Winter is not only coming, it is just about here, and as the weather turns colder, my thoughts turn to A Song of Ice and Fire, specifically House Stark. But it isn’t just the austere, wary words of the house, nor its nobles and vassals, that I’m considering. I’m considering the ties it and the other parts of George RR Martin’s world have to our own world.
Specifically, Martin eschews the traditional bastions of so-called ‘high fantasy’ tales, with rather flashy magic and exotic creatures and races, opting for a more grounded backdrop for his narrative, characters, and intrigues. In this way, he hews much closer to historical events and themes such as the War of the Roses, the specter of nomadic marauders, and the roles of international relations and gender politics. It may not be as high-octane as some other tales, but it makes for more concrete and interesting characters involved in situations with high stakes and deadly consequences.
The lack of magic and proximity to history also means that there’s no easy way out for our heroes. Any line that you could draw between “good” and “evil” almost immediately becomes blurred as characters who appear virtuous either to us or to their contemporaries undertake actions to survive or prevail that, normally, they would otherwise shun or dismiss as ‘beneath them’. It focuses tightly on the nature of these characters, showing them not as archetypes or ciphers, but human beings first and foremost.
While genre fiction doesn’t necessarily need to hew away from the fantastical or the far-fetched in order to do this, it certainly never hurts to establish some concreteness in the story, in order to add context and depth. “Hard” science-fiction does this by extrapolating from existing scientific research, rather than creating wonders that basically run on magic.
This is not to say that such narratives are superior; there’s still fun and character exploration to be had in more fantastical settings. It just seems to me that if characters don’t have an easy way out, if they can’t wave a magic wand or spout some technobabble to fix their problems, they need to work harder, and in doing so they reveal more of their character to the audience.
Do you have a favorite historical narrative? Or a hard sci-fi story that does this in an exemplary way?
I hate Joffrey Baratheon with the passion of a thousand burning suns.
Not Jack Gleeson, mind you. I think he’s doing an excellent job with the material. From what I understand, he’s a really nice guy. His character, however, really gets on my nerves. He has no regard for authority outside of his own, his bloodthirst verges on the disturbing, he’s spoiled and rotten and just absolutely infuriating.
He’s a wonderful character, though.
I say “wonderful” even as I want to slap the kid around because he does his job beautifully. Villainy such as his can be difficult to take seriously. Go too overboard with it and you risk coming across as cartoonish. Casting the bad guy in your story with the mold of Megatron or Skeletor is actually pretty easy. Have them hatch evil schemes, threaten their subordinates or family members with disintegration at the slightest provocation, so on and so forth. Making an audience care about them, at least to the degree they begin to become hated, is another task entirely.
One of the things to keep in mind when creating and informing the actions of your villain is that, to them, they actions they take are either perfectly reasonable or, failing that, ultimately justified. The way a character was raised, their outlook on the world and their place in it, and the perceived inability of others around them to act are just a few of the components that make up the motivations of a villain, just as much as they inform the motivations of a hero. In fact, and you’ve probably heard this line before, most villains do not see themselves as villains. Since their actions are justified (in their minds at least) and reasonable (from a certain point of view), would they not be just as much as hero as another character in the same story?
The difference between a sympathetic villain and one we can’t wait to see stomped into paste is willful ignorance. Some characters never come face to face with their flaws and failings, and blithely go about their villainy with a smile. The villains that do acknowledge their shortcomings either become stronger threats or more inclined to see things from the heroes’ point of view. They heed the advice of others, find ways to correct errant or outrageous behavior, and we as the audience appreciate this. Character growth is always good, after all, even if it means the roots of a villain’s evil spread and become more secure. To do this, a villain must occasionally ignore a glaring error or cross certain boundaries established by society or common moral sense. Again, it can be tricky to do this without turning the villain into a parody of themselves. But when you pull it off, be ready for your villain to be hated.
This is why I can appreciate Joffrey even as I want to strangle the brat. He’s not just a cackling, sneering villain for the heroes to defeat. He’s a person. He’s a spoiled, sadistic, power-drunk, ignorant, selfish, short-sighted, fucked up person, but a person nonetheless.
Please note: All characters, locations and events are copyright George RR Martin and the events that take place during this game can and will deviate from series canon.
The Story So Far:Having delivered the last of the swords charged to him and Victor Luxon, Cadmon Hightower remained in Sunspear when Victor and Maester Chrysander sailed for White Harbor. While Jon Snow, Brandon Stark and others went to Moat Cailin at the behest of their lord, Eddard Stark, Cadmon returned to King’s Landing. Much like his reasons for staying at Sunspear as a guest of House Martell, his true purpose in the court of King Robert Baratheon is unknown.
“There. Would you be so kind as to deliver these to their intended recipients, young man?”
Cadmon bowed slightly as he took the messages from Grand Maester Pycelle. The sage had spent some time in the rookerie retrieving them from their ravens. The former bastard had fought down an impulse to volunteer for that duty, as well, but he didn’t know the first thing about handling birds. He was lucky that Zephyr had never bucked him off, given his track record with animals in general.
“I certainly shall, Grand Maester.”
Pycelle nodded, then murmured to himself as he hobbled back to the chair behind his desk. Cadmon bowed again as a way of excusing himself, and began winding his way through the corridors of the Red Keep. He’d taken care to avoid many of the goings-on. He was curious, to be certain, but he didn’t want to make any of his intentions or even interests obvious. Prince Doran had cautioned him, using the words of Victor Luxon of all people: “The court at King’s Landing all hide daggers in their smiles.”
It would make the first of his three deliveries very interesting indeed.
He found the recipient walking towards the main hall speaking with Janos Slynt, commander of the City Watch. When the tall, slim man saw Cadmon approaching with messages in his hand, he waved the gold cloak away. His smile was quite disarming and he inclined his head respectfully.
“Young master Hightower. I see you’re still at Pycelle’s beck and call.”
“Even a Grand Maester cannot be everywhere at once, Lord Baelish, and I understand he has much to do before visiting the Hand this morning.” Cadmon handed Littlefinger his message, keeping the other two in a belt pouch opposite his Braavosi blade. He wasn’t wearing his finest clothes, but rather the sort of thing that would have passed him off as a bravo across the Narrow Sea. It was slightly more comfortable and somewhat anonymous, even if his aunt had insisted on the white tower of his house being added to the half-cloak he wore over his left arm. He toyed with the signet ring on his left pointer finger with his right hand as Baelish read his message.
“You’re not carrying your family’s blade.”
The comment from Littlefinger was made without him looking up. So he did not see Cadmon’s smile at first.
“I thought I would leave such flagrant displays of House loyalty and intent for high court and other functions. Valyrian steel, in my opinion, is not something you unsheathe for every occasion.”
Littlefinger did look up at that. “So you are exercising discretion.”
“In a way. I’m of the opinion that the best swords remain in their scabbards. No need to draw steel on someone who’s of no actual threat to you.”
“The perception of a threat, or lack thereof, does not always depict the true nature of the threat itself, does it?”
“Of course not. But if we boldly wear our most potent means of defense at all times, wouldn’t we become predictable and, by extension, vulnerable?”
Cadmon nodded slightly. “Do you have a reply you wish to prepare? If so, shall I collect it to be sent?”
Littlefinger rolled up his message. “No, thank you. This missive contained all I needed to know for now.”
The messenger bowed and backed away a few paces before beginning to turn.
“Thank you for your service, young Hightower.”
“And you for your time, Lord Baelish.”
Cadmon waited until he was around the corner to take a deep breath as he walked. Littlefinger struck him as a singularly dangerous man. Certainly not the most physically imposing or deadly in close quarters, but what he knew, gathered and inferred gave him an arsenal unlike that of any noble in Westeros, save perhaps one man.
Putting the encounter behind him, Cadmon made his way to another wing of the Keep, where two men in golden armor stood outside an expansive chamber door. Cadmon bowed to the knights, handing one his message.
“From Harvest Hall, Lord Commander.”
“My thanks.” Barristan Selmy unrolled the message and a smile touched the corners of his mouth. “My nephew Arstan is to be a father again. Wonderful! It always warms my heart to know things are well there.”
“I had no idea he was a father already.” The other Kingsguard rested his mailed hand on the pommel of his sword. He seemed alert and aware of his surroundings despite his attention on his Lord Commander. “You don’t speak of Harvest Hall that often.”
“Mostly because it has little to do with my duties here.” Selmy nodded respectfully to Cadmon. “Come by White Sword Tower this evening, ser, so I may deliver a reply to my family. I may be dining, but feel free to interrupt me.”
“It shall be done, Lord Commander.”
“I’m curious.” The other man of the Kingsguard fixed Cadmon with his flashing green gaze. “Our brother Meryn Trant doesn’t seem to like you very much. But he won’t say why.”
Memories of a fat, spoiled boy spitting accusations tugged at Cadmon’s mind. He rubbed his nose, which the boy had broken after being disarmed. Shortened fingers had set it right, but as for the other boy’s mouth and family…
“I’m sure he has his reasons.”
“Maybe if you sparred with him he’d work out his frustrations.” Jaime Lannister smiled. “I’m sure I can arrange that.”
“We have better things to do than indulge Meryn’s cruelty. His reasons for disliking others are his own.”
“It was just a suggestion, Barristan. No need to be prickly.”
“While I appreciate the offer,” Cadmon said as he regained his composure, “I have duties and practice to attend to that prevent me from sparring as much as I’d like. For example, this last message I must deliver.”
He bowed to the sworn brothers and walked away. He would have liked to talk with Ser Barristan more, as the aging knight seemed both forthright and keen in mind as well as blade, but not with the Kingslayer there. He may have been acknowledged as Baelor Hightower’s son thanks to the words of Jaime’s father, but the Kingslayer’s desire to watch him fight unnerved him. Be it to catalogue weaknesses he could exploit or some sort of perverse pleasure, Cadmon didn’t know, nor was he willing to find out.
The final message was for the Hand of the King. Cadmon made he way towards that tower quickly, but slowed at the sight of who was emerging. The diminutive man dressed in gold and crimson broke into a grin at the sight of him.
“Ah! The former bastard, now Pycelle’s errand boy. What comes?”
Cadmon couldn’t help but smile in return. Tyrion’s japes never really bothered him. Better than than Victor’s usual terms of endearment, about as pleasant as a mailed fist up the side of the head.
“I have a message for the Hand from Winterfell.”
“Oh, do you now? You may want to delay its delivery. The Hand, you see, is currently conversing with my sweet sister. She tends to let her eyes wander. Over messages, of course. She’s very curious.”
“I’ve no doubt.” The Queen’s eyes had wandered over Cadmon the day they’d delivered the blades of House Baratheon to the king. Cadmon still wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. “I wouldn’t want to disturb them.”
“No, I think our beloved Hand is disturbed enough as it is. His health seems to be fading rapidly, I’m sorry to say.” Tyrion was carrying a goblet, and he took a long drink from it as he studied the tall young man in front of him. “Was that the only missive our resident wizened old sage had you carry around?”
“There were a few that required quick delivery.”
“Mm-hmm. And to whom were they addressed?”
“Your sister isn’t the only curious one, I see.”
Tyrion spread his arms. “You’ve caught me! Please, do bear me away to the Black Cells posthaste. Such treachery must be dealt with swiftly. Besides, Ser Ilyn hasn’t had a head to lop off in some time. He’s probably getting bored.”
“Well, I was going to entrust the message to you for delivery as I have somewhere else to be, but seeing as you’re a traitor and all, I suppose that’d be unwise.” Grinning, Cadmon gestured down the corridor behind him with a sweep of his half-cape. “Let’s go find Ser Ilyn, then!”
“Now, now, no need to be hasty.” Tyrion waved away the notion. “Let’s say I do deliver this message to the Hand, without my sweet sister indulging her curiosity for its sordid contents. Do you think that would save me from the block?”
“Maybe, provided you don’t read it yourself.”
Tyrion gave a little smile. “Oh, I wouldn’t dream of reading another man’s message. That’d be unforgiveably rude.”
“We have an understanding, then.” Cadmon handed the Imp the message. “One bastard with a noble name to another.”
“Here I thought you would have forgotten our conversation! We did drink quite a bit of wine, after all.”
“‘All dwarfs are bastards in the eyes of their fathers’ is far too poignant a sentiment to forget, wine or no.” Cadmon paused, then winked. “Even if it sounded a bit rehearsed.”
“At least this time, I had an appreciative audience!” Tyrion took another drink of wine. “Was it you I heard playing the harp last night?”
“It was! I hadn’t played much since leaving the Free Cities, as Goddard Luxon rarely entertains minstrels, and Victor less so. I wouldn’t mind having a more portable instrument, but I’m already burdened with these ravishing good looks, and now the expectation of nobility and knighthood!”
“My heart breaks for you.” Tyrion’s smile belied his dry tone.
“Tell you what, my impish friend. I’ll play for you tonight after dinner. We can talk, maybe play cyvasse.”
“I thought that went without saying.”
Tyrion extended his hand, and Cadmon took it. “We do indeed have an understanding. On your way, bastard.”
He left the Red Keep and wound his way through the crowded streets of King’s Landing. He took a circuitous route, doubling back on his tracks at times, stopping to look for shadows at others. Finally, he arrived at the smithy of Tobho Mott, checking on the progress of the project for which he’d employed the master of Valyrian steel. It had taken all of the wealth Cadmon had accumulated since returning to Westeros to ensure not only the quality of work, but also the smith’s discretion. Mott assured the young Hightower it would be another two days until the Hightower sword named Veracity was modified in the way Cadmon had requested. Cadmon told the Qohorik armorer to take his time.
In the meantime, I’ll make myself indispensable. Not necessarily to the king, but to the real power behind the Iron Throne. He shrugged as he wound back down from Street of Streel, passing the Great Sept of Baelor. That’ll pay my way out of this city and on to… well, wherever I go next.
In short order he made his way to the docks. The cog Pillowmaiden’s Sigh was in the process of being moored as he approached. Among the dour seamen and ware-bearing merchants that disembarked was a rotund man dressed in finery. Cadmon made his way to the end of the gangplank to meet him.
“Why, Cadmon Hightower! Don’t tell me the King is so concerned for my safety that he sent an escort!”
“Indeed not, Lord Varys. In fact, I doubt the King has marked your absence at all.”
Varys tittered. “Oh, he’s so raucous, our sovereign. One must be amazed that he can rule from within his cups as he does.”
“Even so, I do wish to return you to the Red Keep directly, as Grand Maester Pycelle is keenly interested in the state of affairs overseas.”
They began walking and Varys put on a thoughtful expression. “I wonder what specifically the Grand Maester wishes to know about the Free Cities and the inhabitants within them.”
Cadmon looked at the eunuch, not quite smiling. “I’m certain I have no idea, Lord Varys.”
The spymaster clasped his hands behind his back as they walked together. “And if you did, you would not say so to me in any sort of public forum, even a street such as this?”
“I didn’t think so.” Varys was also not quite smiling. “Still, if you wished to remain my escort for a time, to ensure I don’t scurry off, you may find my report somewhat illuminating.”
Cadmon Hightower looked up at the Red Keep as they approached it once more. “Of that, I have no doubt.”
Please note: All characters, locations and events are copyright George RR Martin and the events that take place during this game can and will deviate from series canon.
The Story So Far: It is Year 296 since Aegon’s Landing. Word of the lost swords of high Westrosi houses by up-and-coming House Luxon has crossed the Narrow Sea…
He looked up from the meal in front of him to the bearer of the news. Under the stylish, wide-brimmed hat providing shadows for half of his face, there were not many in Pentos who would easily recognize the traveler. Most would be distracted by the flamboyant, multi-colored feather tucked into the hat’s bright violet band. Still, Viserys could not shake a feeling of doubt. Were they being watched? Who else knew of this, of them?
“You saw this thing?”
“With my own eyes.” The voice of the traveler was low, subtle, all but lost in the tavern’s ruckus. “The blades of the Baratheons were laid at the feet of the king himself.”
“The king sitting on my throne.” Scowling, Viserys snatched up a goblet of wine and drained it. “I can’t wait to see the look on his fat face when I split him open.”
“In time, in time.” The traveler spoke calmly, unruffled by the notion of waking the dragon. That didn’t sit well. He should fear the dragon. All men should fear the dragon. “What was interesting to me, however, was not only what this man of the north carried, but what he did not.”
“The blades of my family. Where are they?”
“I suspect they are locked away in Moat Cailin. Little birds tell me the new maester has taken residence in a tower built atop a vault. That would be the most likely place.”
Viserys took a bite of stew, trying to think. The spices in the Pentoshi food distracted him, equal parts curiosity and revulsion interfering with his ability to strategize.
“My ancestors would storm the castle with their armies to take back what is theirs. I have no army. Aemon would have flown over the walls with his dragons. I have no dragons.”
“Astute, my prince.”
“I wasn’t asking for your opinion.” He waved his goblet in the air until it was refilled. “I need inspiration, not sycophancy.”
The eyes of the man in the hat gazed at Viserys. He reminded the Targaryen prince of a spider, hiding in the shadows, scuttling to and fro from King’s Landing to the Free Cities. “Not all wars are won with armies and dragons. Some are won with deception and stealth, before they even begin.”
Viserys considered this. What glory would he win stealing into a castle like a thief? He wasn’t stealing anything, he was reclaiming it. But what price would he pay to get those weapons? There were blades of Valyrian steel among them, perhaps even the sword of Aemon the Dragonknight, or that of his elder brother Rhaegar. He envisioned himself riding towards the Red Keep, a loyal army at his back, the smokey steel in hand and raised high as he returned to the place he truly belonged…
“How do we begin?”
“Well, for one thing, we cannot have you and your sister staying in places where you could be stumbled upon. It is no small miracle that you have remained relatively undiscovered until now. Fortunately for you, I have just the place for you to stay while plans are made. A trusted friend.”
“Inasmuch as I trust anyone.” Viserys finished his wine and laid some coins on the table. He moved to stand, then paused. “Wait. You said a man from the North came to deliver the fat king’s swords. But when you first told me of this, you spoke of two men.”
“Indeed I did.”
“The other was not from the North?”
“No. He is not, but as our time is somewhat short before I am missed, I think that is a tale I shall have to tell another time.”
Viserys narrowed his eyes. “You’re hiding something from me, eunuch.”
“I hide things from all men, my prince. It is how I stay alive.”
“That, too, is no small miracle.”
The traveler only smiled. He stood, gesturing for Viserys to lead the way. As it should be. I’ve been here long enough to know this city like the back of my hand. They wound their way through the streets until they came to the merchant ship owner’s pavilion. The traveler tipped his hat down slightly.
“I will wait here.”
“Is the place we’re going better than this?”
“Slightly larger, and infinitely more hospitable, I suspect.”
Viserys grunted. He walked through the gate and found his host sitting by one of the windows that faced the harbor. Half of the man’s hair, both on his head and in his forked beard, was painted blue, the other half green. A girl from a pillowhouse knelt at his feet and was massaging his ankles while he enjoyed a pipe.
“Ah! My guest returns. Did you have an enjoyable lunch?”
“I did, but I’m afraid I must depart. My sister and I thank you for your hospitality.” He dropped a few coins on the table and walked back towards the guest rooms.
“I find it unfortunate that you still will not consider my offer.” The merchant was standing. “Your sister would be well taken care of and greatly desired. Is that not what all women want?”
Viserys looked over his shoulder, first at the man then at the girl who remained on the floor, barely clothed in the silk gown that fell from her shoulders. Shaking his head, the prince walked into the guest bedroom he shared with his sister. If anyone is going to whore out Daenerys, it’s going to be me, not that old pirate, and not for any pittance of gold, but for my crown.
“Daenerys. It’s time to wake up.”
She murmured as she rolled over on the bed. Viserys crossed to it, reached around her and took hold of her breast, pinching her nipple until her eyes opened.
“We have to leave. Now. If you delay, you will wake the dragon.”
Nodding as she looked at him, Daenerys quickly found her clothes and packed up her few meager belongings. Viserys was already packed. The message had made it clear that they would not linger here long, and so had prepared himself before dawn. They walked out to find the merchant with an old blade in his hand.
“I think I’ll be keeping your sister. She’s worth far more than you are, boy.”
Viserys was armed only with a dagger. But the merchant was in his cups, despite the hour, a fact evident in the empty glass bottles near his chair and the stink on his breath. The young king gestured for his sister to stay behind him as he drew his short blade.
“I’m sure you’d like a virgin to sell to whomever you got that whore on the floor from, but my sister stays with me. And we’re leaving.”
The old pirate scowled, slamming the pommel of his blade on the table, causing bottles to fly. “Wretch! I keep you under my roof for months, feed you and clothe you in keeping with this station you claim, and this is how I’m repaid?”
“No. That gold on the table is how you are repaid. More will come if you let us pass. You will have the thanks of a king.”
“I’d rather have the girl. And your head!”
He roared and charged towards Viserys. The prince ducked to one side, still between his opponent and his sister but out of direct harm. The merchant slammed into the corner where his main room met the hall back to the bedrooms. Viserys smiled.
“Has age slowed your pirate reflexes, old man?”
“I’ll show you how pirates fight!” The merchant reoriented himself with Viserys and charged again. Another sidestep put the man squarely into one of his cabinets. In spite of the deadly nature of the situation, Viserys laughed.
“You should stop now while you still have a house to live in!”
The pirate’s reply was wordless, a restored grip on his sword and yet another charge. This time, when Viserys stepped aside, the man went through the large open doors and across his pavilion. It was easily seen on the streets when he launched into space and landed face down on the inside of his low garden wall. His dogs trotted over to see what had happened, and when he lifted his face, the passers-by laughed, as he now wore one of those dog’s droppings in his beard.
Viserys, sheathing his dagger, took hold of Daenerys’ hand and walked out the door to where the traveler waited. Beside him was an extremely obese Pentoshi gentleman who bowed as they emerged.
“Your Grace. My lady. I’m quite pleased to finally meet you both.”
The pirate staggered towards them, but at the sight of the large man he stopped short.
“Ah. Numeris.” There was something in the fat man’s gaze that reminded Viserys of himself. Of waking the dragon. “I do hope your altercation with this young man will not keep you from seeing my shipment safely to Lys. I’d hate for you to lose your contract.”
“Um. Yes.” The merchant took a step back. “I will see to it personally.” He ran back into his house. Both the fat man and the traveler laughed.
“Spineless as always,” the traveler observed, then tipped his hat to the Targaryen siblings. “I must take my leave, my friends, but let me introduce you to Illyrio Mopatis, Magister of Pentos.”
“And your humble host, Your Grace.” He bowed to Viserys again, and kissed Daenerys’ hand. “My lady.”
“At last, some manners!” Viserys bowed in return. “We are in your debt, Magister. I look forward to seeing your home.”
Please note: All characters, locations and events are copyright George RR Martin and the events that take place during this game can and will deviate from series canon.
The Story So Far: It is Year 296 since Aegon’s Landing. Jon Snow has left Winterfell for Moat Cailin, home of House Luxon. His brothers Robb and Bran have gone with him to wish him well. Lord Goddard invites the sons of his liege lord to stay for a feast and rest before returning home, and while Robb spars with his half-brother one last time, Bran explores the unfamiliar castle and its many towers…
He adored the feeling of the wind cutting through him.
Summer kept pace on the ground, watchful, long ears alert. The direwolf pup could not climb after him, though. The craggy masonry and hidden handholds were Bran’s province alone. Here, in a place he’d never seen, he still navigated walls and towers with speed and precision. In his mind he saw himself assaulting an enemy stronghold, a dagger clenched in his teeth, men at arms struggling to keep up as they moved to overwhelm the guards at the gate, or carry off a damsel in distress.
One tower was different from the others. It was not the tallest one of Moat Cailin’s many, but it was one of the few that seemed unmanned. A gregarious garron was the only creature keeping watch at its base, tied to a post and pawing at the ground. Summer gave it a sniff in introduction as Bran ascended the tower. He immediately caught a scent from above: freshly brewed tea, strong and exotic. Curiosity overwhelmed him as he moved, hand over hand, up the side of the tower. At last he came to the window that was the source of the scent.
A small spiral staircase rose through the middle of the room. Several stout bookshelves were spaced around the room, scrolls and tomes stuffed into their spaces. Tapestries hung from the higher portions of the wall and rugs lay on the floor. A small firepit was near the window, with a kettle hanging over it. Across the way from Bran was a table featuring odd figurines and two men facing one another as they sat in thought.
One was Lord Goddard Luxon. He reminded Bran of his lord father, a man of war tempered with patience and wisdom. The other was an older man, his head curiously devoid of hair, dressed in the robes of a maester. The stranger’s eyes flicked towards Bran, then back to the table.
“A moment while I tend to the tea.” He moved one of the figurines and rose. He picked up a staff that had been leaning against a nearby shelf before hobbling over to the fire pit, slowly, his eyes on Bran. The boy didn’t move. Carefully, the maester removed the pot from the firepit’s rail, set it on a side table, and covered the firepit with a broad metal lid.
“You best come inside, my lad. ‘Twould be a shame to see you fall from this height.”
Nodding, Bran climbed into the room. The maester was pouring tea as Goddard regarded him.
“As you are not one of Lord Goddard’s children, I deduce you’re one of our honored guests.”
“That would be Bran Stark.” Goddard hadn’t moved from the table, his gaze severe on the boy. “And he should know wandering a yard, any yard that is not his own, is inherently dangerous.”
“I’m sorry.” Bran found his voice but did not meet the lord’s eyes. “I like to climb.”
“Well, since you worked so hard in climbing up here, would you mind holding onto this tray for our lord?” The maester was holding a small tray with two steaming cups, and Bran took it. Smiling, the maester moved back to the table with the boy in tow. Goddard’s look had softened for a moment before turning back to the figurines.
“What is this?”
“It is called cyvasse, young master, a game of strategy and cunning. It is a means of keeping the mind sharp and taking the measure of another without the need for swords.”
“And it’s damned annoying at times.” Goddard’s voice was laced with mirth, however, and he rubbed his chin as he regarded the board before him. After a few quiet moments, during which the maester sampled his tea, the lord moved his trebuchet.
“Why is it annoying?”
“A skilled opponent knows not to move all of his powerful pieces to the front.” Goddard took a sip of tea, then nodded to the maester with a raise of the cup. “I jest; facing a skilled opponent is only annoying in that more effort must be exerted in overcoming them. My son could stand to learn that, as well as how to play the game better.”
The maester smiled, then turned his attention to the board. Bran leaned closer and looked at the different tiles and pieces.
“Why not simply fly your dragons over everything?”
“Two reasons.” The maester moved one of his spearmen to block his opponent’s trebuchet. “One, this is a game of Old Valyria, and the object is to capture the king, which is stronger than a dragon. Two, moving your dragons aggressively can sometimes be effective, but canny players can deal with and extinguish early threats and leave their opponents at a disadvantage for the duration of the game. Given the mobility of the dragons, your opponent could see it coming, and prepare a counter-move.”
Bran knelt and leaned his elbows on the table, his chin in his hands.
“Not every battle is won with strength alone, Bran.” Goddard moved his heavy horse. “More often than not, you must use your eyes and your mind as much as your sword or fist to win the day.”
Bran nodded, watching as the game unfolded. Eventually, the maester was forced to move his king out of his fortress and after a merry chase, Goddard pinned it in the back corner with his horse and spy. The maester, unflustered, stood and bowed to his lord.
“A well-played match, my lord. The board is yours.”
Goddard stood and offered the maester his hand. “A good game and good tea. We must do this again.”
As they shook, noise came from below. The bulky form of Samsun Cray came up the spiral, followed by the quick and quiet Spectre. Bran smiled and walked over to the shadow cat, who rammed Bran’s shoulder with her head to ensure she had the boy’s full attention.
“Some of the locals have arrived, my lord, wishing to speak with you about their crops and trade. I also was told to find Bran to inform him Robb is ready to leave.”
Bran looked up from petting Spectre. “I want to say good-bye to Jon.”
“So you will.” Goddard laid his teacup down on the side table and made for the stairs, with Samsun in tow. Spectre moved after her master, but Bran hesitated, looking back at the maester as he put the cyvasse pieces in a box on a shelf near the table.
“Did you go bald when you became a maester?”
The older man smiled. “In a way. I shave every morning. It’s a ritual, a reminder of the commitment I’ve chosen to make to the realm.”
“What about your leg? Doesn’t that remind you?”
“My leg reminds me that I am more than the circumstances that left me with only one of flesh and blood.” The maester leaned on his staff as he regarded the boy. “Men are more than they seem, young master. More than their handicaps, more than their prowess, more than their smiles. Do not be afraid to look deeper into their hearts, as well as your own.”
Bran nodded as Goddard called his name. He hurried down the stairs. Summer bounded after him as they searched for Jon. He wasn’t leaving until he said good-bye.