Arya is chasing an old black tomcat around the Red Keep. Syrio has had her chasing cats night and day, and she has caught every single one in the castle save this one. She finally catches the cat when she is startled by the appearance of Prince Tommen and Princess Myrcella accompanied by a septa and two guards. They mistake her for a boy, and the septa orders one of the guards, Godwyn, to seize her. She darts away and manages to avoid them all, but ends up in an unfamiliar part of the castle. When her eyes adjust to the dark, she discovers she is in a storeroom containing the dragons that used to hang in the throne room. She proceeds down a dark hallway until she hears voices and sees two men coming up steps from below. One is a scarred man who seems strangely familiar and the other is a fat man with a forked yellow beard. Illyrio tells Varys that he must delay until the Khal is ready to stir, which he will not do until his child is born. Varys says that Eddard already has the bastard and the book and will soon know the truth. This combined with the attempt on his son and Catelyn’s seizure of Tyrion means that the Starks and Lannisters will soon be at each other’s throats and that the Tullys will probably be dragged in too. Furthermore, Lysa and Stannis have fled beyond Varys’ reach and are gathering swords, while Loras is writing his father to bring his sister to court so that Robert can wed and bed her, and Petyr remains unpredictable as always. Illyrio suggests killing Eddard, but Varys says that is untenable. Varys says they must move now, but Illyrio says this is impossible. Varys ends by asking for fifty more “little birds,” young boys who can read and write but have their tongues removed. After that, they are out of hearing range, but Arya follows their torch to get out of the passage. She ends up at the mouth of a sewer far from the castle and has to walk back. The guards at the gate almost do not let her in. Finally, Tomard and Harwin march her in to see Eddard. She tries to tell him what she heard, but gets it all mixed up in her head, and he thinks she just saw a mummer’s troupe. Desmond interrupts their conversation to announceYoren, who has just arrived in King’s Landing. Yoren asks to speak to Eddard in private, and Eddard has Desmond lead Arya away. On the way to her room, she asks Desmond if the guards will be able to protect Eddard. Desmond says yes, each northerner is worth ten southron swords.
The beginning of this chapter seems almost like something out of a children’s book, with Arya getting up to her usual hijinks. There is an innocence to these early Arya chapters that’s just painfully nostalgic when you know what’s going to happen. In any case, this chapter continues the trend of the last three of being rather frustrating to read. Once again, we come tantalizingly close to avoiding disaster when Arya tries to tell Ned what she heard but does such a spectacularly terrible job of it that Ned has no idea what’s going on. Not that he had a particularly good idea of what was going on before, but this is a whole new level of confusion – I mean I get that Arya wasn’t being particularly cozen but there were more than enough important words in her wild speech that should have triggered something. I’m probably being a little too harsh on him, I guess, but it is incredibly frustrating to see him handed all the pieces he needs to almost solve the puzzle only to casually toss them away. Also, I put on my tinfoil hat when Arya mentioned that Jon could be the bastard that Illyrio and Varys were referring to but there was nothing in Ned’s reaction that suggested that he was alarmed that someone was asking the wrong kind of questions.
There are a few things in the Varys-Illyrio conversation that still do not make sense to me. Let’s start with what exact their game plan here is – so, Varys must keep the truth from Ned a little bit longer so that the Stark-Lannister conflict does not erupt so soon. Illyrio asks him to delay – but delay for what? Aegon is still learning, still being groomed so do they want to delay till he is fully ready? As things turned out, Varys was no wizard, he could not delay at all – the North rises in rebellion within a few weeks of this chapter (if I’m not mistaken). Then we have Illyrio’s suggestion that “if one Hand can die, why not another?” implying that Ned could be taken out of the game. At this time on a first read through, it’s fairly impossible to know what’s going on but if you had read ACoK and not ASoS, you would use this quote as proof that Varys had offed Jon Arryn. We know now that this is not the case, so what exactly does Illyrio mean when he says “you have danced this dance before?” Which other hand did Varys kill? And what makes Varys think that Ned cannot be taken out as easily as this previous Hand? Things get totally confusing then when Illyrio brings up Dany and Drogo. So, they are waiting on the Dothraki? Wasn’t the plan to put Aegon on the throne? So they put Viserys on the throne, presumably Dany stays on with Drogo and Aegon…does what exactly? I can’t imagine Viserys would be happy about Illyrio keeping information about Aegon’s existence a secret from him. Let’s say I’m getting the chronology messed up and Viserys is dead by now and both Illyrio and Varys know this. Then they put Dany on the throne and what happens to Aegon then? He marries his aunt? I don’t think Drogo would approve and Dany would definitely be suspicious. I guess my mean point here is that this whole conversation really only makes sense if I think about it as Martin changing his mind about Aegon’s death at some later point in the series. The number of Varys’ little birds bothers me as well – we have no real indication of how many of them there are, but it would seem to me that fifty is quite a number given that the Red Keep isn’t exactly enormous. I’m aware that is has all these nifty passageways and such, but surely fifty children running around behind the false walls is a little hard to believe. Where are they fed? Where do they sleep? How long do they last?