on the table. “Thismorning he commanded me to ride ahead with all haste and ask Grand Maester Pycelle to convenethis council at once. He has an urgent task for us.”

Littlefinger smiled and handed the paper to Ned. It bore the royal seal. Ned broke the wax with histhumb and flattened the letter to consider the king’s urgent command, reading the words withmounting disbelief. Was there no end to Robert’s folly? And to do this in his name, that was salt inthe wound. “Gods be good,” he swore.

“What Lord Eddard means to say,” Lord Renly announced, “is that His Grace instructs us to stagea great tournament in honor of his appointment as the Hand of the King.”

“How much?” asked Littlefinger, mildly.

Ned read the answer off the letter. “Forty thousand golden dragons to the champion. Twenty thousand to the man who comes second, another twenty to the winner of the melee, and tenthousand to the victor of the archery competition.”

“Ninety thousand gold pieces,” Littlefinger sighed. “And we must not neglect the other costs.

Robert will want a prodigious feast. That means cooks, carpenters, serving girls, singers, jugglers,fools …”

“Fools we have in plenty,” Lord Renly said.

Grand Maester Pycelle looked to Littlefinger and asked, “Will the treasury bear the expense?”

“What treasury is that?” Littlefinger replied with a twist of his mouth. “Spare me the foolishness,Maester. You know as well as I that the treasury has been empty for years. I shall have to borrow themoney. No doubt the Lannisters will be accommodating. We owe Lord Tywin some three milliondragons at present, what matter another hundred thousand?”

Ned was stunned. “Are you claiming that the Crown is three million gold pieces in debt?”

“The Crown is more than six million gold pieces in debt, Lord Stark. The Lannisters are thebiggest part of it, but we have also borrowed from Lord Tyrell, the Iron Bank of Braavos, and severalTyroshi trading cartels. Of late I’ve had to turn to the Faith. The High Septon haggles worse than aDornish fishmonger.”

Ned was aghast. “Aerys Targaryen left a treasury flowing with gold. How could you let thishappen?”

Littlefinger gave a shrug. “The master of coin finds the money. The king and the Hand spend it.”

“I will not believe that Jon Arryn allowed Robert to beggar the realm,” Ned said hotly.

Grand Maester Pycelle shook his great bald head, his chains clinking softly. “Lord Arryn was aprudent man, but I fear that His Grace does not always listen to wise counsel.”

“My royal brother loves tournaments and feasts,” Renly Baratheon said, “and he loathes what hecalls ‘counting coppers.’”

“I will speak with His Grace,” Ned said. “This tourney is an extravagance the realm cannotafford.”

“Speak to him as you will,” Lord Renly said, “we had still best make our plans.”

“Another day,” Ned said. Perhaps too sharply, from the looks they gave him. He would have toremember that he was no longer in Winterfell, where only the king stood higher; here, he was but firstamong equals. “Forgive me, my lords,” he said in a softer tone. “I am tired. Let us call a halt for todayand resume when we are fresher.” He did not ask for their consent, but stood abruptly, nodded at themall, and made for the door.

Outside, wagons and riders were still pouring through the castle gates, and the yard was a chaos ofmud and horseflesh and shouting men. The king had not yet arrived, he was told. Since the uglinesson the Trident, the Starks and their household had ridden well ahead of the main column, the better toseparate themselves from the Lannisters and the growing tension. Robert had hardly been seen; thetalk was he was traveling in the huge wheelhouse, drunk as often as not. If so, he might be hoursbehind, but he would still be here too soon for Ned’s liking. He had only to look at Sansa’s face tofeel the rage twisting inside him once again. The last fortnight of their journey had been a misery.

Sansa blamed Arya and told her that it should have been Nymeria who died. And Arya was lost aftershe heard what had happened to her butcher’s boy. Sansa cried herself to sleep, Arya brooded silentlyall day long, and Eddard Stark dreamed of a frozen hell reserved for the Starks of Winterfell.

He crossed the outer yard, passed under a portcullis into the inner bailey, and was walking towardwhat he thought was the Tower of the Hand when Littlefinger appeared in front of him. “You’regoing the wrong way, Stark. Come with me.”

Hesitantly, Ned followed. Littlefinger led him into a tower, down a stair, across a small sunkencourtyard, and along a deserted corridor where empty suits of armor stood sentinel along the walls.

They were relics of the Targaryens, black steel with dragon scales cresting their helms, now dusty andforgotten. “This is not the way to my chambers,” Ned said.

“Did I say it was? I’m leading you to the dungeons to slit your throat and seal your corpse upbehind a wall,” Littlefinger replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “We have no time for this, Stark.

Your wife awaits.”

“What game are you playing, Littlefinger? Catelyn is at Winterfell, hundreds of leagues fromhere.”

“Oh?” Littlefinger’s grey-green eyes glittered with amusement. “Then it appears someone has managed an astonishing impersonation. For the last time, come. Or don’t come, and I’ll keep herfor myself.” He hurried down the steps.

rfor myself.” He hurried down the steps.

Ned followed him warily, wondering if this day would ever end. He had no taste for these intrigues,but he was beginning to realize that they were meat and mead to a man like Littlefinger.

At the foot of the steps was a heavy door of oak and iron. Petyr Baelish lifted the crossbar andgestured Ned through. They stepped out into the ruddy glow of dusk, on a rocky bluff high above theriver. “We’re outside the castle,” Ned said.

“You are a hard man to fool, Stark,” Littlefinger said with a smirk. “Was it the sun that gave itaway, or the sky? Follow me. There are niches cut in the rock. Try not to fall to your death, Catelynwould never understand.” With that, he was over the side of the cliff, descending as quick as amonkey.

Ned studied the rocky face of the bluff for a moment, then followed more slowly. The niches werethere, as Littlefinger had promised, shallow cuts that would be invisible from below, unless you knewjust where to look for them. The river was a long, dizzying distance below. Ned kept his face pressedto the rock and tried not to look down any more often than he had to.

When at last he reached the bottom, a narrow, muddy trail along the water’s edge, Littlefinger waslazing against a rock and eating an apple. He was almost down to the core. “You are growing old andslow, Stark,” he said, flipping the apple casually into the rushing water. “No matter, we ride the restof the way.” He had two horses waiting. Ned mounted up and trotted behind him, down the trail andinto the city.

Finally Baelish drew rein in front of a ramshackle building, three stories, timbered, its windowsbright with lamplight in the gathering dusk. The sounds of music and raucous laughter drifted out andfloated over the water. Beside the door swung an ornate oil lamp on a heavy chain, with a globe ofleaded red glass.

Ned Stark dismounted in a fury. “A brothel,” he said as he seized Littlefinger by the shoulder andspun him around. “You’ve brought me all this way to take me to a brothel.”

“Your wife is inside,” Littlefinger said.

It was the final insult. “Brandon was too kind to you,” Ned said as he slammed the small man backagainst a wall and shoved his dagger up under the little pointed chin beard.

“My lord, no,” an urgent voice called out. “He speaks the truth.” There were footsteps behindhim.

Ned spun, knife in hand, as an old white-haired man hurried toward them. He was dressed in brownroughspun, and the soft flesh under his chin wobbled as he ran. “This is no business of yours,” Nedbegan; then, suddenly, the recognition came. He lowered the dagger, astonished. “Ser Rodrik?”

Rodrik Cassel nodded. “Your lady awaits you upstairs.”

Ned was lost. “Catelyn is truly here? This is not some strange jape of Littlefinger’s?” He sheathedhis blade.

“Would that it were, Stark,” Littlefinger said. “Follow me, and try to look a shade more lecherousand a shade less like the King’s Hand. It would not do to have you recognized. Perhaps you couldfondle a breast or two, just in passing.”

They went inside, through a crowded common room where a fat woman was singing bawdy songswhile pretty young girls in linen shifts and wisps of colored silk pressed themselves against theirlovers and dandled on their laps. No one paid Ned the least bit of attention. Ser Rodrik waited belowwhile Littlefinger led him up to the third floor, along a corridor, and through a door.

Inside, Catelyn was waiting. She cried out when she saw him, ran to him, and embraced himfiercely.

“My lady,” Ned whispered in wonderment.

“Oh, very good,” said Littlefinger, closing the door. “You recognized her.”

“I feared you’d never come, my lord,” she whispered against his chest. “Petyr has been bringingme reports. He told me of your troubles with Arya and the young prince. How are my girls?”

“Both in mourning, and full of anger,” he told her. “Cat, I do not understand. What are you doingin King’s Landing? What’s happened?” Ned asked his wife. “Is it Bran? Is he …” Dead was the wordthat came to his lips, but he could not say it.

“It is Bran, but not as you think,” Catelyn said.

Ned was lost. “Then how? Why are you here, my love? What is this place?”

“Just what it appears,” Littlefinger said, easing himself onto a window seat. “A brothel. Can youthink of a less likely place to find a Catelyn Tully?” He smiled. “As it chances, I own this particularestablishment, so arrangements were easily made. I am most anxious to keep the Lannisters fromlearning that Cat is here in King’s Landing.”

restablishment, so arrangements were easily made. I am most anxious to keep the Lannisters fromlearning that Cat is here in King’s Landing.”

“Why?” Ned asked. He saw her hands then, the awkward way she held them, the raw red scars,the stiffness of the last two fingers on her left. “You’ve been hurt.” He took her hands in his own,turned them over. “Gods. Those are deep cuts … a gash from a sword or … how did this happen, mylady?”

Catelyn slid a dagger out from under her cloak and placed it in his hand. “This blade was sent toopen Bran’s throat and spill his life’s blood.”

Ned’s head jerked up. “But … who … why would …”

She put a finger to his lips. “Let me tell it all, my love. It will go faster that way. Listen.”

So he listened, and she told it all, from the fire in the library tower to Varys and the guardsmen andLittlefinger. And when she was done, Eddard Stark sat dazed beside the table, the dagger in his hand.

Bran’s wolf had saved the boy’s life, he thought dully. What was it that Jon had said when they foundthe pups in the snow? Your children were meant to have these pups, my lord. And he had killedSansa’s, and for what? Was it guilt he was feeling? Or fear? If the gods had sent these wolves, whatfolly had he done?

Painfully, Ned forced his thoughts back to the dagger and what it meant. “The Imp’s dagger,” herepeated. It made no sense. His hand curled around the smooth dragonbone hilt, and he slammed theblade into the table, felt it bite into the wood. It stood mocking him. “Why should Tyrion Lannisterwant Bran dead? The boy has never done him harm.”

“Do you Starks have nought but snow between your ears?” Littlefinger asked. “The Imp wouldnever have acted alone.”

Ned rose and paced the length of the room. “If the queen had a role in this or, gods forbid, the kinghimself … no, I will not believe that.” Yet even as he said the words, he remembered that chillmorning on the barrowlands, and Robert’s talk of sending hired knives after the Targaryen princess.

He remembered Rhaegar’s infant son, the red ruin of his skull, and the way the king had turned away,as he had turned away in Darry’s audience hall not so long ago. He could still hear Sansa pleading, asLyanna had pleaded once.

“Most likely the king did not know,” Littlefinger said. “It would not be the first time. Our goodRobert is practiced at closing his eyes to things he would rather not see.”

Ned had no reply for that. The face of the butcher’s boy swam up before his eyes, cloven almost intwo, and afterward the king had said not a word. His head was pounding.

Littlefinger sauntered over to the table, wrenched the knife from the wood. “The accusation istreason either way. Accuse the king and you will dance with Ilyn Payne before the words are out ofyour mouth. The queen … if you can find proof, and if you can make Robert listen, then perhaps …”

“We have proof,” Ned said. “We have the dagger.”

“This?” Littlefinger flipped the knife casually end over end. “A sweet piece of steel, but it cutstwo ways, my lord. The Imp will no doubt swear the blade was lost or stolen while he was atWinterfell, and with his hireling dead, who is there to give him the lie?” He tossed the knife lightly toNed. “My counsel is to drop that in the river and forget that it was ever forged.”

Ned regarded him coldly. “Lord Baelish, I am a Stark of Winterfell. My son lies crippled, perhapsdying. He would be dead, and Catelyn with him, but for a wolf pup we found in the snow. If you trulybelieve I could forget that, you are as big a fool now as when you took up sword against my brother.”

“A fool I may be, Stark … yet I’m still here, while your brother has been moldering in his frozengrave for some fourteen years now. If you are so eager to molder beside him, far be it from me todissuade you, but I would rather not be included in the party, thank you very much.”

“You would be the last man I would willingly include in any party, Lord Baelish.”

“You wound me deeply.” Littlefinger placed a hand over his heart. “For my part, I always foundyou Starks a tiresome lot, but Cat seems to have become attached to you, for reasons I cannotcomprehend. I shall try to keep you alive for her sake. A fool’s task, admittedly, but I could neverrefuse your wife anything.”

“I told Petyr our suspicions about Jon Arryn’s death,” Catelyn said. “He has promised to help youfind the truth.”

That was not news that Eddard Stark welcomed, but it was true enough that they needed help, andLittlefinger had been almost a brother to Cat once. It would not be the first time that Ned had beenforced to make common cause with a man he despised. “Very well,” he said, thrusting the dagger intohis belt. “You spoke of Varys. Does the eunuch know all of it?”

dLittlefinger had been almost a brother to Cat once. It would not be the first time that Ned had beenforced to make common cause with a man he despised. “Very well,” he said, thrusting the dagger intohis belt. “You spoke of Varys. Does the eunuch know all of it?”

“Not from my lips,” Catelyn said. “You did not wed a fool, Eddard Stark. But Varys has ways oflearning things that no man could know. He has some dark art, Ned, I swear it.”

“He has spies, that is well known,” Ned said, dismissive.

“It is more than that,” Catelyn insisted. “Ser Rodrik spoke to Ser Aron Santagar in all secrecy, yetsomehow the Spider knew of their conversation. I fear that man.”

Littlefinger smiled. “Leave Lord Varys to me, sweet lady. If you will permit me a smallobscenity—and where better for it than here—I hold the man’s balls in the palm of my hand.” Hecupped his fingers, smiling. “Or would, if he were a man, or had any balls. You see, if the pie isopened, the birds begin to sing, and Varys would not like that. Were I you, I would worry more aboutthe Lannisters and less about the eunuch.”

Ned did not need Littlefinger to tell him that. He was thinking back to the day Arya had beenfound, to the look on the queen’s face when she said, We have a wolf, so soft and quiet. He wasthinking of the boy Mycah, of Jon Arryn’s sudden death, of Bran’s fall, of old mad Aerys Targaryendying on the floor of his throne room while his life’s blood dried on a gilded blade. “My lady,” hesaid, turning to Catelyn, “there is nothing more you can do here. I want you to return to Winterfell atonce. If there was one assassin, there could be others. Whoever ordered Bran’s death will learn soonenough that the boy still lives.”

“I had hoped to see the girls …” Catelyn said.

“That would be most unwise,” Littlefinger put in. “The Red Keep is full of curious eyes, andchildren talk.”

“He speaks truly, my love,” Ned told her. He embraced her. “Take Ser Rodrik and ride forWinterfell. I will watch over the girls. Go home to our sons and keep them safe.”

“As you say, my lord.” Catelyn lifted her face, and Ned kissed her. Her maimed fingers clutchedagainst his back with a desperate strength, as if to hold him safe forever in the shelter of her arms.

“Would the lord and lady like the use of a bedchamber?” asked Littlefinger. “I should warn you,Stark, we usually charge for that sort of thing around here.”

“A moment alone, that’s all I ask,” Catelyn said.

“Very well.” Littlefinger strolled to the door. “Don’t be too long. It is past time the Hand and Ireturned to the castle, before our absence is noted.”

Catelyn went to him and took his hands in her own. “I will not forget the help you gave me, Petyr.

When your men came for me, I did not know whether they were taking me to a friend or an enemy. Ihave found you more than a friend. I have found a brother I’d thought lost.”

Petyr Baelish smiled. “I am desperately sentimental, sweet lady. Best not tell anyone. I have spentyears convincing the court that I am wicked and cruel, and I should hate to see all that hard work gofor naught.”

Ned believed not a word of that, but he kept his voice polite as he said, “You have my thanks aswell, Lord Baelish.”

“Oh, now there’s a treasure,” Littlefinger said, exiting.

When the door had closed behind him, Ned turned back to his wife. “Once you are home, sendword to Helman Tallhart and Galbart Glover under my seal. They are to raise a hundred bowmen eachand fortify Moat Cailin. Two hundred determined archers can hold the Neck against an army. InstructLord Manderly that he is to strengthen and repair all his defenses at White Harbor, and see that theyare well manned. And from this day on, I want a careful watch kept over Theon Greyjoy. If there iswar, we shall have sore need of his father’s fleet.”

“War?” The fear was plain on Catelyn’s face.

“It will not come to that,” Ned promised her, praying it was true. He took her in his arms again.

“The Lannisters are merciless in the face of weakness, as Aerys Targaryen learned to his sorrow, butthey would not dare attack the north without all the power of the realm behind them, and that theyshall not have. I must play out this fool’s masquerade as if nothing is amiss. Remember why I camehere, my love. If I find proof that the Lannisters murdered Jon Arryn …”

He felt Catelyn tremble in his arms. Her scarred hands clung to him. “If,” she said, “what then, mylove?”

That was the most dangerous part, Ned knew. “All justice flows from the king,” he told her. “WhenI know the truth, I must go to Robert.” And pray that he is the man I think he is, he finished silently,and not the man I fear he has become.


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