A Game of Thrones
It was the final insult. “Brandon was too kind to you,” Ned said as he slammed the small man back against 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 behind him.
Ned spun, knife in hand, as an old white-haired man hurried toward them. He was dressed in brown rough-spun, and the soft flesh under his chin wobbled as he ran. “This is no business of yours,” Ned began; 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 sheathed his blade.
“Would that it were, Stark,” Littlefinger said. “Follow me, and try to look a shade more lecherous and a shade less like the King’s Hand. It would not do to have you recognized. Perhaps you could fondle a breast or two, just in passing.”
They went inside, through a crowded common room where a fat woman was singing bawdy songs while pretty young girls in linen shifts and wisps of colored silk pressed themselves against their lovers and dandled on their laps. No one paid Ned the least bit of attention. Ser Rodrik waited below while 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 him fiercely.
“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 bringing me 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 doing in King’s Landing? What’s happened?” Ned asked his wife. “Is it Bran? Is he …” Dead was the word that 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 you think of a less likely place to find a Catelyn Tully?” He smiled. “As it chances, I own this particular establishment, so arrangements were easily made. I am most anxious to keep the Lannisters from learning 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, my lady?”
Catelyn slid a dagger out from under her cloak and placed it in his hand. “This blade was sent to open 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 and Littlefinger. 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 found the pups in the snow? Your children were meant to have these pups, my lord. And he had killed Sansa’s, and for what? Was it guilt he was feeling? Or fear? If the gods had sent these wolves, what folly had he done?
Painfully, Ned forced his thoughts back to the dagger and what it meant. “The Imp’s dagger,” he repeated. It made no sense. His hand curled around the smooth dragonbone hilt, and he slammed the blade into the table, felt it bite into the wood. It stood mocking him. “Why should Tyrion Lannister want Bran dead? The boy has never done him harm.”
“Do you Starks have nought but snow between your ears?” Littlefinger asked. “The Imp would never have acted alone.”
Ned rose and paced the length of the room. “If the queen had a role in this or, gods forbid, the king himself … no, I will not believe that.” Yet even as he said the words, he remembered that chill morning 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, as Lyanna had pleaded once.
“Most likely the king did not know,” Littlefinger said. “It would not be the first time. Our good Robert 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 in two, 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 is treason either way. Accuse the king and you will dance with Ilyn Payne before the words are out of your 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 cuts two ways, my lord. The Imp will no doubt swear the blade was lost or stolen while he was at Winterfell, and with his hireling dead, who is there to give him the lie?” He tossed the knife lightly to Ned. “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, perhaps dying. He would be dead, and Catelyn with him, but for a wolf pup we found in the snow. If you truly believe 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 frozen grave for some fourteen years now. If you are so eager to molder beside him, far be it from me to dissuade 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 found you Starks a tiresome lot, but Cat seems to have become attached to you, for reasons I cannot comprehend. I shall try to keep you alive for her sake. A fool’s task, admittedly, but I could never refuse your wife anything.”
“I told Petyr our suspicions about Jon Arryn’s death,” Catelyn said. “He has promised to help you find the truth.”
That was not news that Eddard Stark welcomed, but it was true enough that they needed help, and Littlefinger had been almost a brother to Cat once. It would not be the first time that Ned had been forced to make common cause with a man he despised. “Very well,” he said, thrusting the dagger into his 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 of learning 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, yet somehow 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 small obscenity – and where better for it than here – I hold the man’s balls in the palm of my hand.” He cupped his fingers, smiling. “Or would, if he were a man, or had any balls. You see, if the pie is opened, the birds begin to sing, and Varys would not like that. Were I you, I would worry more about the Lannisters and less about the eunuch.”