Ser Barristan and Eddard converse over the body of Ser Hugh as the silent sisters attend to the corpse. Eddard wonders if he was killed by the Lannisters before he could talk. Barristan says Hugh was Jon’s squire for four years and desperately wanted a knighthood, but he was not ready. The two head to King Robert’s tent, where he is preparing to fight in the melee. His two squires are trying to get him into his armor, but he is too fat. Eddard points this out, and Robert sends the squires looking for a breastplate stretcher. Eddard is troubled by the fact that the squires are both Lannisters. Ser Barristan tells Robert as a ploy to get him to stand down that if he fights, no one would dare strike him, and Robert throws a breastplate at him in fury and orders him out. He tells Eddard to stay and laments to him about how dead he feels. He only became king instead of Jon or Eddard because his claim was better. He married Cersei to tie Lord Tywin to him, but gets no joy from marriage. He would just leave for the Free Cities and work as a mercenary if he were not so worried about Joffrey taking the throne. He is hopeful that with Eddard at his side he can turn around his admittedly poor reign. He also mentions that Renly told him about Loras’s sister and how beautiful she is. Robert’s melancholy lifts at breakfast, and Eddard becomes confident that once he proves the Lannisters were behind Jon’s death the king will crush them.
Eddard joins Sansa to watch the rest of the tournament as Sandor and Jaime take their places. Petyr and Renly make wagers on who will win. Sandor unseats Jaime on the second tilt, and Renly laments Tyrion’s absence, for he would have won twice as much. As Gregor and Loras take their places for the second match, Eddard contemplates the Mountain That Rides. He is a solitary man who only leaves his lands for wars and tournaments. He will soon be married a third time, and both of his previous wives, as well as his sister and father, died under strange circumstances. The day he inherited his father’s lands, Sandor left to take service with the Lannisters as a sworn sword and never returned. Rumor has it that it was Gregor who killed Rhaegar’s infant son, Aegon, by dashing his head against a wall and that he raped and killed Elia afterward. He also fought inGreyjoy’s Rebellion. Ser Loras unseats Gregor with the aid of a mare in heat that distracts Gregor’s horse. Gregor is furious and calls for his sword, which his squire fetches. He kills his own horse before knocking Ser Loras from his saddle. Before he can land the killing blow, Sandor is there and stops him. They fight until Robert puts a stop to it. A shaken Loras cedes the final match to Sandor, who wins the champion’s prize. Later, a boy from the Dornish Marches named Anguy wins the archery competition by defeating Ser Balon Swann and Jalabhar Xho in the final round. Finally, in a free-for-all melee of forty men,Thoros of Myr wins the last prize of the day. At the feast that night, Jory brings Arya down fresh from a training session withSyrio Forel and with bruises. Eddard worries that Syrio is pushing her too much. He has her do strange things like walk around blindfolded and catch cats. He asks her if she would like a new tutor, but she says no.
Back in his chambers, Eddard muses about Jon’s death. He feels it has to be related to Bran’s fall, and he wonders what is so significant about Gendry. Robert has many other bastards as well, including his first, a seventeen year old girl in the Vale, and one acknowledged bastard being raised at Storm’s End. Harwin interrupts his musings to report that a man who will not identify himself is there to see him. The man ends up being Lord Varys, dressed up in such a way that he is unrecognizable. He had gotten past two other guards, Porther and Cayn, by using secret passages within the castle. He has come to ally himself with Eddard against the Lannisters for the good of the realm. He reveals that Cersei had planned to have Robert killed during the melee, but Eddard thwarted that. He did not come to Eddard before because he was not certain if he truly served the realm until that point. He says Cersei is afraid of Eddard and will undoubtedly try to kill Robert again. He reveals that both Ser Boros and Ser Meryn are her creatures and that the only protection that Eddard has is that he is virtually untouchable because of his friendship with Robert. He hopes that his spies and Eddard’s power will be enough to forestall the Lannisters. Eddard asks Varys how Jon was killed, and Varys reveals it was with the Tears of Lys. When Eddard asks who did it, Varys replies that it must have been someone close to him, perhaps even Hugh. When Eddard asks why, Varys says it was because Jon was asking questions.
This was an extremely long chapter, but it is also one of my favourite chapters in this book. It has everything that drew me to A Song of Ice and Fire – there is the intrigue, the subversion of knights and chivalry and more importantly, we get some nice historical worldbuidling in these nice little snippets. There’s a lot to tackle in this chapter but I think for the purposes of a re-read, the most important thing to answer are the questions that I still don’t have an answer to:
– Was Ser Hugh’s death a coincidence? I don’t think I remember any of the Lannisters every talking about asking Ser Gregor to silence Hugh, but that doesn’t seem like strong enough evidence. I asked this question the last chapter as well, but I had forgotten at the time that Varys was the one who insinuated that the Lannisters were responsible for Ser Hugh’s death. The issue here is that we obviously don’t know the whole story behind Varys and at the same time, we know for a fact that Lysa was the one poisoning Jon Arryn. That brings us to the second question:
– What is Varys’ deal here? At this point in the story, is anyone really trying to actively kill Robert? I don’t know what to think – on one hand, she sends Lancel and his wineskin out well before Ned has that talk with her so we know that she does not kill Robert only after she finds out that Ned knows, but at the same time, now feels way too early in the story for Cersei to want to kill Robert. Why now? Is it really because Ned has begun asking questions? And since we’re on the topic of #shitVaryssays, what is up with him mentioning the Kingsguard? I can believe that Selmy is the real steel (like Robert eh?) though I think that Varys mentions this because he knows what Ned thinks of Selmy and this will get Ned to instinctively believe everything else that Varys says about the rest of the Kingsguard. I can also believe that Blunt and Trant are bought but the rest seem alright. Swann seems like a decent person, Arys Oakheart too in his own way. Preston Greenfield is a douchebag but he doesn’t seem like a politically bought douchebag though.
My next point is broadly about ‘soldiers’. We see six different kinds of ‘soldiers’ in this chapter alone and I find them wonderfully symmetric. So take one set – the old guard – of Robert, Ned and Selmy. Robert is really the most comfortable when he’s talking with Ned and Selmy about the simple things in life as he would call them – fighting and whoring. Many people think that this makes Robert crass and I would agree, but at the same time, he is able to admit that that is his life’s passion. Funnily enough, he lives in a world where a passion like that is even sustainable but circumstances have forced him into a position he seems to greatly dislike (though he enjoys its perks well enough). Then you have Ned who we see time and time again as unable to break out of the soldier’s mould. He is brave, loyal and determined – the very qualities you want in a soldier on the battlefield but not necessarily ones you want in a ruler. Selmy is a lot like Ned, but I would argue that Selmy is more dispassionate – he stands by Ser Hugh because it’s the right thing to do, but I feel sure that he would never have stepped out of his place to speak against Joffrey hurting Sansa (or Robert hurting Cersei, to be fair). Then you look at the other types of soldiers – the more broken kind. You have the Clegane brothers both of whom represent a darker side of the ‘obey and ask no questions’ mould. Gregor in fact, seems like he enjoys sex and killing as much as Robert, but he is clearly a much, much darker version of the eldest Baratheon. Similarly, Sandor rather mirrors Selmy in my opinion – he does not completely lack compassion, but at the same time, he will not risk his own skin to do what’s right, a far cry from the standard model of chivalry. Then there’s Loras as the sixth ‘type’ of soldier – the ruthlessly pragmatic. I know it’s a bit of stretch to call bringing a mare to a horse fight ruthless, but I mean it in the sense that he will do what it takes to win. We can see the Tyrell plot begin to move already – Robert mentions Loras’ sister (after admitting that he would be proud to have Loras as a son – can we add tolerance of homosexuality to the dismally short list of Robert’s virtues?)
We need to talk about Robert a little more. I defend Robert more than your average ASOIAF fan, I think. Most people see him as a drunken idiot at best or savage brute at worst. He is probably both those things, but again and again I defend Robert on the basis that he is an entertaining character to read about – his little joke here about the breastplate stretcher is a good example. I would certainly not want him ruling my kingdom, but I accept him as a complex character and the most interesting thing about complex characters is that it’s so wonderfully challenging trying to make sense of their actions. Like in this chapter, we see Robert take his anger out on Selmy (who is totally badass in the way he dodges the armour thrown at him) and I don’t know what to make of it. Is Robert angry at being unable to fight in the melee the same way that a child is angry when denied a sweet? Or is he humiliated that Selmy is there to see his shame? A more concrete example comes later on in the chapter – Robert knew on the inside that Jofrrey was lying about the Sansa-Arya-Lady incident, yet he did little enough to defuse the situation. My predicament in passing judgment on him is that I don’t know whether to criticize him for not handling the situation at the time or to be impressed that he has that level of self-awareness.
I think all in all, one of the things that I just love about this chapter is that there is this sense of happiness to it – Ned mentions on three separate occasions within this chapter itself that this is the happiest he has been for a long while, and the optimism that he shows in his POV is catchy. It is all too easy for a first time book reader to read this chapter and envision the future of the series just as Ned sees it – Ned uncovers proof, Robert and Ned take the Lannisters down and most people end up happily ever after. It’s incredibly saddening to know how all that turns out when you see Ned, a decent guy by almost all accounts, thinking that the path to happiness is so close but knowing that it will never happen.
I have a question that bugged me this chapter so I’ll close with that, maybe you can tell me what you think in the comments: Does anyone find it strange that Ned seems to literally despise tourneys? He is all happy and bubbly until someone brings the topic of a tourney up and then Ned’s mood instantly sours? I’ve seen theories that Ned suffers from PTSD and that violence of any kind triggers him but I like to think that whenever he sees tourneys these days, he’s reminded of a tourney that happened years ago that eventually led to his entire family dying…